Thursday, September 30, 2004

The kids are hip 

Surfing does not do it for me. Growing up in the Midlands (British, not Natal), I didn’t get much opportunity, but the whole surfer dude thing just gets on my nerves. Love the Beach Boys, just can’t stand to hear grown men wibbling on about great waves. Part of the problem is that I used to work with a couple of guys who spent every spare hour in the surf, and wound me up in so many other ways that surfing became associated with them in my mind. The other part of the problem is that it’s something I think I’d probably enjoy if I had the time, so the feeling that I may be missing out bothers me.

This seems to be becoming a theme, but the feeling of missing out stems from childhood. If you’re not part of what’s happening then you’re nobody. You don’t get the joke. You don’t know what’s going on. The urge to know, to be part of it, is now burned into my character, and manifests itself in all sorts of ways. I hate catching the end of a conversation. I will watch an evening’s crap TV just in case there’s something good on and I miss it. There are positive aspects too: I want to try everything. Except incest, morris dancing and surfing obviously.

The reason I thought of the surfing thing is the story on the front of this morning’s Cape Times. There is a surfer who lost a leg to a shark (the prevalence of Great Whites off SA’s coast being another good reason for not getting in the water) a few months ago. Yesterday he was back on a board for the first time. Inspiring stuff, especially since a beach a few miles away was closed due to the circling sharks. More of the Cape wildlife that I’m happy to avoid, thanks very much.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004


So, I had a great holiday thanks. In the interests of enabling lie-ins by sending her the kids early in the morning, and to provide ourselves with a baby sitter for the evenings, the mother in law came with us. Her room number at the hotel? 101.

I'm saying nothing.

Monday, September 27, 2004

I need a break 

We all dream, from an early age. It is an innate human urge. We dream of being an engine driver, captaining England, the perfect woman. Inevitably, these dreams die. Realism takes hold. We age and our dreams change: chairman of the board, the next big thing, the perfect woman. We get even older - are these things still what we want? Do we keep moving the goalposts out of reach, or do we chase dreams that we know we can catch? When we have caught them - then what? We admit to ourselves that the other ambitions are still out there - the old, familiar ones whose magnetism was so strong that they never really left. Then what do we let ourselves do? We can get up and get after them - really do it - commit time, effort, money. We can make a half-hearted attempt at it, but that's just a version of the third option, camouflaged. The third option is to give up. Drop it. You'll never score a century at Lord's. you'll never write that book. You'll never climb Everest. Is dropping that idea honesty or tragedy? I believe it is the latter. But you will fail. Sure. So what? Better to have dreamed and failed than to tremor in timidity. Stutter or stumble, but try. "What might have been" is worse than anything the world can do to you. When you stop dreaming, you start dying. Or worse, you start killing someone else, because you start dreaming for your kids. She will cure cancer. He will score that century. Don't let that happen to me. Let me go down dreaming. I don't want to be any other way.

I’m very lucky. Some of my dreams have come true. I’ve played at Twickenham. I’m living in Cape Town. I’ve married the perfect woman. I’ve got two great kids. These are all things that are a long time in the making. They did not come true overnight, and the same looks like being true of my current dream. The current is to write. Properly. Every time I go into a bookshop I fantasise about seeing my name there on the shelves, I fantasise about earning a living as a writer. I see this blog as a testing ground: the first draft of my dream. You heard it here first.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Things are pretty quiet round here 

I’m not going to be updating this for 10 days or so, so have a look around the archives while I’m gone.

Some folks are born made to wave the flag 

The contrasting styles of the two Ryder Cup teams this week have got me thinking about patriotism and nationalism. The old world of Europe seems comfortable with itself, mature and confident next to the brash “love it or leave it” American jingoism. The reason that there is no pat like an ex-pat is that patriotism is one of those things – like Monty in the Ryder Cup – that thrives under adversity. The expat is constantly reminded of his nationality, and if you are a Pom, usually reminded of the worst parts of British-ness, like the weather, or the cuisine. Under this assault, one tends to seek out the things that are great about your country, and fight back; in my case with the beer, the world champion rugby team, the cricketers, the culture, and so on and so on.

The Americans are feeling threatened and unloved, so the reaction amongst the majority is the flag waving crap that makes the civilised world wince. Don’t get me wrong – I love America, it’s a wonderful country, and some of my best friends are American, but then they’re not the type to chant “U-S-A, U-S-A” in anything but an ironic fashion. And yes, some Americans do know what irony is.

