The SA University Blues

I often alter other people’s songs, seeing as I have no talent to write my own, generally for the purpose of some light-hearted parody.

This is less light-hearted. Piet Swart, you gave me the idea – so it’s your fault. Apologies to Don McLean.

The SA University Blues

A long, long time ago
I can still remember how
That academia used to make me smile
And I knew my salary I’d earn
If I could make those students learn
And maybe they’d be educated in a while

But 2015 made me shiver
With every paper they’d deliver
Fallist news on the doorstep
I couldn’t take one more step

And while Fallists read a book on Marx
The toyi-toyiers practiced in the park
With student cars burning in the dark
The year the varsities died

We were singing,

Bye, bye, colonial varsities must die
Marched to parly for a party but the Treasury was dry
And sad old guys drank the wine farms dry
Singing, this’ll be the day that they die
This’ll be the day that they die

And as the flames climbed high into the night
As paintings burned, an awful sight
I saw Fallists laughing with delight
The day the varsities died
They were singin’,

Bye, bye colonial varsities…

I went down to the sacred space
Where I’d heard that gravity had no place
And the Fallists said that science held no sway

And all the academics screamed
Professors cried, and Fallists schemed
But not a word was spoken
The Executive was all broken

And all the folk I admire best
VC, Deans and all the rest
They caught the last plane for the west
The day the varsities died
And they were singing…

Bye, bye, colonial varsities must die
Marched to parly for a party but the Treasury was dry
And sad old guys drank the wine farms dry
Singing, this’ll be the day that they die
This’ll be the day that they die…

Posted in Books, Music, Personal stories, science controversy | Leave a comment

Agonising over the loss of liberal ideals 

I am conflicted. Seriously conflicted. I have been at the University of Cape Town since 1974, as a student, postgraduate and academic; I have been here through the unrest periods of 1976, the 1980s, the 1990s, and now the 20teens.

And never before have I felt as alienated or depressed about being here as I do now.

Seriously: even though I demonstrated in 1976, 1985 and in the 1990s, and agonised about leaving in 1990 (saved by Mandela being released), it was not my institution that was the target of protest – and now it is.

To describe why, I must describe the context: this is of an institution that is the oldest western-style university in Africa, one of the oldest in the southern hemisphere, and which leads Africa as a teaching and research facility. It is also run by well-meaning liberals, albeit largely white, and male, some of whom were revolutionaries in their time, and who remain committed to a non-racial, egalitarian University.

So what could go wrong? Well, factor in a disaffected student movement that doesn’t quite know what it wants, but wants it NOW, however unrealistic it is, and a liberal administration that would like to be protesting with them but isn’t allowed to – and you may begin to see the problem.

Back in the middle of 2015 a movement started seemingly out of nowhere, dedicated to getting rid of the seated statue of Cecil John Rhodes below Residence Road, between Smuts and Fuller Halls of residence. Now let it be said that very few actually opposed this: while Cecil had been central to Upper Campus since the 1930s, he was a gift of an eponymous Trust, and was rather wished on the University. His awkward sitting position also gave rise to the legends that either he was suffering from severe piles, or that he was obliged to rise when he saw a virgin – but that he was never quite sure if one had ever passed him by, so never quite stood up.

Be this as it may, the #RhodesMustFall movement gathered momentum very quickly, sparked by a very strange protest involving a half-naked longtime undergrad student, a drum, a protective helmet, and a container of human waste from a portable toilet. His protestations of pain and alienation – very conveniently covered by film and media crews – sparked a movement that spread across the country and even to Oxford, where a Rhodes scholar was moved to demand the removal of a bust of Rhodes at Oriel College, and to justify his having the scholarship as a defiant act involving taking back the money stolen from his ancestors. He subsequently thought it amusing to participate in the abuse of a poor waitron at a Cape Town restaurant, and is now apparently a junior UCT academic, but this is incidental.

So Rhodes fell – due to a decision by UCT Senate ratified by Council, that was remarkable for the fact that so few people opposed the motion. And which rather bemused the #RMF protesters, who had immediately assumed that we needed to be forced into doing it, and had in fact been involved in some very intimidatory demonstrations in support of their cause.

