Why You Should Learn to Read Like a Buddhist Monk

23thorns:

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

View original 1,707 more words

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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.

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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”)
Sorry.

 

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…”

 

Bookclubs.

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.

 

"I TOLD YOU NEVER TO BRING ANOTHER NORA ROBERTS! EVER!" "IT'S NOT A NORA ROBERTS! IT'S A J.D.ROBB!"

“I TOLD YOU NEVER TO BRING ANOTHER NORA ROBERTS! EVER!”
“IT’S NOT A NORA ROBERTS! IT’S A J.D.ROBB!”

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 ♦♦♦♦.”

Bookshop

I have, in partial explanation for my extended absence, returned to my old job of managing a bookstore. It’s all been a bit strange; comfortingly familiar and weirdly unfamiliar at the same time.

The store is, for a start, in a very different area from the previous store I managed, on the outskirts of Johannesburg. The old store was in a venerable old suburb, filled with venerable old people. I was young there. Now I am old, and half of my customers look like they should be accompanied by a responsible adult. They are just starting out in life, with first homes and tiny children. I do a roaring trade in pregnancy books. But that’s not all. A huge proportion of my customers are Afrikaans.

That makes me not just old, but tiny. There is a reason why South Africa does so well at rugby. Afrikaans people are big. Not all of them, obviously, but the small ones are all my size. And in my old area, I was on the larger side.

An Afrikaans person saying hello to an Australian.

An Afrikaans person saying hello to an Australian.

People act differently, too. Couples hold hands. It’s the sweetest thing. It doesn’t sound like much, but on my first day, it stopped me dead in my tracks. No-one used to do that in my old area. And it’s not those young people I talked about, either, it’s the old ones; stooped, greying Darby and Joan types, tall, angular men and dumpy little women, pootling around comfortably, arm in arm or hand in hand like teenagers. And daughters seem to spend an awful lot of their time hanging round with their mothers…

 

Maybe they just need  something to lean on.

Maybe they just need something to lean on.

But that’s not what I’m on about today. Something else is different. The pressure is on. The economy is tanking for a second time, and young couples just starting out in life are kinda sensitive to that sort of thing. Suddenly, instead of filling up a room with books and sitting back to watch them walk out of the store, I actually have to go out and sell the damn things. It’s most disconcerting. Community marketing, the bosses call it…

And so I decided to start a blog for my store. Nothing fancy, just a friendly little place where people could come to talk about books. Generally. I am, despite my calling, not much of a salesman. I have loved books all of my life, but cannot bring myself to stand up and shout about how fantastic the new Donna Tartt book is, and why you should get two in case one spontaneously combusts. Instead I hoped to sit down quietly and chat about how nice it is to surround yourself with words. Any words, be they a life changing, anguished dissection of the emptiness of the human experience or a rattling yarn about how a roguish Scottish laird seduces an innocent young governess while somehow losing track of his shirt, despite the nippy highland weather.

 

Chapter one: Find him a shirt.

Chapter one: Find him something warm to wear.

I have, in other words, been doing a bit of writing. Just not here. There’s a problem, though. I work for a large chain. They cannot simply unleash fifty or so starry-eyed individuals on the internet armed only with a company logo and a dream. There are risks.

And so I’m finding my little bookshop blog to be a bit of a hard sell. I get it. We all remember this woman, and she was a pro. But I don’t like writing things and then saving them in a folder. This blog has been calling to me. There are people here…

And so I’ve decided to slap up a few of my planned posts for your enjoyment, or otherwise. This is the first. I hope you like it. Or at least tell me if you don’t. If it makes you rush out and blow your lunch-money on books about bare-chested Scotsmen, let me know; it might just help me convince the powers that be to let me loose on the interweb.

 

I promise to be discreet...

I promise to be discreet…

“In the dining room of my childhood home there was a huge, glass-fronted, antique cupboard filled with precious things. Books. And not just any books. My father’s mother was a bibliophile. A collector. The cupboard was filled with leather and cloth-bound first editions, some of them signed and some of them containing folded-up letters from exotic people like T.E. Lawrence (yup, my granny seems to have been pen-pals with Lawrence of Arabia).

The first of these treasures I was allowed to touch was The Jungle Book. It was a thing of beauty, bound in coarse, red cloth; its yellowing pages hiding richly coloured illustrations nestled between sheets of tissue paper. Proper illustrations; illustrations of tigers that looked like they would tear your throat out rather than say something snide about the cut of your jib, and monkeys that would raid your crops without singing a single word in a raspy Louis Armstrong voice.

I was deeply impressed. Not by the beauty of the thing; children are savages. No. I was impressed to learn that Mowgli was raised by wolves. And wore rather fewer pants than the good people at Disney would have you believe. But mostly that he was raised by wolves.

 

Sing me a song, Bagheera. A song about pants.

Sing me a song, Bagheera. A song about pants.

I wasn’t raised by wolves. I wasn’t even allowed to sleep in the kitchen with the dogs. But I came a close second. I was raised, at least in part, by bookshops.

It was my parents’ fault. They blessed me with three sisters. Having three sisters is nice. Most of the time. Going shopping with three sisters does not fit into the category of “most of the time”. It was excruciating. Three different favourite shops. Three different sets of clothes to choose. Three different opinions on what worked and what didn’t. Three different emotional breakdowns when a pair of jeans seemed to magnify rather than flatter. An afternoon could last a lifetime.

And then things changed. We started off a visit to the shops by stopping in at a bookshop. My mother found what she was looking for, paid, and turned to go. I didn’t. “Could I”, I asked in the querulous, wheedling voice that all children adopt when they know the answer is going to be “no”, “stay here until you guys are finished shopping?” The answer was not “no”.

Excellent! While my sisters hunted cheerfully through the bright lights and bustling crowds for purple leg-warmers and shiny bubble-skirts (it was the eighties) I found myself a haven, a quiet place that smelled of paper and held the keys to a limitless supply of words and all the magic they could conjour up.

 

Things would have been different if I'd known what I was missing.

Things would have been different if I’d known what I was missing.

And so, all those years ago, I learnt something important. Bookshops are different.

The shopping malls and high-streets of the world are full of places where you can spend money. But there aren’t many places there where you can spend time. Give it a try. Give yourself four hours in your favourite clothing shop. Or furniture shop. Or electronics shop. You’ll be crawling up the walls long before you’re done; there aren’t that many ways to look at a chair, and even the unparalleled thrill of trying on new pants gets a little old after the first hour or so.

And bookshops? You can pick up an obscure natural history book because the guy on the back looks a little like your high-school geography teacher and leave three hours later with an encyclopaedic knowledge of badgers and a slight feeling of resentment that you weren’t allowed to mark your page by folding over the corner of the page.

 

Ask me anything...

Ask me anything…

Which leads me to the next thing which sets bookshops apart. Bookshops are pretty much the only commercial operations in the world which let you consume their products for free. Give it a whirl; nip around Woolworths opening up the packages and trying a grape or two here or a stick of salami there. Stride purposefully into your local pharmacy, open up a new toothbrush and take it for a test-drive. And then, when an enraged and slightly nervous looking security guard rushes over, smile at him and tell him that you’re “just browsing”. It won’t go well.

And bookshops? That’s exactly what they’re there for. Step in out of the bustling crowds and wonder at the wealth of words surrounding you. Pick up a biography, flick through to the pictures in the middle and spend a happy few minutes dipping into the faded record of a stranger’s life. Don’t crack the spines, though. We hate that. Read the first paragraph of that novel everyone has been talking about. Check out the headlines of the papers. Flick though a magazine or two. You can even sit down and page through a picture book with your child. No-one will bother you; you’ll be doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing.

You’ll meet some interesting types in bookshops, too. Books are a magnet for charmingly peculiar people. Growing up, I got to know, by sight at least, and sometimes by name, a few of them. There was the wild-eyed, wild-haired man who stalked between the shelves in the same fading brown suit for more than a decade, driving children from the comics section by staring at them wordlessly until they backed slowly away behind the nearest best-seller display. There was the soft, round, gentle-looking lady who seemed genuinely overjoyed to find small people in her presence, but had no idea how to relate to them, winking and giggling and warbling and pulling funny faces until she was overcome by sudden shyness, reddening and scuttling off self-consciously to rearrange a perfectly well ordered shelf. There was the fierce, hatchet-faced old crow whose appearance completely belied her nature, who never learned my name, but knew every book I had read and who knew before I did which new books I would love.

 

She always seemed to have a snack ready for me, too.

She always seemed to have a snack ready for me, too.

And so, having grown up like this, I know exactly what I want my store to be. Come in and spend some time. Step out of the light and the noise and the crowds into a place filled with more words and pictures and stories than most of humanity throughout history would have encountered in their entire lives. Strike up a conversation with a bookseller; they tend to be a friendly and interesting lot. Sit down on the floor; we don’t mind, and browsing those bottom shelves while hunched over like Quasimodo is murder on the spine. Sample our wares. Pick up a book you have no intention of buying. Feel the weight of it in your hands. Take in the aroma of fresh paper and glue. Dip in to a paragraph or two.

