Category: Humour and Life’s lessons

Eight friends who made a difference

Written 1 June 2014

Dear All,

Have you ever asked yourself who – apart from your immediate family: parents, spouse and children – have been the most influential people in your life? Of course, we learn something from everyone we meet along the way, but there are those who stand out, those one has known for more than say 10 years and who’s influence has changed the way in which you have actually lived your life. When considering the question I come up with eight names; and in reading about my thinking on this topic, it is useful to know that for all my life I have wanted an education. So, my choices have focussed on those long-standing friends who have contributed to what I have learned.

In their youth, almost everyone has had an inspiring teacher or two, but for me there was no-one from my schooldays I ever wanted to emulate. On the contrary, if I learned anything from my Witbank teachers, it was what not to become. In short, my schooling was an abysmal failure and my army days were no better. By the time I had reached the age of 19, and was about to launch into the wide world, it was as if I had spent the first part of my life in a social and an educational wilderness. So it was as a naive bumpkin that I met Giles Tayelor, who was to become a life-long friend. When we met on board the Safmarine ship, SA Vergelegen, early in 1971, we were most unlikely to get along. I was a complete prude who had never ever been out on a real date, he was already something of a rake. Giles wore a red scarf jauntily tied to one side while every item of clothing I owned was a piece of a uniform of some sort. Giles had been schooled at SACS, I had been nowhere. How I admired the way in which he could recite poetry, chat up the girls and order wine with aplomb; meeting him, and learning from him, was the start of what I could call having a social life.

In the mid-1970s Jill and I moved to Cape Town where three people were to play a significant role in shaping my early adult life. In the Marine Automation Department at Globe Engineering, Frans Spit and Louw Smit were a pair of technical geniuses in their own right. In my mind’s eye I can still the way Frans would push his glasses up the bridge of his nose as he would point out whatever was wrong with some or other control system, always explaining his reasoning with an astonishing clarity. And I remember the way in which Louw could make adjustments to controllers that were ‘just so’; and how he could fabricate intricate bits of machinery with such precision that left me breathless on occasion. The two of them were generous with their knowledge and one way and another, taught me the bulk of whatever technical skills I have today. At the same time, away from work, my cousin Fred Hebbert introduced me to music, art and literature. Everyone should have a ‘Fred’ in their lives. He introduced me to opera, the world of drama, and rugby. Fred’s general knowledge is as varied as it is entertaining and with it all he is as unassuming as one can be. His company is always easy-going and enlightening. So, for more than 40 years, much of what I have read has been at his recommendation, and much of what I have thought about, has been at his prompting.

To say that my career in the early 1980s was in the doldrums would be a kindness, but then, as luck would have it, I met two engineers who gave me the direction I lacked. The first was Ralph Rosenstein, the factory engineer in charge of African Products in Belleville. Ralph was larger than life in every way and to a rudderless 30-something year-old he was what I decided I should become. It was not just that Ralph was a superb factory engineer, but he had a clear sense of what he wanted to achieve and could communicate his expectations to those who worked for him. He inspired everyone and with it all he had a wry sense of humour. I well remember him speaking to a contractor on the phone while scrunching up a piece of scrap paper near the handset, “do your hear zis?”, he would say in his heavy German accent as he winked at me, “zis iss your invoice…, you haf sold me a shree-veeled car!” I set out to be like Ralph and in some ways succeeded. The other engineer was Bryan Mulligan. We met when I took a job with Murray & Roberts where Bryan had just been appointed as the group’s youngest engineering manager. He is, without doubt, the sharpest person with whom I ever worked. His solutions to technical and business problems were often astounding in their scope and execution, and it would be safe to say that it was his originality that makes him such an outstanding character. We subsequently entered into a business relationship which lasted a number of years and in that time I learned a great deal from him about money and business. My approach was simply to support him in every way I could in the belief that all would turn out for the best in the end, but sadly, our partnership did not reach its full potential. Nevertheless, we kept contact and I still hear myself saying things I know Bryan would have said.

As has been noted, my schooling was a miserable experience and I remember thinking in 1969, as I walked out of the schoolhouse for the last time, that if these were supposed to be the best years of my life, then I did not want the rest of them. Having been through such a hopeless system I have a great deal of sympathy for students who arrive at a university from what is described as an underprivileged school, but I have always been encouraged by the view that it is never too late to have a happy childhood. The opportunity to make up for lost time arose when our sons went to Wynberg Boys High School. As the chairman of the Governing Body it was my good fortune to meet and befriend Keith Richardson, the school’s headmaster. I have often said that Keith has probably forgotten more about educating boys than most parents will ever learn, so it has been a privilege to have had the opportunity, through our friendship, to have been part of a great school, even though I was not actually a product of that school. In a strange way I have been able to put the misery of my own schooling behind me and to replace it with an association that makes me proud. More importantly, Keith has taught me about the things we needed to have learned as young people, the things that schools are supposed to teach; things like “playing up, and playing the game.”

