Cranes and Kittens – JUNE 2016

Low-hanging mist covers the harbour. The port cranes rise above it like carrion birds, at once forlorn and foreboding. Winter has returned, swirling her extravagant robes of dark-hued clouds, luminescent mist and glittering rain. She’s a lady of motion; even her hushed moments brimming with the potential of the next sequence of steps in her dance.

Those cranes on their spindly legs hovering over the port remind me of the Marabou storks I saw a couple of years ago in a marshy patch on the shores of Lake Nakuru. The air was redolent with the smell of death and decay, seemingly amplified by the silence of the storks standing sentinel, occasionally pecking at almost (but not quite) unidentifiable carrion.

My opinion of them (the cranes, not the storks) is somewhat coloured by the fact that they stood watch over the scene where I nearly died. A couple of months ago, on the elevated highway that snakes between the city centre and the harbour, a young French lady called Fanny (I shit you not), recklessly swerved her rental car into my lane without indicating or looking. I responded instinctively, instantaneously, but on that section of elevated highway there is limited space. The force of her car slamming into mine was jarring; the horizon titled alarmingly as my car rocked to the furthest extremes of her suspension. For a brief moment the wheels on the left hand side left the tarmac. I kept my foot on the accelerator and with an iron grip kept the wheels pointing forward. When the wheels slammed down, the car rocked to the left. By now Fanny had awoken to the situation she caused, and belatedly swerved away. Alice (if you’re new to these writings, that’s the name of my current car) threatened to lose traction and spin sideways. If that were to happen with the curb mere centimetres away, she would roll… and probably roll right off the highway before plummeting four storeys down onto one of the car dealerships (more irony) that populate that section of the city. I counter-steered, geared down, checked my rear-view, switched on the hazard lights and eventually came to a section where I could pull over. It would’ve made for an amusing gravestone: “He was killed by Fanny.”

Many people don’t receive the benefit of a near-miss. So many leave us – all of them important in their own ways. Neither obscurity nor fame will keep the ferryman away. If you love music, the world is bereft of some remarkable individuals: Prince, Bowie and Lemmy among others.

Just a few weeks prior to my near-death experience I started dating Miss Dickenson, a relationship that has steadily blossomed into a treasure that exceed the limits of my language.

Which goes to show – yet again – that this universe can unleash startlingly sudden and unexpected life or death at any given moment.

I go surfing with Serote and Fleming a number of times in the ensuing months, never once feeling as concerned about the sharks I share the water with, as I do about the other drivers I share the road with.

Spring arrived early, as if to herald Ms Dickenson, and as quickly gave way to summer (him of the blue skies and warm days, who crowns the Frangipani trees in a profusion of white, yellow and pink). Courtesy of Serote, we go yachting several times – the first time accompanied all across the bay by playful dolphins.

Teumessia’s birthday entails dressing up like a rock star from any era. I do a 80s rocker impression; leather jacket, blue jeans and a bandanna on my head. Dickenson outshines everyone with a short-haired afro-wig, round-rimmed pink-tinted sunglasses and bell-bottoms. The party commences at Manila Bar with karaoke, and with a certain inevitability migrates somewhere around midnight to The Shack. Around 3am a guy is laying topless on one of the benches while three women take tequila body-shots off his chest…if that isn’t rock’n’roll I don’t know what is.

I return to the Transkei for 3 weeks – driving several thousand kilometres and reconnecting with a world far removed from modern city living. While I’m there, I learn how to save a newborn foal…but only after I fail to save her.

I welcome an adopted kitten into my home. There it is again – the yin and yang of existence: some come and some go.

Throughout it all there’s Dickenson, herself a cat in innumerable ways; graceful, independent, affectionate, passionate, fierce, intelligent and strong-willed. Like a cat she leaves unexpected gifts in her wake.

As for the kitten, her name is Blue, though my most-used endearment for her is “Satan”. I love her, but she’s an asshole. Yes, yes, you’ll say that all cats are assholes, but in a hall full of cats Blue would quickly be elected as the biggest asshole by her own kin. She’s a lovely creature notwithstanding; I’m self-diagnosing Stockholm Syndrome. This is what it must feel like to share a home with a velociraptor. Her bouts of intense affection are separated by periods of insane careening about the house. Any appendage that sticks out from under the blankets, or may almost be sticking out, will be mauled and gouged viciously – usually at 3am.

And yet, amid all this life and growth, I have moments of such profound…awareness. I look about me and find that there are things I understand about humanity, which I wish I didn’t. One such moment arrives around midnight on a dance floor; alone, surrounded by strangers heaving to House music. The deejay is enveloped in smoke, from the side of the stage a gyrating laser beam tracks through the smoke over the heads of the revellers, pierces an upraised glass of beer, leaving it momentarily glowing like molten gold. And the thought arrives:

Don’t tell Mom. I feel like an alien. I don’t know how to human anymore.

At times like these it is a quiet realisation. At other times, like when news breaks of the latest atrocity of men (it’s almost always men), this realisation is like a punch in the gut. All this abuse, rape, violence and murder occur with such inexorable regularity. I see the reasons, the excuses, and the justifications; and with a sense of nausea I also see how the perpetrators (and those that abet them) embrace their excuses with a callous and unerring disregard for the suffering they inflict on others and themselves. I am an alien; I think I comprehend these men but I could never be like them.

Perhaps that is why my eyes turn so regularly to the night sky? For my birthday we go into the mountain wilderness far from the city, where our nights conclude by laying underneath the tapestry of the Milky Way. Meteors streak like tracer bullets across the sky. It feels like the stars are shooting just for us.

This installment’s addition to Ye Stupendous Compendium of Free* Potential Band Names is: Human Anymore.

Breathing and bruising – July and August 2015

All these nights, all these adventures…it’s all one night. A kaleidoscope of moments that merge and fracture and rearrange in new patterns.

Step up to the eye-piece. Yes, come closer. Closer still. Let me show you.

Early European sailors called this the Cape of Storms. Some spoke of the giant monster Adamastor who dwelt off our coast and would hurl violent seas at explorers. Peer into my kaleidoscope and you will see the winter nights heralded by long dusky sunsets; low clouds hang over the city and truncate the mountain. A moody scene dimly-lit. Each incoming storm looms over the peninsula like Adamastor made real. The skies are a mottled blend of indigo and charcoal, veined with lighter shades of grey. Towards the west, the hidden sun casts lurid shades of maroon, like the bleeding flesh of a ripe plum. The sky looks like a fresh bruise. A bruise that precedes the blow.

Let’s shake the kaleidoscope.

The windscreen wipers sweep right, flicking drops into the black. Ahead the rear lights of the other cars curve through the darkness like a string of glowing rubies. Disturbed is blaring from the speakers as I carve through the storm and the traffic.

Tilt the kaleidoscope.
The windscreen wipers sweep left to reveal a city in the midst of a power outage. The cars cut through dark concrete canyons. The clouds part and the stars triumphantly declare themselves over the darkened streets; as if singing: “Don’t switch on your lights just yet, for we would show you a thing!” And they do. Jupiter and Venus share a rare dance.

Shake.
A rare dance indeed. I’m in a club called Oblivion (let’s not even dwell on the unintended irony of the name). Around me the crowd is heaving like a tumultuous sea racked by currents of hormones, sweat and alcoholic abandon. Raidne seems a siren, with this sea of dancers crashing on the shores of the table she’s dancing on. She keeps rebuffing idiots that get on the table to grind against her. Eventually I join her to discourage the idiots. I ask (well, shout, to be heard over the music) if those are latin dancing steps she’s performing. Her eyes light up. She takes my hands and teaches me a few steps.

Rattle.
At The Shack, by the downstairs pool table. Hemingway is lining up a shot. Jefferson Starship belts out “We built this city on rock’n’roll!” Everyone is singing along. I twirl Alexa, the pool cue in my hand whirling perilously around. I turn to Arbus, grab her hands and for a few seconds she dances, head down so her hair obscures her face.

Roll.
There’s ink everywhere. Still bleeding words. Words. Worse. Who even writes poems any more? Angsty teenagers. And me. Who reads poetry any more? And this blog. More ink, just spilling over everything. There’s ink on my nights, my friends, my hands. Shall I quote the lady with the stained hands from the Scottish play? Or perhaps paraphrase her doomed husband: waded in a river of ink so far, that to return would be as arduous as to continue across? Internal haemorrhage of ink. With all the ink inside I expect to look at my myself and find black veins and bruises covering my skin, eyes wet with oil, ink instead of saliva. If kissing a smoker is like licking an ashtray, then kissing a writer must be like tasting the ink of a thousand yet-to-be-told words and unborn stories.

