Friday, 14 December 2007

How Pimms helped my social phobia

I suffer from social phobia, which people who know me well find unbelievable because I am, with friends and in small groups, fairly confident, some may even say loud.

The phobia strikes when I’m required to interact with strangers and especially when I’m in crowds. It takes the form of a debilitating shyness that renders me near-speechless; in its most drastic form I may suddenly develop the impression that I’m naked, and even checking and rechecking that I’m wearing clothes doesn’t help. It also manifests physically in the form of an angry red rash that spreads over my chest, neck and face – which is why, when I deliver lectures or give presentations (which, incidentally, terrifies the life out of me), I always wear a scarf.

So as much as I was looking forward to the village’s annual street party a few evenings ago, it was with the usual slight trepidation about whether my social phobia would make things difficult for me.

When I arrived, the party was already in full swing and the village square was packed with people. I felt the usual irrational twinges of anxiety – why was everyone looking at me? had I remembered to put on underwear? did I have a booger dangling from a nostril? – and just when I thought I was going to go into panic mode, my friend V called me over.

She was manning a stand that was selling Pimms at R10 a glass, which she was dispensing from two jugs, one of which was empty.

‘I’ve run out of Pimms,’ she said, picking up the empty jug, ‘and I have to go and mix up some more. Would you mind watching my stall for me for a few minutes?’

And before I could explain to her that there was simply no way I could deal with the general public, she dashed off.

Left without a choice, I moved in behind V’s stall and stood there uncertainly, feeling as if a spotlight had suddenly been turned on me. My chest started heating up, the first sign that the rash was about to climb and spread and turn me into a glowing blob of humanity visible from outer space.

‘Two Pimms, please,’ said someone, waving some money at me.

‘And two for me… no, make that three,’ said someone else.

‘Ooh, that looks delicious, I’ll have one too,’ said a third.

Trying not to let my hands shake too much, I poured the drinks and took the money. More customers kept arriving, and I kept pouring and taking money and giving change, and soon, to my surprise, I realised that I was actually enjoying myself.

‘Is it an English thing?’ someone asked, looking with some suspicion at the fruit-filled jug I was pouring from.

‘I think it is,’ I said. ‘And you should probably drink it on the lawn, under an umbrella, after a rousing game of tennis,’ I added.

‘I don’t play tennis,’ he said, ‘but I’m always happy to sit on the lawn and drink…’

We both laughed – and there I was, right out of the blue, making conversation with people I don’t know from Adam!

By the time V returned with the full jug, the other one was empty. ‘Wow,’ she said. ‘You’re making good sales.’

‘Can I stay here?’ I asked. I’d realised that the fact that I was behind a stall, giving me a degree of separation from the crowd, had made me feel safe.

‘Sure,’ she said.

So I spent the rest of the evening selling Pimms. And chatting to strangers.

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What's the cash value of being a fulltime mother?

I know this is a debate that has been trotted out a gazillion times since women first began burning their bras (or at least wearing sexy ones under their business suits when they attend board meetings), but since a person who is very close to me is currently involved in a vicious fight with her ex husband regarding maintenance, I thought I’d raise it again.

The person – let’s call her Q – has been a fulltime single mother to her two children since her divorce 14 years ago. (Her ex husband has since remarried twice.) She has also always held down a fulltime freelance job, which has enabled her to pay about two-thirds of her children’s monthly expenses.

Her ex, who recently was shafted from a high-paying executive job, now calls himself ‘unemployed’ – despite having received a large golden handshake (or perhaps that should be arsewipe) from his previous employer, plus a monthly ‘retainer’ in excess of what Q earns for doing actual work. That there is nothing to stop him getting another job, or indeed earning a reasonable freelance living as Q has always done, seems to have slipped his mind. As has the fact that for years, while he was earning many times what Q was , he has paid only about a third of his children’s expenses.

But let us forget about the nasty itty-bitties of money per se for the moment, and concentrate rather on the simple mechanics of a full-time mother’s time.

I know, because I have raised children single-handed myself, how much of my time goes to the care of my kids. (I, too, work fulltime, if from home, to support my children.) In an ordinary working day, from the time my little darlings open their sleepy eyes to the moment they lay down their weary heads, I devote anything up to eight hours to the feeding (purchase and prep of food, plus post-meal clean-ups), cleaning (laundry, housework, etc), transport (school, extramurals, friends, entertainment, shopping, etc) and guidance (homework, general chats, hugs and stuff) of my offspring.

Eight hours is, for most people, a normal working day.

And that’s on top of earning a living. (Oh, and trying to have a life.)

The thing is, in terms of the division of costs, how do you put a monetary value on a mother’s time? (And please note my question isn’t should you?, it’s how do you?). Do you apply the minimum domestic workers’ wage (a shamefully low figure, but better than nothing)? Do you give it some sort of specialist price tag (it is, after all, a specialist job, and more so if you’re doing it solo)? Do you provide for leave pay, and if so, how much? (And in the unlikely event the fulltime mother actually gets paid leave, who stands in for her in her absence, and who pays for that?) What about if the mother gets sick – who picks up the slack for her, and how is that compensated? A year-end bonus – is that an option, especially if the absent father is getting a big fat one from his employer?

Q’s ex husband lives a fairly comfortable lifestyle. He has a live-in financially-contributing girlfriend, a car, a motorbike, a mountain bike and a surfboard, a large house with a swimming pool and a fancy garden; property investments; a valuable pension plan and an enviably small bond; he takes holidays if he wants; he shops at Woolies.

Q, by contrast, is a living example of cutting your cloth: her bond is large because she borrows from it constantly (she has to), she shops at Checkers, she does her own gardening and most of her own housework, she has no pension or savings, she never takes holidays (she simply can’t afford to: as a freelancer – a career choice she made consciously in order to be an effective fulltime mother – she won’t get paid if she doesn’t work). While she will be the first to tell you how much she enjoys her life – she clearly adores her kids, and loves raising them – there is no doubt how carefully she has to budget to come out on top. And even then, sometimes – often – she doesn’t.

And the kicker is: she is the fulltime parent. Her ex sees the kids the mandatory twice a month – and even then he has, apparently, complained about how much ‘running around’ he has to do for them. (It’s probably worth mentioning here that, according to Q, her ex has never once helped her out with school-holiday childcare, even when she was desperate because she had to keep working. Why? Because, said he, he had ‘a proper job’. This may only be my point of view, but I think she has two: fulltime mother and fulltime – if freelance – employee.)

Q is the person who, every single day (and very often at night), in sickness and wellness, for richer or poorer, relentlessly and with very few breaks, attends with close and careful attention to the details of her children’s lives that will, eventually and hopefully, turn them into happy, healthy adults. She is solely responsible not only for their physical wellbeing but also for their mental, emotional and spiritual growth – a task that is very hard to compute in terms of filthy lucre.

So: what price do you put on that?

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Sunday, 9 December 2007

Why are some of Jesus’ emissaries telling our young women to ‘submit’?

I’m not a religious fascist but I went to a wedding recently that might turn me into one.

It was a service that disturbed me on many levels but the emphasis – and I mean emphasis – on the wife’s expected ‘submission’ to her husband, even excused and justified as it was, repeatedly, by reference to The Good Book, deeply sickened me.

Do these people, who purport to live ‘in Christ’ (and who, may I mention here in passing, worship The Cross – written like that in their song sheets, with initial capitals – in the kind of way that could bring to mind graven images, false idols and the like), have any idea of the reality of women? Especially in South Africa, do they know that rape is practically pandemic? That women, according, coincidentally enough, to a report in today’s Sunday Times, still earn ‘peanuts’ compared with men? That the abuse of women – spiritual, emotional, financial, physical – is terrifyingly widespread, often inhumanly vicious, sporadically acknowledged, and drastically underreported and under-addressed?

Why, then, was a 20-year-old bride allowed by those who love her and care for her to be married, in ‘the presence of these witnesses here gathered’, to a man of equally tender years who swore to ‘love and lead’ her as long as she swore to ‘love and submit’ to him?

Why were the readings – one from Ecclesiastes, if memory serves; the other a darkly Gothic lesson from Revelations – so intent on pushing home the message that marriage survives only if the wife ‘submits’? (The Ecclesiastes reading was particularly vociferous – it mentioned, too, as did the Revelations reading, how a bride should be ‘clean’; I heard no similar reference to the state of purity, physical or otherwise, of the groom – and it was read by a clearly very sincere young woman. The mind can only boggle.)

Why was the sermon, delivered from typed notes by an intense young man, so hell-bent on pushing womanly submission as the only route for a workable marriage? (Bless his steel-rimmed spectacles, he also tried to deconstruct the Revelations reading for us, his congregation: all I got out of it, and I listened carefully, was the Christ would come again riding a white horse, in robes dripping with blood – and, quite frankly, I just can’t imagine Jesus, a carpenter who befriended prostitutes and fishermen, who turned water into wine at a wedding, who had a Last Supper rather than, say, a Last Judgement, when he knew he was going to die, doing something so ridiculously theatrical.)

Why were the prayers, offered up by a succession of intense young men, so centred on the bride’s submission, so intent on pushing this message home to its – let’s face it – captive audience?

‘Submit’ was a word – an exhortation, really – that came up often enough in the 45-minute ceremony for my father, an old-fashioned 73-year-old guy, to lean over and whisper in my ear, ‘There seems a lot of submitting going on here, don’t you think?’

I had to conclude, on serious subsequent thought, that a powerful emotion drove the ceremony, that something pretty overwhelming caused the necessity for this succession of otherwise intelligent young people to tell an equally intelligent young woman that if she didn’t ‘submit’ to her husband, her marriage was doomed to failure.

And it wasn’t faith.

It was fear.

It wasn’t even fear of disappointing Jesus Christ or burning for eternity in the fires of hell (although, that said, no opportunity was missed to remind we ‘unbelievers’ in the gathering – nasty, dirty sinners that we are – that it was never too late to repent, to turn our lives over to ‘The King’).

It was fear of Woman.

