'Agree With Everything - Deny Nothing - Embellish All

If you've come here looking for pictures of a camp Roman soldier - click on this link

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Bright Lights Tonight

Even in Cumbria the northern night skies are no longer the jewelbox of childhood. Light pollution from Carlisle and the coastal towns swamps much of the starlight not already dowsed by the particulates that hang heavy in industrial skies. Here in the populous, over-developed north of the planet you look up and feel yourself solitary in the isolation of a lonely universe.
Down below, in the unpopulated oceanic vastness of the southern hemisphere, the night skies give an entirely different impression. Orion, shorn of his scabbard, sports an enthusiastic erection, a lover not a hunter. The Milky Way streams in incandescant profusion across the sky, and the Magellanic Clouds swarm with light. It's impossible not to feel a local part of so great a celestial network, and the most distant realities seem close enough to touch. Stargazing brings with it a wondrous sense of connection, and I'm looking forward to the next time I see the Southern Cross from a hillside in the Western Cape.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Alvin & Ziggy

There being no stars to gaze upon, we arranged a tour of the SALT on its plateau just out of town. The Renaissance Man will probably be blogging about the sheer mechanical engineering of the telescope's intricacies of design. For me the most startling parts of the tour were two exhibits in the visitors' centre exhibition which precedes sight of the telescope. On the floor in the corner of a gallery sits a large, twisted mass of nickel and iron: it's a meteorite, a navel-stone which fell to earth somewhere in the Karoo. Almost reluctantly, I touched it then tapped its surface with my knuckles. It rang metallic, deep and true. There was a cold frisson to this encounter, both a sense of wonder that I was touching something left over from the formation of our solar system and which had been present out there for thousands of millioons of years, but also a feeling that, for all the strange trajectories of its wanderings, I was the unregarded piece of stardust whose course had led me to a brief encounter with something that would endure till the Big Rip.
Round the corner from the meteorite was the cast of a skull, the blank-orbited heavy-browed Australopithecus Africanus, possible ancestor of Homo Sapiens, who was perhaps wandering across the veld when the lump of nickel was still out beyond Pluto. The hominid family tree is such that you and I cannot claim that this individual is a common ancestor, but certainly a very distant cousin, someone with whom we share DNA and perhaps some degree of humanity. It's probably impossible to think your way into the mind of another creature, however close, without the certainty of the shared artefacts of consciousness such as language and a sense of self. But after the coldness of the stone, I was struck by a forceful sense of the reality of the individual, the selfness, that had inhabited the bones and given them life. No doubt s/he had looked up at the stars which gave birth to the twisted nickel a few feet away from us, though what shape and meaning s/he had seen in their patterns I cannot imagine.

Monday, January 21, 2008

SALT & Lamb

The Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) sits atop a plateau in the Karoo about ten miles from Sutherland. The skies are, apparently, particularly clear here, though when we hit town to celebrate the Renaissance Man's birthday with a spot of stargazing low clouds stretched across the sky. We made up for our disappointment with a stay at Jorg's Kambrokind Guest House and dinner at Perlman's Restaurant.
Sutherland really is in the middle of nowhere, a one-street, one donkey-cart town 5000 feet up in the desert and a hundred kilomteres from the next one-horse, one-donkey-cart town. The graveyard records the dead of the Boer War and there's still a palpable feeling of outrage at the English occupation of the town's church in 1901.
And they'll probably still be discussing our dinner at Perlman's a century hence. The restaurant, whose hostess appears to be Judy Dench's separated-at-birth twin, is decorated with memorabilia of Swinging London and specialises in Karoo lamb. The evening was a roaring sucess, fuelled by an endless supply of Beyerskloof Pinotage and the lamp speciality - quite simply the most powerfully delicious I have tasted outside Cumbria. And it culminated in a prolonged singalong - led by the Renaissance Woman and enthusiastically supported by fellow-diners Dave The Astronomical Chancer, a former child prodigy bassoonist, and the president of the local chapter of the Afrikaaner Hell's Angels, who broke off from extolling the virtues of Pink Floyd to show us photographs of his Kawasaki 1300. Worryingly, these were kept in the part of his wallet other men reserve for pictures of wife and children. We went home late. Very late. We're still not sure how the proprietors will react the next time we turn up for dinner . . .

Windsor Castle Revisited

I had been struggling for some days with the eccentric opening hours of South Africa's public services. My goal: buy some stamps for postcards home. Clearly the government's stealth-oriented public service strategy was paying off, because it was the best part of a week before I found the PO in the tiny settlement of Sutherland (see other posts) open at the advertised time of 0800. The clerk duly sold me a strip of stamps. It was only when I was back on the street that I noticed their design, and across the space of fifty years felt an intense and utterly unexpected rapport. The stamps were commemoratives celebrating the history of the Union Castle Line with images of their ships from the 19th and 20th centuries. Two caught my attention: the Edinburgh Castle and RMS Windsor Castle. I have intense memories as a child of visting my father when his ship was in harbour at Southampton, Glasgow or Hull. The Union Castle Line was his employer, and for a while in the 1950s and 1960s, he captained the then Edinburgh Castle and the Windsor Castle.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Great Railway Theme Park

