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I have a lot of spare time on these winter evenings when G is working late and I’m too exhausted after a hard day’s work to paint or write anything serious. And so I light a fire, turn the oven on so as to cook something she’s already prepared with love and care, or try my hand at not burning something I’ve skilfully taken from the freezer or fridge with my own two hands. I therefore have a couple of hours to read the book I’m busy with, search the net for music, painters and paintings [perhaps a poet or writer or two] or descend into depression by reading the news on line. And so I have lots to share with you [which for me is a very wintery thing: with discussions round a fire and sending those you disagree with out into the dark and cold or keeping those like-minded close and cosy]. Who am I kidding, I don’t know when last I met someone who shares any of my views or interests, especially in art or music or the reasons behind the state of the world. Italians, from my experience, love sharing—recipes, food, information [sometimes very graphic] about their latest ailments, their political views on how to change things for the better, or their favourite holiday destinations [which almost always revolve around the delicious and unique food to be found there]. So, as I have no recipes to share or ailments to burden you with, and ideally choose holiday destinations because I know nothing about them, I will share the drawing above, the paintings, writing and music below, and hopefully show how by looking, reading and listening, we can begin to tackle the shit we find ourselves in…Yeah, well, maybe. Maybe I have too much time on my hands. But I’ll try anyway.
The drawing above is still as fresh and powerful to me as it was when I first discovered it, hiding on a page of paintings by Miguel Barcelo [see paintings below]. It is by George Grosz [1893-1957], called Brawl and Dispute at a Gaming Table, and goes to the very centre of the problems we face today—not only in politics and business but in sport, art, film etc.—basically anywhere where big money is made by soulless misfits at the expense of the many. Grosz is most famous for his vicious caricatures of the excesses during the Weimar Republic in the 1920’s, then went to live in America where I’m sure this drawing was done. Below is a wonderful quote from him that I took off his Wikipedia entry where I also learned that his father was a pub owner and that his son, Marty Grosz, is a Jazz guitarist. I cannot think of a better drawing or one so relevant to today.
“My Drawings expressed my despair, hate and disillusionment, I drew drunkards; puking men; men with clenched fists cursing at the moon. … I drew a man, face filled with fright, washing blood from his hands … I drew lonely little men fleeing madly through empty streets. I drew a cross-section of tenement house: through one window could be seen a man attacking his wife; through another, two people making love; from a third hung a suicide with body covered by swarming flies. I drew soldiers without noses; war cripples with crustacean-like steel arms; two medical soldiers putting a violent infantryman into a straight-jacket made of a horse blanket … I drew a skeleton dressed as a recruit being examined for military duty. I also wrote poetry.”
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Miguel Barcelo [b 1957], is the true heir to Picasso and Miro; a painter, sculptor and ceramicist of enormous energy, with a passion for life and the materials he works with. He paints and sculpts animals and men, the earth, the sea, the sky; fruit, bones and fish. And his visceral approach to the making of art and finding meaning in life is a wonderful antidote to the life crushing work of the conceptualists. Above and below are three of his paintings, and while looking at these and countless other works of his that you can see online I was reminded of the poem Loquitur Senex [ an old man speaks, is, I think an adequate translation of the title] by C. H. Sisson.
I return to the horror of truth
After a life of business:
I was happy to be employed
But now my hunger is extreme.

The swans drift by and the bridge
Is pendulous over the profound stream:
The water is habitable by the mind
And the stationary fish are swimming against it.

Where were the fish when I,
Flurried by consultation,
Laboured to distinguish myself
In vanity and discursive reason?

Now, with the fish, nose pressed
Against reality,
I look through the watery glass
At weeds standing on stone.

The age is lost that had
Laughter hidden under the hand
But in the peace that remains
There is still what lives in the eye.

Gracious God, when the tension gives
And I’m swept below the weir
Do as Berkeley says
Hold this world in your mind.
It was always the final line of this poem that had taken my head off, but now, after typing it out [which is a wonderful way to pay close attention to a piece of writing] it is, ‘The age is lost that had/Laughter hidden under the hand’ that moves me the most.
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Before introducing the two pieces of music at the end of the blog I want to talk about the writer Hisham Matar, undoubtedly one of the finest working today. I quoted briefly from him in my previous blog, once from A Month in Siena and once from The Return; both extraordinary works of biography. I have just finished one of his two novels, In the Country of Men, and want to share with you, briefly, the story [as told mostly by nine year old Suleiman] and a passage of extreme beauty, subtlety and imagination—all traits lacking in the men who run, and so destroy the world around us.
The setting is Tripoli, Libya, in 1979, ten years into the forty year dictatorship of Gaddafi. He and his torturers, killers, informers and spies, who have almost complete control over the Libyan people, are the men of the title of this book. But so are his father and friends who try to build a resistance movement. Yet his father is no hero and neither are the men in his mother’s family…for when his mother was fourteen she was seen by a male cousin talking to a young boy in the Italian Coffee House. This was seen as so scandalous that she was severely beaten by her father and then locked in a room in their house for months while a suitable, much older husband was found for her [Suleiman’s father]. His mother was fourteen when he was born, had tried suicide before her forced marriage, had tried to terminate her pregnancy, so crushed had she felt by her lack of freedom and the loss of her childhood. She is now a part time alcoholic, having grappa smuggled to her by a local baker when her husband is away on his many business or more clandestine trips. Yet miraculously she finds love and the joy of childhood in her adoring and adored son. Their relationship is a close bond against the men [and women] who aid or perpetrate the horrors of military and religious dictatorship. Matar writes…
“Outside in the garden the crickets sounded. Out of nowhere a bird broke into song, then, as if embarrassed, realized it was alone and fell silent. After a little while Mama’s breathing became deep and long; she had fallen asleep. Her arm, still wrapped around my waist, became slack. I imagined what I would have done to save her. In my fantasy I would tap on the window of the room where she was held captive and help her jump out. We would run away somewhere where no one could find us. And to avoid people’s gossip we would pretend to be brother and sister, because I would be nine and she fourteen. I would make sesame sticks and sell them to children, delivering them on my big motorcycle. I would spend the money I made on books for her. And one day she would meet that boy she was with in the Italian Coffee House—perhaps by the sea shore, or at a café, or in a line in a bakery—and fall in love with him again. Many times I would drive by on my motorcycle and see them holding hands above the table in a café, big, silent smiles on their faces. And after they had found many reasons to be together and all the books in the world were read, it would be time for me to be born. My imagination turned the tale in my head—I saved her, went away with her, then came back to save her again—until sleep curled itself around me and I sank in it, feeling the dark, warm glow of hope spreading itself within me.”

I’ve read this piece so often, but every time I do I find myself crying. How delicate we are, naked, facing the greed, superstition and fear of those who hold sway over us: only our imagination left intact to start our fight back. And it is in all this work shown here, made with imagination, anger, love and skill that hope rests for a better future for our children and grandchildren. It would also not hurt us to get our protest shoes on and kick a couple of heads in. What have we got to lose? A peaceful dotage! Loquitur Senex.

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Finally, here are two pieces of music by Henry Threadgill, the composer, musician, teacher, band leader and Pulitzer Prize winner, who celebrated his 86th birthday on the 15th Feb. His music, on the two LP’s of his that I once owned and now on you tube in wonderful profusion, has excited me, disturbed me, and made me swoon in equal measures since the 1980’s. The first piece is unusually short for him, only four minutes long, and starts with a simple funky rhythm of bass and drums that develops into something slightly more complex with the brass then on to wild flights of energy by his saxophone, coming down to earth to the same rhythm it started with. It is like life and is called, I Can’t wait to Get Home. The second piece, Hundred Year Old Game, is for me a ten minute gypsy lullaby that develops into a slightly more urgent piece for a child now an adult, with wonderful piano accordion, brass, guitar, rhythm section and saxophone; very melodic and utterly beautiful.