Swirl.
The arch of a back, like the graceful curve of a ship’s hull cresting a wave. These storms, we ride these storms. Some even chase these storms.

Shake.
“Be my Babylon”, she said. And his heart bloomed like a roman candle lit.
No, that didn’t happen, nobody said that, but the thought comes to me full-formed at 04h00 as I switch off the light after a long night… and it feels real.
“You should write that into a story”, I tell myself and drift off.

Rattle.
There’s glass strewn across my car seat. Thieves come, like thieves do, in the night. And as thieves often do, gain almost nothing, but cause considerable damage.
The radio is intact – the music remains.
I replace the window before the next rains.

Roll.
Stoker is in the passenger seat of his girlfriend’s car. He registers movement in his peripheral vision. He turns his head, as if in slow motion. A car’s grill looms. Breathless moment. Can you feel the blow coming? Anticipate the crushing crunching impact of metal on metal? Let us flinch and -this once- grant ourselves the luxury of looking away. Nobody is badly hurt, that’s all that matters.

Swirl.
Teumessia -wearing a beanie with two tassels that makes her look like Minnie Mouse- smiles her quirky smile and kisses her wife. The smoke hangs thickly across the room. Rain taps softly at the windows. Later she tries valiantly but unsuccessfully to twerk, to everyone’s delight. The dancers in the group proceed to give demonstrations. Things get decidedly rowdy.

Shake.
We are at The Annex, where the music and the crowd are all plastic-rainbows-and-silver-linings, and we are the dark threatening cloud. The jocks and teenage girls don’t know what to make of us. Stoker drags on his cigarette, with an expression that’s distinctly Italian. I half-expect him to shrug with palms turned upward and say: “What can you do?” The club’s attempt at decoration for the evening consists of randomly strewn glitter, glow-in-the-dark bangles, sparklers, balloons and unused sanitary pads (I kid you not). Indeed, what can you do? Fitzgerald nearly starts a brawl over a balloon.

Swirl.
Same night, but now we’re at Alexander Bar, with its low lighting and Victorian splendour. I coax a decorative typewriter into a semblance of life and the 1am-novelist-collective is born, as we take turns to type on the back of a menu.

Tilt.
Same night, but now we’re at the Kimberley Hotel, sitting at a table on the pavement. There’s a pretty gas-burner by our table, that produces a tall flame within a glass enclosure. It looks like the fucking eye of Sauron, but it produces no heat. A homeless man wearing military fatigues (authentic, as far as I can tell) appears and asks in heavily accented English if he can warm himself by our fire. He holds his hands up to the cold flame and says he’s been sleeping on the mountain, but the weather had driven him down into the city tonight to seek better shelter. After a minute he leaves again. A car parks near our table and the driver emerges, looking around as if waiting for someone. After a minute he wanders over to a wine barrel that forms part of Kimberley Hotel’s pavement furniture. He has wayward hair, an unkempt beard, and a stomach bulging over too-tight pants. Leaning his forearms on the wine barrel he proceeds to poke away at a smartphone. Up to this point he could be a minor character in a Woody Allen movie. But then he begins to grind his crotch against the wine barrel. Now it feels more like a Pythonesque skit; obscene and yet comical, because he seems unaware of his own actions, or our intense scrutiny a few steps away.

Shake.
Back at Alexander Bar, Tantomile picks away at the typewriter: “how you doing? Sexy thamg. Thanks for a great da y”

Rattle.
Upstairs at The Shack. At the pool table I whitewash one of Teumessia’s friends. She’s immediately informed of the pool hall law and gamely starts undressing. Despite her willingness and the enthusiastic encouragement of the others, I convince her to stay clothed. Getting kicked out would spoil the evening. My tonsils are on fire and the cloud of second-hand smoke isn’t helping. But I stay and become engrossed in a long conversation about favourite books and authors with Lucy. Though we don’t speak of honey or church, Iain M Banks and Asimov feature prominently.

Swirl.
Same table, same couches, but a different night and different friends. Hemingway is sucked into a succession of pool games with and against a group of mildly annoying strangers. Arbus drags on a cigarette and jokes about the very odd characters she would be willing to spend one wild night with. Around 01h00 her laughter runs dry mid-sentence and a look of profound sadness flashes across her face. She recomposes swiftly, makes her excuses, and disappears. We all know these moments; the ones that manage to creep up on us and leap unexpected. A stray phrase, a look, a whiff of not-forgotten fragrance… or -perhaps most disturbingly- that wondrous sense of deja vu that precedes the crisp gleaming edge of a memory that cuts like a scalpel. Oh, yes, don’t I know those well. Inkwell. An ink swell. An ocean of ink that swells and breaks across the shores where my life intersects with those of others.

Roll.
The second spontaneous meeting of the 1am-novelist-collective happens -not incongruously- at 20h00. It involves a set of rejected passport photos of -shall we say- ‘dubious’ provenance. Several dozen strangers and one minor celebrity, whose photos we distribute among ourselves like playing cards. We go around the table several rounds, each laying down a photo, inventing a name and personality and linking them to the previous characters in an elaborate and outrageous story. So outrageous that it could never be published without inciting untold hatred and vitriol. We stop before the story is concluded because Stoker insists that our brains might implode and tentacles grow from our eyes. And thus the inter-dimensional, straight/gay/trans-gendered, multi-racial, pan-religious pantomime involving two sets of triplets, a little person, a mute rapper, a twitchy bodyguard with severe OCD and mild paranoia (and a loaded gun), a minor outbreak of herpes, a Vatican assassin, and a host of characters with names so offensive I cannot mention them here, will remain forever untold.

Shake.
Sontag seen over the rim of a milkshake glass at Roxy’s; we talk politics, economics and social justice.

Shake.
“It’s going to sound like I’m crying.”
It does.

Shake.
It’s 01h15 at The Shack. Lucy grabs my forearm and looks deep into my eyes:
“Don’t go.”
I go.

Shake.
Alexa at 04h24 giving the bartender lip because they’re closing shop and kicking us out.

Shake.
The room is thick with herbal smoke, like the interior of Snoop Dog’s limo. How very capetonian.

Shake.
Waiting at a traffic light. Hemingway arrives from the other direction. The light turns red for him and green for me. I never said it was a race. Clearly it is. He gears down, floors the accelerator, and hurls his car around the corner. I can hear the anguished wailing of his tyres through the closed windows and over the pounding bass of a John Hopkins track called ‘Collider’… Hemingway thankfully manages not to collide with anything.

Shake.
Alexa at 20h00, over a plate of lasagne, sitting in the dark -safe for the pool of light cast by an LED lantern- courtesy of another power outage. We talk about astrophysics and addiction, before setting off at 23h00 in search of dessert. Chocolate, mint, caramel decadence.

Rattle.
Arriving home at 04h00.

Roll.
Arriving home at 05h00.

Shake.
Arriving home at 10h30.

Stop.

Descartes may be right about thinking and existing, but let me add a clause: To breathe is to bruise.

This installment’s addition to Ye Stupendous Compendium of Free* Potential Band Names is: Be My Babylon.

Return to the city – July 2015

In July winter wraps its clammy claws around Cape Town. On some nights the fog gathers in luminescent cones beneath the streetlamps, as if attracted by the light and the promise of warmth. Storms blow through from Antarctica and most nights the city seems to bow its head to contemplate its reflected lights in a million pools of standing water.

We are gifted with a pleasantly mild and windless night to celebrate Fleming’s birthday.

I’m freshly returned from my 3-week sojourn in deep rural Transkei (a land far far away).

I arrive at Roxy’s Cafe before everyone but meet a stranger outside, who confirms that she’s also attending the celebrations. Tantomile and I introduce ourselves and get to talking about the Alice in Wonderland novels. I tell her about the strange fascination that the author had for a young girl called Alice.

When Fleming and the others arrive we migrate upstairs. However, soon some of us move outside again because some of the smokers want fresh air while they smoke (The World Health Organisation haven’t issued warnings about the damage that tobacco does to your sense of irony. Yet.).

We sing happy birthday to Fleming. Gradually the rest of the party join us in the square outside. The bare trees stand sentinel while our banter resound between the silent buildings.

Tantomile is tipsy and affectionate. She’s also utterly unconcerned about asking absolute strangers personal questions – which makes for much entertainment. She leaves a bow-wave of the awks in her wake.

I wander upstairs and queue for the only toilet – it is a location worthy of a little wait. A large re-purposed bathroom (complete with shower and bath) – from when the building had been a home – now decorated with old Hollywood posters and an assortment of cannabilised naked mannequins, including one that has had her hand replaced with a toy gun.

When the door opens, it’s Tantomile who looks me over. I’m leaning against the balustrade and casually return the scrutiny. She pulls me into the bathroom: “I need to show you something.” Oh boy.

