Thursday, 16 December 2010

CAPE TOWN Dec 16th
This is the last entry I will make, unless something out of the ordinary happens today, which, given the cloud, is unlikely. Phyllida and the children arrive tomorrow and then my sabbatical becomes a holiday. There will be lots of reflection time in due course but this African experience has convinced me, a) of the essential good nature of the vast majority of humanity b) of the amount I have to be grateful for in the way the cards have fallen in my life c) that I do quite like my wife and children, whatever their ambivalent reaction to me d) that English winters are rubbish and e) of the diminishing scale of the world. Those sentiments are in no particular order and represent the ones that are uppermost in my mind. There will be other deeper and longer term personal convictions, I am sure but I am still not 100% certain of what they will be.
The beaches on the west of the peninsula, which I recced on Tuesday, are superb. The teenagers favour ‘beach 1,2,3 or 4’. These are local abbreviations for Clifton, which has 4 smallish but extremely attractive sandy inlets at the foot of Table Mountain. It seems that is where it is good to be seen and where the happening people hang out. South of that, Camps Bay is also a lovely strip of sand but the one I liked most was Llandudno, the next one south before Hout Bay. It was sunny and warm. The sea is deep blue and inviting. And freezing. I had thought that as a hardened Brit I would find the cold refreshing but it was, in reality, downright painful in the tenderest places. This makes a wet suit a necessity if the waves are to be enjoyed and I didn’t have one. It was also windy enough on the beach for the sand to become quite irritating. It blew into every conceivable nook and cranny and made the lying in the sun quite painful at times. But I coped. Manfully.
Yesterday’s entertainment was at the races. Kenilworth racecourse is the sort of place that usually only ever features in the UK if all other meetings are off, including the all-weather. The whole affair seems to be conducted at two levels. On the one hand there is a convivial, bar-hugging, scotch and soda drinking collection of local well-dressed owners and trainers and on the other is the largely black, pretty scruffy, form-studying punter. The two do not interact but occupy much the same sort of space because there is no entry fee and no restriction on which parts of the course are accessible to whom. There is a seeming lack of desire to fleece the racegoer, which is apparent not just in the free entry but also in the regular prices for drinks and food and the nominal charge for a racecard. Yet despite this, when I arrived 20 minutes before the first race, I increased the attendance by 20%. It did fill up a bit but the crowd was never more than 300. It strikes me that there is a real opportunity for a Greebly Grabitall to do the same job that has been done to British racing where it is £20 entry, £4 for a bottled lager, £5 minimum for gristle pie and soggy chips and a racecard containing £3 of information that is available for much less in the Racing Post. Maybe that way people will be conned into thinking there is something worth going to and the gate will increase accordingly.  Anyhow, I wagered 10 Rand per race for 7 races and two winners ( one at 6-1 ) paid for the entire event.
I have enjoyed Africa in a quite different way to the USA. Over there it was about landscape and, wherever possible, meeting local people. Here, given that I have scrounged hospitality shamelessly wherever I have gone, it has been more about being a guest that does not blot his copybook, being deferential and nice to as many people as possible and generally oohing and aahing about how lucky everyone is to live where they do and to enjoy the lifestyles they enjoy. I have had much less choice in the people I have met and if I have a regret it is that I have not spent a bit more time with the less privileged. The most illuminating spell, by a distance, was in Watamu and the trips to local fishing villages. The most humbling was at the Starehe Boys and Girls Centres and the attitude of the students. The most jaw-dropping was the outlook from the Stoep at Malelane. The most relaxed is where I am now - and the view is only less jaw-dropping because it is one I knew about. Gilgil was also very relaxed and was the most useful in the Wellington context. Hopewell will probably be the most useful for improving my teaching. Nairobi featured the kindness of the Taylors. My memories will be of unstinting and generous hospitality, the very different landscapes, the constant richness and variety of colour, the flora and fauna, the noises and sounds, the smells, the taxis, the cyclists and the dust. Above all I am even more firmly convinced that places are all about people. The context may be defined by the physical geography but the essential feeling and spirit of any location is entirely a function of a combination of history and human geography. I have been extraordinarily lucky to be where I have been when I have been.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

CAPE TOWN Dec 14th
It has been quite refreshing and relaxing in the absence of any fixed agenda.  It turns out that Charterhouse are here on tour and were at Bishop’s today, so John and I spent a couple of hours on Sunday  watching them get well and truly slogged. They had, I suppose, just come from the coldest English November of all time but it was a fairly ordinary performance. They were at Wynberg yesterday and were almost equally spineless in the hour we were there in the morning. The home coaches loved it, of course. It gave them full opportunity to be as disparaging about English cricket as possible, with the weedy public schools coming in for particular opprobrium. There are no Jacques Kallis cricket scholars at our schools ( Wynberg has 4-5 named in honour of its most well-known old boy ), which is always conveniently forgotten. It was especially odd, therefore, to be actively supporting Harrow for the first time when we moved across to Bishop’s yesterday afternoon and good for the old country that Harrow won comfortably.
