Michael Jamison is a forty-five-year-old retired businessman who lives in a villa in Brakpan, South Africa, with two male tigers. He represents the very worst of YouTube, in that week after week he uploads several longwinded videos of himself drifting around his home and endlessly filming his possessions. He also represents the very best of YouTube, in that no other medium could have ever located such a beautifully eccentric character and fastened so keenly on to his charisma. For the great scandal of Michael Jamison is that he is actually quite likeable. And the problem for the viewer soon becomes whether watching these videos is merely to partake in an innocent, joyous worshipping of tigers or whether there is something more dubious afoot.
Let us start out at the periphery, with the cliché, and then pick our way complicatedly into the reality. The most predictable criticisms that Jamison can expect to receive are voiced here, by the blogger The Joyless Vegan:
The best part is when they talk about how [their tiger] Enzo no longer fits into their yellow Lamborghini. Jesus. These people seem really full of self-importance and are obviously really, really wealthy. I would have been more impressed if these lunatics had donated their money generously to a big cat rescue/sanctuary if they care so much about tigers. Obviously, they don’t care about tigers. Or anything but themselves.
This is a comment from somebody who is looking at Jamison through a cliché rather than through her own eyes. From her description alone, a picture of Jamison might have already reached you. A sunburnt white man with a neck as thick as a mince round and that braying, uncomprehending, moneyed accent. You can probably see him swaggering across a bleak layout of patios in a polo shirt and golfing shorts, bawling abuse at a tiger on a chain and with his Lamborghinis gleaming like silly, overgrown toys on the forecourt. A man who cannot walk two steps without vulgarly flaunting all of his wealth and needing the constant reassurance of it. Well, let me stop you right there. With Jamison, this cliché of the South African white male never really gets going.
Firstly, there is – believe it or not! – some genuine music to be found inside his accent. Jamison’s voice is always pealing like a little shop bell with merriment. He is prone to philosophise and to reflect magnificently upon the universe, as he wanders around his villa, but he is also always thinking at the very front of his thoughts. Everywhere there are problems to be studied and observations to be made. He has bought his tigers as the most heartfelt way of falling in love with them and, now that he owns them, his life has become consumed with the responsibility of caring for them.
He fronts an outfit called Jamison Retail that had previously sold anything that it could get its hands on, from mobile phones to hair extensions and from home CCTV systems to replica suits of armour. In his videos, he speaks of Jamison Retail rather as one would do of a desultory ex-girlfriend. He now has the tigers and this is what his soul has been searching for all along. He freely admits that he had known nothing about tigers when he had started and that he is still learning. He must recognise that it is no longer possible for him to go on holiday or to fall sick or even to die. What a thing to leave to some remote relative in a will!
Jamison is not really retired or unemployed, as he sometimes tries to claim. Almost certainly at the back of his undeniable passion for the tigers, they are functioning for him as an income. With 845K subscribers, he must make almost three hundred dollars per video (or 5,500+ rand). Given that there are over 1,200 videos on his channel, his income surely rolls well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. A single tiger cub can apparently cost only two thousand dollars, which is greatly less than the individual earnings from some of Jamison’s more popular uploads.
In addition, he is keeping his tigers in a modified suburban garden, with minimal outlays for purchasing the necessary land. In one video, he speaks of how he had bought a “little piece” of the park that adjoins his property to house the tigers in. At a reported “749 square metres,” their enclosure is alarmingly boxy. People who commit to rearing tigers in captivity are advised that they will need at least five acres of land, but Jamison’s beasts Enzo and Diego barely inhabit a quarter of an acre. Any amateur researcher can track down Jamison’s home on Google Maps, and here the dwarf scale of his domain becomes even more stunningly apparent. The tigers are living on a regular lawn in regular suburbs, in a space that would be normally taken up by a dog kennel.
