Still me

My photo
Bits and bobs about my life in my lovely home, Thatchwick Cottage, Pretoria, South Africa.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Tuesday, 30 December '08: The future of writing looks good

Virginia Woolf famously said that to write "a woman needs money and a room of her own." Eric de Jong noted that to write one only needs to start. "Make the commitment to sit still in solitude several hours a day and inevitably your muse will visit." Abigail Thomas, memoir writer and writing instructor, recommends inventive exercises, "Take any ten years of your life and reduce them to two pages. Every sentence has to be three words long - not two, not four, but three words long."

All surely good advice.Over the years, I have read so many hints about How To Write. In fact, I have spent so much time reading them and copying the inspiration into my notebook, I never got going.

Now I have found the answer! Just start a blog and the creative juices flow.

On 1 January I shall be celebrating my first blog birthday. What a treat this adventure has been. After years and years of tight, rigid academic writing (part of my job), where every statement must be subtantiated and referenced a la the abbreviated Harvard style, here I am just banging away. After months of waiting for those dreaded peer reviews which crit your masterpiece of research from every side, after tarrying still longer months for the article to appear in print, instant publishing at the press of a button seems a dream.

After dire reports in newspapers and educational journals about the demise of the art and skill of writing, blogs have done what no Education Reform has managed. They have dramatically revived the craft of writing at a time when most people's best effort is reduced to an enigmatic SMS on a cell phone screen: "C U @ 8."

Not only are bloggers writing, we are publishing the equivalent of illustrated glossy and very expensive-to-produce equivalents of coffee table books. Historical records of life in the 21 Century. Sociological commentaries. Intimate records of our daily emotions, hopes and fears. And it all makes fascinating reading.

What's more? We have connected: North America, Africa, Australasia, Europe, Asia, all woven into a network of kindred spirits. I love it!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sunday, 28 December '08: "Three trees on a low sky"

The Journey of the Magi by TS Eliot

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter'.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraqces,
And the silken girls bring sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a termperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation,
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky.
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
'And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
we returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But were no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Saturday, 27 December '08: Summertime

And the living is easy on my front verandah. Galahad snores; Trist twitches as he dreams, drugged by the heat. A few cars pass by on the usually busy road. 2008 is not quite over. And I am just moseying around, taking snaps of the cannas growing along the garden wall.

Friday, December 26, 2008

26 December, 08: Christmas Eve sunset

Sunset on Christmas Eve

On Christmas Eve I joined Cath, Ryan and members of their congregation for a communal picnic on the lawn outside the church. Eats were followed by hearty carol singing to Pastor Theo's guitar. With his characteristic wide smile, he chatted to the children about the great Star which had guided the wise men to the little King born in Bethlehem so long ago.

While he talked, we enjoyed our own spectacular Christmas sunset on a mild, cool and tranquil evening after days of intense heat. A perfect image for a Christmas Skywatch.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

December 24, '08: Layers of Christmas memories

Christmas present, tomorrow, 25 December '08, just a mere 24 hours away, is overlaid with memories: some sharp and clear, others diffuse, hardly conscious recollections of Christmases long past. For it is not only Scrooge who was visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, so are we. Especially if you, like me, have a couple of decades behind your back! Fortunately I have been blessed with a happy child - and adulthood, so my combined, layered, interwoven memories of Christmas are all good ones.

I remember my 'walkie-talkie' doll propped under the pine tree in the corner of the lounge.

I remember my brother and I putting pillow cases out at the foot of our beds to receive our gifts.

I remember waking up in the night, staggering into my parents' room with the sack of gifts annoucing,"It's heavy!" before returning to sleep.

I remember cold ham and creamy potato salad and grated carrot and pineapple for Christmas lunch.

I remember hanging the Christmas cards on pieces of string from wall to wall across the lounge ceiling.

I remember being chosen to be Mary in the Christmas Tableau at St Peter's, Camps Bay for two years running.

I remember silver bowls of chocolates and nuts on the Christmas table.

I remember Aunt Helen polishing Grandmother's best silver.

I remember eating too much fruit cake and and too many minced fruit pies.

I remember the Nativity scene unveiled at Midnight Mass while my brother and I sang 'Away in a Manger'.

I remember the snowflakes that danced through the night sky on my first and only white Christmas in North Dakota.

I remember the silver marquisite earrings Richard gave me on our last Christmas together.

I remember persuading friends to adopt a stray dog on Christmas Day. They called her Cinders.

I remember Christmas spent in the mountains, at the beach and at holiday resorts.

