A Whole Lotta Fun: Zoning out to Led Zeppelin

Mellow is the man who knows what he’s been missing.” – Led Zeppelin.

“Been dazed and confused for so long it’s not true…” – Led Zeppelin.

In 1974, I was living in London, sharing a damp, dingy, mouse-infested room with two young English drop-outs and earning about 13 pounds a week.

The facilities were basic. We did our cooking on a hot plate while the ablutions were in a small cubicle at the end of the passage-way. I used to go to the launderette down the road to do my washing.

I dressed in a style I thought appropriate to the then emerging “underground” culture: mostly grandpa vests and bell-bottom jeans. I sported a pair of sideburns and a moustache (inspired by Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) while my hair curled coquettishly around my ears. On top of it I wore a Donovan cap.

Waiting for a bus to London at Hunton Bridge, with my brother, Pete. This picture was taken during my turkey-plucker phase.

As an adjunct, I listened to a lot of loud rock music, treating it with all the seriousness usually reserved for classical music – all the while nurturing a vision of myself as part of a new generation of politically and socially aware young hipsters. The fact that I didn’t know nearly as much as I claimed to didn’t prevent me from persisting with the pretence.

Back then, Led Zeppelin were the King Kong of the genre, towering so large over the landscape they dwarfed almost everybody else. Naturally, I was a fan.

Fresh from the backwoods of Rhodesia, I had been first introduced to them during my varsity days by the rather mysterious young man who lived in the room next to mine.

The university I had enrolled in was primarily known for its agricultural faculty and, not too surprisingly, most of its students were fairly conservative in both dress and outlook..

My neighbour defied this image. He was part of the “long-haired revolution”, turning his back on conventional mores and wearing his outsider status as a badge of honour.

Because of his red mane, I called him the Little Red Rooster, after the old Willie Dixon blues song (later covered by the Rolling Stones). The name stuck.

I will always remember him, with affection, slouching down the road to and from lectures, his long hair enclosing a thin, pale face, his eyes broodingly directed in front of him. Occasionally he would nod as he passed a group of women among whom he might see a potential conquest.

He made quite an impact. It is hard to believe, in this age when anything goes, that there were folk, back then, who got so inflamed by the sight of men with long hair that they wanted to beat them up. They would drive past our residence and, leaning out their car windows and shaking their fists, shout: “You fokken communists” or “You look like bleddy girls” in their thick South African accents, revealing their rampant misogyny.

You could see the hate glowing in their eyes. It was quite unsettling.

The Rooster took his rock music seriously. Eager to learn as much as he could, he bought LPs by the dozen. To make sure the quality was just right he usually insisted on buying the more expensive “imports” in preference to the locally produced versions.

His extensive collection were arranged neatly next to his pride and joy – his Hi Fi set. Only he was allowed to handle them.

It was through the Rooster that I got my baptism in to Led Zeppelin. I was writing an essay one evening when he burst in to my room, glowing with excitement.

“I’ve got it!” he said brandishing an LP triumphantly above his head. My flat mates and I were all invited to his room to hear it.

The album was simply called Led Zeppelin

Allegedly named by Keith Moon of The Who, the band was essentially the creation of ex-Yardbirds guitar virtuoso, Jimmy Page and featured Robert Plant on vocals, bassist John Paul Jones – who had done session work with the Rolling Stones – and John Bonham on drums.

To get us in to the right mood, the Rooster insisted we all lie on the floor, in his room, with the lights switched off.

From the opening track, Good Times, Bad Times, it was a shock. The shrieks and demented guitar playing, overlayed with feedback and amplifier distortion, as well the excessive drumming, was more loud and overpowering than anything I had heard on record before. It was like an earthquake, opening up a whole new chapter in my musical education.

I was immediately hooked.

If the first album was an eye-opener, the second, Led Zeppelin II, which the Rooster duly bought, was the one that established them as the unchallenged premier hardcore rock band.

Blithely combining power-house melodies with industrial strength noise, the group continued to overload their songs to the point of explosion, creating a startling rush of momentum.

Nor was it all just raw noise, the band alternating between electric and acoustic instrumentation with a finesse few other performers managed. From Plant’s impassioned screaming on the opening track, Whole Lotta Love, to To Ramble On with it Tolkein-esque references to ‘the darkest depths of Mordor‘ the songs also displayed considerable variety and content and a unique chemistry.

In an era notable for its love of musical novelty, it was amongst the most novel of them all. Rolling Stone Magazine perhaps put it best when they described it as “rock as sculptured noise”.

This ability to alternate between ripping guitar leads and achingly tender melody lines was perhaps nowhere better shown than on their best known track, Stairway to Heaven, which would go on to become a staple on the radio and one of the most requested songs ever.

Not everyone reacted to their thunderous volume and edge-of-mayhem theatrics the way I did.

I remember, on one occasion, my brother Pete, a final year agricultural student, opening the door and looking on us with a mixture of bafflement and amusement as we lay there on the floor in the dark.

Pete, being Pete, did not try and save me from myself. He may not have liked or understood the music but he realised this unholy din meant something to me and left it at that.

The Rooster hung around at university until the release of the fourth Led Zeppelin album and then dropped out of our lives in the same mysterious way he had appeared. Despite that, my passion for the band carried on undimmed.

For their part, Led Zeppelin continued to lead the pack, their wildly charismatic live performances, which often featured Page’s novel use of the violin bow, going on to cement the legend. Unfailingly energetic and vital they played with such verve and skill they outshone most everyone else – a fact that led to some lesser acts refusing to appear on the same bill as them for fear they would be found wanting.

In spite of their enormous success – or perhaps because of it – they received no small criticism over the years. The music press, at first, was decidedly sniffy; there were charges of plagiarism while Jimmy Page’s well documented fascination with the occult and openly expressed admiration for the writings of the infamous Satanist, Aleister Crowley (whose Loch Ness residence Page bought), led to accusations that they were acting in league with the devil.

Their off-stage antics also won them a great deal of notoriety. In true Seventies rock-star style, cocaine was consumed by the cartload and distilleries drunk dry. Between them they slept with literally thousands of groupies, hotel rooms were regularly trashed and their were several unsavoury incidents involving the band’s thuggish bodyguards.

With all this controversy still swirling around them Led Zeppelin still found time to make some of the most exciting, potent and powerful music of all time (Led Zepellin II, Led Zeppelin IV and Physical Graffiti are now generally accepted to be rock classics).


I, meanwhile, had left university and got drafted in to the army. Very possessive of my hard won independence, I did not react well to either the discipline or the highly restrictive, regimented military way of life.

Desperately wanting to get back to living life on my own terms, I fled to England shortly after I completed my National Service.

Having hitherto only listened to British rock and blues on records and tapes, part of my reason for going there was because I wanted to experience the music live in its natural habitat. As it turned out, however, I spent my entire year living so close to the breadline I never could afford to go to any concert.

The biggest disappointment of all was when Led Zeppelin appeared live, just down the road in Earls Court, in a concert that is now generally regarded as marking the pinnacle of their career. I was out of work at the time with not enough money to even pay my rent so I was forced to give it a miss – something I have spent the rest of my life lamenting.

Thereafter, the relentless touring, drug-fuelled lifestyle and the inevitable personality clashes took their toll and the band began to slowly unravel. Drummer John ‘Bonzo’ Bonham’s death, after choking on his own vomit – an inquest in to his death calculated he had drunk in the region of 40 measures of vodka – spelt the end, although the surviving band members did briefly reunite in 2008 in a much publicised, kill-for-a-ticket, live reunion concert.

After they split up there were rumours that Plant and Page were going to form a band called XYZ but nothing ever came of it. Instead each of the remaining members of the group that spawned heavy metal decided to pursue solo careers ( Plant and Page did go on to make an album together in in 1994). For me, though, much of the romance had gone out of it and thereafter I only took a spasmodic interest in their various musical journeys.

That changed in 2007 when Robert Plant released Raising Sand, his surprise hit collaboration with blue-grass singer, Alison Krauss, which would go on to be nominated the Sunday Times’s album of the year. As unlikely as the pairing might have seemed on paper, their disparate voices and backgrounds made a brilliant meld. Filled with lyrical love songs and gently strident social anthems it is a strongly affecting work, full of style and character and a worthy summation of his career.

I think it is a wonderful album. I play again and again.

Looking at the cover picture of Plant, a lot craggier than the Adonis-like, golden-haired screamer of yore, made me realise that age had caught up with us all. It also reminded me of the time when, like the poet Robert Frost, I too, stood at the crossroads of my life and chose to take the road less travelled.

Led Zeppelin formed part of that. For me, their music had something to do with freedom. It accompanied me out in to the world at a time when I felt a bit lost and had no real interest in making money or having a career. It helped me expunge unwanted aspects of my past and gave my life a significance it might not otherwise have had.

It was also a whole lotta fun…

Never too old to rock ‘n roll

Accessing the Past in Lockdown

“Somewhere, deep down in the heart of each one of us, something yearns for the old land, and the old kindly people”

R.L.Stevenson

Maybe it has something to do with the current uncertainty, the depth of longing for all to be well again, but as lockdown drags on I find my thoughts drifting back, more and more often, to my youth. Right now, it seems a much safer place to be. At least you have the comfort of knowing what happened and how it all worked out.

