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J.M. Coetzee on white writing

9 January 2018

White Writing: On The Culture Of Letters In South AfricaWhite Writing: On The Culture Of Letters In South Africa by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A collection of essays on South African writing by white people. The essays are arranged roughly in chronological order by what they describe, though they were written at different times, and there is no thread of argument that links them together.

We discussed some aspects of the book at our literary coffee klatsch last week White writing, dark materials | Notes from underground, so I won’t repeat that here.

The first essay. on idleness in South Africa, deals with the first European (ie Dutch) writers who described the local people when writing for people back in the Netherlands. Their overwhelming impression was of idleness, which offended their Calvinist work ethic.

There are three essays on the literary genre Coetzee calls the “farm novel” or plaasroman. He deals with the farm novels of C.M. van den Heever in some detail. These were mostly written in the period between the World Wars, and dealt with the urbanising of Afrikaners, Most of them have a kind of nostalgia for a vanished or vanishing rural way of life, where the city and urban life is seen as evil. They promoted an ideology of landownership. In this respect they dealt mainly with the farm owners of the family farm, and paid less attention to the bywoners (sojourners, sharecrioppers). or the labourers. One thing that struck me about this (though Coetzee does not say so explicitly) is the similarity of this ideology to African ancestor veneration. It is wriong to sell the family farm because the ancestors are buried there and so on. The villains are the money lenders who get the farmers into debt, and then try to take over the farms. Some are Jews, some are deracinated Afrikaners, but all have the taint of the city and its values.

Another essay deals with the rendering of foreign speech into English or Afrrikaans. Pauline Smith, who wrote farm novels in English, did this by rendering the dialogue of Afrikaans-speaking people with Afrikaans syntax, moving the verb closer to the end of the sentence. This was more common in 17th-century English, so it gives the impression of being slightly old-fashioned. Coetzee thinks that Smith got this speech pattern from the Authorised Version of the English Bible. For example, “Every bit of news that came to her of Klaartje and Aalst Vlokman Jacoba treasured.”

Alan Paton does something similar in Cry, the beloved country when rendering the Zulu dialogue of a country priest into English. The priest has come to the city to search for his lost son, and here too the theme is of rural people going astray in the city. So Paton devises the dialogue to represent the innocence,/naivety of the country priest in the city.

The chapter I found most interesting was on Sarah Gertrude Millin. Though I had read a book she had written, a memoir Measure of my days, I did not think of her as an author, but rather as the wife of a judge. I read it when I was still at school, where I had been forced to drop History as a subject in favour of Latin, so for several years Millin’s book was the main source of my knowledge of 20th-century South African history.

From Coetzee I discovered that Millin had written several novels, mainly between the wars, where one of the main themes was the evils of miscegenation and “tainted blood”. Coetzee traces this concern to 19th-Century scientific theories, especially Darwinism, and the concept of superior and inferior races. In the 1920s and 1930s when Millin wrote her novels, such views were politically correct, especially in South Africa, though her novels were more popular overseas. But after the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials and the discrediting of Nazi race theories, such views became politically incorrect, except in ultra-rightwing circles.

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CS Lewis’ Response to Critics of The Lord of the Rings: The Dethronement of Power | Earth and Oak

8 January 2018

When Tolkien began there was probably no nuclear fission and the contemporary incarnation of Mordor was a good deal nearer our shores. But the text itself teaches us that Sauron is eternal; the war of the Ring is only one of a thousand wars against him. Every time we shall be wise to fear his ultimate victory, after which there will be “no more songs.”

Source: CS Lewis’ Response to Critics of The Lord of the Rings: The Dethronement of Power | Earth and Oak

Stephen Gawe: 80th birthday party

31 December 2017

I was pleased to be invited to the 80th birthday party of an old friend Stephen Pandula Gawe.

Victor Mkhize & Stephen Gawe at 1963 ASF conference. Behind is Revd Midian Msane.

We first met at student conferences in the 1960s. He was a student at the University College of Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape, and I was a student at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, more than 500 miles away. We met at the annual conference of the Anglican Students Federation (ASF) held at Modderpoort in the Free State in July 1963. He made a sufficiently strong impression on me for me to propose him for the office of president of the ASF, but eventually he was elected as vice-president.

