Neil Coppen

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

Atlantic crossing Journals.

July13

PART 1

 

Greetings from a land where the sea water is the colour of an overpriced Caribbean cocktail, the locals all talk like Bob Marley and the humidity has the ability to test the resolve of the most tenacious of Durbanites.

As I write, a tropical squall is pelting the boat and at long last the heat has been momentarily quelled.  It’s during such tempests that one has to ensure that they have “battened down the hatches!”

You see I’m learning tons out here, most of all how to yell melodramatic sea-fearing phrases—which I thought only existed in Pirate movies–with a straight face!  I’m currently honing my ‘Land ahoy!” and “All hands on deck.”

 

I write from Nanny Cay, a port set amidst steamy Virgin Island jungles and rolling Caribbean hills. We’ve been here for the past two days polishing the boat and provisioning for the big trip ahead. This will be our last taste of land and civilization before heading off later today on the open sea.

 

It’s surreal to trace our journey on a map of the world, finger sliding across that vast tract of blue that exists between the Caribbean and the Mediterranean Sea. I can only describe the anticipation as part delight and part terror.

 

I must admit, that upon arrival I felt a bit like James Bond stepping off a chartered flight from Puerto Rico and following our captain a few meters from the airport exit to a rickety jetty where we bundled into a dinghy that whisked us over the waves and into salty night. A good twenty minutes later and we set our sights on new home….. Sailboat SLIM but i’ll get to her in a moment.

 

Our crew consists of Dyl, whom you are well acquainted with, his brother Travis, a born leader and athlete and the Captain of the boat.  Travis’s wife Ana, the first mate: a feisty, hilarious Argentinian who also happens to be an accomplished Vegan chef.  I should add that we are setting sail with enough vegetable matter on board to survive for months, in fact should we be shipwrecked, I might well be able cling for dear life to an over-sized plantain to stay alive.

 

Dave Denton is the other crew member and is in possession of the sort of matinee idol looks that would make your mom go weak at the knees.  Dave is a warm and seasoned sailor, his eyes constantly fixed on some distant horizon.

 

Lola is the boat dog, who looks remarkably similar to Snowy from Tin-Tin. The only difference is that Lola, over her short time on the planet, has more cross continental adventures stamped into her passport (she really does have a passport) then Snowy might dream of ever boasting.

 

Lola follows in the fated paw prints of Anna and Travis’s previous intrepid pooch named Pickles, who after many wondrous journeys’ upon the high seas, was tragically devoured by a Komodo dragon in Java. Honestly the Hardy Boys couldn’t have dreamt these sorts of things up!

 

So I’ve been trying to get acquire my sea legs. Having been anchored out at sea for the past week, I have grown accustomed to the horizon line resembling a spirit level that refuses to settle. It seems the constant swaying motion of the boat is quickly absorbed into one’s muscle memory.

 

The other day we visited Road Town, a stoner Caribbean village where shop owners still haven’t gotten round to taking down their Seasons Greetings Christmas decorations from earlier in the year.

 

It was the longest I’d been on land for some time. I wondered the town’s grocery stores woozy, embarrassing fellow crew members -and perturbing shoppers– by veering left and right into product displays, attempting to get my footing and generally looking like a first year Varsity bro at his inaugural drinking initiation.

 

Now to SLIM. She really is one of a kind. A gorgeous svelte 66 foot gunboat as sleek and pristine as the latest Apple Mac product. Hell, even the waves appear to be hurling themselves in lovesick- adoration at her indifferent sides. And when the attention gets too much—which it often does– she simply concertinas open her mighty sail, which rises like a Chinese fan to conceal her blush from randy sailors and red faced gentleman callers, whom cat call to her from passing decks. There are many mornings, when docked in a cay, that one crawls out of bed bleary eyed and into the kitchen area only to find a paparazzi of fans and camera’s surrounding the boat.

 

SLIM, it must be said, while sexy as sin, is minimal and modest in comparison to some of the other floating condo’s out here. Some have constantly changing LED lighting glowing across their decks causing them to resemble a Las Vegas strip club or what I’ve subsequently dubbed as UFO’s (Unidentified Floating Objects). 

 

The other evening, I watched the worst of the First-World play out aboard one of these luminous eye-sores. House music pumping as a young ‘Trustafarian’ popped a bottle of champagne and doused a kneeling and squealing bikini-clad beauty in its contents. The bottle then slipped out of grip, cracked the deck of the boat and tumbled into the sea amidst shrieks of laughter.

                                                                               

But I digress, the purpose of our crossing is to deliver SLIM to The Spanish Island of Mallorca in the Mediterranean.

 

I consider myself extremely blessed to be on board. I’m aware that seeing the world in this way is an extraordinary privilege. That to cross entire oceans is an opportunity that does not visit one very often. I’m trying my best to pay full attention. To soak it all up like a veritable sea sponge.

