Saturday, 17 March 2018

Old book, new book

I’m busy wrapping up the edit of my fourth novel, Theo & Flora. My editor and I, we’ve been fighting, as we always do. “What do you mean here?” she says. “Why are you changing the sense there?” I say. Thousands upon thousands of track-changes comments slowly being whittled away – accepted, rejected, debated, argued about – until there are none. 
        A compromise, perhaps, by both of us. Sometimes I win, sometimes she does. That’s how it feels, anyway. I always imagine that, at the end of it all, we each stalk away muttering under our own little thunderclouds, ready to kick the nearest available dog.
        The process reminds me of an old thought experiment in which you’re asked to imagine that your aunt gives you a new shirt. It becomes your favourite shirt and you wear it at every opportunity. But over time it becomes worn and threadbare, so you have it mended and patched, until there is nothing left of the original fabric. Is it still the shirt your aunt gave you, or not?

        Most people might think about this for a few minutes before moving on with their lives. But writers instinctively complicate things. Why did your aunt give you a shirt? Is she an aunt on your mother’s side or your father’s? Is she even a real aunt, or just someone you call Aunty? What does she look like? What colour is the shirt? What is it made from? Does the gift of the shirt represent her affection for you, or is it a metaphor for her controlling nature? Was it in fact a new shirt, or had it recently belonged to her dead husband? How did he die?
        Not that the editor’s work entirely subsumes the writer’s at all. More than anything, the editor’s role is to simplify – to remind the writer that, sometimes, a shirt is just a shirt. And at the end of the edit, the work emerges sharper, more nuanced, more lithe and alive. Otherwise why bother? 

        Yet, the process is so fraught and intense that I dream about it. I edit furiously in my sleep, and rewrite perfectly acceptable passages over and over again, or decide to expunge every comma or every instance of the word “but” or never to use the present continuous. And then I awake, and lie there panicking like one of those patients who are lucid during surgery but completely paralysed, and I have to promise myself I will never again write another book before I am able to fall asleep once more.
        It’s also no help that every time I’ve set out on the process, the arrival of the first edit in my in-box inevitably presages a perfect storm of other obligations, all of which conspire to keep me from the work as much as possible, for as long as possible. A family crisis, a burst geyser, teenager issues, the 9-5 day job that suddenly comes with 7-11 obligations for weeks on end. And even though the publishing machine moves like a sloth swimming through peanut butter – at least to someone used to the Marty McFly deadlines of the advertising business – there is always, always an editing deadline to be met.
        The second-worst thing is actually finishing the edit. Because as I accept (or reject – it’s still my book, I tell myself) the very last track-changes suggestions, I am also accepting that there’s nothing more I can do about it, other than argue with the publisher over the cover design.
        And nor do the dreams stop at this point. They simply change tack, and now my sleep-self starts rewriting from scratch, beginning with an opening line that puts "Call me Ishmael" to shame, and closing in a way that makes Nick Carraway’s final observations sound like the voice-over for a dogfood commercial. I awake in the sunny dawn with a smile – for I have rewritten the book, overnight, and it is perfect. Of course I haven’t, and of course it isn’t, and besides, the lumpy beast has gone off for proofreading and typesetting anyway.
        “I’m going to take a break from this writing thing for a few months,” I always tell my wife, who always rolls her eyes.
        Because the very worst thing has already happened halfway through the editing storm, and that is the taking root of a new idea, for a new book.
        Why does this happen when I’m moving along at my average editing speed of a page per hour, am on Page 32 of 294, at 12.37 at night, when I have to be at an 8am meeting that will take me an hour to get to in the traffic? There’s no curbing it – I’ve tried four times now – and it arrives with a soft ping, as and when it wants to, with the first tentative notes of a voice I’ve never tried, or in the form of an intriguing but still blurry character, or a gently explosive catalyst for a story that as yet has no beginning or end.
        It’s a problem. It’s a problem because I know that if I don’t get down the barest sketch of the idea immediately, it will fade away like dawn mist. And it’s a problem because I know that a line or two will never be enough, and that I’ll have no option but to answer the pressing questions that immediately arise: Is she his real aunt? Why did she give him a shirt? And how many buttons does it have?

