Game of Thrones

To boldy go where no pancake has flown before

pancakes

Fifty years ago, the Starship Enterprise slid out of space-dock on her maiden voyage, carrying the hopes of humanity into the deep reaches of uncharted television.

She was a sight to behold, cruising through the infinite sky like a pelican designed by Mies van der Rohe. Her on-going mission: to seek out new life, and slightly different configurations of fibreglass rocks for landing parties to hide behind. And so she flew on and on, and every week her crew would discover new civilisations, new philosophical questions, and new ways for William Shatner to string sentences together.

In the US, the anniversary of Star Trek was marked with an outpouring of love for the series and all it stood for. Its cultural achievements were celebrated – the famous interracial kiss, the resolute injection of idealism into an increasingly cynical society – and its stars adored anew.

In South Africa, however, the celebrations were, like Shatner’s ability to pronounce the k-sound at the end of “Spock”, non-existent. In 1966 the Enterprise could reach the Delta Quadrant but it couldn’t reach South Africa. We were in the outer darkness, because the alien life forms that ruled us believed that televisions were Satan’s colonoscopy, and would only relent 10 years later.

I don’t know how many die-hard fans there are in South Africa (I was too scared to Google “Trekkie” and “South Africa” in case I saw people re-enacting the Great Trek) but I do know that, despite us being light years away from everything, Star Trek left an indelible mark on hundreds of thousands of people in this country. Well, less of a mark than a scar. OK, not a scar, because that implies healing. So maybe more of a deep soul-wound. The kind left by Under the Mountain. And no, I’m not going to elaborate on that, because the less said about that childhood-poisoning dread-fest, the better.

You know what I’m talking about because it still haunts your dreams. Almost 30 years later, you still glance at the ceiling of any room you walk into. Because they could be out there.

The demented flying face-sucking pancakes.

Nobody I know watched the original Star Trek. I didn’t. And yet somehow, almost supernaturally, everybody saw that one episode. (For a flashback, click here.)

How? Did the SABC buy it in 1976 and air it as some sort of educational video? Did they preface it with a short lecture from Elize Botha in which she explained that the pancakes represented the forces of black revolution, lurking in the ventilation ducts of Lusaka, waiting to fly through the air with a fearful farting sound before suffocating the flower of white youth?

There was something deeply horrifying about the flying fart-flapjacks, but then again, it didn’t take much to be memorable in the early days of South African television. In the science-fiction genre the only competition was Mannemarak, a puppet who lived in a lunar lander and watched films about how to pasteurise milk. Wait, no, that was Miena Moe, the spokescow of the South African dairy industry.

And as for plot and pacing, well, entire episodes of Heidi could consist of a single shot of Heidi running, an Alpine path rolling endlessly past under her flying clogs, her horizontal figure-eight mouth yelling “Pieter! Pieter! Wag! Ek kom! Pieter! Wag! Pieter! Pieter! Ek kom! Wag! Pieter! Pieter!”

Reading the outpouring of nostalgia and affection around Star Trek’s anniversary, I found myself mourning the end of the culturally unifying TV show, that one grand saga we’d all sit down in front of at the same time every week; that gave us something in common with strangers and allowed a kind of cultural shorthand. Even when you spoke different languages, you both know what “JR Ewing” meant.

Nowadays, I told myself, television watching has become a Balkanised, isolated experience, where hermits seek out niche shows and binge-watch them, only sharing their latest obsession with a few close friends.

But then I realised this was nonsense, because of course we’ve been split into television tribes since the beginning. There were those who were allowed to watch V, and those who only heard about it the next day, trying to imagine what it would look like to see an alien eating a rat. (Remember?) Some laughed at Night Court. I found it a claustrophobic thing that always felt like a dream you might have in the first stages of a fever.

No, people have always liked what they like, and found ways to gorge on it. Still, I can’t help wondering: will Game of Thrones or True Detective be celebrated in 50 years? Probably not. Because some shows go boldly where no others have gone before. Some are loved because of the spirit they represent rather than the stories they tell. Well, loved and feared. Those pancakes, man…

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First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

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Winter is coming

EFF dinner

Pic: EFF

A few years ago someone encouraged me to write a “South African Harry Potter”.

I didn’t, partly because I didn’t want to get sued and partly because I didn’t think anybody would want to read about a school where young witches and wizards need to get only 30% of their spells right.

The gigantic success of Game of Thrones, however, has got me thinking. Would it really be plagiarism if I banged out my own fantasy TV series about competing factions battling to sit upon the Iron Riempie-Stoel? Wouldn’t I just be paraphrasing our reality?

After all, our little fantasy kingdom also saw a made king deposed, although, to be fair, ours wasn’t killed: he was merely recalled, and spends most of his time writing letters and subtweeting the new king.

For the rest, though, my screenplay would basically be non-fiction. Who needs House Lannister when you’ve got House Luthuli? The same oligarchs, terrified of a popular uprising. The same oversized armchairs and pointy shoes. There’s even the same incestuous romance. (“Why are you being so coy, SACP? Don’t you want me any more? Remember when we used to lie under the stars and talk about controlling the means of production and you would make saucy innuendos about controlling the means of reproduction?” “That was you! True communists are not allowed to have a sense of humour. It’s part of the oath we take, when we vow to spend forever trapped in 1972.”)

In fact the only difference between House Lannister and House Luthuli is that the former always pays its debts. (It was better a few years back, but relations with the Iron Bank of Uttar Pradesh and House Gupta are a little frosty right now.)

At this point you might assume I’m setting up Jacob Zuma to stand in for the gloriously awful King Joffrey, the watery-eyed tyrant with a face made for slapping. I’m not. Firstly, I don’t wish Mr Zuma dead, and secondly the parallels don’t work: Joffrey was poisoned on his wedding day whereas Mr Zuma has survived at least six wedding days, so it’s really not the same thing.

Meanwhile, far to the south, a white queen is pushing her own claim to the throne. (Well, sort of: technically it’s Lord Mmusi of Twang who’s running for office but everybody fixates on the queen.)

it is gatvol and that the blex are ruining the country

She is feared, mostly by her media handlers, who beseech her to stay off Twitter. But even more frightening than her Twitter zingers is her dragon, a leathery thing called Former NP Voters. Former NP Voters is a constant headache for Lord Twang’s campaign because it keeps popping up saying that it is gatvol and that the blex are ruining the country. Not surprisingly, the queen tried to lock him up in a dungeon last season but the damned thing keeps wriggling free and rampaging around the countryside in a Range Rover, burning piles of cash and roaring about how oppressed it is.

The queen’s real power, however, is her army of Unsullied, a robotic host of loyal drones. When they see their queen or Lord Twang under attack, they move as one, locking shields, lowering spears, and marching onto Facebook to hammer out variations on “Cry the beloved country” – weep our beloved nation, love the becrying country, etc – and to fire volleys of angry-face emoticons …

House Luthuli is reviled. The white queen is feared. But now there is a new terror growing in the north.

The White Monopoly Capital Walkers are coming.

Their touch is death. Kind of. If they touch you, you live forever and you never feel the cold, so technically their touch is eternal weatherproofing. But it comes at a terrible cost. Your friends shun you, saying that you’ve become a slave to global capital. Also, you’re rotting and they don’t dig it when bits of your face plop onto the pizza you’re all sharing. And then there’s the endless grooming. Have you ever tried to tidy up a mostly dead calf muscle with an emery board? It takes for-fricken-ever.

But there is hope.

One man has vowed to lead the free peoples against the White Monopoly Capital Walkers.

He is a leader. He is a fighter. He does not want you to watch porn using free municipal Wi-Fi.

He is Julius Snow.

His critics used to believe that he knows nothing. Now they think he is merely a hypocritical opportunist (he was once a knight in shining polyester, fighting for House Luthuli) and that his only true loyalty is to House Breitling.

But the fact remains, as this season begins, Julius Snow is the character drawing the biggest audiences.

So is this a tale that will make me rich? Probably not. But I do know that it’s going to make Julius richer than all the lords of the Seven Kingdoms. This story is going to get very interesting indeed.

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First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Rich – but what’s the point?

poolOn the slopes above Camps Bay, one house in particular arrests your attention.

