not to dream

At night, driving, alone. A twenty minute journey from one bit of the city to another and not another car, not another single vehicle, not another soul. The retreat begins early. The afternoon rush-hour at its worst around 4pm. Get home early, go home early, behind the walls, shut yourself in, don’t go out. We noticed, when we arrived, that people invited us for dinner at 5.30pm. How strange. And the meal wraps up by 9.30pm. People go to bed earlier, I thought, because they work harder. But I think it’s more to do with

light & dark,

sun & moon,

safety & danger

I have an idea! Reclaim the Streets! Start small. Start with the city of Johannesburg. Just one day. Let’s all walk! Walk to work, walk to the shops, walk to school. Let’s see everyone on the streets, on the pavements, using the sidewalks. Get out of your cars, reclaim your city, your space, your neighbourhood. Walk together, talk together, move in the same space, weave in & out of each other. Touch, talk, look, flirt. Get out of the car. Take the air, enjoy the sun, laugh. Show each other you can move freely, you can walk freely. Go together, in groups, hold hands, march. Show each other we can be together. Just one day. Change the colour of the pavement. Change the colour of the bus-stop. Change the colour of the taxis. Leave your Mercs & Beemers and walk. Or cycle!

Hopelessly naive. Hopelessly idealistic. It won’t work. People wouldn’t do it. So, you do it for a day, and the next it’s back to normal: what’s the point? Nods all round. It won’t work. Not here. Does this mean there is no hope? Maybe. On campus, here, there’s a large red Hummer. A Large Red Hummer. A militarised vehicle. A vehicle associated with the US army, with the violent superpower army. And it’s here, on campus, a bright bloody crimson flowing red. For the aspiring student. Win a Hummer & you’ll never need walk again. Better still, SMS *brain dead* to 98760 and you could be the lucky winner of a reconditioned US army tank.

Meanwhile, someone in London said:

‘I gotta great deal on a holiday to Kenya! Safari.’

& someone responded:

‘Bloody hell! Are you sure you want to go there? Haven’t you seen the news?’

‘Yes, it’ll be fine, I’m sure I won’t be anywhere near it.’


W G Sebald wrote

‘the world, as it were, depletes itself, because the stories that adhere to things are never heard by anyone, never recorded or retold’


it’s starting to get to me

Thick Afrikaans blurts through a loud-speaker six floors down, on Jorissen Street. Men in blue and men in lime yellow tops move orange cones between the three lanes of this, one of Johannesburg’s main arteries. It feels sinister, hearing the police in this country, but I’m told it might just mean a dignitary is coming to the university for the day. As for myself, I’ve noticed that I’ve started to shy and flinch from men who are reaching into their pockets. A knife, is what I think, but it’s probably some change or a mobile phone they’re fiddling for. Perhaps they’re just readjusting tackle. But the knife is the first image to enter my mind. I’m starting to see how people here retreat to their cars, to their shopping malls & behind their electric fences. My initial gut instinct – South Africans are cowards, especially the whites – is changing. This country is weird, it’s dangerous, it’s curiously distressing. I’m damned if I’m going to become paranoid like the rest of them. I’m determined not to go that way. But I have to acknowledge my own behaviour. I’ve started checking people out. I watch kids nearby, I look out for agitation, for shifting pupils, for torn clothes & hands in pockets. I’ve started to walk in the middle of the road, a habit here which allows a few vital seconds to clock the boys about to leap out of the hedge. I’ve started double-checking the back door, the garage door, the front door, the windows. I’ve started talking about how much I love dogs & wouldn’t it be nice to have one. But I’m fighting, I’m fighting. I ain’t going that way. Why? That’s what I’m grappling with. It’s a cliché, but I’ll say it. I’ve been in wars, real wars, with guns & bombs & landmines. I’ve been shot at, chased & bombed – and I’ve missed ambushes that have blown up whole coaches by seconds. But it’s only here in Johannesburg that I’ve become suspicious of strangers, that I’ve started closing down, backing off and avoiding contact. I see the sunshine, I see the huge acacias, I see the jacaranda, the yellow birds, the vast green spaces, the black rubbery lizards, the giant purple fan flowers, & I see many gentle friendly faces. But I’ve started looking for the cracks between.

Meanwhile, from Kenya, I hear, The whole country is in a depression. UN thinking of evacuating all staff, murder, mayhem the order of the day. The fucking politicians need to all resign. In the throes of a nervous breakdown.

Meanwhile, from Somalia, I hear, Somali National News Agency reporter Hassan Kafi Hared died in a landmine explosion and subsequent gunfire in Siyad Village in the southwestern port town of Kismayo.

Meanwhile, I hear from London, There is a real chance that the BNP [but for the uninformed, you should also look here] could get above the 5% vote needed to get a seat on the London Assembly in the elections this coming May. I think that would be terrible.

