Towards Better Democracy

Good words, well written, better the world. Good literature betters the world immeasurably.


I have a horror of houses, of homes. Not the houses, homes that other people inhabit. Their homes, their houses are a pleasure to visit. No, the homes, the houses, I have a horror of are the ones I inhabit.

There has to be room for other people.

What struck me in writing Absence with the treated picture of Rothesay Terrace beside me is that a part of each of us that lived there is still locked up there. Most of us that did live there are now dead. My father, my mother, my one brother.

I have a brother that is still alive, though, for reasons I shall not go into here, I refer to him as the more dead than my dead brother.

So the insight is true for me. I still live. I am alive to look at the treated photograph. And the strange thing is that the treated photograph is more powerful in its treated form than the plain 2010 photograph of how Rothesay Terrace is today.

I took the photograph and treated it, subjected it to an effect available in a well known art software. A simple effect that transformed the photograph. Did that make it powerful? Yes it did. How much played a part in giving it a title: Rothesay Terrace as my mother might have painted it?

Writing the piece had a powerful effect on me. A friend arrived to the house to visit me and we went out for coffee and, in his company I could feel the cloak of the piece, the past, a swelling unconscious subsuming me. I felt drugged. I felt that if I talked about it that the feeling would dissipate. I did not talk about it. The feeling still nonetheless dissipated and I began to feel normal again. When I got home with my friend, I felt that claustrophobic feeling that being in house can bring upon me. I wanted to go out. To go anywhere. Just to get out, Into the open air. Houses have this effect upon me.

I go into a house and bring with me the ghosts that live invisibly with me. They inhabit the house with me. They are an unseen unspeaking presence.

My most vivid experience of this phenomenon with which I have lived for many years. Maybe we all live with it. Maybe each of us carries these ghosts of the past. The unresolved presences, the unresolved conversations, the unresolved issues. 

In South Africa, in Johannesburg, I sang with University of Witwatersrand Choir. The choir was led by a very nice fellow, Jimmy, a member of the Music Department faculty. He was aided in the running of the choir by his wife, Sandy. Sandy and Jimmy were going with their children out of town for a week, a fortnight, I don’t remember which, and they asked me to look after the house for them. They thought it would give me pleasure. They knew me to be single, to not have a steady girlfriend at the time. They knew I lived in a small bachelor’s pad. They thought that I would enjoy having the run of a house. I don’t remember if there were any pets to look after. If there were, then looking after them was effortless for I don’t remember that aspect.

What I remember vividly, as I say, is that I did not enjoy staying in that house. It is possible, is it not, that I am a sensitive, even oversensitive person and that the vibe that the regular inhabitants of the house had endued the house with was unpleasant? That is quite possible. But what is also possible is that I took in my own ghosts.

In the tiny little one room pad in which I lived in Rosebank, Johannesburg, there was no room for the ghosts. That in a single room I was much less aware of the presence of these unseen creatures. That in a large house there was room for these ghost to echo off the walls and into the other rooms.

So why do I say that something of each of us is locked in the house at 13 Rothesay Terrace? I say it because for a moment, for an undefined length of time, between 1950 or so when we entered the house and took up residence there, and 1954 when my parents split up, each of us was happy there. And it doesn’t really matter for how long it was, for happiness unites a family, gives it bonds unbreakable, will give each member of that family an undertow to which they will refer throughout the rest of their lives. Hatred, strife, these too bind a family. They do. But in quite a different way.

A single moment of happiness in any person’s life, especially if experienced in early years will echo down the years, will serve as a reference point by comparison of which all other experiences will be judged. That happiness cannot be created. There is no means by which it can be induced. It is a spontaneous joy that reaffirms the very essence of what it is to be human. And it is understood, regardless of age, position, wealth or lack thereof. A tiny child understands it as much as an old man or woman teetered on the edge of the grave.

The well from which that happiness springs is love. And yet love itself seems not sufficient in itself. Love, I would say is an essential, necessary but not sufficient. What else is required? I think the answer lies with why that happiness occurred at 13 Rothesay Terrace and not at 44 Constitution Street, Leith, our prior home.

I think the other requirement is security. It may be that I am speaking purely from a child’s point of view but I don’t think so. If I reflect for a moment on the moments of happiness I have experienced as an adult. Pure happiness. Not pleasure, such as the news of good exam results. The security of feeling free from immediate concerns, of immediate worries. Does wealth bring this sense of security. I don’t know. I am not wealthy. Those with wealth might better be able to address the question. Again, I don’t think so. I think that a home, that having a home, can bring that sense of security.

That we could be a family in the Amazon. That our home could be the open air. That we owned not a great deal if anything at all. I think that sense of security would come from each member of the family feeling it. That the father was capable and had to means to protect and defend. That the mother had, under the shield of the father, the capacity to love and to tend. That the children sensed and responded to the love offered with love and felt cared for and protected. That each member was fulfilling to the greatest extent that nature could provide the role to which nature had allotted each.

And so, I think, that for a while, at 13 Rothesay Terrace such a realm existed.

Then why do I say that for each of us, something remains locked indoors at 13 Rothesay Terrace? Because we were rent asunder. We did not leave freely.

A child, knowing a happy childhood will inevitably grow up. Will inevitably leave the nest. At least most children do. The transition is gradual, of childhood into adulthood. Few humans report a continuance of the happiness they have known as children to attend them in adult life. But the transition is gradual.

In the case of my family, we were all wrenched from Rothesay Terrace. My brothers and I, by being placed in a children’s home. A city department, a set of city officials made the decision to deprive my father of his rights, to father is own children.

My mother too was separated violently from her home, from our home. My father had come home to hear that my brother had witnessed my mother dancing naked upon the marital bed in front of a stranger. My father, the phrase goes, threw her out.

And my father, too, was violently separated from the home, his home, our home; evicted by the same city, different department, different officials. He was evicted for occupying, as a single person, a house that was intended and reserved by those same city officials for families. Such as we had been.

Did 13 Rothesay Terrace then become some sort of myth implanted in my mind, in the minds of my brothers, during the course of the years in which we spent in our father’s care. Entirely possible. Possible, but not probable. For why is that treated photograph of Rothesay Terrace in front of me so powerful? Why is it so evocative?

Why is its presence still felt?

Filed under: Memoir, ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: