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I admit it. I am an intellectual snob. Don’t get me wrong, I admire simple wisdom. I’m a great fan of Winnie the Pooh. It’s banality that I have little time for. A world informed by nothing more than pop culture and MTV. What a joy it is to read people whose writing reflects that they
. Literature. With some intellectual and philosophical depth. And vocabulary.
It’s a bit like McDonalds. I’ve only ever eaten from there twice in my life. Not as a matter of principle. But with all the choices available, why on earth would one want to?
I can write, but I can’t
. I admire people who can write beautifully. Put pen to paper and create something aesthetically pleasing to look at, as well as practically informative. Writing for me – like talking happens between the brain and the tongue – is something that happens between my brain and my fingers. It is talking really. Talking to you, or him, or her. The voice of my fingers.
I wonder why it is that doctors have terrible handwriting. Or is that a myth? I wonder if anyone has ever taken the opportunity to do a Phd thesis on it.
“You say ‘I ask’ a lot,” said Brian, critiquing my writing. And he’s right, I do. Changed some of them to ‘I enquire’ and ‘I continue’. But it’s more than that. I do ask a lot, because I want to get to know you, and how you see the world. Your world. I recognise that someone else/I might see your world differently.
“Read the books, and interview people,” says Tim. Can’t guarantee I’ll do the former before I go. But you can be sure I’ll do the latter. I think I want to be a biographer when I grow up.
“I am the culmination of all that I’ve written,” says Tim. Reading Naipaul’s Nobel lecture he says something similar. “I feel that at any stage of my literary career it could have been said that the last book contained all the others.” But could it be, that – much like a hologram, and James Hillman’s acorn theory – our earlier work also contains the blueprint for all we may write?
I send Alex a piece she wrote three years ago. “Well I never!” she says. “I’d completely forgotten writing it and now find myself wondering how I ever had the balls to.”
Seeing John Kani’s play
Nothing But the Truth
tonight takes me back to a week some time in June/July 1988. In the papers were three articles. An interview with actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona saying that “no whites are committed to change”. One on writer-director Mbongeni Ngema being taken to court by an American actress who was suing him for hitting her with a belt. How he ‘disciplined’ his cast, he said. And on the front page, a picture of David Bruce before he went to jail for two years for refusing to serve in the South African army.
While in Los Angeles I encountered a play that I felt should be staged in South Africa. “Send me more information about your country,” said the playwright cagily on the telephone. The three articles of June/July 1988 describing the contradictions and paradoxes of SA were what he received.
Now, so many years later, it is John Kani’s wonderful play exploring so well these (and other) paradoxes and complexities. “The thing that I loved about the play,” said my ex-activist friend, Tracy, “was that race played such a small part in the whole thing”. Me too. Who says things can’t change?
I was standing in Hollywood Boulevard, waiting for a bus. I know, it sounds like the beginning of a bad joke. But it isn’t, believe me. If you’ve ever caught a bus in LA you’ll know that it’s like pulling teeth. It seems that
Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
was closer to the truth than many people would care to admit, and
did indeed buy out one of the best public transport systems in the world in the fifties in order to sell more cars. Guardian of my sanity, was my walkman. The radio in LA was pretty good.
As a non-driver, I discovered that LA is the only place in the world where I’ve been (including Johannesburg) where it felt like a problem. Walking down Sunset Boulevard one evening to the
, I had that familiar feeling of discomfort that I experienced on my first walk down Quartz Street in Hillbrow in 1984. “Well you know about sixty-four hookers work this street?” my friend Elzabé had said. (I don’t know where she got that figure.) A sign at an entrance off Hollywood Boulevard read: “Pedestrians not allowed”. Another time I felt like I was in Gilliam’s Brazil.
Today I’m without the walkman, and catching the bus with my friend Carol, a playwright, with whom I’m staying in LA. It is a sweaty humid day, and (in Hollywood Boulevard again) we encounter a pile of snow. Where did it come from? Don’t ask! This is Hollywood…
Personally I found Hollywood a bit of a dump. Just one step up from Hillbrow, even in those days, in 1988. “But of course Hollywood is no longer a place,” said Carol. It’s a concept. When you write for Hollywood, you’re simply writing for a market. Where it gets made is irrelevant.”
Finally the bus arrives. “You notice everyone’s in their own movie,” says Carol. There’s an old woman in a shiny green outfit – including tinsel – looking like an out-take from the Emerald City scene in
The Wizard of Oz
. And an old man in soiled pyjamas. “I suspect he checked himself out of a hospital,” Carol says. I imagine how scary it must be to be old and poor in LA. Carol explains to me how Reagan cut social programmes when he was governor of California. And we’re now in the run up to the Bush vs. Dukakis election. Acid flashback.
