Why I’m still grateful for today

A repost from November 2010.

There are so many factors that shape who I am. And who I am constantly becoming. Life, my family, relationships, circumstances, choices, my faith, my personality, decisions, events. Today marks the anniversary of a pivotal event in my life.

November 12 fell on a Friday in 1999. It was a normal working day in Cape Town for me. I was the PR manager for an NGO that trained unemployed people to start their own small businesses. My work took me all over the Peninsula to visit training centres and fledgling enterprises. Trainees learnt business skills to run spaza shops (small retail businesses from their homes), or skills such as sewing, leatherwork, knitting or butchery, to run a business from home. It was rewarding work, and I loved my job.

On this Friday 11 [now 13] years ago, I had an appointment to go and meet up with a new entrepreneur in his home in Guguletu, to hear about his new business. I had been given directions to get there, although road names didn’t feature too strongly: “Turn left at the other school and go down and when you get to that station turn right.” I had a good idea where I needed to go, as I was familiar with the area, and I double-checked with the new entrepreneur’s trainer where I needed to go, and off I went.

I took the main route off the highway, Duinefontein Road, that heads through Manenburg and on towards Guguletu. Manenburg is notorious in the Western Cape for gang activity, and I always drove through the area with due vigilance and caution. As I headed towards Guguletu I couldn’t find any of the landmarks, and it was no longer clear to me where I needed to go. After going backwards and forwards a few times, and nearly running out of road, I chose not to venture into the unknown. I decided to go back to the office to get better directions and reschedule my meeting.

I drove back along Duinefontein Road. Cape Town had recently been hit by a freak tornado, Manenburg being the area most acutely affected by its brief appearance. Many houses had been destroyed, three people had been killed and a number had been left homeless. There were a few makeshift, tented camps where people lived until their homes were rebuilt. One such camp was on the grounds of a school that I drove past.

I looked at the brown tents and felt sad that people had lost their homes. I was also aware that there were hundreds of school children pouring out of the school and across the road. I wondered why they were finishing so early (it was mid-morning), I was concerned that many were crossing the road without checking what traffic was coming and going. It was in the middle of those thoughts that I heard a gunshot. And then a sound I can’t describe – perhaps a thwang – as a bullet hit my windscreen and I was showered with shavings of glass.

The bullet ricocheted off my windscreen without penetrating it. The trademark spiderweb left by the bullet on my windscreen was in line with my head. I thought, “I’ve been shot at. And God’s protected me. Perhaps I should go to the police station.”

I didn’t look to see where the shot had come from, I didn’t stop or slow down or speed up, I just carried on driving and thinking logically what I needed to do next. I knew the police station was just down the road and to the right. As I approached the intersection, I felt it would be unsafe to turn down that road. So I continued on to Guguletu to go to the police station there.

All the while, I felt calm and just kept thinking, “God’s protected me. And I need to report this.”

I turned down the road to go to Guguletu police station, and when I was about to park my car, it suddenly hit me, “I’VE BEEN SHOT AT AND I’M TERRIFIED AND I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO OR WHO TO SPEAK TO. AND I’M SO SCARED.” I began to shake and sob and my face and cheeks wobbled beyond control.

I turned my car around, and decided to drive back to my office. By now, my legs were shaking too and I don’t know how I managed to drive, or see through the tears.

I still felt the need to report this to the police, so I went to Mowbray police station, near my office. I cried all over the front desk, I could hardly get the words out, and the kind and patient officer took my statement and gave me a case number. I asked her if she wanted to see my car, and she said no. I felt sad for the state of Cape Town, and that more attention would have been paid to this in a more peaceful world.

I drove quietly back to my office, my colleagues and friends were astounded and open-mouthed and didn’t really know what to say. Then hugs and words of comfort abounded.

As an amusing aside, one of my colleagues told me to drink sugar water.

“It’s good for the shock. My mother’s sister-in-law’s aunty’s nephew took sugar water after a cupboard fell on him, and he’s never had nightmares.”

I was able to chuckle at that, as I called my husband to tell him what had happened. I had stopped crying, but started again when I spoke to him. He came to me right away. And then I went and fetched my boys and went home. My boys were so shocked, but were just glad I was fine. Thank the Lord children don’t agonise over what if – I was there and I was fine. And that’s all that mattered.

It was a strange and scary and surreal experience telling people about what had happened, dealing with my own reaction but wanting to protect everyone else from feeling sad. Or anxious.

My husband, as a trained trauma counsellor, insisted on debriefing me that evening. We sat, cross-legged and facing each other on our bed, as he talked me through what had happened and asked me strategic questions about how I’d felt and what I’d thought. I know, without doubt, that that session was just exactly right. I’ve never had flashbacks, or nightmares, and I honestly haven’t relived that moment with anything but gratitude. My body had its own reaction six months later, when I experienced a series of panic attacks, but they were short-lived and I guess my body needed to vent.

