The Huffington Ghost: A New Low For SA Media

On Thursday, the South African version of HuffingtonPost, a website owned by Media24 and curated by former Mail&Guardian editor, Verashni Pillay, published an article called “Could It Be Time To Deny White Men The Franchise?”

01 original post

The author of the piece was one Shelley Garland, an “MA Philosophy Student”. Her Twitter bio said that she was a “Perpetual Feminist causing the retreat of patriarchy”, and that she was in Auckland, New Zealand.

Soon after it was published, the column was picked up by a number of right-wing websites, including Breitbart.com. The response was a predictable wave of outrage, ranging from condemnations of a clearly unconstitutional suggestion to outright, frothing-at-the-mouth misogyny.

If you’d visited HuffingtonPost SA on the 26th of January, you’d have encountered this:

clickbait

If you’d recovered from choking on your coffee and clicked the most-read story, you would have discovered that it was, in fact, an opinion piece about the dangers of fake news. Geddit? See what they did there? See how they showed how easy it is to fall for clickbait by, er, well, engaging in some primo clickbaiting?

In other words, Pillay and HuffPo SA are already experienced clickbaiters, and when Garland’s piece found international traction they were ready to cash in. Within a day, Pillay had written a piece called “This Blog On White Men Is Going Viral. Here’s Our Response”. In it, she listed some of the vilest responses the original post had received. Inevitably, it also elicited a flood of clicks.

Trending1

At HuffPo SA it wasn’t just Easter: it was Christmas, too. Sipho Hlongwane, head of the blogging division (or as professional writers call it, “the Helping Destroy Actual Journalism By Getting Amateurs To Write For Free And Thereby Keeping Rates So Low That Nobody Can Afford To Be A Journalist” division) was beside himself at all the clicks.

SiphoOh how we laughed. (He has subsequently deleted that tweet.)

However, angry white men, raving woman-haters and sweaty-palmed bean-counters weren’t the only people who’d noticed the posts.

Cape Town editor and writer, Laura Twiggs, had smelled a rat and soon started doing some of the best journalistic sleuthing I’ve seen in many moons.

The first alarm bell was the fact that Shelley Garland had only just joined Twitter and had no online presence whatsoever.

no trace

Things got odder, however, when she spoke to Garland on Twitter.

Laura2

A proud student of the University of “Johannesberg” would, of course, be known by her institution, even if she didn’t know how to spell the city in which it was. But again, Twiggs discovered a peculiar void where Shelley Garland should have been.

Laura3

And then, two even stranger things happened.

Firstly, in a direct message to Twiggs, Garland denied writing the piece and suggested that it had in fact been written in-house by HuffingtonPost SA.

Garland DMs

And then, hey presto –

Laura4

Shelley Garland, or whichever person, people or organization was claiming to be “Shelley Garland”, deleted her/their Twitter account.

On Friday evening, Twiggs began Tweeting questions to HuffPo SA, asking how they found Garland, if they were aware that she apparently didn’t exist, and what they planned to do about it.

HuffPo responded at once. Not by addressing Twiggs’s questions, of course, but by continuing to pump out Tweets advertising Pillay’s follow-up column.

Undeterred, Twiggs persisted, bombarding HuffPo staff with questions, even Tweeting Arianna Huffington and her successor, Lydia Polgreen, to inform them that their South African pup had just left a large turd on the carpet.

Of Pillay there was no sign, except for a couple of Tweets about geopolitics and her favourite flavour of hot cross buns.

But then, just as Saturday evening arrived, a full 24 hours after Twiggs had first raised the alarm, she re-appeared…

took it down.jpg

The “Garland” piece was gone. So, too, was Pillay’s “Hey look at all the hits the assholes are giving us!” follow-up. In their place was an explanation of why they’d taken them down.

“We have done this” wrote Pillay, “because the blog submission from an individual who called herself Shelley Garland, who claimed to be an MA student at UCT, cannot be traced and appears not to exist.”

Assuming that “Garland” told Pillay that she was at UCT (given her spelling of “Johannesberg” I can imagine her claiming to be at the University of Cap Toun), I would have thought a quick email to UCT might have been a good idea before they hit “Publish”. But maybe that’s unfair. I mean, clickbait waits for no man, whether real or imaginary, and checking Garland’s credentials would have taken precious time away from HuffPo’s busy schedule of cashing cheques from Sun International for explaining that golf is totally groovy in a drought-stricken, water-scarce country.

golf

But don’t worry. They’re not going to do it again. According to Pillay, they “will hold discussions on putting in place even better quality controls”.

