Since Namibia became independent in 1990 there has been increased interest in its history, including its pre-colonial history. The problem is that the...moreSince Namibia became independent in 1990 there has been increased interest in its history, including its pre-colonial history. The problem is that there are few written sources for that period, and even fewer published ones, and many of those that were published (mostly in the 19th century) have long been out of print.
Captain T.G. Een spent some time in Damaraland (Hereroland) and Ovamboland between 1866 and 1871, and when he returned to his native Sweden published an account of his experiences in 1872. The archives of Namibia have been published some of their manuscriupt holdings, such as letters and diaries of European missionaries and traders who were in Namibia at that period. But diaries are personal documents, and tend to be quite sketchy.
Thanks to a grant from the Swedish Agency for Research Co-operation for Underdeveloped Countries, Eens books has now been translated into English by Jalmar and Ioene Rudner, and published with a new introduction and annotations by the Namibia Scientific Society.
Unlike a diarist, or even most letter writers, Een is writing for readers who have never seen the country he describes, and so he gives a vivid word picture of the places he visited and the people he met. In some ways the descriptions are superficial. Een was a sailor, not a trained anthropologist (actually there were no trained anthropologists in that period). He describes the everyday life and customs of the Herero and Ovambo people as he observed them, but he did not speak the languages of those peoples well, and communicated through interpreters who used Dutch, which Een did not speak well himself. So while he describes external customs, his interpretation of their inner meaning tends to be skimpy and shallow. One of his complaints was that the German missionaries, who had studied the languages, kept their knowledge to themselves, and were unwilling to share it with others who wanted to know the people of the country better.
He gives some interesting details of relations between different groups of people. When he first arrived in 1866 with C.J. Andersson, the Anglo-Swedish explorer and trader, they were based at Otjimbingwe on the Swakop River, which was then the capital of Damaraland (Hereroland). There were then at least four distinct groups of Herero-speaking people -- the followers of Maharero, the followers of Zeraua, the Himba of the Kaokoveld to the northwest, and the Mbanderu of the east. Maharero and Zeraua and their retinues lived at Otjimbingwe, and they were occasionally invited to dinner by Andersson, but never at the same time. When Zeraua came to dinner, he sat at the table. But when Maharero came to dinner, he sat on a chair by the door, away from the table, because of his bad table manners. But Andersson did not want them to know of this different treatment.
When I lived in Namibia over 40 years ago one of the things I wondered about was how traders back in the 19th century managed to travel with their ox wagons through the waterless Namib desert. A few miles outside Luderitz there was a railway halt called Grasplatz, because they used to store grass for the oxen there, for the next stage of the journey. The diarists described "wagon trains" going from Otjimbingwe to Walvis Bay and returning, but they don't describe how they did it. But Een does describe it, in some detail. And that is the kind of thing that makes his book interesting.
Of course, like a diary, it is still a personal book. He praises the Damaras (Hereros) at some points, but criticises them at others. He thinks they are lazy, ungrateful scroungers, and makes no bones about it, and gives several examples. But he also writes of several that he regards as friends. When I was in Namibia a century later, I had several Herero friends, but none fitted that description. I did know one or two scroungers, but other Hereros thought they were weird too. But perhaps a hundred years of history can make a big difference, to all parties.
So we have Een's view of people of other cultures, but his description of them for the benefit of Swedes also tells us something about 19th-century Swedish culture and values. One of the interesting sidelights was that, according to the translators' notes, there were 137 white people in Damaraland at that time (though the number can't have been constant, they were always coming and going). They were of various different national origins, but the missionaries were all Germans of the Rhenish missionary society. Een describes the differing responses to the news that the Germans had won the Franco-Prussian War.
All whites who were not of German nationality wished the French army to be victorious, and we awaited news from the front with intense interest. When the victories of the German forces became known, in their usual manner of course, started bragging and blustering and behaving arrogantly. Of course these wonderful victories with all their bloody deeds, which have taken the European civilization a big step backward, had to be observed and celebrated with German thoroughness here in the wilderness also. To begin with, Mr Hahn, the High Priest of the missionaries, took down the mission flag, a red cross on a white background, and raised the flag of the North German Federation instead. The holy sign of the cross had to be replaced by that of 'das grosse Vaterland'. The common symbol of peace of the Celestial Empire for all peoples had to give way to the German nation's flag of victory. That was not enough. The black Christian brethren must not be left ignorant and unstirred by the victories of the Germans... The Negro boys (presumably from the mission school) were surely less interested in their German brethren's victories than in the slaughtered ox with which they were treated to mark the occasion... All we white men were upset by this deed which we found improper in a neutral country, and especially coming from men of the cloth who should preach peace or at least avoid open approval of war, which they otherwise condemned in their preaching to the natives...
Een responded to this by raising a Swedish flag over his house at Omaruru, and went on to say,
In order to counteract all influences of the German flag still further, I made another flag of my own design, a large white star on a blue background. I hoisted this flag and tried to explain to Old Wilhelm (Chief Zeraua) that it was the flag of the Damara people, the symbol of their unity and harmony about which they should gather in times of danger to defend their country.