I don’t want to get up on my soapbox (which, of course, I’ve already emptied in the employ of washing my children’s and husband’s raiments), but I have to wonder, given the social climate of the world today, if Jesus would really have objected to a ceremony in which the husband and wife were exhorted to rejoice in a marriage of equals? If both partners agreed to love and honour each other, in health and in illness, riches and poverty, etc, with no-one leading and no-one submitting?

If the husband were gently reminded that if his wife found a higher-paying job than he, and it served his family well, that his dignity could remain unimpaired, and that he shouldn’t feel compelled to beat her for infractions, minor, imagined or otherwise?

If the wife were similarly advised that, in spite of being the childbearer in the family, if she wanted to go off and study exotic plants in the Amazon for a year, and the family could manage the strain, she should feel happy to do so – secure in the knowledge that she was going to ultimately contribute in amazing ways to this Christ-blessed union?

If the husband were told that changing nappies and grocery shopping and doing school runs didn’t detract from his manhood?

If the wife were granted her right to tussle as enticingly in the boardroom as she did in the bedroom?

If the husband were reminded that if he made some stupid-arse decision about the family’s savings, and the wife objected, this is no reason to go out and get drunk with the boys and then go ahead with the stupid-arse decision anyway?

If the wife were exhorted to use her god-given intelligence, spiritual strength, pain-withstanding abilities and emotional superiority to occasionally overrule the husband when it was obviously necessary (and in the nicest possible way)?

But no.

And please don’t come with how the message disseminated at this service could be ‘interpreted’: it was abundantly clear what the message was, and it was repeated many times and in many ways. Simply, it was that marriage – this kind of marriage; the marriage I witnessed with a fair amount of horror – has a chance only if the husband ‘leads’ and the wife ‘submits’. There really wasn’t much room for interpretation.

I hardly know the bride (I’ve met her once, in passing). But I can tell you this: if it had been my daughter being married, I would have been on my feet and screaming. No way would I allow my child – of whatever gender – to enter into a life pact of such alarming unevenness.

Seriously, I’m not being gender-verskrik. If it were my son who was getting married, and he were being asked to promise to ‘love and submit’ while his affiance’s vow was to ‘love and lead’, I would have a problem with that too. As if life isn’t hard enough!

I’ve never had an easy relationship with Christianity, the religion I was born into. I went to Sunday School from age dot to 17, when I was thrown out of the confirmation class for being a ‘disruptive influence’ (what a pity nobody bothered to listen – although I told several adults with ears – to how the minister in charge of the regular Friday-night confirmation youth gathering repeatedly tried to put his big hairy mitts into my panties).

But Jesus and me, we’re okay. I get him and I’m pretty sure, in spite of my pagan ways, he gets me. (Hey, I had a four-year relationship with an ordained minister; I’m no bigot.) And, driving away from that wedding, I was pretty sure he wouldn’t have been okay with what went down there.

Jesus said, ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself.’ For me, that’s one of the most powerful things anybody’s ever said. And I see nothing about submission in it.

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Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Heavy metal

My 16-year-old daughter, who has many talents and skills, is nonetheless not academically inclined, and by midyear it was clear that her promotion to the next grade wasn’t a sure thing. She’s no fan of school, so the notion that her 12-year sentence might be lengthened to 13 was enough of a spur for her to really hit the books for her end-of-year exams.

And hats off to her: she did it. We went to the school to fetch her report yesterday, and not only has she passed, she’s managed to do so in some style.

I made no secret of how I felt about this – I slumped over my steering wheel and murmured, ‘Oh thank god, oh thank god, oh thank god’. And my daughter, who counts rampant opportunism among her many talents and skills, struck while the iron was hot.

‘So, Ma,’ she said in that special tone reserved by teenagers for wheedling things out of unwilling parents, ‘what kind of reward do I get?’

Temporarily brain-damaged by sheer relief, I said the unthinkable: ‘Anything you want.’

Which is how she ended up with a piece of metal through her eyebrow.

It wasn’t easy watching the tattoo artist – a 40something with the super-skinniness of a chain smoker and a highly decorated hide – squeeze a fair bit of my daughter’s flawless facial skin between the points of what looked like a pair of miniature ice tongs, then use a gun of sorts to shoot a thin piece of plastic tubing through.

And when my daughter’s pupils dilated suddenly, she turned pale and she whispered, ‘I feel dizzy, Ma,’ it was all I could do not to slap the tattoo artist to the ground. I clenched my teeth and reminded myself that my daughter actually wanted to be mutilated in this fashion.

The last act in the process was to feed the slender metal post through the plastic tubing and secure each end with a tiny screw. If I’d been watching open-heart surgery I couldn’t have felt more sickened.

But then I remembered being in a cheap Paris hotel on a school tour when I was 16, and piercing my boyfriend’s ear with criminal inexpertness – using a piece of ice from the hotel’s ice machine to numb the lobe and a needle from the complimentary sewing pack to do the deed. There was a fair amount of blood and, a couple of weeks later, an infection that required antibiotics to clear up.

At least, in my daughter’s case, the tattoo artist wore surgical gloves, used sterilised equipment and gave my daughter stern and detailed instructions on the care and cleaning of the piercing.

And, when we were on our way home and my daughter – who couldn’t stop looking at her newly decorated face in the passenger vanity mirror and grinning – said, ‘Thanks, Ma, you’re so cool!’ I sort of felt it was worth it.

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Friday, 30 November 2007

Schools close with a fizzle, not a bang

Last Friday, as my kids were writing their final exams for the year, I got a phonecall from the school registrar. ‘We probably won’t be running the bus service next week,’ she said, ‘because so few kids will be coming to school. But we’ll keep it on if you want to send your two for the last week…?’

(My kids go to school in the next town, about 25km away; the bus picks them up in the morning and delivers them back in the afternoon.)

‘Um, no, that’s okay,’ I said.

When the kids got back from school that afternoon, I told them the good news – that they’d scored an extra week of holiday. ‘Cool,’ they said, and disappeared into their respective bedrooms to hang up their clothes on the floor and play execrable music at earsplitting volumes.

And that was that. End of school for the year.

I find this a bit of a shame. I was no fan of school but I loved the last day. Pupils (we were called ‘pupils’ then, and our teachers were called ‘teachers’; these days it’s ‘learners’ and ‘educators’) were expected to attend school to the very last minute, practically on pain of death. In fact, often there was an exam to write on the last day – something like vocational guidance or religious studies, which we all knew wouldn’t count towards our reports and probably wouldn’t even be marked. But we had to turn up and write it nonetheless.

Then there was the final assembly. It was always held midmorning and often outside in the amphitheatre (big treat!). The headmistress would ramble on about, oh, whatever headmistresses always rambled on about, a few people would get awards, and some keen bean might treat us to a silly self-written ditty accompanied by some other keen bean on guitar.

Then we’d sing ‘Lord, dismiss us with your blessing’. Where school hymns were usually desultory affairs, sung reluctantly and off-key, this final hymn was belted out with enormous enthusiasm, our voices soaring joyfully into the summer air.

And finally – finally! – those magical words: ‘School dismissed!’

Seven hundred pupils, half-mad with post-exam pent-up holiday spirit, would run shrieking from the amphitheatre, throwing things in the air, kissing and hugging friends (and, for that matter, enemies), making and comparing plans… The end-of-year parties would go on for days, driving parents to distraction as they ferried their kids all over town, or had hordes of freedom-frenzied teenagers invade their homes and swimming pools and drink fruit coolers on the sly until they threw up.

Those were the days.

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Thursday, 29 November 2007

Incredibly annoying and unbelievably stupid

Writing on his Thought Leader blog, Riaan Wolmarans has come up with a list of people who should be dragged into the street and shot. 'It’s simply a list of those around me who were seemingly born missing a significant quantity of brain matter, and who therefore constantly act in utter stupidity without any consideration towards the rest of humanity,' he writes.

Wolmarans must be a patient and pragmatic chap, because his list seems to me a very modest one. My personal list, even excluding politicians, estate agents, bigots, Bible thumpers, New Agers, taxi drivers, etc, would fill an entire telephone directory.

So, following Wolmarans's calm and reasoned approach, and in a sincere effort not to be a grumpy old person, I have pared down my own list to a demure nine items.

I wouldn't shoot these people, exactly, but I might manacle them to a chair and make them read the 100 000-or so words spewed since breakfast this morning from the glistening orifice of Ronald Suresh Roberts.

  • people who think traffic circles are four-way stops
  • copywriters who think up stupid, wankerish slogans* for car manufacturers
  • drivers who crawl, inch by agonising inch, towards traffic lights, and then, in a burst of amazing energy, zip through just as they change, leaving you fuming at a red light
  • the person who came up with the idea of making perforations in clingfilm (good idea!) and then spaced the perforations so that each sheet is just too small to cover a salad bowl or plate
  • Anti-evolutionists who say, triumphantly, 'Well, if we're descended from apes, how come there are STILL APES?' (Look in a mirror, troglodyte)
  • The person who invented the rigid, titanium-grade-plastic boxes in which printer cartridges and SIM cards are packaged
  • People who let their dogs poo in the park during walkies, all the while whistling nonchalantly, pretending not to notice that Simba's just dropped a steamer
  • Poephols People who whine about crime, then merrily break thirty traffic laws on their way to the shop to buy milk and bread
  • Vapid celebutarts who say to interviewers, 'I'm a terribly very private person,' and then invite glossy magazines into their homes to photograph their babies

  • It took steely self-discipline to put together that list. Feel free to add to it (remember, no politicians, etc).

    * For example (and these are doubly stupid in a husky, fake-French woman's whisper, or a gravelly how-elephantine-is-my-dick growl).

    shift_expectations; shift_convention (Nissan)
    auto emocion (VW)
    vorsprung; vorsprung durch technik (Audi)
    Zoom-Zoom (Mazda)

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    Tuesday, 27 November 2007

    Pet pandemonium

    Years ago, when my kids were little, I was prevailed upon to take them to a birthday party. It was all I’d expected it would be: awash with small people on screaming sugar highs and moms drinking tea. I snuck into the kitchen, found the cooking sherry, poured myself a stiff one, and went and perched at the back of the living room where a puppet show was in progress, at an open window so I could have a cigarette without invoking the wrath of the other mothers or poisoning the pretty pink lungs of their offspring.