At a concert held during the conference he acted an impression of a witchdoctor (igqira) holding a consultation with a client, and diagnosing what ailed them.

Stephen Pandula Gawe, Julu 1963

He was fairly active in national student affairs generally, as after the ASF conference he went on to the national council meeting of the Student Christian Association (SCA) which was being held in Johannesburg, where I lived at that time. They were involved in a heavy constitutional wrangle. The SCA had four sections — Afrikaans, English, Black and Coloured. The Afrikaans section, which was numerically strongest and the best funded, wanted the SCA to split into four separate and independent organisations, in line with the current government policy of apartheid. Since the SCA was then the only ecumenical Christian student organisation in the country, Stephen and others were concerned that splitting it up like that would further divide Christian students along racial lines, since they were also being forced to attend separate universities.

We went to visit him during the SCA Council meeting, and when he had a free evening brought him home to have dinner at my place with a couple of other ASF members, and took him back to the Priory of the Community of the Resurrection in Sophiatown, where he was staying during the council meeting. That cemented our friendship, meeting outside of conferences and formal gatherings, and just chatti9ng about all sorts of things.

The following Sunday a group of us who had been at the ASF conference went in a group to the Anglican Church in Meadowlands, Soweto, where the Revd John Davies, the Anglican chaplain at Wits University was celebrating the Mass. It was the home parish of one of the students, Cyprian Moloi, who was translating a speech the rector of the parish gave about money, in Sesotho, but when the rector said, “Morena ye-ye-ye-ye” Cyprian collapsed into giggles, as did half the congregation, who were waiting for the translation. We took Stephen Gawe to the station afterwards, to get the train back to King William’s Town — a sad parting, for we would not see each other for another year. We had to use separate entrances to enter the station, but all met up again on the platform. The authorities could segregate the entrances, and there were separate black and white carriages on the trains, but they had not yet got around to providing separate trains running on “own lines”. If Verwoerd had not been assassinated a few years later they might well have done so.

Stephen Pandula Gawe, Modderpoort, July 1964.

We met again at the next ASF conference in July 1964, also at Modderpoort, which must have been the coldest place in South Africa and it was the coldest winter in years. Driving there from Pietermaritzburg we had watched the car temperature gauge dropping as we climbed Van Reenen’s Pass, and for the rest of the way the car heater was completely ineffective. There was snow lying around on the sides of the road that had not melted since it had fallen a fortnight earlier.

When everyone else had gone to bed Stephen Gawe and I stayed up talking and playing chess (at which he easily beat me every time). We discussed possible candidates for the election of office-bearers, which produced an interesting black-white split in the election of the vice president. Most of the black members voted for a white guy, Clive Whitford, and most of the whites voted for a black guy, Jerry Mosimane. At 4 am, having talked ourselves to a standstill, we said Mattins together and lay down to sleep beside the remains of the fire in the common  room.

Stephen Gawe had to leave early to attend the SCA Council meeting again, and we took him to Modderpoort station to catch a train at about 1:30 am. It was a steam train, and while it was standing in the station, and we were all wrapped in blankets, the escaping steam condensed on the smoke deflectors and turned straight to frost. As the train pulled out and we waved goodbye, I little suspected that I would not see Stephen Gawe in South Africa for another 35 years.

Six weeks after the ASF conference we had the news that Stephen Gawe and three other Fort Hare students had been arrested and were under 90-day detention. Eventually he was brought to trial, found guilty of being a member of the banned ANC, and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment. In January 1966 I went to the UK to study for a Postgraduate Diploma in Theology at the University of Durham. When Stephen Gawe was released from prison he wrote to me to say that he to was coming to the UK to study, but he was leaving on an exit permit, which meant that he could not return to South Africa while the apartheid regime lasted.

Stephen Pandula Gawe, London, December 1966

In December 1966 he arrived in London and we got together again, as I was spending the Christmas vacation there. He was staying at the Franciscan Priory at Plaistow, while I was staying with the Sweet family in East Wickham, Kent, for the Christmas vac. Mervin Sweet had been the university chaplain when I was a student in Pietermaritzburg, and had moved to the UK a couple of years earlier.

