Month: July 2018

The End?

There is a reason more and more people are reluctant to answer their phone if they don’t recognise the number. It’s because they know the odds against it being good news are staggeringly high. You have more chance of winning the lottery than of being pleasantly surprised upon answering a call from an unknown number.

I tend not to answer even if I know who is calling. Not because I am becoming increasingly reclusive and misanthropical, but because … no, that’s it. The only real chance you have of me answering your call is if I was in some way responsible for your birth and those odds are literally one in 7.6 billion. Not good. Don’t even bother.

So when my phone rang the other day and I didn’t recognise the number, I looked at the cat and we laughed and laughed and fetched another beer. I got the beer. The cat pretends not to understand about fridges. Smart cat, that.

But then there was a beep. I wasn’t expecting it. Nobody does. Random callers aren’t meant to leave messages. They are meant to give up and never try to contact you again. It’s far easier to ignore calls than messages. Something to do with the way the human brain is wired, I suppose. I’m not so curious that I’ll answer my phone, but leave a message and curiosity will gnaw away at my resolve until I cave in. I always regret it. The game changes the moment you listen to the message. Suddenly you are forced to make decisions and take steps and the chances of everything ending badly are magnified immeasurably.

I don’t always listen to a message right away. If it’s from an unknown number I might run it through Google to identify the caller. In this case it turned out to be my employer, the Sunday Tribune. I didn’t recognise the number because I’ve only been writing for the paper for five years and nobody has ever called me from there before.

The message was from the editor’s secretary asking me to ring him back. My first thought was, this can’t be good. My second thought confirmed my first. To cut a short story even shorter, I have been “let go”. That’s the term management uses when we freelancers get the boot. It’s as if we are caged animals that, through an act of great generosity on our captor’s part, are released back into the wild.

My column, Durban Poison, is no more.

Not having a weekly deadline for the first time in years has left me feeling light-headed. Okay, fine. It’s the alcohol that’s making me light-headed. Like all red-blooded South Africans, I drink to celebrate as well as to grieve. In these harsh economic times, losing a steady income is reason enough to grieve. Plus I have a potentially fatal skin condition which makes it even harder to get hired. There is no known cure for the Whiteness.

On the flip side, not having to put fourteen hundred words in the correct order every Wednesday night is cause to celebrate. My brain seems to think so, anyway. Then again, it’s been wrong before.

But that’s enough about me. Let’s talk about you. Are you going to miss the columns I post on my blog which inexplicably appear in triplicate on Facebook and Twitter? If not, you should absolutely email the editor at and congratulate him on his decision to let me go.

What? You’re asking why I wouldn’t keep writing a weekly column just for you? Look. I’m not against the idea in principle. Thing is, I lost my day job in 2004 and accidentally became a columnist shortly afterwards. Ever since then I have struggled to write anything without some sort of incentive. It needn’t even be financial. I’m not a complete mercenary. It could be in exchange for beer, seafood, a modest beachfront property or what-have-you.

Let me know.

Pirate Ben

Skeletons in the closet


Dear Comrade Edna Molewa, Minister of Environmental Affairs, Apex Predator of the Civil Service, Trader of Bones and Nemesis of Big Cats Everywhere.

Well done on your decision to allow fifteen hundred lion skeletons to be shipped out of the country over the next twelve months. That’ll teach them. They became insufferable after finding out that we call them the king of the jungle and their attitude has only worsened over the years.

You can’t go to the Kruger Park these days without coming across flocks of lions copulating openly on the roads. This is a terrible thing for our children to see. And if they’re not shagging they’re trying to bite a tourist’s head off. This is not the kind of behaviour we expect from our lions. During apartheid, yes. But not now.

Fifteen hundred skeletons. That means on average the bones of 4.2 lions will leave the country every day for a year. Since the lions are being broken up into pieces, it is technically possible to get .2 of a lion. You probably wouldn’t need much more than a shoebox for that bit. I suppose not everyone wants a whole skeleton. Smaller families might be happy with just a couple of scapula and a bag of vertebrae. If they’re lucky they might even find some tiger in among their lion.


It was a smart move not letting anyone know that you were doubling the quota and then making it retroactive to avoid upsetting our limp-wristed lion lovers while also preempting protests at the CITES meeting in Geneva where trophy hunting management with special focus on leopards and lions is being discussed. I don’t know what there is to discuss. Breed ’em, shoot ’em, skin ’em, sell ’em. If that’s not already your ministry’s motto, it should be. Take it, it’s yours. My gift to you.


