I met Jaynee J through optometry. She had launched a hugely successful large-format glossy trade magazine VISION which changed the way eyeball marketing was done in Africa. So I had to meet her.
And there she was: This gorgeous blonde Pomshell laughing, thriving and swigging champagne! Succeeding and enjoying. Larger than life. Full of adventure, mischief and mirth. Unforgettable!
She got hugely involved in things optometric and ophthalmic, becoming famous in no time. Then suddenly one day Jayne’s focus changed. Oh no! She was no longer solely focused on us Eyeball Mechanics! She had a lot of strange new men in her life. What was going on?
Then I saw: She’d launched a similar magazine for vets. Veterinary surgeons. Testicle Mechanics. Now when I’d visit her, weird okes would rock up at The Rock with scarves tied round their heads. Everyone knows where a scarf goes. Around your neck. But these ous were on motorcycles. Holly DaveySounds they called them – and they had a weird sound. I dunno, a 1952 Vincent Black Lightning was always good enough for me.
Ever-versatile, our Jaynee J had transitioned from eyeballs to dogs balls. Detailed descriptions followed of primitive de-nackering surgery in Mocambique vs high-tech de-nackering surgery in Sandton. I think she enjoyed my empathetic squirming.
Ever-mobile, she moved from Lonehill to the Reeds to the Rock to Vilanculos. Every place she moved into was The Best and Wonderful and became a place where great meals were served with champagne. Always lashings of champagne. ‘Hold the bottle at 45°and you won’t waste any!’ None was wasted.
Recently Jaynee J had a big round birthday and her kids Jessie and Jason gathered a bunch of tributes and made a video for her. Lots of lovely people saying lots of lovely things. All true, like this tribute.
Jessie’s new friend Sandy took her off to the Pav and sorted her out like a big sister! Even though she only takes Jess up to her shoulder, she’s a great big sis. They did hair, clothes, shoes – actually boots – nails, eyelashes, the works. A vast improvement from her boring Mom, me.
On the way to Tobias Gumede’s umuzi north of Jozini on the Makathini Flats of the Pongola river floodplain, you pass a nyanga’s advertising billboard. He can sort out all your problems.
Not all his own, though, so he died and the new nyanga re-wrote the promises when we last went there.
Tobias’ home had also been upgraded. He’d added a covered entrance porch:
Leaving his home and continuing north you cross the Pongola where a magnificent old fig suffers the depredations of progress, erosion exposing its roots to a dangerous degree.
The new nyanga sign says (take my translation with a pinch of salt):
his gift we built
that which advances
the big (important) traditional doctor
April 2018: Tobias has just walked in. He has come to work straight from the hospital where they measured his blood pressure: 204 over 124! I sat him down and told him don’t move until that BP is down! So, much to his dismay, he’s under house arrest today. He has taken his muti and will take again tonight and tomorrow, then we’ll see if we can release him! But I’m fine! he protested, so I told him in gruesome detail what high BP can do to you, with a graphic artistic demonstration when I got to the ‘fall down dead’ stage. ‘Twas a powerful performance.
Later: I bought a supply of his two tablets and kept them at home with strict instructions: If you forget to take your tablets at home, take them here. Never miss! Yebo baba.
March 2020: On his last day before the COVID-19 lockdown I gave them to him to take home. Now it’s April 2021 and he assures me he takes them faithfully. I once again asked him, When you hear a man has suddenly died, what usually killed him? He couldn’t answer right away and I prompted him and he remembered. Oh yes! The ‘PRESSURE.‘ Yep, Take Your Pills, I droned.
I regard myself as a missionary. It’s an important job. There are a lot of people who need help and I – like the man from head office – am here to help them.
Take my mate JonDinDin and his eating habits. Weird. He made a porridge for me once and when I had finished picking twigs, bark, seed husks and I think even a few pebbles from my teeth, I politely asked him, ‘What The Actual Fuck?’ Roughage, he said. Fibre. Gives you moral fibre, makes you rugged. I explained health food to him and gave him some solid dietary tips. You know what food is good for you if it tastes lekker. If it tastes really REALLY good it’s health food: Mental Health. And that’s the important health, right? Mental Health. Also drinking. Eight glasses of water a day is for elephants after a drought. Drink when you’re thirsty, and sometimes drink stuff that makes you feel witty, clever and like you can dance like Nureyev. I don’t think he thanked me. Weird.
Take Chas and his perseveration. Someone has to be there for him. I say to him, Chas, if you have paddled from Hella Hella to Goodenough’s weir, you have paddled from Hella Hella to Goodenough’s weir. You’ve done it. You do not have to do it fifty times. Fifty three, he says.
I say to Allie, Allie, you have walked the Wild Coast. You have been there, done that. Also, if you must swim, there are lots of places you can swim with zero sharks in the water. I introduce a new concept for your consideration: Shark-Free Water.
But do they lissen!?
What made me think of my mission in life was this NEW Gary Larson cartoon. Yes, the wonderful news is that Gary Larson is telling the truth about life again! He stopped doing his The Far Side cartoons in 1995 but recently he started again! Not with pen and ink now, but on a tablet. Here’s the one that got me going:
‘Don’t come and visit! I’ve got head lice. They’re all over. I’ve told Linda to keep great-granddaughter Katie away! I have used over R1000 worth of muti from Aidan the chemist, I’ve sprayed the carpets and bedroom with Doom, I even sprayed my head with Doom, I know I shouldn’t have, but they’re crawling all over my body.‘
OK. That doesn’t sound right, so I go and visit. No sign of head lice. Have you seen any? ‘Only one, in my bed, but I saw three or four eggs on the lice comb. The louse on my bed was about the size of a grain of rice.’ Hmmm.
I write it down so he can’t mis-hear me or get me wrong: “I don’t think you have head lice. I think you have crawling nerve ends. Peripheral neuropathy.”
I’m wrong, of course. Immediately wrong. This and that.
I spell it out again: “I do not think you have head lice. In fact I KNOW you don’t have head lice. Stop using poisons. Your shingles and nerve endings cause crawling and itching sensations. Basically it’s peripheral neuropathy – nerve damage.” You’re not allowed to say Dis Die Ouderdom, but nevertheless I say, “You don’t have any specific cause, so it’s probably age-related.”
He’s skeptical, but at least when I take him to PicknPay he doesn’t buy any more Doom – which was on his list.
Later I take him the blurb on neuropathy – which is also the most likely cause of his pins and needles fingers and burning feet. It’s a bugger. But it’s not lice.
Nowadays he tells people about peripheral neuropathy.
None of this is new, you’ve seen it all, but I hope by showing you where it comes from that you’ll be better equipped to handle anti-mask bullshit from bloviaters.
Masks make a difference. They do help. How do we know that? I’ll show you. Usual mea culpa: I’m an amateur who believes the experts – and only the experts, based on real research – not an expert myself.
