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The Next Rainbow

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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

Cinema Purgatorio and the Ball-Pond from Hell

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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

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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

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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

Numb and Number

one-plus-oneWhen parliament gathers tomorrow, and the Speaker invites the minister of finance to address the House, and Brian Molefe stands up, and Jacob Zuma hisses, “Not yet, Brian!” and Pravin Gordhan politely clears his throat, South Africans won’t understand a word that comes out of his mouth.

That’s because we are astonishingly bad at maths. Every year the educational surveys confirm it: if a deity told us to go forth and multiply, we’d go fourth and divide.

Perhaps that’s inevitable in a place where so little adds up. Consider a South African story sum: “If a train leaves Johannesburg at noon on Tuesday and travels at 100km/h, what time will it arrive in Cape Town, 1400km away?”

This question is, obviously, impossible to answer. For starters, did the train stop outside Kimberley for four hours or only two hours because of cable theft? And when you say “arrive in Cape Town”, does that mean it arrived intact and under its own power or does it still count if half the train grinds to a halt near the station upside down and on fire?

Not surprisingly, many of us quickly learnt that one plus one equals migraine, and gave up on numbers before we’d reached our, er, (looks at fingers) ninth birthday.

Which is why Gordhan could recite the collected lyrics of Adele and we’d think something fiscally significant had just happened.

Sensing our anxiety around numbers, some media outlets avoided the Budget build-up entirely, preferring to focus on ANC veteran Mathews Phosa, who claimed to have had a “Damascus moment” at the State of the Nation address two weeks ago.

I’ve always found it an odd phrase: referring to yourself as St Paul, the sixth-most important person in Christendom after the Holy Trinity, the Virgin and John the Baptist, seems a peculiar way to express a humbling moment. But theology aside, I’m confused by this particular journey on the road to Damascus.

I understand how a bloke might pass the hamlet of Nkandla and not fall off his horse. But surely when you passed the smoking ruins of the village of Marikana you’d experience the tiniest suspicion that it might be time to reassess your beliefs?

Confused by these questions, other media focused instead on the revelation that currency traders had been colluding to rig the rates of the thing that controls the thing with the money and – please don’t make me go on. I didn’t understand any of it. And neither did the people who tried to get angry about it over the weekend. “It’s a disgrace, hey? Someone should go to jail for…that thing…they did…with the money…?”

the Young Lions are absolutely right

No, thanks to the maths-shaped hole in our brains we won’t have a clue what Gordhan is talking about.

But we do know a couple of things.

The first is that Gordhan is under ferocious political pressure.

Last week the ANC Youth League called for him to be fired, claiming he is blocking transformation projects. The Young Lions are, of course, absolutely right: Gordhan has consistently stood between them and their project to transform themselves into rich people.

We also know that Gordhan is facing a tax revenue shortfall of R28-billion, which is basically the entire hold of a privately owned Boeing taking off at midnight from Waterkloof headed for Dubai.

At this point the frugal reader who understands a household budget might remind Gordhan that auditor-general Kimi Makwetu found irregular expenditure of R46-billion last year. Surely, they might politely ask, the minister could simply tell the government to stop flushing billions down the toilet?

But such questions betray a naïve belief that something has gone wrong rather than to plan; that “irregular spending” is an administrative slip-up rather than the public face of a deliberate system of plunder. Because that money isn’t being flushed away into a void. Rather, it is flowing, at a rate of R87,000 every minute, into the bank accounts of “public servants”, well-connected CEOs, and the people who keep smallanyana skeletons safely locked in closets – a vast ecosystem of political filter-feeders, gorging on vast clouds of money.

Finally, we know one more thing: taxes will rise. And why wouldn’t they? If you were Tony Soprano’s financial adviser would you tell him to cut back? Hell no. You’d tell him you’ll make it work. And then you’d go out and slap an extra two points on every loan and put the screws on a few more shopkeepers.

Yes, they’ll make it work. And so will we. Will it add up? Probably not. But when has that ever stopped a South African?

*

Published in The Times

Moonlight and Romans

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One afternoon in Turkey, 2000 years ago, a man called Paul sat down and wrote a very long letter to his colleagues in the Corinth office.

