As I was sitting looking out at the study window at lapwings in the treetops, it struck me that I don’t know my own voice, have no confidence in my voice. There are ways of saying things which are indisputably mine but there is a faint lostness in the voice at moments. It fades to an echo.
Some of this is feeling I have no right to speak. A voice that went unheard in the family, the experience of parents not wanting to hear what I was saying. Teachers at school being disappointed when I got it wrong, didn’t have the right answer when they had appointed me the ‘cleverest girl in the class’. And then I would get it wrong and say unpopular things. Other voices emerging in the post-modern understanding: angry, challenging, sardonic, fey, distraught. Derivative voices borrowed for the occasion.
But some of this distrust of voice has to do with being born into white privilege in southern Africa. Stealing the voices of others and feeling others have more right to be heard than I do. The voices of the dispossessed and silenced and marginalised, those who belonged to the land in a way I never could. And my own white middle-class voice always sounding shrill or self-pitying or heartless or naive, always inauthentic in my own hearing. I have always felt that I have a voice with no credibility, that my own suffering is dwarfed by the weight of those millions suffering under apartheid. That I cannot speak while black women and men remain silent, denied a voice.
Now I am living in a First World country, in a comfortable market town, in neat and well-kept suburbs where the complaining and self-vindicating seems endless. The affluent whining and demanding, wanting more, more material possessions, more concessions in benefits, more safety nets. It horrifies me but it is my own perception and not shared. People here are so lazy and complacent, so safe, so unadventurous. The children surly and pampered, the elderly with a much larger array of social services and support systems that we could ever imagine having in southern Africa. I am speechless at times, listening to the griping. So much thrown away, discarded, so few real needs, so little desperation. And no concern on the whole for those elsewhere, no interest in the Third World, the Two-thirds World. A parochial and heartless society in so many ways, culturally insular and ignorant, inward-looking and blinkered by material comforts.
So I become a cipher, listening to the grumbles, feeling alienated but also forced to re-examine my own social assumptions. I belong and do not belong. There are displaced groups here, not always visible: the Polish fruit pickers, the gipsies, the New Age travellers, Muslims in rural areas where they are isolated and cut off from madrassas and mosques. Single women with babies on council estates I suppose. But there are opportunities and rights for even these groups. Nobody starves, nobody here is destitute. There is no violent crime.
And in this relative safety I have lost the gothic edge to my voice. There are no readymade social dramas of life-and-death significance. The churches have no liberation theologians storming the altars. The landscape so tame and domesticated in places, the town streets monitored by CCTV cameras, the population essentially law-abiding. Expensive cars, markets and boutique shops, reliable public transport, houses with double-glazing and central heating. The welfare state with its encircling arms.
And because I am sober, the reckless melodramatic monologues have gone. No ultimatums to myself or others, no drunken weeping, no manufactured crises. No excuses for living badly and throwing away opportunities and relationships.
Because too there is no need for vigilance and locking doors, no fear of the stranger, no need to feel guilty for having a comfortable life, I have a new and tentative voice searching out a way to express this different existence. I do not trust my voice and I need to change that. To listen to the metaphors and the more elusive happenings on the edge of consciousness. The passion for nature and the intrigue of the ancient here in Wales among old wells and yew trees and memorial stones, a buried culture, the Old Ways. The beauty here, quiet and mysterious, speaking to me in accents long forgotten.
Lammastide and the skies over the green hills are dark with unfallen rain. The river is in spate — yesterday we walked down there and when S struck at the taller nettles with his stick, the sharp green smell filled the fields. Both of us concerned about the blue-flowering Japanese knotweed, invading the river banks and suckering away amidst the bracken. A spiny thorn penetrating my rubber heel and striking between my toes. Old ivy-covered railings in the woodland, perhaps something to do with the railway that once ran through this valley alongside the Wye. S pointing out a raised and twisting tree trunk that looked like an old crocodile guarding the path. This saurian land of the dragon, the old reptilian myths we can no longer decipher. The season of new moon in Leo, the dark nights and summer woodland alive with whispers. An atmposphere here thick with meaning and mystery; I often feel that if I were to put out my hand, it would close on an unseen door handle, opening an entrance into that past secretly living in the present. The lands of otherness.