Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Seed Pearls

Television programmes in the UK were a wondrous revelation to me as in SA I had been fed on a steady diet of Maya the Bee and American series imports.  I revelled in British humour which made more sense to me than much of what I had seen back in SA.  Now I was introduced to the joys of Monty Python, Lenny Henry, Rising Damp, and many many more.

While watching the gogglebox I wasn’t aware I was undergoing a subtle blossoming of character. This was never more evident than when I went off to university in Salford. This was by no means a straight forward journey. I had to go back to school at the age of 20 as all the documents charting my educational achievements at private school were lost at sea. No, that’s not a metaphor. They were stuck in a trunk on a freight ship heading for Canada.

I went back to school to do GCSEs then A’Levels. All it involved was reading, something I already loved doing.  And then writing a bit about what I was reading.  It was here I first got the opportunity to share my creative writing with people other than my parents. I wrote a short story about two boys living on a remote farm in South Africa.  They loved each other but there were several drawbacks, the first of those being one was black and the other white.

The private school I attended in SA was highly academic. I aced the English part of the entrance exam but barely scraped through the Maths. That and Science would always be my nemeses.  I just about passed my final exams and that only after a resit. But now I was in the UK and suddenly had the opportunity to try subjects I’d been urged to consider hobbies back in SA. I saw a glimmer in the deep and I dived.

I discovered I had an adventurous spirit I wasn’t even aware of. It had been lying dormant just waiting for the tiniest of nudges to assert itself. Suddenly I was going off on painting holidays in Perthshire, putting together poetry collections and writing, writing, writing.

GCSEs & A’ Levels in the UK gave me the opportunity to realise I was not the dunce I thought I was.  Suddenly other students were asking for my help. But what was more important – I knew how to help them. This I believe, was the start of my move towards teaching even though I didn’t realise it right there and then.

Teaching would in turn lead me to pursue my writing on a more full time basis. And while at university I was indoctrinated into the true ways of being a student, namely watching a minimum of 2 soaps a day, spending time in pubs, lying in bed till very late in the day (something I was never able to accomplish sadly) and learning about appropriate things to watch and read by fellow mature students.  They knew their stuff. Age definitely equals wisdom. They introduced me to the delights of Dr Who, Red Dwarf, Tad Williams, Douglas Adams, snooker, cheese boards, Belgian fruit beers…

I think you get the idea.

The pearls I found at school and university may have been tiny but the pile was steadily growing.  The smallest yet most significant pile of pearls are barely enough to shape into a bracelet. Luckily I’ve got very skinny wrists and those pearls would turn out to be diamonds in disguise.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Of Pearls & Wisdom

As an ex South African, before I can delve deep into the benefits of being integrated into British society, I have to consider this question: What has Britain given me besides the side effects of colonialism?

Here is the list of answers I came up with:

  • The Weather
  • Freedom of speech
  • A gateway to other countries
  • Dr Who – specifically David Tennant
  • Buses every 10, 12 or 20 minutes apart
  • The courage to be who I really wanted to be
  • Excellent period dramas on the Beeb & Channel 4
  • Terry Pratchett & a truck load of other favourite authors
  • Priceless friendships
  • My teaching career
  • My writing career
  • Argentine Tango
  • Lindy Hop

The main thing Britain has given me above all else is the ability to think on my feet.  This is crucial in the temperamental environment of the UK.  The first 10 years of my 3 decade stay in the UK was one of a seemingly perpetual winter – much like that of the Wall in Game Of Thrones if people need a visual clue. Thermal vests and leggings are now my bosom buddies. Sorry BFFs Bev, Chantal, Mands et al - I know you thought differently.

So it will come as no surprise that I value Thermal Underwear with vigour and rely on my ability to layer clothing.  It took many years of intensive study for me to perfect this particular art. Even now I sometimes get it wrong as it is an ever changeable thing with more to learn at each turn.

While at university in Salford I quickly learnt that walking at speed is a great way to stay warm. If this doesn’t work make sure you have a Macdonalds enroute so you can nip into their toilets and use the hand-dryers as hand-warmers. I still employ this technique to good effect now.