She turns and points at the wall. One scribe had scrawled: “Fuck you.” At a wonky angle another scribe had written: “Fuck me.” I don’t know which is the more poignant statement, since it would entirely depend on who responded to whom. Insult-or-anger versus lament-or-request. And between these two cliched examples of modern wit, Tantomile had drawn her spirit animal… like a playful statement artfully bracketed by two desperate-sad quotation marks.

Another patron appears and we relinquish the toilet. Fleming comes up the stairs and we wait for the bathroom to open to show him Tantomile’s wall art. Meanwhile I am issued with her eyeliner pencil to add my own artwork. After several more friends and strangers have used the facilities I do a quick portrait sketch of Tantomile’s face on the wall. I get the nose wrong, but I nail the eyes and lips…with the addition of the artful fringe obscuring one eye, the likeness is as complete as I can manage in a few minutes.

Back at our table, Tantomile keeps trying to make me do a self-affirmation statement, which I keep dodging by telling her she’s easily distracted, and then distracting her with a random question (like where the feathers woven into her hair come from). Every few minutes I remind her of the self-affirmation, which she promptly tries to enforce and which I promptly respond to with another distracting conversation.

Hemingway arrived with someone I haven’t met before; she seems quite at ease among strangers, despite the party getting rowdier by the second. I am genuinely surprised when she announces that she’s in her final year…of high school. By the look of surprise on his face, I assume this is news to Hemingway as well. Either way, it’s a gift to be that comfortable in your own skin before the age of 20.

Stoker and Fitzgerald are subdued. They arrive early on and despite occasional flickers of their usual easygoing humour, there’s an air of contemplation about them. Despite the hype, band life is not just sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. To be honest, like soldiers, musicians spend long stretches between their moments of ‘glory’ dealing with an assortment of personal, interpersonal, logistical and financial hurdles. There are times when the sheer mountain of these issues will rise before a musician and make him/her feel like Sisyphus – doomed for eternity to roll a giant rock uphill until fatigue sends him and the rock crashing down the slope to repeat the journey. Over and over. Fans will listen to an album – as Exhibit One I present to you: St. Anger – and bemoan the product, with no inkling of the challenges behind the scenes. I try to commiserate with Stoker; he’s stoic about the issues, but I also know that underneath his decisive personality, he’s keenly empathetic to the emotional state of his band-mates. Fitzgerald appears – for lack of a better phrase: bummed out. I try to cheer him up with references to our escapades from a few nights before (when he went around bursting balloons – even one that was possessively held by a stereotypical jock – while we found ourselves temporarily in a nightclub whose stage we thought might work for the band).

There are a dozen of us spread across two tables in the square. Roxy’s has emptied out. We serenade Fleming with a second, far more enthusiastic rendition of “Happy Birthday”. With people constantly changing seats and topics, I find myself participating in three conversations at any given time.

There’s an explosion of hilarity from the other table. Sontag is laughing, colour high in her cheeks, and there’s a certain sincerity – I’m tempted to call it: clarity – to that laugh, because it seems shot through with the veins of the grief underneath…Kintsugi of the heart.

Behold, catharsis at work. We laugh, because we need to. For our own sakes, but even more so for each other’s sake. As much as I can, I try to contribute to the humour. It has been a difficult year for many. Each month seems to drag everyone further beyond their own preconceived limits. To say that the shit has hit the fan would be an optimistic interpretation. More like waking up and discovering your room is now surrounded by a massive sewerage plant in which some intrepid pilot had mired an airliner…with the throttle full open; after a while you just wish for the turbines to run out of jet fuel and stop flinging shit over everything.

Hemingway and an ex are at the same social function for the first time since they broke things off a year ago. Her current boyfriend isn’t present, but one of his exes is. Tantomile is newly single, but used to – at some point – have a thing with Fleming (which they loudly confirm with a reciprocal affirmation of each other’s skills in the bedroom; a moment hilariously and ironically awkward for everyone present except the two of them). Hemingway’s date and his ex have a long one-on-one discussion and disappear off to the bathroom. Godiva has a smoldering intensity about her – I suspect when she lets slip the leash of self-restraint the results are volcanic.

As she steers Hemingway’s date away from the table with an arm around her shoulder, he gives their retreating backs one bewildered glance and then holds his head in his hands. “Don’t worry,” I shout, “I’m sure it can’t get any more awkward!” A few minutes later Stoker reminds Fleming – as he does at every social gathering – that Fleming was originally introduced to him as “that guy that hit on your girlfriend”. Fleming looks appropriately poo-faced, as is customary. After some debate Hemingway announces that I am the only one at the gathering who has not been involved with at least one other person present. I suggest that this is an exalted state of grace which I should perhaps maintain.

I have a fascinating discussion with Godiva about her many travels to the Middle East.

Roxy’s closes and we transfer the party to The Shack which is relatively busy; our arrival raises the noise levels significantly. We immediately bump into an assortment of friends and familiar faces. Some join our tables, including Maya and Alexa. Maya is introduced as an active member of the BDSM community, and smiles sweetly as if she’d been introduced as the partner in an accounting firm. Alexa I only get to be introduced to later because Hemingway calls me over to the other side of the courtyard to greet someone else. She and her girlfriend are perhaps the ultimate Shack regulars. She has a sweet personality combined with a lean model’s frame that is usually encased in a vest, tight frayed jeans and boots with heels…she’s the subject of much attention and confusion among straight guys. Her girlfriend is attractive, but with a hard edge. Like a sword blade. Despite her almost-Mediterranean attractive looks and confident bearing, she actively attracts no embraces. Whenever she feels that a particular man has shown too much interest in her girlfriend she materialises and puts on a show of territorial possessive behavior that is a marvel to behold. It’s entertaining to watch confused straight guys wither before her jealous displays of affection.

Back at our table Alexa and I are introduced and we launch into a discussion of poverty in Antananarivo and Madagascan wildlife, before segueing into the history of hand-pollination of vanilla on Reunion. We move on to photos of glowworms in New Zealand caves, and then an encounter with fireflies on the slopes of Lion’s Head in Cape Town.

I wander off for a little while to welcome Teumessia and her girlfriend back in town. They had been out of town for longer than I had. We shoot pool. I whitewash Teumessia and explain that the traditional penalty for a whitewash is to run naked around the table twice. When she starts taking off clothes I stop her. Fortunately, Hemingway isn’t around to witness my willful abandonment of hallowed pool hall law.

I rejoin my friends in the courtyard. Maya regales us with tales of BDSM; apparently foot fetishists love women with small feet. Don’t ask why.

The nearest bar turns up the music; it’s The Offspring circa 1994. Everyone bops their heads. Maya says she loves The Offspring because “it’s the only thing my brother and I have in common except my mother’s vagina.” The straight-faced matter-of-fact delivery has everyone belly-laughing.

Jagermeister shots alternate with tequila shots like an artillery barrage aimed at the liver. The sun isn’t far from rising on a Tuesday that will herald exquisitely epic hangovers for some people.

Somehow we’ve sidestepped the usual tipping point into the surreal that is a regular feature of our outings. Perhaps a small kindness from the universe; or perhaps we are the surreal feature in everyone else’s night. In retrospect, I realise that we swept into The Shack like a hurricane of bafflement and mine was the view from the eye of the storm.

At 4h15 the bouncers announce that they’re closing for the night. We wander into the street and I take a portrait of one of us; it’s part of my ongoing series of urban portraits at night. I’m calling the project Night Owls. I get exactly two shots before Fleming and Tantomile commence photobombing. Tantomile – endowed with a strange sort of grace by her inebriation – performs a series of grand jetés. 

I deliver Tantomile and Fleming at his door, before dropping Godiva off. It’s 5am when I walk into my apartment. I love traveling, but it’s good to be back, to embrace my friends and my city.

This installment’s addition to Ye Stupendous Compendium of Free* Potential Band Names is: Small Feet… I imagine their first single will be “No small feat.”

LOVE, DEATH & MAGIC – and the ball-crushing power of karma. End-March 2015

“I don’t know what’s real any more”, Fiona says as she leans closer, while squeezing my hand. I smile and say, “That’s the point. Isn’t it beautiful?” It’s after 4am on one of those improbable summery nights that Cape Town dishes up in autumn, and I guess I need to rewind to explain how we got here.

Nearly 12 hours earlier I leave the city for two friends’ informal birthday on the other side of the peninsula. The road hugs the northern and eastern flanks of the mountain like a cat rubbing up against its owner’s leg, before setting off over the plain past Dieprivier (which translates as Deep River) and Tokai (supposedly named after a series of hills in Hungary called Tokaj). Then leaps eagerly up the mountain via Ou Kaapse Weg (which translates as Old Cape Way) before writhing down to Noordhoek (translated as Northern Corner). One final bound over the ridge and down to the sea near Fishhoek (i.e. Fish Corner). At the water’s edge it veers once more and takes me up the valley into Glencairn (which is a phrase with Irish and Scottish roots referring to a narrow valley).

