Petronella Wyatt

Village gossip

The ongoing escapades of London's answer to Ally McBeal

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Cape Town

Cape Town is as different from Johannesburg as Cheltenham is from London. Actually, this is to insult Cape Town. But whereas Jo’burg, being the country’s business capital with a population of nearly ten and a half million people, is a sprawling, bustling metropolis, Cape Town is a virtual village.

The proximity of so many people in Jo’burg, even if some of them might mug you, makes it a more hospitable city. Invitations fly in over the electric barbed- wire fences. In Cape Town, however, you are promised a vague invitation to dinner which is then cancelled as the sender has to mow his grass. Oh well, it is probably me.

Strangers can be exceptionally friendly. We met two middle-aged women in the bar of the Hotel Cape Grace on the waterfront. One was English — with a Hungarian father — and had lived in Cape Town for 20 years. She ran a letting agency. I asked her about life on the Cape, where there is noticeably less security. ‘Yes,’ she informed me proudly, ‘we haven’t had a tourist killed all season.’

She seemed to bemoan the lack of crime. ‘Nothing exciting of that kind really goes on here. You can’t even get yourself raped.’ The latter appeared her greatest grievance. She told me that she intended to walk the streets at night with a large sign around her neck reading, ‘Rapist Wanted’.

Cape Town is full of people called Cape Coloureds who are of mixed race. But the town is not aware of racism. Far from it. It must be the only major city in the world where everyone encourages minstrels. I do not refer to the chocolates. The other day in downtown Cape Town saw the annual Kaapse Klopse Karnival, with thousands of made-up minstrels costumed in top hats and twirling satin parasols like reincarnations of Al Jolson.

Muslims take part as well. Though how minstreldom and ‘Mammy’ songs can be classed a part of their culture is rather baffling. Perhaps they sang ‘Is it true what they say about Saddam?’ or ‘Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goodbye’?

Anyhow I insisted to the taxi-driver, who was white, that I intended to see these minstrels no matter what. Reluctantly he drove to where they were performing but warned me not to get out of the car.


‘A lot of them are gangland minstrels.’

Gangland minstrels? Did this mean that they were concealing tommy-guns in their trumpets?

‘It’s no laughing matter, lady, they are not what you’d call safe.’

Nonetheless I alighted from the car and strolled off to find them. Presently, the minstrels swayed down the street all dressed in yellow with bow-ties. They looked about as harmful as a bunch of snails with hernias. They certainly moved forward with the speed of a snail with a hernia. Becoming bored of this lark and failing to spot a single machinegun in a clarinet case I toddled back to the driver who seemed rather downcast that I had not been harmed.

The only scare came from the front-page story in the Cape Times newspaper. Apparently a plague of bluebottles had washed up on the local beaches. The report said that their sting was like that of a bee, only they could cause heart failure or breathing problems. For the most part, though, stings could be treated successfully with vinegar and ice.

When my dear mother read this she reacted with her usual calm and sense. I jest, of course. She refused to leave the hotel room. I said that for the price she was paying she might as well make the most of it and stay in for the next two days. I, however, was going out. This galvanised her. She proposed going down to the pool wrapped in a bathrobe with long trousers and a sort of turban pulled down over her face. I said everyone would think The Mummy had returned and flee in fright.

Her next idea was to douse herself in vinegar for protection. She rang a baffled room service and asked for a bottle of vinaigrette. This she proceeded to rub over exposed areas. It worked well — in one sense. We didn’t see a single bluebottle. But ordinary flies, thinking she was a Caesar salad, flocked to her like, well, flies. There was only one thing for it. She retreated back up to the room.