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Looking for answers that pop through the boundaries of thought

A few thought-provoking ideas, reflections and entertainments from the deep south of Cape Town...

Some serious, some frivolous, some perhaps just ranting - see what you think!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Mr Crapper and the victory of Anglo-Saxon prudery


When I was young I can well remember the most shocking cultural experience of leaving the UK for France. It was the public toilets, which contained two solid spots to place your feet, a whole in the ground, and no seat. Help! The Italians also used to be good at providing this kind of thing, and many years later I encountered the same thing in Bulgaria. If South Africans know about these kind of toilets at all, they may be referred to as “Indian” or “Turkish” toilets, something strange and oriental. In fact they are equally common in much of Africa. This kind of thing is, of course, not at all modern and smacks of a disgusting barbarism, or at least that is what the journalists at the UK Daily Mail (or its International version available locally) would have us believe. Last year the Mail reported in horror that squatting toilets had been installed in a shopping centre in the northern British town of Rochdale, after consultations with local Muslims. The “great British toilet” was under threat from such folly, evoking memories of unhygienic squat toilets in the more unfortunate and backward parts of the world. The Westerners who poured into Beijing for the Olympic games in 2008 had the same objections – the Chinese use squatting toilets all the time. But Anglo-Saxons don’t know how to - so the Chinese government had to install thousands of sitting toilets for the visitors. And this lack of squatting abilty, it seems, is at the root of all the problems, and is indeed the reason why Mr Crapper’s water closet remains the kind of toilet everybody wants, even if two-thirds of the world continues to squat.  

In our own country the political shenanigans last year over toilet provision in Makhaza has somewhat overshadowed previous concerns about the type of toilets on offer, with the general view that ventilated improved pit toilets (yes, they really are “VIP toilets”) are a real bottom-of-the-range option (despite what the developers might say). Everybody these days wants a “proper” western toilet, connected to the highly expensive sewage system, flushing away 50 litres of potable water per person per day, and on which you can sit. I encountered the same in India many years ago, where middle-class Indians were proudly installing Western-style toilets in their new houses (even Indians who considered themselves environmentally aware).

Yet the people who squat are doing themselves a favour. Black Africans have less constipation than white South Africans. Colon cancer among black Africans is virtually unheard of, while colon and prostate problems are ever-increasing in Westernised populations worldwide (including African-Americans). The inability to squat regularly , and thus to strengthen one’s pelvic muscles, seems also to be linked to the increase in Caesarian sections among Western women (though, in South Africa at least, a medical profession very keen on intervention is also likely to be responsible for our desperately high Caesarian rate). Everybody squatted on the loo until a couple of centuries ago, and while lack of hygiene resulted in many deaths (and still does in many parts of our continent), they weren’t from colon cancer.

There is no doubt that squatting is an essential and healthy position in which to do one’s business, and those Arabs who have caused consternation on airlines by insisting on putting their feet on the seat – so they can squat while they drop – are certainly doing themselves a favour by doing so. It seems that the only able-bodied people who suffer from having to squat are the elderly if they are obese and thus can’t hold their weight up easily. Oh, hello, isn’t that another modern western problem being forced on the world by fast food manufacturers… The wrinkly Mail writers can hold their crap in and get themselves all culturally constipated about it, but they really shouldn’t force their attitude on the rest of the world. Except that, being Mail writers, they probably couldn’t even find their pelvic floor with a GPS, so their fury at others is probably evidence of all sorts of things Freud could tell you about better than me.

Now all this is all very well, of course, but what are you – modern, middle-class South Africa - going to do about it personally? If, like me, you’ve spent all of your life doing number twos on a sitting loo, and you still have sitting loos in your house, and you don’t go often enough to countries with squat loos, there doesn’t seem to be much hope. That modern curse, an un-irrigated colon, waits continually for a serious flushing. A friend of mine chanced upon a “Turkish toilet” at the plumbing supply shop, as she was installing the plumbing on her new eco-friendly property, but this seems to have been the only one available, and by the time we considered one for our building, we couldn’t locate any (and our plumber said it was too late for changing the piping plans). There is, funnily enough, not a high demand for them in the suburbs of Cape Town at the moment. However, there is also, I have discovered, a “Natural Way” platform for sale which fits snugly around your favourite bog and turns it into a raised squat. Quite expensive though, and you’d have to import it from the US, so perhaps best to build one yourself in the time-honoured South African manner.

For while there is not much love for the squat toilet here, there is a sense of original freedom sometimes about not being connected to the municipal sewage services. It is a freedom which many wealthy South African suburbanites continue to cherish, proudly showing off their long-drops to visitors to their second homes in the bush. It may be one reason that composting toilets are taking off, at least in rural areas, as a wonderful way to turn all that biomass back quickly into something useful for agriculture, without all that colossal waste of water which our city prudery insists on. Meanwhile, back in the city where compost toilets are still something councils are wary of, I’ll let you know how I get on with building a platform of my own. One advantage of this over installing a full-scale squat loo would be that it can be detached - so that Aunt Maud doesn’t get the shock of her life next time she comes to visit.

Of course, there remains the question of the toilet roll and all that paper. One of the problems with public squat toilets which leads Anglo-Saxons (and all inclined in an Anglo-Saxonly direction) to turn up their noses, is that, because there is a general hole and no instant flush mechanism, toilet paper tends to block things up unless you get the water bucket anyway. Which leads to two alternative options: a quick colonic flush with a hose (offered in some upmarket Arab places), or the good-old left-hand and a bucket of water technique. If you’d ever wondered why Indians eat food with their right hand, and we all shake with our right hand, and why left-handers have historically been accused of being “cack-handed”, well, there’s your answer. A bit of soap afterwards should help of course.

So there you have it. Being eco-friendly can mean making friends with all kinds of unpleasant things (and body positions) the Victorians would have rather you didn’t even know existed. Perhaps, with the world water and timber crisis, Mr Crapper’s modest victory over nature will not last much longer.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Bandes Dessinées

I have been re-entering a largely forgotten space in my life over the last few months, as I have been rapidly remembering and improving my French language skills (to the extent that I am now certified competent to guide French tourists around Cape Town). This is no mean feat, if I may blow my own trumpet a little, given that French is not one of the 11 official languages of South Africa. A request on Facebook for any Capetonian French-speaking friends to show themselves for practice purposes revealed, predictably enough, no takers.

On the other hand, I had a long conversation with a couple of Congolese guys on the train to town. (They even knew our house as they attend a Muizenberg church). I might be stating the obvious to say that learning languages helps one cross cultural boundaries, and having reminded friends for years that French is the second-most spoken language in Africa, it does feel rather good to be able to actually converse in it once more, and indeed considerably better than I have ever done before.

As a teenager I was good at French and thoroughly imbibed much of my parents’ Francophilia (my father still drives a 2CV). But I was also rather shy. I might have been able to bash my way through an Asterix book in the original language, but conversing with a real-life French shop-keeper (or, horror of horrors, French girl) was a more daunting prospect. I consider myself considerably more confident these days, which is why it was something of a shock to discover how tongue-tied my earlier learning had made me, like stepping back into an adolescent world. Many regular French conversations later I can feel my spoken French catching up again with my adult self, and I can’t tell you what a relief that is. I am also observing, increasingly, the nuances of the spoken language – not just its “softness” but also the different emphases of the language compared to English, areas like movement where there are clearly rather more verbs in regular use than in traditional English (though I think slang English, as we English-speakers rediscover our bodies, may be catching up). Then again, there are places where English has more variety of words on offer, though this gives us delightful metaphors in translation – today I learnt that a sheep is not sheared in French, it is “mowed.” (The verb tondre).

But this cultural opening has brought something else to the table. I can justify absorbing all sorts of French culture, trashy or high-brow, on the grounds that I’m still learning something useful. And I have been overwhelmed by the discovery of quite how extensive is the French love of bandes dessinées. Asterix, bien sur, we all know and probably loved as kids or still today. The plucky and indomitable Resistance fighters against the unlovable and idiotic conquerors – no wonder the strip appealed to the French of the 1950s and beyond. Then there’s Tintin, (Belgian of course), and then there’s… Lucky Luke. Perhaps you wouldn’t expect a Frenchman and a Belgian to come up with a bestselling comic series about a Wild West cowboy. In fact, Lucky Luke scratches the surface. I just waded my way through a collection of Largo Winch stories. These realistic comics are set in a sub-007 world of “high finance” and fabulous jaw-lines. Darting between Turkey, New York, somewhere called “Yugoslavia” (where?) and Liechtenstein, the one strange connection is that all the characters speak in French slang. Particularly disconcerting was when, while getting close to a new girl during a helicopter ride over New York, one of the heroes insists that he and the girl should call each other “tu”. This is, in French, a way of indicating you’re getting to know each other in a good way. But literally it would be the equivalent of a New Yorker saying to another one “I think we should call each other "thou".”

