South Park Self

all dead years draw thither, and all disastrous things

(In which I finally achieve enough distance to attempt to memorialise my father. You don't need to read this, although I'd like you to: I needed to write it.)

John de Wilton Tiffin, 1943-2010

My father died in exile. In thinking of him I can’t separate him from place, from the farms and bush and birds and animals of Zimbabwe. He was with us, his daughters, when he died, but family is only a part of who he was. The changes in Africa over the last thirty years denied him, in the end, both a legitimate space to inhabit and a sizeable portion of his selfhood: he was rootless and lost.

The land defined not only my dad, but his family. His father was a bureaucrat who succumbed to the yen to farm and his siblings grew up to be farmers, landscape gardeners, horse enthusiasts. My dad’s large family (five children plus three adopted) spent his childhood variously on Malawi’s Mount Zomba, and near Harare, but the place which defines them is Lodestar, the family ranch in the Lowveld. The ranch is the stuff of Christmas memories, presided over by my grandfather’s slightly inept cattle management and my grandmother’s strong-minded matriarchy, and inhabited for the holidays by a seething rabble of cousins, horses and dogs. In going into agricultural research, becoming with his PhD far more educated than any other members of his family, my father both confirmed and denied his upbringing.

He was in research for thirteen years, studying beef cattle, and moving us in the process between research stations in Harare, Bulawayo (I was born while we lived in the Matopos hills), Masvingo and Marondera. I am grateful to his career for my childhood outside cities, not quite on a farm, but just as much about the bush and dirt roads and milk from the dairy down the road. Memories of my dad are inevitably memories of cattle and open grasslands, and of driving slowly past field trials while he, focused, energised and slightly removed from us, surveyed the animals. I always forget that in all of that he also went through the Rhodesian war, serving in the Grey's Scouts, the mounted unit which used his childhood horse-riding skills: I remember him driving armoured vehicles, carrying a sub-machine gun, using army shorthand on the radio, arriving back from call-ups bearded and filthy to give us jam from his rat-packs.

In later years he left research and became a consultant to farmers all over the country, entering the business world without losing the essential outdoor aspects of his daily life. He was a respected authority, a leader in his field: huge values in cattle herds moved through his hands, strengthened and refined by his knowledge. He maintained his own herd as a sideline, leasing grazing and selling slaughter animals which were higher quality with each generation: the proceeds put both me and my sister through Honours degrees. If the country hadn’t collapsed into farm invasions and land-grabs, the herd would have both whiled away and financed his retirement.

I also cannot think of my father without thinking of falcons. He was an obsessive and dedicated falconer and bird-watcher, and had a bird in training through my childhood and beyond. Home to me was a peregrine on a perch on the lawn, pointers in the car, shotguns in the gun cabinet, dead doves in the freezer, and a continual succession of rescued birds raised in the house – orphaned owls and guinea fowl, a stork injured by a storm. I will never be able to hear a peregrine’s scream without remembering my dad. I don’t think he was ever as much himself as he was when careering through a vlei in his ancient and many-pocketed hunting jacket, bird overhead, dogs at his heels, intent and fulfilled in the multiple co-operation of creatures, man and environment. I know that the daily demands of training a falcon took time away from us, his family, but I find his absences difficult to resent: I can’t imagine him without that essential thread to his life. Even in his last days, unable to speak, he would still monitor the doves nesting in the shrubs in the garden. My sister and I never really took to what was in that place and time an extremely male-flavoured hobby; he would have loved to have a son to share it with. He was, though, as much involved in the conservation aspects of falconry as in actually flying a bird, and it’s that awareness which probably helped to shape my own preoccupations with environmental destruction – I’m glad to think I could share at least that much with him.

The great thing about my dad was the fact that he was both a practical man and an intellectual. He was intensely the product of his time – Zimbabwe, the farming community, and all that is insular, parochial, conservative and frequently racist about that environment – but he was also highly intelligent, articulate, fundamentally interested in the world and in ideas for their own sake. I don’t think he ever quite understood my career or my hobbies or (particularly) my choice of boyfriends, but he never resented them. I disagreed with him on a number of fronts – feminism, childbearing, affirmative action – and we used to have wing-ding arguments about the issues, but at the same time I think he relished the discussions and enjoyed having raised a daughter who occasionally bested him logically. (I never could at chess). He had a favourite catch-phrase: “The purpose of parenthood is self-generated redundancy”, and I never doubted that, while occasionally uncomprehending, he was proud of me, as much because of my difference from him as in spite of it.

His intellectual abilities made his last few years particularly hard. He moved to France because his second wife wanted to, and because Zimbabwe was no longer tenable. Europe was always wrong for him, too cultivated, too safe and far too manicured after Africa’s open wildernesses. He was in the middle of a farming community in the Gers, but its beautiful spaces would always have been slightly awry – the air the wrong colour, the horizon the wrong shape. He was also driven to making a living however he could, which turned out to be renovating houses. It was practical, and he was good at it after an upbringing in the practical can-do Zimbo farming environment, but he felt very keenly that it was a come-down after his successes as a researcher and a consultant. The disease that killed him, the muscular degeneration which prevented him at first from working and then from moving easily or, finally, speaking, simply completed a process of erosion that the dissolution of Zimbabwe had begun. At the end I think the only thing he had left that was important to him was his daughters - his world had disappeared, his friends and family were elsewhere, his body had failed him.

