Monday, April 27, 2015

A forgotten Boer War ammunitions factory in Belgium

History is often forgotten.

In our book Deception Days (available on Amazon)
Vronsky and I mention an ammunitions factory that existed around 1899-1902 in Brussels where cartridges were produced for the war between Britain and the old Transvaal Republic of President Kruger.

That area of Brussels then became known as Transvaal - as can be seen from the photograph above, showing the old Transvaal Street (Rue du Transvaal), now known as Avenue Albert Meunier.

The ruins of the Uldarique Marga ammunitions factory now lie forgotten in the Soignes Forest nearby. It is at those ruins where some of the action of Deception Days takes place.

There  was a also a tram to Transvaal in Brussels which ran right into the 1970's.


Thursday, April 2, 2015

Deception Days the book now out

This book of faction is available world-wide on all Amazon sites now as an eBook and printed book. Other outlets will follow later in the year. 

Some time ago I wrote a book based on events discovered by I. Vronsky, an Iron Curtain intelligence man in South Africa in the 1990's. Now readers have the insider's tale here in Deception Days. 
To purchase Deception Days on Amazon Click here

To follow Vronsky on Twitter Click here

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The piano

This appeared as part of my regular column in the Afrikaans newspaper Beeld in Johannesburg on 27 April 2013
Lies are often just bent truths. Truths are never bent lies.

President Nixon for example bent the truth quite seriously during the Watergate scandal but then he straightened the curve of lies very nicely with the remark that, if you want to play beautiful music, you have to play the black and white notes together.
The universe does not exist of black holes only and neither of white light on its own. It is like Nixon’s music not bent but together. Okay, unless you are an Einstein nit-picker.
So, as a small heart beating speck in the universe I recently stood in an old age retirement village in Hermanus, a coastal town on the southern tip of Africa, and I gazed at the black and white keys on Erna’s piano. Erna is in her eighties and her piano, an Otto Müller with two built-in chandeliers and beautiful inlaid wood, was imported via Durban from Berlin in the 1800’s. This piano had an interesting musical role in the gravitational whirlpools and explosive flashes of the South Africa War of 1899-1902 between Britain and the Boer republics.

“My grandmother Gerhardina was sixteen years old when the English arrived at the family farm between Harrismith and Memel. You probably know that the Boer men were guerrillas in the field while the women and children stayed at home and that the British had a scorched earth policy at the time. Destroying farm houses and possessions got rid of the support for the men.”
Yes I knew.

“Well, the Tommies chased Gerhardina, her mother and the other children out of the house to burn down the homestead. The sixteen year old Gerhardina pleaded with the officer not to destroy her piano. He thought for a moment and replied that, if she played him something, he might consider it.”
I think of my own daughter Karen and her love of music.

“So the soldiers took out the piano and plonked it outside and do you know what she played? Home Sweet Home. And you know what? Suddenly there was a moment of peace in the war – peace between Gerhardina and the officer,” Erna said. “The officer burst out in tears. The piano was saved.”
Afterwards I Google the lyrics: Mid pleasures and palaces though I may roam, be it ever so humble, there's no place like home.

Black and white notes weaving together, interlacing opposite homes in a war.
“It must have been Home Sweet Home on this piano that also persuaded the officer not to take the family to a tented concentration camp, which was the norm then, but to allow them to stay on at the burnt down house. The ruins were close to the Drakensberg mountains. So, for the rest of the war, the women lived in a cave.”

“And the piano?”
“The farm workers, who were all black people of course, took pity on the white family and took the piano into their kraal, their very basic living quarters.”

The thought occurs to me, did the fingers of little children in that kraal also discover the joy of music on the white and black piano keys?
“For the duration of the war those same farm workers took food to the cave and fed my granny Gerhardina and her family. And after the war Gerhardina got her piano back from the workers.”

What a lesson.
Not only did black and white notes on a piano in Hermanus create peace between Boer and Brit, it also created a bond of trust between Black and White. Half a century before Apartheid became formal policy.

Today music is still the true, untouchable band of peace between people of all races.
Maybe it should be used more.