I like names. Names are symbols, monuments if you will. We capitalise them to make them stand out from the landscape of our language, and yet most people rarely think about where they come from and what they mean. Until something happens to a person or place and their Name is a monument on which we hang our ideas, the symbol for all our feelings about them. Names and symbols have power once we assign meaning to them. Meaning is ultimately always personal. And yet, when we share a symbol with others its meaning is negotiated…. even contested. And so it happens that when you hear the Name of your lover or child it fills you with the memories, hopes and anxieties inspired by your love for them, whereas the Name of a person or place you dislike becomes symbolic of all that you loathe about them…. yet, those same detested Names ring like sweet music in the ears and hearts of others.

My conundrum is that publishing these journals have created a feedback loop. Although I expected it, I did not expect it to be this pronounced or immediate. The names of people written about here echo in the real world; far more than I expected. To protect the innocent, and more importantly the not-so-innocent, I have begun to fudge names or assign pseudonyms where the identity of the person (especially my friends) is not critical to the telling of events. Bear with me, Dear Reader, because I can’t resist picking pseudonyms that amuse me in obscure ways.

Haha, all of which does not preclude me from name-dropping. Take for instance this birthday party: which includes authors Cat Hellisen and Toby Bennet rubbing shoulders with photographers, filmmakers and illustrators. The hostess and birthday girl is author Nerine Dorman. She’s a horror writer and editor – and sure to crop up again in these pages since she’s on the verge of launching a band with Sonja (lead vocalist for the iconic Terminatryx).

It’s in our nature to take things for granted – like being able to see. One of the writers announces that she’s bound for eye surgery in the near future. I try to put myself in her shoes. Seeing is so integral to my existence; how would I cope with impaired sight? A week later someone else will reveal that they are severely dyslexic, which drives the point home; imagine this world where every street sign, bank form, contract, office note, email, text message, and even this sentence you’re reading right now, becomes an indecipherable soup of alien scribbles. Which is why I’ve made an audio version of this installment, never mind how funny I sound to myself in recordings.

I leave the party after a few hours and effortlessly retrace the contours of the landscape in the dark, like a hand caressing a familiar body. Is this how writing with impaired sight would be? Feeling the shape of things?

April, said Eliot, is the cruelest month. I agree. For as long as I can remember, April has been my ferryman. Every year roundabout April I cross over to something new; sometimes good, sometimes not. Which means that every April I’m particularly aware of the ways in which we transcend ‘reality’, namely love, death and magic. By magic I mean music, writing and art.

You cannot avoid any of them, so my personal philosophy is to pursue as much of the love and the magic as I can until death comes calling.

Death calls with a sort of impetuous regularity and randomness in this country, more so than in many other places on the planet. It hovers at the periphery of our lives, never too far away.

I arrive in the inner city before the doors to Mercury Live have opened. I wander next door to The Shack searching for my friends. Walking up the stairs the girl in front of me is wearing denim shorts that do an admirable job of covering her hips…and nothing else. I don’t know if you could call these mere hot pants; more like a fire hazard.

A minute later I find Sontag, also waiting on our friends from Oh, Cruel Fate. She and I end up discussing the politics of the day, which is unwise given how sensitive the topic has become lately. There’s a campaign to remove a colonial statue that has become a symbol for many other things. I try to make the point that politics is a chess game – if you attach your issues to a single piece, your opponent will happily sacrifice that piece. A few weeks later the issue will be supplanted in the media by deadly outbursts of xenophobia and yet another suspected wife-murderer being arrested…and Sontag’s partner will have passed away. Like I said, death is always near – when it strikes it makes so much of what we do look frivolous and callous. At least she’s with him at the end. I didn’t get to meet him, but from the tributes I see afterwards he seems like a remarkable man.

When we love people we live multiple lives, experiencing our lives through our own eyes and through theirs. Our lives are a tapestry made up of overlapping threads of meaning, many of which are supplied by the people we care for. Even the simplest experience, like how you feel about the steam curling off your cup of tea on a winter’s morning, is coloured by how you know this person you love feels about it. Loving someone means negotiating the meaning of your life and theirs on a continuous basis; a subtle yet ongoing conversation. When that person is gone you still instinctively reach out for those shared meanings in the tapestry, but find that the threads are gone, or more accurately, that those threads are no longer being woven. The tapestry feels incomplete. The conversation is one-sided. To lose someone is to lose the meaning they added to your life, and to no longer know what to do with the meaning you would’ve added to theirs.

Back to the music. Finally, at long last I get to see Oh, Cruel Fate playing on a decent stage with proper sound and lighting. The effect is beautiful; wreathed in smoke and coloured lights they lay down their enticing storytelling, mesmerising the crowd.

They are followed by Black Moscow, whose brand of Nu Metal gets the crowd head-banging.

The final act is Subvers; unashamedly loud, unapologetically metal. The vocalist has the necessary chops to growl and scream with the best of them, but is also still capable of holding a note. Backed by a tight band, the ensemble produce what can best be described as an avalanche of sound, with just enough variation to emphasise the intensity of their all-out balls-to-the-wall moments.

Special mention should be made of Mercury’s sound and lighting guys for helping the bands sound and look great.

It’s midnight when I track my friends down at The Shack. It’s one of those nights when people drift around. The band members are still wired after their gig. Hemingway arrives late; apparently his date delayed him because she couldn’t settle on an outfit. The overcrowded vibe at The Shack isn’t helping things. A random idiot – let’s call him Paul – ends up at our table and makes a point of dishing out subtle insults to every woman that has the misfortune to come close. He asks Hemingway’s date is she’s “really a girl or just a guy dressing like one”. He doesn’t realise that she has a date or that he’s sitting at the table. Hemingway – being the nicest man I know – does not resort to violence… but that’s his night on a downhill. Eventually his date will ditch him and he leaves before he can succumb to the temptation of confronting Paul.

I notice Fiona, whom I had met next door at the gig, being jostled by the crowd and looking slightly lost. I offer her my seat. She accepts it but insists that I squeeze in next to her. Unbeknownst to us, Paul the Douchebag is sitting on her other side. He tries a few subtle insulting questions (including “you’re pretty… like a 12-year old girl”) which she brushes off. Paul – who incidentally has a girlfriend – is a disciple of the ‘pick up artist’ gospel, which advocates the supposed power of subtle insults to put women off their guard. Later he looks at me, then back at her and says: “It’s cute when brothers and sisters go out together.” Fiona and I exchange a glance and wordlessly arrive at the same conclusion. We put our arms around each other’s shoulders and lean towards him, “Actually”, I say “we’re a couple, and we’ve been screwing with you for the past hour to see if you’ll try to pick Fiona up.” Paul gapes. I plough on relentlessly, now laughing – which gets Fiona laughing too, “You ever see that movie where that couple does that?” More laughing. Paul is still slack-jawed, but I can see the anger slowly rising along with the heat in his cheeks. “I’m sorry,” I say “no harm meant.” I’m smiling and I’m not looking sorry at all. Paul’s acquaintance sitting opposite us has joined in the laughter; he must’ve seen this scenario many times before, but this is probably the first time that Paul’s become the butt-end of a joke. He insists on taking a picture of the three of us – Paul can do nothing but smile along. I notice that some of our friends have found a new table and we leave Paul behind.

Around 2am the clubs in the city start closing and there’s a sudden increase in the crowd at The Shack. The courtyard is gridlocked. Fiona looks up at the fairy lights strung overhead and says our conversation is like being in a blanket fort; flimsy, but it’s keeping the world at bay.

And for a while the blanket fort holds. Around 4am something about her smile reminds me of another place, another time, things lost, and threads missing from the tapestry. Some of it flickers across me face and she asks if I’m tired. I could answer without lying and still be untruthful. I could lie and take some comfort where it is being offered. Instead I try to explain that this is where the evening will end. At first she thinks this is a further riff on the earlier joke we played on Paul. She opens her eyes wide and affects shock: “Are you breaking up with me?”

It’s funny. Painfully so. I see the realisation dawn: “You’re friend-zoning me?”, she asks. “No… yes… no”, I shut my mouth.

Which is how we arrive at the point where she says “I don’t know what’s real any more.” I smile and say, “That’s the point. Isn’t it beautiful?”

