Category Archives: Blogging

Writing well: 10 useful tips for feature writing from the pages of the Wall Street Journal

art and craft ofA couple of months ago, a colleague, pressing me to get started on a feature for the Australian Financial Review, the newspaper I write for, suggested:

“Have a big glass of red wine and then just start writing.”

I should put some context around this. I don’t drink wine at work as a rule. I was going to function, where wine would be served. Then I would come back to the office.

My colleague’s rationale: it would free up my creativity.

I took his advice, and the end result was good, but the story certainly did not flow out of me like….fine red wine (perhaps the quality of wine ingested matters!)

Feature writing is challenging. There are many different things to pull together – people, events, themes, counter-arguments – and to do so well is as much technique as it is flair, talent or creativity.

My technique, until recently, was a stop-start approach of firstly trying to come up with the lead (the opening paragraphs) which usually involved numerous attempts, re-writes, teeth grinding, coffee break, chat with colleagues etc before finally making a start. Then I’ll write to the length required and then arduously work back, trying to create some kind of flow and rhythm and to give a point to it all.

But there are better, more structured ways to go about writing features (not that writing should be easy, good writing requires effort, sweat and toil).

I recently came across a useful book recommended to me by Michelle Griffin a very experienced journalist at The Age, who has also been my mentor the past 8 months.

She suggested I read: “The Wall Street Journal Guide to The Art and Craft of Feature Writing” by William E. Blundell, himself a journalist with the esteemed newspaper

It’s an old book, first printed in 1988, but you can get a newish reprint online. I bought a copy from the Book Depository and read it cover to cover, slowly, underlining parts on the way into work, trying to ingest some of Blundell’s tips, tools and techniques for telling better stories; after all isn’t that what feature writing really is?

As Blundell puts it: “We can learn a great deal from fiction and this book makes at least a modest start to connecting some techniques of fiction to the work we do.

The book is helpful on many levels, for example the opening chapters are about generating ideas and coming up with the raw materials for a good feature and I suggest reading it cover to cover.

What I found most useful where the practical tips for the writing process itself. These are 10 to keep in mind:

1. Write out your main theme statement

In a couple of simple, tightly written sentences express the story: its main developments, likely effects and reactions to them.

If writing a profile, the theme statement  should be the facets of the person, company or organisation you plans to focus on.

“Tack this main theme statement up where  you can see it. Let it guide your work. Let it reproach you, question you, when you stray too far,” Blundell writes, adding; “I consider the main theme statement the single most important bit of writing I do on any story.”

2. Have a plan

“The only important thing is that you have a plan, however loose and informal and use it to good effect”, says Blundell. Good writers, plan before they report and again before they write.

3. Readers love action

“The story that does not move, that just sits there stalled while people declaim, explain, elaborate and suck their thumbs is justly labeled by some editors as a MEGO – “My Eyes Glaze Over”,” writes Blundell.”The most desirable kind of movement is the unfurling of natural story progression.” To do this stories must shift the reader’s attention from “the abstract to the concrete, from the general to the particular, from the mural to the minature.”

Feature writers are storytellers. “We are in the drama business,” Blundell declares.

4. People with direct experience are better than ‘experts’

I think this is particularly useful as many journalists quote too easily from “certified somebodies” rather than “little people with direct experience”.

I heavily circled this paragraph: “The story is happening on streets where there are no PR men strewing palms in the reporter’s path, no computers disgorging blocks of seductive statistics and a lot of people who have nothing to gain from doing pirouettes for the press…we have to gather details and direct experiences that show the reader what we are talking about, that convince him of the truth of the sweeping assertions made by us and our desk people. Most of all we go there to convince ourselves.”

5. Skim read through all your material beforehand

Often, I don’t do this. I go back and forth looking for what to include in various documents. It’s an exhausting process and sucks up vast amounts of time.

Blundell’s advice: Skim through all interviews and documents. Read rapidly, not for mastery of detail, but for the sense of things. Put aside material that is irrelevant or weakly repetitive.

