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not winning the Nobel Prize
December 17, 2007
I am standing in a doorway
looking through clouds of blowing dust to where I am told there
is still uncut forest. Yesterday I drove through miles of stumps,
and charred remains of fires where in '56 was the most wonderful
forest I have ever seen, all destroyed. People have to eat. They
have to get fuel for fires.
This is north west Zimbabwe
early in the eighties, and I am visiting a friend who was a teacher
in a school in London. He is here "to help Africa" as
we put it. He is a gently idealistic soul and what he found here
in this school shocked him into a depression, from which it was
hard to recover. This school is like all the schools built after
Independence. It consists of four large brick rooms side by side,
put straight into the dust, one two three four, with a half room
at one end, which is the library. In these classrooms are blackboards,
but my friend keeps the chalks in his pocket, as otherwise they
would be stolen. There is no atlas, or globe in the school, no textbooks,
no exercise books, or biros, in the library are no books of the
kind the pupils would like to read: they are tomes from American
universities, hard even to lift, rejects from white libraries, detective
stories, or with titles like 'Weekend in Paris' or 'Felicity Finds
There is a goat trying
to find sustenance in some aged grass. The headmaster has embezzled
the school funds and is suspended, arousing the question familiar
to all of us but usually in more auguest contexts: How is it these
people behave like this when they must know everyone is watching
My friend doesn't have
any money because everyone, pupils and teachers, borrow from him
when he is paid and will probably never pay it back. The pupils
range from six to twenty-six, because some who did not get schooling
earlier are here to make it up. Some pupils walk every morning many
miles, rain or shine and across rivers. They cannot do homework
because there is no electricity in the villages, and you can't study
easily by the light of a burning log. The girls have to fetch water
and cook when they get home from school and before they set off
As I sit with my friend
in his room, people drop shyly in, and all, everyone begs for books.
"Please send us books when you get back to London". One
man said, "They taught us to read but we have no books".
Everybody I met, everyone, begged for books.
I was there some days.
The dust blew past, water was short because the pumps had broken
and the women were getting water from the river again.
Another idealistic teacher
from England was rather ill after seeing what this "school"
On the last
day, it was end of term and they slaughtered the goat, and it was
cut into mounds of bits and cooked in a great tin. This was the
much looked forward to end of
term feast, boiled goat and porridge. I drove away while it was
going on, back through the charred remains and stumps of the forest.
I do not think many of
the pupils of this school will get prizes.
Next day I am at a school
in North London, a very good school, whose name we all know. It
is a school for boys. Good buildings, and gardens.
These pupils have a visit
from some well known person every week, and it is in the nature
of things that these may be fathers, relatives, even mothers of
the pupils. A visit from a celebrity is no big deal for them.
The school in the blowing
dust of northwest Zimbabwe is in my mind, and I look at those mildly
expectant faces and try to tell them about what I have seen in the
last week. Classrooms without books, without text books, or an atlas,
or even a map pinned up on a wall. A school where the teachers beg
to be sent books to tell them how to teach, they being only eighteen
or nineteen themselves, they beg for books. I tell these boys that
everybody, everyone begs for books: "Please send us books".
I am sure that everyone here, making a speech will know that moment
when the faces you are looking at are blank. Your listeners cannot
hear what you are saying: there are no images in their minds to
match what you are telling them. In this case, of a school standing
in dust clouds, where water is short, and where, at the end of term,
a just killed goat cooked in a great pot is the end of term treat.
Is it really so impossible
for them to imagine such bare poverty?
I do my best. They are
I'm pretty sure of this
lot there will be some who will win prizes.
Then, it is over, and
I with the teachers, ask as always, how the library is, and if the
pupils read. And here, in this privileged school, I hear what I
always hear when I go to schools and even universities.
"You know how it
is. A lot of the boys have never read at all, and the library is
only half used."
"You know how it
is." Yes, we indeed do know how it is. All of us.
We are in a fragmenting
culture, where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned
and where it is common for young men and women who have had years
of education, to know nothing about the world, to have read nothing,
knowing only some speciality or other, for instance, computers.
What has happened to us is an amazing invention, computers and the
internet and TV, a revolution. This is not the first revolution
we, the human race, has dealt with. The printing revolution, which
did not take place in a matter of a few decades, but took much longer,
changed our minds and ways of thinking. A foolhardy lot, we accepted
it all, as we always do, never asked "What is going to happen
to us now, with this invention of print?" And just as we never
once stopped to ask, How are we, our minds, going to change with
the new internet, which has seduced a whole generation into its
inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that
once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find
a whole day has passed in blogging and blugging etc.
