Experiments with Truth

Reading non-fiction across South Africa’s unfinished transition.

Published in the African Articulations series from James Currey / Boydell & Brewer, 2019.
Launch 17:30 Wednesday 5 June, Book Lounge, Cape Town.

I began working on this project in 2007, a time I remember very clearly since I was starting my PhD and living in Johannesburg during the first great era of ‘load shedding’. I would pilot a tiny, bright green Isuzu buggy with a hole in the exhaust and no second gear up Constitution Hill and over the brow of Hillbrow, round the taxi rank and across the tracks to the Johannesburg Central Library.  

After I had parked underground at GAME, found a desk and ordered up some books via a laborious card index system, the power in the whole CBD would invariably go down: all the traffic lights out, the city suddenly plunged into a mood of civic disorder but also a strange euphoria. I would then have to thread the Isuzu back through the chaos. Sometimes traffic police would roll down their window and say: ‘Your car…’ and I expected the worst because it was unroadworthy in so many ways. But the follow up would normally be: ‘I like your car. Is it for sale?’

Load shedding, then Polokwane and the downfall of Thabo Mbeki, then outbreaks of xenophobic violence against African nationals in 2008: it was a moment when the story of post-apartheid South Africa modulated into a more dissonant, diminished key. For some it was the onset of a more fractious and difficult ‘second transition’, as it became clear that the truths and reconciliations of the Mandela years were in some ways illusory, and that the 1990s project of social reckoning and reconstruction had not been nearly deep, honest or durable enough. As an over-stressed national grid struggled to cope and the rolling blackouts continued, it seemed like the whole national project was teetering on the edge of massive system failure. But there were also lots of nice candlelit dinners.

At the time, I was reading across a wide range of non-fiction from or about South Africa: dense and passionately researched biographies, memoirs, essays, narrative journalism, social history and more. I was overwhelmed by the ambition and richness of non-fictional forms across 20th century and contemporary South Africa, particularly since this is a place where the most important intellectual work has often taken place outside of formal institutions: in marginalised, covert, non-academic or exile spaces.

This book is an attempt to give more critical attention to all those kinds of writing that get classed under the dull and inadequate term ‘non-fiction’. It is drawn to those works which are not carriers of pre-existing information but creative treatments of actuality: restless, unstable and even experimental mixtures of the found and the imagined, the received and the wrought.

My alternate title for the book was ‘Unusable Pasts’, which is meant to signal all those stories that don’t fit easy templates of nationalist or public history-making. I am intrigued by those works that can in some way honour the strangeness and resistance that past lives and events should offer to our current desires and projections; that resist the crushingly predictable narrative shapes, orthodox vocabularies and punctual timescales of much public discussion; that seek to reveal human lives as complexly symptomatic of the past, not as simply emblematic of it.

At the heart of the project is Njabulo Ndebele’s insight that the death of apartheid (and the coming of democracy) should be imagined not as an event but a social process: on-going and uneven, happening in different ways and at different tempos, split across institutions and individuals, ranging from the most public languages to the finest tissues of subjectivity, and one that will reach across generations.

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Historical knowledge streams in unceasingly from inexhaustible wells... The strange and incoherent forces its way forward, memory opens all its gates and yet is not open wide enough, nature struggles to receive, arrange and honour these strange guests.
— Friedrich Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations

Re: Visions of Tsafendas

Re: Visions of Tsafendas

Reading Harris Dousemetzis's The Man Who Killed Apartheid.


Almost any biographer, if he respects facts, can give us much more than another fact to add to our collection. He can give us the creative fact; the fertile fact; the fact that suggests and engenders.
Virginia Woolf, ‘The Art of Biography’.


Ahead of a talk on writing lives, I have finally finished Harris Dousemetzis's life of Dimitri Tsafendas, The Man Who Killed Apartheid. Not a great title, and not without its problems, but nonetheless an enormous, passionate, often astonishing biography, and one accompanied by a report submitted to the office of the Minister of Justice in South Africa that runs to three hardback volumes and 861 803 words.

From all this we learn the following...

1. During the Greek Revolution of 1821-32, the Ottoman Empire declared that ‘akis’, a suffix indicating smallness, should be added to the family names of all those Cretans rebelling against their authority. The surname Tsafendas thus became Tsafantakis.