I think there is more to it, though, than a mere desire to retreat to the warmth and innocence of childhood. All our lives are an amalgam of past, present and future. Trying to see clearly and to record what has been seen helps me work out how I got from there to here.

It is also a chance to meet my parents again, back the way they used to be. Each generation passes on something to the next and by looking afresh at what they did and thought is a way of discovering how they have lived on through me.

The difficulty of doing this is, of course, being able to gain access to one’s past. Over the years my memories have grown hazy and dim. The further back I go, the more fragmentary they become.

Sometimes they takes on the aura of a dream, a few tangible threads emerge from the miasma that is my brain. I clutch at their dim outline. At other times, just looking at an old photograph or reading an old letter, will bring long-forgotten things back to the surface.

What I am certain of is that the pivotal event of my early life occurred when I was about nine-years old. It was the year my father decided to relocate us from our smallholding outside of Salisbury to a remote farm in the Eastern Highlands of Nyanga. If anything can be termed a life-changing experience for me, this was it.

The property he purchased was in an incredibly beautiful part of the world.

I can still recall, with pin-point clarity, the journey there, driving up through the granite hills and miombo woodland, along a winding road to a crest where the small Nyanga Village lay. From here, the trail dropped down, with sudden abruptness, in to a huge valley, speckled with rocks, bushes and shadows, shimmering in the parchment dry heat as it receded in to the far haze.

View over valley, Nyanga.

Along its eastern flank rose the solid wall of the main Nyanga range. Running parallel to it, on the other side of the enormous valley, ran the Nyangombe River, which would later join the Ruenya which, in turn, flowed in to the mighty Zambezi. Beyond that lay more hills and mountains.

In contrast to the sweltering valley, the plateau on top of the mountains was cool and covered in open moorland and icy streams and seemed hardly Africa. In the rainy season, waves of multi-shadowed clouds would come rolling ponderously over them in never-ending processions.

For a boy of my romantic disposition it was like entering an enchanted world. All was mysterious, unexplored, rich with infinite possibilities. I loved the wildness, the sense of freedom.

Years later, as an undergraduate, I would read Wordsworth’s poem, “The Prelude”. It struck an immediate chord in me:

Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up

Foster’d alike by beauty and by fear;

Much favour’d in my birthplace, and no less

In that beloved Vale to which, erelong,

I was transplanted. Well I call to mind

(‘Twas at an early age, ere I had seen

Nine summers) when upon the mountain slope

The frost and breath of frosty wind had snapp’d…”

The mountains Wordsworth was writing about were those of the English Lake District. Mine were distinctly African ones.

There were many of them. On the Eastern side of the farm, the great brooding presence of Mount Muozi rose abruptly up from the plain to its castle-like knob. Even when covered in cloud you could feel its presence; its spirit seemed to permeate the very air. There was something ancient and troubling and mysterious about it which undoubtedly explained why it was held in awe by the locals and had become the focal point for an important rain-making cult.

View from old lands towards Muozi mountain. Note baobab.

The closer you got to it, the higher it towered above you. Again, the words of Wordsworth’s “The Prelude” seemed to fit:

…growing still in stature, the huge Cliff

Rose up between me and the stars, and still,

With measured motion, like a living thing,

Strode after me…”

Looking north, from the top of the castle, the main range surged away to Nyangui (“The Place of Shouting”), the big, bulky, colossus that marked the end of the Nyanga range, as well as serving as our corner boundary. It was also the mountain from which our farm took its name.

Nyangui (“The Place of Shouting”) mountain. Picture courtesy of Patrick Stidolph.

If Muozi looked like a vessel striving to break loose of its moorings than Nyangui was the bulwark that anchored it back.

Like Muozi, though, it could, when the mood took it, get quite spooky, radiating an air of almost tangible menace, especially when the skies grew sullen and arbitrary bolts of lightning started slashing through the sky. At certain times of the year the wind would grow wild and angry and come hurling down its slopes with an almost end-of-the world fury.

The other mountain which looms large in my childhood memories is Sedze although it was not actually on our farm but situated further back, towards the Nyanga village.

Sedze (‘Rhino’) mountain.

At the one end of it, just above Bende Gap, rose two great rock pinnacles, steeper and more pronounced than any others in the range. From the innermost of the two towers, the mountain sloped upwards in to a massive, domed, bulky, behemoth of rock fitted with clefts and rib-like fissures that gave it the appearance of some ancient animal afflicted by a strange lethargy.

Because of its resemblance to a sleeping pachyderm we always called it the “Rhino” mountain.

Returning from boarding school I always felt elated and light-headed to see the “Rhino” and yet at the same time near to tears because it meant I was almost home again.

Although it slopes were steep and uninhabited, the valley floor below was littered with scores of thatched huts and cattle kraals and patches of cultivated lands. Straggling along the top of one ridge, along which the road traversed, was a cluster of little shops with corrugated iron roofs. This was the Sedze Business Centre. For some reason these old buildings imprinted themselves in my mind; so much so that years later I felt compelled to do a painting of them.

Sedze mountain. View from Business Centre. Painting by Anthony Stidolph.

Our own house was a low rambling affair, close to a stream that ran down from Muozi. Later, my one brother, Paul, would build a slightly more elaborate and stylish homestead near a rocky outcrop, using white quartz for the walls and thatch for the roof. Positioned next to an old baobab, it commanded tremendous views over the surrounding mountains

Having laid idle for years, turning this stretch of Africa back in to a farm was hard work. There was plenty of bush to clear, furrows to dig, fences to put up. Because we were always short of cash, all the children were expected to chip in during the school holidays.

We were always a close family. The bond between us all, already strong, was strengthened during the Nyanga years.

In some ways it was a cloistered childhood. Outside my siblings and the farm mutts I had no companions or acquaintances to share it with. This did not make me unhappy or fretful. Nor did it bother me that I was not able to participate in all the entertainments and amusements – movies, parties, dating, sport – that other teenagers took as a matter of course.

Being so restricted and yet so active actually had its benefits even if I didn’t always fully appreciate them at the time. I developed an early love of nature which has never left me. I created a world of my own in to which I could slip away unnoticed. I learnt how to fall back on my own resources.

When I was not on the farm, I was away at boarding school, an institution I hated because it took me away from my beloved mountains. What strikes me now is the narrowness of life in it.

Ours was, of course, a segregated society and only white boys were allowed to attend the school. Beyond the cleaners, the ground staff and the kitchen workers we had little personal contact with the local African population.

It was a life, into which the great affairs of the world seemed hardly to intrude. Nor did any of us ever really bother to question the racial and quasi-Imperial doctrines of the time or the fairness of the system in to which we had, as relatively privileged white children, been born.

It was only during my final years at boarding school that the world of politics began to force its way in to my life.

In elections held in December, 1962, the right-wing Rhodesian Front, who had promised to deal ruthlessly with the nationalist menace and to entrench white rule permanently, had swept to power. One of their first demands was that the country be granted independence.

For the next three years the RF Government would be engaged in a series of fruitless negotiations with the British. With the situation at stalemate, it had become more and more obvious that we were headed for some sort of showdown. As young and ill-informed as I was, even I had become aware that, beneath the carefree surface of my life, the political sands were shifting fast.

On the 11th November, 1965, it finally happened. For weeks beforehand there had been much talk and speculation and an atmosphere of considerable excitement had built up, even among us schoolboys. Now, before a hushed nation, Smith made his big announcement – Rhodesia had declared its independence from Britain.

The effect was dramatic. Suddenly, politics occupied the minds of everybody in the country from the remote farms to the government offices, from prospector to priest.

It was an epochal event. Not only did it change the course of all our lives but it would eventually trigger a lot of soul-searching for me.

Caught in the same fusion of fear and excitement as everybody else, slowly, hesitantly, my attitudes began to change. Over the following years I would increasingly find myself wondering about the wisdom of the course of action the RF government had embarked on, especially once the Rhodesian Bush War began to exact its heavy toll.

I also started to look more critically at the society I had grown up in. Cut off as I was from the mainstream, even I could see that Rhodesia was not exactly a centre of cosmopolitan artistic energy and progressive thinking.

My family background, no doubt, played a factor in this growing awareness of the world around me. As a pilot, my father had travelled the length and breadth of the continent, as well as working in Arabia and Europe. Unlike many of his fellow countrymen who were hidebound, conformist and set in their ways of thinking (little realising they represented an age that was passing) his exposure to other people and cultures had left him relatively open-minded and tolerant about politics and race.

My parents and youngest sister: Monica, Nicky and Reg Stidolph. Nyangui in background.

Although he exuded a natural authority, my father was also at heart, something of an outsider, a maverick, a free thinker. While I may not have inherited his unwavering self-confidence, I like to think I did get a dose of his individualism, curiosity and refusal to be pigeon-holed.

In other areas we were different. I was the fourth son in a family of seven children and this undoubtedly impinged on my temperament. Whereas my three elder brothers were practical like my father I took after my mother, inheriting her artistic side. Unlike my brothers, too, I had no aptitude for the sciences.

Looking back at it all now, from the perspective of old age, I realise how much of my character and how many of my views and attitudes were forged back then. It also makes me realise how lucky I was to have the childhood I did.

