Friday, June 29, 2007

I have been roundly chastised (quite correctly) by my beloved mother for the lack of blog posts recently. I pointed out in response that there was no need for her to read my blog to find out what I am up to at the moment given that she is currently sharing my day-to-day life! Normally in South Africa, my fabulous parents are visiting me at the moment. While I expected to continue blogging as usual, you can see, that has not happened. Blame it on visits to secondhand bookshops (priorities), walks along the North Downs Way, cycling the Crab & Winkle Way... Today we're all shipping out to our favourite holiday destination for 10 days. I hope to report back refreshed and significantly more well-read on my return. Apologies for the erratic blogging, all will be back to normal soon!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Second Coming - William Butler Yeats
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
I still have the poetry textbook from which I learned this poem, the margins crammed with scribbled pencil notes. I was sixteen and read it alongside THINGS FALL APART by Chinua Achebe. The first eight lines of poetry seemed so apt in the midst of Apartheid South Africa, and Achebe's book was a revelation.

Decades later, and this week Chinua Achebe was announced winner of the Man Booker International 2007 - a well-deserved honour for a writer who changed the face of African fiction in the twentieth century, and greatly influenced global literature at the time of his earlier works.

The Guardian (see full article here) notes that Nadine Gordimer, on the judging panel, says of Achebe:
"...he has achieved "what one of his characters brilliantly defines as the writer's purpose: 'a new-found utterance' for the capture of life's complexity. This fiction is an original synthesis of the psychological novel, the Joycean stream of consciousness, the post-modern breaking of sequence. He is a joy and an illumination to read."
And the BBC also reports.

I am delighted at the news.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Those of you within easy reach of London, may I recommend Dipo Agboluaje's new play, THE CHRIST OF COLDHARBOUR LANE on at the Soho Theatre until June 23rd. He's a wonderful playwright. I've got to do a little diary juggling, but I'm looking forward to seeing it myself shortly.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Not the discussion I heard (which was Wangari Maathai in conversation with Rosie Boycott), but The Guardian has a Haycast discussion for download:
Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth, argues that people power can only do so much - governments need to act. He joins Wangari Maathai, Kenyan Nobel Peace Laureate and founder of the African development Green Belt Movement to discuss the gap between individual actions and international politics.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

A highlight for me of the Hay Festival 2007 was hearing Wangari Maathai, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize 2004. What an extraordinary and inspirational individual. I had expected her intelligence and forthrightness to shine through, but she also turned out to be really funny!

On the occasion of her winning the Nobel, the BBC (full article here) noted:
Her former husband, whom she divorced in the 1980s, was said to have remarked that she was "too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control".
Read intelligent, articulate, successful, confident and independent instead, and you'd have that about right.

Maathai had a few strong things to say about authoritarian governments in Africa, and about exploitation of Africa by western countries. She argued that unfortunately what often happens when a new government comes to power is that ministers take being in government as an opportunity to accrue power, and become the same as whoever they have replaced. Getting into office often means that MPs get disconnected; she urged, "remember that you are a servant of the people, and not the master."

She feels strongly that we "haven't found a way for human beings to control the urge to control resources at the expense of others," and this is the same no matter where you are in the world. In the Q&A she declared "I really don't think we have a choice" - industrialized countries must reduce emissions for the sake of the entire planet.

I won't repeat all of her many achievements in detail here (read all the links for a better summary than I can manage). Suffice to say that her work for The Green Belt Movement
is what has brought her the most notice in recent years. She related a story of how she was doing research on tick bite fever affecting cattle, when she noticed that the rural area she had grown up in had changed beyond all recognition from her childhood experience. Deforestation and erosion were drastically eating away at the Kenya she knew. So she discarded the research on ticks and forged ahead with a mission to encourage women to plant trees, as it was the women who commented on their need for firewood, among other uses for wood. Women took to the idea like ducks to water. Men took a lot longer to come around, and only did so once they realized how much money they could make in a decade or two once the trees had grown (or that's her version of events anyway!)

Happily for all of us the African Union has decided it is time to strengthen civil society structures across the African continent and Maathai announced they have asked her to head this endeavour. Good luck to her, it is such a key element to development when state structures are failing so badly in many parts of the world.

