Monday, July 30, 2012

Welcome to once great Britain!

I was shaken as the Gautrain pulled into Sandton terminus. Yes, the engineering was wonderful – but what was wrong?  The track levelling felt as if the London Underground gremlins had had a hand in the construction.  We were going quite slowly, but still we shook, rattled and rolled.

And that got me thinking about the gremlins.  London Transport has one of the world’s first underground railways, and it shows.  The track needs levelling. They provide grab handles for the standing multitude.  Are they necessary? Yeeess! I don’t know why there isn’t a mass revolt, but perhaps it is that the Brits don’t like making a fuss. 

It is all the more surprising when you think how many of them nip over to France for the weekend. Paris has two Metros, one riding on steel wheels and the other on rubber. The steel-wheeled one is good, smooth and quite fast as a result.  The rubber-shod one is smoother still, and you wonder why no-one else seems to have thought of this sooner.

But Britain seems convinced that she knows best. If her commuters can be thrown around without complaint, well then, throw them around!  The same lack of leadership seems to have pervaded the Olympic Games.  I was persuaded to watch the opening ceremony.  I nearly threw up when an assortment of children in varicoloured nightdresses appeared, and shrilled the National Anthem! Where were the massed bands of the Royal Marines? Where were the choirs that can fill the Albert Hall with sound?  Where was the thrill?  Instead, there was unmitigated schmaltz – “Aren’t they cute?  And did you see Tommy Jenkins? He wet his pants it was so exciting!”

Then we were treated to dancing nurses and more children in hospital beds, in celebration of Britain’s greatest achievement, the National Health Service.  What a real thrill! (Sarc.) I suppose Health and Safety ruled against one thousand pipers blasting away, on grounds of possible ear damage.

Il Trovatore was clearly the ‘inspiration’ for the British worker at the forges, making the rings that are the Olympic trademark.  It was somewhat more inspired and inspiring than what was supposed to be Britain’s greatest musical achievement, Tubular Bells. Purlees! The parents of my grandchildren were still in their cradles when Oldfield burst on the scene, then disappeared, we thought for good.

Ceremonies in Britain used to be pageants to remember.  It was one thing they used to be able to do really well.  The great State occasions, with Her Majesty smiling benignly from her gilded coach.  This time she was allowed what I think is referred to as a ‘cameo appearance’, a walk-on, walk-off part of minimal importance. Oh yes, and her effigy was dropped from her incoming helicopter. Shall I be kind, and say she looked decidedly underwhelmed?

Great, Britain may have been – but the Olympic opening showed that she has well and truly lost it.  

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Beware jail!

I was the last aboard the shuttle.  The big guy on the end moved up, and I squeezed in.  "Where you all going?" asked the driver.  The big guy next to me said "The **** golf course." "Lucky you," I said "It must be nice to have a job that lets you play golf during the week!" "No!" he replied "It's part of our destressing programme."

And he slowly opened up.  He was a jailer at **** Prison.  Built for 1800 prisoners, currently housing over 9000.  As many as 60 prisoners to a single toilet and wash basin. No discipline.  When he started 30 years ago, there were work gangs, and good-behaviour prisoners could be let out to do social work like cleaning the streets.  Today, they all have rights, and sit watching television all day and enjoying three free meals. When they feel like a real rest, they say they are sick, and are rushed off to hospital. Life is better in prison than outside.

And then there were the gangs.  The 26ers would rob you blind, the 27ers would turn you into a woman, the 28ers would make a knife from anything and stab you without a thought.  Woe betide the jailer who went against any one gang - all three would turn on him. 

And the thing that made him really mad was the poor innocents who couldn't find even R50 for bail, and had sat there for a year, while murderous thieves were in and out in a day. There were miscreant husbands, who had fallen behind on child support, and were now locked up while the children suffered.  Eventually the children grew old enough to join a gang, and were soon locked up with their still-jailed father.  In the country village where he had grown up, you knew who the baddies were - now your next-door neighbour could suddenly land up under your care. There was something very wrong with the justice system.

