Monthly Archives: October 2013

Approaching 40: Thoughts, reflections and some tips

40

In less than two months I’ll be 40.

Gosh! (as  Napolean Dynamite would exclaim) where has the time gone?

One minute I’m finishing high school in Johannesburg, South Africa is stepping gingerly into a brave new era of democracy, Freddie Mercury had just died from AIDS and I’d decided to become an architect.

Flash forward nearly 22 years: I’m a newspaper journalist in Melbourne, (apparently the world’s most livable city, if you believe those sorts of surveys) with a bald patch, a blog and a family with three different passports (South African, Kiwi and Aussie) plus a few other bits and pieces.

It feels like a time to reflect, but not morbidly so, as I feel 40 is still an age of possibility (I’ll wait till at least 50 for melancholic reflections) plus I’ve been lucky, life has treated me more or less “pretty, pretty, pretty good” as my self-appointed mentor Larry David would say.

Of course I’ve just about given up hope of making it on the BRW Young Rich list (a list of the richest Aussies 40 and under), unless I do something drastic in the next couple of months – like rob a bank or win the lottery, but I think I can live with that.

Anyway, for nostalgia sake (and to poke fun at me relentlessly) here I am 22 odd years ago in the bottom right hand corner of this photo taken some time in the mid-1990s.

larry schol

That’s me. The geeky, chubby face with glasses looking a tad sheepish on the periphery of things. Something of an outsider.

Hardly any of the people in this people are still living in South Africa; certainly I thought I’d be one of those who stayed behind (or at least left and came back). Instead I’ve joined the expat South African community that used to be called when I was in school, the PFP (not the Progressive Federal Party, but an acronym at the time for those ‘Packing for Perth’).

But have I succeeded? I have no idea.

Success of course is a personal thing and can be fleeting. You can accumulate vast sums of money and lose it very quickly, or build up your reputation on your achievements and status only for it to be smashed to smithereens by a rash decision or revelation about some horrible character flaw: think of the careers of Lance Armstrong or Rolf Harris and what they will be ultimately remembered for.

In many ways I feel I have succeeded – I’ve gotten married, have a beautiful wife and daughter and a son on the way, I overcame a seriously debilitating period of panic attacks that threatened my sanity about ten years ago while living in London (there is no greater fear in life than losing your mind I can tell you), I’ve  been lucky enough to see many interesting parts of the world (I think I am up to about 30 countries or so), had a to date fulfilling career in five different cities (Jo’burg, London, Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne) and for the most part have been healthy, happy and well-fed.

But in other facets of my life I feel I’ve not: for one thing I have not built up any great wealth, nor do I own property or shares.

I don’t feel or act my age (both a good and a bad thing). I don’t pay enough attention in conversations. I’m often in my own world.

Of less concern I’ve also not yet published a book (or really written one either), I’ve haven’t yet been invited onto Q&A, had tea with Stephen Fry or discussed my anxieties with Woody Allen and I’ve still not bought a BMW (Everyone’s allowed one flashy, material craving right?)

But enough of that. Perhaps the Gods of fame and fortune will smile favourably on me yet.

I’m healthy and relatively sane and life is for the most part very good. I have time to read books, watch movies, listen to music, drink and occasionally be merry. Many people would be content with that.

So what have I learnt? Is there any wisdom I can impart as the big ‘Four Zero’ approaches?

Perhaps this?