We drove to Spier for lunch on Sunday. This is a vineyard with additional activities for the family and it has a very good, outdoor, eat-all-you-can for £20 braai. It was warm, it was sheltered from the wind, the food was plentiful, if almost entirely designed for the carnivore and it was fun to be in the company of the Knights. It will undoubtedly be somewhere we will all visit when we get the chance.
The most surreal experience was attending a service of nine lessons and carols at a packed church in Kenilworth on Sunday evening. Nobody was wearing a sweater, the doors and windows were wide open, many of the punters had brought bottled water and we were singing songs about midwinter and cold. When it comes to it, the whole business of being in a warm place on Christmas Day itself will probably not be that difficult to manage but all the attendant paraphernalia ( trees, decorations, lights etc ) seems a little out of context.
I was at Matthew Pearce’s house for supper last night, being an additional guest at what was principally a get together of his in-laws. He was at Wellington in 1994 as a gap-student and has been over a few times since. His career in journalism took him into broadcasting and he has just landed the job as the number one rugby commentator following on from Hugh Bladen, the SA equivalent of Bill McClaren. Matthew was 100% the same bloke as I remember, with an easy charm and a way of relating experiences that is self-deferential and inclusive. There was one lapse into Zafferdom when we talked about the Rugby World Cup next year, which he is convinced South Africa will win. Otherwise it was really good to spend more time than I usually do, i.e. not just a quick pint, with him.
 I was, as ever, the recipient of lots of advice from the assembled company, not least as to the merits of buying a property in Cape Town and spending November to March here once I have retired. Property is the only thing that seems to be less pricey here than in the UK. They were all quite surprised when I suggested this. Accepted wisdom is that Europeans all make a killing when they come out which may have been true 2-3 years ago, when there were 15 Rand to the £, but is not so much now that the exchange rate is down to 10.8. Anyhow, I have a feeling that idea will be just another in the list of nice ideas I have accumulated these past few months, none of which will ever see the light of reality. It is so enervating, though, to have the mental space to have ideas and if nothing else, that will be one hugely beneficial long term spin-off of my time away.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

CAPE TOWN Dec 11th
It is not altogether surprising that I have been through a small dose of food poisoning/general stomach upset. What is remarkable, given the generally animal-infested, insect-ridden, dusty-floored and water-infected places I have stayed so far ( with apologies to Jakkalsbessie, the Taylors and the Boyd-Moss family ) is that it has not occurred before. It is a bit of an irony that I have copped it at the cleanest, neatest, tidiest, least animal-infested location I have stayed in, which also comes with the purest tapwater.
It may well have been the snack I had at Simonstown. This came as I was returning from a recce of the penguin colony at Boulders Bay, which I reached via Hout Bay, on the Atlantic coast and the road over Chapman’s Peak to Fishhoek on the Indian Ocean side of the Cape Peninsula. This is a drive of spectacular  scenery, as cliffs drop to the sea and mist rolls in over the Atlantic. Much of the time the mist is below the level of the road. That side of the peninsula was at least sheltered from the gale force wind that is a regular feature of life here at this time of year. It is a bit two-edged. On the sheltered Atlantic side, it is sunny but the water is freezing. On the windward Indian Ocean side, the water is warmer but the wind is a major issue. Boulders Bay was a bit of a tourist trap but I guess the family will have to go there, by which time it will be more overrun.
The evening would have been brilliant had I not been feeling so unsteady. Jessica and John are mad-keen (?obsessive?) about their bikes and Jessica had ten lady cyclists, plus a few spouses, to supper. They represented most of a team which had recently completed a 200km road-race. I liked them very much, from the larger-than-life Rinda, the leader, to Debbie, who was probably the senior partner. I talked most to a couple, with the easily remembered names of Janet and John, who had come out here from Southport in 1972 and stayed. I would have got round everyone but was feeling migrainey and very stomachy by about 9.00 and retired, which was a shame, since this would have been the opportunity to meet more local people at one sitting than I have met in total thus far.
