Saturday, February 28, 2015

Agnès Varda - righteous, ordinary people

Homage aux Juste de France, Agnes Varda,
Avignon Festival 2007
The greatest thing that happened in googlemail this week was notification of the Brighton Festival programme and one name leapt out - AgnèVarda. I saw an installation of hers at the Avignon Festival in 2007 of films and still photography. It was in a 1930s mirror factory due for demolition - just outside the city walls -not one of the prestigious historically beautiful venues, but striking because of the depth of thought and the simplicity of the idea.

Hommage aux Justes de France shows persecution of the Jews and risks taken by ordinary country people in hiding them. What Varda did to make it even more real was to take photos of people who, in these days, might hide someone being persecuted alongside the names of those who did offer help during WW2.

The Avignon Festival described it in this way: "Agnès Varda designed an installation made up of people gazing and staring to honour these men, these women, a village (Chambon-sur-Lignon is the only community to have received this recognition on a collective basis): to see the faces, the gestures, the attentions, the hideouts….

"The photographs of the faces are laid out on the floor or propped up in pairs like books over a large circle. The faces of the righteous and of the extras, representing the thousands of unknown people whose images have disappeared, appear in the film she made. Above the circular set are four screens on which are projected two feature films directed by Agnès Varda. One is dark, unsettling and “historical” in black and white and the other simultaneously illustrates, in their everyday living conditions and in colour, the detail, the texture and the gestures of the Righteous as they saved Jews. Right at the back, stands the large tree of giant photographs as if nature had entered history." It's a poor translation, but it will do.

Varda is going strong at 86 and is dealing with ageing in her work. So although every year I moan about the Brighton festival and its absent literature programme, this year I don't care. There is Varda.

Other news by email made me feel I was walking on a Cornish beach. I can do the reading group I run for the Royal Literary Fund for another year. More quiet mornings each week browsing short stories, wondering which poet's work I want to pick a poem out of. Like cleaning the house or gardening, everything else is shut out and while I don't have a consciously formed criteria for selecting what I'll read aloud, I am sniffing for the quality of language and emotional integrity of a piece of writing.
In my own writing I know I fail more often than I succeed, so to see others do it well is a confirmation of why I still want to write, even when I can't.

When I was trying to write poems in my early 30s I sent some off to a critical service. I remember them as long-lined, undisciplined prose - emotional, political and possibly cynical. At the time I hadn't heard of the poet who read them, but later I met him. He was Roland John, editor of the magazine Outposts and Hippopotamus Press, kind in his feedback. And he said that if he wrote a single poem that lasted, he'd be happy - or something like that. I probably don't have it now, but I was shocked at the thought of just one poem lasting.
Portraits of ageing, Prison St Anne, Avignon 2014

It chimes with the reading group. Each week I choose one poem and one story by a writer. I don't claim to choose their 'best' or even the most representative, although I am influenced by others' tastes because I rely on anthologies sometimes and I am limited in my story choice by length. But often when I'm wondering what to take to the group I have a writer in mind, whose work I admire and I want to share it.

All praise to Brighton Festival 2015 for programming Varda. All praise to the Royal Literary Fund for concentrating on reading.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Secret heroes and knowing what day it is

Julie, my neighbour, will attest to the fact that sometimes I don't know what day it is. That is a consequence of freelance, solitary life. She tells me to keep my diary on my desk. This was a problem in the diaries I've been using to write Venda Sun. As I try to pull them into shape, make sense of them in the present and not as a travel log, I realise my numbering is all out and in places I have more than one entry for the same date. It could be a problem with transcription - I hope so.

Then there's the issue of the time in between. This isn't a memoir, but surely I have to acknowledge something of the years between all four trips? The last trip was nine years after the third. Chapter and section headings are helping - they provide a framework. I go back to my CV from time to time to place myself in time. But I know I'll have to unpack the top of the wardrobe for the box of notebooks, that I'll curse myself for not dating spines, to discover what did happen in between.

I've realised, reading  about other people's journeys recently, that the moments in between the physical movement from place to place, the non sequiturs and the daydreaming, are just as interesting as the charting of the walk or drive. However, this was in the Guardian earlier this month: "The literary sub-genre of “writer discovers truths about themselves while on a journey” is well-worn and often dull…."

I have no dramatic revelations to make, no famous circles to describe. So what is it? It's evolving. I hope exploring the time in between will help even though I enjoy going back to moments in the Kruger National Park, re-reading my first impressions of Venda's sub-tropical landscape.

But I'm also working out what succeeds in books about walking I've read - and what fails. I'm not so keen on writers who spin off into some historical issue to fill up a few pages, although done well it can be gripping and sometimes offers the action the writer him or herself isn't having on the walk, especially if it's about war.

