Neil Coppen

writings/ plays/ poetry/musings/travel journals and newspaper columns

SMOTHERING

October30

“She’s dead”, wails Elaine into the telephone
“What?” replies Catherine, all mock shock and horror
“Rosy,” she blubs uncontrollably, ‘Rosy’
“Dead?”
“Yes” her mother sobs “dead, dead, dead.’

Though she pretends to be, Catherine is hardly surprised at the news. Sadly she has anticipated or rather dreaded a call of this nature for some time. If anything, she is amazed it has taken so long. What chance did the poor creature have beneath her mothers suffocating wing? She is all too aware that such forms of kindness though carried out with the best of intentions are just another form of thinly disguised obsession- love suffused with paranoia. Recently Catherine has come to the understanding that each successive generation of a family is akin to a marathon runner, forwarding a baton grasped and passed down by the sweaty palm of history. That we are all somehow selected as haulers of our ancestor’s luggage, is something her sister Linda can confirm only she wryly suggests the replacement of the word ‘luggage’ with the more cumbersome synonym ‘baggage’. Both Catherine and Linda can remember their grandmother Olive as an even more harrowed version of their mother. An eighty -three year old who used to watch over them both with an oppressive intensity. It was only in later years that they discovered Granny Olive first child had drowned in a swimming pool which went a long way in explaining her obsession with filling family swimming pools with concrete and never permitting her grandchildren to leave the asylum of their padded play rooms.

Elaine is now a retired radio actress. The collapse of Springbok Radio years back has left her destitute, seeking solace in the act and art of useless recollection. Here the glory days are recalled in their every excruciating detail. Incited by a few glassed of wine at dinner parties, Elaine had been known to clear whole rooms with her laborious reminiscing. Now all that remains is a shelf of rusty awards, some stretched cassette tapes and an ailing memory through which to recall them. The cat used to help her to forget, the cat used to momentarily distract her from the trappings of such debilitating nostalgia. Now that the cat had gone, her daughters understandably fear the worst.

On hanging up the phone to her mother, Catherine is thankful it is the cat’s life and not hers; she has made it out alive. The lucky one then, her late father’s (an accountants) child: rational, practical, uncomplicated. One might call Catherine colorless and dour for the legacy of her father’s placidity but she does not mind, no rather she remains extremely grateful. Her elder sister Linda has survived the ordeal that is their upbringing less scathed. One might say that biology has dealt her the cruel hand: the inheritance of her mother’s unstable and loose fitting genes. Upon leaving high school she has subsequently lead a life of rebellion and defiance: flunking varsity, dabbling in narcotics and finally, much to the horror of her mother, falling pregnant with her Tantric instructor’s child. Linda’s current hard forged equanimity comes in the form of new age therapy (Elaine the centre of her visualizations, as the bull’s eye might be to the dart board.) Linda finds solace in these alternative forms of healing: ritual cleansing, moon dancing, crystal rubbing. Sordid sounding acts of redemption as her mother once called them ‘The type of phyco- cults that end up with everyone having sex in Teepees.’

Still Elaine can’t contain her curiosity, her meddling, she must investigate, pry- she must attend one of these weekend therapy sessions to know for sure. Linda agrees, reluctantly at first -She prefers the absolute minimum of contact with her mother but later she comes to embrace the idea: its high time mother and daughter confront their demons out in the wilderness.

So together they head off to Hermanus. Things go well on the first day. Elaine appears relaxed, partakes in the discussions, gathers sacred eagle fathers, even joins in the group hug. Linda is pleasantly surprised, briefly wonders whether her mother has achieved the impossible, mellowed out in her old age. The evening is less of a success. Elaine is taking a shower when the team leader Chris enters and begins showering alongside her. Of course Linda has conveniently failed to mention that the weekend involves bouts of communal showering. Elaine has not been naked in the presence of a man for over twenty years, she is horrified. While the man chats nonchalantly she makes every possible effort to conceal her breasts. Her heaps of withered exposed flesh.

