My best friend and I met a man on the cross-Channel ferry from England to France during a summer of blissful ignorance in the late 1990s. We christened him ‘Kaffir Jim’, mainly because neither of us could remember his name after an embarrassingly short period of time.
Like ‘Dave’, ‘John’ and ‘Joe’, ‘Jim’ was generic enough to be amusing, and ‘kaffir’ served as a convenient synechdoche for his identity as a fairly right-wing white South African; a representative of a people who, from Louis Botha to Joss Ackland’s villain in Lethal Weapon II, have had a chronic PR problem at least since the turn of the last century.
Although neither of us knew it at the time, there is a line in H. Rider Haggard’s British Empire classic, King Solomon’s Mines that refers to “a Kaffir hunter called Jim” – a designation which could refer—extending overly-generous benefit of the doubt—to a Bântu-speaking South African, but is much more likely to be a racist epithet. It is more likely still vituperative Imperialist slander against a ‘white man over-friendly with the natives’. It is exactly the type of language one can imagine coming out of the mouth of the most stereotypically reactionary white South African boor.
Whether it is solely down to effective British Boer War propaganda or other aggravating historical factors, your average white South African is viewed as not far off a mildly attenuated Obersturmbahnführer, desperately clinging to a tragically intransigent set of race-bound beliefs.
Sitting at the back of a fairly-crowded bus with his shirt off, braying convulsively like a defecating horse, as though in the advanced stages of some transcendental drug experience, Kaffir Jim chose to share with us his revelation that the world was becoming inexorably homosexual.
This wasn’t the usual spiel about oestrogen leaching into the water supply; this was a terse hypothesis of gonzo evolutionism, refreshingly free of science and reason. How far we’d get with a near-zero birthrate and K.D. Lang (sic) in the White House wasn’t expanded upon, just that more and more people were becoming gay as nature’s naturally selective measure of automatic population control. Kaffir Jim foresaw a dystopian future world ruled by lesbians, and he wasn’t happy about it.
Like most other people one tends to meet at the back of buses on the Lonely Planet trail—a pathway that at the time was merely strung around the third world like a loose garland of adolescent spittle gobs, but that now eclipses the establishment of the ancient Silk Road in the depth of the imprint it has stamped out across the globe—Kaffir Jim wore the creepy, thousand-yard stare of the serial traveller.
Just like the “political kitsch” in the “fantasy of the Grand March” that sustains Milan Kundera’s Franz throughout The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the gestalt of travelling is perpetual and continual movement. There is rarely much of talk of where you’re at, just where you’re going or where you’ve been. As soon as momentum slows to a speed that might threaten the ‘-ing’s on your verbs, the horrifying prospect of reflective thinking looms.
Hiding behind their conveniently intrepid-sounding gerund, in perpetual flight from their lives, the serial traveller seems out-of-time: “separated by an immense space from [their] past and by an immense ignorance from [their] future”
There’s a haunting scene in the film Barton Fink in which John Goodman’s character returns to the spartan room in the flophouse he is living in as the building burns down around him—slowly turning his key in the lock and closing the door behind him, oblivious to the sweat soaking through his clothes from the heat of the flames. I always think of Kaffir Jim whenever I see this.
We met Kaffir Jim in those innocent days before social networking, and at least six months before either my friend or myself had a working email address, so, although we have no way of contacting him to find whether he believes his doomladen projections have come to pass or not, I picture Kaffir Jim still out there somewhere; as oblivious as Mad Man Muntz, half-naked; projecting the disintegration of his psyche out on to the highways and byways of the world.
It wasn’t until 11 years and one too many bouts of travelling later; sat at the back of a crowded bus with my shirt off; desperately fleeing an incomprehensible city, babbling nonsense at anyone who would listen, that I realised what had happened.
IMAGES: Screengrabs from youtube.com