A poignant tale of a boy who wanted to fly

Review: Archie Henderson

Gunship over Angola, by Steve Joubert (Delta Books)

gunshipThis story is not as gung-ho as the title implies. It is a charming, and at times even poignant, memoir of a boy who wanted to fly.

Steve Joubert grew up on the outskirts of Pretoria in Wonderboom. Watching the SA Air Force pilots, in a variety of aircraft, pass overhead every day, he had the classic little boy’s dream of becoming one of those men in their flying machines.

His dream came true early. Progress from the Air Force Gymnasium to the pupil pilot’s course was swift despite some amusing setbacks at the start. He literally stumbled in his interview before a pilot’s selection board headed by none other than the legendary Korean War fighter pilot General Bob Rogers. At the time, Joubert believed his dream to be doomed before it even took off. Continue reading

Quest to find a house and the memories of a fading mother

Review: Vivien Horler

The Blackridge House – a memoir, by Julia Martin (Jonathan Ball)

blackridge houseFrom a family home to a retirement flat to a single room to a single bed – this is the trajectory of so many people as they age. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

It was the experience of Elizabeth Madeline Martin, who was born in what was then Natal in 1918 and who died in Cape Town in 2012.

Elizabeth Martin was the mother of Julia Martin, the author of this fine, touching, and beautifully written memoir.

As dementia claimed Elizabeth, her memories drained away. She didn’t remember her husband, she often didn’t remember Julia, frequently confusing her with one of her own long-dead sisters. She told Julia: “My memory is full of blotches, like ink left about and knocked over.”

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A breezy celebration of 25 years of SA sporting joy

Reviewer: Archie Henderson

 Vuvuzela Dawn – 25 sports stories that shaped a new nation, by Luke Alfred and Ian Hawkey (Pan Macmillan)

vuvuzela dawnBeing a sportswriter is better than having a real job. Getting paid to go to Newlands, or Ellis Park, or King’s Park, or Loftus, or the Wanderers – or wherever it is that games are played – is one of life’s great pleasures. It is a privilege that comes to only a few.

On and off during the past 50 years or so it was my privilege. OK, we used to moan and complain as much as our colleagues who were not that privileged, but we always knew that we were, to risk a hoary old sports metaphor, on a good wicket.

Those of us who worked in the sports department (derisively referred to the toy department by the envious) had a lot of fun too. Opinions in sports stories were positively encouraged whereas our colleagues in the newsroom had to avoid them like the plague. Cliches, of course, came thick and fast. Continue reading

School supper frikkadels and an image I cannot delete

Review: Vivien Horler

The Messiah’s Dream Machine, by Jennifer Friedman (Tafelberg)

messiah's dream machine
Jennifer Friedman has a way with words. So much so that I may never look at a frikkadel in the same way again.

The Messiah’s Dream Machine is a sequel to her well received Queen of the Free State, about a little Jewish girl growing up in Philippolis, the sleepy Afrikaans town where Laurens van der Post was born.

As far as one can gather there aren’t many Jewish farmers in the Free State, but her family had farms in the Philippolis area, now run by her cousins, and it is clear these spaces are deep in her heart.

This has not however prevented her from emigrating to Australia, where she has acquired her pilot’s licence, bought a Grumman Tiger aircraft and now “flies to the small outback towns and stations around Australia, often just for a lunch date and where the sun is shining”.

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A triumph of hope and love over despair – and some tough cliffs

Review: Vivien Horler

The Salt Path, by Raynor Winn (Penguin)

salt pathRaynor and Moth Winn were in their 50s when they decided to walk. Their lives were falling apart and they didn’t know what to do.

So they started to walk, along south-west England’s famed South West Coast, setting out from Minehead in Somerset, and carrying on, across North Devon, round the Cornish Peninsula and Land’s End, and on, eventually, to Poole in Dorset, covering just over 1000km.

And by the time they had completed their trek they had a plan.

Raynor was in her teens when she met Moth, and loved him from the off. They married, had two children, and bought a run-down farm in Wales which they rebuilt and from which they ran holiday lets. Continue reading

Local author challenges JM Coetzee over ‘Disgrace’

Article: Vivien Horler

Lacuna, by Fiona Snyckers (Picador Africa)

lacunaWhat right do you have to your name and history? Can you object if someone makes you the subject of their fiction?

Do you have less right to your own persona if you are world famous?

These questions were prompted by beginning to read Lacuna, a new novel by the successful South African author Fiona Snyckers.

A leading character in the novel is one John Coetzee, winner of the Booker Prize for his novel Disgrace, and a former professor at the “University of Constantia”.

He has since gone to live in Adelaide in Australia, a feted man of letters. And going after him is Lucy Lurie, a former junior colleague at the university, who believes her gang rape by a number of black men on her father’s farm in the Boland inspired Coetzee’s prize-winning novel. Continue reading

Beating a mountain of rock and ice, atoms and stars

Review: Vivien Horler

One Man’s Climb – a journey of trauma, tragedy and triumph on K2, by Adrian Hayes (Pen & Sword)

K2 is not the highest mountain in the world, but unlike Everest, very few people have climbed it.

It is more remote than Everest, which is why it never acquired a local name – the title K2 comes from the Great Trigonometrical Survey of British India, begun in 1802 and finished in 1871.

Italian climber Fosco Maraini referred to K2 as: “Just the bare bones of a name, all rock and ice and storm and abyss. It makes no sense to sound human. It is atoms and stars. It has all the nakedness of the world before the first man – or the cindered planet after the last.” Continue reading

Chilling tale of murder in Nordic noir thriller

Review: Vivien Horler

The Reckoning, by Yrsa Sigurdardottir (Hodder)

yrsa Cold, snowy and bleak, the Reykjavik Yrsa Sigurdardottir writes about does not warm the cockles of a reader’s heart.

