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Kate Sidley

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Archive for the ‘International’ Category

Twain’s advice was rather nice

On the “bizarre family heirlooms” section of our bookshelves (surprisingly large) is an advice book for what might today be known as teenagers, but in 1950 were referred to as young ladies.

It is called The Years of Grace, which is an optimistic take on adolescence, and not at all how I remember the teenage years. But I guess they couldn’t call it Years of Misery, Bad Behaviour and Wildly Inappropriate Clothing.

Anyway, this book is full of helpful advice on important aspects of life, such as deportment, personal hygiene, leisure activities and social skills. It is fairly modern in its views, encouraging girls to travel, to be public-spirited, and to learn to appreciate sport. When watching a game with one’s brother and his friends, “Don’t be content to be the least knowledgeable girl in the party.”

It gives guidance for careers, noting that “Her Majesty’s Civil Service is now freely open to women”, and advising “Don’t simply be a shorthand typist. Be a secretary.” Teaching is recommended only if you have the requisite physical and mental toughness to deal with supervisors, and with parents who don’t see the value of educating girls. “You must be prepared to suffer fools gladly – and the fools will not always be part of your class.” There are instructions on how to avoid halitosis which “together with B.O. is lethal to glamour”. No arguing with that.

Rather more subversive advice comes from Mark Twain in his Advice to Little Girls, which has recently been re-released with new illustrations. It is not an advice book; rather, a tongue-in-cheek short story for adult readers. Each of the helpful pointers starts off as a rather reasonable-sounding piece of advice, but there is an outrageous twist in the tale. Here are a few:

“If your mother tells you to do a thing, it is wrong to reply that you won’t. It is better and more becoming to intimate that you will do as she bids you, and then afterward act quietly in the matter according to the dictates of your best judgment.”

In the event that you have only a rag doll stuffed with sawdust and a playmate has a better toy, “You ought not to attempt a forcible swap with her, unless your conscience would justify you in it, and you know you are able to do it.”

“Good girls ought not to make mouths at their teachers for every trifling offence. This retaliation should only be resorted to under peculiarly aggravated circumstances.”

Twain was fascinated by young girls. After his wife’s death, he was lonely. “I had reached the grandpapa stage of life and what I lacked and what I needed was grandchildren,” he said. At the age of 72, he began collecting surrogate granddaughters between the ages of 10 and 16, “dear young creatures to whom life is a perfect joy and to whom it has brought no wounds, no bitterness, and few tears”. He called them his Angel Fish, and nicknamed the group The Aquarium. He even gave them little lapel pins, featuring angel fish. He corresponded with the girls and they, with their parents, sometimes visited him in New York.

We who have had our idealism and innocence destroyed by the likes of Jimmy Savile, Michael Jackson and a host of priests and scoutmasters might find this all a bit suspicious. Despite our cynical modern reservations, it all seems innocent and above board. That was a kinder, gentler era.

I would advise contemporary young women to be cautious of elderly celebrities bearing gifts.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

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Loving literature’s prime evil

We love the good guys, but the baddies in literature intrigue us. We probe their motivations, shiver at their evil, spit three times as they pass. Yet there’s something that lures us.

Perhaps we envy their flouting of convention; they don’t have to save the day or make lunch. In real life they are loathsome, but in film they are often attractive, albeit in a damaged way. The best are fiendishly clever.

Buffoons might be the muscle, but true villains are schemers, plotters, out-witters. In literature, the nastiest bad guy is cultured and sophisticated. Yes, he eats people, but Dr Hannibal Lecter appreciates opera.

In fact, the word “Doctor” should raise your suspicions. In the romance genre, he may just be a good-looking neurosurgeon with a secret heartbreak that only a first-year nurse with cleavage can cure.

But think Drs No, Faustus, Lecter, Frankenstein and – one of the most loathsome villains in fact or fiction – Dr Mengele, who, in Ira Levin’s The Boys from Brazil, created an army of Hitler clones.

Now we are in the terrifying realm of the Mad Scientist – brilliant, complex, hubristic, challenging the natural or social order.

