Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Travels with Muriel IX: kids, culture clashes and the cold

Having brunch with Donald and his three kids, ages 4, 2 and 1, in a restaurant today reminded me of how hectic it was having kids of similar ages, and why I'm so happy now that mine are teenagers and all I have to worry about where they're concerned is unwanted pregnancy, drug addiction and driving in cars with boys.

The meal was actually going to be breakfast but by the time we'd organised ourselves, then bundled the three octopi into their woolly jerseys, gloves, coats and hats - and persuaded 2-year-old Fergus, who was in what Donald described mildly as 'a contrary mood', that going out into sub-zero temperatures without shoes on probably wasn't a good idea - it was nearing noon.

I felt a bit guilty after lunch leaving Donald to the mercies of his offspring, but I wanted to go and look at the Castle and Fergus had reached the stage where anything - ANYTHING - he was offered, he absolutely did not want, even if he did. I'm not attacking Fergus personally - he is a lovely little boy and having him along is like having your own music box trundling around with you, even if the choice is limited to 'Scotland the Brave' and 'Away in a Manger' - but the truth is that all children at these ages can be just ghastly. One of my favourite quotes is one by Zola Budd-Pieterse who, giving an interview when her kids were aged 2 and 4, said, 'Everyone warned me about the Terrible Twos but nobody said anything about the Fucking Fours.'

So while Donald went home to cope with the consequences of having legal, socially approved, marital sex, I meandered up to the Castle. It's damned impressive and I definitely would have bought a ticket and a guidebook and done a tour of it (even though it cost £13.50, which is about R200) but the queue at the ticket office was (and I'm not exaggerating here) about 200-strong and moving too slowly for any progress to be evident. So instead I wandered around the battlements, enjoying the (free) views of the city below. (I never knew Edinburgh had so many hills.)

Then I followed a sign that read 'Grassmarket' (because it sounded interesting) and ended up in a narrow, steep, cobbled street directly in the shadow of the Castle itself; and in this narrow, steep, cobbled street were funfair rides - not the kind of namby-pamby funfair rides you might find at a similar sideshow in South Africa (although where you'd find ANY kind of funfair in South Africa in the shadow of a gigantic ancient castle, I cannot say), but alarming ones that either flung you a hundred metres into the air or spun you around at something approaching the speed of light. It's probably not fair for me to judge the scariness factor of these, since I cried real tears of fear the one and only time I went on the Cobra rollercoaster at Ratanga Junction in Cape Town, but just WATCHING them made me feel dizzy and sick. Strobe lights and loud pop music were playing and if I hadn't already felt disoriented by the hideousness of observing a girl more or less my daughter's age pay good money to tempt death, this would have completely done my head in. As it was, the whole scene - the funfair with its lights and music overshadowed by the massive dark edifice that is the Castle - was weirdly dream-like. I liked it.

By the time I could tear myself away from this hallucinatory spectacle, it was about 4 o'clock and the sun was rapidly setting. One thing most people know about Scotland is that it's cold - but until you've experienced it, you don't actually understand HOW cold it is. This morning when we left Donald's house, all the cars in the road - and, for that matter, the road itself - were covered in layers of frost and ice; the sun's brief appearance in the middle of the day melted much of this; but the second the sun set, the cold reclaimed the city and slapped yet another layer of frost and ice on everything. It's so cold that it doesn't take very long standing outside before feeling in your nose and fingers disappears; it's so cold that going out without a woolly hat on is really a silly idea; it's so cold that you'd rather just go on dying for a pee for another hour or two if the alternative requires removing layers of clothes. (And yet the citizens of Edinburgh aren't shy of getting out and about - everyone in this place loves walking, whether its to reach a destination or for its own sake; and it's probably worth mentioning that I've seen very, VERY few fat people since I've been here.)

I'd love to say, as a result of experiencing this extreme winter temperature, that I'll never complain about winter in the western Cape again. But I will.

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Travels with Muriel VIII: preparing for Hogmanay

Donald and I took two of his sprogs - Fergus, a charmingly musical 2-year-old (who hums 'Scotland the Brave' on and off throughout the day, interspersed with 'Away in a Manger' - a carol, he solemnly informed me, that is about 'Mary and Doofus and their son Jesus'), and Riona, already a diva at 4 - up to Princes Street last night to take part in a torchlight procession to mark the beginning of Edinburgh's four-day Hogmanay festival. It was bitterly cold but that hadn't stopped thousands of people - judging from the faces and voices, from all over the world - gathering there.

(I had an annoying interchange with another South African while we waited, along with throngs of others. This officious-looking woman with fussy hair instructed me to move out of the sightline of her camera - a digital one that she'd set up on a tripod - because, she said 'I've been waiting here for hours.' She was so unpleasant about it that I was tempted to tell her to piss off but I thought it beneath my dignity to travel halfway across the world just to have a spat with a citizen of my own country, so I did what she'd asked. I can't pretend I didn't smirk, though, when the procession began and the stupid woman and her camera were irremedially swamped by revellers.)

The sight of a floodlit Edinburgh Castle high up on its rock above the city was mouth-gapingly impressive, but more so - for me, still grimly amused by the Brits' obsession with 'safety first' - was the torchlight procession that followed. First down the mountain came two rows of vikings, resplendent in chainmail and roundy helmets (and some of them sporting suburban pot-bellies and wearing spectacles), carrying huge and clearly extremely dangerous flaming torches. Yay!

Behind the vikings came a marching band, followed by a slew of pipers. And behind them came several thousand people, most of them bearing very large wax torches - a more potentially dangerous gathering I haven't seen since I left South Africa, and it warmed my heart. Donald, kids and I joined the procession and in the hour or so it took us to walk along Princes Street and up onto Calton Hill, sparks flew into my eyes at least a dozen times and my hair was repeatedly almost set on fire. It was wonderful.

On Calton Hill was a huge sculpture of a lion rampant, constructed of firewood, which the vikings set alight by tossing their torches at it. By this time the sproglets were cold and tired, so we headed back down the hill. The climax of the evening, a spectacular fireworks display, we were able to view from the warmth of the back seat of a home-bound bus.

Fergus, not permitted to press the 'stop the bus' button (for the simple reason that Riona had already done it), expressed his displeasure by staging a sit-down strike that lasted just long enough for us to miss our stop. But we got off at the next one and enjoyed a bracing walk back home, Fergus recovered to the extent that he was once again happily humming 'Scotland the Brave'.

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Monday, 29 December 2008

Travels with Muriel VII: seat hoggers and paying to pee

There were no seat snoggers on the coach to Edinburgh (for which I offer up silent but sincere thanks), but Scotsmen returning from down south did nothing to alleviate their reputation for meanness when I and one other woman got onto the coach in Manchester at a very chilly 1am last night.

The coach was about three-quarters full and there were no double seats left - most people had bagged themselves a window seat and put their coats and bags on the aisle seat, the better to preserve both for themselves. As this other new passenger and I staggered down the aisle, wrapped up in jackets and scarves and gloves and weighed down with hand luggage, each person we passed possessively put a hand over their own hand luggage on the seat next to them, making it very clear that we were not welcome to sit down there. As a result, we both managed to get right to the back of the bus without ONE PERSON being generous enough to shift their bags to make space for our bums. I found this extraordinarily mean-spirited.

Fortunately, a young man took pity on me, and moved his hand luggage to let me sit down. And I lucked out - while the coach steadily filled up over the next few stops, forcing the meanies who'd tried to preserve two seats each for themselves to relinquish their extra space, the kind young man got off the bus in Lancaster, leaving me with two seats for myself for the rest of the journey. Oh, I love poetic justice.

We pulled into Edinburgh at about 7 this morning and after six hours on the coach I was dying for a pee (I can't bring myself to use the loos at the back of the bus - yukky quotient far too high). So I was very much less than enamoured of the Scots, once again, when I was faced, in the large, modern central bus station in Edinburgh, with a toilet that required a 20p-piece to unlock a turnstile, necessitating my trundling my gigantic suitcase all the way down the concourse to the newsagents, buying some mints I didn't want in order to get the requisite change, then trundling my gigantic suitcase all the way back again - all with crossed legs. Then spending yet more bladder-wracking minutes trying to work out how to get my gigantic suitcase through the turnstile with me, because if you leave any baggage unattended for longer than a nanosecond in this part of the world, they clap you in chains.

But here I am at last, in Donald's beautiful, old, interesting, big house in Edinburgh, the Castle just over the hill. My room is up in the sky, on the top floor, with a fabulous view over Pilrig, which looks to be a promisingly fascinating place.

