By Lisa Lovatt-Smith
The complicated thing about living in the African bush is water—or rather the lack of it. Sure there was a stream, but it was in a snake-prone bamboo grove and the local fetish priest had bewitched the water so that it killed dogs (or so everybody in the village believed), and I wasn’t about to chance it. Fortunately we actually had piped, honest-to-goodness government of Ghana water, which was bloody unbelievable considering we lived three miles from the nearest settlement
on the main road. So somehow we got our own tap at home. You turned it on and piped water came out. Sometimes. In the capital city of Accra, three hours’ drive and a whole different lifestyle away, the water flowed once or twice a week. Here it arrived maybe once a week and for some unfathomable reason, usually at midnight. “Because you are up a hill,” the bespectacled water guy confidently informed me. Anyway, you filled your bucket and took it into the outdoor bathhouse, on your head gracefully and as if you were wearing a particularly odd hat if you were my daughters, or huffing and puffing and poking your arm out lopsidedly if you were me. Still, we had never thought it was even a remote possibility to have water coming out the tap in our forest home, however intermittently, so whenever it did flow it was a big deal. Which was why
I came to be standing in the middle of the tropical night holding a hosepipe thinking about my foster father’s death . . . and the flight back from the funeral the day before yesterday… and how the flight attendant wouldn’t let me sleep on the floor of the airplane, which was the only thing I felt like doing after he was gone. I was filling the water tank under the tropical night sky, which because we lived so far from any form of electricity was full of the shiniest stars. I was doing all this in the complete darkness and with no shoes on, wrapped in a scrap of African cloth, because that is how we lived. Tanks were assiduously filled up, no matter what time of day or night the water started to flow. Our tank took a long time to fi ll. My eyes were itching and the dried sweat on my forehead was irritating. So after a while I jammed the hosepipe into the top of the tank and held it down with a biggish rock, checked on my two children, and snuggled down beside my husband, Kweku, for a rest. I fully expected to get up again to turn the tap off, since after many years of water shortages our ears had become finely attuned to the different water gurgles, especially the tank is full and precious water is splashing over the top type of gurgles. Except that night. Worn out from the week and my daughter’s thirteenth birthday party the day before, and the funeral and the flight, I fell sound asleep. With the bedroom door unlocked.
?w? foro ad?b?.
—Akan proverb of the Ashanti people, Ghana
A snake climbs the raffi a palm tree.
(You can achieve the apparently impossible.)
My story starts with Italian tomatoes; apparently they were directly responsible for my conception. My curvy, tiny English mother, who had dyed her blond pixie cut brown to downplay her gorgeousness, was having trouble getting pregnant. The market women in Lerici made her success their own personal quest. “Pomodori, signora, deve mangiare gli pomodori . . . di piu, di piu.” The village of Lerici’s claim to fame is that the British Romantic poet Percy Shelley drowned there in the blue Mediterranean while returning from a visit to Lord Byron. Sunny, beautiful, Italian, and romantic. And it had tomatoes. So that’s where I was conceived while my mum and dad—English like Shelley and his wife Mary, who wrote Frankenstein—lived in a rented house. My parents were temporary visitors, just like they were.
Mum and Dad were both from the North of England, and had married in London, where the bride wore a dark-purple mini (it was the sixties, after all). My father’s family disapproved, since my mum was a grocer’s daughter from Scunthorpe, and thus was considered common. My dad was a lanky blond art student of no fixed ambition who excelled at the Royal College of Art. He was raffish and apparently not common at all.
My mother was determined to see the back of Scunthorpe as soon as she could escape its dreary confines. One can hardly blame her: this was the lackluster industrial North of England. As a child, for six months of the year she had to break the ice in the pail before bathing. She dropped out of school at sixteen and apprenticed to a hairdresser, where she practiced on poodles dying them pink and blue, kick-starting what was to be an illustrious career as a colorist. Not, mind you, before she’d carried off the “Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll” title from the local US Marines. My mum loved dancing—she was really good at it—and rockin’ and rollin’ in the center of an admiring crowd was when she felt most alive.
She bought herself a two-week package tour to Italy, where every good thing she had ever suspected about the south became a certainty. Her tiny waist and lively looks attracted trails of adoring Italian boys. From the day the joyful recipes of Elizabeth David had crossed my mother’s path, the notion of the Mediterranean with its sunlight, fresh figs, dark wine, and bare legs descended upon her like a religious experience. When the tour ended, she promised herself she would live there one day.
