Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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H is for Harry

I don’t usually go for  alternate realities in my own reading, but my imagination has been captured over the years by the triumverate of The Lord of the Rings, Mervyn Peake’s superb Gormenghast trilogy and the Harry Potter books. I so much loved the latter that I was quite keen to call my third child Harry, but my husband pointed out that Harry Otter is a rough name to live with. So he now has another, rather lovely, name which suits him perfectly, but there is a small part of me that mourns Harry.

I think part of Harry Potter’s universal appeal is that he is an orphan going it alone. Children respond to his ability to cope in an adult world and defeat a great evil. Personally, I just want to mother Harry. I really want to get him home, cook him a nice meal and talk about his day. I’d like to remind him to stop ignoring Ginny Weasley since she clearly is the girl for him and encourage him to listen to that nice Hermione and get on with his homework. I want him to open his eyes and see the good in Snape.

But I think it is more than that with Harry and me. You see, Harry Potter was my birth partner. Long-term blog readers may remember this, but for those who are new here, I’ll retell the story. One of my presents for my 32nd birthday, which is a week before Christmas, was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I wasn’t overly interested in the book, but I wanted to see what the fuss was about. Two days later, when I woke with birth pains and was directed by my doula to get straight into the bath and wait for her to arrive, I started to read it. Several cups of tea and some acute contractions later, I was hooked on Harry. The doula and my husband would pop their heads around the door now and then to check on me or bring me tea, and I’d wave them away, saying I was fine. I dived into Rowling’s world, subsumed myself in her detail, and came up occasionally to do some shallow panting. While I was going it alone in the bath with Harry, the doula gave everyone in the house foot massages.

When the pains finally grew more demanding than Hogwarts, I climbed out of the bath. By then – though we didn’t know it yet – it was far late to leave for hospital. My doula gave me a back massage, and I went to the loo. While I was there, baby coming down the birth canal, though I didn’t know that either, she sent my husband downstairs to put the suitcases in the boot and de-ice the windscreen. She knocked on the bathroom door and told me it was time to leave, and summoning the strength of Harry, I got off the loo, staggered to the door and croaked, “I can’t make it to the bloody DOOR, let alone the hospital!”

Reading my face for the first time, she said, “Put your hand in your pants and tell me what you feel.”

I followed instructions and replied, “I. can. feel. a. HEAD.”

Her surprise was not unlike that of Harry’s when Quirrell unwrapped his turban to reveal he was sharing head-space with Lord Voldemort. “Get on the bed!” she shrieked. Within seconds, my child was born. A few minutes later, my husband reappeared, ready to transport his pregnant wife to hospital, to be met with the news that he had a daughter.

Tucked up in bed with my gorgeous little baby, I finished Harry Potter and started the next one. My newborn’s nickname was Hufflepuff for her badger-like snuffling when she fed. After reading the series myself, I read it aloud to Hufflepuff’s big sister, and now that she is bigger I am reading it to her. Last night, we finished The Order of the Phoenix. Hufflepuff’s little brother sometimes listens in and he recently insulted his grandmother by telling her she was “as old as Neville Longbottom.” It wonderful to me that my kids love Harry as much as I do, since he is their literary uncle.

Maybe if we get a dog, we’ll call it Harry. As homage to our hero.


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G is for Girlhood

Being a girl was about aching for something that was always just out of reach. I existed in a state of longing for something indefinable, of permanent languid dissatisfaction. I was always stretching out, grabbing, then discarding what I had touched. I wanted the next best thing, not the thing I had.

Girlhood was about never being happy in my skin. My body was all wrong. I longed for longer legs, better skin, a smaller bum. I longed for slow, rapturous kisses that would make me forget myself. I longed to melt.

Girlhood was about waiting for the right boy to come along. I ached for a soul-mate and found him in all the wrong places. When boys did turn up, I longed for someone cooler, older, more mature. I longed for a man.

Girlhood was about never finding the right food to eat. I longed for ice-cream, then tuna, then bread and butter, then chocolate, then roast chicken, then milk with Milo. Food came and went, but never in satisfying combinations.

