Upon this rock


Long ago Peter lived in the Mill House on the river Ock. His mother was the daily maid at Bouveray Manor; these were the days when such homes were still owned by those who bore the stately name. No one really knew what his father did; he was rarely there. He was always present in Peter’s mind, though; in whatever form the child chose to cast him.

Peter was a boy apart; a boy who skipped through the woods and down the lanes that led from the sleepy hamlet. Watch him as he leaps and skitters, hops and lopes as carefree as a fawn, deep in ‘the coarser pleasures of my boyish days, And their glad animal movements all gone by’; lost in the busy silence as his skinny brown arms flap and score through the dappled air. This boy, always so restless and unconsciously disruptive in the classroom, was at peace in his child dance.

‘Sit still, Peter. Read it again. Pay attention. Where’s your homework?’ demanded Miss Ireland. She had little time for these country children who came from bookless homes where stories were told, not read. She didn’t understand this boy and made no attempt to do so as she wrote for the umpteenth time: ‘Peter is a helpful and gentle boy with an excellent memory, but he really must learn to concentrate if he is to achieve success in life.’

If she had ever seen him crouching down to a bullfrog to study its gleaming eyes and slick jade skin, taking in each readied muscle and tapered toe, she may have rethought her words. But she was a bookish woman who learned of the world through the experiences of others. She failed to understand the greatness that was stirring in that battling mind. But she liked Peter and was kind to him, which is more than can be said of some.

The bigger boys at the village school tended to either ignore or tease this wiry woodland creature. The older girls were more open in their scorn, mocking his frayed clothes and unruly hair. It was the little ones who understood him; for they too had scant control over their fidgeting bodies and they too still saw the magic that stirs in every quivering silver leaf and fallen baby bird.

You may think that Peter was an unhappy boy, but he wasn’t. It did sadden him when he heard the frustration in Miss Ireland’s voice, but he accepted that the other children were different; that the gods had, for reason’s known only to themselves, neglected to share equally the gifts of free thought and movement that Peter so enjoyed. He was happy at home, comfortable in the love of his sweet mother as she slipped seemingly seamlessly between Mill House and Manor. Even when she wasn’t at home, her presence was – whether in a note: ‘Deerest son, your tee is in the pantri under the blew plate. Finnish your home work and I’rl be back in time to heet the water for your barth. Love Mummy’ – or in the vase of wild campion on the kitchen table, or the slip of lavender tucked into his pillow case.

Her love was everywhere.

Peter’s best and only friend was Timmy, a boy so unlike himself that everyone wondered at the pair. Timmy was studious, calm, timid and pale. He went to a prep school in town and came home only for weekends and holidays, eagerly shedding his uniformity of dress and mind the second he walked through the front door. ‘Mother! Mother! I’m going to Peter’s. Can I bring him back for tea?’ ‘Of course you can darling,’ his mother always said. ‘As long as Mrs Stone says so.’ But as Mrs Stone was rarely back from work by teatime, the understanding remained that Peter would have his tea at Timmy’s house every Friday and every second day of the holidays. At first Becky Stone felt awkward in accepting this standing invitation on behalf of her son, but once she had met Timmy’s widowed mother, she quickly realised that this genteel middle-aged lady was not dissimilar to herself; the soft yet firm love they both had for their boys instantly uniting them, paving the way for years of unspoken understanding.

So every Friday at half-past-three, Timmy would dash down to the Mill House, elbows pumping, knobbly knees thrusting and eager chin leading the way. He wasn’t a fast runner, but he always felt like one on that downhill lane and, as he sped, he imagined satchel, pens and books flying from his shoulders like winged imps scattering in his wake. Then he’d arrive at the Mill, narrow chest heaving and wide mouth grinning in anticipation and there Peter would be, grinning back, and Timmy would poke Peter’s shoulder and say ‘hello, old chap’ and Peter would swipe Timmy’s arm and say ‘good to see you again, Sarg’ and they would salute each other and set to gabbling their news and plans.

On this particular balmy summer afternoon they headed for the meadow, now littered with cowslips and buttercups and, as they swooped along, arms spread wide to catch the breeze, they became fighter ’planes with rapid fire and terse commands competing with the hum of bees and lowing cows. Never were two boys as carefree and delighting in each other’s company as they collapsed on the lush long grass, giggling and gasping as they found their breath.

‘So, what ho at school, old chap?’ asked Timmy.

‘Paper matchy tortoises this week, Sarg,’ replied Peter.

‘Oh, great stuff, papier mache,’ said Timmy. ‘How did yours work out?’

‘Like a lumpy frog! A great, green, lumpy frog, Sarg. It’s so handsome I’m going to give it to you for your birthday.’

