Driving us crazy

doctorzhivago3The reports were flooding in: there was snow on Table Mountain. Somewhere up there, under that impenetrable cloud, was a winter wonderland of white powder drifts.

Well, if not drifts, then a thick layer, like marzipan on a wedding cake. At the very least a thin layer of marzipan on a wedding cake made of inedible sandstone. Okay, perhaps not a thin layer, but definitely a smattering. We could say with some certainty that some of the mountain had been fractionally dusted. Alright, fine, there was a blob of cold white stuff on a rock near the upper cable station which may or may not have been a vanilla soft-serve dropped by a tourist, but we were going with snow.

Down on the streets of Cape Town the sheer glamour of living under a winter alp was palpable even if the snow itself wasn’t. For one chilly morning we were no longer suburban nobodies freezing in our cars. No, we were people from a Peter Stuyvesant advert from the 1980s, people who went skiing in St Moritz wearing sky-blue-and-baby-pink tracksuits, who gave each other high-fives in mid-air as they ski-jumped over an Audi Quattro which had a woman in a bikini and heels on its bonnet. You couldn’t expect anyone in Cape Town to drive properly while there was snow on the mountain.

Once the snow melted and the rain returned, however, it got harder to explain the bad driving, or why the Audi was now trying to out-drag a station wagon through a flooded intersection, relying on nothing but optimism and 30-year-old brakes. It’s not as if Capetonians aren’t familiar with rain, but still we panic, as if raindrops were gobbets of magma vomited down on us by a vengeful and dyspeptic sea god. Indeed, if there is one thing that unites Cape Town drivers of all races, creeds and classes, it is automotive retardation in the wet: the first sign of a cloud, and we turn into yodeling knuckle-dragging meatheads.

Gautengers enjoy rolling their eyes at Cape Town drivers, almost as much as they enjoy rolling their cars off Cape Town passes.

The trouble is, it’s not just snow or rain that make us drive horribly. It’s also sun, and moonlight. Oh, and air, which is always roaring in your ears and making you lose focus on the phone in your lap. And don’t get me started about steering wheels. Have you ever tried to drive a car with a steering wheel? It’s freaking impossible.

Gautengers enjoy rolling their eyes at Cape Town drivers, almost as much as they enjoy rolling their cars off Cape Town passes. But our ineptitude behind the wheel isn’t entirely our fault. For starters, we are poorer than Gautengers and are therefore forced to drive cars rather then self-guiding German upholstery. (Apparently some of the newer makes have brakes attached to their wheels, rather than just an anchor that drops through a trapdoor, but I can’t confirm these rumours: my car is the same age as Justin Bieber, and makes very similar noises.)

Another contributing factor to the chaos is the balkanised nature of Cape Town. Thanks to a vibrant system of class discrimination, we have separated into partially federal, mostly feral fiefdoms. The Afrikaans citizens of De Nordern Subbips don’t mix with the Anglophile residents of the Gween And Leafies in the south; neither would be seen dead There By The Vlaktes. This means that no journey ever takes more than 20 minutes, and driving loses its expansive, epic spirit. Horizons narrow, scales shrink, and soon it all begins to feel rather bucolic. Cape Town drivers are, in effect, that old tannie in the Overberg village who shuffles out to her 1972 diesel Mercedes and drives at walking pace down to the church bazaar to while away another few hours as she waits for death.

But these excuses, much like my car, only go so far. The simple truth is that Capetonians are just bad at driving, which means that we are exactly like most drivers in most South African cities: aggressive, or timid, or oblivious, or all three. Worse, none of us realise how stressed we are by our cars, perhaps because we don’t spend any time on functioning public transport. (Londoners whine about the Tube, but, compared to the stress levels of an average South African commute, the Underground is a cartful of snoozing Hobbits, clip-clopping through meadows towards an ale-drinking jamboree.) We even think it’s normal, this daily crouch in our fuel-injected foxhole, surrounded by hostiles piloting semi-guided missiles…

Luckily, my car, like Bieber, seems to be just months away from a full and final crack-up. And once I have donated its body to science, I am going to take the bus. I, and the one other person who uses the MyCiti bus service, will sit in state and survey the madness unravelling in the streets below. Then I will look up to the mountain and think of St Moritz.