It little details like these that make Een's book an interesting read, and help to bring the past to life.
It was also interesting to me because Een was a friend of Fred and Kate Green, my wife's great great grandparents, and throws some interesting light on the family history. I'll deal with that in an expanded version of this review on our family history blog. (less)
I first learnt of Will Campbell when I got sick in Cape Town, and was taken in and nursed by a Methodist minister, Theo Kotze, and his wife Helen. Tha...moreI first learnt of Will Campbell when I got sick in Cape Town, and was taken in and nursed by a Methodist minister, Theo Kotze, and his wife Helen. That was over 40 years ago, in 1972, when the police were rioting in the Anglican cathedral in Cape Town, and there were student protests all over. We were talmking about all that, and the response of Christians to the growing repression. And Theo handed me a book and said "Read this. It's far more radical than anything I've ever heard of."
So I read it on my sick bed, and got about halfway through.
But there was something that jumped out at me on the first page, which struck me as very radical, and very orthodox, not to mention Orthodox.
Back in those days everyone was talking about Christians being activist, and saying that we should not be concerned about status but about function. Being a Christian was not enough, you needed to do something. You had to do theology.
The decision of the author to omit accents was, in my view, a very bad one. Though the accents in Greek no longer mean what they once did, they do giv...moreThe decision of the author to omit accents was, in my view, a very bad one. Though the accents in Greek no longer mean what they once did, they do give a clue to where the stress goes in words, and that is one of the things that makes Greek, both ancient and modern, difficult for English-speaking people to learn. The omission makes this book almost useless. (less)
Detective Superintendent Roy Grace of the Sussex Police has a lot on his plate: a murder case with a limbless headless corpse. How can the search for...moreDetective Superintendent Roy Grace of the Sussex Police has a lot on his plate: a murder case with a limbless headless corpse. How can the search for the killer if they don't know who the victim is? And then a film crew want to use the Brighton Pavilion for a new film on King George IV and his mistress, and Roy Grace is put in charge of security for the film set and the star Gaia Lafayette, whose temperamental fans can turn adoration to detestation in an instant, and has already received several threats to her life. There are others too, with grudges against the producers of the film, who are planning to disrupt it. Some of the threats are known, but some are unknown to anyone other than the plotters.
Peter James has written several whodunits featuring Roy Grace, and I think this is one of the best. As with many such books it is not easy to say much about it without giving away too much of the plot. But this one is definitely a good read for lovers of murder mysteries.
Are there flaws?
Yes, it is difficult to write a book that has none. But in this book the most obvious flaw does not affect the plot and is peripheral to the story, though it could quite easily not have been. And that is that I can't imagine any circumstances in which one would take a newborn baby home from the hospital in a car seat. (less)
This is a spy novel, but not the usual spy novel. There was a glut of spy novels during the Cold War, from about 1960-1990, so that one almost came to...moreThis is a spy novel, but not the usual spy novel. There was a glut of spy novels during the Cold War, from about 1960-1990, so that one almost came to think of the genre as belonging specifically to that period. But this one is set 20 years earlier, in 1940, just after the end of the Spanish Civil War, so it also belongs to the genre of historical novels.
It has been also described in the blurb as a thriller and a love story, and I suppose that it is those too, though I didn't find it a page turner. I took quite a long time reading it, one or two chapters at a time, because each chapter gave me something to think about.
Harry Brett is a British soldier who was invalided out of the army after the retreat from Dunkirk, but he still wants to do his bit for the war effort, and is recruited by the intelligence services as a spy. He is a rather reluctant spy, however, especially when he discovers that he was recruited mainly to spy on a former schoolfellow, Sandy Forsyth, who is now a businessman in Spain.
He goes to the British embassy in Spain, ostensibly as a translator, but actually to find out what his old schoolmaate is up to. Harry had been in Spain before, where another school friend, Bernie Piper, was missing, believed killed, serving in the International Brigade on the Republican side in the civil war. Just before he went missing, Bernie Piper had had a love affair with a British Red Cross nurse, Barbara Clare, who had asked Harry's help to look for him. But when Harry returns, Barbara was living with Sandy Forsyth, astensibly as his wife, though they were not legally married.
As a historical novel it is very well researched, and I think it does give an authentic flavour of post-war (civil war, that is) Spain, and the early years of the Franco regime. The British are anxious to keep Spain neutral, and are concerned that Sandy Forsyth's business deals, rumolured to involve a gold mine, might make Spain's economic survival less dependent on British goodwill. But the German and Italian ambassadors are obviously more favoured by Franco's government, especially since they had helped the Nationalists to win the civil war.
According to the blurb, it seemed that this was a whodunit, with Scotland Yard Detective Frederick Troy as protagonist. But in the first hundred or so...moreAccording to the blurb, it seemed that this was a whodunit, with Scotland Yard Detective Frederick Troy as protagonist. But in the first hundred or so pages he had only made one very brief appearance. It also seemed to be a rather highbrow intellectual whodunit, aiming to be more a work of literature than a light read.
