The Gym Diary. Day One.

Hello again.

I, as is evidenced by the writing of this post, have decided to turn over a new leaf. This is something everyone should do once every couple of years. It’s good for the soul.

What you do is that you make a series of sweeping and dramatic changes to your lifestyle, and maintain them for six weeks. This is approximately the amount of time that it takes you to realise that you really were rather fond of the old leaf, and that living a cheerfully dissipated life beats the hell out of being mindful, virtuous, and dull.

But fear not. I’m just setting out. I’m still all aflutter with the limitless possibilities spreading out before me. I’m going to start writing again. Hell, I’m doing it as we speak! I’m going to go to bed early, and read the classics, and stop teasing my children, and be kind to animals, even Charlie the hell-dog. I’m going to be lean, focussed, popular and well groomed. I’m going to do all things in moderation. I’m going to wake up refreshed and motivated and keep my sock cupboard well organised.

Available for a limited time only.

Available for a limited time only.

I am, in other words, going to become the best possible version of myself, and in six week’s time, when it all goes to hell, and I go back to being the common or garden me again, everyone is going to be very sad.

And to kick the whole thing off, I have joined the gym. This is awesome because it gives me something to write about. I have tried a number of different styles of blog posts in the past. Cookery posts. Fashion posts. Poetry posts. Photography posts. Parenting posts. But never a gym post. Brace yourselves.

I started off by checking out some other fitness blogs. It all looks fairly straightforward. All you have to do is tell people what you ate, and how many reps you did on the transversal lat-extruder (if it’s a leg day), and then post a motivational picture of an eagle. I can do that.


I’m so motivated I’m doing squat thrusts as we speak.


My primary motivation in starting gym is to lose weight. Mostly because I don’t want to go out and buy seven new pairs of pants. I’m getting a little tired of leaning casually against things like John Wayne because to sit down means risking catastrophic chino failure. My secondary motivation is that I have found, as I head into middle age, that climbing the steps to our house leaves me out of breath, and I often have to take a break halfway. This would be easier to live with if there weren’t only two of them.

But I digress. Diet. At my age, you do not lose weight by simply going off to gym. You have to watch what you eat, too.

Luckily, I have always treated my body as a temple. Rather less luckily, I have always treated it as a temple to one of the ancient gods, and have sacrificed rather a lot of animals to it. Throw in some cigarettes to serve as burnt offerings and some liquor just for the hell of it, and I find myself in the rather unfortunate position where if I suddenly start eating salad and quinoa my body will go into toxic shock and I will die.

Fashion has come to my rescue. Banting. Apparently, the best way to lose weight these days is to eat lots of fatty meat and treat carbs as if they were soaked in strychnine. Nice. All I have to do is carry on eating normally then, apart from not finishing off the crusts from my children’s sandwiches (apparently in their minds that is where all the strychnine is concentrated).

SO FATTENING! That apple is going to go straight to your hips...

SO FATTENING! That apple is going to go straight to your hips…

I will, however, have to eat a few vegetables to fight off rickets. I usually get most of my vegetables in the form of pizza toppings and the stuff they use to bulk up burgers with, but those come with the new enemy of all that is good and pure in the world; carbs. Fear not. I have a plan. Smoothies.

So here we go; the obligatory gym diary daily food list…


A 500ml smoothie.


4 scoops of protein shake left over from the time five years ago I was going to become a bodybuilder. It was a fun six weeks.

Milk. To make it smooth.

4 pieces of broccoli. To give the smoothie the sort of colour that could only be associated with something healthy. I have seen people in health shops buying smoothies with grass in them for the same reason (they grow it in tiny boxes on a shelf behind the counter, like bonsai lawns), but sadly it is winter here and our lawn is dry and brown.

Lawn bonsais. Ideal for deeply spiritual zen types who don't have decades to waste clipping tiny trees.

Lawn bonsais. Ideal for deeply spiritual zen types who don’t have decades to waste meddling with tiny trees.

4 pieces of cauliflower. The only packet of broccoli I could find came mixed with cauliflower, and I don’t know what else to do with it.

4 brussels sprouts. Anything as vile as a raw brussels sprout has to be good for you.

1 spoon of instant coffee. Because all this buggering around with brussels sprouts doesn’t leave me enough time for a second cup of coffee in the morning. And I need it.

1 raw egg. Contents only. I tried putting a whole egg in once during my bodybuilding phase, to save money on calcium supplements, but the powdered eggshells stuck to the inside of my mouth, and I couldn’t sleep that night because whenever I ground my teeth together it sounded like someone was dragging an anvil across a rough concrete floor.

Trust me. Calcium supplements are worth every penny.

Trust me. Calcium supplements are worth every         penny.


Biltong. For those of you not from South Africa, that is a dried piece of cow with a strip of rich, buttery fat down the side. Ten years ago, living on biltong would have been a one-way ticket to a coronary bypass. These days, though, it’s even better for you than muesli, despite not having changed at all. Science rocks.


One can of tuna in vegetable oil. When I googled this to see if it was suitable, I discovered that vegetable oil was a toxin, and I might die, but it was too late and there was no other protein in the house.


3 dry roasted coffee beans I found in the coin pouch of my wallet. Don’t try this. Dry roasted coffee beans are grittier than powdered eggshell, and mysteriously don’t taste at all like a tall skinny latte.

And that was it. It may sound a little Spartan, but my day’s meals were actually rather well thought out. The smoothie left me feeling so nauseous that the idea of food became repellent to me for the rest of the day. And I’m pretty sure that retching burns a lot of calories.

Step 1 of the 23thorns diet is the hardest step to master.

Step 1 of the 23thorns diet is the hardest step to master. This guy is demonstrating almost perfect technique.

And so on to the gym.


But not to work out. Not yet. First I had to navigate the changeroom.

I’ve been to a gym or two before. I know what gym changerooms are supposed to look like. The one at school was made of raw concrete and smelled of adolescent testosterone and old socks. Then I frequented a gym owned by a chap who competed in the “World’s Strongest Man” competition. The changeroom was much the same, except it smelled of adult testosterone and old socks, and was filled with vast men straining to force themselves into those little wetsuit things powerlifters wear (apparently they’re a little snug) and eating whole chickens.

You ask him why he's wearing a leotard. I'll be hiding behind this tree over here.

You ask him why he’s wearing a leotard. I’ll be hiding behind this tree over here.

This was not what I found at my new gym. I strode purposefully into a room that looked like it was designed by the same people who designed the Apple Store; all shiny white surfaces and concealed lighting. And then I froze. In front of me was a line of ten little white vanity tables, each with its own mirror. But that’s not all. Half of them were equipped with hairdryers. The other half had those electric tong things people use to iron their hair.

Christ! I had started off my six week training program by wandering into the women’s changeroom. Now I would have to find a new gym and have my appearance changed by an underground plastic surgeon! I froze, and began to back slowly toward the door, hoping to escape undetected. But it was not to be. A small but noisy group burst in through the door behind me. A group of men.

Yup. Gyms have changed a little since I was last in one. They now provide a handy little tables for men to line up their grooming products on while they iron their hair.

Electric tong things. Ideal for ironing your hair and making tiny toasted sandwiches.

Electric tong things. Ideal for ironing your hair and making tiny toasted sandwiches.

It all made a little more sense when I undressed to put on my gym clothes. I glanced up to see a young man who looked like he had been stung by a swarm of bees taking shirtless selfies in the changeroom mirror. Apparently whoever he intended to show them to would not object to the inclusion of a pale, doughy, and naked forty-two-year-old in the background. Maybe that was the point, and I’m soon going to be appearing on a specialist website called “Naked Dads 2015”.

We don't have Africanised killer bees round here. We have African killer bees. Even if their stings don't kill you it can take weeks for the swelling to go down.

We don’t have Africanised killer bees   round here. We have African killer bees. Even if their stings don’t kill you it can take weeks for the swelling to go down.

I didn’t take it up with him, though, because he seemed so very happy. And so very dedicated to steroids. His hair, by the way, was immaculate. Apparently testosterone doesn’t work the quite same way it did when I was twenty anymore.

And so to my workout. Which was rather dull. Bearing in mind my struggles with the steps to my house, I have decided to start slowly.

I strode purposefully up to a machine with two footrests on moving metal plates, and two moving handlebars like ski-poles. I hopped up like I knew what I was doing, and glanced down in front of me. It had a screen. A touchscreen. With an entire menu of options. Not one of which I understood. Oh, well. I pushed some buttons and began to move my legs around.

Which was a problem. I thought it was one of those machines that guided your legs around it a skiing motion. It wasn’t. The footplates were suspended from strong metal cords on pulleys that let your legs go just about anywhere. Which mine proceeded to do.

I glanced up to my left, where a woman was using her machine to climb some imaginary stairs. To my right, a round and florid man was using his to practice the moonwalk. As one does.

Right. I tried to compromise between the two (if one of them was doing it wrong, I would only be doing it half wrong), and ended up bouncing my legs around like a panic-stricken ostrich trying to free itself from quicksand while being menaced by a Yorkie. I narrowed my eyes, set my jaw, and tried to look like whatever it was I was doing, I was, at least, doing it on purpose.

I was doing a vertical version of this.

I was doing a vertical version of this. On purpose.

And then things really went to hell. I glanced down at the touchscreen. There was a section called “games”. I let go of one of the handlebars and tried to push it. After three tries, I got there by timing the upward bounce of my left leg with the forward stroke of my right handlebar. It was well worth the effort. The game menu popped up in front of me. And there, at the top of the list, like a monument to human stupidity, was “Angry Birds”. I was entranced. What sort of criminal deviant would attach a game like “Angry Birds” to a machine that requires you to flail your arms and legs around like a teenage girl with a spider on her back? And what kind of moron would try to play it?

I gave up after fifteen minutes when my yellow bird kept shooting straight down into the ground and the gym attendant started nervously approaching me like he thought I might be having some sort of seizure.

I spent the rest of my workout musing that, while yoga pants might look rather fetching on the right sort of woman, they made the elderly man on the treadmill in front of me look like he had had a backside transplant with a warthog.

It was a very long workout.

It was a very long workout.

And that was that. Or at least it should have been. It wasn’t. I had to go back to the changeroom.

This is where things get a little dodgy. I try to keep things clean around here, but I fear that I am going to have to discuss male genitalia. Sorry. In order to keep things professional, I shall be using the word most favoured by scientists and the medical profession; “dong”. I shall also be using the word “scrotum”, since it is an honest and solid word, like “lozenge”, or “vestibule”, and is nice to say even if the article it describes is a little less appealing. Scrotum. Say it out loud, rolling your “r” slightly. It is the verbal equivalent of a brisk walk in the countryside on a bracingly cold day. You’ll feel refreshed and worthy.

The first thing I noticed as I went through the door was a rotund, hirsute chap at one of the vanity tables blow-drying his chest hair. This struck me as being a little unusual. I mentioned it to Mrs 23thorns, and she felt it was perfectly normal, and that he was probably getting ready for a business meeting. Mrs 23thorns is a little odd. I thought he was preparing to commit some sort of sex crime.

I can't imagine why else he could have been doing it.

I can’t imagine why else he could have been doing it.