Everything is possible until we choose one course of action over another. Conversation is the art of the possible, the act of considering more than one possibility. Of saying here are these symbols, but I will not impose my meaning for them on you. Conversation is the weaving of the tapestry of meaning. Conversation between a guy called Einstein and another called Schroedinger is what led to that famous quantum physics thought-experiment involving a cat in a box and the wildly divergent possibilities underneath the fabric of what we like to call ‘real’. There’s another famous conversation involving a cat that pre-dates Einstein and Schroedinger…that’s Alice, lost in Wonderland, asking the Cheshire Cat which path to pick. It doesn’t matter, he tells her, if you don’t really know where you’re going. Any path can get you there.

I’d like to believe that there is such a thing as karma – some cosmic balancing of the scales. That me mocking Paul is recompense for how he spoilt Hemingway’s evening, or that Sontag’s loss will somehow be countered by unexpected joy in the future. Either way, these pages are flimsy bandages over deep wounds.

Perhaps it does all balance out eventually, but with such infinite complexity that it is beyond our ability to truly fathom.

Take for instance the conclusion of the evening. Some random guy decides that he does not want to navigate through the throng in the courtyard, so without warning he steps between us onto our table. Bottles scatter everywhere. He lurches over onto the next table, people duck and more bottles clatter to the floor. From there he steps onto the staircase balustrade and swings his leg over the railing. He thinks he has cleverly turned a 10-minute journey into a 10 second traverse. Clearly, he also gives zero fucks about everyone he nearly kicked in the head and showered with spilt beer. At this point, he has raised himself onto a pinnacle and has all eyes trained on him. His foot comes done on the other side of the railing…. except it doesn’t. The railing is about 2 inches higher than his hips. He tries to get his foot down; but it just won’t reach. He tries to reverse, but it’s high and there’s broken glass down there from all the bottles he knocked over. He see-saws for agonising seconds, with his skinny jeans ensuring his entire weight is grinding his balls into the railing. Eventually he stumbles over and limps off. Guess who will literally be giving zero fucks for a while?

I can’t unravel the mysteries of cosmic justice, but at least I’ll take this little bit of comfort, if karma exists, it’s a ball-crusher.

It’s 4h30, when I leave. Four hours later I’m doing my weekly run along the Atlantic flank of the mountain. The miles roll by while I ponder love, death and magic. I don’t know about you, but I’m squeezing every last second out of this bastard.

Oh, parting shot, this installment’s addition to Ye Stupendous Compendium of Free* Potential Band Names is: The Blanket Forts.

The Pit and the Fragile Things.

There is a pit between
I-care-about-you
and
I-care-about-being-right

into which all the fragile things fall.

When lovers and friends,
families and communities,
gather there,
everyone screams
if-only-I-could-make-you-see,
– ah, but the pit takes its toll –
all anyone hears is
if-only-I-could-make-you.

I have been no pacifist;
no innocent, I.
After all the battles only this certainty:
Wars make corpses or poets of men.
So I would sing you a song
about the fragile things easily lost,
such as goodwill and kindness,
I would sing you a song
about the merciless things,
such as blind Justice
and blinkered Injustice
with their gruesome blades,
neither of whom care
who they cut or where.

Ages come and go;
the world may revolve
but it does not resolve.
History is an awful stone wheel
rolling down a mountain
and we are delicate creatures
that alight on its surface,
to be thrust into the light
or plunged to a pulverising end,
yet engage in the folly
of claiming victory
– and the greater folly of laying blame –
for forces we barely grasp
and could not control.

I just want to hold you
because I don’t care.

Between
I-don’t-care-about-who-is-right
and
I-don’t-care-about-who-is-wrong
is space for
I-see-your-pain
and
I-don’t-have-all-the-fucking-answers
even
I-am-sorry
… but I see your pain, let me comfort you.

THURSDAY SUBLIME – MIDDLE MARCH

The city surrenders itself to the night with a sooty belch as the office workers and 9-to-5ers flee by car, bus and train to the suburbs and townships. In the dusky hour before sunset large sections of the inner city become a sort of abandoned post-apocalyptic wasteland… the wind whistles down deserted streets with only the occasional fluttering plastic bag to keep it company.

 

East of the inner city the gentrification of the warehouse district is only surface-deep. The sun dips behind Lion’s Head, as if it would rather look upon Clifton’s famous beaches than Woodstock’s grittier face. Woodstock had a beach once, decades ago before the warehouses, rail yards and factories were built on land reclaimed from the sea. Looking at old photos of that beach will hurt your head…there’s sea where today half of downtown stands.

 

The shadows deepen and seem to conjure the people who make their living outside the confines and laws of 9-to-5.

 

I aim for Three Feathers Diner. I can only find parking on Main road, but it’s near the front entrance to the diner and there’s a big guy manning the door. His suit says 9-to-5, but his face says don’t-even-think-about-it. Unless the prospective car-thief is Chuck Norris, I reckon Alice will be safe.

 

The usual monthly market is underway. Around the courtyard custom bikes, big Harleys and muscle cars sit on their haunches with a sense of barely contained energy. Somebody turns the ignition on one of the beasts and a throaty V8 rumbles like a volcano. These aren’t toys, they’re built to go.

 

There are many familiar faces in the crowd; hugs and handshakes are exchanged before I go inside to sample one of the diner’s famous burgers. These are epic in size and equally tasty. Burgers are made to order in true diner-style at an open grill right behind the counter, so you know what goes onto your plate.

 

We drape ourselves over assorted chairs as Field of Giants prepares to open proceedings. This is one of Joshua Grierson’s projects and tonight is actually the public launch. Joshua’s been around the local music scene for a long time, but it’s been a few years since I last saw him perform. It’s just him, an electric guitar, no mic, and a few pedals. Turns out one of the latter is a loop pedal, which he uses to subtly weave layers of melody and rhythm on top of each other. Loop pedals have in recent years become endemic (some might even say pandemic) in live performance circles. With some acts it feels as if the looping is more important than the music. Field of Giants is thankfully a different story – the loop pedal is merely a means to an end. I assume that in time the act will expand to include various musicians and the loop pedal may disappear altogether. This is instrumental music; evocative and stirring in the same way that great movie soundtracks are. I’m not overly fond of genre-casting, but for the sake of reference I guess this could be called ‘progressive instrumental rock or metal’. Think of acts like Mono, Mogwai or God Is An Astronaut. Field Of Giants includes the occasional use of vocals in odd ways: almost choral, no words, but deeply emotional. Speaking of which, the performance itself is raw and sincere. Joshua’s face and body soar and contort along with the music – there is no sense of self-consciousness or pretension. I speak to Joshua later in the evening and I’m surprised to hear that much of the performance was composed on the fly.

 

Oh, Cruel Fate has a solid outing in preparation for their first gig on a proper stage within a few days, which I’ll talk about next time.

 

The weirdo of the night is a girl in a pastel-hued vest who wanders right up to the pinball machine in the middle of the Field of Giants set and plays a few games…which wouldn’t have been all that extraordinary except that the pinball machine is in the stage area and less than a meter behind Joshua. Kudos to him for not missing a beat. Think I’m exaggerating? Just scroll up to the photo above and see how close Joshua was sitting to the pinball machine.

 

We call it quits at midnight. Parting shot: this installment’s addition to Ye Stupendous Compendium of Free* Potential Band Names is: Pinball Rude.

 

ROCKETS AND A LOOSE CANON – DYING DAYS OF FEBRUARY

I’m on the other side of the bay. Cape Town’s inner city lights blink across the dark waters, just beyond it Table Mountain is a matte silhouette, more felt than seen… caught between the city lights below and night sky above.

This part of the city is called Tableview, because, you know, it provides a ‘view’ of – queue drumroll – the ‘table’ mountain. Supposedly you can’t reach the pinnacle of a career in town planning if you don’t have a finely-honed skill for giving neighbourhoods utterly banal names. I propose this special skill should be called inane-ing.

I’m heading to Woodstock for a music gig. Yes, reader from elsewhere, we have a neighbourhood called Woodstock. Apparently, the name was chosen in 1867 in a ballot by residents; coincidentally the voting took place at an establishment called the Woodstock Hotel. Politics and place names – it’s practically a national sport…perhaps inane-ing isn’t so bad after all.

Speaking of names – tonight’s venue is called the Three Feathers Diner. It derives its moniker from the original badge of the Pontiac – hence the lime-green GTO or it’s flaming orange brother usually parked inside. If you’re wondering where the Pontiac three-feathered logo originates (and if you don’t, I’m telling you anyway): it’s a tribute to the Native American Chief Pontiac. His is yet another tale of politics and places. It is perhaps the one thing that the English empire excelled at above all else; disrespecting people’s dignity and thus inciting rebellion. I guess respect is as good a reason to go to war for as any other. I love how a name can be a thread that runs back through the ages; names are often the echoes of history repeating itself.

