Mother – an unfinished lament

An unfinished lament for Margery McGregor

I think of your crisp blue eyes and wispy white hair
That framed your face like a penumbra of snow
I remember the night before you died and I sat
On the floor by your bed holding your hand
I think I never was as close to you as then, so connected
Although we didn’t speak and I knew that the end was near
I felt you like a little girl wanting to give up and trust
What was not in your nature to trust
And just be there and slowly not be there
You who loved to be in touch and free and felt so deeply
But showed so little out of consideration.
Lying on that high bed with the trees hiding the moon and the stars as the night went on
And you didn’t say a word.
The window at my back was cool
And Dad snoring quietly in the bed next to your all unknowing
And not ready to let you go and not knowing that he had no choice.
How dependent he was on you.
The bed lightly covered with the pinkish knitted blanket you loved so much
And that had been with you through so many years
Over your feet the crocheted cover from one of your sisters I think
And the pillows downy and soft just as you liked them.
I just held your hand all through the dark and lightening hours
Dad got up to shave and I noticed your breathing getting lighter and lighter
Until I knew it was time to call him
All he could say was “How will I live without you?”
And I knew that was literally true for all that he lived
For another twelve years it was not really life
He had relied on you too much to give him
The sense of connection and place.
And the dahlias and vygies[1] you loved so much
Are less bright and there is no marmalade bubbling on the stove
With bees being nuisances –
Life is less rich.
What about the roads you longed to travel and didn’t?
What kept you from going there? How did you feel about not
Seeing all the places you had wanted to see?
So a symphony will not be written for you nor will your voice
Rise in song nor speak lovingly and wisely again.
But what a symphony sounds in my ears for you
And ends always on that melancholic Celtic chord.
I miss those hands so business-like and loving
That held me back and pushed me forward.

[1] Vygies are very colourful, small, succulent flowers in the mesembryanthemum family which are endemic to the somewhat arid west coast of South Africa.

Unfulfilled desires

My mother Margery was born on 28 December 1907 and died on the last day of December 1986, a little more than a year after she and my father Murray had celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

She was the daughter of a pharmacist who came to South Africa from the United Kingdom and settled with his family first in Oudtshoorn in the Karroo and then in the small city of George, also in the Western Cape. She was one of five sisters.

The piece above I wrote a few years ago, just after my father died, but have never been able to finish or polish it.

My brother Chris was a great musician who lived in France. He came back to visit our father when our mother died. He told me he had always wanted to write a symphony for her, but that he feared no-one would want to play it.

Chris himself died in France at the age of 53 on 26 May 1990, coincidentally our father’s 82nd birthday.

Mother had always had a sort of wanderlust, a desire to move and explore, in contrast to our father’s desire for stability and routine.

The family together for the parent’s Golden Wedding celebration, Halfway House, 28 September 1985

Mother’s dream was, when my father retired, to sell all their possessions, buy a caravan, and hit the road! Dad on the other hand wanted his books around him, and teas regularly at 11.00 a.m. and 4.00 p.m.!

So mother threw herself into things like gardening, cooking (especially jamming) and looking after things. When we lived in Blythswood she kept cows, made butter and cheese, explored natural remedies and folk medicine.

Mother with our dog “Lucky” on the front lawn of our Blythswood house c 1953

I have these great memories of her in the kitchen with huge pots of bubbling jams on the wood stove, bees buzzing around them and sometimes falling into the hot sugary geysers, while outside the garden hummed with colour and energy, flowers and vegetables flourishing from the compost she made.

Even when she became very ill with the cancer that finally killed her she wouldn’t give in, wouldn’t acknowledge that she was suffering, so I don’t think Dad was even aware of how serious it was, how close to death she was.

Mother died without doing the travelling she yearned to do. I always feel very sad when I think about that.

So I guess this piece is all about unfulfilled desires – for a life of adventure and travel, a symphony and a poetic tribute. And life goes on for all that. We get past the Celtic chord and move on, leaving a bit of our hearts someplace, but finding new lives, new connections.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2012

Giant Steps into the 21st Century

Enough energy to power a spaceship

One of the greatest talents among many great talents on Miles Davis‘s seminal album Kind of Blue was tenor man John Coltrane and he also produced an outstanding album which broke new jazz ground in1959: Giant Steps .

Trane” as he was affectionately called, came from Hamlet in North Carolina, where he was born in September 1926. He moved to Philadelphia in 1943 and joined the US Navy in 1945. He played in a Navy band in Hawaii for about a year. He played with Davis from 1955 to 1957, with Thelonius Monk in the later part of 1957 before rejoining Davis in January 1958.

The stint with Monk was critically important for Coltrane as playing with Monk encouraged him to play more riskily, with higher levels of alertness to what was going on around him musically: “I learned new levels of alertness with Monk,” Coltrane told writer Nat Hentoff. “If you didn’t keep aware of what was going on, you were lost.”

It was also during this time with Monk that Coltrane developed the style which critic Ira Gitler would dub “sheets of sound” to describe how Trane would fit many, many notes into each bar, each phrase.

Monk also started Coltrane off on his habit of playing long, long solos.The anecdote about Davis asking Trane why he didn’t stop a solo is indicative. Trane said he didn’t know how to end the solo. “Take the mouthpiece out of your mouth,” said Davis.

Hentoff records how one of Trane’s solos could last an hour. Few other tenor players could keep up the physical demands of such long solos, never mind the ability to produce fresh ideas and sounds over such extended periods. As Gitler remarked: “His continuous flow of ideas without stopping really hit me. It was almost superhuman. The amount of energy he was using could have powered a spaceship.”

Also while with Monk Trane began to explore the limits of music in terms of both rhythm and harmony. With his only album as leader for Blue Note Records, the 1957 release Blue Train , he introduced into jazz the so-called “Coltrane changes” as two of the numbers on the album used this technique, namely “Moments Notice” and “Lazy Bird.” This technique of chord substitution would be a major feature of the Giant Steps album two years later.

The recording sessions

Giant Steps is the first album to contain only compositions by Coltrane and no standards, though five of the original seven tracks could be considered to have become standards by now, i.e. “Giant Steps”, “Naima”, “Cousin Mary”, “Countdown” and “Mr P.C.”

The album was recorded in four sessions on 26 March, 4 May and 5 May, and the final session on 2 December 1959. The personnel on each session was slightly different with Paul Chambers on bass the only constant beside Coltrane. In the original version of the album the takes from 26 March were not released, and were only released as alternative takes on the later re-releases in 1974 (the album Alternate Takes , Atlantic) and the 1995 Rhino release John Coltrane: The Heavyweight Champion, The Complete Atlantic Recordings .

In this Hub I will only be discussing the tracks from the original release. I will also not go into technical detail about the “Coltrane changes” – maybe the subject for another Hub?

The Atlantic album was produced by famed Turkish producer and Atlantic executive Nesuhi Ertegun.

The tracks in order

Track 1: Giant Steps

Animated sheet music for “Giant Steps”

The first track is “Giant Steps”, recorded on 5 May 1959 with Tommy Flanagan on piano and Art Taylor on drums.

The composition is based on a cycle of major thirds from B (it starts with a B triad) through G to E flat. According to some writers Coltrane was interested in this form by the bridge in the Richard Rodgers song “Have You Met Miss Jones?” Whatever, it is a medium tempo romp with wonderful solos first from Trane, followed by Flanagan in a relatively short one.

