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Sarah Britten

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Archive for the ‘South Africa’ Category

Held hostage by history

This is the prologue for a story about white male Gen X anger and conflict between generations. It was inspired in part by my own situation, but this is definitely fiction. Writing about a character who in many ways is so unsympathetic is going to be an interesting challenge. I’m posting this here in an effort to get A into G and actually produce something instead of just talking about it endlessly.

“We’re being held hostage by history,” he says, the words fueled by the middling red blend they’ve just finished, and her eyes glaze over because she’s heard this speech a hundred times before, she can recite it almost word for word, and everyone else at the table has heard it too and ohgodthisisembarrassing, why does he do this?

“Look at us. What do we have to show for it? All the hours we spend battling to earn a living to pay off the two-bed one-bath apartment and the affordable car and maybe an overseas holiday once every two years. Can anyone sitting here honestly say you’re living the life you just assumed you were entitled to? Anyone?”

Clinking of spoons in dessert bowls, dinner guests suddenly fascinated by the dregs at the bottom of their wine glasses, but nobody says anything.

“Look at us compared to our parents. How much did they have when they were our age? In their thirties? Three kids. Nice big house in a good suburb. Mothers could stay home because men earned enough. You didn’t need to send your kid to a private school because the government schools were decent back then.”

“They had the good life. Maids and gardeners, white pool fences, no monthly fee for ADT. They took what they wanted. Walked into jobs. Climbed the corporate ladder. Got fat and comfortable while they feathered their nests. They’re all living in their retirement houses on the coast while we sit here dealing with the mess they left behind. They’ve fucked up society, fucked up the financial system, fucked up the planet.”

“We’re the ones paying for everything. Everything. You know what it feels like to walk around knowing you’re not wanted in your own country? Do you know what it feels like?” His voice cracks.

“I didn’t ask to be here. I didn’t ask to be born in this country. I didn’t ask to be white. I didn’t ask to live now. I didn’t get a choice about where in history I ended up, but somehow I must pay for it. So what are we supposed to do now? What? What?”

Is this a rhetorical question? She’s never sure. All she knows is that she’s tired, she wants to have a nice hot bath and go to bed and not have to listen to him (please may he pass out without trying anything, she is so not in the mood) because frankly, she’s had enough. More than enough.

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The Flattering Angle

I am not beautiful. “Attractive” is about the best I can hope for. I’m one of those women who will always have to be photographed from a flattering angle. One of those women who will always have to be careful how we smile, who grimace when we catch our profiles in a changeroom mirror or see ourselves tagged on Facebook in photos in which we’ve been caught in the middle of chewing or laughing or some other grotesque act. We are those women whose hearts soar when by some chance we catch ourselves looking almost pretty, who have to work hard to make the most of what we have.

I don’t have thick ankles, but that’s about it. (more…)

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On being alone

Every night, as I switch off my bedside lamp and wait for the melatonin to work its magic, I clutch one of my pillows and think: I am so, so glad that I have this bed to myself. As the Johnny Walker Black (a capful, neat) insinuates itself into my veins – insomnia requires a multi-pronged approach, and I reason that whisky is preferable to the tranquillisers I used to take in order to get any sleep at all – I reflect on how curiously nice it is to be alone. I feel round and smooth and self-contained, like a marble. There are no cracks in my surface vulnerable to infiltration by another, and this is reassuring.

I have discovered that I quite like being by myself. In fact, I like being alone so much that I have no interest in altering this state of affairs, at least not for the foreseeable future. (more…)

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New projects, new roads

I was going to write about horses. Was being the operative word. The horses in my life were to have formed a sort of structuring device within which I could frame a narrative. The problem with that was multifold:
a. There weren’t enough horses to allocate to chapters.
b. They didn’t fit that well with my narrative purpose (lots of horses from when I was a child, fewer from the years I wanted to focus on)
c. My failure to date to learn to ride properly. I was thinking Think Eat, Pray, Ride. This is not going to happen any time soon.

So I had to come up with something else, and I have. It’s less romantic, certainly. But a whole lot more practical and, in many ways, a better reflection of the reality I am hoping to portray in this work of creative non-fiction.

