Sunday, September 28, 2008

My Art Lecturer, George

“Shit!” “Fuck!”
Rhodes School of Fine Art. First year, third term, first day. Slouching behind my easel, I heard a blunt-edged ‘60s London accented voice say “...and if anyone minds the word ‘shit!’ or ‘fuck!’ clear off now!’ I peered over. The voice belonged to a hook-nosed little man with charcoal-stained brick layer’s hands and a manic, aluminium sheen to his eyes. George, our first-year art lecturer had arrived. Grabbing a piece of charcoal pencil from Carol, he slashed, in Zorro-like strokes, the word “SHIT” on the nearest drawing. “This is all fucking crap!” he rasped and glared round the room at the easels we were cowering behind. “I know you’re all constipated from Matric art class - but for God’s fucking sake!”. We stared on dumbly, mouths agape, trying not to be noticed or singled out, by this raving, spitting force of nature that’d burst in amongst us like a Catherine wheel in a church service.

We drew harder, strained our concentration toward a crisper focus, generally tried more to rise to his exhortations, and George and us established an uneasy peace. We were always on-edge, for despite days of relative calm, he could always flare up like flaming magnesium at any second. 

Underneath it All
George had a heart of gold. I learned more from him in a year than all my other lecturers that were to come. “Sorry I’m late” said a rather overwrought Lee to him one Monday morning “It’s just that I tried acid for the first time this weekend, and it was a lot stronger than I expected”. “Shame, dear” answered George, as he led her to a chair “Don’t move. Let me make you a cup of tea.” He was like that with all of us, at one time or another. 

Summer Torpor
Roll on to October. Grahamstown in summer. The roads baked, the tar sticky underfoot. Drowsy swooning hot. The sashe windows of the art studio were wide open, but not a stir of a breeze. Stewed in a torpid funk, first-year art class dragged their pencils listlessly across canvases, slow as lichen. Most just wanly ground their pencils in the canvass; a desultory salad of doodles all the fruit of hours of soporific effort. The afternoon grinded on long and slow as the last day of school. “Okay. Stop.” sighed George.”I’m knackered, and you lot are just pathetic in this heat. Bring a costume and towel to class tomorrow morning”. Heads abruptly popped up over easels like a gaggle of prairie dogs.

Kidnapped Skinny-dipping
We all arrived early the next morning - wittering with curiosity - to see a Rhodes minibus parked outside the stone gates of the art school. George was humming, fussing and loading hampers into the boot. We all piled in to the van (we were a small class) and drove off for parts unknown. Dirt road, braking for tortoises. Parts turned out to be a stretch on the Kudu river, in a nearby game reserve. We piled out, and George and a some able-handed types fished cases or beer and hampers out of the van. George had kidnapped us all away for a stolen day. We were cutting class, with teacher. A wonderful, burnished day followed. Anthony sat like a kikoi-draped  satyr on a nearby rock and played lazy guitar. Crazed on wine, beer and sunshine, the class skinny dipped in the river, till a curious hippo scared us all out, sprinting back to the shore, our bare bottoms winking in the sun. At sunset we drive home from the one-day holiday reluctantly, the memory of sun and river water on our skin, home to the humdrum of res food dinners and essays to be procrastinated about.

Rhodes First Year Art Class. Banks of the Kudu River (1990)

Friday, September 26, 2008

Mix Tapes

Tape Decks and Friendships
A calling card of cool, mix tapes fluttered round Res’s like carrier pigeons. My long friendship Alistair began with my tracking him down in Retief Res as “the guy had a recording of Love and Rocket’s Kundalini Express"; which seemed the epitome of grinding goth cool those early weeks of first year.

I met my life-long friend Gary when I heard The House of Love’s Christine playing from his room. I walked in, introduced myself, and we lay on the floor, arms outstretched, listening to the song as it shimmered round the room.

Larissa had a box of tapes all labelled either “God Be in My Head”, or “Suicide Mix (numbered 1 through to about 37, as I recall)”. She came across as a stout, intimidating lesbian, but we became firm pool-playing mates when I discovered she had the first Kristin Hersh and Cranberries albums on tape.