The next track is “Cousin Mary” recorded in the same session. Longish solo by Trane followed again by Flanagan for a few choruses and then a typically eloquent bass solo by Chambers before Trane comes back to wrap it all up.

The next track is “Countdown” which is based on a harmonic inversion of Davis’s tune “Tune Up” and is rich in “Coltrane Changes.” It is a fast, swinging number which starts with a drum intro which, after a few bars, Coltrane makes into a drum and tenor duet for a few more bars before the bass and piano come in to take the number into a swinging conclusion.

The track entitled “Spiral” is a medium tempo number recorded on 4 May, as was “Countdown.” Again the first solo isTrane’s, followed by Flanagan and Chambers, before Trane re-enters to put a seal on it.

“Syeeda’s Song Flute” is a happy medium tempo composition inspired byTrane’s then 10-year-old daughter. A very accessible jazz tune.Flanagan takes a long, happy-sounding solo, with some wonderful basslines from Chambers, who has his own also longish turn after a chorus or two, and before Trane comes back to round it off.

Track 6 is the gentle, beautiful “Naima”, named for Coltrane’s first wife. Hentoff, in the original liner notes wrote: “There is a ‘cry’ – not at all necessarily a despairing one – in the work of the best of the jazz players. It represents a man’s being in thorough contact with his feelings, and being able to let them out, and that ‘cry’ Coltrane certainly has.”

Naima was recorded in the 2 December session with Wynton Kelly on piano and Jimmy Cobb on drums.

The piece is a quiet rumination in complete contrast to the next number,”Mr. P.C.” which was recorded in the 5 May session. This is an up-tempo tribute to Paul Chambers, of whom Trane is quoted by Hentoff as saying: “I feel very fortunate to have had him on this date and to have been able to work with him in Miles’ band so long.”

Flanagan has a long, sprightly solo before Trane and Art Taylor have a session of trading fours and then Trane re-introduces the theme to bring the proceedings to an exciting end.

Conclusion – the legacy of the album

Of the many great jazz albums recorded in 1959 this is one of the most interesting and certainly has been long regarded by jazz musicians as the “gold standard” in improvisation, both in terms of the beauty of the results and in terms of the technical demands the music makes on the soloist.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2012

Wesley Pepper – portrait of an engaged artist

I believe in people, art, poetry, music, creativity and love … my art is an interaction between me and my surroundings.” – Wesley Pepper

What is the meaning of art in the South Africa of the 21st Century? Wesley Pepper is answering that question by doing art, not theorising about it.

The Johannesburg-based artist was born in Kimberley in the Northern Cape

“Dark skin” – a drawing by Wesley Pepper which was included in a collection of poetry by local writers

Province of South Africa in July 1978. He studied art, majoring in oil painting and drawing, at the Free State Technicon in neighbouring Bloemfontein before moving to Port Elizabeth where he studied computer graphics at a Further Education and Training (FET) college, before moving on to Cape Town.

After a short stay back in Kimberley where he was active in an arts-and-crafts collective Pepper moved to Johannesburg in 2002.

I sold a piece within five hours of arriving here,” he says with characteristic enthusiasm.

A concern that Pepper expresses is about the commercialisation of art: “People look at the price tag before they look at the work.”

He would like with his art to challenge the conservative world-views of many South African communities with regard to art, the conservatism of blue suits and ties!

“We are a beautiful concept” – drawing by Wesley Pepper

The challenge Pepper makes is through his engagement, through postering and workshopping, through involvement with other artists, musicians and writers.

“I call my art ‘open spaces’ coz exactly of that, I involve myself in various spaces and my art is about what I experience,” says Pepper.

Together with local writers Pepper has produced three collections of poetry for which he has provided art works. He has also facilitated creativity workshops and been involved with artists’ collectives.

“I love organising people,” he says.

The collective with which he is currently involved is planning a large exhibition for 2013 – which he says will take art out of the gallery and into the street.

I asked Pepper about his views on what constitutes art, on what an artist is. His

“Hair” – drawing by Wesley Pepper

reply: “An artist (according to me) is someone who is conscious about their creativity and has the talent to ‘make art’ and make a living off it.”

“As an artist you are measured by your work and hopefully my work made a statement and that’s what defines me.”



Sewing Circles and war – a review of Christina Lamb’s Afghanistan memoir

War isn’t beautiful

“War wasn’t beautiful at all. It was the ugliest thing I had ever seen and it made me do the ugliest thing I had ever done. The real story of war wasn’t about the firing and the fighting, some Boy’s Own adventure of goodies and baddies. It wasn’t about sitting around in bars making up songs about the mujaheddin we called ‘The Gucci Muj’ with their designer camouflage and pens made from AK47 bullets. It was about the people, the Naems and Lelas, the sons and daughters, the mothers and fathers.” – from Christina Lamb’s The Sewing Circles of Herat (HarperCollins, 2002).

“Dizzy with Kipling and diesel fumes.”

The Sewing Circles of Herat is about the human cost of the “great game” that has been played in and about Afghanistan by the three major powers of imperial Britain, Soviet Russia and the United States, each of them playing the game by the rules of their own particular perceptions of realpolitik , their own interests in the stony and impoverished land made, according to Pashtun legend, from a pile of rocks left over when Allah had finished making the rest of the world.

Lamb’s book, quite different from David Loyn’s Butcher and Bolt , is the story of a foreign correspondent’s personal experiences in the roiling cauldron of violence that has been Afghanistan for the past 30 years, since the December 1979 invasion by the Soviet army, violence that has only increased in intensity since the horror of 9/11.

It is also the story of a young woman, Marri, who wrote a series of letters and a diary during the dark days of the Taliban oppression “On my desk is a handful of letters from a woman of about my own age in Kabul. She risked her life to get them to me and this is also her story.”

The two intersecting stories make for a very moving and at times horrifying read, starting from Lamb’s arrival in Afghanistan, “…stumbling out of a battered mini-bus in the Old City of the frontier town of Peshawar, dizzy with Kipling and diesel fumes.”

“If ever there was a country whose fate was determined by geography,” writes Lamb, “it was the land of the Afghans.”

Christina Lamb re-entering Afghanistan in November 2001.

While Afghanistan was never a colony, it has “always been a natural crossroads – the meeting place of the Middle East, Central Asia, the Indian Subcontinent and the Far East – and thus frequently the battlefield and graveyard of great powers. Afghans spoke of Marco Polo, Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, and Tamerlane, as well as various Moghul, Sikh and Persian rulers as if they had just passed through.”

Christina gets a ride in the only convertable in Afghanistan

Into this complex land Lamb came as a “gawky English girl”, a “graduate of philosophy at university and of adolescence in British suburbia”, to witness at first hand the struggle of the mujaheddin against the Soviet occupiers and then again, 12 years later, the effects of the “war on terror” that followed the 9/11 attacks in New York.

The torturer

The Taliban torturer, Mullah Khalil Ahmed Hassani

One of Lamb’s early encounters after the fall of the Taliban was with 30-year-old Mullah Khalil Ahmed Hassani, a business studies graduate from Peshawar University. He was forced to leave his job as an accountant for a trading company in Quetta to join the Taliban who had arrested Hassani’s 85-year-old grandfather in Kandahar and would only release him if a male member of the family joined up.

