Red Cafe Wonderland

As my daughter and I ascend the staircase to Red Cafe I feel like I have stepped with Alice into Wonderland.

“The owner suffers, like, really badly from insomnia,” says fourth-year student daughter. Of course then, as we pass the lady at the front desk, I can’t help noticing the simply  enormous bags under her eyes.

“Just a thought,” I say to daughter, “don’t you think running a coffee shop might worsen her insomnia…?” Is it me or does the very same proprietor seem to work at double speed ringing up the till for waiting patrons, flashing away at the keys with a sort of caffeine-fueled energy?

Daughter and I step out onto the deck which is nestled quietly next to the leaves of a tree. The height and shrubbery shield us from the ordinary Grahamstown life below, adding to the fairy tale feel. While waiting for our red cappuccino and avocado shake , I glance across at a couple seated nearby. They breathe not a word to each other for the entire time we are there. And the young man is calmly painting his forearms. After surreptitiously investigating we discover that said young man is painting makeup foundation over tattoos on his inner arms. How curious. Perhaps he’s going to a job interview we wonder?

Even closer to our table is another man. Unlike the painter, this man is accompanied only by a vast bowl of cutlery. To say he isn’t talking to the cutlery would just be silly. But he does seem infinitely more fond of his silvery companion than the painter is of his friend. Even curiouser.

Action speeds up. Our waiter trips across to our table, sloshing my drink into its saucer.

“Oops,” he says cheerfully, “my nickname is Wobbles.” At the same time a tall, slender woman in a denim skirt walks past aiming for the table in the corner. As she sits down the raucous-harmonious sounds of a live singing group fill the air from below. I look up just in time to see the woman’s bearded profile come into view.

Is Red Cafe always like this? Or only at National Arts Festival time of year? I can’t tell. It has an atmosphere all of its own. One of a kind. I’d like to say I highly recommend Red Cafe. That you should go because you’ll have a unique experience. Problem is, I’m not quite sure if I’m dreaming or not…

Shepherding satiated student daughter downstairs after paying our bill to the night owl I say, “Come Alice, it’s time to go.”


From Whiskey to Water: Interview with Sam Cowen

From Whiskey to Water is an autobiography by South African radio personality and author, Sam Cowen. The book forthrightly describes the author’s addiction journey from alcoholism to overeating to over-exercise. And it shows Sam’s gradual passage from uncertainty to self-acceptance.


Sam Cowen. Image courtesy of Jacana Media.

FROM WHISKEY TO WATER COVFrom Whiskey to Water is jargon free and easy and compelling to read. Particularly captivating are the writer’s unique similes and illustrations. “I was lying bruised and broken on the rocks at the bottom of a wine well of my own creation”, “I flopped out the washing machine like an ageing dishcloth” and “Lisa Raleigh burst into my life like a spandex-clad firecracker” are just some of the wonderful descriptions I loved reading. When I asked Sam about her fine imagery she replied that she hadn’t followed a process of carefully crafting words; “I just think in these all the time,” she said. This was evident when I queried her cold (and I mean cold – 13 degree Celcius) Cape ocean swims described in the book. “Why can’t you swim in the warm Indian Ocean instead?” I asked. “Well,” she replied, “The Indian Ocean is like the slutty cousin to the pristinely beautiful Cape Sea.” She would rather, she said, swim in an ocean that was just “busy being beautiful”.

The swimming section of the book was written in tandem with the rest, while one of the stories from the “eating” part was written first, despite it occurring only later in life. Describing her writing practice Sam said: “I don’t write chronologically.” Some events were written about in isolation, others as letters to herself, some in parallel to others. Written incidents then provoked questions that led to her writing about earlier experiences. And so the process continued until the book was finished. But it was a fast process: 3000 words a day (in a café, away from the distractions of home) and five-and-a-half weeks was what it took to complete this 200-page book. “I don’t let myself do any less [than 3000 words daily] until I end up with 78000 words and then I pare down.” An intriguing method Sam employed was to e-mail written sections to herself as she went along. This technique helped to create some distance so that she would be aware, from a reader’s perspective, how the book was to come across.