Very recently, anyone
even mildly educated would respect learning, education, and owe
respect to our great store of literature. Of course we all know
that when this happy state was with us, people would pretend to
read, would pretend respect for learning, but it is on record that
working men and women longed for books, and this is evidenced by
the working men's libraries, institutes, colleges of the 18th and
Reading, books, used
to be part of a general education.
Older people, talking
to young ones, must understand just how much of an education it
was, reading, because the young ones know so much less. And if children
cannot read, it is because they have not read.
But we all know this
But we do not know the
end of it.
We think of the old adage,
"Reading maketh a full man" - and forgetting about jokes
to do with over-eating - reading makes a woman and a man full of
information, of history, of all kinds of knowledge.
But we are not the only
people in the world. Not long ago I was telephoned by a friend who
said she had been in Zimbabwe, in a village where they had not eaten
for three days, but they were talking about books and how to get
them, about education.
I belong to a little
organisation which started out with the intention of getting books
into the villages. There was a group of people who in another connection
had travelled Zimbabwe at its grass roots. They reported that the
villages, unlike what people reported, are full of intelligent people,
teachers retired, teachers on leave, children on holidays, old people.
I myself paid for a little survey, of what people wanted to read,
and found the results were the same as a Swedish survey, that I
had not known about. People wanted to read what people in Europe
want to read, if they read at all - novels of all kinds, science
fiction, poetry, detective fiction, plays, Shakespeare, and the
do-it-yourself books, like how to open a bank account, were low
in the list. All of Shakespeare: they knew the name. A problem with
finding books for villagers is that they don't know what is available,
so a school set book, like the Mayor of Casterbridge, becomes popular
because they know it is there. Animal Farm, for obvious reasons
is the most popular of all novels.
Our little organisation
got books from where we could, but remember that a good paperback
from England cost a months wages: that was before Mugabe's reign
of terror. Now with inflation, it would cost several years wages.
But having taken a box of books out to a village - and remember
there is a terrible shortage of petrol, the box will be greeted
with tears. The library may be a plank under a tree on bricks. And
within a week there will be literacy classes - people who can read
teaching those who can't, citizenship class - and in one remote
village, since there were no novels in Tonga, a couple of lads sat
down to write novels in Tonga. There are six or so main languages
in Zimbabwe and there are novels in all of them, violent, incestuous,
full of crime and murder.
Our little organisation
was supported from the very start by Norway, and then by Sweden.
But without this kind of support our supplies of books would have
dried up. Novels published in Zimbabwe, and, too, do-it-yourself
books are sent out to people who thirst for them.
It is said that a people
gets the government it deserves, but I do not think it is true of
Zimbabwe. And we must remember that this respect and hunger for
books comes, not from Mugabe's regime, but from the one before it,
the whites. It is an astonishing phenomenon, this hunger for books,
and it can be seen everywhere from Kenya down to the Cape of Good
This links up improbably
with a fact: I was brought up in what was virtually a mud hut, thatched.
This house has been built always, everywhere, where there are reeds
or grass, suitable mud, poles for walls. Saxon England for example.
The one I was brought up in had four rooms, one beside another,
not one, and, the point is, it was full of books. Not only did my
parents take books from England to Africa, but my mother ordered
books from England for her children, books in great brown paper
parcels which were the joy of my young life. A mud hut, but full
And sometimes I get letters
from people living in a village that might not have electricity
or running water (just like our family in our elongated mud hut),
"I shall be a writer too, because I've the same kind of house
you were in."
But here is the difficulty.
Writing, writers, do
not come out of houses without books. There is the gap. There is
I have been looking at
the speeches by some of your recent prizewinners. Take the magnificent
Pamuk. He said his father had 1 500 books. His talent did not come
out of the air, he was connected with the great tradition.
Take V.S. Naipaul. He
mentions that the Indian Vedas were close behind the memory of his
family. His father encouraged him to write. And when he got to England
by right he used the British Library. So he was close to the great
Let us take John Coetzee.
He was not only close to the great tradition, he was the tradition:
he taught literature in Cape Town. And how sorry I am that I was
never in one of his classes: taught by that wonderfully brave bold
In order to write, in
order to make literature, there must be a close connection with
libraries, books, the Tradition.