And there’s where we should have been warned. The children of Tutu’s Rainbow Nation, the “born free” generation of post-1994 South Africa, were increasingly becoming stridently confrontational and even racist in their dealings with what was in fact a fuzzy-mindedly liberal administration, sympathetic to their cause – and which seemed to have no idea what to do about them.

So things bumbled on until late 2015, when University of the Witwatersrand students – Wits to those of us too lazy to do the whole thing – started the #FeesMustFall movement, which was aimed at stopping any fee increases for the following year. One by one student groupings at the other major academic institutions jumped on the bandwagon, and this time managed to force most of these to close, for a month or more. Given that we in the south write exams at the end of calendar years, this was extremely disruptive to the academic process, and in addition, huge damage was done by rampaging mobs of “students” at a number of institutions.  UCT seemed to have adopted a policy of negotiating with anyone who stepped up with demands, and to go to endless lengths to appease a constantly changing spectrum of radicals with often ill-formed and intemperate opinions.

I asked our Senate at the end of 2015 why we did not simply gauge support of the amorphous groupings – who were determinedly anarchistic in having no discernible hierarchies – by means of our sophisticated online polling system, which has the capability of both requiring a validated institutional login, and then delivering an anonymised response. I got no decent response then, or early in 2016 when I asked again.

Fast forward to the end of 2016, when it started all over again – with a twist. This time, emboldened by the fact that they had apparently cowed the State President into announcing there would be no fee increases at universities in 2016, they had a new demand: no fees at all.

Inevitably, this again sparked demonstrations and intimidation of students who did not join the protests; again, it descended into racial abuse and profiling of white academics as automatically being reactionary and racist; then it spun into a movement to “decolonise” the universities and their teaching curricula. While this seemed a valid idea on the surface, the fuzziness of the concept of decolonisation especially as it pertained to the teaching of science, made it difficult to engage with – and the racism inherent in the concept that white people were responsible for the phenomenon made it even more so.

With the downward spiral of demonstration-reaction-counter-reaction has come universities that are either formally closed or effectively closed, where gangs of students roam seemingly unfettered, intimidating their colleagues and those staff still trying to teach. At UCT this has been less violent and less destructive than some other campuses; however, so too have our administration seemingly been more lenient and more accommodating of the endless transgressions and endless lists of constantly changing demands. I have asked since, by email, why we do not formally poll our students and staff, when the institution has been deluged with individual polls and Faculty surveys which have shown overwhelming support for an end to disruptions and a return to normality – with no reply. We still have had no formal institution-run survey of staff and student opinions on the matter.

We have been away, my academic and personal partner Anna-Lise and I, for much of the recent shenanigans, which has been good both for my blood pressure and levels of anguish. However, today I undid all this good work by going to an extraordinary UCT Senate meeting, called for the purpose of getting the UCT Senior Leadership Group to take control of our campuses, and end the violence and intimidation.

To attend was to immediately get sucked into a vortex of well-meaning but fuzzy ultraliberalism and in some cases semi-incomprehensible ultraleftism, which decried “militarisation” of our campus, while simultaneously crying out against the abuse of non-participating students and of academic and non-academic staff. We had staff who identified so closely with students that they tried to bring the demands of the nebulous grouping calling themselves the “Shackville TRC/SRC Candidates” or somesuch, to Senate – even to the point of relaying an implicit threat of disruption if Senate refused to hear them. We had impassioned flights of rhetoric decrying the brute intimidation by the protesters; we had endless comments that the proposed motion was unworkable / could never work – against a background of a motion solidly rooted in respect for the Rule of Law, which all of the apologists seemed to regard as being invalid.

I wanted to contribute, but didn’t trust myself to remain coherent while my heart was fluttering and my hands were shaking. In any case, my points were well made by other people – including that protesters should REALLY be kept out of certain buildings, because they were very well stocked with dangerous chemicals and machinery, and that the research enterprise at the University was at serious risk.

In the end, and despite much hand-wringing and apparent attempts to derail the vote, an abbreviated version of the motion was passed, asking the VC and team to attempt to regulate protest activity so that life could go on.  This, against a background of chanting and singing outside the venue, apparently by “Fallist” demonstrators who had demanded – and been refused – entry by the same security personnel that many of my colleagues saw as being unnecessary.

