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Sarah Britten

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Heading somewhere, at last

Pulse of the City

For the past six months, I have been using the small gym at the office complex where I work. I haven’t been very good about going, but when I do overcome inertia and make the long echoing trek through the parking basement, I always head for the treadmill. 20 minutes, minimum, at a time, which is often all I can spare.

Exercise is good for stress.

The treadmills and exercise bikes are lined up along the bank of windows that runs along the length of the space. Beyond it is Western Service Road and beyond that, the M1, choked with traffic to Pretoria in the late afternoons, at other times a blur of Golfs and Mercs and Pick n Pay delivery trucks. Often, on the other side of the highway, on the Old Pretoria Road, the Metro police set up roadblocks. Beyond them and the sullen queues of taxis in their wake, I can see to the N3 Marlboro offramp and further still, the Kelvin power station and a dirty Highveld sky.

So, there I am, walking briskly to nowhere, while in front of me, one of South Africa’s busiest and most economically important highways hauls its rumbling cargo of commuters and capitalists. The symbolism is marginally less subtle than a Marimekko print at an Amish wedding. For all its heavy-handedness, though, the juxtaposition is apt, because the most solid commitment in my life right now – the one thing that has given me a way out of this limbo – is a car. This is progress. It’s the grit around which I can start to lay down the layers of a life, (or, to use the construction analogy I’d prefer to avoid because of its association with my ex-husband, the architect, a kind of scaffolding).

The commitment takes the form of a two-year contract with Land Rover, during which time I will blog about them and appear at events as part of the Joburg leg of a global campaign. All of this writing about Johannesburg – the campaign is called Pulse of the City and I am a designated City Shaper – will be in exchange for the use of a brand new Freelander for one year and the new baby Range Rover, the Evoque, for the next.

Writer/ blogger types generally don’t land these kind of opportunities, which tend to be reserved for those who fit a more typical celebrity mould, so I know I am unbelievably lucky. Importantly, I’m also not a journalist – I work in advertising and have in the past sold burgers to little children and persuaded old people to go gambling (the casino had a bus which served the local retirement villages). So the question of integrity (which has been raised, and to which I have given considerable thought) is hardly germane to my situation. You would also be nice about people who are giving a free car for the next two years.

In this quest to add layers around the grit, I’ve also just applied for a part-time MA in Creative Writing at Wits next year. My ambition is not just to hone my craft in an atmosphere of discipline, commitment to excellence and the fellowship of other writers, but also to add the additional ballast of obligation. I function better when there is a project involved, because projects bring with them both a sense of purpose and a defined end point, and both of these are things I need.

For the MA, I must write a book. I have not yet decided what I will write. There are so many projects I’ve started and then allowed to atrophy. Maybe the literary novel in which I raid my failed marriage wholesale for material. Or the dark little psychological thriller set in Sydney. Perhaps a return to my long-time fascination with Francois le Vaillant, the French ornithologist and charlatan who explored South Africa in the early 1780s. There’s always narrative nonfiction, in which I would probably chronicle the ways in which things fall apart, how my centre did not hold. That would have been the horse book, if the horse book had survived.

Finally, there is the book that appears to be presenting itself as one I have to write regardless. My subject is Joburg, and cars, and my love-hate relationship with both. In this city, this place where I was born and raised, cars and status are inextricably entwined. In fact, it’s more than status: here the car you drive cuts to the very core of your identity. I drive, therefore I am. I have watched people in focus groups from behind one-way glass and seen them acknowledge this, tacitly, as they reach for the mini quiches and sip from their cans of peach-flavoured iced tea.

When Khanyi Mbau said the other week, “We do have a conscience; it tells us that we must go get that car,” she (of all people) unwittingly gave me the philosophical hook I was looking for. So I will be writing a lot about cars, the meaning of cars, and our relationship with them, in this tangle of highways and roadblocks.

I have been named a city shaper, and it is the city to which I returned a year and a half ago that has now provided me with direction. There will be no more walking briskly to nowhere.


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