It’s not that my novice status, and occasional delusions of grandeur, go unchallenged. Upon arrival in the B.V.I our bags were delayed in Puerto Rico for two days, so we lived on the boat dressed in the official SLIM crew uniform of baggies and T-shirt branded with the logo.

 

I felt pretty hardcore dressed in ‘slim’ fitting white T and steel grey swimming baggies.  The sailing fraternity in these parts shows an obvious reverence for SLIM when she anchors beside them and these uniforms’ instantly associate one with to the coolest gun-boat this side of the Caribbean. 

 

One evening we stepped into a fancy Cay side restaurant for a crew meal, wearing the gear and were treated like celebrities. Heads turned as we passed, people whispering behind menus. A young guy trying to impress a gaggle of blondes summoned me over to his table.

 

“You guys with Slim?”

 

“Ya….ya that’s us” 

 

I reply nonchalantly, hoping that’s where he’ll leave the conversation but he persists, launching into an epic appraisal of her beauty followed by an equally epic list of questions. I attempt to field them with casual shrugs, playing it cool till the questioning gets technical and I’m forced to contemplate inventing things about boat engines, sailing knots and the like.

 

Eventually I fall silent. My rock n’ roll status rubbished when I admit to just tagging along for the ride, cleaning toilets and not knowing how to correctly tie my own shoe lace let alone a sailing knot of any repute.

 

Dyl and I were lying on the trampoline net of the boat the other night. Stars scattered across the night sky above, Caribbean breeze cooling sunburnt skin, the gentle motion of the boat lulling us to sleep. We’d spent a majority of the day snorkeling, pursuing psychedelic parrot fish through a network of underwater canyons and caves and then later that afternoon, a trail run around a privately owned island that rises up from the sea to offer some picturesque views of the B.V.I archipelagos.

 

From this vantage point, one sets eyes on a series of mythical islands: Deadman’s Bay, named after a bunch of rum-soaked pirates who were marooned on a neighboring island and drowned whilst trying to swim across to the opposite shore.


Another of these islands is said to have been the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Treasure Island.  It’s not often one gets to say they sailed past Treasure Island!

 

One of my greatest pleasures in traveling is when fiction and reality intersect in this fashion. When one is afforded the chance to make real, with one’s own eyes and senses, an island that has ostensibly been inhabited and populated by the minds and imaginations of millions of children around the world.

 

The weather man predicts smooth sailing. Better unbatten the hatches then. I have always been happiest when near the ocean and I suppose such a prolonged and intimate engagement, should see me at my most serene and contemplative……….. or green and seasick. whatever happens I’m looking forward to having all that room to think and hurl. 

 

PART 2

B.V.I to AZORES

 

Greetings from a windswept volcanic mass somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, where the men look like potatoes with facial hair, antique church bells toll on the hour and the sloshing phonetic sounds of Portuguese fill the air.

 

We touched down in the Azores a few days ago, after 12 wondrous, awe-inspiring days at sea. It was a journey that saw us cross 2300 nautical miles from the torpid climes of the British Virgin Islands to the chillier ones of the Azores.

 

We set sail now on the second leg of the journey which will see us move though the Gibraltar Straits to the island of Mallorca in the Mediterranean. That’s four oceans in the space of month, if you include the farewell skinny-dip I took in the Durban Indian Ocean before I left.

 

At sea, time evaporates, one drifts in and out of days not quite knowing how the last one ended and when the next began. There are no landmarks to assist and the only form of routine revolves around meal and watch-times. Geographically, transitions are marked by the fluctuating states of the sea, subtle shifts in light and the slow choreography of cloud formations.

 

It’s as if one is ploughing steadily through a vast and mercurial desert. By the fourth day, you get a thrill from any new visual stimuli. These manifest in the form of flying fish suspended above the water like a silver hummingbird, a Portuguese man of war (monstrous jelly fish not a hairy hostile sailor in case you wondering) or an albatross fishing in the boats wake.

 

By far the most exhilarating is that of a pod of Atlantic spotted dolphins. One can almost hear ‘The flight of the Valkyries” orchestrating their arrival. The person on watch cries “Dolphins” and the crew drop what they are doing and scramble to the deck, Lola the boat pooch yapping as up to thirty or so of these torpedo into view and like fighter-planes celebrating a recent victory, dart and weave through one another with breath-taking precision. After a few death defying leaps, they form a uniform V at the bow before vanishing from whence they came.  These aquatic acrobats understand that to make a lasting impression, one must leave their audience wanting. No matter how much applause is granted, they must retain an air of mystery by resisting an encore.

 

Sighting another boat or airplane is less thrilling. Such glimpses arouse conflicting emotions. The sign of other human beings can be encouraging in the sense that such sights have the ability to salvage one from vanishing entirely up their own existential arsehole or you can feel put-out at having come so far into the middle of nowhere only to bump into signs of fellow homo sapiens.