Oh, and I didn’t ever do that interview. I just couldn’t.

In the weekend papers the next day, we read of an off-duty policewoman who was shot at – and injured – in her car in the vicinity of my event. It was attributed to a gang initiation ritual. Perhaps that was the purpose of the bullet that hit my car. I don’t know where it came from, I don’t know if I was caught in cross-fire or if the bullet was meant for me. All I do know, and am forever grateful for, is that the bullet didn’t have my name on it.

Sunshine signing off, with gratitude for today.

George Michael’s back on song

So there he stood, purple-suited and dapper, at the top of a staircase dividing the Symphonica Orchestra in two. Arms outstretched, eyes to the skies, I feel good came belting straight out from his heart. George Michael finished his rousing anthem to renewal, waved goodbye to an adoring audience and left me, and the other 20,000 fans, breathless and screaming for more.

We filled Earl’s Court last night for the final night of George Michael’s Symphonica tour, and we danced, sang and screamed through two and a half hours of pure magic, George style. We waited 45 minutes for the show to start and as soon as we saw the familiar, shiny suited silhouette behind the red curtains, and heard that voice begin to sing Through, all was forgiven. He reminded us, in the most lyrical way, that boy, he can sing.

Looking sharp and sounding fine, he kept us close for the entire show. I read a Huffington Post  review  that described George Michael as a ‘star reborn’. It went on to describe George as a ‘changed man. George Michael has been looking after himself, and it shows.’ I overheard some older ladies at the interval sharing a similar sentiment: “He’s really handsome. I know he’s gay and all, but when he looks at you, it really does something to you. Doesn’t it?”

After an emotional opening number, he got us all up on our feet for My baby just cares for me before taking us on a journey to the 80s and 90s with Father Figure and Cowboys and Angels. A fun Star people moved him on to a cover of Rufus Wainwright’s Going to a town, which he sang in tribute to ‘my gay boys’. He dedicated You have been loved to his mother, and ‘for all of you who’ve lost someone since this song was written’.

Wild is the wind got the audience to its feet and him boogying his trademark jive at the front of the stage before he took us to the 1920s with his outrageously fabulous version of Brother, can you spare a dime? I screamed in delight as the song reached its beautiful brass-filled crescendo. On the final note our star left the stage, triumphant.

The short interval over, the purple-suited star returned to the stage with You can’t always get what you want. He introduced his sincere and gentle performance of John and Elvis are dead as a song ‘written by my best friend, David Austin’ before moving on to Sting’s Roxanne. A weird, autotuned rendition of New Order’s True faith followed, about the nature of addiction, which George said he had ‘no clue’ about. He mixed poignant with rousing through my favourite A different corner, Rihanna’s Russian Roulette and the supremely moving Praying for time.

Whether sitting and crooning or striding and jiving, George’s energy and sincerity shine through. His hands move expressively and you believe every word that he sings. When he left the stage after his final number – significantly, I feel good – we screamed and we whistled, we stamped our feet and clapped our hands till he returned, waving to and applauding his appreciative audience.

“London, you’ve made my last night f***ing perfect!”

After introducing his band, and inviting the sublime Symphonica Orchestra to take a bow, George took us on a loud and thrilling journey through Amazing, I’m your man and Freedom. He apologised for making us wait a year [he cancelled his tour last December when he fell seriously ill] and hoped it had been worth the wait. A second emotional departure from the stage left the audience screaming for more. George again obliged with a final, gentle I remember you.

“Thank you, London. I love you. See you soon,” he screamed as he left the stage.

We hope so, George. We sure hope so.

Diamonds and dust

Yesterday’s Diamond Jubilee river pageant was an extravagant spectacle to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s sixty years on the British throne. In March 1995, on Human Right’s Day in South Africa, the Queen commemorated something similarly historic, with slightly less pomp and ceremony, in a dusty township in South Africa. The occasion was no less grand.

In May 1994, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was sworn in as President of the newly-democratic South Africa. I remember voting in those historic elections and feeling an overwhelming sense of being part of something special. In March 1995, the Queen and Prince Philip paid their first official visit to the newly-free country.

Photo courtesy of mirror.co.uk
Queen Elizabeth II with South African President Nelson Mandela on an official visit to the newly-democratic country in March 1995

At that time, I worked for a non-government organisation that received funding from the British government. Ours was selected as one of two beneficiary organisations in Cape Town that would receive a royal visit.

Planning began in earnest about four months ahead of the visit. The Queen’s time was limited, so we two beneficiaries set up a ‘visit site’ at the other organisation’s premises in Khayelitsha. Their premises proved bigger and more adaptable for the visit than our premises, which were mostly in church halls and community centres.

Khayelitsha is an informal township on the Cape Flats in Cape Town, South Africa. The Xhosa name means ‘new home’ and it is reputed to be the biggest and fastest growing township in the country. Our organisation worked in that community, among other similar communities, to train unemployed people to start their own small businesses.

