Wednesday, August 31, 2011

To unsung literary agents

Their labors rarely earn a lot of money
Except for publishers, and lazy hacks.
Some editors reject fine works and funny,
When profits plunge then shrivel prior to tax.
“Technology: a boon!” shriek twelve year-olds,
“Forget the book, just give me sexy apps;
Ten thousand zines my 4–G iPad holds,
I only want what goes on top of laps.”
That’s Penguin, HarperCollins, and the rest,
But crafty authors, watching titles vanish,
Besiege their agents, venture to suggest:
“I heard a fortune can be made in Spanish.
Translate me, please, for nothing would be finer
Than now to sell my book as well in China.”

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Message in a bottle

If in New Haven, Conn., you live on the corner of two streets, one of which is technically a state route and the other a city street, as I do, and something happens, such as a tropical storm, and the power goes out through the entire neighborhood, and police road blocks go up over both city streets and the state route alike, encircling you like a snug and impenetrable noose, naturally you seek information, and, seeking it, you encounter the following problem: The City of New Haven transportation department refers you to the state of Connecticut department of transportation, and the state of Connecticut department of transportation refers you back to the City of New Haven transportation department. That’s if you can find the right telephone number in either case. It is understandable that under present conditions, in which everyone is working as hard as possible and doing all that they can to bring things back to normal in the aftermath of tropical storm Irene, there will be tiresome delays. However my neighbors and I can neither drive into nor out of our properties, in which there is no power, and all we are asking is for a rough estimate of how long this state of affairs is likely to continue, and, incidentally, since the barriers all around us read “CAUTION ENERGIZED AREA,” a wonderfully ambiguous phrase, what risks there are in our immediate vicinity of which we should obviously be made aware. I see no wires down, nor any risky trees. As usual, the United Illuminating Company (UI) are not easily reachable, and their online storm information impossible to decypher. The person I just spoke to did not even know what “CAUTION ENERGIZED AREA” means. No idea. So I am putting this message in a virtual bottle in the hope that someone else may come to our rescue. Until then the experience of returning home after dark at the end of the working day will continue to have a Cathy-and-Heathcliff dimension, with more prosaic stubbed toes thrown in. Thank you.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Recovery haiku

My house is clearly
Eine feste Burg, thank God.
Shame about the fence.

These days anything
At all that approaches Wall
Street gets downgraded.

Watch TV, they said.
Hard when the cables are snapped,
But far more restful.

After the maelstrom,
Busy blokes in pick-ups thirst
For chainsaw action.

New York Times came
Despite the storm. Pity I
Couldn’t retrieve it.

That driver stopped and
Took pictures of the damage
To my yard. Moron.

CNN wanted
Our photos—“but don’t take risks.”
Couldn’t they take them?

Fill up your bathtub,
They said, mysteriously.
Today I know why.

The grid is like a
Tree. They fix the trunk first, then
Limbs. I am a leaf.

After Irene, a
Hundred ways with dry biscuits
And canned goods. Who knew?

Irene wrought still less
Than collateralized debt
Obligations did.

Motorist! You toss
Your empty bottle as if
Irene said you could.

Dominatrix! You
Say my call is important
To you. What rubbish.

The rich banker’s house:
Gone, but for shards of onyx
Tub. That is my dream.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The name of Hurricane Irene

According to the World Meteorological Organization, the United Nations agency responsible for studying the state and behavior of the Earth’s atmosphere, its interaction with the oceans, the climate these produce, and the resulting distribution of fresh water, “there is a strict procedure to determine a list of tropical cyclone names in an ocean basin by the responsible Tropical Cyclone Regional Body at its annual or biennial meeting.” There are five such tropical cyclone regional bodies, of which the fourth, that of North America, Central America, and the Caribbean concerns us here. From 1953 to 1979 Atlantic tropical storms were named consecutively from lists of twenty-one women’s Christian or first names arranged alphabetically (except for the letters Q, U, X, Y, and Z) on a six-year rotation. In 1979, it was decided to add men’s names to these lists, alternating with women’s, and, should the number of tropical storms ever exceed twenty-one, to continue thereafter with the names for letters of the Greek alphabet, that is, alpha, beta, gamma, delta, etc. From these lists certain names are occasionally removed for reasons of sensitivity when they stand post hoc for a storm that caused much loss of life or destruction. “It is important to note,” they say, “that tropical cyclones or hurricanes are named neither after any particular person, nor with any preference in alphabetical sequence,” whatever that means. Such names are said to be familiar to whole populations in each region, for the purposes of comprehensibility, clarity, memorability, and, in turn, better preparedness, and improved public safety. So where I sit just now, in New Haven, Conn., Hurricane Irene—Irene of the Horai, she of order, loveliness, spring flowers, cornucopias, predictability and, above all, peace—is instead charging up the eastern seaboard of the United States like a mad, bile-spitting harpy, causing immense upheaval, chaos, disruption, fear, and destruction. Moreover, and most curiously, she is to be found in the following bizarre sequence of names that were apparently selected on purpose, but according to no identifiable principle of taste, by invisible meteorologists who claim to know which names are most memorable to a majority of people in our multilingual, multicultural, multinational region. It is simply mystifying, but I suppose it could just as easily have been Arlene, Bret, Cindy, Don, Emily, Franklin, Gert, Harvey, Jose, Katia, Lee, Maria, Nate, Ophelia, Philippe, Rina, Sean, Tammy, Vince, Whitney, alpha, beta, gamma, delta, etc. So let us be gay.