I’ve gathered some of what experts have done – and then what they say. After that, we’ll check the anti-mask “evidence” spread on social media by non-experts who often say what HUGE experts they are, then tell you masks are bad without doing any experiments (cos designing, then doing, good experiments is not easy and it takes time) and without any valid evidence.
First, why even talk about masks? Because we breathe. We all know people who emit spittle as they talk, and we dodge them and stand back when they get excited! But we don’t all realise that we ALL emit droplets when we speak. Here are two graphs in the same block of someone saying the words “stay healthy” while wearing a mask and while not wearing a mask. The person’s emissions were video’d under special conditions (check the link):
Here’s a snapshot of one frame in the video, which corresponds to the top bigger red arrow in Panel A – the highest number of speech droplets visualized in an individual frame of the video recording.
OK, so we have evidence that we spray. Of course, your Granma knew we spray germs when she told you to ‘catch your cough’ and when she avoided you when you had a cold (which is also a corona virus).
Next we found out that COVID-19 can be found on way smaller droplets than these – called ‘the aerosol effect.’ Now you need to not just avoid being coughed on or ‘spoken on,’ you need to be wary of the air where people have been, as aerosol particles linger WAY longer and travel WAY further than the bigger droplets which led to the 2m ‘social distance’ guideline (which politicians and businessmen soon reduced to 1,5m, down to 1m, down to ‘full taxis’ – side-by-side. These reductions were NOT done for our safety, BTW!).
Next, we (“we” – scientists on behalf of “us” – humans who know the scientific method is the best way to investigate things) looked at old epidemics and noticed there was less spread in places where people are used to wearing masks. In April already, this effect was noticed in the current pandemic too.
Next, scientists looked at 172 studies on corona-type viruses. After very careful analysis they gave a sober, cautiously-worded statement (this is a tiny excerpt – click the link to read the full study): ‘We found evidence of moderate certainty that current policies of at least 1 m physical distancing are probably associated with a large reduction in infection, and that distances of 2 m might be more effective, as implemented in some countries. We also provide estimates for 3 m. The main benefit of physical distancing measures is to prevent onward transmission and, thereby, reduce the adverse outcomes of SARS-CoV-2 infection. Hence, the results of our current review support the implementation of a policy of physical distancing of at least 1 m and, if feasible, 2 m or more. Our findings also provide robust estimates to inform models and contact tracing used to plan and strategise for pandemic response efforts at multiple levels.The use of face masks was protective for both health-care workers and people in the community exposed to infection, with both the frequentist and Bayesian analyses lending support to face mask use irrespective of setting.’
The most recent study I found was in Denmark where masks were not compulsory and most people did not wear them. A trial showed that people who did wear them in a randomised trial did get some benefit, even when all others around them were not wearing masks.
SO: You’ve always known this, but which is the best mask to use? Its not important. Comfort is probably the most important consideration, as wearing it comfortably and consistently is key. Having the ‘world’s best mask’ around your chin helps a rich, approximate, earth-shattering, statistical fokol. That’s zero. May as well strap it around your wrist fgdsake.
If you want a suggestion, surgical masks are generally more protective than cloth masks, and some people find them lighter and more comfortable to wear. The bottom line is that any mask that covers the nose and mouth will be of benefit. The concept is risk reduction, not absolute prevention. Don’t not wear a mask ‘because it’s not 100 percent effective.’ That’s just silly. Nobody thinks burglar guards are 100% effective, they install them to substantially reduce their risk.
Remember ‘All I ever needed to know I learned in kindergarten?’ Wash your hands often and well; Wear your mask; Keep more distance than you think (3m is better than 2m is better than 1m is MUCH better than french kissing); Avoid closed spaces (any indoors if you can help it; at least reduce that ‘essential’ indoor time); Avoid people (yeah, yeah, as far as you can – and that’s usually more than you do; also reduce your time spent with them); Get your groceries delivered (Checkers charges R35 to deliver up to 30 items within one hour – it costs you more to drive there and back and you’re rating your time at R0 – How much time have you got left on earth? Correct, you don’t know. But you do know that it’s precious).
What about “scientific evidence that PROVES masks are bad for you”?? Search for it. It will take you to wacko sites that tell blatant lies absolutely routinely. Always check the sites on wikipedia; and check their claims on snopes.com, and other fact-checking sites. Here are ten of the best fact-checking sites. Use them!
The Federalist is one bullshit site. They also publish false information and pseudoscience that is contrary to the recommendations of public health experts and authorities; and fake news about election results. Trump fans.
Typical of these sites’ disinformation was taking the Denmark study I mention and saying “A study in Denmark proved that masks are useless for COVID-19,” instead of the truth: The study found that face masks did not have a large protective effect for wearers — but did provide some protection to wearers, and did also provide benefits to other people. Note the difference in language: The DEFINITE conclusions by bullshitters; vs the CAUTIOUS conclusions that real scientists take, knowing things may change.
Another instance was taking one case of a driver who crashed his SUV into a pole in new Jersey on April 23. He blamed his collision on his mask. He told police he passed out because he’d been wearing an N95 mask for too long. Initially, the investigating officers believed him, writing in a Facebook post that he was the only person in the car and passed out due to “insufficient oxygen intake/excessive carbon dioxide intake.” The driver’s bulldust went viral! The police department later updated their post, stating that they didn’t know “with 100% certainty” that “excessive wearing” of an N95 mask was a contributing factor to the accident. They added that “it is certainly possible that some other medical reason could’ve contributed to the driver passing out.” But bullshit websites crowed “masks are bad for you, you get too much carbon dioxide!’ – and people who should know better forwarded and forwarded without checking (please don’t do that). A quick check can show you: actually, you don’t.
Another website The Gateway Pundit “is known for publishing falsehoods, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories.” So when they tell you ‘All the experts are wrong, we have scientific proof masks are bad for you!’, check their research, then check some real research – and then dismiss them with the contempt they deserve.
Go and find a fact-checking site now. A slightly different ‘ten best’ are suggested here.
There’s also AfricaCheck.org for checking bullshit in Africa – we sure need them, so I sent them a donation. Go and see how they caught Herman Mashaba bullshitting.
Oh, and please note I use the term BULLSHIT very deliberately. It’s a real thing:
In his essay On Bullshit (originally written in 1986, and published as a monograph in 2005), philosopher Harry Frankfurt of Princeton University characterizes bullshit as a form of falsehood distinct from lying. The liar, Frankfurt holds, knows and cares about the truth, but deliberately sets out to mislead instead of telling the truth. The “bullshitter”, on the other hand, does not care about the truth and is only seeking to impress.
