Call for the Dead
David Cornwell, aka John le Carré, died of pneumonia at The Royal Cornwall Hospital, Truro. this day December 12,2020. He was 89.
The first novel of his I read was Call for the Dead. It was followed by Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and then The Honourable Schoolboy. The latter would be my go to book to read every Christmas.
Why did he have such a hold on me?
The vulnerability of his writing; his “camcorder” descriptions of people and incidents; the characterisation of George Smiley and, through the inevitability of his plots, the grief of times, tradition and values lost.
Two weeks ago, I came out of a meeting with senior partners of a major accounting firm. Because of COVID, it was, of course, by Zoom.
It reminded me of an excerpt from The Honourable Schoolboy where Smiley is asked by his superior to justify the need for government funds to bankroll his undercover investigation in Hong Kong.
I was trying to sell a service to this firm. I received the most perfect dressing down, in the politest terms from one particular member of this group. He spent all his time insinuating his superiority and the lack of mine. The conversation could have been scripted by le Carré himself.
My books overwhelm the reader with the vulnerability of people who try to do the best they can. The little people in the cog who, for the most part are ignored as unworthy of attention. Yet are worth their weight in gold. Thus with Smiley.
All my stories deal with past values lost and a hankering for better days, for the past to be retrieved.
Call for the Dead- a fitting title for his eulogy.
Stuttering Kid K.O.’s Trump
Watching the US Democratic Convention this week, I was overwhelmed with the sugary, syrupy speeches praising Biden and the hell fire condemnation of Trump. They were presented by world class speakers, including former President Obama. The sweet and sticky paeons of praise for Biden left me with chronic toothache.
Expecting more of the same on Thursday, I wasn’t disappointed… until that boy Brad Harrington came onto the screen. He started so clearly but eventually succumbed to his nemesis of stuttering. The pain he inflicted on me as I waited and prayed with my heart and soul for him to get his words out took me back to a primary school in the heart of a low-rent council estate in Maidenhead, England.
It was 1960 and I had just arrived “fresh off the boat” from Africa – the first person of colour in a staunch working class neighbourhood, barely able to put two words together in English. I was five years old and attending North Town primary School for the first time.
In that boy on the screen-Brad Harrington- I saw myself standing among my peers trying to introduce myself, encumbered on all sides, carrying the greatest impediment of all – losing the battle to speak. I was struck dumb and forced to sit down, defeated in silence .
But Brad wouldn’t stand down. He continued. What he wove into his simplistic speech was an indisputable testament to Biden’s genuine compassion for the unfortunate and down-trodden. You see, Biden had also stuttered as a boy. On encountering Brad on a school tour, Biden built a personal relationship with the boy, handing out his tips to conquer their shared impediment.
At his speech end, there was no doubt left of the courage and fortitude within Brad and the stark humanitarian contrast between his idol Biden and that perceived bully Trump.
Systematic Racialism And Its Consequence / Facing Down Prejudice
Systematic Racialism And Its Consequence
Why did this occur? Social and economic circumstances were blatant – Idi Amin, in Uganda and Sheikh Karume in Zanzibar decided they could have as many wives as they wanted and chose to “wed” East Indian women and bed them ad hoc as their fancy took them.
Government corruption, resulting in diminished aid from abroad, led to financial crises. Ruling (and undemocratic) governments resorted to “nationalize” East Indian businesses and real estate, looting their cash resources. The governments gambled on deflecting the blame and responsibility of their financial mess to the “greedy ” Asians. These actions escalated when President Amin gave East Indians twenty-four hours to leave the country.
From a place of power and influence they fell to inhabiting hovels in Europe and Canada.
Beyond the blatant, the East Indian community left a legacy of utter contempt for the African native populace whom they treated as servile and ignorant. For centuries the East Indian community, instead of building bridges to the native population, berated them as lazy and thieves.
My life in Africa was surrounded by the natives.
No. As servants.
It was not until my teenage years that I made a trip by dhow across the water from the mainland to the island of Zanzibar, living for a fortnight in a home owned and governed by Africans. My whole perception of them was turned upside down.
Here is an extract from Chasing Aphrodite, :
Something wasn’t right. He marched into his uncle’s room.
“Uncle Sherali, where do I put my money and passport?’
” Beside your bed.”
“But there is no lock on the door and we are surrounded by karias (blacks).”
His comment didn’t register with Uncle Sherali, who had emptied his suitcase on the bed and spilled its contents across the room, as comfortable as if he were at home.
This simply wasn’t done. On the mainland, Africans were servants. You were told they were not to be trusted. They would steal the shirt off your back. They had to be watched constantly. They couldn’t cook – what was he going to eat? Now, here they were completely surrounded, with no locks to protect them, and his uncle couldn’t care less. How could he be so irresponsible? Perhaps his father had been right after all.
