Five Things I Understand

I’m getting to that age where I start conversations with the phrase, ‘Let me tell you something…’. This is usually accompanied by a raised index finger.

Here are five things I’ve come to understand in life.

Beryl Cook - I don't know the name of the painting. Please help.

Beryl Cook – I don’t know the name of the painting. Please help.

  1. Parties get better if you stay until the end. People loosen up, get drunker, get tired: they fray around the edges. Their defences crumble; their vulnerabilities increase. They may look worse, they may even behave worse, but the party will become more interesting. If you can, come late to parties and stay late at them. You’ll have more fun than if you do the reverse.
  2. From laughter comes crying, says an old Yiddish saying. Parents know this rule well. A shrieking, giggling child will soon fall off a step, bump its head or be mortally insulted by something – and then start weeping. Adults are no different.
  3. The rate at which you drink almost always exceeds your conscious awareness of your sobriety.
  4. It’s monstrously easy to boast on Facebook, but, despite their claims otherwise, people don’t like it. There is a solution to this problem. Form a secret FB syndicate. You each boast about someone else’s success. It’s perfectly acceptable, even highly praised, to compliment someone else. The same information will be entering the world, but you will not be despised for it.
  5. Everybody is a little bit kinky. They may not have done it. But they’ve thought, fantasised, heard, seen or read something that is weird and titillating to them. If you stay late at parties, you may find out what that is.

In addition, here are five things I don’t understand and another five things I don’t understand.

How the Japanese penal system can help writers

In Japan, confession is king, claims the book People who Eat Darkness. It’s the fascinating and traumatic story of Lucie Blackman’s murder in Tokyo about fifteen years ago. The book is also about lots of other things: hostessing, sadomasochistic hobby clubs, the Japanese penal system. japanese animeUnfortunately (for you), I’m planning to write about the Japanese penal system, and not the S&M hobby clubs or the hostessing. You’ll have to read the book for that, or look at this link about ‘exotic’ nightspots in Tokyo.

Supposedly, physical evidence is secondary to motive or confession in Japan. Richard Lloyd Parry, the author of this true crime book, says: “The who, what, where, and when are not enough: a Japanese judge demands to know why. A detective, then, is obliged to get inside his suspect’s skull. If he fails to do that, he is not considered to have done his job.” (Interestingly, most suspects in Japan, whether guilty or innocent, eventually confess.)

The emphasis on confession intrigued me because there’s a lesson there for writers. One can spend so much time mulling over the nuts and bolts of the plot, moving a character from point A to point B, deciding what happens in a scene, that one sometimes forgets about the overriding motives of the characters.

Motives are more difficult than one thinks, because most of the time people do things that make little sense either to themselves or to others. One thing I found useful about psychology (beyond the parties, alcohol and drugs: yeah, yeah, I wish) was how to write a psychodyanmic formulation: why a person has a particular problem at a particular time. You would try and link the current behaviour to the person’s history (defences, traumas, early attachments). It was like doing a massive person puzzle.

The bottom line is that we need to get more confessions from our characters before we write about them. Full confessions. Or we’ll lock them in a dungeon until they talk.

Should whites be silent?


Should whites be silent?

Greg Fried responds to Jon Hodgson’s call for stillness and gratitude from that minority in relation to the Rhodes Must Fall campaign

Hodgson’s dead end

Stillness and gratitude: this is the right stance for white South Africans, according to Jon Hodgson (‘Whites, talk less – listen more’). Writing about UCT’s statue of Rhodes, he says that ‘my voice and the voices of other white people should not matter on this issue’ and that ‘white voices shouldn’t speak up in this process, other than to thank Rhodes Must Fall’. The Rhodes statue is now off the UCT campus, but Hodgson’s position is clearly meant to go beyond this single case. His approach continues to warrant attention because it might well be wheeled out, by him or others, on many future occasions.

If you are going to urge millions of your fellow citizens to be silent on some important issue – political, philosophical, cultural or otherwise – then you need a powerful argument. So what are Hodgson’s reasons for telling whites to shush? I can find three:

1. Ignorance. White South Africans ‘can never truly empathise with the profound violence exerted on the psyche of black students’.

2. Prejudice. White people have displayed their bias by making many racist comments about the Rhodes affair on social media.

3. Dominance: ‘transformation entails white people “filling up” less space and black people “taking up” more’.

None of these reasons is strong.

 Read the rest of the article on Politicsweb.

