Stepping into Others’ Worlds

On a recent trip to Pretoria I stepped into several different worlds: Pretoria itself, beautiful with the Jacarandas in full bloom; a local primary school where I read an excerpt of my as-yet-unpublished children’s book to an English class; and a bird-ringing society where I observed the scientific process of ringing birds and capturing their data.

The day after my English ‘lesson’, I accompanied my son-in-law – a conservation biologist – and daughter to a bird-ringing session at the nearby botanical gardens. At 3.50am we were greeted by a crowd of friendly Afrikaans bird lovers. I could barely speak at that early hour, let alone return the hugs of strangers. I watched the group map out the areas, methodically set up the giant nets, and then set up camp together in one spot. I followed birders out to retrieve birds caught in the soft, hair-net-like-capture sites. The retrieval process was done with care, speed and logic. Each bird was then popped into a soft hanging bag and ferried to the people at the tables. Little twitching sacks hung loosely over chair ends while the men and women carefully extracted the birds, holding their heads firmly between the index and middle fingers. Heads, beaks, wings and legs were measured. The birds were sexed (if possible), a brood patch checked for (by blowing softly on the bird’s underbelly), and ringed. Everything was recorded on a form, including the time it took to ring each bird. The last measurement before the bird was released was the weighing. For this procedure the bird was placed head first into a small tube then put on a scale, its feet sticking up in an undignified fashion.

Cuckoos, blue waxbills, weavers, sparrows, thrushes, white eyes, mousebirds, a nightjar, a fruit bat, and many, many more were faithfully recorded. This data would then be sent to SAFRING, http://safring.adu.org.za/.

I marvelled at the dexterity and confidence of these citizen scientists. Many – my son-in-law included – were big men with big hands who handled the birds with such gentleness. I marvelled too to see the birds close up – the perfection of curved wings, little soft patches next to the beaks of young birds, different coloured eyes. I learnt how to begin identifying birds. I learnt that barbets have two forward-facing claws and two backward-facing claws on each foot. These, and a set of stiff tail feathers, help them balance on the trunks of trees they hollow out for their nests. I marvelled at the commitment and passion of the ringers. One man had been active in the society for 20 years and had ringed over 11,000 birds.

What a pleasure it was to step into this different world and see up close what I would have missed from afar, even with the best binoculars.

 

Four things to do in New York

On a recent winter trip to New York I visited four tourist attractions that were super interesting for different reasons.

Inside the New York Public Library

One: The New York Public Library. Why should you visit? Because of the literary, historical, architectural and movie-like atmosphere. The NPL simply reeks of scenes from the film The Day After Tomorrow. As I walked up the steps, nosed about in quiet corridors and soaked up my surroundings in the Rose Main Reading Room, scenes from this – one of my favourite films – flooded my mind. (Although, according to the NPL website, all the scenes were virtually – not actually – created). Apart from admiring the many books and special collections I also enjoyed a free guided tour and information movie about the history, purpose and layout of the library. Interesting note: Most of the people sitting quietly at wooden desks with soft glowing lamps next to them, surrounded by books and more books, were staring at computer screens not book pages.

Two: Ellen’s Stardust Diner. Why should you visit? Because you get entertainment and food rolled into one.

Me at Ellen’s Stardust Diner with a singing waitron behind

Ellen’s Stardust Diner is a kind of training ground for performers trying to make it to Broadway (it’s situated on Broadway itself). And the performers all work as waitrons at the diner. So, while serving you your burger or mac n cheese, the waitrons will break into song, strut around on a platform behind your seat, or drape themselves over you while singing He had it coming from the musical Chicago. And you don’t have to book.

Three: The New York Historical Society. Why should you visit? Because of the interesting way the history of New York is portrayed. Probably aimed largely at children, the layout of the exhibits does your thinking for you. Which is nice if you’ve just flown 17 hours to get there and don’t know much of the history of this amazing city. But it still gets you questioning and pondering. In the Vietnam exhibition, for instance, my husband spent ages chatting to an old guy who had actually fought in Vietnam and was sad about what was NOT included in the display.