And maybe, just maybe, you can take a couple home with you. A book is, after all, nothing but a bundle of empty words until it finds a life to touch and a home to make warmer. And we booksellers do, after all is said and done, need to eat.”

And working with books burns a lot of Calories.

And working with books burns a lot of Calories.

Weeping Song

Nick Cave is one of those rare artists who can make his teenage fans feel like they are deep and tortured and special, while also being great for a jolly good sing-along. But it has to be the right sort of sing-along.

You cannot sing Nick Cave songs while clapping your hands around a campfire with a bunch of boy-scouts. In fact you shouldn’t be hanging around with boy-scouts at all. I have never quite been able to put my finger on why, but there is something dodgy about boy-scouts. It’s just unnatural for kids that age to be that focussed on complicated knots and waffle-top socks.

 

He looks nice. Let's send our kids out into the woods with him for the weekend.

He looks nice. Let’s send our kids out into the woods with him for the weekend.

No. Nick Cave sing-alongs are reserved for the end of parties when a few die-hards refuse to go home and everyone is three or four glasses beyond any sensible measure of “enough to drink”. You have to be young enough to feel the echo of teenage angst and old enough to realise that Nick Cave, being Australian, has always had his tongue at least partially in his cheek.

Nick Cave, you see, is a master droner. This is by no means a criticism. It is high praise, a title he shares with deep and meaningful gods like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. And it is a happy coincidence that once all the sensible people have gone home, the die-hards left sitting around on the kitchen floor and staring off into the middle distance are droners too. It’s just a thing that happens. Give Enrico Caruso two packets of cigarettes and a bottle of Old Brown Sherry and he would be rasping out “Suzanne takes you down, to her place on the river…” with the best of them.

But that’s not what this post is about. It’s about this song, kinda;

The Weeping Song. When I was young enough to feel the echo of teenage angst and old enough to find myself staring into the middle distance on people’s kitchen floors at two in the morning, it formed a very clear image in my mind. Of Gypsies.

Maybe it was the clapping, but whenever I heard the Weeping Song, I pictured wild eyed, raven haired beauties and hatchet-faced, snake-hipped men with roses clenched between their teeth whirling and stamping around bonfires encircled by painted wooden caravans. The Weeping Song was a ritual; an aching, arcane ceremony in which all of the sadness and isolation and unbelonging of a homeless and unwanted tribe was poured out in a throat-tearing orgy of wailing. A cultural catharsis. An annual cleansing of the stain of unhappiness to fortify the people for another year of alienation and mistrust.

 

The rest of the year is one huge party, apart from the prejudice, poverty and pogroms.

The rest of the year is one huge party, apart from the prejudice, poverty and pogroms.

I’m older now. If I find myself on the kitchen floor at 2 am I’m generally cleaning up dog vomit, and my angst is reserved for serious issues like balding. I know the truth. The Weeping Song is not about Gypsies. It’s a parenting song.

It’s one of the many aspects of parenting that none of the books warns you about, but should you choose to bring another person or two into the world, prepare yourself for the fact that, at round about five years old, they are going to spend a year or so being bloody miserable. That old “Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I’m going to go eat worms” song is not a fun little comedic ditty. It is a piercing insight into the psyche of your child.

Since no-one bothers to warn you about this, when your fist child starts to do this, you are going to be rather alarmed. “I”, said our sweet little boy about five years ago, looking up at us through piercing blue eyes limpid with tears, “don’t want to live anymore. I just want to be dead. I am going to kill myself”. Jesus! That’s a bit rough for a five-year-old, even if he hadn’t been allowed to stay up late and watch Scooby Doo!

 

Nobody feels my pain.

Nobody feels my pain. It was the ghost pirate episode!

Mrs 23thorns and I stayed up deep into the night, earnestly discussing how sensitive the boy was, and how it might be time to find him a decent therapist and start him off on a course of bubblegum flavoured anti-depressants.

And then he woke up the next morning as happy as Larry, and went skipping off to school for all the world like a small person without a death wish. It was the beginning of a rather long year. Sometimes, the boy was very, very sad, crying himself to sleep and clinging to the will to live by the thinnest of threads. Sometimes. The rest of the time he was as sunny and cheerful as he’d always been.

It didn’t take us very long to work out what was going on. Have you ever seen a fledgling bird learning to use its wings for the first time? They don’t just leap into the air and soar off into the heavens. They sit on the edge of the nest flapping their wings awkwardly, learning how the wind flows over their feathers and how tiny changes of angle and pitch can shift their balance. But they are not flying. One wrong step and their soaring will be both limited in time and downward in direction.

 

I believe I can flyyyyy!

I believe I can flyyyyy!

Small children do the same thing. Emotions don’t just arrive fully formed. Five-year-olds need to practice using their emotions properly so that they are fully prepared for the all-important teenage years. And practice they do. We soon learned that the boy-child was suffering from very selective form of depression. If he was thwarted, or thought he might be in trouble, he would launch into a protracted and oddly poetic monologue.

“I”, he would announce between sobs, “am very sad” Mrs 23thorns and I would brace ourselves. “I don’t know how I can feel this way. Sometimes I think that you don’t love me, and that you wish I was dead”.

“That”, we would reply, “is just not true. We love you very much. Why don’t you come over here and get a nice big hug. After you take those chocolate biscuits back to the kitchen. The ones we said you couldn’t have any more of”.

Then it was on. “YOU JUST WAN’T ME TO DIE SO YOU CAN HAVE ALL OF THE CHOCOLATE BISCUITS! YOU DON’T CARE ABOUT ME AT ALL!”

 

He's on to me. Perceptive little bugger...

He’s on to me. Perceptive little bugger…

It was, as I said, a rather long year. But, like all phases, it passed. After flapping his emotions around like untested wings for twelve months, the boy took flight. He was done with his Weeping Song. A new person emerged. One who had been through a rite of passage and learned his first grownup secret. Emotions are better wielded as a scalpel than they are as a sledgehammer.

This doesn’t mean that he has stopped trying to manipulate us. He is both smart and incredibly sensitive to the emotions of people around him. But these days, managing the boy is more like playing chess with a grand master than it is like entering the ring with a heavyweight boxer. Not that this affects the outcome much. The little bugger still manages to get all the chocolate biscuits.

The boy might be done with his Weeping Song, but Mrs 23thorns and I are not yet in the clear.

“I”, announced the girl-child a month or two ago, looking up at us through enormous blue eyes limpid with tears, “am going to go and live in Zambia. Sob. You don’t want me here anymore!”

 

A wise choice. The views are just spectacular.

A wise choice. The views are just spectacular.

Bugger. Both Mrs 23thorns and I are now old enough and wise enough to recognise a Weeping Song when we see one. Oh, well. At least we knew what we were dealing with this time.

“I am very, very sorry to hear that, Mouse. Do you need our help with your packing?”

“What?”

“Packing. You can’t just go to live in Zambia like that. You’ll need some spare clothes. And a toothbrush. It’s absolutely vital that you brush twice a day. And floss. I don’t think there are any good dentists in Zambia.”

 

Zambian dogs. I didn't have the heart to post a picture of the people.

Zambian dogs. I didn’t have the heart to post a picture of the people.

“YOU SEE! I TOLD YOU YOU DIDN’T WANT ME HERE!”

“But of course we do, Mouse. We love you and want you to stay with us. Moving to Zambia was your idea. Now, I believe that it’s quite warm in Zambia, but I still think you should take along a jacket of some sort. And a raincoat. What about your bumblebee one?”

“AAAARGH”

It was, I suppose, a little unfair of us. We knew the rules of the game and she didn’t. We had a year of experience; she thought she’d just invented the game. We needn’t have feared. Her brother might be the sensitive one, but she is every bit as smart. She went off to restrategise.

 

My children frighten me.

My children frighten me.

“You”, she said a few days later, fixing me with an imperious stare, “don’t care about my feelings. You are going to live in Zambia”

“Don’t you mean you are going to go and live in Zambia?”

“No. I like it here with Mommy and the dogs. My brother can stay too. You can’t. You don’t care about me so you have to go to Zambia.”

Oh, well. At least it’s something new. We’ve done our year of self-pity, and now we get to play a different game with different rules. She’s rewritten the song; “Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, I’m gonna make the soulless bastards go and eat worms.”

So far I’ve been threatened with both deportation and death, and had the heat in my room cut off while being told that both Mrs 23thorns and I would only be allowed to wear short sleeves in winter. At least she’s being creative, I suppose.

 

It's going to be a long, hard winter.

It’s going to be a long, hard winter.

We know, this time round, that this will pass. And we know something else, too. You see they aren’t really weeping, these peculiar small people. They’re learning. Nick Cave said it better than I could;

“Father, why are all the children weeping?

They are merely crying son

O, are they merely crying, father?

Yes, true weeping is yet to come.”

So there you have it. If you are busy slowly putting together your own first small person, and are watching in horror as they suddenly turn into the world’s unhappiest angry people, relax. They are merely crying. True weeping, as the good Mr Cave points out, is yet to come. They’re going to be teenagers one day. Brace yourselves.

God help us!

God help us!

Hansel and Gretel.

Right. I have now settled into my new old job, and have no excuses left for neglecting my blog. And yet I’m struggling to get back on the horse. There is an underlying reason for this; I’m bored.

It’s a peculiar form of boredom. I’m bored of the stories I haven’t written. There’s a lot going on here at the moment. There’s an election coming up, so everyone is a liar, a thief, a racist or delusional. To make things a little more interesting, we have recently found out that our esteemed President, a man who dodged over seven hundred corruption charges and a rape charge before reaching his current lofty position, has somehow ended up with a private home in the middle of nowhere that has cost us taxpayers a quarter of a billion Rand.

 

Did I say home? I meant homes.

Did I say home? I meant homes.

I have quite a lot to say about this. So does everyone else. Boring.

Then there’s the Oscar Pistorius trial, an object lesson on why we should stop making gods of men and shouldn’t let little boys play with live ammunition.

 

Behold! The world's most unfortunately worded advertising campaign.

Behold! The world’s most unfortunately worded advertising campaign.

I have quite a lot to say about this. So does everyone else. Boring.

Just in case I thought this would all be over too soon, we have just welcomed a charming new potential resident to our fair land. A young man named Shrien Dewani has recently been extradited back to our sunny shores. If the state is to be believed, the good Mr Dewani is the inventor of a new sort of tourism. A year or two ago, he visited us on his honeymoon, and (allegedly) celebrated his new union by having his bride murdered in a staged hijacking.

 

The magic wore off pretty damn quickly...

The magic wore off pretty damn quickly…

I am going to have quite a lot to say about this. So is everyone else. Boring.

I have always subscribed to the belief that only boring people get bored. So I’m going to try something new. I’m going to tell you a story. When I started this blog, I hoped to use it as a tool to help me write a novel. Hah! I have not written a single word of fiction since month two.

So now it’s time to get back to my roots. I’m going to write some fiction. But not my own fiction. That seems just a little too much like hard work. I’m going to tell you a fairy story. It’ll help if you pretend to be five.

Hansel and Gretel.

Hello there, vaguely small people (don’t look so nervous; I’m also pretending that you’re five). My name is Uncle 23thorns, and I’m going to tell you a little story. Once upon a time, in a faraway land, lived…

 

Come, children, sit at my feet and listen.

Come, children, sit at my feet and listen.

Sorry, but I’m going to have to stop right there. We need to clear a few things up before we start. First of all, my name is not actually 23thorns. Amazing, right? That’s just a pseudonym. An alias. A nom de plume. It’s a name I made up so that I could hide my real identity, like Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent, but without any superpowers.

I use it so that I won’t have to take responsibility for anything I write. Your parents should be able to explain it to you; just ask them why they used to book into hotels as “Mr and Mrs Smith” before you were born. Unless your surname is Smith. Then you’re on your own.

I’m not your uncle, either, by the way. But, like a real uncle, I’m happy to give you free and helpful advice. Like this: If anyone who is not the brother of one of your parents tells you to call him “uncle”, run as fast as you can to a brightly lit place and tell the unfriendliest looking adult you can find that you are being stalked by a weirdo.

 

If this is the unfriendliest looking adult you can find, keep running.

Come, children. Show me this weirdo who is bothering you…

Enough. I was getting ready to tell you a story. A fairy tale. Hansel and Gretel.

Yup. You read that right. Hansel and Gretel. The story your parents used to tell you. I know what you’re thinking; lame! (Do five year olds say “lame”?) You’ve moved on. Fairy stories are for babies. You couldn’t be more wrong.

Parents tell their babies and toddlers fairy stories because babies and toddlers are mentally deficient. Slow. Not too bright. They can’t read or write or operate heavy machinery. Once they get a bit older, though, they start to get a bit smarter. And then parents stop with the fairy tales.

They don’t stop telling them because they think you would be bored. They are, to put things simply, afraid that the fairy stories are just a bit too hard-core for you. They don’t want to freak you out.

 

Which is a pity. Fairy tales teach kids so much about wildlife.

Which is a pity. Fairy tales teach kids so much about wildlife.

Luckily for you, I am not afraid. It’s not that I think you’re smart or tough enough to cope with the harsh truth of fairy tales. It’s just that I am writing under an alias, and don’t have to take responsibility for my actions. So where were we? Oh yes…

Once upon a time, in a faraway land, lived…

Sorry. Time to stop again. I just need to clear something up before we go on. Hansel and Gretel did not live in a faraway land once upon a time. Hansel and Gretel lived in Germany, around 1315. I know that seems a little specific, but it matters. You’ll see. Anyway, back to the story…

In 1315, in Germany, lived a kindly woodcutter and his two children, Hansel and Gretel. And their stepmother. Their wicked stepmother. I don’t know why they even bother with the “wicked” part. Have you ever heard of any other kind in fairy tales? The story of Spackel and Brumhilde who lived in a forest with their vicious, bitter old father and their gentle, kind-hearted stepmother, and a magical llama called Rusty who laid golden eggs?

 

Laying all those eggs has taken a terrible toll on Rusty.

Laying all those eggs has taken a terrible toll on Rusty.

Times have obviously changed a little. People get divorced. Fathers remarry. And so we all know a few stepmothers. I, personally, however, don’t know any wicked ones. Some stepmothers are trickier than others, sure, but wicked? It may sound like a corny and old-fashioned word these days, but if you take a closer look at some of those fairy stories, you’ll notice that being “wicked” was a pretty serious business back in the day. Like slavery serious. Child labour serious. Murder serious. Which leads me back to our cute little fairy story…

One night, Hansel and Gretel overheard their stepmother (who was wicked), telling their father (who was kindly) to take them out into the forest and leave them there because they were eating too much food.

Is it just me, or did things just turn pretty dark, pretty quickly. We’re only in the second paragraph (at least we would be if you didn’t keep interrupting), and our sweet little toddler story is suddenly about murder. Child murder.

Because that’s what this is. The forest in Germany wasn’t a few trees in a park with some well laid out trails through it and a concession stand at one end covered with posters of bears in hats asking you not to litter or set fire to their home. It was a dark, endless mass of trees that stretched to cover most of the country. There were bears. And wolves. And no food. Leaving kids in the forest meant leaving kids for dead.

 

Luckily their last moments will be filled with joy and wonder.

Luckily their last moments would be filled with joy and wonder.

Most kids. Not the intrepid Hansel. He gathered up a pocketful of white pebbles, and, as his kindly father led him off into the woods to die cold and alone and hungry (the word “kindly” has clearly gone through some pretty profound changes in meaning since 1315), he left a trail of pebbles behind him. That night, when the moon came out, the children followed the path of shining stones back home.

Smart, huh? Except for one tiny detail. Home just happened to be the place where the people trying to murder them lived. So maybe not so smart. But we have to be fair, I suppose. There was no such thing as family services in Germany in 1315. There wasn’t even such a thing as the police. So home it was. For a night.

The next day, their kindly father led them off to die again. Maybe “kindly” meant “persistent”. This time, Hansel didn’t have time to collect any pebbles, so he took a piece of bread with him and left a trail of crumbs.

Smart, huh? Or not. The crumbs were eaten up by birds. Which seems like a bit of a missed opportunity. If this was my story, the trail would have been followed by a hungry bear, and we would have seen some action.

 

And the trail would have been made of bacon.

And the trail would have been made of bacon.

But no. No bears. Don’t worry, though. This is where things get a bit freaky. Hansel and Gretel do not collapse to the ground and starve, clinging together at the base of a sprawling tree, regretting up to their last breath the fact that they fed their only food to the birds. Nope. They poke around in the forest for a bit before finding a house made of gingerbread. Which they eat.

Right. So we’ve gone from dark to supremely odd. Half a second ago, it was just a sweet little story about a kindly woodcutter and a wicked stepmother trying to murder their kids, and now all of a sudden the kids are eating someone’s house. Someone’s edible house. Don’t do drugs, kids. Just saying.

And then, almost immediately, we go back to dark again. One brief, cheerful patch of house-eating after a bit of attempted child-murder, and we get back to the imminent demise of Hansel and Gretel. The owner of the house, you see, comes back. Is she the cheerful, rounded, rosy cheeked woman you would expect to find living in a house made of food? She is not.

She is a vicious old witch. Despite being blind, and old, she catches the kids. Maybe they have rickets, or seasonal affective disorder. She throws Hansel into a cage and puts Gretel to work cleaning the house. Aaaand… there’s your slavery. And a bit of child imprisonment. Which is really not so bad. In comparison to what is to come.

 

Read to your children. It builds character.

Read to your children. It feeds their imaginations.

The witch, you see, begins to feed Hansel. A lot. Which is nice of her, isn’t it? Unless, of course, she is fattening him up so that she can eat him.

She is fattening him up so she can eat him. So now we have a little cannibalism to go along with our child imprisonment, slavery, and murder. Just the sort of thing to lull a toddler off to sleep.

Anyhow, back to the story. Despite not being able to evade an old blind woman, Hansel still has a trick or two up his sleeve. Every day, the witch comes out to check if he has fattened up enough to eat yet. She does this by pinching his finger. But he is too smart for her. Instead of passing her his finger, he passes her a bone. Yup, in our sweet little toddler story, Hansel is apparently sharing his cage with the skeleton of its last occupant. Cute.

Our witch is obviously getting a little hungry. She decides to cook Hansel anyway. And his little sister. Maybe she wanted some dessert. She fires up her old oven and orders Gretel to climb inside. Gretel, it seems, is a bit of a dark horse. She has hardly featured so far, but now it is her time to shine. She tricks the witch into having a look inside the oven. Maybe she told her she’d dropped some money in there when she was cleaning it. And then she shoves her in. And shuts the door. And cooks her alive. Cute. Toddler stories.

 

In there? How much money?

In there? How much money, exactly?

And then things get a bit weird again. They steal the witch’s treasure (witches, giants, ogres, and dragons always have treasure. It’s the rules) and go back home again. To the people who tried to kill them. Twice.

Luckily, the wicked stepmother has conveniently died during their little holiday, and they live happily ever after with their kindly father. Or so the story goes. Things would be a little awkward, I imagine, when the kindly father tells the kids to clean up their rooms or tells them they can’t have a PlayStation, and they remind him of that time when he tried to kill them. Twice.

So there you have it. The stories you left behind as a toddler were a little rougher than you remember.

And the really scary part? Some of them are also a lot more real than you think. You might have noticed a bit of a food theme running through Hansel and Gretel. The kids are kicked out of home for eating too much food. Their trail home is eaten by birds. They eat a complete stranger’s house. The stranger tries to eat them. They cook the stranger. It all seems just a little bit obsessive. With good reason.

 

The true message of Hansel and Gretel.

The true message of Hansel and Gretel.

Remember Germany? 1315? It was a pretty bad year. There was too much rain. The crops failed, and there was a famine. It happened again the next year. And the next. There was hardly any food around at all until 1322. People starved. Lots of people. People who could no longer feed their families abandoned their children. In forests. And yes, some people resorted to cannibalism. Guards were posted in cemeteries to watch over the recently dead lest they end up as someone’s dinner, while other, more enterprising individuals took a more proactive approach and hunted down and killed their meals.

The Great Famine in largely forgotten now, partly because it happened so long ago but mostly because it was followed almost immediately by the Black Plague, which made it look like a tea party.

Largely forgotten, but not completely forgotten. The pain and the suffering and the social upheaval the plague caused have sent faint echoes down through the ages in the stories we use to help our toddlers go to sleep.

There were not, however, in 1315 or at any other time, any houses made of gingerbread. That’s just a fairy tale.

Although bacon houses or gloriously real...

Although bacon houses are gloriously real…

Cat People

My father was not a man about whom people said “He has such a way with animals.” Not that he disliked them or anything. He just wasn’t one of those people who spend their first ten minutes of a visit to someone else’s house aggressively patting the dog and shouting “Who’s a good boy, then?”, or trying to win over the surly cat by holding out a hand a going “Psshwhsshwhsshwhsshwhssh” and gurning like a lunatic. He tended to ignore animals and they tended to ignore him.

 

Some people ignore animals more energetically than others.

Some people ignore animals more energetically than others.

So it came as a bit of a surprise when, as he was walking in his garden one day, a cockatiel landed on his shoulder and just didn’t go away. We put up some “Found. Naively trusting cockatiel” signs, but no-one claimed him. And so we went out and bought him a cage and some toys, and a tiny mirror so that he would have an imaginary mortal enemy to fight with. Cheeky Boy (for some reason, all cockatiels round here are called Cheeky Boy) lived with us for a year or two, nibbling his way through the edges of our childhood books and noisily beating the crap out of the bird in the mirror until, sadly, he went the way of all flesh.

We packed the cage away in the back of the garage and forgot about it until, as my father was walking in his garden one day, a cockatiel landed on his shoulder and just didn’t go away. Up went the “Found” signs. Out came the cage. We called him Cheeky Boy (rules are rules). Being older and wiser, we threw away the mirror.

This is, I’m sure you will agree, a rather unusual way of acquiring pets. I have heard of other people who have captured escaped cockatiels (all cockatiels round here have escaped; they don’t occur here naturally, and can’t survive as ferals) by luring them in with food or spraying them with a hose, but my father just had to step outside.

We began to suspect that sinister forces were at play when, some time after Cheeky Boy II had passed on, my father stepped out into his garden, and a Sulphur Crested Cockatoo landed on his shoulder, and just didn’t go away. Up went the signs. Away went the bird. Cockatiels may be a dime a dozen, but a Sulphur Crested Cockatoo is $1000 for just the one. The owners turned up almost as soon as we put up the signs. No free pet for us.

 

"Cute! If only there was a way we could turn it into cash..."

“Cute! If only there was a way we could turn it into cash…”

This was, in retrospect, probably a good thing. Sulphur Crested Cockatoos can live for over 70 years, and besides, none of us had the faintest idea of what you are supposed to call them.

My father passed on a couple of years ago, and among the many things we lost was the ability to pluck free pets from the ether with no effort at all. These days it takes a bit of effort.

My family, you see, is obviously rather taken with the idea of free pets. Not birds, though. Without my father’s curiously impractical super-power, birds are out of reach for us. No more Cheeky Boys. So my family has taken to stealing cats instead.

They will loudly protest their innocence, but I know what they’re up to. It started with my youngest sister. A few years ago, she and her family moved into a new house. Once they’d been there for a week or two, the neighbour’s cat popped over the wall to check them out, as cats do. And so, obviously, my sister fed him a can of top-grade tuna. As one does. Or rather, as one doesn’t.

 

Psshwhsshwhsshwhsshwhssh

Psshwhsshwhsshwhsshwhssh

This wasn’t a starving feral cat from a back alley somewhere. It was the neighbours’ pet. They had a little basket for it. They had a litter box for it. They fed it and had a cute little name for it, like Mr Whiskers. They did not, however, feed it top-grade tuna. For some inexplicable reason, the cat began to visit my sister’s house more often, and spend more time there. And put on weight.

And now? It doesn’t go “home” anymore. Ever. She might have done so very, very slowly, but my sister stole her neighbour’s cat. Is she racked by guilt? Filled with remorse? She is not. She has renamed the beast “Tuna Cat” in recognition of her glorious victory. And the best part? She doesn’t really like cats.

My mother was slightly disapproving of all of this. One shouldn’t use high-quality saltwater finfish of the tribe Thunnini to steal one’s neighbours’ cat. Not content to merely point this out, she then went on to demonstrate, by stealing her neighbours’ cat through the power of love alone. It took nearly a year. She knew she had won when the unfortunate beast began to starve to death. It was clearly spending so much time at my mother’s house that the neighbours forgot they had a pet and stopped feeding it.

Honour was satisfied. My mother declared victory and started to feed the stolen cat. She named her Mishka. My mother has set aside a couch in the TV room for her. And the best part? She doesn’t really like cats.

I don't know why not. There's just so much you can do with them...

I don’t know why not. There’s just so much you can do with them…

I try not to judge these people. As they say, you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. I love them for who they are, and to be perfectly honest, moral superiority is quite a warm and snuggly feeling.

So why this long and rambling redefinition of the word “catnap”? Well, this is actually one of those long and rambling “I haven’t posted for ages!” posts. I’ve been a little scarce.

I have, you see, re-joined the ranks of the nine-to-fivers. I started a new job at the beginning of last month. It’s exactly the same as the job I left a year ago, but in a different place. Yup. I’m a bookseller again.

It’s all been a bit of a shock to the system. My time is no longer my own. It took me a while to find my rhythm. Evenings were for catching my breath, not writing. But I got over it pretty quickly. I’m a bookseller, not a lumberjack. After a week or two I was ready to return to blogging. And then it happened.

 

Now try to keep Monty Python's lumberjack song out of your head for the rest of the day.

Now try to keep Monty Python’s lumberjack song out of your head for the rest of the day.

I am sorry to have to tell you this, but Mrs 23thorns has been sneaking around behind my back. All it took was for my absence to be guaranteed and my movements predictable. I stepped out of the door one day, and everything around me crumbled. Mrs 23thorns betrayed me.

Yes, good people. No sooner was my back turned than Mrs 23thorns up and stole a cat. Bam! Just like that! No high-quality tuna. No furtive strokes as the cat came stealing over the wall. Nope. I went off to work one day without any cats to speak of, and came home to find Ginger Cassidy living in my house. Yup. Ginger Cassidy. He was named by a committee of small people.

 

I wanted to go for "Contraband", but the committee disagreed...

I wanted to go for “Contraband”, but the committee disagreed…

The whole operation was flawlessly executed. Mrs 23thorns arrived home with her two tiny henchpersons to find the soon-to-be Ginger Cassidy mewing in the driveway. In a heartbeat he was installed in my daughter’s bedroom, calmly chewing on a piece of sausage and lapping up some milk while the dogs barked hysterically at the window.

Luckily I, the calm, rational, sensible member of the family, arrived home soon after, and immediately set about remedying the situation. I took Ginger Cassidy back out into the driveway and explained to him in short, easy-to-understand Anglo-Saxon words that it was time for him to leave. Sorted. I dusted off my hands and went back inside, nodding firmly to myself in acknowledgement of a job well done. Until I glanced out the window and saw that Ginger Cassidy was still there. As was the younger Ms 23thorns.

 

They were having a pose-off...

They were having a pose-off…

Every time Ginger Cassidy so much as glanced at the gate, she would scoop him up in her four-year-old arms and carry him back to the middle of the driveway while explaining that she loved him very much and he was not allowed to go anywhere.

Right. Desperate times called for desperate measures. I set the dogs on him. Kinda. What I actually did was carry him out of the gate and then let the dogs into the garden to keep him from coming back in. Theoretically.

Apparently Ginger Cassidy can levitate. Ten minutes later we found him sitting comfortably up a thorn-tree in the middle of the garden while the dogs went berserk just below him. “We need”, said Mrs 23thorns, looking at me pointedly, “to get him down.”

Right. This is what our thorn-tree looks like.

Mrs 23thorns refers to this category of things around the home as "Your job".

Mrs 23thorns refers to this category of things around the home as “Your job”.

 

“We” got him down. There was blood. No matter. I had another idea. I locked the dogs in the house, and the cat outside, and off we went to bed. It was perfect. As we slept, Ginger Cassidy would get bored and bugger off home to his real family. And he has a real family. Feral cats don’t let four-year-olds carry them around like ragdolls. Perfect.

Theoretically. In reality, I stepped outside the next morning all clean and polished and ready for work to be greeted by a plaintive mewing. From the thorn-tree. More blood. The dogs were locked outside and Ginger Cassidy was locked inside, and I went off to work.

I returned to find that we now had a litter-box full of cheerful white and blue crystals, and eighty kilograms of cat food. I wasn’t going to give up that easily. I went around the neighbourhood knocking on doors. No joy. I put up some “Found. Naively trusting cat” posters. Success! That very evening I got an excited phonecall from a pleasant-sounding Nigerian man with only a passing familiarity with the English language. It took me just ten minutes to work out that he wanted me to go and fetch my cat. And its kittens. It took me just another ten minutes to explain the small but fundamental difference between the words “lost” and “found”. Bugger.

 

Although he did give me an idea...

Although he did give me an idea…

I mentioned the SPCA to Mrs 23thorns. She mentioned euthanasia to me with moist eyes and a quivering lower lip. Bugger.

It would appear that we now have a cat. And allergies.

And so to the paucity of posts on this blog. I have found my new routine. It goes like this:

We wake up bright and early in the morning. Or rather we are woken by a distraught four-year-old who has been bitten by a cat. There is little or no brightness involved. We lock the dogs outside. We remove an unreasonably large poo coated in cheerful white and blue crystals from a specially bought plastic tray full of cheerful white and blue crytals with a small, specially bought pink spatula, and throw it away. Then we vacuum up the cheerful white and blue crystals that have been artfully scattered around my daughter’s room. We close the cat back in my daughter’s room and let one of the dogs back inside to feed it while the other eats outside. Then it’s just a simple matter of locking the dogs outside again so that my daughter can get dressed with Ginger Cassidy before moving them back inside (while making sure Ginger Cassidy is safe in his room) so that they don’t run out into the street when I go off to work.

God only knows what happens when I’m away at work. All I can tell you is that yesterday it involved a tetanus injection. Then I come home again.

 

So that's what Karma looks like...

So that’s what Karma looks like…

I arrive home to a scene of idyllic peace. This lasts up until the moment I open the front door. The dogs run out. I pause briefly to greet the family before having a quiet cup of coffee with Mrs 23thorns in the garden. Or not. First, we have to drive the dogs back inside and lock one of them in the bathroom (the reasons for this are complex, but revolve around his ability to open windows) so that Ginger Cassidy can have some outside time. We then have to threaten the children with death if they let the dogs out. And then we can have our quiet cup of coffee.

Or not. My children do not fear death. We have about three minutes in which to soak up the peaceful sounds of the dog barking hysterically in the bathroom before one of the children needs to come outside to tell us that they are drawing a picture, or the other needs to answer a call of nature and releases the window-opening hell-beast. Then we get to relax by sprinting off down the lawn to drive the dogs back into the house before retrieving the cat from the thorn tree. And bleeding.

Once we have finished relaxing, we drive the dogs back out of one door while bringing the cat in another. We feed and bath the children before closing the cat in my daughter’s room and letting the one dog inside so we can feed the entire menagerie in their separate locations. Then we let the dogs inside for the night and squeeze my daughter into her room while holding various animals at bay with our feet. All that remains is to open my daughter’s window once she has fallen asleep so that the cat can frolic around in the dark for a while before coming back in to bite her awake at four in the morning so that we can do it all again.

 

Dawn at my house.

Dawn at my house.

And then it is my time to write. For some reason I don’t really feel up to it, and Mrs 23thorns and I opt instead to weep ourselves quietly to sleep while one of the dogs whines peacefully at my daughter’s door.

Fear not! Things are going to change around here! We are going to find a new routine! I wish I could tell you that we are taking control back from the vicious swarm of vermin that have taken over our lives, but I can’t. Nope. Today’s the day my daughter gets to bring Mickey and Mouse home with her. Micky and Mouse are the class hamsters. They live in a cheerful looking circus tent-cage covered in transparent pipes, and apparently need to be taken out and held every fifteen minutes or they will feel sad. My daughter is very pleased with herself. All the other kids get the hamsters for a weekend. She’s got them for the holidays.

Hamster cages have come a long way since I was small.

Hamster cages have come a long way since I was small.

 

And so, good people, it might be just a little while before I get back to regular posting. I need to find a way to keep the cat away from the hamsters. And the dogs away from the cat. Which involves keeping my daughter away from the hamsters. And my son away from the bathroom. I can, at least, relax just a little and leave the dangerous work up to Mrs 23thorns. Not that she’s in control or anything. It’s just that she recently had a tetanus shot…

I’m beginning to understand why they say that owning a pet adds ten years to your life. I’ve aged at least that much in the last two weeks. And the best part? I don’t really like cats. Maybe we should get a cockatiel…

We could call him Cheeky Boy.

We could call him Cheeky Boy.

 

 

The Sameness Tree

I am, should you have been kind enough to follow this blog, still here. I’ve just been a little busy of late. Hello again.

If you are one of those kind people, you might have gathered that I am fond of trees. So it might come as a bit of a surprise to know that I loathe pine trees. Despise them.

I’m sure that if I had to see them in their natural home, marching in serried ranks over the jagged slopes of the frozen north, I would feel differently. But they don’t belong here. They don’t fit in. A pine tree in Southern Africa stands out like a middle-aged accountant at a nightclub. You want to walk up to it and gently explain that everyone, including itself, would be much more comfortable if it just went home.

You're not fooling anyone...

You’re not fooling anyone…

It’s not that pine trees are exotics. There are many trees from foreign climes that fit in just fine. Jacarandas and Brazilian pepper trees don’t look out of place at all (unless you’re a botanist- they just happen to be rather nasty invaders). Pine trees just don’t look right. They are jagged and angular, like the jagged, angular, glacier hewn-contours of their natural home. They are built for one thing; snow.

We don’t really have any snow. Or jagged contours. The glaciers left us alone. Our contours are rounded and soft and ancient, and sometimes a little stark. And so, like pets who grow to look like their owners, the trees that fit in here are rounded and soft, and sometimes a little stark. What they are not are spikey, uniform, angular fascists of trees. Like pine trees.

But maybe I’m being a little unfair. Because the cardinal sin of pine trees is not the way they look. It’s what they happen to be useful for; paper.

Behold! The distilled soul of a pine tree.

Behold! The distilled soul of a pine tree.

We don’t have much in the way of indigenous forest here in South Africa. But what we do have is simply breath-taking. Our forests are dark and damp and crawling with life. Soaring ancient giants like Yellowwoods and Stinkwoods lift a cathedral ceiling over clear, dripping streams and creeping ferns, and everything is softened by moss and fungus.

Nice.

Nice.

And noise. So much noise. Cicadas buzz, water drips, monkeys chatter, birds chirp and shriek, duikers crash unseen through the undergrowth, and the trees themselves creak and groan at the slightest breeze. But it is a curious sort of noise, somehow muted and respectful, like old men talking in a library. Until some bastard rips out the forest and replaces it with pine trees. Then there is no noise but the wind.

Paper. Computer age be damned, the world still runs on paper. We need it. And paper comes from pine trees. So we need pine trees. Pine trees just happen to grow in the same places that indigenous forests grow. The paper companies claim to follow strict environmental guidelines, but I have walked through their forests and crossed the bones of the world they replaced; old drainage lines, once dripping with water, now barren and dry, where the ancient forests would have been thickest. A world once fit for Arthur’s Avalon now fit only for crows.

Less nice.

Less nice.

The pine trees don’t just take over the forests, they take over the high grasslands, too, with their own sounds and life. And they replace it all with something unforgivable. Sameness. Uniformity. Every pine tree looks like every other pine tree. And as you move through them, they seem to go on forever; one tree, one pattern, for miles, and miles, and miles. And I hate them for it. Until I need to write a cheque. Or dry my hands. Or read a book. My only defence for my hypocrisy is that being unreasonable has always been one of the simplest of human pleasures. Angular, needle leaved bastards.

Which is all a rather depressing (and characteristically long-winded) introduction to my rather more cheerful post. Trees. Lowveld trees. Ones I don’t hate. Mopane trees. That’s mow-par-knee said fast. These;

Nice again.

Nice again.

Nice, aren’t they?  You might have noticed something interesting about them; Sameness. Uniformity. Every Mopane tree looks like every other Mopane tree. And as you move through them, they seem to go on forever; one tree, one pattern, for miles, and miles, and miles. It’s all rather fetching.

I am, I must confess, being a little disingenuous here, but it’s my blog and I’m allowed; the Mopanes in that picture are superstars. Brad Pitt Mopanes. Johnny Depp Mopanes. And they’re not from here. They grow like that way up in the Northern part of their range. Here, In South Africa’s Lowveld, we get Danny DeVito Mopanes. They look like this.

I'm on the fence on this one.

I’m on the fence on this one.

Which is rather less impressive. To be fair, we do have odd, isolated patches of superstars, like those in the first picture, which are rather poetically referred to as cathedral Mopane, but the vast majority of what we’ve got is more like the second, referred to rather less poetically as Mopane scrub. And we have lots of it. Stands of Mopane make pine plantations look rather insignificant. They don’t cover whole mountainsides, they cover whole countries. And where Mopanes grow, almost nothing else grows.

So why am I being so mean about the pine trees, and so nice about the Mopanes? Is grinding sameness not just grinding sameness? No. It is not.

There is one fundamental difference between the two; an ecosystem gets ripped out to make way for a pine plantation, whereas Mopane scrub is an ecosystem. Mopanes dominate vast swathes of real estate not because they have pushed out the competition but because nothing else will grow there. They have a remarkably high tolerance for shallow, poorly drained, highly alkaline soils. Even they have their limitations though; we are stuck with the scrub because the soil they grow in here is so thin.

Despite the grinding sameness of a hundred kilometre long patch of Mopane scrub, an individual Mopane is actually quite attractive. The Mopane is sometimes called the butterfly tree, because of these;

Squint. And use your imagination.

Squint. And use your imagination.

The leaves have evolved like that for a reason. Water. The parts of Africa where they grow are hot, and subject to long periods of drought. Those leaves have more in common with butterflies than you might think; during the hottest, most sun-blasted times of day, the Mopanes close their wings, and line them up so that the sun falls on their narrow edge, letting the tree hold onto its precious water.

This has a rather curious unintended outcome. Even the broad, spreading cathedral Mopanes make lousy shade trees. Yup, you can find yourself in the middle of a sea of leafy green trees with nowhere to shelter from the sun. The leaves aren’t just a nice shape. They come in nice colours, too. The Mopane is one of the few Lowveld trees that puts on a decent display of autumn colour.

The colours are OK, but the accessories are spectacular.

The colours are OK, but the accessories are spectacular.

Mopane seed-pods are kinda cool. They are flat, kidney-shaped pods that turn from emerald green to light brown, and fit in nicely with the leaves. They are, however, a little dull. Until you open them up and find a tiny human brain nestled inside.

BRAAAINS!

BRAAAINS!

The wood is kinda cool, too. It is a beautiful, rich, red colour, hard, and heavy. It is so hard that it is rather difficult to work with, but the extra effort is worthwhile, because Mopane wood is termite resistant. It’s used for fence-posts and furniture and parquet floors. And bagpipes. Obviously. But making bagpipes out of Mopane wood is a senseless waste. You are supposed to burn it.

Mopane wood burns for ages, and leaves behind hot, long lasting embers. And it has a glorious and evocative aroma. There are few better woods for making a braai (barbecue), right down to the mandatory wait for the coals to be ready for cooking. Being forced to sit around chatting and drinking beer in a blazing African sunset while your fire burns down to readiness is not necessarily a bad thing.

How long are we going to have to endure this torture!?!?

How long are we going to have to endure this torture!?!?

But Mopanes are not about usefulness. They’re about something else. Life. Those pine plantations I was going on about earlier are deserts. Nothing here is equipped to use them. They have no seeds or fruits that our monkeys or birds could live on, and nothing here can digest pine-needles. There isn’t even any undergrowth to speak of; the pine needles coat the ground and leave it too acidic to let anything else grow beneath them.

Mopanes couldn’t be more different. The endless Mopane is bursting with life. Mopanes are rich in protein. They aren’t particularly sought after, since the leaves are quite resinous, but when times get tough, they come into their own. They are supposed to be deciduous, but there always seem to be at least some green leaves about, and even if the leaves have all fallen, they are still eaten. Which means that Mopane scrub is a sought-after habitat for large herbivores.

Don't worry. Once that rhino sees how big Geoff's lens is he's sure to back down.

Don’t worry. Once that rhino sees how big Geoff’s lens is he’s sure to back down.

It is not, however, a good place to go looking for them. The Mopanes might be letting all that sunlight through, but that sunlight is coming down from above. When you’re out on a game-drive, you are looking from the side. And you’re not going to see much. To drive through Mopane scrub is to drive between two opaque green screens. A creature as big as an elephant or a buffalo could be standing just a dozen or so feet off the road, and you would be none the wiser. Unless they step out in front of you.

I fear Mopanes. Because of these;

Peekaboo!

Peekaboo!

Yup. The creature that specialises in stepping out of the Mopane in front of me is the elephant. Elephants aren’t quite as dangerous as you might have been led to believe. If you treat them with respect, keep your distance, and move slowly and deliberately, they tend to leave you alone. It is, however, quite hard to keep a respectful distance from a four-ton behemoth that steps from behind a screen of green into the road ten feet in front of you. Moving backward not very slowly or deliberately isn’t always an option, either; elephants are not solitary animals. Another four ton behemoth you failed to spot might just be stepping into the road ten feet behind you. At which point your best option is to slowly and deliberately curl up into a foetal position and weep.

It’s not just herbivores that lurk in the Mopane. Lions tend to avoid Mopane scrub, which means that it’s a good place to find their smaller competitors, like wild dogs and hyenas.

I said "tend to"...

I said “tend to”…

But that’s the big stuff. Stuff you can find anywhere in the Lowveld. What makes the Mopane scrub so rich is the small stuff. The deeply fissured bark and hard wood make an ideal home for any number of creatures like hole-living birds and cryptically coloured geckos and snakes.

But that’s not all. As I mentioned earlier, anything as widespread and dominant as Mopane becomes its own ecosystem. This isn’t always a good thing.

Those charming creatures are Mopane flies. Which is a curious thing to call them, since they are bees. Stingless bees. Which sounds nice, but isn’t. They make up for their lack of a sting by swarming all over you and trying to crawl into your eyes. They try to compensate for this rather annoying habit by producing honey. Tiny little bits of honey. Made, apparently, from the moisture they find in human eyes. They don’t seem to be trying too hard.

They don’t really have to. Other creatures have stepped in to take up the challenge. Who needs honey when you have manna? Yup. The stuff from the bible. Nobody really knows what manna was, but one of the more plausible theories is that it was the crystallised honeydew from scale insects that lived on tamarisks. Which just sounds silly.

It’s not, though. A sap-sucking insect called the Mopane psyllid lives on Mopane leaves in its larval stage. It covers itself in a scale of sweet tasting, crystallised resin, which is picked off the leaves and eaten the local people. It’s called Mopane manna. But that’s just a snack, not a meal. This is a meal.

Yummy!

Yummy!

That is a Mopane worm. Just one is a mouthful. But there isn’t just one. At the right time of year, there are tens of millions of the buggers. They are gathered by the locals and dried. In Lowveld towns, you can buy bags of them to snack on like potato chips from the seventh circle of hell. Don’t, though. They taste like the dried out inner-sole of a hobo’s shoe.

