Category Archives: Environment

AGAINST – REVIEW

It’s hard to know what to write about Christopher Shinn’s much awaited new play Against at the Almeida.  Set partly in a Rocket Factory in Silicone valley, which is really us of course, with a barely veiled reference to the Mars-wards-looking US tycoon Elon Musk, and with a cast worthy of the paparazzi waiting at the door afterwards, the presence in the audience of Mark Rylance too, it oddly failed to blast off. It is good, and the cast at times great, but….

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Starring  the excellent and highly sensitive Ben Wishaw as the searching billionaire Luke, given a message from God to ‘Go where there’s violence’, it then has him descending like the Secret Millionaire to explore themes of suicide, isolation, addiction, love, sex and above all American violence, in settings from prisons to the home, as his own inability to build relationships is reflected in his fragile love affair with the excellent Amanda Hale. Considering the play begins with a police crime-scene cordon, removed to reveal a TV set broadcasting the increasing horrors of the World and  a Colombine-style school shooting, you might guess where this is all leading.

Nowhere really. It almost takes off in the second half, and we should have come in with the conversation between Luke and a brilliant black junky whose solution is indeed Mars, and the play’s strength is its attack on stereotypes.  But since it is actually rather an intellectual play, it tries to do too much and gets a bit lost.  Or perhaps it’s telos is we really are all lost, but, if human nature is anything to go by, would be no different on Mars anyhow.

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In that it has great points to make about turning back to look inside at our own natures, our most basic humanity , or lack of it, the empty cults of celebrity and billionaires like Musk too, and is surprising in its attack on supposedly progressive Liberal thinking, especially at the Almeida.  As Emma D’Arcy’s sensitive literature student trying to write a story about her lack of love and connection in her polyamorous relationship is persuaded, or half intimidated, by her supposedly Liberal, gay ex-sex worker professor, played superbly by Kevin Harvey , that she must change the story to really open her mind.  She should have given him Atomised to read.  In a play so much about a search for human intimacy, it highlights how impossible it becomes when even the violent denouement is live-streamed.

In defiance of that is the reappearing bed that urges the central characters both toward loving sex and commitment, a meaning and intimacy everyone is looking for, paralleled by the pair at the bottom of the pile, faced with sexual exploitation, sort of, and working in the food processing department of the much reviled Equator enterprises, in the play’s desire to circle the Globe and all human experience.  It doesn’t make it, obviously, but it has moments of high tenderness, some lovely acting, wit and style. The problem with the Capitalist machine is sounded, and perhaps Silicone Valley and Ayn Rand are to blame for a great deal, but is that really what Against is against, or should we all be getting up against one another even more?  Not with tales of child rapes relayed in one of Luke’s encounters, or perhaps our increasing awareness as a species that helps to paralyse Luke in the first place.  The doubling of characters played by the same actors, like the angry, exploited, exploiting ex sex-worker professor and Equator’s CEO, to place us all in the same system, is a good touch.

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This philosophical ramble has some good and convincing scenes, but in throwing in stuff about the repetitive patterns of news, the violence thrown at us all the time, the dislocations of the internet and, in a world where money is King, the search for hope from the captains of industry, who have no more idea than the rest of us, you want to come up against some sturdier and more focused social and political arguments.    Just as the new religious injunction to Luke to ‘Come’ is no pun to hinge a play around, not least because it only works in the English language. But then again, perhaps a playwright’s job is simply to reflect the zeitgeist of his times, and in being lost, it does that.   On the whole, although I commend the cast, Ian Rickson’s directing, and several scenes of high drama, as a play I’m neither for nor against.

David Clement-Davies saw against courtesy of the Almeida. Against runs until September 30th. For tickets Click Here

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THREE FREE LIONESSES OUT OF THE CAN!

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She doesn’t have a name, such a beautiful wild lioness, even though the guides on our trip had at least got her used to the jeep.  We were about twenty five feet away, after having searched for two days, seeing old, dry tracks, and the remains of a zebra that had been killed months before. Then, bumping through the bush in the Kalahari, that lions will use as shade and cover to take animals, Jonah suddenly spotted what we couldn’t see at all.  He swung the jeep around and there they were, not one but three lionesses, the two more retiring companions almost lost in the tangle of Wait-a-Bit trees next to her, stretching and yawning in the African heat. Breath taking.

I don’t know if I could see the anguish in her face that my companion Arabella did, the tension and strain, that made us warier of moving where we sat. Apparently lions’ eyesight cannot easily distinguish shape and colour, they see blocks, so they react to things breaking out of the frame. That anguish though is because she had had two cubs, a male and female, but a lion, not the father, who had been following these three females around the area, had first killed the male cub, then driven out or killed the female too.  Perhaps new cubs will succeed the little tragedy.

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How gloriously different though, after our experience of meeting two lions in South Africa in a 4 hectare fenced enclosure in Plett Bay, to see these Queens of Jungle and Bush in the true wild and led by such a proud, beautiful, astonishingly powerful creature.  The story of lions though, and the collapse of populations in the late Twentieth Century, is as tragic as  so many wildlife stories.   It has a particular nasty Human side too, in the existence of what they call ‘Canned Hunting’, not here in Botswana where any such hunting is illegal, but in South Africa. Where it is legal to breed lions in captivity – there are something like 8000 captive lions there today – for the private zoo trade, or ‘Petting Tourism’, where Europeans pay high prices to supposedly suckle them for Conservation, but where their final destination is really death at the end of some high paying ‘hunter’s’  rifle. In South Africa three lions are shot for sport every single day and they go for around $60,000.  I don’t know if Donald Trump’s sons have taken such lions, but they have certainly been in the Press for their enthusiasm for Big Game sport shooting. The shameful, cruel and scandalous practice of Canned Lion Hunting, animals often drugged and baited before an easy and senseless kill,  I am sure the likes of that lion of a man Nelson Mandela would not have condoned, was confirmed in 2014 by the South African Supreme Court under Jacob Zuma’s administration.