The result is a non-preachy, humorous, honest, empathetic account that will ring true for the ordinary reader trying to navigate the difficulties of self and life.

Olympic Delights

Garmisch-Partenkirchen is a beautiful mountainous region one-and-a-half-hours by train from Munich. It’s a well-known (think Olympics) ski resort in winter and a simply lovely walking/hiking area in summer. My husband and I dashed around Munich recently from one train station to another trying to figure out the German-encrypted directions on our maps before making it (correctly) to Munchen Hauptbahnhof in a sweltering heap. The overground train return trip was very pricy (65 Euro each) but took us through soft-green countryside, dotted with curious wooden huts and giant versions of my cuckoo clock at home. When we reached Garmisch we travelled 10 minutes on another train to the foot of the Alpspitz where we bought a cable car return journey up the mountain.


Looking across the Garmisch valley from Alpspitz. Photo: Brenda Daniels.


An unfriendly cow on Alpspitz. Photo: Brenda Daniels.

Some handsome German men joined our cable car ride bearing staggeringly huge backpacks, which, it turned out, were paragliders. At the top we got to see the pair lift off with ease and glide with their colourful chutes down the curving valley. We followed some way on foot enjoying the striated rocks, meandering hikers, and bell-clunking cows. Well, not the mildly aggressive beast that charged us at any rate. After a delicious apfelstrudel mit vanillesauce (apple strudel and custard) we decided to skip the train back to Garmisch and walk instead. The 10-minute train ride was an hour by foot and by the end I was quite jealous of the cyclists that sailed past us at frequent intervals. We arrived back in Munich tired but happily marked with a German sunglasses tan.

My brief encounter with Garmisch-Partenkirchen was fortunately not at an end. On the aeroplane back to South Africa next evening I chose to watch the film Eddie the Eagle before going to sleep. Eddie the Eagle is the true story about the very likeable Eddie Edwards (imagine calling your child that?) who, through sheer determination, became the first Briton to do ski-jumping at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics. And where did he first practice this thrilling sport? In Garmisch-Partenkirschen! Against the wintry landscape in the film the ski jump looked normal. Against the velvet-green hills we had just seen the ski jump looked like a giant bleached waterworld slide. Eddie the Eagle stars Taron Egerton as Eddie and Hugh Jackman as his grudging coach, Bronson Peary. It is a delightful movie. Watch it while the 2016 Rio Olympics are on. You’ll love it.

My Father’s War

I have often found South African films difficult to watch. Perhaps because of a shameful predisposition to think they are second rate. Probably because of a strongly felt desire not to watch more of what I live and see every day around me. My Father’s War is difficult to watch. And it is deeply South African. But it is certainly not second rate. And it tells a unique, brave story. One I could strongly identify with.

The tale revolves around one family’s struggle to deal with the after-effects of the 1980s South African-Angolan bush war. David Smit (Stian Bam), the main character, was a soldier in the war but now, 20 years later, is married, has a grown-up son and works for a security/guarding company. He still suffers from post-traumatic syndrome and has a terrible relationship with his son Dap (Edwin van der Walt). Dap resents David’s absence over the years and is critical of his father’s participation in an “apartheid-fuelled” war. But something strange begins to happen to Dap: he starts having dreams about David’s role in the war and even appears in the scenes alongside his father. It is through these dreams that Dap learns to understand how much his father loves him, and how much the man went through in combat.

So many aspects of the war’s portrayal and its resultant effects rang true for me. David worked in Iraq after the bush war before becoming a bodyguard in South Africa, not unusual for a former soldier in this country. The war scenes accurately depict assault-rifle gunfire, “black-is-beautiful” face cover up, Afrikaans and English speaking soldiers, Black and White men, Portuguese soldiers who had defected to the South African side, helicopter drops and the African bush. David’s PTS manifests as hypersensitivity to gunfire-type noises, anxiety, insomnia, anger and confusion, again not uncommon in former soldiers. I quizzed my husband, a bush war soldier himself, after the movie. His answer: “It sounds like my life.”

