Archive for August, 2009

Season of Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

August 30, 2009



Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness

And the blackberries lie crestfallen at my feet. The sloes are fatly bruised-blue in their place. I’d collect them if I had a bottle of gin to drop them into.   I’m fearful to buy one for myself, though A bottle of gin, please. Mother’s Ruin, that’s what my grandmother called it. (And Chardonnay isn’t?)

We gathered blackberries one hot summer evening. The girls and I. The branches hung less heavy; the fruit was beginning to drop where it lay on the ground, crushed, dejected, to bleed into my hems. Amongst the thorns, though, there remained a few, plump and jewel coloured and difficult to pluck without risk of spiteful thorns dragging at our skin, clutching, as if resentful of the small, last bounty we stole.   My bowl remained empty. My fingers blackened.

Mum! Stop eating them, my daughters admonished, they’re for supper!

I carried on regardless, popping fruit into my mouth and savouring sweet, late, warm summer on my tongue.

You’re going to get a sore tummy, they warned crossly.

I didn’t.

Which just goes to show how often, as a mother, I must have been wrong.


I have been sewing on iron-on name tapes. Sewing because they resist my ironing, curling in complaint, refusing to lie obligingly flat and still.

Name tapes and shoe cleaning kits and regulation sports shirts.  Boarding school looms.

My daughter starts at hers on Tuesday.

I have taught her how to use the ATM. I have watched her describe her first formal signature. I have failed to teach her how to iron. I have bought her tights. I have argued with her over which winter coat is appropriate/affordable/adequately warm.  I have giggled with her as we packed a bag of toiletries. I have watched television with her head in my lap.

I have shared my English telephone numbers with her: your gran’s; your great aunt’s; your Godmother’s – the contacts I hope will fill the gap my going home will force.

And I wonder what will stop up the one she leaves behind?


And on the subject of schools, I’ve got a post at Schoolgate at The Times today which explores the argument between the IB and A’levels


On Being English

August 24, 2009



We attached ourselves limpetlike to Englishness on Saturday.

The girls and I.

They are more English than I; the girls They – at least – have traces of it coursing through their veins; their grandfather was English. Real-life from England. Not dislocated in the way their grandmother was. (English but born in a nomadic village in the Congo).   I’m not a bit English. I’m a Celt. Halfscottishhalfirish.   But I travelled here, to England, on my maroon British passport: courtesy of my father. Who never visited Britain in his life.

Funny old thing: patriotism.

See. I think it’s necessary. And necessarily it attaches us to wherever – and whatever – it is we call Home.

It’s hard to be patriotic about Africa when your skin’s white and your passport’s maroon. You can’t be white and an African. Everybody knows that.   The immigration officials at the border comment on my Swahili.

Where are you from?




Yes, but where did you come from?

I didn’t; I was born here.

Ah. But your father? Where did your father come from?


And – like that, their inquisition, my determination to prove I belong – we trek tediously back through one hundred years of familial history until we get to my itchy-heeled Scottish grandfather.

So we have learned, the children and I, to stick that need to be – and to belong – to whatever passing thing feels right at the time.

Saturday evening.  An open air concert. And a big English late summer sky. And warm beer and cold Pimms. And Union Jacks and St George flags fluttering on a light long evening breeze. And fireworks and Rule Britannia.   We didn’t know the words, the girls and I, but we stood up and sung-shouted the bits we thought we did. Loudly.



It was a good weekend to be English. We brought the Ashes home wrote my son in a text from his school in Africa.

Home? We?

From the same boy who is hopeful of a university place in Ireland.

Because that’s where he’s from. This week.

Sometimes I think our fractured identity is muddy and sticky and mires us in complicated equations.

And sometimes I think it is a useful camouflage to be whatever it is we think feels right. At the time.

And on Saturday night, being English felt right. 

Even if we didn’t know all the words.


When I was Young …

August 16, 2009



This time a week ago we were on our way back to school. And our hair was thick with Tsavo dust, standing up on end with that and the wind and not enough clean water or shampoo.

What do you want to do the last weekend of the hols, I asked my son?

(the last weekend that I still have you as a boy not the man you will be when I next see you: I complete a passport application for him and sign the section that says If your child is under eighteen … I forgot, you see).

Go camping, he said, in Tsavo.

So we did.

