Category Archives: Culture

INTRODUCING SOME GREAT, BIG AND VERY BEAUTIFULLY GEOGRAPHICAL TREES!

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They stand at the heart of that oddly adult Children’s Classic The Little Prince: The mighty Baobab trees.  The first I met, several in fact, bloomed wonderfully, grotesquely and inspiringly in the Kalahari, at the tourist camp in Botswana, Planet Baobab. The second was the sad sight of a fallen giant, the legendary Chapman’s baobab.  It tore apart and collapsed after the hottest day ever recorded in Botswana, for those Global Warming sceptics, on January 7th, 2016.  Much more to say on that, or Green’s baobab,  we sloshed over a kilometre to reach, through unusually waterlogged ground this February, with excellent rains this year in Botswana. But for the moment you can see some of the ideas, the Art and the ambition too around them in an article in Geographical Magazine, Just Click Here. It’s the start of a great adventure, and if you’re a traveller, a tree lover, indeed a tree hugger, or just like great stories, then do please Like, for more tales and blogs of the wonderful creatures.

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The photo is of a very healthy Chapman’s baobab in 2014. The second picture is a drawing by the artist Arabella Caccia.

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SUPPORTING THE KALK BAY ARTISTS!

Phoenix Ark are very proud to be supporting and promoting a group of four great artists in South Africa, who have founded a little Collective in Cape Town’s beautiful Kalk Bay, at The Kalk Bay Artists Collective. There Chris Bladen, Pete Strydom, Arabella Caccia and Jean Tiran now have their own workshops, but a lovely gallery space too, currently by invitation, to help support each other and to try and challenge the Gallery system too.

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Chris is a highly renowned fish and wildlife sculptor, whose almost scientifically realistic fish, birds and animals stem from his own love of sports fishing and the environment. They sell around the world.  He is also a superb jeweller. Pete is self taught, but his passion and wit ring out, and his sculptures range from gorgeous sunbirds to humorous modernist camels. Arabella is both award winning painter and sculptor whose work has auctioned at Southebys and, like all of them, is deeply inspired by nature and the shapes inside it, especially trees, to capture the vivid colours and forms of Africa. Jean Tiran is the Master Craftsman of the workshop, but also a wonderful abstract sculptor in his own right. To see them, their Mission Statement, their website and their work, just Click Here

Phoenix Ark and the artists are keen to build long term relationships with buyers, not least because work can be finished to detailed orders and editions.  Links to individual websites can be found by clicking above.  For International clients, even with the costs of shipping and tax, the work still represents considerable value. To contact them you can write directly here, to The Collective or to the artists individually, via the website.

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WALKING WITH THE BUSHMAN!

A SHORT WALK IN THE KALAHARI

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His name is Cobra, and he has been working with the excellent, high end travel outfit in the Kalahari, Uncharted Africa, for years. I think he started as a boy with the hunter Jack Bousfield, who was killed in a plane crash, where his son Ralph was injured, back in 1992.  So Ralph founded Jack’s Camp, in honour of his father, and so came San Camp and Camp Kalahari too, all in reach of each other, here in beautiful Botswana, on the edge of the Makadikadi salt pans. I’ll blog more on the wonders and style of our visit, of lionesses, meerkats, and an evening ride among three thousand Zebra, during the migration.  We were thoroughly spoilt and the only decent thing is to share just a little of it with you here.

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But first to something Uncharted offer too, which is a two hour walk with the ‘Bushmen’. Of course nowadays that term is decidedly politically incorrect, for the San and Koi peoples, among the oldest cultures and people of Africa.  I do not mean it to insult, far from it. Their guttural, clicking, beautifully sing-song tongue is the root of the Xhosa language in South Africa, though linguistically they have long split apart.  I think we all felt a little awkward as we rounded a Wait-a-bit tree, heavy with Long lensed cameras, our bronzed skins fizzing with mosquito repellent and wearing shades, to see a small group of adults and children, all apart from Cobra, in traditional dress.   The group come for around three months, paid by Uncharted, though I have no idea what, then are replaced by another group, so inevitably came the potential feeling of a stage set, and a forced exercise.

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But very quickly we were put at our ease, after many handshakes, reassured that these guys like it, including being photographed, and actually several of the bare breasted women dandling their dirty babies hardly seemed phased at all.  Somewhat bemused, or amused. So off we set, wondering what on earth we were doing, to stop now and then, to pull up a bitter herb, a xoi, or wild carrot, or pluck purple pepper pod leaves that help cure a dry cough, or try and understand their mesmerizing language.  I’m afraid I still haven’t grasped names, but a couple of the younger guys and girls had very good English too, to translate, and somehow the awkwardness eased, as we started to enjoy a walk in one of the largest, and hardest gardens on earth, the Kalahari.  Several of the men carried delicate asagais, I’m not sure of the bushman word for spears, made from the hard wood of the brandy bush, and one arrows and a bow, though technically, like everyone else in peaceful Botswana, they are not allowed to hunt. I have a problem with that, because although I thoroughly approve of Botswana’s general ban on Big Game hunting, which should be adopted across Africa, what will it do to their unique culture and lives, among such an un-invasive people?

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The story of the Bushman is probably as sad as much of the rest of the World.  Now perhaps two thousand live a truly traditional, nomadic life in the Kalahari, and have been moved especially from the central parts around the Diamond reserves, though ‘Conservation’ is generally the excuse, to the edge of towns or their own communities. Diamonds!  Those beautiful, over valued stones we like to give each other on bits of gold as a symbol of Love ad Eternity, that generally are pretty useless, especially when we’ve ruined the Wild and the World for Eternity.  But never make too many assumptions.  One of the guys smiled knowingly as I asked him what he wore in Frances Town or his village. Jeans and Tshirts was of course the answer, sometimes, especially in town, as I learnt he was studying Engineering.  But on we trecked, this mobile outfit from Botswana’s equivalent of Central Casting breaking away to pluck a purple pepper pod,  or show us an animal track.  Especially the elder guys were watching and knew, and you knew too that if you were ever lost in the desert, forget Ray Mears or Bear Grylls, it was these guys you wanted with you!