This alchemist’s dastardly business is divining the elixir of immortality or turning base metals into gold, reanimating dinosaurs and human corpses, tampering with nature with dire results.

The only more telling moniker than “Dr” is “Witch”. An experienced reader with a fine intuitive mind might also be tipped off by the presence of animal and supernatural familiars – cats, wolves, ogres, ghouls, bats and such.

The Wicked Witch of the West, from L Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, displays a classic villain trait – being mean to animals – when she smacks Dorothy’s dog Toto with her umbrella (gasp!). Sporting only one eye, she exhibits another common baddie feature – physical abnormality.

Scars, missing limbs, enormous height, extremely pale skin and the like are a sure sign that your baby-sitter is a demon in disguise.

In your spare time, it might be fun to rank literature’s most villainous villains. An online trawl reveals Iago is widely reviled as the top bad guy in Shakespeare and, to some minds, the whole of literature. He betrays Othello’s trust and destroys people’s lives just because he’s pissed off. He is envious, jealous, petty, manipulative and racist. In old terminology, evil. Today, perhaps, a psychopath.

Richard III, a former Shakespearean chart-topper long reviled as a deformed child-smotherer, is being rehabilitated, thanks to popular interest in his bones, recently discovered under a parking lot, and the likelihood that he was the victim of a Tudor smear campaign.

Little hope of same for Aaron, in Titus Andronicus, who went to the noose with this memorable speech:

“Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did/ Would I perform, if I might have my will;/ If one good deed in all my life I did,/ I do repent it from my very soul.”

That’s one serious badass.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

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This Many Words Can Be Enough

A student was instructed to write a story of utmost brevity, involving religion, royalty, sex and mystery.

The inspired creation he came up with was this: “My God,” the queen said. “I am pregnant! I wonder who did it.”

Now that the average attention span … Hang on a sec, let me get my phone … Sorry, what was I just saying? Oh yes … Now that the average attention span has been measured and is, empirically and incontrovertibly, 3.245 seconds, this is precisely the kind of fiction that is in demand.

There has been a surge of enthusiasm for short, short stories (also known as flash fiction, micro fiction, compressed fiction, sudden fiction and “is that it?”). At the low end, the “story” may be as few as six words, but more often they are a couple of hundred words long.

Flash fiction is often linked to a competition, a website or a compendium. Esquire magazine offered the Esquire and Aspen Writers’ Foundation Short Short Fiction Contest. Entrants were given just 79 words to do their thing.

The Guardian asked well-known writers to try their hand at writing a story within Twitter’s 140-character limit. I liked this one from novelist Jenny Colgan: “You were once so beautiful I ignore the ear hair now; the liver spots on shaking hands. Besides, I’ve always closed my eyes when we kiss.”

There have been numerous Twitter-related short story competitions. Colgan’s little story has humour and pathos. In less experienced hands, these very short stories tend to have a pat one-liner feel. Often there’s a dramatic incident – a gunshot, a car crash – to inject power in a limited word count, and not a whole lot else. While they risk being unsatisfying and tricksy, the best are surprising, nimble, concentrated. They are the whittled-down bones of an entire story, with the rest implied, hovering alongside or wandering about, unsaid.

Writing short is hard (although maybe not as hard as 1500 pages of Infinite Jest). An entire narrative – a love affair, a death, a realisation – must live in a handful of sentences. There are seldom more than two characters, and virtually no characterisation. The story is usually centred on a single act. Every word matters. When it takes its place, there’s one fewer left to work with. Every word, even a pronoun, has to do its job, and more, if it’s to earn its keep. Even punctuation is important – a semi-colon can save you an “and” and provide a dramatic pause, a juxtaposition, a momentary irony.

These works are the literary equivalent of a very simple line drawing, in which Picasso makes two squiggles and a dash into a telling portrait, about which you ponder, “How did he do that?”

The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories, compiled by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is a lovely example of the genre at its best. Thousands of stories were submitted and 62 chosen. Artists would illustrate a story that appealed. The resulting collaborations are poignant, poetic and delightful to look at. By way of example: “The doctor’s wife ate two apples a day, just to be safe. But her husband kept coming home.”