Quote: “It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”
Bullshitters can exhaust you. As Alberto Brandolini’s Bullshit Asymmetry Principle states, “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.” Dr. Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston, Graduate College of Social Work seems like a very good and kind and decent person. Because she suggests we use generosity, empathy, and curiosity when speaking truth to bullshit (e.g. “Where did you read this? or Where did you hear this?”) can go a long way in our efforts to question what we’re hearing and introduce fact.
Trying to stay on top of COVID news? We have no choice but to do so, to best protect ourselves and our loved ones. It’s stressful and draining, but essential.
This post is paraphrased and shortened from an article by Alanna Shaikh, a global public health expert and a TED Fellow, for tips on how to navigate this information overload while staying safe and sane. ( for full article, see here )
1. Look for news that you can act on
When you’re trying to figure out what stories to stay on top of, ask yourself: “Will having this information benefit my life or my work? Will it allow me to make better-informed decisions?”
Accumulating masses of information that you can’t use isn’t so helpful.
For most people, the most critical information for you to follow is how the virus is transmitted. Scientists are still learning every day about how people get infected.
2. Turn to trusted sources
If something reaches you on your whatsapp or instagram in Blikkiesdorp, chances are people professionally covering the pandemic heard it before you did.
So go and see what they say about it. COVID-19 has been heavily politicized, and even some major news sources are basing their content more on opinion than on science.
You can generally trust the accuracy of top news sources like Nature,Wiredand The New York Times — to name three examples.
Why? Cos their reputations are at stake. And they have the kind of budget that lets them hire full-time journalists who will stand by the facts or who rely on fact-checkers to verify their information.
3. Check where their information is coming from
No-one actually KNOWS, so be wary of articles or sources that claim to have a definite answer to a complex question.
Right now, there is no consensus about a timeline — these people and organizations are simply offering their best guesses. Use fact-checking sites – find one here.
4. Look for news that works for you
For ordinary people whose expertise lies outside global health — i.e. us, you and me — find sources of information that you can read and digest without having to devote your whole day (or brain) to it. Like the Think Global Health website; it’s aimed at passionate non-experts. It’s not dumbed down, but it doesn’t assume you have a PhD.
5. Be prepared to change your behavior based on new information
No source is perfect, but that doesn’t mean you should disbelieve all sources. Research constantly changes and informs and shapes our ideas.
Remember when wiping down surfaces was the MAIN thing? Now, reputable organizations and scientists basically agree on masks, contact tracing and the existence of transmission of COVID by people who aren’t showing symptoms. If you get sick you will probably never know who ‘gave it to you,’ as they would have felt as healthy as you did the day the virus was transmitted.
Some of this info may change again, but we need to keep going along with best practice AS FAR AS WE KNOW TODAY.
6. Refrain from arguing with people who ignore the facts
Save your breath. Yours and theirs might be contagious!
You WON’T change their minds.
You are not a law enforcer.
Like it or not, this situation isn’t going anywhere. This pandemic is awful and complicated and changing. Finding our way through it won’t be smooth, nor easy, nor emotionally comfortable. It’s a constant, dynamic process of learning new things and adapting as we learn.
Lovely pic from the cover of Wits Review Oct 2020, magazine for University of the Witwatersrand alumni.
Have you checked my white horse? Well, white VW kombi – WHICH . . was towed into the garage while on holiday two days before new year. Today I towed it again – to a clutch place. I’ve been driving Trish’s ole man’s 1980 Opel Kadett. He handed me the keys, his vision is shot. Glaucoma and deciding not to use the drops for years as they irritated his eyes and blurred his vision. He was right, xalatan is a bitch. But . .
I await the verdict on the kombi’s clutch – which I hope is better than VW’s R17 290.
I KNEW I shoulda fitted a Stromberg.
Peter Brauer wrote:
How thick can ONE man be?
Read what you wrote: ‘Been driving Trish’s ole man’s 1980 Opel Kadett.’
Do you not see the message in that? Let me help you:1980……Opel . .
Give the kombi to the clutchplate and buy a fucking Opel. Of ALL people I thought you would have learned something as a student.
Problem is – no matter how hard I try – I don’t get the 1980 feeling driving it. I just remember Kevin Stanley-Clarke’s firm statement, as he drove us around Doories in his chocolate brown Alfa: “When driving, always watch out for old toppies wearing hats. Give them a wide berth.” My current cap says DAS Pilsener.
Also, clicking in the gearlock, fitting the steering lock, feeling the ceiling fabric fluttering on my bald head as I drive with all windows open – the aircon substitute. Then waiting for the misfiring to end after switching off – it all brings back TOO MANY memories.
PS: New crutch and “dual flywheel” (TF is that?): R9 900.
Steve Reed wrote:
Like I said: Buy a Toyota.
The WORST thing is, you’re right. As my Toyota patients never tire of telling me. With the Durban Toyota plant just down the road I see a fair number of them and their suppliers; and they have NO doubt as to what I should do. Trouble is: The Hi-Ace minibus has a bench seat – I can’t stroll back for a beer or a kip or to feed the kids. That’s a deal-breaker.
I never owned a Toyota in my life, despised them in fact, till arriving here in Australia and had to take the cheapest / most reliable / least offensive on the tweedie handsey (second hand) market.
Try standing on hot used car lots in the Brisbane heat !!! Water boarding is a kinder form of torture.
Eventually when my head and body was about to be fully done in, I gave way and said “OK OK I’ll take it” and by some luck I was standing on the Toyota forecourt at the time.
VERY pleased I was not standing next to a Kia or a Holden Captiva.
As for the clutch, anything that can take six months of the good wife Wendy’s clutch abuse and still be on the road is ok for me. And I am brave enough to say this in front of her – Then duck.
It’s a sad state of affairs that I will take anything that doesn’t give me kak in the line of cars and women nowadays.
Which reminds me: Bob Ilsley was at Addington when I got there in my khaki uniform. He was in legs, I was in eyes. He made woorren legs for the hobbling. He’s turned 81 now, still flies the plane* he made in his garage – a Piper Vagabond – and waltzes around in rude T-shirts. One says, ‘IF ITS GOT TITS OR WHEELS IT WILL GIVE YOU SHIT.‘
I’ve made glasses for him since 1980: Glass PGX execs; 3 cyl power, same axis; SAME heavy, dark Safilo zyl frame (same frame, not same type of frame), same add, same same; Tried changing a number of times to new frame, multi, CR39, flattops, different axis, whatever, and every single time we go back to EXACTLY what he had before.
Last year we tricked him. We made a free pair of CR39 flattops (‘temporary’ we told him) in a better frame (still zyl, but thinner) and made him wear them while we took his old specs and “searched for a frame just like his perfect one”. The search continued while his wife, all his girlfriends and mates told him he looked much better. Now he has stuck to them (except every now and then he walks in with his old ones on and kicks up a huge stink in the front office when its crowded about how “These bloody new frames you gave me are NO GOOD!”). He’s a character. Sharp as a whistle. He flies and signs off home-built planes – experimental aircraft – before they can be licensed.
