He writes so well, dammit

Review: Vivien Horler

But He Speaks So Well – Memoir of a South African identity crisis, by Ivan Johnson (Tafelberg)

Ivan Johnson is something of a shape-shifter. He’s hard to pin down – he found himself hard to pin down. But he’s had a lot of fun trying in the writing of this delightful and often hilarious memoir of a young man growing up in Cape Town.

Today Ivan Johnson is a veteran ad man with his own agency, 3Verse. He’s won awards, he writes radio commercials, and has been a juror and president at industry award shows all over the world.

But once he was a little coloured boy in Belgravia Estate, living with his parents and two older sisters in a comfortable home on the edge of Athlone. Or Rondebosch East, as he then preferred to call it. Aunts and uncles and cousins lived nearby. He was part of a close community.

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Stalingrad – the war (not Zuma’s tactics)

Review: Archie Henderson

Stalingrad by Vasily Grossman (Vintage Publishers)

It is said that Russians write long novels because of the long the Russian winter. Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad is just over 800 pages yet it can be read in a month (if you have the time) because its pages move smoothly and easily, the chapters are short, and some of the tedious parts can be skimmed.

When you reach the end, however, it’s not the end. There is a sequel, which almost everyone who has read it, says is a better book. Roland Hingley, writing in the New York Times about the second book, and expecting another gigantic Russian novel, feared it would be just a “gelded fictional brontosaurus”. He says he was pleasantly surprised to find it not so.

Stalingrad begins with Hitler planning a new offensive, a year after invading Russia. It ends with Hitler’s hordes at the gates of the Russian city on the Volga. Life and Fate, which is of similar length, is the sequel and tells how the Russians turned around the battle and, with it, probably World War 2. Those who have read both are right; by the end of Stalingrad I wanted to reach for Life and Fate, just to see how World War 2 ends – well, in the eyes, opinion and imagination of its author anyway. Continue reading

When you and your family don’t speak the same language

Review: Vivien Horler

A Long Letter to my Daughter, by Marita van der Vyver (Tafelberg)

Fifteen or so years ago, I was one of a handful of book journalists invited to interview the Afrikaans writer Marita van der Vyver at the Mount Nelson Hotel.

Van der Vyver was on a visit to South Africa to promote a new book, and had brought her daughter Mia, then about five, to the interview because her child-minding plans had fallen through.

After about 20 minutes of beautiful behaviour, the little girl became bored and started climbing over the backs of the chairs in the elegant tea room, and looking with chilling intent at the bone china cups and saucers.

“Ag Mia,” said an anxious Van der Vyver. “Jy’t mos gesê jy gaan soet wees!”

To which the little girl replied with an angelic smile: “Maman, je t’aime.”

In this delightful memoir, Van der Vyver writes: “…in the meantime I continue to write and speak and live in Afrikaans, at least some of the time. Because although ‘the future’ surprised me two decades ago by washing me ashore in France, and although these days I speak three languages every day, Afrikaans remains the one I speak best. And because as a mother I believe that I should give my children the best, I still speak to you in Afrikaans. Even though you often answer me in a different language.”

Forty or so years ago Van der Vyver, at that stage the single mother of a son, went to France to see what it was like. There she met a Frenchman, a father of two sons, and they ended up married with a daughter of their own.

Four decades ago she never dreamed, she says, that she would end up living in Provence with a French daughter. Many Afrikaans parents today live between languages, having been blown away to faraway lands “like the poet Van Wyk Louw’s plumed grass seeds. And the fact that our children no longer even know who NP van Wyk  Louw was, is part of the dilemma.”

Van der Vyver has lived in France for longer than she lived in South Africa, and yet South Africa is still in a vital sense home, and Afrikaans is the language of her heart (this memoir was translated into English by Annelize Visser). Her novels are first written in Afrikaans, a language her French husband cannot read.

The first time Mia flew between Europe and Africa she was barely two months old. Van der Vyver, now in her early 60s, flew for the first time when she was 18. Boys in her matric class left the country as conscripts “to do things that they would never be able to talk about to their loved ones”.

Her youth, she says, was like living in a bubble of blissful ignorance. There wasn’t even television here then. “We are contemporaries, your father and I, we born in the same year. But we were raised in different worlds.”

And so this letter is an attempt to explain to a young French woman where her mother has come from, and therefore where she has partly come from herself.