I can suspend disbelief for some writers because the quality of their prose would take me anywhere and
my main interest is in the harshness of mundanity rather than the exotic. I quite enjoy hearing how people get through the day.

But I've always enjoyed Paul Theroux - he is so in the moment, so engaged with people, action, adventure. WG Sebald has a different style: more melancholic, haphazard. His writing has the best approach to free-association. One of the most exciting books I found in a charity shop was E Fraser Darling's Island Years. He writes about the design of a bell tent, lists of essential groceries, anchorages and earwigs among many other close observations of "three years of three people's lives." It's an account of research on the west coast of Scotland.

Mine is nothing in comparison, but it is liberating to write prose again, to remember that simple aim of Fraser Darling's and to feel unconstricted by notions of character, plot, empathy and theme that attach themselves to thoughts of fiction. I realise I've been harbouring secret heroes like Dervla Murphy, Jim Crumley, Jackie Kay for Red Dust Road. I am enjoying how uncomplicated this project feels. Apart from dates. Knowing what day it is. Monday - right?

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Not a fox, a scratching hen

Guildford Jane was on the phone last night talking about what she's been doing since jacking in her job as a journalist last year.
As we chatted, interspersed with the odd rant about HMRC warning about debt collectors (I am 3 weeks late paying my tax on account), the image came to me of hens scratching around in a garden.
Jane asked, wouldn't I rather be the fox. I realised then that much as I love the sight of a fox, the life of a predator's pretty harsh and anyway, I'm vegetarian.
No, I like seeing and hearing chickens. I miss my neighbours' chickens, the sound of them during the day when I was washing up in the kitchen, the occasional one jumping over the wall. Jane Fordham has chickens in her garden and she's built them a beautiful home on stilts.
When I moved into my house a man up the road kept chickens. They are part of the soundtrack of becoming a mother, having a garden which was then part of a continuous view that stretched up the hill towards the racecourse. Further up the hill, the gardens used to be farm meadow, so Vera told me, who used to be my neighbour.
Scratching around feels perfect for life at the moment, however difficult it is sometimes to uncover the cash to help out when the kids have emergencies. I am dreading the next bill but everyone in the office where I've started working one day a week agrees that February is a lean, penny-pinching month, still in debt to Christmas.
So this morning I've made a big saucepan full of soup, listened to Ruby Wax on the radio and laughed out loud at her honesty and I'm off to scratch around at the allotment for as long as the weather will allow. I'll sort through the seeds, put some in the greenhouse, well covered in glass and hope they germinate. That's assuming my greenhouse roof repairs have worked.
It may be too obvious, but scratching around is also rather like the hunt for the right word, a meditative state with its own regular movement, discoveries, and a way of life, really.
Guildford Jane wondered if scratching around was giving in to age. It doesn't feel like that to me. I have enjoyed planning two sets of workshops in March and May much more than in the past, because now I feel I have a new perspective on what workshops are for - I think a workshop's like a trampoline, or the top of a hill. It's a starting point and it needs to be exhilarating, to give whoever's in it a sense of the possibilities, of movement, a drive to explore, to try something out.
Scratching around's also given me the thinking time that's started me off at last on the diaries book: a book about family, heritage, race, about how we made it to the top of a 9,000 feet pass in a tiny saloon car, about a beautiful hillside with vervet monkeys, about deaths, schools and birthday cards.
I'm at nearly 12,000 words - working title Venda Sun.

Monday, February 16, 2015


A man in the greengrocer looked through me as I stood at the till with mangoes and avocados in my hands.

He turned to a young man behind and got out a plastic bag. The young man looked embarrassed, pointed to me and said, "That lady was first." The shop owner looked at me again. I could see him focussing his eyes. He was frowning. I put the fruit down on the counter and left. As I walked away, he was calling, "I didn't see you."

I walked away from some teaching too. I was asked to change how I work to satisfy two vocal complainers. My boss asked me to teach the way he did. At least six other students got in touch to say how much they'd enjoyed my collaborative approach.

