Playing in the traffic

skaterWgggg crack blat. Most afternoons. Wgggg crack blat.

The wgggg is a young man, piloting his skateboard across the tar for the 40th time that morning. Crack: he has jolted his skateboard five inches off the ground and has collided with a low concrete step. A moment later, blat: the board has skewed away and tumbled over and the young man has jogged to a stop nearby.

For hours. Wgggg crack blat. Over and over and over and over again. The wgggg never gets longer or louder: his approach speed is constant. The crack is always just a crack, never a whoosh or a bang. And the blat is always a disappointing quarter-second later.

I used to think he was practising, gaining the skill and confidence he needed to launch further and higher and more dangerously, but now I think he is doing exactly what he intends to do. These are not failed attempts. They seem to satisfy him. This peculiar ritual of 40 or 50 small, controlled collisions is where he finds his skateboarding pleasure.

The sound is fantastically irritating. It occupies the same short-fused part of my brain where large flies knock stupidly against windowpanes and leaf-blowers moan pointlessly at pavements. Sometimes the wgggg crack blat falls silent and peace returns and then there it is again – wggg crack blat! – because the man has decided to collide with the step five more times, just because the afternoon was becoming too gentle; and I want to storm over there and say cruel things to him about how small and wretched his stunt is.

But apart from being unkind, that would rather miss the point, because he’s not doing it for an audience. At least not a real one. He’s doing it for an audience in his imagination. And because it’s all imaginary, it doesn’t really matter how clumsy he looks in reality.

Incidentally, this is one of the reasons you must never see video footage of yourself playing your chosen sport. I used to play cricket, and when I imagined myself batting I pictured a sort of 1940s fever dream of grace and poise, all cummerbunds and foxtrots and Spitfires doing slow rolls. Then I saw a clip of myself. Imagine a bear finding one of those tiny bottles of anchovies. It rears up, collapses onto its rump, awkwardly picks up the jar and tries to unscrew the top. Then it has its middle stump knocked over. No, you must never see footage of yourself.

I don’t begrudge the young man his fantasy life

All of which is a roundabout way of explaining that I don’t begrudge the young man his fantasy life as a skateboarding stunt demon, and I am happy to live and let live. I can even deal with the noise.

But I have one condition: the man and his dreams of skateboarding pyrotechnics must stay where they are, in his driveway.

You’d think this is a small thing to ask; that daydreaming skaters wouldn’t want to go out into the sobbing chaos of Cape Town traffic. But you’d be wrong. Suddenly, the fantasists on four wheels are everywhere.

I don’t mean the ones who whiz down the city’s steepest and most twisting roads, ripping past you with the sound of tearing canvas and the half-whispered, quickly denied thoughts of pedestrians wondering what it would be like to see a face hit the tar at that speed. Those guys have been around for years and I must confess I quite like them. Not only do I admire their courage but they are also helping a dear friend of mine, who specialises in plastic- and reconstructive surgery, to put his daughter through university.

No, the scary ones are the gentle dreamers, because they have left their driveways and brought their denial to the streets and now my reality is starting to disintegrate.

As they roll serenely into oncoming traffic, or dawdle along in the middle of a lane, anaesthetised by their headphones and their fierce solipsism, you can see them dreaming: that they are physically indestructible; that their slow pace and erratic path are somehow an expression of interesting authenticity rather than the wandering of, say, a village idiot. And those dreams are making me question my assumptions about everything.

I mean, do I really brake? What if I just curled up in a barrel and rocked it back and forth until it wobbled out into the traffic? Wouldn’t that be better than owning a car?

On the weekend, a skateboarder entered an intersection near my home. He had fitted a small motor to his board and he stood perfectly still and upright, buzzing along at a slow jogging pace. The cars he was holding up hooted at him. He looked up, delicately bemused, as if he had heard a nightingale sing. The dream fluttered, stirred. For a moment it seemed that he might wake.