Finally he turned to golf.  It was the one thing that kept him human.  He had grown quite good at it, and was a Correctional Services champion in his age group.  As such he had toured the world, and I was amazed to find myself discussing the seventh  hole at a Melbourne course we had both played! Put a whole new complexion on the jailer's life!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Here's a toast to Her Majesty!

Sixty five years ago, my parents bundled me into the car and we set off on a long trek - my first big traffic jam. 

The event was the arrival in Cape Town of HMS Vanguard, carrying King George VI and Queen Mary, and their two Princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret.  After an hour and about 5km of travel, the car overheated, so we gave up, parked on the single-carriageway de Waal Drive where we had a view, and saw the mighty battleship tie up in Duncan Dock, right at the end of Adderley Street (the Foreshore was a recently reclaimed wasteland in those days, and the Heerengracht did not exist).

A few nights later we went to town again, this time because my father had wangled an invitation to a reception on the ship.  As the sun set, I stood on the foredeck and looked up at the mighty 15" guns in wonder.  However, our visit was cut short - my mother was a notoriously bad sailor, and the motion even in the dock proved too much for her.

A month or so after that we were dragged off to the Rosebank Show Grounds (now the University of Cape Town's Lower Campus), where the Royals were to speak.  I think the occasion was Princess Elizabeth's 21st birthday, but I recall little of the day other than a struggle to see their Majesties between the legs of the crowds.

Six years later, and I, as a Sea Cadet Chief Petty Officer,  found myself sent off to the Coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.  Clad in my Royal Navy uniform, with bell-bottomed trousers carefully ironed with the seven horizontal creases that represented the seven seas, and my seaman's cap whitened with the best Blanco, I marched  in a squad of twenty Commonwealth Sea Cadets across Westminster Bridge, round Parliament Square, to take position in Victoria Street right outside the Abbey. It was a grey morning, with occasional showers, and before long the Blanco had run from my cap and left white streaks down my serge jerkin.

Though I was cold and rather wet, it became exciting as the guests started to arrive.  Many were richly robed and carrying coronets.  One old chap, laden down with ermine, was being henpecked by his wife - "Yes, of course I've got my sandwiches and my potty!" and he raised his robes to reveal package and pot hanging from his belt - and a wonderful line in purple stockings, held up by some rather natty suspenders.

Finally we were all called to attention, and Queen Elizabeth swept up in her carriage.  She emerged with a long train behind her, and a bevy of ladies-in-waiting dashed forward to pick it up before it fell to the damp pavement. There was thunderous music from the Abbey, then long silences, more music, then all the bells began to peal and Her Majesty emerged, beaming, climbed into her gilded carriage, and was off in a flash, surrounded by the Horseguards.  All the other distinguished visitors joined the great procession, and were followed by the various armed forces, each with their bands, and finally we were dismissed and told to find our own way down to Buckingham Palace, and to meet up at Victoria Station later that afternoon.

This year was the jubilee of Her Majesty's accession to the Throne and 59 years since the Coronation.  It all seemed so long ago.  Most of the travel to Britain was by ship - by air you used flying boats and it took eight days. Much of London looked a little toothless - the gaps where bombs had fallen were still there.  Right opposite the Abbey was a blank wall with a row of fireplaces up it, and on one mantelpiece you could just see what looked like a clock.  

There was rationing of food and clothing and petrol and - - oh, the list went on and on. And black-and-white television had just arrived, so visits to my family meant being ushered into a darkened room, staring at a flickering picture of the day's football matches until supper was served, when the lights went on and they suddenly saw me for the first time.  "Ooer! Cousin Philip!  Well I never!  Where have you been, lad? Really?  Is it nice out there?" and then it was time to leave.

In spite of it all, I felt a certain pang of nostalgia over the Jubilee.  So off we went to Cape Town's celebration, the performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's Yeoman of the Guard.  Much of their work now seems a little dated, but this production was fresh and full of fun.  There was a host of details I had never noticed before - the echoes of Shakespear in the chats between the jester and the jailor;  the send-up of the madrigal; the touches of Rigoletto; the patter songs a la Donizetti; but above all the killer song, I have a song to sing, oh! What a memorable tune, and what splendid words.  The only thing that I missed was standing up at the end of the performance and waiting while the band played God save the Queen!