Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Motivational poster of the year?

Parents of teens, stick this on your fridge:

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Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Skinny Malinky Long-Legs, Vrot Banana Feet II

Since my last post on the topic, I've remembered more playground chants. (And Muriel reminded me, in her comment, about the Sixties and Seventies craze for autograph books. Hands up who had an autograph book! And what about dingbats, yoyos, ka-nockers and moon rocks? And what were those fluffy toys with long hair - Glooks? Gloops? )

Here are some fragments of skipping rhymes that came to me overnight. Anyone remember the words?

When Susie was a baby, a baby Susy was....

My boyfriend gave me an apple, my boyfriend gave me a pear
My boyfriend gave me kiss so I threw him down the stairs
....I threw him over England, I threw him over France...

..Mother's in the kitchen, cooking fish and chips..

Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack
All dressed in black, black, black

Very popular songs when my kids were in primary school included:

Jingle Bells
Batman smells
Robin laid an egg
He made a poep
Behind the stoep
and blew up the USA

I believe I can fly
I got caught by the FBI
All I wanted was some chicken wings
But they kicked me in my dingaling

The Addams Family started
When Uncle Fester farted
He farted through the keyhole and paralysed the cat
The cat got all excited
And shouted 'MAN UNITED!'
And Man United shouted,
'The Addams Family!'

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Monday, 28 January 2008

Skinny Malinky Long-Legs, Big Banana Feet, and other priceless South African playground rhymes and skipping songs

Do you remember this classic playground chant, well-loved during the seventies and eighties?

'Skinny Malinky Long-Legs
Big banana feet
Went to the drive-in
And couldn't find a seat
Sat on a lady...
Out popped a baby
Skinny Malinky Long-Legs
Vrot banana feet'

Yes? You do? How about this one, then (sung while you stood spreadeagled against a wall, and slapped a tennis-ball-in-the-leg-of-a-pantihose on either side of your body. The words in capitals, below, correspond to the ball slapping against the wall.)

Hello, hello, hello, SIR
Won't you come to tea, SIR?
Why? SIR
Because I have a cold SIR
Where'd you get the cold SIR?
In the North Pole SIR
What were you doing there, SIR?
Catching polar bears, SIR.

Ok, how about this one? (Sung with lots of salutes, plus hand-, knee- and foot-slapping)

'A sailor went to the AAA
To see what he could AAA
And all that he could AAA
Was an A at the bottom of the AAA!'

(and so it carried on, through B, to C [sea, gettit?])

And then there's that lovely old selecting game (ie, choosing who's 'on', or 'It', or the 'catcher')

(Stand in a circle, and put your fists out, thumb-side up, but thumb tucked in.)

One potato, two potato, three potato, FOUR!
Five potato, six potato, seven potato, MORE!

There was also a similar selecting game that involved feet being pushed into the circle... anyone remember it? Oh, duh, have just asked my daughter. It's called 'Black Shoe, Black Shoe, Change Your Foot!'

I got to thinking about playground rhymes a few years ago when my sons, then aged about 8 and 10, came back from school with some New South African classics (sorry, I remember only fragments of them). This one was sung to the tune of our National Anthem:

'Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrica
Thabo Mbeki promised us a VCR
When we went to fetch it, all he said
Was voetsek, and never come back'

Then, how about French Skipping? Anyone remember that? Two kids, a long loop of old-fashioned broekie elastic stretched in a rectangle between two pairs of ankles? Whoever was 'on' skipped inbetween, and over, and on the long sides of the rectangle, ending with a twisting ankle motion and a release. Then the elastic was raised to knee-level, then thigh-level, and finally to waist level.

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Sunday, 27 January 2008

An Internet friendship success story

In May last year I posted a scathing review of a sex scene written by Aussie author Tony Park in his second book, Zambezi. I called it ‘ghastly and boring’ and said it made me ‘both sweat heavily and laugh out loud’.

So you can imagine my horror when Juno phoned me and said, ‘You’d better log on. Tony Park has responded to your review.’

I’ve done a fair bit of book reviewing in the past – I was the books editor for the South African edition of a glossy men’s magazine for a couple of years – and I’m not normally nasty in them. Usually, if I read a book I don’t think passes muster, I just don’t review it. So my attack on Tony was both gratuitous and cowardly – I honestly never imagined for a second that he’d read it. (To be fair to Tony, I did like his book; it was just the sex scenes that made me cringe.)

I logged on with some trepidation, expecting to be dressed down by an author with a large, affronted ego. Instead, Tony thanked me for buying his book, said he was ‘learning from past mistakes’ and noted that ‘practice makes perfect’. (He’s now on his sixth book.)

Oddly, I felt more dressed-down by his gracious reply than I’d have been had he frothed at the mouth.

Anyway, this led to a lengthy email correspondence during which I learnt that Tony and his wife (‘Mrs Blog’, so named in Tony’s own blog) habitually spent months every year in southern Africa – yet had never made it to the western or southern Cape.

‘Next time you’re in the country,’ I suggested, ‘put me on your itinerary.’

Last Tuesday, a little white CitiGolf pulled up outside my house, and out of it climbed Tony and Mrs Blog. We proceeded to pull a wine-drenched all-nighter (with Mrs Blog sensibly going off to bed at a reasonable hour, then, some time later, miraculously reappearing to rejoin the party), which included negotiating a power outage at dinner-time (simply solved: we braaied), discovering a common fondness for tacky ’70s and ’80s music (Tony says he hasn’t been able to get ‘Burning Bridges’ out of his head since), several nighttime swims to tame the heat, and daft dancing in the living room.

Later that morning, after a few hours of snatched sleep, we counted the cost: the kitchen looking as if a hurricane had blown through it, a few broken glasses, a scrambled-egg mishmash of CDs scattered around the place, clothes and sunglasses and towels temporarily misplaced, and industrial-sized headaches all round. (And, in my case, two grumpy teenagers who were outraged to find us still awake and behaving in a very silly manner when they got up to go to school.)

And yet look at what was gained: thanks to the magic of the Internet and the interactivity of blogs, we forged an unlikely friendship. And I was thrilled when, as they pulled off in their little white CitiGolf, Tony and Mrs Blog left with those immortal words: ‘We'll be back!’

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Tuesday, 22 January 2008

10 brilliant reasons to live in Johannesburg

I've had my whinge, now I'm putting my big-girl panties on and acting all mature and philosophical. Here's why I love living in Jozi (really!):

1. The climate. Okay, it hasn't been sunshine all round this summer, but where else in the world is there a balmier climate? Where else in the world, at our latitude, can you bask in deep hot golden rays of sunshine in the depths of winter?
2. The Sky. Have you ever seen anything as deep and true and blue as the skies over Jo'burg? Have you ever stepped out of a stuffy aeroplane after a long time in the Northern Hemisphere, and felt your heart pop out of your chest at the sight of a Highveld sky?
3. The People. Noisy, warm, gregarious, pushy, energetic, resourceful, hospitable, energetic, patient, clever, aggressive, tough, sweet, busy, focused, resilient, sociable: that's how I see this city's good people. People from all over Africa and the world pour into Jo'burg, and for good reason. It's the Ellis Island of Africa.
4. The Friends. If you live here, you get friends. Lots of them. TONS of them. Everyone you meet knows ten people YOU know. And if you visit Jozi and don't know a soul: don't worry. Find a friend of a friend, tell them you're coming to the city, and they'll do the rest: within two weeks everyone will be your best friend.
5. The Jorls. Don't care if you've jorled in Durbs, Cape Town, PE or Bloem: there's nothing to beat a fat Jo'burg jorl (that's a party, or a night out on the town). The bars, clubs and restaurants, the brilliant coffee bars, the hotels... the seedy dives in Melville, Yeoville, Norwood, Westdene, Kensington....
6. The Energy. It's difficult to describe this: it's a sense of excitement, of perching on a cutting edge. It's the go-gettingness, the derring-do, the fuck-you ballsiness... The entrepreneurship, the cheek, the sheer brassiness....
7. The Forest and the animals. People who haven't been here think that Jo'burg is a blasted heath. Think again: it's the biggest man-made forest in the Southern Hemisphere, with over 10 million trees, and it's teeming with birds and wildlife: eagles, owls, jackals, snakes, genets...
8. 702 Talk Radio. The definitive voice of Johannesburg, boasting what are arguably the best local-radio news broadcasts in the world. Edgy, aggressive and fiercely independent. Morning host John Robbie has a huge cult following, for good reason.
9. First-world facilities. Got a tumour? Need a facelift? Financial advice? Legal help? Dental care? A good degree?
10. Other. Okay, I've run out of reasons. Anyone?

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Jozi blues: constant rain, leaking roof, and darkness

I love living in Jo'burg, really I do. Even though it's a dangerous and sometimes terrifying city, I can think of at least ten brilliant reasons to live here (see next post), and there isn't a crowbar big enough to prise me out of it. But may I indulge in a small whinge?

It's raining - no, it's bucketing down, and it's been like this for a full three days. All very well (us Joburgians love rain) but it's not much fun when the roof's leaking like a rusty colander. A massive hailstorm last year punched enormous holes in the five ancient (ie, circa-Seventies) plastic-tiled skylights in our roof, and I still haven't found a roofing contractor who's willing to fix the damage. Buckets and bowls absorb most of the downpour, but the carpets are sodden and smell like farty old dogs, and the farty old dogs are howling non-stop in the driveway. (Let them in? Are you mad? Never mind the muddy paws: I'm just not, not, going to scrape another puppy poo off the carpet.)

Then there are the power cuts. I'm not going to whine about load-shedding - there's enough of that going on - but I would like to register a feeble protest: surely four power failures in a single afternoon and evening is pushing it a bit? Our house has been flicking on and off like a slow-motion Christmas tree since 3.30 pm today.

Then there's the traffic. Errrrrgggg. It's a good thing I don't live in Fourways (how on earth do you people cope?) and don't use the freeways that often (bless your patient souls) but even so I'm maddened by the fact that so many traffic lights are dead, and unmanned by pointsmen, for so many hours a day.

(Note to the head of the Metro Police: I can see the logic of deploying hundreds of your gallant officers to lurk in the bushes with speed cameras, and to monitor every stop sign in the city in case a motorist puts a wheel a centimetre across the stop line; this is, I agree, a brilliant revenue stream for your department, and of course a lovely source of lolly for cops who can't resist a bribe. But any chance you could focus on the traffic lights when the power goes out? You never know, you might save a life or two. And, while I'm on the subject, how about fixing some of the faulty traffic lights that don't work even when we do have power? I refer you to the suggestion made by The Star's James Clarke last year: Put a chimp in charge of the traffic lights in Johannesburg and pay him in bananas. He might not achieve a lot, but you will save yourselves R270 000 a year.)

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Monday, 21 January 2008

Being a barmaid to the Boulevard Blues

The best thing about being a volunteer barmaid is that you don’t have to take shit from belligerent drunks. So when a certain gentleman, somewhat squiffy on too many brandy and Cokes, ordered me to fetch the ice from the other end of the bar, I snapped, ‘I’m busy, get it yourself.’

I really was busy. Following my surprise success selling V’s Pimms at a village get-together, I stepped smartly up to the plate when volunteers were called for to man the bar at a local’s birthday party on Saturday. It was held in a barn on a nearby farm, and all the stops were pulled out for it. There were cafĂ©-style tables and chairs, food, a live band, straw bales, dancing, hijinks and shenanigans, and of course a cash bar.

Hundreds of people came, and I ran my feet off from 7pm until the late-ish hours of Sunday morning. And I did it for the fun of it, so Squiffy Gentleman ordering me to fetch him the ice bucket from the other end of the bar didn’t have a prayer. Not that he listened. ‘Hey!’ he shouted. ‘Get me the bloody ice!’

‘Hey back!’ I screamed over the ear-bending music, juggling beers and glasses and ice. ‘I’m busy! Get it yourself!’

He was not to be ordered about in this manner by a mere barmaid. (But then he was not to know that I was a volunteer, and that in my real life I am a superhero who saves cats from reservoirs and swoops down to pluck children out of the path of runaway trucks.) ‘I asked for ice!’ he screamed, banging on the bar counter.

As one, the party-goers lined up waiting for their drinks yelled back at him: ‘She’s busy! Get it yourself!’ (Love this village!)

It was one lovely moment in a series of them – some flirtatious, several very funny, many extremely bizarre – and it made me realise that if I ever want to stop being a superhero and get a real job, I might just go ahead and run a pub.

