Film, Books and Blogs: December 2009

This will be the last posting for 2009. I will begin by wishing everyone a happy end of 2009 and a good 2010. This is not going to be a reflective post; that will be the first one of the New Year, when I have had a chance to get my head around the events of 2009. In this I will mainly reflect on the films I have seen and the books read over the past few months. I travelled from Durban to Vancouver and then back to the UK in mid-November which meant I saw quite a number of films.

The reflection to end the year is that I can fly but landing is still beyond me. I have had two lessons in the last week and have to say this landing business is more difficult than I thought it would be. After going round a few times and managing to touch down and have one ‘go-around’ which is when one aborts the landing without touching the tarmac, I was really battling. David, the instructor, took over and showed how easy it is for him while I was left feeling really frustrated. I can manage most of the landing – the turning, lining up and approach; it is the last 50 feet that I am finding really tough. The idea is that a point you fly above the runway taking off the power and holding the nose up until the plane gently touches down, and I am just not able to judge it. David says that everyone finds this and then it will suddenly come right. I hope this is true.

Perhaps the only thing I want to put in is that I am in the UK for Christmas and New Year. On 11th January I get back to Durban which is where I will be staying for the next few months. There is a great deal of management that needs to be done, and I also have the political economy of Swaziland which needs to be completed. I have finally returned to this and am enjoying getting my head around Swaziland and what a unique little nation it is. There will have to be some time spent up there doing fieldwork as well.


“Departures”. This Japanese film, made in 2008, is the winner of a number of prizes including the Academy Award as Best Foreign Language film. It is the story of a cellist, whose orchestra closes. He and his wife move to a house that his mother left him and he begins looking for work. He sees an advertisement to work with ‘departures’, and thinking it is something to do with travel agent, applies and get the job. He discovers he is to be a “nokanshi” or professional who prepares bodies for burial and ‘encoffins’ them. The nokanshi carries rituals in front of the family: kneeling on one side, with the family is on the other; they carefully wash and prepare the body for burial or cremation.

The story is moving. It is about the relation between the hero, his somewhat irascible boss, and the deceased. I felt, were someone to have to do these rituals for me, then he is the sort of sensitive person one wants. The characters are deep and the music excellent.

“Taking Woodstock”. This is as told by Elliot Teichberg. As a young man he was working at his parent’s motel in Bethel, New York, involved in the local Chamber of Commerce, and had organized a number of cultural events. He was in charge of issuing public events’ permits and when he discovered that the organizers of the Woodstock Festival had been denied authority to hold the event in the village of Walkill, he issued them a permit. The Festival was held on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm, the rest is history.

It was a touching film, gentle in its approach to the event and, while probably not historically accurate, it was good fun. The film did not have any of the music, just covering events in the run-up to the Festival. Teichberg’s parents appear as two failing Jewish business people, out of place and time. All characters are parodied including the ‘earth-life’ acting troupe.

South African Airways shows South African films, and I have seen two.

“My Secret Sky” was made by Madoda Ncayiyana with Julie Fredrickse (co-producer and writer). I’ve known about this film for some time as Julie came to talk to me as she was developing it. I hope I was helpful in giving her background and thoughts. It is the story is of two children, 10-year old Thembe and her 8-year old brother, Kwezi. They are orphaned in a rural area outside Durban when their mother dies (implicitly of AIDS). The family gathers to bury the mother and the children are left in the care of an aunt who sells all their possessions and is portrayed as a drunken, grasping woman.

The children take a woven mat that their mother has made, (she was hoping to enter it in a competition), and set off for the city of Durban. Here they become involved with street children, in particular one called ‘Chili-bite’ who tries to sell the girl to a taxi-driver involved with pedophilia. There are gaps in the story line which I forgive because it is set in Durban. We see the steam train that, on a Sunday takes tourists from Pinetown to the Valley of a Thousand Hills; look at Warwick Junction with its hustle and bustle; see the Durban city streets the Embankment, a fantastic view across the bay and the sleazy underpass where the children live; finally there is the Musgrave road Anglican church.

The film tells of children being left on their own and facing great adversity. It is, for me, best a film that portrays areas and people I know as well as the real issues faced by growing numbers of children as a result of HIV/AIDS. It is an accurate picture of a thriving port city and how people, especially youngsters may fall through the cracks in this setting. I will certainly look for it on DVD.