The reason that this nationalism / patriotism thing is interesting is the way that another new world country – South Africa – behaves. This place – another beautiful country, some of my best friends, etc. – seems to be stuck between old world and new. The fact that the bloody past of South Africa is not so far away means that overt nationalism is rare, especially amongst the white population, who still feel strongly the guilt and stigma of apartheid. The formerly oppressed majority, though, are enjoying a new pride in the nation they are building. This is great to see, and has the effect of sweeping even the quiet conservatives along in the general goodwill. The problem comes when politicians try, inevitably, to hijack this feeling, and attach the ANC to the country. The equation ANC = South Africa doesn’t work, however much the ruling party might wish it did.

There is still a residual feeling that it would be somehow ungrateful or disrespectful to question the actions of the people who saved the country from apartheid. I think that Mandela realised this when he served only one celebratory term as president: he could see that the sooner he got out of the way the better it would be for the democracy he had fought for. We’re in a state of limbo now where enough of the heroes of the struggle are still around that the ANC has a gravitas that is in some ways difficult to assault. It will probably take a generation before there is enough distance from the heroism that we are all on an equal footing.

The nation is slowly working its way to a point where it is comfortable with itself and getting over its hang-ups. That some of the proudest South Africans are the white ones who might be expected to keep their heads down for a few generations is testament to the miracle that Mandela and the others created. The patriotism in South Africa is thus a nice blend of the self effacing old world and the self confident new. The incredible rejuvenation of the nation as such a universally admired triumph, and the lack of any serious international cock-ups since, leaves the country as the underdog that everybody would like to see do well. South Africa really does have a lot to be patriotic about, as soon as it figures out what patriotism means in the new South Africa.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

I can’t go home 

I sometimes think that I got out of the UK just in time. The Labour government was elected in 1997, and we left about a year later. At one point, my father had sworn he’d emigrate if Labour got in, but by ’97 he, and most of the rest of us, had got so fed up with the Tories that Tony Blair looked like a good idea. The Conservatives had by that stage been in power since I was 9 years old, so I had never really known anything else. I was a child of Thatcher. That’s not a nice image.

Blair did some good things to start with, and carried the energy of the new start through his first few years. Then the wheels began to fall off. The loonier tendencies, or perhaps megalomania, started to show through, compounded by some really crap decisions: foot & mouth, smacking kids, Iraq, and now the hunting ban. I don’t know if it’s the bitter & twisted labour die-hards getting revenge for what Thatcher did to the unions, or a continuation of the class war, or just bad government, but they have really screwed some things up. The life of effective government seems to be about 5 years before the rot sets in.

Then, to cap it all, I see this news. Three quid a pint!! Bloody hell, I can never go back.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Nothing left to say 

The trouble with trying to write anything is that there is a vast archive of material out there that says it all better than I ever could, and is still relevant. It takes a peculiar arrogance or naivety to try and better something like this:

You that never done nothin'
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it's your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive


You've thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain't worth the blood
That runs in your veins


Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul

And I hope that you die
And your death'll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I'll watch while you're lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I'll stand o'er your grave
'Til I'm sure that you're dead

An open letter to everybody’s favourite president? Nope: a song from 1963, the year Dubya turned 17, and was more likely to have been trying to get lucky in the back of daddy’s Cadillac, or raiding the booze cabinet, than worrying about global conflict.

It’s Dylan by the way, Masters of War from Freewheelin’. But where are today’s protest singers? They’re out there, it’s just that they’re not as fashionable, or as good, as Dylan was in the 60s. Apart from the odd, crass, alt.country song, they’re writing - not singing - on the web, where people can share their ideas and opinions without a recording contract or a book deal. The bloggers and conspiracy theorists are busy getting their message across, but – as it probably was with Dylan and the rest – only the converted are listening. Plus ca change...

Monday, September 13, 2004

Night after night  

More on sleep, which seems to be a topic of great interest to parents of young children, as well as those working nightshifts. I read that adults have sleep cycles which are much longer than childrens. A child’s sleep cycle is about an hour, which is why young kids will become wakeful every hour or so, with monotonous regularity. During the hourly cycle, they go through the various types of sleep, including the deep refreshing kind, and then a period of being almost awake. It is during this phase – every hour, that anything that is bothering them – like teething – will wake them.

