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Let’s write! Again!

100writing3

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

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

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

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

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

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

How much?
R2250 all inclusive.

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

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

Lashing out at a better world

trump-inaug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

Published in The Times

Things fall apart. But they also fall in love.

black-mirror-rosling

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

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

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

But Rosling is more than a genteel diversion.

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

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

Most things are getting better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Let’s write!

100writing3

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

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

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

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

When and where?
14, 21, 28 November, 5 December
7.30pm – 9.30pm, Kalk Bay Books, 124 Main Road, Kalk Bay.

How much?
R2250 all inclusive.

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

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

Zuma, our leader, ordained by God

Creación_de_Adán_(Miguel_Ángel)

There’s an elderly hustler who works at my local shopping centre.

Around closing time, as the last shoppers leave, he lingers in the parking garage, anxiously pressing a cellphone to his ear.

The moment you’re close enough, he launches his pitch.

“What?” he stammers into the phone. “Oh dear! I…I don’t know what to do! My wife was supposed to fetch me but now they haven’t paid her pension and there’s no money and…No, I don’t know what to do!”

He looks around, desperate and alone, a man without options but too proud to ask for help.

If it’s the first time you’ve seen it, it’s completely irresistible. You’d have to be a monster not to plunge your hand into your wallet and thrust cash at him. And when you do, it gets even more convincing. He squirms, looking very uncomfortable, reluctant to take the money. You insist. He accepts. But only because you insisted.

This week he was there again, his voice becoming tremulous as he heard the bad news on his phone for the thirtieth time that evening. Oh dear! What should he do? As I reached him I suggested he find some new material, but perhaps the person on the phone was talking very loudly because he didn’t seem to hear me, instead turning his gaze towards the next shopper coming up the walkway.

It reminded me of the other small-time con artists I’ve encountered, each hustling away, wringing a small living out of the credulous and the kind; and I wondered about how many people fall for the same sob story twice. And that made me think about the much more successful hustlers we read about every day; the charlatans who’ve cooked up such convincing pitches that we don’t only give them money but also titles like “Honourable Member” or “Mr President”.

The moment that old man approached me a second time, I saw our first meeting clearly and understood that I shouldn’t believe a word he said to me in future. And yet what about the Honourable Members and Mr President? I understand how easy it is to fall for a good hustle, but to be swindled a second time? And a third? A fourth?

How do you read about the Arms Deal, Nkandla, Marikana, the Guptas, the barely disguised capture of the Treasury (to name only those crimes that stand out from an ever-lengthening catalogue of theft and misrule), and still give the con man your sympathy?

Perhaps one answer is faith.

This week I was contacted by someone called Mark. He was objecting to a column I’d written in this newspaper, in which I’d wondered what it would take for the president to be forced to resign.

Mark started off bemoaning the current state of the party. “The ANC, our liberators, are allowing [Zuma] to destroy their legacy,” wrote Mark. This destruction, he added, was “so sad”.

It was pretty standard stuff, but then things took a turn for the surreal. An increasingly angry Mark warned me not to speak disrespectfully of Zuma. Why? Because Zuma “remains our leader, for now, ordained by God”.

He went on to remind me that while this was a free country, I should watch my “impertinent” tone because it wasn’t going “unnoticed”. So apparently I’m going on a list somewhere, drawn up by some sort of Stalinist Santa who’s going to put a lump of coal in my stocking unless Eskom has already burnt all the coal.

Not that I dwelled on those veiled threats. I was still fascinated by the first part, where an ANC supporter had just told me that Zuma was destroying the party but one shouldn’t object because God had put him there. In short: it was God’s will that the ANC be destroyed, but the ANC is good, but God is good, but the ANC is good, but…Head explodes.

I hope this is an extreme and rare position and that the ANC’s remaining supporters do not find themselves trapped in this abusive relationship of cosmic proportions. But I do find myself wondering: what role does faith play in keeping our national Ponzi scheme propped up?

Faith is belief without evidence, or without accepting evidence. You’ve seen the con man’s shtick for a second time. You have evidence that he’s a fraud. But you discount the evidence, because you’ve decided to believe, despite everything.