(I’m still puzzling, though, over the well known local wine-farmer/maker who ordered a glass of white and for whom I poured same in the accepted classy fashion, ie, about three-quarters full. He stared at me with icy eyes and said, ‘Hey, I paid Ten Ront for this, I expect it to be filled right to the top.’ I took a moment to stand very still and fix him with a supercilious look. ‘Reeeaaallly?’ I said. (Surely he should know better?) He faltered very slightly but quickly recovered. ‘Ja, really!’ he growled. So I turned around, plucked the wine bottle from the fridge, and filled his glass so that the meniscus was visible over the rim of the glass. ‘There you go, then,’ I said. He walked off looking as if he’d just proved a point. Which quickly lost its charm when he came back and I insisted on serving him, and ostentatiously overfilled his wine glass again. ‘Hey, you don’t have to do…’ he began, and I gave him a wide smile and said, ‘Yes, I do. You paid Ten Ront for it, remember.’ The next time he came back I elbowed a fellow barmaid out of the way. ‘He’s mine,’ I said, and overfilled his glass again. Mr Wine Farmer laughed uncomfortably and said, ‘I didn’t mean…’ ‘Yes, you did,’ I said. ‘You paid Ten Ront for it, didn't you?’ By his fourth return to the bar he was skulking around the sides, trying to avoid me. But I have a gimlet eye. I served him the entire night, and not once did he leave the bar without a glass he had to hold as if it contained mercury.)

The Boulevard Blues (which grew out of the Blues Broers, which South Africans of a certain vintage might remember with fondness) played that night, and Dr John, the lead singer, astonished me and everyone by producing the most magnificent range of power and soul out of a very compact frame. The drummer was sexy as drummers as supposed to be, the guitarists had the cutest curly hair in one case and was just yummy in the other, and the backup vocalist was wonderfully weirdly interesting. What can I say? They rocked that barn.

Driving my hormones into a furiously lustful frenzy, however, was Ari, the sound engineer, who I glanced at when I had a moment (a total of three times but it was enough). Finally, towards midnight, I excused myself from the bar and went to have a word with him (six words, actually: ‘Well, I think you’re just gorgeous’).

But was I given a moment alone to flirt? Was I hell. Within seconds Valley women began finding excuses to come and ‘talk’ to me – ‘Hey, Muriel, how’s it going, who’s that you’re talking to?’; ‘Muriel! Introduce me to your friend!’; ‘Mur, darling, don’t you want to come and have a dance with us … and bring that person you’re talking to…’; and the killer: ‘Muriel! Get back to the bar! People want drinks!’

So I never did get to practise my entire repertoire of pickup lines with Ari. Which is probably just as well, because I kind of think I shot my load with my opener.

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Thursday, 17 January 2008

Eskom load shedding: Hebrews 13:8

In the light of the ongoing power cuts plaguing Gauteng, I offer an an appropriate Biblical text for the day: Hebrews 13:8

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Barefaced cheek: Important announcement from Eskom

... and on the subject of load-shedding, I received this important personal message from Eskom in my inbox today.

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Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Boy, do I battle with Facebook

My friend Hilton, who just up and left the country one day (I haven’t yet worked out why, but I think I was because he wanted to cycle from Oxford to Cambridge), took the precipitate step of inviting me onto Facebook, and my confidence has never recovered.

I posted a silly pic and some basic details, assuming Facebook to be something like one of those dating ones that some of us joined when the Internet was fresh and new – you know the thing: post a snapshot of yourself 10 years and 10kg out of date, make up some fascinating facts, watch with detached merriment while 65-year-old men living in Goa offer to marry you, and never go there again.

If only I’d known. There isn’t a day that goes by now that someone doesn’t offer to be my friend (who are these people?), prod or poke me, send me a round of tequilas (like I need one), Super Wall me (I don’t know what that is, but it sounds painful), or otherwise stymie me with mysterious technology. I’ve become so allergic to the Fear that is Facebook that I now automatically delete all emails from them – I just can’t bear to see how much I don’t have a clue about.

Today, several months after I last visited my home page, I decided (not without some trepidation) to log in and see what was happening there.

Aiyeeee! Requests, demands, invitations, gifts, offers and all other notions of terrifying things had mounted up, and all I could do was run down the list, pressing the ‘ignore’ button and hoping that I didn’t inadvertently offend anyone.

Then a really annoying thing happened. A pop-up appeared on my screen (despite, may I add, the fact that my ruinously expensive and daily updated virus software apparently blocks pop-ups). It read, ‘Do you want to miss your chance to live and work in the US?’ Following this request were three buttons: ‘YES’, ‘NO’ and ‘ASK ME LATER’.

At last! I thought: something I really do understand, and really do know the answer to.

Without a moment’s hesitation or self-doubt, I moved my mouse to ‘YES’ and gave it a good, hard, confident click.

It didn’t disappear. To the contrary, another pop-up appeared. ‘Are you sure?’ it asked me, and again offered me the options of ‘YES’, ‘NO’ and ‘ASK ME LATER’.

‘Jumpin’ jiminy,’ I muttered under my breath, and pressed ‘YES’ again. (Look, I’m about as clueless about Facebook as it’s possible to be, but I do know that I don’t want to go and live and work in the US, okay?)

But the pop-up was not to be stopped. ANOTHER one jumped onto my screen. ‘Before you make your final decision,’ it told me, ‘think about…’ (What about Y-E-S did it not understand?)

I said another thing, quite a bit ruder than the jiminy one, and pressed my EXIT key, thus severing my link with the irritating pop-up and Facebook.

Probably forever.

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The senselessness of double-barrelled surnames

Fred Khumalo wrote an interesting column in this week’s Sunday Times about how irritated he gets with the preoccupation among black women with double-barrelled surnames. And Juno’s posting below drives home the point – ‘Khumalo-Worthingham-Jones’, indeed.

I don’t find this phenomenon of joining a maiden name with a husband’s surname (it happens among white women too) ‘offensive’, ‘meaningless’ or ‘pompous’, as Fred does; but I do find it rather silly – not only for how unwieldy these names become, but for the more prosaic reason that not many marriages last these days. And once you've shucked your husband, let's face it, there's not much point hanging on to his name, is there?