‘I would be honoured to accept such a splendid gift, sir, and shall place it next to the fine clay hedgehog you presented to me on my eighth birthday.’

‘Then it is I what are honoured.’

‘But, hey, Peter. I’ve brought another book for you. You’ll love it. The Scarlet Pimpernel. A bit tricky to read, but the story’s fantastic. Here.’ And Timmy drew a tattered paperback from his pocket and presented it to his friend.

‘Good, is it?’ said Peter as he studied the red-caped, flamboyantly bearded hero on the cover.

‘First class. Now read a bit to me, old chap while I study the clouds.’

And there the secret miracle of Peter’s life was disclosed to the sparrows and the sky larks as he opened the book – and read. Slowly, carefully, but with growing confidence as his eyes, brain and tongue awkwardly united through the words.

“A surging, seething, murmuring crowd of beings that are human only in name, for to the eye and ear they seem nought but savage creatures, animated by vile and passion and by the lust of vengeance and hate. The hour, some little time before sunset, and the place, the West Barricade…During the greater part of the day the guillotine had been kept busy at its ghastly work…”

Peter paused, exhausted yet exhilarated. ‘What’s lust mean, Sarg?’

‘Lots. It means lots.’

‘Oh.’

‘Read some more.’

‘I’m so slow. Doesn’t it drive you nuts?’

‘Heavens, no. You’re reading faster than the clouds are moving, so you’re actually going too fast.’

They laughed at that and, their attention now broken, they sought other pleasures to take them through to tea time.

‘Let’s climb farmer Whiley’s oak!’ yelled Peter, leaping to his feet.

‘I got stuck last time,’ said Timmy with great doubt in his eyes.

‘Well I got you down, didn’t I?

‘Yes. With a ladder. Mortifying.’

‘Come along, Sarg. You won’t get stuck this time.’

So they pelted off to the end of the meadow, down the farm track to the great oak that was born long before the greying stone wall was crafted.

To get to the lowest branch it was first necessary to climb onto the wall. That bit was easy and Timmy’s feet were familiar with the footholds. It was only as he had to balance on the mossy top stones and reach up to the lower branches that his heart started fluttering.

‘Not sure that I can do this, old chap.’

‘Of course you can,’ said his friend as he reached down to give Timmy a hand. ‘Come on. Grab my wrist with your right hand and that branch with the other. Then just swing up.’

‘I can’t.’

‘Yes you can. You just need to think like a monkey.’

‘How do monkeys think, then?’

‘They don’t! They just know they can do it. And that’s all it takes. Come on. I know you can do it and I’m the tree expert. Just know you can do it and swing yourself up. Okay. One, two, three…’

And Timmy told himself he could do it and, grabbing Peter’s wrist, he hauled – no, swung – himself up onto the first bough. He had no sense of actually doing it, but every sense of the rough bark that was now skinning his thighs as he lay gasping along its length.

‘I did it,’ he grinned.

‘You did, too, Sarg,’ now let’s get to the top. Or at least the middle,’ he amended at the panic still apparent in his friend’s eyes. ‘I’ll read some more when we get to that branch up there. Looks like a good place to stop.’

That branch up there appeared very far away to Timmy, but he had got this far… Up they clambered slowly, then surely, then slowly again until they reached the perfect bough. Timmy looked down. ‘This branch hangs right over the pond, Peter!’

Peter inched his bottom forward. ‘Yeah! We could dive from here.’

‘You’re crazy.’

‘Not that crazy. Okay, Sarg, pass me the book.’

‘You’ve got it.’

‘No, I don’t. Oh, blast. I left it on the wall.’

‘Never mind. Let’s sing.’

‘Rule Britannia?’

The boys were just into the first bar when they were interrupted by a fearsome shrieking.

‘Good heavens,’ said Timmy, ‘The starlings are going crazy.’

‘Hell, yes,’ said Peter. ‘Perhaps they don’t like our singing. Oh, look! There’s a young starling in the water. It can’t get out.’

‘It’s going to drown, Peter. Oh, no, it’s going to drown. Oh, no! That’s flipping awful. We’ve got to do something.’

Peter was already shimmying down the tree, his shorts and shirt catching on twigs; forearms and legs grazed and scratched. Timmy wasn’t far behind him, oblivious to the fearsome height and his poor history in navigating it. But when he got to the lowest branch he admitted defeat and watched as his best friend dashed to the pond.

‘It’s not such a baby, Timmy. He’s quite big, the silly twit. If I can just get him to this side then he’ll be able to get himself out. Hey, little fellow, I’m here now, okay.’

And then the shrieking of the parent starlings and their twenty-odd murmuration intensified and, as Peter leaned forward to brush the struggling bird towards dry land, they fell upon the boy, hitting, squawking; beaks and claws scraping and pecking.

