Monday, May 28, 2012

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

Cover image © HarperCollins.
After watching a couple of films, Chocolat (1988) and White Material (2009), directed by Claire Denis, a French director who spent part of her childhood in colonial West Africa, I went in search of more information about the films' settings. In doing so, I discovered an interview with the director saying that the latter was inspired by Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing.

The novel is set in rural, 1940s Rhodesia, although confusingly the setting is referred to as ‘South Africa’ throughout. Lessing said in an interview that there wasn’t “very much difference between the Rhodesian experience and the South African experience,” although, “The Grass is Singing is very Rhodesian because it was based on the life of the district which I was brought up in.”

The focus of the novel is on Mary Turner, whom we discover at the outset of the novel has been murdered at the hands of her houseboy, Moses. The first chapter deals with the people of the district’s response to the murder and discusses the idea of whether or not they were ‘poor whites’ – a difficult concept for the racially segregated society presented to deal with.

Furthermore, in the opening exchanges, the moral and racial complexity of her murder is hinted in “the way they pitied Dick Turner [her husband] with a fine fierce indignation against Mary as if she were something unpleasant and unclean". 

The narrative then moves backwards to start to unpick Mary’s character. She is initially presented as an emotionally isolated character whose life has seemingly begun to pass her by without prospect of marriage, children, or any form of long-term plan to become a 'real' Southern African woman. One evening, she hears a group of her friends mocking her for still being a spinster, and, bowing to pressure, she hastily marries struggling Rhodesian farmer, Dick.

Having lived most of her adult life in an urban setting, with only fellow whites around her, she struggles to fit into a rural society that feels so alien to her. The reliance on black ‘native’ labour to run the farm and the invasive presence of the other whites in the district community both go against the fiercely independent spirit that she has built up during her spinsterhood.

The inherent racism in Mary’s character comes to the fore once she moves the farm and can be shocking to a modern reader. Either way, it greatly juxtaposes with the productive, albeit still exploitative, relationship Dick shares with African farm workers.

During the few bouts of illness that Dick suffers, Mary takes the reigns of the farm. The change from her usually mundane life reinvigorates her, but when Dick recovers, she slips back to her normal life and eventually into a state of depression and vulnerability. It is at this time that a worker, Moses, assumes the role of a houseboy as she becomes increasingly dependent on him. The reader knows how this arrangement is destined to end from the first page of the novel.

The novel is a close examination of many of white colonial society’s great fears, most notably the corruption of the white community’s ‘purity’ and thus cohesion. Many characters take on allegorical roles during the novel: neighbouring farmer Charlie Slatter becomes the embodiment of white colonial society, Dick the hardworking white farmer, Mary someone who transgresses the norms of colonial society, and Moses the threat posed to the colonial society by 'natives'.

Lessing is undoubtedly trying to address what she saw as an unjust society, whereby white males believed themselves to possess all of the power, but critics have argued that this isn’t enough. Some say that Lessing perpetuates the colonial stereotypes: Mary, the character ‘corrupted’ by a black man, dies; Moses, a black African man, is presented as a criminal. Whether one agrees with either perspective is down to the individual reader.

The Grass is Singing is a fantastic novel, one that raises many more questions than it answers about colonial society and is a must-read for anyone with an interest in the representation of Southern African society pre-Independence.

This review owes a great deal to the scholarly work of Bridget Grogan in her article "(Im)purity, Danger and the Body in Doris Lessing's The Grass is Singing" published in English Studies in Africa (v. 54 p31-42). This article helped to clarify my personal confusion over exact location and some of the more complicated allegorical meanings of the text. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Het Withstraat Dagboek: Onze Laatste Maaltijd in Rotterdam

The Arab-inspired lighting inside the Bazar restaurant in Rotterdam.
Refreshed from an afternoon nap, I find Rotterdam exactly as I left it: peaceful, chilly and with a layer of ice or snow covering everything outside of the large windows of No. 59a Witte de Withstraat.

It is the evening of Saturday 11th February and after a day of wandering around Amsterdam everyone has retired to their rooms prior to this evening’s meal. Pia and I wait patiently as Julian, who is ‘being mother’, makes tea in a saucepan on the small stove in the corner of the room.

As it dawns on Julian that there is the opportunity to watch the first half of the rugby match between Italy and England on TV, Pia suddenly does a death-defying backflip over the sofa, forward rolls out of the door, jumps over the banisters and hides in her room – all without spilling a drop of her tea, or a crumb of her biscuit. Obviously she’s not much of a rugby fan.

