2015 Grateful 5

There was a time in Ireland when every child of primary-school-going age had been to see Eugene Lambert’s puppet theatre. It was a mainstay on the school-tour circuit, something not to be missed. Located in Monkstown, Co Dublin, it was founded in 1972 by the man who would make puppetry an art in Ireland.  He was inspired after visiting the Prague Puppet Festival apparently. The family business is now being run by his son Liam.

Puppetry has come on in leaps and bounds since then. Joey, the War Horse, in the movie of the same name, is way down the puppetry evolutionary scale. His creator, Adrian Kohler, of the Handspring  Puppet Company, says that ‘puppets always have to try to be alive. ‘

Ubu1I had the opportunity recently to see the South-Africa-based Handspring in action. They are currently touring Europe with their play: Ubu and the Truth  Commission, a powerful commentary on the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa that was first performed 18 years ago. The puppeteers are in full view but the puppets are so life-like they take centre stage. The deep gouges in the wooden faces reflect the light in such a way that they seem to move – facial expressions become real. Most eerie.

Ubu2The victims are all played by puppets, the predators by humans. Much of the word play was lost in translation – which is unfortunate. She asks him to pass the salt. His guilty conscience kicks in and he answers: Who said it was assault? Confronting the general about his late nights and implied infidelities, she screams at him: Who owns your heart? This is just one of many questions asked during the play that got me thinking. Questions that I wouldn’t normally think twice about.  Such is the power of good theatre.

I was surprised to learn that the first TRC was not in South Africa, but in Chile. And although in theory, it works for me at some level, I was left wondering at the imbalance of it all. The victims, mostly parents whose children had been murdered by those ‘just doing their job’, got to face those who had robbed them of their futures. Complete disclosure was needed. And the actions had to be politically motivated. ‘No dirt could be left under the nails after such a complete manicure.’ But is there really such a thing as forgiveness without cost? Or is it a lofty ideal that so many strive for and fail to reach? The general commenting on the TRC notes that ‘my slice of old cheese and your loaf of fresh bread will make a tolerable meal.’ Worth thinking on.

For any parent to outlive their child is heartbreaking. What is left for them? Much like what was left for South Africa?

Video footage and photographs, alongside animations and music played in the background. Seeing photos of dead children and videos of assaults all added to the horror. As the victims testified in front of the Commission, interpreters translated. Closed off in a class cage, the neutral loneliness of the interpreters was intended to epitomise the neutrality of the  TRC.

Ubu as a character first appeared 130 years ago from the mind and pen of a 17-year-old french student, Alfred Jarry, in a play about his science teacher. Although it opened and closed on the same night, it would have far-reaching consequences for theatre worldwide.

Ubu Roi (Ubu the King or King Ubu) is a play by Alfred Jarry. It was first performed in Paris at the Théâtre de l’Œuvre, causing a riotous response in the audience as it opened and closed on December 10, 1896. It is considered a wild, bizarre and comic play, significant for the way it overturns cultural rules, norms, and conventions. For those who were in the audience on that night to witness the response, including William Butler Yeats, it seemed an event of revolutionary importance. It is now seen by some to have opened the door for what became known as modernism in the twentieth century. It is a precursor to Dada, Surrealism and the Theatre of the Absurd. It is the first of three stylised burlesques in which Jarry satirises power, greed, and their evil practices — in particular the propensity of the complacent bourgeoisie to abuse the authority engendered by success.

I sat through the performance with one question running through my mind: Do I have what it takes to forgive – completely forgive?  I wonder.

This week began in Budapest and ended up in Bangalore. Such is my world. Such is globalisation. With travel as easy as it is, alternative theatres like Traffo can bring companies like Handspring to Budapest who bring with them questions that broaden our world and get us thinking. That’s something to be grateful for.


2015 Grateful 46

I heard with great sadness that a South African friend of mine passed away this weekend. Being an inveterate romantic, he picked a good weekend to go. I met this wily nonagenarian when I was visiting his country in 2010 and immensely enjoyed the five days I spent at his home.

