In the last week I have heard from three people who have been reading my novel If you can walk, you can dance. Of all my novels this is the one for which I most often get letters from strangers, and I’m always touched when this happens. This week one of the people reading it is an old friend, Margaret – and actually she is re-reading it, decades after it first came out. We have met again after more than a year, and in the pleasure of walking together along the towpath, I begin to understand how the book connects for her, differently from the first time. There’s a lot of music in it, and she has her own music story — Discovering the ukelele, she tells me, has been life-changing.
There are many interesting things about this, and the first is that she is not new to music. She played both piano and violin at school and she regularly sings in a choir. But in her 60s, this new thing happened. She won a Women’s Institute raffle prize, a weekend at a residential adult education centre, in any course she chose. She flipped through the alphabetical list of about 200 courses, and it was only when she got to U that she found something that made her say Yes! It sounded fun, different.
The ukelele is a simple instrument – 4 strings, and you strum chords. By the end of the weekend the inspiring teacher had got the group playing & singing simple songs together. Back at her local WI group she printed out words of the songs, got them all – to their surprise – singing, and then said, ‘It’s more fun doing this in a group. Does anyone want to learn to play with me?’ A small group formed. Margaret taught what she had just learnt, and by a few months later they were visiting a friend in a care home, to play and sing for her birthday — and it wasn’t only the friend who was charmed.
Margaret moved to another part of the country to be nearer grandchildren. As part of settling in she joined a ukelele group. She stuck it out a year – too much teacher-talk, no sense of a group enjoying itself. At the last session she quietly asked a couple of those sitting near her if they’d like to go on playing over the summer. A new group formed. She told them about the care home experience. They contacted the local care home, and before Covid hit had started leading sing-along sessions with people with dementia. Music gets through to people long after words are no use. The staff said they had never before seen the faces of some of those people light up in that way.
Through successive lockdowns, with no possibility of care home visits, they went on expanding their repertoire, with one techno-savvy member getting them zoom-competent. Now they are back doing care-home visits again. When Margaret is telling me about it, it’s obvious how inspiring she finds it to see the reactions of the people they sing for, and with — but there’s something beyond that.
‘It’s just such a joy,’ she says. ‘For all of us.’
My own connection with music? That’s a long story, but here’s one take on it, extracted from my new book —
I am boarding a small plane in the UN base in Lokichogio, northern Kenya, to fly into a remote area of South Sudan. It is in the midst of a civil war that has dragged on for decades, and seems likely to continue for decades more. Our destination is a settlement called Mapel, a base from which Save the Children’s team supports local people to keep life going during these troubled and dangerous times. Mapel is about as near the middle of Africa as you can get. Put a pin in the centre of the widest part on the map, and you’re almost there. Far from cities or any sign of economic development, it has become a gathering point for people who have fled marauding armies. We fly over an apparently empty savannah landscape, over dry river beds and occasional collections of mud and thatch huts. It is difficult to get a sense of what people down there must be dealing with, or what I might encounter when we land.
A small airstrip comes in sight. The plane gets lower, lands, taxis to a halt. I step out. It takes a moment to adjust. So many physical sensations … the feeling of feet on the earth again … the glare of sun from a punishing, cloudless sky … the limitless sense of space, with low trees fringing the edge of the airstrip … And —
Music! Loud, energetic, and right here, the voices of a large group of people clapping, moving their bodies, singing to welcome us. For a few minutes more I stand, amazed, till the rhythms take over and I dump my small case and move to join in. The nearest women catch my hands and draw me in, laughing as they sing. The call-and-response lines pull my voice along with theirs. It doesn’t matter that I have no words, my hands clap and my feet move with the beat, because that’s what music does to a human body. All anxiety I might have felt about coming here has gone. I am an outsider, unaffected by the war that has devastated their community, and I move freely through the world while they are trapped in one small corner of it, but for this moment the music makes us one.
That is music’s unique power. But this is also a specifically African use of music. I had grown up in Africa, my bare feet on the same soil. As a white child in South Africa the music I heard came mostly from the music of Europe and America, yet one of my earliest memories is of being enchanted by the deep, effortless harmonising when African voices sang. Hymns were what I mainly heard, and the harmonising itself a cross-cultural fusion. I was an adult before I began to discover the range and special qualities of African music, when my brother Colin gave me a recording made by the ethno-musicologist, Hugh Tracey — Mozambican xylophones, with gourds as sounding boxes and extraordinarily complex rhythmic patterns. In the years of living in Zambia my response to that kind of music shifted. It was no longer someone else’s music, it was simply music, something anyone can connect with, but expressed in this way through this particular culture.
Much later, in travels across the continent, my African colleagues would take me to local markets, wanting me to take something of their culture back to share with the outside world. It was always a musical instrument that I chose. They are with me still, a deep throated djembe drum from Mali, a kora from Burkina Faso, a stringed instrument called a kirar from Ethiopia, a small wooden box with metal struts, the mbira from Zimbabwe, a child- size timbila xylophone from Mozambique, that my grandchildren played on until the strings that held it together gave way. I have been greeted by singing, clapping groups of women in Zimbabwe, where Save the Children supported farm workers to negotiate with farm owners to build preschools for their children; in Mali, where they sang to educate their communities about how to protect against the spread of HIV, using traditional work songs to face new challenges. Across the African continent people with different histories and social systems sing in totally unrelated languages, moving their bodies to rhythm in the same way, to use music as part of everyday life.
