Tuesday, 1 July 2014

A week in the (extreme) southwest

A week in west Cornwall (Penwith) staying at Sennen Cove for a friend's 60th birthday party. That took up the weekend when several other people descended from London and elsewhere, and just 6 of us took a week off and enjoyed a few more lovely sunny days, only to drive home on the final Thursday through torrential rain.

It was good to discover some of our pre-Christian roots in several local villages, stone circles and churches, the latter with roots going back to around 600AD when a local person with healing abilities would be made a saint by the local bishop and a church (re-)dedicated to them. The continuity of sanctity down the millennia is very apparent here, as indeed it is in many country places. Holy places have been holy places for a very long time, often romanised in Roman Britain, then Christianised around 600AD either as a result of St David et al from the west or St Augustine and others from the east. Look out for ancient circular churchyards. Why circular? So the devil can't hide in a corner…

Of course west Cornwall means going to St Ives. Quite a culture shock after the villages and coastal landscapes further west. Because of the people. Huh? Well, so many FAT people suddenly. St Ives is an art mecca, yes, but it's also a resort with infinite sandy beaches mostly sheltered at least in part from southerly and southwesterly winds. Visitors to the Tate and to the Barbara Hepworth Gallery and Sculpture Garden (the latter quite compact and hopelessly unsuited to crowds), along with hikers on the coastal path which can be quite demanding round there, mix (or don't) uneasily with the shuffling hordes of chip eaters and ice cream suckers who lurch slowly and unevenly along the roads and block the pavements.

Part way round the Tate I suddenly started seeing the exhibition as one of plinths. Actually this observation began in the Hepworth gallery, where you suddenly notice that every single sculpture (though with very rare exceptions) is perched on a rectangular white box made probably of marine ply. Why is such a boring and repetitive plinth, painted in shining white that soon shows the dirt, judged to be suitable for almost any sculpture of any texture, shape or colour? Because, very obviously, it often detracts and distracts from the artwork in question. Here is a display of plinths in the Tate, these behind glass: imagine statues in a garden perched on these things!

The slideshow below takes you round some of the ancient sites: I merely scraped the surface of what is there.  The holy well at Madron was the big experience, discovering that a site that was holy and sanctified at least as early as 600AD is still visited and revered for its healing properties today, with people tying votive favours on the branches of the trees and doubtless drinking from the stream.

Here are some impressions of Penwith, including rather too many sunsets: you'll find detailed captions to some of the photos if you pause to look.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

In retrospect

It's a week since we flew back from South Africa and many people have asked what it was like.

Equally, several people have not asked what it was like for us but have taken the opportunity to tell us what Africa is or was like for them. Thanks for the news. 

So what are the dominant memories? There is no getting away from the fact that South Africa is a relatively poor and very corrupt third world country in which an overwhelmingly white and very small minority lives the life of Riley behind high fences, guard dogs and armed guards. If that can really be called the life of Riley. Looks more like hell to me. But there are clearly advantages to it in what still seems to me a rather soulless way. 

Yet the black majority seem pretty happy considering, at least in the towns we visited. I find that amazing. Or do they just tolerate what they cannot change?

I certainly hadn't realised just how separately blacks and whites live. A town has a name, e.g. Ladybrand or Ficksburg. But that's the name of the (overwhelmingly) white town. The blacks don't live there: they (and they are 85% or more of the population) live in the township. That has a separate name: for Ladybrand it is Manyatseng. For Ficksburg it is Meqheleng. And so on. And the townships vary from municipality to municipality. Some look spick and span and well ordered and relatively well built. Others can look pretty dreadful, at least in parts and even by township standards.

So the only blacks a white person sees are those who have jobs that cause the races to interact. Given that 35% are unemployed anyway, that rather limits the interaction. I can see that a tourist who follows well trodden trails along the Garden Route, around Cape Town or the vineyards, or in the many national parks, will be kept well clear of the poverty and exploitation that underpins the social and economic fabric of the country. 

In the Free State a typical white home occupies as much land as perhaps six to eight of the houses on The Green here in Charlbury. You might pick one up at the moment for something in the region of £50-70k, the exchange rate having collapsed recently in our favour. A 'shack' in a township resembles one of the garages on The Green, though our garages generally have better roofs and certainly have water and electricity laid on. The shack will house a family of 4-6 where we'd keep one or two cars.  Then again, we give our cars concrete floors, and the blacks in South Africa may live on dry mud. Even in the rainy seasons, and when winter temperatures drop to -10º or below.

Beyond the township open country extends for maybe 40-60 miles to the next town, a series of gigantic farms in white hands, punctuated by rows of hovels built for farm workers as remote as hell from the next town or habitation. 

It's the product of British and Dutch colonialism and there is absolutely no point trying to ignore the fact. I've been told that while it was bad of the colonial settlers to go round murdering people and stealing their land, black tribes were already doing that to each other anyway, and there were some beneficial spinoffs to what 'we' did. According to that viewpoint I should be feeling quite good about what I saw. Really? Two wrongs make a right? Let's be clear: 'we' took all their land and all their mineral resources. I don't think anyone ever chose to live in South Africa as it is today, but for the fact that it is a fait accompli and you can't see how a government can go back on it. Especially now that a small black elite is getting very rich on the proceeds, and they rule the country… Some things Mandela never began to address… 

I don't want to oversimplify what I saw, and my experience was very limited. But it was very, very considerably less limited than that of the typical tourist, and we got to talk to a small but surprising variety of people.

South Africa is a very beautiful country, and full of warm-hearted and lovely people. But don't ignore the terrible truths.