By the time we leave 59a, Julian is wondering why he bothered watching the match as England head in at half-time losing 12-6. Interestingly, he uses the collective pronoun ‘we’ throughout the match trying to include me in his misery. Does he not know that I’m Irish?

Bazar restaurant, Rotterdam.
After collecting most of the students together in the hallway, minus the usual quartet of girls, we ice-skate over the road and head up the slight incline of Witte de Withstraat a little way. In a matter of minutes we reach a fascinating Middle Eastern restaurant called ‘Bazar’.

The silence of the street is immediately shattered as you enter the building. It is apparent that the streets of Rotterdam are so quiet because everybody is in this restaurant. The arabesque lights hanging from the ceiling, coupled with the rowdy hubbub of noise from all quarters lends an air of authenticity to the place as we are led to our table for twenty-four people.

The meal provides us all with a great chance to start reflecting on what is essentially a very short trip, but one that seems to have had a profound impact on all of the students. All the talk is about the welcoming nature of the Dutch students, about the friendliness of the general public and how relaxed the pace of life seems in Rotterdam – especially when compared to what they’re used to in London.

It is apparent that escaping their bubbles, their west London comfort zones, has come as a great relief. An experience that reassures everyone that there is life outside of Zones 2 and 3 of the Transport for London tube map, and that there is an existence away from college, or Hammersmith, or the UK. Philosophising aside, it has quite simply been a fantastic few days.

We are brought out of our reminiscences of the recent past with the arrival of the food. It is a mixture of the different Bizar Bazar platters – meat, fish and vegetarian, and thankfully for my students all halal. Luckily for me, a meat platter is placed directly in front of me and after an Islamic blessing of the table, we dig in. The meat platter includes a mixed grill shish kebab with lamb, chicken and turkey, a Persian style stew of lamb, all served with rice, fried potatoes, yoghurt, sauces and salad. 

The food is wholesome, flavoursome and moreish, although the size of the portions leaves most people sated, that is with one exception. An Iraqi student, that same one who has spent the last three days greeting everyone she passes on the streets, succeeds in demolishing everything put before her. And most of everyone else’s leftovers too! 

Naturally, after eating and digesting, the students want to escape back to the house or go exploring, away from the ‘grown-ups’. We inform them that we’ve generously extended their curfew by 45 minutes for good behaviour, before plotting our next move.
De Witte Aap, Rotterdam.

After a brief conference in the nippy night air, Julian, Jas, Pia and I all walk back down the street to De Witte Aap (The White Monkey) bar. It’s a small place, but we wrestle our way to a seat and raise a toast to a great trip. Time moves on and Ilse joins us just in time for the bar to go through Transformers-style metamorphosis, with the seats turning into a DJ booth and the seating area becoming a dancing podium – exit Pia in a similarly dramatic fashion to earlier.

With Pia gone, Julian starts to dance in the style of Bruce Grobbelaar and the rest of us join in, except for Jas, who’s obvious far too cool or far too old to do so.

The curfew approaches, so we turn into pumpkins and roll uphill to 59a having said our final goodbyes to Ilse. To our astonishment, all of the students are accounted for and have managed to return to the house with ten minutes to spare. 

Tomorrow we leave Rotterdam, but it appears that nobody wants to and no one is in a rush to get to sleep any time soon.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Looe Harbour

Looe harbour, Cornwall, as seen from the bridge.
Over the May Bank Holiday weekend, I was lucky enough to go camping in Cornwall. Our campsite was actually the large garden of someone’s parents in Liskeard.

Using quite possibly my favourite iPhone app, Instagram, I set about capturing the slowly darkening skies over Looe harbour whilst we returned back to camp after an afternoon of beach cricket. 

The wonder of the Instagram app is that it allows you to place a variety of different filters and frames over the photos. In this case, the filter helped to emphasise the contrast between the slowly approaching dusk and the little remaining light hitting the water.

For more information about Looe harbour, visit:

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Het Withstraat Dagboek: Een Koude Dag in Amsterdam

Looking along the frozen Oudezijds Voorburgwal, in Amsterdam.
The temperature has continued its descent to unknown depths overnight and with it has brought the arrival of Jas from England.