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First published in The Times and TimesLive

I was dissing hipsters before it was cool

The hipster is hesitant. He stands in the doorway, his ironic moustache tasting the air. If he senses danger he will slip away, perhaps to the vinyl shop next door. But all is well here. The hiss of the cappuccino machine soothes him.

His natural enemies – people with real jobs – are all at work. He pads to a table, opens something on his MacBook that looks ominously like a poem.

His pelt, a combination of vintage and bespoke clothes, allows him to blend into his natural habitat, but questions remain. Who are these strange denizens of Cape Town’s artisanal coffee boutiques? And why, given that they don’t seem to have to work for a living, have they decided to spend their days hunched over a table pretending to be artists?

He drains his coffee as he tries to think of something that rhymes with “the pain of my isolation”. He types “something something menstruation”. No. Delete. He prowls to the bar and returns with a tankard of limited-edition Danish mushroom beer. And that’s another thing. Why has he decided that a bohemian life is best lived in a place that draws ferns in foamed milk? Does he not understand that the only reason creative people flee to these establishments, to sit and poke at greasy keyboards, is because if they stayed at home they’d start breaking furniture or taking eight-hour baths?

But as he begins to type again – “the rain drops on our nation” – it becomes plain as the black-rimmed spectacles on his nose: he is not trying to be noticed; he is hiding. And he’s chosen his camouflage well.

Pretending to be an artist keeps you safe from having to prove that you are good at something: it is very unlikely that someone at the neighbouring table will start choking on a metaphor, prompting a panicked barista to cry out, “Is there a writer in the house?”

Even better, it allows you to appear busy without having to finish anything. Indeed, the longer the artwork remains unfinished the more impressive it becomes in the imaginations of your peers.

If the worst comes to the worst and you actually produce something – perhaps a series of sepia-toned photographs of empty swimming pools, or a short film called Sophie’s Choice, featuring your maid trying to decide whether to open an account at Edgars or Ellerines – well, criticism can always be deflected by the twin miracles of postmodernism and narcissistic denial.

But perhaps I am being unkind. Being cruel to hipsters has become almost as faddish as hipsters themselves. Which is a pity, because they don’t need cruelty. What they need is a hug, and to be taken by the hand and led back from the distant shore on which they have marooned themselves. Because for all their bleeding-edge aesthetics and preoccupation with modernity, they are essentially members of a cargo cult. Like those Pacific islanders who built coconut runways and control towers out of twigs, hoping that American manna would fall from the skies again, Cape Town’s hipsters are going through the motions, praying to a god they barely understand, convinced that if they perform the right movements – stirring their coffee, reading their James Joyce novels – then the god will touch them. A novel will appear on their MacBook. Their ironic packet of Lucky Strikes will transubstantiate into a screenplay. And then they will finally feel what it is like to have made something from nothing.

My hipster has finished his poem and looks sad. I want to go whisper in his ear; to tell him not to worry about trying to look like a poet. I want to say, “You were born to consume, now go and consume in the great traditions of your people. You are free; now indulge your freedom. Buy shiny things. Call up your friends and migrate like geese in a happy, honking gaggle, to those places where your species goes to mate. Find love in a ski lodge; find wonder under a China Sea moon. Then make appalling art about it, which will confirm to your friends that you are ‘the artistic one’, and then forget all about it, and do it again next year.”

I want him to do those things for himself, but more importantly, for the rest of us, who have come to this coffee place in desperation and despair.

Please, dear hipster, give us a reason to be here. Give us something to aspire to. Replace our vague idealistic anxieties with some concrete, grubby lust for material things. Show us that, when all this incessant typing turns into something lucrative, there will be a ski lodge waiting, and joy, and a masseuse. Please, dear hipster, go now and make it all come true. You are our only hope.

