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The knitting revolutionaries


375573_10150767483469623_121289517_nIt’s a delicious image: the fingers that had once constructed and placed bombs, knitting jumpers and cardigans for their loved ones from prison.

In a book called The Lighter Side of Life on Robben Island there’s a chapter on knitting. The knitting “coach” was JJ Maake, who had learnt to knit from a woman who had given him – an MK cadre in exile from South Africa in Swaziland – sanctuary and protection in her home.

He couldn’t leave the house during the day for fear of being reported to the police, so his host, always under pressure to fill her knitting orders, taught him to knit to keep him busy. When he was arrested in the early eighties and sent to Robben Island, he put in requests – looked at askance by prison authorities – for wool and needles.

When he finally convinced them he wasn’t planning to knit a bridge to Cape Town – and was prepared to settle for plastic rather than metal needles – they granted his request. His unusual activity caught a lot of other prisoners’ imaginations and soon he started an informal knitting school.

“It was sort of a fashion, ja, [the whole] island at that time was knitting,” Maake is quoted in the book as saying.


When I sit in this corner of my stoep and read or knit, I can crane my head and spot Robben Island between the high rise buildings of downtown Cape Town.

He only spent a year on Robben Island, but was later sent there again. By this time, things had relaxed somewhat and in the evenings prisoners would visit one another’s cells: “Sometimes there would be four or five of us sitting there knitting.”

The only prisoner who came close to out-knitting the prolific Maake, was the “hardcore” bomber Gordon Webster, from Durban, but knitting had many other fans amongst the political prisoners of Robben Island.

The book provides pictures of some of the knitted creations. They gave me goosebumps.

I like knitting too. It’s one of those activities that puts you in flow keeps your mind active but relaxed, and passes the time…at the end of which – almost surprisingly – you have a new thing. It seems like a perfect activity for someone who has had their liberty denied them.

I like that there are ex-freedom fighters who knitted: it chips away at knitting’s slightly naff image.

The book's cover features a picture of a political prisoner smiling and knitting.

The book’s cover features a picture of a political prisoner smiling and knitting.

The Lighter Side of Life on Robben Island – Banter, Pastimes and Boyish Tricks

Fred Khumalo, Paddy Harper and Gugu Kunene

Published by Makana Investment Corporation

Simple needs

“Oh let me live my own, and die so too

(To live and die is all I have to do)!

Maintain a poet’s dignity and ease,

And see what friends, and read what

books I please.”

Alexander Pope

Against the fading of handwriting


The writing on the wall is cursive

There are states in the US that are abandoning the teaching of cursive handwriting.

Never mind that learning cursive writing in Grade 3 is a rite of passage, something that turns us from “little kids” into those who can decipher scrawled notes in adult hand.

IMG_2595Never mind that in order to learn to make your pen glide smoothly over the page, you have to develop fine motor skills that print writing does not develop – the very motor skills that are needed by surgeons, scientists and computer technicians.

Never mind that cursive writing develops spatial skills which cannot be replicated by those you learn in computer games.

Never mind that hand, pen and paper work in an alchemy which has proven to increase your ability to recall information.

Cursive handwriting was invented so that we can write faster. We need to write fast because of the speed at which thoughts form. Poor handwriting slows you down and you can’t keep up with your mind’s attempt to have a thought, form it into a sentence and remember it long enough to write it down.

But never mind that children are being denied the complexity of thought that cannot be simulated by the mechanical tapping of fingers on keys.

Never mind the loss of the aesthetics of beautiful handwriting.

Future generations will lose the ability to write in cursive, cursive will become arcane, the territory of specialist ability, but it is none of those other things about the loss of cursive that I mourn. It is the loss of individuality.

What, I beg of you, is more conformist than type? Than Calibri, Verdana and Times New Roman, Arial and Helvetica? Indeed, they make our lives easier, make teachers’ lives easier, that’s for sure. But they can never replace the exclusive, exceptional beauty of the unique individuality of ink that loops across a page written in the style of a single incomparable human being.

Apart from your fingerprint, or your DNA – both of which must attest to your individuality as a human quietly and behind the scenes – your handwriting is the only real mark you can leave on your every day that proves to you that you are not like the rest.

In these states in the US where they are abandoning the teaching of cursive, they are doing so in order to concentrate on keyboarding.

I spent five years in total at university and in all that time the skill I am most aware of daily, the one that makes my practical life so much easier, is the ability to touch type. I am all for the skill of keyboarding. It’s essential. In fact, when I see people bent over the keyboards with their eyes on their fingers, which are pecking away laboriously only as fast as their eyes can locate individual letters and numbers, the inefficiency of their work method pains me. Keyboarding is an essential skill.