* or would still be flying his Piper Vagabond tail-dragger if he hadn’t pranged it on take-off in PMB with his wife on board. He is re-building it in his garage now.
Anyway, owning a Toyota probly makes you more boring in the long run: You, for instance, would not have to catch a lift with friend Bruce to fetch your car in Umbilo Road (and the clutch feels kak, thank you).
We made a detour for lunch – a currie at Gounden’s. Gounden’s is at the back end of a panelbeating shop between Umbilo and Sydney roads. You walk thru the workshop to get to it. Lekker bare place, cheap tables with a big bar doing good trade. Many ous there for liquid lunch. We took quarter bunny mutton, made my hyes water. Washed it down with Black Label and coke – one bottle, one can, long sips from one then the other. R80 for the both of us. Service: Of the Hey You variety. Ambience: Faint sounds of panel beating in the background. Gounden opened this “restaurant” to spite his wife when they divorced. Her restaurant is a few shopfronts away, on the street: Govender’s Curry House. We feel in such cases of matrimonial argy bargy, we should support the husband.
~~~oo0oo~~~ My good wife Aitch also should be employed on a test track for concept offroad trucks along with Wendy. A mate from England visited and Aitch drove them around quite a bit while I worked to make money to take them all to Mkhuze. He drives ancient Peugeot heaps and lovingly tends them with kid gloves, keeping them alive long past their date de vente (sell-by date), so this was an eye opener to him. He said a Cockney version of Yussiss! and described how she takes no shit from a gear lever, nor a clutch. She knows first is somewhere up in that far left corner and she shoves the lever there without any how’s-your-father.
Bob is now 82. Last week he came in with his “Recycled Teenager” T-shirt. To proudly collect his – wait for it – Glass PGX Exec Bifocals in Thick Square Plastic Frame. “Much better” he says. His CR39 flattops were coated with a thick layer of some spray. Took lots of cleaning with acetone to get them clear and smooth. He did acknowledge they were clearer than they’d been in months. But the execs were better.
Today he’s back from passing his flying medical. “Told you” he says. “You wouldn’t lissen” he says.
Today he’s off to Kokstand to check if a home-built – built by the local hardware man – is safe to fly another year. He’ll certify it if all’s well.
Next week he’s on his way to Oshkosh in Wisconsin to the world’s biggest home-built aircraft show. Sleeps in a pup tent in the campground to save tom.
Last time he flew a simulator of the Wright Brothers’ first aircraft. Crashed after 3 seconds. Went to the back of the queue and stood in line again to have another go. Flew it for 44 secs that time. Longer than the brothers themselves.
Amazin. Where do you get PGX glass execs from? That stuff is illegal here – we live in a nanny state though. Had a dude on the phone for 20 minutes wanting glass PGX trifocals. Banging on about how he could buy PGX exec TRIfocals on the net if only he could get someone to fit them for him. Had not given up and had been trying for 18 months. PLUS of course being a veteran he needed to have them free. Veterans Assistance (V.A) here only does SV or bifocals, plastic only and a free pair every two years. Clear rules. He has been in battle with the head office of V.A. and after 18 months says he is beginning to make progress. Fantastic. Over here if you whinge long enough, know how to use email, have time, and use the term “human rights” you can have anything. Just shout loud enough. Its all yours. And then the taxes go up.
I wrote: Your veteran sounds like Bob.
On the execs, I got a definite NO WAY from Zeiss, Essilor and Hoya, but of course in Debbin there are lots of little one-man labs with family connections in places that keep Morris Oxfords running for half-centuries after their sell-by dates.
They woke up Hoya who then found a pair covered in dust. The add was +1,75 not +2,00, but I said “What’s the difference?” and we made them up. Bob’s as pleased as punch, like I told you. He loves a good “I told you so”.
Like Horseshoes and Handgrenades, closies DO count. Excellent.
Faster than Light (if you want to . . ) – Moody Blues “The Best Way To Travel”
I’ve always wanted to fly. Who hasn’t?
But I dislike noise, so while my first flight in a light aeroplane – with an Odendaal or a Wessels piloting it – was great, and my first flight across the Atlantic in a Boeing 707 at seventeen was unforgettable, it was a glider flight that first got me saying “Now THIS is flying!!”
We hopped into the sleek craft, me in front and my pilot Blom behind me. Someone attached the long cable to the nose and someone else revved the V8 engine far ahead of us at the end of the runway of the Harrismith aerodrome on top of 42nd Hill. The cable tensed and we started forward, ever-faster. Very soon we rose and climbed steeply. After quite a while Blom must have pulled something as the cable dropped away and we turned, free as a bird, towards the NW cliffs of Platberg.
“OK, you take the stick now, watch the wool” – and I’m the pilot! The wool is a little strand taped to the top of the cockpit glass outside and the trick is always to keep it straight. Even when you turn you keep it flying straight back – or you’re slipping sideways. I watched it carefully as I turned. Dead straight. “Can you hear anything?” asks Blom from behind me. No, it’s so beautifully quiet, isn’t it great! I grin. “That’s because you’re going too slowly, we’re about to stall, put the stick down”, he says mildly. Oh. I push the stick forward and the wind noise increases to a whoosh. Beautiful. Soaring up close to those cliffs – so familiar from growing up below them and climbing the mountain, yet so different seeing them from a new angle.
Years later I’m married and Aitch, having checked that my life insurance is up-to-date (kidding!) gives me a magic birthday present: A Hans Fokkens paragliding course in Bulwer KZN. We arrive on Friday night and check into an old house on the mountain side of the village.
Hans disagrees with Douglas Adams who said in Life, The Universe and Everything, There is an art, or rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. Hans says you don’t throw yourself at anything with his wings, nor do you jump off the mountain. You FLY OFF THE MOUNTAIN! He tells me how airflow works and how wings fly and then feeds us from a huge pot of stew and we sleep. Luckily I had been through ground school before; years before, when Colonel Harold Dennis taught me how heavy things fly in Oklahoma.
The next morning we’re on the hillside getting air into the wing and learning to lift, turn, run and FLY! The first time you lift off you think No-o! Yesss!!
Soon I’m able to take off at will on the beginner slope and we move up the mountain. I love the fact that you pack your own wing in a backpack and carry it up the mountain yourself. My first flight was fantastic but short, basically straight down and a rough and tumble landing. My next flight is way better, way higher and way longer, as this time Hans attaches a walkie talkie to me and can tell me what to do. “Lean right! Hard right! More!” comes over the speaker and thus he keeps me in a thermal and I keep climbing. Fifteen minutes in the air, rising 100m above the take-off point!
Aitch had gone off to read her book and chill, so no pics were taken of my soaring with the eagles and the lammergeiers!
