FIFTY-FIVE DAYS IN JOHANNESBURG
‘TAKE A PIECE OF AFRICA HOME WITH YOU’
walking across the Nelson Mandela bridge (which on some maps exists only as a dotted future project awaiting completion) the city divides before you, hundreds of goods trains or stationary and empty passenger trains in a stagnant river between the two heights of Braamfontein and the CBD. Each one is crowned with skyscrapers, rust and mirrored glass, buildings imitating quartz, basaltic outcrops either side of a fault that shouldn’t (geo)logically have produced these forms, if the mineral in question hadn’t been gold. A mineral whose major property apart from its laughably ironic incorruptibility, is that it builds baser metals into towers in its honour. Neither formation from this vantage point seems higher or more prestigious than the other. A tempting differentiation is that the Braamfontein skyscrapers edge into Hillbrow which everybody knows is a ‘no-go area’’. But the CBD has at various times been described thus – and famously all the Businesses which gave rise to its acronym moved north to safer (whiter) Sandton. But still, there’s a sense in which these two hills of towers, overlooking each other and the valley of railway lines, do oppose or (stand in for the) exemplify the different sides…. of S.A.
In the way that the architecture in east and west Berlin started out the same, the Wall bounding change or relative preservation on either side, here it is tempting to look for the remains of a similar division, the evidence of continuing separation in a city that never built its Wall of bricks and so has not been so easily able to demolish it.
Walls do exist of course (I write behind one – this Ballad of Parktown West); the razor wire, the security guards exist. The suburbs of s. M . P (NoWeTo) etc are a vast compound of walls and gates and CCTV dream-homes. And apparently the inhabitants are not exclusively white. These walls protect therefore a class, and the occasional black homeowner enters it; the gardens however are maintained by the same gardener. And it is often still Vera who cleans and dusts and if you come to some arrangement will do the washing and ironing too.
Across the Mandela bridge and straight on into Newtown and through to where things peter out at a deserted bus station, a desultory market improvised for want of buses on this Saturday afternoon. After this there’s just a vast interchange and signs to Roodespoort, and Sandton/Pretoria…
So back through streets
(When I write in italics it means I am no longer the only white person in my… sight, or recollections, – you dear reader, being of necessity invisible to me are gratefully (naturally) (subsumed) assumed into the majority – black.)
Someone told me (something I’d already heard) about the tragic-comic falsity of the census under apartheid (and how therefore there was no public transport system as there was no public that counted or was counted) and I reminded them of what I’d heard about the ‘non-existence’ of certain towns (and ships) – renamed to make them seem small or villagey.
To the question you may put to me of the suitability of distinguishing… in racial terms
1 these terms are so loose as to be meaningless
2 I didn’t make up the terms
3 you get used to it Rosa, – it’ll become second nature
And 4 will be revealed at the very end of the book
(I’d rather spend the five hours I’d spent before writing this, as the only (noticeably the only) non – black person in the vicinity (apart from those in cars) than spend again any five minutes of the hours I spent with ‘educated’ white South Africans drinking and talking not about things themselves exactly but in a manner that made me cringe.
And anyway you’re talking like a white person – as though it made any difference to you.
The ‘Oh’ bar
The walk – the lights leading the way, security lights flash on as you step into their territory, and then on leaving it, darkness and as the retina relinquishes that torch and finds the true night, another sensor is alerted, alternately blinding and leading our way down 3rd Avenue, Melville.
The down cast eyes the unremitting avoidance of upwards uppity looking, when (you want to make it clear that you don’t look down on anyone) they don’t know I’m not looking down on them
How did Lucky lose her pocket watch?
The Mandela Bridge which unites these two hills (which you cannot help feel were divided by welsh miners digging the rift between them (welsh miners revolt crushed year dot dot dot…)) is the newer counterpart to the queen Elizabeth Bridge a little further to the east. Bridges are only built, are one of the few things in the built environment that can survive as pure symbol, function as mere metaphor and yet materially change society. More even than houses, bridges are the Ur infrastructure. Home is entirely abstract, cf yurt and don’t get me started on land.
Who owns these bridges – why – in a real and continuing sense Mr Mandela and HRH Queen Elizabeth. The power of naming, like the power of mimesis starts and ends with the wall, from cave wall to Berlin Wall (to Security Fence). The Mandela Bridge names our salvation.
The art gallery
Down Main Reef road, down the hill from CBD, walking towards Fordsburg, the broken pavements erupt with streams; running clear from the red earth the city ….is built on. Dust under the city. Witwatersrand proves itself accurate and it moves one to see the life return from underground even as death is so busy above it. (I know the truth).
The cicadas are chiming and crickets striating and as a rare car goes past this leafy compound, my laptop is propped up on a copy of Chekhov’s letters.
Walked today to Rosebank amongst other places, in a gathering storm, which never came. Just up the hill from Parktown, Jan Smuts bends before taking a steep and unexpected descent and a view is presented as though yes that coulod be the whole of Africa out there – not exactly in terms of visible distance but of potential. You look back and the uniform suburbs of this unequal city admit no disobedience diversion (deviation) from their walled paradises. Ahead these endless paradisiacal suburbs limn (and mock) the infinite skies of Africa with banks and clouds of imported jacaranda.
You walk along Jan Smuts, past walls spilling mulberries and campsis, bougainvillea and jasmine, while the scent of lemons and gardenia drops from the heavy air. Even elms and poplars are willing to withstand this heat and dust just for the bite of that apple – the chance to grow/reside in such well-watered luxury.
But in this Eden there are no birds to eat them and mulberries fall into a mush at your feet, the one’s within reach of passers-by having been plucked by them, or just as likely the tree specifically pruned to just above the razorwire in order to withhold that traveller’s bounty.
I can only write unnaturally in this unnatural world.
The ‘Oh’ bar. 2
So the ginger Boer (talking to the Asian, a sane and sensible and aware man who’s discomfort I could understand talking to this I could respect) was desperate enough and I was other enough for him to (thinking of this and now at the same time the jacaranda) rub his groin and want to talk to me or at least follow me into the (jacaranda in the midst of a hailstorm lit by a street lamp, only part of the jacaranda but that lit part was still throughout all this storm and (as I walked through Fordsburg towards Mayfair) and as I walked across Mandela bridge under a grey sky I looked away from the city to the south west and I saw Llandough and the town(ships) of Penarth and new that there was a way home .
That home under grey skies where I saw a Ferris wheel in a distance (which we never had) and an extent to humanity which I came from and rather than go back to would re-create
And the jacaranda was as still as the silence now as no distance exists between me and you… and glossolalia
All you who I have hurt all in short you who have hurt or not hurt me there is no greater pain than love and there is no greater comedy than irony
Chekhov if I could be your gardener – at Yalta or Melikhovo I would plant the trees – the right trees and sow seeds and not leave till very late
To clarify and obfuscate to love and to dissimulate – to drop the flowers or the keys throwing one loosing grip of the other clutching at soldiers
If you don’t care for the forest where are you/?
Now having broken your mobile phone I say to you Simon
What there is is more than what you’re looking for
The stillness of the jacaranda is
The jacaranda, now the storm is over is still again, but during the storm, the hail, the torment it was still too
Botanical note – the delicacy of jacaranda flowers on the one hand and the fact that they flower more or less without leaves – means the rain/hail would have had little chance of disturbing them – they flower like lace – but even so – the severity of the storm.
At night with the heat fading the wooden floor, furniture, beams etc shift and contract in fits that startle,
The red earth, the smell of it
No cicadas, no crickets not even the barking of distant dogs that night.
(The conversation about … and the Sahel and Magrheb and he not knowing that Ethiopia wasn’t part of that – the ig(norance) of white s.a’s difficult to talk about
The weight of the rocks, the density in one’s hand the weight of literature.
The sun, being just about vertical casts a shadow under the flowering shrubs of the exact extent of their fallen petals, so the shadows in the garden are alternatively dark red for bottlebrush, a dirty fading pink for bougainvillea and everywhere in its extensive light, almost non-shade, mentholated mauve for jacaranda.
Project – get official sanction somehow to …… (illegible) outside arrivals, A1 or A2, to sit and record
i.e. four black air stewards and pilots crossing the road, carrying bags and wheeling luggage, and white Afrikaner sits in car waiting reading sports pages, occasionally re-starting his car engine to avoid any charges of loitering (which will be strictly enforced) etc.
Sitting making notes – which is what I’ll be doing for quite some time. Remarking and recording as
First Phillip –
Standing outside Arrivals A1 waiting for B to pick me up. Waiting with my bags between my legs, straddling them, awkwardly relaxed – the awkwardness that is brought on by external, not internal constraints. Up comes Phillip – he asks how I am – get it right – how are things – and answers his own question as if I’d re-directed it to him (and he’d been considering it himself for some time) – things are tough, it can be. And gradually with no feeling of it being a line – just the tragedy that crops up in normal conversation, he tells me ruminatively (reflectively) about himself. The squatter camp, the young child, the difficulty of finding work. These phrases occur slowly in the course of our conversation (I’m mostly nodding and grunting assent).
He slumps sometimes and then suddenly raises his head and smiles at which I more vocally commiserate with the particular trial that has caused that slump, and echo his smile. No jobs (although he also says he’s self-employed – he meets people here at the airport). Difficult to find work, difficult to survive when everyone in Johannesburg ‘WANTS TO EAT ON THEIR OWN’ this phrase peppers his (interior?) Monologue? conversation and it doesn’t sink in until about the third or fourth time, many minutes later (B still not arrived) that he means people are selfish. ‘People don’t want to share their wealth’ I say. He rises from his distracted slump and smiles and shakes his head repeating ‘THEY WANT TO EAT ALONE’.
We’ve shaken hands twice already at what might have been points to close our meeting, but each time he re-iterates with a glance at someone new driving by, picking up or looking out for, ‘ the cars – the expensive big cars and this government is not doing all it should’. Things have not got better as quickly as we thought I say redundantly. He smiles (a middle tooth missing – a hole like the one in his dark grey synthetic knit jumper – that rings a distant bell) but he admires my jacket (not to make excuses but a cheap Muji sale one – half price and customised with my ‘invisible ‘ rivets). He says London jackets are good – it looks good he says. I think of giving it to him (but realise my mobile phone, my passport, my tickets and folds of exotic of paper from my journey – where would they all go – I see them fluttering around the arrivals pick-up point, getting caught in up draughts and swirling around with other rubbish. I stop myself giving him my jacket. And feel ashamed). He shows me his shoes that someone gave him – they are smart, clean, slightly too big (no socks) and a pale caramac brown. He washed them – he likes to be clean, to wear nice jumpers – he has a t-shirt with LONDON on it he says – London mustn’t be such a difficult place.
Cars come and go – too many cars in the city. Each one, if it has a young white man in it – he is thin with glasses and a baseball cap and therefore looks just like B. Some of these B look-alikes are in very expensive cars, which even though I know it’s unlikely I still have to scour the driver’s seat, search the reflective glare of windscreen and sunglasses for him. Phillip has slumped onto the empty concrete planter beside me – the earth in it has one solitary cigarette butt and it prompts me to consider offering him a cigarette, but he has a congested cough and so I suppose not. The money I give him – I hope discreetly as there are security guards all over the place, uniforms for every function – watching cars, carrying bags, arranging taxis, selling soft drinks as well as those whose remit impinges directly (on possible infringements of) upon law and order. But the note doesn’t seem to be enough and his gratitude is slightly tempered – have I not got any English coins? He gestures to his mouth and again – THEY WANT TO EAT ALONE – I realise now that coins would have been easier for him to spend but I truthfully don’t have any. Who would, just landed? And my English coins have long been stuffed mid-flight into an inaccessible region of my bag.
His ideas of a business venture – that I should come back from London with clothes and he should sell them – might be eminently workable if I had any head for business myself – he’s in no doubt it’s desirable to make money. But he wouldn’t buy such a big car.
Waiting at the Bag Factory for M, a man arrives. I don’t know who he might be – to find me sitting in the office – I introduce myself – hello, I’m Keran and go on to tell him that I’m the new artist in residence just arrived off a plane from London. He says – Hi – I’ve come to read the meter’.
A black ‘days of our lives’ is playing on TV – the same awkward pauses, the long silences after each question to stretch not the suspense but the script. And the repeated question followed by ‘I don’t know what you mean’ after each cutaway. Or is it actually ‘days of our lives’ – quite possibly. The screen is blocked by two pretty black girls talking about hair and things.
I look up from my coffee in this other ‘Bus Station’ home of the African Crafts Council and elaborate displays of … anything from beadwork, of course pots and embroidery to walking sticks which remind me of my father. I look up to the roof beams and see a sign which says ‘Herbert Morris, Loughborough, England 10 tons’ and am reminded here and as never before that Morris is a welsh name where I’d never thought of Morris Minor being anything to do with Wales, as in like Royce as in Rolls Royce, the second of whom clearly had welsh ancestry too. And Henry Lewis it was who first discovered gold in Witwatersrand. And they say in the books he was Australian.
And now one of the pretty girls alternately, loudly clip-clops and slides across the cafe’s wood laminate floor (in this re-decorated echoing bus garage) and shrieks with some other elegant friends at a far table.
Main Road. Reminds me of home – memories or mythopoeia of Tiger Bay where I was born and never lived but seem firmly to know – from films later or black and white photos (and an astonishing tall black man walking past me with pale blue eyes, down Bute Street to the docks) or Canton where my mum would take me into Peacocks to rummage through remnants in wooden trays built into wooden counters just too high for me to reach, (just see the piles of odd-shaped odd-coloured cloth spilling over), on sloping wooden floors where everything clatters. It certainly looks like pictures I’ve seen of Butetown that even before I’d ever heard of Jo’burg could recognise as a society being lost.
Not knowing one’s neighbours (only their dogs’ bark) and not knowing who exactly is living in the house and on what basis (none of my business) but whether they’ll be around all day and where exactly they sleep – rude to ask any of these questions but in prison pussy-footing around other inmates, waiting for the sound of doors closing to know whether anyone is up and visible or gone and the coast is clear. The heat is imprisoning too. And not having a car – and being a non-driver … see later
Finally – sitting in the sun/semi-shade, cool and with my top off – getting a little brown, everybody out of the house, preparing for full-on sunbathing by a pool (who knows when or ever – though offers have come in – everyone in Melville, Randburg and all of Noweto have pools).
But really almost the above – so
to my left – Iceberg roses, drooping with the bright weight of flowers – not with the heat, they are as cool as the two tiny clouds which scud – the only ones in the vast blue above (and almost as white as icebergs) and which disappear behind a tall hibiscus. But to the left again of the roses a bougainvillea (a darker crimson than the one immediately behind me which I can only see by craning my neck right round) climbs almost twenty feet up the ubiquitous jacaranda whose methylated flowers on strong but (lacily) crooked and otherwise bare branches form the canopy under which I will burn or toast depending how long I remain undisturbed.
Along the wall of the house in front of me, in the shade as we move right from the iceberg, an arm of the grapevine (which forms the sheltering roof over the terrace just hidden round the corner of the bungalow) makes a break and pulls itself across the first, tightly shut and curtained, of two front windows (each with a plastic looking, but painted corrugated metal if you tap it, canopy).
A grey brown bird like a heron flies overhead its neck/wing/no tail configuration looking as if it’s flying backwards, making a huge racket, and the grapevine having reached the furthest end of the painted-metal shade hangs down in more luxurious fronds to almost touch the ground where in two pots two succulents enjoy the morning’s habitual shade.