We exited the Senate meeting through a gauntlet of uniformed security, keeping us separated from a small band of dancing and chanting protesters. I thanked the security guard at the door, and was immediately abused by a man outside the door as “a white male professor who speaks to security like they are friends”. I went nose to nose with him, but he restrained himself to gesturing in my face, so I forced a laugh, and went on. He went on to abuse the Dean of the Health Sciences Faculty, who seemed to be used to  it, as a traitor and a white puppet as we all walked away.

That is the first time in all my years at UCT that I have ever suffered any racial abuse. It is also the first time that I have seriously questioned the wisdom of staying here, when I have had several opportunities to leave and have not. We stayed, Anna-Lise and I, because we thought things had changed so much for the better in 1990 with the release of Mandela, and that after 1994 that we could make a difference in the new nation. We thought we had done so, too – until the new ultraleft youth dismissed us contemptuously as “white privilege”, and in need of decolonisation.

It’s probably too late to leave now. But for the first time since 1990, I want to. And that makes me very depressed.

Posted in Personal stories, science controversy, Uncategorized | 58 Comments

“Handgate” fever grips the scientific community. Sigh…

I am rather amused by the Twitter storm that has erupted around the mention, in an otherwise inoffensive paper out of China in PLoS One on the function of the human hand, of the influence of a “Creator” in the design of said  body part.  This has lead to threats by PLoS editors to resign, of threats of boycotts extending even to citing papers in PLoS One – and eventually to the paper being withdrawn by the journal.

As a committed atheist myself, I find such comments as “Hand coordination should indicate the mystery of the Creator’s invention” to be naive rather than horrifying, or a reason to withdraw the paper.

Seriously: was the data OK?  If it was – no problem; ask them to consider removing mention of a “Creator”.

Were the conclusions warped to include influence of a deity? If so – ask them to reword / rethink.

But to pull the paper?? That smacks of post hoc closing of stable doors, that should not have been open in the first place if a decent refereeing / editing job was done. And if THAT didn’t happen, then all the ordure belongs firmly within the vast and cavernous stable that PLoS One has become.

As an aside, my grandmother used to translate scientific papers from Russian and German for the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute in what was then Northern Rhodesia, in the 1950s.  She had to patiently explain to irate scientists who accused her of being anti- Soviet, that it really did say “We acknowledge the contribution of Comrade Stalin” on every paper. I’ll bet you papers out of the PPRK still thank Kim Jong-Un, too – and that does not detract from the science.

A little more tolerance, people: I have seen Indian scientists in the ICGEB in Delhi make offerings to the highly impressive statue of Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity, in the Institute courtyard – and no-one thinks their science is shoddy.

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Baby Steps In a Spacesuit: The Long Earth Series

I was really rather excited to discover a couple of years ago, in my local Exclusive Books in Cape Town and just in time for my Xmas present to me, a new novel called “The Long Earth” – by one of my favourite SF authors Stephen Baxter, and possibly my all-time favourite all-genre author, Terry Pratchett (see here for my in memoriam).  I read and enjoyed it, and was subsequently delighted to see that the series had gone on – and on – and on.  I reviewed these first at the Worlds Without End site; I am repeating them here as a unit in case anyone is interested.

Because if you aren’t, I still am!

The Long Earth

As an experienced Pratchett reader (I have ALL of his books), I am used to surrendering all idea of science-based interpretation of the universe, for a joyous confusion of mythology, magic and outrageous invention.

With Stephen Baxter, however, one is generally given a hard, logical, physics-based universe, even if sometimes the way in which things work is incomprehensibly vague (think: the Manifold series, where very mysterious things happen, but then play out in a hard physics universe).

It was a little strange, therefore, that these two worlds should marry – and that the central premise of the story, the device that allows people to Step sideways across the infinite series of parallel Earths, should involve some electronics, and…a potato?  Really?

OK, once you get past that Pratchettism – and it is never explained properly – everything develops as it should in a Baxter universe, and a logical progression of events follows the inevitable sideways diffusion of humanity, along the line of Earths.

