Interview: George Buchanan Author Of Dangerous Ways
"Dangerous Ways" offers a profound journey into your early world, especially from the 1940s to the 1970s. What was the catalyst that made you decide to pen down this memoir now?
My wife had often urged me to write about my life, especially my early life. Meanwhile I increasingly wrote fiction, itself essentially autobiographical, and there are links between the fiction and this memoir. Perhaps, when I began on it, it was because its time had finally come. I should add that as I grew older I became less shy of confrontations with my previous existence and more determined to explore it while still able to. I am already finding that the book’s content has immediacy for others- who may be very different from each other and from me.
Your memoir paints a vivid picture of your nomadic military family life. How do you think this upbringing influenced your perspective on the world and relationships?
The book’s narrative reflects various linked outcomes of my upbringing- negative and positive. The negative, addressed in answers elsewhere, combine uneasy close relationships with my growing sense of isolation, accentuated by my physical separation from an early age. The most significant positive outcome has been my compensatory openness to the world at large, which has enabled me to make diverse connections. (See also Question 8.)
Can you shed some light on the title "Dangerous Ways"? In what ways did your journey feel 'dangerous' to you?
The title exploits the various senses and associations of ‘way’ and its plural, ‘ways’, within which context the book proceeds. I note here that the earliest part of my life, and thus of the book’s chronology, is recounted in Chapters 7 and 8, which begin Part Two. This allows the book to start with its ‘moment of transition’, the crisis of my introduction to my father in a foreign setting. The ‘ways’ of my first experience are largely to do with routes, roads, lanes etc. Thence the ways incorporate also habits and behaviour whether social, moral or emotional. Much of the book may be read as an account in which either the narrator or another major character experiences risk or ‘danger’.
Your memoir reveals moments of guilt and insecurity, particularly emanating from your relationship with your father. How did the process of writing help you process these emotions?
Several readers have commented that the process of writing about my dealings with my father must have been ‘cathartic’. To a degree, yes- by the fact of my putting them on paper and so in effect disposing of them; but the guilt and insecurity I had felt had very largely faded over the long period between my father’s death in 1976 and the writing of the book (begun 6.12.2019).
You've touched on two kinds of guilt: innate and externally imposed. How did your experiences help you distinguish between the two, and how do you navigate them now?
A difficult question. Much ‘innate’ guilt is culturally induced, for example through religion- in this instance Christianity. I am sure that in my immature mind the two were blurred, as when I was punished and I inquired of myself how far I had deserved to be. I ‘navigate’ both versions now by being altogether less susceptible to guilt and in particular ascribed guilt.
The mentors you mention have left an indelible mark on your consciousness. Can you share a particular anecdote or lesson from one of these mentors that truly transformed your life?
The mentor, ‘CO’, discussed on pp.208-211, was Christopher Okigbo, about whom I have written an as yet unpublished novel, Uncertain Times, concerning not only his transformative effect on me but his close involvement in the attempted political coup of early 1966. Subsequently, in the Nigerian Civil War of 1967, he was to lose his life. As also an important and distinguished poet linked closely with Achebe and Soyinka, he is much written about. The section on him in the final chapter provides some insight into our relationship. His view of the inter-connectedness of literatures (and thus of human beings) countered the then more current adherence to the notion, created by Senghor, of ‘negritude’. With reference to the ending of Chapter 2, where I speak of our perspectives and our being ‘taken in hand’ in a process of reconsideration, I recall a moment when, about to cross a busy Lagos street, he did literally take my hand- a gesture that, indirectly, Chapter 2 alludes to (see p.34, final para.).
How did your experiences in North Africa shape your worldview, especially considering the stark contrast to your later life in England?
Of course, my initial outlook came from my earliest years in Yorkshire, where I began life in a largely female household and, to some degree, society. There was the paradox of my living under war conditions in a generally secure environment. Threats to this were external and largely inorganic. My arrival in North Africa disrupted this security, although the text explores as well the many positives in my experience relating whether to people, landscapes, journeys or new interests. No doubt as I grew older I was looking more extensively outside my family in spite of its continuing centrality, which would cease abruptly on a day in January, 1953.
Your narrative presents a vast array of characters from diverse backgrounds. How did these interactions challenge or affirm your beliefs and values growing up?
Experience showed me with increasing clarity the disjunction between background and how individuals thought and acted. Virtues and vices, kindness and unkindness, gentleness and harshness, were distributed at random through society. The memoir recounts this unpredictability in its examples, and in terms of my own mind’s opening to experience makes reference to Dickens (Ch. 3, p.39, final para.; Ch.4, pp.61-62) and my encounter with human decencies to which I still reacted, however, with a defensive circumspection.
Readers have praised the evocative descriptions and subtle humor in your writing. How did you strike a balance between recounting facts and weaving them into a compelling narrative?
The only way I can see to answering this question is to say that every word in the book is linked to every other by the unifying consciousness of the narrator. (My son tells me that as he reads he hears my voice.)
You mentioned the contrast of being a 'very private person' and yet writing a 'very open book'. Was there a particular incident or reflection you debated including in the memoir?
The question provides for two different answers: what I thought about including but excluded; what I included but with reservations. Though there was much material I might have included but didn’t, I think my main consideration was the general congruity of my text. I don’t think I rejected anything I was strongly minded to include, nor is there anything in the book I now regret is there. ‘Balance’ is an objective I have striven to achieve. Writing the book was an iterative process of inclusion and omission. There was one passage I debated over but kept in the interests of veracity and faithfulness to experience, however painful. Even so the passage is not entirely explicit and involves suppression. There was other material relating to my father which I considered including but did not. I felt the generally critical picture of my father had no need of further touches.
How did your academic and professional background influence the way you approached writing this memoir?
Without my academic/educational background I couldn’t have written the book- at least, so far as regards its composition or its range of references. There are numerous cultural allusions (and could, redundantly, have been more) attributable to my education and thereafter my life’s interests across the art forms. One point I should like to make is that the artists, writers and composers named appear always within a context that requires them and never for gratuitous reasons; and thus it is that many of my favourite artists, writers and composers find no place within the text. I should also mention the importance of the influence of other writers on the way I write and what I write. My writing is the product of the combined impact on my instincts of British, European and American writers, modern and ancient, in particular.
"Dangerous Ways" isn't just a personal memoir but also provides a cultural and historical snapshot. How do you view the world's evolution from the time you describe to the present?
An enormous question! The world is presently as dangerously volatile, riven by conflict and suspicion, as it has ever been. More positively, however, there is occurring a vital freeing up of attitudes and postures across the old divisive areas of class and nationality and race. I have been extremely fortunate in the range of the connections on which I have been reliant and from which I have acquired strength, whether as child or adult.
Throughout the memoir, the theme of seeking mental and emotional support from others is recurrent. How has this quest shaped your understanding of human connections?
Partly addressed under the previous question. ‘Human connections’ require mutual giving- a sympathetic readiness; and where these occur may prove to be, very often, unpredictable and surprising.
Given your rich life experiences, what advice would you offer to young individuals navigating their own "dangerous ways"?
As posed, this is beyond my scope! The best I can do is to refer to my answers under the last two questions.
Lastly, with such a deep and personal revelation in this memoir, what do you hope readers will take away from "Dangerous Ways"?
I should like to think they’d derive some pleasure from the processes of reading- from the experience being presented, the book’s rhythms, pictures and changing tones or, as one reader noted, its ‘hidden jokes’.