Thursday, November 11, 2010

On Rolling Stones and Moss and things...

When I was a child, my father was a bit of a travelling man so we were constantly on the move. I didn’t mind the fact that every few months we’d pack up what belongings we had and move into a new house, a new town, a new school. It was exciting to explore new places, and as long as my mother and brothers were around, I was happy. When I was fifteen, my mother bought her own tiny house, the first we’d ever owned. I spent three solid years there before I left for university and beyond. After graduation it took ages for me to settle down. I still felt the need to move every few months. Even when I married we didn’t settle down at first. We crossed continents and cities for quite a few years.

When the children started formal schooling it was time to put down roots. We’ve been in the same house for fourteen years now. Daily I marvel at how different life is when you stay in one place for a long time. I notice this especially on my daily walks around the neighbourhood. The passage of time is etched in my surroundings and in the faces of the people I pass.

For example, when we first arrived, an elderly man and his bulldog lived on the corner of our street. The man and his dog looked alike. He’d retired and spent all his days making beautiful wooden furniture in his garage. His veranda was furnished with exquisitely crafted Oregon pine pieces. He also had two sons, one who’d been disabled mentally and physically during a game of high school rugby. This son helped his father as much as he could in his workshop. I passed them every evening when I walked my dogs and we always shared a few words. The bulldog was the first to go, shortly after a sprightly young Labrador joined their ranks. Then the disabled son, in his early forties, died suddenly. That seemed to depress the old man’s spirit. He died shortly afterwards. Now the remaining son works from home. He is often seated alone on the pine bench, aging Labrador at his side, watching the road pensively.

I used to pass another sprightly older couple every day on my walks. They’d be striding the pavements with their loyal fox terrier at their side. From the spring in their steps and their leathery faces I imagined that they’d been farming types in their younger days. Now confined to a face-brick complex in the city they took their constitutional as regularly as clockwork every evening. Soon the fox terrier stopped coming. I asked after his health. He was ailing, I was told, getting too old for his daily walk. Then the man disappeared. The woman soon began to amble around the block with a carer at her side. Then she edged along the pavement with a carer and a Zimmerframe. I stopped asking how she was when she no longer recognised me. She hasn’t been out for some time. I can’t help feeling sad that her walking days are over at last.

Staying in one place definitely has its downside. No matter how much I try I can’t ignore the passage of time. I’m reminded daily by Fever Tree in the garden. Once a young sapling it is now an almighty green giant, standing proud above other trees in the neighbourhood. I’ve been forced to confront my mortality more than I’d like. I also know that when I go on my daily walk people look at me and see the signs of aging too. There have been three different dogs at my side over the years and my daughter, who I pushed in a pram when we first arrived, now towers over me when we walk together.

Part of me longs for the past, when moving to a new house or a new town makes everything seem different and exciting. Continuity can lead to boredom but my children have loved the stability of having one home during their formative years. And although I’ve grown used to being in one place most of the time, I’m always quick to take on any job which involves travel. I work away from home for some of every month and still love the thrill of a journey. Maybe one day I’ll settle down for good. But I do hope that day’s not too soon.

First published in The Sunday Independent 5th November 2010

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Equality of the Sexes?

All men (and women) are created equal. Or so they say. I’ve always believed in the equality of the sexes myself and have been known to rant about this subject on occasion. But after a recent experience on the N3 I’m not so sure.

There I was driving along the motorway listening to my favourite music at full blast when the car behind me flashed its lights at me. I couldn’t move over to the left lane because a large truck blocked the path. Used to the anger of many men on the road who resent seeing a woman ahead of them, I showed the flasher a rude sign. He continued to flash his lights. I moved into the left hand lane as soon as I’d overtaken the truck but the car then hovered alongside me as drove past. I wondered if he was about to pull out a gun and shoot me. These things have been known to happen on the Durban highway. Instead I was surprised to see the man gesticulating towards my tyre, mouthing something about a flat. That’s when I heard it. The ominous knocking sound. I turned down the music and tried to convert my rude gesture into a friendly wave of thanks.

My heart sank. I had an interview an hour’s drive away and a flat tyre was the last thing I needed. The next service station was far away so reluctantly I steered the car onto the shoulder of the road. As trucks whizzed past, taking a few layers of paint off my car each time, I climbed out gingerly and went to open the boot. At least I could do that much. Now I have to admit that I have never changed a tyre. Every time I’ve had a flat someone else has stepped in to help me. And I must admit I’ve been delighted each time. I’m probably the least practical person on the planet and have been known to have trouble opening a bottle of wine. So when I opened the boot and couldn’t even find the spare tyre I knew I was in big trouble. Even after lifting up the boot’s carpet there was nothing to be seen. I panicked.

At this point I’d just like to thank the manufacturers of Peugeot for devising an ingenious device to hide the spare tyre under the car. And I’d like to thank them even more for hiding the wrench which unlocks this ingenious device in a cleverly hidden compartment in the boot. We realise you French have always had it in for us foreigners, haven’t you?

Just as I was about to abandon all hope, a warm and friendly police car drew up behind me. Two smartly dressed men mouthed through their windscreen – did I need any help? Not allowing room for any misunderstanding I nodded back desperately. Like two knights of old they leapt down from the front cab of their horse, um, vehicle, and found the hidden wheel. Somehow to them the arcane location of the spare tyre made complete sense.

And that’s when I began to think the unthinkable. As they replaced the tyre within a matter of minutes and packed the remnants of the burst tyre back into the secret compartment without any fuss, I began to consider a horrific thought. Perhaps men and women aren’t created equal after all. Perhaps most men are better able to deal with the intricate aspects of French technology than most women. Perhaps there is an aspect of the male psyche that drives men to build a building higher than any others, to send a rocket into space and to develop intricate suspension bridges. Yes, I know many women have these highly developed technical capacities too. In fact I’m sure a couple of women are far better at these jobs than some men.

