Wednesday, 19 February 2020
Friday, 13 October 2017
Sunday, 4 June 2017
"So you are not coming back with us tomorrow?" Brian asked.
"No, I have taken a day's leave and am taking a quick trip to Brighton."
"No. I am going to visit Thomas Brownjohn."
"Should I know who that is?"
"An art house movie director."
"Say no more. Say no more." Brian rolled his eyes. "See you back in the office on Monday."
"It's been a very productive business trip." I conceded
"Indeed it has." he said and left.
I was excited the following morning as I got into the train at Victoria Station headed for Brighton. I had been introduced to Thomas Brownjohn by a friend who had been a literature student at varsity. Initially I had been hesitant to go to one of his movies. I could not believe what I had seen. After that I was sold on his work and style. The intricate way in which he choreographed the facial expression of his actors was like no other film director seemed to be able to do. One movie critic said, 'If you went to see a Brownjohn movie and turned the sound off you would still be able to follow the plot.' Another said, 'Brownjohn has photographed the soul.'
The trip from Victoria station to Brighton took under an hour. I reviewed the questions I wanted to ask Thomas Brownjohn. My mind wandered back to my days at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, to a conversation I had had with my then girlfriend, Karen and her best friend Barbie, in the student canteen
"Why do you go to see those Brownjohn movies, they are so depressing." Karen asked.
"And do they make money?" Barbie was a serious business management student.
"Ladies!" I replied, "We are talking about significant artistry. Look at anyone of the characters in any one of his movies. You can see their pain, their angst, their heartache, the opening up of their soul. Do you think Walt Disney or Franco Zefferelli could come anywhere close?"
Karen rolled her eyes. "I go to movies to be entertained. The only time I went to a Brownjohn movie, hell man I wanted to blow my brains out afterwards."
"Go ahead, do it. There aren't any brains there to blow out. So no damage." Johan said as he passed our table. Karen lobbed an empty cool drink can at him.
"It is all a question of the market." Barbie continued. "Why make movies that don't sell. What is the point? It's not cheap to shoot a movie, and if you are not going to attract an audience, who is going to pay for it?"
"Are you seriously saying art that doesn't sell should be destroyed?"
"Even artists need to eat." Barbie replied.
"What about future generations?"
"Can you collect money from them?"
"What do you think would happen if Michelangelo had smashed up his David because he couldn't get a good price for it?"
"All the Italian gays would be broken hearted. Their one source of porn lost forever." Johan passed our table again. This time Barbie lobbed an empty cool drink can at him.
I loved those guys, and it broke my heart when we left university and our life paths took us in different directions. Nevertheless, admiration for Thomas Brownjohn was a lonely business. If there was a Brownjohn movie showing at one of the boutique cinemas, I always went alone. Once I was the only person in the audience.
The train had arrived and I asked a taxi driver outside the Brighton station to take me to 25 Connaught Avenue. I had tracked Thomas Brownjohn from his studio in London to his holiday home in Brighton. Whoever answered the phone at his home told me he would be in all day and I was free to drop in any time.
The taxi driver dropped me right outside his house. The door was answered by an elderly lady who spoke with such a broad Scots accent I couldn't understand what she was saying. Nevertheless I followed her into the house, until she pointed me to a room with a half open door.
There he sat at a desk writing on a large pad of paper. He was a little different from how I had imagined him to be. The photographs I had of him were taken when he was a much younger man. I was overcome with a sense of awe. It felt like I was standing in the presence of God. My mind raced over the various scenes from his movies. I had flash backs to the discussions I had had with Majorie a Master's student. She had been writing her dissertation on art house movies. She had given me most fascinating insights into Brownjohn's work.
There before me was the mind that had created all that art. There were the hands that had directed where the actors should move and where the camera should shoot. The apex of all my artistic thoughts and wanderings over so many years was right in front of me.
I knocked on the half open door, in response he looked up at me momentarily and continued writing.
"Good afternoon Mr Brownjohn. I am George Oliver from South Africa. I arranged to come and see you today. I feel that it is a great pleasure and privilege to meet you at last. I have been an admirer of your work ever since my student days."
He didn't look up, he merely carried on writing.
"I feel that you are destined for the crown of immortality. When the razzmatazz of the Walt Disney's and Steven Spielberg's of this world have died down, serious students of cinema will look back to the twentieth century, the first century of cinema, discover your work, and be amazed that such a monumental giant had arisen so early in the life of this art form. The unique way in which you direct your actors, ranks your movies way above the output of other directors."