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The irony in it though is that lion numbers in South Africa have probably gone up because of legal breeding.  Yet, compared with this vision of the true wild in Botswana, what kind of life do those captive animals really have? What kind of sport is it to slaughter them too? Or is that killing of this lioness’s cubs in the wild part of a brutal truth always in the background of existence, human and animal, with increasing populations and ever shrinking habitats, we just have no answer to?  Yet, for all the brutalities of life and the world, surely Man’s real talent could be to avoid that kind of senseless ugliness, and what the wildlife organisation Four Paws describes as “selling brutality”. In the Kalahari, with the raising of endless miles of fencing, partly to try and stamp out Foot and Mouth disease, European meat markets are so sensitive to, natural migration routes have been disrupted and both Zebra and Wildebeest populations decimated.  Inevitably predators like lions have suffered dramatically too.  But at least that hot day this beautiful February in Botswana, three graceful lionesses enjoyed their freedom, only caught in the photo can, and the true wild was there, in all its paradoxical wonder.

David Clement-Davies February 2017.  David travelled with Uncharted Africa, for their website Click Here  If you are interested in opposing the practice of Canned Hunting you can find out more by visiting the Four Paws website Click Here

 

 

 

 

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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 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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RAISING YOUR GAME IN PLETTENBURG BAY? A VISIT TO AN ANIMAL RESERVE

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Perhaps all is managing expectation and when I dreamt of a South African Safari it was certainly dreaming of the real wild. For that though you will have to go up to the Karoo or the Kruger National park and give its perhaps a couple of weeks. Instead, in the Southern Cape, and for a short visit, come the smaller Game Reserves, often in danger of carrying the label of a zoo. But which also allow you to get very close to some wonderful animals you might not even see in the real wild and taste something of the ‘Safari’ experience. One example is the two and a half thousand hectare reserve just above pretty Plettenberg bay. Plettenberg being a place worth a visit in itself, for its delicious golden beaches lapped by the warmer Indian Ocean, lunch at the eccentric Grand hotel, or some Rock n’ Roll among the young at the ‘Plett Rage’, when wealthier finishing students make for the beaches for a party.

Plett game reserve, in life’s weird synchronicities, was, until 2004, a grand farm where my companion Arabella had stayed with the owner for a local wedding. Now it has been converted by the new owner Leon de Kock into a somewhat faded, old colonial style residence, its grounds, little kloofs and water holes populated by bontebok, wildebeest, small herds of zebra, spring and many water buck, hippo, five lolloping giraffe and more. They have just taken in a group of Elephants from the neighbouring Knysna park, though these are Africans, not the smaller Knysna elephant indigenous to the region. At first, in learning the ropes, they lost many animal to cow ticks and tick fever, which must have been distressing, but now the animals seem to be flourishing.

For a start, in beginning to discover the Safari thing, among the endless tourist leaflets here advertising Monkey world, a wonderful bird park, a snake sanctuary, shark diving or the highest buggy jump On Earth, if you’re guaranteed ‘the big five’ raise an eyebrow. Those are the five most dangerous animals to hunt on foot – Lion, Elephant, Rhino, Leopard and Buffalo – though by the end of it we decided it was time for a bit of linguistic social re-engineering and that the term ‘Game’ should be dropped altogether! But the point being that unless they have a caged animal, like the Cat Conservation centre we visited too, you will very rarely see the still plentiful Leopard. Like the roaming packs of wild baboon, Leopard sometimes come over the fence at Plett, sadly at the park recently taking one of the baby Giraffes, but Leopard are not creatures you should expect to get up close and personal with, or especially want to. It always fills me with anguish to see a Leopard prowling a human fence, though all those centres have some benefit in educating the public.

Plett have a little herd of African buffalo, those big horned beasts with such a determined nature that if you get on their wrong side they will start to circle like any predator and hunt you instead. We got close with our guide Kiviet, who had previously worked in Law Enforcement with Cape Conservation on the floral front, in one of the reserve’s open sided tour vehicles, to see the park’s two white rhino – interestingly it was meant to be ‘wide rhino’ from the shape of their mouths – couched in their dusty holes nearby too, their horns cut to deter poachers, one of which is pregnant.

If running such a park as Platt is probably a rich man’s game anyhow, there is certainly the potential of money in the ‘Conservation’ business, in breeding and selling on animals to other parks. It is closely monitored by the Government Environmental agency Cape Conservation, but apparently one stud Buffalo went for close to a million pounds. Its darker side, as we learnt at the Cat Conservation centre, gazing at the slinking Lynx-like Caracal, the Servil cats, or the magnificent White lion showing off his huge, pearly teeth in the sunlight, is something called ‘Canned Hunting’. That is the breeding of Lion, the charging of fees to idealistic foreign students to nurture, study and rear them, but their eventual certain delivery to the gun and easy bullet of some macho moron, paying a premium to feel like a Man. Lion are certainly endangered, as are Rhino, while Cheetah nearly went extinct twice, so perhaps breeding and reintroduction programs are their best hope. Interestingly Elephant do not have a particular value to the breeding business because they are so destructive to the flora.