And finally, in 2003, when my appetite for managing projects and running factories had come to an end, and our sons were on their own path in life, it was time for me to attend to that nagging problem of getting an education. In February of that year I found myself sitting in lecture theatre ‘C’ in the R W James Building at UCT, having enrolled for the 2nd-year physics course in electromagnetism. I had not done any mathematics for 28 years and it was not unreasonable to expect that the odds of my coming to terms with the calculus of Grad, Div and Curl were slim, but the punters would not have accounted for the inspiration of Professor David Aschman. David, to my mind, is everything a professor of physics should be; erudite, unconventional, a bit intimidating, irascible on occasions, and (although always well hidden) never taking himself too seriously. Many was the day I walked out of an Aschman lecture with the bewildering sense that I had understood very little of the complexities of what was said, but I knew I had enjoyed every moment of it. He, more than any, represented being educated simply for the sake of being educated. He presented an image of an academic to which one could aspire. He, more than anyone I know, could get you to ask yourself a good question every day.

In retrospect, these eight long-standing ‘characters of influence’ have provided me with an interlocking framework within which I interact with the outside world. Each of them has offered some unique skill and particular role model upon which I rely to figure out what I should do in whatever situation I find myself. I am grateful for all of them.

Perhaps you also have such a list?


Written 12 Jan 2014

Dear All,

Last week, quite by chance, I came across a copy of Herman Charles Bosman’s Uncollected Essays by V. Rosenberg (Ed.), Timmns Publishers, 1981. As always, Bosman’s off-beat view of the world and wry sense of humour comes through beautifully and for the first time I was struck by the very strong views he expressed about poetry. For example, he wrote, “The essential characteristic of the psychologist is that he knows nothing about life. Otherwise he would not be a psychologist, but a poet” (p. 55), and I think he was quite right. Of course, I don’t mean being a poet in the sense of having the skill to know your trochee from your spondee, or your enjambment from your caesura. I am speaking of being a poet in the sense of being able to write a phrase or verse that gives a voice to that unutterable moment; the ability to assemble an otherwise incoherent word structure that makes perfect sense. Read any Bob Dylan lyric and you will know what I mean.

The expression of these unutterable moments is often associated with times of heady love or wonderment, but they are mostly prompted by upheaval and despair, wars, deaths, and so on… One such poem that caught my imagination, when I was still a boy, was Siegfried Sassoon’s Everyone Sang (written abt. 1918). I do not know the exact circumstances described by Sassoon – it certainly was to do with World War I – and perhaps it really was about Armistice Day. No matter, in my mind it is about the triumph of the human spirit of those miserable soldiers in muddy trenches who had to endure the nightmare described by Churchill in the Commons as “every 24 hours nearly a thousand men are knocked into bundles of bloody rags”. And in the midst of this horror:

EVERYONE suddenly burst out singing;

And I was filled with such delight

As prisoned birds must find in freedom,

Winging wildly across the white

Orchards and dark-green fields; on- on- and out of sight.

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;

And beauty came like the setting sun:

My heart was shaken with tears; and horror

Drifted away … O, but Everyone

Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

I was reminded of this poem in 2007 when I had the opportunity to visit the Civil War battle site at the Shiloh National Military Park, Tennessee. . Incidentally, it was my great privilege, in the 4 years during which I lived in the USA, to get a sense of how that Nation was formed by the European immigrants who first turned on their Colonial masters in the War of Independence (1775 – 1783), then they turned on their neighbours in the Mexican War (1846 – 1848), then they turned on one another in the Civil War (1861 – 1865), and then finally they did for the indigenous population in the Indian Wars ending around 1890. All pretty brutal stuff with plenty of cause for poetry, as was the case in the battle at Shiloh which took place over two days in April 1862, the first day going to the Confederates and the second to the Yankees. Some 20,000 men were killed or wounded in that battle as the shocked and inexperienced men “saw the elephant” (colloquial for “experienced combat”) for the first time. And as I wandered around that site I tried to imagine what would have gone on in the minds of the poor wretches who were thrown into that melee.

Before the battle, the attacking Confederate soldiers were reminded of their duty. They were told that what was required was “a decisive victory over the agrarian mercenaries, sent to subjugate and despoil you of your liberties, property, and honour… remember the dependence of your mothers, your sisters, and your children on the result… with such incentives to brave deeds your generals will lead you confidently to the combat”1. As it happened, despite the belief that everything in their world was at stake, the Confederates lost. And so I wondered how that sense of loss could be expressed.

