In praise of Sea Point

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.

‘You’re being childish,’ my partner said.

‘I know.’

‘Is it so bad where you live?’


‘You love Sea Point.’

I do love Sea Point. I have lived there for a little over four years, since I moved from Johannesburg. I loved Johannesburg, but I love Sea Point more. It has people and stories and life, and gratifyingly few Capetonians. It is the Joburg of Cape Town.

An Iranian couple own a fruit store a block away from me, where I buy packets of White Rabbit sweets and also packets of spices. I buy the spices to support them, because she is very friendly and hopeful and he has sad eyes and they have small children. Also, each time I buy the spices I imagine my home filled with fragrant cooking and the fine flavours of Persia, and I imagine myself a citizen of the world. I have two fully laden shelves of unused spices.

Once, after taking a drink at the Winchester Mansions, my friend Evan and I were crossing the green sward to the promenade for a walk when we were approached by a fretful man in a sports jacket. He said: ‘Fellows, I don’t mean to disturb, but I need to ask you something.’ Evan thought he was going to ask for money. I thought he was going to try introducing us to the mercy of Jesus. We politely smiled and shook our heads, but he persisted and said: ‘What would you do if you found your wife in bed with another man?’

‘I’m not married,’ said Evan.

‘Would you forgive her?’ the man wanted to know. ‘Could you just forgive her?’

‘It depends on the circumstances,’ we said cautiously.

‘And what if this wasn’t the first time?’ said the man. ‘What if this had happened before and each time she promises it won’t happen again, but they just carry on making a fool of you? You couldn’t forgive that, could you?’

His brow was furrowed and his hands were balled in the pockets of his sports jacket.

‘I think maybe I’d leave her,’ said Evan. ‘I think the best thing would be to just walk away.’

‘But you couldn’t forgive it, could you? You couldn’t just let it go.’

‘I think maybe I would let it go,’ I said. ‘That would probably be best.’

‘You’re young men, you don’t know what it’s like,’ said the man. ‘You don’t know what it’s like.’

‘I definitely wouldn’t do anything hasty,’ said Evan.

The man walked away from us.

‘I think he’s going to do something hasty,’ said Evan.

‘Maybe he already has,’ I said.

Evan said: ‘Do you think we should buy him a drink?’

‘I can’t imagine a drink is going to help the situation,’ I said, because we had problems of our own to discuss.

There is very often no wind in Sea Point, even when there is wind in Camp’s Bay and in town. At those times, I like to call people who live elsewhere in Cape Town and tell them there’s no wind in Sea Point. I do to them what they do to people who live in Johannesburg.

When I moved to Sea Point I took an apartment on Beach Road overlooking the ocean. I could watch the weather approach, a grey wall that turned the blue sea white as it came. I could watch the rain against my windows and then watch it snag on Signal Hill and unravel as it covered the sky over the city bowl. It would rain for the rest of the day in town, while in Sea Point we walked around in bright silver light.

In autumn and winter the mist moves in from the Atlantic and the foghorn at the lighthouse gives a lovely cry, lonely as the last dinosaur, and each year the residents of Mouille Point write letters to the Atlantic Sun complaining about it. These letters have been written since the foghorn was installed in 1926 and the letters written today are almost identical to the letters written then. Each generation conceives of the foghorn as evidence of decline in civil order and the indifference of authority to the rights of the ratepayer. I imagine a tradition in each Mouille Point household in which the responsibility of indignant letter-writing is formally passed down from one generation to the next. Perhaps there is a family pen.

Every day I walk on the promenade and when I reach the pavilion I walk up a block to look through the window of the Cafda second-hand bookshop. It has mysterious powers. Once, years ago, I read an essay by Robertson Davies in which he said books find you when you need them. The Cafda bookshop appears to be their delivery system. Whenever I have been thinking about a writer or a book, within days it appears in the window. Once I was wondering about Lord Alfred Douglas, the sulky, swan-like lover of Oscar Wilde, and the next day there was a volume of his correspondence with George Bernard Shaw. Who knew Bosie corresponded with George Bernard Shaw? Often when trying to decide on a course of action, there is a book in the Cafda window that gives me a nudge. Sometimes I fear it might be a Stephen-Kingish plot-device. Perhaps there’s a malevolent intelligence wanting to affect some key decision I will make in the future, and it will use a carefully planted book in the Cafda shop window. So far it has just been winning my confidence.

An elderly English gentleman who used to work at the Cafda bookshop once told me that the travel writer Lawrence Green lived and died in an apartment around the corner with a wide view over the sea. Lawrence Greene sold more than 750 000 travel books. I have many hardcover copies on a shelf in my study, with titles like Where Men Still Dream, and Harbours of Memory. In many cases the titles are better than the books, but still. I once took a date to knock on the door of the apartment. She had no interest in Lawrence Greene, so she needed some persuasion. It wasn’t easy to get through the security at the apartment block. Finally we knocked on the door, but no one answered. Later, I discovered I may have been knocking on the wrong door.

When you walk the promenade on a winter’s night the salt mist makes a yellow haze around the streetlights. When someone appears from the mist ahead, walking slowly towards you with coat flapping around their legs, it feels like you’re part of a spy-exchange on a bridge in the old Eastern bloc.

There is a group of Ivorian men who play soccer on the grassy belt beside the promenade in the evening, and sometimes they play against some Portuguese guys. Kids watch and hope to be invited to play. Once the ball went over the sea-wall into the ocean. The men fashioned a harness of tied-together shirts and lowered one of the kids. At a certain point, the pleasurable challenge of lowering a human being into the ocean and returning him to land become more important than retrieving the ball. The kid dangled from the harness, waves breaking over him, waiting for the water to push the ball towards him. A crowd gathered and whenever the ball came near we cheered.

