It was a blessed relief when the unseasonal (and extremely unsettling) hot, dry berg winds in August were followed by cold, luscious and incessant rain in early September. Everywhere shoots are shooting and buds are budding, which creates a wonderful air of anticipation. We just need some warm weather and the sunshine, when it comes, will be the match that lights the fuse of nature’s firecracker. By all accounts, we’re in for a spectacular spring show.
So, I was quite excited to hear that one of my favourite nurseries, Glenbella, was holding a spring plant sale at Linga Lapa last weekend. We got there bright and early on Saturday morning and were surprised to find quite a crowd already there, given that it was such a cold and wet day. Obviously it takes more than a bit of inclement weather to deter keen gardeners from a bargain. I went armed with my tree bible: Making the Most of Indigenous Trees by Fanie & Julye-Ann Venter. However I didn’t need to refer to it because Barry, the owner of Glenbella Nursery, is a fountain of knowledge regarding the trees that grow in this area, and there were also plenty of local gardeners willing to share their experience. It was a lot of fun comparing notes and sharing tales of horticultural exploits, and I landed up buying a shitload of plants. After loading my little “Postman Pat” van up to the hilt, Peter and I retired to the very hospitable Linga Lapa restaurant for breakfast and an excellent cappuccino in front of a warm fire.
Even though people are so much more friendly here in the country, it has proved to be quite difficult to make new friends. It’s not unusual to strike up conversations with complete strangers and before long find that you are on first name terms. For instance, after the plant sale, one of the other bargain hunters joined us for breakfast and we spent a really pleasant morning nattering about this and that. What I need to work out now is how one makes the leap from being friendly to being friends? It seems to have been a lot easier when we were younger. Maybe it was because we were more spontaneous and more active in the world, and it was inevitable that we would meet people who shared common interests and worldviews.
Anyway, I am conscious of the fact that we run the risk of becoming rather socially isolated here. Geographically we are somewhat remote and we haven’t yet found our niche in the area. There are times when I really miss the company of old friends, people who know us and share a history with us. Sometimes, I have such an urge to call someone up and suggest meeting for coffee and a good old chinwag, but I don’t know anyone well enough locally to do that. It makes me feel rather lonely, I have to confess.
So it is no surprise then that one of the highlights of living in the country is when friends and family visit. This weekend Peter’s brother, Richard, and his wife Debbie, came to stay with us so that we could attend the Hilton Arts Festival together. We managed to cram a year’s worth of culture into two days, what a treat, exhausting but bloody marvellous. Our programme was perfectly varied: comedy, theatre, classical and contemporary music. And in between shows, we managed to consume a fair amount of food and wine and catch up on all the news.
We were thoroughly entertained by a very talented and wickedly funny ventriloquist called Paul Zerdin. I haven’t laughed so much in a long time. The theatre was also brilliant. One of the plays we saw was called Venus in Fur, well-scripted and brilliantly acted I thought. It’s about a writer/director of a new play (which is based on a classic erotic novel which inspired the term Masochism), who is auditioning actresses for the lead character. Just as he has given up hope of finding someone suitable, a new actress bursts in, the antithesis of what he is looking for. She appears to be crude, desperate and ignorant. Yet during the course of the audition, the balance of power shifts as the actress establishes total domination over the director, which is exactly what happens in the novel. Quite fascinating and very clever!
The other play that we went to, for old times’ sake, was Boesman and Lena by Athol Fugard. Peter saw the original play with Fugard (the playwright) as Boesman and Yvonne Bryceland as Lena way back in 1969, when it premiered. I saw it a few years later. It is set on the bleak mudflats of the Swartkops River on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth (my hometown). When I first saw the play, of course it was during the dark days of apartheid, and the play was a brave, hard-hitting social commentary on the destructive effects of apartheid. This time round it was Lena’s sense of displacement that moved me to tears. The play starts with Boesman and Lena just having trudged into Swartkops, after their pondok (shack) in Korsten was torn down by white men with bulldozers who demolished their settlement to drive them further away from the white areas.
Lena, her mind garbled by drink and by years of instability and hardship, struggles to piece together the trajectory that has brought her to this place. She chants out the names of the places that they have been together–Redhouse, Veeplaas, Bethelsdorp, Missionvale, Kleinskool, Coegakop, Swartkops, Korsten–trying to get them in order. If only she can get them in order, perhaps she can understand how she has gotten to this point in her life, literally and psychologically, to this state in their miserable relationship. But Boesman will not help her out. He will give her nothing, except a place beside him in the shack that he constructs out of refuse as she prattles on and on.
In the end Lena finally forces Boesman to confront himself and what he has become. And in an unexpected act of kindness–grudging but genuine–he gives her what she has longed for, the correct order of their various abodes, points on the map of their life together, the shared tragedy of how they got from the sun-drenched then to the dark and dismal now: Coega to Veeplaas. Veeplaas to Redhouse. On Baas Robbie’s place. Redhouse to Missionvale…I worked on the saltplains. Missionvale to Bethelsdorp. Back again to Redhouse…that’s where the child died. Then to Kleinskool. Kleinskool to Veeplaas. Veeplaas to here. First time. After that, Redhouse, Baas Robbie was dead, Bethelsdorp, Korsten, Veeplaas, back here the second time. Then Missionvale again, Veeplaas, Korsten, and then here, now.
Lena responds by saying “that’s how I got here, but it still doesn’t explain it” or words to that effect. An especially heartrending moment comes when Lena recalls “meeting the memory of my old self along the roads,” as she puts it.
If I found Boesman and Lena emotional draining, the music lifted my spirits. We went to see Tony Cox and thoroughly enjoyed his laid back show called Well and Truly Plucked (he’s an acoustic guitarist). During the performance he told a story about going to see a movie in his teens and being struck by the theme tune, which was actually the only cover that he did that evening. He spoke about buying the sheet music in order to learn how to play it on his guitar and how difficult it was. He asked the audience if they knew what movie it was from and it seemed that I was the only person who knew the name of the movie. It was Hatari and the song was Baby Elephant Walk and the only reason I knew that was because I too as a teenager had bought the sheet music (from Michael’s Record Bar in Port Elizabeth) so that I could learn how to play it on the piano.Tony Cox and I must be of an age!
We also went to listen to some great classical music, with Christopher Duigan (piano), James Grace (guitar), Beverley Chiat (Cape Town-based soprano), Maxine Matthews (saxophone), Sabine Baird (principal flute of the KZNPO) and Nigel Fish (cello). One of the pieces they played for saxophone was composed by a young South African composer, Richard Guinness. It’s called Umbumbulu and it was just sublime.
Our new front stoep.