Gigs / Yadda

2nd July:: The Bridge, Newcatle:: Ntshuks Bonga/ George Burt / Andy Champion – details

31 July:: Cafe Oto, London:: Dave Draper Birthday Concert:: Dave Draper, Marcio Mattos, Dave Fowler, Ivor Kallin, NB – details

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Mpungutyana

This is the “fox” in Xhosa. There are parallels of the mythical character of the fox in black South African culture to the fox in many English speaking cultures, i.e. that of foxes being clever. The emphasis may be a little a different because the fox in many South African parables is not only clever and nuanced, but often enjoys an ambassadorial role and is a mediator. (The fox in Japanese mythology is much more complex and involved, from what I’ve seen.)

One old Xhosa tale is based around an altercation between a baboon and a cobra. The tale begins with the baboon rummaging around and lifting rocks in the search for food, until it unwittingly lifts a rock that a large cobra is sleeping under. The cobra takes great exception to its dwelling being disturbed in this manner and, possibly additionally cranky from being woken up, coils back and sets itself up to strike at the baboon. The baboon tries desperately to appease the cobra, but no doing, the cobra is all set to attack.

At this point a fox, also rummaging about looking for food, happens across these arguing chaps and is all set to turn tail and run when the baboon suggests that the fox should mediate in their argument. The cobra grumbles and vacillates but is, as the story goes, overpowered by the baboon’s reasoning. The Xhosa used translates literally to “.. is overcome by the truth”. There is much cultural currency here because traditionally in African culture, disputes are decided by third parties in an effort to reach an equable outcome. Parents will, for example, find it hard to ignore input from other adults, particularly uncles and aunts, when disciplining or chastising their children.

Well, returning to the story: the fox suggests that the first thing should be that the two arguing gentlemen must return to their positions as they were before the argument arose. There is general agreement here. The fox asks the snake to lie exactly as it had been, and the cobra obliges. The baboon is then asked to carefully put the rock over the cobra. The fox is at great pains to ascertain whether the cobra is lying “exactly” as before, and the cobra obliges by reporting that this is exactly the case, to the extent that he is now trapped. Hearing this, the fox turns to the baboon and suggests that they take to their heels. The Xhosa idiom used is “baba beleka abzicatyana” which translates literally to “they carried their heels on their backs – in the same way children are carried on mother’s backs..” i.e. they were running so scared their heels were reaching their backs.

The other story that comes to mind is that of “Isikhova nentombi yo Khozi”, i.e. the owl and the Eagle’s daughter. This is a cautionary tale of misplaced love and the act of seeking positions way above one’s station. A young owl falls in love with the eagle’s daughter and gets it into his head to ask for her hand in marriage. He sends his friend, the fox, to go and make representations for him. This is also African culture, and perhaps parallels old English culture, i.e. you send your seconds to represent you and they come back with an answer.

The fox caries out his friend’s wish and conveys the proposal. The eagle’s first instinct is to be annoyed: here he is, the king of the birds, and his daughter is being sought after by the lowly owl who can’t even fly during the day since his eyes can’t take the sunlight. However upon reflection, seeing that this matter doesn’t warrant the effort of being annoyed, the eagle answers to the effect that he is happy his daughter has found favour with the owl. He asks the fox to go back and tell the owl to meet him at midday and they can conclude the marriage arrangements.

The owl is overjoyed and very surprised at the reply, but realises that meeting at midday (“emini emaqanda” is the idiom used) with the sun directly overhead will seriously test his strength. Anyway he agrees and meets his prospective father-in-law who immediately suggests that they fly up to the highest perch for their conference, and off he flies. The poor owl tries to follow and after struggling in the heat and the strong sunlight, loses all strength and falls injuriously out of the sky, with the eagle looking on in stitches of laughter.