We saw quite a bit of each other then, and we compared notes on the culture shock we had experienced on arriving in England.

We met again in June 1967, in Oxford, where he was studying, and we got together with a few other South African students there. I was staying with the Revd Tom Comber, who had been the first chaplain of the ASF when it started in 1960, and though he had not known Stephen Gawe then, they became friends and continued to keep in touch while Stephen was at Oxford, and afterwards as well.

In July 1967 Stephen phoned me, and said he was getting married to Tozie Mzamo, and wanted me to be best man at his wedding, which made me feel undeservedly honoured.

Wedding of Stephen Gawe and Tozie Mzamo, Oxford 1967

We continued to see each other occasionally, including once at a seminar for South African students in the UK, and discussing what those who returned to South Africa could do. It had a pretty wide range of South African students there, and I was rather surprised to find no mention of it in my SB file when I got a copy of it some 40 years later.

Steve Hayes and Stephen Pandula Gawe, Hatfield, Pretoria, July 2001

I returned to South Africa in July 1972, and we kept in touch by correspondence for a while after that, and then lost touch. The next contact I had with him was a phone call out of the blue in July 2001. He was in Pretoria, and had found me in the phone book. We met for dinner, and he gave me the sad news that Tozie had died. He was now in the diplomatic service, and was about to go to Denmark as South African ambassador there. I tried a few times to contact him by e-mail, but failed, and so we lost touch again.

But his daughter Nomtha, whom I had never met, got in touch, and we were able to meet her and her husband Ant Gray when they visited South Africa. She said that she too has having great difficulty in seeing her father, who was being kept incommunicado by his second wife, who seemed, to all accounts, to be the classic fairy-tale wicked stepmother. I had hoped, in a kind of reciprocal arrangement for being best man at his wedding, to invite him to our 40th wedding anniversary celebration, but no word came from behind the blank walls and windows of the fortress in which he was held. So great was our joy when we were invited to his 80th birthday party, though right up to the last minute there was some doubt about whether he would be allowed to attend.

So we went to Joburg for the party, which was suitably blessed by a traditional Highveld afternoon thunderstorm, with hail drumming on the metal roof of the garage. Pula! one might say, if anyone spoke Tswana. We met Stephen’s other daughter Vuyo, his grandchildren Jonas and Ruby, and several other relatives.

Stephen Gawe with daughters Nomtha (standing) and Vuyo. Observatory, Johannesburg, 30 Dec 2017

And getting together after all this time puts me in mind of the theme tune of the TV cop series New Tricks:

It’s all right, it’s OK
Doesn’t really matter if you’re old and grey

Stephen Gawe and Stephen Hayes, 55 years later. 30 Dec 2017

Some members of the extended family we had met before

The Gawe family

Also there was Stephen’s younger brother Ncencu (spelling?)

Vuyo and Ncencu Gawe

And an old school friend, Pinkie Nxumalo.

Syephen Gawe & Pinkie Nxumalo, with grandson Jonas in the background


Pinkie Nxumalo was regretting that people did not write down their stories, and said it was important that people should tell stories, which is one reason this post is so long, because I took her words seriously. I urged Stephen to write down some of his stories, but he feared there were too many gaps in his memory, and so they might not be accurate.

Pinkie herself had an interesting life. She trained as a doctor, went to the UK for further study, and spent some years there, and we gave her and her daughter Sibongile a lift home to Midrand. I hope she does get to write down her story.

But I’ve tried to tell a little of the story of Stephen Pandula Gawe as I knew him, and hope I get to see him again before his 81st birthday.

God grant you many blessed years!









Christmas baptism

26 December 2017

On Christmas day we baptised Charles Nkosi as Christos, which means that Christmas will be his name day from now on.

When we started holding services in Atteridgeville two years ago, Demetrius Mahwayi brought his friend Charles along. Charles became a regular, and last year we took him to the Christmas Liturgy at St Nicholas Church in Brixton, and after the service he said he wanted to be baptised. So after a year of preparation Fr Elias Palmos at St Nicholas suggested that it would be appropriate for him to be baptised there the following Christmas, which was yesterday,

Exorcisms at the church door (all photos by Jethro Hayes)

After four exorcisms, he faced west and rejected the devil, turned to the east and accepted Christ: I believe in him as King and God.

