The Seanchaí

A seanchaí (pronounced SHAN-e-khee) was a traditional Irish storyteller, travelling the length and breadth of rural Ireland, entertaining the locals with their tales of history and legends. Before the Irish language reforms of 1948, their title was spelled seanchaithe and anglicised to seanachie.  The stories were not written down, but passed orally from generation to generation from earliest times. Of course, with vastly improved literacy and the ready availability of books, newspapers, radio, television, and the internet, the function of a seanchaí became redundant. Today, one will only come across a seanchaí in an occasional stage performance.

Frank Delaney (1942-2017) wrote an informative and entertaining book called ‘Ireland’, published in 2008, in which he weaved the tale of a young man’s search for an itinerant story-teller (a seanchaí) from his childhood, together with snapshots of Irish history from the Ice Age to 1916.

Frank Delaney

I read the book not long after its publication, and I found myself inspired to take a fresh approach to my own efforts at documenting my family history and some of my own experiences.  I had spent a lot of time on research and writing, but I was not comfortable with the result to date. It was frankly boring.

It was a good friend, Lain Burgos-Lovece, who suggested that I try writing my history as a blog. It seemed to be a good idea at the time, and after a couple of stumbling attempts, ‘The Irish Rover’ was launched. And to date, I have written 173 articles and there have been viewers in 98 countries!

But like a seanchaí, when I have written my last blog and gone on my last journey, I hope that one of my four sons will pick up the baton and enlighten the next generation.

No pressure guys! 

Our Lady of Guadalupe

According to the legend, in December 9 1531 an indigenous Mexican peasant known as Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, an Aztec Catholic convert, was crossing the Hill of Tepeyac in a present-day northern suburb of Mexico City, when he came upon a young woman, who claimed to be Mary, the Virgin Mother.  She requested that a church in her honour be erected at that site.

Juan Diego reported his vision to the Archbishop in Mexico City, but he was not believed.

The next day, in a second vision, Mary told him to insist on her request.  He returned to the archbishop, who suggested that he should return to the hill and request a truly miraculous proof of her identity.

Mary’s response was to instruct him to gather some flowers from the summit of the hill, which was normally barren in mid-winter. There he found some roses growing, a flower not native to Mexico.  He gathered some and carried them to the archbishop in his cloak.  When he opened his cloak and showed the roses, they found an image of Mary imprinted on the cloth, an image that is venerated to this day in the Basilica de Guadalupe.

Initially, the location of the appearances was marked with a pile of stones and a wooden cross.  Eventually a small shrine was built to house the image.  In about 1660, the Capilla del Cerrito was constructed, and with the greatly increased number of devout visitors, the first Basilica was added in about 1695. Due to the eventual sinking of the foundations, a new Basilica was completed in 1975.

On the hill, the Capilla del Cerrito on the site of the original apparitions (internet photo0
Lower down, the old basilica (internet photo)

It was when I lived in Australia in the early 1970’s that a very devout Australian lady told me about Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. I became most curious about the legend.  I had already been to Lourdes and had in mind to one day go to Fatima, in Portugal, a still unfulfilled ambition.  All three locations involved a vision of Mary.

Today, the religious complex at Guadalupe is by far the most revered Catholic site in the Americas, and one of the most visited religious centres in the world. Reputedly, some twenty million people visit the site every year.

The new Basilica (internet photo)

My opportunity to visit the site came when I was travelling overland from Panama to the United States in April 1976. Like Lourdes, it seemed to have been taken over by tawdry commercialism, but the churches and chapels were impressive, and the obvious devotion of the visitors was sobering.  I left with mixed emotions when I returned to the city.

On the one hand, there was no surviving documentary mention of the apparition until 1648. Indeed, the bishop approached by Juan Diego was not consecrated until some three years after the event, and he made no mention of it in his writings. But of course, it is quite possible that such documentation has been lost or destroyed.

On the other hand, there is so much unexplained about the image.  The cloak (tilma) apparently shows no obvious sign of deterioration after almost 600 years. It survived intact from a bomb placed at its foot by an anti-Catholic extremist in 1921, a blast that destroyed much of the interior of the church. According to experts, there is no evidence of brush strokes or protective varnish, and when enlarged, several images can be seen in the eyes of Mary. In the opinion of many who have examined the image, it is inexplicable in human terms.

