Friday, December 19, 2008


Being shot out of a circus cannon into a vat of starving elephant leeches; going over Niagara falls in a biscuit barrel; or packing fish in a remote Alaskan aircraft hanger - there are few places I’d less like to be than sitting in an exam, waiting to turn over my question paper. I still get nightmares about exams that wake me with a gasp, covered in cold sweat, my bowels turned to Nesquik.

Exams were the come-down hangover after a year of giddy abandon. In the desperate last two weeks, we’d try gulp in all the knowledge that should have been seeping into our brains throughout the year- the mental equivalent of sucking the Encyclopaedia Britannica through a garden hose.

A year’s Art theory notes weighed in at about 4 stone. Trying to learn it all would be like trying to eat the phonebook, scrunched page by scrunched page, mouthful by mouthful. So, we learned spots: rote essays based on a specific questions- about as dicey as Russian roulette.

Lucky Charms
Fluffy toys were popular. There was a certain type of track-suited Pringle girl who’d bring the entire cast of Watership Down to exams, and line them on the desk like a mute row of Duracell bunny cheerleaders. We preferred rubbing The Fat Guy with the Beard’s beer belly before we left the African Street digs. This brought mixed results.

Into the Breech
An exam was like running a marathon in longhand. Four essays in three hours, that would leave your brain like a squeezed out toothpaste tube, and your writing hand cramped into a claw.
I remember sitting in Alec Mullins Hall, like a massive typing pool of inmates, an assembly line of higher learning.

Exams are pretty much like any other life trauma:

Denial: (Turning question sheet over and over) “Fucking hell! Surely there’s one question I studied up on?”

Anger: “Bastards! Who the fuck reads an entire Nadine Gordimer?”

Bargaining: “Okay, maybe I should just answer one essay question. I’ll crack it, and they’ll overlook the three blank ones.”

Regret: “Maybe not reading the Nadine Gordimer wasn’t such a hot idea”.

Acceptance: “Fuck it, I know there’s an hour left, but I’m handing in this piece of shit and getting out of here. I need a cigarette, and one or twenty Black Labels.”.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Vic

A lumpy pavement walk down from the Union, (the bumps more or less jarring according to how much Taverna Rouge had been gagged down at the Union) the Vic skulked like an inevitable full stop on the end of every evening.

It’s Raining Sweat
With hindsight; the Vic was a dank armpit of a place, the Quasimodo of dive bars. I recall a packed summer night early in second year, where the sweat condensated on the ceiling in dripping patches and rained down on us. But, it was the only place we had. When life gives you lemons, drink enough alcohol to fell a concrete elephant (or something like that). So much for drinking the girls pretty, we drank the Vic cool.

War Wounds
A common step in dating someone was showing each other your drinking injury scars sustained in wild, reeling Vic nights. Common accidents included: stage-diving off the table you were dancing on (hello Nadja?); somersaulting down the stairs at boaters (Neil, I know you’re reading this); and very occasionally, breaking your ankle on the step at the entrance (yes, you Emily). Friends rushed to administer first aid, usually a whiskey, and slurring reassurances.

By 11 o’clock the mens’ toilets looked like a beer slaughter house. Wall-to-wall vomit, splattered toilets , and malcontented queues for the loos, with always some lurching enterprising spirit leaning against the wall and pissing in the sink. All in all a sight to make even the most slovenly maggot gag.

Trying to pick someone up amid the Vic dance floor riot was like trying to steal a wheel from a moving car. Chatting up someone amid the RMR house music carpeting bombing of was futile as reciting poetry in a wind tunnel. Better to lay down your smooth Nick Gray moves in the relative calm of Boaters, then ask said paramour to dance.

Would You Like to Come Back to Mine for Coffee?
In other words “Let’s go home and do naughty things to each other”. The coffee was mainly just a ceremonial observance to form. The lunge and resultant snog was usually consummated before the kettle had boiled, and the Gordian knot of the bra strap pawed at before the “Chicks Dig It” mix tape was finished.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Hill Dweller
Even if you were lucky enough to get the coffee green light, the long walk from the Vic back to Kimberley Hall on the hill was a bigger passion-killer than Andrew Lloyd Webber. Most girls would say “Oh, you’re on the Hill? Uh, goodnight”, leaving me to walk home in a lather of aggrieved sexual agitation, railing to the sky at my res allocation. The trick was to break the walk into passionate pit stops: some electric eel tongue action against a New Street wall; a leafy tumble in the Drama department bushes; some hot and botheredness near Kotch creek; then throw her over your shoulder and do a running fireman lift to the steps of the Cullen Bowles quad. If you got her that far, you’d better pretty much propose marriage on the spot.

Shake Your Money Maker
By the time I got to the Vic, the music was, to my drunk ears, somewhat vague and removed, like a couple next door fighting with power tools. I do remember some anthems though. AC/DC’s Thunderstruck was guaranteed to get the sweat flying, The B52s’ Love Shack would have Stevie and I running whooping on to the floor and doing the spastic weather girl. Groove is in the Heart by Dee-lite would every time convince me (erroneously) I could dance like a black woman.

The Vic. If you weren’t there you’ll never know.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


“McJob: A low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low benefit, no-future job in the service sector.”
- Douglas Coupland, Generation X (1993)

As the last days of varsity approached, and the real world juggernauted into view, I was terrified. I felt the trepidation of a young virgin bride, cowering behind the sheets, dreading being roughly rogered for the first time.

Shotguns and Milk Stout
My first post-Rhodes job was as a cowhand in the remote hills of Zululand. I was given a shotgun, a 4x4, and told to ferry cows from farm to farm. The mountainous roads were notional at best, and after a particularly heavy Natal rainstorm, just getting to work through the mud was a sliding, churning, get-out-and-dig affair. It was a glorious job, but the danger, my lack of Zulu, and aversion to milk stout ended it all too soon.

Smirnoff Tongue
Job two was as a photographer’s assistant in a studio in downtown Cape Town. The hours were long, work exhausting and I worked for free. Such is the norm when you’re breaking into a photography career. A low point was spending hours setting up a Smirnoff vodka shoot, and getting the lighting on the bottle just so, that we daren’t move it a hair. The vodka looked misty in the studio light, so we had to get it out, without upsetting our meticulous display. Short story: I had to drill a hole in the bottle top, suck out the vodka with a straw, mouthful by mouthful, and spit it into a bucket. Not the nicest thing when you’re already labouring under a Guiness hang over. I threw up four times, my tongue went white, and I couldn’t taste anything for days. We did get the shot though.

Would You Like Fries with That, Motherfucker?
To pay for beer, Styvies and rent, I got job three at a pizzeria in Cape Town, after the day’s work at the studio. Being forced to be obsequious to pita bread munching proles knocked the stuffing out of any “but I’ve got a degree” arrogance. The only job satisfaction was using a stashed magnet to blank the credit cards of unsuspecting customers who didn’t leave a tip on their bill. 

These Days
I slowly discovered that finding a job I liked was a process of trying things I’d quickly realise I didn’t want to do, and slowly gravitating to what I did. I generally like my work now, it lets me be creative, and the good projects do get me out of bed early sometimes.