John Robertson McGregor’s vintage postcards sent during the Boer War

•September 20, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Great Uncle John Robertson McGregor

Dorpstraat – Heino

Born in 1880 , my great-uncle John (Jacko) Robertson McGregor studied medicine at Edinburgh in Scotland and at Dublin in Ireland at the time of the Anglo-Boer War (1899 to 1902). At some time during his period in Europe he also evidently visited the little town of Heino in the province of Overijssel in Holland.

During World War I he was in charge of the Wynberg Military Hospital in Cape Town.

While in Europe Jacko sent a number of postcards, all postmarked Edinburgh. Four of the cards were of scenes of Heino and six of various Irish scenes in Killarney. These postcards all had to pass through the military censors as the Anglo-Boer War was still in full swing when he sent them.

It would seem from the comments written on the cards that Jacko had quite a sense of humour.

Cards of Dutch scenes

Marktplein – Heino

The cards of Heino were all posted in Edinburgh on 8 November 1901, addressed to his sister, my great aunt Hetty.

It is interesting to note that Hetty’s address is simply “Robertson, Cape Colony.” The McGregors in the little town of Robertson were evidently well known and so no street address was needed!

On the card of “Dorpstraat – Heino (Town Street – Heino)” Jacko wrote the comment “Wakling (sic) her darling! Wie is hij (who is he)?”

Huize De Gunne – Heino

On the card of “Marktplein – Heino (Market Square– Heino)” he wrote, “Does this not remind you of the town from which we eloped yrs ago?” I have no idea what is meant by this comment, though it might

Molenstraat – Heino

refer to Robertson itself, though the family only moved to Cape Town in 1902.

On the card of the “Huize ‘De Gunne'” he remarks that it is “an ideal abode.” Not sure what the Dutch remark means.

Back of card showing censor’s stamp

“Molenstraat (Mill Street” is sent “to add to your collection” with the additional remark that “these will take the place of a letter.”

All four of these cards have triangular censor stamps indicating that the military censor had examined them. I wonder what he made of Jacko’s comments?

The Irish cards

Three of the Irish cards were, like the Heino set, sent to his sister Hetty. Two were sent to his mother and one to his oldest sibling, Elizabeth (Lily) Henrietta (McGregor) de Villiers. This card has been re-addressed several times, once to my grandfather. It seems that great aunt Lily was not as easy to find as her mother and sister Hetty!

The card of the “Meeting of Waters Killarney” shows a colour photo taken between 1890 and 1900 of the place where three lakes known as the Upper Lake, Muckross Lake (Middle Lake) and Lough Leane (Lower Lake) are joined.

The Gap of Dunloe (Irish: Bearna an Choimín), is a narrow pass between Macgillycuddy’s Reeks and the Purple Mountains near Killarney. It begins at Kate Kearney’s Cottage and ends with a descent into The Black Valley, a distance of approximately 11 km (7 miles).

According to Wikipedia, Innisfallen Island is home to the ruins of Innisfallen Abbey, one of the most impressive archaeological remains dating from the early Christian period found in the Killarney National Park. The monastery was founded in the 7th century by St. Finian the Leper, and was occupied for approximately 700 years. Over a period of about 300 of these, the Annals of Innisfallen were written, which chronicle the early history of Ireland as it was known to the monks.

Muckross Abbey was founded in in 1448 as a Franciscan Friary for the Observantine Franciscans by Donal McCarthy Mor. This color photochrome print was taken between 1890 and 1900. (Wikipedia)

Ross Castle was probably built in the late 15th century by one of the O’Donoghue Ross chieftains. Jacko mentions that his cousin Attie Louw from the Cape is visiting at the time of writing.

The Upper Lake is one of the three world famous Lakes of Killarney: the Upper Lake, Muckross Lake (Middle Lake) and Lough Leane (Lower Lake). Together they make up almost a quarter of Killarney National Park‘s area. On this card Jacko mentions that he has twice seen my grandmother’s brother Jan Hofmeyr who was also in the United Kingdom at that time.

All the above descriptions of the scenes are derived from the HistoGrafica website:

Apart from the intrinsic beauty of the old cards they have given me another insight into the “ancient history” of my family as well as the censorship system at the Cape during the Anglo-Boer War.

Those posted in 1902 arrived on 28 May 1902, just days before the Treaty of Vereeniging, which was signed on 31 May 1902, bringing to an end a bitter period of South African history.


Passion – Good Friday in the 21st Century

•September 19, 2012 • Leave a Comment

I first wrote this in response to the dreadful events in Ficksburg in 2011 when some policemen set upon community leader and organiser Mr Andries Tatane during a protest in that normall sleepy town. The events of the past few weeks though have added the names of the Marikana Miners to the list of martyrs, those killed in the cause of freedom and justice. The Marikana Massacre has exposed again the deep divisions that exist in this otherwise wonderful country. So I dedicate this piece to the memory of Andries Tatane and the dead of Marikana. May their deaths not be in vain.

