Rosa Lyster

Cape Town, South Africa

Tag: It’s the main part of my personality

Essay 52: Planet Crocodile

My best is when I am walking alone, and I remember something funny, and almost as I remember it I start wailing with laughter. It happens when I am driving, too, but there is something more sort of potent and embodied about being overwhelmed with laughter when you are walking around. It’s also more public, and so more of a total experience. It’s one of my favourite feelings.

It happened to me yesterday in the airport. I thought about how someone had recently reminded me of the existence of Gustave, one of the most famous crocodiles out there. Gustave is a hundred years old. Imagine being a crocodile who is called Gustave and on top of everything else you are a hundred. They made a movie about him starring Orlando Bloom, called “Primeval”. The original title was “Gustave”. I thought about all this, took it back a few notches and just ruminated on famous crocodiles as, like, a concept¸ thought about the Wikipedia category “Fictional crocodiles”, and burst out laughing directly into the check-in woman’s face. I told her that I wasn’t laughing at her, or at anything that was going on in the airport, but she knew already. She could see I was somewhere else entirely, cruising around on Planet Crocodile.  Planet Gustave the Crocodile.

Also yesterday, I thought of how my friend Sarah described someone we both know and find odd as reminding her of Boxing Day. It was a perfect thing to say, because it was both completely right and completely mysterious. This person is the essence of Boxing Day, she is Boxing Day in human form, but why? I could find no reason for this “fact”. I told Caitie about it, and asked her what it was. She said “hearty good cheer to be found in empty traditions on the most depressing day of the year.” She said “think of her marching stiff limbed and banging cymbals to keep your attention off the window ledge.” It was so brilliant, and so spot on, and I feel sure that I will laugh about it until I die. I just laughed about it all the way home from the shops, alone.

This second one, actually, is a better example than Gustave the crocodile, because it relies on an understanding between the three of us. Sarah to make the observation, Caitie to perform exegesis, and me to laugh about it until I die. I suspect that no one will laugh at Gustave the crocodile as much as me, and will also not fully love my idea for a column called “Famous Crocodile”, where you rate different crocodiles on a scale of one to five stars, but instead of stars you have crocodiles. Some famous crocodiles I can think of off the top of my head: the one in Peter Pan, the ones in The Rescuers, the ones in Fantasia, King Gator, that alligator they found in a pool in Florida. This is naturally funny, to me, and requires no explanation. Crocodiles! Haha! That’s it! I might be the only one who really loves this joke, though. I have told some people about Gustave and they literally have not even smiled. Hectic. I suspect that I am alone on Planet Crocodile, but I know for sure that at least two other people in this world find the idea of the Human Boxing Day to be an absolute scream.

This has always been the big deal for me. The only game in town. A shared language of laughter is at the core of all of my closest and most important relationships.  I have fallen in love with many ridiculous types because they made me laugh. I am freaked out by humourless people. I think I am actually afraid of them. There is no lonelier feeling, for me, than being with someone who doesn’t find the same things funny. I have ended relationships for this reason alone. My whole life, everything, is fuelled by laughter. This is not to say that I believe myself to be particularly funny, but rather that laughter is what keeps my entire show on the road. I think this is true of many people, or at least I hope it is.

Today is my 52nd essay, which means that I have been writing these for a year. I have got a lot out of doing this: I gave myself a goal and I stuck to it; people with the ability to give me work read them, and gave me work; I think it has made me a better writer. These are all wonderful things. The words “I am proud of myself” just flared in my mind. I give the whole experience five out of five crocodiles. I’m not going to stop doing them – I can’t actually imagine what I would do with myself if I did. Don’t say get a real job. Don’t say stop writing about crocodiles or whatever. I do have a real job, and many other things on the go, but these essays have become a big part of how I live. Like laughter, I revolve around them. So I won’t stop. But the fact that it has now been one year means that I should probably take the Opportunity to Reflect. I am very grateful for everything that doing this has brought into my life: the goal-setting and work-having etc. But the main thing, the big deal, has been the pals I have made.

I made friends out of doing this, which means that people I do not know read an essay I wrote about Captain Scott, or a dream I had where I drove out a party in a car, or swimming, or how much I hate Monopoly and also how much I hate Rumpelstiltskin. People I did not know read all this frankly odd material, and they did not back away in fear and concern. They did the completely other thing, which is that they became my friends. They said, basically, that they understood. They laughed. This sounds sentimental, and indeed is sentimental, but this has always been the only thing that mattered to me. Not making people laugh, exactly, but knowing that we share a language, and knowing that we get it, together. Thank you.

