Friday, 29 February 2008

Cape Town Character

I've just returned from Cape Town which, inevitably, means eating and drinking too much (some of the best food and wine in the world, well, what can you do?) and visiting all my favourite places. Not the touristy sites but those that have drop-dead gorgeous landscapes and architecture or areas that have character - not tourist pastiche but real character, warts and all.

I've drawn comparisons with the latter before: Long Street with its Melbourne buildings and St Kilda style has a cosmopolitan atmosphere, ethnic shops and surviving culture. Kalk Bay, all Brighton boho with it's junk and arty shops and café's. OK, so they're just a wee bit faded, but they're not jaded, not at all. In fact they're more buzzy than ever: that extra confidence gained from the influx of visitors' cash means some new shops have opened and a café or two. Nothing as bold as a lick of paint, of course: don't want to try too hard and lose the "I'm too smart to dress up" charm.

And there's Muizenberg - seaside resort of yesteryear - with its Herbert Baker buildings and a beach to die for. The stretch of coast from there to Kalk Bay on the western coast of the peninsular was the place for Capetonians to holiday a hundred years ago: the arrival of the railway meant that everyone could afford a day trip at least. And for those who had the luxury of a week long holiday there were plenty of hotels and guest houses to suit every pocket along the coast of False Bay.

When the billionaire, Cecil Rhodes, bought a seaside cottage at St James – between Muizenberg and Kalk Bay - it was as good a nod as a wink to the wealthy: here was a healthy fashionable place to escape the hot and dusty summer heat of the interior. And they brought their money with them to build their seaside houses, to pay the fees for the bowling greens and the tennis club and to patronize the hotel restaurants.

On Muizenberg beach the white sand stretches as far as the eye can see: the water is warm enough to swim in and the waves gentle enough for novice surfers. Surprisingly perhaps, nearly a hundred years ago bathers in their long legged bathing suits strode out to sea to surf on short wooden boards: today the surfers are there in droves, all body-hugging rubber, high-tech fibreglass and four wheel drives.

Old postcards show children taking donkey rides or building sandcastles on Muizenberg beach, whilst mothers looked on with concern or pride: just like any modern seaside. The smart new wooden Pavilion that was built in 1911 had "every comfort and convenience": wash-room and changing facilities and a large tea room. And along the beach stilted wooden bathing huts – painted in a variety of colours – were built. Then a smart stone railway station was commissioned to announce that Muizenberg was on the map.

But the 1930's was probably its apogee: a larger pavilion replaced the wooden one - with more dressing cubicles, a larger tea room, theatre and dance hall – but it was not a success for a variety of reasons. Many of the hotels and buildings were taken over by the Government or troops during the Second World War and afterwards it suffered the steady decline that happened to English seaside towns.

But there's another beach Pavilion now, and owners of the new apartments and houses that have been built in the last couple of years want all the fun trappings of a seaside resort. So it's only a matter of time until Muizenberg is on the map again. In the meantime I'll continue to marvel at the beach from high above on Boyes Drive. I'll still visit the flea markets of Long Street and eat fish cooked to perfection straight from the harbour in Kalk Bay. And I'll hope that none of my favourite places become too popular too fast.


Thursday, 21 February 2008

The Swallows of Kabul

Yasmina Khadra is the pen name of Mohamed Moulessehoul, an ex Algerian army officer who took his wife's name when he tried to avoid censorship. French is his mother tongue and he now lives in France. His novel, Swallows of Kabul, opens with the execution of a woman and ends with one; Khadra focuses on the humiliation of women and certainly makes the reader feel that the life he describes would be intolerable.

Kabul is a hot, dusty, poor and joyless city, governed since the war by the brutal dictatorship of the Taliban. Laughter, music and shows of affection are not allowed whilst women are considered objects to be treated as their men see fit or cast off if their husbands choose. In the streets the women must be covered from head to toe in a burqa whilst their fearful husbands and sons are constantly whipped by the fundamentalists or forced into the mosque to pray.

The character Atiq became a mujahideen when the Russians invaded the Pashtuns in Afghanistan but he is now a jailer in Kabul. His wife, Musarrat, saved his life when he was injured during the war but is now dying from an incurable illness. The childless Musarrat loves Atiq but he married her because he felt beholden and now feels trapped and guilty, unhappy and angry.

Mohsen is a mild mannered pacifist from a wealthy family: during the war years his parents lost their wealth as well as their lives and, he, no longer able to realise his dream of becoming a diplomat, leads an aimless and ineffectual life. All that sustains him is his beautiful wife, Zunaira, whom he fell in love with whilst they were at university. As an educated lawyer she had a certain amount of freedom and liberal ideas: now she rails against the humiliation of being a faceless object without respect, unable to work or even hold her own ideas by the fanatics in power.

Unfortunately, John Cullen's translation is - especially at first - so florid it's like reading a bad romantic novel. Three of our book group read the book in its original French and enjoyed it because of the wonderful use of language: it was poetic, the French use of alliteration was more pronounced and, strangely, the more limited French vocabulary gave the words more weight.

We all agreed that a good translator actually has to be a poet or a writer too; a pedestrian translator is too literal, a good one goes with the meaning. Fortunately, the translation settles down as the novel progresses and becomes less flowery: it’s the story that the reader finally concentrates on and descriptions of place and atmosphere suit the tone much better.

The lives of the two couples central to the story finally fall apart. Mohsen is losing his conscience when he throws a stone at a woman: he is disgusted with himself and mistakenly tells his wife who is appalled. Finally, Mohsen convinces his wife to walk out with him in the town against her better instincts: she is humiliated when she is forced to sit in the sun for hours when her husband is made to pray in the mosque and she is sickened by his lack of backbone. She tries to spur him into standing up for himself: it's a terrible miscalculation.

Atiq begins to question his faith and now has no hope, no pity and no love. Then quite unexpectedly he sees a beautiful woman: she is condemned to death. He has seen so few women, and is so starved of beauty and anything that gives him joy, that he cannot bear the thought of her dying. Musarrat sees love and joy in Atiq when he falls under the woman's spell: awed to find he can feel such a way and delighted to see her husband so happy, she thinks of a scheme to save the woman.

We agreed that the characters were caricatures, that the female ones were a male fantasy and most thought them not at all well rounded. The total lack of respect for women was difficult for some of the group to believe possible: the bleakness and tragedy of the situation and setting affected everyone and, in half the group, depressed them. None would read it again and hardly any would recommend it.

But there were some wonderful observations: for example Zunaira described how she had in her relationship with her husband a small flame that she tried to blow into fire and in the process blew out. I was struck by Mohsens words "We've known the joys of life has to offer, and we thought them as good as the joys of eternity". So it is that in some parts of the world, in some regimens, the repressed, the poor and the uneducated look forward to the ease and joy that is promised in eternity.

Underneath the clunky translation, the caricature characters and the fantastical elements there is a strong moral – true, some times rather blatant: a society that does not respect women, that denies the pacifying and caring attributes of them, can become a cruel and dictatorial one.

And loss of intimacy and repression has a dehumanizing effect. The women are the swallows of the title: beauty and freedom have flown. Khandra's belief that 'Fundamentalism is the cancer of Islam' is certainly apparent in The Swallows of Kabul. This book describes a chilling situation, an awful message but one we need to understand.


Friday, 15 February 2008

St Valentine's

St Valentine's Day had a bit of a naughty beginning, quite dissimilar to our romantic view of it. It's roots were in pagan Rome: during the month long Lupercalia festival the names of willing young women were written down and picked out at random by virile young men to be their companion throughout the time of orgy.

The Church disapproved of course and nominated a day and the acceptable face of a saint – Valentine – in the hope that he and not courtesans became the centre of attention. This was not an immediate success because then, as now, good times are not surrendered lightly: the young men and women continued to choose a real life Valentine with whom there was still fun and frolics.

Over time the Church did manage to steer the debauched festival into more fitting game of mystery and romance. Around the 15th century this took the form of a simple letters written to the partner of ones choice, with whom one hoped to perhaps eventually marry.

However, intrigue or the practical Valentine joke was often indulged as happened in Gaskell's novel, Cranford, with such sorry conequences. There were all sorts of ways to find a Valentine: in Samuel Pepys time – mid 1600's – the first man seen by a woman that morning became her Valentine, and she his, so a wise woman timed her outings so that she didn't bump into the dolt next door.

