blogings

Temba Bavuma: A Rock In A Hard Place

TembaEarlier this year I noticed a strange cricketing trend: over the last decade, the Test teams most likely to be shot out for under 100 were not underachievers like the West Indies or relative minnows Bangladesh. Instead, the most implosion-prone batting lineups on the planet were South African and Australian.

I examined this peculiar statistical blip in an article for The Cricket Monthly, and, unsurprisingly, found a few culprits: when a team crumbles for less than 100, a lot of things have gone badly wrong. But one of the most common factors I found was a weak link at No.6 in the batting order.

In this era of fluid batting orders and big-hitting all-rounders floating around between No.5 and the tail, it’s easy to forget that, for most of Test history, No.6 has been a specialist position. That’s because the player who walks out at four down needs an unusual combination of gifts: the shots and aggression to accelerate and drive home a winning position, but also the technique and restraint of an opening batsman as he sees off the second new ball. Or, in the case of a nightmare collapse, the first new ball…

During sub-100 implosions, I found, South African and Australian No.6’s weren’t even trying to play conservatively, instead throwing the bat at everything in their half. The results were dismal.

Of course, we’re not talking about huge numbers of Tests: the Proteas have collapsed for under 100 on only four occasions since readmission. But the accelerating frequency of those collapses – one in 2006, then 2011, then 2015 and 2016 – seemed to hint at a trend.

Since I wrote that piece, the Proteas haven’t crumbled to a sub-100 total again. And yet the last eighteen months have been fraught with top- and middle-order collapses. Stiaan van Zyl, Stephen Cook and JP Duminy have all been axed precisely because the Proteas have found themselves at 50 for 4 far too many times in recent series.

So why haven’t the Proteas slumped to the humiliation of a double-digit total since then?

The answer, I believe, stands 5-foot-and-change, has the heart of a heavyweight boxer, and, when needed, a bat as wide as a barn door.

a proper Test batsman

I’ve been a fan of Bavuma’s since his debut. As cricket is slowly eroded by a preference for can’t-be-arsed T20 tonkers with iffish technique and the attention spans of goldfish, Bavuma is a proper Test batsman: calm, organized, patient, and possessing some beautiful shots he keeps under strict control. In the field, he sparkles with the same magic that illuminated Jonty Rhodes, reminding us that this is all supposed to be fun while still giving the impression that a miracle catch or cobra-strike run-out are never far away.

The trouble with comparing him to Rhodes, however, is that you also have to acknowledge one unflattering similarity: like Rhodes, Bavuma doesn’t score enough runs.

This week, when he scored his 1,000th Test run, many of his admirers were quick to point out that he had reached the milestone in 35 innings, one fewer than it had taken the mighty Jacques Kallis to reach the same tally.

They meant well, and I know what they were trying to say, but Bavuma can do without those sorts of compliments. Kallis had perhaps the worst start to his international career of any South African batsman in Test history, and they’re really not doing Bavuma any favours by pointing out that he has almost exactly replicated the Kallis trainwreck. They’re also not easing the pressure on him by cooking up statistical comparisons: Kallis reached his 2,000th run in his 55th innings, so if Bavuma is going to keep pace with the illustrious run machine, he will need to score 52 runs in every one of his next 19 innings.

look at the recent past, not the future

I understand why Bavuma’s fans are reaching for Kallis’s legacy. Even his most loyal supporters have to admit that his record looks weak. An average of 31.75 after 36 innings is low, no matter how much future greatness you invoke.

But here’s the thing. If you want to find evidence for why Bavuma should be penciled into every Proteas Test XI, you don’t need to speculate on some vague, imaginary future. You can simply point to the recent past and one undeniable fact: when South Africa is under the hammer in a Test match, Bavuma is already a star.

This shouldn’t be news to anyone who’s watched any cricket over the last 18 months.

The Proteas are 32 for 4 in their first innings at Perth when Bavuma walks in. His 51 nurses them to 242. The Proteas stay in the game, then win it.

Ten days later, in Hobart, South Africa have shot out Australia for 85 but they’re also folding fast, losing 4 for 33 to find themselves on 76 for 4. Bavuma puts his back to the castle door, grips his axe with both hands, and survives for 204 balls. The Proteas win.

Wellington: the Black Caps have put up 268 in their first dig, not a great total but still, it seems, a winning one as the Proteas fold to 79 for 5. Bavuma does a Gandalf (“You! Shall Not! Pass!”) and makes a patient 89. The Proteas post 359, and go on to win the Test.

Even Monday’s grim loss at The Oval might have been grimmer without Bavuma.

At 47 for 4 in their first innings and with England making the ball do obscene things under grey skies, South Africa were in real danger of being shot out for under 100 and forced to follow on with three days still to play. But Bavuma’s unflustered rearguard stands with Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel took the Proteas to the relative calm of the next morning with its blue skies and easier conditions. Dean Elgar has been rightly praised for his heroic, bloody-minded hundred, but it was Bavuma who took the Oval Test into a fourth and fifth day.

why is he averaging just 31?

Clearly, Temba Bavuma is a man with the temperament and the technique for hard-fought, bare-knuckle Test cricket. So why is he averaging just 31?

I had a look at his stats and I was surprised by what I found.

In the last decade, in all Test matches, the fourth wicket has fallen, on average, with the score on 166. This fairly middling number would probably feel right to most fans: if your No.6 is taking guard at 160 for 4 in the first innings, you’d be hesitant to put a lot of money on the result either way. It’s fairly solid, but 160 for 4 could become 160 for 5…

Not surprisingly, the fourth wicket falls earlier for losing teams and much later for winning ones. In the last ten years, losing teams have found themselves, on average, at 112/4, while teams that have gone on to win have averaged 207/4.

So, using the figures above, let’s extrapolate a variety of match situations that your average No.6 might walk out into at the fall of the fourth wicket:

0/4 to 60/4: a complete disaster; heroic defence, hard work and plenty of luck required to avoid a major defeat.

70/4 to 130/4: deep trouble. Requires intense discipline; defeat still the most likely option.

140/4 to 180/4: solid; probably safe for now; can’t afford mistakes but potential to kick on and start dictating terms.

190/4 to 230/4: safe, en route to a winning total. Batsmen who apply themselves can make plenty.

240/4 and up: dominance, very little pressure on batsmen. Help yourself.

You’d expect Bavuma to have experienced all of these situations in more or less equal measure. But that was the first surprise.

rampant or wretched

Of his 34 innings in the middle order (he’s opened twice), just six have started with the Proteas in that “average” range. Which means that, in general, Bavuma walks to the crease with his team in one of two positions: rampant or wretched.

The second surprise was how Bavuma responds to those two match situations.

The history of Test cricket is pretty clear about what we can expect in both scenarios. It’s Batting 101. If you come in at 50/4, you’re facing fresh, fired-up bowlers, a hard ball and enormous pressure. Scoring runs is going to be difficult. Conversely, if you come in at 300/4, the bowlers are exhausted and demoralized, the ball is a hacky-sack, and there’s no pressure. It’s a buffet. Tuck in.