Girlhood was about always dreaming about being somewhere else. If I was at school, I longed to be at home. At home, I ached for my friends. With my friends, I wanted to be with a certain boy. With that boy, I wished I were at home with a book. While reading, I thought of my father.

It was a time of extremes, of being too hot, too cold, too lazy, too over-excited, too silly, too irritable, too focused, too pent-up.

I thought a lot about clothes, but they were always wrong. Whatever I wore was never as good as what that girl wore. I flipped through magazines, ached for Farah hair, Christy legs, Jodie eyes. The clothes I finally bought were dissatisfying: too tight, too loose, too short, too long, too preppy, too Gothic, too old, too new. I longed for one perfect dress.

I felt as if I couldn’t talk very well. I never seemed to say what I meant, hard though I tried. Words blocked in my throat so I stayed silent. There was so much to say. I longed to say it well. I felt as if I couldn’t. I inhibited myself.

When I was a girl, I wanted to please. So badly. I wanted to please so badly that I did things I regretted. I put others before myself, their needs before mine. I pushed my own needs down until I exploded.

To girls, I say:

Find your voice and be proud to use it.

Put your needs first.

Please yourself, not boys.

Love your body.

Live in the moment.

Find and do the thing that makes you forget yourself, that makes your heart sing.

Never stop looking for one perfect dress.


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E is for Ellie

My beloved grandmother. Someone with a huge heart in a tiny body. Although she died in 1997, I feel a spiritual connection with her that is so strong, I can barely separate myself from it in order to write about her. We have no distance. I have to pull at the ties that bind us in order to write her story. It is physically uncomfortable to do so.

Ellie was born Elsie Margaret Hinds. She was the third child in a family of six, following a brilliant older sister and a brother who was reputedly not the brightest light in the bushel. In their wisdom, Elsie’s parents kept her back at school every time her brother failed a year, causing her to resent both him and them. She was not sent to university as her older sister was, and quickly escaped the suffocating country life of Kingswilliamstown in South Africa’s Eastern Cape by marrying the glamorous Englishman David Cooper.

Their marriage lasted not more than eight years, six of which encompassed World War Two, and after their swift divorce, she found herself unqualified, jobless and with two small children to look after. My mother always says she went to ten schools before she was ten, and I think this indicates a period of huge chaos as Ellie tried and failed to find work that suited her and a place in which to settle her family. Eventually she followed her sister, then a journalist, to Pietermaritzburg, got a job at the university library and began her course of study in librarianship. She changed her name from Elsie to Elise – an act of selfhood that said “I have arrived”.

A vivacious woman, she quickly became the centre of a group of mature students, all of whom were deeply against South Africa’s increasingly racist governmental policies. They became founder members of the Liberal Party, of which the novelist Alan Paton was vice-president. While she was passionately against the Nationalists or “Boets”, as she called them, Ellie’s heart was taken up by a new course of study which was to inform the rest of her life: the esoteric writings of Alice A Bailey. Ellie became a New Age adherent long before the term came into current use. She meditated daily, was vegetarian, attended Full Moon meetings and developed friendships with like-minded people. She was in her forties, and had found her path.

What a glorious grandmother she was! Her ability to be in the moment meant she was able to share our child-like pleasures and never rise to grown-up distance. She taught us to dream, to believe in fairies, to shape clouds, to paint, to relish an egg and parsley sandwich. She would lie in the grass with us, tell stories and encourage our wildest dreams. When I was 12, she gave me the 1982 copy of the Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook and encouraged me to write. She taught my brother to garden: something he does to this day, for a living. She loved us unconditionally, which is the best possible thing a parent or grandparent can do.

Ellie was never completely stable. She had two nervous breakdowns that I know of, and today would be medicated to the gills. Despite finding her base in Pietermaritzburg, she moved frequently, and we were often visiting her in new homes. Every time she moved, she gave more of her possessions away, shuffling off those objects that were binding her to this physical dimension. I think she ached for heaven.

