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!

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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!

 

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.

Occupy London sleeps in peace

I didn’t so much occupy St Paul’s Cathedral today, as sit upon its steps to have my lunch. It was quite the most London experience I’ve had in a long while: bizarre and entirely fascinating.

I crossed the River Thames on the London Millennium Footbridge on what was a sunny, crisp and quite beautiful London day. When I reached the City of London, I came upon a random opinion poll in the form of a Perspex box into which you could place a small, brightly-coloured ball into either of two segments: ‘Carry on protesting’ or ‘Time to go’. A camerawoman sat on the pavement next to the box recording the un-secret ballot, while a suited cohort encouraged passers-by to commit their opinions to Perspex.

I carried on walking towards the Cathedral. My goal was to see ‘Occupy London’ for myself on a significant day in its two week history.   I chose not to take a camera with me, as I wanted to feel the experience; well, as much as I could in a lunch hour.

The grounds of the breathtakingly beautiful cathedral that is St Paul’s were teeming with people: tourists, protesters (although I did eyeball a poster on the outskirts of the property stating, ‘This is not a protest’), non-protesters, lunchtime joggers, office workers, policemen, reporters, students, church clerics and other random passers-by.

I wandered around the tented city for a while. I poked my nose into the information tent, which appeared to be the centre of all knowledge for the temporary home to the anti-corporate-greed activists. I was amused to see practical notices adorning the walls of the tent: ‘Free bio energy healing sessions. 10 minute taster’ and ‘Lost: brown suitcase’.

Helmeted bobbies stood by watching impassively, while television cameras on every corner recorded the events on a day such as this.

There is something of a carnival atmosphere – and, despite the Portaloos, a faint whiff of urine in the air – in the Cathedral grounds; a kind of Woodstock for this generation. Outside the ‘Tent University’ you can read of forthcoming lectures and discussion groups; you can buy books at a bookstall, you can add your written protests to the many stuck to surrounding pillars. You can also ‘Grow your own future’ – the psychedelic and 60s style flower power poster suggests that what you grow might make you not worry about globalisation one jot.

I picked my way through the tented community and went to sit on the steps of the Cathedral. I sat between some young tourists in ‘I love London’ hoodies and sushi-munching bankers. We all sat as spectators to the genuine, peaceful protest against economic inequality.

Baguette in hand, I listened to a group of singers presenting their shaky-voiced and anti-evil-banker version of Blake’s  ‘Jerusalem’ (And did those feet in ancient time). It wasn’t pretty but it was sincere. They had in front of them a hand-painted poster proclaiming the perils of globalisation and the need ‘to keep our souls’ and ‘not be sucked in’.

In something of a sing-off, a black-robed man stood opposite them with arms outstretched and singing his truth as he walked towards the women. I couldn’t hear what he was singing, but his cloak bore the words, ‘Holy Book of Racial Government’. Big banners nearby called out to ‘Mourn the dead. Heal the wounded. End the wars!’

As I slowly wound my way out of the village of peaceful protest, I watched two bobbies chatting to a tourist and a busker. I overheard one of the bobbies explaining to the two exactly what training is involved in becoming a London policeman. As I stood and eavesdropped, I was urged out of the way by a guy pushing a trolley bearing camera equipment. “Hot cakes comin’ through,” he shouted. “Hot cakes comin’ through.”

I realised later that his ‘hot cakes’ must have been on their way to record today’s verdict: the eviction order to force the protesters to leave St Paul’s within 48 hours had been overturned.

It was time to head back to my office. The Perspex box, now much fuller, showed overwhelmingly in favour of ‘Carry on protesting’.  It seems that London had voted with its balls.

Sunshine signing off for today!