My friend Philippa – a native Johannesburger but working and playing in LA for a while – took me on some adventures there… Three am at an old movie theatre in South LA. She had befriended the elderly Hispanic caretaker, so he let us in to look around the empty theatre. The ghosts of the past were almost visible. We imagined what it must have been like in that vast expanse of foyer, now with worn carpets, when the stars frequented it in their furs. Now the theatre screens Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood movies with Spanish subtitles for the local youth.
I suppose by the law of averages it was my time. I was mugged again today (last time 1996). Though technically I’m not quite sure. Like I assume rape means penetration, I always get the feeling mugged means there has to be actual – rather than just the threat of – violence involved. Is this accurate, or have I just lived in South Africa too long? A knife at my side, and “Give me your bag. Don’t scream. Just cooperate, and we won’t hurt you.” Muggers seem to have become almost polite since my last encounter. Sixteen? Eighteen? Hard to tell. Fuckers!
How to find balance between denial and optimism. To avoid the “I’m fine,” that ignores the whispers and the signs, and also avoid the negativity that veers towards “misery loves company”. When to contemplate the world from behind the safety of the security fence, and when to take the risk and step out? Is a short life lived on the edge, better than a long one kept simple? I suppose the pragmatist in me recognises that there are worse things than death. A lifetime of pain and struggle due to excess or unnecessary risk is what I want to avoid.
I’m always intrigued by people who don’t seem to know what to do with themselves when their partner is away. (“I can’t even read, let alone write, if there is another person in the room,” says Paul Theroux. I know the feeling.) It’s a mixed blessing isn’t it, when your partner really does become your ‘other half’? I watch the caretakers of my building. Together for decades (children all grown up, grandchildren) and yet they’re still like teenagers. They work together all day and every day. A part of me fears for the one remaining when the other is gone.
When is it age, and when is it
? I find myself thinking nostalgically about times past, when… I realise with a jolt that I’m getting old(er), and that’s a normal thing to happen then. But how much is it about the particular time we live in? It’s extraordinary for me to think that there’s a whole generation of people alive, who never knew what it was like to live in a time without AIDS. They also never lived with apartheid, I have to remind myself, when it seems that things are only changing for the worse. Challenging times.
When my stepsister was little, sometimes she would say grace at the dinner table. Her mother is Catholic, and encouraged her to give thanks “for what she was about to receive”. My Dad was a believer in God, but not the church, so he was usually a bit irreverent and uncooperative at these times. One day, however, she came out with a prayer that had us all laughing - and rather sobered. She doesn’t remember it, but it’s stayed with me: “Some have appetite but no food, some have food but no appetite, thank you God for giving us both.”
“Let’s go to Botswana for the UB40 concert,” John said.
“How will we get there?”
“On the back of my truck!”
And so we did. Fourteen of us, plus six-month-old Zara.
It was Easter 1989, and the cultural-boycotts were still in place, so we didn’t get to see international acts very often. My friends Soli and Joss and I had even stooped so low as to drive all the way to Sun City to see Irene Cara (I’m gonna live forever), looking like Cinderella in a pantomime in her puffy pink dress. Missed the bomb that went off back home.
On the back of the truck we exchanged song lyrics. Someone mentioned that it was years before she discovered that “I’m a Prima Donna”, was actually “Ivory Madonna”.
For some of us (me), it was off to Home Affairs to grovel for a last minute passport. I had an artist friend forge my date of birth of birth on my passport the year before – so that I could get an “under 25” ticket to go overseas – so I’d made sure my passport was conveniently lost on my return. Not so convenient though, just before we wanted to leave for Botswana.
It was my first time in another African country that remains the real memory for me. The easy way that black and white Africans related to each other. That, and the journey on the back of the truck.
Earlier this year my friend Kate said “Let’s go overland to Namibia”.
“How will we get there?” I asked
“In a truck with Nomad Tours.”
I thought I knew what to expect, but trucks aren’t what they used to be. This one had padded seats!
I can’t say I’m sorry. But I’m glad I’ve got pictures of an earlier, slightly bumpier ride.
A hundred words is actually a lot for a poem. When you’re spreading them out in a thin string down the side of the page, there’s room for quite a lot to be said. It’s when you present a horizontal view that it seems quite limiting. Well, on some days… On others it’s more like ‘what the hell is there to write about and have I got to 100 yet?’ Not quite it seems…
My favourite poem of the last few days. By Rumi.
Be quiet and sit down.