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Sunday, 28 December 2008

Travels with Muriel VI: meeting my cousins

Just when I was congratulating myself on having spent quite a bit of time drawing sober breath - days, in fact - my cousins came to visit. Robert and Steven are my auntie Janet and uncle Brian's sons. Robert and his wife Gill live in the Channel Islands; Steven is a barber, among oher things.

They are in their 40s, like me, and clearly aren't afraid of a party. We had a second Christmas dinner last night, catered with apparently effortless style by Janet and Brian, and we managed to stay up until some appalling time (it could have been 3am but I'm hoping it wasn't) drinking and playing word games. They forced me to guess the name of a magician I didn't know (my attempts - Houdini and Merlin - were greeted with veritable hoots of derision; the right answer was Tommy Cooper and I'm still not entirely convinced they didn't just make that up; my uncle Brian certainly made up some words in order not to be bombed out of another game ('ungulous'?); and I discovered that Robert has an encyclopaedic knowledge of movies going back to well before he was born. Who woulda knew?

So I don't have much to say this morning of a travel nature - all I have to report is that I have a pretty hefty hangover (although I have to add, better than usual because I am successfully pretending to be a non-smoker during this trip and haven't had a fag for over a week and strangely enough haven't wanted one - even though Steven smokes and I thought that might tempt me).

This seems as good a spot as any to mention that the British - who have, during their time, produced some truly intrepid explorers, at least one alarmingly brazen woman warrior (aside from Maggie Thatcher), and Richard Branson - are completely obsessed with safety, or at least the notion of it. I have heard the irritating injunction 'Safety first' from practically everyone I've come across on this island, from the minister who conducted the Christmas Eve service in Hitchin (and who seemed genuinely concerned about the possibility that the candles lit by his congregration to represent Jesus as the Light of the World might simply fly out of control and burn the church to the ground) to the driver of the coach that brought me here ('I will be getting you all to your destination as quickly, but MUCH MORE IMPORTANTLY, as safely as possible' - comforting, I suppose, for a South African, who is accustomed to bus drivers who regularly and cavalierly steer their vehicles over cliffs).

Perhaps the most amusing 'safety' issue I've yet seen was the label on Michele's kids' trampoline in Hitchin (which, I might add, isn't just a bouncy thing like we're used to back home, but comes complete with a safety net that brackets the entire piece of equipment, making it look like a huge and somewhat intimidating spider's web) which illustrates a stick man bouncing off the trampoline and onto his head - with a big red line through it. In other words, the label instructs users of the trampoline NOT to bounce off it and onto their heads.

Takes the fun out of it a bit, I think.

An example: This building, in Scotland, wasn't 'dangerous' by any stretch of the imagination. It was an old stable on an estate that had been bequeathed by some generous past landowner to The People. The most dangerous thing about it was that you might read the 'Keep Out' sign and laugh so hard you'd give yourself a hernia.

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Saturday, 27 December 2008

Travels with Muriel V: PDAs

I never thought I'd say this, but I really miss the British reserve. I've already been subjected once, very much against my will, on the Tube in London, to a soft-porn show starring not-very-attractive people. And yesterday, on the coach (bus to South Africans) from Hitchin to Milton Keynes, I had just settled down with my crappy girlie novel for the hour's journey when I heard some horribly familiar sucking, licking noises coming from behind me.

I whipped around and poked my nose between the seats and there, so close I could have, well, licked them, were yet another horny British couple, doing the grooming-marmosets thing. Again, the cute factor was resoundingly absent - these two could have been stamped from the same mould as the London pair, the boy gangly with a huge nose and premature baldness, the girl utterly unremarkable except for her bottle-bottom specs and greasy hair.

I said, loudly, 'I don't bloody believe this,' but they were so intent on cleaning each other's tonsils by tongue that they didn't hear me.

I'm no prude (really, I'm not), and the human populace at large is more than welcome to kiss itself into a coma, but I so wish they wouldn't do it where I have to watch and, possibly worse, hear them.

Anyway! The British Reserve was fabulously well represented by the young man I sat next to on the next leg, from Milton Keynes (a major bus exchange that lacks anything at all in the way of amenities - a blot on the otherwise impressive landscape of British public transport, in my opinion - which meant that I had to sit outside on a metal bench in sub-zero temperatures for two hours waiting for my next coach, a paralysingly chilly experience) to Manchester.

Wishing to tilt my seat back a bit so I could snooze, I fumbled around under it to find the lever that would allow me to do this. The young man, similarly searching for the lever on his side (as it turned out, neither was there), mistakenly brushed his hand against mine. His reaction was very entertaining: he recoiled as if stung by a scorpion and stared at me aghast, his eyes so wide I worried they might actually fall out. I gave him what I thought to be my most unthreatening smile and said, 'Looks like the levers have broken off, so no lying back and relaxing for us this trip, eh?'

I know he spoke English because he was reading a thick textbook entitled 'Biological Psychiatry' and you have to have more than a smattering to get through something like that, I'd imagine, but he reacted, again, as if I'd just suggested we nip down to the Portacabin at the back of the bus and have a quickie. He turned bright red and shifted his body so that, as far as he was able in such limited space, he had his back to me. I found this reassuringly odd.

By the time I reached Manchester last night the temperature was beginning to plummet in a satisfyingly winter-in-the-UK way, and by the time we - my auntie Janet, of Bobby the Baboon Spider fame; my uncle Brian and my cousin Stephen - wandered 'down the pub' (I wonder why Brits leave out prepositions willy-nilly) it was so cold it hurt to breathe. We had a slap-up dinner at a local Indian restaurant, where, for reasons we can't work out (except that maybe one of us had been mistaken for someone famous), we got lots of free stuff - a bottle of wine that Janet immediately drank because it would have been rude not to; a Nepalese vegetable dish that we all agreed should probably have stayed in Nepal; and mugs with the restaurant's name printed on in fantastically gaudy gold script.

This morning, to my delight, we woke up to a frost-covered world, all white and sparkly and delicately pretty. Who knows, I may even see snow before I leave.

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Thursday, 25 December 2008

Travels with Muriel IV: Merry Christmas

I haven't been to church since at age 17 I was effectively excommunicated for being a loudmouth. I was 'asked' to leave Confirmation classes and consequently, as a nasty heathen, wasn't allowed to get married in church. While I'm not saying my marriage failed because it hadn't been sanctified in the eyes of God in His own house, but rather in the eyes of my mates in my parents' home, I don't think it helped.

Last night, here in Hitchin, UK, I went to the children's Christmas church service, where I was so overcome that I cried real tears; and I drizzed again this morning when I went to church for the 'real' (adults') Christmas service. Yup, that's TWO church attendances in two days, and I can't say I didn't enjoy them. For the simple reason that I did. (The genuinely stupendous St Mary's church, which is vast and beautiful and very very interesting, was one of the reasons why - go to http://www.stmaryshitchin.org.uk/)

On less religious matters, I spent yesterday in the historic university town of Cambridge - it's the 800th anniversary of the varsity next year, so it's been around a pretty long time, more or less from when Robin Hood and his Merry Men were causing havoc in Sherwood Forest.

This is what I noticed about Cambridge, as opposed to Guildford, London and Hitchin (the only other three places I've visited so far): a LOT of people ride bicycles; a surprising number of people smoke (I haven't had a fag since last Saturday and that secretive Malboro at Ruth's place); the traffic isn't so bad (this is because, my friend Michele tells me, there is a 'traffic calming' project in place, where people park on the outskirts of town and catch a bus in - so, as elsewhere, there's really efficient, fast, frequent public transport); and the coffee shop staff are as gratifyingly abrupt and inept as much of what might be found in South Africa on a good day.

Really fab in Cambridge (aside from the bookshop, Waterstones, which I could quite easily have moved into and stayed for ever) was the Corpus Clock (or Chronophage, which means 'time eater'), a monumental modern mechanical sculpture based on historic timepiece principles. The grass-hopper that tops it is so wonderfully evil-looking with its needle-like gold teeth and its gold-plated eyelids (which it blinks creepily now and again); and I love the idea that it doesn't keep exact time (except once every five minutes) because the inventor wanted to illustrate the 'irregularity' of time. That lateral thinking thrills me. Go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pHO1JTNPPOU for more.

Am about to sit down for a blow-out family Christmas lunch, so until next time, happy happy Christmas.

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Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Travels with Muriel III

There are two things the British do really well: public transport and the British Museum.

The British Museum is... well, it's wow. Just wow. Try and go there before you die. Really.

We got to the museum from the chichi little London suburb of Richmond via the Underground - in on the District line and then one change at Piccadilly. It's very crowded (like everything here) but boy is it efficient. Michele, the friend I'm now staying with in Hitchin, tells me that the Underground (and public transport in general) is savagely underappreciated by the Brits, who make comments like, 'It's like a Third World country's,' which is funny if you happen to come from a country like South Africa, where there is effectively no public transport system at all. (Both Michele and Brigitte - neither UK-born - mentioned that the Brits do whinge about everything, and if there's nothing either valid or handy to whinge about, they'll make something up.)