It doesn’t have a warrant and it doesn’t read your attention its rights, but it arrests it anyway, kicking down the front door of your sensibilities, beating your aesthetics unconscious with a cosh, and helping itself to your last drops of good taste.

It’s entirely appropriate behaviour for something that looks like it was commissioned by the mistress of the despot of a former Soviet republic.

The architect’s brief would have been clear: imagine a Venetian brothel had sex with the headquarters of a cellphone company in Midrand, and that their baby was dressed up as Las Vegas and sent to a reformatory for the criminally tasteless in Dubai.

Even by the standards of Cape Town’s Atlantic seaboard it’s a monstrosity, and that’s saying plenty. Camps Bay is where taste goes to die, incinerated by the glare of sun reflected off giant, vacant windows; crushed by slabs of concrete; impaled with a little paper umbrella with the words “The Good Life” printed on it in comic sans.

I felt compelled to stop and take a picture, almost as if I feared it might be a mirage created by light interacting with updrafts of pure kitsch. I got out of my car and pointed my phone – and then a door opened and a man appeared.

He had a pistol on his hip.

I lowered my phone, but he said cheerfully, “It’s amazing, hey?” I replied, truthfully, that it was. “And you should see inside!” he added, shaking his head like a Celtic cave-dweller seeing Rome for the first time. But this was no rube. Even as he put me at my ease, I could feel him scanning me and assessing me as a threat. Once, in a zoo, I was looked at by a wolf. It was the same feeling.

I might have filed that moment away as a peculiar anomaly, but this week it happened again.

My partner and I had pulled over in a leafy Constantia dell to eat a late-night takeaway pudding, as one does. On one side the green belt loomed in the moonlight. On the other, dark mansions slept behind walls. An owl was calling somewhere far away, but otherwise it was completely still. The rich really can buy silence.

The darkness broke into shadows and outlines: a cyclist with a very bright headlamp was weaving up the road towards us. No, not a cyclist. It was moving too slowly. A pedestrian with a military-grade torch. A guard, dispatched from the nearest palace. His meandering approach revealed the awkward position he’d been put in. If we were harmless citizens pausing on a stretch of public road, he was about to look like a draconian douche bag. If we were assassins, he was about to look like a corpse.I didn’t blame him for taking his time.

The torch beam stayed on us long enough to reassure him that the chocolate mousse wasn’t plastic explosive, and he grunted a greeting. For a moment it seemed he would just turn and walk away but this was clearly a more sensitive soul. He was embarrassed. And so he pointed his torch up into the trees. Ah, right. Suddenly it all made sense. He wasn’t here to check us out. No. He’d obviously received reports of a vicious socialistic squirrel that had been offing larnies in these parts and redistributing their acorns to the poor. He was looking for them. Yes, good, all clear overhead. Goodnight, folks.

The valley, carpeted in forests, etched in moonlight, suggested a place of rural tranquility. Perhaps that’s why the rich live there; so that they can believe they live on a country estate in some European neverworld. But as we drove away, the truth showed itself: the darkness is beautiful, but only when kept at a safe distance. Glimpses through gates and over hedges revealed house after house blazing with light. Spotlights lit up driveways and gardens; infra-red cameras stared out into what little remained of the night. These were homes occupied by people living by the fearful mantra of the Game of Thrones witch: the night is dark and full of terrors.

I would love a few million bucks. I’m also not convinced by the self-soothing middle-class view that money can’t buy you happiness: if you’re capable of making your own happiness, I’m pretty sure money buys you the space and time to go on that happy journey.

But when I think of those two guards, sent into a public road to interrogate fellow citizens, I wonder if money also buys you fear. If the boundaries of your anxiety extend beyond your spiked walls; if the world is such a dangerous place that you feel entitled to launch pre-emptive strikes on threats beyond your own property; what kind of life are you living?

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First published in The Times and Timeslive

Suckling on Steve Jobs’s plastic teats

baby ipad“There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”

Written in 1938 by critic Cyril Connolly, it’s a sentiment embraced by generations of young creative people who have delayed or resisted having children, believing that the arrival of a baby would sap their vigour and keep them away from their passion.