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The ground was dry, despite the unusually heavy rains this February, and soon the girl I had been trying to vaguely flirt with, or prove I wasn’t an arrogant Westerner to, was crouched on the earth, teasing the guys about their jokes that this was women’s work, digging for a special water tuber which they scrape like a carrot, then squeeze, using the thumb as a spout, to drink the milky, bitter fluid. That I tried too and it tastes like pure water, when your brain separates out the turnip bit.  Back she placed it in the ground too, for another day.  Meanwhile the men were collecting dry Zebra dung, twigs and fine kindling to show us the primal art of Fire.  Cobra was trying to upstage them though – they came from different tribes and didn’t talk the same language – scooping out the earth to catch a scorpion, that he played around with, then popped between his lips and teeth, so he could clean it and show the eight eyes, and eight spots on its underbelly, that relate it to a spider. I tried to talk to Cobra, about what he thought of tourists, or the problems of his people, and though there were lots of reassuring ‘goods’, his extraordinary face seemed naturally lined with doubt.

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But the fire was going, the group and the little children decidedly interested in their own stuff, and so began a kind of song and a game I think I’ll never forget. Men opposite women, it was a version of Paper, Rock, Fire, though with moves and signs for Lightening and Steenbok instead. But they so got into it, laughing with delight, that fascinating machine-gun rapid song language rising to some enchanted drumbeat, we were all laughing too and slapping our chests in rhythm wanting to really be part of it. The Game was done, the fire out, a smoke in a bone pipe complete, I had been dying to try too, from a tiny wad of tobacco couched between one of the lady’s breasts, that makes you wonder how many pula they earn, and just like the water plant, the fire remains were pushed into a hole and smoothed over. Gone.  One more thing left, as I tried to throw a spear, the little snare they had made under the tree, for birds, or even the tiny deer we had seen everywhere.  They laughed approvingly as I was persuaded to put my hand through the vine-made noose, to touch the bark gum bait and I was caught.

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Now we were wandering again, the sun high, feeling as if we had touched a little bit of a very innocent Eden.  It was all there.  All you really need in life.  Food. Water. Fire.  And a laughing song-game. Then suddenly they began to break away, after all of them shaking our hands once more.  We of course had no idea where we had wandered in the bush, but there we were back near their camp, like turning the corner to the semi-detached.  Cobra and his fine, long faced compatriot, such a dignified, beautiful face, hopped in the jeep with us for a lift back to Jack’s Camp, but it was over. It will go on.  For the other tourists, a walk in the Kalahari, though Uncharted offer a trip where you can live with them, without any other creature comforts. But for any staginess, any odd conjunction of Ancient and rather Modern, that many of the Botswanans around looked at somewhat sceptically,  I was deeply touched. I thought of all the problems, all the fights and horrors of the World, of the grossness of Donald Trump and all that Power, the difficult issues of Conservation too, and precisely because these gentle, threatened people seemed to leave no harmful mark, felt very genuinely that we could all take a purple pepper pod leaf out of the Bushman’s book.

David Clement-Davies February 2017  Photos David Clement-Davies and Arabella Caccia.  To Visit Uncharted Africa’s website Click Here

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE PHOENIX ARK CULTURAL ESSAY

THE INAUGURATION OF DONALD JOHN TRUMP

Despite the new attempt at an Orwellian Ministry of Truth from the Washington Press Spokesman in this statement that crowds at the 45th US President’s inauguration were huge, but Media coverage doctored, and of what has been universally described as a low turnout, I’ve been a bit confused by the coverage too, on TV and especially Radio Four. With commentators, although mentioning minor riots in Washington, in fact talking about the razzamatazz, glamour, triumph and good support. Perhaps we should all have been invited to the parties, or they are trying to ride some wave.

To me the entire thing felt and looked like a funeral, subdued, fearful, ominous and Trump’s speech was sinister.  That super hotelier of a President, who does not read, clearly looked as if he needed a hug, and at times you were even tempted. But when he came out with that frightening garbage, I and I hope any of the civilised world, hung their heads in shame.  It lacked any breath of oratory or Statesmanship – from sea to sea, from ocean to Ocean (!), blah, – and was Messianic in its American bombast and virtually illiterate.  Protectionism, Isolationism, America First, wiping things from faces of the Earth, God leads us, We The People, or You, when he lost the popular vote. God, what a contrast to Obama’s superb and needed oratory, especially after George W.’s damage, so much a part of the rise of World Terrorism, with the arrival of a First Black President and his inspiring humility on his departure. Not that oratory is enough, but then, as Edith Clavell once said too, Patriotism is not enough either! Or not enough for the Planet now.

Trump is not only a Plutocrat with a dodgy history, but the First Americo-Russian Oligarch. Probably why he so seems to admire Putin. Or is that Putin’s grabbing of Pussy Riot? Perhaps that’s unfair, America was forged by big business men too, from Carnegie to Rockerfeller, as Putin’s power was secured with the rise of the Oligarchs, but you’d hope something might move on and it was Government’s job to hold their likes in check. His scornful comment about those people congratulating him who had once attacked him though is so totally to misunderstand what difficult but always preferable Democracy must deal with, and why others were at such pains to celebrate the peaceful transfer of power.  But now his arrogance and stupidity, not in the commercial sense, I’m sure he’s very savvy about how big business bullies, or he does, how his wife can get a commercial leg up, or how he goes serially bankrupt so he can make more money, as others loose out, and according to Channel Four advised by a lawyer to Crime Families , will try to take a chainsaw to complex checks and balances.  Rowe V Wade, the EPA, the PAA already negated, the end of abortion assistance in Developing countries, you name it.

