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Sarah Britten

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Falling Off

This piece is in the current issue of Migrate, the magazine of the Loerie Awards. This issue’s theme is “Obsess”, and I tackled my obsession with, you guessed it, horses. There’s no online version to link to, so I’m blogging it here:

Falling Off

I have fallen off three horses in my life.

The first was Duke, who escaped from my mother and cantered off with me when I was four. I ended up in the sand, grazed and sobbing; I still remember how a nice lady gave me a pineapple-flavoured Super C.
The second was Squire’s Darling, who slipped on a steep brick driveway and fell over sideways. A student at the time, I was lucky enough to have been thrown clear rather than trapped beneath him, and so I escaped with nothing more than a green stick fracture of my left elbow.

The third was Mile69, who bolted with me while I was on honeymoon. Choosing to part company with him voluntarily rather than ending up like Christopher Reeve, I ended up in a heap in the grass and had to be carted off to a chiropractor. Bruised and sore, I staggered around barely able to move for the rest of the holiday; sex (in case you’re wondering) was out of the question.

Perhaps the third fall was a sign, because my marriage was not destined to be a happy one. After a post-divorce rebound relationship ended a few months ago, and I was forced to confront the awful mess that constituted my life, my mother told me: “Forget about men and get on the back of a horse.” She was nearly killed at the age of seventeen when her mare fell on top of her while jumping, but her belief in the power of horses to fix a broken soul is unwavering.

This may be hereditary.


I have been obsessed with horses my entire life.
My first word was “horse”.
Before I could read, I paged ceaselessly through every horse picture book I could get my hands on.
I have lost count of the number of horses I have doodled, sketched and painted over years since my I first clutched a crayon and scribbled on a blank sheet of paper. » read more

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). » read more

A book that might have been

The following excerpt is from a book that might have been. I was looking for a few stray pieces of scaffolding with which to construct what was left of my life and a book seemed the obvious way to do it. The overarching theme was going to be horses – more a device to structure the narrative and give it shape – and this conversation was going to be the catalyst.

Horse painting

In the beginning

“Forget about men,” my mother says, “and get on the back of a horse.”
“Yes,” I say. “I know.”

She doesn’t have to tell me. Of course I know that right now, horses are a much better option than men. God knows, they always were. If I had climbed on the back of a horse fifteen years ago and stayed there, I would be much happier right now. Instead, I’m standing here telling my mother that I don’t want to live anymore because I can’t bear the pain. Not that this is anything new – I tell my mother the same thing several times a week.

I don’t know how she puts up with me.

My life is a disaster. Obviously not a disaster compared to people who live in shacks and go to sleep on rumbling stomachs, but compared to people who have houses with underfloor heating and drive BMWs, it’s pathetic.

Over the past two years, I have witnessed the death of my mother-in-law, emigrated to Australia, lived apart from my husband for months while he wound up his mother’s estate, been retrenched and unemployed for months, returned from Australia, got divorced, took a massive pay cut and had a cancer scare.

The divorce was awful and inevitable, involving months of numb waiting on the crackling edges of my husband’s emotional firestorm, and it has left me shattered. Over the past ten months I have been going through the motions of a nervous breakdown, and the fact that I have managed to avoid being packed off to a hospital ward for a month of enforced rest is a miracle I can’t quite fathom. (I’d quite like to be packed off to a ward to lie and stare at the ceiling for a month, I think.)

Now, I live with my grandmother. My life is in boxes and every day I take four different schedule 5 drugs for depression and anxiety. A week ago my ex-husband, who is now in Australia, sent me an email telling me that he is getting married to a woman he met less than five months ago. She’s pregnant and they’re very excited because she thought she couldn’t have children.

Oh, and I’ve just been dumped by a man I only dated in the first place because I calculated that there was little risk of the relationship becoming serious. Of course I ended up loving him anyway and of course it hurts like hell, something my mother warned me against. Naturally I ignored her.

I am a mess, and only horses can save me.