I remember hot Christmas days when the funny hats stuck to our sweaty foreheads and left red and green marks.

I remember Dad carving the turkey and Mom sitting down with her apron still on.

I remember being loved and a little spoiled. I remember joy. I remember worship.

What do you remember, dear friend?

PS The nativity scene is courtesy of

Monday, December 22, 2008

Monday, 22 December: An old-fashioned Christmas party

Welcome to our old-fashioned Christmas party! Every season Thatchwick hosts a Christmas party for any old friends still in town. Saturday night's fare was simple: quiches and potato salad, Jeanne-Marie's crusty homebaked bread, a creamy Christmas pudding with fruit soaked in sherry made by Nola and Catherine's minced fruit pies. At our Christmas parties each guest performs an item: a song, a Scripture, a poem, a joke, a skit. This is a sure-fire recipe for loads of fun and forms the stuff of special memories.

Galahad tried his best to be center of attention.

Isabella and Daniel performed a duo on keys and strings with a little help from Mom.

Charl read us the history of good St Nicholas.

Gerard sang an Italian love song. Jeanne-Marie had eyes only for her gallant tenor.

Edward held up the lyrics of Silent Night albeit in the wrong order. We carolled with gusto, starting with the last verse and ending with verse one.

Cath and Ryan listen attentively to Genet's rendition of an Irish poem, accent and all. Later Ryan encouraged us to prepare our hearts for the Christchild by reading Psalm 51 and playing the CD of Mozart's Miserere.

Isabella's gift under the tree was a Rupert the Bear annual which Jeanne-Marie had to start reading immediately. Unfortunately Danny was fast asleep. His gift would be opened in the morning.

And a jolly good time was had by all.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Thursday, 18 December: Christmas exodus

What are the rhythms of Christmas in your part of the world?

Here it is the long summer holiday (about 6 weeks) for schools, universities, for the building and construction industry and just about anyone else who can take their annual leave. Smaller shops and businesses close between Christmas and New Year. The inland towns, cities, villages and farms empty as an exodus takes place from the interior to the cities and holiday resorts along the long and beautiful South African coastline, to camping grounds in the bushveld (savannahs) or to the blue mountains and lush valleys of the Drakensberg range and other mountain ranges. Folks with families in the rural areas board crowded buses, trains and taxis to travel home. In some parts of the country the population increases dramatically with holiday makers; here in the most industrialised and densely populated region roads are noticeably quieter, streets emptier and finding a parking place at the local mall is child's play.

It is hard to resist the enthusiastic drive to 'go on holiday'! But some, like myself, prefer a quiet Christmas at home. So here I am...and tomorrow the decorations go up!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Monday, 15 December: The colour blue

What better way to celebrate the melancholy nuances of the colour blue than watching once again that most poignant movie, The Colour Blue (first released in 1993). In my view Bleu (starring a sensitive Juliette Binoche as Julie) is about the process of grief and recovery. It is also about the need to forgive, even the dead, if you are to move on with your life after a tragedy.
In a nutshell, Julie survives a car crash only to emerge from a coma to find both her husband, an acclaimed composer, and her child, dead. In the aftermath of the tragedy she has to deal with the uncovering of secrets: her husband's unfaithfulness and her role in composing the marvellous music published under his name.
I shall never forget the scene in which a grief stricken Julie ransacks a medicine cabinet in the hospital, frantically empties the contents of bottles of pills into her cupped palm, before gobbling them up and then spitting them out. As Julie completes each stage in her grieving, Kieslowski shows her diving into the blue waters of the local swimming pool and swimming its length to clamber out dripping and cleansed at the other end, only to face the process once again.

The other movies in the triology are equally excellent pieces of film-making: The Col0ur White and The Colour Red.

And Blue Monday is the brainchild of Smilin' Sally and I find it an effective kickstart to a blogging week. Thanks, Sal!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Friday, 12 December: Wishing you just a little bit 'o blue sky

Join me this Skywatch Friday at the corner of my street in Brooklyn, Pretoria, South Africa. Ignore the busy traffic; just gaze at that pale-blue sky washed clean by early morning rain. Enjoy the deep leafy green of the jacarandas, their mauve glory shed. Trace the patterns their shadows have cast on the tarmac.

Wishing you just a little bit o' blue sky this Skywatch Friday! This is the same scene that graced my banner in October with purple splendour.

Take a moment to stand under the shrubbery in my garden and wonder at the exotic flower on the banana tree.
The first time the leafy banana tree has borne fruit. Not ripe yet, but I shall enjoy truly organic bananas in January.