Assuming, of course, that you buy into an independent AI who claims to be the reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle mechanic, and that mysteriously, iron doesn’t seem to be able to travel sideways – which would seem to be paying homage to faery myths, in an otherwise very uncompromising physics-based universe.

But that’s part of the charm of this strange and wonderful juxtaposition of talents B-)

The Long War

The Long War was an interesting addition to the Long Earth series – because it made it into a series, given there had only been one – and it advanced the story in interesting ways.  The logical progression of events in a world that is infinitely long sideways, and in which the authority of The Centre is very far away, are explicated pretty well – unfortunately, some of the political developments and the characters responsible for them seem to be caricatures, and not as well thought as they could be. Mind you, if you consider that in early 2016 an extremist real estate developer with a comb-over seems to be leading one arm of the US presidential race, maybe it’s not as much of a caricature as it seems!

In any case, using a US Navy revamped with steampunky airships for the task of patrolling the Long Earth (though how their electronics keep working is a little mysterious) was a good touch; so too was more detail on trolls and other Long Earth hominids, although some potential plot developments seem to have been lost, like the exploration of parallel Australia, for example.

While I class this as a great book – and a pretty good sequel to The Long Earth as it develops the storyline of an infinite series of parallel Earths  – sadly, the ongoing deterioration of Terry Pratchett was constantly in my mind as I read it.

Because it’s not as good as the first one.

Because some of the writing is sketchy; some of the story development seems arbitrary, a bit deus-ex-machina type of thing.

But it still grips you, and leaves you wanting…more.  And fortunately, there IS more.  The Long Mars awaits!

The Long Mars

I got this book with some misgivings – but it was like the Dune series; you KNOW they’re going downhill, but you have this fatal fascination with the characters and the universe, and surely things can’t get too bad??

The good news is they didn’t: this breathed new life into the Long Earth series for me, as it explored the Long Mars.  Baxter and Pratchett managed to recapture my enthusiasm, and interesting new things happened, and other characters were explored – even though the deus ex machina gambit was pulled again, as the original Stepper inventor was pulled out of hiding to do his inscrutable thing.  However, it doesn’t detract (too much) from the storyline.

What does jar a bit is how they dealt with The Next – the smart kids who look on us as children.  They REALLY got to rescue them as easily as they did?  Really??  The episode where it happens looks a little too much like something that got rescued as the book needed to go to print, from an unresolved plot development.

You know, I though this had to be the last one: Terry Pratchett had died, there was evidence from the last book that things were possibly not as tight as one would have wanted from a writing team – and some of that showed through here.  THEN I found there was ANOTHER one…!

The Long Utopia

And there I did what I had done with the seemingly everlasting, deteriorating and increasingly implausible Dune series – to say nothing of the apallingly bad Thomas Covenant series – and bought the last one, once I had chanced upon it unexpectedly in my local high-end bookstore.

That is to say, I bought something while thinking that I shouldn’t; that I was setting myself up for disappointment, and that I should have let my memory of Terry Pratchett fondly remain stuck with the previous book, and with his last Diskworld novel.

But I didn’t. And I’m quite glad I didn’t, in fact, because this one too took me up in its grasp, and galloped off across worlds with now-familiar characters, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I also enjoyed the back story, wherein the origin of The Next and free-steppers is pretty thoroughly explored, as this was both a novel departure for the series, and useful background.

OK, there were some niggling bits, like “So if people could shift between planets, why wasn’t that explored better??”, and HOW exactly the powers-that-be determined that – suddenly, and out of nowhere – one person could shut off access to a whole universe?

But given that enjoyment of SF is hugely aided by the willing suspension of disbelief, I suspended some of mine, and let it take me where it went.

And I’m sorry it’s over.  At least, I THINK it’s over…?

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Legends II: The 5DJ Concert

I’ve been coming back to the Guitar Boogie Bar for some time now – and it’s an interesting thing: it’s never in the same place twice.

Somewhere near where I found it, always somewhere a little out of the way, always when I really feel like I need a break.

Of course, given that the folk who perform there are literally out of this world, hey, what’s a little spatial uncertainty to go with the temporal?

Tonight was pretty special, though.  They’d advertised it as only they knew how – strange little stickers popping up where I regularly work; cryptic texts on my phone from “Number Unknown” – and it was shaping to be really memorable.