There are dozens of these comics, covering all ages and genres. If you are at all surprised to find the French version of Madam and Eve sells well, you shouldn’t be. The French love comics. They even use their favourite technique to justify loving low-brow things – they get academics to pontificate about them. Yes, you can do Masters Degrees in the study of bandes dessinées at the Sorbonne. The world is a stranger place than you can imagine.

Perhaps more directly interesting for me is reading a guide book on South Africa – in French, written by French people from their perspective. Fascinating to learn that “in South Africa, hugging a woman you have just met is not required”. Or to realize that the most interesting part of the whole Anglo-Zulu wars was that Louis Napoleon accidentally fought and died (very courageously) for the British. Or that Andre Brink had a realization that apartheid was a bad thing while sitting on a bench in Paris. I’m looking forward to some revelations of my own when I can next afford to convert my rands into euros.

The Fourth Element and its Uses

[First published September 17th, 2010]

I love being proved right. I'm sure we all do, it's a very satisfying feeling. Which is exactly the opposite to what I'd feel if I religiously followed the diets of certain friends of mine. They are Raw Food Fans. And I like cooking and heating and baking and boiling and frying stuff into a delicious caramelly currified sludge. The Raw Food Fans say it's natural, and they produce sumptuous delights au naturelle with the assistance of air-drying hi-tech superfood gadgetry, using all our modern hybridised raw fruits and vegetables (which are vastly tastier than their original wild versions, incidentally).

But there's a fundamental problem for me here. I have long held the idea that fire - the control of fire, and the food we cook upon it - makes us human. Now this may not be immediately obvious, especially when you view the kind of species congregating round Bellville braais on a Saturday afternoon. But there it is. The Ayurvedic diet, another trendy modern complementary-medicine-type affair which is actually "ancient Indian wisdom" happens to agree with me. Fire without helps to control fire within; cook your food (subject to certain rules around overcooking and reheating) to maximise its potential, is the basis of Ayurvedic food health.

And now science seems to be saying the same thing, in the form of the book "Catching Fire - How Cooking Made Us Human" by Richard Wrangham. Wrangham spends most of his time with chimpanzees in Uganda, who follow a fascinating raw food diet. His thesis - which is extremely detailed in its research and plausible (and contrasted rather distressingly with the raw food version) is that a human diet - evolved around cooked food - gives human beings an awful lot more energy for useful things. In essence, chimps use up an awful lot more of the energy they get from raw food in actually digesting - their stomachs burn up energy (in what Ayurveda, incidentally, sees pictorially as a "digestive fire"). If we cook - making use of an external fire to do so - we get more energy. End of story.

I'm not saying that we can't indulge in a good salad now and then. I like my fruit raw (but then fruit today, as I may have mentioned, is much tastier than it once was: a powerful instant source of energy usually, which our bodies still benefit from). I also add plenty of "raw superfoods" to my diet (when the budget allows) - in the tiny quantities needed to ensure my body gets the best from it (and grinding up these raw things also lessens the work our tummies need to do). I get a zing from carrot juice that is fresh and delicious and occasionally more appealing than a good strong hot coffee. But the bottom line is we need some form of cooked fat in our lives because fat is solid energy, particularly when softened up by cooking.

I know it's all very well for me to say. I have a high metabolism and eat like a horse (except that my food is cooked, of course, and I'm not too fond of hay, raw or boiled) without putting on weight. And the kinds of fats in our fast food make many people turn raw from rage. But rather be conscious of what you're cooking, or more to the point perhaps, what someone else has cooked and packaged for you. Where did it come from? What's actually in it? Is it a sustainable food source? Is it full of chemical flavour enhancers and poor quality oils?

With a little simple research cooking can be the delight it has always been for humanity. It can also be a source of fuel that makes us stand up and be counted. Don't bite into your burger like the planet will carry on regardless; but don't wilt away into rawness like a limp lettuce leaf, either.

Village Life

[First published September 12th, 2010]

I have just been transported back to the hazy (literally, for many of us who were there) days of the Obz Fest back in the late 90s. You remember, the days when the joke was that Obz was the only bohemian district in the world to lack a bookshop, because everyone was too stoned to read anything. Well, the truth is that things have moved on rather a lot, of course, and while Obz itself has infamously gone "upmarket" and lost its edge, many of the ex-Obz people have moved to the False Bay coast. So it seems entirely appropriate that a multicultural street festival should take place today in Muizenberg, on its old-fashioned Palmer Road. There have been a couple of previous attempts at a festival, but this was the first where the street actually got closed to traffic for the day, the correct council procedures having been followed at last (no comment).

To be fair, there were a lot more happy kids present and rather less hazy smoke than I remember from Obs, (and in Empire Books we certainly have a bookshop in Muizenberg), and a lot more healthy food on offer (thanks in part to new vegan restaurant Closer, sushi and curry/roti street stalls, and the Village Pizzeria - which does wheat-free bases among other novelties). I guess we have all grown up a little since the days of 'Ruby in the Dust' on Obz Lower Main Road... where I once met a newly-released-on-amnesty former-IRA-bomber smoking up a Swazi storm on the balcony. But enough of such delightful reminiscences.

I prefer the Muizenberg 2010 version of the Fest on a lot of levels. For one, I dig Claire Homewood's funky, original, eco-conscious artwork that has sewed and sold the whole thing together as part of forming a new "Communi-tree". I dig the presence of all our Cape communities doing their thing, be it massage therapists from Masiphumelele, brown-skinned retro-rockers Southpaw (all left-handed), harmonica magician Dave Ferguson doing some serious live hip-hop in among his more bluesy stuff, or 6 black actors from Jungle Theatre doing a show about animal welfare - it was definitely a day for smashing stereotypes. Muizenberg today had some kind of answer for the super-cool of the central city: an answer that involves not just mixing things up in a mainstream kind of way but mixing it up in an original, eye-popping, do your own thing in harmony with the others kind of hey-shoo-wow way. I was reminded why I choose to live here. In case the beach and mountain ever vanish as drawcards, there is a whole cultural and spiritual vibrancy that can't help putting itself out there even when times are apparently tough.

I'm not going to write too many pieces about my home suburb-cum-village, I guess for fear that I get complacent and take on a piece about, say, Diep River (no offence) under the false delusion that such suburbs are just as lively as mine. But allow me the indulgence that the sun gave us all today (and the wind, which behaved itself rather well). Life can be very beautiful indeed.

Hanging out with the Middle Classes

[First published August 28th, 2010]

A quietly emerging discourse is taking shape in South Africa that centres more around class than race. The clichéd class society is, of course, the UK, where class and its transformations are endlessly discussed as if it is somehow a uniquely important aspect of British culture. I remember a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party, who happened to be a teacher, trying to persuade me that he was thoroughly, righteously working class, while a post office manager, by virtue of being a manager (though he earned less money), was a middle-class renegade who needed to be revolted against. The kind of tortuous logic one experiences frequently in Britain. But of course hierarchy exists in all societies. In South Africa, where the clash of cultures resulted in a different kind of brutal hierarchy, “race” was the dominant issue and continues to hold a lot of residual sway. But class is worth looking at too, a thought I pondered on the bowling alley the other night.

The South African media has got into the habit of referring to the “ruling class” when talking of our current illustrious political leadership. I suppose the term “upper class” has too much association with in-bred pale-faced twits, an endangered breed even in the UK, and not a group that, say, Tokyo Sexwale has much in common with, for all his untold billions. The ruling class as a moneyed group should obviously include the excessively wealthy white capitalist group. Back in the 1950s, South Africa had for a brief period the highest per capita income in the world. This is extraordinary when you consider that the majority of people were extremely poor; it means the vast wealth of the elite must have skewed things substantially. There is, for the middle classes, a great deal of money to be made in pandering to the remnants of the old upper class and the new versions of the ruling class if you know how to do it. A fairly well-off friend of mine, on the hunt for a new bed a couple of years ago, found himself spending some idle time in an import emporium. He was introduced there to la crème de la crème of beds (complete with self-making duvet). The price tag: a mere R640 000, around 100 times more expensive than he was anticipating. Though a new introduction to the country, four of them had been sold in the Sandton area. At around the same time one of my relatives sold her Muizenberg house for R650 000, so she could have bought a bed afterwards and had R10 000 for some sort of shelter.

