14 Sep 2018

My name is Finn Jupiter – the Prologue

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“I’m going to have to call you back,” Finn Jupiter said as she crossed the school’s parking lot. “People who never run … are running.”
Living in Colorado, the first thing that came to her was a grainy news photo of Columbine High a day after Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris had made it the most infamous school on earth. But the image didn’t hold. If there was a shooter on the grounds, students would be streaming out into the parking lot, fleeing for their lives, not heading deeper into the school. This was something else. It was drawing people in.
Finn stabbed her phone into her pocket and hurried through the gate. Spotting one of her brother’s friends, she reached out an arm to stop him, almost knocking him off his feet.
“Whoa, Brian … what’s happening?”
The junior’s eyes darted sideways. “Senior— There’s a s—senior on the roof. They’re saying he’s going to jump.”
“Who, Brian? Who is it?”
“I—I’m not sure,” he choked, swallowed. “Somebody Davids. Peter or … Paul Davids. I dunno—”
And then he was gone, devoured by the surging crowd.
Finn felt a twinge in her chest. Paul Davids was one of those guys. Every high school had their share. Awkward. Uncoordinated. Socially inept. Hair and speech always two styles out of date. Like so many of his type, however, there was nothing fundamentally wrong with him. He was kind and smart. Maybe even leave a dent in the world smart. That is, Finn knew, if he didn’t leave an actual dent in the world first.
Finn straightened up and took a breath.
“Damn high-school,” she whispered.
And then she was running.


Wading out into the quad, Finn looked up and honed in on the oblong figure of Paul Davids teetering on top of Marlow’s main building, seven floors north. His face was turned up to the sun and, at first, Finn thought he was clutching a sweatshirt in his hand. She sighed when she realised what it was. As she tried to absorb as much information as possible, to construct the bigger picture in her mind, a voice called out to her.
Finn turned and spotted her best friend, Sam Harper, carving her way through the crowd. She was brimming with her usual savoir-faire. “Out of my way, asshats,” she snarled. When a junior had the audacity to complain about being elbowed in the back of the neck, Sam snapped at him. “I will bludgeon your family to death with your bony little head.”
Having cleared the mêlée, Sam reached out and wrapped her arms around Finn. “Tell me he’s just looking for attention.”
As Finn pulled out of their embrace, she shook her head. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Don’t give me that. What’ve you seen?”
“Look. I’ve only just got here—”
“Cut the shit,” Sam shot back. “You’ve already worked it out. I know you have.”
“Sam … give me a break.”
“Just tell me what you’ve seen.”
Knowing that Sam wasn’t about to let up, Finn took a breath and then looked up at Paul. “His left hand. Can you see it?”
Sam followed her gaze. “What is that? A scarf?”
“Okay? So … what? He spent the night up there?”
“He’s going to pull the pillowslip over his head before he jumps. Take a look at his jeans. I think that’s a roll of duct tape in his pocket. He’s going to use the tape to make a seal around his neck. So the pillowslip stays on.”
“What? Why?”
Finn hesitated. “Because heads burst, Sam.”
Sam’s left eye seemed to twitch at the comment.
“Look at the building. The entrance. The windows,” Finn continued.
Sam craned her neck to see beyond a crush of students.
“He’s chained up the doors. Put locks on the windows. You don’t do that if you’re looking for help.”
“Shit. So this is for real?”
“It’s looking that way.”
Sam shook her head, bit into her black lipstick. “Somebody’s got to do something.”
Before Finn could reply, a bullhorn crackled to life. She turned and spotted the perpetually harassed figure of Principal Michael Lamb climbing up onto a chair. Quite what difference a chair would make in this situation, Finn could only guess at. She shuddered at what Lamb was likely to say. He wasn’t equipped for this, she knew.
Taking a moment to scan the crowd, Finn guessed that at least half the students were filming Paul on their phones. She wondered how many of them were secretly hoping for him to jump. To be the first to upload his gruesome death. Maybe he was already being live-streamed? The thought made her stomach turn. Then she began to pick up on some of the voices around her. Most were urging Paul to back away from the edge, but a few were beckoning him forward. Taunting him. One such voice belonged to Troy Alexander. Marlow’s hockey captain and self-appointed ring-leader of assholes. He was practically begging Paul to jump.
“Listen to that shitbag,” Sam said, the loathing seeping through her voice. “It should be him up there.”
Finn nodded then watched as Principal Lamb lifted the bullhorn to his mouth.
“Please, Mr Davids, come down from there. Whatever your issue is, we can deal with it. Suicide is never the answer. You have my word as the leader of this school that we will get you through this. Whatever it takes. Raise your hand if you can hear me.”
Finn was studying Paul’s body language and could tell he wasn’t listening to Lamb’s platitudes. He had his mind set on oblivion and nothing said to him from the ground was going to make the slightest difference. The scenario needed to change. Something needed to impact on him. And fast.
“Look at him. He’s completely zoned out,” Sam said, her voice breaking. “It’s not going to work.”
“I need to get up there. He might listen to me.”
Sam began to nod but then checked herself. “Wait… How? You said it yourself. He’s locked up the place. He’s not going to open the—”
“I said up … not in.”
Sam glanced back at the building just long enough for her eyes to drift over the ivy-like array of pipes and drains that clung to its westerly wall. “Finn, no. No! That’s a terrible idea. Forget it.”
“It’s an easy climb.”
“Really? And if you slip? There’s no rope. You don’t have wings, Finn—”
“Sam, listen to me. Paul’s going to jump. I know he is. He’s going to die in front of you. You’re going to hear his body hit the ground and you’ll never get it out of your head.”
“Wait, shit … hold on. Please, Finn. Just think about it for a second. Let’s hang on for the cops to get here—”
“There isn’t time. I’ve got to do this. Right now.”
Before Sam could protest any further, Finn turned away and ran for the building.


