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 na├»ve.

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???!!!’

‘Sir…’

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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Revelry and recycling

I woke up crippled yesterday morning although I didn’t realise I’d lost the use of one of my legs until I tried to get out of bed and found myself in an untidy heap on the floor.

This temporary condition – it takes about three days to right itself – is a result of staying up until 3 in the morning drinking wine with your sister, then stumbling off to bed on limbs that are so disconnected from your coordination centre that they may as well belong to someone else. And in the morning you wish they did, because you’ve somehow slept with them so curled around each other that they’ve done their BSc in Pins and Needles, their Masters in Loss of Blood to the Extremities and their Doctorate in Advanced Numbness.

These alcohol-related indignities aren’t uncommon in my family, who like their wine. My Auntie Janet claimed the record for Most Inconvenient Day-After Disability when, one Christmas Eve, she had a smidgen too much brandy pudding and ended up speaking into the big white telephone. It wasn’t until the hard light of morning dawned, however, that she realised she’d relinquished more than the contents of her stomach – her dentures, too, had found their way into the city’s sewerage system. Since the Christmas long weekend had just begun, there wasn’t a dentist to be had for love or money, and Auntie Janet was forced to spend the next four days wearing a yashmak. Nobody could understand a word she said, and she didn’t make things any easier by mumbling, ‘Don’t look at me!’ whenever anyone did.

A relative who shall remain nameless (but he knows who he is) took the award for Most Spectacular Body Part Confusion, when, after a long night of beer and seafood curry with the boys, he came home to find that a recalcitrant bit of prawn had lodged itself at the back of his throat. After vigorously brushing his teeth, gargling and flossing, it was still there, so he tried to manually remove it. Pity it was his uvula. He couldn’t speak for a week afterwards.

Social drunks we may be, but we’re ecologically sober. Aware of our debt to the environment, our family is rigorous about taking empties to our nearest recycling station – which is almost always at the local school, the one our children attend. My late mother taught me all I need to know about this. Keen to avoid being spotted by any of our teachers when she arrived with the cavernous boot of her Peugeot station wagon piled to the roof with dead soldiers, she would make the run to the recycling depot only under cover of darkness. It is a family tradition that I uphold to this day, although I did once make an exception.

One year my kids’ school held a competition, with impressive prizes for the class whose parents could contribute the most to the recycling bins. Secure in the knowledge that I was a dead cert for first place, I brazenly arrived in full daylight, week after week, to deposit my wealth of empties in the bins. When the results were announced a few months later I was devastated to discover that I hadn’t, in fact, won. First prize went to some little snit in another class – whose father owned a pub. I came second.

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Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Christmas: it's coming

I saw the first Christmas advert on television yesterday – a special offer run by a local supermarket chain on fruit mix for a quick’n’easy do-it-yourself Christmas cake – and I thought, Nooooooo!

Why, when life already zips past us with the speed of a newly licensed 18-year-old behind the wheel of his father’s BMW, do retailers feel it necessary to make it go by any faster? It’s only the beginning of October, for goodness’ sake. There are still 84 shopping days left till Christmas – practically a quarter of the year!

But there it is: the sluice gates have been opened. The trickle will soon become a flood.

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School honours nights: parents' special hell

It’s a measure of the enormous pride I have in my children that I’m prepared to sit through four hours of other people’s little darlings filing up onto the stage to shake the Honoured Guest’s hand and receive their certificate, for the five seconds apiece during which my own two children hog the spotlight.

And I realise that the same applied to every other parent in the draughty, ill-lit hall at the school Honours Night tonight. They, too, had to sit on hard chairs, way too close to their neighbours, through the opening remarks, the headmaster’s address (and hoo-boy, did this one like the sound of his own voice – he orated for no less than 40 minutes), the report-back by the head of the PTA, the ‘special thanks’ (an alarmingly long list), and the choir’s remixed and distressingly lengthy rendition of (of all things) ‘I need a hero’. Those other parents also got a numb bum, cramps in their legs and a crick in their neck. They also, two hours into the proceedings, were thinking to themselves, If this doesn’t end soon, I’m going to scream and scream.