It is true that the Hill of Tepeyac was formerly the site of a Nahual temple to honour Tonantzin (‘Our Mother’), a Nahual goddess. Could the Catholic Church have chosen the site to convert superstitious Aztec peasants to the new religion, using an invented tale of mysterious appearances and a faked cloak?

What to think?  Was it truly a miracle or just a clever hoax of the Catholic Church?

Almost certainly, we may never know, but I feel sure that the academic debate will continue ad finitum.

Chamonix

When I was based in Switzerland, in 1996-98, in the spring, summer and early autumn, I spent many weekends hiking in the mountains. For me, la randonée became a passion, and Chamonix with Mont Blanc and the surrounding mountain chains seemed like Nirvana. One summer weekend I drove to Chamonix to go hiking, but the holiday traffic was so horrific and the crowds so dense, that I turned back. It was not until 2008 that we finally went there again, staying in a hotel by the river Arve. We loved our week there so much that we returned every summer from 2009 until 2015, until our move to Cape Town.

Chamonix is close to the French borders with Italy and Switzerland. The region is extremely mountainous and is known as Haute-Savoie, a department of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes. The only practical access is by road and there is ample mini-bus transportation at a reasonable price from the nearest airport, that of Geneva. The journey takes about 75 minutes.

Chamonix, south of Lake Geneva, and close to the borders of both Switzerland and Italy

Chamonix is in a narrow V-shaped valley, cut by the rapidly flowing river Arve. To the west is the dominant summit of Le Brévent and on the east the massif of Mont Blanc. From the south, access is from Sallanches: from the north, from Martigny in Switzerland: and from the south-east, via the tunnel from Courmayeur and the Aosta Valley in Italy.

The Chamonix valley with Aguille du Midi, Mer de Glace, Lac Blanc and Le Brevant

We returned in 2010, renting an apartment overlooking Place Balmat, in the heart of the town. Two of my sons, John, and Philip, met up with us at Geneva airport, and a few days later, the other two, Andrew and Bob, joined us in Chamonix, having cycled more than 900 km from England. Bob must have enjoyed the experience, for he and Philip cycled almost 1,800 km from England to Venice a few years later. And to top it all, this year Philip cycled about 5,000 km in 44 days from New York to San Diego, where he currently lives.

Oh, to be young again!

The view of Place Balmat from the apartment window
The two late arrivals from England

In 2011, I tried once more rent the apartment in Place Balmat, but due to it having been recently renovated, it was no longer available for short-term occupancy. After a lot of searching, I succeeded in renting the top floor of a chalet off Rue Helbronner, 400 m from the town centre. With three bedrooms and sleeping capacity for another two, albeit rather cramped, it turned out to be perfect for us, and for the next few years the chalet became our summer home. In 2015 we stayed there for four months.

The chalet in winter, as seen from Rue Helbronner (photo taken by a friend)
And the chalet in early spring (photo taken by the same friend)
View from the chalet during an unseasonal snowstorm in May
Mont Blanc from the balcony of the chalet

When we returned in 2015, we were greeted with a construction site, complete with pile drivers, excavators, trucks, and constant noise from 08:00 to 17:00 and sometimes even later, five days a week. It turned out that our landlords knew that construction was planned, but ‘somehow had not been informed’ as to when it would start. But hey, we are understanding people and shit happens, so we received a free daily demonstration of how a modern house is constructed!

The rear view awaiting our last visit

Normally, on the first day after our arrival, we would hike up to Le Chalet de la Floria, to get our ‘mountain legs’ and to feast our eyes on the beauty of the valley. The ascent is only about 300 m, but the going is steep, and on a warm day, the cold beers that await us are most welcome. And for the return, we would continue along the mountain side, then steeply down rocky paths to the river and back to the town. It was always a perfect introduction to another Chamonix holiday.

Chalet de La Floria restaurant at 1350 m

Most days we hiked up the valley, either following the main river Arve or its tributary, the Arveyron. The two rivers converged just before Chamonix. We explored every path we could find, and on our way back to Chamonix, we would always stop for a well-deserved beer. Life felt so good.

