Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith


  “I was looking out from the back of the truck. Young dead Germans were everywhere. They looked like us; they could have been us. It was gruesome. And we’d heard by then that Major Elphinstone, our major, had died the minute he hit the beach. He stuck his head out of the tank to look about and—pop—a sniper shot him in the face. But you must write that I had an easy day. I had absolutely an easy day. The work had been done, you see. It’d been done. I wasn’t like Bert Scaife.”

  Who?

  “He was this bloke, he was a legend by the end of the day—caught so many men, shot all these mortars off—he got decorated later. I was no Bert Scaife. Not by a long way.”

  Harvey’s truck rode up the lanes, unharmed. There were dugouts everywhere and people shooting at him, but with the help of the radio and excellent information, they made it safely through the worst. They stopped at a monastery that had been commandeered by the Nazis and now stood abandoned. There was a dead man in Nazi uniform lying in the hallway. My father bent down to turn him over and would have joined him in oblivion if it hadn’t been for his CO stopping his hand just in time. The body was booby-trapped. Coiled within it, my future, and that of my brothers, and the future of our future children, and so on, into unthinkability.

  He slept that night in a fragrant orchard. And what else? “Well, I stopped in Bayeux a bit after that. Bought a pen.” At this point, my patience with my father bottomed out. He looked at me helplessly. “It’s so hard to remember. . . . I only remember the obscure stuff.”

  So now I started playing hardball; now I picked the Dictaphone up and demanded to know about the shrapnel, for Harvey has some shrapnel in his groin, I know he does, and he knows I know. A doctor found it in a routine X-ray in 1991, forty-seven years after Harvey thought it had been removed. I was sixteen at the time, EMF had a hit with “Unbelievable” and I was wearing harem pants. If he’d come home and told me he’d been a waiter on the Titanic it couldn’t have seemed more fantastical.

  “Oh, that was different. That was just after I bought the pen.”

  A few days after the pen incident, then, my father was again in an orchard in the middle of the night. He decided to make tea, the way you did during the war, by filling a biscuit tin full of sand and a little petrol and setting that alight. He shouldn’t have done that. The flames were spotted and a mortar bomb sent over. He doesn’t know how many men died. Maybe two, maybe three. I leaned forward and turned up the volume. For hadn’t I brought this little contraption here for my own purposes? Not to record my father’s history, and not even to write this article, but precisely for this revelation, for this very moment or another like it; in the hope of catching a painful war secret, in the queer belief that such a thing would lead to some epiphanic shift in my relationship with my father. There is such a vanity in each succeeding generation—we think we can free our parents from experience, that we will be their talking cure, that we are the catharsis they need. I said, But, Dad, it was a simple mistake. We all make so many at the same age, but in a normal situation, they can’t lead to anybody’s dying. I put my hand on his hand. “But it was my fault.” “Of course it wasn’t. It was a mistake.” “Yes, yes,” said Harvey, humoring me, crying quietly, “if that’s how you want to say it.”

  He woke up on a stretcher in a truck, two dead Germans either side of him, picked up from some other incident. That was the end of his war for a few weeks while he recuperated in England. When he went back, in the final months of the war, he did some remarkable things. He caught a senior Nazi, an episode I turned into idiotic comedy for a novel. He helped liberate Belsen. But it’s those weeks in Normandy that are most significant to him. The mistakes he made, the things he didn’t do, how lucky he was. To finish up, I asked him if he thought he was brave in Normandy.

  “I wasn’t brave! I wasn’t asked to be brave. . . . I wasn’t Bert Scaife! I wasn’t individually brave; that’s how you should say it for the paper.” Is that why he never spoke about it? “Not really. . . . I s’pose when you realized you were playing your part in killing ordinary people, well, it’s an awful thing to think about . . . and then, well, I spent a year in Germany after the war, you see, working for the army and making friends with ordinary Germans. I almost married a German girl, from the country, with a strong jaw. Lovely girl. And in her house there was a photo of her brother, in a Nazi uniform, about eighteen. He wasn’t coming home. And my mate who came to visit her with me, he turned the photo to the wall. But I said no. These were just country people. There was so much evil in that war. And then they were just people like that, simple people.”