Five (more) things I don’t understand

1. In Cape Town, why do plays always receive a standing ovation? This often happens with musical tributes as well. For example, there’s no way a Cape Town audience won’t stand up and endlessly clap after a show that featured music of the 80s or Elton John.

2. If you’re at a restaurant with someone, it’s fine, almost cute, for both of you to be engrossed in books, but not to be on your phones. Why? Are some alternate realities better than others?

3. Why do chain toy shops employ the most bored-looking employees and play the loudest and worst in-store music?

4. Why is it so terrible to pirate a book, but admirable to go to a library? Presumably, in both cases, one copy of the book has been legitimately purchased.  date night

5. Date night. Why must you go on a date with someone who lives in your house? Like a real date, if it’s going badly, can you get your best friend to fake call you with an ’emergency’? Can you then leave your ‘date’ stranded, or is he destined to follow you home for sex?

Here are five previous things I never understood.

My interview with Jani Allan

I interviewed Jani Allan on the Good Books Appreciation Society (GBAS)* about her new book, Jani Confidential. It was an asynchronous interview: I posted some questions and she answered a few jani confidentialdays later.

Me: Your memoir opens with a paragraph about your mother. ‘My moon is in Capricorn. Astrologers will tell you that this signifies a plate-glass cold maternal figure, distant and given to withholding praise and affection.
So it was with Janet Sophia.’

She is clearly at the centre of your identity. You say later that she never adored you in the way you ‘wanted to be adored’. This taught you how to survive – but if she had adored you more, might you have desired adoration less?

JA: OK. Firstly I apologise for not making the live chat. I am going to answer Lisa’s thoughtful questions now – late Thursday afternoon on the East Coast (or the right coast as Bill Maher calls it.) Question 1. My mother never adored me….I think when one is young one wishes to be adored. In the teenage years one continues to want to be adored. When one is more grown-up one is keen on validation, respect and reassurance. At least that is my view. I don’t want to be adored. I would, however, deeply – indeed it is my fervent wish – that people would not turn me into a cartoon character. Before I started answering this I happened upon a post which said my memoir was ‘an act of desperation.’ That kind of slut-shaming/sexist/deeply spiteful/lacking in any kind of compassion comment is not helpful to women. If a man wrote a memoir would it be called ‘an act of desperation?”

Me: Like any life, yours has been filled with glorious peaks and terrifying troughs, but your peaks and troughs seem greater than most. What’s worse – the peak or the trough? Give it a moment’s thought, because I don’t think it’s self-evidently true that peaks are better than troughs. I detect in you a fighting spirit that would make you better able to deal with a trough, and a mistrust of people that would make peaks feel unstable. Am I right? (No one word answers please.)

JA: Peaks or troughs – which are more difficult? You are very intuitive Lisa. Yes, the peaks are unnerving. Having just returned from a grueling author tour in which I was so very amazed by the wonderful, warm reception from most, I returned to my little apartment in Lambertville and I don’t know if I am Arthur or Boksburg. I don’t know who I am or where I am. I have grown accustomed to a life that is largely without raisins in the rice-pudding, so that during the ten days that I was doing book-signings, television, fund-raisers and speeches I felt as though it were an extravagant dream from which I would rudely awake. It still feels like a dream. Only the gorgeous pottery bowl given to me by my publisher Bridget Impey serves as some tangible evidence that I was even in South Africa.

Me: The image on the front cover of a heavily made-up woman with her lips slightly parted, teeth showing, is both mesmerising and a little scary. Do you think that is how people have experienced you, particularly during the height of your fame in the mid-eighties?

JA: The image on the cover of the book. This image has been both a blessing and a curse. It was chosen by Lesley Sellers, who designed the once-glorious Sunday Times, as my ‘brand.’ In a way, its a kind of meme. It is intimidating – Goth – as someone pointed out – and has a kind of Andy Warhol feel to it. (Apparently a press kit with this image is in the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh – or so I read on Facebook) I think people were intimidated by me. But I was never that image….that was the carapace, the shield. Marianne Thamm wrote a very insightful piece in the Daily Maverick in which she spoke about me being the brittle ‘fall girl.’ The image was part of the package that the Sunday Times ‘sold.’ That the package contained a real, live, thinking, feeling human being got lost along the way. Jacana used the image because to certain sections of the populace, it was instantly recognizable.

Me: At the beginning of the chapter which tells the reader about your first meeting with Eugène Terre’Blanche, you say: ‘Yes, I am wry and sassy, but also not so much. In my heart I am still searching.’ What are you still searching for?

