Lala Kahle

Margaret Smith, rest in peace

Gran asked me to speak at her funeral, and I said, laughing, at the time that I did not think I would be able to, but I would try. So, I will try:

The Garden she loved is still growing. But she is not here.

Spring and summer will come, and the chair, in the corner among the lush greenery and the white vine roses, will sit empty.

She will not be there, eyes closed, basking in the Sun’s light, a smile on her face as it warms her skin,

But the plants and flowers still will grow.

She was not a Christian, she was a humanist. An atheist. But she was the most ‘Christian’ person I’ve ever known.

The South African police who jailed and tormented her, who tried, we suspect, to assassinate her by crushing her car between two lorries, and who succeeded in killing many of her friends, they called themselves Christians.

They even gave her a King James Bible in prison (did they expect a conversion, she wondered. She was just glad of something to read, she told me). But they were cruel and unjust, not like the christ those pages tell of, they were not kind nor loving nor humane.

She was, kind and loving and humane, not for appearances, nor from fear, but from empathy.

She could have lived a privileged life in South Africa, but she chose instead to stand up against injustice, even though doing so cost her so much, caused so much anguish.

She gave. She sacrificed.

When I was a small boy staying with her, giving my young mum a break for weekends and school holidays, she gave me the most valuable things you can give to a child: Unpatronising attention, and encouragement, and later, when I was a selfish, foolish, troubled, older boy, she gave me a home.

I tried, in adulthood, to repay her kindness. In what small ways I could.

I’d take her to restaurants to give her a break from the endless fishcakes her frugal diet consisted of.

At one restaurant she gave me a note telling how the Secret Police had caused her, after thirty years of loyal service as a journalist, to be made redundant. She included two press cuttings: one celebrating her appointment as the first female News Editor in Africa, one about the Secret Police’s shaming of her as a ‘terrorist’, the good times and the bad, and the note ended:

“Left without work, far from home, and two daughters to support

“Wanted you – who have been so good to me – to know all the [details]”

She was keen that her struggle be understood, she felt such guilt and sorrow.

Another time, she recalled the ten days of hunger strike she underwent in prison. The uneaten trays of food would be taken back by her visiting family, so she would hide letters under the plates. Messages written with make-up on toilet paper and torn out pages of the aforementioned bible.

She was strong-willed. Strong-willed enough to shun the tantalising dreams of ‘Peri Peri Prawns’ and deny herself food, for her beliefs.

This strength never abated, right to the end. Even when it was so much trouble, she would drag herself out to the shops, bent with age, but driven by determination, out in the community she was committed to, a vital part of. Slow and sure as Aesop’s tortoise.

She was strong-willed and she was humane.

To each of us, to humanity, she gave all she could.

I write this among the piles of photos, in the chair in her flat where I used to sit and talk with her.

And she is not here.

Except in memory.

I see her at the zoo when I was small, hear her laughter at some stupid joke about the Piranha.

I see her, happy, with us last Christmas.

I see her, haunted by anxiety and depression, her ever beautiful face racked with worry.

I see her in hospital, giving a conspiratorial smile as she squeezes my hand.

Remember her fondly, as she deserves to be remembered.

She fought, fiercely, against indignity, for others.

She fought, fiercely against the suffering in the world.

Remember her proudly. We should be proud to have known her, proud to be her kin, proud to have been loved by her. She was bohemian and brave, intelligent, wise, talented. If you think that she was not perfect, then you are right, I am sure, but there are machines that make perfect objects, that can make the same thing over and over again without fault. And then there are craftsman who can only make unique and fragile, beautiful things, that can never be remade.

Margaret was the latter.

She was the heart of our family. And like any heart, if it was at all broken, it only loved more.

She tried, against the encroaching darkness, within and without, to keep us in the sun.

In prison she grew orange pips in the dirt, tiny sprouts grew up towards the light and gave her hope.

In exile, she made a home, she nurtured a garden and she sat there and closed her eyes to the capricious London sun.