 

 “Come on” you yell, “It’s a big Godamn sea. Leave me to my own sweet blue oblivion.”

 

I suppose in some ways been on a boat is not unlike travelling by aeroplane, the only difference is that a flight seldom takes 12 days (unless you got to wrong end of a SAA off-season special to Uzbekistan), and a metallic capsule used in commercial flight tends to seal one off entirely from the element they are traversing. A plane is designed to make one forget that they are dangling several hundred kilometers in the air while a boat cannot help but remind you of the elements you are now at the mercy of and what a crazy ass thing you are doing.

 

The first night or two, I must admit to wondering what I had gotten myself into.  The seas were rough and the boat crashing through the surf caused the vessel to become an orchestra of ominous creeks and groans. Anyone who has flown with me in the past will know how the slightest fart of aeroplane turbulence sends me crawling back to a God I renounced eons ago.

 

Let’s be honest boats and floating objects built to transport humans don’t have the best of reputations in newspaper headlines or popular films. Think White SquallMoby DickTitanic, Hitchcock’s Life Boat, Poseidon, The Perfect Storm. The recent harrowing Robert Redford one, when you could see he was just wishing the whole time he had stayed put with Meryl on that farm in Aaaaaaafrica.

 

In the above mentioned narratives no one ever boards their vessel of choice and makes it to their tropical destination it time for a Pina Colada and the sunset. Boat movies generally degenerate into protagonists eating each other on a rapidly deflating lilo while fending off sharks with a frying pan. Admittedly I’ve watched way too many of these in my time and so have the worst possible frame of reference to accurately (as opposed to imaginatively) interpret sounds and motions as either life-affirming or threatening.

 

I considered popping a tranquilizer to take the edge of things for the first night or two but was terrified that should an emergency occur I would be too goofed and ‘Inshallah baby” to leave the vessel (Muster) with the required speed.

 

Over the first night or two the boat motion was so frenzied that it felt as if I was locked in a cabin haunted by some petulant poltergeist. Just as would fall asleep, I would be flung across the room like Linda Blair in The Exorcist.

 

 I’ve had much time to lie in bed and learn the different sleep states and sensations and so far these are the predominant three.

 

1.)The maternal calm seas: here one feel like a babe cradled in their mother’s arms….. in this state one is lulled into the most sublime of dreaming states.

 

2.) The belly of a whale: An experience akin to lying in the groaning stomach of a ginormous sea beast who happens to be experiencing severe digestive problems. A torpedo sized Rennies is in order.

 

3.) The Exorcist:   Hellish demon possession which I have already described above.

 

One prays for state 1 but quickly learns how to adjust to more common 2 and 3.

 

On the boat, every crew member has to participate in a 2 hour watch which runs and alternates for the full 24 hours. Over this period one is expected to scan the horizon and ensure the boat is not going to collide with another vessel or object. The maximum speed we are reaching is 21 knots which means unexpected obstacles can creep up within a short period.

 

At the moment, running into (and over) whales have been one of the biggest and most legitimate concerns as the passage to and from the Azores is teeming with breeding pods at his this time of year.  A head-on collision with a creature the size of a several school busses or a tanker for that matter is not ideal and so no matter how ADHD I am, I’ve had to learn how to rein my fluctuating attention span in and concentrate on the little bleeping radar (more submarine movie fantasies playing out here).

 

There are horror stories of people, during their night watch, falling off overboard while taking a pee off the back of the vessel.  It’s a terrifying thought, vanishing into that expanse long before fellow crew member’s cotton on to the fact that you’re missing in action. This plays on my mind plenty and I’ve never dared to attempt it ….as much as I love a pee under the open skies, drifting like Sandra B in Gravity off into a turbulent vaccum made has made me settle somewhat religiously for the sterile safety of the boat cubicle.

 

The immensity of the ocean, hit home again when we slowed the boat down and jumped off the back for a swim.  Here we took an empty beer bottle, filled it with water, slipped on a pair of goggles and watched it sink. The feeling could only be described as… awe. The bottle steadily sinking for what felt like a good ten minutes before vanishing from view. Travis, the captain, reckons it would have only touched the ground a few hours after us having let it go.

 

As serious as these ‘Watches’ are, they are also a beautiful opportunity to grapple with what it means to be utterly alone, lost and drifting out across this pale dot of ours.  Like that beer bottle one learns to simply surrender and sink deeper into the mysteries of the big blue beyond.

 

At night when everyone is sleeping and the ocean roars all around, when the constellations are splashed across the night sky, and the boats churns up phosphorescence as it sails onwards. In these moments it really feels like we are satelliting in a little space ship, ploughing through the cosmos, and leaving a trail of luminous stars in our wake.  

 

 

PART 3

AZORES TO MALLORCA

 

It’s been nearly a month since Dyl and I left SLIM in Mallorca, which will be her new home over the next season.