Semiotics is the study of the signs and symbols that we use in communication. Just as words are signs and symbols by which we communicate, so gestures convey meaning and while it is not an area that I have followed too closely, I have no doubt that if poetry can be expressed in words, so to, I believe, can poetry be expressed in gesture. After all, we speak about the fine performance of an athlete as being “poetry in motion”. So you can imagine my satisfaction when, while pondering the plight of beaten Confederate soldiers, I saw what is shown in the following picture. It is a piece of semiotic poetry, that expressive gesture that, for me, captured the unutterable moment.

Conferate soldiers on Shiloh Memorial

Conferate soldiers on Shiloh Memorial

The picture is of part of a larger Confederate Memorial at Shiloh that shows on the right, the men going into battle on the first day, heads held high, weapons in hand; and on the left, men coming out of battle at the end of the second day, heads down, swords gone. Actually, I found the whole piece rather uninspiring because the message was all too obvious, but look at that open hand. It says exactly what I thought the defeated and bewildered men would have felt. In modern parlance, perhaps, you could hear him whisper with a slow shake of the head, “W.T.F.” For me, it is pure poetry.



1McPherson, J. (1988). Battle Cry of Freedom. Oxford University Press, p. 407.

(Written on 23 December 2012)

Dear All,

‘A bit over the top’ was my immediate reaction on noting a report quoting Richard Dawkins as saying, ‘Being raised Catholic is worse than child abuse’, see

Certainly, in the panoply of organisations that have been in the business of thought control, the Catholics stand out as one of the great successes. The symbols of Papal control can still be seen all over Rome, and here I am referring to the constant reminders above inscriptions and monuments all over the Eternal City, the symbols that remind the viewer as to who holds the keys to the gates of Heaven. It is, to my mind, a symbol of mental terrorism to remind you who is supposed to have the power to “loose and bind” your very soul to either Paradise or Hell.

Papal insignia - showing the keys to looe or bind

Papal insignia – showing the keys to loose or bind

Before I am misunderstood however, I must declare that I am not a religious man. As with Michel de Montaigne, I “would easily carry, in case of need, one candle to Saint Michael and one to the dragon”, but may I hasten to add that I hold this a-religious view not because I have insight into whether or not a Spiritual Reality of this kind exists – and therefore a gatekeeper to Heaven is necessary – but because I do not know if it is so. It may be that there exists a God who is more interested in the minutia of human life than say in the minutia of ant life, but I cannot see any evidence or reason for such a state of affairs. The only interest I have ever come across when considering this matter has been that of the people peddling the idea. So, this post is not about a belief in a God, but is confined to a comment prompted by Dawkins, that the Catholic Church is or was a great menace.

It is not a simple thing to show that the Papal symbols are not instruments of thought control, but it is easy to show that Catholics don’t have a monopoly on religious systems that employ psychological blackmail. Throughout history the industry of priests has been to exert a form of mental terrorism through promises of Heaven and or threats of Hell, be they in this world, the third world, or the next world. And while most civilisations have got over it, we still see this manipulation of the minds of people by pastors, priests, rabbis, mullahs and sangomas all over the world; the bedevilment of life in the Middle East in this way is a case in point.

When our younger son was about 10 years old he had the misfortune of having a junior school teacher who was a dreadfully religious, reborn spinster. Not only were her obligatory sex-education lessons very confusing for the boy – mainly because this miserable woman was telling of what she had heard, not of what she knew – but because she solemnly declared if a child had not been baptised in a church, and should they die, then their souls would go straight to Hell and Damnation…, for eternity. As we didn’t believe in that liturgy, my wife and I had not bothered with the ritual of baptism and so now, simply to assuage the child’s deep anxiety, we arranged for the lad to be baptised at the local church; something I expect the Church and the teacher had in mind in the first place. As it happened, the baptism was a happy occasion and in the end no harm was done, but the iniquity of frightening a child in this way is, to my mind, quite unforgivable. In that respect I am in agreement with Dawkins.

But is or was everything about Catholicism as bad as he seems to suggest? Well, I am not a Catholic, and I am mindful of H G Wells’ view that in the question of the dissemination of knowledge, “It was not the Roman Republic whose heir the Church esteemed itself, but the Roman Emperor.” It may well be that the intention of Church education was to facilitate the subjugation of the common minds by the clergy, but in the end, the fact is that it did open up the prospect of the modern educational state. And as I hear you cry, ‘Oh yeah, what about Galileo’, may I point out that no matter whether the leaders of the Church planned to enlighten or oppress thinking in the world, it was indeed the organisation of that Church that provided the vehicle for the general dissemination of knowledge throughout the Globe for hundreds of years.

