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Youth: the story of my life, well, almost

8 April 2015

YouthYouth by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this book off the library shelf and read the blurb, and decided to read it because there seemed to be parallels with my own youth.

What did I hope for? To make sense of my own youth? To make sense of things that happened to me?

The protagonist in the book is a mathematics student at the University of Cape Town who wants to go to London to become a, writer, a poet. In the 1960s he goes, but having arrived in London he needs to get a job in order to live, and with his mathematical qualifications he manages to get one as a computer programmer with IBM. In his spare time he sits in the British Museum doing research for his writing, and later for a thesis for which he is offered a bursary.

But gradually loneliness and mediocrity and boredom squeeze all the creativity out of him and he has less and less to say.

And I could see parallels with my own life. Why should I write about my own life? It’s not about me, it’s about the book. But I picked up the book thinking it was about me, or that it might tell me something about me, so in a sense it is about me, and I compare myself with the protagonist in the book.

I was a student at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, and studied there from 1963 to 1965, majoring in Theology and Biblical Studies, with a minor in History. The Anglican bishop of Natal had found me a place for further study at St Chad’s College, Durham, for the post-graduate Diploma in Theology.

So, like the protagonist in Youth, I went to the UK in January 1966. The UK academic year only begins in September so I got a job driving buses in London to fill in the time, and I stayed in a lonely bed-sit, and for six months spent much of my spare time in my room in Streatham feeling alienated. Like the protagonist I felt a bit concerned about the Vietnam War. He wrote to the Chinese embassy and offered to go and teach English. I went to a couple of demos, one of them by accident.

So much for the similarities, But there were also differences.

The book tells nothing of the protagonist’s journey, how he left, his first impressions on arriving, or anything like that. Just that he was glad to be in London, and glad to be out of the stifling restrictions of South Africa, and planned never to return. He went by sea, because he landed at Southampton. Though he seems to have been uninvolved in political activities in South Africa, he did not approve of the Nationalist government, I wondered how, having majored in Mathematics, he was allowed to enrol for postgraduate studies in English literature, with a thesis on Ford Madox Ford. In my experience South African universities don’t work like that, but J.M. Coetzee was a professor of English literature at the University of Cape Town for several years, so perhaps he knows something that I don’t.

I was a bit more involved in political activities in my final year at university than the guy in the book, and in the middle of my final exams got an official warning under the Suppression of Communism Act that if I did not desist from activities that “further or are calculated to further any of the objects of communism” action would be taken against me. Most of my friends who had had such warnings got banning orders a few months later, so, in view of my plans to go and study in the UK I dropped my idea of a political holiday, and after my last exam went to Johannesburg and worked as a bus driver, saving money to pay for the boat fare overseas. Like the protagonist in the book, I wanted to go by sea.

I drove buses and did as much overtime as I could to save money for the boat fare. Nevertheless, one afternoon as I was about to go to work I got a phone call from a Detective Sergeant van den Heever, of, as he said, the CID. He wanted to come and see me. I told him I was going to work, and would arrange to see him in the morning, after my overtime. I thought he could only want me for one (or both) of two things: to confiscate my passport or give me a banning order, either of which would scupper my plans for overseas study.

After consultation with friends, I decided it would be best to be out of the country when Detective Sergent van den Heever wanted to see me the next morning, so I drove through the night to Bulawayo in UDI Rhodesia in my mother’s car, with a friend who would bring the car back. We crossed the border at Beit Bridge when it opened at dawn, and by the time we got to Bulawayo there was a message from my mother to say she had booked me on a flight to London. So I boarded the plane late in the afternoon, and arrived in London the following day, feeling homesick, like an exile.

Unlike the bloke in the book, my alienation set in right away. I hadn’t expected culture shock, because after all they spoke English, there, didn’t they? But it was all so sudden and so strange. I suspect many South Africans who left South Africa in a hurry in the 1960s had similar experiences to mine, but the book mentions nothing of that.