 

In the end we spent 21 days at sea and crossed 4200 nautical miles. To say one’s life is profoundly enriched by such a journey would be an understatement. The final part of our crossing was colored by extraordinary sights such as SLIM’S Spinnaker sail unfurling like a giant butterfly wing from out of its chrysalis sheath. I will never forget the moment we set eyes on the Gibraltar straites — that mythical point where two continents brush shoulders– and growing teary at the sight of the Africa…. my home yet so very far from the southern tip of it.

 

And on our final afternoon at sea, chasing a transcendent sunset, our Dolphin cheerleaders appearing to pay their final playful respects.

 

Spending time out at sea, one’s senses, particularly smell, are sharpened and I’ll never forget the pungent whiff of cigarette smoke and designer fragrances that accosted my nostrils as we set sights on the ancient port city of Palma in Mallorca.

 

Dylan and I re-watched Japanese animator Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece Howls Moving Castle while aboard the boat and the whimsical concept employed in the film has I many ways come to characterize our own journey aboard SLIM.

 

In the film, a group of characters’ travel in a mobile castle through a variety of alternate realities. In the entrance hall of the eponymous castle, there is a magical dial. Howl simply turns the dial and is able to step out the front-door of his home into a magical universe of his choosing.

 

In many ways SLIM felt like this itinerant (in our case ‘buoyant’) castle. Our bedroom and the interior of the boat was the only constant.  Every time we stepped onto land, it was to find ourselves somewhere new and breathtaking: a continent or island utterly transformed and unrecognizable from the last.

 

Such magic is only possible through the devotion of Captain Travis and Ana who run a tight and immaculate ship. To watch these sailors’ manage this glorious gun-boat with the love, professionalism and devotion they do, is a humbling thing.

 

SLIM, as with all man-made modes of transportation, has her demands, her temperaments and occasional malfunctions and there really is nothing that Trav and Ana can’t fix or tend to in an instant….even while out at sea, several hundred kilometers away from the nearest sign of civilization not to mention spare parts.

 

It’s been a month back on land and I find SLIM’S rhythms and rituals still linger within me.  At night I often wake to think I can still feel the rocking motion of the boat or hear the rippling her sail, the persistent swooshing sound of the sea outside.

 

I miss the SLIM family, the many routines one establishes on a boat over a month together at sea, the sight of Lola poking her fluffy head through our cabin window each morning to call us to breakfast.

 

I’ll forever yearn for those deep and vivid sea dreams infused, as they were, with stars and phosphorescence.

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The pleasures of falling and flight.

September20

For Vaughn on his 27th Birthday

You gave me a palace in clouds, a JHB skyline dressed in mist and moonlight, dust-storms and thunder showers. You hung me in a room seventeen stories above the agitated hum of the city, taxis congesting the arteries of the streets below. A metropolis hemorrhaging with hooting.

Those afternoons wrapped in sheets and each-other finding a strange peace in the noises of other people’s lives being lived furiously down below, a navigated chaos which from up here seemed worlds away. Calming to hear it and more so for not having to participate in it. Us the fortunate ones, the ones who could observe when we liked… looking down for perspective and up for respite.

We could look down to see the dance of pedestrians and their shadows. A favourite past time of mine, when in the late afternoon light ants became giants with disproportionate limbs straining under the weight of grocery bags. Down to watch men, in the dead of night, pulling towers of refuse: snails with scrap-heaps for backs. Down across the patchwork quilt of street traders, the rubiks cubes of vegetable sellers tables’: red squares of tomatoes, green of kale and yellow of banana.

If you were a building you might resemble this one, towering and unpretentious, magnificent and old world yet re-purposed (and all the more idiosyncratic for it) to suit the needs and requirements of a contemporary African city. I cannot separate you nor my thoughts of you from this flat and what you taught me here. The magic of the space, the kitchen jars with assortments of berries and nuts and teas. The clanking rusted pipes that sung sad subterranean songs whenever I submerged my ears in the bath. The cacophony of the building, orchestrations of decay which punctuated our every routine, whether it was a death defying lift-ride to the ground floor or malfunctioning fire-alarms that kept us up until the early hours. I cannot think of you and not connect these thoughts to the poetry of the space.

Those poor ornamental ducks lodged on your bedroom wall, pinned in perpetual migration, observing daily the flight of ibises into another apocalyptic highveld sunset and wishing with all their might that their wings worked the same. The chipped, frayed, rusted corners of things. A summer storm tossing us out to sea, making an Art-Deco galleon of this high rise. The winds that wreaked havoc on our laundry and deposited our underpants in yards in Soweto. Winds that howled with the collective laments of old white lady ghosts who many eons ago used to take high-tea in the same building and shop at the Anstey’s department store for fur trimmed coats and pheasant feathered hats. The wide-eyed toddlers who gazed up at us in the lift with a mixture of curiosity and terror.

