Columns & essays

A sporadic and so far quite random selection from the columns and essays. I will be adding four or five new entries each week – in time this archive will contain more than 500 pieces.

The great escape – 8 April 2020

My last column about the great female escapologist, Minerva. (…..)

Joe Gould and the history of isolation – 25 March 2020

My column from the first week of the  first Covid lockdown: a story about people and their failings. (…..)

Lockdown in LA – 8 March 2020

I was in Los Angeles when the lockdown took hold, and it felt like the city had been waiting for this for years. (…..)

Travel in the time of the coronavirus – 6 March 2020

Your intrepid reporter was sent to the frontlines of the battle against the pandemic, and this is what he saw. (…..)

The dog that chose me – 25 February 2020 

Every so often something in the world chooses you to love. (…..)

Leonard Cohen and how to come back – 19 February 2020

Not all things happen for a reason, but sometimes we might pretend that they do. (…..)

The start of Daily Delights – 29 January 2020

The column that started the practise of daily delights. (…..)

What sitting on a pole reveals about life – 21 January 2020

Vernon Kruger breaks a world record again. (…..)

Christmas in Lisbon, Phillip Larkin and a particular form of religion – 8 January 2020

On my first ever midnight mass, something long forgotten stirred in me. (…..)

Would you rather – 22 February 2019

When a course of anti-depressants threatens your memory, how do you decide what is important in life? (……)

Ken Watson: No love is ever wasted – 3 January 2019

A Christmas story about a wonderful old man. (…..)

A story of a Christmas miracle – 18 December 2019

This is a true story that ends well, about writing and dreaming and Lisbon and dreams coming true. (…..)

Being suave with my agent in The Ivy – 5 December 2019

“It’s the coolth, you see. It’s the coolth and sophistication – that’s what I bring to every occasion.”

Last words: in search of the great persimmon – 27 November 2019

When I was young I was very interested in the subject of famous last words. I asked my father what his would be. (…..)

My favourite stowaway – 20 November 2019

This is the story of a cruise ship and my hero, Paulette Cooper. (…..)

Crossed swords and cross words – 3 October 2019

A rivalry with a fellow columnist that never happened. (…..)

Cain’s Jawbone, and the intellectual challenge of a friendship – 11 September 2019

My friend Henrietta and I are in a duel to the finish. (…..)

Hunting the cricket – 7 August 2019

Murder and creativity while writing a television series. (…..)

Spending the night in Dracula’s castle – 22 July 2019

A forest, a circle of candles and Dracula’s ruined castle. (…..)

Dimitri – 15 July 2019

A story about perspective, courage and one of the most extraordinary people I have met. (…..)

The unexpected pleasure of not being late for a flight – 9 July 2019

Sitting in this airport, I have changed my entire philosophy of life. (…..)

Paris in a heatwave – 26 June 2019

The most important survival skill the traveller needs to learn. (…..)

The only thing worse than the wedding night is the morning after – 20 June 2019

A horrifying encounter at a wedding in Cyprus, from which I may never recover. (…..)

A spy in the house of love – 30 May 2019

A perilous journey through the most dangerous place in the world – Gardens Centre. (…..)

My journey through Champagne – 16 May 2019

Sometimes it’s a relief to find that other places aren’t better than the places back home. (…..)

My first election – 9 May 2019

My first election and a first love. (…..)

Granadillas and living statues – 2 May 2019

I have one last home of securing my financial future and a care-free yet creative old age. (…..)

Texting Keith Olbermann – 23 April 2019

My friend Ros who’s a broadcaster on the BBc has a new pen-friend. (…..)

Black holes and the beauty of all we do not know – 11 April 2019

The first picture of a black hole is another plank of the pier into the vast dark sea of our ignorance. (…..)

You won’t find anything to write about here – 12 March 2019

A week in The Dun Cow, talking to the locals. (…..)

A tale of two visas – 19 February 2019

The only thing worse than English queues is South Africans in English queues. But I propose a different queue altogether. (…..)

Serendipity: a love story – February 2019

When a time, a place and a chance encounter add up to the perfect love story. (…..)