He and his sponsor (Demetrius) said the Symbol of Faith.

Rejecting the devil and accepting Christ

And the Priest says:

Bow yourself also before Him

And the catechumen bows himself, saying,

I bow myself to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, the Trinity one in essence and undivided.

I bow myself to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit

And the priest says

Blessed is God, Who desireth that all men should be saved, and should come to a knowledge of the truth…

The the priest blesses the water for baptism

The blessing of the water

Thou didst sanctify the streams of Jordan sending down from heaven Thy Holy Spirit, and didst crush the heads of the dragons that lurked therein. Do Thou therefore, O King, Lover of Mankind, come now through the descent of Thy Holy Spirit, and sanctify this water.

The priest blesses the Oil of Gladness, with which the catechumen is anointed before being baptised, , and some is poured into the baptismal water.

The catechumen is anointed for the lealing of soul and body, on the ears for the hearing of faith, on the feet that he may walk in the path of God’s commandments,

He then enters the water, and is immersed three times by Fr Elias, assisted by Fr Frumentius.

The servant of God Christos is baptised in the name of the Father. Amen. And of the Son, Amen. And of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

And after being baptised, the newly illumined servant of God Christos is given a white robe and a cross.

Give unto me a shining robe, O Thou who clothest thyself with light as with a garment

And having been baptised he is anointed with the Oil of Holy Chrism, which some call confirmation, for the priest prays to God

… Who now art well-pleased for thy newly-illumined servant to be born again through water and the Spirit, and who grantest unto him remission of sins, both voluntary and involuntary,: Do Thou Thyself O Master, O Compassionate King of all, grant him also the seal of Thy Holy, all-powerful and worshipped Spirit, that the communion of the Holy Brody and precious Blood of Thy Christ. Keep him in Thy Sanctification, confirm him in the Orthodox faith, , deliver him from the evil one and all his devices…

And then the priest cuts his hair in the form of a cross.

The priest, the newly-baptised and his sponsor go around the font, while the people sing “As many as have been baptised into Christ have put on Christ, Alleluia.

As many as have been baptised into Christ have put on Christ, Alleluia.

And finally the newly-illumined servant of God receives the Holy Communion of the Body and Blood of Christ.

Receive the Body of Christ, taste the Fountain of Immortality

Afterwards I took Christos, his sponsor Demetrius and friend Artemius back to Atteridgeville, with Christos’s aunt, who had come to witness his baptism. She promised to join us again. So one brings another.

Demetrius Mahwayi and his spiritual child Christos.

Where have all the shanties gone?

24 December 2017

For the last couple of months, as we have made our fortnightly trip to Atteridgeville for the Hours and Readers Service, we have watched the growth of a shanty town on the hillsides just before the entrance to Atteridgeville West.

New informal settlement between Saulsville and Atteridgeville West, Tshwane. 29 Oct 2017

On another hillside, on the west side of the Atteridgeville West entrance road, there was another, official settlement. We’ve been watching that for two years, as the municipality installed infrastructure — rows of toilets on the hillside, then roads, then electricity poles. It grew slowly, very slowly.

New informal settlement near Atteridgeville, Tshwane.

Fortnight by fortnight we watched as it grew. There were fences between the shacks, which made it look organised. Unlike the official settlement, however, there was no infrastructure — no roads, no sewerage, no power lines.

For at least a kilometre along the main road, the shacks spread

Along with the informal settlements, however, there were informal rubbish dumps along the sides of the roads. They too have grown enormously in the last few months. They are on both sides of the R104 leading west.

Informal settlements and informal rubbish dumps. Atteridgeville West.

When we went there this morning, I was curious to see how many more shacks there would be, but there were none.

All the ones that had been there less than two months ago had gone, vanished as if they had never been. The hillsides were bare, as they had been a year ago.

The rubbish dumps, however, remained.

Who removed the shacks?

Space aliens? Red ants? The municipality?