And so you ignore the evidence of your eyes; you ignore Nkandla, Marikana and the Guptas; and you decide that the con man isn’t a con man. You decide he’s a good bloke who genuinely needs you.

Of course, you’re half-right. He does need you. Without your faith, he’d have to work for a living.

People have their reasons for believing. I get that. But if it all boils down to faith then God help us all.

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

We’ve got a fake news problem

fake news

Screengrab from ‘Eyenews.co.za’

A man gets onto a bus, opens his coat, and reveals wires and blocks of putty-like material.

As passengers stare, unable to reconcile the banal reality of the afternoon with the impossible arrival of a suicide bomber, the man, grinning bizarrely, shouts, “I’m going to blow myself up!”

Some passengers scream. Some begin to cry. The man continues to threaten, still grinning.

Just then a police car arrives and armed officers pile out, yelling orders and pointing assault weapons at him. He stops smiling and hastily takes off the bomb rig.

Frightened, he starts yelling, “It’s satire! The bomb’s not real! I’m doing satire!”

He’s deranged, right? Nobody could believe that telling a lie, without irony, subtext or humour, to cause fear and potentially trigger a violent response, could ever qualify as satire.

And yet that’s what I’m seeing, almost every day, on the internet.

The fake news pandemic has started in South Africa, and instead of calling it what it is — shouting “Bomb!” on a crowded bus, deserving swift and merciless retribution from the legal system — it is being excused as “satire” by people who clearly believe that satire means “making up stuff” rather than using irony, mockery or humour to point out the vices or wickedness of the powerful.

I’m not going to name the sites at the vanguard of this onslaught because I believe they need to be starved of oxygen. Also, you already know them: your friends have been posting them onto your Facebook feed, reacting to the news that Jacob Zuma has collapsed or that the DA has vowed to fire all black employees in Nelson Mandela Bay.

Of course, wildly fictional drivel has been a hallmark of the internet since its inception. The lunatic fringe, managing to be both as pedantic and prescriptive as a teenaged collector of superhero figurines and as vague and contradictory as a drunk uncle presenting his world view, has always lurked just a few clicks away. And it’s had incredible stamina: there are web pages about lizard people with a longer and prouder history than the Huffington Post. Sometimes with better reporting, too.

The problem, though, is that that paranoid, endlessly creative creature has escaped from the zoo. It’s snuck into the suburbs and is breeding with your poodle. And the puppies are bouncing up everywhere.

For what it’s worth, I believe that South Africa’s current outbreak is more sinister than commercial click-baiting. I have a feeling that whoever is responsible is making a small fortune from clicks but a large fortune from powerful paymasters who have mandated them to muddy the waters with a campaign of intense, fairly co-ordinated disinformation.

a cacophony of competing whoops and screams

The timing of this upsurge might be coincidental, but I find it interesting that we’re starting to doubt everything we read online just as the ANC loses support by its largest margin ever. After all, if you can’t control the national conversation any more, surely second prize is to turn it into a cacophony of competing whoops and screams in which nobody can be right and, therefore, nobody can be wrong.

The media, too, must carry plenty of responsibility for the current crisis of authenticity. The whole thing was holed below the waterline the moment news organisations began reporting on celebrity gossip as information worth knowing. (The Kardashian-Industrial Complex is what happens when people who know better give people who don’t know better exactly what they think they want.) The moment you know your preferred news organisation is publishing “stories” cooked up by PR gurus, doled out to lackey publicists, and then “leaked” to completely undiscerning news wires, how can you fully believe its front-page exposé on some political scandal?

I don’t know how the South African media industry is going to put the fake news genie back in the bottle. Draconian laws around news production will inevitably be used against legitimate journalists by a government desperate for an excuse to gag independent voices.

But we do have a problem, and we need to be aware that if we don’t tackle it, we’re going to find ourselves in an appalling national crisis. With news even partially discredited, we’d never believe reports about the next Nkandla, or the next Marikana, or the results of the next election. We’d be lost, adrift in a typhoon of noise and contradiction and hearsay, without a clue where we were or which direction we needed to go to find salvation.

When you print fake banknotes you go to jail because you’ve undermined trust in your country’s currency, and without trust in its inherent value, money becomes worthless. Fake news should be treated exactly the same way. Counterfeit information undermines our faith in our institutions, in our news gatherers, even in each other. Worse, it undermines our faith in our own critical faculties. And once we lose that, we’re done.