Plett have two Lions we got right up next to, lounging langerously in their 4 hectare enclosure, like the shy Cheetah in his, or the little group of sadly endangered orange-black wild dogs. You need a license to breed Lion officially, with strict rules for space, much better at Plett I thought than the small enclosures at the private Cat Conservation centre. They had thought the male Lion here sterilized but this time nature got through and the Lioness had four Cubs, moved on I know not where. Actually even the hunting aspect of conserving ‘Game’ is more complicated, since if the entire planet has become something of a zoo, even in the huge African parks culling is often necessary, especially of Elephant, and some argue that re-legalizing the controlled ivory trade would destroy the poaching market and bring in money to the parks. As important is destroying myths like that Asian belief in the aphrodisiac power of Rhino horn, no different to human nails. “Hunting has its place though”, said Tim from Edinburgh, who has given up his family Kitchen business in the UK to become a ranger, still in training, “but don’t get me started on Canned Hunting.” Tim had read the astonishingly violent and graphic Wibur Smith novel I’m reading at the moment, Elephant Song, indeed his knowledge of a Leopard’s attack may well have been lifted straight from its pages.  Smith not only tells a rollicking if very bloody tale but is famous for his research and no holds barred take on Africa. If even a half of it is still true perhaps you’d do well to stay somewhat shy of the real wild, human and animal.

Meanwhile, wild or not, we were on holiday and despite the sense of Windsor Safari Park in the UK, it was delightful to get so close to them all and from our balcony at Baroness lodge to have such lovely views of the twisting Tsitsikamma forest, the burnt orange browns from last year’s fires, and beyond a sweeping range of blue remembered hills, under clouds like Cape surf. The baby hippo raising its little head and flicking its ears in the cool water, the motionless crocodile, the elephant munching magistically not twenty yards away, the little heard of remarkably tame Inyala antelope hiding in the trees by the Lodge’s wooden walkway, or grazing the lawn at breakfast, were all inspiration for a bigger adventure, and to learn more both about the animals and the challenges we all face in trying to honor and conserve them. With the facilities at the Reception’s big lodge they might do something to encourage and sell Conservation studies and conferences here too.

As for the park, the people were warm and friendly and it is precisely for that reason they might be encouraged to raise their game in the hospitality stakes, or take on a bit of the ‘Gordon Ramsey’ makeover. Visits here are perhaps slightly cheaper than other reserves, but it is still a lot of money for your average guest if you are staying, and so a pity that it rests too much on its old colonial laurels: The cracked kettle, the chipped floors, the African artifacts slipping out of their odd frames on the walls, the dim lighting, the tatty Reader’s Digest library, the odd urgency over serving supper by a set time, the lack of choice on the menu, the limited wine list in the land of vines. It’s often my experience that when they say it’s all about the animals, as they do here, they forget we human animals have expectations too for a hard earned buck, and that things so easily done might be attended to with a bit more style for their own business.

Against that I’d set the charm of the roaring fires when it got chilly, the smiling waitresses who like their job, the splendid thunder box of a loo up three stairs and the plentiful breakfasts in the veranda by the pond, beyond the big King Kong gates, flowering with purple water lilies, bobbing with the odd terrapin, and bombarded with beautiful yellow weaver birds urgently stitching their grass nests into pendant purses, in the hope of a colorful future in our very competitive world. Occasionally a hippo wanders up for a dip in the damn and the Hippo road signs add to the charm. We even saw a zebra crossing. I suspect the stock-in trade here are the day visits from Plettenberg and two are really enough to take in the whole park, the best experience being one drive and one ride, on the gently strolling horses, a walk on horseback right among the animals being a different magical adventure in itself. Though families come for Christmas they might encourage longer stays at the lodges themselves, one or two nights are enough, by injecting a new passion and style into the hotelier side of business conservation, though it’s certainly a place to share the love of animals.

David Clement-Davies stayed at Plett Game Reserve at 50% cost, in return for coverage. For information about staying at Plett or daily drives and two hour horse Safaris go to PlettGameReserve.com   The photo shows the Lion and Lioness at Plett.

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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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CYMBELINE FINDS HER TIME, OR BRITAIN ALSO LOSES THE PLOT?

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Thanks to the RSC, and Gillan Doran’s wonderfully ambitious programme for the 400th anniversary, not least for bringing me to a play I’d never even read, Cymbeline. Despite a sinking heart opening the programme to see a picture of Dave Cameron, and a journalist lecturing on about Brexit and why after being neglected for so long this is a play that has at last “found its time.” Hmmm. Shakespeare is always profoundly politically attuned, though better at exposing the imperatives and mechanisms, the nasty guts, than being didactic or ever lecturing. Was the graffiti on the concrete wall then, along with the programme’s nod to Banksi, or an anguished model of a Refugee boat, to make us suffer a Referendum all over again? I think the real irritation is that for nearly three and a half hours it had me imagining Gillian Bevan’s stout, very capable Cymbeline, part Britannia, part Boudicca, as Theresa May, (with respect, a bit of a look-alike), or is that Theresa-may-not? Not that Bevan is at all Lilly livered, and now I know Cymbeline means Cymbeline and there we are!

