Cape Town Winter

It is often said that Cape Town winters are similar to Northern European summers. Indeed, there are many days in June through August, when the temperature is higher in Cape Town.

Of course there are periods when cold fronts move across Cape Town, bringing fog, storms and rain, but they do not last for more than a few days, before the temperate climate returns, with its clear blue skies and sunshine.

Yesterday was a warm sunshine day, and after a walk around Green Park and along the coast, we stopped at the Radisson Blu hotel, one of our favourite ‘watering holes’. As we walked through the lobby to the outdoor bar, we were greeted by four of the staff that we had not seen for several weeks. When we finally emerged from their embraces and warmth, the world felt so very good. Despite the tough lives that most lead, and regardless of colour or religion, Cape South Africans are the most wonderfully friendly and genuine people.

We took one of our usual tables near the pool and watched the antics of the seagulls that have taken possession of the pool for as long as we have been going there. The gulls drink the relatively salt-free water and wash in it. The management have tried different ways of encouraging them to stay away, but to no avail. The first attempt was to float a couple of blown-up pool toys that moved with the wind, but the birds ignored them.†

Then they planted two battery-powered artificial hawks at each end of the pool, with heads that rotated. They had no effect. Yesterday, we watched as one seagull sat on the wobbly head of one of the ‘hawks’, while it tried to eat whatever it had picked up . Unable to balance comfortably, it flopped down to the edge of the pool and continued to gorge on its finding.

The latest scare attempt is a hawk-like kite that floats high above the pool, similarly ignored by the seagulls.

For three years now, we have witnessed the antics of a pair of red-winged starlings at the Radisson Blu. They are birds that mate for life and if you see one, the other will be very close by, one constantly calling to the other. We also have a pair at our apartment, that sit on our two balconies and who loosen their bowels whenever the urge hits them. They also regurgitate the stones of fruit after they have digested the flesh.

One afternoon at the Radisson Blu, we heard a strange sound, nearly overhead. It was a red-winged starling perched beside a speaker, head cocked to one side, and singing to the music. It was almost human in its behavior.

A red-wing starling enjoying the winter sunshine, undeterred by the ‘hawk’ in the background

One of our favourite birds is a tiny Cape Wagtail, with only one foot. Without fear, it wanders under the tables and in and out of the bar, feeding on miniscule crumbs. After three years it has become like a familiar friend.

There is always something going on in the ocean, with massive cargo ships, passenger liners, yachts, motorboats, and in season, pods of dolphins and the occasional whales.

And beside the Radisson is the peaceful Granger Bay harbour, with the magnificent Table Mountain in the background.

To paraphrase the great Samuel Johnson, if I ever grow tired of Cape Town, I will be tired of life.

What’s in a name?

My parents named me Leonard Douglas – Leonard after my paternal grandfather, and Douglas, my mother’s maiden name.

The Douglas are an ancient Scottish clan and in the late 1600s, one of the Douglas soldiers settled in Glenmanus, a tiny rural village just south of the North Antrim port of Portrush. The descendants of the original Douglas remained in the village and farmed the land until recent times. Two of my cousins still live in the village, but most of the land has long been sold and has disappeared under a modern housing estate.

Until I migrated to Canada in 1965, I was only known as Leonard, although at grammar school, I had the nickname of ‘Blackie’. Indeed one of my good friends from my schooldays, Hugh Brewster, still refers to me as ‘Blackie’.

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Soon after I arrived in Toronto, I found myself being called Len, and that name has stuck ever since. I don’t recall how my name got changed, but I suspect it was something to do with my rugby mates. In any case I prefer to be called Len; Leonard now seems rather formal to me.

One night in 1974, I went to my favourite jazz club in Sydney, The Basement. I was quietly sitting in the shadows at my usual table, sucking on a bottle of red wine and listening to the music, when I was invited to join an attractive girl and two guys at a nearby table. I felt that it would have been rather rude of me to refuse the invitation, so I moved to their table. They thought that I looked very sad and needed cheering up, when I was actually quite relaxed and content, lost in my thoughts.