Dear Friend, wherever you are, whoever you are, step into my misty early morning garden. It is my secret haven, my safe place, my retreat - but you are most welcome too. Sit down and enjoy the c0lours painted with such taste by the Great Artist. Feast on the mysterious geometry of branch and leaf. Let the beauty of my shady dell refresh you and renew you.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Wednesday, 10 December: Grim viewing, compelling reading

I was urged by friends to view the German movie, The Counterfeiters, directed by Stefan Ruzowitsky and winner of Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2008. Somehow I had missed reviews about this movie at the time of the Academy Awards. I had a vague and incorrect idea of a Mob movie set in glamourous Monte Carlo or Cannes. Just as well I was uninformed as I don't know if I would have had the stomach for it otherwise. The movie tells the story of a motley bunch of Jewish prisoners in the dreaded Sachsenhausen concentration camp during WWII. The men, some with and others without any printing expertise, led by a wily professional forger, 'Sally' Sorowitsch, were spared the horrors in order to forge pound and dollar banknotes to flood the Allied economies and destabilize them. Grim viewing, indeed.

But amidst the camp's miserable greyness, the bullying cruelty of the guards and SS overlords, the anguished guilt of the forgers who are given special treatment while their family and fellow-prisoners were randomly shot, beaten and starved, emerge those small acts of heroism: gestures of kindness, a whispered word or a telling look that meant another's survival. They made the viewing worthwhile.

In similar vein, this week I read 'The Reader' by Bernhard Schlink. The novel is restrained, understated and tragic. It deals with the experiences of a young man in post-war Germany, who is confronted in a SS war crimes trials with the brutal past of a woman with whom he was once in love. So doing he is also faced with his country's past and the questions that no one has ever been able to answer satisfactorily (at least, in my view).

Hardly Christmas entertainment but compelling viewing, compelling reading.

On a happier note, today is the first day of my annual leave! Hooray! And I am going to blog, blog, blog so keep your ears peeled. Yes, that's me standing at the front gate ringing the bell for a quick visit to your world!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Monday, 8 December: December blues

What are the colours of December?

Red, green, gold and the silvery-white of fresh snow?

Hardly! December (on this Blue Monday) conjures up the most gorgeous blues here in the gardens, parks and streets of South African cities, towns and dorpies (villages). Everywhere banks of indigeneous agapanthus lift their large rounded heads of blue (or white) tubular flowers. Low maintainenance and hardy, the agapanthus may have been successfully introduced to Europe in the 17th century but it hails from this part of the world. December is a mass of blue blooms transparent under the rays of the hot summer sun. This year on the Highveld we are having a garden feast after downpours from almost daily storms have turned our world green, green, green!

Last week was hectic: work deadlines to finish, events to attend, two ballet performances to enjoy, a birthday party, church and so the list continues. On Wednesday my annual leave begins and I can't wait to potter around here at home and do my own thing in my own time.

On Saturday the embroidery gals laid aside their needles and threads to enjoy a very swish luncheon at Emperor's Palace in Johannesburg. Here we are, five glamorous needlewomen, in equally glamorous surroundings!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Friday, 28 November '08: What will those clouds bring?

What will the early morning clouds above Thatchwick bring on this Friday? I suspect the sun will disperse them by nine and temps will rise to over 30 degrees C. Late afternoon the thunder will roll, lightening will crack in crooked flashes across the sky and the rain will pour down on weary motorists travelling home.

Happy Skywatch Friday to you too!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Wednesday, 26 November, '08: Our book Launch

Today Noleen and I enjoyed the fruit of some of this year's labours when Juta, our publisher, graciously hosted the stylish launch of our new book: Organising parent involvement in South Africa schools. The proud authors (Noleen in pink and myself in yellow) are seen here presenting a book to our honoured guest, the representative of the Department of Education.

Noleen and I have worked in the area of parent involvement - research, publishing, teacher training and community work - for the past 15 years. She retires at the end of this year from Unisa and this was a wonderful way to celebrate (not end) years of happy collaboration. The book is like both of us - very practical, enthusiatic and not heavily academic. We wrote it with teachers, school governors and parents in mind and we trust it will make a difference in South African schools. Viva parentpower!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Friday, 21 November: Just a little eccentric

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954): Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird

Me, eccentric? Not a bit. I don't do surreal paintings drenched in symbolism like Frida did. I don't wear a hat in the bathtub or lounge about in men's pyjamas till noon. I have never smoked a cigar or dyed my hair pink.

Just a very normal woman, maybe a little boring!