Van der Vyver writes of her great-grandparents, whose only book was a bible. Yet for Van der Vyver herself, books have played a vital role in her life. Books, starting at the Bellville library, stories that she loved and yet stories her daughter will never read, because mother and daughter, like Van der Vyver and her husband, grew up in different worlds.

She muses on growing up white in apartheid South Africa, on the future of Afrikaans, on writing, on philosophy, on travel, on motherhood.

As someone who is also in her 60s and also grew up white in apartheid South Africa, I find much of what she says about this country deeply familiar. But there is plenty that is different and surprising too. A Long Letter to my Daughter has been a joy to read.

  • A Long Letter to my Daughter is one of Exclusive Books’s 25 recommended titles for May.




Fabulous tome full of wry humour about the Fab Four

Review: Vivien Horler

One Two Three Four – The Beatles in Time, by Craig Brown (4th Estate)

You could wonder what more is to be said about the Beatles – certainly the bibliography at the end of this book is a reminder of how much has been written about them.

There have even been books about the guys who weren’t in the Beatles during their post-Hamburg years, like Stu Sutcliffe and Pete Best.

But Craig Brown has managed to pull together an engaging, lively and readable tome (628 pages) about the Fab Four and their relatively brief time as the Beatles.

Brown’s writing has a hilariously dry touch, which is probably why he has been writing the parodic celebrity diary for Private Eye magazine for more than 30 years. His last book was the wonderful Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret, which I loved.

Early on in One Two Three Four we go on a tour with Brown to 20 Forthlin Road in Liverpool, now owned by the National Trust, where Paul grew up. It’s one of an “unassuming row of nondescript houses most National Trust members would normally drive through, rather than to”, Brown confides.

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New Tempe Brennan thriller keeps you turning the pages

Review: Vivien Horler

The Bone Code, by Kathy Reichs (Simon & Schuster/ Jonathan Ball)

When reading a brief bio of thriller writer Kathy Reichs, you wonder how she manages it all.

Not only has she now written 20 Temperance Brennan novels, as a forensic anthropologist she divided her time between working for the office of the Chief Medical Examiner in North Carolina, and for a similar organisation in the Canadian province of Quebec.

She co-produced the TV series Bones, based on her boks and her own life.

She’s also been a professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and served on the board of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

When I interviewed her some years ago, she told me she had been a member of the team who sifted through tons of debris created by the attack on the World Trade Center in New York, searching for human remains and trying to put names to them.

Her life certainly seems to be just as dramatic and interesting as that of Tempe Brennan, although hopefully it has never been as terrifyingly life-threatening as that facing Tempe at the end of The Bone Code. Continue reading

In the 1990s did we move too quickly to ‘normalise’ sport?

Review: Dougie Oakes

Pitch Battles – Sport, racism and resistance, by Peter Hain and André Odendaal (Rowman and Littlefield)

This is a book about the fight against apartheid sport, by activists in South Africa and across the world.

It is a story about how apartheid in sport, like apartheid in South African society, was defeated. But it is also a story brimming with examples of missed opportunities – and filled with questions that, almost 30 years into democracy, have still not been adequately answered.

Was South Africa’s re-entry into international sport done with insufficient thought and too much haste, as many are now suggesting? Was too much sacrificed too quickly by those who had struggled for too long for equal rights? And was too much taken and too little given in return by those who had enjoyed the fruits of apartheid?

Some pointers, if not all the answers, are contained in Pitch Battles by Peter Hain and André Odendaal.

It is one of the few books that tells the story of the efforts to isolate white South African sport from the 1960s to the early 1990s, just before what many believed was the collapse of apartheid.

Importantly, it also examines what happened to the plans and promises for sport in a new South Africa, in the first two decades of democracy.

The book begins dramatically: “Sport had never experienced anything like this before,” it says in the first sentence of its introduction.

And for the next 500-or-so pages, it explains exactly why.

Sometimes, timing is important.

Many would argue that the real impetus against segregated sport took place in 1969-70, when “mass demonstrations and field invasions during the whites-only South African Springbok rugby tour … shone global attention on apartheid in sport and, more broadly, the iniquitous system itself”.

Thousands of protesters disrupted the activities of whites-only teams from apartheid South Africa, leading to the unprecedented stopping, in May 1970, of a scheduled South African cricket tour.

