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.

TigerWoods2Getty_690

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.

Magic Guarri

Trees are magical. A proper big, spreading, ancient broad-leafed tree falls into the same category as rounded, ancient rocks and deep, clear pools of water.

 

Magic

Magic.

We are drawn to these things. They make us quiet. They make us want to reach out and touch them, as if doing so will allow us to feel the pulse of the earth itself; will allow us to become part of something bigger and infinitely wiser than ourselves.

 

Magic.

Magic.

We have always known that trees can hold magic. The Vikings believed the cosmos was held up by a giant Ash called Yggdrasil. The druids worshipped in groves of spreading oaks. The Maoris declared the largest Kauri trees to be royalty.

 

Magic.

Magic.

It’s time for another Lowveld post. One about plants. Or just one plant. But it is a magical one. Here’s one now;

 

Magic?

Magic?

Were you stuck dumb with awe? Did you feel the pull of the ancient gods? Did you sense that you were in the presence of royalty, or feel a sudden urge to sacrifice a goat? Not? Oh come now! It is not, I will concede, much to look at. But it is a proper magic tree! More so than the Ash and the Oak; their magic is lost to us. We stopped believing, and now all they have left is the power to make us feel inexplicably moved in their presence.

Not so my little tree. Its name says it all. It is a Magic Guarri. Or, if you have a more scientific bent, Euclea Divinorum. And it is the sort of thing that makes you believe that it was placed on earth by a benevolent god specifically for the benefit of mankind.

Let’s get the woowoo magic out of the way first. The divinorum part of its Latin name comes from the fact that a decoction of the roots is used by some tribes for the purposes of divination. But that’s not the only type of divining it’s used for. A fresh twig of Magic Guarri is said to quiver when close to an underground water source. Yup; it’s used for dowsing, too.

But that, as they say in the infomercials, is not all. Twigs are broken off and carried around or hung up in the eaves of houses as good luck charms and to ward off witches and bad luck. And yes, witches are as real to some of the people living in Africa as they were in Europe and the States during the witch hunts. In some rural areas, people are still driven from their homes or even killed on suspicion of witchcraft. Lightning strikes and sudden illnesses don’t happen by themselves.

 

I'm warning you for the last time, Mrs Fairchild; if I catch you doing this just one more time, I'm reporting you to the inquisition.

I’m warning you for the last time, Mrs Fairchild; if I catch you doing this just one more time, I’m reporting you to the inquisition.

So much for old-school magic. Now for the real stuff; the Magic Guarri is so staggeringly useful to the people of Africa that it doesn’t need evil spirits to exist to deserve its name.

We’ll start with the wildlife tourism stuff since that’s what these posts are about, mostly. If you go on a guided walk, or even, often enough, a guided drive in the bush, you are going to get to see the Magic Guarri. Your guide will stop, stroll over to a Magic Guarri, and break off a bunch of twigs. He’ll strip a bit of bark off the end, and crush the fibrous wood so that it ends up looking like a primitive paintbrush.

Leaf300

Then he’ll make you brush your teeth with it.

 

It's best to do as he says. He does, after all, have a rather large gun with him.

It’s best to do as he says. He does, after all, have a rather large gun with him.

Do not be offended. He does not have issues with your dental hygiene. He is trying to keep you engaged because the cool things like leopards and lions and elephants are not lurking around every corner, despite what you may have seen on the Discovery Channel. And he’s onto something.

The Magic Guarri tree has been used for this purpose since time immemorial. So much so that it is also known as the toothbrush tree. And here’s the really interesting part; it used to be thought that they were used like this simply because the twigs are really fibrous and made a good, stiff brush. Until a scientific someone took a closer look. It turns out that Magic Guarri wood has powerful anti-bacterial qualities that are only now being explored. That’s right; Magic Guarri is the natural equivalent of the sort of toothpaste that nine out of ten dentists would recommend.

If you’re doing the whole touristy thing, you might want to pick up a curio or two. A traditional African basket is always a good option. You will not realise it, but you will have stumbled across the Magic Guarri’s next remarkable quality; colour.

Let’s just say that you go for a nice multi-coloured number like this one;

basket

Your basket will have been dyed with Magic Guarri. Not just one of the colours; all of them. Magic Guarri is rich in tannins, and the bark is used to make a variety of different shades of brown dye.

Which is no big deal. Lots of trees are used to make dyes. But the Magic Guarri is a bit of a show-off. The bark may be brown, but the roots are deep red. They are chewed to turn the mouth a rather fetching red colour (far more practical than lipstick), to tan leather, and to dye floor mats so dark they are almost black.