I'm sorry there have been no South African photos to accompany the relevant posts on this blog. That's because I couldn't get the photos off my camera while I was away. I'm gradually transferring them now to Flickr. You can see the Ladybrand 'set' at http://flic.kr/s/aHsjUzDKNg though some of the photos are restricted to family only because they are private for one reason or another. Each photo has a caption that gives further background information where appropriate. There are more to go on over the next week or so.

I am also aware that I have touched several times on the long history and sudden demise of the San people. I am going to research this further, and hope to redress the balance by pulling together some of what is known about the San. That will gradually become the subject of a separate page here, and maybe one day a separate website. 

Sunday, 9 March 2014


This is an amazing place. It feels like a little bit of heaven on earth. The peace is extraordinary, and the occasional screaming of birds or the curious sounds made by the frogs (?) does nothing to disturb it. An extraordinary variety of people from all over the world pass through a place like this and are fascinating to talk with. 

It had a weird history, started as a trading post early last century by Merwyn Bosworth Smith, the son of a master at Harrow School. One of those remarkable men who trekked across Africa and did his thing. We cannot imagine what life was like for such people. But he loved the people in Bazutoland (now Lesotho), settled here and eventually died here in 1950. 

His home was bought as a trading station and modest lodge in 1986 by Mick and Di Jones and it remains in the hands of them and their family. The whole story is on the lodge website. It is hard to encapsulate the experience the place offers: blissful informality, delightfully unpretentious cooking, a scattering of quite basic but perfectly adequate accommodation scattered through lovely gardens, and rewarding company. Plus an extraordinary integration into the local Basutho villages by paying local people to take visitors on guided walks and treks, or show them round the village of Malealea. And the lodge has set up a Trust that provides health and other support services locally. 

Being here brings joy to the heart in a country so blighted by social and economic problems. To come across such good news on this trip is quite something. Please, if you ever come within a hundred miles of this place, do visit. 

I learnt today that riding a pony is not my thing. I prefer a closer and more curious relationship with the passing landscape, to have time to browse the plant life or pause in silence to observe birds or stalk butterflies; or merely record the passing moments on the camera. All this the horse or pony denies me. And at home it would also deny me the pleasure of passing through a kissing gate or crossing a stile. 

We also had a third visit to San rock paintings. Another scramble up and down a vertical cliff face, following tiny paths and tracks. I now have heard two accounts from young local Basutho of why the San had to go. I am looking forward to watching the rest of the material on the DVD 'Tracks in the Sand' made by Hugh Brody, all about the few San surviving today and their history (and extermination), and to doing more reading myself. My intention is to try and distil some of this knowledge into a page or pages on my website. We shall see. 

I read that the facial features of the San can still be seen in some of the people here as rather oriental in their appearance. Certainly the local Basutho face is very characteristic and unmistakable, while one of the members of a local men's band who entertain us nightly has a totally different and slightly Mongolian or Chinese appearance. I have some excellent photographs and this also calls for more research. 

The quality of the dancing I just mentioned is very high, in a village and traditional way. We are also entertained by a choir. This is in another league. Ten women and seven men with very impressive voices sing songs in Sotho 'to make you welcome and happy'. Knocks spots off virtually anything I have heard in Charlbury. Yes, we've bought the CD and Angela also recorded some of their songs on her iPhone. We've got the band's CD too. It's hard to believe that a tiny village and its surrounding hamlets 6000 feet up in the mountains of Lesotho a good half hour from the end of the tarred road can be so creative and even get it on CD!!

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Are you speaking English?

English, we are told and firmly believe, has become the global language of international communication. True. It is the second language in countless countries and taught in schools across the world. True. There are hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of English speakers worldwide. Yes. But can you or I understand a word of what many or most of them say? Probably not. 

Maybe that should not be too surprising. I often struggle unsuccessfully with a Geordie or a Glaswegian accent. But I was quite surprised to be walking past a primary school in Clarens when a teacher was shouting so loudly at her class that every word could be heard in the street outside. Yes, I think it is fair to say that every word was plainly audible. But in what language? Obviously not English or we'd have recognised it. Not Afrikaans because it has an unmissable twang. Possibly Sotho? The lilt wasn't quite right. A passing postman was as amused as we were at the shrieking teacher and we grinned at each other as we stood and listened. So I asked him: what language was she speaking?

English, came the reply. 

English is spoken in the shops and restaurants. It is even widely taught in the schools in Lesotho, where state schools have to charge a fee as a condition of IMF funding back in the eighties. But again and again we cannot follow what is being said. Hardly surprising when the teachers themselves have such a strong accent. 

I wonder what accent of English is being taught in China? Will a Chinese and an African school student who have both learned English be able to understand each other? Will I understand either of them?

At least we communicate easily with the Dutch tourists we meet here. In fluent English on both sides!

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Crossing borders

Well, Clarens was a very attractive and appealing place, but as with many tourist destinations, the attraction and the appeal can wear thin by the end of a week. 

We extended our stay from its original four days after a local big cat sanctuary tried to up the B&B prices when confirming our booking, then ignored my email query. Checking on TripAdvisor it seemed that other visitors to Lions Rock had bad experiences in various ways so we cancelled and stayed in Clarens. 

More about Clarens. It is a tourist and weekend destination for day trippers and weekenders from Johannesburg and nearer. There are also many extremely desirable houses in beautiful gardens and it is safe, restful and full of eating places, many of them really excellent. It is also full of shops. Yet here is the anomaly: many of these shops sell clothes, but they are relatively downmarket. They are mostly cheap and lacking in style, and perhaps surprisingly some of the visitors to the town look the same! Most of the clothing, and I think many of the gift shop trinkets too, are 'made in the foothills of the Himalayas'. They are only rarely made in South Africa. And there is virtually no African craft ware on sale here either. 