If a woman wants to retain her individuality, why doesn’t she just retain her own surname? I did this when I got married. In fact, I went one step further: I gave my husband-to-be a choice – he could take my surname or he could keep his own, I didn’t mind either way. (He kept his own.)

And I didn’t do this to ‘assert myself’ or ‘celebrate my identity’, as Fred mentions. I kept my own surname because for 26 years I’d been called by that name, and I genuinely couldn’t see any valid reason to change it. When I discussed this with my husband before our marriage, he agreed, apparently very readily.

But it seems that what Fred calls our ‘phallocentric, patriarchal society’ is still alive and well, and manifesting even in the men we assume to be enlightened and whom we sometimes marry. I discovered this when my ex husband remarried, and his second wife tacked her surname to his to create a new, double-barrelled surname. (Interestingly, he didn’t take this new surname, choosing instead to retain his original, single one.)

When they too divorced (my ex husband turned out to be the much-marrying kind), she wasted no time in dropping his part of the surname like the proverbial hot potato. In view of this, I asked her why she’d bothered to create a double-barrelled surname for herself in the first place. She wriggled a bit, then said, ‘Well, he wasn’t happy about your not taking his surname when you married him, you know, so I thought I’d compromise.’ First I’d heard of it.

Even more bizarre, perhaps, are those women who do change their surname, and who then get divorced – but who nonetheless still keep their ex-husband’s surname. Why in heaven’s name would you do that?! Taking someone else’s surname implies an unbreakable bond – and what’s the point of retaining the titular evidence of that attachment once it’s kaput?

That said, some surnames are such millstones that women will do almost anything to shed them. My friend Z was born a Pijnappels and got married to a Milner just as quick as she could (understandably). Mr Milner died, and she remarried – but her new husband’s surname was Grubb, and she would rather have stuck pins in her eyes than burden herself with such a moniker. So she took the unusual step of retaining her late (first) husband’s surname – the subject of many emotional and heated debates in her home in the days leading up to her second marriage.

Clearly, this names thing strikes a deep chord for some people – such as for my ex-husband, who, apparently (although then still unbeknown to me) smarting about my decision not to take his surname, went off to the Department of Home Affairs to register our first child shortly after his birth. We’d obviously discussed our first-born’s name in detail: a forename that we both agreed on; an old family name from my side for the middle name; and my husband’s surname.

So you can imagine my surprise when the birth certificate arrived in the post a few weeks later and the middle name was not, in fact, the family name we’d agreed on, but my husband's father’s name (which was, in any case, enormously unsuitable; I won’t reveal his identity by telling you exactly what it was – and anyway, you might be called that and I don’t want to offend you – but let me just say that it was in the region of ‘Hank’). I threw a hissy fit and made him go straight back and change it. I carried that baby for nine months, screamed through a 22-hour labour and an emergency C-section, and didn’t sleep for the next six weeks. The very least my husband could do was not call the baby Hank.

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Monday, 14 January 2008

The dismal failure of the Flying Nun collar

Not three hours ago I returned from the vet with a loudly yowling cat and a significantly lightened wallet. The vet had fitted the cat, who has a nasty patch of eczema on the back of his neck which he persists in scratching till it’s raw and oozing (sorry), with one of those Flying Nun collars – a piece of stiff plastic that juts out all around the animal’s face and prevents it from causing further damage to a sore spot.

The cat, whose name is Evan, has just waltzed in from outside, without the collar.

I watched the vet fit the collar (which is actually called a Buster Clic Collar but I prefer my name for it). I watched him thread a piece of elastic bandage through the neckpiece, put it around Evan’s neck, then tie it in three knots, which he pulled tight before snipping off the end pieces. I watched him check that the collar wasn’t so tight that Evan would have trouble breathing, and wasn’t so loose that he could slip out of it.

Evan was, needless to say, very much less than pleased with his new headgear. When I released him from the cat basket, he made his eyes go all big and wild and stared at me accusingly for about 20 seconds, before turning his back on me and leaping elegantly for the window, intending to streak through the burglar bars and away, as usual. Instead, thanks to the artificially increased circumference of his head courtesy of the Flying Nun collar, he just bounced off the bars and landed in an untidy heap on the floor.

I’m sorry, but I laughed. (I have an embarrassingly unsophisticated sense of humour and there seems to be nothing I can do about it. There’s a scene in a recent movie, Mr Woodcock, in which a perfectly pleasant young man is hurled bodily off a treadmill and into a pile of dumb-bells. I laughed so hard at it that I wet my pants and had to leave the cinema.)

Evan was terribly upset with me. He tried to do what cats do when humans laugh at them – elaborately lick their bottoms – but was stymied by the Flying Nun collar. So he just licked the inside of collar instead, pretending that that was what he’d intended to do all along, which really cracked me up.

Clearly deciding that absence was the better part of valour, Evan made a relatively dignified exit through the (wide-open) back door and disappeared into the wilds of the garden.

And now he’s back. But the collar isn’t.

I don’t care enough about the damned collar to go out and search for it, and anyway, if Evan hates it so much that he managed to get it off against all odds, I’m not going to be the one to put it back on him. But the eczema is a real problem, and even as I type, he’s sitting in obvious ecstasy at my feet, scratching himself into a frenzy.

Any cat lovers out there with a solution?

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Back-to-school book-covering blues

For a stationery fetishist like me, back-to-school week is a happy time indeed. There are few shopping experiences as delicious as storming into a well-stocked stationery shop, with its crisp piles of virgin notebooks, reams of snowy paper and mountains of sharpened pencils. I love a new file, a roll of masking tape, a fresh box of paperclips, a chunky cube of Post-Notes, a fistful of lovely inky gel pens... so shopping for my kids' stationery requirements is a real pleasure. Until, of course, I get to the till and find out how much I'm going to have to fork out.

At this point, I pull out the carefully ticked-off lists and get seriously ticked off myself. Why, I ask you, does an eight-year-old going into Grade Three need four new erasers and twelve HB pencils? I don't know how long a pencil lasts, but I'm damned sure that it should last for longer than a month, even allowing for the rampant stationery thievery that goes on in the average classroom. And does she really need FOUR jumbo tubes of Pritt glue? Last time I checked, sticking wasn't part of the curriculum, but it seems to me that my little darling is going to spend many hours of every day glueing things into her book if she's got any chance of getting through her Pritt quota.