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Aqua Destillata

A musing on the fear of beginnings

You know, by this your imagined fifth novel, that when you have an idea for a book and strike out, the embryo of it may prove itself so wrong; that as it evolves you look back and think, sweet Jesus, how could I have started there and ended up here? How could I have even gone down that path, or the other path, or another, or a fourth, a fifth? Because by then you’ve taken the stunted seed and nurtured it to a point where the birth will still be painful, but the issue at least recognisable as a cogent narrative. A head; a torso; and at the extremities of the limbs, twenty digits clasped together, one extending always as if to say fuck you, because the book always wins.

So. Aqua Destillata. Distilled Water, in English. Water with the impurities removed, like liquor passed through a hillbilly still – or so imagined because of the process, when despite distillation impurities always remain. Apparently people may go blind, or die, from the issue of such a process.
         But there’s the desire, the obsessive desire for the process to fulfil the belief, that magic drawn from somewhere will trump the science, despite the knowledge that afterwards you will be left with nothing but purity. Imagine the horror, then, at finding extraneous substances in it. A flaw in the diamond you have pressed yourself into creating. Water in the oil. Grit in the salad. A fly in the ointment. Or, by pure chance, in tiny instances, the impurity is an unexpected grain of sand, drawing to itself layer upon layer of nacre until it is turned to a pearl.
         Such it is when you begins a book. A knowing that you are doomed from Chapter One (the optimistic heading), Page One (typically blank, and hungry – but for what?); that the physics of the keyboard and the chemistries of the brain will somehow interact to produce something – no matter the strain of the effort, no matter the outside interventions and weighty injunctions and incalculable reworkings of the material – always imperfect. Yet still, you set out upon your course, with your faulty compass, your insufficient victuals, your vessel that leaks and seldom heeds your commands, and a squeaky bum in the hope of making it to The End.

Thematic stuff. The meat and grist. You’ll laugh later at how you struggled to keep your story congruent with your themes, at how the tail insisted upon wagging the dog. Your mountain of notes, the dead ends they led you down, the weeks, months, of agonizing, the impasses impassable until the solution presented itself unbidden, in the traffic, during a conversation, over a half-boiled kettle. And you’ll also weep, later, at the infinity of things that never found their way onto the page, at what should have been said, or how. Or: you’ll abandon the whole thing and use the sheaves of notes, more voluminous than the book would have been, to kindle a winter fire.

Anyhow. There is real life, the life of solids, liquids and gases, and then there is this:

Four boards of old pharmacist labels framed and hanging on the wall that leads to the guest loo, each eleven labels wide by seven deep. Seventy-seven per frame, three hundred and eight together. They are tantalising: what exactly are Ext.Traxaci, Fldxt.Sarsap, Trigolii, Pituatar.Totem? How were they combined? For what maladies were they prescribed? They are so old, the labels, that you consider pox, ague, dropsy. From the remnants of your primary school Latin you understand little more than Aqua Distillata. If distilled water – surely the simplest of purifications –  is far from pure, then what of the rest? And is there a word for the feeling you have when you look upon something with no idea of what it is?
         Just you read a package insert for any OTC medication bought from your local supermarket. As with anything these days, there are claims and disclaimers: the substance will do this, won’t do that, or may cause the other. In rare cases, the manufacturers are happy to disclose that their product effects nothing at all: This medicine is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. That’s a verbatim extract from a modern pack of pills found on the Colds & Flu shelf; yet still it bestows upon itself the mantle of “medicine”. This car is not intended to go forwards or backwards, or transport any person.
         The labels seem almost alchemic in their mystery. Some of them appear dangerous too: Cannabis, Liq.Acid.Arsen, Ung.Belladonnae; some harmless: Aqua Rosae, Syrupus – and some veritably Gothic: Leeches, Mammary Extract

         What’s the story?
         It must have at its heart an impure essence – or better, one that appears pure but is not.
         There needs to be change, a dramatic change, a chemical reaction, as when potassium is dropped into a beaker of water: dramatic in the moment, and the aftermath leaving little or nothing than a foul odour, and shattered windows.
         It might, one day, bear chapter headings that reflect the labels.
         It might be called A Roomful of Chemists, a title I’ve wanted to use for twenty years, where the Chemists in question are lunatic gods, tossing together their materials with a careless caprice, and producing tragic, comic, indifferent, perhaps fatal results for the mortal subjects.
         I suppose the main character should indeed be a chemist, a pharmacist, or if set a hundred or two years ago (there are leeches, after all), an apothecary. He will be a man, lest I am berated for writing a main female character (again), and for the same reason, white.
         If he has a little shop from which he works, he will need customers. To kill a rat, he sells a young man arsenic; a month later he dispenses Lithii Citras to comfort the customer whose wife has died.
         Perhaps he has a wife of his own, or a sidekick as interesting as Igor – a wife to keep the apothecary’s morals in check; Igor to provoke the apothecary into ever darker experiments.
         Perhaps on the first page he receives a letter, out of the blue, and it causes him to close his shop, pack a rucksack and take up a stave, heading out into a world where he will never again practise as an apothecary.
         Or – what if it is a time of war, and an enemy officer stumbles in, wounded but nonetheless boasting of his conquests? The apothecary finds himself forced into a decision: should he tend to the injured officer? Should he feign helplessness and passively allow his enemy to die? Or should he take charge and administer a strong dose of Liq.Acid.Arsen, reassuring the officer (who by now is crying for his mother) that it is merely Mammary Extract?

So you might begin, in medias res of course, on a course you know will not be the course you set.

“Are you the apothecary?” he says. Blood, fresh and dark, leaches through his uniform. To his chest he presses a filthy wad of fabric and his hand shakes; it appears too weak to stem to the flow.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Wasted in Hollywood

In February, I was surprised by an email from a Hollywood producer – let’s call him Dave – who had come across my novel Wasted while shooting a movie in Cape Town. We should meet, he said, and I agreed.

            Before our appointment, I googled the bejesus out of him, given the nasty myths about Hollywood people being thieves and charlatans. And, natch, I couldn’t quite believe that he was interested in something I had written. The Google told me he had been President of Production at a big Hollywood studio, and had left a year before to set up his own production company. From Meryl Streep to Bill Murray, Jake Gyllenhaal to Jeff Bridges, Keanu Reeves to Nick Nolte, Dave had worked with them all.

            We met early one morning at the (extremely strange) 15 on Orange Hotel. Dave – mid fifties, balding, stubbled – was dressed in typical movie-set gear. Cargo shorts, old trainers, a slightly grub golf shirt, like an ageing grip on any of the gazillion TV commercial shoots I’ve been on over the years. What was I expecting? A Zegna suit and Hublot watch?

            Dave ordered coffee and then began slowly reeling me in. He flattered my unputdownable novel, my unique writing voice, my brilliant characterisation, and my shrewd plotting. I swallowed it all faster than the hotel coffee.

            Then he let out a bit of line. “So this is one way it could play out. Like, when I met with Famous Novelist to discuss making a movie of her bestseller, I asked if she would like to write the screenplay, and she laughed at me and flat refused. So we agreed to option it and I found a pro screenwriter in LA to do the job. She didn’t care that she would forfeit pretty much all creative input.”

            He waved at the waiter for a refill. I felt rather smart because I’d also googled what “to option” meant – a production company will “rent” the movie rights from the author, typically for eighteen months at a time, in return for a bit of cash. The company will reserve the right to renew the option after each period. The author will be paid an agreed sum for the movie rights if and when the screenplay is signed off for production. The amount of option money offered varies according to the profile of the author. Let’s just say I wouldn’t have been able to retire on what Dave put on the table.

            “The other way,” Dave continued, beginning to reel in the line again, “is for the author to write the screenplay himself. The author would retain creative control, and make much more money when – if – the movie gets made. Do you know how screenwriters get paid?”

            This was something I hadn’t googled just yet.

            “Generally, the writer gets 2.5% of the overall production budget as soon as the script goes into production." Too bad Wasted contained no exploding buildings, space flights, dragons or exotic locations. "Then he gets 5% of net box-office profits.”
            I tried to do the maths based on a modest $10m budget, but Dave kept on reeling.
            “The trouble is that your main character, this Nathan Lucius guy, is so unusual that I can’t see even a pro screenwriter doing him justice. So I want you to write it.”

            That was when I noticed just how blue Dave’s little eyes were.

            “Just know that the second half of your book didn’t work for me. At all. In fact, I almost put it down when Nathan killed the old lady on, like, page sixty something. That’s the movie I want to make – all about the relationship between Nathan and Madge. But make them fuck. They don’t fuck in your book. They need to fuck to in the movie.”

            Holy shit, I thought. I’d only written the first half of the book as a reason to get to the second. And how was I going to turn a vignette, intended as a bit of misdirection and evidence that Nathan wasn’t quite a psychopath, into a hundred-and-twenty-page screenplay?

