Being on the opposite side politically, racially or sexually to most of the people around you has got to be one of the hardest things to do. To remain morally sane when the world around you is not, to speak out when it may cost you your liberty or life, or worse, the liberty or lives of those you love; is beyond hard.
We perceive people who live outside social norms as mad, bad or saints; the ones we believe to be mad and the bad we laugh at; or avoid. The saints we tend to mythologise so that they become larger than life; not allowed to show human fraility or fail.
Today, my fifth Father’s Day since my Dad died, I kept going back in my mind to something Mom said to me a few years ago. She said “Your Dad was a hard act to live with, impossible to live without”. And she was right.
They were so intertwined, such a unit and yet where other couples would turn inward, they turned outward. They did everything they could for their children, their fellow countrymen, their friends and complete strangers. At my father’s funeral, we had to switch chapels to fit everyone in. By the time my mother died, just under five years later, we had learned the lesson and the church was large. It was also just about full to capacity.
Hearing about the death of Brian Haws today saddened me on a day I was already quite sad. I had read earlier about Clarence Clemons dying, another icon of my youth. Growing up in South Africa, our only national Black role models were banned, which meant, alive or dead, it was illegal to quote them or even show a picture of their face.
The first time I saw a picture of Nelson Mandela, I was 14 years old and watching an illegally imported video of Special AKA on Top of the Pops. We played that video til it shredded (aided by my cat’s contribution of a locust into the workings of the video machine – she loved posting contributions in there), often when we were having private conversations, to scramble the listening devices in our house. It gave us particular pleasure to play a banned song about a banned liberation hero to people who hated us so much they tracked our every move. What on earth could they do to us that they hadn’t threatened to do already?
The first time I saw a picture of Steve Biko, I was 17, reading a piece of smuggled PAC (Pan Africanist Congress – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pan_Africanist_Congress) literature.
Clarence Clemons, like Frank Bruno, was acceptable to see because he “wasn’t one of our Blacks” as one of my school mates so odiously put it, the inference being that Black people overseas were better than those who had the misfortune to be born in South Africa at the time.
And we loved “Uncle Bruce” as we called him and we adored Clarence. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s songs were part of the soundtrack of my youth. There was Clarence, larger than life, a man completely at home with himself, being what every man should be free to be.
Reading about his childhood and the early years with the band, it wasn’t always that easy. Even in the 1970s in the US, they did not get some bookings because of his presence. And yet they prevailed to become one of the biggest and most recognisable bands of the last 30 years of the millennium.
Brian Haws left his family and set up camp 10 years ago in Parliament Square, protesting about the UK’s involvement in two morally dubious wars. Despite heavy local and national government harassment, he stayed until he fell mortally ill last year. The right wing press pilloried him for getting treatment in Germany … anything to make him seem unpatriotic of course.
I was surprised to learn today that he had a wife and children. For some reason, I assumed he did not. A silly assumption really – men and women have been leaving their families for the greater good for millennia – Buddha, Ghandi, latterly, some of the women of Greenham Common – so I was being a little naive I think.
My Mom’s greatest fear was that my Dad would be arrested. I remember us once shopping in our local shopping centre. Dad wandered off to look at something and for a few minutes, we could not find him. My mother, convinced that the police had taken him (something they were famous for doing – “disappearing” people), became hysterical. She refused to let us kids go and find him, worried that we would also be taken. So we stood in the shopping centre in a miserable huddle until he wandered back, finding my mother inconsolable and himself in deep shit. It became a family joke but wasn’t funny really.
What was funny was the very odd situations Dad found himself in occasionally, because of his refusal to turn anyone away. A guy came to ask for work one day and Dad gave him a gardening job. On and off over a couple of years, he would pitch up sporadically and eventually asked Dad if he could sleep occasionally in the garage. Of course said Dad, ensuring that one of our old mattresses was available, along with a blanket; and showed him how to jimmy the big garage doors open. The guy came and went and stopped working for us eventually but often used the garage as a bolt hole; the last time he used it was a few days after Dad died. Not knowing that Dad had passed, he gave my mother and I a massive fright!