Being the project manager for the visit, I met three or four times with the royal team of Private Secretary to the Queen, press and police secretaries, as they made regular scoping trips to the country. We faxed letters to each other regularly. Information was paramount, planning was detailed, timing was precise. We learnt that when the Queen drives through residential streets lined with people, she drives at 4mph. She always gets out of her car on the right hand side. She needed verified information about each person she would meet and those people got information about meeting the Queen.

The day dawned: Tuesday 21 March 1995. Human Rights Day in South Africa. We all travelled together to the Khayelitsha venue to get ready for the visit. Everyone was dressed to the nines, ready with their own story to tell the Queen. We were excited; animated. The royal entourage arrived on the dot of their expected time and began to make their way through the itinerary we so painstakingly put together.

I remember seeing the Queen up close and personal and thinking she looked radiant. She had soft, smooth skin and shining blue eyes. She took an interest in each person she met, asked beautifully well-briefed questions and graciously listened to each person’s story. Prince Philip broke away from the entourage and typically adopted a more spontaneous approach. We got wonderful images of him, head back and laughing loudly as he chatted to my colleagues. The Queen, gentle and genial, proved photogenic as always.

I don’t think even the most strident of cynics would have criticised that visit to dusty Khayelitsha in 1995. I’m not an ardent royalist myself, but I was glad to be part of a visit that was truly special, relatively and appropriately ordinary and supremely intimate. And most importantly, it took place away from the glare of the media.

For us, months of planning bottlenecked into a ten minute visit that will stay with each one of us always. The weather was never going to disappoint. It was windy that day, and the sun shone as it always does. Not only was it a royal seal of approval for the micro-enterprise development work that our organisation did, but, more broadly, it was one way of welcoming South Africa back into the international community.  No number of boats could have done that quite as perfectly.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Disco fever at the London Sevens

Record crowds of more than 100,000 over two days. Sixteen teams from around the world. Two series’ cup finals. Two streakers and far too many men wearing floral sundresses. It could only be the 2012 London Sevens rugby series at Twickenham.

Twickenham in the sunshine

We were there last weekend to witness it all. Nestled in the north stand in weak sunshine on a chilly May weekend, it was difficult at first to know where to focus our attention. The rugby was fantastic, but the spectacle that is the London Sevens was hard to resist. Every series has a colourful theme; this year’s was ‘70s disco fever’.

Play that funky music, white boy

I have come to realise that English fans of rugby sevens love to dress up. Most keep to the theme but many seem to keep a fancy-dress outfit at home to suit all occasions. Take the two guys dressed as nuns. They must have thought, “What can we wear for a 70s disco fever theme? I know; our habits. Ace.”

To make it even better, one of the nuns carried a scarecrow with him, who interviewed people as they walked around the stadium on Saturday afternoon. Seventies disco? Bang on.

As we watched the pool games on Saturday, we also saw a team of dancing penguins, a Roman gladiator, two men in kilts, cowboys, doctors, tigers, Eeyores, leprechauns, beachballs, someone wearing a T-shirt that said I heart Will Young and an over-abundance of men dressed in pretty frocks.

Tigers and penguins dance down the aisles
As I said, way too many men in floral sundresses

The rugby continued regardless, with league leaders New Zealand, Fiji, England and Samoa showing their brilliance. Sadly for us, the South African team felt the loss of their injured star players and barely glimmered in front of an unforgiving crowd. I have noticed that English fans support England, the underdog, and any other country that is not Australia or France.

Naturally biased, fans filled the stands each time the England team came on to play, and the players were heralded on to the field by flag-bearing disco dancers. Equally, after each England game, fans poured out of the stadium. In the England v Australia game, the announcers welcomed each of the English players by name and then, almost begrudgingly added, “And Australia”. For each England try, the fans jumped to their feet, swung their forearms up and down to the annoying tune of ‘do-do-do-do’ – looking around as if to say ‘Did you see that? Did you just see that?’

The dying strains of the victory ‘arm shuffle’

When Australia played Portugal, it was clear the home fans would support their European brothers. Australia stood no chance. When one Aussie player broke the line and sprinted for the try line, in the midst booing from around the stadium someone behind us shouted, “No-one likes you!”

Those who kept on-brand with the 70s disco fever theme included the entire cast of Anchorman, complete with a microphone-carrying Ron Burgundy. We saw the Village People everywhere, as well as Kiss, an abundance of large colourful Afro wigs, Saturday Night Fever suits, John McEnroe look-alikes and plenty of headbands, scarves, platform shoes, chest hair, wide lapels and shiny, large-collared shirts.

Mid-afternoon saw a man dressed as a chicken evade security and run an entire lap of the field. When he got to the poles in front of us, he did a forward somersault on the grass before handing himself over to the stadium’s security personnel who tackled him to the ground. Three of them escorted him off the field.