I’m going to write about cars. More specifically, the love triangle between me, cars, and Joburg itself. This is an obvious choice. After all, the single best thing in my life after two truly horrible years is a car. The place where I am happiest is in my airconditioned lounge suite on wheels, the same car which, as I wrote in an earlier piece, tethers me to a future. (more…)

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The investment of meaning in things

On Saturday morning a friend sends me an SMS. The house I renovated with my ex-husband, the architect, will be on show the next day. The friend is looking for property, which is why he spotted the ad. He only knows the number of the house I used to own because he was looking at a house in the same street where I lived, and I mentioned the address in passing. If it were not for all of these small coincidences, I would not have known about it.

I get hold of a copy of the Saturday Star, yank the property pages free of Personal Finance and Travel, scan the pages for Parkhurst. There it is, a small photo of the pool deck taken from the lounge, with a description. “Architecturally executed,” reads the blurb, “this inspirational home has excellent elevation and flow.” It’s not the worst I’ve read, I suppose. I’ve always hated the way estate agents describe things: the clichés they use, the lies they tell. Everything is spacious, everything oozes charm (is this code for rising damp?) everything is north-facing even when it isn’t.

Obviously I have to go and look. How can I not take advantage of such a rare opportunity? The timing, now that I’ve found most of the scattered bits and pieces of my post-implosion self, is perfect. This could be the closure I seek (closure: a concept that South Africans have embraced; even the police talk about closure), the therapeutic intervention I need. Will I be overwhelmed by memories and scare off prospective buyers by sobbing in front of the gas hob, tears dripping onto the screed floor? Or will I shrug and smile, round and smug in my indifference? At the very least this must be good for a blog entry. The prospect of crafting a bleakly eviscerating exercise in navel-gazing pleases me no end. (more…)

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Thoughts on screaming with rage

It was the car that did it. Not the Land Rover – the Land Rover hasn’t given any trouble at all, it’s my happy place – but the sensible Korean hatchback. I drive it once a week on Sundays to keep the battery going. Arriving for our usual appointment to take a spin to the local Woolworths up at the Engen garage, I found it was as dead as any notion that COPE could be a viable alternative to the ruling party. Again. Clearly I was going to have to put in a new battery, and this when I want to sell the car.

Suddenly a great glooping lake of magma heaved within the region of my solar plexus and surged up the back of my throat, and I felt the most extraordinarily intense rage. Usually I am quite self-controlled, and I was taken aback by this sudden onslaught of raw feeling. This was rage that was barely controllable. I had to run to find the nearest pillow so that I could smother myself in it and scream.

In situations like these, only screaming will do. Of course, screaming in most cases is hopelessly impractical, and likely to have the neighbours reaching for their ADT panic buttons. So the only way to scream without attracting attention is to use the aforementioned pillow, or do it in the hermetically sealed confines of your car. I do scream while driving, every now and then. Nobody can hear me and I feel just a little better for having scoured my vocal chords with the oral equivalent of steel wool. It’s cathartic.

Screaming as a way to cope with incandescent anger is a relatively new tool for me. As a child, I made a point of not screaming because all the other stupid little girls running around the playground screamed, and I was not like other girls. So for many years I wondered if I was capable of screaming at all, except for the occasional coloratura shriek when stubbing a toe. Later, though, after I got married, I discovered the therapeutic benefits of screaming. My ex-husband would routinely harangue and browbeat and berate me and I would listen mutely to his lectures, boiling beneath the surface, until every now and then I could take no more and screamed. That usually shut him up, at least; he always found it funny.

As my marriage stumbled to its inevitably miserable end, I’d have the kind of screaming matches with my ex that would have been unthinkable once. On the evening on which he told me to move out and go and get the hired car (because he needed the BMW to attract kugels) he shouted at me: “Things are moving along quickly here Sarah”. He meant Yoga Girl, the woman he’d met at yoga and to whom he had transferred his wild-eyed affections. He wanted me out so he could have her in and on our couch, and though I wanted out, the way in which this was all happening, the day after I got back from the Loeries in Cape Town, was too much. So I lay down on the floor, weeping and shrieking and screaming, and I banged my head and my fists on the floor like a toddler caught in the midst of a gale force tantrum. It was the most extraordinary thing for me – in most situations I am so controlled, so mild-mannered, say yes to everything – but at the time it felt utterly natural.