This appears to say something about the feelings whites here have towards African craft and style. Yet why are the middle class white shopkeepers of Clarens not selling the kinds of clothes worn by the middle class white tourists to the town? Or the wealthy (white) residents?


It is only after a few days that I have begun to realise how shallow the 'culture' is in these towns. I can only speak for the white communities of course, but they appear not to put on their own entertainments (except for inviting friends to a 'braai' which is a drink-heavy and very carnivorous kind of barbecue) and very little 'happens'. They don't show films or have the kind of events we put on in village halls. 

Plus of course the race divide broadly decides who will go to what, with the further subdivision that a black friend refused to go to a flute recital because it was organised by Afrikaners. There is of course plenty of music, singing and dancing in the townships, where poverty is no barrier to knowing how to enjoy yourself. 

So with very little to go to in the entertainment line, sadly little to interest by way of cultural heritage (as I have explained the San have been more or less wiped off the map, and they did not leave stone circles, cathedrals or castles or write books!!) except for memories of the Boer war and other colonial conflicts enshrined in battlefields you can visit and monuments in town centres and churchyards, and a landscape that is as impressive and beautiful on first acquaintance as it is monotonous and repetitive after the next few hundred miles … well, the appeal only goes so far. 

Obviously you can 'do' the country differently. You can spend a few days on safari in a national park and a few more in a gated compound or a hotel defended by armed guards in Cape Town or on the Garden Route or in one of the seaside suburbs south of Durban ( I have no experience of any of these but I have seen them advertised and written up in guidebooks). But that's not the real Africa and it's not what we came for. 


Today we are in Lesotho. It's almost exclusively black and we stick out a mile. People are on the cadge and beg far more than in South Africa, and set up informal roadblocks to extort money from motorists, but are still warm and friendly. The Orange Free State occupied the fertile lowlands in the 1860s and forced the Basotho off their land and into the mountains, where they were obliged to cultivate steep slopes hitherto used only for summer pasture. The white settlers similarly over-cultivated the valleys. Both activities caused the thin topsoil to wash away into the rivers, creating new barren ravines in the landscape called dongas. 

So a drive through the country today is remarkable for the lack of trees and the often barren and deserted farmland. No wonder they want our money. They are selling their water to South Africa however, who are in desperate need of it; they pay Lesotho around 24 million rand a month for it (about £1.32m at today's exchange rate).

We tried to drive to the Katse dam this afternoon but ran out of time. We allowed about six hours for the round trip but our little car couldn't make it in the time. I daresay it is spectacular but the USPs are all statistics. To me a dam is a dam, and I'd prefer a real lake (with an interesting shoreline) and a natural waterfall any day. Again the drive was through spectacular scenery but it amounted to mile after mile of the same, with no attractive places to stop, plenty of potholes and sides of roads falling away down the mountain sides … There is little pleasure in such driving. 

In Lesotho more than in South Africa we are voyeurs. At least in South Africa we can enjoy our privileged position of merging into the small white minority and enjoying all the benefits that brings. And the nasty taste it sometimes leaves in one's mouth. 

You also wonder how to categorise these countries. I am repeatedly told that South Africa is a third world country, by way of explaining the increasing corruption found here and the often poor infrastructure. Yet if South Africa is third world, what is Lesotho?! Driving across the border makes the former seem like a  Cotswold idyll! Briefly. 

It's gone cold and wet. A bit like England!

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

More cave paintings

Who says no to a cup of tea at half past six in the morning when this is the view from bed? 

A bird resembling a jackdaw in its behaviour, a starling in its size and with a curious piping whistle has just scavenged the balcony. Pigeons here are lighter in colour but nuzzle up to each other just as ours do. European swallows are plentiful and must soon migrate: what a thought that these just might be the birds that will fly over our houses and fields in a few short weeks. But the weaver birds with their extraordinary inverted nests are like nothing we see at home, which also goes   for the red bishop and the long tailed widow, the latter lolloping through the air with an extraordinary undulating flight. A mix of the familiar and the exotic. 

Another trip today to an example of San rock/cave painting. 

The owner of the farm on whose land the cave lies described these as 'bushmen paintings'. This is not PC. The San people lived here for most of the last 30,000 years, but they lived so lightly on the land – leaving so little physical impact that we can see today – that these paintings 'cannot be dated directly but are probably between 200 and more than 6000 years old', according to the notice fixed to the fence designed to protect them from vandals. The San were hunter gatherers here for all that time until they were out competed for land use by farming tribes moving south through Africa, and murderous white settlers from the south who merely stole their land and shot them. Neither the descendants of those black people, nor those of the whites, appear to show a great deal of interest in the work of their ancestors. The reason these paintings are 'more than 200 years old' is that most of the San had been eradicated by then. 

I make no excuse for repeating some of what I have said before. It is a wounding experience to see the remains of a civilisation wiped out so recently after surviving from before biblical times. 

It is such a pity that history here is such a wicked tale of greed and murder, when one's experience in the present is of welcome, kindness and generosity on all sides. You might say that I can write this from the privileged and rather unusual position of a white man who is not sheltering behind barbed wire fences, dogs and security gates, but it remains true that South Africa comes across as a country of extremely friendly and warm hearted people. 

Mind you, could I not say that of almost any country in the world? 

Yesterday we spent the day exploring the Golden Gate national park, partly on foot, partly by car. It is not a park for big game, tho we did see zebra and black wildebeest, but rather for spectacular sandstone rocks and cliffs and massive overhangs that look unbelievably precarious. No elephants here! 

Today I read that poachers kill three elephants an hour in this country…

Is this the real South Africa?