Prize for the oddest place visited in South Africa (& believe me the West Coast provides some serious competition for that title) undoubtedly goes to Maatjiesfontein, a wind-blown railway halt in the Karoo where the Johannesburg - Cape Town Blue Train stops. The 'town' is a single 200-yard street of rather grand Boer War era buildings which have been quaintly preserved in a run-down version of their original state and are manned by staff dressed in period costume and some rather unconvincing waxworks. It was as if we had stumbled onto the set of Young Winston and I half-expected Simon McCorkindale to charge down main street at the head of a squadron of cavalry irregulars.
The mayor wore a threadbare bowler hat and could have gone on as Oliver Hardy without rehearsal. For some reason he was very excited about an imminent 'lesbian night' the town was about to host. Or at least that's what we think he said. Quite what the economic reality of this bizarre theme park may be I cannot imagine, but perhaps the pink rand keeps it afloat.
But there was one really cherishable feature: the station waiting room houses an Aladdin's Cave of curiosities and wonders, the private collection of a deceased resident encompassing 19th Century agricultural equipment, Union Castle Line menus, Victorian surgical instruments and 1950s cine cameras. All thrown together without any concession to taxonomy or interpretation and in its own slightly mad way quite magnificent.

Wanted: Friendly Bombs Or Near Offer . . .

I am reposing amidst the rococco splendour of the Holiday Inn, Slough-Windsor. Should you ever find yourself similarly benighted, a word of advice regarding the room service lasagne: Avoid, Avoid, Avoid.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

I'm Too Sexy For This Shop

Marketing, South African style. If you ran a fly-blown, run-down, half-wrecked roadhouse in the middle of the Karoo desert, covered in graffiti, with old bras and knickers hanging from its rafters, and you wanted to ensure travellers stopped and bought a beer rather than accelerating rapidly away as soon as they caught sight of the place, what would you do? You'd change its name to Ronnie's Sex Shop, wouldn't you? People would be bound to stop, wouldn't they? And yes, we did stop, didn't we?

Friday, January 11, 2008

So Long - And Thanks For All The Photos

Draaihoek Beach at 6.00am is deserted (except for some kelp . . .). A soft wind blows in from the South Atlantic, and a gentle surf crashes onto the ramp of sand at my feet. Behind me, over the dunes, the sun has just risen, and the sand-flies cast long shadows. Southwards the beach disappears into the middle air: northwards the sandstone cliffs of Eland's Bay rise above the salt haze. Suddenly, a fin shows where a breaking wave curls into foam at its crest, and a dark body skims forward on the swell: a dolphin is surfing towards the shore.
A hundred yards out three more groups of dolphins are frolicing, turning their backs above the water; periodically one jumps clear of the sea. At this point my camera announces that its batteries are flat, so this blog's policy of crisp minimalism with respect to illustrations will be maintained. Later on a seal waddles along the beach before galumphing into the surf, swimming into a foot of water, taking a brief look back at the land, and then shooting with astonishing speed and grace along the line of breakers, its head and back breaking above the foam.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The New 30

We celebrated my birthday, the Renaissance Man, the Scouse Ambassador and me, by taking a hike - a beautiful 12-mile walk through the mountains north of Greyton on the so-called 'McGregor Trail'. That we did so at all is down to the determination of the Scouse Ambassador, whose walking takes no prisoners. The first two miles of trail had been washed away by recent floods and this meant much cutting through trackless undergrowth, fording and refording rivers, forcing ways through close thickets, all the while surrounded by the colourful wreckage of Greyton's public infrastructure: twenty-foot lengths of industrial tubing littered the riverbanks, which the Ambassador confidently identified as 'the town's water-main'. After a while we reached a distinct trail and we turned our faces to the hills, boldly going where no four-wheel-drive had gone recently. We ascended a snaking path into the Overberg leading to a hidden valley of luscious fynbos circled by the craggy redoubts of Table Mountain Sandstone which receded into the mist-wreathed peaks.
At first the Renaissance Man seemed beset by bandana-related fashion issues, but by the time we posed for delicious lamb sandwiches at Breakfast Rock he had recovered his characteristic disdain for haute couture. The trail led us through storm-gouged dongas (into which I stylishly fell headlong) and across stream-crossings choked with tree trunks, boulders and rubble, but the waterfalls were spectacular, enchanting torrents that plunged sixty feet through narrow rock-chutes into bottomless black pools. Then we ascended to the barrier at Galg along the remains of a road cut across a cliffside by Italian POWs in the 1940s. It was reassuring to note that their sense of style had not deserted the forced labourers as the road, rough-hewn blasted and precarious, was flanked by attractively cut decorative curbstones.
Then we descended to the steaming plains of McGregor, past rows of hives where bees feasted on fynbos blossoms and found, quite coincidentally, that we were passing Lords vineyard, a new winery whose Sauvignon Blanc has the authentic sharp fruit of the variety and whose Shiraz is as perfumed, smooth and supple as one could wish. After a conversation on the intricacies of vine-cultivation, the Cellar Manager drew some of his unreleased Pinot Noir from its cask for us. Altogether, rather a good way to turn 50.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

. . . Aliquid Novum

Stars upside down.
Toilets flushing wrong way round.
Any suggestions?

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Africa At Noon

Frozen mist curls around the margins of the ploughed fields. Across the lake the shades of departed Twisbies gibber and squeak. Outside, Dr Biswell is patiently chipping ice from the dashboard of the Hispano-Suiza. I depart for the southern hemisphere in an hour.

Trailhounds Roasting By An Open Fire

Ben The Trailhound would like it to be known that Christmas in the Deep North - long periods of idleness sprawled in front of a peat fire, punctuated by episodes of frantic activity chasing rough cats at the White Lodge - is probably the finest Christmas a trailhound could ever enjoy. Even his relations with Miss Kit have achieved an unexpected harmony . . .