  • Try to worry less? Things rarely happen as you think they will so its a pointless exercise. Good and bad awaits you in ways you could never imagine.
  • Avoid trashy books and reality television. Spend your time doing something else.
  • Think less about what you eat. Obsessing over food is a waste of time.
  • Get a bike or start jogging. Avoid gyms (too many mirrors).
  • Hug your kids, your wife, your pets, your friends, your family when the mood strikes, without any particular reason.
  • Worry less about what others think of you.
  • You can’t cook a Jamie Oliver meal in 15 minutes

And if every in doubt about life, watch Annie Hall for the opening monologue at least (the rest of the movie is pretty terrific too):

ALVY         
		There's an old joke.  Uh, two elderly 
		women are at a Catskills mountain 
		resort, and one of 'em says: "Boy, the 
		food at this place is really terrible." 
		The other one says, "Yeah, I know, and 
		such ... small portions." Well, that's 
		essentially how I feel about life.  Full 
		of loneliness and misery and suffering 
		and unhappiness, and it's all over much 
		too quickly

The demise of Australian sporting prowess…or how they went from champs to chumps

france v australiaJust what has happened to Australia’s sporting prowess?

Over the weekend, the Soccerros lost 6-0 to France to accumulate a 12-0 scoreline when you tally the previous result against Brazil.

It’s been 11 years since the Wallabies last won the Bledisloe Cup and 14 years since they last won the World Cup.

The cricket team has lost three Ashes series in a row, it lost 4-0 to India earlier this year and before that lost a test series at home to South Africa.

The Olympic team won just 8 gold medals in London, its worst haul since 1988 and half the number of golds they won at Beijing.

Once a tennis powerhouse, Australia has only just returned to the David Cup world group after a six year hiatus.

Blimey, even the last two horses to win the Melbourne Cup were trained in France.

Compare this two twenty years ago.

As a once-mad South African cricket and rugby supporter, a sense of dread would come over me every time our national team played the Wallabies or the Baggy Greens throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Let’s play anyone but the Australians was my motto.

Because Australia was so damn good at cricket and rugby and just about any other sport you could think of.

It was not just they’re sporting skill and dexterity, it was a mental toughness they possessed (typified none more so than by the likes of Steve Waugh or John Eales), a do-or-die attitude that left one of the most painful of sporting moments indelibly tattooed on my brain: tieing the 1999 Cricket World Cup semi-final, a game we could not, it seemed, lose, yet somehow managed to do so (I recall celebrating victory only for it to be snatched away so cruelly by lunacy).

Tough as nails, the fiercest of competitors: Steve waugh

Tough as nails, the fiercest of competitors: Steve waugh

Beating Australia meant you had to play at your very best and when you did beat them, it almost always felt like a remarkable achievement, one where you matched both their physical abilities and were stronger mentally.

Now you can do it hardly even trying it seems.

What exactly has happened to this once proud sporting nation? Is it just going through a very bad downward patch or has their being a seismic shift in the world order?

Certainly the Socceroos were not expected to win their games against football powerhouses like France and Brazil, but they were expected to at least put up a good fight.What happened to the team that eight years ago pushed Italy all the way for a quarter-final spot at the 2006 World Cup?

The slide in rugby and cricket has been even worse, these being sports where Australia dominated on the world stage. Yes, teams go up and down, but the fall from grace has been spectacular to the say the least.

But it goes beyond results.

Just how many major sporting scandals have made the front pages of newspapers recently? I’ve lost count. It seems there’s hardly a national sport that has not been tainted lately by something or other.

There’s been the AFL and NRL doping scandals, the numerous punch-ups and bust ups in the cricket team, the bad behaviour among rugby players (James O’Connor, Kurtley Beale). Christ, even sports you’d never associate with anything remotely scurrilous have had their share of public image failures most notably the men’s swimming team, and the sleeping pill scandal. (Not to mention their complete failure to win a gold medal at the Olympics) and the recent admissions by cycling great, Stuart O’Grady that he was a drug’s cheat.

Of course I should mention there have been some exceptions: Australian golf is very strong led by Master’s champion Adam Scott and regular major challenger Jason Day plus a string of other players capable of winning big tournaments. Sam Stosur won the US Open a few years back and Australia continues to dominate at surfing and ahem…netball.

Apart from netball though, these are all individual sports and, they seem to be more the exception then the rule.

It appears that Australian sports teams have been out-psyched or perhaps they’ve out-psyched themselves, believing they’re better at losing than winning. Perhaps the endless succession of scandals can be read as a desperate attempt for them to get back to winning ways.