In her last years, she had Alzheimer’s, which she bore lightly, with none of the aggression that sometimes accompanies the disease, and there were always funny stories to tell. Her younger brother – also under attack from Alzheimer’s though no-one knew at the time – and his wife were detailed to drive Ellie to my wedding, a good half an hour’s journey into the Midlands, but not a journey that was unfamiliar to them. Dear Uncle Ross got horribly lost and they missed the service, but were perfectly cheerful, having forgotten why they needed to be there. She also forgot that she was vegetarian and used to tuck in when there was meat on the table, causing us children vast hilarity.

I visited her in her old-age home two weeks before she died. We sat outside in the garden, holding hands and enjoying the sunshine. Our conversation was mostly nonsensical, but it was amicable. Three hours later, we heard that she had fallen and was in hospital. My mother and I hurried to her bed-side. I held her hand. She looked at me, smiled exquisitely, and said, “Hello my darling”. She never recognised anyone again.

Ellie always said, “When I die, don’t bury me, burn me. And please don’t make a big fuss about my ashes. Just put them in the bin.” We didn’t put her ashes in the bin. We scattered them on the hills of the Midlands, the blue hills that she loved with her painterly eye, the same hills that Alan Peyton writes of in Cry, the Beloved Country.

Here are the words of Alice A Bailey, which Ellie meditated on daily:

From the point of Light within the Mind of God

Let Light stream forth into the minds of men.

Let Light descend on Earth.

From the point of Love within the Heart of God

Let love stream forth into the heart of men.

May Christ return to Earth.

From the centre where the Will of God is known

Let purpose guide the little wills of men –

The purpose which the Masters know and serve.

From the centre which we call the race of men

Let the Plan of Love and Light work out

And may it seal the door where evil dwells.

Let Light and Love and Power restore the Plan on Earth.

(Alice A Bailey and Djwhal Khul, 1945)


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D is for David Cooper

There are many people whose names begin with “D” whom I know far better than I know David Cooper, but I have decided to leave the living alone. David Cooper is a mystery man. He is unknown. I apparently met him once at the age of three and have no recall of that encounter, apart from eating boiled eggs in a strange kitchen. I was celebrating my tenth birthday when the news came from Port Elizabeth that David Cooper had died and I felt, oddly, given that he was my grandfather, nothing.

I have studied my mother’s wedding photos, trying to imagine who he was and what he was thinking, giving away a daughter he had last seen five years before. Apparently, he dutifully paid for the wedding, appeared to be proud of her, talked pleasantly to the in-laws, looked dapper, and danced so wonderfully with my grandmother that she began to entertain hopes.

David Cooper was a charmer. Appearances were important to him. He was always nattily dressed, and had beautifully tailored clothes. Though untrained, he was a talented pianist and could play any tune. He sang well, loved amateur dramatics and was an accomplished painter. His talents he apparently inherited from his mother who, according to family legend, once sang in the Royal Albert Hall. He loved a party and a drink, and told a good story. David followed his brother and sister to South Africa from London when he was in his twenties, all running from a cold, possibly cruel, father. When he breezed into Kingwilliamstown, handsome, accomplished, funny and charming, Elsie Hinds fell for him. They shared a love of painting and the arts, and for her, he represented a way out – from a dominating, stifling mother and her somewhat dull small-town life.

War came shortly afterwards. David enlisted and Elsie camp-followed while he was training in Pretoria. She had her first child, a son, and then he went off to become one of South Africa’s Desert Rats. During the war, their daughter was born, and afterwards they settled in Johannesburg where David looked for work. He was not happy – the charming, gregarious man she had married was gone. Everyone said the war had changed him.

He decided to sell everything and move to Scotland, where his beloved younger brother Anthony lived. The family docked on one of the Union Castle liners at Port Elizabeth and spent three weeks on the boat. They were met at Southampton by David’s father, meeting his son’s family for the first time. He had a white Father Christmas beard and, in my mother’s words, “the coldest blue eyes I’d ever seen”. After a couple of months in Devon, the family joined Anthony and his wife Ursula in Scotland, but the time there was unsuccessful and the brothers fell out, over money or an inheritance. After a year’s experiment, David once again packed up his family, bought boat tickets and they headed back for South Africa, sad and disillusioned. It was the end of the marriage.

