Category: Literature and poetry

Dear All,

(Posted Aug 2015)
I thought you may find the rather haunting 1945 film footage of Berlin, at the following site, of interest. Pay particular attention to the sound track.
This link has prompted a wide response from friends to whom I have sent it, including a suggestion that I watch the documentary, Night Will Fall, (apparently about the holocaust); but unfortunately, in my dotage, I no longer have the emotional resources to watch stuff like that.
Incidentally, my reaction to the hollow expressions* and the only words you hear in the clip – Hitler ranting about “totalen krieg” – was to be reminded of the view expressed by Albert Hirshman in, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (Harvard University Press, 1970). In that work Hirshman suggests that people in large, declining and/or decadent organisations generally respond to the degeneration in one of three ways, viz, 1) they give up the struggle and Exit, or 2) they use their Voice to speak out against what they see is wrong, or 3) they remain Loyal to the organisation by keeping quite and compromising along the way.
Freeman Dyson, in a Physics Today interview, listed three examples of physicists (and their approach to the use of physics by Nationalist and Fascist Europe in the 1930s) to illustrate this view by saying that “Bruno Pontecorvo chose to Exit, Albert Einstein chose a Voice, and Max Planck chose Loyalty”; going on to say that “each of them paid the price for his choice.”
The Hollow Men – T S Elliot

Mistah Kurtz – he dead
A penny for the Old Guy


    We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us – if at all – not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.


Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind’s singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

Let me be no nearer
In death’s dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer –

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom


This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

Is it like this
In death’s other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.


The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death’s twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.


Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper

(Written July 2015)

Dear All,

In considering what the underlying theme in the teaching of science at school should be, I have taken a great deal of what I present here from, The Visionary Eye: Essays in the Arts, Literature and Science, by J. Bronowski, (MIT Press, 1978). In particular, the inspiration is drawn from the description of a mathematician in the company of scientists, “turning into fact what the imaginative mind conceives”.

For it is the imaginative mind that sets us apart from the animals. Certainly animals use ‘words’ and gestures to communicate, but they do so in a restricted, contextual way; a particular bark or signal is always understood by others in the troop, herd or pack in the same way.  Humans are different in that, in our minds eye we can recreate and reinterpret the past, we can imagine and plan the future, and we can convey ideas through a range of complex symbols – any one of which may allow for more than one sensible interpretation. Most importantly for this discussion, we can express our manifold imaginings by way of extremely abstract representations. But we are not born with these skills, we have to learn them. To communicate and to succeed in a civilised, ordered society, we need to be educated; and from this point of view, all teaching is directed at making it possible for humans to ‘visualise’ their experience in mental models and mental images, and then to turn what was imagined into fact. Incidentally, an appropriate and extremely useful theory of human cognition – in terms of mental models, mental images, and propositional reasoning – was developed by Philip Johnson-Laird in the 1980s (see Mental Models, Cambridge, 1983).

The key idea here is that the ability to create and manipulate images in the mind is the basis of reasoning; and irrespective of whether we are experimenting with logical concepts or with artistic materials, we are engaging in imaginative processes that use the same mental faculties in all cases. Further, if the above is true (which I believe it is), then there is no intrinsic difference in the way in which we use the concepts of ‘energy’ and ‘mass’, as Einstein did in the equation E = mc2, and the way in which we use the words ‘sad height’ and ‘fierce tears’, as Dylan Thomas did in:

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Both of these expressions convey a very deep understanding of the world as it may be experienced, but neither is obvious from the outset. A considerable amount of effort may be required to rediscover what these two authors meant, an effort that is well worthwhile; but in the process of doing so it would be a mistake to believe that in order to grasp the meaning of one compared to the other you need to have ‘a different kind of brain’. As Bronowski puts it (p. 21):

We do a great harm to children in their education when we accustom them to separate reason from imagination, simply for the convenience of the school timetable. For imagination is not confined to wild outbursts of fantasy. Imagination is the manipulation inside the mind of absent things, by using in their place images or words or other symbols.

