Author Archives: Vivien Horler

Radical revisionist history of part of the Anglo-Boer War

Reviewer: Archie Henderson
The Natal Campaign: A Sacrifice Betrayed by Hugh Rethman (Amberley)

natal campaignJust when you thought you knew everything about the Boer War, along comes Hugh
Rethman. His book is a radical revisionist history of that war fought at the turn of the
last century and which so dramatically shaped South Africa.
None of the usual suspects come of Rethman’s book well. Paul Kruger,
puritanical Old Testament president of the ZAR (the Transvaal) and General
Redvers Buller, the indecisive commander of the British forces, we expect, but Jan
Smuts? And even Louis Botha? The latter pair, heroes of the Union of South Africa,
are treated dismissively by Rethman. And Denys Reitz’s father, FW Reitz, who has Continue reading

Unsung SA photographer’s (almost) forgotten world

Review: Shirley de Kock Gueller

Constance: One Road to Take – The Life and Photography of Constance Stuart Larabee (1914-2000), by Peter Elliott (Cantaloup Press)

 

Title: Ndebele Design. Contained in Constance Stuart Larrabee photographs, 1935-1988Ndebele DesignNear Pretoria 1946. EEPA 1998-060388, 1998-006, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, Constance Stuart Larrabee Collection, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution 

Constance Stuart Larabee, raised in South Africa from soon after her birth in Cornwall, is perhaps one of South Africa’s least known photographers,  and sadly so. This may well be because she left little of her oeuvre here. And that’s a pity, for the photographs that Elliott has chosen to illustrate this valuable addition to South African art and its artists show what an outstanding and evocative

portraitist she was.  

After studying in England and Germany,  Larabee returned to South Africa, where she had already shown that she was serious about photography when she was 16, taking the honours at the Pretoria Agricultural Show in 1930. With an interlude when she left to cover World War II in parts of Europe as South Africa’s only female war correspondent, she lived in South Africa from 1936 to 1949.

Title: Ndebele Child, Near Pretoria 1947 EEPA 1998-060411, EEPA 1998-006, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The book chronicles three distinct periods of her life – all encompassing Southern Africa, the war in France and Italy, and the United States (the beauty of Chesapeake Bay in particular). It was in America that  she married and lived for the greater part of her life, becoming eventually more a custodian of her prints and negatives and arranging exhibitions (two in South Africa in 1979 and 1983) than continuing her photography.  

It is, of course, the  section on Southern Africa that is the most compelling. It’s as diverse a portrait of the region  as one could wish for, in pre and early apartheid times – the Ndebele, the Lovedu, Sotho, the British Royal visit to Basutoland, the Xhosas, the San, the people of the Bo-Kaap, Afrikaners and the English speakers, poor whites, Alan Paton and his milieu, the rural and urban, Johannesburg’s street and townships, the miners and much more. It illustrates the divisions that existed in the country, and on which she was, perhaps normal for the time, silent on the disparity which even then was obvious. A white woman photographing, though not exclusively, the black community, surely must have caused some interest and required some comment.

Elliott has managed to unearth vast amounts of information about her, a woman who guarded her privacy and revealed little even in letters to her husband. This book, he notes, is an attempt “to reveal her approach to photography and, and to unravel some of the stories she developed in order to keep her questioners at bay”. He writes of her confidence that she had “an eye” which enabled her to get just what she was after in just a handful of shots of one subject; he  writes how Noel Coward said she never posed her subjects but allowed them to pose themselves, resulting in just the right shot. This is a book of both historical and social value, comprehensive and well researched with detailed notes and sources, and it makes one regret deeply that Larabee, at her death and with an estate of nearly $2 million (in 2000), left her Southern African work to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art and her American work to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, also in Washington, and a handful of other museums and institutions.   

There are, Elliott says, some prints in  collections in South Africa – at the US Consulate General  in Johannesburg and the Brenthurst Collection (a couple of dozen prints each),  while the Pretoria Art Museum and the SA National Gallery in Cape Town have a few. Other prints that have come to light more recently are at the Johannesburg Art Gallery and the Bensusan  Photographic collection. Although the online links that Elliott provides to the collections in the US are for researchers, hopefully his book will stimulate increasing interest in the work of this amazing photographer.

Elliott can be contacted at peter@peterelliottbooks.com

 

 

Is this absorbing crime thriller worthy of the Man Booker longlist?

Review: Vivien Horler

Snap, by Belinda Bauer (Penguin)

snap bauerIn the British summer of 1988 Marie Wilks, 22, was driving on the M50 motorway when her car broke down.

In a pre-cellphone world, the pregnant Wilks told her 11-year-old sister to wait in the car and watch over her infant son while she headed on foot to the nearest emergency phone. She was gone for what seemed a long time, and eventually the sister picked up the baby and walked along the hard shoulder to look for her.

Police records showed Wilks made the emergency call, but broke off in mid-conversation. The receiver was later found dangling.