            Dave must have noted the look on my face and began reeling again. “Write the Madge character with Helen Mirren in mind. Write it just for her. If she likes the screenplay, I can get her behind the movie.”

            Helen bloody Mirren?

            “And for Nathan, think Ryan Gosling. I think he’d be spot on – good looking, but with a bit of a quirk that would be great for the character.”

            Ryan goddamned Gosling?

            A hundred and twenty pages. Barely half of one of my skinny novels. How hard could it be?


The only thing I knew about writing a screenplay was how to lay out the page – twelve-point Courier, single line spacing, scene headings in caps, dialogue centred.

Ten days later I met Dave on set with a storyline in my head, and a synopsis and a draft of the first act under my arm. The crew were busy doing what crews do, moving equipment about and putting stuff up and taking other stuff down and going outside to smoke. Dotted around the set on various chairs, a number of young women in princess outfits sat, waiting and yawning between touch-ups from hair and make-up. Dave glanced at the little-girl props of Fairy Tale Land that made up the set. “Some for the money,” Dave said, as if apologising for all the kitch. “Now let’s get out of here – all this pussy is distracting me.”

I spoke him through my thoughts on the screenplay and he diplomatically hated every one.

“Make her younger. You’ve made her too old. Helen Mirren is old, yeah, but she isn’t old old. But maybe she should be younger. Okay, not Helen Mirren then. Someone younger, but good, say early fifties. Think Susan Sarandon, like, ten or fifteen years ago.”

Bye, Helen.

“And make Nathan older. Ryan Gosling is too young. They need to fuck, but it shouldn’t be grotesque. Matt Damon, maybe. Make him speak less. Like a Matt Damon who doesn’t talk.”

So it went, until at the end of the hour and a half, Dave looked at my printouts that lay face-down on the desk. “Something you wanted to show me?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

I’ve been writing ad copy for two decades. I’ve had two novels published, and The Safest Place You Know – the difficult third album – will be launched in September. I've had short stories published in anthologies and on writerly websites and shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize. I’ve run half-marathons, cycled in 110km races and taken part in triathlons. I’ve read an entire Henry James and stayed awake during status meetings. I've eaten Brussels sprouts. But none of this has prepared me for the difficulty of writing a screenplay. Or, indeed, the difficulty of leaving the first 20,000 words of Novel No. 4 in the bottom drawer, where it lies pleading for attention every time I sit down at my desk.

I met Dave once more before he returned to LA to share my totally reworked ideas. Again, he politely hated almost everything, and again we spent a good hour “spitballing”, as he called it. And again, I didn’t show him the printouts I'd brought along.

A few weeks later, I emailed him a completely revised synopsis and draft of the first act. His reply had me reaching for the Rescue Remedy: “Excellent! Really good work. Let’s talk in the morning. My office will set a call.”

And then for an hour he kindly proceeded to hate the third draft too, all the way from LA. “Darker! More menace! Think Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler!”

Bye, Matt.

Our agreement is simple. Given my lack of experience, Dave is contributing time and advice to the screenwriting process in lieu of cash for now. I have until midnight on 31 December to submit a final version of the script. If he still hates what I’ve done, he will option the novel for a few dollars and commission a screenwriter who actually knows what he is doing.

            It’s almost June as I write this. I still don’t have a structure that thrills me, just a loose collection of scenes that may (or may not) work. I still don’t have a draft of the first act. So I still have no idea whether I’ll crack it at all, or if Dave will be forced to hand over to someone else.

            In either case, seeing some form of Wasted on the big screen within the next decade, or ever, is far from guaranteed. But whatever happens, I’ll be able to remind the folk in the retirement home every day that, once upon a time, a long, long time ago, I had a novel optioned by a Hollywood bigshot.

