Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Hadeda Haven

Most people I know hate hadedas. I used to too. Especially when they wake me up at four am screeching like wounded babies. I even understood neighbours who set off crackers in their trees to chase resident hadeda families away. After all, everyone needs some peace.

And then a Hadeda was left at my doorstep. She wasn’t quite wrapped in swaddling clothes (let’s say it was a she) but her parents brought her to my back door because she couldn’t fly properly. Well, perhaps the parents didn’t actually see me as the SOS Hadeda’s Village. But the baby was left in my back garden while the concerned parents fretted nearby. Darkness fell. We still had a large aviary in our garden left over from my children’s enthusiastic bird loving days. So I gently guided the baby Hadeda into the aviary. Then I closed the large wire door on her. In the morning I opened the door a little when her parents returned. They spent the day with her, coming in and out as they fed her. After a few days she was gone. She was strong enough to fly. That was that, I thought.

I was wrong.

The mother and her babies began to arrive at my doorstep every morning. I threw out stale bread for them, pleased that they remembered my kindness. Over the years the mother has continued to bring her babies to my back door every morning. If they hear my voice in the front garden, they’ll flutter down and see if I have any treats for them there too. I must say that this familiarity from the Hadeda community has not pleased my Springer spaniel. Trained to chase everything with wings, she has a real battle every time I tell her to leave the Hadedas alone. Her nature arm-wrestles her nurture, and every now and then, when I’m not looking, she’ll chase them away in ecstatic doggie delight.

The younger generation of Hadedas have exceeded their mother’s trust in me. They’ve become so tame that they now walk into the kitchen to help themselves to my spaniel’s pellets. Pedigree is their favourite. They’ll even walk in when I’m sitting at the kitchen table having tea with my quieter friends. Noisier guests, who don’t know that we have visiting pterodactyl look-alikes, have frightened the Hadedas and themselves by walking into the kitchen boldly. A large feathery creature has often been scared into a state of apoplectic panic. Pot plants scatter and bird poo plops until I can grab the terrified Hadeda and guide it outside again. The worst case was when a Hadeda flew straight through the kitchen window. It was classic. There was a Hadeda shaped hole through the window and fortunately the Hadeda was back unharmed the next day.

R500 later, I now try to keep the kitchen’s security gate closed and throw dog pellets out every morning to prevent anymore damage. But the moment the door is left open, the Hadedas are back en masse.

After the recent bad storms I was distressed to see one of the younger Hadedas unable to walk. It had squatted down in the grass and then took off with a large string of plastic netting attached to its left claw. I spent ages trying to get closer to her so I could remove the netting. (I think she’s a “she” but who knows?) Each time I was close enough to touch her, she’d take off.

After a few days the trail of netting got shorter, and I was relieved when it fell off entirely. Unfortunately the bird’s claw is badly damaged. She just manages to hobble around. So I leave out special titbits for her, and talk to her, trying to encourage her to use her foot a bit more each day. She seems to be getting a little better. And when she isn’t eating, she rests on the grass just outside the back door.

I never thought I’d include a family of Hadedas in my menagerie but I’ve discovered that even the noisiest creature can have its attractive side. My spaniel, on the other hand, does not agree.

Published in The Witness on 10 December 2008.

Friday, October 03, 2008


Good story tellers have always known one thing: people want to hear a story about the underdog who has to overcome huge obstacles against the odds, an underdog who has every evil twist of fate thrown at him to thwart his success, an underdog who looks like he might not actually make it to the end. And of course, every good story ensures that this poor, brow-beaten underdog is made of such indomitable spirit to overcome all the odds… In spite of it all our beloved underdog succeeds!

Oral story tellers relied on this formula for success; ancient mythologies used this recipe and even very good sport promoters use this outline… How many of us have cheered for the team which isn’t the favourite? For the player who has had the most injuries? Just think of South Africa and the 95 Rugby World Cup… Think of Lance Armstrong and his battle with cancer… Think of the South African cricket team… Actually, no. Scrap that last one. Perhaps the SA Cricket Squad is doomed forever to be tragic heroes! 

The point is that all good stories - the ones that keep you emotionally invested right until the end - usually have a hero or heroine we know and love in spite of his or her flaws, and who has to go through enormous battles to complete his or her journey of self discovery. Most religions and mythologies follow this pattern too. Just think of how abused Jesus was, how mocked and maligned. But his resurrection was a victory over the odds in the most supernatural way. 

