Thursday, March 4, 2010

Dumbing it down, right down to the ground

Lady Antonia Fraser, in her diary of life with Harold Pinter titled “Must You Go?” recently published (to acclaim) by Weidenfield & Nicolson describes a taxi driver as: “ a burly man of suspicious aspect”. What a wonderful description. And in his poem to her the Novel Prize winner writes;

To Antonia

She dances in my life
Still you turn in my arms
Still we clasp
Still you swim in the big and brilliant bay
And come backing the wave
To my side
And you dance in my arms
And you turn
And stay in my clasp
Where I found you forever
In the only first time in my life
Which calls out again and again
In the light of this moon on our sea
In our fierce and young and tender tide
My dancer my bride

It's reading books such as Must You Go, which revel in the precise use of language, that makes reading such a pleasure. In the title too is a story. They met at a restaurant. They were both married. Not to each other. She was leaving then turned and walked over to Harold. Earlier she has sent him a note: scrawled on a serviette, which she, years later found he had kept. .: “You are right." she had scrawled. " Now shut up.”
She said goodbye to him and she turned to leave he asked: “Must you go”.
She did not. They fell in love and stayed in love. He died in 2008. There is pleasure in language but sadly, not as it moves to txt. Txt, in my opinion cnt say it with meaning. So I ask anyone reading this blog to post, as a comment, one sentence from a book or a poem, literature or junk fiction that moves you. (all credits due) I will gather these together and share what comes I get..
By-the-way, here’s a toast to Mike Nicol for what Leon de Kock describes in a crit of Mike's new crime novel Killer Country as a dumbing down of South African literature. I think it’s really time we got over ourselves and celebrated the fact that a writer of the stature of Mike Nicol can write crime (not God Help, us literary fiction) get low down and dirty.
Why do we have to be so serious about everything. Mike is about as dumbed down as Herman Charles Bosman is As dumbed down as Elmore Leonard, as Richard Price as Mickey Spillane, Ian Rankin and Dostoevsky - es[ecially Crime and Punishment. Well Ok, not the Russian but still.
So lets' climb down from our elitist towers, get over ourselves and love to read good writing wherever, whatever and whenever we find it. Well done Mike. By the way, horror of horrors, not only has Mike dumbed down local literature he has also published in paperback. Eek a penny ‘ orrible. The darkness the darkness.
For the record, if my memory serves me well, Leon enjoyed my anthology of poetry, Palm of My Soul, so the man clearly has taste. ☺ It’s nothing personal. It’s the elitist attitude that rankles. Us and them; the literati and the commoners.
So to begin; my favorite line by — in all modesty — me.” Sealed in a mesh of zip”.... from my poem Voyeur in Palm of My Soul (SNAILPRESS))
Now send me that line, that sentence from whatever source and lets see how dumbed down we who love language and what it conveys, really are.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Dancing through the pain of farewells to put my head on a blog

The long road unwinding. A view from Sir Lowrys' Pass to Cape Town.

