Chapter 5 The Tall Story
We, the human race have become detached from the inherent processes of evolution. Or at least, so we think. At some point between ape and upright humanoid, we have separated our development as a species from the demands of natural selection and while other species alter, change and morph into something different or become extinct, we remain largely the same as we pit our intellectual wits into our collective survival.
Take the food chain for example. The fact that we can go down to the supermarket and everything we need is there in chilled counters and rows of packaged goods, indicates that our world is organized collectively, often at the expense of other species and nature itself.
The food chain means something different in terms of supply and demand for us humans, than it does for the wild creatures of land, sea and the sky.
The creatures of the sea are a case in point. The small horse Mackerel swimming in Table Bay in shoals, lives on tiny bits of shrimp, plankton and sea borne detritus and its small size makes it the ideal food for the next size of fish, say ...the "geelbeck".
All this fish needs to do is swim along the surf line at a constant speed with its mouth open and "gips!" the little Mackerel is devoured and the "GEELBECK" is cruising for another.
Such is the focus of the Geelbeck on devouring another Mackerel it is unlikely that the cruising fish is in the least degree aware of what is going on around it and is especially unaware that it too, like the little Horse Mackerel, is also the focus of another bigger predator looking for lunch. This “unawareness” is, I believe a part of the mechanism prepared by nature whereby victims of the predator’s violent attack are so surprised by it all that they are instantly dispatched and the sensations of fear and pain are kept to a minimum. I say I believe but in reality the number of interviews held with Horse Mackerel and Geelbeck alike, are scarce so speculation is the best I can come up with.
The Geelbeck, therefore, cruises towards its next Horse Mackerel oblivious of the fact that behind him the slim line but deadly razor toothed hunter of the sea, the barracuda, has begun to accelerate with the singular intention of ripping a sizeable chunk off the geelbeck. In seconds the water is tainted by blood and churned into a froth. The combination of pieces of fish, gut, blood and scales that were once the Geelbeck, together with the vibrations of struggle as they extend into the surrounding waters becomes a fatal attraction for the biggest predator of all, the Great White shark, the ultimate predator who in its enthusiasm for fish pot pourri, does not really care what it is it will feast on. Its sheer power and turn of speed will see it demolish its prey with such totality that the victim will not know what hit it. And so the food chain has run its course from plankton, through the shrimp to the Horse Mackerel, the Geelbeck, the Barracuda and finally the White Shark, who at the top of the food chain, has no predator to fear except man.
Of course, regardless of the violence and supposed cruelty of this sequence of events, there is a certain clinical nature to this slaughter that minimizes the suffering and
reduces waist as when the hunger is satisfied, even the white shark shows little interest in the species swimming around it.
That is where man is different. When man is top of the food chain, the other species can see their fete coming a mile off and suffering is often a part of their pitiful existence.
The French restaurant with lobster and fish in a tank at the entrance to the dining room, is a case in point.
The intrepid diner has the opportunity to choose from the creatures before his or her very eyes, which lobster or zander is to be slaughtered and delivered on a platter with the prestigious name “plateau fruit de mer”.
What goes through the creature’s mind as it inspects the person who will shortly devour it as it nestles in its very own “jus”!
“Rubbish” I hear you say,” sea creatures have no feelings, they are not people!”
I recall in my youth in Cape Town enduring the culinary process of cooking crayfish. The pot of boiling water stood like a volcanic geezer on the stove and the live crayfish were plunged in. At the point of entry a shrill scream could be heard as if to encapsulate the sheer fear and pain the creature was enduring.
“Nonsense”, came the chef’s reply, “the moment the crayfish hits the water it is dead and the scream is the noise of air being forced out from under the shell as it expands from the heat. Crayfish, as we all know, have no vocal chords so they cannot scream!”
“Well, that’s alright then. I’ll take two. Dankie, hoor!”
Not that the screams and arguments for and against will be heard for much longer now! The two fruits of the sea most closely associated with the Cape of Good Hope, the Crayfish and the Abalone are becoming so scarce that extinction might be the order of the day, month and year, for eternity. Paternal responsibilities were a difficult thing for my parents in the early sixties. They ran a hotel in a suburb of Cape Town called Mowbray. The hotel, “The Royal Standard” still stands and prospers but being at the corner of a main road and a side road in suburbia, it was no place for young children.
While my father ran the bars and overall management of the hotel, my mother ran the domestic side. My memories are vague and somewhat confused at this distance but certain characters stand out. There was Ted who made Cornish pasties on a Friday morning, various Springbok rugby players who worked for the brewery who signed my rugby ball and there was a chef whose name I do not recall who could produce a roast potato like non other I have tasted since. But most importantly, there was Betty.