That flight into Mapel happened after I had just finished writing If You Can Walk, You Can Dance, but it captured for me something of the spirit that had inspired it.
It is a story with many themes, each of which had its own genesis. It starts in a politically charged time in South Africa in the 1960s — the time I was coming to adulthood. It was the height of the apartheid era, when the daily lives of different racial groups were so rigidly separated that a child growing up in the ‘white’ part of town would only encounter Africans or people of mixed race as domestic servants or other manual workers. I was unusually fortunate in being part of a family where some of the adults crossed those barriers, but even for us there was zero opportunity to meet African children our age, or to get to know people of different racial backgrounds on anything like an equal basis. Then I moved to university in Cape Town, where for the first time I had friends of other races. Together a group of us travelled out to the poor parts of town where Africans lived, to teach in a night school for adults. I taught basic Maths to men and women who had never had the chance of a school education. Most were old enough to be my parents. Tired from a long day’s manual work, they still turned up each week and tried to concentrate. It was utterly humbling. I got involved in the national students’ organisation, NUSAS — I had a minor role but collectively we were part of the growing groundswell of opposition to each new disastrous law of the apartheid government. It was a dangerous time to make any political stand, and we all knew that. The political police, the ‘Special Branch’, were at our meetings. We were organising demos at which there were scary encounters with police. Some of the organisers got arrested, and were held in prison without trial. To my considerable surprise I had been elected onto the national executive, and decisions were having to be made about how best to protest unjust laws in a context where more and more NUSAS activists were being imprisoned. Robert and I visited one, once his interrogators had decided they had nothing on him — a scary experience. People we knew would suddenly disappear, trying to get across the border to escape arrest. Others were on trial for their (non-NUSAS) activities. Going to lectures & writing essays happened in between all that.
In the decades afterwards, my energies were focused on a new life elsewhere, and it never occurred to me to write about those times. It wasn’t my story to tell. So much had moved on in South Africa, both in the extremity of oppression and the forms of resistance. But with the huge political changes of the early 1990s that feeling began to change. The lifting of official apartheid was only the start of the transitions, but it changed lives fundamentally, and not just for those in South Africa. For those who had taken a stand and then left, it changed the nature of our exile.
I began to meet young people the age of my daughters, late teens, early twenties, who had no idea of what had been going on in South Africa. It dawned on me that its history, like every traumatic history, was going to need restating for each new generation, and that it was not only one kind of story. It would be a huge jigsaw made up of many different stories; and among them were stories of exile. Some of those who had left had suffered devastating personal damage which would mark the rest of their lives. Some had joined liberation movements, taken up arms; when they returned, those who had stayed could hardly value anything that those exiles had experienced. Some, like us, had left young enough to restart life in less oppressive circumstances — we were the fortunate ones, but even our less dramatic stories were formed by the experience …
A story began growing in my mind of a young woman who had to leave suddenly, and make the transition into adulthood in a new place, learning to survive without any of the privileges or emotional security she had grown up with. It was not my own story, but an imaginative amalgam, stimulated by stories of exiles from the many other situations I had come across in the life I had found after leaving. Through the slow process of exploring what might have happened to that young woman, it became clear to me that underpinning the story of sudden exile was something quieter I wanted to capture, about the inner resilience that comes from a childhood made secure by loving and open-minded adults. The simplest way to convey this was to give to the fictional central character, Jennie, my own childhood home. My parents were no longer here, but I doubt they would have minded, for I was honouring what they had given us. And why invent new people, when nothing could have been more suited to the story than their real selves? The interaction between real life and the fiction that grows out of it is difficult to describe. I like what the Lithuanian writer, Sigitas Parulskis, said about it in an interview. “My experience, transformed, is my writing. Writing is amazing because you are the God of your own universe, you are creator and creation at the same time.”
For some of those who have told me about their reactions to the book, it’s the musical theme that makes the powerful connection. For others it’s the largely African setting. But Jennie’s journey through her twenties seems to reach beyond, to people who have never been to Africa, nor explored their own response to music. For there is one central binding theme that has universal resonance. Exile is not just the exile of those who flee from politically dangerous situations. It is also about leaving behind the home of childhood, which has formed you, and to which you can never return in the same way.
Above all, I was telling a story about the possibility of unexpected growth when we find ourselves in new and challenging situations — among people who are different from us, different in race, class, language, culture, assumptions, in the things they enjoy, or make happen, or that inspire them. We have the choice to close up against difference, or to be open to learning from it, and be changed by it.
Those layers of being were reflected on that airstrip in South Sudan. I was clapping and moving my feet with people whose life experience had been so different from mine, had been devastated by war and human cruelty, yet who could still sing with vigour, and through the joy in singing could draw me in to be part of them for those few days.
Thanks to Margaret Hay-Campbell for her inspiring ukelele story. The rest is adapted from my forthcoming book Journeys Without a Map: A Writer’s Life, out on 28th September 2021.
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