We had a domestic called Olga for a few years. Olga was an Nyanga, a traditional healer; or witchdoctor. She was a big lady, very larger than life, with a penchant for blonde women, which got her fired from our neighbours (she liked boobs) and who pestered the young girl who came to work for Dad, keeping the office open when we went on holiday and who became one of my closest friends. She spent the longest two weeks of her life in a house with Olga, trying to avoid her advances, but was too well brought up to mention it, for years.
Olga also liked the garden services ladies and once memorably, Dad went looking for Olga and found her with her hands up the skirt of an enthusiastic partner. Dad’s comment was “Olga, put that woman down please and make me some tea.” Adding as an afterthought, “and wash your hands”. Olga thought this was a great hoot and one or the other would often quote this little catchphrase at each other. Olga’s famous riposte to my Dad’s shouted request for tea (he was deaf) was “Fuck off Fred, I’m doing the ironing”. The house would ring with their yelling at each other.
She refused to clean windows, so our windows stayed grimy for months, until I got sick of it and did them myself.
Olga was a staunch defender of our home and she would shake her head at my Dad’s softheartedness. A lady pitched up on the doorstep one day, asking for work. Olga told her no thanks but Dad coming up behind her, taking pity on the sad, thin, purple-faced woman, said of course, you can clean the windows. A furious debate ensued, with Olga eventually saying, “You want her to clean the windows? Look at her, she’s purple. And you are going to give her window cleaner?”
Dad either pretended to misunderstand her or was trying for a bit of one-upmanship. So Olga gave her the window cleaning liquid and some cloths. An hour later, Olga grimly reported that the liquid was finished. Dad went to the shop and got some more. This too was finished in an hour. Dad, imagining that he had a house full of clean windows, got up to inspect and instead found said lady passed out on the floor from imbibing the liquid, which of course contained methylated spirits, to which the poor lady was addicted (hence her purple face). Olga was hoovering round her with a rather smug look on her face.
The rush was on to bring the lady round before Mum got home and went mad. Dad had not escaped censure a few months before when another lady had come to the door, asking for work and the moment Dad left the house to fetch Mom from work, an hour’s round trip, got into his whisky before passing out fully clothed in the bath. She awoke to find Mom and Dad arguing over Dad being silly enough to leave a strange woman in the house by herself and toddled off down the road whilst they were still arguing.
Another inebriated stranger was not going to go down well and he and Olga shook her awake before feeding her coffee and dropping her off at the local station. Soft-hearted Dad was soundly rebuked by Olga for giving the woman some money despite no windows being cleaned at all.
My mother was no different, giving work and help to a succession of itinerant men after Dad died. Despite well-intentioned and absolutely sensible (given the rate and horrific violence of crime in South Africa) advice and warnings from neighbours, she came to no harm. It gave me the shivers knowing that she was living alone and let strangers into the house, but she continued to do it, relying on her gut instinct as to who was a tsotsi (see http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=tsotsi) and who was not. That said, I don’t think she ever turned anyone away from her door, whether it was food, or work, or advice that was needed.
People have often said to me rather condescendingly, oh that sort of childhood must have made you very insecure. It didn’t. It gave me a degree of foolhardiness, certainly. I was very reckless as a teenager, probably because when you have lived in danger for a long time, it takes a lot more danger to produce any sort of thrill. So fast boys, faster motorbikes and a great deal of thrill seeking was very evident for years.
I spent my formative years being afraid of white policeman and it was with a certain amount of irony that my mother commented on my relationship with a white cop in England, many years later, saying it was bloody funny really. But it also gave me something else – it showed me that no matter what the situation, no matter what the danger, that other people’s lives are just as important as your own; that everyone has dreams, ambitions, a capacity for happiness and that in order for everyone to share that, we need to help each other. We need to seek truth and clarity in a world of lies and deception and in order to make the world change, we have to be that change.
I am proud of my parents. They were very human, full of the weaknesses and strengths of which we are all made. Their fights were legendary, their love even more so.
I feel for Brian Haw’s family. They have lost their husband and father and to a degree, must feel that they lost part of him some time before, when he set out to protest against the invasion of a foreign country and the murder of innocent people, perpetrated in our name, by our government. But I hope that they are immensely proud of him too, proud of what he achieved and proud of being his wife and his children.
Gods bless them and comfort them in their loss and may his example be one for others who feel the same, but do not have the opportunity or the bravery to follow his legacy.