Then there's the labelling. As I sit for hours shaving slivers off pencils so I can write on the bare wood, and hunting for a place on the crowded labels of (four) Pritt sticks to write my daughter's name in black magic marker, I wonder why stationery manufacturers can't be bothered to leave a blank white space on every product destined for the back-to-school buy-fest. Have you ever tried printing a child's name on one of those red-and-black-striped HB pencils? Luckily, my kids have short names, but I wonder how the parents of Thandi-Tiffany Khumalo-Worthingham-Jones must feel?

Next week, I have book-covering to look forward to. In my day, this was a rather satisfying January ritual that involved buying many rolls of brown paper and polythene. (Ok, my mother did it, but I learned at the elbow of a master.) You placed a layer of brown upon a layer of plastic, cut the rectangle to size, snipped off triangles at the corners and a V at the spine, stuck a lovely Christmas card on the front, and printed your name, class and subject at the top. Then you taped everything down with sticky tape, close the book in triumph, and swore loudly when you realised that you'd put the cover on too tightly and that its ends were curling up like the wings of a bird. It took at least three books to get the knack of it.

Nowadays, exercise-book covers are all pre-printed and pre-snipped, which is all very well and handy, until you view the selection of designs. I've looked in three shops, and I have presented my daughter with a choice of the following design options:

1. Spiderman, Batman and Superman ('Puh-lease, I'm a girl')
2. Barbie and/or Bratz in lurid purple and pink ('Mum, I'm so not into Barbie')
3. Photo of sulky, slutty-looking teen girl, wearing T-shirt saying 'Bad Girl'. ('Cool, mom!'... 'No darling, that's not appropriate. You're only eight')
4. Selection of great white sharks bursting out of the ocean ('I don't think so, mom').

Even if I find the right covers, I know I'll be sitting up until midnight a couple of evenings next week, wrestling with pre-cut plastic covers that are made in China and craftily designed not to fit locally manufactured exercise books. Look, it's only once a year, and it's a time-honoured task for the parent of any school-going child, but the novelty tends to wear off after the tenth year and the third child. I'll be so happy to open my pockets to any canny entrepreneur who comes up with pre-covered books next January.

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The cunning art of the non-fiction novel

Just when I thought the state of journalism in South Africa could not get more depressing, along comes The Institute for the Advancement of Journalism with a truly original idea. They're offering a course in how to write a non-fiction novel. Here's the advert from Friday's M&G:

'You've been toying with the idea of writing that book for so long, but have not known how to go about it... Well, don't despair, this 6-session course will take you step by step through the rituals and techniques of writing a non-fiction novel.'

'No experience is necessary,' they add. 'All you need is the desire to write one and the belief in yourself that you can.'

And these are the people who are training journalists.

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Wabbing*: a cracking start to the working year

So it was back to work today, after almost a month of lolling about. I was up at 7am, and fully intended to be at my computer, checking emails and doing efficient and productive work-type things, by 8.

But during my ablutions, when I opened the under-sink cabinet to take out a new tube of toothpaste, I noticed that the medicine section was in a hell of a state, so I sat down and sorted it out. (Oldest out-of-date medicine: cough syrup with expiry of 12/2003; number of out-of-date medicines thrown away: 15; number of prescription medicines in plastic containers that I don’t have a clue what they’re for: 7; number of half-full boxes of headache tablets: 5; number of loose Band-Aids: well over 100.)

That done, I was just about to go and fire up my computer when I looked out into the garden and noticed that the pool was … well, clear, okay, but it needed backwashing, I’m sure. So I did that, then I used the skimmer to take all the leaves off the surface, then I tested the pH levels and realised that the water was too acidic, so I went up to the store and bought some soda ash, and came back and dosed the pool. Then I topped it up a bit.

While the hose was on anyway, I watered the verandah plants. One was looking a bit poorly, so I transferred it into a bigger pot.

On my way to the study, I looked out the window and noticed that my car was simply filthy. So I backed it into the yard, filled a bucket with water, and gave it a good going-over. Then I rinsed it and dried it.

Then I thought what a shame it was that the outside of the car was so sparkly while the inside was still grimy, so I fetched the vacuum cleaner and carefully removed every visible dog hair and grain of dust. Then I polished the interior windows and the dashboard.

On my way back inside to my computer I noticed the dog’s bedding, which looked appallingly dirty, so I put it in the washing machine. Then I took the dog’s basket outside and turned it upside-down and gave it a good bashing.

By then it was lunchtime, so I made myself a cheese sarmie and a cup of tea and had them while I read the newspaper. I did the crossword (successfully) and the sudoku (not, stupid thing – the sudoku, not me, obviously).

When I got into my study after lunch one of my cats was asleep on my chair. I noticed that the eczema that has been plaguing him for the last few weeks was looking particularly bad, so I searched for the cat basket (found it, finally, in the outside shed, under an old mattress), and then I searched for the cat. (My cats know instinctively when I’m going to do something nasty to them, like Frontline them or forcefeed them deworming pills or take them to the vet, and they run for the hills.)

The cat located in a tall tree on the neighbour’s side, and eventually captured, I drove to the vet, where he was examined and fitted with a Flying Nun collar and dabbed with unguents and given some pills, and I was relieved of so much money that I let out a small scream.

When I got home I remembered that I’d long intended to sort out the Tupperware cupboard in the kitchen – and what better time than the present? (Number of Tupperware bases: 8; number of Tupperware lids: 13; number of Tupperware bases and lids that matched: 0.)

I went into my study again, where I was enormously embarrassed by the number of wine bottles waiting to be taken to recycling (I hide these, as one does, in my study, so the excessive drinking habits of myself and my friends aren’t immediately obvious to any stranger who steps into my house). I sorted them into 2 large boxes and 7 plastic bags, transferred them to my car boot, and drove them up to the recycling depot.

On the way home I popped in to the hardware store to pay my account. I also spent a while looking at drip-free paints, as I’d like to paint my kitchen cupboards some time.

Then I looked at my watch and realised it was 5pm, and anyone I wanted or needed to communicate with in the business world had gone home anyway, so I poured myself a well-earned end-of-the-working-day whisky, which I sipped sitting outside on the verandah, watching the cat in the Flying Nun collar amusingly trying to stalk a pigeon.

I will, genuinely, begin work tomorrow. Straight after I’ve painted those kitchen cupboards.