In the early twentieth century, Carl Jung, a student of Sigmund Freud, broke away from Freud’s sexual obsessions and devised his own belief system based largely on the idea that humanity shared a common set of symbols which are universally recognised. Jung studied dreams, mythologies, religions and cultures and asserted that humankind shared a common set of stock characters, to which all cultures related. He believed that there were standard recognisable characters which kept cropping up in stories and myths throughout the world and which played universally recognisable symbolic roles. He called these ‘Archetypes.’ Think of the Wise Old Man, for examples, a reoccurring figure in so many fairy tales and stories: Merlin, Gandalf the Grey, Dumbledore the Wizard, and wise old Sangomas. Think now of the young ingĂ©nue, the Innocent Virgin: Cinderella, Little Red Riding, Snow White. Think of the Wise Old Crones: the witches with supernatural insights in Macbeth, ancient female Sangomas. There are many more. But for good story telling purposes, the most important archetype is The Hero.

The Hero, who often has a flaw, overcomes many, many odds. He fights all the battles we wish we were strong enough to fight ourselves. He (or she) is one of our most powerful archetypes. Think of Ulysses, Moses, Hamlet, Indiana Jones, James Bond, Shrek and many, many more. 

Following in Jung’s footprints, a writer and academic named Joseph Campbell began to analyse the similarities between myths, legends and archetypes. He spent much of his life devoted to comparing common themes in world mythologies and great stories. Eventually he wrote a book which changed the way people viewed story telling. It was called The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In this he showed that there is a classic structure behind most, if not all, of the best stories in the world. He clarified this structure and wrote a blueprint which could be applied to most stories. In the 70’s a struggling first time writer/director discovered The Hero with a Thousand Faces. This writer/director had been stuck in development hell for years with his story about fictional, futuristic worlds in which a young man called Luke had to find his way. Desperate for help he applied Joseph Campbell’s structure to his unwieldly story and, like magic, found his way into a classic hero’s journey. The young writer/director was George Lucas. And his story was a little tale called Star Wars. 

In 1992, Christopher Vogler adapted Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces into a simpler structure, specifically for use in films. As Vogler says, ‘Campbell had broken the secret code of story, with its set of principles which govern the art of story telling.’ As a story analyst for Walt Disney, Vogler wrote a seven page memo as a practical guide to writing story. Soon this memo became required reading for Disney development executives. It led him to write The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters. 

It is this simplified structure I use to help the scriptwriting students I lecture at UKZN, and it’s the same structure I use to solve any problems I have with scripts I am working on. Apply this to your screenplay and it will undoubtedly help clarify problems you might be having with your story.  

Essentially, Chris Vogler’s Hero’s Journey blueprint follows this simple pattern. The terms Vogler uses are on the left of this blueprint. I have equated the usual scriptwriting or playwriting terminology on the right to show it follows the usual patterns of traditional play structure. The Hero’s Journey is just more sophisticated.  

I have found this blueprint has helped me so much in teaching (with two of my students in consecutive years winning the M-Net EDiT awards) as well as in my own work. Ever since I began using this blueprint my screenplays and plays have become much more successful. There must be something in that!


Chris Vogler

(Vogler's terms in Italics)

SET UP (beginning)

Ordinary World ACT 1

Call to adventure

Refusal of the call  

Meeting the mentor  

Crossing the (first) threshold (First turning point – at +/- 30 mins/pages)


Tests, Allies, enemies ACT 2

Approach to the inner most cave  

Ordeal CRISIS – 2nd Turning Point

Reward (Seizing the Sword)
(about 60 mins/pages)


The Road back ACT 3

Resurrection CLIMAX

Return with the elixir
(about 30 mins/pages)

For in-depth study of scriptwriting one should always go back to the source, Joseph Cambell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I cover this in my scriptwriting workshops. 

For more information go to

Saturday, June 21, 2008

School for Scoundrels

Education Minister Naledi Pandor should be going for lessons. While her education system seems fraught with problems such as teacher strikes, violence amongst pupils and teenage pregnancies, there are a number of institutions where conveying information to the students is definitely on the syllabus. Perhaps she needs to ask a few of these successful learning establishments how to put education back into her schools.

