The comedy highlight of a month already replete with unintentional comedy and tragedy foretold could be found on stage at the back of the Southern Belle pub in Brighton. This is where my friend Peter made his UK debut as a stand-up comedian with a hilarious routine about his relationship with the human resources department and senior management of the company in which we both used to work. Fiona, a mutual friend, also once resident in Basel, opened the bill and made me laugh loud and often in a narrative about the tribulations of her dating experiences. Four other stand-up trainees were bravely doing their five minutes’ worth in front of a small but appreciative crowd. Safe in the shadow of the audience, I admired them all.
The next day, together with my niece Isabella and her husband Igal, and their smiling new baby Ayla, my cousin Diane and I were feted by Ella, Gwen, cousin Brendan and Jessie’s partner Jurrat in a first ever joint birthday celebration of us cousins. Alli had to stay home to accompany her parents and so, sadly, missed the festivities. We started with a group meander around Crystal Palace Park, taking in the popular dinosaur route, scattered with children and dogs. At the appropriate time for lunch, we got to the Paxton, a solid state pub at the bottom of Gipsy Hill. We came back to Jurrat and Jessie’s flat in Gipsy Hill afterwards for a birthday cake made by Ella, fruit crumble made by Jessie, and a fine cheese board. We also kept an eye on the impressive Scottish rugby victory over France. I had some great presents, which included a bottle of port, a fine wine, a Stilton, a subscription to the National Trust, a watch, much appreciated books, sensible suede shoes, and a raincoat. Re-reading the previous sentence, I know that the presents served to identify me precisely as a crusty old boomer.
The time came for my visit to the Toleza Farm in Malawi with my sister-in-law Julia. Even as Europe started to lock itself down, I took the Eurostar to Brussels, where Julia and I spent a full closeted day packing our bags and sorting out old family photos and files. With five large cases, two of which were crammed with my brother Clive’s quality suits and shirts destined for new owners, we flew fifteen hours to Blantyre via a stopover in crowded Addis. We filled in a form on our arrival and were asked where we lived (but not where we had just come from). Like a dolt I said England and like a genius Julia said the Turks and Caicos Islands. The result was that I was immediately requested to isolate myself for 14 days and Julia was let through with a sweaty flourish of a sticky clipboard. I was lucky to be allowed even to ride in the car that was waiting for us for the two and a half hours’ drive to Balaka in the central region of the country. I was also lucky that I had been told to stay at the site that I was visiting. The Malawi mandate in practice confined me to the 4000-acre bounds of a farm. Naturally I was anxious to beat them (the bounds).
The farmhouse was simply and adequately furnished, but the farm itself is a glorious stretch of different landscapes, soils and terrains. The views are long, deep and wide, with a light blue backdrop of mountains. The different soils range from black through red and orange to light brown; the terrain from areas of almost virgin forest to large dams filled with lilies, high savannah, rich pastures, meadows and ancient rocky plateaux swept clean of topsoil. The farm sits atop a water table (streams and rivulets trickled everywhere), and the soil is so fertile that it can grow everything from maize, cotton, soya and wheat to tobacco, vegetables, hemp and groundnuts. A large herd of big and powerful Kenyan Boran cattle provide good milk and meat, fed by a dozen different planted fodders. Many of the farm tracks are bordered by jatropha plants, which produce an all-purpose oil used to make soap, or a petrol additive when the oil price finally climbs back to $75 a barrel. The farm was first a colonial government farm before it became a national food farm after independence. It had long been abandoned before Clive and his family bought it in 2006 and set about restoring its fortunes. Clive’s ashes are scattered over one peaceful area with a view southwest across to the mountains, but his restless spirit could be felt everywhere.
The continuing absence of any evidence of the virus in the surrounding villages or in official statistics and the increasingly bad news from Europe made Malawi seem a safe haven. However, the Malawi government announced increased restrictions a week after my arrival, including social distancing, travel bans and, in the same announcement, an exhortation to the public to ‘hold hands’ in national solidarity. Several African airlines were rumoured to be closing down routes to Europe, and deaths occurring in Ethiopia and South Africa, whose very crowded capital airports would feature in any of our possible return schedules. Our choices of movement, activity, and potential escape routes were being closed, despite Malawi having neither positive tests nor deaths. However, the long-reigning President didn’t seem a paragon of transparency, even as he was condemning and arresting top lawyers and leaders of the opposition after cheating his win in the recent national elections. The daily broadcast TV global round-ups took their toll on us and on our nearest and dearest. Julia and I started to realise that while Malawi was safe for the moment, and our personal situations were good, future developments elsewhere might trap us in a country tragically lacking in good public health facilities. Julia’s daughters found a ticket for us to escape before we lost the last chance of doing so. We departed with heavy hearts but in the certain knowledge that it was the right decision to cut short the visit – the flight we took was said to be the last out of Blantyre. At the time of writing, there are still no positive cases of infection in Malawi, but, as in many other countries, these were more about the extent of testing than a true indication of the future situation.
The quatorzaine was much more restrictive in England than in Malawi and for very good reasons, but I was surprised by the lack of information or controls when our multinational plane from Addis Ababa arrived at Heathrow. Past the customs area there was just a voluntary lane that led to washbasins and a poster exhorting us to use them. I came back to London’s emptied streets and sparsely filled trains and went directly into strict isolation in Burgess Hill. From then my meals and requested items have been left outside the door of the house’s separate annex, which Alli and Gwen vacated just before my arrival. I have since applied for several jobs, been turned down for as many, watched the BBC’s The Split, a brilliantly disturbing series, and an inspirational documentary on mycelium, the oldest and largest living network on Earth. It’s 80 minutes’ long, (10 minutes ante-CV) https://drive.google.com/file/d/10wvmcfou0KBPK5CeqeRlETc2TLQcMk5h/view?usp=sharing. I walk with the dogs on most afternoons but otherwise stay alone and participate in online family quizzes.
My only political rumination is that in this time of virus and slowly unfolding human disaster, politicians by their words and deeds appear to metastasise either into serious savants or blustering bluffoons. I fear that the difference will be measured in many hundreds of thousands of lives.
Yours doing time
View south-west from Toleza Farm, Malawi