Sharing comics in childhood
Since starting to read and write my prime interest was the governance of society. My mother warned me that if I kept on with the comics I’d grow moronic. I never believed that. Between Batman and Tarzan I was convinced our society could be changed. After all Hollywood and comics had practically colonised the planet. If the élite were toppled it would be through the mass communication of cinema and comics. These deductions emerged living under the draconian oppression of apartheid South Africa.
In 1857 during the era of the great Victorian museums the V&A founding director Sir Henry Cole testified. He wanted a museum for the under-educated working man to acquire culture.
Given my beginnings in South Africa it seemed inevitable that coping with asthma and apartheid I’d become artistically inclined and socially conscious. Settling in a freer England I initially saw the V&A as a haven for oddities and eccentricities. Given what I always was or had become where else could my collections end up? It had to be the V&A.
Looking out of the window on the third floor of my flat what I see is green leaves waiting for a breeze and the miraculous transformation to rippling ocean waves. This view is Kensington privilege on a fine summer’s day. Ascending to my fourth floor and the skylight at the back of the flat what I see is of a different nature. Rising above the fine houses and rich trees behind Latimer Road is the opposite end of the social scale. The smoke stained charred husk of the burnt-out remnant of Grenfell Tower dominates; an ugly reminder of the disparity of life in the wealthiest borough in the United Kingdom. This contradictory enormity bears some similarity to my ambivalent romance with the V&A on the opposite side of Kensington. I live on the border on the north of the borough whereas the V&A dominates the south.
After I arrived in England in the early sixties – a reluctant refugee – I settled in the Worlds End on the periphery of Chelsea. I became a habitué of the V&A. Despite the rundown tone of the museum cafe in the early 60s − the cracked nauseous green plastic seats on rickety chairs and the wobbly, rotting metal and Formica tables − I felt I was in the finest cultural citadel of the universe. It was the antithesis of everything I had escaped from in the southern hemisphere. Before I could commit myself to unparalleled affection I had to check that something onerous was not there. I scoured the corridors and galleries looking for any sign resurrecting a horror from my childhood. To my relief there was nothing akin to what I feared.
In 2009 I delivered the keynote address for a V&A symposium on comics in the Hochhauser Theatre. I recalled what brought tears when I was six years old. I’d got lost in the Cape Town Natural History Museum surrounded by figures which though fully grown were barely bigger than me. The tenor of primordial times resonated and engulfed me. Men, women and children had scorched earth blemished skins, gigantic fleshy backsides, wrinkled lined features and close to the scalp peppercorn hair. They were imprisoned in vast Victorian glass cabinets. Those weary suffering features were the saddest thing my young years had seen. Their eyes bore down on me as if they were still alive.
I ran out terrified and awash with tears. The San people (aka Bushmen) had looked as alive as I felt. I was shamed by my blond-haired whiteness. My colonial antecedents were the perpetrators of what I saw. Later I saw their starving descendents in rags in Namaqualand which was no less frightening.
Regarded as vermin those diminutive human beings were hunted mercilessly. The colonial administration paid more for skins in good condition. That explained the painful death by driving staves up the anus.
Searching the galleries of the V&A I found no display of that Cape Province enormity. Consequently I was prepared for a commitment to the museum and a companionship within the NAL (National Art Library) which boasted early Shakespeare folios, Dickens original manuscripts and de Vinci notebooks. I was in good company. A world standard was within my reach.
Sir Henry Cole envisaged the V&A as different to other museums for the benefit of the élite. Sir Henry installed electricity for people to visit the Library after working hours. The cultural barriers had to fall beyond the grip of the privileged.
Given my slant on what drove Sir Henry chimes with values I hold dear. I was inevitably as a collector drawn towards the Library with over a million books housed in the V&A. I interpreted what Sir Henry had declared as the pursuit of world class excellence for all people of all classes, colours and genders. My course was set. The Rakoff Collection with 16,000 items is a solid chunk of acid free sleeved comics shelved under room controlled temperature in the under land of the museum, safe for longer than I shall endure.
We begin at the beginning to quote Under Milk Wood; how the allure of comics attracted this collector.