But to learn it instead of cursive writing? Isn’t that retrogression? Isn’t the point of life going forwards, learning more, being cleverer than our parents and twice as clever as our great-great grandparents? Isn’t that evolution? Is it not then counter-intuitive to decide to learn less? To trade one necessary skill – and I have already made the point that cursive is necessary – for another?

Society needs its intellectuals, thinkers, planners, designers as much as it needs its road builders and plumbers, its merchandisers and receptionists, its managers, accountants and dentists.

The hallmarks of intellectualism and creativity are a refusal to accept mainstream thought. What does cursive writing have to do with that? It has to do with an assertion of your very simple “own-ness”.

On top of which, if you want to be a writer, your hand, a good pen, and that Egyptian gift that keeps on giving – paper – are going to be your anchors, your roots, your steering wheels, your gears and your GPS whenever you paint yourself into intellectual corners, reach what feels like the end of your creative and emotional tether, or want to scream in frustration and rage at the world without anyone hearing. Writing is a life mapped, a font – and I use the word in both senses of its meaning – of thought.

The world wants good communicators, clear thinkers, idea makers. Nothing puts you in a better position to be all of those things – across any career you can possibly think of – than the ability to express yourself clearly in writing. Being a good writer does not mean that your career is limited to writing. Good writing is an indication that there is a sharp, enquiring mind behind the printed words. That even though the writers do not have the answers, they know the questions to ask.

That they are able to work out problems using words. Not just the not insignificant problems of plotting, style, rhythm, word choice, but how to imagine the lives of other people or other beings. The ability to see through the small dramas of daily life to what the emotional drivers are that set events in motion. To be able to express the universal longing or the bonds we human animals form with the natural world.Or to bravely question the very nature of god.

Writers have the gift of being able to spread the threads of humanity between us, to think about the problems that face our society and write new blueprints.

Separate letters on a page might form a picture, even meaning, but cursive joins the letters in new and interesting and beautiful ways. Humans are linked in a sort of cursive of universality by the ability to communicate authentically, clearly and empathically.

Writers are not soldiers of conformity. We should resist pressure to make life easier by reading abridged versions, or summaries – or by learning to type instead of writing cursive.

Schimke is a freelance writer, poet and columnist and the editor of the Cape Times books pages. This is an extract from a speech delivered at the launch of English Alive, the literary magazine for South African school students.

This piece first appeared in the Cape Times. Read the full piece here



Words are toys, and Mark Forsythe of The Inky Fool knows how to play. Just got The Horologicon to review. Happyhappy, because I so enjoyed his previous book The Etymologicon.

The Horologicon is organised around our wakeful times and it begins, as it should, with dawn. I’ve only just read the first chapter and have already added a few useful words to my lexicon. Like “hypnopompic” – those “strange half-dreamful, half-conscious delusions and illusions”. And “day-peep”, a word eighteenth century farmers used for “dawn”. There’s also “dayening” and “early bright”.

A bit of a horror in the modern English ear, but a joyously precise word, is “uhtceare”. It’s not a word for dawn, but for pre-dawn worries. “Uht” is the word for “the restless hour before dawn”. “Ceare”, which Forsythe tells us is pronounced key-are-a, was an Old English word for care and sorrow, “emotions that have an annoying habit of striking during the uht”.

This is etymology dressed for a party while it wittily inserts asides on history and social development.

I’m not sure I retained that much new information from The Etymologicon, except the memory of amazement and laughter. I’m making a point of remembering “uhtceare” though – so that I can sigh dramatically when the sky is “day-raw” and console myself that at least there is a name for my pre-dawn affliction.

Spectacles: a whinge against the inescapable

2012-09-10 19.49.22

2012-10-22 12.18.47These days it takes until around midday for the parallel sleep scars just above the outer edge of my left eyebrow to disappear. My face remains creased longer and longer.

This amuses me. The slow sloppiness of the body’s droop into a new – an older – age is too inevitable to rage against. But if there’s one thing I wish I could appeal against, it is the onset of age-related sight issues.

I cannot love my spectacles yet. One day I will, I know, because they will be all that links me to a page of text. But for now, I resent them.

They fog up when I drink something hot while I’m reading. They get squashed off kilter when I put my face on the pillow in order to read lying on my side. They are never where I need them.

When they’re on and each letter asserts itself from the murk, I forget I have specs. I get up to do something else and bounce off furniture like a drunk – because my glasses are for reading only.

I read and someone comes in to say something. I look up at them and a wave of nausea sweeps over me as they wobble in the distance. I must learn to peer over the top of the rims, like a stern librarian.

I read all the time, and everything. My eyes and alphabetical formations are locked in an ancient relationship in which I have little say.

And now this has come between them: the failing of sight.