Given the fact that they have just published a highly controversial, probably divisive piece, without having a clue who wrote it (or in the interests of which paymasters it was written), I have to ask about their “even better quality controls”: even better than what? Is Pillay planning to enlist a team of squirrels to do fact-checking, as opposed to the team of air molecules she’s been using until now?

It’s tempting to roll one’s eyes and laugh, or to dismiss this because it was “just a blog”, but Pillay and her team have done enormous damage to causes I’m sure they care about deeply.

For starters, they have handed megatons of ammunition to misogynist trolls, who will now cry, “See?! They’re so desperate they’re resorting to making stuff up!” Some of South Africa’s most prominent right-wing trolls are already making hay with this online.

Secondly, they have confirmed the current creeping paranoia that we cannot believe anything we read in the media.

Pillay has already contributed to this state of affairs. In February last year she had to apologise for a largely fabricated story in the Mail&Guardian claiming the Mmusi Maimane was being “tutored” by FW de Klerk.

Of course, HuffingtonPost SA is not the Mail & Guardian. I don’t know anyone who takes HuffPo SA seriously as a credible news source. But it is part of the Media24 stable and its stories regularly appear on News24, the country’s most widely read news site. Given this debacle, News24 readers would be forgiven for becoming more suspicious than ever.

Just one day before she signed off on this fakery, Pillay was quoted in an article on Al Jazeera titled “Fake news ‘symptomatic of crisis in journalism”.

Al Jazeera
I’ll ignore, for now, her use of the word “audience” to describe readers, with all its implications of passive, wide-eyed consumers wanting to be entertained rather than informed. Likewise, I’m going to give her the benefit of enormous amounts of doubt and assume that this was simply rank incompetence on her part rather than an example of “open disdain” towards her audience. After all, she knows about how important vetting is: at the end of March she published this…

Fact Checking HuffPo
But if HuffingtonPost South Africa had a shred of credibility left, it has evaporated along with Shelley Garland.

South African journalism – underpaid, understaffed, under pressure – cannot afford this kind of ineptitude. When people no longer believe what they read, journalism loses its ability to shine a light in dark places. And when that happens, we’re all in deep trouble.

But perhaps there is a silver lining to this mess. Perhaps we can use it as a reminder of the importance of proper editors running proper newspapers staffed by proper journalists.

So, in the coming week, how about we all go out and pay actual money for a copy of our favourite newspaper or news magazine? How about we support actual journalism?

The Next Rainbow

Tim-Peake-photo-of-South-Africa-900x599

Us, photographed by Tim Peak.

“When the sun rises over South Africa this morning it will be a new country.”

In the first few minutes after Jacob Zuma’s midnight purge, the Facebook status of columnist Marianne Thamm spoke the feelings of a great many South Africans. It felt as if a Rubicon had been crossed; a temple curtain had torn.

But I would respectfully disagree with Thamm. When the sun rose over a post-Gordhan South Africa, the only thing that had changed was the nationality of the landlords.

Once, they were Dutch and British. For a while the great-grandchildren of the Dutch and British pretended that the place was independent; but soon they ran the property into the ground and needed Wall Street bankers to keep them afloat, so the Americans held the title deeds for a while. And now, South Africa is owned by a family from India and, it is safe to assume, a handful of Russian politicians and their pet oligarchs.

Yes, it’s the same old place it’s always been.

The uproar is familiar, too: that collective groan we produce whenever the predators in power let the façade slip and we see them in their natural habitat, urgently thrusting bloody snouts into the steaming guts of a still-kicking country.

This, however, seems to be a particularly frightening moment. The feeding frenzy, usually half-hidden by darkness, is happening in broad daylight. We’re being shown things we didn’t want to see, like who has power and who has almost none. As we discover that the ANC has finished its transition from a liberation movement to a political party and finally to a monarchy, the processes of democracy are starting to look like a cargo-cultish ritual performed by the faithful and delusional.

Then again, there is method to the opposition’s madness. The DA and EFF do not want Jacob Zuma removed from power immediately because the longer he is president the better they will do in 2019. Indeed, some people suspect the opposition parties have actively worked to keep Zuma in power, calling motions of no confidence or marching on Luthuli House in the full knowledge that such events force the ANC to close ranks and stand by its beleaguered boss – the surgeon deliberately leaving the cancer to spread so that he can look even more heroic when he finally tackles it.

And so here we are, in a slightly new place in the same old place. There’s a lot of anger and confusion, and crippling amounts of commentary and analysis about what happens next.

I’d also like to talk about what happens next.

I don’t mean what happens after Zuma or 2019. I don’t mean what will happen, or what is likely to happen, because I don’t have the faintest idea about any of that. Instead, I want to talk about what could happen, what should happen, what might happen if we briefly tear ourselves away from the grim present and turn our eyes to brighter horizons.

I know this sounds like the naivety of privilege, but humour me for a minute. God knows, you’ve humoured worse for the last seven years.

What if we updated Bishop Tutu’s rainbow with one representing the country we could still have?

Even if we could return to the rainbow nation idealism of the mid-1990s, we shouldn’t. Rainbowism is dead mainly because it resolutely ignored the racism and race-based inequality that saturate the foundations of this country like rising damp and which make any new building impossible until it has been dealt with.

But what if we updated Bishop Tutu’s rainbow with one representing the country we could still have if we made hard choices and had honest conversations? What if, instead of gradually accepting this sordid place as it is, we reminded ourselves of what we want and deserve?

What if red represented the blood being shed every day – by men in their war against women; by callous or desperate criminals; by systems that brutalise the bodies of the poor – and a future in which we staunched the flow?

What if orange – the colour of the soil – represented a just, intelligent and lasting solution to urgent questions about land? What is the statute of limitations on stolen property? Can land be given back to the dispossessed without threatening food security? Some say that if land is not handed out there will be a revolution, but surely if farming gets any more dangerous or difficult there will be a revolution anyway when the food runs out? Or is this a false dichotomy?

What if green stood for money and a commonly accepted belief that leaders shouldn’t steal it and that bosses should earn sensible rather than disgusting amounts of it? What if we had an honest discussion about how much corruption we’re willing to tolerate, given that corruption is the deal all peoples make with their politicians in order to have their countries run? And speaking of which, can we decide whether we want to be part of the capitalist world with its inherent corruptions or whether we want to start afresh, and if the latter can you let me know ASAP so I can start looking for a job somewhere else?

What if blue symbolised water, the stuff that we can’t live without but which we’re going to get less and less of? And what if we employed experts to manage it so that we don’t have to manage without it?

What if indigo – a colour added rather arbitrarily to the spectrum by Isaac Newton but now in danger of being dumped by scientists – demonstrated an ability to adapt to new facts rather than to cling on to traditions and beliefs for their own sake? Can we restore intellect and wisdom to public life, and educate our children for an automating world?

What if violet, made up of EFF red and DA blue, was a reminder that competing ideologies can and should keep each other in check? What if we were mature enough to find humane and sustainable solutions to hard economic problems, rather than plunging Venezuela-like to the left or goose-stepping to the right towards Trumpian gangster capitalism?

Finally, yellow: the colour of cowardice, omitted from its rightful place because fear isn’t something we want to acknowledge. But what if yellow could remind us that we’ve been cowards in the past, that we’ve avoided tough decisions and taken the path of least resistance? And what if it could remind us that we’ve also been braver than we ever imagined we could be?

Let’s be brave again. Then, maybe, the sun will rise over a truly new country.

*

Published in The Times

The Luckiest Cricketer in South Africa

Duminy

Well left, JP.

In cricket, one name stands alone as a monument to unrealized potential and endless, frustrating failure: Graeme Hick.

The big Zimbabwean-turned-Englishman hit the English County scene like a club to the skull, and he seemed destined to become the square-jawed matinee idol of the international game. Season after season he put County attacks to the sword, eventually amassing 41,000 First Class runs including 136 centuries. But when the inevitable Test call-up came, the results were a crushing disappointment.

Sixteen years after the end of his international career, Hick remains the go-to reference when talk turns to underachieving players.

Which must be a great relief for a certain JP Duminy, AKA the Luckiest Cricketer in South Africa.

Duminy’s innings at Hamilton on Monday, embarrassingly ended by an unchallenged straight ball, was his 72nd in Tests, and took his career run tally to 2086.

After 72 innings, Graeme Hick  had scored 2591 runs.

You read right. The game’s greatest underachiever had outscored Duminy by half a thousand runs at the same point in his career.

Of course, one can’t base on argument on just one example, so here are a couple more that show just how hopelessly out of his depth Duminy is.

Neil McKenzie was thrown a lifeline in 2008 after last playing a Test in 2004. He responded by scoring 1073 Test runs that year, more than Sachin Tendulkar, Michael Clarke and AB de Villiers. Three months into 2009 his Test career was over. (Duminy has never scored more than 419 runs in a year.) After 72 innings, McKenzie had scored 2599 runs to Duminy’s 2086.

Hansie Cronje revitalized South African cricket in the mid-1990s and played some mighty knocks in his time, but most pundits agree that he probably wouldn’t have had a Test career if he hadn’t been such a charismatic captain. He was weak against the short ball, and far too often made an attractive 35 where a dogged 135 was needed. But after 72 innings the often-fragile Cronje had managed 2352 runs.

Just behind Cronje, at 2290 after 72 innings, is Jacques Rudolph, who was facing howls of criticism at this point in his career and was a year away from being permanently dumped out of Test cricket.

Some Proteas didn’t even last 67 innings: they were axed by selectors who considered them to be a grave liability or simply not up to Test standard any more.

Remember Andrew Hudson? Hudders who, in the late 1990s, was considered almost supernaturally dismissal-prone and someone who needed to be ditched as soon as possible? Hudson played 63 Test innings in total and yet he still managed to score 2007 runs. After 63 innings, JP Hick, sorry, Duminy, had scored 1797: 210 runs fewer than a man who was considered a walking wicket and lucky to be selected.

More recently there was Alviro Petersen, eased out of the international game after 36 Tests and 64 innings. Petersen played some memorable knocks but nobody ever seriously believed that he was a Test blue-blood. And yet in his 64 innings he amassed 2093 runs. Duminy has played 8 innings more than that, and has yet to match that tally.

The bottom line, evidenced by comings and goings of players over the last 20 years, is that JP Duminy is not a Test batsman and is fantastically lucky to still have a career.

Yes, say his supporters, but that’s unfair: he’s not a Test batsman, he’s a Test allrounder. You can’t judge him by batting standards.

Well OK, but if you’re going to play that game then you need to measure him against other spinning allrounders, and the stats are still damning.

After 55 bowling innings, Duminy has bowled, 435.3 overs,  taken 42 wickets @ 36.7.

After the same number of bowling innings, Hick had bowled 496.3 overs, taken 22 at 56.72.

By comparison, Duminy looks pretty good.

That is, until you compare him to some spinning allrounders who can actually bowl.

For starters there’s Bangladeshi star, Shakib Al Hasan. After 55 bowling innings, Shakib had bowled 1548 overs and taken 141 wickets at 32.26. Oh, and after 72 batting innings? He’s scored 2554 runs at over 40… #JustSaying.

Then there’s a certain R Ashwin. After 55 innings he’d bowled 1428.4 overs and taken 157 wickets at 27.29. So more of a specialist bowler, right? Well, Ashwin hasn’t batted as many times as Duminy – 69 innings to Duminy’s 72 – but after those 69 innings Ashwin has scored 1903 runs at 32.25. In short, Ashwin is more or less Duminy’s equal with the bat, and vastly superior with the ball.

The most telling figure here, though, is Duminy’s relatively tiny number of overs bowled. We all know he can bowl and break partnerships, but the point is that he doesn‘t bowl. This is understandable given the potency of the SA pace attack, but the simple fact is that Duminy is being used as a part-time spinner, which means he’s being selected as a specialist batsman. And he simply isn’t that. Not by a long shot.

So next time you hear Graeme Hick’s name being used as a synonym for cricketing failure, suggest that it’s time for an update.

Cinema Purgatorio and the Ball-Pond from Hell

hell

Screen 2, Row E, third seat on the left

Hell, Dante tells us, has nine circles, each one reserved for souls guilty of particular sins.

The greedy, for example, go to the Third Circle, while heretics are flung down into the Fourth. If you’ve lived a lustful life, full of debauchery and fornication, you will find yourself in the second circle, writhing and naked with millions of other lustful souls who – wait, how exactly is that a punishment?

According to Dante, the worst Circles of Hell are reserved for fraudsters and traitors, suggesting that he’d had an unfortunate disagreement with his publisher over royalties. But the great Italian fell short in his demonic visions, because there is another Circle of Hell: the Tenth.