Four: See Come From Away on Broadway. Why should you go? Because of the character-driven, funny, warm and gripping story of how thousands of people were diverted to the small Canadian town of Gander during 9/11. It was brilliant. And now I want to visit Gander.

Times Square, on our way to Broadway

 

Reels and Real Life

The thrill of my recent trip to New York began on the flight there when I watched the film Goodbye Christopher Robin. Already

Winnie-the-Pooh and friends at the New York Public Library January 2018

screening on international circuits, the film only releases in South Africa on 16 March 2018. I enjoyed this depiction of how author Alan Milne came to create the Winnie-the-Pooh stories and was delighted, therefore, to come across a brand-new exhibit of the original Winnie-the-Pooh toys when visiting the New York Public Library the day we arrived. There in a glass cabinet, in the children’s book section of this vast and beautiful library, sat Winnie, Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger and Kanga – all recently restuffed and nicely spruced up.

Goodbye Christopher Robin shows the developing relationship between playwright A. A. Milne (known as Blue to his son) and his son Christopher Robin (nicknamed Billy Moon and acted by the very cute Will Tilston). Further, the film depicts how, during an enforced time together in their ‘hundred-acre-wood’ estate, Blue and Billy Moon come up with the Winnie-the-Pooh characters’ names and the imaginative story millions of people know so well today. The unexpected fame and fortune that followed publication unfortunately came at the expense of the ‘real’ Christopher Robin. As a result Milne refused to write any more Pooh stories – in an effort to repair the father-son relationship. Despite this sobering biographical account the movie didn’t take away for me the magic of encountering gentle Pooh and his pals.

Me and Pooh

Another film I saw onboard (it’s a long flight to New York from South Africa) was the documentary We Will Rise. The film shows former-first lady of the USA, Michelle Obama, together with actress Meryl Streep, journeying to Morocco and Liberia where they meet girls from disadvantaged backgrounds. Obama’s mission was to encourage these young ladies in their efforts to overcome enormous obstacles to be educated. The documentary wasn’t comprehensive and seemed to err more on the side of publicity than practicality. But it did serve to underline Obama’s (and Streep’s) concern for women, for education, and for Africa. With the present US president’s recent utterances on Africa as ‘sh*thole countr(ies)’ (see http://bit.ly/2D4Pks5 for further reading on this subject), I was struck by the contrast between the two presidencies. Trump’s remarks took on a further bigoted, hypocritical and inexcusable tone for me when, a day after arriving in New York, I visited the New-York Historical Society. This museum explores the history of New York and includes a 20-minute film of the process. In virtually the opening lines of the film the narrator states that New York was built on three pillars – one of which was slavery.

The confluence of (movie) reels and real life really makes you think sometimes…

Michelle Obama and the We Will Rise programme

 

 

What Happens Next: Travels in Perth

Do you know where Ballarat is? Well, for fans of DSTV’s The Doctor Blake Mysteries, it’s the Australian town where Doctor Lucien Blake works as police surgeon. In real life Ballarat is indeed in Australia and lies close to Melbourne, Victoria.

In the lift of the Rendevouz Hotel in Scarborough, Perth

I’ve never been to Victoria but on a recent trip to Perth, Australia, I found myself thinking of this charming mystery series, drawing a number of parallels with my experience. Blake is played by Craig McLachlan, who, according to his IMDB profile, is an experienced all-rounder. In his role as doctor-cum-detective McLachlan/Blake always looks dapper in a suit and hat and is the perfect 1950s gentleman. Today’s Perth, like McLachlan, has much to offer: a superb public transport system, beautiful beaches, and a growing business sector. But, like Blake, Perth also has a sort of ‘old’ feel about it. The bus service, the litter-free suburbs, the single-storey shopping areas that appear en route without fanfare, the quietness, the tree-filtered sunlight (even in desert-like Perth).

