Innovative Charl du Plessis Trio Play With Our Imaginations In Times of Stress

With a new album, in hand, it’s time for the Charl du Plessis Trio to launch their latest musical feast titled Imagine, apt for our times when the world has been turned upside down. But music will always be there to stimulate the imagination, Charl du Plessis tells DIANE DE BEER:

Because he works fanatically on so many different levels, it’s surprising to hear musician Charl du Plessis say that his jazz trio hasn’t released a CD for two years. He is someone who fast-tracks everything.

But this one wouldn’t have happened at this time either if they hadn’t been approached to record with Swiss speaker company as part of their Stenheim Acoustic Sessions which give artists the chance to record original tracks in unusual places and in exceptional acoustic conditions. “We were fortunate to record this project with their world-class acoustic treatment to ensure the most organic and powerful listening experience,” explains Charl about the sessions recorded at the Espace Consonance in Saxon, Switzerland.

These days with music recordings so problematic, no one is going to disregard this kind of invitation, but what really excited the trio was the quality inherent in the full process. Stenheim’s quality products are the guarantee of a superb recording in a state-of-the-art studio.

Charl du Plessis Trio

This is the first recording by the Charl Du Plessis Trio in its new format, following the departure of the former drummer for China. Peter Auret, one of Gauteng’s most sought-after jazz drummers, joins original members Charl on piano and Werner Spies on bass.

“It’s been invigorating,” says Charl, who with this album wanted to include tracks that share their respect for the original score which has always been their strong suit – a crossover between jazz and the classics, with Charl a master in both genres.

And he emphasises that with Peter joining their team, imaginative moves have been flourishing. One needs change every once in a while and when it is as positively organic as this one was, it can also be hugely beneficial. “We all work together extremely well,” adds Charl.

It also helps that Peter is an award-winning recording engineer and producer with his own studio while Werner adds techno buff to his skills. Charl, always someone who keeps adding yet another string to his bow (see Episode 2 of Toegang on kykNET), also recently added piano tuner to his repertoire. “One often battles to find someone at specific times,” he says and as the owner of two Steinways (being a Steinway musician), he can now do his own when required.

Peter Auret on drums

They say you have to know the rules before you can bend and  break them. That truly applies here and you will hear that immediately as you start listening to their music which seems to have taken on a world in trouble while offering an easy escape – for just a while.

Their music reflects their passion. These are musicians who travel the world with their special brand of music, something that translates well and appeals to both jazz and classical audiences – and that isn’t always a given. Think of the way classical or jazz music has sometimes been dumbed down for a more general audience. This is not that.

It’s about combining and infusing all their multiple influences but in a way that is smart, honours the original music and delivers a sound that is both fresh and refreshing. Included in the lineup, which should have you smiling, is Mozart’s Magic Flute, Beethoven’s Für Elise, Ode to Joy and the Adagio cantabile from Sonata Pathetique, Bizet’s Seguidilla from Carmen, Verdi’s Va Pensiero from Nabucco and to conclude, John Lennon’s Imagine!

Werner Spies on bass

They’ve been at it for 12 years and in that time while not stagnating, they know what works and how to keep it challenging. They wouldn’t have had this recording if that weren’t the case. This is a difficult area to make your name – and a living. You have to deliver for it to work and they do.

They have won major music awards including a Fiësta, two SAMA awards and a Ghoema for Best Instrumental Album. They frequently perform in Europe and Asia as well as at major music festivals in South Africa. Highlights include Grachtenfestival – the Netherlands, Musikdorf Ernen – Switzerland, and Standard Bank Joy of Jazz – Johannesburg as well as most recently digitally as part of the National Arts Festival platform. 

This launch of their new album Imagine will be held at the Atterbury Theatre in Pretoria on November 1 at 3pm. Tickets can be booked at iTickets. It’s all about familiar music with “daring textures, exciting rhythms and lush harmonic landscapes” which come together in their unconventional arrangements.

Charl on keyboards

And if you’ve never attended one of their shows, this is an ideal time to sit back (in controlled circumstances) with music that will be a balm for your soul.

The trio is constantly evolving in their quest to explore uncharted musical terrains in an imaginative manner and, like the title suggests, this is not borrowing from the extraordinary John Lennon but rather paying homage.

That’s the kind of music they make and I easily recommend. For those who cannot attend the concert (and I predict there will be more around the country as things start opening up in the new year), get the album. It’s one to cherish.

For more information visit www.charlduplessis.com

Charl du Plessis Trio with Peter Auret (drums) Charl (centre) and Werner Spies (bass)

NATANIЁL – A MAN ON THE MOVE

Nataniel ToegangMany can argue about who suffered (s) most with the appearance of Covid 19 but few will disagree that artists, who make a living by performing to a live audience, have been hit hard. Even the world’s top concert halls are struggling with no end in sight. One of our most prolific artists, Nataniël, tells DIANE DE BEER how he tries to navigate his career during the pandemic:

 

 With NANTES KOOKBOEK finishing this week, Nataniël’s latest series, TOEGANG, starts the following week – but getting that done, as everything else during Covid, was no easy task.

“The series originally planned will hopefully be done next year,” explains the artist. “The concept was a logical follow-up to the series shot in Nantes, to be filmed on the original le Roux farm just outside Kuilsriver.”

Things kept changing but because of lockdown and the necessary protocol, Nataniël  had to do some quick thinking when he realised they had to shoot where they all lived. And that was Pretoria.

“The concept came from being alone in my house for months and realising how simply I actually live and how simple my meals were,” he says. For him, delicious food, made in just one pan, became the limit for for washing-up activities. That sorted the food for the series.

He also realised how many gorgeous buildings in the city would be deserted because of the pandemic, buildings he always wanted to spend time in, but not with the crowds that would usually be there. “So I took my pan and a very small crew and went there.”

Speaking about these lightning-fast changes and the way the series had to be shot, he admitted it suited his way of working. It actually meant a spike in his already high-powered creativity levels. “I loved it. We could do what we wanted, all these fantastic spaces gave us the opportunity to create beautiful scenes, film very dramatic visuals and work without disturbances. KykNET let me be, nobody looked over my shoulder and all the strict rules made me feel safe. I had a tough time with the make-up part, because somebody had to touch me, but I bit my lip and got through it.”

Those who have interviewed Nataniël  will know that getting info about an upcoming programme or concert is like pulling teeth. Not the gist of it, but the detail. He is a man who lives for surprises. When you sit down to watch a programme or enjoy a show, he believes the less you know the better. “I tell nobody about the places we went to, that will be revealed in every episode.”

“Tragically there are no surprises on TV since Oprah left, everything is blurted out for marketing, so there is nothing to look forward to.”

