journal

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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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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An Unnatural History pt.1

An Unnatural History pt.1

The Hoerikwaggo Trail (and just after): a walking seminar.

Postamble | A transdisciplinary journal of African Studies.

Last time I did it with three old friends, and in the opposite direction. This time from Cape Point to town with a group of people that I didn’t know quite as well, most of them university types. The idea (not mine) was to turn it into a walking seminar on ‘nature cultures’, a trial run for a residency that will happen not in institutional buildings but out in the air.

Slightly skeptical of this at first – all I wanted from the hike was to decompress, let the mind empty after a strangely-shaped year. But still, on the first day I played along, using my primary school teacher Mr Bench’s memory technique (one-drum, two-shoe, three-tree, four-door etc.) to log impressions that seemed worth rescuing from the tide of heat, sweat, walking, foot on rock, sand, gravel. The sensorium changes, opens…

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Closed City

Closed City

Financial Times | 24 January 2014.

Teju Cole visits Cape Town for the Open Book Festival and I am asked to lead a ‘literary walkabout’ of the city in his company. I worry that this might be a little contrived: can his hypnotic meditations on New York and Lagos really be superimposed onto such a different city? But as we begin our tour, he recalls the literary experiments of Guy Debord and the Situationists, giving us a more resourceful way of imagining the exercise. A regular route taken through the street grid of, say, Paris would be mapped as a geometric shape, then transplanted onto the countryside of Bavaria and retraced exactly, with random encounters and ‘psychogeographical’ resonances carefully noted. Artificial constraints to generate new insights; strict formulas to evade the formulaic.

And so we begin our walk through the city centre, listening to passages from Open City, as well as the work of local writers like Alex la Guma, Zoë Wicomb and K. Sello Duiker. Unexpected affinities emerge between the early Cape colony and the history of Manhattan Island that Cole’s novel so carefully excavates. Both were 17th-century Dutch garrisons; both became brutal slave ports. And in each, the built environment turns its back on the water that gave rise to it in the first place. In New Amsterdam, the deep and navigable Hudson River; in Cape Town, the millions of litres of fresh water flowing off Table Mountain, still running unseen below the city centre. Sailors would fill their barrels at a shoreline that has now been pushed back and paved over by car parks, head offices and flyovers: ‘Beneath the pavement, a beach!’

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Slacklining

Slacklining

The walk up to Deer Park stream: some gentle people are stringing up a cord between two stone pines. Then they spend Sunday tight-rope walking above the lawns. The gap between the two trees chosen is long; they have winches and climbing gear to get the necessary tautness; a picnic blanket and basket; significant sunglasses and (one of them) splendid brown slacks – I almost stop to ask where they bought such trousers. Drifts of plastic litter and empty food packaging along the stream. Homeless people do their laundry here but I think that today it is employed citizens who are lying face down on the grass, asleep. After the grind of a daily job, the vicious commute that Cape Town’s geography demands, the ongoing transport strike – after all that you see people just exhausted on Sundays, pole-axed on municipal lawns all through the city...

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22 July | Rearview

22 July | Rearview

Sunday in Calitzdorp: a kitsch tearoom with panpiped music, ragged kids saying they will look after my car nicely. It is the 22nd of July. If I had to track backwards, to rewind the last week…

The Peugeot is reversing along the R62, speedometer at 12 o’clock, 110 km/h on the dot. Petrol is extracted at Ladismit, below the Towerkop, the snow on it unthawing as I deposit R600 in the ATM.

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A certain kind of South Africa evaporated...

                    ...for me when I finally got my driver’s licence, fifth time lucky near a cold northern ring road. No more solidarity with the verge walkers and all those who talk about, worry about, conceive of a whole domain of life as “transport.” There were illegal stints behind the wheel in the past: schoolboy backroads in the foothills of the Berg, the long night of landing lanes when DB fed me slimming tablets and I guided the Renault Scenic from the Karoo to the Midlands. But now the novelty is wearing off as I steer my father’s white van up and down the coastal highways that I cursed for so long, and me wanting to record something of it before all the strangeness of tar-hurtling, death-by-inch arthritic pedal-fiddling and glance-snatching at the sliding world of that earlier, odder place has disappeared forever. Leaving the city, flicking across lanes from Waterfront to hospital, slungshot out of the mountain suburbs but immediately running into a real clutch cruncher of a traffic jam along side the twin cooling towers…locals u-turning, cutting in, hard shouldering it to take alternate routes, but me locked there under the winter sun, men looking back at me from an open-backed truck: the quintessential South African dialogue. Dad talks, talks, talks madly, the coffee still fizzling in his veins. About the book fair, the local radio station, the problem of listless retirees, the road to Cape Agulhas, the lack of adequate marketing as a winter holiday destination. I murmur assent, yes yes, eyes casting around the early N2 scenery, trying to work out what has changed since I was last here.