I mean, the 5DJ Concert?  Really?  Half the 27s Club, and then two more legends to boot?

I squinted up at the lintel to make sure, and there it was: a small sign with a silhouetted axeman bending over what had to be Strat, with “GBB” stencilled next to it.  Inevitably it was raining, just like the first time I’d come, so I shook off the coat a bit before hanging it, and stood near the door, adjusting to the light.

Pretty full already, so I was glad I’d come early.  I hurried up to the bar, got my regular Rory’s Malt and nuts, and headed back to my usual table, tucked away at an angle to the stage.  I took a good sip, and rolled that rich brew round my mouth, and filled up on some nuts.  I took a look around, then, to see the usual crowd, only more so.  Elderly folk, more women than usual; grey hair worn pretty long all round; jeans and T-shirts the norm.  There was a scattering of younger faces around, more excited, having to get “Shhed!” from time to time when they got a bit loud – and probably by their parents.

It filled up pretty fast from then, and I had a few table friends to share the experience with.  One was my friend from the first time: “Chuck.  Just Chuck” he’d said with a small smile, and I’d never asked for more.  We’d talked a few times over beers since then, with that impossible music over (No-one talks during the Legends performances! No-one!!), and hit it off pretty well.  Shared musical interests, into good hard SF, LoTR, Star Trek/Star Wars – and, of course, good beer.  We compared notes on Star Wars VII, agreed that the franchise looked like it might succeed, that SF was just getting better, even if fantasy had taken a knock with Terry Pratchett’s death.

Then the fussing around with the mikes and the tuning finished, the house lights went down – and there she was, J Number 1*.  Small, kaftan-clad, a bush of curly grey hair around a face with round-rimmed glasses, smiling and nodding behind the mike.  One acoustic guitar with her: plump hairy guy, owlish bearded face, also long curly grey hair.  J Number 5, then – bookending the group.

She started all by herself, in that distinctive gravelly voice, with the guitar only coming in round about the third line.

“Oh Lord, won’t you buy me, a Mercedes Benz…”

The crowd went crazy, whooping and clapping, till she smilingly waved them to be quiet, and went on.  Then, just when you’d think she’d finished, after a little guitar break:

“Oh, Lord, won’t you buy me an iPhone 6S
My friends all have 6s, I have to impress
I won’t really use it, I have to confess
But Lord, won’t you buy me, an iPhone 6S”

There was some laughter round the mike, and the guitar had to go round again, and then:

“Oh Lord, won’t you get me” – a pause – “an iPad Air 3 [more giggling]
I know it ain’t out yet, but do this for me
I swear I won’t tell, our secret, it’ll be
So Lord, won’t you get me, an iPad Air 3….”

Prolonged strumming on the final chord, and she bowed with a “Thank you!”, and she swished away.  Damn!  Forty-five odd years later, and she’d added two more verses!  No slouches, these Js – despite being, for what could be termed more delicately, but I don’t know how – dead.

At least, as far as we knew, because these folk looked like they’d aged right along with us, and played like it too.

And here he was, J Number 2, slim, black, wispily bearded, with a short grey Afro with a bandana round it, slipping in behind the mike, 12-string in hand.  “Thought you cats might like something I did with Buddy and Billy back in the Gypsys days, but – different, you know what I’m saying?”.

With that he plucked a few chords, just like he did way back with “Hear My Train A’Comin'”, and was into

“Machine gun – Machine gun
Tearing my body all apart…”

in a slow bluesy style, with an unnoticed bass coming in behind.  J4 it was, doing what his bandmate used to.  Oh, it was sublime: quietly melodic, melancholy, short solo in the middle, with sudden strumming on muted strings for the machine gun.  He was hunched over that 12-string most of the time, right up till then final, stretched notes.  Then he looked up and smiled, and said “Thank you” quietly.  Standing ovation time, with the young folk, being persuaded not to take cellphone pics by us old types.

I took a break to catch up on some beer then, and shake my head at Chuck, who just smiled.