A wealthy Valentine was a very good catch because he would bring presents of gloves or stockings or, if he were very rich, jewellery. But letters, and names written on pieces of paper, were still common nevertheless. In the 17th century Valentines were often chosen by the recipient based on the skill of letter they wrote: it might be a sentimental poem, a few lines of flowery description or a painted heart.

These home-made 'letters' became more complex by the Victorian period: glue and scissors were employed to produce nifty decoupage or watercoloured pictures painted. Unfortunately those not blessed with any artistic ability were at a clear disadvantage.

The ever enterprising and commercially minded Victorians hit upon the bought Valentine card: embossing, patterns and perforations were used, with gold and silver gilding and love knots. As time went on these became works of sentimental and romantic art, birds, flowers, baskets, ribbons, lace, painted satin panels and cupids were favourite decorations with mottoes, couplets and rhymes added.

The cards became a roaring success; according to the General Post Office archives over 200,000 Valentine letters and cards were sent by post in 1825, which by 1850 had grown to 800,000. But mass production and OT decoration – three dimensional cards steeped in perfume, or boxed ones decorated with moss and feathers – caused these cards to lose their charm and the popularity of the Valentine card waned.

A revival (if for no other reason but to boost Post Office coffers) was needed: step in our hero, Rex Whistler. This talented artist designed the first St Valentine's telegram in glorious glittering colour and a new wave of sending St Valentine verses was begun.

I can remember the teenage angst that was palpable leading up to 14th February: if you received one it would accompany you to school and either be gloated over or discreetly dropped by 'accident' out of the satchel. Of course if you didn't get one you pretended the post hadn't been delivered before you left for school and hoped that by the next day the subject would be relegated to yesterday's news.

I have to say that I do think commercialism has rather overtaken the fun and charm of St Valentine's now: mark you, I have no objection to a bunch of flowers or (preferably and) a nice meal out from Best Beloved who, admittedly, does often need a little jog in the romance stakes.

But the sweetest of cards I ever received were those hand made ones that my children proudly presented to me after school. Alright, they weren’t anonymous and they were oddly shaped and strangely coloured, but I think making the cards taught them that not everything needs to be bought and that we all need little tokens of love now and then: so long live St Valentine's Day.


Friday, 8 February 2008

And a new beginning

January: always a bit of an anticlimax after Christmas and a miserable month for weather to boot. But when those fresh green leaves of the snowdrops push their way through the crumpled leaves under the trees there is suddenly the hope of something better. When the delicate snow white heads appear, nodding so prettily, you know spring is only weeks away: OK, many weeks away, but let's be positive.

Down the side of the back path are some bright little beacons, winter aconites, golden yellow, their ruff of leaves so shiny, that they would cheer anyone up - which is why I look forward to daffodils in March – and several primroses with frilly leaves are flowering early in the borders.

And I love the hellebores which are all in flower, adding a sophisticated touch to otherwise bleak corners with their dramatic leaves and wonderful colours: lime green and pure white, freckled or streaked. February now: everything else is getting the message. Delicate early iris – Iris ungularis - are fleetingly in flower nestled among their sword like leaves, tiny purple violets peep shyly out from underneath bushes.

An unusually warm and sunny day and suddenly there are several crocus open under the beech tree. Mostly mauve, a few white, but not one yellow one – the birds love their saffron and if a yellow one slips through the net the birds will make sure it doesn't last long.

And the narcissi I planted in the old half barrel have suddenly shot up – several degrees warmer raised as they are – I just hope they're not over too quickly. I love the smell of them as I come out of my back door, they will be followed by later varieties and, if I'm lucky, there will be flowers until Easter.

It's been such a mild winter that the birds are beginning to nest: we've had a pair of greater spotted woodpeckers and a lovely nuthatch making a meal of the nuts. And yesterday a pair of tiny perfectly formed long-tailed tits: they're so pretty with their soft pink feathers, long tail and neat heads. I think they're nesting in the rose above the kitchen window; I do hope so.

February may still have some blasts of wintery weather in store for us but now nothing can stop the inexorable march towards spring: it's begun.