Journal

A Hip King

A Hip King


“Now if someone tells you in dreamtime that you better do something, you better do it.”

— Abdullah Ibrahim

I see the grey of his hair first as he walks up. He does the namaste greeting and then sits down, much more frail than the last time, at a beautifully miked Yamaha piano in the upstairs theatre. The old stained glass windows of the church it once was are boarded up, but the light of late summer is crashing against and around them, outlining the vaulted shapes. The concert begins at 4 pm.

His hands are tremulous when not on the keyboard. Often he takes his right hand away entirely and touches the corners of his mouth. But he still hits the piano hard when he needs to. Hands trembling above the keys, then smashing down on them, even though the muscle mass has been winnowed away. I see the hands, the hands through which so much has flowed, reflected in the Yamaha. He starts to play Blues for a Hip King, disembodied fragments of it anyway, and my throat closes a little.

After the performance, he takes in the applause, then shuts one ear with his hand and sings a strange, tuneless song that sounds like a spiritual. At one point he stops and seems to glare at an usher who has perhaps opened the doors too early. People are coming out of the main theatre down below, a new musical called Langarm, its posters all over town reading: ‘He was white. She was not. They broke the law to dance’.

The maestro glares at the usher, one hand at his ear, the other palm lifted as if to say: What the – ? Wie’s die moegoe? Still a difficult man, still a badass. ‘A jazz pianist so excessively bitter, rueful and astringent’, wrote Lewis Nkosi in 1966, ‘that anyone able to endure his music for any length of time must often feel compromised in some obscure reluctant corner of the heart’.

The maestro resumes singing, and I can just make out some lines about crossing over the River Jordan. Then he walks off the stage and out, going down into the bright sunshine.

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Barbarian Phase

Barbarian Phase

A surfing half-life.

Short edit for Life supplement, Business Day, 27 August 2019. Locals only version below, and also published on Wavescape. Image of Sunset reef by Sean Thompson Surfography.

Thirty-six is no longer young, or promising, and even as a teacher or writer (careers more forgiving of slow starters) it can barely be called emerging. It’s one year too late to be a member of the ANC Youth League, and twenty years too late to start surfing, especially in the wild and freezing waters around Cape Town.

All that lost time weighs on us, Alex and me, as we watch teenagers or outright children paddle onto some heaving Atlantic swell, make the drop, cut back, carve some shapes along the purling, blue-green wall and then kick out like it was the easiest thing in the world.

‘Poets,’ he would say, beard in hand, as we watched from a car park in the depths of winter, when the swells come in, ‘There are poets among us.’

Alex and I both have beards that are beginning to go silver, but I am average height and skinny while he is tall and rangy, muscular. We are both only children, sort of, both loners who like having someone to play with, now and then. We both have outlandish surnames that nobody can spell or pronounce.

After sessions which had gone more than usually badly – when we had fluffed a take-off in front of Coach, or our boards had gone vaulting over the white water, or (worst of all) we had pretended to paddle and miss a wave when in fact we were too chicken to actually take it – Alex could be less philosophical:

‘All those years, doing what? Jerking off in Constantia. When I could’ve been at Long Beach in fifteen minutes.’

His new cold-water hood made him look somehow Nordic, Icelandic. Hooded, bearded, grizzled: he looked, I guess, better than he was. Out in the back line he seemed to get the kind of respect I never do. He looked like the kind of Kommetjie big wave surfer who might get towed onto a hillside of moving, crumpling ocean out by Dungeons or Sunset reef, and then talk about the experience in humble monosyllables: ‘It’s a team effort out there, I rely on my guys.’

But the fact is we were struggling to deal with a mushy two-foot shorebreak off the Milnerton lighthouse carpark, where the water tasted of phosphates and Alex had at one point emerged trailing a nappy from his leash. And this gap was getting to him, to us: the gap between our surfing aspirations and abilities. Between the utter sublimity of what we were seeing – up close at Queen’s Beach, the Gat or the Hoek; online in YouTube clips: Nazaré, Mullaghmore, Mavericks, the endlessly spooling Go Pro barrels of Skeleton Bay – and the prolonged humbling that the middle-aged kook (beginner) must endure.

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Monsoon Raag

A journey in sound.

Prufrock, May 2019.