J No 3 was tuning up then, sitting behind the mike, all hair and beard and belly.  Looked like he might do a quiet one – but no, Js Nos 2 and 5 were backing him up, with the house drummer, and suddenly we were into a rollicking guitar intro, and:

“Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel…”,

from J3, his hoarse baritone commanding the room.  I noticed the bassist around then, and damn if he didn’t look familiar from the Clapton Rainbow Concert album.  Rick…Rick…then his name went out the window as J3 stood and started rapping with the beat, with something that sounded like William Burroughs, and probably was.

They rounded it up after fifteen or so minutes, with J3 finishing with a long-drawn-out

“Let it rollllllll…alll ni-i-i-ght lo-o-o-ong – yeah, baby!!”,

and a flurry of guitar work from J2.

Some more beer work, and some peanuts, and there was J4 – sitting with an acoustic, dressed just like us, balder, greyer, but still with the little round spec.  And yes, he did look uncannily like me, and even smiled and nodded over at our table.  I was just beginning to feel uncomfortable, as the folk turned and stared, when he said: “I see we have Richard Gere in the house – welcome, Richard!”, with a little bow.  The house broke up with that, and I had to laugh as Chuck clapped me on the back.

He was sublime: he started, with his soft Liverpudlian drawl, with “The way things are right now, I see I’m going to have to do this one again…” – and launched straight in.

“Two, one two three four
Ev’rybody’s talking about
Bagism, Shagism, Dragism, Madism, Ragism, Tagism
This-ism, that-ism, is-m, is-m, is-m. “

A pregnant pause, then:

“All we are saying is give peace a chance
All we are saying is give peace a chance…”

Oh, he was drowned out pretty much immediately, as the crowd leaped to its feet – a bit creakily in some cases – and roared it out with him.  He kept on going, with that roaring chorus, and I swear he extemporised about five new verses, like this one:

“Ev’rybody’s talking about
Reggae, hip-hop, Bill Clinton, Hillary
Beyonce and J-Lo…”

We finally let him go when his voice was starting to croak and his hands were trembling.  Silence followed, then the buzz broke out.  I saw some of the younger set break out their cellphones, then, and was amused to see that they were bemused to see they had no signal.  Somehow that always happened, if you tried to discuss The Legends.

J5 was up next , also sitting, with an acoustic guitar.  He beamed out at us like a round, hairy guru, and said “We need to get a bit quiet, maybe?”  The Sugaree that followed was as sublime as I’ve ever heard it – and the drawn out final

“Just don’t tell them, that you kno-o-o-o-ow – me-e-e-e?”

Dead quiet, then a roar of approval, and we applauded him off the floor.  The 5DJs had all done their thing, but there was more to come.  They did duets, they did ensembles, they did more solos – and they ended with a grand assembly that included our Irish Friend and the newly-arrived gaunt spiky-haired fellow, doing “All You Need is Love”.  For real – and for about thirty minutes.  “Man”, I shouted at Chuck at one point, “I’m in heaven!”  He smiled as he always did, and went back to clapping the rhythm.

That’s when the realisation came to me that things may have changed.

That I’m dead, too.  And I’m OK with that.

*5 Dead Js: Janice, Jimi, Jim, John and Jerry. And if you say “Who?” to any one of them, go away B-)

and here’s a link to a virtual concert B-)

Posted in Books, Music, Personal stories | Leave a comment


It was purely by accident I found the bar – it had started raining, it was cold, I had no umbrella, I could hear music, and the door was right there – and it was the luckiest accident of my life.

I had no idea, up front: I just stumbled in, almost tripping over the sill in the semi-dark, muttering curses to myself as I dripped onto the floor. I paused to look around, partly so that I wouldn’t trip over anything else – and partly to reassure myself I hadn’t got into a gang or a biker bar – and it was reasonably generic, lights over the bar and in booths around the walls, and over a bandstand at one end; dim away from these, pretty clean-looking.

With a pretty old clientele, I noticed, as my eyes adjusted to the light. Mainly male, jeans and T-shirts predominating, a lot of greyish hair worn quite long for these modern times. OK, I seemed to be fitting in already: 50-ish guy in black Levis, Zombie Appreciation Society T, duffel jacket – which I needed to get off, because the wet was starting to soak through.

I caught a sense of someone waving at me out of the corner of my eye; I turned to see a smiling greybeard, who pointed at a coatrack off to the side of the entrance. I smiled back, got the thing stowed, and set about getting myself comfortable. Which started with a drink.

