Sunday, 15 March 2015

Why It’s Crazy To Have A ‘Black History Month’

The following words were written in 1960 by Gilbert Nompozolo, a black South African who lived his last years in the crushing grip of the apartheid regime:

“The rulers must know that we are all God’s children; but we are thrown into prison with our wives and children. I do not know where the Municipal authorities here come from, but one thing I know is, that to them a black man is no better than a wild beast to be chased about and flung into a police van. The Municipal authorities arrest men on their death beds. I saw the way these raids are carried out only this Tuesday – the police barging into people’s houses, looking into every corner, even under the beds – looking for supposed ‘illegal entrants’ into the area. How would you [white people] feel if you were forced to leave your children behind? And yet you force us to leave our children, orphans, while we still live.”

On 6th May that year Gilbert had been arrested under the Emergency Regulations put in place after the Sharpeville massacre for not having a permit to live in the ‘proclaimed’ (for whites) area of Wellington, a town 45 miles from Cape Town. He was then sent to Roeland Street jail in Cape Town, where he was beaten with a stick before being transported 600 miles to the port city of East London, a journey that took three days, during which he had to sit on a hard wooden seat, shackled to another prisoner, and was given only bread and water. He was then sent to Butterworth, the town where he was born, but because he owned no land and had no family in the area, he was told he couldn’t stay there either. When the warder of the prison in Butterworth checked Gilbert’s reference book he discovered that Gilbert had once paid his poll tax in Clanwilliam, a town 150 miles north of Cape Town, which was still ‘unproclaimed’. Gilbert knew it would do no good for him to explain that he had never even been to Clanwilliam, but had simply arranged for a friend to pay his tax there while he was working 45 miles away in a small fishing village. Gilbert accepted the train ticket to Clanwilliam, but when the train passed back through Wellington he disembarked and sought help from the Black Sash, a charity run by a group of white women that offered assistance to black people who were struggling against the draconian Pass Laws (the laws decreed that black people had to carry a Pass Book at all times to prove that they had a legal right to be in a particular area). Several members of the Black Sash took Gilbert to see the local Registering Officer, Mr van Lill. Upon inspecting Gilbert’s papers, Mr van Lill said that it would probably do him no good to travel to Clanwilliam, because it was a largely ‘coloured’ (mixed race) area and it was unlikely that he would be allowed to live there. Instead, van Lill recommended that Gilbert travel to Wolseley, a town just a few miles from Wellington; the registering officer even agreed to give Gilbert’s wife Maude temporary permission to stay in Wellington until her husband was properly settled at Wolseley. But two days later, Gilbert was back in Wellington. He had been told that he couldn’t stay in Wolseley for more than 72 hours, the statutory length of stay for a black person visiting an area where they had no permit to remain.

And so Gilbert Nompozolo was not legally allowed to live anywhere in the country in which he was born.

Gilbert Nompozolo in 1960 Anna Pearce

You won’t find Gilbert Nompozolo’s story in any history textbook, nor is it tucked away in dusty newspaper archives or burned into a crackly old piece of newsreel. History is a narrative usually told by the powerful about themselves, and for men and women like Gilbert Nompozolo – poor, uneducated, disenfranchised – to be erased from the annals of history is a final and permanent affront to their dignity. Fifty years after he was criminalised simply for existing, and even though it contains many important lessons – about the application of law, the purpose of appeals processes and the cost to human lives of merciless bureaucracy –Gilbert’s story is almost completely forgotten.

I only know the name Gilbert Nompozolo because one of the Black Sash members who decided to help him was my grandmother, Anna Pearce. Anna kept a careful record of Gilbert’s case and others like it, which was finally typed up by my aunt Michele in 2004, and self-published under the title ‘A Permit to Live’. Although the book was never taken up by a commercial publisher, copies were given to the South African Library and the Institute for Race Relations, and after Anna died in 2013, my uncle Matthew gave a copy of the book to each of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

‘A Permit to Live’ was difficult for me to read, for two reasons. Firstly, there is the sheer inhumanity with which my fellow South Africans were treated. In exhaustive detail, Anna relates the Kafka-esque insanity that swept through the lives of ordinary people, splitting families, destroying livelihoods and sweeping the entire histories of decent women and men away in a great roiling torrent of pass books, police raids, bewildering laws, intimidation, prison cells and beatings. In the introduction, Anna includes extracts from a pamphlet called ‘This is Apartheid’, written in 1959 by Leslie Rubin, which gives a clear sense of apartheid’s madness:

“An African who was born in a town and lived there continuously for fifty years, but then left to reside elsewhere for any period, even two weeks, is not entitled, as of right, to return to the town where he was born and to remain there for more than 72 hours. If he does, he is guilty of a criminal office punishable by a fine not exceeding £10 or, in default, imprisonment not exceeding two months, unless he has obtained a permit to do so. (Native (Urban Areas Consolidation) Act no. 25 of 1945 as amended Section 10 (1) (a).)”

The cruelty of apartheid is often conveyed solely through its most photogenic crimes: townships burning as police vans hurtle through; the brutal murders of Steve Biko, Hector Pieterson, Dulcie September and the Cradock Four. But we should not forget that some of apartheid’s greatest crimes were quietly perpetrated by its bureaucrats, who implemented a psychopathic system of rules and regulations that paid no respect to the humanity of the majority of South Africa’s citizens. The notorious Pass Laws decreed that a black person could be stopped at any time by the police to have their Pass checked; the police could even enter a person’s home, at any time of the day or night, without a warrant, to check their documents. Desmond Tutu has recounted how his father, as an educated black man, was exempt from carrying a Pass, and so was spared the humiliation of being stopped by the police to have his Pass checked. Instead, he carried a Pass Exemption, and would frequently be stopped by the police to check that he was carrying his Pass Exemption explaining why he didn’t have to carry a Pass. It seemed to be a law designed not to maintain order but to destroy the human spirit.

The second reason I found ‘A Permit to Live’ difficult to read is more personal. In terms of its representation of reality, the act of writing is a lot like the act of dreaming: it may seem to reveal a facsimile of the real world, a multidimensional universe of depth, complexity and things existent but un-shown, but in truth it is only ever a facsimile of the writer’s mind. As in a dream, every ‘person’ in a piece of writing is really a version of the writer, and they are only there to serve the writer’s purpose. This second story – the story of the storyteller – might not be particularly obvious when we read a piece of writing by someone we don’t know, but when the reader knows the writer intimately, and is familiar with their history, their motivations, their beliefs, values and ideals, it is almost impossible to read what they write as anything but a palimpsest, with the truth of the narrative refracted through the truth of the writer’s life. That is why, as I read the story of Gilbert Nompozolo, I found myself not only moved by what happened to him, but also haunted by a second, quieter story, but one that also brims with frustration, alienation and poignancy: the story of my grandmother.

Members of the Black Sash (l to r): Doria Struben, Meg Hogan, Anna Pearce, Stella Lavis Anna Pearce

Anna Pearce knew how it felt to be rootless. As a child, her parents lived in South Africa while Anna attended a boarding school in England. She once told me that she had made the 6000 mile journey by ship sixteen times while she was growing up. Maybe she got used to life as a small girl on a big ship, I don’t know; even if she had, there must have been the first time she’d gone down to the dock with her parents, and then left without them, and that wrenching memory must have stayed with her. It’s tempting to think that it was those early experiences that made Anna identify with the plight of homeless Africans like Gilbert; but for the new-immigrant white population of South Africa, a sense of being far from home would have been commonplace, and Anna was by no means the only white South African child who was sent away to boarding school. If suffering was all that was needed for empathy to grow, apartheid would never have happened. There must have been something else, some inborn trait, that made my grandmother fight against a system that was designed to benefit people like her.