The introductions were made and everyone seemed to be in good humour.

‘I confess that I have never liked the name Len’ said the girl. ‘Don’t you have another name?’.

‘My second name is Douglas, but nobody would know me as that’.

‘But that is so much better. I love that name. I am going to call you Douglas’.

I never thought that we would meet again, but we eventually did, and for our next few years we were a couple; in Australia, across the Pacific, through Central America, in California and across the U.S and Canada, and finally in England, where we eventually parted. At times, I felt as if I was leading a double life; to my own friends and in my work, I was Len, and in her social life, I was Douglas. Of course my parents and siblings still referred to me as Leonard.

I don’t remember when the airlines first started to insist that a reservation had to be in our passport name. Certainly after the New York 9/11 attack in 2001, it was mandatory, in my case the name had to be Leonard Douglas Blackwood. A booking in any other than that exact name could result in boarding being refused. With the expansion of internet booking and with travelers keying their own data, inevitably mistakes occur. And most, if not all airlines, charge for name corrections.

Capture

Apart from air travel, until recent times I remained as ‘Len Blackwood’, until my UK bank suddenly demanded that I prove my identity with a notarized copy of my passport, and proof of address. The fact that I had held accounts with the bank for more than 30 years was irrelevant: I was a money laundering suspect until I proved myself innocent. As I was not in the UK at the time, it was an inconvenience, but eventually all was resolved. At least I hope it is. The banking bureaucratic wheels can turn ever so slowly.

And it is not just in banking that passport names can be required. In recent years I had keys of a French rental property sent to an address in Sweden. Unfortunately they were addressed to Len Blackwood and my ID was in my Leonard name. Everything else matched, but it took a long telephone discussion to a head office responsible to have the package reluctantly released.

I suspect that all the checks by governments and business serve only to keep honest people honest.  I can’t believe that they are much of a deterrent to a criminal requiring a false passport or a proof of address.  Today, fingerprint and iris recognition are proven technologies, identifying us as unique individuals.  It is hopefully only a matter of time until the new technology is adopted by governments and financial institutions and passports and bits of paper are ancient history.

I look forward to that day.

The Elliotts of Glenmanus

Helen Boyd Reid was born in Glasgow in 1914, of parents John Reid and Martha Hamill.

Helen never knew her father. On 31 July 1918, he was wounded in action, with a gun shot to his right thigh, in the last months of WWI. He was evacuated on the HMAT Warilda, when it was torpedoed by the German submarine, UC-49, between Le Havre and Southampton. The ship sank with 123 of 801 lives lost. John Reid was missing, assumed drowned. I won’t attempt to recount the tragic sinking- you can read about it by clicking on https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/blog/ss-warilda-troopship-hospital-ship-ambulance-transport-wreck

With her father dead, Helen’s mother could not afford to live in Scotland and they moved back to Ireland and lived in a farmhouse between Bushmills and Ballycastle, near her family. In 1933 Helen married Elias Wallace Elliott of nearby Bushmills.

The Elliott family lived in the middle of the three row houses in the following photo. To the left were the Stuart family and to the right was that of Dan Taggart.

To the left of the houses and across the lane into Glenmanus village, were the old Irish cottage and farm buildings of my great-uncle Bill Douglas and his sister, Letitia.  To the right was the saw mill of John Rainey and Dhu Varren dairy.  Opposite was John Rainey’s construction yard.

The Elliotts in 1952 – back row – Tom, mother, John and father – front row . Malcolm, Maurice and Pat

Mrs Elliott’s youngest son was Malcolm, born soon after I arrived on the scene.

