Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Children of Albion

One of my all-time favourite reads is a (now) battered paperback copy of “Children of Albion: Poetry of the Underground in Britain”. Edited by Michael Horovitz and published in 1969. I can’t remember where I picked up the used copy I have but it may have been while bumming about in London as a young varsity dropout (after my gap-year at UCT). So since I was about 19 or so. I still love it.

Since I’m pretty awful at rote learning it is rare that quotes and poems stick in my brain but for some reason this couplet in a poem by Dave Cunliffe has stuck.

Guns are made of steel and wood
But the great giver of life is the flesh between your legs.

It doesn’t really make sense as a statement but it just seems right somehow.
And also this one from Adrian Mitchell

Stunted Sonnet
Love is like a cigarette
The bigger the drag the more you get.

The poems are full of Blakean reference interposed and  grappling with the horrors of Vietnam and Korea, the new found freedoms of love and jazz and rock 'n roll in the 60’s and the legacy of parents still recovering from WWII.

Professor Robert Sheppard writes thoroughly on the context of the book and where it’s place in the UK protest / beat poetry scene of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Nostalgically and dreamily I sometimes wish I’d been part of that scene or at least a fly on the wall.

Identifying so much with these "Children of Albion" I often  wonder just how much of a 'soutpiel' I am.
For those not aware of the origins of the term 'soutpiel' or its derived term 'soutie' it is a well described on Wiktionary as :
(South African, vulgar, army slang) An English speaking South African. So named for having one foot in South Africa, one foot in England and his penis dangling in the Atlantic.

I am one and have never denied this or felt otherwise. I rarely recall anyone objecting to be called by this term despite the intended insult from the Afrikaans, usually moustachioed, 'insulter' and often used to silence the insult with the quick retort of : "Why, thank you for reminding me of the fact that itwould reach the Atlantic were I to straddle over it".

The tough bit is dealing with trying to bind my soul with soil I was born on, that I dearly love but often feel somewhat out of place in. There are so many streets and venues in this country that it is impossible to blend my white skin into. I took a wrong turn into a taxi rank in the CBD the other day and was clearly reminded that I didn't belong there as my heart started pumping as I made as hasty a retreat as possible. ChampagneHeathen illustrates a recent example of this sort too. Rian Malan in his must read (though maybe a bit dated now) book My Traitor's Heart also somewhere has a similar anecdote about how conspicuously out-of-place white student activists looked when toyi-toying on the streets. I have a similar issue with many aspects of other cultures. As open-minded as I think I am I have to make the post-modern conclusion that it may not be possible to to reconcile my understandingof those cultureswith the culture itself since my understandingwill never be anything but that. (ie my own blinkered view).

Will I ever be able to shake loose the curse of the Atlantic straddle and put both feet on either continent? I doubt it is possible.
I resign myself therefore to the neverending tug-of-war that this puts to bear on my soul.


VallyP said...

Just sneaked another peak. Wit, your conclusion is, I regret, likely to be correct. As one who has landed not in the Atlantic and without a thingy to dangle in it anyway, but drifting in Europe because I'm slightly a misfit wherever I happen to be - caught between two lands and cultures too, the yearnings to find the right pot of soil to take root in remain, but by now I realise they are unlikely to be fulfilled. In the UK, I longed for Africa and in SA, I longed for the history and traditions of England. What did I do? End up on a floating home in Holland on the principle that at least I could take my home with me when the move and the mood struck me! Children of Albion rings a bell from my childhood. Must investigate....

It is the question said...

When I grew up I was lucky to have a stay-at-home mom. This means that my mom took time to take us to the library for kids story-time etc.

They used to read us these books about Madeleine, a school girl in a French convent.

I remember the storytimes vividly and often think back to these as an example of an upbringing that might well have been in Europe.

Later at school there were bomb scares and scanners at the entrances of shopping malls. Occasionally our maid would tell us of a sleepless night due to violence in the townships. But compared to what I have seen through visits to the Apartheid Museum and the Hector Petersen Museum, my life was sheltered indeed.

I think English guys are often called Soutpiele for exactly this reason. Compared to a more African upbringing on a farm or rural area, we often really are more European than Africa.

Since then I've travelled a lot and learnt a lot more about who I am. And I have learnt a greater appreciation of my African-ness.

Perhaps our very South Africanness is the product of our diversity. It has room for our European and African heritage. It is a unique blend of the two.

ATW said...

Val, What about a mid-Atlantic barge?

IITQ, I like and agree with your last paragraph.

The problem is that sometimes I don't think it's possible to blend the two into one. It's not oil & water, but more like a salad dressing. If you leave it standing for a while it separates into it's parts and needs a good shake to taste good again.

ATW said...

And IITQ. I DID grow up on a farm as rural as one gets, surrounded by rural people to the extent I could speak better Zulu at age 4 than I can now. I still have the tension.

I don't have a problem with the tension, it's part of who I am. I think it's therefore not about trying hard to be African it is more about just being myself which is largely African but not purely so.