When a rock disappears in a tornado

This appeared as a column in the Afrikaans newspaper Beeld on 30 March 2013
You do not have to be a trained demographic bush tracker to know that the footprints of the South African diaspora cover the whole world.
For eleven years I was part of the diaspora, leaving my own South African tracks in the neighbourhood where Elizabeth II and Philip live in the rooms above their shop in London. In the process the South African newspapers carried eight years of my Afrikaans columns as Letters from Britain.
But now things have changed.
And one way of explaining it is by referring to the Mossel Bay Weather Station — which is a rock the size of a football dangling from a rope on the Mossel Bay golf course in South Africa, about four hours by car from Cape Town. Next to the rock is a sign proclaiming it to be the Mossel Bay Weather Station with the following words:
If the rock is wet ... it’s raining
If the rock is swaying ... it’s windy
If the rock is hot ... it’s sunny
If the rock is cool ... it’s overcast
If the rock is white ... it’s snowing
If the rock is blue ... it’s cold
If the rock is gone ... it’s a tornado
It is a meteorological fact that that, from time to time, we all have to weather personal storms in our lives. In recent months just such a personal tornado slurped me into its funnel, took me away from Britain and dumped me in sunny South Africa. This means that this is my last Letter from Britain.
So what is the lesson you learn when you leave your country and then return after 11 years?
Let me start with a story that my grandmother told me when I was young of something that happened to the when she was about six or seven years old.
She grew up on a farm in the district of Philippolis where the family and is the problem in their home. Every night a ghost with a voice that screeched like white chalk on a blackboard ran down the dark central corridor and  giggled as it floated through doors and straight through walls. This phantom of the farm was quite a nuisance. It would come around to her bed at night , drag a chain over her legs and then move on to bother the rest of the family.
Her mum and dad spoke at length and then decided. They just had to get away from the ghost. They had to move.
At the time the family did not own a horseless carriage, in other words a car. So they loaded all their worldly goods in their ox wagon.
With the house completely empty and everything crammed into their wagon the local hawker arrived in a dust bowl of horse hoofs and carriage.
“Hey, what’s happening here?” he asked.
It was then that the canvas flap at the back of the ox wagon slowly opened, the ghost stuck out its head and said: “We’re moving!”
So that is the diasporical lesson for everyone who leaves a country.
You never move alone. Your ghosts always accompany you. You might have left South African but skeletons in your closet move with you to Perth, Paris or Phnom Penh.
And the funny thing is that, when you return, you bring new ghosts from the other side to Pretoria, Paarl and Phalaborwa.
Dreams are very much like small personal movies. In a way your memories of a country are merely personal movies of your own personal ghosts.


Saturday, February 23, 2013

Culinary horse-trading

This appeared as my regular column in Afrikaans in the newspaper Beeld on 23 February 2013 in South Africa

I think it could have been Ian Fleming who said: “Horses are uncomfortable in the middle and dangerous at both ends”.
Indeed. A horse can be quite frightening.  Just think of the man in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather who woke up in terror with a horse’s decapitated head in the bed next to him.

But now a horse of a different colour has everyone in Britain galloping around in circles after it leaked that illicit horse meat had found its way into beef products. It is as if the average Brit suddenly woke up with a jolt of horror at the sight of a frozen Godfather burger or meat lasagne next to him or her in bed.
The ripples of this meat pollution story have now spread Europe-wide but, aside from the fraud and false labelling of cheap meat, I really do not understand all the fuss.

But wait, before every John Wayne and Wyatt Earp saddle up to come and hunt me down, I am not saying that people should eat their means of transportation. Not even with mustard and tomato ketchup. No medicine can cure the indigestion you will have if you ate your Raleigh bicycle or your Honda 50cc.  The thing is, in our new iWhine Age, horses are not general means of transport any more.  This hidden meat, which seemed to have entered the country like asylum seekers from countries like Romania, remains faceless meat just like the faceless cattle on our shelves. It is not as if you are barbecuing Billy your bottle-fed lamb or turning Cocky cockatiel into a kebab.  
On top of that, Brits eat weirder things than Radu from Romania’s Trusty Trotter.