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It is now a month since our return to Italy, after three very happy weeks in and around Cape Town, and I hope that with this opening paragraph [my fourth attempt to get started] I’ll find a way in to talk about our trip: primarily a wonderful reconnection with close family but also a trip down, sometimes clear, sometimes hazy memory lanes with old friends. It was also unlike any holiday that we’ve had in the last thirteen years, ever since we left SA for France and soon after that, Italy. These holidays were always an exploration of somewhere new and exotic for us, and often with Cal and Ness or other family and friends so that for a while we were like gypsies, carrying our home in our bags, sleeping in an airb&b here and another one there. Or, if staying in their homes, we were the Gypsy parents, breezing in for a while with stories of our ridiculously disorganised lives. But for the most part this return to Cape Town was a return to a landscape that is anathema to the Gypsy in me…the landscape of suburbia and that unique, high walled and electric fenced in version found in every South African city and town. But you know what? Even though I’ve been running from suburbia all my adult life, I loved being there, close to those who I love and respect and wish only the very best for. And because of their kindness, even before we’d arrived, we experienced a happiness that Hisham Matar describes beautifully in his book A Month in Siena. “Isn’t this one definition of happiness”, he writes, “to be anticipated.”
So we were away from Siena for almost a month, and so strange to pass complete strangers in shopping malls or theatre entrances who spoke with the same accents as ours, who dressed with as little flair or care as we do [I buy my clothes from a travelling Moroccan salesman or the supermarket in Siena!] and who would be prayed for by many fashionable Italians, convinced that SA must suffer under the terrible weight of not having a single decent clothing shop— for how else could our lack of style be accounted for. But also among people who laugh at the same things as we do, who remember the same radio shows, the names of once famous rugby players, and the silly names of far flung villages that we might have passed through only once, but whose names run off our tongues like laughter.

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Before I get any further I need to explain why I’m using David Goldblatt’s photographs, even though only one captures a scene that perhaps happened on a beach in Cape Town. And why, even if they don’t seem to relate to what I’m describing, they describe the South Africa we grew up in and that is still there, better than any artist ever has. I saw the photograph at the start of the blog across a not so crowded room at the Norval Foundation, one of the two new ‘culture as big bucks and we’re going to sell it to you’ art museums and emporiums in Cape Town, and it nearly took the top of my head off. It is called Benoni, Sunday afternoon [or something very like that] and after the ubiquitous, over thought, over stylized and over theatrical toys and props by William Kentridge and his drones, it had the veracity of a beating heart. The second photograph, above, like the ones below are from a book of Goldblatt’s photographs called Some Afrikaners Revisited, photographed by me with a hand held camera over pages held open with my other hand. The photograph is called Watching Family Videos, Northcliff [Johannesburg].
Goldblatt never saw himself as an artist, did not like the title, said of himself… “I am a self-appointed observer and critic of the society into which I was born, with the tendency to give recognition to what is overlooked or unseen.” So what is this unseen, this hidden that I and many others recognise immediately on seeing his photographs. It is, I believe, the emanation of the emotions that we lived through while growing up during apartheid. Emotions brought to the fore once again as we look at the figures in his works. Emotions of fear, loathing, fascination and pure wonder.
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The streets of the southern suburbs of Cape Town are often quite short and crossed by others to form grid patterns, sometimes broken off at the corners or bisected by trunk roads linking Table Bay and the Atlantic to Muizenberg and beyond, on the Indian Ocean. The houses are often still from Victorian times, the streets lined with oak trees, which, like many white South Africans, originally came from France, Britain or Holland. And there’re the mountains which come off the back of Table Mountain and follow you, back or forth, all the way across the peninsular, herding you, trying to stop your escape, making you follow prescribed routes. No wonder Cape Town is called the Mother City.
Yes, I’ve always had a strange relationship with Table Mountain, preferring to climb it so as to look away towards the brown North, to the ‘real’ Africa where Zebra or buffalo play, or South over the blue to the ‘very ends of the earth’. I don’t like living in its shadow, having to look up at it, quite literally then being a pain in the neck. Or looking down too sharply for that matter. For just beyond the suburbs, beyond the debris strewn Black River with its incongruous colony of Flamingos, is a hell on earth. A hell of cardboard, plastic and plank homes, packed tightly together on sand that shifts in the wind and rain, and that combust instantaneously in the flick of a tossed away cigarette or the crash of an upturned paraffin stove. And in this fragile hell, the hope and dreams of escape that seem most at hand come through TV parabolas on almost every roof: false flowers of false hope. But if you stick close to the mountain, to the bosom of the mother city, clamber up or across it, let yourself be enfolded by its trees, their softness, their light and shade, pass the unique flowers and shrubs that the Cape is famous for, you can forget, for a while, the shacks of the Cape Flats.
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There is a racist euphemism widely in use in South Africa today that really shook me. Gone are the crude and blunt racist terms [as crude and blunt as the whites who used them] like, kaffir, houtkop [wood head] and monkey [surely, today being used only by comedians of all races to laugh at our ignorant past]. Those obscenities were flung at blacks by an all-powerful and racist white people with little fear of reprisal, and now [under a shift of power and minor readjustment of privilege] whites, very often well off and who would die at being called racist, have shifted their language to fit their general sense of fear and indignation, their loss of complete privilege. Today, white South Africans call black people ‘the previously disadvantaged’, as if the fact that now some have equalled or overtaken their own wealth is proof that all have jumped on the band wagon of corruption [an obsession with whites who are blind to what went down before] and that they, the whites, are now the oppressed. That really sucked. It made me furious. But I also want to say that as a white South African I’m certainly not in the position to point any fingers: I was born and grew up in the time of apartheid, profited from it, had opportunities undreamed of by South Africans of colour, did nothing to stop it. And now I live in a country that has a record of oppression and killing in Africa that makes the old SA government look the model of moderation. The number of Libyans killed by Italians during their occupation is almost beyond belief, and let’s not forget African deaths at the hands of Belgians, British, French and Germans, or the present growth of fascist political parties across Europe and Britain. I live in what is fast becoming a type of apartheid Italy, can see examples of it every day: black workers bused to the vineyards of Chianti from god knows what terrible accommodation for god knows what terrible pay. And one reads about the millions of euros meant for refugees going into the pockets of corrupt officials and members of organised crime, and that this and the forcing of African women into the sex work is more profitable than drug dealing. So racism is not what I previously thought it was, something born in Africa by an aberrant group of whites, but something inherent in a large proportion of Europeans. And here I am, back in the origins of apartheid, going unscrutinised and unchallenged because of my white skin.
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Who is this man above, who Goldblatt calls Oom At Geel? To a South African he would obviously be an Afrikaner, one of those ‘racist types from Holland’. And the children above, on the beach? That is a bit of a tricky one, they could be one of us, English speakers, rooineke [red necks] or soutpiele [salt cocks] English speakers who have one foot in Britain, one in SA, and their cocks dangling in the sea. And the young below–who could be at a party in some slave plantation if you just look at their dress, or in northern Europe among their English, Swedish, French, American and German cars– are celebrating The Day of the Covenant, a day to remember the success of the Voortrekkers against the Zulu in the battle of Blood River in the 1800’s and to honour a successful prayer for help from their god. Now, the day which is still a national holiday is called The Day of Reconciliation. Something we still need to aim for, obviously.