It is set in the pre-war Vienna of the 1930s, in the world of music and the arts, a young girl learning to play the cello in the shadow of the growing threat from Nazi Germany. There are a couple of shifts of scene to a British internment camp for enemy aliens at the beginning of the Second World War.
When the detective finally appears on the scene, he is a bit of a puzzle. There is clearly a backstory to this, and it turns out that Lily of the field is only the first of a series of novels with Inspector Troy as the main character. And, like many British fictional detectives, he has an unusual characteristic that distinguishes him from most of his colleagues. Like Inspector Morse, he is a Musical Policeman, and this enables him to solve a mystery that baffles his colleagues.
But it seems that it would probably be better to begin with one of the earlier novels in the series, as one learns who Inspector Troy is through allusions to them, which are not completely clear if you haven't read the other books.
The book is set in the 1930s and the 1940s, and the author, John Lawton, seems to have been quite careful to avoid or explain anachronisms in the settings. There are a few, which I would never have noticed, yet he includes some rather interesting notes on them.
Unfortunately he does not seem to have been quite so careful about anachronisms in language, and he uses some expressions and turns of phrase that would not have been used in the 1940s. I spotted two on one page that I am fairly certain were anachonisms, and a couple more that may have been. On page 215 of my edition, it is said of someone that he "went ballistic". "Ballistic" was a technical term used by military gunnery specialists, police forensic scientists and rocket scientists, but probably only entered the consciousness of the general public in 1957, with the launch of Sputnik I. The most significant thing about Sputnik I, the media told us, was that it showed that the USSR could launch an ICBM -- an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. And I'm sure it took a few more years before the term "went ballistic" was applied metaphorically to human beings.
The second such anachronism is where someone is described as "a scrounger living low on the food chain". Again, while the food chain may have been a concept familiar to biologists, I don't think that the general public became aware of it before environmental concerns came to the forefront in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and people began writing books with titles like Diet for a small planet.
Another possible anachronism, on the same page, is where someone speaks of "blows coppers away". That one I'm not sure of, but I don't think people would have used such an expression in the 1940s.
Lawton goes to some trouble to set the scene of the dreariness of postwar Britain, to remind readers who weren't around then about things like rationing, almost making too much of it, but then spoils it somewhat by using language that seems out of place.
In spite of that, it's still a good read, though the beginning promises more than the author actually delivers, and there are some poor patches, especially in the second part. But it whetted my appetite for more, and I'll look for the first of the series to see if I can find out who Inspector Troy is, really. (less)
Thirty years ago, when our children were small, we subscribed to the Puffin Book Club, and every month a new book arrived, and was put on the shelves....moreThirty years ago, when our children were small, we subscribed to the Puffin Book Club, and every month a new book arrived, and was put on the shelves. I don't know how many of them the children read, but the other day, looking for some light reading, and not having seen anything I hadn't read on our general fiction shelves, I looked on the old children's books' shelf, and found this.
It's a very ordinary story about some school children in a village in the south of England. In the Christmas holidays they get bored, and go exploring the neighbourhood, in the course of which they encounter a reclusive woman who lives alone with her cat. When the Lent term starts at school they get involved in preparing for a play.
The children are of indeterminate ages, though as the youngest is 11, I assume that most of the others are somewhere in the age range of 11-14.
I think it is the kind of book I would have hated as a child.
The problem is that it is so ordinary. It describes things that children do, like climbing up drains and acting in school plays, and being jealous over who gets the best parts and so on.
It was published 40 years ago, and so describes a vanished generation. There is only one mention of a computer in the whole story, and no one would have had one at home. And the play they produce is an Easter play, and the children seem to be familiar with the plot. Even back then, that might have been quite unusual (though the girls were at a church school, run by nuns). I recall a Church of England bishop of about that period describing how he took his nephew and niece to see Jesus Christ, Superstar, and being somewhat disconcerted to find that they didn't know the plot.
But in spite of its ordinariness, I found the story quite moving in a way. I wouldn't buy it for a child to read, though. I'd be afraid that they would have been as horribly bored as I would have been.(less)
A couple of weeks ago I wrote in a blog post Gunning for the Dixons about some of the problems of locating the Dixon family in what is now Namibia.
We...moreA couple of weeks ago I wrote in a blog post Gunning for the Dixons about some of the problems of locating the Dixon family in what is now Namibia.
We were interested because some members of my wife's family had married into a Dixon family (as described in the blog post in the link above) and they also appeared to be business partners of the Dixon family, but most of the records we had found were confusing and it was possible that there was more than one Dixon family. We made contact with the author of this book, but weren't able to get hold of a copy because of a postal strike. Now at last we have a copy, and things become a little bit clearer.
This book deals with only one of the families, and makes no mention at all of the other, but that at least helps us to say that people who can be identified as members of this family are very unlikely to be members of the other.
Both Dixon families were probably Irish in origin, however.
The two Dixon families are:
1. Benjamin Dixon and Lodivia Manifold (the subjects of this book) 2. Peter Daniel Dixon and Whilhelmina Hendriks
I will refer to them as the "Ben Dixon" and "Peter Dixon" families.
