Sunday, July 31, 2011

Tom Trumble

Following upon the success of his Unholy Pilgrims, my nephew and godson Tom Trumble has lately been on assignment in West Timor, where he was received by H.R.H. the Raja of Kupang, a tennis fanatic. I gather that all this is in some way connected with his next book, but you will have to wait and see. In the meantime, Tom’s growing readership may now feast upon his blog. Judging from this intriguing view of the bustling market in downtown Kupang, it might be prudent to ask chef not to tackle fish. However, I am rather taken by those paving stones. They look old to me, and quite possibly Dutch.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The spoons

Photograph courtesy of David Murray,
Before Groot Constantia I collided with Cape silver at the slave lodge, one of the oldest buildings in Cape Town, a difficult place.

The British dealt with it by rolling their government offices over the top, and later the Supreme Court. However, the record-keeping of the Dutch was so meticulous that the ghosts are chillingly present. Hundreds, thousands of names survive: Titus, Hannibal, Scipio, Moses, Solomon—choices closely allied to the naming of horses and other livestock. Fortune, Aap, Pattat, Pickle Herring, Dikbeen van de Kaap (literally thick-leg): gestures of contempt. A more systematic method gradually evolved, which at least provided Abram Solena van Java, Ticia van Mosambique, Jabinoe van Zanzibar, Nasfoe van Batavia, Claas van Malabar, Matombar van de Rio de la Goa, Cupido van Bengalen, Paria van Bali, Walale Jerrirano, and Maas van Nias the benefit of some vestigial memory of place, which leaves Angala, Thaviemma, Kafisie, Marimoreo, Schkanaljar, Onbelatie, Lubbert, Bappa Saeya, Sidie, Sabienpoin, Nareloe, Ontong, Fortamij, Tauhite, Oemar, Ringe, Baakka, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera... How do you make sense of the grim legacy of this building, and the evidence it furnishes of global displacement, misery, and death?

Photograph courtesy of David Murray,
I suppose it is redemptive, in a way, to scramble upstairs and discover something wholly beautiful, but upon much reflection afterwards, of course there is in this a ghastly paradox. The same colonial society that was capable of inflicting such unthinkable suffering upon innocent people, upon entire communities, purely for the benefit of the shareholders of the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, could at the very same time produce a species of object that attests to the remarkable aesthetic judgment of its silversmiths, their sensitivity, their instinct for volume, shape, balance, and perfect proportion—spoons!
Photograph courtesy of David Murray,

Until then I had been wondering where in the Cape I would find any really substantial evidence of the earliest colonists’ aesthetic engagement with their remarkable surroundings—taking into account the ferocious Protestantism they brought from Holland, and their nose for business. Upstairs at the slave lodge, of all places, the penny dropped.

Photograph courtesy of David Murray,
Here are glorious basting spoons (“druplepels”), serving spoons (“opskeplepels”), and teaspoons (“teelepels”) by Johannes Combrink (ca. 1781–1853), Willem Godfried Lotter (fl. 1770–1810), and Marthinus Keet (fl. 1819–1860); sauce ladels (“souslepels”); soup ladels (“soplepels”), and mustard spoons (“mosterdlepels”) by Frederik David Waldek (b. 1808), Cadier Abdol (fl. 1847–1854), Dominique Baudouin du Moulin (fl. 1822–1833), Johan Voigt (fl. 1783–1791), Lawrence Twentyman (fl. 1818–1832), and Jacobus Johannes Vos (fl. 1800), all brought from the collection of the South African National Gallery.

I suspect the plainness and the general schemata were imported from Georgian and Regency Liverpool, but the sensuousness of the bowls, their sculptural flair, their generosity without “fatness,” to say nothing of the harmony of each transition from bowl to stem, the shapeliness of the whole article, its simplicity and refinement, the avoidance of embellishment, and the mastery over form—these set the Cape silversmiths apart. By any measure these men were major artists, but—really, seriously—who were they?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Hugh Trumble in Matjiesfontein

The week before last I went from Cape Town to Pretoria aboard the Blue Train. The journey takes about 30 hours, and the train stops only once, after about six hours, for passengers to stretch their legs for about an hour in a tiny hamlet on the edge of the Grand Karoo plateau, which looks to me an awful lot like the Wimmera, or, at a pinch, the Mallee.