“White Wedding”. This is fun. It tells of the journey of Elvis, by Greyhound bus from Johannesburg to Durban, to meet up with his best friend Tumi. Together they travel on to Cape Town for his wedding. Tumi is to be his best man and Elvis is to marry Ayanda in the Cape at a fancy hotel at Camps Bay.

The story is set in various locations. Ayanda is in Cape Town, the city and a township; we see Tumi and Elvis in Durban and the Eastern Cape. Their journey involves borrowing a car after Tumi’s girl friend wrecks his BMW. As they travel through the Eastern Cape they pick up a young English doctor who is hitchhiking (very unwisely all the South Africans would think). They wreck the car and end up in a rightwing, white stronghold in the Cape. Through charm and good manners they get a ride to Cape Town from one of the real Afrikaners.

This is “appealing feel good movie about love, commitment, intimacy and friendships and the host of maddening obstacles that can get in the way of a happy ending”. The writer/director is Jaan Turner, the daughter of Rick Turner who was assassinated in Durban. The executive producer is Ken Follet the author. They have done an excellent job in making this film, picking up on South Africa and what goes on there and making a thoroughly enjoyable film. The beauty of the landscape is well portrayed but I sincerely hope that no one tries hitchhiking through South Africa as the young doctor does.

I am not going to review it but want to say I really enjoyed the latest Coen brothers’ offering ‘Serious Man’. It has not been out very long and I found it very dark. There is humour in it, and I would say it does for small town Jewish communities what ‘District Nine’ did for apartheid South Africa and the bureaucracy.


Over the past nine months or so I have read the new series of the Millennium Trilogy written by Swedish author Stieg Larsson. There are three books in the series “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”, “The Girl Who Played With Fire”, and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest”. These are a publishing sensation, numbers 3, 8 and 12 on the Amazon best seller list (my “HIV/AIDS Very Short Introduction” has been as low as 15000 and currently is 135 000). The English version is by published by Maclehose Press. The key characters in the books are Lisbet Salanader and Mikael Blomkvist. Salander is a faintly autistic young woman, excellent with computers in the first book as a hacker she finds her way into a range of databases and saves the skin of the main character; in the last she is charged with attempted murder. There are other characters who are well developed. The Swedish detective, the editor of Millennium Magazine and in the final book Blomkvist’s sister. These three books are a monumental achievement and have been extremely well translated. Sadly the author Steve Larsson died after delivering them to the publisher and before they were published which means he never saw the outcome of his work. They are recommended as good holiday reading.

In the weekly Mail and Guardian of a few weeks ago there was a very interesting article about South African crime writing. The one author described well was Margie Orford who’s first book was called “Like Clockwork”. The book is published by Jonathon Ball Publishers and is set in Cape Town particularly around Green Point and Sea Point. It is the story of a serial killer who’s also involved in the trafficking of women. Orford describes Cape Town evocatively. Her main character is a psychologist/documentary filmmaker called Clare Hart but there are a range of other characters from the new South Africa who are well described in this book. The second in the series is “Blood Rose” and is set in Namibia in Walvis Bay. These are edgy books and they reflect the society well including AIDS and its consequences. The shady characters, especially the street children are particularly well described.

Terrified in the Treetops

It has been quite a couple of weeks what with one thing and another. Rowan, our daughter and Ben, her boyfriend, came over to South Africa for a three week adventure. This began with them going to Cape Town, to stay with my brother and family. They arrived very late on Tuesday evening off the daylight flight from Amsterdam. Derek and Lynn and the girls looked after them magnificently, and they had a wonderful time.

On the Saturday they flew up to Durban which is where they were to be based for the next two weeks. I was at work at the University and at about two o’clock I became aware that there was a southerly gale blowing. This meant the plane might be early and so I headed for the airport at high speed. Their aircraft was indeed 20 minutes ahead of schedule, but fortunately I was there in time. The beasts had organized their social life well in advance. After having supper with me they headed for a party with one of Rowan’s old school friends. I decided that I would therefore go to the cinema as I didn’t want to be sitting at home, (apparently) waiting for their return. I went and saw the chic-flic movie ‘It’s Complicated’ which I rather enjoyed.

Rowan and Ben stayed in Durban for the Sunday and Monday and on Tuesday drove up to the game reserves in the Hluhulwe area staying at a place the family love: Bonamanzi Game farm. Rowan first went there aged nine months. They reported seeing a lot of game; having an opportunity to visit the cheetah farm (cheetah’s purr); and getting drenched in a huge storm which left their treehouse without power or water. They got back on Friday and we went to a ‘standard’ Durban Manor Gardens Easter party on the Sunday. It no longer involves hunting for Easter eggs, most of the children are now way too old for this. It did involve sitting and talking and catching up with our neighborhood.

