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Rosemund Handler

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Good sex irons out the wrinkles

This piece was published in the Mail & Guardian on Friday, 27 February 2015, entitled “Good sex irons out the wrinkles”

Sexy old women: mutually exclusive terms, some would say, unless you’re referring to “cougars”, whose legendary prowling gives them their beastly nickname. This species is female, middle-aged and is to be found in the jungles around well-known watering holes. The title is an advance on the old days, when such women would have been described as sluts – or, as a well-padded chap behind me in a café put it (not in the old days) as “fat old sluts”.

They aren’t fat, notes a muscled youngster of my acquaintance, at least most of them aren’t, they’re Botoxed, anorexic and bloody uninhibited. He should know – he’s spent some of his growing-up time in those jungles.

Males on the bar circuit, young or old, are of course doing their thing. “Men should still do the prowling, don’t you think?” remarks a safely married matron, pointing to a short-skirted lamb with a mane of blonde hair that belies a pair of ancient eyes. “Look at her, all of 50, and in the bars every weekend. Pathetic, no?”

No. Just lonely. What’s so pathetic about choosing your company like a man does? I keep hearing that women after 40 are past it and after 50 invisible. The distinctive beauty of actress Kristin Scott Thomas is a case in point: when she walked into a room every head would turn; now, at 54, she claims nobody notices her. Beautiful women clearly struggle more with ageing – their plainer counterparts have long been forced to find other ways of boosting self-esteem.

Being “past it” is largely a male view of women’s ageing, but women, ever self-critical, particularly about their appearance, have readily endorsed their invisibility. For many, inner beauty is poor consolation – the world doesn’t see it, men don’t want it.

But are older women desexed by the ageing process? If your skin is lined and your body sags does that imply that your sexuality and desire are desiccated too?

Maybe for some, but over time I’ve talked to a fairly wide spectrum of older (and old) women, and guess what? Quite a few of them, married and single, let me know that they’re admirably sexually active. And not always with whom you’d expect.

Among the highlights was a lively discussion with a wizened 82-year-old who confessed she has a boyfriend a year younger: he, she twinkles at me, “can still get it up”. A woman of 65 has had an affair that began when the guy was a bachelor of 22 and she was 48 years old and unhappily married. She’s long divorced and he’s married now, with two young kids, but still visits her, and they still have sex. She has tried to convince him that they’re a thing of the past, but he won’t give her up. His wife thinks they’re just old pals – after all, why would her husband sleep with an old woman?

My friend Meno has a few suggestions and the experience to go along with them. Her name (among friends) stems from her claim that the best sex she’s ever had was after menopause.

Before that she was too busy with home, kids and job to relax; having sex with her husband became another chore and she, with his co-operation, whittled that chore down to once a month. Her kids, she says, grew up before she did. When two of them left home, she followed and met another guy. At 53, after menopause, she began meditating and learned to stop worrying about other people’s problems and things she couldn’t change, like getting older. She avoided mirrors, stopped dieting, put on a bit of weight. To her surprise she began to feel good about herself. With guy number three (youngish) she was able to have fun. Being more relaxed and open made her more sexually adventurous.

Then there’s Lil, 64, and Bill, 52. They met at the bowling club, which Lil says is an old-age den of iniquity, women on the prowl while the men drink. “Those guys have outgrown sex,” she says. “They’re just not interested. Their eyes are out on stalks for a shapely young chick, but they’d run a mile before doing anything about it. A couple of them use Viagra, which one old bugger says isn’t fussy, giving him the same hard-on for a vacuum cleaner as for a woman and far less trouble.”

Bill loves his wife, but hasn’t had sex with her for years. Good-looking, 10 years younger than him, she dislikes sex; can’t see the point. She’s got the kids, has never had an orgasm and doesn’t want one. Bill visits Lil twice a week and tells her she’s the sexiest woman in the world.

Maybe he knows something most men don’t: that good sex has little to do with appearance. That there’s something to be said for those who claim that true and enduring beauty comes from within.

If only more women agreed, and put their time and money into seeking and finding that beauty rather than into cosmetics and the eager paws of plastic surgeons.

Us and ThemRosemund Handler’s most recent book is Us and Them

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Dying to talk about death

This piece was published in the Mail & Guardian on Friday, 14 November 2014, entitled “Dying to talk about death”

Say them quickly, then forget. The dying words. Terminal. Dead. Deceased.