    The guy doing the puppet show had a strange little furry mitt on one of his hands which he introduced to his rapt audience as his pet. ‘And do any of you have pets?’ he asked, looking around at the little sea of expectant faces.

    My daughter, a loudmouth even then, was sitting right in the front, and piped up, ‘We don’t!’

    ‘Oh,’ said puppet guy. ‘And why’s that?’

    ‘Because my mom hates pets,’ my daughter said, and an entire roomful of disappointed human beings, young and old, turned and glared at me. I blew a plume of smoke out the window, took a hefty sip of sherry and said, ‘Cheers!’ There wasn’t really anything else I could do.

    The thing is, it was the truth back then. I couldn’t stand cats because the small house we lived in was one of the only dwellings in the neighbourhood with a patch of garden to call its own, and it was used liberally by the neighbourhood feline population as a toilet. As a result, in summer, we could hardly open the windows because of the smell.

    We didn’t have the space for a dog, and anyway, I didn’t want an animal whose crap I’d have to personally dispose of every day.

    Under pressure from my kids, I’d done goldfish. After stinking out the house for a few months, they ended up belly-up. I was immensely relieved.

    And we’d inherited a hamster – unwillingly – from someone who’d had to leave town in a hurry. The stupid thing slept all day, ran loudly on its wheel all night, and was eventually squeezed to death by an overenthusiastic four-year-old visitor. I was sad for the method of its passing but not for the fact of it.

    So it’s hard to rationalise why I now have a special-needs dog and four cats. The honest, if slightly bizarre, explanation is that most of them simply turned up at my house and wouldn’t go away. Those that didn’t were (reluctant) rescues of various kinds.

    My small zoo has cost me a large fortune over the years. Between sterilisations and vaccinations, ear mites and birdlice, allergies and injuries, I’ve forked out more moolah for my animals’ continuing good health than I ever have for my own or my children’s.

    Last week’s visit to the vet was a corker, though. I realised that one of my cats, Evan, normally a chatty, happy creature, had become somewhat withdrawn, and his breath was bad. And I mean not just normal yucky cat-breath bad. Really, really bad.

    So off we went, Evan in a cat basket and yowling all the way, to the animal hospital. The vet (who, bless him, has to exercise immense self-control not to rub his hands together in fiscal delight when he sees me coming) listened to my story, lifted the lid on the cat basket, took a gander at Evan’s gums, reeled back a couple of steps, and said, ‘You’re going to have to leave him overnight.’

    Evan had advanced periodontal disease, a serious ailment in cats that can lead to organ failure. He had to be put under anaesthetic and have a dentist (a real, live, honest-to-god dentist) operate on him, after which there were five days of trying to get antibiotics down his gullet morning and evening, an exhausting process than involved, mainly, Evan scratching the crap out of me while I tried to prise his little jaws open, then running round the corner and spitting out the pill before taking off for the day and hiding in the roof. Oh, and, of course, my bank account is lighter by about a grand.

    Was it worth it? Well, let me put it this way. When I lay me down to sleep at night, with The Wobbly Dog twitching in her basket by my bed, and four cats stationed immovably at various inconvenient points around my body (have you ever tried to shift a comfortable cat? I don’t know how, but they make themselves as heavy as lead), at least all I have to deal with are the normal givings-off of domestic animals – hair in abundance, farts, grunts and purrs. The terrible cat-breath stink is gone, and Evan is happy and chatty again.

    And, hell, it’s only money.

    PS This reminds me of my sister’s embarrassment, when her then 5-year-old daughter’s preschool teacher asked for ‘a word’ (a mother’s worst nightmare) when she came to fetch her child one day.

    ‘The thing is,’ said the teacher, ‘I went around the class and asked the kids what pets they had. Your daughter said you had dogs, and when I asked what kind, she answered, ‘‘Fuckens’’.’

    ‘Well,’ said my sister, making her eyes wide with mystification, ‘I don’t know what she meant. We have a border collie and a maltese poodle.’

    But she and her husband had to amend their attitude to their dogs, both of whom were incessant barkers. And when they woke the neighbourhood with a bout of yapping late at night, they had to remember not to scream out in irritation, ‘Shut up, you fucking dogs!’

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    Sunday, 25 November 2007

    How dirty is your keyboard?

    If you spend any amount of time in front of a keyboard, you'll agree that turning it upside down and giving it a good couple of thumps is a useful way to pass a few hours while you wait for Facebook to open.

    A lot of human, mineral and vegetable matter tends to come out of a well-used, well-slapped keyboard. If you're the average user of a PC, I can imagine that you'll find lurking under those keys some dust, a few crumbs, the odd pet hair, a skin-flake or two; perhaps even a paper clip or staple, and - if you're lucky - a furry breath-mint.

    Not me. Read on if you have the stomach for it.

    When I got so disgusted with the stickiness and grunginess of my keyboard the other day, I decided to take action. Because I didn't want to fritter away the hours on such a mundane task, I grabbed a box of ear-buds, a kitchen scourer and some window-cleaning detergent, and I dialled up the Johannesburg City Council to complain about my electricity account (sorting this out takes at least an hour, if you're lucky). With phone cradled between ear and shoulder, and with the help of a metal nail file, I popped all the keys off the keyboard, and cunningly layed them, in sequence, on the desk. My idea was to spritz them with Windolene, rub off the sticky bits, and then pop them back on again as I finished my call to the Council.

    From the space under the keys, I blew/scraped/extracted/mined the following:

    -1 kg cat and dog hair (how can this be? Are the little devils creeping through the window at night and sleeping on the keyboard?)
    -2 kg assorted crumbs 'n flakes 'n pips (including biltong, Lays chips, mascara bits, granadilla pips, pistachio-nut shells, etc)
    -1 kg cigarette ash (I blush)
    -2 kg sticky stuff, comprising, in descending proportions, coffee, white wine, Coca-Cola and assorted dark matter
    - and (eeeeeeu, EEEEEEUUU!) three tiny cockroaches, and their pitiful nest, located between the 'Print Screen' and the 'Scroll Lock' keys.

    A few cans of insecticide met my keyboard, and I vacated my office for the day. The next morning, I scrubbed and rinsed the keys, and popped them all back onto the keyboard in their correct order.

    Sfn gjren o wote hjis nkih oady, stbt o yjw vkwbqt dyxjwe?.

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    Jamie Oliver disses Angelina Jolie's baby name

    Oh, this made my Sunday, it really did.

    Celebrity cook Jamie Oliver, in a slip of the tongue during a TV interview with Her Gorgeousness Angelina Jolie, called Jolie's daughter 'Piloh Shitt' instead of 'Shiloh Pitt'. Talk about a Freudian slit!

    Read the full story at my favourite that disgusting celebrity gossip site

    How could - I mean, REALLY, how could? - St Angelina of Ethiopia call her baby such a name in the first place? Didn't she learn about spoonerisms in her high-school English class?

    She's not the worst inventer of embarrassing names I've heard of, though. My son had a child in his school called Michael Hunt, and everyone, including his own parents, called him Mike. Can you imagine his mortification at roll-call? (And were his parents ever tempted to name his brother 'York'?)

    The Net is awash with silly names, most of which I'm sure are apocryphal, but I can tell you for a fact that my mother-in-law had a friend called Rika Garlic. There's also an Eric Chen at a school I'm associated with.

    My favourite, though, is a lovely girl I met at varsity, whose name was Mona Lotz.

    Hell, that would have been a good name for me.

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    Saturday, 24 November 2007

    All this verbification really goats me; I feel like kululaing Nike

    I nearly swallowed my steering wheel the other day when I spotted a new* billboard, draped over a pedestrian bridge across Jan Smuts Avenue. It wasn't the ditzy, squint-eyed picture of a Kulula trolley-dolly that shocked me (although I have to say that I don't want to fly with any airline whose crew members think their job is a big joke); it was the slogan. 'COME FUN WITH US!' blared the billboard.

    Come fun with us? Huh? How do you 'fun' with an airline? Crack a few jokes as flames erupt from the wing? Whip a pistol from your knickers and shout 'April Fool!'? Deploy the emergency slides in mid-air and shout, 'Jumping castle, everyone!'

    Most important, when did 'fun' become a verb? Which perforated septum of a copywriter thought this one up?

    Look, I love how elastic English is, and adore buzzwords, but all this verbing (shudder!) is getting on my nerves. (Wikipedia has an interesting piece about verbification. The article quotes a Calvin and Hobbes strip that ended with the words, 'Verbing weirds language' - exactly!)

    Click on the image to read the bubbles:

    Now feeling sensitised to verbing, I've spotted the following in the past few weeks:

    'This is how I war'. (A slogan for Nike, who have also tastefully draped their banners all over Johannesburg. I sincerely hope that Dubya doesn't pick up on this one: 'Heck, let's war 'em!'. )

    'We're going to re-purpose this chair, honey!' (An annoying host on an American home-makeover programme called How Tacky is My Trailer, or something along those lines)

    'Sure, I'll action that immediately!' (a consultant at a call-centre I phoned last week)

    I flatulence in their general direction.

    * Kulula does deserve a great big kiss, though, for their cheeky response to our Labour Department's infantile accusation that the company won't hire black cabin crew because they can't swim.

    Here's the email I got this morning (or bits of it; sorry it's too wide to see):

    Have you heard the daft claim by our super-efficient Department of Labour that we don't hire crew who cannot swim? What a joke!

    In fact we hire tons of talented, vibrant and spunky crew members all the time and many of them can't swim, but make sure that before they take to the skies, they know not only how to swim but also how to life-save and handle the unbelievably unlikely event of a water emergency.

    Anyway, our crew were so miffed that some people think they can't swim that they had to take a dip in the pool this week to cool off. We thought you may want to meet some of our sexy swimmers.

    Vicky Mpho Mildred
    Vicky Smith
    "the shark"
    Mpho Gumede
    Mildred Mohale

    Siphokazi Yolisa

    Siphokazi Nozewu
    Yolisa Dumezweni

    Robin Cleopatra Pandora
    Robin Tindell
    Cleopatra Dhlamini
    Pandora Ndungane

    Oh and if you ever though about joining the kulula cabin crew team, why not send us your CV, with a full length and head shot photo to We're looking for South Africans of all colours. We are pretty fussy though and qualifying criteria include not just a vibrant and bubbly personality but also a height prerequisite of between 1.58m and 1.83m (sorry, you need to be able to reach the overhead luggage compartments), a grade 12 qualification and a minimum of three years of customer service training or experience. The ability to swim is, of course, not a deal breaker!

    And don't forget that you can still book a trip to your favourite swimming destination this summer on our brand new website - check it out and if you have a minute, let us know what you think.

    See you in the water!

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    Wednesday, 21 November 2007

    Back from planet Tickbite Fever

    It is a much purified Mur who writes to you today. Not a whiff of nicotine nor drop of alcohol has passed my lips in two weeks and I’m feeling immensely cleansed.

    And terribly, terribly boring.

    Sadly, though, my dear old body – that entertainment centre that has served me so well and for so long – has made it very clear that if I so much as think about any substance more fun than, say, a cup of rooibos tea, it will instantly revert to where it was a week ago, which is to say at death’s door (or what felt like it, anyway).

    I have to admit that, cavalier as I am about most physical ailments (when one has hangovers as often as I do, cavalier is the only way to be), when the doc gave me a hefty injection and told me sternly that if I didn’t stop hurling within the hour I would have to be hospitalised, I was a little alarmed. I would have been more alarmed, I daresay, had I not been trying to prevent my head splitting into seventy-two separate pieces. (The word ‘crippling’ in association with a tickbite-fever headache kept coming up. Believe me, it’s an accurate description.)

    I may have clocked a bit earlier in the process that something was wrong (like, seriously wrong, not just 10-too-many-glasses-of-wine wrong) had I not also woken up on that fateful Tuesday two weeks ago with, yes, a hangover. In fact, in the early hours of that morning – at 5am, if I am to be very honest – my 16-year-old daughter came through to the living room, where my friend K and I were playing very loud Bob Seger and had been for hours, and behaving in an extremely irresponsible manner, and said, ‘Mom! TURN DOWN THE MUSIC! I’M TRYING TO SLEEP!’


    And even though I was actually up with my exam-writing teenage children a short while later, as the sun was rising, giving them uncalled-for advice about their forthcoming ordeal (‘Read ALL the questions; concentrate; don’t cheat’), my kids were still miffed at me for being such a crap mom.

    Not that I can blame them. My daughter (who’s recently and without any forewarning become militantly vegetarian, and sneers at me when I have a lamb chop), said, while I was wielding the Cornflakes package and dispensing yet more unwelcome advice (‘Take your vitamins; why are you having so much Marmite on that?; who’s having coffee?’), ‘And do us a favour: don’t talk to us while your teeth are black, okay?’

    (It is my dental hygienist’s fault. She has spent so many years conscientiously scraping the plaque off my enamel that there’s no enamel left. So one glass of red wine and I appear to have dunked myself jaw-first into a barrel of indigo. It's a dead giveaway.)

    My poor kids. What a genuine horror to have such an unsuitable parent.

    Which is why I was so thrilled to read in the Sunday Times a few weeks ago that ‘perfect parents have the most miserable children’. Many hats off to Women24 editor Sam Wilson (who has two small boys of her own, and has been known to get pissed and make inappropriate suggestions to people next to her at the bar), whose survey concluded that ‘parents should take time out for themselves and not smother their children’.

    Well, there you go. Not that it made any difference to my kids when I slapped the article down in front of them early that morning. My son laughed a hollow kind of laugh; my daughter looked at me the way I look at her when I’ve given her a curfew of midnight and she finally stumbles in at 1am.

    And not that it made any difference to my hangover to end all hangovers, which was first misdiagnosed as malaria then, four days later, correctly as tickbite fever.

    What it has done is made me too scared to drink. I just can’t imagine feeling like that ever again, even if this time it really is only a hangover. I can see it’s going to be a very sober festive season.

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    Friday, 16 November 2007

    A mother-f**cking moer of a hailstorm!

    Ye Gads, but the weather went beserk this evening - we had hailstones the size of small peaches, several broken and cracked windows, and many smashed roof tiles. My garden has been shredded, there is splintered glass and water all over the house, and the lawn is carpeted in white.

    I'm not exaggerating about the size of the hail-stones. I have a plateful of them in the freezer, and will post a photograph of them tomorrow when my dearly beloved arrives home with his digital camera.

    It was a perfect day in Johannesburg - ferociously hot, with a soaring blue sky and not a whisper of wind. At about 3.30 pm the clouds started to gather, within half an hour there was an angry knot of a storm hovering directly above our house. Half an hour later, the light faded suddenly, almost to full dark, and a strange yellow light fell through the windows. Seconds later the wind was howling and hopping around the house like a demented goblin. I looked out of the window to see a cloud in a nasty shade of dirty yellow-ochre boiling - and I mean BOILING - over the tops of the trees. The only time I've ever seen such dangerous-looking clouds is on those interminable Discovery Channel doccies about American tornadoes.

    When the wind started to whine like a siren, I decided to go into emergency mode, and herded the kids (there were three of them in the house; my eight-year-old, her friend, and my 14-year-old son) into an internal passage where I thought they'd be safe. A minute later, there was a gun-shot sound as enormous hailstone punched through the roof tiles above our heads and bounced against a skylight window. Then came pop-tinkle sounds - the hailstones were so big that they were breaking panes of glass around the house. Within minutes, half the clear-plastic roof tiles in the house was smashed to smithereens.

    This was the moment for some decisive panicking. I herded the kids into the Cupboard Under the Stairs - shades of Harry Potter here - and packed the quivering dogs in too. Once they were all settled, I draped a thick blanket around myself, grabbed my video camera from a drawer, and did a small household patrol to check out the damage.

    Which is as follows:

    2 smashed windows
    5 cracked windows
    About 12 shattered roof tiles
    Garden destroyed
    Nerves in tatters

    Hell, is this global warming?

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    Wednesday, 14 November 2007

    Where's Muriel? Parasite attack

    If any of you are suffering a Muriel deficiency - and I know I am - she's not a well girl at all. At first the doctor thought she had malaria, but now he says it's tick-bite fever. The last sms I got from her said, 'I'm so fucking sick of feeling so fucking sick' - poor old Mur. I am hoping to speak to her tomorrow and will send you more news.

    I once had tick-bite fever, and I've never felt so ill in my life. It was worse than childbirth au naturel . I woke up moaning (after a heavy night of carousing with friends) with the nastiest headache of my life, and received not an ounce of sympathy from the comatose bodies draped all over my house, whose only comment was that I shouldn't have drunk so much. No amount of Coke and aspirin helped.

    Twenty-four hours laters my neck had seized completely and my head was so sore I thought I was having a stroke. Then I noticed a black spot on my big toe, and after a spot of Net surfing realised I might have tick-bite fever. (I'd stayed with friends at a cattle and game ranch in the Northern Province of South Africa a few weeks earlier). An antibiotic quickly cleared it up but I felt shocking for months afterwards.

    There are quite a few nasty lurgies you can pick up from parasites in South Africa as as a whole, including tick-bite fever, malaria, bilharzia (schistosomiasis) and, further up in Africa, Leishmaniasis, Elephantiasis, and the disgusting Guinea worm disease (Dracunculiasis), which - have you had your dinner yet? - involves a worm hatching in your flesh. It grows up to three feet long. A burning blister or ulcer appears on your legs, and a few days later the worm pokes its head out, blinking and looking bewildered, I imagine.

    The normal way to rid oneself of the worm is to wind the head around a stick, and give the stick a turn every day. After a few excruciating weeks, the entire worm emerges, centimetre by centimetre, like a piece of wet spaghetti. Interestingly (I discovered this a few years ago when I wrote a magazine feature about parasitic diseases) it's thought that the worm-round-a-stick cure, which has been used for millennia, might be the origin of the staff-and-serpent symbol of medicine - the Rod of Asclepius.

    Then there's the revolting putzi or mango fly, which lays its eggs in damp clothes. After a while, pustules appear on your skin, and the maggots pop out. Nice, eh? You don't get these much in South Africa, but when I was a baby in Zambia, everything I wore was ironed twice with a very hot iron to kill any eggs. The way to kill a worm is to cover the pustule (isn't that a a great word?) with Vaseline (petroleum jelly), which suffocates the little bastard.

    How on earth did I get on to this topic? Oh, Muriel.

    If you have a cheering message for her, post it here, and I'll forward it to her.

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    Thursday, 8 November 2007

    Is it immoral to throw books away?

    I was flabbergasted, the other day, to drive into my daughter's school and see a pile of some 600 or 700 books lying discarded in the driveway, next to the paper-recycling skip. My flabbergastation soon turned to incredulity when I dived into the pile and found a whole load of wonderful books from the sixties and seventies, many of which were my constant companions as a child.

    I tackled the headmistress of the junior school, who was walking past at the time, and asked her if I could help myself to some of the books, and load the rest into my boot to take to my local library, which has a book sale every year to raise funds for new titles. She was bewildered: "I don't know anything about this, but if they're going to be thrown away, you're more than welcome to them."

    I was so pleased by this unexpected windfall (I am nutty about children's books) that I thought I'd better double-check that no-one would take offence. So I phoned the school's junior library and asked the person who answered the phone if she'd mind my carting the books away. "No problem!" she said. "We've withdrawn them from the library and you are welcome to them."