“So how you finding the course Mrs T?” he asks sweetly
‘Oh fine,’ she stammers, ‘just fine’
Now eyeballing the ablution exit, the man smiling back at her with one hand innocently soaping his groin. She doesn’t know where to put her eyes, thanks god shampoo is running into them. She gropes for the nearest towel, gropes the man by mistake. The rest of the evening is spent horizontal back in the tent ,hyper ventilating. She refuses to elaborate to Elaine of the horror that was the shower. She packs her bags, leaving at first light, her suspicions confirmed.

Now back home in Durban, with her two daughters flown or rather fled to Cape Town from the nest, Elaine is left with only the cat to torment. Ever since her husbands passing she has threatened to relocate, a suggestion to which both Linda and Catherine have unanimously but politely vetoed. Catherine (the laat lametjie) and last to take the long walk to freedom, leaves her mother a farewell gift upon her departure- a sacrifice. A cat to ease the attentions, the intrusions she will attempt to wreak upon their adult lives. It has helped, a little. Though she still phones twice a day, at least now the conversation revolves around the ailing feline rather than interrogations into her and her sister’s private lives.

But now that the cat is no dead, what now? Linda suggests an Iguana as she’s heard they live forever. But she just as promptly retracts her comment claiming that nothing, not even the resilience of Iguanas’ might outlast their mother’s insufferable affections. Both sisters’ fear the worst. Now that their mother has poisoned the cat’s system with antibiotics it did not need, fed it more then it could hope to digest: Woolies ostrich meat, fresh tuna, full cream milk. Yes it was kindness but kindness tainted by cunning. ‘Immobility,’ quips Linda ‘her way of ensuring captivity.’ They can do nothing but empathise, with the cat rather than their mother. A majority of their childhood had been spent in doctors’ waiting rooms; grazed knees the cause for comprehensive X- rays. They were the only children in school to have never missed a day, sadly not out of choice but necessity. Rather hide their measles, cough discreetly into pillows, then arouse the attention of their mothers hyper reactive imagination.

For the cat it has been no different: each fatty lump- a burgeoning tumor, each meow - a cry of agony. Till eventually it had relented and turned belly up. Linda claims it was suicide, after all what chance did the poor thing stand? It couldn’t just get on a plane to Cape Town, screen phone calls- this was its only way out. The vet however rather considerately cites old age as the cause but Elaine is not so easily duped: the cat was barley three years old! Dissatisfied she decides she must get the bottom of it, scour the internet for alternative explanations eventually settling on a website that subscribes a rare human disease, passed from owner to animal. Now she must prove that she is the carrier, the culprit- the cat killer. She wracks up exorbitant medical bills going for tests. Second, third, forth opinions all arrive with the same answer: No, she does not carry the disease, the disease is in fact a cyber space speculation to which there is no founding medical basis.

Once again she turns her torment toward the long suffering Veterinarian
‘I want to know,” she demands “I want to know what killed my Rosy, and don’t give me that old age nonsense”.
He is apprehensive. He has had the misfortune of dealing with a grieving Mrs Thomas before. The last time however involved a manic depressive parakeet, the same parakeet which Rosy, the cat had promptly put out of its misery by devouring.
He fidgets with his pen.
“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea Mrs Thomas” he assures her, but she persists
‘I can handle it, help me to put her to rest for once and for all”
A nervous silence ensues, he clears his throat.
“It was a break down.’
‘I beg your pardon’ says Elaine, hand pressed to heart, her face the perfect portrait of despair.
‘Your Rosy died of a nervous breakdown Mrs Thomas.”