The days would begin with singing, but we never quite knew where it was coming from. Male voices in unison drifting into our room while it was still dark, at the edge of waking. Early morning singing or chanting in Fort Kochi, voices coming from…we could never tell exactly: maybe the Basilica, the rooftop mediation hall beyond the football pitch, the Young Men’s Buddhist Association over towards Mattancherry. Days were edged by this unison singing, in and out of sleep, the sound of people beginning the day together.

*

‘Join us for a morning raag’, said the man at the Kathakali Theater, bringing his palms together, bowing slightly, dropping his voice to whisper: ‘Most welcome’. He had one of those voices that tickles the eardrum, that creates ASMR-like shivers even at a distance, that you want never to stop. We would bow and intone it huskily to each other all through two months of travel in south India and Sri Lanka: ‘Most welcome’.

The idea is distinctive to Indian classical music – that certain scales and melodic sets are associated with certain times of day, or seasons of the year: the heat, the rains. But it seems (once you have heard it) utterly logical, beautiful, impossible to do without. A raag, or raga, is not quite a scale (because many ragas can be based on the same scale), and not really a tune (because the same raga can yield an infinite number of tunes.) It has no direct translation in Western music theory, but with it comes the idea that certain patterns of sound have specific effects on the mind and body, that they colour things, hence the Sanskrit origin of the word raag: concerned with pigments and tinting, tingeing or dyeing.

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Re: Visions of Tsafendas

Re: Visions of Tsafendas

Reading Harris Dousemetzis's The Man Who Killed Apartheid.


Almost any biographer, if he respects facts, can give us much more than another fact to add to our collection. He can give us the creative fact; the fertile fact; the fact that suggests and engenders.
Virginia Woolf, ‘The Art of Biography’.


Ahead of a talk on writing lives, I have finally finished Harris Dousemetzis's life of Dimitri Tsafendas, The Man Who Killed Apartheid. Not a great title, and not without its problems, but nonetheless an enormous, passionate, often astonishing biography, and one accompanied by a report submitted to the office of the Minister of Justice in South Africa that runs to three hardback volumes and 861 803 words.

From all this we learn the following...

1. During the Greek Revolution of 1821-32, the Ottoman Empire declared that ‘akis’, a suffix indicating smallness, should be added to the family names of all those Cretans rebelling against their authority. The surname Tsafendas thus became Tsafantakis.

2. Dimitri, born Tsafantakis (14 January 1918), changed his name back to Tsafendas when learning of this history from his Cretan father, Michalis Tsafantakis, who had a large collection of anarchist literature in his house in Lourenco Marques.

3. Dimitri was a compulsive reader from a very young age, and was described as ‘a lending library’ by those who knew him as a child.

4. He mainly liked to read in bed.

5. His favourite books included Emile Zola’s Germinal (1885), about exploitation of miners in 19th-century France, and Rabindranath Tagore’s The Home and the World (1916), the story of a political awakening in colonial India.

6. He also loved Dostoevsky, and would quote a line from Demons when discussing his killing of Verwoerd in his old age: ‘It’s easy to condemn the offender, the difficulty is to understand him.’

7. He idolised the African American leader, actor, trade unionist and singer Paul Robeson, who would become a leading voice in the civil rights movement.

8. His favourite song was Robeson’s deep baritone version of ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’.

9. Another of his favourite songs was ‘Zot Nit Keymol’ (Song of Warsaw Ghetto), which he would sing in Yiddish, having memorised the lyrics.

10. He also loved Brecht.

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The Sound of Islay

The Sound of Islay

Introducing the Bodley Head / FT essay competition.

Financial Times | 11 November 2016.

1.

Just before I turned 30 I was homeless for a while. Homeless is the wrong word, an exaggeration. But I was in Edinburgh with little money and nowhere to live – and the days were getting shorter. So I took myself off to the Scottish islands with a bike and two red waterproof panniers. The plan was to stay in bothies – stone cottages that shelter hikers and climbers, remote structures in the hills where you just arrive and take your chances.

I started in Oban on the west coast, then pedalled south to the ferry port on Loch Tarbert – one of the long fingers of ocean that reach deep and diagonally into Argyll. This was a mistake, since there was too much traffic on the mainland. Massive cold fronts broke in off the Atlantic, one after the other. I tried to cycle in the lulls between showers but was soaked through my Gore-Tex by rain and truck spray. I found myself unable not to take the headwind personally. I would burst regularly into tears on the hard shoulder – homeless, jobless, indebted and drenched.

Things improved when I boarded the ferry to Islay (pronounced Eye-La). A couple bought me lunch because I fixed their punctures. All us cyclists rolled off the boat ahead of the vehicles – we would encounter each other at different jetties and pubs and bunkhouses all through the isles: instant camaraderie. I visited distilleries and hiked to a bothy in a remote cove. The cottage was full of other people’s leavings: oatcakes and freshly cut peat in a creel, shiny cutlery and coffee pots all arranged there like the Marie Celeste. I half-expected a party of spectral hill walkers to come back any minute, but no one ever did. It was just me, myself and I – pinned down by (another) frightening Atlantic storm for three days and three nights.

When it subsided, I crossed to Jura: a wilder, emptier place where you must constantly check yourself for ticks, since the island is full of deer. Jura is also (I learned) the place where George Orwell lived in a remote cottage towards the end of his life, where he had written Nineteen Eighty-Four, and worked on the memoir ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’. This triumphantly miserable piece about his schooldays is one of my favourite pieces of non-fictional prose – and I have always taken it as significant that this was the essay he was revising on his deathbed. Orwell would come here to retreat from literary London, and was once almost drowned in the famous whirlpool of Corryvreckan off Jura’s north coast. You could hear its thunderous sound from where I camped – boulders being stirred on the ocean bed, like the long, drawn-out roar of a passing plane.

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Negative Spaces

Negative Spaces

A visit to a deconstruction site.

Diary, Financial Times, 15 April 2016 | PDF

Deconstruction: a notoriously hard-to-define mode of textual analysis associated with the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, distantly descended (my Dictionary of Critical Theory tells me) from Friedrich Nietzsche’s dictum that there are no facts, only interpretations.

But also, I recently learned, a term in architecture and building. Deconstruction means the selective dismantlement, repurposing and reimagining of existing physical structures. The other day I was shown around a deconstruction site in the docklands of Cape Town, where a 90-year-old grain silo complex is slowly being converted into the biggest museum for modern art on the African continent.

Taking as its centrepiece the collection of businessman Jochen Zeitz, the Zeitz MOCAA (Museum of Contemporary Art Africa) may sound a bit like a German-engineered coffee maker. But this not-for-profit institution, set to open in September next year, is being touted as our answer to the power station that became Tate Modern, or the Nabisco factory on the Hudson river that is now DIA Beacon.

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Waterlog

Waterlog

A journey through the public pools of greater Cape Town.

Openings columnFinancial Times, 8 January, 2016.

Waterlog #3 | Sea Point Pool | 19.01.16

Since Silvermine there have been terrible heat waves; fires leaving smoke all over the city’s horizon; helicopters toiling through the night, scooping up water from the reservoirs, dropping it in tiny white plumes on the shoulder of Devils’ Peak.

A banner appeared, taking up the whole face of an apartment building at the top of Long Street: Zuma Must Fall. Then an ANC-led march ripped it down, turning on a man who (allegedly) called out Zuma se ma se poes! On social media, self-appointed pundits explain that singling out the President is tantamount to racism, and that mob violence is only to be expected. People can only be insulted for so long.

Can you blame a man for wanting to go to the water?

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About a Mountain

About a Mountain

Fragments from a walking residency across the Cape Peninsula.

Three images from our walking residency, 6-12 December 2015. The first is the official prompt for this exercise (me and Meghna at Smitswinkel Camp). The second is one I asked Barry to take for me (a brass dial, or is it a toposcope, at Cape Point). The third (me giving a talk on Dias, Da Gama and the Khoikhoi in the shade of a windskerm at Buffels Bay) is one he sent me because I wanted photographic evidence of scholarly pursuits.

So, five quick impressions…

1)   The minimalist, slightly spartan décor of the camps. Slats of wood and stone; no cushions. Rigorous, good for reading and writing, not for reclining. The limited colour scheme, shrubs deformed by wind, a landscape always on the verge of mourning. Meghna and I both seem withdrawn, inward, even a little sombre. Why? Perhaps because we have both stayed here before, and we know about the tent flaps that will keep us awake all night, flapping in the permanent wind. Or perhaps we have already spent a night here, and have, like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, awoken from uneasy dreams…

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MER1CA

MER1CA

On first impressions, snap judgements and Achille Mbembe's sense of style.