Tapes and Girls
Making a girlfriend a tape was a customary phase in a relationship, usually somewhere between the 3rd or 4th date. You could lie in bed, and wonder if far off down in campus in Phelps or Jameson Res, she was listening to the same songs and thinking of you. Bands like The House of Love, R.E.M., U2, The Pixies, Lloyd Cole, The Stone Roses, and the Manic Street Preachers formed our emotional semaphore.

Tank Girl and Green Underpants
The night the slavishly lusted after Tank Girl and I finally got together one night, the amorous mood was derailed for a moment by her seeing my green day-glo underpants, that I’d unadvisedly fished out of the communal digs laundry pile that evening. I managed to stifle her giggling and things continued along giddy nicely. Weeks later I made her a “Kryptonite Underpants” mix, and gave it to her wrapped in the same (now laundered) lurid green underpants of that first night. She cried laughing.

CD Mixes Are Not the Same
Long before before cell phones, email, and recordable discs, mix tapes provided a shorthand of cool, an artefact that could be passed from hand to hand, like shared imagined music videos of each other in our heads.

I miss them.

Hay-Sus the Chimney Shitter

Bankie Reverie
Early morning, African Street. The Lentilheads, our next-door newbie digs of 2nd years had just passed a major Grahamstown digs milestone: scoring their first stash of marijuana in their new home. Flushed with pride, they put the bankie* on the coffee table, and gazed at it with dew-eyed, adoring sighs. Their reverie was spied through the window by Jesus (Hay-sus) De Costa - one-time male stripper and swarthy self-styled 5 foot 6 sex-machine troglodyte - trudging back to our house from his usual Monday all night drinking and bush-diving binge.

Flushed Away
He snuck round to the Lentilheads’ back door and banged on it loud and sudden as a volley of gunshots. In his best Afrikaans narcotics cop voice he shouted thickly “Studente! Maak oop! Dis die Polisie! Ons weet jy het dwelms daarbinne!” (Students! Open this door! It’s the Police! We know you’ve got drugs in there!). The lentilheads scattered like dormice, hiding in various bedrooms, except for one quick-witted vegetarian who grabbed the stash and in a blur of bellbottoms and tie-dye fled to the bathroom. Hay-sus barged into the house, heard the bathroom door lock click, and threw himself at it, barking more Afrikaans obscenities. The only answer from within was a frightened squeal, and the sound of the dope being flushed down the toilet.

Anger and Loss
Hay-Sus collapsed on the floor laughing. The odd sound drew the dormice out of their hiding places. Seeing it was just him, hearing the gurgling sound of the toilet, and realising their loss, they broke into a fluttering vegan rage. Words like “bastard” and ‘rotter” were used. Hay-sus was bundled out of the house and forgotten amid much handwringing and grief at the now tragically empty spot on the coffee table.

Threats from Above
A voice from above broke the silence. They bundled out of the kitchen door to see Hay-sus on their roof, squatting on top of their chimney. “Oi! Lentilheads!” he bellowed, “I’m gonna SHIT down your chimney unless you apologize for being so horrible to me!” The female majority vegetarians flew into a jabbering panic, like a flock of chickens on a trampoline.

Entreaties, and Life Lessons Learned
Eventually, Tristan the fifth lentilhead, who’d slept through the entire ruckus, stumbled out in his kikoi, brushing aside the tousled blonde locks that would later he earn him the nickname “Miss Hawaii Airlines Girl 1994”. Blearily squinting up at Hay-sus, he said plainly, “Bru, don’t shit down my chimney. That’s like, lank blind bru…”. Haysus was thus talked down of the roof, and made a cup of rooibos. The Lentilheads were a lot more circumspect in such matters after that morning.

* A lot.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Pick-up Lines: The Glass of Water Gambit

The Grahamstown Spur, near the end of the evening. You’ve broke, looking pretty damn ropey after drinking your week’s allowance, and are down to one cigarette and a glass of water. The girl you’ve been fancying all evening is at a table somewhere across the restaurant, oblivious to your existence.