Naturally she is distraught, devastated. So much so that the vet and his assistant have to carry her to her car. Bed ridden, breaking out in cold sweats, intoxicated with grief, Elaine resolves to fill her days with ‘woe is me’ weeping, self flagellation. Adorn her walls with the felines portrait. Gold plaques: In loving memory of. She will let the guilt manifest, knot, rot at her from the inside. ‘I will die in bed’ she concedes, ‘Yes die of a heavy broken heart.’

Weeks pass, numb on mypradol, she passes the days watching damp stains forming on the ceiling. Until a revelation, sign- If anything that dreaded weekend away in Hermanus was useful in learning how to identify these cosmic indicators. She has read ‘The Alchemist’ under Linda’s recommendations, she has learnt all about omens and their significance. She must turn this into a positive, yes a positive, interpret Rosy’s untimely passing to be a cryptic blessing. She must pack up her bags, her life, book a ticket- relocate to Cape Town. Old age better spent in the company of her needy daughters.

Gary Thomas

October23

When I first lay on my bed and slipped in the Jeff Buckley-Live at Sine CD, I found myself submerged in something inexplicable, profound. Yes this was genius, I understood the word and for the first time I could place a sound alongside it. Not refined, produced, tampered with by the machine. Here was Buckley a dead man, live, living, breathing, wailing in my bedroom. Immortal Buckley, one man and his guitar, the sounds of clinking glasses from the bar, casual chatter littering the track. An exiled Lucifer lamenting for a lost paradise, angels powerless against the seduction. Fingers bled on strings.

This is how I come to Gary Thomas- a born bred now living in Cape Town Durbanite-a man who I would go as far to say is master in our midst. There is no niche, no market he panders to. Thankfully his music is far to complex to find its way to mainstream radio stations, the backgrounds of coffee shops and dinner parties. This is music that demands attention. Preferably a dark room, silence, hell a joint if you up for it. To listen is to be lost, transported, shaken. A musician who side steps the futile pursuits of ‘adoration’ rather and wisely so, seeking ‘appreciation’. This is craft, he is a craftsman not a rock star (the world has enough of those)

Thomas is a music addict, a compulsive listener but it’s to his credit that none of the songs are derivative, references only detectable through homage. Once thrown in the Gary blender a sound arises unlike anything one has heard before. One of the rarest things to find, let alone create- a new sound, a sound unlike all the others.

I imagine ‘twenty something’s’ in the future uncovering this early recording. Perhaps Gary is touring the world by now, has several albums under his belt, but this, this one- these mythical, unobtainable Kalk Bay sessions (the signed copies sell for millions on E-bay) the ones that came before the producing giants, the record label vultures swooped in. Before international recognition, acclaim, stardom. Before all that. When life was simple and Thomas was scraping by- an unsuspecting loafer with a supernatural gift.

I imagine one of these twenty something’s shifting through his dad’s old CD collection, pulling out this CD, slipping it in the player, lying back on his bed, eyes closed. What occurs takes the form of revelation. He finds himself drowning, battles to breathe, only once the CD ends does he swim to the surface- gasping. Blessed, now he will not settle for anything less. Anything less is a compromise. He throws out the kak he has been listening to in the past. A bar has been raised, the standard set.

I look forward to the day I can say ‘I told you so”. To own this album is to own a (minor/major- time will tell) piece of history. Not just a necessity then but a wise investment.

EWOK’S ODDESSY

October23

Interview with MC- Iain Robinson about his show “SpitFire’

Iain Robinson aka Ewok Baggends asks a lot of questions. He opens our interview with a question. ‘I want to know,’ he smirks ‘why, when I’ve launched two successful shows, am getting an anthology of my poetry published this year by Echoing Green, releasing a solo album ‘Higher Flier for Hire’ in conjunction with Ruffinery records and in the coming months taking part in a major Graffiti art exhibition in Kimberly. Why, with all these things on the go, can I still not cover my monthly rent?’