Both science and art are imaginative processes in which we are constantly rediscovering for ourselves what the experimenters, theorists, authors, sculptors, painters and poets have discovered before us; and the point has to be emphasised that it is not possible to appreciate the deep conceptions created by science and art “unless we do something to recreate them for ourselves”. Each of us has to engage in this journey of discovery with whatever idiosyncratic set of imaginative tools we have at our disposal – irrespective of the field of human endeavour. And in every case we do so for the same reasons, viz.: 1) to experience the pleasure of exploring imaginary situations, and 2) to give expression to something that is entirely personal. In short, we do so because we delight in our own creations.

This motivation, that ‘we delight in our own creations’, lies at the heart of whatever we truly learn; and this is as true for a babe in arms, an opsimath, and everyone in-between. It follows that if we are ever to have effective educational institutions then they have to speak directly to this motivation.

Does the phrase ‘our own creations’ imply that there should be a free-for-all approach to the way in which we approach the acquisition of knowledge, an, “I did it my way” approach? Certainly not! In considering the idea of having the freedom to act, we note that “you cannot be certain how to design something well, but you can be certain how to design it badly”. This is true of every human endeavour and so the foundation of every creative ability requires an investigation into the existing body of knowledge in that field. It is only when one understands the underlying structure of whatever it is that is being explored, before setting out on the journey, that one may be found in a position to extend that knowledge. Here also it is necessary to deal with a misconception that has found a place in some quarters; it is the idea that in some way science is constricting, while art is liberating. Quite how this view gained traction is not clear to me, but a little thought will show it to be a bogus notion for we need to recognise that freedoms and limitations have a deep connection and are never separated. With every creative act we are met with liberation on one hand, and simultaneously, limitation on the other. Bronowski again (p. 51)

Each of the great intellectual revolutions has broken through (the boundaries of our contagious anxieties, the rigours of convention and social institutions) at its time, and swum into a new sea of freedom in art, science, and society together. But beyond each isthmus there is another; each sea in turn is landlocked; there are natural limits to action in the new age too. The pride of the best men is to probe for these limits by the adventure of their work. These are the pioneering minds, who press forward in the new freedom and create those works which, in exploring it, discover (because they reach) the new frontiers. Lincoln Cathedral is such a creation, and Albertini’s Rimini, the craft of Dürer and Grinling Gibbons and Wedgewood, the Circus in Bath and the Chrystal Palace. And equally the plays of Christopher Marlow and Newton’s Principia, Coleridge and Cézanne and Rutherford, all stretch out and fill the freedom they themselves created, to its limits. The new age ends only when these limits in their turn become fixed and conventional, and wait to be cracked by another discovery toward the next freedom.

This brings me closer to the question of what I think the underlying theme in the teaching of science at school should be. I think a simple model that shows the interaction of four components in a creative process should be a recurring theme that would be a reminder to both teachers and learners that it is the act of “turning into fact what the imaginative mind conceives” that lies at the heart of the understanding of anything.

Model of creativity

With the imaginative mind at its centre, this simple model illustrates how we combine our experience with what we know of the existing body of knowledge to give expression to our thoughts and conclusions. And in doing so we go through an iterative process whereby we enhance our experience and our understanding to be able to express more clearly what is known, until we reach that limit where new knowledge is created, where freedom comes into its own.

It is my view that it is the task of teachers and the like to bring about educational institutions that forefront the idea that ‘we delight in our creations’; and then to bring about an environment that allows for the imaginings of the creative minds of the youth to be turned into fact.



