This is the post excerpt.
I am a happy wanderer, a lifelong searcher of special people and sacred spaces. I’d love to guide you into my world.
Just a little writing exercise during Lockdown.
I sprung from rock and earth, my mother’s womb,
Then tumbled, tripped down breathless granite cliffs.
Now other streams pour into me mischief
We dance together in a merry tune.
I have to work, quench thirst and nurture life,
Produce some hydro-electricity,
To wash, and flush, and power industry –
To feed an endless round of toil and strife.
Below the cataract I carve a course
Through bush, and challenge, accident and fate,
While other factors, inputs, love and hate
Will swell my flow to flood through life with force.
Till finally I drain into the sea
The great conclusion, consummation for me.
There are places in this world where life and death meet and mingle in sweet tranquility. I find these places among the rocks of ancient burial sites. Such as, most recently, at the West Kennett Long Barrow in Wiltshire.
This long barrow, one of the biggest in the south of England, is part of the Avebury World Heritage site, about two kilometres from the Great Henge and Stone Circle of Avebury.
The henge is effectively the great circular ditch and bank in the picture. The circle is about 350 metres in diameter, and over 1,000 metres in circumference. The three stone circles inside the henge make a powerful impression, even though most of the standing stones have disappeared over the centuries. But I had to go to the West Kennett Long Barrow on a quiet autumn afternoon.
The magic of this experience probably lay in the fact that I was there almost alone, save for the kind lady who took this photo and then left.
I entered the opening cautiously. I am not superstitious, I am not a New Age pagan witch or a shaman. I don’t hear voices. But I had the sense that I might be intruding in a sacred space, and I breathed a soft request for permission to enter.
It was wonderful to be enfolded by the smooth rocks. It is quite spacious inside, room enough for me to stand up straight. It was so quiet, the silence of the millenia. There are four small chambers off to the sides of the passage where human bones had been found. In the largest chamber, at the end of the passage, I sat down in the gloom, listening to the voice of the rocks. I became aware of a strange sensation, like a pulse travelling through my body. As I ran my hands over the cool skin of the rocks, it seemed to me that I was deep inside the bowels of a giant living creature, like Jonah inside the Fish. No, I was inside a womb, like a babe preparing to be born down the birth canal of the passage through the rocks. Yes, the womb of the tomb.
I have been so privileged to visit several significant burial sites in my life – Newgrange in Ireland, Maes Howe in the Orkneys, the Hypogeum in Malta and several catacombs in Malta and Italy. You might say that I seek out the resting places of the dead to come to terms with them. But this experience in West Kennett was an apotheosis for me, the closest that I have yet come to a rapture in life/death.
Along the fabled Jurassic Coast of Devon and Dorset in England, a myriad stories are written in the stones, the waves, the wind and the lives of the local people. And in my experience, these stories are all trapped– like miniature ships in a bottle – in a quirky little shop in Lyme Regis.
I’ve been down many rabbit holes in my life. But, when I pushed open the door – this was a huge chasm to tumble down! The treasure trove of The Sanctuary Bookshop at the bottom end of ancient Broad Street is exhilarating – and overwhelming. An assault on the senses.
There are thousands of books, cards, prints and paintings packed to the rafters while porcelain masks, butterflies sealed in glass and huge plaster skulls gaze on. It seems that the ceilings are not held up by the bricks in the walls, but by books and other objects.
Almost buried in a mountain of books and bric-a-brac an old man was staring intently at a computer screen from under his panama hat. I hesitated to speak to him, he seemed rather lost in the opera aria that was wafting out from his equipment. But I gathered up my courage.
“Do you have ‘Orlando’ by Virginia Woolf?” I ventured. He looked up.
“Ah, yes!” and he led me through the warren to the next room. There, among dusty volumes, was my book.
“How many books do you have here?”
“Forty-two thousand. And I know where each one is.”
Bob Speer has had The Sanctuary Bookshop email@example.com for 25 years, but it might be a hundred years. He himself looks like a fossil that Mary Anning might have chipped from the rocks 200 years ago. Time is lost here. I was getting lost in time….
