Monthly Archives: December 2020

Joburg emergency doctor reports on Covid-19 from the front line

Saving A Stranger’s Life – The diary of an emergency room doctor, by Anne Biccard (Jacana)

Someone suggested we have “very merry little Christmas” this year. Well, I don’t know how merry it was, but it was certainly little.

A book about Covid-19 and its effect on exhausted medical staff doesn’t sound very festive for the Christmas weekend, but as this second wave is dominating all our celebrations and conversations, it seems apt.

With more than 30 years’ emergency room experience, Anne Biccard works at a private hospital in Joburg. Her book is written in diary form, spanning the period from March 5, the day South Africa’s first case was confirmed, to September 1. It has of course missed the news of the second wave and the new variant, so considering the dispiriting and gruelling nature of the first wave on medical staff, one hates to think how they’re feeling now.

We’ve been given some insight into medical staff’s struggles in the letter by Dr Andrea Mendelsohn, senior medical officer at the Retreat community health centre, which is doing the rounds. She wrote: “Yesterday my community health centre reached capacity. All five oxygen tanks were in use, five men and women saved from the strangulating effects of Covid-19. Then a sixth patient arrived…”

She added: “A tidal wave is enveloping Cape Town.”

But back to Biccard and the first wave. She writes in early March: “It feels like nature is taking revenge on the human race.” Her hospital is scrambling to try to keep up. People are queueing in the hospital carpark as staff try to separate patients with respiratory symptoms from others.

All the staff are wearing masks, gowns and gloves, but then they touch the phones and doors and countertops with their gloves “so the virus is probably everywhere already. We don’t want to throw away protective equipment because we know that the supply is limited, and we don’t know how long this crisis will last.”

At this stage only people who have travelled abroad or have had contact with a corona-positive person are being tested. An angry man appears at the hospital, demanding a test because he has a sore throat and someone at work might have been positive. Biccard refuses him a test – if everyone in the country with a sore throat has a swab for the virus, the test kits would be finished, and the labs swamped. He says he will not leave the hospital until he gets a test. She tells him he’s in for a long wait.

Eventually he storms out. She senses he’s going to complain about her, but she’s too tired to care. And that’s only March.

The next patient will be tested: he was in a hotel in China that was quarantined for six weeks. In the middle of the night he found an unlocked fire door, took his passport and wallet and caught a taxi to the airport. Now he has a high fever and a raging sore throat.

Among all this are the usual patients: a woman having a heart attack, a teenager having a miscarriage, a mechanic with a shattered leg. A man comes in with a long complicated story. He’d locked himself out of his home, had to climb in through the pantry window, but his foot slipped and in the ensuing fall a bottle of tomato sauce went up his anus.

Biccard doesn’t blink: “Why were you naked?” she asks. The man needs abdominal surgery – but what will they tell his wife?

Biccard says she jokes with her colleagues about the Grim Reaper, whom she refers to as Grim. No one, she says can work in an emergency department without forming a relationship with him. And he doesn’t always win.

Another day, another emergency. The number of injuries caused by baking have increased exponentially during lockdown – cuts, burns and in one awful case, the little string at the top of a flour bag caught in an electric mixer and wrapped around the patient’s finger. Biccard finds the finger has rotated right around, so the fingernail is facing the palm.

By July Biccard wants to quit. Only two of the six physicians in the hospital are left standing – the others have Covid. But good things happen too. One day she discovers five non-pulmonary specialists have been added to the hospital’s Covid WhatsApp group. They turn up in the emergency department, stethoscopes around their necks and announce: “We’ve come to help,” and her eyes fill with tears. They don’t have to do this – but they have.

By September the weather is warming up and Biccard is feeling more positive. Spring is virtually here. She looks at the mild evening sky and says a silent word of thanks to the universe. She will remain at her post, because there are lives to be saved.

I wonder how she’s feeling now.

This is a fascinating, sobering and occasionally funny look at one of the doctors on our front line.



Great bookish Christmas gift ideas

Reviews: Vivien Horler (mostly!)

If you need last-minute Christmas present ideas, here are some from both recent book parcels I’ve happily received, and from my best books of the year.

