Grunt – 20 March 2013


When I was an undergraduate in Natal, decades and decades ago, one of the books prescribed for the History course was The Barbarian West 400-1000 by J H Wallace-Hadrill. It’s strange that I should remember the title in such detail after so many years when I’ve forgotten so many others. Why is this important? Because it links with another book, Waiting for the Barbarians, by J M Coetzee, which I taught for many years. It’s essentially a tale about a national border post waiting for a barbarian invasion that never happens.
So why does this matter today, here in Bloemfontein, and in most other parts of the world, too? I began wondering who we would define as the barbarians – the “rough, wild, uncultured persons” of the dictionary definition – in our time. I’m sure there would be a number of stereotypical, prejudiced answers to that. But, after some reflection, I realised that we don’t have to wait for the barbarians; they’re actually among us, even here in Bloem. And they’re really cleverly disguised as normal human beings, just like us. And they lurk in the safety of regular jobs or decent homes. Generally speaking, they don’t operate in hordes as they did all those millennia ago. Instead, they usually operate in ones and twos, or small groups focused on spoiling the basic decency of our daily lives for their own selfish gratification. At weekends they appear in places like Clarens and elsewhere, tricked out in leathers, welded to noisy, expensive motorcycles, looking like contemporary reincarnations of mythology’s crass centaurs, surrounded by doting, mindless nymphs. Or they take on the form of a weedy spoiled snotkop in a yellow T-shirt and oversized blue crash-helmet, riding up and down the road on his smoky Vespa, its metallic drone destroying the middle of a Sunday afternoon’s peace and quiet. And it’s mothers screaming banshee-like at their children in public places. And it’s dog owners doing nothing to quieten their yapping pets. And it’s the pub drunks. And it’s those pudgy folks gorging themselves toward early deaths.
See, barbarians just wanna have fun …