Perhaps more importantly, as pointed out by Kenneth Clark, “The great achievements of the Catholic Church lay in harmonising, humanising and civilising the deepest impulses of the ordinary people.” One of the ways in which the Church did this was by presenting the virtues of tenderness and compassion to a barbaric world through the introduction of a female principle of the form of the Virgin Mary; a key figure in Catholic worship and to my mind a most enlightened idea. After all, why should we take seriously an all-male Divinity? Male and female principals are characteristic of every stabilising world religion and perhaps, if the Judaic religions had included a female principle, we would not be witnessing the present and protracted fighting in the Middle East.

Michelangelo's Madonna and Child

Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child

And then of course there is confession… as noted, I have never made confession (if that is what you do with it). By the same token, I have never been on a psychiatrist’s couch, so in that sense I am not much better than a virginal sex-education teacher, so I will quote Kenneth Clark on this topic.

The historian cannot help observing how the need for confession has returned, even – or especially – in the land of the Pilgrim Fathers. The difference being that instead of confession being followed by a simple comforting rubric which has behind it the weight of divine authority, the modern confessor must grope his way through the labyrinth of the psyche, with all its false turnings and dissolving perspectives… because as a rule it is the act of confession that matters, not the attempted cure. (Civilisation, BBC and John Murray, 1971, p. 177)

It is quite true that through the dogma, bigotry, corruption and secrecy of the Catholic Church’s Councils and Inquisitions, a large number of people have been damaged over the years – and for that the Church stands rightly accused – but the Roman Catholic Church ultimately, in my view, did more good than harm and is therefore not deserving of the Dawkins headline.



(Written 9 Nov 2012)

Dear All,

In the opening scene of the first episode of the BBC television series, Civilisation (BBC, 1969) Kenneth Clark is seen on the banks of the Seine with the Louvre in the background. After a brief discussion about the number of artists who have hurried to that famous gallery to study the works it contains he asks, “What is Civilisation?” Then he goes on to say, “I don’t know. I can’t define (Civilisation) in abstract terms. But I think I can recognise it when I see it.” This thought… that of believing that you can recognise civilisation when you see it, struck me quite forcibly recently while sitting on the lawn of the John Baxter Outdoor Theater at Wynberg Boys High School. (!/Wynberg.Music)

The occasion was the School’s Sunset Concert and once again I marvelled at the care with which the music teachers ply their trade and I was impressed by the skill with which the pupils respond to their teaching. It has long been my view that one of the most civilising things in the world is the process by which people learn to play sophisticated music in concert; the other being schoolboy cricket in which the batsman is taught to ‘walk’ when they are out.

One the other hand, as Clark often remarks in the Civilisation series, “while it may be difficult to define Civilisation, it isn’t so difficult to recognise barbarism”, and so, as I sat there I juxtaposed this musical expression of civilisation with the expression of violence and graft to which we South Africans are subjected every day when we open our newspapers.

With that thought my mind went back to the sense of the truly sublime that I was able to enjoy with Keith and Pippa – that is them sitting behind me in the photo – when we saw Bernini’s Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius in the Eternal City. Apart from the magnificence of the work, the statue’s great symbolism of grandfather, father and son in the process of moving away from the destruction of Troy to the establishment of the new, greater Rome has a lot of meaning for me. The line from Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome always comes to mind, “For the ashes of his fathers, And the temples of his Gods” (Horatius). In a way, it represents brothers in an endless chain; overcoming difficulties, Supera Moras.


But sadly, as I said, at the same time as I was listening to this marvellous music I thought of the shenanigans of this country’s president as he loots the treasury, avoids corruption charges, and still manages to move toward re-election. I thought of the way in which the ANC is steadily attacking the country’s constitution through the proposed Protection of Information Act. In my mind I juxtaposed Bernini’s depiction of heroism with Hogarth’s 18th century depiction of electioneering and I was reminded how fortunate we are to have islands such as that at Wynberg where Civilisation is being fostered as a bulwark against the barbarism that has made Cape Town the Murder Capitol of the world.

It is when one attends concerts like this one that one gets hope. Hope that somehow, like Aeneas, the country will overcome the attacks and the blight of crime, corruption and government failure.



(Written on 13 October 2012)

Dear All,

Once upon a time there was a president of a struggling country. The suffering people of the land had been exploited by their political masters over many years and as their lives became more and more miserable the desperate citizens turned to their smiling, dancing president for the requisite leadership that had hitherto been absent. The people looked to their president for words that they could understand, for words that would inspire them, for words that would make it possible for them to see their way forward. As it happened, at that time, an election was looming and there was a small possibility that the president may lose his #1 position of privilege at the State’s feeding trough – a position he was very keen to retain because he was misappropriating a great deal of the peoples’ money to build a giant castle for himself at Inkandla – and so he went to speak to his old friends, the ANC’s Umkonto we Sizwe Military Veterans’ Association.

