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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