It shouldn’t be embarrassing but it is


  1. Introducing someone as your husband or wife. It’s like saying, ‘Here is someone I often have sex with’. Or if not often, then at least now and then. Introducing someone as your boyfriend or girlfriend is even worse. And describing someone as your lover is the gold standard of embarrassment. Fortunately, no one says that, at least not in South Africa.


  1. When someone tells you they are ‘trying to have a baby’. I don’t know where to look. I have a friend who likes to reply, ‘Don’t let me get in your way’.


  1. Walking past a group of teenagers. Well, that’s more humiliating than embarrassing.


  1. People posing for photographs intended for social media, i.e. just

    about every photograph nowadays. It was one thing taking a happy snap for the family album that’s opened on rare occasions – it is quite another being a mini-broadcaster with an audience of at least 300. Viewers of pictures taken for social media know immediately how you want to be perceived: sexy, ironic with great breasts, blissfully bonded. (I’ve been watching people photograph themselves endlessly on Camp Bay beach over the past few days.)


  1. Buying a particularly big packet of toilet paper because it’s on special. I know, everybody goes to the bathroom. But there’s something about walking through a shopping centre with a huge and unwieldy rectangular package of Twinsavers that makes people think all you do is sit on the toilet.


  1. Being in a tour group. I don’t actually know whether this is embarrassing, but I have a sense it is when I see these big groups of chattering tourists with a tour leader in the front holding up a sign.

Ten Reasons I Know I’m Getting Old

  • I’m ten times, make that a hundred times, more likely to wake up, wired, at four am than go to bed, knackered, at four am.
  • Everything that happens, not only in my personal life but also in
    old age

    Poster for Picasso exhibition, Boca Museum of Art

    international affairs, seems to have happened before, even though people run around screaming that this is totally new, whatever it is. Okay, maybe ‘casual orgasms’ (over clothes) among groups of women at a sex-positive sleepover is something of a new thing, at least to me, though for all I know it was old hat in Ancient Rome.

  • I’ve never caught an Uber. I don’t have an Uber story about an inappropriate and / or excessively dangerous Uber driver to tell at a dinner party.
  • I can’t get on board the latest hip intellectual theories. Privilege theory, or race theory, or whatever it is called is just as much of a trend as post-modernism was before it, and Marxism before that. Theories come and go. They frequently gloss over more than they explain; they disregard or flatten individual circumstances and experiences in an attempt to explain it all. Anyway, if we’re going to talk about privilege, then one obvious way to be privileged is to be a human being, because you stand very little chance of being raised in a tiny crate and enthusiastically gulped down by other creatures, unlike, say, a pig.
  • I like a good sit-down.
  • The people in my gym class are much more likely to discuss a frozen shoulder than their record-breaking half-marathon time.
  • I don’t do self-destructing social media apps – and we all know why that content self-destructs! – like Snapchat. I do Facebook, the home of brags and humble-brags, kittens and babies, and political conspiracy theories.
  • I’ve never been on a Tinder date. I have to admit that I did do some online dating on Yid (Your Ideal Date) – I think it was the only site available in Cape Town – in the late 1990s. All I remember about the one man I met was that we had long and earnest discussion about his poodle, which I never met.
  • Past boyfriends have collapsed into a kind of mulch. Who did I stand outside screaming at in the rain?  Who was it exactly that I vomited on? Why did it matter so much?
  • I fear the young.



Five things I don’t understand

  1. Those stick figure stickers on the back of car windows that are meant to represent one’s family: family stickerdon’t those people have death anxiety? What will happen when one of them dies? Will they just peel off a figure and leave a gap? If the sticker is at one end of the row, peeling it off won’t be obtrusive, but what if it’s in the middle? And if the figure does stay there, won’t it be a tragic reminder every time they get in the car?
  1. Why I could hula-hoop perfectly for hours when I was ten and I can’t do it for ten seconds anymore.
  1. When the kids are acting up in the car, Greg puts a music CD on. He says it sucks up their screaming. How can more noise make less noise?
  1. Why some men give their penises names. What’s that all about? I once had a boyfriend who called his penis ‘Justice’. Perhaps it was ‘Justus’ – I never asked for the spelling. But if I named a body part, I would keep it to myself.
  1. The TV show Deadwood. I couldn’t understand the dialogue at all. Finally I turned on the subtitles, and lucky for me I did: the show was Shakespearian in its language and scope. For the most memorable blow job scene ever, watch this scene:

I seemed to have started off with death and ended up with sex. Unsurprising, I guess.

Memoir writing and mental illness

One of the things I do, besides setting up rigorous social experiments on Facebook involving lemon meringue pie and oral sex, is tutor a memoir-writing course. Here are a few things I’ve noted over the years:

  1. Many people who want to write memoirs are keen to write about their mental health issues. These often involve a combination of bipolar disorder, depression and addiction.
  1. These kinds of stories tend to get shoehorned into a narrow channel: that of illness followed by redemption. I understand why this is the case, but I’m sceptical about whether this is the truth. Of course, it’s a problem of plot. If there’s no redemption, where’s the story? (Plot is frequently tricky when it comes to memoir, perhaps more than with fiction.)
  1. It’s difficult to write about mental health issues. One of the reasons for this is that often very little is happening in the external world, because people have turned inward when the way they are experiencing the world is both painful and distorted.

Somehow, the memoir needs to find a balance between events in the external world and the person’s thoughts and feelings about them. Too much interiority, if that’s the right word, and the reader’s mind begins to wander. Boredom sets in. Too much external event, and you get an unstructured  story of this happened and then that happened and then that and that. My children tell me these kinds of stories all the time. Sometimes they just peter out into nothing.

  1. Some of the best creative non-fiction I’ve read is mostly metaphorical (it also involves sex and drugs). But back to the metaphors for a moment. It appears to be about very little – say a person getting lost in a city, because they’ve taken a lot of drugs – but is really about how we lose ourselves with strange obsessions, fall down rabbit holes, and find it difficult to come out again. In other words, it’s writing that is occurring on two levels: the overt and the covert. It’s actually got four cross-cutting levels: overt, covert, interiority, exteriority. Getting that balance right is a big challenge of memoir, particularly when you’re writing about mental health.

Sneeze = Ejaculation

On the weekend I was out with some friends. One of them – apropos what, I don’t remember – said that an ejaculation was like somebody sneezing on your body, and who would want that?  She had a point: from a certain perspective, an ejaculation is like a sneeze. Although – and I know this is sneezing man2overly pedantic – it seldom occurs on your body. It’s more like somebody sneezing into a body part, which is gross.

From there, the conversation meandered down the well-worn tracks of love and lust: not worth it, naturally, if an ejaculation is a sneeze. But anything can be reduced to its lowest common denominator: 8/16 = ½; ejaculation = sneeze. When you keep reducing things down – lust to muscle spasm – the world feels very colourless, and who wants to live in a colourless world?

Novelists (and psychologists) like to work the other way around:  an apparently small thing is turned into a big thing. A joke is not a joke but an attempt to dominate. A dream about driving through the countryside is about your mother or your father or your murderous intentions towards your sister. When you can make a squash game last about 20 pages, like Ian McEwan in Saturday, you know you can make a small thing into a big thing.

Sometimes we regard big things as small in order not to notice them properly. Look at a steak wrapped in plastic on the shelf of a shop. The apparent triviality of a wrapped steak serves us well. Nobody likes thinking about what it means: the life behind it, the industrial processes from birth to butchery, the way we use our power over animals. When big things are made to seem small, we lose the details, and that is just what we might want.

An amazed optometrist once said to Greg, while recording his responses to an eye test, ‘You know, you prefer seeing worse!’ Apparently, the tests revealed that Greg should have been seeing better. The guy shouldn’t have been so surprised.