But to ride a skateboard in traffic requires a profoundly deep sleep; and so he trundled on, a soft fool on a plank, drifting through a sea of murderous metal.

Wgggg crack blat.


Published in The Times


May the force be with them

ninjaHe was sweating, his golf shirt buttoned to the neck, his hair brutally combed as if he had just been packed off to kindergarten for the first time.

She was tanned, barefoot, loosely wrapped in something homespun and expensive, and she looked bored. If this was a first date, it was between two profoundly mismatched people.

I had been aware of his voice for some time, but as she slumped deeper into her chair and began to shunt food around on her plate with a listless fork, it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard him pause at all since I arrived. And that’s when I started listening to him, and realised this wasn’t a date. It was a consultation with a psychic warrior of light.

“The thing with fighting ninjas in other dimensions is that you can turn back time to learn their moves,” he said breathlessly. “This one time I was fighting ninjas in a far dimension, like maybe the 25th Dimension” – he moved his hands in front of him to show the sweep of a karmic samurai sword made of ectoplasm – “and I was like, ‘Whoa, these guys aren’t normal ninjas, they’re light beings!’, so I turned back time and bam!”

She looked up. “How can this happen?” Her accent was that of Europe’s trust fund babies, that transcontinental drawl that implies schooling in France, tanning in Italy and skiing in Austria. Her face was earnest. I had assumed she was bored. In fact she had been lost in contemplation.

“Oh,” he said, “it’s science. I mean not normal science. Normal science is bullshit. But they did it with quantum physics. Time reversal, astral travel, all of it.”

It seemed odd that he was appealing to an authority that he despised; that his crowning argument was that science has proved that science can’t prove anything. But this wasn’t a conversation of rational thought. He was hyper, seeming to tap dance on a thin film of sanity, and making no effort to disguise his complexes. He loved buying himself toys, he told her, because he didn’t get many as a child. Did he want children of his own? Oh God no! They suck your aura. His eyes looked incredibly sad as he said it. Childhood, it seemed, had been a wasteland where wonder had to be hoarded to protect it from being drained away.

She, too, seemed lost, her sarong and Sanskrit ankle-tattoo comprising the uniform of those who believe that they are rejecting uniformity. She was existentially bored – ennui made flesh – and she would look anywhere for a spark of meaning or excitement, even inside the neuroses of a lonely Capetonian fantasist.

The caricaturist in me wanted to gorge on the spectacle. But just then I glanced away, and realised I wasn’t the only one watching them with predatory glee: a young couple nearby – he, power-suited, she, heavily made up, both blinged up – were staring. And judging.

Suddenly, that one-way gaze felt cruel, and I was embarrassed to find myself part of a familiar conspiracy: the smug solidarity of the “normal” banding together to disdain the “freakish”. It’s a pernicious instinct because it feels like righteousness when in reality it is just the stupid xenophobia of the playground, where difference is attacked simply because it is other. And what exactly were we mocking now? Crazy beliefs? No. All that was happening here was two people searching for the same consolations we all search for; attempting to create meaning in meaninglessness.

So often “normality” encourages us to overlook just how freakish it usually is. It urges us to categorise – right, wrong, sane, mad, us, them – without ever looking back at it and recognising it as a ball of raging chaos and contradiction. Why is it, for example, that if someone talks about fighting a space ninja we want to diagnose him as mad, but if he dedicates his life to hitting a golf ball into a hole in a lawn we praise his mental strength? Most parents would tug their children away from a man talking about light-beings from other dimensions, and yet when he calls those beings “angels” and those other dimensions “heaven” and “hell”, he becomes a pillar of the community.

No, it’s all bonkers. And as I watched the cosmic warrior, I felt something like affection for him. If your soul can be filled by an iPhone or a new Lexus, that’s a pretty small soul. But if you can be nourished only by casting yourself as the hero of a pan-dimensional epic about good versus evil – if normality is too small to contain your ambition – I say to you: Good Luck, and may your energy sword always shine brightly for you, wherever you may wander.


First published in The Times and TimesLive