Essay 40: The water of my choosing

I’ve been swimming a lot. I am in a kind of a mood, lately, where I will put up with a great deal of inconvenience if it means a swim at the end. I will drive for long, listening to my best Scottish woman on Fine Music Radio as she describes for ten minutes what trumpet music sounds like .  I will stand on a bee. I will get all the way to the pool and realise I forgot my towel and so I must stand there dripping water at 7pm and go to dinner with blue lips and wet clothes. It is no bother.

At the beach in Simonstown the other day, there was this little baby who could not be prevented from making for the water. One of those good babies with a round face and a hat like a bonnet, crawling towards the sea at extraordinary speed. She was easily recaptured, but not easily subdued. Every time her dad put her down, she would smile at him nicely and eat a handful of sand and then pow. Off down the beach again. Moving so fast, seriously, and also no hesitation when she reached the water’s edge. Just no pause at all and then up to at least her little chest before her dad hooked her up by her underpants. Just let me at that water again, please. Just let’s see what happens when I get into the water of my choosing. It was written very clearly on her face, and I felt a pure and total affinity with her and her ideas. The main idea being yes, this is all fine, but what would happen if we were swimming, also? You say a thing, and I will say how it can be improved with the addition of a swim.

Some babies are like this. I was one such baby, according to reports, a baby you could not take your eye off if there was water around. The first dreams I can remember having were about water. I used to wear goggles when there was no pool in my immediate vicinity, just in case the opportunity later arose. You get those little girls who are obsessed with horses, and who spend grade 3 pretending to be a horse at break, setting up jumps in the playground. I was like that, except with swimming. My best part of Robin Hood was when he hides from the sheriff by breathing through a straw underwater. My worst part of The Little Mermaid was the entire end of it, where she abandons the sea for love. My best book was The Water Babies.  

Some people know everything about The Water Babies, and some do not, which means this summary will seem either vague or unnecessary. However. The Water Babies is an underwater version of Pilgrim’s Progress, written by the Rev. Charles Kingsley. It is one of those Victorian things that people insist is satire, despite its displaying none of the characteristics of what I understand satire to be. It is “of its time” in that it is quite energetically racist. It is not something you would want to read to a kid today, and neither is it something that my parents would have read it to me. I got hold of it somehow, though, and loved it to pieces.

All I wanted when I was small was to somehow contrive a situation whereby I could be swimming at all times. I used to think about how I would flood the house.  I suggested to my parents that they buy a big kind of truck, and put a swimming pool in the back, and then when we went on long car trips I could just float in the back. Someone when I was six told me what Venice was, told me that instead of roads there were canals, and you may well imagine how I took this information. I had it in my head for a  long time that you weren’t actually allowed to walk in Venice. You had to swim to work and to visit your friends. You were allowed a small boat, but why would you need it when you could swim?

It is easy to see, then, that The Water Babies just knocked me out. Here is everyone living their normal lives of Christian uplift and trying so hard, except they are all doing it underwater. What else could a person conceivably wish for?

The full title of the book is The Water Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby. It is, as I said, supposed to be a story of moral elevation via Jesus, where the humble chimney sweep (yes) learns how to be good enough for rich people. It is overtly didactic in nature, a sort of a guide for all the sinning land babies out there. Many lessons.  The best thing about The Water Babies, though, is that there is no reason for it to take place underwater. There is no lesson in that book that could not be taught more efficiently on land. It is structurally unnecessary, and yet. There they all are paddling around in the seaweed, smiling at the fish.

This is why I still love this book. The Rev. Charles Kingsley sets out to write a tract. He wants it to be a clear set of moral lessons for little children and no two ways about it. As he writes, though, he finds himself thinking well wouldn’t this just be better in the river? Wouldn’t this situation be greatly improved by the addition of a swim? He finds that he cannot help himself. In this we are as one. This is a man who, when he was a baby on the beach in Simonstown, would have been shooting for the water at an extraordinary speed.  The three of us, in our little hats like bonnets and our goggles, making straight for the sea.


Essay 39: Any game with a lot of rules

Most games are terrible. Any game where it is necessary to have a strategy. Any game where you must think more than one step ahead. Any game that is called Risk. Any game that is called Monopoly. A game where you find out what your career is going to be, and your career is going to be a nurse or a babysitter. A game that is an early 90s version of Trivial Pursuit, where many of the questions require an intimate knowledge of who hosted Telly Fun Quiz. A game of Thirty Seconds I once played where this girl swore up and down that she didn’t know what New Zealand was. She later relented and said that she had heard of New Zealand, yes, and that Robert Mugabe was the president. The Prime Minister, actually. This happened.