Since then, we enjoyed a semi-regular email correspondence that went in fits and spurts as the humour took him. I might hear from him every day for a week and then nothing for a month or three. Mixed in with the litany of complaints, which ranged from having no one of sound mind to talk to (the downside, he said, of living to such a great age), to the South African mail going on strike, L always had something interesting to say: an observation, a throwaway remark about times gone by, a fleeting thought so prescient that at times I wondered if he did indeed have second sight.

sky dead tree half sunWhile I was in South Africa he found in me a willing ear for stories others had long since tired of hearing (could that man talk!). I was fascinated. By him, by the country, by everything that I had misunderstood and still failed to understand. He described me, back in 2011, in the first of his many emails, as a soundbox – a sort of drum that if someone strikes you can hear what the music means. In other words, he explained, I had acquired the ability to listen.

He had it in his head that I was a journalist and as I quickly learned, once he got something in his head, it was there to stay. No amount of explaining could shift that notion and in the years that followed he regularly sent me snippets of his memoirs, stories that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. He told me that I was shrewd enough to realise that people loved to talk about themselves and now that I’d asked the question – Tell me L, tell me about your life – he’d take his time in answering.

In 2011, he wrote to tell me that he’d been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and that he had taken to writing poetry. He sent me this:


What are you staring at?
Did you see a ghost?
I will tell you what you saw!
You saw a man
Dressed in a Sheepskin coat that is glazed with dirt,
A hound that is going through Hell,
And now without the strength of a louse.
When I look in the mirror in front of me
I can understand why you are staring,
Then when I look in the mirror behind me
What do I see?
I see a dangerous giant,
Again I look at the mirror in front of me,
I cannot reconcile the two pictures, these pictures
But this I must state, and my words are true,
Where you are, I have long since been,
Where I am, you will sure arrive.
I tell you my words are straight,
And there is nothing you can do,
So Dear friend out of the past
I bid you farewell.

He said I’d recognise in it strains of Dan McGrew and Jack London – I didn’t. I just saw his fear in facing his mortality.

In the next few years, he told me stories of his father who fought in the Battle of Majuba Hill in 1881.  I met Rassie, a reformed alcoholic gifted in the art of laying sewage pipes.  I met Steenkamp, a mechanic who talked to his machines. And I met the infamous Polly, whose hands touched every major dam built in the country. I heard tales of working in RSA, of machines shops and idiotic laws, of drunken skirmishes and  life lessons. I read of Bezuidenhout and his two wives, and L’s days on the ham radio with General  de Villiers and how he was honoured to hold the man’s hand at his death. Each email brought something new. He told me stories of growing up amongst the Zulu. He told me of their customs, their games, their code of honour. He gave me a rare insight in to a world I would never see for myself.

English wasn’t L’s mother tongue and at times I wondered if I understood what he was telling me. My attempts to clarify things only made them worse. He expected so much of me that it was difficult for him to accept that I simply didn’t understand. Neither of us had much patience so there were a few virtual skirmishes and email hang-ups but eventually one of us caved.

His crowning glory in life, what he saw as his biggest success was that he ‘produced two most brilliant children’ and if ever a father was proud of his girls, L was.

What occupied him most lately was God, religion and life after death. ‘So you see, my dear Mary, after all these years of reading far and wide, I have to make up my mind where I stand.’

The most upsetting of all was when he said he could not write because of his deteriorating health. He thanked me for being ready to look at his views and he hoped that in the dim future that I would ‘sometime think of what an old, decrepit man had to say about the world in general’. And then he bounced back.

This happened a couple of times but this time, as the emails became more difficult to read and his frustration at the keyboard not typing what was in his head became more obvious, I began to doubt if he’d see his 100th birthday. And he didn’t.

This week, I’m grateful, extremely grateful, that I got to know L, however superficially, however briefly. The side I saw of this multifaceted man was quite remarkable. And my world will be a little less bright without his emails. He’d have liked to have had the last word, so I’ll borrow his:

So Dear friend out of the past
I bid you farewell.






The graveyard school of life

A dead man here. Another one there. This one in his 60s. The other in his 80s. Beloved father, husband, son. An inevitability. Yet to see the markers of 211 dead men, all of whom died within a few years of each other.  Some on the same day, at the same time even, and none older than 36. That’s not inevitable. That’s war.

IMG_1606 (800x600)IMG_1607 (600x800)The British War Cemetery is about 14km outside of Budapest in Solymár. Not all of those buried there were British (128). There are Canadians (6), Australians (13), New Zealanders (6), French (1),  South Africans (20), and  Polish (37). All of them  RAF men shot down in WWII. It’s one of the most inspirational places I’ve seen in a long time.

