Less­ing’s Ter­ror­ist

The London Magazine - - PHILIP HALL - Philip Hall

My friend­ship with Doris Less­ing ended when I jumped on a ta­ble in the can­teen of the Polytech­nic of Cen­tral Lon­don and shouted:

‘Come friendly Rus­sian bombs and rain on Lon­don!’

I felt some­one star­ing. It was Less­ing. She had just pub­lished a book on how nu­clear war was sur­viv­able. It was shame­ful that our gov­ern­ment – Mar­garet Thatcher’s gov­ern­ment – wasn’t build­ing nu­clear shel­ters like the Swiss. Every time she spoke of the pos­si­bil­ity of nu­clear war tears would well up.

I got down off the ta­ble sheep­ishly, too em­bar­rassed to ex­plain:

‘I was be­ing sar­cas­tic. Sar­cas­tic.’

The night be­fore my Rus­sian class started I knew I was go­ing to meet Doris Less­ing. I picked up a book she had writ­ten and read it through. The char­ac­ter of the black male-ser­vant in the book was im­pen­e­tra­bly ex­otic. I felt she had de­hu­man­ized him – turned him into a cypher for the heart of dark­ness. I ac­costed her the next day.

‘I read the The Grass is Singing.’

‘Re­ally? What did you think?’

‘Would you write it the same way now?’

She paused. ‘No, I wouldn’t.’

‘Ah.’ I said, with­out ex­plain­ing the cause of my ir­ri­ta­tion.

In the 1980s I thought of my­self as a com­mu­nist. Nearly all of our teach­ers were dis­si­dents, émi­grés and re­tired spies. I was open about my be­liefs. If you stud­ied Rus­sian in those days, be­ing a com­mu­nist dis­qual­i­fied you from al­most every gov­ern­ment job. I wasn’t plan­ning on hav­ing a suc­cess­ful ca­reer in the Bri­tish Over­sees Ca­reer Ser­vice.

Of course Doris Less­ing’s novel, The Good Ter­ror­ist, probably arose out of the the re­sult of her close ob­ser­va­tion of the young peo­ple she as­so­ci­ated with dur­ing the Fifties, Six­ties and per­haps even the Sev­en­ties. It wasn’t about me.

Doris Less­ing never saw the front of the Tan­za­nia Stan­dard in 1972 which fea­tured a pic­ture of my brothers and I and our friends with the cap­tion un­der­neath:

Soon these chil­dren will be tak­ing up weapons and fight­ing for the lib­er­a­tion of their coun­tries.

On our man­tel­piece was a piece of alu­minium cut out of the fuse­lage of a downed B52. It was etched with a heroic scene from the strug­gle of the North Viet­namese Lib­er­a­tion Army. A large pho­to­graph of a portly Che hung on the wall. My fa­ther was the first jour­nal­ist from a South African na­tional news­pa­per to be banned in 1963. In 1962 my mother had gone to jail for ‘in­sult­ing the dig­nity of the South African pres­i­dent’ and for be­ing caught red-handed with pots of glue and posters that ex­plained why the ANC was turn­ing to the armed strug­gle.

At my mother’s fu­neral Marcelino in 2007, for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent of FRE­LIMO, a deadly enemy of western in­volve­ment in Africa from the

1960s to the 1980s, gave the ora­tion. Af­ter­wards Marcelino ex­plained to me why he dis­liked Che Gue­vara:

He came to us and asked us to fight in the Congo. Why would we fight in the Congo? It had noth­ing to do with us. I think he had this view be­cause he was a par­venu to the Cuban strug­gle. He just hap­pened to hook up with Fidel and the other Cubans in Mi­ami and jumped on the Granma. He had no aware­ness of all the spade­work that rev­o­lu­tion and na­tional lib­er­a­tion need. He jumped off that boat with Fidel and started shoot­ing bul­lets and they won. He thought rev­o­lu­tion was just about fir­ing bul­lets and then call­ing the peas­ants and work­ers to join in.

‘And he was a racist.’ said Marcelino.

‘Re­ally? Che?’

‘Yes. Our fight­ers had just downed a Por­tuguese jet with a SAM, a heat­seek­ing, anti-air­craft mis­sile. He re­fused to be­lieve that Mozam­bi­cans could do that. He was a racist.’

