Thoughtful memoir of the making of a white Zulu

Review: Vivien Horler

Scatterling of Africa – My early years, by Johnny Clegg (Macmillan)

They are the scatterlings of Africa/ Each uprooted one/ On the road to Phelamanga/ Where the world began

The world of Johnny Clegg, as we know him, began not on the road to Phelamanga – which is apparently a name made up to suit the rhythm of the line – but one evening in the working class Joburg suburb of Bellvue.

It was 1967, Clegg was 14, and his mother had sent him to the corner café to buy bread and milk. Outside the café a young Zulu man was playing his guitar with what Clegg describes as a complicated rhythmic picking line.

At the time Clegg was learning to play classical guitar, but as he watched the young man he realised his guitar was tuned differently and he played with a unique finger-picking style, “foreign, metallic and urgent at the same time”.

Clegg asked the man if he would teach him, but he laughed and said: “Too hard for you.” Clegg persisted, the guy mulled it over, and said okay.

“In that moment, beneath the flickering neon light outside the café … in Bellevue, Johannesburg, my life changed. I had taken the first step on the road to becoming a maskandi Zulu street musician.” Continue reading

Breaking news: SA’s Damon Galgut wins the Booker Prize

SOUTH African novelist and playwright Damon Galgut has won the 2021 Booker Prize for his novel The Promise.

This was announced at a ceremony at the BBC Radio Theatre in London on November 3. He wins £50 000 (about R1.04million).

The Promise is a family saga set on a smallholding in Pretoria – Galgut’s home town – and is told over 40 years through four family funerals. The story revolves around a promise made by the family matriarch to a domestic worker that she will be given title to the home she lives in.

Galgut was previously shortlisted for the Booker in 2003 for his novel The Good Doctor and in 2010 for In a Strange Room.

The other shortlisted authors were Americans Richard Powers for Bewilderment, Maggie Shipstead for her fabulous Great Circle, Patricia Lockwood for No One is Talking about This; Sri Lankan writer Anuk Arudpragasam for A Passage North, and British Somali writer Nadifa Mohamed for The Fortune Men.

Chair of the judges Maya Jasanoff described The Promise as a “tour de force”. “It combines an extraordinary story with rich themes – the history of the last 40 years in South Africa – in an incredibly well-wrought package.

“It manages to pull together the qualities of great storytelling, it has great ideas, it’s a book that has a lot to chew on, with remarkable attention to structure and literary style.”

Rebecca Jones, the BBC’s arts correspondent, describes The Promise as “an excellent winner” and “outstanding book”.

“On the one hand it is a gripping saga, following the decline and fall of a white South African family over four decades. It is packed with incident – sex, drugs, shootings – and there is drama, discord and death. But there is also plenty of unexpected comedy to lighten the mood. It made me laugh.

“On the other hand, through the lens of this one family, The Promise also deftly tells the story of South Africa and its troubled transition from apartheid state to multi-racial democracy. So it is rich with layers and yet it is compact, with fewer than 300 pages.”

I thought it was a very bleak tale.

Galgut becomes the third South African to win the prestigious fiction prize, after JM Coetzee (who won it twice, as well as the Nobel Prize for literature) and Nadine Gordimer.  – Vivien Horler 

 

Planet-conscious eating with real food

Review: Myrna Robins

The Flexitarian Foodie by Jax Moorcroft (Penguin Random House)

It was motherhood that changed Jax Moorcroft’s perspective on life: the realisation that she needed to live the lessons she wants her children to embrace as they grow up.

And how to start? While many of us have the best intentions to eat healthy food and do our best for the environment, we all make mistakes and fall by the wayside. But, says Moorcroft, we can all start by doing something small, keeping it simple, letting it become a habit.

After several years, she continues to tread more gently while navigating real life, doing her best “to make living a sustainable life attainable”. And in a week when Cop26 begins in Glasgow, this sounds like sage advice. Continue reading

Bedside table list for October

  • Bedside Table October

    These are among the books that landed on my desk this month. Some will be reviewed in full later.