In NIA classes, Kathy begins by asking us to take one step forward into the dance. And what a wonderful way that is to begin; to take one step forward into the new. And that’s exactly what I will do when this column comes to an end in the Cape Times today and I step into a blog.
So farewell then. Eleven years is a long time. But it’s the number of years I have been filling this space twice a month.
I have received a few klaps from people for sharing for my love of some remote places, which they believed would become less remote, thanks to my enthusiasm for them, but I have also received a lot of encouragement from people who have found what have written in this space has helped them, start the week with a smile instead of a frown and who have been comforted, particularly in times of trauma.
I received one abusive mail in all that time from a man who said I had wasted 10 minutes or so of his life— the time he elected to read my column. One of the most haunting e-mails I received was after I had written a column about an intruder in my house. It was from another victim of crime. She described being carried “like a bride” across the threshold into her bedroom. Her would-be rapist was disturbed and she was not raped. But that image has remained.
Another was from a person who said one of my columns had helped to come to grips with the devastating loss of a close friend. How wonderful it has been to touch peoples lives; to know that we share so much in what we love and what we fear.
In lighter vein a column that raised a laugh was my description at walking into a tree on a hiking trail near Stanford, when I almost knocked myself out while Greig doubled over with laughter. To his credit Greig has always been a most convivial companion.
He also taught me not to be afraid of cooking; in those days I could boil water and add milk to muesli. “Many men marry,” his mother had apparently told him as she taught him to cook, “ out of hunger.”
Years later Greig, still has a quote for every occasion; This from Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock:” Many a man in love with a dimple makes the mistake of marrying the whole girl". Indeed.
Two shrink-wrapped woman appeared in those 11 years. One was a lithe German-speaking blonde who, unannounced, joined us for two days on the Tsitsikamma trail shrink-wrapped in skimpy black shorts, the other was a lady shrink-wrapped into a pink leotard gyrating at gym. And to my amusement, I still meet people who remember my description of taking my costume off in public in a stressful daze after a swim at gym.
“Stress,” remarked my optometrist at the time “is like dust, it gets into everything”
So thank you then to Jenny Crocker, who gave me space for my first column, to Chris Whitfield the then Editor of the Cape Times who allowed me the a more regular slot, to Ann, for being an encouraging and enthusiastic critic, bold enough to caution me when a column skidded off the data forks, and quick to praise when it worked.
And to my friend Peter who gave me the best advice of all when week after week I struggled to end on a punchy note. “ Sometimes," said Peter,” you have to just let go.” And I did. And so it was also that I let go of so much baggage earlier this year by jumping off Lions head under a paraglider and I will let go of this space today, after the full stop at the end.
That I even know what a blog is, is really impressive given that I am tech-impaired. It was, after all, only a few short years ago that I was asking which way up to put the CD in the CD player. This week it was the cigarette-dispensing machine at the restaurant. “Good grief,” I said.” Cigarettes 20.17 a pack these days,
“No Evelyn,” replied Greig “that’s the time.” Ahh. I replied as the price went up to 20.18 a pack.
In the years to come I hope to keep on dancing. I got hooked on NIA, (initially Non Impact Aerobics but now so much more) just before Christmas. What trauma closes down NIA opens up, and instead of curling into yourself like a fetus to protect yourself from the pain; you dance with joy and celebrate life. It’s wonderful.
So thank you and farewell then. As a parting shot, let me mimic Greig and offer a quote: this from the TV series Hill Street Blues: “be careful out there.”

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Leaping into the New Year is one way to hit the ground running

I began my new year by running off the edge of Lions Head and leaping into the air.

My knees almost scraped the tips of the proteas at the foot of the “runway” but thanks Wayne, my paraglider pilots’ skill with the big wing, we were up, up and away in the nick of time.

I ended the year with walk on Muizenberg beach, a slalom ski through the crowds packed closer than the clichéd sardines in a tin. There I tip toed over a rash of bluebottles, caught wafts of conversation, and captured vignettes of humans on holiday to the smell of suntan lotion, and the low gravelly rush of the sea at high tide.

I will never forget watching a little girl, about eight years old, standing in the crowd at the water’s edge her arms outstretched, little hands waving, tiny fingers like propellers, jumping for joy.

She was yelling “thank you, thank you, thank you” as the high tide washed a swathe of foamy water into the trench she had scooped in the sand.

Then she squealed with delight as she jumped into her private tidal pool and splashed about in the few seconds the water lasted before it was sponged into the sand.

Much later on the same day, I walked behind a man, who was sweating with exertion, huffing and puffing as he tried to keep up with his 10-year-old daughter climbing step-by-step up a steep section of the path to the summit of Lions Head.

We were among the hundreds and hundreds of people climbing, just before New Year’s Eve, like a row of soldier ants, to bathe under the pale light of the full blue moon while the city, winked orange neon far below.

The little girl springy as a cricket in her bright pink top, all gangly legs and arms was hopping, step-by-step effortlessly higher and higher. Her father struggling to keep up, as she asked if they could climb Table Mountain when they had done with Lions Head.

He did not have the breath to reply, but said afterwards, to me; “Jus! Its hard to keep up with them, man.”

It reminded me of a footnote I received attached to an e-mail this week: It read: Every morning in Africa a Gazelle wakes up knowing it must out-run the fastest lion or it will be eaten up. Every morning a Lion wakes up knowing that it must run faster than the slowest Gazelle or it will die of hunger. Whether you are a lion or a Gazelle, when the sun is up...better be running.