At this point the fox comes to his friend’s assistance and counsels him to look for someone within his own realm, advice which is duly taken. The unwritten inference is that the fox knew his friend wouldn’t listen at the outset and so delayed the point at which he intervened. The writer of the tale was generous enough to allow us, the readers, to make this deduction unaided. I haven’t been so generous. (Many very intelligent, observant and talented {if you believe that talent is worth having as a tangible quality / entity} writers are incapable of allowing a story to unravel without, for instance, explicitly documenting the characteristics and motivations of their characters rather than letting the reader deduce these from their actions, inactions, words and silences. And as for leaving things unsaid, forget it: they seem incapable of taking that chance. And this is an interesting point. You can watch no end of fiction on the small and big screen and you’re bound to be presented with a scene where a character helpfully makes the deduction for the audience. But this is nothing compared to the syndrome of plot disclosure through dialogue. Very prevalent in crime stories: ‘What do we know abut the suspect?”.. “Well, he was released from prison a few days before the robbery…” etc etc. Rather than plot disclosure through drama. Give these modern film makers a film to make without dialogue and they’d be all at sea.)

So, the fox is the subtle diplomat and the friend of many.

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Over the years in London, I have shared the night streets with many foxes. Particularly in 2008, I was living in Kilburn and used to see what I assumed was the same fox when I returned home from my practise room late at night. And it was always pleasant to see the fox, it going about its business just as much as I was. I’d see it almost every day. And then it disappeared. I happened to bump into my upstairs neighbour who reported that there was a dead fox in our front yard and we had to remove it. I didn’t initially believe this but I went to look behind the bins at the front and true enough, between one bin and the front wall lay a dead fox. I made enquiries and the council agreed to pick it up if, and only if, it was put into two thick bin bags and left outside the gate. So I did this. There is something striking about fox paws in that they are nothing like dog claws, but covered in soft black tissue. I felt very melancholic during and after this whole exercise. Surely this was my night sharing fox which had decided to come and die in my front yard. Why did it choose this place? I asked my mother about any idioms or fables involving the death of foxes, but it appears there are none.

On reflection, my relationship with this fox had been no different from that with other London casual acquaintances who I may encounter over the space of years and never get to know, since it is the norm here to maintain your distance from others. No? At least the social barrier was eventually broken with my fox.

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Class 2S – circa 1976

Ansell
Barrett
Benstead
Bonga
Bruce
Chowdhury
Clay
Dean
Fairman
Fitzenzou
George
Hartman
Herring
Kainth
Machon
Marsh
Parsons
Precious
Rahman
Rayner
Root
Taylor
Warrington
Wroble

I was able to rattle this off at will some years back. Now it’s taken a while to fill in some gaps, and I’m not sure I’ve remembered everyone. My second year secondary school class. Bethnal Green in the days before the boys with creative facial hair riding around on bikes.

Our classroom looked out on Approach Road, just down from York Hall. I’m even a little unsure of our teachers. We had Miss Morris in the first year. There was Miss Drew who came back after a summer holiday as Mrs Van Der Merwe, which caused my parents quite a bit of mirth. There was Ms Stirling.. but was she in my primary school?

We had a gym at the far end of the school, but most physical activities normally involved running around the block in the first year, or around Victoria Park when we little older and more able to navigate the dangers in Bethnal Green in the mid 1970s. Around this time, there was a gang called the Hoxton, who lived in the area of the same name at a time before the bistros and hip clubs sprang up. We once got terrorised by these lads who made the trip up to Bethnal Green and came into the playground to intimidate us. At a different time, involving different kids, and probably in my third or fourth year, one of the boys in my class was stabbed (but thankfully lived) on the way back from our technology class, a few streets away, following which only sixth formers were allowed out at lunch time. We observed this new rule for a short while but quickly returned to our daily trips to the sweet shop or the chip shop, not realising that the rules would be enforced.. vigorously. A few of us got caught sneaking back into school and were marched to the deputy head’s office. I liked the deputy head, Mr Francis and could tell that he wasn’t as institutionalised of the school hierachy. Nevertheless this didn’t stop him administering three strikes of the cane each on our young behinds. This was quite interesting because although each stroke appeared to have the same force, the first one was nothing. I remember thinking “is that it?” By the time the third one landed, however, the pain had risen exponentially and I was jumping and squirming for my life. The situation was made funnier by the fact that the prefects had failed to catch everyone and some of the escapees waited outside the deputy head’s foo so they could have a good laugh at us.

