Author Archives: Vivien Horler

Jackie and Lee were synonymous with glamour, tragedy, and lots and lots of money

Review: Vivien Horler

The Fabulous Bouvier Sisters – the tragic and glamorous lives of Jackie and Lee, by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger (Harper/ Jonathan Ball)

The reported crudity of the Donald Trump-led White House stands in stark contrast to the style in which Jack and Jackie Kennedy lived their White House years.

Elegance, beauty, appreciation of art and erudition were hallmarks of their lives (with a fair bit of bed-hopping thrown in).

Like Trump, both the Kennedy and Bouvier families were wealthy, although like Trump, Jack’s father Joe Kennedy sen was, according to the American writer Gore Vidal, “exuberantly and successfully a crook”.

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Le Carré cashes in rivetingly on resumption of Cold War

Reviewer: Archie Henderson

Agent Running in the Field, by John le Carré (Penguin Random House UK)

Moscow Centre is up and running again, its tentacles stronger and more malicious than ever. Its agent are all over London. It has a US president in its boss’s pocket, has begun to break up a European market alliance and even undermine its greatest enemy, Nato. All the hard work done by George Smiley to turn Moscow Centre’s mastermind Karla and foreshadow the end of communism has been undone in only a few years. No wonder John le Carré is in his element.

Our greatest spy novelist never quire reached the heights of the Karla trilogy once the Cold War ended. With Agent Running in the Field, he might be touching them again. 

Except that Moscow Centre, back to its old brutal efficiency, is less of the story than Le Carré’s usual theme of betrayal, which I hope is not giving too much away in a story that is riveting from beginning to end. Continue reading

A story of love and loss and the meaning of home

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury/ Jonathan Ball)

The Dutch House is an opulent home built by a Dutch couple in a small town in Pennsylvania, with carved staircases, guilded ceilings, a ballroom and a lavish light-filled glass hallway.

It is also filled with the Dutch couple’s possessions including carpets and oil paintings, and when Danny Conroy’s property developer father buys it, it is statement that he has arrived.

Young Danny takes the house for granted, never having lived anywhere else, but his beloved older sister Maeve remembers a more impecunious past. Their troubled mother never settles, and eventually leaves, while their father is distant. But the children have each other and a couple of devoted family retainers. Life is pretty good.

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A media story that is not over yet

Review: Vivien Horler

Paper Tiger, by Alide Dasnois & Chris Whitfield (Tafelberg)

We staff were pretty pleased when Dr Iqbal Survé bought Independent Newspapers in 2013. For years the Irish owners of the group, headed by Sir Tony O’Reilly, had been exporting the company’s profits to shore up his failing media empire in the UK and Ireland.

Under O’Reilly, bureaus in London, New York and Washington were closed, as was the Argus Africa News Service. Newsrooms were juniorised and staff was shed. In 2011 the Media Workers Association of South Africa published a case study which pointed out staff numbers had dwindled from 5 223 in 1994, around the time the Irish bought the company, to 1 500.

Assets were stripped. The Pretoria News lost its presses and its printers, the old Argus garage building on its valuable site off Buitensingel Street was sold, followed by the Newspaper House presses and then Newspaper House itself.

When I started as a junior reporter in the 1970s, the Argus boasted three court reporters; a crime staff; defence, religion and shipping correspondents; political staff who covered Parliament as well as provincial and local authorities; education and health reporters; financial and property staff; an arts department; two women’s departments, each with its own women’s editor – which did seem a bit much; its own subbing pool and a well-staffed cuttings library.

By the time the Irish went, most of these had gone too. Newsrooms had been sharply reduced, the cuttings library closed and the cuttings dumped, and a general subbing pool served all the titles in the group.

At this stage the authors of Paper Tiger – Alide Dasnois, editor of the Cape Times, and Chris Whitfield, editor-in-chief of Independent Newspapers Cape – found their jobs increasingly difficult. They write: “Editors’ roles became complicated: on one hand they were trying to bring out credible newspapers, on the other to protect their dwindling resources from cost cutting.”

So there was optimism when Survé bought the group. He said at the time he did not intend to make any major changes in his first 100 days of ownership while he assessed operations.

Late on December 5, 2013 – almost exactly 100 days later – President Jacob Zuma announced Nelson Mandela had died. By that time of evening newspapers across the group had largely finalised the next day’s morning editions, and now had to scramble to get the latest news into print.

