How to Decorate with Books.

23thorns:

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

Originally posted on Why Books?:

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

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

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

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World Blog Hop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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And turn it into this;

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

img_26831img_35591

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

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

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

  1. Include a quote that you like.

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

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

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

cat36

Make of it what you will…

And now for the tricky part.

  1. Why do I create what I do?

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

  1. How does my creative process work?

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grow, you bastards! Grow!

Grow, you bastards! Grow!

 

  1. What am I presently working on?

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

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

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

*****

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

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

Marcia Meara:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

KokkieH

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

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

 

He also likes hammers...

He also likes hammers…

Mrs 23thorns.

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

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

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

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

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

A completely

A completely…

...normal person...

…normal person…

...playing with...

…playing with…

...her dustbin.

…her dustbin.

As one does.

As one does.

 

Birthday sex.

“BIRTHDAY SEX! BIRTHDAY SEX!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look! A birthday sex cake!

Look! A birthday sex cake!

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

“What are those dogs doing, Mom?”

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

Sorted.

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

“What are those dogs doing, Dad?”

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

“So where do puppies come from, then?”

“The Netherlands.”

They also make cheese and wooden shoes.

They also make cheese and wooden shoes.

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

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

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

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

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

Look! This one has a biblical quote on it!

Look! This one has a biblical quote on it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“MY ANACONDA DON’T WANT NONE UNLESS YOU GOT BUNS, HUN!”

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

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

WTF?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“MY ANACONDA DON’T!”

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

“MY ANACONDA DON’T WANT NONE UNLESS YOU GOT BUNS, HON!”

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

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

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

Just make it stop.

Just make it stop.

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

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

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

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

Neither of which is pictured here...

Neither of which is pictured here…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I'm sure he also got a cake.

I’m sure he also got a cake.

Why you should feel good about reading Romance novels

23thorns:

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

Originally posted on Why Books?:

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

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

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

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

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Party People

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

“Waaaargyeeeurghaar.” Said V. Loudly

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

At two thirty we arrived at the venue. Imagine.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Ah. Kindergarten politics.

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

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

 

I only took a couple of each...

I only took a couple of each…

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

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

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

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

We had fun. There was cake.

 

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

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

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

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

Why You Should Learn to Read Like a Buddhist Monk

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

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!