On the Monday I went to Swaziland to spend a couple of days doing research, but also to give them an opportunity to enjoy Durban by themselves. I returned on the Wednesday and took Friday off as they wanted go on the Karkloof Canopy Tours. According to the blurb “the canopy tour involves traversing from one platform to another along a steel cable suspended up to 30 meters about the forest floor. The tour comprises seven platforms and eight slides that zigzag down a pristine forested valley. The scenery and bird life are spectacular and the professional guides providing interesting facts about the forest ecology during the tour”.

That is the experience that most people may have; for me it was moments of amazement in a sustained period of sheer terror. The mountain is located about an hour and a half drive away from Durban. At the foot is a beautiful little set of cottages where visitors get their safety harness and a briefing. We then climbed into a Landrover and were driven to the top of the mountain. There were four of us doing the tour and there were three guides to make sure we were OK. Effectively one is clipped onto a steel cable, with a second cable as a safety device. There are two links to the main cable and one to the safety cable so it is very safe

The first slide is short, only 40 meters and is quite easy. Doing this one learns how to brake with the large leather glove on your hand. The second slide comprises of two ropes that disappear into the mist for 100 meters, taking you to the waterfall. Jumping off a platform and sliding down for this distance is not something that comes naturally. For the first three slides I went last. On the fourth slide I was told I was to go first (‘last in first out’ in trade union terms). It was hugely embarrassing because I slid down from one platform for 175 meters; arrived at the next platform; and gently bounced back five meters away from it. We had been told what to do if this happened: monkey climb; put your hands on the cable and haul yourself into the platform.

What we had not been told is what to do if, as I was, you were too terrified to even let go of the harness as you gently swung above the gorge. I tried monkey climbing, but I was shaking too much and so had to say to the guide: “please come and rescue me”. One of them shinned down the rope and hauled me back up catching my hand between two harnesses as he did. I sat on the platform shaking, sweating, pallid, and appalled at what I was doing. The other three arrived and looked at me and made helpful comments like:

“Oh shame”; “You are doing very well dad”, and “Not much more to go”.

Fortunately at this point we were given a small chocolate and a drink, the energy was absolutely necessary. There were three slides to go and I have to admit that I went in tandem with one of the guides who took responsibility for controlling the speed as we flew down those aerial rope-ways. What an experience. Rowan and Ben think it was one of the best things they had every done. I think I was insane. I hate heights at the best of times and this was clearly way way out of my comfort zone. They told me that the views were spectacular. I can’t comment, my eyes were closed for parts of the journey. At the end of the tour we were given a free drink and toasted sandwich, (they laughingly call this a delicious Midlands meal in their brochure). I am still processing the event!

From there it was back to Durban for Rowan’s final evening and we took the Brauninger family (who are old friends and had seen a great deal of Rowan and Ben) out for dinner. I had thought it would be possible to get a table for eight people at one of my favorite restaurants. This was completely not the case on a Friday evening. We ended up at a restaurant on Davenport Road.

The evening had the potential to be a complete disaster. Rowan, Ben and I walked down from my flat to the restaurant to get just there after 7.15pm. We informed the manager that we had a booking for 7.30pm. He denied it. Brigitta who had made the booking arrived shortly after, and the manager admitted that they had taken the booking but someone else had commandeered the table. We were put in the lounge area, sitting on leather cowhide seats. These were untanned and hairy which didn’t work for those people wearing shirts or shorts as the back of one’s’ legs were prickled and tickled.

It took nearly 40 minutes before we got a table and in the meantime the waitress came and got one drinks order at a time and brought us one drink at a time. The wine was red and hot an attribute one does not want. The day did not improve, the manager informed us that it was better to be inside under the fans than outside in the breeze, it would be cooler he said, members of the party wanted to smoke and went outside and report that this was definitely not the case. However when they were outside they had overheard the manager speaking about our party, being quite uncomplimentary about us, a complete lack of professionalism.

Eventually, an hour after we got to the re, we given a table, seated and orders taken. By this stage everyone was bad tempered and hungry. The food came and those of us who had order side dishes found we got meager portions. Rowan had a meal which had pesto on it which she detests. She said if she wanted pesto she would have ordered it.