I soon forgot about him, though. As I rounded a corner I was confronted by a friendly little chap who greeted me with a broad and open smile. I smiled back, a little nervously because you shouldn’t smile at people in changerooms, and turned to open my locker. I grabbed my bag and turned around again. He was still standing there, legs slightly apart and hands on his hips.

“How,” he said, “was that workout?” He was naked.

And this is where the situation slipped away from me. I went to a boys-only primary school. And a boys-only boarding school. I know the rules about male group nudity. The first, and by far the most important, is that you may never make eye contact with a dong. It’s just not proper. It makes people edgy.

I immediately glanced down at my new friend’s dong. I couldn’t help myself. His scrotum was clean shaven, as smooth as a new-born baby, albeit one that had been left in the bath for too long.

That is not, however, why I looked at it. We live in a permissive age, and if someone chooses to spend his free time waving razor blades around his most treasured possessions, far be it from me to judge.

“I’m going to be in the bathroom for a little while. Please don’t make any sudden loud noises.”

Nope. The reason I could not avoid looking at his scrotum was that it was bright green. And covered in scales. It was, in fact, tattooed to look like a folded set of reptilian wings. This might seem strange, but it actually made perfect sense, because the dong itself was tattooed to look like a dragon, complete with horns and large, staring eyes. Which was a little disconcerting.

Even more disconcerting was the fact that my new friend had obviously enjoyed having his dong stabbed repeatedly with an ink-filled needle quite a lot more than he did chatting naked to strangers in changerooms. The unfortunate result of this was that his dragon in its current state looked like the result of several generations of inbreeding. The eyes weren’t right. What was obviously a threatening snarl at more exciting moments now just looked like the result of a major stroke. And to top it all, it was hanging its head in shame like the hero of a children’s story titled “Boopy, The Sad Little Dragon Who Couldn’t Find a Friend”.



It’s just not right. I have always felt that one should live and let live. If you are gay, be gay. I don’t care. It’s none of my business, and it certainly takes nothing from my life. Black? Super. Keep it up. There is no need to change on my account. Amish? Keep right on Amishing. And I think it’s really cool that your little carriages have indicators and brake-lights. Although I’m a little concerned as to how you wire those up to the horses. I hope it’s SPCA approved.

My enlightened and progressive attitude, however, apparently has its limits. Society needs its rules. And for me, as of this afternoon, the most important of these should be that if you must insist on illustrating your private parts like a special-needs dragon, you should not be allowed to point it at strangers while you ask them about their day. I swear the thing’s eyes followed me around the room as I showered and dressed.

So that was it. Day one of the 23thorns six-week life-adjustment programme. So far so good. I’ll do them same again tomorrow. Except that I will be changing inside one of the toilet cubicles. I will splash myself down with water from the cistern, and dry myself with toilet paper. Unless I’m going to be going into a business meeting. Then I might risk nipping out to use a hair-dryer. When in Rome…


Bieber Pants

Something most distressing happened to me the other day. I went shopping. For pants.

I don’t often go shopping for pants. Throughout most of my life, pants have just appeared out of the ether and then stuck around until they were cruelly discarded by Mrs 23thorns for developing a few minor gaping holes. But this was an emergency.

I had to go through to our head office to do vaguely serious and important things, and so I had put on some vaguely serious and important clothes. It was all going fairly well. I was feeling vaguely serious and important. Then I dropped the girl-child off at pre-school. As I got out of the car to walk her in, I was alerted by both a chilly breeze in an untoward place and a high-pitched shriek from behind me that all was not right in the world.


And indeed she could. As could the rest of the parking lot. Fortunately, a few short months ago the girl-child helped Mrs 23thorns flash the same parking lot by attempting to climb the hem of her tube-top dress, so I get to hang onto my title as the dignified one in the family. In the land of the blind…

Mrs 23thorns is a bit of a liability at weddings...

Mrs 23thorns is a bit of a liability at weddings…


My pants had fallen victim to denim fatigue, and were now sporting a four-inch gash in an unfortunate spot.

But fear not, gentle readers. Help was at hand. The clothing shop round the corner was having a 50% off sale. All I had to do was sidle into the shop with my back to the wall, like a navy seal infiltrating a terrorist lair, and my day would be on track again. Or so I thought.

I had, up until that moment, felt that I had a fairly solid understanding of how pants worked. All you had to do was find a pair with the right sized waist, and gravity took care of the rest. Not any more, it would seem.

I found a few pairs that had the right sized waist, and nipped off to try them on. It didn’t go well. The first pair I tried on appeared to have been designed by an off-duty condom manufacturer. The waist fit me just fine, but the rest of the pants clung to me like yoga pants on a woman whose gym outfit had more to say about her positive body-image than it did about her current reality. Right. So these would be skinny jeans then.

I’m nobody’s expert, but I had always assumed that the “skinny” part of skinny jeans referred as much to the emaciated hipsters wearing them as it did to the pants themselves. The designer of my current pair shared no such assumption. Anyone who feels that someone with a waist the size of mine should be nipping around with the equivalent of rubber fetish-wear gripping their southern hemisphere like an angry python must be criminally insane. No.


Hubba hubba!

Hubba hubba!

This was when things turned truly nasty. As I tried on the next pair, things were looking good. They were comfortable. Spacious. Some might even call them baggy. Until, as I reached the bottom half, my feet were suddenly funnelled into narrow tubes with the dimensions of a garden hose. WTF?

I hauled them on out of morbid curiosity, and stood to admire myself in the full length mirror. Jesus! I am not easily embarrassed, but as I stood alone in that tiny, cold, impersonal cubicle, I felt thoroughly ashamed. At the age of forty, I had somehow been duped into putting on a Justin Bieber man-nappy, and now my life would never be the same again. I looked like a man whose calves had been squeezed so tightly that he had soiled himself. No.


Hello, ladies.

Hello, ladies!

In the end, I found a piece of fashion that worked for me. They were called “low-cut” jeans. They were specially designed to save valuable yards of denim for the manufacturer by lowering the waist by two inches, ostensibly to show off my six-pack to full effect. I don’t have one of those.

Providentially, though I happen to be entering that magical phase of life when I will soon have to make the all-important decision of whether to buckle my pants above my belly like Peter Ustinov or Tweedledee and Tweedledum, or below it like a portly gunslinger. That decision has now been taken out of my hands. Bang bang.


I cannot help but feel I have missed an opportunity here.

I cannot help but feel I have missed an opportunity here.

I left the pants shop feeling a little put out. Not because I had been duped into putting on Bieber nappy-pants after exposing myself to a field of toddlers and their mothers. No. Round here that passes for an ordinary Friday. I had, though, been reminded of the strange but fundamental power we have all handed over to that shadowy and sinister group, the fashionistas, and the curious ways in which they abuse it.

This is not about pants. It’s about the things these people won’t let us have. Just as they have arbitrarily declared it cool to wear pants that cut off the circulation to your feet while leaving room for at least nine ferrets below your crotch, they have taken the very best ideas in fashion and destroyed them.

So what am I on about? Observe;  

Photochromatic Sunglasses

I have worn glasses since my early teens. Which has been character building, because in the eighties, glasses did not look like this;


They looked like this;


Which, I am sure will agree, could never be mistaken for cool.

Unless you replace the clear lenses with darkened ones. Then they look like this;


It hard to believe it’s the same guy! I could never be that guy, though. It just wasn’t practical. I need glasses to see, and dark glasses don’t work so well inside. So wearing sunglasses would have involved managing two sets of expensive prescription glasses. I can’t even manage my car keys.

And then a miracle happened. I discovered photochromatic lenses. They are a wonder. You spend the day wandering around in a normal, clear pair of glasses without a care in the world until you step out into the sunlight. Bam! You’re wearing sunglasses, and people keep mistaking you for Tom Cruise.

I rushed out and got a pair. I rocked. Indoors, I was a mild-mannered bookseller. Outdoors, I was a sun god. A babe magnet. I was cool. Or not.

My photochromatic glasses led me to make a rather unpleasant discovery; my own home had been infiltrated by the enemy.

Yes, good people. I am sorry to be the one who has to tell you this, but Mrs 23thorns is a secret fashionista. A spy. A double agent. And the fashionistas had decided, for reasons which have never been made clear, that photochromatic glasses were uncool.

Mrs 23thorns set to work immediately on a cunning plan. She launched a clandestine campaign to convince our friends and neighbours that I was a secret policeman. Odd things began to happen. One of my colleagues reported his brother-in-law to me for keeping three dogs without a licence. Our neighbour started locking his children in a hidden room behind his upstairs shower, and only letting them out to play in the garden when I was away at work. I started to grow suspicious.

Things came to a head when I popped down to the park for a stroll one Sunday afternoon and a man in a raincoat and fedora sidled up to me and announced that “the troubled lark has flown westward with the dawn”. I asked Mrs 23thorns what the hell she thought was going on.

“I have no idea.” She said, as inscrutable as an owl. “Maybe it’s all somehow connected to your shaving your head at the same time as you started wearing Spetsnaz glasses”

I know where your children go to school. I would hate for anything to happen to them...

I know where your children go to school. I would hate for anything bad to happen to them…


I stopped wearing photochromatic glasses.

Yup. The people that sent someone sashaying down a stage like this;


This is either high fashion or a man in oven gloves being eaten by a woollen killer whale.

This is either high fashion or a man in oven gloves being eaten by a woollen killer whale.

have decided that this;




just doesn’t look right.

Oh, well. I would just have to buy some prescription sunglasses. No biggy. I could just carry them around in a case that clipped onto my belt.

Cases That Clip Onto Your Belt.

I could not carry them around in a case that clipped onto my belt.

Why could I not carry them around in a case that clipped onto my belt?

Because it would be too @#$% easy, that’s why.

I like multi-tools. What could give a man more pleasure than a pair of pliers that has a knife blade and a tiny saw folded into the handle, and has a special metal spike at one end designed to dig small stones out of horse’s hooves?

Have I ever had call to dig small stones out of a horses hoof? I have not. But if that day ever comes, you can be damn sure I will be prepared!

I hang around the local donkey sanctuary every weekend just in case...

I hang around the local donkey sanctuary every weekend just in case…

I have about ten multi-tools. I have a Leatherman. I have a Gerber. I have mini-multi-tools and enormous ones. And I don’t just limit myself to pliers, either. I have scissors. I have a shifting spanner. I even have a tiny axe. Overkill? I think not. Should a tiny tree ever fall across my path, I will not be daunted. I will whip out my tiny axe and set things right with a few tiny but well-placed blows.

IIIIIIIIIII'm a lumberjack and I'm OK...

IIIIIIIIIII’m a lumberjack and I’m OK…


Why ten? Am I a collector? No. Am I mentally ill? No. It’s the fashionistas’ fault again.

Every single multi-tool I own came in a handy black webbing pouch. With a belt loop on it. Brilliant. You could slip it onto your belt next to your sunglasses case and cell-phone holster! Your handy little friend could be permanently within reach, always there should you need to disarm a bomb or sort out a lame horse or tighten a series of bolts in a variety of sizes for a damsel in distress. Ideas that simple but elegant leave me speechless.


I don't know what this is, but I need one. Now.

I don’t know what this is, but I need one. Now.

The same cannot be said for Mrs 23thorns. “No.” She said.


“You are not allowed to wear things clipped to your belt.”

“Why not?”

“It’s the rules”

“Oh. No multitools.”

“No multitools.”

“But I can carry my sunglasses case there?”


“No. Cellphone?”

“Don’t make me laugh.”

Ha! I am not one to get pushed around by a covert fashionista. I am, however, one to get pushed around by two covert fashionistas. Mrs 23thorns made this person;


"Subtle" is her middle name. Her first name is "Not".

“Subtle” is her middle name. Her first name is “Not”.

And then set her to work stopping me from carrying things on my belt. Ten multi-tools? At any given point I have only ever been in active possession of one or two multi-tools. A loose-bolted damsel in distress would not be all that impressed if you spent the first five minutes deciding which tool you were going to use to tighten her loose bolts.

And then, a couple of years ago, my multi-tool went missing. No biggy. I tend to lose things. I bought a new one. It disappeared. I looked around for a while, and then got another one. Two weeks and it was gone. I bought another one. And so on.

And then, about six months ago, I decided to clean out my daughter’s room. Under her bed, I found a nest of tiny handbags with Barbie and Hello Kitty on them. The budding fashionista had obviously decided that Hello Kitty bags just don’t look right unless there is something inside them. The bags were all stuffed with an odd assortment of items that left me thinking she might be developing some sort of psychological disorder.

All of the bags had stones in them. Those little grey stones they mix with tar to pave roads. There were sticks, empty make-up cases, broken sunglasses, odd little offcuts of material, and multitools. All of my multitools. Maybe she had been using them to dig stones out of the road while we thought she was napping.

Fine. I know when I am beaten. No more clipping cases onto my belt then. I couldn’t even be too cross with the girl-child. She was a mere pawn in a far larger game. I detected the fell hand of Mrs 23thorns in this. Why?

Because she and her henchpersons, who would stand and clap when presented with these;


Cruel. They put a bucket on the one girl's head and then made her dress the other one.

Cruel. They put a bucket on the one girl’s head and then made her dress the other one.

Had decided to declare war on the hideousness of this;


I have nothing to say about this. I'm just going to stand here breathing heavily.

I have nothing to say about this. I’m just going to stand here breathing heavily.


I am one of those fortunate souls who came of age in the eighties. We had the best music, we got to do fantastic things with hair gel, and our clothes regularly caused epileptic fits and unprovoked magpie attacks.


The bright colours and hairspray fumes often led to double vision.

The bright colours and hairspray fumes often led to double vision.

Into this golden age stepped a fashion revolution.

Being a man isn’t easy. We have things to carry around. Wallets. Car-keys. Cellphones and multitools that would be more conveniently CLIPPED ONTO OUR BELTS. We have pockets, of course. Yay! Someone attached tiny cotton sandwich bags to the inside of our pants so we could conveniently carry around our house keys, car keys, cellphones, wallets and sunglasses. Lucky us!

We could, I suppose, carry these things around in masculine, stylishly understated leather and canvas bags. But we can’t. And I can’t even blame the fashionistas for this. They think masculine, stylishly understated leather and canvas bags are just super. Nope. This time it was the “blokes”.

Too girly.

Too girly.

The sort of people who attend formal occasions dressed in Manchester United football shirts and carry their sunglasses around on their necks decided it was unseemly for men to carry bags around.


The men of the world are very busy, so we put this guy in charge of making our style decisions.

The men of the world are very busy, so we have put this guy in charge of making our style decisions.

So now the only people who can carry around masculine, stylishly understated leather and canvas bags are the sorts of people who work in the creative departments at advertising companies and wear those glasses, and hippies, if they put some tassels on them.


Yup. Those glasses.

Yup. Those glasses.

But I digress. The eighties. The fashion revolution. May I present, good people, the moonbag;


FIVE ZIPS! Excuse me while I do a little more heavy breathing...

FIVE ZIPS! Excuse me while I do a little more heavy breathing…

They were brilliant. Not only did they hold all of our man-stuff, but they were stylish, too, made of the same sleek black leather as the jackets we all coveted (but are now only worn by Eastern European internet-bride salesmen). For once, we were allowed to have something that was both practical and fashionable. It was too good to be true.

The fashionistas stepped in. No more moonbags. But they were not solely to blame. Yup. I’m looking at you, America!

The moonbag revolution was destroyed by the United States, because they don’t know how to speak properly. “Moonbag”, you see, is a South African term. The good people of the States took one look at our moonbags and decided that they must be destroyed.

“Let us,” they said, “call it a fanny pack.”

No, America! That is not what that word means! And you’re not fooling anyone. You know as well as we do that the moonbag is worn in the front, not the back.

That was it. The fashionistas could not let them live. Can you imagine this year’s fall collection being paraded down a Paris runway subtly accessorised by something called a “fanny pack”?

That was it. Now moonbags are reserved almost entirely for portly middle-aged tourists who feel too self-conscious to walk around the back streets of Rio in T-shirts with “PLEASE ROB ME!” written on the back, but don’t want to miss out on any of the fun.

To recap; the people who celebrate this;

Ridiculous! His socks don't even match his formal work-beanie!

Ridiculous! His socks don’t even match his formal work-beanie!

Will not tolerate this;

Who are we to question The Rock?

Who are we to question The Rock?


I am a loyal and faithful husband. For nearly two decades, I have remained devoted to Mrs 23thorns. But I have a confession to make. Every now and then, I fall in love. With another. It happened again the other day.

I was walking past a camping shop when something caught my eye. And when I say caught my eye I mean reached out, grabbed my eyeballs firmly in both hands and choke-slammed them into the ground. Behold!


I'm going to pause for five minutes so you can regain your composure.

I’m going to pause for five minutes so you can regain your composure.

Is that not a thing of surpassing beauty? That, my friends, is the Swiftwater Croc, and it is a gift from the gods. Picture the scene; you are trudging through the mosquito-harried shadows of a forest, the shrill scream of the cicadas driving you ever forward as your feet disintegrate into blood-soaked tatters of loose skin held together in an iron-hard leather prison when it happens. A puddle. Right there in the middle of your path. Bugger. Your outdoor time is over. Time to turn around and go home. Your could, I suppose, power forward through the puddle, but your socks would get wet, and then you would get granny-finger toes, and your feet would smell like a skunk got stuck in a teenage boy’s laundry basket.


Hiking is a great way to connect with nature. These shoes alone contain an entire ecosystem...

Hiking is a great way to connect with nature. These shoes alone contain an entire ecosystem…

It doesn’t have to be that way. Picture this; you are skipping through the dappled sunlight of a forest glade, the gentle hum of the insects lulling you into a near meditative state as your feet nestle down into a soft, enveloping cloud of foam when it happens. A puddle. Right there in the middle of your path. Yay! You skip through the puddle like a happy toddler to emerge on the other side with almost instantly dry feet as the water sluices out through the open weave waterproof mesh uppers of your Swiftwaters. You emerge into a sun-drenched meadow filled with daffodils where you flop to the ground to eat Black Forest Ham and gherkins, and spend the rest of the day taking photographs of butterflies.


It's hard to make out, but she's wearing Swiftwater Crocs.

It’s hard to make out, but she’s wearing Swiftwater Crocs.

They are making all terrain Crocs! And I want some! I will not, however, be getting some. Yup. The fashionistas took one look at how comfortable and practical Crocs were and immediately blacklisted them.

I had some Crocs once. Not all-terrain Crocs, but close. They were camo Crocs. When I wore them to mow the lawn, it looked like I was floating an inch above the grass. And didn’t have any feet. I once wore them out to the park along with my camo shorts and camo hoodie. All you could see were my legs from the knee down to the ankle. I kept the kids entertained for ages by simply walking through the flowerbeds. Sadly my shins were attacked by a pair of unsecured and short-sighted corgis, and we had to dash off to casualty, but it was fun while it lasted.


If you are reading this out in your garden, I assure you there is a picture of a shoe above this caption.

If you are reading this out in your garden, I assure you there is a picture of a shoe above this caption.

But apart from the odd myopic canine related incident, my Crocs made me happy. Whatever minor style infringement they caused was more than made up for by the fact that they were insanely comfortable.

They did not, however, make Mrs 23thorns happy. She refused to go out in public with me when I was wearing them. She pretended it was a fashion thing, but in truth I suspect she was uncomfortable with the way my feet kept disappearing when I walked across patches of grass.

In the end, our bloodhound resolved the issue. I came home to find a pile of camo foam chunks lying on the lawn. Curiously enough, the chunks smelled rather strongly of bacon. I asked Mrs 23thorns about this, and she said she thought the dog was ill. I asked what sort of illness smelled of bacon.

“Biliary” she said in a strange, strangled little voice. You learn something new every day. I wanted to find out more, but Mrs 23thorns was clearly deeply upset. Her lip was quivering and I swear I saw a tear roll down her cheek.

That was that for my Crocs.

To recap. Good;

Wait 'til you see him go down the stairs.

Wait ’til you see him go down the stairs.


This might not have been the ideal choice of picture...

This might not have been the ideal choice of picture…

Removable pants legs.

Johannesburg has a funny old climate, especially in winter. The mornings and the evenings can be bitterly cold, but the days can get uncomfortably warm.

The warm winter days thing is quite nice, but it makes getting dressed a bit tricky. For most of my life I have had to settle for putting on several layers of clothes in the morning and then leaving various items at various people’s houses as the day warmed up. This works just fine until about four o’clock, when you find yourself wandering around semi-naked with temperatures rapidly dropping back down toward zero.

Most of my life. Not all of it. For a golden winter or two, I chanced upon a perfect solution. Cargo pants with legs that detach below the knee. They were a gift from the gods. I would set off at dawn with toasty, well covered shins. At about eleven, when others were beginning to shed items of clothing and sweat up a storm, I would reach down and unzip my pants legs and pop the lower halves into a pocket. Smugly. It rocked.

It's like a wearable magic trick.

It’s like a wearable magic trick.

And then things just got better. I found a pair where the legs were held on with Velcro. If you have never sat down next to a complete stranger, leaned conspiratorially close and whispered “I hope you don’t mind if I slip into my shorts”, and the slowly pulled off your pants legs with a slow, tearing “hhhhrrrrrttt” sound while maintaining unbroken eye-contact, you have never lived.

It was too good to be true. Mrs 23thorns and her kind took against them. This time, at least, we were spared any nasty confrontations. The bloodhound fell prey to another bout of biliary and ate the legs off my convertible cargo pants before Mrs 23thorns could swing into action. The garden smelt like bacon for days. Mrs 23thorns was devastated. When I asked her about the incident, she sprayed coffee out of her nose and had to leave the room.

Again; good

Wait 'til you see the back of his pants.

Wait ’til you see the back of his pants.




The memories all come flooding back...

The memories all come flooding back…

I may have made the odd outrageous claim in the past, but this isn’t one of them. This is real. The fashionistas are messing with us. And if you aren’t quite feeling it, consider this.

Skinny jeans are the most fashionable men’s pants right now.

Apple makes the most fashionable cellphones right now. Their latest model is the iPhone 6

Fashionable men are not allowed to clip their iPhone 6’s onto their belts.

The iPhone 6 bends


Coincidence? I think not.

How to Decorate with Books.


Another post from my book blog that I hope is fun enough to put up here…

Originally posted on Why Books?:

I did something a little silly the other day. I bought some books. Fifty of them.