Last word to Ernest Hemingway (I’m sure he always had it anyway). He famously – and perhaps apocryphally – challenged writer friends to write a story using only six words. Legend has it that he won the contest with the story: “For sale: baby’s shoes. Never worn.”

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

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Do this and I’ll love you forever

Valentine’s Day is coming up. February 14 is a busy day for you, no doubt, what with opening all those cards and gifts, the constant ringing of the door bell with deliveries from admirers, rushing around watering your many bouquets, nibbling on those chocolates, getting tarted up for a hot date at a romantic restaurant.

I empathise, knowing from first-hand experience how demanding Valentine’s Day can be. Nonetheless, I hope you will find a few minutes to support another good cause – it may not be quite as instantly gratifying as sweet-talking someone you fancy, but it does make a small contribution to the good of mankind.

In addition to being the day on which we profess our love, lust or like-you-a-lot-really-a-lot-but-I’m-just-not-sure-you’re-”the-one”, February 14 is International Book Giving Day. It is a day dedicated to getting new, used and borrowed books into the hands of as many children as possible. Read about it at

Reading to or with children is one of life’s greatest joys. Maybe even more delightful than being wooed in a posh restaurant. I can’t say for sure, because it’s been a while. No matter, reading with kids is lovely. As a toddler, my daughter’s greatest passion – OK, obsession – was for The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. We did have other books. Plenty. But she just couldn’t get enough of that caterpillar. I had to read it 37 times a day for four months. She knew the ending – spoiler alert: he turns into a beautiful butterfly – but was prepared to be surprised and wonder-struck again and again.

There he was, eating and eating his way through cakes and plums and such, spinning himself into a cocoon only to emerge – gasp, and clap your chubby hands together! – with a fine set of beautiful, coloured wings. She was delighted every time. And there were hundreds, if not thousands, of opportunities to be delighted, because we read that book a LOT. If I deserted my post, for a bath, say, she would track me down and beat her little fists against the bathroom door and demand, desperately: “Read catapeeeya!”

Not all South African children have someone to read to them, or something to read (or a bathroom door, for that matter, but let’s stick with books, for now). Relatively few homes have books and only 8% of public schools have functioning libraries. It is simply not possible to learn to read fluently without daily exposure. It is not possible to learn without reading and understanding fluently.

Sorry if you thought this column was going in a cheery Valentine’s direction, perhaps with amusing asides about romantic novels and a couple of risqué jokes. It’s not. I’m here to reminisce about the days when my children liked to be read to, and then I’m going to badger you. That’s the plan for this morning.

Now for the badgering. Please celebrate Book Giving Day by giving a book to a child, or donating books to a place where children can read them. Support your local bookstore and buy a couple of children’s books to give away, or clear out your kids’ book shelves and pass them along.

If you are in Cape Town, donate good quality books to The Bookery, 20 Roeland Street, for redistribution to school libraries.

Donate to an underprivileged school or crèche, or to your local library. Many libraries collect used books to sell to raise money for new stock.

May flowers and chocolates be yours in abundance.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

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What’s in the Next Chapter

Book lovers can look forward to some interesting and exciting developments this year.

Short books

With the advent of e-books and e-readers, there’s precious little reason for a book to be 300 pages. If you often find yourself saying, “well, nice idea, but it went on a bit …”, you’ll welcome the availability of “shorts”. Quick to market, they are great for non-fiction on topical issues. Locally, check out for smart non-fiction mini-books/long-form journalism. We may see something similar in the fiction market too, with novellas and short stories getting a boost.

The bookless library

Hold on to your buns, librarians. The first bookless library is scheduled to open in San Antonio in the US this year. It’s the first of a new type of “library”, branded BiblioTech, that lets readers check out e-readers and electronic titles. It will include meeting rooms, study areas, interactive zones for kids, computers – but no actual books.

Eco-themed books

Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour and Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles are just two recent examples of books where environmental/climate disturbances play an integral role in the narrative. Prepare for more novels in which Earth is under threat or has already succumbed to some environmental evil or climatic apocalypse.