Arrive in Clarens and you are in a different world. We've got used to a South African experience which includes sometimes sullen, dispirited and resentful black faces, high spiked metal fences, fierce dogs… and the third of the population that is unemployed loitering and clustering outside the cheaper shops and by the minibus ranks. You get used to it and, from what I see, eventually inured to it. 

Though I have to say it is very difficult to 'read' the attitudes and faces of people with a very different cultural background from one's own, and there are white people living in the 'black townships' just as there are blacks in the posh and mainly white areas. Also, seeing crowds of black kids coming out of school bright, cheerful and immaculately turned out in their school uniforms, you do feel there has to be hope for the future if this spirit can be be carried forward into their adulthood. I hope so anyway.  

But this is different. You drive through the black township to get to the town proper (it was a black resident of the 'black township' at Ladybrand who used that precise term when we talked) and the houses are much as we have seen elsewhere, despite the fact thay we are 6000 feet up here and winter temperatures can fall to -17°C, at which point some of the literally tumbledown wattle and daub and stone dwellings on the unsheltered hillside would appear to be barely habitable, not to mention morally indefensible in a country of such extremes of wealth. (The lovely houses in the 'white' quarter are surrounded by trees and beautiful gardens that are a delight to the eye and nourishment to the spirit.)

But setting all that aside, if you can comfortably do so, Clarens proves to be a leafy and comfortable and relaxed village (pop. 4500) where we walked the kilometre home from the restaurant in total peace, framed by the constant buzzing of countless crickets. Most of the houses have only token - if any - fences and not a single dog barked at us. Not one!! You suddenly realise that here is a place where the (white) population does not live in a state of perpetual fear, behind a defensive palisade and (usually several) dogs. Read up on what it's like to stay in, say, Cape Town or travel the so-called Garden Route and you realise that Clarens is almost certainly not the real South Africa in anyone's book, but perhaps for that very reason it's an extremely nice and warm and pleasant place to stay. Fear is not endemic. 

Here is the view from our B&B this morning:

For the record, supper in one of very few restaurants open here on a Monday night comprised two really scrummy vegetarian platters including spinach, mushrooms, carrots, a baked potato with sour cream, grilled halloumi and more worked into some lovely tasty dishes, plus two generous glasses of house wine — and came to a total of about £7 each including tip. A pint of local beer earlier had cost a little over £1. 

When we asked what were the herbs chopped onto the carrots, the owner said she would check with 'the kitchen'. How different from the average English pub where the honest answer would be "I'll ask the person in the kitchen who snips the corners off the boil-in-the-bag/microwaveable carrots to check the ingredients for you." (The answer, by the way, was oregano. A recommended addition to your next bowl of carrots.)

Sunday, 23 February 2014

From one extreme to the next

Well, we didn't go to Lesotho as expected, except to hire a car from Avis at the airport. And how pleased I was to see an extensive solar photovoltaic array in front of the airport buildings. Lesotho sets an example! I also noted the gigantic Chinese-owned clothing factories on the way. 

We had planned to begin a circular tour that would take in the kingdom of Lesotho as well as a couple of South African mountain villages. But a beer festival had booked out the accommodation in Clarens for the first weekend, so we began the tour in the reverse direction. It was a pity to have missed the beer festival though!

Many of the main roads round here have potholes of a size I have not seen before. Signs saying "Potholes 40km" give an indication of what to expect, but you can cover perhaps 10km without incident at the permitted 120km/h only to encounter a further succession of kilometres with giant potholes spread liberally across the road with no further warnings. Wow. It makes driving incredibly stressful. One blink and you could write your car off. 

But the last 50km or so to the mountain village of Rhodes is on a dirt road. Guides and other information sources all reassured us that the road was fine for a 2WD. Which is what we had hired. Well, in wet conditions or after a storm, like when we tackled the two-hour drive along (or up) it, it wasn't. At times I wondered how we made it. You don't believe it will get worse but it does. 

The idea of driving back down in similar conditions was plainly rather frightening. When the following morning dawned bright and sunny and the muddy, gravel-spread 'road' began to dry, we decided to cut our losses and depart. Rain forecast for Sunday would have been the last straw. As a matter of fact the dry day that the forecast promised for Saturday was soon in doubt as giant black storm clouds surrounded the peaks above us. Were we pleased to be off!?

The drive back to Ladybrand was a solid seven hours, two of them on the dirt track and the rest spotting and dodging potholes on the main roads. With a thirty-minute break in Lady Grey for a toasted sandwich and coffee. 

Our memories of Rhodes. The Brit-owned Walkabout Inn is a lovely place run by extremely considerate and friendly people. We spent our one night in one of their self-catering cottages and ate in the inn itself, a delicious meal cooked by a young Afrikaner chef who just loves living there and for whom vegetarians present no problem. It's a trout fly-fishing area of some repute: we said yes to fish and were served two of the most wonderful trout imaginable. His milk pudding (a secret recipe!) was a real pleasure. And the mushroom omelettes for breakfast the next morning were a delight. 

And we met some delightful people (Afrikaners with fluent English) both here and in Lady Grey who offered generous help and advice on our journey. 

The village of Rhodes is a cluster of attractive cottages and houses with minimal signs of 'security', reached after passing the usual scatter of shacks for the blacks. There is a cafe cum gift shop, a petrol station, a library… Three weeks before we arrived a family of four became a family of two after being attacked when out for a walk by two black wildebeest. It is certainly a wonderful area to explore but the open area round Rhodes is quite limited: beyond that you are on private land, there are no public paths unless you walk along the road, and while in theory you can approach a farmer for permission to walk on his land, it could be quite a drive to locate a given farmer. 