    Scatterling of Africa – My early years, by Johnny Clegg (Macmillan)

    The late Johnny Clegg is a South African legend and now we have his own account of his youth, first in what was Southern Rhodesia, the grandson of Jewish immigrants, and later in Johannesburg. As a teenager he and his mother lived in a flat in Alpha Court in Yeoville.  In the mid-60s the suburb was home to a cosmopolitan community of immigrants – Jewish, Lebanese, Greek, Portuguese, Italian and English. Forty-five years later Clegg went back to Alpha Court and the found the area much changed, and yet the same. It was still full of immigrants, but now they were black, French-speaking Congolese and West Africans. As he stood gazing up at the block a woman on a third-floor balcony recognised him and shouted: “Le Zulu blanc!” A circle of sorts had been closed. This looks to be a really good read and I’m looking forward to it.

     

    This is one of Exclusive Books’s top 40 books for October.

The Reading List, by Sara Nisha Adams (HarperCollins)

It can be hard for immigrants to connect with their grandchildren, especially when they speak a different language. Author Sara Nisha Adams, whose parents are Indian and English, says this novel was partly inspired by her grandfather who was able to forge a relationship with her through books and reading. It tells of Aleisha, an anxious London teenager who finds solace in the Harrow Road Library. One day she comes across a crumpled reading list tucked into a book and, at a time when she needs to be transported away from her problems, the stories are a comfort. And then she meets Mukesh at the library, an elderly man who is anxious to bond with his book-loving granddaughter, and Aleisha shares the booklist with him. They become an unlikely but supportive book club of two. (The books on the list? To Kill a Mocking Bird, Rebecca, The Kite Runner, Life of Pi, Pride and Prejudice, Little Women, Beloved and A Suitable Boy.)

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s top 40 books for October.

 

More than I Love my Life, by David Grossman (Jonathan Cape)

Gili and her family are celebrating the 90th birthday of her grandmother Vera on the Israeli kibbutz where Vera lives. Vera’s daughter Nina arrives for the party, which complicates things. Nina’s relationships with her mother, Gili and Gili’s father have never run smoothly; Nina rejected her mother when she was just 15, and abandoned both Gili and her dad when Gili was a baby. There is a back story: many years before, Vera was held and tortured on the remote island of Goli Otok, part of the former Yugoslavia. With Vera’s first husband also a prisoner , a very young Nina was left to fend for herself, which has sent echoes down the years and bedeviled every relationship Nina has had. Now, determined to understand what lies behind her mother’s apparent indifference, Gili and her family travel to Goli Otok to see if they can unravel the secrets. David Grossman won the International Booker Prize for his novel A Horse Walks into a Bar, which was written in Hebrew and then translated into English (as was More than I Love my Life).

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s top 40 books for October.

The Fire Portrait, by Barbara Mutch (Allison & Busby Ltd)

I thoroughly enjoyed Barbara Mutch’s first novel, The Girl from Simon’s Bay, about love and the Group Areas Act in Simon’s Town. This novel follows the fortunes of an Englishwoman, Frances McDonald, who settles in the Boland where she embarks on a marriage of convenience. She does her best to integrate into the community, and paints wonderful works of art of the surrounding landscapes.  Then her husband enlists to fight for the Allies in World War II, and her neighbours once again shun her. She happens to meet a former love, and everything seems briefly wonderful, until a fire destroys the life she has built. Back she goes to London, where a one of her paintings sends her life in a new direction.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s top 40 books for October.

 

Rediscover Your Self-Confidence  – 7 steps to a new you, by Rolene Strauss (Tafelberg)

If you look at pictures of Rolene Strauss, who became both Miss South Africa and Miss World in 2014, you see a radiantly beautiful young woman with the world at her feet. But apparently she was not as confident as she looked. Six years before that she had been 16 years old, a leggy Afrikaans-speaking tomboy from Volksrust who had been given the opportunity of a lifetime: she had been scouted at a modelling competition and offered a three-month contract with the Elite Models head office in Paris. But before she flew to Paris, she had to meet a model agent in Pretoria who took her hip measurement and announced with a raised eyebrow: “It’s 95cm. We’ll have to get it down to at least 90cm, little lady.” And with that, some of Strauss calls her “breezy, natural self-confidence” began to fade. Years later, with a medical degree, the Miss World title, a husband and a son, she realised she had to do something about her poor self-confidence. Her efforts to sort herself out have led to her becoming a mentor, and to this book. It is dedicated to “you who are ready to rediscover your self-confidence”.