South Africa has 3 500 lions in the wild and killing 1 500 a year will barely make a dent. Okay, maybe a small dent. But lions recover quickly. Maybe not from death, but certainly from sex. I once stumbled upon some kind of lion orgy where they were all going at it at once, boys on boys, girls on girls, it was terribly exciting to be honest. When we returned to our rondavel I pounced on my wife and attempted to take her roughly from behind, the preferred position of the Panthera leo, but it ended badly and medical assistance was required.

I assume at some point we will run out of wild lions. It’s a good thing, then, that we have so many kind-hearted people devoting their lives to raising lions in captivity. There are currently around seven thousand domesticated cats living in facilities which I am told are little more than luxurious feline brothels where they fornicate to their heart’s content. Not a bad life at all. I wouldn’t mind it for myself, even if it did mean waking up one morning and getting shot in the face, beheaded and deboned.


There is something I’m a little curious about. When I wake up in the morning (or sometimes afternoon) I often say to myself, “I could really do with scrambled eggs and a Bloody Mary right now.” But are there people somewhere in the world who say, “What a lovely day for a picnic. Have we got any lion bones left over?” Or however you’d say it in Mandarin.

As your Southeast Asian market knows, lion bones (licked, chewed or crushed and snorted) give you the strength, hairstyle and sexual prowess of a lion and you should be commended for encouraging this enlightened way of thinking. Just don’t let South African men get wind of this! They’d give up beer and switch to lion bone wine and there wouldn’t be enough lions in the world to satisfy that market.


Anyway, I’d be surprised if the United Nations didn’t want to award you some sort of medal for promoting the magical properties of big cat bones. Did you know that you can also get oil from snakes? We should totally be selling that, too.

I like the way you think, comrade. You said if the supply of lion skeletons from breeding facilities was restricted, dealers and addicts would simply get their fix through poaching or robbing the stockpile. And that would mean depriving a lot of people of the traditional kickbacks and bribes, the backbone of our economy.

Supply and demand feed off one another with all the enthusiasm of Hanoi villagers enjoying a rhino horn and lion bone blowout during the Tet festival. This is why it’s important that people like you keep dem bones coming. The government makes money, you make interesting new friends in the animal trade and our captive-bred lions are spared the indignity of growing old.


Speaking of dem bones, do you remember that song? The leg bone’s connected to the knee bone, the knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone’s connected to the Xaysavang Network, the Xaysavang Network’s connected to the Vannaseng Trading Company, the Vannaseng Trading Company’s connected to DKC Trading, DKC Trading’s connected to the Department of Environmental Affairs and so on.

While we’re getting nostalgic, I remember a time you could take the kids to the circus and they’d all want to be lion tamers when they grew up. Now they’re all going to want to be lion farmers. Or even taxidermists, like the adorable mom-and-son outfit Sandra Linde Taksidermie in the Free State province which has been shipping the bones of big cats to mainly Vietnam since at least 2009.


Have you heard that China has begun issuing permits for trade in leopard bones? Of course you have. You’re a woman who knows her business and it’s unlikely that you’d miss a chance to turn our wildlife into hard currency. So captive-bred leopards soon? Excellent. They’ve had it coming for a long time. Leopards are narcissistic and belligerent and they make almost no effort to be spotted by tourists who have paid a lot of money to tick them off the Big Five list. Get their bones out. Once they’re all gone, we can offer visitors the Big Four. Or maybe promote hippos into the premier league. Sure, they are overweight and not very bright, but in South Africa this is often all that’s required to be given a position of power.

Needless to say, a lot of people from vegetarian countries won’t want to come here once they realise our government is encouraging international trade in wild animal body parts while playing footsie with smugglers and syndicates, but that’s their problem. We don’t need their filthy euros.

Have you been to the Golden Triangle, by the way? I believe the pangolin pies, tiger skull soup and bear bile shooters are on special at this time of year. You can get anything you want in Laos. A lot of it will have been harvested from our very own animals, of course, but that’s no reason not to support the local traders.

With your commitment to conservation, comrade, you must have been awarded plenty of trophies. I bet your favourite is the buffalo.