2. Dimitri, born Tsafantakis (14 January 1918), changed his name back to Tsafendas when learning of this history from his Cretan father, Michalis Tsafantakis, who had a large collection of anarchist literature in his house in Lourenco Marques.

3. Dimitri was a compulsive reader from a very young age, and was described as ‘a lending library’ by those who knew him as a child.

4. He mainly liked to read in bed.

5. His favourite books included Emile Zola’s Germinal (1885), about exploitation of miners in 19th-century France, and Rabindranath Tagore’s The Home and the World (1916), the story of a political awakening in colonial India.

6. He also loved Dostoevsky, and would quote a line from Demons when discussing his killing of Verwoerd in his old age: ‘It’s easy to condemn the offender, the difficulty is to understand him.’

7. He idolised the African American leader, actor, trade unionist and singer Paul Robeson, who would become a leading voice in the civil rights movement.

8. His favourite song was Robeson’s deep baritone version of ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’.

9. Another of his favourite songs was ‘Zot Nit Keymol’ (Song of Warsaw Ghetto), which he would sing in Yiddish, having memorised the lyrics.

10. He also loved Brecht.

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A Literary Con

A Literary Con

Rereading Dugmore Boetie’s Familiarity is the Kingdom of the Lost

Excerpt from Experiments with Truth in the Johannesburg Review of Books. 1 April 2019.
(With thanks to Jen Malec and JRB for image / montage of book covers.)


‘Is this Long Street?’

Everybody knows Long Street, so why was I being asked this by a large man who came out of a side alley?

As I began to give a cautious yes, the large man was shooed away by a smaller man in a high-vis jacket that read CCID (City Centre Improvement District).

‘They know you like to talk, Nigerians’, he said: ‘Be aware’.

Further down, the CCID had set up some large screens on which you could watch CCTV footage (taken by cameras on Long Street) of people being mugged, pickpocketed and scammed. The jerky black and white clips had been edited into a range of informative segments. The dangers of the open bag or the visible iPhone; lightning fast card swaps by people offering help at cash machines. A more elaborate version of this is the ‘false pop up’. Fraudsters tell tourists that they need a special permit to walk down a street, since it is closed for a film shoot, but that that this can easily be obtained from the nearest ATM, and let me help you with that.

There was also footage of the Shoe Scam – a ‘man particular’ con – which a friend of mine had just recently been a victim of. Staggering along drunk at night, he suddenly had someone beside him saying ‘Hey brother, we’ve got the same shoes!’, grabbing him by the shin, pulling up his trouser leg and comparing sneakers. This, the video explained, was a textbook diversion and desensitisation technique. It draws attention to the shoes with one hand while the other snakes round to remove a wallet, which is then swiftly passed it to an accomplice walking in the opposite direction. 

Long Street was closed to traffic for the evening, and a crowd had gathered. People were mesmerised: to see something so furtive and fast captured in the grainy footage. To see the obliviousness, the ease, the skill of it, the way pickpockets moved when in the act, so that even the rest of their bodies seemed unaware of what the one frantic hand was doing. The woozy surprise and confusions of the marks, then the sudden realisations – it was all there in archival black and white, ‘Recorded at 00:43 a.m. on Long Street’. The footage was so transfixing that a rumour, or a joke, began to run through the crowd: people were being so drawn in by these on-screen cons that they were being pickpocketed, again, in real life.

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Into Darkness / Darkness Pass

4.5 hours of solo (only) improvised (mostly) piano.

This is the first part of an extended mix of solo improvised piano that I have put together. It was too large to upload as one file, but parts one (Into Darkness) two (The Fire Within) and three (Darkness Pass) can all be found on Mixcloud with full track listings. Available for download here.

Most of it could be classed as ‘jazz’, but for me the word doesn’t sit right. It is simply solo (only) improvised (mostly) piano, with some exceptions for classical pieces that I really love (and that sound kind of improvised, even though they aren’t). I think Barry Harris was right when he said that 20c improvisers took over where Stravinsky, Schoenberg and the classical avant-garde left off. (That is not to imply an idea of linear progression / development / influence, but rather that different musicians converged on the same harmonic language, and harmonic problems, from different directions.) The first track here, from Nduduzo Makhathini’s momentous 2017 album ‘Reflections’, sounds as much like Webern or Berg as Monk or Ellington. So Bud Powell and Brad Mehldau sound like Bach, and Shostakovich sounds like Bill Evans, who sounds like Debussy, who sounds like Philip Glass.