Between the two windows there is a dark door which would once have been the front door and which now gives the impression of being permanently locked. (This too has a plastic-looking awning) But the brick steps up to the … still suggests a welcome. A little to the right again of this locked door is a small grimy, coach-style lamp that looks never to have been lit although there is an electric wire going from it along the wall to enter the house and the electricity supply via the second window, which canopied also and open (bars inside) has a large …. tree immediately in front of it. From this window all you can see of the tree is its trunk, but from here I can see up above, casting more dappled shade above the roof, the yellow heavily scented flowers of….. Reflected in the open window is the blazing iceberg to my left and the bougainvillea rioting above it. In the unopened pane I can glimpse a few of the very lowest flowers of the…. (visible to me only because of my low angle) and the path to the front gate.
Above each of the windows and the door is a blackened ventilation brick. Hanging from the lowest branch of the … tree someone has attached a small terracotta pot from which almost to the ground hangs a desiccated Air plant – the same branch whose first flowers I can see reflected in the unopened window. The plant will flourish once again I presume with the return of winter rains (?). In the bed beneath this… tree, set into the brick paving that fronts the house almost to my feet, extending with the house’s shadow until the lawn which my toes are tousling, are impatiens – pink, but a paler violent pink than the unseen bougainvillea (which is the pattern of all pink). I think also as groundcover I can see violets, as yet or no longer in flower (South Africa seems to have its own season which I have not quite determined) species unknown. A jasmine attempts without support and therefore with no success to climb this Northwestern corner of the bungalow. And immediately in front big-leaved plants a little like bananas bend in the slight morning breeze.
In front of all this again and most notable is a small perennial (and to my knowledge the only native plant in the garden apart presumably from adventitious weeds) with virulent purple flowers, simply configured. This gives onto the path which is made of bleached concrete and runs diagonally from the terrace between a callistemon under-planted with agapanthus on its further side and a small delicate uncharacteristically undernourished-looking (uncharacteristic for the genus and the country??) sumach and then again on the other side a spiky lemon tree with all its lemons stuck inside its cage of branches, before on this side again a …. blocks my sight of the path’s final progress to the double-locked solid metal gate painted dark green.
Swivelling back, underneath the crimson bougainvillea and the iceberg and ultimately the jacaranda are some lilies (etiolated- not yet in flower) a white agapanthus (ditto the etiolation only) purple tradescantia, alstromeria (Peruvian lilies) of a dirtier crimson than the B., a shrimp flower and ….. illegible anomalously? A fuchsia magellanica. Before all this are the thick luxurious leaves of possibly pink bergenias. A yellow bird unaware of my presence fluttered to just where I was looking amongst the bergenias – trying to decide whether they were pink (most likely) or white – when finally startled at seeing me looking directly at it noisily and awkwardly flies away again.
I can see the other side of the path (beside and a little behind the callistemon) before the roses which form the further hidden part of the garden to the right of the house, a drift of scabious in the lawn. Nodding pale blue in what becomes a small English meadow against the shadowy margins of the tall hedge which forms the boundary with next door (who no-one’s ever seen). The unseen roses, the shade, the grass, the scabious (and the fragment of broken wooden trellis) turn that distant corner into a foreign field of a particularly English character. The not so peculiar taste of a transplanted South African homeowner. (Further characteristics of SA taste?)
But now the heat is rising and the icebergs are melting from it, not just their heavy headed blooms – they droop towards a smoking cigar bush beneath them, but nevertheless large white cumulus clouds are gathering in the North and will move south to block out the sun which shines directly above my forehead and on an axis with the dark bolted door in front of me.
Turned over now and laid on my stomach now, my back to any gathering cloud – (I’ll know it soon enough if the sun goes in) so now I have a very close and detailed view of the trunk of the lurid bougainvillea, which is climbing up a slightly variegated tree I’m not familiar with. Petals from the lurid bougainvillea are falling with those from the over-arching ever present (and protective?) giant jacaranda. As they fade the paper flowers live up to their pseudonym and look like last year’s Christmas concertinas and crepe decorations.
Also a bed of geraniums – simple pale lipstick pink geraniums – brings to mind the English suburb that this could not possibly be. And closer looking at the earth, the fallen petals, the sparse grass which nevertheless, where it grows, in tufts is lush, there are clovers and lucernes and a kind of tiny delicate daisy or composite at least. Each one scattered evenly between the others – a model superficially of integration or knowing one’s place, depending how you look at it. A beetle or something is presently integrating itself with my leg – I am letting it do so in a reciprocal spirit of tolerance or hope of it. The grass (or one kind) in fact grows from some large central (?) source, sending long thick ropes of surface roots spreading out, from which these shoots grow luxuriantly from it.
Under the dark copper prunus lusitanicus (look up the Portuguese in S.A.) a small dull coloured bird (with in compensation one long red striped tail feather) grooms itself while casting occasional glances back at me. It stands on short wooden post which perhaps before the prunus grew to obscure it, might have been a marker near the gateway for some other specimen. Now overgrown and safe from all eyes but those of a tourist on his stomach looking into the shadows for just such a thing. The bird flies off in slight alarm and so must I walk now – to the Bag Factory.
Sitting in bag factory waiting for M. – ice cream van goes past playing ‘Camptown Ladies … doo dah, doo dah’. And the solution to ‘Curtain Call’ comes (wrong – that solution came minutes before ice-cream van – but the ice-cream van can stand in for the street – the spectacle and the reward – and that is the solution.
The luxury and laziness of (most – but why differentiate?) white South Africans. It is really only through luxury that they…
And at pavement pasta place, Pritchard Street – well just off it in a real mock-up of a city-financial-disaster-district square – about to eat real cheap probably not that great pasta – but who knows? A mosque to my left, trees in big concrete containers – a cool breeze and the roar of the air-conditioning from a possibly empty multi-storey car park opposite disturbs the shade of the umbrellas that grow from each table. Polished grey granite – from where? – and an amalgam pavement add a corporate air, while next door ‘Tommy’s Pub’ has castle draught at only seven rand fifty – twenty seconds or so from the hustle, smells, of course life and the rows of women sitting in whatever shade having their hair elaborately braided. All this is just visible or intuitable between the planted trees and granitic civic walls.
Why I don’t want to go to Soweto – why should I – what is not real about where I am? As a tourist it would be interesting – historical – as a human being it would be (moving /sad/distressing/uplifting) but ultimately an indulgence, and as an artist it is irrelevant because it is everywhere we look. Here there and everywhere.
Sitting in the shadows under the freeway near Newtown, the double height freeway, the sound of lorries cars all going high, fast. Here broken wheeled trolleys pushed in the other direction.
No cicadas or crickets and only a few of the dogs barking in the distance last night.
Braamfontein shopping mall and a crowd of girls hanging around the entrance to Boston business College – like young girls everywhere noisy, swinging hips and bags on the spot to unheard music. The odd loner looking up from her feet with forced expectation. The guys toughing it out up the steps on the street outside the glass doors and the feeble air-conditioning. Then the strange-looking guy joins the girls – he’s the one beyond everyone’s fluttering eyelashes – his eccentrically cut beard emphasising his chin, his baseball cap with a deliberately unreadable slogan that could say anything.
The mixture of fake and real plants bewilders as the possibility of growing anything in this climate and the abundance of possible custodians foils the need for plastic trees.
He talks low and rough but slowly because he knows how strange and good-looking he is. He wears a t-shirt that says ‘Tattoos Rule’ and it occurs to you how? How would a tattoo look on his dark Mozambiquan skin? (And thinking that you realise he has a Portuguese prognathic chin). Then you remember the paler girl in the queue to the cash machine in front of you with a scorpion tattoo on her shoulder.
Writing is a little difficult because although (like Turkey etc.) this is a culture of looking and staring and an evaluating curiosity. I feel abashed (white) at staring and looking (and writing) so I must snatch glimpses and record within these gaps in looking. (And the danger always drummed into you – which may or may not exist and is certainly exaggerated but by its nature is unpredictable and so not conducive to just sitting and writing for any period of time.)
The waitress sits behind her counter at the ‘Coffee Break’ Brazilian coffee shop. She sits, her…
Gone to lessons as my omelette arrives and commotion as all the girls leave and back to business at the Boston Business Centre. Difficult to know always how not to caricature (not that I would – but it does look funny when a man walks into a shopping mall, striding down the steps wearing a chef’s pink hair net three sizes at least too big. Yes but now he’s a black man walking down those stairs (unaware necessarily of how funny he looks) is it any worse? Funnier? Different?
Well to offset that – here’s a story for you.
I went back into the I.H. Pentz second hand bookshop (behind me as I write) – to look for anything (more or less) on the native flora of South Africa – just to exclude some species from my list in the garden. I saw something there more suitable – or at least to use in conjunction with a botanical guide – ‘Gardening for the flower vase’ a how to book on…..
The boy who served me a few days ago would remember that I’d bought Milton’s Comus and Shorter Poems, so that’s alright – he’d think nothing of it. But as I near the cash desk a big quite hairy Boer farmer-type-made-good-in-the-city managing-a-second-hand-bookshop arrives and takes it from me. He reads the title aloud while writing it down in the ledger and stands too close to me as I hand him my money. He goes to get the change and on returning I say it’s alright I don’t need a bag and pull out my large Yemeni recycled but very old womanly shopping bag to confirm his peculiar impression of me. I had thought it might pass as a present for an old aunt (but really – do they still exist here? – I suspect they do). But all I can see are his hairy forearms because I don’t dare look up at his face.
The glass roof of the Braamfontein Centre, domed, or rather arched in a tube or nave of glass is clear, though scratched from hail and dust and within it we need further covering in the form of umbrellas.
An Australian called Henry Lewis first found gold in Witwatersrand I learnt today in the bookshop behind me where the bookhandler is looking at me in a leery way as though yeah exactly – that’s what I’m after.
I think people must take advantage of the dark recesses of second-hand bookshops to pick their noses (I know I do) and on second thoughts to pick up (to his certain knowledge clearly) usually around about the military section.
A very sexy stocky man coming down the stairs – tea brown hairless arms with Spanish Mexican hair and eyebrows.
That the sign on the Coffee Break wall says ‘open Mon – Fri 7 – 5pm’ with the seven in very small type suggests that 1 they’ve changed their minds about the opening times or 2 a bad sign writer, or 3 a shortage of the right size “7‘s.
The effete/bookish, pale/ugly boy/part-time student who is employed by farmer book buyer/Boer goes back and forth up and down the stairs bringing small boxes of books back to the shop. He could surely save a journey by piling up to on top of each other? They’re not that big and he’s not that weedy – but maybe – weighing it up the energy expanded is less.
(use of farmer problematic)
The red earth on the way to Barkleyweg – for days piled up – a trail therefore of ochre footprints forming a path from it downhill towards home. The day before yesterday I go past it (on the way up the hill, walking towards the on-coming traffic you walk in the road, avoiding the pile of earth, but on the way back down you tread along the edge of the kerb and the pile of red, taking the earth with you explaining why there is only one path from the red pile – downhill in the direction of the cars.
(A small woodpecker is attacking what sounds like a very hollow but looking up a very thin jacaranda branch. I sneeze in the bright sun and it continues after only a pause)
The day before yesterday I went past the workmen shovelling the red earth into a lorry. The driver asks me as I pass his window if I need any good earth – I say I am a visitor but it looks very good earth (and smelled good too after rain). I say I should take some back to London in a bag – he offers to get me one.
The dogs are all barking and a bird nearby decides to compete – sounding like a blackbird and veiling with a village innocence the vicious attack guard dogs, as though the stranger to the village was a stray ginger Tom or fox.
And yesterday, the pile of earth was only half gone – even though they could have done it all in a day. But today all gone – just the oxide stain on the pavement.
Next door the voices of visitors also try to compete with the barking dogs, whose neighbourly antiphon has taken on a life of its own as they fugue from gate to gate and driveway to driveway and the guests go indoors to silence.
A tall astonishingly beautiful man yawns stretching his arms behind his neck and takes instruction from a tanned man in a black rollneck sweater.
(From Robbe-Grillet to Iris Murdoch – not such a leap and if Love-peacock makes an appearance – so much the merrier)
How did the argument go?
J. said – the book deserves itself.
J has interesting sometimes wrong but never muddled and always fiercely felt and bitterly held views – the injustice of others he takes to heart. The cynic who is so from sensitivity and others’ stupidity.
T. said – how can they claim that? I’d burn at any rate this one copy – who says they represent the fight for democracy in South Africa? Ten years?
T. swayed on the corner of the table flicking ash into a beer can. (While F. Smoked outside the kitchen door with an ashtray in his hand). The confident youngish man with thinning hair who knows what little he knows passionately and exhaustively. People told him he’d amount to something. Some time ago.
Drunk, myself and full of his fuddled argument I try to think of a way of telling him that ‘no that’s not it at all’ that’s not what the book says it is trying to do – there are no possessive pronouns, no conjunctions or prepositions, not even an indefinite let alone a definite article in the title – accuse it of vacuity but don’t say it succeeds or tries to define anything. But I am silent, confused, as the argument splits and fractures and voices are raised like barking dogs.
And A., M’s ex husband, who seems pretty gay to me said – curators have to stand outside, be objective, research – I run a gallery and I make it a point not to put on my own work – you cannot have artist/curators selecting their friends.
Arguments about democracy, involving discussions about being disappointed when people do what they want to do rather than what they have a responsibility (to democracy) to do, did not arise.
Next door now behind our shared wall and razorwire the smells and sounds of a brei (barbecue) can be intermittently heard.
As clue to where I wrote this rather than transcribing it onto my laptop follow.
Herbert Morris Ltd Loughborough still maintains his vital girders.
‘A Mecca for Prices’
‘Change is Good’
S. said that – finally for all its faults it had to be done and we make assumptions about the behind-the-scenes politicking that do not necessarily bear much scrutiny were she able to be indiscreet.
S. has the truth and integrity at the core of her value system and it is a system that admits most errors. But not all.
(That this is the first book of its kind bodes ill of course in terms of the need the media (and most artists seem) to have in terms of defining a school or some such. Freeze etc.
And T. Shouts down J as A. Shouts back at S.
Waiting for a bus to Rosebank – midday – taxis (bus taxis – dolmuses) go past and seem so full that even if I dared to put my hand out with the requisite sign, they wouldn’t stop – to my embarrassment.
But now in a cafe in Rosebank Shopping Mall (an amalgam of four or five separate ones), down in the basement (on ‘Cinema Level’ which therefore smells strongly of popcorn and seems not to have the cachet of higher levels and is therefore perfectly suitable). Here also is a post office where a woman complains – haven’t you got a book of postcard stamps? Because if you make it up out of ordinary stamps there’s no room on the postcard. I am now eager to get the ordinary stamps which turn out to be a sort of stripey clown fish or some other denizen and a bird that looks like a kookaburra. The large youngish Indian man with a neat beard who serves me, as I asked for stamps to Europe – says – ‘have a good time’ rather than day.
The size and abundance of this mall (yet certainly not the biggest in Jo’burg) – everything is ‘a pleasure’ and nothing is beyond your reach (except for interlopers like me who even so is tempted by the Diesel store 50% offer).