Bus Roulette was a game I devised one day when it was cold, wet and cold and wet. What this involves is taking any bus going vaguely in the direction you need just so you can get out of the cold and wet; then transferring onto another bus only when forced to do so. I also learnt the value of a back seat placed over the engine and why the top deck on a night bus is a no go area.

Discussing the weather is a national pastime and not to be dismissed as insignificant. It took me many years to understand it was part and parcel of my journey towards Britishness. I now make every effort to engage in a weather discussion with some hapless soul at least once a day.  So it is no accident this post consists mainly of just that. And I make no apology for it whatsoever.

But this ability to be at one with British weather is not the only thing I’ve gained from my 3 decades here.  To find out what else there is, you’ll have to take a peek at next week’s post.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Three Decades

30 years ago this month my family and I first set foot on British soil for the first time. Before that my only experience of Britain was through what I’d read in books, pictures in National Geographic features and shots of Big Ben or St Pauls in classic films like The Lady Killers. There was also a family photo of an aunt who, travelling through London on her way to Canada, spent some time in Trafalgar Square with the lions and pigeons.

This, in a capsule, embodied what I was expecting from London. At that point I had no idea about other geographical aspects of the UK other than that the Brontë Sisters hailed from Yorkshire, the creator of Sherlock Holmes was Scottish and Jane Austen lived in Bath for a while. They were all the names of places on an atlas and nothing more.

Little did I realise a visit to my mother’s London based sister would end up a lifelong British adventure involving going back to school at the age of 20, painting holidays in Perthshire, a university stint in Salford and then Manchester, culminating in a teaching and writing career in South East London.

But I’m rushing ahead. Let’s start at the very beginning…

Just off the banana boat
The very first thing which struck me as soon as the plane doors swung open was the cold. I stupidly assumed a UK August day would be much the same as a spring day in Johannesburg. As soon as our suitcases came off the conveyor belt we were digging out our thermals and extra cardigans. Thankfully my mother had the foresight to insist we pack these. For me, a Raynoids Syndrome sufferer, it was not a great deal of fun.

After recovering from my introduction to British weather I now had time to marvel at the fact white people cleaned streets here. I stared. How could I not. Then I was totally flummoxed that carrying a reusable shopping bag was an unheard of concept.  Not to mention people complained when they had to wait 10 minutes for a bus. My outspoken mother set them right in a loud voice dripping with scorn.

I fell in love with Woolworths and Marks & Spencer with equal passion and to this day mourn the loss of the former. On the streets of London I got hopelessly lost as I’d grown up in a city based around a grid system. Here streets turned and twisted all higgledy piggledly, designed to help you lose your way. My mother navigated by noting which side the moss grew on street lamps. Me, I just followed her. It was easier.  However, I instinctively understood the Underground system; so much so my father was convinced I must have been an Underground worker in a previous lifetime. That or a platform dwelling mouse.

But my South African brain, so accustomed to searing sunsets turning to star-spangled nights in the time it took to click your fingers was confused by the seemingly endless daylight of a UK August. To this day I still wonder at it.

Not long into our London visit it became apparent our family plans to use the city as a gateway to Canada were not going to materialise.  So here I am 30 years later clutching my British passport.  Am I now 100% British? Or is there still a Kleurling lurking beneath my seemingly British exterior? And what have I learnt to value along the way?

Join me during the course of my anniversary month to find out.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Only 5 books!

Before we left South Africa 30 years ago, my mother lobbed a grenade in my lap. I was allowed only 5 books in my hand luggage.  No that’s not a typo. How on earth was I going to curate my extensive collection gathered since I first learnt to read?

She then reminded me that where ever we’d end up in the world there’d always be a library nearby. This was small comfort as books are and always will be my only security blanket. Would 5 be enough to temporarily wrap me from neck to toe? I had my doubts. I mean, I know those pages have heaps of thermal properties but … My choices would need to cover as many of my needs as possible. So I agonised for weeks and finally decided on the following books to sustain me while I endured the wait to cross library thresholds in the Promised Land:

FIVE: With One Voice – A Hymn book for all the churches (filched from school on my last day – SORRY!)