And look like the hobo's toenails...

And look like the hobo’s toenails…

They do, however, sound adventurous and exotic. And so, over the last few decades, a couple of adventurous and exotic restaurants have tried to work them into their menus. You can now, should the mood take you, order a steaming bowl of stewed Mopane worms. Don’t, though. They taste like the stewed inner sole of a hobo’s shoe.

Mopane worm stew goes wonderfully with a nice chardonnay. About three bottles should do the trick...

Mopane worm stew goes wonderfully with a nice chardonnay. About three bottles should do the trick…

So there you have it. There are enormous patches of scrubby, unrelenting sameness out in Africa that are brimming with life and unpalatable delicacies. There is a rest-camp in the Kruger Park called Mopane, on the crest of a hill overlooking a large dam and surrounded by a sea of butterfly-shaped green leaves. If you visit the park for the first time, don’t stay there. You won’t see the forest, or the life it holds, for the trees.

But if you do choose to stay there, stick around for a while. Slowly but surely, all that life will start to reveal itself to you. You will start to see the birds in their holes, and the giant potato-chip worms, and the manna from heaven.

And maybe, just as the relentless sameness of it all starts to get to you, a four ton behemoth will step out in front of you as another one appears in your rear-view mirror. And you will wish, as you slowly (and deliberately) curl up into a foetal position and start to weep, that you were driving through a pleasantly barren pine plantation.

05-August_017

Worst Dressed

I don’t, as a rule, buy newspapers. I get all of my news from a couple of sites on the internet. One of those sites has a section dedicated to women, called Women24. I read it.

Or rather, I read parts of it. I can’t really get my head around “How to tell if he’s the one for you”, or “Get your body bikini ready for summer”, but there are articles there that grab my attention more than the traditional male articles about how a bunch of guys spent the day hitting a ball with a piece of wood before nipping off to shower together.

One of the sections I don’t read is the “worst dressed” section. You know the one; a panel of insightful humourists get together to mock other people’s clothes. I don’t avoid it because I am morally superior or too unspeakably masculine. I avoid it because I am aesthetically challenged. To me, a “worst dressed” column is just collection of pictures of beautiful women in fancy dresses with hysterically overworked captions about marshmallows dipped in glitter and mermaids with feathers.

AAARGH! My eyes! Make it stop!

AAARGH! My eyes! Make it stop!

But recently, the whole “worst dressed” thing bled over into the general news. A heavily pregnant MP attended a parliamentary event in a bad dress. The social media crowd went berserk, mocking her outfit in ways that were often very ugly indeed. And the MP went to hospital, presumably due to the strain of it all.

It was, to be fair, quite a dress.

It was, to be fair, quite a dress.

Women24 faced a bit of a dilemma. The site is strongly feminist. They felt bound to rush to the MP’s defence. But they also run regular “worst dressed” articles. Women24 leapt into the fray.

As an enthusiastic admirer of hypocrisy, so did I. I wrote an article about their articles about the other peoples’ comments about the dress.

As an enthusiastic lazy person, I’ve gone and reprinted it here. Enjoy…

*****

I’m not a feminist. I am sympathetic to the cause, but I’ve never been all that impressed by people who lay false claim to labels on the slimmest of pretexts. You are not an anarchist if you bunked school that one time and drew a funky “A” in a circle on your bag. You are not a Rastafarian if you put up a poster of Bob Marley, stop washing your hair and smoke some weed. You are not a revolutionary if you went to a Koos Kombuis concert in the 80’s and were on a first-name basis with your parents’ gardener.

So no, I don’t get to lay claim to being a feminist. I support the cause, but I’ve never been to the barricades. Women24 has. They regularly stand up for feminist issues. As, I suppose, one would expect. But I’ve always been a little curious about something.I’m the wrong gender, but I read the odd article on Women24. Unapologetically. They are smart and insightful and well informed, and interest me more than people droning on about cars.

But here’s the thing. In between articles calling out rape-apologist trolls like David Bullard, rants about sexist jokes, and examinations of how the law could better serve the cause of gender equality, they pause every now and then to find a bunch of women in a vulnerable situation, point at them, and laugh; “Look at this hideous ogre! And she was up there, in front of the world, daring to hope that she looked quite nice! Ha!”

Yup, I’m talking about the regular “worst dressed” columns that appear on Women24. I don’t really object to things like this; as much as we all pretend to be living in a touchy-feely, aren’t-we-all-just-so-caring world, we are human beings. The word “schadenfreude” exists for a reason. We like to see people fall down. We like to see Youtube clips of teenagers skateboarding their sensitive bits into signposts. And yes, we like to see other people mocked, especially if they dare to flounce around being more glamorous or successful than us.

But like I said, I’ve been curious. How do Women24, a news site with decidedly pro-feminist leanings, reconcile themselves with the fact that every now and then, they turn around and punch a bunch of women they’ve never met before right in the femininity. And yes, it is their femininity that is being attacked; in order to crack the nod for these articles, men have to go completely over the top.

I am curious no more. I have an answer. Badly.

The unthinkable has happened. Everybody else has pointed at a woman, and laughed; “Look at this hideous ogre! And she was up there, in front of the world, daring to hope that she looked quite nice! Ha!”

And she broke. As people sometimes do when they find themselves being openly mocked by strangers. The woman in question was Thandile Sunduza, an MP who made the mistake of wearing a rather eye-catching dress to the State of the Nation speech while seven months pregnant. The internet exploded with mocking laughter. Sunduza ended up in hospital.

And Women24 stepped up to the plate to do some reconciling. First up was the fashion editor, who placed one hand firmly on her hip, raised the index finger on the other, and called South Africa out for fat-shaming, ridiculing and mocking the good Ms Sunduza online. Fat-shaming Women24 does not do. But ridiculing and mocking people online? What exactly is a worst dressed column if it isn’t exactly that?

And then things got really fun. She folded her arms, looked us right it the eye, and asked the immortal question; “Since when do we expect members of parliament to look and dress like A-List celebrities? And why do we care?”

Well, part one of that question is pretty easy; that would be since at least this time last year, when Women24 ran an article called “State of The Nation Address: Worst Dressed”, which ridiculed and mocked a bunch of members of parliament. Online. For not looking and dressing like A-List celebrities. Which means that Women24 should be in an ideal position to answer part two for themselves.

Then it was the editor’s turn. And she tackled the issue directly. How could Women24 condemn what happened to Ms Sunduza while running worst dressed columns?

Well. It’s all very simple. The ladies in the worst dressed columns are all very pretty and that’s kind of their job and besides, they can get nice dresses and it’s all just a bit of harmless fun and criticising women’s clothes helps them to dress better and you can play the dress but not the woman inside and it’s all just gentle teasing and….

Bullshit.

We are the same species that packed the circuses in Rome to watch people get thrown to the lions. News sites need to entertain as much as they do inform. And we are entertained by worst dressed columns because we like to see a little blood, not because we are gently helping the pretty-girls to choose a better pair of pants. It’s ugly and it’s personal and like the Romans, we want more.

Unlike the Romans, we don’t want to see too much blood. That’s icky. That was what was different about what happened to Ms Sunduza. She was standing just a little too close and bled just a little too much.

Should, the editor asked, Women24 do away with worst dressed columns? Hell no! Bread and circuses keep the mob happy. But maybe they should change their approach. Instead of mumbling on about what harmless fun it all is, they should turn to us, teeth bared and arms spread wide as they stand over a prone and weeping actress in a ridiculed dress and scream “Are you not entertained?”

That way there’ll be no misunderstandings about what we’re all up to.

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Snorkelling lessons.

I’ve been a little scarce of late. This is because I am in the process of trying to become gainfully employed. This is not a process that I find particularly settling, so if anyone has been thinking of sending me a small fortune (or a large one; beggars can’t be choosers and all that), now would be the time.

This has not meant that my mind has been quiet; just the part that allows me to hurl its contents down onto a keyboard. Something has been bothering me a little lately, and today, it was thrust to the fore. By Vanessa Mae.

Remember her platinum undies?

And her platinum undies.

Remember her? She was the girl who inspired an interest in classical music in an entire generation of young men by virtue of the skill and passion with which she played the violin.

There are, no doubt, some uncharitable people out there who might say she inspired an interest in classical music in an entire generation of young men by virtue of the skill and passion with which she played the violin without too many clothes on. They might just be onto something. She was rather startlingly attractive. But the truth is that she would never have become famous if she hadn’t been quite good at playing the violin.

Nothing could distract her, not even a raging sea and the loss of her pants.

Nothing could distract her, not even a raging sea and the loss of her pants.