  That’s the end of our interview on the tape. Afterward, he phoned me up several times to reiterate one point. He wasn’t brave. I said, okay, Dad, yes, I’ve got that bit.

  During one of these conversations, I revised my earlier question to him. If he wasn’t brave, is he at least proud? “Not really. If I’d been one of the medicos on beach. Or done something like Bert Scaife did, then I’d be proud, I suppose. But I didn’t.”

  Harvey Smith is not Bert Scaife—he wants me to make that very clear to you. When he caught that senior Nazi, his fellow soldiers wanted to kill the man. It was my father who persuaded them to settle for a lesser punishment: he set the Nazi walking in front of their tank for five miles before handing him over to the authorities. It is characteristic of Harvey that he was somewhat ashamed to tell me that story. He feels he behaved cruelly.

  In sum, Harvey thinks pride a pale virtue. To his mind, an individual act either helps a little or it does not, and to be proud of it afterward helps nobody much, changes nothing. Still, I am proud of him. In the first version of this article, I wrote here: “He was a man able to retain his humanity in the most inhumane of circumstances.” Later I scratched it out because humanity is these days a vainglorious, much debased word and inhumanity is a deceitful one. My generation was raised with the idea that those who pride themselves on their humanity are perfectly capable of atrocity. I think I’ll put instead: he didn’t lose himself in horror. Which is a special way of being brave, of bring courageous, and a quality my father shares with millions of ordinary men and women who fought that miserable war.

  Sixteen

  DEAD MAN LAUGHING

  My father had few enthusiasms, but he loved comedy. He was a comedy nerd, though this is so common a condition in Britain as to be almost not worth mentioning. Like most Britons, Harvey gathered his family around the defunct hearth each night to watch the same half-hour comic situations repeatedly, in reruns and on video. We knew the “Dead Parrot” sketch by heart. We had the usual religious feeling for Monty Python’s Life of Brian. If we were notable in any way, it was not in kind but in extent. In our wood-cabinet music center, comedy records outnumbered the Beatles. The Goons’ “I’m Walking Backwards for Christmas” got an airing all year long. We liked to think of ourselves as particular, on guard against slapstick’s easy laughs—Benny Hill was beneath our collective consideration. I suppose the more precise term is “comedy snobs.”

  Left unchecked, comedy snobbery can squeeze the joy out of the enterprise. You end up thinking of comedy as Hemingway thought of narrative: structured like an iceberg, with all the greater satisfactions fathoms underwater, while the surface pleasure of the joke is somehow the least of it. In my father, this tendency was especially pronounced. He objected to joke merchants. He was wary of the revue-style bonhomie of the popular TV double act Morecambe and Wise and disapproved of the cheery bawdiness of their rivals, the Two Ronnies. He was allergic to racial and sexual humor, to a far greater degree than any of the actual black people or women in his immediate family. Harvey’s idea of a good time was the BBC sitcom Steptoe and Son, the grim tale of two mutually antagonistic “rag-and-bone” men who pass their days in a Beckettian pile of rubbish, tearing psychological strips off each other. Each episode ends with the son (a philosopher manqué, who considers himself trapped in the filthy family business) submitting to a funk of existential despair. The sadder and more
desolate the comedy, the better Harvey liked it.

