The Big Read: Screening our little heads off
The first time I saw the Montecasino complex, rising out of the grass between highways, I was awed by the sheer audacity of what happens when the rich join the tasteless to build a venue for the undiscerning.
In case you haven't seen it, the general idea is that the place resembles a quintessential Tuscan town, the sort where church bells ring, flocks of pigeons clatter into the sky, and lovers loll in white linen, looking out over piazzas full of old men remembering their youth.
In reality, of course, it feels like an alien mother-ship crash-landed there by a race of space nomads who found an Andrea Bocelli album and some Merchant Ivory DVDs and decided to mould their entire way of life around them: a simulation of a cliché of an Italy that never was.
I used to despise it. These days, though, I'm less critical. The thing is, Montecasino is honest about its extraordinary kitsch. It doesn't pretend to be tasteful. It isn't clamouring to get into the glossy poseur bibles, the "lifestyle" magazines and television shows that babble about style and grace and elegance while showing us the gaudy, marble-and-palm-infested homes of the nouveau riche.
In fact, it's so honest about its fakeness that it presents the visitor with a peculiar sort of authenticity and uniqueness. Nowhere else in South Africa can one experience the superficial pleasure of being inside a genuine cardboard cutout of a building: a huge, busy, happy non-place. It makes you want to go with the faux flow and to embrace the tatty fantasy. It whispers to you to sit by the fountain, where Sweets From Heaven wrappers bob in the recycled water, to be lulled by the distant chime of the slot machines, and to gaze up at the plastic pigeons in their fibreglass window frames.
But for all its alien splendour, you can't escape the fact that you are very much in South Africa.
Oddly, it's not the throngs of South Africans that tip you off. I was once at the top of the campanile in Venice, admiring the great onion domes of St Mark's, when I found myself surrounded by disconsolate South Africans. One of them whined, "Pappa, kom ons gaaaaan. Ek is mooooeeeg." It was as if I had just been injected with a large syringe full of South African-ness: a shocking dose of dead yellow grass, freeway billboards, office parks, relentless complaining, and a resolute refusal to shut up and look and listen. And yet I could push back, resist the injection, because I was unmistakably not in South Africa.
But at Montecasino, no matter how hard you try, you can't believe you're anywhere else; and that's because of the Screen.
It's gigantic; two or three storeys high, digital, pixelated. It looms over the complex's piazza, turning the bricked quadrangle into a glowing, flickering moonscape.
The night I was there, the screen was showing reruns of the day's sport, but nobody at any of the restaurants in the square was watching. It was simply too bright. Huddled in twos and threes, they were trying to manoeuvre their chairs to face away from the blinding rectangle. Their shadows were stark against the paving.
As I squirmed around, trying to find a position that would protect my retinas from the ravages of SuperSport, I wondered why the screen was on. Certainly, nobody was being entertained by it. Many were being inconvenienced by it. And yet nobody was protesting. If I had walked up to my fellow diners and shone a strong torch into their eyes, they would have called security and I would have been ejected. But because the awful, intrusive light was coming from a screen - and showing sport - everyone in the square had become passive victims, hunching against the light like so many bats, their agency completely surrendered.
Montecasino's screen is exceptionally ghastly, but it's not alone. Screens have intruded into almost every space in South Africa. They are not only in our lounges but also in our restaurants, our music shops, our banks, even our bookshops. Why?
One answer could be that we are now seeing the flourishing of a generation of South Africans who grew up in front of televisions. I avoid any restaurant that inflicts TV on its diners, but perhaps to many people a flickering screen showing yesterday's football highlights is as integral to the dining experience as a knife and fork.
Could it go even deeper than that, perhaps right back to childhood? Has TV become a night-light for adults in this country; a comforting blue glow kept on all night, everywhere, to protect us from frightening things like having to talk to the person we love, or sitting in silence, alone?
Perhaps. All I know is, if you're going to Montecasino tonight, take shades.