(Written 26 Dec 2014)

Dear All,

When Siobhan Mulligan recently told me that she had enrolled to do a course in creative writing at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, (USA), it struck me as a marvellous way to start a career as a writer. Perhaps it was because I had found the Eternal City to be such a fascinating place that Rome, Georgia, was always on my list of places-to-visit> And while I came close on occasions, I never actually got there. Nevertheless, I am just prejudiced enough to make all sorts of conclusions as to why the open spaces of Berry College would be just the right place to have great thoughts and to meet with all the conservative claptrap that makes for the tragedies and comedies of fine writing. Berry College may just be the place of which writers’ dreams are made.

Well positioned in the Bible Belt and with so much Civil War history, I found the northwest corner of Georgia (USA) to be a haunting place. The serenity and beauty of the Chickamauga National Military Park, just to the north of Rome, GA, belies the stupidities and motivations that led to the battles that were fought there; something underscored when I witnessed a fallen soldier being interred in the carefully manicured Chattanooga National Cemetery in 2008. (It seems that he had been killed in Iraq.) I remember how the spectacularly misty views from Lookout Mountain left me with a strange sadness as I looked down onto the loops of the Tennessee River from which the Yankees arrived to slip through the back door in 1863. And I thought for a moment that I heard the whoops and galloping of Nathan Forrest – just as one can hear the clatter of running-away hooves of Christiaan de Wet’s commandos (2nd Boer War) across the vlaktes of the Orange Free State – as these icons struggled heroically in an already lost cause…, it is a place of romantic dreams indeed.

Of course, dreams provide a fertile space for creative writing. Not just the idea of the way in which Life’s dreams are made and broken, but that dreams can be interpreted in any way you please. Here I should point out that I subscribe to Bronowski’s view (The Visionary Eye: Essays in the Arts, Literature, and Science, MIT Press, 1978) that works of art are never complete in themselves. Art requires that the viewer or reader should complete the work by ‘creating’ a response at the time of the viewing or reading thereof; and in this sense, the author may well write creatively at the time of putting pen to paper, but the act of ‘creative writing’ only comes about when the reader actually interprets those words for themselves. For example, Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream (1965) has always held meanings for me that I am sure the young Robert Zimmerman never intended, and who has not sighed in sympathetic relief when the Lord Chancellor’s Nightmare from Gilbert & Sullivan’s Iolanthe (1882) comes to an end. Or how about the twists and turns of Lewis Carroll’s subverted Fit the Sixth – The Barrister’s Dream from The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in 8 Fits (1876). See The nonsense nature of these writings gives us the opportunity to ascribe deep meaning to the stuff of dreams.

Incidentally, one must chuckle at the thought of Queen Victoria, who, having enjoyed Alice in Wonderland, commanded that she be presented with other work by that author. One expects she could not make head or tail of the mathematics of Charles Dodgson, but perhaps she acknowledged the cleverness in Carroll’s the Fit the Second – The Bellman’s Speech:

The Bellman himself they all praised to the skies—
Such a carriage, such ease and such grace!
Such solemnity, too! One could see he was wise,
The moment one looked in his face!

He had bought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.

“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
“They are merely conventional signs!

“Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best—
A perfect and absolute blank!”

So I look forward to reading Siobhan’s work that I think may somehow maintain the bridge between the histories, sceneries, and dreams of the puritans of Southern Africa and those of North-Western Georgia.


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 15 December 2013)

Dear All,

With the demise of Nelson Mandela still dominating everything in the news this week, including the advertising, South Africans return again and again to the question, “How did it all go so wrong in the new South Africa? How did it happen that we started heroically with the ANC of Mandela, and a brief decade and a half later, we are saddled with the corrupt and incompetent ANC of Jacob Zuma! At the same we ask rather dolefully, “What can be done to right the ship?”