But although I’m good at Science and not too awful at Maths, I’ve never had the desire, never mind the ability, to tinker with machines. And a lot of women I know feel the same way. Perhaps there isn’t really equality of the sexes after all. Perhaps we each have our own intrinsic capabilities which may be different from each other but no less worthwhile. All I know is I’m glad that someone out there can change a tyre better than I can.

First published in The Sunday Independent on 10-10-10

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Walking the dog hurts my throat.

It’s official. Walking the dogs hurts my throat.

I’ve just come back from a walk around the neighbourhood with my two dogs and my throat is raw. Now I’ve always loved going for walks in the area I live in. It seems to ground me as I enjoy the season’s changes in the gardens around me. For a while, though, my silly Springer spaniel wasn’t very good at walking down roads. She has a nervous disposition and would leap in fright at most passers-by and noisy trucks. Once she even knocked me onto a busy road in her terror. So for a few years I’d load her and my parents’ Maltese into the back of my car and drive to the racecourse next door. Walking around there was less stressful but the resultant slobber in the car made me reluctant to offer any humans a lift later.

And psychologically it just felt wrong to drive so that I could go for a walk.

Then a short while ago I devised a cunning plan. If I put my slightly silly Spaniel on a lead and asked my strong older son to take control of her, we could revert to walking out of the garden gate without a road-trip first. It all seemed so simple.

Our first expeditions were lovely. As the sun began to set my son would tell me about the latest events in his favourite Japanese animation; he’d keep me up to date with the Formula 1 rankings and also kept me well informed about La Liga, the Spanish equivalent of the Premier League. Obviously we’d have a chorus of barking from dogs behind bars as we passed through the neighbourhood but we’d zone them out until we were hardly aware of them.

That was until the people with the biggest Alsation on the planet decided to drive their 4 by 4 out of the driveway. As we walked past. We were oblivious to the danger at first as it was already quite dark. Suddenly, a form as silent and deadly as a trained Ninja swept out of their gates and went straight for my silly Spaniel’s jugular.

Now I’ve been in situations like this before. And I know my National Geographic too. I’ve learned that you have to become the alpha animal in this scenario, asserting yourself above the level of the crazed-attack-mode killer dog. So to head the dog off at the pass, I screamed at the attacker with the greatest authority and volume that I could muster, while placing a well-aimed kick at the dog’s slavering head. The dog yelped in shock and quickly released its hold on my Spaniel. For good measure I aimed another kick to knock even more sense into him. Then I continued to shout at the dog to Remove! Itself! And! Get! Back! Inside! The cowed dog whimpered as it slunk back into the gates. That was the moment the owner stepped down from his chariot and swaggered towards us. “The trick is not to panic,” he told me, with an ‘aren’t-women-silly?’ smile. I don’t usually like being patronised. Especially after I’ve just raised my adrenaline to Fight or Flight levels. And especially when said patroniser was safely ensconced in his giant 4 by 4 when his dog was about to turn a suburban street into a blood bath. Still in alpha-animal mode I screamed at him that I would stop screaming at his dog when it stopped attacking mine. He looked stunned. I did not care. But I did have a very sore throat.

Fast forward to last night when my son and I walked the dogs again. Two giant Ridgebacks, bred to hunt lions mind you, were wandering outside their owners’ house while said owners were warmly tucked inside watching TV and drinking wine. I’m imagining those details, you understand, but their situation was definitely more cosy than mine, eyeballing two killer dogs in ‘let’s- have-lunch’-mode.
Afterwards I consoled myself that at least I must be a good teacher. As the largest Ridgeback launched itself at our tiny Maltese and mouth-bred-for-retrieving Spaniel, my son used his best soccer skills to kick some sense into the hell-bent animal. When the owners finally shook themselves awake and came to open their electric gate, I didn’t leave anything to chance. Like Ahmed the Tiny Terrorist I yelled “I will KEEEL YOU!” to the dogs until they cowered back inside like frightened Chihuahuas. The owners looked at me in shock. I love animals more than most, but a ravenous dog in killer mode isn't an animal I'd entertain in any way.

We walked back to our house with adrenaline levels higher than a first-time skydiver’s and I thought I’d have to be better equipped on our following walk. Next time I must take cough sweets along to ease my aching throat.

First Published in The Sunday Independent on 12 September 2010.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Sex and the Sissy.

Is it just me but is there just way too much sex around at the moment? I’m not talking about the actual act of having it, you understand. I mean, let’s not get silly now. But every time I switch on the radio, turn on a television, open a website, read a book or pass a billboard, there are people talking about sex, people actually having sex or describing the sexual act itself.

Just this morning I switched between three radio stations while I drove. One DJ was talking about masturbation. Another was telling a gross sexist joke about female anatomy (why are these men still allowed on national radio?) and a third was droning on about prostitution. I almost drove into a lamp post to avoid listening to another word. My young daughter was in the car with me at the time. She felt as embarrassed as I did hearing the way women and sex were described. The male announcers talked about sex as if the activity itself and women in general were some sort of recreational action figures for men to use to “relax themselves with” as Jean Jaques Rosseau wrote in the 1790s. Yes, he really wrote those words in relation to women. So has nothing changed? Have our attitudes not moved on from Voltaire’s? And is sex now placed in the same category as the type of beer you drink or which sports programmes you watch on television?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I don’t believe sex is a spectator sport. Perhaps it all stems from a job I had as a vacation student within the organisation which gave me my bursary. I had to work for the company over every holiday. On one of the holidays I worked in the small television department which made training films. One day my then boss decided to lock me into the mobile unit to get me to “check” films he was recording to “ensure there were no mistakes in the footage.” I watched innocently as the film rolled while he went out for a while. Of course it was a porn film. And of course he popped in halfway through it to caress my shoulders excitedly, while asking me if I found the footage interesting. I told him exactly what I thought. It was the most boring thing I’d ever seen. It was on a level of watching people eat with their mouths open. After all it was just sex. Animals do it all the time without the salacious fuss. He was very disappointed, but to his slight credit, he didn’t try to force the issue or anything else on me that day.