Sometimes we would take the local train further up the valley to Vallorcine, the last village before the Swiss border. It is a beautiful walk back, ascending for a while and then steeply down to Argentiere, followed by a gradual descent beside the river Arve to Camonix. The scenery is out of this world.

For the vertically ambitious hiker, there are countless paths on both sides of the valley. From La Flégère and the path to Lac Blanc, one can get an incredible view of La Mer de Glace, the second longest glacier in Europe, the longest being that of the Aletsch in the Bernese Alps of south-central Switzerland.

The view of Mer de Glace from the path to Lac Blanc

On the other side of the valley, one can get much closer to Mer de Glace, by taking the cog-wheel train to Montenvers at 1913 m from Chamonix at 1035 m. As I refuse to join the tourist mobs, we walk up.

Mer de Glace from near the Montenvers station at 1913 m

On the way back down by a steep path, we stop at a beautiful little cabin and garden, offering refreshments.

Buvette des Mottets, on the way down from Montenvers

For the physically endowed, there is the climb to Le Brévent at 2525 m. For the less ambitious, there is the cable car.

John on the final ascend to the summit of Le Brévent at 2,525 m

And once on Le Brévent, one has an uninterrupted view of Mont Blanc on the other side of the valley.

Mont Blanc from Le Brévent, with Aiiguille du Midi on the extreme left

Of course, if one wants to have a closer view of Mont Blanc, there is the cable car from Chamonix to Aiguille du Midi at 3842 m. And for those with ample funds, one can continue the trip on cable cars all the way over the massif and down into Italy.

When we have been in Chamonix, the coordination of providing ample food, wine, beer etc. for six or more hungry hikers, after a day in the mountains, have always been quite beyond me. Thankfully, Lotta took responsibility for purchasing and cooking. And she also insisted that everybody took turns to provide dinner. To my surprise, all the boys reacted positively, although the first time it happened, John was a bit concerned that the only dish he could make consisted of scrambled eggs, bacon, beans, and toast, more a breakfast than dinner, but we unanimously insisted that it also qualified as dinner, and it was a success.

Now my culinary efforts are modest. My idea of a 4-course meal tends to be three large glasses of wine and a baked potato with cheese. I can make an egg sandwich, and beans on toast, if I remember to buy bread. So, it was no surprise when I said that I would take everyone out to a restaurant of my choice.

And that restaurant turned out to be Le Monchu, where they specialised in mountain dishes from Haute-Savoie. My favourite was tartiflette, made with potatoes, reblochon cheese, chopped bacon, onions, and white wine. We returned many times to that restaurant.

Le Monchu at 1 Rue du Lyret, Chamonix
A typical tartiflette

My sons are now all grown up and living in Germany, Spain, England, and the U.S, with us now in South Africa. And with Covid, long-haul travel has become rather tedious, if not impossible at times. But I feel sure that if we were to once more schedule a stay in Chamonix, we would need accommodation for at least six.

Martha Anne Blackwood


All are of the dust, and all turn to dust again’ – (Ecclesiastes 3)

Martha Anne Blackwood was born in 1874, in the small settlement of Hotspur, at a crossing of the Crawford River, about 60 km north of Portland, Victoria, in Australia. Martha was the eleventh of twelve children of James Blackwood and Hannah Mickleborough.

Her parents were born and raised in Hethel, a small rural parish to the south-west of Norfolk, in England. They married in 1832. James Blackwood was my first cousin 3x removed, and would have been a companion of the children of my great great grandfather, Robert Blackwood (1809-1867).

Indeed, it was not only James and Hannah who migrated to Australia in about 1857. They were preceded by his sister, Susanna, and her husband, Robert Lane, who settled in Longford, Tasmania. And they were followed by their brother, Isaac, who settled in Digby, about 20 km north of Hotspur.

And between the three siblings, they eventually had at least twenty-four children in total. It can be no surprise that there are lot of Australians who can trace their ancestry to Hethel, in Norfolk!

In 1899, Martha Anne gave birth to a son, Clement. The father’s name was not recorded on the birth record. In the photo, taken in about 1912, Clement has his hand on his grandfather’s shoulder. To me, that gesture suggests that he respected the old man.