For my first five years, my parents lived in a little wooden hut, less than 1oo m up the road from the Elliotts.  When I was very young, about three, my mother spent six months in a sanitarium in Derry, struck down with tuberculous.  Our neighbour, Mrs Wilson, looked after me, for in those days, my father worked all day on his fledging farm, and every night played with his dance band in Portrush.

I suspect that Mrs Elliott helped out in looking after me, for I can clearly remember being in her house and clambering up the stairs to the landing and being picked up and carried back down.

After my parents build a house and moved his poultry farm to Islandflackey, my contact with Malcolm was limited to the primary school at Carnalridge and youth events at the nearby Ballywillan Church.  I had no relationship with Malcolm’s brothers, for they were much older than we were, but every Sunday morning the whole family used to troop into the church, to their pew in the corner of the western transept.  I always sat with Trevor Gaston and David Adams at the back of the nave.

During our last summer, before moving on to secondary schools, I arranged a blind date for Malcolm, so that I could be with my first love.  We were eleven years old at the time.  We met outside John Rainey’s house, across from the road that leads into Glenmanus village, and we walked up the long lane that led past Caldwell’s farm, holding the girl’s hands.  Unfortunately one of Malcolm’s brothers spotted us, and that was the end of our romantic excursions, albeit not for long.  We were soon back in action.

Two young lads outside my parents’ house, but I have no recall of the occasion

When I was eighteen, I left for Canada, and apart from seeing Malcolm during one visit to my parents, I lost contact with the Elliott family, although my father used to keep me well informed.  I believe that Tom was an accountant; John was a joiner; Maurice was a mechanic, later to be a blacksmith; Pat was also a mechanic – I bumped into him one evening that I took my father out to dinner; and Malcolm was a painter.  When he was an apprentice, Malcolm painted the sign for my father’s ‘Greenacres Poultry Farm’.

The only other contact I had with Malcolm was at at a reunion of the Ballywillan Boys Brigade; I think it was the 50th reunion, in November 2004. And I heard no more from him until 19 December 2017, when  I was in a bar in Alicante and he sent me an email.  He had come across my blog and we have been in contact ever since.  Sadly his father died in 1982 and his brother, Tom, died in recent years.

Macolm recently sent me the following photographs of his mother, his brothers and his own family. They are photos to be treasured.

Mrs Elliott birthday
Mrs Elliott on her 100th birthday, not long before she passed on
Birthday family
And with her four surviving sons – John, Pat, Malcolm and Maurice
Maurice Elliott
Maurice the ‘Smithy’
Malcolm dancing
Malcom and Jean jiving at the Portrush Golf Club
Malcolm's family
Malcolm and Jean with their family

When we were teenagers, we used to think that Malcolm looked a bit like Adam Faith. I could not resist including an Adam Faith recording to remind me of those crazy days.

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Cheers Malcolm

Those were the days, my friend

London & Frankfurt, 1969

Until 1969, I had been muddling along in the ‘old technology’ of Quantity Surveying or Estimating, as it was known in the US and Canada.  It was Singer Sewing Machines in London that gave me my opportunity to enter the relatively new world of computer programming.  And I have never looked back.

Our office was in West London, on the Uxbridge Road, in Ealing Broadway.  and it was there that we did our program design and coding on paper.  As a recently inaugurated European division, we did not have our own computer; for program compilation and testing, we went to the UK Guildford office.  I spent as much time in Guildford as I did in Ealing Broadway.  And it was there that I first met Bob Baylis and ‘almost’ met Mark Samuels; our paths were to cross again in 1978, at P-E International, where Bob was employed and when Mark was the Managing Director, but that is a story for another day.

Now I won’t attempt to explain the intricacies of programming in the 1960’s; our world was one of coding sheets, punched cards and tapes, large air-conditioned computer rooms, and one or perhaps two compilations or tests a day.  For the successful programmer, acute attention to detail was mandatory.