And then, as if to prove the Magic Guarri is a sport of the gods and not a nice, sensible, naturally evolved tree, you can make purple ink out of the berries.

Speaking of which. The berries are edible, but not very nice. Do not, for one second, think you have found a chink in the Guarri’s armour. The fruits are used for making beer, which makes them very important indeed. They are also, since the Guarri thrives on multi-tasking, medicine. They are used as a laxative.

 

Magic!

Very important indeed.

Which pales to insignificance compared to the rest of the tree. Medicinal plants are a source of endless fascination to some and grinding tedium to many, so I’m going to rattle through this rather quickly. In order to live up to its name, various parts of the Magic Guarri are used to treat upset stomachs, ulcers, cancer, open sores, arthritis, jaundice, snakebite, gonorrhoea, headaches, toothaches, and, I kid you not, leprosy (yup, like witchcraft, leprosy is still a thing in Africa).

A decoction of the roots is used to treat infertility. Once it has sorted out this problem, it is taken to treat stomach cramps and contractions during pregnancy. And just to prove that it will not abandon you in your time of greatest need, it is then taken to prevent miscarriages.

When I said that the Guarri was a bit of a show-off, I meant it. Remember those berries you took as a laxative? Do not be alarmed if they turn out to be a little too effective. That pregnancy causing, easing, and saving potion also acts as a natural version of Imodium.

 

I am wiling to concede that some things are even more important than beer.

I am wiling to concede that some things are even more important than beer.

You are, I hope, starting to form the vague impression that the Magic Guarri is quite useful. But we’re not done yet. It does some other things, too. In some parts of Africa, the branches are used to purify drinking water (it’s that whole anti-bacterial thing again). Even better than that, branches are added to milk to make it more digestible and stop it from going off. For more than a year. Which is kind of handy if you’re a traditional pastoralist without access to electricity.

But what if you’re not a traditional pastoralist? All the uses I’ve mentioned so far can be prefaced by the quietly belittling word “traditional”. Does this mean that the magic of the Guarri is going to go the way of that of the Ash and the Oak as the influence of the West is more strongly felt? Maybe not.

The Guarri has another trick up its sleeve. It has an unusually high tolerance for some heavy metals. And arsenic. Where there is lots of arsenic in the soil, there is lots of Magic Guarri. Which would be vaguely interesting, except for one thing. Finding lots of arsenic in the soil is a pretty good sign that there is something else there, too. Gold. Yup. Finding lots of Magic Guarri might help you find lots of gold.

 

I'll settle for the beer. This lot looks a little heavy.

I’ll settle for the beer. This lot looks a little heavy.

You might have picked up that the Guarri is a firm believer in overkill. Once you’ve found your gold, you are going to want to rip it and tear it and grind it from the earth. And you’re going to leave a bit of a mess. A poisonous mess. Gold mining waste pits are not exactly easy to rehabilitate. Almost nothing will grow on them. Almost.

Magic Guarri will. And it just so happens that it is remarkably good at holding together eroding soil.

So there you have it. An unassuming little tree that just happens to be one of the most coincidentally useful plants on the planet; there are other, more useful plants, but they have been bred over millennia for the purpose. The Magic Guarri was just kind of lying around waiting for us.

And that’s the thing. It is useful for us. Not much else. Birds eat the fruit, and a few animals browse the leaves, but not very enthusiastically (all those tannins make it rather bitter and, in excess, poisonous). Its bounty seems to have been reserved for mankind alone; an exclusive gift from mother-nature.

 

Mother nature handing out a gift under the watchful eye of the competition.

Mother nature handing out a gift under the watchful eye of the competition.

Or maybe not. The Guarri has one final magic trick up its sleeve. And it’s not for us. It talks to the plants around it. And it does so to save their lives.

When the Magic Guarri is suffering from some sort of environmental stress, such as drought, it releases a pheromone into the air around it. And the plants surrounding it pick this up and respond by increasing the level of tannins in their leaves. Which makes them unpalatable to browsers. Which is kind of handy when you need all of your bits to carry you through the hard times.

Yup. Not content to live a life of selfless service to mankind, the Guarri takes time off to perform a little selfless service for its leafy brothers and sisters every now and then.

So there you have it. It is, I am willing to concede, no noble forest giant. You would not reach out a hand to feel the pulse of the world through its trunk, or strip off your clothes and dance naked in the moonlight beneath its spreading boughs. But should you ever pass one by, pause for a second to tip your hat to it. It is, after all, not every day you come across a magical gift from the old gods.

Unless, of course, you live here.

Unless, of course, you live here.