Later in the afternoon, two men broke through security to run along the top of the western stand. One of them was dressed as a banana and the other had taken his kit off entirely. Security personnel closed in on them before running at them and tackling them both to the ground before walking them out of the stadium.

Saturday’s train journey home was epic. We shuffled on to a crowded train in the middle of loud, rowdy and worryingly wobbly fans, including a young woman pushing crisps into her mouth with unfocused concentration. A group of energetic youngsters decided to have a ‘burpy’ competition on the train. They cleared as much space as they could in the standing area and cheered each other on as they dropped to the ground to do press-ups followed by squats and wobbly jumps to their feet.

This soon became difficult, so the competition turned to pole-dancing. Game candidates jumped on to the poles and success was measured according to the number of times they swung around the pole before hitting the ground. Some managed five, others slid roundly to the floor immediately. Three young men dressed as boy scouts strong-armed their way through the crowds to the train’s exits. Banter ensued. The competition organiser told one of them, “You’re the reason I never wanted to be a scout.” The scout retorted with, “Well, with an attitude like that, you’ll never get your pole-dancing badge.”

Sunday’s crowd was subdued. The rugby became serious and hopes of winning cups, shields, bowls and plates were dashed or kept alive. As teams were knocked out, they each did a gracious and well-received lap of honour around the field. Fans clambered for autographs and photographs and the rugby heroes cheerfully obliged. I did notice some players taking off their shorts or socks and handing them over to adoring fans. Seriously.

The sun sank lower in the sky and the play-offs continued in earnest. We had the bonus of watching the final of the Women’s Sevens series between England and Netherlands. It was an excellent match won convincingly by the home side.

The England women’s team warms up ahead of series’ victory

During half-time in one of the last matches, a female streaker broke through security and ran the length of the field. She, too, stopped in front of the poles and did a cartwheel, to the roaring amusement of the crowd. She walked towards the inevitably approaching security personnel and raised her hands, before side-stepping and running away from them. She was hotly pursued and carefully tackled to the ground before being blanketed in a couple of high-visibility jackets and escorted roughly off the field.

Fiji met Samoa in the cup final and provided one of the most outstanding games of rugby I’ve ever witnessed. Two sides of strong, fast and skilful players entertained the crowd with speedy action, numerous tries and a popular win for a world-class Fiji.

The tired crowd left the stadium and headed, with jaded banter, to a less crowded station than the evening before. We stepped over fake sideburns and moustaches abandoned on the road, and walked alongside a 70s-suited punter who sang flatly as he downed his beer, “Down, down, down, down into my belly!” All around us were filthy bell-bottomed trousers, floppy Afro wigs, faded Smurfs, and floral sundresses tucked into trousers. It was clear the London Sevens of 2012 had come to an end.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Mind the gap

We spent the afternoon in Hyde Park today. We travelled there on the London Underground and were cautioned to ‘mind the gap between the train and the platform’ as we got off at our station.  At Hyde Park we could have done with a similar caution: ‘Mind the gap between the speaker and the heckler’.

We went to the Park especially to hang out for a while at Speakers’ Corner. We’ve often walked past the speakers and wished we could have listened for a while. It’s quite an education, I tell you. Speakers’ Corner is said to date back to 1855 when the government banned any form of buying or selling on a Sunday, the only day working people had off. Public riots broke out and Hyde Park was used as a location for free speech. According to Wikipedia, The riots and agitation for democratic reform encouraged some to force the issue of the “right to speak” in Hyde Park.”

At our first stop at Speakers’ Corner, the speaker was unable to present his case because hecklers were fighting among themselves. Heated exchanges – often reaching fever pitch – between a man from Pakistan and a man from Iraq drew a crowd of people around them. It got mean and it got angry. Somehow, although sounding personal, it seemed not to offend. “YOU’RE A TRAITOR!” followed by, “YOU’VE NEVER WORKED A DAY IN YOUR LIFE.” “ I DIDN’T HAVE TO. MY FATHER’S AN INDUSTRIALIST.” “AN INDUSTRIALIST? WELL, WHO’S HE BEEN STEALING FROM?”

At which point, someone in the crowd appealed for silence to allow ‘the Somalian pirate’ to have his say. And so began the case for Muslim/Israeli religion. Stood on a small soapbox, the gentleman from Somalia began to explain the origins of God and religion. Not long into his monologue, someone shouted to him, “ON A SCALE OF ONE TO TEN, JUST HOW DIFFICULT IS IT TO LEARN TO SPEAK ENGLISH?”

This was followed by an interjection by the man from Pakistan, to which the Speaker said,”Don’t listen to this man. He’s high. He smokes hashish.”

“I buy it from you, my friend,” was the Pakistani’s defence.

We moved along.