‘Argh!’ he screamed. ’Argh, gerroffa me!’ He beat the air with his hands, twisting and ducking to escape the attack. ‘Timmy, help me!’ he yelled and then, after what seems minutes but was only seconds, his friend was at his side frantically waving The Scarlet Pimpernel and roaring at the birds. Timmy grabbed Peter’s hand and they ran up the lane, through cowpats and puddles until the birds gave up the chase to return to protect their drowning fledgling.

Peter’s head and hands were lacerated, blood poured down his face. Once he’d stopped running he shook so badly he could hardly speak and tears mingled with the blood that dripped onto his shirt. Timmy ripped off his own shirt to mop Peter’s face and then draped it over the boy’s head, tying it behind his neck like a peasant scarf.

‘Now listen, old chap,’ he stammered, ‘we’ve got to get to Doc Hodgkin’s house top speed. But we mustn’t run, all right? Just hold my hand and walk as quickly as you can. All right?’

‘All right,’ said Peter.

Peter Stone and Timmy Paterson arrived at the doctor’s house – bloody, muddy, smelly and tearful, to be tended by the village doctor and his calm and bosomy nurse. Mothers were called; stitches, TCP and Lucosade administered and tears dried. Then the shaken boys and their shocked mothers walked back to the Mill House where Becky made tea for all, and both women demanded in that voice of fear and anger that only mothers can muster, to know ‘what in heaven’s name did you boys think you were up to?’ And more tears followed and mothers softened and Mrs Paterson hugged Mrs Stone and her stitched up boy and took Timmy home for a bath. She would have carried him if he’d let her.

That night Peter’s mother tucked him into bed, kissed him on his brow and asked, ‘So what was the best part of your terrible adventure, my sweetheart boy?’ To which he replied, ‘Timmy climbed the tree; nearly to the top.’ And when Timmy’s mother asked her son as he was nodding off on her lap: ‘Well, apart from the attack of the killer starlings, did you have a nice time with Peter?’ he replied, ‘Oh, yes; the best ever. He’s going to read The Scarlet Pimpernel, you know.’

********

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‘Your Style in His Hands’? An all-time makeover low


I’ve recently become uncomfortably familiar with a particular brand of partner abuse. Maybe you know it? Talk to them like skivvies, knock them down and then … thank you my saviour! … lift them from the depths of bemusement, emotional exhaustion and crumbling confidence to assure them that you do still really want them even though they’re not sparrow-legged fifteen-year-old silicone models.

Unsure of that of which I speak? Take a look at DSTV TLC channel’s ‘Your Style in His Hands’. I’m halfway through a third episode and can’t quite believe that TLC and DSTV have descended to this level. I amaze myself at my ability to type while my blood boils. And still can’t quite believe that it took me one-point-five episodes to twig.

It goes like this: A male partner nominates his shockingly tasteless wife/girlfriend for a him-directed makeover. She’s recently had your kids, you see; or given up her life to follow you to the country/city; and somehow, despite all your expectations, she’s not living up to them. What a miserable bitch. How dare she not dress like a stoned model on a rooftop shoot. How dare she succumb to life in the slow lane, surrounded by the unfamiliar and terrifying while you go off to work? Is this really what you get for giving up the pub and internet dating! Shame on the slag.

But all is not lost. By simply relinquishing her private life; by putting her insecurities – and body – on display, and by making a bit of a tit of yourself, you get 5 000 GBP to spend on recreating that babe you plied with Bacardi Breezers way back in the day. You don’t have to shift your mindset or ask her what you can do to make her life easier, or help out a bit more, or put your blobby bod on display (or get it in shape), or respect her as a frikken equal, you doos. Nope, all you have to do is get her a makeover while you remain your doosish, self-involved self. And you get to do it on global television.

[vomit break]

And boy oh boy do you then get to pat yourself on the back. Because you are the hero, my man. You are lauded, applauded and televised as the man who cares; who gets back the woman ‘I first fell in love with’. Of course, this makeover will revolutionise your life: you get the hot girl revisited and she gets pretty frocks and fuck-me shoes. My god, that’s really going to change everything. She now knows what pleases you; what turns you on; what’s been turning you on while she’s been breeding your children; changing her life while you suffer on, escaping to work and coming home to that dull, exhausted, bewildered woman dressed by the leftovers from the grocery budget. ‘Shopping for your fantasy life, not your real life’ says the mindless stylist as she oohs on with ‘Has she put the spark back into your relationship? Squeal!’

I get makeover shows, I really do. I love seeing Birmingham cesspits recreated as Hilton Heathrow Hotel suites; 45-year-old stripper moms transformed into St. Oprahs; quivering fearful full-fleshed girls and boys emerging from their voluptuous cocoons under the fairy wand of Gok Wan.

