Month: April 2019

The philosophy of cupboards: a memoir.

People and countries are much like cupboards. They contain much but most of it is forgotten. These dark spaces create the illusion of abundance, unpacked they reveal the superficiality of our existence. We keep things we don’t need and forget too soon what we have. On the other hand, opening a long forgotten drawer is like finding gifts you forgot to enjoy. Cupboards and drawers have been an important part of my life.

Not everything needs light to grow. When I was a child I found an old slice of chocolate cake in the furthest recess of my cupboard. I had hastily hidden it there when I was interrupted by my brother. Clearly I had forgotten to eat it. Months later it had grown fur. I recall considering whether it might be salvaged but I threw it out, I was not that brave. The mould had prospered in the dark. Much like the political ideology of apartheid. Much like me.

But, it is those who live in darkness who are most afraid of the light. So it was in the Dark Ages in South Africa. Of course, as a child, I did not see that, how could I? We lived in Plato’s cave, watching a fire we were told was called truth, recoiling from the shadows crawling the walls. But even when people call the darkness by another name it remains darkness. Eventually children will find language, no matter how well it is hidden. They will discover all the hidden things. Eventually a hand will reach into the furthest corner of the cupboard.

In the shadows of the cooling towers and through the incessant thunder of the turbines I discovered that if you stray from the road into a corn field in winter it gets cold quickly and one is easily disoriented. If the corn is high and the leaves are dead and brown and if there is wind moving through them, the noise becomes deafening and frightening. It feels like the end of the world.

We lived in a village. That sounds too pastoral, too Dickensian. We lived in a house amongst similarly designed red facebrick houses where other workers lived. There were large cantilevered, plastered flower boxes jutting out of the wall beneath the main bedroom window of each house. They were big enough, if unplanted, for two boys to hide in. Constructed during the 1960’s and 70’s, the houses accomodated the families of miners who worked in the power station. Worker accommodation close to the means of production. My father and mother worked there and later on, so did I. South easterly winds blew ash over the village, I’m calling it a village. When it rained the running drops left grey ash streaks on cars and windows. Everyone complained about the ash.  Some days everything was covered in a fine layer of ash. The patina of sacrifice at the altar of the gods of consumerism. Heavy rain left the world looking clean. Light rain left streaks the way mascara stains the face after crying. It was beautifully bleak. The way Van Gogh’s potato peelers are beautiful or Whistler’s trains steaming in cold mist are simulatneously solid steel and ethereal. Sunsets set the sky on fire against the black coal dumps and over the gashed countryside scarred to extract carbon. I read later on that industrial skies are red from the iron content in the air. Iron oxide reflects red light. We had an iron sky.

On one side of the village we were bound by a railway line that cut the veldt to the west and stitched a sutured track to Richards Bay. (I had no idea where that was but it sounded warm, far and blue). To the north and south was farmland, as far as the eye could see, fields of corn (mielie fields we called them). Three hours south east was Barberton, where my father and I were born. Where I was formed. What do you call the process of becoming? (The town is still there but now it is like a thing in the far corner of a large cupboard). We left after my grandparents died because, though my parents wanted to keep the home, they never had the money to hold onto it. (Money strengthens one’s grip on the world. Without it, life is an interminable letting go). I never wanted to leave. I remember the last night in the house, in torchlight and with a pen knife, I carved my initials onto a section of the floorboard under the bed. I collected stones, seed pods and leaves from every corner of the garden. They remained in my bedroom cupboard until I had to leave that home too. Cupboards are made to accommodate our attachment to the world. A world I seemed determined to archive piece by piece. I still bring back stones from places I visit. I have only succeeded in relocating minute pieces of the earth. That childhood trauma of losing a place instilled a fear of loving a place. We always leave or lose the places we love. People too. A few stones in my pocket lessen the loss. It is delusion of course. For we move on and lose our connection to the land, the symbolic pebbles end up in a cupboard somewhere, forgotten and ultimately discarded.

The roads leading to the village were dark at night and always broken from the incessant traffic of heavy coal trucks. The coal dust powdered over their brake lights making them invisible and we lost a friend who drove into the back of a truck. She was placed in a cupboard in the ground. “Please God watch the coal trucks” became mother’s mantra when I was travelling home at night. Another time our school bus drove into the back of one and our neighbour’s daughter nearly died. We hated the coal trucks.

On Saturday nights everyone went to the “Rec Hall” (community recreational hall) to watch movies. Westerns were our favourites. Charles Bronson was my hero. My brother and I and our friends always got front row seats. Mrs Harley patrolled the aisles with a torch to ensure no hanky-panky took place. If there had been it probably happened up in the lighting box where the older boys worked the projector. We all aspired to do that job. By the time I was old enough the films had stopped and people were leaving because the power station was shutting down, being “moth balled” they said. Essentially they would shut the doors, switch off the power, lock up and leave. One big cupboard.