According to the fundamental physics of batting, Bavuma should be struggling when things are tough, and piling in when the going is good. Except he isn’t. Present him with a buffet, and he gets instant indigestion.

Bavuma has taken guard in a number of favourable match situations, ranging from 136/3 right up to a fantastically luxurious 439/4. His average in those innings? A paltry 23.66.

But even that figure is flattering, bolstered by just one innings: the unbeaten 102 he carved off an exhausted England at Newlands in 2016. Remove that outlier, and his average in cushy match situations plunges to an appalling 15.

So why do I remain a Bavuma fan? Simple. It’s because of what he does when things are falling apart and otherwise steady men are losing their heads.

Bavuma has taken guard 15 times with the Proteas either turning their canoe towards Shit Creek (70/4 to 130/4), or with them far up it, sans the proverbial paddle (69/4 and worse). In a couple of those he was batting at 7, moved down the order by night watchmen, but the situation was no prettier: his innings at No.7 have started at 136/5 and the ludicrously terribly 79/5.

His average in these trainwrecks?

44.61.

That’s a healthy Test average anywhere, in any game situation. But when the team is facing certain disaster? Pure gold.

Test cricket’s name is not idly chosen. The most elevated, difficult and complex form of the game is a test of technique, of psychological strength and of character. And when the questions being asked are at their toughest, Temba Bavuma stands tall and answers them with a straight bat.

I don’t know why Bavuma isn’t scoring when the table is laid and he is invited to gorge on runs. It’s possible that he believes that his role in the team is a fundamentally defensive one, and that when the top order has done its job he is somewhat surplus to requirements. Perhaps, when the stakes feels fractionally lower, he lets his focus slip, or isn’t sure how to pace an innings when he doesn’t have to fight for every run.

Whatever the reason, Bavuma is too good and focused a player not to find a solution. Every Test he plays, he understands his game a little better and comes closer to figuring out how to accept bowlers’ charity. And when he learns how to turn his cool, methodical mind and method towards domination as well as defence, he could yet be something very special indeed.

The Freedom Charter – Rebooted!

pen_write_text_manuscript_old_letter_retro_script_diary_parchment_historic

We, the Connected People of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know: screw you.

We know we once said that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, but that’s obviously a ridiculously naive position, so from here on South Africa belongs to anyone with enough non-sequential, unmarked dollars in a brown paper bag.

To help you understand your place, here are some important principles to remember:

The people shall govern. From Dubai.

All national groups shall have equal rights – unless their rights get in the way of our rights, in which case you’ll find that some rights are more important than others. This discovery is calling “marikana-ing”, derived from the verb “marikana”, “to remind the public about whose rights matter and whose don’t”.

The people shall share the country’s wealth. Mostly people who live in Dubai, or whose last name is Zuma. Mines and SABC soaps don’t come cheap, you know.

The land shall be shared among those who work it. And since our National Executive Committee has been giving this land a proper working-over for the last few years, we think it’s only fair that it be shared between us. (If you disagree, please see “marikana-ing”.)

All shall be equal before the law. Except for those who don’t ever have to come before the law because they know where the bodies are buried. Also this obviously excludes rich people. But if you’re poor or don’t know the dialing code for Saharanpur, India, the law will take its course, all over your face.

All shall enjoy equal human rights. Except, obviously, poor people. Because, honestly, screw them. Also, please see “marikana-ing”.

There shall be work and security. But mostly work in security. Signal jammers and email-readers are a major growth industry in our South Africa. Also, those iron gates at Nkandla and Saxonwold aren’t going to patrol themselves, you know.

The doors of learning and of culture shall be opened. By a government messenger, arriving at 3.15pm for his 11am meeting, to tell the Vice-Chancellors that they’re getting fokkol from  Treasury because we blew it all on Dudu over at SAA.

There shall be houses, security and comfort. Hell yes. So many houses. So much security. And so, so much comfort.

There shall be peace and friendship. Actually, on second thoughts, no, there probably won’t. Because those 25-year-old “military veterans” are itching to earn some combat medals, and elections are so goddamn unpredictable.

Adopted by an untouchable cabal, printed on buffalo-skin (thanks, Cyril) and signed in Veuve Clicquot.

Pitch and moan

how India sees SA

Right. Hashim Amla held on heroically but we’ve been thumped, to add to our hammering in the first Test and what was probably a stay of execution in the second. We’ve lost our first away series in nine years, and we’re pretty annoyed about it, because we didn’t lose to a cricket team. We lost to whichever suits ordered the pitches and the obedient groundsmen who prepared them.

India knew they couldn’t compete player for player so they went scorched earth, preparing these wickets in the hope that, in a low-scoring shoot-out, South Africa’s batsmen would be worse against unpredictable spin than theirs.

Of course, most people have seen through it. Michael from Australia was diplomatic…

Michael Clarke

…whereas Michael from England was less so…

Michael Vaughan

Such opinions have not gone down well with Indian fans, who have responded as maturely as they often do.

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Anyone accusing India of producing rubbish wickets has been called a crybaby and presented with the following argument:

Whenever we tour South Africa, you prepare green tops and your fast bowlers massacre us. So now it’s our turn. We’re going to prepare wickets that turn from the morning of day one because fair’s fair. And stop the ridiculous double standards. When we get bombed out by your quicks you say we can’t bat, but now that you’re getting rolled over it’s somehow the pitches’ fault? Grow a pair, South Africa.

You’ll see this view splattered across most of the internet, repeated by a surprising number of semi-respected pundits. Surprising, because it’s complete bullshit.

The facts simply don’t support it. The “South Africans are crybabies who can dish it out but can’t take it” argument boils down to the assumption that Indians can play spin but are uncomfortable against pace while South Africa can handle pace but aren’t happy against spin. Fair enough, and probably true on sporting wickets. But if the wickets were half decent, playing to India’s traditional strengths, wouldn’t we have seen India’s batsmen plaster South Africa’s modest spinners all over the park? Wouldn’t we have seen at least one of them make a hundred? Instead, all we’ve seen is India looking almost as nervous and unimpressive as South Africa. Virat Kohli, their star, has scraped 68 runs in 4 innings. In fact only two batsman – Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara – have managed to average in the 40s in the series so far. Almost 600 overs of Test cricket and just four half-centuries…

Indian fans and administrators can repeat all the affirming mantras they want but the figures don’t lie. Batsmen are getting massacred in this series, irrespective of their country or their ability to play Test cricket.

And that’s because the pitches ordered by the BCCI haven’t been cricket pitches. They’ve been long strips of clay held together by the nocturnal erotic emissions of spin bowlers.

Historically, the greatest spinners, bowling in their favorite conditions against their most helpless opponents, have usually taken a wicket every 7 or 8 overs. Shane Warne made his reputation humiliating Englishmen in England, but it was in Sri Lanka where he committed some proper atrocities, striking every 39 deliveries. Muttiah Muralitharan was also more or less unplayable in Sri Lanka, claiming a victim every 43 balls at his favourite hunting ground at Kandy.

In the current series, Imran Tahir has taken a wicket every 26 balls.