And so it was last year that I ran. I sprinted to South America, to Australia, swam in the Amazon, walked the length of the Copacabana, to Ipanema and back, and dreamed of Long Beach, Noordhoek and longed for home. In the sultry rainforest I remembered the slopes of Table Mountain, and the in the warm and oily Amazon, the cool, refreshing waters of the Palmiet. And in Australia, they have beaches but who would there be to understand you if you said: “Jou ma’ se…”

So happy to be home, I took my life into my own hands jumped off Lions Head, to begin my new year with a gasp of exhilaration followed by a whoop of pure joy.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Only the lucky few can abandon themselves to life’s pleasures

“Get lost.” That’s what people used to say to me when I irritated them with one thing or another. “Just! Get! Lost!” 
Sometimes, I may have taken umbrage at the remark. At other times not. I can’t really remember. So many people say so many things. 
But attending a gathering, in her memory, of her friends, following the death of a colleague this week, I found myself, as I looked up at the poster-size picture of her, wishing that I had taken that advice and got lost.
Instead I have spent my life being found. At 55-years-old it was too late for Di to have been lost or found. She is simply not here anymore – thanks to cancer. But she did by all accounts live her life to the hilt. And apparently got lost from time to time.
Instead of being lost, I have spent my life being found. Found hopeless at sport, I turned to writing and literature and was found to be quite good at it. Later I was found to be a good journalist, found to be a reliable employee, found responsible and promoted. I am found by some to be trustworthy as a friend, found to reliable on a cloudy day. 
And it, one day, may well be said of me “he was found to have been OK”.
None of that helps I guess when it comes to the end, when it’s all over.
Which makes me regret in some ways that I never got lost. Had I taken that advice imagine the adventures that I might have enjoyed. Not that I have not had my fair share. I have, but there could have been more.
I have been to the Middle East, Europe, Scandinavia and on the North Sea perched on the shuddering steel platforms of rigs pumping oil from under the seabed to Norway. I have been to North America, the Grand Canyon, New York, Washington and San Francisco and to South America, Sao Paulo, the Amazon, Rio. Closer to home I have been to the Comoros, Mauritius, Zimbabwe and Namibia and Swaziland. And I have been rover, I have walked alone, hiked a hundred highways *but I have never ever been lost.
Once in Venice I ducked down an alleyway and for a while, could not find my way back through the maze of canals. And then there was that time in Athens when I was so excited to be there that I dumped my backpack in a youth hostel headed for the ancient hills, then could, not for the life of me, find my way home.
There were a couple of minutes of sheer panic, then street by street I managed to find my way back, seizing on vague landmarks like handholds on a vertical face. I was too panicked, (my passport, my money, my tickets all in my backpack at the hostel ) to abandon myself, like Socrates, to my fate.
Now days, according to an article in the Cape Times you need technology to get lost. All you have to do, apparently, is be Swedish and type Carpi instead of Capri into your GPS and travel on oblivious. But that not it. Perhaps abandonment, rather than lost is the term I ought to use.
Those who abandon themselves to life, thrilling to the living of it, are those who thrive while those of us who are content to be found standing at the sidelines watching, are voyeurs each one, living our lives vicariously. Why else the crowds drawn to the gladiators, to the bullfights to the rugby, to rock concerts, or staring up at a man on a wire dancing between twin towers a mile high while New York stretches and yawns at dawn.
Is it because we thrive on how they abandon themselves, thrill at how they are totally lost in what they are doing to the exclusion of everything else; abandoned to life itself? Maybe. So then get lost! 

* I have been rover, I have walked alone, and hiked a hundred highways credit Frank Sinatra, Love’s Been Good To Me.”
This column appeared in the Cape Times on 3 August 2009.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Alzheimer’s light