So I know that my attitude towards graphic sex in the media puts me in the minority in today’s Sex and the City generation. But seriously, Sex and the City is written by gay men. And if women feel that being liberated is about being able to shag as many men in a week as they have cups of tea, then I really think they’ve missed the point about liberation. True liberation is about not having to shag someone six times a day to feel justified as a human being. Shag someone if you want to, of course. But being liberated does not mean that sex is the ultimate goal in life. We remain at the level of the Victorians if this is the way we behave. Their approach to sex was to make it the ultimate forbidden fruit and, of course, their attention was completely captivated by it. Hence the popularity of the repressed but wildly passionate bodice-rippers and vampire stories which infiltrated their book shelves.

I’m not saying that sex doesn’t have a place in films, literature and so on. But there’s a world of difference between a well motivated sex scene and a gratuitous ‘Romp and Pomp’! So I believe that if we want to be truly liberated, sex should just be that: just sex. Our pendulum has swung so much in the opposite direction of the Victorians that sex has to be mentioned constantly in every medium. I really wish society would get over itself. After all, it is just sex. After all, I’ve always believed that those who talk about sex the most are the ones who do it the least.

First published in The Sunday Independent, and The Witness, 21 and 23 Aug.

Friday, July 02, 2010

My World Cup Runneth Over

I was quite concerned before the World Cup started. When overseas friends asked me how safe it was for them to come to South Africa for this event, I always included a proviso that they should take great care at all times. It didn’t help that one of the biggest stories going around the UK pre-World Cup was that tourists were more in danger of being attacked by baboons than criminals, thanks to a really irresponsible journalist blowing a few incidents at Cape Point out of proportion. So after I’d disabused my friends of the fact that baboons didn’t exactly amble along Jan Smuts Avenue looking for a pale foreigner to attack, I did suggest that they shouldn’t advertise the fact that they were tourists. For example a dead giveaway would be to dangle expensive cameras around their shoulders or talk loudly on-state-of-the-art iPhones while walking down the street. I prayed that there wouldn’t be a rampant free-for-all by our unscrupulous criminals during these four weeks.

I shouldn’t have worried. Apart from a few opportunist in-house robberies in hotels and B and B’s, I’ve been overwhelmed by the welcome the people of our country have given to visitors. The excitement of seeing world class soccer has encouraged South African citizens to draw on our best behaviour. And when we are at our best, we are without equal in hospitality and generosity of spirit. Our very special Arch (Bishop) epitomises all that is good about this continent, jiving with joy to T.K. Zee during the opening ceremony.

I’ve also been made proud by South African technology. In spite of an internet speed which was beaten in an experiment with Winston the Carrier Pigeon in Howick last year (yes, really), South Africa has built the most spectacular stadiums in the world. Even the ubiquitously patronising British commentators conceded that the Calabash at Soccer City in Soweto – unbelievably, the site of the horrific Soweto Uprisings a few short decades ago - was one of the most magnificent stadiums in the world. Closer to my home, the Moses Mabida stadium in Durban with its exquisite arch curving into the sky is a marvel of technology. I could not be more proud that these were designed and made only with home-grown expertise. What I really love about these creations is that they show off African creativity in ways which have never been seen in the rest of the world. Only we could decide to build a stadium in the shape of a calabash. And only we could design an arch of such decorous elegance. For once, ‘Only in Africa’ is a cause for pride rather than denigration.

Our creativity also exploded in the spectator seats. The makarapa head gear has come into its own. It’s been the talking point of many commentators and photographs of fans showing off their individual flair have been compiled into a book. Again, I love the fact that South Africans have taken something potentially full of negative connotations, such as migrant mine workers’ hats, and created an inimitable statement of individuality. ‘Only in Africa.’ Again, in a good way. And I’m not even going to mention the vuvuzela…

My car is still covered with South African flags which I won’t remove. Even though Bafana Bafana were knocked out in the first round, we met their defeat with good grace because our boys played with heart and like a cohesive team. It’s good that the nation still supports them. Rather that, than the blood-letting greeting the English players as they head home to face the savage press.

Lastly it’s wonderful that South Africans are getting behind Ghana as the final representatives of our continent. I don’t want to tempt fate but I hope this means that the xenophobia we experienced a short time ago is a thing of the past.

Here’s hoping that the tremendous positives that have come out of the World Cup stay with us for a long time. We felt it. It was here. We showed the world we could do it. Now we must show ourselves that we can become one of the best countries in the world.

To be published in The Sunday Independent, 4 July 2010 and The Witness, 5 July 2010.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Changing Room or Chamber of Torture?

What was he thinking? I’m referring of course to the man (it had to be a man –a woman wouldn’t have invented such houses of torture) who designed changing rooms in clothes shops. What on earth was he thinking when he designed a quarter metre squared cell-like enclosure, installed unforgiving fluorescent lighting and then topped it off with floor-to-ceiling cellulite-enhancing mirrors? Did he really expect women to disrobe, see themselves in unadulterated technicolour and then feel good enough about their bodies to buy clothes in such an unflattering environment?

