Friday, 22 June 2007

The Colour Green…

'Green' has been a subject that has frequently popped into my conversations lately. Not long ago a fellow artist and I were discussing the use of this colour in our work and just how difficult mixing pleasing and harmonious shades, tones and hues of green can be. There is a belief that ‘green’ paintings, in general do not sell as well as those predominantly in other hues and I can understand why; there are few colours that are uglier to me than an ugly green!

When I was growing up I loved green with a passion, I even had a bedroom painted an excruciatingly ‘acid’ shade of lime green for a while. That green, along with a strident pink and an equally robust orange formed one of the key palettes of the late sixties and I’m sure this explosion of colour led to the fondness for the browns and creams of the seventies. But I digress! Back to green…still a singularly favourite colour but now just one of many!

For the past few days, I have been driving via the coastal route to the little village of Strachur, fifteen miles north up the loch. This is the direction from which we came when we first viewed our new home but because the other route over the hills is quicker for shopping, that is the one we usually use.

The first impression along this coastal road is green, green and more green…dappled, mossy, shiny, soft green, every hue and tone imaginable. I begin my journey on the typical loch-side drive; a single tarred ribbon with pastures one side and glistening water on the other. Across the water, the hills on the other side rise from the shore in puffy, patchwork patterns; a kaleidoscopic crazy quilt of soft greens tossed over a rocky frame.

Just a short distance on, the ribbon plunges into deep green tunnels through the forest lit by thousands of tiny shafts of sunlight. If you were to pause, pull over and switch off the engine, the only sound would be the distant rushing of a small burn as it tumbles away to the loch.
Continuing again, the road winds imperceptibly upwards as it wends around a hill and as suddenly as it began, the tunnel gives way to a feathery corridor open to the sky. Silver Birch, Rowan, willow, beech and ash line the route with scented honeysuckle dripping down here, there and bracken and ferns everywhere. As you climb, the undulations become more apparent and rounding a corner, you find you’re on a mountainside with stone walls holding the edges from dropping down to miniature beaches below.

And so it goes, repeating this pattern over and over many times until the narrow track meets the main road some twelve miles on. Here and there are clumps of tall yellow flag iris, an occasional pink wild rose, an ivy covered stump or two, mounds of purple rhododendrons and many smaller wildflowers I’ve yet to name. Sometimes the vegetation clears and the tiny stony beaches show themselves and sometimes other inhabitants; a family of oystercatchers strolling along surprise me on a small stone bridge while further on, two rabbits dart across the road. Civilisation is represented in the handful of dwellings along the way, cottages and wooden cabins, and lastly passing through the edge of one of the old estates, a few family houses. They signal the beginning of the end! A half an hour or so has passed when the road swings away from the loch and continues over a heather clad hillside only to end abruptly at the highway. Three miles along this modern artery takes me into Strachur, forty-plus more and I would be in Glasgow, Scotlands' largest city!

All this abundance of natural beauty owes a lot to the fact that the Highlands are the wettest area of the UK with the annual rainfall averaging more than a 120 inches (3000 mm)! The area of South Africa where we lived was also very lush and beautiful for three or four months of the year. In fact some places are so similar to Scotland that many Scottish immigrants chose to live there after the dust from the Boer War had settled, in the beginning of the last century. But whereas Scotland goes from green to greener and flowering, in Africa all that greenness fades to fawn until the next rainy season. The big difference is that the rainfall in Mpumalanga* (the old Eastern Transvaal) averages under 40 inches (1000mm) annually, only a third of or less than Scotland.

*For those adventurous enough to try, this is pronounced something sounding like mmm-poo-ma-lung-ga which means ‘the place where the sun rises’ in the languages of siSwati and Zulu.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

The Story Continues…

The following account is how life unfolded after A Valentine’s Story, Part II ended. You can read about the beginning in part one here and in part two here. This was what happened in those early years, before our sons were born.

The South Africa that M and I started our married life in was vastly different from the cosy, colonial outpost that I had left twelve years previously when I joined my mother in the US. The country's independence from the UK had come in 1961, just two years before I left for America. Many of the changes were subtle, not obvious to the casual observer but the pendulum had swung and there was no going back. What was not immediately apparent was that the country I had longed for was already gone.

We married in January 1976 in Johannesburg and set up home on M’s farm some 60 miles to the east, on the savannah of the old Transvaal highveld (present day Mpumalanga). His family had been on this land since 1907 and owned an estate measured in miles rather than acres. This was divided into seven family farms of roughly the same size. Each farm was owned by one of M’s relatives, his father having the original manor house to the east of us and M’s younger brother farming to the south; the remaining five properties were occupied by cousins, great-uncles and uncles.

Our first home was a simple, whitewashed, two–room cottage with no electricity and a ‘Donkey’ (44 gallon drum) boiler for hot water. Tucked away in the gentle folds of low-lying hills, the cottage had been built in a small, flat, hidden valley; surrounded by dams, protected by eucalyptus windbreaks and dotted with weeping willows. Wildlife was abundant with small buck, jackals, foxes, rabbits and birdlife attracted by the water and the shelter of the trees. The building dated back to the early years of the Witwatersrand gold rush and was very basic, although M had installed running water and a bathroom but that was the extent of the modernisation! Without electricity, there were few 20th century distractions, we lived a fairytale life; meals were cooked on gas or over the open fire in the boma and after the lamps had been lit, evenings were spent reading or painting. I sewed my quilts and patchwork on an old-fashioned treadle Singer machine and the modern world was far away. Life was simple and we loved it. The farm had been used for raising mealies (white corn) and sunflower for many years and M was busy turning some fields into Teff and Eragrostis pastures to provide fodder for the robust Johannesburg horse racing industry. These crops were planted and then cut two or three times in a season to be baled and stored for sale in the winter when the need was greater and prices were higher.

