Two photographs, and a poem

If I have been remiss lately in posting my photographs, here are two images from an ongoing series on rural Ontario, with the promise that there will be more to follow.

And just to mix things up, here is a teeny weeny poem from my Lost Poetry project.

Words and pictures, folks, words and pictures!

The Gift

Let me wake within your eyes
And sleep again in your safe arms,
Free from the terrors of surprise
Protected from all worldly harms:

I swear your love, with its strong powers,
Will raise a man so joyful, true,
He'll charm the desert into flowers
And give the sun and moon to you.

Lost Poetry Project – Two Pomes

The Road We Travel

I think about the road we travelled,
How it all seemed so serene -
The sun shone down, like no tomorrow,
On timeless hills and fields of shimmering green.

Yet there was work to do, and cares to manage,
Your sick child never really out of mind.
This journey too would end, no matter -
We understood, and still the world seemed kind.

This was forever - as if we knew
Nothing could harm us, there'd be no blame;
The love we shared, whatever happened,
Be unconsumed by flood or flame.

Your sleeping spirit, trusting, still,
Lay in my care throughout that night.
Thankful, when the morning brightened,
I saw you turn toward the light.
Speaking of Love

I say these words
In place of touch,
For things unsaid
Or dreamed too much:

For finding love
And learning 'wait',
And knowing words
Like love, are fate.

1972 and all that

In 1972 I became a first-year student at the University of Cape Town, an epochal event that may or may not have had something to do with the fact that massive student protests broke out that year at white, liberal, English-speaking campuses across the country.

While the events at UCT, and Wits, and the other English-speaking campuses were filling the newspapers, with big black typography headlining the front pages and dramatic photographs, the black universities had their own thing going, protesting against conditions on black campuses and the apartheid system, but this attracted much less attention – for all the obvious reasons, given that this was the height of the apartheid era, but also because many of the black campuses had been located, by design, off the grid, outside the main cities.

I soon learned – you had to learn fast, in that turbulent period – that there was another reason the black universities were doing their own thing. These were the days of the Black Consciousness Movement, and four years earlier, in 1968, when I was still in high school, Steve Biko had led black students out of the non-racial but white-dominated National Union of South African Students, NUSAS, to form SASO, the black South African Students Organisation – a development that was still causing, in 1972, much anguish and debate amongst the white liberals and lefties who were my university seniors and first-year classmates.

All this was happening four years before the 1976 Soweto Uprising.

So the events of ’72 were, in a very real sense, a precursor to ’76, though few of us could have guessed that, and perhaps none of us could have foreseen the magnitude of the Uprising, or its seismic effects. Nor could we have imagined the unbelievable bravery and sacrifice of the Soweto students, and those who followed them in protests and demonstrations that ricocheted around the country and shocked the regime and ordinary citizens to the very core, leaving no doubt that it was black students – the Class of ’76 – who were in the forefront of the struggle against apartheid.

I played a moderately active but utterly insignificant part in the events of ’72 – joining with the masses of students on the steps outside the university’s Jameson Hall, to confront the ranks of policemen who lined up before us with batons and dogs; signing up for shifts in the Rose Garden, overlooking De Waal Drive, in a silent vigil so that the evening traffic could see us standing there, gagged, while the security police drove slowly past, taking photographs; joining Aquarius, the cultural wing of NUSAS, and taking part in endless arguments about struggle, Marxism, and the role of art and the artist – was art, in the face of apartheid repression, supposed to be propaganda, subordinate to political imperatives (and whose politics, anyway?) or was art its own domain, where the artist and not some vague collective notion of ‘the people’ was sovereign?

Needless to say, I stood with art and the artists.

Even though my part was marginal, insignificant, I did manage to get myself arrested, on the steps of St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town early one evening, along with Rev. Theo Kotze of the Christian Institute and some forty or so others, the day after the police had savagely beaten hundreds of students inside the building, dragging some out by their hair. We were released a few hours later, after being finger-printed and charged under the Riotous Assemblies Act; we appeared in court once or twice before charges were dropped.

Theo, incidentally, had been my grandfather’s minister, at the Sea Point Methodist Church, and had carried my grandfather out when he collapsed and died suddenly during a Sunday service, and it was Theo I turned to when I needed advice on how to leave the country, to avoid military conscription – though that is another story, for another post.

Four years after the student protests that had marked my first year, I was doing English Honours at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg when the Soweto Uprising erupted. The events of ’76 changed the country, changed the course of history, and changed the course of my life, too. As long as I could remember, literature and writing had been at the centre of my conception of myself, and I had imagined a career, perhaps, as a university lecturer, studying the great works, publishing novels and criticism, dabbling in poetry, but now – now, with the country in flames and the young lions battling in the streets against armed police and militarised vehicles, what sense could I possibly make of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, of a bookish life?