We stayed on the 23rd floor of this 25-level hotel that actually has only 17 floors. Huh?! It’s not like they could slot the missing floors in…

Although The Doctor Blake Mysteries doesn’t feature much humour a lovely Australian film that does is the The Dish (2000). It’s the based-on-truth story of how a huge satellite dish in a remote farming town in Australia was surprisingly used to assist in the 1969 Apollo space mission to the moon. The dish is manned by overawed locals who make several huge mistakes (like losing the rocket). I enjoyed the quirky, non-Hollywood characters and the gentle pace of the story. In The Dish, something big and important – like working for NASA – was cloaked in likeable, down-to-earth characters. A little like Perth. Perth is a place of obvious development and opportunity. But dressed in a certain simplicity and quaintness. Almost like you’re waiting for something to happen.

I’ll be watching episode seven of Doctor Blake season five tonight. To see what happens next.

Snowy Transformations

I arrived in a freezing Germany on 9 December 2017. My goal: to visit the Christmas market at Marienplatz, Germany. Bundled up in five layers of my paltry southern hemisphere winter wear, my eyes watering in the cold, I braved the outdoor experience alongside my husband.

A gluhwein stand

The atmosphere was marvellous. Stands of hot chocolate and gluhwein steamed invitingly in the biting air, while visitors and tourists waddled past in their padded coats. Just taking off my gloves to examine little goodies at the stands froze my bony fingers. Shopkeepers helpfully spoke English when I looked blank at the German tongue, and people seemed generally cheerful despite the minus one degree Celcius temperature. It took three trips to the market before I had decided on what to buy. South African Rands don’t make much of a dent in Euros. And, to my practical mind, many of the ornaments and trinkets, nice as they were, wouldn’t have been very useful.

I settled on buying traditional food. The stand that got my Euros was the one

A strange kissing companion

that offered tasting samples and I enthusiastically bought packs of stollen (a fruit bread) and lebkuchen (a ginger-type biscuit) for friends and family back home after nibbling the delicious little blocks.

We had just got back to our hotel room when it began to snow in earnest. I was delighted. In two hours every horizontal surface I could see was covered in soft whiteness. But of course, with icy weather comes travel problems. My departing aeroplane that night had to undergo special de-icing procedures before it could safely take off. I have to say that this was the best part of my trip. Because I have a cockpit pass I was permitted to sit in the cockpit for taxi and takeoff and what a view I got. Before taking off the Airbus A340 was surrounded by three giant de-icing vehicles. Like weird-looking Transformers (I think the creators of the film based their models on these machines), the trio scooted back and forth around the wings and tail spraying 60 degree Celcius liquid across its surface. Using a checklist designed for such conditions the pilots did all the requisite checks and procedures before lifting off the icy runway. Beneath us the whitened landscape twinkled in gentle yellow lights until it disappeared beneath a layer of cloud.

Winter lights

What a treat. Sitting in the cockpit was much more exciting than any movie I could have watched on the aeroplane’s entertainment system.

My funny husband

Leaving a Literary Legacy

A Japanese Maple in the garden of Chartwell House. With Robyn Turton

As I walked to the post office on a sunny autumn day in London to send off some magazine competition entries, I was reminded of the film The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. This 2005 release starred Julianne Moore and Woody Harrelson and was a lovely based-on-truth story about a mother of 10 who entered competitions and with her winnings saved her family from ruin. The difference between the luck-of-the-draw competitions I had entered and the ones Evelyn Ryan (Moore) went for in the 1950s was the skill required. Ryan needed to write clever, succinct jingles that were better than all the other entrants’ attempts. Judging by the number of times she won she was indeed very skillful.

My daughter and I watched the film on a mobile phone in an AirBnB in Canterbury, Kent. We had taken

The Wife of Bath & Robyn Turton. Which is which?

off a few days to visit this county and were pleased with the number of other skilled writers we had come across on our journey. The first, on our way to Canterbury, was Winston Churchill. We had visited Chartwell House, the WWII home of this gifted man. Apart from being prime minister of Britain and a decorated military man, Churchill also wrote almost 50 books and was an amateur painter. A tour guide at the house pointed out an interesting comparison. Adolf Hitler, too, was an artist and had applied to study at art school but had been refused. What if, posited the guide, Hitler had been accepted at art school?