I think of Hackney, my Hackney, where I’ve had knives held under my nose, & I’ve watched a 16-year-old girl attempting to mug a terrified Eastern European illegal immigrant, who didn’t want the police involved. A few doors down, on my first Christmas, a man was bludgeoned to death in his bedroom. Police came knocking, door-to-door, and I hadn’t heard a thing. Not a thud, a scream or a gasp for air. We have shootings, stabbings, rapings and gangs – even little kid-gangs – but I never get nervous in Hackney. I never get nervous in London, and I know that city’s back allies north, east, south, west like the palm of my hand. Nothing frightens me. So what’s this Johannesburg got that London lacks? I think it’s something about communication, and nerves: years of dictatorship left the dictators as terrified as the dictated. It’s like everyone’s scared of everyone else, of themselves even. Everyone’s expecting a fight. A dispute. A row. It’s just not good…

Which is why I love the person who turned these international road signs in my (Johannesburg) neighbourhood into a political and social demand:


Oh, so necessary. But not as much as this:


the helicopter society

On behalf of the Trustees and Executor of the estate of Late Engr. Fernando Sergio Morales;I once again try to notify you as my earlier letter returned undelivered. I hereby attempt to reach you again by this same email address on the WILL. I wish to notify you that late Engr. Fernando Sergio Morales made you a beneficiary to his WILL. He left the sum of Six Million One Hundred Thousand Dollars (USD$6,100,000.00 ) to you in the codicil and last testament to his WILL.
This may sound strange and unbelievable to you, but it is real and true. Being a widely traveled man, he must have been in contact with you in the past or simply you were recommended to him by one of his numerous friends abroad who wished you good. Engr. Miramontes Louise Ramuald until his death was a member of the Helicopter Society and the Institute of Electronic & Electrical Engineers.

He had a very good heart and loved to give out.

His great philanthropy earned him numerous awards during his lifetime. Late Engr.Fernando Sergio Morales died on the 13th day of December, 2005 at the age of 80 years, and his WILL is now ready for execution. According to him this money is to support your humanitarian activities and to help the poor and the needy in our society. Please if I reach you this time as I am hopeful, endeavor to get back to me as soon as possible to enable me conclude my job.
I hope to hear from you in no distant time,
Yours in Service,
Barrister Kenneth Smith, ESQ.

Berkshires House, 168-173 High Holborn, London WCIV 7AA
United Kingdom.

reconstructing my lobotomy

Hemingway has said, ‘I certainly do not think of writing as a type of self-destruction, though journalism, after a point has been reached, can be a daily self-destruction for a serious creative writer.’ Pretentious, perhaps, to quote this. But only someone who has practised journalism for a few years will understand the true terror felt about news reporting. Destruction, absolutely. The fear can be so overwhelming that even reading a news report, you think, could infect you again. It’s taken over two years to shed that mentality, that way of thinking and writing. Two years of pain & agony & loss. And it still creeps back occasionally when I’m not looking. It is not, as Hemingway says, simply a problem for a serious creative writer. It’s a problem for anyone interested in truth, life, death, humanity and the mind. Anyone who has any real interest in the total human experience – not the apparent slice – will be slaughtered and driven to the bin by journalism. Of that, I have no doubt. None whatsoever. Just the word journalism makes me shudder these days. It’s damn ugly. I blame it largely on the j, but the entire combination of vowels and consonants produces a clumsy, clumping, thudding sound. Journalism. You’ll notice every time you say it now.

Hemingway also said, ‘Newspaper work will not harm a young writer and could help him if he gets out of it in time.’ I’ve never been a full time newspaper writer, so I can’t comment with authority. My hunch, though, is that he’s right. Learning the trade on a paper is good. I fear, though, that radio – for all its many strengths – is not good practice if you want to write properly. Pompous, again. Well, sod it: I mean it. Write properly. Don’t get angry. Admit it yourselves. An editor, a successful editor, said to me a year and a half ago that in his experience radio journalists always struggle the most to write good books. ‘They’ve lost the art of writing a decent sentence, and sometimes they can never rekindle or discover that skill.’ I can vouch for that. Learning to write has been an entire experience. It hasn’t simply been about researching the right material, and being disciplined. I’ve done masses of research and have buckets of discipline. But the writing – the actual writing – has been an act in daily, hourly, minute-by-minute therapy. Deconstructing the mind, the way I was trained by the Beeb to look at the world. Pulling all that stuff out, burning it, and then daring to experience the freedom of my own thoughts and responses and trying to write them as I observe them. I look back on my life as a reporter and news-programme-maker and it is as if I am looking back on a life in a mental institution which began with lobotomy and was followed up with a lot of drugs and regular doses of electro-convulsive therapy. No wonder I’m going a little grey. (The ones who don’t look grey – the journalists you see on telly who are chubby and smiling and merry – they’re the ones who deserve to be doing the job, so have no sympathy).

I end with a thought on cunts. A friend, M, sent me an email, in response to one I’d sent him, in which he informed me, ‘… actually I think there’s a Face Book group that is dedicated to reclaiming the word cunt. I’m not sure for what purpose though…’. I had said, you see, that I’m trying to reclaim the word cunt after an inspiring conversation 18 months ago with a woman who was shocked by my dislike of the word. I’ve even been taught the Afrikaans for cunt, and it’s unfortunate I forgot it so quickly. There’s a good piece on all this by Jenny Diski in the LRB, a review she wrote a few years back. (She has another review in this current edition of the LRB about ugliness which is also very good).

the son of Africa

“I was inspired to get involved in politics by the struggle against bigotry and discrimination under apartheid in South Africa. It was that commitment to social justice and equality that inspired me to join the Labour Party, to run for Parliament, and to work for Labour in government…”

“…I also believe in a society based upon the principles of mutual co-operation and mutual aid, not one reliant on personal greed in which affluent elites grow still more powerful and rich, whilst the weakest go to the wall, hence our socialist commitment to spreading wealth and ownership more evenly and our belief in high quality public services which we must all be prepared to fund through fair taxation. And also our policies for combating world poverty through record levels of international development assistance and providing debt relief for the poorest countries.”


He’s left. At last.