Call the waiter over, point out your paramour and ask him “Could you send that young lady a glass of water with my compliments?”. The waiter duly goes over to her table, places the glass of water in front of her, and says “with the compliments of the young gentleman”. Her eyes widen, she stares at the drink, looks up and searches the room. Her gaze rests on you for a moment and your eyes meet. Raise your own glass of water to her and throw a smouldering look across the room. 

This has worked. Twice.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Campus Perves

We all had them. Mine never really conformed to a type, unless ‘winsome’ is a category.
My physical reaction to their proximity was real as an asthma attack. Perve du jour would walk into a room, my heart would leap into my throat, beating loud as a drum in a biscuit tin, and previously coherent sentences would congeal in my mouth like lumpy plasticine. Tearing my gaze away I’d quickly fumble back what I was doing: talking to my friends in Kaif; drinking a beer in The Union; or hamfistedly fielding a question from my English tutor- but all the time my whole body knew where they were, like an agitated Pointer dog. In severe cases I was simply overcome and would have to leave the room, party, or lecture hall. I’d sigh back against a wall, breathe deep and count to ten.
They brightened my days though. The radiance of a beautiful girl was something that lit up all us mortals as we orbited round them. Like the sun, you could never brazenly gawp at a campus perve too long, but you could bask in the warmth of their comeliness. The mere thought of one would have me bumbling off in a dumbly smiling dwaal, recording endless mix tapes to them in my head. 

In four years I ended up dating two campus perves. I felt like a lottery winner, and I distinctly remember thunderous applause from my friends that night I first kissed Nadja in the Vic. The relationships were giddy, flying close to the sun experiences that lasted all too short. I learned you had to punch your own weight class.

They live on in songs from those mental mix tapes. I wonder where they are now?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Union

Furnished like a a ‘70s airport lounge, with faux leather chairs that swallowed you as you slouched back, and a stained, burnt-clay coloured carpet, the Students’ Union was familiar and non-descript as  a small-town sports club bar. I approached the counter and did some quick sums: R1.20 for a box of cigarettes, R1.30 a beer: on that and my virgin post-high-school provincial alcohol tolerance, I could get giddy, numb-face drunk for ten bucks, with change over if I a braved a R2.50 bottle of Taverna Rouge.

Taverna Rouge, a red wine that could peel the linoleum off a kitchen floor. One sip tasted wrong as incest; a whole bottle was a one-way ticket to lurching, slurring oblivion and a hangover that left you bargaining with God or praying for a swift death. 

Amid the hum of conversation and the chink of coinage games I sensed for the first time the boundless, intoxicating freedom that lay before us. Coming from so many far-flung dorps, towns and cities, here we were free to re-invent ourselves to be whoever, and whatever we wanted. Drunk, mostly. 


My allocated Res was Cullen Bowles, the awkwardly named and more awkwardly built residence on the top of the hill: at the highest point of the university; its roofs spiked with lightening conductors. The inmates called it “Legoland”. It was a thoroughly unappetizing sight; more Orwellian “1984” than Oxbridge “Brideshead Revisited”. The entire edifice was a series of piled-up, interconnected blocks: like a lop-sided jenga game. A crushing sense of woeful uncool radiated from this cubist faced slab. My heart sank when I saw my room: a modular interior that looked like it’d been designed to be hosed down, not swept. I stared at the wall-mounted bed and brutal face brick and nearly wept as I realized I’d be living there for the next two years. I ushered my parents off to their hotel, and went in search of disoriented and curious others- and beer.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Prologue: Selenium

Fact: there are gravely low levels of selenium in the Grahamstown ground water. A healthy amount of this trace element is crucial for a sound mind: it ensures the neurons fire synchronously and generally keeps you sane and competent at crossword puzzles. Not enough of it and your brain begins to fizz and spit like a busted firework and you have trouble just making change after buying a pack of Stuyvies at Wellingtons. Selenium deficiency may help partly explain the sleep of reason that afflicted so many of us in those fevered days. Sometimes Grahamstown felt like an idiot-machine. We didn’t crawl out the same people we’d walked in.