The Dickens in the attic – 21 January 2019

The extraordinary joy of finding treasure in the forgotten things of the everyday. (…..)

My first disastrous brush with Hollywood – 17 January 2019

Getting the call is the first step, and in the this case it was the worst step. (…..)

The Elastic Band Challenge – 10 January 2019

A serious experiment in Metacognitive Intervention. (…..)

Finding Myself – January 2019

An essay about how to live a long time and learning some of the things that we all need to learn. (…..)

The Grinch next door – 20 December 2018

A Christmas story about an unexpectedly kind heart in an unexpected place. (…..)

Fourni and the dreamer’s dream – 13 December 2018

A glorious Aegean Christmas tale. (…..)

The Nobel prize-winner working in the garden – 29 November 2018

The EFF unexpectedly cause me to think about my favourite Nobel prize-winner, William Lawrence Bragg. (…..)

Walking like a man – 15 November 2018

A personal history of seeking manhood through gait. (…..)

Attack of the Borer Beetles – 1 November 2018

Johannesburg is under attack, and we must defend her. (…..)

Asterix, Anthea Bell and being better than you need to be – 15 Oct 2018

My tribute to Asterix and his translator and the gift you give the world when you do your work better than you need to. (…..)

Improvising your life – 13 September 2018

How to confront the uncertainty and the unknown future of your life. (…..)

Thank heavens for little girls – 29 August 2018

Little girls remind us that we do not have all the time in the world. (…..)

My mother and James Bond – 9 Aug 2018

A column for Woman’s Day about what heroism might actually be. (…..)

Clifford, Ernest Hemingway and me – 8 August 2018

There are good people in this country, an infinite number of them. (…..)

A World Cup made for two – 21 July 2018

When I fell in platonic love with a gentle Italian man on the hot, crowded, lonely streets of Soho during the World Cup. (…..)

Nick Cave and the unbearable aloneness of Istanbul – 13 July 2018

Last night I went to a Nick Cave concert and it seemed to change someone else’s life. (…..)

Someone has always done it worse – 5 July 2018

Whenever I have messed up, I am always cheered at the thought that others have messed up worse. (…..)

What South Africans do best – 3 July 2018

I’ve spent most of this year living in various places overseas, and when you’re away for a long time you realize all sorts of things about home. (…..)

Being present at your own funeral – 28 June 2018

I am going to South Korea to be present at my own funeral. (…..)

An island funeral and a secret of happiness – 12 June 2018

I was having breakfast at the harbour and someone was coughing. (…..)

Weddings are weird – June 2018

The worst thing about weddings, and how to solve it (…..)

Drought, schemes and icebergs – 24 May 2018

Dick Smith had a good plan to bring water to Arabia. (…..)

Ball-walking: a whole new way of being – 17 May 2018

What if everything you think you know about walking is wrong? (…..)

An awkward man listens to rembetiko – 10 May 2018

On a night in Athens in a dive-bar, I confront of my social awkwardness while listening to the music of the underworld! (…..)

Be with people who let you simply be – 3 May 2018

Playing is a good way to get old well. (…..)

Socks, weddings and the simple beauty of a good gift – 19 April 2018

Three excellent gifts, given in the right spirit. (…..)

Right of way: a lesson in perspective – 28 March 2018

A walk to Hout Bay in the hot sun and an exercise in seeing things from both sides. (…..)

Friends, books and how to leave – 15 March 2018

I am leaving to live on a Greek island, and it’s hard to know what to take, and what to leave behind. (…..)

I would change my name for them – 5 Mar 2018

A brief history of the best social event I have ever attended. (…..)

A little scarcity is good for the soul – 27 February 2018

My extremely unpopular musing about why the Cape Town water restrictions were a good thing. (…..)

This week I met two jerks on the internet – 22 February 2018

At least I can do something about one of them. (…..)

Lend me your ears – 18 January 2018

The unexpected upsides of misfortune. (…..)

End of an era – the last print column – 12 December 2017

The last of my columns every to be published in a print-only newspaper. (…..)

Journals, or my life as a row of books – 7 December 2017

When I was 33 I did something I had never done before … (…..)

