THROWING GRAVEL AT GLASS. An Immigrant’s Growing Impression of the ‘Mother Country’ (Originally published in The Recusant)

This piece is resurrected in response to an invitation offered today to ‘keep getting it down’. A new friend invited me to list five interesting things about myself, and another (older- in both senses) friend said that my poetry is written for poets, and he would have me write more accessibly for everyone. All my new South African friends might understand this even more. So here goes.


'And Elgar wrote it down'
‘And Elgar wrote it down’

You speak our language well enough. Try to be exact.
Talk first of where you come from, what place, what climate of sun,
corn of rattling monotony, or rows of sweating pineapple; were you near a beach?

Let us begin at the beginning.

The drum of Africa rolls incessant, a barrel under the feet. It failed to stop for getting born…
We caught a wind off the Kalahari, which snagged us on barbed wire, the shred  of a shirt flapping before we hastened on; pioneers are travelling folk, we uitspan where we find ourselves, and mostly for one night…

Very well. What manner of people suckled you? Taught you to walk? Gave you your prayers at sunset, or maybe brushed your teeth?

Some wore socks and veldschoen, banded khaki hats… kept dried peaches in the pocket, corralled a farm on  horseback-, often chewed sweet grass…the labour filed in kaalvoet from distant smoking kraals with babies on their backs and calloused dirty feet. Their rivers flowed over boulders, and washing dried on rock. They walked like ants with purpose, carried heads of firewood, and swept the hills with song…

Your people are known to be obstinate, perhaps I’m being harsh. I realise it wasn’t easy. Did you ever go to school?

I opened up the ant spires, and paced the baobab girth. I saw elephants drunk on  maroolas, and hyenas bloody jawed. My horse and I in the mountains alone took  turns to cast our shadows…the sort of thing you asked?

I had hoped for something else; the merest suggestion of books. I really want to understand you. I am not trying to be perverse.

Oh books, that’s very easy. Books were candle light, and whizz-bangs, and ghosts in the shadows flickering; leather smelt of sweat. Books were made of promises, improvements in design. Damp Keats eventually caught fire, and hectic Percy     Bysshe…lit sparks of inspiration, and subtle Austen flavoured fish…but books were about England, there was African life to live…

I thought you said you were thirsty, and that was why you came. What had fed that appetite, identify the hunger? It’s tethered you here for a reason…It seems reasonable to ask.

Now here we come to the doring bush, the wag’n bietjie thorn. It was you who persuaded us we never could belong. Not unless we learned to hold our crude and wagging tongue. So I came for your opinions, and your moderated views, tempered by your literature, I would learn them if it killed me, and it very nearly has…

There was nothing that you valued? Nothing that enriched? Subtle converse  taught you no refinements, brought forth nothing new? Could we have had this conversation if you’d never put on shoes?

Is this a conversation? I had not realised that. We talk to one another. It isn’t the same thing. Yes I learned your language, and I worshipped it at first. I believed it  would oil my power to show you other things; the glory of the sugar bright stars, thrown by razor wind, the need to pelt down sand dunes and shout injustice to the sky.. oh yes I leaned refinement, let’s call it constipation and have done…

Now who’s being harsh? Was there nothing that you loved? Nothing that explained your blood, or informed your letters home? Did you take no pictures, or  stop before a view…Surely there was something…

That’s the point you dimwit, it was all face value so. I found your country perfect, exactly as expected, not a hair astray. There was a quota of eccentrics, and I loved them, every one. There was always mist on the Malvern Hills and Elgar wrote it down. London was Threadneedle Street, and Horseguards all stood still. It lived up to all its promises, and I gulped it like spring water, and thought that I’d come home. You wrapped me up in literature; words and place, one piece. It’s taken my life to unwrap it, and find instead its vacuum heart, and nothing to write back…

What about the politics you hated, we sheltered you from those…

Oh yes, you’re right, I quite forgot; the constant surveillance, the neighbours who informed, the ninety day detentions, the summary arrests, the banning of so many things, speech among the first…Sorry I’m getting distracted; were those the things   you meant? 

You draw a false analogy, we don’t do it the same way, your comparisons are facile, nobody here protests. We accept when things are necessary, and we have after all the freedom of our Press…

To spin you like a marionette, too giddy to take heed of the swirling fascist state. Compulsory tolerance is your poison coated pill… you swallow without tasting…At least we knew we were pariahs, and not just because we smoked..

Come come you exaggerate, it really isn’t done. The essential rule you never learned is what makes us what we are; never to speak loudly…or criticise with emphasis or most of all, enthuse. Let me give you some advice, it will serve you everywhere, curtail your indignation, it sits so very ill, make a joke of outrage, keep it well to heel…

Ag ja, my outrage is exhausted, like a cur behind a wagon, snapping at the flies. I know I have nowhere to stand, and nothing left to say. Your literature has tamed me like a mangy lion penned. You are all so very certain about such little things.

On the Eve of Dissolution.
On the Eve of Dissolution.






Author: philipparees

A writer ( mostly narrative poetry) of fiction and non-fiction. Self publisher of fiction and Involution-An Odyssey Reconciling Science to God (Runner-up Book of the Year (2013), One time builder ( Arts centre) Mother of four daughters: Companion of old man and old dog: One time gardener, lecturer, wannabe cellist, mostly enquirer of 'what's it all about', blogger and things as yet undiscovered.


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