The halt is called Matjiesfontein and there are a few old houses, some dusty-looking sheep, a defunct post office, a cricket pitch of sorts, some stables abandoned by the British army after the end of the Boer War, and a dear old “spa hotel,” the Lord Milner, with a public bar where the Blue Train people had arranged for us to have refreshments.

Bear in mind that these were the first premises in which I had set foot outside Cape Town, only four days after I arrived from London. I have never before set foot upon the continent of Africa.

In the bar there were a clapped out but functioning upright piano, a huge Edwardian cash register, a large clock that had stopped at half past six, and an assortment of ancient sporting and other team photographs hanging on the walls at either side of the front door, and on the short sides of the room, flanking the counter.

Those sporting team photographs included the Blair Lodge School first cricket XI for 1895 (in Polmont, near Falkirk in Stirlingshire, Scotland, about 20 miles from Edinburgh); the same school’s officer corps of cadets; the Nottinghamshire county XI for 1897; Major Barton’s Cape XI (date unknown); Lord Hawke’s South African XI (189899), and “the Australians (Seventh Team) 1890,” in which, on the left, wearing his trademark bowler hat, a very youthful but nevertheless unmistakable Hugh Trumble stands, our great-grandfather J. W. Trumble’s famous younger brother. Of course he does!

I couldn’t believe it, but yes: the relevant portion of the caption read: “H. Trumble.” There must be some algorithm relating to colonial populations, relatively high birth rates, patterns of descent, and the intercolonial and international Edwardian cricket enthusiasm that would go a little way towards accounting for this amazing coincidence. Even so, I was and am still completely astonished by it.

I have no idea how this rather fine group photograph found its way to Matjiesfontein in the Grand Karoo. Great Uncle Hugh certainly played with the Australian tourists in the Cape and Natal in 1902, but this was taken twelve years earlier. It’s a possible explanation, and at this stage the only one that is in any way viable. At any rate, it is in fine shape and so am I.

District 6

Distrik Ses, the sixth municipal district, was a busy, relatively cosmopolitan neighborhood of inner Cape Town, roughly bounded by the docks, the city, and the slopes of Table Mountain and Devil’s Peak. Generations of former slaves, “coloured” migrants, Malay and other Southeast Asian and indeed non-Asian Muslims, a fair number of Xhosa, a smattering of Afrikaners and other whites lived there in relative degrees of harmony, a fairly representative cross-section of the whole of South African society. In February 1966, under the notorious Group Areas Act (No. 41 of 1950), District 6 was declared whites-only, and forced removals were announced. Commencing two years later, and proceeding in well thought-out stages, by 1982 upwards of 60,000 people were removed to the desolate Cape flats, some fifteen miles away, and the entire locality bulldozed. Only places of worship were spared. Richmond, Arundel, Frere, Clifton, Ashley, Hanover, Tennant, Godfrey, Sidney, Ayre, Cannon, Clyde, Caledon, Queen, Phillip, Gray, Combrinck, and Pedersen Streets are no more. It is as if the whole of Carlton or Darlinghurst or Fortitude Valley had simply been obliterated. Today you may still make out quite clearly what was done, because there is a sizeable portion of absolutely vacant hillside right there in the middle of Cape Town, but a little ad hoc museum nearer the centre of the city has been salvaging the collective memory of those who once lived in District 6. A large map on the floor is gradually accumulating the marks and surprisingly detailed notes of hundreds of former residents. It is an immensely moving monument, because you may walk across it, gradually absorbing the many human dimensions of each and every pulverized street corner. Which alleys were one-way? Where did Mrs. Adams live, or Mr. and Mrs. Wessels, or Mrs. De la Cruz, or Dollie and Joe Buckingham, or E. Mosoet, or L. J. Williams, or Y. Abrahams, or Sarah Louw (Anderson), the Carrs, the Schroeders, or “Walker,” or “Patsy Harry (nee van Schoor, now living in Australia, born 11/11/54)”? Where were the fish and chip shop, the Cheltenham Hotel, or Globe Soft Furnishings, or the Sheik Jossai Primary School, or the Moravian Chapel? Exactly how many steps led up to the steep corner of Hanover Square? (Seven.) What was A. J. Parker’s five-digit telephone number at 48 Stone Street? Perhaps there is no better spot than this in which to begin to grasp the hopeless desolation of Apartheid.

