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Fiction Friday: read an excerpt from John Hunt’s The Boy Who Could Keep a Swan in his Head

John Hunt, author of The Boy Who Could Keep a Swan in his Head. © Joanne Olivier.

 
While other boys daydream about racing cars and football, eleven-year-old stutterer Phen sits reading to his father. In number four Duchess Court, Phen’s dad looks like a Spitfire pilot behind his oxygen mask.

But real life is different from the daring adventures in the books Phen reads and he is forced to grow up faster than other boys his age.

This is until Heb Thirteen Two shows up: in his pinstriped suit pants and tie-dyed psychedelic top, the stranger could be any old bum, or a boy’s special angel come to live among men.

Poignant, witty and wise, John Hunt’s The Boy Who Could Keep a Swan in His Head is a meditation on being alive and shows us the power of books when we need them the most.
 
 
John Hunt is the author of the novel The Space Between the Space Between. His book The Art of the Idea, which celebrates the power of ideas to move the world forward, has been translated into several languages. He is currently Worldwide Creative Chair of advertising agency network TBWA, having previously co-founded TBWA\Hunt Lascaris. He grew up in Hillbrow and still lives and works in Johannesburg.

Read an excerpt from Hunt’s remarkable novel here:

Hillbrow, 1967. The New York of Africa. Apartheid kept the roads clean and the rubbish collected. There were buildings going up everywhere – “lickety-split”, according to Mr Trentbridge. Large chunks of tin-roof houses were found in skips almost every day as the boy walked home from school. These homes were recently surrounded by honest gardens and the occasional peach tree. Someone wrote in The Star newspaper that soon Hillbrow would have more people per square kilometre than Tokyo. Everyone quoted that article to everyone. Some even cut it out and kept it folded in their wallets.

The boy, who went by the name of Phen, lived in Duchess Court. You’ll find it at 20 O’Reilly Road, Berea. Technically it’s in Berea, but for all intents and purposes it’s Hillbrow. The heartland of Hillbrow, the parallel streets of Kotze and Pretorius, is barely a three-minute amble away. Duchess Court was built in the twenties, solid and grey with flirty bits of art deco. When first constructed it must have dominated the skyline. By the time Phen moved in, though, it had the look of an old, stout woman in a sombre overcoat that had been mended too often.

Not that the building was without its charm. At its core was the wood-panelled lift with its bevelled mirror, known to all simply as Mr Otis. He waited at the end of the foyer with three cast-iron ladies above his lintel. Joined together, they danced in a chorus line with their right legs held scandalously high. If you opened the heavy wooden door, then slid back the metal gate, the lift would take you a clanking six storeys high. The grill, when concertinaed closed, left big gaps you could peer through. As you faced forward the lift shaft was presented in vertical grey strips that drifted upwards in a slow-motion blur. This was punctuated by six square bursts of yellow if you went all the way to the top. The lift door at each floor had a small glass window allowing you to wave to people as you went past them.

Stopping was always a violent and inexact affair. Tenants would suggest to newcomers that they lean against the walls or, at the very least, hold on to the polished brass handle of the metal gate as the lift slammed to a halt anywhere between a foot and an inch away from the floor of your choice. The uninitiated would battle to see this as an arrival and presume something had gone wrong. It was only after the metal door had been brazenly slid open that they would sheepishly step up or down and then out.

Phen lived on the ground floor in number four. His trips with Mr Otis were therefore infrequent or for fun. And a fertile imagination grew more fecund when transport was on hand. There was a time when, based at military headquarters behind the washing line on the roof, he needed to find the V2 rocket base the Germans were using. London was taking a terrible pounding and it was all up to his commando unit. After days of relentless reconnaissance they found the cunning concrete shaft dug six storeys deep into the mountainside. Although they were vastly outnumbered, thanks to the element of surprise the mission was a total success.

If you sat on the bonnet of Mr Trentbridge’s Ford Cortina and looked at Duchess Court, number four was situated on the extreme right-hand corner. A palm tree, planted years ago, blocked out ninety per cent of the view from the balcony and stretched up to the fourth floor. Doves cooed high up in the fronds as if the tiny strip of green between the building and the pavement was an oasis. Phen often Lawrence-of-Arabiaed around that tree, offering dates and nuts in the form of Wilson’s toffees to the gathered Bedouin tribes. He would need their help if the Turks were to be driven out of the Middle East once and for all.