As anyone who has followed this saga knows, different newspapers adopted different strategies. At the Argus editor Jermaine Craig opted to clear several pages including page one, page three and the “oped” comment page. Despite various claims to the contrary by people including former Cape Times reporter Tony Weaver and media commentator Ed Herbst, this was perfectly possible in spite of time and equipment constraints.

Dasnois, on the other hand, famously chose to leave the Cape Times as it was and instead carry the Madiba news, comment and tributes in a four-page wraparound.

The Cape Times’s lead for the morning of December 6 – which remained in place inside the wraparound – was a report on the findings of Public Protector Thuli Madonsela into what she referred to as the “improper” awarding of a contract to Sekunjalo Marine Services Consortium. Survé was chairman of Sekunjalo.

The next morning Dasnois was effectively fired.

This was one of the first of a raft of changes to Independent News & Media. Many experienced reporters – of all colours – left over the next few years, some saying they had been forced out, others no longer feeling at home in the company. One of the first to resign was Whitfield, who left in early 2014, followed by most my colleagues and friends.

The subtitle of Paper Tiger is “Iqbal Survé and the downfall of Independent Newspapers” but in fact the book focuses to a large extent on events at the Cape Times around and after the firing of Dasnois.

The book makes for gripping reading, although close followers of what has happened at Independent Newspapers will be familiar with a lot of the content, much of which has appeared in various media in the past six years.

However, in the style of recent local histories such as Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s Gangster State, Pieter du Toit’s The Stellenbosch Mafia, Adam Habib’s Rebels and Rage, and Crispian Olver’s How to Steal a City, Paper Tiger provides a useful and  comprehensive record of events as they have unfolded.

But times roll on. In the past week the Public Investment Corporation, which provided a chunk of the money Survé used to buy the media company, filed liquidation proceedings in the Western Cape High Court against Sekunjalo Independent Media, which the company has rejected as “incompetent, mala fide, malicious and frivolous”.

Clearly this story still has a way to go.


If Mediterranean food is good, Cape Med must be better…

Review: Myrna Robins

Cape Mediterranean, by Ilse van der Merwe (Struik Lifestyle)

Neither heritage nor nostalgic – the contents of this colourful hardback focus on the fare you would find on long lunch  tables, set in vineyards, on patios or under beach umbrellas.

The meal starts with breads and spreads, goes on to tapas-like starters, followed by generous salads and vegetable dishes around crisp roasts or grilled seafood. Such appetising scenes can be found all over our country, but are more prevalent in the Western Cape, where the Mediterranean climate calls for seasonal, sustainable al fresco feasting.

The cuisine of the Mediterranean basin incorporates that of south-western Europe, the Middle East and north Africa, and is driven by olive oil, fruit, vegetables, seafood and wine, with some meat and dairy. Many South Africans who relish contemporary fare embrace CapeMed, as it also known, while often adding more poultry and meat than the northern cooks do. Continue reading

Damn… busters! Stripping the myth from truth

Review: Vivien Horler

Chastise, by Max Hastings (William Collins/ Jonathan Ball)

Do you remember the book The Dam Busters by Paul Brickhill? The movie of the book, made in 1955, has been described as the most popular British war film of all time.

It celebrated the destruction of two dams in the Ruhr valley in May 1943 by the use of Barnes Wallis’s “bouncing bombs”, a project designed to wreck Nazi Germany’s industrial heartland and hasten the end of World War II.

But Max Hastings, prolific British writer and former editor of the Daily Telegraph, says much of what we think we know about the Dam Busters is wrong.

People who embraced book and film – who included the young Hastings himself – loved the story because the raid seemed victimless, “save for the 53 dead among the gallant young men who carried it out. In truth, however, something approaching 1 400 people – almost all civilians and more than half French, Polish, Russian and Ukrainian mostly female slaves of Hitler – perished… more than in any previous RAF attack on the Reich.”

Many of those who died below the dam walls had heard the Lancaster bombers approaching and were taking shelter in cellars, only to drown as the water from the breached Möhne dam swept through their homes.

The raid on the dams took place on the night of May 16-17 1943. At this stage Britons were war weary, sick of austerity, separation and poor food. The tide of war was turning after the humiliation of Dunkirk, the Blitz, the earlier real threat of a German invasion and the loss of Tobruk. The victory at El Alamein in November 1942 was a major boost, later to be followed by the 8th Army’s landings in Italy (September 1943), but the D-Day landings were still a year away. The dam raid, says Hastings, lifted Britons’ spirits.

But at what cost? Hastings reminds us that most of the air crews of 617 Squadron (motto: Après moi le déluge – after us, the flood) were of the same age as gap-year students today, and most did not survive the war.

