From David Maughan Brown in York: Christmas 2020

Occasional poet and novelist since retiring as Deputy Vice-Chancellor of York St John University in 2013

30th December

So Christmas has come and gone and, like so many of the paradoxes this strange and difficult year has thrown up, ended up, thanks to modern technology, being as social as any we’ve ever had, in spite of our being largely socially isolated and, for the couple of hours when we weren’t, maintaining a very careful social distance.  Present-opening in Cape Town over breakfast; followed by present-opening in Sheffield; followed by present-opening on my son’s lawn in York, as the temperature warily edged its way up to 3C.  Followed by mulled wine and snacks round a brazier for an hour on a friend’s lawn; then Bingo with all children and grandchildren in the afternoon; and a 90 minute chat with my four siblings and partners variously in Johannesburg, Namibia, Devon and Washington DC to end the day.  So another grand conjunction: this time between Zoom and the weather gods’ cloudlessly sunny day.

Christmas 2020 for us seemed to be characterized by a particular generosity of spirit which came partly perhaps from a recognition and thankfulness that our family has so far been one of the lucky ones that hasn’t been too badly affected by Covid19.  The only slight shadow on the horizon was the persistence of the underlying worry that my son-on-law was due to go back on duty as an A&E consultant in Sheffield in the evening, and that for some peculiar reason, unlike NHS staff in some hospitals elsewhere, the hospital staff in Sheffield have not been prioritized for the vaccine.   While stories abound of the vaccine being sent out to GPs for the prioritised elderly – whose continued existence provides living demonstration that they can self-isolate perfectly well – and the GPs not being able to use it all on the elderly, so calling in their friends and relatives to jump the age-priority queue, those NHS staff putting their lives at risk in our hospitals every day are being bumped down the queue.

The spirit of generosity that informed our Christmas was introduced for me this year by a Christopher Duigan concert we enjoyed shortly before Christmas.  In my entry on July 18th I wrote at some length about the hour-long piano concerts live-streamed via You Tube twice-weekly from his house in Pietermaritzburg that have been among the relatively few highlights of a year’s social isolation.   At one point during the Christmas concert it was reported on a corner of the screen that 462 people currently subscribe to Christopher’s concerts; they deserve to have many thousands more.  The Christmas concert saw Christopher being joined by Bongiwe Madlala, a brilliant Zulu soprano who gives concerts with Christopher on a fairly regular basis in normal times, although we haven’t had the pleasure of hearing her before. During the course of the hour, she told Christopher that it was the first time she had sung for an audience of any kind since March.   The concert consisted mainly of well known arias sung by Bongiwe, interspersed with classical piano pieces and a bit of improvisation from Christopher, ending with a couple of Christmas carols.  I found the fusion of Western culture and African culture almost unbearably poignant at times.  Where cultural artefacts were concerned, there was, in fact, relatively little that was African:  the Zulu lullaby, ‘Thula, thula, baba’, and one verse of ‘Silent Night’ sung in isiZulu.  But the warmth and humanity of Bongiwe’s singing, and the whole ambience of the concert, felt to me to be quintessentially African and richly redolent of ‘Ubuntu’, variously interpreted as ‘A person is a person through other people’ and ‘I am, or we are, because you are.’ 

Bongiwe Madladla’s voice has a richness and strength, but also a warmth tenderness, that convey the humanity and concern for others that Ubuntu seems to be all about, which harmonizes perfectly with the care that Christopher and his partner Barry take to ensure that the visual context out of which the music flows via the live-stream is as richly appealing as the music is itself.  The backdrop to the music – the colourful wall-hangings, the paintings, the assortment of large, beautifully framed mirrors, the brilliant displays of orchids, or, for Christmas, poinsettias – is subtly changed for every programme.   There is a painstaking, deeply thoughtful, attention to detail, to making the whole sensory experience of sight and sound as beautiful as possible, that reflects a gratuitous generosity: people tune in for the music, and Christopher’s informal commentary, the visuals are a bonus, an unasked for gift.  And what a gift that concert was.

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