It was never my intention to buy fifty books. I just wanted to get the kids out of the house so that my wife could finish a project she was working on. Exclusive Books was having a pop-up warehouse sale. R10 a book. In other words, Exclusive Books was giving away books. So I gave the kids R50 each and hauled them off to Kramerville.

Then things became a bit of a blur. There were too many people there. And too many books. The sale rapidly degenerated into a feeding frenzy, and a red mist descended over my eyes. I am not admitting to anything, but there is a good chance I might have pulled out a significant proportion of a hipster’s beard in order to win an engaging little hardback about pirate economics…

View original 2,212 more words

World Blog Hop

I am not much of a joiner. Or at least I never have been. I have always clung to the vague hope that this would make me seem windswept and interesting, like Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, but the sad truth of the matter is that I am bulky and blond and blue-eyed, and started developing smile-lines around my eyes when I was about seventeen. The bulky, blue-eyed, smile-lined people of the world might carry many things around with them, but an air of mystery isn’t one of them.

Which is how this half of the band "Modern Talking" was able to get away with murdering 37 prostitutes and a dental hygienist in the 80's.

Which is how this half of the band “Modern Talking” was able to get away with murdering 37 prostitutes and a dental hygienist in the 80’s.

I’ve been a bad blogger. Since I started doing this, a couple of people have done me the honour of nominating me for the various awards that seem to float around on WordPress. I have spurned them. Not because I have not felt grateful or flattered, but because despite my bulky, blue-eyed smiliness, I have always been fairly socially awkward, and I quail at the idea, fundamental to all of these awards, of passing the award on to others.

This is wrong. I have always tended to be a little inward looking, and a tad cynical, but I was lucky enough to marry someone who wasn’t, and have spent the last couple of decades learning, slowly, that being actively kind is not actually a bad thing. Popping into someone else’s life to tell them that you think they’re doing something cool isn’t a vile imposition. It’s just nice.

So what am I on about? Well, since I started doing this, a few people out there have been kind enough to pop into my blog fairly regularly over the last couple of years, not just to have a look, but to make the whole thing seem worthwhile by having something to say about it all. I have, as the isolated, cynical sort, given very little back. Which makes the part of me that has spent the last few decades learning from someone better than me feel awful.

Fear not! Today I start. There’s a bunch of weirdo’s following my blog. Not the wrong sort of weirdo’s; the sort that spend their afternoons sweating heavily in panel vans outside schools. The right sort. The sort that are actively living the lives that all of us imagine that we would be happier living. People who are moving out to the country and growing their own food. People who make stuff. From nothing. Hippies. I envy these people. I admire them. I’d love to join them for a cup of coffee. But not a meal. Half of them seem to be vegans. No bacon.


You can make a panel van seem far less ominous by simply painting a friendly slogan on the side. I just takes a little effort.

You can make a panel van seem far less ominous by simply painting a friendly slogan on the side. It just takes a little effort.

They’re all doing something fun. It’s called a World Blog Hop. I have no idea how it works. But they’ve been kind enough to invite me along. And I’m going to do it! Which is a problem!

The buggers all make stuff. They knit things and sew things and draw things and bake things. I don’t. I sell books. Although, in my defence, I did once make a table out of old pallets. And some children (I made some children. I didn’t make a table out of some children. That’s still illegal ‘round here). I did once take this;


And turn it into this;






Which has to count for something, although it does feel a little like cheating. I did not lovingly nurture nature’s bounty into a leafy green oasis. I just moved some rocks around and then put some plants in the ground and ignored them. It’s gone surprisingly well. Our soil is ridiculously fertile. I suspect there might be some bodies buried out there. The previous owners did look a little dodgy…

I cover up for my horticultural laziness by telling everyone I’m growing a wildlife garden. And I am. We managed to lure in one of these!

We think it was after one of the children. Luckily, we have two.

We think it was after one of the children. Luckily, we have two.


And then our bloodhound drove it away again. But I am inspired. I’m busy building a mound of turf, broken tiles, and rotting logs in the hopes of attracting some snakes. Mrs 23thorns is most pleased. I keep catching her staring at me intently with what I’m pretty sure is frank admiration. She’s taken to carrying a large kitchen knife around, so I suspect she’s busy cooking me a tasty cake as a reward…

I was nominated for this by Linda from A Random Harvest, who immediately set about shaming me by putting up a post full of things she had knitted. And sewn. And drawn. And sloshed around in brightly coloured buckets of dye. This is going to be interesting…


Hah. I bet she never made anything out of used pallets using only a crowbar and a sledgehammer...

Hah. I bet she never made anything out of used pallets using only a crowbar and a sledgehammer…

Here’s how it works. Linne sent me a few questions. I’m going to try to answer them without lying too much. Here goes…

  1. Include a quote that you like.

Oops. Bad start. I’m not really a quotey sort of person. Mrs 23thorns has suitcases from her childhood full of books recording the things she read that moved her, or changed her, or spoke to her, or about her. My mother did the same thing. Me? I just never got into the habit. Although I can quote Jethro Tull lyrics, word for word, because my father played them every single day on the way to school. For years.

So I’ll give you something obscure. Various members of my family have been rather taken by Rudyard Kipling’s If, but I always preferred this one;

The Dog was wild, and the Horse was wild, and the Cow was wild, and the Sheep was wild, and the Pig was wild–as wild as wild could be–and they walked in the Wet Wild Woods by their wild lones. But the wildest of all the wild animals was the Cat. He walked by himself, and all places were alike to him.


Make of it what you will…

And now for the tricky part.

  1. Why do I create what I do?

I’ve checked out a couple of the other people taking part in this. As I mentioned, they make things. They knit and sew and grow things and then do complicated things with them in stoves and then eat them. I have a sister who studied fine art and a wife who can sit down with a pencil and a piece of paper and produce something worth sticking up on a wall. Me? I warble. I tap things into a keyboard and throw them out into the world. It doesn’t really feel like the same thing.

But the question has been asked so I will try to answer it. I create what I do because Mrs 23thorns started a blog and I got jealous. So I started my own. And I found that I liked it.

I hadn’t really written anything at all since I had been in school, and I’d only done that because they bullied me into it, but writing things purely for my own enjoyment turned out to be kinda cool.

And there’s more. The internet can be a pretty ugly place. The cloak of anonymity seems to turn ordinary people into monsters. But not here. Not on WordPress. I seem to have stumbled onto the only corner of cyberspace that isn’t populated with ugly-minded little trolls who live to question your sexuality, parentage and race whenever you say something they are mildly challenged by. The ugliest things I’ve come across here have been snippets of awkwardly delivered constructive criticism.


I said your posts are a little on the long side. You got a problem with that?  Nice pictures though.  And I really like the layout of your homepage.  What theme is that?

I said your posts are a little on the long side. You got a problem with that?
Nice pictures though.

Everybody is just nice. It’s all a little peculiar, in the best possible sense of the word. I can think of worse ways to fill up my free time.

  1. How does my creative process work?

Um. That sounds far too grown up for what I’ve been doing here. I see things or hear things or do things and then try to pass them on in a way that I hope will make people smile a little.

But that doesn’t really describe a process, does it? So here goes; I have never been described as having laser-like focus. My mind tends to hop from one thing to another, usually long before I’ve had time to deal with the first thing. But every now and then, something will grab my attention for a little longer, and it will tug at the edge of my consciousness like one of those songs you can’t stop singing.

So I let it in. It will fill up my head with words while I’m in my car, or at work, or while digging in the garden. When there are too many of them, I sit down and pour them out into a keyboard so my head can be empty again.


A dramatic reconstruction, using a highly paid professional actor, of me writing a blog post.

A dramatic reconstruction, using a highly paid professional actor, of me writing a blog post.

I did, for a while, try to write every day. That was a bit harder. I had to go out and find the words. But they did always seem to be out there somewhere. It was just a matter of catching them and tying them down. It helped that I come from a large, loud, and ludicrously opinionated family. In order to avoid disappearing completely, you had to learn to form opinions on everything, instantly, and then defend them to the death no matter how ludicrous they were. Until the next day, when you could cheerfully discard them.

  1. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I have done my best to avoid having a genre. I reckon that the vast majority of people out there in the blogging world are doing this for their own enjoyment, rather than for monetary gain, so why not keep your options open?

If anything, I have tried to keep a vein of humour running through things. It’s hard to be objective about something like that, and there is nothing worse than the sort of person who laughs too loudly at their own jokes, but I try, at the very least, to keep it light.

This has proved to be a bit of a problem of late. Winter has ground on for too long, and it gets dark too early, and my garden is bleak and dry and dying from the cold, and someone is killing all our rhinos, and the government is corrupt and the workers are rising up and Ebola is coming to get us and the words that fill up my head in my car or at work or while I’m digging in the garden don’t really belong here, so I find myself writing less. But fear not. Spring is springing and soon all will be right with the world again. Or at least all will be right within our four walls…

Grow, you bastards! Grow!

Grow, you bastards! Grow!


  1. What am I presently working on?

I am trying to get a blog going for the bookshop where I work. It’s proving to be a little tricky. We are supposed to be doing “community marketing”, which is easier said than done. Our store is on the outskirts of Johannesburg, in an area where there are lots of new housing developments and young families. Everybody comes from somewhere else and works somewhere else. There isn’t really a community.

So I thought I would try to start an online community. It’s going swimmingly. There’s just one tiny problem. Blogs know no boundaries, and I’m not sure than convincing people from Wales or Tasmania or Atlanta that they need to read about seductive and shirtless Highlanders will win me much favour with the powers that be…

The writing is proving to be a little tricky, too. I’m having to go out and find those words again, and then beat them and bend them and pull them into shape ‘til they fit, rather than just writing whatever is on my mind. I’m having fun, though, and that has to count for something.


So that’s that then. I joined! I took part in something! With other people! And I had fun doing it!

And now for the tricky part. I have had to go and find some other people to join. And I did it! Here they are;

Marcia Meara:

Marcia was one of the first people to comment on my own blog. She was, back then a sweet older lady who was kind about my first faltering steps into the blogosphere. She had a couple of blogs; one about the books she loved and another, more personal one.

But then she went and upped the ante. I first learned that she was getting poems published in collections all over the place. Then she went off and wrote a book. And then another one.

She did it! I suspect that most of us on WordPress are frustrated authors in one shape or another. I also know, from years of working in the book industry, that that whole story of everyone having a book in them is a half-truth at best. We might all have a book in us, but most of us will never get them out of us. And that might not be a bad thing.

She also created this gif of herself. And that's all I have to say about that...

She also created this gif of herself. And that’s all I have to say about that…


So there’s my first nomination. The one who just up and did what we all dream of doing.


I’ve nominated KokkieH because looking at his blog is like looking at a mirror. He’s doing what I’m doing, so if I crack the nod for answering questions about my creative process, so does he. He started off blogging as an aid to writing a book. And then he just started blogging about everything. And anything.

But that’s where the similarities stop. He has actually started work on his first draft. Me? I got nothing. So I’m giving him a push so that at least one of us can go off and join Marcia. Then I can claim his success as my own instead of being jealous.


He also likes hammers...

He also likes hammers…

Mrs 23thorns.