Irene haiku

Pine needles rustling,

Harbingers of fall, but no:

The tree squashed my car.

No power, no gas.

Water’s off. With my flashlight,

Though, I read Miss Pym.

Mudslide trauma, then

More checks for the contractors.

What was I thinking?

A gallon per day

Of bottled water, they said.

I’d sooner have gin.

Looters rummaging

Through the wreckage of my house.

Bring me Nick’s chainsaw.


Not if it means going to

A gymnasium.

Above the clamor,

Amy Chua’s kids must do

Violin practice.

“Storm strike with fury,”

Confucius say, “like dragon,

Or Mrs. Murdoch.”

After the tempest

Irksome Yalies ask: “What are

You working on now?”

“Hurricane Irene”:

Whoever named it needs a

Good Greek dictionary.

Connecticut code

Warns against use of candles.

But don’t they eat out?

If hurricanes were

Like Trumbles, their wrath would melt

Harmlessly away.

“Chipmunk!” I chortle,

“Have you some inkling of what’s

Coming down the pike?”

The book of crisis

Cuisine has no recipe

For blanquette de veau.

If the mighty oak

Blows down, why can’t it land

On a few squirrels?

A man’s house is his

Castle, except when high winds

Bugger up the roof.

Chipmunk! Your nest near

My grease trap suits you just fine,

So why jump ship now?

Could that be the sound

Of my chimney teetering

On the brink of coll…?

Friday, August 19, 2011

The penny

Today I noticed in an irritatingly large handful of small change a penny that is clearly dated 1929. This means it is real bronze (95% copper, 5% tin and a dash of zinc), in other words actually worth rather more than a penny, but that is neither here nor there. I wondered for a few moments where on earth my penny has been for all this time, and, wondering, the following bright visions wafted into partial focus. From the United States Mint in Philadelphia, gleaming and new, together with tens of thousands of others my penny was delivered under armed guard to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. According to standard contractual arrangements, they consigned it to the Lower Manhattan branch of the Lincoln-Alliance Bank and Trust Co. Soon afterwards my penny found its way into the pocketbook of a clerk in charge of the wire room at the bonding house of the New York Stock Exchange firm of Sutro Brothers. Ruined in the crash, she threw herself out of a fortieth-floor window onto Wall Street, and of course died instantly. My penny therefore spent some days in the custody of the New York Police Department, before being handed over to her heirs with a few other relatively undamaged personal belongings. After a period of mourning as brief as that of Clytemnestra, these rather distant relations in Brooklyn released it back into circulation at Coney Island. Thanks to organized crime, my penny migrated thence to the tray of a cigarette vendor in a Chicago cinema. Afterwards it was brought to Kansas City, Mo., and then carried by an anthropologist all the way to San Francisco, Calif., by rail, before commencing a long period of hibernation in a cookie jar. The cookie jar was disposed of in accordance with the instructions of a testator, who before he died of a stroke in 1956 relocated several times, ultimately to Fresno. Thus returning to the banking system, my penny was soon propelled by air back to the east coast. There a freight forwarder and shipping agent used it to play a conjuring trick in a cocktail lounge not far from Ildewild Airport, part of a determined effort to seduce an off-duty stewardess (Braniff). Failing, the next morning he took my penny in his van to Rochester, N.Y., and left it in a dish at the front counter of a small diner. My penny went with his share of tips to the short order cook, who presently took it with him on vacation to Cape Cod. This was in the summer of 1968. My penny was then handled briefly and in rapid succession by a recently ordained Unitarian minister, an out-of-work soul singer, and two or three volunteer collectors for charity, curiously the same charity, before landing in an amusement arcade in Atlantic City, N.J. Already too insignificant for most slot machines, it found its shamefaced way back to a small and undercapitalized local bank, and presently reappeared on the dashboard of a lorry in Trenton. Soon afterwards my penny crossed back over the Hudson in the hip pocket of a senior Port Authority official who lost it down the back of a sofa in a prosperous Lower East Side brothel. A further period of slumber ensued, before my penny was retrieved by a frugal re-upholsterer in Long Island City. Incredible as this may seem, he banked it. Six months later, my penny went to an unscrupulous arms dealer changing numerous crisp Turkish 500,000 lira banknotes at the foreign desk in a Midtown branch of Citibank. My penny annoyed him, so a few days later, upon relinquishing his eleventh-floor suite at the Carlyle, he tossed it on the vanity. Later that morning, a hard-working chambermaid took up my penny. It lurked in her battered purse for seventeen months, two weeks, three days, ten hours, and some minutes when, just by the Astoria Boulevard subway stop, she was robbed at gunpoint and her purse emptied. This was in February 1983. There followed a brief period for which I cannot account, though numerous court appearances and at least one confiscation by officers of the law definitely occurred. Fortunately through this my penny sustained no significant damage. Nor was it ever thrown in the trash; nor placed on the railway by truant schoolchildren eager to see it squashed under a bogie; nor dropped into a sewer or storm drain where so many others apparently do end up. Reverting to the control of a front-line cashier or teller thanks to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York (White Plains)—when acquitted of several counts of aggravated assault, a felon with three prior convictions overlooked it when reclaiming his personal belongings, so lost property were called in—my penny became indirectly involved with the Savings and Loan catastrophe because it was carried several times back and forth to California by Charles Keating himself, before dropping—ping!—onto a sidewalk in Beverly Hills. There a bag lady picked it up. For several weeks she shook it in her little paper cup, together with other coins of small denomination, but ultimately shook it onto the floor of a bus. The bus driver, unusually fastidious, picked it up at the end of her shift, and, perishing not long afterwards as a consequence of chronic diabetes, yielded the penny to a grieving grandson. He put it in his piggy bank. The piggy bank was emptied during the recession of the early 1990s, and this time my penny transited through the U.S. postal service. It was given as change when a graduate student on vacation from Amherst bought a prepaid envelope and ten domestic postage stamps. Back in Massachusetts, this young man misplaced my penny in his grubby backpack, right down at the bottom with a few crumpled gum wrappers and some dusty old marijuana leavings. Appointed to a junior position at Lehman Brothers, he peremptorily and, as it turns out, unwisely consigned his back-pack to the Salvation Army, and my penny was discovered in the workroom adjoining their Thrift Store at 271 Appleton Street, Holyoke, Mass. It was tossed into the cash register. It passed on yet again, this time to an itinerant but shrewd collector of old vinyl LPs, who I gather back home in Boston habitually empties his pockets of all coins and puts them into a large canvas bag that lives on the dresser, and once a year around Thanksgiving indulges in the giddy pleasure of depositing the lot into his bank account. By this mechanism my penny made its way onward to the petty cash box in the front office of a minor religious order. It was stolen by a middle-ranking nun and spent by her, clandestinely, on a pair of naughty undies ($29.99, using the exact money for speed, she thought mistakenly). The lingerie people routinely deposited my penny into their number 2 account at TD Bank in New Haven, Conn., whence it was lobbed to the cash register at Starbucks, which is where I received it this morning with other coins and a cup of coffee in exchange for four one-dollar bills. The beauty of these schemata is that nobody can possibly show that any of them are not true.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Nuits St. Georges