Beautiful houses line the streets that surround the Mall like sunny Hampstead council Estate (modernistic movement blocks rather than mansions with quite a few far ocean-curved windows on the corners of metal-framed blocks). Planted with jacarandas these streets don’t seem to be leading you to the largest shopping mall you’ve ever seen that you didn’t have to get someone to drive you to.
The racial mix is about half and half, which is both encouraging and depressing (the problem with Jo’burg is not the poverty – which is slowly being alleviated – but the wealth – which is not.) – as all the security guards and service staff (not counted in the total as ever) are of course black. (N.B. the one real Boer security guard on Eloff street in CBD – amazing figure – the total crypto fascist `Broderbund in tight-butted khaki, but presumably working it through as security guard for his black co-workers in an Asian run cloth and fashion shop.
Total blonde Barbie with springing curls and white asymmetric dress and off-white high heels passing, who nevertheless walks like a horse or a farm girl who rides one.
Group of WSA’s worrying about where to stand and discuss decor at the entrance door to the furniture shop – as for the last five minutes they’ve been individually and collectively inadvertently setting off the pressure mat which activates the customer bell – ding dong. They waltz and change partners at will never settling. Barbie strides past again and we’ll never know why so purposeful – purposefully to be looked at perhaps.
The girls behind me on a lull from serving coffee discuss hairstyles – the Asian one expands saying as she touches the black girl’s frizzed-Japanese slick do – ‘and went totally bald at the back’. Part of the group come out of the furniture shop doorway into the arcade to buy coffee from the girls, leaving fat yellow singlet son drinking a can of coke in the furniture shop. Fat yellow singlet son’s other pregnant relation, possibly wife is feeling cushions and swigging from a plastic bottle.
An Indian couple looking at the big bedroom mirror displayed behind, or even as the headboard of a king-sized bed – the black assistant leads them through the narrow passage between the beds to examine the frame. An older man in shorts, thin white legs, his hat (with elastic in one hand) leaves the shop, setting off the doorbell again as he pauses on the threshold to open a packet of salt and vinegar crisps. The Indian couple go back to the mirror a second time without the assistant and the woman stoops to look under the frame, examining the price ticket this time, then leave (ding dong) and discuss outside in the arcade and point back once more, floor to ceiling, before riding the nearby escalator back up to ground level.
A plump tall blond man leans with his back to me over an advertising hoarding set at fence height, talking on his mobile juggling his car keys in his other hand. People have to divide their stream to walk past him, sometimes in pairs. When he leaves, the advert (which protects a bench) is praising the cakes available in another cafe three floors up.
The furniture shop bell twice. I look up but no-ones there (no-one new) – the fat boy and pregnant relation are still deliberating over a vase, and about parting with money. Ding dong. Travel Connections next door is closed and in fact I can see no way of entering from this end if it were open. Perhaps – and this is likely – it has another entrance (and perhaps another bell) miles the other side of the mall.
The gaps between displays in the furniture shop are so narrow that if two people want to pass each other one must step up onto the display platform and teeteringly become part of the bedroom scene.
The light on the ascending and descending rails of the escalator look like shafts of mote-filled sunlight from high in the forest suddenly piercing this grotto. Or a vision of Jacob’s ladder.
On closer inspection, or rather on nearing me to catch up with their compadres, the fat yellow singlet boy and pregnant relation are most likely man and wife – boy being a pretty flabby 35 year old who’s tried to go to the gym but given up now his wife’s up the duff. (?) He steps back onto the bedroom podium as the assistant pulls out drawers from a mahogany effect chest and they both bend down to inspect them – he still from his elevated position.
Sweets always with the bill, sometimes impossible to close the wallet it comes in and you feel you have to take them and fill your pockets – sometimes four at a time in order to hide the exact tip you’re giving.
At Twigs Garden Centre
That the white African paternalism (matriarch in this case with wig and make-up, pale sagging skin, with younger daughter – says no that’s perfect, honestly, to the cheerful solicitous black waiter, while the daughter might herself have quibbled about something), that the paternalism has been replaced by shame, mingled with fear. And truly I feel I photographed and describe her (this matron) unfairly. It seems a little mean. The heart-breaking effort (even if little enough) she makes – the recognition (that her daughter will sadly never know) the strain it must mean. It can’t be pretty looking in the mirror, being answered by kindness.
Old ladies behind me –
Not too much icing, jam in the middle. That’s right and not too rich with chocolate or it’ll make me fall asleep.
I love a good waffle
I’m not complaining but they didn’t leave the grill on long enough.
It’s nice to have a sense of humour – it’s what keeps me going.
These harmless inanities from women who five minutes before had chorused
And don’t you dare make it weak like you usually do – I remember last time it was undrinkable. The woman in front would wince at that.
The cicada is intermittent, the crickets have not yet started, it is late dusk (6.30) and the rush hour traffic is noticeable on Jan Smuts, behind the dogs barking and the last day’s birdsong.
Walking through oriental Plaza (a Mecca for prices), down one of those narrow passages at the back of the main square – going past one of those shops full of haberdashery or fabrics draped around the shoulders of preposterous mannequins whose moulded hair and faces crack into wide grins or in one case she throws her head back and cackles in her flowery scarf.
Two very old frail ladies were looking at skeins of viscose or some such in this narrow passage and just before me waiting to get past a huge giant of a handsome black man when one (the older one with her back to us) of the old ladies drops her cane. The black man bends over slightly, diffidently, about to touch the cane but withdraws his hand as another hand reaches for it. A white hand the hand of the lady’s less old companion. The black man straightens up, the old lady whose stick it was has already said thank you so very much to him, but her companion says nothing lips clenched firm. ‘I was going to pick it up’ he says gently, hiding a slight. The woman says nothing and the old lady says again, oblivious, oh thank you so much.
The literal impasse South Africa is at.
Out of interest, there are a lot of very handsome black men of course. In London I don’t fancy that many black men and I often wondered what that meant – but here I realise that I certainly fancy as many black men as I do white men in London – (which in truth is probably below the average gay man’s quota). In fact the ratios being similar or indeed less favourable and the tables being turned I can say that of the few men I fancy, in Jo’burg, by far the largest proportion are black. This of course conveniently ignores the fact that whether in London or Jo’burg you can guarantee I’ll fancy about ninety percent of the Arab/ Middle eastern/ Indian men. So not off the hook there as far as racism’s concerned.
Animal Emergency Hospital – we reserve the right of admission
Goethe Institute – all persons arriving without cars are asked to produce documentation proving identity.
The park and the lake – lost
The waste paper bins – how their plastic bag inserts catch the sun and how they’re scattered as regularly as the saplings newly planted whose metal name tags also catch the sun
The wrong turning (no )
Getting up and unsteadily, putting on a false show – shaking my head in pity disbelief (mostly disappointment) – that I was OK. But anyway, in that crowded market (the large empty space around me as I struggled to my feet, embarrassedly, like a drunk, trying not to let it show, no-one, no-one came to me to ask if I was OK – my pretence must therefore have been convincing. That is the charitable explanation. There is no other explanation. When it happened I was aware of being held tightly (painfully – was that a pain?) by both arms and an arm locking my neck so that I couldn’t turn or talk – and that’s what I most wanted to do – turn to see the attacker just out of eyeshot on my right and ask what he wanted and see if I could give it to him without this rigmarole. But the grip tightens around my thought (throat) – this was painful. I had no thought of shouting out – there was a couple of people standing in front of me watching – I looked at them dispassionately and thought I felt myself wetting my pants – but thought oh well – deal with that later. The looked I think alarmed or disgusted, or just blank and caught up with looking at something, which had gained their attention. I felt ands going almost simultaneously into all of my pockets and thought of the contents of each, feeling (dizzy and) tired as the back one’s were gone through. Again I wanted to say – there’s nothing really – take the money – lets sit down and sort out what you can have – the cigarettes, the money, the new lighter – the – well anything of valuable too you – but the one thing I have that’s of absolutely no use to you – leave me with my notebook – take the pen. But you took everything but the lighter – ‘how you going to light those fags? – waste of the rand you took hey? And the invitation to the SABC opening at the JAG two hundred or so metres away – which I didn’t need to show at the door because I am white (it occurs to me I must have looked very white indeed but I put on a blasé air of knowing where I was supposed to be at the entrance – not realising I was bleeding from the back (luckily) of my head). And also you left me a 1 rand coin which you could have bought a lighter with at least. Perhaps you already have lighters – but it was a pretty one – bought only half an hour before – with seaweed flowers embedded the plastic barrel. Swimming back to some consciousness of the situation, thinking if they are looking at me – what do I look like to them – what spectacle? (Forgetting the muggers either side of me it felt as if they – were holding me up invisibly like indeed Christ on the cross, the arms of that cross more corporeal and literal.) i know my face was impassive – as impassive as theirs – caught up in looking.
because it always is when i look at thngs.
