"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

A Short View of Mandela

In 2001 my novel A Short Book About Love was published by Seren. This is chapter 23. We have read so much about Nelson Mandela in the last week. I wonder if fiction can offer anything to our thinking about this remarkable human being.


HERE IS AN affecting tale of  an eighty-year-old man who
has found love. Literature mocks the lustiness, the out of
sequence amours of  the aged. Saucy old bugger, they say,
elbowing each other in the ribs. Ought to be past it at his age.
Love, it seems, becomes undignified with age. What was
splendid at twenty is an embarrassment at eighty. Could it be
that we have got this wrong?
   Old men take many forms.They can be angry and belliger-
ent, crusty and difficult, bitter and tyrannical. They can be,
not to mince words, old gits. But they can also be – and isn't
this how we all want to end up? – mellow and ripe. After a life-
time of  raging at the world (which is something one has little
choice but to do) there's something to be said for hanging up
one's boots, filling a pipe, and striking the pose of  the ripened
sage, the man who's seen it all and won't see some of  it again.
Just before one departs, a little wisdom, a little ripeness, a
hand run through the bin of  yellow grain, a knowing knead-
ing between finger and thumb, the delivery of  a verdict.
   And of  course, these precious characteristics are to be
applied to women too.
   At the end of  a life one can either regret the performance
or turn it over gratefully in one's mind. With health and
strength and a full belly and a seat in the sun it might be
possible to say: things aren't so bad. Things could be worse.
If  the man or woman is a thinker there might even have been
the attainment of  some wisdom – though that's a tricky
concept, for sometimes we need to be foolish. Wisdom can
involve playing safe. But there is a need – at some stage in a
life - to play with fire.
   It is the man's eightieth birthday and he has surprised and
not surprised everyone by announcing that it is also to be his
wedding day. His children, holding a lunch in his honour
elsewhere, are informed. Moments later, they emerge from
their private dining-room singing a traditional wedding
song. For this is not the coldly formal world of  wet roofs and
grey skies and suburban lawns. It is Africa. The bridegroom
(whose wife is twenty seven years younger) is a man of  great
calm and dignity. He is not an old git. Because he is the
President of  his country the newspapers are full of  nuptial
excitement. His old enemies – who put him in jail, who
threatened him with the gallows, who made him live in a
solitary cell, who made him slop out toilet-buckets and hack
at stones in the hot sun – are now as excited as anyone. They
send him their congratulations. Have they remembered that
twenty seven years is the period they kept him on the prison
island? His new wife has given them a useful mnemonic
  The President is a forgiving man. So forgiving and so
dignified and so apparently without hate that we call him a
saint. Which may be true, for saints are always flawed, their
goodness offset by the jagged frame of  ordinary humanity.
His friend from the prison island tells the newspapers that
he was a man of  great strength and determination and
courage and resolve. Playing chess with a cellmate he told
the warders to lock away the board at the end of  the day. He
repeated the instruction at the end of  the second day but
halfway through the third, his opponent conceded defeat.
He could not go on playing chess with this man of  iron, this
man who could see from afar what he wanted and who
proceeded, not in rushed steps, not breathless, to obtain it.
Perhaps saints are difficult to live with. Perhaps the best
thing is to step aside and let them get on with it.
   The cruel authorities sometimes pretended to be kind.
They offered their now famous prisoner better conditions.
They said he need not collect the buckets nor go out to the
quarry with his pick and shovel. But he refused, saying that
all were equal in that place. That is the sort of  thing that
saints say. They are also human. The old man, in his younger
days, was a little vain. He refused to shave off  his beard to
make himself  more invisible to the police and the sentries at
roadblocks because he was attached to his magnificent
fungus. Pictures of  him appeared on the walls of  student
digs and inner city squats and the beard was always there as
it was always there in the pictures of  Che Guevara. But Che
was a Latin with a black beret and his beard was straggly and
   So let us leave the old man on his birthday/wedding day,
walking in the hot African sun, smiling among the crowds,
thinking to himself, perhaps, that the air is good and that it
is not such a bad idea, all things considered, to be alive.

Extract from A Short Book About Love (Seren, 2001) by Nicholas Murray