Before the village shut down it was our wide open world and we loved it. Despite the overarching fear of God and communists (I grew up feeling personally responsible for the Anglo-Boer war and the moral decay that apparently surrounded us) there was music. Once the Buddy Holly Story was going to show. Then I did something or said something wrong and my parents said I could not go. I remember the quiet rage I felt. I retreated with tears to my bedroom and stepped into the cupboard. I closed the doors behind me. I sat down on the cool floor and found a box of pencils and began breaking them in two. The smaller bits were harder to break. I remember how that fuelled the rage. I stayed there for a long time. I found comfort in the isolated darkness. I still do. Cupboards store stuff, but also memories and pain. Later, older, tired and somewhat broken I faced the cupboard of my youth and found that in the interim years demons had taken up residence there, replaced the pencils with sharp memories, and were waiting.

Cupboards are really just reconfigured trees used for storage. The earliest examples belonged to wealthy people, working class people had no need for them. The cupboard enters popular culture on a wide scale in the 17th century. By the late 18th century, with the industrial revolution and the rising middle class that it spawned, economically elevated humans sought to do what they had hitherto been unable to do, luxuriate in their dwellings. They traded labour for money for things. At first they were needful things like items of clothing and cutlery. Once needs were met, desire set in, took up residence and like a perpetually hungry child demanded attention. Cupboards soon become symbols of excess, status symbols. Their compartments held a darker purpose. Secrecy was domesticated. Now cupboard space is as important as real estate. We have a walk in cupboard. With the lights off it feels strangely comforting.

Facing the bull

It is close. I swear it never really leaves. I know it. I call it, him. I sense when he is close. He has physical presence though he is not entirely physical. (When I face him my body reacts as if he were a physical threat. Notice I did not say as if he were real. He is real in the way photons of light and radio waves are real. Not seen does not mean unreal). I seem able to smell him. He smells like the ocean breathed in through a blocked nose. Like funeral flowers. The olfactory glands are swaddled in heavy velvet. I hear his patient breathing and the sound of his muscle tissue flexing. I hear the ripples of tension there, like waves under the skin. It’s like tinnitus of the soul. One would think that bulls like him would be rare in suburbia, but they are everywhere. I have encountered him in beautiful cities, on beaches, in gardens, even on aeroplanes. It’s why some people feel closed in when they are in empty rooms. Bulls take up a lot of space.

He has always been there, for as long as I can remember, that bull. I did not always know him as that. I named him to face him. Back then he was more of an abstract moment stretched between strange familiarity and an intimate void. It became easier when i named him. When he had become familiar. Then, instead of fear there was just numb anticipation. He, of course, always ran at me. It’s a terrifying thing to face the bull. The arena is in your mind, under your skin. There is nowhere to run. So, you stop running. You have to be really tired to stop running.

He is not always brutal. Sometimes he is just there. Menacing in the dappled sunlight of a morning in the park. Lifting the hair of a friend with his leaning breath. Reflected in the kind eyes of love. As if to say, don’t get too comfortable. You know that in a moment it’s just you and I. You are stronger now, but I am stronger still.

His is an erratic and fluctuating thereness.

It is the same with the word heat. Hot describes a range of experiences of temperature. One acclimatises. It is so with terror and fear and sadness. We speak the words from our experiences of them but have no sure way of transmitting the truth of our experience.

This unutterable vacuum is the space that artists try to give voice to. They are like mime artists on pavements with begging hats. They are like those upside down yellow triangles you find in the countryside warning people of bulls. You could walk or drive the length of a country and never see a bull and conclude that the signs are from a different time and have never been taken down because of a lack of funds or some administrative sentimentality. One might, more accurately, conclude that the sign acted as a form of legal indemnity that prevents farmers and/or municipalities from being held responsible for any person becoming injured, or at worst killed by rogue bulls. It is quite likely that cows might also be hostile, I am no bovine expert. Facing a bull is in all likelihood as disconcerting as facing a cow. Both have horns. The word bull though has the connotation of danger. One associates milk with a cow. However, this, like all words is dependent on cultural context and, of course, experience.

To use a word one should understand it. Anticipate how others understand it. Sometimes a word is used to describe something that is not fully understood. So it is with the word bull. Not as it is used to refer to the animal, but as it is used to describe a series of experiences. This is the first difficulty. When I say facing the bull I expect the reader to bring to their mind as many of the associations that they have with the word bull. Will I ever be understood? This is the risk of of speaking. Writing is another bull.

Maybe we are allocated a bull in the same way that some believe we are allocated guardian angels. The bull to prevent complacency; the angel to give us courage to face it again and again. Maybe I’ve faced the bull too many times to care about the consequences. Maybe I’ve discovered courage from the angel. Maybe I’ve just learned to respectfully ignore the bull. At full charge I turn my back on him and face the sea, breathe it in through clenched teeth.