Think of the Scottish “delicacy” Haggis – the minced heart, liver and lungs of a sheep mixed with oat meal, animal fats and onions which are then boiled with a pinch of salt and pepper in a sheep’s stomach for a few hours.  Aromatic, rich and tasty. Except in spoil sports USA where deep lung food is banned. Many Scots want to leave the United Kingdom. Haggis might serve as an excellent reason to accept that.
And what about Britain’s favourite breakfast dish Black Pudding? – a mixture of congealed pig’s blood, fat and oat meal in the form of a sausage? I do not like it when people throw food around but I am prepared to make an exception in the case of Black Pudding.  I can quite understand the annual  World Black Pudding Throwing Championships which takes place in Ramsbottom near Manchester. The rule? Kind of reverse cricket. You may only use underarm throwing.

Then there is Spotted Dick which, yes indeed, has a below-the-belt origin as a name. It is actually just steamed pudding with raisins but quite popular in hospitals so that guys could say: “Oh, Nursy, for lunch, could you please give me a Spotted Dick” In 2001 Gloucester’s hospital authority renamed it as Spotted Richard but then had to re-rename it within a year back to Spotted Dick.
As long ago as 1135 King Henry I died of food poisoning due to a “surfeit of lamprey” – small, blood-sucking eels that hang onto other fish as parasites.
Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation pie in 1953 was made from the same suck jaw lampreys. And recently, in celebration of her 60 years on the throne,  the grateful people of (Spotted Richard) Gloucester sent Queen Elizabeth – yes, you are right – a lamprey pie.
Close to where I live the three star Michelin restaurant The Fat Duck serves snail porridge. At least it is not parasitic.

My view.
I am not afraid of any meat lasagne in my bed and I prefer a horse burger with chips over a fried parasite with congealed pig’s blood.

And I do not need to have my head read for that.





Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The proliferation of weapons of mass wishes — or why Craig wishes that his get-well wishes could just end

This appeared on 25 January 2013 as a column in the South African newspaper Beeld

The South African writer Langenhoven (1873-1932) once said that only hardworking horses become exhausted.

However, I believe that lazy horses are often clever enough to choose a shortcut to save energy. Stupid laziness, like idle hands, might be the devil’s workshop but might really be the cause of exhaustion. In my view, intelligent laziness is the mother of innovation. It leads the world in the right direction.

It could have only been a lazy prehistoric person who did not want to walk anymore and who could have come up with the idea of devising the wheel.

And the automobile was a brilliant, brand-new alternative for lazy people who could not stand the tedium anymore of feeding hard-working horses bent on exertion.

It was laziness that transformed Isaac Newton’s calculations on paper into finger tapping ease on smartphones and morphed Shakespeare’s quill pen and ink stained fingers into today’s word processing programmes which can spellcheck you even if you write about poltergeist spirits in Sanskrit.

I mention these things because I noticed how, during the last festive season, the Christmas cards of my childhood had been overtaken by digital cyber cards via the Internet. Nowadays you do not even have to overexert yourself with an illegible scribble on a piece of paper. Just press a button and send an animated cyber message of gentle snowflakes, flying reindeer and jingling sleigh bells in stereo. Seriously lazy.

But then the world's first commercially printed Christmas card was also the product of a true sluggard. An Englishman.

In 1843 a Londoner, Sir Henry Cole, was so fed-up with scribbling personal messages to family and friends that he asked his friend the artist John Calcott Horsely to design what would become the world's first printed Christmas card. This card bore the message:  “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you.” In those years “merry” meant “blessed.    

Unfortunately the law of unintended consequences came down like a tonne of Victorian bricks. 

Horsely, who was also known as “Clothes-Horsely" because of his campaign against the use of nude models by artists, designed his card with an image of well-dressed people enjoying an abundance of food and drink, including a child swigging a glass of wine.

And that made the British anti-alcohol temperance movement drunk with fury. 

In the end Sir Henry Cole’s unused cards somehow landed up in the general market. And that created a pleasant future for postmasters who from then on got to handle avalanches of greeting cards right through the year from naughty English beach cards to get-well messages. A new world of communication.

But then, once again more recently, Cole’s laziness led to the law of unintended consequences coming down on a certain Craig Shergold in England.

At the age of nine Craig was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Friends and acquaintances then started a chain letter requesting people to send him get-well-soon cards so that he could make it as an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Craig made it into the Guinness Book of World Records but an American billionaire heard of him, took him to the USA and paid for operations which cured him.