In thinking of this, the ballad of Sir Patrick Spens came to mind. I first heard this poem recited in 1971 by my good friend Giles Tayelor. We were steaming across the Indian Ocean at the time and I remember the dramatic moment vividly. The two of us were engineer cadets on the SA Vergelegen and he, being a SACS boy and all, had been taught poetry at school. (I had had no such luck having been sent to a technical school.) On that afternoon the blue-black sea was quite rough with storm clouds overhead and we were looking out over the aft deck at the wake of the ship when he told how, in the poem, “the lift grew dark, and the wind blew loud, and gurley grew the sea. The ankers brak, and the topmast lap, It was sic a deadly storm”. He recited how the sailors tried valiantly to keep the ship afloat until (depending on the version you read) “a bolt flew from our gude ship’s side, and the salt sea it came in…”  And as every well-educated schoolboy knows, Sir Patrick and the good ship did not survive, the poem ending poignantly, “Half-owre, half-owre to Aberdour, ‘Tis fifty fathoms deep; And there lies Sir Patrick Spens, Wi’ the Scots lords at his feet!”

Of course, what makes the story so heroic is that it all started out with hope. Hope that the treacherous journey to bring the king’s daughter back from Norway could be achieved, the poem beginning: “The king sites in Dumferline town Drinking the blude-red wine; “O whare will I get a skeely* skipper To sail this ship of mine?” O up and spak an eldern knight, Sat at the king’s right knee; “Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor That ever Sail’d the sea.”  ”    *skilful

In 1994 we started out with hope, but when we look at the storms gathering in all quarters of South Africa today we see that the “lift is growing dark and the wind is beginning to howl”; and to illustrate the warning signs I draw your attention to the rather strange case of Thamsanqa Jantjie who was appointed by unknown to sign, for the deaf, the speeches at Mandela’s memorial service on 10 December 2013. It is a case that epitomizes the strange world of Jacob Zuma; something captured perfectly by Zapiro.

Zapiro and the interpreter

Zapiro and the interpreter

 Now, before you say the president cannot be responsible for everything, may I say that  I know that Jacob did not appoint the interpreter personally, I know that mistakes happen, and I know that in the bigger scheme of things, Thamsanqa Jantjie’s blatant lies about his being a qualified interpreter for the deaf is a relatively small thing, albeit a sad one. I know that there are fraudsters and shysters all over the world, but consider the circumstances of his appointment.

 The Sunday Times of South Africa, dated 15 December 2013 (p. 3) informs us that the head of the ANC’s religious and traditional affairs desk, Bantubahle Xozwa, happens to own South African Interpreters, the company that employed Jantjies. For these ‘services’, South African Interpreters included in their bill an invoice from another company, Asange Image Studio. The reason being that images are required “for all appearances” of SA Interpreter’s workers. You may well ask why another company is required to provide something that could so easily be acquired in-house until you find out that Asange Image Studio is owned by Cikizwa Xozwa, Bantubahle’s wife. Cikizwa also happens to be the office manager for Jackson Mthembu, the ANC spokesman; small world this. It seems that SA Translators and Asange have done quite a lot of business with the ANC and here is the cherry on top, their “invoices to the ANC all have the same false address and registration number”.

If all of this sounds a bit like everything else that surrounds Jacob Zuma, but you are not convinced, here is the clincher. When it was asked who Jantjies was, remember, this is a man who had been given top security clearance to be in the inner circle with people like the President of the United States, and it was asked how he came to be appointed…, nobody knows! The ANC’s Jackson Mthembu tells us Jantjies’ “services were secured by the government”, but conceded that the ANC has “utilized his services over the years”. Henrietta Bogopane-Zulu, the government’s deputy minister of women, children and the disabled (by every account a totally dysfunctional department) is quoted as saying that her department did not hire Jantjies. Furthermore, she “did not know who had”; adding that “somebody, somewhere, is lying”. Err, yes, that is one of the few things we worked out pretty quickly.