But instead of saying things that could be plainly understood by the ex-soldiers and the nation, the president spoke in metaphor. He told them that a previous President of the ANC had warned them to “beware of the enemy within”. He told them not to get into busses if they did not know where the bus-driver was going. He gave them the surprising news that fraudulent and corrupt leaders were alien to the ANC. Without being specific, he told the veterans to “remain vigilant” in guarding against those who lobby for positions.

Zuma stumping for a second term

In listening to the president’s metaphoric messages I was reminded of the Macbeth skit from the BBC 60s & 70s radio show, I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again, a show featuring John Cleese, Graeme Garden, Jo Kendall, David Hatch, Tim Brooke Taylor and Bill Oddie. In the following piece, Macbeth is giving instructions to the murderers:

(Read the whole wonderful script at or listen to it starting at 16:45 at

Lady Macbeth: Macbeth, we must put an end to Banquo and his son Fleance, I have hired two murderers.
(knock knock)
Lady Macbeth: That’ll be them.
(enter two murderers)
Macbeth: Ah, you must be the…
Murderers: exactly.
Macbeth: As you may know, I have a little…
Murderers: inconvenience?
Macbeth: Exactly, I was hoping that it could meet with a little…
Murderers: shall we say… accident
Macbeth: My very words.
Murderers: there is of course the question of…
Macbeth: Say no more.
Murderers: Splendid.
Macbeth: So you will…
Murderers: Quite.
Macbeth: And it will be…
Murderers: Naturally.
Macbeth: Then I think we…
Murderers: Understand each other? Good.
(exit Macbeth)
Murderer 1: What have we got to do?
Murdered 2: I’ve absolutely no idea.
Announcer: The next day, Banquo was murdered, but his son Fleance escaped. When Macbeth heard this, he tore his hair and stamped on his rabbit.

The problem with the metaphorically speaking president’s exhorting of ex-soldiers to do something about an ill-defined enemy is that it is not clear who the corrupt, misdirected bus-driver may be. Who is the enemy lobbying for a top position by the bulk-buying of members (in ZwaZulu-Natal)? Surely the president wasn’t referring to himself… or is there someone else in the ANC guilty of these alien tendencies?

Sadly, this fairy tale does not appear to end happily ever after.



(Written 28 July 2012)

Dear All,
With the recent news of the confirmation of the finding of a particle that may well be the Higgs boson I thought it would be a fine thing to post a favourite poem (and a joke) for physicists.

Billy Collins – The Centrifuge
(The trouble with poetry, Random House, 2005)

It is difficult to describe what we felt
after we paid the admission,
entered the aluminium dome,
and stood there with our mouths open
before the machine itself,
what we had only read about in papers.

Huge and glistening it was
but bolted down and giving nothing away.

What did it mean?
we all openly wondered.
and did another machine exist somewhere else-
an even mightier one-
that was designed to be the exact opposite?

These were not new questions,
but we asked them earnestly and repeatedly.

Later, when we were home again-
a family of six having tea-
we raised these questions once more,
knowing that it made us part
of a great historical discussion
that included science
as well as literature and the weather
not to mention the lodger downstairs,
who, someone said,
had been seen earlier leaving the house
with a suitcase and a tightly furled umbrella.

And the joke…


(Written 9 June 2012)

Dear All,

There has been much discussion in the South African media about the destruction of interpersonal relations and the problems that arise from some considering themselves inferior or superior to others; what we would readily recognise as the old problem of racism. The reaction by a portion of South African society to the Brett Murray painting The Spear is a case in point, to which I should like add the comment that it takes two to make racism ‘work’, there has to be a victim and a victor.  

In 2008 I took a job as a science teacher at a school that was specifically focussed on working with children from disadvantaged black communities. Having spent most of the previous 35-odd years of my working life in some or other engineering capacity, this was a significant change in my life, one that presented unexpected challenges. I had expected that my offering and expertise from the world of science and technology would be welcomed – and indeed they were warmly welcomed by the children – but you can imagine my surprise when, as a person, I was rejected by the inner management of the school. Rejection of this sort had never happened to me before and it took a while to figure out why an industrious, well-meaning, committed and friendly person would be ostracised by the adults at an institution like that? The reason was that my behaviour was seen as that of a “dominating white male”.

The question of racism on such a personal level is generally not confronted in the engineering world and so I had never before been accused of real, or imagined, interpersonal racism. I have always taken the view that racism is a bad thing but I had had no real, personal understanding of the destructive nature of racism in its many guises. In any event, at the time I was struggling to find my feet in the classroom and given that I had been told by an otherwise knowledgeable friend that, “Honkies cannot teach in the Townships” (Whites cannot teach black children), I was very focussed on trying to find out how to relate to children in a learning environment, especially children who’s experiences and cultural background was quite different from mine. So being accused of racism at a time like that was a bewildering problem.