You made me stop running in the city at night. I used to dash from the parking lot to the lobby door. You helped undo the conditioning of a suburban upbringing and a paranoia that only the privileged are privileged enough to indulge in. You did this till I was more at home here than anywhere else in the world and realised I would never feel more engaged and alive and connected to this county and its people as I did when arriving at the corner of Jeppe and Joubert.

So the other evening when I felt angry at having to sit in a sterile Rosebank food-court it was only because all I felt like doing was soaking in a candle-lit bath with you, watching your forehead crumple in deep contemplation, lying as we so often did in an awkward tangle of limbs, the cold steel of the tap pushing into your neck, lying here until our hands wrinkled, the water cooled and the candle flickered out.

I ached for that balcony at the end of the world, a platform that allowed me to imagine and speculate (in equal parts) the pleasures of falling and flight. I felt sad at only having a concrete cast of your hands when not long ago ones of flesh used to omfort the palm of my back.

There are many things I miss and will continue to, even more that I will come to understand and celebrate. These are just some but certainly not all

Inventory of a South Coast town.

August28

Inventory of a South Coast town.

Aryan kids sipping on over sized strawberry milkshakes
arcades rotting avocados
bananas box-wine bikinis
bouffants bakkies 
crocodile skinned Christians
cold slaw
Complimentary blow-job shooters that come with the bill
cigarettes, country-music
chlorine casinos C and sand real estate
fish-guts fiberglass glass-blown dolphins
dream-catchers driftwood curios dodgem cars
damp leather
Jesus saves Kurt Darren knee-high-socks
kegs karaoke lighthouses
leopard print liquor-stores locksmiths lust
mildew
Neil Diamond
neon poodles perms prostitutes
panel beaters
permed panel-beaten prostitutes
rope lights
rust
sweat seafood suntan lotion second-hand sex-shop snake-parks
sea-shell ashtrays
sweet Caroline uh…uh…oh
salt teal timeshare
tannies who knit in public
tank-tops
Oom Willies Road house
Veldskoens
Vomit
wind-chimes
waffles

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IMPRESSSIONS OF FOGG

October3

 

IMPRESSSIONS OF FOGG

 A Log Book

26th July -5 August 2013

I cast my eyes up from the jetty and can just make out the wild- haired, top-hatted figure of Phillipus Fogg. He’s standing at the ships prow: palms planted on the railing, one big- booted-foot crossed over the other and a hand-rolled cigarette dangling from his cursive smile.

 His faithful Jack Russel- Vlooi sits at his side, a little pissed at having to portion her master’s affection with a new travel companion: a Grey Lourie which now sits and shits upon his shoulder.

I watch Fogg take in the shabby harbour side-city for a final time, squinting into a sun made spectral by the morning mists. 

His imagination pushing now beyond the reaches of the skyline. Beyond the tangle of washing lines and satellite dishes. 

Out to the next continent, the next wondrous wilderness…. uncharted terrain.

*

He had a nose-bleed one night in his sleep. I found the stain on one of our pillow cases the morning after. At first it seemed the blotch was in the shape of a dancing man but when viewed from upside down it came to resemble a map: a  undiscovered island dissembling into a series of splattered archipelagos.

*

I first met Fogg at an expedition-planning meeting in Cape Town. Upon our first introduction you might say I found him both enthralling and galling. Certainly I was impressed, impressed by his age (he was 21) and, considering his relatively short time spent on the planet, the vast quantity of information he had managed to cram into his skull.

It seemed he was versed in most subjects: music, travel, mythology, literature, cinema and could talk with genuine authority on them when most his age might  simply regurgitate Wikipedia summaries to impress.

Dostoevsky,Tarkovsky and Miyazaki he would bandy about as if they were mere contemporaries of his and while I greatly admire all these artists, I am cautious to raise them in conversation for the fear of mispronouncing their names.

Fogg spoke with an insight that befitted his title of General Knowledge Quiz runner-up in his final high-school year.

 In that instant, watching him from across the table, I felt like Kerouac might have when first confronted by the cocksure audacity of Cassady.

When our meeting finally concluded (and Fogg had found a reason to disagree with almost 95 % of everything I had to say) I was left with a rather disconcerting urge to scalp him like a hard boiled- egg and consume the content of his brains for breakfast.

*

He was fond of ellipses.   

 . . .

*

His boots had once belonged to his grandfather who had spent a large part of his days hunting in South- West Namibia. After his grandfather’s passing, Fogg ensured he never embarked on an expedition without them.  He honoured his ancestor by planting his feet daily in them. This way soles would forever mingle and new generations stroll in tandem with the last.

  *

After days of trekking through the abandoned suburbs and cities we tear away foliage to uncover the lost Monument. We are met by imposing bearded guardians sculpted into the structures four- corners.  