Now, I’m not the sort of person who likes to shop for clothes. In fact, I’m known to wear the same items of clothing until they fall apart at the seams. Literally. Even my mother who tried to rescue a dress for me recently by re-sewing the seams again suggested I buy clothes at least once a year. The thing is I hate shopping. I never find what I’m looking for. Or else the clothes I like never fit me. Somehow I don’t have the sort of shape that fits easily into the “Ready to Wear” category. On that rare occasion when I do find something I like, I have been known to buy ten items in different colours then wear them until threads emerge from the washing machine instead of a single item of clothing.

The only problem with this is that every once in a while, an event comes up which requires a special dress. Usually I can dress my favourite Indian-style clothes up or down depending on the occasion. But on the night of a very special event, one I’ve worked so hard towards bringing about, I thought I had to find something other than my ten year old Monsoon specials. So I ventured out to the local Mall. On a Sunday. Just after pay day.

The trip was doomed from the start.

Every person in the whole of the province had decided that this was the best day for shopping too. Strike One for a good shopping experience. The next step, inevitably my least favourite, was to look for clothes in clothes’ shops. Obviously. We started at one end of the mall. As we worked our way down I became more depressed with each shop we entered. Have you noticed how almost all boutiques stock clothes suitable only for anorexic pre-teens? There was nothing I would wear in a million years. Strike Two for said shopping experience.

Feeling almost desperate as the big event was just a day away, we worked our way up along the mall again. There had to be something that would fit me and make me feel good. At this point I was reduced to taking some unsuitable looking clothes into the changing rooms. Aha! The torture chamber awaited. I stripped to my underwear and there I was in all my flawed glory. Magnified around the room in lights bright enough to light up the darkest Karoo night. Absolutely enormous Strike Three. There was no way I could ignore the extra weight that has crept on over the past years. The changing room brings brutal confrontation time with unforgiving flesh.
No amount of spiritual or rational reasoning could get me away from the fact that everything I tried on made me look appalling. Words such as “mutton” and “lamb” drifted through my depressed brain. Nothing looked good.
What was I to do? I contemplated making the event a Roman-themed night so that I could drape a large sheet over my expanses of skin in a tasteful toga-like construction, but thought this go down well. Finally, in a state of serious existential crisis I grabbed a dress off a rail because I liked its material. It was as soft as chamois, and had a gentle green leopard print, something that would match the wildlife theme of the film. The woman in the changing room looked twice at my rear in the dress. I knew she thought it was too tight but I was beyond care. Nothing would induce me to go back into that change room again.

I’d like to have a word with the inventor of those dreaded cubicles. If you really want to sell clothes in department stores, use lighting with the same wattage of candles. Install mirrors which elongate reflections. You’ll sell many more clothes. And your wife/girlfriend/mother or sister won’t try to kill you when she comes home from a shopping trip.

First Published in The Witness and the Sunday Independent 20 June 2010

Monday, June 07, 2010

Hadedas - the Sequel

Remember when I looked after a young hadeda who couldn’t quite manage to takeoff on her own two wings last year? It’d seemed like a good idea at the time but my charitable deed has created an alarming precedent. Word’s spread. Now, not only do my rescued hadeda’s offspring see it is their rightful heritage to raid my kitchen each day but hadedas from across the country line up each day at 5 am. Their assembled ranks would make General Montgomery proud. Rows of glistening-grey feathered trench coats line rooftops, reflecting the dawn light. If I dare to have a lie-in, their leader sounds the reveille. I’m sure their squawking sets off alarms in nearby houses.

I’m well into a third generation of beggars, um, I mean hadedas now. What used to be a cute party trick when one cautious hadeda tip-clawed her way up to the dog’s bowl in the kitchen has now become an onslaught. The cocky youngsters aren’t frightened at all by said dog’s presence as they lay siege to her bowl of Pedigree. Even when our marmalade cat tries to block the doorway with his bulk, which is not inconsiderable, he is shoved aside as they troop in like a well-trained assault team.

They now see it as normal that I give them their daily bread. I’ve had to resort to bread, you see, as Pedigree is so expensive I can barely feed the dog on it. So I buy the cheapest bread and try not to think of the hungry children it could feed instead of beaky intruders.

A while ago I decided to become hard-hearted and closed the door on the pushy throng. There are only so many times one can slip on hadeda poo in one’s own kitchen, after all.

They must’ve known. It wasn’t long before a daughter of the trailblazing bird set up a fragile nest in a tree outside the window where I work. She balanced precariously on a frail branch just when I’d resolved to keep my back security gate locked at all times.

As I tried not to take any notice of the nest, the soon-to-be mother laid two eggs. Within weeks mottled-brown shells fell from the sky. Soon I could see two scrawny necks sticking up over the nest squeaking desperately for food.

Mother bird exhausted herself flying back and forth with titbits. I felt sorry for her. I know exactly what it’s like trying to feed a houseful of starving children. So I decided to throw out a few choice bits of Pedigree. Just for her. I even let her come into the kitchen on her own a few times.

Soon it was with a sense of pride that I watched mother bird encourage her fledglings to stretch their wings for the first time. I saw first one, then the other, flutter down to the grass under the pepper tree. They stumbled around wide-legged like drunk wind-up soldiers. I never thought a hadeda could be adorable but these were.