On a more mundane level, the two or three-tiered economy plays out in other ways. Those (mostly white) people with the money to afford a lovely gas stove will fork out around R6 000 for a beautiful one imported from Europe. But gas stoves are also important for the other end of the monetary spectrum too (especially where electricity supply is erratic). My family headed to OK Furniture in Wynberg, a haunt of the lower middle classes where many items are bought on hire purchase (for credit is what greases the South African economy and gives the illusion of material wealth in many communities). There we bought a perfectly decent 4-plate gas oven for just over R1 000, also imported though this time just from across the pond in Brazil. (The fact that there isn’t a South African-manufactured version is a whole worrying question for the government’s economic policy that we won’t go into here). Other examples of the multi-tier pricing system abound.

But class isn’t just about money. It’s also about culture, which is where things get complicated. Lots of “upper middle” class whites have been telling foreign visitors for years that the trains are not safe in Cape Town. Now I have been travelling on Metrorail trains for the last 14 years, including three years where I travelled third class every day, and I have never seen a dangerous incident, nor have I heard of one happening to any passenger I know. True, I travel on the Fish Hoek line and perhaps if I was travelling on the Cape Flats line I would have heard or seen otherwise. And there have been, in that whole 14-year period, two or three incidents that made the papers. But thousands more people were killed on Cape Town’s roads every year. The “upper middles” have preferred to stay in their convenient carbon-emitting bubbles, often with unused 4x4 capability. And the hidden truth is that an unconscious racism is at work here: most people who use the train have a darker complexion, and the fear that many white people have grown up with and get daily bombarded with in the media turns into the lie that “the trains aren’t safe”. The World Cup went some way to transforming that perception, but “getting down with the masses” still ain’t where many wealthy whites are at.

In fact, the statistics declare that there is now a bigger black middle class in this country than a white one. Whatever that means about our general levels of consumption and the coming dangers there, it’s obviously a good sign on many levels. But the “middle class” isn’t quite the same as what I’ve outlined above. And the “middle class” is not necessarily the navel-gazing class that might consider itself more powerful by being more conscious. It might simply be the class that can afford to splash its cash on trips to time-share resorts and Ratanga Junction and bowling alleys and other places where the conscious class wouldn’t be seen dead. I might add that for the most part I’m egotistical enough to put myself in the “conscious” class. I eat organic food when I can, I prefer a good curry restaurant to a Steers burger, I like an intelligent novel or art movie, I like the peace and space of nature and of meditation. And when I go to dip in to the other side of modern life – the pounding commercial rave music in the background at the ice rink or the chemical-filled fizzy drinks or even the amount of cellphones whizzing around on the train – I have to make a conscious effort to protect myself from all that.

That much I own. But there is also a light-heartedness in all this that’s important to me, that keeps me connected with my other brethren in this country we call home. Which is that seeing a trashy movie or riding on a rollercoaster or hurling a ball at some skittles is good, silly fun. And that’s all. It doesn’t, as some upper-middle class types would assume (those whose shields are up higher than mine), expose you in a way that makes you powerless, unless you want it to (will you really be considered a worse individual because you lost at pool?). I’m assuming that most people reading this are also in the middle or upper-middle class bracket, and might also consider themselves part of the conscious class (is that the new upper class?!). Give yourself a break. Go hang out with the middle classes. Or even the working and non-working township classes. It won’t kick you off your path to personal enlightenment. It might even enhance it.   

Death to the Cathode Ray

[First published August 21st 2010]

When I was a kid there used to be a TV show on the BBC (especially during the holidays) called "Why Don't You". The full name of the show was, in fact, "Why Don't You Just Switch Off Your Television Set And Go And Do Something Less Boring Instead?" Superb title, and usually (if I remember correctly) filled with things to do that were unfortunately far too interesting to switch off straight away. As an adult, realising the pernicious and vicious nature of the TV, I have been very happy not to have one in the house. Now don't get me wrong, I enjoy the odd movie - and the laptop I'm writing this on does very well for that purpose. Plus I found numerous ways to watch TV during the World Cup. But both my wife and I experienced the rather different danger of television on the night of the World Cup Final. Because, when the final whistle had blown, we did not leap up and switch the thing off. SABC carried on, with a beautiful series of tributes to itself over how wonderfully it had presented the football over the previous month, even including a message from the SABC chairman. It was deeply moving in a not-at-all kind of way, and yet it took us a good half an hour of serious crap-watching to rouse ourselves and turn it off. Television is, you see, incessant. Big Brother knows exactly what you're doing, even without a two-way set. You're sitting there in a place of globally irrelevant lethargy. At least with a DVD, when it comes to an end the only choice you have is either to get up and turn it off (or search for another one if you insist), or start the whole movie from the beginning, which 9.9 times out of 10 I can do without.

Perhaps I'm speaking to the converted. After all, South African TV has never exactly been high quality eye-candy. Back in the 70s, when TV finally began, there was "Dallas", whose stars were just about the only actors slimy enough to visit the apartheid state. We did get Dallas in the UK too - I think my mom and gran were pretty addicted, and I can remember the night that "JR got shot", though mostly because nobody in my household would talk to me as they were all too busy watching the "gripping" TV. "Dallas" spawned two of the biggest hits on South African TV: "The Bold and the Beautiful", a similarly cheesy upper-class U.S. soapie; and "Egoli", a bizarre multiracial upper-class Johannesburg-based soapie. More recently (by which I mean in the last 12 years!) there has been "Isidingo," a supposedly more "gritty" soap inspired by working-class British soaps. And there have been the Pop Idols and the reality TV shows and all the dire rubbish that adults in other parts of the world get on a daily basis. They may have been paranoid racist maniacs but the Nats did have a point when it came to, well, not allowing TV into SA until 1976.

Brits of my generation have a rather different view of things. We watched so much TV as kids that when we get together we can still share the secret code of discussing the rubbish shows from our childhood. We even have the view that these shows were worth watching and somehow enhanced our cultural experience. What would life in the 70s and 80s have been like if it wasn't for Blue Peter, Grange Hill, Play Away, Doctor Who, etc.? For myself, I suspect that without TV I might have learned useful crafts like carpentry and crocheting rather than just following the presenters in sticking bits of egg-box with "sticky-back-plastic." Or I might have been so bored I wrote my first novel by the age of 14. Or maybe I would just have got on with playing games with my friends.

Way back in 1964 Roald Dahl knew what was wrong with TV. Just look at the Oompa-Loompas song when Mike Teavee goes down the chute. I won't quote the whole thing, marvellous though it is, but they were clear about TV. "It rots the senses in the head! It kills imagination dead!"..."Until they're absolutely drunk /With all that shocking ghastly junk." Certainly true of all the children's TV I've seen recently. A well-educated European tried to convince me a few years ago that Tellytubbies was innocent fun. As a primary school teacher I've seen enough hyperactive children who've been babysat by the TV to know that it was nothing of the sort. To say nothing of the adverts. I can well remember commercial kids' TV in the early 1980s. It was striking to me how the adverts were all profoundly focused on selling toys, McDonald's meals, and sweets to children. I noticed it at the age of ten but then it was all new to me. Kids who've grown up with that from an earlier age probably aren't at all as immune. And studies clearly show that the more kids watch the ultra-violent cartoons they are fed today, the more likely they are to be physically violent at school. The bottom line is that kids imitate stuff, and young kids imitate even more. Which was fine in the days when all there was to imitate was mom washing the dishes and dad digging in the garden. But these days the thing they're more likely to imitate - and even, in some cases, more likely to recognise from an early age than their own adults - is the TV, that uninvited expert which tells children how to behave in a way responsible parents would be shocked at.

