Friday, March 23, 2007

Children Of Terror: The Slovo Sisters, Catch A Fire, And The New South Africa

When she visited Cape Town for the opening of her film Catch A Fire, Shawn Slovo went to the Olympic-size pool at the seafront. In her childhood, it was a whites-only pool, but now, on weekdays, busloads of children travel from the black townships to swim in the saltwater. She watched them clambering to the highest diving board, and plunging fearlessly into the water, screaming with joy. Turning to leave, she saw a black man in his fifties, looking down at the scene.
“He said: ‘When I was a child, I used to come to this place, and all I wanted to do was swim in this pool’. There were heatwaves in the townships, and no trees. And he said: ‘I’ve been coming here all my life, and now I can watch, but I can’t swim.’”
As a writer, Slovo’s use of metaphor is quite precise. The new South Africa is far better, she thinks, but there is still a long way to go before the legacy of apartheid is overcome.
A measure of the country’s progress can be seen in Catch A Fire, which tells the true story of Patrick Chamusso, an apartheid-era everyman who is wrongly accused of terrorism, and interrogated so brutally that he signs on with the (then illegal) African National Congress to help blow up a power plant. Robyn Slovo, who produced the film, says the comparison with contemporary politics is deliberate. “It’s about how, if you take away people’s basic human rights, you are in danger of creating the very thing that you fear the most.”
Catch A Fire is a sequel of sorts to the more autobiographical A World Apart, which won Shawn a BAFTA for best original screenplay in 1988. The earlier film told the story of a childhood shared with Robyn and author Gillian Slovo (whose memoir Every Secret Thing covered the same territory) as the children of the leading anti-apartheid activists Joe Slovo and Ruth First. At his funeral in 1995, Joe Slovo was hailed by Nelson Mandela for his efforts in the ANC as a “great African revolutionary”.
“Both of us have experience of being the children of members of an illegal organisation,” says Robyn, carefully avoiding the word “terrorist”. “And our father was very high up in the armed wing of that organisation.”
Before the banning of the ANC, the Slovo sisters enjoyed a life of regular white privilege. “Private schools, swimming lessons and horse riding; all that stuff.” In the later part of the 1950s, their parents were arrested as part of South Africa’s Treason Trial, so they became more aware of their circumstances. “We really were a very strange and peculiar family as far as the rest of South African society was concerned,” says Robyn. “Because black and white society didn’t mix.”
Joe and Ruth were friendly with Mandela and his ANC mentor Walter Sisulu, so the family sometimes visited the black townships. “Occasionally there were actually black South Africans in our house,” says Robyn, “apart from in the kitchen and the garden and the laundry room. My parents would have multi-racial parties – breaking the law – and were busted a couple of times.
“We knew we had parents who were very unusual and very brave and very committed and who had the greater good in mind. Which is a problem if you’re their child, because the greater good is quite a large thing to be in opposition to.”
“They were great human beings,” says Shawn, “but terrible parents. You can’t parent properly under those conditions. Parenting means spending time with your babies as they are growing up. We never wanted for anything, but we had parents who were activists. Parenting means continuity, and being there to give your children support, and support takes time, and they were off fighting for the rights and freedoms of 35 million black people. Your demands as a relatively-affluent, white middle-class child pale by comparison. It’s not ideal parenting.”
In A World Apart, Shawn explored the sense of resentment she felt in her early teens at having to share her parents with a cause. “And I must tell you, they didn’t sacrifice anything particularly. By taking the path they took, they felt fulfilled as individuals, and they had a very exciting life. In their twenties, they were living in a John Le Carre novel. Dead letter drops, going underground, leaving a country without a passport. A lot of constructive stuff, a lot of action. They had good friends and a good time. As far as they were concerned they were not sacrificing anything. This was what they wanted to do with their lives.”
When Shawn talks like this, there is a sense that not all of the hurt has healed. The children were left with their grandparents when Ruth was jailed and Joe was stranded in Southern Rhodesia on ANC business. In 1963, the family was exiled to London. “I was just so thrilled that our mother was out of jail, we got her on the plane, to be with Joe in London, and for a brief period we were a proper family,” says Robyn. “We saw TV for the first time. We got here and it was the coldest winter in a hundred years, so the Thames was frozen. Snow everywhere. We’d never seen snow.”
In exile, their father remained optimistic. “Joe always used to say we would be going back to South Africa,” says Shawn. “Since 1948, when people asked ‘how much longer?’, he said ‘five more years’. He said that every year.”
Though they have stayed in London, both Shawn and Robyn consider themselves South African. “There is something about a traumatic leaving and the connection you have through your parents to the country that never goes away,” says Shawn. “Also you come here to Britain in the early Sixties, you are South African. You’ve got a South African accent that is most unbearable, so you’re struggling to lose that, but you always are an outsider.”
Robyn puts a more positive spin on their nationality. “What happened in South Africa completely changed our lives. It’s meaningful to us, and our father went back and was a minister in the Mandela government. We didn’t have an extended family, but those people who would have been our extended family are the Mandelas, the Sisulus, the people we grew up with. They are part of the fabric of South Africa. So we belong to it.”