As for their Brexits, or their Entrances, in a proudly multi-cultural cast, what also irritated is directors (now trendily called Creatives at the RSC) thinking that a lot of running on and off stage and gabbling difficult lines passes either for theatrical energy or realism. Though when the actors settle into thinking and feeling through the words and poetry, there are some excellent performances. Not least from Bethan Cullinane as Cymbeline’s much tested daughter Innogen, the black actor Markus Griffiths as a very funny Cloten, James Clyde’s excellently malevolent Duke, and the Irish actress Jenny Fenessy throwing off the tyranny of the poor understudy to play Pisania, while a treasure chest of language is thrown open.

Jokes aside, busy director Melly Still it is quite right to suggest Brexit’s relevance, since Shakespeare was born out of the trauma and liberation of a disintegrating Christendom, (a reason today’s violent Religious and Scientific divides  or Terrorism might be even more pertinent), if Europa was a word and concept only just emerging at the time. As still Top Monarch, Queen Bess, who made a lot of cash from Hawkin’s African nastiness, and thugs like Francis Drake, saw the loss of any kind of Empire in France, though viciously trying to plant Ireland. While King James mooted but failed to achieve a Union with Scotland. So how did Britain really thrive and invent herself? By putting money in everyone’s purses, well those at the top, from little London, and ruling the waves elsewhere, away from the internecine battles  erupting in Europe. Oh brave New World.

You can argue then that much of Shakespeare is also inevitably about the very writing of a new English Imperial identity, if only through the most glorious expression of the English language. The world’s centre of Gravity was certainly shifting violently though by 1600, in a moment that probably did define how Globalisation and Capitalism would develop and which has not seen an equivalent sea change until now. It’s not just Brexit, of course, but how the Internet is probably the equivalent of the Printing Press revolution. Perhaps Shakespeare is a bit to blame then, at least for that outburst by Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg limply invoking tigers, to give Cameron a prod. I think Henry V is about the conscious manufacturing of a powerful new political rhetoric, soon adopted by the ‘Establishment’.  Even as a once far more intimate Monarchy separated itself from the lower orders, and banished honest Jacks to the bilges and top sails, it conquered half the World, with planting, privateering trade and slavery, and owned it for a very long time indeed.Is that what modern Breixteers want? Not of course that Bill did all this alone, bless him. The Virginia Company was founded in the year the Globe went up on Bankside, 1599, just opposite that walled fortress of London, still a Global epicentre today in UK PLC, and the little Tudor cannons of the terrifyingly powerful and private East India Company were bristling from a fort in Madras by 1607.

That year Shakespeare’s youngest brother Edmund died at just 27, an actor too, and his daughter Susanna was married in Stratford. While ‘savages’ were attacking the new fort at Jamestown, King James’s town, and a little merchant ship called the Red Dragon, Henry Tudor’s badge, did performances of both Hamlet and Richard II off the coast of Sierra Leone. Britain had truly set to sea, and it was coming back in bucket loads. For hundreds of years the scholarly Establishment claimed that record had to be a forgery though, because the Common Man could not possibly understand their Bard, if still stuffing him down School children’s throats. To improve us all and claim Shakespeare was essentially Conservative and there’s nowhere like an England!

If we think Euromillions is an innovation though, the first free standing lottery was launched in 1612 to help colonise Virginia, soon taken up by all thirteen original Colonies, to give very early origins to that ‘American Dream’. Talking of which, having a snack in Café Rouge before the show I’d opened The Times to read with even more sinking heart that the usually balanced and liberal Matthew Paris had just suggested we toughen up on the asylum rules by suggesting what constitutes danger should now only be the threat of Death! Then that Donald Trump was ahead in the bell-weather State of Ohio, invoking the example of Brexit. If we think our own Liberal sentiments (or not) can sway US Politics though, when people were asked to email Americans to complain, they got some very rude replies indeed, about being stupid, Lilly-livered Brits and worse.

A little credence then to the relevance of the traumatised Brexit line, four centuries on, although the production has faced much criticism. Some slack too in Ms Still peopling a Roman court with Mafiosi Eurotrash in lounge suits, sipping cocktails and speaking in Italian, translated onto big screen sur titres, that then translate Latin too, when the big Romans claim their imperial tributes from the smelly Britains. Who dares to translate the greatest translator and interpreter of them all – Shakespeare? Well, Melly Still! That rather heavy handed moment is about the river of history, peoples and languages that made Britain and which Shakespeare’s astonishing English emerged from too. The first dictionary was only printed in England in 1604 and Shakespeare is profoundly a Renaissance writer. While to set us up for losing our heads, the set is dominated by a tree stump, in a glass box, perhaps to echo the production of King Lear. The rest is as hip, with film, and part concrete and vegetative back revolves, to suggest Nature will always break on through, complete with images of modern Rome’s Empire-littered streets and Dad’s Army Invasion maps to have you suddenly asking – Who D’yer Think Yer Kidding?

Actually I should underline that Cymbeline is a tragi-comedy. So to any grasp I got on the plot, untangling which might win you Brain of Britain. Cymbeline’s daughter Innogen and Posthumus are star crossed lovers, or most crossed by Cymbeline, so Posthumous has to flee abroad. There, boasting of Innogen’s love and fidelity, he is tested by Oliver Johnstone’s excellent Iachimo, who travelling to Blighty, as Rome seeks tribute, emerges from a chest in her bedchamber to discover Innogen asleep, nick her bracelet, and spy a starry mole by her breast, rude fellow. So being able to trick Posthumous into believing he has done the act of darkness and Innogen is false. Like Michael Gove Iachimo pays Manhood’s price later, when the War of Men without Women erupts into horror, or is that Boris Johnson?