Three Feathers Diner has no pretensions; musclecars, burgers and beer. It’s not rocket science, but there’s a raw beauty to well-executed simplicity. It’s the quartermile drag race of entertainment – the object is to get from zero to a good time in a straight line, in the shortest possible time. It succeeds admirably. There’s a large emblem nailed into one of the walls: a skull with knuckledusters for a jaw and spanners for crossbones, the whole design bordered by a sprocket. It even has glowing red brake lights for eyes. If you’re hoping for soft mood music and percale napkins, you’ve come to a drag race expecting to see a Rolls Royce.

There’s a single pool table, where I find Frank and Rich involved in an epic battle, not so much against each other, but against the table itself. Like every attractive novelty pool table design I’ve ever encountered, it looks pretty and behaves monstrously. Sections of this one seem to have discarded our universe’s laws of physics in favour of suggestions of physics originating in the library of the Unseen University. This analogy is strictly designed to give me an opportunity to say this: Rest well Sir Terry, your passing made countless hearts swell with sadness and fond memories….and thus, even as you departed you proved again that some things – like libraries, luggage and our hearts – can be bigger on the inside than they are on the outside.

There’s an informal market happening around the fringes of tonight’s event. Art gallery upstairs, clothing, lingerie and baked goods downstairs. All the diner tables are occupied and creaking under the weight of burgers and beer. And not a hipster in sight – guess Woodstock at night is just a bit too real to fit their sanitised grunge.

Among my vices, baked goods rank pretty high. While the pool table screws with my friends I find myself succumbing to the gravity of The Velvet Cake Company display nearby. Ranks of cupcakes sing hymns of redemption and everlasting bliss. I bow before the altar of Divine Diabetes and receive blessings in the form of a “Sweetie Pie” cupcake. It is a chocolate delicacy worthy of its own gospel, but this isn’t Pinterest so I’ll spare you further details.

We shoot pool, we shoot the breeze and I have another cupcake – told you it was a vice, but in my defense this one is a gift from one of the lovely ladies working at the stand.

The first act of the evening is Damian Le Sar, accompanied on backing vocals by Lliezel, whom I know as one of the leading body-modification practitioners in the country, if not the world. Lady of many talents. It’s a stripped-down sound, without being sparse. Damian’s vocals and guitar-play more than capable of carrying an audience, with Lliezel’s supporting vocals adding nuance. Halfway through their set she produces a tambourine. For me the tambourine is a decisive touch. It’s not The Doors, and Damian is more Mayer than Morrison, but I’m curious how the addition of an organ would round out his songs.

They make way for a folksy singer-songwriter Karla Valentine, who is followed by some cabaret-style covers from one of the diner’s crew, using the stage-name Che Rouge, including a rendition of Alannah Myles’ Black Velvet. This song reeks of the American South; voodoo, humidity, swamplands and sexy sweaty bodies. You can close your eyes and picture the willows and cypresses rising from the marshes, forever caught between fecund and fetid. Nowhere else in the world could have spawned rock’n’roll.

The final act of the evening is The Dukes of Note. Ordinarily a 4-piece, they’re without their rhythm guitarist tonight. It’s an energetic performance, in keeping with the music. Each song seems to be a setup for powerful driving percussion, with drums, lead guitar and bass working in unison. It’s not rocket science…it’s all rocket, lots of it too. Only a corpse could resist moving to the beat and energy. Towards the end of their set the Dukes move into more complex territory, slightly less balls-to-the-wall, but a good variation on the formula.

So, my friends have a band called Oh, Cruel Fate. I should probably mention something about their set, which was the penultimate of the evening. The first and last time I saw them, Mandisi – the drummer – was unavailable due to illness, and to complicate matters the sound-rig at that venue was preposterously bad. This time round they’re not playing in an official venue, so no dedicated sound-rig. But the drummer is present and the sound, via separate amps for each instrument, is decent.

Louw on lead guitar intros the first song with a plectrum scraping slowly down the top string; there’s a statement of intent in that patient grinding never-ending note: buckle up kids, we’re going places. Their sound defies labelling; although it draws on many genres for inspiration, it isn’t a hybrid creature. It’s the delivery that excites me; a less experienced or less accomplished set of musicians would not be able to carry it off.

This ensemble has no dead wood. You could build a decent band around any of these individuals; together they could be – should be! – unstoppable. In fact, the true mastery is how they manage not to overwhelm each other.

I’m no musician but I can tell an arpeggio from an arsehole and I rate Louw’s lead guitar play is everything you could want from that instrument: visceral, naked, speaking an alien language of raw emotions that your subconscious perfectly understands. Dani’s vocals are compelling, at times playful, at others assertive. It’s a storyteller’s voice, which is precisely what the lyrics demand. On bass, Alex is the source of much of the melody; what a welcome relief to find a bassist that hasn’t been pigeonholed into a limited percussion role. And then there’s Mandisi on drums, who is both an aficionado of heavy metal and very well-versed in the technicalities of drumming (yeah, despite the jokes about drummers, there’s actually quite a complex mental and physical skill-set involved). Having chewed this over for two weeks, I’m going to use a somewhat strange word to describe his drumming: delicate. Delicate, as a surgeon works with a scalpel or a pilot at the controls of a fighter jet. The songs vary, showcasing each musician’s talents, but invariably it’s the precision drumming that ties it all together.

It’s all the more enjoyable because the delivery is so effortless. Despite their technical wizardry, I’m left with the feeling that they have much more in reserve. There are moments when they open up the afterburners a little, just teasing with a small glimpse of how much they have on tap.

I guess you could say I’m a fan.

By the end of the evening Three Feathers Diner has sold an inordinate amount of burgers and beer. The folks managing the joint look equal parts exhausted and elated.

So that’s the rocket science and fireworks part of our evening done. Now for the loose cannon – not that we set out to find him.

It’s midnight when we ditch Woodstock for the inner city. Our usual haunt is fairly packed but we find a table and talk about music and whatever else springs to mind. One of our group is, to put it gently, making moves on someone we bumped into at the previous venue. They circle each other, playing both moth and flame. There’s something sweet about witnessing two worlds getting caught in each other’s gravity and orbiting ever closer….would it be tacky to say it will inevitably end in a big bang? Probably; let’s not, OK? While those two spin around each other, they literally float all over the place, rarely at our table, and barely present even when they are.

The rest of us banter about obscure bands. Frank asks Mandisi if he played basketball during his school years in the States (subtext: you’re black, it’s America, so you must have). Yes, he replies. It’s unclear whether either of them is deadpanning or serious. You have to assume that both of them are taking the piss, but the moment stretches out indefinitely. Mandisi leans in and taps Frank on the forehead with a finger, as if to say: “Hello! Anybody in there?” Frank’s mouth twitches into a smile and everyone laughs at his expense. This little moment I share because the loose cannon is about to enter (stage right, trailing the stench of social rejection) and shower us with a deluge of obnoxious, racist, homophobic (because why stop at one form of bigotry?) bullshit.

Howsoever you may define yourself – race, language, culture, gender, sexual orientation – is your business; it may be important to you, or not, but it has no bearing on whether I am your friend. Not being a bigot is as simple as that: you don’t advertise it, you simply live it.

Sometimes we will joke about this stuff with each other, poking fun at the stereotypes that we don’t believe in. Of course when an actual stereotype lands in your midst like a steaming pile of manure, it’s not funny.

Generally we follow the age-old tradition of welcoming strangers who invite themselves to our table, because they might be interesting and either way we can gently take the piss out of them.

On those grounds we let – shall we call him “Barry”? – join our table, when he wanders over and asks if he can take a seat. Up until this point it doesn’t matter to any of us that we’re a group of men, from different language, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. But Barry, has issues and every second comment is either a reference to race or vehement declarations that he is heterosexual.. Fair enough, you say, that’s just 50% of his comments and they’re never phrased as outright bigoted statements. Unfortunately literally every other comment is built around a crude local saying involving your mother’s private parts.

Barry is a pathetic little creature. I will spare you a verbatim retelling of his drivel and cut to the chase. Here he is: 30-ish, white, Afrikaans, born and raised in the Eastern Cape and utterly lacking in social skills. His raging homophobia quite possibly stems from a certain sexual attraction that he feels towards men and does not know how to deal with. As for his ethnic and language superiority, he hails from a province in which that language group was not only a minority for all of its history, but not even the biggest minority, which is why- unsurprisingly- Barry doesn’t even have an Afrikaans name.

So Barry, currently a resident of Brackenfell (add this to my list of reasons to distrust suburbia), comes to the “big bad inner city” in search of something to quell his inner demons. Presumably he expected to find a multi-cultural tsunami of queers spilling through the doors and onto his lap. In retrospect, it’s a statistical oddity of almost superstitious proportions that none of our gay and lesbian friends were around. The mockery would have been brutal.