But he reluctantly admits that they work according to themes, every episode has an inspired menu for which he got his ideas from the locations, history, plus his life in isolation. (“Apart from going back on stage now, I am still in lockdown, because I love it. And I will wear the mask for the rest of my life, I look fantastic and it is much cheaper than Botox.”)

nataniel oils2

He also introduces artists who made things for the programmes, including artworks, ceramics, fabrics, prints, jewellery and, of course, some surprises. 

And another secret he allows to slip … Very often a local magazine series get an original theme tune, but there rest comes from a library of canned music. “This time I had the opportunity to write and produce a full soundtrack and be in the studio for all the sessions. (With a mask and bottles of sanitiser!) That was a great experience and fantastic to work with all the musicians after months without performing a single note.”

Shooting locally for the first time in some time following a revamp of the Nantes series, was quite strange. “The European visuals are very filmic, there’s a castle or a cathedral or a museum everywhere you turn and you need to do very little to make a scene beautiful. Also finding props here was a challenge as (at the time) many shops were still closed and nothing new had come into the country for months,” always a Nataniël requirement. He hates introducing and showing things people know.

Looking ahead, Covid has given Nataniël  time to think and make some decisions. “First of all I want to dress more wildly. I realised I am still scared of what people think, but the virus took that away.

Nataniel in full colour
Nataniël in full colour

“I will also stop dumbing down musically because of my fears that the audience will not like complicated or eccentric or sophisticated or unfamiliar songs. At the Woordfees in March I performed a very modern cover song with a very abrupt ending and there was absolute silence afterwards. Then I realised nobody in the audience has heard that song yet, although it was a worldwide hit. So I stopped singing it. During isolation I decided, to hell with that, that song will be back in the new show. Life is too short to compromise.”

It’s about time!

Nataniel gesels

Now he needs to get back on stage which, not surprisingly is what he misses most. “I start with GESELS, my lifestyle talk series, every Saturday in October at the Atterbury Theatre (in Pretoria) starting this coming Saturday. Bookings on iTickets.

“Then in November Charl du Plessis and I will finally do our gala concert to celebrate working together for 20 years.” TWINTIG, the gala Concert with Charl, Sunday November 15 at 3pm in the  Atterbury Theatre. Bookings on iTickets. “In December I will stage a new production, as always.” Bookings will also be on iTickets.

He has also launched the LIVE LIKE N collection of healthy cooking oils which can be ordered at https://liveliken.com/. And a new book (a collection of short stories) will be available in October. 

Nataniël has been working on his blog called SmallCoronation.com, which was quietly released recently. “It is all about simple food in beautiful settings, creating atmosphere. I see it as sharing my personal archive with others with all the food coming from dinners at my house.

“There’s no interaction and talking nonsense with people I do not know, just an online magazine to be looked at with a cup of tea when somebody needs a break. No strange ingredients, no modern techniques, just fun, ideas and hopefully inspiration.

“It will be launched with the TOEGANG series next Monday at 8.30pm on kykNET and the English version of all the recipes will also be available on the blog.”

And if you were wondering  in anticipation about the next memoir…

Nataniel boek

That will have to wait says the author. “Too many of the characters are still alive. And LOOK AT ME (KYK NA MY) still needs to get the attention it deserves. Everything stopped when I had to stop performing and touring.”

But for the moment, the new normal kicks into action and Nataniël in full colour steps into the spotlight with even more than his usual fanfare.

I’ll be watching for those outlandish costumes and outfits as well as the music he really loves to sing … whether they like it or not!

TOEGANG starts on Monday October 5 at 8.30pm on DStv’s kykNET.

Precious Lives Interrupted Yet Never Silenced in Stories Sensitively Shared

DIANE DE BEER

These three books all deal with children who have lost their mothers and how that influenced their lives:

BK girl

 

 

 

The Girl with the Louding Voice

  by Abi Daré (Sceptre):

“I tell you true, the day I stop school and the day my mama was dead is the worst day of my life.”

And that sentence explains  what is to follow in the 14-year-old Adunni’s life. Her mother is the one who paid both to keep her at school and the exorbitant rent for their house.

But since her death, Adunni has become a valuable commodity. In fact, her life amounts to four goats, two bags of rice, some chicken and a new TV, as she is sold as the third wife to an old man. With a dedication to the author’s mother (the first female professor of taxation in Nigeria) and someone who promoted the importance of education and sacrificed so much that her daughter could get the best of it; and a prologue that points to Nigeria as the 6th largest crude oil exporter in the world (and with a GDP of $568.5 billion, the richest country in Africa, yet with 100 million people who live in poverty surviving on less that a $1 a day) that’s who this story deals with, one of the many young girls who become the sole provider for their family, not by choice but because they don’t have any.

Whatever your level of interaction with the rest of Africa, we have all heard of the plight of the Boko Haram girls who were abducted. Some will never be returned to their families, while those who do are often rejected, with the children forced upon them by their vicious captors.

Think about those 16 year-old girls kidnapped by the marauding monsters only to be blamed on their return at a time when being a teenager should be your only worry. It’s the kind of book that hopefully opens new worlds and reminds you how lucky we are to have the luxury of only discovering this kind of terror in a book.

I loved the story and the writing. It’s a unique voice, as so many from Africa are.

 

bk crawdads

 

Where the Crawdads Sing

by Delia Owens (Corsair)

Kya was only six when her mother walked out on the family. In the following few weeks, an older brother and two sisters also drifted off and Kaya was left with her favourite brother Jodie and her drinking dad.

Jodie didn’t last that long and neither did her father, only a few more years. By the time she approached her teens, without any schooling, neither writing nor reading, she was on her own living in their shack in the marsh on the edge of Barkley Cove.

Not only had this young girl been deserted by her entire family, the town also rejected her and she had no one to turn to. Dumped on by everyone who saw her as the Marsh Girl, she was laughed out of school, her only resource the marsh and its embracing flora and fauna that taught her about life.

It reads like a modern-day folktale, almost too far-fetched to hold on to and yet, we all know the Kyas of the world, those living on the edge, some who manage to get ahead in spite of the struggle and the way the world has turned its back on them.

The author Delia Owens has three internationally best-selling non-fiction books about her life as a wildlife scientist in Africa including Cry of the Kalahari, and this is her debut novel, which is probably why it has such an almost naive yet wondrously unique voice.

It’s beautifully written and takes you to another world as Kya tries to face a world that keeps turning its back on her.

bk dutch

 

 

The Dutch House

by Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury)

From the time that Danny and Maeve’s mother leaves home – and this time doesn’t come back – their lives are about longing, which is very closely linked to the Dutch House.

“Like swallows, like salmon, we were helpless captives of our migratory patterns. We pretended that what we had lost was the house, not our mother, not our father.”

And thereby hangs the tale in a fascinating story that is viewed from many different perspectives, all of this packaged with a delicious caricature of the evil stepmother at the centre. But this isn’t her story.