Is it right to attack the corruption and swamp of Washington though, as if the only movie Donald ever watches is Mr Smith Goes to Washington?  He’s certainly no James Stewart or Frank Capra. Well actually I think elements are right, have experienced the corruption at the top,  yet the power of The Hill and US social divides is really about the problems of Super Capitalism and Wall Street, exactly what Trump is such an arch and tasteless exponent of, despite what he claims. Now in his cabinet he has several members of Goldman Sachs, that ‘Universal Spider’ so implicated in the Greek crisis. What is so wrong with a liberal elite anyhow, in comparison to a new hyper Conservative and Right wing elite of pure money and capital? Though it must be said that the Liberal Media seems to have just got it spectacularly wrong in the new series of Homeland, predicting that a Woman and Anti War President would now be in the Whitehouse.  Perhaps they are indeed deeply out of touch. As for movements, Hitler too really was a revolutionary, though at least he far Trumped Trump in being  a very eloquent demagogue. I am sorry though America, but for a Country that is rather great, the only Super Power, actually perhaps you deserve the Politicians or the Democracy you get.

So, The Paris Accord on Environmental initiatives and emissions is now a dead letter, because, er, it’s just not true, cos The Donald says so, any reference has been removed from the Government website, those guys are just making money out of it, Tump’s bottom line, and because we don’t want or can’t afford for it to be true! Um, it is true, 95% of scientists agree, while it is fatuously obvious that the little Earth is a finite resource, Rainforests are being decimated, species vanishing every second and the Ice caps going. Now admittedly, in the bewildering Extinction and Evolution of species, once upon a time the entire Earth was one great big snowball, but frankly that was 65 Million years ago and I don’t think the super survival of Donald Trump and family is the pinnacle of Human or Animal Evolution, or indeed taste.  Meanwhile Russia becomes more and more aggressive, but Trump denies that his own Secret Services are right in pointing to Russia’s attempt to influence the election, precisely because he is exactly of Putin’s dictatorial stamp and we will see far more of that. Already he has struck at Nato. His Office’s attacks on the Press are also symptomatic.  While here, We The Fractious People of once Great Britain, are now rushing as ever up America’s special arse, which included Tony Blair’s corrupt and also semi-messianic support of the war in Iraq, that caused so much extremism, because we are still obsessed with having once had an Empire, including America.  Can’t we see that now is exactly the time to turn back to a United Europe though, with the values that made or make us too, quite as much as anything American?

Britain always trailed its feet in Europe, could never take any lead and perhaps a tragedy is that was just a fact of life, De Gaulle never wanted us in, although many here wanted reform, especially with the terrible example of Greece.  In that sense Europe is as much to blame, though Brexit is surely greatly to blame for Donald Trump, even more  worrying with the growth of far Right parties, and if a leader emerged who could sound that clarion call, economic, political, but cultural too, including the needed culture or awareness of World Environmentalism, perhaps there might be a Geopolitical shift away from what is happening now. But where is that kind of leader made in Britain anymore?  Nowhere.  It certainly isn’t Jeremy Corbyn, who seems eternally confused. Well, there is an interesting moment with the Supreme Court ruling here that both houses of Parliament need to decide on the enacting of Article Fifty to take us out of Europe. Ironically of course a true lead probably needs to come from that most recently reviled of Empire builders, Germany.

Henry Kissinger was interesting in saying maybe Britain can play the most unique of roles in still uniting America and Europe, but there is nothing that suggests it will do so in the right way for the World, or for what still drives the most decent and admired of British values. That Little Englander Nigel Farage is also a Trump kind of guy, our Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson makes fatuous jokes about punishment beatings, which forget that not everyone had fun at Eton and why should Europe give Britain everything it wants, and Theresa May has potential, though is no Margaret Thatcher, if I’ not sure if that is a compliment. What is it intellectually though that any of them can truly stand up for in the arrival of Donald John Trump, or that inauguration speech? These are very nervous times, or interesting times, as the Chinese might say.  Just before Christmas one of the most famous Shorters of shares and markets, Bill Bonner, who predicted the fall of Communism, The Dot Com Crash, The Japan Crisis, and 2008, and has a very interesting track record, came out with an almost apocalyptic prediction about a crisis beginning in America, the like of which the World has never seen.  Because of trillions in US debt, and the absence of actual physical US currency, since up to 50% and higher is in Foreign hands, and the ability of global bankers and private individuals to take vast amounts suddenly out of the Markets, he talks of ATM Machines just stopping, fuel stations running out,  Social Security cheques ending.  He says he doesn’t want it to happen, but feels duty bound to warn people how to protect their friends and family.  It has a survivalist American stamp, and of course he is a natural shorter who benefits by calamity, while his warning preceded a suggestion we buy into his monthly newsletter at his Global company Agora, which has two million followers around the world. Most people can’t afford to play at that level anyway. But even the FT this weekend was talking ominously about Black Swan theory, of unseen things around the corner, of Neom Chomsky’s warning now about the biggest and most dangerous centralisation of power in the form of the American Military-Industrial Complex.  And of course America’s spending on the Military is massively higher than any Nation on Earth and about to go up, as The Don talks new Arms Races and First Strike capabilities.  It is also the greatest consumer of Energy on Earth.

