Saturday, June 28, 2008

Open wide.

I've spent the last couple of weeks with an infected salivary gland, which I'm refusing to accept is tooth-related as that would mean a trip to some hyper-expensive private dental cosmetician thanks to HM Govt's refusal to provide NHS dentistry in Lincs, in revenge for us all voting Tory. Instead, I'm on antibiotics and painkillers and talking out of the side of my mouth like a New Joisey gangster, due to my jaw having locked up. It was worst last Wednesday, when I had a morning appointment in London. So bad that the only thing I could think of to eat for lunch were matchstick-thin McDonalds fries. I could just about poke them through the gap between my teeth and managed to suck the burger in by squashing each half of the bun separately. Nobody noticed. Or if they did, they were only Japanese tourists who always look bewildered anyway.

So on the grounds that the surest way of cheering oneself up is to laugh at the suffering, no sorry.. feel the pain of those who are even worse off, I thought I'd spend the afternoon watching death, desolation, persecution, destitution, unrequited love and torment, with a matinee of Les Miserables at the Queen's. Wonderful.

Anyway... this morning, in a rare listen to the Today programme, I heard Humphries and two elderly historians wondering aloud whether Zimbabweans would rise up and shake off the Mugabe yoke much in the way, they said, that the peoples of the Soviet Union did when their own tyrannies were imploding. I can tell them, the answer is 'no'. Africa isn't Europe, it's just not ready or mature enough for it.

Consider this. It's the church in the hamlet of Thorpe St. Peter, near to here. The first word in its name says it would originally have been a Danish settlement - it stands just beyond the foot of the Lincolnshire Wolds, where the predominant place-name suffix is '-by' and which, before becoming part of the Danelaw, was occupied by the Romans. It would have been founded by a french-speaking lord, whose title and lands were granted by William the Conqueror just a few generations earlier and it represents a British Christian tradition that, even then, was 1000 years old. The doorway, evidently, was built in about 1200, the window to the left made about 75 years later and those under the roof a century or more later still.

The resources for its building and upkeep together with the administration of services and ceremonies, the employment of clerks and vicars, regulation from the Diocese, enforcement of Laws and customs, the collection of tithes... all meant that a hierarchy needed to be in place that possessed literacy, numeracy, technical skill and submission to the discipline and authority required to organise its affairs. There needed to be a reliable system of land-tenure, a currency and a means of settling disputes. It couldn't exist in isolation, it was part of an enterprise that exported the goods it produced throughout Europe, as far afield as Northern Italy and could extend its military reach right to the gates of Jerusalem itself, from where ideas and loot flowed back to it.

All these things were in place. The fulfillment of the needs of Thorpe St. Peter were the nursery for our modern State. Those are our folk-memories. At about the time the porch roof was being finished, the Barons of England were at Runnymede forcing King John to sign the Magna Carta. 800 years later, we're a fully fledged democracy - it's taken that long. A thousand years previously, we were near-savages and Roman invaders looking at Britain's rudimentary technological and social infrastructure would have justifiably thought we were born with the IQs of gnats. It takes those sort of timescales to build up a cultural intelligence. Individuals can learn almost overnight - societies, I believe, can't. Or at least, don't.

So, what happens in Zimbabwe when Mugabe goes will most likely be a civil war, of the kind we all know, that bedevils the whole of Africa. Because the historically-rooted tribal rifts that lie at the heart of the current struggle for supremacy will erupt there as surely as they do from top to bottom of that continent. It shouldn't take millennia for African nations to make the same journey as the West, because they have some benefit in being able to see working models of functioning states; but it will take generations, until civil society based on meritocracy fully replaces those based on tribal loyalties and a social infrastructure capable of peaceful transition becomes embedded in consciousness.

I saw no black faces in the audience last Wednesday. Even an afternoon's light entertainment like Les Mis is full of those recognisable historical and cultural references that reinforce an indigenous Westerner's sense of self and place, so maybe that explains the lack. There can be no African equivalent, yet. Except as a drama, it wouldn't resonate, it can't, it's not their personal history. No more than I can put myself in the mind of an African and, except in the intellectual or emotional sense, relate to being on the victim's end of the slave trade or to being a Ndebele on the receiving end of a Shona thug's baton. It's not how people want it to be, or how with good-will it possibly could be... but it does appear to be how it is.


Glamourpuss said...

Have you read the novel Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe? If not, I recommend it.

And I wonder why Bush isn't lining up to invade Zimbabwe - surely the great protector of World democracy can't have been otherwise motivated when he sent troops into Afghanistan and Iraq, can he?


All Shook Up said...

Yah, if Mugabe discovers oil, he'd better keep it to himself.

I've looked up Achebe on Wiki.. good extensive insight into his African perspective. I'll send for the book.

Worth looking at the pre-colonial history of Zimbabwe, too... clues there as to the present troubles.