Patchett is a familiar name but this is the first of her novels I have read and from the first page just loved the writing. It’s clean yet charming, shows an insight that is uncanny and hitches your heart to the characters whose lives have been thrown into a storm that is beyond their means and abilities to deal with – yet they do.

Because the brother and his older sister are dealing with the same trauma, it’s also intriguing to see how they deal with their loss, abandonment and sheer misery of what they have to come to terms  with in their upended circumstances.

It has to do with age and gender, how a mother’s absence plays into their lives and how they deal with these emotions – whether it is anger or longing that lingers most strongly. The older daughter might find it difficult to resist clinging to old feelings because there are clear memories to return to time and again, while the younger brother might be more broody and resentful about a mother leaving her children still so young.

Yet it is these close family ties that are tied up and thrown about in different scenarios to see how they play out.

And in the end, although all three the books hold a certain longing from those who have lost what is one of their most impactful relationships, it is also the different voices, the way the authors tell their stories and their writing, that is finally quite extraordinary in all three.

I will certainly want to read more by Patchett who has quite a resumé, but am also hopeful that the other two writers will keep writing following these brilliant debut attempts.

The First Klein Karoo National Arts Festival Virtual Gallery Is Visual Feast

DIANE DE BEER

KKNKBarbara Wildenboer in die 3D Virtuele Galery 2
Festival Artist Barbara Wildenboer in the 3D Virtual Gallery 2

 

The arts have been reeling from Covid19 from the word go especially as it all began locally right at the start of the festival season when many artists earn the bulk of their bread and butter money.

It’s been a frantic scramble for artists to find a way to function in this new world and as many of us realise, this (which we don’t yet understand in its fullest) is the new normal. Awful phrase, but we might as well get used to it because it is what it is and even though Donald Trump is trying his best to ignore the many dying from the virus, the whole world has had to reinvent and find a way to start functioning again.

In the arts, it has been fascinating to watch because this is what artists do – they reinvent themselves – but for some like visual artists, it is perhaps an easier process. They’re not quite as dependent on live audiences in close proximity as actors and musicians for example.

With this in mind, the Klein Karoo National Arts Festival (KKNK) was quick to react.

Their festival, which would have been held at the end of March, like all those following, had to be cancelled and they are still scratching their heads about how to proceed in the future.

KKNK Barbara Wildenboer in die 3D Virtuele Galery
Barbara Wildenboer in the 3D Virtual Gallery

But what became pretty obvious fairly soon was that they could create a virtual art gallery of the 11 exhibitions which were on their way to Oudtshoorn just as the festival was closed down.

“We are extremely excited to launch the first Klein Karoo National Arts Festival (KKNK) Virtual Gallery, where art enthusiasts from all over the world will now have the opportunity to engage with the festival’s visual arts exhibitions,” explained Hugo Theart, Artistic Director of the KKNK.

Theart says the festival has built a reputation for its extraordinary visual arts exhibitions over two decades and this year has encouraged them to take the virtual leap. “Although the cancelation of the 2020 festival due to the current Covid-19 pandemic remains a great disappointment, we are excited about this new digital experience”, he says.

And that’s exactly the thing. In this new world artists have to get creative and find new ways to do their work.

KKNK Usha Seejarim Nesting installation SMAC Gallery Photo Credit Zivani Matangi (002)
Usha Seejarim Nesting installation SMAC Gallery. Photo: Zivani Matangi.

As chance and luck should have it, their brand-new visual arts curator, Dineke van der Walt, is young and probably grew up in a digital world. She was excited about the possibilities of this virtual gallery and says that in the future it can only get better. What it does is allow an international as well as local audience to visit this year’s art contribution with the theme Down to Earth.

KKNK Maryna Cotton and Sarel van Staden, MeerKat, Exhibition Karoo Stories
Maryna Cotton and Sarel van Staden, MeerKat, Exhibition: Karoo Stories

According to Van der Walt, art can be viewed and bought directly in the Virtual Gallery. “Festivalgoers, art enthusiasts and collectors now have the opportunity to roam the digital halls of our visual arts programme, viewing the splendour of 11 exhibitions without the crowds. The offering includes works from 45 artists and more than 200 artworks”, she explains.

And she’s not exaggerating. Even though the exhibitions weren’t created with the digital space in mind, the curator and artists have been extremely creative, finding a unique way to show the work in a way that works specifically with each individual exhibition.

KKNK Sbongiseni Khulu The Creation of Famine Exhibition Another Kind of Blue Curator Amé Bell David Krut Projects (002)
Sbongiseni Khulu: The Creation of Famine Exhibition: Another Kind of Blue; Curator Amé Bell, David Krut Projects

Running through the different exhibitions, Van der Walt points to a few talented young curators, including Amé Bell, Tammy Langtry, Tlotlo Lobelo and Suen Muller. “Artists include Usha Seejarim, Lisl Barry, Manyaku Mashilo, Strijdom van der Merwe, Heidi Fourie, Linda Ballen, Zhi Zulu, Olivia Botha, Ronél de Jager, JP Hanekom, Keneilwe Mokoena, Maryna Cotton, Sarel van Staden, Owen Claassen, Vincent Osemwegie and Nanette Ranger – as well as a collaborative exhibition between Jenna Burchell, Jaco van Schalkwyk and Wayne Matthews”, she says.

She notes that artworks by three young artists from Oudtshoorn are also presented by the Absa Gallery. Colin Meyer, Zietske Saaiman and Earlyn Cloud.

KKNK Barbara Wildenboer, Festival Artist Portrait with Pareidolia series
Barbara Wildenboer, Festival Artist Portrait with Pareidolia series

 

 

 

“A highlight of this project is a remarkable retrospective of this year’s festival artist, Barbara Wildenboer,” Van der Walt explains.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Translating exhibitions which were planned for very specific brick and mortar spaces to the digital sphere proved to be specifically challenging,” she notes. A particular struggle was to find the best way to showcase installations as well as an interactive “sound painting”. “Due to the immersive and interactive qualities of these works, they are designed to be experienced by bodies in spaces,” she says.

“I also wanted to make sure the virtual rooms didn’t feel too empty and therefore thought it best to make as much information as possible available around the artworks and the exhibitions. The inclusion of the audio walkabouts also really helped to add voices to the spaces and give visitors accessible information delivered by the respective curator or artist. I enjoyed adding these different voices talking about their exhibitions in their own words – it helps add personality to each exhibition.

“I’m very interested in utilising curatorial strategies to effectively engage audiences and throughout the process tried to keep in mind how visitors might move in the space, and what could be included to facilitate a pleasant experience in the virtual gallery. I realised that different visitors might prefer different modes of viewing work online, and subsequently tried to include more than one way to access the work.”

And this is what I find particularly fascinating. Often at festivals, we don’t have an abundance of time to go through the different galleries and I find myself limited in the viewing experience because I haven’t done enough of homework.

