27 Boxes: That Which is Not Twee

Melville and I, we go way back.

My mom, the SAFTA-award winning art director, had a restaurant named Hard Times in 4th avenue for twelve years. I spent many a happy childhood and teen year rambling about Melville, walking its streets and visiting its shops. I was always on foot and alone, because Melville was that kind of suburb. I was very much enamored of the Hemp Shop, and ice cream from Global Wraps, and sneaking into Roxy’s when I turned 16. My adopted Italian aunt Sim had a magnificent art gallery called The Art Room (now relocated to Parkhurst)  But then, I moved away. We all did. Melville became that ex-friend who got a little too hard into drugs and bad habits, and started to look like the bathroom floor of a first year’s digs.

But then, the tide started to turn. As the Parks became too expensive for anyone who wasn’t already there in the 90s, eyes began to turn back to Melville. A few brave shopkeepers opened their doors, and shops that weren’t restaurants or bars began to thrive.

And now, enter 27 Boxes.

I spent a lovely winter’s Sunday there, drinking a magnificent R18(!) cappuccino from Rubi, sitting in the amphitheatre with friends , enjoying the warmth and blue skies of a classic Joburg day. The shops were adorable, the food delicious, and thankfully, not a goddamn hipster in sight. 20150712_121906

You see, 27 Boxes is made from containers, a wonderful design that is incredibly industrial without being cold. For once, it’s not trying to be something out of Cape Town (I’m looking at you, Neighbourgoods and literally every fucking coffee shop that has opened in the last year) – it is so Joburg in its spirit and design that it brings great joy to my heart. No twee hipster aphorisms in sight. In fact, what might make it so hipster-repellent is that it is a family-friendly space, with a jungle gym and a lovely, sunny courtyard to sit in.

I am so delighted to see Melville regain her former glory. The property prices are already shooting up, which is always a great sign of a neighbourhood’s revival. I loved her as a child and a teen, and missed her as a young adult. Perhaps now, we can be great friends again.

Joburgers, let’s support this wonderful initiative. There’s cheap parking underneath, and it makes a great starting point for a stroll to all the new shops that are opening around it. Our friend is back, and she’s looking good. 20150712_122718

It’s (Class) War: Runners vs Cyclists

(With advance apologies to my friends who are cyclists, but I’m still not sorry. Not really.)

There’s a war going down in the fair parks of Joburg, on those sacred trails safe from cars and buses, natural predators of runners. Sometimes, the war spills out onto the roads, and it continues in our sportswear stores, on the weekends, at pavement cafes. There is no war so petty and yet so longstanding as that between runners and cyclists.

Sure, there’s a fifth column in this war, that strange hybrid known as the runner-cyclist, but these are odd people who are training for triathlons and Iron Man and who are the closest to superhuman we might get. They are also on the fence, and maybe it is hard on them to watch this bitter war being waged, but then pick a side, guys. And put away the compression pants.

This is my pet theory, but I stand by it. The battle between runners and leisure cyclists is, at heart, a class war. It is a historical war between an ancient clan and a bunch of helmet-wearing creatures who wear pants so tight that they should be banned from appearing in public spaces where children might see them.

When a cyclist comes tearing down a narrow little Delta path with no warning and nary a thank you to the runner that must dive to the side to avoid a collision, there is a response so deep-seated that it bears shouting to the heavens: we were here first.

“That was the real secret of the Tarahumara: they’d never forgotten what it felt like to love running. They remembered that running was mankind’s first fine art, our original act of inspired creation. Way before we were scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow trees, we were perfecting the art of combining our breath and mind and muscles into fluid self-propulsion over wild terrain. And when our ancestors finally did make their first cave paintings, what were the first designs? A downward slash, lightning bolts through the bottom and middle–behold, the Running Man.

Distance running was revered because it was indispensable; it was the way we survived and thrived and spread across the planet. You ran to eat and to avoid being eaten; you ran to find a mate and impress her, and with her you ran off to start a new life together. You had to love running, or you wouldn’t live to love anything else. – Christopher McDougall, Born to Run

But there’s another side to this – running has long been an underdog’s sport. It is a sport dominated by runners from two poor countries – Kenya and Ethiopia so dominate all race distances that it is assumed that the entire Western world will never produce runners to match their calibre. (There are 17 American men in history who have run under 2:10 in the marathon. There were 32 Kalenjin who did it in October of 2011.)

But then you get cycling. It needs money. Lots of it. Sure, you can start off with an entry-level bike, but the average bike used by a leisure cyclist (not people who actually use their bikes for transport) can cost more than what most people make in a month, and in some cases a year. It’s hard not to resent an asshole on a bike worth a year’s salary taking over a public path without having the decency to say ‘excuse me’. Cycling, like golf, is the domain of the wealthy. There are the special shoes, the bike racks, the tight, tight pants, the helmets. For running, it’s a pair of good shoes (which at most come in at R2800, but usually between R1600-R2000) and some decent socks. Everything else is optional. It will always be private school snobs vs plucky underdog team from the bottom of the league.