Ben Dixon became a business partner of James Morris, and their two families set out for Namibia in 1843, travelling overland by ox waggon. They were Wesleyan Methodists and travelled part of the way with some Wesleyan missionaries, and stayed at mission stations on the way. They crossed the Orange (Gariep) river on Christmas day 1843, and reached Walvis Bay in about June 1844. This is all described in detail in the book, seen through the eyes of the Dixons' eldest daughter Jane, who was 13 years old when they left, and had her 14th birthday on the journey.
The Dixon and Morris families built two houses and a store on the Kuiseb River, at a place they named Sandfontein, about three miles from the present town of Walvis Bay, and began trading for cattle, which they exported to St Helena to provide meat for the British garrison there. In September 1844 Mary Morris gave birth to a daughter at Sandfontein (she was named Sarah Ann Kuisip, because she was born on the Kuiseb River, though that is not mentioned in the book).
They kept a couple of lion cubs as pets, and various sailors from ships in Walvis Bay harbour wanted to buy them, and when they would not sell, tried to steal them. Walvis Bay harbour was amazingly busy in those days, mainly with ships collecting guano from the offshore islands, and sometimes there were 10 or 12 of them in the bay at the same time, come to re-stock with stores before going back to collect more guano.
For a while the business prospered, and then things went bad. Fewer guano ships arrived, and many of the people inland who traded cattle for goods did not pay for the goods, and so Ben Dixon and James Morris had so go on debt collecting tours. The debtors, however, sometimes decided that they easiest way to pay their debts was simply to steal the cattle from someone else, or even from those to whom they were owed. One group bought a waggon for a number of cattle, and then took the cattle back to haul the waggon home. Complaints to the British government about this led to the St Helena contract being cancelled.
James Morris took a large herd of cattle overland to Cape Town, to try to sell them there, and returned by sea with his sister Fanny and her husband Frank Stewardson, and their two children. Fanny and Frank Stewardson were my wife Val's great-great-great grandparents, so snippets like that were of special interest to us.
So one thing that we learned from the book was that while that Ben Dixon and the Morris and Stewardson families were in a business partnership together, they did not intermarry.
Eventually Ben Dixon returned to the Cape Colony, but instead of going back to Cape Town he settled in Little Namaqualand, on a farm near the town of Garies. Their eldest daughter Jane married William Latham, and remained in what is now Namibia until her husband's death, then went to stay with her parents. The second daughter, Rebecca, married Frank Bassingthwaighte, and their family remained in Namibia, and some of their descendants are still there today. The younger members farmed in the Northern Cape, and so the Ben Dixon family is mainly associated with Namaqualand, as the book's title suggests.
The Peter Dixon family seems to be entirely different, though also perhaps originally from Ireland.
Peter Daniel Dixon was the son of McCombe Donald Dixon and Maria Sprewt. He was born in the Cape Colony about 1821, and married Wilhelmina Hendriks, by whom he had at least 7 children. He was trading in Walvis Bay in the early 1860s, and his daughter married Fred Green, the elephant hunter, but died in about 1860, and they seem to have had no children. Fred Green then married Sarah Kaipukire, and after a separation or divorce, married Catherine Stewardson, the daughter of Frank and Fanny Stewardson mentioned above. So Fred Green was married into the Peter Dixon family, but was also friendly with the Ben Dixon family.
Peter Dixon married a second time to Annie Cloete, probably in Damaraland, but if they had any children, we know nothing of them.
Though it appears that we are not related to the Ben Dixon family either by descent or marriage, the book was nevertheless a fascinating and informative read, and gives a good insight into life 150 years ago.
At first I thought this was going to be one of the better books by Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine, when a doctoral student writing a thesis on u...moreAt first I thought this was going to be one of the better books by Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine, when a doctoral student writing a thesis on unmarried mothers in Victorial literature is given an unpublished novel on the same topic, but set in the 1920s and 1930s to read. At the beginning it showed promise of being something like Possession by A.S. Byatt, or, if not quite at that level, like a Robert Goddard novel, with a mystery in the past coming back to haunt people in the present. I kept reading, hoping for some sort of dénouement, which never came.
The past action is all in the unpublished novel, which, dealing with unmarried mothers and homosexuality, could not be published when it was written, as those were taboo topics in those days. The thesis about how the theme of unmarried mothers was dealt with in Victorial literature piqued my interest, as I had just read Oliver Twist, where that is one of the central themes.
But The child's child is rather disappointing, as it comes in the form of a novella wrapped in a novelette, with very little connection between them. The novella is supposed to be based on the life of a great uncle of one of the characters in the wrapping story, but the connection is not made clear or explained, though one is led to expect that at some point it will be.
Barbara Vine has written better books in this genre in the past -- one of them is Asta's book, which I must perhaps re-read to see why I remember it as so much better than this one.
When I saw this book in the Protea Bookshop in Pretoria, I immediately bought it, mainly because of my interest in family hsitory and Namibian history...moreWhen I saw this book in the Protea Bookshop in Pretoria, I immediately bought it, mainly because of my interest in family hsitory and Namibian history. My wife Val's paternal great grandfather, Frederick Vincent Greene, was born at Ehangero, Damaraland, in 1868. His father, Frederick Thomas Green, a Canadian, lived in Damaraland for 25 years as a hunter and trader, and when he died in 1876 William Chapman attended him at his death bed, at Heigamkab in the dry bed of the Swakop river. He describes the scene in his book in some detail.
The late Mr Frederick Green had arrived shortly before at the bay [Walvis Bay] and had gone with his family on a trip to Cape Town so I decided to wait for his return and then go with him to the interior. During the time I was waiting for Mr Green I enjoyed the hospitality of Mr John Gunning, the manager of Mr A.W. Eriksson's store in Walvisch Bay.
When Mr Green returned I joined him and we left the Bay for the interior, he was very unwell. After reaching Hykamgap in the Swakop River he became worse and died on the 4th May 1876, succumbing to what Mr Palgrave said was an acscess on the liver, the last days of his illness being marked by vomiting. I was in the wagon with him during the last night and present when he breathed his last. Poor man, he left a widow and a number of children!
Chapman goes on to give a summary of what he knew of the life of Fred Green, who had been a friend of his father, James Chapman.
Family historians like to get birth, marriage and death certificates for information about their ancestors, but there was no registration of these events in Namibia in those days -- at that time the country consisted of a number of mini-states that sometimes quarrelled among themselves. Fred Green's death took place during one of the peaceful interludes, though he himself had participated in some of the earlier battles. But Chapman gives as much information as most death certificates, and with a more human touch.
William Chapman went to Damaraland as a teenager to seek his fortune. He had a romantic notion of following in the footsteps of his father James Chapman, and saw Fred Green as a Nimrod who would teach him the ropes. He was 16 at the time.
Instead he had to be content with Fred Green's brothers-in-law, William and Charles Stewardson, teenagers not much older than himself, who were equipped and sent out to hunt and trade by the aforementioned Mr A.W. Eriksson. It makes me wonder about the youth of today. How many parents would send three kids aged 16 or 17 out on a business trip, putting them in charge of expensive equipment, and in a country full of wild animals, some of which they would hunt, and others which would hunt them? Though I suppose we do send them to war, to hunt and kill other human beings.
But William Chapman did not get on well with the Stewardson brothers, nor they with him. Reading between the lines, it sounds like a high school kid being excluded from a gang. The Stewardsons had been brought up rough, in a desert country. Chapman was the citified kid, who had been to a relatively posh school, which taught him gentelman's manners. The Stewardsons preferred the company of their Damara and Herero servants, and at nights around the campfire preferred to talk to them, in their own languages, thus excluding the city slicker, who spoke only English and Dutch.
Chapman grew up fast, however, and eventually went into business on his own account, and migrated northwards to Angola, where he farmed, hunted and traded for 48 years.
The book is in two parts. The first part, the reminiscences proper, he began to write in 1916, mainly for his children, or at least at their request, and is the story of his life and of the people he encountered. The second part is an account of the Dorsland Trekkers, who left the Transvaal when it was under British rule about 1880, and went north-west through what is now Botswana, ending up in Angola, which was gradually coming under Portuguese rule.
It seems that he may have intended the second part for publication, but never actually got round to finishing it, because there are blanks for things like dates and names to be filled in later, and towards the end it is in obvious need of much editing. Most of the last part is a series of anecdotes intended to show how terrible Portuguese rule in Angola was, and why the Dorsland trekkers left after having lived there for nearly 50 years. There is no account of how they left and what subsequently happened to them.
Except for those last 50 or so pages, the book is very readable, and gives an interesting picture of what life was like in Namibia and Angola a century or more ago. There are also several photographs.
One of the things that struck me was some strange inconsistencies. I'm not sure if they were mere personal idiosyncracies, or if they were attitdes common among white people living there at the time. At times Chapman rails against the Portuguese for their unjust treatment of the "natives", and gives accounts of such practices as forced labour, imprisonment (and even killing) without trial, confiscation of livestock and so on. And then in another place he accuses the Portuguese of over-familiarity, giving chairs to natives to sit on when they meet for discussions and similar malpractices. The British and the Boers, he avers, would never sink to that level.
The value of the book is enormously enhanced by comprehensive annotations by the editor, Nicol Stassen. He has gone to a great deal of trouble to identify people and places mentioned in the text and to provide useful information about them in footnotes. It is almost worth buying the book for these alone.
It seems a bit silly to try to write a review of a book that was published more than 150 years ago, and is so well known, but here are a few thoughts...moreIt seems a bit silly to try to write a review of a book that was published more than 150 years ago, and is so well known, but here are a few thoughts prompted by reading it.
Dickens is generally regarded as a Good Author who wrote Good Books, and so reading them must be Good For You. Even F.R. Leavis allowed Dickens into his canon.
As a result, Dickens's books are often prescribed reading for schoolkids, to do them good. But the only book by Dickens that I liked when I was at school was A tale of two cities. It seemed to fit in with The scarlet pimpernel and others of the same genre.