We stood and listened to a woman who was being heckled by someone who told her she knew nothing and that she never had anything to say. With spittle flying from her mouth, the speaker berated the heckler’s arrogance, told him that despite the fact that she had stood and spoken there for 20 years and he had stood there and listened, that he was fooling himself if he thought they knew each other or even had any kind of relationship. After five minutes of bickering, someone cried out: “What is your message?”

She told us that politics was finished, religion was finished and the world was finished. We could never know anything, except what we had been fed by the government and what they wanted us to know. And this wasn’t even the truth, but what the government wanted you to believe. She implored us to challenge facts and arrive at our conclusions of what we might discover to be our own truth.

“It’s like if you went to court, and the judge looked at the prosecuted and declared that he didn’t like the look of the guy, so ordered him to be hanged, without hearing the cases for and against him. So it is with the truth – you can’t just make a decision without hearing pros and cons.”

One short-sighted heckler then entered the fray: “What kind of judge is that who makes a decision because of the way the guy looks? That’s a dictatorship.”

We jogged along.

Mr Conservative stood and addressed a small crowd about the myth of the New Society. I wasn’t quite sure of the point he was making, but he talked about the Occupy London protest being meaningless, because the protesters were doing nothing and offering nothing.

“It’s like the media. They go there and they interview the first person they see and they learn nothing. It’s like they get to Westminster, and they think, ‘What shall we do now? I know, let’s go to St Paul’s and do a story about Occupy London’. So they go there, interview the first person they see, post their story and go home to sleep. Job done. Why? Because they’re LAZY!”

After hearing some gratuitous pot shots at political parties, we moved on.

After a short stay listening to a quietly-spoken gentleman promoting the value of the Catholic Church, we stood in the midst of the Sunday afternoon joggers, cyclists, walkers, rollerbladers, buggy-pushers, speakers, hecklers, tourists, photographers, onlookers and students in the beautiful, chilly blue, thin sunshine of a Sunday afternoon in central London.

Two young men approached my son and asked if he’d like to share a few thoughts for a radio programme they were recording. He said to them, “Are you asking me because I’m the first person you saw? Were you in Hyde Park, knowing that you needed to do a programme and not sure what to talk about? So you came to ask me what I thought, so you could go home and go to sleep. Why? Because you’re LAZY!”

Actually, my son just politely declined. Mind the gap between the truth and my imagination.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Dump the old and laugh in the new

It was a humid New Year’s Eve in 1998 in Zimbabwe. Rain was threatening the skies over Bulawayo, and our family was settling into my sister’s home after a wonderful Christmas break at a small, private game reserve outside the city.

There were 22 of us together that year: my parents, my three siblings and all of our families. Some of us stayed at my sister’s house in Bulawayo, and some in friends’ homes around the neighbourhood. We gathered during the day and for meals and outings and arguments; not all of the above were planned. Hey, we’re family.

After a week or two in Bulawayo, we’d spent an amazing five days at the reserve, celebrating Christmas and the rare and welcome opportunity for us all to be together. We arrived at the reserve armed with food and drink to sustain an army. My brother-in-law’s family were at the reserve when we arrived; it was planned that Christmas Day would be our overlap day and 45 of us sat around the same celebratory table for lunch. A marquee doubled as a dormitory for the 18 children in sleeping bags that night, while the adults enjoyed the luxury of sleeping in thatched rondavels (round huts) overlooking a small dam. As they say, it’s hell in Africa.

After a further few idyllic days of horse-riding, fishing, swimming, walking, reading and enjoying good food and family time – including a spontaneous concert that we siblings put on for the incredulous children, and a wonderful awards’ ceremony that one of my brothers orchestrated to mark the unique contribution to the holiday of each one of us – we returned to the city to celebrate New Year together. It was on the day before New Year’s Eve that, one by one, 14 of our clan of 22 fell ill. (My original family plus two sturdy youngsters remained either completely or relatively untouched.) My sister – who is a nurse – took great care of each patient, ensuring everyone was well-hydrated and fever kept at bay.

The next day we took my elder son to see the doctor. Before she examined him, we told her that we had 13 more like him at home; whatever he had, they all had too. Tests revealed that shigella dysentery was, well, running through our family. All 22 of us had to have treatment for this notifiable disease, and so it was that we celebrated the dawn of 1999 quietly and, I guess for the most part, gingerly.

The medicine took effect quickly and within a day or two, all the cousins were gathered around the dining room table sharing stories of their experience of the disease. For the young boys – aged between about 8 and 14 – the conversation was not repeatable, and much laughter rang through the house; it made a change from those other sounds.

Part of the family left soon after the New Year and 12 of us remained to travel to Hwange Game Reserve and Victoria Falls for a few more idyllic days. We travelled in a pack, enjoyed incredible game-viewing and sight-seeing, and found that hysterical laughter can hurt your stomach almost as much as the disease. As we visited two of the most beautiful places on the planet, our memory banks filled with stories that will follow us around our whole lives, and shared memories of joy and discomfort that bonded us in a way you could never imagine.

