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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RIP RICHARD ADAMS

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Good Lord what a year of loss. I just heard that now Richard Adams has gone too, author of Watership Down. It was a classic, a brilliant, complex story that made its frame all literature, took children’s books seriously and inspired around the world. It was a fundamental inspiration for Fire Bringer too.  RIP Richard.

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HAPPY CHRISTMAS

Just to wish everyone a very Happy Christmas, holidays, etc and a wonderful, hopeful and creative New Year.

Phoenix

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THE RSC STORMS THE TEMPEST

Gregory Doran’s astonishing production of The Tempest needs a pause for thought over its very conception. A play that is quintessentially about what it truly means to be Human has now joined with that sticker on our billion laptops, ‘Intel’, and their production facility, Imaginarium, to potentially take us on a journey further from the Human, shipwrecked or saved. Yet of course imagination and technology are human products too and what they have produced is a really miraculous piece of theatre, in a visual and electronic spectacle that triumphs because it so serves the actors and Shakespeare’s mind. The theatre is the one place you should ‘keep it live’ and they do. I think it will run and run and may spark a global franchise.

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I don’t truly think it’s primarily about the Technology though, as so many careful and ambitious Corporate words in the programme might have it, and with what took two years to develop, although I have never seen so many children in an evening performance exulting in it all. What astonishes in this wonderful show is the conjunction of really marvellous special effects with such a fine cast that so honours Shakespeare, his language and the craft of acting – breathing, thinking, feeling, speaking – itself the most human of acts, amid the bewildering light show of life, and now of technology too.

That’s what the Tempest is about too, well, if we can ever understand any Brave New World that hath such people in it ; that every generation is waking to the ever repeating Shock of The New, while The Tempest is so much about a total recognition and exposition of a genius’s relationship with his own Art. If it is a ‘Magician’s play’, from a world that still believed in Magic, it is also one in transition from the magical and fantastical to that distinction The Romantics made between fancy and the true power of human imagination, one so superbly mastered by Shakespeare.

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Imaginarium’s effects are not always marvellous. The initial Tempest loses the human voices in a storm that is noisy and badly realised, despite the wonderful Jonah’s rib set of a ship’s hull. That humble Boatswain’s cry right at the beginning is precisely because the whole play asks the question ‘who is in charge of the craft’? The political relationships of complex characters on stage are also sometimes a little wooden. Yet what technology and art have done is very remarkable indeed and precisely because the Technology so evokes that ‘isle full of noises’ that is Shakespeare’s mind: The summoning of a terrifying harpie, the lava flows of hell, the encasement of Ariel by Sycorax in the earthy roots of thought, the backdrop that even throws in Van Gogh. Nothing seems unachievable, worthy of Prospero’s power, or Shakespeare’s, so we are delighted to receive the work in its entirety, complete with very perculiar ‘Masque’, with the descent of Juno to bless a consummation, those gorgeous and beautifully done songs “Full fathom five” and “Where the bee sucks” and with wonderfully ephemeral human sprites too giving us several tricks worthy of Darren Brown.

I think it’s partly because of the imaginative effects achieved and realised on stage by Imaginarium then, but especially these particular actors, with their near living Avatars descending from the heavens projected on suitably dreamlike strips of cloth, that suddenly, as if you had popped an LSD pill and welcomed back Timothy Leary, without quite dropping out,  Shakespeare’s words take such gigantic flight; the consummation of Shakespeare’s art. Perhaps it’s simply enough to say those actors are inspired to breathe that ever living poetry into being with such a bewildered, delicious, yet also humble grace that somehow tops it all.

Simon Russell Beale’s Prospero is tremendous, if lovely Miranda must stop bleeting like a beautiful sheep, (far too much vocal quiver), because Russell Beale is such a committed and multi layered actor, who combines all the intricacies of a loving father, trying to protect and yet let go of his daughter, with an almost petulant wrestling with despair and truth. Who also knows that Prospero’s final appeal, the breaking of his magic staff and drowning of his book, is an act of needed humility that can only truly be about the impotence of art too, yet the call to love and humanity in the real world, and, it must be so obviously said now, the often unreal world of technology too.