Somewhere in a narrow passage between bookshelves – easily missed – a flight of stairs leads down to a small room and what is a cellar. Behind the two sofas (stacked with objects), guitars and a radio in the shape of a 1950s jukebox, the back wall is a solid yellow canvas of the covers of every National Geographic magazine from 1930 until 2003.
Nowhere is there a chair that is not cluttered with books or junk, but underneath the staircase I actually find a seat where I can sit and browse through “Russian Hide and Seek” by Kingsley Amis, and a coffee table book on Malta with evocative black and white photographs by Anthony Armstrong Jones, the photographer husband of Princess Margaret.
When I finally emerged, I enthused with Bob: “Oh, you might just lock me up here for a night….I’ll have the festival of my life!”
“You are most welcome to stay – in the Booklovers B&B through here,” and he pointed me through a door behind his desk. “There you will have all the company you need.”
What a fanciful thought. If only…
As he wrapped my purchase, Bob – who chatted easily but never seemed to smile – put a sheet of paper into an envelope and instructed me Not To Look until I was back at home.
On the pavement outside I opened the envelope. On the sheet of paper was a photograph of Spike Milligan and a copy of his poem, “Smiling is Infectious”.
“Smiling is infectious
You catch it like the flu,
When someone smiled at me today,
I started smiling too….” Etc.
Two days later, the Universe intervened. I had to stay on an extra day in Lyme Regis, and my current apartment would no longer be available. Was it possible….?
Yes! There was a room at Booklovers B&B for that night! I was literally enchanted.
Bob’s wife, Mariko, who runs the B&B, led me up the two flights of stairs to a door with a stained glass window. Behind it was my gorgeous, old-fashioned bedroom, lined with books.
Against one wall hangs a splendid tapestry of Knights and Maidens of the Holy Grail – perhaps a copy of a Burne-Jones painting? There is a dainty china tea set on a tray for my use, and more tea sets on the shelves.
Along the stairs I find a section of Japanese books, brought by Mariko, who is Japanese. I wonder if Bob reads these.
That night, I had a dream of water rushing over a wall. Then an elegant long white 1950s car drew up, and out stepped a tall, slender, very debonair-looking young man. The Minister of Arts and Culture! But, Hmmm, I thought: “You won’t have much money in that portfolio.” Sarah Woodruff of ”The French Lieutenant’s Woman” appeared in her black cowl in the raging storm at the end of The Cobb. Hercule Poirot confronted Robinson Crusoe on a deserted beach, and Lassie* chased Peter Rabbit down a rabbit hole.
*PS: Lassie, the famous collie dog, really does feature in Lyme Regis. Lassie belonged to the landlord of the Pilot Boat Inn. On New Year’s Day 1915, a torpedo from a German U-boat struck HMS Formidable, the first British battleship to be sunk in WW1. Some of the survivors and deceased were brought to the Pilot Boat Inn. One of them was Able Seaman John Cowan, who was left for dead. But Lassie licked his face, and he started showing signs of life – and his life was saved.
Even Peter Rabbit has a connection with Lyme Regis: Beatrix Potter came there on holiday.
Between gigantic granite domes lies Nature’s cemetery: the pitch-black skeletons of a thousand trees devoured in a wildfire six months ago.
Looming through the mist of the wintry morning, glistening with last night’s rain, this cemetery appears surreal, otherworldly. Strangely beautiful in its agonised gestures. Alive in its death throes.
Here the sooty limbs reach out like cramping fingers, desperately clawing for life; there the folds of a tree trunk bunch up like the naked muscles and sinews of an arm or a leg.
There, three limbs are twisted together like angry snakes.
The fire was so intense that a huge slab of rock sliced off of the body of the outcrop, lying like a tombstone between the cremated trees.
But some skeletons reveal streaks and flashes of orange through the charred exterior husk. Like raw flesh under a black skin. Like a living body concealed in the prison of death.
Here is a charcoal stump resembling a mythical creature, with orange flares as though there is a fire glowing inside.
These tormented skeletons are dramatically etched against the smooth grey-green skin of the granite domes.
The two outcrops of Bretagne Rock and Gordon Rock rear up over the landscape like two giant prehistoric mammoths, their flanks heaving with earth energy.
There is a hushed breathing rising from the earth, the mysterious power of quartzite crystals pushing through the scorched vegetation.