Pointing my toes

Adult ballet, as it turns out, is very different from the children’s variety. The teacher was young, polite and endlessly encouraging. She explained patiently; she corrected nobody. For the physically uncoordinated, there is nothing worse than having a limb tweaked in public, or hearing a rapid-fire  instruction about where to place various body parts. Even when Greg swanned across the room with his arm extended Heil Hitler style – it  was meant to be on his hip – she  said nothing. baryshnikov2

I was glad to be herded so pleasantly, since I was having to deal with some childhood trauma: the duck costume. My mother had been told to use orange feathers, but no way was she redoing the yellow costume, so at the end-of-year concert I became a yellow-feathered duck in a sea of orange. Miss Suckling, elderly, terrifying, with tapping wooden stick, took revenge by saying  in my report that I was incapable of ‘pointing the toe’ – surely the essence of ballet? – and that years of hard work would be unlikely to remediate this condition. I still pass her large Kenilworth house with the wooden floors and winding staircase (to god knows where) with a shiver.

When children take up a sport or other activity, they are frequently treated badly. Either they are useless (in my case, with ballet) and are shamed for ineptitude by their teacher and classmates, or they have real potential and are hot-housed, put in increasingly stressful and competitive environments that frequently kill their enjoyment. Hot-housing doesn’t happen with adults. Strangely, there is something a little sad about this. Adults are no longer pressured because they have no golden future ahead of them.

Afterwards Greg said I shouldn’t have laughed at him. I have to admit that I collapsed after the Heil Hitler manoeuvre. But I was inspired by the expressions of the other men there, about five out of a class of thirty, who wore their ballet shoes with pride. I imagined them as little boys, being told they couldn’t dance because they weren’t girls. At that moment it felt good to be grown-up. And you know what, I can point my toe!

Top tip:

Let’s say you don’t have ballet pumps and have to wear socks. Then use single-colour socks. As it turns out, multi-coloured socks may be cheery at home but they look strange when you’re  bounding across a ballet studio. The wall-to-wall mirror is not your friend.

Just Cruising

We’re 20 000 words into the new manuscript. Cruising speed. You know that moment when the plane has ground its way upwards, tipped frantically to one side before finally levelling out. The lights go back on. One breathes a sigh of relief. Sounds of industry emerge from the galley. Finally – air-borne.

Of course I don’t know where we’re heading and that is surely different from flying somewhere. A ghost has swirled up our main character’s backside, but that probably won’t stay (not if I have anything to do with it), although maybe it will. I think that’s a fine entry point for any ghost, though not a journey I would want to make.

Nor do I even know what the whole thing is about. That sort of discovery takes time to emerge. Some people start with an image or a sentence or even a fully-plotted book. We tend to begin with a feeling or perhaps more accurately, a tension: we want to explore a certain kind of emotional experience.

We’re bound to hit turbulence. When I hit turbulence on a plane – I’m a jittery flyer – I like to imagine I’m on the sea and the air pockets are waves. After a while it almost begins to feel relatively rhythmic. With writing, you hit pockets all the time.  You’re moving along and then – boof! – you fall into a pocket of despair and wonder what the hell you’re doing. At this point, it’s an advantage to have two people writing, because one of you will just carry on moving. As long as you carry on moving, you have to go somewhere, and generally that’s towards clearer skies.

At the end of a plane trip, you arrive in a different place. Sometimes you’ve never seen the place before and it’s not how you imagined it would be. It’s the same with a book. Who knows what we’ll find at the end of the journey but unlike planes, the journey itself can be a lot of fun.

Not to be confused with an STD

We’re obsessed with counting things: years, money, children, marks, calories. Up until thirty, increasing age seems, if not desirable, than at least acceptable. My idea – and just remember, you heard it here first – is that after thirty we should stop counting the years altogether. Let’s just call it STBD (not to be confused with an STD): Some Time Before Death. If you’re Jewish and neurotic, you could add W-CHAT! (Which Could Happen at Any Time!).