“A year later, the new, headline-grabbing, direct action form of sports protest spread from Britain to former white-run British colony, Australia, and then to New Zealand.”

South African-born Hain, whose family had been forced into exile in Britain, became a key figure in these protests.

To white South Africans he was an ogre. He was “Public Enemy Number One”. He was a longhaired “kommunis”.

Odendaal’s political activism, by contrast, was played out in South Africa many years later. The book describes him as having “participated in small ways through sport and the heritage sector in the broader micro-negotiations that led to the abolition of apartheid”.

Pitch Battles contains several intriguing features – not least the opportunism of so-called sporting greats who reinvented themselves – from being supporters of the apartheid regime and its sports policies to fawning supporters of Nelson Mandela and mainstays of non-racialism.

Take Gary Player….

During apartheid he stated proudly: “I am of the South Africa of Verwoerd and apartheid.”

South Africa, he added, was the “product of its instinct and ability to maintain civilised standards among the alien barbarians because to have abandoned them would have meant its disappearance.”

These words were as racist as those uttered by any of the National Party stalwarts of the day. But not once did he apologise. And yet, after the collapse of the apartheid government, Player inexplicably emerged as one of the “ambassadors” of the new South Africa.

And then there was Ali Bacher….

In 1989, in a South Africa dominated by defiance marches and rallies involving 10s of thousands of protesters by the Mass Democratic Movement, and in which Mandela’s fellow Rivonia trialists were released, Bacher organised a tour by rebel English cricketers.

Brushing aside what was happening in South Africa, he said: “It’s totally unfair for cricketers to say they are against the government. I can assure you I wouldn’t have signed a statement deploring apartheid or the South African Government if asked by [Peter] Hain, or anyone else.”

It sparked the drawing of battle lines between those for and against the tour – at breakneck speed.

Opponents were furious.

The National Sports Congress, strengthened by the “defection” of several top officials from the South African Council on Sport (Sacos), took up the fight.

While this was happening, Hain slipped into South Africa incognito and “illegally”, as a member of Granada Television World in Action team investigating sport in South Africa.

In a daring, high-risk mission, he travelled around the country interviewing some of the top sports anti-apartheid figures (sometimes, under the noses of the security police).

Incredibly, he also interviewed his old enemy, Danie Craven, in his offices at Stellenbosch University. Craven, sounded out beforehand, had agreed to a secret interview with him.

Faced with unprecedented protests, damage to the Newlands pitch, and bomb blasts at one of the Newlands turnstiles and in Paarl (courtesy of MK), the tour was cut short, and the second part, scheduled for 1990, cancelled.

The 1990s were period of unbelievable change in South Africa.

Marches and demonstrations became part of a final big push to defeat apartheid. Mandela was released in 1990. Confidence that freedom was at hand soared, dissipated and soared again. Massacres occurred in the townships of present-day Gauteng and the rural areas of present-day KwaZulu-Natal. White South Africans were asked to agree in a referendum in 1992 to a proposed new South Africa. Chris Hani, the popular SA Communist Party and ANC leader, was assassinated in 1993. The country lurched towards civil war – and then came back from the brink. Agreements were reached, put on hold, and then started up again.

But, overall, political progress was slow.

In sport, though, things moved quickly – too quickly, in the view of many outside the ambit of the ANC.

ANC negotiators believed white South Africans wanted international sport more than anything else – and it was a carrot that they were prepared to entice them with.

There was a cricket tour to India in 1991, a visit to the West Indies shortly afterwards, followed by a World Cup in Australia.

South Africa went to the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games, without a flag and without an anthem.

But despite this generosity, Mandela was betrayed by many for whom he had bent over backwards. The first quarter century of sport in a democratic society had a few notable triumphs, most notably Siya Kolisi becoming the first “black African” to captain South Africa – in the 2019 rugby World Cup tournament in Japan, leading the country to its third World Cup triumph.

But there were far too many racist incidents in different codes of sport – and far too many promises made by newly installed ANC leaders to black sportspeople that did not materialise.

The ANC government discovered, like the National Party had, that politics and sport are inextricably linked.