Living in those beautiful surroundings helped foster my imagination. It taught me to see things and to value solitude and worship the ordinary dirt that sustains us. It also showed me that without peace and quiet you can miss your inner voice.

In that sense, those early years of deprivation and isolation helped prepare me for life under lockdown. I grew up used to keeping my own counsel and finding my way through the thickets.

Of course, the fact that I now live in one of the most breathtakingly scenic parts of the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands – the Karkloof – also made my incarceration a lot easier to bear…

Sunset over Kusane Farm in pre-Lockdown days. Myself, sister Sally and her daughter-in-law, Tammy. Picture courtesy of Craig Scott.

Booking out in Lockdown

If there is one thing the Covid-19 pandemic has bought in to sharp contrast it is the deep divisions within society. Whereas some, have grown weary in the face of the protracted lockdown and adapted a devil-may-care attitude towards it, others have continued to shy away away from any form of social contact, concerned the virus is still raging.

Like many people, I have, at times, found myself perplexed by the ANC governments handling of the crisis. Some of its more stringent rules and regulations, for example, seem to have very little to do with logic or rationality or protecting our health. By the same token I can understand the need for caution and am reluctant to take any unnecessary risks which might expose me to Covid-19.

In part this stems from hard experience. Because of my compromised immune system (in my case damaged lungs) I have suffered from three bouts of pneumonia in the past. The first was so debilitating there were times when I wondered whether I was going to make it through.

It was, without doubt, the most frightening experience of my life and cured me of any appetite for misplaced displays of false bravado.

Which has meant that I have spent most of my lockdown time incarcerated alone at home. It is not something that has bothered me too much. There is solace to be found in solitude.

One of the few things I have missed, though, is my weekly trip to the Karkloof Farmer’s market. For me it has become a regular Saturday morning ritual.

Normally, I like to rise early and set off across the valley when it is still flooded in a honey-tinted light. No matter the time of the year, it is invariably beautiful then, with the sun’s rays lancing the plain in shafts, creating long shadows behind the rocks and trees.

The air is fresh, too, with a tingling, clean smell and the grass seems to dance as the wind ruffles through it. On the other side of the valley, the Karkloof hills rise up blue and purple and mauve and pink against the soft, early morning sky.

Sometimes, if I am really lucky, I might even get to see some cranes.

Wattled Crane, Karkloof.

Once inside the large, metal-framed hall, my first order of business is to visit the coffee stand. The lady who works behind the till knows me so well I don’t even need to give her my order – one Americano with hot milk. I then take my cup of steaming coffee out to the verandah where I sit and watch the dairy cows grazing in the pasture below.

My next port of call is the artisan bread stall and then the Greytown cheese maker whose mature Boerekaas cheese I love. After that I might buy a steak for my evening braai.

The final and – by far – most important part of the ritual involves browsing through Huddy’s second hand book stall, in the far corner of the hall. Over the years it has proved to be a veritable treasure trove for me and I have uncovered many gems.

I have always loved the war poets, especially Wilfred Owen, so was thrilled to pick up an excellent biography on him by Jon Stallworthy, as well as one on Siegfried Sassoon written by John Stuart Roberts.

In similar vein, I was also able to obtain John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War.

All three books are meticulously researched and exceptionally well written, describing, in detail, not only Sassoon, Owen and Tolkien’s experiences in the trenches of the first world war but showing how each, in turn, tried come to terms with the horrors they had seen.

While, obviously, not the most cheering of subjects to read about at a time when we are faced with our own insistent drums of doom they do serve as a reminder that troubles are constant, a given in life.

Perhaps because my father worked there, I have always been fascinated by the legend of “Arabia” and in tracing its development in the successive stories of the explorers who helped to create it.

Although these early travellers were, for the most part, men, one of the exceptions to the rule was the indefatigable Gertrude Bell. Wanting to find out more about what drove this exceptional woman, I was very pleased to be able procure a copy of Janet Wallach’s Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell.

A woman of fierce intelligence and focus- she was the first woman to graduate from Oxford with a history degree – her bold expeditions deep in to the Arabian desert led to a passion for the Middle East that lasted to the end of her life (she is buried in Baghdad). Her sensitivity towards its people and their culture set her apart from many of her era. Finding an ally and kindred spirit in TE Lawrence, of Lawrence of Arabia fame, she would go on to play an instrumental role in the creation of the modern state of Iraq.

When I was going through my Kenya colonial history phase, it was at Huddy’s I found Elspeth Huxley’s marvelously evocative The Flame Trees of Thika, The Mottled Lizard, Out in the Midday Sun and Nellie: Letters from Africa; as well as James Fox’s White Mischief and Beryl Markham’s superb West with the Night, which Ernest Hemingway bluntly described as a “bloody, wonderful book.”

When this endless source of good books dried up because of lockdown, I was forced to fall back on my own resources. I decided now might be a good time as any to give my private library a revisit.

I began by dipping in to the four-edition Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell because I felt that if anybody could help me make sense of our confused and unsettling times it was him.

I discovered Orwell at a relatively early age and he has remained a strong, if not always comforting, presence in my life ever since. With his unflinching honesty and clear, precise, prose style he has, over the years, proved an incomparable guide for me.

As a young man, Orwell fought in the Spanish Civil War and subsequently wrote about it in Homage to Catalonia. The experience left deep emotional scars but also provided him with a valuable insight in to two of the major social dislocations of the Twentieth Century – in the shape of the former Soviet Union and the former Third Reich who, in supporting the opposing sides in the civil war, fought what has been called a “world war by proxy”.

Orwell’s fear of the dangers posed by autocratic leaders and absolutist governments would later find expression in the two books for which he is most famously remembered.

In his allegorical fable, Animal Farm, he showed just how easily those who have toppled a repressive regime can take on its trapping and habits. Having lived through a couple of revolutions myself, this is something I have got to see, first hand, in both Zimbabwe under ZANU-PF and in South Africa under the ANC.

There are other interesting parallels with today. Decades before “political correctness” and “cancel culture” became recognisable concepts, Orwell battled to get his trenchant masterpiece published because it was so obviously aimed at the Soviet Union who had been Britain’s ally during the second world war.

Orwell’s bullying boar, Napoleon, was transparently Stalin; his intellectual idealist rival, Snowball, obviously Trotsky. The prophet of revolution, Old Major, was a compound Marx and Lenin.

His usual publisher, Victor Gollancz rejected the book, as did Faber and Faber whose then director was no other than TS Eliot. Jonathan Cape also turned it down because he thought it unduly offensive to make the Bolsheviks pigs. Orwell responded by writing “balls” in the margin of the rejection letter.

The book was eventually published by Secker in August, 1945.

In his last, chilling, work, 1984, Orwell offered a similarly scary scenario, opening a horrific vista in to a suffocating world of party tyranny and non-stop surveillance.

Orwell’s writings would, in turn, influence a new generation of writers who picked up his torch of idealist humanitarianism. Amongst these is Margaret Atwood whose own books – such as Oryx and Crake, The Handmaid’s Tale and The Year of the Flood – have offered fictional excursions in to a nightmare world that could be just around the corner.

The warning signs are certainly there. It is not news that something is badly wrong with America, to say nothing of what is going on in both China and Putin’s Russia.

Indeed, with state surveillance back with a vengeance and fake news everywhere, I often find myself wondering what Orwell would have made of our times and how he would have reacted to the likes of Donald Trump, a man whose greed, small-mindedness, lack of empathy for the sufferings of others, promiscuous lying and abuse of language, encapsulates so many of the vices he warned us against.

Before sitting down to write both Animal Farm and 1984, Orwell obviously posed himself the question – what happens if we continue down the road we are already on? At a time when the dumbness of the many plays in to the hands of the scheming few it is perhaps something we ought to be asking ourselves now…

Having reacquainted myself with Orwell, I decided I might as well go the whole hog and read some Atwood too, so got out my copy of Curious Pursuits, a collection of her essays and journalism from 1970 to 2005.

Despite Atwood’s own dystopian visions of our future, her writing in this book is full of humour, charm and telling detail. A common theme in many of her essays is how women negotiate society’s obstacles.

Not too surprisingly, the book also includes an essay on Orwell in which Atwood acknowledges the debt she owes to the author and talks about the influence he had on her own writing.

Also, of great interest to me, was her Introduction to ‘Roughing it in the Bushby Susanna Moodie because Moodie was married to a distant ancestor of mine.

Atwood is obviously an admirer, having also brought out The Journals of Susanna Moodie (first published in 1970), regarded by many as her most fully realised volume of poetry.

Hoping that it, too, might reveal some concealed truths about our topsy-turvy times, I also dug out my copy of Lewis Carroll’s epic nonsense poem, The Hunting of the Snark,

For some reason, I have always found it more accessible and much funnier than Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland books.

For those unfamiliar with the poem, it describes the adventures of nine tradesmen (all of whose professions begin with the letter ‘B’) and a beaver who embark on a quest to capture a “Snark”. There search is not made any easier by the fact that none of them actually knows what a Snark is although there is a worry it could be a “Boojum”, an equally mysterious creature which can “suddenly and softly vanish you away”.