Lower down, a myriad burnt protea bushes parade along the footpath.
The black skeletons defiantly hold up the glowing heads of the flowers that refused to crumble before the flames. Now these flowers show their own fire.
Outside the cemetery a lone sandstone pillar yawns to the sky like an animal, perhaps a traumatised dog, crying for succour.
One of the granite outcrops is called Paarl Rock – “Paarl” being the Dutch for “pearl”, because a few centuries ago, a Dutchman saw the rock shining like a pearl in the sun.
The pearl mysteriously grows in the darkness of the shell. And here, life mysteriously breathes through the darkness of death.
Nefertiti was the most beautiful woman in the Kingdom of Egypt. She was also the most powerful woman. She was the beloved wife of the Pharaoh Akhenaten. They ruled the great kingdom at the peak of a golden age.
Bust of Nefertiti
Theirs was a great love, and a great partnership. Akhenaten respected her, and involved her in matters of state. When he died, their son Tutankhamun was still very young, and Nefertiti ruled as regent, effectively as Pharaoh.
But all was not well in the royal palace. The high priest Parennefer did not approve of Nefertiti. He secretly resented the new cult introduced by Akhenaten and Nefertiti, the worship of one god, Aten, only. He did not agree with the establishment of a new capital at Amarna. And he really, really did not like the power that this woman wielded.
Akhenaten had truly loved her, he had referred to her more often than to his advisors or to Parennefer. And the fact that she continued ruling after the death of the Great Pharaoh…. This just wasn’t right! But since the pharaoh is a god, Parennefer kept his peace.
Until Nefertiti died. She was buried with all due ceremony in her tomb in the pyramid in the Valley of the Kings.
As the procession made its solemn way to the tomb, Parennefer mumbled quiet curses: “O Great Osiris, may you disturb her soul on its transit. She scorned you and raised Aten above you. May she now know your power. May her body be scattered over the earth.”And Nefertiti did not find peace in eternity. Her soul was restless.
Finally her soul extracted her body from the mummification shroud, and wandered off down Africa, far away from the intrigues of the royal court in Thebes.
Nefertiti followed the sacred River Nile through a vast desert and a towering jungle, past a mighty waterfall and fathomless lakes. Then she soared over great grasslands where all the animals of Creation roamed. More forests and mountains and rivers. And then the land seemed to come to an end – there was infinite ocean in front of her and to the sides of her.
As she rested under the Southern Cross constellation she smelt an intoxicating fragrance, an aromatic fragrance quite different from the incenses of Egypt: it was fresh and sharp, yet sweet. The smell of a multitude of little wild flowers and plants.
“Ah, this gives me peace,” she thought. “These plants would truly embalm my soul.”
But as the sun rose in the golden morning, Nefertiti heard a great rumbling and felt the earth shaking. Footsteps! More than footsteps – thunder on earth.
She looked up, and beheld a most frightening sight! A rough, wild giant! Greater, uglier than anything she had ever beheld in her life. He had wild hair and a long, rough beard. He looked a bit like a man and a bit like a gorilla, with a low forehead and then protruding skull, tiny, deep-set eyes and a short nose. And big lips. His arms hung low from his bent shoulders and his enormous fists could squeeze elephants.
Statue of Adamastor in Lisbon.
Nefertiti rose, indignant at being disturbed. She looked him straight in the eye. She was not afraid.
“And who are you?” she demanded.
The giant stared at her in silence for a long time, and gradually his expression changed from scowling anger to astonishment to a kind of enthrallment. He had never seen such beauty in his life!
“Who are you?” Nefertiti asked again.
“I am Adamastor, guardian of this land,” he replied gruffly. “And who are you?”
“I am a queen and you will respect me,” she said imperiously.
And the great, shaggy giant bent down and bowed low before her. He had never before encountered such power in such a beautiful woman.
He had been expelled to this southern tip of the continent by the sea goddess Doris because he had fallen in love with her daughter Tethis. Adamastor still loved Tethis, but in truth she did not compare to this queen.
And so the two wanderers sat down together and found companionship. They found rest from their respective curses.