Wonder in the Wild Coast – December 2017

An event so filled with wonder and delight that it has changed my life. (…..)

The magic bookshop – 30 November 2017

The greatest bookshop in the world has spooky powers and it is just down my road. (…..)

Tracey Chapman and the first time I smoked weed – 27 November 2017

Tobias Ngwenya was more myth than man. (…..)

Everyone loves Zimbabwe – 22 November 2017

A conversation with an Uber driver in the week that Robert Mugabe steps down from power. (…..)

Ferdinand Demara and the joy of being a great imposter – 1 November 2017

Oh, how I wish I sometimes could be someone else. (…..)

Why do my flooring guys hate me? – 19 October 2017

Oh, how I loathe the workmen of Cape Town. (…..)

The golden record: a love story – 5 October 2017

Carl Sagan, humanity and a love story that lives beyond the stars. (…..)

The real secret to long life – Oct 2017

On his 99th birthday, my great-uncle Jim explains to me what it really takes to live long and live well. (…..)

Fatberg: the terror beneath our feet – 21 September 2017

The hidden monster that tells us who we are. (…..)

The best Christmas ever – 19 Sept 2017

A brief fantasy about a festive world without family. (…..)

The carrot is lord of the rings – 6 September 2017

If you own a wedding ring, you have to have a carrot patch. (…..)

The walking cure – 29 Aug 2017

A short piece for the Sunday Times about the natural magic of walking. (…..)

World of wonders – 22 Aug 2017

An extraordinary performer reminded me that this is still a world of wonder and of wonders. (…..)

Democracy, the jungle and the Asiatic lion – 10 Aug 2017

A melancholic musing about democracy, involving the exotic jungle of Gir. (…..)

A tale of Home Affairs – 30 July 2017

Even in the ouroboros of a Home Affairs queue, there’s always someone who has it worse. (…..)

Roger Federer and the importance of taking a break – 20 July 2017

Roger Federer won Wimbledon and taught us all a lesson. (…..)

Basking in another’s glory – 30 May 2017

There is nothing I won’t do for a free breakfast in Franschhoek. (…..)

I will kill you, Sophie Hannah, and no one will know it was me – 16 May 2017

In which I explore my passion for Agatha Christie, how she taught me my limitations, and I hatch the perfect murder. (…..)

Hemingway’s Luck – Jan 2017

“You are Ernest Hemingway and you aren’t young any more and you aren’t yet old but you feel old. Your back hurts and your knees hurt and your neck hurts and your head hurts. Your head hurts the worst. Who has been concussed more times than you?” (….)

A man must be strong (episode 2) – Nov 2016

“Last month I was in the queue at Home Affairs, and it wasn’t going well.” (….)

We will fight them in the backyards – 27 Oct 2016

A mortifying tale of misunderstandings and suburban warfare. (…..)

A man must be strong – Oct 2016

“A very small girl taught me about strength.” (….)

Voting, ends and beginnings – 5 August 2016

Remembering 1994, and the beginning of adulthood. (…..)

Me, Kafka and the last telephone conversation on Earth – 14 July 2016

“I must be made up of 75% perversity …” (…..)

Trump in New York – 23 June 2016

An attempt at political prediction doesn’t pay off. (…..)

Henry Heimlich and the moment of destiny – 25 May 2016

Finally, in a retirement home in Cincinnati, fate calls on Henry Heimlich. (…..)

Franschhoek Literary festival 2: the sequel – 11 May 2016

Return to the FLF – this time it’s personal. (…..)

HELP! – 13 April 2016

A trip to Grahamstown and a strategy of life and death. (…..)

The worst thing about SA sport is the fans – 30 March 2016

If you don’t watch sport in pursuit of joy, why watch at all? (…..)

Mcebisi Jonas and a story of everyday heroism – 17 March 2016

Sometimes the rarest and most heroic thing is to simply not do the wrong thing. (…..)

The perfect way to be buried – 2 March 2016

A sea-going mummy shows the way. (…..)

What happens when you’re buried alive – 17 February 2016

In 2016 a mine collapsed in Mpumalanga and buried three people underground. (…..)

