Thank you, mummy, for teaching me to read.
Shanghai. Crazy, hyper, barely fathomable, almost-thirty-million-strong Shanghai is where I live with my wife, Belinda "Bea" Allan (an Aussie). I came to China four years ago for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Well, two-and-a-half out of three ain't bad, especially as I was leaving behind one life and entering another—an act performed so many times that it is now a fine art. Currently, 'the pursuit of happiness' is shaped by marriage to Bea and working hard at becoming a writer. Before Asia, I lived in Europe, the UK mainly, with significant stints in the Netherlands and Germany and countless shorter forays into the rest of the Continent, Turkey and Morocco. Before Europe, I lived in Africa. I've studied in the UK and South Africa, picking up a Bachelors in architecture, one Masters in development studies and another in economics, and a PhD in political economy. My portfolio career covering architecture, research, graphic design, lecturing, project management, urban development consultancy and English teaching perhaps explains my admiration for the autodidacts and polymaths of earlier times, the so-called "Renaissance people", who mostly existed before the Renaissance, such as Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Kindi and Abu Ali ibn Sina, and then Galileo Galilei, who was actually there at the time, or of today, like Emilie Wapnick. It turns out I share a birthday with Galileo, although I have fair reason to believe that he wasn't born in Cape Town.
Now, much as I love being a teacher and enjoy my job, writing is moving into the lead. The many interests I have, things I've done, people I've interacted with and lives I've led have brought me to a kind of plateau, were teaching and writing fiction are a cauldron in which everything I am and ever was are boiling into a new potion. Writing and teaching have become being, rather than doing.
Interests and Pursuits
Everything interests me. But for a few objective inconveniences, I'd happily pursue them all. So, the compromise that is my life is a fair mix of the practical and the delusional. For example, I once had the time and the stamina to load up my bicycle and go for thousand-kilometre rides. Although the last one was in 1996, I'm still telling myself that I'm going to do the Nordkap to Cape Tarifa run some day. Or, I've got this really cool saxophone, but I never seem to get past the stage of driving my teachers to exasperation. But then, there are some wildly successful interests, like my insatiable hunger for cities, which tallied up to more than 400 at the last count. And I hasten to point out, just in case you were wondering, that these are not selfie fests, but full-on urban engagements, skid row to cultural quarter, by bicycle, kick scooter or on foot, across four continents. I've learned several languages, some of which I retain fully, others only the essentials (swearwords). Social progress interests me greatly. I love films, though not quite a buff; jazz, though not quite an aficionado; and good food, though not quite a gourmet. I'm interested in the fact that I'm interested in everything.
I once had this idea that I'd like to, at least once, taste everything that human beings eat. I'm not so sure I still want to do that. In any case, I think my doctor might have had something to say about that. Now I mainly avoid sugar ...and MSG. Gelato is, ...err, ...close enough to the border line. It says so right here.
My parents were poor, but not impoverished. They were humble in that they dealt with what life had dealt them. But they had dignity, love and clarity. I had a very good start in life.
What influenced me most profoundly were the walks in the harbour with my father, when I was about three or four. Ships with strange markings, on which strange people spoke strange languages. The constant noise of huge machines, and of men shouting, men with arms the size of people. Seagulls that always looked like they were just waiting for me to let go of my father's hand, so they could eat me. And all the stuff getting lifted in and out of ships. Whole cities were carried in those ships. I wondered about what was in the crates, sacks and drums, where they were going or had just come from, and whom they belonged to. I think this experience tied me forever to the world.
When I was eight, I still slept on the living room floor of our house. Early one morning, after my parents had failed to pay our electricity bill, there was a knock at the door. My mother answered it. A big, white man was there to collect the money. He invited himself in. My mother, now back in the bedroom, called for me to get up and see if I could borrow some money from a neighbour. I wanted to do this, but the man wouldn't go outside so I could get out of bed. I didn't dare ask him even to at least turn his back. He simply stood there, expressionless, as my mother kept calling me. I couldn't tell her why I couldn't get out of bed. In the end, I had to get up. He wouldn't even turn his face or at least shut his eyes. In that moment I understood what it meant to not be a human being in another's eyes. It made me forever a champion of humanity.
As a child, the library and my imagination were my great escapes (including from the bullies). When I was ten, our local librarian invited me to join a Saturday-morning library club. We learned how to read a newspaper and how to tell a good newspaper from a bad one. We learnt the distinction between a fact, an opinion and a prejudice, and why the truth wasn't necessarily true. I shall forever love books and learning.