I haven’t read all the latest ones, but they look brilliant (see down at the bottom). Most are non-fiction, my favourite  reads, but there are some triffic fiction books too.


Saving a Stranger’s Life, by Anne Biccard (Jacana) is a Joburg private hospital doctor’s account of being on the Covid frontline. The experience is tough and exhausting, but the book is frequently both funny and heartbreaking. Great read.

Death and the After Parties, by Joanne Hichens (Karavan Press) is Hichens’ account of surviving the loss of her mother, her husband, her father and her mother-in-law within about three years (the last three within about three months). It’s a h4ear-breaking time, and this is a book very different f5rom Hichens’ usual police thrillers.

Lost without You, by Vinnie Jones (Seven Dials) recounts Jones’ life as something of a bad boy of English football and now a film star (remember Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels?), and his love for his beloved wife Tanya who died after a six-year battle with cancer. This is his memoir of how he is learning to cope.

The Windsor Diaries 1940-45, by Alathea Fitzalan Howard (Hodder & Stoughton) During their teens British princesses Elizabeth and Margaret had a pleasant social life at Windsor Castle – where the British royal family was based during World War 2 to escape Hitler’s bombs – and aristocrat Alathea Howard was one of their friends. Her diaries describe lunches, dances and fun with the princesses, and her anxieties if she thought they had forgotten her.

The Terrorist Album, by Jacob Dlamini (Harvard University Press) is contemporary history about some of the people who featured in a real album of photographs, distributed by the Special Branch to police stations around South Africa, so that police would know who to look for. All you had to do to get into the album was to have left the country illegally. And once you were in the album you were fair game.

My Mother, My Madness, by Colleen Higgs (deep south) and A Childhood Made Up, by Brent Meersman (Tafelberg) are two memoirs by Cape Town writers on growing up with mothers suffering from various degrees of mental illness. Survivors of even the happiest of childhoods probably all carry some resentments, but the experiences of Higgs and Meersman are in a different terrain. These are thoughtful accounts of great suffering on the part of both mothers and their children.

Goodbye Christopher  Robin by Ann Thwaite (Pan) is a much better book than the film of the same name. It is based on Thwaite’s biography of AA Milne (AA Milne: His Life), and is the story of how Milne, a prominent playwright, poet and novelist in the early 20th century, came to write the four children’s books for which he is remembered. In 1952 he wrote: “little thinking/ all my years of pen-and-inking/ Would be almost lost among/ Those four trifles for the young.” More than a half century later, we have to drop the “almost”.

The Last Train to London by Meg Waite Clayton (Harper) is a novel based on the Kindertransport – a bid to save Jewish children from the holocaust by getting permission to send them to England. A Dutchwoman, Geertruida Wijsmuller-Meijer, helped around 10 000 children, three quarters of them Jewish, to flee Austria for England before September 3, 1939. Some grew up to be prominent artists, scientists and politicians, and one, Walter Kohn, won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1998.This is a compelling page-turner.

Homesick: Why I live in a shed, by Catrina Davies (Quercus) describes how Davies has not bought into the salary culture, instead surfing and writing and playing her cello. This means she tends to be, as she puts it, “skint”. She moves into a shed her father owns (the shed, not the land it is on) and describes her battle to stay there. You’re not allowed to live in sheds in England, but the price of accommodation in that country is prohibitive; as she writes: “If food prices had risen as fast as house prices in the years since I came of age, a chicken would cost (about R1 000).”

Seven Votes: How WW2 changed South Africa forever, by Richard Steyn (Jonathan Ball) goes back to the South African parliament’s very close vote to enter World War 2 on the side of Britain. With his fine feel for the current readership of South African history, Steyn has taken the vote drama beyond 1939 to the beginning of apartheid and the stirrings of militant black resistance. (Review: Archie Henderson)

Know My Name, by Chanel Miller (Viking/ Penguin) describes what happens when Miller, then 22, went to a party on the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto, California, drank too much and passed out. She was sexually assaulted by a student, and was launched on a three-year ordeal which upended her life, led to the recall of a judge and saw state law changed. As young people we’ve all made mistakes, but mostly we survive unscathed. Miller did not. Gripping.

