Hazel McHaffie

Before the Knife

66 letters – lest we forget

I love to read books that brilliantly evoke a time and place, where the language as well as the descriptions are perfectly pitched, where you can totally immerse yourself in a different world. You can feel the heat and vast expanses of Africa in this extract, can’t you?

When you drive through the Kalahari, there’s barely a tree or a rise; there’s nothing but a bleached-out view up ahead of you and a stunning silence. The air is so clear that objects miles away seem close and sound travels in a peculiar way, feeling close to you too. The sunburned plains shimmer beneath the blue African sky and you feel you’ll never reach the horizon. Occasionally you come across the rivelled carcass of a buck or the ghost of an elephant. As you sit there at the wheel, you become part of an infinite world, a dream world so beguiling that you’re tempted to fall asleep and never wake up. (Carolyn Slaughter in Before the Knife)

And sense the frustrations and vexations of post-war Britain here:

It’s 1920. A time when becoming ‘properly vexed’ is considered in poor taste, when ordinary people are beaten down by rules and queues, third sons are unexpectedly inheriting vast estates, flesh and hope had been splattered across the fields of Flanders, the women’s ability to have fun had been blown away with their husbands’ limbs and brains. (Adele Parks in Spare Brides)

You can lose yourself in another time.

So, this week I was intrigued to read about a new book published on July 1 to coincide with the centenary of the Great War; a book which could well lead to other re-creations of that terrible time. It’s called Epitaphs of the Great War: The Somme, by military historian Sarah Warne. She cleverly built up to publication day by tweeting out a single example of an epitaph from the war graves each day. They make poignant reading, putting humanity into mass slaughter, the individual into faceless thousands; lest we hide behind the inconceivable numbers and forget that each one was someone’s son, brother, husband, lover, father. Rather like the piles of shoes on display at Auschwitz, or the field of 888,246 ceramic poppies planted at the Tower of London to commemorate the outbreak of WW1, they bring us face to face with the gruesome reality.

And I was fascinated to hear the history of these short tributes. The Imperial War Graves Commission were so set on fairness and fittingness that they did their best to ensure money, rank and privilege did not show on any of the graves; the dead heroes would lie together, equal before God and men. But in the end the Commission gave way to pressure and conceded that bereaved relatives could if they wished append a message of their choice, provided it was no more than 66 letters/spaces.

If you’ve ever visited the war graves in Europe you’ll know the awesome reverence that hangs over them. I find the inscription ‘A Soldier of the Great War: Known unto God’, very moving. It always makes me think of my uncle, who was in all probability blown to smithereens on the Somme, during the week of his 21st birthday, although my grandmother was simply told he was missing, presumed dead.

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Thiepval Memorial (Used under Creative Commons Attribution – ShareAlike License)

A tiny fragment of his body could, I presume, lie in one such grave.

Nevard-panelHis name (Nevard HP) is etched onto the memorial at Thiepval, but there was to be no marked grave, no 66 letter epitaph for him.

His memory lives on in the family’s hearts and history.

 

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Out of Africa

Before the KnifeFor those willing to ‘brave the dark without a candle‘, this slim volume, Before the Knife: Memories of an African Childhood, will move and disturb in equal measure. It’s immensely readable, powerful and totally absorbing.

It’s author is Carolyn Slaughter and she writes with beauty and courage of the devastating childhood experiences that affected her life for decades. The second of three daughters, she was abused – sexually and physically – by her father from the age of six; so traumatised that she blocked out the images and memories. Nevertheless her troubled past manifested itself in wild and self-destructive behaviours. Her mother and older sister knew what was going on but turned a blind eye; their mutual silence destroying them all each in their own way.

Carolyn’s father was a government official who was posted to various colonies in India and Africa, and she captures the country, the landscapes, the smells, the political intrigues, the class distinctions in wonderfully evocative language. I’ll try to give you a flavour.