This will help refine and define your main theme statement and story plan.Blundell also suggests creating an indexing system where you group things in a logical manner. This may be vital for very long stories, but I find it overly complex. A couple of theme sub-heading and a few notes about what to include under each theme should do the job on shortish features.

6. Keep digressions short, return quickly to the action

Anything that is not action is digression: observations, quotes, explanations and descriptions. Blundell’s advice: Keep it short and sharp, or as he says it: “Hustle the reader over the lakes as rapidly as you can to get his vessel back into white water – story action.”

7. The lead is key, but can be left till later

The lead is what draws a reader in, gets him to make an investment of his time in your story right away. Blundell says a good lead intrigues, teases, gives you a reason for reading on. Many of the best leads he says have one quality: mystery.

The book is full of numerous examples of good and bad writing. I’ll just transpose one example he gives of a good lead:

“Crowded with 346 passengers and crew members, the Turkish Airlines DC-10 rose smoothly from Orly Airport in Paris bound for London. Terror came at 12,000 feet.”

Mystery is good, but not confusion or riddles. If mystery does not work for your story focus on urgency or telling the reader that something compelling is happening.

An anecdote or quote is a popular way to start a feature, but Blundell says it should be simple to understand and have relevance for the main theme of the story.

Often, the lead can be a retooling of the main theme statement, especially if you are struggling to come up with one.

However, don’t spend hours at the beginning of the writing process coming up with the lead, unless one comes naturally to mind. Write the main body of the story and come back to it later.

8. Don’t overuse numbers and statistics

Blundell’s advice – don’t overload readers with too many numbers.  Also, he says express them in their most simplest form, rounded-off, expressed pictorially (something “doubled” or “trebled”) or as ratios. Very large (or very small) numbers are better expressed in a way that can be visualised. E.g. “It was three times the size of New York City’s Central Park”

9. Choose your quotes carefully and sparingly

Too many people quoted in a story, not saying anything that is particularly interesting will drown out those who do have something worthwhile to say.

Blundell advises avoiding quotes that state the obvious (the writer should be brave enough to state these points themselves). He says good writers are merciless about who they include and exclude. A good quote should have: credibility, draw an emotional response, be trenchant (sharp, incisive, authentic) and add variety to your story.

10. Endings are important

Blundell suggests that good endings drive home the established theme and help readers remember all they have been told. He says there are three that seem to work well:

- Circling back: reminding the reader of the central message through “symbols, emotional responses, observations, even snippets of poetry”. It should be full of echoes and overtones of the body of the story.

- Looking ahead: “What might be useless speculation clogging up the middle of a piece can become evocative material at its end,” Blundell says.

-Spreading out: You end by giving the reader something new to think about. The ending makes the story bigger than it was before, something worth remembering.

These are just some of the tips I picked up from the book and have found useful.

Of course none of this matters if your idea is weak, ill-conceived, poorly researched, of little gravitas or just plain boring.

Every great story begins with a great idea.

Happy writing, storytellers.

The utter ridiculousness of the very big beard

The Ned Kelly and the Bin Laden are most popular these days

The Ned Kelly and the Bin Laden are most popular these days

The big, bushy beard is back in a big, bushy way.

The three-day stubble, the elegant goatee, the humble moustache, the soul patch (think Howie Mandel) have all been replaced with creations that would not be out of place among the members of ZZ Top, or on the set of a Ned Kelly movie, or perhaps even among a gathering of Chassidic Jews or devout Muslims.

This is not “I’ve forgotten to shave for the last week”, this is throwing out the razor for the year.

Just this week, standing on the train platform, was a young man with a neatly combed head of hair, below which he wore a black beard in the shape and thickness of a straw broom.  As the wind picked up and the train approached I thought his beard might actually drag him off his feet.

Other beards are so long, they risk tripping up their owner, some so deep they might hide an illegal stash of drugs or a small mammal or bird.

I am seeing these enormous hair explosions everywhere, on the ‘suits’ that take the train into work, on latte-sipping hipsters perched on cafe stools, on baristas and on fashion designers. They’re peering back at me from album covers and magazine covers, and on the footie, rugby and soccer highlights. They’re flowing out of bicycle helmets and motorcycle helmets and waving out of the windows of utes and station wagons.