The gods of Africa looked down upon them, and they were pleased. It was decided that these two, the Queen of Egypt and the Titan of Olympus, should forever keep and protect the southernmost region of the great continent.
So the day came that they both lay down, on their backs, the tops of their heads touching as their feet reached in opposite directions. Their flesh turned into feldspar, their blood to quartz and their bones to mica, to form Table Mountain’s granite. Eventually their heads blended together in the sandstone of their skin as they forever gaze upwards at their souls dancing among the quietly circling stars.
Note to the reader: I have taken liberties with some historical facts (re Nefertiti) and legends (Adamastor) to spin a new fable around Table Mountain/ Hoerikwaggo.
I am also indebted to Dean Liprini, who points out the Giants of Table Mountain (many more than these two) in his book “Pathways of the Sun. Unveiling the Mysteries of Table Mountain and Beyond.” Published 2006 by Red Nolan. He identifies the right-hand goddess as the Assyrian goddess Ishtar.
I am suffering from anticipatory grief. I am grieving for a glorious, glittering world that cannot be rescued.
Even when the national Lockdown is lifted, we will still have to maintain social distancing for months, perhaps years. The dreaded Corona virus will still be here, most of us will probably still be infected at some stage over the next year. We will walk around with face masks on, avoiding other people, never hugging an old friend.
The ominously darkened shops of today foreshadow things passing, never to be revived in the form that we love.
Today I am mourning the passing of that iconic art movie house in the cradle of Table Mountain, the Labia. On the 16th May it would be 71 years old, the oldest independent movie theatre in Cape Town and a cultural treasure, comfort and joy to thousands of people. Oh, nothing has been stated about its perpetuation. But think….
I vividly remember a month ago in March, before the lockdown, when the Labia was showing the hottest Oscar-winning movies. I was there with perhaps three other patrons – and 10 employees. Those beloved “parts of the furniture” – Claire, Sedick, Cathy and Rose at the ticket booth, who have been there almost since I was a child. I sat in the biggest theatre to watch “Parasites” – all by myself. Afterwards I saw the owner, Ludi Kraus, sitting in the beautiful courtyard on a wooden bench. I sat by him, we sat together in silence for a long time. I had the feeling I was sitting in a twilight zone. “I have 20 employees here..” he said laconically.
How can Ludi maintain 20 employees and the costs of this landmark establishment if he cannot have crowds of movie-goers in there for the next six months?
My favourite bookshop, The Book Lounge – considered by many writers as the best in Cape Town – where I could find the most obscure and fascinating books, and where I have attended so many cracking book launches, probably won’t make it. The owner, Mervyn Sloman, has also been the driving force behind the inspiring Open Book Festival every year. What treasure would be lost there!
My favourite coffee shop, where the old men discuss the state of the world and the finest cappuchino is brought to my table as soon as I sit down, probably won’t make it. Like many, many other coffee shops and restaurants. When could we sit down in a public space again and enjoy the energy of society?
I need a haircut. That’s a champagne sacrifice, as a friend would say. But I think of my hairdresser. When could she resume her business – if ever? Would she have to wear a mask and gloves? Probably goggles as well, to protect her against infection.
Museums and art galleries, who have never had much income, will probably not re-open as they lay off staff. The Old Town House on Greenmarket Square, which houses the fabulous Michaelis Collection, had been shut for months even before the lockdown. When would it be safe to joll together at a music venue, a club, a pub or a concert hall? Not for at least a year.
It’s eerily quiet around the city centre at the moment. What a contrast to the exuberant First Thursday fiesta every month before! But.. will it be much better when the lockdown is lifted? I think not. So many highrise buildings will stand empty as tenants who have become accustomed to working from home, or who can’t afford the rental, abandon ship. The ghost town will become more deserted, more gloomy, and dangerous.
Oh, I realise that a brave new world is beckoning once we have passed through this portal. I rejoice at the recovery of nature, at the dolphins in the Mediterranean and the clean air in India, the pandas in China that managed to mate in privacy. I even have a wicked impulse to celebrate Nature’s Revenge on mankind for degrading the environment to such an extent that such a vicious virus could evolve.
But I grieve for the passing of this era.
Most evenings Mike packs a little picnic basket with a bottle of wine and two glasses, and perhaps a little snack. Then he goes to call his wife, Jo, and they amble towards the car or the bakkie.