The whole mix is trying to explore those beautiful regions at the intersections of jazz, extended harmony and modern classical, from the thunderous resonance of McCoy Tyner and Keith Jarrett to the minimalism and quietude of Arvo Pärt and Nils Frahm. It is also weighted towards Africa South because we are so blessed in solo pianistic experimenters: Abdullah Ibrahim, Bheki Mseleku, Moses Molelekwa, Kyle Shepherd, to name only a few that appear here. This first part takes its name from Shepherd's 2012 album recorded in a small village in Japan (on those tracks you can hear the cicadas and nocturnal insects in the background).

The only exceptions to the insistence on solo (only) piano are 1) the impassioned groans from Jarrett (Live at Royal Festival Hall, London 2008, a concert I was fortunate enough to attend) and singing from Mseleku (Meditation Suite, 1994); but these can be put down to ‘vocal acknowledgement’ and 2) Nils Frahm’s Tristana, which slipped through the net, because I forgot that a melodica (?) enters late into the piece (and the mix was recorded in real time, so I couldn’t delete - anyway it's so beautiful). I have also put in some short recordings of my own playing, as a tribute to these masters, and one in particular, but ideally you won’t notice.

Tracklisting:
00:00 Nduduzo Makhathini: Ase (Reflections, 2017) | 04:22 Kyle Shepherd: Ebhofolo (Into Darkness, 2012) | 12:09 Keith Jarrett: Part I: Royal Festival Hall, London (Paris / London: Testament, 2008) | 23:16 Nils Frahm: Ode (Solo, 2015) | 27:44 Brad Mehldau: Waltz for J.B. (10 Years Solo Live, 2015) | 33:53 Max Richter: A Woman Alone (Hostiles, 2018) | 35:44 Bheki Mseleku: Meditation Suite (Meditations, 1994) | 1:08:06 Nduduzo Makhathini: Duduzile (Reflections, 2017) | 1:13:00 Anders Widmark: Din nåd står vakt omkring mitt hus BWV 345 Version I (Piano/Hymn, 2004) | 1:16:54 Sergei Prokofiev: Prelude to Cinderella Suite, Transcribed for Two Pianos | 1:19:27 Ravi Shankar: Venezia (Piano: Florian Uhlig, Venezia, 2001) | 1:24:20 Arvo Pärt: Für Alina (Piano: Alexander Malter, Alina, 1999) | 1:35:14 Keith Jarrett: Part IV: Royal Festival Hall, London (Paris / London: Testament, 2008).

A History of Adverse Reactions

A History of Adverse Reactions

From Firepool: Experiences in an Abnormal World.

‘Oh – you’re the one who wrote the Dictionary.’

I often get this, when I run into someone who went to my school, or his parents.

Yes, I wrote the Dictionary. I have copy in front of me now, not the original but a reissue. It is a photocopied A5 booklet that was put together by a well-meaning teacher, long after I had left the all-boys boarding school where I lived through my body’s 13th to 18th years. This was 1992 to 1997 in world-historical time, so an era of major political and hormonal transitions.

During my final year, I conscripted a team of juniors and sent them out with notepads into the various boarding houses like 19th-century anthropologists, telling them to bring back exotic words and help me type them up. Perhaps because of the school’s physical isolation in the foothills of the Drakensberg (I speculate in the Foreword), ‘a very large and colourful body of indigenous terms has developed amongst its pupils’. In my last week at Milton College, I printed off a few hundred copies on the sly and sold them. The reissue was produced (I was told) when the one remaining original in the school library fell to bits through being consulted so often.

It is a highly embarrassing document.[1] Not just because the revised edition includes a picture of me (with centre parting) on the cover and several of my schoolboy poems. The Dictionary, which I have only mustered the courage to revisit in preparation for writing this piece, is a deep core drill into a world of shame, anxiety, embarrassment – with generous servings of sexism, homophobia and bigotry. Adolescence, in other words, but adolescence in a particular place, and at a particular time. And the fact that everyone can’t see how embarrassing it is makes the whole thing more embarrassing still. The only time I have raised the matter myself was when I ran into one of my assistants, years after school.

‘You mean 1001 words for homosexual?’ he said.

I let the subject drop. But now I am writing this to fill in everything between the entries that I so confidently recorded, thinking of myself only as the disinterested observer, when I was in it up to my neck.

Mainly, though, I want to write about skin.