I pointed this out in the book. In what was described by the authors as “an uncomfortable grounded verdict” on rugby in South Africa, I accused the game’s establishment of being “culpable in that they have collaborated repeatedly with national and provincial governments throughout the country in pretending that all South Africans have equal opportunities on the country’s sports fields”.

I was quoted as saying: “Today, more than ever, entry into the game for black players is still a carefully managed and white-controlled process.

“Players from the townships with aspirations of playing at the highest level have to squeeze their way through a narrow pipeline of elite rugby playing schools, like Kolisi did.”

Pitch Battles is the most comprehensive book ever written on the relationship between South African sport and politics. It should be required reading for anyone wanting a clearer understanding of why during the South Africa of apartheid (and even of today) so many people swore by the mantra of “no normal sport in an abnormal society”.

  • Dougie Oakes is a veteran South African activist-journalist and a strong opponent of the retention of the Springbok symbol in rugby.


Bedside Table books – April

THIS is a selection of books that have been sent to me recently. They have not all been read. Some will be reviewed in full in due course.  – Vivien Horler

The Trial of Cecil John Rhodes, by Adekeye Adebajo (Jacana)

Imagine if Cecil John Rhodes returned to Africa in the present day to be interrogated by some of those on whose lives he and his cohorts had such devastating effect. This is the theme of the short novel by Professor Adekeye Adebajo, a former Rhodes Scholar and currently the director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg. It is set over five days in an African Hereafter. He is accused by Two Counsel for Damnation – Olive Schreiner and Stanlake Samkange – and defended by two Counsel for Salvation – Nelson Mandela and Harry Oppenheimer, while the seven judges include Ruth First, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Patrice Lumumba and Maya Angelou.

The Sanatorium, by Sarah Pearse (Bantam Press)

Elin Warner is a detective who has gone to an isolated hotel in the Swiss Alps to celebrate her estranged brother’s engagement. As soon as she arrives in the building, once a sanatorium, she feels uneasy. Her brother is behaving oddly, and a mighty storm is threatening. The next morning, as the storm hits, the guests wake to find the fiancée, Laure, is missing. Because of the weather, no one can come or go. And then it turns out another woman is missing.

This novel has been described as “an absolutely splendid Gothic thriller”, chilling, creepy and compulsive.

Win, by Harlan Coben (Century)

A rich family’s home is burgled, and heiress Patricia Lockwood is abducted. The girl escapes, but no one is ever arrested; nor are the stolen items recovered. Twenty years later, at a New York murder scene, a Vermeer painting and a leather suitcase with the initials WH3 are found. The suitcase had belonged to Win Horne Lockwood III and the Vermeer to his family, and now he wants some answers. The FBI have no clues, but Win decides to investigate.

I love Harlan Coben books and I’m not alone. A shout on the cover from Lee Child says the author “never lets you down”, while another describes him as “the absolute master of huge twists and turns”.


How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps her House, by Cherie Jones (Tinder Press)

My great-grandmother had a way of dealing with her naughty granddaughters. Having caught them in some sort of mischief, she would look at them solemnly and say: “I knew a little girl who died doing that.”

This is the same tactic Wilma, of Baxter Beach, Barbados, uses on her granddaughter. When 13-year-old Lala is out late, Wilma tells her the story of the one-armed sister, the girl who defied her mother and went into a tunnel in the garden where a monster grabbed her and pulled off her arm. Lala is not impressed by the story, but years later realises, after losing a baby and marrying the wrong man, it is actually one of hope. And then there’s Mira Whalen, whose husband has been murdered and who never heard her tell him she loved him.

Everything is Beautiful, by Eleanor Ray (Piatkus)

Amy is a bit odd. She is cool and efficient at the office and something of a hoarder at home. In fact soon there won’t be any room for her among the pretty wine bottles and piles of newspapers, the terra cotta pots, the chipped china bird. Amy has been like this for 11 years, since her world fell apart – saving things that most other people would throw away. And then a family move in next door, and Amy’s life starts to change again. Everything is Beautiful is described as the sort of book lovers of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine would enjoy.



