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For the Joy of Reading: A Whole Life

Never believe that any life is so ordinary that it is just boring.   This is the proof that this is not the case.   Nothing much happens in the life of Andreas Egger apart from an avalanche, a war, building cable cars and meeting tourists, but that is not to say that it is boring, inconsequential.   It is, in many ways, an uneventful life but that does not make it ordinary.   Robert Seethaler demonstrates this quite conclusively in this novella.   It is, I suppose, a brief life.   Seethaler does not make the mistake of calling it that.

So what is it that makes this book a joy to read?   It is certainly not that it is thrilling.   It is not the life of someone who made an impact in the world.   It is the story of someone who did not achieve a great deal, of someone who passed through the world leaving hardly a mark upon it.   In other words, it is the story of the vast majority of us.   We make a difference in small ways, in ways that are not remarkable, in ways that do not have much of an impact on history.   It is a simple story, simply told.

When I say simply told, that does not do justice to the writing.   This i an extraordinarily beautiful story, and the translator, Charlotte Collins, has done a remarkable job.   Every phrase, every sentence counts.   They tell the story of a life beset by hardship, patience and endurance, a life of love, compassion and simplicity.   It is a wonderful book.   It is a book that people should read – as simple and compelling as that.   You should read it.


Denis Goldberg: Rivonia Trialist and anti-apartheid campaigner: an 85th birthday tribute

Denis Goldberg will be 85 on 11th April 2018.   He was born in his beloved Cape Town in 1933.    His grandparents had fled to London to avoid the Tsarist pogroms, and his parents emigrated from there to South Africa.   He is therefore a first generation South African.   He was brought up in a remarkable household where people of all races were welcome.

He trained as an engineer and soon became politically active, campaigning for the liberation of the South African people.   He was an Executive member of the Congress of Democrats, which was a white organisation allied to the African National Congress and part of the Congress Alliance.   It was not legal under South African law for people of all races to be members of the same political organisation, although organisations representing the different races could work together for the same objective.   He also joined the illegal South African Communist Party.

It was through his political activities that he met Esme Bodenstein, whom he married and by whom he had two children, Hilary and David.

Following the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 and the subsequent banning of the ANC and other political organisations, Denis became involved in Umkhonto we Sizwe (the Spear of the Nation), the armed wing of the ANC.   Denis was approached because, as a qualified engineer, he had the necessary skills for the prosecution of the armed struggle.   The commander-in-chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) was Nelson Mandela.   It was not long before Denis found himself involved in the command structures of MK in Cape Province, working with people like Looksmart Ngudle and Percy Mda.   Looksmart Ngudle was the first person to die in detention at the hands of the apartheid security police.

On 16th December 1962, MK struck.   There were bomb explosions throughout the country, targeting the symbols of apartheid.   Electricity pylons were blown up.   Johannesburg and Durban both were blacked out.   Nelson Mandela gave a clandestine interview to Robin Day of the BBC, setting out the plans of Umkhonto we Sizwe.   The armed struggle had been launched.

Denis and his mother had both been arrested following the imposition of a State of Emergency following the Sharpeville Massacre.   They spent four months in prison.   On his release, Denis was dismissed from his job as an engineer with South African Railways because of his political activism.   In 1963, Denis was served with a stringent banning order, confining him to a particular magisterial district of Cape Town and limiting the number of people that he could meet at any one time.   Denis, of course, worked his way round this banning order and continued with his political work,   He took part, as an instructor, in an MK training camp at Camps Bay, near Cape Town.   He also went to a meeting of MK at the Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, near Johannesburg.   It was here that he was arrested with all the MK High Command, except Nelson Mandela who was already in prison.

Esme was detained and held in solitary confinement under the 90 Day Detention Law.   Upon her release she went into exile, taking Hilary and David with her, and came to London where she set up home.   Denis managed to escape his captors, very briefly, but he was re-arrested.   He became one of the accused in the Rivonia Trial alongside Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Raymond Mhlaba, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni.

The Rivonia Trial was one of the seminal events in the struggle for the freedom of South Africa and, indeed, in the worldwide struggle against racism.   It was the trial at which Nelson Mandela made his famous statement from the dock.   The accused were charged with sabotage, which meant that they were facing the death penalty.   That is why Nelson Mandela ended his statement with the words “I am prepared to die”.   The world was electrified.   This was the year in which Martin Luther King made his “I have a dream” speech.   To have two such powerful statements of anti-racism made so close to each other changed the whole dynamic of the struggle.