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I really didn’t expect to write most of the above when I started, or only use Goldblatt’s black and white photographs, so I want to end with one of my own colour photographs of a young couple selling flowers in Kalk Bay and briefly mention something about the wonderful young people we met: some again after far too many years, some for the first time, some briefly while serving us in restaurants and some that we just passed in the street, like the couple below who were so wrapped up in each other that they were the perfect advert to spark a passer-by to buy flowers for a loved one. I could talk about us oldies as well of course, but naa, maybe another time. I prefer looking forward anyway, making new memories rather than living in the past.

Youthful energy and enterprise is abundant in Cape Town: in the crafts being sold in the streets and at markets, in the many new craft beers and other drinks, in the food, theatre, and in the insistence in young people in a future, even though the world we are passing on is no joy ride. And whether they are buying or selling, helping run businesses, waiting tables, studying [even while working], doing research, working as architects or doctors, composing music or doing possibly the most difficult thing of all, getting over addiction, they made our stay even more of a joy. And so, on that note, here again is Hisham Matar from his masterpiece The Return, with a  sentence, so beautiful, that even taken out of the context it was written in, it can touch us all in any way we wish it to. “What is extraordinary is that, given everything that has happened, the natural alignment of the heart remains toward the light.”

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To be surprised by everything you see, as if seeing these for the first time [even if you are not] is the best way to live. When travelling or on holiday this should happen easily but can/must happen in our day to day lives as well. And I think this is what Jenny Odell, the Bay area writer and Stanford academic is saying in her book How to do nothing: Resisting the attention economy. I have not read her book, only an interview with her where she says the following. “Yeah, surprise is a way of being reminded that there’s something outside of you.” She seems to advocate giving yourself time to wonder, to muse over things outside of work pressure, social media or of thinking of time only as money. She, like the writer Jonathan Franzen is a keen bird watcher and birds seem to be their ‘medium’ as far as deep pleasure goes, but I’m sure she mentions art, all the arts, as at times equally wonderful in the way they become surprise gifts unwrapped by our eyes. Here are some gifts we received in San Francisco, both natural and manmade.

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The Maritime Museum at Aquatic Park is a wonderful art deco ex bathhouse with gorgeous murals inside, of underwater sea life by Hilaire Hiler, and is beached above a thin stretch of sand and a cove created by a curving pier, worn and crumbling along its sea edge and safe only for walkers or fishermen and where squadrons of Pelicans glide past at eye level, between you and the island of Alcatraz that seem close enough to touch. And if you turn and look back, above the Maritime Museum is the enormous sign above the headquarters of the famous SF chocolate makers Ghirardelli and makes you think of the influence of Italians here and in the whole country…and their chocolate is sublime. But it is Spanish or Chinese that you hear most often on the buses, trams or tubes; pleasures strange and varied in themselves. The F line runs only old trams decommissioned in Europe, Canada, Australia and other cities in America, and is a must ride, both for the beauty of these finely restored trolleys and for the characters going to and from the Castro, the heart of the LGBTQ community in the city—hairy, bearded men in milkmaid caps and dresses, a tall, knife thin black man in a silver suit with gold binding, gold shoes and a t-shirt, telling anyone who was interested that he’d left his Lamborghini and shirt and tie at home and was on his way to fetch them. And at the end of the line, close to the Castro Cinema, if it is warm and sunny you will no doubt see one or more naked men taking the air. I’m not sure if I can classify this as a gift, though I did learn something from the experience: that [just call me old fashioned] there is such a thing as a penis ring.
The houses in many areas in SF e.g. the Marina, Sunset and the Mission are painted every colour of a kitsch rainbow and so do surprise, but then seduce because of their utter indifference to taste and a defiance of ever being correctly dated: so often have they been painted and plastered, their roofs permed or waved, or their faces lifted. But it is the schools of San Francisco that really grabbed my imagination. Two in the Marina stand out: one an inexplicable but joyous mix of what I will call Aztec and Spanish Gothic architecture and the other a straight lined 30’s building with the names of Franklin, Shakespeare, Aristotle etc. etc. carved below a decorative frieze at the roof line. I can imagine the first putting a smile on the faces of every child or teacher arriving in the morning. And the second? That depends no doubt on a lot of things … parents, teachers; a love of reading or not and the ability in a child to see that there is, as Jenny Odell said, “something outside of you.”
The cinemas are wonderful too, though many are now fitness centres, rave clubs or warehouses. But the ones that still show movies, like the Castro, the Roxy [in the Mission] and the one below, are gems.
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This photograph of the Presidio, close to the once military area of the same name though still in the Marina, also serves as an intro for me to talk about a group of San Franciscans who I’ve not yet mentioned. No, not the countless homeless who I will still write about but a minority in the city, middle aged or older people very much like me. For as I was taking the photograph above I heard a woman call out behind me, “I’m glad you appreciate my building.” And when I asked her if she owned, or once owned it she replied, “No but I saved it, fought for it. Those morons wanted to turn it into a gym.” She was obviously a driving force in the community, perhaps too much of a force for some, because as we were talking she hailed a man of our age who was crossing the street and who, on hearing her tried to pull his head into his neck and muttered something like, “can’t stop now Mary, have to dash.”
I also met Richard, a photographer, tour guide, and hardworking advocate for the preservation of the 30’s murals in places like Coit Tower, the Rincon Annex, and the Beach Chalet at Ocean Beach. A bit older than me, he was volunteering at the Maritime Museum when he started to tell me in that rather sad but earnest manner that older Jewish people often have, about the need to preserve these threatened works done during the depression using funding by the government. And, by association, I believe he was expressing fears for his own preservation for as long as needed, and a dignified death. He spoke of his luck at having inherited his parent house, lucky he was not one of the thousands of people living on the streets. He cares about these people, he cares about San Francisco, and he cares most about the Mothers Building. “When you next visit I hope it will be open to the public. It is a must see.” It certainly is, judging from his photographs of the murals that you can see at http://www.richardrothman.net  And also, please google Mothers Building San Francisco Fiona Lee to learn more about the building and those who worked on it, as well more about Richard Rothman.
There are apparently multiple reasons why people live on the streets of SF. As many as each individual I should imagine. And I’d hate to divide them into types, but for simplicity sake this is what I observed; though I could be way off the mark. There are those who wish they were invisible, who do not push shopping trolleys full of their belongings, who do not own dogs or carry hand painted signs asking for help, who do not talk to themselves, shout at the sky and buildings or fight over empty plastic bottles. Some of these more private homeless people own cars which are now their homes and which they move occasionally from one part of the city to the other, going unnoticed unless you notice the number of clothes folded on the back seat, string above the windows to hold makeshift curtains at night, or a toothbrush on the dashboard. Others, who want to hide their fear and homelessness but are without the luxury of a working car, sit alone on benches, slowly chewing on sandwiches that may or may not have come from trash bins. And the others, the most visible and vocal who do not fear being seen, are probably too sick, high or angry to care about what we think of them.
There is new garden in the city centre, about five floors above the street and running the length of five city blocks. It was first known as the Transbay Terminal Garden but is now the Salesforce Garden—a perfect example of how huge money dictates everything in this city, right down to the words that are used. And among the plants and trees from all over the world, the ubiquitous Starbucks, the food kiosks, bars, playgrounds and games and books for general use, as well as smartly dressed office workers and casually dressed tourists, there is a long fountain activated by the buses pulling into the station, floors below. There are also police on bicycles, and no homeless people. Here the well healed amble slowly, talk to each other [not only on their phones] notice the beauty and variety of plants, notice one another. Below, on street level it is very different: everyone walks quickly while looking straight ahead, most often on their phones as they step over or around the homeless: there is north, south, east and west San Francisco andsoon there will be one above and another below.