Their method of luring the Snark out of its hiding place is eccentric, to say the least:

They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;

They pursued it with forks and hope;

They threatened its life with a railways share;

They charmed it with smiles and soap”.

Making a hard task even more difficult is the fact that the map they are using to look for the Snark is completely blank…

The Hunting of the Snark was originally illustrated by Henry Holiday. Again, I must confess, I prefer the more recent, 1976 ,Ralph Steadman drawings because his wonderfully warped, ink-splattered style seems custom-designed for Carroll’s off-the-wall, phantasmagorical tale..

Another odd fact about the poem is that Carroll reputedly wrote it backwards, writing the last sentence first.

There have been numerous theories as to what it all actually means. Some see the voyage as a search for truth and meaning; others think it is about the pursuit of happiness (a view Carroll, himself, apparantly favoured). There is another view that it deals with our existential angst.

This last theory ties in with my interpretation of the poem – that what they are desperately seeking is a cure for Covid-19.

Why else would they hunt it with soap?

That Sinking Feeling: Cartoons for May and June, 2020

SUMMARY:

The public’s faith in the ANC government’s ability to manage the Covid-19 crisis – initially high – began to fray as signs of disarray appeared within the party. The most striking example of this was over the cigarette sales ban. Having announced it would be lifted, President Cyril Ramaphosa was over-ruled, a few days, later by the Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Nkosana Dlamini-Zuma, who insisted the ban would stay, leaving many wondering just who was in charge? With Finance Minister, Tito Mboweni, complaining publicly that the government was losing millions a month in lost revenue it could ill-afford as a result of the ban, some journalists and opposition parties went so far as to suggest that Dlamini-Zuma had connections to the illegal cigarette trade.

There was even speculation that the radicals within the ANC, led by Dlamini-Zuma and Ace Magashule, were using the pandemic as a pretext for pursuing power.

With public goodwill evaporating, as what started off as a health emergency increasingly turned in to a matter of law and order, many South Africans were anxious to hear what President Cyril Ramaphosa would have to say in his next address to the nation. In attempting to allay these fears, the clearly tired president said the Covid-19 lock-down had achieved its objectives so far, and had saved many lives, and as a result it was now possible to adopt a slightly more flexible approach depending on where high levels of infection occur.

He announced that the easing of restrictions would start at the end of May with the metropolitan areas of Gauteng, Cape Town and eThekwini the most likely to remain at Level 4.

More than 40 000 people were expected to die from the corona-virus in South Africa by November, one million will be effected and the country is unlikely to have enough ICU beds at the peak of the pandemic according to projections by Health Minister, Zweli Mkhize, and members of a Covid-19 Modelling Consortium. The briefing came after intense criticism about the apparent lack of transparency over the modelling and other Covid-19 data.

With the easing of restrictions on religious gatherings the government appeared to abandon all pretence it was following the science or acting rationally. It also showed it was remarkably susceptible to pressure groups with many people questioning the need for the continuing ban on cigarette sales or why churches should be allowed to open their doors to up to 500 people when other organisations – such as restaurants and hair salons – couldn’t?

In a scathing rebuke to a government that postures as democratic-minded and rights conscious, the Pretoria High Court ruled that the regulations enforced upon South Africans under Level 3 and 4 of the nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the Covid-19 corona-virus were “unconstitutional and invalid”. The court gave the government 14-days to amend the regulations that were still in play under Level 3.

In the wake of the global Black Lives Movement, triggered by the killing of George Floyd in the United States, a social media furore laid bare the experiences of black Africans at some of South Africa’s most celebrated private schools at the hands of both staff and pupils. The anti-racist account, “yousilenceweamplify” on Instagram, set up for past and current students at Herschel Girls High School in Cape Town quickly spread and prompted hash-tags denouncing racism from across the country, including Pietermaritzburg.

Without naming dates or specific security measures, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the grooming and personal care business will be allowed to open soon, along with sit-down restaurants, accommodation establishments, conference facilities, theatres, casinos, non-contact sport and contact sport (but only for training). He warned that as the country opens up the risk of infection “inevitable increases”.

This was followed by a warning from Finance Minister, Tito Mboweni, that South Africa was staring a debt crisis “in the eyes” as soon as 2024 if the country’s spending and economic outlook did not change dramatically.

An ashen-faced Finance Minister, Tito Mboweni, could offer no green shoots during his emergency budget presentation, warning instead that South Africa would record its worst economic performance since the Great Depression with a projected contraction of 7.2%.

Invoking the image of a hippo’s wide-open jaws – to symbolise the gap between income and expenditure – the finance minister said that closing this gap was the Herculean task South Africa faced…

Slowing Down in Lockdown

When lockdown was first introduced in South Africa I went along with received opinion. I washed my hands thoroughly. I practiced social distancing. Realising I was in the at risk category, I only left the farm twice in the first seventy-eight days and when I did I wore a mask. I made sure I got in to town just as the shops were opening and didn’t spend any more time in them than I needed to.

In the same spirit, I tried to make lockdown a positive experience. Over the months I found different things to focus on. I developed interests I never had before. I re-established my connection with the living world.

Indeed, with hindsight, I think one of the most important things lock-down – and retirement for that matter – gave me was time to slow down and start noticing things. The sheer scale of the global catastrophe forced me in to a kind of retreat, a moment of reflection.

I began studying my immediate surroundings with an even greater interest.

For example: each day, since lockdown began, found me patrolling my garden forensically, in the manner of an East German border guard back in the Cold War era, except what I was on the look-out for was not defectors but butterflies. Instead of an assault rifle, I carried my old Canon.

As winter progressed so their numbers dwindled but every now and again I would come across one, fluttering along in all its flowery grace and fragile beauty. With every new butterfly I identified I felt a mounting sense of elation and achievement.

Determined to remain upbeat, in spite of the grim trajectory the virus was taking, I deliberately limited my intake of news to what I deemed necessary for me to be able to produce my one topical weekly cartoon. It wasn’t always easy. At times the line between tragedy and farce grew very fine.

Like most people, I accepted the logic and rationale behind the initial lockdown but as the weeks stretched in to months I found my faith beginning to waiver. Having done its best to scare us in to staying indoors the ANC government began to flounder on some of its own draconian rules.

These included a ban on the sale of cigarettes and alcohol, both of which were based on a rather convoluted logic, as well as some sloppy and outdated science. Many of the other regulations – like what sort of clothes you could or couldn’t buy under Level 4 of the lockdown – were just plain nonsensical, verging on Kafka-like.

My suspicions that there was something both insidious and wrong with the handling of the pandemic was reinforced when the Judge in the High Court of Pretoria declared that many of the regulations failed the “rationality test” – and were also unconstitutional and invalid. Indeed, as the crisis dragged on, it became increasingly apparent that many of the government ministers were using the pandemic as a cover to pursue their own hidden agendas and conduct their own personal crusades – and that these often had very little to do with our health.

As so often happens in South Africa, ideology had trumped common sense…

Police Minister Bheki Cele and COGTA Minister Nkosana Dlamini-Zuma applying the screws

Not that our problems were necessarily worse than anywhere else. The US, for example, was typically overconfident in its exceptional-ism and paid the price.

When the news seemed overwhelming, however, nature provided a balm. It became my escape. My therapy. My reminder of how much I have to be thankful for.

I am lucky to live in the country. In many ways my life carried on as it had before lockdown; there was no real adjustment required. I could still go for daily walks. There was my garden to work. My chickens to feed.

Nor was I all that bothered about being cut-off from the rest of society. As a cartoonist I am used to the solitary life. I have always worked from home so self-isolation is a habit for me.

I won’t pretend there weren’t things I missed – a cup of coffee with a friend, a simple hug, the freedom to drive where I liked.

By way of companions, I had the birds. There is not a day in my life that is not improved by seeing my resident pair of Boubous bouncing along or hearing the Cape Turtle Doves calling from the trees.

Resident male Southern Boubou, bouncing along...

The migrants were, of course, long gone. I missed them but we still had our regulars in my garden. Each morning I would wake up to the Cape Robin and the Olive Thrush singing outside my window. If I got up early enough I sometimes caught our skittish pair of Natal Francolin making a dash for it across my lawn.

With the breeding season over the weavers had lost their masks but still gathered on my food table every morning chattering away like excited schoolboys. They would be joined by the rock pigeons, doves and sparrows.

The South African lockdown officially started just as autumn was giving way to winter. I love winter. With the rains over everything begins to dry out and a smoky haze veils the sky, dulling the light and robbing the landscape of contrasts. Dust coats everything near the road, even the trees and houses.

Sunrise over the valley with pockets of mist.

There is a stark, minimalist beauty to the countryside at this time of the year. Sometimes Jack Frost comes calling overnight, leaving little patches of white icicles clenching the ground. On other occasions, a chill wind blows in the mornings and as I set off to take stock of the local state of nature the leaves that autumn stripped from the trees crunch and snap beneath my feet.

Across the valley thin sheets of mist hang suspended above the hollows. On the saddle path, the sun’s rays catch the dew drops hanging on the funnel spiders’ webs.

You can smell the crisp, frosty, dryness in the air.

It is my favourite time of the year for walking. The icy cold appeals to the Spartan in me. I find it invigorating and oddly purifying. It sharpens my senses.

