From David Maughan Brown in York: Wind and fire

Jagger Library Reading Room: Before

April 21st

It was with a visceral sense of shock and loss that I watched video footage of buildings on the upper campus of the University of Cape Town, and the Jagger Library in particular, going up in flames over the weekend.  A ‘vagrant’s’ cooking fire had got out of control on the slopes of the mountain above the university, a strong North Westerly ‘Berg’ wind had blown the flames down through the tinder-dry brush and the pine trees on the slopes of Devil’s Peak, consuming the restaurant at the Rhodes Memorial, and on down the mountain to set fire to a number of university buildings, including two of the residences and the Jagger Library.  The fire jumped De Waal drive and destroyed Mostert’s Mill, one of the best known landmarks in Cape Town, built in 1796 and until Sunday the oldest surviving mill in South Africa.   4,000 students had to be evacuated from the campus.  There was a lull in the wind on Sunday evening before it changed direction to become a violent South Easterly that blew the fire round the flank of Devil’s Peak and onto the lower slopes of Table Mountain, threatening the suburbs above the Cape Town city centre.

The library collection dates back to 1829.  My mother went to UCT in the late 1920s; three of my four siblings and I were students there in the 1960s and early 1970s; all three of my children and two of their partners were students there in the 1990s.   Apart from my mother, who lived in one of the residences that caught fire but who was a student before the Jagger Library was completed, we will all have spent time in that library, so the loss feels directly personal.  

Although the full extent of the losses and damage has still to be assessed, it is clear that much of the African Studies collection, housed in the reading room, including the entirety of its film collection has been lost.  A loss I feel particularly acutely as a former Professor of African Literature. The film collection was the most extensive one of its kind anywhere, with over 3,000 films available for research and viewing.  Fire doors and shutters were triggered and did come down to shut off parts of the university’s collections, but it is not yet known how much damage has been done by the intense heat.  It can only be hoped that the collection of very rare books has survived.  This includes, by way of example, a copy of a 1535 Dutch Bible, believed to be the oldest in South Africa, in an edition that was suppressed with almost all the copies burned and the publisher condemned to death for its publication, and a copy of the first book to contain photographic illustrations, William Henry Fox Talbot’s Pencil of Nature, published in 1844.  The oldest book in the collection is said to be by a first century Roman historian and moralist, Valerius Maximus, titled Facta et dicta memorabilium, published in Mainz in 1471 by Peter Schöffer, who took over Gutenberg’s press.    So there was, and one hopes still is, much to treasure.

The botany building that houses the Bolus Herbarium, the oldest functioning herbarium in South Africa, was also seriously damaged.  Although the herbarium appears to have survived, the Plant Conservation Unit, where researchers tracked changes in climate by studying fossilized pollen and comparing historical photos with current-day images, has, according to the unit’s leader Timm Hoffman, a historical ecologist, been totally destroyed.

South Africa is one of the countries of the world in line to be worst affected by climate change.  The last time we visited Cape Town, some 18 months ago, the Cape Peninsula was just coming out of a three year drought so bad that at one point the entire city had come within four weeks of having the water mains shut down, and as adults we were effectively rationed to using 35 litres of water a day.   The winter that followed saw ‘normal’ rainfall re-established and enabled the dams and reservoirs to fill up again, but the summer just ending has been very hot and dry and the temperature on Sunday was an unseasonal 36 degrees centigrade.  Given the prolonged period of drought, and the backdrop of global warming, one might have expected additional precautions to have been taken to protect the University campus from wildfires on the mountain by extending the firebreaks, but this would appear not to have happened.  There have been very many wildfires on the slopes above the university since the first buildings were erected on its current site more than a hundred years ago, and none has ever affected the university badly before, but the point about global warming is that events such as this are becoming increasingly likely, which makes suitable measures to combat them the more imperative.

The University of Cape Town is, by all measures, Africa’s premier university.  I find myself wondering whether the absence of any coverage of the devastating damage caused by this wildfire from any of the news broadcasts I have seen here, in stark contrast to the coverage of the wildfires in Australia and California in recent years, can be attributed to the fact that this wildfire didn’t kill anyone, although several fire-fighters have been injured, to the fact that it only damaged a university rather than much in the way of residential property, or simply because Africa is perceived not really to matter much.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Not just another Birthday


29th November

Yesterday saw yet another lockdown birthday come and go.  This time it was my own.  In many respects the contrast from one year to the next could hardly have been be starker.  Last year I spent the day with my younger son, Brendan’s, family in Cape Town, enjoying the already significant warmth of early summer two days before we flew back for Christmas in York.  The last week of November in South Africa always saw the first lychees coming into the shops and one of my annual birthday rituals, which was duly observed, was to enjoy our first lychees of the season.  Yesterday the temperature in York didn’t rise above two degrees Celsius at any point during a murky winter’s day.  Not only did it not feel like lychee weather but I didn’t set foot outside the house all day.  Being all too well aware that I wouldn’t really get to see, never mind hug, my York and Sheffield grandchildren or their parents, and that the day would see us feeling very isolated, I hadn’t been looking forward to it with any great enthusiasm.  But I hadn’t been taking due consideration of my wife and family’s determination to make sure it was a memorably enjoyable, and paradoxically social, day.

It started with breakfast/brunch shared with the family in Cape Town.  Brendan had organised a globalised breakfast for us with Anthony doing the buying and Zoom overseeing the sharing.  The main component was a nostalgic fruit salad consisting of mango, grapes, strawberries and passion fruit.   During the course of the breakfast, I unwrapped presents intended, according to the accompanying card, for ‘a relaxed afternoon’, consisting of a 1kg bag of dry roasted peanuts, four assorted bottles of craft cider and perry, and a copy of Barack Obama’s 750 page long memoir A Promised Land.  Not being a speed-reader, never mind a speed eater or drinker, the relaxed afternoon will extend into very many more than the single one envisaged.  I’ve already dipped very fleetingly into the Obama memoir – humane, articulate and elegantly written – which will keep me going for several weeks and raises, again, the question of how on earth the same country could elect two such polar opposite Presidents within four years.

Breakfast was followed by morning tea, again courtesy of Zoom, with Sarah’s family in Sheffield, with the opening of more presents, some exquisitely crafted birthday cards and a copy of a strikingly mature poem about winter written by the eight-year old younger of my two granddaughters.  I was told to expect a similar Zoom call with Sheffield in the afternoon, but when Susan called me over to her laptop at tea-time I was surprised to find the screen filled with an even more globalised gallery-view of all my siblings and their partners as well as Anthony and Sarah’s families: Johannesburg, Washington DC, Exeter and Swakopmund in Namibia being represented, as well as Sheffield and York.  Last year our interactions consisted of brief phone-calls and/or WhatsApp messages; yesterday we spent a very pleasant  hour catching-up, and agreed to do the same at Christmas.  Over the course of the day a couple of phone-calls had come in from friends and 10 greetings messages had come in for me on the extended family WhatsApp group from various nephews and nieces.

Dinner was again shared on Zoom, scheduled to allow the Cape Town contingent to get home from the party that had kept them from being included in the afternoon’s gathering.  Anthony had circulated a menu in advance (see illustration), I had made my choices which he had prepared, in the case of the excellent Irish chowder with our eldest grandson, twelve-year old James, as leading chef.  Anthony had sent the same menu, with recipes, to Brendan and Sarah so that they could prepare their own choices.  We all dressed as we would to go out, enjoyed a great meal, and spent two hours in each other’s company.  It didn’t take long before one simply stopped noticing that the company was ‘virtual’.   