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Impossible Images

Impossible Images

Radio astronomy, the SKA and the art of seeing

In the arid landscape of South Africa’s northern Karoo, astronomers and engineers are slowly building the biggest scientific instrument in the world. The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will one day link radio telescopes across the African continent and the Southern Hemisphere, turning much of the planet into a vast ear for picking up the faintest echoes from the early universe. I am interested in exploring the conceptual and representational challenges posed by radio astronomy in general, and the Square Kilometre Array in particular. What kinds of cultural artefacts and images are likely to be produced by the SKA, and what kind of relationship will a non-specialist audience be able to have with them? And how can the Karoo array’s unprecedented power to look (or listen) back in time be related to the deep human past that has left traces all through this landscape?

In addressing the SKA as a writer, the challenge is to recognise both the fascination of outer space and specificity of earthly place. Doing so has revealed to me a major difference of intellectual impetus between the sciences and the critical humanities, one that is perhaps suggestive of why they so often ‘miss’ each other in public conversation. The first seeks to isolate and decontextualise its object of knowledge: to filter out earthly noise; to minimise the signal of its own instruments; to avoid seeing its own structures in a distant, even unimaginable mathematical space. The second always feels the urgency of introducing contingency and context: to bring into frame the desperately poor environs of the northern Cape; to remember the British imperial project that carries astronomy to the tip of Africa; and to look for the history that hides in its brilliant and unearthly images. 

‘Impossible Images: Radio Astronomy, the SKA and the Limits of Representation’, forthcoming in Journal of Southern African Studies (2019).

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A Cold Country Where the Sun Shines

A Cold Country Where the Sun Shines

From Firepool: Experiences in an Abnormal World.


… furthermore, their talk, their excessive talk about how they love South Africa has consistently been directed towards
the land, that is, towards what is least likely to respond to love: mountains and deserts, birds and animals and flowers.
J. M. Coetzee, 1987.

Your father drove you to the trailhead in the small white bakkie. The Tsitsikamma forest pressed up close to the highway, a lush green tunnel. Then it fell away as you sped across the rivers far below, twists of silver flashing in the sun.

The Opel, which your father always referred to as ‘the light delivery vehicle’, was a little corroded from the salt air. After dropping you he would head onwards to Port Elizabeth and get that seen to, also his computer since viruses were slowing down the hard drive, because the locals weren’t up to scratch, workshy hippie types, lackadaisical, had you noticed that since getting back, and by the way would you mind pulling into the next service station for breakfast? It did a good deal.

‘I’m going to be your waitron this morning. Can I tell you about our special offers?’

‘Thank you, but I think we know what we want. Mega breakfast over here, salad burger there, and two coffees.’

           ‘And for the coffees? Regular, large, or—’

‘Mega.’

You had long ago given up suggesting organic farm stalls set back in the blue gums and embraced your father’s sudden enthusiasm for roadside Megadeals. Coming after decades in which he had barely touched fast food of any kind, it seemed – along with the forays into local radio and his attempt to memorise the full name of every person he met in the whole bay area – a perplexing but heartening thing.

The 1-Stop’s take on the concept of a salad burger was literal: just wilted lettuce and a smear of mayonnaise between two lobes of damp white roll. Your father looked deeply shocked, as if he had been let down on home turf.

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Firepool: Experiences in an Abnormal World

A collection of my essays and creative non-fiction. Kwela Books, 2017.

This is just a glimpse of my Experiences in an Abnormal World. I intend writing a Book if I ever have the opportunity, but medical attention is what I need at present.
Demitrios Tsafendas, Letter from Pretoria Central Prison

Excerpt in The Johannesburg Review of Books, 3 July 2017
The Firepool, Financial Times, 18 August 2017
Interview with Eusebius Mckaiser, Radio 702, 31 August 2017
Top 10 South African books of the year, Sunday Times, 12 December 2017

Real book available from The Book Lounge, Love Books and all good book stores
International shipping from Exclusive Books | E-book available on Amazon

Mentally exhilarating! A book I will return to again and again, both for its uncommon insights, and the quiet beauty of its prose.
Rebecca Davis

Hedley Twidle's work is exquisitely crafted, clever, self-deprecating, and, above all, deeply thoughtful. We are lucky to have a writer of his calibre working on contemporary South African material.
Jonny Steinberg

Hedley Twidle is an essayist of rare brilliance. His reach is remarkable. Whatever subject he touches, his writing is always luminous, astute and often darkly funny.
Rob Nixon

The sequence of the essays behaves almost as a collection of paintings – a polyptych of stories that are each exquisite and then add other layers as they ricochet against one another. 
Business Day

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Shadow of a Drought

Shadow of a Drought

A water crisis and its aftermath.