As noted, this little episode epitomizes Jacob’s administration; everything about it is “so totally Zuma”. In the Zuma world it is OK to provide a mediocre service and defraud the public. We have ample evidence of how those in the inner circle of ‘number 1’ have license to feed from end-to-end through the country as though it were a trough. In the Zuma world it is OK for cabinet ministers to cheat on travel expenses and to botch substantial tenders (Joemat-Peterson), no matter what the cost to the country’s natural resources. And if you get found out, well, just hang in there, the Secrecy Bill is just around the corner to protect the government’s flops. In the Zuma world it is OK to spend an unauthorized MR200 (US$20,000,000) on yourself while pretending it is for your security because if you are the president surrounded by a sycophantic coterie of security ministers, you can have your private home in the rural midlands at Nkandla declared a national key point; while at the same time your friends can land their private airliners at the Waterkloof Airforce Base, a real military installation in a built-up area, because that can be declared… “not be a national key point”. And all the while those actually responsible will know nothing! It is pure Zuma.

So we ask ourselves again, how can the hope we had be saved? Where will we find a skilful skipper to sail this ship of State for we have seen ‘the new moon with the old moon in her arm’, and we know that if we are to continue this way ‘we’ll surely come to harm’. Who can sail South Africa away from the storm that is the accumulation of the corruption, lies, mediocrity and feigned ignorance that characterizes the administration of Jacob Zuma; an administration spectacularly symbolized by the mumbo-jumbo of the delusional Thamsanqa Jantjies?



(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 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 3 March 2012)

Dear All,

I am not a braai* person in that I do not enjoy the cooking aspect of this primal practice, but I do enjoy the business of staring into the coals (as someone else turns the bits of meat) while the great issues of life and living are discussed. And it is just when the discussion may be flagging that I posit the interpretation that what we are doing, sitting around a fire like that, is a celebration of The Origin Sin. What? How? Surely The Original Sin has something to do with sex?

Before going into an explanation, it is necessary to make the point that what follows is not a scholarly dissertation, but a personal interpretation, partly tongue-in-cheek, of life and living taken very largely from George Steiner’s 1974 Massey Lectures, Nostalgia for the Absolute. Go to to listen to the full set of these extraordinary lectures.

The Biblical Genesis has it that the first humans lived in a Garden of Eden until they tasted of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, the tree of good and evil. According to that ancient interpretation, Man lived in a state of innocence and somehow the acquisition of some particular piece of knowledge resulted in Adam and Eve – each noticing for the first time the exposed genitals of the other – being driven from paradise to suffer in the world out there. Moreover, having tasted of this knowledge there was no way back into the Garden because, “there was placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life” (King James Version, Genesis, 3:24). Of course the Bible does not refer to, “Original Sin”; that is a phrase developed during the 2nd century from the ideas of Paul of the New Testament and which has largely been corrupted (a strange irony) to have something to do with engaging in sex.

Michelangelo – Fall of Man

So what could that all-important piece of knowledge have been? The social anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss offers what to my mind is a plausible answer. Fire! After all, it was fire that Prometheus stole from gods and gave to mortals, an acquisition that so angered Zeus that poor old Prometheus had his liver pecked at by an eagle and in some interpretations, resulted in Pandora and her box of evils being released upon mankind. But why would the acquisition of fire be such a bad thing? Well, according to Levi-Strauss’ explanation of structural anthropology, we live in a conflict between our Biological/Natural state on one hand and our Social/Cultural state on the other. By this explanation, the Original Sin is that humans have overlaid Nature with Culture and in so doing we have found ourselves at odds with the Natural Order. From an interpretation of the myth of Oedipus solving the riddle of the sphinx we may learn that man first comes into the world, on all fours, in a Natural state, then he walks erect, on two legs, but in an un-Natural state which causes him to limp and eventually to use a walking stick to prop himself up. And the role of fire in all of this is that the use of the technology of fire makes the transition from the Natural to the Cultural complete. Fire is able to produce light in what hitherto had been darkness at night; fire allowed for the cooking and smoking of food for preservation, freeing time for other activities; fire made it possible to “refute the constraints of winter”. Fire allowed us to process metals and to make all matter of implements and tools with which we have modified our environment. Sadly, the use of fire in a metaphorical sense has made it possible for us to manufacture weapons capable of destroying not only ourselves, but also the Garden from which we came.