Openings column (shorter version): Financial Times14 August 2015.

‘America is the most grandiose experiment that the world has yet seen,’ wrote Sigmund Freud in 1909, ‘but, I am afraid, it will not be a success’. 106 years later I spotted the line on a poster while attending a conference at New York University – my first visit to the States. It cheered me up during a misanthropic, jet-lagged daze and set off a complex series of recognitions. For one thing, I had been thinking along the same lines myself, and marshalling every scrap of evidence to clinch the case: the bad coffee at four dollars a pop; the garbage everywhere; the fact that I got asked to move out the way at least five times a day.

But at another level, what I responded to was the tone: the sweeping confidence of the declaration, with that magisterial throwaway clause – ‘I am afraid’. How this Mittel-European sentence stoops down from on high, taking its time (four commas), to deliver a vast, over-reaching social diagnosis on an entire continent. This, I realized, was a voice that I recognize from people coming to my country and making huge pronouncements on South Africa – or just ‘Africa’ – when they have barely stepped off the plane. A short taxi ride from Cape Town International to the guesthouse and already they are experts.

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An Unnatural History pt.1

An Unnatural History pt.1

The Hoerikwaggo Trail (and just after): a walking seminar.

Postamble | A transdisciplinary journal of African Studies.

Last time I did it with three old friends, and in the opposite direction. This time from Cape Point to town with a group of people that I didn’t know quite as well, most of them university types. The idea (not mine) was to turn it into a walking seminar on ‘nature cultures’, a trial run for a residency that will happen not in institutional buildings but out in the air.

Slightly skeptical of this at first – all I wanted from the hike was to decompress, let the mind empty after a strangely-shaped year. But still, on the first day I played along, using my primary school teacher Mr Bench’s memory technique (one-drum, two-shoe, three-tree, four-door etc.) to log impressions that seemed worth rescuing from the tide of heat, sweat, walking, foot on rock, sand, gravel. The sensorium changes, opens…

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Juice Time

A wayward tribute to Alice Munro... and Raymond E. Feist.

Electricity gone down from Flower Road to Davenport. No internet on a Sunday. Peace.

Yesterday’s swimming is still in me, in my shoulders and hair. Clifton 3 ½ beach with A. We splash out to the rock, but are too cautious to jump off it, slide back into the water over the barnacles. We run into Anna, Jemma and their friends, in knitted swimwear and dungarees. ‘Mary’s daughters’, says A., ‘They march to the sound of their own djembe.’ The beach is packed: the real girls thread their way between the incorrigible babes, looking for a place. Today the wind has stopped entirely and I want to go back. But she is having lunch with her grandparents and I know that a swim that perfect comes only once a year.

Reluctant to start work over the last weeks: lazy, a little depressed. To remedy it I try to break all routines, to force the days into new shapes. Sitting in a Turkish steam room in mid-afternoon. Shopping for shirts with D. at 9am, when the Waterfront is deserted. We have fish and chips at 11am and he says the harbour scene reminds him of the Canadian island where he grew up. Not the motorized pirate boat pulling out with the tourists, but the cranes and industrial mess behind. I ask if he is proud of Alice Munro and the Nobel.

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Closed City

Closed City

Financial Times | 24 January 2014.

Teju Cole visits Cape Town for the Open Book Festival and I am asked to lead a ‘literary walkabout’ of the city in his company. I worry that this might be a little contrived: can his hypnotic meditations on New York and Lagos really be superimposed onto such a different city? But as we begin our tour, he recalls the literary experiments of Guy Debord and the Situationists, giving us a more resourceful way of imagining the exercise. A regular route taken through the street grid of, say, Paris would be mapped as a geometric shape, then transplanted onto the countryside of Bavaria and retraced exactly, with random encounters and ‘psychogeographical’ resonances carefully noted. Artificial constraints to generate new insights; strict formulas to evade the formulaic.

