Eventually there comes the moment when any author has to submit what they have written to the jaded palate of agencies. Friends have enjoyed what I’ve written, but one always receives a bit of a free pass from that quarter. Today I started the process of seeking representation. Continue reading
Variations in pronunciation can cause moments of concern.
While walking towards the village for lunch, I am often passed by chaps on scooters. They invariably yell as they pass, “Motorbike, white bitch?” Continue reading
Since Friday. It has been a journey. I have written more than 16,000 words in three days. 66,900 words for the first draft. The last coming out in a cleansing burst. As my heroes suffered, I was balling my eyes out. Continue reading
The small child was perched under a shelter, upon the wall of a square enclosure. “You want buy pig?” he inquired.
The author, being as he was on his way back from diving, demurred.
I can see why folks dive at Pescador Island – a small atoll only a few minutes boat ride from Panagsama Beach – it is simply beautiful. I was, for reasons known only to itself, adopted by a remora which became the surreal highlight of my dive. Oh sure, there were all sorts of colourful fish, nudibranches, sea horses, soft and hard corals, and snotty-looking things, but every time I reached for my pressure gauge, I would grab a handful of Romy (that was her name).
The giggling probably reduced my downtime a bit, but I still got an hour in. Continue reading
The only way to take a month off is not to take a month off. Today was a work day. Tomorrow is a diving day. So writing resumes on Saturday.
Still, the ocean is just over the lawn and I saw a ray leap out of the water a few metres out.
Words completed: 20,969 and 5,482 written on Wednesday, including a re-edit of work to date.
Some influences for this work include Italo Calvino (If on a winter’s night a traveller), Alexander McCall Smith (No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency) and Alan Paton (Cry, The Beloved Country). They’re an odd mix for a near-future science fiction story. I love the tone of Paton’s book, the timbre of the conversation. I love the gentleness of McCall Smith’s work, the care people have for each other. I love the post-modern exuberance of Calvino, the patchwork-quilt that is a story.
I don’t have any books with me. I haven’t read a fictional work in months. Clearing my head. That doesn’t mean I’m not reading, but I’m taking care to keep an aesthete’s approach to fitness.
The clearing is important because only a week ago I was doing this: Open Knowledge Conference – Gavin Chait
Suit-to-surf in three days and then leaving the complex world of open data, metadata standards and such behind is a culture shock.
Tomorrow I go diving. That should help.
It is a 20 minute walk from Dacozy to Panagsama village through the village where the folks who support the tourist industry actually live.
There is one cluster of small houses where everyone seems to have gone made for bonsai trees. I’m not sure if it is a very enthusiastic hobby or something raised to sell elsewhere. Continue reading
I have spent years trying to come up with the first sentence and following paragraphs for the novel. I have tried every voice, even an idea of letting a group of animals sit around a camp-fire and tell the story of my human protagonists.
This morning I deleted about 2,000 words of an introduction written six months ago in favour of rewriting the second chapter. This works and captures the narrative feel I want from the beginning. Continue reading
My father passed away three weeks ago.
His cancer returned in May and I flew home for a few weeks to spend time with him and my mom. He had just completed a round of radiation therapy and was recovering his fitness. My mom was retiring early and they were hoping to go travelling together, bringing forward plans originally slated for my mom’s 70th birthday, still two years away.
When I left, only two months ago, all seemed well. But it hangs over everything. Every conversation. Each moment.
My dad’s sister visited from Australia six weeks ago and, again, everything seemed fine. Then the phone call and the hasty trip to South Africa.
I started writing my first novel, Tartarus One, when I was 12 years old on my father’s first computer. It was an IBM clone with a tiny green cathode ray screen. I wrote about 10,000 words before stopping. The story then was about a man who was unjustly imprisoned in a jail in space, who escaped by building a small craft, and crashed in central Africa before returning to exact vengeance.
It was a clever story but I realised quite quickly that the voice and approach I was writing in wasn’t my own. It was Stephen King’s. And I knew that wouldn’t do.
I tried off and on over the years but, unless one has a trust fund or a supportive, wealthy and understanding spouse, writing full-time is too expensive and the returns too insecure. I have always worked and never earned sufficient to give it a go.
Over the years Tartarus One became Tartarus Falls. The story evolved, became more complex, then simpler, then honed. But I never wrote it.
I arrived on Monday afternoon. He was in bed and hadn’t moved for a few days. He was thrilled to see me and my normally physically reserved father held my hand tightly as we spoke that afternoon. Him in short, exhausted bursts. Every word leaving him panting from the effort.