There is a tangle of poison that isn’t poison and lots of people trying to bump each other off, like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. As Cymbeline revolts against Rome, Innogen flees to the forest, to encounter an exiled General good-of-heart, Graham Turner’s splendid Belarius, and her kidnapped brother and sister, Arveragus and Guideria, emphasising all the healing Nature virtues, and played very well by James Coonie and Natalie Simpson, especially Simpson as Guideria. Though in the tangle of tree roots or Brain-stem ganglia they first appear swinging from, and the whooping hunting cries, perhaps nicking far too much from Avatar. Mind you, did you see that article in the Sunday Times about tree roots being connected and talking to each other, even nurturing or throttling their young, in this global world of ours? With a very peculiar dream Mask, when Jupiter is invoked, to explain the meaning of names via a prophecy, everyone loses identity in going to war, or finds their manhood, though the Brits win, but still need a Cultural head, so pay tribute to Ancient Rome. So Cymbeline ends with the most astonishingly uncomfortable series of resolutions, more than any in Shakespeare, that had many laughing aloud, including me.

Cymbeline is certainly about a crisis of identity, but it sits not at all in Shakespeare’s overtly Historical or straight political plays. It comes among the later Romances, like Pericles, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, when politics, life and suffering had probably confounded the Bard a great deal and he turned his hand to achieving effects through acts of artistic magic. Perhaps his brother Edmund’s tragic death was influential in that sea change. Pericles was written in 1607, for instance, all about incest and lost daughters, but with a family crest that shows a withered branch only flowering at the top. It may be more true though that rather than Cymbeline not being popular for centuries because we had an Empire now, imposing its own tributes, it is because it is a very easy plot to lose. Melly Still throwing the baby and the bath water at it hardly simplifies, or leaves us quite knowing how to vote either. Even if Jacob Rees-Mogg should be told that despite the Histories, most of Shakespeare’s plays are set in interesting foreign and Renaissance climes. I thoroughly enjoyed Cymbeline though and it did not drag for a moment, though the bloke playing the School Master at the new Edward VI museum, backed I think by Mr Gove, told me, rightly or wrongly, it originally ran to five hours! Enjoyed it because just when you’re wondering how Cloten, chasing after Innogen, can get away with possibly being Posthumous in his very ill fitting clothes, so to trick Innogen into believing her lover is dead, his beheading by Guideria is almost hysterical. While Innogen’s burial, then waking to mistaken grief, and true horror, is probably one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen in the theatre. Not least too because Shakespeare, inventing everything, even comes up with the phrase “Brain of Britain”!

 The photo is from the RSC’s rather startling and controversial production of Cymbeline, directed by Melly Still, showing a disguised Posthumous going to war with the Romans, as everyone wrestles for their identity and they try to shake us over Brexit.  Photo Copyright Ellie Kurttz. Ticket courtesy of the RSC Stratford on Avon.

 

 

 

 

 

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Albania – With a clear blue eye on the wounded ox, in the city of Nymphs…

“What Country, friend, is this?”
“This is Illyria, Lady.”
“And what should I do in Illyria?
My brother he is in Elysium.
Perchance he is not drown’d: what think you, sailors?”

Twelfth Night – William Shakespeare

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“And Hoxha did good and bad, but built 700,000 bunkers across our country of Albania”. It was possibly the most astonishing and depressing fact too, in an astonishing but only sometimes depressing day. It deserved a bit of the Borat treatment as well, from that ‘Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan’, as our coach snaked up the Albanian coast to the ancient citadel of Butrint. Leaving behind the six story hulk of Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth Cruise liner, monstering it in the charmless port but more beautiful bay of Seranda. Which USA Today included this year as one of the top 10 undiscovered cruise destinations. We were making for a citadel anyone interested in history or civilisation simply cannot afford to miss though, especially at 56 Euros. But as our tour guide Davina, trained in the Albanian Capital of Tirana, spoke of the facts of her country and the place where ‘Our Dictator’ was born too, Enver Hoxha, in part of that all or nothing attempt at Tourism, you wondered if she might joke that if you didn’t like the food they’d be attaching electrodes to your privates or, if you did, selling you their younger sister. Hoxha’s 45 year rule may have brought rapid economic growth and improved literacy too, but it was notorious for the suppression of opposition, detainment camps and the use of the death penalty.

No such horror stories now, on an easy day out from Corfu, forty minutes on the hydrofoil. Although to me packaged coach tours (lunch included), are always depressingly ‘Communistic’ somehow. With the dodgy looking bloke in the white jacket overseeing us, that very human tendency to behave like sheep and the few Euros guided carefully from your pockets via the unnecessary early restaurant stop. In a town that is winning more tourists – the guide said 80,000 to Albania as a whole, although most to the riviera are Greek or Italian – but which is a skeletal facade of dreary half-built breeze block hotels and empty bars, that may well harm future tourism, and the faint sproutings of small ‘International’ businesses. Nearby Corfu’s charm is it’s living history, its style, it’s comparative complexity, while Sarande’s lack of it is its functional emptiness. Yet when you see how little there is around, you forgive the simple packaging, and enjoy the ride and views, especially with the glorious weather that October brought here, which forgives so much.