“They were unformed in almost everything save having been trained for flight and devastation: many still thought it the best joke in the world to pull off a man’s trousers after dinner.”

But amid 21st century unease about the widespread bombing of civilians, we have to remember that Britain was literally fighting for her life. As an old man, Australian Dave Shannon of 617 Squadron referred to “sanctimonious, hypocritical and grovelling criticism about things that were done in a total war”.

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Not so much a white man’s war

Review: Archie Henderson

The First Campaign Victory of the Great War, by Antonio Garcia (Hellion & Company)

When the centenary of the start of World War I came round a few years back, there was a scramble for heroes. The ANC government recalled there had been a tragedy called the SS Mendi; older English-speaking whites again remembered Delville Wood; and Afrikaners quietly recalled the Rebellion.

I doubt that the Afrikaner Rebellion of 1914 was openly commemorated. Frankly few, if any, give a damn about it today. Even in Memel in the Free State, once the home ground of Christiaan de Wet, a volksheld of the Boer War and the Rebellion, and where there is the country’s only monument to the Volksopstand, there was not a murmur, as far as I am aware. Not even a biddag.

Sadly, no one remembered to remember the 3 000 black soldiers who fought in the invasion of German South West Africa (now Namibia). Even today, and even with an ANC government which is always conscious of a lack of military heroes, are they remembered. But without them, as Antonio Garcia hints at in his book, the South African victory might have been more difficult to achieve. They were used mostly as labourers, but even when they performed acts of heroism, such as when a South African artillery commander was rewarded with the DSO for one action, his black comrades, who had performed crucial support roles, went unacknowledged. Continue reading

Hair is a political issue – even if you’re just eight

Review: Natalie Cavernelis

Wanda, by Sihle Nontshokweni and Mathabo Tlali, illustrated by Chantelle and Burgen Thorne (Jacana)

“Miss Bush! Miss Bush!” the boys on the bus shout at Wanda, pointing and laughing at her thick, kinky hair.

Eight-year-old Wanda is bright, strong and bold, but the relentless teasing she faces daily over her hair is wearing her down and making her miserable.

Parents of kids with hair like Wanda’s, and kids themselves, will easily identify with Wanda’s daily woes.

Wanda daydreams of having long and silky-smooth hair, “like a superhero cape”. She knows if she arrives at school with her hair loose and not tied up, her teacher will call it “a bird’s nest”.

Her natural confidence is taking a battering.

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If it’s not all right, it’s not the end

Review: Vivien Horler

Travel Light, Move Fast, by Alexandra Fuller (Serpent’s Tail)

Alexandra Fuller and her mother, Nicola Fuller of Central Africa, are en route from Budapest to Lusaka when they bump into an old friend at OR Tambo Airport.

It has not been an ordinary journey – father Tim Fuller became mortally ill while on holiday with Nicola in Budapest, and days before his death Fuller flew from Wyoming to be with them.

So there they are, Nicola and Fuller, known to the family as Bobo, at Joburg airport. Bobo’s carry-on luggage includes a small cardboard box marked: “Human remains. Handle with care. This way up.”

The friend, expecting Tim to be there somewhere – as indeed he is – looks around for him. Says Nicola: “I’m afraid Tim’s on Bobo’s hip.” She pauses and adds: “You remember my daughter Bobo? No, of course not. She wasn’t middle aged when you last saw her.”

The friend’s eyes swivel to Bobo’s box and then widen. Fuller writes: “I imagine it’s fair to say that however shocking the change I’d undergone since Harriet had last seen me, it was nowhere near as shocking the change Dad had undergone since she’d last seen him.” Continue reading

Forget Vietnam – the US fought more deadly wars

Review: Archie Henderson

The Earth is Weeping: The epic story of the Indian Wars for the American West, by Peter Cozzens (Atlantic Books)

America’s longest war was not Vietnam, Iraq or even Afghanistan, where US troops have been fighting since 2001. The longest war was fought on American soil, virtually from the time Europeans landed in the New World and against a variety of indigenous people, known first as Indians, more pejoratively as Redskins, and only recently as Native Americans. It was a civil war before the Civil War.

Hollywood and Louis L’Amour, among others, would distort that war. Indians were often cast as barbarous villains resisting progress. I should know; I was a victim of cowboy movies and cowboy books that shaped a young mind. Then along came Dee Brown with his book Buried My Heart at Wounded Knee in 1970 that changed perceptions of that war, and turned us into bleeding hearts. Continue reading