But
even if it's as "innocent" as Tellytubbies, the TV is stopping children doing what they should be doing, which is moving around, learning with their bodies. A group of top athletes were involved in an experiment imitating a group of healthy 4-year olds for a morning. They copied all the physical climbing, running, jumping, playing that the 4-year olds did. By the end of the period, the athletes were knackered. The kids were still going strong. Our bodies are specifically designed to teach us about our environment by engaging with it intensely at a young age. Joseph Chilton Pearce can tell you all about how dangerous the TV is for children's learning. But even the most responsible adults seem to switch off at the idea that they get rid of their TV. Giving children the kind of quiet attention they need is not an option for many. Even in a settled two-parent family it's not easy these days. For single parents it's even more difficult.

Surely the way forward is backwards - towards some form of community where the elders have a role to play in connecting with the little ones while the parents are too busy. This would require certain sacrifices in many cases; it requires a move beyond our unhealthy detached sense of individuality. It requires elders to not see their retirement as a time for separation from family duties, and parents to arrive at a place where they can truly trust elders with their children, when many elders have failed pretty dismally to care properly for their own children. I use the word elders rather than grandparents because in our modern societies, with genetic families so spread out across the globe, the new "extended family" and "tribe" is unlikely to be just our own little genetic unit. So there is adjustment to happen, tough adjustments, in order for the TV to be superseded. But I invite you to take the plunge. Throw the TV in the pool. Follow it up with the PlayStation. Then build a bonfire with all the BlackBerrys and iPods you've given out to the minors in your household.
One day you'll thank yourself. And they'll thank you too.

A Trip Through the Trees

[First published August 16th 2010]

I love the feel of the redwoods' roots above Kirstenbosch or the hanging branches in Newlands Forest. My first trip around Cape Town, many years ago, took me down Newlands Avenue, lined as it is with largely European deciduous trees, a lush but somehow appropriate intrusion in Cape Town's wettest suburb. Of course, the European history of South Africa is not exactly paved with glory when it comes to, well, anything much, but with its forests this is particularly the case. The Dutch at the Cape were soon pretty busy chopping down trees, and the Governor used to get cartloads of wood on a weekly basis to fuel his home fires. Within a few years many of the most obvious pockets of forest had gone. The Dutch then moved on to the Cape Flats, and ripped up the rootstock of most of the fynbos since it was woody and long-burning.

So old Cecil Rhodes and his chums, who have got a pretty bad rap for planting pines all over the place, were at least trying to do the right thing, in a haphazard and fuzzy kind of way. There weren't many trees left, so they planted some. Kind of thing rock stars have been doing in the Scottish highlands in recent decades (messing up centuries-old peat bogs in the process), and after all, tree-planting's a good thing, right?

Walk your way through a South African pine plantation and compare it to an indigenous forest and you'll know that not all trees are good in the same way. The pine needles have their own beauty, but it's quite an acidic one. Their sap may be the only kind smelly enough to attract bees, but that's partly because of their lack of real flowers or fruits. It's a type better suited to truly wet, cold conditions, than to a dry part of Africa. And that's even before their invasive, water-sucking quality.

The Imperialists did bring some other trees that I'm very fond of, though. Take the huge variety at the Tokai Arboretum, from all over the world, or at least all over the bits that the British had influence over. There are some fantastic Asian trees in the Company's Gardens and up near Kirstenbosch; there's a fantastic old banyan-type affair near Kenilworth rail station (on Kenilworth Road). Out of town there are Dutch-era oaks on many an old farm that add life to the place. But in truth the wood-burning at the Cape was not the last of the problems. Our wonderful, important, eco-friendly rail network was founded on sleepers from chopped down indigenous yellowwoods and ironwoods and other beauties; in my house we've had old sleepers sliced open (to reveal the grains) and used them as shelves and counters: stunning (Forest Creations in Ottery does great work with them). And in more modern times the indigenous trees have suffered by being near to whole plantations of pines for paper, quick-burning and soon ripping through what forest we have left. If only the government would get round to legalising hemp - all those dagga fields could be growing industrial hemp, making lots of money in a legitimate way, and save Sappi and Mondi a lot of money too (hemp doesn't need chemical processing, produces better quality paper than timber, and is a lot cheaper to grow - indeed most paper used to be made from recycled hemp cloth).

Meanwhile, I enjoy the indigenous forests we do have. Particularly close to me are the little pockets on the Kalk Bay mountains, Spes Bona and Echo Valley, which have had boardwalks lovingly restored to them in recent years. There are some forests further east too, in the virtually untouched Kogelberg Nature Reserve, and some private milkwood forests near Stanford well worth experiencing (to say nothing of the Hobbit-like lands of Hogsback or the beauty of the Knysna forest  and Nature's Valley further east still). Some Northern people come to the Garden Route and wonder what all the fuss is about, have even concluded that it's just because we don't have much forest here that we rave about that region. But the South African indigenous forest gives a real picture of healthy nature; insects and chameleons, birds, vines, snakes, rodents, fantastic fungus, wild orchids, vibrancy. We have a beautiful country in many other ways too, but when we let our forest disappear we let a whole aspect of our earthy primeval-ness die, and that is a tragedy: a walk in our forests is my trip to the cathedral. I'm a bit of a sci-fi fan (sorry if you're not), so the living trees in Narnia, the Ents in Middle-Earth, and the spectacular trees of James Cameron's Pandora are my kind of cinema candy. But I'd still rather be drinking in the juice of the trees myself.

Their Finest Hour

[First published August 8th, 2010]

A few weeks ago I wrote a spirited defence of my reasons for tending not to support British, or at least English, sports teams despite being born in England to English parents. Some recent conversations have had me contemplate my navel further on this subject, in particular in relation to the topic of “The Flag.”

For a certain generation of Brits, a little older perhaps than my parents (born in 1942), the Union Jack represented most of all “Britain’s Finest Hour”, the period around the Battle of Britain. As a child talk of World War II bored the socks off me and as a teenager it came to seem increasingly suspect, as I marched towards pacifism and watched Gandhi doing the same courtesy of Richard Attenborough and Ben Kingsley. The Flag became united in my mind with the shocking brutality and arrogance of the Empire. (Eddie Izzard has of course lampooned this with a wonderfully light touch – have a look on YouTube for his “Flag” skit). And Thatcher waving it in the Falklands, egged on by all the skinheads in town, didn’t exactly change things for me. In the innocent days of 1977, when I was five and had never heard of those naughty punks in London, I got a Union Jack badge for the queen’s silver jubilee along with all the other kids in my area. Somehow I found this again as a teenager and added a personal touch, wearing it on my school blazer alongside another one that said “P*ss Off”, the one intended as a hilarious comment on the other.

However, I had a flash of insight the other day thanks to a fellow ex-Brit South African friend. He’s been avidly watching the DVDs of “The World at War”, that well-known British TV series which used to see me rising for the “off” button. But there is some truth, I must admit, to that notion of “Britain’s Finest Hour”. If you don’t know the story, here it is. Hitler had somehow persuaded everyone to let him arm Germany to the teeth, and then walked into Paris without firing a shot. America was not interested in this European war, Russia was still umming and ha-ing about joining in, and little old Britain was left as the sole military power opposing the Nazis. Now the British Empire was stretched to its full extent: it was the largest Empire the world had ever seen, and it became so by being ferociously racist, classist, bigoted, patriarchal, repressed, and underhand, make no mistake. Winston Churchill was the kind of upper class s*d who called Gandhi “a dirty fakir”. Many people in the British ruling classes had sympathies with the fascists, including members of the Royalty, before and even during the Blitz. But still, compared to the Nazis, the ruling class was pretty angelic. And in those moments when Britain stood alone, when the Nazis were bombing the hell out of British cities, when the RAF was frantically trying to reconstruct itself and get airborne for the Battle of Britain, there was a sense of camaraderie in British culture that has never been regained. The egalitarian attitudes of war ushered in the Labour landslide after the war. It was a horrible time of violence and evil, and Britain was undoubtedly on the right side.

So I do, in fact, understand now how the grandpas on Remembrance Sunday in the ‘80s could be more than a little peeved at my perceived lack of patriotism, my wearing of a lily white paper poppy as opposed to a red one. Such is the wisdom of maturity, I guess. My own grandfather was a squadron leader in the war and perhaps one day I will read the biography of one of his fellow men (which has sat for a while on my book shelf). Lovely man, even if he was as quietly diplomatically racist as most other colonial Brits.

Sadly, the genuine honour of that rather unique moment in history has been a large part of the subsequent collapse of the idea of Britain. Expecting my generation to be grateful for the fighting men had done in a previous generation was just – odd. We weren’t alive then. That was their fight. Our fight was against the Cold War, threats of nuclear holocaust, Thatcher’s jingoism in the Falklands. And Thatcher of course was a close buddy of PW Botha in the ‘80s. Most of the Rhodesian government that declared independence in the ‘60s because of their own racist attitudes had fought against the Nazis twenty years earlier. (Indeed, the Rhodesian Declaration of Independence was hardly a work of intellectual brilliance. It was a word-for-word copy of the American one, except that the bit about all men being equal was obviously removed, and, still stuff-full of post-WWII patriotism, it ended rather bizarrely with the words “God Save The Queen!”)

So expecting us to carry on “Flying the Flag” was just not going to work. Sure, the England flag, which has none of that Imperial embarrassment and racism implied by the Union Jack, has come somewhat to the fore recently. But the strength of mind and character that being British once implied was not something I grew up knowing much about. Now there were good things about the old determination to set foot in uncharted waters, as seen in fighting the Nazis and in the fabled British innovation and ingenuity. Much of this has died out in modern Britain. And fixing it has nothing to do with trying, as the British government incessantly tries, to find a new sense of community and national character out of the ashes of the old.

Take a look at these scary notions. The “nanny” state (which insisted last year on me purchasing a car seat for my 7-year old daughter while we were touring the country) has stopped children taking the kind of physical risks that were normal in an earlier age. This has meant, on the one hand, children taking really dangerous risks when not being monitored because they haven’t learnt to judge risk properly (and business courses need to teach theoretically what should have been learnt as a child). In fact British children don’t do much physical activity at all (obesity has been crossing the Atlantic for a while now). A survey of the top 10 British playground activities found that only one – soccer – was physical. All the rest were chatting, playing with iPods and phones, etc. Forty years ago they were all physical – and for children, that is where a lot of social learning takes place.

It’s also meant that today’s British twentysomethings are more likely, according to surveys, to want to “just settle down and get a steady job and a house” than British thirtysomethings (who were perhaps the last batch of “risk-takers” Britain managed to squeeze out. Thirtysomethings and above are more likely to say they’d like to “take time out to travel” or “be foot-loose and fancy-free”). How did the British breed such boring no-risk-takers? I’ll leave the Brits to answer that one. British children, apparently, now have the lowest literacy, numeracy, and sense of mental health in the EU. But that's just another statistic. Life, I think, is about taking some time out from statistics - to trust your own inner judgements on what might or might not really give you the kind of adventures you are seeking on this planet. I get a lot of that in beautiful, edgy South Africa. But maybe that’s just me. Maybe Britain needs another Finest Hour in order to wake up and smell the Starbucks. I’m just not sure the world does.  

Return of the Young Men

[First published August 4th, 2010]

I recently had the privilege of being part of a team leading a diverse group of boys towards themselves – towards being proud men any community would be proud of. Men, as the newspapers repeatedly mirror to us, have messed the world up. In recent years, some men have been seeking to rectify this situation, egged on by the poet and commentator Robert Bly’s classic, “Iron John,” a book which examines the archetypal principles of masculinity in the light of a previously little-known, but rather awesome fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm in the 19th century. (Bly looked specifically at 4 archetypes, the lover, warrior, magician and king, all of which have their positive mature sides as well as their immature, shadow sides).

The passage to manhood evoked in fairy tales is a fascinating one, in that it indicates certain cycles of human development which were often not obviously apparent within the societies telling the tales. The general principle of fairy tales is that a hero begins in innocence but progresses through a series of challenges (some caused by his or her own mistakes) towards a final successful conclusion of self-knowledge. The archetypal principles underlying this, as Bly and others have shown, is that the characters move from attachment to certain false principles towards full humanity, based on a sense of being an individual while also being sensitive to society and community around one. (Indeed, this is in fact just as valuable for women and there are many other fairy tales clearly focused on the female path to self-consciousness, which is similar). Ultimately, in the “happy ending,” often involving marriage, the active, harder principles of masculinity unite with the softer, more passive feminine principles. Though some have taken this literally and even found fairy tales sexist, since the "female" character is often (but by no means always) the "passive" element, the essence is about the core of one human soul finding fullness in itself. Fairy tales come from a more “dream-like” level of human reality - they may even have been revealed to their original tellers through dreams, on the Jungian level of collective consciousness.

Bly took on this mythical theme because aspects of the male story had been lost in the face of a 20th century masculinity, that was stuck between hard intellect and unthinking brutal physicality; a maleness that did not admit anything feminine, that turned any man with softer, more sensitive qualities, into someone “suspect” and possibly even homosexual (the most dangerous insult for many years). This male story isolated men as much as it oppressed women. Shere Hite’s surveys on American sexuality and relationships revealed (a couple of decades ago) that the average woman had three close friends she “opened up” to. The average man had his wife – if he was lucky. (And she, of course, was not lucky, but faced the increasingly taxing task of being his only emotional outlet). Something had to give (and the divorce statistics showed it).

Now, stories like Iron John were originally told to men in indigenous and pagan societies as part of men’s path to manhood, presided over by community elders, in rites that were kept secretive to inspire respect for them as sacred processes. They taught responsibility for protection of the women and children in a community and were a place for men to learn about male energy in a healthy way that did not seek to crush the feminine out of life. (In many African traditions, for example, men would learn a “warrior” dance but also a softer “lover” dance taught perhaps by the gay man or men in the village – who were, in those pre-Christian days in Africa, accepted for who they were).

Like the dream-like revelations of the fairy tales, these initiation rituals seem to have emerged into human consciousness from another plane, which I would like to think of as the positive world of spirit. But as a new force arrived in human consciousness – the individualistic force of the ego – the sense of the one being always part of a responsible collective began to feel restrictive. In the name of “following one’s own path”, the old initiations began to collapse until, in the last decades, they only existed in the remnants of the world’s indigenous communities, or in a rather stylised form in more “sophisticated” cultures (the barmitzvah being perhaps the best-known example, admirable in comparison to other Western cultures, but empty compared to what the old initiations offered). Thus the fairy tale pattern continued – the ego hero emerged and made mistakes on his path from which he had to learn.

An unstoppable unconscious force continued to lead men towards “initiation into manhood” but this was now often deeply brutal, based on the un-feminine code outlined above, seen in gangs (and prison gangs), boot camps, or the traditional corporate environment. Secretive initiations sought to exert exclusive power rather than to empower the individual men undergoing them. And meanwhile the princess had woken up to the second wave of feminism. She was quite rightly preparing to wash her hands of the hero. Would he wake up before the third gong sounded?

Some men’s groups began to emerge, partly in America thanks to the influence of native American teachers who sought to put together a programme that might help heal Western men in the absence of any sound holistic initiation rituals for them. The one I have had most involvement with has been the ManKind Project (MKP), who seek to create and choreograph rituals that allow men to feel the edge of their masculinity but also to realise that men can be soft with each other (and with women) and still be “a man”. Given the mistrust between men in the world, for men to feel comfortable to speak out emotionally and clearly to each other takes a lot of structure, support, and holding, which many men’s groups today do admirably well.

Out in the world men cover up their mistrust with bravado, silence, irony, and sometimes sticking ever-more rigidly to outdated patriarchal practices that give them a false sense of power. Yet while MKP and other similar groups assist men with moving beyond this, at any stage that they wake up to a need for such ritual work, clearly the original men’s rituals were done with teenage boys as they entered manhood for the first time. So the vision for men in society would be the holistic wedding – the return to source with a greater consciousness – a new initiation ritual allowing boys to feel comfortable in who they are but responsibly connected to supporting other men – and thus other women – around them. (The one I have just been involved with was set up by 'Hearts of Men', a Cape Town-based NGO). Not, as has happened in some African communities where the rituals have continued but lost their original wisdom, as a way of separating men off from women and placing them above them. Those days are inexorably going, however much pain there may still be while patriarchy spits out the venom of its death throes. In spite of the abuse rates the media rightly lets us know about, the wicked wizard is dying. 

Subject and Object and the whole "science" thang revisited

[First published July 23rd, 2010]

It’s a while since Albert Einstein made comments like “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.” So how might we remember the gift and make more use of it? In spite of the quest for new discoveries, modern science often seems constrained by the need for a “rational”, world view, although the discoveries of advanced pure physics and ecological systems thinking are moving scientific theory well beyond this.

Part of the problem, no doubt, is the way scientists today earn their living. Funders want a plausible, objective rationale and are as healthily sceptical of “gut feelings” in order to put money out as most other humans today. There can also be companies with a direct and somewhat unhealthy interest in the results coming out a certain way; or pushing theories for the benefit of novelty or challenge, without listening to an inner voice that might argue against this. (Science is not alone in this: the humanities too suffer from a need to prove oneself against every possible critical attack and sound “original”, and the white noise obscuring the intuitive voice is probably what Einstein identified).

Yet at the same time it is my own belief that science – radical, intuitive, creative science – is one of the most potent ways for humanity to move beyond the current destructive paradigm the world appears stuck in, into a breakthrough new relationship with each other and the planet. To do that, I would like to hazard that radical scientists could do with perhaps a new thinking around the objective/ subjective models. When Einstein talked of the “intuitive mind” as against the “rational mind” he was talking of a polarity that needs bridging. Though not exactly equivalent, we could also talk of the polarities “left-brain/right-brain” and “head/heart” as the bridges to cross. In fact, any “objective” research always has a subjective component – the scientist’s judgement of why to do this particular research.

I would like to make most use of the “head/heart” polarity in this discussion, as short-hand for the “rational/intuitive”, particularly since recent research indicates that we are indeed capable of thinking with our hearts – that our mind is not centred only in our brain; that 65% of heart cells are actually neural cells with exactly the same kind of surrounding structure as in the brain. These either connect to the muscular feelings in the body, or to the emotional brain in the head.

Let’s look at this in a little more detail with some examples of compatible truths from head and heart respectively. As all great sages (and modern deconstructive humanists) would tell you, no truth expressed in words can possibly be the whole truth, but let’s have a go.

Objective, measured truth: that the heart generates a holographic electromagnetic field up to 4 metres from the body, which seems to furnish the radio wave spectrum which the brain uses to create our internal experience of the world. The spectrum changes according to our emotional response.

Subjective truth (internally experienced by mystics and poets down the ages): that the heart is the “seat of the emotions” and the source of true knowledge in the body that permits connections with others.

It should be noted that the subjective truth was known for millennia before modern science could prove it via the head methodology. Individuals with a greater level of awareness felt it to be true, trusted their judgement on this and spread the information wider. This is also the case with many other mystic judgements of the universe, as is well-known from The Tao of Physics and other later developments, though some scientists with a particular (to my mind somewhat perverse) need to deny the relevance of any belief system outside of modern science would suggest these are purely coincidental.

Here is another suggestion or two which are not incompatible though they might not be the whole truth.

Objective theory/ truths (this is a complex one given the range of opinions among biologists and system ecologists, so my words here are a very rough summary): that evolution has occurred mostly by a process called natural selection, whereby organisms make preferential changes to ensure their own survival niches; also, that evolution adjusts and progresses according to a complex interaction between different organic elements of bigger systems (with Gaia being the ultimate – on  our planet – organism). Humanity emerged as a physical organism on Earth comparatively recently in geological time.

Subjective theories/truths: that consciousness is at the core of every physical particle and gives rise to all forms, and that the physical form of humanity was always the intention of evolution on earth, for humans are the life-form most able to perceive and experience the cosmic dance of consciousness we call evolution, and reflect this back to “pure consciousness”, the creative principle which some would call “God”. Indeed that physical humans were preceded on earth by energetic/ spiritual humans, who naturally have left no trace in the fossil record, as humans could only take a physical form once conditions were established that supported that.

To acknowledge the above, scientists can only prove or disprove the above by checking in with their own hearts. You cannot disprove the subjective theories I mention, though many scientists (and, for that matter, religionists) would have a gut distaste for them. To find the real here is not easy, and can only – I would suggest – be possible with a “clearer heart”. This means developing greater levels of trust, trusting personal intuition (and not clouding it with ego fear-based judgements). Not easy to justify in the current academic context, where the prevailing attitude is towards the best-approximated head “truth” for the sake of encouraging more financial investment (which naturally depends on the “trust” of the funders).

What would be the benefit of trusting in empowering subjective beliefs, without a possibility of materialist proof? Well, it should be obvious that some beliefs are more empowering to a human being than others, and some fit better with a growth to individual responsibility within community (which could be considered a general aspiration of humanity). While a blind quest for “objectivity” that can only be supported up to a point (given that some subjectivity is, as shown, always involved – a judgement is needed that comes from the feeling realm in order for research to take place!) leaves one psychologically in a place of dissatisfaction and often disconnection from others.

Happiness research, incidentally, backs up this statement: that some form of spiritual belief, especially when focused on gratitude for the ordering forces in life, increases happiness. Does it prove that particular gods or wider forms of consciousness exist? Of course not, that can’t be proven with the head. It can only be known with the heart. (Many would suggest, quantum-style, that gods do exist when people’s hearts believe in them – another little notion worth chewing on). But agnostics and atheists with a heart-attachment to their theory can still practice body-mind rituals of belief, imagination and gratitude to help shift their whole-body consciousness to a more connected and integrated place without letting go of their pet theory until they are ready (many Buddhists and Hindus could also be classified as atheist, after all). I also think that much atheism is based on a distaste for a personal God that orders you around and judges you, which I share. This is quite different to the empowering notion that there is consciousness waiting to be acknowledged and revealed in every aspect of the cosmos.

I believe we are moving towards a phase when the current form of scientific research – that is based on measuring with the head – will lose its dominant position in global discourse. Not because it is bad per se – it has clearly been a vital step in sorting the wheat from the chaff of beliefs, in spite of the scarily large number of creationists still out there - but because humanity is moving to a position where individuals (including scientists and their funders) will need to trust more in their own judgements of reality and not rely on experts – kings, priests, politicians, scientists – to tell them what the truth is, be they benign, “scientifically verifiable,” divisive or power-hungry. To really experience the benefit of Einstein’s wish for more intuitive mind, we are going to have to collectively develop the sensory power of our hearts (and there are plenty of disciplines out there, old and new, to encourage that, all of which need a certain amount of faith to take them on – most useful, I would suggest at this time of excessive use of the head, are those that attempt to awaken consciousness in the whole body. They also, of course, require a personal commitment to self-development).

That will be the next stage in creating a new science for the benefit of the planet. It is likely to require a whole different basis for science, and a whole different attitude to funding it and who is expert in it (And in the mean time, there is plenty of research being done positively by the current method that will help us get there, more of which I might outline in a future article!)

After the Ball

[First published July 16th, 2010]

OK, so I couldn’t resist a little more stuff on soccer. And I have, after all, become something of an expert, assisted by my daughter’s Panini World Cup sticker book and its statistics. Soccer stats have something to appeal to the most mathematically-minded bore. Perhaps not in a way that is quite so lunatic as cricket, but there are stats aplenty to keep commentators going in a way that appears almost autistic. During Spain v Germany we were repeatedly told of the “battle of the 30s” going on on the left flank between two players that happened to be that old. Left with little more to go on about the players' actual humanity the commentator clearly sank in the well of stats. As I am about to do.
Given how many people around the globe love soccer, there is something rather weird about the World Cup Final and its history. Not only have only 12 teams ever reached the Final, but there has never been a final that did not feature either the host or a previous finalist. (Holland filled that role this year). Only twice – Germany in 1954 and Spain in 2010 has a first-time finalist and non-host won the Cup (are you still following?) So odds have got to be pretty short on a Brazil win in 2014. (Though the last time they hosted, in 1950, those pesky Uruguayans had the cheek to beat them in the final in Rio).
Different nations obviously approach their World Cup hosting rather differently. France, with its reputation for moody intellectualism, felt slightly embarrassed at holding such a trivial thing back in1998. It was the first time they’d held it since 1938, and we all know what happened to France shortly after that. But in ’98 they had an intellectual to assist them, with Albert Camus’ quote shown everywhere: "All that I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football" runs the translation. At last the French could relax, enjoy the football, and win the World Cup of course, with a mostly non-white team nogal. It shifted a lot of things for a while in French cultural life. But it also helped to make it more acceptable for us lettered types to enjoy it, not just as a secret passion. (Italy also tried the same by connecting the World Cup with opera back in 1990, but Nessun Dorma doesn’t work for everyone). And Camus’ quote rings true for the audience too: skill, morality, obligations – for the audience it’s all a bit like fast-paced chess without having to think too much.
By contrast, the Ethiopian singer K Naan’s “Wave Your Flag” has had everybody dancing this side of the globe over the past month. (Have you heard any other modern Ethiopian music? You should.) Not much “intellectualism” but a whole lot of fun. And all the flags together looking so colourful – plus South Africans really taking to the idea of having all these different nations here. I am not the first to reflect on the bipolar nature of the South African psyche (what? A columnist being unoriginal?). In the past I have described the country as having grown up with a deliberately schizophrenic past political system (apartheid). So maybe bipolar is a step forward. We just have to acknowledge the high moments as a blueprint for the future, a window into what is possible just beneath the scratchy, sometimes dangerous surface. More Zen, less phobia, as one T-shirt says. But that takes education, connection, understanding. More languages like soccer or music to connect us rather than divide (and yes, I know that songs left over from old battles can divide, but there are plenty of other lyrics that can connect. And boy, our music kicks ass on a global stage, and I’m talking about African music in general when given the right technical backing. One of our best local outfits is called Language 12.)

