Home » 2013 » February

Joburg Jumble

DSC01265I spent last week in Joburg – and the weekend in Pretoria – for work. I grew up in the latter, and worked for two years in the former, just after democracy came to South Africa. Oddly, I haven’t been back to Joburg – except to pass through Oliver Tambo International Airport – for…well, actually, I can’t work it out, but I think maybe not since 1998. Can that be?

Joburg is big, loud, green, mad, garish, gorgeous and exciting. And Joburgers are fabulous. I am always wary of generalisations – especially those that seem to repeat a received wisdom – but I only had warm, funny, strong, intelligent interactions with the people I met.

Joburgers rock. They mix. They know. They do. They go.

Every night I dreamt the day’s happenings in mix of languages, in day-glo, in slow-mo, in detail. My brain was hyper-sponge, sucking in by day, squeezing out images in a steady stream by night.

Soon as I get time I’m going to post about some of my bookie experiences Jozi.



Mr Phillips

Mr PhillipsDistinctly odd, sometimes boring, but punctuated by moments of what can only be described as naïve profundity, Mr Phillips did not make me laugh as much as puzzle, in spite of the enthusiastic cover shouts by important literary types.

Mr Phillips is a very dreary man, underlined – or perhaps parodied – by the fact that he is an accountant. Or was. He’s been retrenched and he doesn’t know how to tell his wife. So he goes “to work” spending the day walking through London with a kind of mental erection leading him around. Truly, this man thinks of sex incessantly, stopping sometimes only to make vast, complicated mental computations – as befits, one supposes, boring accountants. These two rambling weeds of inner conversation are interchangably boring and weird.


There is great cinematic appeal in his progress through London’s streets, but there is no climax or resolution. It’s a very strange story. – Karin Schimke

Mr Phillips

John Lanchester

Faber & Faber

REVIEW: Karin Schimke

REVIEW: The Art Book


The Art Book


REVIEW: Karin Schimke

If you’d like to skip the yadi-yada to get to what the book’s about, I have kept the editorialising in black and have highlighted the useful bits in purple. DSC01411

“Art”, like “poetry”, can be such a forbidding concept.

Those of us who do not practise it – apart, perhaps from part-time aesthetic experiments in lino-cutting, cake-decorating, wood turning or sock knitting, which, however tangentially, might be related to “making art” in the sense that they are creative endeavours – feel that a certain academic ignorance bars our entry into such elevated and hallowed ground as discursions into art and its meaning.

A passage from John Lanchester’s latest novel Mr Phillips plumbs this insecurity blithely when the protagonist wonders into The Tate Gallery.

“As always when he goes to a museum his impetus runs out very quickly once he has got inside. He has a feeling that he is looking for something that is not there, and what is worse, that everyone else is too. Or that they know something which he doesn’t. Or that there are a set of feelings he is supposed to have in the presence of art but which in his case are simply absent.”

I have felt that. And a sudden, inexplicable fatigue which seems to be related to some rising feeling that I simply don’t know enough to “get it”.

This stands in stark contrast to my private experience of art. I have, over years, managed to collect quite a substantial little art library and a small collection of paintings by local artists. I can say little about technique or context or meaning and I seldom know much more about the artist than the shape of their scribble on the painting. But – and this is where the art *fundis will throw down the newspaper in disgust – I like looking at pictures.

Yes. It’s that simplistic. Some pictures mean something to me for reasons I don’t fully grasp. And since I can’t afford that many, I like having books on art. Some pictures make no impression at all and I sometimes “see” them for the first time years later, as though a page had been surreptitiously inserted. Others I linger on. Others make me laugh. Or I shake my head at them.

In the novel I mentioned above, Mr Phillips goes on to name three paintings he sees at the Tate, and his thoughts and feelings about them are reflected in the narrative. His reactions are perhaps naïve – yet sometimes oddly profound – but he has them. And that is why people make art and other people look at it. It is, in essence, a reflective endeavour.

That art is also academic and can be analysed and written about – particularly in that highfalutin gobbledygook you come across in gallery pamphlets – is almost beside the point. Art is about seeing and about response. When I am told what I should be feeling about a work of art – something the high, grand walls and ceilings of museums seem to be doing too, albeit in a tacit way – then I become anxious and lose whatever connection exists between me and a work of art.

The Art BookThe Art Book, weighing in at four hefty kilograms, completely cuts me off from “expected responses” and the concomitant anxiety it causes. It’s just me, my cup of tea and pages upon pages of art. Five hundred and seventy six representations of works of art, and absolutely none of the usual organisational methods usually brought to bear in art books. There’s no section on Expressionism, Dadaism, Gothic or Rococo. No focus on landscape, or portrait or still life. The lens takes in almost every medium and every era – in the oddest way: by organising the representations using the surname of the artist. That means that on one left hand page you have four photographs of a man pushing an enormous melting block of ice across Mexico City (the work is called “Paradox of Praxis 1 – Sometimes Doing Something Leads to Nothing” by Francis Alÿs), while on the other you have a representation of an enormous oil on canvas by Jacopo Amigoni called “Juno Receives the Head of Argus”. This idiosyncratic arrangement means that every page is a surprise. Each picture of works by painters, photographers and sculptors is accompanied by a short text about the piece and about the artist. All of this is cross-referenced and there’s a really useful, no-nonsense glossary of technical terms and artistic movements included at the back of the book. I imagine that if your approach to art is deeper, more analytical and more organised than mine, you will find this disturbing. But I can’t quite imagine a person who would find no joy at all in this book, and I particularly recommend it for households with children. It’s like having a museum in your house.