Imran Tahir.

The guy who can’t buy a wicket on South African pitches has taken his sticks at twice the rate Muralitharan managed on his favourite, tailor-made ground.

The rest? Just as silly. Ravichandran Ashwin has taken one of his 24 wickets every 25 balls. Ravindra Jadeja has taken one every 31 balls. Even Dean Elgar has taken 5 for 63 in 19 overs.

So. These figures trash any claims by Indian fans that these are sporting pitches and that South Africa just aren’t any good at playing spin.

But what of their claims that this is justifiable “revenge” for the seaming monsters their team has to face in South Africa?

To check this, I looked at every Test in which India has been shot out for under 200 in South Africa, and here’s what I found.

Durban, 1996.
The bloodbath that gave rise to India’s notion that South Africa produces unsporting green tops. India was evaporated for 100 in the first innings and 66 in the second. It was pure carnage. But was the pitch impossible to bat on? Andrew Hudson seemed to manage, with 80 in the first innings and 52 in the second. Adam Bacher got 55, Brian McMillan 51. Hell, Allan Donald made 26. South Africa’s two scores of 235 and 259 (and ten wickets in the match for Venkatesh Prasad) suggest that this surface offered considerable help to good seamers, but an unsporting spitting cobra? No.

Cape Town, 1997.
India were gunned down for 144 in their second innings, but it had nothing to do with a pitch that had produced showers of runs. After South Africa racked up 529 for 7 (with hundreds for Gary Kirsten, McMillan, and 102 off 100 balls from Lance Klusener), India replied with 359, including exhilarating tons from Sachin Tendulkar and Mohammad Azharuddin. The cause of India’s dismal second innings? Good seam bowling from South Africa and bad batting from India. Not the pitch.

Durban, 2006.
Again, India succumbed in their second innings, managing only 179. And again, it was a dismal performance on a pitch that had offered a great contest between bat and ball. Ashwell Prince had made 121 in South Africa’s first dig, backed up by fifties from Herschelle Gibbs and Mark Boucher, while the South Africans had declared on 265 for 8 in their second dig. The culprit? Bad batting by India. The pitch? Acquitted

Cape Town, 2007
Dale Steyn took 4 for 30 to smear India all over Newlands, dismissing the tourists for 169. A spiteful pitch? Nope. Just a great fast bowler working over batsmen making bad decisions.  India had looked imposing in their fist innings, Wasim Jaffer’s 116 helping them to 414. They still managed to lose the Test though, and they had nothing to blame except themselves. Pitch? Acquitted.

Centurion, 2010.
Centurion, people. Cen-fucking-turion. The most batsman-friendly wicket in South Africa. And still, India managed to get put through the wood-chipper, dismissed for 136 in their first innings thanks to a Morne Morkel five-for. South Africa then proceeded to do the wild monkey dance all over the visitors, racking up (the following my disturb sensitive viewers) 620 for 4. Kallis made 201*, Amla 140, and AB de Villiers pulped 129 off 112. A real snake-pit, right? Just to prove there were no demons in this famously friendly pitch, Tendulkar and Dhoni then helped India to 459 in their second innings – a huge score and still an innings defeat. The pitch? Gloriously acquitted.

And that, boys and girls, is every instance in which poor, persecuted India were cruelly ambushed on South Africa’s unsportingly green pitches.

In short, Indian fans can go suck it. There is no tit-for-tat pitch war happening. There’s just South Africa, preparing pitches that reward seam bowling and disciplined strokeplay, and there’s India, preparing a steaming pile of horse manure.

*Drops mic. Onto an Indian Test pitch. Mic goes through surface, deviates by 30 degrees, spits up in a puff of dust, takes the shoulder of the bat.*

It’s the President on Line 1

JZ 2A picture can paint a thousand words, but sometimes it also paints just one.

Like “fokkoff”.

On 28 September the UN held a luncheon during its 70th session (“luncheon” is rich person for “lunch”), and just after the first course of wild platitude poached in a jus of lightly broken promises, and just before the second course of braised rhetoric on a bed of indecision, heads of state got to wander around the room and press the flesh.

You’ve almost certainly seen what happened next: the picture up top got saturation coverage in the local media.

Zuma’s critics marveled at what looked like an astonishing diplomatic faux pas. Who could be so important that he couldn’t hang up? The Guptas? The contractor installing Madonsela-proof windows at Nkandla? The ANC Women’s League, asking his manly guidance about the best route for their next march in defense of his dignity?

His supporters cried foul. This was typical counterrevolutionary neoconservative neoliberal propaganda, they cried: publishing one picture out of context and creating an anti-Zuma narrative around it.

Of course, the person who has done most in creating an anti-Zuma narrative is Zuma, but that detail escaped them. In theory, however, they had a point. We didn’t know the context. That’s because our media only published that one picture. But root around a little more, and some other pictures from that moment surface; and taken together, they look, well, comical.

The first shows a businesslike Barack Obama saying howdy. (I’ve taken the liberty of adding some dialogue, just to keep things lively.)

JZ 1

Barack Obama: Hi Jacob. Good to see ya.

Jacob: No, just land at Waterkloof again, it’s fine.

BO: What’s that? You like the watercress?

JZ: Just wait.

BO: Say what now?

JZ: Not you, Mr President, I’m talking to someone else.

BO: I can see that.

JZ: Heh heh.

[Awkward beat.]

BO: And you’re going to keep talking to them?

JZ: Heh heh.

It’s now got embarrassing for Obama so he makes a joke. Ha ha, I guess Mr Zuma is too busy to talk to me. I guess I’ll try again later. Ha ha.

JZ 2

And yet he won’t let go JZ’s hand, and JZ is starting to feel the horns of a dilemma pricking his presidential posterior. You can see it on his face. He’s pathetically grateful to have got a hello from POTUS. He knows that every single diplomat in the room would have hung up the phone the moment they saw Obama approach. He knows he should slam that Blackberry down and give Obama a big-two handed handshake and make a joke about mothers-in-law always calling at the wrong time.

But he can’t.

Because whoever is on the phone is much more important to him than the President of the United States.

I know what the Zuma rent-a-crowd yells at this point:

YES BUT IF THE COUNTERREVOLUTIONARIES HAD TAKEN ANOTHER PICTURE TWO SECONDS LATER THEY WOULD HAVE SHOWN ZUMA HANGING UP AND HAVING A PROPER CHAT!!! HE HAS HIS FAULTS BUT HE WOULD NEVER BE SO ARROGANT AND UNSOPHISTICATED AS TO CONTINUE ON THIS CALL!!!!

So does Zuma hang up?

No.

JZ 3

He keeps that fucking phone glued to his ear as Obama moves past him to greet a Silver Fox who is eagerly anticipating his arrival.

BO: Hey pal, you’re not on the phone, are ya?

Silver Fox: Not at all, Mr President. Besides, I can’t use my phone. Repetitive strain injury.

BO: Really?

SF: Totes. Messed up my thumb. This one.

BO: Goddamn, that looks painful. So painful I’m just gonna stand here for a moment massaging my right thumb with my left.