    I spent a happy hour sifting through piles and piles of books, emitting little mews of joy whenever I came across a book that I'd loved as a child. I sorted them into three piles: books to keep to read to my own daughter, books to take to the library sale, and books fit only for the skip (the Sweet Valley High series and the Goosebumps books fell into this category). The pile was so big that I managed to get through only half of it, so I went back the next day to finish the job.

    Another school mother was rummaging through the pile, and she looked furious. 'How CAN they throw books away?' she said. 'In a country with schools that have no books at all, how can they just dump them?' She told me she'd already complained to the headmistress - who, again, had no idea that a book-dump was in progress, and who promised to look into it. I heartily agreed with the school mother, and we had a long talk about books, reading, libraries and literacy.

    Feeling all virtuous, I took two bootloads to my local library, where they were gratefully accepted. All the librarians, save one, shared my outrage that books should be dumped in the road. The save-one librarian commented - and she has a point here - that borrowers don't want old, tattered books: they want crisp new books with shiny new covers. "Libraries have to get rid of old books," she said. "We have limited shelf space and we can't hang onto the old books forever."

    Ok, fair enough. Discard the boring, dog-eared, yellowed ones to make way for Harry Potter, Junie B Jones, and their ilk, but please don't throw the old books in the road. Give them to an impoverished school, or have a book sale, or hand them out for free to passers-by. I admit that old books have virtually no value at all in a country where illiteracy is a serious challenge, but you never know... if just one bright kid in a poor school picks up a book by Tolkien or CS Lewis or Rumer Godden or Jack London or Charles Dickens or Shakespeare, or any dusty old genius, and is moved and inspired and electrified by that book, then something remarkable has happened.

    Excuse me for carrying on (said she, warming to the topic) but I'm also irked by the the fact that children's classics are no longer considered attractive reading material for children. In the dump of books I found several books (including a handful of handsome first editions) by luminaries such as Richmal Crompton, Monica Dickens, Rumer Godden, C.S. Lewis, Joan Aiken, Enid Blyton, Gerald Durrell, Mary Stewart, Astrid Lindgren, J R R Tolkien, Jane Gardam, and so on. Gulliver's Travels, Heidi, Black Beauty, What Katy Did, Charlotte's Web, Three Children and It - the list goes on and on. Ok, these classics are likely to be reprinted now and then, and maybe they'll find their way onto the shelves of your child's school library. Then again, maybe not.

    And what a great pity that is.

    An afterthought: I found one copy of a book, a first edition with a good dust jacket, printed in the 1970s, that is so rare that, even with its library markings, it can fetch a handsome sum (around 500 Euros). If I sell it, do I keep the money and buy more books for myself, or do I give the money to the school who discarded it? Answers on a postcard.

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    Saturday, 3 November 2007

    'Come here, and let me smack God'

    Thinking about my friend Donald (who has two littlies under 3 and is expecting another in February, eeek!), I remembered a conversation I had with my then 5-year-old son in Donald’s presence. My son asked – as children do, and expect a simple answer – ‘Mom, where’s god?’

    Swilling back a large mouthful of gin and tonic, I wondered where to even start with this. Then inspiration struck: Donald has people in his family who are actual card-carrying members of the church, so I swiftly passed the buck: ‘Donald,’ I said, ‘why don’t you handle this one?’

    Donald, never one to duck a challenge (I once woke him up at 3am and insisted he ascend Table Mountain with me, with nothing but garlic sandwiches – yes, bits of garlic on bread – to accompany us; I was profoundly pissed and what he should have done was bark furiously at me; instead, he gamely went with me, and if that isn’t genuine friendship I don’t know what is), took the matter firmly in hand.

    ‘Well,’ he began, ‘god is in the trees around us; in the water we drink; in the air we breathe, the things we smell and hear…’ and so he went on. My son soaked up every word, and we both listened, fascinated, right up to the delicious wind-up: ‘And,’ Donald concluded, touching my little boy gently in the middle of his chest, ‘god is in you.’

    I was impressed; my child was entranced.

    ‘Wow!’ I said, as my son wandered off, looking awe-struck. ‘That was fabulous!’

    The next morning Donald’s fabulousness came home to roost. I spent a brief few moments in the shower (when there are small children in the house and no-one to eagle-eye them while you’re doing the necessaries, ‘a few brief moments’ are all you’re allowed for anything) and when I came out I discovered that my son had found a fat black wax crayon, with which he’d scribbled extravagantly all over the lounge wall. I knew it was my son’s doing, because he was still standing there, crayon in hand, admiring his handiwork.

    I clapped a hand to my forehead. ‘Good gracious me,’ I said (give or take a few expletives), ‘WHAT ARE YOU DOING???’

    He looked at me and instantly clocked the incipient hysteria in my eyes. And very quickly he said, ‘You know how Donald said god was in me, hey, Mom?’

    I made some sort of noise that he took to be in the affirmative but was actually me trying not to swallow my tongue.

    ‘Well, I didn’t do this,’ he said. ‘God did.’

    ‘Fine,’ I said. ‘Then come here and let me smack god.’

    (I didn’t really say that last bit. It only occurred to me days later. Damn.)

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    Monday, 29 October 2007

    ABBA and the power of imperfection

    I’ve just spent the afternoon watching an ABBA DVD and now I can’t wipe the smile off my face.

    I’ve always loved ABBA. I loved them, unashamedly, even when all my friends were into Golden Earring and Black Sabbath, and so much as acknowledging ABBA’s existence made you unutterably naff.

    I remember watching many of the videos now collected on this DVD when they were originally flighted on SATV, on Pop Shop; in some cases, I even remember what I was wearing at the time and what the weather was like.

    Then, I thought Agnetha and Frida the pinnacle of female flawlessness, and the videos the last word in creative camerawork. Now, aside from wallowing in happy nostalgia, I’m so charmed at how very imperfect the members of ABBA were, and how clunkily the videos were made.

    Reading the sleeve notes and counting on my fingers, I was surprised to find that Frida was in her 30s at the height of the band’s popularity – only five years younger than my mother was then. But that would explain why, in many of the videos, she appears to have just got out of bed after a night on the tiles. At 16, I didn’t see the puffiness under her eyes, her wrinkles, her harshly dyed hair; I didn’t notice, then, that her teeth were crooked and stained. And neither, evidently, did the cameraman, whose favourite focus was, long and lovingly, on her mouth.

    Agnetha, ‘the girl with the golden hair’, had lovely teeth (I’d guess she was the non-smoker), but very small boobs and a generous bottom, both of which she stuffed into Latex of various colours and shimmied with wonderfully sexy self-confidence.

    (I also don’t recall Bjorn being so outrageously camp, yet there he is, on the DVD, a leatherette-clad prototype Captain Jack Sparrow. And Benny, his entire head save his tiny eyes practically obscured by hair, grins into camera with a gormlessness that is frankly disturbing.)

    Nowadays, of course, no female pop star would be seen dead with anything less than a porn star’s tits and a boy’s bum. If ABBA were performing today, the women’s teeth would have been straightened (Agnetha’s famous gap would be no more) and bleached, Frida’s hairdresser would have been fired, and the director of the videos would have been relegated to producing high-school plays.

    Watching the DVD (and particularly ‘Chiquitita’, featuring an unruly wind machine that continually blows Frida’s hair into her eyes, to the extent that she finally clamps it down with a hand; and a technician who scurries onto the set halfway through and disappears mysteriously behind a giant snowman – no retakes there) I realised what an age of innocence ABBA represents. Aside from the fact that both couples married and divorced during the 10 years of the band’s glory days, there was never any hint of scandal – no drugs, no irate hotel managers wondering where to send the bill for damages, no panty-less appearances on the red carpet, no falling drunkenly out of nightclubs, no sleazy dalliances with unsuitable people… (And little or no paparazzi, I suppose.) It was all just so breathtakingly naïve.

    I miss it.

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    Friday, 26 October 2007

    Running with chainsaws

    ‘We’re off this weekend to the cottage to chop down trees,’ my friend Donald wrote to me from Scotland this week. ‘This is always a satisfying challenge though it does rather expose my unsuitability for prolonged physical labour. There’s also the task of keeping toddlers sufficiently far away from chainsaws/falling trees/bonfires – all of which they’re absolutely fascinated by.’

    Donald and his wife have two littlies under 3 and another due in February. Which just goes to show that there’s nothing you can do to stop people breeding. Donald spent large chunks of time with me when I was single mother to two kids under 3 and I rather thought it would have put him off for life. Perhaps the passage of time just dimmed the memory of the horrors. That, or he’s a sucker for punishment.

    On the subject of chainsaws, my FB, whose primary purpose for me is sexual gratification, is occasionally permitted to turn his attentions to other things in my life, specifically the vast wild piece of ground below my house that more organised people would be able to call a garden. There are dozens of trees, all of which grow with unbridled enthusiasm. When the entire plot finally disappears under a canopy of tree overgrowth, my FB brings his chainsaw round.

    Once, while he was outside wielding it, my father phoned. During the conversation, he asked, ‘What’s that noise?’

    ‘It’s A, with a chainsaw,’ I replied.

    A, who is charming and delightful most of the time, does occasionally go on alarming mental benders. So there was a fearful pause before my father said in a low voice, ‘Get out of there. Don’t even stop to find your handbag. Just run.’

    ‘Don’t be silly, Daddy, he’s pruning the trees,’ I said.

    At that moment there was a shriek from the garden, followed by a strange humming silence that meant the chainsaw had stopped. ‘I must go,’ I told my father. ‘I think A’s hurt himself.’

    I put down the phone and ran outside, where I saw A sitting on the ground, cradling a hand. A series of stomach-curdling images ran through my mind: spurting arterial veins, lopped-off fingers, macerated thumbs.

    ‘What happened? Are you okay?’ I shouted, running towards him.

    He said in a slightly wobbly but very brave voice, ‘I’m cut.’

    Reaching him, I bent down to help him up. ‘Have you lost much blood?’ I asked (although, rather surprisingly, there wasn’t any in evidence).

    ‘Not too much,’ he said, weakly, while I helped him onto the verandah and into a chair.

    ‘Here, let me see,’ I said.

