South Africa

Pam’s Pictorama Post: As I have occasionally done in the past, I write today from an airplane as I speed home (if a 15 and a half hour flight could be called speeding by the stretch of any imagination) from a far flung destination. I travel not infrequently for my job and this time it was to join the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in Johannesburg, South Africa for the Joy of Jazz festival.

While I mostly groused about the very long flight and the difficulty of leaving Manhattan in the fall, a very busy time for fundraising, the truth was I was extremely ambivalent about going. The history of the country, within my living memory, tainted it and I tried to unwrap my hesitancy and it wasn’t easy. I reached back my mind to the time I spent living in London when I was in college. I had made friend with a man who went by the name of Don Bay (his given name is Azad Bayramian) and who owned an African music distribution business, Stern’s. It was through him that I first heard High Life music.

 

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While it never quite established itself the way jazz ultimately did in my sensibility, I enjoyed it immensely. Don brought me to concerts – often outdoors in summer, going for hours over steamy British summer afternoons into evening and then into night, lines of dancing women in colorful, brightly patterned cotton outfits, the audience drinking, smoking and of course dancing, dancing and dancing. I was twenty-one and living on my own in a city for the first time and exploring every new thing that came my way and this was certainly far different from anything life in New Jersey or Connecticut had to offer. The music was a big part of it.

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The shop, which I believe is no longer there, as it looked when I lived in London.

 

In this way I also seriously contemplated the continent of Africa for the first time in my life. While the lure of India and Central Asia had ignited via studying the art in high school, I had never deeply considered Africa. For the first time I became curious about it in a real way and because of my friend Don I was meeting a never-ending stream of African musicians as they passed through London, playing gigs and promoting their music. I remember being told that at home in Africa they might fill a stadium with fans while playing more modest festivals, theaters and even clubs in London.

Meanwhile many would stay at Don’s house in Putney which always seemed to have a room enough for a few more people. Don and I both enjoyed cooking and we would make wild lavish meals and invite all sorts of people over for massive dinners and the musicians were frequently in attendance. However, they could often be found just as often, making themselves dinner or a coffee on a quiet evening.

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King Sunny Ade – I did meet him and loved his music, although he was too famous to join our gatherings in Putney.

 

On one occasion in particular I remember coming in just as one fellow, I do not remember his name, was just putting the finishing touches on his meal and he asked if I would like to join him. In the pan was a very small fish in a red sauce and a large pot of rice. I felt dubious about depriving him of any. However, he explained that the fish was so spicy I would only need a small amount to a large amount of rice. I can still remember it – the spice just about blew the top of my head off and it was great!

To be very honest, this was the first time in my life I met a large number of black people. It feels odd to say that but it is the truth. I had grown up in a very white town in a wealthy enclave in New Jersey. Quite simply it was extremely white. Our minorities, as such, were Jews and Catholics. (I lay claim to a fair portion of both but have come out looking sheer WASP – more about that another time.) It was the sort of town which would turn on its ear when one of its own football types dated a fellow student who was Asian and brought her to the country club. Now here I was living in a foreign country and meeting people from Africa. Amazing!

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I lived in the basement of the building on the far right and on the right side of the entry. It was much more run down back then!

 

During this time I dated any number of people – a random cross section of mostly British young men. One I discovered to be a heroin addict (fascinating and another first for me), another a very short good lucking man who was trying to break into modeling, but whose height barred him from success in this area. (Oddly he got one gig in a party scene for a liquor ad and I saw him plastered all of the tube for weeks.) He was a bit mean and we only went out a few times.

I don’t remember how I met David, probably at the coffee house I used to frequent for the only decent cup of coffee in all of London (a sort of a cappuccino – this was long before the Starbucks-a-fication of the world) and it was also an inexpensive warm perch on cold evenings when my flat was largely without heat. He was a white South African and that alone oozed romantic unknowns. Older than me by a few years and clearly more worldly, he was living in London in a sort of self imposed exile, north of where I lived, in what was at the time a somewhat suburban enclave.

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The Troubadour Coffee House pretty much as I remember it from the endless hours spent drinking coffee there. It is still in business although the owner, Bruce Rogerson who I knew well, died a number of years ago.

 

Opposed to Apartheid David had left South Africa without fulfilling his mandatory military commitment. He did not wish to fight on behalf of a country with politics he did not agree with, however his exile stung him and he opined on missing his homeland frequently. I did some reading up on Apartheid and I guess I couldn’t figure out why he’d want to go back to a country which sounded horrid to me – nor did exile in London sound especially bad. Admittedly, while very enamored of his exoticness, I was perhaps in my naiveté unfairly unsympathetic.

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Enlargement of an early pass carried by all individuals in South Africa under Apartheid – this is from the entrance to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.

 

However, where I encountered my real nexus of confusion was around David’s discomfort with interacting with actual black people. (We never discussed other races and I have no knowledge of his thoughts about let’s say Asians although they certainly suffered under the rules of Apartheid as well, and I now wonder if his unease extended to them.) In retrospect, all these years later I want to hope I can have more compassion for someone who was struggling to find his way out of the dubious lessons he was raised with, even if unable to fully transcend that formative training. Despite an inclination to support a view that was different from he how was raised, his discomfort with people of different races mingling was extremely uncomfortable for him and I was simply flummoxed by his inability to accept.

Needless to say, my interactions with the musicians and my new found fascination with High Life music was an insurmountable issue for him – he was horrified – and our relationship never really got out of the gate. It wouldn’t have anyway – we did not have much in common other than my romantic fascination with the exotic and whatever it was about me that had a passing fancy for him. I was just sizing the whole world up at that point.

We parted genially, but it stayed with me and to some degree I wrestled with it all through the subsequent latter part of the 1980’s and early 90’s as the fight against Apartheid received more international attention. Along with AIDs it became the a central political issue of my young adulthood, although to be frank I have never been politically active. Oddly, he wrote me a letter when I was back in the United States. It didn’t really say much as I remember and I can’t imagine why he did; perhaps the encounter with me continued to nag at him. He still was in the no man’s land between England and South Africa. I wrote back and never heard from him again. I remember wondering later if he was ever able to return home.

In some ways all this to say, while there is no excusing prejudice and everything about Apartheid was heinous, looking back I think my youth made me self-righteous in a way that I understand now was simplistic. We all want to believe we are free of the tribalism of whatever clan we claim, but the reality is more tangled than that. Even with the best intentions I think in reality we have to struggle to understand the other guy – whoever that is at the time. I know that better now that I am a few decades down the line. And that truth is far more uncomfortable to live with, but more real.

My friend Don’s business interacted largely with Nigeria and Ghana as I remember, and there had been an opportunity to travel to Nigeria with him but I could not come up with the money. I regretted the missed chance for years – it would have been fascinating to travel that way and a great introduction to that country. Although Don and I stayed in touch for a long time (he was at our wedding – our 19th anniversary is coming up in a week or so), he stopped traveling to this country post 9/11, when his Iranian place of birth on his passport (he was a naturalized Iranian of Armenian descent and faced painful prejudice his entire life which is its own story) became an entry issue each time he attempted to enter into the country.

Stern’s shut down the New York office of the company in the early 2000’s. They also had a location in San Paolo, Brazil which I believe may still be in existence as well as an online presence. I am unclear if they have a retail outlet in London although the location I knew on Warren Street was sold and redeveloped. Don removed himself from the daily operations of the business in the early 2000’s and was spending part of each year in Thailand in semi-retirement.

All came slowly back to me as I tried to unpack my resistance to this trip, confronting my discomfort, as well as some anticipation about finally setting foot on the continent of Africa for the first time. I have already gone on too long for today and I will attempt to tie up the story about my trip tomorrow.

London Fog, Chapter 1

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Window at Marchpane

Pam’s Pictorama Post: I am perched in a cramped hotel room as I start this. Tucked under the eaves in a huge, ancient building that is a labyrinth of stairs and hallways – I have gotten lost twice, perhaps the only times I have ever gotten lost in a hotel in a life that has incorporated a fair amount of far flung travel. This establishment also has the virtue, so to speak, of having been the coldest hotel room I was ever walked into when I arrived. (I managed to get heat into the room eventually – evidently Wynton could not and was rumored to have slept in his hat.) London has been experiencing extraordinarily bad weather, unused to snow and generally at a time when they might be expecting winter to start to break toward snowdrops, crocuses and spring, it snowed daily since I arrived earlier this week. Although total accumulation never exceeded several inches London was pretty much in shut down mode.

Let me back up a bit – I came to London to raise interest in (and of course money for) the Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra – my primary purpose was a party hosted by an the British arm of an interested fraternal organization. If having an event in another country wasn’t difficult enough (it is) then the snow was the final kicker for this one. I readily admit that I was already a bit frayed when I arrived and, despite London being one of my favorite cities in the world, the city I know best outside of New York, and one where I even had the advantage of speaking the language, the event details were onerous, multiplying hourly with the weather. (We spent days looking for a piano for the venue – no one would deliver one in the snow – then briefly, we had three, finally one.) I was very grateful to have an extremely capable colleague here with me helping to manage it all. Still, when you are off your game you just are and I have been – I commenced by mangling a series of, expensive, tube cards (first de-magnatizing one by placing it near my phone, then jamming another in a machine when I should have just waved it, lost the damn thing about a million times once I realized it couldn’t be near any magnets, credit cards or near my phone) and even lost my trousers after hurriedly changing before our event.

The first two nights of the trip ran very late – the time difference was in out favor however and therefore 1:00 and 2:00 AM respectively were doable for this early-to-bed and early-to-rise Pictorama Pam. However, despite exhaustion, the morning after our event I rallied and rose early for the Bermondsey flea market.

Bermondsey is in South London and the trip required some planning to execute, especially in my somewhat ham handed and under-caffeinated mental state. When I got there I had a long, snowy, cold walk to the flea market site. Despite Google and the cheerful blue moving dot on the map, I was unable to locate the market. Freezing and dripping with snow, I finally broke down and wandered into a cafe and purchased coffee and a bagel. Turns out that the flea market should have been within sight of the cafe – it had not opened that day because of the weather. I curled up with my hot coffee and regrouped.

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Bermondsey Cafe

 

I texted my contact at the Bulgari Hotel to see if I could locate my trousers (a delightful birthday purchase I had no intention of losing) and no one could. I took off to the hotel to see if I could find them myself. This took me to Central London where I could execute that and treat myself to a trip to Leicester Square to see if any of my favorite haunts survived the past decade of my neglect.

Trousers retrieved and in hand, a half hour later I found myself in a mews close to Leicester Square where I was pleased to find that a favorite antiquarian children’s bookseller, Marchpane, is still in residence – although sadly closed due to the inclement weather. The print dealer across the news told me that they had been shut all week – people having trouble getting in from outside of Central London – the snow really piling up out of town.

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Wet plate image from Victorian photos at the National Portrait Gallery, I believe by Oscar Rejlander

 

I restored my frazzled peace of mind by visiting some old favorites at the National Gallery as well as a splendid Victorian photography exhibit at the Portrait Gallery and a small exhibit on the British Sufragette. Afterward, on a whim, I routed myself through increasing snow, back past the bookstore. Blissfully, it had opened! Things were looking up at last. A charming young woman with mesmerizing tiny crystals highlighting her face like 21st century beauty marks, bright blue eyebrows and hair, and a very fetching black hat. For contrast, she sported canary yellow trousers and a blue velvet jacket – a woman after my own heart. Over the next 40 minutes or so I learned that she is Natalie Kay Thatcher – illustrator, book seller and writer (NatalieKayThatcher.com).

 

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Natalie poses for me at Marchpane!

 

I explained my mission – rather specifically cat-themed children’s books – and my sodden disappointment at the failure of Bermondsey to materialize that morning. She was evidently not the least bit surprised that someone would be traveling to London trying to acquire antique toy cats and related items. We commiserated about my bad luck, discussed collecting and toys and soon were thick as thieves. She even invited me to peer into a box of toys in the basement of the store – oh bliss! She brought out a delightful large stuffed bunny which was tempting (he is definitely someone – he was wearing trousers and a vest) to see if I knew anything about him. Glorious bunny, but my mission was very much cat today. Nonetheless, I felt my feathers finally start to un-ruffle as we discussed under-appreciated juvenile series – she is researching some interesting sounding, obscure wartime children’s literature. Pam’s Pictorama came up and so did Waldo – and lo and behold – she had read Alias the Cat! Now my cat collection made much more sense and had context.

We shared some girl talk and she called a friend and former employer in Covent Garden who owns a store specializing in toy theaters. Until recently the store also sold some antique toys. He was unloading a shipment though and it wasn’t clear if he would be available later. Meanwhile Natalie also unearthed not one, but two very splendid Louis Wain books. They were, not surprisingly, quite dear. One in particular caught my attention. I decided I should not be impulsive and went off to eat my lunch around the corner and think about it. I had an appointment in another part of town at 3:00 and had to watch the time. I decided that Covent Garden could wait until later in the day and reluctantly I took my leave, back out into the snow, the siren song of the Louis Wain book taking up residence in my head.

Nearby I passed by a hole-in-the-wall tea shop where I had eaten many meals, and was amazed to still find it there. Ultimately I passed it up in favor of a café located where another favorite place had been, but definitely different, and less dodgy looking than the tea shop. I curled up with hot soup and lots of hot tea to warm myself up and take stock. Talking to Natalie about Kim and the kitties and my delightful life in Manhattan made me a bit homesick but, at least briefly, left me restored by finding a kindred spirit out in the far flung world.