  His favorite was Tony Hancock, a comic wedded to despair, in his life as much as in his work. (Hancock died of an overdose in 1968.) Harvey had him on vinyl: a pristine, twenty-year-old set of LPs. The series was Hancock’s Half Hour, a situation comedy in which Hancock plays a broad version of himself and, to my mind, of my father: a quintessentially English, poorly educated, working-class war veteran with social and intellectual aspirations, whose fictional address—23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam—perfectly conjures the aspirant bleakness of London’s suburbs (as if Cheam were significant enough a spot to have an East). Harvey, meanwhile, could be found in 24 Athelstan Gardens, Willesden Green (a poky housing estate named after the ancient king of England), also by a railway. Hancock’s heartbreaking inability to pass as a middle-class beatnik or otherwise pull himself out of the hole he was born in was a source of great mirth to Harvey, despite the fact that this was precisely his own situation. He loved Hancock’s hopefulness, and loved the way he was always disappointed. He passed this love on to his children, with the result that we inherited the comic tastes of a previous generation. (Born in 1925, Harvey was old enough to be our grandfather.) Occasionally, I’d lure friends to my room and make them listen to “The Blood Donor” or “The Radio Ham.” This never went well. I demanded complete silence, was in the habit of lifting the stylus and replaying a section if any incidental noise should muffle a line and generally leached all potential pleasure from the exercise with laborious explanations of the humor and said humor’s possible obfus cation by period details: ration books, shillings and farthings, coins for the meter, and so on. It was a hard sell in the brave new comedic world of The Jerk and Beverly Hills Cop and Ghostbusters.

  Hancock wasn’t such an anachronism, as it turns out. Genealogically speaking, Harvey had his finger on the pulse of British comedy, for Hancock begot Basil Fawlty, and Fawlty begot Alan Partridge, and Partridge begot the immortal David Brent. And Hancock and his descendants served as a constant source of conversation between my father and me, a vital link between us when, classwise, and in every other wise, each year placed us further apart. As in many British families, it was university wot dunnit. When I returned home from my first term at Cambridge, we couldn’t discuss the things I’d learned; about Anna Karenina, or G. E. Moore, or Gawain and his stagger ingly boring Green Knight, because Harvey had never learned them—but we could always speak of Basil. It was a conversation that lasted decades, well beyond the twelve episodes in which Basil himself is contained. The episodes were merely jumping-off points; we carried on compulsively creating Basil long after his authors had stopped. Great situation comedy expands in the imagination. For my generation, never having seen David Brent’s apartment in The Office is no obstacle to conjuring up his interior decoration: the risqué Athena poster, the gigantic entertainment system, the comical fridge magnets. Similarly, for my father, imagining Basil Fawlty’s school career was a creative exercise. “He would have failed his eleven-plus,” Harvey once explained to me. “And that would’ve been the start of the trouble.” When meditating on the sitcom, you extrapolate from the details, which in Britain are almost always signifiers of social class: Hancock’s battered homburg, Fawlty’s cravat, Partridge’s driving gloves, Brent’s fake Italian suits. It’s a relief to be able to laugh at these things. In British comedy, the painful class dividers of real life are neutralized and exposed. In my family, at least, it was a way of talking about things we didn’t want to talk about.

  When Harvey was very ill, in the autumn of 2006, I went to visit him at a nursing home in the seaside town of Felixstowe, armed with the DVD boxed set of Fawlty Towers. By this point, he was long divorced from my mother, his second divorce, and was living alone on the gray East Anglian coast, far from his children. On dialysis for a decade (he lost his first kidney to stones, the second to cancer), his body now began to give up. I had meant to leave the DVDs with him, something for the empty hours alone, but when I got there, with nothing to talk about, we ended up watching them together for the umpteenth time, he on the single chair, me on the floor, cramped in that grim little nursing-home bedroom, surely the least funny place he’d ever found himself in—with the possible exception of the 1944 Normandy landings. We watched several episodes, back to back. We laughed. Never more than when Basil thrashed an Austin 1100 with the branch of a tree, an act of inspired pointlessness that seemed analogous to our own situation. And then we watched the DVD extras, in which we found an illuminating little depth charge hidden among the nostalgia and the bloopers:It was probably—may have been—my idea that she should be a bit less posh than him, because we couldn’t see otherwise what would have attracted them to each other. I have a sort of vision of her family being in catering on the south coast, you know, and her working behind a bar somewhere, he being demobbed from his national service and getting his gratuity, you know, and going in for a drink and this . . . barmaid behind the bar and she fancied him because he was so posh. And they sort of thought they’d get married and run a hotel together and it was all a bit sort of romantic and idealistic, and the grim reality then caught up with them.