Groot Constantia

The menu called it “the wine that seduced the crowned heads of Europe, consoled Napoleon in exile, and was featured in the novels of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Baudelaire [sic]. Produced from Muscat de Frontignan grapes, this is a bold, rich, honeyed wine without the botrytis usually found in this style...Former President Nelson Mandela has been known to enjoy this wine.” I copied it down in the dining car somewhere near Beaufort West, ordered a second glass, and made a mental note to go to Groot Constantia when at length I returned to Cape Town—and upon my return to New Haven, Connecticut, to check up on those wonderful but slightly improbable claims.

How delightful to discover that it is all quite true. Frederick the Great definitely drank it. So did King Louis-Philippe, the Prince Regent, King William IV, and Queen Victoria also. The order books have survived. Such was its fame, Constantia made it into successive editions of The Child’s Book of Knowledge (1828). On St. Helena Count de Las Cases supplied Bonaparte with “vin de Constance,” something that so irritated the Governor that the count was eventually ordered off the island. This cannot have led Jane Austen (in Sense and Sensibility, 1811) to make Mrs. Jennings recommend to the lovelorn Marianne Dashwood a glass of the finest old Constantia wine for “its healing powers on a disappointed heart.” (“My poor husband! how fond he was of it! Whenever he had a touch of his old cholicky gout, he said it did him more good than anything else in the world.” Elinor Dashwood drinks it instead.) I do wonder, though, if just conceivably De Las Cases actually got his bright idea from Mrs. Jennings, a suitably romantic twist in the otherwise hard-nosed commercial environment of the Cape.

In The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), “whenever the Reverend Septimus fell a-musing, his good mother took it to be an infallible sign that he ‘wanted support,’ the blooming old lady made all haste to the dining-room closet, to produce from it the support embodied in a glass of Constantia and a home-made biscuit,” definitely not a marie. In Les fleurs du mal, meanwhile (XXVI “Sed non satiata,” 1857), Baudelaire says he prefers the mouth of his lover over the fine vintages of Constantia, Nuits St. Georges, and opium: “Je prefere au constance, a l’opium, aux nuits, / L’elixir de ta bouche ou l’amour se pavane.” Too creepy.

The whole question is academic. The Klein Constantia that Frederick, Napoleon, Prinny, Louis-Philippe, Austen, Queen Victoria, Baudelaire, and Dickens knew, or thought they knew, was obliterated at the end of the nineteenth century by the scourges of, first, oïdium, swiftly followed by phylloxera. The wine we drink today is a reconstruction, though certainly a delicious one.

Alas, this great house of neighboring Groot Constantia burned to the ground in the 1920s, so it too is a reconstruction, but very effective and moving nonetheless. But for a grumpy alpha male baboon, I was quite alone there.

The well-proportioned rooms are kitted out with mostly Cape Dutch furnishings in yellowwood, beefwood, satinwood, Burmese teak, amboina, ebony, elmwood, mahogany, and stinkwood (I am not kidding), as well as various early colonial pictures that come from elsewhere, above all from the collection of Alfred de Pass.

And it is through the pictures that one question above all swims into vivid focus: How was it possible that a setting as physically spectacular as that of the Cape of Good Hope, and the incomparable profiles of Devil’s Peak, Table Mountain, Lion’s Head, Signal Hill, and the Twelve Apostles, consistently failed to lift the local landscape painters to more and better results? It seems almost perverse, but more often than not eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century views across Table Bay reduce these sublime features to the character of a lumpy hillock, or a small gravel quarry in Derbyshire. Even William Hodges seems to have had considerable trouble capturing the effect. Maybe that is the answer: Some places simply defy representation, unless you are Albert Bierstadt.