Anyone present at the recent Musho festival to witness Robinson’s new piece ‘Spitfire’ would no doubt find it difficult question to answer. It’s a testimony to his talents’ that despite the broken air conditioner, the sweltering mid January heat, Robinsons audience barely paused to breathe, let alone fidget or fan themselves with festival programs. To watch Robinson perform, is to watch a man in command, in charge- possessed. No discomfort index can take that away from him To bare witness to such a force, is to be shaken, devastated, enlightened, elated.

Daily News critic Gisele Turner nailed it when she labeled him ‘A dangerous talent’ –‘No mealie mouthed sex boy rubbing himself up against bad boy pleasures, but a passionate voice hitched to a genuine conscience. Robinson will change opinions, form new thought patterns , mission in trackless jungles, forge treaties with fiery lashings of his tongue and the innocence of his truth.’

There should be no reason why such a talent is not gracing international stages, being snapped up by hot shot publishers, playing to packed theatres’ across the globe! Robinson has worked hard enough to be tackling bigger issues, raising questions more pressing then those concerning his monthly rent. It’s not that he’s complaining, rather, understandably, remains a little bemused.

This is after all a passion he’s been nurturing for some time. ‘In the early days at school I just wanted to rhyme, to rap.’ he explains ‘Poetry Africa’ were the first people in this town to turn around to me and invite me to perform under the banner of poet. With that title came a whole new understanding ,a responsibility behind what I was saying.’

It’s an art form Robinson claims his to have existed since time immemorial. ‘What I do is connected to something that goes beyond the written word’ he says ‘When they talk about the Minstrels and Greek story tellers, the guys that memorized and told their societies histories. This has been something that has been around for centuries. The spoken word artists, the poets, the M.C’s they’re still fulfilling those roles. They are the speakers for the people, trying to translate what’s going on in the world, commenting on a changing society and recording a new history.’

I mention that I found ‘Spitfire’ to be a much rawer, edgier piece then its predecessor ‘One Mind, One Mouth ,One Microphone’. Where as before Robinson was brimming with an exuberant optimism for South Africa, the world around him, ‘Spitfire’ features him asking dangerous questions, wrestling bigger issues, unearthing frustrations only touched on previously.

‘These shows are a natural evolution for me. I’m learning with each one. ‘One Mind’ focused on the Hip –Hop aspect of what I do. There’s a lot of misconceptions surrounding Hip- Hop. So Libby Allen (Robinson’s director) and I used the first show to dispel certain myths surrounding the genre. Bring people closer to where we eventually wanted to go with it.’

Using ‘One Mind’ as a type of Hip- Hop 101 instilled in Robinson and his director Allen, the confidence to push further boundaries. With ‘Spitfire’ he seldom relies on the microphone (a permanent feature in the last) or those impressive ‘wicky wicky’ vocal tricks, rather Robinson and his director trust implicitly in their material- the dexterity and weight of his finely tuned and rapidly fired words. Gone is the baggy hoody, any remnants of bling or artifice. The MC Guise now relinquished to reveal a sublimely talented and assured young poet. ‘Spitfire’ tells it like it is.

‘I have grown more confident to trust the words and not just the medium’ Robinson explains. ‘The poet is more the everyman while the MC from the first show was the showman. This is the natural evolution of what I’m doing.’

Which is not to say ‘Spitfire’ sacrifices the theatricality that Robison and Allen’s collaborations have become renowned for. If anything , Robinson’s pieces are distinctive in their blurring of boundaries, fusing of genres, uniting and appealing to both hip hop and theatre audiences.

‘There’s definitely a theatricality to it.’ he explains ‘You have to be sensitive to the fact that not many people can sit and listen to someone slamming or talking for an hour. With ‘Spitfire’ Libby and I took our cue from comic books. It’s an alter ego thing as Clark Kent is to Superman , Bruce Wayne to Batman , the hustler character is to the poet ‘Spitfire’. The hustler character is trying to understand what his purpose is, trying to make sense of the world, finding that idea worth selling. No one should be allowed to just pick up a microphone, they must first learn to understand the responsibility that comes with that.’