In Canterbury itself we of course saw some reminders of the author of the famous The Canterbury Tales – Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer is credited with being one of the first people to write in English (albeit in Ye Olde English) and his stories are full of ribald humour and so are appealing today. Somebody who wrote in more ‘modern’ English several centuries later was Charles Dickens whose home was Rochester, another city in Kent. My daughter and I did a walking tour of this delightful old city where we saw landmarks that Dickens himself refers to in many of his works. These included ‘Satis House’ from Great Expectations (properly named Restoration House) and Rochester Cathedral which takes centre stage in Dickens’s unfished work The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

‘Satis House’ in Rochester, Kent

It was lovely to have walked in the footsteps of these real historic literary greats – from Chaucer to Dickens to Churchill. And as I strolled back from posting my luck-of-the-draw competition entries I pondered on The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, who herself – however different – left a literary legacy  of her own.

 

 

 

Appreciate Birds: Protect their Habitats

White-browed sparrow weaver nest

Pretoria/Tshwane is a big, busy city. On a recent visit there I stayed in a little apartment near TUKS (The University of Pretoria) and was delighted by the number of birds I saw. Right there in the heart of this bustling, lively place I saw white-browed sparrow weavers flitting busily in and out of a nest they shared with other sparrow weavers. The small commune they had built was perched right at the tip of a Leopard Tree which grew in the apartment gardens. On the same day I saw numerous other birds about their business. Bulbuls eyed out the resident cat, parakeets shrieked in the trees next door, sacred ibises hunched dourly by a water feature across the way, and red-knobbed coots pecked about on the bristly grass nearby. According to Sasol Birds of Southern Africa, the region’s bird list ‘currently stands at 962 species, of which 98 are endemic.’ What an astounding number. The reason for this high bird diversity, stated the book ‘is [the region’s] climatic and topographical diversity’.

White-browed sparrow weaver

Green parakeets hidden in the bushy trees, and beyond sacred ibis dotted in the foliage

But, of course, habitats are threatened by global warming, a sad thought when reflecting how privileged we are in Southern Africa to so easily enjoy this avian diversity. Just two days before my visit to Pretoria I had watched Al Gore’s latest film An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. In it, Gore highlights how global warming is caused largely by man’s use of fossil fuels, and how renewables should be used instead for energy generation. Gore’s method of persuasion is political and moral. Science doesn’t form a major thrust of his rhetoric. This is a pity. Instead of being the story of Gore’s struggle to make the powerful accept the ‘truth’ about global warming, An Inconvenient Sequel could itself be much more powerful had it paired science with morals and politics.

Nevertheless, An Inconvenient Sequel does bring to the fore once again the topic of global warming and its destructive consequences. And this is good. Imperative. As I sat listening to the bird chatter above the traffic noise in Pretoria I hoped to be a part of a world that takes big, urgent steps to ensure that we still have a multiplicity of habitats and creatures to enjoy.

 

 

Holding onto Life: By Remembering the Dead

Much in our existence revolves around “holding onto life”. Taking holidays, doing things we love, remembering those who have died. I pretty much did all three of these activities together recently when I holidayed at Le Canonnier, Mauritius, walked The Coffin Route in England’s Lake District, and read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood while on those trips.

1967, Holcomb, Kansas, USA — Author Truman Capote poses at the grave of the murdered Clutter family, made famous in his novel and in the film. — Image by © Bob Adelman/Corbis

Capote’s book, which was published in 1966, is termed a “non-fiction novel”. Today the equivalent term might be “creative non-fiction”. The genre describes a story that is essentially factual, but written to read like a novel as opposed to, for example, an essay or a newspaper article. In Cold Blood relates the true story of the murders of four members of the Kansas-based Clutter family by criminals Perry Smith and Richard (Dick) Hickock. Readers therefore begin the book knowing the outcome. But this doesn’t detract from the product. Capote’s unique descriptions, careful character portrayal, and flowing style kept me totally engrossed – even through sections that seemed obviously lifted from official reports.