4 elephants and 5 litres (part I)

I’M KICKING myself. The petrol gauge is glowing orange in the gloom beyond the steering wheel and I’ve only noticed it now, half an hour from Grahamstown. The needle hovers ominously, precariously, just above Empty. There’s fuel to get us maybe 40 km if I’m careful and that’s not enough. Not nearly enough.

What to do? There’ll be a petrol station, says Kevin. We’ll be fine. We can’t go back to Grahamstown, he points out, because we’ve got to get to the Exclusive Books in the Walmer Park Shopping Mall where we’re two of eight writers promoting ReadSA, and there’s no time.

So we’ll have to hope we find petrol, somewhere between here and there.

Funny that this trip back from Grahamstown should turn into a weirdly symmetrical follow-up to the trip down. The day before, Kevin steered the Honda through 100 km of driving rain, hunched like a granny while around us lightning split the sky and the car tried to skud across the tar like a skittish pony. I need that double Jack, he said, and I agreed, he deserved it.

Now the sky is brilliant blue and I’m driving like a spaza shop owner who bought his licence from the Thohoyandou traffic department circa 1995, sticking to 80 because I read years ago that that was the speed they did on the Total Economy Run, back when the Camrys and Corollas always won. Aircon off, keep the revs low, hope for downhill runs. Anything to stretch that last milliliter, get us that little bit further. For some reason I think of the story of the loaves and the fishes.

My eyes flick down to the fuel gauge, back up to the road ahead, back to the fuel gauge. I’m now in a state of intensely focused worry, my mind calculating and recalculating furiously. If we run out of petrol on a sharp bend or a blind rise, we are screwed. I have to make sure that when we glide to a halt, it will be on a long, straight stretch where the other drivers will see us easily and brake in time. We’ll have to flag down a passing car and persuade somebody to give us a lift to the nearest petrol station, where we’ll buy 5 litres and get a lift back. I’ll have to debate whether to bring my suitcase with me or leave it in the car, and just bring the laptop, because what are the chances that someone will break into the car?

These are the things you think about when you are about to run out of petrol on the N2 between Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown.

The scenery is lovely: rolling hills, deceptively lush. It’s remarkably wild, too, almost no sign of settlement anywhere. Over every rise, I scan the green for a sign of human habitation, for the possibility that there might be one of those hole-in-the-wall Total garages with one pump and a chicken scratching in the dust. But there isn’t.


I want to do what I love, and what I am good at.
I want a sense of purpose and the satisfaction of a life well lived.
I want the freedom to explore the world in any way of my choosing.
I want the knowledge that I have done some good.
I want to experience joy in the here and now and

I want to create something of lasting value.

I’d rather write a book than get laid

During all of the therapy and counseling and weeping and screaming that accompanied my divorce, one thing stands out. I was in a small trapezoidal room with the marriage counselor in one of our R700 sessions to fix the unfixable. I was on my own this time; my husband had said I should go, to move closer to some kind of clarity on what to do, because neither of us could say what needed to be said.

As long as I was with my husband, I could not be creative, the therapist said. He was very soft-spoken, his voice flavoured with a slight Afrikaans accent. I suppose he’d had years of practice sounding sympathetic, guiding the process as the lives of desperate couples disintegrate on the couch in front of him.

I would never write anything, he said to me.
“Why?” I asked, not entirely sure what he meant.
“Because,” he said, the tone in his voice implying the prospect of imminent revelation, “he takes all of your energy.”

So that was it.

The death-knell, right there, because writing – creating – is central to my sense of self, and to sacrifice it would be to settle further into a life of frustration and resentment. I wondered whether he was telling me this as a form of post-rationalisation, convincing each of us in turn to walk away from this awful, failed entanglement because he could see that for both our sakes, it should not be saved.

It was a strange and disconcerting revelation because my husband had never not supported my desire to write for a living. In fact, he often moaned about my failure to write a bestseller. He thought the insult books were a waste of time, unimportant, and he was right, of course. Still, he coloured in all the cartoons that appeared on the covers, and I was grateful for that – being an architect who frequently sketched impressions of houses for his clients, he was good at that sort of thing.