* Wab: Working Avoidance Behaviour

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Thursday, 10 January 2008

When you teach your kids too well: sometimes it's okay to litter

I was a good little fascist with my kids, when they were young, about littering. No sweetie paper was too small to escape a hunt for the nearest bin; we took a plastic bag with us on our frequent riverside walks, to pick up the litter other, less considerate people had left behind; once or twice, as an example to my impressionable offspring, I even (I blush to recall) stopped people in the street who had thrown down a piece of rubbish, and asked them to clean up after themselves.

But this all came home to roost one day when my daughter, then 6 years old, went to play straight from school with a friend in a particularly rough part of the city.

At 5pm I left home in my car, accompanied by my 7-year-old son, to go and fetch her and, in spite of trying to follow the mother’s directions, I got lost. It was winter, and by the time I realised I was miles from any recognisable landmark and didn’t have a clue where I was, it was getting dark.

After driving around for a bit in a panic, I finally saw a busy-looking spaza shop, its lights a beacon in the gathering dusk, and pulled in, intending to ask for directions or use a phone.

While I was giving my son strict instructions to stay in the car and not unlock the doors for anyone or anything, another car pulled in beside us. It was a fabulously souped-up roadster-type job, with a growling engine and flames painted along its sides; inside were four tough-looking youths, caps sideways on their heads, agleam with bling and keeping beat in a very frightening way to the incredibly loud, jackhammer-like music that was thumping from the car’s sound system.

I was scared shitless; my son was utterly entranced. And as we watched, one of the young gangstas in the car opened a packet of cigarettes, peeled off the plastic wrapper, wound down his window, and threw it out into the street.

My son’s face lit up. Before I could stop him, he’d wound down his window and shouted across in his piping little voice, ‘Excuse me! Excuse me!’

The gangster turned his head slowly and looked our way. I imagined I caught a glimpse of a gleaming gold tooth in the front of his mouth when he grinned evilly and cocked an eyebrow.

‘Don’t litter!’ shouted my 7-year-old son, pointing at the wrapper lying next to the car. ‘It’s wrong to litter! You must pick that up and put it in a bin!’

I’ve always hated cars that are ‘powered by sound’ (what makes their occupants think the rest of humanity wants to listen to their crap music?) but this once I thanked heavens for volume.

As the gangsta leaned out his window, leered at my son and mouthed, ‘Wha’?’, I lunged over the back of the driver’s seat and wound up my son’s window, while signalling to the litterer that it was nothing, nothing, nothing at all.

‘Mom!’ my son said, outraged. ‘He littered! He shouldn’t litter!’

‘I know, my darling, he’s a very naughty boy,’ I said, spinning round, hitting the ignition and reversing out of there like a stock-car racer. ‘But sometimes, just sometimes, it’s not a good idea to tell other people what to do.’

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The thrill of getting a real letter

Two separate incidents prompted me to post this: 1) my friend Greg, who lives in Australia, sent me a Christmas card by snail mail, and included in it a long, handwritten letter (not photostatted – on real writing paper, written with a real pen) catching me up on what he’s done over the last few months; and 2) my friend Gillian, who lives in England, mentioned in a recent email that she’d got a handwritten note from a friend thanking her for a memorable dinner – ‘That was delightful’, Gillian said.

Now, far be it for me to extol the virtues of snail mail. I am utterly addicted to email, and I love nothing better than conducting electronic correspondences with my far-flung friends, which enable me instantaneous access to their lives, and often has the added benefit of quick screen pics of their kids, pets, holidays, houses, spouses.

But the reason Greg wrote me a letter (which I have carried around in my bag with me for days; it’s the first real letter I’ve received in about 10 years, and I keep opening it – the paper crackles so satisfyingly – and re-reading it) gave me pause for reflection. ‘I thought about emailing you,’ he wrote, ‘but it’s so sterile and immediate, and I think you deserve better than that.’


When I took Greg’s envelope out of my postbox and realised that there was something substantial in it, I felt the kind of kick I used to when my birthday rolled around and distant relatives would send birthday cards from exotic lands (and which usually contained a pound or a dollar, a huge status symbol for South African kids in those days). And when I opened Greg’s envelope and realised there was an actual letter in it – oh joy!

But then, when I read Greg’s reason for sending it, I felt guilty. Because for the past few years I haven’t even sent out Christmas cards – because what’s the point? Emailing is so much easier, and so instant. It’s done in a flash: tap a few keys, press and it’s done.

And there’s the rub: immediate it may be, but it is also sterile. And Greg is right: my friends do deserve more than that.

There was a time when, for years, I made my own Christmas cards. And remembering that made me feel even more guilty because my friend Donald, who lives in Scotland, still makes his own cards (helped, these days, by his young kids), and I suddenly realised that if a Christmas came and went and I hadn’t received a homemade card in the mail from Donald, I would be very much the poorer.

I immediately determined that next Christmas I would return to the kindlier, more appreciative habits of my past, and make my own cards and send them to my lovely friends.

And then I realised something awful: since I became connected to the wider world by email 10 years ago, my address book has changed. Once, it was a much-thumbed, much-valued volume, with the letters A to Z helpfully tabbed, and in it was contained all the postal addresses that were important to me. As friends moved house, moved city, moved country, I faithfully updated (on real paper, with a real pen, in real handwriting) their new address details, so I would always know where to send a letter.

Now, my ‘address book’ is electronic, and all I have is their ‘@’ details. So even if I wanted to send them a homemade Christmas card, I can’t: I no longer have the information I need.

It’s pointless to regret something as fantabulous as electronic communication: for me, it has freed me from the strictures of the city and the imprisonment of the office; it has enabled me to raise my kids as a fulltime mother and also earn the living I need to support us all.

But it just can’t be denied that something precious has been lost.

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Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Still life with double chin

In any group of people, I’m always the one who’s yodelling, ‘Look this way … Closer together … Left a bit down in the front there … That’s it … Now smile!’

While I’m aware that this relentless snap-happiness has irritated people from time to time, I’m the only person in a large, disparate and geographically far-flung group of friends with any sort of consistent photographic record of the last quarter of a century. So much so that recently, when Kevin, a friend I hadn’t seen for 22 years, turned up out of the blue with his wife, and I showed her pics of us all as very young adults, it was the first time she’d seen any photographs of him older than about 10 years. She laughed her head off. ‘You were so skinny!’ she said to her husband.