Hannah & James with their daughter, Martha Anne, and her son, Clement (photo from internet)

Clement eventually moved from Hotspur, and by 1932 he was living at 51 Bancroft Street in Portland, being employed as a labourer. At the same address was listed Annie Elizabeth Victoria Blackwood, Clement’s cousin and eleven years his senior. She died in 1971 and in the probate records, she was listed as a spinster. Clement died in 1977.

Nothing further is known about Martha Blackwood, until the following report that appeared in the Portland Guardian on Thursday 23 August 1951.

ELDERLY WOMAN FOUND BURNT

An aged woman who dwelt alone in an old bush cottage near Hotspur was found dead last week, apparently having been burned to death during the night or early morning. She was Mrs Martha Anne Blackwood, aged 78. The dead woman was found during the morning by a lad named Edge, who delivered bread once weekly to the cottage, lying on the kitchen floor with all her clothing burned off. The body was brought to the Portland mortuary, where a post mortem examination was held, and an inquest opened by Mr. W. H.Matthews, J.P., of Heywood. After evidence of identification, the inquest was adjourned to a date to be fixed. The post mortem examination revealed that Mrs Blackwood had suffered extensive first and second degree burns and some asphyxiation. The cottage in the heart of the bush in which Mrs Blackwood lived, was built of large wooden slabs and it is probably the fact of its stout construction that it did not ignite. It is thought that Mrs Blackwood, who was in the habit of sitting dozing in front of a fire set in the large open-type colonial oven rather than going to bed, and who habitually wore a heavy shawl, fell forward into the fire. A kerosene lamp was still burning when the body was discovered. Mrs. Blackwood, who is survived by a son, Mr. Clem Blackwood, of Portland, had lived alone for some years. She had persistently rejected suggestions that she should leave her home and go elsewhere where she would be cared for.

It was a tragic ending to the life of an independent old woman.

I do not know where Martha was buried or whether her grave was ever marked. I would like to think that her remains were taken to the Hotspur graveyard to join those of many of her siblings. Unfortunately, the Hotspur graveyard today looks forlorn and neglected, with few marked graves.

Hotspur cemetery in recent days (photo from Internet)

But there is at least one Blackwood grave there and perhaps there are others.

The grave of James Nehemiah Blackwood (1854-1923) & Mary Black (1852-1916)

One day, before it’s too late, I hope that a descendant of the Blackwood family will visit the Hotspur area to record and photograph for posterity the little that remains of their roots.

Before all is reclaimed by the bush.

Versatel

It was in mid-1983, when I returned to Miami from a periodic visit to my transition team in Panama, that my boss, Conrad Planas, presented me with my next assignment. He explained that the Bank of America (BofA) Country Manager for Peru, Roberto Anguizola, had requested managerial support in developing his vision of a system that could give the bank country-wide if not regional leadership in retail banking systems.

Within a few days, I was flying south.

And for most of the next week, whenever Roberto could make himself available, we brain-stormed his proposed system for Peru. His idea was to have a telecoms link between the clients and the bank’s computer systems. The clients would be able to access their accounts, up-load their payroll, their staff would receive a competitive rate of interest, and with a card, pay for their groceries and withdraw cash at branches of the main supermarket chain in Lima.

No big deal, I can hear you think, but you must remember that the IBM PC had only just been developed in Boca Raton and was not yet universally available, and there was no Internet as we know it today. Access to computer systems and their data was via a dumb terminal at the end of a cable and few people had a credit or debit card linked to their bank accounts. And as far as we knew at that time, nowhere could clients withdraw cash, pay for their purchases, and have their bank account updated in real time from a retail environment. Life as we knew it then was very different.

For the client, their staff, the supermarket chain and Bank of America, this system could be a win-win-win-win.

In that era, personal security in Peru was poor, and the terrorist organization, Sendero Luminoso, was in control of large parts of the country and threatening the physical infrastructure of Lima.

For clients, direct access to their accounts and the ability to upload their payroll directly to the accounts of their staff was both a productivity and a security gain.

For the clients’ staff, the ability to withdraw cash in a secure environment, at the same time as they pay for their shopping, was an attraction, thus avoiding to having to queue in a bank or to use a potentially vulnerable ATM.