Wonderful, silent, wind-in-your-hair flight at last!
After that amazing and unforgettable quarter of an hour, I descend slowly, and by watching the wind sock I can turn into the wind at the last moment and land like a butterfly with sore feet.
Reading Tramp Royal again! So here’s a re-post from 2016:
I lapped up the famous Trader Horn books ‘The Ivory Coast in the Earlies’ and ‘Harold the Webbed.’ I’m still looking for their third book ‘The Waters of Africa.’ ‘Their’ being his and the special and talented lady whose sudden insight made it happen when she befriended a tramp at her door in Parktown Johannesburg back in the mid-1920’s – Ethelreda Lewis.
If ever the philosophy of ‘Be Kind Always’ paid off, it was in this tale of a friendship that developed after the reflexive dismissal of a tramp at the door of a middle-class Parktown home was changed to a sudden, instinctive ‘Wait. Maybe I will buy something from you . . ‘ and – even better – ‘Would you like some tea . . ‘
After reading Trader Horn I was then even more enamoured of Tim Couzens’ book ‘Tramp Royal – The true story of Trader Horn’, as it validated the Trader Horn legend – Alfred Aloysius ‘Wish’ Smith was real and he had got around!!
Couzens died in October this year, tragically – he fell in his own home. I thought OH NO!! when I read it. He was a gem, almost a Trader Horn himself – what a waste! Too soon! He did the MOST amazing sleuth job of tracking down all Trader Horn’s jaunts n joints across the world and revealing that – despite the skepticism that had followed the incredible fame and Hollywood movie that had followed the success of Aloysius ‘Wish’ Smith – now famous as Trader Horn – ‘s first book in 1930. MOST of what the old tramp, scamp, rogue and adventurer had claimed to do he had, in fact, done! Tramp Royal is a wonderful vindication, and a moving, fascinating and captivating read.
One (small) reason I LOVED the trader Horn books, besides the original title:
Trader Horn; Being the Life and Works of Aloysius Horn, an “Old Visiter” … the works written by himself at the age of seventy-three and the life, with such of his philosophy as is the gift of age and experience, taken down and here edited by Ethelreda Lewis; With a foreword by John Galsworthy
(phew!) . . . . . was the number of places A. Aloysius Smith – ‘Trader Horn’ (or Zambesi Jack or Limpopo Jack or Uncle Pat – he had aliases!) had been to that I have also been to:
Joburg, his least favourite city in the world. He was in a doss house in Main Street in 1925, I was in Eloff Street in 1974. Parktown, where Ethelreda Lewis ‘discovered’ him. He would have died there, unknown and in penury, had it not been for her sudden decision to listen to him tell a story. ‘Wish’ came to love Joburg, as did I. In Parktown he was in Loch Street in 1926, I was in Hillside Road in 1977;
Hwange in Zimbabwe, or Wankie in Rhodesia as it was then; – BTW, pronounce Hwange ‘Wankie’;
Harrismith, where he went with Kitchener’s Cattle Thieves to steal Boer cattle and horses in the scorched earth tactics of the wicked looting Brits; He showed his humanity by describing the Boer women’s sadness, and states – I hope its true – that they always left ‘one milk cow behind for the kids; and we called it Pansy.’ And Harrismith is where I was born and raised;
The west coast of Madagascar where our yachting trip to the island of Nose Iranja took us quite close to his ‘Chesterfield Islands’;
The east coast of Africa, although he spoke of Zanzibar and we visited Mombasa – which he probably visited too, as he sailed up and down the coast;
Oklahoma, where like me he befriended and was befriended by, the local Native Americans – his mostly Pawnees and Osages, mine mostly Apaches, Kiowas and Cherokees;
Georgia, where he behaved abominably and which I used as a base to go kayaking in Tennessee. He drank in a doctor’s house and I drank in a dentist’s house;
The Devonshire Hotel in Braamfontein, where both of us got raucously pickled;
The Seaman’s Institute in Durban where he holiday’d happily for two pounds a month while waiting for his book to be published; His editor needed a break from him and sent him off by train on the 2nd April 1926 to avoid the Jo’burg winter. My only connection here is drinking in the nearby Smuggler’s Inn. If it was around back then, Wish Smith would have gone there!
Kent, where he died in 1931; I visited Paddock Wood on honeymoon in 1988.
Wish himself would be saying, ‘What, you haven’t been to Lancashire!?’
I would love to see his river – the Ogowe or Ogooue River in Gabon. Everything I’ve seen on youtube verifies Aloysius’ lyrical descriptions. Here’s an example (but turn the sound off);
I also loved the unexpected success of the first book. Written by an unknown tramp living in a doss house in Main Street Joburg, the publishers Jonathan Cape advanced fifty pounds which Mrs Lewis gratefully accepted. Other publishers had turned it down, after all. Then the Literary Guild in America – a kind of book club – offered five thousand dollars! They expected to print a few thousand, and also offered the rights to a new publisher called Simon & Schuster, who hesitated then went ahead, receiving advance orders for 637 copies.
Then it started selling! 1523 copies one week, then 759, then 1330 and then 4070 in the first week of July 1927. Then 1600 copies one morning! Then 6000 in a week. They now expected to sell 20 000 copies!
Up to November that year sales averaged 10 000 a month, thus doubling their best guess. They had already run ten reprints, the last reprint alone being 25 000 copies. 30 000 were sold in December alone up to Christmas day. The story grows from there – more sales, trips by the author to the UK and the USA, bookstore appearances, talk of a movie. The trip continued until he had gone right around the world, drinking, smoking and entertaining the crowds with his tales and his exaggerations and his willingness to go along with any hype and fanfare. At his first big public appearance at 3.30 pm on Wednesday 28th March he spoke to a packed house in the 1,500 seater New York City Town Hall off Times Square:
‘William McFee was to have made an introductory address but the old man walked on the stage (probably well fortified with strong liquor), acknowledged tremendous applause with a wave of his wide hat and a bow and commenced talking in a rambling informal style before McFee could say a word. He started by quoting advice given to new traders: “The Lord take care of you, an’ the Divil takes care of the last man.” He spoke of the skills of medicine men, rolled up his trouser leg above his knee to show the audience his scar, and threatened to take of his shirt in front of the whole Town Hall to show where a lion had carried him off and was shot only just in time. When the aged adventurer paused to take a rest in the middle of his lecture, McFee delivered his introduction.’
His fame grew and he reveled in it.
Then suddenly, people started thinking old ‘Wish’ Smith’s whole story was a yarn, nothing but the inventions of a feeble mind, and wrote him off as yet another con artist – there were so many of those! It was the age of ballyhoo and fooling the public with bearded ladies, confidence tricksters and hype. Some critics grew nasty, depicting Ethelreda – without whom none of this would even have happened, and without whose kindness and perseverance Aloysius would have died in obscurity, never seeing his family in England again – as abusing ‘Wish’ for her own gain. The truth really was that she – in effect – saved his life; she certainly returned him to his family; and she enabled the kind of rollicking final few years his dreams were made of! He had people to listen to him; he had money to throw around! What a better way to go than dying anonymously in a doss house in Main Street Joburg!
The hype died, cynicism (the bad kind, not healthy cynicism) set in and old ‘Wish’ Smith – Trader Horn – died in relative obscurity with his family in Kent. It may all have been a hoax . . .
So was he real, or was it all a hoax? To know more, read Tim Couzens’ book – it’s a gem!
Here’s a silent movie of the old rascal on a Joburg street corner soon after he’d been kitted out in new clothes when the first cheque for his book came in.
Here’s the back page from the movie program. The movie, of course, was Hollywood – WAY different to the true story! An interesting facet was for once they didn’t film it all in a Hollywood studio; they actually packed tons of equipment and vehicles and sailed to Kenya and then on to Uganda to film it ‘in loco’ – although on the wrong side of Africa to where it had happened!
It was a landmark film of sorts that chalked up several firsts. It was the first fictional feature-length adventure shot on location in Africa (but the wrong location! East Africa while Aloysius’ adventures were in West Africa!). It was the first sound-era ‘White Jungle Girl’ adventure – many more would follow. It’s an old movie, sure, it is of its time; to me as a Trader Horn fan, the worst thing about it is: it isn’t the true story! Nevertheless, some rate it as ‘surprisingly engaging and worth checking out’ now that it’s been reissued on DVD. (NB: See the badly-made 1931 movie, not the worse-ly-made 1973 remake).
Trader Horn wrote glowingly of a real lady he met on his river: an American missionary, Mrs Hasking. She died on the river, and Trader Horn took her body down river to be buried. I found out more about her here.
Here‘s a much better, two-post review of the Trader Horn phenomenon – and Tim Couzens’ book – by fellow ‘tramp philosopher’ Ian Cutler. Do read it!
On 27 October 2016 I wrote to Ian Cutler:
Sad sad news today: Tim Couzens the master tramp sleuth has
moved off to join his Tramp Royal in the afterlife.
At 72 he was about the same age as the old rogue at his death.
Regards, Peter Swanepoel
Sad news indeed Peter. Thanks for letting me know.Ian
I would think I’d call an adopted daughter of mine a lovely Zulu name. But Jess arrived as Jessica, two years and two days old and named Jessica by her fifteen year old mother Thembi. Just Jessica. Of course, we couldn’t imagine her as anything but Jess/Jessie/Jessica now! ‘Cept maybe JessiePops, like godmother Dizzi calls her.
Thembi had been checked in to hospital for a five month course of TB treatment and Durban Child Welfare decided Jess had to be fostered. They phoned us and we said Sure! We’d been about four months without a foster kid.
We took her straight to Thembi at King George V or VI Hospital* after checking it was safe to do so. We wanted Jess to see where Thembi was, and Thembi to know Jess was in good hands. We – especially Aitch – visited her often till she was well and discharged.
We met the family that had first rescued Thembi from her fate as a child domestic worker who had been impregnated by her boss. They were South Africans – ‘Indian’, ‘Coloured’ and ‘African’ if you must. This was why Thembi only spoke English to Jess. The lingua franca in her lovely circle of benefactors was English. She was given a corner on the floor in the lounge of a small flat in Melbourne Road, where she could be safe, raise Jess and go out to do whatever work she could find.
Then followed a number of years of Trish raising two ‘children’, little Jess and her tummy mummy teenager Thembi. Aitch was amazing in her support of Thembi and helped her to adulthood and some measure of independence. Literary classes, computer classes, sewing lessons and more were arranged. Hair appointments were made, dentists appointments for significant repair work.
Thembi then met a long-wanted boyfriend who was so good for and to her. Tragically, though, she ended up becoming HIV positive. Trish arranged expert care and a reliable source and clockwork collection of antivirals by meeting with the lady in charge of the HIV / AIDS program at King Edward VIII Hospital. Soon into the relationship, Thembi asked us to adopt Jess. Whattapleasure.
Fortnightly lunches with Thembi were unmissable. Aitch would arrange to meet, pick up Thembi and the three girls would find the shops for Thembi’s needs, and a restaurant for a meal and for Aitch and Thembi to swop news; then Jess and Thembi would chat – just a little at first, but later they would take to giggling together like schoolgirls, discussing the clothes and actions of passersby. Jess still fondly talks about those gossipy times.
A visit was made to Thembi’s family home outside Port Shepstone for her mom and gran – Jess’ gran and great-gran – and the extended family to see how Jessie was doing among the umlungus. Over the years, a sister and the great-grandmother died, coffins and funerals were arranged.
When she moved out to Newlands West, Trish sourced clothes and other articles she could sell on the street and door-to-door.
When Thembi got sicker and weaker she was booked into Addington hospital. Jess wrote her a letter. By now Aitch was not too well herself so I would usually go and deliver the goodies – I remember a cellphone charger, airtime and food goodies being among the things Trish would send Thembi.
Thembi died in Addington. Another coffin and transport. Her brother Dumi and her boyfriend – who were both good to her, as she was to them – took her body back to Port Shepstone.
* Now King Dinuzulu Hospital. Isn’t that a better name for a hospital in KwaZuluNatal? I don’t know anything about either of them, but as an African, Who the Hell is King George!? Now King Dinuzulu, lemme go and look up about him . . .
The quote ‘there is no new thing under the sun,’ comes from the Bible book of Ecclesiastes, which is said to be written by a King of Jerusalem. ‘He’ tells of his experiences and tries to learn from them. He is often refreshingly self-critical. The author writes under the pseudonym ‘Kohelet’ – translated as Ecclesiastes.’
He introduces ‘the kohelet’ – thus not himself – as the son of David. Who the author actually is, is never revealed. Only right at the end does he change from ‘quoting Kohelet’ and give his own thoughts, proclaiming all the actions of man to be inherently vain or futile, as . . . we all die.
At least he does endorse living wisely; he says we should live a good earthly life, even if it has no eternal meaning. Enjoy the simple pleasures of daily life such as eating, drinking, and taking enjoyment in one’s work.
Johnny Vassilaros is a courageous mensch. And an author. And I can’t wait! If you love Durban, get your copy. Write to – email@example.com –
Foreward by Advocate Peter Rowan I have known Johnny since 2003. I have spent many long hours with him, in meetings, in consultations, in Court proceedings, in open debate and in argument (even between us). He is a man of the utmost integrity. He is a man of high intelligence, a man of conviction and undeniably strong character. He has values and standards to be admired, a man of good, fair and even judgement, a family man, a music lover, a historian and environmentalist. A spade is a spade, and he calls it that way. Nothing in the civic domain is done for his own ego, or his own pocket. What he does is motivated by distinguishing between principles of right and wrong, and then, resolutely pursuing what is good for the situation that lies before him. He is disciplined, tough and unrelenting in pursuing his goals.