It’s Not Inside, It’s on Top – memorable moments in South African advertising, by Khanya Mtshali (Tafelberg)

Remember the famous Cremora ad, where the hapless husband is peering into the fridge for milk for his coffee, and his wife yells: “It’s not inside, it’s on top!” In this collection of essays on TV ads Khanya Mtshali has taken what I think is a rather scholarly look at the advertising industry and some of its more memorable moments, mainly made in the post-apartheid era. The ads she writes about include Kulula, Nando’s, Castle Lager and the chummy multi-racial beer gatherings, and the Vodacom “Yebo Gogo” offerings. In a shout on the cover Richard Poplak calls her comments “hilarious, incisive, caustic and surprisingly human”. I didn’t laugh much, but the book is an interesting look at the culture of our advertising. I was irritated by the “woke” style convention of using caps for Black and Coloured people and lower case for whites, but I understand this is a growing international trend in journalism and publishing, following the Black Lives Matter movement. I guess I need to get over myself.

It’s Not About the Bats – Conservation, the coronavirus and how we must re-set our relationship with nature, by Adam Cruise (Tafelberg)

I suspect this is an important book; certainly other reviewers such as Don Pinnock have described it so. Adam Cruise is an investigative environmental journalist and academic, and the academia shows. In the prologue I was rather bogged down by his use of the terms weak and strong anthropocentrism, which basically describe how humans tend to regard nature as something for us to enjoy and control, rather than being vital to the survival of everything on the planet. But with the UN Climate Change Conference looming – it’s due to take place in Glasgow in November – it behoves us all to sit up and take notice. Or as Cruise says: “It is clear, therefore, that a major shift in our attitude and behaviour needs to occur, and without any further delay – otherwise we all might be sharing the fate of the dinosaurs.”

  • All but the last two books are among Exclusive Books’ 25 recommended titles for April 2021.

Fascinating story of the platteland spies on both sides in World War 2


Review: Attie Hendriks

Hitler’s Spies, by Evert Kleynhans (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Evert Kleynhans, a military historian, has turned a work of excellent academic research into an engaging yarn about spies. 

Spies, like detectives, are enduring characters in fiction and parts of Kleynhans’s book often read like fiction, but it was all true and much of it happened on the South African platteland during World War 2.

At a time of great political conflict within the country, it is also a story about a police force that couldn’t be trusted, a suspect national intelligence agency, shadowy groups conspiring against the ruling party, and politicians consorting secretly with a foreign power. It sounds like South Africa today, yet this all happened when the country was fighting in a world war.

Other authors have touched on the subject of spies in South Africa during the war, but Kleynhans has found a startling new element. Giving it away here would spoil it for the reader. He has also found out much more about the spies because of deeper research – in MI5 files in London, largely hidden files in South Africa and some lucky breaks in his pursuit of the story.  Continue reading

Epic tale of love and horror on a pre-civil war Mississippi cotton plantation

Review: Vivien Horler

The Prophets, by Robert Jones Jr (Riverrun/ Quercus)

This powerful novel starts with a slave woman whispering a love letter to her son, the toddler who was ripped from her arms and sold. She tells him she remembers every curl on his head and every fold on his body, down to the creases between his toes.

But Massa Jacob sold him off, even though he had told the mother she was a part of his family. Is this what whites do to family, she asks.

She is whispering to the ancesters, hoping they will get a message to her son, who is half grown now, that she loves him and misses him. She can’t always understand what the ancestors are saying, because they often use the old (African) words “that are half beat out of me”.

Plantation owners didn’t want their slaves remembering the old ways, the old days, so stopped them speaking their languages and changed their names.

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A book about ‘the deadliest crime’ of post-apartheid South Africa

Review: Vivien Horler

Give Us More Guns – How South Africa’s gangs were armed, by Mark Shaw (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Three stories from just two days of the Cape Town news cycle:

  • Nafiz Modack arranged 2019 hand grenade hit on Charl Kinnear, State claims. – Daily Maverick April 9, 2021
  • Cape Amalgamated Taxi Association members have been urged to remain calm after their president, Victor Wiwi, was shot and killed along with another member. – Cape Times April 9, 2021
  • MEC for Community Safety Albert Fritz says he is “appalled” by the number of young people struck by stray bullets… on the Cape Flats. – News24 April 8, 2021

“Among those injured include Riaz Cloete, 8, who was shot in the head in Manenberg on Saturday afternoon (April 3) when playing (in) the road…; Chloe van der Westhuizen, 4, from Hanover Park … who was shot in the eye on March 25, and Declyn Wippenaar who was shot in the spine while playing in a football tournament in Philippi on Monday (April5).”

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