The first place to search for the cause of Anna’s activism is in my own memory. Of course I have no idea what she was like in the 1960s, but I do know that for as long as I knew her, she was often a difficult person to relate to. She was certainly a very creative woman (she studied art in Cape Town and during World War II joined the British intelligence services, building the models of the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe dams that were used to plan the bombings featured in ‘The Dam Busters’), but as she grew older her creativity seemed to lose its anchor, and her ideas began to proliferate and metastasize out of control. Her earlier inventions, like her solar cooker ‘The Wonderbox’, worked well and had practical applications; but later obsessions (a drink, best described as kind of watery marmalade, that was supposed to rival Coca Cola; an unproven AIDS ‘cure’ called mariandina) did little more than suck up her time and energy without producing anything useful. She accumulated unconventional friends who tried to take advantage of her, and wrote several books about her various projects, printing hundreds of copies of each of them, which then lay moldering in an upstairs bedroom.

The word ‘eccentric’ was often used to describe Anna and her projects. It’s a double-edged adjective, with the smooth surface of a compliment – how endearing to be ‘away from the centre’, to be quirky, original, to be an independent thinker! – but a little deeper inside the three cheerful syllables there lurks an uglier, euphemistic underside: the hidden rebuke from the mainstream for the audacity of being an outsider. I know that when people called her ‘eccentric’ they weren’t always being kind; but the more difficult truth is that I know that my grandmother was not simply eccentric. She was mentally ill.

Even as I write those words, I want to take them back. My brain says that my grandmother’s illness is an important truth about her life, but the part of me that lies beyond the reach of education and rationality feels that having the kind of illness that my grandmother had is a kind of disgrace – for her, for our family, and for me. Beyond ‘eccentric’ we have many much harsher words for people like Anna – nutcase, lunatic, mental, madwoman, basket case (there are, of course, no equivalent derogatory words for heart patients or stroke victims). In fact, our family never had any gentler or more accurate words to describe her state because she was never formally diagnosed with any particular condition. Many of her characteristics suggested mania: pressured speech, racing thoughts, hyper-creativity. There were also sometimes incidences of magical thinking, superstition, obsessive behaviour and paranoia, perhaps suggesting schizoid personality disorder. Whatever label may have been attached by a medical professional, I can only say that Anna fitted one of the common legal definitions of insanity: a person who is unable to distinguish reality from fantasy. In Anna’s world, the mundane often had supernatural significance and the next extraordinary leap in human advancement was always just around the corner – and often in her hands. The definition of ‘insanity’ is a slippery thing, because if we are to define it in terms of sharing the common reality, then it relies on some form of consensus on what ‘reality’ actually is. We do not achieve ‘sanity’ just by being part of reality, but by inhabiting what most people agree to be reality. (Remember the last scene of ‘Miracle on 34th Street’, where the judge is presented with a banknote with ‘In God We Trust’ circled? He subsequently rules that because the American Federal Reserve believes in God with no empirical evidence, ordinary people may also believe in Santa Claus without evidence. Because the Establishment believes in the unbelievable, the unbelievable is legitimised. If only one little girl believes in Santa? Little girl is loco!). Our definition of ‘sanity’ is intensely democratic, and as with any democratic idea, at its most extreme the definition of sanity becomes oppressive: a tyranny of the majority, where a different view of what is real is disregarded and written off as illness.

A few years before she died, Anna was prescribed various antipsychotics, including lithium. The result was bittersweet: at the age of 89, a veil was lifted from her mind, and she arrived back in the world like a dazed time traveller, more physically fragile but also more mentally grounded than she had been for many, many years. My younger brother, Benji, recounted a conversation in which Anna had told him that she remembered how kind he had been to our other grandmother, Phyllis, when she lived with us in Johannesburg while she was ill with Parkinson’s. Anna remembered the little bell that Phyllis used to ring, and how Benji would immediately run off to help her.

Benji was astounded:

‘I had no idea Grandmother had paid any attention to my childhood!’

One of the cruellest consequences of an illness like my grandmother’s is the way it damages relationships. Emotional intimacy requires a degree of stillness between two people: space through which ideas can pass, quiet in which to listen, and time for the corridors and stairwells of a person’s inner-life to be charted and navigated. Anna’s mind was many things, but in all the time I knew her it was never, ever still.

One year in the mid-2000s I phoned her on her birthday and listened for nearly two hours as she told me about a friend of hers who was going to teach chess to schoolchildren inside old shipping crates when he returned from a trip in a minibus to the Mountains of the Moon in Kenya on his way to a meeting with a scientist who had a cure for AIDS and was currently battling governments and pharmaceutical companies who were conspiring to prevent his treatment from reaching the market even though I would see that things were about to change in a very serious way that would affect everything, AIDS, politics, religion, the environment, America, the former Soviet Union, food production, the way we live, heralding a new era with much more AWARENESS, more CONNECTIONS between different people and different parts of the world, a deepening UNDERSTANDING, and the COINCIDENCES we were starting to see were just the beginning…

Unable to find a way to interject, eventually I had to just hang up. Her manner was exhausting, and though I knew it wasn’t her fault, it was also infuriating. I must admit that on that occasion, and many others, I wished that my grandmother could have been a different kind of person. I would have liked to have had the sort of granny who always remembers her grandchildren’s birthdays, and asks them about school, and gives them sweeties. I would have liked a granny who hadn’t wasted so much time, money and energy on projects and inventions that never went anywhere. I have sometimes looked at other people’s cuddly grannies and felt that peculiar kind of loss: the loss of something you never actually had, and that traitorous and shameful feeling was only intensified by her death. Suddenly our relationship was set in stone, unchangeable, and it seemed there would be no more chances for things to be different. The fleeting, emotionally-connected Anna that had so surprised Benji was now gone forever.

A few months after her funeral, when the copy of ‘A Permit to Live’ was placed in my hand at a family gathering, I couldn’t wait to read it, for many different reasons. One of my biggest and most secret motives was that I wanted to see if I could find the ‘real’ Anna in its pages, the one who existed before the mania overcame her. When writing is at its best, it completely transports the reader to a different reality, and the reality I wanted to reach was the one where my grandmother was mentally balanced, healthy; where she was – to use that most awful of adjectives with which to describe a human being – normal.


Almost as soon as I started to read her book, a sense of Anna began to reappear in my mind, so strongly that it was almost like a physical presence. The contours of her mind, her phraseology, the texture of her personality were all there, and when I read that, like Winston Churchill, she felt that ‘some guiding hand [was] interfering’, I thought, ‘Yes! That’s typical Grandmother!’ As I read more and more of ‘A Permit to Live’, it slowly occurred to me that the calm, practical woman I had been sure I would find there did not exist at all – and I had that most wonderful kind of surprise: the kind where you find something you didn’t even know you were looking for. The woman I found was the wayward maverick I already knew – but this time, she was in a time and a place where her madness didn’t weigh her down. It liberated her.

Anna’s boundless energy is apparent in every word of her book. As quickly as obstacles were flung into the path of desperate black South Africans like Gilbert Nompozolo, Anna met them with potential solutions, moving on to try the next solution before the results of the last attempt were even returned: she suggested that Gilbert become a travelling salesman, enabling him to earn a living while never staying in an area for more than 72 hours; she took photographs of him outside dozens of pass offices to prove that he had tried to obtain a pass in many different places; she drove up and down the country talking to officials and activists and farmers’ wives in an attempt to find him a job and a home; she attempted to start a night school in an abandoned cinema; she wrote dozens of letters to newspapers, lawyers and cabinet ministers; she provided references for people who had burned their Passes in protest.