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Hedwig and the Angry Trainer

Harry-Potter-and-the-Cursed-Child-artwork

I was vaguely aware that JK Rowling had co-written a new play about the adult Harry Potter but its name escaped me.

Was it Harry Potter and the Accountant’s Recommendation To Diversify Into a Third Popular Medium? Harry Potter and the Sudden Whim to Generate Some Quick Dosh to Buy a Caribbean Island? No, those didn’t seem right.

And then I started seeing news reports about owls on London’s West End, and it all came rushing back like a jolt of expository back-story dissolved in one of Professor Snape’s flashback tears.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, currently enjoying a rapturous response to its first previews, finds the Chosen One all grown up and working for the Ministry of Magic. I assume it explains why he’s a civil servant, because the last time I checked he was the most powerful person on the planet so you’d think he could charge a few bob for speaking engagements, maybe the odd corporate gig where he describes evaporating Voldemort and then segues clumsily into a metaphor about the importance of having a clear business model, writing VOLDEMORT on a whiteboard while explaining that “V is for Vision, O is for Opportunity, L is for Long-Term…”

While Harry wrestles with the difficult questions of adult life, like why he still hasn’t got contact lenses, his son, Albus, is fighting his own battles, mostly with a giant bird’s nest if the play’s publicity shots are any indication.

According to the production’s website, the magical spawn “must struggle with the weight of a family legacy he never wanted”. I hope this means there is a scene in which young Albus throws his diamond champagne flute at the wall and screams, “I didn’t ask to be born into a franchise! It’s so unfair!”, before running up the marble staircase and slamming his door shut using the Petulento Puberto curse.

The website goes on to reveal that, “as past and present fuse ominously, both father and son learn the uncomfortable truth: sometimes, darkness comes from unexpected places.” In theatrical previews, unexpected darkness usually comes from the lighting rig where past, present and a lighting technician have fused ominously to a live wire. But so far, the only apparent hiccup in Cursed Child has been the owls.

“Hey your hot wanna sext?”

Owls, you will remember, are the e-mails of the Potter universe. Rowling never told us whether there are also spam owls – scruffy little things carrying bits of parchment reading “Hello my dearest friend in Christ, how are you I need your help” – but I assume they exist. Alas, Harry’s owl, Hedwig, was killed by Voldemort, so these days Harry has to rely on Twitter’s direct messaging: a starling that arrives at all hours with notes reading, “Hey your hot wanna sext?”

Modern theatre has some ingenious ways of portraying animals on stage – War Horse featured beautiful wooden horses to complement its wooden script – but in a brave lunge at realism the producers of Cursed Child decided to use live owls.

A few years ago I found myself hammering out an obscenity-laced e-mail to a colleague of mine in which I was heaping vitriol on a third party we both detested. I added one final unforgivable curse and hit SEND…only to get a terse message back from the third party in question. I had sent him the e-mail by accident.

Which is why I could have warned the producers before their opening night: e-mails have a nasty habit of flying to the wrong person. Because, of course, that’s what happened. The owls flitted off into the dark theatre and refused to return to their handlers.

The show has subsequently fired the owls, a move praised by animal rights groups, and will likely go the War Horse route. But I must confess that I feel for the trainers.

If your dream is to be a trainer of owls it means you’ve chosen quite a hard road through life. Sure, you probably get courted by a lot of mouse breeders, and you do the odd Medieval faire, but I can’t imagine that owl-wrangling is lousy with job opportunities. To be cast in a Harry Potter play – to finally crack the Hoo’s Hoo of the avian acting industry – would be the fulfilment of an impossible dream. And to see that dream gliding away from you and settling up in the cheap seats – well, that’s enough to make you cry like a freshly snakebit Snape.

It must have been an awkward ride home. “They wanted Merlin from Owls-R-Us. But I fought for you. Merlin can turn his head 420 degrees and regurgitate on demand but I told them you were an artist, and this is how you repay me? Don’t turn your head away from me when I’m – oh, right, it’s come all the way around. Sorry.”

The cursed child, indeed.

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail