Essays

Barbarian Phase

Barbarian Phase

A surfing half-life.

Short edit for Life supplement, Business Day, 27 August 2019. Locals only version below, and also published on Wavescape. Image of Sunset reef by Sean Thompson Surfography.

Thirty-six is no longer young, or promising, and even as a teacher or writer (careers more forgiving of slow starters) it can barely be called emerging. It’s one year too late to be a member of the ANC Youth League, and twenty years too late to start surfing, especially in the wild and freezing waters around Cape Town.

All that lost time weighs on us, Alex and me, as we watch teenagers or outright children paddle onto some heaving Atlantic swell, make the drop, cut back, carve some shapes along the purling, blue-green wall and then kick out like it was the easiest thing in the world.

‘Poets,’ he would say, beard in hand, as we watched from a car park in the depths of winter, when the swells come in, ‘There are poets among us.’

Alex and I both have beards that are beginning to go silver, but I am average height and skinny while he is tall and rangy, muscular. We are both only children, sort of, both loners who like having someone to play with, now and then. We both have outlandish surnames that nobody can spell or pronounce.

After sessions which had gone more than usually badly – when we had fluffed a take-off in front of Coach, or our boards had gone vaulting over the white water, or (worst of all) we had pretended to paddle and miss a wave when in fact we were too chicken to actually take it – Alex could be less philosophical:

‘All those years, doing what? Jerking off in Constantia. When I could’ve been at Long Beach in fifteen minutes.’

His new cold-water hood made him look somehow Nordic, Icelandic. Hooded, bearded, grizzled: he looked, I guess, better than he was. Out in the back line he seemed to get the kind of respect I never do. He looked like the kind of Kommetjie big wave surfer who might get towed onto a hillside of moving, crumpling ocean out by Dungeons or Sunset reef, and then talk about the experience in humble monosyllables: ‘It’s a team effort out there, I rely on my guys.’

But the fact is we were struggling to deal with a mushy two-foot shorebreak off the Milnerton lighthouse carpark, where the water tasted of phosphates and Alex had at one point emerged trailing a nappy from his leash. And this gap was getting to him, to us: the gap between our surfing aspirations and abilities. Between the utter sublimity of what we were seeing – up close at Queen’s Beach, the Gat or the Hoek; online in YouTube clips: Nazaré, Mullaghmore, Mavericks, the endlessly spooling Go Pro barrels of Skeleton Bay – and the prolonged humbling that the middle-aged kook (beginner) must endure.

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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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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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We are all in the plague

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Notes towards an abandoned essay.

In 1947, when he was thirty-three, Albert Camus published La peste, the story of a town struck by bubonic plague. He judged the book a failure, but in many ways it is his most successful work: translated into many languages, never out of print, read and taught all over the world.

In one sense it is a very simple story. Rats come out of cellars and sewers, spitting blood, and begin to die in the streets. Then people begin to die. The town is sealed off and we follow the experiences of a small band of characters as they battle the epidemic. Like a classical tragedy, the book is divided into five acts. In parts one and two, the death toll is rising; in part three it is at its height: ‘the plague had covered everything’. In parts four and five, the disease slowly retreats, and the town is liberated again.

The opening lines are at pains to stress the ordinariness of the setting, the French Algerian port of Oran where Camus arrived in 1941 for tuberculosis treatment, and where he began gathering material for the book:

Les curieux événements qui font le sujet de cette chronique se sont produits en 194., à Oran. De l’avis général, ils n’y étaient pas à leur place, sortant un peu de l’ordinaire. À première vue, Oran est, en effet, une ville ordinaire et rien de plus qu’une préfecture française de la côte algérienne.

The first English translation, by Stuart Gilbert in 1948, gives this as follows:

The unusual events described in this chronicle occurred in 194…, at Oran. Everyone agreed that, considering their somewhat extraordinary character, they were out of place there. For its ordinariness is what strikes one first about the town of Oran, which is merely a large French port on the Algerian coast, headquarters of the Prefect of a French ‘Department’.

In Robin Buss’s 2001 version, which seems to be taking fewer liberties, we have:

The peculiar events that are the subject of this history occurred in 194–, in Oran. The general opinion was that they were misplaced there, since they deviated somewhat from the ordinary. At first sight, indeed, Oran is an ordinary town, nothing more that a French Prefecture on the coast of Algeria.

Three different versions and three different ways of transcribing the blank in nineteen-forty-something: a period, an ellipsis, a dash. This tiny but curious absence in the very first sentence begins the restless, damaging oscillation between the specific and the universal, the located and the placeless, the literal and the metaphoric, that will play across the whole work.

This short prelude introduces an ordinary town, in one sense an allegorical ‘everytown’, where the daily routines of money and love-making, sea-bathing and newspaper reading are charted in a cool, objective, transparent style: ‘the style of absence which is’, as Roland Barthes remarked of Camus’s prose, ‘almost an ideal absence of style’. Further down the page are the most quotable lines, which demonstrate his way with an aphorism: ‘A convenient way of getting to know a town is to find out how people work there, how they love and how they die.’

Like so much else in the book, the simplicity is deceptive. The words let on more, betray more, know more than their author ever intended. The ‘peculiar events’ of the novel, as we will see, are indeed ‘not in their place’; they are misplaced in a profound, painful and complicated sense, with major consequences for how one interprets the book, and whether the great humanist credo that it arrives at can be believed in: ‘pour dire simplement ce qu’on apprend au milieu des fléaux, qu’il y a dans les hommes plus de choses à admirer que de choses à mépriser’ : ‘to say simply what it is that one learns in the midst of such tribulations, namely that there is more in men to admire than to despise’.

The opening lines contain, in embryo, the whole problematic of a story that wants to be read as a kind of fable or allegory, but also stubbornly refuses to give up its allegiance to a particular place. Oran is a town not in Europe but in Africa; or perhaps, more accurately (at least in nineteen-forty something) a town no longer European but not yet African.

What is the exact nature of that typographic gesture, 194–, in any case? Is it an abbreviation or a concealment? The convention is more common for proper names in non-fiction, signifying someone or some place familiar to the author but lightly or partially disguised for the reader. But it is really Oran itself that the opening lines should have rendered as O–, O… or O. That, at least, would have avoided some difficulties. Because as soon as one tries to place the book – to situate it in its historical moment, to track its arc in actual time and real geography – The Plague becomes a deeply complex, contradictory work: one that that absorbs and reflects back as much complexity and difficulty as the reader is willing to bring to it. What follows is an attempt to track my thinking about Camus’s work across many years, and from a place, South Africa, that emerges as a kind of mirror image, or rather a negative image, in the photographic sense, of the north Africa in which the novel is set; or else just a confusing mirage.

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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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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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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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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.

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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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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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 

Nuclear Summer

Nuclear Summer

A walk through South Africa's nuclear pasts and futures.

Sunday Times, 7 Feb 2016 | Photographs by Neil Overy (above) and Barry Christianson.

Recently I took part in a "walking residency", making my way from Cape Point to the centre of Cape Town. Writers, artists, archaeologists, architects, academics - 12 of us hiked along coastlines and firebreaks and through informal settlements.

We visited ancient shell middens and ruined stone cottages, the site of forced removals. Huge cloudbanks filled up False Bay and broke against the landmass; weather systems came and went. We got sunburnt, argumentative, sentimental, sunburnt again. We put away our electronic devices and began remembering our dreams...

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Waterlog

Waterlog

A journey through the public pools of greater Cape Town.

Openings columnFinancial Times, 8 January, 2016.

Waterlog #3 | Sea Point Pool | 19.01.16

Since Silvermine there have been terrible heat waves; fires leaving smoke all over the city’s horizon; helicopters toiling through the night, scooping up water from the reservoirs, dropping it in tiny white plumes on the shoulder of Devils’ Peak.

A banner appeared, taking up the whole face of an apartment building at the top of Long Street: Zuma Must Fall. Then an ANC-led march ripped it down, turning on a man who (allegedly) called out Zuma se ma se poes! On social media, self-appointed pundits explain that singling out the President is tantamount to racism, and that mob violence is only to be expected. People can only be insulted for so long.

Can you blame a man for wanting to go to the water?

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A Useless Life

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Literary biography and the limits of 'research'.

Visions of Tsafendas | Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies | Volume 16, Issue 4, 2015.

