Take a bow, Robin Hood

archery

Channeling Kevin Costner. Rocks, beware!

The man in the green hood steadies his heartbeat and tests the breeze one last time.

He isn’t looking at the distant target or at his rival’s arrow embedded in its heart. He is feeling his shot, living its trajectory. He touches his lips to the bowstring, part kiss, part prayer. The meadow is silent: nobody dares breathe. He relaxes his fingers. A hiss. A gasp. And then a roar, drowning out the splintering of wood and the deep thud of an arrow hitting home, dead centre.

When I first heard the story of Robin Hood splitting an arrow, I knew there could be no greater assertion of victory. It was the most emphatic act in the world. All arguments, I thought, should be decided thus. You claim it is my turn to wash the dishes, and yet – behold! Yonder quivers my arrow and yours is rent asunder! Away, varlet, and leave me to my mead!

I still think archery shootouts should decide most of life’s duller challenges. How much more interesting might school have been if it was all decided by one arrow? (“Matrics, settle down; you have each been issued one arrow, please write your name on it in blue or black pen. Archery Literacy students, you will get three arrows. OK, you have 30 seconds to cleave yonder dart in twain.”) Certainly, our current politics might be livelier if the robbin’ hoods in government, stealing from the poor to give to the rich, were forced to reapply for their jobs by splitting arrows instead of cosying up to the sheriffs of Saxonwold.

The internet, which is a machine designed to suck the pleasure out of everything, insists that Robin Hood’s arrow-splitting heroics might have boiled down to simple probability. Even an average archer, it claims, will split an arrow once every 10,000 shots. Perhaps Robin was pretty rubbish and had spent months blasting 9,999 arrows in random directions, his merry men averting their gaze and making awkward small talk, before he finally got lucky on that bright spring morning.

I don’t believe a word of it. Because recently I discovered that I am an average archer, and I learned that I could fire 10 times that many arrows and still not come close.

The day was very bright. The straw bales were very close. The arrows were very sharp. At least, they were until I fired them into some nearby rocks.

The bow, however, was a disappointment.

I had expected an English longbow, a six-foot-plus monster that could fire an armour-piercing arrow the length of three football fields. (Incidentally, King Edward III, ruler of England from 1327 until 1377, discouraged boys from playing football and instead urged them to take up archery, so it’s possible Edward figured out the range of the longbow by firing arrows across actual football fields at footballers fleeing into distant woodland; a kingly sport if I say so myself.)

Instead, I got a short, twirly, over-elaborate thing; Cupid’s bow. Which is all very well if you’re dressed in a nappy and darting strangers with aphrodisiacs but it’s not okay when you want to stand your ground like a Welsh bowman at Agincourt.

Of course, it turns out that not all archers stood their ground. Some modern experts suggest that the archetypal image of Robin Hood, legs apart, anchored, serenely plucking an arrow from his quiver, is Hollywood nonsense. Archers, they claim, were much more mobile, dashing about the battlefield and turning people into human pincushions before zooming off to perforate some new unfortunate. Think Legolas in The Lord of the Rings except using blood instead of Pantene to condition his hair.

Rather than keeping their arrows in quivers on their backs (the surest way to snag an obstacle) they carried a few in their bow hands and could nock, pull and fire with terrifying speed, like Oprah turning this way and that to her screaming fans, saying, “You get an arrow and you get an arrow!” (They’re screaming because they’ve been shot in the eye.)

Given the choice between historical accuracy and not running, however, I will always choose not running. And so, in the end, I contented myself with standing unapologetically Hollywood-like, feet anchored, plucking at my Cupid bow. It was really just an ornate aluminium twig strung with glorified dental floss, but it did the job.

And then, just as in the story, my final arrow decided my future as an archer.

My arm was steady, my release perfect. My arrow flew straight and true, high and handsome, and all sorts of other clichés. It hit home with a satisfying thud. In a tree, 10m behind and to the left of the target.

Truly, whispered the ghost of Robin Hood, givest not up thy day job.

