Neil Coppen

writings/ plays/ poetry/musings/travel journals and newspaper columns

The pleasures of falling and flight.


For Vaughn on his 27th Birthday

You gave me a palace in clouds, a JHB skyline dressed in mist and moonlight, dust-storms and thunder showers. You hung me in a room seventeen stories above the agitated hum of the city, taxis congesting the arteries of the streets below. A metropolis hemorrhaging with hooting.

Those afternoons wrapped in sheets and each-other finding a strange peace in the noises of other people’s lives being lived furiously down below, a navigated chaos which from up here seemed worlds away. Calming to hear it and more so for not having to participate in it. Us the fortunate ones, the ones who could observe when we liked… looking down for perspective and up for respite.

We could look down to see the dance of pedestrians and their shadows. A favourite past time of mine, when in the late afternoon light ants became giants with disproportionate limbs straining under the weight of grocery bags. Down to watch men, in the dead of night, pulling towers of refuse: snails with scrap-heaps for backs. Down across the patchwork quilt of street traders, the rubiks cubes of vegetable sellers tables’: red squares of tomatoes, green of kale and yellow of banana.

If you were a building you might resemble this one, towering and unpretentious, magnificent and old world yet re-purposed (and all the more idiosyncratic for it) to suit the needs and requirements of a contemporary African city. I cannot separate you nor my thoughts of you from this flat and what you taught me here. The magic of the space, the kitchen jars with assortments of berries and nuts and teas. The clanking rusted pipes that sung sad subterranean songs whenever I submerged my ears in the bath. The cacophony of the building, orchestrations of decay which punctuated our every routine, whether it was a death defying lift-ride to the ground floor or malfunctioning fire-alarms that kept us up until the early hours. I cannot think of you and not connect these thoughts to the poetry of the space.

Those poor ornamental ducks lodged on your bedroom wall, pinned in perpetual migration, observing daily the flight of ibises into another apocalyptic highveld sunset and wishing with all their might that their wings worked the same. The chipped, frayed, rusted corners of things. A summer storm tossing us out to sea, making an Art-Deco galleon of this high rise. The winds that wreaked havoc on our laundry and deposited our underpants in yards in Soweto. Winds that howled with the collective laments of old white lady ghosts who many eons ago used to take high-tea in the same building and shop at the Anstey’s department store for fur trimmed coats and pheasant feathered hats. The wide-eyed toddlers who gazed up at us in the lift with a mixture of curiosity and terror.

You made me stop running in the city at night. I used to dash from the parking lot to the lobby door. You helped undo the conditioning of a suburban upbringing and a paranoia that only the privileged are privileged enough to indulge in. You did this till I was more at home here than anywhere else in the world and realised I would never feel more engaged and alive and connected to this county and its people as I did when arriving at the corner of Jeppe and Joubert.

So the other evening when I felt angry at having to sit in a sterile Rosebank food-court it was only because all I felt like doing was soaking in a candle-lit bath with you, watching your forehead crumple in deep contemplation, lying as we so often did in an awkward tangle of limbs, the cold steel of the tap pushing into your neck, lying here until our hands wrinkled, the water cooled and the candle flickered out.

I ached for that balcony at the end of the world, a platform that allowed me to imagine and speculate (in equal parts) the pleasures of falling and flight. I felt sad at only having a concrete cast of your hands when not long ago ones of flesh used to omfort the palm of my back.

There are many things I miss and will continue to, even more that I will come to understand and celebrate. These are just some but certainly not all

Inventory of a South Coast town.


Inventory of a South Coast town.

Aryan kids sipping on over sized strawberry milkshakes
arcades rotting avocados
bananas box-wine bikinis
bouffants bakkies 
crocodile skinned Christians
cold slaw
Complimentary blow-job shooters that come with the bill
cigarettes, country-music
chlorine casinos C and sand real estate
fish-guts fiberglass glass-blown dolphins
dream-catchers driftwood curios dodgem cars
damp leather
Jesus saves Kurt Darren knee-high-socks
kegs karaoke lighthouses
leopard print liquor-stores locksmiths lust
Neil Diamond
neon poodles perms prostitutes
panel beaters
permed panel-beaten prostitutes
rope lights
sweat seafood suntan lotion second-hand sex-shop snake-parks
sea-shell ashtrays
sweet Caroline uh…uh…oh
salt teal timeshare
tannies who knit in public
Oom Willies Road house

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 A Log Book

26th July -5 August 2013

I cast my eyes up from the jetty and can just make out the wild- haired, top-hatted figure of Phillipus Fogg. He’s standing at the ships prow: palms planted on the railing, one big- booted-foot crossed over the other and a hand-rolled cigarette dangling from his cursive smile.