    He held out his apparently injured hand. I took it gently and turned it over.

    ‘Where?’ I asked.

    He gave me an annoyed look. ‘There!’ he said, pointing to a small laceration, the kind of cut you may give yourself if you’re shaving your legs in a hurry.

    I tried to keep a straight face, really I did, but I just wasn’t up to the task. So while I lay on the verandah floor and cried with mirth, A took himself, with great dignity, into the bathroom, where he scrabbled in the medicine cabinet for a Band-Aid.

    Stalking out past me, where I was still writhing and howling on the verandah floor, he said, furiously, ‘Next time you cut yourself with a chainsaw, don’t come crying to me.’

    It’s probably just as well men don’t shave their legs.

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    Tuesday, 23 October 2007

    My handbag eats my cellphone

    What do you do when your handbag rings? You reach deep into the bag and skoffel around, of course. Now, if you're a girl, you will know that the thing you are rummaging for will be the very last item you find (and then only after you've furiously shaken out the contents of your bag.) I call this Lady Bracknell's Law. If, for example, you're looking for your lipstick, you will pull out a pen, a pencil, an apple core, a battery, a lighter, a tampon and a roll of peppermints before you find the lipstick (which, if it is my lipstick, will emerge lidless, squashed, and lightly crumbed with tobacco dust). Parking tickets are the worst offenders: they burrow into nests of till slips, or slide into your purse and try to pass themselves off as business cards. Not a bad strategy - where do you hide a leaf, if not in a tree?).

    Anyway, I have finally come up with a solution to the ringing handbag. I've changed the setting on my cell phone so that you can answer a call by pressing any button on the phone. When my handbag rings when I am in, say, the car, or a shop, I give it a thumping great wallop and a rough shake so that the phone knocks against the peppermints and answers itself. Then I open my bag, put it to my mouth and shout into its echoing Stygian depths, "Helloooooo! Sorry, but my bag has eaten my phone! Try again in ten minutes or leave a message!".

    It works. Just today, my son said to me, 'I had a weird call from you today. I could hear your voice echoing faintly in the background, but there were also some strange whispers and sniggers and rustlings of paper.'

    Is my handbag haunted?

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    'What's wrong with South Africans?' Oops.

    My father’s an impatient fellow. He’s the master of the snappy response and expects the same in return. And he’d rather have his eyes sucked out by a giant squid than stand in a queue.

    So you can imagine his frustration when he rushed into the bank early on a Saturday morning to cash a cheque and was confronted by a veritable boa constrictor of people.

    Sighing loudly with impatience, he joined the back of the queue, no doubt huffing and puffing and craning his neck to see what the hold-up was, and probably shuffling forward a little too close to the person in front of him and making everyone a lot more tense than they needed to be.

    Twenty minutes later he finally got his turn at the cashier. He slapped the cheque down on the counter and said, ‘I need to cash this, quick.’

    The cashier looked at it long and hard. She turned it over and looked at the other side. Then she slid it back over the counter to my father and said, ‘Sorry, sir, I can’t cash this…’

    Before she could say another word, my father did a passable impression of an exocet (which, for those who may not know, is a tactical missile with a high-explosive warhead).

    WHAT???!’ he screamed, loud enough to cause the entire queue behind him to sway back, like a very subtle Mexican wave.

    ‘THIS IS A PERFECTLY GOOD CHEQUE!’ my father yelled. ‘It’s got the right date on! It’s crossed! It’s signed! The figures match the written words! And you tell me you can’t cash it?’

    ‘Yes, sir,’ said the cashier, paling and quailing. ‘You see…’

    NOW WHAT THE BLOODY HELL IS IT?’ shouted my father. ‘Is it that effing FICA nonsense again? I’ve been FICA’d seventy-seven times! You people make me sick! You really think some international money-launderer is going to stop using you as a country-sized washing machine just because you ask him to show you his bloody ELECTRICITY BILL???!!!’


    But my father was now on a roll and not to be stopped. He turned to the queue (which was every bit as long as when he’d stepped into the building) and appealed to the people lined up quietly and politely behind him. ‘WHAT’S WRONG WITH SOUTH AFRICANS???’ he remonstrated furiously. ‘We put up with the most unholy shit from our so-called financial institutions’ and here he crooked his fingers into inverted commas so hard you could hear his knuckles crack, ‘and for what? So they can STEAL OUR MONEY, that’s what. So they can give us APPALLING SERVICE, that’s what!’

    Then he snatched back his cheque. ‘FINE!’ he barked. ‘DON’T cash it then! Call yourself a BANK?!!!’

    ‘Actually, sir, we don’t,’ said the cashier. ‘You’re in the Post Office.’

    (This is a true story.)

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    Monday, 22 October 2007

    Rugby for girls II

    We didn’t make it to our local to watch the Cup final but as it turned out several people weren’t keen to hunker down with the masses so they came to my place instead.

    It was a disparate gathering that consisted of: three single Woman Of A Certain Age (including me); one Schnapps-swilling teenager; my friends Raymondo (the only person there with even the vaguest knowledge of, or interest in, rugby tactics) and his girlfriend Marguerite, the prettiest 40-year-old on the planet; my friend Johann; and two neurotic dogs.

    Raymondo’s was a lone voice in a sea of silliness – ‘Wow! Fantastic defence by the back line!’ (or whatever) he would say, and would immediately be shouted down by screams of, ‘Victor, Victor, let me have your babies!’ and ‘Quick, cameraman, zoom in on Number 9’s bum!’

    Johann (who has recently shaved his head and, where before he looked like ‘a Chinese lesbian’ – his description – he now resembles a cross between a Mafia hitman and a swami) was on top form. Not impressed with our side’s baggy pants and garish socks, he asked, archly, ‘Who is dressing these boys?’ Substitutions sent him into raptures: ‘Ooo, ’n nuwe bokkie!’ he would scream, delighted, as a fresh player took the field. Percy Montgomery’s spectacular crash into a cameraman so impressed him that he stood up and demanded, ‘Ref, make that man Man of the Match immediately!’

    Copious quantities of wine were, of course, drunk, and I could see things spiralling wonderfully out of control (or, as Johann puts it, ‘deteriorating nicely’) when Johann returned from the bathroom, where he’d found a shell, and pushed it up against Marguerite’s ear. ‘Listen to the sea,’ he instructed her. Marguerite, not to be outdone, immediately located a wine cork and pushed it into Johann’s ear. ‘Listen to the vineyards,’ she told him.

    When the final whistle blew, Johann looked around wildly and asked, ‘Is it over? Is it over?’ Then, downing the last of the wine in his glass, he squinted at the screen and mused, ‘Well, now they all look attractive.’

    Later, having located the neurotic dogs (whose tender temperaments hadn’t been helped by two hours of ear-splitting shrieking) and put the Schnapps-stunned teenager to bed with a bucket nearby, we did go up to our local. Even given that our village is known for its occasional wild parties, this was one to beat the band. Long-held resentments were put aside, aggrieved ex-lovers embraced each other, feuding neighbours temporarily mended fences. And when the barman, clearly despairing of ever getting to bed, put on some of the most execrable boeremusiek we’d ever heard in our lives, we danced to it with an enthusiasm that was, frankly, insane.

    I think it’s fair to say that a good time was had by all.

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    Thursday, 18 October 2007

    A free lunch

    They say there isn’t such a thing, but I had one today.

    It was at a local wine farm, and I admit that I cadged an invitation. The farm is lush, gracious and excessively beautiful, and I really do love their wines (and their olive products – Shiraz and olive flavoured salt, hello?! put some on a bit of boerewors and go straight to gustatory heaven), so when I heard that a Cape Town friend had scored an invite to their annual press opskop, I asked her to, oh, you know, grease the guest list.

    So there I was.

    Sitting on a long verandah, with birds whistling prettily and views being gorgeous (as they tend in these parts to be) and farm dams sparkling in the middle distance. And drinking, I kid you not, the very first wine this farmer ever made: a 1997 Shiraz, only 12 bottles of which he had left, and thick and rich as the stuff you find at the bottom of your coffee cup after you’ve dipped a few tar-crusted rusks in it. And forgotten to wash for 10 years.

    My friend, let’s call her Barbara (a travel writer who once famously forgot to secure a visa for an India trip – going there to, ahem, update her India travel guide – and ended up stranded at OR Tambo Airport for five days), was very, very keen on this wine. And the winemaker, clearly sun-struck (or at least something that rhymes a bit with that – Barbara has long blonde hair and beseeching blue eyes) gave us not one but TWO bottles to drink on our own.

    Which is why now, at around 10-ish on a Thursday evening, the night before I turn 43, Barbara is fast asleep outside on the divan, her ears anointed with anti-mosquito stick (summer has come to the valley and the creepy-crawley quotient is high) and The Wobbly Dog nodding off at her feet, and I am in here, at my computer, posting, instead of, say, dancing like a demon to Abba’s ‘Waterloo’; or even propositioning Lucien, purchasable, apparently, with little more than a complicated drink and a belt that buckles.

    Barbara (who even now I hear snoring softly yonder) once bit me on the arm. At a pub, in public. Hard enough to leave teeth marks. ‘I was overwhelmed,’ she said, days later, when I finally asked her what drove her to such a thing. ‘I wanted to eat you but that obviously wasn’t an option. So I just took a taste.’

    As toothy as that 1997 Shiraz, me.

    Hey! Last day of 42! Down like water, down like sand!

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    Tuesday, 16 October 2007

    World's thickest teenager?

    Find out how much an American teen beauty queen knows about South Africa.

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    Sunday, 14 October 2007

    Rugby for girls

    I’m not a watch-rugby-with-the-boys type girl, but I was so glad I did tonight. It was the England-France semifinal and for reasons not entirely unconnected with a broken heart (not mine, happily) my friends Juliet, Johann and I ended up at kick-off in our local pub.

