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Of Little White Bakkies and ebook stores — a curious tale of unlikely connections

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Ben Williams is the publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

Ben Williams rambles on about creativity, and why he should have bought a Nissan Champ.

I am the type of person who is prone to the occasional bout of the eurekas, in which highly, erm, creative theories that explain aspects of the human condition suddenly appear in my mind, seemingly ex nihilo. They then possess my every waking moment, until I’ve done them Newtonian justice, observed the 3rd Law, and reacted in the standard way, by inventing some crazy scheme.

Show me a person who attempts to validate their entirely unconfirmed insights in the real world and I’ll show you one whom life leads by the septum ring into all manner of contorted circumstances. (Writers, note: your job is to do the opposite of this. Undisciplined curiosity will get you nowhere.)

The part of the brain where one’s bursts of creative linking originate is called the anterior superior temporal gyrus, or ASTG for short. This bit of grey matter is sort of halfway down the organ, and toward the back, behind the ear. Since learning about it, I’ve taken to the word “gyrus”, which of course is related to the more literarily prominent “gyre”. Gyrus isn’t as taciturn as its cousin, I find; the word is equally mysterious but more proportional; it’s as placid as a lake on a still day, yet contains murky depths. Gyrus.

Read more in Daily Maverick: How to unlock your creativity – even if you see yourself as a conventional thinker

When the gyrus activates, a scrawl of alpha waves on some internal seismograph, you find yourself turning within possibilities that widen beyond your control. With apologies to Yeats, as your mind turns inside the widening gyrus, you become both the falcon and the falconer. There is an idea flashing on the wing; you are whistling to it, bidding it alight on your arm. But you also need to follow it awhile, read the patterns it makes in the sky, and so you urge coyness on the falcon’s part. Your point of view transfers in that moment, and you feel the trembling power of the idea coursing with you through the air, as you loop along in ease and wildness.

Finally, with a flutter, your idea passes some recondite test and settles auspiciously into your brain’s knowledge layer, brightening your world, putting a raptor’s gleam in your eye.

It’s time to hatch a crazy scheme.

One of my crazier such schemes was premised on the sublime form of a certain vehicle that was once seen frequently on the roads, less so today. Namely: the Nissan Champ 1400 bakkie. What a car! Sturdy, affordable, light on petrol and — critically — a bakkie, which meant you could get things handily done, just by dint of having one.

There was a time when, round every second corner, you’d find a little Nissan Champ, almost always white, parked off while its driver and passengers busily completed a job of work, before moving on to the next address. If you had a Nissan Champ, you had access to a road that would lead to better circumstances. If you had a Nissan Champ, you were automatically an entrepreneur.

Somehow, the ubiquity of the white Nissan Champ tickled my gyrus, and one day, during a bout of the eurekas, I decided that it was, clearly, the fundamental economic unit of southern Africa. Johannesburg, I saw, ran on little white bakkies. And whatever Johannesburg ran on, the entire region ran on, too.

My work at the time, in books and publishing, was undergoing something of a revolution, with the advent of ebooks. With each passing day, it seemed ever more likely that my own industry’s next fundamental economic unit was to be a digital file. The ebook space was wide open for experimentation — so the only thing for it was to connect the dots (read: jump, erm, creatively from a tenuous hypothesis to an entirely unrelated conclusion) and start an independent digital enterprise called Little White Bakkie. We would be a deliverer of value, and great reads, as the SA market for ebooks got into gear.

And so that’s what I did, establishing South Africa’s first independent ebook store. Little White Bakkie — the name took — people loved it.

Like many crazy schemes, Little White Bakkie flourished for a while. Eventually, businesses with bigger engines under the hood took over (and hard copy books made a roaring comeback). I might have done better to have bought a Nissan Champ and started a landscaping service. That wouldn’t have been in the spirit of staying true to the internal seismograph, though — that is, of being led by the septum ring, your gyrus’ hour having come round at last.

Let’s hear it for all the mechanics of creativity out there, then, working on their own little white bakkies, trying to get their ideas out on the road. Go for it, champs. DM

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  • Barrie Bramley says:

    Loved this read. Thank you. And yes, here’s to all the Little White Bakkies out there today 💥👊🏽

  • MaverickMe says:

    My Dad ran his pool maintenance company using his Nissan 1400 (predecessor to the Champ) bakkie. One would struggle to kill it as it was a real “vasbyter” and as tough as boots.

  • District Six says:

    Love it. City, Northern suburbs, Cape Flats… LWBs are a leitmotif of Die Kaap.

  • Jack Jones says:

    ‘Somehow, the ubiquity of the white Nissan Champ tickled my gyrus…’ Is it still lawful to utilise ‘white’ and ‘champ’ in the same narrative?

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