The madness of bureaucracy is that it claims to want to facilitate our lives, but really it only wants to paralyze them. It confines, controls and limits us. Apartheid was a bureaucratic dictatorship, and its rules and regulations were set up for the purpose of containing black people with no regard whatsoever for their wellbeing. It sought to stop people from moving around, to stop them from owning land, to freeze their educational aspirations, to lay before them a million examples of what they would never be. Bureaucracy is anathema to imagination and optimism. Its burning desire is to herd human beings, and in order to herd it must reduce the complexity of humanness to the simple uniformity of numbers, neat categories, boxes:
In order to make its subjects compliant, bureaucracy depends heavily on those subjects’ own weariness. Bureaucracy wants you to become so tired and frustrated with the length of the queue at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency that you melt into a despondent puddle of obedience, and end up just going with bureaucracy’s flow to the window of whichever slack-jawed humanoid the forms decree, to pay whatever fee the humanoid demands, which you will willingly do, not because the fee is in any way fair compensation for the humanoid’s labour, but because by that time you have realised that the charge levied is in fact the price of your freedom.

But apartheid’s bureaucracy met its match in Anna Pearce: for it turns out that mania is the opposite of bureaucracy! Mania believes that rules were made to be broken. Mania is infinitely creative and optimistic; and it is utterly, relentlessly, shockingly inexhaustible. Like Chuck Norris, mania doesn’t sleep – it waits. When a ‘normal’ person may have advised Gilbert to simply be arrested and let the legal system swivel on its own absurdity, Anna refused to acquiesce to the wall of regulations with which they were faced. She engaged her creativity, her obsessive nature and her magical thinking in a tireless campaign to find some fragment of justice for people who were supposed to have none. There was no question of her ever giving up fighting for what she believed in. As I read page after page describing my grandmother’s various meetings and journeys and letters and projects and ideas, I couldn’t help thinking of those other grandchildren with Nice Grannies who gave them sweeties and asked them about what they did at school, and I couldn’t help feeling the most enormous pride: my grandmother wasn’t ‘nice’, she was a force of nature. When history came calling, Anna Pearce didn’t make a cup of tea and tut with disapproval, she rushed into the breach without a backwards glance.

She could be pretty damn crazy with stuff like that.


On 22 November 1962 two hundred black men marched through the Western Cape town of Paarl, attacking the prison and police station. Two white civilians, Rencia Vermeulen and Frans Richards, were killed when the rioters invaded houses on Loop Street, and five black people were shot dead, one by a civilian and three by the police: Godfrey Yekiso, Madodana Camagu, John Magigo and Ngenisile Siqwebo. The next day, when a group of protestors belonging to the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) marched to the police station to hand in a list of grievances, another man, Matthews Mayezana Mali, was shot dead by the police. The climate in South Africa at that time was already incredibly fraught. Just two years earlier, the government had opened fire on black protestors at Sharpeville, killing 69 and prompting the ANC to abandon the policy of nonviolent resistance that had been one of its key principles since 1912. Following the riot in Paarl there were ominous calls from the white community to ensure that not one living African should be left anywhere in the town. Given the level of fear and paranoia in the white community, a white person would have to be crazy to attempt to defend the Africans, who seemed to be rapidly reverting to their savage natures.

But it was at Judge Snyman’s Inquiry into the Paarl riots that Anna Pearce became the first white person to testify against the apartheid government in a South African court. After years of assisting black people who had fallen foul of the Pass Laws, and keeping the detailed records of their difficulties that would become ‘A Permit to Live’, she was asked to explain her theory about the cause of the riots on behalf of the defence. For three-and-a-half days Anna sat in the witness box and countered the prosecution’s contention that a group of black agitators working under the moniker ‘Poqo’, had come to the area from Tanskei (a so-called ‘homeland’ to the east of Cape Town) to cause trouble. Anna’s argument was that in fact the riots were the result of the corruption of local officials, in particular Johannes Le Roux, (Director of Bantu Administration in a black location called Mbekweni), who had already been acquitted of accepting bribes and free labour in exchange for handing out Passes at an earlier trial. According to the court records, Anna claimed that “[black men in Mbekweni] were either Le Roux men or they were not, and those who were Le Roux men were the ones who were doing well… and those who were not were the ones who were having pass trouble.”

If I ever get my hands on the keys to a time machine, my first trip will be to that Cape Town court room in the feverish South African summer of 1963. In my mind’s eye I can see a forty-year-old mother of four sitting in the witness box, clutching her precious pink folder that contained the stories of families whose lives had been completely destroyed by the cruelty of the Pass Laws. Her hair is carefully arranged in the short, neat style befitting a respectable housewife in a country where the sixties were anything but swinging; her dress conservatively cut and muted in colour, her posture slightly stooped and awkward - not necessarily because she felt daunted by the occasion, but because she sometimes felt self-conscious about being several inches taller than the average for a woman. I imagine that she sat with her hands tightly clasped, or hidden from view, because her mother had once cruelly told her to hide her large hands behind her teacup if she was meeting a prospective husband, and late in her life she would admit that it was a criticism she never really got over. Did she feel intimidated by the presence of men who were more educated than her? Did her training in art, her history of model making, suddenly seem woefully inadequate in a court of law? If only I could go back in time and whisper in her ear that history would prove her right, that her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren would always be proud of what she was about to do. I wish I could tell her not to be afraid.

But then I remember how infuriating she could be! The real Anna Pearce didn’t give two hoots about being in a minority of one; the real Anna Pearce did not know how to back down in an argument, and the real Anna Pearce never gave up on an idea just because somebody said she should! Time and again the prosecution sought to cast Anna as a sly enemy of the government, or hopelessly naive, or woefully idealistic. Once or twice she became confused by a line of questioning, missing a key word and having to have it explained by the judge; at other times she delivered withering rebuttals off the cuff. When the state’s advocate attempted to force her to admit that the Black Sash was a political organisation, she countered that they were in fact overtly apolitical, and supported causes that they deemed to be justified regardless of which side of the political spectrum they were on. They brought up the case of Jacob Hobeni, who could have obtained a pass to remain in Wellington if he had accepted a job offer he was given by a local farmer, and attempted to dismiss his Pass problems as being the result of his own laziness.

‘Jacob Hobeni was eighty-six-years-old,’ Anna replied. ‘He was in the Boer War!’

As a white woman, and the wife of a prominent businessman, Anna’s status in the community earned her a certain status in court. The judge addressed her with gracious respect, and she was told by a friendly policeman not to let them fluster her. There were only a couple of occasions that the atmosphere boiled over: once, outside court, when Johannes Le Roux’s wife shouted that Anna ‘should be shot’; and an occasion on the third day of cross-examination, when it was pointed out by the prosecution that the Department of Bantu Administration could remove the licence of an official like Mr Le Roux at any time, without given any reason to anyone. So if Mrs Pearce had suspected that there was corruption in the distribution of passes, why had she not gone to the police?

‘Why had I not gone to the police?’ she shot back incredulously. ‘WHY HAD I NOT GONE TO THE POLICE? If the whole of Paarl was frightened, why couldn't I be frightened too?’

These words shook me. I had become used to my grandmother as an emotionally detached person, a driven, deluded optimist, and for the first time I wondered whether, under the constant state of agitation in which she lived, there had been moments when more tender feelings like fear or sadness had managed to fight through the roar of mania in her mind. It was a reminder that alongside the real Anna was an Anna that I had totally imagined, and that imagining what my grandmother was like was not enough. The assumptions about her mindset that seemed most certain to me – that she was immune to fear, sadness and vulnerability – were in fact the most wayward.

Although the atmosphere in the court was largely civil, I imagine there was probably private disgust that an apparently respectable white lady could take the side of violent, uncontrollable blacks. Perhaps words of condemnation were subtly whispered – words like ‘shrill’ and ‘haughty’ and ‘hysterical’ – that we reserve for only the bravest of women. Later, Anna would be denounced in the press (the two biggest English language newspapers in the Cape criticised her for saying that the Paarl riots were ‘justified’, though she had almost immediately replaced the word with ‘understandable’), and would even be referred to as ‘that mad woman’ in Parliament. There were other, more insidious forms of intimidation directed at my grandparents: one morning their house in Wellington was unexpectedly raided by the security police, though they didn’t find the folder of evidence that Anna had hidden inside a secret drawer in the tallboy; on another occasion their domestic worker, Joanna, broke down during a dinner party and confessed to being a police informer. It’s no wonder that Anna was afraid: the benefits of being white in apartheid South Africa were entirely conditional on obeying its rules.

