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

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Must you go?

The Schonbrunn palace, Vienna: home of Marie Antionette until the age of nine

I read books. I listen to books.  Listening doubles my book-acquisition-capacity. Listening in the car makes trips around the suburbs and up to the campus flash by. Listening in the sunroom transforms monotonous sewing jobs like my current task of machine-appliquéing eight panels with intricate cut outs for a  William Morris quilt. My book-listening is made possible by Unisa Library’s audio visual section where I regularly borrow Clipper Audio cds.
At present I am listening to the historical biographer (a very accessible historian), Antonia Fraser’s “Must you go? My life with Harold Pinter. This is an account based on Antonia’s diaries of thirty-three years with Harold Pinter, starting with their serendipitous meeting, her separation from her first husband, her divorce and marriage to Harold and their life together until his death from cancer in 2008. The couple are not ordinary - an upper class British writer with links to the peerage and a celebrated playwright, actor and director – and their lives were not ordinary either. International travel, political activism, the theatre, friends with the rich and famous (a phone call from Jackie Kennedy is just mentioned in passing, rather like I mention phoning a friend for her chocolate cake recipe), country houses, ancestral homes, town houses, swish hotels, luncheons, parties, picnics and poems.
I have read several of Antonia Fraser’s books and they have made their rounds in book club too: Mary Queen of Scots, Charles II, Cromwell, Marie Antionette and others. Brilliantly for their detailed research and brilliant for their accessibility. “Must you go?” captures Antonia’s grief at the demise of a beloved husband. Death is the great leveller: kings, playwrights, shopkeepers, housewives. Ten years ago I  whispered similar helpless words in the same straits: “Please don’t go!”     

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Seasonal shifts

Last night I slept curtains drawn with my window to the garden wide open. The quality of the air that filtered through the space at 5am this morning was different. How do I define it?  Of course, I have noticed the birds are already more active at an earlier hour – round 4.45 am.  Spring is on the way. But this change did not have to do with what I heard. I inhaled a nuanced scent – a freshness, a newness. The draft that touched my cheeks was bracing not chilly. Just a shift on a minutely spaced scale. 
Sprays of creamy blossom on the buddleja are unfolding. Clusters of buds are poking out among the green spears of the clivias.


Sunday, August 11, 2013

"Night falls on the city"

The golden statue of  Johann Strauss and his violin in the Stadtpark typifies the joyous spirit of Vienna. Ruth and I walked the famous Ring Road on a hot, muggy Sunday afternoon. We kept to the shade as far as we could and continually sidestepped the cyclists whose route seemed to have precedence over our pedestrian walkway.  We admired the grand grey stone buildings: the Opera House, the gardens of the Imperial Palace, the gate to the Hofburg palace, the Rathaus and Town Hall, the Burg Theatre, the University.
Memories of our time in Wien persuaded me to choose a novel of Vienna as my Book Club choice this week. And I have been engrossed every since.  As the paperback version of “Night falls on the City” by Sarah Gainham is 610 pages, I still have several more evenings tucked up in bed for an hour’s reading before I finish. This novel starts on the eve of Anschluss between Hitler’s Germany and Austria and ends with the Russian invasion of the city after six year’s of Occupation. The sweep of those most tragic years is carried by a clever literary structure: five ‘books’ each cover a ‘moment’ during the war period in the lives of the characters.  The main character is indeed a leading lady, Julia Homburg, star of the Burg Theatre. Or, is the main character Vienna itself? This story is firmly located in Wien, its streets, parks, beer halls and elegant cafes, grand apartments and mean working class quarters. The author’s intimate knowledge of the city is a significant part of the story’s power. Sarah Gainham’s several novels are all set in Central Europe and this was her triumph. Gainham was born in London in 1914 and settled in Vienna in 1947 as central European correspondent for important newspapers and worked through the decades of the 50s and 60s. She died in Austria in 1999.  
 I selected the book (first published in 1967 and an international bestseller) above the attractive piles of the latest contemporary novels. It has not disappointed.
At our vibrant book club evening, Sylvia remarked: “Another war book! Have you noticed how many books we have read that are about wars – the World Wars, the Anglo-Boer war, Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Iran! ” Theresa answered: “There will always be stories of conflict. No one ever gets over a war.”  And those of us who gratefully have never experienced war still try to plumb how it happens so easily and so often.