You are drunk
and this is the edge of the roof.
Thinking about the first time I flew. I had been fighting terribly with my Dad, and it had then dissolved into the ‘no speaks’ for a few days. Theoretically I was coming to Johannesburg for a week, but somewhere inside of me I knew it would be longer. I had been feeling trapped. I’m still here twenty years later.
I didn’t realise that once you went through the security system, you couldn’t come out again, so we didn’t see each other after that for several months. It signalled more than my first air travel. Essentially I was flying the coop.
Just a few blocks from the dentist I had encountered something unusual in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, an elderly white lady walking down the road very slowly – looking vulnerable, but self–assured – with an umbrella, as though on an outing. Often I don’t encounter any other white pedestrians. Walking in Johannesburg seems to be a pastime of the poor or eccentric. Yes, I’m eccentric.
“Do you know where I can buy chocolate?” she asked. How delightful, I thought. An elderly woman, willing to step out into an unknown neighbourhood, and go on a little adventure all on her own.
“D’you know the Balfour Park Shopping Centre?” I asked.
“That’s a long way away,” she responded.
“No, just five or ten minutes. Do you want to walk with me?” So we walked, and talked.
“Are you from Israel?” I recognised the accent. Perhaps this accounted for her courage and bravery. The rules change from one war torn city to another, but I expect the pragmatism of just getting on with your life is the same.
“People don’t walk here,” she said.
“No,” I replied. “I think it’s partly a class thing,” (I didn’t mention safety. Was that irresponsible of me?)
Inevitably our talk turns to Israel. She is originally from Lebanon, and her family before that from Russia. Is it safe to catch the busses in Israel? I wonder (I’m told this is a primary target for suicide bombers.)
“You become vigilant,” says my walking companion. “‘Why is he wearing a jacket on a hot day like this?’ You notice. That’s how someone was stopped recently.”
We comment on the beauty of the purple rain falling from the jacarandas here on the street. “It’s such a beautiful city. I hope it doesn’t go the way of the rest of Africa.”
Of course I should have known the conversation was going to veer in this direction, but I decided to sidestep some of the more uneven and rocky bits. She is from another time and place, and I am trying to open myself to conversation with people who don’t think quite like I do.
She tells me the cousins she is staying with in South Africa say “the government is only interested in feathering its own nest”.
“But isn’t this true of most governments?” I suggest. “Isn’t this true of George Bush? He wants control of oil in the Middle East.”
The closer we got to the shopping centre, the more it dawned on me that she would have to make this walk back on her own. I recalled Lily Tomlin’s character in Robert Altman’s
, who knocks over a child, but helps him up, and he walks away. She never knows that he goes into a coma. Do I remember correctly that he never wakes up from it? I don’t read the newspapers. There could be a story about an elderly Israeli woman on holiday mugged and killed near Balfour Park Shopping Centre, and I would be none the wiser.
As we said goodbye, all she said was: “You have been very patient with me!”
It’s rare that I pray. But that was one of those moments. I prayed that she would get her chocolate, and wander home slowly and safely, with nothing more than her sweet-tooth satisfied, and a tale of her adventure in the streets of Johannesburg. Quite selfishly, I had seen someone that I might become in her, and longed for the freedom to do it. But in the process, perhaps I had put her – and myself – at risk.
I never dreamt just how close it was.
He sweeps the pavement with a branch that appears to have been designed for the purpose. It seems like poetry in motion to her as she passes. His inventiveness, in the absence of the appropriate tool. She contemplates buying him a broom, but wonders how much that will be interfering with the personal creativity of this street vendor. Or is this just the fanciful romanticism of one who has the luxury of choices? The dignity of this near toothless, one eyed old man, determined to keep his section of the street clean is humbling. She buys a packet of chips.
Rewriting one’s phone book is a sobering thing. Last time I thought it would be interesting to see how far back it goes, so dated it. 1995. I’m halfway, and so far three people have died. One of them my father. His number is now my stepmother’s. It was once mine.
And then there are the friends who come in couples. (Why does one name come first, and the other come second? There is no gender pattern. And yet it seems to make perfect sense.) And some no more.
And why are there always more S’s than any other letter?
So after all of that, not knowing if I’d get through one month, this is it: 100 words for 365 days straight. In some ways sobering to realise that a whole year has passed. But in others extraordinary to think what I unintentionally achieved. Two articles published, and a quarter of a Masters Degree in Creative Writing. Being the child of an alcoholic, and having attended many AA meetings, it finally made me realise the truth of “just for today”. And the “thousand mile journey” blah de blah. Just write 100 today. Who knows where it’ll take you…
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