But I must confess I have been taking piano lessons for the past three years and this morning I did the Grade 4 Trinity College London practical exam with all the littlies. I try and slink into the waiting room incognito to sit with those nail-biting moms. I do my best to pretend I am actually a piano teacher just come to listen backstage . But someone is bound to ask, " Now what time do your little ones play?" or " Is it violin or piano that you teach?"

And I swallow my pride and admit, "Well, actually I am a pupil too!"

So while I am in the confessional, let me fill you on my reading habits. This is thanks to Smiling Sal who has tossed me the challenge. The rules of this game (my version) are:
1 Link to the person who tagged you and post the rules.

2 Share 2 random/eccentric book facts about yourself (actually she said 'weird'; I think eccentric sounds more, well, classy!)

3 Tag and link to 7 other bookworms and give them the good news on their blogs.

My book reading habits/eccentricities are:

1 I always read the ending after I am a little way into a book. I feel more secure if I know who dies/marries/elopes etc. Then I can proceed calmly without any frenzied rush to the end.

2 I always kindly offer to tell others about the end of the plot before they have read the book. And they usually turn down my well-meant suggestion. Why?

3 My favourite children's author was Enid Blyton. Contrary to the gloomy predictions of school teachers and librarians, Enid didn't ruin me or my English. I still graduated as an English lit major with a particular penchant for the Bard.

4 As a teen, I preferred Dickens to Peyton Place and the like (told you I was boring!). On second thoughts, I think Dickens can be pretty steamy himself.

5 I love reading aloud. I read loud to my girls until they were about 13. I read aloud to the grandkids. I read aloud to myself. I read aloud to my English pupils whom I tutor. Richard also loved reading aloud, especially lengthy descriptions from Pickwick Papers amidst snorts of laughter.

6 I never read books that I don't enjoy no matter Who recommends them. Political correctness is a virtue but not one of mine.

7 I swear I never plagiarised this fact from "To kill a mockingbird"! But I really did sit on Dad's lap and read the newspaper before I started school. When I got to Sub A, I just couldn't understand why we wasted time with inanities such as "Run, Jack, Run" and "Look, Jill, Look!" But unlike Scout, I always play the system in public so I dutifully read aloud in class and Mom signed my reading card. Evenings I took my revenge - kneeling next to Mom with the Cape Argus or the Cape Times spread out in front of us on the lounge carpet and read about train crashes, wars, murders, obituaries and other interesting and relevant stuff.

Now who is next?
Miss Daisy
Sreddy Yen at Say you, Say me!
Rachel at A romantic porch
Maria from Poland
Dirk from Holland

Friday, November 14, 2008

Friday, 14 November: Two good reasons why...

There are two good reasons why I am not on Skywatch Friday, copying out poems, commenting on movies or posting garden pics, among others. Here is the first reason - Joelle!
Here is the second - Jaelene!
To visit from Bloemfontein for the weekend - we have coloured in, cut out cards, made pancakes, sung Christmas carols, thrown balls for doggos and day is not yet done!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Tuesday, 11 November: Choirs of men and angels

Pretoria Bach Choir

Pretoria has 70 000 jakaranda trees and a number of small choirs worthy of note. The Pretoria Bach Choir is one of them. On a misty damp Sunday afternoon the choir inspired an enthusiatic audience with a sensitive and polished performance of JS Bach's Sleepers awake (Mt 15:1 -13); WA Mozart: Vesperae Solennes de Confessore and Handel's Psalm 112 at the Musaion at the University of Pretoria. I was transported by the singing of the familiar Scriptures. A programme with translations into English and Afrikaans allowed one to follow the German. Congratulations to Leone and Petro and to Gerben Grooten, the elegant and dedicated young conducter. Gerben is our worship leader at Hatfield Christian Church and I am more accustomed to see him in a T-shirt sitting behind the drums in the church band. He did us all proud and his obvious dedication to making music to the glory of God, whether contemporary or classical is refreshing!

Friday, November 7, 2008

7 November, '08: Grey skies & summer rains

Leaden skies in Pretoria.
A spectacular electric storm hit in the early morning hours. Dogs and I were soaked to the skin, or shall I say the fur, on the last lap of our early morning walk. Pretoria lies 1330 m above sea level and the high altitude ensures a wonderful year round climate. Between November and February summer thunderstorms produce flashes of lightening, rolling thunder and torrential downpours. We love the summer rain!
A rain spattered day lily in my garden

A bedraggled Thatchwick

Take care! The paths to the gates are slippery.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

6 November, '08: Big events and little dramas

Here is a beautiful species of protea, the national symbol of South Africa, to tuck into the buttonhole of Barack Obama, the new President of the US of A!