Curious, isn’t it, how little threads join wildly different moments? A few weeks ago I was in the dining car of the Blue Train, somewhere not far from Beaufort West in South Africa, jotting down with deep skepticism the brief but extravagant description of Klein Constantia printed in the wine list. Back in New Haven, this led me to Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Napoleon and creepy old Baudelaire, who in the Fleurs du mal reckoned he preferred the elixir of his lover’s mouth over opium, or the fine vintages of Nuits St. Georges, and Constantia. I bet he was fibbing about the opium. Anyway, I now know that the vin de Constance that flourished before phylloxera was everything it was cracked up to be, but how delightful, only a few days later, to bump into Nuits St. Georges again, this time in London, and as a prop exquisitely chosen by Barbara Pym in Excellent Women:

I sat patiently while William and the waiter consulted in angry whispers. A bottle of wine was brought. William took it up and studied the label suspiciously. I watched apprehensively as he tasted it, for he was one of those men to whom the formality really meant something and he was quite likely to send the bottle back and demand another. But as he tasted, he relaxed. It was all right, or perhaps not that, but it would do.
“A tolerable wine, Mildred,” he said. “unpretentious, but I think you will like it.”
“Unpretentious, just like me,” I said stupidly, touching the feather in my brown hat.
“We really should have a tolerable wine today. Spring seems to be almost with us,” he observed in a dry tone.

“Nuits St. Georges,” I read from the label. “How exciting that sounds! Does it mean the Nights of St. George? It conjures up the most wonderful pictures, armour and white horses and dragons, flames too, perhaps a great procession by torchlight.”

He looked at me doubtfully for a moment and then, seeing that I had not yet tasted my wine, began to explain that Nuits St. Georges was a place where there were vineyards, but that not every bottle bearing the name on the label was to be taken as being of the first quality. “It might,” he said seriously, “be an ordinaire. Always remember that. A little learning is a dangerous thing, Mildred.”

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring,” I went on, pleased at being able to finish the quotation. “But I’m afraid I shall never have the chance to drink deep so I must remain ignorant.”

“Ah, Pope at Twickenham,” sighed William. “And now Popesgrove is a telephone exchange. It makes one feel very sad.” He paused for a moment and then began to eat with great enjoyment.