Finn was barely a yard off the ground when a face in the crowd spotted her. “Jupiter’s climbing the building!”
At once, two hundred camera phones swung in her direction. They were followed swiftly by the sound of the bullhorn.
“Finn Jupiter, what do you think you’re doing? Get down from there! The situation is bad enough. We do not need you adding to it!”
Grateful that it was a dry morning, Finn wedged the fingers of her left hand into the narrow space between a row of bricks and then wrapped her right hand around a drainage pipe. Then she hoisted herself up towards the second floor. As she repeated the move to gain another yard, she glanced up and saw that Paul was now watching her as well.
Good, she thought. Keep your eyes on me. If you’re watching you’re not jumping.
Reaching a narrow ledge on the third floor, she peered down and noticed that the crowd’s energy had changed. Most of the comments and chants had stopped; people seemed to be holding their breath. A mosaic of mobile phones glinted up at her. Compared to Finn’s regular climbs in The Rockies, this was reasonably straightforward. The footholds and finger grips were all adequate and the pipes felt solidly attached to their brackets. Still, Finn knew only too well that in the world of free-climbing a single lapse in judgement could turn a straightforward ascent into a death plunge. And, in this case, ten million hits online.
Reaching up for the metal window frame on the fifth floor, she cocked her head up at Paul and decided to call out to him. “I’m not going to come near you. I just want to tell you about this amazing idea I’ve had. Okay?”
Paul seemed incapable of a response. Of all the permutations he had dreamed up in his planning, having the most beautiful senior in school climbing up the side of the building had clearly not occurred to him.
Back on the ground, Principal Lamb was growing increasingly desperate. “Just stay there, Finn! Please. Emergency services are on their way!”
Sam, in turn, could barely watch. Squinting through her fingers, her nails were digging into the side of her face.
Searching for her next grip, Finn realized it was well out of her grasp. A metal pipe jutted out from the building some twenty inches beyond her reach. Weighing her options, she knew that—slim as she was—she wouldn’t be able to fit through the small cottage pane windows beside her and there was no other way up to the sixth floor. There was simply nothing for it. If she wanted to get to the roof, she would have to leap off the narrow ledge and make the catch.
Feeling the sweat prickle her fingers, she took a moment to steady herself. The crowd murmur began to build as students worked out for themselves what she was about to attempt. The bullhorn wasn’t far behind. “No, Finn. No! Don’t even think about it!”
Wiping her hands on the back of her jeans, Finn slowed her breathing and willed an injection of strength into her shoulders. She focussed on the pipe and allowed all her other thoughts to fall away. Climbing was all about being in the moment; about trying to ignore the deathly chasm beneath you.
After visualizing the catch, she filled her lungs, bent her knees, and launched herself into the air.
Heading up and away from the building, her hands stretched out for the pipe. As the moment spread out in her mind, she could feel her body drifting over the crowd. She held her breath for what seemed an inordinately long time before her right hand wrapped around the pipe. Her left hand followed an instant later and she began to pull herself up.
The crowd cheered as Finn hauled her legs up onto the sixth-floor ledge. As the adrenaline surged through her, she lifted her foot onto a windowsill and stretched up for the lip of the roof.
Standing barely twenty feet from her, Paul Davids shook his head as Finn completed her climb. “I can’t believe you just did that.”
Finn sat down and allowed her legs to dangle over the crowd. She took a moment to catch her breath.
“Wasn’t so bad. Except for that dyno,” she began. “Sorry … jump. Not going to lie. That got my attention.”
“W—Why’d you come up here? I’m not changing my mind, Finn. I’m doing this. You can’t stop me.”
Finn considered his words. “Seeing that I’ve come all this way for you, Paul, can you at least tell me why?”
“Why?” he replied, shaking his head as if the reasons were written on his face. “Because I don’t belong here. In this school … in this world. I don’t have any friends. I get the shit beaten out of me most days. My own parents don’t care about me. It’s pointless. And I’m tired of it.”
“I care about you.”
Finn’s statement seemed to knock Paul back a fraction.
“No, you don’t. You’re just saying that.”
“Really? Then why’d I just risk my life to get up here?”
“Maybe … you’re looking for attention,” he began, but swallowed his words. He knew Finn well enough to know that she cared little of what other people thought. It was one of the many things he admired about her.
“You like computers don’t you, Paul? You’re always on that laptop of yours.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“What do you do when it freezes up?”
“I don’t get what this—”
“Humour me, Paul. Please. What do you do?”
He thought for a second. “I—I reboot it.”
“And then it works fine?”
Paul nodded, bemused.
“Exactly,” Finn replied, lifting to her feet. “So, instead of ending your life, why don’t you reboot it?”
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s simple, really. You should leave Victory. Today. Catch the first bus out of here. You’ll have no problem finding another school. With your GPA they’ll roll out the red carpet for you. Once you’re settled, shave your head. Buy some clothes from a store that only stocks cool shit. Then find a gym. Take it seriously. And the first guy who gives you any shit, you put him down. Hit him in the head with a chair if you have to. Make sure everyone sees it. Let the world know that you won’t be pushed around anymore.”
Paul tried to reply, but Finn kept going.
“Because, Paul, here’s the thing. You’re so close to having an amazing life that you just can’t see it. If you can get through this year, everything’s going to change. You’re going to go to some shit-hot Ivy League university where nobody cares about your backstory. You’re going to land an amazing job and make tons of money. You’ll find a girl with great tits and who’s perfect for you … and you’ll never look back,” she said, then held up her hands. “But only if you’ve got the balls to step away from the edge. If anything’s going to die today, let it be your past. Toss it over. Reboot your life.”
“I … I’m sorry, but … I—I’ve made my decision. You can’t stop me.”
“Actually, Paul. I think I already have.”
“You’re up here partly because you think nobody cares about you. I’ve proved that wrong. I also know you’re a good person. And I know you like me. Maybe more than a little bit.”
Paul considered denying it, but changed his mind. He’d never been much of a liar.
“But there’s something you don’t know about me. For whatever reason, I notice things. I pick them up at twice the speed of everyone else. Don’t get me wrong, it can be really annoying sometimes, but today it’s going to save your life. Both our lives, actually.”
“I—I don’t understand.”
“So, here’s the endgame.” Finn looked down at her sneakers and then inched them over the edge of the building. “I’m betting that you won’t do anything to hurt me and I’ve decided that your death is unacceptable to me. So this is what it comes down to: I want you to imagine that there’s a rope between us. It’s tied around our waists. If you jump … you’ll take me with you.”
A bewildered look flashed across Paul’s face. “You’re bluffing.”
“How long have we known each other? You know me, Paul. And I’ve made a decision that either we both get out of this mess or neither of us do. We’re in this together now. And I really don’t want to die yet. I want to climb the Matterhorn. Have a daughter. You wouldn’t kill my unborn child, would you?” Finn asked and then inched her sneakers even further off the edge.
Paul felt his arms extend towards her. “Wait … no. Finn, hold on. You can’t do this. This is insane. You’re … you’re…”
“I’m kidnapping your suicide. I know. Take a moment to get it straight in your head.”
Finn shifted forward another fraction and could feel her balance pivoting on the edge of the building. She had to windmill her arms to stop from falling. The crowd screamed when they thought she was going over. “You have to rescue me, Paul.”
“Come on, Paul. Now. Do it!”
Paul felt like he was standing outside his body. Nothing made sense anymore. He felt himself looking down for the rope around his waist.
“Paul, hurry. The wind’s picking up. Don’t let me fall. You’re not a murderer. I know you. You’re one of the good guys.”
Shaking his head, then nodding, then shaking his head again, Paul glanced at his legs and watched as his right foot stepped away from the edge.
“Keep going,” Finn called back. “More.”
Paul’s left foot pulled back. As if synchronized, now only the tips of Finn’s sneakers were over the edge.
“That’s it. Almost there.”
Back on the ground, Finn’s younger brother, Dylan, watched as Paul Davids stepped away from the edge of the roof and dropped to his knees. As Finn rushed over to him and wrapped him up in a hug, and as cheers and applause exploded from the crowd, Dylan felt a hand graze the back of his arm. He turned around to see Maya, a new girl in his class. She looked at him in a daze.
“W—Who … is that girl?”

11 Apr 2016

The time I stole an AK-47

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The first thing I ever stole was an AK47 machine gun with a luminous green scope. An object of murderous beauty. Of course, it wasn’t real. Rather a cheap plastic replica toy, no doubt fashioned in aka-boom Chinese warehouse where children the size of teaspoons spend 29 hours a day screwing poisonous plastic moulds together with their teeth.

My mother and I had hoofed it down to the shops to buy something inane like a bottle of bread or a loaf of milk when my eye had been drawn to a dramatic (and, one could argue, morally reckless) display of plastic guns at the end of the toy aisle. There were shotguns and sniper rifles aplenty; even Uzis and rocket launchers all crammed together like a floral arrangement of death. I loved all of them, of course, but I was particularly partial to the AK-47; of which one was leaning provocatively towards me. And so, as you might imagine, I politely asked mum if she would buy it for me.

‘Mother, if you don’t buy me that AK-47 I will burn down our house.’

‘Gareth, we’re just here to buy a potato. I don’t have money for an expensive toy.’

To make her point, she flashed me the inside of her purse which duly contained but a solitary coin. Bear in mind that this was 1980 and you could buy a car for fifty rand.

Being of a reasonable slant, I then threw the sort of apoplectic tantrum that sent shelf packers scrambling for an early lunch and brought the store manager running from his office.

But my mother has a reputation for standing her ground and my screams nary made a dent in her resolve. I threw a tin of coffee at her which almost did leave a dent, but she’s a nimble old gal is Cherrill.

