While my most recent publication has been of poetry, this represents a recent return to the form as explained in my previous blog. However, my step INTO prose was as unprecedented as this poetry book no doubt seems to some.
At the end of 1986 my father was transferred from Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape by his company. I had two years of school left and the decision was taken that I would go with them to PE and start at a new high school.
I was a bit of a rising star at Parktown but I was keen to leave for some reason. The emotional state I remember most clearly was one of excitement and a sense of adventure. But I was to be plunged into a microcosm version of the world I then inhabited and it would change me (I still believe for the better) forever.
The first thing that happened on my first day of school at Grey was that I was reunited with an old primary and high school friend Julian Kievit. This rekindled friendship was the biggest factor in how my life changed. Julian is a genius: mentally, musical and in some other, un-measurable way too. He and gotten gull colours for academics the previous year (yeah, standard 8!) and could play just about any musical instrument if you left it with him for a few hours.
We had been friends before but, on re-meeting each other on the pavement outside Grey High that January began an in-depth adventure that changed a lot in my life. We were both social outcasts. AS an intellectual in a rugby school Julian was an outcast. It didn’t help that he played musical instruments and had a stutter. As the new boy from Joburg I was not really made welcome either. We retreated into literature, music and anything that reflected our rejection of the societal norms around us.
Julian encouraged my writing and took an active interest in it. It was he that encouraged me to learn to play guitar and then bass… painstakingly tracing me the basics so that I could hack along with him. He set my poems to melody, turning them into songs and we dreamed of doing great things.
But it was also here that I began to sink into literature as a means of exploring the world. Our English teacher, Mr Greg Cunningham was…. well a freak among teachers. He was our Captain ala Dead Poets Society. In our second last year of school (standard 9) we were streamed according to our scores. So, I was in the 1st stream English class: all straight A students. And what Greg did changed my world. We did a University level block on Modernism.
Yeah. Teenage angst and modernism. Interesting call, but man! It hit my sponge-like head like a blob of goo travelling a million miles an hour: I sucked it right up. Lord Of The Flies was the set work and from that we hit out into Heart of Darkness, TS Eliot’s Wasteland, Wuthering Heights and Apocalypse Now… I encountered a world of depth and counter-meaning in literature that I am not sure I truly understood before. I also read Joyce and we discussed stream of consciousness, existentialism and the meaning of life and how we experienced it.
I started writing a series of what I was calling prose poems. Incredibly densely structure, rhythmically oriented essays that folded back into themselves. It is something I have never been able to replicate but that informs the internal cadences of my writing to this day. I had this method for using the syllable counts and word numbers in each sentence to dictate an internal rhyming scheme and rhythm… These were sprawling one and two page pieces that took the view of my physical world and drove it through the rather bleak, modernist, existential mirror of my teenage mind.
I still have the 5 or 6 of these that I crafted during 1987 and 1988. Because craft them I did, they took a while! If I wasn’t out on the road, I’d post a sample or two… maybe one day. Anyway, this was a new thing for me. Yes it leaned heavily on the idea of the poetry that I had been writing for 7 or 8 years by then. But in its length and additional complexity, it was an intellectual exploration of subject, style, form and intent that I had never undertaken before. I was out of my zone, learning so much new stuff, and I poured it all into these pieces. In some ways I still feel that my written ‘voice’ was forged in those days and has just been sharpened and honed by years of journalism and practice.
I was 17 or 18 and, with one best friend in the world, I went on an adventure of the mind. Those times couldn’t have been easy for me after being a popular Jock at my previous school. But I don’t remember it being hard. I was in the school play, I debated, did well at public speaking, wrote tonnes of poems and prose (I even staged one of my own plays at the inter-house one-act play competition. We came stone last!) I was killing on the athletics track. I gave up rugby. We listened to music; I learned how to play music… I was learning how to be a different kind of person. Possibly one who was very different from how I would have turned out had the family stayed in Johannesburg.
If my first 3 years of high-school saw me flower physically into a great sportsman and lay the social foundation of my adult life, those last two years saw my intellectual and spiritual awakening. As it turns out, it also saw crucial input into my creative skills, attitudes and opportunities. I remain eternally grateful for that. In the past I had wondered why my parents didn’t just leave me in boarding at Parktown. Nowadays I am so grateful they didn’t. I’m OK with the alternate me that I became because of that move. And somewhere I still have the writing to prove it!