KKNK Jenna Burchell, Sound portrait - Wayne Matthews in F Minor, Exhibition - A Land I Name Yesterday, Barnard Gallery
Jenna Burchell, Sound portrait – Wayne Matthews in F Minor, Exhibition – A Land I Name Yesterday, Barnard Gallery

Van der Walt has gone out of her way to make sure the exhibitions become alive with a fount of information to dip into.

She has also included a visitor’s book in an attempt to help put faces (“or rather names”) to the visitors, as a way to allow exhibitors and artists a form of interaction with their viewing audience.

“I enjoyed confronting my preconceived ideas of what curatorial strategies should and could be and considering what form presenting exhibitions might take when it solely exists digitally.

“It’s been a wonderful learning curve for me, especially working on creative ways to attract visitors and create a new exhibition experience. Because I don’t believe virtual exhibitions should merely try to imitate brick and mortar exhibitions, it can be a unique curatorial method.”

KKNK Ronél de Jager In a quiet corner of the room Exhibition Vanishing Act Curator Suen Muller (002)
Ronél de Jager: In a quiet corner of the room; Exhibition: Vanishing Act; Curator Suen Muller

This is hugely exciting. The live experience can never be replaced by the digital world. It is important to play with the different strengths – not try to imitate, which is exactly what Van der Walt did.

She also pointed out that this had to happen after the fact. With this experience and (perhaps) in future doing both, the digital is simply going to go from strength to strength and enlarge rather than diminish future audiences.

“This initiative creates an important platform to visual artists to sell their work and generate an income from works that were created for the KKNK this year,” Theart says.

He adds that this will be the first of many exhibitions. “We believe this will become another KKNK institution which will add more value to our supporters and add more opportunities for visual artists in future.”

The first ever full scale KKNK Virtual Gallery is open at www.kknk.co.za  and can be viewed until 22 July 2020.

It’s truly a spectacular experience.

Anglo-Nigerian Author Bernardine Evaristo Soars With Girl, Woman,Other and Lands the 2019 Booker Prize

When reading and writing this review, the current #BlackLivesMatter had not yet started. But this time hopefully it will mean real change for people excluded from living real lives in their countries. Authors like Bernardine Evaristo will be celebrated for her writing alone and not for becoming the first black woman to win the celebrated Booker Prize. DIANE DE BEER tells more:

Book Girl, Woman, Other

 

When you find yourself in a world where much of what you write is seen as the general experience of a whole group that people feel you represent, telling stories could become difficult.

When you discover that while sharing the 2019 Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood, author Bernardine Evaristo with Girl, Woman, Other (Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin) her eighth novel is also the first black woman to win this prestigious prize, the burden of finding an audience in a world that still operates according to labels becomes clear – especially in a world where books and reading are not everyone’s priority.

It’s a shame and hopefully in this time of lockdown across the world, many will discover how important and, more than anything, exciting it is to escape into a world that someone else has created for you. And while exhaling, also find that our similarities are as many as our differences and that’s what makes the world such a fascinating place.

As an introduction, her book sleeve states that the author is an Anglo-Nigerian writer of seven other books of fiction and verse fiction that explore aspects of the African diaspora: past, present, real, imagined. Her writing, it further embroiders, also spans short fiction, reviews, essays, drama and writing for BBC Radio. She is furthermore a professor of creative writing at Brunel University, London and vice chair of the Royal Society of Literature. She was made an MBE in 2009.

But probably in the world we live in, not winning the Booker Prize per se, but sharing it with Margaret Atwood has put her on the radar of many in the reading world. And reading this book as well as running through her credentials, it’s about time.

Small wonder she is also  listed as a literary activist for inclusion, has founded several successful initiatives, including Spread the Word, a writer development agency; The Complete Works, a mentoring scheme for poets of colour (between 2007 and 2017); and the Brunel International African Poetry Prize. What is it that they say about women having to work so much harder? And then add to that women of colour…

That’s an exhausting CV, just reading it. But back to the winning novel. It’s densely populated with 12 different women of colour. This time they take central stage – and they are as varied as there are people. Young, old, cheeky, subservient (but not for too long), upstanding, rocking-the-equilibrium even further, wealthy, but most struggling as we would in real life, they fall in and out of love, some with the right folk, others not so much but all of them have dreams and are trying to reach them any way they can.

It all begins at the opening of a theatre production at London’s National Theatre (something Evaristo dabbled in) and their touch point is that in some way all of the featured characters have a link with this particular night.

Their stories are introduced in different chapters and some have crossovers while others not, yet the storytelling rambles on in a way that living a life or many different lives is wont to do. The interest is, of course, in the writing as much as the different tales that unfold, even though these are intriguing and engrossing.

As her CV suggests, Evaristo is no ordinary writer.  She uses no full stops and there’s a poetic flow to the writing and the way it has been printed which all make a strong statement in this exhilarating rich story.

More than anything it has to do with the stories being told. Again it is the cover sleeve that suggests that she is presenting a “gloriously new kind of history, for this old country: ever-dynamic, ever-expanding and utterly irresistible.” No wonder some boisterous characters powerful only in the world of politics are running scared and looking as hard as they can for laws that will prevent all this diversity.

Instead of embracing the energy and exuberance of multi-cultural worlds, they want to put a stop to it by shutting it down. How utterly sad.

Either way, for those of us – and in this country with all its richness in diversity, you can hardly ignore it – who embrace it, the colourful world that emerges and dominates is wonderfully challenging, constantly changing and usually a hub of creativity as different cultures cross-pollinate and stretch one another.

To give you a sense of what you may be stepping into:

At some point it’s Newcastle in 1905. A 10-year-old in an orphanage is dreaming of an African father she will never meet.

Cornwall 1953 and a young bride recently from Barbados realises that the man she is about to marry might not be the one.

In London 1980, Amma reigns supreme in her squat while setting out to demolish patriarchy with a new kind of feminist theatre.

Oxford 2008 finds Carole rejecting her background (Nigeria originally) to fit in at her new university.

Morgan who used to be Megan is visiting the 90-year-old Hattie in Northumberland in 2017. She is still fighting to retain her independence and missing her man every day.

And so the story goes. But it is about much more than just the lives of these women, even though their stories are what has to tell the story the author is intent on getting out there.

With writers like these being given prominence in whatever way, at some point we will stop paying attention to who is writing what and simply fall in love with the writing, the telling of stories and the easiest way to enrich and broaden what might otherwise be a very small world.

 

 

Author Jonny Steinberg writes Brilliantly about People that Matter in the Award-Winning One Day In Bethlehem

This is another of those books that could be titled #blacklivesmatter and it makes perfect sense that it was awarded the 2020 Recht Malan Prize for non-fiction. As is his nature, Jonny Steinberg perfectly captures this moment in time with his latest illuminating investigative writing. DIANE DE BEER reviews:

 

bk one dayOne Day In Bethlehem by Jonny Steinberg  (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

From the Harold Pinter inscription (A thing is not necessarily true or false; it can be both true and false) to the first sentence which states that the author, Jonny Steinberg, could have sworn that he had read the newspaper report that triggered this book in his office, he is at pains to make a point about memory and how people remember things.