In Robert Johnson’s book, Transformation: Understanding the Three Levels of Masculine Consciousness (Harper Collins, 1993) there are some interesting parallels to this story about the outcome of the use of fire. In Transformation, Johnson uses the literary archetypes of Don Quixote, Hamlet and Faust to illustrate three levels of human consciousness, namely those of simple consciousness, complex consciousness, and enlightened consciousness. Of course, no third state is to be found in Levi-Strauss’ binary model of Nature vs. Culture, but there are nevertheless many points at which the two stories meet, the one relevant to this tale being the idea that having been excluded from the Garden of Eden because of the acquisition of some key item of knowledge, there was no way back; just as in Johnson’s view, having once moved from a state of simple consciousness to complex consciousness, we too cannot go back. Having traded a life of blissful simplicity for the hurly-burly of a complex, anguished world, there is no returning to a Natural state.

What is left for us then is to struggle on in our angry, fallen state and as George Steiner puts it, “Possessed, as it were, by some archetypal rage at exclusion from the Garden of Paradise, by some torturing remembrance of disgrace, we have scoured the earth for vestiges of Eden and laid them waste wherever we have found them” (Nostalgia for the Absolute, 1974, p. 32).

But every now and then, as we sit about the braai staring wistfully into the coals, from somewhere deep in our primal remembrances there comes an inkling of what it was like in Paradise. It stirs the soul and then in some perverse way, we celebrate the Original Sin.



*Braai is the South African equivalent for barbeque; but with a real fire.

Orwell, the fate of freedom, and the ANC

(Written 15 Jan 2012)

Dear All,

In the last episode of the BBC series A History of Britain (2002), Simon Schama remarked that, “History has a cruel way with optimism,” and I suppose that is why I was ‘so totally over’ the recent 100 years celebration of the founding of the African National Congress. My disappointment with the cruel way in which the ANC has squandered the optimism of South Africans over the last 18 years prevented me from celebrating the truly fine contribution that that organisation had made prior to 1994. So I didn’t follow the celebratory proceedings and didn’t read anything about it. However, a by-line in a weekend newspaper could not be avoided. It was reported that at the main ceremony, in a stadium, Kgalema Motlanthe proposed a toast to the unity, the solidarity, and the ‘progressive vision’ of the ANC. It was reported that the deputy president then told the people in the stands that if they did not have champagne, they could take photographs of their leaders drinking (on the podium), or raise clenched fists. He apparently went on to say, “The leaders will now enjoy the champagne – you will do so through their lips.”

As the paper pointed out, this ANC champagne centenary moment is a sentiment straight out of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Eric Arthur Blair (1903-1950) used the pen-name of George Orwell and was an interesting character, one I admire enormously; you only have to read his essay, Shooting an elephant (1936), to get a sense the man. And even if you don’t think much of the strange choices he made in the way in which he lived, you cannot avoid the two essential books he wrote towards the end of his life, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-four (1949). In these works he expressed his fear for the fate of the freedoms so hard-won by the common people. The communist party under Stalin was top-of-mind when he wrote those allegorical works, but from his experiences in Burma and Spain it is clear that the warnings given are not just about the abuse of power by the inner ring of the party faithful, but Orwell gives a clear warning about the way in which leaders who were once part of the struggle will use newspeak and slogan manipulation to short-change their followers by getting them to accept that while they, the people, have to forego the promises of the revolution, comfort can be taken in their being able to live through the wellbeing of their glorious leaders.