The reason I didn’t write the bestsellers was that I had a PhD thesis hanging all sword-of-Damocles over my head and a job in advertising and, later, blogging and all of those mopped up any creative energy I had. The insult books were easy, a matter of research and citation, really, and I can do that standing on my head. In some ways they wrote themselves, though the second two felt like the fulfillment of some inexplicable obligation, and I probably shouldn’t have gone ahead with either.

I’m also totally undisciplined, easily distracted and lack follow-through. Fiction is much harder because it requires self-discipline and routine and commitment, all things I have trouble with. In some ways, having a day job makes me more productive, because, when faced with vast swathes of time which must be filled with work, I tend to waver. There is ironing to be done, or a cupboard to be tidied, or a blog entry to write. Even writing this, now, is a form of distraction from what I should really be doing.

And then the revelation that the person to whom I was married rendered me incapable of producing anything meaningful. In my experience, relationships are bad for writing, and I wonder how other writers manage to get married and have children and not get divorced, and still produce book after book. In practical terms, relationships mean paying attention to somebody else instead of the manuscript waiting recalcitrant on my MacBook. Relationships mean braais and watching DVDs on the couch and going to movies, time I could spend writing. Writing is a selfish act, and relationships mean sacrifice.

Occasionally I fantasise about meeting someone who sparks my creative impulses, energy I can bounce off and build upon. But this is rare, and I pin no hopes on finding it. Instead, I am realizing that to write, to create, I need to be alone, at least for now. That all the energy I have left over must be directed towards one singular goal.

As I told the man staring at my cleavage the other day, I would rather write a book than get laid.

On being unemployed

THE OTHER NIGHT, I watched a French movie about a man who, after two and a half years of unemployment, resorts to killing off his job rivals. He had been retrenched from his high-powered job at a paper company by what one of the characters describes as “turbo-capitalism”.

Or at least, I watched half a French movie: eventually, I turned the TV off. It was just too depressingly reminiscent of my own situation.

I’ve only been without a salary for two months, and I have not turned to crime in an attempt to skew the odds in my favour. Besides, it’s not as if I have nothing to do all day; on the contrary, I am very busy with various writing projects. But that naked, feral fear of not bringing in income corrodes the soul, eats away at one’s better self. (My best shot of employment, at my former client, fell through: new roles have been put on hold, surprise surprise.)

So I find myself resentful of people who do have jobs. Of my colleagues who know that, come the middle of the month (we were always paid on the 15th for some reason), there will be a payment into their bank accounts. No matter how supportive and helpful they are, how much we enjoy each other’s company at post-retrenchment get-togethers, there’s a gulf between us.

I’m bitter about the people at work who, after they heard I’d got the chop, suddenly pretended that I was borrowing Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak or had contracted some offputting disease. I ceased to exist, vanished into the ether. I was there but not there. It was a bit like being a member of an obscure religious sect, and shunned by the community.

I am trying to stay positive, not to allow myself to sink into the familiar swamp of despair. But with each day that passes, it gets so much harder.

Sheesh. What a year.

A friend of mine – the woman who used to do the PR for my books and who, quite coincidentally, has moved to Sydney – told me yesterday that the astrologists had all been saying that 2008 would be a year of tremendous change.

I’ve always thought that astrology is best enjoyed in hindsight. In both our cases, they did get it right – and how. I am glad that, 12 months ago, I didn’t know what I was in for.

So, I look back on 2008 and wonder how on earth I managed to get through it all. It has been a year that has offered excitement and crappiness in roughly equal measure. The crappiness wasted no time, with my mother-in-law dying of a heart attack very suddenly one awful Friday afternoon in January. I called the paramedics, arrived home to see them working on her, but could not watch for long.

The memory of my husband walking into our bedroom and collapsing into throaty, howling sobs still clutches at my stomach, probably always will.
Then the offer of a possible job in Australia, the trip over for interviews, the interminable waiting for a visa that came through on the very day I needed to resign. I packed up a large proportion of my life in the space of a month. My husband accompanied me to Sydney – I was not allowed to enter the country before he did, a condition of our visas – and, having helped me settle in, he returned to South Africa. There he worked on completing the renovations to our house and sorting out his mother’s estate.