Well, what can you say?  Donald Trump has certainly stuck to being Donald Trump. If in fact his words have always wobbled like any businessman. Perhaps he is planning Soviet Style Show Trials of the likes of Hilary Clinton. Does he have a vision for American regeneration though, the likes of which Roosevelt used to inspire and unite a Nation?  I doubt it very much.  Roosevelt’s National works programme, that helped to build access to the Grand Canyon, was rooted in a sense both of Nature and good works.  Meanwhile, as the machine hurtles on, and we are all caught up  and implicated in it, Government should always have acted to enforce new Research and Development initiatives into different energy capture technologies, storage, emissions targets and so on, by powerful companies, to make them responsible at every level.  We could do with such a Roosevelt style initiative of regeneration in Britain. In the meantime, as Bill Bonner might say, you have been warned!  Then everything about Trump was a warning and America still let him in. Go on, The Don, give the World some hope, don’t put up walls at everyone else’s expense.

 

 

 

 

 

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MEETING IVANA TRUMP

I met Ivana Trump once, it was in a little London art gallery, I think Cork Street, and remember well wondering about this botoxed, attractive, semi glamorous Eastern European woman and how celebrity, and this was long before Trump ever got anywhere near the most powerful office in the World, The President of The US of A, affects us all.  I was affected, just because this was Ivana, some kind of apprentice in Trump’s Celebrity life journey, or once the ultimate power couple, and wonder now how her ex husband’s new position will draw others out of the woodwork.  With new revelations about Trump’s private life I suspect they will be coming thick and fast, whether Monica Lewinsky made a fortune out of the Bill Clinton business or not, and for one take on that you should read Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. Such is life.

Actually though it wasn’t Ivana I remember most from the evening, she seemed a bit sad and was an ex, but an extraordinary guy who kept announcing he was a hypochondriac. Obviously having been in extensive therapy, part of the cure was the revelation, the speaking it, and though I smiled encouragingly, I was not entirely sure what normality really is, when, after cheap wine and swift tasties had been snacked, art sort of looked at and the coats ordered, he produced a huge sports bag and opening it revealed a forest of drugs, pills, hypodermics and tubes, that sort of reassured him on his way.  I am not being nasty to the hypochondriac, though life can be cruel, if I was not sure I had made it to the most exclusive opening, but now The Donald is in charge, I wonder who needs going into therapy the most! Come on The Don, Corleone or not, tell us the truth, you’re insane and so is the rest of the world, but who’s providing the cure?

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TRUMP’S NOT SO DIRTY SECRETS!

Antony Barnett’s silly Dispatches programme for Channel Four, Trump’s Dirty Secrets, especially so close to the most worrying Presidential inauguration in history, should never have been aired.  It was perhaps right to focus its thirty minute slot on one of the most serious aspects of the new administration, the Climate Change deniers, the oil and coal men, the hugely powerful business interests Trump has been involved with, and the new head of the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, that are going to make the Paris Accord a dead letter and wreck all the good work done by Nations around the world.

Except there was nothing new about it at all.  Seeing Barnett in Trump’s super hotel overlooking the White House, replete with sociopathically egotistical Trump products, from the Champagne to the Chocolates and monogrammed bathrobes, is nothing new at all and rather made a fool of the journalist.  Because it is the fact that we and America know all this, know about his business dealings, know about his arrogance and bizarre personality, and yet he was still voted into power that is the really despairing aspect of it all.  But half of America loves and believes in such ‘success’, sees it as part of the American dream, aspire to be that kind of man.  That is not to comment on why so many became so disillusioned with Washington and the Democrats.  But if Dispatches want to do a programme like that, please be serious and do it properly, come up with some real dirt, or something that is actually secret, don’t allow your journalist to go on a jolly.  Then I’ll take a trip to Trump’s hotel to see in what astonishing style the new First Lady will be redecorating the White House.  Surely a shrine to The Donald, next to the likes of George Washington, Adams or honest Abe Lincoln, with an award for ‘Greatest US President in the History of History’ from one of his own firms.

Meanwhile that Polish waiter of Politicians, Michael Gove, who consistently looks like a misunderstood weasel, a man famous not only for knifing Boris, but trying to take To Kill a Mockingbird off the curriculum, looked so awful scraping to Trump, so degrading Britain in his unctuous desire to prove we are now top of the queue,  that he and other famous Brexiteers should be spanked and sent back to school to be given a lesson in what really once made Britain great and why we should immediately bring to an end The Special Relationship!

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MUCH ADO ABOUT THE LOVELY RSC

I must confess to a dastardly crime against the Theatre, or myself, in not staying for the second half of Loves Labours Lost at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Perhaps it was the difficulty of the play, or too much slapstick, the industrial scale milking of comic moments, or some of the more bizarre accents too, that turns John Hodkinson’s Don Amardo into a mixture of Shylock and Manuel from Fawlty Towers. It all got rather exhausting then, as did the constant word games and rhyming couplets, though I think it was wanting to gas with an old friend over a drink that really did it. There was a moment of hesitation too when, right at the end of the first half, Berowne erupts into a speech of true Shakespearian power and poetry, presaging deeper things to come, but the friend and the drink won out, no matter how terrifying the price of a Brandy Alexander has become in Central London.

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The regret came seeing the deliciously exuberant and utterly charming production of Much Ado About Nothing the next night, so also getting a clearer picture of why director Christopher Luscombe both twins them and sets the plays pre and post First World war.   A deeper understanding was only aided by sitting next to the actor Andy Wincott, who plays Adam Macy in the Archers, and no less than Tara King from the Avengers, charming Linda Thorson, whose eyes are as beautiful and foxy as ever, the cause of many adolescent labourings of lust, and who was so effusive about Love’s Labours Lost, darling, she could have walked straight into the magical cast. Linda convinced me I had missed a true theatrical moment though when all that unnatural idealism falters, though the passion is not spent but so rudely interrupted, both by the women banishing the men in the play and here by the horror of a World War, beyond the ceaseless war of the sexes. Then American novelist Phillip Roth is convinced that the reason we still respond to myths like the Iliad and Odyssey, is that the fight for Woman really lies at the bottom of all conflict and all Art.  Well, obviously life itself.