Alzheimer’s light is what I’ve heard it called. The ability that is, to forget where things are, when things are and even what things are.
My particular specialty is to spend an inordinate amount of time looking for things that are not lost. I have simply just temporarily forgotten where they are, where I put them or to whom it is that I have lent them.
This week for example I have spent fruitless, frustrating hours trying to track down a number of DVD’s that I have collected over the years that were borrowed from me and never returned. “Why don’t you keep list?” people ask when I try to track down borrowed items that have not been returned. I did once but I lost the list, so that clearly is not the solution.
The problem is trust. We don’t really, in the polite chattering classes, want to admit that we don’t trust our friends and acquaintances. Even though we may not. It’s somehow a bit off to offer to lend a book, CD or DVD to someone then imply that you don’t trust them to return it so you are going to write their name down with a list of the items they have borrowed so you can stalk them even unto their graves until they, or their estate, returns them to you.
It’s far more acceptable to say, with a happy laugh, “of course you will return them won’t you,” and they say, “yes of course we will” and the conversation moves on even as they slide your treasured items into their possession.
A friend told me this week of a prominent media personality who used to steal CD’s from him by “borrowing” them when he was not looking — and never returning them. His solution was simply to visit the offending party and steal his own CD’s back.
He could do that because he knew who had taken them. With Alzheimer’s Light, that’s not an option.
Also my trouble is that I like to share. If I have bought a great DVD, or CD or book, I want my friends to watch it, listen to it or to read it and I want to discuss it with them. So when they visit I reach up to my shelves and say, “Here, read this, watch this, or listen to this… yes of course you can take it home I know you will give it back.”
And it’s my loss that I don’t have the courage, upon their receipt of the said article, to whip out a pen and paper and catalogue their name and contact number like cop writing out a fine.
I trust my friends and by default their friends but I wish I had listened to my mother. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be”, she said. That advice, sadly, like so many other applications our parents taught, to smooth our way from tottler to toppie, went in one ear and out the next.
* By the way, thanks to my fellow Boomers who e-mailed me the titles of the books that graced the sagging shelves of their youth. In addition to those mentioned in my last column such as the Art of Zen and Motorcycle Maintenance, the Whole Earth Catalogue etc, were Jonathan Livingstone Seagull (thanks John) the Little Prince, the Prophet, Kahlil Gibran, Knots by RD Laing, Games People play by Eric Berne, MD, Hawaii by James A. Michener, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, Linda Goodman's Love Signs and not to forget, the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. Yes?
Sadly I don’t have any of them anymore. I must have lent them to someone I trusted. (Sigh)

Suburban Elvis survives gunmen to revive the King of Rock.

A year ago all that stood between Gordon Epstein and death was a thin single door that he held tightly closed against the two gunmen who wanted to kill him and steal money from the till in his CD exchange shop.
Today he is rebuilding his life as a popular Elvis impersonator and as a solo rock and roll singer and songwriter at live music venues throughout the city. And for a shy guy, who normally stays in the background he makes a very good Elvis indeed.
Southern suburbs lovers of popular music will remember Gordon as the owner of the CD Spot in Wynberg where people went to exchange CDs and DVD’s.
It was a thriving well-stocked shop that took Gordon years to establish. It was certainly a long way from the time he spent running his CD exchange business from a cardboard box on the pavement near Cavendish shopping centre.
“I was just beginning to make money, the shop was thriving, and I was happy,” says Gordon. Then early one morning one man came to the gate and I let him in and then another came to the gate about 10 minutes later. At first I didn't know they knew each other.
Gordon dismissed the unease of suspicion that swept over him, let them in then re-locked the security gate behind them and went back behind his counter. They walked to the back of the shop to browse an among the CDs on sale.
He suspected nothing when they called him to the back of the shop, pretending to ask about a horror DVD. Suddenly one produced a pistol and told Gordon to hand over the money in the shop. They took Gordon to the toilet, at the back, in the shop saying they would shoot him. One man stood just outside the toilet door to guard it while the man with the gun turned around and went to look for money in the shop. Gordon saw an opportunity to save his life and in one motion slammed the toilet door shut and placed the broomsticks and mopsticks in the toilet between the wall and the door to jam the door. The robbers tried to bash the door in and kept jumping against the door. "It was really like your worst horror movie and I was sure it would end with me being either badly injured or killed.
“I thought I they might shoot me through the door.” he recalled. “ But still I held on.”
“Gordon’s screams were heard in the kitchen of the small café next door to his shop. And the owner called the Wynberg Police whose charge office is a few hundred metres from the shop.
The police arrived in minutes but could not get into the shop because of the locked security gate. Eventually they managed to break the gate down.
Even when the police were in the shop, Gordon kept the door jammed with the broomsticks and his legs wedged between the wall and the door until one of the policemen smashed the toilet door in and found Gordon there.
The police were not fooled even though the “ suspects “ had no weapons on them. At Gordon’s insistence they held the men in the shop until a pistol was eventually found. They carted Gordon’s attackers off.
Although he was fee of the imminent threat to his life, the ordeal for Gordon had just begun. And the fear grew. He hired a guard to stand at the door. Still the fear remained. He asked a friend to help him in the shop. Still the fear remained. Eventually he simply could not go back. Each time someone sounded the buzzer to be let in Gordon’s heart stopped with fear that it would be another attack. Eventually he decided to close the shop. A friend sold off all his stock and Gordon was left without an income.
“I was a nervous wreck. Even today when I hear a car backfire I dive to the floor and heart pounds with fear,” he says.
Strangely he does not experience that fear when he goes onstage dressed in a white jumpsuit to bring Elvis back to life or when he does his solo performing.
I realised I was good at impersonating Elvis when I was at primary school “ says Gordon. Later at school in Robertson he formed a band and carried on singing Elvis songs. “After his matric he played as a conscript in the SA army Band and performed as a solo singer at venues in Knysna and later Namibia with guest appearances at nightclubs and at private functions.
“I enjoyed the life of a musician,” he says, “But it was a hard life. The shop took the pressure off. It allowed me to make a reasonable living although I did still perform on special occasions – by invitation.”
Since closing his shop Gordon has been painstakingly trying to piece his life together and to learning to live without fear.
“I have spoken to other victims of violence crime he said. We all share a new sense of life – which we have to live each moment. That is why I have returned to my Elvis impersonations. Its something I love doing.
“I also know that if you are to succeed you have to feel like doing what you are doing. There is no time for half measures. We have one life.
“I feel now more than ever that if there is something I really want to do I must do it now. There may not be a tomorrow.”
When he is not preparing for another Elvis show or solo rock n roll show Gordon is studying accounting and business management.
“Its taken time to get my confidence back: he says. But now I look for the positive wherever I can. I miss the shop. But I will never forget being in that small room expecting to be killed at any second. I have my life and I am determined to make a success of the time I have left to live it.
“In the meantime I hope that if ever I get All Shook Up, again it is only when am on stage doing a rock n roll show."