It was a stupid view to take, but this was visceral, not rational analysis. I simply couldn’t do it any more. I had to be useful, engaged, and for the first time in my life I just couldn’t see myself in that world of books and seminars, lecture rooms and libraries. I abandoned my plans to do a Masters in Eng. Lit and became instead an English teacher, in an African school in the Transkei, then a coordinator at SACHED – the South African Committee on Higher Education and a leading anti-apartheid NGO – helping to establish Khanya College, a bridge into higher education for young black activists, until the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the liberation movements in 1990 turned everything upside-down, and the world I had hoped for and believed in suddenly seemed possible, not in some imagined hypothetical future but here and now and in my lifetime.

They say you go to university to broaden your mind. Looking back, it is extraordinary to see how clearly those two years, 1972 and 1976, served as book-ends to a crucial and transformative period of my life, shaping who I am and the road I have travelled in ways that are both obvious and profound. I was shaped and buffeted, not just by the books I read, and the people I met, and the lecturers who taught me, but by the student leaders I looked up to, and the events, the head-spinning upheavals, the febrile atmosphere, the intellectual currents and intense passions of the times. The press of the moment obscuring perhaps the wheel of history, but history nonetheless.

And yes, despite the turn that I took, there is a part of me, still, that hasn’t given up on the writing life.

Lost Poetry Project

Once upon a time – it was a dark and stormy night, as I recall, my poor heart in turmoil, my tongue let loose upon the world in verse and worse – once upon a time, when I was younger, quite a lot younger in fact, and of course much less sensible than I am now, now when I think and talk mostly in prose, I was a writer of pomes, long and short, a few of them published, in little (very little) magazines but most of them – not that there are many – folded in darkness, and to all intents lost.

But now, as I sort through boxes of old letters, photographs, scribblings, mementos, the big clean-up in preparation for our return to Toronto, a fistful of old poems have resurfaced. Some of them I think had best remain in the cupboard, and a few, for the sin of bad writing, belong in the dustbin. But there are a few – just a few – that I might allow out, for a spin down the driveway or a night at the ball, before midnight strikes and the party is over.

I call this the Lost Poetry Project, and here is a modest first instalment.

Matisse's Painting of a Nude

In Matisse's painting of a nude
the woman sits with her back to us,
arms lifted up, doing her hair.
Paint moulds her body; it is as if
Matisse's fingers, without a brush,
by pure feel, have touched
and shaped her into life.
Domesticity and love: her tender
curves, her weight, sturdy
yet delicate - the intimacy
and trust of a moment held forever
in Matisse's mind.

Feeling her presence, stillness,
almost imagining her scent,
I realise it is not the painter
who has shaped the girl - 
it is she who has filled his heart,
moulded thought and feeling into one,
and projected herself there.

So this year
rises in my mind: everything
you have said, gesture, touch,
inhabits these spaces
and re-creates you here.

Did I know then it was over?

That long-ago moment
in a hotel corridor –
a woman’s soft mews and a man’s
blunt panting. My own life
suddenly unraveled,
undone by this happiness.
Or by no more than a mutually
satisfactory encounter, a moment
stolen behind a thin painted door.
Until the couple stopped
whatever they were doing.
A sudden silence
and I moved quickly on.

A Biden Hope

The great thing about Canada, Canadians will tell you, is that it’s so boring. No big drama, no insurrections on the steps of Parliament, no QAnon lunatics impeaching the prime minister, and no prime minister, for that matter, doing his damndest to overthrow a legitimate election. Just law, order and good government.

It’s national news when a moose crosses the road in Bobcaygeon.

So it is in this spirit that I want to applaud the entirely boring Inauguration Speech by President Joe Biden in the US this week. Honesty and truth? Boring! Common decency, consideration for others? Boring! Stopping a pandemic? Boring! Tackling climate change? Boring, boring boring!!!

Mind you, one unintended benefit of these four golden years of the Trump era is that the US has shown – nakedly, garishly, like a Brueghel painting, or Hogarth’s depictions of a gin-sodden London – exactly what a fetid state of corruption and misgovernment actually looks like.

Some other states that I can think of are no more virtuous; the difference being that they are better at hiding it. Extra-judicial killings, surveillance, disappearances, the gulags and even ordinary, institutionalised every-day lies and evasion can work wonders.

But the US, bless it, has as always been a shining example. Look at your ex-President, Americans, and think what you have given those of us poor benighted souls who live in ‘shithole’ countries – which I assume includes places like Norway and New Zealand. You have shown us the ugliness and venality – oh, and the arrogant, hilarious, know-nothing incompetence – that other, less fortunate countries, endure in silence.