Judge Snyman’s Inquiry into the Paarl riots was a disaster for South Africa. Before the Inquiry even concluded, he released a dramatic interim report urging immediate action against the threat of terrorism from Poqo. In April 1963 a General Law Amendment Bill was passed (there was, as usual, only one dissenting voice in Parliament – Helen Suzman, the MP for the antiapartheid Progressive Party), and its contents are horribly familiar to those of us living in a post-9/11 world: under the guise of ‘fighting terrorism’, the state introduced such measures as the ability for any commissioned officer to detain - without a warrant - any person suspected of a political crime and to hold them for ninety days without access to a lawyer. In practice, people were often released after the ninety days only to be immediately re-detained for a further ninety-days. As for the Attorney General’s opinion of Anna, he submitted that the ‘Wellington housewife’ knew nothing about Poqo and had little firsthand knowledge of Mbekweni location. He declared that ‘little value’ could be attached to her evidence.

And yet, Anna had had her day in court. I imagine how her testimony must have burned in the ears of the people in that court, and perhaps played on their minds for years afterwards: that a black man had a right to live with his family! That it was the apartheid system, and not the nature of black people, that was the cause of political unrest! That, one day, Black History would really matter in South Africa.


If we lived in a world where history was told by only rich, educated, white, politically powerful men, I would have no choice but to believe that the Attorney General was right, and that the differences in my grandmother’s viewpoint made her insane – for the definition of insanity is of inhabiting a reality that is different from that which is generally accepted. But now we know that when Anna Pearce sat in that courtroom and described a world where black people should be free to live where they wanted, should be equal under the law, and should be citizens of their own country, she was actually exhibiting a level of foresight far superior to that of the men who so casually dismissed her. In the courtroom of an evil regime, Anna’s mania became a wonderful gift that enabled her to imagine different kinds of reality, and the one she was representing in that witness box wasn’t crazy, it just happened to be thirty years ahead of its time.

Here lies the insanity of history: for there is no objective ‘reality’ behind us, no singular and definitive record of the past, only a great contradictory quilt of different people’s versions all stitched together, with individual threads of truth, falsehood, misinterpretation, subjectivity and bias all woven so tightly around and through and over each other that telling them apart is impossible. One of the greatest threats to an accurate understanding of history is also one of the most subtle, one that lurks in the background, like a slack-jawed bureaucrat: it is our own imaginations. It is so easy to imagine a version of the past, to extrapolate something assumed and solidify it into fact – so easy to believe that a grandmother must have been an entirely different person fifty years ago, that the stories of heroism surely couldn’t correlate with the knowledge of her madness. But we only see history for what it truly is by having the courage to look at it unflinchingly in the eye, to read it in all its brutal truth and sprawling complexity. Sometimes a great deal of time and analysis must pass before we are able to look back and see that some of the lunatics were actually visionaries all along.

The purpose of Black History Month is to remind those of us who live in Euro-centric lands that people of African origin have a rich, complex and important history that is often dismissed and forgotten; but it is also, more broadly, a reminder that history belongs to all people, regardless of race, gender, wealth, status, education or even mental health. There is an African proverb that says ‘Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter’. If we never read the stories of the lions, like Gilbert Nompozolo’s devastating statement with which this article began, all of us will forever be excluded from a full understanding of the reality in which we live. If we don’t study the way that oppressive regimes like the apartheid government have used the ‘threat of terrorism’ and the guise of ‘protecting freedom’ to terrorise their citizens and take their freedom, we will walk like sheep into our own subjugation. If we dwell in ignorance of the strangest fruit that ever hung from a poplar tree, we can never understand the seismic importance of the murders of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. If we are ignorant of the chemical and biological arms race that occurred in Africa in the 1970s and 80s, we cannot fully comprehend the fear and paranoia surrounding the twenty-first century AIDS crisis. If we declare that reality is to be defined by only white people, or only rich people, or only men, then we acquire a kind of elective blindness to the way our world really is, for most of history’s actors were neither white, nor rich, nor male. If I had never been able to read my grandmother’s history as she wrote it, I would have gone through my entire life believing that she was an effective antiapartheid activist before she became mentally ill; but now I know that she was an effective antiapartheid activist because she was probably ill all along.

Celebrating Black History Month means existing inside a reality where the history of black people is meaningful, important and relevant; it is an endeavour that, at times, feels very different from the commonly understood reality; and as we know, inhabiting a reality that is at odds with the generally accepted one is how our society has chosen to define madness. However, even the most cursory reading of history will show that what we call ‘reality’ is not fixed, and the centre of human understanding, like galaxies and mountain ranges and magnetic poles, may seem immutable but in fact is always shifting, drifting, moving on – like Gilbert Nompozolo, searching tirelessly for a place to settle – and time and again we have seen the eccentric’s lonely island become the very epicentre of enlightenment, the mainland of humanity. Once upon a time, Nelson Mandela lived on an island, and Desmond Tutu was a religious extremist, and Anna Pearce was a madwoman. But this month I will be remembering an important lesson that my grandmother taught me in the months after she died: sometimes being crazy is the only way to be right.

What Are Gay People For?

I once went missing. In that strange gap between adolescence and adulthood, when the mind’s maturity still lags behind the body’s, a friend and I disappeared for a few hours, sparking an urgent search. What happened that summer night was so strange and exciting that I am fairly certain I will still remember it when I am old and grey and unable to remember much else. It was the kind of extraordinary moment that can only burn itself into the memory at a time when the world is still new enough to seem surprising at every turn.
After our A-level exams, two friends and I had set off from Durham for the Lake District for a few days’ camping, our first real break after two years of hard work. Matthew Williams, Jess Robinson and I were massive geeks (we still are, of course, but the effect has been lessened as age has made geeks of even our coolest contemporaries). While thousands of our peers lost their virginity and picked up gonorrhoea on the vodka-soaked beaches of the Med, Matthew, Jess and I went on long walks, ate banoffee pie, discussed the books we’d read, and tried – and failed – to name all fifty American states (DELAWARE! DAMN YOU TO HELL DELAWARE!). We climbed to the top of hills and, with the freshly acquired knowledge of our Geography A-level, we discussed how the beautiful sunlit valleys before us had been carved out over thousands of years by the tremendous force of glaciers. Our friendships felt bespoke: three young people who could never be considered ‘cool’, but who had managed by sheer fluke to find a dozen or so other teenagers who thought ‘being cool’ meant knowing capital cities and the arguments for and against House of Lords reform. Reading our list of hobbies you’re probably glad you didn’t go on that holiday, but I will always be very grateful that I was there.

I knew I had an important task to perform during our few days away. With some prompting from a few members of our group who already knew, I had decided that I had to tell Jess that I was gay; after all, we were close friends and were planning to go travelling together later in our gap year; to keep such a secret from her seemed unnecessary. Anyway, I knew exactly what her reaction would be: she would say that she supported me, that it didn’t make any difference to our friendship, perhaps that she had already worked it out. But I was wrong. Her reaction was quite different.

At the end of an evening sitting by the campfire, and on our way to brush our teeth, I decided to steal Jess for a few moments and get the job done. We strolled away from the campsite. I'm not sure how long we walked through the heavy darkness, but eventually we found ourselves next to a lake, glittering ever so slightly in the blackness. I can’t remember exactly what we spoke about, but I know I was beating around the bush for a while before I finally summoned the courage to say, ‘I’m gay’.