I just had to do it, because it was so easy. Or not. Mrs 23thorns has several books in her. But she’s a little busy right now. She has, for various reasons, always been fascinated with history, and with tracking down her own roots.

A few years ago, she learned how to do this properly. And she loved it. So now she’s doing it for other people. She loves that, too. But. Mrs23thorns is an obsessive. In the true sense of the word. She quite liked the first Lord of the Rings movie. So she read all three books. Over a long weekend. Then she read everything else Tolkien had ever written (and taught herself elvish) over the next week. Then she ate something.

Why is this a “but”? Well, right now, Mrs 23thorns is busy doing family trees. She is not a genealogist. She’s a family historian. She doesn’t find out that your great-great-grandfather’s name was Charles. She finds out that your great-great-grandfather’s name was Charles, and that he once passed through the Congo on his way to New Zealand, and then writes you three pages on the rubber industry in the Congo in 1897.

As an obsessive, this keeps her a little busy. I have to feed her with a drip and carry her out into the sunlight while she’s napping so she doesn’t develop a vitamin D deficiency.

So she’s not doing much blogging right now. But she has two blogs. One on which she brings history to life, and another on which she dresses up in peculiar outfits and makes me take photos of her dragging the dustbins out into the street. I am so very much the normal one in my family…

A completely

A completely…

...normal person...

…normal person…

...playing with...

…playing with…

...her dustbin.

…her dustbin.

As one does.

As one does.


Birthday sex.


The words are cutting through the sleepy haze of an early Sunday morning like an icebreaker ploughing through a frozen sea. Birthday sex? Oh, dear. Here we go again.

About five years ago, we got the boy child a CD player for his birthday. He was just starting to get into music, switching the TV onto the music stations and demanding we turn on the radio on the way to school. He would walk around practising dance moves and singing little snatches of the songs he heard most often. It was cute. We decided to encourage it.

It's all fun and games until the five-year-old starts grabbing his crotch.

It’s all fun and games until the five-year-old starts grabbing his crotch.

We got him a CD to go along with his new player. We chose one of those compilations of current hits, called “Now 5876” or something. We reckoned it would have at least some songs that he recognised, and would have a wide enough variety of styles to keep his tastes fairly broad.

Sorted. He disappeared into his room to listen to his “beats”, while Mrs 23thorns and I sat back and enjoyed one of those moments that parents of five-year-olds so rarely experience; moments when you are not comforting or shouting or managing or just picking things up and putting them away. We gave each other a high five and congratulated ourselves on quite how well we were doing at this whole parenting thing.

It couldn’t last. A day or two later, he invited us through to his room to listen to his favourite “beats”. He popped in his CD, cranked up the volume, and there it was “BIRTHDAY SEX! BIRTHDAY SEX!” Yup. By far the catchiest tune on “Now 5876” was a tune where the singer mumbles incoherently along to the beat for a minute or so before everything else stops and he chants, slowly and clearly “BIRTHDAY SEX! BIRTHDAY SEX!” Oops.

“What,” asked the boy as the driving beat faded into a silence pregnant with menace, “is birthday sex?” I looked anxiously over at Mrs 23thorns. “You”, I explained to her, using only the wordless, ancient and unacknowledged language of parents everywhere, made up mostly of eyebrow raises, frowns, tiny nods and headshakes, “can deal with this one.”

Look! A birthday sex cake!

Look! A birthday sex cake!

We agreed fairly early on that the best way of dealing with these sorts of questions was to be honest, clear and clinical.

“What are those dogs doing, Mom?”

“Well, they’re mating. That’s where puppies come from. The daddy dog plants a seed in the mommy dog’s womb, and that seed grows into a puppy in her tummy. When it gets big enough, she will give birth to it.”


This is, of course, one of those agreements where I go along with Mrs 23thorns because I am scared of her. Personally, I think it would be both more fun and more beneficial to lie.

“What are those dogs doing, Dad?”

“Leapfrog, son. They aren’t very good, though, are they? I think that one at the back might have hip dysplasia. But you have to admire him. He seems to be trying very hard.”

“So where do puppies come from, then?”

“The Netherlands.”

They also make cheese and wooden shoes.

They also make cheese and wooden shoes.

So how is this beneficial? Well, you can be damn sure that if, the first time the boy finds himself in a compromising situation with a young lady, he places both hands firmly on the small of her back and leaps over her like a gazelle before spinning round with his chest puffed out like a bantam and says “Hips like steel, baby. Hips like steel”, he will get a bit of a reputation and teen pregnancy will not be an issue in our household. But no. Mrs 23thorns wants honesty.

She straightened her back, squared her shoulders, and took a deep breath before kneeling down to place herself on the same level as the boy. Gently, she placed a motherly hand on his shoulder, and looked him straight in the eye.

“Sax.” She said. “He’s saying “birthday sax”. The song is about how this guy got a saxophone for his birthday.”

I raised a rather quizzical eyebrow in her direction. She glowed a rather fetching pink colour, but refused to meet my eye. Hah! Honesty, hmmm?

I was, of course, being a little unfair. Honesty is the best policy, and children can cope with the truth about procreation just fine. If he had asked about sex, we would have had it all covered. But he hadn’t. He’d asked about birthday sex. That is a bridge too far.

Look! This one has a biblical quote on it!

Look! This one has a biblical quote on it!

The CD mysteriously disappeared into a hidden drawer and was replaced with one full of songs about happy hippopotami. Until it was found by she from whom nothing remains hidden. Yup. The five-year-old girl child found it.

I must be getting old before my time. I’m far too young to be grumbling about “the music you young people are listening to”. But it’s nasty. Why is this stuff all over the radio and the TV?

I sat down rather innocently with the boy the other day to watch some TV. He’s ten now. But he still likes his “beats”. I was in for a treat.

I should have seen what was coming when the VJ (are they still called that?) announced with a perfectly straight face that “Nicki Minaj sure knows how to make it clap”, but I didn’t know what he meant. I still don’t. But I now have some rather disturbing ideas.

A video came on. It all started off innocently enough. The good Ms Minaj was loitering about halfway up a jungle tree with some friends in bikinis. As one does. The music started to build. And then it happened.

“MY ANACONDA DON’T!” shouted a lusty and enthusiastic young man.

“MY ANACONDA DON’T!” Ms Minaj and friends started doing a couple of rather suggestive warm-up exercises. I began to feel a vague sense of apprehension. Your what now?


"'Scuse me, Ma'am. Do you have any buns?"

“‘Scuse me, Ma’am. Do you have any buns?”


I looked around desperately for the remote. Our TV remote is a little like the yeti; a vaguely plausible entity that is supposedly spotted every few months by questionable witnesses, but for which there is very little concrete evidence.

I rose to go and change the channel on the TV at the same time as looking around for Mrs 23thorns to come through and be honest, clear, and clinical about reptilian sexual metaphors. She was nowhere to be found.

Oh, well. I prepared instead a dishonest, clear and clinical little speech about the proper care and curious dietary requirements of the world’s largest snake, but before I got to either it or the TV, the good Ms Minaj stepped forward, pouted at the camera, and, in a clear, mock-prissy voice, destroyed my chances of side-stepping the issue at hand.

“Oh. My. Gosh.” She said. “Look at her butt!”

I did. I cannot lie. My only defence is that I did so not out of prurience but out of slack-jawed fascination. Ms Minaj is a healthily proportioned young woman. She grabbed hold of a perfectly innocent looking chair with both hands, leant forward, pointed her rather prominent fundament at the sky, and proceeded to put it through a workout that would have seen lesser women hospitalised.

I believe the scientific term for that is the "badonk".

I believe the scientific term for that is the “badonk”.

It was like watching two manatees wrestling inside a sleeping bag. It shook.

“MY ANACONDA DON’T!” Oh, dear. He was back.

It wobbled. It quaked. It swayed from side to side, as hypnotic as a dancing cobra.


It jiggled. It dipped. It soared. It separated into two perfect hemispheres, each with a mind of its own, rotating in opposite directions.


I was transfixed. Mesmerised. I didn’t know the human body could do things like that. Mine can’t. Not without getting itself placed on some sort of police watch list. The VJ was right. Ms Minaj can make it clap. I’m pretty sure she can, with a little application and some incense, make it start its own religion.

“Oh. My. Gosh. Look at her butt!” Indeed. But I couldn’t. There was a ten-year old sitting next to me who was probably deeply concerned about the unfortunate anaconda at this point, and was sure to be looking for some answers.

I completed my interrupted dash for the TV just as Ms Minaj started to compare a boy named Troy to the Eiffel tower. Favourably. I turned to look at the now surely emotionally damaged child curled up on the couch in a foetal position, sucking his thumb and muttering “It’s alive. It has a mind and a soul of its own. The clapping! So much clapping!”

Just make it stop.

Just make it stop.

No such luck. He was staring distractedly down at a bundle of brightly coloured elastics wrapped around his finger. He glanced up at me. “Can we turn it over to Nickelodeon?” he asked, before looking back down at his rapidly swelling finger. It was turning a rather fetching blue colour.

I’m not quite ready to see myself as an old curmudgeon. I’m only forty one. I’m not ready to write angry letters to parenting magazines or bang on about how children are being damaged by stumbling across the knowledge that our species procreates while listening to the radio. But I find this all a little tricky.

Children aren’t damaged by the knowledge of sex. If they were, we wouldn’t be allowed to take them to farms, and all the monkeys down at the zoo would have pants on. Sex itself isn’t damaging. It’s the reason we are all here. It’s not dirty or corruptive or ugly. It can be wonderful and fun and funny, and so much more than that. But. It can also tear the world apart if it is approached without the right amount of respect.

And that, I suppose, is what bothers me about this stuff. It’s disrespectful. It’s crass. It’s coarse. There is no wit to it. It’s not clever. And it is not, despite the frantic efforts of Ms Minaj and her fundament, sexy. You need a bit of clever for sexy to work properly. Or a bit of class.

Neither of which is pictured here...

Neither of which is pictured here…

It’s as if half of the entertainment industry has decided to focus solely on grabbing the attention of thirteen-year-old boys. That is not a lofty goal. And how the hell am I supposed to have an adult conversation about something if it’s pitched at a level that makes Beavis and Butthead seem sophisticated.

I have no objection to people being fun or funny about sex. We all think about it all of the time anyway; I see no harm in people making light of it. I just wish they wouldn’t ambush my five-year-old with “BIRTHDAY SEX!” at 6 on a Sunday morning. I’m not ready for that before my first cup of coffee. She’s not ready to even talk about it until she’s at least 35.

And leave my boy alone, too. He might be ready to discuss this stuff, but I’m not. I’m still working my way through the whole “the birds and the bees” talk. There is no room in there for bun-hungry anacondas.

It’s not really the sex that bothers me at all. It’s that the kingmakers of the entertainment world have taken the crass, the coarse and the witless and packaged it as the coolest stuff in the world. Present a ten-year old boy with Eminem and Einstein and I would be vaguely concerned if he developed a sudden interest in relativity. It would mean he was weird.

But that means our ten year old boys are aspiring to be as cool as that guy up on the TV with the belt allergy who just managed, in a two minute video, to call women bitches and whores, and gay people faggots, and make the idea of lurking around on street corners selling drugs to children sound like some sort of rite of passage you had to pass through in order to become the coolest thing in the world. A pimp. Yay.