For the supermarket chain there was the resulting incremental business and a reduction in the amount of cash they had to carry, potentially reducing their insurance costs.

And for BofA, there was the possibility of a profitable long-term relationship with the client and their staff.

Long before the end of my visit, I was convinced of the commercial potential of such a suite of systems, and Roberto was keen that I undertake the management role. Before I left to return to Miami, he sent a request that I be transferred to Lima. The administrative wheels turned rapidly, and in a short time, I was back.

When I arrived, I found that Roberto had provided everything that I had requested, and more. I had a large development room with all the equipment we could ever need. I inherited a small team of developers – José Luiz and Vicky Basurto, Miguel Ruiz-Conejo and Luz Maria Fernandez, together with Rueben Uchina, responsible for the computer systems.

For several months we worked intensively on the development. I felt that I had the support of all the involved departments of the bank, and we met whenever we reached a decision point.

From time to time, I got involved in presenting our system direction to existing and prospective clients. I remember on one such occasion presenting to a major Japanese company, with the aid of Luz Maria, who knew some Japanese. Fun times!

Before the development was completed, Roberto was promoted and transferred to Panama to manage a very much larger business. His role was taken by Bill Schoeningh. Despite Bill having had no prior involvement in the project, he gave me his full support, without reservation.

While the software development was being completed and tested, Luz Maria led the design and production of the debit cards, the marketing materials, and the booths that would be installed in the supermarkets.

Part of the marketing materials, including my Versatel debit card
Miguel Ruiz-Conejo, Jose Luis Basurto, Luz Maria Fernandez, Vicky Basurto, and yours truly
The first Versatel booth waiting to be moved to a supermarket

Sadly, for me, once the software was accepted, my further involvement in the project was no longer required, and I had to return to Miami. It remained to the local Peruvian team to deliver the implementation of Versatel.

Once back in Miami, I learned that I was to be transferred to Buenos Aires to be involved in the integration of the systems of a recently acquired Argentine bank.

Argentine work permits were applied for, but after several weeks, there was no material progress. Unfortunately, my US bosses did not seem to understand that an employee with a UK passport was not exactly welcome in Argentina, following the very recent Malvinas (Falklands) war.

While this application process was stalled, I received an offer from the Managing Director (MD) of a UK company, P-E International, for which I had worked for several years as a contractor with Shell Oil in London, Lagos, and Caracas. I had previously told him that I would never consider joining his company if I didn’t have a realistic crack at his job.

‘Now is the time’, was his response!

Suspecting that Argentina would turn out to be a dead-end opportunity, I moved to the UK. I have had no regrets.

Believe it or not, I have never found out what ever happened to Versatel. Not long after I left Bank of America, I remember reading that Peru had stopped paying its international debts, and that some, if not all, of the American banks were closing their operations and withdrawing from the country. For lack of any better information, I assumed that Versatel had not survived.

Which would have been a great shame, for the system could have been a market leader.

Greenacres

My father’s WWII duty ended in Northern Germany, at Lübeck, northeast of Hamburg. He was demobbed in late January 1946, after more than six years of active service, having been involved in the invasion, wounded in the fighting in France, Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany. He made his way back to England, where he received £95 and a suit from the UK government, visited his parents in Norfolk, and reunited with my mother in Glenmanus, a small rural village just outside Portrush on the north coast of Ireland.

Nine months later, almost to the day, I was born.

My father had a commitment from his former employer, Sainsbury, to enable him to resume his pre-war managerial career, but he turned it down. Despite having no agricultural background – his father was a classical musician and his mother a teacher, he had decided to start a poultry breeding farm. His interest in poultry dated from when he was rested from the fighting and spent two weeks at a poultry farm in The Netherlands. With most of his limited capital, he bought a pedigree cockerel and twelve hens and started his fledgling breeding farm on a small plot of land allocated to him by his father-in-law.

In the meantime, while his stock of birds slowly expanded, he subsidized his income by playing piano with his dance band, initially at Barry’s dance hall in Portrush, and later at the Northern Counties Hotel, in that era one of the premier hotels in Ireland.

