I’ve read many of Bukowski’s brilliantly irreverent novels – written in a parsed down, forthright and highly entertaining style – and Women is by far the most graphic, indeed almost pornographic in its depiction of Chinaski’s innumerable sexual encounters.
(“I got down there and began licking…the cl*t came out but it wasn’t exactly pink, it was a purplish pink,” is how he describes one of these episodes.)
The semi-autobiographical novel (one can only assume some of his sexual exploits are exaggerated, though perhaps not the prodigious drinking) begins with Chinaski, 50, telling the reader that he has not had sex for four years.
“I had no women friends. I looked at them as I passed them on the street or wherever I saw them, but I looked without yearning, with a sense of futility.”
Their relationship is full of wild sex, described in intimate detail by Chinaski – “I heard her breathing heavily, then she moaned” – and violent breakups due to his excessive drinking, visits to the racetrack, and infidelities, none of which he apologises for. Chinaski is who he is and the world can go to hell if they don’t like it.
“I walked into the bedroom with just my shorts on. I was conscious of my white belly lolling out over the shorts. But I made no effort to suck in my gut…”
At face value, Women is simply a recollection of Chinaski’s (or Bukowski’s) various relationships with women. These include Lydia, but also brief encounters with star struck fans who are seemingly served up on a platter to the horniest 50-year-old in LA.
It’s also a daily tally of his prodigious alcohol consumption of mostly cheap wine and beer. In between all the boozing and bonking – “Fucking was the best cure for hangovers. It got all the parts ticking again” – we accompany Chinaski on his often hilarious trips to college campuses around the country where he gives readings.
But as with all his writing, Bukowski manages to convey something more profound and meaningful than the sum of his adventures across bedrooms, bars and college campuses.
It is to champion the other side of Los Angeles in the words of his biographer Barry Miles: “Not the LA of ranch homes in the Hollywood Hills with the breathtaking views…” but the LA of tarnished dreams, of dead end jobs, of hookers and workers in the sex industry, of beaten down, damaged and dysfunctional people”.
Miles adds: “Bukowski loved the corner bars, the tawdry fast-food outlets, the sex shops and brothels, the graffiti on the walls…”
Sure Chinaski is the hero of the story, but he is no superman in a cape. He is very much the Bukoswki you see in those grainy black and white poetry readings on YouTube. a disheveled anti-hero with a pockmarked face who says what he thinks, never holds back and for whom nothing is ever taboo.
Chinaski in Women is very much a mirror – if perhaps a distorted and exaggerated one – of Bukowski at the height of his powers and fame: when after decades of struggle, eking out a living and working dead end jobs, he had finally established himself as a figurehead in American literature: the dirty old man of American letters.
Chinaski is not searching for some deeper meaning to life, or for the woman of his dreams. Life is simply about the experiences that happen to him – whether its winning big at the track or walking away broke, having a raging hardon or being unable to perform in the sack because he drank too much, talking to prostitutes or college professors – everything finds its way, uncensored into the book.
And while Chinaski is vulgar, and driven by his baser urges, he can also be sweet and loving. He is not a manipulator, nor does he pretend to be anyone else. And he despises pretentious, fake people.
Most importantly – and perhaps a key reason why I enjoy his books so much – is the poetic nature of his writing: short, descriptive sentences that hit their mark without ever saying too little or too much (a style that would have impressed George Orwell).
If you are a fan of Bukowski other books, or a writer like Raymond Carver who though not as vulgar, employed a similar parsed down style of storytelling, you should definitely give Women a read. (Just don’t leave the book anywhere near young children!)
On April 10, 2021, my parents Ian and Cecile boarded a special repatriation flight from Johannesburg non-stop to Darwin to join two of their children and five grandchildren in the modern diaspora for South African Jews – Australia.
When they stepped on that plane at O.R. Tambo International Airport in preparation for a 17-hour flight to the top of Australia it was a quietly momentous moment in the history of my family, ending 155 years and five generations of physical connection with the beautiful, but troubled country at the bottom of Africa.
My parents’ departure from the Johannesburg Highveld, the place of spectacular summer thunderstorms and crisp, smoky winter days, of giant shopping malls and high-fenced suburbia – that great African metropolis and melting pot – was the final chapter in the Schlesinger’s South African adventure which started all the way back in 1866.
Silesia or Schlesien as it appears in German is the origin of our family name (and a fairly common Jewish surname). It’s the one affixed at the end of the names of my children – first generation Australians living in the tranquil Macedon Ranges north of Melbourne.
According to a book about my great grandfather Bruno Schlesinger written by his daughter Helga and grandson Keith, Isidor was born on the 10th March, 1842 either in Kempeny, a tiny hamlet 86.3 miles west of Vilnius, the present day capital of Lithuania, or somewhere in the province of Posen, in western Poland.
Travelling by ox-wagon, Isidor made his way across the “veld” to Pilgrim’s Rest in the Eastern Transvaal (now called Mpumalanga) to join a rush of prospectors at what was the region’s second major gold exploration site.
Whether it was in Pilgrim’s Rest (now a preserved museum town I visited as a child) or later at the Kimberley Diamond Mines in the Northern Cape (home to the famous Kimberley mine “Big Hole”) where Isidor made his fortune, it appears undisputed that he returned to Europe seven or eight years later, a rich man. He then married “tall, elegant” Emma Fasal in Bielsko (now called Bielsko-Biala) about 90 kilometres west of Krakow, Poland in 1874. Bielsko at the time had a thriving Jewish community that traced its roots back to the Middle Ages.
Isidor and Emma stayed in Eastern Europe, first in Katowice, Poland and later Troppau – now called Opava – in what is now the Czech Republic, where they set up a saw mill.
They also had three children: my great aunt and uncles Valeria and Feodor and my great grandfather Bruno Schlesinger, who born on the 22nd of March in 1879.
Later in 1889, in Budapest or Vienna, they had a fourth child, a daughter they named Leontine who became quite famous (she has a Wikipedia page) as the actress, writer and filmmaker Leontine Sagan.
Leontine is most famous for directing the ground-breaking 1931 movie Madchen in Uniform (Girls in Uniform) about a girl at an all-girls boarding school who falls in love with her female teacher. It doesn’t sound that risqué now, but imagine making such a film 90 years ago!
Returning to the adventures of Isidore, my great-great grandfather’s Czech sawmill venture was not successful and after moving to Budapest following the birth of Leontine, he dreamed again of the “wide open spaces” of South Africa.
My great grandfather Bruno Schlesinger remained in Europe, at the School of Mines in Leoben, Austria to complete his studies.
“Father never liked Europe, and the wish to get back to his beloved South Africa grew so strong that he decided to return alone,” wrote Leontine in her autobiography, Lights and Shadows
“When he had retrieved his financial losses, he would come back to us, or we could follow him.
Isidor returned to the South African goldfields in 1891 to reclaim his fortune. His family joined him eight years later.
Writes Leontine of her father: “One could not have imagined a man less suited to his job. He was a dreamer by nature, cared little about wealth, and felt happiest when he could sit with his pipe by the open veld-fire or with a book on the stoep. His friends included Afrikaners, Englishmen, and a few Germans, who had lived in the country for many years and who shared both his love for South Africa and his indifference to Europe. Their conversations circled around their business, the share-market in Johannesburg, politics, and that soft, gentle gossip which is a feature of every small town.”
Bruno and Else Schlesinger
My great grandfather Bruno, who had by then joined his family in Klerksdorp, married Else Gimkewitz (born in Berlin in 1882) after a whirlwind courtship in November 1907. He’d also by then secured a position at one of the Witwatersrand gold mines.