This was going to be a post about Bach’s St Matthew Passion. It still is, in a way, but I am moved to write about something more than that.

I also think I should state up front that I am in no way attacking the police in this piece. The police have a frequently thankless task and yet they are essential to any constitutional democracy as upholders of peace and freedom.

The fact that they often have to act on the orders of a system which operates without concern for ordinary people and their issues renders the police very vulnerable and puts them in invidious positions.

The tensions involved for individual members of the police often boil over and they give in to the temptation of taking out their frustrations on more vulnerable people, with often disastrous consequences.

Policemen beating Andries Tatane. Image from

From Libya to Lebanon,

from Tripoli to Tyre,

from Babiy Yar to Ficksburg,

where cherries became drops of blood –

were you there?

From Columbine to Sendai,

the mark of the nails is visible

the crown of thorns tears the bloodied head –

a head full of pain and scorn

and still the struggle, the lonely struggle,

while the list of martyrs grows –

were you there?

From the great Mahatma and MLK;

Olaf Palme;

Lutuli and Biko and Chris Hani;

the nameless dead in the ditches of Auschwitz;

the endless plains of death in Rwanda –

were you there?

In the darkness of Harari

and the bloody roads of Ficksburg

where the name of Andries Tatane joins the list –

were you there?

When the mothers marched for bread and roses

when the martyrs marched at Tolpuddle

when the police rioted at Stonewall

when the mud came down at Aberfan

were you there?

At Haymarket, in the Plaza de Mayo;

on the Dia del Trabajador;

at Tiananmen Square and

at Peterloo and Nyanga

were you there?

When will we learn, when?

When will the killing end, when?

When will the hating end, when?

If not now, then when?

If not here, then where?

If not with me, then with whom?

When will we learn, when?

Who will break down the walls if I don’t?

Image from Wikipedia

Who will stop the tanks if I don’t?

Who will comfort the stranger if I don’t?

Who will try to understand if I don’t?

Who will learn and love if I don’t?

Who will find the lost if I don’t?

Who will hold and feed the child?

Who will stop the blood?

Have there not been enough crosses?

Have there not been enough guns and whips?

Do we need another Golgotha, another Babiy Yar?

Do we need another Birmingham, another Sharpeville?

Crucifixion by El Greco

O head of blood and wounding,

of pain and scorn so full,

do we need another Soweto?

Was one Kent State not enough,one head beneath a crown of thorns?

Is one mother’s pain not enough?

One daughter’s lonely tears not sufficient?

How many drops of blood to enliven the soil?

How many tears to water it?

No resurrection day can wipe away the pain

No resurrection day can make all all right again

Too much blood, too many tears have flowed

and we, naked and wet and cold, we still cling to each other,

cling to the warmth of the breath and the sun.

Will we be there?

O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden.

When we can say, with Loveless:

“God is our guide! from field, from wave,

From plough, from anvil, and from loom;

We come, our country’s rights to save,

And speak a tyrant faction’s doom:

We raise the watch-word liberty;

We will, we will, we will be free!”

We will be there.

Good Friday 2011

What got me writing this piece about the seemingly endless list of martyrs in the cause of freedom was the latest in South Africa. A man relatively unknown outside of his community, Mr Andries Tatane, was set upon by six armed policemen during a protest in the small Eastern Free State town of Ficksburg. He died after being brutally beaten with batons and allegedly shot in the chest with rubber bullets.

Ficksburg is a usually sleepy little town known mainly for the annual “Cherry Festival” held there. It is the centre of South Africa’s relatively small cherry industry.

The incident is the subject of an inquiry by the Independent Complaints Directorate which has been set up as a watch dog body over the South African Police Services. Six policemen are now under arrest and face numerous charges, including murder.

The vicious attack on Mr Tatane took place in front of the video cameras of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), the national TV and radio service, and shown on that evening’s 7.00 pm news broadcast.

The scene revived painful memories of similar attacks which were all too commonplace under the former apartheid regime. The difference now is that the incident is subject to an inquiry and the policemen allegedly involved are facing charges. This seldom happened under apartheid, when the police operated with almost total immunity.

The fact remains that a young, intelligent and involved community leader has been killed, his family robbed of a breadwinner, his students (he was a popular and energetic teacher) left without the guidance they had relied on.

And I am left asking – “How many more?”

Penguin Café Orchestra – an imaginary folklore

•September 19, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Introduction to a hallucinatory experience

“…the Penguin Café is an imaginary but necessary place which everybody with an ounce of spirit ought to invent for themselves.” – Robert Sandall, on the Penguin Café Orchestra (PCO) homepage.

