South Park Self

you want to kindle that old flame

Over the last year I have discovered Growing Things From Seed. There's something oddly satisfying and semi-magical about willing a whole, solid, verifiable plant into existence from a tiny, apparently lifeless speck of plant matter. In this particular case it wasn't seed or even bulbs, but rhizomes, which are weird finger-like chunks you plant horizontally without knowing which end will grow. (Teh Internets assured me solemnly that the plant works out which way is up). My three rhizomes grew, as scheduled, flame lilies, which rejoice in the somewhat hyperbolic Latin name gloriosa superba. A flame lily is beautiful and slightly unlikely, and astonishingly flamelike. They're native to Southern Africa, and I cherish memories of them growing wild in the bush near various homes in Zimbabwe. The flowers are very vivid, and in the slight dusk of a wooded area seem to float. I also discover, on growing these particular ones, that they have this particularly elegant adaptation - they're semi-climbing, in that they grow straight up but don't quite stand alone, and the end of every long, narrow leaf has the ability to curl around a thin support and cling to it. I find this enchanting: so economical! none of this messing around with growing separate tendrils.



I wanted to grow flame lilies because I've always loved them and I associate them very strongly with my childhood, but they're also the national flower of Zimbabwe. Before that, they were the national flower of Rhodesia.

I have been a denizen of my pinko-liberal Commie Cherished Institution for nearly three decades now, absorbing postcolonialist rhetoric like an unenlightened sponge, and there is absolutely no way in hell I lament lost Rhodesia in any political sense. It was a deeply illegitimate regime, founded on white privilege, exploitative and dehumanising to its black people, and not nearly as up-front as South Africa about its basic apartheid divides. The fact that the black regime which took over is equally morally bankrupt and just as destructive doesn't mitigate this in the slightest, Two Wrongs maths being what it is.

But it was also my childhood home, and I had a child's essentially innocent experience of it. Flame lilies are an extremely emblematic shorthand not only for the things I loved about Zimbabwe - its landscapes and animals, the ordered and productive agricultural world I grew up in, my family's place in creating that order - but for a sort of naive and nebulous nationalism. I felt, driving down the jacaranda avenue in the capital or having tea in the city's big department store, a subliminal, undefined pride in the country's achievements in civilisation and functionality.

I think it's significant that I grew flame lilies this summer. I was rocked astonishingly hard last year by the Dylann Roof massacre - the American mass shooting where a disgusting little 20-something white boy went into a black church in Charleston and gunned down nine people with hollow-point bullets. Dylann Roof was a white supremacist trying to start a race war. He had a website called The Last Rhodesian, and his jacket displayed both the apartheid South African flag, and that of Rhodesia. I'm slightly more detached from South African apartheid: I arrived in this country shortly before apartheid ended, and in a weird sort of way it was not entirely my guilt to feel. Rhodesia, though - Rhodesia is. Growing flame lilies was, I realise, an unconscious attempt to try and recoup some of my childhood sense of pride, because seeing that Rhodesian flag on Dylann Roof's jacket was a gut-punch, an inexorable reminder that the country I loved was really an illusion, that my experience of it was a cushioned and privileged lie. Rhodesia is now a particularly vile symbol to the kind of bigoted dickhead whose existence I find basically offensive, and in fact it always was. The flame lily was never mine.

It's hard to reconcile. The Rhodesia to which Dylann Roof imagines he belongs doesn't exist, and it would be an ugly thing if it did. But by the same token, my version doesn't exist either. It never did. It was a child's construct, crafted in blindness and complacence. And in innocence, but I'm way too old for innocence. I can grow as many flame lilies as I want, but I can't make them mean what I want them to. What they mean is now infinitely complicated and filled with guilty regret. My subject line is Magnetic Fields, who say accusingly "If you think you can leave the past behind / If you think you can simply press rewind / You must be out of your mind". I'm not sure if they're talking to Dylann Roof, or me.
Ah, the past. I lived in Brixton (south London) in the very early eighties - the time of the riots. I knew coloured/black people - mainly AfroCaribbean - through the local Baptist Church, they were lovely, we seemed to get on well. I know they were sickened by the riots in '81. Mind you, I think the black rioters had a point - they had been picked on and ignored (both) for years.

I think things have improved since, though probably not as much as they could.

The lilies are lovely BTW!