By the way, I should mention that farmers tend to house their own black labour. Some farmers are more generous in their provision than others. Some of the houses are of a relatively reasonable size (I say relatively, note), well presented and shaded by trees. Others are plainly squalid. I imagine that these come with all the problems that tied cottages used to involve in the UK. I took some photos, but that's an acutely embarrassing process, the more so when conducted through the window of a shiny 3-litre 4WD. You think you are looking across the fields at a row of cattle sheds but then you see the washing hung over the fences to dry. 

It is easy to make the glib assumption that these people need very little and do not have our appetite for acquisition. Remember though that all who can afford it have satellite TV so know perfectly well how you and I live, as well as how the lucky minority in their own country lives. We think we live in a country of extremes of polarity of wealth. Take 80% or more of the population of Charlbury, give them each a pound a day, knock a couple of brieze block garages together to house each family in a sprawling settlement of 1000 homes beside the road beyond the station, lay on electricity and water, give them minimum land (less than we expect for a garden), and leave the other 20% living as they are presently accustomed, supported by an endless pool of ludicrously cheap labour, and you have the picture. The planners would be pleased: hardly any of them will have a car and they will walk to any job available between Witney and Chippy. And home that night. 

Don't worry though, it wouldn't be that many houses. Lots from the same families will share, I'm sure. 

And do we meet hostility and resentment as descendants of one of the colonial powers that stole their land and impoverished their recent ancestors? Surprisingly seldom. A couple of hundred yards from where I write is a street named Vorster Street. STILL! The country's last apartheid prime minister commemorated in a street name. Other streets celebrate Piet Retief and the Voortrekkers, the very people who swept through this country with their guns and coopted the land one and two hundred years ago. Why do the local blacks not paint out these signs?

A country of extremes and extraordinary contradictions. 

Sunday, 16 February 2014

In a different minority

It's interesting to be in a tiny cultural minority for a change. Ladybrand is about 80% Sotho speaking, 8% Afrikaans and 5% English. That's by first language. In the town everyone appears to speak English as well. The Afrikaans speakers all appear to speak English too: the converse is definitely not true. 

The 2011 census for Ladybrand shows 88% black African, 3% coloured and 8% white. Overwhelmingly the blacks live in the expanding township on the edge of town on the other side of a main road. Homes there are typically of concrete blocks with galvanised iron roofs, a door in the middle of one side with a window on either side of it. The garden is used in various ways just as at home: for some families it's a fertile food source, for others it's a rubbish tip. 

But then again, rubbish may not be what it appears! Waste is not segregated by households, but is apparently 'sorted' by people who rummage through the tip and pick out what they can sell on. It's hard to think of a more wretched use of the term recycling. Ladybrand boasts on large notices as you approach that it is an Ecotown. 

One of the first things to catch my eye when walking around is the virtually complete absence of solar energy generation. Here we are sweltering under the powerful African sun and 80% of the country's electricity is generated by coal. The government has announced a new nuke but no houses heat their water with the sun and I've seen just one photovoltaic unit and that on a derelict building in the country. 

For the record between 25% and 35% of people are unemployed, and 25% of people live on less than $1.25 a day. You can get a gardener or a cleaner for well under £5 for about 6-7 hours. Food in the shops is a little cheaper than at home because of the exchange rate which favours the tourist at present. Living in a town with no tourist business the reality of daily life is not hidden from you. We are told that 'security' issues are increasingly visible with most houses and public buildings surrounding by metal palisades and various security devices. There is an abundance of firms that watch your property. Dogs do the job too and walking down the street is a less appealing experience than it might be as a succession of fierce dogs test the efficacy of the fence that keeps them from you. 

> > >

Yesterday included a trip to some San rock paintings. I'll put some photos here or on Facebook when I can. The San originally populated the whole of sub-Saharan Africa and how they were removed from their land by invasion (by other black tribes from the north, and by white 'settlers' from the south) is a bitter read. Talking to an educated member of one of those black invading tribes who populate part of the area today, I found no interest or curiosity at all in the San history or the previous inhabitants of the land. I hope this is not typical. I'd like to see what black school kids are taught today about their history. They certainly wear very smart uniforms to school. I wonder where a parent on a dollar a day finds the money for that. 

We shall go to Lesotho tomorrow. It's an independent democratic mountain kingdom landlocked by South Africa. There is a growing American presence there in an effort to stem Chinese influence. The Chinese presence was described to us as 'a rash all over Africa' and the fact that they will work 12 hours a day 7 days a week makes them uneven competition for most people here including the Americans. They have seemingless limitless money and use prison labour from home to work on Chinese-funded projects here. Brilliant really. Commit a crime back in China and next thing you are building the new government offices in Lesotho. 

According to the UN Lesotho is also the world's rape capital (more rapes per capita than anywhere else) and 16% of men said in a survey that a man was entitled to use violence to make his wife have sex with him. It also has one of the world's highest incidences of HIV/AIDS. In urban areas half of women under 40 are infected. The population is 40% Roman Catholic. Relevant?

Brand Africa

It's so hot here in Ladybrand that it's difficult to focus on what is around you. I've come somewhere completely new and yet I've been oddly confused as to what is exactly different and why.

Several people told me that I should take a deep breath on leaving the plane, because inhaling the African air is an experience unlike any I would have had before. Well, the smell of hot concrete, jet fumes and aircraft fuel is pretty much the same wherever you land. That much I knew already and now know with greater certainty.

Johannesburg airport is in Africa. But you could not be blamed for not realising that. The same brands surround the retail concourse there as at Heathrow. The real difference is that whereas at Heathrow assistance is relatively hard to come by, in Joburg assistance is quite impossible to avoid. 