SF: Massage really helps.

BO: Don’t look now but is Zuma still on his fucking call?

SF: He sure is, Mr President.

BO: Ugh.

Obama is just about to move on when another dignitary, Balding Man In The Foreground, rises to shake his hand.

The tension is broken. A perfect opportunity for JZ to whisper into the phone, “Listen, I’ll call you back. Just use Waterkloof. If anyone leaks it to the press I’ll just make them ambassador to Colombia. Bye.”

So does he?

Generated by IJG JPEG LibraryGenerated by IJG JPEG Library

No.

He does the “Hey, do you guys mind? I’m on a really important call” face.

The “I’m going to tolerate your jolly hand-shaking for five more seconds but then I’m going back to the phone” pose.

Moments later, the dogs bark and the POTUS caravan moves on.

At last, JZ can get back to his call in peace and quiet.

JZ 4

I admit I don’t know when this last picture was taken. It’s possible it was snapped before Obama arrived. It’s possible some agency photographer thought they’d get a file shot of Zuma for general background bumph about the luncheon. But I’d bet good money it was taken after Obama left; when photojournalists around the room had seen the exchange and whispered, “Holy shit, get a load of this guy! He’s still on the phone!”, and they kept snapping until Zuma made that gesture – “I bet he feels this big right now”, “His country is this big but he still can’t hang up the phone?”

If it was taken after Obama left, then we have photographic evidence that JZ has no shame.

But then I think we’ve kind of known that for a while, not so?

A watchlist

ZumaOn the weekend the Sunday Independent ran a story “in the spirit of transparency and proper record-keeping” that featured a long list of names.

Each name belonged to a Member of Parliament. They had two things in common: they were members of the ANC, and they had voted Yes to adopt the report that absolved Jacob Zuma of having to “pay back the money”.

Click here to see the article, written by . It’s worth reading, not least because it highlights some notable names. Perhaps it’s even worth printing out, if you’re also into proper record-keeping.

For me, though, the list had an interesting side-effect.

As I skimmed down it, glancing at each name followed by “(ANC)”, a tired little voice in my head said, Well duh, obviously they voted Yes. Why the fuss? What were you expecting?

For a moment I almost listened to that voice. I almost let it numb me, as it numbs me dozens of times a week as I read about the latest degraded political kerfuffle. But then I realized that I was about to make a mistake. I was about to brush this story aside as the machinations of a political party – an impersonal, opaque, amoral blob – without looking squarely at the human truth behind the list.

I was ready to see the list as a catalogue of MPs, instead of what it really is: a list of names belonging to adult South Africans with free will, employed by us to lead us. Instead of doing the right thing, every single one of those MPs who voted Yes made a conscious choice, as an adult of sound mind, to endorse one of our most potent symbols of sleaze and unaccountable governance.

Some of the comments on the article see the list as a sort of “name and shame” thing. Of course it’s not that, because none of the people on this list feel real shame. If they did – if they were still in touch with themselves as ethical individuals – they would have voted No or been overwhelmed with regrets and resigned.

The article’s conclusion hinted that the list might become a kind of time capsule, beamed into our future: history, it said would decide on the virtue of those named. I have less epic aspirations by repeating the list here. I am also not presenting this as a call to action, an attempt to whip people up against this lot. I’m not speaking for anyone except myself. I suppose I’m just writing these names here as a kind of watchlist, for my personal use: a list of people I will never trust with anything, ever again.

I know that sounds extreme, but is it any more extreme than what they did by voting en masse? No, I think fairness and moderate criticism went out the window when they lined up obediently to kiss the ring of power, choosing their careers over the health of our country. If they had fought among themselves over the report, splitting into two or even three camps –Yes, No, and It Depends – I might have told myself to stay balanced. If they had unleashed on each other some of that flame-thrower rhetoric they like to use on judges and transparency activists, I might have thought, See, there are still some true democrats in there fighting the good fight.

But to present a front as united as this; not even to pretend to be interested in responsible government…I feel that I have been absolved of any responsibility to try to be fair-minded or to consider them on a case-by-case basis. Freed of that responsibility by their mass stampede towards spinelessness, I am at liberty to write them all off as invertebrate scoundrels. All of them.

Every time any of them makes a pronouncement on the state of things, I will disregard it as a self-serving half-truth or an outright lie. Every time one of them outlines a planned project, I will suspect that it is a get-rich-quick scheme for close friends, corporate funders or political allies. Every time of them attacks his or her critics, I will be inclined to give the critics the automatic benefit of the doubt.

So here’s my watchlist, without the party initials after each name. You don’t get to erase your personal culpability by hiding behind party unity. If you’re an adult in a democratic society, you are making choices for you, not your boss. And if you voted Yes to Nkandla, then you engraved your name on a monument to greed, weakness and cowardice.

You are:

Beverley Lynnette Abrahams

Freddie Adams

Patricia Emily Adams

Vatiswa Bam-Mugwanya

Kopeng Obed Bapela

Joyce Vuyiswa Basson

Simphiwe Donatus Bekwa

Francois Beukman

Phumzile Bhengu

Nozabelo Ruth Bhengu

Nkhensani Kate Bilankulu

Bongani Thomas Bongo

Mnyamezeli Shedrack Booi

Mmatlala Grace Boroto

Lynette Brown

Rosemary Nokuzola Capa

Ndumiso Capa

Yunus Ismail Carrim

Mosie Antony Cele

Lydia Sindisiwe Chikunga

Thapelo Dorothy Chiloane

Fatima Ismail Chohan

Mamonare Patricia Chueu

Jeremy Patrick Cronin

Robert Haydn Davies

Angela Thokozile Didiza

Dorries Eunice Dlakude

Bathabile Olive Dlamini

Zephroma Dlamini-Dubazana

Bongekile Jabulile Dlomo

Beauty Nomvuzo Dlulane

Mary-Ann Lindelwa Dunjwa

Cedric Thomas Frolick

Joanmariae Louise Fubbs

Dennis Dumisani Gamede

Ndabakayise Gcwabaza

Knowledge Malusi Gigaba

Nomalungelo Gina

Donald Mlindwa Gumede

Derek Andre Hanekom

Sango Patekile Holomisa

John Harold Jeffery

Mlungisi Johnson

Mziwamadoda Kalako

Hellen Boikhutso Kekana

Ezekiel Kekana

Charles Danny Kekana

Tandiwe Elizabeth Kenye

Lefu Peter Khoarai

Dalton Hlamalani Khosa

Timothy Zanoxolo Khoza

Makhosi Busisiwe Khoza

Nthabiseng Pauline Khunou

Juliana Danielle Kilian

Gerhardus Willem Koornhof

Mmamoloko Tryphosa Kubayi

Luwellyn Tyrone Landers

Regina Mina Lesoma

Dipuo Bertha Letsatsi-Duba

Fezeka Sister Loliwe

Zukile Luyenge

Sahlulele Luzipo

Xitlhangoma Mabasa

Puleng Peter Mabe

Bertha Peace Mabe

Livhuhani Mabija

Solomon Patrick Mabilo

Andrew Frans Madella

Celiwe Qhamkile Madlopha

Patrick Maesela

Mapule Veronica Mafolo

Nosilivere Winifred Magadla |

Dikeledi Phillistus Magadzi

Gratitude Magwanishe

Tandi Mahambehlala

Amos Fish Mahlalela

Jabulani Lukas Mahlangu

Dikeledi Gladys Mahlangu

Mbangiseni David Mahlobo

Moloko Stanford Maila

Fikile Zacharia Majola

Lusizo Makhubela-Mashele

Zondi Silence Makhubele

Thomas Makondo

Sampson Phathakge Makwetla

Hope Helene Malgas ,

Johanna Mmule Maluleke

B J Maluleke

Duduzile Promise Manana

Millicent Manana

Zwelivelile Mandela

Emmanuel Maphatsoe

Mohlopi Phillemon Mapulane

Moses Siphosezwe Masango

Elizabeth Masehela

Lindiwe Michelle Maseko

Kwati Mashego-Dlamini

Buoang Lemias Mashile

Nkosiyakhe Amos Masondo

Madala Backson Masuku

Tshililo Michael Masutha

Mkhacani Joseph Maswanganyi

Cassel Charlie Mathale

Dudu Hellen Mathebe

Motswaledi Hezekiel Matlala

Mandisa Octovia Matshoba

Cathrine Matsimbi

Risimati Thompson Mavunda

Comely Maxegwana

Fikile April Mbalula

Sibongile Mchunu

Mzameni Richard Mdakane

Thandi Cecilia Memela

Lindiwe Ntombikayise Mjobo

Bongani Michael Mkongi

Humphrey Mmemezi

Martha Phindile Mmola

Samuel Gaaesi Mmusi

Lungi Mnganga-Gcabashe

Pumzile Justice Mnguni

Derick Mnguni

Velhelmina Pulani Mogotsi

Nthibane Rebecca Mokoto

Maapi Angelina Molebatsi

Bomo Edna Edith Molewa

Masefele Rosalia Morutoa

Itumeleng Mosala

Madipoane Refiloe Mothapo

Malusi Stanley Motimele

Pakishe Aaron Motsoaledi

Jackson Mphikwa Mthembu

Nokukhanya Mthembu

Emmanuel Mthethwa

Abram Molefe Mudau

Azwihangwisi Faith Muthambi

Mamagase Elleck Nchabeleng

Claudia Nonhlanhla Ndaba

Nokuzola Ndongeni

Andries Carl Nel

Nhlanhla Musa Nene

Bonisile Alfred Nesi

Beatrice Thembekile Ngcobo

Phumuzile Ngwenya-Mabila

Mogotle Friddah Nkadimeng

Girly Namhla Nobanda

Nomathemba November

Madala Louis David Ntombela

Thembelani Waltermade Nxesi

Raesibe Eunice Nyalungu

Archibold Jomo Nyambi

Bonginkosi Nzimande

Mildred Nelisiwe Oliphant

Gaolatlhe Godfrey Oliphant

Grace Naledi Mandisa Pandor

Ebrahim Patel

Elizabeth Dipuo Peters

Mathume Joseph Phaahla

Yvonne Nkwenkwezi Phosa

Imamile Aubin Pikinini

Makgathatso Pilane-Majake

Bhekizizwe Abram Radebe

Jeffrey Thamsanqa Radebe

Goodwill Sbusiso Radebe

Strike Michael Ralegoma

Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa

Leonard Ramatlakane

Tete Ramalie Ramokhoase

Daphne Zukiswa Rantho

Deborah Dineo Raphuti

Maureen Angela Scheepers

Machwene Rosina Semenya

Cornelia Carol September

Susan Shabangu

Sheila Shope-Sithole

Mtikeni Patrick Sibande

Lindiwe Nonceba Sisulu

Elvis Kholwana Siwela

Phumelele Stone Sizani

James Jim Skosana

Mcebisi Skwatsha

Vincent George Smith

Makhotso Magdeline Sotyu

Mohamed Enver Surty

Barbara Thomson

Sello Albert Tleane

Thandi Vivian Tobias

Xoliswa SandraTom

Tshoganetso Tongwane

Grace Kekulu Tseke

Rembuluwani Moses Tseli

Sibongile Pearm Tsoleli

Dikeledi Rebecca Tsotetsi

A Tuck

Nicolaas Koornhof

Sharome Renay Van Schalkwyk

Adrian John Williams

Sheilla Tembalam Xego-Sovita

Lumka Elizabeth Yengeni

Senzeni Zokwana

Miss Congeniality: South African fiction

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Authors’ incomes collapse to ‘abject’ levels.

That’s what the headline on The Guardian said, and I was frantic to know more. Which authors? Was it me? Were my annual royalty cheques of R250 about to plunge to R50? Less?

Usually I read like a millenial, which is to say I base my world view on the first three words of headlines from Buzzfeed articles on Twitter. But this time I read on.

Many professional authors in the United Kingdom, I discovered, were seeing their royalties plunge. Some who had earned their living from writing books were facing the prospect of – dear reader, are you sitting down? – not being able to write fiction as a full-time occupation.

Star-Trek
Mal Peet, a celebrated writer of novels for children, told The Guardian that his direct income from sales had become “literally abject”. His royalty cheque for the last months of 2013, which included all his books in print, was £3 000.

That might sound like quite a lot to a South African writer, but of course Peet doesn’t live in South Africa, and for a UK resident, twice-yearly cheques of £3 000 are basically enough for a bus ticket down to Lidl and a packet of Jaffa cakes.

Still, for South African writers the alarmed cries of authors in the UK might have a slightly comical ring to them. I mean, 6 000 abject pounds a year can’t keep a Briton in Marmite but that’s still about R115 000 a year, and for most South African fiction writers that’s the stuff of pure fantasy.

In case you don’t already know, here are the financial realities of writing a novel in South Africa.

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Once a publisher agrees to make you a megastar, and you stop screaming, and then stop vomiting from performance anxiety, you are likely to be offered a royalty of about 12%.

As you sign the contract with a fountain pen filled with champagne, this figure sounds like

giphy

But then your publisher explains that it’s not 12% of the cover price of the book. It’s 12% of what the publisher gets, which is the price of the book minus VAT minus bookshops’ 40%-ish cut.

So if your novel costs R150 you’re looking at getting about R10 per copy.

No problem, right? You only have to sell 100 000 copies to make a million bucks, and your mom has already bought six, so that’s only another 99 994 to go. And so you scamper down to Exclusives Books and find your novel, lovingly shelved under Non-Fiction or Mind/Body/Spirit or Wildlife, and you notice that they’ve sold two copies since the last time you were there. Which is actually pretty good seeing as the last he last time you were there was three hours ago, compulsively counting the number of copies of your book on the shelf.

Soon you’re riding the wave. A good review in a local newspaper causes a spike in sales, with literally dozens of copies flying off the shelves around the country. Your publisher organizes a radio interview on a very popular book show, and the beloved DJ provides some articulate insights into the blurb, which is all she’s read. (True story.) Over the course of the following week, up to nine people tell you that they heard the interview. Have they bought the book? Oh, they gush, they will. They almost definitely will.