Firstly, there is the School for Training Truck Drivers. I don’t know exactly where it’s situated but its teachers are obviously doing their jobs exceptionally well. To a man (and occasionally, to a woman) truck drivers are so well-versed in their code of conduct that there is without doubt a single-minded vision behind their behaviour. You must have noticed. If you haven’t, I suggest a leisurely drive down to Durban on the N3. It is important, however, to have your affairs in order before you leave. One never knows when one’s next of kin might need to locate your will.

Once on the road you’ll soon see the results of successful communal truck driver education. As one, the trucks exhibit the same behaviour. A favourite trick is the way they snail up winding hills right until the very moment you (quite rightly in the fast lane) are about to overtake them. That’s when they morph into formula one drivers swerving out in front of you at the exact second you draw up alongside them. You-Tube extracts of your life flash before your eyes as twenty tonnes of juggernaut grazes your diminished car. If you don’t pass out with fear, you may notice a minuscule orange light ticking on the right side of the gargantuan beast. The truck driver has obeyed the rules of the road. He may have overtaken the truck in the slow lane ahead of him without looking behind. He may have endangered the lives of hundreds of drivers in his wake. But he did have his indicator on.

Another of their skills is evident when trucks manage to take up all three lanes of the motorway at once, usually on a steep uphill, thereby slowing the traffic down to a crawl with a tailback all the way to Van Reenen’s Pass. Their ability to form a phalanx, blocking out any view of the road ahead for a mere Golf, is a tactical exercise worthy of Julius Caesar himself. Their education has certainly made them masters of the road.

Another successful institution imparting single-minded information is the one which teaches certain public servants to treat their clients as non-humans. Their foundation rule is: Never Make Eye Contact. That way they can never be expected to recognise that you are, in fact, a fellow human being. The person who has mastered the art, and who they must call in for demonstrations to beginners, is the man in the traffic licence department. You know the one I mean. He’s in charge of finger printing when he isn’t Heil-Hitlering on the forecourt. His training has taught him to man-handle your, well, hand really, as he extracts a blackened print for your driver’s licence. His disdain for your humanity is blatant as he laughs and talks disparagingly about you to his friend while you try to make polite conversation. His dehumanising skill is immense. And those in Home Affairs can only dream of reaching his disdainful heights.

Education for assistants in expensive jewellery stores has also shown pleasing results. Most jewellery shop assistants have practiced their “You could not possibly afford to buy anything in this shop” look to perfection as they scan your non-designer clothes while you hand over your well-worn watch for a new battery. They are trained to make you feel deeply unworthy. As are the assistants behind beauty counters in chain stores. Years of training have taught them to treat people as if they just aren’t quite beautiful enough.

So Mrs Pandor, your task is simple. Find these secret purveyors of skills and ask them to help your schools. All I need now is to find a school to teach me how to deal with the frustration that threatens to explode whenever I’m forced to deal with a product of the Schools for Scoundrels.

First pubished in The Sunday Independent, 21 September 2008.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

At Home with Bob the Builder.

As I type to you from under the kitchen table where my spaniel and I are sharing a bottle of Rescue tablets, I wonder about the few certainties in life. Everyone knows the first two. They are of course: death and taxes. But the third one is kept a dark secret for fear of terrifying the life out of potential home owners. This third certainty is that sometime in one’s home-owning life, one will have to call in The Builders. I think they deserve capital letters of their very own, as their influence on your well-being is greater than that of most presidents of most countries. After all, your standard politician usually consists of hot air and has no tangible effect on your daily life. Unless, of course, you count Robert Mugabe and you live in Zimbabwe. In fact, he has exactly the same effect as most builders. That’s probably why they named that programme after him: Bob the Builder.

The thing is, builders by the very nature of their work, are essentially destructive. Ask any of them, Uncle Bob included, and they will tell you that you have to break down in order to rebuild; that destruction is just the other side of the creative coin; that it’s all for your own good. Somehow that’s hard to believe when you have five men stomping on your roof removing the only thing between you and the eternal heavens.

You see, our house suffered severe flood damage in a recent big storm. At one point during the downpour I was up to my ankles in water in my bedroom, soaked through, in spite of an umbrella which I carried over my head as a sardonic statement. My statement seemed, well, overstated, as the bed floated by. After many years of dealing with mini-floods and every receptacle in the house having served its term of duty as a water catcher, we decided to call in the insurance assessor.