But I do not get how even these most patriarchal, self-absorbed misogynists can bring themselves to take their supposed beloved on a hot date and restore ‘intimacy’ only once TCL has agreed to foot the bill and give ‘their’ exhausted women a makeover.

This is wrong, dear hearts. It is as wrong as training your daughters to mould their bodies for future husbands; as wrong as carelessly neglecting yourself while expecting perfection from your beleaguered partner; or as neglecting your partner while seeking perfection elsewhere.

Your Style in His Hands’ is a symptom of that which is most rotten in our world. I can smell it from here.

Pah.

Seven Shapes of Smug


So there I am, watching So You Think You Can Like to Dance, when out of the corner of my left eye, I see something strolling across the lounge wall. It is the size of my hand (at least) and as menacing as a Pikitup guy come Festive Season.

Where oh where are my heroic, strutting, spider-catching friends when I need them, I think to myself as I start packing. Your superiority is unbearable – but I need you!

Which got me to thinking about superior people: the better and the smug. We all have elements of this, of course, even if our superiority lies only in pointing out the insufferability of others.  So here goes…

Spider catchers

Yes, there are those who can and those who won’t, and those who can have every right to be proud of their courage. As one who won’t, I feel girly and spineless in the presence of a spider catcher. I watch in awe as they pop the Tupperware bowl over the intruder, slip the water and lights bill underneath, and cavalierly carry their prey across the road to the park, returning to bow modestly while expressing amazement that I can’t do it. Vaughan, Kathleen, I bow to you and you have every right to demand your place in the Annals of Animal Wrangling.

All consumers

There’s no question that it is a massive social and personal advantage to be able to eat anything put in front of you from Vietnam to Vryburg. I admire you but I don’t want to be like you. People who eat anything are always smug, always boastful – ‘Oh I’m sooo lucky. I can eat anything. Snails? Had ’em for breakfast. Tripe? Give me seconds. Sea urchins? As soon as I’m done with the lobster entrails’ tinkly laugh, wink – and always make us difficult eaters feel like …. Difficult eaters.

Difficult eaters

I confess that I am a difficult eater: gluten bloats me and makes my joints swell like granny’s; more than a smidge of butter, cheese or cream causes awkward swirly-headedness and nausea; animal fat makes me fat and achy. I am not proud of this and do not like being this way.  Some lesser souls, however, positively delight in their inability to tolerate anything other than hand-reared tilapia with home-grown kale and seasonal fruits. We get it. You are delicate, conscious. Just remember to factor in the environmental impact of getting your organic spinach from the slopes of Kilimanjaro to your wok.

The naked and the tanned

Listen, I’m as guilty of this as anyone – even though I generally sport my measly tan only in the tanning season. A tan means you’ve been places, done things Outdoors, spent money. It gives you a healthy glow that cunningly disguises blemishes, wobbly bits, wrinkles, and skin damage. A tan allows you to expose flesh that the pasty hide beneath floaty tops. And a winter tan … well there’s nothing more smug-making; you’ve had a summer somewhere bloody exotic (remind me to tell you about my trip to Zanzibar) while the rest of us are struggling with blocked flues and noses. You win. But we don’t like you for it.

Parents of a greater child

From the moment of birth, each child born is a vast improvement on all others. Their eyes are more alert, fine motor skills finer, verbal abilities more advanced… And throughout their little lives, all children are measured against all others. The top three Greater Child categories are Intelligence, Physical Prowess, and Talent. It’s the latter that saves most parents, as Talent includes Kindness, Helpfulness and Creativity. The problem is that the sole merit of having a Greater Child is not that the child is more likely to be happier, nicer or more successful; it is purely that said child gives us something to brag about. Which is fine by me.

The hidden-talented

There is little purpose in having a hidden talent if no one knows about it. What’s the point in being able to hypnotise a chicken, juggle steak knives, light a fire with nothing more than a nail file and pocket fluff if you don’t share that skill with others? It’s not surprising that the hidden-talented manage to inject ‘This pasta is delicious. It reminds me of the time I spoke Swahili so fluently that the Chief invited me to bed his daughter. Pass the parmigiana’ into the dinner conversation. We all think you’re a vulgar show-off, but long to be able to compete. I’m still looking for my hidden talent, and will be sure to let you know when I do.

The brutally honest and the piously virtuous

I’m putting this lot together because they are both equally insufferable. Priding yourself on your honesty is a euphemism for Telling it Like You Think it Is. Which often has nothing to do with how it really is. The rest of us can tell the difference. Virtuous people have never divorced; never got drunk or smoked pot; never flirted with the vicar; never eaten KFC, or taken their tops off in a bar. They are dull dull dull. And slappably smug. The upside of this, of course, is that the brutally honest and the piously virtuous make the rest of us feel rebellious, edgy and interesting. And if that’s not something to feel smug about, what is?