Friday, 18 December 2015

King Jacob ZuMa se Poes

The ongoing antics of Jacob Zuma remind me of the Arthurian legend of the Fisher King.
This myth has it that the King is the last in a long line to keep custody of the Holy Grail. He has been wounded, typically in the groin or upper thigh – there are various iterations of the myth – and he becomes increasingly ill and depraved. As he sickens, so his kingdom collapses and decays around him, becoming a barren wasteland (cue TS Eliot). The King whiles away his time by fishing in the river beside his Nkandla, I mean castle, possibly for even more state contracts that involve a kickback, awaiting a cure that his knights have been tasked to find, sustained for the time being only by the Grail itself.
The tale of the Fisher King is one of folly and depravity, and the immediate parallels are obvious. Charged with upholding the principles of the ANC, Zuma, (along with his not insubstantial Spear of the Nation) has instead perverted them – together with his supportive courtiers – to suit his own self-serving agenda. I hardly need to point out the parallel between the state of a country over which Zuma presides, and the failures, past, present and future, which are all simply too depressing to list. Even the current drought and its mismanagement seems to play into the themes of this ancient story. The only lightness (for me anyway) is that the Fisher King’s wound is often interpreted as the result of a punishment for philandering. Too bad the courts never speared The Spear, and instead found its owner not guilty.
But the parallels, as with most parallels, are superficial. An essential difference between the myths of Zuma and the Fisher King is that the King is more or less passive, a victim of his own inaction and errors rather than the active agent of his own undoing. Zuma, we know, has actively taken decisions that build an ever-deeper moat around himself, to the detriment of the country and its citizens, and he is supported by a cohort of courtiers, whom I can only assume protect this idiot for the handouts they are individually afforded.
The original Fisher King wishes to be cured, which suggests some desire for redemption, not to mention a residual sympathy for his subjects. Zuma, however, is not seeking a cure, and so soundly has he lost touch with his voters, those people who embraced what the ANC promised them in 1994, that he is prepared – no, happy – to watch them and their children grow up uneducated and disempowered, if they are not killed in the streets first. And yet, the fingers, deeply tainted from being embedded in our leader’s willingly spread arsehole, are pointed at white privilege. If you, King Jacob, had not misspent, what is it, R300, R500 billion, on things since your tenure that did nothing to lift your people into a position where they could compete with me for my job, fight me economically or intellectually on a level playing field, and therefore for the taxes I pay, you have in a word, failed. You have fucking failed. Failed. There is no other word. If I can sit here on a Friday afternoon on a Mac laptop, connected to the Internet at a tolerable speed, boring anyone who has read this far with my own solipsistic bullshit, why can’t the people who voted for you do the same? Because you never fucking let them, never gave them the opportunity that you’ve allowed me to enjoy since 1994.

We need to understand that Zuma is not stupid, despite his innumeracy, lack of basic geographical knowledge, and tactical buffoonery. Bauernschlau is a German phrase that translates literally as “farmer sly”, and it refers to a cunning that is not learnt from books. Unfortunately, it also seems to suggest a total lack of an ability to foresee consequence. As we watch Zuma storm ahead with his agenda of enriching himself and his cronies, it’s clear that he either does not understand the inevitable outcomes of his actions, sees himself as some kind of Olympian god, or simply doesn’t give a fuck.
         Meanwhile, we sit on our Weylandts couches, gaping and horrified, while our elected leader fishes in his firepool, hoping to land the big one that will get him off the hook. Fishing rod in one hand, the Spear in the other.  Time to go, JZ. Time to fuck off into the nuclear sunset of your own doing, and the sooner the better.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Where to now?

