Essays

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.

Monsoon Raag

A journey in sound.

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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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.

On the Brink of the Mundane

On the Brink of the Mundane

Rereading Ivan Vladislavić: The Restless Supermarket and Double Negative.

(Much) shorter version at the New Statesman, 9 January 2015: Lost in Joburg: One of South Africa's most accomplished prose stylists gets a timely reissue.

Do copy-editors still use their time-honoured signs: the confident slashes, STETs and arrowheads, the fallen-down S that means transpose? Or is everything now done via the garish bubbles of MS Word Track changes?

Midway through Ivan Vladislavić’s 2001 novel The Restless Supermarket, the proudly anachronistic narrator Aubrey Tearle gives a disquisition on the delete mark. As a retired proofreader, regular writer of letters to the editor, and grumpy but occasionally endearing old man, he suggests that of all his erstwhile profession’s charms, this is the most beautiful and mysterious:

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I and I

I and I

Meeting Geoff Dyer.

Edited version published in the Mail&Guardian | 23 December 2014.

Can I use ‘I’ in my essays? The question, often asked by first-year literature students, isolates the problem succinctly. The first I in the sentence means me, the special, singular, irreplaceable self; the second is a devious linguistic particle: a shifty, worn-out pronoun forced on us all the moment we enter language. And the perilous thing about book festivals is that they tend to collapse the two. The I who has been flown out to Cape Town and given a name-tag is now asked to answer for, or ‘speak to’, the I on the page.

In this case, Geoff Dyer, with whom I sat chatting during the Open Book festival in September this year while we waited for a panel on ‘The Art of the Essay’ to begin – a bit like TV newsreaders used to before or after the bulletin. I told him that he was one of only two people I had ever written a fan letter to (the other was Terry Pratchett, but I was ten years old then). I asked him if he actually enjoyed going to literary festivals, being interviewed, the whole scene. ‘I can honestly say’, he replied, ‘that the only reason I write any more is to be invited to literary festivals’.

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Juice Time

A wayward tribute to Alice Munro... and Raymond E. Feist.

Electricity gone down from Flower Road to Davenport. No internet on a Sunday. Peace.

Yesterday’s swimming is still in me, in my shoulders and hair. Clifton 3 ½ beach with A. We splash out to the rock, but are too cautious to jump off it, slide back into the water over the barnacles. We run into Anna, Jemma and their friends, in knitted swimwear and dungarees. ‘Mary’s daughters’, says A., ‘They march to the sound of their own djembe.’ The beach is packed: the real girls thread their way between the incorrigible babes, looking for a place. Today the wind has stopped entirely and I want to go back. But she is having lunch with her grandparents and I know that a swim that perfect comes only once a year.

Reluctant to start work over the last weeks: lazy, a little depressed. To remedy it I try to break all routines, to force the days into new shapes. Sitting in a Turkish steam room in mid-afternoon. Shopping for shirts with D. at 9am, when the Waterfront is deserted. We have fish and chips at 11am and he says the harbour scene reminds him of the Canadian island where he grew up. Not the motorized pirate boat pulling out with the tourists, but the cranes and industrial mess behind. I ask if he is proud of Alice Munro and the Nobel.

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N2

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Financial Times | 20 September 2013.

The N2 is the longest highway in South Africa. It starts at an intersection near the docks in Cape Town, follows the eastern seaboard of the country (roughly), then bends inland below Swaziland to end at the town of Ermelo in the province of Mpumalanga.

It is 2,241km long. Can it be done justice in 2,241 words?

Original (and longer) version published in the wonderful Prufrock magazine: www.prufrock.co.za