He didn’t look well. His face swollen and blotchy, pale. His skin cold, even though he said he felt warm. He couldn’t lift his arms, so I helped feed him, change him, drop water into his mouth with a syringe.
But he was cheerful. Chatty, even. He wasn’t in pain, except when we moved him.
He seemed to think that he could recover even from this. The nurse who arrived left me in no doubt how serious things were. He hadn’t urinated in days, his kidneys had stopped.
I’ve always worked hard and have taken tremendous risks with my ideas, ambitions and choices. Sometimes that worked, sometimes that didn’t. My life hasn’t been dull.
A year ago, with an awareness that life is shorter than one may hope but still long enough, I contacted a writer mate of mine. Jon Evans has written a few novels and even sold sufficient of them to pay for an expanded life-style, although he does keep a regular software job as well. He travels and writes and works.
Let’s go somewhere with a beach, sufficiently low-cost to keep us there a while, good internet access, and good diving, and let us each write a novel, I suggested. He thought it a good idea and we began hunting though island nations.
Cuba meets most criteria, except for being an evil Stalinist dictatorship. So the internet is crap. Papua New Guinea is just fucking expensive. Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand … either of us have already been.
That left the Philippines. Which consists of several hundred islands. Next question, which one?
My brother arrived on Tuesday. By then, my father could only speak a word or two before losing consciousness. I called the UK and let my wife speak to him.
They’ve always had a very special relationship, going to see cricket together at Lord’s in the UK. Could it be only a year ago that my wife made my dad run for a bus to get to the grounds?
“I love you dad,” she said.
My mom, my brother and I sat around the bed, playing music, telling stories, laughing, sometimes crying. We remembered.
My story, while being science fiction, happens to be set in Nigeria. Why? Well, when my hero escapes from an orbital jail which uses a space elevator to transfer goods and people, it has to be sited over the equator.
I was fortunate to have spent a month in Nigeria over this year, working on a local data transparency project for the Edo State government. I also took a few days to visit some of the places where the story happens. I found books on Efik culture and cuisine. I did my research, discovering I could make my villains much more terrifying than I had originally imagined.
I worked out the structure of the story, the set-pieces, the characters.
My sister-in-law and nephews arrived on Wednesday. He wasn’t able to speak anymore although, at least in the morning, he was able to acknowledge that he was still listening.
When I helped move him, or dress him, or feed him, I could see the dark splotches under his skin that must be part of the cancer spreading throughout his body. If a thing could be said to be evil, they looked it.
“Wait,” he would gasp. Short, stubby words. Every time we needed to move him.
Through the day, he got weaker.
Even as I booked my plane tickets and reserved accommodation, I was worried. What happens with my dad’s cancer? Would he live long enough for the book to be published? He was never much of a reader and the cancer meant that he couldn’t see very well, but he could know that it was written. That it was done.
I never expected the call to come so soon.
At 16h00 he asked me for peanuts. I put a little peanut butter on a teaspoon and he sucked it. Then he asked for cheese and onion chips. I couldn’t give him that. I placed some water in his mouth with the syringe.
He refused food at 17h00. Clamped his jaws shut and wouldn’t take anything. Then he slept, his mouth open, gasping.
I was already exhausted when I packed for Moalboal. I had just returned from South Africa, spending the night before working through my dad’s documents with my mom, helping her prepare for the accountants so they could settle his estate.
There had been no space to mourn yet and it would be another two weeks before I would get any rest. I still had a conference to prepare for in Geneva, several projects to close out, a number of proposals to write and submit, and a report to finish.
I stayed with him till 23h50. It had been three days since I last snatched more than a few hours of sleep and I left my mom alone with him.
She woke me at 00h28 on Thursday morning. I checked that he was no longer breathing, that his heart had stopped, and I covered him with a sheet.
We called the Chevra Kadisha and we sat quietly together. My brother, my mother, and me.
This morning I woke up with the sound of the ocean against the shore. Two-and-a-half days of travel behind me.
For the next four weeks, a novelist’s journey ahead.
In August 2006, 18 months before I would choose to leave South Africa, I was invited to speak at a gathering of technology pundits.
It was still the height of the last economic boom and the room was a hubbub of young people doing well for themselves. I was surviving a disastrous business venture and had spent a year contemplating the emptiness behind that financial well-being.
“An individual is a person with a long tail. Individuals have tended to live in states full of wildly swinging doors. Cities, nations and markets are as able to serve their needs as they are of tracking every grain of sand in a three-week desert sand-storm,” I said.