With a dishcloth on his head he blew up countless enemy trains as they moved through the desert and up O’Reilly Road. His plunger was a pencil he’d wedged into a hole he’d made in the top of an empty condensed-milk tin. As he rammed it down hard, the dynamite hurled the huge locomotives into the air. Volkswagens, Morris Minors, Fiats and the occasional Peugeot would launch helplessly off the ground and land on their sides and roofs.

“Tell your men not to waste ammunition, Sharif Nassir. There are still many battles to come for the Harith tribe.”

It was an easy yet pitiless business finishing them off. Hidden behind the garden wall, his sawn-off broomstick picked them off one by one. It wasn’t pretty but then war never was. He had to remind himself, “Mankind has had ten thousand years of experience at fighting and if we must fight, we have no excuse for not fighting well.”

The flat itself was bigger on the inside than it looked from the outside. He lived in a flat while all the new buildings around him contained apartments. That was typical of words; they changed without rhyme or reason. And when you asked why, no one could give you an answer. His flat wasn’t flatter. In fact, the older buildings had much higher ceilings. And those new apartments were built so tightly together they should be called closements. His father said flats came from Britain and apartments from America. He said those damn Yanks were getting in everywhere.

If you opened the front door to number four you could turn sharp left into the kitchen or proceed straight into the dining room. The kitchen floor was covered in one flat sheet of green linoleum that bubbled depending on where you stood. You could get the bubble to move but you could never get it to disappear. Much like trying to get the dent out of a ping-pong ball. Trapped air is happy to be transported, but, it will take its ballooned vacuum with it. Concerned visitors even suggested there may be a mouse problem in the kitchen. This, in turn, created such embarrassment for Phen’s mother that his routine job became to force the bubble behind the fridge before anyone came to visit.

Not that walking in the dining room was without its challenges. Like the rest of the flat, it was all parquet flooring in what used to be a very close-fit herringbone design. Over the years, the perpetual pounding of feet in the high-traffic zones had begun to take their toll. Like a piano with a number of loose keys, the initial appearance of a smooth surface was deceptive. If you stood on the tail of the wrong wooden slat, its head would pop up like a snake ready to strike.

The most dangerous square lay, innocuously, directly on the path to the lounge. All three hardwood planks were loose and sat next to each other at slightly different heights. If you were carrying a tray you never stood a chance. And if you were a brisk or heavy walker one of the three would often flip out completely and smack you on the shin.

When Phen had caught his mother crying, even though she’d said everything was alright, he decided to fix the floor in an attempt to cheer her up. He was a bit of a hoarder and went straight to the top shelf of his cupboard. Under his two neatly folded school shirts he fished out the OK Bazaars plastic bag. Beside the egg from two Easters ago and the strips of liquorice, now a deep emerald green, he found his stash of chewing gum. He wasn’t sure exactly how long to chew for. After the taste had left, was the stickiness gone too? He decided merely to make the gum moist then pull it out. Each piece was given a minute in his mouth. No more, no less.

He’d seen pictures of master craftsmen at work and tried to adopt their demeanour. He held the edge of the slats up to the light and frowned at their unseemly roughness. He traced his finger across the ancient lumps of bitumen, then took his mother’s metal nail file and made them smooth. He’d put a newspaper on the dining-room table to catch their falling flakes, but most fell gently into the fruit bowl. Once finished, each six-inch plank was lined up vertically on the sideboard like a row of dominoes. He was uncertain about how to apply the chewing gum. One long stretch? Or a series of blobs?

After experimenting with both, he decided on the blobs. The measured distance between each mound of gum seemed aesthetically more pleasing and carried a greater sense of purpose. It reminded him of his Meccano set where a series of aligned holes solved everything. This choice demanded more material and depleted his entire reserve. By the time he was finished, a three-year collection of gum lay beneath the dining-room floor. Most were Chappies so he kept the wrappers to read the jokes and Did You Knows printed inside. However, there was also the faint whiff of peppermint and spearmint from other gums. Phen felt proud and exhilarated when he was finished. There is a kind of satisfaction that seeps in when a job requiring physical labour is well done. It’s the sort of feeling that sustains you for quite a while even when no one else notices your handiwork.

On the south side of the dining-room wall was a door which opened into a cupboard that was so deep it was referred to as the storeroom. The three shelves at the back were packed with the finality of knowing no one was ever going to reach them. On the middle of the top shelf, bristling like a series of broken vertebrae, lay the deformed wire hoops of the record rack. Somehow on its journey in the delivery van from Shotley Residential Hotel, not even half a mile away, the leg of the sofa had been placed on its delicate spine. The wire channels were now splayed embarrassingly wide in the middle and impossibly tight on the opposite edges. South Pacific, Brigadoon, My Fair Lady, Gigi and all their contemporaries were therefore forced to lie on top of one other, flat and square. They, in turn, rested upon a hatbox from another age. Now empty, its circular velvet-covered lid captured the memory, if not the contents, of its beauty.

One shelf below, and slightly to the left, lay the likewise empty hamster cage that had once housed Philby. Phen had been allowed to buy the white hamster provided his father could name him. “That rodent should’ve been behind bars years ago.” Only much later he learned that Philby was a British double agent who’d defected to the USSR. Teeth marks could still be seen where the hamster had gnawed through the pale blue powder coating of his steel feeding tray. Phen had placed the cage there himself, in a solemn ceremony shortly after Philby’s demise. He hadn’t been sure where you put the homes of the dead, let alone the dead themselves. He had wanted to ask, but couldn’t find the courage. He sensed a plastic bag and the dustbin might have been the answer. When he’d returned from school, his mother had given him a hug, said she was sorry and now the subject was closed.

Which is why, two weeks later, when the hamster wheel began to run wildly deep in the darkness of the cupboard, Phen was at first confused and then elated. He’d read the stories and seen the pictures of the resurrection. He’d pored over those yellow rays that burst from behind dark clouds as white doves, caught in a whirlwind, spun up to heaven. He ran to the door and smote the darkness asunder. The huge black rat was clearly startled by the light suddenly flicking on. However, with size comes a certain confidence. He allowed himself a few extra whirls before darting out the cage door and through a pile of London Illustrated News.

The Boy Who Could Keep a Swan in his Head

Book details

The Love Diary of a Zulu Boy goes beyond being a narrative of forbidden love, writes Fred Khumalo

‘The book goes beyond being a narrative of forbidden love. It’s a potent alchemy, a swirling together of matters that are the hallmark of serious literature: good and evil, sex, love, friendship, morality, happiness and suffering, heroes and villains… and, of course, the old South African chestnuts – race and identity.’ – Fred Khumalo

The Love Diary of a Zulu Boy is by turns erotic, romantic, tragic and comic. Inspired by the real-life drama of a romance between a Zulu boy and an Englishwoman, the book consists of various interrelated short stories on interracial relationships in modern-day South Africa.

As the author reflects on love across the colour line, it triggers memories of failed affairs and bizarre experiences: love spells, toxic masculinity, infidelity, sexually transmitted diseases, a phantom pregnancy, sexless relationships, threesomes and prostitution, to name but a few.

A unique book for the South African market, The Love Diary of a Zulu Boy is written with an honesty rarely encountered in autobiographical writing.
 
 

Book details

Poignant, witty and wise, John Hunt’s The Boy Who Could Keep a Swan in His Head is a mediation on being alive and shows us the power of books when we need them the most

“Hillbrow, 1967. The New York of Africa. Someone wrote that the place would soon have more people per square kilometre than Tokyo. Everyone quoted that article to everyone. Some even cut it out and kept it folded in their wallets.”


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

While other boys daydream about racing cars and football, eleven-year-old stutterer Phen sits reading to his father. In number four Duchess Court, Phen’s dad looks like a Spitfire pilot behind his oxygen mask.

But real life is different from the daring adventures in the books Phen reads and he is forced to grow up faster than other boys his age.

This is until Heb Thirteen Two shows up: in his pinstriped suit pants and tie-dyed psychedelic top, the stranger could be any old bum, or a boy’s special angel come to live among men.

Poignant, witty and wise, John Hunt’s The Boy Who Could Keep a Swan in His Head is a meditation on being alive and shows us the power of books when we need them the most.

John Hunt is the author of the novel The Space Between the Space Between. His book The Art of the Idea, which celebrates the power of ideas to move the world forward, has been translated into several languages. He is currently Worldwide Creative Chair of advertising agency network TBWA, having previously co-founded TBWA\Hunt Lascaris. He grew up in Hillbrow and still lives and works in Johannesburg.

Book details

Book launch: Death Cup by Irna van Zyl (12 April)

 
Murder is on the menu.

Detective Storm van der Merwe and Andreas Moerdyk are back in this brand-new thriller by Irna van Zyl, author of Dead in the Water.

Storm now works in Hermanus and during a lunch with her friend at Zebardines, a much-hated food blogger keels over and dies. It turns out that there were deadly mushrooms, death cups, in her food.

Finding out who killed the blogger is Storm’s first priority, but not the only matter requiring her attention: her old colleague, Andreas Moerdyk, quit his job unexpectedly and expects Storm to put him up while he makes a new start in Hermanus.

Amid frantic preparations for Fooddotcom’s prize-giving ceremony that will honour the country’s best chefs, the murderer strikes again, and again.

Storm’s time is running out.
 
Event Details

Johannesburg launch: Sorry, Not Sorry by Haji Mohamed Dawjee (11 April)

Sorry, Not SorryWhy don’t white people understand that Converse tekkies are not just cool but a political statement to people of colour? Why is it that South Africans of colour don’t really ‘write what we like’? What’s the deal with people pretending to be ‘woke’? Is Islam really as anti-feminist as is claimed? What does it feel like to be a brown woman in a white media corporation? And what life lessons can we learn from Bollywood movies?

In Sorry, Not Sorry, Haji Mohamed Dawjee explores the often maddening experience of moving through post-Apartheid South Africa as a woman of colour. In characteristically candid style, Dawjee pulls no punches when examining the social landscape: from arguing why she’d rather deal with an open racist than some liberal white people, to drawing on her own experience to convince readers that joining a cult is never a good idea.

In the provocative voice that has made Dawjee one of our country’s most talked-about columnists, she offers observations laced throughout with an acerbic wit. Sorry, Not Sorry will make readers laugh, wince, nod, introspect and argue.
 
 
Event Details

“Be loyal to your car, but don’t give a sh*t about it.” Haji Mohamed Dawjee celebrates her anti-establishment hero, her grandfather, in this extract from Sorry, Not Sorry

Published in the Sunday Times

Haji Mohamed Dawjee celebrates her anti-establishment hero, her grandfather, in this extract from her new book Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a Brown Woman in a White South Africa.

He was an honest guy, my grandfather. A bit left-field with his thoughts, but always honest. His support of my creativity started when I was really young. I spent a lot of time with him at our old house in Laudium. Before I realised I liked writing, I sketched. All the time. He supplied pencils and paper, and I replicated Secret Seven book covers. SABC News was always on in the background and compliments for the Indian news presenters spilt out of him. They were all Hindu and he never failed to voice his disappointment and, well, disgust for the Muslim community, who he said never did anything with their lives. “Baby-making machines,” he called them. “Will never amount to anything,” he said. He admired women journalists and was frustrated that none of those he saw were Muslim. Subconsciously, I think this played a massive role in my becoming a journalist.

He was a writer too. He wrote poems. Lots and lots of poems. When he wasn’t reading them, he was writing them. They were really short, but he took ages to type them because he wasn’t used to a computer. He punched each letter in with two fingers and sometimes got the upper- and lower-case letters wrong, resulting in an ee cummings aesthetic. I assisted with formatting when asked.

The poems’ themes varied from religion to memories of his mother and his childhood. He was never published. Such opportunities did not exist for his generation, class and race. He bought a DIY manual on self-publishing and read it studiously, but nothing came of it. To satisfy his byline needs he got a printer and compiled the poems in files so that they looked like real books. The poetry anthologies of Cassim Mohamed Dawjee are still lying around somewhere in Pretoria.

Reading, writing and watching the news are just about the only conventional things about my grandfather when considered in the light of cultural and religious norms. With every decision, thought and opinion, he proudly lifted his middle finger to the world he found himself in and carved his own path. He didn’t care what anyone thought. In that way, he is my hero. He made me laugh without knowing he did. But he also made me think.

Once, when Muslim evangelists pitched up at the gate, he asked that the dogs be released from the back yard to scare them off. He went outside with a whip to do the same. I love that story.

What follows are a few things my grandfather did in his life, and the lessons I learnt from them.

Be loyal to your car, but don’t give a shit about it.

My granddad drove an ancient, massive, olive-green Mercedes-Benz. I don’t even know what model it was. It was always falling apart. It was an automatic and it’s the car he used to teach me to drive. He was always doing things to the engine that I am pretty sure didn’t need doing and only contributed to its demise.

At one stage, the window on the driver’s side gave in. It would stay wide open because it just slid right down into the door panel. Instead of having it fixed, Pappie, as we called him, used a butcher’s knife to hold it in place. This. Was. A. Terrible. Idea.

He drove me and my sister to school in that car every day. It was a long drive because we lived in Laudium and our school was out of town in Valhalla. He didn’t drive well because he always handled the steering wheel with one hand and had his other hand out the window, fingers tapping the roof of the car. In the summer when the whole window thing happened, he’d try to roll the window up and down while driving, constantly dissatisfied with the temperature.

