The last time I had the pleasure of living in Cape Town, three years ago, I would spend many Thursday nights at a club on Long Street. Its cheap entrance allowed me up some stairs to a second floor which opened like an apartment to its guests. It even had armchairs and wooden floors and side tables but the whole place had a warped feel about it. Its black balcony wrapped around its corner perch and aided by the thrum of the drum and bass and the especially packed atmosphere of those Thursdays, it felt like the whole club sloped with the rest of the road.
The best part about this place was that unlike the clique of closed circles, I could happily go out onto the balcony alone to get some air and turn my face to the mountain – see that corner with the little contrived knob of the cableway station – and take the night in. No company needed. Just me, Long Street and the city, enjoying each other.
One Saturday I wandered into the city bowl and stopped at Clarke’s on Long Street. I picked up a thick book of collected essays by Stephen Watson and turned to the contents page. None of the titles egged me to read on except for ‘Buiten Street’. It was a name I knew, but it sat foggy in my mind – I couldn’t quite locate it.
There is something about place names that draw us to them: anchors, a familiarity, perhaps as Michel de Certeau writes, “they carve out pockets of hidden and familiar meanings.” So I turned to the essay and started reading, realizing Buiten Street was one of those overlooked trajectories off Long Street, just a little way up from where I was standing. The pages took me near Long Street of the 80s, which was shoddier and edgier, and into an apartment where Watson fell in love with a woman one dreadful winter. On drafty nights he would go out onto the balcony, stare up at the mountain and discern the cableway station, waiting for her to come home. ‘Buiten Street’ became heavy. I thought of all the memories in a city from people who attach this weight of association to a building, a street name, a post code: these proper names and symbols which have been written over by so many.
We need stories like these of the city: to connect us to great thinkers and feelers, and allow us in turn to take hold of our spaces – write over them, inscribe value into them, and expose the private maps we all possess. I stumbled upon that little street on my way home and since then would never cross it without thinking of Watson and his loose-haired lover, who drank whiskey in the winter of some year in their twenties. His history had hovelled itself into mine. How unfair, how wonderful to have someone else’s story pressed onto a street in my own geography.
Furthermore, Watson’s story ends with him standing in that apartment in 2005, finally revisiting a place he had chosen to forget. It was being renovated: the walls knocked down, the balcony modified, all to create a night club called Fiction. I remember when I read that last line in Clarke’s, I shivered. That was the club of my Thursday evenings. And for the last three years or so I had been dancing on the floors that had hosted his heartache.
Watson’s story had unharnessed for me Cape Town’s ‘Genius Loci’, the ancient Greek term for a spirit of a place. It seeped into my reality, creating a serendipitous encounter.
Such stories and their subsequent consequences create spaces that breathe with emotion, connecting little streets like Buiten Street to the greater roads and narratives of Cape Town. Who is writing such stories, and who is reading them? What other connections hidden in our own lives can draw us to a more intimate relationship with Cape Town? And who will carry these connections past the tight corpus of the city bowl into the townships and suburbs of the greater metropole?
Read Watson’s full essay here.
Cape Town Literature
Many writers over the years have set their stories in this city, but it’s difficult to discern what attention they get outside of bookish circles, or what sort of ‘Genius Loci’ they summon for readers and citizens. Below are a few of many names which capture the success, tragedy and possibility of writing about Cape Town.
Stephen Watson’s ensemble of Cape Town writers in A City Imagined
Margie Orford’s Clare Hart series
K. Sello Duiker’s 13 Cents
Nadia Davids’ An Imperfect Blessing
What other literature has captured Cape Town in your own imagination?