The onward flight to Bloemfontein was a surprise in one big respect. The plane had propellers! I found myself trying to remember whether this meant that in the event of engine failure we could glide safely to the ground and land in a field. But the plane was nearly empty and completed its journey in ten minutes less than the hour timetabled, so I guess we weighed a bit less than expected and perhaps would have been that much easier to land. Provided of course that a passenger didn't take the wrong door at the front of the plane and stumble into the cockpit instead of the toilet, causing possible mayhem. Imagination runs riot on these occasions. Once at Bloemfontein you find you are at Bloemfontein International Airport. 'International' is another figment of someone's imagination. As a bus station it would be quite impressive. 

The drive onwards to Ladybrand was rather boring. One of those journeys where nothing kept happening. Still, I tell myself that I was so tired by now that nothing was going to happen anyway. 

I was a zombie for the next couple of days. The heat was excessive and still is, even by local standards. By 10am it's too hot to sit anywhere but by a fan. But today we are going on an explore by car and I hope to get more of a feel for what ordinary Africa is like. Back soon!

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Disappointing wine

Ha! The Coop has only knocked 50p off the Mourvèdre and its nothing like as nice as the previous year. I shan't be buying any more. On the other hand they have the Muriel Rioja going for £6.66. That's more like it.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

More wine bargains at the Co-op

I really know next to nothing about wine, but I know what I like. Here are two wines from the local Co-op. Les Crouzes is made from the Carignan grape, an old grape of the western Mediterranean less widely grown than it was, being rooted up in the 1990s after being held responsible for the French wine lake. It's a really quaffable vin ordinaire of the best kind, easy on the brain and stomach, headache-free and agreeaby alcoholic. Bought singly, it's only just over a fiver a bottle in the Co-op. You can't go wrong.

The Les Jamelles Mourvèdre is superior in the ratings, though not really in price. It's OK at £6.99 a bottle at the moment, but I'm mentioning it because it looks likely to be on special offer very shortly. Probably more tannin and a stronger flavour altogether. This 2012 bottle is distinguished by winning a bronze medal in the Decanter world wine awards 2013 (as do lots of wines). They described it as 'spicy, plum and marzipan nose. Deep dark fruit flavours with a gentle floral note finish.' Bright, fun. Well, there you are! Sample it and see if it grabs you, and if it does and it goes down to £4.99…

Wines from decidedly little-known grapes often seem to be better value than the more famous grapes. Anyone can sell a Rioja to someone, however bad it is. Put a bit of gold thread round it and thousands of people will take it to parties. Buy a Sicilian wine from a grape you've never heard of and it's probably half the price of the Rioja and twice as enjoyable.

I hope you didn't miss out on the Co-op's pre-Christmas offer of Wither Hills NZ Sauvignon Blanc for £4.99. Its regular price in Waitrose is £9.99 and a wine pundit friend called the offer embarrassing. An absolutely lovely wine: I've still a few in the garage! It just shows that the offers at the Co-op can be outstanding if you pick the right ones.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Nearly there!

Two weeks on and the pressure is easing. Saturday was the last day of the sale, people went on buying till the very last, reinforcing my belief that there was not a single rubbish book, DVD or CD in the shop. Monday and the bookcases were moved: I could probably have sold the lot several times over. Tuesday and the only two people who asked about the leftover stock came and helped themselves: Finstock parish church and the Friends of Wychwood expect to raise a couple of thousand pounds between them from what they took away. Better than dumping the books in a skip!

There's more pressure closing a shop than keeping it open. What is in many ways a desultory experience has been transformed by many really kind and grateful emails from customers (I was only doing a job of work and trying to scrape a living!), and two alcoholic bottles left for me on Saturday. Quite moving. I get some things right, it seems. 

Two weeks and we fly to South Africa. Friends will be looking after the house and people will be staying here too. Reassuring. 

Then back to England in the spring and a whole new life. Wonderful. And nicely brown when everyone here is pale and wan. Ha! And I shall enjoy seeing some of my customers as friends, a whole new category of relationship. That will be nice. 

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Sale day

The sale has begun! Five people in here by 9.30, by 9.35 I can't see to the front of the shop.

A woman has gone off in a temper because she can't read the location maps on the backs of the OS maps to work out where Charlbury is. Two customers tried to help but she has thrown the maps down and left. Perhaps she will bring her reading glasses next time she comes to a bookshop.

I pour myself a coffee while customers try and resolve the gridlock in front of me. "Are you in the queue?" "No, just trying to get past." Short of standing on my chair, I can't count the number of people in here. If one breathes in, another has to breathe out.

Have taken £400 in 40 minutes. Wish that had been a typical day's takings in the past!

Not long before I spot a friend who has studiously avoided the shop for years. She's here for the pickings. There will be more.

Made two mistakes with change so far! Atypical. It's not that I feel tired at the end of a week's work, it's feeling tired at the end of 45 years' work!

Can't help noticing that after 100 minutes and perhaps £800 I've sold perhaps one children's book. Confirms all my prejudices. Bother.

125 minutes in and sold two children's books to an 80-year-old. Hooray!

Closed at 1. What a lot there is to sell next week!!

Friday, 3 January 2014

'One of the lowest priced theatres and cinemas in the region.'

'Every penny of the booking fee goes towards the charitable aims of the theatre, and we will endeavour to remain one of the lowest priced theatres and cinemas in the region.'

So writes John Terry, director of the excellent little theatre in Chipping Norton, explaining why the theatre adds a £1 booking fee to all tickets whether bought online or at the box office. Unfortunately, for an audience member, things are not so simple. Charlbury is halfway between Chippy and Witney, so when the National Theatre does a live stream of one of its performances, people have a choice.