Hassani was drafted into the secret police and at first patrolled the streets looking for anyone disobeying the many intricate and often absurd regulations such as: women not allowed to buy from male shopkeepers; any woman showing her ankles to be whipped; a ban on shoes with heels or that make any noise as no stranger should hear a woman’s footsteps; a ban on cosmetics, meaning that any woman with painted nails should have her fingers cut off.

A later assignment for the “Taliban torturer” was to guard some shipping containers full of Hazara women and children. Hazaras had been declared, by the governor of Mazar-i-Sharif, Mullah Manon Niazi, non-Muslim “Kofr” and thus “legitimate” targets for the worst possible treatment.

In the 40 plus degree Centigrade heat the 450 or so prisoners were kept in the containers without water, food, or toilet facilities, in what Hassani called “among the worst of many bad things” he and his men had been forced to do. “I can still hear the noise, the desperate banging on the metal and the muffled cries that gradually grew softer,” Hassani told Lamb.

Marri’s story – a bird singing in the tree

“…I hope this will help you outside understand the feelings of an educated Afghan female who must now live under a burqa.” – Marri’s first letter to Christina Lamb, dated 24 September 2001.


Marri and Christina did not know each other when Marri first wrote to Christina. The process of learning about each other, the discovery of the humanity behind the rhetoric of Afghanistan symbolised by their search for each other, is the focus of this book, which makes it indeed as much Marri’s as Christina’s story.

On 13 November 2001 Marri wrote to Christina: “Kabul is free, can you believe it!” The Northern Alliance had advanced on the city and the Taliban had left, as Marri wrote, “like thieves in the night.”

After the Taliban rule ended Marri wrote of the return of simple, everyday things that had been banished by the religious fanaticism: “Our new neighbours have small children and they are laughing – their father has brought them a pink and green paper kite and it is flying high in the sky. How long it is since we heard laughter – now imagine, that was banned too.”

Boy flying kite in Kabul in February 2002

Marri ends this letter: “This is a sweet night.”

In a diary entry in February 2002 Marri wrote, “Soon it will be spring, there will be cherry blossoms, maybe we will hang up our burqas for good and even start to love again.”

During the Eid holiday in 2001 Christina began to search for Marri in the crowded part of Kabul called Microrayon, having only Marri’s letters to guide her. The search lasted two months, two months of meeting and questioning many, many people, following false leads and getting discouraged.

Izatullah, one of Kabul’s leading kite makers, was jailed by the Taliban and all his kites burned.

It was only on the day before Christina was due to leave Afghanistan that she got word that her helper Tawfiq Massood had found Marri, not in Microrayon but on the other side of Kabul, where she and her family had fled to escape the noise and the bombs.

“Since the Taliban left I cannot stop smiling,” Marri told Christina. “The snows have come back to the city and today there was a bird singing in the tree. And now you have come.”

Christina pointed out that Marri had taken a huge risk in writing and smuggling the letters out of Afghanistan, and asked why she had done it.

“We thought we were the forgotten people,” Marri said. “…it gave us hope that someone somewhere wanted to know…”

When they parted Marri gave Christina a parcel wrapped in a cloth – when Christina opened it she found it was Marri’s diary.

“We must never forget”

The entrance to the “Golden Needle” sewing circle of Herat.

Women in Herat window-shopping for white shoes.

One of the enduring themes of this book is the survival of human values, human activities, in spite of the dreadful effects of the inhumanity of war and religious fanaticism, ideology and economics.

One symbol of that was the Sewing Circles of Herat, which give the book its title. Under the Taliban, literature, especially Western literature, was a forbidden subject, especially for women, who were not allowed education of any sort.

In an alley in Herat was a doorway with the sign: “Golden Needle, Ladies’ Sewing Classes, Mondays, Wednesdays, Saturdays”.

“Three times a week for the previous five years, young women, faces and bodies disguised by their Taliban-enforced uniforms of washed-out blue burqas and flat shoes, would knock at the yellow wrought-iron door. In their handbags, concealed under scissors, cottons, sequins and pieces of material, were notebooks and pens.”

This was the home of Mohammed Nasir Rahiyab, professor of literature at the Herat University, where he gave the women lessons on literary criticism, aesthetics and poetry, including western classics. All subjects forbidden by the Taliban, more especially to women.

Why run this “Sewing Circle”?

Refugee children in Maslakh camp, Herat, forced from their homes by the 23 years of war.

The professor explained: “If the authorities had known that we were not only teaching women, but teaching them high levels of literature we would have been killed. But a lot of fighters sacrificed their lives over the years for the freedom of this city. Shouldn’t a person of letters make that sacrifice too?”

Zena and Leyla risked imprisonment and beatings to study literature

The professor added: “A society without literature is a society that is not rich and does not have a strong core. If there wasn’t so much illiteracy and lack of culture in Afghanistan then terrorism would never have found its cradle here.”

Words of amazing optimism in a land in which, in a few years, one-and-a-half million people had been killed, and millions more horribly injured and displaced. And typical of the incredible power of the human spirit to endure and to choose life, if not to flourish, even in the most unconducive conditions.

As Christina’s friend Hamid Gilani put it in the final words of this fascinating and important book, “… we lost so many people. One and a half million. That’s too big a number. Every one of them had their story and we must never forget.”

Copyright Note

The text on this page, unless otherwise indicated, is by Tony McGregor. The illustrations are taken from the book The Sewing Circles of Herat by Christina Lamb (HarperCollins, 2002) and are copyright by the author.

Should you wish to use any of the text feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2012

Of miscegenation, race and redemption – two South African novels

“Miscegenation – n. The inter-breeding of people of different races. – Origin C19: formed irregularly from L. miscere ‘to mix’ + genus ‘race’ + -ation (Concise Oxford English Dictionary)”

“Unrestrained sexual intercourse between the black and the white races is … a crime of great magnitude, for it is the self-murder of a white nation whose mission it should be to maintain a supremacy of highest civilisation throughout the world.” – from Of European Descent by Mary Frances Whalley and A. Eames Perkins (Juta, 1909)

“Race has no basic biological reality, the human species simply does not come packaged that way.” – Professor Jonathan Marx of Yale University.

“I know perfectly well … that in a scientific sense there is no such thing as race, but I as a politician need a concept which enables the order which has hitherto existed on historic bases to be abolished and an entirely new and antihistoric order enforced and given an intellectual basis …” – Adolf Hitler

The fictional concept of race has overshadowed South Africa for centuries, and the shadow fell heaviest during the 20th Century, when the policy of crude segregation pursued by the white colonists since the founding of the first white settlement at the Cape in the mid-17th Century became “intellectualised” in the ideology of apartheid almost exactly 300 years later.

Much has been written, both fictional and journalistic, about the place of race in South African society and politics – some justificatory and some condemnatory.

Modern South African literature can be said to have started with Olive Schreiner’s great novel The Story of an African Farm (published in 1883 under the pseudonym ‘Ralph Iron’) from which the race question was almost entirely absent.

Turbott Wolfe – mirror held to a dirty face

Race took stage front and centre with the publication in 1926 of William Plomer’s Turbott Wolfe which rudely and roughly tore down the curtains of evasion and etiquette which had hitherto hidden the realities of racial injustice from the vast majority of white South Africans.