British people are known for disliking human contact - physical, visual or emotional - so the way they deal with the crush on the Underground (and elsewhere) is by pretending they're on their own: they sit staring forward and nothing on God's green earth will entice them to make eye contact with any of the other 60 to 80 people crushed into the same train compartment.

Sometimes, apparently, two British people together might pretend to be on their own; in the case of the couple on yesterday's journey to the museum, on their own in their own bedroom. They licked and sucked each practically without cease for more or less the entire 30-minute ride; it was like watching marmosets grooming, only without the cute factor. Fortunately, just as I could stand it no longer and was about to shout at them, 'For the love of Christ, stop it!' they arrived at their destination and got off - still joined by the tongue.

During this public soft-porn demonstration I had tried to make eye contact with several of my fellow travellers, raising my eyebrows in a 'Can you believe this?!' kind of way, but not one of them acknowledged either me or the heavy petters. It really was most peculiar.

Oh, the Brits have also recently got very good at recycling. Domestic waste is sorted into various different coloured containers for plastic, glass, paper and compostable material, and these are put out on the pavement on garbage-collection day. My friend Brigitte was a tad embarrassed about the contents of her glass bin, which included possibly 10 empty wine bottles (not an unthinkable number, really, for a week's worth of consumption by two people plus, probably, a few friends here and there).

Her neighbour, a nervous-looking woman called Susan, clearly had even more of an issue with her empties than Brigitte. Susan didn't realise that I was with Brigitte (I was standing out on the road, be-hatted and be-gloved and be-scarved, enjoying the bitter biting cold of a London morning), so didn't click that I was observing and would be reporting back. Susan took the opportunity, while Brigitte was inside the house switching off lights and checking that the gas was off and so on, to surreptitiously transfer the contents of her glass container (probably about 20 empty booze bottles) into Brigitte's.

When Brigitte came out of the house and into the street, she looked down at her now-overflowing glass container and did an extremely amusing double-take. 'Vot is ziz?' she said (her German accent becomes very pronounced in times of stress). I took great delight in telling on Susan.

This morning is the first since I arrived in the UK that I haven't woken up with a crashing hangover, which has made such a pleasant change that I'm now off to Cambridge to look at colleges and churches and maybe even do a spot of punting. We're going by rail, of course, and this time I'm going to try not to end up in First Class by mistake (as I did last night, on my return trip to Hitchin from London) - although it's wonderfully comfortable, Michele has warned me that if they catch me, 'They will fine you!' Oo-er.

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Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Shell Ultra-Pretty

The thing I dread most about long car drives is stopping for a pee. Unlike my daughter who thinks public toilets rock, I have a real aversion to parking my pretty posterior on a seat that been sat upon by 3000 people in a single morning. Accordingly, we made only one wee stop on our drive between Johannesburg and Beaufort West - some 900 km; yes, I have a bladder of steel, and so does my daughter. Shell Ultra-Shitty was what I used to call these pit stops, but I have to say that the Beaufort West branch really pulled out all the stops to make my visit a pleasant one. Isn't this just lovely? The fragrance was amazing. The men's loos had the same treatment.

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Travels with Muriel II

Toinight I'm drunk in Richmond.

I got here by way of the Groucho Club in Soho, which would likely have been more interesting to me if it hadn't been so bloody hot. Look, I know English winters are cold but what's stopping these guys from just wearing jerseys indoors, like we do in the cold wet Cape winters? Instead, you freeze your arse off outside then go into swelter-down the minute you enter a building. I for one am mightily sick and tired of repeatedly removing and replacing my coat, hat, scarf and gloves. (But I did love the loos, with their handwritten sign Presticked to the mirror warning sternly: "Anyone taking illegal drugs on these premises will IMMEDIATELY be ejected from the Groucho Club." Oo-er. I thought the better of it and put my syringe away.)

But I really am dying for a cigarette.

NOBODY on this verdomde island smokes. Well, almost nobody. I saw a girl smoking a cigarette outside a Boots chemist in Hitchin this morning and I couldn't help it - I ran up to her, grabbed her sleeve and gasped, 'Oh thank god thank god please exhale in my direction.' She did that humiliating English thing of pretending she hadn't noticed me.

Hitchin is a very strange little town. I won't say too much about it now because I'm going back there tomorrow and want to gather more ammunition before I pull that trigger (I'm bouncing around this place like a rubber ball, apparently - the Engish really dislike disorganisation, and my itinerary hasn't impressed anyone) but this I will say: it's VERY weird ordering a Starbucks coffee in a 600-year-old building with moss growing on its roof.

One other thing: England is CROWDED. I have mentioned (slightly questioningly) to the friends I'm staying with the absolutely terrifying levels of traffic on the roads and the frankly nightmarish press of people EVERYWHERE. I caught a train from Hitchin to King's Cross Station (the station from which, incidentally, Harry Potter takes off for Hogwarts) at 11.30am today, a Monday - it's holiday time and I was travelling off peak - and it was so crowded I had to stand with my bum pressed up against a pensioner's forehead and my nose squashed against a Aramis-drenched teenager's back, a double bill I never ever want to repeat... When I point out the crowds to my hosts, they look at me as if I've just grown an extra set of boobs and say, 'This is a small island and SIX MILLION PEOPLE live on it.' Well, okay then, just freak me COMPLETELY out, why doncha.

Also, faaahk but is this place expensive - a 30-minute return ticket cost me 23 pounds which for we cash-strapped South Africans is about THREE HUNDRED AND FIFTY RAND - for a train trip more or less the equivalent of from Rondebosch East to CT central, I am still reeling so badly from it, it's hard to tell if I'm drunk or just astonished.

(Okay, I'm drunk. They make really really good mojitos at the Groucho Club. And that's all I'm going to say about that.)

Anyway. I spent this evening listening to Bob Dylan, the Crash Test Dummies and Laurie Anderson with my mad-professor friend John and being fed and otherwise elegantly entertained by his fabulously energetic wife Brigitte. Tomorrow Brigitte and I are going to hit the British Museum in London (I want to see the Rosetta Stone). I'll keep you posted.

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Sunday, 21 December 2008

Travels with Muriel I

I'm in the UK, specifically in a very pretty area called the Hogsback, where my friend Ruth lives.

Getting here involved 26 hours of travelling (via Dubai), the first half of them in a plane that was built for about 300 people although there seemed to be about 1 500 on board. The seats were so close together that only one sitting position - hips facing forward, feet together on the floor - was possible, and until you've sat in the same position for 10 hours straight you don't know how uncomfortable this can be - it actually borders on pain.

To add to my misery the man next to me was suffering from such eye-wateringly bad halitosis that every time he opened his mouth to speak to his bud on the other side of him, he triggered my gag reflex. Although I was hugely relieved when he finally drank so much whiskey and Coke that he passed clean out, this was shortlived: in his drunken slumber, he relaxed completely, allowing his legs to fall open so that his thight ended up resting with considerably too much intimacy on mine, and his head slowly sank until it was resting on my shoulder.

Dubai airport is bizarre and wonderful architecturally. It was clearly designed by someone who's travelled a lot because its main purpose - that of moving passengers around - is fabulously well realised, although its secondary aim - that of selling as much high-priced produce to as many people in as short a time as possible - is also very efficiently achieved.

I had about an hour to kill before my London connection and was just fantasising about my bed - or anywhere, really, I could lie down; by then I hadn't slept for 24 hours - when I walked into the travel section of the airport and saw, to my disbelieving joy, serried ranks of loungers, many of them holding sleeping passengers. Now that's what I call a REAL airport! I bagged one of them, lay down, put my jacket over my head and went immediately to sleep. When my flight was called about an hour later, a kindly airport official came and gently woke me up. I have seldom been so impressed in my life.

The second leg of the journey was on the new A380 airbus and it was great - the seats, even in economy, are widely spaced and there's lots of legroom and the touch-screen TVs are new and work properly and the food is edible. I wish all planes were like that.

The purpose of my travels is to catch up with friends. Ruth kindly agreed to fetch me from Heathrow so she was first on my itinerary, and she took me for lunch at Wagamama in Guildford (luvverly Thai food), then shopping (an experience which, like all shopping experiences for me, made me immediately exhausted and weepy), then to a typical English pub for a glass of mulled wine (which perked me up). Her husband Julien cooked us a dinner of roast duck and Brussels sprouts (a vegetable I think should be put to death by the Taste Police, but which I ate because my mother raised me right), and we drank a LOT of wine. We also wrapped a lot of Christmas presents, very badly.

Later, we braved the chilly English outdoors to furtively smoke two Malboro cigarettes each. Smoking has become so infra-dig in England that if you are a puffer, you guard this knowledge closely, almost as you would a stash of S&M porn mags you might keep under your bed. (Ruth is an occasional smoker and she suspects several of her friends of being secret smokers too.)

I'm now off to Hitchin, where my friends Michele and Kevin live. I'll keep you posted.

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Monday, 8 December 2008

I can’t remember signing up for this when I had legal, socially approved, marital sex

My teens have just finished writing end-of-year exams and wanted to blow off a bit of steam.

So they started, creative creatures that they are, by having a snip-and-dye hairdresser-fest on the verandah with a few of their friends. When it was over, my son looked like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, my daughter looked like a Playboy centrefold, and I had two hours of cleaning up to do.

By that time, however, they had hit the town and, breathing a sigh of relief, I climbed into bed with a good book.

At some ungodly hour of the morning I was woken by hysterical screams. I sprang from my bed, my hair putting all its little hands up. Racing out of the house, intent on saving some poor innocent denizen from certain death, I was confronted by scene straight out of a teen-slasher movie: what seemed to be dozens of (but turned out to be about 10) teenagers, butt-naked, leaping noisily in and out of my pool.

‘This isn’t acceptable!’ I shouted, King Canute-like, from the top step of the verandah. ‘You must leave!’

I was resoundingly ignored.

A person stumbled past me, looking intent on sucking someone’s neck. My son!

‘Hey!’ I yelled at him. ‘Get these people out of here!’

He gazed at me in a diffuse kind of way, then said, amiably enough, ‘Okay, ma,’ before plunging into the plumbago and falling fast asleep.

It took about half an hour and a lot of ungentle encouragement to get the last of the teens into their clothes, on their feet, and off my property.

I had to physically remove my son (who is 6’3’’ and has swimmer’s shoulders) from the herbaceous border and into his bed, while my daughter spent some time indulging in a technicolour yawn in the bathroom.

Let this be a warning to those newlyweds who say, with stars in their eyes, ‘Darling, let’s have a baby.’

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I won a washing machine!

I’ve never won anything in my life – and especially not the stereo system I was promised by the time-share crooks I mention in ‘comments’ under Juno’s last post below – so when I entered our local Pick ‘n’ Pay competition to win a variety of prizes, I didn’t think for a second that I’d be successful.

But the first prize was R20 000-worth of food-shopping vouchers, and, given that I live with two teenagers and (often) a variety of their friends, who are able to clear about a thousand bucks’ worth of groceries out of the fridge and cupboards in a single weekend (and I’m not exaggerating), I thought I’d give it a go.

And guess what? I won the fourth prize! A brand-new washing machine!

Sure, it’s not R20 000-worth of food vouchers – but the woman who won that actually broke down and cried, so her need was clearly greater than mine.

And my lovely old washing machine, which has given me faultless service for over 15 years, is definitely past time to be put out to pasture. (It is to be donated to a young couple with a new baby, so will go on to do more good things, although probably with a lighter load.)

Thanks, Pick ‘n’ Pay!

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I am broke – AND, apparently, look old enough to be my friend’s mother

I haven’t posted on salma for a while, and thanks to those of you who noticed (that's you, Johann).

Part of the reason for this is that I have found myself financially embarrassed and, as happens in these circumstances, somewhat paralysed. I can’t really work more than I do (I work a lot; and there isn’t, given the world’s financial climate and the global end-of-the-year closedown, a whole horde of freelance work going around right now) and I don’t have useful things like savings or policies I can dip into or cash up.

So I’ve been lying awake at night a lot, biting my pillow.

Finally, I decided that I should sell my house. I love my house but it’s a very big house and next year it will be, relatively speaking, even bigger, when my son goes off to university in another town – it seems somewhat profligate for just me and my daughter to be rattling around in a large rambling four-bedroomed house on a big piece of land.

So I asked a friend/estate agent, Annie, to come around and do an evaluation.

As it happened, when Annie arrived, with Susan, an estate-agent-in-training, in tow, the house was full of people – my two teens and some of their friends; and my 34-year-old friend Dean, who is living with us temporarily.

The two women had to put their nose into all the rooms – that is what estate agents do – and Dean’s was one of them. Dean, dear thing that he is, isn’t the tidiest person on the planet, and I felt driven to say, on opening the door to his room and being confronted with what looked a little like bomb site, ‘Oh, sorry, excuse the snakepit.’ Dean, who was hovering, laughed uneasily.

Susan, who doesn’t know me or my family from Joe Soap, shot Dean a maternal look, then whispered in my ear, ‘Don’t worry. I’ve also got a son in his 20s. They’re messy buggers, aren’t they?’

Too astonished and affronted to correct her mistake (Dean is only 10 years younger than me, for goodness sake), I smiled grimly. But I did tell Dean later that it was high time that he started growing some grey hairs.

Left: Me and my friend (not son) Dean, playing silly buggers with a disposable camera and a mirror.

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Monday, 1 December 2008

Another blogger feels the lash

Nothing spoils my day like the news that a blogger has been threatened for voicing his or her opinion. First, Cape Town blogger and theatre critic Megan Choritz felt the lash across her pitiful shoulders, and now another local blogger, Donn Edwards, is being sued for defamation for criticising the RCI-affiliated Quality Vacation Club. In short, his wife was told she'd won a car, but when the Edwardses arrived at the 'prize-giving ceremony' they found that it was just another timeshare marketing shindig. Has this company, and its legal advisors, never heard of the Streisand Effect? Do the words 'laughing stock' and 'Justin Nurse' not ring any bells with them?

If you've also been 'scammed', here's how you can help Donn.

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Sunday, 30 November 2008

Weather tree update

In March this year I blogged about my weather tree. They're easy to draw and fun to fill in. This is what mine looked like a couple of months ago, when I last had a throwaway camera that I was taking happy-snaps with (so apologies for the quality).

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Monday, 24 November 2008

Facebok adveerts: who rites this garbach? And you mite be ugly

Do you ever lock at Facbook adveerts, and have you noticed how dreadfull they are?

Ok, I realize that each advertizer is limitted to about twentry words, but is this realy and excuse for such sloopy speeling and punctuashion?

It's bad enough that I'm assailed by these annoying adverts every time I try to have a quiet game of Scramble, but tonight I discover that there may be three or more people in my own home town who might think I am ugly.

Here is the offending ad, which contains my own secret name, blanked out so that you won't throw bricks at me:




Do you think I should click on the link? Do you think I should be offended at the fact that Facebook has allowed this advertiser to harvest my name, and use it in a customised advert, with the clear purpose of being really stupid?

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Friday, 21 November 2008

Ragged shoes and catapult: the agony and the excess of Africa

I was moved to tears of rage by this picture, from this morning's Times. These tattered shoes, this handmade catapult and this tiny morsel of food belong to Vhukani Sibanda, of Doma, Zimbabwe, who hunts for birds for the pot as famine looms in that country. This grim image, by Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi, paints a thousand words.

On the same page, there's a picture of a man stricken by cholera being hauled to hospital in a rickety handcart, a scene that is medieval in its wretchedness.

And also on the news today, an outraged statement from Helen Zille complaining that when Jacob Zuma nipped up to Limpopo this week to do a bit of rabble-rousing campaigning, he travelled in a speeding convoy of 33 vehicles that stretched over a kilometre, even though he is not a public office-bearer. According to the report, 22 of these vehicles belonged to state law enforcement agencies. The convey 'forced traffic in both directions off the road, crossings on the route were blocked off so that the convoy could proceed without interruption and roadblocks were set up to stall other motorists.' The money to pay for this banana-republic-style jamboree comes, of course, from the state coffers.

For 100 marks, contrast and compare these scenarios. Consider how the ANC has consistently, and for more than a decade, pussy-footed around Mugabe and his malevolent regime. Then ask yourself: how does any member of the ANC - or anyone who still votes for the ruling party - actually sleep at night? How do African leaders who have kid-gloved this bastard, and mewed feebly at his stolen elections, look at themselves in the mirror every morning?

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Two-faced puss

Here's my suggestion for any politician looking for a personal mascot for the upcoming elections.
This little thing was born in Perth this week.

On second thoughts, it's just way too cute and innocent to represent a politican. Maybe a twee gat jakkals would be a better idea?

POSTSCRIPT: When I showed this image to my daughter, she said, 'It's twice as cute as a normal kitten'.

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Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Cohabition: you can’t choose your family, and sometimes you can’t choose your housemates either

I’m in the throes of finding my son accommodation for next year as he is going to be at university in a neighbouring town, too far away to commute daily. He’s a hermit at the best of times so a singular existence isn’t an option – he will, without doubt, simply fall off the radar – but finding people he’ll be able to share with in some degree of contentment also has its difficulties.

For the first four or so years I lived in Cape Town, it was in communal houses – they were relatively cheap, someone else usually held the lease (which meant little or no responsibility for me) and there was company on tap. But communal living also threw me – with varying degrees of violence – into the path of people who had… well, let’s just call it strange ways of living.

There was The Man With The Mucky Mattress. His bedroom contained one mattress and a pile of clothes - that’s all. He had no bedlinen and didn’t want any (I offered), and the mattress had, nastily, a ghastly black streak of grime down its middle where this man slept every night. The pile of clothes constituted his wardrobe, out of which he would pluck garments apparently at random to wear each day; when he went to sleep each night on his filthy mattress, he stripped off whatever he’d been wearing and simply threw it back on the pile. He never washed anything. Ever.

There was The Woman Who Didn’t Wash Dishes. She didn’t come from a particularly well-to-do background (and so, we assumed, wasn’t naturally used to servants doing her dirty work for her), but this woman brazenly stated that she ‘didn’t’ wash dishes. What began as a joke (we thought) grew into a full-scale kitchen war, with stacks of her dirty dishes piling up over the weeks, while we washed ours and refused to touch hers. Cockroaches came (and went, with liberal sprayings of Doom), but still she never got her hands wet.

There was The Man Who Hoarded Toilet Rolls. Nobody had much money, so communal grocery shopping was divvied up down to the last cent, and who the culprit was who was using so much toilet paper became something of an issue. It was only after TMWHTR moved out that we discovered where all the missing bogroll had gone: into a large built-in cupboard in his room which, when we opened its doors after he’d left, disgorged about 100 of them.

There was The Man Who Forgot To Put Out The Garbage. Communal living involves dividing up domestic tasks, and some are less pleasant than others, so we were delighted when TMWFTPOTG offered to take on the garbage detail full time. Until a few months later, when the Municipality delivered a summons on us. Why? TMWFTPOTG had indeed removed the full garbage bags from the kitchen bin – only to stack them in the lane behind the house, never to put out on the street on garbage-collection day. By the time we discovered his lack of follow-through, he’d left; I will never forget the horror of bodily shifting about four months’ worth of maggot-ridden garbage out onto the street for a very disgruntled municipal crew to collect.

There was The Woman With The Cats. We interviewed her, we liked her, we invited her to move in. She did, but she brought her four hitherto-unmentioned cats with her. I was allergic; the other housemate just didn’t like moggies. But nothing would induce her to get rid of them or to move to more animal-friendly accommodation. The most antisocial of the creatures, a malicious little tabby, would hide behind cupboards and, choosing its moment carefully, would leap out and claw you as you stumbled, hungover, to the bathroom first thing in the morning.

There were The Perfect Couple. Slim, blond and so alike in their flawless good looks that they could have been twins, this appalling pair of people would wake the house up with teeth-grinding good cheer at the crack of dawn and exhort us all to join them on a quick run around Table Mountain or a robust kayak across Table Bay. I loathed them with all my heart. And even more so when having to sit across from them at breakfast: glowing with good health, they would pour matching bowls of muesli – which they would eat with water. Gross.

And – definitely the record-holder in disturbing housemates – there was The Woman Who Had Really Loud Sex. Her bedroom was directly off the living room and if we’d known what we’d be in for, we’d have given her a fallout shelter at the bottom of the garden. The first time she brought home a man, we were surprised – she was such a quiet person. Half an hour later we were hysterical with shock: she was a screamer, and I mean that in the very visceral sense of the word. Even The Jam played at full volume failed to drown out her shrieks. Most bizarrely, by the next morning she was back to her shy, mousy self. I can’t remember what she looked like: I was always too embarrassed to make eye contact with her.

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Thursday, 13 November 2008

When is pornography not pornography? When it’s Open

About a year ago a fellow writer and editor phoned me to ask if I’d like to contribute to a volume of erotica, to be written by South African women for women. ‘Is a battery-driven dildo shock-proof!’ I said.

I wrote an artful piece (I thought), involving a woman with bitten fingernails, a deceitful man, a tense scene in a grocery store, and a short but fairly steamy encounter in a shower.

‘Nice,’ said the editor when I submitted it, ‘but we’re looking for… oh, you know… something more… specific.’

‘I don’t think I can,’ I said, and I probably giggled in a silly girly way.

‘No problem,’ she said, professionally.

But after our conversation I thought about it, and what I thought was: fukkit. Literally.

So I just wrote a piece of pornography.

And when I submitted that, the editor said, ‘This, we like.’

For years I’ve written scurrilous articles for a variety of magazines, above and below the radar, under various pseudonyms – I have teenage children who find the fact that I actually have sexual organs ferociously revolting; far be it for me to even suggest (never mind in print) that those parts are still in use. So I asked for my contribution to be printed under one of my pen names.

‘Can’t do,’ said the editor. ‘We have a reputable list of respected women writers who’ve put their own names to their pieces; the least we ask you to do is the same.’

So I did.

When the book came out, I was dismayed to discover that the only piece in it that could honestly be labelled pornography was mine. All the others were erotica: pornography written by women for women (although some did skirt the boundaries – and you know who you are).

I spent the next two weeks hiding under my bed, coming out only to shower and drink a glass of red wine now and again.

But on one of my forays I checked my email, and was amazed to find that people – women, for sure; but men, too – were really enjoying what we’d produced. Sly essays on hidden sexuality, fantasies come to life, poetry in lascivious motion, tongue-in-cheek (and sometimes elsewhere) takes on daybed daydreams – and, yes, good old-fashioned pornography: they were all finding their mark.

And these women – the women who wrote the stories that made up this bizarre and beautiful anthology – didn’t just lie down and take it when their publisher didn’t give them the foreplay they deserved: they took matters into their own hands and, a year after the book’s official launch (when, lubricated by the fuck-youness of big-business, which is what publishing has become, the book’s appearance on the market didn’t register so much as a small groan on the public’s radar), arranged their own launch.

So do yourself a favour and go to the Oshun page on Book.co.za for all the gen. Or go to Tony Park's blog for a Real Man's review of women's pornography.

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Monday, 10 November 2008

Citizen of South Africa? Your Govt. thinks you are crap

Many foul fruits fell from the apartheid tree, but among the nastiest, and the one that still leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of millions, was the poisoned apple of worthlessness. Many of those who had no choice but to chew on the apple are still suffering, a decade and a half after freedom arrived in South Africa, from its toxic, dehumanising effects: diminished self-worth, feelings of powerlessness, and a sense of shoulder-shrugging resignation: 'Well, I'm crap, and I deserve this treatment, so what's the point of complaining?'

These thoughts have turned over in my mind many times over the past few weeks, during several visits to Home Affairs and Vehicle Licensing Centres.

It would be an understatement to say that I am infuriated at the contempt shown by these agencies towards South Africa's citizens.

And I'm aghast at, and admiring of, the extraordinary tolerance and patience of ordinary people sitting in long, hot, frustrating queues. Not once, in a total of about twelve hours of queueing during the last seven days, have I heard anyone raise a complaint, not even a squeak, about the disgraceful, idle service dished out by these state agencies. No, they sit patiently, with folded arms, apparently resigned to the fact that they deserve nothing more than to be treated like shit.

There are frustrated comments, but always expressed sotto voce: 'Look at that lazy cashier. He's sitting there doing nothing.' And: 'Why is there only one till open?'. 'These chairs are dirty, and I want to go to the toilet, but I can't lose my place in the queue.'

I feel so disappointed - no, brokenhearted - that the ANC government that promised so much, and for which I voted for so eagerly, has failed so miserably to treat its citizens with a modicum of respect and kindness.

If that statement annoys you, Mr or Ms Minister, okay. But, before you denounce me, please go, without your bodyguard and your three-car convoy, and spend three to six hours at any office of the Department of Home Affairs, or any vehicle or licensing department. Okay, I'll make it easy for you: go to vehicle centre in Marlborough, Johannesburg, which is arguably the most luxurious of all Jo'burg agencies dealing with the public.

Take your place in a long queue which leads to a disinterested security guard lounging, as if he's on the beach in the Seychelles, at an old, chipped, stained desk. Note the torn-in-half cardboard cartons that serve as containers for the various forms that need to be filled in. Observe the filthy carpets, the stained chairs, the windows covered in old sticky tape and half-torn, drooping notices, which all contradict themselves.

Do have a wee and a snack before you arrive, because there are no toilets, no vending machines, nothing, in fact, that would indicate that you are a valued citizen of this country. Don't hold your breath for signposts, or any indicator as to where you should queue: you're clever, right? So work it out yourself, by trial and error.

Now allow the guard to misdirect you for a few hours. Once you finally make it to the room with six eye-testing stations, note that only one machine is in action. This machine is manned by one staff member who is too busy to process your application, because she's having a chat to the White Supervision Madam, who is about to go on a coffee break.

Next to her, at an old chipped desk, is the fingerprint and photograph executive, who is going for the regional finals in Gum-Chewing and Eye-Rolling. Please do not expect her to return your greeting: this is against office policy.

If you manage to actually get your file, please take your place in the 'queue'. This term is used loosely. It's not really a queue; it's a test of your patience and integrity. You will be approached, several times over, by burly men who whisper into your ear that they will, for a small fee, fast-track you to the front of the queue. If you are made an offer, I suggest you take it up, in the interests of research. Willingly and trustingly hand your ID book and a crisp note over to these strangers, and they will be back in under seven minutes, with your license. [Ok, maybe eight minutes: give them a break; they have to locate the person they're bribing.] Don't worry about being spotted doing illegal transactions: the staff here at the Marlborough station suffer from various degrees of blindness.

If you decide, like most of the good people in the queue, to actually sit it out and wait your turn, well, good on you, but I hope you have your knitting and the newspaper with you, because you are in for a very long wait.

Luckily, you are in good company. Your voters.

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Sunday, 2 November 2008

How parents lie to children

I laughed and laughed at my co-blogger Muriel's post about the lies that parents tell their children: 'Wine makes Mummy clever.' I laughed because over the years I've told my children many small white lies. I laughed because my parents told me lies too. And, most of all, I laughed because the lies don't really change over the generations - they're passed down from parent to child like shining pearls.

A recent survey revealed that parents lie to their children often, and with great consistency. According to the survey, these are the most common parental porky pies:

  1. Father Christmas only gives presents to good children
  2. Father Christmas only visits children who go to sleep nicely on Christmas Eve
  3. Sitting too close to the television will give you square eyes.
  4. Eating spinach will make you strong.
  5. If you pull a face and the wind changes direction, your face will stay like that
  6. If you play with your private parts, they'll drop off
I told my children lie no. 2, but I couldn't sustain it for long, because my conscience got the better of me by the time they were about four and I had to admit to them that there was no Father Christmas, no Easter Bunny, no Tooth Fairy and, in my opinion, no Baby Jesus or God either. I also lied to them about TV square eyes and about spinach.

The other lies I told:

  • Eating fish grows your brain and makes you do better at maths
  • Eating carrots improves your eyesight and lets you see in the dark
  • The jingle played by the ice cream van means they've run out of ice cream [I was enchanted to learn that this is a very common lie among parents]
  • Injections do not hurt one bit
  • This medicine is delicious
  • Wrap up warmly, or you will catch a cold, and, put on a jersey at once or you will get pneumonia
  • Daddy and I have locked the bedroom door because I'm showing him your birthday presents
  • The pet parrot, Piper, flew away because he was missing his mummy and daddy and went to find them [the bird was eaten by a feral cat]
  • The daddy dog is giving the mummy dog a back massage [a good old rogering, actually]
And here are a few of my late father's favourites, which were passed down from his parents, and which might well have been true in the twenties and thirties, but which were just harmless urban legends by the time the sixties rolled around:

  • If you eat unwashed lettuce or garden greens, you will get liver flukes. Which might crawl out of your nose.
  • Don't buy crayfish off the side of the road, because they have been bred and raised in septic tanks and latrines
  • Don't sit on cold ground, or you will get piles.
My dad also gave me some bloody good advice, which I follow to the letter:

  • Don't ever fly in a light aircraft, ever.
  • If in doubt, catch a taxi.
  • Wash your feet before you climb into a bed with clean sheets.

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‘Wine makes mummy clever’ and other lies we tell our children

I laughed recently when a friend told me she felt guilty about having warned her son, when he reached 11 or so and became inordinately interested in his penis, that it would drop off if he played with it too much.

My own mother’s lies included that our spines would melt if we sat too close to the fire, that we’d get worms if we ate sugar straight from the bowl, and that we’d get nightmares if we ate bananas or cheese directly before we went to sleep.

And then there are, of course, the ‘regular’ lies we tell our kids when they’re young, most usually about Father Christmas. My sister dearly wished her 10-year-old son to have ‘just one more Christmas’ believing in Santa Claus and his little elf toymaker-helpers before being made privy to the big bad world of consumerism, but she was a bit too late: opening a lovingly wrapped rugby ball on Christmas morning, he said to her, ‘Mom, if this is from Father Christmas, he shops at Game, just like you do. And this cost him R69.99.’ Then he shot her one of those looks – the ones most teenagers get in their How To Irritate The Hell Out Of Your Parents goodie bags when they turn 16. (He is, needless to say, precocious.)

I can’t recall any specific lies I told my children (although I’m sure I did), but I did spend a lot of their early childhood very stoned. I was a dedicated marijuana smoker for years, and would still be if my children hadn't so inconveniently turned into teenagers, who can tell a stoned smile a mile off. So marijuana hasn’t featured in our house at all for a long time (and I can’t pretend I don’t miss it).

I remember particularly one evening when my son, then about 12, woke up late one night with a sore throat. I’d been working (I did a lot of my best writing work stoned) and, distracted, I searched through the cupboards for Panado pills, which I usually gave my kids for pain, but couldn’t find any. The only painkiller to be had was Grandpa, an analgesic powder. My son, understandably, didn’t want to take it, but there was nothing else, so I said I’d help him get it down. ‘Open wide,’ I said, ‘and put your tongue onto the roof of your mouth.’ My thoughts elsewhere, I tipped the powder in more-or-less the direction of his mouth. Then, still not really concentrating, I handed him a glass of water and told him to wash it down.

The next morning my son was right as rain but there was a strange little smattering of white powder on the kitchen floor. Serving up Cornflakes and orange juice to my kids, slightly bleary-eyed, I looked at it and murmured, ‘Hm, wonder what that is?’

My son giggled. ‘You don’t remember, Mom, do you?’ he said. ‘Last night you tried to give me some Grandpa. But you missed.’

If my children grow up to be axe-murderers, it will be all my fault.

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Anybody out there?

I first read the story of the Lonely Whale years ago in a science journal (I can’t remember which one) and my friend Johann reminded me of it at a dinner party the other night. I haven’t thought about it in ages but it’s an interesting story.

Although the Lonely Whale has never been seen, its existence is known from its call (akin, apparently, to a low note on a tuba), first noticed back in 1989 and recorded and tracked since 1992. No other similar ‘sonic signature’ has ever been heard.

First it was thought that the whale – whose home territory is the North Pacific – was a hybrid (resulting from a mating of two different species, one of them probably a blue whale) but scientist Mary Ann Daher established that the call’s characteristics identify it as a baleen whale. Problem is, most baleen whales call at a frequency of 15-20 hertz. The Lonely Whale calls at 52 hertz.

It gets more heart-rending. Baleen whales don’t make noises to echo-locate (in other words, to orientate themselves in their environments); rather, their very-low-frequency calls, which carry through the water for hundreds of kilometres, are purely for communication – for company and courtship. And if the call you’re making can’t be recognised by those of your own species, no-one’s going to answer, are they?

It’s been suggested that the Lonely Whale might be deaf – that, like humans with similarly impaired hearing, the sounds it makes are different from those of its own species (and therefore not recognised by them); and, more poignantly, that no matter how much it calls, it can’t hear any answers.

As the article I read ended, ‘Imagine roaming the world’s largest ocean year after year alone, calling out with the regularity of a metronome, and hearing no response. It must be so lonely.’

* Listen to the Lonely Whale at www.pmel.noaa.gov/vents/acoustics/spectrograms.html or www.pmel.noaa.gov/vents/acoustics/whales/sounds/sounds_52blue.html

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Wabbing, boondoggling and Sunday-night insomnia

Everyone has their best and worst day of the week. Least favourite in the western world must be Monday – the deathly beginning of the work-week grind, after two glorious days of late nights, sleeping in and doing whatever you want.

Tuesday is something of a ‘nothing’ day – it’s not as bad as Monday, sure, but it’s just kind of nowhere: too close to the beginning of the week to be considered in a favourable light, too far from the weekend ditto.

In South Africa (and perhaps elsewhere?) Wednesday is known as ‘the little weekend’. After three full days of early-morning rising, dedicated daytime labour and evening sobriety, and with the weekend almost in sight, the wheels tend to fall off on Wednesday evenings.