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There are no homeless people in China Town either, but that doesn’t mean that there is no poverty. It is a fascinating, worn and inscrutable area and has the largest concentration of Chinese people in America. The shops and pavements show either cheap tat or expensive jade and bronze work for tourists, or strange fruit and veg or tinned, wrapped or dried meat, fish or plant—completely mysterious to me or anyone who cannot read Chinese, but not to the diminutive elderly shoppers who are like sparrows in the streets and doorways. I tried shooting photographs from the hip on our first wander through the area, the place so rich in colour and shape and characterful faces that I thought I couldn’t fail to bring back a prize winning photograph. But I did, they were all terrible. So on my second, solo wander I armed myself only with a small note pad and pen and chose Grant Ave as my beat. I walked to the south end of it, where China Town starts, and turned and walked slowly back. There was too much or too little to draw, not quite sure which, so I just wrote down the names of each shop or building I passed, then the names of the streets that ran up and down hill at right angles to Grant, and so on and so on. Here’s a sample…Butterfly Gifts, Chinese community health plan, Dragon House, China Station, Jade Bazaar—Pine Street—something [can’t read my own writing] of Hong Kong, Chan’s Gifts, Ten Ren’s Tea, Golden Buddha Fortune Teller.

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On the corner of California St and Grant I did a quick scribble of a lone musician bowing his two string instrument, then, where Commercial St joins Grant, another of three musicians…and down Commercial I came across a newly painted building [white with red detailing] with 1919 proudly highlighted in red in the centre of its fourth floor stepped Dutch like gable, from where lines and lines of red and white flags ran as far as the roof of the colonnade at street level and from which lanterns hung. This was the Lee Fong Yee Tong Association, celebrating its 100th anniversary. I wished I’d brought my camera. I wished I’d known just a little of what I was looking at in this foreign country, just a few blocks square…[I liked these shop names as well – Eternity and Luckfook Jewellery].

On opposite sides of Grant, where Washington crosses it, there are two bars—the Buddha Lounge and the Li Po lounge. And the neon sign above the second is apparently the only one of its type in America to proclaim the great poet’s name. But there was little poetry inside at 6pm on a weekday afternoon, though the alcoves in the cavernous interior showed both voluptuous red sofas and red carpets that looked like they hadn’t been changed since the 1937 opening…and there were only two men at the bar, both playing games on their phones, and the couple who came in later came from Austin Texas that sounded like a suburban nightmare to me [the way they were describing it to the bar lady] and so I left and went to The Saloon.
The Saloon is the oldest still functioning live music venue in San Francisco and is a stone’s throw from China Town, on the corner of Grant Ave but just north of Columbus and so in North Beach [or Little Italy as it is also called] and a few blocks from where Ness and Erik live. We’ve heard some good music there, once a really good Rock-a-Billy band, and more recently a band headed by a young girl with a great voice and a guitar style similar to Carlos Santana. But there was nothing happening yet that afternoon and I was in no mood to strike up a conversation with the old woman who seems to be a permanent fixture at the bar, her head always covered in a knitted cap that looks like a large strawberry, or the other who draws below the belt political cartoons with coloured pencils that she keeps in a tin to keep them out of the spilled beer, or the bouncer wearing his leather Harley Davidson vest. I could have had a beer and watched the winking lights of the small plastic Christmas tree, a twelve months of the year attraction on a shelf above the dance and stage area, which is really one, or could have read the hand painted signs behind the bar and on the walls, all of different sizes and colours but all reading, CASH ONLY. I could have chosen to play the Jukebox [which has a very good play list]…and don’t get me wrong, this is a great place and worth spending time and not too much money in to discover some of the stories of those who call it home, as well as the music that turns them on. But I just wasn‘t up to it that afternoon.
Fillmore Street was once the centre of Jazz on the West Coast, and since the changes and gentrification that started there, decades ago, I thought that the Jazz scene in SF had died. Thankfully, I was completely wrong. Jazz in the bay now has a new heart in Hayes Valley; a purpose built theatre with two venues, one big, one small, and that hosts a jazz festival that runs from Sept to May! Hosting, both big and new names from all over the world…and we were lucky to be in town when everyone’s favourite SF Jazz band was playing.
Perhaps, the John Brothers Piano Company is famous among jazz lovers everywhere—if not they should be—for this infectious, hugely talented group of four play their own compositions [most often in the style of a much earlier period] with such intensity and bravura that you are left wide eyed, wide mouthed and smiling. At the end of this blog is a clip of them playing Mind of the Dolphin, and the only thing lacking in this track is that you don’t hear the pianist on clarinet, which he plays as audaciously as the piano. I once read of them being described as a “punk band with jazz instruments and classical inclinations”. A pretty fair description, I think.
If you’re not too keen on jazz, below that clip is another; a wonderful Playing for Change video of Otis Redding’s, Sitting on the Dock of the Bay; one of the iconic songs of SF. And it is here in Sausalito [where I will finish] that Otis Redding wrote this song while living on one of the house boats that still line the water’s edge and form lines going out into the bay. Sausalito is an area rich in culinary and visual treats, and from where we were given the best treat of many that Ness and Erik lavished on us, a flip in a bright yellow sea plane. Below are our final photographs from SF, a bird’s eye view of the bridge and the city, taken while lazily turning and banking, dropping and rising like sea birds taking the air on a Sunday afternoon, as the sun came out, the fog shredded and the fog horns quietened.