I warned of revolution, that emerging social media would lead to people finding mutual interests that would permit them to express themselves in ways we had yet to understand. People who are currently alienated and isolated will make common cause with others. Continue reading
It was about 3am when the noise of a car being stealthily driven down the drive awakened him from slumber. Fearing that criminals were attempting to invade, he drew his firearm and shot at the vehicle.
When Rudi “Vleis” Visagie looked inside he saw that he had shot his daughter, Marlè, in the head. She died instantly.
Marlè had been sneaking out quietly to surprise her boyfriend for his birthday.
The tragedy convulsed South Africa back in 2004. Visagie was one of South Africa’s minor celebrities, an ex-Springbok rugby player, and the story was an all-too-common and all-too-horrifying reminder that South Africa has become the place where far too few people die of old age.
“Who killed her?” asked the five-year-old daughter of an acquaintance upon being told that her granny had died. That she could have died of old age and natural causes never occurred to the little girl.
South Africa’s population is 50 million, about 16% of the United States’. Despite this – and as violent as the US is – in absolute numbers, almost as many people die in gun-related homicides in both countries. 17 people per 100,000 die by gun-fire, five times that of the US.
That isn’t even the worst of it.
It is estimated that over 40% of South African women will be raped in their lifetime and that only 1 in 9 rapes are reported. It is also estimated that 14% of perpetrators of rape are convicted in South Africa.
“I’m tired and sore,” said Anene Booysen, then she closed her eyes and, very quietly, died. She was 17.
On Friday, 8 February, Anene had been out with friends in a bar in the small Western Cape Town of Bredasdrop. Sometime in the small hours of the morning she was gang-raped.
That wasn’t all, so skip this paragraph if you are not prepared for this level of brutality. Her arms, legs and fingers were broken. Her throat was sliced open. She was disembowelled and her guts ripped out. She survived long enough to identify one of her attackers; an ex-boyfriend and close family friend.
The violence in South Africa is so overwhelming, so ubiquitous, that it takes a lot for it to make news. The death of a celebrity helps; Lucky Dube, one of the world’s most successful reggae musicians, was murdered during a hijacking as he dropped his children off at school. Just last week the CEO of Chrysler South Africa, Trent Barcroft, was shot during a robbery.
But such attacks are too common to make the news that often.
The brutality of the crimes is sometimes so appalling that it is almost unbelievable. In February 2012, a 78-year old woman, Johanna Moore, was tied up, tortured with a hot clothes iron, and then beaten to death in her home in Dullstroom, Mpumalanga.
Rich, poor, politically-connected and socially isolated: everyone is a potential victim. Neither is it clear that the political elite have much interest, or credibility, in reducing crime. The president, Jacob Zuma, has survived a rape trial and numerous charges of corruption. The previous two heads of the police are both, independently, in jail after being found guilty of corruption and racketeering.
The violence of the crime begets a nervous and easily volatile populace. Large gatherings of people protesting legitimate grievances – such as poor public services, low pay, or lack of security – can quickly become horrific tragedies.
The Marikana miner’s strike, in which 47 people were killed by police, made the international press. There have been such protests almost continuously, although with less loss of life, but people have still been killed.
It is against this context – of a terrified and defensive people – that the awful events of the morning of 14 February, when Oscar Pistorius allegedly shot his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, took place.
We have, at this time, insufficient facts to know what actually happened. However it works out though, a deliberate murder or a terrifying case of mistaken identity, if it weren’t for the fame of the protagonist it would just be another invisible statistic in South Africa’s ongoing struggle with anarchy.
I bought Hush one of those new life-blogging collars about a month ago. It’s the version with a GPS and wifi transmitter and takes a picture every half-a-second of whatever happens to be in front of him. I thought it would be something to remind me of the day going on outside my studio. I’d get to watch Hush as he toured his domain. Maybe I’d even find some new places to draw in.
Hush and I moved here a few months ago, after the Olympics had died down and rentals in Hackney Wick had dropped a bit. We were in Shoreditch, but the software companies were gentrifying the place and driving up the rents. Haven’t you heard? Hackney Wick is the new artists’ commune. Even an organised band of anarchists have moved in to a warehouse in Maverton Road. Always stringing up new wifi transmitters, which is why I thought the collar might work.
I always wanted to move to Hackney Wick as my family has a bit of a dark connection to the place. My great grandfather, Henry Muller, was the nephew of Franz Muller, England’s first railway murderer. The murder took place here. Quite the family secret, but I’ll get to that later. Continue reading
Waiting for a miracle
“How long are you prepared to wait?” I asked.