But as weeks become months, and you start seeing your book in second-hand shops, marked down from R100 to R70 to R40 to Shem to Bwahahahaha, you realize that your publisher’s initial print run of 2,000 copies wasn’t a defeatist lowball estimate to knock your self-confidence. You’ve sold a thousand and change. And that’s that.

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The bottom line is that the vast majority of South African novels written in English sell between 700 and 1,500 copies. Their quality doesn’t really seem to be a factor. Some novels that are basically typed poo sell quite respectably. I know one literary prize-winning novel that didn’t crack 900.

So.

Your novel sells 1 000 copies. You get R10 per copy. Over the entire lifetime of your book (a year or three) you’ll make R10 000. Before tax. That’s about £600. Hence my suspicion that there are a lot of local writers who’d be very happy with Mr Peet’s version of abjection.

Reading your latest royalty statement

But why are our numbers so tiny? What does Mr Peet got that we ain’t got?

The obvious answer is probably that he works in a country that reads.

You know the scene in the Western where a nervous guy in wire-rimmed spectacles walks into the saloon and the Madam of the brothel upstairs says, “Say, where you from, stranger?” and he reveals that he’s a writer from back east? Remember how there’s always that moment when the gunslingers at the bar slowly turn on their stools, chawin’ their spittin’ tobacco, weigh him up – and then decide he’s not worth another thought?

That bar is where we’re at, and that guy is a writer in South Africa.

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I’ve always felt that this country is a small frontier town at the end of a desert railway. In a column I described it as “a place haphazardly knocked together by prospectors and preachers, cattle-ranchers and con-men; peculiarly tolerant of difference in the way that misfits are, but at the same time always up for public hanging or a bar brawl. A place ruled by a long line of venal mayors in the pocket of local mining- and railroad barons, where justice is arbitrary and violence is imminent. It’s proud of itself in a small kind of way, which is why it will stay like this until the railroad is rerouted and it starves to death.”

We are tolerant of some differences, and artists, writers and philosophers are definitely different. So we tolerate them…as long as they don’t upset the ladyfolk with newfangled, unchristian ideas or cause a ruckus by using hifalutin words.

(By the way, this isn’t a condemnation of the frontier town. It is what it is. The gunfighter and the madam aren’t out of place; the bespectacled journalist is. If he finds it depressingly resistant to his charms, he’s free to head back East – or look for readers elsewhere.)

So our society, whatever that means, is generally resistant to reading. But here’s the irony. Knowing that they are growing up in a small mining town that prefers brawls to books, many young writers insist on writing books that no-one wants to read.

I know why they do it, because I was one of them. About 15 years ago I wrote the first few chapters of a novel set in a future Cape Town in which corporations had taken over every aspect of life. (Please, hold your applause for the originality of this premise for later.) Everything was branded, people drank the Kool-Aid, blah blah blah.

Long story short, I deleted the manuscript.

Maybe it was because I wrote it while I was studying at UCT, where huge literary figures lurked in upstairs offices. Maybe it was just something that floated in the stale air of those dim corridors. Whatever the reason, I nuked my book because I didn’t think it was heavy enough.

Of course, it was heavy; a laborious and obvious dystopian mess about capitalism, the kind of thing that a 20-something middle-class man thinks no-one else has ever thought of. But the problem, I felt, was that it wasn’t South African Weighty. It didn’t feature an estranged couple sharing long silences, or a farm in the Karoo where a depressed urbanite discovers the power of landscape shortly before succumbing to cancer.

At the time I thought I was deleting it because it was fluff that nobody would take seriously. In retrospect I realize I destroyed it because I feared it might be too entertaining to the sort of person who buys books for fun.

Don't shoot yourself in the foot

“Do you wish to permanently delete this document? Hellz yes!”

But even if more South African writers wrote novels that South Africans theoretically wanted to read (and I’m not sure what those are), would we read them?

A few years ago I was writing a pilot episode of an English-language comedy for M-Net. At some point in the process we were told by someone fairly high up that, even if the show got made and aired, it would probably be the last English-language sitcom M-Net would make.

Their logic was sound. M-Net’s audience was predominantly Afrikaans-speaking and those who spoke English preferred American and British comedies. (The show didn’t get made in the end, probably to the relief of the bean counters. Making a TV show from scratch costs far more than buying one, even an American hit series, so for M-Net it was a no-brainer: why risk a huge amount of money making a local comedy that might bomb when you have absolute proof your audience prefers foreign stuff that costs much less?)

In the years since then I’ve recognized the same “DSTV effect” in many English-speaking readers in South Africa. With access to English fiction from the entire planet, local novels join the back of a fantastically long and gloriously rewarding queue, with the result that many local readers are a bit like those M-Net execs. Why, they ask, would you risk spending precious time and money on expensive local fiction when you can go straight to sure-fire hits from abroad?

Some writers and academics might answer that one good reason to read local fiction is to gain new perspectives on our country. It’s a fair response, but it assumes that people read for enlightenment rather than entertainment. For most, reading novels is an escape, a glimpse of a wider world, a breath of different air. Gaining insights into the often tragic realities of our country might be very important but who in their right mind would do it for fun?

There are various reasons why we avoid local fiction written in English. Perhaps our high school setworks have coagulated in our memories, convincing us that we spent out childhoods crushed by a single, monstrous tome of despair called Cry, For The Beloved Country Is Waiting For The Barbarians In A Dry White Season. Perhaps we’ve been unlucky since then, and read a few genuinely awful local novels. (I know one of those unlucky souls, a lawyer from White River, who wrote to my publisher to tell them that buying The De Villiers Code was “the worst mistake” he had ever made.)

Whatever the reasons, though, the unavoidable fact remains that local English fiction is languishing in a ghetto of unflattering perceptions.

I recently asked my Facebook friends to describe their gut response to South African writing. A few loved it, a few hated it. But the majority, a large demographic bulge in the middle, had one of two responses: it’s very hit and miss; and it “seems to be improving”.

I think it’s fairly safe to assume that most of my Facebook friends befriended me because they read my columns or have encountered my books. I think it’s probably also fair to assume that they are readers, perhaps even book readers and buyers. And for most of them, it turns out, local fiction is basically Miss Congeniality.

misscongeniality

Even its fans are shooting it in the head without realizing it. Every week I encounter somebody urging us to “support South African fiction”. Please, for the love of all things holy, can we please stop using that godawful s-word anywhere near local books? “Support” is an adult diaper. It’s a machine that helps you breathe when you are unconscious. It’s a charitable donation to fight a degrading, incurable malady. It’s a word so steeped in fatalistic despair that everything it touches instantly becomes a lost cause and therefore awkward and best and repellent at worst. Buy local fiction. Steal it. At very least borrow it from a library. But don’t you fucking dare support it.

If you are going to buy it, try not to be entirely put off by the bookshop. Because most of them seem to have been designed by professional book-burners.