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Although the age gap between our children and ourselves is of course a constant, the older we all get the more our children creep up on us, in maturity, knowledge and experience, and there is a point when our roles are reversed—they become the parents, we the children—this showing most clearly when they become the drivers while we revert to being passive, wide eyed passengers in a car [not ours] hurtling down a road.
This first happened to me when Cal and Ness arrived by surprise to celebrate my 60th. Cal hired a car and drove us down to Rome, later to the coast and around this area. I offered to drive on many occasions but was rebuffed with, “I’m the only one insured,” or, “I’m not tired, I won’t fall asleep I’m not a child anymore, Pops,” or, “I know you know the way, but I have Google Maps.”
That was in Italy, but here in San Francisco [or anywhere else in America] I will never offer to drive, I’m simply too scared to—five lanes of enormous, powerful cars and trucks passing [or being passed as is the case with Ness behind the wheel] to the left and the right, all trying to get somewhere before anyone else, to get ahead, not to lag behind and become losers, and seemingly more afraid of that than of death.
“What’s the speed limit, Ness?”
“Naa, there’s none. The idea is to keep up with everyone else. Going too slowly is as much a crime as going too fast.”
“Jesus! And you can overtake on the left and the right?”
“Sure, keeps the traffic flowing.”
That was just in the first few minutes after our arrival, she racing us in to the city from the airport in Erik’s #turboporsche.blacklowflyingnumber.
A few days later, having driven us over bridges, down highways, to Napa and later into the Sierra Mountains on the border of Nevada, we are approaching Oakland and then the Bay Bridge to come back into the city when she slips into the far left lane and accelerates. “This is the emergency lane Ness!”
“No, Pops, this is the car-pool lane.”
“The what?”
“THE CAR-POOL LANE, for cars carrying three or more people,” she laughs.
“And you can drive as fast as you like?”
“Yeah, pretty much so. As fast as the others.”
I love driving [now, love being driven even more] especially out beyond cities into spaces and places I’ve never seen and will probably not see again. Us in cars is symbolic of life in much art today. If we are born healthy and of a vaguely functioning mind [as I think I was, if my memory serves me well] we are metaphorically born with a tank of gas to venture forth, more if we make money or get lucky, and there are opportunities, romances or dead ends on either side of the road on which we can keep going or turn off to get to some dreamed of destination or crash and burn, ending up like that rusty wreck of an old F100 we’ve just passed sitting on blocks beside a small weathered house. ‘What would it be like to live in that house,’ we can ask ourselves as we drive past? ‘What would it be like to live on that Indian Reservation,’ we can think moments later? Or to be farmer Rasmussen on Rasmussen Farm, or a bear among the redwoods and cypress of Yosemite. Cars offer this cinematic seat to the world passing us and even when we stop on a journey we are not quite real, not quite out of our own movie. I know that because we stopped in Bridgeport for the night. But before I start describing Bridgeport, or Yosemite [where we were coming from] or Lake Tahoe [where we were headed] here is a monologue from Sam Shepard’s play, Curse of the Starving Class. I bought a book of his plays from an old hippie woman [my age?] in her old hippie shop on Columbus Ave, near to Ness and Erik’s home, and she was so happy with this sale that she wanted to give me a copy of a book she’d just finished reading, Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas. But I politely refused, saying I’d read it years ago and that my luggage was already overweight anyway, and she said something like, “everything finds its true home eventually, it will go to the right person.” Damn, and we thought we were so free and ground breaking, a revolutionary advance guard, and here we are a lifetime later, reading the same stuff and saying the same dreamy things. But maybe that’s not the worst thing that can happen in life.
Anyway, the Sam Shepard plays are wonderful and this monologue by Emma, a girl who has just reached puberty and who dreams of running away from her poor and dysfunctional family in rural California to become a motor mechanic in Mexico, speaking Spanish and writing plays in restaurant kitchens, ‘kitchen plays’, while also working as a short order cook, captures the dreams offered by roads and landscapes. That space and freedom that seems to make dreams [even false dreams, movie dreams; theatre or novel dreams] always seem possible. She’s speaking to her brother about their mother and the shifty character they think she has run off with, imagining her and them meeting in the future.
“She’s telling him all about us and about how Dad’s crazy and trying to kill her all the time. She’s happy to be on the road. To see new places go flashing by. They cross the border and gamble on the jai alai games. They head for Baja and swim along the beaches. They build campfires and roast fish at night. In the morning they take off again. But they break down somewhere outside a little place called Los Cerritos. They have to hike five miles into town. They come to a small beat-up gas station with one pump and a dog with three legs. There’s only one mechanic in the whole town, and that’s me. They don’t recognise me though. They ask me if I can fix their “carro,” and I speak only Spanish. I’ve lost the knack for English by now. I understand them though and give them a lift back up the road in my rebuilt four-wheel-drive International. I jump out and look inside the hood I see that it’s only the rotor inside the distributor that’s broken, but tell them that it needs an entire new generator, a new coil, points and plugs, and some slight adjustments to the carburator. It’s an overnight job, and I have to charge them for labor. So I set a cot up for them in the garage, and after they’ve fallen asleep I take out the entire engine and put in a rebuilt Volkswagen block. In the morning I charge them double for labor, see them on their way, and then resell their engine for a small mint.”


I’m not sure if there has ever been a young girl like Shepard’s Emma, in Bridgeport. No, of course there has. In every place in the world where young people are born with their usual unbounded energy and this then curtailed by cruelty, stupidity or blandness, they revolt or die dreaming of getting away. And it looks easy to get away from Bridgeport: you can see beyond it to the mountains on onto the valley if you just stand in the middle of the wide, straight road that runs through it, wide enough to land a small plane on. It is what I would call a strip village: road, parked cars on either side outside motels and diners, the courthouse/ sheriff’s office, Ken’s Tackle Shop and the native shop and that’s it. [The native shop? Was I in some Apartheid era mining town in South Africa?] The gas station at the end of town is not ‘beat-up’ though the people working there spoke Spanish, and the only dog we see is a much loved Australian sheep dog puppy, dozing in the motel office. That night we eat at a large diner, all the men there wearing trucker caps, baseball playing silently on a couple of large TV screens. The middle aged waitress is cheerful, each of the plates of food she brings us is enough to feed three people, and the Cabernet Sauvignon comes in small bottles like you get on aeroplanes: obviously if your drinking tastes run to wine from the Californian coast you are just passing through.
In the morning there’s dew on our car, the air fresh, the light as clean as any I’d ever seen, and we can see uneven blotches of snow on the grey/brown Sierra Mountains, like milk spilt on sand, going off in the sun. Before we leave, I notice a sign in the bathroom that reads pretty much like this. “Please do not use the hand or bath towels to wipe down your car or motorcycle. There are rags in the office for such purpose. Thank you and have a nice day. The management.”
We head north toward Lake Tahoe, through a beautifully bare and rocky landscape, then past ‘edge of town depressed tat’ and churches offering salvation. And the snow poles on the side of the road are once again constant, as they had been yesterday in Yosemite, for Lake Tahoe is an all year leisure resort and this immediately gets my back up about the place, even before we’ve seen its actual beauty. The pursuit of idleness, the desperate urge to be of that class that has homes on lakes or beaches, boats and aeroplanes, is anathema to me, a selfish death in life. So all I’ve got for you on Tahoe is one photograph and a poem. The photograph I took of the only isle on the lake, with its remains of a castle like tea house built by Lora Josephine Knight soon after she built her summer home, Vikingsholm Castle on the shore of Emerald Bay, in which the Isle lies. This was all done early last century, at about the time the French writer Blaise Cendrars visited the states and wrote poems there. The one below is set at Lake Ontario, called The Thousand Isles and sprang to mind as I looked down on Lake Tahoe, for obvious reasons.

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The Thousand Isles.
In this place the landscape is one of the most beautiful to be found in North America
The immense sheet of lake water is a blue that is almost white
Hundreds and hundreds of little green isles float on the calm surface of the limpid waters
Delicious cottages made of brightly coloured bricks give this landscape the appearance of an enchanted kingdom
Sumptuous dinghys of maple-wood or mahogany elegantly decked with flags and covered with multi-coloured awnings come and go from one isle to another
Any suggestion of weariness of labour or poverty is absent from this gracious setting for millionaires

The sun has disappeared on the horizon of Lake Ontario
The clouds bathe their pleats in the vats of scarlet of purple violet and orange
What a beautiful evening murmur Andrée and Fredérice sitting on the terrace of their medieval castle
And the ten thousand motor-boats reply to their ecstasy.

I’ve kept the best for last. But what can one say about Yosemite, it just has to be shown. And the best person to show you is the wonderful photographer Ansel Adams [1902- 1984]. I was unable to get any of his photographs off the internet to show, you but please look him up…see Yosemite under moonlight, under snow, all in extraordinary, crystal clear detail. All I have to offer are two of my bad photos and a few scribbles I did of half-dome, one of the great, glacier scoured granite monoliths that rise up through forests, rivers and lakes.

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I like these quick drawings below that I should do daily but don’t…they are instinctive and as good as I can get in the time available. And in this instance, drawing something on the other side of a deep valley, I realized that my eye had travelled and actually LANDED on the top of half-dome, pressing down on it with the same weight that my hand drove the pencil. It had become so much closer and what a wonderful feeling that was, personal and magical.