Apart from the horrific life circumstances of most of the men featured in this book (they’re all black and tragically, that is the only explanation we still need in 2020), especially Fusi Mofokeng, who is the one focussed on in most detail and depth, he also searches for the truth and how this can be distorted through constant lifelong trauma.

For Fusi, a resident of Bethlehem, life has been tough. And even though he had a rough childhood, nothing could prepare him for what was going to happen to him on the eve of our new democracy – what should have been a time of freedom became a loss of life as he understood it.

The summary on the back page of the book captures it thus: A bakkie full of men armed with AK47s is stopped by two policemen on the outskirts of Bethlehem in the Free State. The men open fire on the policemen and, from that moment their lives are irrevocably changed. So too for Fusi Mofokeng, a resident of Bethlehem, who was not in the bakkie but happened to be the brother-in-law of one of the perpetrators. He and his drinking buddy, Tshokolo Mokoena, are accused of being accomplices and are tried, sentenced and jailed.

Jonny Steinberg_One Day In BethlehemAnd then begins Steinberg’s story in his exact, detailed style as he unravels the lives of those involved to get to the nub of the story but also to put you in the shoes of the people whose story is being told.

For most of the white privileged world, this is important because you still today have people saying in total ignorance that the playing field is level, for example. When you follow these lives, you quickly understand that for many people, in fact the majority in the world, this is simply not true and can never be.

When starting to interview especially the two men wrongfully accused and imprisoned for life (they served 19 years), Steinberg found that he struggled to connect with Tshokolo during the first evening and the notes he made were filled almost entirely with Fusi’s words. This is where he focused and why he persisted.

“During his years in prison, the world outside, he said,  slowly emptied of the people he loved.” Already you have a lump in your throat, and this is page 8. It is not an easy read yet as all Steinberg’s work, it is compelling. No one was more reluctant to read The Number, one of his earlier books dealing with prison gangs. It completely overwhelmed me and I have been a Steinberg disciple ever since.

And he does it again. He takes you into the lives of others and teaches you about a world, perhaps unknown and unfamiliar, and brings understanding and much more empathy than you might have had before for your fellow (sometimes world) citizens.

The detail he exacts from his subjects makes sense at the end as he gives you a particular life with specific circumstances, whether it is someone who is reluctant to be treated for Aids, dealing with the harshness of prison life or trying to come to terms with life imprisonment for a crime he didn’t commit. That must be one of life’s most difficult battles and in a world where black men are viewed through the harshest of prisms, Steinberg is at pains to show how Fusi met some Samaritans along the way which gave him courage and confidence to fight for freedom at any cost.

One of those was a social worker in Kroonstad who spotted Fusi’s anger and helped him to understand that eventually it would kill him.

“It’s amazing to me that you are not angrier,” writes Steinberg about an early conversation with Fusi.

“’I was very angry,’ he replied. ‘I realised if I didn’t stop being angry, I was going to die…’

‘I was shown the connection by a warder, a very good man, a white man. His name was Steyn.’”

He took Steyn’s advice to heart and realised it was his only way out.

He wrote to everyone he could think of; officials in government, the ANC, the TRC (which rejected him for amnesty because he didn’t commit the crime) and the list went on. Finally he made contact with Jacques Pauw (or so he thought) and this hard-hitting journalist who uncovered so much of what has gone wrong in this country, decided to check the story of the two innocent life-long prisoners. At the time he headed the Wits Justice Project.

On his way to interview Jacques, Jonny reminisces: “Fusi’s is a tale one resists. One listens intently and thinks one has taken in the depth of it, but it is not so. For one does not want to walk in his shoes.”

And again he encapsulates in that one sentence the thing that gnaws at you throughout reading the book. How and why does this happen to people? And so often the very people who don’t have the means (and here I don’t even mean money) to do anything about their momentous dilemma.

As the book winds down, the author allows himself to speculate, to capture some emotional moments in prose that’s breath-taking. But he also wonders and philosophises about especially Fusi’s life and what would have become of him if this bakkie full of freedom fighters hadn’t stopped over for that dreadful day in Bethlehem.

 

It’s a fascinating and rewarding read. He has always had the power to tell stories – especially those set locally – that fling the doors wide open and allow us into a problem(s) while bringing understanding and depth to a news headline. Locally but also worldwide, we so easily accuse without empathy or understanding. This is a time to stand still and take stock and Steinberg’s insightful book is a powerful way to do that.

And it seems the time is right. Finally everyone seems to listen and hear that black lives matter.

Author Jeanne Goosen – a Woman of Wise and Wonderful Words – a Force of Nature

DIANE DE BEER

When author/poet/playwright Jeanne Goosen died at the beginning of June, a unique voice was silenced.

But fortunately with writers, they do leave their voices behind and while Jeanne’s mother tongue was Afrikaans, one of her most acclaimed works, Ons Is Nie Almal So Nie, was translated into English by André P Brink who, in a twist of irony, had a few decades  before slated her first poetry book. This, in turn, had paused the publishing of any new anthologies for quite some time according to her biography.

So crushed was the young poet that, while still writing, she didn’t want the humiliating results on any further public display of her poetry.

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Author Jeanne Goosen

That’s who Jeanne Goosen was. She was one of the journalists at the interestingly staffed Oggendblad in Pretoria where I started my journalistic career in the ’70s and I was hooked. She was a storyteller and someone about whom stories were told – and still are.

Coincidentally, at the time of her death I had just started the Petrovna Metelerkamp biography Jeanne Goosen; ‘n Lewe Vol Sinne (Hemel en See Boeke) which I found absolutely fascinating. I knew enough about her to find an easy way in, but even though this book has been described as “skoongeskrop”, for those of us who didn’t  know Jeanne that well, there’s enough to form a very vivid picture of someone who lived her truth – even though most of her friends would agree that the going was tough.

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Having read a few of her works recently while also listening to a tribute production on RSG of Elders aan Diens with Luna Paige, Nicole Holm and a name I only recently encountered, Frieda van den Heever (who directed the most fantastic production at the recent Woordfees, Die Poet, Wie’s Hy?), it’s evident, while very funny and no holds barred, there’s always a tragic underpinning.

This is emphasised in an in memoriam former publisher Hettie Scholtz wrote for litnet of the gloriously wild and wonderful Jeanne (and with her kind permission I repeat):

In response to one of Jeanne’s short stories Hulle noem my Jean, she asked the author where she found the courage and she surprises her with the following lengthy quotation from Ania Brookner’s Look at me;

“When I feel swamped by my solitude and hidden by it, physically obscured by it, rendered invisible, in fact, writing is a way of piping up. Of reminding people I am here. And when I have ordered my characters, plundered my store of images, removed from them all the sadness that I might see in myself, then I can switch on the current that allows me to write so easily once I get started, and to make people laugh. That, it seems, is what they like to do. And if I manage this well enough and beguile all the dons and the critics, they will fail to register my real message, which is a simple one.