Lunch was a meal fit for a king. The whole family of twenty were seated at a large round table. All were served where they sat. Considering themselves within their own domain, the women had let go of their black garb. They were now dressed in sumptuous colours. The children jumped on and off their chairs, and the adults scolded them for doing so. In bits and pieces, the gossip of the town was laid bare. Teenagers back for their afternoon siesta from their nearby school gawked at the strangers who had so easily been taken in as part of the family. The boy looked surreptitiously at the girls with their doe-like sleepy eyes, their lashes and eyelids darkened with kohl.
He had never experienced this in Dar between their two communities. His Indian family and friends would frown and try to dissuade him from playing soccer with Africans. Yet, he found that once he had joined them , they forgot he was a stranger and took him as one of their own. This acceptance applied wherever he went as a boy, whether playing soccer in England or in Tiger Shark Park in Hong Kong. But his Indian community’s perspective was so different. Years later, peering through a snow-streaked window at the desolate Canadian prairie in mid-winter, he looked back at how his East Indian community had been expunged from Africa, their property and businesses confiscated, and he understood where that perspective had led them and why.
That cataclysmic exodus happened in the early 1970s. Looking back at the horror and heartache of my people, I am reminded of a quote from W.H. Auden :
“I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.”
The poem was called September 1, 1939 – the day World War II was declared. In 1945, Auden omitted the stanza ending in “We must love one another or die.”
“The three different colours paint represent black people, white people and brown people, and how you Emil, have had to compose a composition that is a blending of all three, as you have experienced both sides of the racial equation – you have had servants, yet also been treated as servants. You have had to navigate between these three cultures and find your place. And it has been a struggle to make sense of, and has been messy – hence the drips.” — Wes Pohl
Facing Down Prejudice
My East Indian single mother, in her early twenties who had neither education nor a true grasp of English had newly arrived in London. When she suddenly realized she could not look after me. A fellow worker – Flo – felt sorry and volunteered to look after me for two weeks until a proper family could be found. My Indian mum had just picked me from Heathrow airport where I had arrived from a long journey out of East Africa. After a few minutes of conversation at the Aslett’s, she left me to begin her night shift.
If this is a group of people this sentence needs some clarification, right now it reads as though Aslett’s is a last name of the people your mother had you stay with.
“Do you live in the jungle? ” someone asked.
“Is Tarzan your neighbour?” another voice asked.
A pregnant silence followed.
Although fluent in Swahili , Kutchi , Gujarati and Arabic, I barely understood, let alone spoke, English. The Aslett’s prided themselves in not knowing any other language than their native tongue. (What is their native tongue?) I could barely understand their simple questions, let alone try to answer them.
It is my advice you rework the above paragraph starting with the question “Do you live in the jungle.” Set the scene for the readers in its current state the narrative is a bit too jumpy. Help the reader understand who these people are who are talking to you.
How was I treated in this rough and tumble estate called home?
Here is an extract from my book, Chasing Aphrodite:
He loved playing football and would run around the crescent looking for a scratch game to join. The footballers all knew Flo and knew her wrath. None would harm him.
Back then, he would plead to join.
“What’s your name, mate ? ”
“Snow White. ” The standard answer with a goofy grin. But it always got him in.
” Na ! What’s yer real name ? ”
This underweight pygmy of a kid, jokingly referred to by his own English family as a “model off an Oxfam1 poster,” had the talent these street urchins needed – he could score goals. Once allowed in, he was taken as one of their own. They would later rant and rave about wogs and Pakis right in front of him, but him they accepted without reservation. His colour completely overlooked.
Later, as he escaped into accountancy as a career, he could never trust the well-spoken and always correctly mannered middle-class that surrounded him, never sure what they really thought of him or the low-class council house community he had come from.
Working as an accountant provided my chance to start life in Canada. Decades later, I brought my two teenage boys (“The Poodle” and ” The Monster” ) to my estate.
Aphrodite continues :
Although it was mid-morning on a weekday, a rag-tag group of youths approached, heads down, looking askance. The Poodle and The Monster beat a retreat along with the taxi driver. Their father just stood there mesmerized. The same motley group that his boys ran from were the kind he would play with.
Sadly for him, his kids knew no better, accepting naturally their enhanced class status and looking askance at the descendants of the Ellington Park mob who had sustained
and nurtured him.
I had worked so hard and taken so many risks to gain my freedom from poverty and prejudice, but what had I imbued in my own sons? Watching their reaction, I experienced the full circle of that prejudice I had fought so hard against.
Which is the worst kind of prejudice? The blatant or the courteously polished ? How do you overcome it? How do you immunize your children from it?
(1) Oxfam: An international charitable organization to alleviate global poverty
Banksy – Messiah of Messaging
I viewed this era of COVID with anger and disdain; for the fear and anxiety driven into us by the 24 hour news media and our governments. That was until I saw the drawing by Banksy given last week to Southampton Hospital as a thank you to its staff. I cried immediately when I saw it.
The drawing portrayed a boy in dungarees ,on his knees, holding a toy nurse in his hand, like an aeroplane. The nurse has a red cross painted on her uniform , her cape flies behind her turning her into an angel. To the side of the boy lies a wire-netting waste bin full of action heroes – Batman, Superman etc.