And we drove and kicked up the dust that got tangled in our hair and wondered if the rock we could see was a lion. (It wasn’t; we scrutinized it long and hard through the binoculars).  And we ate biltong and drank cold beer and too many cokes. And we counted loglike crocs sunbathing on sandbanks growing ever larger with each passing desiccating day and fat hippos slumbering in warmbath water (not that I stuck my toe in: not with crocs snoozing with jaws agape).   



And we wanted to cry when we saw a dead baby elephant, its mother and sisters standing sentinel over its silent, still, small body. Elephants feel grief acutely. I don’t know if they cry. I don’t know if their long elephant lashes are wet with tears. But I know that they sway hopelessly and wave their trunks as fists in the air to some god unseen or Mother Nature: Why ours? Why our baby? That’s what they seem to say.

Do you think the baby elephant died because it was hungry, Hat wanted to know.

Quite possibly: a lot of animals are going to die because they’re hungry this year. And if the diminished browsing and grazing and water doesn’t take them, hungry poachers will. Another elephant lay, its prize hacked from the front of its face. 




When I was young, I had a sticker plastered to my school tin trunk: Only Elephants Should Wear Ivory.

When I was young you could see elephants from the main road. And rhino too.

I tell my children that. But I don’t think they believe me.




My eldest daughter is packing to leave home. She has packed her bikini. She is arriving in almost-autumnal England.   I frown and question her choice of nearly-winter wardrobe.

‘I can but hope’, she grins.

She’s a  good example.

I can but hope the days until the Christmas holidays pass with smudge-blurred speed so that my little house will quickly fill with the sound of scraps and laughter and chairs will be overfull with long flung limbs.   I won’t mind that I haven’t a clue where the remote control’s gone.

I’m taking her to her new school. So I pack too. I try on unfamiliar shoes and the dogs go wild assuming that being shod means I shall take them for a walk.

I laugh. And then I want to cry: no walks for more than a month and I bend low to scratch their ears.  I think they know though: they’ve seen the suitcases and the sulks have set in.

My brother tries to salve my anxiety of my daughter’s soon far flungness.

‘Remember when we were  young’, he prompts, ‘no emails or mobile phones: remember how much further away that made us feel. At least you can stay in touch at the press of a few buttons.’

When I tell my daughter, she crossly says, ‘I know Mum, everything was much harder when you were young’.

But that’s not what I meant.


A on the dam


When I get back to the Outpost, it will be panting high-hot summer. I’ll swim at dawn again, I’ll slip into the pool as the sun lumbers up above eastern horizons and brands the sky pink and chases the stars and the moon racing away before they’re melted to nothingness by mid morning heat.

They’re talking El Nino. The drought, says the Met Department, will be followed by heavy and unrelenting rains.   Last time El Nino struck the Outpost, years before I got here, it was cut clean off.  The railway line was washed away; the roads were impassable and the airstrip a quagmire. Nobody – and nothing – got in or out for three months.  If that happens this year, I shall surely go quite mad.

When I was young they didn’t talk about El Nino. They talked about the Floods of 61. Which was before I was born.  Mum said, ‘the roads and the railway got washed clean away that year.  We couldn’t get off the farm …’


There is a heron in the garden. He, or is it she?, stands and watches for fish and frogs in the pond.  She, I think, for the elegant pose she strikes, all Parisian model composed in an oyster grey suit (can I see pearls?) and perfect posture with her long, thin legs, takes to the air when I try to get close for a picture. Will she still be there when I get back? Or will the pond have quite dried up?

And will the family of Marabou storks which has nested on a tree over the road have moved out.

They aren’t nearly as lovely as the statuesque heron.

When I was young we had a tortoise in the garden, it used to feast on bright pink hibiscus flowers. I tried some once, hibiscus flowers, they tasted of nothing. Much like lettuce. Which is why, I suppose, the tortoise enjoyed them and I didn’t?


Yesterday I met a man called James. Met as in collided with online whilst doing  some research for my coral conservation project.  During the course of our conversation he suddenly exclaimed waityou’re the memsahib lady, dammit!?

When I was young you couldn’t meet people like that – you couldn’t have a conversation through the sweet syrup of the ether. You couldn’t keep in easy, affordable, instantly gratifying touch with your children half way around the world, you couldn’t write stories about your funny old African Outpost life and pin them up on an intangible notice board called a Blog and benefit from company you otherwise wouldn’t have.