It is Saturday 11th February and once more I have cruelly awoken the students in order for them to be ready in time for our coach’s departure to Amsterdam. This morning 'Rotterdam' by The Beautiful South is my song of choice and I walk around the building singing it loudly. Foolishly, I thought I’d get a full night’s sleep last night, but, sure enough, Jas’ arrival at around 2am put paid to that.

A few people have managed to make it down to breakfast on time at Restaurant Werelds, the restaurant attached to the Home Hotel where we have eaten for the previous couple of nights. One by one, and increasingly bleary-eyed, the students skulk in, although a certain quartet of girls are conspicuous in their absence.

With the arrival of a few Dutch students, their teachers Ilse, Laura and Barry, and the missing quartet, we’re ready for the off. After a slow, and frankly half-hearted start, the singing soon commences – it seems that it is never too early for a dose of Beyoncé or Rihanna.

Amsterdam is still very quiet when we arrive, save for the few souls brave enough to take on the morning chill. The weather feels every bit as if it is the -12°C that the news said it would be and my breath looks more like a thick blanket of fog as it comes out of my mouth whilst I talk. The roads are empty and the canals are covered in a layer of ice thick enough to skate on, which throws the idea of a boat tour out of the window.

Towards Grimburgwal, Amsterdam.
After issuing a few key instructions regarding safety and conduct in Amsterdam – I’m sure that you can understand what a large part of that entailed – we allow the group to go about exploring, with everyone taking different routes towards the voluntary midday meeting point of Dam Square. For Julian, Pia and myself, this allows us time to warm up with a coffee in ‘t Nieuwe Kafe, part of De Nieuwe Kerk, in Dam Square.

After a light refreshment, a small gaggle of us regroup, a mixture of students and staff, and we head off past the National Monument, along Warmoesstraat, before turning down a narrow lane called Sint Jansstraat. Whilst walking calmly along the road talking to a Nigerian student, a loud scream is heard up ahead. Looking up I see a couple of my students holding on to each other, trying to calm themselves down from a shock. And what is the shock? A lady looking seductive in the window, the first they’ve seen in Amsterdam.

Somewhat inevitably, the group becomes separated and I am left with a group of students, all of whom wear a hijab. What a sight we must be to the working girls as we pass by their windows – a white guy with a small army of hijabi girls following him through the red light district. Only in Amsterdam.

The labyrinthine alleys and side streets make for an interesting tour of the city, taking you past frozen canals with people skating on them, over bridges, by the famous marijuana cafés, which by now are filling up with customers, and past hoards of young men, presumably on stag parties. After a short while longer, respite from the cold is needed and we head into a cavernous café (of the coffee-serving variety) on a quiet side street which is decorated inside with old musical instruments and radios.

It is fair to say that Amsterdam in itself is a beautiful city with a lot to be explored, but the sex shops, regiments of young male tourists and the marijuana paraphernalia did give certain streets in the centre an edge of tackiness. In spite of this, I never feel unsafe and despite always being aware of any risk on a trip, particularly to my female students, I feel I would be happy to bring them all back again.

The students, invariably, all had a great time. Perhaps one of the greatest aspects of this trip is the ability to take my students out of their west London bubble and a day in Amsterdam does that beautifully. It was with great reluctance that the students, who unlike Pia have not moaned once about the weather, board the big orange coach to travel back to Rotterdam.

Sure enough, just like the journey to Amsterdam, after five minutes the singing strikes up. Barry joins in momentarily. With the tiredness kicking in once more, I put my iPhone headphones in and drift into a contented sleep most of the way back to Rotterdam.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

Cover image © Penguin Classics.
When it comes to literary genres, I am the first to admit that Science Fiction is simply not something I ever even think twice about. I’ve never really liked Star Trek or Star Wars, and could just about muster the energy for one episode of The X-Files annually back in the 90s. 

With this in mind, I decided that if one is to start anywhere with Science Fiction, one should do so with the grandfather of modern Sci-Fi, H.G. Wells – also the new cover art for the Penguin Classics reprint appealed to me!

First published in 1895, the novella is told by an unnamed narrator who is friends with an inventor, enigmatically referred to only as the Time Traveller. A week after discussing the theoretical possibility of time travel, the Time Traveller invites the narrator and a group of friends to dinner at his house in Richmond, but is conspicuous in his absence.

