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.

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.

I ran a writing workshop in Cape Town recently, and one of the topics for a free-writing exercise — just put pen to paper and write for 20 minutes or so — was “It’s Autumn”. A writer by the name of Chris de Beer wrote an excellent piece, a rant against the season, which she berated for its sullen indecisiveness and bouts of bitter, drizzly cold. “Autumn,” she concluded, “you are winter’s enabler.” Well, that’s autumn in Cape Town. In Joburg, autumn is my favourite of all the seasons: a time of burnished in-betweens, of crystal-blue, cloudless skies, and lazy, benevolent sunshine. Until, one day, when you least expect it, winter marches in and boots the season from its place of mellow contemplation. Autumn, you are winter’s denier. Stay a little longer if you can, please.