Category: Music and Art

(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 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 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 19 May 2012)

Dear all,

It is a sad day for a country when its president can be represented in a work of art in a way that may be described as ‘distasteful and vulgar’, and yet, it is a piece that works on many levels.

‘The Spear’ by Brett Murray (2012)   —   A propaganda poster of a heroic Lenin

According to Times Live at the ANC considers The Spear to be “a clear calculation to dismember and denigrate the symbols and the representatives of the ANC, chief among them, the president of the ANC”, and while I have no idea what Murray intended by this work, it certainly is one that has resonance in the land in 2012.

‘MK’, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the military wing of the ANC, was established in 1961. It was formed amid lofty ideals with its first High Command being the now revered trio of Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Joe Slovo. There is good reason to believe that MK was never an effective fighting force, but there is no doubt that it carries great symbolism in South Africa in that it holds a romantic position in the liberation of the country. 50 years ago The Spear was a knight in shining armour that offered “a better life for all” and as depicted in the ANC logo, a fist holding a spear “represents the power of a people united in struggle for freedom and equality”. The Spear used to be a symbol of something honourable.

The ANC logoThe ANC’s logo

Let us assume that Zuma really is the best that the ANC can offer by way of leadership and let us assume that the majority of members of the ANC identify with this man. By extension we have to assume that Zuma symbolises who we are as a nation. Now let us ask the question, “Does this painting represent what has happened to South Africans over the last 10 years?” Does the corruption of The Spear as depicted in this painting reflect the corruption of every other aspect of life in this country during the Zuma watch? Does this painting symbolise a Zuma administration that systematically seeks to appoint cronies as senior police officials, that seeks to do away with  judicial bar councils, and all the while seeks to protect the corrupt through the Protection of State Information Bill? Sadly, I think so.

Of course, Jacob is not the first president unable to keep his ‘dick in his pants’, Bill Clinton springs to mind. And in this regard, I think that what happens between Jacob and his wives and girlfriends in their respective bedrooms should stay in their bedrooms. Further, whether he is or isn’t well hung is also not of public interest; so in this sense I do find Murray’s painting a personal insult to the man. As much as I consider Zuma morally unfit to lead a young struggling democracy, I agree with the ANC that it is a denigration of the person that is Jacob.

But at the same time I strongly believe that Murray’s The Spear symbolises the dismemberment and denigration of the moral fibre that once was the ANC… but that corruption was not done by the artist, it was done by the rapacious leadership of the ANC.



(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.”



The Drumming Lesson

(Written in June 2007.)

Dear All,

Kahlil Gribran, in his collection The Prophet, wrote, “Then said a teacher, “Speak to us of Teaching.” And he said: No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of our knowledge.”

Some months ago – almost on impulse – I bought a set of drums from a local music shop. Drumming is not altogether unfamiliar to me as I had played the side-drum in a marching band in my youth and I can still do a moderately respectable triplet, paradiddle and roll. To start off with I took some drumming lessons at the shop where I bought the drums and then had to take a break as I went away on business for a while. Upon my return I enrolled for a tryout lesson with another drumming instructor, at another music shop in the area.

Now, for those who believe that things in the Universe conspire to bring about the right conditions for us to learn what it is we are seeking, you should know that quite by chance, I had, a week before, picked up a copy of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of Freedom and was turning over in my mind two important teaching concepts that Freire proposes:

  • Firstly, effective teaching is not a process in which information is simply passed from one person to another, as though one were making a deposit in a bank; but teaching is a process in which the teacher and the learner explore the subject together. Moreover, they re-learn the subject matter together and in so doing they both extend their knowledge.
  • Secondly, it is crucial that the teacher has respect for what the learner already knows – even if the teacher thinks what the learner already knows, is wrong.

So the big day for my tryout lesson with the new instructor arrived. I had a head full of questions and CD’s in my hand so that I could play snippets of music I had researched with the expectation that he could show me how it was done. I had proved to myself as a dancing instructor that I knew how to pick up a rhythm so I was confident. I was ready to explore. I was ready to make music.