At the end of the book the reader is taken to the simple graves of the four Clutters. It is merely a “single gray stone”, which lies “in the far corner of the cemetery”. Without Capote’s book many people, myself included, would never have known or cared about the Clutters, or their murderers, and the senseless ending of their lives. In this way Capote helps us “hold onto life.”

Cannon

A cannon overlooks the calm Indian Ocean. Photo Brenda Daniels

I started In Cold Blood while enjoying a week of mild April sunshine (and short rain showers) at the Beachcomber resort of Le Canonnier on the northern coast of Mauritius. This type of holiday – a Beachcomber all-inclusive package – is like being in paradise. Calm seas, copious food and relaxing activities lull the mind and body into believing that nothing outside the resort gates exists. But even paradise has a dark history of life and death. I joined a “Beautiful Story Tour” one afternoon and heard a few facts told in a creative way. Le Canonnier, our tour guide explained, was the site of a military garrison in the 1800s. Cannons, an ammunition building, a large tree which was originally the fort of 50 soldiers, and a now-defunct lighthouse bear witness. And beyond a hedge, nestled in the thick, green grass the grave of a young doctor can be glimpsed. This doctor had treated indentured labourers who disembarked a ship just south of today’s resort, before contracting one of his patient’s illnesses and succumbing. I would never have noticed the grave – the remaining indication of a life having been lived – if our guide hadn’t pointed it out.

The life of English poet, William Wordsworth, is much more well-known to me than that of this fateful Mauritian doctor, and therefore easily remembered. This is of course due to the former’s published and widely loved poetry. But also to the careful memorialisation of his English Lake District home, which I visited on a trip in early May. What I saw in fact detracted from the romanticism surrounding the poet, portraying as it did the “non-fiction” side of this “creative” writer’s life. As charming as the cottage may seem from the outside, inside it is dark, cold, smoky and wonky. No wonder William and his sister Dorothy loved their garden so much.

My daughter and I walked to Wordsworth’s home in Grasmere from Ambleside via “The Coffin Route”, a rough woodland track away from the main causeway where the sight of dead people may have caused offence.

Funny how this route is now the most delightful one for walkers wanting to escape the realities of daily living by enjoying nature.

Remembering the dead on these trips was certainly an enjoyable “holding onto life” for me.

 

My London Marathon Journey

Supporter sunglasses

My London Marathon journey began, of course, some time prior to 23 April 2017, the date of the event. Preparations included plotting the route, packing supplies, wearing the right gear, and liaising with supporters. My outfit was a bright orange T-shirt sporting the word Sense on it. Sense is a UK-based charity that cares for deafblind children. I was very happy to wear the colours of such an organisation. I also wore giant sunglasses to attract attention. These red plastic toys were nothing compared to what other runners wore: Darth Vader outfits, giant beer bottles and, yes, a 25kg tumble dryer. The kitchen appliance man (Ben Blowes) set a world record. Despite such competition I was very proud of my four-and-a-half-hour finish time.

It was a challenge to make my way through the thousands of people (there were 40 000 runners and I don’t know how many supporters). But the impressive work of road marshals and police men and women was a big help. They shepherded runners and supporters across roads, and channelled patient crowds into public transport stations. I maintained a good time, slowing towards the end, but was definitely hampered by a race-day toilet that held the promise of space-age efficiency but didn’t deliver. It gurgled through its automatic self-cleaning phase so slowly that I hopped about while waiting, anxious to return to the race.

The pace leading up to the 14-mile mark was the most stressful. I wasn’t sure I would be seen by those who knew me and I took so long to decide where the best vantage point would be that it took a hard sprint to get me there at the projected time. I must say that the timing chips given to runners and the mobile phone app they connected to were excellent when it came to tracking progress and therefore heightening excitement.