The Green Belt Movement have blogged themselves about her appearance at Hay, and you can read their own version which is pretty accurate at capturing the feeling on the day, if not the content of her speech.

Suggested further reading by Wangari Maathai:

Wangari Maathari is an exceptional and courageous person. It was an honour to hear her speak.

There appears to be no Hay Festival podcast available for this event, which is a shame - well worth checking back on their site in the future in case it does become available.

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

At the Hay Festival, Ngugi wa Thiong'o spoke of the nature of authoritarian rule, mentioning Zaire ruled by Mobutu, Central Africa by Bokassa, Uganda under Idi Amin and Kenya under Moi. He felt that under dictatorships, the resulting culture of silence and fear has a corrupting influence. "With twenty years of dictatorship, moral decay seeps through every vein and artery of society." This moral decay formed a partnership between the west and Africa, with Africa also acting as a junior actor of the west in the Cold War.

In his latest book, WIZARD OF THE CROW, Ngugi chose to invent a fictional territory for the action of the story - he did not want to identify one country as he thought it might distract from the story. There is a lot of humour in the book and he argued that humour acts as a screen (like distance) with which to view grim reality. It allows us to palatably look at the moral devastation and decay in post-colonial territories, taking the sting out of the situation. The passage he selected to read aloud illustrated this perfectly, and had the audience laughing out loud:
Minister Machokali was waxing ecstatic about how the benefits of the project could trickle down to all citizens. Once the project was completed, no historian would ever again talk about any other wonders in the world...Here Machokali paused dramatically to allow time for an ovation. Except for members of Parliament, Cabinet ministers, officials of the Ruler's Party, and representatives of the armed forces, nobody clapped, but nevertheless Machokali thanked the entire assembly for their overwhelming support and he invited any citizen eager to say a word in praise of Marching to Heaven to step forward. People stared at one another and at the platform in stony silence. The only hands raised were those of the ministers, members of Parliament, and officials of the Ruler's Party, but the minister ignored them and appealed to the citizenry. Are you so overwhelmed by happiness that you are lost for words? Is there no one able to express his joy in words?

A man raised his hand and Machokali quickly beckoned him to come over to the microphone. The man, clearly advanced in years, leaned on a walking stick as he pushed through the crowd. Two police officers ran to help him toward the microphone near the platform. Age was still revered in Aburiria, and the multitude waited for his words as if from an oracle. But when the old man began to speak it was clear he had difficulty in pronouncing Swahili words for the ruler, Mtukufu Rais, calling out instead, Mtukutu Rahisi. Horrified at the Ruler's being called a Cheap Excellency, one of the policemen quickly whispered in the old man's ear that the phrase was Mtukufu Rais or Rais Mtukufu, which confused him even more. Coughing and clearing his throat to still himself, he called out into the microphone, Rahisi Mkundu. Oh, no, it is not Cheap Arsehole, the other policeman whispered in the other ear, no, no, it is His Holy Mightiness, Mtukufu Mtakatifu, which did not help matters because the old man now said, with what the old man thought was confidence, Mkundu Takatifu. At the mention of "His Holy Arsehole," the multitude broke out in hilarious laughter, which made the old man forget what he had wanted to say... (pp.17-18)
There was a further issue discussed in this session about the language chosen to write in if you are multilingual, but I'll save it for another day, as Ngugi, Habila, Adichie and Soyinka all touched on this over the course of the week.

And, speaking of Adichie, I am absolutely thrilled to announce that Chimamanda has won the Orange Prize tonight (full press release here): thoroughly deserved for an outstanding piece of work. I am sure we're all looking forward to what she writes next!

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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Let me start by saying that I enjoyed almost everything about the Hay Festival. There is no doubt that it has expanded hugely since its humble beginnings, but that is no bad thing if the array of authors present continues to stimulate and challenge. Food was a bit of a problem on the festival premises, as what you get for what you pay is absolutely extortionate, but you can wander into town for something more reasonable. There is a definite lack of reasonably priced accommodation in Hay-on-Wye for the huge numbers of people attending (some hotels are booked out four years in advance), but this is not the festival's fault. Hay-on-Wye is after all a small town which caters perfectly well for guests the rest of the year. We stayed with friends an hour or so's drive across the Black Mountains, which made for views of spectacularly lush green scenery on our way to and from the festival each day.