White Trash – My year as a high-class call girl, by Terry Angelos (Melinda Ferguson Books)

Terry Angelos’s life today could not be more proper: she is a visual artist living in Durban, married to her soulmate with three grown-up children and a pug called Juniper. But when she was 19 she was living a very different life in London – taking drugs and selling sex. Her early years were spent in Rhodesia and she describes herself as strong-willed, fearless, curious, racist and entitled. Later the family emigrated to South Africa, and Angelos didn’t fit in at all. At 19, after two years of a fine arts degree, she headed off to London in search of adventure, and found work as a hostess in a club. Initially it was fine: cheap champagne, a bit of pawing and groping, lots sexual banter – and easy money. But more was of course expected. Looking back she can’t remember the first time she exchanged a sexual favour for money. But within eight months of her arrival in the UK, her life had spiraled into degradation, to the point where she seriously considered suicide. And then, through a serendipitous meeting, she found God – or God found her – and her life changed. Don’t be put off by the religious angle, Angelos writes well and this is not a happy-clappy book. But it does serve as a warning of what can happen to headstrong young people heading off to find themselves in the big wide world.

Frontline, by Dr Hilary Jones (Welbeck)

Frontline is a readable saga about life in the trenches and in the field hospitals of World War I, and centres on a pair of very young British lovers, Grace, a member of the landed gentry, and Will, a London dockworker. (The couple is of course not to be confused with the Will & Grace of the American TV soap.) Grace is headstrong and determined, and becomes the first of her family to go to war, as a nurse. Excitement and patriotism see Will enlist, and he becomes a stretcher bearer, his life always on the line. Through their work the pair meet in a hospital, and fall in love. They are painfully aware of the death and destruction around them, and the fact there are no guarantees either will see out the war alive. Even if they do, will their very different stations in life allow them to stay together? And then, just when it looks as though the war is heading towards an Allied victory, people start falling sick and dying from a strange illness that becomes known as the Spanish flu. I was initially put off by the fact that the author felt it was appropriate to tell us on the cover that she is a doctor, and by the cover shout from the infamous Jeffrey Archer. But it’s full of bloody and gritty detail, a good read and I enjoyed it.

 

The tale of Nancy Fancy Pants’s voyage around the world

Review: Vivien Horler

The Skipper’s Daughter, by Nancy Richards (Karavan Press)

South African broadcaster Nancy Richards is the daughter and granddaughter of ships’ captains, but she is not the protagonist of this charming book.

The daughter of the title is Richards’s mother, also called Nancy, and the book chronicles the six months or so the 16-year-old spent sailing around the world aboard a tramp steamer, the SS Nailsea Manor, with her father, Captain TW “Billy” Brooks.

Big Nancy, as she was known to the family, or Nancy Fancy Pants as the crew on board ship dubbed her, was taken on as the Captain’s Clerk for a shilling a month in 1938, the last year of peace before World War II broke out. Continue reading

When love turns history on its head

Review: Vivien Horler

The Duchess, by Wendy Holden (Welbeck/ Jonathan Ball)

There are certain news stories where we get the bare bones of what’s going on, but long to know the intimate details, what the people involved said to each other, how they felt – the inside story. (Well, I do.)

The whole matter of the abdication of Britain’s King Edward VIII in 1936 is a case in point. My mother, who was a 12-year-old living in Cornwall at the time, never forgave Wallis Simpson for what she did to the royal family, and she wasn’t the only one.

From everyday people to the press, the government and the aristocracy, people felt Wallis Simpson had led their beloved king astray, and deprived them of the monarch they had come to expect. Not only that, Edward’s “selfishness” in choosing love over duty – for he was also vilified – meant his ill-equipped, stammering brother Bertie, who became King George VI, had to step up and face a task neither he nor his family had wanted or prepared for.

Continue reading

Brave, bold and rude – a delight of an autobiography

Review: Vivien Horler

This Much is True, by Miriam Margolyes (John Murray/ Jonathan Ball)

The cover picture on Miriam Margolyes’s autobiography is arresting – those eyes follow you everywhere.

As a British TV, theatre and film actor and voice artist, she had never come up on my radar, but I think that’s because I wasn’t paying attention.

She is self evidently no longer young – she’s in her 80s – is short and stout, and was never a conventional starlet or ingenue. Yet she’s properly famous for a variety of things including acting roles stretching back to the late 1960s, an extraordinary ability to do voices and accents (she voiced Fly, the border collie’s mother in Babe), has been in a host of things you’ve probably seen, modelled nude for the artist Augustus John – and claims to have been the first person to use the f-word live on British television. Continue reading

Short reviews of three novels – two new, one an old favourite

Reviews: Vivien Horler

The Island of Missing Trees, by Elif Shafak (Viking/ Penguin)

Growing a fig tree in London is not easy. They don’t like the climate.

This may explain something about the British character. The ancients believed a great cosmic tree joined the underworld to earth and heaven, its branches holding up the sun, moon and stars, and its roots reaching down to hell. But what sort of tree was it?

Humans were unable to agree. It could have been a poplar, a tamarind, a cedar or a baobab. And so humans fell into war.

But the narrator of this luminous novel, which happens to be a fig tree, says fighting over what the cosmic tree might have been is unwise, as different trees have different characters, suitable to different moods and moments.

If you’re feeling discouraged, a flowering horse chestnut will cheer you up. An aspen will help you emerge stronger and kinder. A magnolia will help you dream about the future, and a jacaranda could stir your imagination. “Then again, if it’s love you’re after or love you have lost, come to the fig, always the fig.”

And this is what Kostas and Defne do.

In early 1974 Kostas and Defne are in love. But they live on Cyprus, with Kostas Greek and Defne Turkish. While this story begins when the island towns and villages are still integrated, before the overthrow of Archbishop Makarios and the civil war, love across the line is rarely accepted.

But Kostas and Defne have something going for them – a sanctuary in the form of a backroom at the Happy Fig, a bar in Nicosia run by two gay men, one Greek, one Turkish.

The Happy Fig is distinguished by an ancient fig tree which grows in the middle of the pub and out through a hole in the roof.

Trouble erupts on the island. Kostas’s older brother is shot dead, and his younger brother disappears to fight with the partisans. Their mother, desperately afraid she might lose her last remaining son, sends him to London to stay with her brother. Kostas is dispatched with such haste he is unable to say goodbye to Defne.

But we know that they do eventually get together again, because the story opens in London, with Ada, Kostas and Defne’s daughter, an unhappy high school pupil who feels she doesn’t fit in. Her mother has died, and Kostas and she are increasingly at a distance.

It’s shortly before Christmas, a storm is threatening, and Kostas has to do something to protect his fig tree, taken from a cutting of the tree in the Happy Fig. He slices away some of the roots, digs a trench, and then pushes the tree over to ride out the weather under shelter.

Somewhere along the line has Defne told Kostas she doesn’t want Ada burdened with the misery of the history of the island civil war; as a result the girl knows almost nothing of her own and her family history. And then her aunt, Defne’s sister, comes to stay, and slowly Ada learns the truth.

Initially I found the fig tree narrator irritating, but I – and probably most readers – don’t know that much about Cyprus; the fig tree gives us context

This novel grew on me slowly, but it was worth persevering.

Elif Shafak is a British Turkish writer whose novel 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World was shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize.

 

The Night She Disappeared, by Liza Jewell (Century)

It’s midsummer and Tallulah, a teenage single mother, goes on a date night to the local pub with her boyfriend Zach.

Tallulah, Zach and baby Noah all live with Tallulah’s mum, Kim.

Kim likes Zach, and has discovered a small jewellery box in Zach’s jacket pocket, one containing a small diamond ring. Kim is delighted, and is pretty sure that tonight’s the night Zach is going to pop the question.

But after 4am Kim wakes to discover the young couple are still not home. A few hours later Kim contacts Zach’s parents, but they have no idea where the pair are. Eventually Kim goes to the pub to be told Tallulah and Zach had met friends and gone on to a pool party at grand house nearby.

Kim doesn’t know these friends but, increasingly terrified, goes to the grand house. Kim hears Tallulah had had too much to drink and the couple had called a taxi to take them home.

Kim checks with the local taxi companies, but none reports having picked anyone up at the house. The trail runs cold. Kim fears that Tallulah may have answered Zach’s proposal with a “no”, leading to violence.

A year or so later a young novelist, Sophie, moves to Kim’s village. Sophie’s teacher boyfriend has been appointed headmaster of an expensive private school, and they have a cottage in the grounds.

