Read an Excerpt
Over the plains of Ethiopia the sun rose as I had not seen it in seven years. A big, cool, empty sky flushed a little above a rim of dark mountains. The landscape 20,000 feet below gathered itself from the dark and showed a pale gleam of grass, a sheen of water. The red deepened and pulsed, radiating streaks of fire. There hung the sun, like a luminous spider's egg, or a white pearl, just below the rim of the, mountains. Suddenly it swelled, turned red, roared over the horizon and drove up the sky like a train engine. I knew how far below in the swelling heat the birds were an orchestra in the trees about the villages of mud huts; how the long grass was straightening while dangling flocks of dewdrops dwindled and dried; how the people were moving out into the fields about the business of herding and hoeing.
Here is where the sun regulates living in a twelve-hour cycle. Here the sun is a creature of the same stuff as oneself; powerful and angry, but at least responsive, and no mere dispenser of pale candlepower.
When I was first in England I was disturbed all the time in my deepest sense of probability because the sun went down at four in the middle of an active afternoon, filling a cold, damp, remote sky with false pathos. Or, at eleven in the morning, instead of blazing down direct, a hand's-span from centre, it would appear on a slant and in the wrong place, at eight o'clock position, a swollen, misshapen, watery ghost of a thing peering behind chimney-pots. The sun in England should be feminine, as it is in Germany.
During that first year in England, I had a vision of London. I cannot recall now. Recently I found some pages I wrote then: it was anightmare city that I lived in for a year; endless miles of heavy, damp, dead building on a dead, sour earth, inhabited by pale, misshapen, sonless creatures under a low sky of grey vapour.
Then, one evening, walking across the park, the light welded buildings, tress and scarlet buses into something familiar and beautiful, and I knew myself to be at home. Now London is to me the pleasantest of cities, full of the most friendly and companionable people. But that year of horrible estrangement from everything around me was real enough. It was because, bred in Africa, I needed to be in direct physical touch with what I saw; I needed the cycle of hot, strong light, of full, strong dark.
One does not look at London, but at a pretty house, a glimpse of trees over rooftops, the remains of an old street, a single block of flats. The eye learns to reject the intolerable burden of the repetition of commercialization. It is the variegated light of London which creates it; at night, the mauvish wet illumination of the city sky; or the pattern of black shadow-leaves on a wall; or, when the sun emerges, the instant gaiety of a pavement.
On that morning over Africa I learned that I had turned myself inwards, had become a curtain-drawer, a fire-hugger, the inhabitant of a cocoon. Easy enough to turn outwards I felt I had never, left at all. This was my air, my landscape, and above all, my sun.
Africa belongs to the Africans; the sooner they take it back the better. But-a country also belongs to those who feel at home in it. Perhaps it may be that the love of Africa the country will be strong enough to link people who hate each other now. Perhaps.
On this trip home a man with whom I had been arguing bitterly about politics said to me suddenly: Where did I come from? I said Lomagundi. He knew it well, he said. He liked the highveld, he remarked, defensively. For the highveld is reaches of pale, dry grass, studded with small, dry, stunted trees-wide, empty, barren country. I said yes, and the Kalahari, too. Yes, he said; and the Karroo. and the Kalahari and the Karroo are stages nearer desert of the highveld, full of bitter shrubs, cacti, lizards and hot stones. They are enormous, with a scarifying, barren beauty. They, too are almost empty.
For a moment we shared the understanding of people whohave been made by the same Iandscape.
But I am not sure whether this passion for emptiness, for space, I only has meaning in relation, to Europe. Africa is scattered all over with white men who push out and away from cities and people, to remote farms and outposts, seeking solitude. But perhaps all they need is to leave the seethe and the burden of Europe behind.
I remember an old prospector came to our farm one evening when I was a child. He had spent all his life wandering around Africa. He said he had just gone home to England for a holiday of six months, but left at the end of a week. Too many people, he said.; a tame little country, catching trains and keeping to time-tables. He had, learned his lesson; he would never leave the highveld again. 'People,' he said shouting at himself-for, he was certainly arguing against his own consciencepeople are mad, wanting to change Africa. Why don't they leave it alone? A man can breathe here, he can be himself. And,' he went on, getting angrier and angrier, 'when we've filled Africa up, what then? The world is, only tolerable because of the empty places in it-millions of people all crowded together, fighting and struggling, but behind them, somewhere, enormous, empty places. I tell you what I think,' he said, 'when the world's filled up, we'll have to get hold of a star. Any star. Venus, or Mars. Get hold of it and leave it empty. Man needs an empty space somewhere for his spirit to rest in.'