These whites were not at all pleased at having their comfort disturbed, at having their role in the injustices based on the fiction of race so vividly brought to their attention. Indeed the book caused an uproar unlike anything literary had caused in the country before.

One letter writer to a local newspaper even complained that the novel was “not cricket”! It wasn’t meant to be.

As Plomer’s friend and fellow-South African writer Roy Campbell wrote in his satirical poem The Wayzgoose:

Plomer, ’twas you who, though a boy in age,

Awoke a sleepy continent to rage,

Who dared alone to thrash a craven race

And hold a mirror to its dirty face.

William Plomer

Plomer was 22 when he wrote the novel which was to bring him such notoriety in his then home country and such fame in the rest of the world. Plomer was born in 1903 in the city of Polokwane (then called Pietersburg) in the province of Limpopo (though it was then still in the Northern Transvaal) and spent his early years moving between South Africa and the United Kingdom, though he lived fully in South Africa from 1918 to 1926.

Plomer wrote Turbott Wolfe while living at Entumeni in Zululand, disguised as “Ovuzane” and “Lembuland” in the novel. In his autobiography Double Lives (Jonathan Cape, 1943) Plower described the writing of the novel as “an outburst of poetic frenzy”. An outburst it certainly was.

The novel opens in a dingy room in an unnamed English town where Turbott Wolfe lies dying and tells his story to the author, a school friend from the not too distant past. The “ridiculous room” is a figure of the racist mind: “The room itself was so tawdry as to be grotesque.”

The room is decorated with a sort of faded gentility, with “Patterns of flowers, sewn or painted or printed in smudgy colours…” to the extent that the author feels “obscured by all these scentless bouquets” though Turbott Wolfe himself “seemed so little obscured that he might have purposely designed those enormous bistre-and-green roses that were tousled and garlanded up and down the coverlet on the bed; and the wall behind his head, with its bouquets of brown marguerites, its pomegranates and bows of ribbon and forget-me-nots, …”

Wolfe tells his story to the author, how he was ill after leaving school and went to Africa, like so many others, to attempt a cure for his unnamed illness. He goes to Lembuland to run a trading store there in a “native” reserve.

He is licensed to run the store Ovuzane where he passes his time “between trace and flok-lore and painting and writing and music, between sculpture and religion and handicrafts.”

Very soon, though, Wolfe begins to learn “the hard lesson that in Lembuland it is considered a crime to regard the native as anything even so high as a made wild animal.” Appalled by this attitude on the part of the whites in the area Wolfe sets himself to “seek with keenness for information about the relations between blacks and whites in those parts.”

Wolfe’s neighbours are portrayed in most unflattering ways, and he sees them as “unclean” people with whom he would not choose to “breathe the same air”.

Then one day a young black woman came into the store and “took my breath away.”

“An aboriginal, perfectly clean and perfectly beautiful. I have never seen such consummate dignity.”

The young woman, Nhliziyombi, was in complete contrast to the meanness of Wolfe’s white neighbours, “She was an ambassadress of all that beauty (it might be called holiness), that intensity of the old wonderful unknown primitive African life – outside history, outside time, outside science.”

This was Plomer’s first crime in the eyes of white South Africa – to find beauty, indeed to be attracted by the beauty, in a black person, and particularly a black woman.

As Laurens van der Post wrote in the introduction to the 1985 Oxford edition of Turbott Wolfe, “That, of course, roused an even angrier reaction from the white South Africans. One of the cardinal principles of the popular attitude was that it was impossible for a decent, civilised white man to be attracted by black women.”

But the novel went even further – some of the characters in it were openly and actively in favour of that horror of horrors, miscegenation.

The newly-arrived missionary Rupert Friston says, “I do not assert yet that miscegenation should be actually encouraged, but I believe that it is the missionary’s work now, and the work of any white man in Africa worth his salt, to prepare the way for the ultimate end.”

Another character, Mabel van der Horst, who herself marries a black man in the story, says to Wolfe, “What the hell is the native question? You take away the black man’s country, and, shirking the future consequences of your action, you blindly affix a label to what you know (and fear) the black man is thinking of you – ‘the native question.’ Native question, indeed! My good man, there is no native question. It isn’t a question. It’s an answer.”

This was written a mere 16 years after South Africa had been unified with a blatantly and explicitly racist constitution, a country which was ruled by a minority who believed totally that the country was a “white man’s country”.

It was written a mere 13 years since the passage of the Land Act of which Solomon Tshekeisho Plaatje wrote in his Native Life in South Africa: “Awaking on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African Native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth.”

Van der Post in his introduction writes: “Art, to me, is a magic mirror wherein are made visible aspects of reality hitherto invisible, and thus Turbott Wolfe was for me and some of my generation in South Africa.”

No wonder the whites did not like having its “dirty face” reflected in the mirror of this fine novel.

The forlorn crying of the titihoya

Another novel of race which came out of the pre-apartheid era in South Africa opens in way deeply different from the beginning of Turbott Wolfe: where Turbott Wolfe is lying dying in a dingy room in England, author Alan Paton opens Cry the Beloved Country (first published by Jonathan Cape in 1948) with an elegiac, beautiful paragraph about the wide open landscape of southern kwaZulu-Natal, in what is in my view the most beautiful passage in South African literature:

There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. The road climbs seven miles into them to Carisbrooke; and from there, if there is no mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa. About you there is grass and bracken and you may hear the forlorn crying of the tithoya, one of the birds of the veld.”

The contrast with the opening of Turbott Wolfe is indeed dramatic and is indicative of the wide differences between the two books. Plomer is, in spite of clear preference for a liberal point of view, a realist, while Paton is a romantic.

Indeed, despite the fact that Paton’s book has been hugely popular in many parts of the world, and has been the source of much of the world’s popular knowledge about South Africa, Plomer’s novel is perhaps a better, though far less well-known, work of art.

Both of these books are passionate works of art; Plomer’s work is passionate about art and literature and the issue of race is dealt with in that context. Paton’s work, on the other hand, is passionate about justice, about morality, and the issue of race is dealt with in that context.

Indeed Geoffrey Hutchings, writing in the excellent compendium Perspectives on South African English Literature (Ad Donker, 1992) could call Paton a “Puritan”: “He can be seen within a tradition of English Puritanism whose great figures include Sir Thomas More, John Milton, John Bunyan, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Florence Nightingale, W.E. Gladstone, D.H. Lawrence and F.R. Leavis – not, in other respects, a group with very much in common.” (Interestingly, Geoffrey Haresnape, writing on Plomer in Perspectives on South African English Literature, lists Turgenev, Conrad and E.M. Forster among Plomer’s literary forebears.)

Alan Paton

Yet he could write a few sentences earlier, “My story, begun in Norway and Sweden, was becoming a cry of protest against the injustices of my own country.”

(I find it interesting that these two novels also had such different births – Turbott Wolfe was conceived and born on a lonely trading station in rural kwaZulu-Natal of a 22-year-old; while Cry the Beloved was conceived and born in Europe and the United States of a 40-year-old on a study tour of penal institutions for juveniles. Both were also first novels for their respective authors.)

Cry the Beloved, in contrast to the almost exclusively white perspective of Turbott Wolfe, is written almost entirely from the perspective of a black Anglican parson, Steven Kumalo. However, the polemical nature of the writing does not encourage any depth of psychological insight, though such insight is not entirely lacking.