In an essay entitled “Embodied Visions: What does it mean to look at a work of art?” the New York writer Siri Hustvedt notes that art exists because humans have been endowed with “reflective self-consciousness”. In other words, “we are able to represent ourselves to ourselves and muse about our own beings”. Art has no purpose other than to be looked at and thought about. She says that it is not a tool; that we can’t eat with it; that art is useless. But when we look at a picture or a representation of a thing or at an abstraction, we reflect on something in ourselves because “we are witnessing what remains of another person’s creative act, and through the artistic object we find ourselves embroiled in the drama of self and other”. No art book I own quite so fully represents this human drama as The Art Book does. – Schimke is a journalist, a poet and the editor of the Cape Times books pages.

*fundi is a South African word meaning “an expert in a particular field” or “an enthusiast for an activity or pastime”. (South African Concise Oxford Dictionary).


REVIEW: The Horologicon


The Horologicon
Mark Forsyth

REVIEW: Karen Jeynes

The Horologicon is, I can confidently say, a…oh, what’s the word? Yes, that’s it, a multivagant celebration of language. Multivagant, as you will learn on page 220, means “wandering hither and thither”, and is related to “extravagant” – “wandering beyond the bounds” and, as Mark Forsyth thinks you might want to know at 11pm, “solivagant”  – “wandering alone towards your far-off felicity”.
In my case, that felicity would be time spent devouring this masterpiece. From the moment it arrived in my hands I was in love. From the classic cover to the list of obscure dictionaries from which Forsyth gleaned some of his gems, I was hooked. This is word-nerd heaven, and I instantly bought the book and gave it to two people, and recommended it to several more.

Forsythe first gave us The Etymologicon and followed up quickly with The Horologicon.

Forsythe first gave us The Etymologicon and followed up quickly with The Horologicon.

Following on the extraordinary success of The Etymologicon, Mark Forsyth brings us “a day’s jaunt through the lost words of the English language”. The Horologicon, or book of hours, is a collection of beautiful, funny, odd and interesting words, divided into the hours when you might most need them. After lunch you might be wamblecroft – afflicted with an uneasiness of the stomach. At 6am you might be in a zwodder, a half-stupefied state. This division has been made so that words about similar things can be woven together. The theory is that you can dip into the book at a suitable hour, and read something appropriate to your state of mind. The reality is you will be hooked, and read for several hours at once.
The genius of Forsyth. who blogs as The Inky Fool, lies in his ability to draw you in to the enticing world of words. His enthusiasm for them oozes off the page. He is evidently vastly knowledgeable, but unlike many purveyors of knowledge his style is inclusive and accessible. It is impossible not to be lured in, and become addicted to, the words, the meanings, and the very celebration of our human ability and desire to express just about every emotion and occurrence. The decision to arrange the words by hours and weave them together with a narrative makes this book as readable as a novel, while remaining as useful as a dictionary. And the application of words to everyday situations means that they are far more likely to linger in your mind than if they were presented in a dry and academic style.
How could you not be enchanted by gymnologising (debating naked), poon (to prop up a table by wedging something under the leg) or scamander (to wander without a settled purpose)? I could continue, as on every page something is found to delight and resonate, but I won’t, as you need to buy this book. In fact, it’s hard not to introduce you to a plethora of words, as eagerly as I would introduce you to new friends. But credit must be given to the author, as without him there’s no doubt that these words would have remained undusted on the back shelf of language. Forsyth’s chatty style will make you feel that these are words that everyone could and should use.
Forsyth is a self-proclaimed pedant, a historian, and a man on a mission to spread a healthy addiction to words. His first book, The Etymologicon (which you should also buy) was described as “a circular stroll through the hidden connections of the English language”, and became a bestseller. He blogs on language and grammar, and is seemingly ever-keen to engage on issues of language. He also takes a practical approach to things. “Reality changes words far more than words can ever change reality,” says Forsyth. This is not the dogmatic pedant, ready to strike with a red pen. This is rather a benevolent confectioner, ready to hand you a delightful treat when you least expect it.
Another reviewer described The Horologicon as an excellent way to “upgrade” your English. I think this is a superb analogy, as reading The Horologicon, even if you don’t recall a single word of it afterwards, will undoubtedly make you prick up your ears a little more to the words that you do use, encourage you to start thinking about language, the basic tool which we use to survive every day.  Whether you are already intrigued by words and want to expand your treasure trove, or simply in search of an excellent and intriguing read, The Horologicon will help you while away the hours. And somewhere between the front cover and the back, you will realise that you are learning things without even realising it, that knowledge is seeping into your brain and that you feel so much the better for it.
This is not a reference book to put on your desk to impress people with. This is a delightful new companion to keep to hand at all times, and shall never be used as a poon. – Jeynes is an award-winning playwright who lectures in digital culture. She is also the editor of ThatWordSite.

This review appeared in the Cape Times in February 2013.

Find out some delicious words for “morning” here.