This personal essay by Matthew Freemantle was originally published in Volume 2, Issue 5 of South African literary magazine, Prufrock.

Once, when I was 14, I drew my own pornography. I was living a fairly sheltered life in the semi-rural village of Noordhoek, long before Bobby Skinstad moved there, and there just wasn’t any material available. One can get only so aroused by Good Housekeeping magazine, and wild fantasy was my only accessible option being that real girls were about as real to me as goblins. I was not a good artist – my older brother was the draftsman, but I wasn’t about to ask him – and so the resulting drawings were laughable. I couldn’t get the angles right. It was hard enough to draw breasts from memory when there wasn’t really anything in the memory from which to draw, and the less said about drawing a male porn star the better. I remember beginning with the woman, legs apart, and then attempting to draw the man sort of over her, but this just created a mess of lines and badly captured shapes that, in the end, looked more like a toddler’s attempt at a crab. The drawings didn’t even work, if you know what I mean. I wish I had kept them.

My only other early encounter with pornography came courtesy of a practical joke. My Dad, who worked in the corporate world at the top of a glassy building in the CBD, brought a video home one evening that he’d been told by a colleague was a fascinating nature documentary. It was called Blue Something, which might have roused suspicions if we hadn’t been borderline Amish in our countryside earnestness.

The whole family gathered around the TV to watch it. The opening shot was convincing enough; a camel made its way across a desert landscape. The next few moments were a blur. A Bedouin tent. Evil looking women. Heads bobbing above laps. Pained expressions. My Dad rushing to the machine. Silence. Nervous laughter. For whatever reason, my parents didn’t immediately throw the video away. This meant that my two brothers and I conspired to make sure Blue Something was played permanently on loop while they were out of the house until its ribbon, stretched beyond recognition, finally packed up.

That was basically that, for a while. A few years later, during a cameo appearance at UCT, I scored my first job in journalism. I responded to a small note posted on the Humanities corkboard advertising a position for ‘cricket writer’, which for an inexperienced student who loved both cricket and writing – and for whom there were no other options – seemed too good to be true. At my age, which was 20, it was clear that nobody with money was willing to give you any of it to do something you liked doing. You worked in a bar, or cleaned things, or sold bags of 50 black bags via intercoms to rich housewives (mostly, you didn’t sell them). I had suddenly become a journalist without having to do anything more complicated than tear off a stub of paper, press ten buttons in sequence and ask my mom for a lift. For someone who was halfway into his first year studying to be a journalist, this was both a masterful shortcut and a terrible life lesson.

pron

The job was cushy enough. I would work nights, commentating on the Ashes test series in Australia, and write a match report at the end of the night. There was white bread in the kitchen, and bad coffee – at the time I didn’t know it was bad, although I absolutely knew it wasn’t good – and there was an empty office with The Internet. Most of my fellow 19-year-olds knew very little about the world wide web, and what we did know we had learnt from one of two films: Hackers, or The Net with Sandra Bullock. Y2K was approaching, and it scared us.

We weren’t, however, scared enough not to be simultaneously excited about what else the Internet might have in store. We did know one thing: there was porn in it; more than facts about past wars and opening times of our local Pick ‘n Pay, we strongly felt the Internet had principally been invented to bring that porn to us. The availability of porn caused a feeding frenzy. The problem was, nobody knew what he or she (but, frankly, mainly he) was doing. A close friend described his computer as a “porn machine”; it existed only to pipe pornographic material into his bedroom. Another told of his laptop crashing under the sheer volume of porn he had downloaded and the embarrassing encounter at Incredible Connection that ensued.

I had my own hideously awkward encounter years later while watching a Vodacom employee, tasked with “restoring factory settings” on an old iPhone I’d bought from a close friend, backspace his way through the words “old English sluts” in the Google search bar. He still eyes me with either deep disgust or tacit approval each time I pass the store. I’m not sure which is worse. I have never mentioned that to the friend in question; perhaps this is my way of doing so.

But back in 1998, we were inexperienced. Everyone knew someone who had mistakenly downloaded the desktop stripper and didn’t know how to get it off. My brother, still living at home, had suffered the toe-curling indignity of looking on in horror as our father first caught him surfing some illegal waters and then spent five minutes leaning over him in his chair and clicking ‘x’ on a relentless stream of smutty pop-ups. We didn’t know how to surf the Internet. There was no Google. The only search engine I knew about was Yahoo, and they certainly weren’t helping you find any porn. All of which meant that when you sat down in front of a computer and connected – via squeals and burps and digital gurgling noises – to the Internet, you had to be creative. There were porn sites, but you had to know the exact address.

So, on night one of my new job, during a tea interval at the Adelaide Oval, I started guessing. I recall some of my early efforts but not all of them. I might have opened with nothing more creative than sex.com. It was too obvious; it gave nothing and asked for credit card details. Porn.com was the same story. I very clearly remember typing www.doggystyle.com. It was another dead end. In any case, the cricket had resumed.

My first night at work was a failure, by which I mean I didn’t access any decent porn. By all accounts, my cricket reporting was fine. A week later, the senior cricket journalist, who is now a prominent local scribe for whom I have the hugest admiration, had realised something sinister was taking place on his computer after hours. He had taken to writing a variety of admonishments and posting them as a screensaver. He left eye-wateringly embarrassing post-it notes. I remember one night arriving to a slow-moving text screensaver that bounced between the walls of the monitor and which simply read: “Stop”. I more or less did.

Matthew Freemantle’s journalistic writing and interviews have appeared in The New Statesman, GQ, Apartamento and Wallpaper. His fiction writing is published here and there, sometimes in impressive literary journals and sometimes in the ‘notes’ section on Facebook.

Prufrock is a print quarterly of writing — fiction, nonfiction and poetry — in any South African language, started in 2013. You can subscribe, find out the nearest place to pick up the latest issue, and read the magazine’s submission guidelines here: www.prufrock.co.za. Follow Prufrock on Facebook and Twitter and find a piece of writing from one of their past issues on 10and5 every Wednesday.

Illustrations by Hugh Upsher.

)

Comments are closed.