As Hutchings notes, “South Africa recognised itself reluctantly in his (Paton’s) portrait, and within a few years other writers had followed Paton, often in more horrifying detail.”

The “magic mirror” was held up to South Africans again, and again they did not like it too much.

Paton tells of sitting next to Mrs Malan, wife of the Nationalist Party Prime Minister Dr D.F. Malan, at the screening of the first movie made of the book. She said to him, “Surely, Mr Paton, you don’t really think things are like that.” To which he replied, “Madam, I lived in that world for thirteen years.” He writes that he did not add, “and you, madam, have never seen anything of it at all.”

Towards the Mountain

Both books end with images of mountains and valleys. Turbott Wolfe is on the train heading to the coast and back to England and death, and from the train window sees “the moonlight on the deserted barren mountains. They are turning and turning like roundabouts as the train turns round and about.”

And then he quotes a stanza of a poem:

Into the night, into the blanket of night,

Into the night rain gods, the night luck gods,

Overland goes the overland passenger train.”

Paton’s book ends with the priest looking out over the mountains and valleys where the story had started, and watching the sunrise, the sunrise which would be the last day of his son’s life, as the son was to be executed for murder that morning. And Steven Kumalo reflects on the experiences of the last weeks. At the moment when he thinks his son will die, he stands, removes his hat, and prays. As he does so the dawn finally breaks over the rim of the valley.

But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret.”

The Magic Mirror

In his introduction to Turbott Wolfe Laurens van der Post tells of how as children he and his friends would put a mirror in front of baboons they had caught. The baboons would be convinced that the image in the mirror was another baboon and they would search frantically for the other baboon, never accepting that the image in the mirror was their own.

In their highly neurotic and intelligent way they were convinced that a dirty trick was being played on them, and the exercise would end with them picking up the mirror and smashing it to pieces.”

Van der Post concluded, “This has always seemed to me a precise rendering of South Africa’s reaction to Turbott Wolfe.” One might add, to Cry the Beloved Country too.

Works cited

Chapman, Michael; Gardiner, Colin; and Mphahlele, Es’kia (eds) (1992): Perspectives on South African English Literature. Johannesburg: Ad Donker.

Paton, Alan (1948): Cry the Beloved Country. London: Jonathan Cape

Paton, Alan (1986): Towards the Mountain. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Plomer, William (1985): Turbott Wolfe. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Van der Post, Laurens (1985): The “Turbott Wolfe” Affair. Introduction to Plomer, William: Turbott Wolfe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.



50 Years on and Kind of Blue is still a winner!

The recording date

Fifty years ago this year (2009) trumpeter extraordinaire Miles Davis went into a studio in New York with six of the top jazz musicians of the day and laid down five tracks which have together made up a unique jazz album which is still rated as not only the top selling jazz album of all time, but one of the artistically most influential.

This album, loved by musicians of many different tastes, is Kind of Blue , an artistic text of rare beauty, a soundscape that draws the listener into a space of intense musical collaboration and deep inspiration.

The musicians on the album, which has been re-released many times over the years, were Cannonball Adderley on alto sax, the inimitable John Coltrane on tenor sax, Bill Evans on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, Jimmy Cobb on drums, and, on one track, Wynton Kelly on piano.

The musicians went into the Columbia studio on 2 March 1959 and on that day laid down three numbers: “So What?”, “Freddie Freeloader”, and “Blue in Green”. Kelly played only on “Freddie Freeloader”.

The other tracks, “All Blues” and “Flamenco Sketches” were recorded on 22 April 1959.

The break with bebop

Painting of Miles by Easton Davy The Jazz Cat. Used with his kind permission

The album marked Miles’s decisive break with bebop, at least in studio recordings. Kind of Blue is a triumph of the modal approach to jazz, and, according to his biographer Ian Carr, “brought to even greater heights the brooding, meditative side of his music which had revealed itself for the first time on (Charlie) Parker’s ‘Now’s the Time’ session in November 1945.”

The album is remarkable for many things and one of the most impressive to the listener is the way the music hangs together and makes for a complete artistic whole rather than just a collection of songs, although each song is also complete in itself.

Key to the whole feel of the album is Evans on piano who brought his own sensibilities to the music and built on the ideas that Miles sketched our for the musicians.

The pieces were not rehearsed beforehand and the musicians had only minimal instructions on how Miles wanted the numbers to sound. Which is why, in the liner notes to the original release, Evans wrote, “you will hear something close to pure spontaneity in these performances.”

Track 1: So What

The opening track, “So What”, sets the mood and tone for the whole album, with an impressionistic introduction from Evans which leads into a riff played by Chambers and is answered by the horns in three-part harmony, in a variation on the call-and-response technique. It is one of the most recognised numbers in all of jazz.

The solos on “So What” are taken by Miles first, followed by Coltrane, Adderley and finally Evans again. Evans’ solo is backed by the horns palying a variation on the response in the first section.

Track 2: Freddie Freeloader

The next track, the only one on which Kelly played, is “Freddie Freeloader” which is a true twelve-bar blues with Kelly taking the first solo, a brilliant bluesy romp, followed by Miles, Coltrane, Adderley and then a short bass solo by Chambers with Kelly doing some brilliant comping behind the bass.

Track 3: Blue in Green

Although all the tracks on Kind of Blue are listed as being composed by Miles, the track “Blue in Green” is somewhat disputed, as Evans later recounted: “One day at Miles’s apartment, he wrote on some manuscript paper the symbols for G minor and A augmented, and he said, ‘What would you do with that?’ I didn’t really know, but I went home and wrote ‘Blue in Green'”.

As Carr wrote in his biography of Miles: “This begs the question of what, precisely, the act of composition in jazz consists.” Carr goes on to say that “In a Zen pupil-and-master sense, by pointing Evans in a particular direction, Miles was certainly ‘composing’ himself.”

Whatever, the number is a beautiful ballad which shows up both Evans’ and Miles’s playing in a kind of lapidary clarity. Miles’s use of the Harmon mute, which was to become something of a trademark with him, is almost painfully poignant, dripping melancholy and wistfulness.

Track 4: All Blues

The track which opened side two of the original vinyl LP release, was “All Blues” which Miles composed originally in 4/4 time, but when they got to the studio, Miles said, “it hit me that it should be in 3/4. I hadn’t thought of it like that before, but it was exactly right.”

This number is built up of layers of sound from the drums playing a steady 3/4 rhythm, and the bass a single note per bar, over which the horns play a repetitive harmonised three-note riff with Miles using his Harmon mute again to make interpolations as he wanted to. He then removes the mute to play the first solo, bringing a whole new texture to the playing of the other musicians.

Track 5: Flamenco Sketches

The final number on the album is”Flamenco Sketches” which is another ballad. Again the question of who composed it comes up, but it is generally accredited to Davis.

The piece opens with some sombre bass notes with Evans playing some quiet chords over the bass before Miles comes in with some beautiful melodic inventions using the Harmon mute again. The bass is particularly beautiful in the opening bars, with an understated gravitas.

Coltrane then gets into the act with an amazingly soulful solo mostly in the lower register of his horn, which makes the contrast with the relative sparsity of higher register notes all the more interesting. Adderley follows with an interesting alto solo that keeps the soulful mood going into the higher end of the scale.