A brave young man came to look at the results of the flood. As he inspected the inside damage to the bedroom, he made the deduction that the root cause of the flooding came from the roof itself. As I held the ladder on one side of the building, he tripped up and across the rooftops like someone from Mary Poppins. A loud cry from out of my line of vision led me to wonder whether he’d met a group of chimney sweeps. I shouted to hear if he was alright or wanted to borrow a pair of dancing shoes but no answer came. I just hoped he hadn’t taken flight with the previously mentioned umbrella.

Eventually, after much walking around the house and calling up into the trees, I spied him waist deep in the middle of red tiles. The poor man had fallen right through the roof which he said was as rotten as the Zimbabwean reserve bank records. Once he’d hauled himself out and we were assured that he was reasonably undamaged, his happy news was that the beams holding up the roof were like powder. They had to be replaced as soon as possible if we were to sleep through another night without the sky falling on our heads. Of course the decay of the beams was not covered by insurance as this was classified as wear and tear. His initial quote of R100 000.00 to replace the broken beams led to a minor crisis with us considering whether to paint and run to the nearest estate agents. But a friend with building experience stepped in to rescue us from an ethical dilemma. And from the roof collapsing on our tender skulls, obviously. For a fifth of the quoted price he could bring his team of builders to do the same job. The very next day.

So that is why I am typing this column sheltering under the kitchen table and considering the words ‘necessary evil.’ At least I’ll be able to save the umbrella for outside use in future. Or perhaps Bob would like to borrow it for his upcoming elections. He might need it as I’m sure he will experience just a bit of storm damage too.

First Published in The Witness, 17 March 2008.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Load Shedding Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry.

I like load-shedding. For one thing, load shedding means never having to say you’re sorry. Or was that love? I forget. But just think of the many, many things you can blame on load shedding. You’ve missed an important deadline for an article? No problem. Just tell the boss: “I’m sorry I couldn’t finish it because the computer ate it during load shedding.” You forgot an important appointment? Don’t worry. Tell your doctor, accountant, bank manager: “I simply couldn’t get there. The traffic snarls in the centre of town were impassable. None of the traffic lights were working because of load shedding” And there’s more. If you haven’t got your act together shopping for the days’ groceries and there’s nothing decent for supper, tell the starving masses: “I’m sorry but the moment I walked into the supermarket, everything went black. I couldn’t buy a thing.” Try not to let anyone find out about Raymond Ackerman’s devious plan to keep counters ticking over with treacherous generators in spite of Eskom’s best efforts. Honestly. Where’s his community spirit?

But seriously, I really do like these enforced electricity free moments. The sudden silence descending on a household of teenagers caused only by Eskom having its daily nap is worthy of a column in itself. It’s the only time in our house when the hum of computers and the blare of televisions, CD players and stereos are reduced to nothing less than absolutely blissful quiet. So don’t fret if you can’t keep doing your work on the computer when the lights go out. I’ve discovered a rare antique device which is quite good at keeping one’s thoughts flowing. It’s called a pen and it works quite well once you get used to it. And it operates by candle-light too.

Honestly, I think Eskom is doing us all a favour. In this age of computer addiction where many hours are wasted answering boring emails or pondering one’s next move on Scrabulous (a habit I must admit to, I’m afraid) electricity-less days allow us to fall back on our own resources. Boiling a kettle over a gas bottle can’t help but bring back memories of gentler times, when people went camping with their friends and families. Or did that happen only in Famous Five novels? There are many more benefits to an unlit life. Bathing by candle light, for example, has its own rewards. For one thing, you can’t see your less than perfect reflection in the mirror anymore. And a mere flick of a match introduces an instant romantic mood. Meals as simple as bread and cheese are enhanced with a golden glow when lit by the flickering flame of a candle. Bread and cheese is usually the only thing on the menu due to the lack of cooking facilities and the aforementioned power cuts in supermarkets. Allegedly. There are one or two drawbacks to life under the flickering flames, though. When the lights do eventually come back on there are perhaps a few too many creative patterns made by black smoke and candle wax on every surface in the house. But you get my general drift.

So I think we should stop moaning about the power outages and begin to enjoy the fruits of this unusual opportunity to step out of the rat race and live life more peacefully. The next time the lights go out, don’t get angry and call the minister of Energy and Lack of Resources rude names. Slow down and listen to the sound of the birds twittering in the trees, the hoot of the neighbourhood owl, and the smack of heavy metal against heavy metal as trucks veer into one another at robot-less intersections. Will anyone ever get the hang of the four way stop?