 His faithful Jack Russel- Vlooi sits at his side, a little pissed at having to portion her master’s affection with a new travel companion: a Grey Lourie which now sits and shits upon his shoulder.

I watch Fogg take in the shabby harbour side-city for a final time, squinting into a sun made spectral by the morning mists. 

His imagination pushing now beyond the reaches of the skyline. Beyond the tangle of washing lines and satellite dishes. 

Out to the next continent, the next wondrous wilderness…. uncharted terrain.


He had a nose-bleed one night in his sleep. I found the stain on one of our pillow cases the morning after. At first it seemed the blotch was in the shape of a dancing man but when viewed from upside down it came to resemble a map: a  undiscovered island dissembling into a series of splattered archipelagos.


I first met Fogg at an expedition-planning meeting in Cape Town. Upon our first introduction you might say I found him both enthralling and galling. Certainly I was impressed, impressed by his age (he was 21) and, considering his relatively short time spent on the planet, the vast quantity of information he had managed to cram into his skull.

It seemed he was versed in most subjects: music, travel, mythology, literature, cinema and could talk with genuine authority on them when most his age might  simply regurgitate Wikipedia summaries to impress.

Dostoevsky,Tarkovsky and Miyazaki he would bandy about as if they were mere contemporaries of his and while I greatly admire all these artists, I am cautious to raise them in conversation for the fear of mispronouncing their names.

Fogg spoke with an insight that befitted his title of General Knowledge Quiz runner-up in his final high-school year.

 In that instant, watching him from across the table, I felt like Kerouac might have when first confronted by the cocksure audacity of Cassady.

When our meeting finally concluded (and Fogg had found a reason to disagree with almost 95 % of everything I had to say) I was left with a rather disconcerting urge to scalp him like a hard boiled- egg and consume the content of his brains for breakfast.


He was fond of ellipses.   

 . . .


His boots had once belonged to his grandfather who had spent a large part of his days hunting in South- West Namibia. After his grandfather’s passing, Fogg ensured he never embarked on an expedition without them.  He honoured his ancestor by planting his feet daily in them. This way soles would forever mingle and new generations stroll in tandem with the last.


After days of trekking through the abandoned suburbs and cities we tear away foliage to uncover the lost Monument. We are met by imposing bearded guardians sculpted into the structures four- corners.  

Men resting disillusioned chins on the barrels of their shotguns. What thoughts lie cemented into their skulls we wonder? Do they stand vigil contemplating -for all eternity- whether to pull the trigger or not? Are they concerned that the splatter of their granite brains might sully the monuments exterior.


Inside our torches scan walls to reveal a chronicle of this odd tribe’s history. Embroidered hangings transform their tales into primitive pixels. Each tapestry resembling a screenshot from some 80’s video game. Let’s call it Boer–Fighter (Similar to Street- fighter) only with characters gleefully belting natives with over-sized bibles.


Sculpted tableaux’s along the walls depicts the tribe’s journey to the Southern continent: their escape over mountain passes, run-in’s with the coal-skinned savages (an orgy of flesh and livestock he had aptly titled it) and the almighties imperishable promise to them.

It was on this promise that the monument was founded centuries ago. The date of the vow and victory is carved into a cenotaph which is sunken into the floor of the temple. 

Once a year (on the day of the battle) the sun aligns with a hole in the ceiling and pours forth to illuminate the phrase: ‘Ons Vir Jou Suid Afrika’


Earlier that afternoon we had observed a tour-bus slug into the monument parking-lot and unleash hoards of Japanese explorers.  We watched them stumble out one by one, wrestling with a series of sequinned umbrellas which when opened splintered shards of sunlight in every conceivable direction.

I am of the understanding that satellites registered this flash-mob-brolly-refraction from space.


On one of the temple walls we sight a woman, let’s call her Anna Maart. Anna is sculpted into the same tableaux I mentioned moments ago.

Anna has her lap-top open while the men busy themselves, setting up camp in the background. Light from the screen spills across her fretful face as she checks the GPS co-ordinates for the following mornings Drakensberg crossing.  A daunting descent lies ahead.

 Anna pens an email back to the fatherland. Pens a mail back to her loving Ouma who whiles her days away in Holland chain-smoking and cursing God.