Another one we had at school was Great Expectations. It was a matric set book, and our English teacher, a guy called Derrick Hudson-Reed, told us that in 20 years time we would come back to visit the school and confess to him that we had never read Great Expectations. Quite a number of us told him that right after the exam. We'd read an executive summary to get the main points of the plot. Perhaps if I'd read it I'd have got an A instead of a BB in the exam, but I rather doubt it. I rather suspect that Charles Dickens is wasted on the young.
About every four or five years I pick up a book by Dickens and read it. I've enjoyed them, but as I've read them I've been glad that I hadn't read them when I was younger. There was so much that I just would not have appreciated.
Oliver Twist begins with scenes in a 19th-century workhouse in England. When you are at school, they explain such things in a brief footnote, or maybe the teacher would say something about it.
But reading it now, at my age, I've read quite a bit about workhouses because of my interest in family history. I know that my great great grandfather (well, one of them) died in Bodmin Union Workhouse at the age of 83. It was what passed for an old age home in those days, and if you'd spent your life as a woodman, scrounging wood from the woods, you didn't end up with much in the way of a pension. Oliver Twist not only describes life in a workhouse; it has graphic descriptions of death in a workhouse.
So I'm glad that I read it at the age of 71, rather than at the age of 11 or even 21. If I'd read it then, I'd have missed too much.
Having said that, I might not have noticed the plot holes if I'd read it earlier. There are just too many improbable coincidences, too many people fortuitously meeting too many other people who turn out to have been related, or friends of relations, or enemies of relations. I suppose that that is in part the result of its having originally been written as a serial, and having so many plot threads that Dickens had to find ways of tying together in the end.
If you haven't read it yet, you might enjoy it, especially if you are over 50.
But Dickens, in spite of having a chapter to tie up the loose ends, never does tell us what happened to the Artful Dodger. (less)
As I read this book I had a line from an old Kinks record running though my head: "God save Fu-Manchu, Moriaty and Dracula." The book has a villain wh...moreAs I read this book I had a line from an old Kinks record running though my head: "God save Fu-Manchu, Moriaty and Dracula." The book has a villain who is like all three rolled into one, with the addition of a few more villains from Victorian melodrama besides.
But while there is a supervillain, there isn't a superhero, just a middle-aged clockmaker who is trying to live down his family's criminal history, though it turns out to be fortunate that he can call on his father's old criminal associates for help when necessary. The plot revolves around his inadvertently setting off a weapon of mass destruction that was forgotten (by most) since the Second World War. Other characters are his lawyer, his girlfriend and a retired spy with a blind and almost toothless dog.
As for the story, it's a bit like Franz Kafka meets Neil Gaiman with a dash of Charles Williams and Jean Genet thrown in for good measure. But it's not really as good as any of those, so it's a bit disappointing. There are some good witty descriptions at the beginning, but they are scarce towards the end, or perhaps it is just that that kind of humour tends to pall if overused.
There are too many plot holes to make it really interesting. It has some interesting social commentary, about the forces of law and order being beholden to the bad guys, while the criminal underworld turn out to be the good guys, the hope of saving the world. It is that aspect that is a bit reminiscent of Jean Genet, though Genet does it so much better. Perhaps that's why the publishers tried to boost it by putting no fewer than nine pages of glowing reviews at the beginning, to bludgeon the reader into thinking that the book was worth the money spent on it.
It is the kind of book that will probably be made into a film, and one will know it has succeeded if the audiences hiss and boo whenever the villain appears on the screen. (less)
This is Jo Nesbø's best novel yet -- the only problem is that it is his first.
Nearly four years ago I read The Redeemer by Jo Nesbø.I thought it was t...moreThis is Jo Nesbø's best novel yet -- the only problem is that it is his first.
Nearly four years ago I read The Redeemer by Jo Nesbø.I thought it was the best Scandiwegian whodunit I'd read till then, and it was the first one I'd read by Nesbø. But the later novels of his that I read were rather disappointing (see reviews here). Perhaps if one reads them backwards, there will be a steady improvement.
In The bat Norwegian detective Harry Hole is sent to Australia to help with the investigation of the murder of a Norwegian citizen in Sydney. The book is therefore quite an interesting guide to Australian geography and culture, which Nesbø explains to his Norwegian readers, to whom it would be unfamiliar. Books set in Australia and written by Australians don't generally do this, since the authors no doubt assume that their readers will be Australian, and therefore familiar with the social demographics of Sydney suburbs, and the appearance of the Queensland countryside. I found that Nesbø's explanations of these added to the interest of the book
There are also some Australian folk tales (the title of the book is based on one of them) and more about the different cultures in Australia -- as seen through Norwegian eyes. I found all this far more interesting than the lengthy descriptions of Harry Hole's hangovers, which seem to take up more and more space in the later books, though even in this one they are not entirely absent. One of the plot holes of this one is that one is never told when he stops drinking and is able to function again.
I've just finished reading this, the third book of the Diepfontein trilogy (the other two being Towergoud and Fata Morgana and so now I can look back...moreI've just finished reading this, the third book of the Diepfontein trilogy (the other two being Towergoud and Fata Morgana and so now I can look back on the series as a whole. And looking back, it seems that the most appropriate title might be "The story of an African farm".