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So to dispense quickly with any depressing bits; Albania’s obvious poverty, especially compared to thriving and culturally rich Corfu, the romany shanti-towns on the reasonable roads, the lack of any skilled artisinal crafts to bring anyone real ‘Suvenir’ sales, over cheap plastic tourist tat, unlike all those crafts in Corfu’s old town, and the rubbish strewn not only on the verges but at supposedly natural oases too. Or the little girl begging at the coach, you see in London now too, and, at a harbour restaurant where all the moulded plastic chairs seemed to have broken their backs, the bruising looking guy in white socks who almost threatened to buy me a drink, to try and talk to me. “Where you from?” It might be no different in any struggling port, but I had just seen ‘Taken’ on TV. Then I felt guilty at the stereotyping of Albanians, so common across the water in Corfu, and on mainland Greece too, where something like a million emigrated after those iron ‘walls’ came down. In the old days the searchlights roamed the straights at Kalami and the small Albanian town beyond Seranda that means six, from the six mile gap of water, and people were shot too. While the husband of an English friend on Corfu had his boat stolen to be used by Albanian drug runners though, and crime has tarnished the image of some of whom have made it into the Greek Middle Classes, of course desperation and economic migration have happened a great deal in Italy recently as well.

Then to revelations though, only to underline my ignorance – that Albania, which uses the Lex, is Muslim, for instance, although its Communist past ruthlessly suppressed any faith. The guide defined it as 70% Muslim now, 20% Greek Orthodox and 10% Catholic, pointing at the church and simple hilltop mosque, as if atheists and agnostics had been eradicated in the new Dawn. She assured us folk live here in peace and intermarry easily too. Not much was said of Albania’s year long Civil War in 1997 then, although if I had a Euro for the number of times the guide used the word privatised, I could probably do a lot to help the Albanian economy.

How different the terrain on the mainland is to Corfu though, with those expansive, now half-drained and cultivated marshlands, where Gerald Durrell went hunting as a child and recorded it so elegiacally in “My Family and Other Animals”. From the coast, Albania is a four tiered hunchback of steep mountain ranges, feeding the many rivers that bring an astonishing variety of trees, giant bull-rushes and burgeoning flaura and fauna, among the dusty scrubland, burned by the Mediterranean sun. So we were quickly on the edge of the new 86 Square kilometer National Park and lake Butrint, ringed with half submerged cages for the huge mussel production here, in the brackish half-salt, half fresh water lake. The whole landscape suddenly seemed to glow a kind of electric mauve-green, dancing with vibrant, healing colours. Colour and light are the things I’ll remember the day for most, a draw to artists and water colourists for centuries. Like the Frenchman Dupre, and the limerick-writing Edward Lear, who came here in the 19th Century, along with those celebrated Grand Tourists, like Lord Byron himself. It pleased the Finnish Construction engineer, who had turned to painting and natural photography instead. Not least in our visit to the ‘Blue Eye‘, a bubbling natural spring that rises from more than forty metres through solid rock and is the visible source of the Bistritza river. When you’ve nothing you always make too much of something, perhaps. So the simple eco-cabins tried to compete with the broken down saw-mill and abandoned boats, or the Double Eagle of the Albanian flag, black on red, fluttered humbly but hopefully by the US and EU ones. Then Unesco’s intervention to define a world heritage site also helped create the national park. At first I wondered if the 40 minute excursion was worth it, for these ‘Naturalistic Learnings of Free Albania’, but that water is so pure it seems made of glass and in the afternoon light it suddenly looked as if you were gazing across a holy river in India.

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Perhaps above all though came the revelation that this is claimed to be the land of the ancient Illyrians, proud soldiers and master shipbuilders, which vaguely competes with the miserable image of modern Albanians, not least to many Greeks, as dirt poor Armenian peasants. “What do you call an Albanian peasant?” someone joked, “An Albanian.” So to a natural diversion though and that quote from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, when Viola is shipwrecked and believes her brother Sebastian has been drowned. “What country, friend, is this? – This is Illyria, Lady.” Whether Shakespeare ever traveled literally or not, his very English plays were vitally informed by the stories, legends and histories flooding into a Renaissance London, that also had very practical experience of seafaring and piracy in ‘Europa’, as England exploded as a maritime power in the late 16th Century and started competing with the likes of Venice. I believe the start of so much that is still not enough understood in the beginnings of World and American Capitalism. Of course Illyria, like Bohemia in The Winter’s Tale, is chosen as a place of exotic difference, for it’s mystery and otherness, to welcome and test a foreigner in a strange land, as Shakespeare usually proves himself a friend of strangers. Perhaps also as a kind of creative gateway to that dominating imaginative landscape inside Shakespeare’s mind and education though, before science had herded the forces of Psyche and Eros into the clothes of modern psychology – ancient Greece and classical Rome. ‘What Country, friend, is this?” is exactly the point of so many of Shakespeare’s themes, inner and outer. One that Greeks might not take for granted either, considering the disparate ethnic histories here and their own Nation only being founded in 1830, as Albania was in 1913. Yet the literary point for someone living on Corfu is that Illyria perhaps adds a bit of credence to the tale Gerald’s brother Lawrence’s scholastic friend relayed in his own little travel gem, Propsero’s Cell, claiming that Corfu was the magic isle that Shakespeare had in mind for The Tempest. I still think Shakespeare’s greatest bark was his avid reading and all assimilating imagination, devouring the patterns of storytelling and myth, that ran like a river through trading London, while the magic of Shakespeare’s isle is really his own art. But that imagination ranged so often back to this world, not only in Twelfth Night and The Tempest, but in Timon of Athens, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and A Comedy of Errors, that you start to wonder. Like the marshes though, at times it could all be taken for Elysian Fields.