2012 will be remembered as the year that explicit sex went mainstream. Fifty Shades of Grey pushed erotica up the bestseller lists, onto talkshows and into the limelight. Knock-offs are already on the shelves; expect more. There will be some close copies – bondage, good-looking millionaires – but more adventurous authors will be trying to create new niches.


It’s on the rise in the real world, and in fiction too. According to the editors at Scholastic, who have listed their predictions for top trends in children’s literature, bullying is a topical issue that has resonance with kids and that many children’s authors will be tackling. Still with Scholastic’s top trends – Dystopian novels are here to stay. We’ll see plenty of tough, smart, resourceful girls à la Katniss in Hunger Games. Non-fiction, a growth area for adult books, will be hot for kids, too. Adventure fantasy books are set to remain big, but I expect we’ll see the slow demise of vampires and werewolves. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking …


War seems to be a perennially popular topic, and this year will be no exception. I’m looking forward to William Dalrymple’s new one: The Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, about the first Anglo-Afghan War in 1839.


Each year, the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency surveys leading publishers and editors to find out what kinds of books they are looking to acquire in the coming year. A number of fiction publishers said they would look for quirky, genre-busting, left-field type stories. Combined with strong characters and good writing, these are books that can capture the imagination and sell really well.


Authors dream of the kind of success Hugh Howey found with Wool. Howey self-published the first instalment of this post-apocalyptic e-book on the Kindle Direct system in 2011. He got some traction, sold some overseas rights, got a movie deal and the print book rights were picked up by major traditional publishers. Self-publishing your e-book is the fast, cheap, guaranteed way to get your book to market and keep a big chunk of the revenue. In certain genres, they are losing the stigma of being badly written and poorly edited.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

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Paper Weight: More bothered than hot

Nancy Huston has overcome stiff opposition to win the 20th annual Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award for her novel Infrared, about Rena Greenblatt, a photographer who likes to snap close-ups of her lovers during sex.

Huston won over the judges with vivid descriptions, viz: “flesh, that archaic kingdom that brings forth tears and terrors, nightmares, babies and bedazzlements”.

The trouble with writing about sex is that you are forced to choose between being brutally graphic and ridiculously metaphorical.

Graphic isn’t recommended – best to avoid too much solemn description of the ins and – um – outs of the act. There’s no need to be anatomical. Urethra is not a word that should appear in an erotic passage. Maybe I’m squeamish, but I feel the same about long descriptions of ejaculations. And vivid descriptions of the colours of various body parts. Also, whining about your hand cramps.

Similarly, would-be sex writers should be wary of dialogue, exclamations, cries and noises. “Ah. ah. ah.” Really, we need that? Can’t we just imagine the puffing and panting for ourselves?

With the prosaically graphic out of the running we are left with metaphor. Sea breezes ruffling mossy banks of whatever, blah, blah. Here are some favourite approaches. Ripe and juicy fruits (plums and peaches, mostly. Almost never pineapples.). Archeological and geological investigations, as in Noughties by 2012 runner-up Ben Masters: “We got up from the chair and she led me to her elfin grot, getting amongst the pillows and cool sheets. We trawled each other’s bodies for every inch of history. I dug after what I had always imagined and came up with even more.” Aaargh! I’m not sure that grot is even a word in modern usage. I’m absolutely certain it isn’t a word you want to see in a passage about sex.

Also, there are animals. Usually horses. There are veritable herds of them, sometimes actual horses, sometimes horse-riding accoutrements – saddles, whips – sometimes lame comparisons between . Oh, you don’t need me to tell you. There’s a dreadful horsey one from 2012 runner-up and 2004 winner Tom Wolfe (a great writer, but some of his sex scenes really do give you the shudders. Not in a good way), which you can find in Back to Blood or on the shortlist. Honestly, it’s so horrible, I just can’t .