No stranger to the local theatre scene, Robinson has appeared in productions ranging from the annual Actor’s Co -Op Shakespeare set work (Macbeth, King Lear) to the Playhouse Company’s festive season musical ‘My Fair Lady’.

‘My Fair Lady?’ I laugh, ‘I never thought I would see the day- M.C extraordinaire- Ewok Baggends, box steps his way through a Learner Lowe musical!’

‘That’s the beauty of this town,’ he grins ‘Durban forces one to diversify to survive-as a result you end up having more extreme experiences then you would usually have. This helps in the merging of my styles .Durban is a ‘live’ city, everything here hinges on live performance. Being on so many different stages allows for a pretty holistic training and you ultimately end up bringing all those influences back to your craft.

When I mention the word activism in ‘Spitfire’, Robinson looks slightly perplexed. When do we stop saying and start doing? Practicing what we preach? What are the responsibilities that come with spitting fire?

‘This is a constant question for me.’ he replies ‘I’m standing up there and saying all these things but what am I actually doing about it? My dilemma at the moment is that I don’t have all the answers to these questions I’m asking. I’m too caught up in thinking about the questions. That’s all I can do right now. There’s a definite frustration of not been able to solve or answer things. It’s something Libby cautioned me about –using clever words to disguise one’s own apathy. In the shows I don’t pretend to know all the answers. As I develop it, grow it, it will become clearer. I can start sharpening my delivery to a needle point. Right now It might seem that I’m smacking people on the head to give them a jolt but hopefully by the third show it’s going to be honed to the point of a hypodermic needle to the vein.’

So what keeps such a talent fighting the good fight in what many deem the artistic backwaters of the country? Had Robinson taken his talents to Jozi, there is no question they would have been promptly snapped up, wrapped up and released to the hip hopping masses.

‘Fame like that feeds you, you can escape yourself through that shit.’ he says ‘You have to ask yourself what is it you really looking for when you do this stuff? I have no ambition to be the next Eminem. Just because I connect with this culture doesn’t mean I have to champion the stereotypes surrounding it. I’m on the edge of making what I do live. I can feel that potential here in Durban. I’ve tasted the possibilities, that’s got me locked into working out how to make it work.’

Despite the general lack of funding and support, Robinson remains upbeat toward his home town. ‘Durban,’ he sighs ‘It’s a factory man, it produces some of the most insane talent but local talents need to learn how to create their own opportunities. This generation is a pioneering one. The foundation has been laid. It’s up to us to keep building. In my opinion there’s not even a first story to this house we building. So far no one has been willing to take the risks to go higher. Still no ones prepared to build something worth living in.’

Once again attempting to find answers leads us back to the big question. ‘So what’s the answer ?’ I ask, and for once it seems Robinson might just have one. He explains the negations underway with Themi Ventures to turn the Kwa-Suka into an independent music, film and theatre venue.

‘Take somewhere like Bean Bag Bohemia,’ he says ‘cross it with an independent cinema and theatre and put it one place. It’s a place where fresh ideas will get generated, where there’s an influx of new shit happening all the time. Its cutting edge and by that, I don’t mean people walking on stage and shitting in a jar. We want audiences to be able to turn around, and say I saw the beginning of that. I was present at the birth of that work, or that talent, before it rocked the world. We want to put an end to this idea that local audiences should feel obliged to support young artists and new work.’ It’s a case of ‘must see’ over ‘charity’.

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The Selective Memory of National Pride

October23

No one wants to shit on the Springboks parade. Only cynical idiots might dare to do such a thing at such a time and thereby risk the wrath of a nation (or rather national minority). Yes it is a welcome victory, in my limited understanding of the Game-a well fought or mauled one. However no blood, testosterone and tears, no Boerewors bravado can conceal the discrepancies that arise when the Sunday Tribune prints the front page title ‘WE DID IT’ above picture of the glowing Bok’s and opportunistic Mbeki. A collective all inclusive pronoun, ‘OUR’ united nation, yes ‘WE’ (supposedly) collectively did it.

