Having the time of my life with Abdulrazak Gurnah

It’s breakfast time, 06.00 Kendall Variable Time (KVT), 01.00 Central European Standard Time. It’s difficult to live in a time zone that has no fixed relationship with any other time zone, and whose units vary in length according to the mood of its sole inhabitant.   But not being a man to let myself be bossed around by the harebrained notions of a bunch of dead people, 06.00 takes precedence and I find time to write.

I am not only temporally but spatially dislocated as I have just returned from a 13-bed trip, still thinking about the whereabouts of and preparations for my next move and where the bathroom is as I stumble up the hill to consciousness, not wanting to disturb the sleep of the absent.

I need to get back to CEST, KVT is weakly structured and small tasks easily grow to dinosaur proportions. And when I think about the day’s achievements, buying a bus ticket to Perth, recycling hearing aid batteries, filing documents for my UK storage unit, and translating a two-page divorce decree, my achievements fail to impress. But I usually flounder for a while after travelling.

I allow myself a more structured flounder and start to work through the accumulated pile of London Review and TLS. There’s a full-page ad in the LRB for Harper’s magazine. Harper’s magazine I’ve heard of but know nothing about and have never read. My cherished prejudices tell me that it’s probably not for me, full of material about fashion and difficult choices between expensive consumer items that I’ve no wish or ability to own. This is confirmed by my first google to an article about investment. But then my eye catches a long and serious piece about the Nobel prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah. Making a note that my cherished prejudices probably need tweaking, I read it through. To my shame, I have not followed the 2021 Nobel literature prize award and know nothing about Gurnah.

My lifestyle where I have no TV and do not subscribe to a daily paper needs attention to prevent the world drifting away and getting up to all sorts of things beyond my ken. I have a tortured attitude to subscribing to a daily paper. It costs quite a bit and is often unsatisfactory with a lot of ads and lifestyle and sports content that lacks interest for me. And the paper copy has to be disposed of. And I know that if I have an e-subscription that I will skim it carelessly and not get my money’s worth. This is irrational but David Kendall is like this; I have to work with him and know from long experience that trying to buck the foible doesn’t work.

Gurnah seems one of the Nobel Committee’s better choices and his writings on the travails of the former Asian community in East Africa and more generally on exile interest me. I shall make a list of his work, which is presumably readily available now that the surge to the shelves after the announcement has abated. The review in Harper’s was by Nadifa Mohamed, a British writer whose family came from Somalia, whom I have also never heard of but would like to know more about.

In her review “When the Monsoon Winds Turned. The lost worlds of Abdulrazak Gurnah”, she refers to the fate of the last Sultan of Zanzibar, exiled to Southsea on England’s South Coast. I’m not clear from a cursory reading of her review which of Gurnah’s works she is referring to or whether this is background information but I shall return to this. It reminds me of Napoleon III in exile in Chislehurst in Kent, although he at least received a secret visit from Queen Victoria. I somehow doubt that E. Windsor popped down to Pompey to hob nob with the deposed Sultan in his Southsea semi.

Portsmouth and Southsea is almost home ground for me after my first twelve years in nearby West Sussex. Although I mostly think of Portsmouth as a naval base with its flat, vacant 1950s architecture after the awful pasting the city received in WW2, I’ve never related to Southsea as a seaside resort. I must add it to my exploration of the area after visiting Selsey this trip. I want to look at another small island nearby Thorney and the maritime environments of Bosham and Chichester harbour. It’s strange I don’t know these as they were in cycling distance of my old Sussex home but it’s taken me a long time to learn to appreciate quality rather than quantity when travelling and to learn that less is sometimes more when I peddled to distant locations.

Portsmouth is otherwise associated with my mother’s older sibling, Aunt Mabel whom (to her delight, I suspect), I later called Aunt Fantasia after a record I found during an uncomfortable night in a sleeping bag in her “drawing room” above their fruit and greengrocery shop. At this time though she was still Aunt Mabs and my abiding memory of an early trip to Portsmouth is a walk around the block to purchase a single small piece of lace (or imitation lace perhaps) that had taken my fancy and was intended as a present for my mother. Adult opinion thought this too scant a present (it was admittedly a minuscule piece of cloth but the retention of this memory indicates that adult opinion failed to convince). I don’t remember what if anything the tiny piece was replaced by (the nine-year-old DK’s attention span was probably not great).

I wouldn’t anyway have brushed shoulders with the deposed Sultan of Zanzibar, who came much later when I was far from Portsmouth and Aunt Mabs and Uncle Charles had joined the ranks of the dear departed.

And it’s now 02.43 CEST and approaching bedtime in KVT. I’m glad to be able to write again after my laptop went on strike in the UK and travelled home separately.

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