In the afternoon the light and temperatures fade early. By five-thirty the chickens have already put themselves to bed.

Sitting on my balcony, at twilight, sipping one of my hard-to-come-by-beers I could feel the breath of winter on my neck. It was cold. The soft evening skies at this time of year are beautiful though.

Below me I could sometimes hear the jackal calling as they set off on another night of hunting for food. In the moonlight the defoliated trees are silhouettes. The wind blowing up the rocky slopes rattle their branches.

There were other pleasures. Winter is also aloe season and with their beautiful orange-red flowers came the sunbirds (mostly Amethyst, Malachite and Greater Double- collared). It is also the time when the Wild Dagga (Leonotis leonorus) bushes flower, another sunbird favourite. I deliberately planted both species to try and seduce birds in to my garden and it has done the trick.

Malachite sunbird in aloe.

Winter is not all good. It can also be a time of violent drama. From where we are, safe in my sanctum overlooking the valley, you can often see huge fires sweeping across its floor, destroying countless creatures as it goes. I cannot imagine how many insects, reptiles and rodents must get enveloped and killed in the flames. This, in turn, impacts on the raptors that hunt them because it means less food. Winter can be hard on predator and prey alike.

Fire in the valley...

At such times the sun turns a pale yellow behind the plumes of smoke and the air is bitter with the smell of ash and burning debris.

This got me thinking about conservation, loss of biodiversity and what we are doing to the world. Thanks to agribusiness, agrochemicals, artificial fertilizer, farm mechanization and an intensification of arable farming much of our natural fauna and flora is being destroyed. Looking out over our urban landscapes, too, I see an ever-expanding mass of railway tracks, petrol stations, cement blocks, pylons and factories pumping effluent in to our streams and poison in to the air. And piles of plastic.

As a keen twitcher, I have noticed the steady decline of wildlife over the years. I grew up, for instance, with guineafowl abundant and all around; after harvesting, the fields were fill of them, pecking their way through the stubble in search of dropped mielie seeds. In the decades since there numbers seem to have grown less and less. It is like someone came along and removed them all.

Our resident guineafowl flock. We raised them from chicks.

It makes me very sad. And angry. Far too much of our wildlife is teetering on the edge of the ecological cliff.

Paralleling that has been the steady spread of invasive plants. Vast acreages have been given over to sterile pine, wattle and gum plantations inside which very little lives.

Nor is it confined to that. One of the biggest problems we face on Kusane is eradicating the bramble, an alien, invasive, species that creeps over the grasses and crawls over the plants. It is like a cancer and a nightmare to fight your way through because its thorns shred your legs.

Likewise bugweed. Our neighbour has a veritable forest of these and the seeds are picked up by the birds and dropped on our farm where they easily germinate and spread.

Invading our grasslands, all these plants reduce water run-off, and increase the severity of wildfires. It has been estimated that alien trees consume 5% of our scarce water and are a direct threat to almost half of the 1600 natural species listed in South Africa’s Red Data List.

Ruminating on this, I find my mind returning to lockdown. I can’t help but see the Covid-19 pandemic as a portent, an omen, a warning and a reminder of how much our economies, our livelihoods and our well-being depend on the health of nature. That seems to me to be our problem – we have become alienated from the natural world.

We need to re-learn that we are part of nature, not above it. Destroy it, in our blind pursuit of profit, and we destroy ourselves…

I will do my little bit to try and stop that. I am a tree man. To help make a greener world, I have opened up a new patch of ground, alongside Rubble Row, where I have already planted yet more indigenous species (Paperbark thorn, Tree Fuschia, Cheesewood, Ouhout). I know I won’t live long enough to see them mature but that is not the point. I am doing it for the next generation, a generation who face a far scarier future than ours did.

Part of my self-planted indigenous forest.

Lockdown has taught me other lessons. Being forced to stay at home made me realise that – as frugal as I like to think I am – I used to waste a lot of money on unnecessary shopping trips in to town.

It has also induced the waste not want not attitude of my parent’s generation. With the supermarket shelves rapidly emptying because of panic-buying I decided I needed to resurrect my vegetable garden. Luckily I have a source of manure both from our chickens and sheep, as well as the stables down the road. We also have our own compost heap.

There is something very comforting and rewarding about tending your own vegetables and eating the result. Growing your own food reminds you that you are part of a system and that everything we eat comes – in one way or another – out of the earth.

That is something we need to keep in mind long after lockdown ends. Or else we may face an even worse environmental and human catastrophe…

The Hunt for the Karkloof Blue

The Karkloof Blue

As part of my plan of self-improvement to fill in the days I was stuck in lock-down, I decided to develop a new interest – butterfly spotting.

I make no bones about it. When I fixate on something, I don’t like to let go. As a political cartoonist, Robert Mugabe, Jacob Zuma and Donald Trump have all, in turn, become objects for both my anger and relentless scorn.

The flip side to this is my obsessive quest to find beauty and it is here the butterflies come in.

I like to hunt things not because I have any desire to capture or kill them but because of the sense of discovery it brings. Through acquaintance and experience comes knowledge.

I don’t know enough about butterflies to know if my local patch is a particularly good spot for them or not but they are here and this is where we both play out the daily drama of our lives. Like astronauts in a spaceship we are fellow-travellers, co-habitants in this capsule we call Earth. My joy stems from the search, the exercise of a skill and the intense pleasure that comes finding out who I share my space with..

I always enjoy these field excursions. There is a comforting familiarity about this countryside. I have walked it many times. Over the years I have got to know all the landmarks and a lot of the wildlife.

I know this stretch of grasslands is home to a little group of Wailing Cisticolas and that, on misty mornings, the Black Crows like to call from the top of those three pines. That odd-shaped cluster of rocks is the playground for a family of cheery, chatty, Buff-streaked Chats.

The Yellow Warblers prefer the boggy patch down by the river. Invariably there will be a wagtail or two there as well where the stream runs fastest over the rocks.

And that cluster of pines over there? That is where the Long-crested Eagle has its nest.

It is not just the birds. Oribi and reedbuck are sometimes to be seen in that valley on the other side of the fence. There is an old Bushbuck ram who sometimes emerges from our small indigenous forest.

I have also stumbled on several puff-adders, lying doggo on this path. Them, I give a wide berth.

I have not been specifically studying them for all that long but already I have discovered that a surprising number of butterflies live here too.

As I walk along the path they come flapping and gliding, undulating and all but loop-the-looping. They can be difficult to get near even when they have settled on the ground. I wonder whether they have some sort of in-built sonar system that alerts them to my presence or whether they just pick up the vibrations of my boots hitting the ground?

There is still a lot to learn. With birds you can refine your focus by what you know about their preferences and behaviour. With butterflies I don’t have that sort of accumulated knowledge and experience. I am coming in half blind. I have to slowly feel my way.

I have no ‘hit list’ of butterflies I expect to see (other than the one who inspired this piece). I will accept whatever comes along.

I am beginning to make some progress. I now recognise an assortment of garden specials like the Garden Inspector (Precis ceryne ceryne), the Garden Acraea (Acraea horta), the Rainforest Brown (Cassionyympha cassius) and the Polka Dot (Pardopsis punctatissima). On Rubble Row there are usually African Monarchs (Danaus chrysippus) and Yellow Pansies (Junonia hierta cebrene).

A bit further down the path – almost half-way to the river – there is a bank where the African Jokers (my spirit butterfly, I have decided) like to hangout. This is where I also recorded my first Bush Bronze (Cacyreus lingeus), a small but beautifully patterned butterfly.

Betwixt and between are a whole assortment of other butterflies, large, medium and small. And mostly colourful. Many are as stunning as their names suggest…

By constantly checking my butterfly field book* to identify the ones I am unfamiliar with I am slowly beginning to learn more about their characteristics, behaviour and preferred habitat.

I have also discovered the Karkloof, where I live, is home to one of the rarest of them all – the Karkloof Blue (Orachrysops ariadne. Also known as the Karkloof Cupid).

It is so rare that when ESKOM threatened to run a line of massive electricity pylons through our pristine, beautiful, valley, a group of concerned local conservationists and farmers banded together and used its highly threatened status as one of their arguments to oppose the construction.

Indeed the Karkloof Blue is so rare, the Midland Meander Association have adopted it as their symbol and made saving it part of their mission statement.

Flipping a little further through the pages of my book I discovered it is not the only butterfly that takes its name from the area. There is also the Karkloof Charanx (Charaxes karkloof. Also known as the Karkloof Emperor) and the Karkloof Russet (Aloeides susanae. Also known as Susan’s Copper).

Now I am getting in to this butterfly thing, I must look out for them too.

I decided to devote my main focus, however, to tracking down the Karkloof Blue, transferring the same obsessions I normally employ when birding. Its flight period is March-April which cuts down my window of opportunity considerably.

Before setting out to look for it, though, I needed to know more about my quarry.

The Field Guide describes it as “Colonial in steep-sided grass gullies near Afromontane forest.” That sounded a bit like our part of the world. Especially the ‘colonial’ bit…

Wanting to find out more I turned, next, to the University of Google:

Endemic to the mist-belt grassland of KwaZulu-Natal, the Karkloof Blue is on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species.