On the other hand, look at the glorious proportions and sculptural vigor of Groot Constantia. Not bad for a colonial farmhouse at the farthest edge of the globe. It is in places such as this that you discover what is surprisingly scarce in the Cape, namely an adequate receptacle of any sort of aesthetic excitement among the earliest colonists. Held in check by such austere forms of Protestantism as they brought with them from Holland, those industrious East India Company people seem to have channeled everything into built forms, mostly gables, perfectly-proportioned windows and shutters; Cape silver, and successive vintages of sweet Klein Constantia, thank goodness.

Egyptian geese

There is no need for an alarm clock in Cape Town. Egyptian geese do the job. Alopochen aegyptiacus is a noisy creature, and busy. A pair alighted in the Aleppo pine right outside my hotel window well before dawn on the first day, honking for South Africa. Later, in the Company Gardens, I watched with real admiration as a mother Egyptian goose herded her brood of fluffy goslings into the rose garden to demolish the iceberg patch, undeterred by baboons. But for me the Egyptian goose also rang a loud and persistent aesthetic bell. It is so obviously the same creature that found its way into the Old-Kingdom, fourth-dynasty mastaba of Nefer-maat (2613–2494 B.C.), who was a brother of the man responsible for building the great pyramid at Giza. After at least 45 centuries descendants of those famous geese of Meidum in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo are alive and well, and merrily shitting all over Cape Town.

The marie biscuit

Last week when I went to meet our extraordinarily hospitable colleagues at the South African National Gallery in Cape Town, they gave me morning tea—proper tea out of a pot, sitting down at a table, with cups and saucers, and a generous plate of marie biscuits (rhymes with starry). I don’t think I’ve seen a marie biscuit since early childhood, and I immediately thought of Gran in Myamyn Street. It was quite eerie: the canonical key pattern around the edge; the lettering in the middle, “MARIE”; the pale colour; the dense composition, not too hard but definitely not crumbly; the comforting, non-assertive ur-biscuit flavor—all these seemed so familiar, so vividly the same. My own little madeleine moment. There are many remarkable things about the South African National Gallery, but my delightful reunion with the marie biscuit was a special bonus.

According to various sources, the marie biscuit was invented in London in 1874 by the firm of Peek Frean & Co. to commemorate the marriage of Queen Victoria’s second son, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, to H.I.&R.H. the Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna of Russia—and by that neat set of circumstances gained traction throughout the Empire. Peek Freans had earlier achieved success with their garibaldi biscuit (1861), but as far as I can recall only the marie was ever a middle-class morning-tea staple in the suburbs of Melbourne. Prior to my visit to Cape Town I was not aware that it enjoyed the same degree of prominence in South Africa—so I imagine the marie found its way onto the bridge tables of Hong Kong, the verandahs of Candy, Peshawar, and Nairobi, and I daresay into the better tea rooms of Halifax and Christchurch also. Splendid.

According to the South Australian Register (Saturday, November 22, 1919), “The Prices Regulation Commission on Friday approved tentatively of an increase of ½d. per lb. in the price of bush, coffee, and marie biscuits. The new prices are 7d., 9d., and 9½d. per lb. respectively, with transport added for the country districts. A further investigation will be made by the commission at a later date.” How sensible, and what better indication than this of the lasting importance of the marie biscuit (the costliest of the three) as a binding agent, both gastric and imperial.

The leopardess

If you have never ventured into the South African bush, or visited what is still soberingly referred to as a “game reserve,” it is difficult to grasp just how rich an experience it can be, even how transformative.

Sabi Sand in the Limpopo Province comprises 44,000 acres of high bushveld savannah, gently rolling country at either side of the Sand River, which rises in the Drakensberg Mountains, a distant but beautiful presence. The property is contiguous with the western boundary of the Kruger National Park, not so far from the border with Mozambique, and scores of wild animals move freely back and forth. At this time of year, the southern winter, the land is dry, brown, and crackly, very much like Australia Felix—the days are warm and sunny, the nights cold.