Australian soccer player, Josh Brilliante

Australian soccer player, Josh Brilliante

These facial fiascos seem especially popular among young twenty-something blokes, who seem intent on making themselves look they’re ready to receive a government pension (Even my sixty-something father-in-law shaves his wildman beard off after a few months in the bush).

Girls say no

I’ve done my research – girls don’t find these hairy adornments appealing or sexy. None of them are keen on getting up close and personal with a man that has the equivalent of a German Shepard’s tail attached to their chin.

Growing up Jewish, I always associated beard with learned and slightly fearsome rabbis. They would grow long, pointy ones, or if they were elderly – grey and white things that also sprouted out from ears and nose. But this wasn’t fashion, this was piety (or so I was told).

But beards are now being used to sell men’s clothing: here’s the lumberjack look, courtesy of Apparel Clothing

A model wearing Apparel Clothing

A model wearing Apparel Clothing

Hollywood has certainly played it’s part – George Clooney, Ben Affleck, Jake Gyllenhaal have all grown beards of various lengths at one time or another, but nothing like the enormous facial explosions that are being dragged around town these days.

Earlier this year, Fairfax journalist John Bailey interviewed barbers and male groomers about the rising popularity of beards. There explanations were as varied as they were creative: a movement against shaving, to create an edgy look, non-conformity, to show dedication, to show maturity.

Some claim that a beard shows a rejection of the instant gratification “me generation” hooked on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Beards take time and commitment to grow.

But, really, let’s be honest, the big beard is just a fashion statement gone wrong. Looking like a hillbilly, yokel, rabbi, wise old man or dodgy criminal is not very cool, unless you really are one.

Thankfully, it seems the fad has peaked and is in decline.

Research carried out by the University of NSW of the reactions to beards found that they had reached their saturation point – in short, what may have seemed for a time cool and edgy is now mainstream, boring, and uncool.

If you’ve grown a big beard to look cool, hip or even rebellious, it’s time to shave it off, or at least trim it to something that still shows the contours of your face.

Of course there are exceptions and I include myself, possessor of a somewhat rounded face that some have unkindly likened to a “soccer ball”.

I grew a beard and moustache at my wife’s suggestion while we went back-packing around the world in 2010 and have kept it ever since.

At its most unruly, I was mistaken – much to my amusement – as a fellow Arab while wandering around Cairo, but it never got completely out of control, it never resembled a curtain of hair.

The author, in Mexico in 2010

The author, in Mexico in 2010

The thing is once you’ve had a beard for a while and then you shave it off, your own clean-shaven appearance can frighten you half to death: who is this scary pink creature looking back at me?

“Give me back my hairy complexion?” you scream out, “I’m hideous”

So mine will stay long after the fad gives way to something less ridiculous.

Perhaps it will be the return of clean shaven look, as Canadian beard expert Allan Peterkin, author of One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair suggested might happen in five year’s time – inspired by shows like Mad Men.

Let’s hope its a lot sooner than that.

Death by @Twitter: Do my tweets matter that much?

A strange thing happened to me on Twitter a little while ago.

It was at the time that the Australian Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste was being sent to jail on outrageous, fabricated charges in Egypt and I tweeted something like:

I think the Abbott govt would have made more of an effort to help Peter Greste if he worked for News Corp.

The tweet was in bad taste, but I had blundered even further by being completely unaware that the verdict had just been handed out in a Cairo kangaroo court.

It stayed up a couple of hours while I was out at the movies.

When I returned, my Twitter notification box was lit up: half a dozen people had seen my remark and hurled abuse at me – via tweets calling me an insensitive so and so.

Others had retweeted their condemnation of my tweet. The wheels – I thought – were in motion.

For a moment, I was in a blind panic. Would I suffer the fate of Justine Sacco, the PR executive who tweeted about going  Africa and getting AIDS and become a social media sensation (for all the wrong reasons) and get sacked?

Justine SaccoWould #whereisLarry? start trending?

In a cold sweat, I frantically deleted the tweet and tweeted my apologies to the most incensed in the Twitter-sphere (Complete strangers actually).