You can stay safe at home, and never taste the world’s wonders

That’s the thing about travel. It expands the mind, excites the senses, gives us a sense of place and puts things in perspective.
At least it does so for me. Years ago I worked in a pub in London as a barman. George, the elderly geezer who managed the pub, turned to me in surprise one day after I had told him that I intended going from Hammersmith to Piccadilly Circus on my day off. “What on earth do you want to do that for? ” he asked. “ I have never left ‘ammersmiff.” I was born here, I went to school here and I have worked in this pub since the day I left school. Everything I need is here why on earth would I want to go to anywhere else?”
Months earlier I had traveled from South Africa to Luxembourg — with only R750 in traveller’s cheques to my name — caught a bus to Calais, then a train to Dover, then hitched my way to the top of the country. I touched the sea at John o’ Groats in Scotland then zigzagged back from coast to coast until I arrived in London, a month or so later, short of money so took a job in a pub.
I was astounded at George. Piccadilly Circus was just around the corner in a manner of speaking but he had never been curious enough to stray more than a few kilometres from his home. On the positive side his remark made me feel like a brave and intrepid explorer traveling to the corners of the earth.
“But you have always had ants in your pants,” said my mother, Cynthia, recently when we were talking my need to be out and about.
Indeed I have, but they don’t call it that anymore. These days we have important names and alphabet soup for everything. What were then ants in your pants is now Attention Deficit Syndrome (ADS). There is apparently also Nature Deprivation Syndrome (NDS) and then we all have ETV and DSTV and that you get from too much Multichoice. And lets not forget the new ASDL which if you are lucky you may just get from Telkom.
Be that as it may, the reason I have been raving on about the mind-expanding advantages of travel is as a result of reading an article in a magazine I happened upon recently in which there was a story about a rock duo who call themselves the White Stripes.
The story was about their concert-playing trip to Brazil and it began by describing their travels on the Amazon River. It went on to describe their performance at Manaus Opera House or the Amazon Theatre (Teatro Amazonas).
In two seconds flat I was back in Manaus, on the river again, walking in the rainforest and recalling the sight of that opera house with is tiled dome glittering in the sun. Built in 1881 at a time when fortunes were made in the rubber boom, it was to be a jewel in the heart of the Amazonian rain forest and make Manaus one of the great centers of civilization.
Had I not traveled there my enjoyment of the article and my ability to picture what was being said would have been diminished.
Music does much the same for me. I remember arriving in London in the “hippy age” excited to be breathing the same air as the Rolling Stones. I went to Ireland, to Dublin just to walk down Cypress Avenue, made famous by Van Morrison with a song of the same name. And yes, I felt a cold shiver snake down my spine at the news of the Airbus that plunged into the Atlantic off the northern tip of Brazil last week. Not too long ago I boarded a flight at Guarulhos airport in Sao Paulo that also flew over the Atlantic.
George, happy as he was in “ammersmif” would never have died in an air crash I guess, but neither would he have smelt the smoke of a wood fire in winter in the Karoo, swam in a lake during a lightning storm in Norway nor for that matter have been able to close his eyes and imagine the White Stripes on stage under tile-domed Teatro Amazonas.
This column appeared in the Cape Times on 8 June 2