Today Craig Shergold is a healthy 33-year old but the cards are still cascading in daily. To such an extent that he has by now received an estimated 350 million cards. The Royal Mail has even given him his own post code in Surrey.

He rarely appears in public other than to now and then request that people should now please stop sending him cards but unfortunately there are too many dumb, Langenhoven type, hardworking horses who do not want to become exhausted and the flood of cards remains unstoppable.

That is why I valued my handful of cyber cards during the last festive season.
Nice and lazy. Better.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Nkandla is not exactly an African Chequers

This appeared as a column in the Johannesburg Afrikaans newspaper Beeld on 24 November 2012.

Winston Churchill once said: “Out of intense complexities, intense simplicities emerge.”
In my mind his words could very well apply to the current Nkandla house debacle in South Africa with allegations in the media and in Parliament that around £18 million of taxpayers’ funds have been spent on South African President Zuma’s private country residence. Thinking of Churchill, I become simply intensely tired trying to compare the complexities around Nkandla with Chequers, the country residence of British Prime Ministers since 1921.
And my tiredness is probably very apt as the web site of the Nkandla Municipality states that Nkandla is derived from the Zulu word “khandla” which means “tired, exhausted” after King Shaka arrived there once and complained that he was totally clapped out.
I believe I am in a position to compare first-hand the Tired Nkandla House with Chequers because I have, for the past seven years, been a member of Ellesborough Golf Club, built on the original Chequers property. Since 1921 every British Prime Minister was given honorary membership of the golf club although not all of them utilised the benefit. Harold Wilson was a club regular and Denis Thatcher manly stood in for Margaret at our bar but for guys like Gordon Brown and Tony Blair golf clubs were about as weird as ballet shoes for a big game hunter. Of course President  Zuma’s tired Nkandla home has no golf course like that of Chequers where ex-President Bill Clinton once interrupted himself by scaling a low fence on the first fairway into a garden to surprise a bride and groom as a gate crasher at their marriage reception.
In contrast with the financial quicksand surrounding Nkandla, the origin of Chequers is rooted in good financial management. It was named after a previous owner in the 12th century who worked for the Exchequer, the British government department responsible for tax collection and tax management.  The Exchequer got its name in return from a cloth laid across a large table, 10 feet by 5 feet with a high lip, upon which counting tokens were placed representing various values. The name referred to the resemblance of the table to a chess board (French: échiquier).
Unfortunately Nkandla has a different type of  “checkered” background.
It is a fact that many politicians in the world often find it “incovenient” (maybe the word could be “tiresome”) to be poor. British Prime Ministers, on the other hand, kept to the Chequers tradition of good money management.
When Margaret Thatcher discovered that it cost £5000 per year to heat the Chequers swimming pool she shattered her poor daughter’s dream of having her own year-round private pool by switching off the boiler. Zuma’s Nkandla differs a little from that because it has loads of air-conditioning units at polite cough there a slightly higher cost than Thatcher’s heating.
Unlike Zuma’s Tired Complex, Chequers is not the asset of any private individual and it has only 10 bedrooms. Margaret Thatcher even kicked her own daughter out of her bedroom to provide a bed for the Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi.
Security? Chequers has low fences with a few video surveillance cameras and a public footpath which cuts through the property. Ramblers and their dogs have a lovely view of the house. Slightly different from Nkandla I suspect.
South Africa’s Nkandla has no connection with British behaviour but Chequers has an interesting link with South Africa.
High up on Coombe Hill on the original property with a superb view of my golf club and the estate, there is a monument honouring  148 soldiers of Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire who died in the South African Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. And in true South African tradition thieves even stole the monument’s bronze plaque in 1972.
Chequers with the monument to fallen soldiers in South Africa on the hill.
Looking at the financial mess of large amounts of South African tax payer money allegedly having been spent on a personal home, would it not be better if present and future South African Presidents rather used a Chequers type of country home without a hint of private interest?  
And what about a monument on that property for South Africans who flew in the Battle of Britain?
No wait a moment.
That might just be too complex, even for a simple Churchillian solution.
Nkandla with a few more houses than Chequers's bedrooms