I can’t speak for all artists but the young parents I see down at my local deli don’t appear to be stalked by Connolly’s pram. On the contrary, their creative juices seem to be in full flow as they make magic on iPads and iPhones, typing, swiping and Skyping up a digital storm. And best of all, their babies are right there with them, plugged into their own iPads, suckling on Steve Jobs’s plastic teats as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.

They’re everywhere, this new breed of iParent, propping Apple gadgets against salt cellars to create little cinemas for their screen-addicted spawn. But is this a good idea? As someone who doesn’t have children I’m not sure I’m qualified to judge. I can imagine that there are times when plugging your toddler into a distraction-machine seems not only forgivable but essential. But even I can see that there’s a fine line between using an iPad as a parenting tool and using it as an excuse to ignore your child.

Worse, it’s an excuse gaining ever more traction. Portable screens give us permission to look at them. After all, that message might be important. It might be work. Yes, at this precise moment you’re tweeting a photo of your food, but the people at the next table don’t know that. For all they know you’re working, earning a living to support that beautiful baby who right now is watching Frozen for the 42nd time. So what if her first words are “Let it goooo”? That’s not weird. It’s precocious.

It’s easy to predict the horrible effects on society of people raised by iPads. We’re already starting to believe that consuming media off a screen is a human right that trumps civic responsibility and even common sense: we’ve all braked hard to avoid killing some moron gazing at a smartphone, stepping into traffic he can’t hear, thanks to his headphones.

Other anxieties, though, might be less valid. For example, we keep hearing about how our attention spans are shrinking, and iParents seem to be prime suspects in accelerating that slide towards a global attention-deficit disorder. But surely when it comes to concentration spans, it’s not about size but how you use them? Our ancestors had hours of silence and calm in which to reflect, and they still decided it was a good idea to drown witches and stab virgins to death with stone knives.

Some worriers say that technology is distancing us from nature. Certainly, our ancestors lived much closer to nature. In fact, it covered them, in a nurturing cocoon of natural filth, natural infections, and natural attacks by natural wolves. If living in harmony with nature didn’t kill them, they grew old knowing pretty much nothing about anything. Until relatively recently, our heads have contained just a few dozen factoids – when to plant, when to harvest, how to identify a Jew by the way it turned itself into an owl – and nothing else. Yes, you say, but the ancient ones could recite entire sagas. To which I reply: you clearly haven’t had a fanboy explain four seasons of Game of Thrones to you, including deleted scenes. Trust me, we still do sagas.

So is my suspicion of iParenting valid or merely fear of change? Haven’t we been suspicious of new technologies for as long as we’ve been using them? Just imagine the gloomy predictions in ancient Mesopotamia when an inventor dug a canal and said, “I’m calling it ‘irrigation’.” The elders would have been appalled. What would the children do with all their free time, now that they didn’t have to spend all day toting buckets? Babies’ minds would atrophy as they spent hours gazing at water in the canals instead of doing healthy, natural things like starving to death because of a wholesome, natural famine. Clearly, it was the end of civilization.

From my perch, somewhere between the late 18th and late 20th centuries, iParenting seems like a very bad idea. But so did the last brain-rotting invention, television. Yes, it gave us the Kardashians, but it also gave me David Attenborough, Monty Python and Tina Fey. What will the iBabies give us? My guess is it will be what every generation of tool-users gives us: beauty, joy, mediocrity, banality and diabolical evil. And as for that great art, the pram in the hall now contains a baby with an iPad. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

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First published in The Times and TimesLive

2015: A SPACE ODYSSEY

Pic: Sunday Times LifestyleI know how West Indian bowlers feel. I tried to pin down AB de Villiers for a week and got absolutely nowhere.

My brief was straightforward. Do an in-depth interview with the mercurial middle-order star. Show us the man behind the legend, the bloke behind the scoring machine who reached 7 000 runs in One Day Internationals faster than anyone in history. I emailed the Proteas media liaison with the naïve enthusiasm of a young Caribbean bowler running in to bowl the first over of the morning: with a bit of luck, I thought, this could be in the bag by the first drinks break. The liaison was optimistic that we could find twenty free minutes for a phone-call.