Betty was a Cape Malay lady who had been dislodged from her family home in District Six. She had relocated to a corrugated iron and plastic shanty on the Cape Flats and needed to rise at 4 in the morning to battle her way on buses and trains to get to work and similarly relived the struggle home to arrive there anywhere between 9 and 11 o’clock at night. She had family of her own and this daily slog was a necessity for the survival of her loved ones.
My father, often drove her to her township to help her avoid the monotony and danger of her journey but he could never proceed beyond a certain point where Betty would thank him, leave the car and disappear with her bags and packages into the gloom of the night. Her reasoning was always that to go beyond this point would be too dangerous for Peta, her name for my father.
“R” s were never her strong point as she, like many of her Cape Malay cousins, was missing her two front upper teeth. It always puzzled me as to why this should be?
It was only later in life that I learned that a gap in the smile was considered a mark of beauty in both men and women and perfectly good teeth were removed at a young age. It is also considered an aid to the “French Kiss” and is sometimes referred to as the Cape Malay “Passion Gap”.
It also impacted on me later on in life why a woman whose life had been turned upside down by a policy that uprooted her family and dumped them in one of the most inhospitable places on the Cape Flats, would want to protect my father’s well being over her own when she could rather have shown resentment, anger and hostility to a “white man”, the racially segregated and therefore clearly identified “aggressor”.
It was about this time in the early 1960s that a plot is said to have been hatched on the part of Umkonto We Sizwa (The Spear of the Nation), the military wing of African opposition to Apartheid, to get every house maid to a white household, to go to work on a certain day, with a bottle of metholated spirits and a box of matches and set fire at a given time to the sitting room furnishings. Such would be the conflagration, that the emergency services would be swamped. 80% of Cape Town would be burned to the ground and the anger and distress of the disadvantaged people of the Cape would be avenged!
The reality is, however, that while it could have happened with devastating consequences for human life and the direction of the country, it never did. It is a reality too, that those days are remembered for events like “Sharpville” where the Government abused its people and not the other way round.
I attribute this event as having never taken place to the individual response to this deed and Betty is a case in point. That common humanity that would later create a nation that is South Africa today with all its tensions and stresses, was the life force that made the equation “two wrongs do not make a right” a reality for my generation.
Because my brothers and I were confined to a Hotel during school holidays, it fell to Betty to keep us in tow and to look after us. She would on occasions take us on excursions around the Cape, using buses and trains. One such excursion took us by train in the direction of Simons Town, a naval port for the South African Navy.
There are many things that can take the attention of a 7 or 8 year old on a day trip by train. Baboons are a favorite animal of mine and seeing them on the rocks as the train trundles by, sticks in the mind. So too are the yachts of Muizenberg and amazing and vivid gardens at Kirstenbosch. As grand as these are, none stands out in the memory as vividly as seeing an enormous spotted dog sitting outside of its equally enormous kennel.
Like the “Snoekiebar” on Houtbay harbour, This has long disappeared and I was only reminded of it many years later in London when an article appeared in the “Times” newspaper with a picture of the Dog and kennel and the question:
“Does anyone remember Spotty the Dog?” The question pressed an emotional button as people from all over the United Kingdom withdrew this item from their childhood memories.
Built in the 1930s, it was an early “fast food” outlet selling its foods and drinks through a hatch. The public response was significant even for a paper emanating from a foreign country. The structure was
in fact remembered little for its
food outlet, but rather for its eye
catching design and its stark
contrast with its surroundings and were
implanted in my memory along with my
memory of Betty and as incomplete as
those memories are, they remain precious
to this day.
And what of Betty’s “District Six”. Much of its charm that caused artists to come from all over the world to capture its atmosphere, has succumbed to the brutality of the bulldozer steered by the heavy hand of an oppressive regime. Not that its inhabitants stood aside and watched it happen without resistance. Virtually the only buildings which could not be moved or destroyed were places of worship and it was from these that opposition was to be inspired. One such edifice was the Anglican Church of St Marks. Successive vicars between the late 1960s and the fall of the Apartheid regime rejected all attempts to offer compensation for the removal of the Church and its rebuilding, stone by stone in a new location called Athlone. This fact is commemorated on a stone plaque to be found outside the church today and the Church is a place of pilgrimage as much for its sense of and commitment to the community as it is for its stance against the oppressor.
It is true and gratifying too, that the community that was evident in “district Six” was not snuffed out by these events and although changed, it remains a central part of the atmosphere and character of that great city.