I thrived in the environment and was part of a small team sent to Germany in the summer of 1969, to test and install our new inventory system in the German head office in Frankfurt, near the central station and a few minutes stroll from the river Main.  Our hotel was between the office and the station.  The red-light district was adjacent; it took us perhaps one hour to completely orientate ourselves.

We could only have access to the German computer systems after daily production had been completed, so we started late afternoon and worked to very late every evening, rarely finishing before midnight.  We usually met for lunch in a nearby restaurant and on the first day the waiter recommended a local white wine from Rüdesheim.  It was #28 on the menu and we soon learned to order additional bottles of achtundzwanzig.  It was delicious, and day after day, it contributed greatly to the eventual success of our project.

On one weekend, we decided to go to the source of achtundzwanzig.  We took a local train from central station to the nearby river Rhine, and then travelled on a boat down the river to Rüdesheim.  After ample ‘refreshments’, we took the local gondola to Niederwald.  Almost silently gliding over the vineyards, gradually ascending, was an experience I will never forget. I was in love with life; nothing new there.

At the summit was Niederwalddenkmal, a patriotic monument, 38 m tall and finished in 1883.  The view across the valley was stunning and the weather was idyllic.

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The Niederwalddenkmal

On one of our last nights in Frankfurt, when the project was almost wrapped up, we went to a nearby striptease show called ‘The Dolly Bar’.  It was luxurious, compared to the normal seedy dives that I had previously experienced in Toronto, the US and London.  The girls were stunning, but what struck me most was experiencing the wall-to-wall sound; I had never heard such wonderful acoustics before. And it was the first time that I had heard Mary Hopkin singing, ‘Those were the days’.

That was 1969, and the sun had arisen and set many times before I was once again back in London; it was late-1984 and I was on my way to the wedding of my good friend, Laín Burgos-Lovece, in The Wirrall, south of Liverpool. I had a room in a hotel on Half Moon Street, just off Piccadilly.

That evening I went around the corner to an old familiar pub in Shepherd’s Market, a pub that I had frequented many times over the years.  I bought a pint and sat in my usual corner.  I had not been there since those bitter sweet days of the summer of 1978; bitter, because my personal circumstances at that time were a mess, but sweet, because I had been deliriously happy with the prospect of an exciting new relationship.

And then the juke box started to play…

Gabriel García Márquez

I can recall the morning in 2012 when I read in a BBC report that Gabriel García Márquez was suffering from dementia. His brother, Jaime, spoke of it in Cartagena, where he was giving a lecture to students. It is true that García had not often appeared in public in recent years and there had been several unconfirmed rumours of his ill-health, but the latest news left me feeling quite saddened to know that there would probably be no more writing from the great man. He was then 85, and according to his brother, he would write no more.  He died some two years later in Mexico City.

I first came across Gabriel García in 1996, when I was participating in a French course at Alliance Française in London.  I was brushing up my rudimentary French, with a view to starting a venture in Europe, or at least obtaining a senior European position.  As it turned out, it was the latter, as MD of a small Swiss company.

In the class we were asked to frame a general knowledge question, in French, relating to our country of birth.  A young Colombian student asked us to name the Colombian author who had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982.  None of us knew the answer.

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Gabriel García Márquez (1927 – 2014)

The first of García’s books that I read back in 1998, when I was based in Neuchâtel, was El General en su Laberinto (The general in his labyrinth), recounting the last days of Simón Bolívar. Years before I had been to Bolívar’s home in Caracas and the story left me with a lasting impression of how even the great can end in ignominy.  Later I followed on with García’s collection of short stories, Doce Cuentos Peregrinos (Twelve Pilgrim tales), his great love story, El Amor en Los Tiempos de Cholera (Love in the time of cholera), his masterpiece, the mystic Cien Años de Soledad (One hunded years of solitude) and several others.