Stay in school, kids, and you can be whatever you want to be.

Stay in school, kids, and you can be whatever you want to be.

The world is moving too fast. My parents sat us down and told us blushingly about what happened when a boy and a girl really liked each other (it started with getting married…). I could do that. No such luck. I’m going to have to sit my son down and explain what happens when a “ho” backs it up on a pimp and then drops it down low and makes it clap. I don’t want to. But I have to, before he brings a girl home and introduces her as “his bitch”, and everyone ends up having a very long day indeed.

It goes one step further. The “N” word. Yup. That one. I get it. It’s an ugly word that carries the suffering and prejudice of generations with it. And the black people who use it are taking it back. They are disarming it. They are standing up and throwing it back in the faces of those who would use it to push them down. It’s an ingenious way to deal with ignorance and hate.

But. My boy is ten. And he is a born free. Born frees are what we call the generation born after the fall of apartheid ‘round here. It is, perhaps, a little presumptuous to call a white kid that, but in my son’s case it is true. On his birthday, we took him and his friends out to see a movie. It was him, three black kids, an Indian, and a Korean. It felt like we were walking into the set-up of an old-fashioned joke. It’s a wonderful thing to see. He is genuinely colour-blind, and if that isn’t freedom, I don’t know what is.

But. Soon, if not already, his black friends are going to start using the greeting they see being used by cool people in movies and songs everywhere. “My n*****r”.

Not my boy, though. He’s the wrong colour. Which is as it should be. But he won’t know why not. He’s too young. He is smart enough to get that he is not allowed to say that, no matter how cool Kanye West may make it sound, but he is not ready to understand why. He is not ready to properly feel the weight of his people’s history, the weight of all the hate and the casual arrogance and the damage and the junk science and the subversion of religion into a twisted justification of prejudice and the “whites only” park benches and the separate homelands and the hate. He will just, in his young mind, not be allowed to be cool.

It's too soon for him to start never forgetting.

It’s too soon for him to start never forgetting.

It does no good to moan about these things. They are everywhere. We cannot escape. Iggy Azalea will be making it clap on the Disney Channel. Eminem will be rapping about “his bitch” on the radio on the way to school. Snoop Dogg will be saying hello to his n****r at the movies. Nicki Minaj will keep on violating unsuspecting pieces of furniture. We live in the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. We will just have to find a way to deal with them.

Baby steps. First, I will go and get myself a cup of coffee. Then I will sit my little girl down and tell her about the shiny new saxophone that nice man got for his birthday. And then I will hide the CD and be sad for just a little while.

I'm sure he also got a cake.

I’m sure he also got a cake.

Why you should feel good about reading Romance novels


Here we go again. I’m trying to sell Romance novels this time. I managed to write an entire post about shirtless Scotsmen and 50 Shades of Grey without using a single double entendre. Now I need to go and flush a cherry bomb down the public toilets before the fourteen-year-old boy in me explodes…

Originally posted on Why Books?:

The thin, watery light of a Northern dawn trickles down the hillside, highlighting patches of mist and glinting off the dewdrops coating the heather. The raucous, guttural call of a grouse rings out from some hidden hollow. All else is silent. All else is still.

But wait! What’s this? Movement. A lone figure has appeared over the rise, striding purposefully down the hillside. Could it be…. is it… the Highlander?

It most certainly is. But his presence here answers nothing. It brings only questions. What has happened to his shirt, for a start? We’re pretty damn close to the Arctic circle up here. The silly bugger is going to catch his death of a cold.

Why is he covered in baby oil? And how does he manage to keep his hair in such fabulous condition? The only time I ever washed my hair in a loch and conditioned it with…

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Party People

The girl-child (let’s call her “V” again) was all aflutter a couple of weeks ago. She had received an invitation to her friend Kondi’s birthday party. A purple and pink invitation. And purple and pink, she informed me with a grave look on her face, both just happened to be her favourite colour. It was to be a Barbie princess party. V was most pleased.


Strange. I would have thought Barbie was a bit too subtle for five-year-olds...

Strange. I would have thought Barbie was a bit too subtle for five-year-olds…

V had, as is the way with five-year-olds, woken up at four thirty in the morning, brushed her hair, put on her party dress, and woken us up so that we wouldn’t be late. The party started at two that afternoon.

Her rather gung-ho approach to punctuality was not in vain, however, since it gave her the opportunity to try on three more outfits, and to meddle with the enticingly elaborate wrapping job Mrs 23thorns had done on the present, until the legs fell off the wire and satin butterfly that was tied to the top with a ribbon (Mrs 23thorns does not bugger around when it comes to wrapping presents for five-year-olds). This gave us something to talk about on the way there.

“Don’t worry, mouse,” I said in a calm, soothing tone, “I’m sure we can fix it once we get there.”

“Waaaargyeeeurghaar,” said V, in a tone that could shatter glass at forty paces, “now-I-can-never-have-a-beautiful-present-for-Kondi-and-her-party-will-be-ruined-forever-I-want-Mom-to-fixit. Waaaargyeeeurghaar.”


We talk all the time. Maintaining an open channel of communication with your kids is vital.

We talk all the time. Maintaining an open channel of communication with your kids is vital.

The fact that this soulful little lament started at home might explain why we left under a certain amount of pressure. It does not, however, explain Mrs 23thorns’s cruel and unconscionable role in this story.

“Where am I going?” I asked. Mrs 23thorns has always had a better idea of where I am supposed to be than I have.

“Waaaargyeeeurghaar.” Said V. Loudly

“Imagine the Venue.” Said the good Mrs 23thorns. Although she denies it now. The woman has a refreshingly cavalier attitude toward the truth.


Why they chose these guys as the embodiment of devil-may-care off-handedness is beyond me. He looks like he took 4 hours to get dressed, and another 45 minutes to do his moustache.

Why they chose these guys as the embodiment of devil-may-care off-handedness is beyond me. He looks like he took 4 hours to get dressed, and another 45 minutes to do his moustache.

“Kondi-is-never-going-to-like-her-present! Waaaargyeeerghaar!” said V. Loudly.

Mrs 23thorns began to develop a pronounced facial tic. We left.

Telling your loyal and faithful husband to “Imagine the Venue” may seem unkind. It’s not. “Imagine the Venue” is the name of a party venue near our house. Not “Imagine. The Venue.” Or “Imagine: the Venue”. Just “Imagine the Venue”. There is something delightfully and engagingly wrong about it. That’s not the name of a party place. It’s the beginning of a story. “Sit down, children. Is everyone listening? Good. Now, Imagine the Venue…”

It’s the sort of name that lurks around the edge of your consciousness trying to get in, the sort that might spring unbidden into the mind of a lesser man than myself as he set off at speed with a grieving five-year-old under one arm, a mangled present under the other, and a pair of bent wire butterfly legs clenched between his teeth. I suspect that something along those lines happened to Mrs 23thorns. She doesn’t handle pressure as well as I do.


"I have no idea where the party is, But I have to tell him something..."

“I have no idea where the party is, But I have to tell him something…”

I know the place well. We’ve been there a couple of times. The clubhouse overlooks a wide, spreading lawn filled with jungle-gyms and swings. There’s a pen filled with geese and rabbits and an angry goat, and a huge, shady sand-pit on one side.

I am a little less familiar with where it is, apparently. We set off cheerfully (Waaaargyeeerghaar!) at a quarter to two, with time to spare. At two o’clock, party time, I stopped to inform V that if I heard one more waaaargyeeerghaar I would be forced to be unkind, and imagining the venue would be as close as we would come. I decided to check the carefully laid out directions on the invitation at the same time. Not that I was lost or anything. It was just that the venue seemed to have moved since the last time we had been there. Imagine!

The invitation seemed to have moved as well. We found it under the kitchen table the next morning. I don’t wish to point any fingers, but I think we all know who put it there. There’s no need to name names. Mrs 23thorns. Mrs23throns put it there.

Oh, well. We would have to find it the old-fashioned way; street smarts and an unerring sense of direction.


"It's just over the hill there." "It damned well better be. We just popped out for a pack of smokes, and that was four years ago..."

“It’s just over the hill there.”
“It damned well better be. We just popped out for a pack of smokes, and that was four years ago…”

At two fifteen, I turned on the GPS on my phone. It led me to a charmingly rustic little dam full of ducks and invasive water hyacinths.

At two thirty we arrived at the venue. Imagine.

We have a rather laid back approach to time-keeping out here in South Africa. Arriving half an hour late is not really that big a deal. But I like to do things properly, so we tried to look just a little embarrassed as we scuttled into the venue (imagine). I needn’t have worried. They were still setting things up when we walked in. There was a beautiful little table laid out with a purple tablecloth and pink napkins, with little silver plastic tiaras and a Barbie birthday cake, and there was bunting up on the walls, but the mother of the birthday girl was up a ladder sticking up a birthday message made of huge polystyrene letters. “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” it said “N”.

I went over and introduced myself to her, and apologised for being late.

“Oh, don’t stress.” She said “The birthday girl isn’t here yet.”

Laid back we might be, but being half an hour late for your own party is pushing it. Oh, well. We put the present down on the table with the others, and I ushered V outside to play with her friends. Then I sat down and looked around me with the inane grin I like to use when confronted by a room full of strangers with whom I have to make small-talk for an afternoon. I was, I must confess, a little disappointed to see no-one I recognised.


"Hellooo, everyone! Who wants to be my friend?"

“Hellooo, everyone! Who wants to be my friend?”

I entered into an earnest discussion with a nervous-looking woman (don’t worry, I put her at her ease by grinning a little more widely) about what a lovely day it was for a party and how it had looked like it might be overcast earlier but had cleared up nicely. I did so despite the fact that it was 3 degrees Celsius outside, and that there was a gale-force wind blowing. You can do that at parties. It’s one of the rules. I was about to launch into a series of fascinating anecdotes about other sorts of weather I had seen at other parties when I noticed something a little odd. V. She was playing alone. That wasn’t like her. I nipped out to see what was up.

“Why,” I asked, “are you not playing with your friends?”

“These,” she replied, bouncing happily backwards and forwards on a small plastic horse attached to a large metal spring, “are not my friends.”

Ah. Kindergarten politics.

Or… A rather uncomfortable idea began to crawl its way up my spine.

I went back inside and grabbed as full a plate of snacks as I could. I sank back into my chair and sat staring fiercely down at my chicken drumsticks and dried-out sausage rolls for a moment before falling upon them like a hungry wolf in a speed-eating competition. The nervous woman leapt to her feet and dashed off out of sight. Maybe she was hungry. I have no idea where she went, because I didn’t look up. Didn’t want to. Couldn’t. Not until I’d finished my snack platter. I had my reasons.


I only took a couple of each...

I only took a couple of each…

Had to. The mother was finished putting up her polystyrene letters. She climbed down the ladder, spread out her arms like a game-show assistant and let out a theatrical “Tahdaah!” I don’t know if you’ve ever tried it, but it is physically impossible to ignore a woman standing with her arms spread out and saying “Tahdaah!” That’s why the game-show assistants do it. I had to look up.

My worst fears were realised. “HAPPY BIRTHDAY LEE-ANNE” was spelled out in purple and pink. Bugger. Bye-bye snack platter.