Research seminar, research cluster, research output. The word is almost a fetish within the contemporary academy—but what does “research” actually mean in a discipline like literature? And what happens when a research project overspills its bounds, or pushes up against disciplinary limits and protocols? In this piece, I explore such questions via the figure of Demetrios Tsafendas, the “mad Greek” who assassinated apartheid Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd in 1966, supposedly acting on instructions from a tapeworm inside him. It is one of the strangest facts in South African history; it is also, of course, a kind of fiction, and one that has been refracted into a range of literary and artistic works. Reading across both official and “creative” archives, I address a range of methodological problems that I encountered in attempting an academic treatment of Tsafendas and his (as the presiding apartheid judge put it) “useless life”.

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Relocations

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 A public lecture series transformed into a beautiful book.

Relocations: Reading Culture in South Africa | University of Cape Town Press | 2015. 

With essays and reflections by Gabeba Baderoon, André Brink, Imraan Coovadia, Henrietta Rose-Innes, Rustum Kozain, William Kentridge, Neo Muyanga, Zackie Achmat, Duncan Brown, John Higgins, Isabel Hofmeyr , Peter D. McDonald, Rajend Mesthrie, Nicholas Mirzoeff, Coilin Parsons, Sandy Young. And me. Designed by James King and Alexandra Dodd. Published by Juta.

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Twenty Seven Years

Listening to Moses Taiwa Molelekwa.

Prufrock | September 2015.

This is middle C, my piano teacher would explain when I was about three or four years old. And this is the family of C (playing the pentatonic scale), and they all get on together, that’s why they are a family. And because it is C major they are a happy family.

Major being happy, minor being sad. It’s one of the first things I learned in music lessons (and sometimes I think that these lessons are my first memory). But what does that mean exactly? Is it true? Physiologically true, or just a learned response? And what happens if you express the ‘happy’ via the ‘sad’, or ‘sad’ via the ‘happy’?

These may well be naïve questions, unacceptable to musos and musicologists. But one thing I have taken from the work of the late pianist and composer Moses Taiwa Molelekwa is the need to risk sounding naïve, and to begin at the beginning.

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MER1CA

MER1CA

On first impressions, snap judgements and Achille Mbembe's sense of style.

Openings column (shorter version): Financial Times14 August 2015.

‘America is the most grandiose experiment that the world has yet seen,’ wrote Sigmund Freud in 1909, ‘but, I am afraid, it will not be a success’. 106 years later I spotted the line on a poster while attending a conference at New York University – my first visit to the States. It cheered me up during a misanthropic, jet-lagged daze and set off a complex series of recognitions. For one thing, I had been thinking along the same lines myself, and marshalling every scrap of evidence to clinch the case: the bad coffee at four dollars a pop; the garbage everywhere; the fact that I got asked to move out the way at least five times a day.

But at another level, what I responded to was the tone: the sweeping confidence of the declaration, with that magisterial throwaway clause – ‘I am afraid’. How this Mittel-European sentence stoops down from on high, taking its time (four commas), to deliver a vast, over-reaching social diagnosis on an entire continent. This, I realized, was a voice that I recognize from people coming to my country and making huge pronouncements on South Africa – or just ‘Africa’ – when they have barely stepped off the plane. A short taxi ride from Cape Town International to the guesthouse and already they are experts.

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Cecil Rhodes: My Part in His Downfall

Literature in the time of decolonization.

My attempt to make sense of the coincidence of MAN Booker International and the Rhodes Must Fall movement at the University of Cape Town. Including one amazing fact you never knew (or needed to know) about the Rhodes statue...

The Essay: Life and Arts. Financial Times,3 April 2015.

See also: The Atlantic25 April 2015.

Just uphill from Rhodes, toward Table Mountain, I spotted a second, smaller plinth. On top of the pedestal stood a striking black woman, with her back to the statue and her face, obscured by a traditional beaded veil, angled down as if she was meditating. She wore a black leotard and had a quite untraditional pair of shiny stilettos on her feet.

The woman was Sethembile Msezane, an MFA candidate at the university and a Zulu-speaking performance artist from Soweto, outside Johannesburg. She’d made it her trademark on public holidays to juxtapose her young, black, female body with monuments of old, white, male colonial and Apartheid-era figures, and to turn up in silent vigil at sites of resistance to oppression.