First in the day we had made for Butrint though, by one of the castles of Ali Pasha and the old rope ferry over the canal, sparking in the sunlight, to discover the remains of so many days. Perhaps it is because Butrint is such a microcosm of competing civilizations and changing, impossible time. With its re-positioned doric columns rising in front of the sturdy Venetian tower, Butrint was a wonderful revelation for me. Only touched by visiting Epidavros, or the much under-rated port of Ostia outside Rome, that so tops treking even the Forum itself. The acoustically perfect little amphi-theatre here was re-built by Roman settlers, under Julius Caesar, who established a Roman colony eleven years after he had invaded Britain. So the original Greek Agora and Acropolis (hilltop City) expanded, beyond the huge 4th Century BC ‘Caeclopean’ walls that began the fortified settlement. Which you can also see in Etruscan fortresses in Lazio, like the one above Florence in Fiesole, as well as original settlements in Mycaenean Greece. To remind us that everything lasting began with fortified towns, before Nations or Ideologies, with tribes and City States. So to the Roman period though and those heads unearthed here of different kinds of dictators, that makes it all a more seamless and intimate tapestry. Like those of Augustus and Livia in the museum, that became as common and recognizable symbols as the Holy Family, or as an important a meme as the coinage. Then came the building of a pillared Baptistry nearly a half a millenia later, once Constantine had turned Rome to Christianity. With a very natural ‘Christian’ mosaic circle, sporting birds and flowers and animals, sadly covered at the moment by sand to protect it. The large Basilica too, which originally meant a kind of market and meeting place, rather than a Church. As a side note, it was fascinating too to find that Partridge as an early Christian symbol also used here, related to work at Phoenix Ark Press on that carol, the 12 Days of Christmas, and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.

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Like Shakespeare reaching back to the psychic source of the Gods though, it was the original remains that had the most power to me. Like the fine stone gate on the edge of the sleepy, lime blue and green lake, almost a secret scar in the rock, a magic doorway, that Virgil perhaps immortalised in the Aenead. Was it really here then that Aeneas himself, Trojan emmigree and mythical founder of Rome, after that 10 year war over a woman, landed on his way to Italy, in a still mythic world, that understood history as storytelling in a struggle between eternal fact and the needed journey and qualities of any individual life? – “I saw before me Troy in miniature, a slender copy of our massive tower…and I pressed my body gainst a Scaen Gate.” With that competes the much later carved gateway that at first I thought depicted a Wild Boar, but which is in fact a lion, devouring the head of a bull. Butrint’s name actually means Wounded Ox though, when the Greek foundation supposedly saw an Ox let ashore and killed by another animal, to prove auspicious omens. The city was also mentioned by Cicero though, after a friend with a country villa near here complained about Roman development and urged him to lobby against it in Rome, who in his letters wrote “Let me tell you that Buthrotum is to Corcyrca (Corfu) what Antium is to Rome…the quietest, coolest, most pleasant place in the world.” It shows how lively Corfu was at the time too.

For all the interest of the monuments though, and despite the aging guard in his overblown outfit blowing on his whistle as if Dictatorship had no tomorrow, or the fascinating artifacts in the little museum, so depleted by thefts in 1997, Butrint has something else that could wake Keats to his greatest song – “Thou still unravished bride of quietness, that foster child of silence and slow time………” It is the enchanted setting, on a sparkling day, wandering through sylvan groves blooming with wildflowers, edged by that wide blue-green lake, lifting with herons, as a fisherman tilted dreamily at the waters with his rod. Resources of fish were one of the reasons for the place’s ancient economic importance, though with those mussels Albania has other exports, like the wine on display in plush bottles in one of the port bars. For all the coachloads too, which must be far worse in high summer, you can hang back and find a space off beaten tracks to contemplate those vanished ghosts, of fact and mind and time. It is exactly what would have appealed to that 19th Century imagination obsessed with ‘the fragment‘ too. Those many ravished fragments of Butrint, crossing so much time, were picked out for me most in the sacred well of Minerva, bound by the hard rock, as firm as hope. Then the discovery of a Nympheum, a temple to those Nymphs and Dryads that sported through an ancient imagination, when Gods and Goddesses were living in everything. Then, to prove this was a City of Nymphs, by another well they found some Roman graffiti, in the achingly moving little dedication by one inhabitant “Julia Rufina – lover of Nymphs.” The painted head of Dionysus adorns one of the Nypheum’s alcoves, although I would take issue with the guide that he was just the God of Wine, rather than of natural Ecstasy and a transport to the Divine, unlike his debased Roman counterpart Bacchus.

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Of course those super efficient conquerors and engineers, the Romans, stole everything from the ancient Greeks, except the Aqueduct and the Arch. But there was an older ‘religion’ here then, since 400 years before Chirst Butrint was a votive centre to the healing God Aesclepius. Where real sacred snakes, to wind symbolically around the staff of the Cadeucus too, were kept in pens and laid on the stomachs of the sick to induce dreams. As those wrestling with life and mortality took baths and visited the theatre too, a sacred space, as Shakespeare knew it was a sacred space too, and a place of artistic magic, even in hungry, entertainment driven, Reformation London. Everyone came here though, from ancient Greeks, to Romans, to Byzantine Greek Christians, Ottomans, Venetians, the gruesome but effective Ali Pashi, by which time Butrint had near vanished under the mud and topsoil, to bad old Enver Hoxha. Who closed off Albania completely, as paranoia saw him building all those pointless concrete bunkers. Then that fear and militarism deep in the Soviet psyche too has a very long history among regional warlords in the Balkans.