‘… the great plains and deserts stretched as far as you could see, wild beasts roamed the vast savannahs, tracing and retracing their paths across ancient migration trails, moving to and from water, decay and death. On the grasslands and at the edges of the deserts, the black man lived and reigned as he had for all eternity: tilling his small fields, slaughtering his cattle and goats in times of plenty, starving or dying out when the rains didn’t come, or when marauding tribes from over the hill brought his days to an end. Women pounded the maize, stirring black pots over wood fires that sent up small blue columns of blue smoke that vanished into the clear blue sky. Sweet potatoes and fat speckled pumpkins hugged the brown earth, and under mimosa trees with spikes long as a child’s finger they fed their babies and shooed chickens from underfoot, waiting for their men to come back from the bush. When the sun rose in the morning, little boys shook out their limbs and led goats out to graze, trailing sticks in the sand and wandering silently through the shorn landscape dotted with thorn bushes, interrupted only by a solitary acacia tree with branches laid flat across a sky as endless and blue as the sea.

But then one day, into this eternity we came marching. We sailed across the Atlantic, tall masts and white sails brilliant in the sunlight, and announced that we’d discovered Africa, We took a quick look around and, picking up the four corners of the sleeping continent like a picnic cloth, we shook it up, cut it into pieces and flung it back down in our own image. White faces radiant in the sun, we brought in our columns of mercenaries, or guns and whips; we spread our diseases and plagues, and toppled the landscape and the languid people who’d lived on it since time began. We stayed on for a while, sojourning in Africa the way we had in India, never really intending to stay, dreaming always of England, and those blue remembered hills. But, for all the coming and going of white feet, the snatching of lands and lakes, and all the ivory, gem, gold and trophy collecting, and the building of farms and cities, in the end it was always a short visit: white men coming to make a hurried living along the beautiful acres of the equator that stretch all the way up into the show-peaked crests of mountains put down a few hundred million years ago. We took what we needed and packed up again, and in no time at all, the life of the white man, so transitory and scattered, so greedy and impatient, would be over: one by one, nation by nation, we pulled up and went back over the sea, and once we had gone it was as if we’d never been. We left no memory of ourselves on the still air, no trace of our footsteps on the scorched plains – we were gone – no more than a handful of bleached bones on the lap of a continent that could remember man’s first startled smile.’

The young Carolyn lived alongside racial discrimination, brutality and white domination and tried to make sense of life with precious little guidance. Small wonder that she was bowled over by her first experience of warm ‘maternal’ love from Rena on the farm, and obsessed by sixth-former Virginia who showed her understanding, sympathy and affection.

In her eloquent writing she brings partition and aparthied, tribal superstitions and imperial rule to life. She describes her fractured relationships with her parents with brutal honesty. She also explores the dark places of her own mind with breathtaking clarity; I wanted to reach out and pluck her from that precarious edge and wrap her in safety and warmth. Her volatile temper, her own urge to hurt and kill, her wild and untethered youth, her rebellion, her intoxication with risk – they all make sense in face of the revelation she sketches briefly in the prologue and eventually recounts in the epilogue.

‘…the moment when everything changed only really came the night that my father first raped me. I was six years old. This rape, and the others that were to follow, obliterated in one moment both the innocence of my childhood and the fragile structure of our English family life. We all knew. I showed my mother all the proof she needed, and my older sister was right there in the room with me, in the bed across from mine. But once it had happened, we decided that it had never happened at all. In our privileged and protected world, we chose to bury it, we put it out of sight and memory, never said another word.’

Set against our modern understanding of abuse and its effects, of repressed memories and mental illness, this story is heartrending. No wonder it took 50 years and a wealth of support to write it down. One can only hope that the process has been cathartic and now in her 70s, she has found some peace.

And yet, in spite of the horrors she endured, in the end Carolyn’s story is one of triumph and enormous courage. I recommend this book to anyone who can bear to feel the pain of a lonely and deeply damaged child.

(c)

Shutterstock image

When she faced the prospect of returning to England she wondered how she could survive living amongst people who had no concept of her life in Africa.

‘How could I bring them the magic of the river in Maun, or of the African women walking down to the mealie fields with their babies strapped to their backs? How could I tell them how guinea fowl stepped lightly through splashes of moonlight, or describe how the scorched plains vibrated and hummed when the sun was high? What could they know of the slithery nights when the hyenas bayed at the moon and the lion gave out its solitary cry; how could they understand the underwater silence of the crocs sidling among the water-lily stems? How could I tell them any of it?’

We know about those slithery nights and scorched plains because she has brought them to us so eloquently.

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