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UK Safari

8 February 2013

After their January 2013 High Impact Tour of the UK, all the participating writers were invited to give their personal impressions of their 6 days performing in 6 different venues and touring 6 cities… and it wasn’t just the cold and snow which inspired their reports! We’ll be publishing one a day all week, written exclusively for High Impact. Today read Lieve Joris.

A man drinking a glass of wine in Birmingham Cathedral, a brisk early morning walk with Geert Mak and Judith Vanistendael in snow-covered Norwich, a reader coming up to me after the venue in… was it Liverpool? Ramsey Nasr reciting I wish I was two citizens (then I could live together), Herman Koch wittily mentioning Jimmy Savile on stage after having juggled with his name for days backstage, Chika Unigwe talking about her Nigerian family on the train to… was it Sheffield?

The merry carousel we’d been on for six days kept spinning around well after I returned home. My legs were wobbly, just like Michel’s legs in The Guard, the book Peter Terrin had been reading from – as if we’d been travelling by boat instead of by train. Images of the journey kept popping up: producer Nick Chapman steering us skilfully through the London Underground, blogger Michele Hutchison hunting for stories, curator Rosie Goldsmith wearing a long red dress on our last evening at The Tabernacle in London.

Once or twice I escaped. In the Tate Gallery in Liverpool I came upon the video installation Kings of the Hill by the Israeli artist Yael Bartana: four-wheel drives and sports vehicles ploughing their way up and down the sandy hills outside Tel Aviv over the weekend, like tanks on a battlefield.

I read from The Rebels’ Hour and as I travelled along, Assani, the main character – a Congolese cowherd who became a lonely, fearsome rebel leader – entered my head again. I tried to escape by reading from my other books The Gates of Damascus and Mali Blues. Inevitably, the characters of those crumbling universes started eating away at the joy and laughter of the trip, accompanying me as if on an underground journey.

How come I always stumble upon cracks in societies, cracks that often widen into craters after I’m gone? Some say it’s a talent, but you can also call it a curse.

On the closing night at The Tabernacle I dressed in a black suit and a white shirt. Glancing in the mirror of the ‘Green Room’, an undertaker looked back at me.

‘If you only touched one or two people along the way, your tour was successful,’ the legendary publisher Christopher MacLehose said to me at the reception that evening.

Out of the shadows came the man who’d walked up to me after the event in… yes, it was Liverpool. The Epstein Theatre, a classy hall with red velvet chairs. He handed me a copy of The Rebels’ Hour – could I please sign it? I asked what had made him buy it. ‘I think, from your words tonight,’ he said, ‘that you are genuinely interested in people.’ And there was his story: he’d been on drugs, but now he was clean and trying to help others get clean as well. He’d found salvation in a church, an African church, where he prayed, sang and danced; he felt he was finally part of a family. From the corner of my eye I saw Geert De Proost of Flanders House wave that it was time to go. Soon we were on our way to join the merry crowd.

The saying goes that we are as many people as the languages we speak. We’re also as many people as the languages we’re translated into. And yet, we are one and the same. That’s what I felt when I met my new reader at The Epstein Theatre in Liverpool and sat down to sign my book, thanking him for wanting to join me on the journey alongside Assani.

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Lieve Joris

Lieve Joris is one of Europe’s leading travel writers. Her journalism & non-fiction books on Africa, China, the Middle East & Europe have earned her the reputation as the VS Naipaul or Ryszard Kapuscinski of the Low Countries. Author of the acclaimed The Rebel’s Hour (Atlantic, 2008).

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