 Anna writes of the week’s dismal string of tribulations. She doesn’t imagine her and the kids making it out alive but she dare express this to her husband Willem. Willem with his Boer- maak- a-plan demeanour.  Willem the eternal fucking optimist!


After spotting a Grey Lourie in a tree outside the Monument, Fogg had crouched down to sketch the specimen in his travel- journal (A journal titled: The Motherfucking Essence of Progress). Once the drawing was complete I watched him coax the bird to his shoulder with fig pressed between his concert pianist fingers. Vlooi growled when the Lourie took residence on her master’s shoulder. Shot them both a disapproving eye.


“Go-way….. Go-way” Fogg’s pet Lourie cried out as the Deco Galleon (Queen Anstey’s the First) set sail into the turbulent surf.

“Come back….Come back” I want to yell but resist.

Fogg was seventeen- stories up with his ear-phones in, lost to the swathes of mortar and mist. Besides what chance does a lone human-voice stand against the all-consuming cacophony of Animal Collective?


After his departure I couldn’t quite bring myself to relegate the bloody pillow-case to the laundry basket. I had not the heart to end the man’s dance or lose my secret map to that unconscious island.


 Perhaps I admired Fogg’s ability to never once look back. If he did he might too often see companions and friends left on the shore, staring at their shoes, just a little stupefied with love and awe.


“I’m sure to warn people not to get too attached” he had cautioned me shortly after our first introduction.


… Extended ellipses…


I should have heeded his advice.


Alone I sat (His ship a spec on the horizon) my feet dangling off the edge of the pier. Smoking another cigarette and setting a new date to quit, in-between contemplating the fate of trash-bloated fish eddying around the jetty legs.



When my grandmother was dying I used to hold up her body to the window so she could peer into garden outside. It was here that she trained her eyes on the foliage hoping to sight a flash of the elusive Natal Robin. There was huge excitement at each sighting. She was bed-ridden in those final years, this window was her frame on the world. A mis-en-scene that featured a variety of birds, butterflies and the occasional pack of Vervet monkey’s tight-roping the neighbour’s wall. Lovely as they were they were regulars, entertaining and welcome distractions but not quite understanding (as their counterpart the Robin did) that one is made more desirable when fostering an air of mystery about themselves. The robin with its burning breast, witnessed as a fleeting smudge on green, now that was the ticket, that was the one you waited (mostly to be stood up for). When it arrived in her final days, I held her body up so she could see it and she wept with relief that it had taken the trouble to pay her a final visit. Since her passing I have associated the Natal Robin with her omen, her angel. I am not the sappy metaphysical sort but grief causes one to attach especial significance to creatures or things that ordinarily might not invite a second thought. I have not seen the Robin in the garden since her passing, perhaps once but in retrospect it may well have been a thrush (the robins more deceptive understudy) similar in proportion only with a less officious breast and far more mellow (read less impressive) in hue. Yesterday when grappling with my canine companion Finn, his ear out-turned like a pink hibiscus flower , his body riddled in tumours, that ginger-beer fizz diminished from his princely eyes I glanced up to see the robin just a few metres off. As fast as it appeared it vanished taking with it the weight of terrible uncertainty that has hovered over us for some months. Just the night before was a dream of my grandmother, who although close to my heart, like the robin has been somewhat absent over the last few years from my dreaming thicket. This time it was Guy Buttery and not John Lennon (as stated in her obituary all those years back) who was sitting on the edge of her bed like some benevolent spirit-guide and strumming a plaintive song on his guitar. To my Finn, the noblest beast that ever was and will be, the driver of sheep off Transkei cliffs, an intrepid prince who padded alongside us through a thousand golden afternoons, his less glamorous but nevertheless faithful accomplice Sophie—like a rhino squeezed into a pair of high heels—trotting just a few paw prints behind. So tremendous this loss, so lost now your shadow.

You’ll find me in the Summer when the snow melts.


Dear Goose

You’ll find me in the summer when the snow melts. I took a tumble in the winter, tripped on an oversized ski- boot, clapped head and teeth on a mountain root, concussed, descended, confused into the snow. While down there I started to piece together the bones of Mozart’s thirty-five year old fingers in-between searching for my misplaced memory.

Days before in a cabin, all scented with cow-pat and cigarette smoke, we watched a moth-eaten moon hitch a ride on a ski-lift while drinking beer and playing a children’s card game .Turning and overturning picture cards (daisy, sea shell, pine- cone) in an attempt to uncover the matching pair.

