01 April 2007

Bosman on Blogging

"When people ask me - as they often do, how is that I can write the best blog of anybody in the Transvaal (Oom Schalk Laurens said, modestly) then I explain to them that I just learn through observing the way that the world has with men and women. When I say this they nod their heads wisely, and say that they understand, and I nod my head wisely also, and this seems to satisfy them. But the thing I say to them is a lie of course.

For it is not the story that counts. What matters is the way that you tell it. The important thing is to know just at what moment you must knock your pipe out on your veldskoen, and at what stage of the story you must start talking about the School Committee at Drogevlei. Another necessary thing is to know what part of the story to leave out.

I read all of Herman Charles Bosman's short stories in a single month in 1994 when we lived in Johannesburg and I have been an avid fan ever since.

They made more of an impression on me than Chekhov - of Bosman's tales I remember almost every word, and since 1994 I have hugged his stories to me, a secret treasure, for (South African readers of my blog [cough] will be surprised to know) Bosman is undeservedly unknown in England.

In 1994 I knew nothing of the world he described - 1930s rural Africa, but all the same his tightly constructed, witty short stories connected with me, they connected me to Africa, and through his stories we connected with new friends

If blogs had existed in 1994 I would have written one - I would have had something to blog about for it was the year of the election, the world was watching our corner of the highveld,
and, like Jurie Steyn's, our voorkamer hummed with speculation. In due course Mandela became president, shots were fired at a crowd by the ANC from the top of the Shell building and South Africa became free. Perhaps I would even have stood a chance at that book deal. Management Consultant in the South.

But they didn't, and I didn't, and instead I wrote long letters home to friends and family. Letters that blogged on paper - for astonishingly, neither was there any email in 1994 and each one was envelope-stuffed and entrusted to the nefarious South African postal service, letters that I tried to fill with wry observations, letters from a long-ago, different me, now achingly embarassing to re-read, letters that I was chuffed to find pinned to a friend's kitchen notice board when we went home to visit that summer. I would write letters about the storms, about racial conflict, about danger and passion in the city and the red earth of Africa and my friends would understand that we we were well and happy in our comfortable Johanesburg home.

When I wrote I sometimes thought of Bosman, an urban man in the Groot Marico, and ridiculously compared myself, a Westerner in the south, a 1990s Londoner in the 1970s African platteland, an At Naude, bursting with irrelevant news and views from the outside world, to him Sometimes, even, I tried to write like him.

It was a good time. Our decision to go to Africa was precipitate and opportunistic, the trip was decided and planned in just a few mad weeks and from decorating a nursery in Mortlake in September we found ourselves in January in Sandton with a brand new new baby in our battered travel-cot, a rented house and our very own swimming pool in the garden. Shorn of possessions and friends we were forced to rely on our own resources...and we survived.

When we came back from South Africa, leaving behind in turn another, newer set of friends we entered a new stage in our life. We bought a house, retrieved our possessions from store and we had a fire in our grate. We settled down. Before long we found ourselves - astonishingly - parents of a school age child, our oldest daughter setting off in a maroon dress to the local primary school. I joined the PTA Committee and served as Treasurer. We became a suburban family but we had Africa in our souls and sometimes, when the sky was London-grey and streets glowered, I would remember April 1994 and our maid overwhelmed to vote in her first election, and how afterwards in the warm evening that we drank champagne on the roadside with the gardeners. I wrote a letter about that.

It's all a long time ago now. One by one our African friends too moved away - to Berlin, to Norfolk to Saudi Arabia. The Transvaal is Gauteng, now - a different place, a place where we know no one and instead of writing letters to distant friends and family to remember us by, I write a blog for strangers to stumble across and perhaps smile. But we still have Africa in our souls.

We've lived in the same street ever since we moved home, and in June the youngest of our children leaves the primary school that our oldest started 12 years ago. My spell in the PTA Commitee didn't last nearly as long - a single ignominious year following the fall-out from the ludicrous Summer Fair Budget fiasco of April 1997.

In 1994 we were restless adventurers, leaving our cautious stay-at-home-friends behind. Now we're the stay-at-homes, and we have friends who don't know we once lived in Africa. Likewise in my family the tables are turned. My sister is now the restless, footloose adventurer and she blogs to us from the Phillipines and we pin her emails to fridge door. And my mother, also, is in a far away place, but one from where she can write no letters.

And I blog, and in each post I try to choose just the right moment to knock my pipe on my metaphorical veldskoen, and to give just the right amount of space for my opinion of the Primary School PTA Committee, and sometimes the most important stories in my blog are the ones I leave out.


Anonymous said...

no one can be a restless adventurer, leaving cautious stay-at-home-friends behind forever because eventually, after moving from one place to another every so often, they would run out of friends to leave behind. Besides you still have africa in your soul...so the magic of that has never really died

outside-jane said...

This is a great piece of writing! I noticed the Bosman influence in a more recent blog - 'only one kind of braking and that's the hardest kind' [from my favourite Bosman story]!

Is it restlessness, adventure or escapism? I sometimes wonder... perhaps they're all the same.