The message hit me viscerally. I had no explanation save, to me, it was a masterpiece depicting, in one scene, the horror, and the waste of COVID rescued by the miracle of compassion displayed by those who work each day solely to save us.
What does it have to do with my writing? Everything.
Banksy pays tribute to ‘superhero’ nurses in new piece donated to hospital. Emil contemplates how art can make a statement, and feels both encouraged and overwhelmed as to whether his own work might one day deliver such a message.
The books I write are a patchwork quilt of individual stories, labelled as chapters. Within each short story (“chapter”) a mini plot is developed and turned into a conclusion drawn at the end. There is little room for latitude to waste words.
Banksy does this in such little space with total genius.
“What are you really trying to say?” my editor asks me, every time I send her a draft.
In “Chasing Aphrodite“, the protagonist returns home to East Africa after an absence of decades. Everywhere he goes he sees destruction , dirt and disease. Every store, shop or person he remembered has been uprooted. He hurries back to his hotel overwhelmed:
“As he ran out of the courtyard, something brushed his thigh. He instinctively raised his hand to swat what he thought was a mosquito. As he turned to look, he was horror struck. It was a little African leper girl, barely clothed in a ragged kitenge1, faded with age and covered in mud. Her arms and legs had been eaten away. Only her torso remained. She had white discolorations across her body and especially at the stumps that had been her limbs. It was the stumps that had gently brushed against him. He stared at her helplessly.”
The limbless girl was as graphic as Banksy’s nurse. But just as the nurse symbolized a message beyond the character portrayed, my girl symbolized the whole of Africa as I saw it then – fetid and decayed.
Banksy called his piece ” Game Changer”. I hope someday, someone will say the same of my work.
(1) Kitenge or chitenge is an East African, West African and Central African fabric similar to a sarong.
July 1 marked my fortieth celebration of Canada Day. In April, just prior to the anniversary of my arrival, I completed my latest book Heart of New York. It was set in New York at Christmas with flashbacks to Calgary and my life spent there.
In my first chapter I wrote:
Back outside, the bitter Atlantic wind assaulted him once again, reminding him of his first equally frigid winter in Calgary.
Each day he would stare out of the floor-to-ceiling window at the back of the ninth floor of Gulf Canada Square. Mile long freight carts flew across the criss-crossed railway lines, puffing and bleating their way into the horizon with the wind and snow blowing every which way to slow them down.
Why had he sought so cheerfully to leave England and, prior to that, Africa, to arrive at this Siberia of the North? BOREDOM.
At the age of twenty-four, he was a qualified Chartered Accountant with a well-paid and respectable career ahead of him. Did he really want to spend the rest of his life commuting to London from his suburban home? A path, routine and predictable, lay in front of him with an obligatory maisonette and silver watch at the end of it.
He was single and craving adventure when an ad enticed him to apply, partly as a joke, to an accounting firm in Canada. A place called Calgary-a queer juxtaposition of “Cowtown” and modern oil boom with a Scottish name endowed upon it by its querulous Calvinist founding fathers.
“You’re mad!” His all-knowing mother expostulated.
“But it’s the fastest growing city in Canada. It’s swimming in oil.”
Recent years in England had been an economic nightmare. Margaret Thatcher had waged war on unions and specifically coalminers in Wales leading to unremitting strikes, riots and blackouts amid blizzards and deep snow-dubbed The Winter of Discontent. In training, he had accompanied his manager to Wales and Sheffield and Gateshead to close down coalmines and steelworks where proud and tradition-bound workers were forever discarded on the rubbish heap of redundancy. There had to be a better place to work and live. Somewhere with a boundless future.
In my last chapter, I continued:
Sitting here in a Manhattan pizza parlour, constantly demisting the window to witness the mayhem of a frigid winter outside, he realized it wasn’t the balmy weather of Africa he missed, where he had been born. It was the welcoming arms of a community. Wrenched away from his childhood home, he had never felt “home” anywhere. Perhaps too cautious to commit in case it too was wrenched away from him.
A decade after he moved to Calgary, he was returning from yet another Christmas holiday. As he looked down from his aircraft cabin window, he sighed to himself.
“Home at last.”
That’s when he understood.
Calgarians didn’t notice his colour or pedigree, nor did they practise the manners of hypocrisy against him that he had witnessed in England. In Calgary, you were rewarded for your contribution to society not for the impeccable accent you cultivated. And why shouldn’t they do so? They were, in the majority, recent immigrants, all trying their best to equally make their way.
A few years ago, I took my family – my wife and two teenage boys- to Hong Kong to celebrate my birthday on June 28th.
“Pops, where’s the Canadian Embassy?” The boys chimed together.
What an odd question to ask on holiday. “Why do you want to know?”
“Because we want to celebrate Canada Day.”
There was no doubt of their allegiance and pride in their country.