The epistle, delivered by inter-office donkey, contained many beautiful thoughts on life and faith, and it went down very well with the Corinthians, although Quintus in Marketing was concerned that Paul claimed to be seeing “through a glass, darkly”. Had the Ephesus branch stopped washing its windows? Because that really wouldn’t reflect well.

They told Quintus to put a sock in it and he asked, “What’s a sock?” and they told him to go and feed the donkey, and they read on, eagerly. But then they came across a passage that made them glance awkwardly at each other; because instead of being about righteousness and worldly troubles, it was about love.

Love, wrote Paul, carefully forming the letters in a world full of cruelty, is patient. It is kind. It does not envy or boast. It isn’t proud. (At this juncture they murmured, “Amen,” for many of them had recently been humbled by love, especially Barnabas in Accounts who had been sleeping on the couch since Tuesday. When they read on, and saw that love “keeps no record of wrongs”, Barnabas perked up, but they told him not to try his luck.)

Today, Paul’s advice to the Corinthians has been tarnished by overuse. A few kind and earnest hearts still repeat it at weddings, but too often, these days, 1 Corinthians is the last resort of teachers who have forgotten that they are leading the assembly devotion this morning.

This week, though, it might be worth dusting off Paul’s words. Because this is the week when our relationship with love – and our patience and kindness – are tested to the limit by Valentine’s Day.

It wasn’t always like that. When I encountered Valentine’s Day for the first time, it seemed to have a lot to do with love. Especially the bit about patience. I was incredibly patient. I waited from 1985 until 1989 to get a Valentine’s Day card from my love. It never happened, but she did once bite me in the head by accident so I can truthfully claim that I bled for her.

Once I grew up, however, and put away childish things (Quintus didn’t like that part of the epistle at all), I started to suspect that Valentine’s Day might not be about love after all, at least not the love outlined by Saint Paul. For starters, it can be spectacularly unkind. And if love is not supposed to boast or be proud, why is that asshole Brad in Grade 7 going around showing everyone the two cards he got?

love and Valentine’s Day go together like a horse and abattoir

No, with maturity comes the realisation that love and Valentine’s Day go together like a horse and abattoir. The Romantic-Industrial Complex has harvested the beautiful subtleties of attraction and loyalty and clamped them in a pink, fuzzy vice, doused them with despair until they melt into the general shape of a kitten, cast the warped lump in plastic retrieved from the digestive tract of a suffocated turtle, painted it with feelings of not being good enough, and then rolled it out to scream, “I WUV U!” at a lonely world.

I’m exaggerating, of course. It’s really not that bad. The turtles are dead before they hook the plastic out of them.

Still, one can’t deny that Valentine’s Day has become a vast and somewhat cynical industry: the day reportedly generates about $18-billion, $17.8-billion of which goes to columnists to write about how awful it is.

The other $0.2-billion is paid to writers to reveal the day’s ancient origins, which is how I discovered that Valentine’s Day has roots in Ancient Rome. It seems that between February 13 and 15 the ancient Romans used to celebrate fertility by getting fertile with each other, all over the place, until they had to stop and replenish their electrolytes or reupholster the furniture. Of course, they also did this on February 12 and February 16, as well as between January 1 and February 11, and from February 16 until December 31, but those three days were special.

Naturally, not everyone was involved. Valentine is, after all, the patron saint of unreasonably high expectations, and the day’s ancient ancestor would probably also have featured a fair amount of heartbreak. (“Roses are red, violets are blue, here’s a dead Gaul I had flayed just for you.” “Ja listen we need to talk.”)

Today, some of us will be involved and some of us won’t. Some hearts will soften and others will harden. Some people will taste only sweetness in the day, others will gag on the saccharine aftertaste.

Either way, though, love will remain, patient and kind. And a little more patience and kindness can never be a bad thing.

*

Published in The Times

Take a bow, Robin Hood

archery

Channeling Kevin Costner. Rocks, beware!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bow, however, was a disappointment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, a guy can dream.

*

Published in The Times