Friends and acquaintances die every day. We go to their funerals, but we try not to think about death.

Most of us have never spoken to a dying friend about death. We ask how they are and then talk about everything else rather than how they feel about what they are going through. It makes us uncomfortable. And it hurts to lose a friend.

We forget that the dying may feel abandoned when they most need our empathy. We choose not to confront that finality with them, not because we lack compassion, but because someone else’s death forces us to contemplate our own.

Talking about dying seems to be the work of somebody like Dr Sean Davison, who helped his mother in New Zealand to die and paid a heavy price for it. Or it is the work of hospice staff, or those who deal in death anyway, such as doctors – many of whom are not of Davison’s calibre.

In San Francisco last month, a family reunion was marred by the death of my daughter’s good friend, Erica. She had died hours before our arrival after a three-year struggle with breast cancer. She fought hard for her life. At 42, with two young children, she had much left to do. It wasn’t to be.

Victims of terminal illnesses appear to find resources in themselves that they and their families didn’t know they had. Some almost become different people.

Erica came to accept the inevitable, yet also rejected its dreadful finality. She couldn’t accept that she was leaving her children forever. Despite her duel with drugs and pain, she felt an immense pressure to make her days count, to spend time with her family during well-loved getaways, to travel to exotic destinations. Instead, as her health deteriorated, she found it difficult to be around her children, and even the thought of leaving home exhausted her.

Between extended bouts of chemotherapy, Erica wrote in her blog about her heightened sensory awareness: binocular vision in which colours sharpened and sounds increased in volume to the point when even birdsong seemed too loud. She found pleasure in nature, but was often overcome by a frightening sadness and apathy. Her seesawing emotions, she wrote, were not contradictory but existed side by side, more so as it became clear her time was running out.

An acquaintance mourning a friend who died of cancer tells me that the friend fought like mad, hoping for a cure and suffering pointlessly through ghastly treatments.

A recently widowed woman confides that her oldest friends are avoiding her. “They are the people who know me best, yet they don’t know what to say. They don’t need to say anything, but it would be nice if they would listen; if I could talk about it.”

An emergency room doctor in a public hospital recently wrote in the New York Times about her experiences with terminal patients and with her colleagues. “They treat the illness. Keeping a terminal patient alive seems more important than ensuring that the patient is made as comfortable as possible.

“It’s not the patients who must change, it’s us, the doctors. We need to become human beings treating a fellow human being who, given the choice, may choose palliative treatment rather than aggressive support of failing organs.”

In his recent book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Atul Gawande, a Boston surgeon and New Yorker writer, explores illness and death, suggesting that we exalt longevity over quality of life. There are two issues here. The first is the care of those who have been granted great longevity. The second is how the decline of the body is managed when there is no cure for its affliction.

We can keep people alive for longer than ever before, but we have not developed the essential skills involved in palliative care for those who become dependent because of serious illness or old age. Building compassion among staff and a caring hospital environment does not cost more, and the benefits in terms of improved quality of life are considerable. Sometimes, Gawande writes, the most humane decision is to do nothing.

Helping patients to a good death can be the greatest gift an attending physician can give his patient, yet doctors routinely overestimate how long a terminally ill patient has to live – and oncologists rarely confess to a patient that there is no more hope.

Family and friends can play a significant role: listening compassionately and communicating lovingly while there is still time. We would all choose a quick death if we could, but for some of us that won’t happen. We should talk more about it. We’re all going to die. We should make death and bereavement more manageable for those we love, and for ourselves.

Us and ThemRosemund Handler’s most recent book is Us and Them

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The mysteries of marriage

Married people are like insects, though that’s not what the movies tell us. The likes of Kim Kardashian, who leapfrogs marriage like a flea, and Angelina Jolie, the queen bee who stays put in her union and extends it to the children of the world, are not typical; yet thousands of variants agilely reinvent themselves for some and for others, solidify in concrete. The diversity of the institution is the enigma, and for this reason alone, I advised myself to stay away. But recent encounters with married people compelled me to change my mind – and to speculate yet again as to why on earth people get married.

Back in the day, marriage was the only realistic choice of partnership, certainly if you wanted to have children. Now anything goes when it comes to partnerships, yet still, people get married. The real question is why. Is it about hope, high expectations, belief in an elusive, illusory goal of fulfilment and joy?

Despite its track record, marriage has endured, which means the institution works for some (fewer as I grow older!) but not for others. I’m told on good authority there would be many more divorces if people didn’t choose to stay – for reasons beyond my ken – in moribund marriages. On the other hand, many who are widowed or divorced go back for seconds.

Shakespeare, Jung, Jane Austen and a countless host of renowned writers and thinkers have liberally covered the marriage ground with their views. Feminists balk – and who can blame them? – at many of the classic male writers, who often portray the little woman as the honey trap who turns sour and becomes a parasite. ‘A young man married is a man that’s marr’d', says Shakespeare, and Lady Macbeth, wife and mother, is murderously marred; in Hamlet, it is ‘with mirth in funeral and dirge in marriage’. But in All’s Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare takes a different view: ‘Get thee a good husband, and use him as he uses thee.’ And in Much Ado About Nothing, he advises ‘Thou art sad; get thee a wife, get thee a wife!’

Jung believed we are unconsciously influenced by our parents in our choice of partner; that children are driven in a direction that must compensate for what was missing in their parents’ lives, including the so-called dream partner – an imagined ideal of a loving relationship. He defined conventional marriage as an instinctive choice, ‘an instrument for maintaining the species’, claiming that in the second half of life marriage begins to move from passion and duty to ‘an intolerable burden – a vampire that battens on the life of its creator’.

I thought of an acquaintance I bumped into who had just arrived home after a long flight. The tip of his nose was red and swollen and I asked if he’d picked up a cold on the plane. He shook his head. ‘No, that’s from my snore mask. I alternate between two different masks each night because my wife can’t sleep if I snore and I can’t sleep if I don’t.’

We said our farewells, and disturbing images of ‘battening’ hove into view. He was clearly the kind of guy who sleeps in the bed he has made, no matter what, and if sleeping in a separate bedroom seemed like worse torture than wearing not one but two medieval-type masks to silence himself, who was I to question his choices?

Charles Dickens fell out of love with his wife, Catherine, after 20 years of marriage and 10 children. Without informing her in advance, he had the marital bedroom divided in two, and then demanded a legal separation from her. Although he supported her well, he described her as ‘an incompetent’ mother afflicted with ‘a mental disorder’. In fact, Dickens was already involved with Ellen Ternan, whom he met when she was 17, and with whom he remained involved until his death in 1870.

I can only imagine the feelings of Dickens’ abandoned but ‘well supported’ wife, though reams have been written about her husband, who was dictatorial, selfish and intolerant in his personal capacity while amply demonstrating his social conscience in his writings. Perhaps taking care of his repudiated wife and children salved his conscience in the same way another man, married for 43 years, salves his. Bored and out of love with his wife, whose friendship he claims to enjoy, he has indulged in numerous affairs over the years. The marriage has creaked on, despite his wife’s sporadic threats. Lately, he has begun to feel that he needs to make reparations in some way. Since they both steer clear of confrontations these days, not to mention religion, his way is to find voluntary work which will make a contribution and (pointing skywards) ‘improve his chances’ up there’.

Maybe Katharine Hepburn was right when she wondered if men and women ‘really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then’. Like the married couple who share a home, yet dislike each other and have very different interests. Their solution is they each have their own study, and conduct most of their communication via email.

In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s character abjures ‘Lizzy’ not to marry without affection; in the same book, she writes ‘happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance’. I’m not so sure: Graca Machel comes to mind, her grace and devotion in the face of multiple pressures; also the woman in Woolworths who smilingly overhears my husband and I engage in one of our more civilised skirmishes. Eighty-plus, she tells us she was married to her husband for 58 years. She took Jane Austen’s advice and did not marry without affection, but she says marriage is a combination of luck and hard work. ‘My husband and I argued often, shared everything, never got bored and trusted each other implicitly. He made me promises for 58 years that he never broke. Except for one: he promised never to leave me, but he did. He died last year. I still haven’t forgiven him for that.’

Friedrich Nietzsche would have understood: ‘Happy is the man who finds a true friend, and far happier is he who finds that true friend in his wife.’

The dispossessed

What is the true meaning of the word home? How does leaving the home of your birth and upbringing to live in an adopted country impact your life?

Writer Roger Cohen of The New York Times, born in South Africa, and critic James Wood, born and raised in England, have both spent many years in the US. They recently addressed the issues of leaving one’s birthplace from the experience of their own lives. Cohen movingly describes his childhood in South Africa as a landscape ‘of unfiltered experience, of things felt rather than thought through, of the world in its beauty absorbed before it is understood’. He concludes that there is no realistic possibility of returning to the place you called home decades ago. Home is to be found in the acceptance of inevitable change and in the connection with friends and loved ones.

In spite of this assertion, Cohen’s longstanding residency in New York, his work and American citizenship have not gifted him with the place of his ‘deepest connections’: if he had a few weeks to live he would go to Cape Town, to his grandfather’s house near Kalk Bay, a place of happy childhood memories. Wood has lived in America for 18 years. In his essay On not going home, he harks back to an interview with Christopher Hitchens long before he died which yielded similar thoughts: in spite of decades spent living and writing in the US, Hitchens expressed a longing to return one day to Dartmoor, where he spent his childhood.

It’s clear that the word home has multiple interpretations depending on individual experience. ‘Immigration is a widespread modern condition,’ says Cohen, ‘perhaps the modern condition. Out of it, often, comes anxiety.’ Wood writes that if you dig into people who are depressed you often find that their distress may be linked to a sense of not fitting in, an anxiety about belonging: what he describes as displacement anguish.

The exile chosen by both Cohen and Wood, however, is the ‘softer emigration’ of voluntary homelessness. Like Wood in the US, I often encounter in South Africa people from all over the world who are homesick for their native countries, who miss family and hometown, but would never seriously think of returning, preferring to visit when they can. Some have integrated their lives and the landscape of South Africa in such a way that the longing for their birthplace has diminished to almost nothing. These are the fortunate expatriates who do not dream ceaselessly of their past, and whose childhood places await them should they wish to return.

I don’t debate the ‘truth’ of displacement anguish or the nostalgia of immigrants – I have been an ill-fitting one myself, and that anguish never completely heals. Coming home was the right decision for me, but the scars of displacement are not easily erased. I still have dreams of waking up in strange places, the intense feelings of alienation as unwelcome as they are familiar.

But it is the fate of the forced exile, the refugee deprived of his homeland owing to oppression or persecution that takes on the dimensions of tragedy. Edward Said’s essay, Reflections on Exile, differentiates between the exile and the émigré. He describes the experience of the former as ‘the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted.’

The words of an Afghan exile stay with me. ‘Part of my life,’ he wrote, ‘is lived in a place of unassuageable sorrow and yearning.’ There is the Zimbabwean refugee in Johannesburg who almost lost his life for leading a march in his village and can never hope to return in safety, but worries about the fate of his widowed mother; the Iranian medical specialist who hasn’t mastered English sufficiently to qualify in the US and sells jeans from a stall in downtown Los Angeles; the Sudanese teacher who cleans toilets in Israel. And the boat people, lost and found, almost universally abused.

Wood describes his unforced exile as ‘no comprehension, no real connection, no past, despite all the years I have lived there … and I wonder: How did I get here?’ On a realistic level, he knows the answer: he brought himself. He was not obliged to abandon his home. He had free will, he made the choices of an educated man and both the world he left and the one he entered recognised those privileges.

Not so for the countless millions of displaced people from all over the world. The refugees who have a present, but no attainable past and at best an uncertain future; who must wake up every morning with a sense of bewilderment and anxiety all the greater for being immutable. These exiles are mostly unwelcome in their places of refuge, and do not have the luxury of Wood’s ‘afterwardness’ – a Freudian concept that describes the recognition of something too late to change or undo.

They are the truly dispossessed.

From the mouths of the ancients

In the time of Alexander the Great, anyone who was not a member of a small group of tribes on the tip of the Aegean peninsula was a barbarian and of inferior stock, worthy only to be a slave. That included Macedonians such as Alexander.

Among Athenians, only one who owned land and was born of an Athenian father and mother could be considered a citizen. Even craftsmen and entrepreneurs were considered inferior, unworthy of citizenship.

After the wars, Alexander made a famous speech to the Greeks, which seems more relevant today than ever before. He said: “I wish all of you, now that the wars are coming to an end, to live happily in peace. All mortals from now on shall live like one people, united and peacefully working towards a common prosperity. You should regard the whole world as your country – a country where the best govern, with common laws and no racial distinctions. I do not separate people, as many narrow-minded others do, into Greeks and barbarians.