It was 1991 in the Eastern Cape city of Port Elizabeth and I was in my final year of high school. Nelson Mandela had been released in 1990 with me hovering over the television, my camera on a tripod, in a futile and excited attempt to capture the moment.
The NRA’s press conference and suggestions were somewhat astonishing:
- Don’t regulate guns, regulate video games.
- Don’t blame gun-owners, create a database of all the mentally disabled/ill and track them.
- “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” which boggles the mind.
- Congress should authorise armed guards at every school and public location in the country – both the cost and the impact on civil liberties make this a gobsmacking proposal.
So, the NRA proposes turning the US into a nation of people who risk being sectioned as having any form of mental disability for fear of being digitally-tagged and monitored, while armed guards stand at the entrance to any public or private building, school, theatre, shopping centre or street-corner to protect each other from guns.
The entire economy of the US risks being gun-based. Hundreds of thousands of people hired – at taxpayer expense - to shoot anyone who attempts to use their gun, while everyone else buys and sells guns, grenades and Kevlar vests to each other. Douglas Adams spoke of the Shoe Event Horizon, when every business becomes a shoe shop. I think the US just reached the Gun Event Horizon.
This all sounds just slightly mad.
“A group of wretched white rich kids arrive on an island for a holiday of self-indulgence and thrill-seeking, their fear of leaving adolescence exposed by their need to jump out of aeroplanes rather than move on with their lives, privilege protecting them from needing to be anything other than vacuous. But the island on which they’ve chosen to do this turns out to be lawless, and under the control of murderous pirates, and quickly their faux-idyllic lives are destroyed. Kidnapped, threatened, and beaten, a brutal reality instantly crushes them. And you, your character, he sees his own big brother murdered right next to him. He’s changed.”
The band entered and took up their place and then a man, all in black with long, black hair, was led out on stage. And Sixto Rodriguez began to play.
I am not, ordinarily, afraid of rising early. However, when it is winter and 4am and one of the mizzly-drizzly-dawns where the fine rain settles into every warm crevasse, nestling down and sapping all heat, it better be a good reason.
This particular morning I had risen, dressed and driven to the centre of Cape Town with a few rolls of black and white film, my old Ricoh SLR camera and its 50 mm lens. I went in search of photographs for an advanced hand-printing course I was doing at the Cape Town School of Photography.
I have always loved entrepreneurs; their bravery, compassion and ambition. In every transaction between buyer and seller there is a single moment of intense intimacy. When two strangers connect as they exchange cash for goods. Continue reading
On Earth Day (which was Sunday – keep up) the inchoately titled Free Market America … er, foundation, released a video entitled, “If I wanted America to fail” in which they tackle the knotty subject of climate change and carbon pricing through the medium of a patronising preppie grossly oversimplifying a complex problem.
No, please, go ahead and watch:
A country’s highest elected representative warns its most important judicial body that their review of a controversial piece of legislation against the terms of the constitution is judicial activism and an attack by an unelected body on the needs of his government. He promises to set up a judicial review to look at and, potentially, rewrite the powers of that judicial body.
Barack Obama before the Supreme Court? Almost. South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma before the Constitutional Court.
And that is the real danger when America or European countries threaten the judiciary or free speech in these terms; it creates the moral authority that real bastards crave to justify their own attacks on the rights and protections afforded their people. Continue reading
In 1995, only a year after South Africa’s first democratic election, I was working at a community centre in Nyanga, a shanty-town alongside Cape Town’s international airport. The centre had started a project which aimed to give HIV-positive single mothers a safe place to live and work.
My self-appointed task was to assist with setting up income generation projects. I had a “real” job during the week and would arrive early on Saturday mornings to a queue of toddlers and tiny children waiting to be picked up and swung. Little happy, snotty faces with upstretched arms taking their turns and then running to the back of the line to have another go.
And every one of them HIV-positive.
One day a child, late to be swung, came running too quickly and slipped. She fell hard on the concrete and scraped her arm and leg. Blood flowed and she began to howl. I stooped to pick her up and a nurse grabbed me, pulling me back.
“No,” she said, her face sad, “let her mother pick her up,” indicating the blood and cuts on my hands from where I’d injured myself working on my car.
That was the moment that the death sentence implied by AIDS hit home. None of these children would live more than another few years. Continue reading
I see them passing by the windows, looking in. Their faces, a mixture of curiosity and contempt I dare not interpret. My heart-beat is erratic. I am 10 kilos down. I sleep maybe two hours a night. I am exhausted.
These are the days and nights of the zombie business; too weak to live, too strong to die. Continue reading