It is a place of infinite suffering and utter despair, echoing with the wailing of the damned.

It is a movie theatre called Cinepolis Junior.

The company responsible for this living nightmare is a Mexican chain of movie theatres called Cinepolis, presumably Senior, although given that it’s Mexican that might be Señor.
Señor Cinepolis wants to get more children into its cinemas. But, as the LA Times explained in its coverage of the diabolical new scheme, it can be “hard for young children to sit still for two hours, and that can turn a trip to the movies into an ordeal for parents”.
Cinepolis’s solution? Turn it into an ordeal for everyone, so parents don’t have to suffer alone.

That’s why they are building playgrounds inside movie theatres.

Jungle gyms. Beanbags. Slides.

Inside the theatre. Just next to the seats.

May God have mercy on our souls.

Apart from the fact that I’m pretty sure this violates the Geneva Convention, I can’t see how this satanic intervention is going to encourage children to watch films. It’s like primary schools deciding to teach children by taking them to a paintball range. Sure, they’ll see the odd word on a few signposts, and they’ll certainly sound out their letters – “Aaaaa! Eeeee! Miss, he shot me in the face! Oooooo!” – but I’m not convinced it will engender in them a lifelong love of literature.

One could argue that Señor Diablo isn’t actually doing it for the kiddies but is rather offering exhausted parents a chance to spend two hours asleep in a comfortable chair while their offspring gambol about in a tiny bespoke zoo. But then why go to the movies at all? Or is the secret hope that some other parents, slightly less sleep-deprived and more community-minded than yourself, will look after your brood as well as theirs?

the Devil himself has gone into the movie business

No, there are only two logical explanations for this monstrosity. Either Cinepolis was sold the idea by Netflix (“No, really, this will totally get more people into cinemas. Heh heh.”) or the Devil himself has gone into the movie business.

Then again, my own cinema-going history is peppered with fairly hellish moments.
For example, you haven’t known mortification until your parents have taken 11-year-old you to see Dirty Dancing, and, as the resort dancers indulge in some off-duty bum-grabbing and pelvis-grinding, you’ve prayed for the earth to open up and swallow you whole.

Likewise, there was the time I took a girlfriend to see Titanic and she began to sob the moment the film began. I was perturbed. Was it something I’d said? Had she just received terrible news via SMS on her incredibly expensive and stylish Nokia 3110? “No,” she sobbed, “I just know what’s going to happen.”

Happen? But . that was still three hours away! And if she was blubbing now, with everyone still alive, what was it going to be like when Kate and Leo went overboard and tried to cling to that plank? Would she be screaming and thrashing and tearing out her hair? And how could I ask that question without seeming callous? Worse, people were starting to glare at me. Bastard. He’s taken her to the movies to break up with her, and he couldn’t even wait until the end. Bastard.

Mostly, however, hell is other people, the ones you don’t know: the wrapper-rustlers, the straw slurpers, the chair kickers, or simply those peculiar innocents who don’t seem to understand that the story will unfold within the next 90 minutes.

“How is Frodo going to get away from the spider?” they cry. “Hey? How?!” I long to take them aside and tell them that the studio paid $300-million just so that their question would be answered. But mostly I want to ask them why they seem so unfamiliar with the conventions of storytelling. Did they have particularly busy parents? “‘Goldilocks gasped: the three bears had returned! And then – Sorry, love, got to take this call. Good night.”

No, I have to admit that I’ve never had the idyllic cinema experience – cinema paradiso. My consolation, however, is that Mexico and California are a world away, and I will never endure cinema purgatorio, either. Cinepolis Junior? Hell no.

*

Published in The Times

Not all art is on the wall

hith-Mona-Lisa-model-E

The first time I saw the Mona Lisa in person I was literally stopped in my tracks. That’s because two young Americans were kneeling in the doorway, unfolding a map of the Louvre.

One of them was explaining in upwardly inflected Californian that it would be cool if they could like find a john on this floor because it had been like hours since he’d like peed and he really needed to like pee or whatever.

I said, “I’m sorry,” and they said, “It’s cool,” and I realised that they thought I was apologising. So I stepped over them and entered the room where the most famous painting in the world hung.

At least, I think it was the room where the most famous painting in the world hung. Because you can’t actually see the Mona Lisa. What you see is a scrum of about a hundred anxious people in flip-flops, bobbing and craning to get a better view of the bobbing and craning heads in front of them.

