Browsing through Old Friends from Far Away by Natalie Goldberg, sparked several thoughts in me. While eating my breakfast this morning I was reflecting how, when you’re a kid, you seldom understand the context of events. And when I was young nobody ever explained context to us – we were supposed to be seen and not heard, and constant questions were not welcomed or tolerated.
Continuing this train of thought I remember reading LIFE magazine and an article on the death of Leon Trotsky. Somehow the blurry black and white photos remain a fading memory to this day. Quite why the article made such an impression on me, I can’t explain. Perhaps because the man was murdered, and my Dad’s murder mysteries were my reading resource.
Considering I lived in a remote backwater of the dying British Empire, it was a miracle I even had a copy of LIFE magazine in my hands at all. There were no bookstores in the country. Granted, the Catholic Church and the Church of Scotland had bookstores, but they stocked only religious or educational materials.
The expat community subscribed to a wide range of British and American magazines , which trundled slowly over the ocean, via the post, and fell into our eager hands many months after publication. The magazines were greedily consumed and then circulated around the district on a rota. Each magazine had a list pinned to the cover, with the names of the recipients. You were honour bound to read the magazine quickly, and then send it on to the next name, perhaps with a few magazines from your own hoard. If the next recipient lived fairly close by, you sent your gardener with the precious bundle – on his bicycle if he owned such a luxury, or on his feet if he didn’t.
But if the next recipient lived on a far distant tea estate, you would take your bundle up to the Sports Club on your weekly visit, and pass it over to the next person. Or ask another member to do you a favour and act as go-between and postman. Everybody obliged. The magazines were a link to the outside world, to civilization, to HOME. That mythical , longed-for Paradise, over the ocean. Far, far away from Nyasaland*, in tropical Africa.
So: when I read about the death of Leon Trotsky in Mexico all those years ago, the news was not by any means fresh, given the magazine circulation system. Our family didn’t subscribe to LIFE, we were merely on the rota. I had absolutely no idea who Leon Trotsky was, or his political importance. I probably knew where Mexico was, because I collected stamps and often used my small atlas to locate mysterious, faraway countries.
I’ve resisted Googling the death of Leon Trotsky, because I want this to be a memoir. One detail I do recall: he was stabbed to death with an ice-pick. Of course, I’d never seen such an item. It wasn’t common in tropical Africa. Ice cubes – yes, we had those. But ice-picks? No.
Neither was Communism – in the early 1950s which was when I probably read the article, mentioned in colonial Africa. Adults in my tiny world generally didn’t talk about world politics and events. Cut-off as we were from the rest of the world, our only source of news was the crackly, wavering broadcast news from the BBC in London, which tended to focus on the Home Counties plus a little international news. Most of which I ignored anyway. Assuming I could hear anything at all. The radio reception varied from poor to terrible.
I grew up in a vacuum so far as news and culture was concerned. Boarding school didn’t help much in this regard either. Sequestered as we were, and listening to our portable radios being (a) strictly controlled and (b) tuned to the Hit Parade from Lourenco Marques Radio in Portuguese East Africa*, I was a complete ignoramus. Youngsters today have an enormous exposure to global events and global culture. When I think how little I knew about anything as a young adult, it’s amazing I have survived this long, from such a scanty launch pad.
Yet here I am, in my senescence, surrounded by the digital, electronic world. It’s nothing short of astounding how much the world has changed in sixty five years in terms of communications and life-style. And you know what? I love living in the early 21st century!
- renamed Malawi
- renamed Mozambique