Being seen by the people around us – 4 February 2016

I like to think I’m invisible, but we are seen by those around us and we need to learn to see them. (…..)

A Windy Day – 25 February 2016

A mini essay about windy days and difficult times and countries for old men. (…..)

How to change your mind – 21 January 2016

Extremism, hatred love and the importance of carrying on talking to people you don’t like. (…..)

Istanbul, a brush with terror and the impossibility of feeling all things equally –  14 January 2016

My wife and I took a tram to Sultanahmet on a hot day not so long ago … (…..)

I’m glad I’m not George RR Martin – 6 January 2016

Back in 2016, George RR Martin’s misery was only just beginning. (…..)

Three Conversations about Christmas – 9 December 2015

Three different stories from three different people in Cape Town, two weeks before Christmas. (…..)

Struck by lightning – 25 November 2015

Lightning doesn’t only strike once. Or even twice. or three times. (…..)

Read until the lights go out – November 2015

In the shadow of death, Clive James opens a book, or picks up a pen. (…..)

Clive James and reading to the end – 5 November 2015

My personal hero and Japanese Maple, his beautiful new poem. (…..)

Mount this tattoo in remembrance of me – 8 October 2015

In which I eat a dead body and ponder new forms of immortality. (…..)

Meditating in the dentist’s chair – 24 September 2015

All I want from my dentist is a pat on the back. (…..)

No comments required – 10 September 2015

Allowing human beings free access to the internet is to encourage the very worst parts of us. (…..)

The Museum of Innocence – 28 Aug 2015

Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk, and a small manifesto about the importance of small stories. (…..)

Having faith in the hamburger – 19 Aug 2015

Concerning resilience,endurance, art and eponymous eating in Hamburg. (…..)

A deep dive into doing what you love – 12 August 2015

It’s not how you go that matters, it how you got there. (…..)

The loneliness of the crowd – 23 July 2015

This week in a small theatre in Cape Town, my worst fear came true. (…..)

The ghost and the galaxy – 17 July 2015

Mid-winter and the vastness and beauty of space and of stories and of being young. (…..)

We need new anniversaries – 25 June 2015

Twenty years ago was the 1995 World Cup final, and everything changes, especially us. (…..)

Taking a pounding – 18 June 2015

The brutality of being in the UK when the rand slips against the pound. (…..)

Iain S. Thomas, poet – 24 May 2015

I have a podcast with a hairy poet. (…..)

My list of things to do before I die – 20 May 2015

“Number 4: walk on the Cobb at Lyme Regis in a winter storm, like Meryl Streep.” (…..)

The Aunty-Christ – 15 May 2015

Do facts matter any more, when it comes to outrage? (…..)

Franschhoek Literary Festival 1 – 13 May 2015

My wholehearted yawp of happiness and gratitude to be attending the FLF. (…..)

The last video store – 24 May 2015

Pyramid video is closing down (…..)

My life in boxing – 3 May 2015

The Mayweather-Pacquiao fight takes me back in time. (…..)

The brighter side of blackouts – 25 April 2015

Sometimes the rolling loadshedding is an opportunity for something new. (…..)

Birthday walk, 2015 edition – 9 April 2015

Every year on my birthday I take a long, solitary walk, and this year I met someone who changed my life. (…..)

Clean Reader, dirty mind – 26 March 2015

A new app to clean up reading puts me in mind of dirtier days. (…..)

The perils of connection – 3 March 2015

An encounter in a bookshop reminds me that I am very bad at being a human being. (…..)

I wish I were better at birds – 26 February 2015

You can’t know the world until you learn to see it, and to know what you’re seeing. (…..)

Leaving and staying – 19 Feb 2015

I have decided to move out of my house, and that makes me think about other kinds of leaving and returning. (…..)

So far and no father – 12 Feb 2015

An essay about my decision not to have children. (…..)

Forrest Fenn and finding the lost treasure of life – 11 February 2015

Forrest Fenn gave the world a gift , and asked us to find it. (…..)