On a walk in the woods behind their home, Sophie spots a small notice nailed to their back fence. It says: “Dig here” with an arrow is pointing down. Sophie fetches a trowel and digs, finding a  muddy little jewellery box. Inside is a small diamond ring.

Detective mysteries are Sophie’s stock in trade. She rubs dirt off the little box and finds the name of a jeweller in the nearby town. Intrigued, she goes to the store and is told the ring was bought by a young man a year previously. This leads her to Kim.

The police have not made much headway with the case, so Sophie and Kim join forces. And in the process they uncover some strange and scary events, involving a variety of people including old schoolfriends of Tallulah’s, teachers at the private school, and the daughter of the school matron.

I’m not alone in finding this a gripping thriller. In a shout on the cover Lee Child describes it as “365 pages of insane suspense”, while Marian Keyes says it is “unbelievably good”. I thought so too.

 

Changing Places, by David Lodge (Penguin Books)

Any fan of David Lodge’s smart and comic novels, often set in academia, will know Changing Places is not new.

In fact it was published in 1975, in a forgotten time before cellphones and personal computers, when you could still smoke in aircraft (cigarettes only though, not pipes, to the chagrin of British lecturer Philip Swallow)

I spotted it among several other David Lodge novels on a bookshelf at a beach house on a weekend away, and fell upon it. Lodge is such a good writer, and he’ll have you laughing out loud.

Swallow teaches literature at Rummidge, a rainswept university in the British Midlands, while Professor Morris Zapp is a Jane Austen scholar (his children are called Elizabeth and Darcy) at the sundrenched Euphoric State University in a thinly disguised California.

Leaving their families behind, the men, who apart from their specialities have almost nothing in common, are selected to exchange posts for a year, with donnish, uptight Swallow heading to Euphoric State, and brash, cigar-smoking Zapp off to Rummidge. Lodge hilariously compares and contrasts the men’s reactions to their new colleagues and new environments.

Inevitably the men meet each other’s families and become involved in hotbeds of intrigue and naughty romps.

Changing Places and two other Lodge novels, Small World and Nice Work, have been published as A David Lodge Trilogy. If you’re a David Lodge fan, you’ll find the books are well worth rereading, and if you’re not, you’re in for a delight.

My only real caveat is this book, like many published a goodly while ago, is printed in a very small font. You’ll need your reading glasses.

 

 

Fordsburg tales rich in memories of pink Chappies, red polished stoeps and seemingly dozens of cousins

Review: Vivien Horler

A Home on Vorster Street – a memoir, by Razina Theba  (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Everyone loved Salim best. He was the “favourite-favourite”, or as Razina Theba puts it, the chocolate wrapped in purple cellophane in a box of Quality Street.

He was Theba’s mum’s adored nephew, sullen, miserable, ungenerous. “He was a little SHIT!” she would beam.

All the grandchildren were treated the same, except Salim. Every Friday, when the grandchildren converged in the flat on Vorster Street in Joburg’s Fordsburg, their grandfather, Bajee, would call to Salim, holding out a brown paper bag full of Nutt Puffs, Wilson’s boiled sweets and Chappies.

Only Salim got the sweets. The other grandchildren would gather round and plead: “Just one, Salim, please.”

But Salim was obdurate. He would tell his cousins that had Bajee wanted them all to have sweets, he would have given them all sweets. But they were welcome to watch him eat. Continue reading

Almost forgotten piece of South African history

Review: Archie Henderson

Afrikaner Sondebok? Die Lewe van Hans van Rensburg Ossewagbrandwagleier, by Albert Blake (Jonathan Ball)

Hans van Rensburg is one of the most tragic figures of South African history in a country that is full of them. And he was also one of the most mysterious.

The title sondebok means scapegoat.

Over the past 80 years or so, Van Rensburg has not had a good press; now he gets a sympathetic hearing. Blake’s book is no hagiography, but the author goes the extra mile in attempting to understand this strange man, what motivated him and how he escaped justice.

At the height of his popularity  – the war years of 1939 to 1945 – Van Rensburg led what was the most popular grouping of white people in South Africa at the time. The Ossewabrandwag (Oxwagon Sentinels) grew from the rise of Afrikaner nationalism around the time of the centenary of the Groot Trek. In 1938 there was a bitterness among many Afrikaners against anything British or English and strong generational trauma stemming from the Boer War that had deprived them of their two republics and plunged many into poverty. Continue reading