Jess’ reply blindsided me: ‘I am as likely to turn up to a reunion in twenty years’ time with a woman as with a man’.

It was the one reaction I hadn’t expected. I had been so wrapped up in my own life and my own struggles – like most eighteen-year-olds are – that I had completely missed something that had been in front of me for two years. Jess told me she had never revealed this secret to anyone else, and so what was supposed to be a quick chat before bedtime was soon becoming a long and complex conversation as Jess unburdened herself of so many years of secret keeping. We talked about the people we had fancied, our celebrity crushes (Helen Hunt –an excellent choice! – and Jesse Spencer from Neighbours, obviously) and more serious things, like how to come out at university, to the rest of our friends, and to our families. Time seemed to lose its significance; there was so much to say, and it almost felt as if this conversation was the most important thing happening anywhere in the universe.

But we were not the only people in the universe, not by a long way. You might be wondering what our dear friend Matthew was doing while all this earnest chat and secret-swapping was going on. Surely he had brushed his teeth and gone to bed, and was now lying sound asleep while his friends unravelled the complexity of their newly adult lives? Not quite. See, Matthew was too good a friend to go to sleep not knowing where his friends had gone, and after searching for a few hours on his own, he had contacted the Lake District Search and Mountain Rescue team.

Oh yes.

That’s right.

Shit was about to get very real.

Mountain Rescue explained, with extraordinary tact, that generally when an eighteen-year-old male and an eighteen-year-old female abscond from a camping trip in the middle of the night, the policy is to wait a few hours and give them time to return of their own accord before sending out a search party. This did little to quell Matthew’s concern (he probably had an inkling that midnight shenanigans were not on the agenda for me and Jess!), and so he had phoned his father.

When Jess and I returned to our tent at about 4am, there was no sign of Matthew. After finally locating a torch, we discovered a shocking note: he had gone to look for us. What should we do? Set off to look for him in turn? Or stay at the tent and wait for him to come back? Or was there some kind of Mountain Rescue organisation we should ring? Matthew would know exactly what to do, but Matthew wasn’t here anymore!

After some deliberation, we decided to set off to find our friend. We wandered for quite a while, in pitch blackness, and we became aware of how limiting the darkness could be: with no streetlights and no towns nearby, it was impossible to tell if Matthew was anywhere near us or not. We tried calling for him, but heard no response. What had been mild concern was quickly becoming the kind of intense worry that Matthew himself must have been feeling for several hours already.

Finally, walking down a lane so shrouded in darkness that even our own feet were completely invisible, we became aware of two figures walking towards us. We knew it wasn’t Matthew, who was on his own; but then as the other people moved past us something pulled us back towards them:

‘Matthew? Is that you?’

It was Matthew – thank goodness! – but it was not only Matthew. It turned out that his father, John, had been just as worried as his son about me and Jess, and at one o’clock on a weekday morning, he had climbed into his car and driven eighty miles from Durham to find us. When Jess and I realised what had happened, we obviously felt awful, and began to apologise profusely, bracing ourselves for a well-deserved lecture on how to be responsible adults. But John Williams’ reaction was the second surprising reaction of the evening: ‘As long as you’re both safe,’ he said, ‘That’s the main thing. And anyway, I will get to see a beautiful sunrise on my drive back to work.’


The best way I can think of describing what it feels like to be gay and in the closet, is that it is as if you are missing from your own life. As a closeted person moves through their world, as if in total darkness, meticulously covering their tracks, neutralising pronouns, lying about their movements, fabricating imaginary lovers who live too far away to ever appear, or not daring to speak the name of the actual lovers who exist in closets nearby, the true self is absent, locked away, pushed so far down that it is no surprise that those neglected selves sometimes never make it back to the surface.

Jess was one of the first people to come out to me, but there have been many more since that day. Some friends have come out about their sexuality, but others have made confessions about grief, or debt, or infidelity, or depression, or illness, or unrequited love. Of course I have had to come out too, and perhaps it is something that straight people sometimes don’t grasp, that coming out as gay is an endless process, like the weathering of a landscape – often the answer to the question ‘When did you come out?’ can be something like ‘Half an hour ago, to the guy who delivered the washing machine’. But I’ve promised myself that I will always come out when the situation requires; not only because I refuse to ever again go missing from my own life, but because I know that there might be others around me who are in darkness, and they may need someone with the kindness of John Williams to bring them to safety.

Coming out – revealing our true selves, including our greatest flaws and the attributes that others may perceive as our greatest flaws – is to make ourselves vulnerable. Vulnerability, in turn, is often used as a synonym for weakness, but from the image of Jesus Christ hanging bloodied and tortured on a cross, to the singer Adele crying over her lost love at the Brit Awards, we seem to be drawn to those who are able to expose their pain but also retain their strength. In fact evolutionary theory reveals that being able to display vulnerability may actually be a way of displaying strength to others.

In his epoch-defining book 'The Selfish Gene', Richard Dawkins considers vulnerability and the part it plays in one of the greatest mysteries in evolutionary theory – why, if genes are locked in constant gladiatorial combat against the genes of others, do individuals intentionally make themselves vulnerable and behave altruistically? He describes the trait of a small species of bird in which one male will typically act as a lookout for the others as they feed. Ostensibly, the individual bird gains nothing and puts himself in huge danger: he makes himself conspicuous to predators, and therefore risks his very existence – surely, this lessens the chances of him reproducing and passing on his genetic material? But Dawkins hypothesises that he is doing something else as well: he is saying to all the lady birds, ‘I am strong and powerful enough to put myself in great danger without fearing the consequences; if any predator attacks, I have the power and gumption to give him a damn good pecking’. By extension, when we as human beings reveal our vulnerability - when we come out - we are telling our detractors that a weakness is only a weakness for as long as its bearer treats it as such.


A decade and a half has now passed since our midnight confessions, and the glacier of history has continued its inexorable progress. Same-sex marriage, not allowed anywhere in 2000, is now legal in eighteen countries, from Sweden to Uruguay, Canada to South Africa; just a few days ago, there was a dramatic new development in Illinois, where same-sex marriage, which was due to begin in June, was brought forward in Cook County to 22 February, resulting in 46 couples rushing down to pick up their marriage licenses, and breaking new ground for equality in America’s fifth most populous state (which makes Illinois much more significant than, say, Delaware, which is 45th in population and therefore utterly forgettable. Delaware? More like Dela-where?).

There is so much abstract discussion of homosexuality as an issue – social, political, legal and biological – that it can seem as if we are viewing the whole thing like a coastguard looking out of a helicopter: we see the churning waves and passing tides, but sometimes it can be almost impossible to believe that there are individual human lives down there, being tossed around by the irresistible power of the water. I have sometimes felt that way as an observer of the struggle for equal marriage in the US, which is still by far the most complex struggle anywhere in the world. Through circuit courts and constitutional amendments, Supreme Court rulings, the introduction and then repeal of Proposition 8 and of the Defence of Marriage Act, popular votes won and lost and judicial rulings increasingly choosing to be on the right side of history, discriminatory laws have been chipped away, killed off, and occasionally #spoileralert resurrected like Glenn Close in 'Fatal Attraction'. As for individual people, they have sometimes seemed invisible in all of this: the women who simply want to hold their dying wives’ hands; the men who want to be fathers to their children not only in their hearts but in the eyes of the law. But history is not a single sweeping narrative, it is the accumulated stories of people just like us.