Their daughter Helga, my great aunt, was born nine months later in 1908. I had the great pleasure of meeting Helga a few times in the 1980s and 1990s. I remember her as a charming and fiercely intelligent woman with a shock of white hair. (Helga died in 1998).
According to a story narrated by Helga in the book she co-authored about her father titled “Man of Tempered Steel”, Bruno, my great grandfather, stopped a Chinese mine labourer from stabbing him with a knife. “Bruno knocked it out his hand. None of the underground workers ever rebelled again.”
What provoked this attack is unclear, but this vignette of a swashbuckling, fearless figure is matched by photos of my great grandfather, who looks handsome and tough.
In another perhaps apocryphal tale told by Helga, Bruno lost his way in the bush on his way home one day and had to sleep tied to a branch in a tree after being stalked by a lion. He awoke in the morning to find the lion resting at the base of the tree. He managed to scare the lion off (or it got bored) and he made it home alive.
In a primary school project I created about my family called “My family roots” I wrote that Bruno “loved the natural life and was not very fond of towns and cities. He used to go for long walks through the countryside and often took his family for picnics in forests and woodlands”.
In September 1909, my grandfather Rolf was born at the Queen Victoria Nursing Home in Johannesburg. Less than a year later, in August 1910, Isidor died of an unknown cause and was buried in the old Braamfontein Jewish Cemetery, not far from where I and my sister Deena attended university at the mighty Wits (University of the Witwatersrand). Had I known my great grandfather was buried nearby, I would have sought his gravestone out.
My great, great grandmother Emma died thirty years after Isidor in August 1940 at the Florence Nightingale Nursing Home in inner city Hillbrow. This is very near to the Florence Nightingale maternity hospital where I was born on the December 6, 1973, my sister Deena on March 19, 1976 and my brother Dan on September 3, 1978.
When World War 1 broke out, my great grandfather Bruno, being Austrian, was sent to an internment camp at Fort Napier in Pietermaritzburg in the Natal province (now KwaZulu-Natal). He was later released on parole after a bout of serious illness.
He then fled to Lourenço Marques (now Maputo, Mozambique) while Helga and my grandfather Rolf, who were still small children, moved in with their grandparents, the Gimkewitzes, who lived in a small house in Hillbrow. A once thriving cosmopolitan suburb on the fringe of the Johannesburg city centre – a kind of Greenwich Village in the 1960s and 1970s I am told – Hillbrow had sadly, by the time I was 12 or 13, deteriorated into melting pot of drugs, violent crime and immigrants living in slum-like conditions after decades of neglect.
There are more Indiana Jones-like tales about my great grandfather Bruno, who during the First World War made his way on foot from Mozambique back to Hillbrow to his family, crossing rivers and swamps, and hiding in bushes to make the scarcely believable journey of 550 kilometres.
Despite his skills as a geologist and his toughness and resilience, Bruno was also prone to bouts of depression. While playful with his children, he was also a strict, authoritarian father, easily angered when they did not sit up straight at the dinner table, or did not use their knife and fork correctly.
In contrast, his wife, Else was more gentle with her children, according to Helga and Keith’s memoir.
In that same primary school project I wrote that Else studied literature and various languages at the University of Prague, and that later, when the family were struggling, she gave private French lessons at Kingsmead School, a girls-only school in Melrose in Johannesburg’s affluent inner northern suburbs.
“My great aunt [Helga] said that Elsa was resourceful, courageous and a dynamic lady who stood by her husband during times of need and was a very strong spirited lady.” I wrote.
My uncle Colin (Rolf’s oldest song) remembers that Else spoke with a thick German accent and loved singing German songs to him as a small boy.
“But I would always say: Granny, granny, you must speak English,” recalls Colin.
“He was one of the guys with Hans Merensky who discovered platinum,” says Colin.
After lending money to Merensky, he received nothing in return when Merensky eventually made his fortune after discovering diamond deposits in Namaqualand, and vast platinum and chrome reefs at Lydenburg, Rustenburg and Potgietersrus,
Bruno also became heavily involved in the late 1920s diamond rush centred around Lichtenburg north west of Johannesburg and Grasfontein (near Pretoria) which became one of the biggest in the world. It drew in people like Sir Ernest Oppenheimer who founded mining giant Anglo American and whose family later took control of the world’s biggest diamond company De Beers.
“He made and lost money several times, that was a big part of [Bruno’s] life,” says Colin.
Despite his personal struggles, Bruno was highly respected and rose to the top of his profession. He headed up mining projects, and travelling to Portugal in 1927 to advise its president on silver mine projects in Lisbon. In that same year he appeared in the eminent, annual business publication of the day “Who’s Who South Africa”.
(Of course all this success should be set within the context of white privilege, where poorly paid black labourers dug out the gold and diamonds from the mines to make fortunes for the likes of the Oppenheimers and many others.)
After experiencing heart problems in 1943, my great grandfather died in Muizenberg, Cape Town in January 1945, aged just 65. His wife, my great grandmother Else died 17 years later in Johannesburg.
Rolf and Nella Schlesinger
I have written a lengthy story (which you can read here) about my softly spoken grandfather Rolf and my glamourous grandmother Nella, detailing the breakdown of their marriage, after Rolf had an affair so I won’t repeat it here.
Nella and Rolf got married in Johannesburg in 1938. Nella was 30 at the time, and a year older than my grandfather.
She was one of five children born to Lithuanian’s Joseph and Chana Grevler (originally the family name was Grevleris). The Grevlers like other Eastern European Jewish families came to Johannesburg in search of wealth and prosperity on the mines.
Rolf and Nella had two children, my Uncle Colin who was born on the 18th December in 1939 and my father Ian, who was born on the 4th June in 1943 – both in Johannesburg.
“Then we moved to a house at 18 Winslow Road, Parkwood. We lived in that house for a while, including when Ian was born.” Colin tells me.
After that, the Schlesingers moved just a few streets down to a house at 14 Rutland Road, just a street away from the sporting fields above Johannesburg’s Zoo Lake (an iconic outdoor leisure spot for most Joburgers).
“It was an old house, with a corrugated iron roof that made tremendous noise when it hailed. I loved lying in bed listening to hail banging on the roof,” says Colin.
Out front was a garden and a tall oak tree, the kind that line many streets of “leafy” Parkwood and neighbouring Saxonwold, two of Johannesburg’s oldest and most desirable suburbs.
When their parents split up in about 1950, my dad and my uncle remained at the Rutland Road house with my grandmother for many years. My grandfather moved into a flat where he had something akin to a nervous breakdown, and later rebirth as kinder, more loving version of himself (again you can read more about this in my earlier blog post).
My dad, who excelled at sports, especially swimming, cricket, soccer and rugby left the Rutland Road house when he went to study veterinary science at the University of Pretoria’s Onderstepoort campus, an hour’s drive to the north. Being an Afrikaans speaking university, my dad became fluent in the language.
After he graduated in 1969, he spent two years in England completing his apprenticeship. My uncle stayed at home with my grandmother while he completed his undergraduate in chemical engineering at Wits University.
Colin left home after completing his masters and marrying Sheila Cobrin in 1962. The young couple lived in a flat in Joubert Park, in the middle of the Johannesburg CBD. After that they headed overseas first to London, where Colin spent two years at Imperial College and then a year at Rice University in Houston obtaining his doctorate in chemical engineering. They then returned to Johannesburg, where Colin worked for African Explosives (AECI).