“If my looks and my manners were of greater assistance to me I could deliver this message in person. Look at me, I would say. Look at me. But since I am alone in this matter, I must use subterfuge and guile, and with a little bit of luck and good management this particular message will never be deciphered, and my reasons for delivering it in this manner will remain obscure.”

And now you begin understanding the melancholy, the willfulness and the discomfort in her own skin – always the outsider. But when you start reading Jeanne (in Afrikaans), it’s her understanding of the life she views from the sidelines, her determined and not unexpected iconoclastic view of the world in general, the frustration of even close friends because of an unpredictability that all come rushing through.

Hers was not an easy life to view but more than anything, a tough one to live when you read the biography.

And then she dies, a voice suddenly gone and the words are all around and they are magnificent. They always were, we just forget.

Apart from the biography which is a portrait of a true artist, an illuminating recent anthology Het Jy Geweet Ek Kan Toor (Hemel en See Boeke) as well as a book of stray sayings which the biographer couldn’t resist compiling titled Los Gedagtes (Hemel en See Boeke), a true gem and just for those non-Afrikaans speaking readers, I loosely translate a few that capture some of her truths. Metelerkamp notes that these were random phrases written down, the grammar unfixed, not filed according to topic, that highlight the amazing thought processes of a thinking artist:

Who wants a constructive relationship?

Stubborn women rule.

A postcard is an orgy in sepia.

All suffering is man-made.

Posthumously rehabilitated.

One eye is always completely open. It considers, watches, and sees the silliness of everything.

Food spiced with the blood of killers.

The cold and poverty of this winter was gruelling and humiliating.

To write is like dreaming while being awake. It’s like being a magician.

Writing is like having a love affair with death.

Life is energy and a head filled with facts.

Materialism is a kind of psychological ideology and a lifestyle.

Dead: If you are dead, you are dead and that is that. If you are alive, you are dead most of the time anyway.

Don’t overestimate people’s intelligence.

Death is life’s healing drug.

Perhaps I was Tchaikovsky in a previous life. But what did I do wrong that fate dumped me in Parow amongst these people who don’t understand anything?

Total independence. Total freedom.

I will eventually reach the truth if I keep on making notes.

His beard starts in his nose.

I fail in the human world. I should have become a nature conservationist.

And she goes on…gloriously so, sometimes so sad and sometimes hysterically funny.

As a young journalist, to watch her in action was spectacular. She was larger than life and even years later when I had to review Trudie Taljaard in Kombuis-blues, I could still hear Jeanne’s unique gravelly voice in my head. If she happened to cross your path, you remembered her.

Similarly with her writing and there’s so much more. If at all possible, try to read as much of her published works as well as the biography. Who she is and what she wrote is extraordinary.

And there’s so much more than can be captured here…. her passionate love for dogs and other animals; her love of music,  and ability to play piano and perform … and on and on.

If I could wish upon her star, cherish her words and honour the author. She deserved so much more.

Undercover with Mandela’s Spies Captures the Devastation but tells of Reclaiming a Life, Making a Difference

With the current tensions and peaceful resistance in the US (and now worldwide) following yet another police killing of an innocent black man, the insensitivity amidst all of this for example of a white sportsman trying to tell his black teammate why he should not dishonour the flag or his country by taking the knee, Bradley Steyn’s own battle with his privileged whiteness could not be more relevant

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Bradley Steyn was still a teenager when he crossed Strijdom Square (at the time) to visit his mom at the State Theatre. His life exploded into the sharpest of tiny shards as he found himself centre of the horrific Barend Strydom massacre (with 8 black victims murdered and 16 injured) yet wasn’t targeted because of the colour of his skin. He tells DIANE DE BEER about the decades of trying to recover his splintered life:

Two journalists capture much of why Bradley Steyn’s book Undercover With Mandela Spies – The Story of the Boy Who Crossed The Square (Jacana) is such a mesmerising read if like me, you aren’t immediately drawn to yet another story about our past as told by a white man.

The first is Daily Maverick’s Marianne Thamm who writes about Bradley Steyn and his book: “Bradley Steyn’s book is not just a rollicking read full of testosterone-driven skop, skiet and donner, treachery and treason, it is also about a young white man’s gradual attainment of wisdom, of understanding how psychologically, emotionally and spiritually corrosive the idea of unreconstructed whiteness is.” (And I implore you to find this article at Daily Maverick and read it, as further proof that this is an illuminating read, as she does a wonderful piece, putting it all into its political context of the time – 1988).

And this concluding paragraph in journalist Ranjeni Munusamy’s column in a past Sunday Times:

“Ours is an impossible story: It began 25 years ago with the triumph over a system that forced us to hate ourselves and each other.We are and will always be a deeply damaged people. On our journey we lost our humanity and our values were eroded. We lost our national pride.Now begins a new era. Broken or conquered, we must find our way.”

These, in different ways, encapsulate Bradley Steyn’s story Undercover with Mandela’s Spies: The Story of the Boy who crossed the Square and the title is perhaps so much more vivid if you live in Pretoria where it all began.

And then, to further intrigue, there’s yet another catch phrase on the cover: Four sworn enemies. The MK ANC Spy team that infiltrated the heart of the apartheid regime.

And the preface begins with: “It’s been 30 years. It’s time I got over it.”

He is, of course, talking about that horrific day that impacted the rest of his life. “There was a court case,” he writes. “A killer got the gallows and was sent to Death Row. I saw what he did, saw him murder those people, but I survived. I got a job. I married. I had a child.” Survivor’s guilt is often what really survives – in these kinds of situations.

Bradley Steyn, who was only 17 years old at the time, was no different. In fact, nothing in his personal circumstances helped either – not because people are bad, but because they don’t know how to react, how best to help. That includes everyone from parents, to teachers, to friends.

He explains his own circumstances best: “But then like a cassette tape unraveling, everything suddenly snarled into a noise I didn’t recognise, and that life I had before just screeched to a halt. “The story of his world following the shooting on the square is how his life took on a life of its own.

“I had escaped physically unscathed, but the real damage lay within. I have never recovered emotionally.” He acknowledges that the post-trauma he suffered was hard on his parents, as his stress disorder intensified in the weeks that followed the slaughter.

“The desolation of not having the school principal or my teachers or the other children – except a couple of close friends – even acknowledge what had happened has remained with me to this day.” It’s a chilling sentence which captures the terror this young boy must have felt following the killing spree he was witness to – allowed to escape simply because of the whiteness of his skin.

That has been his battle and what propelled him into a life dictated mostly by the use of force as he found his life spinning into a routine of violence, seemingly the only thing he understood at the time.