Since finishing the books I have tried to find out a bit more about the author. I didn't want to do that beforehand, because I thought it might reveal too much of the story, and I wanted to read the books just as they came. I didn't even read the jacket blurb that was on the last of the series.
But web searches reveal little about the author, other than that Elizabeth Vermeulen was born on 15 May 1897 in Aberdeen, in the Karroo.
One of the things I was hoping to learn was whether Vermeulen was influenced by Schreiner in any way. Apart from the setting of a Karroo farm, the books are very different. It is a long time since I read The story of an African farm so my memory of it is a bit hazy. But both have written about a farm and its people.
In the Diepfontein trilogy, the farm is a central character. People come and go, but the farm remains. At first I thought the books were a kind of family saga, following a family through several generations, but they actually remain in focus only when they are on the farm. Occasionally the story follows characters when they leave the farm, , but usually only briefly, and for parts of the story that are significant for the life of the farm itself. Once the characters leave the farm permanently, for the most part they leave the story as well.
When thinking about the possible influence of The story of an African farm, I wonder if Vermeulen might have written her story in reaction against against Schreiner's work. There is nothing of Schreiner's incipient feminism in the Diepfontein trilogy. Sex roles are fairly fixed. The farmers are male, women know their place, as housekeepers, and the only other careers that are open to them are as nurses and teachers. The servants, too, know their place. That is, of course, true to much of the period covered by the story (1864-1957), and to describe things otherwise would be anachronistic.
The books were published during the first decade of National Party rule in South Africa, and so I wondered if there might be a political slant to them. Most publishers of Afrikaans books in that period were wedded to Afrikaner nationalism, and, to use an anachronistic term, "affirmative action" was all the rage. To be promoted in the civil service, one needed to be a member or supporter of the National Party, a member of one of the three Afrikaans Reformed Churches, and a member of the Broederbond. So one expects Afrikaans books published in that period to reflect these concerns. But, apart from the period of the Anglo-Boer War, there is little mention of politics in the books. I imagine that if Elizabeth Vermeulen grew up in Aberdeen, she would have been two years old when the war started, and five when it ended, and over the next few years would have heard adults talking about it. But there is no mention of the National Party coming to power in 1948.
So in a sense the books are very ordinary. They paint a picture of ordinary people living ordinary lives. They have conventional values for people of their time and social status, and I think the book paints a pretty realistic picture of the kind of life they lived. It is a historical novel with fairly good history, in the sense of the social history of people living on isolated farms, their joys and sorrows, and how they respond in prosperity and adversity. What I liked about the books was that I could identify with these very ordinary people and their struggles, and was drawn in to the story. I wanted to know what happened mext, and how things turned out in the end. So they drew me in and kept me reading.
The first part of the Diepfontein trilogy, Towergoud is a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age novel about the struggles of the young orphan Neels Lindeman...moreThe first part of the Diepfontein trilogy, Towergoud is a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age novel about the struggles of the young orphan Neels Lindeman to make his way in the world.
This, the second part, is more of a family saga. Neels settles down to the life of a married farmer. To begin with, I found the book a little bit disappointing after Towergoud. One of the things I liked about Towergoud was its unpredictability. There were many unexpected plot turns.
In Fata Morgana, however, life on a Karroo farm seems a little bit too routine. The seasons follow one another with predictable regularity. In a dry region, naturally, there are worries about drought, and when the drought finally does break, there are worries about floods. The characters seem to be more introspective about their thoughts and feelings. The only variation is the occasional appearance of a stranger, a mysterious Mr de Klerk, who seems vaguely threatening.
As with the first book, even though it is out of print, someone might want to read it, and it is worth reading, so I don't want to give too much of the plot away. But one can say something about some of the background happenings that affect the story.
There is very little about political events in the first book, but the Anglo-Boer War could not fail to affect even a remote farming community like that at Diepfontein. In spite of this, there is a feeling that wars may come and wars may go, but farms continue, because people must eat. The predictability of the first few chapters seems to sharpen the contrast with the disruptive events that follow.
In this it much like real life, with its sadness and its illusion. It is about love and hate, resentment and revenge, reconciliation and forgiveness. In this it is a deeply moral book, yet, I think, it manages to be moral without being moralistic.
It also made me aware of other things. Thinking again about the Anglo-Boer War, and the things that caused bitterness and resentment. I remembered Carel de Wet, the National Party politician, speaking at Wits University in 1960. Someone asked him about his attitude and activities during the Second World War, and his reply was, "It was Britain's war". And a heckler responded, "No, it was Poland's war."
Reading this book made me aware that at the time of the Second World War the Anglo-Boer War was only 40 years in the past. Now, as I recall things of 40 years ago, I realise how people must have recalled them then. Forty years ago I was banned, and I saw how the Nats were ruining the country, and I can still remember it now. And so, back in 1940, people could still remember what Britain had done to them forty years before. Those who fought in that war would have remembered, just as I can remember the early 1970s.