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As for theatrics, Much Ado About Nothing is very stagy too, yet what indeed is a far richer and more complex play, given added depth of frame by the characters now returning from the Hell of Passchendaele, and the rest, quickly evoked by the stage presence of metal hospital beds and echoes of The Shooting Party, became a tour de force. Here then what was for me far too Norman Wisdom in Nick Haverson’s Costard in Loves Labours, grows into a marvellously rich and wounded Dogsberry, perhaps Shell-Shocked, who had the audience both howling and squirming with genuine human pity. Though not as painful, in the tremendous all singing and dancing sets, as the shaming and apparent death of pretty Hero in the highly dramatic wedding scene. Much Ado is potentially far darker and more cynical than this version, especially in the Iago-esque malevolence of Don John, maybe not so inexplicable in motive considering what had just happened in this time frame, and the venom that lies only just below the Social surface, but that is kept firmly under control and the show fizzes. Steven Pacey is tremendous both as Donnish Holofernes and especially Leonato and though Beatrice and Benedict are very well matched, Edward Bennet’s lovely Benedict steals the laurels, in scenes that must have been a joy to improvise in rehearsal and brought some delightful audience interaction too, punters so love.

The reason for twinning them at all is the echoes the plays share and the theory that Much Ado is in fact the lost Loves Labours Won, so perhaps a sequel, mentioned by Francis Meres in Palladis Tamia, published in 1597, that book that also sounded the murder of Christopher Marlowe. To me the jury is very much out on that, probably still wanting to believe that the lost ‘Won’, like that vanished version of Don Quixote, Cardenio, is still out there somewhere. Yet finding a line through both is convincing and certainly seems to energise the actors in this inspiring ensemble cast.

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Meanwhile a very plausible RSC Land has been achieved by the Downtown Abbey style set, reflecting the real and very beautiful Charlcotte Manor in Stratford, the home of the Elizabethan grandee Sir Thomas Lucy. That could lead you wandering off down the fustian halls of Scholarship itself, if to an entirely different play, The Merry Wives of Windsor. Since that manor where legend has it Shakespeare was hounded for poaching deer and had to flee for his life, may find its way into the play’s references to lice, a pun on the ‘Luces’ of the Lucy crest. It is also the scene where Justice Shallow first appeared, and Shakespeare was probably taking a swipe at the London Sherriff and obvious crook, Sir William Gardner, relation of Mary Tudor’s Bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner, who had Shakespeare and others up in late 1596 on charges of Murder and Affray. All more or less convincing speculation in what is still a pretty threadbare biographical patchwork of Shakespeare’s life, swamped by the imaginative astonishment of the plays and his mind. But the firm grounding does no harm at all, though must raise costs over the Elizabethan chimney pots. Then it is an extremely generous production, in the lovely setting of the Theatre Royal (if I still think the RSC needs a London home), much aided by Nigel Hess’s specially commissioned score, that gives it a touch of the Musical, the verve of the cast and, since Donald Trump is about to redecorate The White House in Gold, the post fin de siècle sense that we might all be entering very interesting and ugly times indeed.

The photos show Costard and Don Armado, Beatrice and Benedict and the inspiring ensemble cast in the RSC and Chichester Festival’s twinned productions of Loves Labours Lost and Much Ado About Nothing, currently running in London at The Theatre Royal, Haymarket. Tickets by kind courtesy of the RSC.

 

 

 

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The Artists of Kalk Bay

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“Ya, artists of all kinds flock here” says Arabella Caccia, as we look down on the skillful little milk swirl paintings of some very convincing birds floating in the top of our cappuccino in Ohana café. A distant descendent of the model for Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa Arabella tells me about the never so fraught life of South African painters and sculptors. Of course here it is as tough to survive, let alone make it, as it is for any artist, probably made more so for a white half-European like Arabella by the moves towards ‘decolonialisation’ that have dried up municipal commissions and been encapsulated by the recent ‘Rhodes must fall’ campaigns.

The difference being that as the little single rail metro train chuggs along the sparkling coastline, it’s commuter carrying coaches covered in garish graffiti, roughing it in Kalk bay, Cape Town is a much more pleasant place to do it than many. I have penetrated deep beyond the so called ‘lentil curtain’, south of the city toward the Cape of Good Hope, to visit what might be described as the Greenwich Village of Cape Town. It is just edging toward High Season when tourists descend to enjoy churning turquoise waves, cloud curled blue skies that turn every day into an impressionist painting, restaurants, coffee bars and the many curio, antique, art and souvenir shops that crowd the Main Street.

Like Africa, Kalk bay is a very colorful place, and some lively and appealing art work leaps out at the eye. The witty, highly glazed Greyson Perry style ceramic pots in the window of the gallery Agapanthus, one emblazoned with the jolly motto ‘Holy Shit’. The landscapes, portraits and abstracts that pop out of every window, like those of the appropriately named Artvark. The huge hammerhead shark ever flicking statically past the little Shark Centre, fashioned out of endless strips of galvanized tyre, and bolted together with a thousand screws – recession-beating stuff back in the day, considering the price of casting bronze. On street corners poor Africans try to compete with their touristy trinkets – animals fashioned from twisted wire, metal friezes of the townships crafted out of old coke and beer cans, and piles of bangles, bracelets and beads. They are an echo of the finer but also tourist orientated African artwork on sale on the roadside near tourist destinations; endless animal woodcarvings of giant giraffe, elephant  or hippos with seats for open mouths, but also the often very skilled polished stone carvings, also commonly on sale in places like Kirstenbosch botanical gardens.