Financial Times, 27 July, 2018. With photographs by Kent Andreasen.

Cape Town’s most neglected heritage site can be found in a subterranean shopping mall near the central rail station. Tucked under an elevator between braiding salons and smartphone shops is a crumbling wall under glass: the remnants of a water reservoir built by the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century. Before the downtown district of the Foreshore was reclaimed from the sea, this spot marked the Atlantic Ocean’s edge, where ships would stock up with fresh water that had been channelled down from Table Mountain.

It is a forgotten reminder of why the city exists where it does. Other bays up the west or east coasts provide better anchorage in storms; but here a steady supply of drinking water could be guaranteed all year, gushing down the mountain slopes in winter, trickling out the sandstone in summer. Today’s urban centre was once a place  called Camissa –“place of sweet waters” – by the indigenous Khoikhoi herders who were gradually driven from the pastures below what they knew as Hoerikwaggo, or “Sea Mountain”. Dutch settlers laid claim to the lushness created by the mountain’s rain shadow, now some of the city’s richest, greenest suburbs.

If you fly into Cape Town International from the right angle, you can see some of the water infrastructure built by the next colonial presence, the British. A series of small dams are set high up into the mountain chain like shards of mirror. Walled with granite blocks hauled up by 19th-century cableway, they are beautiful No Swimming swimming spots, filled with cola-coloured liquid. But as the plane wheels round to land on the sandy, much drier Cape Flats, these are mere handfuls when seen against a metro that has now grown to some 4 million people, and which recently came close to running out of water altogether.

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A Very Strange Relationship

A Very Strange Relationship

Life writing, overwriting and the scandal of biography.

Reflecting on the Gordimer-Roberts affair: Biography, 41:1 (2018). Abstract.

Letter from Nadine Gordimer to an ‘importuning friend - or at least acquaintance’ (1973):

About our longstanding but tenuous relationship. You know, Ben, we have never been intimate friends. My intimates are very few indeed, and as time goes by and life gets shorter and art runs tantalisingly ahead and can't ever be firmly grasped, I see even my intimates more and more infrequently. And I don't make new ones. As for coming out to lunch with you, I can tell you again quite honestly that I never go out to lunch with anyone. It upsets my whole day. In the morning, I am conscious that at 12:30 I must go and change and paint my face; and in the afternoon, I'm drowsy from the luncheon wine or distracted by the talk. I've had to fight to keep myself to myself - after all, I've lived for more than twenty years in a family surrounded by husbands, children, and the need to consider and feed and listen to them. I've had, perforce, to create a self-discipline. And now I can't live any other way. That's how it is. You seem to have some sort of social inferiority complex (God knows why) that makes you believe that I snub you or don't like you. This is not the case at all, but I am embarrassed by your persistence in wanting to claim more from me than I am prepared to give. I don't want heart-to-heart talks, I don't want to be analysed and assessed, even though some might find that sort of close interest flattering. I don't want to enlarge the very small circle of friends for whom, once in a long while, I must take the trouble to cook dinner. So forgive me and accept our old, friendly acquaintance for what it is.

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Teaching / Writing

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Creative and otherwise.

Thirteen Ways in At the Foot of the Volcano: Reflections on Teaching at a South African University. ed. Susan Levine. HSRC Press, 2018.

... Showing examples of Cubism alongside such a poem is effective, of course, since students of the twenty-first century have visual literacy skills that are immensely advanced: the challenge is to get them to ‘translate’ such analytic techniques from the visual to the textual. Which is not always easy: ‘One can accept a Picasso woman with two noses,’ John Ashbery remarks in The Paris Review, ‘but an equivalent attempt in poetry baffles the same audience’.

Without mentioning structuralism or De Saussure or using the word ‘signifier’, I also tried to broach the idea that ‘blackbird’ could in one sense be seen as an entirely arbitrary choice, easily replaceable with another word in this verbal algorithm. An ex-colleague of mine (now at Wits University) had been compulsively working up variations of the poem on his Facebook wall, and I shared one of them:

I
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of J.M. Coetzee.