To be able to walk away is the joy of being freelance. For once, I was blessed to have no contract, no notice period, no bureaucracy to keep me there. And I feel lighter.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Waving goodbye to childhood

Venda Sun 23 Farewells - leaving Mani and the family

Childhood officially ended for Giya about a month after we returned from South Africa in 2012 but I had a year's grace before waving her off. A photography course at City College, Brighton turned out to be her proper launch into adult life.
Since September last year I have been readjusting. Transcribing these diaries is part of that. They don't tell the whole story of 21 years of parenting, even the whole story of the trips to Risenga's country.
Giya with her uncle, aunt and cousins in Palm Springs

So the big work is to try and make something of these transcribed pages and observations.
What I value about blogging is it can capture the energy of a moment, passing thoughts which, given time and attention, might help me understand what I'm noticing and experiencing. 
I blog selfishly, to try things out. This place is a record and the South African posts are a notebook made from of notebooks.
South Africa is so far away, so expensive to visit but Mrisi and Giya's childhood was altered by the trips. They share two countries' histories, even though they have only lived in one but more importantly, they have two families.
In Nwamatatane, Limpopo
Poems that resonated for me throughout their growing up are the early ones written by Moniza Alvi about Pakistan. Moniza's a good friend as well as one of my favourite poets. Her collection, The Country at my Shoulder was published in 1993, in between the births of Mrisi and Giya. Her poem 'The Sari' ends with the line: 'Your body is your country' and I think this has come to underline the importance of the country my children are linked to. In her early poems, Moniza created new imagery of identity. These poems are vital and brave - they fed me, they provided an imaginative backdrop to some of the issues mixed race children face.
Moniza's work covers many other aspects of human existence so these poems are a relatively small aspect of her writing, although she has returned to the country of her birth in her most recent collection, At the Time of Partition, showing the power of that imaginative drive to explore identity and the history that informs it.
Back to the diaries. They rarely refer to poetry. They occasionally mention visual artists. In 2012, I realised how hard it is to devote time to writing when cooking on wood, washing up and washing clothes with precious water fetched from a standpipe take up so many hours of the day.
After every trip, though, poems have emerged. Sometimes they were in the notebooks, sometimes they've come from a line or a memory I didn't write down. They will never be all I write, and unless I go again, perhaps the most recent batch of poems from SA are the last. Just as the trips have punctuated my bank statements, poems from South Africa have punctuated my last four collections. A handful of new ones may survive for the next one, whenever that happens.

Friday August 10

We have one more day in Mashau. For most people here life is taken up with collecting water and wood, making just enough money to eat and stay in one place. Why would you make art and dream about anything else when you are exhausted from that? Why not sleep?
The sun's higher now and the sky's turning yellow. I am thinking about the road from the north. The monkeys have been here and moved on. There's still one in the tree below the houses, others are rustling in the bushes and earlier walked along the terrace wall. G didn't sleep because I was snoring. It's the dust.
G and R go to the dam near Thoyandou without me. I couldn't be in the car again. I wash clothes and dishes, cook a pumpkin and lentil curry. Write a bit.
I am still making lists. I make a list of birds on the land near the house.  Black headed oriole, speckled mousebird. Is the one with a red beak a Cape bunting or African quailfinch, or red billed fire finch?
saying goodbye to the neighbours

Saturday August 11 - Secret water caught in the sun

My last Mashau dawn. I'm sitting by the fire with water for coffee. Traffic interrupts the silence along with a cockerell and now a bird that sounds like it's singing in a tunnel, more an echo, or a mechanical winding down, a bell petering out.
The other birds I heard as I woke up are quiet now and for the first time I imagine I hear the watery sounding birds I remember from this hillside. Perhaps it's because the weather's heating up. Last night I had to unzip the sleeping bag.
We went to the Malmedi Lodge for a drink last night and it was almost empty. The barman was chatty, telling us he'd never left Limpopo province.
There was a fire by the road, spreading when we got back from our drink. 
I am at last starting to relax and we're due to leave. Now the valley's smoky. In full sun, what you see is the charcoal-black patches of roadside, of places where there have been fires. At a certain angle I can see the Nandani dam for the first time - a very distant glint on the horizon. I've never noticed it before and as the day goes on it'll disappear. But right now the sun's highlighting that vast expanse of water, and water being what it is here, it'll be secret soon, hiding between trees and in them.
Today we go to see Grace and the mother of R's cousin, the dead chief whose inauguration we went to once, in Nwamatatane. Only one of his three wives is still alive.
Sad to leave

Sunday August 12 - Souvenir shopping and relatives

We're in Jo'burg by about 10 and go straight to Rosebank for the Sunday antique market. I buy an embroidered table cloth for Mum from Madagasgar and G finds bracelets for her friends. The to Eldorado Park to see Harry and Pearl, Dolly and Netto. Harry's doing the house up. They're so welcoming. Pearl is especially happy to see G and is incredibly upbeat. We watch Nigerian films while R goes to find coal with Netto.
Giya and Pearl
We stay too long and go to Orange Farm. R's mother's gone to church, so we go to Palm Springs where Nkateko's on her way out. It turns out that R had promised we'd be there at midday and we turn up at 5. Margaret had gone to the trouble to make food. It's frosty when we get back to Flora Street.