We did not see one another for nearly five months. In the mean time, I lurched between excitement at the opportunity to explore my new surroundings and profound loneliness and depression. Much of it was triggered by the abuse levelled at me on Thought Leader and elsewhere and yes, it did reach a point where, one decidedly dark and lonely Monday night, I entertained thoughts of suicide.

Anyway, for all of my problems, my husband has had a far worse time of it. I have no idea how he managed to get through it all, living alone in a house filled with such terrible memories. He is made of stronger stuff than I am.
To cut a long story short, things were going swimmingly, with a planned visit to South Africa for Christmas, and my husband set to join me permanently early in the new year, when I got called in for a meeting by the financial director and told that my position had been made redundant.

So: death of my mother-in-law, sudden change of jobs and continents, prolonged separation from husband and family and now unemployment. 2008 has without doubt been the most tumultuous year of my life.
It hasn’t all been bad. I have discovered that I like living in Sydney and that, in a strange way, it feels like home in a way that Johannesburg does not. (Perhaps this is because this is the first time I have ever lived on my own, and personal safety is not a constant worry. Ten years after everyone else went through the same thing in London, but better late than never I suppose.)

I’ve restarted work on one much-neglected novel and begun the process of plotting out three more (including a joint project with a fellow blogger). Creatively, I am in a good space. I’ll need to start worrying about how to pay the rent next year, but I am reasonably confident about finding contract work with my erstwhile client, and, truth be told, I am quite pleased about the enforced time off. If ever there was an opportunity to get a into g and have a shot at a real writing career, rather than squashing it into evenings and weekends, this is it.

So, that was 2008. 2009 is not going to be starting off in quite the way I had envisioned, but I have discovered that I am made of tougher stuff than I thought. So here’s to 2009, and may it be the year I finally get to do what I really want to.

Notebook, typewriter, PC or iPhone?

How do you get your thoughts down in the first place? What comes between the first embryo of an idea and the finished page of beautiful writing?
I always like to conceptualise something in longhand. The route between thought and its expression is much shorter in pen. So that’s how I start, either using a notebook (small enough to fit in my narrow handbag,a gift from my husband) or a sketchpad. The other is often more effective because it allows for the expression of thoughts that are non-linear.
Increasingly, I have begun to use my iPhone to make preliminary notes. It’s highly portable, comes with a qwerty keyboard and lends itself to use even in meetings. Plus, it’s easy to mail notes to yourself, which can then be refined further using the art of cut and paste. I often find that I am surprisingly productive when in situations where the focus is anythingbut writing: in meetings, on the bus, waiting for a ferry. These are the unexpected interstices between more officially important things.
Writing on an iphone enforces a weird discipline of its own. For a start, you cannot copy and paste and you can only poke with your index finger. It took me a lot of getting used to – the virtual keyboard and predictive text lends itself to the most awful typos – but the very lack of freedom enforces a certain commitment to spontaneous expression. You just don’t have the luxury of endless fiddling to get a sentence just right; it’s far too much of a schlep. Since one of my problems is translating the words on my head to equally magnificent sentences on the page, this is really useful. Typing on my iPhone forces me to just do it and to hell with it.
Note: this entry was typed on my iPhone while rifldong the 333 from Bondi Beach to Circular Quay.

Meeting Kate Atkinson

The universe works in mysterious ways. While reading through the weekend papers, I noticed that my favourite author, Kate Atkinson, was in town. Not only that, but she was speaking at the library up the road from where I live.

The occasion was the promotion of her latest book, When Will There Be Good News? After an introduction from the owner of a local bookstore, Pages & Pages, Kate read a chapter from the new book to regular bouts of laughter. She then answered questions from the audience (one thing that is clear is that the core book-buying public is female and middle-aged, as it is in South Africa; the gathering could have passed for an HRT support group).

Later I lined up to have my books signed – apart from When Will There Be Good News? I also bought another copy of Behind the Scenes at the Museum and the two other books in the Jackson Brodie series. Not having read a proper novel in absolute ages – I’ve been too busy either with the day job, working on the third South African insults book, or collecting material for the Australian equivalent – I cannot tell you how much I am relishing the prospect of reading for the sheer simple pleasure of it.