And so we begin our walk through the city centre, listening to passages from Open City, as well as the work of local writers like Alex la Guma, Zoë Wicomb and K. Sello Duiker. Unexpected affinities emerge between the early Cape colony and the history of Manhattan Island that Cole’s novel so carefully excavates. Both were 17th-century Dutch garrisons; both became brutal slave ports. And in each, the built environment turns its back on the water that gave rise to it in the first place. In New Amsterdam, the deep and navigable Hudson River; in Cape Town, the millions of litres of fresh water flowing off Table Mountain, still running unseen below the city centre. Sailors would fill their barrels at a shoreline that has now been pushed back and paved over by car parks, head offices and flyovers: ‘Beneath the pavement, a beach!’

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Slacklining

Slacklining

The walk up to Deer Park stream: some gentle people are stringing up a cord between two stone pines. Then they spend Sunday tight-rope walking above the lawns. The gap between the two trees chosen is long; they have winches and climbing gear to get the necessary tautness; a picnic blanket and basket; significant sunglasses and (one of them) splendid brown slacks – I almost stop to ask where they bought such trousers. Drifts of plastic litter and empty food packaging along the stream. Homeless people do their laundry here but I think that today it is employed citizens who are lying face down on the grass, asleep. After the grind of a daily job, the vicious commute that Cape Town’s geography demands, the ongoing transport strike – after all that you see people just exhausted on Sundays, pole-axed on municipal lawns all through the city...

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22 July | Rearview

22 July | Rearview

Sunday in Calitzdorp: a kitsch tearoom with panpiped music, ragged kids saying they will look after my car nicely. It is the 22nd of July. If I had to track backwards, to rewind the last week…

The Peugeot is reversing along the R62, speedometer at 12 o’clock, 110 km/h on the dot. Petrol is extracted at Ladismit, below the Towerkop, the snow on it unthawing as I deposit R600 in the ATM.

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‘It’s a risky business.’

‘It’s a risky business.’

I was standing at the railings of the fast ferry to Zanzibar.  Next to me was a man in impressive sunglasses – a Tanzanian tourist, a domestic tourist, I figured – and we were both looking at a fisherman in a tiny canoe, wandering how he was going to cope with the wake of our big tourist boat.  The larger dhows had bucked and bobbed alarmingly enough; a tiny wooden dugout seemed perilous.  But the fisherman kept pulling on his handline, not particularly bothered, and the waves fanning out through the warm ocean behind us never did quite reach him.  Nonetheless, the smart bystander in the polo shirt said again: ‘A risky business.’  It took quite a lot of convincing (on Sofie’s part) for me to leave a hot, windy Cape Town and embark on a holiday to somewhere as oversubscribed as Zanzibar.  Slavery, honeymoons, too many Z’s, resorts and spices – it all seemed an uneasy mixture.  I was all for staying in the new flat at Bradwell Mansions: paintings on the walls, greenery through all the windows.  No sooner had we moved in than I was carrying all my pot plants out again, taking them downstairs to be looked after by Arthur: old man, migraine sufferer, and (I slowly began to pick up the signs), a bit of a racist. 

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A certain kind of South Africa evaporated...

                    ...for me when I finally got my driver’s licence, fifth time lucky near a cold northern ring road. No more solidarity with the verge walkers and all those who talk about, worry about, conceive of a whole domain of life as “transport.” There were illegal stints behind the wheel in the past: schoolboy backroads in the foothills of the Berg, the long night of landing lanes when DB fed me slimming tablets and I guided the Renault Scenic from the Karoo to the Midlands. But now the novelty is wearing off as I steer my father’s white van up and down the coastal highways that I cursed for so long, and me wanting to record something of it before all the strangeness of tar-hurtling, death-by-inch arthritic pedal-fiddling and glance-snatching at the sliding world of that earlier, odder place has disappeared forever. Leaving the city, flicking across lanes from Waterfront to hospital, slungshot out of the mountain suburbs but immediately running into a real clutch cruncher of a traffic jam along side the twin cooling towers…locals u-turning, cutting in, hard shouldering it to take alternate routes, but me locked there under the winter sun, men looking back at me from an open-backed truck: the quintessential South African dialogue. Dad talks, talks, talks madly, the coffee still fizzling in his veins. About the book fair, the local radio station, the problem of listless retirees, the road to Cape Agulhas, the lack of adequate marketing as a winter holiday destination. I murmur assent, yes yes, eyes casting around the early N2 scenery, trying to work out what has changed since I was last here.