So today Michelle and I joined the rest of the Southern Suburbs at Parliament where we chanted “Zuma must fall” in our reedy white voices.
                  On the way there (two of us in a car that could comfortably seat five), I remarked that the march would probably consist of herds of middle-aged whiteys ready to head for the beach afterwards, and Michelle told me to stop being such a cynical old goat.
                   Turns out I was right. A guy about my age started toyi-toying as we made our way from Roeland Street to the Company’s Garden, where we were to meet up with the contingent from the Atlantic Seaboard. Like me, he clearly remembered the grittier, scarier days of the late 80s, where the thrill of a protest march lay in throwing kerbstones at the cops, and the risk lay in being arrested and soundly fucked up in a dark room somewhere. If you escaped the security police, you found an arm around your shoulders, hauling you into a shack and insisting you sit on the only bed and share a warm Black Label quart. Nothing like that to remind you of your whiteness. Or of how you shouldn't toyi-toyi.
                  I’m ambivalent, if not confused, by this morning’s mass white (with a bit of coloured, and some token blacks thrown in) action. There was a man with slicked-back hair from the anti-corruption thing, who got the crowd going to the point where most of them politely shouted “Zuma must fall” on cue. Mpho Tutu brought tears to our eyes. There was a muttering of Nkosi, which cringingly swelled to Welsh choir proportions once the Afrikaans and English bits kicked in. There was on the air a taint of Chanel and Dior and Ambre Solaire.
                  And then there was something of a lecture by another white guy who, I’m sure, peaked while he was a member of the banned ANCYL back in the day – back when the ANCYL still meant something. It was the white privilege thing he went on about, and I have to admit, I rolled my eyes in sheer political incorrectness. Yes, I am previously privileged. Yes, I still benefit from my whiteness, my education, my rambling old house with its mature plane trees in the garden. But in my defence, my eye-roll was directed at the ANC, and how it has facilitated white privilege for the last 21 years. It’s human nature – provide people with opportunities, and they will take them. I’m not saying our new rulers should have chopped down my plane trees, or confiscated my too-big car, or through BEE enriched a few smart black people on the way – but you can’t make the poor rich by making the (relatively) rich poor. What the ANC should have done is to have spent the 55c (at least) in taxes that I pay on every rand I earn on what the they promised they would spend it on in 1994.\
             Back then, when for the first time we stood in multiracial queues to vote, laughing and joshing each other like kids on a first date, not one of us on the colour spectrum foresaw the arms deal, Nkandla, R27bn in “irregular expenditure” for the 2015/16 financial year alone. Nobody foresaw the train tender, the inept girlfriend at SAA, the Airbus deals, Hlaudi With A Chance of Meathead totally fucking up the SABC, the Russian nuclear contracts on the horizon, the desire to spend billions on a personal fucking jet. Nobody foresaw a degree of nepotism,  patronage, the appointment of totally inept cronies to vital positions, that would have taught the Nat government a trick or three. Nobody foresaw the impending crackdown on the media – which alone will be worse than the restrictions and censorship of the 80s, with every word put into the public domain assessed by an idiot aparatchik with a red pen. 
If that’s what we see in the daily media, imagine how deep the rot really goes, probably all the way down to tenders for pencil-sharpeners and toilet paper. 
Here’s the rub: it’s not just Zuma, it’s the ANC. It’s the ANC, which is nothing like the ANC of twenty years ago, and light years removed from where it was a hundred years ago. 
So why is the party bolstering this man, why is it building laagers around him, why does it keep him at the head of the long table? Because they’re all on the take, feeding off the scraps that Zuma drops on the ground, and the fear is that when he goes, so will the gratuities. Zuma obviously has to fall, but seriously, what the fuck is next? Will it be better, or worse?

And there we were, ten thousand (apparently) of our country’s ten million tax-payers on the lawns of the Company’s Garden, polite fists in the air, demanding the recall of the despised president. Not so much because we of Contantia and Fresnaye wanted to preserve our ways of life, which of course we do – it’s instinct, it’s survival – but because a collective light-bulb turned on, and it shed light on what could have been achieved with all that money over the past two decades, and what hasn’t.
                  The saddest thing, standing there in my sweaty Woolies T-shirt and my Geox takkies, was the realisation of how the ANC has betrayed the people to whom it promised the most. Moi, I’ll be okay, I think, in my employment at a fantastic company, and with my all-powerful neighberhood watch. But what I hoped for on that fresh April day in Jo’burg in 1994, as some wag inflated a few condoms that the queue of voters bounced between them, was more than anything to see an end to 1993. And near fuckall has happened since.
                  As we peacefully dispersed in our Tommy Hilfiger sneakers and our Calvin Klein underpants to get into our Audis and Jags and head off for a well-earned flat white and a chilled glass of Valpré at Truth or Haas, I was left wondering what I could do. A something, no matter how small, that would make a difference to just one person the ANC has lied to and betrayed. How could I use what I do best, those things I’ve been educated to be good at, to help nudge someone from despair to hope? And as I passed the Book Lounge, which has neither of my books on its shelves, a thought occurred, and I liked it. What are a few hours of a Saturday morning anyway?
                  I do hope I have the balls to implement this little idea in the new year. After all, we’re all in this together, and if those of us who can don’t, we’re collectively fucked. So what are you going to do? We’ve run out of continent – south of Agulhas is only water, folks.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Stop creating. Now.

So this is what our government is sneaking into law while nobody watches. The quick version is that the copyright of whatever you create will (if the legislation is passed) belong to the government once you croak.

       In terms of the Berne Convention, to which twelve point nothing eleventy six and a quarter seventy countries have subscribed, copyright vests with the heirs of the estate for fifty years after the creator dies. This is ensconced in the Copyright Act of 1978, and is about to be undone by the Copyright Amendment Bill of 2015. The Rand Daily Mail gives you the taste of nothing to come right here. And PEN SA is really grumpy about this too. 