She mentions something Patrick Chamusso said about how he was encouraged to believe there was hope during apartheid by the fact that Joe Slovo was white. “It allowed the struggle to move beyond black against white. It became people who wanted a democratic free society against those who didn’t – and that’s what prevented it from being rivers of blood.”
The Slovos were not immune from the country’s tragedy. In 1982, Ruth First was killed by a letter bomb sent by the South African security services. “It was a terrible shock,” says Shawn. “It was a call I had been waiting for all my life, but I always thought it would be Joe.”
“The only thing about it is that we understood who had sent the bomb,” says Robyn. “We understood the context; we had been brought up in this way. It doesn’t seem random. In some horrible way, it makes sense that they could do this.”
As part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission their father helped establish, the Slovo sisters sat in a courtroom while their mother’s killers, police spy Craig Williamson and his bomb-making team, appealed for amnesty. They were freed because they claimed the bomb was meant for Joe, a legitimate target - an argument the Slovos dismiss. “That is a very sour aspect because the truth did not come out,” says Shawn, “but it doesn’t make you want to go on a vendetta and get Craig Williamson. If he was seated as close as you are – which he was in the courtroom – and somebody handed me a weapon, there’s no desire for revenge.”
The absence of vengeance is one of the most positive aspects of the new South Africa, and is reflected through Patrick Chamusso’s story in Catch A Fire. “But,” Shawn concludes, “when Patrick says, ‘If I take revenge then it will be war, generation after generation,’ there is pain in his eyes. It doesn’t mean that you don’t hold the hurt for the whole of your life.”

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Modest Genius of Bert Jansch: "I'm quite happy. I don't have to borrow guitars anymore."

It’s hard, listening to Bert Jansch, to place his music. On a song such as Strolling Down the Highway, you can hear a sweetness in the voice, and a jauntiness in the guitar that sounds old, but pastoral, and not American. But there is something almost mythically simple about the words. Who, now, would sing about "strollin’"? Who would write about not being able to hitch a lift?
Listen to Needle of Death and, as well as the eerie similarity to Neil Young’s Ambulance Blues - a composition which came later, without credit to Jansch - you hear a clarity of purpose and sound that is brutal. Such a sweet, gentle, funereal song could only have come from the mid-1960s, but it has few of the trappings of the music of that time.
Needle of Death was written after the death from a heroin overdose of Jansch’s friend Buck Polly, a guitar player in the style of Jack Elliott, who also repaired old cars.
"I didn’t realise that he had a problem, but Buck Polly had a lot of home troubles. He used to go clubbing and I used to score some dope. He came with me one day, and he scored some H, and I didn’t think too much about it. He died the next day. It seems that before I met him he had been a junkie. But he had been off it for about six months. Then he had an argument with his wife, and he went straight back on it, and he took the dosage that he was taking before. Which was too much, and he died. So I wrote the song.
"In the short time since I met him, about three months, I got to know him quite well. Then suddenly he was gone. I thought, is it something with me, is it something I helped create?"
Yo La Tengo recently covered Needle of Death, but Jansch doesn't play it anymore - "It depresses me" - though audiences still shout for it. "Usually they are ex-junkies, and usually, funnily enough, Scotsmen."
Bert Jansch was born in Glasgow, but was brought to Edinburgh at the age of three months by his mother, a Leither. They settled in a council house in Ferry Road Drive in West Pilton, and Bert went to school at Pennywell primary - "a row of huts, really" - and then to Ainslie Park. He started music lessons at the age of seven, but his mother couldn’t afford to keep sending him. "Also," says Jansch, "I wasn’t very attentive towards the lessons themselves."
One day, at primary school, the teacher brought a Spanish guitar. "That was the first time I’d seen a guitar. After that, Rock Around the Clock, and all those films started happening. Elvis Presley, Lonnie Donegan, it was all happening at once."
His mother bought a kit, and he built a Spanish guitar on which the strings were about an inch from the neck. "I managed to play a D." At Ainslie Park, his friend Harry Steele, the only other person he knew who was interested in guitars, introduced him to the Howff club, opposite St Giles at 369 High Street. There, Jansch was properly introduced to music. "Hamish Imlach was the first person I ever saw play a guitar for real. That was it. Nothing else mattered."
The Howff was little more than a room, but Roy Guest, who ran it, booked the likes of Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry and Pete Seeger. Jansch helped do the place up, stripping the walls, and became a kind of caretaker. "I slept in the place. I used to wake up to the sound of St Giles’ bells." By the age of 16, he was teaching guitar.
Records were scarce. The fiddler (and late Scotsman journalist) Bobby Campbell "used to show up with a record he’d got sent from America. And that record, if it was blues, would go the rounds of all the musicians." Len Partridge, another Edinburgh musician, was interested in the blues, and gave Jansch guitar lessons. "Len was reported to have written Hey Joe," Jansch says. And Hendrix borrowed it? "Sort of."
There was, Jansch says, a coherent group of musicians in Edinburgh and Glasgow, who were mixing traditional music with the blues. Among them were Robin Williamson and Clive Palmer of the Incredible String Band, whose flat in West Nicholson Street offered a place for Jansch to crash.