At the end of my first year, there was a trip to Ostend, Belgium, which involved some teachers, some 5th or 6th formers and some first formers. The older boys lost no time in hooking up with some English girls who were in a hotel across the road from us. I can’t remember how we spent the week, but there were coach trips (Lee Bellamy brought some music – we had two cassettes to listen to: The best of the Beach Boys & Stevie Wonder’s Inner Visions. Both albums were played to death). The older boys were all keen to buy flick knives and managed to smuggle them back into England, to give you an idea of the things they liked.

During my time at school, I was involved in only a few fights, both inside and outside the school. The warring arena was never for me. I did Karate around this time, but was savvy enough to know that although useful, this would not save me in a real scrap in the real East End.

But when I think of the dangers my parents had to navigate, all of the above is nothing but child’s play.

My mother left the Eastern Cape and arrived in the Transvaal. In her school days, school boys would try and fend off local knife wielding tsotsis with compasses. She tells the story of local tough guys walking straight into the school, into a classroom and saying “we’ve come for her”, pointing out one of the female students. The male teacher tried to protest and the local toughs immediately brought out their knives, and everyone was clear that this was no empty gesture. There was nothing he can do, save possibly get killed. Off they went. In this particular tale, there is a rare measure of relief because some of the local toughs are seen washing their bloodied noses in the toilets a short time later, so we guess that on tis occasion they met their equals. But it is very instructive. We are all comforted by the idea of decent behaviour or the rule of law providing protection against violence, but this is, to my mind, mostly a fairy tale. Depending on the historical time and geographical location, people may find themselves completely helpless in the face to absolute violence.

I wish I’d had the foresight to talk to my grandmother more about her early life. There’s very little reason to assume she would have been that forthcoming with information, but it would have been worth a try. It is too late now. But I can still have a conversation with her, if we ignore the time construct and assume that everything that ever was and ever will be… is.

> Tell me, Dear Granny, what were your early days like in Johannesburg?

I think she came from eNcgobo in the Eastern Cape.

>> Well, Ntshukie, things were a little hard but with the help of friends and relatives, you have to find a way. Life isn’t always easy.

> But how did you manage to end up with your own four room in Zola at a time when women didn’t own property in Sophia Town, or, later, Soweto?

We lived in Zola, one of the roughest parts of Soweto. When I was born my granny lived with my parents and, I believe, my aunt and her husband (before they got their own place Emndini, just down the road and equally rough), and all the kids. She was a practising Methodist, very strict and ridiculously house proud. I don’t know if it was over compensation, but people living in 4 room dwellings with corrugated asbestos roofs, no electricity, no internal running water.. these people would make sure that their little piece of home would always be sparkling clean. And she’d completely lose her mind if one of the kids scratched or chipped the coal burning stove.

>> Well, Ntshukie, it’s hard to remember all the details. I think I stayed with your grand uncle uRoro and with the help of friends and family, I was able to get the house you know.

> Was it easy finding work?

I doubt I would fair well with these questions. People may let out pieces of information from time to time, but the chances of interviewing them in this way are almost nil. I do know that she left her children with relatives in the Eastern Cape and came to earn a living in Johannesburg. This entailed being a washer and cleaner woman for white families in town. She was able to pay her children’s school fees and their upkeep in this way. She was clearly aspirational and sent my father to Freemantle, a very good school in Queens Town, which probably had a fundamental influence on his aspirations and his life view.

> And how often did you see your children?

I wouldn’t expect an answer from this question. Would she feel guilty for not being with her children as they grew up? Would she feel it was a necessary sacrifice to try and raise their prospects?

> And how were the early days when they came to join you?

There was no money for university so my father and aunt came to join my granny in Johannesburg. after matriculation. My aunt trained as a nurse and ended up spending most of her adult life working in a German Hospital in Johannesburg (I can’t remember the exact location, but my cousin took me there once). My father got some shop jobs and some admin jobs, and became involved in the struggle. This later activity was to be defining because we ended up leaving South Africa and going into exile.