By the time you reach my age, 42, two adults (21 times 2), the whole birthday thing has become a little tired. Having said that, I was touched by all my birthday greetings yesterday, and I’m not sentimentally inclined. I don’t know what that means, except that I’m becoming soft, and that it’s odd to have all those people, some from 25 years ago and others you’ve never met before, nestling together on a FB page. For people who like to compartmentalise their life, Facebook must be a nightmare.

But I like the STBD idea – just think of the parties. When I turned thirty, I had a big, noisy bash and my father ate a tray of dagga cookies* and someone – actually, I know exactly who did it – bashed a hole in my wooden floor from an activity that he might have referred to as dancing. But by the time I turned forty, my ‘Day of the Dead’  party was tamer:  things had calmed down. Greg says he remembers being dragged to an altar by three women who blessed a glass of tequila and then forced him to drink it. But it’s an implausible story. And my night wasn’t like that. My thinking was: I had kids. I had to get up early in the morning. Sure, you can be a little bit wild at forty. There’s a last reckoning with youth but the whole party idea feels slightly more desperate than it did at thirty. STBD takes away that desperation – it’s an equaliser.

At the gym this morning I saw M (not his real name). From gym gossip, I know he discovered a uranium mine when a young man. (Now that I think about it, are uranium mines ‘discovered’? Do you just stumble across one while out walking one day?) Anyway, he has knobbly skinny white legs, but still wears shorts. He walks with purpose; he retired in his early fifties with more money than he could ever hope to spend.  I was doing a series of impressive (in my mind’s eye) boxing manoeuvres. He stopped, caught my eye and mocked my upper cuts. He’s 90. But maybe I should stop counting – maybe we all should.  Maybe he’s just STBD and he doesn’t need a number at all.

*They had no effect on him whatsoever.

Bad ATM, Good ATM*

At the Dean Street Arcade today a man who looked a tiny bit like Richard E Grant in Withnail and I came to blows with an ATM machine. I arrived at the high point in the drama: the withnailmachine had just swallowed his card like a whale ingesting a lone sardine. He immediately phoned his bank, Investec. It turned out, naturally, that they could not remove the card from the machine. (I don’t know what he was expecting. Some kind of SWAT team to descend through the roof with a special card-extracting instrument?)

‘But I need to go shopping,’ he raged. And then: ‘Fuck that,’ before turning to me and apologising, ‘I’m sorry, I wasn’t talking to you.’ He didn’t sound sorry.

‘I know.’ After years of psychology training, I added, ‘You’re feeling very frustrated.’ Carl Rogers’ person-centred therapy approach was wrong; my remark did nothing to calm him down.

Maybe a psychodynamic approach would have worked better. While his drama was unfolding with the poor hapless Investec employee on the telephone, I had successfully used the machine. The ATM had bestowed its beneficence on me while depriving him. Maybe I should have asked whether he had any sibling rivalry issues, whether his mother had perhaps not given him the good stuff. Did she breastfeed you, I was tempted to murmur. But these things are so difficult to get right. As I left, he started hitting the machine with real gusto. A security guard stood nearby watching morosely, wondering – I’m sure – what to do next. It was not a good Southern Suburbs scene, or perhaps it was a perfect Southern Suburbs scene.

The problem with inanimate objects is that they respond neither to reasoning nor violence. If anything, they often need to be treated with tenderness, and a kind of mechanical empathy. Pounding a machine seldom brings it into line. Unlike humans, machines also don’t get fitter. If you keep using an inanimate object, it eventually breaks. If you keep using a muscle, it gets stronger (at least for a while). But yet we continue, at some level, to believe that machines have a kind of consciousness.

Are we so self-centred that we think even machines must be like us?

*Apologies to Melanie Klein