By yesterday, I was feeling sufficiently recovered to play golf at Steenberg, a course that features holes strategically placed between vineyards and houses. The wind howled, again, but fortunately my golf stood up, for the first nine holes anyway. One of my opponents was a friend of John’s, Francois, who would back himself to do almost anything if he felt he had a 30% chance of success John, whom I partnered, was excellent at tempting him to drive greens downwind and to go for ridiculous carries into it. So we won.
All the Knight children were home yesterday, for the first time. Hannah has just finished Metric ( SA A-Levels ) and been away partying for a week with friends. Supper with them all in evidence was very reminiscent of what suppers are like on the rare occasions all of us sit down. Lots of genial stick given to Mum and Dad by teenage offspring. Mine will have competition when they turn up.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

I am writing this from the stoep of John and Jessica Knight’s house in Claremont, a suburb in the south of Cape Town.  Ahead of me the lawn slopes gently from left to right. Below the lawn is the tennis court, complete with floodlights, and swimming pool. It is mid-morning and already the air is warm and the sun is strong. A large oak tree provides the shade that African residents crave and those like me, for whom any sun is good sun, avoid. The single dominant presence, however, is Table Mountain.  The green lower slopes of Kirstenbosch contrast with the grey crags of vertical rock leading up to the summit plateau.  In the evening, the setting sun creates a rich pink hue on the exposed rock surfaces. It is magnificent and something not even hardened Capetonians, like John and Jessica, take for granted or cease to appreciate.
Having the use of the car that Hannah, aged 18 and their eldest, is using to learn to drive, enabled me to go into the centre of the city yesterday. There were a couple of things I needed to do and so my first road trip was to the busy and very cosmopolitan centre of Cape Town. It is quite different from Port Elizabeth. There, the shops are clearly catering for a less wealthy market and the effect is to make it look like the seedier end of Reading’s CBD. Here, there are major international brands and the architecture is much prouder and more 21st century. The driving experience was mostly straightforward but I did find the constant sounding of horns a little off-putting. I am always convinced that the sound of a car-horn is directed at me but when there are 2-3 going at the same time it is like being attacked from all sides. The most frequent cause of the hooting is the fact that the car in front is not moving forward. It seems not to matter that in front of that car is a red light or a queue of buses.
I drove back to Claremont via the coast road, above Clifton and Camps Bay which then swings inland and around Table Mountain above the city. What a stunning drive it is. It is a little like what I imagine the Grand Corniche in Monte Carlo to be like. Mountains inland and settlements dropping away to the sea, each with ridiculously beautiful sandy beaches separated by rocky outcrops.
It is, by some distance, the most picturesque city I have ever visited and I would be interested where it would come in a poll to determine the most beautiful city in the world. I am already wishing I had made up my mind to return here in February, as a supporter of the Wellington College cricket team, during their tour in half-term.
John teaches at Bishop’s and had arranged a tour of the school for me in the morning. Melvyn Wallis- Brown, who is 70 and taught at the school for 42 years, was my guide. He is totally sold out to the place and nowhere in South Africa has better facilities, better staff, better results ( sporting and academic ), better cultural achievements or better old boys. According to him. I was impressed, even so. The place looks lovely ( colonial Cape Gothic? ), with brilliant white buildings and perfectly manicured grass areas. I was there at the equivalent time of year to our end of Summer Term, which meant that things were definitely winding down. All activities and no lessons with lots of paper aeroplanes and planks and ropes and shark-infested custard.
I am going to do as little as possible for the next week. No point in having been in Africa for a month if the family are not envious of my sun tan when they arrive.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

After almost five weeks it finally happened. I took myself off for a walk along Hopewell’s perimeter fence in order to get close to the cheetah that has made one particular area its home. It wasn’t much of a movement but the instant I was aware of it I froze. There must be a very deep-seated primeval trigger that makes humans react as I did, with a mixture of fear and loathing. There, two feet away on the side of the track was a snake, slithering silently into the long grass. It was fat, grey with yellow bands and not at all concerned with me, which was just as well as it was identified later by Francois as a puff adder. A bite from one of these is potentially fatal, although to receive one usually means that the snake has been stepped on as it is not aggressive and has an extremely slow strike. So I am told, because I did not hang around to find out. Luckily I was wearing brown shorts.