> Are you happy with how your life turned out?

Obviously, I have stopped addressing her directly by now. I could never ask her such a stupid question. And it is an incredibly stupid question. How do you feel when you are married, move to the Queenstown area, have eight children, lose your husband to TB and lose six of the children to ill health? How do you feel when your late husband’s family say they’ll build you a dwelling and look after you in the parched, dry streets of former Transkei? No, Qwati (for that is her clan name) told them to keep their dwelling, she was going to Johannesburg to grab hold of her family’s destiny. Leaving her children with sisters and cousins. That is exactly what she did.

You cannot possibly regret such decisions and the struggles you endured to try and create a meaningful life for yourself and your children. She was quite severe, but what can you expect from a woman who survived in Soweto effectively on her now, her children miles away, being nurtured by the warmth of others?

> Did you think we’d never return?

My parents, surviving imprisonment, house arrest, daily township violence episodes, decided to go north to Botswana in 1965. They crossed the border “illegally” leaving us with granny. My mother got only so far, and said that she couldn’t leave without her children and turned back to the Botswana / South Africa border. My sister and I were brought up to meet her in Botswana by my Aunt Tozi (who in her turn was to leave South Africa one day with just the clothes on her back, both her children in tow). As chance would have it, my mother’s eldest brother, Uncle Cameron, had just arrived in Lobatsi In Botswana so my mother found refuge with him. Uncle cameron was a mover and a shaker and although in exile himself, he started a law practice and was soon thriving. My father made an politically embarrassing fuss about not being served in a Gabarone restaurant (Botswana was just recently independent, but the old colour bar still existed). He questioned the reality of the independence they had achieved, and was expelled – luckily they didn’t deliver him to the South Africans at the border, a fate that befell Uncle Cameron and led to five years in Robben Island.

My sister and I heard all manner of scary stories about South Africa while we were growing up in the UK. We got a first hand view in 1980 when we visited for the first time since leaving. We arrived at Jan Smutts airport to be met by Uncle Khehlana, one of my mother’s older brothers, together with Aunt Nocwaka, my father’s sister. We started out at my uncle’s place at Kwezi, met some of my cousins, and then uncle drove us to my granny’s place – 145B Zola III Kwa Xuma (that’s the postal address, I forget the street name). There were nothing but dirt roads and we walked into the back door, into the kitchen. I think we met Linda and Mongezi, two of my cousins. There was no electricity and a single tap outside in the yard. But inside there were lots of nice decorations and… surprisingly, some photos of Vuyi, my sister, and I, photos which had vanished without a trace from London.

The custom when people arrive is to offer drinks and biscuits so we sat down and, in our broken Xhosa, conversed with our aunt and cousins. Then granny arrived. She had been out occupied with various things and I don’t think she wanted to allow herself to believe that we’d really arrive. We heard the door, she walked in, took one look and then rushed to bedroom in tears. It took my aunt a little while to comfort her and then lead her back out again.

That was my granny, uMam Qwati, the survivor. The one who had made everything possible. To have so many things taken away from you, through the misfortune of being born when and where she was, but to survive and live into old age is something indeed.

As I said, she was quite severe and there was also the ridiculous favouring of boy children you find in Xhosa families. My sister and granny did have their disagreements, but she was always very sweet with me. And we did have many nice episodes together, and some not so nice. Later on that first trip back, we took a train from Park Station in Johannesburg to Queenstown, and we got a chance to really see South Africa. She was already quite an old lady and I recall a tall, heavily build Afrikaaner ticket guard screaming continuing verbal abuse at this old lady as she, hands trembling, looked for her train ticket. And those were the times. It is always a useful tactic to view the people you oppress as being less than human, thus reducing your internal struggle at the injustice. Chances are he was very affectionate to his dogs and his children. In that oder.