I gather that vintages of Nuits St. Georges are produced in the part of Burgundy called, not surprisingly, Côte de Nuits. I’m not sure I have ever tasted one, not even an ordinaire. Also, I had to go and look up the couplet from Pope. It comes from Part II of An Essay on Criticism (1711), which goes to show you how very safe I am, rather like Mildred. Notice, though, the brilliance of Barbara Pym’s comic prose: those angry whispers, the feather, the endearing recklessness of Mildred’s effort to generate conversational momentum and the banality of William’s effortless and entirely unwarranted condescension, above all the telephone exchange. Most satisfactorily near the end of the novel Mildred seizes the chance to lob Nuits St. Georges right back into William’s court, after the manner of Dorothy Round Little. Lovely, and now I must take out the rubbish.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Excellent Women

In London over the weekend I picked up a copy of Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952), and devoured it. Notwithstanding Alexander McCall Smith’s remark in the new introduction“One does not laugh out loud while reading Barbara Pym; that would be too much. One smiles.”—I think it’s one of the funniest novels I have ever read. Perhaps this is because there is so much of Mum contained in the voice of the narrator Mildred Lathbury, everything from a profound distaste for being addressed as “dear,” through all forms of sharp observation, treating seriously what others too distracted by self-importance regard as trivia, to an extremely well-developed and healthy sense of the ridiculous. Mrs. Gray, William Caldicote, Mrs. Bone, Sister Blatt, and the mysterious Miss Jessop are delightful exempla of the middle-class urban grotesque then flourishing in postwar London. Following last week’s deeply shocking riots, I suspect the metropolis is beginning to re-acquire something of the same bleak atmosphere, though admittedly free of shared bathrooms and smoke from dismal coal fires. Certainly Mum had a complete run of the novels of Barbara Pym neatly arranged on the shelf above the phone at Denham Place, and I have a vivid recollection of her quietly chuckling to herself whilst reading one, propped up in bed with a cup of tea. Why did I not follow the prompt while she was still alive? No doubt part of the answer is contained in the question, but I am sure it is better late than never. I hope she would be pleased; I am simply grateful:

Rockingham! I snatched at the name as if it had been a precious jewel in the dustbin.

The burden of keeping three people in toilet paper seemed to me rather a heavy one.

There can be no exchange of glances over the telephone, no breaking into laughter.

Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing.

Men love messing about with paint and distemper.

I felt it was not a very suitable remark for a clergyman’s widow to have made, though it was certainly amusing in a rather cheap way.

I supposed that Dora and I, who had both been fat as schoolgirls, could now stand side by side singing “Frail children of dust, And feeble as frail,” without a tremor or the ghost of a smile. It was rather sad, really.

“Hullo! You look like a wet week at Blackpool,” Sister Blatt’s jolly voice boomed out of the dusk.

“Do you think they have jumble sales in Belgravia?” asked Mrs. Gray; “that hadn’t occurred to me.”

The room seemed suddenly very hot and I saw Mrs. Gray’s face rather too close to mine, her eyes wide open and penetrating, her teeth small and pointed, her skin a smooth apricot colour.

“Do you think Mrs. Gray will marry again?” I asked craftily…/ “I don’t know…widows nearly always do marry again.” / “Oh, they have the knack of catching a man. Having done it once I suppose they can do it again. I suppose there’s nothing in it if you know how.” / “Like mending a fuse,” I suggested, though I had not previously taken this simple view of seeking and finding a life partner.

“I wonder if they have any picture postcards of this garden?” / “Oh to send to William, you mean?” / “Yes, perhaps to William, but I’ve already sent him one.” / “Oh, you mustn’t overdo it, or he’ll think you’re running after him.” / I agreed that I mustn’t and imagined William’s beady eyes, round and alarmed.

She did not look like the kind of person who could possibly do anything for which an apology might be demanded.

Miss Jessop made a quavering sound which might have been “Yes” or “No” but it was not allowed to develop into speech, for Mrs. Bone broke in by telling Everard that Miss Jessop wouldn’t want any sherry.

Everard Bone was at a meeting of the Prehistoric Society. It sounded like a joke.

“Miss Jessop and I are very much interested in the suppression of woodworm in furniture.”

Birds, worms, and Jesuits…it might almost have been a poem, but I could not remember that anybody had ever written it...

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The engagement ring

Dad kept everything. Tucked inside the back cover of the earliest of his many scrapbooks is the receipt for Mum’s engagement ring. He bought it on March 2, 1948, from W. M. Catanach of Catanach’s (est. 1880), who then occupied premises on the corner of the Royal Arcade and Little Collins Street. Incredibly they are still going strong. The item is a “W[hite] G[old] & platinum 3 st[one] Diamond and Sapphire Ring,” and the price was high: £68 10s. When in 1949 Dad began work as a lowly law clerk at Mallesons his salary was £10 a week.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Forever Mum