As for that scream into the pillow today, it helped, but I still wanted to throw something or land a punch, so I put on my Skechers Shape-ups and went for a brisk walk down the road, during which I deconstructed my anger (the reasons behind it are ones with which I am only too familiar), rationalized it, and attempted to compose this blog entry in my head. Back at home, sweaty and panting, I changed into the swimming costume I bought from Pick n Pay last year – my heart sinks every time I see myself in it, I abhor public semi-nudity – and had a swim. After splashing about listlessly in 30 degree water under a gorgeous twilight sky I was still in a foul mood, so I had a glass of wine and watched a bit of Carte Blanche (yet another story on a charming Afrikaans conman with victims speaking sadly into the camera from their beautifully lit lounges). The wine was still not enough, so I also took one of the tranquillisers I use to cope with insomnia. It was only after I sploshed some vodka into my Coke Zero that I started to return to a state of relative tranquility.

So the screaming helped, a little. My problem is that for all its therapeutic benefits I can hardly do it in public. My anger will have to be stored away beneath this calm, people-pleasing exterior, and allowed to surface only when I am in my car, or there is a pillow nearby, and the Mentho-lyptus Halls are handy.

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Thoughts on abusive relationships.

In an episode of the popular British comedy series Peep Show, one of the characters meets a girl he fancies. He’s hardly a success with women, but as luck would have it, she’s a hopeless mess of self-doubt, which makes her easy prey. “At last, just my luck,” he reflects gleefully. “The perfect combination of beauty and low self-esteem.”

I know all about that. Not the beauty part, obviously, but I do know exactly what it means to search for validation from others because it is impossible to locate that kind of affirmation from within – and, of course, how this makes one vulnerable to abuse. To the right kind of wolf, I’m the perfect combination of self-destructiveness and the inability to find self-worth except in the eyes of others. If there is something I am confident in saying I am good at, it’s mid level self-abasement. As a student I helped pay off the fat, chain-smoking psychic’s BMW; I swallowed my anger year after year while my ex-husband lectured me on my multiple failings; I’m still puppy-eager for the throwaway praise of people who are more interested in other things.

Now, I realise I am in another abusive relationship. Not with a person, but the principles remain much the same. Abusive relationships, after all, manifest themselves in every area of our lives. They don’t have to be with other people; they can be with groups or institutions too, like companies or governments or even countries. I entered this relationship willingly, at great personal cost, and it is partly that which keeps me there. How can I leave, having (stupidly) sacrificed so much? I should leave, I know it would be in my best interests, and yet I cannot. I stayed married five years too long and lo and behold I’m repeating the same pattern. Yet again, I’m dithering, yet again I allow emotional ties to overrule rational appraisal. (more…)

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Why writers need silent treatment

(Written on December 22)

It is important to choose your holiday companions with care. Holiday companions of the wrong sort can leave you feel exhausted instead of refreshed. There are the types who start drinking at 9 in the morning, or get restless and want to go out all the time, or incense you by flicking cigarette butts onto the lawn. The ones with verbal diarrhoea are the worst. All of this matters, because when you are a writer, especially one with a day job, holidays take on a different complexion entirely. For a start, getting the leave means getting permission from your manager and approval from HR. There are forms to be filled in and payslips to be updated. You can’t just up and go, as you could if you were a freelancer. So the time, hard-won, is precious, and it’s important that you make the most of it.

I like going to the bush to write because, aside from game drives and sitting around the fire drinking Merlot, there are few distractions. There is no TV or radio, cellphone signals are unreliable and internet access is a challenge; it’s possible to go for a week or more without having the faintest clue what is going on in the world. (This is something I recommend highly – we all need a news detox from time to time.) A lot of people find this arrangement daunting, and need to go out to visit the local cheetah-breeding centre in order to fill up the giant chunks of time available to them. These are exactly the kind of people you don’t want on holiday with you in the bush.