Men resting disillusioned chins on the barrels of their shotguns. What thoughts lie cemented into their skulls we wonder? Do they stand vigil contemplating -for all eternity- whether to pull the trigger or not? Are they concerned that the splatter of their granite brains might sully the monuments exterior.

*

Inside our torches scan walls to reveal a chronicle of this odd tribe’s history. Embroidered hangings transform their tales into primitive pixels. Each tapestry resembling a screenshot from some 80’s video game. Let’s call it Boer–Fighter (Similar to Street- fighter) only with characters gleefully belting natives with over-sized bibles.https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/images/cleardot.gif

   *

Sculpted tableaux’s along the walls depicts the tribe’s journey to the Southern continent: their escape over mountain passes, run-in’s with the coal-skinned savages (an orgy of flesh and livestock he had aptly titled it) and the almighties imperishable promise to them.

It was on this promise that the monument was founded centuries ago. The date of the vow and victory is carved into a cenotaph which is sunken into the floor of the temple. 

Once a year (on the day of the battle) the sun aligns with a hole in the ceiling and pours forth to illuminate the phrase: ‘Ons Vir Jou Suid Afrika’

*

Earlier that afternoon we had observed a tour-bus slug into the monument parking-lot and unleash hoards of Japanese explorers.  We watched them stumble out one by one, wrestling with a series of sequinned umbrellas which when opened splintered shards of sunlight in every conceivable direction.

I am of the understanding that satellites registered this flash-mob-brolly-refraction from space.

*

On one of the temple walls we sight a woman, let’s call her Anna Maart. Anna is sculpted into the same tableaux I mentioned moments ago.

Anna has her lap-top open while the men busy themselves, setting up camp in the background. Light from the screen spills across her fretful face as she checks the GPS co-ordinates for the following mornings Drakensberg crossing.  A daunting descent lies ahead.

 Anna pens an email back to the fatherland. Pens a mail back to her loving Ouma who whiles her days away in Holland chain-smoking and cursing God.

 Anna writes of the week’s dismal string of tribulations. She doesn’t imagine her and the kids making it out alive but she dare express this to her husband Willem. Willem with his Boer- maak- a-plan demeanour.  Willem the eternal fucking optimist!

                                                                                                                *

After spotting a Grey Lourie in a tree outside the Monument, Fogg had crouched down to sketch the specimen in his travel- journal (A journal titled: The Motherfucking Essence of Progress). Once the drawing was complete I watched him coax the bird to his shoulder with fig pressed between his concert pianist fingers. Vlooi growled when the Lourie took residence on her master’s shoulder. Shot them both a disapproving eye.

*

“Go-way….. Go-way” Fogg’s pet Lourie cried out as the Deco Galleon (Queen Anstey’s the First) set sail into the turbulent surf.

“Come back….Come back” I want to yell but resist.

Fogg was seventeen- stories up with his ear-phones in, lost to the swathes of mortar and mist. Besides what chance does a lone human-voice stand against the all-consuming cacophony of Animal Collective?

*

After his departure I couldn’t quite bring myself to relegate the bloody pillow-case to the laundry basket. I had not the heart to end the man’s dance or lose my secret map to that unconscious island.

*

 Perhaps I admired Fogg’s ability to never once look back. If he did he might too often see companions and friends left on the shore, staring at their shoes, just a little stupefied with love and awe.

*

“I’m sure to warn people not to get too attached” he had cautioned me shortly after our first introduction.

*

… Extended ellipses…

*

I should have heeded his advice.

*

Alone I sat (His ship a spec on the horizon) my feet dangling off the edge of the pier. Smoking another cigarette and setting a new date to quit, in-between contemplating the fate of trash-bloated fish eddying around the jetty legs.

FINN

June28

When my grandmother was dying I used to hold up her body to the window so she could peer into garden outside. It was here that she trained her eyes on the foliage hoping to sight a flash of the elusive Natal Robin. There was huge excitement at each sighting. She was bed-ridden in those final years, this window was her frame on the world. A mis-en-scene that featured a variety of birds, butterflies and the occasional pack of Vervet monkey’s tight-roping the neighbour’s wall. Lovely as they were they were regulars, entertaining and welcome distractions but not quite understanding (as their counterpart the Robin did) that one is made more desirable when fostering an air of mystery about themselves. The robin with its burning breast, witnessed as a fleeting smudge on green, now that was the ticket, that was the one you waited (mostly to be stood up for). When it arrived in her final days, I held her body up so she could see it and she wept with relief that it had taken the trouble to pay her a final visit. Since her passing I have associated the Natal Robin with her omen, her angel. I am not the sappy metaphysical sort but grief causes one to attach especial significance to creatures or things that ordinarily might not invite a second thought. I have not seen the Robin in the garden since her passing, perhaps once but in retrospect it may well have been a thrush (the robins more deceptive understudy) similar in proportion only with a less officious breast and far more mellow (read less impressive) in hue. Yesterday when grappling with my canine companion Finn, his ear out-turned like a pink hibiscus flower , his body riddled in tumours, that ginger-beer fizz diminished from his princely eyes I glanced up to see the robin just a few metres off. As fast as it appeared it vanished taking with it the weight of terrible uncertainty that has hovered over us for some months. Just the night before was a dream of my grandmother, who although close to my heart, like the robin has been somewhat absent over the last few years from my dreaming thicket. This time it was Guy Buttery and not John Lennon (as stated in her obituary all those years back) who was sitting on the edge of her bed like some benevolent spirit-guide and strumming a plaintive song on his guitar. To my Finn, the noblest beast that ever was and will be, the driver of sheep off Transkei cliffs, an intrepid prince who padded alongside us through a thousand golden afternoons, his less glamorous but nevertheless faithful accomplice Sophie—like a rhino squeezed into a pair of high heels—trotting just a few paw prints behind. So tremendous this loss, so lost now your shadow.

