Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Meat Bomb

Thursday last week: On a beautiful winter's day that feels as if I, with a tiny bit of effort, could climb up somewhere, high, I would see to the edge of the earth, even beyond; it's one of those champagne days where the very ozone bubbles and sparkles.

I had a 9h00 appointment at a travel clinic in town; I did not even feel the prick of the needle that was inoculating me against yellow fever, nor did the malaria tablet regime seem anything but straight forward.

That was followed by a quick breakfast and both excited and anxious thoughts about my upcoming trip.

Then a languid and stop-start minibus taxi ride along the Main Road vein to UCT. Then my favourite: the long, taxing but magnificent walk from where the taxi spat me out in Rosebank - across the street from the Baxter Theatre - all the way up The Mountain and to the doors of the library. It's in here, right now, and in peace, because it's still the vac, that I type these words. This is a calming space that motivates me to work, also to browse the shelves.

I've long wanted to read W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, which I've just searched for in the cool and windowless basement, which holds the dead quiet treasure chests of the literature section. Ironically, this is the one library section I have no reason to visit while currently studying what I am. But both my spirit and will are weak.

"In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work."

I had to put Sebald's book down after the titillating first paragraph; I have to work and can't be distracted, despite how much I desire right now to be just that.

I'll be leaving for Kampala, Uganda on the 15th or 16th of next month. That's where the winner of the non-fiction Koffi Addo Writivism prize for nonfiction will be announced during the course of the writer's festival. On the last night, Sunday the 17th. My story, Meat Bomb, is one of the three short-listed stories.

Right now: Spurts of rain slash my bedroom window as I work on my bed, as I mark assignments, as I re-read the above and berate myself for what feels to me like insipid and lifeless words. Despite the rain I know it's having no impact whatsoever on the terrible drought we're in the middle of, despite that this, Winter, is supposed to be our rainy season. We're each allowed 87 litres of water a day: I shower every second day and strive to wear my clothes for much longer so that I only put the washing machine on, once, every two weeks.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Shell of St. James

I've mostly secluded myself in the flat and my bedroom since getting back. It's in preparation for the onslaught of humanity that I'll be inundated by with for the next university term. There'll be no respite except at night, but that will be an anxious respite in the swirl that is lectures, preparation for those lectures, marking, one-on-one contact with people, endless admin, work on my doctorate. While I dread this now, I know that by tomorrow morning when I wake, I'll be straight back into the flow and rush of it all.

Late yesterday in the fast approaching and moody dusk I escaped my bed and pile of books, the growing pile of dishes littering the kitchen counter, to Nic and Mike in Obs: to drink wine with them, to sit by their fire, to enjoy the two needy dogs, some pages of my book, for a hot cooked and tasty meal, to disappear (down the rabbit hole) into their large-screen gateway into Netflix, Google Earth, YouTube, which is more than I ever allow myself at home.

After a quick walk in the park with Nic and the dogs, also to pick up some vegetables for supper at Obs Spar, the rain came down. It's been a week since the last downpour I'm told. It used to be the other way around: known as the Cape of Storms, I remember the rain coming down for - often - a week at an end, then a mere clear day or two betwixt the next onslaught sent from Antarctica. Now, we're most grateful for any crumbs we might have from Nature's table; last night's train hopefully filled a mug.

At 22h30 I slunk back home despite being offered the couch; I much prefer my own bed and to wake in my own space, alone, silent, centered. 

My body is rested after this three-week vacation, my mind not so much.

I've received two sets of related good news: firstly, a few weeks ago, I heard that a non-fiction short story I'd written was long-listed in a writing competition. As I got back to Cape Town, I heard that it had been short-listed, which came with an invitation to attend and speak at a writing festival in Uganda. Here, in late August, the winner will be announced. This was a welcome answer to two of my intentions I broadcast earlier this year; to travel more, in particular within my continent; to write much more as I feel a heart's urge to shift from a lifetime of journalism to nonfiction and fiction writing.

I'm alone again today, at my desk in silence, and in deep inner peace. The ticking of my pomodoro timer app, the aroma of dark blend Italian coffee and chocolate biscuits, the company of my silent but flourishing plants, the phone on airplane mode, Devil's Peak, Table Mountain and Woodstock bathed in bright winter sunshine whenever I lift my eyes from the keyboard.

Despite my anxiety at the busy-ness and stress of the next few months, I'm deeply grateful for my apartment, my warm bed, my hot shower, my job, my life in Cape Town, my handful of friends, my books, the opportunities to travel, to write, and the desire to strive towards constantly simplifying and streamlining my life in this the second and calmer half of my life journey.

