North Street, 26

Diary, Thursday 31st July 1997: Father Mac and myself visited an old house on North Street. Actually the entrance is on Orange Street. We stopped the car next to a bright red fence. Beneath the paint I could see traces of carefully painted slogans. We crossed the road and walked passed a concrete shell with a simple slab roof. Father Mac was making promises of astonishment. He walked into apassage between two such concrete shelters housing seedy little shops. In the passage we looked up to a staircase leading to an old brick basement on top of which were the remains of a once glorious wooden house. Fatther Mac suspects that it used to be used as a school building. Originally it was residential however, a very large and luxurious town house. All the paint had been stripped, the wood was dirty and dry, grey, cracked , split and bent, not to say rotten. The glory had gone and what was left was an index of indescribable squallor. We entered the central arch leading into the basement, not trusting the once proud staircase to the front door. Walked under the house, between the dark brick cellar walls. Everywhere there was garbafge, brightly coloured and offsetting the dark grime smeared deep into the grain of the brick. An old foam mattress, King size, was lying in a sheltered area, a love mattress. Father Mac winked. We emerged on the other side of the house, the back yard. Lots of children surrounded us. I spoke English to them and they spoke English back to me, but we did not understand each other. So we laughed. Father Mac led the way up some rickety steps onto the main floor, a patchwork floor, full of hazard. The pattern of grandeur was still discernible, a generous balcony, The generous symmetrical floor plan with an axial and large cross-shaped central foyer from the front to the back and from side to side, with rooms leading off from it. The rooms were now dark, above the void where once there were doors there were still the rotting fragments of beautifully carved panels. On the veranda, or what used to be a conservatory to the south of the building, a carpenter was at work. Not on the maintenance of this building, but in making a living. He told me his name but I have forgotten it. All the rooms which still had partitions between them and the central space were curtained off with shower curtains in flowery patterns. Each room housed unfathomable families. A man came up to me and asked me in a very resentful voice whether I was buying the place. I said: “No, I’m a historian,” an answer which in the past had often served me well. But white historian only tell lies. A view that is perhaps not fair, but not without truth. The white man still has a near monopoly on history, and monopolies are as bad in history as they are in economics. In any case he seemed satisfied that we weren’t buying the place, but he did not like us snooping around, which again was an accurate description of what we were essentially doing: third world tourism. We carefully waked down the brick staircase at the front of the house , which had mostly eroded away. We looked back and saw how high the house stood on its brick base relative to the north-south road it faced, and got a feeling of how much orange street had eroded away over the hundred or hundred and fifty years that the house had been standing.