With the hopes of getting this blog back to a regularity, I've asked another fine writer to fill in for Jes, who is now coping with full-blown cat infestation. The felines have her entire family in chains and are demanding a ransom. The problem is, they are demanding American cheese-spred to go over their kibble, but England is too snooty to import it. I'm trying to gather enough of the disgusting yellow goo on my own to free Jes and her kin; until I do, Margaret Eleanor Leigh will fill her shoes.
When you asked me if I’d fill in this blog spot for a while, the outcome struck me as about as predictable as a blind date with a stranger, which makes for an intriguing challenge. I know nothing whatsoever about you. I have seen your profile photograph on Facebook, of course, the one that makes me think of a gangster from Chicago. It is the effect of the shades, I think. I am sure you aren’t a gangster, though, and you probably don’t even know any gangsters.
By the same token you know little or nothing about me. So we have a completely blank canvas. I don’t really want to fill it with debate about the advantages of our respective nations, which I gather was the founding premise of this blog. The main reason being I live in the former coal-mining valleys of South Wales - think How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn and then subtract all hint of glamour. I’ve been living here for three years now and haven’t even unpacked my suitcases. I’m poised for flight, just waiting for the right current of air to carry me off to a place where the valleys aren’t so bloody green. So no, I can’t compete with Pennsylvania and the Appalachian Trail and won’t even try.
Perhaps it would be a good idea to go back to the beginning, and swap life stories like folk do on blind dates? If that sounds disturbing or creepy, which it very well might, we could treat it as a kind of extended AA meeting, or a series of therapy sessions instead. Or, more intellectually, as a kind of Platonic dialogue out of which Truth and Beauty may even emerge.
I could kick off by writing a bit about being born in South Africa in the bad days, the apartheid days. Looking back, I sometimes think I came out of the womb horrified at what was going on all around me, growing ever more horrified no-one else seemed to think there was anything much to be horrified about.
My father was an Anglican vicar and we were poor as the proverbial church mice, what you’d call poor whites, which in the South African context meant that while we weren’t quite as poor as the desperately poor black majority, the gulf between us and the rest of the rich white minority was nevertheless enormous.
At the age of twelve, our world (fragile as it already was), was blown apart when my father, the vicar, embarked on a scandalous affair with a sixteen-year-old Sunday school teacher. One spectacularly messy divorce later, and my mother Polly was booking our sea passage to Southampton, England, with no clear idea what we would do once we got there.
I’ll leave my much younger self there - standing on the deck of the Edinburgh Castle as it pulled out of harbour. At the very end of the long concrete pier there was a black umbrella, under which stood my father, and my brother and I watched the umbrella grow smaller and smaller as the ship pulled slowly away. The rain in which this scene was soaked was of course prophetic, for we were heading for the land where it does little else.
So what do you think? Shall we blog along these lines?
I don’t think my wife would care for the ‘blind date’ analogy. Maybe we should think of this as a ‘pen-pal’ situation. I like that better myself. I was a bit of an awkward child (some say I’m an awkward adult too) and I didn’t have a lot of friends. I even went as far as concocting an idea that included a dozen helium balloons and a letter stating that ‘I was participating in a school experiment on trade winds: please write back and tell me where this landed’, in hopes of making a long-distance friend (an old farmer was kind enough to write me back – no, he didn’t want to be my pen-pal). I’ve always dreamed of having someone in another country in whom I could write to and swap stories, so you can be her.
I had to laugh when you said I looked like a gangster from Chicago. I was born and raised in rural Illinois, and when I tell people around here that I'm from Illinois, they say, “Oh, so you’re from Chicago”. The answer is an emphatic, “NO”. And I’m about as far from gangsta and the big city as you can get. If the world of your youth could be compared to ‘How Green is My Valley’, then mine would be similar to what you find in Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. Of course, we weren’t poor migrant workers, nor did we live in Oklahoma and move west because of drought, but we did live among the corn fields and eventually moved to California to seek a better life, so that counts, right?
My father was faithful to my mother and they remained married until he died of cancer in his early sixties. We were not close, however. In fact, I hated him through most of my childhood. He was heavy handed and seemed to look for any excuse to take his belt off and smack my ass with it. His father died early and there were several stepfathers - all who died untimely deaths. My grandmother had to put him in an orphanage a few times during his childhood, because he grew up during the great American depression, and she simply couldn't afford to take care of all her kids. His difficult up-bringing meant that I got a tough-as-nails father who didn't know how to show love to his children.
Growing-up in the sticks wasn't all bad. We had horses and I would gallop barebacked through fields, with my be-be gun in one hand and the reins in the other, as I screamed an Indian war-cry at the top of my lungs. Trees became soldiers, as I fought for the freedom of Native Americans everywhere. It wasn't that I was taking up the cause of the injustice done to the Indians, I was identifying with the underdog, which I have always felt myself to be.
My introverted and melancholy personality was fertile ground for a very active imagination. Daydreaming became a way of life and affected everything I did, including my school work (no dean's lists found here!) When I began writing books years ago, my brother asked me how I came up with the stories. I found the question rather absurd. I felt like asking a retort of "how do you not?" When I write, I simply activate my old friend, my imagination, and let it run wild.
Next week I'll tell you how I reacted to my father's overbearing ways when the teenage years were upon me. It won't be pretty, but I survived it, to the amazement of all involved.
Your American pen-pal,