They seemed to be a craft beer sort of place, so I asked for “your best local dark beer” – always a pretty safe bet – and the bald guy behind the bar smiled and got me something called Rory’s Malt, in a 750 ml bottle. He also threw in a generous plate of mixed nuts and pretzels, so I was pretty well sorted for a pleasant hour or so.

I carried it back to a vacant booth near a corner, across from the bandstand so I could watch comfortably if anyone played – because it looked like it was set up for action, and I could still hear some pretty mellow blues being piped in.

I got busy with my phone for a while, seeing as there was nothing happening, and they had pretty fast free internet: under the name “GuitarBoogie”, I saw in passing. I had cleared up my inbox, and was typing an email to my son telling him not to wait supper for me, when I heard some guitar tuning up going on. I looked up to see a grizzled-looking black dude with a red scarf on his head, sitting on a stool on the bandstand, fiddling with what looked like an old Stratocaster, rigged to play left-handed. “Like Hendrix”, I remember thinking, and I bent down to finish off the message. When I looked up, there was a smallish white guy with him, grey hair to the shoulders, plaid shirt, laughing as he sat down, beat-up looking old wooden Stratocaster neck to neck with the first guy. They didn’t seem in a hurry to get going, so I got back to messages, enjoying the BB King coming through the speakers near me.

When next I looked up, there were three of them: two guitarists, and a plump, heavily bearded guy gone completely grey sitting at a mike, looking at a song sheet. They looked like they were getting serious, so I sat back, took a long pull of what was a very good beer and a handful of nuts, and settled down to listen.

I noticed the rest of the pretty sparse crowd turning to face the band as well – and several of them taking glances at me too. Hey, I’ve been told by some I look like John Lennon and like Richard Gere by others, so maybe they thought I was back from the dead, or just slumming it. Anyway, the trio seemed to have settled down with the black guy on guitar, small guy on a stomp box, and the heavy-set sitting behind the mike. And the first number started, with a lazy finger-picked intro to what had to be Red House – and the man behind the mike confirmed it, with a deep, slightly hoarse “There’s a Red House, over yonder…that’s where my baby stays…”.

Classic! I thought, and settled back.

They did it so well: lazy, flowing guitar, every note clear as a bell; good stomping rhythm and some very mournful harmonica from the little guy, soulful, dark brown voice from the plump guy. There was a short, lazy solo from Guitar Man after the line “I’ve still got my guitar”, with a “Look out, baby” and a laugh from the Man, then they rounded it up. Some relaxed applause from the crowd – I thought they could have more enthusiastic, but maybe they were the house band and everyone knew everything they played – and then a bit of shuffle of instruments, and Small Guy had a mandolin with the stomp box, and Guitar Guy had a bass.

And I felt the hairs rise on my neck, and wave of cold wash over my scalp, as the little guy launched into the jangling intro of what could only be “Goin’ to My Home Town” – confirmed when Voice Guy sang:

“Mama’s in the kitchen bakin’ up a pie
Daddy’s in the backyard
Get a job, son
You know you ought to try”

“Voice too deep”, I remember thinking, “too deep”, while I struggled with an impossibility. I even stood up to take a better look, knocking over my chair, but some of the rest of the spectators waved me down, and shushed me. The band carried out without a pause, and the bass kicked in, and they rounded it out – not as good as Rory Gallagher did it with only Gerry McAvoy to keep him company, but then, he wasn’t singing.

I think I had guessed who was singing, when they did the next one. “LA Woman”, it was, and now with two guitars interchanging the lead, no need for keyboard.

Oh, they went on, did the three oldsters; they rocked through “Bullfrog Blues”, with the little guy singing, and Voice Guy doing some percussion; they did “In Your Town”, with Voice Guy up and roaring (The third man I wanna see is the old D.A., he was the man who sent me away…); the two Guitar Guys as I now thought of them, black and white, trading licks. But it was when Black Guitar Guy started a long, slow “Hear My Train A-Comin’” by himself, as the other two went off for a beer, when I knew. I let out a long, shaky breath, and drank my beer down. I was just getting up, when I felt a hand on my shoulder, and someone came in beside me and sat down.