Why I object to objectification


I could have written this in my early twenties, and probably did. In those days I knew that my mother’s feisty (yet often closeted) feminism was rubbing off on me. I wanted to be admired for me; not the size of my breasts or my (now expanded) 24 inch waist. I wanted to be appealing as a whole being, not as a form. And I wanted to see others this way.

I’ve always admired the human form and see physical aesthetics as as much of a gift as is talent. But I’ve never been able to separate it from the whole. In fact, it can detract from the whole, and often does—as witnessed in the 2012 Olympics. Is it just me, or has a vast amount of the filming focused not on the extraordinary prowess, but on the physical—and often nameless, form? Here’s a particularly grimy example, now wisely pulled from NBCS. What the hell was that about? Or was it just an honest reflection of NBCS viewership requirements?

According to good ol’ Wikipedia, objectification is an attitude that ‘regards a person as a commodity or as an object for use, with little or no regard for a person’s personality or sentience’.

This ‘use’ might be power, lust, self-gratification, control, or a means to ignore our own inadequacies.

What this means to you and me is this: when the beggar at the intersection becomes nothing more than a nagging ragged body; when the high school water polo player becomes nothing more than a ‘hot young thing’; when the waitress becomes a pair of breasts; when Woman becomes a creature to patronise and ‘celebrate’ (holy crap…) and Man becomes the butt of sexist jokes … then we have lost all sense of the others’ feelings, perceptions and consciousness. We have dehumanised them, and thus dehumanised ourselves.

I hope that I’ve taught my children not to see the world this way. Not to see people—singular and collective—as objects; but rather to glimpse inside for a moment and see the person; as vulnerable, afraid, hopeful and real as we are. I don’t know if I have taught them this, but I do see that they have learned it.

Not to learn it is deadly. Out of objectification rises sexism, racism, bigotry, the delusion of superiority, and violence. If we see others as objects, we treat them as objects. And objects have no self, no feelings; so how could they possibly care how we view or treat them?

But, you may argue, what does it matter how we view others? How will they even know? They know. The waitress feels uncomfortable when she’s being ogled; the beggar knows when he is deemed invisible; the old lady can sense your irritation. And, even if they didn’t know, we do. And our children do. And our peers do. And we thus become objects of inhumanity to ourselves and others. Thus the rot grows and our collective spirit crumbles.

Which is pretty much what is happening all over the world.

Feel free to disagree…

Why you should read ‘Entanglement’


There are books that make readers want to buy books and books that make writers want to write books. Steven Boykey Sidley’s debut novel made me want to do both.

First, disclosure: I know the author. I have eaten at his table and he at mine and his beautiful writerly wife, Kate is a friend of the heart. So I can’t really call this a review; there are too many connections and too much liking of the person to allow me to entirely impartially address Entanglement. That said, here I write only the truth.

When a friend publishes a book, a risk emerges from the moment you turn to the first page. What if it’s awful? What if I don’t get it? What if it’s consumable like cold slap chips, but not magnificent like Radium Beerhall prawns (pah! to you, Chris Roper). Entanglement is a heady and complex Thai curry.

The authors I most seek out are those that relentlessly explore the protagonist: his or her thoughts, motives, secrets, passions and doubts. Authors who allow the story to tell itself through the humanity of the characters, rather than through plot. Ian McEwan does that to my deep satisfaction, as do Sebastian Faulks, John Fante…

Of course plot is important. Without plot there is no story; but when a writer can allow the hero to seep through his skin into flesh and mind, distilling into a plot which flows from fingers to page – there you have the best kind of story. The kind in which you can believe. Steven Boykey Sidley is that kind of writer.

Yes, there were odd jarring moments. Entanglement was first constructed as a screenplay and, in earlier pages, there remain traces of dialogue straight from a script. Why was this not edited, I wonder?

I was initially startled by the overt resemblances to some of Sidley’s real life family and friends. I’m sure that many greenhorn novelists do that (and I sure as hell did in my – unpublished – MS) and this would mean nothing to a reader who doesn’t know the author from a can of beans… but I did have to get over that before allowing myself to be swept up.

At times I felt that the plot was implausible, until I soon realised that I had fallen into the trap set by many an overly commercial publisher: formula. Sidley’s story doesn’t follow a predictable formula. It follows plot as life follows plot: a capricious path etched by the motives and foibles of diverse characters and unexpected events.

I also battled somewhat with the protagonist’s (author’s?) little homilies; certain thoughts were at times, I felt, over explained to a thinking reader.