The nucleus of this book is the story of the Durban Paddle Ski Club, of which Johnny found himself as chairman, during the most taxing period in its history, and which was to have a profound effect on the plight of a most valuable public asset – Vetch’s Beach. This book has many interesting stories to tell. It brings colourful characters back to life by their amazing and often insane deeds in their pursuit of big fish on their little boats. And then, the anecdotes, historical facts about Durban, the pioneers of this city, shipping, the once dreaded “Bar” and shipping disasters off our coast, only a few life spans ago. For the fishing fanatics – just read it!
But this book is more than that. It also covers a most serious topic, that being the biggest and most expensive and controversial coastal development in the history of this city – the Point waterfront development. Having read the book, all I can say is “Wow!” The meticulous attention to detail and irrefutable accuracy on the facts is immaculate. Yes, some 250 pages are devoted to the tragedy of Vetch’s, where those who would like to know what truly happened, should read and read again. Johnny does not mince his words. He slaughters politicians, prominent municipal officials and powerful businessmen, decimates major role players from certain water sports clubs, all so justifiably, through their unethical deeds committed throughout the long Point waterfront years. If you don’t know who these individuals are, read about them in this book.
But the author doesn’t go at people simply for the sake of doing it. He acknowledges good and good people and good deeds. He despises bad or useless incompetent people, and most of all, reveals the wrongdoings, the corruption and skulduggery, all of which, we see aplenty in his book. He also provides more irrefutable facts, explaining how all this has led to the loss of the watersports clubs’ premises and the cost to the ecosystem at Vetch’s.
Johnny writes both from the head and from the heart. He adds comment which is well founded, and where he castigates the unfortunates and criticises others, he does so because it is relevant to the story he unfolds. His words amount to fair and justifiable comment and criticism, made for the public good, all within his constitutional rights and freedom of speech. The events that he describes involved matters that could so easily have been laid to rest around a table with sportsmen and women, as we were all meant to be, acting reasonably, in the interests of all our wants and needs of our respective sports. That’s what reasonable and civilised people with any sense of decency and good sportsmanship would have done.
But that was not to be. Not this bunch with whom we had to deal. Six individuals, who, as a committee, snuck off and formed a “Point Watersports Club”, with a “constitution” not remotely relevant to the aims and objectives of the water sports clubs, and, most importantly, in total contradiction to a legally-binding agreement they had all previously signed. And, staggeringly, with no mandate from their members and without any of them having any inkling that this was going on. And yet, this continued for years and the members still say nothing to this day.
How much in litigation costs did all of this amount to for the clubs, and ultimately the members? Johnny raises this in his book. I would conservatively estimate that between this “PWC”, whoever they may be, the DUC and the Durban Ski Boat Club, must have paid in the region of R5 million if not more. Look at what it cost the Paddle Ski Club and Save Vetch’s Association to save the beach, whilst others stood by – millions. What a waste! And how much irredeemable human and tangible destruction took place whilst all of this was going on?
And for me, one of the most dramatic standout points. How and why and on whose mandate did Hall, Kidger and Donald come to give away, in 2015, all the clubs’ rights to invaluable freehold property, to arguably own the highly valued land on which they were to build their clubhouse? Were these self-appointed directors simply dancing to the tune of the developer, giving away land that was worth millions, without a murmur? One can only be left wondering whether anyone was ever rewarded, for this act of “high treason”. No matter how one looks at this, it stinks. Rotten to the core. Should we not all be digging deeper into this? If we do, some people might just land up in jail. Johnny’s book lays this bare. Read it with care.
There is one last thing that needs to be published. The man I chose, during difficult times to put my money on, ahead of a multitude of erstwhile friends, the Geriatskis, and all of those who paddle with them. When I teamed up with the Geriatskis, paddling and socialising with them at DUC, it became one of the most motivating factors in my life. It was pure fun and pleasure. What camaraderie, banter amongst, what I imagined true friends to be! But when crunch time came, when it was clear that Hall was leading them down the garden path, and I started to ask questions and take a strong stance, where were these people? It seemed easier for them to step back and drift with the tide or blow with the wind.
Taking a strong value judgment call or a moral stance, or simply for the stark ecological sake of saving the beach, was not for these folk. But they paddle across that stretch of water, saved by others making huge sacrifices, day in and day out – conscience free, having done nothing to save the reef they so guilelessly now use. They went along with Hall because it was convenient and expedient. As tough and as sad as it has been breaking away and being excised from a strong group of wonderful erstwhile friends, and sad as the lonely situation is that I have now found myself in, I would suppose a gregarious fellow by nature, I wouldn’t swap Johnny Vassilaros and his solid principled fishing ski guys as friends for any one of these fickle souls – in my view, may they forever hang their heads in shame every time they paddle across the Vetch’s basin. Read about it.
I associate myself with all the facts set out in this book and with the words of the author, having been part of the action and privy to the multitude of documents and the voluminous court papers, which I still have in my possession. I am in the privileged position of being able to support or refute either the content of the book or any further comments that may arise. I challenge those who disagree with the content to revert, by way of constructive written exchanges, and back their views with adequate proof. I also challenge any one of you to take us to Court on whatever cause of action you may wish to rely upon.
I salute this man, Johnny Vassilaros, for his tenacity and his courage in disclosing the truth. He is a man who I would want alongside me if ever we were to go to war.
It’s claimed that at the age of 44 our cynicism starts to grow. But being cynical isn’t necessarily a bad thing, argues Julian Baggini. It’s at the heart of great satire and, perhaps more importantly, leads us to question what is wrong with the world – and strive to make it better . . . Test how cynical you are
If there’s one thing that makes me cynical, it’s optimists. They are just far too cynical about cynicism. If only they could see that cynics can be happy, constructive, even fun to hang out with, they might learn a thing or two.
Perhaps this is because I’m 44 (um, I was once!), which, according to a new survey, is the age at which cynicism starts to rise. But this survey itself merely illustrates the importance of being cynical. The cynic, after all, is inclined to question people’s motives and assume that they are acting self-servingly unless proven otherwise. Which is just as well, as it turns out the “study” in question is just another bit of corporate PR to promote a brand whose pseudo-scientific stunt I won’t reward by naming. Once again, cynicism proves its worth as one of our best defences against spin and manipulation.