“I’m not interested in the origin or race of citizens. I distinguish them only on the basis of their virtue. For me, each good foreigner is a Greek, and each bad Greek is a barbarian. If ever there appear differences among you, you must not resolve them by taking to arms; you should resolve them in peace. If need be, I shall act as your negotiator. You must not think of God as an authoritarian ruler, but you should consider Him as common father, so that your conduct will resemble the uniform behaviour of brothers who belong to the same family. For my part, I consider all – whether they be white or black – equal, and I would like you to be not only the subjects of my commonwealth, but also participants and partners. Within my powers, I shall endeavour to fulfil all my promises. You should regard the oath we have taken tonight as a symbol of love.”

Alexander’s dream of peace embraced all his people, including the foreigners in their midst. As a Macedonian and foreigner himself, he waged war and experienced hatred and prejudice; ultimately, he learned compassion. Today, for far too many people, Alexander’s vision is still only that: a dream of what mankind could achieve if war, power-mongering and greed were abandoned in favour of the upliftment of society and compassion for one’s fellow man.

If our leaders in this country had done half as much as Alexander, if they would say what they mean and execute what they promise, South Africa would be a different country. Instead they make war on their own people by stealing from them daily, constructing a web of hypocrisy and lies that continues to ignore the fundamental rights of every South African: access to food and clean water, a decent education with full literacy, jobs and housing.

But when elections loom, these leaders wave a magic wand. This wand erases past abuse and paints a future for no other purpose than to inspire voters to come out in droves in support of them.

The people’s response should be exactly the opposite. The future under the present ANC government will look just as it does right now. No change. There is no magic wand, and if people want change in their lives, they need to begin with themselves. They need to withdraw their support in droves. And if they cannot imagine voting for a party other than the ANC, perhaps their best option is not to vote at all.

Imagine the kind of land we would share if Nkandla was given back to the people it belongs to, if every cent stolen by corruption was sunk into housing and amenities and education and training. Imagine a land with respect for our fellow South Africans and their suffering; imagine a land that is humane to the foreigners in our midst – many of whom are not drug lords but struggling desperately to make lives for themselves in harsh circumstances.

As is the case throughout history, corruption begins at the top and trickles down to the least of us, the most deprived, so that when horrified questions are asked about heinous crimes that take place, among them the rape and murder of babies and children, one should stop asking and do the simple detective work: such barbarism exists because many who commit such deeds have had no scaffolding of family and community, and little or no government support. They have been outcast and trodden on, given nothing but empty promises. In such arid ground evil is the only thing that grows: how else to vent hopelessness and helplessness but on those who are equally helpless, unable to comprehend or to fight back?

These days, when people’s eyes skim the headlines detailing the latest theft by government, the next catastrophe, they shake their heads and go about their business. This is because endless headlines of crime and abuse by those who should know better do not breed compassion, but its opposite: desensitisation.

How much worse must be the desensitisation and disconnection of those who have never known what it is to be nurtured, who have never had the opportunity to provide properly for their families or to experience feelings of pride and dignity?

It is well past time for South Africans to turn away from old ways and old days, and to accept responsibility for the changes we must demand from ourselves in order to expect these changes to take root in our country. A good place to start would be to adopt Alexander’s concept of nationhood: that all South Africans are brothers and sisters, belonging to the same family. We must commit ourselves to eradicating the rot and the strife, dump our egos on the trash heap where they belong, and dedicate our joint efforts to building a future for that family.

Polyamorous, mon amour?

This piece was published in the Mail & Guardian on Friday, 21 February 2014, entitled “Two’s company, three’s a charm”

The Ravenhearts, a polyamorist couple, defined polyamory for the OED as ‘the practice, state or ability of having more than one sexual loving relationship at the same time, with the full knowledge and consent of all partners involved”.

On a recent visit to a well-established centre of polyamory – Berkeley, California – I was instructed in the norms and bylaws by a long-term polyamorist who is clearly convinced it’s the way to go: “It’s perpetual harmony between the sexes, man, amazing sex in an atmosphere completely lacking in the negative and destructive emotions.”

“Sixties free love in disguise?” I suggest. My advisor disagrees vehemently. “Polyamory is nothing like free love. It’s about honest communication with good, loving intentions; it’s about eroticism in all its forms, it’s about inclusivity.”