This is a drumstick. This is the 1/3 point. Hold it like this”, he said. You don’t understand I replied, demonstrating that I knew how to hold a drumstick by giving a short roll. “The wrist position must be like this, not that.” You don’t understand I said, demonstrating with a triplet that I changed wrist positions to get different effects. “Look at this (stave of music on line 1, page1 of book 1) and tap out the (first) pattern while counting one-two-one-two- .” You don’t understand I said ….. “Do you know what this is?” What, the written note on the stave? You don’t understand I repeated……

We were 4 minutes into the lesson when I got up, paid the instructor the full fare owed for a ½ hour lesson and left. Both of us, the instructor and the learner, were upset and bewildered. So, what went wrong? Certainly inexperience on both sides played a part. Certainly there was miscommunication and within a short time, a breakdown in the little communication that had taken place. Fortunately, having just read Freire’s book, I can be more specific about the reason for this unexpected turn of events.

The new instructor’s own learning process appeared to have been formed in what Freire calls a ‘banking system’ of education. The instructor’s experience as a learner seemed to leave him with the fixed idea that there is only one way to play a drum. “It is this way. (Implying that all else is failure)!” Possibly his conditioning in the ‘banking system’, more than anything else, prevented him from asking the questions that cried out to be asked. “What do you want to achieve? What do you already know? What ‘already lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge’? How shall we explore your desire to learn together?” Most importantly, “How do we move past the rote and get you to make music as soon as possible?”

Subsequently I returned to my original, less formal, drumming teacher. Sure, I didn’t get many of the finer points as the other guy wanted to teach me, but I was able to make music. I looked forward to the lessons and my teacher listened patiently to what I wanted to ask him. He deciphered the rhythms from the CD’s I would bring to class and he would send me home to try them out. Perhaps he was amused at my trying to take on things that were too ambitious, but he never said so. I know that I will never learn to read music properly but in my mind I was making progress and was convinced that one day I would be able to “jam” with my son Giles as we would pick our way through some of our favourite melodies.

For those who believe that things in the Universe conspire to bring about the right conditions for us to learn what it is we are seeking, let me say that I am extremely grateful to the formal drumming instructor at the shop where I took only one very short lesson; even though that lesson was not about drumming at all. It was about teaching and learning. It was a perfect moment in which my grasp of what Paulo Freire had to say became so clear that I could see to the very bottom of it. It was a great 4-minute lesson.



The beautiful brassiness of Venice

(Written on 27 Dec 2011)

Dear All,

In an earlier piece (originally written on 5 Sept 2010) and posted under the title Confidence breeds Civilization, I had written, “It is when people in a community have the sense ‘about themselves’ of a purpose (not necessarily religious), coupled with the notion that their purpose is achievable, then their confidence may ignite their collective imagination leading to a flourishing society.” Wherever there have been such societies we see expressions of the character of that confidence in their industry and their art. A favourite example of mine is the extraordinary engineering in England through the work of Brunel and others starting around the 1830s. Everything about England of that period is bold; an expression best captured, for me anyway, in the building of the Great Eastern. So it rang a bell when I came across a reference to what was suggested to be the one thing that more than any other embodied Venice in the 16th century.

The reference is in a fine BBC documentary titled Francesco’s Venice (2006), which is a 4-part series on the history of what the narrator describes as the world’s most beautiful city. Francesco leaves us in no doubt that central to the life of Venice is trade; and with it a propensity to exploit every possible money-making opportunity that may present itself. From the filching of what was believed to be the remains of St Mark from Alexandria (so that they could have their own saintly relic), to the plunder of Constantinople, the double-dealing with the crusaders, the monopolising of trade with the East, the maintenance of a pirate fleet, and even to the establishment of that extraordinary means for the exploitation of human capital, the Jewish quarter, we get the sense of the brassiness of the success of Venice.

So it seems quite appropriate that Francesco should suggest that the painting that represents Venice at that time, more than any other, is the Venus of Urbino by Titian (1538). As he points out, until then nudes had been painted either expressing some sense of shame, by covering up as best they could, or expressing demureness by shyly turning away, always with the eyes averted or closed. But the Venus of Urbino not only draws your attention to what would otherwise be private, she looks you straight in the eye as she does so. What in modern parlance we would, I think, describe as being “in your face”. Much has been written about this provocative painting, running the gamut of it being shameful pornography to it being some deep and intricate expression of femininity… all of which may be true. But for me, it reflects the beautiful brassiness of Venice as I experienced it; and I am glad to find I share that view with Francesco Da Mosto, who certainly knows a lot more about it than I do.

Titian's Venus of Urbino



PS: In South Africa we briefly held a sense of ourselves as a ‘Rainbow Nation’ in the mid-1990s, but sadly it turned out to be an infatuation rather than a love affair.

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]