Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Elements of colour

The Bauhaus exhibition at the Tate Modern reminded me of a crime I had committed. I stole Johannes Itten’s The Elements of Colour from a library. I had thought it was from the library of Evelyn Hone College in Lusaka where I taught on and off for seven years, and over the last couple of days I have been trying to rationalise or in some way excuse this theft - and not making a very good job of it. There wasn't really the slightest fissure or irregularity where I could get a handhold on a good bit of specious self-justification, because Evelyn Hone was far and away the best place I have ever worked. I started the year after Zambian independence, and my first three weeks were spent thus.
In 1964, after, I don’t know, seventy years of colonial rule, Zambia, rich in copper, had fewer miles of tarred road than Jersey, and three secondary schools. My first students, though in effect colleagues, they being much older than I was, were six mechanics whose job had been to service government Landrovers. Under colonial rule these men were “spanner boys” and not allowed any supervisory position, nor permitted any notion of themselves as the mechanics they were. Now they were to become supervisors in three weeks flat, and as such had to be able to fill in detailed worksheets. But previously they had not been allowed to speak English to their superiors, communication was in pidgin, so called “kitchen kaffir”. So not only could they not fill in the forms, they did not have the conceptual theory of the four stroke internal combustion engine that only a linguistic structure can give. They could diagnose, analyse, fix the things, but they could not theorise about the physics and mechanics of their operation.

Jesus, we showed them - the old guard, that is. By the end of three weeks we were theorising about not just the land Rover engine, but the gas turbine, turbojets, turbofans, ram jets, pulse jets, if we’d had another week we’d have been in space. If people have a deep non-linguistic knowledge of how something works, adding the language and the theory is quicker than switching on a light in Jack Straw's "show your gratitude" Iraq.
And things went on from there. It was a brilliant place in those first years. So how could I have stolen such a beautiful book from them? I had to find an answer.
Nearly all my Zambian students are dead now it seems, even the high fliers, Winter Lemba who on his first journalism work-experience went into Angola with the MPLA, saw action against the Portuguese and had his story syndicated all over the world. Most of them were fairly ordinary young men and women, some outstanding. Greene Simpungwe, Rachel Makoni, where are they now? Not just AIDS that killed them either - malaria, car crash, poverty, violence.
I wasn't getting any closer to an excuse for stealing the book.
I got The Elements of Colour down from the self just now. First I was puzzled. The last withdrawal was 1980, and I Ieft Lusaka in 1973. I read the accession label. Oh. Ah. It wasn’t Evelyn Hone on whom I had committed an appling theft, it was West Cumbria College, Workington.
That place was a shitheap. The students were much the same as in Zambia, ordinary, usually pleasant young men and women, a few gifted and brilliant. But most of the staff (you know who you are, the good guys) were reactionary bigots, the teaching was grey sludge, the sky was often grey sludge too. I remember the place as a prison.

So I didn’t steal the Itten. I liberated it. It has a bright future.
No, that doesn't work either. Prison is just where you need colour.
Maybe I didn't walk out with
The Elements of Colour when the librarian was looking the other way. Maybe I sort of, you know, just had it by mistake after I'd left the college, maybe I didn't notice till I'd moved a hundred miles away. I don't think the place exists any more, the book might by now be a nugget of grey sludge ten metres down in landfill site.
Anyway, too late, like so many things. Too late.


nicholas ferguson said...

Greene Simpungwe is alive and well,Chairman of Interchem Holdings Lusaka and my business partner.

Best wishes
Nicholas Ferguson

Anonymous said...

> Nicholas,
That is great news. Please pass my regards on to Greene. I remember standing in class, probably with my mouth open, while he explained something we were trying to understand and which I had just announced was inexplicable. A quiet young man, in those days, of great ability. As clearly his subsequent history shows. Could you ask him to send my regards also to his wife. I can see her face now, but it's hard to remember names from so long ago - I think she was Esther.
Thanks for getting in touch, and best wishes,
James (James Waddington)

Chilu Lemba said...

I'm one of Mr Winter Lemba's sons. Thank you for remembering him.