Evans’ solo starts off so minimalistically that its almost not there at all. Just a few quiet and well-chosen notes answering the bass, ending with a few rippling chords before Miles come in again with the plaintive sound of the Harmon mute, with long notes stretching almost, it feels, to infinity, until the number just quietly ends.

Summing up

The album was released by Columbia on 17 August 1959 and has been influential ever since. In an All About Jazz review of the album Philip B. Pape in 1999, he called the album “a defining moment of twentieth century music.”

Richard Cook and Brian Morton, in the 1994 Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, LP and Cassette, wrote that the “steady mid-tempos and plaintive voicings on ‘So What’ and ‘All Blues’ establish further the weightless, haunting qualities of the music, which no collection, serious or casual, should be without.”

So truly an anniversary to be celebrated, these 50 years of superlative and innovative music which still sounds fresh and, even after all that has happened in music in the intervening years, almost daring in its minimalist, modal approach.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2009

A Walk on the Wild Side – Christmas 1970 on the Transkei Wild Coast

The Wild Coast

The Transkei Wild Coast is a scenic wonderland of unspoilt beaches, gently rolling hills covered with lush green grass interspersed with some rugged ravines, dramatic cliff faces topped with wild banana trees with ferns growing out of the cracks in the rocks.

In summer the Wild Coast is a hot, moist stub-tropical area with mists that roll over the hills and make one’s skin damp, the leaves of trees drip and animals almost disappear on the roads, creating real hazards for drivers.

This is the region my first wife Joan (we had been married a year then) set off for from Durban in our hired car in the middle of December 1970 for a holiday with my parents and my brother Chris and his wife Maxine and their three-year-old daughter Andromeda (known as Meda). We were then living in Durban.

Lovely beyond any singing of it

The drive down to the Wild Coast was uneventful and the scenery quite beautiful, as it is at that time of year. Natal and the former Transkei are very similar across either side of the border between them.

As we drove through the little town of Ixopo on the kwa-Zulu Natal side of the border we were reminded of the wonderful opening sentences of Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country : “There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hill are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.”

We drove along many such roads, past many such grass-covered and rolling hills, with the huts of the people and their goats and sheep and large black pigs, their cattle and stands of maize. It was a beautiful journey with a beautiful destination.

At that time I did not have a great camera, but I took photos anyway and whenever I could to try to capture the loveliness of the scenery and its people. The accompanying photos were all taken on this magical holiday, which was the last time we were all together as a family until my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1985, so it is a special time in my memory.

The cottage at the sea

Maxine and mother doing a jigsaw puzzle while Andromeda does her own thing

We arrived at my parent’s little cottage at Qolora Mouth in the late afternoon and it was a time of first meetings – Joan and I had not met Maxine or Andromeda before, and Joan had not met Chris either. My parents had brought Joan’s mother from East London to join us. So it was a happy time, as I guess Christmas is supposed to be.

Our days at Qolora were peaceful, spent in long walks on the beach and the occasional dips in the warm Indian Ocean.

Due to the legislation governing the so-called “Bantu reserves” under the apartheid regime, white people were not allowed to own property but could get permission from the local chief to build and occupy beach cottages. So the cottage my parents had was not strictly theirs. They were allowed to take holidays there only. So there was no incentive to “improve” these cottages in any way.

As a consequence this cottage had no running water or electricity. Water was collected from a little spring that flowed, winter and summer, with the sweetest, freshest water imaginable, just behind the cottage. At night we played canasta or read by the light of candles and paraffin lamps.

The cottage itself had two bedrooms on either side of the little living room, and a small kitchen at the back. On either side of the front stoop (verandah) were two thatched huts, in one of which Joan and I slept and in the other Chris, Maxine and Andromeda. Joan’s mother had one room in the cottage and my parents the other.

On Christmas day the Anglican priest from Butterworth, whom we knew well, Fr Woods, came to celebrate a Christmas mass to which some of us went.

Christmas and New Year

Christmas lunch was a happy time with presents all round and of course wonderful food. My mother was especially good at making steamed Christmas pudding, something of an anomaly in the hot summer weather, but enjoyable nonetheless.

On New Year’s Day a group of local people came around looking for the traditional

In all his finery. The incredible beadwork of the amaXhosa is always dramatic and beautiful

“Christmas Box” and so we were entertained by their singing and dancing.

The “Wild Coast” did not get that name for nothing! Historically it was a wild place, where the seafarers of old feared the rocks and contrary currents and winds. Many a ship came to grief on the treacherous rocks that stick out into the ocean along its shoreline. There are many stories of the survivors of shipwrecks being taken care of by the local people.

But for us that December it was the setting for an idyllic time of relaxation and fun, of getting to know each other anew, of celebration.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2012

Aimez-vous Picasso?

Picasso. Image via Wikipedia

Modern Art – do you dig it?

Much has been written about modern art. Many people seem not to really like it, claiming that they don’t understand it, or that it’s ugly. Now I know one’s taste in art is a very personal thing. And people can become very defensive about their tastes – in art and everything else they can have tastes about!

This article is just to say, hey, what we like is often about what we know, and knowing a bit more about modern art might just open our eyes and our minds to some great experiences – tactile, visual and emotional.

Modern art has a long history now, and over that history looms the larger-than-life figure of the man from Spain with those piercing, almost hypnotic eyes, Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Martyr Patricio Clito Ruíz y Picasso, known to the world simply as Picasso.

To me Picasso is the Beethoven of modern art. I know, I know – wrong era, wrong style, etc., etc.

Let me try to explain why I say this. Beethoven was really sui generis , one of a kind, although in a way all composed music since Beethoven, at least until the start of the 20th Century, is judged on his terms and against his towering work. In a similar way Picasso, for all his many faults and his wide range of styles, remains the gold standard for modern art.

Beethoven did not start all of the musical styles which followed him, neither did Picasso start all the artistic styles which followed him, but without these two great artists the history of musical and artistic expression would have been very different. In fact it is impossible to imagine music, at least that genre which is mistakenly called “classical” for want of a better shorthand term, without the brooding figure of Beethoven.

Likewise modern art would not have been what it was without the sometimes puckish, sometimes brooding, always fascinating figure of Picasso.

“Everyone wants to understand art. Why don’t we try to understand the song of a bird? Why do we love the night, the flowers, everything around us, without trying to understand them? But in the case of a painting, people think they have to understand. If only they would realize above all that an artist works of necessity, that he himself is only an insignificant part of the world, and that no more importance should be attached to him than to plenty of other things which please us in the world though we can’t explain them; people who try to explain pictures are usually barking up the wrong tree.” – Picasso

Another reason why Picasso is like Beethoven for me is that everything he did, however trivial or unimportant it might seem, had the quality of rightness, as if the way Picasso did it was the only way it could be done.