We all made up – and life went on.

Looking back on it now, I can’t decide if I completely over-reacted or on the other hand – had defused a ticking time bomb.

I think perhaps the former: My tweet was not nearly provocative enough and it was neither racist, sexist or xenophobic, the kind of tweets that really land you in to trouble.

In fact, now I kind of wish I’d left it up – just to see what might have happened.

Andy Warhol famously predicted in 1968 that in the future, everyone would get their 15 minutes of fame. He probably never thought that so many people would achieve it via social media or reality TV?

Had I missed out on mine?

The many layers of my Jewish skin

Certain things remind me of my Jewish roots. Some bring me closer, other repel me. Make me want to run a mile.

Like watching Manny Wax talk about the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of David Cyprus, a security guard at the Yeshiva College Melbourne, the subsequent community cover up and shameful treatment of Manny’s family by their supposed friends. These things repel. They push me away.

Then I see a man like Zephaniah Wax, Manny’s father, an orthodox Jew with a modern-day understanding of the world, who is kind, thoughtful and funny, whom I instantly admire and like, a man I would love to discuss the philosophies of life with over a meal.

He is nothing like the orthodox woman who tought me at cheder (Jewish studies I attended in the afternoon while I was at primary school) who told me I should try not associate with non-Jewish people. Or the awful history teacher at high school, who tried to make us learn to draw the map of Israel by heart. She repelled me as did the forced morning prayer, the constant yelling at kids who didn’t pray and the shovelling of religion and zionism down our throats.

The truth is being Jewish is complicated. It’s probably why Woody Allen depicts his characters – primarily New York jews – as guilt-ridden, questioning, uncomfortable people. Never quite at home in their own skins. I love those characters and identify with them.

My own admission is that I have willingly and easily slipped the yolk of my religion. I’ve married out the faith, I eat what I like, I never attend synagogue and don’t observe the sabbath or any of the festivals. I am very much a secular Jew.

But it wasn’t always this way.

It was my mother who instilled in me my Jewish identity. She got it from her father, my grandfather Harry, who died – on of all days – on the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, the Day of Atonement.

My grandfather Harry, far left - not quite how I remember him

My grandfather Harry, far left – not quite how I remember him

It shook me when he died on that very day. Having been told endlessly that Yom Kippur was the day when you were inscribed either in the book of life or the book of death, his passing felt huge and momentous. In my mind, I always pictured Yom Kippur as the hand of God writing names in one of two enormous, leather-bound books somewhere up above clouds. On the cover of one was written “LIFE” on the other “DEATH”.

Harry, who we called ‘Zayda’  (Yiddish for ‘Grandfather’) and his son, my Uncle Sydney, who we all called ‘Uncle Yoel’ were the religious centre of our extended family when we grew up in South Africa in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

Zayda was a distant, but kind man with big watery eyes made huge behind thick glasses, a bald head always covered with a kippah and a bow-legged walk. He was an old man from my earliest memories. Zayda was the impetus for us observing the rituals of the Sabbath and the festivals. Before Passover, he would hide ‘chametz’ (pieces of bread) around the house and then we would walk behind him in the dark as he tried to remember where he hid them. Zaydah would hold a candle and a little shovel he’d made from cardboard and using a feather, sweep up the “unleavened bread” in ritual cleansing of the house of bread before it was filled with boxes of Matzoh. My sister, brother and I could hardly keep a straight face as we marched around the house searching for bread. My grandfather was never amused by our snorting. Many months later, we’d find stale pieces of bread on bookshelves or somewhere else Zaydah had forgotten about.

Like many Jews of his era, a favourite pastime was reading the obituaries in The Star newspaper in the afternoon to see who had died. This he did with a magnifying glass, hunched over the paper. Having come to South Africa from Russia where he ran a concession store on the mines, I think he had endured a tough life. He had a sad face and suffered the loss of wife Lily, my ‘bobba’ when she passed away suddenly many years before I was born.

I was very close to my Uncle Yoel  – a slim man with a neatly trimmed black beard, always full of ideas, patient, kind  and well liked by all who knew him. I used to go to his flat in Hillbrow (and inner city Johannesburg suburb that has since fallen on hard times), where we studied the portion of the Torah I was to read for my Bar Mitzvah. I’d come to his flat on Sunday mornings to study, but we also talked about cricket and other things.I am not quite sure what my Uncle did for a living, but for a long time he sold a course of motivational tapes from the ‘Success Motivation International‘  – SMI as I called it – that created a program for setting and achieving goals. He gave me a set of tapes and we would also sit in his flat planning my goals and how I would achieve them. One of them was to be a good Bar Mitzvah boy, which I achieved.

The author, his Bar Mitzvah, 1987

The author, his Bar Mitzvah, 1987

After my Uncle Yoel married his wife Esher – a native of Chicago with a big beaming smile who seemed to find everything I said funny – and started to have children they moved to a big house in Yeoville,  an predominantly orthodox Jewish neighbourhood of square brick houses and shady trees reminiscent back then of the Melbourne suburb of Balaclava with its kosher cafes, Jewish institutions and synagogues.

Here our family and my Uncle’s family would gather on Friday nights for the Shabbot (Sabbath) meal. We would sing songs in hebrew and say the prayers and then feast in the traditional Jewish way: by overeating. First would come the chopped liver piled high on challah (platted loaves of bread topped with sesame seeds) on to which I heaped horse-radish or mustard. This was followed by chicken soup, a broth that contained soft pieces of chicken, necks and stomachs and sometimes chicken feet followed by a main course of chicken or meat or both, roast vegetables, kugel (potato pudding) and salads. Dessert was non-dairy chocolate mousse which my mother made with something called Orley Whip, a staple of every Jewish household in Johannesburg.

A couple of years later my Uncle Yoel emigrated with his family to an othordox neighbourhood of Chicago. Over the years, as I have drifted further and further away from Judaism, we have sadly lost touch and lost that close bond we had when I was a young boy and teenager. The last time I saw him was at my brother’s wedding in Miami in 2010 and before that it had been many, many years since we had seen each other.

Over the years, I have shaken off layer upon layer of my Jewish skin.  But there are many layers.

I have remained – at heart – a proud, non-observant Jew.

My core Jewishness remains and deeper than traditional foods, the jokes, anxiety and guilt.

Sometimes I feel a longing to sit in  synagogue and sing some of the familiar Friday night songs. On the  odd occasion I get invited for a Friday night meal or to celebrate one of the festivals, it’s a special treat. Sometimes I find myself humming the tunes I used to sing in synagogue.

It was a sad, but also defiant moment on the ABC’s Compass show that aired the story of Manny Wax when Manny’s father Zephaniah and his wife are seen sitting alone at their vast dinner table, because their own family and community have cast them out.

It takes me back to those big Friday night dinners in Berea, that I remember now so clearly, but yhat are also so distant.

There’s the enormous meal before us. I’m calling on someone to pass me the ‘chrain’ (horse-radish) to spread on my chopped liver. There is herring and kichel (sweet Israeli crackers). The two families are gathered together. My Zayda is there eating slowly. He is very old and struggling to hear what everyone is talking about. My Uncle Yoel is discussing cricket or asking me about my week at school and the food keeps coming. The house is suffused with the smell of chicken and potato pudding. Wax drips down the shabbat candles, which flicker and burn on a silver tray. Later we ‘bench’ – sing prayers of thanks for our meal –  and make our way home by car through quiet Friday night streets of Yeoville and Observatory.

These were things that bound us together back then and are a layer that I keep beneath my skin.

The strange, dangerous, addictive world of @Twitter

twitterA colleague at work tells me I’m the worst tweeter in the world.

I laugh and shrug, but agree he could be right  (some of the time).

Mostly, it’s to do with my inane comments on sport, particularly Australian Football, which I admit I know very little about.

Still that doesn’t stop me winding up my 1200 or so followers, some of whom are friends who support opposing teams to the high-flying Sydney Swans, the team I barrack for.

What can  I say, I like to wind people up by saying this coach couldn’t teach a primary school woodwork class or that full forward couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo – let alone guide the Sherrin through the middle posts.

My problem is that I occasionally tweet my private thought and let’s be honest everyone has some pretty dark or silly ideas running through their brains at one time or another (before Twitter came along in 2008 the worst you could do is send a text message while drunk or angry) .

Some tweets are so explosively bad, they have the potential to be disastrous.

This was famously illustrated last year when PR executive Justine Sacco tweeted to just 400 followers before boarding a long-haul flight from the US to South Africa:

Image

Twelve or so hours later, her racist remarks had been retweeted thousands of times – by people who had tens of thousands of followers creating a huge multiplier effect – and the Twitter-sphere was up in arms.

A hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet trended around the world and Ms Sacco found herself with 8000 unwanted “followers”.

Ms Sacco lost her job, her reputation was in tatters and she promptly vanished from Twitter and social media to lick her wounds (though amazingly someone has hired her again!)

Of course other more famous people have gotten into trouble for tweeting including fiery cricketer Dave Warner, who tweeted an expletive-ladden attack on cricket writers and was promptly fined by Cricket Australia and Hollywood actor Ashton Kutcher who tweeted to his 8 million followers his support for American college football coach Joe Paterno after he was sacked for not doing enough to prevent the abuse of children by his assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.

A bad tweet can end a career, ruin a reputation and cost a lot of money in legal fees – comedian Roseanne Barr was sued by the parents of George Zimmerman, the man who shot Trayvon Martin – after she tweeted their home address. The Zimmermans claimed Ms Barr incited a lynch mob. She later deleted the tweet but the damage was already done.

Undeniably, Twitter has incredible power.

While Facebook’s influence is arguably waning, Twitter is getting bigger and bigger (pop star Katy Perry has 54 million followers) and it has that incredible multiplier effect through retweets. Give a tweet time (as in the case of Justine Sacco) and the results can be tsunami-like.

Twitter’s power is its immediacy, punchiness (just 140 characters forcing people to condense their thoughts into bite size chunks) and ability to reach so many people.

Unlike Facebook, LinkedIn and others, where there is some level of privacy (messages can be restricted to friends and networks), Twitter is a free-for-all where everything is public.

It’s an addictive place where you can read the private thoughts of some of the world’s most powerful people  like right-wing media baron Rupert Murdoch  – @rupertmurdoch  – who actually writes his own rambling tweets.

It’s where you can interact with your favourite celebrities (who doesn’t like to brag about getting a reply from a favourite actor or a retweet or mention) and get involved in discussions on politics, sport, religion and every topic in between.

There’s a strange kind of pleasure when people from far-flung places respond to your tweets. For example, this exchange after I posted my thoughts on the book Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, which I had just read. I got a reply from an actor appearing in the play of the novel in the UK.

Image

Twitter is a great place for sharing stories, thoughts, inspiration, recipes, photographs, anecdotes, jokes and grievances (nothing better than winding up a big corporation who can’t help themselves but responding to every criticism).

Twitter is where many of the biggest news stories are broken (I remember a colleague at work shouting out: “Someone has just tweeted that Oscar Pistorious has shot his girlfriend” before it became a huge worldwide story).

But you have to be careful what you write even if you are a humble journo hack like me.

A point I have to keep reminding myself every time I think I’ve thought up something witty to say and have my finger hovering over the “Tweet” button.

“Just remember Justine Sacco,” I tell myself.

Follow me @larryschles

 

The jew at the table: reflections on racism and growing up Jewish in South Africa

“Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition…our chief weapon is…surprise.”

So begins the famous Monty Python sketch heralded by the arrival of evil clergy in red robes.

nobodyexpects

Well I wasn’t wearing a red robe or any identifying markings at a recent business lunch when as discussion turned to who would pay the bill, someone remarked:

“I’ll be the Jew and leave” – or words to that effect, before they got up to go.

A general snickering followed. Someone remarked flippantly that you should be careful what you say – you never know who may be around – and it was quickly forgotten.

No one knew there was a Jew at the table.

Me.

I never said anything, nor did I regard the person who said it with any particular malice. But I was a bit taken aback. It made me feel uncomfortable; I felt inclined to say something but also reluctant to make a fuss.

Others I know would have had no indecision. They would be proclaiming their Jewishness loudly and demanding an apology accompanied by accusations of anti-Semitism.

Did the person who made this remark hold some deeply felt hatred towards the jewish race or religion, or was it just like the time I remarked, flippantly, to an ex-girlfriend of mine who was half Asian that the kitchen of the digs I shared with friends in London “resembled a Chinese laundry”.

(I also recall that she distinctly did not like the South African colloquialism “china” used in the same way Australians say “mate”).

Anyway, as the words came out my mouth, I realised what I’d said, but it was too late. An uncomfortable moment followed as I apologised profusely.

And wouldn’t this person sitting across from me at lunch, who suggested “he be the Jew” have acted similarly had he known I was Jewish.

My gut feel, is yes.

And does he harbour some ill-will towards Jews. Probably…

Would he suddenly dislike me if he found out I was Jewish – probably not.

The truth is everyone has made a remark like this at some point in their lives -and it’s hard to think of anyone I know who does not hold some kind of prejudice or quasi-prejudice against some other race, religion, sexual orientation or political belief system.

At the same time, it strikes me that my Jewish brethren appear the most sensitive of all races, colours and creeds to offensive remarks, no matter how harmless or slip of the tongue they may be.

Years of persecution – the pogroms, the holocaust, indeed the Spanish Inquisition – will often be the explanation for such an acute sensitivity.

My own experience growing up in South Africa is of a deeply racist Jewish community, with the racism passed down through the generations as it is every where else.

Words learnt and bandied around Jewish social gatherings (white people only apart from the black domestics serving food or minding the children) included the horrible sounding “schvarzte” and “shoch” meaning a “black” person and “chatis” for an Afrikaner.

These words were used regularly at dinners, family gatherings, teas and barbeques – often in earshot of the African domestic clearing away plates or bringing food to the table.

Sadly they were often spoken by those who had fled pogroms or persecution or were the children of those who had. We as kids would play cricket in the garden, while the adults (BMW or Mercedes parked down the driveway) would chat away about their privileged lives: trips overseas, new restaurants opening, community gossip. As you got older, you’d join the adults and hear the conversations, where “shochs, schvartzes and chatises” were mentioned all too frequently.

Paradoxically, these same people would often stick their heads into the kitchen to say hi to the African domestic washing the dishes, to ask about their children or their health.

But it was always in the realm of the ‘master and servant relationship':

“How are you today Sophie?”

“I am well thank-you master.”

“How are your children?”

“They are well thank you master.”

So what’s happened to these people who I remember with their expensive cars, who would sit around discussing the cricket or rugby with the odd racist remark thrown in from time to time?

Many of them have packed up and moved to Australia. They’re living on the best streets of Bondi, Vaucluse, St Ives, Toorak, Caufield, Bentleigh and Dianella. Some – would you believe it – have even brought their domestics along to do the dishes.

Few have dropped their prejudices and most will happily tell you South Africa has “gone to the dogs since the blacks took over”.

It reminds me of something someone very dear to me (but with horribly dated ideas) once said to me a long time ago:

“I don’t believe in apartheid. But really, you can’t put the blacks in charge.”

What Mandela gave me: one glorious day and hope for the future

The voting line: a sculpture depicting Mandela and the 1994 election in Port Elizabeth

The voting line: a sculpture depicting Mandela and the 1994 election (stands in Port Elizabeth)

This post first appeared on crikey.com.au,

It is also my 100th post on this blog. I dedicate 95 of those posts to Nelson Mandela, for each of the 95 years of his life:

I will always remember voting in South Africa’s first democratic elections on April 27, 1994. It was a miracle they took place at all; far-right-wing organisations threatened civil war, and only last-minute negotiations and concessions ensured all key political parties took part in the historic vote.

Such was the fear that some people took to draining their swimming pools and stocking them with cans of baked beans, mineral water and tinned tuna in case all hell broke loose — or so the urban legend went. But certainly there were empty shelves in the supermarket and a tremendous sense of tension in the air.

In the lead-up there had been bomb blasts at Johannesburg airport instigated by the paramilitary AWB (Afrikaner Resistance Movement) and, a year before, the terrible slaying of Communist Party leader Chris Hani carried out by a white Polish immigrant named Janusz Walus as part of a right-wing plot that had pushed the country to the brink of anarchy.

But the doomsayers were all proved wrong.

On April 27 the front-page headline in Johannesburg’s The Star newspaper proclaimed boldly “Vote the beloved country”, a play on Alan Paton’s famous novel Cry, The Beloved Country about apartheid’s injustices, which we all read at school. Underneath the headline was a photo taken from a helicopter showing a snaking line of people stretching beyond the confines of the photograph waiting patiently to vote for the first time in their lives.

A mural in Cape Town depicting voting in South Africa in 1994

A mural in Cape Town depicting voting in South Africa in 1994

People queued for hours. In the big cities. In country towns. In townships. In rural villages. On hillsides.

Apart from getting married and the birth of my daughter, it was the single greatest day in my life. It was a privilege to be alive and still young (I was 21 at the time), but old enough to play my small part in such a defining moment in our troubled country’s history.

I remember it as a glorious crisp, early autumn day. Blue skies. Electricity in the air.

I voted at the nearby primary school just a short drive from home. I am not someone who shows his emotions, but as I drove past the line of people waiting on the pavement, there were tears in my eyes, and my heart felt like it was ballooning out of my chest.

In that queue was Nelson Mandela’s vision, why he had spent 27 years of his life imprisoned on Robben Island and why he had emerged not to proclaim war against those who oppressed him but to suggest a vision of the “rainbow nation” where everyone, no matter the colour of their skin, could feel proud to call themselves South African.

That queue outside the primary school in leafy suburban Jo’burg, in queues all over the country from Cape Town at the bottom of the country to Messina on the Zimbabwean border, the rainbow nation was brought to life for the world to see.

“… white middle-aged Jewish women in designer outfits, who for years had kept domestics (or “maids” as we called them) to raise and feed their children, stood quietly behind those they employed.”

Having parked my car some distance away, I took my place in the line. Ahead of me white middle-aged Jewish women in designer outfits, who for years had kept domestics (or “maids” as we called them) to raise and feed their children, stood quietly behind those they employed. Dapperly dressed old African men, once forced to carry “passbooks” regulating their movements in white areas under apartheid, stood beside Portuguese-born restaurateurs, Italian hairdressers and sun-loving British immigrants. Petrol attendants stood next to lawyers, suburban housewives, next to black mini-cab drivers. Black gardeners stood side-by-side with white doctors and accountants. Petrol attendants in blue overalls stood next to white old ladies with permed hair and tissues tucked under their sleeves, who stood behind Indian shopkeepers and coloured fruit sellers.

There was something in the air that day. Yes the tension remained, but there was the sense the dream could be real, that we could all learn to get along and in doing so rebuild and repair centuries of inequality, injustice and brutality. It would not be easy, but it was possible.

Soon after, the votes tallied, Nelson Mandela was sworn in as our first president.

The following year, South Africa won the Rugby World Cup; Mandela famously wore his No.7 jersey alongside Francois Pienaar (I retreated to my bedroom, head under my pillow, too anxious to watch the dying seconds of the match before Joel Stransky’s wondrous drop goal) and we all danced together in the streets, waving our new and strange-looking flag with gusto. The following year our soccer team, Bafana Bafana (“the boys”), won the African Cup of Nations in front of 120,000 screaming fans in Soweto.

Of course the euphoria over those early days of freedom have faded into reality. There are many challenges still facing the Rainbow Nation: crime, AIDS, inequality, corruption. But the new South Africa, even with these big problems, is a vastly better place than I remember through the rose-tinted glasses of my privileged white upbringing.

I never met Mandela, though I often drove past his imposing Houghton house a few suburbs from my own on my way home from work. With a bit more luck I might have bumped into him as his picked up his medications at the local pharmacy in the cosmopolitan neighbourhood of Norwood, a few kilometres down the  road. Sadly, it never happened.

What would I have said to him? Perhaps, thank you for those glorious days in April. And for giving us hope and a glimpse of what might still be.