In the absence of lush foliage, you can often see across long distances, which is handy for encounters with especially reticent creatures, but animals big and small are so numerous, and so familiar with the careful movement of land rovers, that all you really have to do is sit there with your binoculars and before long pretty much everything ambles, trots, stomps, skitters, flaps, or slinks casually by. It is simply amazing—a place teeming with every conceivable form of life. The best analogy is Eden. Indeed whoever drafted Genesis must surely have known a landscape like Sabi Sand, all set about with fever trees.

During my visit of four days, comprising three-hour dawn and dusk expeditions led by Shelley, our expert guide, a young New Zealand expatriate equipped with a loaded rifle, and Emmanuel, our dependable tracker, we met with a dazzle of well-fed zebra and a journey of giraffes, the latter with incomparable eyelashes; a crash of dogged white rhinoceros, who evidently double as a taxi service for meticulous side-stepping red-billed oxpeckers; herds of sensitive nyala, graceful impala, swaggering kudu, and big shaggy blue wildebeest; cheerful waterbuck, bushbuck, nimble grey duiker, and watchful rock-dwelling klipspringer. There were four busy warthog piglets, trotting along behind big-bosomed mother warthog, their tails pointing straight up. She reminded me of late-career Melba.

There were lissome tree squirrels, cheeky vervet monkeys, and a troop of unscrupulous chacma baboons. A herd of massive Cape buffalo ambled by, restively—the only creatures at length I found truly frightening. Unstoppable elephants patiently carried forward their project of deforestation, in particular a large bull without tusks who with the tip of his trunk gingerly sampled a waterhole with absolutely disarming fastidiousness, while at the same time producing an enormous erection.

There were crested barbets, forked-tailed drongos, helmeted guinea-fowl, grey go-away birds, a stately goliath heron, a black-winged stilt, sacred ibis (scooping and sifting through the mucky reed-beds), primevil red- and yellow-billed and trumpeter hornbills, Cape turtle-doves, sumptuous lilac-breasted rollers, a little exhibitionist bee-eater, and a clan of spotted hyenas with two suckling pups. We had seen the mother a day earlier, standing motionless upon a rise, the epitome of statuesque, her broad forequarters the equal of any carved in alabaster with wings on the gates to the citadel of Sargon II.

For two nights fleet-footed hippopotamus, including the baby hippo with a very hairy nose, munched determinedly right beneath my window, tossing confident grunts to relations up and down the river.

I saw a scrub hare, a woodland dormouse (enchanting), an African civet, a hefty marsh terrapin, a pair of hyperactive dwarf mongooses, a coy side-striped jackal, several single-striped mice, bats, ostriches, rainbow skinks, and the distinctive tracks of an especially reclusive aardvark.

After some considerable searching, we caught up with two young male lions, yet to grow their manes, one comforting the other, who had lately been badly hurt in a scuffle maybe with a hyena. However, I suppose it is the leopardess who will stay with me long after the whole spectacle recedes.

She was stalking something, and stole out from behind a termite mound—just like that. Silent as the grave, and as smooth as plush silk velvet, she proceeded without the slightest hint of urgency, actually hugging the three sides of our vehicle that stood between her and some intriguing fragrance farther distant. Her paws were as big as my head, her shoulder-blades undulating with metronomic precision. Her coat was paler than I had imagined it might be, and her gait was indescribably beautiful. The rear pads trod exactly into the rustle-free spots carefully discerned by the fore. She then reclined for a few minutes with the effortless authority of a queen-empress, and that was when I took this photograph. She has a seven or eight-month-old cub back near the lodge. Evidently leopards live with constant hunger, but you would never know. It is especially odd, therefore, that she can maintain such superb disdain for the assortment of human amuses gueules perching fussily in our (open) truck, but maybe we hoist too many olfactory question marks over the subtle mind of Panthera pardus.

As if to amplify an already intense experience up to the point of dizzying sensuality, a full moon rose on the second night and shed its cold light over the Drakensberg Mountains, the river flats, the gentle slopes, creek beds, copses of leadwood and marula and thickets of spiky acacia.

The Italians talk about mal d’Africa, literally Africa-sickness, and now I know exactly what they mean. I’m going back.