I’ve done this – attending honours nights, and damn my kids for being so bloody smart – faithfully for 11 years now. (I’ve also attended Christmas pageants, operettas, eisteddfods, ‘talent’ shows, debating contests, karate gradings, interhouse sports days, PTA summits, AGMs, parent-teacher conferences, fund-raising drives, and enough other meetings of various school committees to last me till kingdom come.)

My question about honours nights is: isn’t there a way to streamline the process? Surely, for instance, all the bumph that precedes the certificate presentation could be rendered on paper and sent out as a newsletter (which, admittedly, I would probably not read – the slag pile of paperwork that accompanies having schoolgoing children is staggering, and I usually put it in my ‘urgent: to do’ folder, which means, of course, that I never look at it again)? Surely the choir could sing at a more appropriate occasion – the Christmas pageant, say? Surely we don’t have to hear each and every child’s achievements, down to the last subject and mark, number of goals scored and lengths swum? And surely we don’t have to applaud each and every one – how about waiting until a whole grade’s worth of kids has been dubbed Sir or Lady Excellence, and then giving the group a nice big clap?

And what about having two separate occasions, one for sporting achievements and the other for academic? Let’s face it, rare is the all-rounder who will win the Googly Cup for outstanding performance on the pitch and also the Intelligentsia floating trophy for best marks in science. We whose kids favour brain over brawn would appreciate not having to sit through a further two hours of certificate-giving for track-and-field achievement, while I’m sure parents of sporting prodigies would be happy to forego having to watch all those brains get their just deserts.

In a bid never to attend another Honours Night, I’ve considered encouraging my kids to stop doing their homework, completing projects and studying for tests – but then they may never leave home. Rather, I suppose, an annual four-hour torment than a lifetime of high-school dropouts making it their special mission to keep the laundry basket full and the fridge empty.

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Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Living in a cardboard box: Bara's babies rough it while our Health Dept. splurges


I can't say I'm often provoked to tears of fury but when I saw this picture ( Photo: Jennifer Bruce, The Star) of these three little bobkins, only hours old, I opened all faucets. These babies are in a box - a scruffy old cardboard BOX - because the maternity ward at Soweto's Baragwanath Hospital - one of the the world's biggest hospitals - doesn't have enough money to buy cots for them. Read the full story in The Star, and have a little weep of your own.

This picture enrages on me on so many levels that I don't know where to start. If you're unfamiliar with South African current affairs, you could have a look at reports about the recent sacking of our Deputy Health Minister (Nosiswe Madlala-Routledge was recently sacked for, it is claimed, highlighting the shocking conditions and high infant mortality rate at another of South Africa's hospitals). Or you can read about the shameful shenanigans of our Minister of Health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.

Or you can melt your brain circuits trying to process the news that the self-same health department that should be providing cots for these infants has just merrily blown R380 000 ($54,000, according to the BBC) of tax-payers' money placing prominent adverts in local papers. These adverts, written by officials of the health department, defend the health minister and launch a long-winded, whining attack on a recent high court judgment involving the minister. (Full story here).

Or, like me, you can just shed a bucket of tears. All I can say to these little souls is - hell, from now on, you can only move up in life. To infinity, and beyond!

Here's some reaction to the story, which is largely heartening, apart from the predictable statement from the Gauteng health department's chief of operations Dr Abul Rahman: "I am declining to give any statement until we finish the investigation."

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Monday, 1 October 2007

Bridget Jones needs more than sex from her man. I don't.

I’m happily single. No, really, I am.

If I sound defensive, it’s because there are so many people out there who assume single women (and particularly single women Of A Certain Age – 43, in my case) aren’t happy to be single. And if they say they’re happy, well, they must be lying.

To clarify, let me define ‘single’ as it pertains to me. I was married once, a long time ago but, realising I wasn’t cut out for institutionalised cohabitation, I put an end to it, and have been husbandless since.

I’ve had, over the last 15 years, several short-term flirtations and a few flings, and five relationships of varying intensities and durations. Three of them ended because I was unwilling to commit to anything more ‘serious’ (as if just having a relationship weren’t serious enough!); one came to a crashing halt for reasons of infidelity (not mine); and my fifth is ongoing.