And then this week, amidst the deluge of newsprint and debate, from a distance of 4000 miles, I picked out a face I know very well, sparkling like a familiar diamond transcending the surface of this great historical glacier. There, in a TV news report from Chicago, standing in front of a clerk in Cook County, Illinois, with her fiancée standing next to her and wearing the truest and most wonderful smile I have ever seen on her face, was my old friend Jess Robinson, applying for the marriage license that will complete the ascendance that she started in a deep valley fourteen years ago. The eighteen-year-old girl who first revealed herself in such intense darkness that the expression on her face was almost completely obliterated, seemed to be illuminating the room with the light of her smile as she and the love of her life, Becka West, made history by becoming one of the first 46 same-sex couples to marry in the state of Illinois. They were making themselves vulnerable, of course – anyone they knew could see them on television, could pass judgment on their relationship – but anybody who saw them must also concede that they were revealing their strength, as individuals, and now, for the rest of their lives, as a couple. They were not afraid, why should they be? For the greatest weapon we have against fear is love. I realised that my friend has made it all the way to the top of her mountain, and there she was standing, triumphant, and able to enjoy the beautiful landscape that all her struggles have carved.

If only all the movement in this great liberation struggle had been forward: but sadly, as some countries have increasingly recognised the rights of gay people to be respected and treated equally, we have seen a frightening rise in homophobic legislation in places like Russia, India, Uganda and Nigeria, and a disgraceful failure on the part of the Australian government to follow the same path of progress as other western democracies. I hope that those of us who are lucky enough to live in countries which respect human rights do not allow our liberation to make us forget the terrible struggles that people like us still endure around the world.

Just as the progress of gay rights has been mixed over the last fourteen years, so there have been ups and downs in our group of friends too: there have been many happy weddings besides Jess and Becka’s, and, in the last few years, many beautiful children have added a fantastic new dimension to our friendship group; but there has also been loss and pain.

A few years after our Lake District adventure, and before I was ever able to thank him properly for what he did that night, John Williams died very suddenly. I will always be sad that I never had the chance to explain, from one adult to another, what his kindness meant to me and Jess that night. At a turning point in both our lives, a moment full of fear and trepidation, he would have been completely justified in giving us a lecture about being responsible adults. We expected him to; indeed we probably deserved it. Instead, and although he probably died without ever knew the exact reason for our disappearance, John’s reaction that night felt like an implicit acceptance of what Jess and I had told each other; our unexplained vanishing was met with only kindness and forgiveness.

I have tried to remember the lesson that Matthew’s dad taught us: to not leap to judgment, because the reasons for people’s mistakes may not be what they seem. I know that he would have celebrated my and Jess’coming out, because his son has remained one of our staunchest allies and most loyal friends over the last fourteen years. When Matthew and I talk about his dad, the subject of that night in the Lakes will often come up, and Matthew knows that Jess and I will always regard it as one of the greatest acts of kindness that we have ever received. What a wonderful thing to be remembered for.

All of us will endure struggles in our lives – grief, heartbreak, exclusion and loneliness will come to us each in turn – and the act of bearing terrible burdens and needing to release them is unfortunately not unique to gay people. But maybe this is part of why gay people exist. If we can find our way through the darkness of this struggle, to come out and reveal our strength through our vulnerability, we will be able to find others who have gone missing from their lives and bring them back home too. A few weeks ago, another of the wonderful lesbians in my life, my friend Charlie Atkinson, introduced me to a song about the history of the gay liberation movement by John Grant in which he sums up this idea with simple eloquence:

‘This pain 
It is a glacier moving through you
And carving out deep valleys
And creating spectacular landscapes
And nourishing the ground
With precious minerals...’

The symbol of the LGBT community is a rainbow, and yes, it might be a thing of many colours, a sign of diversity – but a rainbow is often paid for with a storm, just as the awesome erosion wrought by a glacier is the price of a beautiful valley. I am sure that if we can draw a meaning for the existence of all of these varieties of human being, it is that what matters most about our lives is not whether we create new people and perpetuate the species, as if we were merely arbitrary links in an endless biological chain; but that we are able to love and enhance the lives of the people who are already here, to be kind, to offer help when help is needed, to reveal our true selves and in so doing give others license to reveal their true selves as well. When our friends go missing we don't just go to sleep, we go out into the darkness and bring them home. It is something John Williams understood, and that he has passed on to his son; it is something that Jess and her wife know, and it is something that we would all do well to live by.

Jess and Becka, congratulations. Your marriage is of course one of the brightest moments in your lives, but it is truly one of the most wonderful moments in my life too. I am honoured and extremely proud to call you my friends – and Jess, if you turn up to our December reunion without your woman on your arm, shit is going to get really, really, really real.

Like, Mountain Rescue real.

My All Time Top 10 Reading Experiences

At the suggestion of Caroline Edwards, here are my All Time Top 10 Reading Experiences, in chronological order:

1. Colleen McCullough’s ‘The Thorn Birds’, in my parents’ bed in Johannesburg age 9. The first proper grown-up book I read, which led me to ask my mom, “When Ralph kneels in front of Mary, what does it mean when it says his penis is flackid?” 


(That was nothing compared to when she caught me reading my dad’s psychology book ‘The Bisexual Spouse’. Oh man, illicit childhood reading was The Best Ever.)

2. Sue Townsend’s ‘The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole’ on a trip across Ireland with my grandparents age 10. On ferries, in B&Bs and in the ‘nest’ my grandmother built for me in the back of the car, Adrian was my constant companion. The Adrian Mole books were my first proper introduction to the real Britain – a land of semi-detached houses, pasty faces and fruit cake rather than kings and castles (I even learned of the existence of the Falkland’s War at the same time as Adrian, who searches his map for hours before memorably discovering the islands under a crumb of the aforementioned fruitcake ‘off the coast of Argentina’). Although I didn’t realise it at the time, a year later I would be living in Adrian Mole’s Britain and for the first couple of years his account of the country in the 80s was the only reason I knew what the kids at school were talking about. It was also the first time I realised that simplicity and clarity in writing did not preclude profundity.

3. ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’, on a coach from Reading to Durham age 14. I was given the book for my birthday while staying with my Uncle Matthew and Aunt Michelle, along with Orwell’s Animal Farm. Of course I already knew the name Anne Frank, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that she wasn’t the perfect, prissy little girl I would have imagined. It was a huge lesson to me that it was actually Anne’s flaws – her stroppiness, her rebelliousness – that made her such an incredibly valuable human being, and that for a strong and creative mind there really is no such thing as confinement. A really comforting idea when you’re stuck on a National Express coach for six hours with a shockingly persistent pubescent erection that is anything but flackid.

4. John Irving’s ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’, sitting on a bench by Prebend’s Bridge in Durham age 18. Still my favourite novel, I remember being completely swept away by the ambition and warmth of Irving’s writing while sitting in my favourite place. It’s still one of two books that have made me really cry (in a snotty, gaspy sort of way) when I finished it at one o’clock in the morning, in a still house, when the last couple of sentences roared off the page and into my soul: ‘O God – please give him back! I shall keep asking You.’ Sad, sad times.

5. The Complete Works of Jane Austen, in a hotel in Jouvenceaux, northern Italy, age 18. During my gap year, and having taken a job as a night porter in a ski resort at 24 hours’ notice, I was feeling a bit lost. The wit and twists of Jane’s whole shebang got me through many long nights, interspersed with old episodes of ‘Cheers’ on satellite TV and drunken skiers returning from late night drinking sessions. When they asked what I was reading I would lie and show them a copy of Frank McCourt’s ‘Tis which I found on a train, because boys aren’t supposed to read Austen even though she’s clever and hella funny. (‘Tis is neither clever nor funny by the way.)

6. VS Ramachandran’s ‘Phantoms in the Brain’, age 20, third year of university. Recommended by a housemate who was studying psychology, this book about phantom limbs and how neuroscientists have learned about brain function by studying stroke victims goes into the category of ‘consciousness raiser’. It made me realise that the brain is the starting point for how the world seems to be, and that many difficult questions – Is there such a thing as ghosts? Why do some people have a foot fetish? – can be answered by looking in rather than looking out, setting me up for a later interest in determinism. It’s also quite an accolade that the book that had the most profound effect on me while I was studying English Literature was about science. 

7. Douglas Coupland’s ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, age 21. A book about lost youth at a time that I had just graduated and was leaving my youth behind. One of the best renderings of nostalgia I have ever read, Coupland made me mourn the passing of 1970s Vancouver even though I’d never been there. 

8. Pumla Gobodo Madikezela’s ‘A Human Being Died that Night’, in the Costa Coffee on the corner of Dean and Old Compton streets in Soho, age 29. An account of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission by a psychologist who was one of the commissioners. This book unites the best of science and fiction, by showing the power of psychology to change people’s lives. Another consciousness raiser: it brought to my attention some of the worst crimes of apartheid, the psychological mechanisms underpinning those crimes, the pernicious effects of ‘lived trauma’, and redefined forgiveness as a revolutionary act, a force for liberation. This is the second book that really made me cry, when Madikezela tells the story of a white Afrikaner whose small son was killed in a bombing carried out by the ANC. He said he was proud of his son, that he had died a martyr so that the people who killed him could be free. I still get chills thinking about that. This book made me want to be a better man.

9. Julia Donaldson’s ‘Hairy Maclary’, read aloud to my year-old nephew, Jasper, on a sofa in Manchester, age 31. Reading aloud to someone else is a glorious and dying art; the pleasure of seeing a small child’s eyes light up because of the musicality of words, without even understanding their meaning, is a reminder how deep our instinct for stories runs, and that books are, at their heart, vessels of magic; that the reader plays a huge part in creating their meaning, and that they bind people together like no other object can. Seeing Jasper rush to his pile of books and excitedly bring three or four back to be read fills me with joy, because I know that if he sticks with these funny little packages of ink and wood pulp his adventures will be endless.

10. Saul Bellow’s ‘Herzog’ and Günter Grasse’s ‘The Tin Drum’, outside Violet coffee shop in Dalston on beautiful summer afternoons in 2014. Reading these two at the same time seemed to inform my reading of both: Herzog’s neurotic Jewish protagonist, who reacts to the disintegration of his life by writing letters he never posts, gained an extra dimension alongside Grasse’s novel describing the approach of World War II through the eyes of a crazy dwarf with a piercing voice and a tin drum that he JUST. WON’T. STOP. BANGING. (Incidentally, this dwarf was apparently part of the inspiration for Owen Meany.) A lesson in how the reader’s context changes a book’s meaning, and that beautiful summer afternoons cannot be taken for granted: they can suddenly be ended either by explosions in the world, or by implosions of the self.

The Watchmaker's Wife

On the fractured coast of Penobscot Bay, where the forests of New England surrender to the grim, grey north Atlantic, Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker came ashore and built a house that faced east, towards the ghettoes and the war. As soon as the roof was on and the chimney unfurled its smoky calligraphy across the wide, clear sky, Mr Kerchelskis walked down the steep and stony hill to the town of Stockton Springs, where he found a cosy inn and carefully selected the very first whiskey of his life. He drank slowly, standing up and facing east, his pale eyes focused on the spot beyond a foggy window where the sun would tend to rise.

This was where Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker was standing when Mildred McNamara found him, nursing his whiskey with the same dreamy detachment that her face displayed when she nursed the shattered wrecks of men at Stockton Springs’ Nursing Home for Disabled Ex-servicemen. Mildred had grown all her life in the loamy soils of coastal Maine, the descendant of Scotch-Irish immigrants who had come here to catch fish, cut timber and practice their Puritanism unencumbered, men and women who feared nothing but God and perished by the dozen in sunken trawlers and under fallen trunks, until the famously cheerful Mildred McNamara was the very last of their line: a homely, pink-cheeked girl with eyes that diverged slightly from one another so that she seemed to look around the world rather than directly at it. But even though Mildred’s drifting eyes divorced the image of the world from the world itself, they also possessed an almost supernatural ability to see its silver linings. Mildred’s optimism was born of her amnesia: she knew not the smallest detail of how her ancestors had suffered, nor the depth of the pain experienced by those who survived the tragedies that dominoed through the generations that preceded her. Mildred would live her entire life without ever knowing that she was the last daughter of twelve dead families.

Mildred McNamara saw silver everywhere. Indeed, it was by a quirk of geography and timing that the young nurse’s first view of her future husband was of his silver lining, for just as she entered the cosy inn where Mr Kerchelskis was acquainting his palate with the tang of whiskey, the lighthouse at Heron Neck flashed its dazzling beam through the east-facing window, obliterating the features of Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker and leaving only an angelic impression of a man so lean and lithe that he left plenty of room for strangers to hang their own ideas upon him. For Mildred McNamara it was a case of love at first blinding; none of the faceless ex-soldiers she had tried and failed to fall in love with could have quite matched the featurelessness of Mr Kerchelskis that evening, and she realised in that instant that none of them could ever have been wounded enough to earn the affections that this silhouetted stranger had just inspired.

On the same day that Adolf Hitler fired a piece of metal into the roof of his own mouth, Mildred McNamara and Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker wrapped metal around each other’s bodies: for him, a ring all the way from New York City, gloriously gold and new; for her, a watch – for what else could a watchmaker give to his bride? – made from the parts of watches worn by his mother and grandmother, each removed from their original owner’s wrist before tattoos were written there instead. The church’s throng of white lilies all died as Mildred McNmara walked down the aisle, and as the organist played, a hymn book or two fell fatally wounded in the trenches between the dark oak pews – but the only living Mrs Kerchelskis saw nothing but her own face, veiled and smiling in her husband’s eyes.

Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker carried his wife up the steep and stony hill to the house he had built, facing east towards the motherland and the past. He deposited her in the kitchen and spoke in an English that was too flawless and formal to ever be a mother tongue:

‘My love, my sweet delight,’ said Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker, ‘Happiness will be your sole task in this house. Do not trouble yourself with cooking and cleaning, for your hands are too precious for such menial tasks, your spirit too bright and gay to be rubbed away against washboards and burnt layer by layer by caustic detergents’ – but even as he spoke, the unhappy shadow of a small boy moved in the corner of the watchmaker’s eye, his face streaked with fresh tears, an empty jam jar in his hand as he moved towards the last carriage of a crowded train. Mr Kerchelskis paused, and blinked, and then continued – ‘However, if you wish, you may also occupy your time with the production of fruit preserves to pass the time before our first child is ready for the world.’

‘Oh darling, my darling! What a wonderful idea!’ trilled the watchmaker’s wife, unclasping her wedding watch, which she folded in a silk handkerchief and placed on a high shelf, far from harm’s way, and prepared to set to work.

Mildred Kerchelskis took up her husband’s suggestion with relishes; later, a sweet slew of jams and jellies; before too long, pickles and marmalades joined the assortment of jars in the crowded pantry. Over the years that followed, tens of thousands of gooseberries, raspberries, strawberries, apples, pears, and peaches were grown on the slopes of Mr Kerchelskis’ hand-built home and met their end in Mildred’s bubbling pot; while his wife sliced and stewed and picked and pickled, Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker made watches in his little workshop at the bottom of the hill between the strawberry patch and the road to Stockton Springs. A sort of happiness took hold in the home of the watchmaker and his cheerful beloved, and only the ache of an un-conceived child prevented Mr Kerchelskis from entirely losing himself in the sugary joy that filled a thousand glass jars around their home.

In the week that a rush of fire and radiation brought down the final curtain on the Pacific theatre, bursting the eyes of 150,000 people and sending them running like bloody tears down their faces, Mildred Kerchelskis set a personal record: 150 jars of gooey strawberry jam, labelled and stacked in the corner of the coal cellar, each jar crowned with a circle of gingham cloth fixed in place with an elastic band. As pots of jam cooled on every available windowsill, and the heat of the world’s war cooled across London, Tokyo and Berlin, a colder war began, and Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker began to wonder if the frigidity of this new conflict had permeated his own body and that of his wife, for the child that played in his nightly reverie had still not been enticed into daylight.