An Mpumalanga Farm

Having a farm meant labour and not only male labour. I was soon putting in a long day driving our jeep; towing the trailer behind M’s tractor as he baled the feed, cut early that morning. The workers would walk alongside using pitchforks to load the bales up onto the trailer where another worker would pack them neatly. Often we would find ourselves locked in a desperate race with the weather as we fought to get the morning’s cut off the lands before a highveld thunderstorm ruined the quality of our product. It was hard work and intensely satisfying after my seemingly superficial life in Los Angeles; this was elemental living, close to nature, and when dusk came we would sit on our stoep (veranda), drinking a glass of wine, and watch the birds come in to roost in the willow trees overhanging the dam. But it wasn't all mud and dust and toil; every six weeks or so we’d head for the bright lights and malls of Johannesburg and spend a day shopping, not just foodstuffs but real retail therapy. The cottage needed all sorts of domestic paraphernalia and after a long and lazy lunch, we would spend time exploring the shops for bits and pieces. These small breaks gave us our necessary dose of modern civilisation but I don’t know if we really appreciated the extent to which we had “the best of both worlds”!

Life changed dramatically with the arrival of our first son toward the end of 1977 and we prepared to leave our little cottage and move to the main homestead on our farm, nearly two miles up the hill. This large farmhouse was a basic ‘40’s dwelling, well built, solid and ‘oh so dull’ with electricity and full plumbing but no charm. To bring electricity from the local substation and have the cottage wired was prohibitively expensive and sad preparations to move began. We left behind our little, traditional style house with its wooden windows and doors, Oregon pine floors and long stoep. We said goodbye to the green lawns sweeping down to the willows by the dams and fountains, and left our boma* with the sandy floor. Although we couldn’t have known it at the time, we had said goodbye to the Africa we loved.

* A boma (pronounced boom-a by local tribes) is a circular enclosure of reeds, heavy grass or thorn bush, made for people to eat and sleep in. An entry point is started on the outside of the circle and continues for some distance until it opens into the enclosure, forming a narrow corridor which is then closed with Thorn-tree branches to keep predators out. Livestock was traditionally housed in a similar structure known as a goma (goom-a).

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

They’ve Gotta Be Kidding…Right?

I’m not a controversial sort of person, I don’t involve myself in politics and avoid inflammatory subjects generally but this is too much!

This is the winning logo for the 2012 Olympics to be held in London! Is it only me, or is this seriously UGLY, never mind does it qualify as good design?

I have so many questions for the people responsible for this choice. Have they thought that for the next five years, everyone in the UK, visitors and residents alike, are going to be bombarded with this image ad nauseam? And what does it say about British design? As a long time anglophile, I’m embarrassed by this shoddy example of UK talent, never mind UK style. Look how many years it has taken for British cuisine to recover from the terrible reputation gained during post war shortages (WWI and WWII). Come to think of it… has it recovered yet?

Sometimes the pursuit of the trendy and avant-garde stomps all over good judgement, good taste and national pride. Why couldn’t we have something stirring, inspiring even, something to unite the masses with patriotic fervour? OK, asking too much; how about something just nice to look at? Like this one...

Even the BBC was asking viewers to vote for their favourite out of the five designs short-listed.
See some of the other logos here. The debacle continues with revelations that footage created for promoting the 2012 Olympics can trigger epileptic seizures! For more of the latest stories just go to the link above.

Many thousands are now calling for the logo to be replaced, so maybe this inappropriate choice is accomplishing one thing … uniting the nation?

So, it’s not just me … whew!

Sunday, 3 June 2007

Three Weddings and a Drizzle…

June arrived in the highlands with three weddings and a drizzle! Well, I’m sure there were more than three weddings but hey, just in our ‘neck of the woods’!

Thursday and Friday, I was invited to help a friend with wedding flowers for one of the celebrations; it was a great experience and I got to learn a lot about the plants and flowers that grow here. Having done plenty of flowers over the years I found it somewhat different but also very much the same.


When I joined my friend on Thursday, the glorious stars of the show (dozens of peonies) were waiting at the venue, safe inside the cool gloom of an old stone farm building. We spent several hours in a beautiful garden cutting swathes of heady lilac, bunches of fragrant, flowering herbs, honeysuckle and armfuls of feathery greenery while the sun shone steadily, warming the cool wind. After a few hours, it seemed there would be enough material to support the stars and the buckets were loaded into vehicles and taken the ten miles to the venue, a beautiful castle on the edge of a loch. Similar to this one...

Friday was devoted to the arrangements, many small ones for the dining tables and large, dramatic ones for the castle, church and marquee. Working in the lovely stone building, surrounded by the wonderful scent of flowers, was delightful and even though the sun was beating down, we were comfortably cool. Despite the huge trees that shaded the grounds, the day was so warm; we had to leave the flowers for the marquee stored safely inside the stone building, waiting for the cool of early morning to move them.

And Saturday was cool, cool and grey; in fact it was drizzling lightly. Maybe not the best of weather, but the whole venue looked lovely, the marquee was stunning and the joy of the celebration would have lit up the day anyway.

Back at home; another wedding was taking place at the pub, the second one this week! The couple had wanted a beach ceremony and our first indication that festivities had started was the sound of bagpipes drifting into the house. There were vintage cars for the wedding party, buses for the guests and kilted pipers for the music and then there was the rain. A traditional Scottish wedding…well, the weather is traditionally unpredictable. So, I guess that rain, sun, wind, whatever… well that’s tradition too!


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