Monthly Archives: Mar 2019

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

A spread of top foreign-language reads (handily in English)

 

man booker internationalThirteen novels have been longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize of 2019.

This prize celebrates the finest works of fiction translated into English from around the world, and is not to be confused with the Man Booker Prize which is awarded for fiction originally published in English.

The international prize is awarded every year for a single book, which is published in Britain and Ireland after translation. Short-story collections as well as novels are eligible. Continue reading

Author uncovers an extraordinary tale of her slave ancestors and their forgotten village

Review: Vivien Horler

Land of My Ancestors, by Botlhale Tema (Penguin Books)

land of ancestors

The cover picture features Botlhale Tema’s grandparents Stephanus and Elisa Moloto, with their daughters Bernice, Christina and Madira and their nephew William Moloto in the 1920s.

If you should visit the Pilanesberg National Park near Sun City,  you might come across an old monument and a newer memorial stone that hints at an almost forgotten history.

They are in the shade of an ancient wild olive tree under whose branches a small Dutch Reformed congregation used to hold their services until they built a little church. Today the church and associated cottages are gone, and the surrounding land is as empty as it was when the first missionary arrived on what had been the farm Welgeval.

In Land of My Ancestors Dr Botlhale Tema tells the extraordinary story of Welgeval, the origins of the people who lived and farmed there for more than a century, and how they lost the village in 1980 when the government of Bophuthatswana incorporated the land into the Pilanesberg National Park.

Tema says she grew up grew up happy. As a child every weekend she and her family would travel back to Welgeval, where she knew everyone and was related to nine out of 10 people she encountered. Continue reading

Will Markus Jooste ever serve time? Author doubts it

Review: Archie Henderson

Steinheist, by Rob Rose (Tafelberg)

steinheistRob Rose can read a googly as well as he can a balance sheet, especially the leg-spinner’s wrong ’un out of the back of the bowler’s hand, or the crooked accountant’s one trying to disguise a fraud.

It’s his skill in deciphering company figures rather than spinning balls on the cricket pitch (where he captains and opens the batting for his team) that Rose brings to bear in this remarkably entertaining book. If you thought balance sheets and accounting practices were boring, Steinheist will change your opinion.

Rose brings another, vital, element to his story of Markus Jooste and the biggest case of white-collar chicanery in South African history: his dogged reporting skills. Hell, he even interviewed the Hermanus whale crier to get a sense of Skelm Markus. Continue reading