“No swinging at all?” I ask.

He frowns. “Swinging is just expenditure of energy, man. No love there, just raw physicality, like let’s do it, then move on and do it again, maybe with two or three others.” He tells me he’s been poly for years, and that polyamorists “connect and communicate. We value the integrity of our connection.” Ryam Nearing of Loving More agrees. He says polyamory is about powerful sexual and emotional relationships.

I ask my expert about married people. Married is fine – if the partner agrees to participate, or agrees but refuses to participate. “I used to be possessive about my girlfriend until I found out that her polyamory didn’t turn me off; rather the reverse, and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted some of her genuine cool about loving other people as well as me. It took a while, but it worked for me.”

I ask if they’re still together – they’re not – and if she is still polyamorous. He shakes his head. Apparently she wanted something different when she had a kid. I ask him if the child is his. He shrugs. “I don’t think so. She doesn’t know for sure who the father is. Which is fine too; for a while I contributed financially, as did the others.”

The Jim Evans poly pride flag consists of three equal horizontal stripes, with a symbol in the centre. Blue is for honesty, red for passion, and black for solidarity with those who must conceal their relationships because of social pressures.

Social views on polyamory vary by country and culture. One of the founders of the polyamory movement in the UK says Britain is about 15 years behind America in its acceptance of polyamory.

Most of mainstream established religions do not accept polyamory. Recently, a prominent New York rabbi, Sharon Kleinbaum, said that biblical patriarchs had multiple wives and concubines, and there is no reason for the practice not to work today.

As early as 1929, Marriage and Morals, written by Bertrand Russell, questioned Victorian notions of morality regarding sex and marriage; his views prompted vigorous condemnation. Virginia Woolf, DH Laurence, and others provoked a similar reaction. In 2010, British artist Connie Rose made a film, Questioning Monogamy, which consisted of interviews with leading polyamory experts. In London in 2011 the film was symbolically recreated as an eight foot installation for 12 people to lie in, with 10 screens.

Back in Berkeley, I’m told that while polyamorists have to be comfortable with whatever arrangements are negotiated – such as a husband with his wife’s involvement with another woman, or her of his with another man – as important as good sex is the emotional support, the range of experience, skills and fresh perspectives of partners. Sharing child-rearing, chores and the reduced financial burden are powerful incentives.

Twice-weekly free-flow dances are held. I spoke with a woman who described the sensual appeal of these dances, and the kind of opportunities they offer polyamorists. She has had a succession of experiences with attractive men who made rapid, romantic connections with her. Later, these men told her they practised polyamory, and were hopeful of her becoming part of their group.

She no longer attends the dances because she can’t even imagine the complications that may arise. Investing in one relationship at a time is challenge enough for her. ‘So many guys are hopeless at emotional bonding,’ she says wistfully. ‘Those guys connected in an amazing way, and it was with me. It’s just that they connect with others in the same way.’

A manual for psychotherapists with polyamorous clients was published in 2009, entitled What Psychotherapists Should Know About Polyamory. A psychotherapist I spoke with says that emotions such as jealousy and possessiveness can destroy even long-term partnerships. A South African polyamorist – Jo’burg has an active polyamorist community – agrees. “It can take years to negotiate the intrusion of negative emotions,” he says. “Some can’t do it. The green-eyed monster is a powerful part of our psyches. It is not easily eradicated.”

Clearly, to be or not to be is a decision that should not be taken lightly!

Boomslang

Snake on Smitswinkel hike

 
Boomslang

A snake came to my hiking path
On a hot hot day
And I cowering from the sun
He unspooled
Lay brown-silk-scaled
Across scalding stones for a moment
Then threaded up a fire-dead bush
Peered
Hooded slightly
So honoured by him
That the sun cooled
For black-eyed seconds
We gazed
The world was his
And he took it

Four Recent Poems

Black Bird

When you said that word – it was the way you said it –
rage soared, spread its wings
covered me
a black bird with orange eyes
stabbing at muscle and bone
pecking at my veins
until they exploded in bloody flames
that ripped through the sky
and devoured indiscriminately.

Then fizzled.

Leaving the husk of what was between us
feathers stirring listlessly
waiting for an updraft
for that word to be unsaid
it was the way you did it
tossing it over your shoulder
like an afterthought
like a sack of garbage.
Twice.
Goodbye. Goodbye.