I glimpsed the attacker on my right’s face and tried to catch his eye to say – it’s ok look i’ve no intention of resisting – lets try bargaining a deal. The idea of a knife was intermittently in my mind – i kept trying to isolate parts of me to imagine if it felt like a knife had entered anywhere or was being held to me. But the pain (was it pain) at my throat constricted all thought of that as well as all movement. I don’t know whether at this point i had the coinventional out-of-body experience of – this is happening to someone i suppose is me – what is rally happening – in what real time and place – or whether that was later prone on the ground when i thought well just let go it can’t be you. But with the certainty that it was you but somehow wasn’t really like this. On the ground i closed my eyes. After they had run away I didn’t see them – i was trying to regain my balance, steady my legs – my support having been taken away – and failed, staggering backward like a drunk and falling – and hitting my head on the road. This is where i was lying on the ground in the middle of a busy market – people all around in a circle (silent) at a distance of 6 metres or so. My eyes are closed – i think, well the middle of the road’s not a good place, even on a market day. But keep your eyes closed for a moment – take the opportunity to think.
The SABC opening
The security guard (white)
The repeated apologies
Diana’s opening recollected
The last birds are singing, (the rush hour traffic on Jan Smuts Avenue comes and goes with the breeze of) the curtain blowing with the wind which gathers just after the thunder and maybe just prior the rain (but then the cicadas would seem to know there’s no danger of a downpour) and as the dark enfolds, (the rush hour traffic on Jan Smuts Avenue comes and goes with the breeze) – what sort of beginning to any short story is that?
If i could somehow paraphrase Chekhov’s letters – but it seems more important to type them verbatim.
List of things for tomorrow
Bank if poss for cashcard renewal/withdrawal
Tour bus timetable
Books of indigenous trees/flowers
(If i can afford it)
(Strange aphasia of concussion – the word for handing in photos to develop escapes me – perhaps there isn’t one but the concussion won’t let me be certain of that and i keep wanting to make one up).
Coffee, write, plans, recover)
Sewing /embroidery thread
Get better attitude to it all and stop wishing it were nearly over.
Plans and itinerary for Xmas
Train to Paris see Veronese – night hotel- train to Marseille night or two in Unite d’Habitation – film – then train to Nice and three nights in Nice – eat pizza and then night again or two in Marseille – Avignon? And train to Lille see Matisse and home – how I’m looking forward to all of that and especially Veronese and home.
The feverfew in the coca cola bottle soothes me i suppose – certainly its unassuming simplicity calms me even without the assumptions of Culpepper.
Its Culpeppery associations.
And with the lost notebook the temptation, no – the necessity of falsification, of invention. And so the world is transmuted into the reality of this living act 9hipocrysy (delusion) – Johannesburg. Only by understanding how we lie to ourselves can the truth of this city be realised. By understanding the fabrication, the blindness, the self-persuasion of untruth – only by seeing our blindness can this city be revealed.
The cars rush to dinner parties, the darkness is come early as it ever does – there is no gradation of night – neither dusk nor time give us time to understand it – it is now no longer day and our lives are ruled by ideas of flight.
We are too awake for sleep; this sleeplessness causes trouble in this city. There is no evening – there is no time to assess the day – it is over and the long escaping night obtains.
How to we merge these two? The night switches us on and the dawn releases us from night. No morning – nor evening – nothing even.
The wind is high – no one hears it – car-windows are open, speed competing with the night breeze and winning. It …. is all about mastering fear it seems, admitting no loss of con……….trol – as the power fails.
The terms we are used to use to not apply here – the classifications (oh Linnaeus) are inexact and any attempt at exactitude brings excess to their importance.
So back to italics?
Exact classification (as defined by?) is of course informative, fascinating,
Inexact is pernicious and deforming of the truth. And there we have it. A deformed truth.
Taxonomy admits mistakes. This was no taxonomy. It
First words written after being floored.
New notebook, new life, new position in Braamfontein Mall looking inward at the spiral staircase which leads to the offices above and which unlike Jacob’s Ladder angels rarely seem to make use of. (Also) my writing seems bigger and much more legible 9unlike my thoughts). Could be the new spacing of the lines in this new notebook, but I don’t think so.
So i left Vera cleaning round my Chicken vessel/vase and she’d herself left a pile of brass curtain hooks in three piles on the kitchen table as though she thought these would need cleaning. Perhaps in the old days it would have been insisted upon.
Noticeably my thoughts are faster and further ahead than my pen and i keep correcting mistakes mistakenly. Mistakes that haven’t happened because they have been countermanded by my brain. So errors are overlaid upon the fair copy.
Still i have a cake and a coffee already ain front of me and an omelette coming – that ordering’s not because of the concussion – that’s the order it happened. I ask for a cappuccino and before she brings the menu my waitress (I think i recognise her from before and she acts as though she recognises me – customers are dupes though – no? – that astonishing ‘pleasure’ that all service workers respond with here). She offered me the cake and coffee deal – signalling the chalkboard. 15 rand for both to celebrate national be positive day – which may or may not be an Aids awareness thing – or more likely given the slightly flippant reading of the word positive it would otherwise entail, an idea dreamed up by executives urging us as ever to indulge ourselves – to feel GOOD.
(Even medicines i notice must taste good nowadays).
I do celebrate national be positive day nevertheless. And then the menu comes and i order a plain omelette (how positive is that on top of the cake? – positively Puritanical. She indeed seems disappointed with my choice and repeats ‘plain omelette? Then she brings a very large slice of chocolate cake (with two withered strawberries either side and I laugh and say I won’t start that till i’ve had my omelette. Would it be nice rather to sit inside the cafe in the dark? Hide away?
Anyway – the chocolate cake is the most hideous etc confection i’ve ever had – like a real mother’s bigger is better buy – six for the price of… the cream/toffee centre is a congealed? /??
I’m looking for signs of privilege – towards a thesis of who’s got a driving licence and who hasn’t.
(now on thurs 17th as Andy gets ready to fly overhead the rain starts like the proverbial dried peas on the tin canopy over my barred window. And at the first lightning the cicadas count the miles till the thunder comes, then momentarily stop. And then again at/from the next strike)
(how can anyone help? Everyone’s in the middle of surviving – how can they see what to do and how can they recognise any solution from outside, begin to understand it?)
‘I got mugged on the way to J A G and they kindly gave me this lovely T-Shirt’
The value the Govt/jag places on art. Whatever the art – the most fundamental thing is that people are able, let alone encouraged, to see it. And at the moment the govt and JAG between them are operating a selective viewing policy to put it no stronger – (‘would all persons arriving without a vehicle please present identification at the gate’ – notice outside Goethe Institute – lost in lost notebook)
It is only safe to go to JAG if you have a driving licence. To walk there is not recommended to put it mildly. (But there are more important things the govt has on its mind – yes like AIDS – although Mr Mbeki is pussyfooting around that – but this however cosmetic is relatively cheap and might work wonders – to be safe is to be free – I’d put it the other way round (makes a difference to me) – to be free is to be safe. We are not safe – we are not free.
The Mall sweeper glides past, mopping the clean terracotta tiles – swerving between tables with an action more abstract or gestural than purely functional as the floor is spotless – it seems just an elegant way of easily using up time and …
The potential for ease (Comus/Lotos) in this society – for everyone almost this is possible – the land is rich, needs simple, even for the rich. Pritchard cleaning services.
Write about pieces/projects – explain them to a society with this over-arching need – whose existence is as a sort of allegory.
‘The Struggle is my Allegory’
Nouveau romantique literalism – is this my attempt to combat allegory?
In the studio, the metal framed window (iron-barred on the inside in a criss-cross) is high up so I can only see the top of the white wall of the factory opposite, which cuts across the lower two panes of glass and the blue of the sky which fills the upper four panes is almost indistinguishable from the white wall (without the parapet to give you a clue – and you can make this happen by adjusting your head up or down so the metal frame between panes coincides with it) if you adjust your head so the division is exactly on a line with the metal frame of the second set of glass panes.
Into the grill, which protects the widows (from the inside) entwined or wedged is a halogen bulb to light further the studio space – pointing down it would light the grey painted concrete floor. Some other paint is speckled on it – mostly red white and blue with a large blob of orange by the left hand wall as you look from the window, the wall with the door in it and beside which (the blob) I have placed the other chair in this space where i sit writing this. (My chair is a conventional Eames style stackable grey plastic with the bouncy back; i sit in front of a grey metal trestle table (spattered with mostly red paint and the circles from pots of paint or ancient brush cleaning jars.) this table is immediately underneath the high window which has in fact two panels of 12 lights (6 x 2) either side of what would be a larger panel of 6 x 3 except the top 4 x 3 panels are made into 2 x 3 and form a hinged window which is open, letting the sound of the occasional taking a high-speed short cut round into park St toward the Oriental Plaza.
And the sound is seeping in from behind through the door to my studio, through the door to the gallery itself, the sound of the imam from the local mosque (Minaar St? Origins? How culturally insensitive is it to change it thoughtlessly to Mahlatini?)
The other chair in my studio is a sort of dully-painted wooden Heidi or Hansel affair – nursery rhyme tree-trunk brown and fir tree green – more Babes in the wood – the colours of a conifer forest in a cheap colouring book, coloured in with ersatz crayolas. It has a cloverleaf shaped hole cut out of the backrest. And I have never thought of sitting in it.
Although the heavy plywood partitions that form the walls of the studio run perpendicular to the outside wall of the building itself, the beams above run at an angle – presumably (I cannot see) parallel to the end wall of the factory which forms the corner of the street around which cars now screech and accelerate on their urgent way to Oriental Plaza (a Mecca for prices).
The plywood walls (painted white with the usual marks) are 2.5 metres high and where they end, polythene sheeting is tacked on with primitive batoning and then looped over the ceiling beams to form a white polythene tent. An effective insulation if not of noise, then one’s peripheral vision is constrained within the workspace.
Further, in terms of my concussion – there is a weird dislocated capacity in my hand to go back and correct something I’ve written seconds after I’ve carried on and decided to let it stand, to leave it as it is legible – therefore my hand repeatedly interrupts my thought – hand and eye matching no fearful symmetry.
An important (and interesting) thing about geological maps is that of course the symbols, the shading, the colours, bear only rudimentary (and in historical descendence) relation to the look of the rock/etc described.
So the invisibility of what’s beneath us, the guesswork on the part of the geologist is analogous to the archaeologist or the filmmaker restoring a presumed reality from fragments (?) – the question of time in the one – centuries of time for the archaeologist, seconds for the film-maker and for the geologist aeons – but that isn’t important – time is utterly fixed in space – and immutable. However space is not space but supposed trajectories in solid rock of layer, deposit, fault. One can dig but one cannot see. Trying to find analogies on the surface in the visual world? And of course it’s blindness and touch. Mineshaft bore holes (blind drilling) blind epithets in mining. An unknowable that is beneath our feet – not above us.
(What is unknowable is also in my lost notebook – descriptions of trees, yes, children, groups of picnickers in Zoo Lake, boats going out to circumnavigate the island (as they do in every park with a lake (and an island) all over the world) only to find some metal or rubber boom or chain is keeping the far side for the wildlife. The bowling green behind billowing campsis and English willows and a local Acacia counterpart on the lakeside.) More forgotten, more lost and to attempt to retrieve it perhaps undesirable.
To the left of the window – boarded in, in a squarish intrusion into the studio space is the winch chain to open up the corrugated iron shutter which forms most of the outer wall of the next-door studio (from where the sound of the radio with very much the received pronunciation of BBC sport announcers (specifically ‘Racing at Haydock Park’, for instance). The constant talk without much sign of describing anything vital, just exacting information and very little possibility or warning or even less expectation of any climax in the narration.
I suppose I could in theory stand on a stool and wind up that door like a theatrical curtain, surprising those in the next studio and those on the street outside. But i wouldn’t be high enough to see over the partition at their surprise. And it’s probably locked.
Along the left wall towards the door to the studio and the Swiss/babes-in-the -wood chair are a sequence of flipchart diagrams, hastily, half-heartedly – for the sake of it – drawn up by me. Not to remind me of anything – but to prove to someone else (any rare visitor) that i have things on my mind.
Do the no-go areas for instance exist on particular geological formations? The search for rational explanation – at the root of division. The northern drive for classification – Oh, Linnaeus.
Minnaar St (various spellings) is being re-named Mahlahtini St. Although Mahlahtini may well deserve recognition (like Miriam Makeba round the corner and this is Newtown, however – what happened to old Newtown?) Minnaar St recognises (unless I’m being very naive) the significant local Muslim population and specifically the Minaret of the mosque. How does this square with… is this the New African sensibility?
The sky above the factory opposite is brighter now (or the factory a little duller) as the clouds gather and the sun moves a little further Westward. The sky is still bright before the clouds – reflected light, diffuse but still searing – but caught in the clouds, not reaching the opposite wall.
There is (inevitably?) a fear that occurs on occasions like this – the wish not to have to walk all the way back (allied to disinclination). Past the tubby security guard on Mandela Bridge. The confidence of having swum halfway (to the offshore island) ebbing with the necessity to swim back and the certain knowledge that one can’t stay where one is.
Being mugged in a city that you know is different from being mugged in a city that you don’t, because there is no bedrock of confidence or experience to rely on. Suddenly (or rather, imperceptibly) everything is uncertain in the streets you walk, all the ground is shaky. The early (even wary as I was) confidence seems unfounded as a fault opens up a mineshaft or manhole – one of many that riddle the city and make each footfall a little uncertain. And to speak more personally, my independence (which I value at least as much as my safety and not to say hide behind) is compromised and i don’t really know how to rely on others (directly) or ask for favours, which they would nevertheless clearly give.
Someone sneezes in the next studio and I’m jumpy.
A pigeon alights on the roof opposite to look over the parapet and patrol the flat roof’s perimeter, checking the street below. Hears something – perhaps another sneeze, walks back and flies off.
On the floor of the studio a scored line in the cement from the outer wall goes diagonally across, parallel and directly under the main roof beam, under the back (behind me) partition into the gallery space beyond. Through the door to my studio, which is two inches ajar, i can see the cleaner, newly painted (by George, newly sacked) floor – that and the corridor which leads from the gallery to the toilets, and a sliver of newly painted wall beyond it.
It starts to thunder. (I had been talking to Dominic outside half an hour ago and asked whether it looked like rain – he said no – i did think otherwise – but still – only thunder – he’s probably right.
