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Posts tagged ‘Cars’

3. Why Read?

In my house in Freetown there is a room that the landlord calls the library. That term is over grandiose, perhaps. It is not much more than a cubicle, with a view out towards the mango tree and the guard-post at the top of the compound.

Bookshelves line one wall of the library. Their contents fascinate me, as do the other antebellum relics in the house, like the green telephone with a rotary dial that sits on a table downstairs and still sometimes produces a dial tone, though there are next to no landlines now in the city. But the bookshelves in the library are intriguing not so much for their contents, as for the condition their contents are in.

At roughly head-height are four bound volumes, containing the laws of Sierra Leone for 1960. 1960 was the year before Sierra Leone became independent from Britain. On the inside front cover of each volume a rubric is printed: “A poisonous insecticidal solution has been used in binding this book,” it states.

Whatever that half-century-old pesticide was, it was not strong enough. The covers of the law books have been excavated, run through, burrowed by some invertebrate. Probably by a termite. Meanwhile, the outsides of the covers are streaked with grey-green mould.

There’s almost too much metaphor here. It’s too apparent, a sleight of authorial hand that you couldn’t get away with in fiction. The laws have rotted. The decay of the law is almost too apt an analogy for what happened after Sierra Leone became independent, the year after the books were made.

Corruption swelled, the second post-independent prime minister stole $250 million in 1960s money in three years in office. His successor made himself president, declared a one-party state, and made off with an estimated half a billion dollars. Within a few years began disintegration, the long, slow process of state failure that, three decades later, would birth one of Africa’s most brutal civil wars.

But those metaphors are not what I seek to say, not now at least. I just want to say that I live in a place where books rot. I have always read, in childhood, in adolescence; later for three years of an English degree reading was my profession. But living in a place where the climate is physically hostile to the continued existence of literature does confer upon it extra value.

There are no bookshops in Freetown, either. That’s the other side of this bind. The city lacks many things; enough grid power to allow the concept of the ‘power cut’ to have some meaning, reliable telecoms, and, for much of its benighted population, reasonable nutrition. But, selfishly, for me the lack of bookshops in Freetown grinds particularly hard.

There are a handful of establishments that do self-identify as such, but they sell self-help volumes  – sometimes bound in plastic, so you can’t assess their proposals pre-purchase – or religious tracts, or stationery. Not fiction. Meanwhile the few stalls that pile paperbacks on street corners, near the wheelbarrows full of coconuts and the racked pirate DVDs, largely offer trash, though I did once find a battered copy of William Boyd’s ‘Brazzaville Beach.’

It’s a two-headed problem then, reading in Sierra Leone, absent supply at one end, the inevitability of book rot at the other. The rot itself is symptomatic of a wider malaise. It is difficult to overstate the unpleasantness of Sierra Leone’s climate. Before vaccinations and anti-malarial medication Freetown was affectionately known as the ‘White Man’s Grave.’

Even the local slave trade, which for an uncomfortable period co-existed with a colony for freed slaves established in the late eighteenth century, did not really work financially until the local management was Africanised. The European slavers kept dying.

Enough of history. In Freetown the humidity approaches the absolute. I have heard that a temperature below 19 Celsius has never been recorded. The sea breeze penetrates about as far inland as a neap tide. Bizarrely, heroically someone – probably the Chinese – gifted the thuggish armed wing of the police arctic camouflage uniforms. The police wear these blue and white pyjamas without irony.

In these conditions rot is inevitable and unassailable, unless you are one of the lucky few that has air conditioning and can run it all day. In a city dependant on pricey diesel generators, 24 hour cooling is a considerable extravagance.

Everything rots. Mildew colonises clothes left in wardrobes. I returned from a trip to find the mordantly expensive Panama hat I had purchased only half in jest in London was acquiring a greenish tinge. And books, well, given long enough they will end up like the rotten laws in the library in my house.

Of course, there’s a fairly obvious solution to this problem set. The Kindle would seem to solve both the supply side of the reading problem in Freetown, and sidestep the issue of decaying pages. I have one too, a birthday gift from last year. I just don’t like it. Now is not the time to thrash out the hackneyed trope of the book as artefact. Nor does my disgust at the fact the fact that I couldn’t order Larry McMurtry’s western epic ‘Lonesome Dove’ on my UK-specification Kindle justify my subsequent neglect of it.

But, alongside irrational dislike, it is worth pointing out that with Sierra Leone’s medieval telecoms it is impossible to download books on the hop on a Kindle, as one can in Europe or America. Furthermore, electronics are not immune to this country’s climate either.

At last inspection my Kindle was alive. But once, not long after I arrived in Sierra Leone, I sat by night outside a hotel in the town of Makeni in the scorching centre of the country, my laptop cracked open on my knees. Moths and flying things flocked to the screen-light. Some days later other, smaller, at-a-different-stage-of-the-life-cycle things were hatching under the keyboard. They were scrambling out of the cracks between the QWERTYUIOP.

In this environment of scarcity, books become twinned with another, apparently incongruous set of objects; Land Rover parts. The two categories have little in common in the wider world, but in Freetown both are, to a greater or lesser extent, essential but unobtainable. I have written at length before about the travails of car ownership in Sierra Leone. Now is not the place to go into it again. It is suffice to say that you need Land Rover parts in Freetown like you (or at least I) need books, you can’t get either, and so both are things that you have to bring in.