And then De Villiers bludgeoned, walloped, spanked, thrashed and cudgeled 149 off 44 balls in Johannesburg, and overnight went from being a beloved golden boy to an untouchable golden god. Optimistic emails became hedged, then apologetic, and then nonexistent. I wasn’t going to talk to AB after all.

At first I was disappointed. There was so much I wanted to ask him. Where does he go from here? 150 off 43 balls? How does his impossible niceness affect his ability to sledge? (“Call yourself world-class? You’re merely one of the top three talents in your beautiful and culture-rich country!”) But as I watched South Africa steamroll the West Indies into a small maroon puddle in the ODI series, a new thought occurred to me: AB de Villiers deserves better than a sports interview.

We’ve all endured them.

Q: You won the game. How are you feeling?

A: Ja, a lot of credit to the guys, they dug deep and gave 110 percent.

A lot of pressure on you to win the next match?

Ja, a lot of pressure on us to win the next match, for sure.

How are you going to win the next match?

We’re going to dig deep and give 110 percent.

What keeps you motivated?

I like digging deep. And obviously giving 110 percent.

No. Someone who can score at three runs a ball shouldn’t be tied to the laws of journalistic reality. It would have been a crime – vivisection by cliché – to impose the banality of interview on a man whose batting is pure fantasy. And so I decided to conduct an interview with AB de Villiers in a parallel universe in which sports writers can ask anything and sports stars are free to speak their minds. This, then, is the interview I never had with a South African superstar.

TE: Let’s first talk about your incredible record.

ABdV: Thanks, but it’s not really a record, just some songs on YouTube. But the fans seem to like them.

I was thinking more of your status as cricket’s current superstar. Your average over the last few months is mind-boggling.

Thanks, but I don’t really know what that means.

You don’t?

“Average” isn’t in my vocabulary.

So what do you call your records?

I don’t call them. They just come to me.

Oh very good!

Thanks.

On current form you’re the best batsman in the world, but how did it all start? How did the boy become the superstar?

Ag, you know, it was a pretty standard start. My planet was dying and my parents stuffed me in into an escape-capsule, punched in the co-ordinates for Earth, and the rest is history. Well, except that the capsule disintegrated around me as I came through the atmosphere and the heat kind of burnt off my exoskeleton, so that’s why I look human.

We saw you play some outrageous shots during your amazing knock at the Wanderers. The World Cup starts in a fortnight. Can we expect any new shots?

Absolutely. I’m working on something called The Shank, where I leave my crease slightly, well, a lot, actually. Basically I run down the pitch, snap the bowler’s leg, remove his tibia, whittle it with my teeth into the shape of a bat, and then run back into my crease to loft him back over his head for seven.

Six, you mean.

Hey guy, don’t ride your defeatist small-picture thinking into my mental hacienda.

Sorry. But doesn’t the bowler see you coming? And how can he bowl a ball with no shin-bone?

It all happens really fast. You’ve heard the expression “quick hands and feet”? That.

I must apologize in advance for the next question. I’m sure you and the team are all tired of answering it, but it’s something that’s haunted South African cricket for years now.

“How does Faf get his hair to stay so perfect even when he’s been sweating under a helmet for hours?” I know, it’s weird.

No, I mean the issue of choking at World Cups. I’m sorry to bring it up, but it’s something that’s going to be talked about a lot over the next month. So what are your thoughts on choking?

Ja look, it’s a metaphor I don’t really understand because I don’t ever choke.

I know, you always deliver under pressure and you’ve hauled the team out of some really bad –

No, I mean, I am physically unable to choke. My throat can expand to seventeen times the diameter of a human throat. On my home planet this adaptation allows us to feast on the giant eggs of the Eagle-Iguanas that haunt the high plains of X’arrqh, but it’s also great in cricket because it means I can inhale 3000% more oxygen than anyone else. But having said that, yes, the Proteas have a patchy record in World Cups and we’re working hard to remedy that.

Any specific game plan?

Derp. Score more runs than them. Flip man, sports writing is sheltered employment hey?

Sorry I asked. It’s just that a lot of fans are wondering how you cope with being both the mainstay of the batting effort and the wicket-keeper. It must be incredibly demanding on your body. How do you keep so fit?