The thunder helps me feel a little better, but the practicalities of getting home in the rain presents another unease. There are now two pigeons (another sneeze) chasing each other alternately along the edge of the roof. The male (presumably) puffed up, stops for a second to scratch his tail and the female (presumably) looks ready to jump from the roof – but then they meet up again and kiss (or tussle with their beaks) and, squeezed up against a step in the roof’s parapet they mate. (No – they’re still preparing but i long for some resolution like i long (quietly) for an end to this exile.
Now of course, people are telling me that all the CBD is dangerous and they would never walk there and I think (apart from thanks for telling me) please don’t tell me as there is no alternative for me but walking or waiting for a bus (and other people’s paranoia is very hard to accommodate. The taxi buses are (when crowded unbearably claustrophobic) and it’s disheartening to have to learn a code signal. Perhaps I should make one up.
Transfer printing from fax – hand signals on silver?
I suppose (but not in this order necessarily) my disinclination to move from bed, from home to walk all the way to the Bag Factory and now compounded, my disinclination to walk from Bag Factory even to ‘safety and comfort’ of home is akin to my grandfather’s despair (and tears) each morning at having to go down the mine once more, or the dread of exams or school or indeed, for me – from school the fear of walking home and getting chased and beaten up again – which fear i just had to overcome or at lest subsume – as i must this. It must be done. But I’ve already done this once – conquered my (and then perfectly justified) fears once – too tired to have to do it all over again, day after day. But it must be done. (Except that it’s a lot further to walk from here to home than it was from school – but then I’m a lot bigger (huh!)
It looks about to rain.
Now it rains.
Everyone as I said, is telling me how dangerous the CBD is – well for goodness sake – grow out of it and get out of your dammed car.
Look at your fear
Is there a sense of these (and not only these) people playing at (Berlin again) their art or their status? For which of them is it vital? And for which of us?
The pop music under Capricorn is pretty much identical to that above Cancer. Norwegian popstars making melodic angst – danceable personal problems. Attempting the anthemic and almost succeeding – except, except – it’s all about ‘I’ and not ‘the’ like the great one’s are.
Waterloo sunset etc
Even ‘The Smith’s begin everything with ‘the’ – therefore the outside world exists – or if ‘I’ then the location is specific and humdrum – an essential for universality is the specifics of place and time.
The cicada outside purrs like an old cat clawing your jumper for comfort, nose bubbling slightly with mucous.
Now the cicada is a persistent ticking of the clock, as my time here thankfully sees its end – well three weeks not eight anymore. Nothing much to say but wanting to say it. East Dulwich in Parkview – the zoo as close to somewhere else as you can get.
Tired and not despondent or bored or despairing but back to tired and if hopelessness can be less than despairing but more complete then I’m tired of this place = fundamentally saturated with the laissez-faireism of this society and most depressingly of this idealistic human govt. What is the point one asks – where are you leading us – how are you leading?
That i am not the big or small but the wrong fish in the bag factory’s (admittedly small) pool.
As though the whole city were unravelling.
I walked to the bag factory today to hear that an ex employee had returned contrite over his absence and defiant in his denial of the felonies attributed him (several pieces of video etc equipment had left at the same time as him and fingers were pointing. ‘Just tell me who said they saw me jumping over the wall boss’. Similarly dismissed though for inefficiency rather than any felony was George who I’d met first two weeks ago when he was painting the walls of the gallery (admittedly with little care, painting over the security sensor too – but what do you expect on his wages?). And there’s no sign of M whose home George is staying at in a generous gesture as he has housing problems for the moment. Apparently George also behaved very badly at the SABC opening at JAG – the night I arrived lately mugged. Well he was an angel to me – arms round my shoulder, hugging (swaying admittedly) saying – and this is believable – that he’d kill them if he knew who they were, apologising (like everyone else black who was there – did not the whites feel it necessary to make some apology – is it not their town? Their dare i say it fault? What sort of bad behaviour George perpetrated i don’t know, but surely nothing more than drunken recalcitrance (he was already truculent when i was taken home for a rest with my delightful concussion).
(And the rest of the people at JAG? The respectable people? Were they not tipsy, loud and frankly repellent?)
and now no M – who i must admit i don’t see staying in the job much longer. I have been asked questions of her by her boss – who seems to understand she’s under pressure in her home life (with among other things George one supposes – a gesture that may have been too generous to sustain) and her recent break up with partner and child and now a new possible partner. In the space of? Her ability to get drunk herself has not gone unnoticed – but what is it with these people? They drive from one party or unsuitable marriage to another. Another opening another bottle, another round of introductions and confident laughter (hiding of course the opposite – but it’s so well hidden and the insecurity so universal that it never appears – not a glimpse). There may be coke too – but it doesn’t seem necessary to fuel that confidence, to unpick the epithet/collocation.
Everybody talks about a buzz – everyone seeks the buzz, the ‘vibe’ – the black toy boy boyfriend of the rich white tinsel/tousled grey haired young dowager in the white Mercedes parked outside the place we’re slumming at, complains the side mirror was hanging off her car when she bought it and winks at the doorman who’s been keeping an eye on it. Even I’m aware that she probably should have tipped him more than that. And the countless confident artists at openings and speeches and free champagne and black people mixing in (and fitting in except for George) and everyone being part of that buzz and driving home drunk as lords or drugged going through red lights and having so much to think and talk about. The constant confident chatter, that buzz keeping everything at bay, and the sound of a city coming apart at the seams.
Under the pavements and roads of the Witwatersrand, clear water seeps and trickles down making ochre rivulets where the earth has been revealed, soft as red coffee grounds, though the workmen relay the paving on sand, or dig it up again to lay pipes.
A city like Berlin persuading itself that everything’s OK and doing nothing about it.
Now in Mug and Bean, Rosebank, downstairs looking at mostly empty tables (upstairs on the ground level of the Mall it’s busy with chat and table service, here loud with dishes being stacked and washed and wooden tables being scraped and re-arranged. Just half a dozen diners in a space that fits 50 at least. A theatrical staircase leads back to the upper (ground) floor where the tables and greater mall and mêlée are framed beyond a proscenium of lights and a green metal painted ceiling – confirming the feeling of being in the cheaper refreshment deck of a ferry. The music is distant behind the hum of ventilation ducts. The few people who are here are – a group of three – two women and one bearded grizzly – the farming impression is arrived at by the elegance of presumably his daughter who ahs the alarmingly perfect skin of a plump Nicole Kidman. That plumpness is not just the result of her holding a piece of muffin in each hand (I suppose that is the weird condition of muffin eating – you pick and hold each part) or the milkshake standing to her left, but certainly not offset by the way the black dress she’s wearing (shoulder straps and plunging neckline). It really isn’t breakfast wear unless you’re a farming girl in the Mall.
Three (elegant epithetically inevitably) Asian girls have sat down just in front of me and obscured my view of Nicole a little. Although her mother’s still visible – small headed bleached blonde short hair, big squarish glasses, square face, strong jaw tougher than the father despite his grizzled beard and hair he has a strangely feminine brow, which Nicole has taken from him.
A similarly grizzled semi-hippy/trucker type (or should that be trekker?) throwback beside me asks when the rugby starts – S A v Wales – he gives me that information after i’ve told him I’ve no idea – that I’m a stranger here. The father too smokes rather strangely – keeping the cigarette held just before his mouth, inhaling violently, his hand reluctant to withdraw it so he actually puffs out while it’s still in front of his lips and soon takes another long drag. It’s a studied process which can only really occur through unconscious habit or in a Chekhov play or short story. Also he smokes and takes a sip of his vanilla milkshake (coming to the end of his, the others are only halfway) and takes another drag of his cigarette before you can really believe he’s swallowed.
A black couple, her with very long hair and a big white floppy hat like Julie Christie (breakfast wear again – reminding me that it’s actually around 11 pm but even so) sit down with some early shopping which takes up two extra seats.