I’ve been staying in a camp in the Timbavati and in order to upload this blog, I’ve had to take a 20 minute drive to Hoedspruit. Here I like to sit at the Wimpy, because it has an outdoor seating area and a plug, which is important because the laptop I use for internet access has a battery life of 45 minutes if I’m lucky. Also, it is possible to spend time at Wimpy relatively cheaply, ordering a Coke Zero here and a plate of chips there. It helps that the service – in marked contrast to the ambient temperature, which hovers in the upper 30s – is glacial.

This time it’s just me and the younger of my two brothers (the other is snowed under in the UK, where he lives). Maybe it’s unusual for adult siblings to spend holidays together like this – I’ve noted the raised eyebrows when explaining to our neighbours here who we are – but since we’re both single, it makes perfect sense. In fact, it’s quite possibly the best arrangement for ensuring that I actually get some writing done.

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4 Elephants and 5 Litres of Petrol (Part III)

We explain our situation. He nods, says he’ll organize 5 litres of petrol from the farm on the other side of the road. A warm and pleasant sensation of relief wells up from my solar plexus. Oh glory be, I made the right decision. I was stupid and didn’t pay attention when I should have, but yet again I’ve been lucky. (My ex-husband always used to complain that despite my carelessness and lack of organization, I always got away with it. For a moment or two I hear an echo of his voice, lecturing me on my sloppiness and bemoaning the fact that, yet again, I have failed to learn my lesson.)

Kevin calls the others to tell them we’ve managed to get help after all. Our rescuer explains that he is one of the managers here. Joburg boy, worked in the bush all his life, he says. He’s chatty in that way that white South African men of a certain age are chatty, affability layered over aggression. He tells us that the farm is 6,000 hectares and home to a herd of elephants rescued from the North-West. He likens the tame elephants being ridden trunk to tail by their mahouts to dolphins kept in captivity. “It’s not ideal,” he says, but this kind of thing is necessary to educate the public. We learn that he’s very opposed to elephant culling. I decide to keep my opinions on the issue to myself.

Kevin flicks his cigarette butt to the ground. “No,” says Clint Eastwood, and bends down to pick it up. “Do you know that it will take 20 years for this to biodegrade?” he says evenly, holding up the offending item. Kevin apologises. I’m pleased that he’s been picked out: the incontinence of smokers, their casual thoughtlessness, is one of my pet hates.

It turns out that not only are there tame elephants, there’s also a Bengal tiger breeding programme. The Bengal tiger will be extinct in the wild by the end of 2010, says our rescuer – a thought, that this is an exaggeration, it’s more like 2015, flickers through my mind – and so these tigers are being bred to deepen the gene pool, with the ultimate aim of releasing them into the wild. “Carte Blanche was here this week,” he says. They breed lions too. Oh really? I say. Lion breeding is another of my pet hates. No, these are pure Kalaharis, he explains, whose genes are tracked through a studbook. Not like other lions, which have been bred for canned hunting.

This is all quite fascinating, and I am thrilled to have found this place. The irony is striking: if I hadn’t neglected to put in petrol in Grahamstown, we would never have landed up here, having a mini adventure. Ever the journalist, Kevin asks if he can quote our rescuer, but he shakes his head. He is adamant: he will say nothing officially. I’m aware again of the lark, the sweet notes of its call thin in the afternoon breeze. In the distance, the elephant convoy floats over the horizon.

The 5 litres of petrol arrives. Kevin hoists up the container and begins to pour it into the Jazz. Half of the petrol ends up soaking into the Eastern Cape soil until Clint Eastwood comes up with a solution involving a 500ml plastic Coke bottle, which he uses as a funnel. The precious liquid gurgles into the depths. “It’ll be enough to get you to Colchester,” he says.

Finally, we are ready to leave. At this rate we’ll make the function at the Walmer Park Exclusive Books – just. We say our thank yous, offering assurances that we’ll tell everyone about this place, we’ll spread the word. I ask Clint Eastwood his name. “Uh, Steve,” he says, reluctantly, as if the word is being forced from him, and I wonder whether he isn’t using a pseudonym. I hand him one of my business cards. On the back is a painting of a Bateleur eagle, my favourite bird. “It’s called the short-tailed snake eagle now,” he says.
“Terathopius ecaudatus,” I recite. “The Bateleur. They can’t call it anything else.”