Because the Cineworld cinema in Witney carries the same performances. They are showing Coriolanus, a National Theatre production streamed live from the Donmar Warehouse, on Thursday January 30. Luxurious seats, perfect sight lines without a head in front of you, big screen and perfect sound. I can reserve tickets online and for 'seniors' they are £12.10 each.

Or I can go to 'one of the lowest priced theatres and cinemas in the region'. Here the sightlines are often obscured, many seats (as well as being not terribly comfortable) are directly behind the one in front, the floor is not raked, and the screen and the sound are good but not up to the same standard. So the tickets will be a real bargain? No. £16 per ticket, no concessions, and a compulsory £1 'booking fee' per ticket. So £17 in all. I won't be paying £4.90 for the privilege of going to Chippy.

But lest this is interpreted as an attack on the little theatre at Chippy, it isn't meant to be. The theatre is great, innovative, a regional focus, and puts on a wide variety of often excellent entertainment. I enjoy my visits there. But it shouldn't try to appeal on price. Just as local bookshops shouldn't be claiming to be cheaper than Amazon. Because they can't!

What's more, the theatre at Chippy has an exceptionally well-heeled audience rooted in an extremely affluent corner of the Cotswolds. It doesn't even need to be cheap!

Sunday, 15 December 2013

From the sublime to, well, modern catering

Going to the annual Christmas concert at Keble College is as much an experience as arriving and being there. Trudging the Oxford streets in the dark and damp is an extraordinary journey because despite the dark and dull of the present moment, Oxford being Oxford, you walk in expectation and anticipation of arriving somewhere quite extraordinary, often quite magical.

Christmas by Candlelight was given by one of Oxford's superb choirs, Jubilate. The city seems to exude musical richness, not least of course because many colleges have organ scholars, there is a music faculty, the cathedral is a centre of musical excellence, and a number of colleges have notable directors of music and even (Christ Church, Magdalen and New College) superlative boys' choirs fed by their own choir schools.

Keble College came out of the high church Anglican tractarian movement and the chapel exhibits characteristics which can be both absurd and magnificent. It is controversial, and that fact on its own infuriates me. People are so judgemental! The chapel towers into the sky as we would all love to do, and once inside you experience the extraordinary ambition and potential and (mediated by the giant Doom on the west wall) ambiguity of human existence. 

It's impossible to describe what you will find on entering this place. Lit with candles and nightlights, its murals aglow, it's better not to attempt it here! But thanks to Angela for the photo, taken just before the choir took their places in the chancel.

Afterwards at the Lebanese restaurant in Jericho, where we have often enjoyed excellent mezes and a surprising glass or two of Lebanese wine or beer, the scales suddenly fell from my eyes as I realised that much if not all of this food is bought in ready cooked. In fact, I did a little googling after we went to a pub in Shropshire and passed a stack of ready cooked lamb shank meals piled in cardboard boxes in the entrance. You suddenly realise that many, and almost certainly most, pubs these days buy in most of their menu in bulk from specialist suppliers. The menu at the Tite Inn in Chadlington is an example of this. The food is excellent, and I'm not complaining about the quality of many of the meals that come this way, some to be microwaved, some popped in the oven, and others to be vigorously 'boiled in the bag'. What I find hard to swallow (sorry!) is the fact that these establishments talk happily of their 'chef'. A plastic bag of frozen stew is immersed in boiling water for 25 minutes, plated with potatoes and a couple of vegetables (which may or may not have been 'prepared' in the kitchen) or a side salad, and delivered to the customer. 

I am sure, though I have yet to check this out, that most people believe there is a kitchen in the back of the pub where a chef and his team are preparing and cooking the dishes on the menu. 

Sorry, no. Google for pub or restaurant food suppliers and you will see how it works. And there are many suppliers you won't find that way, perhaps for obvious reasons. As one website explains, take over a pub or open a new restaurant or cafe and the company reps will be on your doorstep. 

Of course, establishments who buy in their food in this way can offer menus of often truly spectacular proportions. The size of the menu is really only constrained by the capacity of their freezer(s). So a pub with a very extensive and diverse menu may be working this way, especially if they don't appear to be terribly busy... Try checking round the back (if you can!) and see if there is sign or smell of a busy kitchen.

So who cooks their own food? Locally I am sure The Bull in Charlbury does, and the same goes for the Plough in Finstock and the Royal Oak in Ramsden. Do you know other places? Add your 'comment' below. 

Friday, 6 December 2013

Wines at the Coop

Two striking wine offers at the Co-op! Which? magazine has just tasted bubblies priced under £10 and top of its list is the Co-op own brand Prosecco at £9.99. We tried it on a couple of friends and we all enjoyed it greatly. I was afraid it would be rather sweet but no, just a gorgeous bubbly. The catch? It's on special offer till Christmas at a mere £5.99. Wow! And 5% off 6 or more bottles!! A real catch…

The other offer? Look in Waitrose or on their website and you'll find the IWC Bronze Award Wither Hills New Zealand sauvignon blanc going for £9.99. It's got a lovely fruity taste and a gorgeous smell (ok, aroma) and is perfectly placed for dry. The Co-op have it till Christmas at £4.99. Another wow. 

See, it's worth following this blog after all!

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Blue remembered hills

So wrote A E Housman:

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

If you asked me for my blue remembered hills, they would not be the Shropshire hills of Housman, nor in fact the North Downs on the skyline of this photograph, though I wandered freely there as a child. They would be the South Downs seen across the Weald from Colley Hill, above Reigate, or from Leith Hill: a span of landscape that includes the birthplaces and workplaces of both sides of my family for centuries.