II
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three J.M. Coetzees.

[…]

VIII
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That J.M. Coetzee is involved
In what I know.

Monsoon Raag

A journey in sound.

Prufrock, May 2019.

The days would begin with singing, but we never quite knew where it was coming from. Male voices in unison drifting into our room while it was still dark, at the edge of waking. Early morning singing or chanting in Fort Kochi, voices coming from…we could never tell exactly: maybe the Basilica, the rooftop mediation hall beyond the football pitch, the Young Men’s Buddhist Association over towards Mattancherry. Days were edged by this unison singing, in and out of sleep, the sound of people beginning the day together.

*

‘Join us for a morning raag’, said the man at the Kathakali Theater, bringing his palms together, bowing slightly, dropping his voice to whisper: ‘Most welcome’. He had one of those voices that tickles the eardrum, that creates ASMR-like shivers even at a distance, that you want never to stop. We would bow and intone it huskily to each other all through two months of travel in south India and Sri Lanka: ‘Most welcome’.

The idea is distinctive to Indian classical music – that certain scales and melodic sets are associated with certain times of day, or seasons of the year: the heat, the rains. But it seems (once you have heard it) utterly logical, beautiful, impossible to do without. A raag, or raga, is not quite a scale (because many ragas can be based on the same scale), and not really a tune (because the same raga can yield an infinite number of tunes.) It has no direct translation in Western music theory, but with it comes the idea that certain patterns of sound have specific effects on the mind and body, that they colour things, hence the Sanskrit origin of the word raag: concerned with pigments and tinting, tingeing or dyeing.

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N2

Reading, writing, walking the South African highway.

Social Dynamics 43:1 (2017).
Less academic version appears as 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at the N2' in Firepool.

N2. Curled up in that tiny alphanumeric are thousands of kilometres, hundreds of service stations, millions of tons of concrete. N2 can mean a London bus route; an intelligence officer in the US Navy; an anti-nuclear song by the Japanese indie group Asian Kung-Fu Generation. But for my purposes it is the longest highway in South Africa, which starts at an unfinished flyover near the docks in Cape Town, follows the eastern seaboard of the country (roughly) for over 2 000 kilometres, then bends north and west below Swaziland to end at the town of Ermelo in the province of Mpumalanga.

Major highways are not thought about much. They are pieces of infrastructure that (if working as intended) efface themselves, receding from view in the mirror. In his hidden history of the UK’s motorway system, Joe Moran suggests that this bland corporate terrain of tarmac, underpasses and thermoplastic road markings is ‘the most commonly viewed and least contemplated landscape’ in Britain: ‘The road is almost a separate country, one that remains under-explored not because it is remote and inaccessible but because it is so ubiquitous and familiar.’

Perhaps because of the late age at which I (after many failed attempts) got my driver’s licence, piloting vehicles along strips of tarmac has never quite lost its strangeness for me, and the psychology and social behaviours associated with driving are, I believe, complex and neglected domains. With the passing of the era of cheap oil, future humanity will look back on our cities with wonder, disbelief and disgust at how totally urban spaces were shaped around the velocities and demands of the private vehicle. So, an important strategy for environmental writing in the 21st century might be to estrange the practice of everyday life, to conduct an anthropology not of the distant and exotic, but rather of the near, the mundane, the everyday.

‘What speaks to us, seemingly,’ wrote Georges Perec in 1973, ‘is always the big event, the untoward, the extraordinary: the front-page splash, the banner headlines. Railway trains only begin to exist when they are derailed, and the more passengers that are killed, the more the trains exist. Aeroplanes achieve existence only when they are hijacked. The one and only destiny of motorcars is to drive into plane trees.’ But, he goes on, in our haste to measure ‘the historic, significant and revelatory, let’s not leave aside the essential: the truly intolerable, the truly inadmissible. What is scandalous isn’t the pit explosion, it’s working in coalmines. “Social problems” aren’t “a matter of concern” when there’s a strike, they are intolerable twenty-four hours out of twenty-four, three hundred and sixty-five days a year.’

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Perception of Doors

Perception of Doors

A wry and delicate novel about the ancient human fact of migration.

Journey's End. Review of Mohsin Hamid, Exit WestFinancial Times, 25 February, 2017.

