Changing Names


I’m coming to the end of my holiday in South Africa. Over the past couple of years I’ve made several trips here as it’s the country where my partner grew up and where his 95-year old father still lives. This visit we spent some time in the mountains and also in a game reserve. There, elephants blocked the road and we waited and watched whilst the elders foraged on branches and the young males joshed one another. Later, as we ate brunch, a herd of wildebeest clustered around a salt lick, just yards away, and a group of zebras ambled past. My favourite moment came when
a lone ostrich sashayed onto the scene and drank at the waterhole, crooking its U-bend neck as it swallowed… so slowly…so pensively. It’s winter here, but despite that, we’ve swum outdoors at a spa and I’ve wandered around in a summer dress, with bare legs. Locals complain about the cold but for me it has been like a series of perfect English Spring days.


This is a stunning country with the second largest economy in Africa. But as we all know it has a harsh past and even now, 21 years after the end of the awful apartheid regime, a quarter of the population are unemployed and live on less than 80p per day. At city traffic lights, or robots as they’re called here, there is nearly always at least one beggar, and often more. Some try to attract attention by moonwalking or miming extravagantly and others just drift slowly amongst the cars, clutching their possessions in a plastic bin bag. I’ve seen an occasional white face but the overwhelming majority are black.

Despite a growing black middle-class and affirmative action which aims to distribute employment opportunities more equally amongst the nation’s racial groups, I am sometimes uncomfortable, here. People are in general, genuinely warm and friendly but I’ve sensed amongst some older black hotel workers and filling station assistants, a deference which seems rooted in a history of oppression. But it’s different for the younger generation, the so-called ‘born-frees’ who grew up without experiencing segregation and constitutional inequality. Recently I had an encounter with a young black waitress and asked if it was possible to have soya milk with my coffee. “We ain’t got no soya milk” she said with a disdainful toss of her head and her casual attitude came as a relief.

south african flag

The new South Africa has the challenging task of integrating a diverse range of needs and sensitivities. This is reflected in its official languages. There are 11. This is in a different league to Bolivia which has 37 official languages, but it’s clearly still a lot and presents predicaments. English is widely spoken and is the language of public life, science and commerce, but nonetheless it’s the native language of only about 10% of people in this country. Zulu, Xhosa and Afrikaans are each more common first languages.

One way that post-apartheid South Africa has tried to represent its people better is to change place names. As well as trying to represent indigenous names there have been a number of other situations to take into account. Some names were offensive racial slurs. There were also many airports and public places that were named after prominent apartheid-era figures. Mandela was cautious and took the process slowly; careful in his reconciliation policy to be inclusive and avoid a rapid replacement of the apartheid-era names with liberation luminaries. But President Mbeki who followed, expressed impatience at the slow rate of change. Now, some years later many names are different. For example, Stanger, Northern Transvaal and Pietersburg have respectively become KwaDukuza, Limpopo and Polokwane. And Pretoria, one of South Africa’s three capital cities, was renamed Tshwane in 2005. However, the white residents protested and so the city administration department backtracked. Their solution was to decree that the metropolitan district would be known as Tshwane whilst the city would continue to be called Pretoria.

A giant of a man - statue of Mandela in Pretoria

A giant of a man – statue of Mandela in Pretoria

So it would be misleading to imply that this process is taking place without controversy. But notwithstanding the inevitable difficulties, name changing can be a powerful tool in moving forward and healing painful sores. I had my own small experience of this when my marriage ended. It was hard to be nominally linked to someone who didn’t want me in his life so I changed my name by deed poll to one I chose myself. This was an important step in growing into a separate and independent person.

And now at the end of this holiday I find myself with a new dilemma. This time it’s a rather pleasant one. Last week my lovely partner asked me to marry him. I had no hesitation in saying ‘yes’. But I shall have to think harder about the next question. What will I do about my name?


Parkus Interruptus


I’ve been feeling out of sorts recently. Nothing too awful but just a bit overwhelmed and exhausted. And one of the most bothersome symptoms has been ferocious belching. I looked this up on the internet and found a list of 198 potential causes. The one that immediately caught my eye was Asiatic porpoise poisoning.