Extensive burning, alien encroachment and livestock have all led to its decline as its habitat has been systematically destroyed. With only only three known colonies, one of which is in the Karkloof, it is now regarded as an indicator species.

Fires and alien encroachment

The statistics make grim reading: due to afforestation and cultivation at least 92% of the Mist-belt grassland has been transformed, with only 1% in good condition remaining.

It seems pretty obvious to me that the Karkloof Blue is not the only creatures whose habitat is being destroyed in these ways. I am sure countless other insects, reptiles and rodents are experiencing a similar fate and this, in turn, must be having a ripple effect on the birds and animals that prey on them.

It is worrying. I suppose it all comes down to that spaceship analogy I used earlier on. We need to realise we only have limited resources and the more we destroy or pollute them, the more we threaten our own future survival.

As sad and distressing as I find this, I intend to persist in my efforts to track down the Karkloof Blue. So far, I have come across a few blue butterflies that come close but don’t quite fit the bill. There is the African Grass (or Sooty) Blue (Zizzeeria knysna), the Common Zebra Blue (Leptotes pirithous pirithous) and the Pea Blue (Lampides boeticus).

But no Karkloof Blue.

With winter fast approaching and its flight period closing down, I decided to postpone my search until next season. Then, I intend to look harder, thinking about the best likely habitat and hoping for that lucky break and familiar surge of excitement that comes from finding something new.

I can feel it. I can sense it. I know it is out there somewhere in the rolling green ocean of grass, just waiting to be found.

It is the lure of the rare. The Karkloof Blue has become my Moby Dick. My White (Blue?) Whale.

*Field Guide to the Butterflies of South Africa by Steve Woodhall (published by Struik Nature).

A Soundtrack of my Life

Back in the days before the Internet, Facebook, Twitter and cellphones with cameras, one of the few things you could do, as a hip young thing, was immerse yourself in music or, more particularly, rock ‘n roll.

The music of the time certainly influenced the way I looked at and felt about life. At boarding school it provided a tremendous mental and emotional release from the strict discipline and conservative family values which the authorities, in the paternalistic form of the Rhodesian Front Government, seemed so determined to ram down my throat.

It was an age when music was still seen as a catalyst for political and social change. At university I tried to fob myself off as a member of the counter-culture revolution, rejecting the materialism of my parents generation. I let it all hang out and felt groovy and grew my hair long, just like my music idols did, although, truth to tell, I was way too well-mannered to ever practice free love and too scared to take drugs.

Trying to fob myself off as a member of the counter-culture movement…

These days that spirit of youthful rebellion, that was a defining feature of my generation, seems to have all but petered out partly, I imagine, because the modern youth no longer faces the prospect of military conscription.

Likewise, most of the groups I listened to back then have long since disintegrated or disappeared off the scene (the Rolling Stones proving the one stubborn exception) but there are three singer/songwriters who have stuck with me along my life journey and provided a continuing link in my ongoing love affair with rock music – Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. That chain has gone through periods of strength and weakness with albums of unquestionable brilliance being mixed up with the occasional dud.

The Future of Rock ‘n Roll…

Of the three artists, Springsteen was undoubtedly the late arrival although it’s hard to believe that it has been almost thirty years since rock critic Jon Landau penned the portentous lines: “Last Thursday, at the Harvard Square theatre, I saw my rock ‘n’ roll past flash before my eyes. And I saw something else: I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time”.- a eulogy the Boss has spent the rest of his life trying to live down

Besides their obvious musical genius, Dylan, Young and Springsteen shared certain other common characteristics. All three have made a career out of defying people’s expectations, constantly seeking to evade the mantle their fans had placed on them.

Starting out as an acolyte of Woody Guthrie, Dylan famously scandalised members of the folk music scene with his decision to go electric, prompting outraged shouts of “Judas” from the audience. Springsteen, whose ground-breaking Born To Run had come out in the shadow of the Vietnam war, found himself being deserted in droves by his overwhelmingly liberal fan base with the release of Born in the USA an album many, mistakenly, saw as a paean to the policies of Ronald Reagan.

Another trait the three share is that all they have all enjoyed late period career revivals. Freer than ever before and liberated from the constraints of labels and packaging, it seemed like they were finally able to just relax and rediscover their mojo.

For his part Dylan displayed an astonishing return to form with 1997’s Time Out Of Mind and then, just to show this was no fluke, followed it up in 2001 with Love and Theft, an album which confirmed his renaissance, establishing a tighter sound and a looser attitude

A return to form…

With his craggy face and unkempt hair, Neil Young nowadays looks more like a weather-beaten farmer than a musician but that does not mean he has lost his edge or his ability to read the mood of the times. Both Springsteen and Young beat their much younger counterparts to the finish line with the release of their devastating post -9/11 albums (The Rising – Springsteen; Living with War – Young) which reflected a mounting alarm with the direction George W Bush was taking America. Young followed this up with his Freedom of Speech Tour – along side former band mates Crosby, Stills and Nash – staged during the US 2006 mid-term elections. Consisting mostly of anti-war songs, from Buffalo Springfield oldies such as For What Its Worth and CSNY’s era-defining Ohio, their tour received a mixed reaction with enthusiastic reviews being counterbalanced with scornful appraisals of the “ageing hippies” attempts to rouse America into antiwar protest.

Continuing on his lonesome way…

No matter. Young, who, somewhat to his own bemusement, had been one of the inspirations behind the whole “grunge” movement just shrugged it off and continued on his lonesome, iconoclastic, way.

At this stage of my life it seems unlikely I’ll ever get to realise my ambition of seeing either Dylan or Young perform live but I did manage to catch Springsteen when he visited South Africa. It was all I had hoped for and more. For a few glorious – if rain-drenched – hours I, too, felt young again.

Caught Between a Covid-19 Rock and a Hard Place: Cartoons for March and April, 2020

In the same week it was announced that South Africa was in recession, King Zwelithini tried to lever support for a vanity project of his. Claiming, somewhat dubiously, to have the support of Britain’s Prince Charles, Zwelithini announced at the opening of the KZN Legislature that he wanted a dam – not just any old dam but the biggest and longest in Africa.

What he didn’t explain was how he expected it to be funded given the cash-strapped state of the country’s economy and the burgeoning national debt.

The World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a global pandemic as the virus, unknown to world health officials three-months ago, rapidly spread to more than 120 000 people across the world. The growing crisis saw the rand crash through R17/$ and South African shares plummet as scenes of market mayhem played out across the globe.

In the midst of this carnage, Eskom chose to announce it was once again implementing Stage Four load-shedding putting the already ailing South African economy under even greater strain.

With Italy seeing 475 deaths in one day – the highest daily toll in one country throughout the entire pandemic – World Health Organisation head Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned Africa “to prepare for the worst and prepare today”.

His views were backed up by Professor Saloshini Naidoo, the head of public health at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, who said she could not emphasise enough the importance of behaviour change to prevent a wide scale and unprecedented spread of the virus in South Africa.

“These next two weeks are vitally important for people to adhere to the president’s recommendations and ensure that there is little to no contact with others so we can flatten the curve,” she warned.

Following the example of numerous other countries around the world, South Africa went in to full lock-down at midnight, 26th March. The drastic measures, aimed at slowing the spread of the Covid-19 virus, included a complete prohibition on non-essential movement, a ban on liquor sales, a closure of public spaces, community halls and religious premises, all under penalty of prosecution.

The first week of the Covid-19 lock-down saw many South Africans already beginning to feel the pinch, with many of the self-employed fast running out of cash. Their anxiety levels were not eased by the warning from Health Minister, Zweli Mkhize, that they must not expect the increase in cases and deaths to slow immediately as a result of people staying at home. He added that the lock-down may need to be extended.

With the rate of infection from the Covid-19 soaring to unprecedented levels in the United States, President Donald Trump continued to bluster, misspeak and ad-lib his way through the crisis. Having earlier clung to a narrative of normality (It is a Democrat “hoax”, it is just a flu), he had been obliged to make an embarrassing U-Turn and now sought to transfer the blame for the pandemic elsewhere. He found another convenient scapegoat in the form of the World Health Organisation who he sharply criticised for being too focused on China and issuing bad advice during the outbreak.

While President Cyril Ramaphosa’s – and his Health Minister, Zweli Mkhize’s – political capital soared over their handling of the Covid-19 crisis in South Africa, the same could not be said of his grand-standing, thuggish, Police Minister, Bheki Cele. With many reports of police brutality emerging, he was criticised for, among other things, allowing his personal obsession with alcohol to lead to unconstitutional and criminal action by security force members.

In an address to the nation, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the gradual easing of Covid-19 lock-down restrictions from the beginning of May although public gatherings and movements would still be highly restricted and some parts of the country would remain in hard lock-down. The easing of restrictions meant the country would move from its current strict Level 5 lock-down to a slightly relaxed Level 4.

A Tribute to my Mother: Monica Mary Stidolph

If she had lived my mother would have turned a hundred this year. To mark this milestone, I decided to write this tribute to her

My mother was one of life’s naturally good people; someone who managed to combine intelligence and kindness with an innate graciousness. Although she lived by clear standards of morality, she eschewed the judgemental; throughout her long and not always easy life, she remained a devoted mother and constant wife.