It was only a matter of time before they joined their mother outside my back door. Their cries became more insistent as the days went by. At one point mother bird looked smaller than they were, so worn-out was she by her constant foraging for food. Her exhaustion resonated with me. I remember the draining days of nursing niggly toddlers only too well. Mother bird officially became the fifth member of my domestic menagerie at that point. I heaved a sigh of relief every time she threw her wings up in despair and went off on a fly-about for some peace. The two youngsters waited on the rooftops, staring after her in confused silence, desperate for her return. But even mother birds need a break.

Once I thought the babies were big enough to feed themselves, I resorted to locking the back security gate again, this time with steely resolve. That was until mother bird came back with only one of her babies. And with a badly broken foot. She limped towards the gate hopefully. I couldn’t bear it. Of course I had to let her in.

Within days word was out. They all came back. Now it’s official: I’m a complete pushover. Ask any self-respecting hadeda.

First published in The Witness, March 2010.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Adventures of a Wannabe Lion King

On my first day home from half way across Africa (well it felt like it, though it was only Polokwane) after lecturing for the Wild Life Film Academy, I missed waking to the sound of a five-year old lion roaring in the bush next to my tent. You see, he’d roared outside the camp and in it, every hour, day and night all five days I was there.

This was unusual behaviour according to the game rangers. It had never happened before on any of my previous visits either. But the rangers told me that this particular lion had been thrown out of his pride recently by the dominant male. So the poor soul had been wandering across the reserve lamenting the fact that he was without a pride since I’d arrived. After the initial thrill of fear I felt when I woke up to the sound of a lion very near my canvas tent on the first night, I grew accustomed to his resonating groans. In fact, I eventually found them reassuring and, on two occasions, quite a spiritual experience in fact.

For example, on the third morning of my all-day lectures, I showed my students the promo of White Lion, the film I’d co-written about a lion who is cast out from his pride. The sound of the lions roaring on film must have travelled out across the bush, as sound tends to do in these otherwise silent places. Suddenly Jagadesh, one of my students, told me to pause the DVD. He told us to listen carefully. Just outside our lecture tent the lonely lion was roaring his heart out. We crept out onto the deck outside and peered into the bush. There was no visible sign of him so we continued to watch the footage. Within seconds he’d started roaring again. It was one of the most exceptional moments of my life, watching footage I’d written about a lion on screen with the sound of a real lion roaring in the bush outside at the same time. The students and I decided that he must have thought he was close to a new pride and were all overwhelmed at this once in a lifetime experience.

On my last evening in camp, in spite of a sore neck, I decided to join the students on a game drive. After all, it’s not often I get the opportunity to go for a drive into the wild bushveld. The students told the ranger she had to find the lions for me after our incredible experience of watching them on the screen and hearing a real lion’s roars outside in the ultimate version of surround sound.

We drove along for about half an hour until we came up to three male rhino on a plain. The ranger decided to drive really close to them. It was at this point I regretted taking the front seat (which I’d done to protect my neck a bit). The front seats of the Land Rover, you see, had no doors! As the ranger drove alongside the three walking lawnmowers shaped like tanks I kept seeing footage of the rhino attacks I'd shown my students in a documentary the day before. I noticed that the ranger thought nothing of driving me broadside to the large grey mammals. I looked at my flimsy corduroy jacket which I’d draped across my knees. I wondered how much protection it would give me from a charging rhino’s horn.

The fear I felt then was real, but that was nothing compared to our next encounter.
After driving around for another hour, finally we saw him. We’d been driving off-road through plains of vehicle-high yellow thatch grass when we heard him. Our lost boy. The ranger drove towards the sound. And suddenly we realised he was behind us in a thicket. So Deanna, the ranger, turned the vehicle around and there he was - right in front of us. The most beautiful five-year old male lion I've ever seen and my first sighting of a lion in the wild. He continued to walk towards us, grumbling and growling to himself. He looked me straight in the eyes as he passed. Once again, I was broadside to him. I’m embarrassed to admit that my initial reaction was sheer terror once again. He passed within a metre of my unprotected legs. I'm glad I didn't have a camera as I would’ve dropped it in fright. If I'd stretched out my hand I would have touched him. Even Ashwika, one of my keenest students, stopped her incessant camera-clicking behind me. Even she froze, even though she was relatively safe in higher seats behind the solid steel sides of the Land Rover. Fortunately she continued to click again once he’d walked past. These are the photos. I might add that she did not have to use a zoom lens.

Once I'd recovered from the shock of being so close to an unhappy wild lion, I could appreciate his beauty. He lay down just a little away from us on the plain in the shadow of the mountain. Deanna turned the vehicle around and we parked a few metres away from him, watching him roar, yawn, grumble, roll over on his belly and feel a bit sorry for himself for over an hour. As his roars echoed majestically off the Waterberg mountains as the sun set, I couldn't believe how privileged I was to be alive in that particular moment.

He stared right into my eyes a few times and I tried to send telepathic messages of love to this lonely lion. Silly, I know. I consoled myself with the knowledge that the pride male in the pride he's been rejected from will soon be old and he'll be welcomed back home again.

So it is true: all good things come to those who wait.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Writing about Writing the Screenplay for White Lion.

Getting into the film industry is one of the most difficult things in the world because of the multi-million deals involved in the process. So when I dreamt, literally, that I had to write films just before I left the UK for South Africa, I had no idea how long it would take before I would get my first feature film “Screenplay By” credit. To cut to the chase, after having films optioned (the rights bought by a producer) three times, once by a UK producer, each time the process got stuck in “development hell.” This is the name of the process where endless rewrites, fuelled by comments from the director, the producer and perhaps even the producer’s tea lady eventually destroy the script. In all three cases the producers gave up on my film after years of hard work on my side and simply made another one. Do I need to add that they never paid me during this time? Unfortunately, development hell is not at all uncommon in the film industry.