After the divorce, my mother and her brother saw David Cooper every couple of years. He diligently sent Elsie a monthly allowance, one that was not enough for the family to live on, but he never forgot Christmas or birthdays. My mother says he sent wonderful presents, always of the best quality. “If he sent a writing-set, it was leather; if he sent a train-set, the trains would actually work.”

In his fifties, David Cooper developed cataracts. He was working in shipping insurance, and he had married his secretary, who also functioned as his guide. They were sitting on a bench on the Robberg in Plettenburg Bay, when he slid off and died. He was sixty-four. The last time he had seen my mother was seven years before. She, like me, felt almost nothing when she received the news of his death.

********************

This is what I know about my grandfather. There is a blankness in his story, an emptiness at the heart of it, a big zero. I think the reason is that he was hiding from himself. What if he had left London as a young man because of a secret? What if he was running? He found himself in South Africa, met the lovely Elsie and married her as an attempt to escape from that secret self. War came and he was able to run from his marriage, to a world of soldiers, and camaraderie and suffering. On his return, he found himself part of a family that he couldn’t love. He ran, again, to Scotland and when that didn’t work, ran back to South Africa, where the marriage was over.

I have heard the rumours about David Cooper. One cousin, who was spiteful and untrustworthy, told me rather gleefully over her third glass of wine. When I asked her sister, she said, “I’m afraid that she was right.” I took the information and buried it, just as David Cooper tried to bury his true self, because I didn’t want to hurt my mother by asking. Then yesterday, when talking to my mother about her father she confirmed that she knew the rumours. Out of respect for her, I am not going to say what his secret was, but you can probably piece it together.

So there are secrets and lies, as in every family. How sad for David Cooper that he could never be his true self, how sad for my grandmother that to him she never came first; how sad for my mother and her brother that their charming father remained forever distant. My mother told me a story yesterday. She said, “My parents were going out for the evening and came to say goodnight to us. I was in my cot and my brother was in his little bed. My mother came into the room and talked to us a little, then hugged us and kissed us goodnight. My father stood in the doorway, and all I could see was his shadow. I realise now that that was what he always was to me: a shadow.”

********************

I’m working through the alphabet in a series of short, memoir-like pieces. My compadres are: Jadepark, Courtney, City Wendy and Life is Just One Big Adventure.


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B is for Bridget James

Bridget James was my paternal grandmother, an elegant, opinionated, talented craftswoman who could sew a dress, needlepoint a cushion, knit doll’s clothes, bake a fine cake, throw a dinner-party for twenty or rustle up a hat for the races in an afternoon. We grandchildren knew her as “Gorgor” which was my family’s bastardization of the Zulu word Gogo, meaning old lady, her children called her “Mum” and her contemporaries and siblings called her “Bridge” or “Bridgie”.

Bridget met my South African grandfather Neville James in London a short couple of years before World War Two. She was a milliner, crafting exquisite hats for fine London ladies, including, family rumour has it, the Queen. He was a young lawyer, en route to the bar. He fell for the tall, slender, fashionable Bridgie, married her and brought her home to Pietermaritzburg, where they quickly had their first baby, my aunt and godmother Belinda. He then joined the Natal Carbineers, had six months’ training and went north to fight in the desert. It takes no feat of imagination to consider her position – stuck in a humid colonial town with a baby, far from her family and cosmopolitan London life, her brand-new husband at war with no guarantee of return. There are intimations that she suffered, but Bridget was stoical and got on with things. The war never left her though; she abhorred waste and while my grandfather gave out much-coveted twenty rand notes hidden in anonymous envelopes on our birthdays, she was well-known for being parsimonious.

In 1948, Bridget and Neville moved into The Hermitage with their four children, the second oldest of whom was my father Oliver. It was a lovely turn-of-the-century villa, built of solid red brick, with a green tin roof and deep verandahs that gave respite from the heat. She swiftly made her mark on the home, sewing curtains and decorating rooms, and it became a welcoming and gracious place to visit. Bridget and Neville were great party-goers and givers, and the house lent itself to entertaining. As a small child I remember weaving through the legs of partying adults, my grandmother the glamorous centre of it all with her cigarettes and her pink gins. She loved to dress up, to laugh and be amused, and while she became a colonial housewife and mother of four, there was a part of her that remained that London party girl.