I realised then that the only way I was going to get my mitts on Lieutenant General Mikhail Kalashnikov’s work of art, was to steal it. And so, when the backs of all the adults were turned, I crept up to the toy stand and slipped an AK-47 under my shirt. As one does.

So while my mother paid for her potato neither she nor the lady perched behind the till appeared to notice the massive rifle bulging out from underneath my shirt. The fact that the rifle barrel was sticking into my cheek should have given the adults a hint that something was rotten in the state of Glenanda, but for some reason their eyes had stopped working.

I can recall making it all the way home like that, my mother barely offering a glance in my direction. There are obvious advantages to your mother being sick at the sight of you.

When we got through the gate, I hurried to the back yard where I spent the rest of the afternoon firing the plastic gun at anything that moved. Sadly, at one point I dived off a bench and landed on a grass hump with the gun pressed against my stomach. Which, it pains me to say even now, caused the faux AK-47 to explode into a heap of plastic bits. Such was the candescence of my rage that I decided at once to share this shoddy workmanship with my mother. Perhaps we could race back to the shops and demand both an exchange and an apology, I thought.

‘Look at this, mother. Just look at this!’ I cried, cradling chunks of useless polymer in my hands. ‘It’s an outrage. How can they peddle this rubbish to kids? It’s not fair! I want a new one!’

Needless to say, what followed involved lots of harrumphing, some angry finger-wagging and a stomp back to the shops where I was not only scolded for my crime, but threatened with the police and a stint in the big house as well.

Pfff. I knew my rights. Nobody sends a seven year-old to jail.

Notably, as the grown-ups went off to chat about what reparations needed to be made, they made the fundamental error of leaving me, once again, standing alone beside the rifle stand.

So this time I stole an Uzi.

When the manager man came back to yell at me, I dropped my chin to my chest and pretended to cry. What I was actually doing was squinting at the shiny hand cannon pressed against my chest trying to see if it came with a magazine of sponge bullets.

‘Ok, that’s enough,’ my mother said. ‘He’s just a boy. And he’s learnt his lesson. Haven’t you, Gareth?’

‘I have, mom. I’ll never steal another AK-47. I promise. (The quality of the plastic isn’t up to scratch.)’

And I never did.

My word is my bond.

04 Oct 2015

Extract from Ka-Boom! – the time I tried to become an Olympian

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‘Hey, Bob. This is Destiny calling.’
So that Monday I phoned the national Olympic throwing coach.
As one does.
To protect his identity, we shall call him Bob. This is pretty
much how our conversation went:
‘Hi. Is this Bob?’
‘It is. Who is this?’
‘A future Olympian, actually.’
‘Really? You sound a little old.’
‘That’s weird. I’m only 34.’
‘I’m sorry. Why are you calling?’
‘I’ve decided I’d like to go to the Olympics.’
‘I think you’ve been misinformed. I’m not a travel agent. I’m
the throwing coach for South Africa. Hammer throw, shot-put,
‘I’m a javelinist.’
‘That’s not a word.’
‘Really? Sounds like it should be.’
‘Look, is this a serious call?’
‘Absolutely. I have a really strong throwing arm and I need you
to coach me. You know … privately. I’m happy to pay.’
‘Look, I think I have what it takes to get to the Olympics, but
realise that I need professional help with my technique.’
More silence as Bob wonders if he’s speaking to someone who
earlier in the day had been chewing his way out of a sanatorium.
‘I realise how iffy this must all sound, but I have a really
powerful arm. It’s rather immense. You need to trust me.’
‘But you’re 34.’
‘Men are at their strongest in their thirties.’
‘That’s a myth. They’re also slower in their thirties.’
‘But I’m double-jointed,’ (not entirely true – I have a semi-dislocated
thumb) ‘so the rules are probably different.’
I hear Bob sigh. ‘How far did you throw in school?’
‘Oh, we never had javelin at school. We didn’t even have field
events,’ I reply, then lower my voice. ‘Just grass, if you know what
I mean …’
Bob’s not in the mood for jokes. ‘How far did you throw at
‘Didn’t throw there either. Actually, online correspondence
colleges don’t have athletics tracks. And since we’re being honest
with each other, you should probably know that I’ve never thrown
a javelin competitively (or even uncompetitively). But I have
thrown a tennis ball into the Big Brother house.’
‘Are you having me on? Did someone put you up to this call?’
‘No, Bob. Unless destiny counts as a person.’
Bob ignores my witty retort and thinks for a moment. ‘Do you
live in Joburg?’
‘I do.’
‘And you’re really convinced you can throw?’
‘I am.’
‘And if I turn you down now, are you going to keep phoning
‘Phoning, texting and maybe hanging out in your driveway. It
would really be in your own best interests to give me a shot. I can
be quite annoying.’
‘Hard to imagine.’ Another sigh. ‘How’d you get my number
‘I used to be a journalist. I pulled some strings.’
‘Who gave it to you?’
‘Sorry, I can’t say. That would be unethical.’
‘And phoning me on my private number isn’t?’
At this point I thought it prudent not to reply.
After what seemed a long while, Bob spoke again. ‘Come out
to the UJ stadium on Friday afternoon at five. I’ll give you half an
hour. Bring a competition and a training javelin and we’ll see what
you’ve got.’
‘Uh, Bob.’
‘I don’t own any javelins. Could you bring some? That’d be
Friday afternoon arrives and Bob makes his way into the stadium
hauling a pair of javelins that are so long they look like pole vaults
to me. But they must be javelins because they have pointy bits at
the front.
‘Either this is an extraordinary coincidence or you must be
Bob. I’m Gareth. Pleased to meet you.’
As Bob shakes my hand I can see he’s scrutinising my bald
head and the wrinkles around my eyes.
‘Those are laugh lines, in case you’re wondering.’
‘You look older than 34.’
‘I’ve lived a hard life. Growing up we only had a maid three
days a week.’
Bob pulls a face. ‘I don’t have much time. Let’s see what you’ve
He hands me a blue-and-white javelin and points me to the
track. This is literally the first time I’ve ever touched a javelin.
‘That’s where you launch from,’ he says, pointing to a bit of
tartan that juts out from the track.
‘Yes, of course.’
Launch from. I like the sound of that. I take hold of the
surprisingly heavy javelin – it weighs a lot more than a tennis
ball, I notice – and make my way across the field. Having watched
plenty of javelinists on YouTube, I feel I’m well prepared for what’s
to come.
I turn back for a moment and cup my hands around my mouth.
‘As a matter of interest, Bob, what’s the automatic qualifying mark
for the Olympics?’
‘It varies, but London will probably be around 74 metres.’
‘Not 50 metres?’
‘You sure.’
‘I coach at the Olympics. Remember?’ he says, glancing down
at his watch. ‘Whenever you’re ready.’
All right then, I can pick up a hint as well as anyone. Time to
crack on. Time to show Bob the Crocker Cannon.
I take a breath. Then I imagine the stadium filled with thousands
of screaming fans. As AC/DC fires up in my ears, I begin a slow
run. As my feet hit the track, I consciously draw strength into
my right arm. I raise the javelin above my head and can feel the
pressure mounting in my shoulder. The cannon seems to have a
mind of its own now and I can feel that it wants to fire the javelin
right over the whole bloody stadium. As I near the throwing
line, I break into a sideways crab-run – which I intuitively realise
makes me look like a complete twat – before shifting my not
inconsiderable weight onto my left foot. And then the moment
is upon me. This is the bit in the Disney film where the cynical
coach has his face blown off by the explosively talented no-hoper.
Time to release the Kraken.
Then: Booooom!
Goes something in my elbow.
Holy sweet balls of fire in a horse’s vagina! It feels like I’ve snapped
every ligament in my arm. Oh the pain. The godless raw agony of
it all.
Knowing that I daren’t show any signs of fallibility, I try to
ignore my now broken arm as it flops about like a beached fish at
my side.
I turn my attention to the sky to see if I can spot the javelin.
I’ve watched enough footage of professional javelinists to know
that a javelin is supposed to slice through the air like an arrow
fired from a taut bow. It’s not customary for a javelin to tumble
arse over face before landing sideways.
I turn to look at Bob, holding back a grimace. ‘How far was
that? Fifty? Sixty metres?’
‘Maybe 20 metres,’ Bob calls back. ‘It’s hard to say. You didn’t
reach any of the measuring lines.’
‘I’m just warming up, Bob. Getting into my rhythm, you know?’
Bob makes an expression which suggests that he does not
I jog out to the javelin and pick it up with my left hand, praying
that the broken cannon will recover enough during the walk back
to the launch pad to allow me a few more throws.
Standing at the top of the runway, I can barely lift my arm
above my head.
It’s at this point that I begin to wonder if perhaps I’ve
overestimated my Olympianness.
However, having grown up in a house where for years we did
not have a remote control for our television, I’m well accustomed
to adversity. I’m not about to throw in the towel now. And so I
charge back down the runway, switch into the ridiculous crab run
and throw for all I am worth.
Fire and acid vomit out of the devil’s arse! It feels like my arm has
been wrenched off at the socket and is still attached to the javelin.
Gripping the remains of my ruined appendage with my left
hand, I watch as the blue spear flies straight up into the air, stalls
like a shot pigeon, and lands barely a few yards in front of me.
Had I dived forward it might well have impaled me in the back
of the head.
A decent person would’ve taken the moment on the chin.
Put up his hand for acting like an arrogant arse and for entirely
overestimating his ability.
Instead, I blamed the wind, bemoaned the decidedly secondrate
javelin I’d been given and started rubbing my injured
hamstring that wasn’t injured.
You thought I was beyond this sort of behaviour, didn’t you?
For shame, dear reader … for shame.

12 Feb 2014

Hi mom, thanks for coming

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By Gareth Crocker

Most people believe that an author’s life is festooned with glamorous book signings, extravagant gala events and meetings with one’s bank manager, during which one does little more than swim laps in one’s money vault.

The truth, of course, is somewhat different.

To illustrate my point, consider book store events. Typically, these take the form of a sort of ‘coffee morning’ at a nearby restaurant where a group of readers or a book club come together to hear about the book store’s latest releases. As the author on show, you are invited to discuss (read: sell) your latest novel. Invariably, you’re standing in front of a table stacked high with your novels and, once you’re finished unashamedly punting your work, your host invites readers to come up to the front to buy your book.

‘And Gareth will even … sign it for you,’ she squeals, barely able to contain her excitement.

Try to imagine then what it feels like when you realise that nobody in the room has even the vaguest interest in buying your novel, let alone having it signed. What follows is a rather harrowing five minutes in which you wait, alone and in utter silence, while absolutely nobody buys your book. You smile, of course, as if you couldn’t be bothered either way, but inside you’re praying for a heart attack. Or for a bomb to go off under your chair.

Of course, this isn’t the plot of a Bruce Willis film and there is no rescue forthcoming. Instead, you sit at the head of the world’s quietest coffee shop exchanging awkward looks with the crowd who, by now, are starting to take pity on you. Eventually, some kind-natured soul stands up and comes over to buy your book. When you offer to sign it for her, she gives you an alarmed shake of the head. ‘I can’t return it to the bookstore if you sign it,’ she explains.

Ah, right.

After she toddles off, you wait another three minutes or so before making the human cactus walk of shame to the front door. You don’t cry, of course. That’s what parking lots are for.

Fortunately, I am not alone in this rather public shame. This sort of thing even happens to the big names. I recently did a few events with the international best-selling author, Stuart MacBride, who told me that he was once invited to an event with the worst possible turnout.

‘What? Nobody pitched?’ I asked, shocked.

‘Oh no,’ he shot back, laughing. ‘I wish. It was far worse than that.’

‘What’s worse than nobody pitching?’

‘One person pitching,’ he replied, his face draining white at the memory. ‘Just imagine it. Two hundred empty chairs and one very strange individual who turned down my offer of grabbing a pint across the road. Instead, he insisted that I give my full speech just as if the room were brimming with ears. A part of me died that night.’

And then, of course, there is the soul crushing world of literary festivals. I was recently invited to speak at a fairly prestigious one where the wonderful and charming, Alexander McCall Smith, was the main attraction.

Soon after arriving, I discovered I was part of a three-member author panel that was booked to speak at precisely the same time as Alexander was scheduled to talk at the adjacent venue.

As I stared out across our conference room, I counted twenty souls amongst all the empty chairs. Twenty folk who, bless them, had chosen to come and listen to us as opposed to the wonderfully engaging and all-round amazing gentleman that is Alexander McCall Smith.

But then I noticed that seven people in the audience were, in fact, from my own publishing team. Ah, okay. So that leaves thirteen people who are genuinely interested in us. And then the two authors sitting beside me waved to their respective publishing teams.  Twelve people winked, nodded and gave their authors the thumbs up. That left one last person in the room who didn’t work for a publisher.

Well, I thought, at least one member of the reading public is keen to hear from us.

And then the author to my left waved to the lone guest. ‘Hi mom, thanks for coming.’

Gareth Crocker’s debut novel, Finding Jack, was published in New York to international acclaim. It was translated into several languages and featured in eight volumes of Reader’s Digest Select Editions with combined sales of more than a million copies. In 2012 Penguin Books published his adventure novel, Journey from Darkness, followed by the kidnap thriller, Never Let Go in 2013. Both Finding Jack and Never Let Go are currently being considered for films in Los Angeles. Gareth’s latest novel, King, has just been released. His upcoming novel, The Last Roadtrip, will hit shelves in October, 2014.



27 Oct 2013

‘Wait … let’s not murder this beautiful animal for sport,’ said no trophy hunter ever

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An Open Letter to animal lovers, everywhere

King– The fight to save the White Lion is at a critical point

By Gareth Crocker

A friend of mine was recently involved in a rhino relocation programme and the experience both moved and haunted him in equal measure. The rangers explained that rhinos are particularly easy to poach for two reasons. One, they’re quite obviously enormous – it’s a little like setting one’s sights on a parked truck – and two, in many cases rhinos have personalities not entirely unlike Golden Labradors. The net result of this is that when a member of their family gets shot they often remain in the immediate area, refusing to scatter. They watch on, heartbroken and stressed out of their minds, as their loved one lies bleeding on the ground. The whole family is then picked off in a matter of minutes. Often all falling in an area no larger than a football field.

I’m very pleased that rhino poaching is getting the attention that it deserves. Hopefully plastic car horns, public outrage and media bluster will ultimately translate into meaningful action and we can, at the very least, get a handle on the slaughter. The sad reality is that we’re down to our last 20 000 white rhino and 5 000 black rhino (depending on which report you read). This, in global animal terms then, is a tenuous state of affairs to say the very least.

And yet there is, I believe, an even greater tragedy unfolding across the world – and most people are oblivious to it.

As I write this, the White Lion sits precariously on the very edge of oblivion. You see, there are barely a few hundred left. In total. In the whole world.

With the aid of a strong will and a pair of very thick oven gloves, you could theoretically fit them all in my garden. However, their low numbers – while immensely concerning – is not the real sadness. It’s their individual fate that’s so tragic.

Less than 10 White Lion currently roam free in the wilds of their endemic habitat – an area known as the ‘Kruger to Canyons Biosphere’ – and yet, unbelievably, it’s still legal to hunt lions in this sacred place.

Instead of protecting the White Lion as a precious living heritage for future generations, South Africans have been exporting them to international zoos and circuses for decades.