But then again, maybe there’s some common ground. Both groups get injured, often. There are pratfalls aplenty. Races that are expensive to enter and mean travel and suffering. Both sides need expensive bloody socks (R35 a pair, I ask you) and both are subject to the risks inherent to the road (though runners have an easier time of it, being able to mission along on the pavement.) And at races, all must face the horror of the porta-potty.



Also, I apologise for shirtless runners. I am sorry. I am so, so sorry.

But still. Go and train elsewhere in your tight, padded pants.

The Laugh of the Paper Ninja

I’m not sure when it was unilaterally decided that sophistication of style was something to be ashamed of. Behold this wonderful video about language and particularly this line:

Words, it seems belong to other people, anyone who expresses themselves with originality, delight and verbal freshness is more likely to be mocked, distrusted or disliked than welcomed. The free and happy use of words appears to be considered elitist or pretentious. – Stephen Fry, in the essay Don’t Mind Your Language

Because I am a true believer in the delightful elasticity of language, of the tiny explosion that is a perfectly placed blasphemy, or the turn of an adjectival phrase. I love the impact a foul word can have, and the use of sub-clauses to fit in everything a sentence needs to say. I hate that advertising, as a whole, talks down to people (like the ad for the i8, which has some of the most dire and awful rhyming copy I have ever suffered in an ad) and that a book that relaxes in the splendour of language is deemed too literary, too highbrow. Perhaps, when people are compulsively shortening words and phrases so that they can fit in the inadequate frame of a tweet, anything that stretches one’s linguistic muscles is seen as cumbersome. Why use bae when you can use beloved? (Bae is a terrible bleat of a word.)

It is hard not to flinch at the sight of thoughtlessly mixed-up theirs and they’res, the careless scattering of apostrophes, but Stephen Fry is right that pedantry should not get in the way of enjoyment. Sometimes, I forget that.

But when I am accused of being too sophisticated in my writing, I feel I have to complain. There’s nothing wrong with using the perfect word, even if it isn’t common usage. Language is meant to elevate, and though it is often used as the tool of denigration, it still remains my most powerful form of self-expression. Because it is true that when I dance, I look like a manatee on amphetamines. When I run, I look like a knock-kneed penguin. I am, physically, a deeply unfortunate person. For all my training, I lack grace, but as I approach my thirties, I am finding that I care less about it than I used to. But in my writing, there is an agility I don’t enjoy anywhere else. Here I am capable, confident in this skill that I have been honing since I was eight years old. I may not dance, but oh my, I can write.

But when I am told to choke my language for fear of being inaccessible, then this lady doth fucking protest, and protest in adjectives, adverbs and nouns she shall. Besides, as we learned in The Laugh of the Medusa by Helene Cixous, (seriously, read the whole essay, it is spectacular):

I shall speak about women’s writing: about what it will do. Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies –for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal. Woman must put herself into the text – as into the world and into history – by her own movement…And why don’t you write? Write! Writing is for you, you are for you; your body is yours, take it. I know why you haven’t written. (And why I didn’t write before the age of twenty-seven.) Because writing is at once too high, too great for you, it’s reserved for the great – that is, for “great men”; and it’s “silly.” Besides, you’ve written a little, but in secret. And it wasn’t good, because it was in secret, and because you punished yourself for writing, because you didn’t go all the way.”

And so I will keep writing in whatever voice it is I have – somewhat convoluted language peppered with colourful lashes of swearing and very strange metaphors. I know that it isn’t quite as polished as it could be, and maybe some day, whatever novel I produce will be of the quality I hope for, rather than being the self-indulgent pablum it actually is now. But write I shall, and we all must.

Goodbye, Sir Terry, and Thank You

The first Discworld novel I read was The Fifth Elephant, and it wasn’t the one that got me addicted to Pratchett. No, not at all.

The novel that made me go back and devour more was, oddly, Snuff. Released late in Pratchett’s career, it was my gateway to the Discworld and there was nothing for it but to go and find every single Sam Vimes novel. I adore Sam Vimes, the majesty of the law himself, and Death is splendid and there are a hundred characters that I’ll be reading to my kids one day. The witches. Moist. Lu-Tze. The Patrician. Susan. Ridcully. Nobby Nobbs. Rincewind, Angua, Carrot and oh god, if I keep listing them my heart will break.

I have had so many happy hours with these books. When I have been sick, I have turned to them. When I have been shoulder-deep in depression, when I felt like every nerve was frayed and exposed and I couldn’t bear any human contact. Every night with insomnia, every lazy Sunday to chase away the Monday blues. My copy of Night Watch, gifted to me by my very best friend, is about to fall apart at the spine. I read Pratchett out loud to my beloved physicist and we have discussed the intricacies of the Discworld for many happy hours.

For the gods’ sake, I have the Ankh-Morpork board game.