There is a family story that epitomises her glamour and zest. She and my grandfather were leaving home for a party, dressed to the nines and ready for a good evening out. As Bridget passed the jasmine bush that tumbled over their kitchen fence, she saw a tiny jewel-like chameleon. She plucked it off the bush, placed it on her dress and wore it for the night as a living brooch. Knowing her love for animals, I like to believe that she would have replaced it at the end of the evening.

Bridgie adored her dogs and for a while the Hermitage was taken over by a family of basset hounds that she raised. They were all named after English counties and our favourite was Rutland, a handome fellow who fathered many babies. As she grew older and dementia threatened, her children joked that while she forgot their names, she never forgot those of her dogs.

She and Neville were enthusiastic travellers, and visited England every year so that Bridgie could see her beloved twin brother Billy, and her younger sister Naomi. They often went to Italy, which Neville had fallen in love with during the war. His favourite places were Florence and Bellagio and, in 1997, I went to both with my aunt Belinda. We remembered Neville and Bridget as we walked the plazas and river-fronts of Florence and sat sipping coffee under the trees at Bellagio.

When I was small, Bridget used to love brushing my hair. I’d arrive at her house and be sent immediately to fetch the brush, which she kept in her dressing-table in the top right-hand drawer. All the way to her room I’d be clutching my right hand in a fist so as not to forget. Opening the drawer was like finding a trove of jewellery, make-up and scents, and I would finger a necklace or try on a bracelet, but I knew not to linger too long amongst the tempting treasures. I’d find the brush and bring it to her on the verandah where she’d be sitting surrounded by dogs, with a tray of tea to one side and some kind of craft project – a cushion, knitting – on her lap. She’d put the knitting aside and then brush my hair, while I listened to the hadedahs shrieking and stabbing the grass.

“There, that’s better,” she’d say. “Now let’s have some tea.”

Life was built around rituals – breakfast, with the invariable half-orange, around the dining-room table, morning and afternoon tea on the verandah with Marie biscuits or her delicious home-made crunchies, drinks at 5pm. Bridget always liked the pink gins I poured her when I was a little older, probably because I was heavy on the gin. Family were required to turn up for Sunday lunch every week and my father created dense atmosphere by regularly arriving late from golf, probably as his form of rebellion. Later when my parents’ marriage fell apart, it took my mother a couple of years to get up the courage to say, “No Bridget, I am not coming to Sunday lunch. Oliver can fetch the children on his way back from golf.”

While Bridget was a wonderful Gorgor, whipping up clothes for my dollies or outfits for me, she could be scary. Woe betide any grandchild who didn’t clear her plate, eat her  peas, or express grateful thanks for the roasts. She was often impatient with her domestic workers, believing that whatever task they were doing from washing the car to washing the dogs, she could do better, and she loved to remind me, in huge inverted commas, that my lifelong best friend was “Jewish”. When I became a cub reporter on the local newspaper, I was friends with an “Indian man”, which caused some disquiet.

After Neville died, Bridget declined slowly. She remained at the Hermitage, visited daily by Belinda and regularly by the rest of the family. We would find her sitting in her study, watching sport on TV, reading the paper, or writing a letter to Naomi. Once she became convinced that the family had taken her to an old-age home, where she was receiving substandard treatment. Finally, after two weeks of complaints, my father hit on a plan. He put her in his car, promising that she was now going home. They drove for fifteen minutes, and then returned to the Hermitage, where he had asked her housekeepers to give her a good welcome. They drove up to the house she had just left, she gracefully received the friendly ululations and settled into the chair she had recently vacated. “Oh, it’s so nice to be back,” she said.

The London party girl had come home.