If “South Africa” means anything today, (and we are busy redefining what exactly it means, at quite a breakneck speed, most recently with the help of the World Cup but anyway on a daily basis), it means unity in diversity, a global community on a small scale, the triumph of different cultural groups somehow finding a way to be united. And, surely, accepting other Africans is a vital part of growing up. South Africans were taught virtually nothing about their African brethren at school in the past. Many of them come from educational systems that gave them more skills than the Bantu system did in SA, and that is the heart of the mistrust in certain of our poorest communities, but also a potential source of strength. One study showed that African migrants who set up businesses in Jo’burg created on average three jobs for previously unemployed locals. Time for government to spread the word about that proactively!
There’s some other elements we can look at in more depth here. Today's South Africans of all origins are pretty physical, and verbally direct, people on the whole. I know that stereotyping is potentially dangerous, but the contrast with most Brits is obvious, even when many South Africans have British origins. The warm climate has to have something to do with that. In fact, even those French types, who have a reputation amongst the English for being expressive and physically affectionate, “pale” in comparison to many South Africans (and most of the continent). The Calvinist past may still show itself in comparison to, say, the average South American, but just maybe with this World Cup we’ve finally put all that repression to rest. A few years ago I took part in a dance workshop for men, (a large number of whom were white, for those of you who still think honkies can’t dance), with a French facilitator. He’d tried to hold such workshops with the French, and found a great interest in debating the subject of “getting in touch with the body” intellectually, but virtually no-one daring to turn up to the actual doing of it. He was bowled over by our willingness to let it all out and express ourselves in this way. Perhaps we as a nation are doers rather than talkers. Not a bad thing, in many respects. Let’s live into that positive “self-definition”. Because the stories we tell ourselves, the myths we create in these moments of instant history, powerfully affect our psyches on an individual, community and national level. After the schizophrenia, after the bi-polar status, comes – surely – the grace of an optimistic yet realistic outlook, if we continue to believe in it enough. We have demonstrated, just a little, an ability to rapidly recreate our own reality – and the international perception of our reality. We have the power in our hands – can you feel it?

South African Homes Google Probably Can't Help You Find

[First published July 11th, 2010]

About 15 minutes drive south of Simon's Town is the start of the path to the little-known beach of Smitswinkel Bay. Or you could take a boat from the harbour and avoid the walk. I found this out at a visit to one of the area's houses today. Yes, houses. You won't see that on a map - because there's no road.

So much of the deep south of the Cape Peninsula remains undiscovered - by me, even, despite living in Muizenberg for the past decade, let alone those still stuck to the fishbowl of the City Bowl. It is a remarkable thing, this wild mountain coast supposedly inside the city limits of Cape Town, where dangerous wild animals still stalk the roads (I'm talking of those cute baboons of course, who have taken chunks out of several friends' dogs when met at the wrong time and place). Took my 7-month old puppy to Smitswinkel today, as well as my own two little pups to their friend's birthday party. Managing a dog is an entirely new and not entirely welcome aspect of my life, but she seems to be in doggy heaven when faced with a lot of washed-up kelp to growl and bark at, so today's outing was definitely one of my more successful canine adventures. A lovely walk down through pristine fynbos and over a mountain stream leads to what is definitely a community of sorts. Not sure from one trip how many would cope with living there permanently, but while it's sometimes lovely to have that completely wild experience (and what a blessing we Capetonians have in that regard), it's also fun to explore all the crazy places that humans inhabit.

As it happens, the house which was the party venue has long been in the family of Pieter Jolly, architect and archaeologist, for decades, a typically simple wooden affair perched precariously on the hillside. At this point this becomes an essay within an essay, for Jolly has recently written a whole book on unusual, isolated houses in South Africa and Lesotho - specifically on those which are built into caves and overhangs, "Rock Shelter" (2010). It's a lush photographic coffee-table type affair, but deals precisely with a number of extraordinary buildings built by those on the margins of society - and also those from the centre but based at the margins. South Africa may not have a history of cave housing to match those in Tunisia or Petra, but, like the magnificent medieval Ethiopian churches carved directly into the rock - or those Buddhist cave temples from Ajanta, India - there is definitely a sense of the sacred that happens when buildings make use of what the earth has already provided. So many of these cave dwellings are used for sacred reasons by traditional healers, like Fertility Cave near Rustler's Valley (that infamous hippy centre) in the Free State, that is a gathering place for sangomas nationwide, and houses many homesteads. Intriguingly, many Christian missionaries also seemed to establish themselves first in these cave dwellings, which brings to mind images of Christian monks in southern Europe i the early centuries AD - a time when, in my mind, Christianity was rather more connected to the living spirituality of the earth than in many of the concrete churches built today.

These cave-shaped homesteads are often built with traditional natural materials, mud and stone, and bring with them an exquisite sense of the organic. I don't know if Valerie Morris and Judy Bekker knew of these cave dwellings when building their own work of art, a cob house with a mountain making a couple of the walls out at Beaverlac in the Groot Winterhoek range (3 hours north of Cape Town). But having just headed "out of town" for a few days I know that there is, even for us city addicts, a need for the peace of the margins now and then. Smitswinkel Bay, right under the noses of the tourists heading for Cape Point, is another surprising Cape example of how close we can be to finding that peace in our unique National-Park-come-Major-City.

Why Uruguay should still withdraw and concede defeat

[First published July 4th 2010]

I spent an amazing, balmy midwinter day in Cape Town yesterday, along with most of the city's other inhabitants it seemed. The carnival atmosphere was huge, around half the Capetonians had got up in German colours and the other half in Argentinian ones, and plenty more were in both German AND Argentinian outfits (I also saw a wonderfully bizarre group of Venezuelans in full football supporter regalia. Venezuela, you may have noticed, did not take part in the World Cup). A spirit of "playing the game" was in total evidence.

You can bet your bottom Zimbabwean dollar that come Tuesday night the atmosphere in Cape Town will be one colour only. Orange. Because nobody in Africa that I know of will be supporting Uruguay. And perhaps not many people in the world. Luis Suarez singularly, deliberately misunderstood the whole point of "competitive friendship" with his deliberate, professional foul against Ghana. It is perhaps not that surprising. The pressure and the money and the wickedness that surrounds professional soccer today is an intensely ugly shadow face of global soccer and sport. We all know the ridiculous fees - and the ridiculous pressure - that come with the game, we know how the top club teams in the world no longer have any real connection to the cities in which they find themselves. At least in the World Cup the teams still have a fairly guaranteed real connection to their countries. Which is why Friday night was a tragedy for Uruguay too. Win at all costs is clearly a message that Suarez received, and having done the unspeakable he then went a testosterone-charged stage further, dancing with delight when Gyan missed his penalty, and proclaiming his pride in what he did at the press conference, supported my a number of his team-mates. When you've done something you know in your heart is wrong, over-justification is often a good way of denying it for yourself.