On Ash Wednesday, February 16, 1983, fanned by hot winds of up to nearly 70 miles per hour, about 180 wildfires burned over more than a million acres of land stretching right across Victoria and South Australia, many of them merging to produce conditions of frightening savagery. Seventy-five people were killed, seventeen of them volunteer firefighters, and over 340,000 sheep, 18,000 cattle, and innumerable native birds and animals. 3,700 buildings were destroyed in the firestorm, including Mum and Dad’s weekend place at Upper Beaconsfield. The process of cleaning up and rebuilding took years, but by the time Dad took this photograph in November 1985, a few months shy of Mum’s sixtieth birthday, they had managed to deal with the worst of it. Local contractors felled this enormous gum tree; I presume it was beyond salvation because she loved her trees, but Mum took over from there. Methodically, patiently, indomitably she built a succession of carefully controlled bonfires that eventually consumed the whole damned thing, just as Aunt Anne did some years earlier (come to think of it) at their pretty place on the right bank of the Tambo, upstream from Swan Reach. In each case those tough sisters were as proud as punch, as well they might be, but Mum’s Farmer-Giles pose is characteristically good-humored, even self-deprecating, but quite obviously real also. She was simply amazing.

No solicitors

I’ve been looking through the albums. How very lucky we are to have them.

Whenever they traveled to the United States of America, which was not often, Dad rarely lost an opportunity to have himself and/or Mum (as in this instance) photographed inspecting those little signs on the front door of Upper East Side apartment and other buildings that say “NO SOLICITORS.”

Dad was a solicitor, but not the kind that bother us here. In the British legal system from which the Australian was derived, solicitors were attorneys who dealt with any legal matter, including certain minor court proceedings. However, by universal convention solicitors engaged learned barristers to argue their clients’ cases in the higher courts, and until recently defendants or litigants had no choice but to consult a solicitor in the first instance. It was very much a two-tiered system: suave barristers above, and humble city solicitors below. Indeed before the First World War it was not unusual for Australian solicitors not to have a law degree; barristers invariably did. When our grandfather was admitted to practice in the Supreme Court of Victoria, the law in Australia was in the process of rapidly professionalizing. Thenceforth solicitors invariably took law degrees before being articled to a senior solicitor. They then had the option of reading for the bar (to become a barrister), or not. Judges were almost invariably chosen from the pool of senior barristers. Dad graduated from the University of Melbourne on December 18, 1948, was shortly afterwards admitted to practice as a solicitor, and did so for the rest of his professional life.

In America, the sign “NO SOLICITORS” is meant to ward off door-to-door salesmen, hawkers, canvassers, etc., but Dad and Mum were always tickled by the notion that this could be read as an outrageous rebuke aimed at respectable partners of the old Melbourne firm of Mallesons. God, how I miss them both!

Our new website

All my working life authors wishing to publish photographic reproductions of works of art that are (a) owned by public institutions, and (b) out of copyright, have labored under a punishing regime of fees for permission, fees for reproduction, fees, fees, fees. It is a burden that has cost many of us more than our published work will ever earn back in royalties, and has therefore put an almighty brake on scholarship in every branch of the history of art, and much else besides. For many impecunious art museums, the system has been regarded as a valuable income stream, and as a way of controlling the quality of such reproductions of the works in their care as find their way into print. However, the cost of gathering those fees is often greater than the annual income so generated, and in the era of the internet no museum, however great, can ever possibly hope to maintain that control. People will simply go ahead and scan a magazine illustration then manufacture Mona Lisa bathmats any way they can, usually in Guangzhou.

So we are leading by example. Henceforth we at the Yale Center for British Art will gladly make available through our website easily downloadable high-resolution print-quality photographic reproductions of anything in our collection that is out of copyright—free, gratis, and for nothing. Nor does it concern us in any way whatsoever how you wish to use these reproductions, in print or online. We are sufficiently confident that people everywhere will grasp the difference between a photo and the real thing, and if the dissemination of accurate reproductions of our works of art achieve wide distribution, so much the better. We do not and will not make judgments of taste in respect of the suitability or otherwise of George Stubbs’s Zebra, say, wandering onto a muu-muu or shower curtain any more than we interfere with law-abiding visitors to our galleries during normal opening hours. And we are certainly not so paranoid that we regard such unconventional forms of reproduction as an affront to the artist, or so pompous as to see ourselves as the sole custodian of his posthumous reputation—indeed we are confident that Stubbs will be taken no less seriously should his zebra ever put in an appearance on a G-string at the carnival in Rio. Ideally we would prefer non-commercial use, but these days what is non-commercial? You will see that we have put in place a simple mechanism that ought to prevent a robot from vacuuming up everything. All that we are asking our users is that in due course they let us know where they elect to publish reproductions of works in this collection so that our records can be kept as up-to-date as possible.

It’s about time, isn’t it? And the cultural and philosophical bases are entirely logical. We are a public institution, and thanks to the munificence of our founder the late Paul Mellon access to the objects entrusted to our care is free, clear, unrestricted, and open to any and everyone in perpetuity, subject of course to the law of copyright, and to routine logistical or conservation constraints. But even there we do our best to show people whatever they want to see that may happen to be in storage just now. So the new website and our new policy about reproductions are merely an extension of that.