And the Johnny Cash video below is the funniest song I know about America’s obsession with cars, roads and escape, and fits well with the piece by Sam Shepard.

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We are all standing on the rocking boat, stationary now as calls go up and arms and fingers point. “Whale! Another! Over there, more! These are all humpbacks.” Then a huge ooh and ah from the thirty of us on board as a fluke rises into the air and slides back beneath the dark blue. “It does that to dive deeper” one of our guides and experts from the Oceanic Society calls out. “The markings on their tales are unique to each whale. That’s how we identify them and can track their movement.” And the other guide shouts, “We’ll soon be beyond the edge of the continental shelf, in a few thousand feet of water, we could be lucky and see a blue whale. Start looking out for their blow, much bigger than the humpbacks.”
We seem to have entered a feeding area, not only of whales but birds and white sided dolphin too, hundreds of them now racing the boat as we take off further into the Pacific. Then a terrible stench fills the air briefly and the captain puts his head out of the side window of the wheel house and shouts excitedly, “That’s whale’s breath. Boy are you guys lucky to have smelled that.” I turn to look at Ness who has been a fixture at the stern rail of the boat [“the place you go to get sick” as the guides called it] since soon after passing under the Golden Gate Bridge. She smiles, the sighting of the whales and dolphin has perked her up. She’s a real trooper. This was all her crazy parents’ idea and she’s determined not to spoil it for us, but the flies that the boat picked up while bobbing close to the Farallon Islands that stick to our hair and faces, or buzz around us, don’t help matters.
“I thought we were visiting the Farallons then going back,” she says, “not heading further out.”
“Just to the end of the continental shelf,” I say, as if suddenly I know all about continental shelves. And I put my arm around her and we look back at the jagged, brown rocky teeth of the Islands, at the abandoned houses, the stench and screech of the thousands of birds, and I know that even that she would welcome. Anywhere but this dipping, rising and rolling boat. “Susan, our guide, says the return journey will be much smoother,” I say. “Yeah, hope so,” she replies and we watch some of the others open packets of sandwiches, return from the cabin carrying huge American size cups of milky coffee, and we turn our eyes to the sea.
“Whale!” The cry goes up and the guide shouts out, “that’s a blue whale, no dorsal fin, try to imagine the size of it, much longer than the boat, twenty to thirty feet longer.” And the captain turns the boat and races towards the blow that still hangs just above the sea as a small cloud of mist.
It is as if we have again gate-crashed a whale picnic, or crossed their path on a way to one—blows going up all around us, while in the distance a whale breaches and crashes back into the water and close by a dark shape surfaces, a black, slick inner tube, the height of an eight story building, slowly rolled by the sea. Everything seems in slow motion, but still too quick to photograph, and another whale surfaces going away at right angles to the boat, her young calf moving in unison at her side. “She must have swum under the boat,” Susan screams, “oh my god!” She, an old hand at this, now as excited as the rest of us.
The return trip is very smooth, the boat, The Salty Lady as if surfing one endless swell, the Farallon’s jagged rocks fading and seemingly sinking into the sea while the first fine orange pencil line of the bridge turns more solid, an improbable span, then gloriously real and majestic as we pass under it into a sunny Saturday afternoon on the bay, where sailboats and wind surfers jag or fly in the breeze and small planes pass low overhead or above the brightly painted houses of the Marina area, or fly silhouetted against the tall glass buildings of downtown San Francisco, as if diamante encrusted in the late afternoon light.

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We are ecstatic, can’t quite believe what we’ve experienced, what we’ve seen with our own eyes; but are starving, desperate to get home and tuck into the panini that we took with us from the famous Molinari Delicatessen on Columbus Ave [naïve to think we would’ve been able to eat on the boat] and open a bottle of Californian Chardonnay, kick back, then sleep to regain our strength for the evening ahead while the humming bird, as if attached by some invisible thread to Ness and Erik’s small garden, busies itself among the palms and flowers.
So, if you are going to San Francisco sometime, forget about wearing flowers in your hair [perhaps get a tattoo instead]. That was then and a brief period in the evolution of this crazy place. Try to catch the Salty Lady to the Farallons, out to where the whales do what they have done for millions of years and will still do long after we’ve gone. In that old parlance of the Summer of Love—they will blow your mind.
I still have lots to share about our two wonderful weeks in San Francisco…a trip to Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Muir Woods and Napa valley. A flip in a sea plane, plus great Jazz, Mescal sampling, watching Baseball with a view of the bay behind, revisiting China Town and the Asian Art museum, the art deco murals at Aquatic Park. Watching the beautiful new movie, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, in the beautiful 20’s Castro Theatre, cinema palace or just having fun and being spoiled rotten.

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Below is a new take on that old white hippie song, transformed for the movie into a more soulful and contemporary version, perfect for this sad, funny and tender story of male friendship and an obsessive love for a beautiful Victorian Gothic wooden home that the main character, Jimmy Falls, once called home. It is a movie about the cut-throat nature of the property business in the city with probably the most overpriced real estate in the world. About painful change but also about caring for things and people and the hypocrisy of liberal California’s treatment of the black Americans who flocked here to build naval vessels during the 40’s, helping to create the biggest and most efficient ship building yard ever. Then having the job market virtually shut on them and many ending up in the projects in Hunters Point where, still today, they are hunted down by the police.
So [again], if you can’t get to San Francisco, please try to see the movie or at least listen to the song.

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I’ve used the painting above before, in a blog about the almost forgotten German painter Lovis Corinth [1858-1925], the blog called Fighting on Behalf of a Dead Man, and thought it and some more of his works below were perfect for a game of ‘Where’s the Biggest Wally’ in this final week of a nominally pre-fascist Britain [or is it?]
So much has been written and said about the great British suicide that I’m hardly going to say a word, just leave you with these powerful paintings that prove to be amusing too if you put names to the faces.  And also leave you with the name of a writer from Northern Ireland who I discovered for the first time this morning. Richard Seymour’s piece in this morning’s Guardian on line, ‘a dark appetite for adventure is driving Britain’s hard-line Brexit folly’, is excellent and I’m looking forward to reading more of this Marxist writer on his blog, Lenin’s Tomb and in his many books. I was not expecting anything positive in the news to wake up to, but discovering Seymour put a spring in my step. So much so that I’m taking the day off to write and paint and think…for me, among the great joys of life.
The painting above is called Ulysses fighting the Beggar…And is that the bearded Jez Corbyn as Ulysses [himself disguised as a beggar] in the centre, Johnson on the extreme left with the yellow flowers? You have a choice of many for the bare breasted woman to the right, but the man with the pink flowers on whose knee she is leaning can only be Raab. But who is carrying off the roast pig in the background; that is the big question for me, and who is the poor beggar being bloodied by Jez…who will be the sacrificial lamb if all this plotting and subterfuge is defeated?
I made a list of the names of Johnson’s cabinet and myriad advisers/enablers but cannot be bothered to type them out…you know the type anyway, just look at the painting below, called Bacchanals Returning Home. No prizes for putting a name to the short fat prick in the middle, or the lunatic prancing at the head of the procession banging his wooden cymbals. The skinny guy on the donkey with the pointy beard I see as a Rees-Mogg, having let himself go a bit for the first time in his life and paying the consequences after the heady pleasure of drunken dreams of the death of every ‘chav’ in HIS England. And the two women at the fat man’s side…to the left is Nikki da Costa and to the right with the wild hair is…yes it is, Nicky Morgan! But now I’m confused, I’ve always thought that Nicky Morgan was really George Osborn in drag, but now seeing her naked I realise that in fact Osborn has always only been, Morgan in a suit. Damn these wily Tories!
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A small observation on a certain type of name that crops up in the Johnson Gang, the double-barrelled [shotgun] ones. There is of course Rees-Mogg, then a Booth-Smith, a Powell-Chandler and a Bate-Williams. Even a Williams-Walker…really I didn’t just make these up. And when looking at the painting below, The Temptations of St Anthony, I thought about this strange habit of the British aristocracy, or would be aristocracy keeping two surnames, and came to the conclusion that there has never been a St Anthony of the British Upper Crust Isles, one who could refuse all temptation. And in fact, so week willed and loose in their affections have they always been that it was thought provident for any children born in the vicinity to have two names: if not the father’s then perhaps with a bit of luck the mother’s would prove to be correct.

