“I have not read a single book in my life except the bible,” she said. I looked up from Teju Cole’s Open City which I was reading. The lady. Elderly. Tall, with cropped grey hair. “Hello,” I said. “Hello,” she said. “I’m dyslexic you see but I’m a Christian.” Then she burst into tears.
I turned around to see if it was common in England for people to walk up to strangers and burst into tears at the train station. No. It wasn’t. People around me were either reading papers, listening to music, sipping coffee or reading the platform map. “I need someone to talk to.” she said. “Me husband’s so mean to me. My name’s June and when I’m upset, I start shaking. This morning, me husband was so mean to me, so mean,” she went on. I was waiting for someone with a hidden camera to surprise me. Candid Camera. No one seemed to notice June or I sitting on the station bench. “Are you a Christian?” she asked me. Yes, I said.”
Then she burst into tears again. “I had a best friend of mixed race and she left. I miss her so much. I miss me best friend. Me husband was so mean to me this morning. He was awful. I’m dyslexic you see. I also had a hysterectomy because of the cancer and so this morning I told me husband that I needed a blood test because I was feeling awful and he just screamed at me. Now, I’m waiting for my sister and she’s so mean to me. Where are you from?” she asked. “Uganda,” I said. “Is that one of the troubled regions?” she asked. I wanted to tell her that the coffee houses with free wireless were too few in Kampala and that the roads were not wide enough for the many automobiles on the road and also how the state of corruption has reached levels which are too embarrassing to talk about. I didn’t tell her that. I just told her that I am not in the troubled region. Thankfully, the train came. “I will pray for you,” I told her. “Thanks,” she said. I’ll pray for you too.
This encounter perfectly summed up how I appreciate the unapologetic and individual ways of North Englanders. The trip began in Lancaster. The Creative Writing Department, celebrating 30 years this year, invited me as an alumnus to be part of the grand birthday party. Lancaster is young by many traditional English university standards, it is a complex dominated by buildings whose character is defined by the students and faculty. I first made Graham Mort’s acquaintance through the Crossing Borders writing programme in 2002 and after that, as a student of creative writing from Lancaster. However, you can never really know an Englishman until you meet him for a pint of beer. Even though I don’t drink alcohol, I was quite immersed in the pub culture. The undergraduate students invited me along for an open mic session at Sainsbury’s coffee house. There was a fundamental familiarity with poets back home in Uganda. The confident and popular poets always seem to be able to control the atmosphere with their quirky and enjoyable topics. There were poems about everything from the frustration of the new regulations of recycling bins, to mice dancing to the hit, Thriller, to all of us humans having a 1% homosexual aspect in our DNA. What made it more fun than anything else was the way the humor united all of us under this space of creativity and free cheese. Plenty of free cheese which we took with us back to our rooms. And what’s a night in Lancaster without visiting a pub. There are quite a number in the petite cobbled corridors of the town. Filling an entire table, I seemed to be the only one who had children, was above 30, and who didn’t take alcohol but there is almost nothing that beats the fearless nature of university undergraduate students, planning out their lives and taking on the ills of the world with their endless energy. They are also not obsessed with Idi Amin. My only undoing was that I didn’t speak Yoruba.
The Verb on BBC Radio 3 programme which I participated in the day before was an informal yet intense way of sharing creatively with other writers from England and Scotland and seeing myself through their eyes. Together with Graham Mort, Phillip Pullman author of Grimm Tales, Hannah Silva playwright and poet, Stephanie Greer actress and novelist Susan Sellers who also gave me one of her novels. Ian, the producer was able to steer us through discussing about fairy tales and their similarities with many cultures world-wide, writing for performance first and the layers of poetry and their multi-faceted meanings.>Amidst current global discourse of writing and its challenges with readers, Phillip Pullman said something quite profound,
“When a story is simple and straight-forward, it is easier to be creative in the retelling.”The writer’s journey never ends, does it?