Still, a guy can dream.

*

Published in The Times

Putting the ‘pro’ in ‘propaganda’

propagandaWhen I read that the ANC had spent R50-million on a propaganda campaign I was greatly relieved because it allowed me to think better of someone.

The person in question, a denizen of Twitter’s sweatier fighting pits, had once showered me with hot, pungent sanctimony after I’d criticised the ANC, and I had gone away believing him to be a wilfully stupid supporter of kleptocrats.

But when news broke of the ANC’s “war room”, everything changed. Because there he was, named as a valued member of the lavishly paid goon squad.

The relief rolled over me like a Gupta rolling over a cabinet minister. His criticisms hadn’t been personal. They hadn’t even been heartfelt. Rather than being a self-righteous prick he was simply being professional: putting the “pro” in propaganda.

My relief, however, was tinged with sadness. Because, even though I was happy to discover that my accuser was simply cranking out lies-by-the-yard for money, I felt terribly sorry for the country’s other propagandists who had just discovered how badly they were being paid.

I don’t know if the EFF has a propaganda department yet. I suspect their “war room” is just a dojo where senior Fighters gather around and applaud while Julius Malema delivers karate chops to an inflatable doll of Jacob Zuma. But if they don’t already have an Alternative Fact Brigade, they soon will: when the Commander-In-Chief publishes his memoirs in 10 years, perhaps titled 100% For Me, expect to see no mention of Venezuela or Robert Mugabe.

No, I don’t know if the EFF pays any propagandists, so it’s not them I feel sorry for. The ones my heart goes out to, the ones lying curled up on their unmade bed, staring at nothing and murmuring “Fifty million?”, are the spin-doctors of the DA.

I met one of them, once, a bright young thing who told me that he writes letters to newspapers whenever the DA needs a little push in the polls. You’ve probably read them: “Dear Sir, as a resident of Khayelitsha I can assure you that the location, or, as we call it, ‘the i-karsi’, is not only very safe but is also being brilliantly run by the DA. Halala Moesie Mymarny! Yours, Sipho Mandela.”

Until news of the war room broke, the future must have looked bright for the DA’s propagandists. There was work galore. Cape Town is busy selling off a large chunk of public coastline to a private developer, and under normal circumstances we might have expected something to appear online in the next few days, perhaps “New Study Proves That Seaside Walks on Public Land are Leading Cause of Depression”.

But that was then. Now, the rules (and the pay scales) have changed forever.

Once, a DA letter-writer was content to be paid with a tin of Danish butter cookies and an Exclusive Books gift voucher. (“With thanks. Buy anything you like, but just so you know, there’ll be a quiz on Helen Zille’s life next week and all the answers are in her memoir. Just saying.”) But how can butter cookies compete with R50-million?

Still, I would urge them to hang on. Their ship will come in, because propaganda is a growth industry. In fact it’s just getting started. And that’s because people are incredibly bad at discerning fact from fiction, especially if the fiction has a headline and some quotes and a photo of a man in a suit.

I should have learned this lesson back when I helped run satire website Hayibo.com. In 2011, our story about the African Union sending troops and food aid to riot-hit London went viral. It was posted to forums and blogs. It was even discussed by commodities traders, wondering how the imports would hit UK grain prices.

In retrospect it was chilling, but at the time we found it bizarrely funny. We simply couldn’t believe that Eton-educated stockbrokers could mistake our silliness for truth. For God’s sake, it even claimed that the AU would be “parachuting in dentists as part of a ‘Feel better about yourselves, Brits!’ initiative”.

I no longer find that story funny, not after seeing how completely adrift we are.

I often hear people wishing that our media were more sophisticated, but I’m not so sure. In fact, I’m starting to suspect that editors and broadcasters might need to revisit their assumptions about how information is received and take a big step back to the basics.

Propagandists everywhere are telling us that up is down and good is bad. They have gone straight back to the first principles of reality in order to rearrange them.

It is easy to point and stare, aghast. But the media cannot react to credulity with incredulity.