Here they are, blue and distant, behind Ben and me as we stood on Leith Hill tower (the top is just over 1000 feet above sea level, so a mountain in height!) during a great weekend away together in July 2009.

We all have our own blue remembered hills. When Dennis Potter gave the title to his television play, I assume he was thinking of the Forest of Dean. Potter reads the poem at the end of the play, and while you can watch it in seven videos uploaded on YouTube, you can cheat and jump to the last part here and enjoy his voice and his Forest of Dean accent. And reflect on the adult children in the play.

Such hills are not a cause for melancholy. We are not the happier for wanting to re-live the past. It's more a question of living the past into the future, holding a present moment that is in a creative and moving space between the two.

I love hills and mountains.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Scanning one's customers!

A couple of years ago a friend who then managed the Blackwell's flagship bookshop in Oxford told me how he had to restrain his staff when they found customers scanning books.

If you are not up to speed with such things, let me explain that what students (and others) were and are doing was not taking snaps of book covers. They use their smartphones to scan the barcodes with an Amazon app which immediately tells them the Amazon price and gives them the option of ordering a book there and then.

So anyone with a reading list can go into a bookshop, browse… and make their choice. They save money literally at the bookshop's expense.

Hence the anger of the Blackwell's staff. The practice threatens their jobs.

This is a problem all booksellers face. I haven't seen anyone actually scan a book in my shop, but I know it's happened at the Woodstock Bookshop.

Then the other day a woman came in and said she was fairly new to the area. She asked me about the shop and got quite sentimental, even emotional when I said it would close in January. She put a cheap book on the counter as if to buy it.

Then she asked me lots of detailed questions about local books. She repeated the names of titles with a concentrated frown as if committing them to memory. When I declined to accept her card for a payment under £10 and pointed out that she could withdraw the money from the post office 25 yards away at no cost, she said she would not do that and left.

You can see how my mind was working. I was certainly hoping she would not come back in the future as I really don't want this kind of customer.

Surprise surprise, though. She came back after a couple of hours and bought the book. Ho hum.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

The bookshop, internet culture, and change

I've been asked by Lynette, who edits the redoubtable quarterly magazine The Charlbury Chronicle, if I would like to write a piece for the next issue on the ending of an era at the bookshop. Of course the answer was 'yes', and I realise it gives me a chance to say thank you to all those extraordinary people I have met here who happily blur the distinction between customer and friend. Also to prod people into awareness of the problems many of their neighbours are facing as we all live in an internet-oriented society, where to be off-line can quickly make you vulnerable and disadvantaged.

Next year I want to see if other people are interested in enabling the digitally excluded to play a fuller part, and not to fall by the wayside when they become ill, elderly, or otherwise incapacitated.

Meanwhile, for the record, here's what I've written for the Chronicle:

• • • • •

As I write this at the end of October, it doesn't look as if anyone will be taking over the bookshop when I retire in January. I shall be sorry to be living in a town without a bookshop. I've been a bookseller for most of the last 45 years, but while most good things come to an end, others may start afresh! I have plenty to look forward to.

Unlike all or most other western European countries, Britain has chosen to place no restriction on the discounting of books, and together with the advent of the ebook this has made traditional 'bricks and mortar' bookshops increasingly vulnerable. As more and more people shop online, we've just been waiting for the tipping point to come. In France, Germany, Sweden, Italy, Holland and elsewhere they made different decisions. (And don't fall into the trap of just blaming the Tories.) The turnover at Evenlode Books is little more than half what it was 7 or 8 years ago, and falling year by year. We have to accept this state of affairs: as a community and as a country we have made our choice.

The eclectic and idiosyncratic stock of a 'real' bookshop is something quite special, but now increasingly hard to find. That is something you cannot replicate on a website. And if this shop closes, I urge you to transfer your allegiance to Rachel at the Woodstock Bookshop or Patrick and Polly at Jaffe and Neale in Chippy, if you travel in those directions.

On the one hand, what has particularly saddened me over the last thirteen years (I opened the shop on April Fool's Day 2000) has been the occasionally belligerent, more commonly just sadly negative attitude of some people to the internet. Proud not to be online, determined to remain aloof from the changes taking place in the world around them, as they get older these people are destined for increasing isolation and helplessness. Some are among the readers of this article. I know some octogenarians who shop online and have everything, groceries, clothing and all, delivered to their door, while their neighbours many years their junior complain of their problems accessing shops, services and information. Who will pick up the pieces?

I'd like to spend some time next year working on ways of contacting and educating our computerphobes, so they can participate in the ever-changing society most of us benefit from being part of. Are you interested in exploring the options?

By contrast, what has cheered me no end has been the extraordinary variety and number of people I have met here. I feel quite privileged as I walk to work each morning and exchange greetings with such remarkable and diverse people. Most of us speak to little more than a dozen local people at most: I get to speak to hundreds! As I look forward to my retirement, I want to say thank you to so many of you who have made working, and more recently living, in this remarkable town such an enjoyable experience.

Now to answer the questions people are asking me: yes, Christmas is business very much as usual in the shop, with the overnight delivery service on customer orders very much in place. Then, assuming no one comes forward, the bookshop will close with a big sale in mid-January. And Charlbury may lose yet another retail premises. You can keep up-to-date with any news at www.charlbury.info should circumstances change.

Looking further ahead, I'd love to keep in touch, and if you care to follow me on my blog at evenloder.blogspot.co.uk, I'll be very pleased to have your company and have the occasional chat and exchange of views.

Meanwhile, see you in the queue at the Co-op!

(And thanks to Sue Mynall for the lovely drawing!)