The Bateleur: French for acrobat, and described in 1781 by Francois Le Vaillant who first spotted it at the Keurbooms River Mouth some 200km from here, just outside Plett. Le Vaillant named the eagle for its characteristic flight, rocking from side to side like a trapeze artist balancing on a wire. The balancing act with the possibility of immanent disaster, something I have come to know well over these past couple of years. I’ve been performing a version of it all afternoon. For sure, there have been tense moments – but I haven’t fallen, and it looks like, once again, I will reach the other side, after all.

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4 Elephants and 5 Litres (Part II)

Over yet another rise, around yet another bend, and I’m thinking that, economical hatchback or no, we’re not going to keep this thing going much further, not unless somebody’s invented a car capable of running on fresh air and that hasn’t happened, obviously. So I will have to make a decision sooner rather than later. I’ve been mapping out more scenarios – some of them involving 18-wheelers that drive in the yellow lane – and I’m thinking that maybe it would be better to get stuck on a farm road than on the side of the N2.

The more I think about it, the more I think this is a good idea. Now I’m scanning the verge for signs to farms. Again and again, I think “maybe I should stop there” and again and again I fail to brake and turn, allowing these possibilities to recede instead into the distance as we press on to a point where I know I must stop, and soon.

And then there they are. Four elephants in a row, each with a rider on its back, marching in slow procession along a fence to the left. “Elephants,” says Kevin. A sign for Kwantu Elephant Safaris looms up. I brake hard and turn in through a gate, bumping along the dirt road next to the fence and around the paddock to what appears to be the parking area. I park the Jazz next to a combi and we climb out. It feels good to stop; I’ve been taking strain.

In the distance, the elephants continue their measured patrol of the paddock. A bird calls, a lark. It’s very pleasant, here in the fresh air under a wide blue sky, and I congratulate myself out loud for possessing the unwitting nous to stop here of all places.

A man in a green uniform bearing the logo we saw on the sign outside approaches us. We explain that we are about to run out of petrol, and could we siphon some out of this combi parked here? We’ll pay him for it, we’re quick to add.
“Eish… no,” says the man, shaking his head and smiling as if to pacify us. “S’for the guests.”

We’re going to be spending the night here, I tell him crossly. Please my man, Kevin says. Please, we just need 5 litres. We try wheedling, begging, threats. The man smiles uncertainly, but he won’t budge. “This combi, it’s for the guests,” he keeps saying. Poor guy, just standing there minding his own business when these two self-righteous strangers rock up and start demanding things.

Kevin paces while I stare gloomily at the car. This is the first time I have driven a Honda Jazz, which is a revelatory experience because I once considered buying one. On 702 on Fridays there’s this car show with Adam Ford and Saggy Moodley, and they always carry on about how fantastic the Honda Jazz is; they recommend it to anyone who phones in. In the end, though, I decided that I could never love a Jazz; I could never see it in the parking garage at work and feel happy that I owned it as I walked towards it aiming my remote and weighed down with worry. So I bought a Hyundai instead.

Kevin phones the other writers, who must be way ahead of us by now. His battery is about to die, which only adds to the tension. We’ve run out of petrol, he explains, and this guy won’t help us. After warning them that they might have to turn around, he ends the call. The man in the green uniform hovers uncertainly. “I’m a journalist,” Kevin tells him. “I write for some major publications, I’m going to write about this. I will tell everybody that you wouldn’t help us!” (The thought occurs to me that in the context, as threats go, this one is not especially motivating.)

And then he appears, apparently out of nowhere. Think Clint Eastwood meets Animal Planet. “Is there something I can help you with?” he asks, pleasantly. He’s tall and stringy, maybe in his late 40s or early 50s, and there’s a quiet implacability about him that suggests that he will be polite, but he won’t take shit from anyone. Unlike the reluctant combi man, this guy is clearly in charge around here.

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