They drive in one or other direction around their village, to a favourite vantage point where they can watch the sunset and thrill to the changing palette of the sky. And they enjoy their sundowners under the magic of sundown.
Mike and Jo are both artists, and so they respond viscerally to the pageant of the evening sun. Each sunset is a reason for celebration. One evening seemed dull, and Mike started complaining that it was so “uneventful”. But then, a tender glow spread across the sky to reflect the rose in their wine glasses, and Mike was satisfied.
One evening they drove up the corrugated gravel road up the hill called Kleinberg, above their village. They got out and settled down on some coarse rocks. Below in the valley lay stretched the village with its white-washed cottages and ubiquitous Dutch Reformed church. To the west the sun was dipping into a fold between the mountains, its rays stroking the sky like fingers caressing a person’s skin and gilding the hills to the east.
After toasting the sunset, Mike got up and pulled Jo to her feet. Holding her steady, as her sense of balance is not good, he guided her towards a faint path through the shrubland and rocks to the top of the hill. Slowly, cautiously, they scrambled up, to drink in the last of the evening’s glory.
Regarding them, I was filled with a sense of profound awe and love for this inspirational couple. Mike is 86, Jo almost 84. Sundowners toasting the fading light from the vantage point of a great affirmation.
Groen Weivelde (Green Pastures)
Come with me on an exploration from Paris and Japan to… the Karoo, that arid, neglected part of South Africa. Through some remarkable works of art.
Annari van der Merwe is a Cape Town artist with a wealth of global experiences,, yet her roots and her identity are South African. She started painting under the tutelage of well-known artist and former academic, Gregg Kerr, about seven years ago.
In the course of her exploration of the art of painting, she studied the work of artists whom she admires and regards as predecessors and mentors – the Old Masters who worked in Europe before 1800, and later generations of painters such as the Impressionists. She uses them in surprising contexts.
In an early series, Not by Bread Alone, consisting of eight paintings (mixed media, 600 x 800 mm), some of her favourite painters, from Caravaggio to Paula Modersohn-Becker, are depicted at a table laden with food and drink they either painted themselves or are likely to have enjoyed. So we have, among others, Frida Kahlo sitting behind a table spread with watermelon and various fruits, against a backdrop of tropical birds and creatures; Picasso at a table with sea food and a bottle of wine.
Marc Chagall. From the series Not by Bread Alone.
Annari takes her love of making composite images further in My Grand Tour. In twelve fairly large paintings (approximately 760 x 970 mm), she presents both familiar and lesser known figures, painted by the so-called Old Masters, against the backdrop of architectural spaces she photographed on her world travels. And just to spice it up even further, her Bengal cat, Bijou, appears in every painting as a leitmotif, or echo. These paintings formed her first solo exhibition in Cape Town towards the end of 2018.
Suspended, which features Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine and Tintoretto’s Senator, in an open-air art gallery in Kyoto.
The My Grand Tour paintings are clever, delightful, intriguing, challenging. The artist is “playing” with other artists – and with the viewer. I can gaze at them for hours, puzzling over the references and the possibilities.
Meanwhile, Annari, always the perfectionist, has developed her technical skills to superior levels. She uses mostly oil paint, and for her latest series she has employed the painstaking process of glazing with transparent hues, which sometimes requires up to 20 applications to produce a wonderful luminous light effect. It is simply beautiful. As with all good art, I find it occupying a discreet space in my consciousness.
With her latest series, Elegie vir die Karoo, in which she makes extensive use of glazing, she enters a new phase, emotionally very compelling. Van der Merwe finally comes home, confronting the past and the present of her own world. The 12 oil paintings (measuring 800 x 1100 mm) depict the interiors of deserted farmsteads which the artist knew growing up on a sheep farm in this semi-desert region of South Africa.
Annari says she thought glazing would convey her intentions best, because “…the colour and texture… might possibly evoke the insubstantial, shifting nature of memory and imagination.”
Die Groen Mat (The Green Carpet)
Her mentor, Gregg Kerr, explains, “…the artist invites participation in an elegy for the ghosts and shades of those who once lived and died in those spaces.”