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First published in The Times and TimesLive

My tax submission

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The decree had gone out that all the world should be taxed, but on my third attempt to render unto Caesar those things that are his, he finally told me that my internet session had expired. I would have to go in person to the Receiver of Revenue.

It was just as well; I had questions that no e-filing drop-down menu could answer. For example, could I offset my publishing royalties of 76c against the cost of the five crème caramels I ate in a futile attempt to dull the ache of getting royalties of only 76c? Given that time-wasting is crucial to the creative process, could I legally deduct medical treatment for YouTube-induced eyeball desiccation?

But answers would have to wait: the queue outside SARS stretched around the corner of the building and down a side street. With nothing to do but avoid making eye contact with my fellow Capetonians, I could stand and reflect on how we were united in our diversity, and how noticing our diversity probably made me a racist. After all, the only way you can know you’re part of a Rainbow Nation is to be acutely aware of racial difference and to perform a bizarre ubuntu-affirming mental pencil test on everyone around you.

The black and coloured people, too familiar with queuing, barely moved. Now and then an elderly black woman would allow herself a small expression of fatigue, wiping her palm slowly across her face and sighing, “Sho”. The white people were less self-contained. They fidgeted like otters, bobbing around, popping up, peering, darting away, before asking, “Is this the queue for everyone?”

Middle-class people, the ideological defenders of the queue, have no experience of real queues, the kind where you put your head down and flush away three hours of your life. It offended them. This wasn’t like the queue at Woolies. This was a Banana Republic atrocity. Some stomped off into the building to emerge a few minutes later tight-lipped, shaking their heads; the international sign for white anxiety feeling persecuted by black bureaucracy.

Next to me, a young woman took a book out of her bag: The Seven Habits of Highly Efficient People. The irony of her reading this particular book here, in a stationary queue for people who had left things far too late, was apparently lost on her: she dreamed through the pages, trailing her finger under the subheadings that reassured her she was making progress, at least through chapter three if not through her 20s.

The man in front of her asked her what she did. “Training to be a seer,” she replied. Like a psychic? No, a seeyay, a CA, a chartered accountant. But a seer wouldn’t have been out of place here. We were a column of supplicants, shuffling towards Delphi, seeking glimpses of our future. Soon we would enter the cave and be shown the mysteries; the IR12 forms, the income source codes. We would nod and give thanks, understanding little of what we had been told, but sure that it held great import.

Once inside, playing musical chairs in time to the electronic voice calling the next number to the next hutch, the inner cynic was roused. It felt wicked that a state could be so superb at extracting wealth while remaining so rotten at using it wisely.

But soon the rhythm of the place soothed these anxieties. This was not a mugging by the hyenas that satirists warn us about. If a food chain was being enacted here, it was something gentler, inexorable, sustainable; ants farming aphids, perhaps.

Apparently ants secrete some sort of tranquillising joy-juice from their feet that keeps their little herds of aphids calm and prevents them doing silly things like staging tax boycotts and pheromone-delivery protests. Sitting in my hutch, being gently milked, I could empathise with the aphids. I wanted to ask my officious ant-lady how she could be so impassive when she and I both knew that some of my money, earned without breaking a single law, was going to be stolen, lost or wasted by people who were untouchable by prosecutors.

I wanted to paint myself blue, like William Wallace or those mega-Smurfs from Avatar, and lead a revolt. But I didn’t. I smiled and nodded, and fought a sudden and irrational urge to confess to fiscal crimes I hadn’t committed. The tranquilliser seeped into us from the slightly-too-dim lights overheard, from the forms, the hypnotic clicking of mouse buttons, the murmur of the other aphids in the queue .

And when I finally hurried out, the oracle’s printout under my arm, all I felt was relief and an odd kind of gratitude. Was this what Stockholm Syndrome felt like? I wondered about it for about eight seconds, and then slipped back into aphid apathy. My tax was sorted. Best not think about it for another year.