Another big bonus is that the many, many governmental voices on radio and television telling us to have an early night so that we can become cleverer are also silenced. Briefly. Perhaps they should have had an early night or two themselves.

I do hope my Pollyanna approach doesn’t make you want to electrocute me in fury. If it does, well, sorry for you. It’s just about time for my load shedding.

First published in The Witness, 27 February, 2008.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

First Worlds

Landing at O.R. Tambo airport after almost a month in the UK, my pleasure at seeing wide open skies and bright sunshine deepened as I was greeted – or not – by the passport control woman. She was very busy, deeply engaged with her colleague in an intense personal discussion which obviously took precedence over my more itinerant needs. Having spanned three continents in two days, I thought I deserved a little of her attention. She did not. After an eternity, she grudgingly attended to me. I was glad to see that people still have their priorities right in this country. Communication amongst peers is certainly of more importance than dealing with mere travellers. After all, you never know where they’ve been.

This interaction was soon followed by another airport staff member shouting out “Number Four!” every time I asked him on which carousel the Dubai flight’s luggage would arrive. There were two flights arriving from Dubai at the same time and when I tried to ask him if it was the SAA or Emirates flight, he just shouted, with extreme aggression for added comfort, “Number Four!” I was most pleased to see that he too was conserving energy for more important things: getting over his hangover for example would have been a good priority judging by his alcoholically tinged breath. I resigned myself to a long wait and threw off my incipient exhaustion to consider the contrasts between England and South Africa.

In London, airport staff were scattered all over Gatwick with only one aim in mind: to help you. For example, on our flight over, I was in extreme distress, dashing madly through the vast airport trying to find my connecting flight with only thirty minutes to spare due to two delays on previous flights. The Gatwick staff didn’t have a clue how to deal with the situation properly. They should have taken a lesson from their South African colleagues. Instead, they ushered me and my daughter to the front of security queues and passport checks, and guided us through the nail-biting minutes and even let us onto the connecting flight after that airline had shut its gates. And they were pleasant about it too. Why, you’d almost think it was their job to help air travellers. How misguided of them. They could have spent their working hours far more valuably chatting to their friends. After all, it was nearly Christmas and there was a lot to talk about.

Once in the heart of the British countryside, the differences continued. Staying with family in Northumberland the recycling processes which they tried to convey to me as a matter of national importance took on the hue of rocket science. This was serious stuff and mistakes would not be tolerated. Paper and all its derivatives went into the greeny-grey wheelie bin outside the back door. Plastics and all its derivatives went into the browny-black wheelie bin outside the same back door. Bottles and glass containers had to be drained and washed and then placed in cardboard carriers to be taken to the bottle bank down the road. Organic matter was destined for another wheelie bin whose colour my mind had simply blanked out by then.

I thought nostalgically of our much simpler and more effective method of recycling back home. We put our black bin bags out onto the grass verges outside our homes with the rubbish neatly arranged in well-mixed piles of organic, non-organic and who-gives-a-damnic. And then we wait for the poorest of the poor, those who might have benefited from a social security grant had our hard-pressed government not been engaged in buying national essentials such as armoured tanks for our own good, you understand. These impoverished human beings come on bicycle and on foot to sort through the debris of our lives and reclaim it as their own. It doesn’t take long before the fag ends of our lives are scattered all across the pavements. Rubbish even the destitute reject are then clinically picked over by hadedas and neghbourhood dogs. It’s a far less complicated method I think and it’s much more “circle of life.” And of course it’s much cheaper too.

And then there’s London: more people per square inch than there are ants in the Kruger Park. And all of them trying to get onto the tubes at the same time as me. Who designed this system, I want to know? What made them think of tunnelling underground so that a network of trains can ferry you to anyplace in the city within a matter of minutes? Where’s the fun in that?

In South Africa we cater for our national need for human interaction by having the good old taxi system. In this way, people have much more fun. The taxis challenge every road user and passenger to test their wits on daily journeys as they break the rules of the road and of civilization as we know it. This innovative method of keeping passengers and other road users entertained does have a fairly dangerous edge, but at least we appreciate the fact that we’re alive. None of that quiet complacency for us. After all, wasn’t it Dylan Thomas who said we should meet our end with a bang and not a whimper? Or was that the Minister of Transport? I forget.

Whatever or whoever, South Africa makes you relish every precious moment that you are still breathing. Ah, it’s good to be home.

First published in Sunday Independent, 24 February, 2008.