Simon Jeffes

Some years ago, in the mid-80s I think, I was given a cassette tape made from a rather scratched vinyl LP by a friend who said, “I think you’ll like this.”

“Like” was an understatement – it blew me away, as the saying goes. The tape was of the album Penguin Café Orchestra, of which I had never heard before.

This started me on a quest to find more music of the Orchestra which was not well known in South Africa at the time

Along the way I discovered an interesting story and some more personal links. This is the story of the PCO and of my love of their music.

PCO was formed by music-school drop-out Simon Jeffes who was born in Crawley, Sussex, England, in 1949, after a hallucinatory experience due to food poisoning – a prosaic enough cause for such a transcendent experience!

Jeffes had this experience in the South of France in 1972, and the dream or vision was to him “a scene of ordered desolation. It was as if I were looking into a place which had no heart.” And then, in his words, while he was sunbathing on the beach the next day, “suddenly a poem popped into my head. It started out ‘I am the proprietor of the Penguin Café, I will tell you things at random’ and it went on about how the quality of randomness, spontaneity, surprise, unexpectedness and irrationality in our lives is a very precious thing. And if you suppress that to have a nice orderly life, you kill off what’s most important. Whereas in the Penguin Café your unconscious can just be. It’s acceptable there, and that’s how everybody is. There is an acceptance there that has to do with living the present with no fear in ourselves.”

Pastoral loveliness and Metropolis

Poster for the film “Metropolis”

The music of the PCO is somewhat like that – it has a quality of almost just being, not referring to anything else and yet, even on first hearing, to many people it sounds familiar, as though they have always known it.

PCO’s music is often labelled “New Age”, though Jeffes himself did not see it like that – it is not at all ethereal and unreal, but has a solid grounding in reality, sometimes quite harsh reality, and this is reflected in the titles of some of the pieces – “Cutting Branches for a Temporary Shelter”, “Telephone and Rubber Band”, “Dirt” (not much ethereal about that!), “The Ecstasy of Dancing Fleas” and, of course, one of their most famous numbers, “Music for a Found Harmonium”, which Jeffes composed on a harmonium quite literally found discarded on a pile of rubbish in Japan.

Craig Beaden, in his article on the PCO, wrote about the group’s “Britishness” and its tendency towards “pastoral loveliness” and concluded that the music is not classifiable, indeed, its best not to try: “Waves of understanding now wash over us: it is all this and more, so as to avoid description rather than disturb the ‘unconsciousness,’ and not dare look into the face of God, it is better to leave it as is.”

It is music that simply invites one in, there for each individual to make of it what they will.

For me, PCO’s music is like a kind of healthy comfort food for the soul, wholewheat ear candy! This is precisely because the music is not all light and happiness, but has an underlying, bracing dark side, which is thought-provoking rather than relaxing.

For an example of the dark side watch the video of “Telephone and Rubber Band” used as the soundtrack to a scene from Austrian-German film maker Fritz Lang‘s Metropolis . The Kafkaesque scene is, in Beaden’s words, “gut wrenching.” Not much of the pastoral loveliness there. Chilling, rather.

Metropolis was released in Germany in 1927, at a time when the Weimar Republic was relatively stable. The movie is about a city-state set in the year 2027 in which there is strict apartheid between the workers who live in horrible conditions below the ground and the thinkers or planners who live in great luxury and ease above the earth.

A young man called Freder, whose father, Johann ‘Joh’ Freder, is the leader or ruler of the “metroplis” of the title, falls in love with a young worker woman called Maria, and goes underground in search of her. Here he encounters the unbelievably dreadful conditions under which the workers live.

The whole story is an allegory about the separation of “head”, “heart” and “hands” which leads to disease, and the need to bring the three into harmony in order to have health and well-being.

Lang himself did not particularly like the movie and was upset when the Nazis became infatuated with it. He left Germany in 1934 for first Paris and the the United States, where he continued making films.


While the PCO was not a permanent orchestra with a fixed personnel, it did have some members who were fairly regular contributers.

The most regular was cellist Helen Liebmann, who was the one members, aside from Jeffes himself, who was in every form of the orchestra. Indeed her soulful cello was integral to the PCO sound.

Jeffes himself played a long list of instruments, some pretty normal, like electric and accoustic guitars, some very eccentric, like milk bottles, triangle, electric aeolian harp, and, of course, the famous rubber band.

Two fairly frequent contributors were trombonist Annie Whitehead and trumpeter and flugelhorn player Dave Defries. Both Whitehead and Defries also played with Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath over many years.

Another interesting contributor was violinist Nigel Kennedy.

The PCO played together in its various formats for 24 years and in that time released some nine albums, from the 1976 Music from the Penguin Café to the 1999 album Oskar Und Leni.