Just as the food started coming from the kitchen, the switch on the distributor board on the pole outside the restaurant tripped, and we were plunged into darkness. Because the kitchen cooks with gas they were able to bring our means but it meant that their extractor fans ceased working and the inside of the restaurant gradually filled up with greasy smoke. Rowan, a vegetarian, went to the rest room and came back feeling quite nauseated. “Dad I walked through a cloud of meat”.

It was the only restaurant on the street affected in this way and was badly handled no apology just blame for the city council. Patrons were expected to simply carry on as though nothing had happened. Although that wasn’t quite the case because the waitress came over and said “Our computers are going to go down, please would you mind paying your bill now?’

We were paying cash so this was irrelevant. She carried on pushing until she had the money in her hand. By this time everyone was extremely irritated. I went to the manager and asked, “How much will you charge me for a tub of ice cream”.

“Why? Won’t you stay here”, he said.

So I told him why we would not in clear terms. All’s well that ends well though, we went to the flat and had ice-cream and several more bottles of wine. On the Saturday Rowan, Ben and I went over for breakfast to Mitchell Park; the weather had changed, it was grey, overcast, cold and a strong wind was blowing from the South. I dropped them at the airport at about 12.30. They flew to Johannesburg and then had to wait for 10 hours in before getting on the plane to Amsterdam and then connecting on the flight to Norwich. I got news, on Sunday that they had arrived back safely after an adventurous and I think very much fun time in South Africa. It was quite strange having company for this amount of time and probably rather good. They got in a decent amount of beach time which I think they very much appreciated.

Of course while all this holiday fun was going on here in South Africa we have had three major events. The first the murder of Eugene Terre´Blanche, a right-wing Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging leader. He had spent some years in prison in the 1990s and I can’t say his passing was greatly mourned by anyone. The second issue has been Julius Malema who has been severely reprimanded by President Zuma over his inflammatory behaviour. All this against a backdrop of us moving closer and closer to the World Cup. This stadia are complete, South Africa is ready but sadly it seems as though many fewer tourists than expected will be arriving for this event. I fear that Fifa has oversold and under delivered on the World Cup.

Humus Family And Ruins Turkey

I have just been on a family holiday. That meant Douglas, who will be 15 in May, Rowan, who is about to complete her first year at university, Ailsa, and I headed off for just over a week in Turkey. We decided to go there because my brother, Derek, who moved to Istanbul with his family about 18 months ago, has chucked in his – very unsatisfactory – job and will be leaving in early July. They are thinking of moving to Cape Town, where he intends to start a consultancy company.

This means that we are unlikely to see them much so we decided to go to Istanbul and spend a bit of time doing family bonding. My sister Gill also went over for Easter, so the entire family were there!

It was fascinating, the family dynamics alone made the visit worth it. Given the huge number of miles I had clocked up on KLM it was easy to book airmiles tickets, (in business class as well) and we flew over on Tuesday 7th and returned on Wednesday 15th April. Turkey was not at all what I had expected.

The flight over was uneventful, other than the fact we arrived at one am. However we whisked through getting visas and passport control. Our luggage was among the first pieces to be delivered. A quick journey and we were able to check-in to the hotel in the centre of Istanbul and fall into bed.

On our first day we arranged to meet Derek and Gill for lunch, a cruise on the Bosporus, a drive up the coast and then, horror of horrors, the school musical play in which my eldest niece had a starring role. I am a reluctant spectator of even my own children’s school plays. I end up going to Waterford School end of term events every time we have a governor’s meeting at the school. I say to the head, ‘Laurence I don’t want to sit through this play/performance/dance’. He responds, ‘You have to, you are a governor”. So not only do I see the performance but it is also from the front row. It was fun though and Emily performed well.

After the lunch and cruise we got in his monstrous SUV and headed out into the Istanbul traffic, which was a nightmare.  Derek explained the Zen of driving in Istanbul. According to him involves patience, being calm, allowing people to push in front of you because you will push in front of others. He was Zen-like. We drove up the coast, had a cup of Turkish coffee, think sweet black mud, and you will have the picture. I really like it and drank copious quantities over the holiday! After this we headed for the school, the play starting at 7 pm. And we hit traffic. The minutes ticked away. It was apparent we were not going anywhere fast. Zen began to disappear and the driving became more aggressive and intolerant.

The trip was in three parts, Istanbul for three nights, then down to Ephesus, (to be strictly accurate the village of Selcuk about three kilometres from the ruins of Ephesus) for three nights, and finally back to Istanbul for two nights. It was an astonishingly interesting trip and well worth it.