You’ll find me in the Summer when the snow melts.

January28

Dear Goose

You’ll find me in the summer when the snow melts. I took a tumble in the winter, tripped on an oversized ski- boot, clapped head and teeth on a mountain root, concussed, descended, confused into the snow. While down there I started to piece together the bones of Mozart’s thirty-five year old fingers in-between searching for my misplaced memory.

Days before in a cabin, all scented with cow-pat and cigarette smoke, we watched a moth-eaten moon hitch a ride on a ski-lift while drinking beer and playing a children’s card game .Turning and overturning picture cards (daisy, sea shell, pine- cone) in an attempt to uncover the matching pair.

 I fared dismally.

 Daisy…………..daisy?……fuck pine cone!

The three Austrians beside us played with a terrible intensity while a cassette tape they had exhumed from a kitchen draw provided the soundtrack. A warped radio broadcast they had recorded in their teens. Something eerie about news relayed ten years after the fact.

 My imagination satelllited skyward. I saw the cottage in long-shot, saw it drifting backwards in time. Watched the men grow younger: bellies flattening, shoulders rising, fighter pilot fantasies reborn. Memories glorious (building a trout dam in the summer of 2001) then devastating (watching it washed away by the first heavy rains.)

You asked me to tell you my life-story.  Start at the beginning you urged. What amounted was sketchy anecdote. I couldn’t assemble them just like I couldn’t remember where the matching sea shell, pine-cone or infernal daisy card lay. Recollections brittle and disintegrating like the autumn-leaf page of a poem I discovered yesterday in central park.

Later that evening, wedged between mattress and ceiling-rafter (while you plotted and re-plotted emergency fire- escape routes in your head) I clenched my fists against the cold and sifted through the pantry of my skull searching for a jar of something pickled, something preserved. Something as elusive as the bones of Mozart’s 35 year-old fingers or as simple as the twin image of a playing card.

Nothing

I stepped outside hoping the cold might resuscitate something. Villages twinkled in the valley basin below. War time Austria? The mnemonic trace of a reincarnated self or something recycled from a movie musical (Von Trapp’s escape from nefarious Nazis).

Memories: reels of images spliced together from a myriad of fictions. I’ll write again I decide. Not to record or articulate but to remember. To disentangle my dreams from the over wrought dreams of celluloid others.

Sing: You’ll find me in the summer when the snow melts, thawing in a luminous pasture, fat cow grazing on my unkempt hair. A daisy sprouting from my left nostril.

Thank you for the memory, for remembering

Maverick

Austria, January 2 2013

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The African Aurora

October21

Sweet Aurora

For months I have been trying to pen you this letter yet have found myself inhibited by a paralysis of the imagination.  I suppose a more benign term might be post project daze.

They say Aurora, ninety percent of writing is imagining what it is one wants to write. If this is true ,then I have been spending ninety nine-percent of my waking, dreaming, scheming hours imagining. A luxury for sure. Who wouldn’t leap at the opportunity to suspend reality in order to inhabit a semi-imaginary one. To resign oneself to the company of the non-existent. Reality during such periods slips into the background, is seen as nothing more than an inconvenience…. something to brave when the fridge is bare and a trip to the grocery store is a  matter of life and death.

I imagine at your age this is what your day-to-day must feel like, though you never have to actively set aside the time. Your pass is unlimited and integration seamless. There is no distinction between what is real and what is imagined, no boundary or border post you need ever flash a passport at.

The other night I went to visit Lorkin Greenstone, a whimsical little man with almond shaped eyes, quite similar to you in age and loveliness. Lorkin joined his parents and I at the dinner table and regaled us with tales of Buttercup cottage:  a fantastical plot of fictive real estate if I might say so myself. He proceeded to describe every detail: the hills, forests, rivers and bat-infested caves. When it came to the wolves, he would crouch his voice in a whisper, careful not to let the beasts (salivating around the next corner it would seem) overhear him.