As it turned out, ‘old Major’ did not attend the centenary celebrations, which is probably just as well as the party did not celebrate what he fought for. I don’t think he would have approved of the way in which cadres simultaneously play the ace of spades to get mineral rights and government contracts. I am sure he would not have sanctioned the introduction of the Secrecy Bill, with its accompanying chorus of parliamentary sheep. And I could not see him agreeing with Motlanthe on the virtues of the people drinking champagne “through the lips of the leaders”. My sense is that he would have tried to remind them, “That in fighting against Man, we must not come to resemble him.”



One fine day: Puccini

(Written 5 Jun 2011) 

Dear All, 

I was recently reminded of the melancholy theme of the  French Lieutenant’s Woman, the one in which a woman is waiting for someone she knows will never come, and I was immediately reminded of that beautiful piece, Un Bel Di (One fine day), in Puccini’s Madam Butterfly in which Butterfly finally comes to terms with the fact that Pinkerton is not coming back to her. What is of particular interest in this part of the opera is that the libretto is at odds with the music and the message. 

The music, the gestures, the sighs and the sad looks tell us that Butterfly has accepted her fate, but the words in the aria tell a different story… all great stuff. Here is a translation of the libretto in question: 

Suzuki [sighing]
Unless he comes, and quickly,
Our plight is a bad one.
Butterfly [with decision]
He’ll come, though.
Suzuki [shaking her head]
Will he come?
Butterfly [vexed, approaches Suzuki]
Why did he order the Consul
To provide this dwelling for us?
Now answer that!

[Suzuki is silent]

[still persists]
And why was he so careful
To have the house provided with safe locks,
If he did not intend to come again?
I know not. 
Butterfly [rather annoyed and surprised at such ignorance]
Know you not?
[calming down again and with proud confidence]
Then I will tell you. ‘Twas to keep outside
Those spiteful plagues, my relations, who might annoy me;
And inside, ’twas to give to me, his wife, protection,
His beloved little wife Butterfly.
Suzuki [still far from convinced]
I never heard as yet
of foreign husband
Who did return to his nest.
Butterfly [furious, seizing hold of Suzuki]
Ah! Silence, or I’ll kill you.
[still trying to convince Suzuki]
Why, just before he went,
I asked of him, You’ll come back again to me?
And with his heart so heavy,
To conceal his trouble,
With a smile he made answer:
“O Butterfly
My tiny little child-wife,
I’ll return with the roses,
The warm and sunny season
When the red-breasted robins
Are busy nesting.”
[calm and convinced]
He’ll return.
Suzuki [incredulously]
We’ll hope so.
Butterfly [insisting]
Say it with me:
He’ll return.
Suzuki [to please her, she repeats, but mournfully]
He’ll return.
[bursts into tears]
Butterfly [surprised]
Weeping? and why? and why?
Ah, ’tis faith you are lacking!
[full of faith and smiling]

Hear me. [acts the scene as though it were actually taking place]
One fine day we’ll notice
A thread of smoke arising on the sea
In the far horizon,
And then the ship appearing;
Then the trim white vessel
Glides into the harbour, thunders forth her cannon.
See you? Now he is coming!
I do not go to meet him. Not I! I stay
upon the brow of the hillock, And wait there… and wait
for a long time, But never weary
of the long waiting.
From out the crowded city
There is coming a man,
a little speck in the distance, Climbing the hillock.
Can you guess who it is?
And when he’s reached the summit,
Can you guess what he’ll say?
He will call: “Butterfly” from the distance.
I, without answ’ring,
Hold myself quietly conceal’d,
A bit to tease him and a bit so as not to die
At our first meeting; and then, a little troubled
He will call, he will call:
“Dear baby wife of mine, Dear little orange blossom!”
The names he used to call me when he came here.
[to Suzuki]
This will all come to pass as I tell you.
Banish your idle fears, For he will return I know it.
[Butterfly and Suzuki embrace with emotion] 
[Butterfly dismisses Suzuki, who goes out of the door on the left. Butterfly looks after her sadly]