Open Book Festival in Cape Town – Smashing Event, Scary City
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.