 I fared dismally.

 Daisy…………..daisy?……fuck pine cone!

The three Austrians beside us played with a terrible intensity while a cassette tape they had exhumed from a kitchen draw provided the soundtrack. A warped radio broadcast they had recorded in their teens. Something eerie about news relayed ten years after the fact.

 My imagination satelllited skyward. I saw the cottage in long-shot, saw it drifting backwards in time. Watched the men grow younger: bellies flattening, shoulders rising, fighter pilot fantasies reborn. Memories glorious (building a trout dam in the summer of 2001) then devastating (watching it washed away by the first heavy rains.)

You asked me to tell you my life-story.  Start at the beginning you urged. What amounted was sketchy anecdote. I couldn’t assemble them just like I couldn’t remember where the matching sea shell, pine-cone or infernal daisy card lay. Recollections brittle and disintegrating like the autumn-leaf page of a poem I discovered yesterday in central park.

Later that evening, wedged between mattress and ceiling-rafter (while you plotted and re-plotted emergency fire- escape routes in your head) I clenched my fists against the cold and sifted through the pantry of my skull searching for a jar of something pickled, something preserved. Something as elusive as the bones of Mozart’s 35 year-old fingers or as simple as the twin image of a playing card.


I stepped outside hoping the cold might resuscitate something. Villages twinkled in the valley basin below. War time Austria? The mnemonic trace of a reincarnated self or something recycled from a movie musical (Von Trapp’s escape from nefarious Nazis).

Memories: reels of images spliced together from a myriad of fictions. I’ll write again I decide. Not to record or articulate but to remember. To disentangle my dreams from the over wrought dreams of celluloid others.

Sing: You’ll find me in the summer when the snow melts, thawing in a luminous pasture, fat cow grazing on my unkempt hair. A daisy sprouting from my left nostril.

Thank you for the memory, for remembering


Austria, January 2 2013

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The African Aurora


Sweet Aurora

For months I have been trying to pen you this letter yet have found myself inhibited by a paralysis of the imagination.  I suppose a more benign term might be post project daze.

They say Aurora, ninety percent of writing is imagining what it is one wants to write. If this is true ,then I have been spending ninety nine-percent of my waking, dreaming, scheming hours imagining. A luxury for sure. Who wouldn’t leap at the opportunity to suspend reality in order to inhabit a semi-imaginary one. To resign oneself to the company of the non-existent. Reality during such periods slips into the background, is seen as nothing more than an inconvenience…. something to brave when the fridge is bare and a trip to the grocery store is a  matter of life and death.

I imagine at your age this is what your day-to-day must feel like, though you never have to actively set aside the time. Your pass is unlimited and integration seamless. There is no distinction between what is real and what is imagined, no boundary or border post you need ever flash a passport at.

The other night I went to visit Lorkin Greenstone, a whimsical little man with almond shaped eyes, quite similar to you in age and loveliness. Lorkin joined his parents and I at the dinner table and regaled us with tales of Buttercup cottage:  a fantastical plot of fictive real estate if I might say so myself. He proceeded to describe every detail: the hills, forests, rivers and bat-infested caves. When it came to the wolves, he would crouch his voice in a whisper, careful not to let the beasts (salivating around the next corner it would seem) overhear him.

I miss your stories Aurora, often wonder what topsy-turvy universe you have imagined for yourself over there. I am always dreaming up ways to reach you and figured if I could just crack an invite to Lorkin’s Buttercup cottage I might be able to swim across the river and find you living in the imaginary realm next door. I’d know it was you of course by the gargantuan butterflies and pink unicorned ponies strutting around the paddocks. Read the rest of this entry »

Will Brecht’s Donkey Understand? : Notes on a Conference


All this talk of beauty

Brecht’s stuffed donkey

Actors in falsetto

flailing about in three interminable acts of crisis.

Artistic arsonists

Setting mountains on fire

So they may weep

and in turn inspire

Modalities, meta-text, sub-text, intertext–tual, Sexual, Meta-sexual


(There’s one for the PHD)

Collaboration… interrogation… provocation

Self….. sacrifice….mutilation…congratulation

Hypothetic… thermic…academics

And if not scraping the century old mould from the kitchen sink

Then off plundering the mythic imaginary.

That endlessly recyclable realm of post-modernist-modernisms.

So removed and obscure that you dare risk meeting any part of yourself  inside of it.