Yet Iceland is becoming a major tourism draw; according to Wikipedia the industry now contributes upward of 10% of the country’s GNP, and in 2017 the number of foreign visitors exceeded 2 million for the first time. I was one of them, and I was both fascinated and charmed.

The country, which virtually touches the Arctic Circle, could not be more different from South Africa, with its jagged volcanic mountains, its icebergs and its terrifying prices. Cars have heaters but no air-con, the default position of taps is hot and you have to let them run cold, and streets in the capital have underfloor heating – thanks to the wealth of free hot water produced by the country’s natural geysers (geysir is an Icelandic word). Continue reading

Old newspaperman looks back

Review: Vivien Horler

Vintage Love and Other Essays, by Jolyon Nuttall (Jacana)

vintage loveI spent my entire career as a journalist working for the old Argus Company, publishers of newspapers including the Cape Argus in Cape Town, The Star in Johannesburg and the Daily News in Durban.

One of the top guys in management, whom I didn’t know but with whose name I was familiar, was Jolyon Nuttall, who started at the Daily News as a reporter and went on to become the manager of the Star and a director of the company.

On newspapers there is a gulf between editorial, the people who produce what you read, and management, the people who control the money. Relations are not always cordial.

Or as Nuttall puts it in one of the essays in this small, delightful and beautifully produced book: “Management was the antithesis of everything Editorial stood for. It was there to curb editorial initiatives, to pay the staff as little as possible, to control – and cut – costs at every turn and place constant impediments in their way. Above all, Management failed to recognise that the very newspaper existed only because of Editorial and the content it produced.”

Nevertheless he made a successful career in management and when he retired he was delighted to be referred to as “an editor’s manager”.

Nuttall says that in early 2016 he spent two months within a bus ride of the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he became a regular. He found a section titled “Essays and Non-Fiction Literature”, which had a seat in an alcove where he spent hours, and essentially discovered what was to him a new literary form: the essay.

“It was neither memoir nor autobiography… It tended to focus on specific episodes, specific people, specific periods in which the essayist had been involved. It was time bound. In many of the essays there was a narrative…”

The experience in the Harvard Book Store led directly to this collection of essays, a form which, he says, has brought “astonishing focus” to his writing. There is no sequential connection between the essays other than the fact they are episodes and memories in the life of one man.

His subjects cover the death of his beloved wife Jean after more than 40 years of marriage, the pleasures of grandchildren, the freedom he and his twin brother experienced as young boys growing up in Newcastle in the old Natal, first love, the Alan Paton he knew (Nuttall’s father Neville and Paton were lifelong friends), spending a summer in New York with Drum writer Lewis Nkosi, managing stress (keeping chickens turned out to an inspired solution), trout fishing and newspaper publishing in the 1980s in South Africa.

His career in newspapers took place against a background of what he calls a darkening political landscape. The government of the day hated the press, particularly the “Engelse pers”, and introduced a series of increasingly draconian laws to keep its dirty secrets under wraps.

Nuttall recalls how a team of media lawyers was on hand to guide editorial through what felt like “walking blindfold through a minefield”.

Or as he puts it: “Our instruction to the lawyers in giving us this advice was to allow us to walk as close to the edge of the precipice as possible without falling off.”

It has become fashionable to decry companies like the old Argus company for continuing to operate in a tightening political landscape which demanded certain compromises, but in many cases editors and their journalists – reporters and photographers – functioned in a fraught environment with true courage.

However, as a former president of the Newspaper Press Union, Nuttall was often confronted by the apartheid machine, and he says he has subsequently questioned whether the actions and initiatives they took “in good faith stand up to scrutiny”.

A technique used by the government was to provide NPU members with confidential background briefings in a bid to make clear the challenges the government was facing, putting the more liberal side of the press into a very awkward position.

He writes: “In my mouth the distaste remains… The only ultimate satisfaction to be drawn from the saga was the collapse of the regime while the press survived to tell the story of the birth of a new South Africa.”

Because of my own history with the Argus company I found these reflections particularly interesting, especially when trying to put names to people he has tactfully left nameless (including my father-in-law).

But the collection contains so much more than newspapers. On the whole the essays make for a gentle, charming read and a reminder of a different time.

 

 

Visual history of post-colonial Africa, honest and in your face

Review: Shirley de Kock Gueller

Museum of the Revolution by Guy Tillim (MACK and Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris)

museum of revolutionPublished to coincide with his exhibition in Paris  at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Guy Tillim’s book, Museum of the Revolution, is his record of Africa post-colonialism.  It’s a “new reality” of “rebuilding and enterprise”, one that reflects the changes that have taken place. Tillim, the recipient of the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson 2017 Award,  was in Paris for the opening of the exhibition, which runs until June 1.

The winner of several other awards  such as the Daimler-Chrysler and the Robert Gardner Award from the Peabody Museum at Harvard, Guy Tillim is considered to be the leading photographer of Africa as it is today. The book is a result of five years to 2018 spent walking the streets of Africa, from Johannesburg to Dakar and Dar, Luanda to Maputo.

As a photojournalist in the 1980s and1990s in Africa, he captured political events, gruesome and very real, for local and international media such as Reuters and Agence France Presse. His documentation of, for instance, teenage soldiers in Rwanda, civil war in Congo, the mayhem that was Angola, resulted in exhibitions and in publications detailing Africa perhaps at its worst. Continue reading