Spotting my loved ones through the crowds was hardest at the 19-mile mark and by then my calves were shaking with the effort of keeping me on my toes. But it was all worth it when we were reunited post-finish at our chosen meeting point.

Pre- and post-marathon

My London Marathon journey was a tiring (and expensive) one but lots of fun. I barely needed the energy bars we’d packed, so thrilling was the travel by train and by foot to the four spectator points our family had decided upon. I saw my dedicated, disciplined daughter at three of the four stops, and simply yelled her name as loudly as possible at the first as she ran past. She heard me, us, and saw us in our bright orange T-shirts, and said it really helped her to keep going for the 26 miles.

At last count Robyn had raised GBP1480.00 for her chosen charity Sense. I’m so proud of you Robyn Turton, thank you for letting me be your supporter (and for getting me a free supporter’s T-shirt)!

Robyn (front, centre) flanked by her supporters at the finish

Money, Monkeys and Serendipity

Serendipity is “the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way”.

This is something I experienced on a recent trip to the UK. And then again when I returned to my home. Both after some, shall we say, trying circumstances.

In a wintry December London, my daughter and I set off from our residence to visit two museums in the centre of the city. After walking 15 minutes to the underground train station daughter realised she didn’t have her travel card with her. While she was contemplating spending her last pounds on an expensive day ticket I popped into the WH Smith to buy a magazine and realised I didn’t have my wallet with me. Now we were in a quandary. Putting our loosely screwed heads together we debated what to do, when – serendipitously – my son-in-law arrived at the station on his way to work. After hearing our pathetic story he opened his very thin wallet, preparing to give us his meagre spare change, when – serendipitously – I happened to glance over at an ATM machine just two metres away from us. There, lying on the ledge of the machine was a ten pound note. Honestly. The previous customer must have accidentally dropped it after drawing money. And there it was. In our moment of need. But we hesitated. Well, daughter and I did. If we took it wouldn’t that be – er – stealing? Son-in-law had no such qualms. He gave us his change, picked up the ten pound note and went on his way. And we, happily, resumed our journey to the museums.

Fast forward a month or so and I was back in South Africa enjoying my mum’s matchless Christmas cake. This cake is made and given to me every year after many weeks of hard work and bottles of brandy. I love it. Unfortunately, so does my husband. I have begged and pleaded with mum to make us our own cake each but she refuses. And so, after 25 years of marriage I have devised a way of dealing fairly with this issue. I cut the cake exactly in half and each half goes into a separate tin, one half for each of us. Neither of us is allowed to touch the other’s cake after that. One afternoon I was working away in my home office when I heard a commotion. I ran through to the kitchen and there was a large monkey helping himself to (my husband’s) Christmas cake. Honestly. It opened the tin and then – when it saw me bearing down on it yelling and waving my arms – it took off with the cake and vanished through the back door. I couldn’t believe it. The precious Christmas cake was gone. I couldn’t possibly tell mum about it. Two minutes later husband arrives home and I start telling him how a monkey just stole his cake when I realise that – after our tense history – he must think I was lying. That I must have scoffed his cake and then pretended that a monkey stole it.

Obviously playing on my mind, a couple of hours later, eager to venerate myself, I went out the back door to check if, by any chance, the cake was anywhere. And there – serendipitously – lying on the roof was husband’s Christmas cake. The monkey was gone. I was so excited I leapt up on a plastic bin nearby, promptly putting my foot straight through the lid. Limping off with the lid stuck around my limb I found a ladder, climbed up sensibly and retrieved the – largely unharmed – cake. I gave it a quick dash under the tap and trimmed off all the sides and put it back in the tin. All was happily restored.

I’m not sure why the monkey dropped the cake. Perhaps it was too heavy to carry far. Or maybe the Vervet didn’t like brandy. Whatever, I know that with only teetotalling, lightweight monkeys around the only competition I have for the cake is inside the house.