Rather, it needs to meet the new Goebbelses back there at Ground Zero. And it needs to start repeating, clearly and relentlessly, that bad is bad, that down is down, and that lies are lies.

*

Published in The Times

Lashing out at a better world

trump-inaug

Want evidence that things are getting better? Two words. Donald Trump.

It’s true. The fact that Trump got elected is a sign of real progress in the world. Jihad, too, is evidence that we are moving forward. And the surge in online racism and sexism is definitely good news.

I know that sounds sarcastic, but it isn’t, and here’s why.

Most bigotry goes unexpressed because it doesn’t need to be expressed. If their lives are comfortable and their world view goes unchallenged, people can sit on their prejudice for a lifetime: we’ve all heard of the dying nonagenarian, a beloved great-grandmother and pillar of the community, whose tongue has been loosened by dementia or drugs, suddenly, shockingly, revealing a seething anti-Semitism or racism or homophobia.

Why didn’t it come out sooner? It didn’t need to. She lived in peace and relative happiness, far away from those she feared. Because they were only in her mind rather than in her street, she could keep them locked up there; her sinister mental hobbies tucked away out of sight.

Sometimes, when bigots hold all the power in society, they can even convince themselves that their disdain is a form of care. Colonial overlords often expressed paternal affection for the people they ruled. “I love women!” is the rallying cry of misogynists everywhere, who genuinely believe that controlling a woman’s body is a sign of how much they respect her.

But when their world changes, and the faraway people they feared or disdained become their neighbours and then their bosses, the smiles fall away. When their comfortable and reassuring assumptions are challenged, without apology, they begin to feel attacked. Besieged. Persecuted. And that is when they lash out, and when private disdain becomes public bigotry.

These outbursts have been seized upon by various media and used as evidence to back up the prevailing narrative that the world is getting worse and more full of prejudice and loathing. Hateful things written online and terrible things filmed on cellphones, the narrative insists, are the opening skirmishes of an invasion by a huge, terrifying army of darkness.

The thing is, it’s not true. The examples of bigotry and rage we are shown every day are upsetting, but nothing about them suggests that they are the bold manoeuvres of a fascist Blitzkrieg. Instead, they look much more like acts of desperation: booby-traps and ambushes laid by a ragged army in shambolic retreat.

Unplug yourself from the official narrative about the looming monster army and you see it: hateful reactions are fearful reactions, and when bigots are frightened, it usually means that the world is moving, albeit slowly, in the right direction.

Racists are hissing and spitting because black people are becoming CEOs and deans and presidents. Misogynists are throwing a fit because women are redefining womanhood for themselves and claiming their birthright as co-owners of the planet. Jihadis are resorting to medieval brutality because modernity is pushing inexorably into their crumbling kingdoms. And Donald Trump got elected because frightened, insular Americans didn’t have anyone else to vote for.

Many liberal pundits are having none of it. To them, Trump’s election was the final step in a vast and shocking subterfuge: an enormous sleeper cell of closet Nazis was biding its time in Washington, evading the watchful eyes of the press, waiting until a vermilion Fuhrer arrived and gave the secret signal. Trump, the popular subtext insists, has finally unleashed a wave of hatred that had barely been kept in check by the Obama administration.

Which is weird, because Trump’s entire campaign was founded on the belief that like-minded people (those who admire “alternative facts”, putting Muslims on registers and pussy-grabbing) have no representation in the US political system. They had no powerful champions already established in Washington DC; no Lincoln or Roosevelt of the far right, no powerful and beloved orators bending hearts towards hardness and minds towards fear. They didn’t even have a Ronald Reagan, offering them a home inside conventional conservatism. All they had was a pouting beauty pageant host with spray-on policies and a Twitter account. I’ve been reading plenty about the decline of the US (and global) left, but if Trump is the best leader the right has to offer, then it is surely a spent force.

Of course, frightened, angry people with nuclear weapons are not a good thing: this could all still go pear-shaped. But for now it might be helpful to remember that Trump is a reaction to change. Online hate is a cry of despair. Atrocities against women and unbelievers are a frantic attempt to cling to a dying world.

In the end, perhaps all are fighting a gentle but firm truth: that every day, more people are coming to accept and believe in the personhood of others. Respect, not rage, is still winning.

*

Published in The Times

Nostalgia just ain’t what it used to be

snf-emailable

On most days the elderly woman sits and watches the world from her balcony, waving to people she knows, peering at people she doesn’t.

She offers gossip, sometimes cake. She’s eager to tell the story of her dodgy leg and she tells it well. But beyond that she keeps her feelings to herself and her home is dark and quiet.

Once in a great while, however, she plays her music.

It fills her flat and spills out onto the street. And then you know that she is missing her late husband terribly.

The music, she tells you, is the soundtrack of their love. It was their music when they were first married and the world was perfect and everything would last forever. Sometimes they danced to it. Sometimes they just lay and listened.

When I first heard it, I thought she was having a party. But when she came out onto the balcony, her cheeks wet and her face softened and brightened by nostalgia, I realised my mistake.

But I was confused. Because her music, full of longing for and joy over times past, is disco.

Once I knew her story it made sense. When people fall in love, the music of the time often becomes the melody of their happiness. Love can turn the Macarena into Mozart. But still it seemed strange to me because it wasn’t what I understood the past to sound like.

As a child of the 1980s, I still believe, in some eternally 10-year-old part of me, that elderly widows reminisce over the music of Glenn Miller, recalling that first waltz in the air force hangar the night before he shipped out to France. They do not listen to the Bee Gees.

But of course they do, and my inability to grasp this says much more about my understanding of time and age than their taste in music.

In my defence, however, I think that it’s getting more difficult to tell the past from the present, mainly because the old technological signposts are melting away.

When I was a child, I could tell old from new in an instant. Film from 40 years earlier was a monochrome mushroom cloud rising jerkily over Hiroshima. Old music crackled and ticked and sounded as if it was being recorded in a cistern.

But for a modern child, 40-year-old footage is Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi duelling in smooth, lush colour, and music recorded half a century ago can sound as clean and rich as music recorded yesterday.

Now, we carry the past with us

Last year, as famous people kept dying, I wondered if the global reaction – a sense of mounting disbelief – had something to do with this change in our relationship with the past.

Once, the past slipped away quickly. Pictures faded, letters were eaten by fishmoths, mementos were lost. Now, we carry the past with us; cleaned up, backed up, remastered and catalogued. The 20-year-olds at Woodstock in 1969 would have considered the songs of the early 1920s to be terribly quaint and old-fashioned, but today’s 20-year-olds are proud to listen to the almost 50-year-old music of the Rolling Stones or David Bowie.

That’s because we’ve frozen our stars at their most magnetic. And when their bodies age and die, the disbelief can be profound.

Intellectually, I understand that people age and that somebody I first saw in 1990 is not going to look the same, unless that person is Samuel L Jackson. But there is a difference between intellectual understanding and belief, and I simply cannot believe that Gene Hackman is turning 87 this month. Tell me that William Shatner turns 86 this year and I will suggest that the Enterprise has veered off course into a parallel universe. And the only thing I find more implausible than Roger Moore’s Bond is the fact that Moore, the eternal 55-year-old, will be 90.

People like us have been around for about 7500 generations. Photographs have existed for seven. Voice recordings for six. But perfectly life-like copies of people and their voices, beamed into our rooms to talk to us and move us and inspire us? Those ghosts have only come into our lives in this generation. Given that we’ve been trying to figure out death and time and change for millennia and we’re still struggling, is it any wonder that these beautiful phantoms in our living rooms should leave us so confused?

Sixty years ago, the star culture of Hollywood was going supernova, transforming into modern celebrity culture. Now, a great glittering beautiful demographic bulge is arriving. The first young stars of the modern celebrity era are entering their 80s. There will be many more ghosts this year, and loud cries of alarm.

But there will also be music and memories and the Bee Gees; and the knowledge that ghosts will come to us whenever we need them most.

*

Published in The Times

“It’s not sinking, it’s a submarine!”

titanic

Had Angie Motshekga been the owner of the White Star shipping line on the morning of April 15, 1912, history might have sounded quite different.

As flashbulbs popped and journalists shouted questions, she and her team would have shuffled into place behind a table. An appeal for quiet; and then the big news, delivered with half a smile: White Star Lines was delighted to announce that early this morning the RMS Titanic had become the world’s first passenger submarine.

She was still verifying the figures, but it looked like almost a third of the passengers had survived, and she wished to extend warm congratulations to them and their families.

I like to imagine that a sensible public would have howled her down and run her out of town, but after last week I’m not so sure.

Instead of uniting to mourn the countless young lives trapped in a sinking system and dragged down into the deep, many South Africans instead argued over the matric results as if there was something to argue about; as if we’re still unsure about whether this is working or not; as if our schooling system might still turn out to be a submarine rather than a wreck.

Perhaps the confusion is understandable. Assumptions, both sensible and false, are wobbling. What once felt like bedrock now shifts like jelly under our feet. It is increasingly difficult to know what to think, indeed, to share ideas at all. Who, these days, would risk the wrath of one of the many inquisitions doing the rounds, or has the energy to take on the legions of know-nothings?

All of which is why I’m going to stick to a few simple guidelines in the year ahead; not so much resolutions as gentle reminders to myself: Post-It notes stuck on the fridge of my subconscious.

The first is to keep remembering that this year our politicians are going to say a lot of words, because that’s how politicians make money. When they say those words I’m going to want to believe that they have some connection with reality and I’m going to want to catch feelings. But that’s what the politicians’ financial planners want me to do: every time we take the bait and get worked up, we send up dust and smoke and noise, a great smokescreen that allows the looters to steal a few million more. So in 2017 I’m going to try to count to 10 and opt out of actively making the conmen richer.

They will clutch portraits of Oliver Tambo

I will also look up the definition of “gaslighting” just to remind myself of what it looks like, and who does it, and why. Because this year, as senior gang bosses shift allegiances to get a better grip on the teat, they’re going to tell me that I’m mistaken for thinking poorly of them. They will clutch the constitution or the Bible or portraits of Oliver Tambo and insist that they never voted to entrench corruption and that if I still believe them to be scoundrels then the problem must lie with me. Yes, “gaslighting” is definitely one to remember in 2017.

(Note to self: remember to keep some salt aside to sprinkle over think-pieces about how the deputy president is going to grab the controls and pull us out of our current dive. Having watched Cyril the Human Ball-Gag smile and nod his way through the calculated dismantling of accountability and good governance in this country, I will emulate him by simply smiling and nodding.)

The next Post-It is just a number: 8.5. That’s the percentage of my compatriots who voted for the EFF. Which is why, when I read tumescent prose about how the EFF is a giant, red tsunami, I will remind myself that there are more left-handers in South Africa than Fighters.

Likewise, when the Commander-In-Chief denounces Jacob Zuma, I will recall how he made his career by giving us Zuma, and how he now furthers that career by attacking Zuma. (And yes, in fairness, I expect the president also features heavily in the prayers of Padre Maimane: “For what we are about to be handed on a silver platter in the next few months, may the Lord make us truly thankful…”)

Finally, I will try to remember that opinion is not news. Twitter is not a peer-reviewed journal, and shouting, “This is the worst year EVER!” reveals only that one knows very little about history. Most of all, pessimism is not insight. Rather, it is a narcotic fog we breathe, vented by millions of people seduced by misery; people who have watched footage of a distant massacre before they’ve got out of bed or read angry words on a screen before they’ve spoken to another human being. They are not informed: they are infected.

Right. The Post-Its are up. Let the noise begin. Hello 2017.

*

Published in The Times

Things fall apart. But they also fall in love.

black-mirror-rosling

You probably haven’t heard of Hans Rosling. That’s because he’s trying to cheer you up.

The retired Swedish professor calls himself an “edutainer”, a necessarily pandering label in our vigorously anti-intellectual age. If he introduced himself more accurately as someone who does interesting things with statistics about humanity, he — see, you’ve glazed over already. So “edutainer” it is.

Rosling’s visual representations of our progress as a species are the sort of things that used to make TED talks quietly engrossing. When he speaks, people chuckle and raise their eyebrows. As promised on the bill, they are educated and entertained.

But Rosling is more than a genteel diversion.

These are hyperbolic times so I’m hesitant to exaggerate too much, but, increasingly, Rosling looks like a lifeboat: small and dry (sometimes very dry, those wry Swedes), bobbing brightly on a sea of heaving despair.

In graph after graph and tweet after tweet, Rosling’s message is clear: most things are getting better. Our crawl out of the muck continues. Sometimes there are setbacks, but they don’t mean we have reversed our climb or started subsiding back into barbarism and despair.

Most things are getting better.

And yet you probably haven’t heard of Rosling, or Max Roser, or any of the other statisticians quietly chipping away at our vastly misanthropic assumptions.

It’s all there, for free, online: consolation, information, perspective, all a few clicks away. And yet it is Naomi Klein and John Pilger and George Monbiot whose grim ruminations are celebrated as “on point” reflections of the world. It is Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, with its almost pathological bleakness, that is hailed as an accurate vision of how things will soon be.

The reason for this rush away from hope towards misery is plain and a little depressing and, like all things, rooted in our beautifully self-destructive psyches.

Simply put, we don’t want to hear good news. We think we do, and we claim we do, but we don’t. And that’s because good news doesn’t make us angry. Bad news makes us angry. And anger feels so damned good.

Again, the official line is that we don’t like feeling angry and we want to kick the habit. Get off Facebook. Mute Twitter. Stop shouting at other drivers. Count to ten. But those are an addict’s self-deluding lies.

We crave anger because the world is confusing and loud and being angry makes you feel like there’s a plan; that you’re taking charge, if only of your emotions for the next ten minutes. And that feeling is addictive.

I’ve seen the addicts because I’ve been a dealer.

When I’ve written a thing full of spite and judgment they’ve come sidling up to me, murmuring praise. And then they’ve asked for more. More anger. More spite. A bigger hit. “You should write a thing about Zuma where …” “The problem with affirmative action is …”

Sometimes I’ve refused, and they’ve turned away bitterly and told me that I’ve “gone soft”, “become a libtard”, and they’ve gone to find harder, more dangerous stuff in darker corners of the internet.

If you’re properly addicted to anger, good news feels lame. No matter how good it is, it just can’t compete with the deep-exhaling, eyes-rolling-back dark ecstasy of a report that makes you instantly, deliciously, angry.

I’m not going to tell you that everything is going to be peachy. That’s not what the likes of Rosling and Roser and Stephen Pinker are saying. But I am going to remind you that doom-mongers also have to pay mortgages.

I’m also going to ask you to try a little experiment I did this week.

The idea came from relationship- and sex writer Dorothy Black. I was making some gloomy, hugely generalised pronouncement on geopolitics in 2017 when she asked me why I was winding myself up over bad things that might not happen. Wasn’t it more useful — or at least healthier — to think about the good things that would definitely happen?

My immediate response was Scrooge-like. What good things would definitely happen? Well, she said, the good things that happen every day, somewhere in the world.

And so we started listing them. Not dreams or wishes but the actual blessings, great and small, which occur all the time, lighting up the world like fireflies, here, then there. Statistically verifiable joy.

Which is how I know that in 2017, every day, millions of humans are going to fall in love for the first time; truly, madly and deeply.

Millions will find a treasure they’d lost; remember something lovely they’d forgotten; begin an adventure.

Every day of 2017, millions of people will hear words they’ve longed for: “You’re hired”. “I love you”. “Mamma”.

And I know that over the next few weeks, many millions will find the deep, consoling pleasure that comes from switching off the internet and rediscovering the world as it truly is.

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Oh come all ye faithful, and sweat

christmas_holidays_south_africa

High above the tiles and the despairing babies and the despondent, flat-footed shoppers, three men wrestled with a gigantic snowflake.

The snowflake was very heavy, and bristled with small lights which made it awkward to handle. But the men had a job to do, and they braced themselves against the snowflake and their backs took the strain and they barked instructions to each other.

As they fought the snowflake into place, they sweated. One of the men didn’t like having sweat run down his face. He kept ducking his head into his sleeve to mop up the droplets. But the others let it run unhindered. It dripped off the ends of their noses and caught the light. Falling stars made of distilled exertion plunged silently to the floor, and were wiped away by disconsolate flip-flops.

When the shoppers had walked in, an hour earlier, they might have smiled or talked to each other or had a sense of where they were going. The flip-flops had plip-plopped smartly on the tiles. But that was an hour ago and somewhere else. Here, in the main concourse of the mall, they had given up pretending and had allowed themselves to become passive, nudged this way by anxiety, pushed that way by dissatisfaction.

The problem was that they didn’t know what they were doing there. They knew they had to buy something, but they had no idea what. Worse, they had no idea why.

That’s what made it so awful. A decree had gone out that all the world should be vexed, but it hadn’t come from Caesar Augustus. It hadn’t come from anyone. It was simply known, which made it feel more like a psychological compulsion than a simple chore that had to be performed.

The men, however, knew why there were there. They were there to install the snowflake, so that it could shine its antiseptic blue light down on the shoppers. Their work was difficult and dangerous — the season of giving had not extended as far as a safety harness — but it was real and finite, and something the men could do well. If they wanted to, they might even take pride in it.

Their alertness made them seem as distant and dextrous as astronauts riding a tiny, glittering moon that had managed to stay clear of the pull of some all-crushing gas giant. It disoriented me. For a moment, I forgot where I was, and that all of this — the electrical snowflake, the stars of sweat, the sobbing of children — was for something called Christmas.

I stopped and stared at the men and thought, Why a snowflake?

Because it’s Christmas! sang 10,000 toy guns and plastic new-born babies with patented realistic sucking and nappy-wetting action and polyester pine trees wrapped in scratchy tinsel. And Christmas is about dashing through the snow on a one-horse open sleigh and chestnuts roasting on an open fire!

Another drop of sweat fell to earth, and the nylon snow on the windowsills curled as the sun beat through windows frosted with hot, chemical-scented paint.

But, I asked the guns and the babies, when did we stop finding this absurd? Surely most of us sense the lunacy of men sweating in the African sun to erect a totem to a northern European celebration of the birth of a baby in the hot wastes of Judea?

I mean, this is cargo-cult territory, for God’s sake. We’re worshipping northern hemisphere precipitation. We’ve turned climate into catechism and it’s not even our climate.

There came the smell of roasting meat marinated in claustrophobia. The toys were impassive, so I tried again.

Guys, I said, can’t we just take a step back? Can’t we do away with the twinkly Scandinavian nonsense and just draw a clear and sensible link between the deserts of the Middle East and the deserts of South Africa’s shopping malls?

Or have I got it wrong? Are the stapled-on snow and the sun-brittle Styrofoam reindeer a secret yearning for Paradise? After all, hell is always the worst of where we are. That’s why the Middle Eastern hell is a fiery pit but the Viking version is eternal winter. Perhaps we’re just longing to be somewhere cold, where we can feel snug and safe and –

Something metaphysical tapped me on the shoulder.

I turned, and stared into the broad, imaginary chest of a security guard called Zeitgeist.

“Excuse me,” he said, “but we’ve had some complaints. Apparently you’ve been seen trying to bring Jesus and history in here, and it’s upsetting a lot of people who just want to celebrate Christmas.”

I opened my mouth to speak but he placed a finger on my lips.

“Just move along, sir,” he said.

High up overhead, they switched the snowflake on. It buzzed, sparked into life, and began to glow in the white-hot blinding afternoon.

*

First published in The Times