A little touch of zugunruhe in the morning – 4 Feb 2015

‘I was walking down Main Road in my neighbourhood this week, my head full of salt air and pleasant nothing, when a man in a doorway said, “Hey, remember me?” ‘ (…..)

It happens to everyone – 26 Jan 2015

An awkward and slightly embarrassing essay about cheating and impotence. (…..)

When you’ve finished writing your book – 3 Dec 2014

Written in the relief and dismay of completing One Midlife Crisis and a Speedo. (……)

Sport is not a universal language – 27 November 2014

My first game of gridiron football reminds me of the Sapir-Whorf theory. (…..)

The city seen for the first time – 5 Nov 2014

You only drive across the Queensboro bridge into New York for the first time once. (…..)

Postcards from Chesapeake Bay – 14 June 2014

Written while boating with my friend Jacques Rousseau and his dad on the Chesapeake Bay. (…..)

Old believers – 25 May 2014

An experiment in isolation while writing a book has me thinking of Agafia Lykov and the Old Believers of Siberia. (…..)

Franschhoek Literary Festival: Stoner edition – 8 May 2014

In which I talk about Jungle Book, John Williams, friendship and how books are not just books (although they are also, gloriously, books). (…..)

My friend Alan – 14 March 2014

“I want to tell you about my friend Alan, but when I try, I always seem to start with the thin man.” (….)

Writing a Ronge – 24 Feb 2014

My tribute to a childhood hero, Barry Ronge. (…..)

My uncle Jim – 24 Jan 2014

“My Uncle Jim is 97 years old. When he was born South Africa was still a part of the British Empire. When the First World War ended, he was already in school, playing jacks and tops and bowling a hoop. He was alive when Titanic sank and a grown man when Hindenburg went down and he was already almost old when human beings first walked on the moon.” (…..)

What if they threw a book launch and no one came? – 20 January 2014

The only thing worse than no one coming to your book launch is one person coming to your book launch. (…..)

Hilary Swank drove my car: A Christmas story – 20 Nov 2013

A true story about a real-life Christmas miracle, with Hilary Swank as the angel who saved my life. (…..)

For whom the burger tolls – 4 November 2013

An attempt to recreate Hemingway’s hamburger, the Hemburger. (…..)

Walking for dear life – 21 Oct 2013

A short and heartfelt ode to the importance of walking, with a guest appearance from Werner Herzog. (…..)

The shadow-line – 16 September 2013

This morning I watched someone nearly die. (…..)

We shall not grow old as they grew old – 11 July 2013

“Like most South Africans in recent weeks, I have been thinking about what it means to grow old, to grow weak and to run out of time. If I take too much after my father, I am two-thirds of the way there. If I take after my grandmother, ninety-eight last weekend, I’m still short of halfway.” (…..)

Death becomes us, and we become death – 14 June 2013

In the week of Mandela’s imminent death, a personal anecdote, a history and an analogy. (…..)

Some love stories – 6 June 2013

“Recently I’ve been thinking about love stories. Perhaps it’s because I am myself in love. I am no longer young and have been in love before, so maybe that’s why it feels as if all the love stories we most love are either incomplete or overly complete – they either stop when love is attained and before life begins, or they stop when someone dies or flies away from a misty airfield with the letters of transit.” (…..)

In praise of Sea Point – 8 May 2013

“In Paris recently I became depressed by the thought that I don’t live in a first-floor apartment on the rue des Fossés-Saint-Jacques, across the way from a Tibetan restaurant, around the corner from the Pantheon, rue Soufflot and the eastern entrance to the Luxembourg Gardens.” (….)

My father – 5 April 2013

“My father would be ninety-two this month if he hadn’t died in 1981.
In the final years before he died, my father mainly did two things – or three, if you count banging his walking stick on the ceiling and shouting at the Houghton kids upstairs to turn down their music.” (…..)

In his own write (First column back) – 31 March 2013

“Ten years ago, almost to the day there was a scandal and as a result of that scandal I was fired from all the columns I was writing.” (…..)

Deconstructing Harry – 23 March 2003

Nearly twenty years ago, a prophecy was foretold of the Windsors … (…..)