One night I arrived home from a dinner party to find a very tall blonde woman wearing a very short skirt slapping the bonnet of a VW Beetle outside my house. The very tall blonde woman was my neighbour, who by day is a very tall man. In his platforms he was seven foot tall. He was fretting because he was late for his midnight turn at a cabaret in town. My girlfriend and I pushed the car down the road while he tried to start it. VW Beetles aren’t as light as they seem. I had been drinking at my dinner party, and after I finished pushing I needed to sit with my head between my knees for a while. I looked up to watch the car roll away down the hill and across Main Road without starting.

‘Well,’ I said, ‘we did our best.’

‘We can’t just leave her out there,’ my girlfriend replied.

‘It’s not her,’ I said. ‘It’s he, and look at the size of him. What, I should offer to walk him home? That’s ridiculous.’

If this were a film, it would cut to me walking him home. He tottered a little on his platforms, a full head above me, and had to lean on my shoulder for support. His biceps, below the spangly spaghetti-straps of his top, were the size of my thighs.

‘It’s such a relief,’ he said to me as we passed the grinning men of the Adriatic Bar and Grill, ‘to meet a gentleman in this town.’

For a while I had a favourite pizza restaurant on Regent Road, between a hairdresser and a plant nursery, across the road from the surf shop and the shul and the pet-food emporium. Every day a man wearing a leather cowboy hat and a Scottish man with one arm sat at a table on the sidewalk entertaining friends of low morals. Whenever he met a new woman, the one-armed man used to say, ‘Give us a hand, will you, love?’ Then the restaurant closed and I have never seen the one-armed man again.

A friend of mine from my previous life in Johannesburg also lives in Sea Point. She has put on weight and walks the promenade twice a day to get it off. She doesn’t speak to me because of some quarrel in our past, so when she sees me coming she pretends to be on her cellphone. Once she didn’t have her cellphone with her, so she pretended to speak to her hand. I found this so funny that I laughed, and I hoped that would break the ice and we could be friends again, but it didn’t.

The Cafda bookshop keeps damaged paperbacks on a special pile. They sell for fifty cents or a rand each. There is a homeless man who goes through the stack when he has spare change. He used to be a fisherman until he was put out of business by the fishing quotas and now he parks cars. His mother made him finish school because she believed in the value of an education. He says he reads instead of drinking. His favourite writer is Joseph Conrad, but the last time I saw him he was reading The Great Gatsby.

On Main Road there is a hotel whose rooms are available at R1 400 per night, and sometimes R1 800. Two blocks away there is another hotel whose rooms are available for R120 per night, or R200 on the weekend. I once checked in, just to have a look. The rooms weren’t that bad. They weren’t ten times worse than the other hotel.

In the flat seas of summer, container ships and oil-rigs moor in the roadstead off Sea Point. At night their lights make small skylines and diadems. On a very still, warm night their lights reflect in the black water. I have seen a pod of a hundred dolphins swimming between the ships, making a great silver arrow in the sea.

There is a very old prostitute who lives a few blocks from my home. I sometimes see her carrying washing to the laundromat. She must be seventy years old, although it’s possible she’s only a hard-living sixty. Lin Samson wrote a piece about her in the Sunday Times some years ago, and that made her something of a celebrity. I have always wanted to ask her if that piece was good or bad for business, but I have never had the nerve.

Ingrid Jonker walked into the sea at Three Anchor Bay. The water always seems colder there than anywhere else, more marble-green and veined with white. The kelp piles up on the shingle there after a storm, and gulls come to pick through it for things to eat.

I swim at Rocklands Bay all through the summer and as far into autumn as I can manage. I have special shoes I wear when the tide is low and I have to wade over the rocks to the deeper water. There is a group of old people who swim at Rocklands all year round. They are the polar bears. I admire them from a distance. Last year for the first time one of them greeted me. She said: ‘Water’s nice today.’ I went home beaming, and thinking: Maybe one day I can be a polar bear too.

I met a man on Rocklands on New Year’s Day afternoon. He had just come from his New Year’s Eve party. He was sad, because someone sat on his fish-tank and broke it. Now his fish were in a beer bottle, and he wasn’t sure how they would survive.

The sea changes every day. One day there are streaks of orange in the blue. On another day the water looks like green stone. Sometimes there is a delicate darkness beneath the surface, as though a school of squid have released their ink. In the trough of a small wave it turns the blue water purple. One night when the moon was in the right position the sea was perfectly black, except when a small wave formed, and then its crest would flare silver like magnesium.

When there are whales off the promenade, I have to restrain myself from telling people, ‘Look – whales!’ Whales are something to be shared. I am always proud when a tourist sees a whale from the promenade. I think: What a nice holiday they are having. They must be glad they came to Sea Point. Sometimes when a tourist hasn’t seen the whales, I make an elaborate show of shading my eyes and peering at the sea, then noticing the whales. Sometimes the tourists look where I’m looking, and I feel I have done a good deed. Sometimes they ignore me, and I become irrationally annoyed. What do they think I’m pointing at in the water? Do they think I’m some kind of fool?

I once saw an orca.

Once I dropped my wallet on the streets of Sea Point. I didn’t realise I had dropped it, but by the time I arrived home from my walk a man had found it and tracked me down through my gym membership. He returned the wallet with all its cards and all the money too. That can happen anywhere – it happened to me in Cairo, and it happened in Sandton and twice at the airport – but I’m very glad it also happened in Sea Point.

8 May 2013