We passed the obstruction (men digging a hole in broad daylight) and were just gathering momentum towards the mountains when Dad received a call from a pretty woman watercolourist and shameful self-publicist who wanted us to collect prints in Stellenbosch and generally admire her. So we peeled off, got lost amid the peri-urban wine farmery and discount wholesalers. Left after more coffee, missed the highway a few times and then ground through intersections parallel to the Indian seaboard, a place of car forecourts and things – dunes, stalls roadsigns – barely held down against the wind. Up across the long diagonal pass, the Cape had all but disappeared in glare.

Then began the waiting behind trucks, the spotting for farm stalls, the tracing of the Langeberg, the swooping down on bridges, the shrugging off of hitch-hikers, the rattling of a white chassis along Africa’s ancient seabeds. No music this time, just the hot noise of tyre on tarmac. Petrol cities flared when it got dark…mist earned me an admonishment for speeding…cameras clicked me in one of the gorges and the coast swung out and open in the night, unseen.

Gylen Bunkhouse, Kerrera | The Sound of Islay | Part One

The photocopied maps came out too light, so I am tracing the crinkly outlines of the islands with a fine liner as I visit them.  Day three and the rain is pinning me down on this one; it drips off the bracken, streams down the tracks.  Looking south from a bunkhouse byre on the southerly tip, towards where my tent is pitched near the ruins of a castle.  There are horns, skulls and whale bones on the windowsill, a Mongolian yurt in a nearby paddock.  Its occupant is the cook: a Glaswegian homoeopath who grew up in Malawi and has been telling me about the parrot sanctuary just down the road…

In the course of her monologue about the island and its eccentric inhabitants, the Glaswegian/Malawian dropped in the information that there was space in the bunkhouse tonight and that wild parties were often to be had there.  I had the sense that she was looking at me meaningfully here, and when she changed the subject and went on talking about the sheep and how they destroyed the wildflowers, I began daydreaming about what it might be like to spend a rough and tumble night in a Kerreran yurt.  Now she’s gone off to ‘give the bread into second kneading,’ leaving me with my maps, a sketch of a whale vertebra, The Brothers Karamazov and the rain.

The month of September stretches ahead of me, cloud covered, damp, light withdrawing and yet intensely open.  The bread maker with the flirtatious eyes said she used to be in training as a psychotherapist, but got sick of other people’s problems and came away to this pocket of bracken, sodden grass and castle.  It looks south, away from Oban and its light pollution towards the Ross of Mull, Inch, Seil and the other tiny islets which are duly outlined and named on the information board next to the castle, the only object detracting from my otherwise superb camping spot.  That and the sheep, shitting everywhere, squatting down to piss all round my tent so that a slightly more directed gushing joins the million other water sounds as the rain percolates through this green sponge of a landscape.

So: looking to the south while the yeast is doing its occult work, looking through a window (past horns and driftwood) for a window of less grey clouds, an opening moving in from the Outer Hebrides so that I can cycle south to the ferry port and begin the journey during which (Callum assured me as we planned this over ordnance survey mapping software) I would have tailwinds almost all the time, the prevailing south westerlies helping me onward.   [Continue reading...]

Easter Sunday spent walking through the city...

Easter Sunday spent walking through the city...

                            ...along the Atlantic seaboard.  I set out from Perspectives, taking a diagonal through the long rectangle of the city centre.  Music that sounds Congolese spills down through narrow stairs from where church services are in progress.  Smartly dressed couples mingle with those who have been sleeping rough, the tourists and the loiterers.  Pass the corner on Loop Streetwhere Sean and Theo’s new bar might open. The previous concept, the Che Bar, didn’t last long: graphics of Guevara as icon in the Campbell’s soup tin poster with words like Radical and Ideology printed in cutting edge fonts at the bottom. 

Tack across through De Waterkant; men wave from the other side of the road where they sit under bluegums on the long, dry Lions Rump.  People on corners try to draw me into conversation – I give them a curt wave and carry on walking purposively, wearing a shirt crusted with sand, salt and sweat.  Come down on Greenpoint main road, where there is a huge stadium half built, more traffic and more voices.

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