Unholy Union – When rugby collided with the modern world, by Michael Aylwin with Mark Evans (Constable) Could Covid hasten the takeover of rugby by professionalism? The authors agree that such a development, if it leads to the extinction of community rugby, would deprive the game of its charms – indeed its soul – and turn rugby from a participation sport into a spectator game. (Review: Archie Henderson)

Beast, by Tendai Mtawarira with Andy Capostagno (Macmillan) tells the story of Tendai Mtawarira, better known as the Beast, a kid from Zimbabwe who came to SA to play for the Sharks. How he then became a world-class loosehead prop is the story told by Andy Capostagno, our best rugby commentator on TV and one of the game’s finest writers. (Review: Archie Henderson)

Dr Abdullah Abdurahman – South Africa’s first elected black politician, by Martin Plaut (Jacana). Medically trained in Scotland and married to a white Scottish woman, Abdurahman came home to District Six both to practise as a doctor and to represent his people in the Cape Town City Council and the Cape Provincial Council. His daughter Cissie Gool frequently disparaged him as an “Uncle Tom”, but he was an indefatigable fighter for black people – of all shades – in South Africa between 1904 and his death in 1940.



A Time for Mercy, by John Gresham (Hodder & Stoughton) is a delicious legal thriller that I wanted to gobble up. A teenager shoots his mother’s boyfriend dead, after he has attacked her up again and apparently murdered her. But she’s not dead, and the perpetrator is a popular local cop. Can the teenager beat a death sentence? (Apparently in the US 16-year-olds can be tried as adults.)

Love After Love, by Ingrid Persaud (faber & faber) tells the stories of Betty, her son Solo and Mr Chetan on the island of Trinidad. Betty loves Mr Chetan and she also loves Solo, but her love is thwarted at every turn. A wonderful novel about love and longing in a setting not well known to most English readers.

The Sound of the Hours, by Karen Campbell (Bloomsbury) is a brilliant novel based on the people in a handful of Italian mountain villages before, during and after a devastating World War 2 battle. This is one of those novels that will have you turning back to the first chapter after you’ve finished it to absorb the wicked twist in the tale. A beautiful book.

Loves & Miracles of Pistola, by Hilary Prendini Toffoli (Penguin) is the charming novel based on the true story of how around 100 young Italian men came to settle in South Africa shortly after World War 2, having been recruited by the old SA Railways & Harbours to work as waiters on the country’s mainline trains. After a few years many left to open their own Italian restaurants, introducing South Africans to the delights of Italian cuisine.

Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press) is based on the short life of Hamnet, Shakespeare’s only son, who died of some sort of plague. O’Farrell brilliantly recreates Shakespeare’s life and times, and the love between the playwright and his wild and beautiful wife, who stays behind in Stratford while Shakespeare makes his fame and fortune in London.

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate) is the final book in the Mantel trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, right-hand man to Henry VIII. It is a fabulous story, detailed and absorbing. Proximity to the king meant great honour and wealth could come your way, but it also exposed you to great danger as two of Henry’s six wives and Cromwell himself experienced. It failed to win the Booker Prize – as its prequels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies did – but it is a great novel. Read all three in order though.

The Inn at Helsvlakte, by Patricia Schonstein (Penguin) is a strange and wonderful tale, shot through with a sense of fable and mystery, and peopled with a motley bunch of circus men, soldiers, a military uniform designer, a transport ride, a woman farrier, her one-legged lover and a foppish man intent on revenge. It is set around the turn of the 20th century in sort-of Namaqualand, and has a plot that is complicated and intricate, swooping forward and looping back, revealing layers of action, love, beauty and peculiarity. Marvellous.

American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins (Tinder Press) ignited a firestorm of criticism because it was written by an American woman who was telling the fictional story of a Mexican refugee and her young son fleeing to the United States. Latinx people based in the US have excoriated the novel on the grounds of cultural expropriation, but it is a terrific thriller that will have you breathlessly turning each page.