But there were also things that they did not see. They thought it was Britain's war, but they did not see that it was Poland's War, and that the German invasion of Poland was as great an injustice as Britain's invasion of the Transvaal and Free State. In Fata Morgana they complained bitterly that the countries that condemned Britain's invasion did nothing to stand up to it. They would send food parcels for the relief of those in the concentration camps, but military help there was none, just a wishy-washy neutrality. Yet forty years later the Afrikaner nationalists had nothing more to offer Poland than a wishy-washy neutrality.
And then a hundred years later, when the centenary of the Anglo-Boer War brought it all back to mind, the British and Americans were at it again, bombing Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq. And in the last two the bittereinders fought on and on, as they had done in the Anglo-Boer War, and as we knew they would in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet the Americans were apparently surprised at the resisitance, or at least they pretended to be surprised. As someone once said, those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. And Fata Morgana is a reminder of some of those lessons.
I read this book more than 50 years ago, and thought I would look for it on Good Reads, but could not find it, but web searches make it possible to ge...moreI read this book more than 50 years ago, and thought I would look for it on Good Reads, but could not find it, but web searches make it possible to get such information easily nowadays, without time-consuming and expensive trips to the library, so I added it to Good Reads.
This description, which I found on the web, is pretty much as I remember it. Since the book is out of print, it isn't much of a spoiler.
Five men and five women, all English, walk out of the sea one misty morning on a small uninhabited planet in the galaxy of Andromeda. Their new world is remarkably like the earth, except that it has two moons and it intercepts rather more meteorites. The party have, between them, a great deal of modern knowledge of the useful arts and sciences, and God, for his own inscrutable reasons, has set them the task of making a wireless set - a seven-valve all-wave superhet-in one generation, starting naked from the sea. They begin by putting back the flesh and blood on some of the bare bones of archaeology. They make their first fire, catch their first rabbits with their own hair, smelt their first button of iron, and find the first wild plants for the establishment of their agriculture. And then? In the course of a wonderfully human story, told with scrupulous veracity and attention to detail, they retrace step after step of discovery and invention, all the way from flint implements to high-vacuum technology.
It was a book I really enjoyed as a teenager. Perhaps I wouldn't enjoy it as much today. I borrowed it from the Johannesburg Public Library, and second-hand copies seem to be going at quite exorbitant prices, so perhaps it's time to reprint it.
The "starting from scratch" theme is a familiar one in dystopian science fiction, one of the better examples of which is Earth abides by George R. Stewart
But this is no dystopian novel. The starting over is not because of some man-made or natural disaster, but because God, for his own inscrutable purposes, decreed it. Well, not, that's not quite right. God's purpose is actually quite scrutable -- he wants to know if men can make a better go of it starting over.
This is a rather surprising book, and I came to read it in an unusual way.
My wife mentioned to a colleague at work that she had enjoyed a book that s...moreThis is a rather surprising book, and I came to read it in an unusual way.
My wife mentioned to a colleague at work that she had enjoyed a book that she had read at school, Reënboog in die skemering by Elizabeth Vermeulen, but had never seen a copy since she had left school, as it was apparently out of print. The book was a kind of family saga, and she had found it much more interesting than the "Trompie" books that were the other Afrikaans books that they had had to read at school. Trompie was a mischievous schoolboy, a bit like the "William" books of Richmal Crompton, but definitely intended for a younger readership than my wife was when they had to read them.
Great was her surprise when her colleague presented her with not one, but three books by Elizabeth Vermeulen. It turns out that the family saga was in three volumes, of which Towergoud (enchanted gold) is the first.
I began reading it, not quite sure what to expect. The title suggested that it might be a fantasy novel or fairy tale of some sort, but it turned out to be a Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age novel on the pattern of David Copperfield or Great expectations.
The story opens in 1864 when Neels and Tys Lindeman are orphaned when their parents are killed in an accident. Their parents had lived on the farm Diepfontein, somewhere in the northern Cape Colony, employed by the farm owner, Org de Wit, who also owns the trading store that is the social centre of the district. Org de Wit takes in the young orphans, and employs them as shepherds, but without pay, and treats them harshly. Neels grows up realising that he will need to care for his retarded younger brother for the rest of his life, and resentful of the rich but miserly Org de Wit.
To say more might give away too much of the plot; even though it seems to be out of print someone else might get hold of a copy and want to read it. I found it a gripping tale, generally well told, though the language at times seemed a little stilted to me, but then Afrikaans is not my first language, and so I'm not the best judge of Afrikaans style. I will say, however, that Afrikaans, as written and spoken by the late dominee Beyers Naudé, is a really beautiful language, thought the years when it was South Africa's language of bureaucracy tended to make it very ugly.
In this book I also learnt a few words that were new to me -- algar where I would have expected almal (everyone, all). Another surprise was a term that was quite quite familiar to me, but which I had never seen written before, was te kere, meaning to do one's nut, or go ballistic. I had no idea it was from Afrikaans, and pictured it as written tequira, by analogy with tequila, and thought it came from Spanish. One is never too old to learn! (less)