Any game with a lot of rules. Any game where the rules are either undefined or self-evident, which is to say self-evident to everyone but me. Any game that I am bad at, such as chess, checkers, all card games (except Snap and Cheat), poker especially, bridge (I have never played bridge, but I know I hate it), and backgammon. Dominoes in any form other than making patterns or lining them up so they fall over. I said Monopoly, but I will say it again.

The only games worth a damn are Pictionary, Ex Libris, and Winking Murderer. This is one of the few certainties I possess. I am sitting now thinking about how fun Winking Murderer is, and my heart is beating all fast. I will play Winking Murderer with you right now, as long as you are not a very little kid. Little kids slow things down, and plus they tend to blink a lot in general. On the other hand, a little kid is the best possible partner for Pictionary. They have the right kind of free-spirited approach, and they already know that they are shit at drawing so are less likely to get frustrated when you don’t guess what they’re trying to depict. The worst person to play Pictionary with is an adult who fancies themselves as a good drawer. They get so peevish when you don’t guess. I once played Pictionary with someone’s dad, an art director. He was trying to draw “jazz”, I think, and he just kept doing all these guys in hats, and cats all over the place, and pounding his ball point pen into the paper so that he ripped the page, and circles round and round the cats, and arrows pointing to the hats like are you some kind of moron, and then drawing the sun over and over again and crossing it out. We could not understand. He got so emotional that he threw the pen across the room and did not speak to anyone for several hours. We found out later that the crossed-out suns were because jazz only happens at night.

Although this was, on balance, a stressful occasion, it was still a good time. Pictionary is an amazing way to see how someone else’s brain works. If I was drawing jazz, for instance, maybe I would draw at least one person playing a musical instrument. I am a bad drawer, but all you would really need to do is just draw a stick person holding a saxophone, and even I can do that. If my cousin Sue was there, I would just draw her dog, because he is called Jazz and that would be nice for him. I would try to adapt, is what I am trying to say.

The art director dad, however, had one idea in his mind and by god he was going to make it happen. These kinds of insights are valuable. Ex Libris is not as much of a Rorschach test, or not in the same way, but it’s still excellent. The rules, if you don’t know them, are that you get a whole lot of books together, one book for every person playing. Try to get as wide a range as possible. Do not worry about quality. Ex Libris is not the place to raise your high brow. The best round of it I have ever played involved a South African detective book called SNAKE, published in the 70s.

The point of the game is to make up a plausible first or last sentence of a book. Say the book is SNAKE. You write down your realistic-seeming first sentence, like “The curtain fluttered, although there was no breeze.” Everyone else does theirs, and then you hand it to my friend Ben, who is in charge of this round. Ben reads out all the made-up sentences, and mixed in there is the real one. Everyone votes, and if people choose your made-up sentence, then you win.

I love Ex Libris for all the reasons you might expect: books, taking turns, all my friends are there. I also love it because I am weirdly good at it. It is the only game I have a reasonable chance of winning. I will be straight with you and tell you that I win at it a lot.

This is because I am a good mimic. I have a pretty advanced ear for style, if that is a thing, and it’s not at all difficult for me to copy it convincingly. I can write you a paragraph that seems to be from a bad 70s detective novel, and you will probably think it’s real. This is why I am the queen of Ex Libris.

This is also one explanation for why I love the books that I do. The books I love are the ones that would defeat me at Ex Libris, the ones whose style I cannot I cannot break down and understand. I could write you an extremely convincing Margaret Atwood first sentence, for example, but I could never do an Alice Munro. This is not to say that Alice Munro is objectively better than Margaret Atwood (she is, she is, she so clearly is), but rather that Alice Munro is a beautiful mystery to me in some way, and that is how I like it. I like books that I could never write. The closer someone’s style or subject matter is to my own, the more bored and depressed I get.

This might be a variation on that theme called Self-Loathing, but I don’t think so. Instead, I think it’s because the more I write, the more I see how unlikely and how difficult originality is. I don’t think it can be taught. I think it’s just there, sitting in some people’s heads, and I think that I can spot it a mile away.



