The Language of Banks.

I’m not one of those people who hates his bank. But there is one thing about them that really irritates me; it’s the way they talk to me. 

 I was fortunate enough to once be involved in the launch of a purely online bank called 20twenty. The bank sadly folded, thanks to Saambou’s collapse, but not before I got to work with the London-based team of Standard Chartered Bank, the company that ultimately tried to keep 20twenty afloat. I recall a conversation in which one of the Standard Chartered team spoke about South African’s seeming-tolerance of appalling banking behaviour. He explained it like this: there are basically two types of relationships between banks and their customers. The one arrangement is when customers borrow money from banks. This agreement is all too familiar to all of us who have bought houses and cars using money we don’t currently have, but the banks do. And we pay dearly for that loan. The other arrangement is one we don’t think of that often. It’s when banks borrow money from us, and they do that every month when we deposit our salary cheques into our accounts. We are essentially loaning our money to them, but will of course slowly take it back as the month progresses. They generally pay us less dearly for that loan.

 For some reason however, the South African customer behaves like banks are doing them a huge favour by looking after their money and banks generally seem to welcome this misguided gratefulness. They take on this almost patriarchal role as the caretaker of your money, giving it back to you only with their permission. In reality however, banks are desperate for your hard cash. They need it to stay afloat, and indeed, finance the many other arrangements they have with people borrowing money from them. Without your monthly loan to them, they simply won’t be able to function. And here’s where I get offended.

 When I need to take back the money I’ve loaned them, I don’t expect a massive show of gratitude, but I do expect language that fairly reflects the nature of this particular relationship. I request the money and punch in my PIN code. Instead of a simple THANK YOU, the ATM says APPROVED before dispensing it. That word APPROVED suggests that they’ve considered my request and generously decided to grant it, even though it is my money. APPROVED would be the more appropriate word if I was asking for a loan. The bank might say this is semantics, but in my world semantics is everything. Semantics is the difference between Hemingway and Dan Brown. Why try and assert your authority over me at this moment? And they do it again when you pay with your Card. The devise asks for your PIN code. You punch it in and presumably the computers behind the scene checks whether it’s right. It then answers CORRECT. Well, yes, of course it’s correct. It’s my PIN code. I wasn’t exactly guessing. CORRECT is the word that would only seem right to someone who was taking a flyer at it. CORRECT is the word that suggests you’ve given me a little challenge, and I passed with flying colours. CORRECT is the word you use when you’ve approached it with the mindset that criminals are more likely to be using my card than I am. And by all means, if a criminal does and gets my PIN wrong, INCORRECT would be entirely the right word to use. But its not, it’s me, and again a simple THANK YOU would do the job and have the same confirmation effect.

 THANK YOU would remind me that you’re grateful for the loan. THANK YOU would remind me that you’re pleased to have me as a customer. THANK YOU would remind me that you have manners. THANK YOU would evoke an image of you smiling at me, your customer. THANK YOU would suggest there are humans in your banks, not computers. And if anyone in the banking business reads this and takes note, I simply say Thank you.




The Statue and the Happy Ending.

This whole Zuma and The Spear debacle reminds me of a series of events that took place in Zimbabwe shortly after Independence. I was barely in my teens at the time, and my memory of it is hazy, but the story has always stayed with me. I always thought it would have made a great short film.

 When the war ended, celebration kicked off in a major way, as it does. Down in Bulawayo, the country’s second largest city, someone decided it would be a fine idea to erect a statue outside the city hall honoring the liberation fighters who had brought freedom to the country. That idea in itself didn’t seem so bad, but like with so many things in life, its failure would be in its execution.

 One day the residents of Bulawayo arrived at city hall and looked up to see a very large cast bronze statue of a naked freedom fighter, armed with both an AK47 and a penis that can only be described as high-caliber. It did, quite literally, hang down to his knees, making  Zuma’s spear seem much more like a cheese knife. The reaction by the general public was immediate. To the white residents of Bulawayo, it was insulting. By implication, the statue seemed to suggest that the freedom fighters were better equipped than the forces of the Rhodesian army. To others, having a naked man, regardless of race, with such a huge Johnson, went way too far beyond accepted norms of decency. The fact that this statue now stood in a very public place, towered over the many informal traders who sat at its base selling their crochet table cloths, beaded baskets and soap stone carvings, made it all the more inappropriate

 Mothers who came to the hall to pay their TV licenses and parking fines found themselves averting their eyes and covering their children’s as they passed through its shadow. I have one blurry memory of a homeless lady standing beneath it pointing up at it with a toothless grin and no small amount of admiration. The ZanuPF’s emblem, The Cock, it seemed had been reinterpreted in spectacular fashion. 

 I don’t recall public reaction being quite as militant as it has been with the Spear, but I do remember a steady stream of letters to the local newspaper demanding that the statue be taken down. Radio stations were also abuzz as debate raged on for several months. The new ZanuPF government however stood firm (excuse the pun) as did the council, until it looked like debate was all going to peter out naturally. Then one night an extraordinary thing happened.

 Under the cover of darkness someone climbed the statue and painted it white. Not the whole statue; just the penis. Why that seemed like a good idea I will never know. Maybe they were trying to put a condom on it. Maybe they were trying at least to make one part of the statue white. The end result was a rather spectacular figure of a black man with a John Holmes-style member.