Monday August 13-  Eet sum mor

There's a patch by the garage that's warm. The ibis remind me of seagulls. We're going to Oriental Plaza for presents and to meet R's mum for lunch. I've been to the Plaza before. But I discover a wonderful vegetarian Indian restaurant where I get a spinach dahl with potato paratha while R and in his mum sit in KFC. The area around Oriental Plaza is relaxed, the architecture is old, lots of women are veiled. We get a taxi back to the house but on the way stop at the Maboteng quarter which is closing. R sees someone he knows, a guy called Lucky who's a dancer living in SA and Germany. We join him and a guy who runs a new Ethiopian restaurant. It's a lovely relaxed end to the day before carrying on to Eastgate mall where we have to buy stuff for Mrisi - Simba chips and Eet Sum Mor (!) biscuits.
Giya and her grandma

Tuesday August 14 - Flying home to Herbie Hancock

I'm listening to Herbie Hancock on the plane. Yesterday was all goodbyes, from the morning ride around J'burg to lunch in the house with Jo and Margaret. The story of R and Jo's childhood came out. The conversation happened like a catalyst in the sun as the weaver bird finished off its nest. 
Then waiting in departures. I don't sleep much, upright for about 11 hours watching films, but there's a sunrise, possibly over the Sahara. We arrive back to rain and a grim taxi driver in Brighton. But how lovely to see Mrisi. He waits to go into work late to welcome us back. We chat and chat.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

The leopard mother

Venda Sun 22 - In the Kruger National Park

 Her cub was following so she kept to the undergrowth. It was early in the morning and we were just
yards away in our small city car. She seemed like an offering from the dry river and leaves. 

Of course we can't get out of the car apart from between lines on specific bridges and in rest camps. We drive for hours with cameras and binoculars trained on the landscape. In the plains, in the old woods, I itch to walk. But here, humans are prey.

Monday August 6, 2012 - Lions and refugees

We're missing Mrisi. It's the third time we've been to the Kruger but this time he's not here. 
Sightings day 1 - Wildlife: Buffalo, antelope, squirrel, zebra, eland, kudu, hippo, hornbills, bushpig, elephants, swallows, warthog, eagle, baboons, ostrich, giraffe, lions, alligators, herons. Trees: Brown ivory, leadwood, Natal mahogany, Jackal berry, Fever Tree forest.
We leave Louis Trichardt, head to the Soutpansberg Mountains, through the valley Mrisi once called the valley of the butterflies. It's hilly, lush and there are many mountain retreats. We climb and descend to the long flat road towards Musina, later the long flat road towards Pafuri.
Limpopo baobab on the road to Pafuri, with nests
There are always mountains in the distance but the landscape changes. We pass grapefruit plantations, fields of tomatoes with rows of women picking, fields of greens. Agricultural workers' homes are shabby and as we get closer to Pafuri there are villages on the main road that seem to be planted in dust, made of bare, scrubby ground with goats and wooden fences, the odd chicken and occasional pink bungalow.
As we drive closer to the mining area the main road is blocked by a double gate. We're pleased to see the Pafuri Gate of the Kruger. We've been driving since 5 am, arrive about 9.30 but almost immediately we see animals and on a bridge over the Levubu river, upstream from Mashau, we see our first elephants and a kingfisher poses for a photo. There are alligators below us looking like weed.
Elephants in the Levubu River
We take loops off the main road, follow the river, stop at Pafuri picnic site to eat our rolls. It's baking hot and quiet. There's hot water to make coffee, big old trees and the sound of birds. Pigs, buck, baboons and vervet monkeys are drinking at the river.
The landscape between Pafuri and Punda Maria camp is empty and dry. But the fever tree forest is shady and cool, a mix of lemon bark and big old hard woods, some with vines and aerial roots, many trunks snapped by elephants.
This vast expanse is a reminder of how people used to live. A ranger at the Pafuri site told R there weren't so many lions around because they'd been attacking refugees from Mozambique and had begun to see people as prey. The result - attacks on visitors at picnic sites and so the lions were shot.
When I have a shower at Punda Maria the red dust streams out of my hair, off my feet, hands and ears. When I washed my hands at the garage in Louis Trichardt, they were filthy from charcoal and breaking up wood.