A useful way in which to understand human interaction of the sort outlined above is based on Patsy Rodenburg’s book, Presence: How to Use Positive Energy for Success in Every Situation (Michael Joseph, 2007). Rodenberg develops the model by which three modes of human interaction are described and she refers to these modes as “circles of energy”. An excellent description of these concepts is given at Here is my summary of the circle model:

1st circle of energy: Where interaction is characterised by introversion, withdrawal, subservience and “being the victim”.

2nd circle of energy: Where interaction is characterised by balance, give-and-take, intimacy and “being an equal”.

3rd circle of energy: Where interaction is characterised by extraversion, imposition, control, domination and “being the boss”.

As noted, for a number of years I had been an engineering manager and although I was conscious of being a newcomer in teaching, I suppose I unwittingly took on the look of a ‘boss’, although I am not sure of this. Certainly I had a lot of skills to offer but that, paradoxically, also seemed to be a failing. Apparently my colleagues didn’t need a capable person to lay a golden egg every other day, they wanted people around them who would let them feel as equals; something they apparently could not do with me because I was perceived as a dominating white guy. All their lives they had been threatened and demeaned by dominating white guys and they resented it deeply. Using the Rodenberg model, my behaviour was seen as being of the 3rd circle, imposing and controlling, which automatically drove them into 1st circle. When I found I was inexplicably being frozen out of the team by the management of the school it was my turn to exhibit 1st circle behaviour… and because I did not know why all of this was happening, I remained in the 1st circle until I left the school.

In the tradition of Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) – who invariably used himself as an example – I can see evidence in my own life of not being properly schooled in the art of living in the 2nd circle. Like so many people in our society, somewhere early on the knowledge of how to live effectively in the 2nd circle appears to have been knocked out of me to some extent. Was it that boarding school? Perhaps it followed from the rigid instruction always to “stand on your own two feet”. I do not know how or why it came about, but I have since become convinced that the best way to get through the world is to learn the skill of graciously receiving and giving, as equals, for as Rodenberg puts it, “we need to be in 2nd circle in order to survive.”

Accusations of racism such as those experienced at the school automatically result in 3rd and 1st circle behaviour, which in turn allows for the justification of the disengagement on both sides. In a perverted way, racism offers an illusion of ‘safety’ in the interaction in that it defines where each stands in relation to the other. But sustained 3rd and 1st circle behaviour is insidiously dangerous in that it wilts the human spirit and destroys what could have been. A country in which its citizens lock themselves in such a paradigm is doomed to fail.

And what of the cure for racism? Well, that may not be so easy for it requires both parties to want to interact in the 2nd circle, an engagement that requires a degree of personal courage and understanding from both sides. It requires that both parties want to give and take. And it requires that neither party identifies victims and victors, but that each learns to see themselves and the others as equals. Far sooner said than done… a task that requires great leadership.



PS:  In considering all of this I went back to my notes on Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of Freedom, writing that makes a lot more sense to me now, and I have made it a personal goal to try and lecture in the 2nd circle. Although I still have a great deal to learn about the subtleties and nuances of speaking, listening, feeling and thinking in each of the “circles of energy”, there is something of which I am already quite certain, “We need to be in 2nd circle in order to survive.”

PPS: Thanks to Vicki Bawcombe, who, by way of helping me develop some teaching skills, suggested I read Patsy Rodenburg’s work.

(Written 1 June 2012)

Dear All,

To pass laws to announce what freedoms there should be is one thing. To discover what it means to be free is something quite different.”  Theodore Zeldin, An Intimate History of Humanity, Harper Perennial, 1996, p. 191.

The appearance of the now defaced painting, The Spear by Brett Murray, has by and large left South Africans either titillated or convulsed – depending on one’s allegiance. Of the Nation’s polarised reaction there does not seem to be much new to be learned of those who nod and wag, “Quite right, the president is a dick in more ways than one”; but there is a great deal to be learned about the state of freedom of those who have declared themselves to be grossly insulted and demeaned. Especially what is to be learnt from the response of those who tearfully recalled the pain of being a victim of the institutionalised racism of Apartheid.

On the 5th March 2006 I was very pleased to get a letter published in the Sunday Times under the title ‘Lessons from Abroad’. . The letter was a response to one Vuyo Mvoko who had written about how a white person who had returned to SA from abroad had left him with a sense of inferiority… the white person still acted like a ‘baas’. Part of my glib advice was that someone could only be a ‘baas’ if the person holding that view saw themselves as a ‘servant’. My pie-in-the-sky solution went something like, ‘sure you were treated as an inferior in the past, but all that is behind us now. So stop thinking of white people as “baas”. You are Free at Last! Go out and compete as an equal.’