Leonard Bernstein, writing about Beethoven, could have been writing about Picasso, in my view. Just change a word here or there and the following passage could, mutatis mutandis, be applied to Picasso:

“The real function of form is to take us on a varied and complicated half-hour journey of continuous symphonic progress. To do this, the composer must have his inner road map. He must have the ability to know what the next destination will be – in other words, what the next note has to be to convey a sense of rightness, a sense that whatever note succeeds the last is the only possible note that can happen at that precise instant. As we have said, Beethoven could do this better than anyone, but he also struggled with all his force in the doing.” Form Leonard Bernstein, The Joy of Music, 1960. (Emphasis in the original)

The eye of the hawk; the cunning of the alchemist

Picasso created some 22 000 works (more than 16 500 of these have been catalogued and are viewable on the magnificent On-Line Picasso Project,, some of which were sublime, others pretty tacky. They range from delicate, almost wistful drawings of birds and Don Quixote to what is arguably the most powerful anti-war statement in modern art, possibly in all art: the massive mural Guernica, expressing Picasso’s horror at the bombing of the little Spanish town by planes of the German Condor Legion under the command of Lt. Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen, cousin of the infamous “Red Baron” of the First World War.

Picasso was born in Malaga in October 1881 and died in France in 1973. From his earliest days he was a great draftsman, following initially in the footsteps of his painter father Don Jose, who taught at the local School of Fine Arts and Crafts. By the time Picasso was 13, his father acknowledged young Pablo’s superiority as an artist and handed over to his son all his brushes, paints and palette.

In an interview published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1957, the journalist Carlton Lake responded to Picasso’s saying that “I don’t paint pictures in the hope that people will understand them,” by asking the artist if he thought critics and others who tried to explain art were performing a useless function.

Picasso responded with a vigorous “no”: “The critic or any intermediary must build a bridge people can walk over to join the artist.”

I guess I’m trying to build a bridge like that, because Picasso is so important to me and I would like others to understand him and appreciate him. What I think Picasso meant by building a bridge is for the critic or whoever, not to try to explain Picasso, but maybe to explain what Picasso means to them. Indeed it is presumptuous for one who is not even an artist to try to explain a great artist’s work.

In the same interview Picasso said: “Perhaps it would be better if all critics were poets and wrote poetry instead of pedantry.”

So I’m going to try to be a poet and share my feelings about the great man, feelings that have meant much to me over the years.

The Three Musicians (1921)

One of the first of his paintings which grabbed my attention was one of the two famous “Three Musicians”, a cubist painting from the so-called “synthetic cubism” style, painted 1921. I saw this work (in reproduction only, unfortunately!) in a small book about Picasso which my brother Chris brought home one university vac. It grabbed me because I reacted immediately to the mysterious feeling of the painting. What was that strange figure to the right of the painting? He seemed to overshadow the other two and yet I couldn’t decide whether or not I liked him. There was something ominous, something brooding about him, and yet the colours and composition were pleasing, even light-hearted. What was going on here?

I loved especially the way the pages of music looked, the blue and white background with the black notes.

Saltimbanques (Full title: La famille de saltimbanques (Les bateleurs)) painted in 1905

The next painting that I loved was the Saltimbanques (Full title: La famille de saltimbanques (Les bateleurs))painted in 1905. This group of circus people just moved me – it had to do with the colouration, those pale muddy colours with the contrasting reds and blues, the static feel of the image which made it feel to me somehow sad, nostalgic for something I didn’t know. They just looked and felt right to me, as though they just should be like that.

And yet the painting also had a feeling of mystery for me – what was the story behind this picture, who were these people and what held them together, apart from the frame of the picture? Two things in particular fascinated me – the little girl with her basket and the almost transparent classical-looking jar at the right knee of the seated woman. And why was she seated when all the other figures in the painting are standing?

Then I started reading about Picasso living in the squalid tenement known as Le Bateau-Lavoir (the laundry-boat). And so many other artists as well, whose names I was coming to know through reading about Picasso. I became aware also of the periods of Picasso’s art – the Blue, Rose, Cubist and neo-classical, to mention some of the labels that have been applied to his art.

Bull’s Head (1943)

Picasso used a sometimes bewildering variety of styles throughout his career, now figurative showing a clarity of line which has been compared with that fine master of line Ingres, to a total abstraction or what has been called by some a deformation. The great Picasso expert and critic Roland Penrose (in The Sculpture of Picasso, 1967) wrote that Picasso “has always been willing to probe our complacency about the identity of an object by showing that in certain circumstances it can mean something surprisingly different from the accepted interpretation.” So that ordinary, everyday objects can take on a wholly different aspect and meaning. Picasso used a bicycle saddle and handlebars to create a bull’s head (Tête de taureau) in 1942/3, making it impossible for me ever since to see either the bicycle components or a real bull’s head without seeing the other.

Penrose continues in the same paragraph: “With the eye of a hawk and the cunning of an alchemist, Picasso assembled a series of important sculptures made from a rich variety of objects collected from beaches and rubbish dumps. Apart from their aesthetic values they induce a metaphysical enjoyment that is not far distant from the doubt and disquiet provoked by Hieronymus Bosch.”

The effect of the radical changes brought about by World War One

Another artist brought to mind by this kind of assemblage of artefacts not normally thought of as “artistic” which we find in both the painting and the sculpture of Picasso is that great poet Thomas Stearns Eliot who similarly brought many different things together to create his art, notably the poem which so dramatically, so eloquently and “rightly” captures the zeitgeist of the first half of the 20th Century, “The Wasteland.”

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) – the painting which ushered in the cubist style

Critic Mary Karr points out how this poem expressed the way technological advances, particularly in warfare as seen in the First World War, “heaped lifestyle changes on the Western world more radical, perhaps, than written history ever recorded” (in The Wasteland and Other Writings, 2002).

Karr points out that these cultural shifts and revolutions have a deep effect on the art of the time: “So expect a text as fragmented as a clattering, bouncy ride through London or New York must’ve been; a text disorientating as a modern battle was to the soldiers of the Great War. The poem’s made of bits and overlays, snatches of speech and song – various dictions and noises and tones. Just as cities were.”

Picasso, like Eliot, Beethoven and even Bosch, was a person very much of his times and so his art accurately reflects those times, and his struggles to come to terms with them. As anyone with any sensitivity must struggle with what is going on around them.

What makes an artist great, whether Beethoven or Eliot or Bosch, is the authenticity that they achieve in responding to the world around them, how honest and vulnerable they are. And Picasso is totally himself, can never be other than he is. And this shows in every line he draws, every spot of colour he applies, every bronze or clay shape he creates.

Which is not to say that he doesn’t at times play with his audience. Obviously he has a sense of humour which comes through – who would have thought of a toy car as the head of a baboon (La guenon et son petit)? And yet how right that is now that Picasso has done it!

The last word from the master

For me the fascination of Picasso is in much more than his obvious skill as painter and sculptor – it is in how, with his constant changes and sometimes grotesque juxtapositions of objects and ideas, he constantly keeps the viewer awake. As Karr said of Eliot, he “meant above all to keep the reader riveted to the text and concentratedly alive.” Picasso seems always to be saying to the viewer, “Don’t be taken in or seduced by what you see – think about it and make something of it for yourself.” Anything less in art is dishonest. Or as he said himself, rather concisely: “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.”

Appropriately, I think, the last word belongs to the great man himself:

“The different styles I have been using in my art must not be seen as an evolution, or as steps towards an unknown ideal of painting. Everything I have ever made was made for the present and with the hope that it would always remain in the present. I have never had time for the idea of searching. Whenever I wanted to express something, I did so without thinking of the past or the future. I have never made radically different experiments. Whenever I wanted to say something, I said it the way I believed I should. Different themes inevitably require different methods of expression. This does not imply either evolution or progress; it is a matter of following the idea one wants to express and the way in which one wants to express it.”