The day was, on reflection, a testament to people’s capacity to adapt to changed circumstances.   I saw members of our children’s families in person for perhaps five minutes during the day when Kate and two of the children came round to give birthday wishes from a safe distance in person, and Anthony and James came to deliver the dinner.   But far from its being an isolated-feeling lockdown birthday it was probably the most sociable and, where members of the extended family are concerned, inclusive birthday of my adult life – thanks to the good offices of Zoom and WhatsApp, and the love, care and thoughtfulness of close family and friends.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Kilometre-long queues

June 6th

Another York family birthday, this time it’s grandson James turning 12.  Another expedition across town along ‘half-known roads’ to go through the increasingly familiar ritual of putting a bag of presents on the doorstep and wishing him a socially-distanced Happy Birthday when he appeared in the doorway.  Definitely no hugs.  The sense of loss that comes with not being able to share the special days in person rather than via Zoom doesn’t lessen with the repetition.  This time no lingering either as it was raining and an ‘unseasonal’ North wind was blowing.  ‘Unseasonal’ is another word that could do with some scrutiny these days.   After the wettest February on record and the driest May on record, it feels as if we could be in for the windiest June on record, if anyone tries to keep that particular record.  It is almost as if the 2020 weather is as discombobulated as the rest of us by what is, or more probably isn’t, going on. When everything becomes ‘unseasonal’ it might be time to consider what it means to be ‘seasonal’.   In the meantime I would appreciate it if somebody could work out how to lock the wind down, as my roses are not enjoying it one little bit, welcome as the rain is. The drought-breaking shower I celebrated a few days ago didn’t even begin to penetrate the rock-hard soil on the allotment.

At least the weather in Cape Town appears to be doing what it should, the winter rain is back and had we been locked down there, which we came very close to being, we wouldn’t have had make do with the 35 litres of water per adult per day which was our allowance on our last two water-restricted visits.  That relatively close shave lends itself to ongoing comparisons of lockdown experiences in our Zoom chats with our family in Cape Town.  

Yesterday my son mentioned that a couple of days after the South African government had lifted its lockdown ban on alcohol and tobacco sales he had driven past a not very rigorously socially-distanced kilometre-long queue outside a local liquor store.   The South African government, which in general responded to the pandemic vastly better than ours has, banned alcohol and tobacco sales when it imposed the lockdown, arguing that alcohol and social-distancing were not good companions.  That may well be true, but it doesn’t take any account of addiction, and although the profits of online wine merchants increased dramatically in the first weeks of lockdown in the UK, the lockdown regulations here were generally adhered to reasonably well.  The tobacco ban took no account of the history of such prohibitions and instantly created a thriving black-market for criminal gangs to exploit. An abrupt ban on a previously legal and easily accessible addictive substance is not well advised, to put it mildly. 

When it came to kilometre-long queues, however, I wasn’t in any position to brag about the wisdom of our recent performance on that front.  People who queue outside a liquor store for a couple of hours at least have something to show for their patience when they finally get to their destination.  Our democratic representatives in the House of Commons have recently been forced into a kilometre-long, socially distanced queue in order to be able to cast their votes on our behalf.  The infinitely more sensible casting of votes electronically has been stopped; Members of Parliament have been forced to ‘set an example’ by returning to London from the far-flung corners of the UK, often having to risk taking public transport, which we are all advised against, to do so; MPs who for one reason or another can’t return to London are thereby disenfranchised.   When those who could get down to London eventually get to the front of the queue, all they have achieved is the opportunity to cast a largely meaningless vote: it isn’t parliament that is making our Covid-19 policies up on the hoof.  And all because the Honourable Member for the Eighteenth Century, the inimitable Jacob Reese-Mogg, formally titled even more risibly as ‘Leader of the House’, thinks the raucous baying of the Tory backbenchers – better suited to a dogfight than the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ – might help our chaotic shambles of a Prime Minister to look a little less pathetic as he is humiliated week after week at Prime Minister’s Questions.