So, authors, come ye, shout it from the rooftops, tell your colleagues and friends, alert your publishers to this valuable new resource, and feel free to rake through our website, search high and low, right across the collections, and download to your heart’s content. Be fruitful, and multiply!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Table Mountain

At the summit of Table Mountain, 3,563 precipitious feet above sea level, there is a small plaque affixed to a stone wall that carries the inscription “Great are the works of the Lord,” Psalm 111:2a (RSV). I daresay a suitable response might be “O God, thou knowest my foolishness,” Psalm 69:5a (KJV). True, from here you grasp the full splendor of the Western Cape—the rampart-like formation of the Tafelberg itself, as narrow as it is preposterously high, and the scale of Duiwels Kop (Devil’s Peak) adjacent; the puniness of Signal Hill, and the stunning spectacle of the Twelve Apostles, which Jan van Riebeeck first named the Gevelbergen, invoking the supremely Dutch analogy of gables. This spectacular chain of mountains tumbles southwards to the Cape of Good Hope. However, Table Mountain is fearfully exposed, and long stretches of extremely low parapet beckon playful toddlers to opt for the fast way down. On the whole, for me it was not so much a Caspar David Friedrich moment as an Edvard Munch. Perhaps this is evidence of the strengthening grip of middle age. There is also the tafelkloot or “tablecloth.” This remarkable cloud from time to time forms over the length of Table Mountain and spills over the edge before dissipating, the product of moisture thrown upwards by a brisk southeaster. The French called it la perruque, the wig, which is better because it takes account of the billows, swirls, and curls. According to legend, the tablecloth was the product of a long pipe-smoking contest between the Devil and a Dutch pirate called Jan van Hunks. The cloud, it is said, serves to remind the Devil of Van Hunks’s victory—but innumerable later events suggest that it was the other way around.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Groot Constantia again

A bright but unflattering sidelight is shed by Captain Robert Percival upon the production, sale, and distribution of the fabled vin de Constance in the neighborhood of Groot Constantia. Captain Percival’s An Account of the Cape of Good Hope (London: C. and R. Baldwin, 1804) was reviewed by “Muir”—paraphrased really—in the Monthly Review in February the following year (pp. 130–143). According to Muir,

“The inferiority of most Cape wines to those of Europe proceeds from no inherent defect in the grapes, but from the slovenly practices of keeping them too near the surface of the ground, mixing both leaves and foot-stalks in the wine-press to increase the quantity of juice, pulling the fruit in an unripe state, checking the fermentation, and employing sulphur and sugar of lead for the purpose of fining. The remarks, however, apply not to the celebrated Constantia wine, concerning which our author has favoured us with some interesting information. The beautiful little village of Constantia and its vine plantations, with the Table Mountain, are considered as the principal objects of curiosity at the Cape:

‘Round the vineyards, dwelling houses, and offices, are pleasant groves of silver-tree, besides oak, elms, and other smaller plants, which completely shelter it in every direction, and hide it from the view till you wind round the hill, and come quite close to it. There are two distinct and separate plantations of vines here, each of a different colour and quality, though both are called Constantia wines. The first farm, called Great Constantia, produces the red wine of that name; and at Lesser Constantia, in its vicinity, the white is made. The farm, which alone produces this richly flavoured wine, belongs to a Dutchman, Mynheer Pluter [
sic, his name was Hendrik Cloete] and has been long in his family [sic, the property changed hands twice in 1778, when Mr. Cloete’s father bought it, barely twenty-five years earlier]…

‘The quantity of wine made on the farms of Constantia, on an average, is about seventy-five
leagers a year, each leager containing upwards of one hundred and fifty gallons of our measure. It is a sweet, heavy, and luscious wine, not fit to be drunk in any quantity, but chiefly suited to a dessert, as a couple of glasses are quite as much as one would desire to drink at a time. It is even here excessively dear and difficult to be procured, and must be often bespoke a considerable time. The captains of vessels touching here, who have wished to procure a quantity of it, have been frequently obliged to contract for it a year or two before the wine was made.

‘Under the Dutch government [to 1795] the farmer divided the produce into three parts; one-third he was obliged to furnish, at a certain price, to the Dutch East-India Company, who sent it to the government in Holland. Another proportion was furnished to certain of the inhabitants of Cape Town, chiefly the people in high office and power, at the same rate; and the remaining quantity he was at liberty to dispose of at what price he could to the passengers, and captains of ships of all nations. The price to strangers varied according to circumstances; when there was any deficiency in the produce of his farm, the price was always raised in proportion. The Dutch inhabitants in Cape Town, at whose houses and tables the passengers are accommodated, rarely ever produce a drop of this wine, except upon very extraordinary occasions. The Dutch indeed are sufficiently careful never to open a bottle of this valuable liquor at their tables, unless they perceive it may serve their own purposes. A rich Englishman who has made his fortune in India, and from whom they expect a handsome present of tea, sugar candy, or muslin, is honoured now and then with a bottle of Constantia at the dessert; but a British officer who is not supposed to be flush of money or valuable articles, except where he is a favourite with the lady of the house [!], may go without it all the time he remains here.

‘When a bottle of Constantia is to be bought at the Cape Town, which is but seldom the case, and even then it requires some management to procure it, it is never sold under a couple of dollars. But it generally happens that strangers, although they procure this prize, are still as far as ever from tasting real Constantia, as there is another kind of sweet, rich wine, which the Dutch frequently pass off for it.