***

Exhibition

A figure dwarfed by an ancient landscape
physical and psychic wounds reflected in the face of another
the shock of your body turning on you

the collision with mortality
carved in lines on your chest

a slow painful healing
a desperate urge to be as before
while becoming during and after breast cancer

a man awakened to suffering
to the grace and gift of each day.

a sense you are no more than a grain of sand
and a will to survive

your life in ten shots

***

Black

He is resting
against the morning
heavy hide
cradled by blonde grass
he is enthroned
to the end of time

eyes will behold him
enshrine him
in memory and illusion
his outline fading as the light
grows harsher
and the morning trembles
to afternoon

his slow eye sidles
until a horn-shaped moon
tattoes it with dollar signs
his half-sleep no anaesthetic
for the famished vigil
the grasses already
leaking and foetid

the violent dawn
drenches the sky
in scarlet obscenity
they have eaten
their own faces

***

Courtship of eagles

there are times
when I begin to speak
that my tongue is a moat
hemmed in on all sides
by teeth and eyes
by towers
of words as cumbersome
and unforgiving
as unspoken truths

there are times
when words flow wild and free
skim through walls
sweep aside boulders
ride the sky
as eloquent and soaring
as a courtship of eagles

Are Private Interests Still Colonising Our Mountains?

First published in the Cape Times of 24 July 2013:

I hike every Saturday morning with a small group of dedicated enthusiasts. We’ve hiked together for more than ten years, scores of hikes throughout the Peninsula in all weathers. Our leaders recognise trees and rocks the way you and I greet an old friend. Those who never sing burst into song, those whose feet are troublesome inch up rocky pitches, those whose day jobs are dreary dance across the peaks like tahrs – which we’ve seen a few times since they were supposed to have been eliminated.

Mountains contribute unstintingly to our lives. There is always something new to be learned, and we rarely take them for granted. They make Cape Town the kind of city that most city dwellers only dream about: a place where people, traffic and noise pollution can be left behind in the space of minutes – if you’re prepared to climb those heights and reap those rewards. Often, it’s only on the most tourist-friendly climbs that we run into another soul.

But private interests have been growing. One of the Hoeriekwagga hikes is a spectacularly scenic trail from Noordhoek Beach up to Chapman’s Peak. Instead of continuing down Chapman’s Peak, we usually complete a circle to Noordhoek Beach, where our cars are parked. Along the way, we pass a Private Property sign and an old snake warning sign: Breeding Ground for Puff-adders and Cape Cobras. Seasoned hikers have long ignored these admonitions as their view is that mountains belong to the people, not to a single private entity, and in this area it’s well known that in the past, unauthorised monies changed hands for the privilege. As for snakes, they breed all over the mountains, and while they may not know much about private property, they do know to avoid humans.

Some years back, an electric fence was erected towards the end of this beautiful trail; apparently the magnificent private estates in the green belt at its foot were concerned about criminals entering the area from Masiphumulelu. Over several hikes we observed that the Port Jacksons were gradually being eliminated and a nature reserve planned. Recently, new paths have been built, leading up to the trail from the green belt below, and the electric fence has been extended, climbing much higher up a mountain peak. The old path beyond the fence has been strewn with aliens and is almost impassable. At our request, Sanparks investigated the new extension to the fence and said that the mountain indeed belonged to the estates in the green belt, and in order to use the trail, hikers should request a permit. We called the number given repeatedly, but nobody ever picked up the phone.

Do owners of the estates use the trail in the private nature reserve they have created? According to security staff who stopped us in the bountiful green belt below, hikers are not permitted to use it, as it has been incorporated into the nature reserve. Surely the simpler, less selfish solution to the threat of crime would be for the owners to confine their already tight security to the more immediate surrounds of the green belt, rather than to exclude hikers and zip up the entire mountain with an electric fence?

The beginning of the lovely Vlakkenberg trail has also fallen to private interests. Only an outcry prevented its closure, and it has since been paved, but fenced off in such a way that hikers are hemmed in between electric fences. On one side, vineyards scale the mountain, while on the other aliens are left to flourish.

More and more, it seems our mountains are being sacrificed to boutique vineyards, guesthouses and private estates, some of which are owned by overseas interests who care little for their natural beauty.