By 1951, the poultry flock grew too large for the small plot of land in Glenmanus. My mother’s uncle Bill Douglas, a retired farmer, granted my father a 99-year lease on some fields that he owned beside Carnalridge Primary School, on the road to Coleraine. A new house was built and in 1952 we transferred to our new home. It was the start of Greenacres Poultry Farm. Expansion was rapid and within a relatively short time, the fields were fully utilized. All income was reinvested, and my parents never had a holiday; they worked every day of every year. There is never a break from livestock on a small holding.

The house and farm buildings, the photo dating from circa 1960
A schematic layout of the farm, together with the neighbours – Ard Rua, where my paternal grandparents lived, the Collins farm, the Bankhead (the Carnalridge headmaster), Boyd and Gurney, Houston and Walker.
The fleet of small arks that housed the young chickens, while they grew accustomed to being outdoors. The arks were moved every few days across the field, leaving behind manure to fertilize the grass.
There were four houses thay housed the free-range laying flocks. In the background can be seen the family house.
One of my father’s Light Sussex cockerels. Note the spurs!
A small flock of Brown Leghorns, with a laying house in the background

My father’s reputation soon spread and in 1958 Silcock, the leading animal feed company, sponsored a ‘Poultry Demonstration’, to which were invited farmers over all the north of Ireland. A large tent was erected, with tables and chairs, and for two days the invitees arrived and were hosted with presentations, demonstrations, tours of the farm and Irish hospitality.

It was judged to have been a great success and my father’s business prospered.

The farm was never exclusively for poultry breeding. A herd of pigs was introduced together with a small flock of 30 sheep, to keep the grass under control. In addition a flock of turkeys was added and once a year pheasant chicks were hatched for a local landowner.

My father’s prize boar

But disaster struck in Northern Ireland in about 1964 with a severe outbreak of fowl pest, a devastating chicken disease. Ireland was very dependent on its agriculture and despite strict quarantine practices, somehow the disease had entered the country. The government mandated that there could be no movement of any livestock between farms. My father had little capital and in a short time he was out of cash. Despite his years of being a solid client, his bank was of no help. It was yet another example of banks being your fair-weather friend!

Everything on the farm that could be sold was sold and with the pittance that he accumulated, he bought a small grocery business that was then available in Portrush, across the road from the train station. It belonged to a Mr Gibson, who was retiring.

The business was never a great success. Portrush was in long-term tourism decline. There were fewer and fewer visitors and a new supermarket in Coleraine negatively impacted local small grocers. My father persisted for several years but finally surrendered to the inevitable and finished his working years as the store manager at Kelly’s, a nearby complex of hotel, bars, restaurant and nightclub.

After my mother died in 1985, my father returned to his first love – music. He bought a then-state-of-the-art organ and re-established his reputation as a talented musician. And until the week he died in November 1995, he provided background music in several local hotels and restaurants.

My father was talented at everything in which he was involved. He was a brave and courageous soldier, wounded but refusing to succumb. He was an innovative farmer, who challenged the boundaries of poultry breeding. He survived through his prior training in the grocery business. And his talent as a musician never failed him.

He has proven to have been a difficult act for me and for my sons to follow.

Going for it

‘One day you will wake up and there won’t be any more time to do the things you wanted to do. Do them now.’

(Paolo Coelho)

BC (Before COVID), I had a clear vision of how I wanted to spend whatever time I had left – four months in South America, similar in Southern Europe and the rest in South Africa, repeated ad infinitum. That was my ambition. ‘Following the Sun‘ was my mantra and it seemed to be within my grasp.

Until COVID came along and screwed up the world.

Now we are all in life’s waiting room. And governments have seized their opportunity to legislate and control us. But given their inevitable incompetence, they will mostly fail, and we will eventually regain some independence., albeit probably with another useless layer of bureaucracy.

In the meantime, I continue with my efforts to improve my ability in Spanish, French, and Portuguese. In Spanish, I am conversant and relaxed, in French I can defend myself, and in Portuguese I still valiantly struggle, but I hope to eventually sufficiently improve.

My linguistic goal has never been perfection, but to be able to communicate effectively, with a minimum of glaring error. I will always have the intrusion of my Irish accent, and that I am unlikely to lose.