Troubled Blood, by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling) This doorstopper – over 900 pages (are Rowling’s editors being too indulgent?) – has had some bad press because it features a cross-dressing serial killer. It is the fifth Cormoran Strike novel and sees Strike chasing a 40-year-old cold case in Cornwall. Rowling says the fundamental story is based on a real case.

Cop Under Cover, by Johann van Loggerenberg (Jonathan Ball). We’ve all heard of  Van Loggerenberg, the dogged SARS investigator who fell foul of the Guptas’ campaign to discredit and derail South Africa’s tax revenue collection service. I haven’t read this one yet, but it looks pretty interesting.

White Tears/ Brown Scars – How white feminism betrays women of colour,  by Ruby Hamad (Trapeze) and Sensuous Knowledge – A black feminist approach for everyone, by Minna Salami (ZED). The Hamad book is described by one reviewer as “An essential guide for those who want to be truly intersectional in their feminism”, while the Salami book is referred to as centering on “the black female body and experience at the heart of global feminist discourse”.

50 People who F***ed up South Africa – the lost decade, by Alexander Parker and Tim Richman, with cartoons by Zapiro. This is a sequel to the book of the same title without the caveat of “the lost decade”, and the shout on the cover says: “It took 350 years to come up with the list of shame for the original” book published in 2010, “but it’s taken only 10 more years to come up with the next 50”. They include Bathabile Dlamini, Jessie Duarte and Gwede Mantashe, John Hlophe,   Julius Malema, Helen Zille, Iqbal Surve, Gavin Watson and, of course, Jacob Zuma and the Guptas.

United We Are Unstoppable, ed by Akshat Rathi (John Murray). Here’s another list of people, but these are 60 inspiring young ones from around the globe who are saving the world. I’m afraid I haven’t heard of any of them (Greta Thunberg isn’t included). There is a South African, Ruby Sampson, 19, a passionate eco-activist who says: “Don’t let your fear stop you, let it unite and drive you.”

Do the Macorona, by Zapiro (Jacana) and Days of our Lockdown Lives by Stephen Francis & Rico. These welcome annuals may seem to be light relief, but usually provide a sharp and pointed look at our country and the way we live. Hooray for Zapiro and Francis & Rico for telling us like it is, but lightly.







Delicious thrillers to gobble up

Reviews: Vivien Horler

A Time for Mercy, by John Grisham (Hodder & Stoughton)

Present Tense by Natalie Conyer (Clan Destine Press)

The Paris Diversion, by Chris Pavone (faber & faber)

John Grisham’s latest thriller A Time for Mercy had me hooked from the first page.

Stuart Kofer is a deputy sheriff in a small Mississippi town. He’s a good cop and popular with his colleagues. But he has a dark side.

Stuart likes to go out on a Saturday night and get roaring drunk. Mean drunk. He likes to fight. And if there’s no one to fight in the bar, he’ll take out his rage on his girlfriend, Josie.

The book opens with Josie waiting for Stuart to come home. She’s put on a negligee because he’d once said he liked it, and it might turn his thoughts from violence to romance.

Upstairs her children, Drew, 16 and small for his age, and Kiera, 14, are also awake, fearing that Stuart will take out his rage on their mom.

Stuart kicks the kitchen door open and immediately takes issue with the negligee. Why is Josie wearing it? She looks like a slut. Has someone been visiting while he’s been out?

The children listen to the sound of the fight, and then all goes quiet. They are sure that if Josie is okay, she would have come upstairs to check on them.

Eventually Drew goes down to see what has happened. His mother is on the floor and doesn’t seem to be breathing. Stuart is on his bed, passed out.

Drew calls 911 and tells them their mother’s boyfriend has beaten her up again and this time she’s dead. Then he goes back to Stuart’s room, takes Stuart’s Glock 9mm, and shoots him in the head.

Emergency services and the police arrive and Stuart’s colleagues are appalled. Josie, it turns out, is not dead, but has a shattered jaw. Drew is arrested.

The next morning lawyer Jake Brigance gets a call from Judge Noose. Jake admires and respects the judge, and his feelings are reciprocated. Noose wants him to represent Drew. Jake is reluctant to take on the case knowing that it will divide the town. But he cannot refuse the judge.