Born at Cassington in Oxfordshire on the 15th April, 1920, her father, Sydney Ralph Bridgen (who had married Helen Perkins), a veteran of the WW1 trenches, taught at the local school.

Helen & Sydney Bridgen.

He would later assume the headship at King Sorbonne in Hampshire and then, in 1928, Herstmonceux. It was in this idyllic, semi-rural setting that my mother spent most of her formative years.

She had a happy, if sheltered, childhood. Her family – which included her two sisters (Barbara and Marguerite) and brother (Harry) – was close and supportive. From her father she inherited a love of the English country side and also his creative genes.

She was especially interested in English, History and Art and showed real talent in these subjects. Her father encouraged her literary efforts. One of her poems, To a Seagull, appeared in Cornhill Magazine in July, 1936, its then editor, Lord Gorell, commenting that “for one of your age your lines show very considerable promise”. Another poem, Sussex Downs, which she wrote and illustrated when she was only thirteen was published in the Daily Mail.

Monica Bridgen, 1934.

She excelled in art. Her drawings were really wonderful, so delicate and full of life and yet also extraordinarily confident for someone who had only just turned seventeen and often appeared unsure of herself. She won several Royal Drawing Awards.

My mother was particularly close to her brother Harry who, at the outbreak of the Second World War, would join the RAF. It was Harry who arrived home on pass, one weekend, with a group of his air-force colleagues.

Amongst them was a young RAF officer from Southern Rhodesia, Reginald Neville Stidolph. He was handsome and full of charm and in outlook and background very different from the few young men the shy, young, English rose had met. The attraction seems to have been instant and mutual. Putting on a posh accent my father’s first words were “Introduce me….please!”

They were married on the 10th July, 1940, in Herstmonceux. Progress in the romance was curtailed when, on the 22nd August, my father flew back to Alexandria in Egypt where he was stationed. He would not return until March, 1943, two and a half years later.

Such was the schizoid life of a bomber pilot trying to conduct a relationship during a war.

Nine months after they got married my eldest brother, Patrick Alan, was born. In my mother’s version of the story he arrived by candle-light at Monk’s Rest, the long time Bridgen home in Herstmonceux, as German planes dropped incendiary bombs all around the village.

Monica Stidolph with Patrick. 1941.

A second son, Andrew Paul Rosslyn, would also be born during the course of the war.

At the end of the war, my father was keen to get back to Africa and so, for my mother, there had to be a parting, sad like all farewells. Leaving the only world she had known she climbed on board the Carnavon Castle with her two young sons and set sail for Cape Town – and a new life.

My mother and unknown child, leaving England.

I have often wondered what she must have felt as she stood on the deck, watching the coast of England sinking in to the ship’s wake. No doubt there must have been a sense of expectation and adventure, mingled with the inevitable regret. I imagine she must have been nervous about the new challenges which faced her, whether she was equal to them only time would tell.

How my mother, Monica Stidolph, imagined Africa would be

My mother’s first home was in the suburb of Parktown, in Salisbury, near to the airport where my father was now working as a pilot for Central African Airways. It was here my brother Peter and I were born although I have little recollection of the place.

Monica Stidolph with her four boys – Paul, Patrick, Anthony and Peter. Parktown.

Having settled in to her new home my mother set about doing what was expected of a woman in her position back then. Forsaking her artistic interests she devoted her life to motherhood and keeping a tidy house.

For his part, my father – who had always hankered after having a place in the country – decided to scout out what smallholdings were available within a reasonable distance of Salisbury. In the end he brought one, about thirty acres, in Umwindsidale, just off the Enterprise road.

The only building on the property was a long rectangular room made of mud and grass and local poles which had a corrugated-iron roof and a floor of beaten earth. It was here we all lived, cheek by jowl, while my father set about building a new home which he loosely modelled on the traditional Cape Dutch style of house.

My main memory of the property is the view which was spectacular. Immediately below our front verandah was a long, wide valley, extensively cultivated, along whose edges the Umwindsi River flowed, its path marked by an outline of dark green. Beyond this fertile plain stretched a further succession of hills and valleys, blue and hazy, each one becoming successively paler, in turn, as they rose to meet the sky.

When I was nine or thereabouts my father decided the time had finally come to go the whole hog and buy a proper farm. A natural optimist, once he had chosen a course of action he was not one to be easily diverted from it. More cautious by nature, my mother, I think, had her reservations but eventually succumbed to the idea and allowed herself to be swept along by my father’s enthusiasm.

I was away at boarding school at REPS, in the Matopos hills, when my father set out in search of his dream property. As it turned out he settled for the first one he laid his eyes on. Situated at the end of the Nyanga range the farm was, indeed, very beautiful although whether it would prove suitable for agriculture was a question which still had to be answered.

Consisting of five separate farms – Wheatlands, Barrydale, Groenfontein, Ellenvale and Witte Kopjes – it was in the shape of an inverted ‘L’ with its two northern-most beacons being situated on the top of Mount Nyangui (my father decided to apply this name to the whole farm) and Muchena respectively.

Nyangui (“The Place of Shouting”) mountain with baobab and old lands. Picture courtesy of Patrick Stidolph.

The rest of the farm was low-lying with a long strip of red land, held between two rivers: the Mwenje and the Pendeke. To the west and north lay the Zimbiti Tribal Trust Land, on the eastern side it was flanked by the Nyangui Forest Reserve.

It was also the last white, commercial farm, in the district, and some distance from the nearest rail head. Beyond it lay even more broken country with yet more hills covered in ancient terraces and fortifications, stretching down to the Ruenya River. Very few whites ever visited this part of the world although there were two Catholic missions – Elim and Avila.

On the other side of the Ruenya was Makaha – literally meaning “Wild Country”. It certainly was. A gold belt in this area had drawn some early prospectors, including the German, Carl Peters, whose name you forever find cropping up all over Africa. He claimed them for Germany as the Kaiser Wilhelm Goldfields in 1892. The name was used for the whole area until the war with Germany broke out in 1915, when it was hastily dropped.

This, then, was our new home. If Southern Rhodesia was little more than a distant outpost of the British Empire, we occupied a very remote corner of that outpost.

For my mother, surveying the farm for the first time, it must have seemed a long way from the small English village she had left behind; the enormous view down the sun-drenched valley with the mountains running alongside, the tall, billowing clouds, the emptiness, the sense of space.

There was much to do. The farm hadn’t been worked for years so there were lands to stump and clear, furrows to dig, paddocks to fence off. While the land was being cleared, a house of sorts was built, using mud and local rock, next to the small stream which had a waterfall with a pool below. Upstream from that was a wide reed bed in which a family of wild pig and a large python lived.

When my father bought the farm he had great plans for it. He wanted to make good. He visualised a future in which the farm would prosper to the point where it could one day be divided up and each portion left to one of his sons to run in turn.

The reality turned out somewhat different for reasons which were not altogether his fault.

Although situated in a beautiful part of Rhodesia, it was not good agricultural country. The soils were mostly poor, the rainfall patchy and unreliable. We were also very far from the markets. My father had little capital to start with and soon found himself indebted to the Land bank.

Inspecting the cattle. Anthony, Monica, Reg and Peter Stidolph.

The time would come when he would be forced to take stock. We were far from prosperous. Going through the bank statements and farm books it became obvious to my father that there was no way we could get out of the slough we were in, if we continued as we were.

He needed to find more money. The most obvious way to do this was for him to return to his old job as a pilot.

And so the next eight-years or so my father all but disappeared out of lives, working, at first, in the Persian Gulf and then, later, the Sudan and Sierra Leone.

In his absence my mother was left to cope with the running the farm, as well as raising six (later seven) children, as best she could. Even though it must have seemed miles away from the world she imagined when she first came out to Africa, it was a struggle she faced courageously.

With her children away at boarding school, it was an isolated life. Her only neighbours, Old Man Mienie and his wife, lived about 10km away. Visitors were few and far between – the occasional animal health inspector come to check the cattle, the odd policeman on patrol. Sometimes our relations, the MacKenzie’s, would motor up from Salisbury for a visit.

There was no electricity so my mother had to rely on candles and paraffin lamps (and later gas) for lighting. Our water was pumped up to a tank on the hill behind our house by a hydraulic ram that fed off a furrow. In the early days she had to boil it in a drum on an outside fire and it was here she did her cooking too.

When we started out we could not afford a tractor so had to rely on oxen to pull the single furrow plough. It was a slow, laborious process and because we could not afford too much labour either, us children were also expected to muck in.

The weather was changeable. In the dry season bush fires were a constant threat. Hot, dry winds seemed to suck all the goodness out of everything. Drought could ruin the crops and enfeeble the cattle to the point where they gave up hope and died.

You never could predict when the rains would arrive and when they did you could never tell what they would do. Sometimes the storms moved in narrow swaths, drenching one part of the farm but completely missing the next.

It was very easy to think that there was indeed, some capricious mind behind it all, a mind that took a certain impish delight in seeing your moods oscillate between hope and despair..

Despite having no background in agriculture my mother battled on as best she could. The farm consumed her life. Just when it seemed it was finally about to start paying for itself a new, more ominous, threat loomed on the horizon: the outbreak of the Rhodesian Bush War in the early1970s.