The trial lasted from June 1963 to October 1964 in the Pretoria Supreme Court.   Denis Goldberg was Accused No 3.   The charges were laid under the Sabotage Act and the Suppression of Communism Act.  The accused were charged with “campaigning to overthrow the Government by violent revolution and for assisting an armed invasion of the country by foreign troops”.   The charge sheet contained 193 acts of sabotage allegedly carried out by MK, and by persons recruited by the accused in their capacity as members of the MK High Command.

All of the accused were found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.   Denis called out to his mother “Life!   Life is wonderful!”   The others were sent to Robben Island, but Denis was white and there was apartheid in the prisons, so as a white political prisoner Denis was sent to Pretoria Prison.   Denis was imprisoned for 22 years, and was the first of the Rivonia Trialists to be released.

The prison years were long and hard.   Denis had to fight for the right to study and to read newspapers.   Denis nursed Bram Fischer, the Afrikaner lawyer who had defended the Rivonia trialists and who was also involved in MK and the South African Communist Party, through his terminal illness.   Denis assisted Tim Jenkin, Steven Lee and Alex Moumbaris in their escape from the prison.   After 22 years, he was offered his freedom by President Botha, and he accepted.

Denis came to London where he re-joined Esme and his family.    Denis and Esme rebuilt their family life together.   Denis resumed his work for the ANC, setting up ANC Merchandising.   He also spoke at countless meetings on behalf of the ANC, involved himself in the work of the Anti-Apartheid Movement and spoke at the United Nations.   US organisations awarded him the Albert Luthuli Peace Prize in recognition of his work in the struggle against apartheid.   Denis served as an inspiration to the thousands of Anti-Apartheid Movement activists that he met, and was a constant source of knowledge and wisdom about the struggle in South Africa.   There were so many ways in which he helped to develop the international campaign against apartheid that it is impossible to list them all.

During the years Denis was in prison and then in exile, the situation in South Africa reached crisis point.   On 16th June 1976, the children of Soweto organised a demonstration against the use of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in schools.   The apartheid police opened fire.   In the years that followed, thousands fled South Africa to join Umkhonto we Sizwe.   There was a popular uprising.   South Africa became ungovernable.   There was an increase in armed attacks by MK.   There was a storm of international protest.   The apartheid regime, facing bankruptcy, was forced to consider negotiations.   Secret discussions had been taking place with Nelson Mandela.   There were also discussions between key figures of the Afrikaner establishment in Dakar and in the UK.   There was no doubt that the end of apartheid was in sight.

First Govan Mbeki was released in 1987 and then all the other Rivonia trialists, except Nelson Mandela, at the end of 1989.   Then the ANC, SACP, MK and other organisations were unbanned.   Finally, on 11th February 1990, Nelson Mandela was released.   The long process of negotiations was soon to begin.  It was to take something like 3 and half years, and 10,000 people were killed, including Chris Hani, the Secretary-General of the SACP.

The elections took place on 27th April 1994 and lasted until the end of the month.   When Nelson Mandela was installed as President at the Union Buildings on 10th May 1994, Denis was there as one of the guests of honour.

On his return to London, Denis set up Community HEART as a British charity working for the reconstruction of South Africa.   HEART stands for Health, Education and Reconstruction Training.   Denis became the Executive Director, throwing his energy into a host of projects to assist his country.   Since its inception in 1995, Community HEART has sent 3 million books to schools and libraries in South Africa, has supported the Rape Crisis Centre in Cape Town, the Ububele Psychotherapy Project in Johannesburg, HIV/Aids projects helping to raise awareness of the disease, community arts and housing projects.   For a small organisation, Community HEART has had a considerable impact and that is due, in part, to the energy and enthusiasm that Denis has put into the organisation.

After Esme died of cancer in 2000, Denis decided to return to South Africa.   The sudden death of his daughter Hilary, from a blood clot, in 2002 confirmed him in this decision.   He had just married Edelgard Nkobi, the German born widow of Zenzo Nkobi, the son of the ANC Treasurer-General, Thomas Nkobi.   It was through Edelgard that Denis made the connections to set up the German Community-HEART.   On his return to South Africa, Denis was appointed as a Special Adviser to Ronnie Kasrils, the then Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry.   He held this post until he retired in 2004.   By then, Denis had moved to Hout Bay in Cape Town, and he became the Patron of the Kronendal Music Academy of Hout Bay.   Edelgard died of cancer at the end of 2006 and her funeral took place on 8th January 2007, the anniversary of the founding of the African National Congress.