Tuesday August 7 - An old elephant in the shade of a fig tree

Day 2 sightings after the Babalala picnic site: Traffic cops in chairs off the main road parked up in the trees, elephants, eagle, giraffe, baboons and monkeys, buck, lion past the loop in the main road, zebra, impala

We get up early for a morning drive. There's nothing at the waterhole but there are dust storms, tall tornadoes. We see a great plume of red dust as we drive towards Babalala. There are two people at the site and a shelter build around an enormous old fig tree. Hornbills on the fence are trying to get at our crumbs.
Waterholes and rivers are dry and there's nothing in the enormous Shingwedzi. The drive from Punda Maria takes us through kilometres of dry flat landscape. The gravel roads don't make comfortable driving in a small Chevrolet.
Shingwedzi camp is where we stayed years before. G and I are going on a night drive. She loves the guinea fowl/partridges and the baby baboons. My favourites are giraffes and today I saw a link between Wilma Cruise's long necked women and these phenomenal animals. They are always a surprise, like the elephants that appear out of the trees or in a dry river, or crossing a road.

An old elephant with a single tusk was in the shade of a fig tree today, scratching his back. It's hard to think of the invasion of humans. Thank god, though, we're not in Johannesburg with its icicles. The Mail & Guardian has headlined it the City of Cold.
Night drive sightings: Civet, scrub hare, bushbaby eyes, wild African cat, Sharpe's grysbok, a breeding herd of elephants, buffalo

Wednesday August 8 - We are yards from a leopard and cub

Morning sightings, Kannihood dam and beyond: Leopard and cub, breeding herd of elephants with two calves, water buck, grey rehbock, Sharpe's grysbock, Nyala, little egret, eagle, saddle billed stork, goliath heron, black heron, guinea fowl, wildebeest.
The elephant calf is well camouflaged
and hard to see in a herd
We drive from the Shingwedzi camp towards Mopani, past the Kannihood dam, and still on the banks of the river R spots a leopard crossing the track.
We're on a gravel road, the big loop from Shingwedzi camp that follows the river much of the way to Mopani, south towards the Tropic of Capricorn. The leopard heads into scrub on the higher bank, and then we see a cub. We follow the leopard as she moves in and out of the bushes until finally she disappears.
Last night I had a nightmare. It was vivid and long. Mrisi died from a wasp sting in his throat and came back to talk to me. I asked him what he missed and he said family and the taste of food. He seemed very sad. At times in the dream when I was with people I felt the most overwhelming grief. I broke down screaming several times. It was disturbing and I've been worried about him all day. When I rang he sounded sad and low but when R rang again later, Mum was there. She'd been on the allotment picking blackberries.

So it's the day of the leopard cub and elephant calves. No lions, rhinos, hyenas but water and great storks hunkered down in the marsh, then zebra in a dust storm around a waterhole. We drive to the top of a small hill and look out towards the border of Mozambique, over the flood plain, baked ground waiting for spring.
Mopani camp is clean, modern, neat, built around an enormous baobab and on the banks of a dam. G and I walk around the camp and sit on a bench by the baobab. We talk to two men who ask Giya to take their photo - intelligent, informed, interesting about SA. One has been to Brighton on the bike ride. We discuss transition, corruption, beautiful trees, taxis and traffic. Both have three cars, even though neither can drive.
The terrace bar is full of Africaaner couples and families with looking miserable. Johannesburg is freezing and there's deep snow in the eastern Cape, drifting, We see it on TV. I thank god we aren't anywhere else.

Thursday August 9 - scavenging quail

Sightings: eagles, stork, herd of giraffe, baboons, zebra, elephants, a lone elephant, termite mounds for miles on the Phalaborwa Road, hippos in the Letaba, harlequin quail and chicks.

Our last morning. I go to the dam before dawn, see a black and white kingfisher diving and hear hippo. The geese are noisy and a flight of small birds breaks up the sky. Dawn happens, but only me and the cleaner are around. As the wildfowl get busier other camp staff turn up. We eat sweet potato mash and onions for breakfast. Giya goes to the shop for eggs and comes back with Weetabix! A harlequin quail and chicks comes to scavenge at the kitchen - they're G's favourites. Mine are the blue starlings. Both, it seems have turned into scavengers. It's still. I enjoy my last shower before Brighton.
Back in the world - a mine, a gate, Spar, private lodges, garages. Letsitele to Tijane is miles of orange trees in lines. Letsitele is surrounded by mountains. Women carry nets of oranges on their heads. All SA oranges and lemons come from here. The earth is red.  

A long drive to Giyani and then back to Mashau. Giyani's shut, it's a national holiday: International Women's Day. To celebrate, R shouts at me in the car when I ask if we're going in the right direction because the road sign seems to be pointing us miles from Mashau. He says he walked this road as a child. It's 70 km to Elim and so I don't believe him.