I miss your stories Aurora, often wonder what topsy-turvy universe you have imagined for yourself over there. I am always dreaming up ways to reach you and figured if I could just crack an invite to Lorkin’s Buttercup cottage I might be able to swim across the river and find you living in the imaginary realm next door. I’d know it was you of course by the gargantuan butterflies and pink unicorned ponies strutting around the paddocks. Read the rest of this entry »

Will Brecht’s Donkey Understand? : Notes on a Conference

October11

All this talk of beauty

Brecht’s stuffed donkey

Actors in falsetto

flailing about in three interminable acts of crisis.

Artistic arsonists

Setting mountains on fire

So they may weep

and in turn inspire

Modalities, meta-text, sub-text, intertext–tual, Sexual, Meta-sexual

Meta-sexual-inter-textual-ality

(There’s one for the PHD)

Collaboration… interrogation… provocation

Self….. sacrifice….mutilation…congratulation

Hypothetic… thermic…academics

And if not scraping the century old mould from the kitchen sink

Then off plundering the mythic imaginary.

That endlessly recyclable realm of post-modernist-modernisms.

So removed and obscure that you dare risk meeting any part of yourself  inside of it.

Hoary tales made heady with whimsy

Unfamiliar with cliché

Here?

Too depressing…recent…..relentless.

There…..

Glen miller records on a scratchy gramophone.

Surreal fairy-lit French circuses, butcheries and freak shows.

A mass of rock cuts off the rest of the continent

As onwards the Southern tip wafts

in an un-complex cosmos.

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Tricky Since Childhood

July19

The scrape of their spades recalls your shoes on the driveway, heavy, home from work. Around five, winter dusk, sky murky purple. Often I’d pass you on your final stretch, turning up Tividale: peace in a moment, the now. Steps steady, slow. Your legs were tricky since childhood.

You should have taken the ride your boss offered you after work. He told me on the morning of your funeral, said he was giving you a lift but was delayed by some last minute paper work. You had decided not to wait, thought it better to take the bus. Said your mother was waiting at the stop to walk you home.

We shuffle down the slope of the Kwanangezi cemetery, clusters of gravediggers taking twenty beneath the shades of the only acacia. Spliffs and spades exchanging hands till one takes mine. A man with peep holes for eyes, two fingers missing.

“Don’t cry, don’t cry” he says mocking the Ray Banded white boy, a visitor accustomed to the clinical rites of a Doves cremation parlour: Time to Say Goodbye misplayed on the organ, inanimate doominie at the podium. In and out. Far from this hellish descent, these injured dirges, mists of marijuana and dust making mud of the brain.

At the foot of the grave (beneath purple Gazebo) sat your mother. No matter how hard your brothers shovelled they could not conceal you. The heap beside the hole refused to lessen and your Dudu ,resolute as a stone and wrung of all grief, never once looked away. Not when they tossed in your pillow, blankets and clothes, a wilting plastic bouquet.

I hid your denim skirt the day before she returned to work. Tucked it in the corner of a laundry cupboard. Memories less painful than ones material remains. Pocket’s an inventory of the living: bank slips, buttons, a pencil, bus fare shrapnel, balls of unravelled thread.

An hour, minute, milli second, a minor interruption and all this might have been avoided. Retrospect is torture still we play the scenario over and over. Your legs were unreliable, tricky since childhood.

So you tumbled as the bus left the stop, not into her waiting arms, but past. Under wheels, torn on tar, pressed like the flowers we laid this afternoon to mark the merciless place.

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Anglo-Boer(-ing) War Conference

February8


To kick start each morning of the South African Military Societies International Anglo Boer War History conference, held in Ladysmith two weeks ago, a blank was fired from a British Naval 12 pounder. This I soon discover is the Military equivalent of slugging back a double Espresso first thing the morning. A reverberating shock to attendees’ ear drums and pace makers, prepping us all for the illuminating and often arduous day of battle-speak ahead.

 

Held at the Platrad Lodge, overlooking significant Anglo Boer War battle terrain, the conference boasted a range of international and local speakers talking on topics that ranged from this War’s many myths, tactics and military blunders as well as revisionist takes on controversial and largely misunderstood historical figures of the time.

With one hundred and ten years having passed since the War, it seems Boer and Brit can now comfortably share the same room without wanting to ‘bliksem’ each other every time things get a little heated. Throughout the conference, areas of research and interest were analysed with healthy amounts of objectivity and the atmosphere reminded one of a jovial old boy’s reunion.

The aim of the conference was to provide a new source of understandings around the causes, events and consequences of Anglo Boer War. As organiser and military historian Ken Gillings stated in his opening address: “Such a conference is arranged so we can learn from the past and ensure that such atrocities never again occur in the future.”

Certainly the seminal purpose of any historical gathering– the very hook on which history’s precarious future hangs– is how to ensure that younger generations of South Africans are made privy to such findings. Read the rest of this entry »

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