A strange one to be sure. But you need to understand why this book was part of my collection. It was the hymnal at my secondary school, St Barnabas College. While my singing skills are none existent – no, I’m not exaggerating – I loved the exuberant singing in school chapel every day. Two of my favourites to this very day are The Lord of The Dance and The Prayer of St Francis. The end of term hymn however, was always Onward Christian Soldiers and trust me, when sung by a group of students fully aware their holiday is moments away – it is a pretty rousing affair.

FOUR: The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley (a book I seem to have owned since forever – it has my name written in it by my mother, wonderful penmanship. They knew how to scribe in days of yore.)

I can’t even remember when I first got this book. It’s a hardback abridged copy from 1974 and is in a rather sorry state. The pages have turned a sort of ochre colour. My absolute favourite thing about this book is the vibrant front cover of a little boy riding on the back of a perch.  When I flick through the pages, the scent of childhood wafts past my nostrils. It’s sweet and intangible but lingers endlessly.  This book goes back to the days when you didn’t even need a blurb to sell a book. You simply told the world it was a classic and that was that.

THREE: The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran (I’m on my 4th copy of this book because I let people borrow it.  They never return it. Can’t think why.)

This book is marvellous in so many ways it ridiculous to try and name them. I’ve turned to it for solace and advice more times than I can mention, including when my mum died and later when my dad did too.

TWO: Dr From Lhasa by T Lobsang Rampa (My copy is more bedraggled than The Water Babies. It doesn’t even have a cover. It seems sacrilegious to buy a new one.)

In our house back then there was no division between children’s and adults’ books. My parents put no restrictions on what I read at all. No doubt I picked up this book after I’d finished a large pile of library books. It was my introduction to karma, astral projection and all things psychic.  It is without a doubt the reason I often add many of these elements into my own writing. The tattered, aged and aromatic pages of this book are all the inspiration I need to get my writing juices flowing.

ONE: The Lord of the Rings by RR Tolkien (The entire trilogy in one tome of fabulous Fantasy goodness. This is in fact my 2nd copy because a certain Ashley Augustus borrowed the first and did not treat it very well. Shame on you Ashley!)

The main reason this is at number 1 is because it was the book which first introduced me to Fantasy, one of my all-time favourite genres. That however is not the only reason it’s top of the chart. A national newspaper was running a competition in which readers had to submit a drawing of what they thought a hobbit looked like using the description from the book. My mother’s drawing, together with my creative input, won 3rd prize. After receiving this mighty tome my mother then solemnly placed it into my hands, thereby sealing the fate of my reading tastes forever.

I've only chosen to show 3 of the 5 books I was allowed as Lord of the Rings is
so damned chunky and would have taken up the majority of the picture, while
the state of Dr From Lhasa would have my book owning licence revoked.

I'm slowly getting over the trauma the 5 book event caused and was lucky enough to find several superb libraries along the way to pull me through, one of them in particular - Carnegie Library in Herne Hill. If however, heaven forbid, you were only allowed 5 books to keep and treasure forever, which would they be and why?

Friday, 28 July 2017

#Review: Pyramids

Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

While reading a Pratchett I usually feel that I’m part of a group of people enjoying an in-joke. In the case of this book however, I constantly felt I was missing the joke.

At the start of the read I kept waiting for something to happen. While I got a lovely insight into how the Assassins’ Guild is run and conducts its final examination, I was left rather baffled as to where all this was leading.

The first 250 pages seem steeped in great sadness. I could not shake this feeling, especially when reading sections about High Priest Dios as he desperately clings on to power through the manipulation of time and aging.

I came away from the remainder of the hero’s wanderings through the desert and other dimensions parched and in desperate need of a waterhole. I struggled to finish this one. Overall I was left feeling hollow, like one of those doughnuts with the hole in the middle. So I’m very glad I’ve got Guards! Guards! to move on to as I’ve been told it’s epic.