And so it came to pass that nine years down the line, and as many screenplays later, I decided I would give up my dream of writing feature films if nothing concrete happened by the end of 2006. After all, you can write as many brilliant feature film scripts as you like but unless one of them sees the light of celluloid, you’re not considered a film writer at all.

That's when a call for scripts came through SASWA (South African Script Writers Association now called the Writers’ Guild of South Africa) from the Producers of White Lion. They were looking for a writer to develop a rough story outline about a white lion into a full feature film script. By now I’d learnt how to write scripts to a tough British standard after my five year stint with UK producer and directors. I’d also acquired one of Britain’s top agents. I had certainly paid my dues. Without hesitation I submitted a treatment based on a very loose outline supplied by the producers and went up against the pool of South Africa’s best script writers.

Like the others I had to send in a treatment, which is a synopsis of the storyline of sorts. Doing my research, however, I heard that the African elders believed that white lions are the angelic messengers of the gods. In a whim of fancy I felt that the white lions were going to be my angelic protectors at this critical stage of my career. As a child I’d been besotted with lions after seeing Born Free. I even have a photograph taken of me and my two brothers with a lion cub at a Boswell Wilkie’s Circus when I was about six. I held the cub so tightly that my brothers could hardly touch the lion. I knew in my heart that this was my breakthrough film.

The executive producer of this film, Rodney Fuhr, owned the Lion Park near Lansaria. He’d made his money in business but had a dream of telling the story of a white lion’s struggle to survive in the wild. White lions seldom survive in nature because their light fur makes them a target for predators. But Rodney had managed to breed a pair of white lions. White lions aren’t albinos but a rare genetic throwback which occurs at random in tawny prides. Rodney Fuhr’s right hand man, Kevin Richardson who was producer on this film, had hand-reared many of the cubs. They’d finally reared a fully-grown white lion which had done the rare thing of reaching healthy maturity.

So Rodney Fuhr and Kevin Richardson were looking for someone to create a story around the lions they loved. First ten writers were selected. Then it went down to the wire with just three of us left. I was up against an established production company and another top writer. When the production team did a teleconference, they asked me why they should give me the job. I answered honestly: “Because I love lions.” I thought I’d really blown it with my naïve answer. But I did really love lions more than any other animal. And I think that may just have touched Kevin Richardson’s heart.

Fortunately the treatment I’d written really got to the heart of the lion’s story too. I realised as soon as I started working on this project that we needed a classic Hero’s Journey with the lion as the hero. So, in spite of, or perhaps because of, my naïve answer, I got the job.

I was flown to the Lion Park and spent weeks driving around the reserve, meeting the lions from the safe distance of a 4 by 4, especially in the case of Letsatsi, the big male white lion. My respect for Kevin knew no bounds when he walked into the veld with thia exquisite creature who kept putting his giant fangs around Kevin’s naked calves. Kevin would swat him gently and say “Not now Letsatsi.”

I held the cubs as soon as I could. They are as beautiful as you’d imagine. Milk-white fur with blue eyes and just a little bit silly. The teenagers, though, are quite unpredictable so I stood by quietly while Kevin dealt with them. As one of the production team said the teenagers, with their untidy beginner-manes, just needed a skateboard and a baseball cap to complete their cocky looks.

When it came to writing the script Rodney wanted a story which I felt reflected his own life of making it on his own terms in a harsh world. So I created a classic underdog story for Letsasti. First principles of script writing still apply whether you're writing about humans or animals.

Also Rodney would not allow any anthropomorphism at all. This was no Lion King II fortunately. So I was given many lessons while on location by Kevin about actual lion behaviour and had to disabuse myself quickly of any notion that lions are sweet and cuddly. They can be extremely brutal and male behaviour towards their own cubs almost broke my heart as I watched many documentaries while researching lion behaviour.

In my hero’s journey for Letsatsi I needed a mentor to kick-start his journey. However I had to work really carefully to get the producers to accept an ancestral link to the lions through the ancient African tradition as they didn’t want anything “airy-fairy” to start with. I opened the door for the possibility of the mentor being a Shangaan tribesman who would take over the guardianship of the white lion because of the Shangaan’s beliefs in the mystery of these lions. This story line was later developed into a full narrative arc by my co-writer, Ivan Millborrow.

Also I insisted we had to have humans in the story to up the ante and create an antagonist of serious proportions. Just having the lion’s natural predators and his rejection by his pride wasn't strong enough to create a real sense of crisis and drama. So I elaborated a story line with hunters with one nasty man in particular desperate to bag the white lion he’d heard rumours about.

My daughter and I went onto the set a few times and it was amazing to watch the wranglers working with the animals. In this film more than most, the production crew deserve all the credit. Working with humans is one thing, but working with animals is on a completely different scale.

Our model for White Lion from the outset was a seminal film about bears called L’ours, or The Bear. Made in 1988 by Frenchman Jean-Jaques Annaud, it was one of the first feature films to star live animals in a scripted narrative. Personally, I think White Lion exceeds the success of The Bear. Directed by Michael Swan, produced and realised by Kevin Richardson, with the story conceived and funded by Rodney Fuhr, I had a small but fundamental part to play in this multi-million rand epic.

At the recent premiere in Johannesburg I watched with immense pride as Kevin Richardson and director Michael Swan were interviewed by more than five television crews. They have both worked so tirelessly on this film that they deserve all the credit they get, including winning three SAFTA Awards for Cinematography, Sound Design and Sound Editing recently.