In the meantime London would have to do and so she moved there, staying at the YMCA. By 1964, the year that Swinging London was invented, my mother had turned twenty-six, rented a flat, changed her name from Margaret-Ann to Margot, and dyed her hair as blond as could be. She had reached the pinnacle of her profession as celebrity colorist at the famous House of Leonard. The salon was a tiny, bright star in the world’s hippest city, because in the early 1960s, hairdressers and makeup artists changed the world, and London was the epicenter of the funky new universe. My mum could pull off any shade of blond from Twiggy to Bardot. She gloried in her talent, partied, and surrounded herself with a lot of nice gay boys. She was hot, sociable, and fun. London was about to become the swinging belly button of the world, but Mum still aspired to the Mediterranean. Then she met my dad and they made a pact; my mum wanted to get as far away as possible from England, and my dad would tag along for the ride.
So my young soon-to-be parents drove to the South of France in a rented “yogurt pot” of blessed memory, a quintessentially sixties vehicle with three wheels and no balance. Once on the coast, itimmediately overturned (with no damage to my parents) and expired on the spot. My parents wafted around by train until the holiday was over.
The following year my father neglected to come home one night and sent a dozen red roses in his stead. My mother shredded them and danced on the ruins of her marriage in the living room, while downing a bottle of red wine. To cap it all, her husband had run away to Italy (“Italy, my country”) with a girl named Dorothy (“Dorothy, what a common name”). Chain smoking and with only twenty-five British pounds in her pocket, my mum threw in her brilliant career and finally moved, as she had always wanted, to Italy—by bus, and broken-hearted. Soon, Dorothy exited the picture and my father courted my mum all over again, until she relented and they settled in the Bay of Lerici on the Italian Riviera, where pale-pink and yellow houses tumbled into the sea like pastel baby blocks. My mother remembers two main things about their crumbling apricot house: the plumbing (lack of) and the wall geckos (abundance of). It was perched on terraces cut into the steep rugged landscape near the top of a cliff and had a wonderful view of the sea. It was the most impractical choice of location, as it was inaccessible by road. In a gray flannel suit, my father commuted weekly to his job at a top-notch, ultra-trendy advertising agency in Milan. Secretaries in heavy black eyeliner and shiny vinyl miniskirts tripped across the white shag carpet in their platform shoes. Knowing my father’s roving eye, my mum hated every one of them. During this time she stayed home and lived in a bikini, theoretically nesting but in reality dedicating herself to her lifelong religion: sun worship that involved lashings of tanning oil. The one time she was called upon to entertain, the chic Milanese guests had to kill and pluck the chicken themselves, as my “Made in England” mum hadn’t realized it would be delivered from the market alive.
* * *
By New Year’s Day 1967, with bright hopes for what turned out to be a seriously turbulent year, all those tomatoes my mum had ingested had paid off: they were about to have me. It was the year of the Summer of Love, and in a bout of early onset spring fever, my parents, then six months pregnant, blithely decided to leave their pleasant Italian life by the sea and transport themselves to a repressive military dictatorship: Generalissimo Franco’s fascist Spain. I still fail to understand the logic; compared to other cities, Barcelona had very little going for it. London was booming, Milan’s golden age of design was about to climax, the United States was one big hippie love-in—but Barcelona? Apparently, my parents were once again in search of a blank canvas. This time, though, they were about to get more than they bargained for.
Under dictator Francisco Franco’s regime, the capital of Catalonia had been for decades an oppressed and angry city where the people were barely even allowed to speak their own language. Nothing was happening in Barcelona beyond a few strikes and a lot of resentment. And even if the subtleties of political repression escaped them, my father was soon to discover there was scarcely any advertising industry to speak of.
They leisurely crossed the Mediterranean from Genoa to Barcelona by boat, my mum with her elegant white coat flying in the wind and her big belly peeking out. Boy, she must have trusted him, to prepare to give birth somewhere in a new place where she didn’t even speak a word of the language. Characteristically she hit the ground dancing; so much so that after a particularly energetic night on the tiles and a midnight snack of strawberries and cream, I
popped out a month early. It was the fifteenth of April, the day huge demonstrations were held against the Vietnam War in New York City and San Francisco. I was a worryingly tiny two kilogram, or four-and-a-half-pound, baby. They had been in Spain barely eight weeks.
My parents took the usual vastly impractical decision and moved to Sitges, a tiny quiet coastal village forty minutes drive south of Barcelona. Picturesque scenery, white-washed cobbled alleys ending in sea views, steeples and churches, women dressed completely in black . . . That apartment was on the top floor in an old fisherman’s house beside a café called Gustavo’s, ten feet from the sand. My parents had several cages of singing birds. And they had me, who swam before I could walk. It was the Mediterranean dream incarnate. By the time I was two, my young brilliant father with the easy infectious laugh had become the toast of the elite who dreamed of a newer, more groovy Barcelona. His ad campaigns were light-hearted and airy. At the end of the sixties wave, they spoke of a freer era.
He and my mother threw parties on the beach attended by men with goatees and women whose fringes brushed their eyelashes. These yé-yé boys and girls (the Spanish version of “yeah, yeah!”) were the Gauche Divine, the Catalan intelligentsia who looked to France for inspiration and were waiting for the old dictator to die. They smuggled porn, rock music, and champagne from France, along with magazines that revealed the latest fashions. The foreign sheen still on him, my dad was their darling. He was a breath of fresh air, and Barcelona loved him.