A day or two afterwards her body was found below the motorway embankment with stab wounds to the neck. A nightclub bouncer, Eddie Browning, was jailed for life, but acquitted on appeal in April 1974. The case has never been solved. Continue reading

Why Joburg’s roads kink and other interesting stories of our history

Review: Adelle Horler

The Game Ranger, the Knife, the Lion and the Sheep: 20 Tales about Curious Characters from Southern Africa, by David Bristow (Jacana)

game ranger bristowHave you ever wondered why all the roads running north to south in Johannesburg’s CBD have a kink in them? Did you know that former prime minister JB Hertzog was named after Dr James Barry, a woman who spent her life posing as a man?

Those are just some of the intriguing nuggets in this brilliant collection of curious stories from David Bristow – which will make an excellent Christmas gift for that hard-to-buy-for person in your life, whether they’re local or a visitor.

This eclectic selection meanders from early European history in Southern Africa to the present day, with some fascinating detours into the ancient geology of the Karoo Basin and the back story to australopithecus africanus, or Taung Child.

Some stories are more well known, such as the title tale of Harry Wolhuter who dispatched a lion as it was carrying him off for dinner – but it’s beautifully and dramatically retold. Or Krotoa, the Khoi woman who worked for Jan van Riebeeck and whose life bravely bridged two cultures, ultimately ending on the fringes of both. Continue reading

‘That should shut you up!’ – How Barack Obama proposed to Michelle

Review: Vivien Horler

Becoming, by Michelle Obama (Viking/ Penguin)

becoming michellleThere’s a joke that has Barack Obama telling his wife: “I may not be the perfect husband, but you did get to be the wife of the president of the United States.”

“Oh,” replies Michelle, “that was always a given.”

But that’s not how Michelle Obama comes across in this highly readable and absorbing autobiography. She is a self-confessed control freak, often irritable with her husband, and likes everything planned, sorted and organised. But she also tries to live out the motto: “When they go low, we go high”, and it shows.

As an ambitious high school pupil in Chicago’s working class South Side, Michelle told the school counsellor she wanted to go to Princeton, one of the US’s top universities. The counsellor replied: “I’m not sure that you’re Princeton material.” Continue reading

Explorer who put South Africa and its birds on the King’s Map

Review: Vivien Horler

The First Safari: Searching for Francois Levaillant, by Ian Glenn (Jacana)

Francois Levaillant – who he, you ask. Well, one misguided South African journalist wrote that he was a typical stupid 18th century Frenchman who believed all sorts of mad things about Africa, including that there were birds who fucked goats.

Retired UCT academic Ian Glenn wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. The journalist had come across an old English translation of one of Levaillant’s books in which the “s” was printed to look like an “f”.

Glenn writes: “Goatsucker, you idiot, I thought. Caprimulgus. Don’t you know that nightjars used to be thought of as goat suckers because they hung around animal pens to catch the insects there?” Continue reading

Author Justin Cartwright dies

Justin Cartwright

Justin Cartwright

Justin Cartwright, the Cape Town-born British writer, has died aged 73.

Cartwright was a stalwart of the Franschhoek Literary Festival.

He wrote 13 novels, including In Every Face I Meet, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and Leading the Cheers, which won the 1998 Whitbread Book Award for best novel. Masai Dreaming (1993) won an M-Net Literary Award.

His last novel, published in 2015, was Up Against the Night, and deals with a British family who visit Cape Town where they are victims of violent crime.

My favourite of his novels was The Promise of Happiness published in 2005 and set in Cornwall, as a family prepares for a wedding. This was his bestselling novel which saw more than 120 000 copies sold, according to The Bookseller.

It won both South Africa’s Sunday Times Fiction Prize and the 2005 Hawthornden Prize.

Long-time friend Gordon Walker, whom he met at Oxford, told The Bookseller: “The main themes of his books were about South Africa; some were set in Cornwall where we went on holiday. He was very good at drawing on characters, some of whom I knew in real life, some of whom were composite…I always felt he was fulfilled and he would write a book every two years.”

Cartwright, who had been awarded the MBE, worked in advertising after university and also directed documentaries, films and TV ads. – Vivien Horler

Peter Storey’s brand of muscular Christianity helped change South Africa

Review: VIVIEN HORLER

I Beg to Differ: ministry amid the teargas, by Peter Storey (Tafelberg)

i beg to differWhen did the ANC begin its slide from the moral high ground of the struggle?

Peter Storey, former bishop of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa and leader of the SA Council of Churches, believes it was in the late 1980s and early 1990s when it failed to hold Winnie Madikizela Mandela to account for the excesses of the Mandela United Football Club and the death of Stompie Seipei.

Storey was the boss of a central figure in that series of events, the Rev Paul Verryn, a Methodist minister based in Soweto. Storey also took part of the rescue of three boys who had been taken hostage at Madikizela Mandela’s home and seriously assaulted. Seipei, the fourth boy and just 14 years old, died.