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So who is this brave and strong St Anthony…he can only be Keir Starmer, the Labour Brexit Sec…and the monkey, obviously, the cunning Cummings. And have we not just seen the women playing Salome below, before? Is she not dressed in a sheer robe above? Is she not Priti Patel?

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Ah, what fun! And here is Raab again with the sword, the Foreign Secretary who found the English Channel for the first time a year ago.
Finally, below, a painting called Mourning, featuring Theresa May as she probably looks today, grey tresses over a shabby cloak. Is she telling the members of the proletariat gathered around their own dead that it serves them right for not backing her, admonishing them for her terrible state? Probably…she’s certainly not offering words of comfort. Yeah, the bloody Brits…I certainly can’t cry for them, unless I laugh at them until I cry.

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I’m reading Rebecca Solnit’s Infinity City: A San Francisco Atlas at the moment. She is a writer and environmental activist there and someone I’ve spoken of and quoted from before. And below is a very beautiful and thought provoking passage from her introduction to this atlas, which is many atlases, 22 in all. From, The Names before the Names: The Indigenous Bay Area, 1769… to…Right Wing of the Dove: The Bay Area as Conservative Military Brain Trust… to…Monarchs and Queens: Habitats and Queer Public Spaces…to…Shipyards and Sounds: The Black Bay Area since World War II, as examples. Yet it is not San Francisco that I want to write about, but me being here, and how and why, in a small village in Italy, trying to perform, on certain days, an ancient craft that dates back to about 800BC. The paintings above and below I did last year, or perhaps even early in 2017, soon after we learned that the forge was being sold along with the lands and other buildings surrounding it, and the two small sculptures are among many I did years before that, soon after I arrived here. The forge, or Mauro’s forge as I will always call it, was where his father and grandfather once worked and god knows how many blacksmiths before that. It is ancient, blackened; purpose built? That I’m not sure of as there are signs of other doors and windows now closed up with stone and rubble, and the window high up in the one painting acted as a chimney, there not being any signs of having been a purpose built one in earlier times. It is also small, cramped and dark with the awkward narrow stairs leading to a space above, which has an earth floor and was where I assembled the pieces I’d shaped on the forge. It was also a place of dreams, recalling of old memories and friends, of thoughts on beauty and practicality and what constitutes a good design. It was a place of thinking on your feet, the most exciting way to design and build anything, and of watching the colour of the coals and the steel change, listening to the whir of the fan blowing air into the fire, my hammer on the anvil, the thump/thump, or gentler tap/tap of the power hammer and the scrape of the leather brake when I stepped off the pedal.

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As a place it was marvellous for someone like me, but who the hell am I and why and how did I get here…what is the atlas, the shape, the mental rivers and high peaks that chart the influences on my physical and mental self? I was finding it difficult to write about Mauro’s forge until I started reading Solnit’s Infinity City, especially this from her introduction…
“San Francisco has eight hundred thousand inhabitants, more or less, and each one of them possesses his or her own map of the place, a world of amities, armours, transit routes, resources, and perils…but even to say this is to vastly underestimate…because each of these citizens [read, all of us] contains multiple maps: areas of knowledge, rumours, fears, friendships, remembered histories and facts, alternate versions, desires, the map of everyday activity versus the map of occasional discovery, the past versus the present, the map of this place in relation to others that could be confined to a few neighbourhoods or include multiple continents of ancestral origin, immigration routes and lost homelands, social ties, or cultural work.”
I like drawing maps, quick scribbles for lost tourists or ones staying at the villa next door in the summer. I like map books, the A-Z of London and road atlases, rather than Google Maps. They are more personal, from handmade ones originally and still, like abstract drawings or paintings. And so here is one made from words, with the odd photograph of paintings and sculptures, and the most personal I’ve ever attempted to make. Rebecca Solnit also says the following, “A map is a ticket to actual territory, while a novel is only a ticket to emotion and imagination.” Certainly, trying to write one’s own map from memory is inviting fiction [emotion and imagination] to become part of it. So here is my map, a two or three page story of memories.

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It begins in a working class suburb of Port Elizabeth, high above the sea, above the steep roads that climb from sea level; the streets flat there, salt bleached and strangely wide, the houses dating from Victorian times and with occasional places of work punctuating these facades—a bakery or grocery store on a corner, a mechanics workshop, dark inside and with its own smells. I loved accompanying my father there, our car limping or misfiring all the way from the outlying suburb where we lived, after his failed attempts to correct the fault with a couple of spanners and a single screw driver. I loved the sound of the tyres turning slowly over the smooth cement floor of the workshop as we entered it, after the noisy roughness of the tar roads—the array of tools, jacks and lifts, drums and hoses, discarded tyres—the smiling, friendly mechanic raising his head from under the bonnet of a car, wiping his hands on a ball of waste and coming over to greet us. What a wonderful life he must lead I thought, one unfettered by a need for superficial cleanliness, wearing the stains on his worn overalls with pride. And what arcane knowledge he possessed to transform our car in minutes or a day or two into a purring lounge suite on wheels that we drove out into the sun, my father and I beaming from ear to ear.
Doctors, where my mother always took me, did not fill me with the same confidence—their tapping and listening to my chest and back totally unconvincing—how could they presume to know what was going on inside me? Hell, I didn’t even know what was going on inside me—swirling lusts and shame, fears and pretence. Their hands and white coats were always too clean, their bedside manner too gentlemanly, their voices calm, without music, without passion. They were too much like I was at that young age, too buttoned up to be trusted, to be emulated.
There are two other things from my boyhood that I think set me on my road to Mauro’s forge. Firstly the trees in our garden, all planted by my father, tall and very climbable and that set me above [in both senses] our neighbours, who either went for boring, neat and over tended flowerbeds or unkempt and unwatered wastelands…and the wonder of the slender horizontal branches that I could walk on, almost to their tips, and the chaos of the lines of the thinner branches above and below me, their shape and reason as unfathomable as an internal combustion engine—something you simply loved without knowing why, [love, by the way, for me will always trump reason, it’s not even a contest]. And then there were the birds, more than in any other garden I’ve known that my mother and I loved to watch. Secondly it was the landscape paintings and drawings that hung in every room of our small house, created by my grandfather with whom I share a first and last name. And it is this carrying of a name of a man I did not know, who died years before I was born that carried a responsibility, a pleasant but challenging one; not to follow in his footsteps, but to keep him walking.
A steel structure, be it the Golden Gate Bridge or a simple chair, define space with lines. So do trees. So do paintings and drawings; especially landscape paintings and drawings that hold the most space. And it is space that one needs to become creative, a private space to dream and imagine in, to expand oneself so that one inhabits the vast unknown, as vast as that within oneself, within all of us…
And so I’m fifteen or sixteen years old, alone or with a friend, having travelled by train through the dark and occasional light punctured night from Port Elizabeth, to a dawn breaking over the vast majesty of the early morning Karoo. This place, a semi desert of sheep ranches, was my second, occasional home and garden; one so enormous and free of constraints that it made me who I am, more than any place I’ve known. I was forged there, in the heat, stone and sand, in the sharpness of long and tapered, Karoo Acacia thorns, the drama of high sand cliffs, cut by rare flash flooding of the mostly dry rivers, in which bee-eaters nested. I was forged by the call of jackal, the bark of baboon, the snake in the garden, the smell of an orchard dripping with fruit under the sound of the bees and starlings competing for their share…by the touch of gates and their latches, their rust burnished to the colour of polished leather by countless openings and closings…by wire fences that one could slip through at ease then bang on to send a sound, a message down the wire, on and on. And roads, just veld scraped clean in as straight a line as needed, down which I would walk, or ride a reluctant horse to its end [if there was one], returning much later, my or our shadow changed, bigger, taller, seemingly not only because of the sun’s position but because of where we’d been and returned from. I don’t remember doing a single drawing or painting on that farm, perhaps remember once finding a piece of wire in the veld and twisting it into the shape of an animal or bird: perhaps.

