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Kitchen Boy: authentic book, phony funeral

8 April 2014

Kitchen BoyKitchen Boy by Jenny Hobbs

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

J.J. Kitching (known as “Kitchen Boy”) is a war hero, and a famous Springbok rugby player, so when he dies at the age of 81, his funeral is a significant occasion. The action of the story takes place in the lead-up to his death and the funeral itself, and the memories of him that are prompted in the minds of his family, friends, and others who knew him.

In his final illness he shares some of his war-time memories with his grandson, Sam. Different people come to his funeral, and even his close family are sometimes surprised at the range of his contacts and acquaintances, from the homeless philosopher who lived in a culvert, to the teetotaller manager of a hotel chain who was a customer of the brewery where he worked until he retired.

I’d read a couple of other books by Jenny Hobbs before, and bought this one becazuse I was impressed by them, and their authenticity to place and time. Thoughts in a makeshift mortuary had in some ways a similar theme to this one, the parents of a freedom-fighter who has been killed by the police, as they keep vigil over the body of a child they hardly knew, thoughts prompted by death.

When I began reading this one, I was very impressed at the apparent authenticity. Most of the novels we read in South Africa are published overseas, and are set in far-away places, so one often doesn’t know whether the descriotions are authentic or not.

But this one is set in Durban and Zululand, places where I have lived. The description of World War II soldiers and returning POWs wandering round Durban on arriving home sets the scene amazingly well. The description of Twiggie’s Pie Cart in Market Square in Pietermaritzburg revived memories of 50 years ago.

I recalled my uncle returning from the War. I was four years old and we stood on Salisbury Island and watched the flying boat come in dropping over the harbour entrance, landing on the bay. Many of my friends had fathers who had fought in the war. And we also had several uncles who had fought in the war. It was part of growing up. So the memories of J.J. Kitching, and his friends’ memories of him, were part of my growing up, and also part of the family history we have explored more recently.

My wife Val’s father would never spoeak about his wartime experiences, until one day we pleaded with him to tell us the story of “Shit in Italy”. He was captured at Tobruk and kept in a prison camp in Italy, from which he escaped. I wish we had had a tape recorder to record it, because we have now forgotten many of the details, but like the grandson Sam in the book, we were fascinated by the story.

Most of the memories are stirred and described during the funeral service, but that is where the story falls apart. The rugby players, young and old, are authentic. The ex-servicement, the MOTHs (Memorable Order of Tin Hats) are authentic. The homeless philososopher in the culvert may be stretching things a bit, but is plausible. But then the author has to go and spoil it all by introducing an altogether phony caricature of an Anglican bishop. The bishop is not an incidental character, because the funeral service is the setting for much of the book.

The funeral takes place in our time, no more than five years ago, but just about every detail rings false. I’m not familiar with the current Anglican funeral service, and haven’t been able to find out much since I started reading the book, but if I were writing a book that revolved around a funeral service, I’d do a lot more research than Jenny Hobbs appears to have done. The words of the service swing from Elizabethan to modern English. I once knew an Anglican bishop of Natal who might have entertained ambitious thoughts like the fictional bishop in the book, but he retired forty (40) years ago, and what we are presented with is a caricature from the 1950s, or even the 1920s, in a story set in about 2010. It’s OK to have a fictitious cathedral in a real city for the sake of the story. But it’s a pity that when there seems to have been so much research into some of the historical details (like the diets of prisoners in German POW camps), there has been so little into the hub that the story revolves around. Anglican bishops in South Africa are never referred to as “His Grace”, for one thing, and and there are numeous other bogus details.

Forty years ago I was present at quite a number of Anglican funerals in Durban, and even back then they were none of them like this. Sometimes they were pathetic — five MOTHs bidding farewell to a dead comrade, asking to play the Last Post, and one of them pulling out a tinny little portable tape recorder to play it. But nothing as phony as the one in this book. More recently, in about the same time frame as that of the book, I attended the civic funeral in Pretoria of Nico Smith, which had all sorts of military and civic dignitaries present and speaking. It wasn’t Anglican, but it gives and idea of how such things are done.

When I began reading the book, I thought I’d give it four or five stars, but the more I read, the more the rating dropped.

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