Actually the problem is staying less fit. My metabolism is very – OK, look, the physiology is complex, but in a nutshell I’m powered by a small neutron star. If I trained like normal athletes the star would explode, destroying all matter, and frankly I’m saving that outcome for in case we ever get into a corner in a Test series against Australia. So essentially to play international cricket I have to spend a lot of time eating pizza and cookie dough and lying in front of the TV.

Any favourite shows?

Game of Thrones. It’s basically a 40-hour batting clinic.

But isn’t it just graphic violence and – oh, I see. Right. Who’s your favourite character in Game of Thrones?

Faf du Plessis.

He’s not in Game of Thrones.

Have you scored 16 000 international runs and the fastest ODI hundred of all time?

OK, sure, now that you mention it, I really liked Faf in Season 3. Moving on. I know the fans are eager to know more about your life off the field, you know, the man behind legend? On your personal website you list a few favourites. Could we talk through them to give the fans a bit more insight into AB the man?

Sure.

So first up, you famously received a medal from Nelson Mandela for a school science project.

Ja, it was a miniature volcano I made in Standard 6.

Oh those are awesome, where you make the cone out of papiermâché and then make it fizz with –

No, it was an actual miniaturized volcano. I carved granite into the shape of a caldera and then injected it with magma at vast pressure. Madiba was very impressed.

You say your favourite movies are Gladiator and A River Runs Through It. The common theme in both is, of course, flies, whether on fishing lures or open wounds. Would you say you enjoy a lot of fly-related art?

No.

OK, let’s move on. Apparently you’re scared of snakes. What exactly about them scares you?

Their teeth. Who did you say your work for again?

Sorry, that was a silly question.

Yes. Yes it was. Maybe ask questions I haven’t already answered on my website.

OK. Um. What’s you’re favourite book?

Hm. I think my favourite book is the rule book. I like to set it on fire with a flame-thrower as I ride past on a grizzly bear.

And when you’re not eating pudding to keep you in shape or actually playing? How do you like to unwind?

I’m actually quite a conventional guy, so I guess I like playing golf with mates, catching up on some series, maybe reading a thriller, playing my guitar, sword-fighting, kite-surfing on the backs of manta-rays, you know, stuff like that. Oh, I also really enjoy cage diving with sharks.

I haven’t done it but apparently it’s a rush.

Totally. They put some Great Whites in a cage and then I dive into the sea next to them and try to get into the cage using nothing but my teeth. It’s rad.

If you could travel back in time and talk to 10-year-old AB, what would you tell him?

I’d say “Calm down, little AB! Stop screaming! I know it’s freaky that a grownup version of yourself just materialized in your bedroom from the future, but I’m here to tell you important facts about the mid-1990s, mostly TV spoilers about what happens to Ross and Rachel and why The X-Files runs out of steam towards the end.”

What are your favourite qualities in a human being?

Forgiveness. You should always forgive people. Except if they are bowlers. Then you must destroy them and sow salt into their run-ups as you listen to the lamentations of their women. Oh, and hope. I love hope. I love to watch it draining out of the eyes of the fielding team as I reverse-paddle a fast yorker for seven over the ‘keeper’s head.

Where do you go from here?

Into space.

No, I meant it more as a rhetorical –

I don’t deal with rhetoric. I deal with facts. And my next mission is to go into space. Do you know how far you can hit a cricket ball in a zero-gravity vacuum? I’ve carved a little message onto a cricket ball with my teeth. It says “Stay away from Earth if you value your shin-bones.” Stephen Hawking estimates there could be billions of life forms out there and not all are going to be friendly.

So you’re…you want to…protect the Earth from, what, predatory extraterrestrial bowlers?

You learn fast.

And how are you going to get into space?

Ag, you know. The normal way. Put on something warmish, a fleece or a jersey or something, and then jump.

Jump. Into space.

Ja, a standing jump.

That seems unlikely.

That innings at the Wanderers seemed unlikely, and yet here we are.

Touche. AB de Villiers, it’s been a pleasure. You are not only a superstar but a gentleman too. Long may you…AB? Hello? Hello AB?

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First published in Sunday Times Lifestyle.