What really made the event for me though, was when the executive producer Rodney Fuhr sought me out especially to tell me how important it was for him that I’d travelled up for the premiere. He said that making the film would not have been possible without me and that I’d got the ball rolling on the whole project. I must admit to crying a few happy tears into glass of wine in the corner afterwards. I’m sure the lions are as proud of me as I am of myself for having been part of this exquisite production.

First published in The Sunday Independent on 14th March 2010.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Into the Wild

As I get into the City Bug which will take me from Johannesburg to Nelspruit, the radio is playing my favourite song, Human by The Killers.

“Are we human? Or are dancers? My sign is vital. My hands are cold. And I’m on my knees looking for the answer – are we human? Or we dancers?”

As we drive further away from the city in the speedy minibus we pass an old white man trying to thumb a lift. He’s the unlikeliest hitchhiker I’ve ever seen. Signs warn: “Heavy vehicles: Wheels stolen!” We’re definitely heading into the wild.

We leave the order of towns for that of agricultural as we travel through pine forests and citrus farms. Almost five hours later we are deep in mountainous terrain.

Finally a car picks me up at Nelspruit and drives me to the office in the Mdluli Concession in the Kruger National Park. A Land Rover, complete with rugged Marlboro man collects me and takes me into the Nzikazi Wilderness Camp which is run by the Africa Adventure Specialists. The radio in the Land Rover blares:“Are we human? Or are we dancers?” What are the odds?

On the short drive through dongas we pass a dead rock monitor. It has been run over. Marlboro man stops to radio someone to clear the body from the road. Finally we arrive at the tented camp. A small, upside-down umbrella tent will be my home for the next three nights. I’ll shower shielded only by a sheet of canvas with views across the veldt. At night I’ll hear the sounds of wild animals echo in the bush around me. I’ve arrived.

I’m here to give two days’ of lectures to the Wildlife Film Academy students who have come to make their own short documentary wildlife film. My brief is to talk about turning a documentary into a story, using my experience writing the feature film script White Lion, a story based on the exploits of a real white lion.

Students have come from all over the world to spend a month at the camp. They are given lectures by a series of experts in each aspect of film-making from script writing, to editing, to camera expertise amongst others. For the first time, I’m starting off the process.

“The Wildlife Film Academy (WFA) was conceptualised at the very first Wild Talk Africa Film Festival held in 2005 in Durban,” explains director and founder of WFA and Wild Talk Africa Festival, Sophie Vartan. “A group of thirty dedicated individuals gathered together to shape the future of the industry. The initial members of this group included Dr Pallo Jordan, Minister of Arts and Culture; Eddie Mbalo, CEO of the National Film and Video Foundation; Marcel Golding, CEO; Mark Wild from Animal Planet and twenty wildlife filmmakers. The decision was taken that not only did Africa need to have its own wildlife film festival, but also that it should provide an opportunity for local South Africans to learn more about wildlife filmmaking with the idea of getting internships with production companies afterwards.”

The first WFA course started in February 2006. Vartan explains that the WFA has trained 164 students since it started. It moved to Kruger National Park this year and the students stay in the bush for a full month.

“This has proved so successful that we have a waiting list,” says Vartan.

Both WFA and Wild Talk Africa fall under the umbrella company, the Natural History Unit of Africa, (NHU Africa). NHU Africa is an independent company managed by Sophie Vartan.

“The WFA gives students from around the world the opportunity to live their dream by spending time in the African bush to learn how to produce their own five minute wildlife film,” Vartan explains. “Students are given a variety of skills essential to making original wildlife films. The month is divided into three parts which includes theory-based lectures, filming in the Kruger itself and, finally, post-production and editing.”

My first group of students is a motley collection from around Europe and South Africa. There’s Marilleke, an astrophysicist, who has been backpacking around the world and wants to explore her dream of becoming a wildlife filmmaker. Then there is Noa from Italy, whose love of wildlife reduces her to tears. Suzanne is a talented Dutch journalist. Catherine is a British student so moved by the story of elephant culling that she came to Africa to find out more. Rounding out the party are South Africans William, Gert and Sithembiso. All are avidly keen to become filmmakers.

My two days are sunrise to sunset lecturing. The women can’t decide on a topic but the men are assured of their subject matter early on. It’s hard work all round but the sense of enjoyment is palpable, inspired by the proximity of the African bushveld.

Soon my time is up but not before the students decide to give me an impromptu farewell party. Gert and William produce guitars which they play with great skill. The rest of us form percussion bands using everything at hand. Marlboro man joins us, playing his hide-covered drum. Suzanne is the conductor of the less rhythmic members of the choir. I haven’t laughed so much in years.

In the morning the students wave goodbye fondly as they leave for their first bush drive into the Kruger. I begin the long trek back to the city.

At the end of the month I meet up with them at the Wild Talk Festival in Durban. I’ve just finished another lecture and see Marilleke waving excitedly from the back of the audience.

The WFA students’ films are shown in the lunch break. I am moved by the beauty of some of the films they’ve made. I take heart in the fact that the students have learnt skills during their month at WFA to prove we are more than human. They, like dancers, have created works of beauty.

I lecture in script writing around the country and offer an online Script Writing Course: Cut To The Chase at

Monday, January 11, 2010

Fear of Failure...

I was speaking to a friend recently who mentioned the importance of making peace with failure. It’s all very well to strive for almost impossible dreams, he said, but you have to make peace with the fact that you might not succeed. His words struck me deeply for a number of reasons.

Over the past few months three unconnected people have urged me to stay strong. Last year was a brutal year for me. I can usually cope with most of life’s constant setbacks, but with the health of one of my children compromised, I become deeply vulnerable. My load was a heavy one to carry. There were no quick solutions. For once I couldn’t fix this problem myself. This has been one of the most difficult lessons for me to learn. At some point my health suffered too. Swine flu struck in June and it took me months to recover. The temptation to give up my own goals and plans completely was very strong.