JA: What am I still searching for? I came back from SA to find that my best friend had cleaned my apartment and tidied it and I am still searching for my contact lens cleaner! (True. He did. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry so I did a bit of both.) More seriously, the older I get the more important authenticity is. Serenity.I read somewhere that the worst thing for a writer is to have a book published, that having a published book will leave holes in your heart….I can’t remember the quote exactly but the gist was that being published won’t heal your existential angst. Neither will being thinner (I know!) or being in a relationship. I am not searching for something outside of myself – although a set of new tyres on my little yellow VW would be nice. Rather I am trying to find an inner peace in which I know that I am good enough for God, so I should be good enough for me. I want to be myself but with better press. LOL.

Me:  ET is a compelling character, you have to admit. You’re very funny about him. He cooks meat on the radiator of his pick-up truck. ‘Am I now a man?’ he growls when his truck breaks down and he one-handedly lifts it from the mud. It’s funny, but he’s also a manly guy. You’ve got a bit of a father fixation, as you say in your book. Surely then ET must have had some kind of sex appeal for you? (We don’t necessarily like the people we desire.)

JA: ET’s desirability. Another incisive observation – we don’t necessarily like the people we desire. I am a Virgo and therefore my tastes are rather more fastidious. Back in the day I would break up with a man because he wore the wrong tie. If you knew me even remotely….LOL. In America the girls say ”I can’t even….” which is, I suppose a variation of ‘I could care less.’ The telegram version of the saga is that I was sent on assignment. Got the story. Interesting that not many people have brought up the gay aspect….Mariechen Waldner (Rapport) wrote extensivesly about ET being gay. Just saying…I was vaultingly ambitious. C’est tout. My marvellous editor Alison Lowry paid me the greatest compliment – or perhaps she even said it at the book launch. It was something to the effect that the story wasn’t even why you would read the book….Thank you Aquila Lowry. That will rank as a validating statement.

Me: Linda Shaw. You’ve had rough experiences with friends: terrible betrayals. Do you think you’re better at reading people now? Can you tell the jerks from the non-jerks?

JA: Reading people. I wasn’t any good at reading people. When I heard that Linda Shaw was going to testify that she had seen such and such – please, please don’t repeat this again and again – it is so painful and so very, very boring some 27 years later – when she claimed to have seen what she claims she did – I was gobsmacked. I had no idea that she hated me that much. The entire courtcase hinged on her evidence. What an irony, that I would be forever – or the last time I looked for 27 years – associated – tainted, damned, even, with that image when she knew that I disliked sex? Yes, p***poor judge of character in the past. These days I have my Poms to guide me. If they don’t like someone red flags go up.

Me: Let’s talk a bit about writing a memoir. There are two obvious difficulties with memoir: backlash from others, and memory. Let’s start with the first problem. You mention a lot of people and what you say about them isn’t always positive – for example: Tertius Myburgh (‘Smiling Death’, ex-editor of the Sunday Times), Marlene Burger (ex deputy editor of ST), Linda Shaw (‘Yoo ho. Come in!’ she calls happily. ‘I’ve got a Yid in my bed.’ I put my head around the door. Linda is wrapped about the Israeli like a damp rag around a pot-bellied stove.’), some ex boyfriends, George Carmen (barrister), Tony Factor etc. Have you had any kind of backlash?

JA: Memoir writing backlash. I am compelled to say that I am somewhat bemused by this question. Tertius’s nickname WAS Smiling Death….If one self-censors oneself not a word would find its way to a page. I leave it to Webber Wentzel to decide whether the descriptions are actionable.

Me: Memory is notoriously unreliable. How reliable is your memoir?

JA: How reliable is this memoir? As reliable as any other memoir. Surely even the act of selecting a memory about which one wishes to write is not reliable or impartial? The court records were bought for me by Taki Theodoracopoulos. Those are not in dispute, I trust. I am not sure what the subtext of this question is. Very happy to engage with anyone. Back in the States now and you can contact me at will. (The name of the first Zulu to be killed at Rourke’s Drift. Remember Michael Caine saying ‘Fire at will.” Sorry. Couldn’t resist! Thanks for asking me and showing interest.

Me: Thanks for answering the questions honestly Jani Allan. As you say Fiona, there wasn’t a subtext to question 8. Any memoir is about the author’s perceptions of various events. And I think we read them, partly, to prevent a cartoon-like impression of a person. Memoirs colour in the spaces between the outlines. They create nuance, ambiguity, complexity: all the things that make people real. Certainly, Jani, your memoir did that for me.

* To join the GBAS, a fascinating online reading group that includes frequent interviews with authors, you can email