Forget it. Time is trying to and if they had the money in Tirana, or could persuade either some philanthropic Oligarch or Unesco, they should pour in as much money as they can to exploit its archaeological heritage, in the best sense. Only 60% of Butrint has been excavated, for instance, and the ancient town of Finiq, obviously linked to those tribal and seafaring Phoenecians, hardly at all. Come to think of it Phoenix Ark Press has to discover the etimology of the Phoenix and whether there is any link. Yet before Hoxha was even fighting in the mountains as a Partisan, or Mussolini made Albania as cheap a conquest as Abyssinia for his Fascistic dreams of Ancient Rome and invasion of Greece, Italian Archaeologists had begun to uncover the City again, in the twenties and thirties. What a glorious experience it must have been for those archaeologists. Mussolini renamed Seranda Port Edda, after his favourite daughter, who turned against her father on the execution of her husband, Count Ciano, and fled to Switzerland. To sell her husband’s diaries to Alan Dulles and the Chicago Daily News. It is written up at Phoenix Ark. In fact Hoxha, from an important local family, crucially linked Archaeology to the creation of Albanian National Identity. He and the Fascists too were wrong though thinking it provided any convenient truth, in that such sites really link the movement of peoples across deep time, and the long process of real Civilisation. It could be an even more powerful gateway to tourism then, if uncontrolled building doesn’t ruin the riviera and they learn the charm of real local family bars and restaurants. But Albania has something else shared by Greece, Bulgaria, up into Romania too, perhaps Romania above all, that reaches back to the nature worship of the ancients. Namely astonishing natural scenery, wildlife that includes wolf and bear and some of the most pristine but now threatened forests in Western Europe. It is exactly why the Albanians must try to keep an enlightened and open blue eye on its wounded ox of a country, shutting tight in Seranda, if it is to develop and change, as it might. But they also need to remember too that real prosperity has a far deeper and wider meaning that just the ‘Capitalist’ discovery of quick cash.

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As the T-shirts saying ‘I Love Albania‘ flapped unconvincingly in the breeze then, the guide was cheerful, jokey but half apologetic, suggesting it would all be better in a few years and then those mosaics might be on display too. Like the man who apologised when I gave that little girl some Euros, or the waiter doing his damndest to offer good service, but looking rather small. Then there is a shame in that negative image of Albanians, its down-at-heelness and its recent past. But a great deal has changed too and in ‘Six’ families and kids were doing what everyone does, going to school or playing in playgrounds. Then the collapse of Communism opened another vital door to Butrint too and saw more archaeological work up to 2005, which has spruced up the museum and produced a National Park. More understanding and proactive engagement might come from Greece too, despite its own woes, meaning perhaps Greek efforts too to open up and make capital from a heritage where many people’s have intermingled for so long. Though the girl leading me to the hydrofoil was quick to point out she was part of the Greek Albanian minority, a community that revolted before the First War, and the association of religion with ethnicity has caused such harm around the world. As for Butrint, of course nothing especially important to the Greek lady who shrugged and said ‘it’s just a pile of stones’, to make my hair curl and remind me of an American who had said exactly the same thing years ago passing under the Lion Gate in Mycenae.

No, it is not just a pile of stones, it is literally one of the theatres of everything, so related to that healing son of the Sun God, Apollo, for those you like their sun worship intense. Where votive shrines to pure and natural wells first sprang up, as all settlements spring from rivers and clean waters. So came the burgeoning of trade, thought, literature, philosophy, and a symbolism that refers to everything still: the theatre of Gods and Man, the theatre of art, the theatre of magic and medicine, sadly the theatre of war too. It was only getting the Flying Dolphin back though, as the sunset burned the big white ships in Corfu Port a fiery bronze, making them look as if Vulcan had returned them to their smelting yards, that the full significance of Corfu’s Venetian Fortresses came into view in my head. Not so much on the tip of the Eastern headland, but the old Fort with its square, lionine eye to the little island of Vidos, and to Saranda and Butrint just beyond. Because it was dominating the straights of Corfu that was the key to shipping and trade, the gateway to the Ionian, and why the Venetians bought Butrint in the 14th Century to straddle those straights like a Colossus. Venice did so too, even as the Ottomans held Albania, Turkey and ‘Greece’ in their grip for five hundred years, at times pushing to the gates of Vienna. Until Napoleon marched into that “Drawing room of Europe”, St Mark’s Square, and the Venetian Empire came to an end, then the Balkans convulsed into the politics of ethnic hatred. Meat to remind you too though of the threats and unreformed horrors of now, and how significant that fall of Byzantium was in 1485, when Memmet II stamped his unreformed Islamic shields on the walls of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, today’s Istanbul. Then Monotheistic Religion is like Communism, it attempts to impose an absolute truth, which is why it should be separated from the State. Except perhaps that religion of the ancients, when the Gods were a reflection of the psyche of humans, good and bad, but magic forces lived so deeply in nature too. But so a fascinating and profoundly colourful day came to a close, back home on Corfu. In the end making me feel that if they keep that blue eye clear and open, this part of Albania and Butrint National park especially, could long be the quietest, coolest, most pleasant place in the world.

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David Clement-Davies October 1214

The photographs are in Copyright to Phoenix Ark Press – They show Lake Butrint, The Port of Seranda, The ‘Blue Eye’ spring, Bistritza river at its source, the ancient amphitheatre in the Temple of Aesclepius, the pillared circular baptistry, a fragment of lake and city, the ancient gate Virgil may have described as ‘Troy in Miniature‘, the later ‘Lion’ gate, the Albanian flag and a submerged boat opposite one of the little castles of Ali Pasha.

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