We’ll never know where the disease came from but we do know that love, laughter, family and brown paper packets filled with bullet-sized tablets took it clean away.

So, as I sit in my London flat on a chilly, grey New Year’s Eve and await the dawn of 2012, it warms my heart to think of this time 13 years ago and all the interesting adventures of our family reunion. We bought a beautiful wooden carving of a giraffe who we named “Relly” (for relatives), and he stands proud in our home (currently in my parents’ home) as a reminder of that holiday.

Reflecting on the past year, I feel anxious to press on into the new. I miss my family and home and friends – I always do at this time of year – and my heart feels heavy with nostalgia. But I guess – like the shigella – that feeling too will pass and I look forward to rediscovering the laughter that will make my belly ache.

As I wish you all a wonderful and happy New Year, and every good blessing for you and your family, what is it that you reflect on at the dawn of this New Year? And what are your hopes for 2012?

Happy New Year to you all. Sunshine signing off for this year!

Let’s eat cake

It was quite uncanny. Oxford Street was pumping. It seemed that everyone in London chose to do their Christmas shopping yesterday. And they chose Oxford Street. Two minutes away from the mayhem, we found an oasis that made my heart smile: Maison Bertaux.

We’d walked from the busy high street in central London towards Soho. We walked through Soho Square and a block down from the Square, we found this place:

Maison Bertaux - an original in the heart of Soho

We’d talked about stopping somewhere for coffee and I insisted we try this place – it just looked, well, so un-high street.  It looked like a place that had a story to tell. We weren’t disappointed.

This is what we found when we stepped inside.

A little shop of edible treasures
Everything looks like it has a story to tell
Pink scarves and retro wall-lamps

I didn’t know where to look first – at the ornaments, at the writing on the mirrors, at the decor, at the newspaper clipping of Alexander McQueen, at the cakes, the cheeky meringue snowmen with their chocolate-roll sleighs … then we were asked what we wanted to order. I asked for a filter coffee and a cappuccino and was offered the only two coffees they have on offer: a café noir with milk and a café au lait. Being Christmas, we thought it would be rude not to try the homemade mince pies too.

We sat down at one of two tables in the small downstairs area and waited for our order.

I couldn’t stop staring at everything. One of the waiting staff noticed my curiosity.

“There’s so much to look at,” I said.

He said the place was full of stuff from the 140 years the cake shop had existed.

An old photo of the newly-opened Maison Bertaux

“Not sure if you can tell that we have our Christmas decorations up, or not,” he said, wryly.

We found our answer when we spotted a small Christmas tree on the piano.

Near to the Christmas tree was a signed copy of Noel Fielding’s book Scribblings of a Madcap Shambleton. A note stuck to the wall suggested there were more where that one came from. Noel is not only a genius, off-beat comedian, but also a regular here.

We chatted to one of the two sisters who own the cake shop. The younger sister of ‘a cross between Margaret Rutherford and Joan of Arc’, she told us the shop had remained the same since its establishment in 1871 – the same cake recipes, everything made fresh – every day – on the premises. She called it not only the oldest cake shop in the country, but also ‘the Ivy of cake shops’ in London, in that it attracts artists, actors and other real celebrities.

“It gets completely mental upstairs sometimes,” she said, as she rattled off names of people who frequent the cake shop.

The old stucco’d walls are grubby and absolutely, antiquely beautiful. The glass shelves behind the counter boast – among ornaments, bottles, scarves and a giant chocolate éclair ornament – a photograph of the shop in its early days. The glass shelves in the window groan with the most beautiful, creative and mouth-watering delights you care to imagine. A stream of white-capped chefs marched through from the kitchen to present their handiwork for the window for the day: trays of fresh-fruit tarts, marzipan figs, gateaux saint-honore, croissants, cakes, éclairs and ‘wormy pies’ (meringues with endless coils of cream). Equally, deliveries of sacks of flour arrived while we were there. It is a working kitchen, for sure.

A taste of Maison Bertaux specialities

We were told about the art on display upstairs. I went to have a quick look at it, but didn’t spend much time as I wanted to leave the few customers up there to enjoy their coffee and books in peace. I also made a quick stop in the ‘wee wee hut’; I was amused and delighted to see the toilet flushed with an ancient pull-chain.

I don’t think much has changed in this gorgeous tea shop since it was established by French communards in 1871. In today’s world of overpriced paper cups filled with have-a-nice-day coffees, and plates filled with cardboard pastries, I was completely entranced by this original gem. So close to the hubbub of the high street yet so far removed in every possible way.

It was pricey, yes, but when you step into an era of genuine tasty quality, creativity and originality in a room full of chaotic, colourful history – what else could you expect? It’s our new favourite tea shop. In the whole world.

Sunshine signing off for today!