Just inside the gate, there’s a register of graves, with each man’s name, rank, and family details inscribed. Those who went down in the same plane, on the same day, are buried side by side. It gives it perspective somehow.

IMG_1615 (600x800)Except for one French cross, and the 37 Polish headstones that have a pointed top, all of the markers are the same curved white stone.

The two Jewish graves have the tell-tale pebbles – which surprised me – as one was Canadian and the other South African. It does this occasionally jaundiced heart some good to know that someone, somewhere, still cares enough to pay their respects.

IMG_1627 (600x800)The cemetery itself is beautifully maintained, as  all Commonwealth graveyards are, thanks in no small part to Sir Fabian Ware, who founded the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Too old for active service at the age of 45, he went to France with the British Red Cross in 1914. It wasn’t long before he noticed that there was no system of recording the graves of those who had died in battle. He convinced the War Office that if the dead were properly looked after, it would boost the morale of the living. [I’m still trying to work that one out, but I suppose in an odd way, it makes sense. So much of what we see today still testifies to the need for closure; that need to know where the bodies have been buried.] His motivation? Common remembrance of the dead [of the Great War] is the one thing, sometimes the only thing, that never fails to bring our people together.

Admittedly, I wasn’t thinking of Fabian Ware or his Commonwealth War Graves Commission, as I walked each line of headstones. I was taken by the lessons to be learned from their inscriptions.

IMG_1635 (600x800)How many of us think in terms of a finished life? Of an end date by which we should accomplish all we have set out to achieve? Of a finite point in time when the clock will stop and our time will end? A preoccupation with such thoughts might be debilitating rather than motivating, but a healthy awareness of the inevitability of death might encourage us not to waste what time we have now.

IMG_1634 (800x400)I doubt this is a comment on Bill’s sexual preferences, but I’d like to think that it is. And that we could learn something from this – learn to accept each other for who we are without judging.

IMG_1628 The idea of sacrifice – how alien is that in today’s ego-centric, all-about-me world of likes and friends and followers? I am hard pushed right now to think of one cause that I would willingly die to defend. Oh, I’d like to imagine that I’d be in the thick of the resistance should WWIII break out. I’d like to think that I’d be helping  the persecuted escape, standing up for justice, playing my part. But would I really? I sincerely hope I never get the chance to find out.

IMG_1618 (800x400)Back in the 1940s, choice was a luxury few enjoyed. If your number came up, you got a uniform. Today, young people enlist. Perhaps some are misguided and fall for the marketing hype (I’ve seen one recruitment video for the US military and even I was tempted). More, I hope, firmly believe in their country. Others still might be making calculated career choices rather than playing to their patriotism. But those who may end up on the front line deserve our respect and our prayers, regardless of our politics.

IMG_1631 (600x800)In opting to be cremated, I will be crossing one task off my list – that of thinking of what I’d have etched on my tombstone (yes, I’m organising my own funeral lest someone gets carried away with the pomp and ceremony and God forbid, chooses the wrong music for me to depart to). But this saddened me to the core. I’m not sure if it’s the fact that he is nameless, ageless, stateless, or just plain dead. I’d like to think that when I go, someone will notice me gone.

IMG_1638 (600x800)I smiled at this one, as I do every time I remember playing with the elephants. That trip to South Africa changed me. Not noticeably, except perhaps to me. I smiled because it conjured up swash-buckling images of dapper pilots heading to their planes, silk scarves flying behind them. The notion of pals. Of enduring friendships carved out of circumstances that no one should have to endure. Those friendships we make in times of shared adversity or hardship or grief – they are of a different mettle, a different type of bond. And these pals – they all went down together.

IMG_1639 (800x600)There’s something about this place that makes it special. I’m not an advocate of war. I don’t pretend to understand why people choose a life that is in large part dictated to them by others. I cannot fathom how anyone could follow orders that go against their conscience. But that’s neither here nor there. Seeing these men, aged 19 to 36, their markers standing to attention in the shadow of a big white cross, gave me pause for thought.

Kiev isn’t far from Budapest, literally and figuratively. Could what’s happening there, happen here? On a wider scale, are we due another great war? And if we did find ourselves in one, would we be able to cope? So many questions…





Selfish? Perhaps

A few years ago, I was invited to South Africa by an amazing woman, EK where I met many of her wonderful friends. Two who continue to inspire me are J and E; they work with the kids and gogos (isiZulu for grannies) of eSizameleni township on the outskirts of Wakkerstrom in South Africa. [eSizameleni translates to ‘we help each other’]. When I can, I give to their self-funded organisation, Smiley Families.

I have plenty of stuff; I don’t want for anything. When asked what I’d like for Christmas or my birthday, I say ‘money for  my township’. It’s not mine, of course, but through the regular updates from J, I feel as if it’s a small part of me. They showed me around when I was there and it was quite a sobering yet heartlifting experience.

IMG_0520 (800x518)Compared to this typical two-roomed house in eSizameleni that is often home to extended families of ten or more, my single-occupancy multi-roomed flat in Budapest is palatial. I could spend my days feeling guilty about having so much when others have so little but that would be both a waste of time and a waste of energy. Each of our circumstances is different. Who knows what the next life might bring for me… or you. I have friends better off and worse off than me in the material stakes: some make salaries I can only dream of (were I so inclined); others are barely making ends meet. What we have in common is not our material wealth, but our values, our outlook on life, our shared sense of compassion. These are what matter.

SA Football teamA couple of years ago, the money I sent was used to buy kit for the town’s football team. When I opened this photo, I cried. Not from any sense of misguided self-congratulations – it wasn’t a case of ‘wow, how great am I’ – but rather from that sense of achievement that only comes from being in a position to make a difference, however small, and choosing to do so.

Giving financial help to strangers is relatively easy; giving it to friends is not as easy. We are conditioned to going it alone; to seeing financial help as a handout. We are taught to be self-reliant, to be independent. Offers bounce back with choruses of ‘Thanks all the same but I really can’t accept.’ Can’t? or Won’t? That year in Wakkerstrom, EK taught me an invaluable lesson: in refusing to let her buy something for me (I was broke at the time), I was depriving her of the opportunity to do something nice, to pay it forward. I was being selfish. Instead of smiling, saying thank you, and making us both happy, I went through the litany of shouldn’ts, couldn’ts, and can’ts. In her own inimitable way, she patiently explained her logic. It took a while for me to be comfortable with her generosity.  It was a difficult lesson to learn. If you cut me open I’m sure that you’d find the words ‘self-sufficient’ tabooed on some part of my innards. But in learning how to accept graciously, I’ve become a better person. I continue to pay it forward. And the more I give, the more I receive. Not euro for euro or forint for forint or rand for rand, but in terms of friendship, love, consideration, and a general sense of well-being. Sadly, it’s not easy getting people to agree with me.

One of my heroes, Antony de Mello, makes the point that we shouldn’t delude ourselves. When we give to the homeless in the street, we do so to make ourselves feel better, not with any great expectation of making a huge difference in their lives. We often don’t give because we reckon they will spend our hard-earned money on booze and cigarettes. But so what if they do? If it makes their lives a little easier, why should we care? In giving to friends, we pay it forward in the hope that when the day comes that we need help, someone will be there for us, too.

I had an e-mail from J recently telling me how my last contribution had been spent. I know he won’t mind me quoting it.

I was going to try and take the grannies on a trip to a Zulu cultural and historic centre about 300 km from here to see if they could be inspired by some of the traditional crafts that their ancestors had produced.  Sadly this fell through as I could not get hold of a bus from the local bus company.  Eventually we opted for putting it towards some Christmas hampers.  We decided that rather than get them some of the day-to-day foodstuffs, we would get them some special treats that would help take their minds off the grinding poverty of their daily life. 

Misc 2012 12 08 015 (800x596)I read of this and of the 60 families that benefited and then saw the accompanying photograph. These special treats are a stark reminder of the material imbalance in the world. I firmly believe that those of us who have, have a responsibility to give. And the more we have, the more we should give. FI, in a Facebook update about the plight of homeless in Budapest, said recently: A piece of clothing, some food, perhaps a few hundred forints goes a long way in helping these people survive the winter of 2012. Since I read that, I don’t leave the house without coins in my pocket. Instead of shaking my head when approached on the street, I give. Even if it’s only 100 forint. I have no way of knowing how much or little difference it will make to them, but I know the huge difference it makes for me. Selfish? Perhaps.