“A child today would be given a time to heal, to be filled with fury, and then to dip and rise – whatever was needed,” he notes.

But there was nothing like that, not for any of the victims. His mind was left to rage with bedtime becoming hellish. It’s so typical of how white people in this country reacted to horror at the time, they turned away, brushed it aside and those directly affected, just had to cope. No one did.

And as he explains, the devastating after-shocks didn’t stop there. That was just the beginning. In desperation, his parents decided that the military might help to bring order to his chaotic life and it did, on the surface – but also honed all his skills for a way of life that led to him announcing the following resumé: Thug for hire. Highly qualified.

As he passed from being a bouncer at nightclubs to a life much darker and dangerous, he writes: “I was just a humble thug, a 19-year-old taken in by the lure of an undercover life where I could blow off the terrors inside my head without having to answer to anyone…the people I came across were often brutish, unafraid of blood and even death. That was the criminal underworld, and I guess I had been shifting more and more into that zone of absolute indifference because it fulfilled a need in me to shut off all emotion.”

From there he followed a short route into doing dirty work for the apartheid regime and at some point, was flipped to the other side, eventually fronting as a far-right fanatic to infiltrate an even scarier world which eventually led to him fleeing the country for his life.

 And finally my first reservations when handed the book, and I will again explain this courtesy of Marianne Thamm and journalist/author Janet Smith who was instrumental in the writing of this book:

Smith wrote about her first impressions: “If I was wary of supremacists – who didn’t hesitate to DM me with threats of slitting me open from top to bottom and rejoicing if I was gang-raped – I was cautious of Bradley at the get-go. I was affected by his experience as the boy who crossed the square, but I was immediately suspicious of everything else, especially the depth of his relationship with the ANC.”

She explained that while she was “moved by his having witnessed Strydom’s massacre, I felt he had to be that white male stereotype of a special kind that my generation of South Africans knows only too well. He would want to be ‘protected’ and treated as special in some way because he had always been told he was.”

Thamm in turn writes: “Smith’s sentiments echoed my own when I first picked up this remarkable book. Do we really need another damaged white person who finds redemption through black suffering and pain?”

And when reading the book, these are issues the author battles with himself and which makes this such an intriguing read. He had to come to terms with his demons. And the serious position he takes is underlined by the space of time elapsed since his life was turned on its head.

I love the way Steyn ended the book by giving the details of all the victims of that horrific Strydom Square nightmare, fortunately now with a powerful new name and that of a woman, Lilian Ngoyi; but also the details of the people who played a large part in his life.

It is a book that captures the devastation on so many levels of people living in this country during apartheid, but it also tells a story of reclaiming a life and making a difference, something which this country is also renowned for.

 

Pretoria Boys High’s Education Warrior Bill Schroder Tells A Headmaster’s Story

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It’s a time to dip into books that you might not always get time for as one of the few good things of lockdown has been the gift of time. DIANE DE BEER reviews one such example:

 

 

 

 

 

As I don’t have children, schools have never loomed large in my adult life and, having had my own dose of prestigious same-sex schools in my youth, the traditions etc. don’t factor into my thinking.

But (full disclosure), as Bill Schroder is a family friend and I had listened to him speaking in general and more specifically about schools – also being a Pretoria inhabitant for the past 40 plus years – I was tempted to see what he had to say following his retirement (not that he has ever given up fundraising for his final alma mater).

And thus when starting with A Headmaster’s Story: My Life in Education by Bill Schroder (Jonathan Ball Publishers), it took a few chapters for me to fully engage. But once he grabbed hold of me, it was a fascinating read.

With the current pandemic, most people will have realised how vital frontline or essential workers are to all of our lives. These are the people who are taken for granted, held in little regard and paid extremely badly. With money being power in the world we live in, no wonder the teaching profession is not taken seriously.

And yet all of us go to school and we all know the impact those special teachers in our lives have on our future. They are the people who speak truth to power, who are intent on showing their pupils the things that count and who often steer us in a direction that we never thought was possible.

What we should never forget with these essential workers (and this is exactly what teachers and educators are) is that they are often driven by an overwhelming desire to do the best they can. It is a calling rather than a career and that’s why the good ones always rise to the top.

Once the young Schroder realises that what he wants to do is be a headmaster, to lead, and to do it his way, there’s no stopping him. He paid his dues and proved his mettle at schools that were write-offs in the community but he also learnt valuable lessons right through his teaching career from the day he started.

He is someone who knows and acknowledges when he could possibly have done better (a rare trait) in the competitive world of top schools where it is dog eats dog (as in any of these mini societies that are understood only by those who are part of them). To survive all the in-fighting and the struggle of getting it right is a feat in itself, especially if you are an outsider,  which in many instances is what he was.

But this is not where this headmaster lingers. He is much more intent on dealing with the way he did things and why he believes they work.

For the reader, it is clear that he had some blessings – his wife Cherry the most important one. Both of them are their own people but Schroder is very clear on why he could deliver his ideals – his wife supported him in everything he did as a headmaster. When they had to move even in the worst of circumstances, she simply got packing. And often his teaching duties included that of serving as house master at one of the boarding homes, which included the co-operation of the whole family. Irt was never an issue And allows you to focus where it’s necessary.

There are many stories and lessons he imparts but often it is best just to hear what he has to say.

As the book progresses, in his own words, he offers the perfect example of his leadership with this example:

“…I feel strongly that when a principal is involved in major (and not so major) disciplinary and behavioural issues, he or she can frequently defuse them and prevent long, drawn-out disciplinary issues that then end up in the hands of people who are not necessarily skilled or experienced enough to deal with the problem. It is vital their parents to know that the head finds these issues important enough to get involved.

“I know there are procedures that are prescribed for dealing with various disciplinary issues, but in my opinion, these should be a last resort. I am sure that when serious disciplinary issues arise in schools, there has not been visible leadership, getting to the source of the problem immediately and decisively.

“…this underlines the need to surround yourself with good and trustworthy people, and to let them pick up the issues at which you as leader might not be competent, and in so doing also to acknowledge your weaknesses.

“No matter how small or inconsequential a problem that a pupil brings to you may seem, if it is important to him or her, then as a leader you need to respect that importance. Theories of leadership and leadership styles abound; arguments about whether leaders are born or can be made have gone on for centuries; and of course your leadership style is a reflection of many things, and in particular your personality….

The next priority for me was support for my staff. …”

It is this kind of insight that makes this such a fascinating read. For those of us living in Pretoria, many stories swirl around about loved headmasters. There’s a reason for that; they make a difference to lives – more importantly young lives.

And Schroder didn’t only make a difference to the lives directly under his care. As the former headmaster of one of the country’s top schools, a few years after retirement he was approached to consider mentoring a secondary school in Soshanguwe.