This is also typified in the apparent necessity to spend millions of dollars appointing overseas coaches to national teams. We’ve had a New Zealander (Robbie Deans) coach the Wallabies, a succession of foreign nationals coach the Socceroos, and a South African (Mickey Arthur) coach the cricket team with varying degrees of success. This speaks volumes about confidence and a lack of belief in the talent of local coaches and managers.

And once again, having sacked German coach Holger Osieck, the Socceroos have considered trying to literally turn back the clock and re-appoint Gus Hiddink, the Dutchman who guided them to the fourth round at the World Cup in 2006. It seems some sensibility has returned with Melbourne Victory coach Ange Postercoglou (Australian despite the exotic sounding name) set to take on the role.

All these teams will no doubt bounce back.

But the days of Australia as a sporting powerhouse, punching way above its weight and utterly dominating their rivals, appear to be over.

A homage to the humble boerewors

Image

I’m all for globalisation, the mixing of cultures, the idea of the city as ‘melting pot’. After all, who wants to eat fish and chips every day? Or meat and two veg?

But sometimes globalisation gives me the shits.

Shopping in Woolworths last weekend. Grand final weekend. I’m picking up something to take to the barbecue.

As if it’s bred into my genes, my old South African eyes lock in on a coil of sausage behind clingwrap.

Boerewors” it says. No, it proclaims proudly!

“Yes please!” (I chant to myself).

Anyone who has spent anytime in South Africa, will know that you can’t have a barbecue (or ‘braai‘) in the homeland without this humble sausage sizzling away alongside a few giant steaks, chicken kebabs, pap and Castle Lager.

For Australian natives, think this combination: football, beer and meat pie.

The word ‘boerewors’ is Afrikaans, the language spoken by Afrikaners (the descendents of the original Dutch settlers to the Cape in 1652) famous for lots of great things (rugby, Francois Pienaar, Charlize Theron, Ernie Else, the first heart transplant) and some not so “lekker” things (apartheid, Oscar Pistorius, PW Botha).

But the boerewors is certainly one of their finest inventions and one that all South Africans, black, white, expat, coloured, indian have incorporated into their cultures and exported to far flung places. It’s uniquely South African, as the Lamington is to Australia and pavlova is to New Zealand.

The word actually translates as: boere (farmer’s) wors (sausage), which now that I think about it throws up some rather silly jokes and images I’ve not thought of up until now.

But, no, no, no and no! The boerewors is sacred. It is delectable a mix of delicious fatty meats and spices. It’s heaven in a sausage.

But, back to the boerewors on the shelf at Woolies and my temporary annoyance with globalisation.

IMG_20131006_215941

Just look at the packaging! Made by the British Sausage Company. But even worse: Uniquely Australian!

WHAT???

Not a mention of South Africa or farmers or apartheid. Not a boer insight.

I shake my fists in the supermarket. I consider stealing all the boerewors packets on the shelf, justified in my mind by the lack of respect that has been shown.

But, I calm down. Gather myself. And think about boerewors.

My stomach and taste buds win in the end. I buy the damn thing, take it to the barbeque, cook it, eat it and…

It’s simply sensational. At least those boerewors-loving Brits/Aussies got the recipe right.

I eat almost the entire coil and with heaving gut, think to myself: if it wasn’t for this bloody globalisation, I’d never get to eat the damn thing in the first place.

Throw another boerewors on the barbie, Shane!

(Turns out the ‘British Sausage Company’ is a butchery in Perth, no doubt of South African heritage).

Child abduction and obsession: reviewing Ian McEwan’s “The Child in Time”

the child in timeIan McEwan’s 1987 novel “The Child in Time” has as its central theme, the abduction of a three-year old child in broad daylight in a supermarket in suburban London in the 1980s.

Having a small child of my own, I picked up the book, read the back cover, and bought it, intrigued.