    Seriously, I wouldn’t know a tight head from a loose ball, unless it involved handcuffs and lacy lingerie, but I did delight in The Neanderthal Frenchman’s forays onto the field (adore that jutting forehead and furious hair), and Johnny Wilkinson’s kicking left me weak-kneed (and that’s not even counting last week’s hangover damage that I’m still recovering from, see post below).

    Every bit as entertaining were the antics of those gathered to watch the warriors.

    Young Lucien, the beautiful blond gung-ho offspring of a local farmer, went wild on the hard liquor, and quite quickly spun luridly out of control. He propositioned Juliet (she of the broken heart, so in no mood to countenance slurry overtures) in a rather rough and ready manner and, rebuffed with chilling indignation (lost, of course, on Lucien), moved with mad jerky movements on to a bevy of four 18-year-old maidens lined up like colourful skittles at the counter.

    When they looked at him with expressions of horror and bewilderment, he took his act elsewhere, richocheting off all available surfaces until he found himself behind the bar, where no-nonsense publican Surika rules the roost.

    She too was having none of him: using elaborate semaphore to overcome the deafening rugby commentary, she instructed him to remove himself at once. This he did (Surika is not a woman you cross if you value your chances of survival) but, determined not to lose face, Lucien posed himself, very fuck-you-ly, chest out and arms raised, at the end of the bar, in full view of all patrons.

    Then his pants fell down.

    And they say there isn’t a god.

    I used up at least two years’ worth of laughter on Lucien’s inelegant crash from grace, but there were other vignettes I would – had they not been offered so freely to me – have paid good money for.

    There was Johann, for instance, whose only comment on the battle being waged on that field in France was, in a gay delirium, ‘Oh god, look at their tight little pants!’ And Michael, who, at a loss for words in his support of the boys in blue, kept shouting out the only French word he knew: ‘Croissant! Croissant!’

    Lucien, in the meantime, had stationed himself, for reasons known only to fools and drunkards, directly in front of the big screen. An observer, pushed to breaking point by this human pinball, got up and shoved him in the chest. So while the French and English battled it out via satellite, we had our very own skirmish, right where we were sitting. Fortunately, Lucien, having pulled up his pants and challenged the entire bar to a fight, went outside and vomited lavishly into the begonias.

    England, as you know, won. I was the only person supporting the White Boys in my part of the bar, and it didn’t make me very popular. But it was only because I want to see the Boks make the English eat crow in the final.

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    Thursday, 11 October 2007

    The sudden popularity of dysfunctional families

    Do you remember a time when coming from an ‘odd’ family was something of an embarrassment?

    I do, because mine was considered one, and the worst my family obviously got up to was that my mother and father were considered reasonable facsimiles of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald – and indeed were called that by some of my more literary witterary pals.

    My mom and dad did party quite a bit, I suppose (another family tradition I try, despite the pain it causes me, particularly in the liver region, to uphold). And I suppose I do recall my parents going out dressed only in sheets, for instance; and my mother once wearing a jewel in her bellybutton, and my father tricked out with a huge salami tied around his waist (and I have to assume they were off to a fancy-dress, otherwise what in goodness' name were they up to?).

    They also partied quite a bit at home. I remember going to my friends’ houses and wondering at the calm and orderliness of it all. Their parents didn’t drink copious quantities of wine with dinner and then dance flamboyantly to Gilbert Bicaut in the living room afterwards.

    My mom and dad also had a wide circle of odd friends -- another stark difference between my peers' parents and mine (and another family tradition I do my very best to honour). Back when we were kids, my friends never had to negotiate a strange hungover Italian shaving in their bathroom while they were brushing their teeth in the morning. Seldom did they arrive home after school to find an American photographer having an alarmingly loud set-to with his Armenian wife on their front verandah. And I doubt many children of my vintage watched while the editor of a popular local newspaper, emboldened by one too many sambuccas, dived into the shallow end of their swimming pool and elaborately broke his nose on the bottom – and, let it be said, simply waded out, demanded another sambucca, and carried on chatting as if blood weren’t rushing in rivers off his shattered face.

    I’ve spent most of my adult life pretending that none of this happened, that my childhood was normal -- and now I realise that I’ve missed an enormous opportunity: to make a bit of moolah out of what, for years, I hid, because it was too embarrassing to admit to.

    Now, every time I turn on the TV, every DVD I hire, every book I pick up, describes in ‘witty and heartbreaking’ (alternatively, ‘funny and tragic’) detail the ins and outs of the dysfunctional family.

    We, too, had an ‘uncle’ (related by neither blood nor marriage) who took every opportunity to put his hands into my sister’s and my panties. (Fulvio, wherever you are, may you rot in hell.) There was another ‘uncle’, this one a wonderful man, who was a hopeless alcoholic, who stumbled into rosebeds (which we thought uproariously funny at the time) and almost drowned in our pool once when my sister and I persuaded him that a bit of cardboard we’d placed carefully on the water’s surface would float. We had a nymphomaniac sister-in-law (now ex). A close relative married his stalker mere weeks after taking out a restraining order against her. One grandmother was a kleptomaniac who once stole her own plane tickets and hid them in her handbag, then threw a wobbly when she missed her flight (because we’d all been looking for the damned things for hours); another took to arguing vociferously with television newsreaders and becoming enraged when they refused to answer her questions. We had a relative who began hiding from someone whom he felt sure was stalking him, but which turned out to be his own reflection in the mirror. Certain members of my immediate family could still do worse than spend a few days – hell, weeks – in a straightjacket.

    All this, and more, I downplayed for most of my life. When people described me as ‘eccentric’, I was secretly rather hurt; because I was, of course, thinking, You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

    Now, however, I’m coming out of my padded cell. Me, eccentric? Hell, yes! Thanks to the sudden resurgence in the popularity of the oddball family, my weirdness has become interesting. For the first time, the bizarre family I grew up in actually has some cachet.

    And, apparently, some cash-in.

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    Tuesday, 9 October 2007

    The rise of the generic Jo'burg accent

    It's terribly un-PC to comment on people's accents, which is as good a reason as any, don't you agree, for making a few penetrating observations on pronunciation in general? No, I'm not going to bitch about the accents of some SABC reporters (although some of them are dire, aren't they?) or make sneering remarks about the way English-second-language speakers tackle this quixotic mother-tongue of mine. Having lazily never learned an African language - apart from Afrikaans, of which I have only a smattering - I am in no position to judge. I'm in awe of people who learn - by hook or by crook - several languages, and don't give a continental koeksister about how their accents sound.

    But I would like to talk about a new, generic , middle-class young people's Johannesburg accent that I've noticed emerging in the past few years. It's spoken by young people between the ages of, at a guess, 10 and 29. It's a hybrid, mongrel, brak-sound: a sprinkling of Afrikaans, a dash of Model-C-school, a pinch of township/tsotsi-taal, and lots of weird inflections that I just can't pin down. You hear it coming from all sorts of people: schoolkids, students, bank-tellers, petrol-garage attendents, salesmen, call-centre staff, callers-in to talk shows, and in every fast-food take-away in the malls in Johannesburg.

    If you'd like to hear this accent spoken, I suggest you tune in (if you're in Jo'burg) to the student radio station UJFM at 95.4 FM. Or you can listen to it online here

    I wish I was a linguist, so I could give you some technical information about glottal stops and peri-dental tongue manoevres and de-inflected uvulotic-palate-gumming consistulations.

    The most grating aspect of this accent is the treatment of the 'i' sound. 'Nine' is pronounced 'naan', and 'five', 'farve'. The word 'I've' has become 'arve'. Example:

    Arve got news for yew. Ewe can inter our littest OR-sum comp-a-thish, by es-em-essin' the answer to the number narn-farve-farve-naan-farve-farve. OR-sum, doods!

    [I've got news for you. You can enter our latest awesome competition, by SMS-ing the answer to the number 955955. Awesome, dudes!]

    A second annoying feature of this accent is that words are spoken from the very front of the mouth. It's difficult to give an example, but imagine putting a scrubbing-brush on your tongue, and trying to twist your tongue around it so that it connects with the hard bit above. This means that bits and pieces of the words are swallowed:

    Will, it's orright, arm not hessled. Sa wha if maar bor-friend dimped me. Utt's so, laak, kill, to be henging out with dufferent peeps. For one thing, there's no comp-a-tish. For nuther, arm nit wirried bit whit thit retard thinks of me. OR-some dood. Arm funished.

    [Well, it's all right, I'm not hassled. So what if my boyfriend dumped me? It's so, like, cool to be hanging out with different people. For one thing, there's no competition. For another, I'm not worried a bit what that wanker thinks of me. Awesome, dude! I'm finished!]
    The taam is now twenny past ten, kay? Did you know tha gaars laak looking at girls' ares? It's acks-shly naas, kay? If you sand in frunna the mirror for more than, laak, ten minnas err day, is too long, raat?

    [The time is now twenty past ten, okay? Did you know that guys like looking at girls' eyes? It's actually nice, okay? If you stand in front of the mirror for ore than, like, ten minutes every day, it's too long, right?]

    And then there are the words. (I love some of these; hate others in equal measure):

    As-will (meaning 'as well', or 'me too'. 'Aswill, arv had a bad day')

    Marself ('myself, or me' ; 'Marself, are had a bad day')

    Issit? ('Could that be so? You're kidding?')

    Sirrious? ('Are you serious?' Immortalised in a classic advert.)

    Mar bed ('My bad'. An Americanism that sifted down to South Africa, meaning, roughly 'I'm in the wrong, sorry'.)

    crigid ('Arm goin' to Wanderers to watch the criggid')

    'Nodda problim' ('It's no trouble at all!'. A good sentiment, but I don't want call-centre staff to say this to me in response to every complaint I voice. Clearly, I'm phoning them to complain, there is a problem, duh)

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    Monday, 8 October 2007

    Waiting for Rupert

    When is it okay not to turn up to an engagement you said you were going to turn up to?

    When you’ve got typhoid.

    Okay, just kidding, but really: here I sit, at 8pm, food drying out in the oven, expecting Rupert the mad artist to arrive ‘any time from 6.30pm onwards, for an early dinner’ – because although I do want to see him, and he’s been sending me sarcastic SMSs for the last fortnight about my inability to invite him around: I’m tired, it’s Monday, it’s cold, and what I really want to do is get into bed with a good book.

