Kosmik Karoo: Welcome to the Dinner Party in the Sky
In the cosmos we gaze at in wonder from the plains of the Karoo, the planets bop and sway to blik kitaar and the solar wind cries Marabi.
In the darkening firmament of nightfall, Astraeus switches on the celestial lights one at a time, Venus here for a while, Alpha Centauri there, flick, flick, flick, and here’s Canopus the Great Star of the South, there’s Pollux the orange giant of Gemini, and look, here comes Sirius, reigning in giant omiscience in the dominion of Canis Majoris, vying for your eye with Betelgeuse the supernova-in-waiting and Rigel the blue supergiant in Orion. Now settling into his astral stride, Astraeus, the Titan God of the Planets and the Four Winds, throws the stars around like a celestial ringmaster casting crystal necklaces to the furthest reaches of his domain like glittering Scatterlings of Africa flung into the sky by a hermit shepherd on the plains of Camdeboo.
Below the spangled ceiling, the World of the Great South glows in the shifting blue light of the Milky Way, soothing our night. How poor the northern hemisphere is under its blanket of grey; its abundance of lights swallowing the sky like a snake its prey. They may have their Eiffel Tower, their Shard and their Empire State, but our starscape towers glittering and unknowable far higher than a mere monolith ever could, for every southern eye to behold. The stars laugh at your skyscraper, scorn your fireworks extravaganza.
The spaces between the stars hold their even greater mysteries; the dark regions held in blackness far from us yet near to others, whoever they might be in their ancient worlds of knowledge so rare that even our greatest scientists can only shake their heads and wonder.
In the still of the night, the little lights tease us with their mysteries, hiding more than they reveal. The most fickle of the Weather Gods seems to derive pleasure from toying with the sensibilities of our northern clans shivering in front of their Inglenook fireplaces with their cups of Bovril and their tankards of best bitter and a thousand lights on the roof at Christmas time to compensate for what is denied them. They swap wry jokes and trade shallow laughs to assuage the poverty of their skies. Eh, did you ’ear the one about…?
It was the gunmetal ceiling that blocked out almost every night that sent me home from southern England to the southern sun. While editing a weekend magazine in Chichester, we had Sir Patrick Moore, the amateur astronomer and host of TV’s The Sky at Night, as a columnist. On Mondays I’d have to phone him to ask him for his column, because he always hadn’t quite finished it yet, a trial I dreaded as his diction was unfathomable and I battled to decipher anything he was saying. One Sunday morning I found myself at one of his soirées in Selsey, one of England’s more forgettable seaside villages. I was more excited to brush shoulders, in a distant sort of way, with his friend Brian May, the Queen guitarist. I had the grace not to ask Sir Patrick my burning question: What sky at night? In four years in Chichester I don’t recall seeing a single night sky worth getting out of bed for.
Fleeing to Sutherland in the Northern Cape’s Karoo-Hoogland, the misery of its winters was brightened by the most magnificent sky I have seen anywhere. Surely that is where Patrick Moore should have lived, with perplexed locals attending his soirées and trying to make out what he was saying, and who the longhaired muso was.
To the Great South we flee, to lie down, to gaze up. At night, beneath the arc of star-studded infinity from Sutherland to Steytlerville, from Upington to Hobhouse, the Karoo lies sleeping, eyes wide awake. Wrapped in its spell, we drive out of town, turn off the engine and headlights, lie on our backs in the veld and look up in wonderment. Our salve lies there; our cosmic carer, the pacifier of our troubled souls. We’re here, you’re alright, our endless night whispers to us; there is no end to infinity, she will always know you and you will always know her.
There, see? In that tiny pinprick of darkness, so tiny that all you see is black, lie thousands of galaxies, each containing a trillion or more stars. And each of those stars may have its own system of planets. A beautiful photo series I encountered on Facebook showed that little spot, upon which the Hubble telescope had focused for four months, drawing in the light of apparent pitch darkness. What Hubble saw was blinding. Just one of the galaxies among the 10,000 or so in that Stygian haystack needle contains eight times as many stars as our Milky Way has, the commentary observed of the largest of those 10,000, adding: “It is so large, it technically shouldn’t exist according to current physics theories.” Just one little galaxy hidden in nothingness. How smaller than minuscule we are.
In our reverie, Astraeus sets the eternal dinner table with silver and crystal, a thousand candles flickering; he’s a cosmic magician calling you to dine among the stars, his sleight of hand conjuring platters of lapis lazuli and jade, diamanté decanters and glasses magicked by Baccarat and Lalique, Tiffany and Swarovski. A legion of seraphic sommeliers pours honeyed elixirs and intoxicating liquors while Elysian pages stand serried in the blackness, ready for the snap of Astraeus’ finger to bid them serve the heavenly feast.
In the celestial kitchen, armies of culinary angels have toiled to create the fare. Silver trays of rock oysters poached in Champagne glimmer on crystals of salt, laced with silken foam, ready to be delivered to the starry-eyed guests; arms laden with golden platters groaning with Japanese abalone garnished with white Alba truffle; foie gras strewn with edible gold; Kobe beef dressed with matsutake mushrooms; a broth of swiftlet nests poached in kona nigari water and adorned with saffron, and snow crab blessed with Siberian caviar. A sorbet of blue curacao shines in Luigi Bormiolo Michelangelo liqueur glasses to ease the palate.