I think the premise in my mind was similar to what makes people slow down past traffic accidents – a glimpse of something horrifying and the reassurance that, it’s OK, it’s not happening to me. It’s why sadistic horror movies like Saw and Wolf Creek are so successful.

Quickly on in McEwan’s novel, we meet the central character, Steven Lewis, a successful children’s novelist living in a flat with his wife Julie, and their daughter Kate. One morning Steven lets Julie sleep in, while he and Kate dress warmly and walk to the supermarket to pick up groceries.

At the checkout, there is this ominous forbearer of disaster:

Stephen lifted the first items onto the belt. When he straightened he might have been conscious of a figure in a dark coat behind Kate.

And then, a little later:

The man with the dogfood was leaving. The checkout girl was already at work, the fingers of one hand flickering over the keypad while the other drew Stephen’s items towards her. As he took the salmon from his cart he looked down and winked at Kate. She copied him, but clumsily, wrinkling her nose and closing both eyes. He set the fish down and asked the girl for a shopping bag. She reached under a shelf and pulled one out. He took it and turned. Kate was gone.

Then follows the frantic searching down aisles. Calling out his daughter’s name. The police arrive. Stephen returns to his flat, alone, without his daughter, to tell his wife the terrible news.

At first it seemed a little far-fetched

Was is possible for a child to be abducted in such a manner, so swiftly, in a busy supermarket?

I had plans to write to Ian McEwan (or his publisher at least) to ask if this aspect of the novel was based in any way on real events.

But then, serendipitously, I came across a story about an experiment in London, where, under controlled circumstances, parents turn their attention away from their children in park for a just a few seconds, only for them to fall prey to a would-be paedophile.

There were nine children aged between five and 11 who were approached by a “stranger” who asked them to help him find his dog.

Seven, without hesitation and despite being warned about strangers, agreed to go with him, disappearing while their mothers’ attention was diverted by a telephone call.

Certainly the everyday, banal menace created in those supermarket scenes by McEwan – something he does so brilliantly – sends a cold shiver down your spine.

I expected the rest of the novel to be about a father trying to come to terms with the loss of his daughter and subsequent breakdown of his marriage. This is part of it, but McEwan turns the novel into a meditation on the idea of childhood, memory and parenthood.

Steven Lewis spends his days in stifling government-sponsored committees who are tasked with compiling a report on childcare and child-rearing. In the evenings, he sits alone in his flat drinking Scotch, thinking about Kate or his estranged wife, now living alone somewhere in the countryside.

There are strange dream-like sequences in a country pub, where he becomes the lost child looking in on his parents, many years in the past, as they come to terms with his own unplanned for conception.

His friend, Charles Darke, a junior minister in Thatcher’s government and the man who made him into a successful children’s author, gives up his plush home in London, the minor celebrity of political life and moves with his wife Thelma to a country estate, where he retreats into a child-like state, building a tree-house and making the woods his home.

There are the elements you expect in such a novel, such as Stephen going to a toy shop to buy a birthday present for his daughter, while he tries to convince himself that this is a healthy act. There is his constant fear of being away from his flat should Kate return and a disturbing episode where he decides that a child he sees in a school playground is his daughter, now much older.

Overall, I found it a strange, disjointed, stumbling and yet also bewitching novel, delving in and out of other people’s lives before returning to the story of Stephen Lewis and his quest to rejoin the world of the consciously living.

Christopher Hitchens, a close friend of Ian McEwan, called this book his “masterpiece”. I am not sure I agree.

I found I plodded along at times, not quite sure of the direction and the need for some of the diversions. But reflecting back, perhaps it deserves a second reading.

As with all McEwan’s books there are little gems here and there that touch on universal truths:

These lines struck me particularly poignantly. They are the thoughts of Stephen when visits his own parents and realises he only knows “outlines and details from stories” about their lives, but “nothing of how his parents met or what attracted them”:

Only when you are grown up, perhaps only when you have children yourself, do you fully understand that your own parents had a full an intricate existence before you were born.