I often feel that “cynical” is a term of abuse hurled at people who are judged to be insufficiently “positive” by those who believe that negativity is the real cause of almost all the world’s ills. This allows them to breezily sweep aside sceptical doubts without having to go to the bother of checking if they are well-grounded. In this way, for example, Edward Snowden’s leaks about the CIA’s surveillance practices have been dismissed because they contribute to “the corrosive spread of cynicism”. So the spread of truth – the revelation of evil! – is blamed on ‘cynicism!’ “If you catch me doing evil, you’re a cynic!!” Think about that lie!
In December 1999, Tony Blair hailed the hugely disappointing Millennium Dome as “a triumph of confidence over cynicism”. All those legitimate concerns about the expense and vacuity of the end result were brushed off as examples of sheer, wilful negativity. “If I spend a billion pounds of taxpayers’ money on a half billion-worth white elephant, you’re a cynic!!” WHY THANK YOU, TONY!
A more balanced definition of a cynic, courtesy of the trusty Oxford English Dictionary, is someone who is “distrustful or incredulous of human goodness and sincerity”, sceptical of human merit, often mocking or sarcastic. Now what’s not to love about that? AND IF TONY BLAIR MOCKED CYNICISM IS THAT NOT A REALLY GOOD REASON TO HAVE A SECOND LOOK AT IT?
Of course, cynicism is neither wholly good nor bad. It’s easy to see how you can be too cynical, but it’s also possible to be not cynical enough. Indeed, although the word itself is now largely pejorative, you’ll find almost everyone revels in a certain amount of cynicism. It can provide the impulse for the most important investigative journalism. If Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had been more trustful and credulous of human goodness and sincerity, they would never have broken the Watergate story. If our amaBhungane and Noseweek investigative reporters just nodded when politicians and – ESPECIALLY – businessmen gave them their press releases, we’d be up Shit Creek! Um, further up Shit Creek!
It can provide the impulse for the most important investigative journalism. If we were all habitually trustful and credulous of human goodness and sincerity, then there would be no questioning of dubious foreign interventions, infringements of civil liberties or sharp business practices.
Perhaps the greatest slur against cynicism is that it nurtures a fatalistic pessimism, a belief that nothing can ever be improved. There are lazy forms of cynicism of which this may be true. But at its best, cynicism is a greater force for progress than optimism. The optimist underestimates how difficult it is to achieve real change, believing that anything is possible and it’s possible now. Only by confronting head-on the reality that all progress is going to be obstructed by vested interests and corrupted by human venality can we create realistic programs that actually have a chance of success. Progress is more of a challenge for the cynic but also more important and urgent, since for the optimist things aren’t that bad and are bound to get better anyway.
That’s not the only way in which a proper cynicism challenges the simplistic black-and-white of received opinion. The cynic would surely question the way in which the world is divided into optimists and pessimists. Optimism has various dimensions, and just because some people take a dim view of human nature and some future probabilities, that does not mean they are hardcore pessimists who believe things can only get worse. Cynics refuse to be typecast as Jeremiahs. They are realists who know that the world is not the sun-kissed fantasy peddled by positive-thinking gurus and shysters.
Indeed, the greatest irony of all is that many of the people promoting optimism are unwittingly feeding a view of human nature that is cynical in the very worst sense. Take psychologist and neuroscientist Elaine Fox, who is on Horizon tonight talking about her book Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain. Like many, she traces our tendency to make positive or negative judgments back to our brains and the ways in which they have been cast by our DNA and shaped by our experience. Her upbeat conclusion is that by understanding the neural basis of personality and mood, we can change it and so increase our optimism, health and happiness.
The deeply cynical result of this apparently cheerful viewpoint is that it encourages us to see what we think and believe as products of brain chemistry, rather than as rational responses to the world as it is. Rather than focus on our reasons for being optimistic or pessimistic about, say, the environment, we focus instead on what in our brains is causing us to be optimistic or pessimistic. And that means we seek a resolution of our anxieties not by changing the world, but by changing our minds. If that’s not taking a cynical view of human merit and potential, I don’t know what is.
So far, I have avoided the easiest way to defend cynicism, which is to point to its illustrious pedigree in the ancient Hellenic school of philosophy from which it gets its name. But I would be cynical about that too. Words change their meanings, and so you cannot dignify the cynicism of now by associating it with its distant ancestor.
Nonetheless, there are lessons for modern cynicism from the likes of Diogenes and Crates. What they show is that a proper cynicism is not a matter of personality but intellectual attitude. Their goal was to blow away the fog and confusion and see reality with lucidity and clarity. The contemporary cynic desires the same. The questioning and doubt is not an end in itself but a means of cutting through the crap and seeing things as they really are.
True cynicism is a protest against corruption, luxury and insincerity. Diogenes, the story goes, was called a “downright dog,” and this pleased him. He said a dog bites its enemies, a cynic bites his friends to save them!
The ancient Cynics also advocated asceticism and self-sufficiency. There is something of this too in their modern-day counterparts, who are aware that we waste too much of our time and money on things we don’t need, but that others require us to buy to make them rich. People who live rigorously by this cynicism are often seen as grumpy killjoys. To be light and joyful today means spending freely, without guilt, on whatever looks as if it will bring us pleasure. That merely shows how deeply our desires have been infected by the power of markets. It is the cynic who actually lives more lightly, unburdened by the pressure to always have more, not relying on purchases to provide happiness and contentment.
Finally, the Cynics were notorious for rejecting all social norms. Diogenes is said to have masturbated in public, while Crates lived on the streets, with only a tattered cloak. Whether anyone is advised to follow these specific examples is questionable, but it is surely true that we do not see enough challenging of tired conventions today. Isn’t it astonishing, for example, how, once elected, MPs continue the daft traditions of jeering, guffawing and addressing their colleagues by ridiculous circumlocutory terms such as “the right honourable member”? It comes to something when the most controversial defiance of convention by a politician in recent years was Gordon Brown’s refusal to wear a dinner jacket and bow tie. People would perhaps be less cynical about politicians if the politicians themselves would be more (decently) cynical.
Perhaps the biggest myth about cynicism is that it deepens with age. I think what really happens is that experience painfully rips away layers of scales from our eyes, and so we do indeed become more cynical about many of the things we naively accepted when younger. But the result of this is to make us see more sharply the difference between what really matters and all the dross and nonsense that clutters up life. So as cynicism about many – perhaps most – things rises, so too does our appreciation and affection for what is good and true. Cynicism leads to more tender feelings towards what is truly lovable. Similarly, doubting the reality of much-professed sincerity is a way of showing that you respect and value the rare and precious real deal.
It’s time, therefore, to reclaim cynicism for the forces of light and truth. Forget about the tired old dichotomies of positive and negative, optimistic and pessimistic. We can’t make things better unless we see quite how bad they are. We can’t do our best unless we guard against our worst. And it’s only by being distrustful that we can distinguish between the trustworthy and the unreliable. To do all this we need intelligent cynicism, which is not so much a blanket negativity, but a searchlight for the truly positive.