‘One may fortunately, by dint of persuasion, get at the village of Constantia, from Mynheer Pluter [Cloete], a small cask containing about twenty gallons for ten or twelve pounds sterling; a stranger can seldom procure a larger quantity at the same time; indeed he must always be particularly recommended to take any quantity he can obtain, and also to prevent having the other heavy, sweet wine imposed upon him for Constantia. Mr. Pluter has a great number of visitors to his farm, who are equally attracted by the beauty of the place, and the desire of seeing the vine plantations, with the manner of making the wine. He is in every respect a complete Dutchman. For though used to such a variety of the first company, and gentlemen of high civil, and military situations, who always pay liberally, and whom it is strongly his interest to encourage to his farm by civility, and a suavity of manners, he is generally morose, uncouth, and churlish in his manners; and it is rare to see him in a good humor, though he gains a great profit by entertaining his occasional guests with his nectar. Money is the idol of the Dutch; yet they receive it without thanking those who bring it, or encouraging them to come again by civility and attention; and when they have once received their extravagant demand, they laugh at the folly of our countrymen for their indifference in parting with that money which is their own idol.

‘I was so unfortunate as not to find this gentleman in a good humor during the two or three visits I made to his farm, and could scarcely get a bottle of wine, or leave to look at his wine vaults and presses, not having brought any particular recommendation from his friends at the Cape, which from pride he regularly exacts. I relied however on what I knew of a Dutchman’s partiality for English customers; but on my requesting leave to see the place, he himself came out and informed me the gentleman was not at home. The other officers who were along with me, however, and who understood his disposition better, and the requisite management, got some of the slaves for a present to get us wine, and shew us the plantations and manner of manufacturing the grapes into wine; nor did we take the smallest notice of the owner’s surliness and boorish manners when we afterwards met him, but went on to satisfy our curiosity, and obtain the wine and information we wanted. If company arrives before he is dressed, and has got over his usual quantity of pipes and tobacco, he denies himself, and does not wish to admit them unless he is pretty sure of getting hard dollars; those perfectly acquainted with this, take care to let the slaves see the cash, on which he sends any quantity into an arbor in the garden, and when the bill is called, he charges two Spanish dollars a bottle, equal to 11s. 6d. British. Some allowances must certainly be made for Mynheer Pluter’s [Cloete’s] moroseness, as it is impossible for him at all times to attend to the reception of his visitors; some of whom by their teizing and forward loquacity, might render themselves extremely troublesome and disagreeable to his grave and solemn habits. His slaves are exceedingly attentive and communicative, when allowed to wait on and conduct strangers, finding it highly to their advantage, as they always get something for themselves.

‘Mr. Pluter’s wine vaults are very extensive and neatly laid out, and every thing is in much better order than at any other wine farm I have seen. In the vaults and wine cellars of the merchants at Cape Town, the wine is kept in very large butts or vessels somewhat shaped like a hogshead, but the rotundity is vastly greater in proportion. Those vessels are made of mahogany, or a wood very much resembling it, very thick, highly polished, and kept clean as our dining tables; they are bound round with great brass hoops, and the edges are secured by the same metal, so that no accident or time can damage them. Each of those butts or reservoirs, which they call leagers, though an inapplicable term, as a leager is a measure of one hundred and fifty gallons, will contain from six to seven hundred gallons. The bung-holes are covered with plates of brass hasped down and locked; the cocks are also strong and large, with locks and keys to them, so that the slaves are prevented from embezzling any of the wine, as they are never opened but in presence of one of the proprietors. Some of these leagers are elegantly carved and ornamented with various figures.’”

Captain Percival’s low opinion of Mr. Cloete, and Mr. Cloete’s presumably of each and every officer of the Royal Navy who wished to buy a few bottles of fine Constantia, and to bribe his slaves, were no doubt thrown into high relief by the outcome of the Battle of Muizenberg of 1795, the subsequent demise of the Dutch administration of the Cape, and its replacement by the British—with a brief hiatus between 1803 and 1806, when, under the Treaty of Amiens, the British handed it back to the Batavian Republic. More generally the Dutch colonists could hardly have been expected to entertain uninvited representatives of the new regime with reckless extravagance, or to forfeit a ready supply of their precious Constantia at the obviously unprofitable navy discount. On the other hand, there can be no excuse for serving, and far less selling, counterfeit Constantia—
klein or groot.


Bo-Kaap is the largely Muslim district of inner Cape Town, built against the slopes of Signal Hill, which is still today largely populated by the descendants of former slaves of the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie. It is often called the “Malay” quarter, but this is really a misnomer because the local community is far more ethnically diverse than that—and in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Dutch brought slaves from all over the Indian Ocean rim, and far beyond. It is a fascinating neighborhood.