The tragedy of Europe today, Mohsin Hamid has suggested in his essays and journalism, is an inability to articulate a desirable future. Whether in Discontent and its Civilizations, his collected dispatches from New York, London and Lahore (the three cities he has called home), or his reflections on Britain’s response to refugees, he sees modern nation states as mired in an illusory nostalgia that forgets an ancient history of human wandering and scattering, of border-crossing and diaspora.

So what might the future look like if the free world extended real freedom of movement to the millions of people who choose to (or have no choice but to) leave their homes and seek a life elsewhere? This is the question that underlies his latest novel, Exit West, a thought experiment that pivots on the crucial figure of this century: the migrant.

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The Sound of Islay

The Sound of Islay

Introducing the Bodley Head / FT essay competition.

Financial Times | 11 November 2016.

1.

Just before I turned 30 I was homeless for a while. Homeless is the wrong word, an exaggeration. But I was in Edinburgh with little money and nowhere to live – and the days were getting shorter. So I took myself off to the Scottish islands with a bike and two red waterproof panniers. The plan was to stay in bothies – stone cottages that shelter hikers and climbers, remote structures in the hills where you just arrive and take your chances.

I started in Oban on the west coast, then pedalled south to the ferry port on Loch Tarbert – one of the long fingers of ocean that reach deep and diagonally into Argyll. This was a mistake, since there was too much traffic on the mainland. Massive cold fronts broke in off the Atlantic, one after the other. I tried to cycle in the lulls between showers but was soaked through my Gore-Tex by rain and truck spray. I found myself unable not to take the headwind personally. I would burst regularly into tears on the hard shoulder – homeless, jobless, indebted and drenched.

Things improved when I boarded the ferry to Islay (pronounced Eye-La). A couple bought me lunch because I fixed their punctures. All us cyclists rolled off the boat ahead of the vehicles – we would encounter each other at different jetties and pubs and bunkhouses all through the isles: instant camaraderie. I visited distilleries and hiked to a bothy in a remote cove. The cottage was full of other people’s leavings: oatcakes and freshly cut peat in a creel, shiny cutlery and coffee pots all arranged there like the Marie Celeste. I half-expected a party of spectral hill walkers to come back any minute, but no one ever did. It was just me, myself and I – pinned down by (another) frightening Atlantic storm for three days and three nights.

When it subsided, I crossed to Jura: a wilder, emptier place where you must constantly check yourself for ticks, since the island is full of deer. Jura is also (I learned) the place where George Orwell lived in a remote cottage towards the end of his life, where he had written Nineteen Eighty-Four, and worked on the memoir ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’. This triumphantly miserable piece about his schooldays is one of my favourite pieces of non-fictional prose – and I have always taken it as significant that this was the essay he was revising on his deathbed. Orwell would come here to retreat from literary London, and was once almost drowned in the famous whirlpool of Corryvreckan off Jura’s north coast. You could hear its thunderous sound from where I camped – boulders being stirred on the ocean bed, like the long, drawn-out roar of a passing plane.

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Sea Power

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From Cape Town to Dar es Salaam, and back again.

Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard (excerpts) | Africa is a Country | 10 September 2013.
With photographs by David Southwood | Memory Card Sea Power.

A genre-busting book, Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard does a rare thing: it is non-fiction that breaks the mould of works that look in on the continent from the outside. It shows the ancient and complex connections that exist within and beyond African borders in emotional, historical, cultural and metaphysical ways that others shirk from.
Billy Kahora

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Could Do Better

Could Do Better

Not sure about J. M. Coetzee's Schooldays.

New Statesman | 5 October 2016 | PDF

Finding it very hard to muster any reaction whatsoever to J M Coetzee’s The Schooldays of Jesus, I broke an unspoken rule and quickly clicked through the early reviews. The Australian provided a loyal, deferential description of the latest novel by its best-known literary immigrant, but most responses ranged from the cool to the exasperated. Under the heading “J M Coetzee has lost the plot”, one reviewer suggested that the most affecting page in the book is the one that lists the 2003 Nobel laureate’s previous works.

I had also been pondering this forbidding, vaguely hourglass-shaped litany of literary achievement – flipping back to it repeatedly when coming (generally nonplussed) to the end of the book’s short, gnomic chapterlets. At the top of the list, there are the longish early titles, such as In the Heart of the Country and Life and Times of Michael K; at the bottom, it widens out again into the recent collaborations with Paul Auster (Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011) and Arabella Kurtz (The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy). In the centre, the one-word narrow waist formed by Disgrace: a novel widely lauded abroad but often reviled in Coetzee’s native South Africa, and one that seems to have marked the end of a certain kind of risk-­taking in his work.

