BOOK REVIEW: Essays doused with beauty and artistry
Each of Hedley Twidle’s essays radiates with academic craftsmanship, but of the gentle and seldom erudite kind
Firepool: Experiences in an Abnormal World
Surely one of the most delicious pieces of state propaganda is Fire Pool Demonstration — SAPS Security Evaluation Report.
Made in 2015 by policemen who must have collectively experienced an exploding brain event, it slays in the "WTF" and "OMFG" categories.
Its wobbly footage shows earnest firefighters demonstrating how adept they are at aiming a fire hose — sometimes in the air, mostly at the "fire pool" — to the uplifting (and ludicrously inappropriate) sounds of O Sole Mio soaring epically over the incandescent BS.
This was the overeager attempt by President Jacob Zuma’s minions to persuade citizens that the issue of the Nkandla "swimming pool" was just a silly misunderstanding.
Hedley Twidle’s essay on this pool, the last in the book, is one of my favourite of the nine essays. I gave myself up to the author’s ordering of things and waited with that delicious sense of anticipation. He delivered.
Although not chronological, the essays trace a timeline of sorts – of Twidle’s own life experience and SA’s unfolding.
We glimpse his growing years at a fancy all-boys boarding school in the 1990s in the first essay, A History of Adverse Reactions. The strange adolescent experience of realising one’s own animalness (with its telling details of the joys of sniffing one’s own "crushed farts" and the heavy facts of a teenage skin’s vicious rebellion) ring a gooey bell.
So does the experience of arriving in a society in political turmoil that privileges rampant masculinity when just making sense of the language swirling you is enough of a challenge.
His boarding-school dictionary – his own, written at the time – is a winning thread throughout this essay.
Take the definition he gives of "2-5 (two-five)" for example: "(1) v. To masturbate (e.g. "He was bust two-fiving last night"); (2) n. Someone known for excessive masturbatory habits; one who has been caught in the act. Origin: from ‘two testes’ and ‘five fingers’ and the fusion thereof."
The subtitle of the book, Experiences in an Abnormal World, comes from the essay A Useless Life. It is a wonderful rumination on Demitrios Tsafendas, who stabbed prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd dead in Parliament on September 6 1966.
His critical analysis of the official take on Tsafendas, the assassin’s account and the event’s links to and diversions from contemporary events, is measured and potent. It’s one hell of a reminder of the livid, longstanding insanity of SA.
The fire pool of my expectations was extinguished in an almost desultory puff. Twidle points out the self-evident absurdity of firemen "dousing a swimming pool with its own water, endlessly quenching a liquid fire" and then quickly dispels the government’s argument in self-defence.
But the fire pool essay is a divine meander through Cape Town via its many public pools. He also weaves in his experiences of #FeesMustFall as a lecturer at the University of Cape Town (UCT), hooking it on to the element of fire.
As a (slightly bumbling) figure trying to keep up with history in the making, he was eyewitness to the burning of UCT’s paintings by students.
Outstanding here is Twidle’s clarity on his overwhelming confusion about what this all means, discouraging hasty conclusions: "But I am often not sure what my opinion is. Sometimes I don’t even know what an opinion feels like, or is supposed to feel like, intellectually.
"My thoughts are tinted by the last person I spoke to, the last thing I read, the last meal I had, what my blood sugar is. It’s a flux, a haze, a swirling together of half-digested information and emotion that can incline this way or that, like a flame in the wind," he writes.
Twidle invites readers to keep chewing over the many things that continue to give them indigestion: "For two decades, we acted as if the cud of history had been digested in this country, as if that ball of half-chewed grass and fibre was gone. But now we find it in our mouths again requiring further mastication. Mastication is not a crime. Lifetimes, generations of chewing. The cud."
Each of his essays radiates with academic craftsmanship, but of the gentle and seldom erudite kind. The sequence of the essays behaves almost as a collection of paintings – a polyptych of stories that are each exquisite and then add other layers as they ricochet against one another.
Best of all, each yields up gems that will linger in the memory and scour others with fresh thoughts.
Even if you don’t agree with what Twidle has to say, you can’t argue with the beauty with which he says it.