Jeffes died in December 1997 after a long battle with cancer.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2012

Writing on Robben Island – 6 November 2001

•September 3, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Prison walls on Robben Island

Random thoughts inspired by this amazing place

Nothing can stop the hand moving once it starts. It makes the line around the world. The line between night and day, the line between beginning and ending and then starts the beginning again while the scratches of the pen are the drumbeats of the present which dance us into the future.

No amount of knowing or not knowing can stop the rhythm of the writing. It connects as it separates and the separation becomes a connection through the ages.

And so I sit on this ancient mountain jutting shallowly out of the sea and think of the millions of people who have read about it all over the world and who by the writing are connected to the first people who sat here close to where I am now and watched the clouds tinged with pink sun’s fire just as they are now separated by thousands of years but joined by these lines I’m writing.

Leaving Cape Town for the Island

They are flesh of my flesh and bones of my bones and the air going in and out of my nostrils passed through theirs also. And so the pen scratches on breathing new life into my and their brains, our hearts connected by the rhythm of life and the breathing of the waves on the rocky shore.

And as the pain of birth is fulfilled by the pain of death, the pain of our separation is fulfilled by the pain of our connection. I can never know what they thought or felt as they looked at the clouds with the sound of the sea in their ears. But I feel their hearts beating in the beat of mine.

Bitter cold and searing heat connect me to them as the stones on the path hurt my feet. And although I cannot know their joys or their pains my tears are their tears, my fears are their fears.

The little cairn of stones in the famous lime quarry. Started by Nelson Mandela after his release from prison in 1990

And I taste the bitter salt of the sea even as I see the glory of the new day’s beginning.

And so night after night has gone by here, season followed season to bring me here to hear again the song of the earth and its people in a new key.

Each generation will grow in the humus of the suffering of the previous one and lives are enriched by hard stone chipped patiently or impatiently away.

The silence of its end

And still the pen keeps moving echoing the sound of the blood in my veins and the cries of the sea birds haggling over their catch. And my hope is to know one thing at a time. To know it in my heart and in the soles of my feet as they touch the rough stones of experience or feel the soft grass of love growing over the place of death.

What is my role in this long chain of experience symbolised by the words roughly scrawled across the page? I think it is to allow the words to flow out with the ink and connect me to all those people who through the ages past have walked here and who in ages to come will walk here again.

Me standing in Mandela’s cell in the Robben Island prison

I can’t know them but I am them. I can’t feel them but I am them. And all I can do is hope that as their words flow onto the page I don’t stop the pen but let it go on until the next one is ready to start here and pick up the rhythm of this song to keep its harmonies ‑­rising to the clouds or echoing across the bay as long as people have breath, until the last heart beat fades and this great music rejoins its source in the spheres.

And the silence of its end is the silence of its beginning again.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2008

So why should I be sad? Confessions of a coffee addict

•September 2, 2012 • Leave a Comment

ImageWhat is

If I am sad, it is not for what might have been, but for what is.

What might have been is of no interest any more. What is to come is, as they say, yet a mystery.

What is, is the source of all sadness for me. What is remains so darkly unknown, so utterly beyond my grasp.

I hear the notes of the music and they pale, fade into nothingness as quickly as they come.

I see the colours of the leaves and the sky and they too are drained and lifeless.

Only the beating of my heart is real, only the in-and-out of breath can take me forward.

The philosopher’s stone is unturned, the lover’s bedclothes unopened.

Only the heart keeps up this constant rhythm and I feel the blood in my wrists flowing like the tides of time.

The fly

The fly sits on the crust of bread, caught in the rays of sunlight flooding in through the open window.

I feel a crumb under my foot.

ImageThere is a buzzing in the garden behind me – bees?

There is a buzzing in my ears – blood pressure?

To know one is alive one must feel the blood seeping through the arteries and veins like a warm flood.

At the base of life there is just one cell and that cell contains the world.

Every thought comes from the leaves and the sky.

And is there love? Is there hope?

No doubt there are voices but their meanings escape me – I cannot catch them, nor do they feed me.

ImageLike a lizard in the sun my body warms from outside instead of from inside.

Hope is a fraud, a word spoken out of desperation to the desperate.

We can know the future – it is exactly like the present.

The eternal rhythm of coming and going, breathing in and out, carrying the weight of the body in the spirit out of which it is born.

And death comes at last like the lizard, quietly, surreptitiously into life in the sun on the garden wall and all begins again.

Beginnings and endings are all illusions.

Only this moment is real with the fly on the crust and the sun through the window, warming my back as the coffee steams next to me with its rich aroma of false enjoyment.

And in the end this moment too is dissolved in the flux, in the passing. It is all illusion.

So what to make of the illusion? Just sit with the sun on my back and smell the coffee, watching the fly on the crust.

It too will die. The coffee cup will be emptied.

So why should I be sad?

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2011