My first event was with the marxist philosopher and scholar Terry Eagleton, Professor of Cultural Theory at the University of Manchester. His work on literary theory has probably been read by most students studying at British universities today. Discussing his new book THE MEANING OF LIFE he ranged widely across several philosophers from Aquinas to Schopenhauer, trying to answer the question "What is the meaning of life?" Not "purpose" or "function" but meaning. Like many of the speakers I heard over the next few days, the theme of well-being and sufficiency over happiness emerged. Eagleton argued, in response to a question, that it is desire which makes us unable to be happy with the sufficiency of things, for desire cannot be fulfilled. I rather liked his closing image of life as a jazz band. You can download the podcast for a fee.

Helon Habila and Ngugi wa Thiong'o in conversation were next (download the podcast). One of the things I was reminded of in listening to these two is the issue of accents, translation and linguistics. Here we have two of the finest writers in english living today, yet when you hear them speak, both have strong Nigerian and Kenyan accents respectively. So often I have seen people's eyes glaze over at hearing an African accent, but this really is a peevish and shameful response. You cannot assume that someone is not educated or literate because they do not speak with an english or american accent. While I believe people know this intellectually, I'm not sure that in practice they are always quite so patient at allowing themselves to get used to an unfamiliar accent, and come across dismissive instead.

Habila talked of time as a filter and writing through research and memory. His first book, WAITING FOR AN ANGEL was written in the wee hours of each morning, when he was still living in Nigeria, and he said he found it easier to write. His latest MEASURING TIME written four years later in the UK, was much harder, and involved calling home to Nigeria to ask questions, hear how people speak and remind himself of tastes and smells. He talked of how he "survived on books" when he was younger.

In writing MEASURING TIME he started with one character, but soon found he would be unable to make one person experience all he intended for the character, and so they became the twins, Mamo and LaMamo - one staying home in the village, the other off fighting in the war; like one character, but shared. Habila identifies most strongly with the twin who stays behind in the village. He mentioned that when he was younger he wrote a biography of the chief of his village, so he felt a connection with Mamo's staying home and writing a history of his people.

He read an extract from MEASURING TIME beautifully:
After the closure of the school Mamo found himself with time on his hands and without much means of using it apart from taking long walks in the afternoon. He took walks not only to kill time, but also to avoid his father's constant looming presence in the house, and the inane laughter of the widows whenever they came to visit...With no work to prepare for in the mornings, the hours seemed to have grown twice as long and Mamo would sometimes wake up in the morning and almost panic when he thought of the long, lonely day ahead of him - he'd sit on the bed for hours, his back propped up against the wall, watching the thin rays of the morning sun streaming into the window. He missed the drab routine of meeting the students and listening to Ms. Lipstick and Mr. Bukar gripe about their lives. Outside, in the yard, Auntie Marina would be talking to the goats and chickens as she fed them. On good days he walked her to her farm and passed the hours under a tree reading a book or sleeping, but often he left her early, before the fresh invigorating morning air had turned hot and painful and hard to breathe.

He waited for something, anything, to happen, and as he waited he measured time in the shadows cast by trees and walls, in the silence between one footfall and the next, between one breath and the next, in the seconds and minutes and hours and days and weeks and months that add up to form the seasons. The rainy season ended in October, the wind turned dry and harsh, the leaves on the trees and cornstalks turned brown and brittle. Farmers brought home the harvest; the hunters set the hills on fire and chased the game up to the summit. At night the hilltops became incandescent with color - like a painting, the fires snaking around the contours of the hills, their orange reflected by the low clouds that hung over the hills like a backcloth... (pp.138-139)
More tomorrow on Ngugi. Today I am off to London to give a lecture on "Conflict in Africa."

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Monday, June 04, 2007

Just back from the Hay Festival and so many delicious things to report, including 24 new books (hangs head in shame - no, I could not be restrained!)

Bed first, as I am exhausted, but I'll begin a report on events tomorrow. In the meantime, let's all hold thumbs for the Orange Prize going to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tomorrow.