Perhaps she felt then, for a spell, that she was home beneath the African sun. But in 1994 she was allowed to return to feel that sun for real. She felt home. She felt whole.

And she is not here, but we are like the garden she found such joy in. The plants and flowers that she tended, the stray animals drawn to her kindness, that she would love, even when, as with the eponymous Black Cat she adopted, that love was sometimes repaid with savage wounds. She loved, unabated. Strong-willed and humane was she.

Now we are left, like her garden. Without her.

But like her half wild, half tamed garden we will flourish, because we were loved.

Heading to South Africa to see her beloved brother in hospital, she wrote me a note:

‘When it comes to crisis time’, she wrote, ‘love really counts, more than anything’

When I think of what she gave, to you, to the world, to me, it was love.

If we can love, at all.

She is here.

Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.



When someone dies.

the branches of a single tree
bow heavy with dew
in forest shadow a twig snaps
beneath the black paw of a stalking cat
and a startled bird flies free

when someone dies

the seaweed wrings its fingers
fields of wheat wave
a crow sharpens its beak
on porous stone

when someone dies

the wind mourns their name once
in old forgotten tongue
the stars flicker off for a sliver of time
the stones yawn
the ground grows fat

Michael Fredman,Skull print by Michael Fredman 2001.

Tiananmen Square: 25 years on

I was in China in 1994. I was acting over there, in the Shanghai International Shakespeare festival. I was young and wide-eyed. I still have quite big eyes.

Anyway, with my companions, I went to Tiananmen square, and had a small experience, about which I wrote a poem, that evening.

It isn’t very good, it approaches doggerel in fact, but I remembered that I had written it today, on this anniversary of the massacre that the Chinese government still refuses officially to acknowledge.

I reproduce the poem faithfully – doggedly – below:

There are pockmarks in the paving of
Tiananmen square
There are the young and the old
as the sun sets
behind the Forbidden City

We are tourists, with our votes
and our dollars
the bicycles fly past us, and

the soldiers march
across The Square

We met two young men,
by the flowers

built to depict a rising Phoenix.

Students, like ourselves,
at “the Peoples’ University”

We sat on the ground, cross legged
Louisa joked, it was “a sit down protest”

We all thought of tanks.

We sat and we talked
of our different worlds met there
and the crowds milled past

‘as westerners you will have heard of the massacre here no doubt, in 1989’

We looked into his eyes.

Two men in suits refused to mill
they stood nearby
listening and watching

He broke off and looked at the men.
Stopped speaking,

turned back.

‘It was not as bad as it was reported as being’ he said.

I looked down at the fresh paving stones,
at the pockmarks
on the old.

The men in suits and sunglasses conversed with a soldier

We offered to buy our new found friends lunch, and we walked the Beijing streets.

I saw a three year old girl
fall off her father’s bicycle
to the street below,

watched her get up without a tear, back onto the bike.

At McDonald’s they took their first bites
of Mcfreedom.

Both their first bites were their last.

‘This isn’t food’, they stated, matter of factly.

We said goodbye, outside.
With a plastic effigy of Ronald McDonald grinning from a bench.

They went off to unlock their bikes.

The two men in suits and sunglasses
were waiting.


First we must ask, does it have to be a whale?

This made me laugh.

From a publisher’s rejection letter to Herman Melville, on his submission of Moby Dick:

‘First, we must ask, does it have to be a whale?

…For instance, could not the Captain be struggling with a depravity towards young, perhaps voluptuous, maidens? ‘

A Whale, yesterday

More rejection letters sent to notable authors, here



I recently returned from a small Island off the coast of Vietnam where I had a motorbike accident.  I had hoped the serenity of the island would help me focus on writing, but the only writing I did was on the back of an envelope just after my accident. 

It’s somewhat disjointed (the writing, not the foot) but I was probably still in shock, I reproduce it here nonetheless:

I’m lain on a gurney in a tiny Vietnamese hospital. I’ve just had stitches to close a gaping wound in my foot after a motorbike accident. 

A woman is dying noisily in the room behind me.

Another, even more serious accident is in the cubicle beside me.