That skill was not an easy thing to come by. She started playing the piano at the age of three. At the age of three, my children were still trying to master the complex set of challenges involved in eating with a spoon. She started the violin at five. That’s when I’m planning on introducing my daughter to knives and forks (she should have started earlier, I know, but we have been delaying for as long as possible since the world is going to be a frightening place once she is fully armed).

Ms Mae’s fame was at its zenith in the 90’s. The world moved on, as it does. And so, it would seem, did Ms Mae. They were talking about her on the radio this morning. No, she has not released a new album called “The Bikini Fiddler; Vamping to the Classics”. She has, instead, just taken part in the Winter Olympics. And not as a performer in the opening ceremony.

Yup. Not content with being a former child prodigy, the good Ms Mae decided to go off and become an Olympic athlete. It’s all a bit much, really. My greatest achievement so far is managing to balance three golf balls on top of each other. The magnitude of her achievement was only slightly diminished by the news that she was representing Thailand at skiing, which is kind of like representing Greenland at beach volleyball.

What they lack in skill, they make up for in dedication.

They might not be very talented, but damn, they look good.

But I only learned that later. When I heard that she was an Olympian, she coalesced a couple of ideas in my mind. Something, as I said, has been bothering me. Something to do with sporting superstars, children, and the sort of parents who would make a three-year old learn the piano.

I’ve been thinking about these things for a reason. I am, you see, teaching my son and heir to snorkel. This involves hauling him off to the local gym a couple of times a week, strapping various pieces of rubber and glass onto him, and watching him bob around cheerfully while trying to stop him from vocalising the sound effects that accompany whatever snorkelling-based fantasy is playing out in his head (it appears to involve lasers and robot sharks).

There are not any things cooler than robot sharks.

There are not any things cooler than robot sharks.

It’s all quite fun. For us. We have lasers and robot sharks. What set me off the other day was the boy next to us. He wasn’t having much fun. He was young, not much older than my own nine-year-old. But he was not there to bob around making “peeeooo peeeooo peeeooo” noises through a bent plastic tube. He was there to work.

I noticed him as we arrived, slicing through the water like a fish, and remember thinking that he was a remarkable swimmer for a boy so young. We soon realised why. Shortly after we got into the water, he grabbed hold of the side of the pool and looked plaintively over at a grim-looking woman sitting on a bench nearby. “Can I stop now, mom? I feel like I’m going to throw up.”

“No,” was the rather curt reply. “You’re doing a hundred lengths. 16 more to go.”

Keep it up, little man! Love ya!

Keep it up, little man! Love ya!

And that was that. He turned and ploughed his way back down the Olympic sized pool. But he suddenly looked more like a robot than a fish. Fish are free.

Normally, I wouldn’t bat an eyelid. There have always been people who have pushed their kids like this. Without them, classical music would be brought to its knees, and sport would be more than a little duller.

To create the sort of people who excel at these things, you need to make them put in the hours. And you need to make them put in the hours at an age when they would rather be making robot-shark laser noises. It’s not something that I would choose to do (I have a hard enough time getting the boy to do his shoelaces up. 18 hours a week of balalaika practice would simply be beyond us), but I have never really been concerned when others choose differently. Maybe I should have been. Something has changed. Because of this guy.

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When I was growing up, South Africa was separated from the world because of apartheid. Most of our greatest sporting heroes were amateurs. Those who weren’t did OK financially. Some even did quite well. But sport and money were not what they are now. There were still parents out there driving their kids to excel at sports, but their motivations were different. They were after status. Bragging rights. They wanted their kids to be the best in their schools. They wanted them to make the national side. They wanted them to get rugby scholarships. They wanted to live out their own unachieved dreams through their children. They did not, however, want a billion dollars.

Tiger Woods got a billion dollars. There’s a reason for this. His dad wasn’t content to wait ‘til he turned three. He started playing golf when he was two. It paid off. He is, rather simply put, one of the greatest sportsmen ever to have lived.

But you don’t get a billion dollars for that. No. Tiger Woods is a money pump. He sells. He sells golf shirts and golf club memberships and computer games and television rights and cars and credit cards and watches and razors and sports drinks. He earns every cent of his billion dollars.

He’s got those sporting parents rubbing their hands together. It’s not about bragging rights anymore. Sport is about money. Big money. Enough money to make them forget just one small detail. Tiger Woods is a dick.

Shhhh! That was our secret!

Shhhh! That was our secret!

While the world was cheering him on for hitting a little white ball around really, really well, he was having a bit of a ball himself, working his way through a football team of lingerie models, porn-stars and cocktail waitresses. This was not infidelity. This was contempt. Contempt for what the world thought. Contempt for what his wife felt. Indifference to the message he was sending his little boy, and his little girl, about the value of women and the value of their mother. And it really was contempt, because he simply cannot have been dumb enough to think this wouldn’t all come out.

He must have known it would. Cocktail waitresses and porn stars and lingerie models are not well known for their discretion. But what the hell. He’s Tiger Woods. When the world gives you a billion dollars for hitting a little ball around, you must come round to thinking that you are entitled to take whatever you want from the world.

And this is what Tiger wants from the world.

And this is what Tiger wants from the world.

And here’s the thing; he was right. He’s back. He did take a little time off to say he was sorry, and did the obligatory rehab sessions for sex addiction that have replaced accountability for celebrities caught with their pants down, but he hasn’t really lost anything. He’s still hitting his ball around, and raking in the advertising money. He did, to be fair, lose his wife, but judging by the value he evidently placed on his relationship with her, that was no great loss.

But whether he rose from the ashes or not is immaterial. We’re getting used to sportsmen falling from grace. OJ. Lance Armstrong. Michael Vick. Tonya Harding. Barry Bonds. Mike Tyson. Some rise from the ashes, some don’t.

And it doesn’t matter. Somewhere along the line, we stopped thinking that we should admire these people for their skill, or their dedication, or their sportsmanship, and instead started admiring them for their Bentleys and their weekly salaries.  And when you’re caught rogering a stripper with five syringes full of horse steroids in your pocket in the bathroom of a nightclub, they don’t take away your Bentley.

Especially not if you've classed it up with a subtle paint job.

Especially not if you’ve classed it up with a subtle paint job.

We’re about to watch another quite spectacular fall from grace. We’re all gearing up for the Oscar Pistorius trial. It’s started already. The court will decide if he’s a murderer. But day by day, evidence is emerging that Oscar Pistorius is a bit of a dick. There are stories of small arsenals being ordered, of guns being fired in crowded restaurants, of assaults on women at parties.

I suspect that by the time we’re done here, we will all have received a rather powerful reminder that the steely determination required to become a top athlete, and the almost unbelievable grit required for a man with no legs to compete in the able-bodied Olympics, do not necessarily make someone an admirable person. Just a rich one.

Which brings me to what’s really been bothering me. A girl. You see, Oscar’s trial isn’t the only one that’s been in the news. There’s been another one, too. A little one. A quiet one. A blink-and-you-would-miss-it one. A couple from a place called Bloemfontein went out to a dam in the countryside, and set up a couple of chairs on the bank. And then they made their daughter go for a swim. For hours. Until she got tired. And staggered out. And asked to be allowed to stop. At which point they, in the cold, official language of the court, assaulted her, and drove her back into the water. She is ten years old.

Happy birthday. Now blow out your candles and get back in the water.

Happy birthday. Now blow out your candles and get back in the water.

Someone called the police. The charming pair were arrested. They’ve been charged with attempted murder. And the girl has been placed with a foster family.

And here’s the thing that’s been tugging away at the back of my mind as I watched small boys begging to go home and play with Lego rather than swim for miles; is she happy there? Does she lie in bed at night thanking god that she doesn’t have to drag herself endlessly through the murky waters of that dam anymore? Does she heave a sigh of relief when she remembers she won’t be beaten if she doesn’t shave a millisecond or two off last-weeks’ time?

Or is she lying there in the dark, nails digging into her palms, teeth gritted, wishing that she had been just that little bit tougher? Wishing she had powered on, setting aside her ten-year old frailty to keep her parents out of jail? Hoping she could get to a swimming pool soon so that she could make her new family love her? And as she drifts off into the sweet release of sleep, does she dream of the day she can swim a shiny new Bentley for mommy and daddy, and fix the mess she has made with her despicable weakness?

I hope not. I hope she stumbles across a bunch of people who can teach her that her value isn’t measured on a stopwatch. I hope she finds someone who teaches her the difference between enthusiastic encouragement and attempted murder. I hope she finds someone who can remind her that being ten isn’t a brutal push for the finish line. I hope someone teaches her that the limits of her sporting career should be defined by the limits of her own ambition, no-one else’s.

We would love you more if that two was a one.

We would love you more if that two was a one.

I hope, most of all, that when she is old and grey and looks back on her life, be it one of Olympic glory, corporate drudgery or domestic bliss, that she can remember a time, long, long ago, when she understood that there wasn’t a Bentley in the world worth as much to an adult as a laser-shooting robot shark is to a child. Just saying. Peeeooo peeeooo peeeooo.