I grew up in Durban. That’s what I say, whenever someone asks me about myself: Well, I’m from Durban.  I say it even when they do not ask. This conversation cannot continue, I think, unless I make it clear that I am from the city of Durbs. This is partly a defensive posture. It started when I moved to Cape Town and realised that Durban, for some people, was the punchline of a mean joke.

Here’s the joke:

Q: Which South African city is neither Cape Town nor Johannesburg?

A: It’s Durban.

HA HA. I hadn’t known, before I moved to Cape Town at the age of 18, that for some people even just the idea of Durban was funny. The very concept brought a merry, poisonous glint to their eyes. It was extremely weird. When I say “some people”, I mean “these people were exclusively from Cape Town.” They were such dicks about it. It seems incredible, now, to remember the kinds of things that people thought it was okay to say. I had supper once with a friend and her parents at their house in Constantia. The dad asked me where I was from, and I told him. He giggled. He shook his head. Shoulders hustling up and down. Oh, he said, shame. Poor you. Doesn’t that seem weird?

Later, he asked me if I had gone to a private school. Instead of laughing in his puffy old alcoholic face, I told him yes. He asked me which one. Instead of pouring some kind of poison compound into his huge old red ears, I told him the name of the school. He did a thumbs down motion. Not a proper private school though, hey? Not one of the real ones. Instead of running him over with my car, I smiled. I think I was trying to be polite. This man, by the way, is considered to be a real Card – one of the great wits of Kelvin Grove. Years later, I heard that his own dog bit him hard enough to require several stitches.

The flower of Kelvin Grove was unusual only in the euphoric delight he took in himself. People used to say stuff like this to me all the time. You’re from Durban? Oh, Jesus. What a shithole. Durban? Shame. As for me I couldn’t stand the humidity. As for me the beach is full of syringes and mandrax addicts. The penguins at Sea World smell disgusting. Have you ever been to downtown Lagos well me neither but I heard that Durban is basically the same thing as downtown Lagos. I am not exactly sure where Lagos is. As for me I am like sixty years old and I used to go to the Stuttafords in town with my mom when I was a child, and the lift operator wore white gloves. I used to give him a tickey and he always seemed so grateful. Say what you like but people were polite then. You’re from Durban? Poor you. It used to be such a super place for a holiday.

That was the old guys. People my own age were different – they weren’t mean about it. They didn’t say any terrible racist things. They just thought Durban was funny. A favourite joke was that I used to surf to school, or else that I thought a car was a dolphin tied to each foot. Everyone in Durban smoked bongs in the shape of dragons. We all had tattoos of dolphins/lizards. Skate shoes for formal wear, no shoes for every other occasion. Board shorts for the grade 9 social, bikinis for the Matric Dance. Jack Johnson for weekdays, Ben Harper for weekends. Wu Tang Forever. Everyone from Durban was friendly. Everyone was smashing huge amounts of drugs. The drugs were of an extremely poor quality. Everyone from Durban was literally a fish. You’re from Durban? Jesus. That was the joke.

The effect of this on me was profound. Growing up, I had felt mixed about my city. It was very hot. My hair looked like shit all the time. Everyone knew each other too well, and for too long. Red dirt. Powerful cockroaches waving their feelers around etc. I was bored, sometimes, and continuously pissed off with my hair. I was open to the possibility that Durban might not be that great. I was ready to hear a critique of its many and varied flaws. It is the humidity that gets you in the end, I would agree. Joe Cools is not actually a very cool place, I would concede, nodding. Snake Park is a radical name for a beach, I admit it. I was open to it all, and then I moved to Cape Town, and found that I was closed for business. I simply did not want to hear it.

It is often said that people from Durban have a chip on their shoulder. Fine, okay, maybe, but can you blame us? Wouldn’t you have the same response? We are only human. Every time someone said something horrible about Durban, I would love it a little bit more. Don’t talk to me about how your cousin stepped in a human shit there by Addington Beach. It just makes me think less of you, and also of your revolting shit-stepping cousin. Moving to Cape Town engendered in me an absurd excess of civic pride. There was a Facebook group called “Bitch Please I’m From Durban.” I joined it. I dreamt I had a regularly updated Tumblr called Fuck Yeah I’m From Durban.

I say I’m from Durban at least once a day, and if I’m not around people, I just think it a lot. I sing the song Girls Girls Girls to myself, except I make it DURBS DURBS DURBS. I have a t-shirt that just says DURBAN on it that I wear to yoga. Whenever someone looks at me I assume that they jealous of my shirt. I should have a badge that says “Ask Me About Durbs!” I will be so, so happy to tell you. Durbs is the fucking best.