“Good band, huh?” he said, smiling at me, eyes crinkled in his bearded face.
“Christ, yes!” I stammered, “But it’s impossible…”

He cut me off with a firm uplifted hand. “We call them “The Legends””, he said. “They come in here every Tuesday. Good guys, just want to play. So we let them”, he finished, eyebrows raised as if daring me to argue. I couldn’t think of a thing to say. He clapped me on the shoulder.

“Come on over to the bar”, he said. “There’s a couple of people think you look like John Lennon, want to buy you a drink”.

And he smiled. “But that’s impossible, right?”

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Izak and Lady

Other posts in the series:

Enter Hilton

ZA Virus: the beginning

* * *

Izak hadn’t always lived on the street.  Once, long ago, he’d been “Mr van Heerden”, and he’d lived in a small cottage in Elsie’s River, and he’d worked in the local garage.  He’d been married, and had children, and prospects of becoming head mechanic.

Then the garage closed, and the job prospects dwindled, and the cheap wine intake increased – and the arguments with his wife got more bitter and more violent, and she left, and the house was taken away.

So now he was here.  In an alley, off Long Street, with only an elderly pavement special to keep him company.

He had woken up with her one winter’s morning; a mid-sized scraggly labradorish dog cuddled into his side as he lay buried in his cardboard shelter, shivering as the drizzle came down.  He had shouted at her, then, and she had slunk away.  She was back later, though, as he sat with his little fire in the perforated paint can; wagging her tail and grinning in an ingratiating way.  He had thrown her a crust, which she snatched in the air and wolfed down with a growl.

She was often around after that, and he became used to having her tucked into his side as he prepared for sleep: she was warm, and he slept better without having to have as much papsak wine to help him pass out.  What made the bond firm, though, was when an aggressive and drunken group of bergslaapers had invaded his alley one night.  As he had stumbled back from the threats and fists, away from his few belongings, she had appeared out of the dark; low to ground and growling in a way he had never heard.  The men had laughed – until she suddenly had one by the leg, then another by the hand as he swiped at her, and bit another in the crotch as they milled around.  He had joined in, then, with a broken piece of concrete reinforcing; together they had driven the bunch cursing and bleeding out of their alley.

He called her Lady after that, and always had a snack for her and a corner of his blanket under the cardboard.  They did well together, Izak and Lady: people were kinder when you had a faithful dog curled up with you in your customary begging spot, and even the cops had a smile for them.  She also kept people away if they tried to rob them, and patrolled the alley to keep the rats away from their food.

* * *

The bat meal for the rat family was one of those unlikely biological events that result in something genuinely new.  Viruses specialised by aeons of evolution to exist comfortably in their separate and very different hosts were mixing in the same cells; exchanging bits of themselves in an environment where the hopeful monsters of recombination that were not viable by themselves, could be sustained by their parents for the functions that they lacked.  In the close quarters of a rat’s nest, with constant comings and goings, and exchange of food and saliva, viruses from the bat mixed with what was in the rats, and went back and forth, until suddenly – there was a new entity, that did not need any help to exist.

Bats are host to more viruses that infect other vertebrates that one would believe possible: one study on one species of bat in India turned up more than 50 viruses, mostly paramyxoviruses, and most of them never seen previously.

Rats too harbour a rich and diverse viral ecology: a recent study showed that New York city rats alone carried more than 18 new viruses; rats in South America and Europe are implicated in transmission to humans of a variety of haemorrhagic fever viruses such as hantaviruses – and the ones in Cape Town had never been studied to see what they carried.

It was not a surprise, therefore, that what emerged in the little rat family that had eaten the bat was an exotic mixture of genes that had never been in one organism before.  A bornavirus – implicated in fatal neurologic disease in Europe transmitted by squirrels to people – had recombined with a distant evolutionary cousin in the form of an undescribed paramyxovirus – cousin to distemper, measles and mumps viruses – to make something truly new.  This was a virus that infected cells of the respiratory passages, but found its way via the bloodstream to nervous tissue, and then to the brain.  Like its parents in bats and rats, it didn’t do much to its hosts – but it had one peculiarity.

It made the rats fearless.

* * *

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