The implications for parents are obvious. We need to go through a longer cycle, so by the time the hour comes around, we have not had a chance to get into a proper, refreshing, deep sleep before we are woken. When you wake up, it is back to scratch, at least until you master the art of sleep walking to the cot and back. When your kids are waking you, you never quite get what you need out of your night, even if you sleep for all but 5 minutes every hour.

The other sleep problem current in our house is caused by noisy neighbours. At about 10 to 3 on Saturday morning, we were woken by shouting from next door. Apparently he thought she had been sleeping around, while she still loved him and would never do such a thing, and was imploring him not to hit her. And I though we had moved into such a nice area. Being British, and knackered, my inclination was to leave them to it, roll over, and try to maintain my sleep cycle. The boss, on the other hand, found the whole thing very disturbing, as apparently did the neighbours on the other side, who popped over in the afternoon to discuss the whole thing.

It’s a bit of a tricky area, etiquette-wise. If she isn’t going to complain to the police, then who are we to do so on her behalf? On the other hand, if she is that far gone, then she needs help anyway, whether she is going to ask for it or not. If he does start to hit her, then there is no way I can roll over and leave them to it. Part of me wants to take the British approach and pretend it’s not happening, part of me wants to delegate the whole thing to the police so that it’s not my problem, and my South African influence wants to go round and threaten to kick the crap out of him unless he lays off. So far the South African side looks like the option most likely to produce a result. When in Rome...

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Up all night 

Here's a handy tip for parents of young children: when you get up in the middle of the night to answer the call of the child, put the duvet back. It keeps the bed warm in your absence. Here's another tip: don't let anyone give your daughter a doll that makes electronic screaming noises when its dummy is pulled out, or if you do, don't let her sleep with it.

I'm going back to bed now.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

The news today, oh boy 

I’m basically a capitalist. This makes me fully in favour of competition, especially when it benefits the consumer. The sooner an efficient bank enters the South African market and does away with bank charges, the better. I hadn’t paid bank charges in my life until I came here.

Anyway, back to the intended topic: a few years ago a new terrestrial TV channel started in South Africa. This was a Good Thing. SABC, the state broadcaster, was sorely in need of competition, having slid smoothly from being the mouthpiece of the National Party to being the ANC’s lapdog. eTV came along and shook things up a bit. They brought a fresh approach and some new ideas. They even managed to spend their money better on imported programmes: The Sopranos and West Wing versus Cosby and Everybody Loves Raymond.

Their evening news show was a particular success – an hour of news, allowing wider and deeper coverage, as opposed to 10 minutes each of propaganda and sport followed by a smug weatherman (the balance is ads). Recently though, they have lost their way.

The first of their recent fiascos was to doorstep the family of Leigh Matthews on the day that her body was found after her kidnapping. They followed up this masterpiece of disgraceful and sickening reporting with their coverage of the Thatcher debacle. During this, they gave out his home address, which strikes me as totally unprofessional, especially since he has so far been found guilty of nothing more than a sullen attitude and a lack of discernible talent other than being able to spell his surname. Finally, this week, they ran a “news” piece about medical aid which was pure advertising for the company which presumably runs their medical fund. I know for a fact that eTV barters advertising airtime for goods and services, but to disguise it as a news piece is pathetic.

OK, I’ve finished ranting now. Oh, no I haven’t – they also insert slots on the crappy wrestling they televise, as if that was news too. Tossers. Right now I’m done. I guess I am spoiled, being brought up on the BBC, which remains more or less sane despite behind the scenes shenanigans. And despite (or probably because of) some of the nutters it employs.

Finally: a new idea. You may have noticed that my post headers are bits of lyrics. You may also have noticed that they link to the relevant album on Amazon. Not any more! Now you have to figure out what they are – this means you Gallois! I’ll add the links when someone has guessed, or I get bored waiting for someone to guess. Today’s is an easy one to start you off.

Monday, September 06, 2004

He doesn’t speak the language 

There’s a guy I give a lift to whenever I see him on the way to or from work. His name is Lawrence, although that is the one for English speakers, and his Xhosa name is Siphile, which I have probably spelled wrongly. He works as a gardener at a large house in Bishopscourt, which is probably the most expensive suburb in Cape Town. Lots of mansions, embassies, and about 2 miles from the Thatcher’s place. I know it’s a big house because I have seen it from the road, and he tells me that it has three swimming pools. Three.