We left with our backs straight and our heads held high, looking the mother square in the eye as we thanked her for a wonderful half hour and sparing a cheerful little wave for my new weather-discussing friend, who seemed to be hiding behind a pillar. I must confess to feeling just a little awkward as we rummaged through the pile of presents to retrieve our butterfly festooned offering. It seemed a little churlish in light of the hospitality with which we had been received, but we had a party to go to.

I called Kondi’s mother. It was time. I was out of options. We were nearly an hour and a half late, and still had no idea where the party was. She was very understanding. The party was at Fantasy Park, she said. The next day.

We had fun. There was cake.


We didn’t see Kondi anywhere, though. Maybe she had gone to bed. 9:30 did seem a little late for a five-year-old’s party…

We didn’t see Kondi anywhere, though. Maybe she had gone to bed. 9:30 did seem a little late for a five-year-old’s party…

I would tell you all about it, but I simply don’t have the time. I’m taking the boy-child off to a party this afternoon. We haven’t picked a venue yet, but I do have an idea. Imagine.

We invited Mrs 23thorns along, but she says that that would be dishonest. Hah! She’s a strange woman. Smart. Well spoken. Snappy dresser. But absolutely no appreciation for a decent snack platter…

Why You Should Learn to Read Like a Buddhist Monk


Success! I have crossed the right i’s and dotted the right t’s and have been given the go-ahead to start a blog for my store.
I have no-idea how re-blogging works, but I will re-blog posts from there, here if I think they are worthy.
Yay. Now that blogging about books is work, I can go back to blogging about Tsessebes for fun. See you there…

Originally posted on Why Books?:

I have three sisters. We actually all get (and got) along quite well. But as those of you with kids will know, the phrase “sibling rivalry” is one of the great understatements of our time. The correct phrase should be “sibling guerrilla warfare”. Siblings fight. They argue. They tease each other and provoke each other when they are bored, and undermine each other when they feeling grumpy. Not me and my middle sister, though. For about two years we got along like a house on fire.

Because she was up a tree.

My middle sister, circa 1984 My middle sister, circa 1984

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Why you should read to your children.

Don’t worry; I’m not going back to that whole post a day thing. Like I said the other day, I had a bunch of posts lying around, so I decided to pop a couple of them on here to test them out. This will most likely be the last of them. I’m about to slap them all together into a dummy blog and sally forth to talk the powers that be into letting me start a blog for the bookshop I run. Wish me luck…

If they go for it, I might pop the odd link onto 23thorns, if I think the post is worthy. If not, the idea has been fun while it lasted, but you will never get to know the reasons why you should read romance novels about bare-chested cowboys, or books about birds, or quantum physics, or Englebert Humperdinck. And no, I can’t tell you now; I haven’t made them up yet…

As if you need a reason to learn more about "The Hump"!

As if you need a reason to learn more about “The Hump”!

Anyhow, here’s my post on why you should read to your children.

Because it will make them smarter.


Although it might have a strange effect on their hair.

Although it may have a strange effect on their hair.

That was easy, wasn’t it? We can all go home now. It was also, however, wrong. I don’t read many business books, but one of the few that I have read is an unusual little creature called “Freakonomics”. You should come and pick up a copy. From ♦♦♦♦ Books. In ♦♦♦♦. It might just change the way you think about the world.

One of the fascinating little snippets in “Freakonomics” deals with the effect of books on children. A bunch of scientists examined the early test scores of a bunch of small children to see whether books had any effect on them. The results were a little surprising.

First, they isolated the results of the kids who were read to every night by their parents. Their scores were the same as those of the rest of the kids. Which is disappointing.


You get what you get, apparently...

You get what you get, apparently…

Then they isolated the results of the kids whose families had lots of books in their houses. Their test scores were higher than those of the rest of the kids. This is wonderful news. All you need to do to make your children smarter is to go out and buy a huge pile of books. And I know just where you can do that. ♦♦♦♦Books. In ♦♦♦♦. Just saying.

Or not. “Freakonomics” had a pretty sensible sounding explanation for why this was happening. Genetics. Smart people tend to have smart children. And smart people tend to have houses full of books. Not always, on either count, but often enough to bump up those test scores. Sadly enough, all those books weren’t magically increasing the intelligence of the children in their proximity.

Bummer. I just spent thousands redecorating the kids' rooms.

Bummer. I just spent thousands redecorating the kids’ rooms.


This isn’t going well, is it? I’m trying to tell you why you should read to your children, and so far I’ve laid out some fairly good reasons why you shouldn’t bother. But.

A few years ago, a YouTube clip appeared on the interweb. A ten-year-old boy had gone to a funfair, where he had had his face painted like a zombie. He was being interviewed by a reporter using that breathlessly excited, palpably patronising tone reporters use when they are forced to interview little children.


I don't think he was buying it...

I don’t think he was buying it…

“You’re looking good!” she cooed. “You just got an awesome facepaint job! What do you think?”

“I”, replied the redoubtable young man, staring off into the middle distance, “like turtles.”

Do you want to be responsible for making that guy? Or that girl? Do you really want to be to blame when one day, years from now, some poor sausage feels their heart sink as, shortly after sitting down for a formal dinner, they find their companion for the next four hours, the fruit of your loins, the apple of your eye, turning toward them and announcing “I changed my favourite colour today! It’s green now”?

Do you want to find yourself living out your own final years in Shady Acres, and have your only visitor in months lean slowly toward the bed to which you are confined and say, with all the energy and excitement of a resting caterpillar, “I dug a hole, Dad”?


Although, to be fair, that's a pretty damn good hole.

Although, to be fair, that’s a pretty damn good hole.

I am not a scientist. I’m a bookseller. I have not read the research those scientists produced, and I don’t have the faintest idea of how you would go about testing the intelligence of small children. The little buggers can’t even drive, let alone read or write. I am, however, pretty sure those tests don’t cover things like the size of their worlds and breadth of their imaginations or whether they were interesting people or not.

And that’s the thing. You are not, as a parent, slowly and carefully building a super genius, just like you are not building a super-fast runner or a really good hitter of golf balls. Or at least I hope you aren’t. You’re making a person. A whole one. And then you are unleashing that person on the world. That sort of thing comes with a few responsibilities. Duties.

You need to make a person that the rest of us will like being around. A person who is witty and interesting and engaging, who makes four-hour formal dinners more bearable, not endless. A person who can talk about anything, with anyone, anywhere. A person whose world is wide enough and deep enough for the rest of us to dive into without cracking our heads on a shallow sheet of rock just below the surface.


The truth is that there is very little you can do to change someone’s intelligence. It’s in there already, like eye colour or whether their earlobes hang loose or are connected to their heads. There is, however, a great deal you can do to influence the way they use that intelligence. Things like vocabulary and general knowledge and mental agility and imagination might not matter much when it comes to early test scores, but they start to matter a great deal later on.

So how do you give your children a wide vocabulary and a broad general knowledge? And a vivid imagination and insight into the behaviour of others and an understanding of how the natural world works and an informed idea of politics and a well-developed sense of humour? Well, it’s easy. And very, very hard. You turn them into readers. And how do you turn them into readers? It’s not an exact science, but reading to them in bed every night when they’re small is a pretty good place to start. And even if it doesn’t take, you will have at least started them out in life with the knowledge that there is more to their world than the dreck that they watch on the Disney Channel.

So that’s why you should read to your children. The big reason. One day, I might get stuck next to them at a formal dinner, and you don’t want to make me sad.

"You won't like me when I'm sad." (The quotation marks are there because I'm quoting from the script of a new movie I'm writing; "The Incredible Sulk" Sorry.

“You won’t like me when I’m sad.”
(The quotation marks are there because I’m quoting from the script of a new movie I’m writing; “The Incredible Sulk”)


But there’s another reason. A smaller reason. A quieter one. But maybe, in its own subtle way, a more important one.

If you already have slightly older children, you will already know this, but if you’re just starting out, I have some disconcerting news for you. You just gave birth to a monster. A werewolf.

A rather special kind of werewolf. One whose changes are triggered not by the phases of the moon, but by the onset of evening. As your kids get a little bit older, you are going to start noticing something. Every day, starting at round about four o’clock, your precious little angel is going to turn into the devil incarnate.


I don't read much on religion. Is this what the devil incarnate looks like?

I don’t read much on religion. Is this what the devil incarnate looks like?

And stay that way until bedtime. Happy or sad, they will bounce off walls and run screaming down passages. Burglar bars will become ladders. Furniture will become mountains to be scaled. The floor will turn to lava, and blankets and cushions will be ripped from the bottom of piles in your linen cupboard and strewn across the carpet to make it safe to walk on.

Supper will become a test of wills, an intricate game of chess with the pieces replaced by bowls of pudding and threats of no TV. As an opening move, your special little star will fall to their knees twenty minutes before supper, weeping because they are so starving. And then they will refuse to eat.

The announcement of bathtime will become a declaration of war, a pitched battle fought over bubblebath and wildly varying but very specific temperature requirements, followed shortly afterward by another pitched battle to get them out again. Be very, very careful to choose the right towel. And jammies.


I said purple! These are mauve!

I said purple! These are mauve!

Your children will become both hyper-clumsy and hyper-sensitive to pain. They will walk into tables and trip over carpets before falling to the ground clutching themselves and screaming like world cup soccer players trying to get a penalty. And God help you if you try to get them into the bath with anything even resembling an injury. Bathwater is like kryptonite for toddlers.

And then you have to try and get the little buggers into bed…

Yup. The last few hours you spend with your child are, for a while at least, going to be harrowing. There will be hysteria. Sulking. Shouting. Shrieking. Tears will be shed, doors will be slammed, threats made, bags packed. And that’s just going to be you. Your children will be worse. You may not believe me, but this is gospel. Check with any parents out there. They may have different names for it; the witching hour, the daily hell, crazy hour, Armageddon, Ragnarock. But they will all recognise it.

Fear not! Like all things parenting, this too will pass. However…

Remember how, when you started out on the relationship that led your having kids in the first place, everyone told you never to go to bed angry? It gets said so much that it sounds trite, but it’s good advice. And here’s the thing; it doesn’t just apply to you and your partner.

There’s a way to make things right. A way to calm the troubled soul of your little werewolves before you release them into sleep. A way for you to smile and talk and laugh a little, to draw a line under the ordeal you have just been through. A way to lie shoulder to shoulder under the warmth of the blankets and remember that you do actually like each other, and that the thing with werewolves is that the teeth only come out when the moon is full.


The hair, however, is pretty much always like that...

The hair, however, is pretty much always like that…

Books. Read to your child. Every night. They will love it, and believe it or not, so will you, if you choose the right books. It will become a ceremony; the choosing of the story for the evening, getting the pillows arranged just so, using the right voices for the right characters…

Slowly, as you travel the well-worn paths of an old favourite or step cautiously into a new, unexplored world, the light of madness will be exorcised from your child’s eyes, and they will soften and unwind at your side. A drowsy little head will ease down onto your shoulder, a small warm hand will come to rest on your arm, and as sleep slowly brings its sweet release, you will find that the devil has been driven out, and your sweet little angel is back, and the whole ordeal will be that much easier to deal with the next day.

