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.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Reviving Music

July 18th

Wedding anniversaries tend, in my experience, to evoke memories and lend themselves to reflection and reminiscence even more than birthdays do.  Yesterday was one such, and after a socially distanced glass of champagne in my son’s garden in York, with families in Cape Town and Sheffield joining us electronically, we pushed the boat out via our first take-away meal since the start of lockdown.  Partisan, one of the best restaurants in York – and it is an exceptionally competitive field – started producing two-course take-away meals under lockdown that proved so popular that they have continued to do so for those of us neither brave nor carefree enough to regard lockdown as having ended.  They assure prospective customers that they offer ‘generous portions’, which is a serious understatement – each of the individual servings of potatoes, for example, featured eight potatoes (generous even for Yorkshire) – so we have another excellent dinner to look forward to tonight.

By way of a floorshow while we ate our dinner we accessed Christopher Duigan’s streamed Music Revival concert, which yesterday consisted mainly of his own, exceptionally evocative, short compositions.   Christopher is an improbably brilliant pianist who lives with his partner in Pietermaritzburg.   ‘Improbably’ only to the extent that one would expect to find a pianist of his quality living in Barcelona or London, where he does play from time to time, or, if he was going to remain in South Africa, in the cultural centres of Cape Town or Johannesburg/Pretoria, where in normal times he also goes to play quite frequently.  Christopher has a phenomenal repertoire of classical pieces, which enables him to put together two hour-long concerts every week that he streams via You Tube on Thursday and Saturday evenings, playing much of the time from memory.  It was just our good luck that the concert scheduled for Thursday had been put off until yesterday as a result of a threatened power outage, one of the very many that South Africans have to contend with these days.  The concert evoked layer upon layer of nostalgia, particularly when he was kind enough to dedicate the beautiful last piece he played, titled ‘Himeville’, to us for our anniversary.

I had the pleasure of being peripherally involved as a trustee when Christopher set Music Revival up in Pietermaritzburg in 1997.  We attended many of his concerts at his home, from where he streams his evening concerts now, and at a venue a few miles away in a house in Hilton designed around a room big enough to accommodate 40-50 strong audiences.   One of the spin-offs from those concerts was the Wedgewood brand of nougat, now sold all over South Africa, that Jilly Walters, the hostess, originally made as an interval snack.  We knew most of those in the audience at the concerts, as one would after living in the same relatively small city for much the better part of thirty years.  Even after almost twenty years in York, the social isolation that the pandemic has necessitated has served only to underline the comparative isolation one is inviting if one opts to change continents after one’s children, who are the catalyst for so many of one’s social relationships, have left home.

The nostalgia evoked by watching Christopher playing ‘Himeville’ against a backdrop of orchids in his familiar home was not just for the rolling green hills of the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, described so lyrically in Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country, and the foothills of the Drakensberg where the little town of Himeville is to be found, but also for the friendships and sense of community and common purpose that lasted beyond the ending of apartheid and into the ‘transformation’ years that followed.   The struggle against apartheid generated a sense of common purpose and a strong bond between those who opposed that vicious and ultimately self-defeating system.  I think many of us miss that sense of common purpose. I certainly do.   So tuning in to Christopher’s concerts on Wednesdays or Thursdays (depending on the schedule of power-outages) and Saturdays is more than just a way to enjoy brilliant piano playing, and Christopher’s informal and informative commentary, it is also a way of regaining, at least in part, a sense of being part of a community with a shared history.