He was persuaded by a former member of the governing body of Boys High to assist them. His brief was specifically to mentor the principal and his staff at this particular school. He describes it as a “most interesting, challenging and at times a depressing relationship,” but more importantly he goes on to say, “from which I have learned as much, if not more, than they have.”

Like much of his advice throughout the book, it is often relevant to ordinary lives. He was blessed with a great partner who stood by his side throughout his career and brought her own special magic as the headmaster’s wife. That allowed him to walk and talk his own truth which he imparts in this smart book.

And even for those who don’t have kids at school, it’s good to know that we still have these educators who are in it for all the right reasons. It has always been one of the noblest and most precious professions, but it gets tougher and tougher to make it a choice.

It’s time that we honour these noble warriors who still stand up to be counted. It’s a calling and they can’t help themselves.

We need to salute them.

Tremendous Mantel Trilogy On Thomas Cromwell Comes to an End with Third Man Booker Deservedly in her Sights

The library is inhabited by spirits that come out of the pages at night.

– Isabel Allende

 

Diane de Beer

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The Mirror and The Light by Hilary Mantel (4th Estate):

 

 

When the third in Hilary Mantel’s Tudor trilogy landed at home (thanks to the publishers), Covid19 had already surfaced across the world, I had an arts festival to attend and I thought it would be the perfect read for my husband who was staying at home, alone, for 10 days.

On my return, the lockdown hadn’t yet been announced, the book was waiting – and lockdown happened.

Unintentionally, I had in my hands what I think might just be the perfect lockdown read. It’s not every day that you’re excited about starting an 875-page book. For one thing they’re heavy to hold in bed, but Mantel being the writer she is, the topic – an extraordinary one and this third in the trilogy – as had been proven with the first two Booker-winning books, will take you to another world completely.

One which also has plagues it must be said, but then it’s reassuring to know that the world made it through those too – and they don’t play a large role in the story while adding to the overwhelmingly precarious circumstances of everyone except those serving the king – and they have the threat of possible death hanging over their heads all the time.

“But now there are rumours of plague and sweating sickness. It is not wise to allow crowds in the street, or pack bodies into indoor spaces.” Sound familiar?

Hilary Mantel is in a league of her own when it comes to historical writing. The layers of every sentence are mind-boggling, her language pure poetry and her storytelling abilities backed by research that  is painstaking.

It is difficult to explain the full magnitude of her storytelling without it sounding tough to read, too much hard work or simply too much of a drag to even tackle. And I won’t lie, it isn’t easy reading in the sense of just picking up the book and diving into the story. Dealing with Henry VIII and his constantly changing court, depending mostly on his whims, you have to keep your wits about you to know who is who.

But Mantel knows that and she reaches out a helping hand with a very strong listing at the start of the book including all the main players. To give an indication what we’re dealing with, it starts with the heading The Recently Dead with the main topic of the previous book, Anne Boleyn, Queen of England, first on the list.

If you have read the previous two, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, you will know that the trilogy while dealing with the reign of Henry VIII, centres on the machinations of Thomas Cromwell, later Lord Cromwell, Secretary to the king, Lord Privy Seal and Vicegerent in Spirituals; that is, the king’s deputy in the English church.

What his job(s) is really about is being constantly on call and responding to the king’s every whim. This is about a ruler and a time when his word and every wish was what everything was about. “Once Henry says, ‘This is my wish,’ it becomes so dear and familiar a wish that he thinks he has always had it. He names his need, and he wants it supplied.” And “He (Cromwell) thinks, I want to be able to locate the knave at a moment’s notice. The king spits at the name of Becket, but give him a year or two and he may change his mind, and make him a saint again. Sad, but those are the times.”

The complete disparity between the king and his immediate circle and the rest of the people reminds strongly of the world we live in today, so glaringly visible during Covid19 where the treatment in so many instances is dependent on good health services. Obamacare is beginning to make sense and when you see the statistics in the US of the disparity in communities worst hit by Covid19 nothing more has to be said. Similarly, the squalid circumstances of our squatter camps. Many people don’t even consider space a luxury.

More than anything though, because you have to pay attention when reading the dense writing of Mantel, it transports you into another world far removed from the one we live in because it is so far back in time (1536 – 1540). In a recent interview with Mantel when the interviewer wanted to know something about the world we find ourselves in now (this was before Covid19), her response was quick as she reminded her audience that she had been living in the 1500s for quite some time. With research, the book took 7 years to write and is described by the author as the “greatest challenge of her writing life”.

But just breathe in some of her writing:

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Hilary Mantel

“After supper, as a hush falls and the long midsummer day folds itself and disposes to dusk…”

When talking about the latest choice of wife for the king: “Which one will he take? They say the one has brown hair and the one blonde.

“Go for the blonde, is my advice.” …

“His tastes may have changed.” She looks at him as if he is simple. “I do not think blondes go out of style.”

That could be part of any contemporary story.

And this extraordinary thinking by Cromwell on plums: “He used to think that the plums in this country weren’t good enough, and so he has reformed them, grafting scion to rootstock. Now his houses have plums ripening from July to late October, fruits the size of a walnut or a baby’s heart, plums mottled and streaked, stippled and flecked, marbled and rayed, their skins lemon to mustard, russet to scarlet, azure to black, some smooth and some furred like little animals with lilac or white ash; round amber fruits like crimson eggs in a silver net, their flesh firm or melting, honeyed or vinous; his favoured kind the perdrigon and it black , the palest having a yellow skin dotted white, sprinkled red where the sun touches it, its perfumed flesh ripe in late August; then the perdrigon violet and its black sister, favouring east-facing walls, yielding September fruits solid in the hand, their flesh yellow-green and rich, separating easily from the stone…” and it goes on.

The richness of the description says as much about Cromwell’s need to have diversions as about his attention to detail, whether it is the king’s needs or his longing for the riches he was starved of in his rotten and abusive childhood.

And that’s what is so extraordinary about her writing. Mantel tells a story of the time as much about the people as the way they lived. One dithers constantly between caring deeply for or discarding Cromwell for his dastardly deeds. He was doing the kind of dance someone like Dr Fauchi or Governor Cuomo has to do around Donald Trump. It’s not that they want his favour, they need it to serve the nation.

For Cromwell it was about survival. While he accumulated much wealth and an enviable lifestyle at the time, his family savoured his successes after his death rather than him ever having the time. He was simply treading water and even though the reader knows the end of the story and the death of Cromwell from the beginning, it’s with huge sadness that you follow his downfall in the final chapters of a book that masterfully concludes a long sojourn with Thomas Cromwell and the king he served with everything he had.

Perhaps too well, but he never had any choice. And even the outcome was destined. If you have read the first two, this isn’t even an option. And if you haven’t, this is the perfect time to tackle all three. You won’t be sorry – almost guaranteed.

I can’t wait to see where Mantel goes next. Wherever it may be, I will follow.