The Sweet Lesson I Learned About Life From a Tin of Lyle’s Golden Syrup

Brands on the breakfast table taught me to read. As a child, I studiously absorbed every word, every line, on the sides of cereal packets, the lids of jars, the labels of condiment bottles.
I liked the pithiness of a slogan that was fun to say and easy to remember – “Snap! Crackle! Pop!” – and the never-ending words with multiple syllables that opened the door to whole new planets of knowledge. “Riboflavin”. I still don’t know quite what that means, but I always got the hint that it’s meant to be good for you. But this, back then, was my favourite brand, and my favourite slogan.
The big tin of Lyle’s Golden Syrup, with its image of a lion in repose, and a swarm of bees hovering above. “Out of the Strong Came Forth Sweetness”.
I think this was the first time, as a six-year-old, that I was forced to confront the notion of paradox, of language as a riddle, a chain of secrets waiting to be unlocked. It was only much later, in class, I recall, that we learned the story of Samson, and how in the land of the Philistines he had slain a lion, and had travelled back to see the carcass surrounded by the swarm.
And how he had turned this into a riddle at a wedding: “Out of the eater came something to eat, and out of the strong came something sweet.”
I saw this tin on the shelves today, unchanged in packaging since my childhood, and the memories came, well, not flooding back, but slowly, goldenly, sliding from a knife, and cascading in a drizzle on a slice of toast.
We never forget the brands of our youth, nor the taste of Lyle’s Golden Syrup.

Check Out What Pure Joy Looks Like: the Internet Utopianism of Learning to Fly

“Check out what pure joy looks like.”

That’s one of my favourite lines from one of my favourite movies, the same movie that gave us Show me the money and You had me at hello and Do you know that the human head weighs eight pounds?

The movie about epiphany and purpose and mad, dogged perseverance and love, that made a star out of Renée Zellweger and a hero out of Tom Cruise, not an action hero but a hero of the heart.

We hear Jerry Maguire, the sports agent, narrating a series of exuberant plays in the opening sequence, and the pure joy is the look on the face of a young baseball star who is following the flight of a ball he has just slammed out of the park.

But the purest joy, the joy that binds us across cultures and languages and nations, that lifts us up and stirs our souls and sets us free, is music.

Wherever you go in the world, you will find that there are really only two kinds of music, songs of yearning and songs of redemption, songs that seek a state of grace and songs that have found it.

This is why music is so closely tied to religion, and why it is a form of universal religion in itself.

Here is all the proof you need. A congregation of “1,000 Rockers”, an army of joyful noisemakers, gathering in a park in Cesena, Italy, to play a song called Learning to Fly, by The Foo Fighters.

The drummers, the guitarists, the bass guitarists, the singers, the conductor on top of a pillar of scaffolding, raising his hands. There is no overture, no introduction, just the cue and the explosion of percussion, and then the song, which is both a confessional and a plea for help.

“Fly along with me,” they sing, “I can’t quite make it alone.” And then: “I’m looking to the sky to save me, looking for a sign of life, looking for something, help me burn out bright.”

The song is about reaching out and connecting, about community and belonging, about burdens lightened by sharing, about hosts of angels waiting to raise us up.

This ceremony in a field, this mass of humanity united as one, is not too different from the ceremonies conducted by ancient tribes to appease the gods and ask their blessing for a bountiful harvest, although the request here is a more humble one: please, Foo Fighters, come and play a gig in Cesena on your next tour of the world.

But never mind that. The ceremony has a greater purpose, greater even than the celebration of music and the singing of a song. I must have watched this video at least a dozen times, and every time, it brings me to tears, not just because this is what pure joy looks like, but because this is what we look like, the people of this planet, when we set our hearts and minds to a cause for the common good.

You hear it said a lot these days, that people don’t connect with people anymore, that we live lives of isolation and alienation, that the Internet and social media are to blame for driving us apart from each other.

But events like this are only possible because we are all points on a network, looking to the sky for signs of life. It is the Internet and social media that allow the seeds of an idea to be planted, and to flower into wild and crazy life, and for us to feel that we can be a part of it in our own small corner of the world.

“Run and tell the angels,” they sing, to the thrashing of drums and the ringing of guitars. “Everything’s all right.”

Journalism, Instagram, and the art of “Thinking Inside the Box”

This week I spoke about Journalism, Instagram, and the art of “Thinking Inside the Box”, at the JustDesignIt Symposium in Bloemfontein.
Because it is a design symposium, I based it on one of my favourite design principles, which is: Constraint fosters Creativity.
When you work within narrow parameters, according to strict rules and guidelines, paradoxically, you liberate your thinking.
“Give me the freedom of a tight brief,” said the adman, David Ogilvy.
There are many examples of this principle in practise. The haiku: 3 lines, exactly 17 syllables. The tweet, no more than 140 characters.
The meticulously detailed, coin-sized series of miniatures by the Cape Town artist, Lorraine Loots, on a 10cm X 10xm canvas.
The excellent action movie, “Locke”, which stars one actor and is set entirely in the driver’s seat of a car travelling down a freeway.
And of course, Instagram, with its square format of 640 X 640 pixels, on the canvas of a mobile phone.
The intimacy of Instagram makes it an ideal medium for capturing and telling “small stories” that cast light on big issues and illuminate our common humanity.
Look to the work of Jeff Sharlet, the American journalist, and Gideon Mendel, the South African-born photographer, to see for yourself.
In art as in life, don’t fear boundaries; embrace them. Narrow your focus, and broaden your horizons. Think inside the box, and set your thinking free.

The Sweetness of Oranges: a Karoo Story

“Good morning!” she said, getting out of her double-cab, in the parking lot of the Victoria Hotel in Cradock, “and how are you this morning? Is it cold enough for you?”
And then, barely waiting for an answer, she added: “Would you like some nice Karoo oranges?” As a Joburger, my first thought was, I’m being pitched, fast-sold a box of goods I don’t really need, but before I could even ask the price, she was piling oranges in the box and handing them to me with a smile.
And then, scarfed and jacketed against the chill, she waved us goodbye and went on her merry way. I don’t even know who she was, the proprietor maybe, or perhaps a supplier from a farm, but here are the oranges, my souvenirs from the Karoo, grown in the red earth and given with goodness and grace.

I think every once in a while we need to escape the grand and petty squabbles of the city, the stresses that concentrate and sap our energy, and take a sho’t left into the Platteland, where the land lies waiting and the skies are as big and as open as the hearts of the people who live below them.