It was a bonus to spend a bit more time with Bruce Little and his family over the weekend. Bruce has a small share in Hopewell and is employed as the on site manager and resident wildlife fundi. When there are guests ( which has not been very often in 2010 ), he is at their disposal for the time they are on the reserve. He is another of the tall, good-looking, charming, personable and immensely self-sufficient types I have met so often over the past month. The sort that makes me feel instantly like a beta-male and precipitates, on my part, over ambition to demonstrate my intellectual credentials, in the absence of anything else which can compete. Cate, his wife, and the three children entertained me very well on Sunday and Monday evenings. This was no mean feat considering they were in the process of moving all their clobber from the house I have stayed in to another, a few hundred metres away, and still only 80% finished, over the weekend. They live in Grahamstown during the week and spend weekends and holidays at Hopewell. Bruce has recently taken a cut in salary of 50% and now works 12 days a month at Hopewell. His other source of income is the creation of bronze sculptures of African animals. He has something of an international reputation for this and is coming to London to show his work at the Cork St Gallery in May. Inevitably the whole family were hospitality personified and seemed genuinely keen for me to spend time with them, whatever the hidden reality may have been.
The Eastern Cape is an alluring place. The countryside and the community are the twin attractions, there being space to live, people with whom to enjoy it and always at a beguilingly languid pace. I got the impression that once you are ‘in’ you are well in and part of a highly supportive and cohesive group.
What a contrast is the centre of Port Elizabeth, where I spent 45 minutes while Francois did a couple of things before he dropped me at the airport. It is grimy, full of people, 99% of whom are black and, I felt, not especially welcoming. I am sure it was not intentional but there were not many smiles in my direction, which is in total contrast to my experiences in similar situations in Kenya.
I am looking forward to Cape Town. Everyone says it is a brilliant place. John has put a car at my disposal and I will be able to case the joint before the family arrive next week. It is very much R and R for the next few days before the grand tour kicks off in a fortnight

Sunday, 5 December 2010

The countryside around here is very reminiscent of downland in southern England. It rolls, the valley sides are steep and wooded, the valley floors are wide and do not contain rivers, and the hilltops have been cleared and converted to grazing land. Sitting on the stoep of the house I am staying in and looking over the valley it dominates reminds me of the north facing view from the stands at Goodwood or the Ridgeway above Wantage. The underlying geology is definitely not chalk, however, but something like a porous sandstone. Yes, I know.
The main differences are in the human traces. The visible housing has green corrugated iron on the roof and is either single-storey, brick and large or single-storey, concrete and small. The former is occupied by the farmers, white, and the latter by the farm workers, black. The roads on the valley sides are not dark tarmac but light grey dirt. Wind driven water pumps, like those on the livestock stations of outback Australia, stand alongside large water bowsers. Vehicles are either pick-up trucks or 4WD jeeps. Properties are all surrounded by high electric fences and, although not visible, protected by the biggest and fiercest dogs imaginable, which spend their entire lives outside.
So far I have not seen enough to have a definite view and the people I am with have all been wealthy and white. It is impossible not to be aware of the differences, even so. One of the squirearchy at the INDALO meeting said something which I found interesting. 16 years on it is no longer valid simply to play the apartheid card to account for those differences, when so much of the investment and promotion since then has been in the interests of those ‘previously disadvantaged’. It is a bit like the Brown administration blaming the years of Conservative government of the 80s and 90s for their problems. This is probably completely wrong but my feeling is that there were expectations of immediate change, which did not and could not happen, a skill vacuum, based on lack of experience and, in some cases, education amongst those who were thrust into official positions and a misunderstanding that somehow the goodies would fall out of the sky without very much being done by the individual to earn them.
What is also interesting and positive is that the future might easily be different. I have seen more smartly dressed black 20-30s than in any other age group. This generation seems not to have so much of the sullenness of those who suffered under apartheid and is ambitious and keen to move on. Groups of black school students in Alexandria and Malelane seem to be very similar in their demeanour to those in the UK. The Sandton shopping mall had many black Saturday shoppers from the under 30s, most of whom were doing what under 30s do in London, browsing the clothing, mobile phone and music outlets.
It will be interesting to see how many of these views I still hold on January 6th. I came here last as a 17 year old in 1974 and was not old enough to make any lasting impressions, save one. It has not changed in the intervening 36 years and it is this. If you are not South African, you don’t understand and your views are erroneous, so please do not bore me with them.
 I won’t.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Thursday, i.e. two days ago, was one of the more interesting days I have had since I have been away. I went as an observer to the meeting of INDALO, the central organisation for all the game reserves in this part of South Africa.
The discussions covered a range of items, some of wider interest, most not. I learnt much. Rhino poaching is flourishing, with over 300 poached this year in South Africa.                I knew it was on the rise but I had no idea it was on this sort of scale. Poachers are highly organised. They fly a helicopter in by night, use night-sights to take the rhino out, cut the horn off and fly off again, all in 20 minutes. The problem has got much worse, so the exclusively white game reserve owners told me, since the law allowing those whose property was being trespassed to shoot first and ask questions later was rescinded in 1995 ( i.e. when the government changed ). There are highly organised gangs operating, usually with bribed accomplices on the inside.