I inwardly breathed a sigh of relief. I had completed my prepared speech. Usually what happens is that I prepare a speech for an occasion like this, I either get flustered and forget my lines and leave important bits out, or I lose my nerve and don't deliver the speech. I just mutter a few clichés. Or what often happens I get interrupted by protests of modesty "No! no! you are too kind. None of what you are saying is true."
I wished at for a third option, because he did not react at all. He merely continued to write. I looked around the room. I was astonished to see no movie memorabilia on the walls. Possibly the painting on the opposite wall resembled a scene from one of his movies. I then thought maybe this is not his holiday home, but a holiday home. One that he is renting, or one that he has borrowed from a friend. I looked at him. He continued to write, ignoring me.
What do I do now? I thought to myself. Do I say good bye and leave? I hoped not, I had questions which I had wanted to ask him. Do I start asking him, my questions? Or do I just wait? A thought struck me. He is an elderly man, like many elderly people he is probably losing his hearing. Maybe he never heard me.
I took two paces into the room and started again in a louder voice. "Good Afternoon Mr Brownjohn, I am George Oliver from South Af....." He waved his hand up and down motioning me to stop speaking. So I concluded, he knows I am here, he has heard me, all I have to do is wait.
I watched him as he wrote. My eyes wandered around the room to see if I could pick up any clues to his illustrious career. Eventually he put the pen down, but my relief was short lived. He then read what he had written, and picked up his pen from time to time to make corrections. Eventually after what seemed like an eternity he put both pen and paper down and turned to me.
"Young man, do please forgive me my bad manners. I am a writer and I wished to put some inspirational thoughts down before they were lost forever from my memory."
"I understand that," I replied, "I am a writer too and I know what..."Ignoring me he continued. "I must confess that you have expressed yourself very powerfully, and have been most generous in your praise. However many people make the mistake you have just made. If you want Mr. Thomas Brownjohn to hear those lovely words, you are going to have to go to number 25 Connaught Avenue. This is number 25a.
Anna had taken a few day's leave and had made all haste to Port Elizabeth. As she drove along the road from the airport towards town many of her childhood memories started to flood back. She turned up Cape Road which would take her to Newton Park.
She pulled up outside the orphanage. The old ramshackle building was still as she remembered it. On entering the building she was greeted by a woman in her mid forties. The woman called out to her.
"Yes Mrs Vermaak?"
"Yes call me Melanie."
"Tell me Anna why did you wait so long? Most inmates inquire after their biological parents while they are still here."
Anna was a little taken aback at the term inmates but she assumed it was intended as humorous and let it pass. "Adolescent rebellion. At the time I felt that my biological parents had dumped me in a home and disappeared, so if they didn't care about me why should I care about them."
"What changed your mind?"
"Maturity, and when I was working in Somalia in a children's hospital I was present when an orphan was reunited with his biological parents, and the joy of that occasion prompted me to reconsider my stance."
"Somalia? You mean Somalia in North Africa?"
"What the hell were you doing there?"
"There was a hospital in need of my services and I agreed to go and work there,"
"Weren't there enough hospitals here crying out for your services.?"
Anna raised her hands in the air and said "It's a long story, let me not bore you with the details."
"As I said yours was a late request and after this time your file had gone off to archives. That's why it took so long to get back to you we were waiting for someone to recover it from archives"
"Uh huh so what does the file say?"
"Yours so I see was an interesting case."
"You were a Section 16 baby."
"I remember hearing the term Section 16 whispered against my name but I have never followed it up. What does it mean?"
"In the bad old days of apartheid there was a piece of legislation called the Immorality Act. It dealt with things like prostitution, possession of pornography child sex etc. It also contained the notorious section sixteen. That section made it illegal for a white person to have sex across the color line. An Indian could have sex with a black person, but if a white person was involved in a sex act, then both parties would face prosecution and time in prison."
"So I suppose both my biological parents wanted the whole thing kept under wraps."
"Yes I remember many of the prosecutions under this section gained high media profile, with both sides in the argument publically expressing outrage."
"So my parents wanted my arrival kept a secret."
"That is correct. The father in particular had made it a condition that you never contact him."
Anna bowed her head and remained silent.
"Are you Okay?" Melanie inquired. "Can I get you anything?" Anna lookup she had tears rolling down her cheeks.
"That is very depressing, I suspected I might hear something like that, now that I hear it, it feels really bad."
"I feel very sad too. I'm sorry I cannot give you better news."
"I suppose I should have been born after 1994."