Now and then one of them manages to squirm around with his or her back to the wall before raising an arm, like a drowning swimmer calling for help, and taking a selfie. There is the sound of digitally simulated camera clicks, and the plop-plop of fresh flip-flops hurrying to join the back of the throng.

You don’t hear the people detaching from the group because they walk too slowly to make a sound. They drift off into the gallery, bent over their phones, scrolling through the pictures they’ve snatched. Like starving prospectors sieving through icy mud in search of a gleam of gold, they peer at each photograph, hoping that they captured something – a fragment of frame, two pixels of the actual painting – to prove to themselves that they had been close to something valuable.

Looking at the people looking at the people looking at the Mona Lisa was a sad experience. The painting was always going to be an anti-climax but I wasn’t prepared for the desperate hope of the plop-ploppers and the intense disappointment that filled the room.

But on the weekend, in a gleaming white cube off a bleedingly self-consciously Cape Town alley, I longed for the Mona Lisa mob. Because there was nothing between me and the art on the wall, and I was panicking.

Now I was doing Lecherous Poseur

Was I standing too close? Had I got my Hollywood tropes wrong? I had. Oh God. I had wanted to do Elegantly Ambivalent Connoisseur but instead I was doing Elderly Spotter of Excellent Fakes. I stepped back. Oh Jesus. Now I was doing Lecherous Poseur Stepping Back To Take In Some Sort of Imaginary Bigger Picture, Hoping To Bump Into Ingénue Standing Alone With Her Wine.

I glanced around and saw the artist glaring at us, despising our spineless decision to come to see his work, hating our approving nods. I understood his anger. It is a terrible thing to know that your rejection of the status quo has been paid for by your dad. I wanted to go over to him and reassure him that one day he would be able to have exhibitions that nobody was invited to, where he would be free from the insulting compliments of the masses; that one day he might even sell a painting to someone who wasn’t one of his dad’s clients. But at that moment I’d slipped into Person Who Suddenly Wants To Leave Gallery Because It’s Strangling His Soul.

Not that I could leave, of course. I’d only been there for 15 seconds, and it would be clear that I was fleeing and that I hated the work. Which wasn’t true. I didn’t hate the work. I didn’t feel anything about the work. I was like a gecko gazing at a copy of Vogue. It was just, you know, there. Perhaps I could do a slow lap of the room, pretending to pause at that one of the pig of neo-conservatism riding the Monsanto tractor, and then slip out of the door? Not yet. Maybe give it another 15 seconds.

“I like how the intervention has subverted the hegemony of flat-plane curating,” said the person next to me. I am quite fluent in Pretentious so I knew that he’d said, “I like that not all the art is hanging on the wall.”

I was going to reply that, for me, the power of the work derived from its discourse with the traditions of the Bacchanalia (“I like the free wine”) but instead I said, “Mm”.

Because, really, I have nothing to say about art. The bad stuff doesn’t deserve comment and the good stuff doesn’t require it, least of all from someone like me. But I’ll keep looking, because sometimes the most memorable pictures and mysterious smiles aren’t on the wall.

*

Published in The Times

Looking for clicks, hunting for ticks

web-tacugama-chimps-groom

Oh, just catching up on the news. (Pic from tacugama.com)

The other day I sat watching a small troop of baboons, and it got me thinking about journalists and editors who write clickbait headlines.

The apes were resting in the shade after a long morning of babooning. A couple of pre-teens threw themselves around in a tree, a Circe de Soleil version of tag, but nobody paid them any attention. It was time to relax. And that meant it was time to groom.

At first, their touch seemed casual and mechanical. Fingers poked around in fur, fishing out critters and seeds that were popped into mouths with unthinking haste. But as it went on and on, as repetitive and lightly engaged as a meditation, it revealed its true purpose. This wasn’t a group of apes pulling ticks off each other. This was a clan, affirming its togetherness. Long after they’d picked one another clean, they continued to touch and stroke, to tease out tangles, to part fur, earnestly and carefully, that they had already combed. They soothed and reassured.

There is a delightful theory, most famously presented by evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, that suggests human language evolved from these sorts of grooming sessions. Even more pleasingly, the theory suggests that we still get together to stroke each other’s fur.