At one point he sincerely declares that East London is the prettiest city in the entire country. With respect to the eastern counties of London, England, as well as the fair city of that name in South Africa, allow me to quote our first citizen: “I could not believe.”

Dear reader, pity Barry, because when he looks outward he is surrounded by a world he does not understand, and when he looks inward he is boiling with urges he cannot face.

After what feels like an hour, but was probably only a few minutes, Alex gets up abruptly. For a moment I’m not sure whether he is going to reach across the table for Barry’s throat, but he turns around and stalks off. The ghost of Chief Pontiac seems to hover over us, three-feathered headdress and all, as if to say: I’ll share my space with you but don’t you dare piss on my dignity.

Barry now adds a third whiny note to his previous two-note melody of bigotry and swearing: “I hope I’m not offending you?” Let’s pause here for a second to let that sink in.

There’s enough irony in that passive-aggressive question to strangle him with. Of course, the question, though often repeated, is rhetorical and Barry doesn’t wait for an answer before spouting the next offensive comment. Eventually Frank, lunges at the question before it is fully out of Barry’s mouth: “Yes!”, he shouts triumphantly.

Barry looks sad. I think he might cry. After a minute of quiet consolation (I resort to soft comforting words in his home language) he leaves and insists of shaking everyone’s hands (in carefully chosen descending order of language, cultural and ethnic acceptability).

An hour later he wants to join our table again. This time we’re blunt in our refusal. Again he looks like he might burst into tears. More handshaking, except this time Mandisi (last in line, again) politely refuses. More Barry-is-confused-and-is-going-to-cry-or-throw-a-temper-tantrum melodrama plays across his face.

Half-an-hour later Barry returns to proclaim his drunken apologies, in between repeating every insulting thing he is busy apologising for. Is this what a recurring VD rash feels like? No, dear reader, if you know the answer to that question I’d rather you didn’t share.

I wish there was some moral to this story. Perhaps it’s these two relatively obvious observations: firstly, bigots are idiots. Secondly, that showing restraint and not physically dispatching Barry out the front door, probably saved us the aggravation of sharing a police holding cell with him and his no-doubt equally charming friends.

It’s 4am when we leave Shack, half-expecting Barry and The Troglodytes (add that to Ye Stupendous Compendium of Free* Potential Band Names) to be waiting for us on the sidewalk with sexual propositions or violence (or most likely, both). Fortunately they seem to have scuttled back to Brackenfell.

And thus we bid each other goodnight and go our separate ways.

But wait! There is a happy ending to this tale, friends. Two of our company leave together – for them the night is far from over. Planets collide, moth meets flame et cetera et cetera. And here’s the punchline that would horrify Barry, especially because it’s hardly extraordinary to us: these two lovers are from different ethnic, language and cultural backgrounds.

FRIDAY 13TH – FEBRUARY 2015

It’s raining in February, the Cape Town equivalent of snow in hell. It’s Friday the 13th and I suspect the drizzle is the weather’s way of telling the politicians to calm the fuck down with the crazy shit and police assaults in Parliament. The Shack is stacked to the rafters. Frank and Q are already ensconced at a pool table when I arrive. Whoever is controlling the sound system tonight has access to the largest collection of 70s and early 80s pop and rock known to man. There’s so much cheese coming out of the speakers I’m surprised they don’t look like pizzas. Somehow it makes perfect sense; people are tapping their feet to songs that were hits when their parents were teenagers. It’s like everyone is looking for an excuse to escape to a different place and time.

I can tip my hat at the surprising timelessness of Thriller-era Michael Jackson, but when Boney M launches into “Ma Baker” I get an overwhelming sense of being stuck in an elaborate prank being televised via hidden cameras. Q notices my expression and proceeds to enthusiastically serenade me.

The rainy weather and larger-than-usual crowd contribute to a thick pall of smoke that shifts and eddies underneath the pool table light in sexy-lazy swirls. Perhaps it’s because I have just recovered from flu, but the smoke smells particularly acrid tonight. Thus it is with some trepidation that I watch a pretty blonde produce a hookah pipe from her backpack and set it up on a table next to us. Soon she is joined by a large group of friends. When the smoke from her corner reaches me it is unexpectedly sweet. I can’t pin down what it reminds me of; my mind keeps coming up with “Nutella”, but that’s not it. I stare at her thinking “not Nutella”, when our eyes meet. I smile, she smiles back…. sweet, but not Nutella.

Three days later I’ll be on my back in a puddle of my own fever-sweat, thinking less fondly of smoke-filled rooms and how the contents of my lungs could be used to mortar a wall; say, the Great Wall of China. Guess I hadn’t quite recovered from that flu first time round.

But that’s later. Right now the night is a rollercoaster that’s slowly climbed to the top of “real” and is about to topple over the edge into “unreal”. That moment arrives when the Bee Gees come on; everyone – and I mean everyone – loses their shit. Did I miss the memo? In fact, did I miss the rehearsal? Still no apparent hidden cameras, despite the fact that The Shack has turned into a giant musical with the entire cast screaming in falsetto “Sta Sta Sta Sta Staying Alive!” The sublime meets the ludicrous: Q adds disco dance moves to his serenading.

The pool games, by the way, are actually quite impressive. Everyone’s on fire. Challengers come and go. The girl with the hookah stays. We keep smiling at each other across the room.

There’s always a point when the night tips over into surreal, it’s a point that precedes a keen blade. Some people tip over whole – others are sliced; you can see underneath the masks.

Take my new pool playing partner, who has the exotic accent one can only acquire by growing up in a small town in another province. He looks uncannily like a friend I lost. He is overacting his happy mood so excessively even William Shatner would cringe at the large hand gestures. Each glass he pours down his throat fuels the inner rage and sadness so that I can see the flames light up all his cracks and fissures from the inside out.

Meanwhile Friday the 13th has made way for Valentine’s Day.

Not-nutella smiles, I smile back. How could I even begin to explain to her that a smile given and received is as much as I would handle right now? Unlike my lost-friend-new-friend at the pool table, I do not know how to be tragic. I’m cut (by my own hand, it is worth noting) and I’m bleeding….bleeding ink everywhere. The ink runs into these comments, into notebooks and sketchbooks, but mostly the ink just wells inside. There is an ocean of ink that I need to figure out what to do with. Who knew it was possible to bleed this much? I keep my distance because I don’t want to spill any of it on someone else.

Somewhere in the surreal early morning hours I realise that Frank and Q have departed and been replaced by V-man (who edits a magazine I’ve shot a cover for) and another guy. Three strangers challenge us to pool, but the one is clearly tripping; confirmed when he tells me “I’m too fucked to play.” and then repeats it several times more, each time as if it’s the first time he’s made this stupendous revelation. He stumbles off. I wonder what it must be like to hallucinate when you’re covered in that much ink, just staring at his forearms must be putting his mind through a blender.

The sound system operator is mugged because the music veers suddenly into Skrillex. Everyone loses their shit – again. There is jumping and headbanging. No holds barred. Zero fucks given. I really need to find out when they hold the rehearsals for these choreographed moments.Tripping-Tattoo stumbles back in – he’s fumbling with his penis, although he doesn’t seem to realise it’s still in his pants. Ever seen a toddler trying to tie shoelaces? His pathetic hand-eye coordination is almost pitiful. I remind myself that I don’t want to see what he intends to do with his member once he manages to get his hands on it.

The 70s DJ and the Dubstep DJ are trading blows. ‘Ma Baker’ returns and has a shootout with some Drum-and-Bass villains. Not-nutella is dancing with a tall guy; which is good. If given a choice between sitting and dancing, always dance. That’s some solid rock’n’roll wisdom for you.

I step out into the night to find the sidewalks crawling with hundreds of people arriving or departing Shack and Mercury next door. A long-haired guy is shouting at a car leaving the parking lot. For a moment I think he’s the mysterious coat-and-sunglasses East European character from a previous Shack evening. Two minutes later he’s banging on my car window, so I discover this is someone else. Evidently it’s the reincarnation of Jim Morrison – the resemblance is uncanny. I shake my head and keep the window up – he stumbles off, flinging a string of profanities over his shoulders. I drive slowly after him, hoping to slip past and out the parking lot exit, when one of his companions steps in front of the car. She’s smiling, but I’m already calculating what manner of violence is about to unfold. She bends down, looks intently into my eyes and then shouts at her friends: “It’s not him, guys.” She turns away, but I open the window, my curiosity demanding explanation. She explains that they mistook me for their friend “Grumble”. I burst out laughing; his mother called him what? “No, I don’t know what his real name is, ‘Grumble’ is just what we call him.”