Everyone, from the mayor and sheriff to Stuart’s extended family, will be hoping Drew is tried and gets the death penalty. Despite his age, he can expect to be tried as an adult.

Despite Jake’s reluctance, he is a professional and while he represents Drew – Noose has promised to try to find a lawyer from out of town to take on the case after the preliminaries – Jake is determined to do his best.

And so they prepare for trial. I can’t say much more without risking a spoiler, but it’s a terrific read, and I had to stop myself gobbling it up.


Natalie Conyer was born and grew up in Cape Town but has spent much of her life in Sydney. Last year, the year she turned 70, she wrote her first novel, Present Tense, a police thriller set in Cape Town.

It has been well received in Australia and won the 2020 Ned Kelly Award for best debut crime fiction.

My first reaction was an “oh no!” when I saw it was described as “a Schalk Lourens mystery”. Didn’t Conyer know who Schalk Lourens was? Well, course she did, and the eponymous detective is forever wearily telling people that yes, he knows he’s named after a famous character in SA fiction.

Lourens, an ageing white cop in an increasingly black force, is sent to a necklacing: his former boss, Piet Pieterse, has been murdered on his Franschhoek farm. Lourens notes that what is left of Pieterse’s body stinks “of rubber and braai”.

Lourens has investigated necklacing murders before, in the old days, but this is his first white one. Was the fact that Pieterse was formerly with BOSS the reason he was killed in this gruesome way?

It emerges that on the night of his murder Pieterse was alone on the farm and had clearly been expecting someone. His wife was away and he had given his workers the night off. The CCTV camera was off and his dogs had been shot.

Straight into the investigation Lourens finds himself caught in some sort of power struggle between his immediate boss, the small but steely Colonel Sisi Zangwa, and Cape police commissioner Lieutenant General Nkosi. Nkosi wants Lourens to report directly to him.

Apart from having to deal with that, Lourens is trying to cope with a wife suffering from depression, some of which may be caused by the fact that Lourens is hardly ever home.

Meanwhile an election is looming, with most people being impressed by the favourite for president. But Lourens begins to wonder if he’s as wonderful as everyone thinks.

There’s a bit of love interest – Pieterse turns out to have a beautiful and surprisingly young widow – which leads Lourens into a situation for which he’ll never forgive himself.

A good read.


The Paris Diversion is a spy thriller that takes place in Paris over the course of a single day. Kate Moore is an ex CIA operative, who is apparently living a quiet expat life. But nothing is as it seems.

A young Muslim man, wearing a bomber’s vest, is at the Louvre. A businessman is preparing a big company announcement. A sniper has the bomber in his sights. Central Paris is locked down. And Kate’s day has gone entirely pear-shaped.

This a sort of sequel to Chris Pavone’s debut novel, The Expats, and I kept feeling I would have had a better understanding of what is going on in Paris Diversionif I’d read the first book.

The Wall Street Journal described it as “deliciously twisty”, which is true, so much so that I lost the plot. Towards the end I decided not to try too hard to follow everything that was happening, and just enjoy the taut and exciting writing.

I would appear to be alone in this view – there are two pages of praise for Chris Pavone at the start of Paris Diversion by the likes of Stephen King, Jeffery Deaver, Ken Follett and Harlan Coben.

So don’t take it from me.





What happens when you flush the loo – and other terrifying realities of our modern world

Review: Vivien Horler

Big Pharma, Dirty Lies, Busy Bees and Eco Activists – Environmental stories from South Africa, by David Bristow (Jacana)

David Bristow starts this book referring to a photo doing the rounds on social media a few years ago. A young protester is holding a poster reading: “More trees, less assholes.”

Well, that’s one approach to saving our planet and we could do worse. As we know, there are plenty of assholes out there, although thankfully the candy floss-headed Asshole in Chief is on his way out.

How worried should we be about our planet? Very, says Bristow, author, journalist and environmental fundi.

Read his book and you’ll see why. He spent much of this year gathering and collating information from a variety of sources to write a South African-focused book on the predicament we find ourselves in. Continue reading