I have a friend from
Zimbabwe. A writer. Black - and that is to the point. He taught
himself to read from the labels on jam jars, the labels on preserved
fruit cans. He was brought up in an area I have driven through,
an area for rural blacks. The earth is grit and gravel, there are
low sparse bushes. The huts are poor, nothing like the good cared-
for huts of the better off. A school - but like one I have described.
He found a discarded children's encyclopaedia on a rubbish heap
and learned from it.
On Independence in 1980
there was a group of good writers in Zimbabwe, truly a nest of singing
birds. They were bred in old Southern Rhodesia, under the whites
- the mission schools, the better schools. Writers are not made
in Zimbabwe. Not easily, not under Mugabe.
All the writers had a
difficult road to literacy, let alone being writers. I would say
print on jam tins and discarded encyclopaedias were not uncommon.
And we are talking about people hungering for standards of education
they were a long way from. A hut or huts with many children - an
overworked mother, a fight for food and clothing.
Yet despite these difficulties,
writers came into being, and there is another thing we should remember.
This was Zimbabwe, physically conquered less than a hundred years
before. The grandfathers and grandmothers of these people might
have been storytellers for their clan. The oral tradition. In one
generation - two, the transition from stories remembered and passed
on, to print, to books. What an achievement.
Books, literally wrested
from rubbish heaps and the detritus of the white man's world. But
you may have a sheaf of paper (not typescript - that is a book -
but it has to find a publisher, who will then pay you, remain solvent,
distribute the books. I have had several accounts sent to me of
the publishing scene for Africa. Even in more privileged places
like North Africa, with its different tradition, to talk of a publishing
scene is a dream of possibilities.
Here I am talking about
books never written, writers that could not make it because the
publishers are not there. Voices unheard. It is not possible to
estimate this great waste of talent, of potential. But even before
that stage of a book's creation which demands a publisher, an advance,
encouragement, there is something else lacking.
Writers are often asked,
How do you write? With a processor? an electric typewriter? a quill?
longhand? But the essential question is, "Have you found a
space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write?
Into that space, which is like a form of listening, of attention,
will come the words, the words your characters will speak, ideas
If this writer cannot
find this space, then poems and stories may be stillborn.
When writers talk to
each other, what they ask each other is always to do with this space,
this other time. "Have you found it? Are you holding it fast?"
Let us jump to an apparently
very different scene. We are in London, one of the big cities. There
is a new writer. We, cynically enquire, How are her boobs? Is she
good- looking? If this is a man, Charismatic? Handsome? We joke
but it is not a joke.
This new find is acclaimed,
possibly given a lot of money. The buzzing of paparazzi begins in
their poor ears. They are feted, lauded, whisked about the world.
Us old ones, who have seen it all, are sorry for this neophyte,
who has no idea of what is really happening.
He, she is flattered,
But ask in a year's time
what he or she is thinking: I've heard them: "This is the worst
thing that could have happened to me.
Some much publicised
new writers haven't written again, or haven't written what they
wanted to, meant to.
And we, the old ones,
want to whisper into those innocent ears. "Have you still got
your space? Your sole, your own and necessary place where your own
voices may speak to you, you alone, where you may dream. Oh, hold
onto it, don't let it go."
There must be some kind
My mind is full of splendid
memories of Africa which I can revive and look at when I want. How
about those sunsets, gold and purple and orange, spreading across
the sky at evening. How about butterflies and moths and bees on
the aromatic bushes of the Kalahari? Or, sitting on the banks of
the Zambesi, where it rolls between pale grassy banks, it being
the dry season, dark-green and glossy, with all the birds of Africa
around its banks. Yes, elephants, giraffes, lions and the rest,
there were plenty of those, but how about the sky at night, still
unpolluted, black and wonderful, full of restless stars.
But there are other memories.
A young man, eighteen perhaps, is in tears, standing in his "library."
A visiting American seeing a library without books, sent a crate,
but this young man took each one out, reverently, and wrapped them
in plastic. "But," we say, "these books were sent
to be read, surely?" and he replied, "No, they will get
dirty, and where will I get anymore?"
He wants us to send him
books from England to teach him to teach. "I only did four
years in the senior school" he begs, "But they never taught
me to teach."