A man name ‘Luck’ translated for me. He’s the general manager of where I’m staying. He sat with me, “you’ll be fine”, he said – but he left during the stitches, looking queasy.

Luck! A one armed, few toothed man just wandered into the hospital, selling lottery tickets.

My blood was spurting out on the red clay road.

I tumbled and slid on my right hand side.

My Frankenstein monster foot, in stitches.

I was a boy the last time I had stitches. 

Foot feels weird, taut, numb.

Will the pain return?

Oh, the people I love.  I love them.

A man staunched my wound with a ripped open cigarette, the nicotine leaves sopping up my blood and stinging into my system. 

“What can I do?” I asked myself on that red clay road.

Life is not to be taken for granted.

I love you. If ever I have loved you. I love you.



These are just my thoughts, I make no attempt to order them. This is a repository. Rather than a craft.

Dec 3 2009.

Mortality is keenly on my mind. We live as if it death is a far and distant thing. But it is everywhere. Close to us. Our shadow.

This evening I walked past a motorbike accident. The police and medics kneeling over the felled and quiet rider.

The idiocy – some of it well meaning – of the passers by struck me. One man had parked his car by the side of the road so that it blocked the passage of traffic, yet he had taken to standing by the police car, and making the gestures of a traffic policeman in order to usher the traffic along.

A policeman got out of his vehicle and, rather than praising the gentlemen in the manner he might have been expecting, asked him in a scolding tone to move his car out of the way. The man continued his helpful gestures even as he listened to the policeman admonish him.

A small group of people stood on a traffic island by the injured party – one of them, a balding man with white beard, made half hearted traffic policeman gestures too, I think shyness kept the gusto of his gestures down. I saw one driver slow down and crane his neck to try to get a clear scope of the horror.

I walked fairly briskly past, I did not crane and I did not peer. I was satisfied to see that a motionless motorbike rider was being tended to by the police and a medic or two, there was nothing useful I could do, two people were already guiding the traffic along, and anyway I had just come from my Grandmother’s house, and though I was thinking about how foolish it was that I felt I had to hide my tears from people passing me by, how foolish it is to be ashamed of love, even so, I did not want people to see me, people I did not know, with tears in my eyes.

She is ill. How serious remains to be seen, a specialist’s scrutiny approaches. We know, from the symptoms that it could be terrible. She is scared. I go and see her and help her with practical things. When she leaves the room where we sit together, to get a letter or paper or something, I well up – stinging tears, but I know she finds comfort in me, and so I stifle them, recall the calm and strength of love, and find light and amusing things to say and talk to her about the things that she wants to talk about. If she saw that I was terribly upset, it would upset her.

I owe her my strength. I want to allay her fear, to give her comfort. And I know that I have always been able to make her smile. When I was a little boy she used to sing a song ‘you are my sunshine’, to me, and this was a comfort to me in difficult and confusing times. And I was to some extent a lightness to a terribly hard life that she had endured. But to me, how can I qualify what she is? She is the person who showed me what love is. True, kind, love.

So she writes to me to tell me now, by email, on the computer I got her, that she loves me, and that I am a lovely person. She says my visit has exhilirated her enough to log on to the computer and check her emails.

I write back to tell her that I love her very much, and that if I am a decent person, it is largely because of the love she has given me throughout my life.

Last Friday night she was very ill, breathless, frightened. I went to her and we got a doctor to come over. In the time while we waited we talked about a meeting she had with Lord Joffe, a friend of hers from South Africa. They met on the way up some stairs to a meeting of the fatalistic lobbying society for assisted death that she has long been a fan and active member of.

They both had been friends of Bram Fischer, the South African Lawyer who was arrested by the authorities, detained, humiliated, later to die of Cancer.

My Gran loves to talk of Bram, she admired him deeply. The authorities would not let her visit him, even when he was dying. They were cruel. They hated him most because he was one of them, a white Afrikaner – from a ‘good’ family. His treachery was absolute in their eyes. They kept him in isolation and from hospital as long as they could.

