Monday, May 2, 2011

Lord Give Me Patience, Only Do It Quickly

I was born in England where I spent the first five years of my life living in a small semi-detached house with my mum, brother and gran. At some point my future step-father appeared on the scene and my mum announced that she was going with him to South Africa for a while with a view to us moving there permanently. I had visions of dirt roads lined with grass huts and lions roaming about looking for something to eat. I had seen Tarzan on television, so can you blame me?

Within the year, we arrived in this weird world where the sky was so blue it hurt your eyes and the soil was not black but red. Our first stop was Westville outside Durban. We rented a house with massive windows looking out onto a terraced garden that seemed to go on forever. I was relieved to see that there were no lions, and delighted that we were not going to have to live in a grass hut. It was hot and humid and there seemed to be a thunderstorm almost every night. We would sit in the back bedroom and watch the forks of lightning flash across the sky, anticipating the mighty crashes of thunder and counting the seconds to see how far away we were from the storm.

It took me a while to adjust to life in South Africa. There was the heat, and the red soil, and the schools where the corridors all seemed to be on the outside of the buildings. There was the strange language where people greeted each other with 'howzit?' and the curious signs such as 'roomys ice-cream' (it was ages before I realized 'roomys' wasn't the brand name of the ice-cream) and 'city stad' that I always saw on the buses.

The other thing I remember about South Africa is the wildlife. For the first five years of my young existence, the only insects I had seen were some ants and the odd butterfly in my gran's back garden. In the few months we lived in Westville I discovered all sorts of weird and wonderful creatures, including snakes, spiders, flying ants, centipedes, and cockroaches the size of small rodents (with the wonderful Afrikaans name 'kakkerlakke'). My first experiences of kakkerlakke was particularly memorable. I had been given a small plastic cuckoo clock for Christmas (I really wanted a toy car, but it was a nice clock) and my mum hung it on the back door in the kitchen. Within a few days it stopped working so she lifted it off the door to have a look. As she did this, two big hard-shelled cockroaches scuttled out. I remember my mum screaming and dropping the clock into the laundry basket. So one of my earliest memories of Africa is of two bugs breaking a cuckoo clock.

Another vivid memory I have is of catching buses. We moved to Cape Town and rented a flat in a place called Camps Bay which nestles between the beach and the hillside beneath a series of outcrops along Table Mountain known as The Twelve Apostles. We were situated on a bus route that followed the coast into Cape Town city centre. One reason I remember it is because the road leading into the 'city stad' was quite winding in places and the drivers seemed to relish going as fast as possible. If you sat on the top deck on the lift side, you could almost see down the sheer drop to the rocky shoreline below as the drivers swung the vehicle around the tight bends, causing the top deck to lean out at an alarming angle. The other reason I remember these buses is because they seemed to take an age to come and then two or three would arrive at once. There was a timetable on the bus stop but I cannot remember ever catching one at the advertised time. Presumably, timetables were just suggestions of when it might be a good time to arrive at a stop, or possibly they were printed to give the drivers something to look at when they got bored hanging around at the terminal.

I remember complaining to my mum about this. She responded with: 'patience is a virtue' which had quite an impact on me. So what she was saying was: if you can sit for an hour and wait for a bus without complaining or fidgeting, or feeling like your brain is going to implode, then you have learned something good and noble? Suddenly, waiting for the bus without getting impatient became a lofty goal worthy of my best efforts. I would look at kids my age sighing and complaining and fretting, and think that I was somehow a step ahead of them. I began to pride myself on being able to sit and wait. It felt good to have conquered something so fundamental. Life involved a lot of waiting around and now I had learned how to cope.

Perhaps that's why I became a writer or, rather, why I continued as a writer even when the particular bus I was waiting for (the one with 'publication' on the front) was not just late but hand't even been built yet when I started writing my first novel. Let's face it, writing takes the kind of patience that would make Job sit up and take notice. You spend months writing our stories, editing them, submitting to agents and publishers. You spend weeks waiting for replies. You spend days fretting over criticisms. It's now May, which means we are entering competition season. For the next few months, those of you who have entered any of the numerous competitions out there will have to wait to see which books the judges like. That means more sitting at the bus stop, peering around the corner to see if the bus is coming, listening for the distinctive sound of the engine, checking to make sure you brought enough money for the ticket.

If patience is a virtue, then I think we writers can give ourselves a pat on the back, because we must be very virtuous indeed.


  1. Paul this is a fabulous post. I live in South Africa and can picture and feel everything you talk about. What a stunning insight into our complex country for our international readers. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for this blog post, Paul, I enjoyed reading it and it brought back many memories for me.

    My family immigrated to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) from the UK when I was 7 and that's where I grew up, so I can relate to your experiences. I remember my dad telling me that we were moving to Africa where it was very hot, but there was always a breeze blowing to cool things down. Hmmm, there wasn't, it was often very very hot and I think I lived in the swimming pool to cool down.

    And yes, the wildlife! Huge big sjongololos (millipedes). I loved the red velvet "spiders".

    I'm still learning to be patient!

  3. So, Paul, what IS roomys ice cream?

    Thanks for this glimpse into another land.

  4. In case Paul isn't around - roomys is Afrikaans for ice cream. So they're simply announcing ice cream in the two languages.

    In the same way, stad is Afrikaans for City.

  5. Thanks Shirl. Yes, "room" is Afrikaans for cream and "ys" means ice. For about the first year I kept talking about "Roomy's ice cream". I also mistook "howzit?" for "how is it?" and would always reply with "fine thanks, how are you?". Buth "howzit" really just means "hello". I got some strange looks during that first year, I can tell you :-).

  6. Thanks for the laughs. When we change countries, we have a tendency to make fools of ourselves no matter what our age. My oldest was five when we first began talking about moving to Africa. She was excited because (she said) she could eat with her fingers and not wear a shirt. Her little friend at school was worried about the tigers she might meet. (No tigers in Africa.)

  7. WEll now, I thought we had all the weird insects in Australia. But we can boast a load of poisonous snakes.

    So to your "Howzit", Paul, I'll just say "good onya!"