I have seen a Teacher
in a school where there was no textbooks, not even a bit of chalk
for the blackboard - it was stolen - teach his class of six to eighteen
year olds by moving stones in the dust, chanting "Two times
two is . . . .." and so on. I have seen a girl, perhaps not
more than twenty, similarly lacking textbooks, exercise books, biros
- anything, teach the A, B, C in the dust with a stick, while the
sun beat down and the dust swirled.
We are seeing here that
great hunger for education in Africa, anywhere in the Third World,
or whatever we call parts of the world where parents long to get
an education for their children which will take them from poverty,
to the advantage of an education.
Our education which is
so threatened now.
I would like you to imagine
yourselves, somewhere in Southern Africa, standing in an Indian
store, in a poor area, in a time of bad drought. There is a line
of people, mostly women, with every kind of container for water.
This store gets a bowser of water every afternoon from the town
and the people are waiting for this precious water.
The Indian is standing
with the heels of his hands pressed down on the counter, and he
is watching a black woman, who is bending over a wadge of paper
that looks as if it has been torn out of a book. She is reading
She is reading slowly,
mouthing the words. It looks a difficult book. This is a young woman
with two little children clutching at her legs. She is pregnant.
The Indian is distressed, because the young woman's headscarf, which
should be white, is yellow with dust. Dust lies between her breasts
and on her arms. This man is distressed because of the lines of
people, all thirsty, but he doesn't have enough water for them.
He is angry because he knows there are people dying out there, beyond
the dust clouds. His brother, older, had been here holding the fort,
but he had said he needed a break, had gone into town, really rather
ill, because of the drought.
This man is curious.
He says to the young woman. "What are you reading?"
"It is about Russia,"
says the girl.
"Do you know where
Russia is?" He hardly knows himself.
The young woman looks
straight at him, full of dignity though her eyes are red from dust,
"I was best in the class. My teacher said, I was best."
The young woman resumes
her reading: she wants to get to the end of the paragraph.
The Indian looks at the
two little children and reaches for some Fanta, but the mother says
"Fanta makes them thirsty."
The Indian knows he shouldn't
do this but he reaches down to a great plastic container beside
him, behind the counter and pours out two plastic mugs of water,
which he hands to the children. He watches while the girl looks
at her children drinking, her mouth moving. He gives her a mug of
water. It hurts him to see her drinking it, so painfully thirsty
Now she hands over to
him a plastic water container, which he fills. The young woman and
the children, watch him closely so that he doesn't spill any.
She is bending again
over the book. She reads slowly but the paragraph fascinates her
and she reads it again.
"Varenka, with her
white kerchief over her black hair, surrounded by the children and
gaily and good-humouredly busy with them, and at the same visibly
excited at the possibility of an offer of marriage from a man she
cared for, looked very attractive. Koznyshev walked by her side
and kept casting admiring glances at her. Looking at her, he recalled
all the delightful things he had heard from her lips, all the good
he knew about her, and became more and more conscious that the feeling
he had for her was something rare, something he had felt but once
before, long, long ago, in his early youth. The joy of being near
her increased step by step, and at last reached such a point that,
as he put a huge birch mushroom with a slender stalk and up-curling
top into her basket, he looked into her eyes and, noting the flush
of glad and frightened agitation that suffused her face, he was
confused himself, and in silence gave her a smile that said too
This lump of print is
lying on the counter, together with some old copies of magazines,
some pages of newspapers, girls in bikinis.
It is time for her to
leave the haven of the Indian store, and set off back along the
four miles to her village. It is time . . . outside the lines of
waiting women clamour and complain. But still the Indian lingers.
He knows what it will cost this girl - going back home, with the
two clinging children. He would give her the piece of prose that
so fascinates her, but he cannot really believe this splinter of
a girl with her great belly can really understand it.
Why is perhaps a third
of Anna Karenin stuck here on this counter in a remote Indian store?
It is like this.
A certain high official,
United Nations, as it happens, bought a copy of this novel in the
bookshop when he set out on his journeys to cross several oceans
and seas. On the plane, settled in his business class seat, he tore
the book into three parts. He looks around at his fellow passengers
as he does this, knowing he will see looks of shock, curiosity,
but some of amusement. When he was settled, his seat belt tight,
he said aloud to whoever could hear, "I always do this when
I've a long trip. You don't want to have to hold up some heavy great
book." The novel was a paperback, but, true, it is a long book.