‘But if you’re in a relationship, you’re not single,’ you may say and, technically, you would be right.

In actuality, however, I am effectively single. My partner lives 100km distant. I see him only once or twice a month, and then for a limited time (usually a weekend), and it’s always just him and me – we don’t socialise together.

When we’re not together – which is the vast majority of the time – we live entirely unconnected lives, with separate social circles, interests, family commitments, work-related issues and so on. And because I always attend gatherings, parties and functions on my own, as well as living without benefit of a man on tap, I am, to all intents and purposes, single.

‘But then what’s the point of even having a relationship?’ you may ask, and it’s a good question and I’m glad you asked it.

I was at a family gathering last weekend, which included my two sisters (both sensibly and happily married) and several old family friends. One of these, Federico, an avuncular creature who’s known us since we were born and therefore feels no compunction in asking any question he likes regardless of time, place or circumstance, chose a lull in the conversation to pull a Bridget Jones on me. ‘So, Muriel, when is someone going to make an honest woman of you?’ he bellowed across the table.

Conversation died. Heads turned. This, clearly, was a subject of some interest to others too.

‘I try never to lie,’ I quipped weakly. (I’m never at my best when I’m in the spotlight.)

‘C’mon!’ bellowed Federico, spearing a potato and waving it at me. ‘A woman like you – goodlooking, intelligent, successful, in the prime of her life… any fellow would be happy to snap you up!’

‘I do have a … boyfriend, actually,’ I managed.

(Oh god. ‘Boyfriend’! What a nasty term for a 43-year-old woman to have to use. But what’s the alternative? ‘Partner’ sounds poncy. ‘Lover’ is too Mills&Boon. ‘Significant other’ is embarrassingly coy. And the only term I could accurately use* was inappropriate to the occasion.)

Federico laughed as heartily as he could with a mouth full of potato. ‘An imaginary one, eh?’ he said. ‘That him sitting next to you?’ (My Uncle Brian, who was actually sitting next to me at the time, shifted uncomfortably, as if having just discovered himself in the lap of a strange man.)

Well, really. I am, as Federico pointed out, intelligent, and I suddenly felt irritated by being so put on the spot.

‘He’s not here, obviously,’ I said, snittily. ‘We don’t socialise together. We only use each other for sex.’

Federico’s potato went down the wrong way and he turned blue, and attention was mercifully diverted from me while he was subjected to a bit of back-slapping, administered with suspicious zeal by his wife.

Much as a family gathering was probably not the best place for this kind of announcement, I am an honest woman, and what I said was the truth. Because: define 'relationship'?

My life is very full – I am, indeed, happily single. I have two teenage children who require a lot of my time and energy, and I enjoy giving it to them. I have four cats and a special-needs dog. I run a household. I have a demanding job. I have a few close friends with whom I spend as much time as I can, and a wider circle of wonderful wild ones for whom I especially make time. I walk and cycle and swim, read, cook, listen to music (sometimes I dance), watch movies...

I don’t need a man for the things men are usually required for, because I can do them myself – backwash the pool, take out the garbage, change a car tyre, remove a spider from the bath, replace a tap washer. And I can hire a man to do the things I can’t – replace a burst geyser and … well, nothing else springs to mind.

The only thing, as a singleton, that I don’t have, is sex – safe, familiar and readily available. And that’s where my ‘partner’ (for want of a better word, although, of course, there is one) comes in.

‘But you could always use a vibrator,’ you say, and once again, you’re right – but only to a point.

Because you know as well as I do that sex with a machine lacks a certain something. Warmth, companionship, a momentary soul summit – call it what you will, it’s vital. Sex is a simple human need – physical, certainly, but there’s also an emotional component, and there’s something about falling asleep, spent and sweaty, on the chest of a willing man that you just can’t get from a battery-driven toy, no matter how many bells and whistles it’s got.

(And, no, you can’t get this from a man you meet in a pub. Stranger-sex isn’t only soul-diminishing, it can also make you die.)

So, as I say, I’m happily single.

And so is my *fuck-buddy.

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