The themes were traffic, ruins and history, hospitality and family dynamics. The traffic in Istanbul was quite horrendous. Derek is an optimistic soul. On the Friday we were flying from Istanbul to Izmar the nearest airport to Ephesus. Derek kindly offered to take us to the airport. We had to leave by 2 pm. He said that this would not be a problem. He had to bring his family in to the city for an appointment with the police to sort out residence issues and all the family had to present themselves in person. He had set up an appointment for 11.15. His wife pointed out that the children had to go to school for maths tests which could not be missed therefore they were unlikely to get to the police in time. He was confident they would make the appointment, and he would then be able to deliver us to the airport in plenty of time. His family greeted us on the run to their appointment at 12.30. The Zen view had now been replaced by a Tom and Jerry like freneticism.

We took a taxi to the airport, which cost an arm a leg and some hip. I sat in the front seat watching with horror as the meter ticked up, and occasionally asking the driver to slow down. Not, of course expecting the fare to be any less, but just wanting to be alive to pay it. Coming back we were picked up by the hotel shuttle, a huge Mercedes bus, and spent nearly two hours travelling back to the city. There was a 10 kilometre tailback to get onto the bridge across the Bosporus, there are only two bridges joining Europe to Asia. By contrast in Selcuk it was possible to meander across the main road. When we hired a car Rowan felt confident enough to drive, and was very happy to do so, because she was legally allowed to!

In most countries one has to be over 21 to drive an hire car and I had thought it would be the case in Turkey. She went: ‘nyah nyah’.

The hospitality was superb. Every airport pick-up was there on time and the vehicles were clean and comfortable. The first hotel was just OK but the boutique hotels in Selcuk and Istanbul were comfortable and roomy and the staff friendly and helpful. At one café we had just a drink each and were given biscuits by the proprietor. He noted how much Rowan enjoyed them and gave her the rest of the packet. Of course her blue eyes and charming smile may have helped. Over the time we were there we only had one meal where the service was poor, and that was not the fault of the waiter but of the kitchen. The food was uniformly good.

We went to many shopping areas and while the shop owners and assistants were keen to sell they were polite and to the man were not overly pushy. And in that sentence is one clear downside of the country, I left feeling it is hugely chauvinist and possibly even misogynist. There were few women in the shops or the service industry anywhere we visited. The men were highly visible and clearly have enjoyable lives (outside the home at any rate), spending time in cafes and bars, which are male dominated.

Throughout the visit I had a sense of history and humanity. The ruins of Ephesus, a major city of Asia minor, and an important port until the harbour silted up was once home to 200 000 people. What remains is impressive, temples, houses, public areas and even a public latrine, seating up to 16 people. There was no evidence of privacy between the holes in the marble. Perhaps defecation was a communal, and even enjoyable, activity in those times, the guidebooks do not elucidate on this interesting issue. There were two stadia built into the side of the hills, in an economical design, making maximum use of local topography.  In one’s minds eye one can visualise the plays, performances and meetings that must have taken place there.

In Selcuk is an Ottoman castle; the ruins of a basilica built for St John the apostle, which would have been the sixth biggest cathedral in the world if it were standing; and the pagan temple of Artemis. Ephesus is just three kilometres outside the village and a little further away is the little church marking the site of the house reputed to be where Mary Magdalene ended her days. One has to feel sorry for Joseph, who fades out of the story completely – mind you with omnipotent in-laws who could blame him!

Ephesus apart from being home to St John, and the destination of Paul’s letters to the Ephesians, was also the site of one of the early synods which defined Christianity and what was accepted in the bible. Istanbul, too, has many sites worth visiting and I shall have to return. The children do a museum at a fast trot and then complain of being bored.

So what do I conclude? I need to spend more time processing what we saw and did. I need to try writing some more word pictures. While away I finished reading the excellent book by Oliver James, Affluenza,  and began Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s thought provoking, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Both books are about the human condition and where we are at the beginning of this century. Seeing the historical sites in this context was eye opening.

I am incredibly fortunate to be alive now, to have my opportunities to travel, and be with family and friends. In this unequal world we are extremely privileged and we need to be aware of this and try to give back in other settings if we possibly can. I know that I do not do all I could or indeed all I should but at least recognising privilege and having a sense of fun and pleasure at the experiences we have is a measure of humanity. At least I hope so. And so until I next sit down and write a plane letter let me sign off.