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But I was finding out what thrilled me, hunting down deeper and wilder experiences than those afforded by classrooms and cricket fields, routines so boring and prescribed yet to my shame ones that I did not rebel against. And it was only later, at art school, in a small town somewhere roughly between Port Elizabeth and the Karoo that I was taught, for the first time, something profound. Previously, at school, the techniques and rules of sports games, the rules of maths and science, grammar or colonial history where found in prescribed books and recited like passages from the bible, totally foreign to my private experiences that followed only the rule of desire, of a searching for freedom. And this profundity that I was taught, was drawing: the searching, with the simplest materials, into the world around me…lassoing it in, poking at it, stroking it, building it into as three dimensional a work as possible, so that I could live in it, could remember it, could become it, could know it.
The first European country I wanted to visit was Italy. Yes, because of Michelangelo and Donatello, but perhaps even more so because of two Americans who’d lived there; one for many years, the other for only one month. Ezra Pound was one of the names you could pluck out of the air in the art school, along with other poets, writers, jazz musicians, even anthropologists, and of course painters, sculptors and architects. And I can still picture the first time I saw a slide of an abstract steel sculpture by David Smith, in a history of art lecture, and how it thrilled me, held meaning for me in a new and exciting way.
I now question my love of Ezra Pound, not the infallible depth of his poetry and his colloquial lines that hit the spot like an arrow, but of course for his temporary and crazy belief in Mussolini and Fascism. But when you are young and read a poem/translation, as sensual as the one below, as rich with adventures even further away than Italy, and so perfectly drawn, you can forgive the poet anything.
A River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter.
While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chōkan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.
At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.

At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever, and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?

At sixteen you departed
You went into far Ku-tō-en, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.

You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me.
I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Chō-fū-Sa.

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David Smith was something else: a man who had worked on the Studebaker production lines in his home state of Indiana, had welded up locomotives and tanks during the war, but who also read and loved James Joyce [who Pound had championed and helped get published]. Smith was influenced by the blacksmiths who Picasso had befriended, Gargallo and Gonzales, and the work they helped him make and Smith took blacksmithing and welded steel sculpture to a new level and size.
In 1962 he was invited to work in Voltri in Italy for one month and there produced twenty six sculptures with the help of a few very willing local workers and an interpreter, mostly from fascinating offcuts and left over pieces from a steel mill and factory. This is how he describes his temporary workshop… “Ilva, In Voltri, where the wild strawberries grow, was a complex of some five factories set in a narrow valley, based by a small stream, once making springs, trucks, parts for flat cars, bolts, spikes, balls, many things by forging. It had been consumed by the automation of Italsider at Cornegliano hallway in toward Genoa eight kilometres distant.”
David Smith wrote a lot, gave lectures and was very articulate about making art in the modern world. I love his percussive way of writing, without airs and graces, yet beautiful and elegant like his sculptures because of its directness. Here are a couple of other things he wrote… “Art is born of freedom and liberty, and dies of constraint. Fascism contributes race ignominies, suppresses, erects monuments to destruction; gives laurels to force.” And this, which I’ve never heard any other artist speak about… “Does the onlooker realize the amount of affection which goes into a work of art—the intense affection—belligerent vitality—and total conviction.” Below is my favourite photograph of David Smith, sitting among some of his sculptures in the Voltri factory. God, he looks happy. Art can be of any material, size or shape, but without affection, love, call it what you will, it is not art.

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I could go on and on, but will start to wind down with a three line story that Smith tells about an important incident in his life, one that I’ve always loved. Then, to my amazement the same thing happened to me, here… almost exactly the same just with different names and setting.
“Once in a lifetime you meet an iron works…once in a lifetime you meet two Irishmen named Blackburn and Buckthorn to whom you present yourself with one set of equipment and practically no money…and they say OK move in and it runs—and you are in—not only there but on the whole waterfront.”
And so I’ve been welcomed in, in this small village, in this forge that is no more but that Mauro and I will build again, simpler, under a simple roof in the corner of his garden close to olive trees, fig and cherry trees and where he grows vegetables every summer.
I’ve never worked with a nicer man, one more committed to his community and family, one as hard working yet so easy going. We pool our technical knowledge, our ideas on how to create ‘un lavoro bello’. We give each other space, yet watch each other’s backs when the work gets hard and dangerous…have worked together on tottering scaffolding and ladders, lifted things that seemed too heavy to lift. And even though we most often do not create what you would call works of art, we certainly work with Smith’s conviction and affection.
Finally, finally, finally…three blows of the hammer, before the iron gets too cold…who do I think of most often when I’m working in Mauro’s forge? David Smith, Picasso, Leger, Richard Deacon…a thousand other artists. No, more often about my mother, or old friends, or that farm in the Karoo and our friends who farmed it, or teachers from art school, writers, poets, musicians. I think also about the nightmare of the rise of fascism across the world and the good people who give us hope at overcoming that? I think even more often about our daughters and about Gwynie, Sue my sister, other members of our family… but perhaps most often about my father.
I wish he’d kept a diary of those years in the war, the adventure of driving in convoy up the length of Africa, his time in Egypt, arriving in Italy [in Brindisi if I remember correctly] and ending up near Pisa before being demobbed. He told me these stories often, but when I was very young, and I’ve forgotten almost everything, except that he liked the Chianti, loved the wine that was a rough peasant wine then, in flagons sheathed in straw; purely functional to protect the bottles when being transported close up against each other but that became iconic of the Italian way of life. I remember an Italian Restaurant that he discovered in Port Elizabeth, up a flight of steep steps in a house hanging over cliffs above Russell Road, just below the flat area, Central, where the motor mechanic had been. And the checked table cloths and straw covered flagons that held wine or candles [there seemed to be very little other light in the room] and the old man moving from table to table, playing the violin and singing. I remember my father being very happy there.
I know he was very happy in Italy too, know that on a farm fairly close to Mauro’s forge, but on another road heading north, South African troops were welcomed and a dance was held for them as they moved up behind the retreating Nazis. Was he at that dance, did he perhaps also drive up the road from Ponte a Bozzone, through Geggiano and Catignano, to pass the forge in Pievasciata? Did he stop and peer through the door at the fire, marvel at an activity, so old yet still being practiced? I very often think that he did…so often in fact and with such affection that I believe it to be true.
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