But by far the majority of White Lion are held in private death camps where  they wait to be shot by wealthy trophy hunters. And where, you ask, do these private owners acquire their White Lion? Well, often from those seemingly wonderful animal farms and nature venues where the public are allowed and encouraged (for a fee) to handle and pet the cubs. The problem, of course, is that at some point the adorable cubs grow up into powerful predators that the public can no longer touch and feel. When that happens, the young lions become far less of an asset to the venue in question. Until, that is, they can be sold to a private game reserve, aka: a death camp. Sometimes the petting camp is the death camp. And the general public, without knowing it, is funding them.

Sadly, the White Lion is regarded by international trophy hunting syndicates as arguably the highest value trophy in the world – made even more desirable by the fact that there are so few of them left. It is not only legal to hunt White Lion in the wild but they can be shot in an actual cage – where they’ve been living their whole life. If you can believe this, hunters can even select them from a catalogue on the Internet.

Of course, trophy hunters, certain tourism folk and other interested parties will no doubt tell you that hunting provides much-needed employment and generates a significant amount of revenue.

I don’t  argue that for a moment. I’m sure trophy hunting creates dozens of jobs and brings in great bricks of foreign currency (although a recent international economists’ report claims that only 3% of the proceeds of trophy hunting reaches the local community in which it occurs, but let’s not digress).

I’m afraid the issue of whether or not White Lion hunting makes financial sense, is not the point. It’s a little like saying we can make large sacks of money by selling our children into slavery and, thus, we should consider it. In fact, based on this way of thinking, you could excuse and rationalise almost anything as long as it generates decent income.

Similarly, the notion of being able to take the life of an individual animal for sport, based on the argument that its numbers are high and healthy is, in many respects, just as flawed.

On this basis, I should be able to waltz into your home and, armed with a crossbow say, take aim at your family. I would of course explain that this shouldn’t upset you in the least as there are a great many more healthy families out there in the world. The important thing, I would assure you, is that there’s still lots of ‘human ground’ to mine. Lots of runway, to use the corporate cliché. So stand aside, friend, my money is good.

And yet, still, there is some faint hope.

Thanks to The Global White Lion Protection Trust and a team of international scientists who last year identified the genetic marker that makes White Lion unique (they are not albinos, as some people think), plans are in place to try and have them protected by law.

If you would like to see what you can do to help The Global White Lion Protection Trust, I urge you to visit their website and have a look around (www.whitelions.org). Everyone can make a difference, however small.

For my part, my latest novel King has been written as an emotional tribute to the White Lion – to try and shine a light on their plight, I guess. I plan to make a sizeable donation as well once the book has sold. Just for the record, when I set out to write King I had no idea what was happening to the White Lion.

Linda Tucker and her team at The Global White Lion Protection Trust are trying to raise funds to expand the protected reserve in the Kruger to Canyons Biosphere, where they have successfully reintroduced three prides of White Lion to their ancestral pridelands (in a long-term scientific reintroduction programme that has taken more than a decade).

I hope they are successful. I hope that, in the months and years ahead, they don’t have to battle alone. I hope that at some point government, tourism and wildlife officials will finally take a stand to defend the White Lion.

I hope my daughters will one day be able to see them roaming free in the wild, legally protected from the most savage predator that the world has ever known.


Gareth Crocker’s debut novel, Finding Jack, was published in New York to international acclaim. It was translated into several languages and featured in eight volumes of Reader’s Digest Select Editions with combined sales of more than a million copies. In 2012 Penguin Books published his adventure novel, Journey from Darkness, followed by the kidnap thriller, Never Let Go in 2013. Both Finding Jack and Never Let Go are currently being considered for films in Los Angeles. Gareth’s latest novel, King, has just been released and tells the story of an American policeman who sacrifices everything to save a lone White Lion.

25 Oct 2013

Hold on a minute, I thought I was the author here?

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An Author’s Life #6

By Gareth Crocker

As I see it, there are quite a number of problems with being an author these days.

Firstly, there’s the rather unfortunate issue of it not paying very much. Sure, there’s the joy of holding one’s own book in one’s tear-stained hands and the thrill of seeing your cover for the first Kingtime, but those feelings of euphoria soon lose their sparkle as you hunch, zombie-like, over a splotch of fresh road kill because you can neither afford to shop in, nor even drive to, an actual grocery store.

Secondly, consider the rather herculean-like challenge faced by authors when their latest book is unpacked into a large bookstore.  After all, their shiny new novel only has to compete against, say, 11.3 million other books. For that novel to stand out, one would have to staple a Rottweiler to its cover which, when you think about it, is likely to end badly for all concerned. This, plainly, is nothing compared to the challenge of trying to make your book stand out on, say, Amazon. This is rather like trying to find a certain green leaf in the rainforest of the same name.

To put the issue into perspective, consider the choices available to you when you visit your local cinema. On average, there are probably in the neighbourhood of eight or ten films running at any one time. Two are animated features. Three involve Adam Sandler. One is about a group of drugged-out folk singers who meditate around a bowl of jelly while smoking each other’s hair. This leaves you with two or three legitimate choices.

I like those odds. My head can make sense of those odds. What I can’t fathom is how some random reader is supposed to waltz into a cavernous bookstore  – where not only are the world’s current best novels on sale, but so are several thousand back titles – and somehow emerge with your book.

It’s a little like playing football against the best players in the world … both past and present … at the same time … on the same field … all at once … by yourself.

Forget, for a moment, what the odds might be of the prospective buyer’s eye even landing on your book for the merest of moments. Even if by some miracle this happens, the person still has to decide whether or not your jacket blurb is more enticing than all the other jacket blurbs in the store. Which doesn’t matter in any event, considering that he’s destined to buy the latest Dan Brown or Wilbur Smith offering anyway.

Then, of course, one has to consider reading as a general premise. Gauging by the current literacy levels in our schools it’s conceivable that, in a decade or so, an entire generation of people will communicate in grunts, videos of hamsters water-skiing and unfortunate bursts of word and number acronyms like ‘2GTBF’ (Too good to be forgotten), 4COL (For crying out loud), AWGTHTGTTA (Are we going to have to go through this again) and so on. At this point, to have any chance of connecting with these people, one would have to write novels with titles such as ‘LOL my BFF, Shizel Manizel Peeps Boyaa17!’. The stories themselves would, correspondingly, need to be written in a combination of house music and drunk computer code.

Forget also that quote, ‘existing readers’ are turning away from books in their droves and now absorb their daily dose of narrative nutrition through grainy YouTube videos and pirated DVDs from the side of the road (one or both of which are bound to feature water-skiing hamsters at some point).

But, actually, as challenges facing novelists, these are all whispers to a thunderstorm.

The single biggest problem facing an author these days is that … well … people are a good deal more interested in telling their own stories than reading someone else’s.

Consider, by way of example, the sheer number of people who self-publish their own ebooks. Then there’s Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and a hundred other social media platforms designed to give people, well, a publishing platform. The truth is that most folk don’t really care what their Friends or Followers have to say. They are, in fact, obsessed with posting their own content (mainly photos of themselves and hamster videos) and then watching to see what sort of reaction they get. In short, the world is rapidly becoming a marauding army of narcissists who couldn’t give a flying monkey about the poor writers sobbing into their road kill.  To drive home the point, one of my friends was recently rather angry with me. After much prodding and pleading, it emerged that she was annoyed by the fact that I hadn’t ‘Liked’ a particular Facebook post of hers. Of course, I threw myself at her feet and promised to Like and Favourite everything she ever posts until the very end of time. I even offered to poke her regularly, but that seemed a trifle over the top.

But I digress.

In short then, the world is being overrun by … well … authors. Which brings me to my point. These self-obsessed, conceited and egotistical megalomaniacs need to stop what they’re doing.