And indeed he was – as were we all. No matter how bizarrely posed or outlandishly dressed (and the ones from the ’80s are simply a series of fashion disasters), we all radiated the slightly bony beauty of youth.

I’ve always loved taking in my pics to be developed. Back before the miracle of one-hour photo-booths, this involved handing in your film at a chemist (usually), filling in a series of forms and waiting a week. By the time the pics came back you’d more or less forgotten what you’d taken, so going through them meant reliving little adventures. It was such fun.

(I don’t do digital. I did have a digital camera, but first it got broken when I accidentally dropped it and it cost me a small fortune to have repaired; then I lost it. I am just not organised – or, apparently, careful – enough to own an expensive piece of mobile equipment. I am, rather, a big fan of the throwaway camera. It’s cheap, it takes great snaps, and if it gets lost or broken it’s no biggie. It has been pointed out to me, however, that throwaway cameras aren’t eco-friendly; I’m still wrestling my conscience on that one.)

So it was with the usual excited anticipation that I took in my throwaway camera yesterday to have the pics developed. And while all of them were truly fabulous – there were my friends and family dancing their socks off at a Christmas Day party, paddling down the river over new year, and chatting across the table at my record-breaking lunch – I was a bit puzzled by the occasional appearance in some of the pics of a woman who was vaguely familiar to me. Who is that large woman with the double chin? I wondered to myself.

It will probably come as no surprise to you to learn that it was me. Because I’m usually the person wielding the camera, I seldom appear in my own pics, but it seems that at some stage during my record-breaking lunch someone else got hold of the Kodak and snapped off a few spontaneous shots, including a couple with me in them.

I looked at these pics for a long time. How, I wondered, had I turned from the sylph-like young woman I feel I so recently was, into this middle-aged person with overly generous upper arms, plump knees, big boobs and two chins?

Then I remembered what Kevin’s wife had said to him – ‘You were so skinny!’ – and I looked again at the recent pics of him. Sure, he too isn’t any longer the gorgeous youth he once was, but in the filled-out features of his face I could still see the Kevin I once knew. In fact, the laugh lines, thinning hair, crow’s feet and other signs of age lent him a gravitas I rather liked – and, more interestingly for me, mirrored my own changing appearance.

And I realised that growing old per se isn’t the issue. It’s growing old with friends that’s important.

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Monday, 7 January 2008

Octopus bashers and oyster thieves: the rape of our coastline

Why is it that a low spring tide brings holidaymakers scuttling on to the rocks like a swarm of starving cockroaches? It maddens, maddens, me everytime I spend time on the KZN coast, where my family has a cottage, to see a bunch of hairy-knuckled oafs (sorry, but that's what they are) lumbering out onto the exposed rocks with their big-boy knives and brazenly stripping the rock pools and crevices of every mussel, oyster, crayfish and quivering little sea creature in sight.

This is a scene that plays itself out day after day all the way up and down our coastline: nothing less than a wholesale rape of the environment. If you don't believe me, pay a visit to KZN during the sardine run, and watch anglers taking 60, 80, 100 undersized fish, each, out of the sea during a shad run.

Two weeks ago I was incensed by the sight of one of these neanderthals catching two small octopi with a sharpened hook, showing them off to his small grandchildren, and then, to my daughter's horror, seizing them by the tentacles and repeatedly braining them on the rocks. Then he strutted off, brandishing his hook, the great white hunter in full sail, to find a few more. What was he planning to do with these two little creatures? Eat them? Na, there wasn't enough for more than a few mouthfuls. Use them as bait? If so, why couldn't he just cut off a leg and chuck the animal back in the sea? (Sounds ghastly, but the limbs do regrow quickly. My grandpa, who fished these very rocks for over 50 years, never killed a 'pus but always 'borrowed' a leg for bait).

Look, I know it's legal to gather mussels, crayfish, etc, if you have bought the necessary licence, it's not closed season and you stick to the bag limit. But I doubt that any one of the many people I saw raiding the rocks this December had taken the trouble to buy a license, and they certainly weren't sticking the the bag limit: unless, of course, the authorities have increased the quote to 2000 mussels per man per day. (Anyone know what the legal limits for collecting octopi are?)

I exaggerate, of course, but I just can't fathom this kind of behaviour. What's the point? There's not much of a meal in them. (The mussels and crayfish in and around these rocks are frankly puny: they are a third of the size they were when I was a girl - even allowing for the fact that to a ten-year-old everything looks gigantic - and there are hardly any of them left. )

Do these boneheads realise what they're doing? Do they appreciate the damage they're doing to our delicate coastal ecosystem?

Does Mr Stupid get an extra-big shag from The Waaf because he staggered back up to the rented shally with two little octopi and ten kilograms of baby mussels that he slayed, all by himself?

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My possibly record-breaking lunch party

The festive season being what it is, I didn’t see many of my friends for a few weeks. By last Friday I’d had enough of family gatherings and listening to Boney M and making polite conversation with people I would never see again in my life, so I held a party of my own.

It was scheduled to start at noon – not, may I say, because I am an eager little beaver, but because many invitees expressed themselves willing to party on a Friday afternoon (and in a relatively distant town) on the condition that they ‘could get home early’, the assumption being that the rest of their weekend wouldn’t be ruined by their driving into a cow on the way back to the city 100km away or, more tamely, a nasty Saturday-morning hangover. Fair enough.

The first guests arrived at 2pm. The excuses for being late, variously: ‘I fell asleep’; ‘I got lost’; ‘My mother phoned as I was leaving’; ‘It’s today?!’; ‘The dog ate my homework’.

This is just a function of living in Cape Town and its surrounds, and it’s a lesson hard learnt by ex-Joburgers, of which I am one. It’s not terribly unusual, in fact, in Cape Town, to throw a party for 30 people and have only three turn up. (Joburgers are fantastic socialisers – they do it often and proficiently, and they take time and presence seriously.)

As it turned out, however, this spate of late-arriving guests was just as well. My oven – a 17-year-old Defy; ancient enough that last time it malfunctioned and I got the techie out to have a look at it, he said, with something approaching awe in his voice, ‘I’ve never seen this model before,’ which wasn’t surprising since he himself was only about 17 – threw a small tantrum and took over three hours to cook the meal. So we only ate at about 4pm.