Can I help you? And other loaded questions

In the 1700s, when I was just a young cabin boy, ships going into battle flew the flag of their country. However, some would fly a flag from a different country so as to trick the enemy into thinking they were an ally. Then, when they were within range, they’d run up their real flag and attack. This is where the phrase “showing their true colours” comes from.

Why am I telling you this? I have no idea. No, wait. It’s coming back to me. The country is at some weird kind of war with itself and there is much hiding of one’s true colours. A high-octane game of political hide-and-seek is on the boil but it’s all dangerously interchangeable. At any given time the hiders become the seekers and the seekers become the hiders and, just when you think you know what’s going on, they switch it up.

Take Dali Mpofu. As chairman of the Economic Freedom Fighters, you’d think his true colours are red. The colour of revolution. Also love. The two are entwined. True revolutionaries love the poor. They have to or nobody would support them. Then they get elected and turn into fascists or dictators and the poor end up even poorer. Love and hate, eh. Funny old business.

Mpofu is a master at flag-flying and he’s not overly concerned about which flag happens to be flying at any given time. I think he probably just runs them all up and sails into battle with the aim of confusing the enemy. It’s not a bad tactic. Just as long as his commander-in-chief, wife, friends and colleagues at the bar know what he’s doing and why. Not that bar. The other one.

Then there’s Alochna Moodley who was removed from a Kulula flight and subsequently lost her job for using the k-word in an SMS. Later, she apologised to Reverend Solumuzi Mabuza who had been seated next to her and who read her SMS while she was writing it. Swiftly changing flags, Moodley said her schooling was to blame for not having taught her about apartheid.

Meanwhile, I am casting an early vote in the Orwellian future that awaits us for Rev. Mabuza to head the Thought Police in the Ministry of Truth. He’ll clean up this mess in no time at all.

And then there’s Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini. He calls an imbizo to explain why the government shouldn’t be allowed to get its filthy hands on the vast tracts of rent-collecting land owned by his Ingonyama Trust, all the while running up Zulu war flags alongside flags that say war is the last thing the Zulus want.

President Ramaphosa flies a flag signifying good, clean, honest governance. He is worth R6-billion. You don’t accumulate that kind of money by adhering to the ten commandments. But that was then and this is now. Cyril might well have a skull and crossbones in his closet, but it’s unlikely he will ever deploy it because he’s just too damn decent. Jacob Zuma set the bar so … no, he took the bar, repeatedly whacked the taxpayers in the face with it, chopped it up and painted the pieces yellow and sold them as gold nuggets to his friends and family who broke it into even smaller pieces and … you get the idea. And for his entire truncated term, Zuma’s flagpole remained as naked as his avaricious ambition.

Speaking of misjudging books by their covers, I was on my way to rob the Standard Bank in my local mall a few days ago when I stopped off at Wordsworth Books to have a look at all the new releases I can’t afford. I don’t usually make it further than the sale table at the entrance because it’s too depressing to be reminded of the number of people who make a proper living from writing.

While browsing, I noticed a middle-aged man with a beard behind the counter watching me. I watched him watching me for a bit, then returned to the marked-down books. It took him about thirty seconds to get to me.

“Can I help you?” he barked. Momentarily confused, I shook my head and said I was fine. This wasn’t strictly true, but he didn’t seem like the kind of person who’d be interested in hearing about my rapidly escalating aversion to humankind, telephones and winter.

I sauntered over to the ghetto that is SA non-fiction to make sure that nobody had bought the last remaining copy of my memoirs. There it was on the bottom shelf where it belonged. The only way you’d even know it was there was if you had to suffer a cardiac event and collapse. I like to think whoever it was might reach for it as he lay there and perhaps, if the paramedics were stuck in traffic, die with a smile on his lips.

Then I left. Walking through the mall, I caught a glimpse of myself in a shop window. It wasn’t pretty. I had come directly from a two-hour surf. My hair was wild and tangled and bleached more from age than the sun. My eyes were scarlet from the salt water, my 15-year-old jacket looked like a Salvation Army reject and I hadn’t shaved in five days.

That’s when it struck me. The manager of the bookshop had pegged me as a homeless shoplifter and hurried over to make sure I knew that he knew. There was no other explanation for it. Staff in South African bookshops never initiate contact with customers. It might even be in their contracts. Most of the time they actively avoid you in case you ask them a question involving books, a subject many of them know little about. But they do know that you are there to browse and that if you need help, you’ll ask. Bookshops are almost unique like that. Nobody goes to Sheet Street to browse. There, you expect to be asked if you need help with anything. But in bookshops, nobody expects to be harassed by shop assistants.