All it takes is that extra second’s thought to remind myself that there, but for the grace of God, go I. Be it time, money, food, or simply a smile or a hug, in my mind, it is the act of giving that will save the world. Check out this video from Noah and the Whale… it explains the ripple effect of thoughtfulness better than I ever could.

To J & E … thank you!



Grateful 48

I spent many, many, years, too many to bear thinking about, wandering the cologne-scented, suited hallways of the corporate world. My contact was limited to those who worked in the same field and very often to those who worked in the same town or city. Opportunities to travel on business were few and far between. Yes, I had the occasional conference but those were usually limited to company employees, mainly European and North American.

In recent years, the scope and variety of my work has changed and now more than compensates for the sizable reduction in income experienced since starting to work for myself. I meet people from all walks of life, living in all corners of the world, doing all sorts of different things with their lives. And it’s an education.

This week, I had the good fortune to hear a presentation delivered partly in Xhosa, one of South Africa’s official languages spoken by nearly 8 million people, mainly in the Eastern Cape but also in Botswana and Lesotho. I’d heard tell of this clicking language but had never actually heard it before and, at the time, I couldn’t quite grasp the concept. Having now heard it for myself, in person, I’m suitably impressed.

Apparently, there are three types of clicks: dental clicks, alveolar clicks, and lateral clicks. Dental clicks are made touching the tongue to the roof of the mouth all along one side as when saying the l in ‘love’. I was very surprised to learn that I’ve used lateral clicks: that clicking noise I make to get a horse to trot (back in the day…). The alveolar clicks are made by touching the tip of the tongue to the centre of the roof of the mouth, as when saying the t in ‘tap’.

Through my involvement in the Gift of the Gab, Budapest Toastmasters, and TEDxDanubia, I’ve come across all sorts of speeches and speakers. Some leave their mark, some are filed away for future contemplation, some motivate and inspire, and some serve as a reminder of how not to do it. This speech though, was different, serving as it did as a trigger for reflection. It dawned on me that here I was, Irish, living in Budapest, working in Malta, listening to a South African, working in Geneva, giving a talk in Xhosa. How far have I come from the days when guacamole was the most exotic food I’d eaten, Edinburgh the most exotic place I’d visited,  and a Lebanese neighbour of a mate in London, the most exotic foreigner I knew.

This week I am grateful for the choices I have made in my life and pray that I will continue to be able to afford to priortise time and experience over the accumulation of wealth and money in the bank.

Behind closed doors

There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception – or so said Aldous Huxley, a man who died before I was born and a man I’d very much like to meet, if for no other reason than for him to explain my fascination with doors.

Someone commented quite recently that I never take photos of people. I don’t like posed portraits and I feel that taking someone’s photo without asking them first is quite invasive. And if you ask them, they invariably pose and we’re back to the portrait thing. This comment prompted to me to take a look at what I see when I have my camera; if I’m not shooting people, then what I am shooting? What are my obsessions? One is flowers behind bars and another, oddly enough, is doors. Judging by the number of photos of doors (sometimes half a dozen of the same one from different angles, and in different light) I would seem to have a bit of a door obsession going on.

Zagreb, Croatia

I have vague memories from my TV days of quiz shows where you could pick what was behind one of three doors, so perhaps my preoccupation has something to do with the endless possibilities that lie behind a closed door. Maybe it’s something to do with that feeling of exclusion – of being on the outside – waiting for a knock to be answered or waiting for the key to get in. And then the ensuing feeling of inclusion and belonging when you do manage to get behind it all. Or perhaps it’s the secrecy. My parents’ generation wisely cautions that one never knows what goes on behind closed doors. What might seem enviable from the outside looking in, could be light years removed from reality.

Wakkerstroom, South Africa

Until you actually open the door, you’ll never know for sure what’s behind it. Until you take that blind leap of faith and open that door, you’ll always wonder what might have been. And even if what’s behind the door is not what you’re looking for, or anything close to what you expected to find, the adrenaline rush alone is worth it! That deep breath before the ‘here goes nothing… and everything’ is probably the sweetest one you’ll ever take.

Then again, maybe it’s not the doors I’m obsessing about at all… maybe it’s just the colours!