Also, stars. Very popular, the heavens. Take this nice astrological bit from Infrared: “. the carnal pink palpitation that detaches you from all colour and all flesh, making you see only stars, constellations, milky ways, propelling you bodiless and soulless into undulating space where the undulating skies make your non-body undulate .” (that was only about half a sentence, by the way. Sex writing features a lot of flowing stream of consciousness sort of description that just goes on and on and you’ve sort of forgotten where it all started or why and before long you’ve lost your will to live).

The awards ceremony is held at the Naval & Military Club in St James, better known as The In & Out Club (puns are inevitable when English people and sex are gathered together). The winner receives “a semi-abstract trophy representing sex in the 1950s” depicting a nude woman draped over a book. Congratulations to Ms Huston, who presumably has it on the mantelpiece in her nipple-pink boudoir, pungent with the mossy scent of desire, where she pleasures her many … Oh, sorry. Enough of that.

Postscript: Wondering where 50 Tones of Yawn was in the run-up? Nowhere. The prize rules out pornographic or intentionally erotic literature, so EL James was not eligible.

For the shortlist and samples, go to

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

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Now all I Need is Sparkle

For some years now, I’ve wanted to write a novel. But like most writers, I have found myself daunted by the huge stumbling block that has stymied novelists since the dawn of storytelling – finding the right name for my protagonist’s dog.

That’s all over now, since I’ve discovered the random pet-name generators which – who knew? – proliferate online, and which assure me that the ideal name for my protagonist’s male Labrador is Sunny.

It’s a relief to have that sorted, and it leads me to think, why stop there? What about character names? It’s so difficult to find the right name and when you come up with something original with just the right tone and ring to it – Miss Havisham, Philip Marlowe, Humbert Humbert, Molly Bloom – you discover, Sod’s Law, that someone has already used it.

This vexing problem has been solved by the advent of websites that simply generate new names. Some of the apps will let you choose nationality or genre, even species (elves, leprechauns, and so on).

One site invites you to put in your name and it will create a “terribly British” version. Kate Sidley translates into Charlotte Garside in Terribly British.

Not sure that Charlotte is more Terribly British than Kate, but the whole package has a nice Georgette Heyer ring to it. On, one can request an assassin name. Apparently my very own murderous moniker is Jade “Poison Ivy” Bradley.

Personally, I think inserting “Poison Ivy” shows a lack of originality and effort. You could just go about inserting “Cat o’ Nine Tails” and “Ebola Virus” in inverted commas between any old first and last name, and Bob “Kalashnikov” is your uncle.

Nonetheless, this generator thing is quite amusing and a lot less trouble than actually writing, which is what I would be doing otherwise, so I devoted the afternoon to research and generated a stripper name for myself (Sparkle Titties) and a Japanese name (Katsue Hideyoshi). The site even Mormonised my name – apparently as an adherent of the Church of the Latter Day Saints I would be Parkarette Brimley. I’d love to share with you my name as kindly provided by The Goddamn Rock Solid Ghetto Shiznit Name Generator, but it’s a bit rude.

But where are Parkarette and Sparkle and Katsue going to live? you ask, hands wringing. Fear not, aspiring novelist, for on you will find the pseudo-Elizabethan place-name generator, offering such bucolic villages as Wolstonloch, Grimblereach and Thursbyshaw.

There are loads of generators for science fiction and fantasy writers. One might venture that if you’re not up to thinking up a suitable place name, or character name, creating an entirely new world might be beyond your writing capabilities. But who’s to say?

World-creating being so challenging, why not go the whole hog and get the plot generated too. And Strew’s Bob (thank you, random South Effrican slang generator) if you put “plot generator” into Google, you’re set. Having done as directed, “Click here for a compelling plot,” I am tossing up between: “When a natural disaster threatens, a group of stranded aliens goes on a spending spree,” and “A wily college professor is in debt to an irrational hermit.

The story takes place in a high school in Rio de Janeiro. It ends with someone doing laundry.”

Difficult decision, no? But I guess that’s where authorial creativity comes in.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

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Losing the e-motion

Every morning I deliver children to their various places of learning and see scores of little hobbits scuttling about, bent double under the weight of giant backpacks full of books, sportsgear and kitchen sinks.

The books, at least, will soon be a burden of the past, as schools switch to tablets, a move that is already being phased in in certain schools in the leafy suburbs.