Slowly I realised I have to make a conscious effort to get back on the proverbial horse. If you can bear with me extending this metaphor a little longer, I was only just able to stay upright in the saddle at first. And it was during the long recuperation period that I met the three kind people who urged me to stay strong.

Their encouragement touched me deeply. I contemplated what they’d said for many hours. For the first time in years my personal goals and dreams had begun to feel intangible. The road ahead seemed just too damned difficult. And then I had the conversation with my dear friend above.

His words were the key. They reminded me of the Buddhist maxim that one should have no expectations of the outcomes of one’s actions. This has always been a tricky thing for me especially as we are surrounded by a driven and goal-orientated society. However, at this critical point in my life, learning to embrace failure made immense sense. If I carried on the journey without being desperate about the outcomes I wouldn’t take such hard knocks when things didn’t work out they way I’d imagined.

It was about then that I read a report about a young girl who’d failed matric and was so distraught about her abject failure in her eyes that she hanged herself. I couldn’t help thinking about how society’s obsession with winning at all costs often comes at the expense of personal welfare.

One of the worst insults in current usage is to call someone a loser. This attitude is pervasive in all walks of life. Just think of hit Show Survivor. The first time I saw it years ago I was outraged. How could a programme reward someone for lying, cheating and manipulating, I wondered? Now I hardly give the matter a second thought. We’ve become used to the idea that winners can do anything to get to the top. The only criterion that matters, it would seem, is that they win.

Sports teams and individuals are berated for losing in whatever sphere and fans desert their teams if they aren’t constantly on a winning streak. Many children suffer through school because they aren’t in the A-team or aren’t the top achievers. I’m not saying that society and schools should encourage failure but shouldn’t we get people used to the idea that someone has to lose? Perhaps the so-called civilized world needs to re-examine our “success at all costs” philosophy.

I think we as parents and educators have a duty to teach children that it’s okay not to win every time. I heard of a school recently which rewards the child who swims the slowest in their annual gala. This school has no life or death outcomes for the child who doesn’t succeed. A recipe for healthy self-esteem, surely?

This same friend told me that praise releases life-enhancing endorphins. Perhaps that’s why we’re driven so hard to succeed and get rewards. Many primary schools ensure that children are celebrated simply for being who they are. But I believe this celebration becomes even more important in high schools. We, as parents and teachers, have to take our minds off the giant carrot at the end of the matric year for the sake of our children. We need to be very careful that we aren’t instilling a crippling fear of failure into them.

Personally, I’ve found it liberating to remove my almost rigid need to succeed after the recent conversation with my friend. So this is my New Year’s resolution: I will try and stay upright on the horse and, like Don Quixote, aim for the giants I see up ahead. But I resolve to be just as happy if the giants turn out to be windmills instead.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Bondes have more fun?

Enough is enough! This has to stop: the discrimination, the supercilious looks, the rude remarks, the prejudiced assumptions. I blame the schools. And the Universities. And the government. And the television. In fact, the media in general. It’s a conspiracy, I tell you. I strongly suspect it is an international plot! Think about it. How many Blondes have you seen in positions of power lately?
Yes, I am talking about the ‘Dumb Blonde’ syndrome. Things have gone too far. It is time that we, the victims, stand together. It is time for us to put up a united front - as it were - and to fight for equal treatment for all, for our Human (albeit Blonde) Rights. And to start with, the first question which needs answering is: why are the parliamentary benches bereft of Blondes? Now I know that most of you will be leaping forward with snappy comments like ‘Put Blondes on a parliamentary bench and what do you get? - benches with inbuilt make-up compacts and blowdryer facilities!’ (I just thought of that one. It’s quite good, isn’t it?)
But seriously, the final straw came when my mostly sweet eleven year-old came home from school sprouting jokes which involved women - it’s always a woman - of the ‘B’-word description. The thing is, his sister, his mother, his great-aunt and grandmother are all of the follically-pale variety. Admittedly, some of the older members are a little more chemically-enhanced than others now that ‘Basic Blonde’ has turned to ‘Mostly Mousy’, but hey! Blonde is the way Mother Nature intended us to be. A long, long time ago, perhaps. But still. I digress. Now, however, my formerly-loyal son is telling his D.B. jokes hour after hour, to anyone who will listen.
I saw it coming, I tell you. When someone first refused to give me credit when credit was due, I began to suspect it. When someone else’s eyes glazed over as I began to voice my views on Wordsworth, I knew I was on to something. When an application for funds was summarily dismissed, I was sure they had scrawled the ‘B’-word over the top of it.
How do I fight back, I wondered? Strongly resisting the temptation to say, ‘It’s because I’m Blonde, isn’t it?” I have devised a set of rules for overcoming the opposition instead. Gather forward all ye blondies and listen. These rules will change your life.
Rule number one: When presented with oversights like forgetting to sign homework books, cheques, affidavits again blame it on being follically inferior.
Rule number two: If you miss the AGM, PTA or TGIF meetings three times in a row, throw your hands up in the air, shake the blonde bob, and say, “I don’t know, I just don’t seem to be able to get things sorted out anymore.”
Rule number three: If you are challenged to give a brief summary of Derrida’s deconstructionism theory, smile sweetly and say “I’m sorry. It’s just too much for me. After all, I’m only a Blonde!”
Rule number four: Write the best deconstructionist essay, compose the most original poem and utter the most ground-breaking statements when everyone least expects it, and smile as their collective jaws hit the ground.
If all that fails, refer back to rules number one to three, and enjoy the lack of responsibility.