There are still numerous small mosques, each with a particular ethnic or sectarian or local, even family or community affiliation: the shafee or “Indonesian” Auwal Mosque (1798); the Palm Tree or Jan Van Boughies Mosque in Long Street (1820); the Nurul Islam Mosque at 134 Buitengracht Street (1844); the Jamia or Queen Victoria Mosque in Lower Chiappini Street (1850); The Mosque of Imam Hadjie or Mosque Shafee in Upper Chiappini Street (1859); the Hanafee Mosque on the corner of Dorp and Long Streets (1881); the Boorhaanol Mosque in Longmarket Street (1884); the Quawatul Islam Mosque in Loop Street (1892); the Nurul Mohamadia Mosque in Vos Street (1899), and the Nurul Huda Mosque in Leeuwen Street (1958), among others.

It is often extremely difficult for the non-Muslim visitor fully to grasp the subtle differences between these various mosques, but the concept of the parish as distinct from the denomination certainly seems to help. Most are very small. The little row houses in surrounding streets are almost invariably painted bright, sometimes dazzling colours, wholly delightful. I was warned to be very careful walking around Cape Town, but I never once felt remotely threatened or uneasy in Bo-Kaap. The atmosphere was friendly, relaxed, even at times genuinely sleepy.

It is slightly unclear to me why Bo-Kaap escaped the shocking fate of
District 6, but I suspect that even in the dark 1960s, the area was regarded as perhaps too difficult and expensive to demolish and reorganize, or even just possibly worthy of preservation as a kind of picturesque, certainly unthreatening remnant. In a way it is tempting to use Bo-Kaap as an imaginary framework with which to imagine what the messier, rowdier, more commercial, less candy-coloured streetscape of District 6 must have been like in its heyday.

Lately a different fear has arisen, namely that processes of gentrification will eventually drive out the locals who have lived here in many cases since the mid-eighteenth century, in other words achieving by ordinary market forces (and neglect) what Apartheid entrusted to the Group Areas Act. What is especially intriguing is the persistence through the otherwise plain built environment of flourishes, arabesques, curly-cues, and hints toward gabling that you associate primarily with
Cape Dutch and therefore VOC “style,” a sort of aesthetic Stockholm Syndrome, but maybe also a plucky sign of conquest also. It is impossible not to like Bo-Kaap.

The Cape of Good Hope again

Australians are everywhere, even at the lighthouse high above the Cape of Good Hope. Among the forest of signposts pointing through 270 degrees, the one that points due east says “SYDNEY 11,642 KM,” i.e. 7,234 miles. Here it is. Some wit has hastily added in thick black felt-tipped pen “LITHGOW 11,485.” The calculation is based on subtracting the distance of about 93 miles that separates Lithgow, New South Wales, from Sydney, and is therefore pretty accurate. The old coal-mining town of Lithgow (pop. 11,298) was named after William Lithgow, the first auditor-general of New South Wales, and is on the western edge of the Blue Mountains. Lithgow is notable for various other reasons, not least as place where Marjorie Jackson grew up, “the Lithgow flash,” who at the Olympic Games in Helsinki in 1952 won gold medals for Australia in the women’s 100m and 200m athletic events, and was from 2001 to 2007 Governor of South Australia.

The Cape of Good Hope

The Cape of Good Hope is so laden with historical associations, so mythic, so much a part of the saga of Europe’s discovery of the rest of the world, that arriving there in person is almost absurd. One thinks of Bartholomew Diaz, reaching it for the first time in 1488 aboard the tiny caravel São Cristóvão, and naming it Cabo das Tormentas, the Cape of Storms—only to be corrected later by King João II of Portugal, in view of the infinite commercial potential of a new and viable sea route to India and back again: Cabo da Boa Esperança, Cap de bonne-espérance, Kap der guten Hoffnung, Kaap die Goeie Hoop, the Cape of Good Hope! One thinks of Vasco da Gama sailing by aboard the São Gabriel and pushing on past what is now the Eastern Cape and further up the coast, arriving on Christmas Day, 1497, and therefore calling the place Natal. One recalls the Flying Dutchman, forever doomed to tack and beat and tack again without ever passing beyond the Cape, its ghostly crew in perpetual torment. One also thinks of Admiral Elphinstone, General Craig, Commanders Hardy and Spranger, and their two fine battalions of Royal Marines, ordinary sailors, and men of the 78th Highlanders, who at the Battle of Muizenberg in August 1795 wrested control of the Cape from the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, and promptly dismantled Dutch instruments of torture, then destroyed the pieces. One thinks of resourceful Lady Anne Barnard, and her dim view of the Acting Governor, General Francis Dundas, and “the little politicks of our Lilliput court.” One thinks of Cecil Rhodes, financed by N. M. Rothschild and Sons, the diamond monopoly, and his fevered vision of a red stripe extending all the way from the Cape to Cairo. One thinks of passengers alighting at the Cape, repairing to the Mount Nelson Hotel for tea, then boarding a Union Limited and Union Express sleeper bound for Witwatersrand and Pretoria... On it goes. A couple of baboons, a few bad-tempered ostriches, a herd of eland, abundant zebra droppings, and a wealth of hazy schoolroom memories—after the Cape, to paraphrase Yeats, what more is possible?