When my mother was eventually forced to leave Nyangui because of the deteriorating security situation she floundered and then recovered but, deep down, I sensed her life had been irreparably altered. It was like a light had switched off inside her and she was never quite able to regain her old enthusiasm.

Thereafter she accepted whatever hand fate chose to deal her with an almost Buddha-like stoicism. Nevertheless, I think she was happy enough in Francistown where she moved to join my father who was flying for WENELA and then later Bowmont, the small farm they purchased near Kadoma.

Some years after my my father died she married our next door neighbour, Jim Hastings, a small-worker who set up a three-stamp mill on the property to crush for gold. When Zimbabwe started to go through a rather tumultous patch in its history, it was decided they should both move on to my brother Peter’s tobacco farm, Sangalolo, in Karoi.

When his farm was seized during Robert Mugabe’s violent and chaotic land grab we arranged for her to come down South Africa to live with my sister, Penny, and her husband , Ric, in Grahamstown. All three of my sisters lived in the area and I was able to come down on regular visits from Pietermaritzburg, so she was loved and well cared for.

Her final years were peaceful and happy. After the hard life and sacrifices she had made it was the least she deserved.

My mother in old age with Henry the cat.

When I think of my mother the qualities which stand out for me are her honesty, her integrity, her decency and her quiet strength. She played the hand she had been given, she was never one to complain about her lot. Despite having led a life mostly cut-off from normal society, she showed no sign of being lonely; on the contrary she seemed to derive a certain comfort from the solitude.

Like many married women of that generation, her life involved compromises which left her talents unfulfilled. I have always thought it sad that she gave up on her art at such an early age. It is one of the reasons I felt compelled to persist with my own efforts. I wanted to live the life she could have had.

Although she remained reticent on the subject, I don’t think she had many regrets about this sacrifice. Her children came first. She was certainly proud of us. “I didn’t produce a single dud,” she liked to say towards the end of her life.

That we turned out the way we did was largely due to her.

My hope is that as she lay dying, with her three loving daughters by her side, she got an inkling of how much we appreciated what she had sacrificed for us and how much she would be missed…

MORE EXAMPLES OF MONICA BRIDGEN’S ARTWORK:

The following drawings were mostly done when my mother was only seventeen..

POEMS OF MONICA BRIDGEN:

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS:

Many thanks to my brother, Patrick, for researching our family tree and to my mother, Monica, whose own memoirs I drew on for this tribute.

Some Notes on Watching a Butterfly Flutter by…

Literature and butterflies are the two sweetest passions known to man.

Vladimir Nabokov.

A host of butterflies. I took this pic near Barberton, Mpumalanga.

It is 7.30 am and I am taking my usual nosey wander down the path that leads from my house to the Kusane river. It is a beautiful, balmy, sun-filled, day. Suddenly a butterfly – or rather a butterfly and its passenger – alights on a plant just to my right.

In the past I would have just cast a cursory glance in their direction and then proceeded on my way.

This time I stop, grab my old Canon out of its bag and start snapping away. The reason for this is that I have recently been given a field guide to the butterflies of South Africa* to review and suddenly I have become enamoured with the subject.

I circle around the butterfly, trying to get closer and closer, angling in for the perfect shot. I have no idea what the butterfly is but as soon as I get home I will get out the book and try and identify it, looking for its most distinctive features (as a political cartoonist I have had a lot of experience in this – it is what I do when a new president or other public figure appears). I will also look at the butterflies habits and distribution, hunting for those tell-tale clues that might aid me in my search.

African Monarch (Danaus chrysippus), Kusane Farm.

Then I will add it to my list.

As an artist my approach to nature has always been more sentimental than scientific. I am attracted by the lyrical rather than the factual. I look for beauty and seek solace in my natural surroundings. I love the intense intimacy you can develop with your local landscape over time.

All of which makes it strange that I have neglected – although not completely ignored – butterflies for so long because if anything inspires a sense of wonder in nature they do.

I am determined to remedy this. I have probably left it rather late in life to ever become anything like an expert but you have to start somewhere. And, because it is so open, Kusane Farm seems a good place to begin. Also, I live here.

A Pirate Butterfly (Catacroptera cloanthe cloanthe) about to take off. Note small beetles. Kusane.

In spring and summer we get lots of wild flowers coming up in the mist-belt grasslands, especially after a burn. That serves as a magnet for the nectar-loving insect.

It is 7.30 am again and I am back on the familiar path hoping to carry on where I left off before. Around me the swallows are diving and swooping with quick forward thrusts. There is a strong impression of activity and movement everywhere.

I home in on a butterfly which has landed in a cluster of flowers.

As I approach it, it glides off, stalls, hovers and drops down on to another flower with closed wings. Out comes its long, thin, tube-like proboscis and inserting it in to the flower it proceeds to feed. Once it has sated itself, off it goes in search of the next flower.

Citrus Swallowtail (Papilio demodocus demodocus). Note proboscis. Kusane.

Everywhere I look there are other butterflies doing the same.

Their flight paths seem wildly erratic, they keep making continual adjustments to their speed, direction and angle of flight. Unlike most birds or bees, you don’t get that sense they know where they are going.

And yet they obviously do.

Sometimes – as happens in the annual migration of the Brown-veined White Butterfly (Belenois aurota) which takes place at midsummer each year – they come floating by in straggly groups for days on end. There are thousands and thousands of them in seemingly endless flight. I was amazed to read, in my guide, that this particular species originate in the dry Karoo and Kalahari where they gather in their millions and take to the sky heading in a southerly to easterly direction up through the East Cape and Kwa Zulu – Natal to the Mozambique coastline.

That is a long way to fly for something so fragile and small.

What makes this mass migration even more astonishing is that the butterflies need precisely timed stopovers for feeding – which means they need to find flowers growing at regular intervals.

This can’t be easy since to fuel this epic marathon they probably have to harvest hundreds of flowers a day.

The other question which kept whizzing around my brain, as I stood watching them zig-zagging their way across the farm, was this – how can a creature with such a pin-size brain navigate and keep track of its position?! I must confess I have no explanation. As happens everywhere in nature, there still are many unanswered questions, which intrigue amateurs at least as much as scientists.

My butterfly list, so far, is not very long and includes no rarities, just your common varieties (although back in 2018, when I was in Marakele, I did see a Kransberg Widow, a very rare and beautiful butterfly which briefly appears during November and early-December and only occurs on this particular mountain. Unfortunately, I did not get a photograph of it).

I hope to rectify that.

To an outsider this making of lists probably seems like a strange passion, one bordering on obsession. Almost a perversion. They may be right. I don’t care. For me it is all part of the thrill of the chase.

As a long-standing twitcher, I have experienced the sense of excitement and privilege which comes from finding something special (a Pel’s Fishing Owl, Narina Trogon, African Broadbill, Rudd’s Apalis, Southern Banded Snake Eagle, Palm-nut Vulture, a pale, female, morph form of the Eurasian Honey Buzzard – to name a few). That thrill grows even stronger when you come across what we interpret as a “rarity” or a “vagrant” (my list is probably topped by the Gull-billed Tern which I got at Nyamithi Pan in Ndumo Game Reserve in Zululand).

Already I am picking up some valuable tips and learning some important life-lessons as I pursue my quarry and record my sightings.

I have discovered, for example, that while we humans may abhor them in our gardens, butterflies simply love weeds. The irritating black jack, which you find so annoying because it sticks to your clothes when you brush past it, seems to be a particular favourite of theirs.

Garden Acraea (Acraea horta) on blackjack flower, Kusane.

This in turn has caused a major rethink on my part. Suddenly I am far more reluctant to pull these bothersome plants out of my flower garden and toss them to the chickens to turn in to mulch. They fulfil a role. They feed the butterflies who I want to attract to my garden. I want the butterflies to look upon my home as their home.

With climate change already taking its toll, one wonders what will happen to the humble, unassuming, butterfly in the future? Will they be able to evolve or adjust their behaviour?

Rising temperatures, associated with climate change, have already begun to change birds schedules. Many have started moving south.

When I first arrived in KwaZulu-Natal, for example, it was unusual to see the Wooly-necked Stork south of the Zululand parks. An uncommon resident they were regarded as a wetland species associated with lagoons, ponds and rivers. In recent years they have started showing up in increasing numbers in cities such as Pietermaritzburg and Durban, in a sense swapping one habitat for another.

A Wooly-necked Stork in Pietermaritzburg suburbia, ignoring metal imposters. Picture courtesy of Mark Wing.

Some plants are also making this latitudinal shift.

I would imagine the same is happening to butterflies although I don’t know enough about them to be sure. Assuming that tree and flower-blossoming times are also changing it seems likely though.

What I do know for certain, is that I hope they will always be around. If the ancient Greek Goddess, Gaea – the first deity to be born after Chaos, the gaping emptiness – is seen as the personification of the earth and the Mother of Everything Beautiful, then the unassuming butterfly must, surely, be one of her most potent and miraculous symbols?

GALLERY:

Herewith a selection of photographs, showing some of the butterflies in our area:

.

* Field Guide to Butterflies of South Africa by Steve Woodhall (published by Struik Nature).