I wish I could say that my dad was a happy person. He was in many ways, of course – he was a brilliant storyteller, he attracted devoted friends, and I owe to his good sense of humour my love of the Goon Show, Peanuts cartoons, Archie the cockroach. The indignities of his disease he dealt with surprisingly well, partially because his background involved so much of the earthiness of animals and their bodily functions, partially because his own puckish sense of the ridiculous was never quite suppressed. But he was never, I think, a fulfilled or contented person – he was above all an idealist, and I don’t think anything in his life ever quite matched up to his sense of what it should have been. He had many practical skills, but he wasn’t a realist, and in the end I don’t think he could see beyond what seemed to be the failures of his life – two divorces, the loss of his capital and his lifestyle in Zimbabwe, his menial job as a renovator and the failure to rent of his renovated properties – to appreciate how much he actually achieved over his lifetime. I respected my father infinitely for his ability to pick himself up out of an exploding country and find a way to keep on going in the teeth of loss, but I think he saw only that nothing had fulfilled his expectations. He didn't accept his death easily: he was resentful it was so early, he still had so much he wanted to do, and it ultimately outraged his sense of fitness, of the life he'd wanted and worked for and which I think he thought he'd earned.

I’ve come to realise only in the last few months the impulses behind one of the major and ongoing arguments I had with him about the fact that I’ve never tried to publish fiction. One of the reasons I’ve perhaps never tried, and never been able to even discuss it with him, is because I know that even if I succeeded, it would never quite be what he expected or wanted. His sense of “my daughter the writer” was some ideal of financial and artistic success which bore no resemblance to the long, hard demands of the process, and I couldn’t stand either to disappoint him, or to subject my efforts to that impossible ideal. I’m sorry I couldn’t overcome my own issues to give him that before he died.

I don’t think my dad was an easy man to live with. While he had real affection for his daughters he was also in some ways distant, perhaps as a result of the pressure to be undemonstrative in his own upbringing - I know my school friends were rather afraid of him. I think too often in his relationships he expected conformity to some unexamined pattern without noticing the disconnect between the pattern and the person. He had high expectations of his daughters, and I remember being afraid of his anger as a child, but my memories of him are overwhelmingly positive: he was a good man, intelligent, caring, interesting, accomplished; commanding respect and affection from those who knew him. I was proud to be his daughter, and still am. I wish he'd come to some other end.
  • Current Mood: sad sad
This is a beautiful, balanced and yearning piece of writing - both eulogy and elegy. Thank you for sharing this with us.
Thank you for kind words, I'm so close to this it's reassuring that it actually speaks to you. And thank you for reading.
A fantastic tribute to him; thank you for sharing.

You wrote that beautifully, and such a tribute proves the point that he did so well as a parent.
This is very sad but beautifully written. So many of my friends have lost parents recently. My parents are still young but I'm scared of the day when they won't be.
I remember someone once telling me that outside city boundaries you become a different person, a toilet-fixing bush-knowing-and-comfortable relaxed person. In fact, although I did already have you in my ideal-team-to-face-apocolype-with (along with, of course bumpycat ;p), that confirmed it for me. I know that you got that from your dad, and that both of your parents had a share in the amazing person that you are. This is a truly moving portrait of your dad, and although I didn't know him, I feel like this gives me a deeper view into a unique part of you.
Thank you: that's pretty much exactly what I hoped people would get out of it. I always feel sorry that so few of my friends actually knew my dad, and he and my upbringing are intrinsic to who I am.
Through the lump in my throat, all I can say is, I'm a lesser person for having never met him.

Love & hugs to you,
Thank you for sharing this with us. It is written with a great sense of dignity. I am glad I got to see this picture of him.
In places there, particularly in the last paragraph, you could have been writing about my own father, also a Zimbabwean of that era, who loved the bush, and served in the war.

Your tribute was deeply moving - thank you for sharing your memories of him with us.
P.S. "The purpose of parenthood is self-generated redundancy" - I could not agree with him more. Parenting is about raising a child who is so confident, happy, and independent, that although they may love you, they don't need you, and when you pass on, you'll know that they're going to be OK.
That place and time, I think, very profoundly shaped people. I'm glad this resonated with you, and I'm obscurely comforted to think that his experiences, and mine of him, are somehow shared.
Yes, deeply moving. Thank you.

And I, too, now feel I have a better understanding of you. It's fascinating how our parents shape us, and yet we become own selves.
This is a fascinating, compelling and loving piece of writing. I am particularly so by I never doubted that, while occasionally uncomprehending, he was proud of me, as much because of my difference from him as in spite of it.

My heartfelt condolences. My own father passed away in 1999. I am so very sorry for your loss.
That's one of the most beautiful things I've ever read. Thank you for sharing it with us.
*huge hugs*
It is no easy thing to sum up a life so full, and you have done it with such grace; thank you for sharing it.

"At the end I think the only thing he had left that was important to him was his daughters."
I know it wasn't easy, but I am glad for your father, and for you, that you were able to give him this much. It is not a small thing.