Having originally intended to stay in South Africa for just three years, Colin and Sheila ended up staying for 17 years in Johannesburg, during which time my cousins Ruth and David were born in 1968 and 1970.
They lived in a house in Parkmore, in the northern suburbs, across from a big, sloping field with enormous grey electricity poles. I remember many family gatherings, including Shabbat dinners at their home and playing in the backyard and swimming in the pool, where a little black poodle named Jet, would bark at us playfully. They are very happy memories.
The first Schlesingers to leave
Eventually, after rising up the ranks at both AECI and in the chemical engineering sector (my uncle was President of the Institute of Chemical Engineers) Colin decided in the early 1980s that it was time to leave South Africa. He was offered a job at petroleum giant Chevron and emigrated in 1983 (when he was 43) to Walnut Creek, a small city in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Nine years old at the time, I remember waving goodbye to my uncle, aunt and my dear cousins at what was then Jan Smuts Airport and saying “last touch” as our fingers touched through the glass partition in the departures corridor.
“It was really hard, we basically left our family behind,” says Colin.
“My mom came several times, but my dad never came to visit. I saw him in South Africa. That was the price you paid when you separate yourself from your family.
“Our families have been separated by time, by distance. It’s a big price to pay.”
In December 1987, when my parents were on the cusp of emigrating to Toronto, my mom and I visited Colin at his home in Walnut Creek as part of trip to Canada and London (my first ever overseas jaunt at the ripe old age of 14). There’s a great photo I have somewhere of my cousin David and I sitting opposite each other on the train with big grins on our faces after we’d had a meal in Chinatown in San Francisco. It was quite an adventure for a young lad like me.
Later, in 1994 when I travelled to the US as part of a 21st birthday present I hung out a lot with Ruth at her place in Downtown San Francisco, where she was worked part-time as a bike messenger.
Ruth now has two girls – Lily and Tula – and lives in Sebastopol, a semi-rural town about an hour north of San Francisco, with her husband Ross and a menagerie of farm animals. Ruth has built up a thriving Chinese medicine practice in Sebastopol, a profession well suited to her empathetic and warm nature. In November 2019, before the pandemic, Ruth and Tula came to Australia, and got to know my children, as we explored the local sites of the Macedon Ranges.
We have remained close despite the tyranny of distance and the long gaps between seeing each other.
My cousin David, who I have not seen since I stayed with him in Los Angeles in 1997 (among other things, he took me to Hawthorne Grill, which he featured in the opening and closing scenes of Pulp Fiction and we went to see the movie Con Air) lives in Corona, a suburb of LA near Ontario Airport.
Armed with a business degree from the University of Southern California and an auto-technician’s diploma from Wyoming Tech, David has risen up the ranks at engineering contractor and infrastructure giant Parson and is a project manager in its rail division.
He is married to Flor and has four children, a stepson James, David Jr (who I met as a small baby at my Uncle’s wedding to Cecile in 1997), Shaina and Ethan. His eldest son James, has two children of his own, making David a grandfather! While we have lost touch, I have very warm memories of David, especially his big smile and ability to make me laugh and I hope to re-establish our relationship.
Larry joins the emigration train
It would be another 17 years before the next Schlesinger left South Africa, that being me.
But before I get to that I should talk a little about my parents, my family and my childhood, which was a happy and secure one.
Their meeting came about when my dad visited his friend David Berstein, a fellow vet.
Here he was asked if he’d like to meet a gorgeous, young pharmacist from Benoni by the name of Cecile Ann Hyton. My mom was the daughter of Harry (my Zaida) a devoutly religious, and somewhat reserved man who instilled in me (alongside his son, my Uncle Yoel who taught me my Bar Mitzah torah reading), a deep appreciation of my Jewish heritage and its customs. My Zaida was one of 10 children, born in 1903 in Lithuania to cheesemakers, Zuzza and Zippa.
I sadly never got to meet his wife, my Bobba Lily who passed away suddenly in 1971, two years before I was born. Lily (her maiden name was Brown) was born in Willowmore in the Eastern Cape, but moved to Benoni when she was young.
Returning to my parent’s matchmaking. Their happy fates were sealed by my mom’s Benoni High School chum Lena Berman and her husband Ron (who now live in Toronto with half the former Benoni Jewry of that era).
“After our first meeting, Ian came to our house to check on our dog, who was sick – I think the dog might have died. I’m not sure,” Cecile recalls.
Despite this early mishap, the dashing couple were soon engaged and married in a joyous celebration at the Benoni Town Hall, where my dad’s good friend and another fellow vet Brian Romberg was his best man.
I arrived on the scene soon on the 6 December 1973. My birth card says it was 7.40am in the morning when I made my first appearance in the nursing ward of the Florence Nightingale Maternity Hospital in Hillbrow.
My favourite story of my birth is the one my mom tells about her cousin Temmy Lipschitz.
“Temmy couldn’t remember if I was now Cecile Schlesinger, Cecile Rothschild or Cecile Oppenheimer, so she guessed and sent a congratulation card to ‘Cecile Oppenheimer”. If only!
The strongest memory I have of those early years, apart from lots of cuddles and kisses, was getting my head stuck in the bars of the small gate put in front of the steps leading up to the living room. Oh, and there was also the minor incident of a fire in my bedroom – caused by the heater setting the curtains alight – that almost brought about my premature demise.
With my cute-as-a-button freckly sister Deena coming on the scene a few years later (March 19, 1976) and my equally adorable baby brother Dan arriving on September 4, 1979, the Schlesingers need a larger pad and so we moved into a much bigger house with a large backyard and swimming pool at 25 Grace Avenue in Parkhill Gardens.
The street was lined with Jewish families. My best friend Jonathan Bennett andhis family lived just a few doors down (my first sleep over at their house was notable for me forgetting, one important item…my pajamas) while at one end of the street were close family friends the Stupels and the Freinkels. In between there were the Friedmans and at the other of the street were the Saffers.
Germiston at the time had a thriving Jewish community and grand old Moorish-style synagogue on the edge of the city centre. I was a regular Saturday morning Shabbat attendee for much of my childhood, where the brunch spread after the prayer service of kichel (a sugar-encrusted large yellow cracker) topped with even sweeter chopped herring was worth the effort of sitting through the synagogue service.
Often Jonathan and I would walk into town after brunch, where we stop to visit his father Dicky who worked on Saturdays in the local hardware store. The store had for some reason an enormous bag of monkey nuts (peanuts in shells) that we would plunder. On a number of occasions we went to see a movie at the 21st Century cinema, a classic old place in town. The first movie we saw on our own was Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Last Ark.
Back at home on Grace Avenue, we were a close knit family, celebrating our birthdays together (all three of us got presents no matter whose actual birthday it was). My mom would also bake a cake creatively decorated in the theme of our choosing.
All three of us attended Colin Mann primary, a whites-only government school where the Jewish kids were exempt from the Christian Morning Prayer service and instead hung out in the library. All of us were prefects.
I ended my primary school years doing a comedy skit in the school hall with Jonathan Bennett about journalists who were struggling to get a scoop for the local paper (who would have guessed, I’d end up with a newspaper career!).
In the skit, one of the journalists jumped off the building to his death and either I or Jonathan remarked: “Great, now I finally have a story for paper!” What were we thinking?
Our childhood was full of family holidays, mostly to Umhlanga Beach near Durban on the Natal north coast, where most of the Germiston Jews went for their seaside holidays. The Umhlanga Sand hotel was the place to be in the 1980s, whether it was ordering Cola Tonics and Lemonade at the pool, playing ten pin bowling or piling our plates at night at the legendary hotel buffet. I remember that hotel so well as I do the beach, where I would swim for hours in the rough surf, and head to the rock pools to search for fish and crabs. In the afternoon, we’d return to our holiday apartment, me with a bright red sunburnt face. I remember the African ladies selling their traditional beaded jewelry on blankets spread out along the walkway above the beach (black people were of course banned from actually sitting on the beach back then) and the ice cream vendors that walked up and down selling frozen granadilla ice lollies and other delights.
All of us attended King David Linksfield, the main Jewish day school in Johannesburg, where I studied Hebrew and Afrikaans.
In 1991, after I’d finished High School and started out at Wits University, we moved from Germiston to a five-bedroom house on Club Street, below Linksfield Ridge, where we were again surrounded by Jewish families and friends.
I started off studying architecture, but, after a number of false starts, ended up with a Bachelor of Arts degree majoring in English and Psychology and completed in 1996.
In 1997, the year both my grandmother Nella and my close friend Darren Serebro passed away, I abandoned plans to work part time (I lasted a day at CD Warehouse, a legendary music shop opposite the Rosebank Mall), and romantically write a novel, and instead scampered off to the US to work as a camp counsellor. I was employed for two months at Bnai Brith Beber Camp in Mukwonago, Wisconsin as an assistant art teacher, and was frequently hungover from visits to the local tavern. After completing my one and only dalliance with the world of teaching, I bought an Amtrak pass and railed it around the US visiting places like New Orleans and Boca Raton, where I stayed with friends I had made at summer camp.
I returned to Johannesburg in 1998 to study a one-year diploma in business management at Wits Business School, worked for a year for an online media company called I-Net Bridge and then became the second of the Schlesingers to leave the leafy Joburg suburbs for London on a two year UK working holiday visa, that turned into an unexpected permanent migration overseas.
It started with four years in London where I scribbled away for a weekly Accountancy industry magazine on Broadwick Street, Soho in the heart of the West End, drank lots of lager in smoky pubs and made frequent excursions to Europe with my best mate Jason Lurie. I lived for most of that time in Hendon, near the end of the Northern Line, in a flat above a kebab shop.
How I ended up in Australia is a story full of details I won’t bore you with. It suffices to say it was in pursuit of a disastrous relationship forged at an evening creative writing class in Holborn.
That had a fairytale ending though when one evening I met my beautiful and talented wife Larna, in Sydney at the Lord Nelson Hotel at The Rocks, a historic maritime quarter next to the CBD one evening in 2006. We moved in together soon after and were married in 2010 in Clyde, a small town on the South Island of New Zealand about an hour or so from Queenstown. Our red-headed sweetheart Edith (Edie) was born at the Royal Women’s Hospital in Melbourne on April 19, 2012. Our darling son Rafferty was still born at full-term on February 1 2014 (the saddest moment in our lives). Aubin, our handsome little tyke was born in Melbourne on the 19th June 2015 and gorgeous little Gwen made her appearance on July 30, 2018 – at the Sunshine Hospital in suburban Melbourne.
My sister Deena, having obtained her Law degree at Wits University married Larren in Johannesburg in a lavish wedding in 2001 and became a “Sher”. The newlyweds moved to London that same year – a year after me – but stayed in the British capital for decade forging successful careers and had two children there, a cherubic daughter Keira (born on November 29, 2008) and a very sweet son Jamie (March 28, 2011).
The Shers moved to Sydney, Australia in 2011, soon after Larna and I had returned from a round-the-world backpacking trip in 2010 (read all about it here if you’re keen) to settle in Melbourne, and later the “village in the valley” – Gisborne – about an hour to the north.
My brother Dan, who studied Business Science at the University of Cape Town and always beat me soundly at chess, won an unexpected US Green Card in the Green Card lottery. He moved to New York City in October 2006, where he lived on the Upper East Side with his girlfriend Courtney, a Floridian from Boca Raton. They married at a fancy five-star resort in Miami in December 2010 and then two children – a daughter Lexi born in 2014 and a son Ari, born in 2016. They New York Schlesinger clan quit the Big Smoke a few years ago, and bought a house in Rye Brook, a village in Westchester County, about an hour north of Manhattan.
The departure of my brother left my parents Ian and Cecile as the last of the Schlesingers in South Africa. Now empty nesters, they happily carried on with their careers and busy social lives with their huge circle of friends, trading in their big home on Club Street for a compact townhouse with a small garden in nearby Senderwood.
Over the next two decades, my parents were frequent overseas travellers, making annual pilgrimages to London, New York, Sydney and Melbourne to see their children and grandchildren. When not physically there, they kept in regular contact via phone calls, Skype video chats and text messages. Never has a birthday, anniversary or important event in our lives been missed. None of us could have asked for more devoted or unconditionally loving parents, a commitment demonstrated when they temporarily moved to New York for about six months in 2011 when my brother was battling Leukemia, a disease he overcame with great courage and bravery.
As they grew older, and our families larger, Ian and Cecile made the decision about five years ago to apply to become permanent residents of Australia, a costly, exhausting and lengthy process involving lawyers and migration agents, and mountains of paperwork.
When they did eventually become permanent residents, and were beginning the process of selling their home, and making the move to Sydney, the pandemic struck, confining them to their townhouse. To our great relief and theirs, they avoided getting COVID and passed the time happily, it seems, in each other’s exclusive company.
Amid the stress of worrying about their safety, and knowing we would not able to go to them if they fell ill, it was my sister who managed to get them on that special flight from Johannesburg to Darwin. In what seemed like a snap decision, they were on the plane, and heading for a new life in their early and mid-70s, the last of the Schlesingers to leave South Africa.
They touched down in Darwin on the morning of April 11 and after a two week compulsory stay at the Howard Springs quarantine facility, flew down to Sydney to be with my sister and her family.
Never ones to look back, though they miss South Africa and their life-long friends dearly, my parents have made new lives in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney.
“We moved here to be with our family,” is my mom’s simple, but poignant view on things.
That they have adapted so well to a new country is still remarkable to me. Though they have been here just over a year, it feels in a way as if they have always been here. They have a huge circle of friends and lead busy social lives (a contributing factor no doubt to them both getting COVID a few months ago)
About a month ago, they got in their white Kia hatchback and headed south over two days through the NSW hinterland, passing scenery not entirely dissimilar to the rugged South African countryside, to visit us in Gisborne. My sister and her family also made the journey by car a week a bit later, and all of us – my parents, two of their children and five grandchildren – spent five wonderful days together.
My mom will say that was the whole point of them saying goodbye to South Africa, the country we all still love deep in our hearts, where Isidore Schlesinger sought his fortune all those years ago.
I am in the middle, smiling like a cherub, my beaming parents (Ian and Cecile) on either side. On my left, wearing a white suit and a gentle smile is my grandfather, while in between my mother and my Zaida Harry, staring back rather demurely at the camera in a stylish outfit and black beret, is Nella.
I remember the day as a joyous and successful one, me singing my parashah from the Torah on the Bimah, while my family watched on proudly, then later, the sweets, as was tradition then, raining down from the women’s section of the synagogue above to celebrate my symbolic entrance into adulthood. A catered luncheon followed after in the hall at the back of the synagogue with all the South African Jewish delicacies on offer (mock crayfish, chopped herring, gefilte fish, bagels and lox). I made a half decent speech which got a few laughs, then came singing and dancing with my family and friends.
I was at the time, and for many years after, unaware that my grandmother had not spoken to my grandfather in over 30 years, after he divorced her to marry an Afrikaans lady called Elizabeth, with whom he’d had an affair.
There was an obvious clue to this secret – whenever my grandfather, whom we called “Grampie” came to visit us (armed always with a large bag of sweets and chocolates) my grandmother would hastily retreat to her bedroom and not come out until he had left.
This practice continued until my grandfather passed away suddenly in 1988, when I was 15.
He’d fallen in the rain, whilst doing a delivery for the charity Meals on Wheels in Johannesburg, been taken to hospital by my mother and passed away completely unexpectedly from suspected congenital heart failure, though the exact cause of his death remains something of a mystery.
He was cremated and his ashes placed in a wall of remembrance at West Park cemetery in Emmerentia in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs. My grandmother Nella, who passed in 1997, is also buried at West Park.
My grandfather had met Elizabeth at the boiler suit-making factory in downtown Johannesburg that was owned by my grandmother’s wealthy family, the Grevlers. He was a director (courtesy of the largesse shown to him by “Big Uncle” Isaac Grevler) while Elizabeth, whose first name was actually Johanna, worked in the factory.
After he admitted his affair, divorced my grandmother and married Elizabeth, my grandmother never spoke to him again or forgave him for his betrayal. For the rest of her life she held onto that “terrible thing done to her”. A beautiful woman who in her younger days looked like a 1930s movie star, she dated other men after her divorce, but sadly never established a serious romantic relationship again.
“I don’t blame my mom…she was a woman with very high self-esteem, and [the affair] completely dashed her. Nobody got divorced at that time. I was the only kid in my class whose parents got divorced,” my Uncle Colin (their older son) tells me on a Zoom call from his home in Alamo in California.
Growing up I never knew anything about this family saga; I had no idea my grandfather was married to someone else, and lived a life entirely outside the sphere of our fairly observant Jewish life with its festivals and Shabbat dinners.
I have strong and vivid memories of my grandmother, who lived with us for many years after giving up her flat on the edge of Hillbrow. She was a well-travelled woman of refined taste who loved her grandkids dearly. My memories of my grandfather are more fleeting as we saw him less frequently. Looking through old photos reminds me of his soft and sweet demeanour.
“He was pretty tough as a father. I think he tried to be like his dad (my adventuring great grandfather Bruno) who was a tough bloke,” recalls Colin.
Two of Colin’s strong memories of his father – before his parents got divorced – are of the very pleasant Sunday drives the family took to visit the many tea gardens in Johannesburg and, riding on his father’s back as a small boy when Rolf would get down on all fours.
Less pleasant, were memories of the whippings he received from his father’s cane.
One particular memory of that cane has long remained vivid in Colin’s memory.
“We had a huge oak tree outside our house at14 Rutland Road, Parkwood (a leafy, old inner Joburg suburb) and I used to love climbing trees.
“I don’t know what had happened, but something had happened and I knew that my father was going to punish me. So I climbed up the oak tree, right to the top where the branches were pretty thin. It was a big tree,” says Colin.
“My father was down below, and getting really quite agitated, telling me to come down, saying ‘you are going to fall. Don’t be silly’
“And I said to him” ‘I’m not coming down, because if I do, you are going to whip me with that cane.
“He said: ‘No, no, I won’t do that. Please come down.”
“So after saying that for a while, I did come down…and guess what happened?
What? I asked him, but guessing the answer: “He whipped me.” said Colin.
However, Colin says my grandfather’s toughness mellowed later in life, after having some kind of a quasi nervous breakdown, most likely to do with the guilt he felt about his affair and its impact on his family.
After about 16 years of no contact at all, my uncle re-established his relationship with my grandfather after returning from the UK and USA, where he’d completed his PhD in Chemical Engineering.
“When I cam back, I decided that if my mother did not want to talk to her ex-husband that was her business, but he was still my father and I wanted to have a relationship with him.
“I discovered that he had changed completely. I think he had either had a nervous breakdown or got very close to having one. It was caused by guilt. He felt enormously guilty that he had abandoned [my brother] Ian and me because of his behaviour.
“It was very strange, it was like our roles had been reversed, I was actually trying to reassure him.
“He liked to eat hot mielie meal for breakfast (cornmeal) and I would tell him. When you wake up at 4am, do something: make hot mielie meal, listen to the radio, read a book, don’t just lie in bed with all these negative thoughts.”
After a while – with the help of his eldest son – my grandfather pulled out of his depression, turning, according to Colin into “the kindest, sweetest guy you could imagine”.
“He was 180 degrees different from the way he had been growing up, and we became great friends.”
One of the things my grandfather and uncle did together, along with my cousin David (Colin’s son) was build a mirror dinghy, a small sailing boat, that I distinctly remember checking out when we visited our cousins at their home in Parkmore in the 1980s.
“David, my dad and I would work on building this dinghy. And when it was finished, on the weekends, we would take it to various dams like Emmerentia Dam and sail it. It was a very nice bonding experience working on that boat together,” says Colin.
He also showed me a sign, that his dad made for him after he took a job as a salesman for a sign-making company.
“We’ were talking about procrastinating and doing things, and he made this sign for me, which I have on my desk,” says Colin.
Made out of bright yellow plastic with red letters, it says simply: “TODAY”.
My last memory of my grandfather Rolf is him sitting atop a hill watching me play in a school cricket match in Linksfield, Johannesburg, perhaps not long before he passed away. I remember distinctly his small figure in long pants and a dark blazer in the distance, and my sense of surprise and pleasure at seeing him there.
The last time I saw my grandmother was in July 1997, before I headed off to the USA for six months to work at a summer camp in Wisconsin.
By then she was in her late 80s and quite frail.
At the time she lived with us in our Linksfield home. Her bedroom was right next to mine at the back of the house and she would often call out in her quiet, wavering voice: “Larry” to ask a favour. I often drove her to and from visits to her friends in their apartments around Johannesburg. Though I sometimes complained about having to do these errands, I miss those trips and ferrying her around the suburbs. She was always very grateful; we had a close bond.
In her younger and more independent days, my grandmother had a flat in Killarney – an old Johannesburg suburb packed with apartment buildings (hers was a white Art Deco block called Daventry Court) and old Jewish people. I remember her flat filled with dainty trinkets and old, dark wooden furniture and there was a dark green Peugeot 404 (a gift from Colin) parked in her garage.
I distinctly remember riding up the old musty elevator, and walking along the outdoor passageway to her flat door, and her warmth and delight at seeing me and my brother and sister when we came to visit.
She died while I was in the USA in 1997 and like my grandfather’s passing I never attended her funeral.
Released in 2014, the show hooked tens of millions of people as it delved deep into the baffling case, examining the evidence used to convict Syed and coming up with fresh leads, a possible alibi, new theories, controversies and inconsistencies.
Serial set the scene for an explosion of investigative true crime podcasts and became the template against which they would all be judged.
Serial also threw a huge spotlight on Syed’s conviction and the many doubts about the dubious testimony of his so-called friend and local drug dealer Jay Wilds which ultimately sent Syed to jail for life despite no hard evidence linking Syed to Lee’s murder. The podcast inspired a four-part HBO documentary that also argued for his innocence (along with numerous follow-up podcasts and blogs), paving the way for efforts by Syed’s legal team to secure a re-trial.
While it came out a few years ago,popular true crime podcast called Crime Junkie (which I have just discovered via a good friend) aired a special episode in April 2018, which in my opinion tips the scales firmly in favour of Adnan Syed’s innocence and highlights an appalling miscarriage of justice.
“I tried to make that 30 minute thing with the top need to know facts [so that people can] have an informed discussion about Adnan’s case,” says Flowers at the start of the podcast.
Flowers then goes on to launch a concise and highly convincing argument for Syed’s innocence, or at the very least, the right to a new trial.
Without listening to all the podcasts, or reading the blogs and books Flowers researched to prepare the episode (I assume its accurate, Crime Junkie is a very popular and scrutinised podcast) I’ve summarized the main points she makes, plus added one of my own:
“Police created a map to show how the cell phone moved during the day based on its signal pinging of towers,” Flowers reminds listeners.
While there was a lot of controversy about this testimony – Wilds changed his story when the police and prosecutors realised they got the map wrong being just one example – it still dealt a body blow to Syed because two calls pinged off towers near Leakin Park at 7.09 and 7.16pm that prosecutors said proved Syed was there burying Lee’s body.
“They even got an expert to testify to this in court who said Adnan was where Jay said he was at the time they were burying Hae’s body,” says Flowers.
However, this expert did not see (most likely it was deliberately withheld) a fax cover sheet from telephone company AT&T which made the point that outgoing calls only are reliable for location status. Incoming calls – the ones Syed received on January 13, 1999 – are not considered reliable information for determining a location.
“The expert witness did not see this, and would have changed his testimony” says Flowers. This was one of the man arguments Syed’s lawyer Justin Brown used to get a new trial.
2. The State of Hae Min Lee’s body
While this cell tower information is startling, it does not prove conclusively that Syed was not in Leakin Park at the time Wild’s said they were there burying Lee’s body, only that the data cannot be relied upon.
More important – and damning of the conviction of Syed – is the state of Hae Min Lee’s body when it was discovered four weeks after her murder on February 9.
Lividity or Livor Mortis is the settling of blood after death in gravity-dependent portions of the body, including in the organs. Blood settles after death in parts of the body closest to the ground, causing purplish-red blue discolouration.
Lividity happens pretty slowly, and can take 8-10 hours to occur, explained Flowers.
This meant Lee’s body had remained face down in the same position for that period and therefore she could not have been placed in the trunk of a car, as Jay Wilds, the state’s key witness had claimed when he picked Syed up around 4pm from Best Buy on the day of the murder.
In addition, because Lee was found on her right side, but she had full, fixed lividity on the front of her body, she could not have been buried flat in a shallow grave at Leakin park at around 7.30pm. Lee was last seen alive at around 2.15- 3pm, so at a minimum her body would have had to lie face down until 10.30 or 11pm, most likely even later.
“Nothing adds up,” says Flowers.
3. Hae Min Lee’s car
Hae Min Lee’s car – a Nissan Sentra – is a crucial piece of evidence as Jay Wild’s says that her body was in the boot before Syed drove it to Leakin Park with Wild’s following behind in Syed’s Honda Accord.
Later, according to Wild’s testimony Syed parked it in a lot behind some houses. The car was recovered on February 28, the same day Syed was arrested and charged with her murder.
Flowers notes that there was green grass growing under the car, and even inside the wheel well, which suggests the car was moved from somewhere else and that someone told Jay where the car was.
This is confirmed in pictures of Lee’s car, which you can easily find online showing clearly the grass growing underneath and the patch of dead grass next to it, indicating what should have happened over time.
“It highlights the fact again that Jay new nothing about what happened to Hae – his account is all made up. Jay’s story unfolds as police find new evidence not the other way round,” say Flowers.
And the question remains: who moved Lee’s car?
4. There is no evidence linking Adnan Syed to the crime scene (my own ‘research’)
The entire case made against Adnan Syed was based on Jay Wild’s testimony. There is in fact no physical evidence linking Syed to the crime scene, not a shred.
5. Adnan Syed was the only person police investigated– there are other suspects
Says Flowers” “The cops looked into no one else a tenth as hard as they looked into Adnan” whose criminal record was pulled on February 3, 1999, before the anonymous tip came in to look at Syed as the most likely suspect.
However while Davis was surely worth investigating, the Crime Junkie hosts say its most likely Lee was killed by someone she knew.
“Someone paged Hae that day to meet her, and kill her, but that pager was never found.” Flowers says.
Flowers also question the alibi given by Don, who could not be reached until 1.30am on January 14, and who said he was working at a LensCrafters store.
I’d rather not going into all the anomalies in his alibi, but you could read about them on the Crime Junkie podcast. However, I will just mention one, both Don’s mom and his stepmom worked in manager roles at the company and provided his alibi on the day Lee was murdered.
‘If the police had done their job; if they would have looked into anyone else as hard as Adnan they would have found this out,” says Flowers.
According to evidence collected as part of the trial, Lee was due to meet up with Don on the day she died. She also worked at Lenscrafters, though not at the same store Don was working at that night.
Of course none of this is absolute conclusive proof Syed had no involvement in Lee’s murder – bear in mind Wilds gave about five days of detailed testimony at both trials so it beggars belief he made it all up.
However, it does highlight that if Syed had a decent lawyer he almost certainly would not and should not have been convicted based on the evidence and testimony presented at the trial. Furthermore, being a non-white American clearly did not help his cause.
If you’re interested in find out more, I’d encourage listening to the whole Crime Junkie podcast in full and then, if you’re keen, taking a deep dive into the case. There’s a ton of information out there.
Cats supposedly have nine lives, as the phrase goes, and so too did Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, who died in November last year from COVID aged 74, whilst serving 20 life terms at Frankland prison in County Durham.
I’ve just finishing watching the excellent four-part Netflix documentary ‘The Ripper’ which examines the series of horrifying murders committed by Sutcliffe, and the bungled attempts by the West Yorkshire police to capture him.
Incredibly, Sutcliffe, a married lorry driver from Bradford, was interviewed nine times by detectives, after his name came up in various lines of inquiry as a possible suspect. However, he was let go each time, despite some lower-ranking detectives and police officers reporting their suspicions.
So often did police show up at his place of work to question him, that Sutcliffe earned the nickname ‘The Ripper’ among his truck-driving colleagues at Clark Transport – an irony, that would have seemed unbelievable were it included in the plotline of a crime novel.
As explained by Joan Smith, one of the few female journalists to report on the case, the all male senior detectives leading the investigation, blinded by their own sexist attitudes and sucked in by a hoax audio tape, dismissed Sutcliffe because he was recently married, had the wrong accent to the Geordie accent on the hoax tape and did not fit the supposed picture of a modern day Jack The Ripper maniac hunting down and slaying prostitutes.
As a result police also neglected to investigate other attacks on young woman at the time because they were not prostitutes or women of “loose morals”, and who because they survived these assaults, could have provided valuable information about their attacker and led to Sutcliffe’s capture many years earlier, saving the lives of many who later crossed his path.
“Is he a Georgie,” Laptew was asked by his superior officer. “I said no. He’s from Bradford. But it’s an uncanny resemblance.
“Does he have a Geordie accent [to match the one on the audio tape]? I said no. He started effing and geffing. He said anyone who mentions effing photofits to me again will be doing traffic for the rest of their service.”
In the end it was only by sheer luck – Sutcliffe was arrested in January 1981 because he was driving a car that did not match its number plate – that led to his capture, confession and life imprisonment.
As with so many great true crime documentaries created by the streaming giants – ‘The Ripper’ was commissioned by Netflix – it takes viewers back in time through grainy, archival footage to Leeds, Manchester and Bradford of the mid-1970s where unemployment was rising as the great big factories were shut down, and as Margaret Thatcher became the first female British prime minister.
This footage is contrasted with crisp, present day interviews of families of victims, the now grey haired detectives who were on The Ripper taskforce and journalists like Joan Smith, as they look back on those terrible times, when an unknown killer terrorised the streets.
I found it compulsive viewing, so fascinating, seeing how a serial killer investigation back then relied on thousands of hand written index cards – so many in fact that the floor of the taskforce headquarters had to be reinforced to prevent it from collapsing – to create a database of suspects and evidence.
And yet for all the information gathering, and the many clues that should have pointed the way to a much earlier solving of the mystery, it was the bungling alpha male chief inspectors and their bureaucratic overlords, who made the key wrong assumptions about the case, that had the Ripper laughing in their faces for many years.
“I remember listening to it and being incredibly puzzled because there was nothing on the tape that actually suggested it was genuine,” said Smith in November 2020, when Peter Sutcliffe died.
Julie Bindel, a feminist campaigner who was 18 and living in Leeds when Sutcliffe killed his 13th and final victim- Jacqueline Hill, a 20-year-old student – recalled how police denigrated the victims, some of whom were prostitutes, as being “fair game” despite many of them only doing what they did to support their families.
Bindel told The Guardian last year she remembered George Oldfield, who led the investigation, addressed the murderer on TV in 1979 saying: “There may be more pawns in this war before I catch you, but I will catch you.”
“That’s what women were to these detectives, said Bindel: disposable pawns.
But, says Smith, the Ripper investigation did force woman, who felt unsafe, to realise it was up to them to look after themselves, “because the police weren’t actually going to do it for us”.
“That was the beginning of women pushing back and say, No. Why shouldn’t we walk around at night at 2am without worrying that someone will attack us? So I think it changed women’s perception of how we live in this culture and it had a incredible radicalising effect on a whole generation of women.” Smith says.
The 13 women Sutcliffe was convicted of murdering were:
Wilma McCann, 28, from Chapeltown, Leeds, who was killed in October 1975.
Emily Jackson, 42, from Morley, Leeds. Killed on 20 January 1976.
Irene Richardson, 28, from Chapeltown, Leeds. Killed on 6 February 1977.
Patricia Atkinson, 32, from Manningham, Bradford. Killed on 24 April 1977.
Jayne MacDonald, 16, from Leeds. Killed on 26 June 1977.
Jean Jordan, 21, from Manchester, who died between 30 September and 11 October 1977.
Yvonne Pearson, 22, from Bradford. Killed between 20 January and 26 March 1978.
Helen Rytka, 18, from Huddersfield. Killed on 31 January 1978.
Vera Millward, 40, from Manchester. Killed on 16 May 1978.
Josephine Whitaker, 19, from Halifax. Killed on 4 April 1979.
Barbara Leach, 20. Killed while walking in Bradford on 1 September 1979.
Marguerite Walls, 47, from Leeds. Killed on 20 August 1980.
Jacqueline Hill, 20. Killed at Headingley on 16 November 1980.
I remember saying goodbye to my parents, clearing passport control, and then while rummaging through my bulbous, black leather money belt, descending into a mad panic when I couldn’t find my wallet amongst my Thomas Cook travellers cheques and passport.
Heart beating feverishly, my anxiety building, I checked and re-checked my money belt, retraced my steps all the way back to the passport control kiosk I’d just passed through, but found nothing.
I was utterly forlorn. I would have wept, were it in my nature, but instead simply deflated quickly like a popped balloon.
The anticipated thrill of the trip – a birthday present I had chosen instead of having a party – and the excitement of traveling abroad had completely vanished, replaced instead with a dark cloud of guilt (what would I tell my parents?) and deep embarrassment (what a careless fool I was).
All that wasted money.
Later, as I sat dejectedly on the South African Airways jumbo jet waiting for take-off I realised what had most likely happened: I’d gone to a store in the airport to buy something to read on the plane (a South African Sports Illustratedmagazine no doubt) and other nick nacks. After paying, instead of putting my wallet back into my money belt, I had mistakenly and carelessly slipped it between the money belt and my pants, where it had simply fallen to the ground.
Either that or it had been stolen by some brilliant pickpocket whose speciality was money belts. Either way, someone hit the jackpot at Jan Smuts that evening. I hope they spent it well.
After sitting forlornly on the plane for a number of hours, as it sped through the night sky on the long 18-hour journey to the ‘promised land’, I resolved that I couldn’t allow these unfortunate series of events to ruin a four week adventure. After all, they would mean wasting even more money.
Initially, I tried to work out a plan where I would somehow be so spend thrift on my travels that I would recoup the lost funds – this involved a journal of daily entries of savings made, drinking water instead of buying a Coke, that sort of thing- but that ‘brilliant idea’ did not last long.
Instead, I simply chose to forgive myself and went on my more or less merry way exploring the sights of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego – minus US$300 in cash.
My carelessness was not though confined to losing my wallet.
Arriving in the US in my jetlagged state, having forgotten about things like time zones, but eager to unburden myself, I’d rung my parents at some ungodly hour to tell them of my misfortune.
My father, fearing the worst when the telephone rang at that time, had sprinted down our passageway, forgetting in the dark there was a security door in the way (a phenomenon of many Johannesburg homes, it separated the bedrooms from the rest of the house) and nearly knocked himself out trying to get to the phone in the entrance hall.
In the confusion of the corridor dash he’d presumably also forgotten that he might disturb a gang of burglars rifling through the display cabinets of my mother hand-me-down antiques and bric-a-brac. (We were, if my memory serves me true, actually burgled once while we slept in our beds snoring safely behind the locked security door).
Despite being on the receiving end of more stupidity on my part, my parents were exceedingly nice about all of their money I had lost and encouraged me to enjoy my holiday.
However, for years later I was reminded by my family, whenever I prepared to go overseas, to try not to lose all my money before even getting on the plane.
This long-running joke, that was never quite a joke, created I think, a kind of Pavlovian reaction in me: whenever I prepared to fly anywhere, an uncomfortable general anxiety surfaced in my gut accompanied by some irrational thoughts and somewhat obsessional behaviour.
Irrational – in that my anxiety about flying has manifested into a palpable fear of missing my flight.
To counter a myriad of possible, but unlikely scenarios that might befall me on the way to the airport – getting a flat tyre, getting stuck in traffic, the taxi I have booked not arriving, forgetting something and having to go back home – I like to leave for the airport many, many hours earlier than is necessary.
As I usually arrive, without incident, many, many hours earlier than necessary, this only feeds another nervous affectation – a need to constantly pat myself down, checking that I still have my wallet, passport, boarding pass and any other important documentation, and that they hadn’t dropped to the floor, been stolen or simply carelessly left behind.
You will at least be pleased to know (dear reader) that I have dispensed with the god-awful money belt. I prefer having my wallet and passport in the front pockets of my pants where I can reassuringly feel their presence.
As I have grown older and a bit more chilled, I have become a lot less anxious about the trip to the airport and departure lounges no longer generate quite as much stomach-churning action as they did in the past.
Somewhat wiser, or at least more experienced at life, I am able to acknowledge the irrational nature of my worries and doubt.
If anxiety does surface, I remind myself that if I miss my flight, the trip simply wasn’t meant to be or that the plane I never boarded will almost surely plummet into the ocean. It seems to work a treat.
We travelled through 26 or 27 countries, took dozens of flights, bus, train, ferry and boat trips and never missed any of them.