Were they ever there? If I’d not taken these photos I might have wondered if I’d imagined them.

Where did the buildings go? Where did the people go? Where are they now?

I just wish that whoever removed them did as good a job at removing the rubbish.

The Story of the Treasure Seekers

17 December 2017

The Story of the Treasure Seekers: Being the Adventures of the Bastable Children in Search of a FortuneThe Story of the Treasure Seekers: Being the Adventures of the Bastable Children in Search of a Fortune by E. Nesbit
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had been curious about this book ever since first reading The Magician’s Nephew about 55 years ago, when C.S. Lewis wrote, “In those days Mr Sherlock Holmes was still living in Baker Street and the Bastables were looking for treasure in the Lewisham Road.”

I knew about Sherlock Holmes and Baker Street, but the Bastables I had never heard of, though Lewis clearly assumed that his readers, or most of them had. So it seemed that an important part of my literary education was missing. It also said something about the “implied reader” of Lewis’s Narnia stories (see here for more about the implied reader: Children’s Literature | Khanya.

In the story the Bastable family has come down in the world, so the six Bastable children come up with various schemes to restore the family fortunes. Most of their schemes lead them into a certain amount of difficulty, but in most cases the difficulty is resolved, usually in their favour, though not to the extent that it would restore the family fortunes.

In the edition I read there was an introduction with a brief biography of Edith Nesbit and an account of her work. It notes that she and her husband Hubert Bland were Fabian socialists, Though many of the Fabian socialists were middle-class I was rather surprised that Nesbit wrote such a middle-class book.

Certainly her implied readers were middle class, and though the family is reduced to having only one servant, they do have a servant, whom the children rather despise for her lack of competence and skill in cooking and cleaning. At no point does Nesbit indicate that she does not share the view of the narrator (one of the children, who is 12 years old at the time of the story), though she does somewhat satirise his relations with his siblings and others. The middle-class characters are human, the maid rather less so.

Also, the restoration of the family fortunes is seen, by both children and adults, almost entirely in capitalist terms. The primary need is capital, to make the father’s business prosper.

Perhaps this was dictated by the publishing world of the time. Perhaps the implied readers were middle class because at the time it was only the middle class who would buy books for their children, and therefore that would be the only kind of book that publishers of the time would accept. But even so, Dickens managed to get several books published that show more sympathy for the working-class poor than Nesbit seems to. Dickens does try to conscientise his readers, Nesbit does not, unless I’m missing something.

A book I did read as a child, and fairly recently re-read as an adult, is The Treasure Hunters by Enid Blyton (my review here). Having at last read Nesbit’s book, I think I can see where Blyton nicked elements of the plot for her book, written 40 years later. It has all the deficiencies of Blyton’s style, but many elements of the story are similar — a search for treasure to restore the family fortunes. But there is one contrasting element — in Blyton’s version it is a capitalist businessman who is the villain of the piece. I’ve never thought of Enid Blyton as a socialist, and her books, like Nesbit’s, have middle-class children as the “implied reader”, but in this story, at least, she is far more critical of capitalism than Nesbit is, and perhaps some of my own mistrust of capitalism stems from reading it as a child.

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A Call for Guest Posts: The Inklings and King Arthur with Guest Editor David Llewellyn Dodds

16 December 2017

A Pilgrim in Narnia

It is an intriguing fact of literary history that the Inklings were individually fascinated by the Arthurian legends. Christopher Tolkien’s publication of his father’s The Fall of Arthur caused a literary sensation in 2013, highlighting how deeply the Matter of Britain is in conversation with Tolkien’s legendarium. Arthurian themes run through C.S. Lewis’ fiction—including the eruption of the whole Arthurian landscape into his dystopic That Hideous Strength—and he approaches Arthurian material as a scholar. Charles Williams, who published two Arthurian books of poems and one Grail novel, left much of his work on his desk after his sudden passing in 1945. Owen Barfield’s fiction dances with Arthurian themes, and many of us encountered Arthur first through Roger Lancelyn Green’s adaptation of Morte D’Arthur.

King Arthur seems to be one of the centrifugal forces of the Inklings as a loose literary collective. It is this observation that drew a…

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