Along with the major paintings, a parallel series of eight small paintings (300 x 400 mm) will be exhibited. Contrary to the Elegie series, these miniatures portray the exteriors of humble buildings that have survived in her small Karoo town of Richmond. They are executed in the conventional way where paint is mixed to the desired colour, rather than building up the colour by glazing layer after layer.
Annie Potkraal se Huisie. One of the Karoo miniatures.
There is profound emotional depth to these paintings, which mourn not only the desolation and neglect of homes once pulsing with human warmth, but also the universal loss of love, care, human community.
What makes these paintings so much more powerful is the restraint with which the sorrow is handled. Very clear geometric planes, emptiness, only slight suggestions of decay (dead flowers on the floor, guinea fowl inside the house). And then the incandescent effect of glazing, which transports the viewer to a dreamworld.
As Gregg Kerr says, “If it is possible to paint a quietness, a faint heat and a melancholic drone of insects, Van der Merwe has done that.”
Al Moiz en Victor.
The Elegie vir die Karoo-exhibition, which will run at the Breytenbach-Galery in Wellington, Western Cape, South Africa, from 13 March 2021 until 28th April 2021, will also include three related but quite different paintings: whimsical, surreal paintings of a pumpkin or a melon floating in the sky above the Karoo landscape.
Karoo-wolke 1 (Karoo Clouds 1)
Annari says she once quipped to someone that – during a severe Karoo drought – one would sooner see a pumpkin or a melon float in the sky than a rain cloud.
For me, these paintings are a moving and sublime tribute to the Karoo, to life and loss, from Annari van der Merwe, herself a child of the ancient dust of Africa.
To see more of Annari’s paintings, go to http://www.annarivandermerwe.com
World-class art in a little-known English village. An intensely moving tribute to a tragically killed young woman. Personal comfort and closure for me. That was my experience in a modest parish church recently.
As one approaches All Saints Church in Tudeley, Kent, the building with its outsize tower looks drab and unimpressive. But open the door – and it glows! Even on a dreary winter’s day, it glowed. I truly felt that I was standing on holy ground, as I basked in the radiance of Chagall’s stained glass windows.
All Saints Church, Tudeley, is the only church in the world of which all the stained glass windows – 12 in all – have been created by the great Twentieth Century artist, Marc Chagall. The main window, the great East Window, is particularly impressive and poignant as it memorialises the tragic death of a young woman.
The memorial window was commissioned by Sir Henry Goldsmid, a local wealthy landowner, in 1966 in memory of his 21-year old daughter, Sarah Venetia d’Avigdor-Goldsmid, in a boating accident in September 1963.
Like Chagall, Sir Henry was a professing Jew; but Lady d’Avigdor-Goldsmid and their two daughters were Christians who attended All Saints Church. In 1961 Lady d’Avigdor-Goldsmid and Sarah had attended a Chagall exhibition in Paris, and Sarah’s parents, after her death, recollected how enthralled Sarah had been with Chagall’s stained glass windows. So Sir Henry approached Chagall, who – although almost 80 – readily agreed to the assignment.
Considerable structural changes and renovations were made to the church to accommodate the memorial window, which was finally installed in 1967. At its dedication Chagall, seeing his completed work in its setting for the first time, is reported to have exclaimed, “C’est magnifique! Ferai les tous!” (“It is magnificent! I shall do them all.”) Sir Henry took him up on the offer, and asked Chagall to prepare designs for the other 11 windows as well. The entire project was completed by 1985.
I was staying in nearby Tonbridge in Kent, and was quite surprised when I realised that my hosts in Tonbridge did not even know about this world-famous church. I figured out that I could walk to Tudeley, about 2 miles away. Most of the walk is quite pleasant, part of it along the River Medway; but the last stretch into Tudeley was decidedly stressful, along a busy road with no pavement. But I survived.
And I was utterly fulfilled, standing in adoration before Chagall’s tender tribute to Sarah d’Avigdor-Goldsmid. Because in that iridescent blue window, I saw my own sorrow at losing a child in an accident; and I experienced the comfort and redemption of a loving God.
Acknowledgement: The book The History of All Saints’ Tudeley by Mary Neervoort-Moore.