A poster advertising a Free at Last film festival

Of course, it was useless advice. I have since realised that people do not have some internal switch that can be flicked from inferior to equal to superior at will. There is reason to believe that at some early stage of our adult lives – perhaps around 18 to 23 years of age – we develop an idiosyncratic image of our ‘self’ that appears to stay with us for the rest of our lives. As we mature we are able to put an internal spin on that image, to give it all sorts of masks; but in our quietest moments, we always seem to return to that original ‘self’. As my father used to say, “You take yourself everywhere.”

Zeldin makes the point that actors play a significant role in our striving for personal freedom because in some sense, everyone is an actor. “Professional actors are most admired where freedom is most highly valued, because acting is an instrument of freedom. (Acting) enables people to realise that they are not imprisoned in themselves, but can understand others and be understood by them” (p. 187). I should like to expand on this idea by suggesting that any engagement in a creative activity is an Instrument of Freedom. For example, as I write this I am in some way releasing the fears of that little man trapped deep inside of me, I am striving to express a personal freedom and in reading this you may get a sense of that freedom; further, in trying to make my point I am perhaps seeing the point of those of whom I write.

Is this the pattern of the march of personal freedom in South Africa?

While I am not a painter – and I do not know Brett Murray from a bar of soap – I am pretty sure that in his painting of The Spear he was searching for a personal freedom, a personal freedom for himself as well as for others. This is what societies’ artists do. They reach out as actors on our behalf so that through them we may experience some of that personal freedom. But this process is not without difficulty. Zeldin again, “People who try to think for themselves know that the cobwebs they spin are fragile and incomplete; but those who are content to be disciples, and become entangled in the cobwebs of others, forget that fragility and imagine they have landed on firm, stable ground (p. 195)”. Society carries a self-preserving inertia that challenges personal freedom and in healthy societies there is a civilising balance between the expresssions of the personal and of the group. But in unhealthy, unbalanced societies – where that civilising space is not given – there is a march to anarchy or oppression. And a mark of oppressive societies is the defacing of artistic expression. In oppressive societies we hear the monotonous, mindless, chanting of slogans, by mobs, as they make their way to protest against their own liberty.

The reaction of South Africa’s political leaders and the general public to The Spear is disturbing in that it tells us that even though the Nation has been free from the oppression of institutionalised racism for almost 20 years, as a society, South Africans are as trapped as ever. Trapped in racism, bigotry, hack ideologies, and every blight that leaves us tearfully shackled to the servile state of self-styled ‘servant and baas’. It will take men and women of considerably greater ability than those presently in charge of this country to lead it to a better life for all.



PS: “Baas” is an Afrikaans word meaning “master”.

(Written 5 May 2012)

Dear All,

I have, over the last few months, been involved in the moving of physics journals from a relatively secluded library space into a communal room; a room of collegiality, a room with atmosphere, a meeting place with some warmness and a little gravitas. It was an involvement that gave me great pleasure as it was on the way to giving expression to the sense that one would expect to get when visiting a revered department of physics at a fine university. So you can imagine how appalled I was when I saw that the warm wooden panelling around the bookcases – panelling that was imperfect, a bit faded, and so brought a sense of character and age – had been painted white! And even though this space is merely some small corner of one of many buildings, it was important to me. So when I saw it I felt the same gut-wrenching sense of desolation experienced whenever I have had occasion to consider desecrated works.

Over the centuries there have been many occasions when creations that give expression to our humanity and personality have been mindlessly or dogmatically destroyed. I well recall the outrage expressed in 2001 when the Taliban in Afghanistan destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan, apparently on the instruction of the ‘Minister for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice’. Despite the world’s offerings and pleadings to preserve those 6th century statues, it did not occur to the narrow-minded mullas that cultural landmarks such as those could never be replaced. And while the pleading with the Taliban at the time was in earnest, it was perhaps not quite with the intensity conveyed in Oliver Cromwell’s letter to the General Assembly of the Kirk of Scotland in 1650 in which he wrote, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken” (Incidentally, it has not escaped me that at the time Cromwell himself also claiming to be doing ‘God’s work’). But sadly those in authority at the time paid no heed to the intersession and today the empty spaces in the hillsides in the Bamiyan Valley are a reflection and reminder of the sterility of that kind of thinking.

After the destruction of the Buddha

On a happier note, there are some expressions of human creativity that are beyond the reaches of barbarians, one being the Watts Towers in California. In 1959 the Los Angeles City Building Department attempted to demolish the towers that had been lovingly built by Sabato Rodia over some 33 years. Fortunately they gave up when, in a wonderful moment of irony, it was the crane that was to topple the structures that broke down. Rodia had built the towers for no purpose whatsoever other that he wanted to do something “big”. He had had no assistance during the construction for, as he said, he couldn’t tell others what to do because he did not know what he was going to do next. All the materials that went into the towers had been collected from the surrounds and he just put them together as it occurred to him on the day; what a wonderful expression of his humanity and creativity.