Sometimes, despite the wrinkles and the obligation to be Grown Up and the school fees I must pay and the way I squint at the contraindications listed for medicines because I am too vain to wear my glasses, I’m glad I’m not as young anymore.

 Anthea 3

Mum’s an Onion

August 12, 2009


Two thousand kilometers is quite a school run. And it gives you too much time to anticipate goodbyes. Once I hated them for my smallson’s tears. He’s big now. Now I dread them for my own.

Which I hide behind sunglasses and forced smiles.

You can’t cry when you say bye to your nearlyeighteenyearold son.

Because you are supposed to be Letting Go.

Especially as he begins his last ever year at school, for God’s sake.

Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy wrote Valentine, a metaphor of love and marriage and onion rings. Read it. It’s clever and beautiful and it made me think that the onion analogy extends to life as wife and mother …

Motherhood’s an onion.
I’ve built by layers,
Several skins.
Of myself
Since I began.
Wife. Lover.
Friend. Mother.
And what do you do?
Oh. I’m a writer.
Another skin.
(That one’s a bit paperflaky).
My son’s birth,
A long, long night.
(A long time ago.)
I howled.
Where’s the F****** epidural?

I cried
His arrival made my eyes water.
Oniontears and obscenities
A mewling, cross baby boy
Lay at my side and scowled
At the intrusion
On his peaceful watery world.
And then I wept.
Pleased to meet you.
Another child. And a third.

More tears. More skins.
More of myself.
And less to go around.
Sometimes you cry because life is good.
And sometimes you do because it’s not.
Wife. Lover.
Friend. Mother.
That’s a lot of
Reasons to make your eyes
Sting and well seawatersaltedgreen.
Especially when your son,
Who fixed his hourold
Wiseoldman stare on you

So that you cried,
Smiles, dry eyed and says,
See ya Mum, Stay Cool.
Rip the layers from a round
Whitefleshed redskinnedonion and

See if you don’t weep.




And two thousand kilometers from the western reaches of Tanzania to the far flung eastern corridor of nextdoor Kenya and back again gives you alot  time to stare out of the window and watch a dessicating world go by.


A waxwhite sky stretches
To touch fingertips with an
Ashen Africa.
She’s dying.
That’s what they say.
On the news.
Drought stricken.
Lifeless leaves hang limp
From trees.
An imperceptible sigh.
Death’s rattle.
I can’t hear her breathing.
I can only hear a thirsty earth
Suckle greedy
So that rivers sink.
And all we’re left with is hot sand.
Which escapes on a hotter breathed,
Tightchested, wheezing wind
As dust.
A shroud.
Ashes to ashes.



Africa’s a Blonde

August 2, 2009


Africa’s a blonde.

Tresses rattleblow in the wind

Which puffs in hotbreathed gasps

Down the back of her neck

And makes her hair stand on end.

And rattle blow.


She’s capricious.

Tossing her head

And laughing.

Rattleblow. Rattle.

Flaxen fronds and

Elephant grass like silver.

Leaves curled prawncracker crisp

The stump of a tree smoulders.

Is she ashblonde then?


Fair head bowed so that

Long fingered sun

Spins it to gold.

The colour of wheat

Nodding heads in convivial agreement.

Bottle blonde without the bottle.

That’s Africa.

She’ll be bottle green when the rain comes.


And I’m reminded my roots need doing.



Blonde Africa Collage

Keep Your Eyes Peeled

August 1, 2009



bushwalk collage


If you look. If you peel your eyes.
That’s what dad said.
Bush walking. Or game driving.
When we were little.
Keep your eyes peeled, kids.
(He’d give us five whole shillings for a leopard
I’d have to pay my own much more.
Leopards aren’t as commonorgarden cheap today).
But keep your eyes peeled
And notice Africa bedecked with

Strung with tinsel and ribbons and
Shards of gold and berries
That bleed into the sand.
And yellow so bright it hurts my eyes.
And gossamer leaves like fairy wings,
Or a princesses’ dress.
And greens that defy the drought
Which is all you thought you could see.
Until you looked.
Like me.
Because I’ve got my eyes peeled.

But I still don’t see leopards.


bushwalk collage 2