This man is well used to people listening when he spoke. "I
always do this, travelling," he confided. "Travelling
at all these days, is hard enough." And as soon as people were
settling down, he opened his part of Anna Karenin, and read. When
people looked his way, curiously or not, he confided in them. "No,
it is really the only way to travel." He knew the novel, liked
it, and this original mode of reading did add spice to what was
after all a well known book.
When he reached the end
of a section of the book, he called the airhostess, and sent it
back to his secretary, travelling in the cheaper seats. This caused
much interest, condemnation, certainly curiosity, every time a section
of the great Russian novel arrived, mutilated, but readable, in
the back part of the plane. Altogether, this clever way of reading
Anna Karenin makes an impression, and probably no one there would
Meanwhile down in the
Indian store, the young woman is holding onto the counter, her little
children clinging to her skirts. She wears jeans, since she is a
modern woman, but over them she had put on the heavy woollen skirt,
part of traditional garb of her people: her children can easily
cling onto it, the thick folds.
She sent a thankful look
at the Indian, whom she knew liked her and was sorry for her, and
she stepped out into the blowing clouds.
The children had gone
past crying, and their throats were full of dust anyway.
This was hard, oh yes,
it was hard, this stepping, one foot after another, through the
dust that lay in soft deceiving mounds under her feet. Hard, hard
- but she was used to hardship, was she not? Her mind was on the
story she had been reading. She was thinking, "She is just
like me, in her white headscarf, and she is looking after children,
too. I could be her, that Russian girl. And the man there, he loves
her and will ask her to marry him. (She had not finished more than
that one paragraph) Yes, and a man will come for me, and take me
away from all this, take me and the children, yes, he will love
me and look after me."
She steps on. The can
of water is heavy on her shoulders. On she goes. The children can
hear the water slop in the can. Half way she stops, sets down the
can. Her children are whimpering and touching the can. She thinks
that she cannot open it, because dust ould blow in. There is no
way she can open the can until she gets home.
tells her children, "Wait"
She has to pull herself
together and go on.
She thinks. My teacher
said there was a library there, bigger than the supermarket, a big
building and it is full of books. The young woman is smiling as
she moves on, the dust blowing in her face. I am clever, she thinks.
Teacher said I am clever. The cleverest in the school - she said
I was. My children will be clever, like me. I will take them to
the library, the place full of books, and they will go to school,
and they will be teachers - my teacher told me I could be a teacher.
They will be far from here, earning money. They will live near the
big library and live a good life.
You may ask how that
piece of the Russian novel ever ended up on that counter in the
It would make a pretty
story. Perhaps someone will tell it.
On goes that poor girl,
held upright by thoughts of the water she would give her children
once home, and drink a little herself. On she goes . . . through
the dreaded dusts of an African drought.
We are a jaded lot, we
in our world - our threatened world. We are good for irony and even
cynicism. Some words and ideas we hardly use, so worn out have they
become. But we may want to restore some words that have lost their
We have a treasure-house
- a treasure - of literature, going back to the Egyptians, the Greeks,
the Romans. It is all there, this wealth of literature, to be discovered
again and again by whoever is lucky enough to come on it. A treasure.
Suppose it did not exist. How impoverished, how empty we would be.
We own a legacy of languages,
poems, histories, and it is not one that will ever be exhausted.
It is there, always.
We have a bequest
of stories, tales from the old storytellers, some of whose names
we know, but some not. The storytellers go back and back, to a clearing
in the forest where a great fire burns, and the old shamans dance
and sing, for our heritage of stories began in fire, magic, the
spirit world. And that is where it is held, today.
Ask any modern storyteller,
and they will say there is always a moment when they are touched
with fire, with what we like to call inspiration and this goes back
and back to the beginning of our race, fire, ice and the great winds
that shaped us and our world.
The storyteller is deep
inside everyone of us. The story-maker is always with us. Let us
suppose our world is attacked by war, by the horrors that we all
of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities,
the seas rise . . . but the storyteller will be there, for it is
our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us - for good and
for ill. It is our stories, the storyteller, that will recreate
us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller,
the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, what we are
at our best, when we are our most creative.
That poor girl trudging
through the dust, dreaming of an education for her children, do
we think that we are better than she is - we, stuffed full of food,
our cupboards full of clothes, stifling in our superfluities?
I think it is that girl
and the women who were talking about books and an education when
they had not eaten for three days, that may yet define us.
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