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I have never seen a production of the Tempest though that has so wonderfully puts Prospero, Ariel and Caliban as total equals on the same stage, as they must be inside Art, Human Consciousness and physical being. Perhaps it would be impossible without the effects, but at last, and precisely because of Imaginarium’s work alongside the RSC’s, Ariel, that held sprite of fancy and fire, explodes into reality, in a performance from Mark Quartely that is utterly visceral and totally memorable. But to pause on Joe Dixon’s Caliban, who so grounds everything and works so wonderfully with the tour de force appearances of Stefano and Trinculo. His ‘monster’ though is tender, real, enslaved and yet delivers the astonishment of Shakespeare’s finest poetry too because, as Auden knew, earth ridden Caliban is the slave and yet poetic force in all of us. That thing of darkness we all acknowledge ours. To be sappy about it he is the most loveable Caliban you’ll ever meet, because he is so solid, so innocent and so bemused.

“We are such stuff as dreams are made of and out little life is rounded by sleep.” Indeed, but wake up and rush to see The Tempest.

David Clement-Davies 2016

David saw The Tempest courtesy of the RSC. The Production photos show Prospero, Ariel, Caliban and Miranda on stage in Stratford and some of the miraculous effects of Imaginarium.

 

 

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VISITING THE TOWER OF BABEL!

Well, if Paradise is a garden, as they knew from the Arabs to the Elizabethans, then Heaven is a garden-come-winery in the Cape. Babylonstoren it’s called in Afrikaans, Babylon’s Tower, or the Biblical Tower of Babel, and since so much has been written about Shakespeare at Phoenix Ark Press, nothing could have been more appropriate than to find a cutting from that Stratford mulberry tree in the Bard’s garden (apparently!), transported here to South Africa. It brought to mind too that 16th century painting by Lucas Van Valkenorch, The Tower of Babel, very possibly depicting the Rose theatre in Southwark, in the back of which they found an old map of walled London.

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Babylonstoren is the brain child though of some modern ‘Rand Lords’, who made their huge wealth with an online website in China, hence the signs around Babel in several languages, including Chinese. If the world must speak different languages, here though they share the common language of Nature. They chose a garden designer who had cut his teeth in a French monastery, then took the design of a 17th Century Dutch garden at the Cape, indeed almost the official garden of the Dutch East India Company, renowned in its day but ruined, according to the blurb, when the British annexed Cape Colony during the French Revolution. The result, as you crunch through the sunlight across paths of old peach shells and wood clippings is an absolute delight. The myriad beds, vegetables gardens that serve the popular restaurants and Farm Hotel, pools, streams and walled enclosures, nestle among old vernacular style Dutch gabled farm houses and you might have stepped back five hundred years, or forwards a thousand.

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Everything at Babylonstoren is superbly ‘organic’, with the trellises and borders made entirely of wicker and hazel, interspersed with fascinating additions, like an Insect Hotel, bee hives, dove Cote, ‘ puff adder’ half covered walkway hanging with strawberry baskets, or the snoozing white hedgehog we found in a box when we popped inside a shaded kitchen garden. In mid November it was the perfect time to visit and breathe in the scented airs, or look about the sweeping vineyards that surrounded the place, along with abundant peach, peer and apple trees. In the shops selling candles, soap or their own cheese, the spa, and of course the bright glass sided wine tasting centre everything exudes style, elegance and grace, but also a kind of natural humility. Of course the place is not especially cheap and there is a clever Company acumen yet there is also a delightful openness, and on the free garden walks they encourage you to taste the fair. Hundred year old trees were moved to Babylonstoren, along with reconstructed and new old-style buildings, but here is truly a place to touch a Universal language and find some peace out of the sweat and noise of it all.

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The photos show a flower and vegetable bed, white hedgehogs and the half covered walk at Babylonstoren, South Africa.