It was 1972 and we were liv­ing in Dar-es-Salaam. I was 12 and I re­mem­ber rid­ing on the back of a Chi­nese mil­i­tary truck driven by ANC fight­ers into the camp. I begged them.

‘Please, please send me to South Africa. I want to be a spy for the ANC, for you - a sabo­teur.’

They laughed. The fight­ers made chicken stew with spinach and tomato for us all and sent us home.

And yet, in the 1980s, some of my friends did fight. They were trained in the Soviet Union and East Ger­many. By the late 1990s they were in mid­dle

rank­ing and senior po­si­tions in the mil­i­tary and gov­ern­ments of sev­eral coun­tries across Africa. They fought tooth and nail against the South Africans and UNITA in An­gola and Namibia along­side Cuban vol­un­teers and won. In the end they were de­feat­ing the South Africans in set piece bat­tles with tanks. It was this that caused the South Africans to ne­go­ti­ate se­ri­ously with the ANC, not the in­ter­na­tional Anti-Apartheid move­ment.

My brothers and I had only ever thought of our­selves as South African ex­iles, but in 1976 my par­ents de­cided that any sac­ri­fices to be made would be theirs alone, not ours. They sent a let­ter to Oliver Tambo, the Pres­i­dent of the ANC be­fore Man­dela, who they knew, of­fer­ing them­selves en­tirely to the strug­gle, with the pro­viso that we, their chil­dren, would have noth­ing to do with it. Their of­fer was re­fused. Per­haps they were not con­sid­ered use­ful enough. So, even­tu­ally, they both joined the UN. They re­tired to South Africa in the 90s. Sat­is­fy­ingly, they were ac­knowl­edged as ANC vet­er­ans.

My il­lu­sions of be­ing part of some great his­tor­i­cal process, il­lu­sions built up through­out child­hood and ado­les­cence, slowly dif­fused. I con­fined my­self to start­ing stu­dent so­ci­eties, go­ing on anti-Nazi league pick­ets and join­ing in with the Kit­sons who sang and danced on the pave­ment out­side South Africa House. I stud­ied every rev­o­lu­tion that had ever taken place, ar­gued with every teacher I had ever had about his­tory and eco­nom­ics, and I failed al­most every exam I took.

There was a book of po­etry which came out of the strug­gle for free­dom in South­ern Africa called When Bul­lets Be­gin to Flower. But in the 1980s I had no in­vi­ta­tion to the in­tox­i­cat­ing his­tor­i­cal ro­mance of bul­lets and mar­tyr­dom tak­ing place in South­ern Africa.

I was with Doris. There had just been a bomb at­tempt on the ANC of­fices in Lon­don near King’s Cross. Thatcher had called Man­dela a ter­ror­ist. We stood to­gether look­ing out of a big glass win­dow over­look­ing the city. I

pointed out what I thought were MI5 head­quar­ters.

‘We should blow them up in turn. They col­lab­o­rated with BOSS, you know.’

She turned to look at me. ‘Why don’t you?’

We shared a class. One of our teach­ers was a Mr Borovsky. He had been a well-known lit­er­ary critic in the Soviet Union, but had de­fected and now taught lit­er­a­ture. His party trick was to teach Zoschenko’s book, Peo­ple. The book was about an id­i­otic ide­al­ist in the spirit of Can­dide or Don Quixote, who in­sists on see­ing the bright side of com­mu­nism while the ev­i­dence of hu­man ve­nal­ity, bru­tal­ity and du­plic­ity is all around him. In de­scrib­ing the du­plic­ity of the com­mu­nists he looked di­rectly at me. He gri­maced un­pleas­antly and said.

‘We call these peo­ple ‘Tuneyad­stvo’.’ What does it mean?’ I asked ‘Par­a­sites. Blood­suck­ers.’ He said, star­ing.

At the time, I had no idea why Less­ing chose to be­friend me, invit­ing me into her home from time-to-time. Later on I read an ar­ti­cle in the Ob­server or the Guardian. It was about a young woman who had also been adopted by Less­ing. I found an echo.

‘I don’t think she even liked me.’ the woman wrote, still puz­zled. ‘It was as if she had made some kind of prom­ise to her­self. As if she were study­ing me.’

Less­ing smiled most of the time.

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