Behold the layout in a nearby branch of Exclusive Books…

Once you’ve made your way past 50 Shades of Poo, detoured around Banting cookbooks by Tim Noakes, Tom Nokes, Nim Tokes, Noms Tik and 14 other writers cashing in on the success of the original, and finally reach the back wall, you see this…

EB1

NATURE. This is apparently where a dog called Judy lives, and where cats and dachshunds romp. We’re not off to a great start, but let’s press on…

EB2

AFRICAN PICTORIAL. More pictures, fewer words. So that’s two shelves for animals.

We’ve now gone from books about animals with lots of words to books about animals with very few words and no story.

So what’s the next logical step in this progression? Maybe books with no words and no story, featuring single-cell animals floating around in a primordial soup of illiteracy?

 You got it!

EB3

AFRICAN FICTION! Or, as it’s also known, WHERE LOCAL NOVELS GO TO DIE. In this case, Lauren Beukes’s Moxyland has swum over from the BOOKS THAT SELL shelf to cheer up everyone else, like Molly Brown on the Titanic.

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“Don’t give up hope, darlings! Oh look, I think I see a book-buyer over on the western horizon!”

Moving on.

One shelf to the right we encounter –

EB4

It’s not fiction. It’s not non-fiction. It’s just AFRIKAANS. Like the Borg. Resistance is futile. Weerstand is vir poepholle. Moenie – oh wait, hang on…That’s not Afrikaans, it’s…Why, it’s more local English fiction! Including all 1 083 Wilbur Smith novels, from Aardvark Armageddon to Zebra Zero Hour.

To be fair, though, I don’t blame Exclusive Books for filling the Afrikaans shelf with local English fiction. The problem is that Afrikaans novels sell faster than EB staff can pack them on the shelf. Deon Meyer’s thrillers never even get off the delivery truck. They just evaporate in a puff of money.

OK, next shelf:

EB5

NEW FICTION is self-explanatory. This is for new fiction. Which means it’s not for South African writers, even if they’ve written new fiction. They need to go in African Fiction or Afrikaans. New fiction is for actual writers.

And finally

EB6

This is where international novels go once they’re no longer new. Local novels that came out last year? Geez, pal. What part of FUCK OFF BACK TO AFRICAN FICTION are you not understanding?

So there it is.

I know there are some great bookshops in the country that find interesting and intelligent ways to sell books, but the inescapable fact is this: the largest specialist bookseller in the country, the shop most likely to sell your novel, believes that it belongs next to Poodles Of The Serengeti, and that African fiction can by definition never be new or read to be enjoyed like the international bestsellers.

(Aside: one notable Exclusive exception is the Waterfront branch, which puts local fiction right at the front of the shop, stands it up on little stands, launches tiny fireworks over it, employs small chorus-lines of dassies to dance around it, and hangs on the ankles of tourists as they march towards the stack of ‘Grey’, begging them to reconsider.)

*

According to the Guardian, British publishers released 20 new titles every hour in 2014. I suspect that’s verging on insanity. I struggle to believe that there were readers for every one of those titles or that they all deserved publication. But the sheer weight of books pouring onto British streets is proof that they have an extraordinary reading culture.

I mean, for god’s sake, they’ve got entire towns named after it.

17-Welcome-to-Reading

To a South African, the numbers are astonishing. 50 Shades sold 5 million copies in the UK. That means one person in every 13 bought a copy, which is the equivalent of a novel selling 4 million copies in South Africa. The last crazy runaway bestseller we had was the Spud series by John van der Ruit, and I think those had total sales of just over 500,000.

So why do the Poms buy and read books in such vast volumes and we don’t?

One explanation might be that the UK is a rich country while ours is poor. This answer also offers hope to sad South African writers with is implied promise that once our middle class grows, book sales will grow along with it.

Except I don’t think it’s true.

In my experience, money is no guarantee of a reading culture. The more luxurious the home, the fewer books it usually contains. The most expensive house I’ve ever visited, a sprawling mansion covering most of a Constantia hillside, contained a single shelf supporting a single line of leather-bound fake books. Empty shells simulating literacy. Erudition as interior design.

Yes, OK, me wandering through a few kitsch houses isn’t proof of an economic truth, but I don’t think this is just a hunch based on my loathing of the Top Billing “lifestyle”.

A friend of mine lectures at a very wealthy university. Recently, as we commiserated over coffee, he described his despair of the illiteracy of his undergraduates. These youngsters, most of whom are wealthy products of extremely expensive private high school, just didn’t read. Ever.

This was no idle eye-rolling. My friend is not afflicted with schadenfreude or misanthropy. He has a fundamentally kind view of humanity. He wants people to thrive. But, he sighed, it’s not just that his students don’t read: it’s that they don’t want to read. He and his colleagues had discussed the crisis and were starting to resign themselves to the fact that a large proportion of South Africa’s privileged students is actively anti-intellectual.

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“Dad’s got a wine farm so ja, I’ll probably just pay someone to read shit for me.”

So no. I’m not convinced that economic development automatically implies a reading culture.

Money doesn’t make readers. Books make readers. And most importantly, free books make readers.

I would guess that most avid readers developed their relationship with books that were free. They grew up in a house with lots of books or they had access to a good library. Very few would have been bought books regularly. I remember looking at the odd prices on my parents’ books, amounts in shillings and pence on Faber paperbacks from the 1960s. Even though I was looking at price tags it never really crossed my mind that all of these books had once been new, in a shop, and that someone had paid for them. After all, why would you buy a new book when there were more old ones than anyone could read in their lifetime?

My guess is that a reading culture requires access to books that are more or less free.

Which brings me to my final point. Which, I think is THE point of the whole sad story.

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Let’s consider two as-yet-unwritten crime novels.

Let’s call the first one Knife and Phorque. (Dianna Phorque, a brilliant pathologist, faces her ultimate test from a cannibalistic serial killer who uses only antique fish knives when eating his victims). It sells for £6 at Waterstones in London.

The other novel, Death On The Rocks, sees washed-up detective Staal ‘Yster’ Irons try to patch up his relationship with his estranged daughter and confront his drinking habit as he investigates a series of murders on the West Coast. This one sells for R180 at Exclusive Books in Johannesburg. [Yes, publishers, I’m open to writing both of those. I accept Pounds Sterling, American dollars, or prego steak rolls from Chippies in Rondebosch.]

They’re basically the same product: a weekend’s worth of short chapters, shock-horror reveals, and choppy, macho dialogue zinging between choppy, macho caricatures.

At first glance, the prices seem a little out of whack. £6 is about R115 at the moment, so paying R180 for On The Rocks seems a tad excessive. But, you tell yourself, that’s to be expected because books are expensive in South Africa because of importing and exchange rates and the overseas and stuff.

But I think we’re missing a trick here. I think we’re spending too much time talking about how expensive books are and not enough time talking about how expensive they feel.

Ideally, a trashy weekend read should be a temporary, disposable pleasure. It’s a small indulgence, on a par with a glass of good wine in a restaurant – the kind of thing you can buy yourself with the banknote you’re delighted to find in your back pocket.