That wasn’t much help, but fortunately I had other resources to draw on. I decided to do a detox. This has worked several times in the past when I’ve felt low and as well as cutting out caffeine, wheat, dairy and sugar I thought I’d try a few supplements. An internet article suggested a cocktail of vitamins and minerals, and also spirulina. I’d never come across this substance before but discovered that it’s dried blue-green algae and is rich in protein. It’s said to be terribly good for you. My fatigue was so bad that I didn’t have the energy to question it – I just went out and bought everything that was recommended.


I started the diet on Friday morning and within a few hours I had a caffeine withdrawal headache which just goes to show how much coffee I usually drink. By Sunday I was starting to feel better and my daughter, Emma, came to visit. After lunch, I disappeared into the kitchen to make some peppermint tea and decided to tackle the algae. I stared at the contents of the packet, which were intensely indigo and as fine as talcum powder. Since I’d mislaid my glasses there was no hope of deciphering the instructions so I plunged in with a teaspoon and took a mouthful. That was a very big mistake. The superfine powder clagged all over the roof of my mouth and trickled down my throat in sticky lumps. I gagged and tried to get my breath whilst producing squeaky choking noises. Then Emma called  “are you alright Mum?”  Even though I was about to expire, the primitive desire to protect my offspring remained strong. She would be traumatised if she found me gasping with blue teeth, and green foam dribbling from my nostrils.  I concentrated on grunting reassuringly and then rushed to the bathroom where I spent the next five minutes spitting. I cleaned my teeth and returned to finish making the tea.

The next day I was making a hot drink when I remembered it was time to take some more of the dreadful stuff. It was so expensive that I didn’t want to waste it, so I stirred two teaspoons into my liquorice tea. It was bearable but very much like drinking a swamp. On Tuesday I tried stirring it into some soya yogurt. It was like eating indigo-coloured poster paint. On Wednesday I tried to cheer it up by adding some banana, but it was still vile. Like indigo-coloured poster paint with lumps in it.


When I stop and think about it, then it’s probably not surprising that I’ve felt drained recently. We each have our own hand of cards that the game of life deals in middle age. Only a lucky few avoid bumps in the road. In the past decade my bumps have included a husband with a life-threatening condition who nearly died three times, redundancy, financial ruin, five house moves, training for a new career, divorce, and the inevitable ups and downs that four children bring. Thankfully my divorce is now a scar rather than the gaping wound it was, and I’m fortunate to be happy with my new partner. But there’s one frustrating problem that remains. I can’t read.

road humps

Until my separation I was an avid reader and wouldn’t leave the house without a novel in my bag. I devoured book reviews and adored browsing in bookshops. Now I’ve fallen out of love. I read but I don’t engage. And this is a particular problem as one of my sixty treats is to read all six of Jane Austen’s novels. I liked Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice. But Mansfield Park came after my marital bombshell and unlike the others it left me unamused, unmoved and uninterested. I made three attempts but each time made little headway. It may not be her best but I know the problem lies with me, not the writer, and that previously I’d have enjoyed it. I’ve decided for now to put it on one side and to think instead about how to heal my literary indisposition. These are supposed to be treats after all.

Recently I appreciated The Rosie Project and Kate Atkinson’s Time After Time. But I didn’t truly care whether I finished them or not. This disengagement is a loss. I know what it’s like to love books but for over three years, I’ve felt numb about reading. When friends ask about this, all I can do is shrug my shoulders. A bit of me is broken and I’ve no idea how to fix it. I can’t find any helpful advice though I have discovered that reading for pleasure is called ludic reading. Derived from ludo, the Latin for ‘I play’, this discovery is pleasing if only because I will now feel etymologically smug whenever the game of ludo is mentioned.


I’ve wondered about going to see a bibliotherapist such as the ones at the School of Life. These specialists guide readers towards literature that ‘enchants, enriches and inspires’. I think my situation might present them with a challenge but it could be interesting to explore. In the short-term, though, I’m about to go on holiday and I hope this will give me time to read. Before I leave, I’m going to spend an hour browsing at my local bookshop. Maybe a different genre, author or subject will provide the key to my literary emptiness. One thing’s for sure, though. I’m leaving Mansfield Park at home.

summer book