 

Re-telling a winter’s tale

He was born on the winter solstice in Edinburgh in 1926. He died on Christmas Day in 1992, on the warm tip of Africa. A lovely, gentle, talented, troubled, kind soul he was. He was my father-in-law and this is his story.

As life and breath poured into his infant body on that cold and wintry December night in Edinburgh, so life and breath drained from his mother’s. She breathed her last and died that day. Life and loss. His young father was stricken with an overwhelming grief that veiled his joy at this brand new life.

My father-in-law was adopted by a family whose name we now bear. They lived on the island of North Uist in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. This new family ran a hotel and my father-in-law spent his days living the life of a young, country lad: fishing and hunting and finding the best that the beautiful, bleak, cold island could offer. His days were underlined with sadness and a constant wondering about his father on the mainland. He knew who he was, he knew where he lived and he so longed to meet him.

As a young man he met and fell in love with a beautiful young woman from the mainland. They married and lived on the island, going over to the mainland for the birth of their first son. With the hope and promise of seeking their fortune in Africa, the three of them chose to join her brothers in Zimbabwe (southern Rhodesia as it was known then). He travelled ahead of his wife and son and, before he left, went to Edinburgh to meet his real father. He wondered nervously whether or not his father would welcome him. His fear of rejection turned him round again and off he went to begin a new life in Africa.

Son number two (my husband) was born in Zimbabwe, and the family enjoyed living in the warm, friendly heart of southern Africa. My father-in-law was a talented musician – a self-taught pianist and accordion player – and he played in a Scottish band. He would lose himself in his music, and played the piano with a gentleness of touch that kept me riveted. I often wondered where the music took him as I watched him play. When he died, I inherited his piano. Such a gift it was; such a gift he had.

He loved his sons and watched, with pride, as they grew into young men and created lives of their own. His daughters-in-law became part of his family, and he loved us with a gentle passion that I will never forget. His heart beamed as his grandchildren started to appear, and each of them loved their “Pops”, with his ready laughter and unconditional love and pride.

One day, when he was almost 60, he received a letter out of the blue. It opened with, “You don’t know me, but we’ve known about you all our lives…”

The writer of the letter informed him that his father – who was also her father – had been 23 years of age when he was widowed. He had married again and had had some children, but she didn’t elaborate. She wrote of her father’s longing to meet him, but how, for fear of rejection, that had never happened. She told him his father had died in 1976. Oh the sorrow that both men had felt the same way, and their perceived fears had kept them from meeting each other.

The writer concluded her letter by saying that she would send him more detail of the family if he so wished. She added, however, that if the communication had made him uncomfortable, she would not continue and would, with respect, leave it at that.

Nothing short of amazed, my father-in-law wrote back immediately and asked to know more. He soon received a letter containing details of his family tree. It turned out that at the time of his birth, and his mother’s death, he had had an older sister. She was three years older than him, and was raised in Edinburgh by a grandmother (we have yet to discover which grandmother this was). His father then remarried and had seven daughters and two sons. She shared some detail of the siblings, their names and where they were.

The correspondence continued for a while and it wasn’t long before my father-in-law decided to travel back to Edinburgh to meet his new family. A few siblings travelled across from Canada to meet him, while the rest lived in or around Edinburgh. Great excitement, anticipation and a healthy dose of nervousness accompanied him on his journey.

He spent a number of days with his new-found family of half-siblings, and met his full sister too. This is the part that always gives me goose bumps: his siblings all said, without exception, that having him around was like having their dad back in the house. He had the same mannerisms as his father, he coughed like him, he walked like him and he talked like him. If that isn’t one for nature versus nurture, then I don’t know what is.

He returned to Zimbabwe with tales of his new-found family. A man of few words, he had plenty to say as he shared his tales of his family and father and the joy of blood ties. It seemed to fill something of a hole in his heart.

Not long after that, he became ill with emphysema and struggled with ill-health for the rest of his life. My parents-in-law moved to Cape Town soon after we did, and enjoyed their retirement in the city nestling beneath the beauty of Table Mountain. Our boys have vague memories of their Pops, as they were both very small when he died. My older son, who was three when Pops died, told me Pops had gone to heaven and had been given a brand new body. I loved that thought.

So there it was that we celebrated Christmas in the warm sunshine of a Cape Town day in 1992. And as we celebrated the birth of the Saviour who breathed his first on that day so many years ago, my father-in-law took his last, painful breath and we mourned. Joy and grief. So much joy and grief.

Sunshine signing off for today.

An evening in Coolsville

We spent yesterday evening in Coolsville, with the Duchess herself. She sang her way through the soundtrack to my student days in the early 1980s; listening to classic Rickie Lee Jones live was another awesome, red box experience.