We passed the obstruction (men digging a hole in broad daylight) and were just gathering momentum towards the mountains when Dad received a call from a pretty woman watercolourist and shameful self-publicist who wanted us to collect prints in Stellenbosch and generally admire her. So we peeled off, got lost amid the peri-urban wine farmery and discount wholesalers. Left after more coffee, missed the highway a few times and then ground through intersections parallel to the Indian seaboard, a place of car forecourts and things – dunes, stalls roadsigns – barely held down against the wind. Up across the long diagonal pass, the Cape had all but disappeared in glare.

Then began the waiting behind trucks, the spotting for farm stalls, the tracing of the Langeberg, the swooping down on bridges, the shrugging off of hitch-hikers, the rattling of a white chassis along Africa’s ancient seabeds. No music this time, just the hot noise of tyre on tarmac. Petrol cities flared when it got dark…mist earned me an admonishment for speeding…cameras clicked me in one of the gorges and the coast swung out and open in the night, unseen.

Easter Sunday spent walking through the city...

Easter Sunday spent walking through the city...

                            ...along the Atlantic seaboard.  I set out from Perspectives, taking a diagonal through the long rectangle of the city centre.  Music that sounds Congolese spills down through narrow stairs from where church services are in progress.  Smartly dressed couples mingle with those who have been sleeping rough, the tourists and the loiterers.  Pass the corner on Loop Streetwhere Sean and Theo’s new bar might open. The previous concept, the Che Bar, didn’t last long: graphics of Guevara as icon in the Campbell’s soup tin poster with words like Radical and Ideology printed in cutting edge fonts at the bottom. 

Tack across through De Waterkant; men wave from the other side of the road where they sit under bluegums on the long, dry Lions Rump.  People on corners try to draw me into conversation – I give them a curt wave and carry on walking purposively, wearing a shirt crusted with sand, salt and sweat.  Come down on Greenpoint main road, where there is a huge stadium half built, more traffic and more voices.

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Road trip into the Klein Karoo

…Sean leaving as many loose ends as the wires that twisted out of the cubbyhole where the radio should have been. To remedy this, Roderick’s other lodger, Sarah, had lent me a pair of portable battery speakers which I balanced on my lap together with a skipping discman. By the time we reached the mountain tunnel I had made a suitable nest out of jerseys and scarves to keep it steady. “I normally have a policy of taking the pass over the top,” said Sean as the Indestructible Beat of Soweto sounded out in the belly of the fold belt. But time was short, wine shops en route soon to close. Soon after we left Worcester, Sarah’s speakers began emitting a horrible, cyclic wave of distortion. It’ll probably get broken, I told her when she offered it.

“Don’t worry, I’m loaded,” she said, sitting at the wobbly kitchen table below Lion’s Head. Scraped lemons in the fruit bowl, back issues of Condé Nast Traveller in the toilet and a stray named Wilberforce prowling across the dusty wooden floor. One of the party girls had loved and then left it; Sarah was the only person who fed it now, under the rain and warping roofs of the winter Cape. Rod’s house was leaking from above and welling up from below. Every time I came down he had removed another rusted component from the overflowing geyser, claiming to have solved the problem. They were arranged artistically in the hearth, between vases of wild flowers.

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Peak Formosa

“Her vast barbaric haunches” visible from the breakfast table…Formosa Peak outlined in the manageable blue glare of my prescription sunglasses, above the seamist that has not yet burnt off, the indented rivermouths, the wave cut platform. From here the long mountain line is an abstract in aluminium window frames of the café where my Dad takes his coffee, above the high street, adjoining the radio studio. But a month ago, Nic, Sean and I set out on a morning dark highway with dried fruit, no camera and a hand drawn map given to us by a trail hardened local who jotted down some helpful tips as well: “Careful of bushfires,” “Slow and steady - no race.”

Dad has asked me to write a guest column on the hike for his field notes in the local paper, no doubt also to be broadcast in installments to the fill up the local FM hours. So here I will set down those things that could never be included there. Like: the music playing as we traced the Tsitsikamma Range for 100 km’s, then bent inland at Kareedouw, echo pedal guitar, where phrases overlap in ways that can never be predicted and in turn give rise to ideas not yet imagined: the long drive into the musical unconscious, and in the background a sad Mancunian voice singing about war and wasted time. Like: the long unstoppable ascent, Nic and I cursing Sean as he traced the three ridges high above, only halting at the summit scramble, where the ocean came to view again and, like that day on the white sand at Robberg we were looking back from somewhere that had only been looked at before, stared at for years, feeling the burn, the credit balance of youth, the invincible summer.

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