"Between Clive and Robin and myself, we were actually the very first hippies," Jansch says. "We were a generation away from it, but there was a crossover to the folk that was going on at the same time. Edinburgh has always been a bit ahead of its time."
Drugs, Jansch says, were not scarce. "We were all well known to the police, Robin, Clive and myself. They never did bust us, but we were definitely well-known to them.
"I had tried most of the major drugs before I was 16. Between 16 and 17. In fact, I didn’t drink at all until I was 18 years old. Drinking was actually the one that caused me more harm over the years."
In 1987, while rehearsing for an album, Jansch’s alcoholism caused his pancreas to give out. "I couldn’t stand up. It was like being sick without being sick." The doctor ordered him to hospital, where he was told he had come close to death, and ordered to stop drinking.
"I had this nurse who was a fan, who came in and sat on the bed. She used to talk to me, and she tried to give me reasons why I should give up drinking."
When Palmer and Williamson formed the Incredible String Band, Jansch left Edinburgh to hitch around Europe. He was not, he says, a card-carrying beatnik, though he did come across people such as the poet Pete Brown, and played guitar at his readings. But the hitch-hiking was not a conscious attempt to find himself. "It certainly was extremely different from home life at that time. Basically, I was curious about what was out there."
Jansch had a friend from Edinburgh who did up summer houses in France. He would visit to help with the renovations, and was rewarded with free accommodation. "There’s a village near St Tropez that was built in a circle, like a fortress. They were doing a house up there, and every day we would see Brigitte Bardot in the square. She would be dropped off, and she would sit there in the sun, drink whatever she was drinking, then someone would come and pick her up, and she’d be off. I never did have the courage to talk to her."
Jansch was trying to hitch to Marrakech, from where the guitarist Davy Graham had recently returned. "I was astounded by his guitar, and he had just come back from Morocco. I said, ‘well, I’ve got to go’. It took me a while to get there, and it didn’t make any difference to my playing." Jansch never got beyond Tangiers. He contracted dysentery and was repatriated. He was no older than 18. "I was just foolhardy. I wouldn’t stop to think about any of the implications of anything."
Graham was a major influence. "Davy’s a bit indescribable really. If he heard something he would be able to translate it to the guitar. We were all well into listening to (Charles) Mingus by that time, and Davy could take a whole song, with Roland Kirk playing, Mingus on the bass or the piano, drummer, the works - and he’d put it all onto the guitar, just naturally. In a way, that’s what I discovered."
When he lived in Edinburgh, Jansch would hitch as far south as Rotherham to play a gig, borrowing a guitar when he arrived. "There was no motorways. You wouldn’t contemplate the train. That was just throwing money away."
From his journeys to France, he started to know people in London, playing occasional shows at folk clubs. "Of course, me coming down from Scotland, the style that I had for playing the guitar, none of them had ever heard anything like that."
Soho, he says, was different then. It was seedy, but family-oriented. Les Cousins folk club in Greek Street was owned by Mr and Mrs Matthews. "They ran the restaurant upstairs. Their son, Andy Matthews, ran the club. There were a lot of places like that, grocer’s shops, right next door to a strip club, old tobacconists.
"Mr and Mrs Matthews, because of their son, got to know every guitar player that went to Cousins. If they thought you didn’t look too well, or undernourished, they would take you into the restaurant and give you a huge steak."
Jansch met the guitarist John Renbourn. "We shared a flat, and we got fed up with the Cousins scene because it was an all-night affair. If you were booked to play there you had to be there from midnight til dawn. There was a guy called Bruce Dunnett, who was a left-wing Scotsman, a communist, but he was an entrepreneur. He ran this club for us, the Horseshoe. Me and John were looking towards getting a band together, but anyone could get up and play. Sandy Denny was there. Various drummers and bass players. And out of it came Pentangle. The first gig we did outside of the club was the Festival Hall, and we sold it out. From there we went seven years on the road."
Touring with Pentangle was good, Jansch says, "but eventually you’d had enough. In the end we had our own language. If we wanted to have conversations between ourselves in a crowded room, we could do it, and nobody would be any the wiser. The sad thing is because we kept doing two hour shows, it was very rare for us to meet other musicians, because there’d be no one else on the bill."
Jansch’s influence on subsequent generations is obvious. Just as Neil Young "borrowed" from Jansch, so Jimmy Page retooled Blackwaterside as Black Mountain Side. "That spawned a whole scene that I knew nothing about," Jansch notes flatly, "until one day I was in the States and somebody said have you heard this track? He did the same thing with Davy. White Summer is lifted from Davy’s arrangement of She Moved Thro’ The Fair."
Years ago, Jansch’s record company started court proceedings against Page, but ran out of money. Jansch says he has never mentioned the matter of plagiarism to Page. "I haven’t said anything. He runs away. He could be friendlier." He is not particularly interested in pursuing legal redress. "I’m quite happy. I don’t have to borrow guitars anymore. What am I going to do with three Rolls-Royces?"