Grumble, dude, if you’re reading this, come home, there are people that love you… even if they don’t know your real name, or what car you drive. Also you’re the inspiration for this installment’s addition to Ye Stupendous Compendium of Free* Potential Band Names.

I stop at the 24-hour garage convenience store in Orange, about as Cape Town an institution as the flat-topped mountain. I dodge around a kid in the aisle with eyebrows bushier than my beard. He’s got a shaving plaster on one eyelid. Then I come face to face with the spitting image of Kurt Cobain, complete with lanky bleached hair and eyes that have found the abyss and would not forget the sight even with all the lithium in the world.

I arrive home with 21 Pilots’ “Car Radio” playing on the car stereo; they sing that there are many things we can do, but only two work, and of the two “peace will win and fear will lose.” It’s not the whole truth, but right here and now, I’ll take it.

DOWN THE HOLE – FEBRUARY 2015

I put the city and the setting sun in the rearview mirror. Frank leans back in the shotgun seat as if we’re about to ride into battle. I point Alice’s nose north and watch the reflections of the streetlights rush across her windscreen.

Our motivation is live music, our destination is the “Rabbit Hole”… Alice approves of the name. Personally, I’m not sure whether calling your venue a hole – any kind of hole – is necessarily wise.

Only 20-odd kilometers from Cape Town city centre, but Durbanville – I’m dubbing it The Ville – is another country.

There is presumably a special society of copywriters that practise their craft out here. I cannot decide whether they are masters of sublime irony or utterly oblivious to it. Exhibit one: a recent gig poster that uses “delectable” and “metal” in the same banner headline.

The first band is scheduled to start at 9pm, but when we arrive at 8pm the stage is a shadowy edifice where a lone headlamp silhouettes a techie frantically fiddling with cables. Not a power outage due to loadshedding, but judging by his body language he is dropping a figurative load of his own. Speaking of dropped loads, the smell of that crappy euphemism “technical difficulties” is so pervasive that nobody even bothers saying it out loud.

Eventually the first band start their set at 11pm. The sound system that took so long to rig up is easily the worst I’ve ever inflicted on my ears…let’s be clear; these ears have been to some of the lowest dives this side of the Thames. The stage lights are pretty though. Unfortunately they reveal – in lurid flashes of neon pink and blue – the teenage faces of the first band. The phrase ‘garageband’ springs immediately to mind. Yes, yes, we all have to start somewhere, but the idea is to stay there until (if) you get to a certain level of proficiency. To their credit they don’t freeze up, although I run a bet with myself whether the desultory crowd will riot and lynch the kids on stage, or whether the lead vocalist’s mother will appear before that to drag him off by the ear for being up after bedtime. We stand in the empty space before the stage and valiantly try to make encouraging gestures, while the rest of the Rabbit Hole continue their drinking with a palpable passive-aggressive atmosphere. Three songs into their set we decide it’s best not to stand between the stage and impending doom (my internal bookie declares odds heavily favouring a lynching). We seek refuge in the smoking section – where there is less smoke and smokers, because clearly The Ville is the epicentre of irony.

The walls of the backroom in the smoking section are covered with magic marker signatures and logos of musicians that have performed at the venue. Many names are as unfamiliar as they are intriguing. A plethora of penis sketches are scattered in-between: public toilet chic. The kids finish their set, but immediately launch into an encore, presumably mistaking sarcastic applause for encouragement. Or perhaps just proving their own proficiency in the local (martial) art of irony. They unleash another three songs on the audience. Irony at 140 decibels should be classified as an inhumane war tactic under the Geneva Convention. On the wall behind Alessandro my eyes keep wandering back to the sketch of a huge penis ridden by a smiling elf and signed by the one and only Ninja. No sign of Yolandi’s signature, so it’s uncertain whether “Die Antwoord” actually performed here. Sweet blissful silence from the stage breaks my trance-like contemplation of Ninja’s elf-mounted manhood. (‘Ninja Dong’ is this installment’s first addition to Ye Stupendous Compendium of Free* Potential Band Names)

Oh, Cruel Fate is a 4-piece, but since we have slipped into an alternate reality made of static feedback and irony, fate would have it that the band’s drummer fell ill at the last minute. With no time to find a replacement, the act would be performing as a 3-piece, with Alessandro seemingly unperturbed at carrying percussion with his bass alone. On lead guitar, Louw cuts a laconic figure. Vocal duties are performed by Dani. Off-stage she’s about 50 gallons of personality in a 5-gallon container. On-stage she pours it all into the lyrics and aims it at the audience. All the band members are seated. Dani is perched gracefully in an armchair, for all the world like an empress holding court.

Two bars into the first song I know the preceding events were a small price to pay. This isn’t the Rabbit Hole anymore…we’re in wonderland now.

A faulty mike connection does not break Dani’s stride. Mid-song she deftly adjusts her grip on the mike and sends a look the sound guy’s way that would halt a charging tiger in its tracks. The smile accompanying the look promises violence gruesome enough to make Tarantino blanche. It’s a moment unnoticed by the audience,, who are tapping feet and swaying to the magic being woven.

It takes more than talent to do this with one band member missing and hamstrung by a sound rig one faltering step above two tin cans and a piece of string. This is what skill and experience sounds and looks like.

It’s a genre-defying repertoire, weaving an intricate tapestry that straddles rock, blues, folk and cabaret-punk. It’s not a blend, or a hybrid, but a whole far greater than the perceived components. If you feel the need to say ‘steampunk’, I’d suggest that you remove those ridiculous spraypainted welding goggles in order to notice how far your head – dusty top hat and all – is up your own ass.

Their set concludes at midnight. In this fairytale midnight also means noise-restriction regulations prohibit further live music. Not kidding.

The third act is visibly upset as they carry their gear off. Their guitarist is a volcano in a blue minidress; stalking to the front door, the crowd parting before her like a school of fish before a shark. I don’t notice whether a single glass slipper stays behind or a pumpkin coach departs the scene in haste.

Meanwhile, for the tenth time, my eyes catch sight of the girl wearing the curtain. Surburbia man; it’s a disease and Von Trapp clothing is a telltale symptom. (Curtain Dress is this installment’s second addition to Ye Stupendous Compendium of Free* Potential Band Names)

We make good our escape.. As Alice reels the city in with her wheels, I still hear Oh, Cruel Fate echoing in my mind: “Nah nah nah, don’t go down, down to the river.”

MYSTERIOUS STRANGERS – JANUARY 2015

The power goes down with the sun and we shoot pool by the digital-blue haze of a smartphone. Later, with the return of the electricity, music oozes out of the speakers like cheap vodka: exotic, eager and slightly oily. Frank observes that he feels like a character in a film. Yeah, I think, something directed by Wes Anderson and written by Wes Craven. Right on cue, the playlist veers into Balkan territory as a long-haired bearded stranger in a trench coat wanders up to our table…the sunglasses on his face and the smoldering cigarette between his lips appear to be glued in place. He communicates with non-verbal gestures at once devoid of emotional content and yet clearly comprehensible. Overtly his needs are simple – alcohol, tobacco and darkness, but is he sad, or angry or yearning for something more? As if to compensate, his companion is an Irishman as garrulous as he is plastered. The next two hours are marked not by passing seconds and minutes, but a succession of puns and inside jokes that ricochet off each other like the balls on the pool table. I keep expecting the mysterious one to pass me a brick of hashish with instructions to smuggle it across the border. What else? There’s a pretty woman – isn’t there always? Well, there are many pretty women, it is Cape Town after all, but this one’s at our table and laughing at our jokes. Knows how to shoot pool too, instant new friend. Meanwhile an online friend from the other side of the world wanders in and gives me a hug; ain’t no hashtag, tweet or ‘like’ that compares to that. There are European girls on the couches watching us play, their cute accents standing out from the general background noise. Wherever they hide the sound system in the catacombs of The Shack, someone finally breaches the barricaded door and evicts the tripping playlist operator, because we are abruptly treated to more of the usual rock and metal. The foreigners on the couches go from cute to annoying in the space of 5 seconds when they loudly butcher “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns’n’Roses…don’t fuck with Axl, man. On the pool table some extraordinary shots are played; mostly unplanned and usually extraordinarily bad. The Irishman wants to play for money; I say we play for fun. He looks at me like I’m some sort of anarchist. At some point I buy a stuffed tiger soft toy for a child on another continent whom I’ve never met, thinking: “Hey kid, you may never meet me, but I’m friends with your mom and I think she’s kinda cool, and I hope before you get much older you’ll realise that when life presents you with a surreal summer night in a beautiful city, you may as well respond with a random act of kindness.”  (Ain’t No Hashtag is this installment’s addition to Ye Stupendous Compendium of Free* Potential Band Names)