At school, I was never a great student of Latin and French, although I generally achieved acceptable marks. I never understood why we bothered to study languages. I received no encouragement from my parents, who were monolingual. My father always said that he had had enough of Europe after his six years of war service, and he never ever wanted to return. My mother used to say that ‘the only good German was a dead one’, a view that caused many a clash between us. I understood her bitterness, but I also felt that my generation and our children had to turn the page and start a new chapter.

I first travelled around western Europe in 1968, and it was then that I was bitten by languages. I was fascinated by the communication challenges, and when I later realized that ability in Spanish and Portuguese could open new opportunities for me in Central and South America, I was well on my way.

And I have been going for it ever since!

The Clock

Every day I sit at my desk, looking toward the green wall of Signal Hill on my left, and the South Atlantic Ocean to my right.  To be tired of that view, one would be tired of living in Cape Town, to paraphrase the reputed saying of Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Directly in front of me, across the red-tiled roofs of an apartment complex, stands the clock tower of Reddam House (http://asb.reddamhouse.com/), a well-respected private school.

But despite the reputed quality of the school’s teaching, the accuracy of the school’s clock leaves a lot to be desired.  During my almost five years of living here, the clock has rarely displayed the correct time.  It has always been a few minutes slow and it has frequently stopped for days after a heavy rain storm or strong winds. Recently one of the segments of the clock face disappeared in a high wind, and for a time, there was only one hand on the side facing me.  To compound the confusion, the four faces of the clock don’t all display the same time, on the occasions when the clock actually works!

I confess that I find it very frustrating to see a clock that is often only accurate twice a day.  But here in Green Point, we have a reliable alternative: the Noon Gun.  Every day, save Sunday and public holidays, it booms across the city, at precisely 12:00. And these days, the guns are fired by an electronic signal from the South African Astronomical Observatory.

,The Noon Guns – there are two of them, with one as a backup, stand above the city at the end of Signal Hill.   This historic time signal has existed since 1806. Originally the guns were located in front of Cape Town Castle, but were relocated to their position on the hill in 1903, no doubt to the relief of the city residents and all pigeons.

The guns were cast in 1794 and were brought to Cape Town during the 1795 occupation. They are reputed to be the oldest guns in daily use in the world.

If you stand in the square by the Cape Town Stadium, at precisely noon, you can get a practical example of the difference between the speed of light and the speed of sound. You first see the puff of smoke from the cannon and what seems like at least a second later, you hear the boom, for light travels at about 300 million metres per second, almost a million times faster than sound, which trundles along at only 340 metres per second. The difference is even more apparent from further away at the promenade along the ocean.

It sometimes occurs to me that Reddam students have excellent local conditions to enable them to conduct experiments to measure the difference between the speed of sound and light.

But they can’t rely on the accuracy of their clock!

The Ghost

Not long before my father died in 1995, he asked me to contact his cousin, Joyce, and share with her my research into our family history, at least that part pertaining to my father’s mother. Joyce was most curious but did not have the means or skills to research her own family history for herself. We exchanged numerous mails and I traced her family back to the 1700s in Birmingham. Given the tools and databases available today, I could have taken her lines back much further.

It was later that I finally got around to visiting Joyce. She lived with her husband, Gordon, in Leamington, just south of Birmingham and Coventry.

Joyce was very much part of my father’s extended family and she spent a lot of her youth in Harpley, my father’s home village in West Norfolk. She seemed rather shocked by some of the illegitimate relationships that I had uncovered within by grandmother’s family, relationships that were never spoken of, that were ‘brushed under the carpet’, in typical Victorian fashion. She found it hard to accept my findings, until I showed her the proofs.

In her turn, Joyce shocked me with facts about a relationship involving my grandfather, a relationship about which she was certain my father was never aware. She was told about it by her own mother, shortly before she died, and Joyce saw the evidence for herself.

With Joyce Twycross, my 2nd cousin, in Leamington Spa, in the late 1990s

In that era, I travelled a lot, both within the UK and internationally. When I had an early start, usually around 05:00, I went to bed early and slept in our spare room. When on my own, I always left the curtains partly open. I almost always woke up with the early morning light. I rarely ever needed an alarm.

