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

Let’s write! Again!

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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.

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

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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

Putting the ‘pro’ in ‘propaganda’

propagandaWhen I read that the ANC had spent R50-million on a propaganda campaign I was greatly relieved because it allowed me to think better of someone.

The person in question, a denizen of Twitter’s sweatier fighting pits, had once showered me with hot, pungent sanctimony after I’d criticised the ANC, and I had gone away believing him to be a wilfully stupid supporter of kleptocrats.

But when news broke of the ANC’s “war room”, everything changed. Because there he was, named as a valued member of the lavishly paid goon squad.

The relief rolled over me like a Gupta rolling over a cabinet minister. His criticisms hadn’t been personal. They hadn’t even been heartfelt. Rather than being a self-righteous prick he was simply being professional: putting the “pro” in propaganda.

My relief, however, was tinged with sadness. Because, even though I was happy to discover that my accuser was simply cranking out lies-by-the-yard for money, I felt terribly sorry for the country’s other propagandists who had just discovered how badly they were being paid.

I don’t know if the EFF has a propaganda department yet. I suspect their “war room” is just a dojo where senior Fighters gather around and applaud while Julius Malema delivers karate chops to an inflatable doll of Jacob Zuma. But if they don’t already have an Alternative Fact Brigade, they soon will: when the Commander-In-Chief publishes his memoirs in 10 years, perhaps titled 100% For Me, expect to see no mention of Venezuela or Robert Mugabe.

No, I don’t know if the EFF pays any propagandists, so it’s not them I feel sorry for. The ones my heart goes out to, the ones lying curled up on their unmade bed, staring at nothing and murmuring “Fifty million?”, are the spin-doctors of the DA.

I met one of them, once, a bright young thing who told me that he writes letters to newspapers whenever the DA needs a little push in the polls. You’ve probably read them: “Dear Sir, as a resident of Khayelitsha I can assure you that the location, or, as we call it, ‘the i-karsi’, is not only very safe but is also being brilliantly run by the DA. Halala Moesie Mymarny! Yours, Sipho Mandela.”

Until news of the war room broke, the future must have looked bright for the DA’s propagandists. There was work galore. Cape Town is busy selling off a large chunk of public coastline to a private developer, and under normal circumstances we might have expected something to appear online in the next few days, perhaps “New Study Proves That Seaside Walks on Public Land are Leading Cause of Depression”.

But that was then. Now, the rules (and the pay scales) have changed forever.

Once, a DA letter-writer was content to be paid with a tin of Danish butter cookies and an Exclusive Books gift voucher. (“With thanks. Buy anything you like, but just so you know, there’ll be a quiz on Helen Zille’s life next week and all the answers are in her memoir. Just saying.”) But how can butter cookies compete with R50-million?

Still, I would urge them to hang on. Their ship will come in, because propaganda is a growth industry. In fact it’s just getting started. And that’s because people are incredibly bad at discerning fact from fiction, especially if the fiction has a headline and some quotes and a photo of a man in a suit.

I should have learned this lesson back when I helped run satire website Hayibo.com. In 2011, our story about the African Union sending troops and food aid to riot-hit London went viral. It was posted to forums and blogs. It was even discussed by commodities traders, wondering how the imports would hit UK grain prices.

In retrospect it was chilling, but at the time we found it bizarrely funny. We simply couldn’t believe that Eton-educated stockbrokers could mistake our silliness for truth. For God’s sake, it even claimed that the AU would be “parachuting in dentists as part of a ‘Feel better about yourselves, Brits!’ initiative”.

I no longer find that story funny, not after seeing how completely adrift we are.

I often hear people wishing that our media were more sophisticated, but I’m not so sure. In fact, I’m starting to suspect that editors and broadcasters might need to revisit their assumptions about how information is received and take a big step back to the basics.

Propagandists everywhere are telling us that up is down and good is bad. They have gone straight back to the first principles of reality in order to rearrange them.

It is easy to point and stare, aghast. But the media cannot react to credulity with incredulity.

Rather, it needs to meet the new Goebbelses back there at Ground Zero. And it needs to start repeating, clearly and relentlessly, that bad is bad, that down is down, and that lies are lies.

*

Published in The Times