I’m not allowed to go up to a colleague and start scratching around in their hair. I’m definitely not allowed to root around in their ears and nostrils and eat whatever I find. But I am allowed to do something else with members of my clan that strengthens our bond, that affirms my place in the group and that reminds us all of those we can trust and those we can’t. I am allowed to gossip.

Gossip, Dunbar suggests, is simply what happens when apes learn to speak. And it is inextricably bound up with who we are. Gossip has been damned by religious texts; condemned as “womanly” by patriarchal systems; dismissed as stupid by intellectual snobs; but still it thrives. And that’s because it feeds and delights a part of us that is older than the oldest religious text or puritanical government: our sociable and curious monkey soul.

Which brings me back to clickbait.

Recently, I’ve become unable to read the news.

I want to. Well, I feel compelled to, which is the 21st-century version of wanting something. I even make it through the headline and some of the first paragraph. But then I stop because it suddenly feels like I might have to hurry to the toilet and regurgitate a long column of pulpy, print-smeared newspaper.

“I can’t stand it any more”

Concerned that I was being unreasonably fragile, I ran an informal poll on social media, asking my fellow sufferers on Facebook and Twitter for their emotional response to the news these days. The response was overwhelming. Given the options “I can’t get enough”, “It’s satisfying”, “I can’t take it or leave it”, and “I can’t stand it any more”, almost 60% replied that they, like me, couldn’t stand it any more. When I asked that gloomy demographic if they consumed the news anyway, almost 70% answered, “Yes, I can’t stop.”

I know this poll was unscientific and prone to all sorts of biases. The few hundred people who replied were also a self-selecting group: I ran it on a Sunday night, the natural habitat of grumpy internet addicts who know they should be reading a book or going to bed but are instead sitting on Facebook and Twitter. But I don’t think I’m wrong to suggest that more and more people – perhaps most – are feeling soul-sick when confronted with the day’s headlines.

Clickbait is lazy and insulting. It has convinced many people that media are being hollowed out by shills. But if most people are being flooded with bad feelings when they engage with news, I can understand why you’d stop appealing to their critical faculties and go straight for their monkey soul. If people can’t stomach facts any more, or are losing faith in them, why not offer them fact that looks like gossip – an invitation to groom?

I’m not suggesting that we abolish journalism and turn the great newspapers into pictures of listicles on Instagram. But our relationship with facts and the media that present them is creaking, and editors who believe in facts must adapt.

Baboons might be a good place to start, reminding us that grooming isn’t about finding ticks, just as gossip isn’t about sharing information. We don’t compulsively follow the news because we want to know what’s happening in the US or Syria. We follow it because we need to touch and be touched by other apes.

If Dunbar is right, our words evolved from gentle, patient fingers in fur. But if they evolve so far that they forget their origins – if they lose their power to bond people together – then what use are they?

*

Published in The Times

Let’s write! Again!

100writing3

I’m delighted to announce that I will be running my second creative writing course at the picturesque Kalk Bay Books, and I’d very much like you to be there.

Please note that there are only four places left, so please book as soon as a you can.

Who this course for?
If you want to write something – anything – then it’s for you. Maybe you’ve got half a novel in your drawer, or the opening scene of a short story in your head, or just a single line or a drawing on a napkin that wants to become something. Maybe you’ve got nothing except a suspicion that you might enjoy writing. If that’s you, this is for you.

What are we going to do?
Firstly, we’re going to have fun and talk a lot about books, writing, the universe and everything. Also, there will be cake and wine. As for the specifics, well, over four evenings we will explore, among a host of other fun goodies:
* How to turn a few anxious notes into a plan, and a plan into Chapter 1.
* Where characters come from, and where they go.
* “How to write dialogue”, he said, causing everyone to stare at him because of the very odd way he’d shoehorned dialogue into the list.
* The joyful exhilarating uplifting experience of coldly and ruthlessly rooting out all those fuzzy clumsy messy adverbs and adjectives (see what I did there?)
* How your book gets published and what happens next.

If you want it, I will also give you private feedback on a piece of your writing. (Constructive criticism, I promise.)

When and where?
22, 29 May, 5, 12 June
7pm – 9pm, Kalk Bay Books, 124 Main Road, Kalk Bay.

How much?
R2250 all inclusive.

How do I sign up?
Please mail me at chopperlion [at] gmail [dot] com and say something along the lines of “YES YES ME ME YES ME!!!”

I look forward to meeting you and having some writer-ish fun together.