Not long after I had visited Joyce, I was disturbed in my sleep. I felt a hand stroking my head. I thought that I was dreaming. But the feeling persisted, and when I opened my eyes, in the half-light I saw an old woman bending over me.

She was dressed in black, and her hair was long and looked rather greasy. There was nothing threatening about her. On the contrary, she was touching me lovingly, as if I was a child.

I tried to speak, but no words came. I was mute. I tried to reach out, but I could not move my arm. It felt paralyzed. She must have sensed my increasing agitation, for she seemed to panic, and before I could do anything further, she disappeared out the window, like a scene being reduced to the size of a pin hole.

I did not get back to sleep that night. I remember having an intense feeling of euphoria, a realization that communication with those who have become before me, might just be possible.

That night, even though I did not have to get up early the next morning, I slept in the same room. I tried to recreate the conditions of the previous night. I willed the old woman to come back to me. I wanted to know who she was, but to no avail. There was no repeat visit. In the years since, she has never re-appeared.

Of course, it may have been just a dream, stimulated by my recent conversations with Joyce, coupled with a fertile imagination. But I am not so sure.

One day I may know more.

Although we corresponded from time to time, I only ever met Joyce in person that one time. Shortly after, I changed employment and was based in Switzerland, and later, in Paris.

Joyce died in 2005, followed by her husband in 2006.

She may be gone, but she is not forgotten.

Ulster Rugby

It was in 1960/1 that the South African Springboks undertook their fifth tour of the British Isles, Ireland, and France. Between 22 October 1960 and 18 February 1961, they played 34 games, drawing two and losing one, the latter to the Barbarians. In that era, rugby union was an amateur sport with rules that differed greatly from those of today. And what a difference to the modern-day international tours of just three or four weeks.

On Saturday, 28 January 1961, the Springboks played Ulster at the Ravenhill (now called Kingspan) ground in Belfast. I was but fourteen years old, there with a small contingent from my grammar school in Coleraine. Of the day, I can recall little, except that it was very cold, and we were in standing room only. The Springboks won 19-6. That was the first and only time so far that I have attended an Ulster game.

The years rolled by, the rules changed quite radically, and in 1995, after the World Cup in South Africa, rugby union turned professional.

In 1999, the Welsh-Scottish league was formed and the next year it became the Celtic league, with the inclusion of the four Irish provinces. It became the Pro-12, when two Italian teams joined in 2011, and in 2017 was renamed the Pro-14 with the addition of two South African teams.

Many times, I have considered going over to Belfast to see an Ulster game, but the cost of the airfare, transportation, hotel, meals, ticket etc., has always put me off. I am very careful with my money. It is for good reason that I am known to many as ‘Uncle Scrooge’. So, I managed for many years to follow the fortunes of Ulster Rugby on my laptop, via free-to-view sports channels!

In 2020, Covid-19, travel restrictions, together with lack of funds, ended the involvement of the two existing South African teams.

But a British & Irish Lions tour was planned for mid-year 2021 and the enhancements to the Cape Town Stadium were already under way, to provide two hospitality areas, which were not included in the original development.

Construction of the hospitality enhancement, with the scaffolding reaching half-way up the stadium wall

At the same time, the Cape Town team, the Stormers, would move their base to the Stadium. Their old headquarters at Newlands had been sold to property developers.

Newlands as it used to be

And then came the news that four of the top South African teams – the Stormers (Cape Town), Sharks (Durban), Bulls (Pretoria), and the Lions Johannesburg), would join the Pro-12 European league of four Irish, four Welsh, two Scottish and two Italian teams.

The initial tournament was to be called The Rainbow Cup. There were to be two pools of eight teams, each with two Irish teams, two Welsh, two South African, one Scottish and one Italian team, with a final to be played between the pool winners. It was to be a prelude to a full league program in the autumn of 2021.

So finally, it seemed that I would be able to walk the short distance down the hill in Green Point to the stadium and witness my second Ulster game. I even considered buying a season ticket, when they become available.

Cape Town stadium, as can be seen from Signal Hill

But alas, it was not to be, at least not for now. Covid and UK travel rules have killed the possibility.

But I continue to live in hope…