This is a thinking reader’s novel. I have recently been ragged for using the word ‘intellectual’ (don’t let’s go there), but Boykey Sidley is an intellectual writer – an intellectual man – and the sheer joy of this book lies in his ability to share his intellect without guile, pomposity or artifice. His honesty becomes this novel’s rich humanity. The language is strong, real and, at times, breathtakingly beautiful.

Another confession: I am a skip-reader (which sounds like one who nicks old Agatha Christies from the neighbour’s bin, but isn’t). The only author whom I have never skip-read is Jane Austen. With Austen, I reread passages for the sheer joy of their lemon barley bite. I didn’t skip one word or sentence in Entanglement for fear of losing a clue or motivation for the next moment.

This is a very good book. Not quite great, but I strongly suspect that Sidley’s next one will be.

Do yourself a favour.

Midweek Jazz at the Ascot


I hadn’t been to the Ascot Hotel since God was a girl. If I remember correctly, my last visit entailed an hysterically delightful Abbaesque drag show with doos-wyn, creaky props and – possibly deliberate – bad lighting. Then the Ascot disappeared into Norwood decay for many years, re-merging a couple of years ago as a boutique hotel, still with oodles of 50s style.

I’d been meaning to pay it a visit for yonks, but it wasn’t until Kathy Raven said let’s get a table together that I got my act together. There’s jazz on Thursday night, she said. Seven for seven-thirty. It was the last bit that captured my attention. Early evening midweek jazz caters perfectly to my suburban tastes. None of this foolish music starts at nine stuff for me.

One of the great things about the Ascot is its location – and abundant parking. Although I’m glad I don’t actually live in the neighbourhood, I find it reassuring to be able to park outside someone’s house and to walk thirty paces up towards Grant Ave to find a bit of night life.

And there it was in all its polished glory: a gleaming balcony bedecked with cocktail tables, stylishly dressed patrons and a middle-aged he-must-be-a-writer in for good measure. I was greeted like a frequent, honoured guest at the red-carpeted entrance by two utterly charming young men, and shown to the table in the adjacent bar stroke restaurant stroke lounge.

I was the first to arrive. I can’t help it. If it says seven for seven-thirty then I’ll arrive at seven-fifteen. I try to be late but should really just give in to my obsessive punctuality. My mother says it’s because I was born six weeks early. I’ll buy that.

So I sat alone for all of three seconds when another charming young man came and offered me a glass of wine. He was the waiter, so I said yes. I’m still kicking myself that I can’t remember his name because he was the kind of waiter you request on return visits. He was just so polite. Friendly. Efficient.

At seven-thirty on the dot Andrew Massey and Andre Behnke stepped up to the keyboard and drums to deliver the kind of sensual, soothing, Michael Franks Popsicle Toes type jazz that makes your own curl. Andrew (on drums and vocals) must have been crooning since birth. His voice adapted slightly to every song, capturing the essence of the mood and era. I could feel the tension of the day drift out into the night. Magic.

By this time our table was occupied by Ms Raven and other serious music people. I tried not to gush inanely but the consensus was that these guys were good. Really good.

By now of course I was excited and already planning my next visit – preferably with my partner, my children, their partners, and ten of our closest friends. This is the kind of experience you want to share.

But you don’t want to eat there. It grieves me to say so but the classical urban aesthetics, welcoming charm, professional service and outstanding music all ground to a halt at the kitchen door.

I had been warned, but ever keen to give it a go I ordered the house salad. The light was dim so it wasn’t until I bit into a singed walnut and tasted the tongue-coating sunflower oil that I knew this wasn’t going to work. Another of our party ordered the minestrone: a tomatoey pool with an excess of pasta and an absence of the promised ‘market-fresh’ vegetables. I sent mine back because I simply couldn’t eat it. Our lovely waiter’s talents were wasted on the food.

I will be back though and look forward to autumn evenings when I can enjoy the open fire, the flickering candles and more soul massaging music. I’ll eat at home.

You’ll find the Ascot Hotel at 59 Grant Ave, Norwood.

You’ll find Andrew and Andre at Jazzco Productions. I’m tempted to organise an event just so I can hear them again.

Perfect moment


Less than a month ago, my daughter moved out. Or perhaps I should say moved in, to a shared and gorgeous parqueted apartment in another part of town. When daughters move out they leave a gap; a shifting globe of absence that, should you be me, must be filled.

At first I didn’t realise that it must be filled; it just felt like a gap with her name on it. It wasn’t a sad gap, mind you. She was ready to go and find a place unencumbered by Mother. She was geared up and revving to be the adult she is becoming and I was happy, proud and delighted that she knew herself to be ready and had the courage to make the move.

But there was a gap and I soon realised that I’d have to do some domestic rearranging to soften its edges until it became part of my space. Not only my space, but my young son’s.