The Duchess of Coolsville, 57, skipped on to the Royal Festival Hall’s stage in trademark brown beret and half an hour late for her Pirates concert. According to the Southbank Centre preview, the queen of pop/jazz/country/soul/R&B/blues/you-name-it, with a career spanning 30 years, maintains an unwavering cool despite a historically difficult personal life which has seen her battle and overcome broken hearts and drug addiction. Her concert featured tracks from her two most successful LPs, Rickie Lee Jones and Pirates, in her only stop in the UK before heading to Paris and Bilbao to round off her short European tour.

She opened with Danny’s All Star Joint to thunderous applause, and went on to dance with her beret through After Hours (12 bars past midnight). Spent, she abandoned her beret along with her water bottle, on the piano.

Rickie Lee Jones is not as tall as I would have imagined. I loved watching her bob and weave around the microphone with, what looked to me like awe and fear, and always, always needing the sound to be perfect.

The audience went crazy to hear the opening bars of Chuck E’s in Love, which the Duchess delivered to perfection before moving into a self-conscious, exquisitely delicate and vulnerable, arms-folded version of Company. A beautiful Easy Money prefaced her move to the piano, where she played and sang for the next hour. Living it Up was followed by a call from Rickie to ‘play some more happy songs’, as she moved on to the hauntingly beautiful clarinet-soloed Skeletons.

Ms Jones’ band is filled with outstanding musicians: a crazy talented lead guitarist, a Duke of Coolsville on bass, a keyboard (piano and Hammond organ) magician, an astounding drummer and ridiculously brilliant three-piece horn section of saxophone/clarinet, trumpet and trombone. Each artist had their moment in the spotlight to share their beautiful talent.

After We Belong Together, Rickie Lee apologised for being late.

“Did you forgive me yet for coming on late? I don’t have any reason, except I wasn’t ready. In so many ways,” she said ironically before moving on to Lucky Guy, filled with pretty, pretty Hammond organ solos. On Saturday Afternoons in 1963 was followed by an emotional, tear-filled outpouring of Coolsville.

The Duchess followed her heart rather than the setlist, which kept the band watching her closely and the setlist frequently being replaced.

She moved on to Pirates and Traces of the Western Slopes before a funky Woody and Dutch on the Slow Train to Peking. Guitar in hand, Ms Jones talked of her first trip to London in 1979 and how everything about the city ‘creeped her out’ as she walked through the ‘emotional chasm of heroine withdrawal. Everything was different, from having only one television channel (‘that played dogs chasing sheep’), to the light switches, to waking up at 3am and everyone was asleep’.

As an apology for that story, she sang a bonus number, a pure-Rickie Lee version of On the Street Where You Live. The Weasel and the White Boy’s Cool rocked the most insane lead guitar solo before Night Train, Young Blood, Last Chance Texaco and After Hours.

Ms Jones wept as she talked of the ‘supreme peace that found me, unexpectedly, on this Pirates tour’. She thought it would be a nightmare, reliving the difficult times through Pirates, but found that she can now ‘go home and sleep at night’.

With emotion and gratitude, she sang the closing number The Returns, leaving us all with a hope that the Duchess of Coolsville will be back. Two hours of pure Rickie Lee Jones magic. Catharsis rocks.

Sunshine signing off for today!

The best is yet to be

She’s feisty and funny, gentle and bossy, kind and loving, generous and caring, scatty and awesome. She talks plenty and laughs even more.

We shared a room through our childhood and memories through forever. We travelled to boarding school together and sat and swung our little, hairy legs from hard benches as we waited in small, random airports in Africa. We’d climb into each other’s beds when the movie was too scary, or we were homesick, or the monster was about to climb out of the tissue box again or if we were just plain scared. We were best friends.

We shared a cigarette when she was ten and I was eight. We took advantage of the babysitter when all he wanted to do was lie on the couch and watch telly; we ran amok through the house and went to bed late and our parents never knew.

We moved from town to town and school to school and it was okay because we always had each other. We wore matching clothes and our patent leather shoes were always filled with mom-knitted cotton socks. We learnt to play the piano together and we trained for swimming in the same big swimming pools.

Ever longing for a career on the big stage, she wrote, produced and directed our early productions which she presented, with a flourish, in front of a packed lounge full of parents and visitors. All four members of the audience were riveted as Rapunzel let down her golden hair from the dizzy heights of the dining room table. She cast me in various productions as a tree and as Queen Victoria and as her production assistant and she always smiled as the dining room doors closed after another well-received ovation.

After school she started a career in nursing, and her carer heart has brought light and joy to everyone she looked after. She married young and has always been a loving and passionate mother to her children.

She’s fought for freedom and her big heart has broken when change hasn’t yet come. She’s spoken on big stages and small, sung at rallies and in meetings, stood by her principles and risked imprisonment for speaking the truth. She uses her beautiful voice for change.

She’s a mother and soon to be a grandmother, she’s a wife and a daughter, a much-loved aunt and an adored sibling.

She’s my big sister and it’s her birthday today. Happy birthday to you, my precious S. You’re one heck of a sister and I look forward to growing old with you.