Greetings from a London which is bursting with Spring flowers while remaining unacceptably freezing. I haven't written a newsletter for a while. Instead, I...
- Spent a month in South Africa gallivanting around with friends and family and trying to absorb as much sunlight as possible.
- Bought a flat??? I KNOW I KNOW. More on this in a sec.
- Finished the guide to moving to the UK, which is coming out in September, although we'll be launching some helpful resources in the next couple of months (hit reply and let me know if you want to get on that waiting list).
- Finished the edits on Girls of Little Hope, my debut novel! It's still on track to come out in June, and I could pee in excitement.
- Started lecturing at Bath Spa University, for their wonderful MA in Writing for Young People.
- Got really, really into home renovation videos on TikTok (help).
I am ploughing ahead trying to finish the first draft of Snarltooth - my second novel - by the end of the month.
If you missed it at the end of last year because you were already on holiday (power to you) my last missive of 2022 was an essay about my dad, which I think is the best newsletter I've ever written.
I do want to get back to semi-regular newslettering, so here are five things which have been on my mind recently.
1. How do you know when you're ready to buy a house?
So... after years of telling everyone that home ownership is overrated, I went and bought a flat, lol. I'm pleased to report that the process has only solidified my belief that buying the home you live in is something you shouldn't rush into, even if you are lucky enough that it's an option for you, and it's certainly not a sure-fire path to riches. Because yoh - buying a flat in London in the middle of a housing market meltdown is one of the most expensive, difficult, exhausting, stressful things I've ever done. And I survived Zeplins nightclub in Tshwane in the early 2000s.
There are two ways to think about buying the home you live in. First, you can think of it as an asset. The dream is: you buy the home now (using the bank's money), get to live in it for a few years, and in a few years' time you sell it, making a huge profit. A fool-proof plan!
Only... for most people, it doesn't actually work. It does work for some people who are lucky enough to buy properties in the right areas at the right time. Except that there's no reliable way to predict whether the area you're buying in is going to grow in value or not. If there was, investment firms would buy up all the profitable residential houses and there would be none left for you (which is partly what got London into a housing cost crisis). And because buying a home ties up a lot of your money, you're putting all your financial eggs in one basket. Which makes it, in reality, one of the riskiest types of assets for most regular people trying to preserve the value of their hard-earned money.
Statistically, residential property just hasn't been a reliable asset class for most people recently. For most of the past 20 years, residential property in South Africa has lost money against inflation. Even in London, an objectively bizonkulous market, £100,000 invested in property 25 years ago would have done much less well than money invested in the stock market.
So the odds are not in your favour, trying to sell your own home at a profit.
But there's a second way to think about the home you live in: as a cost you can optimise. You have to live somewhere, and you have to pay money to do so. Wouldn't you rather pay off a bond than a landlord?
This is is a more helpful way to think about home ownership. But it's still not that simple, because buying and selling property is extremely expensive. I'm talking about irrecoverable costs: the solicitor/conveyancer fees, the taxes, hiring an exorcist to banish the haunted doll in the attic. These costs are so big that it takes many years before owning a house works out cheaper than renting the same place would have been (in South Africa, the average is around 9 years).
So here's what that tells us: you should aim to buy your home when you're pretty sure you're ready to commit to staying in one place for the next decade. So, people should knock it off encouraging 20-somethings to get on the property ladder as quickly as possible (if that's even a possibility for them, which it is not for the vast majority of 20-somethings). When you're young, you're not ready to commit to a haircut, let alone a property. We should also encourage people to buy property right at the bottom of their affordability range, not at the top (which makes sense when you think of property as a cost, not an asset).
And, honestly, this emotional reason is why my partner and I eventually bought a flat. We moved seven times in the past six years, and one of those moves was to the other side of the world one month before a global pandemic, which made me feel like I was stranded on a desert island. This made me frantic for the certainty that I will not have to move again until I choose to. All of my fantasies for the past year have revolved around wanting to have a local kebab shop, a library card, a sense of where home is.
My partner and I may have bought this flat at the worst possible time, according to housing market experts. And you know what? I don't even care. We plan to live there for a long time.
Jayson Coomer, my favourite South African economics blogger (you might know him as Rolling Alpha), wrote a very moving article recently about his own decision to buy a house, after years of being skeptical of the financial benefits of home ownership. I was struck by how tightly bound the experience was for him about grieving his dad. I, too, have spent so much time thinking about my father while building shelves and insulating condensation pipes and all the other thrilling activities involved in homeownership, remembering long weekends spent wandering around Builder's Warehouse with him. I've been surprised by the depths of my own feelings about what is essentially a pile of bricks and mortar and rotting floor joists.
Our biggest financial decisions are usually emotional ones, and that's something to be celebrated. What is money for if not to help you make meaning of your life?
Maybe the true rule of thumb about buying property is as simple as this: buy a property when you can, and when your heart insists that you must.
2. Johannes Phokela at the Zeitz MoCAA
If you're in Cape Town, please catch the Johannes Phokela exhibition at the Zeitz MoCAA ("Only Sun in the Sky Knows How I Feel") - it's extraordinary. Many of the images are riffing off "old masters", with wry wit and a dark sense of humour, exploring themes of colonialism, the body, and morality.
It's on until 29 May. Don't miss it!
3. Make zines with your buddies
A couple of months ago, I challenged my buddy Simon Dingle to make me a zine. I don't want to be hyperbolic, but I think what he made might actually be the greatest work of literature of all time ever. It's called Cope, a short guide to having an existential crisis.
This lead to a long chat on our podcast about why making silly, simple things (like zines!) can help you to quiet your inner critic and rediscover the playfulness you need to do any creative work.
This has definitely been a challenge for me trying to go from someone who has always just written because that's my hobby, to "this is also the thing that needs to pay my bills". It's not even the money thing. It's that, if you are a professional, you feel like everything you make has to be good. And the reality of making anything is that you have to do many, many drafts of it being shockingly bad before it can maybe be slightly good. And just shushing the inner critic in the meantime is hard.
4. Terra Nil
I am just so, so proud of my friends at Cape Town-based video game company Free Lives who have just released the most deliciously peaceful puzzle game about restoring the environment: Terra Nil.
Terra Nil is an intricate environmental strategy game about transforming a barren wasteland into a thriving, balanced ecosystem. Bring life back to a lifeless world by purifying soil, cleaning oceans, planting trees, and reintroducing wildlife, then leave without a trace.
It's gorgeous and hopeful and it floods my brain with happy juice. It's available on PC and mobile (with Netflix).
5. Favourite picture books
I have been on a picture-book reading spree recently. If there's a young child in your life, please can I tell you about my recent faves:
- The Hospital Dog - Julia Donaldson. If you know anyone under the age of 5, you are definitely well-acquainted with the literary empire of Julia Donaldson, creator of The Gruffalo and brilliant prolific writer of books in verse. I recently discovered this one, a lesser-known gem published in 2020, which might be the most compassionate and sweet book about illness and injury I've ever read. Please buy this for any kids you know who have to spend time in hospital.
- Refilwe - Zukiswa Wanner. A magical South African take on Repunzel. My friend Katie, who worked at the Nal'ibali Trust promoting reading, tells me it is "the absolutely top top top beloved book by the kids at the 720 Eastern Cape and KZN schools Nal’ibali worked at". I adored it.
- Ten Delicious Teachers - Ross Montgomery. A zany counting book about ten scrumptious teachers who take a shortcut through a forest filled with large hungry monsters. Hilarious and dark (thanks, Georgina and Zoe, for the recommendation).
- Julián is a Mermaid - Jessica Love. My dear friend Maya put me onto this one, and it's fast become one of my all-time faves. It's a heart-swelling story about a kid who catches a glimpse of some costumed mermaids on the subway and decides he wants to be one too.
- Food Fight - Alex Latimer. The new book by one of my fave children's book writers and illustrators. Stuffed full of memorable characters, charming illustrations and food puns.
Looking for picture books for young kiddos? Here's a list of some of my all-time favourites.
Wishing you spring blossoms and zines,