The lesson, I guess, is that boring is beautiful, normal is to be treasured, truth matters. And lies are lies, everywhere and always.

So thank you, President Biden, and thank you, America.

A Biden Hope, all of ya.

When is a rhino just a rhino?

Sometimes a rhino is just a rhino.

This big fellow, bringing up the rear of a group of white rhinos as they lumbered up a rutted track to the top of a ridge before disappearing down the other side, maintained a watchful eye as we jolted along in his wake, in the open LandCruiser, last week in the Madikwe Game Reserve. Every now and then he would turn, sending stones flying, and we would stop abruptly, the ranger assessing the risk of a charge. Then he would carry on browsing, and we would advance, until at last he was silhouetted against the sky, the photograph I had wanted.

He was all rhino, that fellow, and for perhaps twenty minutes, that was all we were conscious of – the morning wind in our faces, the smells of the bush, the early light casting its shadows, the armoured behemoth ranged against the sky above us, going ploddingly about his daily business.

Looking at these photographs now, my first thoughts are simply of that moment – how extraordinary it was, how lucky we felt to be in this presence, to experience this, to be there, in the bush, under a vast sky, waiting, listening, watching. It is a wonderful thing, to be freed from that human sense of urgency, of purpose, of things needing to be done, and simply to be there, to exist and to participate, knowing that the pace, the roll-out of events, what happens next, is out of your hands and dependent on the unpredictable whims of the large irritable animal blocking the path on the hill up ahead of you.

Back in my home office, though, this Sunday morning – how many of us have got used to working from home over the past interminable months of the Covid pandemic? – that rhino takes on other meanings, is suggestive of other possibilities and perspectives. Not least of which is the relief of seeing the rear-end of 2020. Including the rear-end of Trump, for that matter, a blight every bit as debilitating as the pandemic and with effects – social, political, environmental – every bit as malignant and possibly more long-lasting.

So what of the New Year? What of 2021?

One thing that we can be pretty sure of, it seems, is that 2021 will be much like the last year, the almost miraculous speed with which a Covid-19 vaccine has been developed notwithstanding.

It’s one thing to develop the vaccine, but it is another thing entirely, as we know, and will continue to learn in more painstakingly practical detail, to manufacture, store and distribute it. And still another thing to get people to take it, and to get those needles into the arms of those who do want to take it, and need to take it.

Like Rob and me, for instance.

Government here in South Africa, to put the matter delicately, says it has a plan, though how much of this plan is magical or wishful thinking is a matter of some public controversy. Rob and I can expect, or hope, to receive the vaccine in Phase Two of the rollout, apparently. This is the good news. When Phase Two is expected to begin, and how rapidly and smoothly the rollout will occur, is rather less certain.

In any event, we hope to be vaccinated before September, in other words, before we pack up our things here and return to Canada. Meanwhile, Covid-19 will continue to block the path to any easy or rapid return to what we, rather wistfully, think of as ‘normality.’

The thing is to survive, I guess, to stay calm and positive, and steadily plod forward. Live in the moment. Appreciate what we have. Develop a thicker skin towards life’s slings and arrows. Practice patience and resilience.

A bit like a rhino.

African Fish Eagle

This was not one of those
Swooping soaring
Photo opportunities, you know,
Where the bird glides in from
Stage left and
Exits beautifully
To the right
With a pristine
Pink and silver
Salmon or something
A missile ready to launch
From its claw
Flakes of morning light
Falling from its not yet barbecued

This was murder, a brawl in the shallows
Which ended badly
For the thrashing creature in the water
Which had not started it
But for a moment there I thought
Could have drowned the fish eagle
Dragged it under.

I must have shot
Twenty pictures
Intent on the action, thinking of
Flickr, of the prints
I would make. Only after
Did I see what had happened.
There was drama, certainly,
Struggle, death.
The bird had to eat, and the fish
Grubbing about in the mud or slime
Had no idea
How its world would instantaneously
Flip upside down.
They make a good series,
Those images, nonetheless.
I am happy to show them.

The morning light fell in flakes on the deck
That overlooked the bend in the river.
We are leaving here, I thought.
We won’t see this again.

Stories on Stones

At a time like this, when half the world is on lockdown because of the pandemic, when civility and decency and the very foundations of democracy seem at risk in the face of racist populism and rabid know-nothingness, when the planes are grounded and we can barely venture out of our houses, when our ‘advanced’ societies are humbled by a virus, there is something to be learned from stories on stones.