The only alternative, after all, would be for Uruguay to withdraw now. Ghana may have already left for home, but perhaps it's not too late. I realise that this suggestion is tilting at windmills, but let me explain my rationale. Uruguay has a proud history in the World Cup. In fact, apart from those with some memory of the Uruguay Round of international trade talks, it's probably the only thing most English speakers know about the country. Uruguay is a country slightly larger than England, with a population slightly smaller than New Zealand - around 3 and a half million. Compare this with the other Cup winners - Brazil with 160 million or so, Argentina with around 40 million people, and the European winners with between 50 and 80 million souls each. Uruguay won the first ever World Cup, on home turf, back in 1930. They won it again - against Brazil and in Brazil - in 1950. True, they haven't done much since, but still, a quarter final spot for such a small country is very impressive stuff, and they deserved to get there, a deadly dive against Bafana Bafana's goalkeeper notwithstanding. But now everyone will remember them as cheats. Which is a national tragedy.

I haven't met any Uruguayans personally, to my knowledge - there aren't many of them, after all, but it seems that their government is regarded as one of the least corrupt in South America and they have done good, tolerant, un-stereotypically Latino things in recent years like being the first South American country to legalise same-sex marriage. I had to look all that up on Wikipedia though. We might learn more about that in the papers though, if Uruguay's soccer team was to take the brilliant step of withdrawing because of Suarez's "mistake", which stopped a moment of history - the first African team to legitimately and impressively make it to the World Cup semi-finals.

If you know a Uruguayan out there, try and spread this message. By the time you read this it might already be too late. And in the mean time, viva Holland viva!!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Who to Support Now? - and other vital World Cup answers from a Safrican ex-Brit

[First published June 25th 2010]

Like a fair few of us South Africans not born in South Africa I've been fully swept up in the joy of the World Cup, even with a first-round knockout, I mean come on, we beat the French! As in, runners up 4 year ago. And we may have gone out but so have the Italians, as in cup holders. Most of us are pretty damned chuffed we got as far, and generally as impressively, as we did. Sitting in a big family-friendly hall with a (mostly white) audience cheering our hearts out for a (black and there on merit) team without the bits in brackets even being an issue for comment shows how far we as a nation have come; how much under the grit and grime and daily pessimism we actually care for and love each other pretty passionately. As someone once pointed out to me, this country is the same shape as a human heart, and maybe there's a reason for that. Certainly it seems to me that SA is a barometer for the world, a microcosm on so many levels.

But with President Zuma's politically charged comments that we should now support 1/ any African side and 2/ when there aren't any left, any side from the Global South - I've been forced to wonder what I feel for another national side, the English. You see, I grew up on that funny little island in the North Atlantic that used to rule most of the world. (Not in my lifetime, but certainly in my genes). And I grew up as a teenager in Thatcher's Britain in the 1980s, a world of smug pseudo-fascist rulers and rebellious pseudo-commie peaceniks. I was definitely on the pseudo-commie peacenik side of things and I was very angry about it all. Not as angry, perhaps, as the average black South African (and conscious white South African) had every reason to be back then, but nonetheless - angry.

My first encounter with politics was knowing that something was wrong about Thatcher stirring up the British flag for the Falklands war in 1982. I was ten at the time and many boys in my class joyfully brought in pictures and magazines of the warships and helicopters going to "fight the Argies". All that over a few islands. (It was as an adult I learnt the true irony of the situation: Thatcher's first foreign policy action had been to hand over Britain's last serious colony, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, not to democratic moderates but to a power-hungry nutter called Bob Mugabe, thanks to insisting on the same corrupt parliamentary constituency system of "democracy" that the British continue to employ. All very Pontius Pilate-like. Then when Thatcher was in trouble in the opinion polls the Argentinian Junta made things "easy" by allowing the government to play the Jingo card).

I didn't like all this, and the English flag and soccer hooligans of the 80s, the Heysel stadium disaster (when 39 foreign fans were killed due to hooligan riots by Liverpool fans) and so forth all ate into what I already felt was a culture I was alienated from. My unresolved emotional awkwardness played out in this very angry alienation from "Englishness". And of course in buying in to some visions of alternative versions of Englishness. (Some more left-wing commentators have insisted that "rebellion" is an important part of being English, which of course it is and an extremely valuable one, but it's only rebellion because of the stodgy centre, in my opinion! Jerusalem, as many people know, represents powerful, beautiful sentiments of the kind of country England should be, and it should be the national anthem: I'd still stand and sing it with tears in my eyes if it was. But it isn't. God Save The Yawn remains the fudgy crap the nation is stuck with).

I came to view alternative sections of the society as things to really fight for. I took the A A Gill route to "pretend Scottishness" after visiting at the age of 12 (and exploring ancestral roots), and also began to really love Norwich (even its soccer team) for its cosy alternative ways, its bizarre distance from London (persuading Londoners to make the trek was ridiculously, wonderfully difficult), its neither-north-nor-southness. We all make some search for belonging in adolescence, and some end up belonging to a football fan club, which can of course be great fun as well as a source of heartache. I went to quite a couple of Norwich matches and I know the rush of excitement at a goal as much as anyone.

Indeed, come Mexico '86 my memories rested on the sheer brilliance of Maradona's other goal, not the anguished hand of god which did indeed so unfairly put England out of the competition. It was almost the first international game I paid attention to. I was rooting for France, of course, given my father's Francophile tendencies, and I was singularly unperturbed by England's loss. A fellow socialist friend of mine was rooting for Germany - he had a German mother and Welsh father - so I saw some fellow-travellers in the "non-English" camp. And if I look at how the complexities of my support pan out, Zuma's statement had some ring of truth to it for me even back in 1990.

Maybe in some way Cameroon's brilliant super-sub Roger Milla contributed to my eventual move to Africa. Certainly after their progression to the quarter-finals I was rooting for them against England all the way, and my desire afterwards to see an African World Cup victory was serious and ongoing if not something I could do much about. After the demise of Thatcher, the unfairness of the world, the continuing economic dominance of Africa by ex-colonial interests, the utter disaster of British colonialism (described so eloquently by Briton John Reader in his fabulous analysis, "Africa The Biography of a Continent"), all have stayed with me and made me on the whole about as likely to support the rich boys of the English football team as to support the rich boys of Manchester United. But above all, I like a little variety in the world. The truth is, come the final stages, the last time a team that was neither a previous winner nor the host appeared in the final of the World Cup was Holland in the 70s, and that was before my coming of age as a football watcher (and of course they lost). The only times a team like that has actually won the World Cup was Germany's first win in 1954 and Brazil's first win in 1958. So hoping for a new winner this year is an unlikely task, and I've always plumped for the underdog. I didn't even watch the final in 2002. Brazil v Germany? Surely there must be someone else around to make it this time. So, in fact, despite their brilliance and traditional nastiness (respectively), I won't be rooting for Brazil or Argentina from the global South even with Africa out.

Truth be told, I managed to enjoy England beating Holland in 1996 (just before I left the country), and even supported England against more Argentinian nonsense in 1998 in a Cape Town pub full of Poms (though by that time my new local team, South Africa, were out of the tournament along with other African teams). Since then I've married an amazing South African woman and had two amazing South African children, and felt at home in a nation where "fitting in" (like one is, on the whole, expected to in England) is just not possible - everyone's too different for that! (Four languages in one national anthem...). England v Germany? Well, if the English would get over the very tedious task of hassling Germans about their part in the war (for goodness sake, most of the Germans, and most of the English, who were seriously involved are now dead), and remember a little more their own part in effing the world up via Empire (rather than making it increasingly difficult for visitors from the "Commonwealth" to actually live or work in the UK, unlike the comparatively welcoming nations in parts of Europe with better weather), then the English team (who admittedly have nothing personally to do with all this, except to "represent" the English government in sport) might be more likely to gain my support there...

Of course there are huge other questions about FIFA and MacDonalds and so forth that indicate more of the same towards the poor suckers from the Third World even with this "African World Cup". So I welcome you who support England and also want social justice and better lives and peace for the peoples of the world. Football is a remarkably emotional thing, and I'm a little cynical of the whole exercise and its potential for bringing people together, but I am mostly optimistic that the outpouring of positivity is a window - a blueprint - into something that is more generally possible, in South Africa and even in England.

The people - and I recognise there are many - who remain in England, who work to bring light, fun, ease in the midst of the cynical ironic atheistic stodge have my deep admiration and appreciation. Perhaps they will one day make England a "Jerusalem" indeed in which I would once more be happy to live (or at least get things to a place where my part in building "Jerusalem" in England would feel like the best use of my short span on this earth). I might even support their soccer team more often.