Our family fortunes picked up. We moved to a splendid art deco apartment overlooking TurÃ³ Park in uptown Barcelona. A Portuguese contessa lived next door, and she fed me perunilla cookies flavored with cinnamon and lemon, and weak milky tea. Afterward, a governess wheeled me through the park in a navy-blue pushchair. I had white-blond hair and blue, blue eyes. I posed for tons of bonnie-baby commercials that my dad made.
My father was the darling of the incipient advertising and magazine industry, and therefore was never home. My mum was not having as good a time. Also, in the endless Spanish summer, the streets of Barcelona were dusty and gray, and the light was harsh. The city had turned its back on the sea, despite being a port. It was also profoundly conventional; the small freedoms my mum had previously taken for granted were absent. Censorship was everywhere in the form of black squares in every newspaper and magazine. Sex did not exist, and neither did bare breasts or legs. Foreign radio services were blocked. In the butchered movies shown on TV at night, clumsily cut by a censor, the protagonists invariably went straight to breakfast after the firstkiss, as empty film slithered across the screen. On Sundays only brass bands and religious services were on TV, and the dictator endlessly pontificated in a language my mother could not understand. If someone invited you to come to their apartment for dinner, you had to stand outside the building and clap, which was the signal for the sereno, the night watchman, to open the door. You could not just turn up. The codes of society were strict and hard to crack. Everyone over thirty wore black; married women never wore trousers, and they stayed indoors. On Sundays they wore lace veils to church.
This dark bitter Catalan city was not Mum’s idealized southern world. She wore bright-colored mini-shorts and clickity-clackety wooden sandals until November. She was like the Coppertone girl, tan all year round, smelling of coconut and carrot oil. She loved the sun, long white beaches, and the juicy pleasures of eating and cooking.
At this point, with her simple zest for life, the stay-at-home wife with peasant tastes might have slightly embarrassed my father, who was now playing a bigger game. One day she returned from the market to our expensive apartment, only to find that all my father’s clothes were gone. He had taken off with a woman named Debbie. There and then, when I was four, he disappeared off the face of my earth. He left behind:
- Piles of thick, peculiar-smelling storyboard paper, which for the next ten years I would use to draw on. These were a very exotic and inky black, with six white squares that represented TV screens with the space to write the scripts below each screen.
- One big box of Caran d’Ache colored pencils, arranged by tone like a rainbow.
- One box of pastels; square ones that left clouds of powdery tint on your fingers.
- Four postcards from Paris, all identical, all saying the same thing: “I love you, Daddy.” The snapshots from before I was four show a tall slim man; a sharp dresser. I can’t remember him at all, not even his smell or his eyes. I can, however, recall the myth of him with outstanding clarity.
My mum was devastated, although she would never show it. Without my dad, my mum felt like a nobody. Instead of damning him for leaving her stranded, she immediately started weaving the fairy tale of him. This was the myth that sustained us both for twenty years. Unbelievably, she never spoke a word against him. She felt they’d had ten good years together and she’d been blissfully happy, which was more than most women got out of marriage, she said. That they never fought. That until it was off, it was always passionately on. His friends were divided into two opposing camps. The men wanted to sleep with her. The women wanted her to return to England and get welfare and legal aid.
* * *
She had absolutely no money. She had never finished school, had few marketable skills, and could not drive. She could not speak a word of Catalan; only a little Spanish mixed with Italian. And yet my mother didn’t leave fascist Spain, where she had no one, for an easier life in England. In this solitary fact lies coiled the essence of my profoundly unconventional childhood. She didn’t go back to Swinging London, which by 1971 had seen the breakup of the Beatles, the exodus of the Rolling Stones, and the rise of hard drugs, glam rock, and a haircut called the shag. She was plucky and stubborn, and determined not to drop her Mediterranean delusion.
She moved us to a small apartment in Castelldefels on the long beach south of Barcelona. From then on, our apartments would only get tinier and more dismal, and there would be a long succession of them, sometimes two or three a year. These were rundown rooms in buildings slapped together for seasonal holiday makers on the long streets that ran between the pine forest and the endless dunes. My mum decided not to look for a hairdressing job because it would mean too many long hours away from me. She found a summer job teaching swimming for a few pesetas, but by the time autumn rolled around again we were both very lost. I vaguely remember a boyfriend with a Doberman. That is, I remember long hours playing with a Doberman. And another who bought me a dress that was too small, but I could not tell him so because I was supposed to be nice to him. Within a few months, when I was five, Paul and Barbara, a very affluent couple also from the North of England who had two children and who had socialized with my parents in better days, offered to take me in.
Read an interview with Lisa Lovatt-Smith