The World Heritage Site at Twyfelfontein, in Namibia, is a moonscape of waterless rock and stone, tones of orange and black against a blue relentless sky. The name – Twyfelfontein – means ‘fountain of doubt’ or ‘doubtful fountain,’ a reference to the spring that sometimes ran, and sometimes didn’t, somewhere near here. A name for our times, perhaps, and a reminder of our dependence on air, water – the simplest, yet irreplaceable things – for our very existence.

Yet people lived here, in this inhospitable landscape, somewhere between a thousand and two thousand years ago, people who possessed an art and culture, the traces of which are written in stone, in rock engravings, which are now a world treasure.

The engravings at Twyfelfontein offer a record of more than just a people, however. They offer a window on a natural environment, a world of mountains and grasslands that has long disappeared.

Look at the engravings, then look around, and think what has changed, what has been lost – how this barren terrain of sharp stones and rock once was home to elephant, giraffe, antelope, lion, rhino, hyena.

And think, that as this world has vanished, so too may our world, unless we face up to a challenge that is even more of a threat to us than the Covid-19 virus, the existential threat of climate change. A threat which – whether you are a head-in-the-sand climate change denier, or a believer in science and evidence – will take its course regardless of our opinions, just as the virus has, unless we take action.

But looking at these photographs also brings with it a simpler and more obvious message, a narrative of freedom and travel, and a reminder how travel shows us that our taken for granted worlds are not necessarily the worlds that everyone else lives in, and that the present is not the same as the past, nor is it the future.

More simply still, I look at these photographs, from our trip to Namibia in 2016, and I want to get out on the road again, big skies overhead, and the warm wind blowing.

Then I think of the heat – stunning, and the light – blinding – the hot climb stumbling over boulders, the views of the shimmering plains and the fortress-like mountains, the being intensely present in the moment, and I remember John Lennon’s saying that life is what happens when we are busy with other things, and I look down at the stones, and they tell me stories.

Life in Lockdown

I am startled and yet not surprised, in returning to my blog, that almost a hundred days (of solitude, I am tempted to add, in the spirit of Marquez) have passed since my last post.

Last time I wrote we were 10 days into the lockdown, and the number of reported cases in South Africa was 1585. Today, as I write, 97 days later, the number of recorded infections is 166 times that – over a quarter of a million cases, and almost 4000 dead.

Gauteng, where we are ‘sheltering in place,’ is the new epicentre, with the largest number of cases and the fastest daily rise in new infections.

It is all very strange, as I have written before – strange, and yet oddly normal. As if we have always lived like this, as if we were not, only last August, off holidaying with our children in the South of France, stopping in Istanbul for a little innocent sightseeing at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, spending Christmas in Cape Town, visiting the idyllic little village of Rosendal in the Free State in the New Year, then back to Cape Town for a few days as recently as February.

Sweet liberty! Since March, we have barely left the house.

If we had been singled out for such treatment, we would be entitled to complain. But to be caught up in a global pandemic is hardly being singled out, and we don’t complain. At least, not often, and when we do we are conscious of how ungrateful it seems, how lucky we are, at least in relative terms.

To want to get out, though, to see people, to travel again, do things – go out for a meal, go to a movie, heck, go on a game drive and take a hundred photographs – is only human. So that is our excuse for feeling a little – not glum, not down, but flat, I guess is what you’d call it.

There have also been losses and anxieties to darken the atmosphere. My wife Rob’s only brother, Jim, passing away in Michigan, and not being able to travel to attend the funeral. Covid-19 striking people a little too close to us, though miraculously, so far, without serious harm. An old (in both senses) friend of Rob’s, in Vancouver, having to come to terms with the indignities and infirmities of age.

So it has not been altogether easy.

Life carries on, though, which is the important thing. Work keeps me busy, and too much housework keeps Rob busy, too, occasionally grumbling but for the most part simply rolling up her sleeves and getting stuck in, as she always does.

Along with work – paid work, and all the unpaid work that keeps our daily lives ticking over – we both make time where we can for the more creative part of our lives, Rob working on her fabulous collages, me on my photographs, including a series on the Desert Elephants of Namibia, from our last trip there, in 2016, following my son Jonathan and daughter-in-law Hayley’s wedding.

The purchase by a friend of ours, in Montreal, of one of my images, triggered a long-intended, oft-postponed plan to showcase my work in a more focused way, and so I have been labouring away on a new website, where people interested in my images, whether simply to enjoy or perhaps to buy a print or two, can browse through my portfolios.

So I have been busy. Although the website is brand new, and the portfolios are few, be assured I will be adding to them. And when I do, I will write up the new portfolio and post a link on these pages.

Stay safe, keep well. And let’s make a better world when all this is over.