At the other end of the scale – in this country there is always a top and a bottom – residents of Sea Point and Green Point have been puzzled by a long scar leading up from the old World War 2 blockhouses to the mast on Signal Hill. Apparently, the armoured communication cable has been uprooted and the copper stolen; only the metal armouring, a trench and a metal pole used to rip out the cable remain. The process took time and labour, and probably happened in broad daylight.

There is none so blind as those who have lost the capacity to see or care about the destruction they wreak. In the case of desperate poverty, this destruction, while deplorable, is understandable. But it is those enormously wealthy private interests whose blindness is the more wanton, because they have abandoned what nature so generously provides in favour of narrow, self-serving interests.

The Quality of Justice: The Shrien Dewani Case

The Westminster Magistrates’ Court ruled today that Shrien Dewani, suspected of arranging the murder of his wife Anni, can be extradited to face trial in South Africa. However, his lawyers intend to appeal the decision and legal action might drag for quite some time still. In light of the new developments in the case, here is a piece I wrote a while ago:

The killers of Shrien Dewani’s young wife are currently serving their long sentences, but they must be as confused as I am about British notions of justice and humanity. These men, better than anybody else, know the role Dewani (allegedly) played in his wife’s murder, yet the South African courts are still on tenterhooks and the outcome remains far from certain. Everybody, with the possible exception of the British courts, believes it’s high time the accused had his day in our courts, to explain to South Africans and the world his side of the story, if he has one, and to provide evidence that he didn’t use a foreign country as his killing field.

In spite of the seriousness of the crimes of which Dewani stands accused, the British have behaved with disturbing delicacy in the matter of when and where their citizen should stand trial. British courts have repeatedly heard – and voiced – the concern that their citizen will be brutalised in our prisons, and Dewani has been given a lot of time and every opportunity to recover from his ‘severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder’.

While this humanity may be laudable, it must be said that disorders such as these are perfect hiding places for what must loom large in Dewani’s so-called disordered mind: the terror of being forced to stand trial and possibly serve his sentence in the very city where murder-for-sale appears chillingly available to those who seek it.

Are the British really more humane than we are, than other nations? If so, what about the murder victim, the honeymoon wife who suffered a terrifying ordeal at the hands of strangers before they killed her? What about the suffering of her family, who heard the evidence given in the South African courts and yet continue daily to confront their unresolved loss? It seems to me that what is on trial here is not Dewani’s guilt or innocence, but the quality of British justice.

Britain’s most senior police officer has been outspoken on the subject: British justice, he says, is a joke. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens recently claimed that ‘criminals were effectively above the law, while judges, defence lawyers and court administrators rode roughshod over the rights of terrified victims and intimidated witnesses’. The entire system ‘treated those aiming to put criminals behind bars with contempt.’ He described the criminal trial as ‘an uneven game of tactics’; that ‘abusive muggers are treated like petty shoplifters.’

Sir John Stevens goes further: ‘The public are more than disenchanted with criminal justice in this country, they are fed up with it. The process actually encourages criminals in the belief that crime is merely a game of no consequence to society, local communities or their victims, so that they are not held to account. So we see robbers with strings of previous convictions strutting across the estates of inner London, having won their most recent game in court, arrogant, untouchable, fearless and ready for anything. ‘He claims that the levels of violence are unprecedented, and that witnesses are more frightened of testifying than of becoming a victim. ‘You sometimes wonder who is on trial, the defendant or the victim.’

Home Office minister Keith Bradley claims that the Government recognises there is a need for reform of the criminal justice system, and they are addressing some of the issues raised by Britain’s top police officer. Norman Brennan, of the Victims of Crime Trust, says he welcomes this, but as chief executive of the Victims of Crime Trust and 24 years as a front-line police officer, he has never seen the criminal justice system ‘in such disarray’.

Makes one think, doesn’t it? If Shrien Dewani’s trial takes place in Britain, his family can afford to employ the best legal minds in the country in his defence. And the psychiatrists describing Dewani’s struggle with suicidal depression wouldn’t be there if they weren’t well paid.

Given the current state of the British criminal justice system – and the much-publicised brutality of South African prisons – is it any wonder that Dewani would play any card, including his mental fitness, to be tried in Britain rather in South Africa? He believes, and Britain’s top cop seems to agree, that whichever way it goes, he will get a far cushier deal in his own country.