There is nothing in itself wrong with ‘WE’: the combined support of fans, the tenacity and skill of the Boks’ through four years of trail and tribulation, no doubt all contribute and culminate in much deserved victory. Where ‘We’ and the ultimately useless ideology of national association and pride come into play is that if ‘WE’ as a nation are accepting responsibility for a South Africa’s victories (Hence elevating its president on their shoulders) then so to must WE ‘face up’ and associate ourselves with its losses, its blunders, it multitude of cock up’s.

Boring! You yawn and turn the page. Well try turn the same page of the newspaper-see the glaring image of tragically slain reggae icon Lucky Dube. Try put the title ‘We did it’ over that. No rather ‘THEY’ did it. ‘THEY’ of course being the government, the criminals, the destitute, the down trodden- the everyone else- the others, no not ‘I’ and most certainly not “WE!’. This can be applied to just about every other article that expounds on about the deceit, corruption, avarice of our ailing nation. And yes ‘WE’ deserve the transitory escapism of the moment. Admittedly ‘glory’, ‘relief’ is hard to come by, euphoria of this nature all too fleeting and ephemeral. So yes, let’s loose our heads and enjoy it while it lasts cause come next Sunday there will be no ‘WE’s only ‘YOU’S and THEM’S.

Again I reiterate my disdain is not over the Bok’s ‘Victory’- hardly, rather in
the blaring contradiction that is Mbeki being raised on the shoulders of hulking green men, grasping the slippery gold cup in his palm for a quick photoop (Enjoy it while you can some might say). ‘Ah Solidarity’ the world coos, isn’t that nice. Solidarity, I say and so the whole world comes to a stand still.

Here is a team who nobly refuse to wear blazers in act of defiance over on of
their coaches not been granted the right to wear one too (due to his non Serf–Efricaness) but in the same panting breath bare a incompetent, dangerous, deceitful dare I say negligent ‘dictator’ high on their shoulders. A crowning glory or humiliation? You decide. Politics is not so easily washed away, rather it remains an indelible grass skid mark/shit stain on the Omo washed white pants of the players. This is after all a world wide acknowledgement, a statement, a dishonest symbol of unity. Immortalized now (At the regret and mercy of histories photo shop erasing skills) in news papers, news casts across the globe. ‘WE’ as a nation salute you Mr Mbeki, all is forgotten while we hold and carry you (messiah like) above the roaring masses. All is forgotten while we drink ourselves into oblivion and party like its 1999. As for the hoards of exiled Saffers bellowing in
London pubs do they stand as ‘We’? Perhaps ,for remember in this case all that matters (racial slurs, South Africa bashing aside) is that it is ‘OUR’ nation’s victory, ‘OUR’ nation’s pride and you Mr Mbeki (just for the moment) OUR nations ever benevolent Granddaddy. Does this mean next week we may return to reviling you, criticizing, scorning you. Writing bleeding heart (and ultimately ignored)letters’ to your office about the escalating crime/aids/corruption (you name it) rates, once again pit ‘WE’ against ‘THEM’ when we realize the futility/stupidity of our collaboration, of foolishly having let down our guard.

Must we be so fickle as too forget the accumulated insanity of his government in the name of a one night stand. No this is not Mr Mandela, nor post 1994 euphoria. As Mr Dyaln once sung - the times they have a changed.

Mbeki stood incongruous -an awkward and unwanted accessory in the good o’l name of international rep and nation building. Politics and Sports sadly inexorably wound into one. ‘Go Bokke’ I say- as a pride of devoted, skilled, world champions but lets just bare in mind that in the selective context and memory of our country ‘WE’ did and continue to do nothing except complain.