Midway through the dinner, the Time Traveller arrives looking dishevelled, tired and covered in dirt. After a short while, during which he tidies himself up, he returns to the dining room, and, having directed that his guests move to the laboratory, starts to tell his tale in the suitably ominous gloom.

He explains how he had travelled forward in time to the year 802,701 AD and found that the human race had divided into two separate species – the placid, childlike and unintelligent surface-dwelling Eloi, and the ape-like, light-fearing underground-dwelling Morlocks. He rescues one of the Eloi, called Weena, learns some of the Eloi language and they form a bit of an attachment to each other.

During his journey, the Time Traveller slowly discovers that the two new human species are in fact evolutions of different social classes, with the Eloi being the former ruling elite and the Morlocks the working-class. Complacency and a lack of any need for intelligence, over time, have left the Eloi mentally weak and unable to defend themselves against attack. The Morlocks, by contrast, have managed to turn the tables, praying on the docility of the Eloi and effectively using them as a farmer would cattle. 

Far from the technology and society have moved forward, it appears that humanity has in some way retrogressed. When you consider the time in which this novella was written, within an increasingly industrialised and urbanised Britain, where workers were being forced to live and work in increasingly awful conditions, it is unsurprising that Wells’ vision of the future turns out to be a dark one. Although, for the first few chapters, the reader is fooled into believing the Time Traveller has stumbled upon a Utopian world, it soon becomes clear that this is not the case.

There is a real sense of a planet that is dying out in this story, which makes it so compelling to read. One could easily assume that it is an allegorical Socialist narrative about the suppression of the working classes, or more simply it could just be a warning on letting our social and technological advances go too far. 

Is it still relevant to the modern world? Very much so.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Het Withstraat Dagboek: Een Morgen in Hoogvliet

Hoogvliet Metro station in the wintry afternoon sunshine, looking towards De Akkers.
The excitement of being away from home is always too much for some students. Despite all the warnings from Julian and myself about not staying up all night, some students just could resist the temptation. 

It is Friday 10th February, it is still freezing cold and I am waiting with the group on the platform at the Eendrachtsplein Metro station in central Rotterdam. After a night with very little sleep thanks to the noise of twenty hyperactive students, everyone is looking somewhat bedraggled.

After a wait of fifteen minutes, whilst a forgetful trio of students ran back to the Home Hotel having left part of their camera equipment there, a train arrives. The 7.30am train has the ultimate destination of De Akkers, but we’re only travelling on the C Line as far as Hoogvliet, an outlying borough of Rotterdam where our partner school Einstein Lyceum is located.

Everyone in our group welcomes the Metro journey. For a few of us it offers an opportunity to see Rotterdam and the surrounding area from a high vantage point above the many docks and streets that the tracks cross. For the majority of the group it provides the gentle rocking motion required to drift into a peaceful sleep. 

Those still awake are treated to a morning drenched in sunshine that seems to contrast greatly the reality of the ongoing bitterly cold weather. To the other commuters on-board the C Line we provide only a fleeting distraction from the normality of their daily routines as the students chatter away in English about parental discipline.

Upon arrival in Hoogvliet, we are met by Ilse and Barry, both of whom are teachers from the Einstein Lyceum, and led along the meandering and icy suburban pathways to the doors of their school – all the way preventing the students from venturing onto the frozen ponds and waterways. 

The school itself is a much more modern affair than our own building back in Hammersmith, and inside it seems light and airy when compared to the dark corridors of Edwardian architecture. Our students are momentarily awestruck. The colours of the rooms are bright, the Dutch students curious and reassuringly, as we begin our tour of the school, it is clear to see that the demographics of our group of students aren't too dissimilar to that of the Einstein Lyceum.

For the morning, our students engaged themselves in a couple of specially prepared lessons and then set about filming college life, which for one budding cameraman meant a group of sixth form girls! Before long, and with little or no prompting from Julian, Pia, or myself, the students were getting along great, making arrangements for the following day’s trip to Amsterdam and heading to the shops on their lunch break.

So, once the lessons, the filming, the eating and one final group photograph was taken, we start the walk back to Hoogvliet Metro station, reflecting on a good morning’s work. The students, who are just about hanging on to consciousness by this point, decide to buy a rose for each of us teachers by way of thanks for arranging the trip, and five minutes later, the train rolls into the platform. Within moments all and sundry fall into a Metro-induced doze, declaring that a much earlier night will be had this evening. 

I agree.
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