He was only 66, and though we know all beloved authors must die, it is still vastly unfair that a writer of such prodigious talent went so soon. At the least, he died loved and in company, and in the end, that is all we can really hope for, for all of us.

I am grateful that there are so many Discworld novels to read, and that we have them at all. That any book’s birth is a combination of luck, talent and timing, and to have so many is wealth indeed. It’s hard not to mourn the books that will now go unwritten, but at least we can turn to dozens and dozens of novels and be glad that those books live now.

Thank you, Sir Terry Pratchett. Back to stardust we all must go, but at least you spent your time here making so many people happy.


What I Read When I Read About Running

At some point in 2012, I started running, after my last run had been in, oh, primary school sometime. I had been strong-armed into joining cross-country for reasons still mostly unclear to me, considering how very, very slow and uninterested I was. In any case, I found myself running with my fellow karate-ka on a Sunday morning in September. It was 7kms long, it was hot and there were hills, and the next week I went and bought myself some running shoes.

Let’s fast-forward to today: I have done two half-marathons, five 10km races and many, many Zoo Trots. I hope to do Comrades next year, and at least finish it. This sounds like a humblebrag, but you have to remember that I didn’t do any voluntary sport until I went to university. I hated it that much, especially the teamwork (running and karate are blissfully free of that tedious nonsense). I didn’t want to represent anyone except myself – I was a public speaker, not a public sweater. It was only when I began doing martial arts seriously at university that I began to regret my attitude towards sports. And it is through karate and the benefits of a great dojo that I came to the land of running.

So, things and people do change, and now I find myself devouring everything there is to be read and known about running. South Africa is a country with a massive running culture, host of the world’s biggest and most famous mass-participation ultramarathon, and possibly the world’s most beautiful race in the Two Oceans marathon. There are so many clubs, all delighted to meet and help beginners. This is a great country to run in, to see and explore. I have run through Soweto and Sandton, the jacaranda-lined streets of Pretoria. I have seen my city at night, at sunbreak and sundown, I have known it in its secret hours and I have seen it at its liveliest. The health benefits are important but secondary to the experience: to feel the exhilaration of a race completed, of a body hard at work, the combined energy of thousands of runners chasing their goals. Until you have watched the sun rise from the top of a gruelling hill or run at the feet of skyscrapers in the heat of a Joburg summer’s night, then running probably seems like a crazy thing that crazy people do.

But it isn’t. I hope that if you have not experienced its joy, I hope you do soon. I hope you run a trail with birds chittering their support. I hope you know the kindness of a city’s people when they come to the edge of the track to cheer you on. I hope that you will discover that you are capable of more than you ever thought you were. That if someone like me, an uncoordinated, self-doubting, bandy-legged, badly-built Greek girl can go from nothing to half-marathon in 8 months, then you can too. You should.

And I really hope you do.

Born to RunThe Cool ImpossibleRunning with the Kenyans

Running is FlyingUnbrokenEat and Run

What I Talk About When I Talk About RunningRunning On EmptyMile Markers

To Be a Runner50 Secrets I Learned Running 50 Marathons in 50 DaysWhy We Run: A Natural History

Bunny Majaja: My Friend, and South Africa’s Idol

Bunny Majaja has been my friend for almost fourteen years. This is why.

I was not the most elegant, or capable, or even tolerable of teens. I was gawky and shy and used to being the butt of the joke. Primary school hadn’t been kind to me, and I had hoped that changing schools would change my fortunes. So there I was, with braces and bi-focals and a school dress that went way past my knees and made me look shorter than I already was.

And then my fortunes slowly began to change, and a great deal of it has to do with Bunny.

I was pretty good at history, and like Hermione Granger, my hand went up nearly all the time and it helped me stand out amongst the blue-dressed crowds. At some point in mid-standard six, Bunny moved her chair to next to mine, and we started to share notes and sweets from the veritable tuck shop inside my blazer. (I had an unholy love of sherbet – ask her to tell you the stories someday.) It was not long before I counted Bunny as one of my dearest friends – it was she who introduced me to punk rock and the wondrous world of stand-up comedy. In turn, I shared my history notes with her, as illegible as they were, and I began to blossom. I had spent my Pre-teenage years trying my hardest to shrink behind the pages of a book, hoping no one would notice me. It was Bunny, with her inner light and easy laugh, who gave me a friendship I so badly needed. And when she began to believe in me, it became easier to believe in myself.

She has time for everyone, regardless of their differences and their awkwardness. She has a beatific smile, a soaring spirit and a heart as big as her voice. And long before Idols started, she was inspiring her friends and her family, not just with her voice but her determination to use it to make others happy, to resonate the essence of a song’s meaning right through the hearts of her listeners. I remember when she sang at our old school friend’s wedding, and how very special that moment was for everyone in the room. She has that beautiful talent, and it suits her right down to the ground.

Bunny has been my friend a long time, and it is an honour to be hers.