One of the first things I had to do after arriving was to apply for an Aliens Registration Certificate. And when I got it, it said that I was not permitted to take employment, paid or unpaid, without the permission of the Minister of Labour. So how was I to survive for eight months until the university term began? The protagonist in the book faced nothing like that.

So I began to ask how I could get that condition waived, so I could get a job. Well, they said, if you come to us showing you have a written job offer, you can apply for that to be altered. But no one was prepared to offer a job and then wait for the bureaucracy to grant permission. It was the classic Catch 22, just like black people in South Africa had to face under the pass laws, but there it was in their own country. I knew about the effexta of the pass laws from being told about it and from reading, but now I was experiencing it first hand. Useful experience if one wants to be a writer and write a book. That’s what the protagonist in the book says too.

After a number of unsuccessful attempts, I worked out how to play the system. I went to London Transport, applied for a job as a bus driver, noting that there was a labour exchange just across the road. Once I and the other applicants had been definitely offered the job, I asked the bloke at London Transport to sign the paper from the Ministry of Labour saying that employing me would not deprive a British citizen of a job. That was unlikely — London Transport had more vacancies (about 7000) than the entire running staff employed by the Johannesburg Transport Department (about 1700).

While the others all went off to tea I scuttled across the road to the labour exchange, showed them the paper with the job offer, and the application form from the Home Office for permission to take employment, and said “please sign there and put your stamp on it”. The bloke behind the counter looked at me as if I was mad, but did what I asked, and I went back across the road and joined the others for tea.

Having passed out as a driver (and yes, driving double-decker buses on the skid pan was great fun), I had to choose a garage. I said Peckham or Lewisham, which were the closest to some South African friends I might want to visit in my time off. But they said, no, it has to be where you live. I said I don’t live anywhere. I’m staying with a bloke who put me up out of the kindness of his heart, but now wants me out of his guest room. But that didn’t wash. Brixton was closest to his place so I must go there

I looked at the notices offering rooms to let. There was one with an Indian landlord. I went and knocked on the door. While I was waiting for someone to answer the door of the next door house opened (the houses were all built up close together — I hadn’t yet learned that they were called terraces), and an English woman asked what I wanted. I said they had advertised a room to let. She said, “They’re Indians, you know. I wouldn’t like you to stay there.” I was gobsmacked (well, not really, “gobsmacked” only came into the language about 20 years later, but you know what I mean). I thought I’d left such racism behind in South Africa, and one of the cool things about being in Britain was that I could have an Indian landlord and the government wouldn’t do a thing to stop me. I hadn’t taken nosy neighbours into account.

That one fell through, but the next one I tried advertised an African landlady. That felt like closer to home. She turned out to be from Sierra Leone, which is a long way from South Africa, but at least halfway home. She was Mrs Emily Williams, and her daughter Joyce was in her last year at high school and hoping to start at an English university at the same time as I was. The next door neighbours there were English too, but a lot more friendly.

So the book was my story, but not my story. Perhaps another book needs to be written. Perhaps several other books need to be written.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. 8 April 2015 11:03 pm

    Fr Deacon,

    I hope you are collecting all of these “life writings” somewhere, on your family site or elsewhere. I think your life would make a very interesting book indeed, especially if you were able to include your Dystopian Tales and commentary on apartheid. I would most definitely buy it.

    Blessed Holy Week & Pascha.

    in California

  2. ziscore permalink
    6 April 2017 1:40 pm

    I felt quite the same way as you while reading this book. However, after reading how you reached the conclusion, I feel like an impostor. I’m 22 and my life isn’t half as hard as you or Coetzee’s. Bunch of rhetorical depressing questions do make rounds in my mind like John’s but it’ll be false-equivalence still.

    I didn’t find the book to be particularly soul-crushing. I cannot even figure if waiting for someone to transform me into an artist is a particularly valid quest at all. Not sure if love will be the thing that will cure me of boyhood like Coetzee thinks for John. Why doesn’t anyone critique the way John dealt with women? What happens to people who, like John, are too distracted to be in the moment with the people they are with? Is it the right way to be?


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