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Reading Matters

Instead of writing, I have been reading, getting through swathes of books and loving them. Here are some:

Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs

Described as Burroughs’ “debut memoir” since he has recently published another that is a prequel to this, Running With Scissors is graphic, shocking, unputdownable and, according to some of the people who were there, not entirely true. It tells the story of what apparently happens when Burroughs’ mother, an unsuccessful and suicidal poet, hands her teenage son over to her psychiatrist to live in his spectacularly unconventional household that includes a paedophile who immediately starts a relationship with the boy. Die-hard Burroughs fans don’t seem to care whether RWS is memoir, creative nonfiction or pure fantasy, and I would have to say I agree. It reads like a novel, the characters are grotesquely fascinating, and Burroughs’ voice is an enticing admixture of knowing and innocent. If you enjoyed A Million Little Pieces and weren’t particularly bothered whether that was reality or part-fiction, you would find RWS fascinating. Like reality TV, it’s gruesome, but it’s hard to get up and switch it off.

The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford

Words fail me. Nothing I try to write does justice to the broad sweeping vision and forensic scrutiny that Ford applies to American suburbia in this novel. There isn’t a bad note; every paragraph contains jewels that seem to slip simply into the text without any indication of the sweat and work that must have gone into writing this book. To combine such a superb evocation of suburbia with such an empathetic writing of what it is to be a middle-aged man in America in the year 2000 makes Ford a master storyteller. On top of that it is funny, which I always like. I will now go backwards and read the first two parts of the Frank Bascombe trilogy. I just hope I won’t be disappointed. The Lay of the Land is up there with Half of a Yellow Sun as one of my books of 2008. It’s simply superb.

Giving Up The Ghost by Hilary Mantel

Mantel’s memoir is evocative, yet slippery. The ghosts of the title are many: the children she is never able to have after her hysterectomy at 27; the long-dead parents and grandparents she left behind in northern England to move to London, the ghosts of herself in homes in England, Botswana and Jeddah. Houses are important in the memoir, as are the memories interred in them. For a couple of years, Mantel was actually a neighbour of mine in a converted lunatic asylum outside London, where she says visitors ask her if she is afraid of ghosts. No, she says, but she was a ghostlike and mysterious presence there, especially to an aspiring writer who would have liked to have trapped her in the car-park to talk books. Giving Up the Ghost is a moving read that focuses mostly on her northern Catholic childhood and her longterm suffering with endometriosis and depression. I was pleased to fill out the ghostly image of the neighbour I always fantasised about meeting, but still came away knowing little about her.

The Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bower

If stonking great historical novels are your thing, then this is the book for you. Set in England in the time of William the Conqueror, it focuses on a passionate love affair between William’s half brother Odo, a Bishop, and Gytha, one of the women working on the Bayeux tapestry. It’s fascinating, fun and lively. The dust jacket says The Needle in the Blood “is a powerful tale of sex, lies and embroidery”, which, following Victoria’s enthusiastic review on Eve’s Alexandria, was more than enough to sell it to me. Happily, it lived up to both its own and Victoria’s promise.

And now I’m about to settle down with Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. How lucky am I?


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Memoirs

While sick, I’ve caught up on my reading, including two memoirs that are very different from each other. Both try to tease out the past, but one takes a journalistic approach and aims for veracity, while the other floats in and out of what I guess is creative non-fiction territory. In her foreword to The View From Castle Rock, a collection of stories about her family and herself, Alice Munro says:

I was doing something closer to what a memoir does – exploring a life, my own life, but not in an austere or rigorously factual way. I put myself in the center and wrote about that self, as searchingly as I could. But the figures around this self took on their own life and color and did things they had not done in reality.

Her book is divided in two parts: one dealing with her Scottish ancestors and why they might have come to Canada, and the other with her own childhood and girlhood in Fifties Ontario. In the final section of the book, Messenger, she visits countryside near Chicago as an adult to seek out the cemeteries where family members who did not settle in Canada are buried. So she looks at her family’s past, her past and her present.

The book is beautiful; lively with attractive prose and depictions of settler life. I particularly enjoyed the part that dealt with the family’s sojourn on board ship – how fears of the youngest child’s being tossed overboard meant that they had to “tether” him at night (I think I would have done the same), the imagined relationship between an elderly and self-indulgent father-in-law and his matter-of-fact and acerbic daughter-in-law, hints of a love affair, dances and sightings of whales. While not wealthy or able to secure upper deck berths, the family are luckier than most and survive the journey intact and and well. It is only once they hit the shores of their new land, that their tragedies and dramas – possibly imagined by Munro, possibly not – unfold.

I also loved the section dealing with Munro’s childhood and girlhood in backwoods Ontario. The imagined and the real were threaded together imperceptibly, but I still desperately wanted to know which bits were fiction and which were true. While I enjoyed what she was doing, there was a part of me wanting clarification. She provides that in the foreword, saying that some characters “did things they did not do in reality”:

They joined the Salvation Army, they revealed they had once lived in Chicago. One of them got himself electrocuted and another fired off a gun in a barn full of horses. In fact, some of these characters have moved so far from their beginnings that I cannot remember who they were to start with.

Perhaps it is the journalist in me that wants to separate out fiction and non-fiction, or I must read more creative non-fiction and learn to go with the flow. As Munro asserts, they are just stories. Let me say, they are lovely stories, full of candid humour and insights into the oddness of the human condition. I’ve never read any Alice Munro short stories, but I guess they are full of the same.

I have also just finished reading another memoir, the craply titled Ja No, Man, by a young Canadian ex-South African called Richard Poplak. I sighed a little when I picked this book up. You know how movies set in the Eighties always have the same signifiers: someone playing with a Rubix Cube, people wearing day-glo clothing while Flock of Seagulls plays in the background? This book is covered with the same signifiers that shout Eighties South Africa to me, and its tag is A memoir of pop culture, girls, suburbia … and Apartheid. I thought it was going to be superficial, mindless and vaguely celebratory of what was really a horrible time to live in South Africa.

I’m glad to report that it isn’t. Poplak’s book is darkly funny, disturbing, and very well researched. He backs up his memories of growing up in Johannesburg in the Seventies and Eighties with acid offensives against the Apartheid state. He presents the eerie strangeness of being a child who only knows black people as servants, the indignities of Veldskool where he learnt about the immiment Communist threat and how to fold a flag, and the barbaric discipline of South African schools, where he was regularly sent for “six of the best”.

Poplak’s family left South Africa only a few weeks before Nelson Mandela was freed, so his book does not contain any reference to the miracle of the Rainbow Nation. While this might have eased his vituperative edge, it also means that the memoir is very specifically of its time and of its place. There is no sentiment, no schmaltz; Poplak addresses those two decades starkly. He makes no apology for not including black experience in the book – this is his experience and he presents it frankly, sometimes so frankly that I squirmed in uncomfortable recognition.

Towards the end of the book, he says:

It is a strange thing to be severed from the community of man – to be an island – as we were in South Africa. Isolation, both cultural and geographic, causes a certain kind of backwardness. The pastiche you create of the world, assembled from snippets of popular culture, hearsay, half-true news, and folkloric assumptions, is a patchwork quilt. Adrift, you create a world that only nominally hints at civilization. We were a quasi-democratic quasi-dictatorship, with a culture as anemic and as weirdly translucent as those deep-sea species of fish seen on the Discovery Channel. The flag Oom Piet raised with such reverence, the national anthems we sung with such forced gusto at assemblies – these were dead symbols for a dead country.

Richard Poplak and I and many millions of others are the products of Apartheid, and this dead culture. Thank goodness it is dead, and a new South Africa is rising from the ashes, but many are still paying the price of that cold grey time.

Poplak’s approach is very different from that of Munro. He says in his author’s note that it is both an act of memory and a work of journalism – if he remembered a certain tree as a jacaranda, he went back and checked that it was a jacaranda. He changes the names of teachers, certain schools and schoolfriends, and also clearly states that there are no composite characters, fictional places or made-up situations. His book is rigorous and factual, while Munro’s is swirling and exploratory.

It was an interesting experience reading these two different approaches to the memoir, neither better than the other, back-to-back. I would really appreciate any tips on good creative non-fiction, as it’s clearly a genre I want to explore more.