We never lost a single piece of luggage – our expensive Kathmandu backpacks always reappeared no matter whether they were thrown on the roofs of dusty buses in Marrakesh, loaded onto a plane in Delhi or squashed onto a boat in Kho Phi Phi – and we never lost a passport or wallet between us.
As for airports, we breezed through all of those without – miraculously – a penny unaccounted for.
This week, out of nowhere, and for no obvious reason, I received a lengthy, rather unpleasant email from someone seemingly quite upset about something I’d written on this humble blog, and who it seemed had developed a profound dislike for me and my work.
As the email (which you can read in all its unedited glory below) was sent anonymously, there was no way for me to reply to ask what bothered my mystery correspondent.
As I read his ‘delightful’ note, I was struck by the strange irony of it all: here was someone who apparently “didn’t care what I had to say” but who had taken the time to write to me even if it was to suggest that I try film myself ”sniffing dog farts”.
I suppose I should be flattered – any feedback is better than none. Most of what I write on the blog goes largely unnoticed except for the occasional comment from my close friends and immediate family (Yes, mystery writer, my relatives still seem to tolerate me despite your claims to the contrary, though I will double-check).
As to your concern at my lack of accomplishments to date, I should clarify: I am perfectly fine with my lack – by your standards – of online success. I really am not trying to be a social media influencer or win anyone’s respect or approval.
It’s just a humble blog dear mystery friend, and though I may be a journalist in my professional life (yes a ‘real journalist’!) my online scribblings on freshlyworded.com are nothing more than a hobby, albeit one that I enjoy, a chance to write about the things that interest me and an escape from the property round I cover at The Australian Financial Review.
And so yes, I wholeheartedly agree with you, there are TikTok creators and YouTubers with more influence than me, and good luck to them.
As to the ‘philosophical drivel’ I spout and the ‘profound perspective” I can only pretend to have found, I can only but apologise if it has offended your own world view.
Hahahahahaha you’ll never know who I am Larry but it brings me so much joy knowing how much of a loser you’ve turned out to be, it’d be one thing if you were a real journalist or had an enviable readership but no, just a Z list blogging cretin who writes about nobodies because that’s what you specialise in. I’ve seen Tik Tok creators and YouTubers with a mere few hundred fans who have more respect and influence than you.
Here’s a thought why don’t you write an article about this email? You can bullshit for paragraphs about philosophical drivel and pretend to have some profound perspective.
Just think if you were actually worth anything or if you were actually above average in anything then you’d have accomplished something by now, you’d have given your relatives something to brag about but…no 😦 just an embarassment who can’t even write about interesting people because your own lack of charisma and charm sucks the life out of anything you write.
Poor poor Larry.
The funniest thing is I don’t even care what you have to say and won’t be using this email again so all you can do is nothing, which you’re good at!
And if you’re curious lets just say I’m closer than you think and all of us couldn’t be happier or less surprised at what you’ve accomplished. (Nothing Larry, the answer is nothing)
You could just film yourself sniffing a dogs farts and I think you’d be having the same impact on society. But hey who am I to judge, I’m sure you think you’re doing great.
Half-jokingly, I’d set the wheels of the catch-up in motion, by suggesting we get together for a beer and a burger because it might be the last time we could do it “before the world ended”. It was also Jonny’s birthday later in the week.
The scene was busy, loud and convivial. People sat shoulder to shoulder at tables or stood in small, huddled groups near the bar, drinks in hand, conversing about their lives, telling stories, laughing and smiling.
Jonny and I ordered two large ciders (a craft cider, particularly tasty) and found some seats at an unoccupied table, where we sipped our delicious drinks and held our own conversation talking about our lives: our families, our jobs, gripes, the latest shows we’d watched, books read, podcasts listened to.
Both of us, now past the mid-forties mark, reminisced about the old days back in South Africa as we always tend to do on these catch-ups and wondered, as we always do, where all the time had gone.
Around us the bar was still noisy and buzzing. We enjoyed a second round of drinks and continued our conversation.
Though I was immersed in the scene, part of its social fabric (part of the problem I guess), I couldn’t shake the feeling that this supposed normality was both strange and fleeting. It was as if the terrace of happy people existed on a different planet from the rest of society who were at home, worrying about a disaster about to unfold.
A couple of hours passed and then it was time for us to depart and return to our separate worlds of parental responsibilities.
I headed to the bathroom on the way out, where a bloke standing next to me at the urinal exchanged some sort of half-drunk pleasantry. Then, as I attempted to wash and dry my hands at the basin, I nearly collided with two men who emerged simultaneously from the toilet cubicle looking rather sheepish after a spot of, I imagined, illicit drug-taking.
A minute later, Jonny and I emerged back on Carlisle Street and into the fresh night air. Drunken chatter wafted across the road from another pub a few shops down. Cars whizzed past and a couple waited, in intimate embrace, for the traffic lights to change.
We walked past a half-lit dessert cafe with a display window full of eclairs, pastries and cream-filled cakes. Driving back along Carlisle Street to drop Jonny off first in a nearby Melbourne suburb we passed another busy bar full of banter, booze and music.
It was only on the long drive home along the Calder Freeway under the endless expanse of stars and black night sky, that it dawned on me that perhaps I should not have been so cavalier as all those social beings on the rooftop of The Local Taphouse, sipping their drinks, grinning, laughing and carefree. Then again, the party was only hours from ending. For everyone. The music was about to stop.
‘Insouciance’ is a fantastically pompous word whose meaning I can never remember, no matter how many times I look it up.
It one of those words that I have never heard spoken aloud – you’d sound like a bit of a dill if you threw it into a conversation (Go on, I dare you!) – but which keeps cropping up in the books I read.
This occurred most recently on page 261 of Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson when the young narrator, Ruby Lennox, describes the family car being stuck behind “one particularly insouciant beast” on a drive down a country road in Scotland.
The insouciant beast in question is a sheep, part of a herd that the family are forced to navigate around frequently on their holiday.
Just what kind of sheep was this, I wondered? Lazy, evil, cunning, naughty, haughty? I had no idea. So I looked it up – again.
The Cambridge Dictionary puts a bit more meat on the bone saying it means a “relaxed and happy way of behaving without feeling worried or guilty”, while the MacMillan Dictionary throws in a more specific circumstantial factor defining it as “not worrying about or paying attention to possible problems”.
President Donald Trump, who has railed endlessly against the mainstream media’s criticisms of him through the popular mantra of FAKE NEWS recently turned to his attention to fellow Australian journalist Jonathan Swan, a former Fairfax Media colleague.
This of course is the personal manifesto of any good journalist working today (including myself) and has been so since Gutenberg invented the printing press.
But its especially true now as ‘serious journalism (for want of a better word) is upended by the ability for anyone to set up a website and claim to be an authority and respected source of ‘real’ news.
However, all journalists, even brilliant ones, make mistakes from time to time, perhaps more frequently now in the age of 24/7 news and social media.
I don’t know of any journalist, including myself, who has not made an error in a story, big or small. It’s part of the job.
However, a genuine mistake should never been confused with FAKE NEWS which has been around long before Donald Trump set foot in the Oval Office and made it his mantra.
The tag FAKE NEWS should only be applied to news stories that are not only plainly wrong, but deliberately written so by either including untruths, half-truths, fabricated information or made-up quotes, or by deliberately excluding important information.
A story can be plainly wrong, but not be FAKE NEWS. These stories are easy to spot because a correction, clarification, retraction and/or apology will follow.
However, in the era of Trump, the boundaries have been deliberately blurred.