Which usually means Thursday is a ‘black dog’ day – hungover and difficult, characterised by nafi-ness and wabbing (nafi = no amibition, f*kall inclination; wab = work avoidance behaviour).

But that’s okay, because Thursday precedes Friday, which means it’s only one step to the last working day of the week and… freedom! In Cape Town, especially, Friday ‘evening’ rush-hour traffic starts at lunchtime – no-one bothers to work a full Friday; and if they do stay in the office until 5pm, they’re boondoggling. (boondoggling = moving pieces of paper around in order to look busy.)

When I was younger, the very fact that it was Friday was all the excuse we needed to go out and get thoroughly plastered. A kind of hysteria set in and lasted, usually, until the early – and sometimes late – hours of Saturday morning. Which meant that Saturday, lovely day though it was, was reserved for nursing hangovers over long, lazy lunches with friends or going to movies.

Now that we’re older, Friday evening is more for kicking back and relaxing. People who have dinner parties on Friday nights are seen as a tad more adventurous than is deemed strictly necessary – everyone’s too busy getting over the stress of their working week to let their hair down, and use Fridays to recover before the socialising that Saturday brings.

So Saturdays are fabulous no matter how you look at them – whether you’re lying in bed eating chicken tikka to try and smother a hangover, or doing some rudimentary gardening or other household chore prior to showering, primping and getting ready to have fun.

Which brings us to Sunday. For me, it’s the one day of the week that’s divided very clearly into divine and dreadful.

Sunday morning and early afternoon, divine: wake late; have a full cooked breakfast (in our family, the only day we do this); read the Sunday newspapers (fab junk food for the brain); often prepare for lunch with friends (in winter, round the fire; in summer, on the verandah); have lunch with friends (and lots of wine), etc.

Sunday late afternoon and evening, dreadful: prepare for the week ahead. If you’ve got kids, this means locating (and, if you’ve squandered your weekend on leisure, like most of us, laundering) school uniforms, checking homework and presiding over last-minute amendments to projects (or, if your kid has been as profligate as you with Friday and Saturday, sometimes the whole damned things), finding the readies to make dinner in a kitchen all but depleted of foodstuffs, etc.

And then there’s getting through Sunday nights. In my family of origin – ie, the one I grew up in – Sunday nights were always bleak. Firstly, my parents were usually fabulously pissed, having spent the afternoon entertaining their friends, and wanted as little to do with their four offspring as was humanly possible; this meant throwing together some comestibles (usually something weird and badly cooked by my father – pancakes blackened on the bottom, say, or scrambled eggs that were mostly water), then hot-footing it upstairs to their own private wing. And, secondly, we were expressly banned from our parents’ private wing on Sunday nights unless we were actually dying; I suspect this was because they wanted to have uninterrupted, wild, drunken Sunday-night sex.

Incidentally, I suspect that my parents – who were, to put it mildly, godless – insisted that all four of us go to Sunday School every Sunday morning without fail (unless, as above, we were actually dying) because they wanted to have uninterrupted, sensible, sober Sunday-morning sex as well.

Anyway, so for me Sunday nights aren’t much fun. I don’t know how much of this has to do with the subconscious ickyness of imagining my parents getting it on, but I suspect not that much – because a lot of the people I’ve straw-polled about Sunday nights also experience them as bleak.

There’s a phenomenon known as ‘Sunday night insomnia’ which the experts say has to do with how your body-clock gets thrown out by irregular Friday-night and Saturday-night sleep patterns (caused by late-night jolling). But this doesn’t explain why, even when I get to bed at a reasonable hour, and sober, on Friday and Saturday nights (and this does happen – okay, not often, but still), Sunday nights remain a real challenge for getting proper shut-eye.

But regardless of the quality of the sleep you get on Sunday night, all too soon it’s Monday. And the whole cycle begins again.

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Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Wonderful parodies of Obama Hope Poster


I do love a meme, and here's a dream meme. Parodies of Shepard Fairey's iconic poster of Barack Obama [left] are popping up all over the Net. In fact, the poster has become so wildly popular that there is even an online Photoshop tutorial that shows you how to make your own. And another site that lets you enter your own slogan.

A vast collection of these spin-off posters are displayed here, [not all of them tasteful or nice].

Here here are my favourites:





Via Boing Boing.

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Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Tax woes and eenie-meenie-miney-moe’s

Once a year, and usually later rather than sooner, I am compelled to do my books for my longsuffering accountant, who then tries (with frankly astonishing success) to translate my scribbles into something the taxman can actually make sense of.

I am not an account-type person, and have trouble understanding things like percentages and ratios or even, if I am completely honest, how to add two and two, so doing my books is an exceedingly painful process for me, and usually involves at least a bottle of red to get me through it. This does, unfortunately, have a bearing on why my later spreadsheets are rather more shambolic than my earlier ones, but my magician/accountant has long since learnt to factor in alcohol-induced missteps.

I know that the right way to do my books is not in a crazed drunken rush one day before the final deadline for tax returns, but regularly and soberly at every month end. I know this because my accountant reminds me of it often, when he phones or emails with increasing impatience to ask for my figures, and I tell him with increasing unhappiness that I simply can’t bring myself to try to make sense of the large box of slips marked ‘tax return’ that sits under my desk.

But, like death, tax will not be wished away, and finally the awful day comes when I have to tackle The Box. I do this by, on some random morning, rising like a zombie from my bed, immediately opening a bottle of wine and swiftly having a couple of hefty swigs, then hauling out the box and scattering its contents across the kitchen counter, all before my conscious mind can kick in and ask me what the hell I think I’m doing.

And then the fun begins.

I’m okay with the stuff that I can recognise – mainly bank-card slips that give the name of the vendor. But with alarming frequency I come across cheques made out to, for instance, ‘G de Graaff’ or ‘Lydia Verloven’ or (most worryingly) ‘cash’, for quite large sums that I simply can’t account for. When I hunt for the cancelled cheques (which happens with decreasing frequency as the day wears on, the level in the wine bottle drops, and my attention to detail wanes) there’s never any clue on them what exactly I was splashing out for. So that’s where the eenie-meenie-miney-moe comes in: I close my eyes, randomly choose a category (home improvements? stationery? computer expenses?) and write it up.

So it’s probably fair to say that my final tax return doesn’t precisely reflect my expenditure.

But then, it hardly matters, since most of my money goes to (in decreasing order of frequency and volume) grocery stores, bank charges (the bastards!), veterinarians and schools. None of which, as even I know, are even vaguely tax-deductible.

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Dead bunny on winning T-shirt: who killed Flopsy?

A dead bunny skewered by chopsticks is the winning design of Big Blue's Makhulu Polane T-shirt design competition. The winning designer, Gerrit Breitenbach, of Johannesburg, has scooped the R20 000 cash prize, and his T-shirts will be sold in all Big Blue and Kitsch & Kool stores this November and December. Breitenbach, is of course, no loather of bunnies; his brilliant design is a reference to Bunny Chow, a unique and iconic South African dish consisting of a hollowed-out half loaf of white bread filled with curry.

'The Bunny Chow is a very simple affair consisting of a hollowed-out quarter, half or full loaf of bread filled with any available curry including beef, mutton, chicken or beans,' writes Allan Jackson, author of Facts About Durban. ' The Bunny Chow should be freshly made out of mature curry and the piece of bread, or virgin, which was removed to make room for the curry should be placed on top of the Bunny before it is wrapped. Some chefs add sambals to their Bunnies but many feel that this is an unnecessary elaboration. ' More here.

But back to the competiton. Here are some of my favourites among the top 30 designs. See the rest at Big Blue's website or on Facebook






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Proper coffee: do you do it?

Living as I do in a backwater, I often miss trends. They pass me by, and until they’re shoved right under my nose I’m not even aware of their existence.

Making proper coffee is one of them. I’m not a coffee person (one cup gives me the jitters; another, and I can’t sleep for 24 hours) but many of my friends are. I’ve had an oldfashioned coffee percolator for yonks and that’s what I haul out when coffee is called for. I keep a packet of ground filter coffee in the fridge, sealed as instructed, for this purpose.

My friend Johann told me recently that this wasn’t good enough. I was amazed. ‘So what should I be doing, then?’ I asked him.

He made a contemptuous phttt-ing noise.

‘Seriously,’ I said, ‘tell me. I honestly don’t know. Oh… you mean I should have one of those Bodum plunger jobs?’ And even as I launched into the reason I don’t (the one and only plunger I ever had popped on me the second time I used it; it gave me a couple of nasty burns and I was cleaning coffee off the kitchen walls for months), he was laughing snarkily.

‘Pressure!’ he finally said.

He refused to enlighten me further – for a trendy person like Johann, I am often an embarrassment.