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First published in The Times and TimesLive

 

Let them drink gin

Pic by Tjeerd Wiersma

The estate agent sniffed me over and knew I wouldn’t be buying, but the rain was drifting down in sheets over the city and nobody had come in all morning. Boredom trumped disdain.

He stretched his face into a reasonable facsimile of a smile and handed me a pamphlet as if he were sprinkling delousing powder on a newly arrived inmate. His phone buzzed discreetly, and, with one last backward glance to make sure I wasn’t defecating in the marble fireplace, he left me alone.

The house was huge, originally built for people with an inflated sense of their self-worth and now priced for those with more money than sense. But what really caught my eye was the first line of the estate agent’s pamphlet, which proclaimed that the house was blessed with “many classic and charming colonial features”.

I was intrigued. Would there be a pile of vibrantly severed Congolese labourers’ hands stacked in the second bedroom? Would there be a whimsical tree stump in the back yard with a charmingly bayonetted Chinese person chained to it? Had the master bedroom been renamed the Yassa Massa bedroom?

No. It turned out that the only things that had been brutalised in this house were good taste and common sense. But it did leave me wondering: when did the words “colonial” and “charm” get grafted together, and just how psychotic was the person who did it? How has it come to pass that a word describing a vast system of exploitation and trans-generational pain has been rehabilitated to the point that it is now used as an aesthetic lifestyle choice?

It was time to leave: the agent curled a lip in farewell and sprayed air-freshener in the rooms I’d explored, and I scuttled out into the rain again, wondering. Surely the “colonial” thing could not be a deliberate trampling of historical sensitivity? It must be ignorance, or at least denial. After all, the people who most commonly use the word in an affirming sense are the sort who go on shows like Top Billing to pimp industrial-strength kitsch.

Perhaps you can’t blame people for being seduced by colonial buildings. Such edifices were designed to appeal to the eye and the heart, making us feel both comfortingly insignificant and heroically enlarged.

It might seem fundamentally sick that a young black couple would book years in advance to secure a Cape Dutch wine cellar as a wedding venue, so that they can pose for beautiful cheek-to-cheek photos next to the wall against which their great-great-great-grandfather was flogged to death; but the aspirational power of colonial aesthetics seems almost irresistible.

For a moment I wondered if there was something about Capetonians that made us more susceptible to colonial “charms”, more eager to divorce the politics of the era from its aesthetics.

I can’t speak for black people, but I have made peace with the fact that, as a white South African, I am part of a tribe whose collective unconscious is firmly built on two of the nuttiest and least sustainable world views you can imagine: Victorian class psychosis and Calvinistic Trekboer fuck-you-I’m-outta-here misanthropy.

Is it possible that white Capetonians have a special sub-set of nuttiness that flares up around ivy-clad Greco-Roman columns and doves snoozing over limpid koi ponds?

But of course it’s not just us. Cape Town might have been the head office of the colonial project in South Africa, but its regional offices around the country still embrace the old aesthetics just as passionately.

In the Lowveld or the Free State they don’t call it “colonial charm” – instead it’s “the wonder of the bush” or “the spirit of Africa” – but the colonial props remain the same: expensive, slightly antimalarial drinks brought by servile black people, and a pervading sense of the dominion of Man over Nature. A neoclassical courthouse in Cape Town might look nothing like a game lodge in Limpopo, but ideologically they are identical.

Unfortunately, most of us are drinking the Kool-Aid. We roll our eyes at Whenwees and their “I had a farm in Ahfrika” stories, but we’re all enslaved by our own little farms. They might take up only 200m2 and be adjoined by 40 identical farms in a suburban street, but the fantasy burns bright: a Malawian to till the fecund earth; each geranium in its pot a symbolic crop of mealies; each unclogging of the Kreepy Krauly another fountain discovered.

It was raining hard when I got back to my flat. I admired its compactness, its lack of pretension. And then I went and watered the plant on the windowsill, and wondered what it would be like if I got another plant.