It was patently obviously that I was a browser. There were other people in the bookshop who were also quite clearly browsing. The bearded man, having been trained to manage a bookshop, will have known how to recognise a browser. They are the ones who wander in, pick up books at random, read the back cover, mumble the title to themselves to hear how it sounds, shake their head at the price, then wander out.

He singled me out. There was no cheery greeting. No chit-chat about the weather. Not even a smile. Just a pair of raised eyebrows and a curt “Can I help you?” The same question whiteys ask when they come across an unidentified darkie sitting on the verge outside their home. It’s a warning, not a question.

But even if I did look a bit rough around the edges, what the hell kind of idiot homeless person would go into a bookshop to shoplift? Did he think I’d wandered down off the mountain to slip a James Patterson down my broeks when nobody was looking? Upon which I would hole up in my lair for three days reading voraciously before sloping back to the bookshop. Maybe to slip it back onto the shelf and steal something with a little more intellectual heft.

I only thought of it later, but what I should have done was call him out on it. Ask him outright if he thought I was a kleptomaniac hobo. The passive-aggression would have startled him enough to call security. That would’ve been my cue to dart over to the ghetto, grab my book and hold it up.

“Recognise the jacket?” I’d say. Because in my author photo I really am wearing the same jacket. The face is shaved, hair is more or less under control and eyes have been whitened thanks to Photoshop, but even he would have to admit that the customer who stood before him, limping slightly after taking a surfboard rail to the testicular department only twenty minutes earlier, might not be not an unhinged vagabond after all.

Fun fact. Bookshops make at least three times more than any author on each copy sold. Perhaps I’d look less like a desperado if I got the 40% and they got the 12%.


Up In Smoke

BEN TROVATO – Durban Poison

For a little light relief, here is a column I wrote some time ago.


There was a sphincter-clenching advertisement in last week’s Sunday papers. It came with a WARNING and featured a giant photograph of a thug pointing a revolver directly at my head. I automatically ducked and spilled hot coffee on Brenda who shot of bed and stood on the cat who attacked the dog who jumped on the bed and bit me in the leg.

After the paramedics left, I went back for a second look at the advert that caused all the trouble. WARNING. Sounded serious. The gangster with the gun looked pretty damn serious, too. He had the face of a man who has just walked in from a hard night of smoking tik with the boys, to find me shtupping his mother.

I thought the advert was going to advise me on what to do…

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A letter to King Goodwill Zwelithini

A bit of an oldie, but apparently still all relevant as hell.

BEN TROVATO – Durban Poison

Dear Comrade King,

You, sir, are a true king. You are not only the king of the Zulus, but you are also king of the land claims.

While everyone else is pussyfooting around, demanding a farm here or a game reserve there, you are putting in a claim for the entire province of Kwazulu-Natal. Now that’s what I call a land claim!

And why not? This is, after all, where the Zulus lived quite happily for years until those British bastards came along and ruined things for everyone.

The Ingonyama Trust, which is coordinating the claim on your behalf, currently owns 2.8 million hectares in the province. This is clearly not enough. What can a man do with 2.8 million hectares? Not a great deal. Not if you want to spread out a bit. Plant stuff. Grow some cows. That kind of thing takes room.

I see you’re also after…

View original post 453 more words

The odds of dying …

I’ve been told that I have a 12.7% chance of having a stroke or heart attack within the next ten years. This wasn’t, as you might think, shouted at me by an embittered ex-wife or someone I cut off in the traffic. This came from my doctor.

That’s the risk you take when you visit a general practitioner and he sends you for blood tests, as he will, regardless. You can be there for a broken toe and within two minutes he will have you pinned to the floor poking and prodding and listening to your organs. When he lets you up, he’ll prescribe something to ease the pain and humiliation he’s just caused you and tell you to go for blood tests.

I was only there because, while saving a drowning child from a shark infested lagoon, something went in my lower back. Okay, fine. I was bending over the sink. It might have been the toilet. It felt like I had been shot with a speargun.

My doctor shares a building with other doctors and I never have to wait very long to see him. I’ve barely started flirting with the diseased and dying when my name is called. I have considered that I might be his only patient.