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Considering how much is around, everywhere, you wonder how anyone makes a proper living, but then there are the more experienced fine artists like Arabella Caccia, or Andrei Stead, whose interesting sculpted human half-cutaways  being appreciated in the Christopher Moller Gallery in the centre of town. Nearby at the Everard Reid gallery they were celebrating their 20th anniversary by inviting a young curator to stage an exhibition that was all student-style installations and anguished videos that did not do it for me. They are places it is important for any artist to cultivate and yet with the very high percentages galleries take, perhaps Arabella and her colleagues and friends have come up with the perfect solution. Near always popular and very artsy Olympia café and bakery, that thrums with locals gorging on some of the best seafood in town, they now share studios, foundary and their own gallery too, a hopeful and enterprising solution to any artistic woes.

Four artists work out of the space, Arabella Caccia, bearded Jan Smutts look-alike Jean Tiran, his green motorbike parked in the forecourt, whose fine abstract bronzes and stone carvings also adorn the space, and who doubles as the bronze caster, patina specialist and master craftsman, and ex dentist Chris Bladen, who does some wonderfully realistic bird and fish sculptures. The whole place is owned by a former salvage diver Peter Strydom, whose often humorous bronzes add a fantasy element to the enterprise. Not yet open, their pieces already dot the airy main room, and adorn the long table where they plan to host several dinners to encourage interest. The problem for any artist is their engagement with their own work and unwillingness for the hard sell or to act in the role of gallery owner, even here, which is itself a full time job. Thus their mutually supporting enterprise is unlikely to replace the need to exhibit elsewhere too, while at times they do face the odd complaint from neighbors. The week before I had seen some of Arabella’s lovely symbolist sculptures in the beautiful gardens of Grand Provence winery in Franshoek, which is also showing her paintings in their dedicated gallery. But now their outfit at Kalk Bay is not only a great place to work and be, but a certain place to exhibit too.

Arabella Caccia, who until recently had her studio in her little garage at her home in Kalk bay, is clearly delighted with the new space, not least with the company and working with people she clearly likes. Art can be an isolated business. But now, achieving new success at places like Grand Province, and still hugely interested in the art scene in Central Cape Town, as well as galleries in London, New York and abroad, she is really able to spread her wings. “It’s freed me up for new ambitions and dreams,” she says as she gaffers a giant piece of artist’s paper to the wall, soon to be blooming with a livid Rothkesque red. Arabella has interest in many artistic forms, a firm believer in knowing the classical rules before you break them, and her wonderful oils of often isolated and ethereal yet also grounded woman provide a powerful contrast to the fine masculine sculptures in the gallery. But recently she has developed a series of images and colours she half jokingly describes as ‘visual Haikus’, inspired by her time in the Tsitsikamma forests east of Cape Town. In the forms of tree bark and flowers she is finding shapes not only echoed throughout nature, but also in human lettering itself. Formed into wax casts too by the crafts men and women in the attached workshops she is also turning the shapes into some highly original sculptures. If what I have seen in Kalk bay is anything to go by she and her colleagues are about to take wing.

The photos show the work of united artists Arabella Caccia, Jean Tiran, Chris Bladen and Peter Strydom in their new gallery space on Windsor Street, Kalk bay and work in progress in Arabella Caccia’s studio.

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SNAKES IN PARADISE’S GARDEN

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A snake came to my water trough…” DH Lawrence

A morning stroll over gentle Elsie’s Peak for magnificent views of the curling Atlantic surf, down to Cape Point, proved I hope the most auspicious introduction to Cape Town. Since among the leathery, yellow green Protea plants and bright tipped wild flowers my hostess suddenly stopped dead. Not three feet away a bejewelled puff adder pulled its fat gold-black body across the dry earth right in front of us, back into the secret scrub. It sent an electric thrill through us both, at a vital touch of danger in paradise.

Despite the student riots that week then and the burning cars at Cape Town’s University, UTC, with demands for free Tertiary education from the much criticized administration of President Jacob Zuma,  in a ‘Fees must fall’ campaign, the press reports of 60 rapes a month in the nearby district of Phillipi, or ‘those stories’ of Africa that always keep you sharp, or vaguely nervous, so far my touristy experience of exhilarating Cape Town has been of a coastal paradise. If with twinges of guilt at joining the beautiful and select in what sometimes feels like a manicured Urban Golf Course, over yet another glass of delicious South African wine. Along the well mettaled roads, among the smartly streaming cars, afternoon traffic jams and many signs of considerable wealth are the black Big Issue sellers, the fly by night traders, the beggars, the corrugated township huts and those already lost to ‘tik’, Crystal Meth. Yet in the Pick and Pay supermarket at Constantia, black, white and colored pensioners were having a very jolly time at a local get together.

That sense of a paradise though, troubled or not, was confirmed today by a visit to one of Cape Town’s true jewels in her glittering and always colourful crown, the lovely Botanical Gardens at Kirtstenbosch. Opened in 1913 on farm grounds that once belonged to that very incorrect Empire builder, Rand Lord and chairman and go founder of De Biers, Cecil Rhodes, the sculpted beds, scented walks, manicured lawns, ragged gorges and winding forest paths, nestling in the haunches of mighty Table Mountain, are where the wild and well-watered find a perfect harmony.

Rhodes, who planted the Camphor Avenue here, now grown to deliciously shadey proportions, is so iconic, like History itself perhaps, good or bad, that I was surprised to find he died at only 48, with the probably apocryphal words – “so much to do, so little time”. When you know a little more of South Africa’s rich and anguished history, how recent Apartheid was and how recently abolished too, you cannot help but think how much has been done and lived through in so little time. How even that pales into insignificance too though in terms of the gigantic sweep of Geological Time you can glimpse at Kirstenbosch.