And that’s not all. They will remember this. Forever. The time you spend doing this will become a part of their being, like the times you sing to them, or swing them around by their arms on the lawn, or run outside with them in the dark, or in the rain, a touchstone used to measure other joys. The stories you read them will become part of the magic of childhood they carry around as adults. No-one has ever said that about television.


The magic of childhood.

The cheap sleight-of-hand trick of childhood.

So that’s about it then. Read to your children. Do it to make them better at being smart. Do it to make them interesting, and witty, and engaging. Do it to calm them, and to make them happy, and to fill their hearts with magical memories. Do it because books should be part of the fabric of childhood.

But most of all do it for me. I might just end up sitting next to them at a formal dinner one day…”



As promised, I am putting up a couple of posts that I had written for a putative blog for the bookshop I manage. I have written a few, but haven’t been able to go live with my blog yet. I need to hammer out some sort of deal with my head office. They have just moved into a shiny new office, with shiny new furniture and shiny new computers. What they do not have, despite promises to the contrary by various government departments, are shiny new telephone lines and shiny new internet connections. They’re a little distracted right now. This is not hammer time.


Which is a pity, since hammer time is probably my favourite time.

Which is a pity, since hammer time is probably my favourite time.

I am hoping to recruit a few more bookclubs for my store. And I suspect I’m going to run into a little trouble from all of you.

I remember hearing, years ago, that the South African bookclub is a unique thing. Our thing. The story went that isolated farming communities were getting together to pool their resources to get hold of books, which they then shared among themselves, like a members-only library. Somewhere along the line, people realised that the social aspect of these clubs was as fun as the literary one, and when the isolated farmers started to move to town, they took their bookclubs with them.

And there’s more to the story, too. Bookclubs were, back in the day, a white thing. But they were one of the few crossovers, in the days of “whites only” park benches and policemen in body-armour patrolling local shopping centres and plastic relief posters of terrorist bombs on post office walls, between white and black culture.

Black people, back in the day, were largely denied access to formal financial structures like banking and insurance. So they created their own structures, and one of these was the “stokvel”. It’s a curious sort of name, because it’s Afrikaans, and means “stick skin”. And no, I don’t know why.

This does not clear anything up.

This does not clear anything up.


A stokvel works like this; a group of friends or neighbours gets together for some specific purpose. It could be for weddings, or funerals, or parties, or pretty much anything that requires the occasional injection of cash.

Each member makes a monthly contribution, which is held in trust. When the need arises, the money goes to the member who needs it, or to the group as a whole (this works pretty damn well with parties). It is, in effect, an old school insurance policy, without the bank charges and taxes and formal legal requirements. And it lives on. For now. I was a little crushed to hear a formal banker type on the radio the other day announcing that she thought stokvels were a very good idea and the formal sector felt it was high time they got involved. To help. Not to take their share of all that lovely money, I’m sure. But I digress.

A bookclub is essentially a stokvel; a bunch of private individuals pooling their resources for their mutual benefit. Books. I can think of no better way to manage a cultural crossover.

And now you get to burst my bubble and tell me that there are bookclubs all over the world, and they have nothing to do with stokvels. You can go first, Australia…


A typical Australian sets of for his bookclub meeting.

A typical Australian sets of for his bookclub meeting.

Anyway, here’s my putative bookclub post. Mzansi is South Africa. I’ve blanked out some of the names, because that’s how I roll (few of you might have realised that my name isn’t really 23thorns…).

“I come from a large, loud, boisterous gang of a family. We are close. Growing up, we moved as a pack; whatever we did, we did as a group. We socialised as a family. Any friends our parents had were family friends. We travelled as a family, stayed at home as a family, went out to dinner as a family. My mother was (and is) a homemaker, and spent most of her life running around behind four busy children. And then there were “the girls”.

The girls.

The girls.


Once a month, on the last Thursday of every month, my mother would set aside the school lunches and the birthday parties and the extra lessons and the soccer matches and the family braais, and head off to spend a morning with “the girls”. She still does.

It was, as far as I ever knew, the only thing she ever did which was hers and hers alone. I never really knew who “the girls” were. They were not my mother’s friends in the way we understood the concept. They didn’t know my father well enough to call him his nickname like all the other grownups around us did. We children were not required to prefix their names with “Aunt”. They never popped in for a visit on the weekend or dropped in for a cup of coffee after the school run. I have met one or two of them over the years, incidentally at shopping centres or restaurants, but I could not name a single one of them now.

“The girls” are my mother’s bookclub. My mother is in her seventies now, and “the girls” have been together for longer than I have been alive; more than four decades (which should call into question their definition of themselves as “girls”, but who am I to question the wisdom of my elders?). There have, no doubt, been changes over the years, as people have moved away and new people have moved in, but the core has remained the same. Yup. “The girls” have shown more commitment to their bookclub than most people show to their marriages.


They might be getting on a bit, but they're still a pretty rough crowd.

They might be getting on a bit, but they’re still a pretty rough crowd.

What they are doing, if my understanding is correct, is uniquely South African.

Sure, other countries have things called bookclubs. We would call them reading circles. They work like this; all the members of the club go out and buy a book. The same book. They read it. Then they get together and talk about it. Which is, I’m sure, very nice, if you’re into that sort of thing, but sounds just a little bit like work to me. School work.

There are even clubs that go one better. They are correctly referred to as book reading clubs. They sound magnificent. A group of people get together once a month, and one of their number reads a book to them. Aloud. I would pay good money to be a fly on the wall at one of their meetings. I have so many questions. Does the reader do different voices when the characters are speaking? Are there sound effects? Are the listeners allowed to make eye-contact with the reader? Do you get kicked out if you shoot coffee out of your nose during a pivotal sex-scene?


Sorry! Allergies!

Sorry! Allergies!

And in South Africa? Things work a little differently. ‘Round here, your bookclub gets together to buy the books. And you get to read them by yourself. This is how it works;

  • Step one:            Go and find yourself a bunch of members. They don’t have to be girls. Or even women. You can even invite a boy or two. It would be best if they aren’t all friends of yours. Choose one or two of your own friends, and get them to choose one or two of theirs, and so on. If you suffer from OCD, it would be best to get twelve members; one for each month. If not, you can get away with anything from about six to about fifteen.


  • Step two:            Go to the ♦♦♦♦Books in ♦♦♦♦ and fill out a book-club registration form. You’ll need to leave a copy of your license, and fill in the contact details of all of your members.


  • Does it have to be the ♦♦♦♦Books in ♦♦♦♦? It most certainly does. If you go somewhere else, we will be sad. We will be distant when we are with our partners, and short tempered with our children. And you wouldn’t want that now, would you?


  • Step three:         Set yourself up a roster. Each time you meet, you need to have a different member acting as the book-getter. For your first meeting, I’m going to assume that it’s you, since you are clearly a trailblazer and an adventurous spirit.


  • Step four:            At last, we come to the book part. Go and get some books. From ♦♦♦♦Books. In ♦♦♦♦. We’d prefer for you to take novels, but won’t be too upset if you throw in a novel-sized biography or history. Stay away from the R1000,00 cookery books, though. Choose about twelve or so books. Don’t worry, you won’t be buying all of these. We’re just going to let you take them home. Because we know you aren’t going to read them for free and then bring them back. We are trusting like that. You will, of course, need to check them out at the till; we do need to keep some semblance of order round here.


  • Step five:             You are now ready for your first meeting. Arrange a get-together with the other members. Bring wine. You might just need it; you’re about to have an argument. Haul out the books you got and display them to the assembled members. You’re about to whittle them down from twelve to the four or five you are going to buy. Things are going to get a little heated. Someone is going to make a snide remark about at least one the books you chose, and everyone will disagree about which books to buy. If they don’t, your members are not passionate enough about books, or arguing, and you need to kick them out and choose another lot.


  • Step six:               That’s it as far as the book part of your bookclub meeting goes. All you need to do is draw up another roster so that, over the next few weeks or months, each member gets a chance to read each of the books you have chosen to buy. If you were left unsatisfied by your argument about books, you can now have an argument about money (We do need to get paid, after all). If not, you have nowhere else to be. You have wine. If you’ve chosen well, you have good company. You have wine. And you have one night off from the rest of your life which is yours and yours alone. Make the most of them.
We're not here to judge...

We won’t judge you, I promise…


  • Step seven:        The next day, bring the books you have decided not to buy back to ♦♦♦♦Books. In ♦♦♦♦. And bring some money for the books you have decided to keep. So very pleased will we be that, if you buy enough books, we will give you a discount. And the more books you buy, the more pleased will we be.

So that’s it. That’s how to bookclub, Mzansi style. It’s all rather straightforward.

It is not, however, ironclad. If you live out of town, or happen to know exactly what you want, you can simply buy the books before the meeting. As long as you have registered, and spend above the threshold limit, you will still get your discount. But you’ll be missing out on a damn fine argument. Just saying.




You can, should you feel that way inclined, buy a copy of the same book for each member of the club, read it beforehand, and then discuss it at the meeting. We will be impressed, and ever so slightly intimidated.

You can even buy just a single book, and read it out loud at your next bookclub meeting. You are unlikely to qualify for the official discount, but if you promise to invite us along to your meeting, I’m sure we can make a plan. If you use different voices for different characters, throw in the odd sound effect, and cover a pivotal sex-scene, you might even get to see us shoot coffee out of our noses.

I owe you a bit of an apology. This article was called “Why you should start a bookclub”, not “How you should start a bookclub”, and now I’ve been rattling on about admin for an age, and am running out of time. And space.

So here goes. We live in a city. So many of us have been thrown together in so little space that we have become isolated. We are friends to our friends, family to our family, and avoid everyone else. We don’t get together for village fairs or barn raisings or cake-sales at the town hall. Half of us don’t even know our neighbours. It’s bad for us. We need to get out more. And if we do so in honour of books, so much the better.


Some people choose to be isolated. This woman, however, clearly has cooties.

Some people choose to be isolated. This woman, however, clearly has cooties.

But that’s not all! We are by no means a selfless society, and yet we have somehow forgotten to do things for ourselves. Not selfish things, just our own things. We live for our jobs or our children or our partners. We spend our free time doing team-building exercises with colleagues, or watching our children play sport, or hanging around with people who aren’t blood kin, but whom our children refer to as “Aunt So-and-so” or “Uncle Whatsit”

We need to start doing more things that are our own things, not shared things. We need to find more people who are our own people, not shared people. We need to spend a little time that is our own time, not shared time. And if we satisfy that need with something as harmless and benevolent as a bookclub, no-one in our lives can honestly claim that their feelings are being hurt.

But wait! There’s more! (Sorry. I watched a lot of infomercials in the eighties). One day we’re all going to be in our seventies. What a rare thing it would be to look back and to remember that you popped out one evening all those years ago to check out what this whole “bookclub” thing was all about. To remember feeling a little nervous, a little shy, and a little excited about trying a new thing with new people. And to remember that it turned out to be good enough to stick with for forty years, through arrivals and departures and births and deaths and marriages and divorces. And then to stop looking back and instead start looking forward, because you would be doing it again next Thursday.

Just remember to take along some bail money.

Just remember to take along some bail money.


And that is all. No more “there’s mores”. Except for a rather obvious one. More books. For less money. At ♦♦♦♦Books. In ♦♦♦♦.”