I also learnt that all the game reserves are going through the mill at the moment. Demand is right down and cash flow is a real issue. Most have been going 10-12 years. They took a while to get going, but boomed in 2007-8. Owners then borrowed to expand but have been clattered by recession. What I see at Hopewell is not just a local problem, obviously.
As ever, the most enlightening element was to talk to the 20 or so people there. There were some fascinating old established Eastern Cape families. Clearly if your surname is Gush or Howarth or Fowlds or Hart, you own part of what was once a vast tract of land owned by your great grandfather, now split between the male descendants. These families are the equivalent of the local squirearchy and links go back generations. The Sidbury Club, where the meeting was held, is the focus of weekend social activity and membership opens doors and establishes contacts of immense mutual significance. Representatives of these families, who own the reserves, dominated the meeting and there were also some younger reserve managers, like Francois, in attendance. This constituency said little in the meeting but was much more forthcoming over a few beers and a braai after formal proceedings had finished.
It is in conversation, and once a couple of glasses have been taken, that statements of opinion become less inhibited. Opinion here almost always distils into something to do with race. It is the elephant in every room. A really nice young couple, trying to make ends meet on a reduced salary at a small reserve which has been pared to the bone, were very persuasive in their argument that black workers were better off on farms when apartheid was in place than they are now. Everyone was united in the problems of drunkenness and theft they face with their black labourers. Most took sideswipes at the incompetence and corruption of black administrators and politicians. All, I think, secretly hanker after the days when to be white guaranteed wealth and a position in society, even if it is recognised that it could not have continued.
Being in this part of the Eastern Cape is like being in an institution. Lots of support and friendship but with it an inability to be able to fart and not have someone twenty miles away know you have done so within the hour. There are some very, very nice people but quite how they maintain sanity is a mystery. I guess it is what you are used to and exactly the same is probably said about the job I do in the place I do it. Wellington still seems a million miles away, incidentally, even though I am now into the second half of the Africa leg.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

It is not all unfolding quite as I had envisaged, which is not to say that I am anything other than very content. Francois is allowing me to go with him wherever he goes and he has been brilliant at taking me roundabout routes in order to include points of interest. Francois, his Dad and his brother all have farms in the vicinity and we have visited all three at different stages in the past 48 hours.
The main job has been dismantling the steel frame of a large shed, 30mx10m in area and 8-15m high. The actual dismantlers are the farm ‘boys’. These are local African blokes, who work on the reserve as labourers with varying degrees of skill. The metal framework of the shed was held together by large bolts, all of which had to be cut using a steel cutter. Fine. Except the bloke doing the cutting was either perched at the top of a ladder being held by his mate or sitting astride a sloping 10 cm wide steel girder. Both positions were over 10m above ground level. No hard hats, no harnesses, no carabineers and in a gusty wind. Francois, plus the provider of the crane, along with the provider of the cutter and oxy-acetylene torch had important roles. This was to smoke several fags, offer technical advice, discuss the Springbok victory over England at the weekend, hoot with mirth at any joke and drive the trucks. All in Afrikaans. You can understand how much I had to offer to all this.
Francois knows everyone in the area, inevitably, and the dismantling company is run by a friend who is doing it on the cheap because Francois helped him out with his swimming pool construction a couple of weeks back. The shed has been a casualty of the new management ( too untidy an item to occupy any position on an exclusive game reserve ). Francois was asked if he could get rid of it. Providentially, his Dad needs a new shed for hay storage on his dairy farm. So the whole frame is being transported 5km to its new home tomorrow. Dad pays for the labour and transport and gets a shed for 25% of what he would otherwise have paid for it. Dad now owes Francois a favour. And so on.
There has also been the need to pump water into the water holes for the animals. It has been very dry for a while in the area. The pumps all work on diesel, which was running low. This necessitated a trip into Alexandria to fill the 15 litre cans. Alexandria is signposted all over the area from some distance away. I had visions of a thriving small town, at very least. Wrong. Crowthorne is bigger and has more shops. The only reason Alexandria was full of people was that it was the first day of the month and, therefore, pay had gone in the night before. The queues for cash machines stretched down the road. Francois says it will have been drunk by Christmas. He reckons ( HIV apart ) it is the most important factor holding the average black South African back from genuine improved living standards. He also remarked that the farm boys frequently turn up legless.
Perched on a ladder, with a metal cutter, with no safety attachment and banjaxed? Whilst I admire the skill, it doesn’t make for a long and happy retirement.