First we rearranged the furniture; switching, shoving and lugging it from one wall to another until the arrangements pleased the eye and mind. That worked. Up to a point. The point being that the gap, the space, wasn’t physical. It was a space of habit, ritual and order. We, my son and I, had to create our own.

I know! I said. Why don’t we ignore the TV and DSTV remotes from Monday to Friday and try a little quiet time in the evenings. This is not the kind of suggestion one makes lightly to a TV addicted twelve year old, but he said fine. It’ll be difficult, but let’s do it. What a boy.

And so we did what countless others have done and switched off. The first couple of days were mildly jittery as we bumped into each other on the way to the fridge to see if it might contain anything entertaining. I soon stymied that one however and added another challenge to our new world: let’s get rid of the excess kilograms we were (are, it’s early days) carrying and start on A Healthy Eating Regime.

The fridge’s fascination soon gave way to planning and cooking fatless delights. Okay, I’m exaggerating about the delights, but we are both feeling rather chuffed at our determination and creativity with steamed fish.

It’s the TV-less state that’s working the real magic though, as my son, freshly back at school and elated to be in Grade Seven, has expressed no interest in the box’s charms. Instead, he has fallen hook, line and sinker for another technological marvel, his iPad, and is reading more than he’s ever read before. Now, when I go to wind down his day in heathenish prayers, he folds his iPad into its anonymous casing and sighs the sleepy contented sigh of a boy who knows that Willard Price’s Adventures will be waiting for him on the morrow.

And I, work done for the day, settle in with AA Gill (in real book format) and listen to the crickets rasping, the dogs scratching, the fridge humming and realise that the gap is gently dispersing into the particles of our life.

It is a perfect moment. So perfect, that I had to break it to come to my own little technological treasure, and write about it.

 I’m done now. My tea is cold and AA calls me.

In Praise of Older Men


I’ve always liked older men. I like their ways that are always one step behind – and thus ahead – of the pack. I like their music that reminds me of a time I never knew. I like their manners that woo me into believing the world could easily be a better place, if only it pretended to be civilised.

 I recently attended a gathering well populated by older men of all hues, and was so distracted by the spring of respect and compassion rising in me, that I could barely think straight. I wanted to reach out and ask for their opinions, life stories, solutions. I wanted to dine with them, dance with them, walk on the beach with them.

This has nothing to do with ‘elders’ (over-rated) or sugar-daddies (nasty). I don’t want to bed them, marry them or spend their life savings.

It’s about a certain type of man who happens to be ten or twenty years older than I: men who wear cardigans, corduroys and polished shoes. Men who smell of grass clippings rather than Aramis. Men who’ve read – and can recite – Rudyard Kipling and The Count of Montecristo. Who stalk up hillsides with nothing more than binoculars and an apple.

Men who don’t even know the meaning of the word metrosexual and who, while they might get moody about the state of the nation and cricket, never get moody about women.

This older man, I realise, is something of a fantasy figure; a composite of the best bits of my late father; a dream of what my late brother might have become; a fond remembrance of a friend or two gone by.

In reality, he (for now he has become Older Man) is the retired journalist, professor, senior partner who no longer fits into this world. I would call it ‘modern’ world, but there is nothing modern about the way we live. Modern implies innovation, strides forward, new thought; whereas we live on a landfill of yesterday’s failures. My Older Man is the one seen strolling across the wasteland, not daring to look down but with eyes fixed on a wavering horizon; wondering what the last years will bring – and where the poetry has gone.

I see him now, sitting at his desk reading from a red cotton-jacketed book with cracked spine, a glass of whisky at his elbow and his laptop unopened. He reads intently, occasionally glancing out of the window to check the changing of the wind direction. He makes the odd note on a foolscap pad. In pencil. He ignores the ache in his fingers as he turns the page.

I don’t know why I care so deeply for him, but I do.

Back to Horse – Pony School Mnemonic


A few months ago I was invited to write a piece for the catalogue of the Horse exhibition at Everard Read Circa gallery in Rosebank. The thought of venturing into cree-ha-tive writing was daunting, but I decided to dive right in. When I saw the end result – more a coffee table book than catalogue, filled with the most exquisite images – I almost platzed with joy and disbelief. What an honour.

Appaloosa, pommel, fetlock and girth – the secret words of the horse-struck child startle in my head the moment I clap eyes on him. Him. Her. The head has no body so it is hard to know. His her story is told by the plate glass and barbed fever trees. He her and me; we lock eyes, woman to prisoner and I feel the dizzy stirrings of ages old Horse love.

Horse is everywhere, the subject of my puerile desire flirts, with switching tail and bronze turd. She prances through flickered images of naked girl and Max Factor lips, changing her pace from canter to gallop and my heart judders.

I want to stay forever.