Anyway, after picking him up on and off for a week or two, I decided that these free rides had to stop – Lawrence must sing for his supper. We came to an agreement – I’ll try not to crash, and he will try to teach me some Xhosa. We got as far as ‘good morning’ – ‘molo’, and ‘how are you?’ – ‘unjani?’, but much further than that and my memory overflows. The way that I live and work, or maybe just my decaying number of brain cells, has meant that I cannot remember anything unless I see it written down. So now Lawrence gets homework. Last week I gave him some paper and lent him a pen. When I next saw him, the evening of the following day, he had filled 3 pages with vocabulary – wonderful!

What is interesting to me is what he has written. He has recapped some of the stuff I forgot: good morning, how are you, I’m fine, thank you – and has added a lot more. I’m not sure what I would have put if someone had asked me to write down some of my language, so I guess what I have here is a mixture of what he thinks will be useful, and stream of consciousness. There are a lot of pairs: today & tomorrow, house & home, father & mother, here & there. There are also some instructions that he presumably reckons might come in handy: lift it up, bring it, make it quick, bring it back. Then, in a curious synchronicity with my wine / builder problems, which I hadn’t told him about before he made the list, he’s got: to steal, it’s mine, to apologise, and to forgive. Someone is trying to tell me something. In Xhosa this time. Hamba Kakuhle.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

No reason to get excited 

Here’s a thing. If you’ve read back a bit, you’ll know that we’ve been building a house. We moved in at the end of April, but the builders are still around, fixing the stuff they buggered up the first time round. Part of this work involves some serious banging and digging in the garage to fix a water problem. Since we have moved in, the garage is full of the usual clutter that inhabits garages: bikes, tools, boxes. And my modest wine collection. You can see where this is going, can’t you?

I am a white Englishman, living in South Africa. I am painfully aware of South Africa’s history, and also of the echoes of that history that permeate every day life in this beautiful country. If, at a dinner party, you discuss the topic of having workmen in your home, then you are in danger of discovering some ugly prejudices. You can’t leave “them” alone for a second. Don’t let them see where you keep anything valuable. Don’t let them get friendly with your dogs. The general assumption is that the black guy will steal from the white guy, given half a chance. To put it another way, the poor guy will steal from the rich guy. Being of a liberal nature, I have found that these conversations tend to end awkwardly when I am involved. I would rather work on the assumption that someone is trustworthy, until proven otherwise. If you treat somebody like a criminal, then you are likely to create one if he has any tendencies in that direction. In addition, it is hard not to sympathise on some level with a lack population which, after ten years of their guys being in charge, has not seen a miraculous uplifting of their circumstances.

To get back to the builder situation, we have gone out of our way to be nice to all of the workmen on our house. My wife knows all their names, takes them ice lollies when it’s hot, and even made the foreman some dinners to take home when his wife was away for a week. Then comes that test. I noticed last week that a bottle of wine that I had been keeping for a special occasion had gone. I wasn’t completely sure I hadn’t drunk it, so I didn’t want to come over all aggressive, so I made a careful note of what was there, and checked regularly. Last night, there were two more bottles missing. This time I know exactly what they were, and when they went. As you can imagine I was extremely pissed off. I spoke to the foreman, and his boss, and they are both reasonably sure they know who it was. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not. The next question is, how do I deal with this? I was stewing last night, trying to decide between the Hercule Poirot approach – trying to catch them in their guilt; or the Duncan Ferguson approach – beat a confession out of them. By this morning, though we had all calmed down a bit, although my wife was upset more than anything else by the betrayal of trust, and we had decided to leave it to the builder. He will sort it out, and will also shortly be receiving an invoice for the missing wine.

The whole thing raises a lot of issues which most of us would rather forget about. What interests me, as usual, is the way that South Africans approach this kind of thing. Most attitudes tend to reinforce the barriers between the different worlds that exist in this society. The responses vary from the resigned: “you shouldn’t have given them the opportunity” to the paranoid: “don’t confront them, they know where you live”. I’m trying to get to a point of understanding and forgiveness, but nicking my booze is straining my liberal nature. If this episode serves to make me less naïve, then that’s fine. What I don’t want it to do is to make me assume the worst next time. If this makes me open to thieves and conmen then so be it. It’s the only way I can live.

Postscript: Dad, if you’re reading – one of the bottles was from Grandpa’s collection!

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