They’ve expended much time and great skill too developing the National Botanical Gardens, with its various beds, Arboretum and Concert Lawn, stocking it with a cornucopia of those rare plants that make the Cape quite unique as a botanist’s treasure chest. The gardens boast two and a half thousand species of indigenous plant. Though the likes of Rhodes are hardly figures happily talked about now, with a “Rhodes must fall campaign” too, and that militant trend much criticized and feared too by many white South Africans towards the ‘de-colonialisation’ of African history and culture, echoed in recent protests at Oxford University too, by seeking to remove signs like the Neo Classical Rhodes Memorial. Indeed, just today, Rhode’s statue at UTC was removed, to little concern from white friends here.

 

‘Sweet waters’ is the original name for Cape Town, and that astonishing cloud topped monolith, six times as old as the Himalayas, is the City’s secret and its true mystery. You can feel it when that bank of cloud that locals call the Table Cloth spills off the mountain’s edge, like the beginning of some Olympian banquet. Up there it clings to the defiantly hardy plants and the indefatigable shrubs, ensuring three times the normal condensation, so constantly feeding the myriad springs that rush down its slopes towards the chilly sea. It is part of the reason for the astonishing variety of flora and fauna at tranquil Kirstenbosch and the lushness of Cape Town too.  “I’ve never seen so many birds feeding together” said the guy with the shotgun Camera, as butterflies, Canary, long tailed Sugar birds and dazzlingly flourescent Sun birds darted, dipped and feasted around us.

There is something else at Kirstenbosch that might make it a microcosm for the whole of South Africa too, part of the fence and hedge established in 1660 right across indigenous cattle routes by the settler and Commander of the Dutch East India Company Jan Van Riebeeck. The very early beginnings of Colonialism and Apartheid. You half expect Donald Trump to burst from the foliage. Except that appalling and unnatural division enshrined as a social ideology and in Law by the Afrikaaners only in the twentieth Century is ostensibly gone in South Africa, and at Kirstenbosch what remains are a new explosion of well labeled plants, flaming choral trees and magnificently curling and splitting trunks – saffron, wild fig and giant mahogany. Ominously identified too in the Garden of Extinction are the 1500 species now in danger on our impossibly small Planet.

I was really won over though by Kirstenbosch’s brand new ‘reptile’. The “Boomslang”, or tree snake, is what they call the brilliantly designed little walkway now curling through part of the canopy, like the city twisting about the giant mountain, and opened in 2014. According to one knowledgble white old timer, who comes here every week, the walkway has increased the Botanical Garden’s visitor rate by 60%. As we listened to the strange quack of mis-named Egyptian Geese, he told me too about the Jan Smutts gorge above us, the famous Boer general had taken up his beloved mountain at the age of 80 to meet the British, who had used the nascent cable car. He was informed and friendly, also telling me how he had played with snakes as a child. In such serene surroundings then I voided wearing my Liberal credentials too heavily when he started talking about ‘them’ having no idea of design, over a book recently produced about Table Mountain and the ‘ugly’ Xhosa name on the cover. I found it rather beautiful.

The day before I had invited myself up to that visual banquet among the Gods, taking the slick modern revolving cable car to the top of Table Mountain. So among tourists as multi-cultural as you can imagine, with many from China, we had all looked down, not only at the city’s astonishing views, but the forbiddingly arid splodge of Robben island, lying ominous in the turquoise bay. It was of course where Mandela spent eighteen of his 27 incarcerated years, breaking rocks in the limestone quarry. In the Press meanwhile the Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, the well respected Indian Finance Minister, had just announced new funds for Tertiary education. The recent corruption charges leveled against him have now been dropped. Meanwhile, today protests in Pretoria again turned to violence, with calls for President Zuma to resign. Perhaps, with opposition voices crying  ‘not on our watch’ this is a critical moment for South Africa.

The country’s challenges remain vast, with only 1% growth, perhaps a 35% unemployment rate and 738 corruption charges pending against Zuma alone. Though he has just withdrawn opposition to the release of the ‘State capture’ report  which may expose the true levels of corruption. The white Jewish journalist John Matison, who worked for Mandela, is not alone in saying then that the likes of Zuma have morally bankrupted Mandela’s vision of that Rainbow Nation, if beyond the symbolism, and with such vast differentials, it ever really existed.

You would not think that dream dead strolling through the sweet smelling Camphor walk at Kirstenbosch, nor visiting the ever popular Robben Island gateway Museum. Where wall plaques testify so movingly to the spirit that endured so much and yet answered hate, intolerance and fear with dignity and forgiveness. So creating a conscious monument not just to oppression but the vital possibility of human hope. That lies not just in the hands of blacks but all South Africans, and perhaps most especially reformists whites in positions of huge economic power. It is precisely the problem of easy ‘de-colonialisation’, too though, or a few wearing T-shirts like ‘Kill the Whites’, since it invites a pointless and dangerous forgetting.

Yet life’s stings are everywhere too, and I was still in search of my African adventure and our auspicious, if secretive friends. So stamping my feet loudly, I left the path in Kirstenbosch and set off across a little stream, then climbed one of the many stepped earth walks that ring the gardens toward the wilder edges of the mountain. There it was, one of the Lords of Life, as DH Lawrence put it in his poem The Snake, just to my left and making off fast through the tangled tree roots. Perhaps four feet long, it was only a juvenile, yet with the strong yellow brown markings of the Cape Cobra, barely flexing its hood in warning at my ignorant passing.

The thrill at that living reality was the same as the sight of our puff adder, and the gorgeous, intense vibrancy everywhere here. Where, again in Lawrence’s words, you would be a fool to miss your chance, or have any pettiness to expiate. As for old and lost arguments, there are still those voices that cling to some kind of fighting nostalgia about what happened in South Africa, but they are generational and will pass away, in the great sweep of time.