Because we were here first. And the land is ours.



Gareth Crocker’s debut novel, Finding Jack, was published in New York to international acclaim. It was translated into several languages and featured in eight volumes of Reader’s Digest Select Editions with combined sales of more than a million copies. In 2012 Penguin Books published his adventure novel, Journey from Darkness, followed by the kidnap thriller, Never Let Go, in 2013. Both Finding Jack and Never Let Go are currently being considered for films in Los Angeles. Gareth’s latest novel, King, has just been released. If you have 19 hours to burn, you may eventually find it in a bookstore. 

08 Oct 2013

My favourite place in Joburg is an old dark room with a sticky floor

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Column written for The Times newspaper – October 9, 2013

KingBy Gareth Crocker

After my publicist informed me of this assignment, I was tempted to do the predictable author thing and write about a heavenly glade or an idyllic valley nestled between the rocky bosoms of some enchanting mountain range. Where rabbits hop and deer frolic and the ground is thick with moss and clichés.

Instead, I thought I’d rather tell the truth.

You see, my favourite place in Joburg is neither bursting with sunshine, nor blessed with babbling brooks. It’s dark and often sticky underfoot. It can be freezing and, depending on when you visit, it’s not cheap either. It has scared the pants off me in the past and once sent me home in tears.

Now I know what you’re thinking. This must be my mother-in-law’s house, but you’re wrong.

My favourite place is an old cinema. And not just any old cinema. Cinema number 7 in the basement of the Rosebank Mall. But before we stop to consider why this particular cinema, I’d like to explain why I’ve chosen a movie house at all.

Firstly, I have a deep and inherent love for story. And the films that play in this old basement complex are seldom the mass-market commercial leviathans designed to empty out both your pocket and your mind. Nor are they two-hour long adverts for an upcoming computer game or range of toys.

Instead, these are films which, for the most part, care more about story than they do about rampant commercial success. And that makes all the difference.

Now, once again, I know what you’re thinking. This is, quote, ‘Art House’ cinema and is all about groups of drugged out transsexuals doing yoga around a bowl of jelly while listening to folk music. And smoking each other’s hair.

Well, yes, sometimes these sorts of oddball films do sneak into the line-up. But, if this is not your cup of tea, fortunately you can use your remarkable powers of sight to first read what a film is about prior to buying a ticket for it.

Over the years some of the films I’ve seen in this basement have astounded me with their quality. Many of them are subtitled. Which, lucky for me, is no match for my ability to read large and slow-moving words on a screen. One such film changed my life as an author. It made me realise just how important it is to always strive for at least a modicum of greatness in one’s story.

While I couldn’t swear to it, the film in question might have been an Argentinian (or possibly Spanish) production that probably cost as much to make as the title sequence for any Summer blockbuster.

In short, the story was about a husband who takes revenge on his wife’s killer. The detective on the case believes the killer has been dead for more than two decades but, when he visits the husband 25 years later to discuss the case for a book he’s writing, he unwittingly discovers the killer locked up in a small building on the man’s farm.

At the crucial moment, we have the killer holding onto the bars of the homemade jail, the husband standing beside him and the detective teetering, open-mouthed, in the doorway.

The killer looks imploringly at the detective and, instead of rejoicing at the fact that he has finally been found after 25 years, points to his captor. ‘Please,’ he whispers. ‘Tell him … tell him to talk to me.’

And that’s when you realise that the husband has kept his wife’s killer alive for 25 years and has never said a word to him. I think the film won an Oscar. If it didn’t, it should have.

Cinemas, at their worst, are an escape from one’s daily drudgery. Even on an average day they have the power to delight and transport us.

And sometimes, like in cinema 7 that day, they have the power to lift us off our chairs.


Gareth Crocker’s debut novel, Finding Jack, was published in New York to international acclaim. It was translated into several languages and featured in eight volumes of Reader’s Digest Select Editions with combined sales of more than a million copies. In 2012 Penguin Books published his adventure novel, Journey from Darkness, followed by the kidnap thriller, Never Let Go, in 2013. Gareth’s latest novel, King, is due out in October.


18 Sep 2013

If our vocabularies had a fight, mine would stab yours in the neck

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– An author’s life #5Gareth ID

So I once studied the dictionary. That’s right. You heard me. Studied the dictionary. And it wasn’t one of those pitiful ‘concise’ or ‘pocket’ editions either. Pfff… Oh no, dear reader. It was a monster. A paper behemoth. It could origami itself into a replica of the moon. It put the Ox in Oxford, if you know what I mean. Although, having said that, it might well have been a Collins or a Merriam Webster. Oh, I don’t know. All I remember for sure was that it had a dust jacket roughly the size of the two stone tablets that bore the Ten Commandments and that once, while I was pushing it around in a wheelbarrow, it tumbled out and crushed a Doberman to death.

So the question, really, is why? Why would anyone subject themselves to this sort of cruel and unusual punishment? Are words my fetish? Do I have a dungeon at home featuring a swing, a dozen gimp masks and five hundred boxes of Scrabble stacked against the wall? Is there a safe word in my subterranean lair and is it ‘acetoxyacetylaminofluorene’? Which, incidentally, is a biochemical tool used in the study of carcinogenesis.

No, dear reader. I have no such dungeon and the last time I wore a gimp mask it didn’t go down especially well. It turns out that gimp masks aren’t ideal when you’re trying to surprise your wife with a candlelit dinner at home and you leap up suddenly from behind a couch with a face of black leather and zippers for eyes.

But I digress.

The reason, you see, why anyone would choose to do something as utterly inane as study the dictionary – which, it’s worth mentioning, took almost two years to complete – is the same reason why so many idiotic things are done the world over: rampant insecurity.

The truth is that when I was starting out as a writer, I thought I would gain an advantage over my fellow scribes if I could use bigger (and thus better) words than them. Before you groan and roll your eyes at this admission, you must understand that I was young, particularly foolish and had hair like Vanilla Ice (thus the glorious ID photo inset). You see, anticipating that I would soon be standing at the hallowed writer’s urinal, I was more than a little worried that all the cool kids were going to laugh at my meagre equipment.

But how could they laugh when I would have to stand out in the corridor to make use of their facility? Guffaws would surely be replaced with gasps of admiration for my enormous wordhood.

And so the adolescent word monster was born. Where other writers would use plain and common language like jargon or irritate I would meet them with nomenclature and exasperate. If they brought vocabulary to the table, I would stuff lexicon down their throats. It was to be a bloodbath. I almost felt sorry for them. They were bringing soggy ice cream sticks to a nuclear war. And my monosyllabic radioactive wordheads were all new and shiny and positively gleaming with joie de vivre (I would sometimes toss in foreign phrases just to twist the knife – often, as in this case, misusing the phrase completely).

And so it was armed with this herculean knowledge of words that I set out to write my first novel. Oh how the book world would swoon. I could already picture publishers capitulating at my feet; yielding to my magnificence. So you can imagine how confident I was when I sent off the first few chapters of my debut novel to a handpicked selection of editors and agents in London and New York. My masterpiece was entitled Malevolence which, in hindsight, was a slightly ironic foreshadow of the word storm that it preceded.

Several weeks later, I received my first response from an agent. I still have it in my studio.


Dear Mr Crocker,

Thank you for submitting your novel, Malevolence. You should know that when it comes to writing novels, less is always more. Large and complex words should be used much in the way one wears an expensive shirt – seldom and only when an impact is required. And perhaps not even then.

I’m afraid that you’re wearing your entire closet on every page.

You have talent, but it’s lost in the trees. Simplify your writing and submit again.


And there, in a single page, a line had been put through two years of my life (four, if you count how long it took to write the aptly titled Malevolence).