But the big events of the week - the US election, the formation of a new opposition party in South Africa, the failing negotiations to settle the Zimbawean tragedy- played a poor second fiddle to my own little crisis. Oh, dear blogger chums all over the world, your friend at Thatchwick is very small-minded, indeed!
An electricity fault at the local substation had my neighbourhood block and the traffic lights at the intersection without power for nearly three days. As historical events unfolded elsewhere, I was more concerned about farming out the frozen goods in my freezer, throwing away the contents of the fridge, champing at the bit about no battery on my PC, a dead cell phone, no security lights or pool pump and cold showers. Horror of horrors, I could not blow dry my hair!
On an academic note, the sociologist, C Wright Mills, writing in the 50's called things like this the intersection between personal biography and history. In my case, I am ashamed to say my little history took priority over the bigger picture!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Monday, 3 October, 2008: Shades of Mozambican blue

Feel like escaping to a desert island on this Blue Monday? In June 2005 my sister-in-law and I did just that. In the middle of a chilly Gauteng winter we boarded a plane from Johannesburg International on a short flight to Villancoulos, a seaside town in neighbouring country, Mozambique. A friendly guide took us in a jeep to the sandy shore where, with skirts held high, we waded through blue waters to a waiting motor boat which sped us across blue-turquoise-azure waters to our own island hideaway at the Dugong (the name of a local fish) nature reserve. We dozed under gauzy mosquito nets in our own wood and grass chalet, showered outdoors under the thorn trees keeping a wary eye out for snakes, picked up pansy shells on white beaches, feasted on prawns, Jahna snorkled and I swam among shoals of exotic fish.

Hey, where did I file that travel agent's phone number?

Friday, October 31, 2008

Friday, 31 October: Early sunset

I caught the dying sun setting yesterday evening at about 18h:30.

And that reminded me of another poem! The sestet from Gerald Manley Hopkins' sonnet: God's Grandeur.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs-
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.


Thursday, October 30, 2008

Thursday, 30 October: Brideshead revisited

Going to a matinee on a Friday afternoon felt deliciously decadent as I abandoned my PC, locked the dogs to sleep in the cool house and treated myself to a viewing of 'Brideshead revisited'. All on my own - no neighbourly comments to distract, no popcorn to crunch, not even a chocolate bar to unwrap soundlessly - I feasted on the latest movie version of one of modern novels I most admire: 'Brideshead revisited' by Evelyn Waugh.
Emma Thompson made a stately, stern yet human Lady Marchmain, Michael Gambon was there as a crusty and repentent Lord Marchmain (just for you, Willow), Ben Wishaw as the tortured Sebastian, Hayley Atwell as a robust Julia and Matthew Goode as a cool yet not unaffected Charles Ryder. Castle Howard provided a magnificent Brideshead.

I enjoyed the movie but, of course, it cannot supplant Waugh's magnificent prose. Some may think the story a criticism of stern religion; others about illicit love in between-wars Britain. Personally, I think the main theme is about men and women's futile attempts to escape the Hound of Heaven.

"I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter." (Francis Thompson)

Friday, October 24, 2008

Friday, 24 October, 2008: Cottonwool clouds

These early morning clouds over Thatchwick Cottage are tufts of cottonwool. A wet weekend is forecast for Johannesburg and Pretoria. Our spirits have already been lifted by some spring rain which has given a green sheen to the brittle, yellow veld grass. The prospect of more rain is a great conversation opener with all and sundry: the petrol attendant at the garage, shop assistants in the mall, casual passersby on my early morning walk, Unisa colleagues and friends.

Pretoria afternoon by Anthony Delius is a poem about summer thundershowers.

There leans on the horizon's fence
a slow explosion of heat,
that towers white, grotesque, immense,
above the end of Schoemann Street.

The grieving jacaranda trees,
each on its bruise of fallen flowers,
are withered senators whose pleas
rouse no one in a fatal hour.

The dark mechanic roads run by-
the petals drip on them in vain-
and self-absorbed the black wheels ply
their way with a strange sound of rain.

But vast now in the passiate skies
a praying-mantis reaches down
stretching its pious claws to seize
the helpless insect of the town.

Scared refugees of light and shade
flee west across the startled hills,
men stare from shelters they have made,
feel earth grow stronger that their wills.

The dry earth cracks - and through it comes
a black tremendous man who's dressed
in plumes and ox-tails, urged by drums
with spears of lightning in his fist.