Once, we were out for dinner and he was about to use the bottle of ‘spring’ water ‘kindly’ put on the table by the establishment. ‘Don’t open that!’ I shouted, loudly enough to make him jump and other diners to look around in curiosity.

Johann sighed. ‘Why?’ he asked.

‘Because it costs the bloody earth!’ I said. ‘Seriously, I’ve been in one of these places before’ [it was a well known seafood-restaurant chain] ‘and it’s a total rip-off. They put it on the table so you’ll drink it, then they charge you through the nose for it.’

Johann rolled his eyes but didn’t open the water. When the waiter turned up, he confirmed that the bottle of water cost R22. (TWENTY-TWO RONT FOR A BOTTLE OF WATER???!!!)

I asked the waiter (rhetorically, obviously), ‘Would you pay R22 for a bottle of water?’ and he looked uneasy.

Johann gave me A Look and said to the waiter, ‘Ignore her. She’s mad, but she’s not dangerous.’

Anyway, I suffered in ignorant silence for quite a long time about the coffee, until three visits to friends in rapid succession cleared things up for me. Friends A have one of those hissy, steamy machines that require the use of a gynaecological-looking gizmo to produce what amounts to two sips of coffee in a cup the size of a thimble, with a cocaine-like kick that would keep me awake for a week. Friends B have similar, but with an additional goedemadoetjie that makes milk into froth.

Friends C – and this is where I realised how hopelessly out of touch I am – have not only the hissy, steamy machine, the gynaecological-looking accoutrements, and the milk-frother-thingie, but also (a) a coffee roaster and (b) a coffee grinder. Friends C buy raw coffee beans and make their own coffee literally from scratch!

It put into perspective my woefully gigantic lack in the coffee department. But I’ve priced these hissy-steamy gadgets and all their add-ons and they cost enough to put down a deposit on a small villa in Tuscany, so my move into modern-day coffee gadgetry is nowhere in the near future. Fortunately, my sister did give me a Bodum plunger for my birthday, so while I’m not entirely on track yet where coffee is concerned, I’m getting there. Slowly, and with a little help from my friends.

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Sunday, 19 October 2008

Simon van Gend made me cry: listen to this song and you will too.

How rare is it that you hear a song for the very first time, and it resonates so sweetly that by the time the second verse rolls around you're weeping? This happened to me yesterday, when I tuned into SA FM and heard the Simon van Gend Band being interviewed by Michelle Constant. The interview, which included a few tracks played live in the studio, ended with Freewheeling, a song from the band's new album, Guest of My Feelings, which was launched in Cape Town yesterday. I've never heard of Simon or his band, but I'm on my way to buy his CD. Click here to listen to the song.

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Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Why we still live in South Africa: a majestic whale in Kalk Bay

A friend sent me these heart-stopping pictures, in an email with the subject line, 'Life in the far South still has its moments'.

And in the body of the email, he said, 'I'm trying to see how many people I can send this to, and how to work into the conversation the sentence, “Oh, yes, that's the view from my balcony in Kalk Bay”.' What he means is that he's going to send these pictures to everyone who has left South Africa on the grounds that life here is kak.

Click on pic for a bigger image



Well, it's not actually the view from my friend's balcony, but his friend took the pics close to his balcony last week. Look at the mountains. Admire the turquoise sea... and how about the colour of the sky? How deathly blue is that?

Click on pic for a bigger image



Can anyone identify this big lovely? It looks like a Southern Right Whale to me, but I'm no whale expert.

Thanks James, and whoever took these pix.

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Tuesday, 14 October 2008

IQ tests: what do they really measure?

For the twelve years of my school life I was an IQ guinea pig. Every year like clockwork I was called out of class and subjected to a battery of tests that usually lasted the whole day. Earlier on, other pupils did them with me; in my last three years of high school I was the only person tested.

The man who ran these annual questionnaires was a stick-insect-like creature who smelled of laundry left too long in a closed hamper and had the interpersonal skills of a wet vest. Much, much later I learnt – when I was forced into a combative interview with him for refusing to take science as a matric subject – that he was the Education Department’s psychologist. Who woulda thought?

As was the way in those days, I never asked why I had to repeatedly do the tests or what they were for, much less what my results were. In fact, it was impressed upon me that my IQ score was highly confidential – particularly from me.

About 15 years ago I decided to take an independent IQ test to satisfy my own curiosity. I booked an appointment with Mensa (the organisation for extraordinarily clever people) and the night before the test I went out with friends and drank tequila until 5am. (This wasn’t by way of preparation; it was purely circumstantial.) So I wrote the test in a post-party haze, and squandered quite a bit of time by rushing outside periodically to puke in the shrubbery.

Nonetheless, clearly I am extraordinarily clever, because Mensa not only passed me with flying colours, but harassed me for several months afterwards to become a dues-paying member. (My decision not to join was vindicated some years later when I was invited by an actual Mensa member to attend a club quiz night at a local pub as a guest. Woefully little drinking got done, the competition was fierce practically to the point of fisticuffs, and there was no dancing afterwards. It was the least fun I’ve ever had in the company of alcohol.)

Tonight I decided to take advantage of the ether age by attempting some of the many online IQ tests available to those with a modem and time on their hands.

I did three separate tests. All were offered *free!!* and guaranteed *immediate results!*.

With awful Internet predictability, all wanted me to sign on after I’d completed the tests and pay the low-low-never-to-be-repeated price of $9.95 to find out what my IQ actually is. (Ah, I get it: the tests are free, the results are not. Not clever enough to work that one out, me.) Some also offered *a comprehensive analysis of your strengths and weaknesses!* and *a full breakdown of your mental faculties!* (which, frankly, I can do well enough on my own with a bottle of tequila).

So I am still no wiser as to the alacrity or otherwise of my grey matter. And anyway, I can’t really see how answering questions like ‘If John is taller than Jack, and Mary has a cousin in Indianapolis, how many apples does Sophie have left in her basket?’ can measure intelligence. I have friends who can barely find their own bottoms in the dark with both hands, yet are geniuses when it comes to design, music, horticulture, philosophy, animals, languages, etc.

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Monday, 13 October 2008

Gustave Stinkpoo's 127-year-old practical joke: and other treasures from census returns

I came across the delightful name Fanny Whip the other day, as I was browsing the 1881 UK Census. This 67-year-old coachman's wife, of Berkshire, wasn't the only Victorian woman to be saddled with a name that we sneering 21st-century-ites cannot help but find hilarious; there are three other Fanny Whipps in the same census.

There is also a Donald Duck, a Peter Rabbitt, two Oliver Twists, eleven Julius Caesars, more than a hundred Harry Potters and - oh I do love this one - 51-year-old Africa Bastard, of Kent.

If you like history and appreciate whimsy, strangeness and pathos - or if you are obsessed with family history, as I am - you will have such fun snooping around census returns
(**see end of post for details) .

After wasting so much time hunting for silly names, I had a look around the Net to find out what other hidden oddities and nuggets lurk in British census returns. And, oh joy, there are plenty.

If you're a celebrity spotter, you might enjoy a bit of retro-digging: Charles Darwin
, Emmeline Pankhurst, Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill, Florence Nightingale, William Wordsworth and even Karl Marx. Click here for census images of other famous names.

And then there are the many unusual and archaic occupations and trades. We have coachmen, straw-plaiters, fish hawkers, rag sorters, umbrella makers, horse clippers, laundresses, chaff cutters, letter returners, convicts, ostlers, pettifroggers, beadles, messmen, curriers, cobblers, cutlers, idiots and vagrants.
Louis Harty Fowler of Lancashire gives his occupation as 'wizard', while John Holden calls himself 'The Queens Magician & Wizard Of The Wicked World'. William Neal listed no occupation, because he was 'too idle'.

Best of all, we have a group of young lodgers in a boarding house who must have had too much ale to drink on the night that the census enumerator came around, and decided to give his leg a jolly old pull. Their entries include [these come from British Genealogy; if you'd like to see the original image, click here
]:

* G. O'LEARY Peacock Feather Trimmer
* John REGAN, Dolls Eye Weaver
* Mouse REGAN, Ratcatcher
* Charles HORSEFLESH, Dog Fancier
* Pancho FLIPBACK, Grave Digger
* Gustave STINKPOO, Turpentine Boiler
* Charles BIGTOP, Tiger Slayer
* Joseph BROWN, Urinal Attendant
* Henry DANDELION, Horse Hair Platter

RG11/76 folios 43-45

Then again, they might just have been telling the truth.

**
You can access the index to the 1881 British census for free at the amazing site Ancestry.co.uk, but you will need to pay a nominal subscription fee if you want to see the original scanned-in pages, or look at census returns for the years 1841-1901. Or sign up for a free two-week trial.

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