She spoke of how she had been too tired to ascend the steps to the meeting all in one go, and how Lord Joffe had stopped and sat with her on the steps. He was speaking at the meeting.

She told how when he gave his speech to the assembled crowd he said how glad he was to be speaking there, and how glad he was to have met an old friend on the way in, Margaret. He called out to her in the crowd and she waved back to him.

The Doctor came and I stayed in the other room, letting my tears brim and pass in silence, unseen.

My Grandmother is a good woman. And goodness is a rare and wonderful quality. Not to my Gran. She sees good in everyone.

Until recently she belonged to an ANC support group for the old guard, they would meet up and talk. Some of the more set in their ways would insist on discussing revolution.

The young ANC, the young blacks of the new South Africa have formed a new group – to which this ancient vanguard is able to join, but which is clearly distinct from them. They call themselves ‘the special branch’, which my Gran finds amusing – ‘they are too young to remember’. She and her comrades lived in bitter fear of the special branch – the people who would send letter bombs; Assassinate; torture.

Her old support group will remain only as a creche service to look after the children of the young new ANC. I am not too clear on the details. What is clear is that the young ANC, like all the young, wants to distance itself from the old. Finds the talk of revolution embarrassing, outdated. Sees a different world.

Of course, the different world they see came about because of the sacrifices of the old, I think they do respect that, but they are hungry to make the world their own.

My Gran sent the new ‘special branch’ some money to buy Champagne, with a letter wishing them well and sending her fondest regards. They bought Champagne and read her letter out, and they toasted her, she tells me. She is made happy by this. She was never much good at meetings, she never had much to say, she says.

She held her tongue in prison. She left South Africa rather than testify against her friend, Joe Qgabi. Though in time he was assassinated by ‘the special branch’ of apartheid South Africa.

My Gran is an old woman, who has lived and fought with great sadness for much of her life. Terrible things have been. I see her now before the shadow. She is the kind hearted woman who took me to the zoo, who encouraged and listened to me when I was a hurt little boy, she is the woman who, without affectation, gives to those who need. She is what love means to me.

[Update 2012: She is still going strong, in hospital again currently, but doing well. ‘Old age is not for sissies’, she tells me]



One such summer I

sun of nothing

took your hand in mine


upon the smoothed pebbles


down to the sea


and we slipped



Shedding our clothes

our accumulated selves

I loved you

I loved you

That I

was free

Like blood from a vein

Flowing, pulsing with life

and inevitably


1000 months

I am sat in a cafe watching the spiral galaxy of milk cool into being in the black night coffee before me.

I imagine a ballerina in a music box, sparkling, swirling; a segue into a memory faded in the sun and rain.

When it has settled, the liquid in the cup takes on a donkeyish colour, dun and homely.

I taste bittersweetness with a silent tongue.

And I take my time.

I am passing time.


How much do you get?

Fewer than a 1000 months.

I am wasting time.

Karl Popper

When I was fresh out of university, I worked as a typesetter and proofreader. I was not very good at it because I could not quite stop myself from reading the books, when I should have been meticulously checking them for errors.

One book that was particularly distracting was ‘All life is problem solving’, by Karl Popper.  The full stops, paragraph breaks and em-rules cascaded past my attention like animals escaping a zoo as I turned the pages, transfixed.  I recently found some post it notes upon which I had scrawled this particularly inspiring passage from the book:

“I am anything but an enemy of religion. My religion is the doctrine of the splendours of the world; of the freedom and creativity of wonderful human beings; of the terror and suffering of the despairing people we can help; of the extent of good and evil that has emerged in human history and keeps emerging over and over again; of the joyful message that we can prolong people’s lives, especially those of women and children who have had the toughest life. I know nothing else. And although the scientific quest for truth is part of my religion, the magnificent scientific hypotheses are not religion – that must never be”

Chapter one

Simplify. Then make complicated. then simplify once more.

This is a paraphrase of a Brian Eno ‘tweet’ (Twitter post) I read today.

He is right, or at least, I think so because it is concordant with where I am currently.