Astraeus beckons the wind gods to blow in a breeze from celestial wastelands to soothe the beaded brows. The table is set, the liquor poured, the guests are ushered in. A slender woman with massive black hair and a husky voice reaches for her glass before sitting down. I died a hundred times, she murmurs to no one in particular, and snaps her fingers for a refill of Louis Roederer Cristal Brut. A louche moptop with an ironic grin and an American drawl sinks into a chair alongside her. Is this the next whisky bar? he sighs mercurially, muttering under his breath, clutching a decanter of Emerald Isle Irish whiskey. This is the end, the end….
Opposite the Rider on a Storm, a Cosmic Dancer takes a seat alongside a Starman.
“Marc,” he says, to the duke-white space oddity.
“David. You were very nice to me in 1964.”
“Yeah, I was bigger than you then; you opened my show. And then…”
“I know. You died at 27. You’re a member of that ghastly club.”
“No, mate, I was going on 30.”
“Right, well. I made it to 69. The age, not the year.”
“I’d be 73 if I’d….”
A Kozmic Blues Band strikes up and a kaftanned woman sashays to the microphone. A blond man spies her like he’s smelt teen spirit, and he’s up on his feet bursting his lungs at the stage, eyes alive.
With the lights out … it’s less dangerous
Here we are now … entertain us….
A stillness falls upon the scene as Pearl sings, almost whispers, Didn’t I make you feel … like you were the only man, and the guitars grind and the diners are enraptured, moths to her flame as she unleashes her giant raspy voice.
At the other end of the long table, a scrawny man in tiny specs cradles a little boy.
“Is that…” Bolan asks Bowie.
“Yes. He’s holding him till Eric arrives.”
Three seats along, Brian, dripping wet, is in deep conversation with Jimi, who’s tuning his Woodstock Stratocaster. Opposite, Mama Cass seems distracted by the approaching trays of heavenly fare. Few have taken any notice of the dreamy young man at the far end of the table, fingering his forelocks, other than to ogle him and gossip about who he might be.
“Oh, he came long before any of us,” Bowie offers conspiratorially to Bolan. “That’s Rupert Brooke. Died at 27. The Soldier. If I should die, think only this of me: that there’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever England… But I’d rather be high.”
Bolan misses the reference.
“Song from my penultimate album The Next Day. It’s the book-end to his poem. He started it, I finished it. I’d rather be dead, or out of my head, than training these guns on those men in the sand; I’d rather be high…”
And Bowie’s up and running to the mic like he’s in a musical, brushing past Freddie-having-bitten-the-dust, snaking his hips past Leonard humming Hallelujah, the cameras following Ziggy Stardust, doo-wop girls appearing like magic, Alladin Sane leaping onto the stage and grabbing the mic from Janis, and a dead English poet watching uncomprehending. I’ve always collected personalities, he grunts into the mic, and sings.
A galaxy of stars leap to their feet to applaud Bowie’s apocalyptic annihilation of any reason for war while from the celestial Green Room come the strains of a beat poet; Satellite’s gone up to the skies…
“Come on out, Lou! Take a walk through the wild sky…”, Alladin cries, or is it Ziggy? A mince, a sashay, almost a droop and a slide to the floor, and Lou Reed and his coloured girls are going doo doo-doo, doo dit-dit-dit-doo to-doo, to-doo dit-dit-dit doo and the saxman teases out that winsome refrain but the curtains in the wings have flown open now and here’s Bing singing whitely of snow before segueing into Fly Me to the Moon and here’s Frank and now George is joining him for Something in the way she moves…
Somebody throws the microphone to the blonde with the beehive and she’s round, like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel, never ending or beginning, on an ever-spinning reel… and the world is like an apple whirling silently in space … but not so silently tonight.
“I’m seventeen, my looks can prove it…” David winks at Marc on sitting down again. “You should do a number, go on…”
And Cosmic Dancer strikes up its uncharacteristically gentle strum for T.Rex and the strange and wistful voice of Bolan who died so young caresses his words. I was dancing when I was twelve…
And Bowie’s back up singing And I’m floating in a m-most p-peculiar way, and the stars look very different today-hay-hay, and they do, and there’s a collective sigh in the firmament as the finest cheeses and liqueurs of the further reaches of the universe are served on platters of strange metals no eye present has ever seen and in goblets of enchanting hue.
Neither Marc nor David has taken notice of the man to their left in his T-shirt and jacket with the sleeves rolled up. But now the strains from the orchestra pit take on a different rhythm as marabi filters up to the heavens and a vision in a shimmering dress glides onto the stage, and every voice is stilled, every glass held in frozen tableau.
She says just four small words.
In my native village…
And the Karoo sky lights up, the Milky Way commands the universe, the Earth sings. In the folds of Camdeboo mountains, creatures great and small offer up a chorus; from the echoing caverns rise three-part harmonies propelled heavenwards by the majesty of voices. And the woman fixes her eyes on the man in the jacket alongside the Starman and the Cosmic Dancer and beckons to him, and he rises and approaches the stage in motions strange to the galaxy of stars around him, now stomping, now miming stick-fighting, and a Zoulou blanc singing African sky blue, will you see me through rings through the heavens.
At the dinner party in the sky, ears pick up the thrum of distant drums emanating from unseeable reaches of the Blue Planet below, of the click and rasp of insect and bird wing, the tread of hoof, the swish of tail, the groan and wail of the lonely lying fearful but watchful in the night. From the great plains where the shrub is low and sweet and the earth is parched red and brown, the people look skyward with open minds and hungry hearts. There we wait, eyes on the sky, patient in our Infinite Karoo. DM/TGIFood
Tony Jackman is the Galliova Food Champion of the Year 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is now available in the DM Shop. Buy it here.
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