I am not offended by this. I have childhood memories of zoos in which the tigers were kept in vast enclosures and where they had exhibited the stereotypically distressed behaviours, the senile traipsing back and forth. Maybe being up close to humans in smaller cages can somehow offset the immense stress of captivity for a tiger. When I had visited the Belvedere Zoo in Tunis a few years ago, for example, the animals, which had included big cats, were held in excruciatingly dinky enclosures. Nonetheless, they had appeared much sprightlier than the European norm, perhaps because the zoo’s visitors were ceaselessly taunting them, throwing food at them, and trying to touch them through the bars of their cages. This system was crowned with its nadir a year after I had visited when a group of out-of-control schoolchildren had stoned a crocodile to death.
Jamison’s tigers are nearer to the Tunisian end of the spectrum. Down at the bottom of the garden, they are always alert and frolicsome. To my inexpert eye, they look happy. But they can still turn, just like the wind, and Jamison’s neighbours must be singularly laid-back. In the UK, their houses would be rendered instantly worthless by being in such close proximity to a DIY zoo. These tigers can probably barge their way through the puny wire fence that hems them in, at any time of their desiring.
Part of the thrill of watching Jamison’s channel is, of course, of submerging ourselves in the archaic libertarianism of white South Africa. Yet this libertarianism, the excitement of being allowed to own a tiger without the endless monotonous fuss that this would incur in the UK, becomes irrelevant in light of the culture’s paranoia. Home invasion is an industry in South Africa. Last year, an average of 605 homes per day were burgled across the country, with many of the culprits carrying firearms. Jamison at one stage refers to an armed attack upon his house, in which he was beaten and threatened with being run over. He muses fairmindedly upon this, not taking it personally, with a calmness that many Europeans will find amazing. This also indicates that his tigers are a home comfort rather than being a serious security feature. A no-nonsense raid could end easily with his animals being killed or injured.
Jamison’s channel initially feels like one long wait for that time when something does finally go wrong. After a while, though, we have joined him in his soothing delusion of security. I can remember when I had first watched these videos being very shocked by the squash in the enclosure and the apparent ricketiness of the fences. A mist has since floated over this sane appreciation of the danger and I have wistfully given up trying to reconnect with it anymore. Jamison is relaxed and playful with his tigers and it is not possible for you to maintain your suspicions of them over video after video. It helps that he is careful to avoid putting himself in immediate danger. The risk is instead of the tigers erupting out of their enclosure when he is not expecting it.
Even here, the land lies in his favour. His house is overrun with swarms of dogs and cats and monkeys (he lives with “more or less 50” pets). An escaping tiger would be greeted with immense thickets of yapping and it would be naturally distracted by this all-you-can-eat buffet of tiny animals before it had made its way up to Jamison’s bedroom.
The coronavirus quarantine must be a worrying time for Jamison. What happens if so many carnivorous creatures share a living space and there is a disruption to the food supply? Fortunately, they all appear to be managing comfortably so far.
Some viewers might become irritated by these videos during the COVID-19 crisis. Jamison’s life has not been disrupted in any appreciable respect by the lockdown, since almost the whole of his known world has been set up handily around him in his house and garden. Like people under lockdown, he only ever leaves to buy more food. The signature theme of these videos is very much the melancholy of suburbia. I again have childhood memories of visiting friends in their suburban homes and of that ache of being detained inside a cool, clean house, touring it and inspecting the accumulated possessions. For this reason, as an adult I gravitated to pubs and nightclubs and parties, as sites of liberty and relief. Jamison’s home without the animals would be unbearable – the melancholy could be measured by the ton.
With his animals he has got a permanent rowdy party going like a bonfire. As a result of some incredible ambition, and a considerable degree of organisation, he has somehow magicked a potentially squalid and dangerous situation into a happy home. With his organisation, if he had been there when the Ark was constructed then they could have probably got by with a much smaller boat. If he had been there in the Garden of Eden then the show might have run without its famous upset. At a time in which masculinity is often viewed as being innately foolhardy or inadequate, Jamison’s example proposes that it might yet be a virtue. His story is one of an alpha male who is calmly and wisely in control – a man who, perhaps like the creator of the tyger, smiles his work to see.