From there, mindful of my guests’ preference for an early ending to the festivities, I rushed things along: dessert just after 5pm and coffee and chocs and liqueurs for those who desired (everyone, apparently) around 6pm.

At 3 the next morning I put the last guest to sleep in the spare room.

It’s probably not necessary to say that hijinks occurred between the liqueurs course and the final collapse in the early hours of Saturday, and I am loath to record them here as I don’t wish to embarrass my friends (or, to be very honest, myself). But take it from me: they did.

As my friend Ronaldo was leaving late the next morning, alternately clutching his head and trying to find his cellphone, he said, ‘Muriel, you throw the best parties.’

I demurred, naturally, because I am an unassuming soul (no, really, I am), but as I wandered around the garden gathering up the last of the empty wine glasses, the abandoned clothing (don’t get the wrong idea: the cast-off clothing was only because some people had forgotten to bring their cossies so swam in the buff), the lost sunglasses, the jettisoned dessert bowls … I thought, Well, maybe not the best, but perhaps the longest.

Fifteen hours from official start to unofficial end.

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The sights you see when you haven't got a gun

This was an expression my mother, an oldfashioned Scotswoman, would use when she saw something (or, more often, someone) that, in her opinion, should be shot. And, having spent a few days with a random – very random – cross-section of my fellow human beings, I know how she felt.

We went, my teenage children and I, away for the New Year to a riverside-based camp where I assumed we would see in 2008 to the bucolic sounds of birdlife and the passing lap of water. My mistake. Instead, we shared quarters with 68 other people many of whom, under normal circumstances, I would shoot on sight.

There was the sadly ubiquitous Cellphone Man, who apparently didn’t notice that all the other people there had actually switched off their phones for the duration or, better, left them at home. He was the palooka who, as we were paddling in an alarming (to my mind) flotilla of 35 two-man inflatable canoes down the river, called up his various buddies and held identical – and identically irritating – one-sided conversations that went roughly like this: ‘Hey, bru! What you doing? Really? Me? I’m on the river? Ja, I swear, bru! Ja, away from civilisation, hey? Ja! Ja! What? I can’t hear you. Ja, I’m in a canoe, hey, bru! I’m paddling down a river, hey! Ja! Just a break away from everything, you check? Hey? What? I can’t hear you. What? You’re breaking up…’

Every bit as murder-inducing was Laptop Man, who we assumed must be a highly sought-after international brain surgeon or at the very least a lawyer whose client was possibly shortly to be sentenced to death. But no. He was a real-estate agent. (’Nuff said.) This excuse for a human being set up his laptop on the bar – and let me stress: this was IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE while most of the world was on holiday – and conducted Very Important Business on it for hours each night while other, less important people (ie, us) tried to get past him to order our GnTs from the barman.

Espresso Man was also a bit of a piss-off. Although the camp had a 24-hour refreshment station offering every beverage under the sun, including pretty good filter coffee, this wasn’t good enough for Espresso Man, who would ostentatiously set up his own personal one-cup espresso machine (purchased, as he reminded anyone who cared to listen, In Italy Itself) every morning and then bother the busy staff for water, coffee grounds, a suitably sized cup, etc.

There was the Skinny Blonde Mommy around whose elegant feet gambolled three small children – but never for long, since SBM had brought her nanny with her. Nanny ran herself ragged after her tiny charges all day and then was billeted at night in a nasty little dome-tent pitched on a slope, while SBM and her family slept in relative luxury in a chalet. (My good old South African guilt kept kicking in – I disliked lolling about and being fed and going for river trips and generally being thoroughly spoilt while Nanny worked her butt off.)

There were The Shriekers, a mom-and-daughter combo (ages about 45 and 12, respectively) who dressed identically, and whose simultaneous reaction to anything and everything – getting wet, seeing a bird, facing a rapid, being called for lunch – was a series of ear-piercing little screams that could be heard for a radius of about 10km.

There was the Jewish Princess with a voice that could cut glass, who was under the impression that she and her party of 11 were simply far, far more important than anyone else there. So on New Year’s Eve, when our transitory party of seven (we did make a few friends along the way) tried to ‘book’ seats together for dinner, she simply swept the handbags reserving two of the chairs aside and whined, ‘We’re tweeeeelve people, you’re only seven – can’t you find somewhere eeeeeelse to sit?’ As it turned out, we couldn’t – not together. But fighting for our rightful places might likely have turned to fisticuffs, and none of us wanted to risk being raked by the JP’s blood-red foot-long fingernails.

There were two parties who made for much entertainment, however. The one we dubbed Our Plump Friends was a husband-and-wife duo whose combined weight we could only guess at but which would easily have tipped the scales at over 200kg. This loving pair pawed each other ceaselessly and then really let their hair down on New Year’s Eve, knocking back a couple of bottles of red followed by a series of shots and several glasses of hard tack. They then danced their socks off (other dancers kept well clear) while groping each other pornographically, before staggering off to their chalet, where they made loud and clearly enthusiastic love. They warmed my heart.

Another party consisted of about a dozen people ranging in age from a babe in arms to a terrifying septuagenarian with gigantic breasts and an ankle chain. This extended family sported a vast array of tattoos, on practically all members save the baby; most impressive was a young teenager with what we assumed to be the Spur man (a fierce-looking Red Indian warrior) that covered her entire back. Eager and ebullient, this family got pissed every evening on self-supplied Cape Velvet Cream and all (save, I assume, the baby) smoked like trains, including in the communal dining room where polite coughs and elaborate fannings of the air from the other 50 diners did nothing to stem the smoke tide.

On one of our river trips, the guides set up a kind of makeshift slip-and-slide for the kids, by turning one of the inflatable canoes upside-down on the river bank. The eight or so adults in the Tattooed Family Party weren’t at all fazed by the guides’ stressing that the slide was for the kids only, and launched themselves with frankly dangerous gusto down the slide, scattering sunglasses, footwear and small children as they went, screaming their heads off and landing in various potentially neck-breaking positions in the water. And they turned the New Year’s Eve bash into a circus when one of the 30-somethings climbed up on the bar – and then, not satisfied with this display of exhibitionism, somehow contrived to hang upside-down from the rafters, narrowly avoiding setting her hair on fire. It was wonderful.

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