This latest book continues a retreat into more cerebral, disembodied fictional worlds – novels advanced largely by stilted, rather coy Platonic dialogue through which characters emerge less as verbal approximations of people than philosophical propositions, to be tested in a carefully controlled, not to say sterile environment.

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The Institute for the Less Good Idea

The Institute for the Less Good Idea

Visiting William Kentridge at his Johannesburg studio.

Profile for Financial Times magazine | 2 September 2016 | [PDF].

My (longer) edit, with The Nose reinstated:

I knew I was at the right place because of the cats. Two sculpted, spiky creatures faced each other atop the gates in Houghton, one of Johannesburg’s wealthy, jacaranda-shrouded suburbs. I recognized them from drawings, etchings and films – in which cats emerge from radios (Ubu Tells the Truth), curl into bombs (Stereoscope), turn into espresso pots (Lexicon). Now they had become metal, swinging open to reveal a steep driveway and above it a brick and glass building perched on stilts amid foliage: the studio. A gardener directed me past some cycads to the right entrance and there an assistant ushered me in to meet William Kentridge. He was wearing a blue rather than a white collared shirt, but in all other aspects conformed to his self-appointed uniform: black trousers, black shoes, the string of a pince-nez knotted through a button hole, the lenses stowed in a breast pocket when they were not on his nose.

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Half-lives, Half-truths

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Svetlana Alexievich and the nuclear imagination.

Reflecting on Voices from Chernobyl for the South Africa PEN essay series
18 August 2016.

In my twenties I worked for a while as an usher at a small cinema in Edinburgh. My job was to tear tickets, sit through the screening to make sure that projection and sound went ok, then clear up any trash. It was a beautifully pure way of absorbing film: you never paid; you never chose. You never worried whether the person next to you was enjoying it. You were alone, dressed in black, invisible.

I watched hundreds of films in those dark winter afternoons – from Korea and Cameroon, Iran and Italy, Russia and Romania – most of which I have never seen any trace of since. It was an education. One was about a group of three young anti-capitalists who break into the homes of rich businessmen and leave messages that “The Fat Years Are Over” – this is the original German title. At some point the good-looking threesome (they are also in a love triangle) end up kidnapping some heartless industrialist. They take him to a remote cabin and try some political re-education, intent on making him see the error of his ways. (It turns out, of course, that he was once a passionate anarchist in his youth.) I can’t remember how the film ends, but this narrative premise – this fantasy of abducting the powerful and forcing them into dialogue – is one that many frustrated citizens must indulge in at some point...

Read more on the PEN SA website 

Kingdom of Rain

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An interview with Rustum Kozain.

The following conversation took place on 31 July 2015 at Rustum Kozain’s flat in Tamboerskloof, Cape Town. Prior to my arrival, Rustum had prepared a chicken balti with cabbage according to a recipe from Birmingham, and also a cauliflower and potato curry. During our discussion (lasting one and a half hours, condensed and lightly edited here) he occasionally got up to check on the dishes — which we ate afterwards with freshly prepared sambals...

Wasafiri, 31:2 | 2016 | 76-80

RK [...] The idea of sonority — I have to agree with you. I do have a thing for the sound of words. So the sound of a word often plays a large part in its choice in a line or a poem. Why don’t I sound like Linton Kwesi Johnson? That’s one of my greatest frustrations in life [laughs] — that I can’t write like LKJ in any believable way. Part of that is because I don’t have a Caribbean background. A large part of Johnson’s charm has got to do with the language he is using, which is tied so closely to drum rhythms in the Caribbean. He has a gift but he also has that legacy or that inheritance that he can work with. I’ve tried writing parodic poems in [my reggae-sourced] Jamaican Creole, but it’s rubbish. I’ve tried writing hip hop as well, but there is a particular skill in composing for oral performance that I don’t have.
HT I was raising the question of slowness, but certainly not as a lack. Because, in a sense, what I find when reading poetry nowadays is the need to remind myself to slow down. I think we’re all programmed to read so fast now – online and on screens – to read instrumentally and for content. So I sense the kind of syntactical mechanisms you put in place to ensure a certain productive slowness...

Dagga (An Extract)African Cities Reader 1

The shame of being a man – is there any better reason to write?
– Gilles Deleuze