 

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ON ROBBEN ISLAND

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There were two key moments that went straight to the solar plexus on a visit yesterday to Robben island, the maximum security prison thirty minutes ferry ride from Cape town’s bustling Waterfront harbour where many black Freedom and anti Apartheid fighters were incarcerated, in Nelson Mandela’s case for eighteen of his twenty seven years in prison. His tiny cell in the block where ANC and black leaders were kept, the fourth barred window on the right as you stand in the courtyard, is distinguished from the others only by the presence of a bucket and bed roll.

But the first shock was the enlarged black and white copy of the feeding instructions for prisoners, I won’t call it a menu, that not only showed the paucity of the daily diet but distinguished between Coloureds and Asiatics, who got slightly preferential treatment, and Bantu prisoners. In my head a harsh Afrikaaner voice came echoing straight out of the film Cry Freedom, scornfully addressing ‘bantu’ Steve Biko, who was of course murdered by the regime. That somehow rubbed home the pernicious nature of institutionalized and legally enshrined Racism, creating a hierarchy of human value even within the twisted ideology, with the Negro at the bottom.

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Then there was the first glimpse of the prison proper. So far, on a beautiful, sunny day, the ferry bouncing through the surf, the thing that had struck was the powerful presence of the city of Cape Town receding into the distance, and above it dominant Table Mountain, that for Mandela and I’m sure many other prisoners had always represented the visceral hope of freedom. Then had come the twenty minute bus tour around the tiny island. Nothing much to see, except the lime quarry where, pointlessly, prisoners were made to endure hard labour and break rocks. The tor of a thousand stones was there too, laid by ex convicts at a reunion in the 90’s, redolent of the pile of stones laid by 5000 Afrikaaners when they revolted against the British. The lighthouse too, that at only 18 meters above sea level sits at the centre of the island.   Also the mournful lepers’ graveyard that showed how Robben island was first established as a place of exile and attempted quarantine. But it was getting off the bus in front of the barbed wire fence that the human reality of it was brought home by the voice of a new guide and a former political prisoner, Seepu Mimosi, who himself had spent five years imprisoned here.

I think a Zulu from Durban, Mr Mimosi then went on to describe how he and five others had been arrested, four kidnapped by the security services from Lesotho, and tortured, one of their number dying in custody, before he was sent to the island. So he led us through the gates, describing too how not only their own resistance to constant attempts to break their spirits with torture, mistreatment, malnutrition and solitary confinement, but the influence of outside pressure from the likes of the Red Cross and Amnesty International had led in the seventies and eighties to improved medical care, diet, excercise and limited sport facilities too. It was, in defiance and awareness, a journey back to human dignity and walking passed those cells, the Censor’s office, the Guard rooms, punched by the brutal sparseness of it all, I was ashamed not to have read Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. The title itself represents the astonishing internal journey he and others took to emerge from such treatment not only intact but offering vision and reconciliation to the World.

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I don’t know if the likes of South African journalist John Matison    is right or wrong to suggest the vision of the Rainbow Nation was never a reality, or that President Zuma has morally bankrupted South Africa. What I know is that the destruction and dismantling of Apartheid in the way it was defeated was an utter triumph of the human spirit.  Its positive human effects, for everyone, since in the end both prisoners and warders become the victims, is all over South Africa today and shared by visitors to Robben Island from right around the Planet. Therefore, with the forces of Brexit and now Trump’s election calling to an older atavism, maybe South Africa does have something unique to teach the World. As we left though, among the private yachts day tripping into the bay and all the sparkle of tourism, Mr Mimosi commented ruefully on attempts to bring in new, young tourist guides. He was renting a house on the island, to do his job, and you could not help wondering if his experience will somehow always make him a prisoner to the island somewhere and a terrible struggle. But it was an extraordinary thing to be guided through by a man who had actually been there.

The photos show Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island, former prisoner and guide Seepu Mimosi and the frieze in the harbour ‘Freedom cannot be manacled.’

 

 

 

 

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THE ULTIMATE VERDICT ON THE TRUMP PRESIDENCY!

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Photo taken outside Olympia cafe, Cape Town, South Africa

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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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