The hands of Simon Rodia (

In the BBC series, The Ascent of Man, Bronowski tells us that “The most powerful drive in the ascent of man is his pleasure in his own skill” (Futura, 1981, pg. 72), and in this Bronowski is quite right, we do delight in our achievements; but I would like to add that it not just a question of the technical skill with which we achieve whatever we do, it also depends on the sense of style with which we do so… what Italians would refer to as “con garbo”, with grace, with finesse. We have all seen how the twists and turns of acrobats are always that much more remarkable when they appear to be done effortlessly, with panache. And as it happens, the opposite is also true. Achievements without style, “senza garbo”, are achievements greatly reduced. The boorish delivery of otherwise inspiring words do not move us, just as the building of purely functional spaces that look, as Voltaire once described Blenheim Palace, like “a great heap of stone, without charm or taste”, are a betrayal of might have been.

In the Preface to St Mark’s Rest: The History of Venice, written for the help of the few travellers who still care for her monuments (1884), John Ruskin wrote,

“Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts – the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others; but of the three, the only quite trustworthy one is the last. The acts of a nation may be triumphant by its good fortune; and its words mighty by the genius of a few of its children: but its art, only by the general gifts and common sympathies of the race.”

May I put it a bit more simply, it is not just about what we do or what we say, it is important how we do and say things we do; using the Italian phrase once again, “con garbo”, with style. So now, when I go to tea in the communal room I have to divert my gaze from those painted panels in the way that I imagine a 17th century traveller may have avoided a gibbet. Looking away to minimise that shock of what for me has become a reminder of the exasperation and helplessness experienced when considering the destruction of great and small expressions of creativity… “senza garbo”.



Written April 2012

Dear All,

How shall we define the wayward and mysterious and outcast thing that we term humour – that is forever a pillar-to-post outcast from the stern laws of reality, and yet forms so intimate a part of (and even embodies) all truth about which there is an eternal ring?” Herman Charles Bosman’s introduction to the essay ‘Humour and Wit’.

Every time I re-read A Cask of Jerepigo: Sketches and Essays (Human & Rousseau, 1964) I look forward to that gem on page 167 in which Bosman writes about what is quintessentially Bosman, ‘humour’. As he points out, if it is true that “humour is born out of the emotions and wit springs from the intellect, then I would naturally be prone to look upon wit as being to some extent an intruder, I, who am by nature suspicious of the intellect, fancy that in its dark recesses there lurks a specious cunning (in wit) whose purpose is to gloss over with trickery the soul’s deficiencies”. But “humour is something that stands apart from (any social use and psycho-physiological functioning) ibid. Humour must be approached from the side of the eternities, where it stands as some sort of battered symbol of man’s more direct relationship with God.”

Frank Muir in The Oxford Book of Humour Prose proposes a useful way to classify wit, buffoonery and humour. In the introduction to that entertaining collection he suggests that wit is concerned with ideas, buffoonery with deeds, and humour with people. Incidentally, Muir also makes the claim that the English originated humour, quoting Sir William Temple’s 1690 essay titled ‘Of Poetry’ in the collection Miscellanea II, but I don’t think that to be generally true. Certainly wit, buffoonery, satire, sarcasm and irony all have cultural connotations that make them characteristic of certain peoples and periods; but humour, as I like to think of it, is universal and timeless. As can be seen in the table by Fowler, the province of humour is ‘human nature’ and the audience for humour is ‘the sympathetic’. Perhaps it is just that the English were the first to develop the expression and acceptance of humour, an expression that does not reject, but that embraces the oddities, embarrassments and eccentricities of human behaviour.

Table from Fowler's Modern English Usage, 2nd ed. Reprinted 1980

It is often suggested that modern mass media, mainly television – that chewing-gum for the eyes – has put an end to our access to fine humour. It is suggested that the barrage of bland, crude and easily accessible comedy to which we are subjected in films, TV and YouTube will make sure that we never again will look upon the likes of the golden-age humourists such as Dickens, Twain, O. Henry and Bosman. I don’t think that to be true… humour has always been part of us, and always will; although I readily concede that modern living has made it much more difficult to find people of great humour. It is a sad thing that the clutter and noise of interconnectivity drowns humour. That is because the expression of humour is always subtle, quiet and gentle. Humour never takes centre-stage, it never forces its way into the conversation.

Voltaire by Huber (watercolour)

So, how do we find the expression of humour? To be honest, I am not sure, but I recognise it when I see it… it looks like Huber’s magnificent watercolour of Voltaire, that friend of mankind, smiling the smile of reason. And as I look at this marvellous face I am reminded of the story attributed to Voltaire who, when on his deathbed, was asked if he rejected the Devil and all His works? Voltaire apparently replied, “This is no time for making new enemies.”