This prompted “Look at these spoilt brats with their iPads” stories in some of the newspapers, but it’s a no-brainer. Need we mention Limpopo, where you’d be fortunate to have books to schlep at all, let alone an e-reader, loaded with textbooks, to slip into your pocket?

In India, learners will soon have access to the Aakash 2 tablet computer, which features a 7-inch screen, a USB port and Wi-Fi capability.

The first 100000 are being delivered to schools and colleges at a government-subsidised price of 1130 rupees (about R180), which is half of what they would cost in store (not to mention, outrageously cheap compared to a single textbook!). In India, school books are standardised and the text in the public domain, so transforming them into e-books would be a doddle.

In South Africa, too, e-reader prices are falling and options are growing in time for Christmas spending. Kobo has just launched the black-and-white, touch-screen Kobo Touch eReader, with Pick n Pay as its retail partner. The Kobo device boasts a catalogue of 3 million books, of which a million are free. The cost? R1000.

Around the same time, announced a partnership with Bargain Books to sell the gobii eReader for R799 through its 58 outlets. Customers will be able to buy their e-books from

Of course the e-reader to beat is the Kindle. Yes, I know, Amazon is the evil beast that’s killing the book business as we know it, but having destroyed two Kindles (one stopped working on its own and one stopped working when someone’s foot went through the screen), I can attest to the excellence of their customer service.

The first time, they sent me a replacement Kindle. The second time, they sent an upgraded version, for which I had to chip in the difference. (In a contrasting anecdote, I tried to return a hair straightener to a local chain store when it ceased to work after a couple of months, and they wouldn’t accept it because I hadn’t kept the box and the slip and a signed affidavit witnessed by one of the 12 apostles. OK, just the first two.)

Let us not be drawn into bitter tales of poor service; we’ll be here all day. Back to the topic at hand, which you will recall was that of digital publishing. A “don’t-quote-me” estimate from an industry insider is that digital accounts for 7% of book sales in South Africa, and that this figure is expected to double in the coming year.

In the US, the figure is 20% of the overall market and growing at a rapid rate. Publishers have recognised the inevitability of it, and most are now publishing e-books simultaneously with print editions. Although I’m still predominantly a print reader – mostly because that’s how review copies arrive on my desk – digital just has so many advantages (instant purchase of books, price, fewer dead trees, more efficient storage, less risk for publishers) that it seems inevitable that it will dominate.

Impossible as it seemed a couple of years ago, that’s starting to feel OK. Just remind yourself, it’s about the content.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

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Saved by the Brits

It’s a sad day for word lovers, indeed, when the Oxford Dictionaries choose “gif” as the Word of the Year, USA.

Gif is an acronym for graphic interchange format, which is a compressed file format for images. Look, don’t ask me – I’m a books columnist, for heaven’s sake. Go google it. So, back to the gif. It is no doubt handy in our internet age – without it, we would not be able to revel in the boundless delights of cat videos – but Word of the Year? I don’t know.

For a start, the term is 25 years old. Also, it’s not that interesting. Nor is it handy in day-to-day conversation. In the interests of research I tried to use it today “Pass me that gif, will you?” and “Can I help you with that gif?” and all I got were funny looks.

According to the rules of the award, the chosen word should have significance to the year, and capture the zeitgeist. In a year that featured a hard-fought presidential election, Gangnam Style, the massive superstorm Sandy and the ever-teetered-on fiscal cliff, that’s the best they could come up with? They could have considered some of the more interesting words that made it as new entries into the Merriam-Webster dictionary this year – cloud computing, say, or earworm; gastropub or sexting. There’s even a new element, which glories in the name copernicum. Gif? They are simply not trying hard enough.

Fortunately, we have the Brits. It must be said that when it comes to smart, funny use of words, the British are naturally blessed. Just the occasional glance at the headlines of The Sun will tell you that.