"Not so. Section 16 was abolished during 1985 under the government of PW Botha. He said that he was abolishing it for humanitarian reasons, but we suspect it was abolished as it had become impossible to police. Just consider how does one police it? Does the policeman break in to someone's bedroom to see who they are sleeping with?'
"Damn I missed the deadline by three or probably two and a half years. So this I suppose is a dead end for me."
"Hmm not necessarily. I have a very good social worker and I will get her to approach the parents. The father may be willing to change his stance particularly as there is no longer a possibility of prosecution. The mother may be a problem, from the point of view that it would be difficult to trace her . I understand that no one knows where she is."
"You cannot tell me their names can you ?"
"At this stage no."
Anna and Melanie made arrangements for the involvement of the Social Worker, and then Anna asked if she could wander around the establishment for nostalgic reasons. She needed to be alone. She surprised herself at how devastating the news had been . It was not entirely unexpected after all bit It resonated with the time Gregory had walked out on her. Isn't there anyone in the world who loves me? She looked up suddenly into two big brown eyes."Waarom huil jy Tannie?" "Auntie why are you crying." Anna reached out to the little child and hugged her tightly. She replied in Afrikaans. "If you ever find anyone who loves you, don't ever let that person go. Understand?" She released the child, The child nodded as if receiving an instruction and went back to play.
"I wish Edward Everett would shut up." said Mary.
"Shush! don't be disrespectful." said her husband.
"He has been going on and on for almost two hours. The troops are falling over doesn't that tell him anything?"
"He is making some good points, I am glad he saying those things to the assembled company."
"Do you care?"
"What concerns me is that you are on next and by the time you get up to speak, everyone will be so fatigued no one will take any notice of what you have to say."
"I think I can handle that."
"You think you're so good you can get up and speak after this constant waffle waffle and still draw the audience's attention."
"Just watch me."
"What's your technique."
I have cut my speech down to ...let's see... one hundred and thirty seven words."
"You have to be more than the President to impress this worn out audience with a speech that short."
"I am going to knock their socks off."
"You'd better start knocking Edward Everlasting has finally shut up."
"I still have to be introduced.."
"Look the podium's empty."
"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth ......"
"Quiet comrades quiet ." Hannibal stood feet apart his right arm outstretched. There were few amongst the assembled warriors who felt they owed him respect. The majority doubted his judgment and a pocket of them were planning to mutineer.
"Comrades do you hear it? Do you hear the beat of history? Today September 11, we have done what no army has ever done before. We crossed the Alps. Caesar awoke today in fear, These mountains are his barrier of safety and today we pieced that veil."
He paused waiting for the message to sink in. He had the attention of some, others were muttering in discontent.
"Look at the enormity of this mountain. I doubt if any army will attempt to cross it again. Your names have been written in the annals of history, when Hannibal crossed the Alps."
"What about the fallen? They who died unnecessarily without even having to taste combat." called out a heckler.
"I weep for the fallen. Comrades let us pause a moment to remember them."
Hannibal stood with his arms outstretched and his head bowed. A spark of respect began to regenerate in the minds of some of the doubters. Others nudged each other and jibed about Hannibal now playing the women's part, or play acting or being over dramatic to draw attention away from his bad judgment.
"We honour our comrades who have fallen. Not fallen in battle but fallen in the effort of making this historic journey. Their precious blood has seeped out of their bodies and into the soil of this mountain. The soil of this mountain had been fertilised with their blood and in this fertile soil we will plant the trees of glorious conquest.
There was a stunned silence, all stared at him. Then one soldiers started to chant "Hannibal Hannibal Hannibal Hannibal" Then others joined in and soon the valley resounded with cheers Hannibal Hannibal Hannibal Hannibal. Still there were those who stared at him in disbelief.
He held his hand up to call for silence. "Comrades there is a simple question. Will the future be one of Roman masters and Carthaginian slaves, or Carthaginian masters and Roman slaves? Will your wives and daughters be concubines to the Roman scum while you labour in their vineyards? Or will the Roman wives and daughters by your concubines?"
"We will never submit to the Roman scum." shouted another heckler and many followed that with a loud cheer.
"There is a Roman garrison to the north, and another to the south. They are not aware that we have arrived in their citadel. That is our advantage and if we move swiftly we can be the masters of their city before those garrisons return to defend it."
The crowd roared with another loud cheer.
Hannibal lifted his fists in the air and cried "To Rome"
The crowd responded "To Rome"
Hannibal fists still raised shouted "To Rome."
The crowd again responded "To Rome"
And as one body they marched on to conquest.