But he calls me on and I smell him now, hormonal sweat and glowing flank. The puppy-sweet soft breath from twitching muzzle. If I lean back I will fall into him and he will carry me. As no man has ever carried me.

I reach out to touch him and he is warm on cold steel; I turn and he is naked, then yearning from the walls as many-headed herd. He is mobile, metal twisted, filled with light and humour. She is shadows cast across white pages. He is donkey. She spreads her lovely bones and flies with wings of rib and gristle high above the fields and paddocks of my tender years.

And now she is at my feet, struggling with fawning hooves dancing yet shuffling. I want her to stop struggling but I’m afraid that if she does… if she does she will stop dancing. I dare not look away. But now I hear them see them from the corner of my eye; the dust is rising, casting a loud pall over the ochre heath. They are coming. Horse and Horse and Horse.

I am there.

Outside, life and cars and painters. I blink and turn and back. Recycled horses nod to drivers and passers-by as childhood scented hay skitters across the way. Oh oh oh the longing is deep now. But I cannot continue without circling the one-stumped soldier who owes his life to the drowning Horse; his tinpot form a testament to the quirks and accidental heroics of war.

I inhale the warrior woman’s saddle then up the helter-skelter path I follow the beat of his rumbling hooves, into the dancing lights where a table is laid with crop and sugar: treats for my Horse. I meet the gods who recreated him, who use their bodies to carry him as he has carried us across gentle fields and ever outward-leaning horizons. I see her stripped bare to sacrament – three times offered. Always taken.

I am stripped bare. I talk and I move, yet as my great lungs heave, I stretch to four hoofed corners, my head nodding and bowing without submission. My tail whisks, lazily.

 

I raise my glass to women


(Lordy, but it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here. Just too – happily – busy in the real world. But last night I was so inspired by the events of the evening that I had write.)

I like being a woman. I like the way women work, in body and in spirit; I like that we can be lovers, nurturers, creators, adventurers, survivors – in ways that men can’t. I like men too; quite a lot actually. I love that they are the perfect counterpoint to women; I delight in the way they look and move and brood and play – but I still don’t fully understand how they work. I gather that that sentiment is mutual.
I recently launched, in a rowing-boat way, an informal social networking group for women. My motives were simple: much as I enjoy the chatter and information sharing of facebook, I have become increasingly frustrated by its limits. Obvious limits, such as presence. I’m more than happy to engage in banal texted chitchat, or to share a fascinating news piece online, but what I really enjoy is the leaning forward in the chair, sparkling eye contact, symphony of voices, crackling laughter that is the physical fabulosity of a gathering of women.
I was also intrigued by the idea of networking; supporting each other in our business ventures; sharing leads, skills, ideas and inspiration. And if we could do this once a month in a beautiful place, over delectable eats and glasses of bubbly, so much the better.
Three months on and my little dream is a gorgeous reality that looks like this:
Twenty or so women in varied modes of dress; in shoes stacked, flat, bedecked and plain. The hair is cropped and black, blonde and curling, greying and straight. The age between twenty-two and godaloneknows. The skills and interests veer from telling CEOs and government ministers how to dress and what to say to blogging about the wonders of Joburg. In between you will find writers, TV producer, floral artist, designers, entrepreneurs, trainers, a sociologist and one extraordinary wheeler-dealer who managed to negotiate the coup of the century so that we could all taste French Champagne and bite-sized delicacies on the splendid balcony of Emoyeni – for next to nothing.
I have to pause in my sisterhood praise singing to say a word or two about Emoyeni,  new home to one of SA’s top Frenchy food spots, Auberge Michel, and gathering place for celebrators with means. Situated in Jubilee Rd, Parktown and overlooking the world across towering cerise bougainvillea and luminescent lilac jacaranda, Emoyeni is without doubt, one of the most spectacular – and friendly – venues I’ve encountered. Even the car park is a work of art. Even the hand made crisps were delectable. (I must return for a hot and clarsey date with my man…)
Back to those women.
I’ve heard it said that a bunch of women is as mean as a swarm of wasps.  Perhaps this is so in some quarters. No, that was disingenuous of me. I have certainly experienced that vicious bitchiness when there is threat or sharp inequality present – and oft when there is intellectual imbalance. Then women can become the creatures of their ill repute. But generally, when the motives are mutual and interests common, women en mass are a beautiful thing: witty, delighting in each other’s accomplishments, generous in their praise.
This is the thing I love most about women: we tell each other how wonderful we are. Often. We laugh with each other. Often. We are sincere. Often. And we don’t have to bloody well explain ourselves.
I hope that this group of wonderful creatures  – now quaintly known as the Champerinas – continues to meet and share for the longest time. Childishly, I don’t want it to grow or shrink. I would like it to stay just as it is. Variegated perfection.

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