The Word of the Year for the UK in 2012 is (drum roll, Her Majesty descends from the sky – oh, sorry, I’m getting my Big Moments in British History muddled up). The Word of the Year is omnishambles. Oxford University Press defines the word as “a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterised by a string of blunders and miscalculations”. It’s a super word, gratifying to say, evocative and oh so very useful, especially in a year when the Brits had their fair share of them. Gaffe after stuff-up after stumble, it feels like, from minor ones – the Cameron daughter left at the pub – to the grand disasters like the News of the World phone tapping, the Olympic security company that wasn’t, and the disgraceful BBC palaver. Omnishambles galore!

The word omnishambles was first heard uttered by the spin doctor in the TV series The Thick of It. It caught on almost immediately (there being so many opportunities for it, I guess) and has proved handy already, morphing into such delights as Romneyshambles and Olympishambles. I’m with the Brits. The Word of the Year should cheer us up in the face of Eurogeddon. It should make us LOL (laugh out loud) – after all, YOLO (you only live once).

So, what would you put forward as South Africa’s Word of the Year (not to say that omnishambles wouldn’t prove appropriate and very useful in daily life).

Here are a few of mine, but I’m not sure they’ll make you LOL:






Outa – this, from the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance, but I’m thinking it needs to be verbified and used to describe the klapping of the powers-that-be in court, as in “We’re going to outa them if they don’t deliver those textbooks.”

If you’ve got better ideas, e-mail them. Text only please. No gifs.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

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Old geezer hits the spot

There are only two stories: a man goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town.” So said someone. Not me, I’m only repeating. Clearly that’s nonsense, you say.

It would cover, say, The Odyssey, but what about the one where the woman got taken up in a space ship and got pregnant by an alien? Oh, yeah, that would be “a stranger comes to town”. Or how about the guy who went to live with the elephants? Uh huh, stranger comes to the bush. Fifty Shades? Yup, stranger with handcuffs. Drug stories? Journey to the dark self.

You see? Riffle through your mental catalogue of books read, but you’d have a hard time identifying a story that could not be encompassed by a sufficiently broad definition of strangers and journeys.

In fact, come to think of it, those two – a man goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town; familiar person in new place and new person in familiar place – are really one story: the clash of old and new. So there you have it. Given a generous dollop of definitional flexibility, there is only one story.

Let’s consider an example that would stand up to a rather narrower definition of journeys – The Hundred-Year-Old-Man Who Climbed Out of a Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson.

I have had rather enough of peripatetic old folks, having recently read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which lots of people liked but I found rather, well, plodding, if you’ll excuse the pun.

Also, The Hundred-Year-Old Man is Swedish and one is not automatically drawn to Scandinavian novels, which generally feature gruesome murders and the translations of which can sound as if one is being shouted at by a slightly deaf Scandinavian person.

I’m glad I gave it a chance, though. It’s one of the more unusual, amusing and enjoyable books I’ve read this year. The hero, Allan Karlsson, climbs out of the window of his old-age home on the morning of his 100th birthday, leaving assorted dignitaries, TV crews and a large cake behind. He does a runner on impulse and without so much of a whiff of a plan.

While waiting for a bus to wherever it might take him, he steals a suitcase. Luckily for us, it contains money belonging to a criminal gang. Allan and an expanding motley crew of accomplices are soon being chased across Sweden by a gang of hardened criminals and some comically inept policemen.

This caper with a cast of delightful geriatrics is interspersed with flashbacks, detailing his involvement in key political events of the 20th century, from the Manhattan Project to the Spanish Civil War and hobnobbing with historical figures, from Mao to Churchill to Stalin.

Allan’s character has been likened to Forrest Gump, and it’s a fair comparison. He’s oddly unaware of the world around him, and remains calmly unperturbed and gently optimistic no matter what bizarre situation he finds himself in.

Throughout his strange adventures and mishaps, he is protected by improbable good luck and a sort of dumb innocence. Also, perhaps, by vodka.

If you are in the mood for picaresque satire, not Nordic noir, give old Allan a whirl. He is a man on a seemingly arbitrary journey and if you follow him, you will enjoy an adventure into an inventive and very funny world. And after all, who among us has never had the urge to exit the window, leave their life behind and journey forth?

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

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