Speaking additional languages isn’t just about making oneself understood. One also needs to be aware of the polite word for things – and I don’t mean words that are impolitely used to refer to faecal matter. Take the Afrikaans word bek
, for instance, as used in the expression “hou jou bek
”, which translates as “hold your mouth”. It’s the “shut your trap” equivalent of “hold your tongue”, because the polite word for mouth is mond
Admittedly, I never thought about it with any great latitude, but I couldn’t understand how bek could be mond, until I was on a trip to Montreal and saw the French word bec, indicating the spout of a milk carton. Bec, of course, is also the word for beak, so now it all makes sense.
When Afrikaners say, “Hy is nie op sy bek geval nie”, which is directly translated as “he hasn’t fallen on his mouth”, they are referring to someone who isn’t slow to open his mouth to say something. In a dry and slightly obtuse way, it’s more likely to refer to someone who is witty, sharp, opinionated or arrogant than a run-of-the-mill chatterbox.
I’ll get back to bek in a minute.
There is a perennial shortage of commentators in horse racing. These are the guys (yes, because women hardly ever volunteer) who ‘call’ the races. In the days before video coverage, their job was even more important, but it remains necessary for someone to tell fans where each horse is in the race. Good commentators will flesh it out with comment about horses that are squandering their chances by running wide on the bend. Great ones will spot the supposed no-hoper at the back of the field, with tons in reserve, about to mow down the leaders.
In the late 80s, Sandy Bickett had long since retired as Cape Town commentator. So desperate was the need for commentators that they kept him on even though he regularly made mistakes. Current head commentator Jehan Malherbe started under Bickett. He’s had a succession of understudies, and has been trying to switch off his mic for decades, but management won’t let him leave. It’s for good reason, I should add, because Jehan is a great commentator, in the sense of truly being able to ‘read’ a race. That is a skill that comes from watching tens of thousands of races.
The point of this story is that racing’s operators are perpetually on a drive to recruit aspirant commentators. For someone with the ‘gift of the gab’ – partially similar to nie op sy bek geval nie – an employment opportunity awaits. This may be the only lifetime employment currently being offered anywhere, although I’m sure Jehan wishes it wasn’t.
Given my laryngeal issues, these days I tend to speak only when I have something important to say, and even then – especially in noisy surroundings – I’ll often hold back. However, when my youth was at its brashest, my bek was in full swing. There were many times my future self should have put a hand on my shoulder and told me to shut the fuck up. At the time, I was doing some television presenting for horse racing. I was always keen for some extra money, so I thought I’d give it a go.
There is no school or handbook for learning to be a commentator. You may sit in your bedroom with a tape recorder and call a fictitious race. That’s relatively easy. Harder is to sit in the stands mouthing a commentary on a real race.
Nothing beats the chill that engulfs your entire body when you’re sitting in front of a live mic, looking through binoculars, and realising that there are jockey silks that you can’t match to a horse. Or vice versa, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The plan was that I would make general racecourse announcements and call horses to post for a few weeks. When I did my first actual call, Jehan would be standing by my side, ready to prompt me if I stumbled over the horses. The problem was that I got impatient. Instead, when I did my first call, Jehan was standing next to a crackly speaker on Greyville racecourse wanting to listen to the Cape commentary. When he heard my voice, I suspect he felt the same kind of chill I described above. Or perhaps it was just anger. Had there been cell phones he could have taken immediate action, but there weren’t.
It all started fine, but somewhere along the line a horse’s name escaped me, or maybe a few. The speaker at Greyville – and thousands in off-course Totes and bookmakers’ rooms around the country, went silent. The crackle was no indication of technical problems. This was commentator malfunction, or put it another way, this was crackle without the cackle.
Soon after the horses turned for home I was able to pick it up again, and managed to finish the race. There must have been a stand-in commentator, although I can’t recall whether it was Neill Duffy, Mike Wanklin or Shaheen Shaw. It could even have been James Bester, so long was the list of Jehan’s successive understudies, until Rouvaan Smit came along.
This was not my finest moment, to put it politely. I knew that I’d screwed up big time, I felt terrible about it, and I was determined to fix it next time. Things weren’t improved by the article that Annabel Andrews wrote for the Cape Times in the week thereafter, with a headline that clearly didn’t tax the sub-editor: “No Oscar for this commentator”, or something to that effect.
The following race meeting, with Jehan back in Cape Town, we did it the way it was supposed to happen first time around. As I was calling the horses into the stalls, the phone rang. It was Mike Louw, the course manager (although I can’t be sure that I’ve recalled his job title correctly): “Get Oscar out of the commentary box!”
“I can’t”, said Jehan, “I haven’t learnt the colours.” And then he took the phone off the hook.
The call wouldn’t have won any prizes, but it was fine. I got through it. That should – or could – have been the first step to redemption, but racecourse management had other ideas. The following week I received a letter from Mike Louw banning me from the commentary box for life.
Of all the mistakes I’ve made in my life, this was possibly the one with the greatest cringe factor, demonstrated by the fact that it’s taken me nearly 30 years to tell the story. Until a clean-out last year, I had both the newspaper clipping and Mike Louw’s letter in a dusty file. Instead of keeping glowing school reports, I kept a vicious newspaper article and a letter of rejection. I couldn’t tell you why I kept them, but now that I’m finally telling the story, I’m sorry I threw them out. It would have been fun to post them here.
Partly because of what’s happened to my voice, I listen with pleasure and admiration to people who employ their voices by singing or speaking in public. Beautiful voices are like birdsong. Perhaps the reference to beak is a good one, after all.