And when you look at how affordable books feel, you realize that we live in a parallel universe to the book-buyers of London, New York and Berlin.

Averages and means can be horribly misleading, but bear with me for a moment.

Let’s assume that the average income in the UK is (very roughly) about £2 000 per month.

That means that when a British person wanders into Waterstones and sees Knife and Phorque she’ll turn it over and see that it costs £6, or 0.3% of her monthly income.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, the average monthly income is officially somewhere around R15,000. So when a South African goes into EB and sees On The Rocks selling for R180, she’s being asked to cough up 1.2% of her monthly income.

The percentages look small, but they translate into vastly different perceptions of affordability, and therefore vastly different book-buying experiences.

How much would local novels have to cost for us to share the novel-as-cheap-entertainment, banknote-in-the-back-pocket experience? If the UK’s reading culture is any indication, I suspect we couldn’t go much over 0.3% of our monthly income. Which means being able to go into Exclusive Books, picking up a new South African novel, turning it over and seeing a price tag of R45.

cost of book

I know you can’t really compare average incomes in a developing country and a wealthy one. I know that the priorities of someone earning R15 000 are radically different to those of someone earning £2 000. But local book prices stay crazy even when you include the experience of richer South Africans.

For someone earning, say, R30 000, a new novel is obviously going to feel more affordable than it does to someone earning R15 000. But will it feel Waterstones affordable? Affordable enough to encourage a culture of casual, regular book-buying? Not even close. Do the same sum – 0.3% of R30 000 – and you get R90.

In short, even for South Africa’s (relatively) wealthy readers, that R180 novel is still 100% too expensive. And for the majority of salary earners, it’s probably closer to 400% too expensive.

Buying a novel in South Africa country isn’t a disposable pleasure. It’s a financial decision. And, unless you know that novel is going to rock your world, it’s a pretty goddamned terrible financial decision.

In the ongoing debate about getting South Africans reading, some keep calling for VAT on books to be scrapped. Given the figures above, I can’t help feeling that this an almost futile demand. It’s a bit like French peasants in 1788 demanding that they be allowed to visit Versailles for three minutes a day instead of never. In our fundamentally a-literate society, scrapping VAT on books won’t even make a dent. Until books can be produced in a way that allows them to be sold for something close to R50, absolutely nothing will change.

Having said all that, I don’t want to end on a downer. There is a lot to be optimistic about. Just none of it involves reading or writing in South Africa. But corgis are amazing. And right now there are thousands of corgi puppies being born around the world. So on that note, here’s a GIF of a baby corgi stampede.

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The end.

Infinite Grey

grey-front-w352Serial book-doer E.L. James has done it again. Grey has hit the shelves with a squelchy thud, and this time the world of not-BDSM, where non-people do not-plot things to and with each other, is told from Christian Grey’s perspective.

Cleverly, the book is called Grey, because it’s about Christian Grey but it’s also from his viewpoint, and Grey is his surname, so, because the book is about him, the title matches his name, which is what he calls himself.

But the real genius of this shift in the narrator’s focus is that it opens up the possibility of an almost infinite number of sequels. And so, to celebrate this milestone in publishing, and to honour the least interesting character in literary history, it is my pleasure to offer you a taste of what is to come…

Grey from the perspective of Grey’s left slipper

I cannot deny it any longer. He touches my sole. Strong fingers close around me. Oh god. He’s going to get me off.
Sometimes he tugs me off. Sometimes he’s more gentle, getting me off with a slow, firm sweep of his hand.
If I had opposable thumbs I would torment the socks in the sock-drawer like this. But I don’t have opposable thumbs. I am weak, I am pathetic. No wonder the socks despise me.
My lambswool lining is damp. With sweat. Why do his feet sweat so much? It’s because of my lambswool lining. I do this to him. I make him sweat.
He wants me. He uses me. He walks all over me. I don’t care.

Grey from the perspective of Grey’s cat

The woman has come over and my man is fornicating with her on my bed.
She sounds as if she is pain. I wonder if my man also has spines in his penis like I do? Let me jump up on my bed and stare at my man’s penis and check…
The woman is looking at me and saying that I am “weirding her out”.
My man is getting up. He does not appear to have spines in his penis. This is not surprising. My man is an inferior animal. He has put me outside the door.
One sunny morning, when he chokes to death on his protein shake, I will eat his corpse. Instinct tells me that I will go in through his anus, where the flesh is soft. One sunny morning.

Grey from the perspective of Grey’s penis

hello i am pennis what is your name actually dont bother if yur a gurl bekoz i’m not going to remember it goddamn i am a big pennis i am the biggest pennis in the wurld i must be like 25 inches long, why have i got so big? 2 mins ago i was sleeping in his shorts and now i am like 28 inches long, maybe the gurl is coming over it’s so boring they yak and yak and then he ties her up and she’s like all ooh aah and he’s all like ooo you are my plaything i am a mysterious tormented master of the univers and i’m like PEOPLE can we pleez focus on me but even tho it’s lame it’s kind of hot and – OOO HERE COMES HIS HAND, hellz yes he’s put loob on it and everything, just as well bekoz i am like 34 inches, he usually does this when he is looking at nekkid pikchers of her on his phone or is he – thaaaat’s it a little higher pal that’s the spot yep you got it, he’s moving around, i’m gonna see what he’s looking the dirty little voyer, is it porno is it – ?
oh ffs he’s looking at himself in the mirror, god he’s such a dick, still hand is nice and warm and squishy so might as well.

EL James from the perspective of her editor

It’s her. Standing in the doorway. Wearing nothing but a coat made out of the skins of literary critics.
“You came,” I whisper.
“We had an appointment,” she says. “To meet here, at this time. It was an agreed meeting at a specified time.”
“Yes,” I murmur. “That’s what ‘appointment’ means.”
“So?” she smiles. “What do you need?”
She knows what I need.
I need to be punished. I need to be hurt. Humiliated for spending decades studying literature. For learning how to construct sentences and characters. For believing in art. For becoming an editor. For clinging to the idea of quality in a world in which this exists.
She slaps the manuscript down. I flinch.
“Read it!” she snaps.
I obey.
Oh god.
Another page.
Christ, the pain.
The searing agony of the words, so many words, crowded together like sheep. Jesus, that’s a shit simile. But that’s the world I live in. A world where it doesn’t matter what you write, because none of it matters.
“Did you…?” I can barely get the words out. “On the internet, I saw an article. I think it was Buzzfeed. Did you…They said you…” I’m sweating.“They said you wrote ‘Her sharp intake of breath is music to my dick.’” I feel like I’m going to pass out. I know it should be “as if I’m going to pass out”, but who the fuck cares? I can’t look at her face. “Did you really write, ‘Her sharp intake of breath is music to my dick’?”
She points at a page. “Right there.”
I clutch at the desk.
I will swoon.
I need to escape.
I need more.
“Tell me something,” I whisper, “Tell me something that will kill the last shred of artistic idealism I have in this dark, shriveled heart of mine. Tell me something that will obliterate me.”
She leans close. Her lips brush my ear.
“I sold a million copies. In four days.”
Oblivion.

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