It was on the second trip in 1984 that I got some of the early back story to my granny coming to Johannesburg. Part of the trip was to locate my grandfather’s grave with my sister, cousin, aunt and some of the older relatives. We were taken to an unmarked grave, one amongst many other unmarked graves, and were told this this where my grandfather lies. I think I was pretty sceptical at the time. Then one of the other women of my grandmother’s age told me how Qwati had, shortly after losing her husband, left gracelessly, as she described it, and gone to Johannesburg, flinging their compassion back into their faces.

> And what of your receding strength and control?

I am embarrassed to say there was a party at home in Johannesburg, my aunt being away doing a night shift, and granny was locked in her room with a TV (electricity reached our area sometime before 1984) watching James Brown – and liking him – while there was drinking an revelling that went on all night. It wasn’t my idea but I was equally guilty. She had lost her grip on her own house and the children had taken over.

My grandmother passed away in 1985 and I went home for the funeral. And those were the pre “rainbow fairytale” times. The service at the graveside was concluded in minutes, there having been helicopters following the funeral procession and young soldiers, I remember this, young soldiers along the route making obscene gestures at the mourners. I really wonder if they have found the time to reflect on this.

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Is science just another belief system?

I wanted to use the words “just another religion” but shied away from doing that.

The world is full of interesting people. (Or only one person?) For instance, there are the objective realists.

Ayn Rand in an interview from 1959 starts laying out the basis of her philosophy. She says her philosophy is based on the position (or belief) that reality exists as an objective absolute; that man’s mind / reason is his means of perceiving it; that man needs a rational morality. (Her choice of pronouns.) She then claims to have come up with a new morality that is based not on arbitrary whims and whatnot, but on reason. The interview is by Mike Wallace and he lets her get away with saying all of that. He spends almost all of the remaining time arguing with her about the values in the morality she puts forward.

Mr Wallace accepts her framing of the matter at hand, and never questions the meaning of a statement such as “reality exists as an objective absolute”. This is a huge “what is, is” statement. It would have been interesting to see what would have ensued if Mr Wallace had, at the outset, asked her to support her statement that “reality exists as an objective absolute”. This seemingly straight forward statement which slipped by without question deserves a little attention. The existence of objective reality is a statement of faith. It cannot be demonstrated since all we have at our disposal are our subjective evaluations.. whether arrived at individually or in groups, with whatever “scientific” apparatus we may have to hand.. all observations are filtered through our senses.
Our brains construct reality for us from, we assume, stimuli emanating from our senses. We can only experience the external world through our senses; and we live our lives by processing the received signals (together with whatever addition perceptions and conclusions our brains wish to add), and taking actions based on our assessments of these signals. Individually. Ayn is saying that there is a reality separate from all of this. But there is no way of knowing or demonstrating this. As a pragmatic strategy, it is sensible to go through life as though “reality exists as an objective absolute”, but fundamentally the statement is referring to something that can never be demonstrated and is meaningless in any context other than a choice of faith.

(She then whimsically goes off script. She mentions, in two separate interviews, that she likes the philosophy that we don’t die, but the world ends when we stop living. Which clearly cannot be the view of a true objective realist. She’s almost certainly not speaking literally here, but why make the statement at all? )

Language reveals everything. If people speak about “laws of nature” or “laws of physics”, for example, they are seeking existential certainties and order that, rationally speaking, one has no right to expect. Is that not just another example of hopeful grasping at certainty and order? Another belief system? The methods here might be different (i.e. boys and girls in white coats carrying clipboards, peer review, the perception of rational and logical thought etc etc), but to set out to discover laws is to have faith in the existence of order. Which is just another existential comfort blanket. Any venture or activity that seeks to demonstrate the existence of order is a religion.

I like the analogy of a fish that has intelligence, eats, reproduces, escapes predators. And yet, I am almost certain, has no concept of the F16 jet that is flying overhead, probably on its way to bomb some third world inhabitants. Or of the various Queen’s Gambit Declined scenarios in chess. Or tritone chord substitution. What makes us so sure that as a species we’re in a different position from this fish? Which is to not discourage the search for information (I prefer this to the search for “knowledge”) and the pursuit of ideas; but let us at least be honest enough to accept the limits of these endeavours.

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