Being familiar with his style, I often start undressing in the waiting room. This seems to upset some people but that’s not my problem. We are all there because something is wrong with us. To avoid creating the impression that I have mental health issues, I feign a limp or a cough. Sometimes I lure a child while the mother is busy on Facebook and get him to sit next to me so that people think I’m there with a sick boy. It helps when he starts crying, and he almost always does. Facebook – making human trafficking easier for everyone.

Before the doctor has even closed his door I am completely naked and waiting in position. Once the gloves are off and our breathing is back under control, we sit on opposite sides of the desk and exchange gifts. No, of course we don’t. We exchange pleasantries. How is the baby? Doctors always have babies. If not their own, then someone else’s. And if they don’t like the baby they have, they can always swap it for another. It’s one of the perks of being a doctor.

He scribbles something on his pad, tears it off and slides it across the desk. I look at it, shake my head and slide it back. I tell him the pharmacists in the area aren’t familiar with Esperanto and make him do it again.

He does what I ask but only on condition that I go for blood tests. I don’t like the idea. I never do well in tests. I got nine percent for history in matric. He asks what I’d like to have done. Liposuction on my face and a willy like a racehorse, I say. He puts me down for cholesterol, blood sugar, prostate and liver function. I was under the impression we’d just done prostate. He smiles and wags a finger at me. I feel ill but decide against mentioning it.

I take the form, stand up and put my hand out. Doctors have a pathological aversion to shaking hands with patients but it’s important that we force them to do it. A lot of them need socialising and this is one way we can help.

Of course I can’t just nip next door to PathCare and allow a stranger to open a vein in my arm. That would be too easy. I have to go home and fast. Nil per mouth. I once went to a gay bar and wore a wristband that said nil per bum. It got a big laugh. I don’t know. It was very noisy. They might not have been laughing.

The fasting starts at 10pm, which is annoying because that’s when my need for feeding and watering begins to peak. Not being able to shovel stuff into myself after 10pm is like loadshedding for the body.

Weak from hunger and thirst, I wake at crack of dawn with some kind of wild animal licking what little remains of my face. I wasn’t happy about forfeiting my traditional weekday breakfast of two bloody Marys and a starter portion of magic mushrooms on toast, but a fast is a fast and the faster I got to the vampires the faster I could end the fast.

PathCare doesn’t do bookings. First come, first served. Being a gentleman, I stood aside to allow three women through the door ahead of me. Won’t make that mistake again. When my turn came, a woman with the bedside manner of Genghis Khan told me to roll up my sleeve and make a fist. I rolled up both sleeves and made as if I was going to rabbit-punch her in the kidneys followed by a roundhouse to the head. I bet she gets that all the time. When she strapped a tourniquet around my arm I wanted to say something witty about heroin but nothing suitable came to mind.

“You’re going to feel a little prick,” she said.

“Wouldn’t be the first time,” I said. Right away I saw in her eyes that she had misinterpreted the remark. At best I had a thing for genitally challenged men. At worst I was a paedophile. I wanted to explain that I was talking about myself. Should I show her? Given the circumstances, my willy had almost certainly shrunk to the size of an Etruscan shrew.

Three days later the doctor called. He said my results had come back. This was followed by a long silence. I thought he might be trying not to laugh. After checking that I was still on the line, he rattled off a bunch of numbers that made no sense, then dropped the bombshell about the stroke/heart attack odds. I barely heard a word after that.

Picking up my palpitations over the phone, he reassured me that as far as odds go for a man my age, 12.7% wasn’t bad at all. And, what’s more, if I did something about my blood pressure and cholesterol, this could come down to 8%. I don’t care. This is still too high.

If you’re going to give me odds, give me the good ones. I want to hear about my odds of being struck by lightning while riding an elephant. What are my chances of drowning while having sex? How likely is it that I will get back with one of my ex-wives?

When it comes to Very Bad Things, I want to be told there is a 0% likelihood of any of them happening. Now all I’ll do for next decade is wake up every morning and wonder if this is the day the 12.7% comes knocking. This is why I hate maths. Numbers are dictators. Words are democrats. There is wiggle-room with words that you don’t get with numbers.

Thanks anyway, doc. A man who has sworn an oath to do nothing but good has gone and told me something that will make me worry so much that I’ll have cancer by Thursday and be dead by the weekend.