Surreal and ludicrous Johannesburg tabloid headlines in new Laurence Hamburger book co-published by Ditto Press and Chopped Liver Press.

Surreal and ludicrous Johannesburg tabloid headlines in new Laurence Hamburger book co-published by Ditto Press and Chopped Liver Press.

Johannesburg’s tabloid news posters scream tales of lurid sex acts, sensationalist fear mongering and political intrigue. The headlines collected in local filmmaker Laurence Hamburger‘s remarkable new book, Frozen Chicken Train Wreck, are often absurd, surreal and darkly comic, but all completely genuine.

The real events that inspired lines like ‘Graveyard Harvest Time’ or ‘Goat in Sex Scandal’ will forever remain a mystery, as Laurence only managed to discover the truth behind a handful of the headlines in the book. However, the posters reveal a uniquely South African snapshot of city life and a society in constant flux. Huck spoke to Laurence Hamburger to find out more about this intriguing project.

What first attracted you to the posters? What made you decide to start collecting them?
“It’s the combination of truth and humour that I love so much. A good joke for me would always involve a telling insight. I’m a sucker for a good one-liner, even better if it comes with a bit of cod philosophy thrown in. But I started collecting when I realised how many really bizarre and truly unique statements about Johannesburg were going unrecorded as future historical signposts.”

You wrote that the posters ‘live momentarily… by midnight they are already defunct’. In a world where so much is now recorded and shared, is there something refreshing about these posters’ transience?
“I suppose there is, but I’m not sure the book is going to disturb that condition. The posters that lived only for the day they were displayed would fill endless books, so they remain ephemeral. But what am I really trying to preserve? It’s certainly not a poster. Maybe it’s just an idea or an attitude… the temperature of our time, perhaps?”

What do the posters reveal about South African tabloid journalism?
“These posters are clearly journalistically compromised by having to function as adverts as well as news. They display that eternal contradiction between needing to sell an idea and tell the truth. There’s a cynicism at times in their attitude, but many of the posters reflect a reality for some people here. I believe it’s way more important to address that, rather than the people who help reveal that world, even if they could be seen to be exploiting it. I don’t think this book legitimises cheap tabloid gossip sensationalism. These are real. Laugh if you need to, but it will never be a truly comfortable experience.”

What is ‘Shebeen English’?
“I heard the phrase from Ferial Haffajee, the editor of City Press. It’s less about words and grammar, but more of a broader working class attitude to language. The desire to rebel is endemic here and language is always a good, cheap place to start a revolution. South Africans are notorious for borrowing from each other’s languages. It’s a very post-colonial condition but just not openly recognised. Despite their best intentions, the bastards that once ruled this country couldn’t manage to keep us far enough apart to stop significant mixing of our various cultures.

I suppose ‘Shebeen’ might be what happens to English when it’s had too much too drink and illegally crosses ‘the colour bar’. Ferial once compared this particularly local phrasing to jazz; the perfect combination of glamour, illegality, musical appropriation and miscegenation. Particularly appropriate when you consider that South Africa is one of the few places outside the US that has its own unique jazz form.”

Could you explain how the posters represent ‘the perfect marriage of a corrupted society and a progressive constitution’?
“It’s very popular right now to highlight the problems of an ANC-governed South Africa, such as the huge corruption we hear about daily. But it’s not just the corrupt local mayor and the crooked cop, as many whites like to think: the entire society is essentially corrupted by centuries of colonial injustice and hypocrisy.

The constitution – a process initiated by the ANC in exile – is the first resource we have been given to bring order, control and a common justice to this society. Leaving aside its shortfalls and its abuse by the disingenuous, it is a very modern moral structure. Only in a place where there is so much endemic political criminality, but at the same time such strong advococacy for freedom of speech and expression, can these very subversive and challenging pieces of social critique go out on a daily basis and be accepted as normal.

The exciting thing about SA for me is that while it’s in an eternal state of uncertainty, it’s also in a permanent state of debate. While there are forces that would like to narrow this down, right now, it’s all up for grabs: who we are, what we want to be, how we want to achieve that.”

Does the media remain white-dominated?
“Everything in South Africa can be seen to carry the ideological baggage of a colonial legacy; from the contents of your fridge to how you feel about dogs. Almost everything in SA, with a few important exceptions, is still pretty much ‘white’ in culture. African culture, whilst now the ‘broadcast image’ of the country, still takes the back seat in terms of how the society is actually run. There are many reasons for this, but it is very simplistic and inevitably problematic to talk of an industry, especially the press, as being ‘white dominated’. While it might still be mostly white-owned, and predominantly white-managed, it exists under a constant pressure to ‘transform’, essentially to ‘Africanise’. So while it might be in charge, it really doesn’t dominate. It rules ‘virtually’, in endless consultation and with a timid sense of propriety. It’s a power in flux, not in control.”

You thank your parents for teaching you to ‘see as well as look’. When you look at these posters on the street, what do you see?
“In a very particular style, I see evidence of the strange, totally unique, terrifying and entertaining place that we live in. The posters are examples of a society with severe poverty and social trauma, but one in which there is still a hope in the resources we have to attempt to fix that. For me, it’s the voices of the people that aren’t afraid to laugh in the face of adversity and uncertainty. Those voices who don’t belong to any kind of race, in my mind. They are just South African.”

You can buy Frozen Chicken Train Wreck directly from Ditto Press on their website.