    Yes, I should have been more specific. Telling a mad artist ‘any time’ gives him way too much licence. (There is an outside chance he’ll finally toodle in at midnight, I suppose.) But surely ‘early dinner’, unless you’re Italian and have slept all afternoon and habitually eat supper at midnight, says something?

    While I’ve been waiting, doing the crossword and wishing ever more fervently that Rupert will do the ostensibly unforgivable and just not turn up at all, I’ve been thinking about another time my invited guests didn’t arrive. It was a birthday party – my 28th, I think – and I’d been typically Capetonian about the invitations.

    Capetonians are notorious for saying ‘We must get together’ and never following through. When I first moved to Cape Town from Jozi over 20 years ago, this injured me. Don’t these people like me? I thought. Why say we’ll connect and then not do it?

    But that’s just how Capetonians are. Which is probably why, after having lived in this province for over two decades, most of my friends aren’t born-and-bred Capetonians. They’re ex-Jozi, ex-Manchester, ex-Perth, ex-Mumbai, ex-Zim… except – tellingly – for Rupert.

    Who’s illustrating, wonderfully, the Capetonian attitude to invitations and acceptance of same. So when I say I was ‘typically Capetonian’ about my birthday-party invitations all those years ago, what I did was call about 30 people and said, ‘Come round, if you feel like it, for dinner and stuff at my place on Friday, any time from 8-ish.’ And then was surprised when only three people actually arrived.

    This would never happen in Jozi. Joburgers understand that when they’re invited somewhere, that’s where they’ll be. (Really, only typhoid will keep them away.) Capetonians, on the other hand, always have something else to do: get stoned, go surfing, take ecstasy and chill out on Lion’s Head, decide on a whim to go to Kathmandu.

    For that birthday party, I cooked enough moussaka to feed the population of Hecallonica, cleared the living room of furniture and made five long-playing dance tapes (in the days when cassettes were king). Five invited Captonians phoned me from various callboxes (this time also pre-dated cellphones) on the TransKaroo railway line to tell me they’d decided on a whim to go the Rolling Stones concert in Jozi; another five phoned to say they were watching the sunset from Llandudno and – they were sure I understood – felt it would offend Mother Earth if they left.

    God knows what happened to the rest, except for those few who actually did turn up, but who took one look at the almost-empty living room and, in time-honoured Capetonian tradition (social scaredy-cats, the lot of them), made their inadequate excuses before escaping what was clearly The Birthday Party From Hell.

    Me, my friend Donald and two other hanger-on-ers (who, I must admit, I can’t even remember – I think they were neighbours I invited out of politeness) ate moussaka until we were fit to burst, danced to Kylie Minogue, and pretended we weren’t embarrassed at being the only people there. I still break out into a cold sweat every time I think about it.

    Which puts me in mind (this is a loose connection, but you will forgive me, I am waiting for Rupert) of my first summer in Cape Town, when my sister from Jozi came down to visit for a holiday. One weekend morning, fiercely hungover, we took ourselves off to Long Beach (which is called Long Beach because it’s long – several kilometres long, in fact) for a bit of recuperating under the sun. We trudged several klicks down the sand until we were, quite literally, miles from anywhere, spread out our towels, lay down on them and fell asleep.

    We were awakened some time later by a family of eight (Mom, Dad, Grandma, two loud prepubescent boys, an excitable dog, a portable sound system and a cooler box the size of a caravan) who had, and I am not exaggerating here, set up camp so close to us that we could quite literally touch them. Sitting up and rubbing our eyes, we looked around. The entire rest of Long Beach was empty, yet this family – who were without doubt from Jozi; their accents were unmistakable – had chosen to eschew at least a dozen kilometres of empty beach in favour of being precisely where we were. Astonishing.

    And, if you don’t mind, I must tell another story about my Jozi sister (let’s call her Beatrice) and infringement on personal space. A few years ago Beatrice and I had spent about four weeks travelling around the UK and, tired and (inevitably) hungover, we were sitting at Heathrow, waiting to go home, in one of those airport restaurants that seem made entirely of melamine (the food too), discussing the more salacious points of our trip, when we became aware that a matronly-looking lady had settled in quite near to us. Almost on top of us, in fact. Given the choice of any seat in the entire restaurant, she’d chosen one that sited her practically between Beatrice and me.

    And that wasn’t all. Matronly Lady made no bones of the fact that she was intensely interested in all we had to say, following our conversation as if she were watching a tennis match. It was most disconcerting.

    We continued our gossipy chat, trying our best to pretend that a complete stranger weren’t blatantly eavesdropping, until Beatrice reached breaking point. Then, she said, ‘I must tell you, Muriel… and this,’ she whispered, ‘is strictly between you and me…’

    Then she paused, stabbed a thumb at Matronly Lady, and added, ‘…Oh, and, of course, her.’

    I can’t remember if Matronly Lady reacted to this, because I laughed so hard I blew Coke out my nose (now there’s a reverse for you), and was still laughing when I landed in South Africa 16 hours later.

    Rupert has just arrived. It’s 10pm. I’m sure you’ll understand when I say I’m about to switch off all the lights and pretend I’ve gone to bed.

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    Sunday, 7 October 2007

    When tailgating is okay

    Of all the many ways fellow road users can get my blood up, tailgating for me is the worst. There’s just something so exceedingly stupid about driving too close to the person in front of you. At the lower speeds – say, under 70kph – it’s madly irritating to be tailgated; any faster, and it becomes blatantly dangerous.

    I have a trick that I employ for tailgaters, although not when my children are in the car with me (because it is, you could argue, equally dangerous). When I get some pinhead sitting on my bumper, I’ll let him or her (although, I’m sorry to say, it’s usually a him) get up nice and close, then I’ll jam on my brakes. I do it fiercely and briefly, so my brake lights flare for just a second and my speed drops inconsequentially – but it’s usually enough to send the tailgater into a frenzy.

    The amazing thing about their reaction – they, too, jam on their brakes, and often there’s a nasty little skid before they regain control of their vehicle – is that it’s usually outraged indignation. How dare I have scared them like that? I get hooted at, headlights flash fiercely on and off, and fingers get flipped.

    How can they not clock that, had something – a dog, a cat, a goat, a child – run out into the road in front of me, I’d have had to brake equally without warning, equally hard and, in fact, with a view to really slowing down, a lot and quickly? How can they not understand that, if I’d had to genuinely brake suddenly to avoid an accident, they would have run into the back of my car – hard and fast, the very way they’d been tailgating me?

    (For those of you not living in South Africa, where the notion of some living creature ambling without warning out on to the road in front of you is perhaps unthinkable, let me say this: our local radio station often broadcasts warnings of, for instance, a herd of cows wandering around on the N1 or the N2, the national roads that carry heavy, fast and continuous traffic in and out of Cape Town from and to the rest of the country.)

    But there is one instance in which tailgating – albeit at close-to-zero speed – is acceptable, and that’s at the notorious Koeberg Interchange in Cape Town. Here, three lanes of traffic narrow down to two, then to one, in order to cross a bridge over a river. It’s one of only two exits from the city to the heavily populated northern suburbs, both of which feed out onto the N1 – so you can imagine the traffic volume. There’s almost never a time when you don’t have to queue, and in morning and evening peak hours it’s not unusual to wait in line for over an hour to get through the interchange.

    If, that is, you are waiting in line. If you’re an inconsiderate git, however (and you’ll often be driving a BMW or a 4X4 of some kind), you’ll simply cruise to the front of the tailback, put on your indicator (and this I really love – that indicating that you’re about to queue-jump somehow makes it okay), take advantage of some slow-moving vehicle to nip in at the front, and make your way merrily over the bridge and home to your trophy wife and big-screen TV and kidney-shaped swimming pool, while the rest of us continue queuing with infinite patience and politeness.

    (I have to ask: what are these people thinking?! That because their cars cost more than we make in an entire year, they’re entitled to go first? That the normal rules of human decency don’t apply to them? That they’ve already queued somewhere else that day, so this queue doesn’t count? That they’re just, oh I don’t know, better than us?)

    Anyway, there I was, at the Koeberg Interchange yesterday morning, queueing with much of the rest of Cape Town to get over the bridge. And watching, with mounting rage, while a series of men with small penises and fast cars, and women whose Botox has turned their faces into plaster-of-Paris and whose 4X4s are their substitute for an orgasm, drove past me, indicated, and pushed into the queue ahead – thereby, of course, making we who were waiting, wait that much longer.

    Finally, near the front of the tailback, I got my chance: an overtanned man in a BMW cruised up in the adjacent lane, indicated, drew level with me and tried to nose in in front of me.

    I snapped. ‘Fuck you!’ I screamed at him, and lurched my car forward, stopping millimetres from the car in front of me and narrowly missing the BMW’s front bumper.

    He sneered in a tremendously ugly way and gave me the finger, secure in the knowledge that the driver behind me would yield. Because – and here’s food for thought – there are people who don’t mind being made to wait an extra 45 minutes for inconsiderate-bastard queue-jumpers, and actually do let them in, apparently without having an aneurism. Amazing.

    But you know what? The guy behind me also didn’t let him. Halleluyah! Ignoring small-penis-Mocca-Java-coloured-BMW guy, he simply edged his car forward until I actually felt it connect softly with my back bumper.

    And – oh, miracle of miracles – the next guy didn’t let him in either!

    So I didn’t even really mind that much when the third car behind did let him in – because at least spMJc-BMW guy been made to sit for five minutes or so, indicator uselessly on, awkwardly positioned between two lanes, being revealed, even if momentarily, for the selfish prick he so obviously is.

    There’s a special circle of hell reserved, I believe, for queue-jumpers. And with them are all the mild-mannered nitwits who allow them to do so. Oh, and, of course, the high-speed tailgaters. And all of them are required to negotiate, for eternity, the Koeberg Interchange.

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