Studying the dictionary had been such a colossal waste of time, I might as well have spent those months licking windows. But, as with many of the best lessons we are taught, they are often painful upfront but invaluable in the long run. I have no doubt that my four published novels to date would never have made it to bookshelves, were it not for this single letter.

And so I no longer use words like gasconading and perfidiousness. I now understand that writing in its purest form is always about painting pictures that form effortlessly in readers’ minds. It’s about the meeting of imaginations between writer and reader. Storytelling, after all, is a team sport.

In describing mist at a lookout point, Bill Bryson once wrote ‘The mist was so thick, you could kick holes in it’. And that really makes the point. No thesaurus in the world could improve that sentence and my seven year-old can understand what it means.

And so, today, I’ve forgotten most of those complex words I spent months drilling into my head. Partly because I’m getting older now and have the memory of a retarded goldfish, but mainly because I have no place for them in my stories. If I’m trying to create a particular world in one of my books and I use a word that the reader doesn’t understand, then I’ve painted a picture with a question mark in it. Either that, or the reader has to step away from the story to pick up a dictionary. In which case the illusion is broken and we both lose. That’s not to say, of course, that authors should never use words that seek to challenge their readers, but just that these words should be carefully considered and handled with puffy oven gloves lest they burn the hands of everyone involved.

Looking back, I’m embarrassed by the sort of writer I was in the beginning. Arrogant, intent on being superior and just lacking in common sense (again, I point you to the photo). But I take comfort in knowing that it was all part of my journey. These days I’m riddled with doubt and self-loathing. I’m convinced that the publishing world will soon look upon me with a shake of its head and a wag of its long finger, saying ‘You fooled us for the first four books, but now we see you for the talentless git that you are.’ And yet, ironically, I think this constant fear of failure makes me a better writer than perhaps I ought to be.

But still, if my vocabulary met yours in a dark alley, I would suggest you run. Because I still have enough in the tank to stab you in your sternocleidomastoid.


After tossing out the dictionary and peeling off the squished Doberman, Gareth’s novels have gone on to sell more than a million copies in multiple languages and formats around the world. His latest novel, King, will be released in October.

10 Sep 2013

Open Book Festival in Cape Town – smashing event, scary city

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Author/zombie food

Author/zombie food

– An author’s life #4

In Michele Rowe’s acclaimed debut novel, What Hidden Lies, there’s a thought-provoking dedication in the front of the book which describes Cape Town as ‘Crime with a view’. Given that I live in the utopian city of Johannesburg, my first thought was that perhaps the phrase is a little, well, overly dramatic. But after this weekend’s trip to the city’s Open Book Festival, I’m not so sure anymore. To put what you are about to read into perspective, I was in The Mother City for precisely 22 hours. This was my experience:

My plane landed, with me in it, shortly before 12h00 on Saturday. Immediately upon leaving the airport, my rather anaemic little rental car was almost crushed by a speeding bus followed by a speeding truck. The drivers were either drag racing or playing a rousing game of ‘once-I-catch-you-I’m-going-to-rip-off-your-head’. Odd as it was to see such large vehicles tearing down the highway, it’s not as though I’m a stranger to speeding vehicles. Johannesburg highways aren’t exactly paragons of road safety.

As I made my way into the heart of the city, my gaze fell on a man chasing another man. The guy doing the chasing was clutching something in his hand that might’ve been a hotdog, but looked more like a large knife or a club of sorts. I briefly considered pulling over and getting involved, but what would I do? I had no idea what was happening and who, in fact, the bad guy was. Perhaps they both were. I figured it would be quite a challenge to conduct an in-depth character investigation while a knife (or possibly a sausage) was being thrust into my ear. Besides, who was I kidding? They were running at roughly the speed of light. At almost 40 now, my top wobble is more akin to continental drift.

A little unnerved, I made it to my hotel and checked in. I stuck around in the lobby to watch more violence (welcome, this time) in the form of the Springboks mauling the Aussies. After the game, I decided to quickly pop out to a landmark book shop, literally two blocks from the hotel.

During my short walk, which couldn’t have taken more than ten minutes, I was offered drugs twice. ‘No thanks, Mr angry-looking guy dressed in Checkers packets,’ I said, cheerfully and then twenty steps later, ‘Oh, I think I’ve smoked as much heroin as I dare today, Mr dirty dreadlock hair with the shifty eyes’.

Drug free, I arrived back at the hotel and, an hour later, was due at the Athol Fugard theatre for the first of two events. After I was done, at around nine pm, I was invited to dinner at a small roadside Pizzeria around the block. So together with fellow author, Damien Brown, and two senior managers from Penguin, we legged it to the restaurant. Choosing a table on the sidewalk (a typically non-Joburg thing to do), we sat down just in time to witness the first of half a dozen vehicles racing up and down the street, barely metres away from us. Having something of a tough guy reputation to protect (as much as authors can be tough guys), I tried my best not to flinch as consecutive tons of death barrelled up and down the road veering wildly from side-to-side.

Then came the requisite drunk guys staggering onto the pavement. Noticing that one of them was wearing a pink rodeo hat and possibly no pants, I surmised that this was probably a bachelor party in full swing. They burped and stumbled their way past us before, a few metres further on, Mr No Pants Rodeo Hat vomited against the side of a parked car. The sound of puke meeting sheet metal was followed, predictably, by the arrival of our pizzas. I stared down at mine and couldn’t help but notice the resemblance between the toppings I had chosen and what was now painted against some poor soul’s car just beyond my line of sight. The vomit, unfortunately, was not beyond my line of smell. At this point – and I’m not making this up – a mad person ambled past. He was holding his head and screaming to himself. ‘No .. no … no’, he chanted, followed by an alien cry of ‘*F&g&h^j%l$rf#ew@w$%^&.’ It was at this point that we all picked up our plates and wisely, if not somewhat after-the-fact, headed inside the restaurant.

An hour later, we began a rather brisk walk back to our hotel and I don’t mind telling you that I was on full alert. I figured that if we were to be confronted by face-eating zombies, say, I wouldn’t need to outrun the zombies as much as I would need to outrun my – if you’ll pardon the irony – dinner guests. Walking beside Damien, who is like a thinner, fitter and better looking version of myself, I quickly figured that the bastard would outrun me on one leg. However, if push came to shove, I could possibly pick him up and use him as a sort of human food shield.

While more drugs were proffered and we were accosted by either some very hardened looking street children or a group of particularly short gangsters, we finally made it to the hotel in one piece.

Back in my room and after re-watching the Springbok game, I eventually drifted off to sleep at around 1am. At 3am, I was woken by the sound of more screaming. My first thought was that the mad chap from outside the restaurant had somehow made it into my room and was now standing, drool-faced, over my bed. Thankfully, this was not the case. I stumbled over to the window and peered eight storeys down at the street below. What I saw, was quite remarkable. There was a car parked on the side of the street with its doors splayed open. The occupants of the vehicle had alighted from their transport and were now punching each other with some enthusiasm.

The surreal scene was made even more difficult to decipher by the thick layer of dust attached to the windows in my room (the hotel is being renovated). It was like watching television with a brown paper bag over your face. By the time I managed to open the complex locking mechanism, it was too late to do anything about the fight. I watched as a man ran up to what I could now see was a rather fierce looking woman and punched her square in the face. She then retaliated with a punch of her own, after which the other male in the picture came to her aid and together they pummelled the first man down to the ground. I was about to reach for my phone – to do what with, I couldn’t tell you – when they inexplicably stopped fighting and climbed back into the car. As the vehicle started up and its taillights vanished into the night, I remained beside the window in my sleeping shorts, mouth agape, for some while. I wondered if perhaps I had accepted some of the drugs that had been offered to me earlier in the evening and that I was now tripping my tits off. But, of course, I wasn’t.

