The other day I was thinking how easy it can be to get it wrong, writing a blog. As I found 15 years ago (‘To blog or not to blog’, 4 May) it can take over your life. The danger is that it can also turn into a self-indulgent ego-trip. And if one’s talking about the past it must be tempting at times to exaggerate, to pump oneself up, and even to fill in memory gaps with sweet imaginings, fabrications. I do sometimes ask myself, “Did that really happen, in that way?”. How to check?
Well there’s the memory itself, and many of the things I’ve written about were so marked that exaggeration wasn’t easy (Muhammed Ali, saving the beer bottles, plane gliding, camel birth, the Nile trip, underground church, bayonet and others). Then there are the physical records – photos, letters (my parents saved two years of them from the Sudan). Also, reunions with people from many parts and periods of one’s life – for me still happening, with friends who were there, sharing, witnessing. And finally, as a result of the blog itself, friends phone or write in to corroborate and to add more. So I do believe that these pages pass the test of truth, balance, accuracy. No one’s questioned it by the way – so far anyway – but one has to keep checking.
For me it’s interesting. Here are four unsolicited contributions from Those Who Were There:
The Bayonet, Khartoum (blog 27 April): I had forgotten why there was so much tension in Khartoum but friend Nick reminded me: “There were lots of soldiers around. I remember looking with others out of the upstairs window where we were marking, watching soldiers and military vehicles go past. It was the time when the Mahdi’s descendant was on the run and was heading south or west for safety. I think it was an attempted coup against Numeiri,” Yes that’s right, and my own memory then returned: Sadiq al-Mahdi, head of the Umma party and great-grandson of the Mahdi whose forces killed Gordon, was a political opponent of the Nimeiri regime. He’d already been Prime Minister and was still a threat. Around that time his spiritual and political base, Aba Island in the White Nile near Kosti, had been bombed and he was in hiding. In 2010 Sue, Ann and I took the ferry over to Aba and our driver showed us a little of it, but we weren’t allowed near the home where Sadiq al-Mahdi still lives. He’s a nice chap by the way. I’ve heard him speak. Well educated, with Bachelor and Master Degrees from Oxford.
The Feral Dogs (blog 17 May). Caroline wrote: “I loved the description of the dog pack in Sennar. I will never forget that night staying alone in Sennar Girls school with the pack of dogs roaming outside! The stuff of nightmares! We had a similar pack in Kosti but somehow they weren’t as scary & kept away more. Also, I was never, as you were, out by myself in the evening. I was bitten by a rabid dog in Khartoum at the end of my contract & had to have the 14 injections in the stomach back in UK….I’m still not a fan of random dogs, however sweet their owners swear they are!”
The Underground Church, Saudi Arabia (blog 19 May): the belief that the Saudi authorities wanted to turn a blind eye to Christian worship so long as it stayed out of sight. Friend Nancy who lived in the large compound writes: “One story that came from Someone Who Knew was that early on in the days of the Company, a member of the king’s family was very ill and was treated and cured by Company doctors. In return, the king asked the [Company] President what he would like. X, a devout Catholic, asked for permission to have a priest in camp to serve the Christians. This request was granted, with the cautions you mentioned. Thus, the blind eye that was turned was by the king’s decree.”
The Final Departure, Khartoum (blog 20 May): the labyrinthine processes. Caroline has added colour: “We called it The Ministry Game. A bit like Snakes and Ladders (thought you were getting somewhere, ducks in a row, but then were down at the back of the procedure again, usually because Mohammed – the only one (apparently) who could sign the one bit of paper to then move on to the next Ministry – had gone to visit his family in Atbara/Wadi Halfa/Dongola and no one knew when he would return….(if ever).. The answer (some of us found) was to go with M – our secret weapon. Her opulent charms, continual “sweetie” and short skirts worked wonders, and could transform the situation immediately …. miraculously, relevant paperwork was produced by mesmerised officials almost straight away (on a Sudanese timescale of course!!)….”
Thank you everyone. The Peace memory bank, and the physical records, and the memory banks of so many others, do their best. Interesting extra anecdotes too.