Hoary tales made heady with whimsy

Unfamiliar with cliché


Too depressing…recent…..relentless.


Glen miller records on a scratchy gramophone.

Surreal fairy-lit French circuses, butcheries and freak shows.

A mass of rock cuts off the rest of the continent

As onwards the Southern tip wafts

in an un-complex cosmos.

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Tricky Since Childhood


The scrape of their spades recalls your shoes on the driveway, heavy, home from work. Around five, winter dusk, sky murky purple. Often I’d pass you on your final stretch, turning up Tividale: peace in a moment, the now. Steps steady, slow. Your legs were tricky since childhood.

You should have taken the ride your boss offered you after work. He told me on the morning of your funeral, said he was giving you a lift but was delayed by some last minute paper work. You had decided not to wait, thought it better to take the bus. Said your mother was waiting at the stop to walk you home.

We shuffle down the slope of the Kwanangezi cemetery, clusters of gravediggers taking twenty beneath the shades of the only acacia. Spliffs and spades exchanging hands till one takes mine. A man with peep holes for eyes, two fingers missing.

“Don’t cry, don’t cry” he says mocking the Ray Banded white boy, a visitor accustomed to the clinical rites of a Doves cremation parlour: Time to Say Goodbye misplayed on the organ, inanimate doominie at the podium. In and out. Far from this hellish descent, these injured dirges, mists of marijuana and dust making mud of the brain.

At the foot of the grave (beneath purple Gazebo) sat your mother. No matter how hard your brothers shovelled they could not conceal you. The heap beside the hole refused to lessen and your Dudu ,resolute as a stone and wrung of all grief, never once looked away. Not when they tossed in your pillow, blankets and clothes, a wilting plastic bouquet.

I hid your denim skirt the day before she returned to work. Tucked it in the corner of a laundry cupboard. Memories less painful than ones material remains. Pocket’s an inventory of the living: bank slips, buttons, a pencil, bus fare shrapnel, balls of unravelled thread.

An hour, minute, milli second, a minor interruption and all this might have been avoided. Retrospect is torture still we play the scenario over and over. Your legs were unreliable, tricky since childhood.

So you tumbled as the bus left the stop, not into her waiting arms, but past. Under wheels, torn on tar, pressed like the flowers we laid this afternoon to mark the merciless place.

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Anglo-Boer(-ing) War Conference


To kick start each morning of the South African Military Societies International Anglo Boer War History conference, held in Ladysmith two weeks ago, a blank was fired from a British Naval 12 pounder. This I soon discover is the Military equivalent of slugging back a double Espresso first thing the morning. A reverberating shock to attendees’ ear drums and pace makers, prepping us all for the illuminating and often arduous day of battle-speak ahead.


Held at the Platrad Lodge, overlooking significant Anglo Boer War battle terrain, the conference boasted a range of international and local speakers talking on topics that ranged from this War’s many myths, tactics and military blunders as well as revisionist takes on controversial and largely misunderstood historical figures of the time.

With one hundred and ten years having passed since the War, it seems Boer and Brit can now comfortably share the same room without wanting to ‘bliksem’ each other every time things get a little heated. Throughout the conference, areas of research and interest were analysed with healthy amounts of objectivity and the atmosphere reminded one of a jovial old boy’s reunion.

The aim of the conference was to provide a new source of understandings around the causes, events and consequences of Anglo Boer War. As organiser and military historian Ken Gillings stated in his opening address: “Such a conference is arranged so we can learn from the past and ensure that such atrocities never again occur in the future.”

Certainly the seminal purpose of any historical gathering– the very hook on which history’s precarious future hangs– is how to ensure that younger generations of South Africans are made privy to such findings. Read the rest of this entry »

Lung full of Fir Trees and Bellyfull of Butterflies


I recently read a newspaper article about a man named Artyom Sidorkin who two Sundays ago woke with terrible pain in his chest– a scratching, stabbing sensation just below his left nipple. Hours later, hacking clumps of blood and matter into a basin, his irate wife telephoned the local doc who suggested he be rushed to the hospital immediately.


Considering the symptoms :smoker, respiratory difficulty, vomiting blood, the doc correctly presumed it to be lung cancer.

There are, after all, no case studies or medical journals to assist one in diagnosing, let alone supposing, flora of and in the lung. Raising up Mr Sidorkins x- ray to the light, the elderly Doc set startled spectacles on a minute Christmas tree ,a jagged green star, nestled and nettled in the sanctuary of his patients lung.

Read the rest of this entry »

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