  That is the actress Prunella Scales answering a question of comic (and class) motivation that had troubled my father for twenty years: why on earth did they marry each other? A question that—given his own late, failed marriage to a Jamaican girl less than half his age—must have had a resonance beyond the laugh track. On finally hearing an answer, he gave a sigh of comedy-snob satisfaction. Not long after my visit, Harvey died, at the age of eighty-one. He had told me that he wanted “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” played at his funeral. When the day came, I managed to remember that. I forgot which version, though (sweet, melodic Baez). What he got instead was jeering, postbreakup Dylan, which made it seem as if my mild-mannered father had gathered his friends and family with the particular aim of telling them all to fuck off from beyond the grave. As comedy, this would have raised a half smile out of Harvey, not much more. It was a little broad for his tastes.

  In birth, two people go into a room and three come out. In death, one person goes in and none come out. This is a cosmic joke told by Martin Amis. I like the metaphysical absurdity it draws out of the death event, the sense that death doesn’t happen at all—that it is, in fact, the opposite of a happening. There are philosophers who take this joke seriously. To their way of thinking, the only option in the face of death—in facing death’s absurd nonface—is to laugh. This is not the bold, humorless laugh of the triumphant atheist, who conquers what he calls death and his own fear of it. No: this is more unhinged. It comes from the powerless, despairing realization that death cannot be conquered, defied, contemplated or even approached, because it’s not there; it’s only a word, signifying nothing. It’s a truly funny laugh, of the laugh-or-you’ll-cry variety. There is “plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope—but not for us!” This is a cosmic joke told by Franz Kafka, a wisecrack projected into a void. When I first put the partial cremains of my father in a Tupperware sandwich box and placed it on my writing desk, that was the joke I felt like telling.

  Conversely, the death we speak of and deal with every day, the death that is full of meaning, the nonabsurd death, this is a place marker, a fake, a convenient substitute. It was this sort of death that I was determined to press upon my father, as he did his dying. In my version, Harvey was dying meaningfully, in linear fashion, within a scenario stage-managed and scripted by the people around him. Neatly crafted, like an American sitcom: “The One in Which My Father Dies.” It was to conclude with a real event called Death, which he would experience and for which he would be ready. I did all the usual, banal things. I brought a Dictaphone to his bedside, in order to collect the narrative of his life (this perplexed him—he couldn’t see the through line). I grew furious with overworked nurses. I refused to countenance any morbidity from my father, or any despair. The funniest thing about dying is how much we, the living, ask of the dying; how we beg
them to make it easy on us. At the hospital, I ingratiated myself with the doctors and threw what the British call “new money” at the situation. Harvey watched me go about my business with a puzzled half smile. To all my eager suggestions he said, “Yes, dear—if you like,” for he knew well that we were dealing with the National Health Service, into which all Smiths are born and die, and my new money would mean only that exactly the same staff, in the same hospital, would administer the same treatments, though in a slightly nicer room, with a window and possibly a television. He left me to my own devices, sensing that these things made a difference to me, though they made none to him: “Yes, dear—if you like.” I was still thrashing an Austin 1100 with a tree branch; he was some way beyond that. And then, when he was truly beyond it, far out on the other side of nowhere, a nurse offered me the opportunity to see the body, which I refused. That was a mistake. It left me suspended in a bad joke in which a living man inexplicably becomes two pints of dust and everyone acts as if this were not a joke at all but, rather, the most reasonable thing in the world. A body would have been usefully, concretely absurd. I would have known—or so people say—that the thing lying there on the slab wasn’t my father. As it was, I missed the death, I missed the body, I got the dust and from these facts I tried to extrapolate a story, as writers will, but found myself, instead, in a kind of stasis. A moment in which nothing happened, and keeps not happening, forever. Later, I was informed, by way of comfort, that Harvey had also missed his death: he was in the middle of a sentence, joking with his nurse. “He didn’t even know what hit him!” the head matron said, which was funny, too, because who the hell does?

 
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