 Protest kicked off again in a whole new gear. Thousands who had tried to block the memory of the statue from their mind flooded to the city hall to see this new, improved version. Demands to take it down were renewed. Surely now, now that the statue was white in places that it shouldn’t be, it should be taken down? Again the city council defiantly disagreed. They had a plan.

The very next morning a city council work team arrived equipped with steel brushes and turpentine. And so they set off to work to restore our unsung hero to his former glory.

 I doubt I need to paint a more detailed picture of what it must have looked like to have a team of men scrubbing furiously away at the poor guy’s privates, but suffice to say you can still hear the laughter reverberating through the Motopos Hills if you go there today.  Gogo’s probably still tell their grandchildren what they saw. And those poor council workers no doubt still bear the emotional scars of what they were put through. Medical science may even have coined a phrase for this type of post-traumatic stress disorder. Such are the hazards of war. Sadly however, it was all in vain.

 When all the bronze filings had settled and everyone stood back to admire the product of their hard labour, there it was, the world shiniest, polished penis on the world’s most embarrassed statue. 

 For better or worse, it was all too much for anyone to deal with. Ideas had run dry.  No man, not even a government, knows how to hide a penis that large. Especially when it’s shining like a lighthouse. And so the statue came down. I often wonder where it is being stored today.

 And here we are; 30 years later, having learned nothing. I only hope that our story ends with as much of a smile as the one I have just told. 

Our wine labels need some work.

On a recent trip to Vancouver, Canada, I dropped into a local wine shop to stock up on some wine for our two week skiing holiday. It was a brilliantly stocked store, carrying wines from virtually every major wine producing market in the world. When faced with so many choices, and no knowledge or experience of the wine producer to call on, I found myself unable to determine a good wine from a bad one, knowing full well that the price tag is also seldom a good indicator. So I did what any creatively-minded person would do: I bought the wines with the best label designs.

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As I walked through aisle after aisle of wines coming from all over the world, it occurred to me that South African wine labels are horribly dull by comparison. There are of course a few exceptions, but in general our label designs err more on the French-heritage side of the design scale, avoiding the pure playfulness that so many new-world wine markets embrace. We just seem to be taking ourselves too seriously in this particular category and I have to question wether our design matches the sheer energy and youthfulness of our wines. Something to think about maybe. Here are a few of the other wines that I sampled. ImageImageImageImageImage

Indians are a lot like Fruit Flies, apparently.

I recently found this article in a local newspaper. Image

The article describes how medical scientists have discovered that Curcumin, one of the key ingredients in Turmeric and curry, has been linked to the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. This is of course really good news, but it’s how they reached this conclusion that really cracks me up, and perfectly captures the big, deep, cavernous ass that science frequently goes up. The tests were conducted on fruit flies suffering from a nervous disorder very similar to Alzheimer’s. Firstly I’m amazed that someone has discovered mentally disturbed flies. Secondly, I have to question that what works for flies will also work for humans. And finally, if anyone wanted to check whether curry prevents a condition like Alzheimer’s, you’d think the best way to check it would simply be to measure its incidence amongst real living Indians, like the ones who eat curry in India. But hey, I’m no scientist. 


Why humbananabugspider?

A few years back I had a dream; a rather strange dream, even by my standards. For starters it was in flickering black and white and set in what appeared to be London, early 1900s. It didn’t have the most elaborate plot for a dream that had taken the time to set itself in a period that I know very little about, nor is high in my consciousness, as far as I’m aware. But the dream was vivid enough to remember and invented a word that I have never forgotten.

I was standing in a hotel foyer of some kind, and something dramatic had already happened. A murder, in fact. Don’t ask me how I know this, but I just did. That’s how dreams work. Alarmed, panicked hotel residents were standing in small clusters whispering to each other. The ladies held soft, embroidered handkerchiefs like comfort blankets, which they occasionally dabbed at heir foreheads. They were clearly deeply distressed. A number of old-fashioned bobbies were striding to and fro looking very official. The whole room felt thick with worry. It was then that I became aware of a Sherlock Holmes-type character walking down a corridor towards me. I say Sherlock Holmes-type for good reason. I seemed to know for sure that he wasn’t Sherlock Holmes, but he bore all the same characteristics;  a fine mustache, a long fluted pipe, a deerstalker hat and one of those definitive hounds-tooth sleuth coats. There was no Watson. As he approached, I climbed two steps and met him halfway down the corridor. He seemed content to speak to me.

“Excuse me mister” I said. “Do you know who did this?”.

He looked at me for a moment as if deep in thought. He then removed the pipe from his mouth and took half a breath as if the answer was going to shock me.

“Humbabanabugspider,” he said.

“It was Humbananabugspider,” he repeated, for clarity and for good effect.

At that point I woke up, before I could even gauge my in-dream reaction. I don’t make a habit of recording my dreams, but for some reason I knew this was a word I was going to need in my life. So I reached into my draw and dug around for a pen and paper, jotting the word down without even the aid of my bedside lamp. I then slumped back into my pillow, half expecting to complete my dream, but didn’t. It ended there, leaving nothing but the barely legible scrawl of a brand new word on the back of an old restaurant invoice.

Humbananabugspider. It’s my word. I invented it. And now I’m using it.