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First published in The Times and TimesLive

The Prince is gone

BrianLaraUkexpatThe farewells and testimonials have been effusive, befitting someone of the stature of Brian Charles Lara. But, behind the carefully complimentary prose and the staggering, almost numbing, statistics, there have been both a tension and a hollowness.

A tension, because it would not be proper for seasoned journalists to write thinly veiled love letters to a player who has reminded them that beauty and grandeur are still part of professional sports, and a hollowness because last month Lara was in the cricketing world and the sun shone, and this week he is not, and everything is a little dimmer, and a little less worth doing.

At some point in the next few months, Sachin Tendulkar might regain some form, and peel off a couple of his perfect, soulless centuries, and the decade-old debate comparing him to Lara will resurface briefly. If he plays on for another two seasons, the Indian should pass Lara’s record test runs tally. Eventually, both men will be eclipsed by Ricky Ponting, if form and favour spare the Australians.

The current wave of genuinely awful international bowlers and batter-friendly pitches swamping the sport will no doubt also conspire at some stage in the next 20 years to catapult some hard-charging entertainer past Lara’s record score of 400 not out. But, whatever the lists look like when the last Test is played, or whatever the water-cooler debates insist about the merits of Tendulkar, Lara’s legacy will stand unchallenged. For nobody in the history of the game made as many runs, in such dire circumstances, quite so beautifully.

To watch Lara bat was to see the perfect combination of technique, intent, improvisation and confidence: genius, in other words. Before excess weight, hamstring injuries and horrific pressure plunged him into a form trough in 2001 and forced him to revisit his technique, every delivery he faced was a spectacle.

First would come the two-footed hop into position, back and across his stumps, as his body bunched and his eyes got low: future generations will struggle to reconcile those eyes, serious and intent in every action photograph, with the high voice, the shrugs at post-defeat press conferences, the wide, boyish smile in the few happy times.

Then came the back-lift, flashing up to the vertical, samurai-like. An instant of stillness. A flash of sunlight on willow, as an idiosyncratic flexing of the wrists sent a ripple of adrenalin through the blade: it was the same pulse one sees in the haunches of the big hunting cats before they launch.

And then the stroke, technically familiar, but eternally reinvented. The guillotine-like forward defensive, the bat slamming down in front of excessively high elbows, head bowed in an exaggerated pose of caution. The spanking cut, as vicious and cheeky as if he had rolled up a wet towel and whipped the passing rumps of an elderly dame at a health spa, and scampered off grinning. The famous raised-knee pull; the slightly wild hook, with its chaotic swivel, the crunch of spikes ripping up pitch as he rode the hurricane over backward square leg.

And, at last, the stroke one had come to see, and the stroke that made all the miscued shots or jogged singles worthwhile: the cover-drive, a flashing pronouncement of intent and domination, offset by touch and grace. To be hammered through the covers by a Tendulkar or a Ponting is to have bowled a bad ball; to be smoked to the ropes by Lara is to have been part of something great.

Many of those who have written eulogies for his career this week have mourned the fact that he failed to flourish in his final international appearance. It was an odd observation, partly because it overlooked the fact that almost all of the greats have stumbled at the last hurdle, but more so because it also seemed to ignore the reality that Lara’s one-day career since 1999 has been entirely forgettable, a procession of half-starts, bored surrenders and frenzied, ill-fated onslaughts.

Certainly, Lara was too great a player and has too refined a cricket brain to pay very much attention to one-day cricket. But perhaps there was more to it. After the England game he tried to insist, one last time, that he was a team man, but no genius is truly a team player.

When Lara batted, he was entirely alone, testing himself in a rarified space that only a handful of batsmen in history have known. To someone able to score 400, or to summon the will and aggression to beat Australia single-handed as he did in 1999 with what is widely considered the great Test innings of all time, an unbeaten 153, the nonsense and haste of one-day cricket must have seemed less than mildly irritating: the frenzy of ants caught in the beam of a magnifying-glass held by children or sponsors or committee men.

“Did I entertain you?” he asked as he tried not to cry in Barbados.

If only you knew how much, we replied, also trying not to cry.

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First published in the Mail&Guardian