Storey refers to having known Madikizela Mandela “at her fearless best, but mixed in with that was anger because of my painful recollection of events when she was at her worst”. The episode was, says Storey, one of the most painful chapters of his life.

In Storey there seems to be little of the kindly suburban minister patting Sunday School School pupils on the head. No, his is a brand of muscular Christianity, fierce, uncompromising and dogged. His legacy includes being chaplain to both Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe on Robben Island, the founder of Lifeline SA and of Gun Free SA.

He was also a committed activist in the struggle, a founder member of the half-forgotten National Peace Accord that did so much to ensure the 1994 elections went ahead, and a friend and associate of Desmond Tutu.

This autobiography of one man is also a biography of South Africa from the time of the visit of the British royal family in 1947 to the calamitous 1948 general election that brought the National Party, the terrible years of apartheid and the damage they caused to a nation, and the dawn of a free South Africa.

Although best known for his ministry at the Central Methodist Mission in Johannesburg, Storey was for years the minister at the Buitenkant Street Methodist Church among the people of District Six until that community was broken apart and scattered by the Group Areas Act.

Storey draws his inspiration and his brand of Christianity from the efforts of the founding Methodist ministers John and Charles Wesley in England, particularly Cornwall, in the mid-18th century.

The Wesleys believed in piety but also in charity and justice, and that every single person mattered infinitely to God. This leads, says Storey, to the fundamental question we must ask when faced by fraught social problems: “Does this do honour or violence to the image of God in those whom it impacts? Any political policy – like apartheid – that does such violence is an affront to God.”

This means, he writes, that there is no such thing as churches “interfering in politics” because there is “no area of life beyond God’s moral authority”.

Now you might not go along with this, but these convictions in a strong and committed person can make a difference to a society. They did in Wesley’s time, and they do still today, thanks to the likes of Storey and Tutu.

But the book is not a sermon – it is an often a gripping and occasionally funny description of a life lived in interesting times. Storey tells of an occasion in 1982 when he and Tutu drove to a remote area of the Venda homeland where two Lutheran ministers were reportedly being detained and tortured. The local authorities had no intention of letting the two priests see the tortured men, and told them they were to be deported from Venda immediately.

Ostensibly escorting Storey and Tutu to the border, soldiers drove into thick bush where sub-machineguns were pointed at them and they were told they were to be shot. But then it was over and they were taken to the border.

A shaken Tutu, who was driving, said he and Storey should thank God for saving their lives. He then launched into a prayer of thanksgiving. Storey writes: “I looked at him and saw that not only was he lost in prayer but his eyes were closed. I grabbed the wheel and let him thank God while I ensured that death didn’t get a second shot at us.”

Years later Storey was approached by a military-looking Afrikaner who said he had been a Military Intelligence colonel seconded to the Venda government at the time, and that he had actually given an order for Tutu and Storey to be shot. He said in the event he was glad his order had been ignored and would Storey forgive him?

Bearing in mind Tutu’s premise that when someone confesses one has no choice but to forgive, Storey told the man he did, but was left feeling angry. “I realised I had much to process still.”

In 1964, after a two-year stint with his wife and sons preaching in Australia, Storey had the choice between staying there and coming home to a country where Mandela had recently been jailed for life. They decided to return, but Storey vowed he would live his life in South Africa according to four non-negotiable principles:

  • To be a truth teller and expose the lie of apartheid.
  • To side with the victims of injustice wherever he found them.
  • To seek to be a visible contradiction of the state’s segregation practices.
  • To work in non-violent ways to bring in a new dispensation of justice, equity and peace.

Thank God for South Africa he came home. This is a remarkable book and well worth the read.

  • Read this and other reviews by Vivien Horler on thebookspage.co.za

 

 

 

Old flying hand remembers the swashbuckling days in Africa

Review: ARCHIE HENDERSON

Cowboys Don’t Fly by John Steed (Reach Publishers)

cowboys don't flyJohn Steed is an old hand of the Africa skies. He knows all there is to know about flying over the continent, the business and the politics, in peace and in war.

Steed, having done basic military training with the Kenya Regiment in the ‘50s before Uhuru, joined the RAF and was accepted as a pupil pilot flying BAC Jet Provosts, which served as the force’s training aircraft for 38 years. He proved a quick learner and a good pilot – until it came to flying in formation, a skill he was unable to master because of bouts of vertigo. Continue reading

Bit of magical realism twists this murder drama

Review: Vivien Horler

Someone Like Me, by MR Carey (Orbit Books/ Jonathan Ball)

someone like meThe cover blurb on this intriguing novel describes it as a psychological thriller; I would say it’s more than that, reaching into the realms of fantasy.

Generally I don’t like fantasy or magical realism, described by the writer Matthew Strecher as “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe”.

That more or less sums up Someone Like Me, but it’s an absorbing and often nail-biting read.

Liz Kendall is a nice woman with two children, teenage son Zac and six-year-old Molly. She also has a violently abusive ex-husband Marc, and the pair get into a screaming match when Marc brings the children home late from a weekend with him. Continue reading