In a fit of mourning that was partly for his unborn children and partly for the children he saw boarding those fire-breathing trains in Warsaw, Mr Kerchelskis took his wife aside and asked her when they might bring a new life into the world, a pinprick of light to shine against the bleak hinterland of his memory.

Mildred’s response was as plain and pragmatic as the string on a taut bow:

‘The problem with children,’ trilled the watchmaker’s wife as she simultaneously sliced the heads off seven little strawberries, ‘Is that they grow up. They cast their toys and carefree games aside, leave their schoolbooks to gather dust, and they go into the world, build their own lives and return only as a scavenger would, to pick at the bones of their parents’ homes, to leech from the old and infirm.’ Mildred threw the strawberry stems into the fire, where they disappeared with a satisfying hiss – ‘Why should we go into all the trouble of nursing and caring for a baby, and then the various challenges of a growing child, of giving it all of our love and our time, of feeding it my jams and jellies, only to see it outgrow our efforts, and walk down that road to Stockton Springs without even looking back to say goodbye?’

Mr Kerchelskis wanted to say that the memories of loved children are just as glorious and real as the children ever were, that they still glitter and bristle in dreams and recollection; he wanted to say that the greatest joy of raising children is precisely in the moment of setting them free, in that exhilarating instant of seeing them spread their wings and glide towards lives of their own; he even wanted to say – indeed he nearly did say – that not all children do grow up, and that children growing up never seems to be a problem when one has known children who didn’t.

But in the end, Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker said nothing. All of these words, and many more, stopped dead at his lips, froze upon on his tongue, curdled in his fearful cortex – for he loved his wife, and he knew that she loved him, and true love will always inhibit the infliction of pain. Indeed Mildred Kerchelskis, for all her blind optimism and powers of dreamy detachment, could see that the silver lining of her husband’s face had been tarnished by her careless words, and so, reeling, she spoke again, so quickly that it felt as if her ears were learning of the words at the same moment as her husband’s:

‘Now if there was a way to have children who could stay children forever, who could be preserved in their youthful ways, frozen at the point that they are most precious and beautiful... That would be a project worth pursuing.’

And so it was, after much more discussion and deliberation, and shortly before their fifteenth wedding anniversary, that Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker and his wife Mildred opened their doors to the orphans and urchins of Maine. Through an efficient little agency in Portland, they were assigned young people from every corner of the Lighthouse State – from the bustling streets of Bangor and the quiet shores of Mooselookmeguntic Lake, children unloved or abandoned, infants and teenagers whose parents were too ill or mad or dead or imprisoned to care for them, all lugged their sad suitcases along the shores of Penobscot Bay to a house that faced east, across the roaring sea to the old world.

As the sixties began to swing, the house that Mr Kerchelskisbuilt shook with the laughter of other people’s children. Boys pinged the elastic bands from Mildred’s jam jars off the walls and ceilings; girls twisted and shouted in the kitchen; the coal cellar became by turns the pod of a moon-bound shuttle and a hideout for Russian spies, and the Vietnam War broke out in the same upstairs bedroom that had once served as the Texas Schoolbook Depository.

Amidst the banter and bedlam of course a little sadness would often fall into the lives of these little ones far from home, but through all those decades of temporary children Mr Kerchelskis was never quite as surprised by their differences as he was by the one thing that helped them all in their most difficult moments. Whenever a child was afflicted by a night terror or the pang of homesickness, the watchmaker would smuggle a jar of homemade jam from the tightly-packed pantry, down the garden to his workshop for watches. Some youngsters raced through their jars like hungry wolves; others would taste a morsel and then paint sticky pink beards around their faces – but however they were consumed, those delicious preserves never failed to bring a smile to a tear-streaked face or dull the pain of scraped elbows and knees. And when the time came for the children to leave their fleeting home, Mr Kerchelskis always made sure that he pressed a brand new jar of jam into their tiny hand on the platform of Stockton Springs Railway Station, for the watchmaker had promised himself that he would never again allow a small child to undertake a frightening journey with nothing to eat on the way. To this day they say you can still identify the orphans of Maine by the jars of jam they keep in their homes, every single last one still sealed, for some kinds of jam are more delicious in the memory than they could ever be in the mouth.

Mildred Kerchelskis and her sentimental husband grew old. Their bodies began to crack and creak, their voices dimmed, and a light dusting of frost on their hair gave silver linings to their faces. After fifty years, the children stopped coming – they had to, for no longer could Mr Kerchelskis’ tired old spine take the weight of a dozen daily piggy-backs, and it hurt his arthritic thumbs to launch elastic bands towards the shining moon. Besides, there was less and less jam these days, for Mrs Kerchelskis was more prone to dozing before an open fire than she was to stirring great pots and lugging sacks of fruit up to the house in wind and rain. There were times that the watchmaker envied his timeless wife, for she seemed so immune to the barbs of nostalgia. She lived only now, stopped the ache of time in its tracks, reduced and preserved, and never pondered the past nor worried about the lonely future. Things were not so easy for Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker, for his fate was to remember the smallest details of every child who had ever come up the steep and stony hill: every Gracie and Emmett, each Orville and Hilda, all the Lances and Amelies and Nathaniels and Noahs that time had swept through his life, leaving nothing but jammy fingerprints across his ticking workshop; he remembered the smell of each child’s hair, the shape of their hands, and he remembered every joke and question and observation and idea. When he was at his most pained, the watchmaker could only comfort his broken heart by reminding himself of the words that he almost said to his reluctant wife, all those years ago:

‘Children growing up never seems to be a problem when one has known children who didn’t.’

As he entered his ninetieth year, and the cloak of time began to move with greater determination in the corner of his myopic eyes, Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker decided to make a present for his wife, for a woman who lived her life outside of time, who never allowed its passage to bring her any pain at all. They say that if you know the run of New England’s broken coast, and can find the precise road to take from Stockton Springs along the windswept shore, and if you know to follow the beam of the silver-lining lighthouse at Heron’s Neck up a steep and stony path, you can find the gift that the watchmaker bequeathed to his wife on the sixtieth anniversary of their Stockton Springs wedding day.

Press your nose against the kitchen window of their homemade house and you will see Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker and his wife, Mildred, frozen in time, a look of surprise in the latter’s divergent eyes – for the present that Mr Kerchelskis made was a very special clock indeed. Lined with silver, the clock looks west, away from all its yesterdays. The face of the clock is the face of Mildred Kerchelskis, daughter of Maine and watchmaker’s wife; its hands are the hands she used to make her famous preserves: left for the minutes, right for the hours, one passing over the other like a magician steadily moving through the motions of a well-practiced trick. The bones and ligaments of Mildred’s fingers, now unburdened of their flesh, glide elegantly on a network of springs and coils, pivoting from the socket where the scent of bubbling jams once entered her delicate nose: they point to her eyes in the evening, to her cheeks in the afternoon, and to her skinless chin each morning when the sun rises over Penobscot Bay.

The alignment of the room is such that Mildred’s timeless eyes are forever on a white bowl that sits in the middle of her old kitchen table. There is no fruit in the bowl. There are no grapes, which are the fruit of friendship and celebration and may be fermented into wine; there are no peaches, which are the smooth-skinned fruit of mothers and their children, and speak of the brevity of babyhood and the sweetness of being small; there are no apples, the fruit of knowledge and wisdom that transcends superstition and shows the path to a rational life; there are no strawberries, which stand for mellifluous kisses, for the primal warmth of lips against lips and of love in difficult times; and there are certainly no hourglass pears, for Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker preserved them all as hourglasses proper just days after he put his very last orphan on a crowded train in Stockton Springs.