Removing and replacing the knife required him to use both hands. The car went everywhere and so did the massive knife. It was quite a spectacle and quite a chore. The knife needed to be properly rammed into the side of the little window slit, which took some force. He endeavoured to keep his eyes on the road while trying his best not to miss his target and stab himself in the leg. He never missed, and I’m glad about that, but I often find myself laughing to stop from crying with fear of just thinking about it.

Lesson one: Sometimes in life, all you need is a huge knife to cut through the bullshit. If you believe in yourself, you can always make it work, no matter the risk. And screw the rest.

Book details

Launch: Sorry, Not Sorry by Haji Mohamed Dawjee (9 April)

Why don’t white people understand that Converse tekkies are not just cool but a political statement to people of colour? Why is it that South Africans of colour don’t really ‘write what we like’? What’s the deal with people pretending to be ‘woke’? Is Islam really as anti-feminist as is claimed? What does it feel like to be a brown woman in a white media corporation? And what life lessons can we learn from Bollywood movies?

In Sorry, Not Sorry, Haji Mohamed Dawjee explores the often maddening experience of moving through post-Apartheid South Africa as a woman of colour. In characteristically candid style, Dawjee pulls no punches when examining the social landscape: from arguing why she’d rather deal with an open racist than some liberal white people, to drawing on her own experience to convince readers that joining a cult is never a good idea.

In the provocative voice that has made Dawjee one of our country’s most talked-about columnists, she offers observations laced throughout with an acerbic wit. Sorry, Not Sorry will make readers laugh, wince, nod, introspect and argue.
 
Event Details

Launch: The Boy Who Could Keep a Swan in his Head by John Hunt (18 April)

“Hillbrow, 1967. The New York of Africa. Someone wrote that the place would soon have more people per square kilometre than Tokyo. Everyone quoted that article to everyone. Some even cut it out and kept it folded in their wallets.”

While other boys daydream about racing cars and football, eleven-year-old stutterer Phen sits reading to his father. In number four Duchess Court, Phen’s dad looks like a Spitfire pilot behind his oxygen mask.

But real life is different from the daring adventures in the books Phen reads and he is forced to grow up faster than other boys his age.

This is until Heb Thirteen Two shows up: in his pinstriped suit pants and tie-dyed psychedelic top, the stranger could be any old bum, or a boy’s special angel come to live among men.

Poignant, witty and wise, John Hunt’s The Boy Who Could Keep a Swan in His Head is a meditation on being alive and shows us the power of books when we need them the most.
 
Event Details

Chris Schoeman explores the rich history of the Overberg in this gorgeous collector’s item

The Historical Overberg
Situated between the Hottentots Holland Mountains and the Breede River, the Overberg is an important agricultural region and a popular holiday destination for tourists and nature lovers who delight in the beauty of its mountainous landscape, abundant plant species and long sandy beaches.

But this area also has a rich history going back thousands of years, when the indigenous Khoi people originally thrived there, before the first European settlers arrived to leave their own indelible imprint on the culture, architecture and character of the region. This book provides a detailed account of this past by pointing out the many places, buildings, events and personalities that have made the Overberg the diverse and unique place that it is today.

The Overberg has been a home or point of interest for explorers, innovators, artists and writers, for figures as varied as Bartholomew Diaz, Olof Bergh, Hendrik Verwoerd, Gregoire Boonzaier, Audrey Blignault and Breyten Breytenbach. Some of South Africa’s oldest towns, houses and missionary stations can be found here, and its treacherous coastline has been the cause of hundreds of shipwrecks for centuries.

Enlivened by historical and current photographs and informative side panels, this book is a collector’s item.

Book details

Jay Naidoo suggests a variety of options for ending poverty and global warming in his new book Change

Change

Unless there is significant change, the world is heading for an explosion. The growing gap between rich and poor is dangerous and unsustainable. The plundering of resources is damaging our planet. Something has to be done.

In this book, Jay Naidoo harnesses his experience as a labour union organiser, government minister, social entrepreneur and global thought leader, and explores ways of solving some of the world’s biggest problems. Drawing from his experiences in South Africa, Nigeria, Brazil, Bangladesh and other countries, he presents a variety of options for ending poverty and global warming, with a focus on organising in our communities and building change from below and beyond borders.

Naidoo’s message is unequivocal: significant action must be taken immediately if we want future generations to live in a world that we take for granted today.

Book details