References and works consulted:

Bersnstein, Leonard (1960): The Joy of Music. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson

Daix, Pierre (1965): Picasso. London: Thames and Hudson

Karr, Mary (2002): The Wasteland and Other Writings. New York: The Modern Library

Lake, Carlton (1957): Picasso Speaking. The Atlantic Monthly, July, 1957 Volume 200, no. 1 (pages 35 – 41). Accessed 30 December 2008:

Moffat, Charles (n.d.): Pablo Picasso from retrieved on 30 December 2008.

Penrose, Roland (1967): The Sculpture of Picasso. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

Read, Herbert (1965): A Concise History of Modern Painting. London: Thames and Hudson

Copyright Notice

The text on this page, unless otherwise indicated, is by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2012

St Petersburg comes to the Highveld – the Russian Orthodox Church of St Sergius of Radonezh in Midrand

Gleaming golden onion-shaped domes are not common sights on the Highveld – or anywhere else in South Africa, for that matter.

The ones that caught my eye while driving from Pretoria to Johannesburg on the N1 highway one day belong to the parish church of St Sergius of Radonezh in Midrand, Gauteng, and I could not ignore their call though I had no idea what these strange visions were until I went closer.

I found the church and met the parish priest, Fr Daniel Lugovoi, who told me something of the history of this beautiful church.

The church, which was designed by well-known (in Russian circles at least) St Petersburg architect Yuri Kirs, was completed in 2003 and consecrated for worship on 2 March of that year. It was built by local builders under the supervision of the architect.

It is the only Russian Orthodox church

The bell tower to the west of the church

building in South Africa and serves about 200 people from the Commonwealth of Independent States who now live in the country. It falls under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Alexandria in Egypt.

Fr Daniel Lugovoi

Fr Daniel Lugovoi

The church is dedicated to much-loved St Sergius of Radonezh, a 14th Century saint who did much to reform the monastic tradition in Russia and whose feast day is 25 September.

Fr Lugovoi, who has been the priest in charge since January 2010, trained at a seminary in Moscow, his home town.

Kirs, who has designed churches in

Attention to detail is obvious in every aspect of the building

Russia and the United Arab Emirates and supervised the refurbishment of many churches in and around St Petersburg, designed this church to include homage to both the culture and history of the Russian Orthodox Church and this particular church’s home in South Africa. His design of this church won him the Order of St. Daniel of Moscow.

The east wall of the church

The church has a character of simplicity in its white walls and yet with great attention to detail in the many artistic features such as the mosaic icons on the exterior walls and the calligraphy decorating the exterior vaulting. The nod to South Africa’s history is found in the Cape-Dutch-style “gables” just above the roof line of the vaults.

Inside the church seems much more spacious than one expects, due to the light and airy space created by the central dome and the light pouring in through the windows in the tower above it. At the top of this lantern tower is the icon of Christ Pantokrator – the Creator of everything.

Every wall is covered with icons and other decorations, all created by artists from the academy in St

The central lantern tower with the icon of Christ Pantokrator

Petersburg, who also created the external mosaics and calligraphy. The gold leaf which tops each slender Byzantine column, the domes

The nave with its brightly-coloured murals

and other details, was also created by Russian craftsmen.

The iconostasis or templon

Dominating the interior is the dark imbuia iconostasis with its many bright icons and beautiful carved details. The contrast between the dark wood and the brilliant colours of the icons creates a rich texture which itself contrasts with the overall simplicity of the building.

In the centre of the iconostasis (also called the templon) is the double door known as the “beautiful gate” through which only clergy may pass into or out of the sanctuary which is behind the iconostasis in the eastern arm of the cruciform building. Doors at each end of the iconostasis are known as angel or deacon’s doors and allow acolytes and deacons access to the sanctuary.

Fr Daniel beside the “beautiful gate” in the iconostasis

The choir loft

Viewed from the nave the icon to the right of the beautiful gate is of Jesus and the icon to the left is of the Theotokos or Mother of God (the Virgin Mary) holding the infant Jesus.

Surrounding the church are well-kept gardens and a building which houses a church hall and bell tower to the west of the church.

Altogether this church is an embodiment of harmony between art, culture and spirituality, every element designed in detail to contribute to an uplifting experience for the church-goer.

A gallery more oif of my photos of this lovely church can be found here.

Anglican Cathedral to Presbyterian Church – the fascinating journey of a church with a history

Main door of St Saviour’s, Randjesfontein, 2012

Echoes of a Victorian theological controversy which played out in the British Natal colony are heard in the Presbyterian Church of St Saviour’s in Midrand, Gauteng.

In 1853 Anglican divine and mathematician John William Colenso was appointed Bishop of Natal by the then Metropolitan Bishop of Cape Town, the Right Reverend Robert Gray. Colenso came to his new bishopric, centred on St Peter’s Cathedral in Pietermaritzburg, in 1854 and was quite soon involved in controversy around two issues – the first was his liberal interpretation of certain Biblical texts and the second was his, for the times, radical approach to the black people of the colony, the amaZulu of King Cetewayo kaMpanda.

Bishop Colenso’s views on these matters, especially his Biblical

St Saviour’s Cathedral, Pietermaritzburg, 1870

liberalism, brought him notoriety (or fame, depending on one’s point of view) throughout the English-speaking world. The High Church party in Britain was particularly worried about the theological and political ramifications of Colenso’s opinions and Gray in December 1863 deposed Colenso after a church trial for heresy.

Colenso successfully appealed against this action but he was opposed by the Dean of his Cathedral, Dean James Green who on Colenso’s return left St Peter’s with his followers and set up a parallel Church in St Saviour’s in 1868.

Another Bishop was appointed by Gray, Bishop W.K. Mcrorie, who took his throne in St Saviour’s. Thus for a number of years there were two Church of England dioceses in Natal Colony, a situation which only came to an end after Colenso’s death in June 1883.

Looking up the nave towards the sanctuary.

The two church buildings however continued to function, with St Peter’s being an ordinary parish church, until St Saviour’s was de-consecrated in 1976 and set for demolition in 1981.

The lovely woodwork of the ceiling

Two men associated with the development of a residential township on the historical former farm Randjesfontein in Midrand, Gauteng, Charles Lloys Ellis and Keith Parker, heard of the imminent demolition of St Saviour’s and decided to buy the sanctuary, transepts, nave, chapter room and library and transport the fabric to Midrand. Here the former Cathedral was re-built under the guidance of architect Robert Brusse.

The north wall of St Saviour’s with the baptistry

The re-constructed church is beautifully simple and elegant, retaining much of the Victorian Gothic of the original. The roof is high with lovely Gothic-style trusses and the floor of red tiles is also remarkable.

On one side of the nave is an organ loft and on the other a small baptistry chapel. The entrance to the church looks still very much as it did in 1870.

St Saviour’s, Randjesfontein, was consecrated for worship on 16 May 1985 – appropriately, the Feast of the Ascension.

The beautiful grounds of St Saviour’s

The church is surrounded by beautifully-maintained gardens shaded by high conifers.

The building is still privately-owned and is rented to the Midrand Presbyterian Congregation. The beauty of the building has also ensured that is popular as a wedding venue and a venue for musical recitals and other cultural activities.

A gallery of more of my photos of this beautiful church can be found here.