For me, book shopping is one of the best things about shore leave, about not being in Sierra Leone. In London hitting up Skoob, the subterranean second-hand emporium in the bowels of the Brunswick Centre by Russell Square, or raiding Slightly Foxed on the Gloucester Road in South Kensington, is a pleasure every bit as keen as the company of western women who don’t work for NGOs, or the feel of fabrics that have never hosted mildew next to the skin.

Buying Land Rover parts is less fun. These days it’s largely done over the Internet. The prices are lower (but still ruinous) and, as with the acquisition of pornography, online shopping removes the need to have a face-to-face encounter with a store owner who may well be situated somewhere on the autistic spectrum. But once, purchased, Land Rover parts, like books, need carriage to Sierra Leone.

When I returned to Freetown after Christmas my luggage contained the following: Anthony Powell’s ‘At Lady Molly’s,’ two front suspension shock absorbers, James Mellow’s Hemingway biography ‘A Life Without Consequences’, an air conditioning front evaporator unit, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in Oxford World Classic’s paperback, a front driver’s door lock assembly, AS Byatt’s ‘Possession,’ a fuel filter, Bruce Chatwin’s ‘In Patagonia,’ an air filter, Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Memoirs of an Infantry Officer,’ an oil filter, and Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘The Poisonwood Bible.’

There were also some more books. The key difference, I suppose, is that one day I plan to sell my car.

Simon Akam is Reuters’ correspondent in Sierra Leone. His website is www.simonakam.com and he has also written these which we think are excellent:  The Long and Winding Road (on Land Rover parts in Africa) and Stars of the Stalls (on second hand book shopping).

A curious conversation about driving a car

CoverThe Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Cars and chauffeurs pervade Fitzgerald’s novel, first published in 1925 at a time when the automotive industry was coming to define the American way of life.  This was mainly because in the decade after the First World War prices of mass-produced cars dropped sufficiently to make them widely available to people outside the elite of American society.  The Great Gatsby, however, was written before the era of Route 101 and open highways, and 28 years before Kerouac published On The Road and the Beat Generation took off.  Clearly, Fitzgerald’s car is no vehicle of emancipation, but instead represents the false hope and delusion that lies at the heart of the novel.

On one level, cars in Gatsby do live up to their early 20th century billing as the ultimate tools by which the American dream could be won: they ferry the great and good to Gatsby’s champagne-drenched parties, and presumably underpin his bootlegging operations across the country, thanks to which he enjoys a certain prominence and notoriety in New York society.  However, Fitzgerald hints at the more destructive side of the automobile at an early stage of the book.  Wilson, the second-hand car salesman, provides the services that allow Tom Buchanan to have such a carefree affair with his wife, and it is Wilson who will later be one of the key figures in the book’s tragic denouement.

“But the wheel’s off!”

The real portend of things to come occurs midway through the third chapter with, firstly, the car crash outside Gatsby’s house as the guests are leaving one of his parties.  This is a highly surreal episode in which the reader glimpses the potentially disastrous consequences of modern technology through an absurdly comic lens.  We are initially led to believe that Owl Eyes, the library-dwelling drunk, is responsible for the accident, until he eventually clarifies that he was merely a passenger at the time.  In seeking to prove his innocence Owl Eyes protests that he knows “nothing whatever about mechanics”, as if to say “how could I possibly drive a car without understanding the basics of how it works?”  Of course, this gets him nowhere, mainly because none of the other onlooking drivers knows anything about cars, and, as with most drivers since then, this hasn’t stopped them from getting behind the wheel.

The point of this becomes clearer a few pages later during a conversation between the narrator, Nick, and Jordan Baker.  The exchange arises out of a near-miss they have in the car, when Jordan almost runs over a group of workmen.  Nick advises Jordan to be more careful or avoid driving altogether, to which Jordan responds that she trusts that others will be careful for her, and keep out of her way.  It is with this off-hand talk that Fitzgerald explicitly brings together the themes of cars and carelessness, the latter being a trait we can ascribe in varying degrees to all the major characters of the novel, except for Gatsby, of course, who rises above the rest in the single-mindedness of his ambition.  It is driving, however, that turns carelessness in Gatsby from a facet of personality into a destructive force.  After all, carelessness without cars, without mechanics, cannot go far beyond emotional consequences, brutal though these may be.  In fact, Jordan tells Nick as much at the end of the novel when the two characters part ways: “I met another bad driver didn’t I?”  The reader may agree with her assessment, but in light of the literal car crash that is Gatsby’s relationship with Daisy Buchanan, Jordan has come off lightly.

Fitzgerald must have been wary of the hope and expectation that flowed from the growing availability of cars in 1920s America.  In the hands of a careless driver, after all, a car is a dangerous thing.  And if Fitzgerald saw a city of careless drivers in 1925, his intuition wasn’t far wrong.  Only four years later Wall Street imploded in another crash, this time exacerbated by the novelty of being able to buy and sell shares as a layperson with no knowledge of the New York stock exchange.  Indeed, this was clearly an episode of American history that affected Fitzgerald profoundly, despite the fact that he lost no money in the financial collapse.  Apparently he later came to see 1929 as the end of the “jazz age” (see, for example, his short story Babylon Revisited, set in the aftermath of the crash).  In any event, carelessness is something that is often overlooked, particularly in the context of rapidly evolving technology.  For Fitzgerald, it was a defining feature of humanity.

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clear up the mess they had made…”   

The Editors