Although the war was obviously firmly grounded in politics My Father’s War manages to remain unpolitical. It is a film about people and one viewers from different sides of the political spectrum will watch and appreciate. One negative: I found the home scenes just a little too angst ridden. Other than that, My Father’s War is a touching, extremely well-made, sensitive and brave movie.

My Father’s War releases at cinemas in South Africa on Friday 5 August 2016. It is rated 10PG.

All-female Ghostbusters doesn’t quite work

The new Ghostbusters is virtually a mirror image of the 1984 movie of the same name, minus the great soundtrack. Which is a pity. Perhaps due to licencing agreements only instrumental snatches of the original song form a backdrop to the new version. Without the song the new Ghostbusters isn’t spectacular. It seems a trifle silly. And perhaps because of more sophisticated special effects it may even be scary for very small children.


Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Melissa McCarthy and Leslie Jones in the 2016 rendition of Ghostbusters. Image source:

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Genius satisfies



Colin Firth and Jude Law in Genius. Image source:

In Genius Colin Firth plays the self-controlled American, Max Perkins, who was editor at Scribner when Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway wrote their first books. A man of few words, Perkins’s time is taken up in this story largely with Thomas Wolfe, a self-absorbed, insecure and immature – but potentially brilliant – writer. Jude Law takes the part of Wolfe, and captures well the writer’s frenzied, selfish ways. Nicole Kidman acts as Wolfe’s slightly unhinged common-law wife, Aline Bernstein, whose astute human insights are unbalanced by her very public and confrontational relationship with the writer. Max’s wife, Louise Perkins (played by Laura Linney), and mother to the couple’s five daughters, is contrasted with the caustic Aline, not so much because of Louise’s less volatile character, but because of her and Max’s more mature and value-rich marriage.

The friendship that develops between Max and Thomas during the publication of Thomas’s first book is interesting to watch – from dependence, to mutual passion, to obsession, hurt and distance, to forgiveness and growth. It is this, and the relationships already mentioned, that form the basis of this absorbing period film. Focusing on the human aspect and on values against the literary backdrop captured my attention. And, like its subject matter, the film runs as a complete story, with tension build up, denouement and conclusion. Very satisfying indeed.

Genius opens in cinemas in South Africa on 15 July 2016.



Two university improv groups from opposite ends of the earth 

The festival full of festivities in Grahamstown has come to an end, some are happy and some are sad (although those disgruntled by the ‘traffic’ in the tiny town may be disappointed that the School’s Festival is just kicking off). A Feast of Tales watched and wrote about several shows each day of the first five days (Day one, two, three, four and five). Then, A Feast of Tales watched NatCaf (Naturally Caffeinated), the Rhodes student improvisation group and the Oxford Imps, the (quite obviously) Oxford improvisation group.

Improv theatre is unpredictable, and each show is different from the previous one because new scenes are created with various theatre games, so A Feast of Tales may not have seen the best of either group.

A comparison

NatCaf had the upper hand when it came to creating local jokes that many in the room could identify with, even so, they still reverted to jokes about Donald Trump and references to the Brexit vote which was populating the media greatly around the time of the show. There were several different types of performers on stage, making it interesting to watch, with only one rude sexual reference. Audience involvement was excellent and lots of people volunteered settings and characters when asked by the MC. This group, however, was still lacking in slickness and some jokes really just didn’t work (this may be personal opinion!). And the 21-year-old MC very naively declared at the start of the show that the National Arts Festival is only for people under 30…despite the several over 30s travelling to Grahamstown from far and wide to enjoy the theatre and art.

The Oxford Imps, while not local, had to work hard at capturing their audience in a different way. And work hard they did! Each scene ended with music and a slick change into the next theatre game, without any need to explain at length to the audience how each game was to be played. The show began with choosing someone from the audience to sit on stage and answer questions about herself, after the questions ended, each Imp sang a line serenading the volunteer on stage. Various other games were played, with no specific political references. They had the upper hand on professionalism, variety and slickness. The musical aspect added an interesting and entertaining dimension. For their first visit to the festival, the Oxford Imps were successful!

All in all A Feast of Tales enjoyed the Imps more than NatCaf, but is it really fair to compare the two with Oxford Imps having been around much longer than NatCaf?

Did you see both groups perform? What did you think?