Of course there is another presence in Kirstenbosch now though, among the memorial benches to passed locals who loved the place, a little bust of sweet faced Nelson Mandela – ‘Madiba’. He opened a walk here flowering with pepper bark trees, ‘Mandela’s Gold’ they named the flowers in his honour, their bright yellow buds filled with a pointed purple magic. The pepper bark is a traditional healing plant here and that was always Mandela’s triumph. It was not just his though, but De Klerk’s too, though the astonishing inspiration of Mandela remains both his courage and then suffering, but that he could rise from it all speaking of reconciliation. It is far more than that though, like laying careful walkways and tending well watered gardens, so trying to map the future with a Constitution that is universally admired and will hopefully prevent Zuma copying the pattern of so many African leaders.

Never tempt the fates, nor the snaky auspices, but there is something about friendly, vivid Cape Town though and that joyous and dignified voice of Mandela too that makes this place still potentially so visionary, not just for Africa but perhaps the endangered World. Now we all need to hear the voices. Whatever that future holds there are few more serene and inspiring places to contemplate it all than in the magical gardens of Kirstenbosch.

The photo shows the new “Boomslang” walkway at Kirstenbosch national botanical gardens, Cape Town, South Africa.

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A THRILLING, RAUNCHY ROVER, IF SOMEWHAT CAVALIER PRODUCTION

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Non-stop fun is the stamp of Loveday Ingram’s exuberant, and very sexy production of Aphra Behn’s The Rover for the RSC, in the perfectly proportioned Swan Theatre, Stratford. Complete with hysterical Flamenco forays, touches of tango, a stilt walker, and excellent on-stage band. With a Conchita Wurst look-alike, the bearded lady boy among a tranch of devil masks, in what is very nearly The Rover – The Musical, I half expected someone to break out into Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.

Except Naples is the setting for the late 17th Century Restoration play, at Carnival, to turn everyone’s Worlds upside down, then restore them to the same old cynical order. A steely 1920’s cast-iron stairwell backs the simple set, to represent both the keys to the Kingdom and the Whorehouse, in a very hard world, and for the arrival of four exiled English Cavaliers led by Belvile and our particular Don Giovanni, Millmore: Very possibly modelled on the notorious Earl of Rochester, he who penned poems about dildos and things and died at 33 of booze, syphilis, and genius. This production is good Karma, with The Libertine about Rochester’s life on at the Theatre Royal in London, and Millmore is played with wonderful gusto and skilled comic timing by Joseph Millson, giving a tour de force performance he revels in.

From the moment the Prologue is given to the charming and excellent Faye Castelow though, playing Millmore’s equal-to-be, Helena, so that we really know this play was written by a woman, indeed the first English female dramatist and also a spy in Antwerp for Charles II, we are in safe directorial hands. A knowing self-awareness breathes through all the strong performances, that liberates everyone to many kinds of play. Since Millmore is trying to play fast and loose with every pretty woman that meets his eye, so the director’s cuts have played loose too and streamlined things well, if you wonder if cries of “Mummy” or “Kinky” are quite 17th Century.

Then they have gone for knockabout comedy, and ad libs too, including some great audience interaction, not least when Millmore is drunk, that always delights a crowd. If turning a line about old men and impotence on a greying member of an audience that seemed predominantly over sixty might have been a bit close to the bone! No pulling of punches here then, in the lusty manhood stakes. The climax, with an explosion of rose petals from the ceiling, nearly had people up and dancing on their feet and crutches.

This Rover certainly underplays the darker side of Behn’s play, based on one by Thomas Killigrew, where even the finest women could hardly avoid being labelled Wife, Nun, or Whore. The shadows grow in the story of the very funny and then nasty Blunt, the stuttering English Gent with his hand on the purse strings, played wonderfully by Leander Deeny, who is gulled by a prostitute, described in the original cast list as a ‘jilting wench’, into believing he has found true love. There is little time in life’s seething energy for his brand of hurt though, his hatred of being laughed at, so he is driven off stage in the first half by the semi-demonic revellers. Only to return demonically himself in the second half on the edge of doing something very nasty indeed, where a comedy edges toward potential tragedy, to remind us what can happen in the real world.

What is revolutionary in Aphra Behn, and so provides the explosive energy of poetry and thought throughout, is her ‘feminism’ is no mere complaint about manly men, hate of them either, but a cry for woman to be equal in all. Or at least her and Millmore, since by the end you do believe the pair on stage have found their true match. Thus it is two sisters and their kinswoman who set the plot in true motion too, as Florinda longs for Belvile and Helena refuses to disappear into a nunnery. So, disguised as gypsies, they hit the town like the Cavaliers and paint it red.

The main plot sees the honourable Belvile trying to find his lady, against the machinations of the nasty foreigners trying to arrange marriages, and along with a joke about drawing the longest sword, a Toledo blade, a pair of splendid guilded boxer shorts appear, belonging to a very good Don Pedro, endless filthy double entendres ensue, and there’s even a burst of Rule Britannia. The secondary plot involves the Courtesan Angellica Bianca, and since Behn lived when the theatre was very close to the brothel, perhaps reflecting her own initials and sentiments too, who falls for lusty Millmore. Alexandra Gilbreath is both moving and funny as the whore who gives her ‘virgin heart’ away, to no avail. Though a special mention for her slinking side-kick in a bowler, Alison Mckenzie’s knowing Moretta, who gives a nod to Joel Gray’s compere in Cabaret. This is a world that in truth seethed with violence, sex and fear, where a true Courtesan might make much of herself, but the whore and the poor always paid the price in the end, although Blunt shows men can be victims too. Though since Behn was a Royalist – the play is also called The Banish’d Cavaliers – it is Millmore’s poverty, along with his wit and courage, that gives him his nobility and wins him the prize; not only Helena, but her lovely fortune.

You can read reviews of King Lear and Cymbeline below.  David Clement-Davies

The photo shows Faye Castelow and Joseph Millson as Helena and Millmore in the RSC’s production of Aphra Behn’s The Rover, in the Swan Theatre Stratford. Copyright Ellie Kurttz.

 

 

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