       So here we are, the cultural collective. Authors, musicians, choreographers, poets, playwrights, singers, photographers, illustrators, film-makers, poets, actors, whatever. Whether we sell heaps like Wilbur Smith, or a little dribble as I do, when Wilbur dies, or I do, our Department of Trade and Industry would have it that the government is to benefit from the royalties and other income our work might continue to generate.
        How is this logical, first up? Let’s say that someone puts up an office block. He draws an income from the rental, and the value of the property itself increases. After he pops his clogs on the golf course, the property is inherited by his offspring – who then benefit from the fruits of his labour. The state does not step in and assume ownership of this inheritance (yet, anyway. I mean, we’re not Zimbabwe, are we?). So why should Mr Smith’s children and grandchildren be deprived of fifty years’ worth of royalties on his work?

       To my mind, it’s simply another channel our government is seeking to open in order to secure further funding for its nepotism and its corruption. An insidious and cynical theft disguised as yet another tax, if you will. 
       But, shame, I suppose they’re running out of ways to squeeze pennies out of a base of only ten million taxpayers. Individuals already shell out a sizeable chunk of their income for PAYE.  
       Another 14c of every rand we spend goes to VAT.
       Every litre of fuel we buy carries a levy of around R5 in tax and to fund the hapless RAF – the tax component alone is around 30% of the cost. 
       We’re taxed on dividends paid out by shares that we used our after-tax money to buy.
       For some of us, eTolls chip away a little more.
       And now there’s talk of a wealth tax on the way, where individuals who earn a million rand or more per annum will be punished further for their efforts. 
       I will bet all my royalties that this figure of a million rand means pre-tax earnings. I’m hardly an actuary, but in terms of PAYE and VAT alone, my primitive maths says this individual is already forking 54c of every rand they earn to the treasury. And this excludes whatever they’re spending on petrol, or property rates and taxes, or eTolls. This means that the million-rand man will face a wealth tax on what in reality is at most R460,000 – less than the median income of full-time employees over 25 in the USA, on which they pay personal tax of just 25%.
       Not that many writers and artists can look forward to this kind of income in South Africa anyway. If you’re one of the lucky few to sell a thousand copies of a book that retails at R200, you can look forward to an income of around R10,000–R15,000, depending on your agreed royalty percentage. And that’s before tax, of course.
       The Bill put forward by the DTI also, as the Rand Daily Mail points out, creates new criminal offences. Refusing to grant permission to use copyright for educational purposes could see you in jail for 10 years, or fined up to R50,000. That’s great, if you’ve only earned ten grand on the work in the first place, being forced to give away your IP for no income so that it can appear in a text book with a print run of 20,000.

But, listen properly. What is the actual message here?

To me it says don’t bother. Don’t bother to think, and if you do don’t bother to commit your thoughts to material form, and if you do that, don’t bother to sell your work. You’ll only have to get your heirs to hold a book-burning in the back garden if you don’t want the state to benefit from any sales after your death.
       At worst, the Copyright Amendment Bill is a tentative step towards negating all forms of inheritance, where anything of value left behind by the deceased would transfer to the state.
       At best, it’s a kick in the balls of culture. Churchill has been attributed, when faced by a proposal that arts and culture grants be cut to fund the war effort, with saying “Then what are we fighting for?” Whether he said this or not doesn’t matter, it’s an expression of attitude, and it’s tragic that our government takes a view 180 degrees removed from this.

      Surely a truly progressive country would seek to encourage its pool of creators – making earnings on creative works tax-free, for instance, or zero-rating VAT on books – instead of pissing on their batteries? But here we are, on the cusp of having someone go “Heh heh heh” all the way to the bank with our money once we’re six feet under.

Comments on the Copyright Amendment Bill of 2015 closed on 26 August. Attorney Jeremy Speres of Spoor & Fisher, the legal firm specialising in matters of intellectual property, handily summarises the Bill here.

Saturday, 28 March 2015


I looked up and saw a shooting star,
immediately gone.

In its dying wake was left
a trail of ash and dust,
the winter sky
towards the sleeping crust

of earth.
An alien birth,

a billion years of travelling,
extraterrestrial proof,
sprinkled somewhat randomly
on a suburban roof.