When I later learned of his death, sitting on my bookshelf, waiting to be picked up, was Vivir para Contarla (Living to tell the tale), the first part of his autobiography, covering his early years in Cartagena.  When I eventually read it, I recalled that I once knew a Señora Garbàn and her family in Caracas.  She was a talented artist and I attended one of her exhibitions in the late 1970s.  I am almost certain that she was from Cartagena.  And I sometimes wonder if she ever knew García, for he was a journalist of her era.

When reading García’s autobiography, it is obvious that many of his writings were based on his own intimate experiences: the small town, Aracataca, where he grew up, both his close and extended families, local and national historical events. For a ‘wannabe’ writer like me, there are rich lessons to be learned from his work.

But what a pity that the sequel to his autobiography will never now appear.

 

 

South African Sunset

As I sit at my desk in our apartment on the hill above Green Point, I can see over an apartment complex below. Further back is another slightly elevated building, which does nothing to intrude on my overall view.

To the right is the clock tower of Reddam House, a rather exclusive private school, the clock of which recently only told the time accurately twice a day. And slightly further to the right there are three elevated palm trees, whose fluttering of fronds would indicate to me the wind force I could expect on my daily walk through the park and along the coast. When the trunks of the palms thrash and bend, I know that I will have to brace myself.

Below, all day long pass huge tankers, container ships and smaller vessels, pass on their way to and from the Cape Town harbour and around the Cape of Good Hope. If they are early for their berthing, they anchor just off the coast.

The sun sets to the left of the apartment complex, behind the steep slope of Signal Hill.

On a frequent clear day, the sky is a piercing blue. It reminds me very much of the sky that I used to experience in Sydney, so any years ago. It is a blue that one seldom, if ever, witnesses in Northern Europe.

I am usually at my desk in the early evening and I am a frequent witness of the setting of the sun. The line above the blue of the ocean first starts to turn a mellow yellow that gradually become more golden. And it spreads across the sky. When there are light clouds around, the sunset can become quite spectacular.

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The sun setting behind the opposing building

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And further up the hill…

It is dark now and I draw the curtains on another beautiful African day.

111

I was 42 when my first son was born and six and a bit years later, my fourth son took his first breath.  I felt myself to be a very fortunate man, a feeling that persists to this day.

A few years ago, it occurred to me that if I ever had grandchildren, it was likely that they would not remember much, if anything, of me and my ancestry.  I decided to write down what I could remember of my parents and their history, of my own travels, of people that had been a great influence on me, of places where I had lived, of some of my experiences.

But how to go about publishing it without boring the pants off a poor reader.  I recall discussing my aspiration with my good and learned Chilean friend, Laín Burgos-Lovéce.  He suggested that I write it as a blog.

Do you know the meaning of the word ‘blog’?  I certainly did not, so I looked it up.  It turned out to be a web-log, or a form of shared on-line diary.  I learned something new, but I still did not have a clear idea of how to go about formally writing my memoirs.  My aspirations marked time.

It was later, when I read Camilo José Cela’s classic, ‘La Colmena’, that I realised that I could write my thoughts in stand-alone articles, and later piece them together in chronological order.  It is a lot like a seanchaí, a traditional Irish story teller, comfortably seated by the fireside, a drink in hand, entertaining his audience with his tales.

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Ireland’s greatest poet

Initially, I restricted publication to family and close friends, but eventually, I opened it up to the public; it was pointed out to me that somebody that I once knew, but with whom I had lost contact, might stumble upon my writings and contact me.

And that has now happened several times and I am so grateful for the opportunity for the renewed acquaintances.  With each has come a flood of nostalgia.

It has now been two years since I published my first article, and to date there have been 111 of them.  And there have been viewers from 46 countries.  It is humbling to evidence the power of the internet to connect people.

So what’s next?

Well, I still have more than 50 articles that I have yet to write and no doubt there are a plethora of others that have not yet surfaced.  Every time I finish writing one, I get at least two new ideas.  Sooner or later, I will put then into a book form, to gift to those of my relatives and some friends who have no access or no desire to access the internet.

So, now for number 112… 🙂