Friday, 21 July 2017

#Review: Wyrd Sisters

Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett

The murder of the King of Lancre is the opening for this Pratchett offering and sets the scene for the tyranny and intrigue to follow.  Pratchett playfully refigures the plot of Macbeth to give us the story of how a country ruled by a tyrant chooses to rebel. It’s not pretty, with the usual majority blaming whomever the ‘media’ decides is to blame. And for this particular scenario, the witches come under the cosh.

Naturally the witches are forced to fight back in the manner which only a Pratchett creation can. As usual, he is able to highlight the flaws in society and how people turn on each other at the slightest provocation. The book also focuses on feelings of frustration due to powerlessness in a given situation. How well I know that particular emotion.

The book also emphasises how words can have a power which we dismiss too easily. But that very power affects more than one person and has a terrifying domino effect. I was amused by the segments showing a playwright wrestling with inspiration and lost count of the number of literary references tweaked in Pratchett’s inimitable way.

But what stayed with me the most was the message that in order to be happy we have to do that one thing we most enjoy.  I heartily concur.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Music & Me

I grew up listening to Rock & Roll, Soul and Rhythm & Blues with a hefty dose of Disco and Easy Listening thrown in for good measure. Saturday and Sunday afternoons our house was often full of the strains of Elvis, Nat King Cole, The Blue Notes etc. Every once in a while furniture was pushed against the wall and we danced.

I never sang. My dad was the singer, with a voice to equal that of a choir of angels. My mother sang off key and so did I. Many years ago I was told I’m tone deaf. This put me off singing completely, unless of course I’m totally alone, singing in the car or in the bath. I’m an occasional hummer and a mouther of words but no actual sound makes it out from between my lips.

So I grew up with the firm belief music, for me, was restricted to one thing and one thing only – DANCING.

I didn’t come to classical music till quite late in my life. It wasn’t till I started competitive ice skating around age 12 that I got my first taste of mainly instrumental music. I had a vague idea of what opera was. My thoughts ran mostly to screechy sounding women. Beyond my introduction to classical music through the albums of Richard Clayderman  and film scores, I didn’t know my Bach from my Mozart or my Schumann from my Strauss.

My ‘lessons’ in classical music didn’t truly begin until I was about 18 when my mother and I had an almighty row and I moved in at Wilgerspruit Fellowship Centre with The White family to save the sanity of all involved.  Mr White was an Anglican priest. He and I shared one thing in common. We were both very early risers. So from time to time we’d drink a cup of tea and chat before he went into his office to start work for the day. Inevitably strains of classical music emanated from his office. I found it incredibly soothing, sitting in a room nearby reading, writing or drawing. One day I became so enthralled by a piece of music I was forced to leave my book, interrupt his work and ask him what the piece of music was called.

It was Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor. And to this day I still find it the most haunting and beautiful of melodies. Now, if you've never heard it before, STOP and listen to this incredible piece of music. 

Mr White realised I was hungry for more so he did something rather wonderful. He gave me full access to his office, records and portable player whenever he was not using it. Thus began mornings of incredible delight and wonder as I discovered a new range of music I liked or didn’t like. I also realised that when I wanted to concentrate intensely, there was nothing better than the strains of a classical piece in the background to sink me deep into whichever task I was undertaking. So I began the practise of writing or drawing accompanied by pieces which were settling in my mind as firm favourites.

When I moved to the UK little did I know I was about to meet someone who would take my newly burgeoning love of classical music up a notch further. This person was my wonderful friend Barbara Hartridge who I met on a writing holiday in Skyros.  After the holiday Barbara invited me to her house for tea and cake. It transpired she was a music teacher. With her I went to my first ever live classical concert. And I had thought it was great listening to it on scratchy records.  I certainly didn’t have a single clue did I?

I don’t listen to classical as regularly as I once did. Music related to my dancing more often than not fills the house as I practice steps. However, during periods of stress, or when I take a long bath, classical is still my number 1 go to. I am forever grateful to Mr White for trusting me with his classical albums and introducing me to this wonderful musical genre which continues to give me the most enormous pleasure.