I debated calling the police, but what would I tell them? That a group of people had just beat the crap out of each other and were now driving consensually around Cape Town in, wait for it … a car. From my vantage point, my witness account would’ve sounded something like this: ‘Yes, officer, it was definitely people fighting and not reindeer. The car they were travelling in was either blue, black, green, brown or silver. It was either a hatch or a sedan. License plate? Yes, I imagine it had one.’ So, instead, I stumbled back to bed and switched on the television. Unable to sleep, I watched the Springboks win again.

Ironically, and looking back now, my first event at The Open Book Festival was a fun session where Mike Nicol and Margie Orford teamed up against myself and Angela Makholwa in a sort of Joburg versus Cape Town showdown (which we won, just by the way – in your face, Nicol). It was a light-hearted session with lots of tongue-in-cheek humour until, that is, we got on to the subject of crime. I was quite surprised by how suddenly the tone changed. Both Mike and Margie spoke rather soberly about the differences in crime between the two cities and how increasingly in Cape Town there seems to be a certain depravity attached to crime. Margie made the point that in Joburg often the crime, while violent and abhorrent, makes a sort of awful sense. That criminals attacked and robbed for financial gain. ‘At least there is often some terrible logic to it,’ she explained.

She then went on to say that in researching her latest novel, she came across the case of a 12-year old girl who had been murdered in Cape Town. The youngster was found with more than a hundred stab wounds. Now I know that drawing any sort of conclusions between my 22 hours in Cape Town and the actual levels of crime and violence in The Mother City is of course unfair, invalid and completely absurd. Maybe I was just unlucky. Maybe I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, repeatedly. A single swallow not a summer doth make and all of that.

But I tell you one thing. When I finally arrived home some hours later, I was completely taken aback by how I felt when I stepped off the plane. It just about surprised me to death.

I felt safe to be back in Johannesburg.


Note: For the record, I thoroughly enjoyed The Open Book Festival and hope I get invited to participate again. It is brilliantly run, has a plethora of wonderful events to attend and the audiences were kind, enthusiastic and engaging. Although, having said that, being forced to write four separate stories on stage … in under three minutes each time … competing against seven top authors … and then being asked to read out your stories to the audience … upon which you would be judged according to a crowd ‘clap-o-meter’, was undoubtedly the most traumatic hour of all the 22 hours I spent in the city. The sadistic yet charming, Ben Williams (Sunday Times books editor), however, was a remarkable host. How the man doesn’t have his own radio show is beyond belief.  





02 Sep 2013

Eureka! And now we’re all going to die

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– An author’s life #2 (original version written in 2009)

History is littered with tales of how great discoveries were made purely by mistake. Consider the likes of penicillin, brandy, the microwave oven, artificial sweetener, X-Rays and, according to the Interweb, half a bajillion other items. In fact, even Viagra was apparently a bit of a happy accident. According to urban mythology (slash Wikipedia), the drug was actually being developed to treat angina. The fact that it landed up benefiting ‘ginas’ of another sort, seems more than a little ironic to me.

This cardboard book shelf arrived without warning during the night.

This cardboard book shelf arrived without warning during the night.

In any event, I’m very pleased to announce that I can now add my name to the list of luminaries who – through a bit of arse, it must be said – have stumbled upon an invention of such magnitude that it has the potential to revolutionise our lives.

But before I share any more, we must first step briefly back in time.

The origins of my discovery can be traced back to the early 2000s when I set out to become a published author. After several years of abuse, tantrums, put downs, hysterical crying fits and enough rejection slips to paper-mâché the Statue of Liberty, a very small publisher in London finally agreed to take on my debut novel.

True to my word, I released the publisher’s daughter from the tool shed in my garage and was soon dizzy with visions of Hemmingway, Dickens and Salinger all winking and nodding in my direction. I was one of them now; part of their world.

Or so I thought. Right up until the moment my publisher informed me that they planned to print a rather miserly 500 copies of my masterpiece.

Now considering that maths is my Kryptonite nemesis in the shape of an Achilles Heel, I was struggling to work out how several billion people were going to absorb my story when only 500 books would be on offer. I hauled out my calculator and did the equation. Approximately 500 books divided by, say, 3 billion English-speaking adults. The answer? A rather bewildering 0.000000166 books per person.


So, in order to share my story with the planet, my best bet would be to call an enormous meeting of the English-speaking adult world and to then read out my novel on stage.

But what I didn’t appreciate at the time was that my strength lay not in producing the sort of magnificent prose that the world was destined to read. Quite the contrary. My destiny – and thus my discovery – was in concocting a sort of potent ‘word recipe’ – a spell, really – that would have exactly the opposite effect.

Allow me to explain.

My novel seems to possess the almost supernatural ability to repel readers completely and absolutely. In fact, so far as I can tell, these days my book doesn’t even get picked up by that most heinous of all bookstore browsers – the non-buyer who’s wandered into the store because he or she has 15 minutes to kill before the Adam Sandler movie starts downstairs.

I know this sort of thing because I make weekly visits to bookstores where I painstakingly count out the amount of my books that have been sold in the seven days since I last visited. Of course, the number is always the same. If there were eight of my novels available last week in a particular store, then there will be eight available this week. I also know that they have not been picked up for closer scrutiny because I also happen to carry my high school maths protractor with me to check the top book’s ‘angle of display’. It is always precisely the same – more consistent and reliable than the very rising of the sun.

The only thing that changes is the sheer amount of dust attached to my small pile of novels. And thus to the rub we go. It’s gotten to the point that I’m beginning to suspect that my books are made out of some sort of weird and unholy pulp that repels humans but sucks dust like a nuclear-powered Kirby vacuum cleaner. While the other titles appear so new and shiny that their covers seem almost wet to the touch, mine look like cheap props in an Indiana Jones film.

And so it is easy to consider the numerous applications of my invention.

What’s that, you say? You can no longer afford a housekeeper? Don’t fret. A single application of one of my novels is sure to cleanse your home of even the vaguest sprinkling of dust. If you’re a struggling corporate, why waste thousands on cleaning bills when all your dust can be gathered by popping one of my novels onto the nearest bookshelf.

And now, I’m sorry to say, things are getting worse. During a recent trip to my local bookstore, I discovered that my normally constant stack of eight Crocker novels had inexplicably and ominously  grown to thirteen.

That’s right. My novels have now achieved the power of mitosis. Which, if I’m honest, has me more than a little worried. It may be good and lucrative news (for me, at least) in our global war against dust capture, fair enough, but it may also spell our doom. After all, one might argue the point of living in a dustless world if, in fact, you are dust yourself (and thus attached to my novel).

I can tell you that I now know how those scientists must have felt after they had created the atomic bomb. ‘How can we undo this?’ one of them is believed to have whispered at one point. I hear you, apocalyptic scientist guy. Ours is indeed a heavy burden to bear.

Now that my novels are multiplying on their own – self-publishing, I guess – I fear that it is only a matter of time until we are so inundated by my fiction that you will have to swim through an ocean of my novels just to visit your bathroom. The upside is that you will have something to read, or wipe with, when you get there.

Our only hope is to attempt something so outlandish, so far out of left field, so unthinkable … that it just might save us. It’s a desperate measure, but what choice do we have?

You see, I believe to break the spell we need to start buying my work. To get rid of whatever twisted voodoo is at play here, actual cash needs to be exchanged for my books. I urge you to buy as many copies as you can. Spend as if your life depends on it, dear reader.

Because it most surely does.

After his debut novel initially did nothing more than gather vast plumes of dust, Gareth’s books eventually started to mutate. Following that initial print run of 500 copies, Gareth’s three novels to date – Finding Jack, Journey from Darkness and Never Let Go – have gone on to produce more than a million offspring in different languages and formats around the world. Gareth’s latest word plague, King, will be unleashed on the planet in October. 

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