Another intention I aim to broadcast is my determination to walk, alone (and to be open to whatever life puts across my path) the full length of the Camino des Santiago. This is an ancient 800 km (500 miles) pilgrimage between St. Jean Pied-du-Port in France - across the Pyrenees, and westwards across Spain approximately 100 km (60 miles) south of the coast - and the shrine of the apostle St. James the Great in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain. It'll mean passing through Pamplona, Burgos, Leon, and many smaller villages and towns. I've held this desire for a few years now, that is to walk this 'way of St James' as a personal spiritual retreat.

The sun, suddenly, is gone and there's a smattering of fat raindrops across the window at my desk; I can distinctly make out the sheet of rain that's heading across the city bowl and this way. I instinctively shiver and pull the heater closer.

The scallop shell (of St. James), often found on the shores in Galicia, is the symbol of the Camino de Santiago; it also acts as a metaphor: 

"The grooves in the shell, which meet at a single point, represent the various routes pilgrims traveled, eventually arriving at a single destination: the tomb of James in Santiago de Compostela. The shell is also a metaphor for the pilgrim: As the waves of the ocean wash scallop shells up onto the shores of Galicia, God's hand also guides the pilgrims to Santiago."

Friday, July 14, 2017


The walks out of the town at the end of the day without my phone, forced to be alone with my mind and whatever was offered up by Nature, in its winter beauty, provided both clarity and vision. Especially at this, the halfway mark of the year.

A year that has sped past. I'm regretfully preparing for an even speedier second half. Again, mostly alone I slammed on the brakes - reading, gardening, bathing, watching the birds in the fountain, sitting by the fire - at my humble place in Mpumalanga province.

I'm back in Cape Town, which despite being greener than when I left here almost three weeks ago, is still limping along drought stricken. It's the rainy winter season here and there's hardly been any rain. I've noticed that the narrative has changed: at first, it was about when the winter rains arrive, now it's about the fact that this is our new reality - our climate has changed, ours is a drier, bleaker future. What frightens me is the pace at which our winters have been transformed: in the four years here I've watched the tap being closed, tighter every year so far.

Monday I'm back at university and who knows what the next few months hold; I'm slightly apprehensive, anxious. I'm well rested though. But apprehensive, anxious. For the last two years we 'lost' the fourth quarter to student protests for free education. I'm on the students' side. But the violence unsettles me, also the incredible pressure it puts on the lecturers and the students themselves. It's a time spent treading water and feeling helpless and overwhelmed.

This afternoon I'm in limbo: on my bed surrounded by books, which I hop between - "hither and thither, restless as mosquito larvae swimming across a stagnant" pond (Derek Jarman in Modern Nature) - and coffee cups, a french press, my laptop too. I'd like to get out into the bright winter sunshine before tomorrow's cold-front arrives, although at the same time I'm reticent at the thought of showering (we're allowed 87 litres of water each daily) and dressing and bussing.

To go where to achieve what?

I must resist my negative state of mind; I must remind myself of all that I have, of how blessed my life is. My heart is wide open to life.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

My Western Front

From the promenade at Queen's Beach, Seapoint.
I was at my desk and feeling guilty for, mostly, being at it and indoors for the whole of that day. 

At 4 pm I couldn't anymore. 

I showered and then took the bus at 16h30 to the far side of Seapoint: Queen's Beach to be exact. 

From there, hugging the coastline, I walked with a bounce in my stride all of the way to Camps Bay. 

From just before its main drag, I watched the sunset, which was showing itself off. Then, dunk, it was gone.

Had fish 'n chips, grilled calamari and a carafe of white wine at Ocean Basket while scribbling in my notebook; this while intermittently observing the Camps Bay Saturday evening strip get busier as people, many of them tourists, emerged for drinks, cocktails, dinner. This as the clammy but exhilarating reek of the icy Atlantic seeped upwards from the beach, then crossed Victoria road, leaking into the restaurants and shopfronts. 

Then, away from the lights and madding crowds, I decided to walk back to town,  this time over Kloof Nek. Out of breath from the climb and over the saddle that separates Table Mountain and Lion's Head apart, straight into the bright lights and rowdiness of the city bowl. This sudden transition, not unlike flicking a light switch, from the relative darkness, silence, and obscurity above Camps Bay in the lee of the Twelve Apostles. It was like walking onto a brightly-lit stage before a packed to the gills auditorium.

Strode down Kloof Street, a fast-flowing steam of raucosness for its pulsating length, where my instincts warned me to be alert and on guard.

Just in time, I managed to catch the last 102 home to Salt River from Darling Street at 21h20. Alighting from the bus at Salt River Circle and into the hushed darkness among the softly catcalling prostitutes on Lower Main, before walking the last stretch home in the metallic light along the facade of the Biscuit Mill, still disgorging restaurant goers, still on gaurd and scanning the road, before a quick right into Mill Street, an even quicker sh'rt right into Bromwell.

The Three Feathers was already in darkness with its gates bolted, my contentious back Street quiet, me the only one on its length, before bathing in the bright security lights at the back of my apartment block. Elevator upwards, then the darkness and familiar homely scent and silence of my apartment. With its, always, jaw-dropping view over Woodstock, with Devil's Peak almost invisible as a mute hunchbacked backdrop.

Clinging to the edge of Bantry Bay, just after Seapoint, the view that most miss.

To bed with Adam Feinstein's biography of Pablo Neruda, wherein I'm approaching the end of his life and the first signs of the prostate cancer that took him from it. 

Just over 16,000 steps, my muscles strained with exercise and tiredness, almost exactly 11 km later, all's quiet on my Western Front.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Let them eat meat

Fruit cake and coffee with evaporated milk, in bed, while reading a Paris Review article about young novelist Édouard Louis and his writer's rage. A rage that saw him write his first novel at 19, and published at 21. In 2014. Not only published at 21 but because it's a best seller, he's been published out of poverty at 21.

The point about the poverty is an important one. Not only because it raises other issues for the young writer as he's then, almost, sucked into the world of "cocktail parties and dinners" that he had dreamed about when he first arrived in Paris - "but more and more I realize you can see the literary world as a school of submission. You always have to shake everyone’s hand, in what can be seen as a quiet celebration of the bourgeoisie" - but, also, because it was his and his family's own poverty that politicised him into writing what he has, and in the style that he does.

I'm reading about Louis as a small airplane buzzily trails an advertisement banner (which I don't bother to read) back and forth across the bright blue sky above the city bowl and as the woman next door gets -breath-less-ly- fucked against the wall that divides our two apartments.

In just over three years I've only heard sex next door once before. However, often, daily, her heels click-and-clack across the tiled floors as she prepares for work, for which she always promptly leaves by banging shut and locking the front door at precisely 7 am. Peace then again reigns. I can't help but wonder if she's wearing those high heels right now? I've only set my eyes on her once before, a man was trailing her into her flat; she briefly turned at the door and momentarily caught my eye; I have no recollection of how she looks. Nor of how the man looked that trailed her into her flat.

It’s a quite and calm Sunday morning. After the welcome string of cool, sometimes moody autumnal days this last week,  my guess is that everyone's rushed off to the beaches, both the icy but more pretentious ones on the Atlantic seaboard, also the warmer and much more down to earth ones on the Indian seaboard. That leaves everyone and everything in-between quiet and calm, as it should be: 31 degrees today, 36 tomorrow; while I dread these death throes of summer, what comforts me is that they are just that, summer's death throes.

Just how, exactly, did that traumatised child become the assured and beautiful young man who gazes so calmly from the author photo on the book jacket?, questions novelist Neil Bartlett writing about Édouard Louis in the Guardian last month. “Whom did he meet, once he had escaped to the city, and how? Who was it who helped him save and repossess his life – and who inspired him to write this well?” Those, too, are my burning questions.

I hunker even more deeply down into the Paris review piece despite feeling guilty about reading, which for some bizarre reason I associate with not working. That bizarre reason - despite the fact that I'm inspired, that my mind is whirring and clicking with the satisfaction of being exposed to new ideas, perspectives - is because reading has always been such an intense pleasure, also such a wonderful escape, that I feel guilty at the luxury thereof, that it seems impossible to associate with work, with studying.

Back to Louis, who makes a strong case for his having written a political novel, also for not being apolitical: "All authors are political, even if they don’t realize it. Being apolitical merely reinforces the status quo, supporting the powerful over the weak." 

He maintains that many writers "don’t want to know how to speak about politics because they’re from the bourgeoisie," and because "they’ve been protected from the rough edges of political change." On the other hand, the people he writes about are "ceaselessly marked by the consequences of political choices". 

"My mother would say, Under Mitterand, we always had meat on our plates. Even if I could show her that Mitterand wasn’t as generous to the poor as she thought, the point is that when the government reformed its policies—on welfare, for example—we felt it in our stomachs. Today I can complain about the government all I want, but political decisions won’t determine the amount of food on my plate tonight." 

Louis's writer's fire reminds me of Frantz Fanon's fire: Lewis Gordin in What Fanon Said (2015), writes that throughout his book, Black Skin, White Mask (1995), Fanon struggles to hold the fire at bay, the result of which "is an ongoing heat that occasionally bursts into flame".

Louis: "Politics isn’t a question of words, he says, it’s a question of meat [on your plate]. I try never to forget that."

How would I describe him after my relatively brief introduction today? Hungry, angry, brilliant & beautiful... and a writer that I'm going to keep my attention focus upon.