When Denis returned to South Africa, Isobel McVicar was appointed as the Director of Community HEART.   The organisation has continued its vital life-enhancing, life-changing work for the people of South Africa.

Denis has continued to be active, touring both Germany and the UK, raising money for Community HEART.   It was on one of these trips that he was diagnosed with cancer.   He is now at home in South Africa receiving treatment.

Denis will soon be 85.   His legacy has been building  a new, free democratic South Africa.   So many people have benefitted from his contribution to the freedom of his country, and to his efforts at repairing the damage done by apartheid and colonialism.   He is truly a hero for his country and his times.

For the Joy of Reading: #Afterhours

Inua Ellams set himself a challenge.   He wanted to write a poem for the first 18 years of his life as a response to a poem that was published in the relevant year.   This book is what emerged from the project.   Ellams tells the reader how he selected the poems to which he would respond, in what the publisher describes as an anthology, a diary, a memoir and a collection of poems.    The results are certainly interesting.

Ellams is a Nigerian, who left his country with his parents and moved to London.   He then went to Dublin, and then back to London.   His family was also remarkable..   His father was Moslem and his mother, Christian, and he had a twin sister.   Anyone who knows about Nigeria will be aware that a marriage between a Moslem and a Christian would not be received well by either community.   Anyone who has read Ben Okri’s “The Famished Road” will know that the birth if twins could signify that one of them was a spirit child.

Ellams wants his poetic responses to the chosen British poems to be firmly rooted in his Nigerian culture, which is vibrant and noisy and outgoing.   These are not words that you would necessarily connect with British culture, and so the response poems contrast quite strongly to the originals that have been chosen.   That is part of the joy of the book.   For instance, Jo Shapcott’s poem about sheep shearing is contrasted with the preparation of a ram being sacrificed for the Eid celebration.   These are both poems about strength, about manliness, but because of the nature of the event being described, they have a very different feel to them.   Another example is Robert Crawford’s “Transformer” which is about a railway travelling between Pictish stones.   The response is about a plane taking the author as a child from the land of Achebe away from Africa.   Each response poem is different from the original, but it is an appropriate response.   The hardest to read is the response to Pascale Petit’s “My Father’s Lungs” which is about the suicide of Ellams’ friend, Stephen.   It is still an appropriate response.

This is, in many ways, a strange book, but that very strangeness is one of its great attractions.   If you care about poetry, this is a book that you should read.

For the Joy of Reading: Midwinter Break

Bernard MacLaverty is one of those authors who you can imagine holding an audience around the fire absolutely spellbound.   You can imagine him, in the Great Hall of Brian Boru or some other Irish King, plucking his harp and letting the story pour out of him.   I would certainly be one of those sitting there entranced.

This is the story of Gerry and Stella Gilmore, an aging couple on a midwinter break in Amsterdam from their home in Glasgow.   They have been married for a very long time and it is Stella who has decided that they need to have a little holiday in Amsterdam.    She has a reason for this which becomes clear at the start of the story.   She is interested in visiting the Begijnhof, a community of women withdrawn from the world, but not nuns, and in finding out about membership.

Gerry is unaware of this, but he has his own little secret or, at least, he thinks it is a secret.    It is his liking for the bottle.   Gerry, drunk and lost in the hotel corridor, is a comic tour de force.   This is the kind of little touch at which Bernard MacLaverty excels.   It is very funny and very human at the same time.   This is one of the moments when the reader warms to Gerry.   It is impossible not to like him.   He is a man who likes music, and who like his comforts, such as a dram of Jameson’s.   [Paddy does not get mentioned but then Gerry and Stella are from Belfast.   I am sure that Gerry would like Paddy too].

Stella is the more spiritual of the two, a devout Catholic, seeking the solace of her faith.   This is why she is interested in the Begijnhof, and has been researching it.   She remembers someone telling her about it, many years ago, and that memory has been haunting her.   For Stella, it holds out the possibility of a change in her life.

I have let slip here that Gerry and Stella fled to Glasgow from Belfast because of the troubles.   Understandably, they did not feel that Belfast in the 1970s was a safe place to bring up their son, which is why they moved to Glasgow.   The whole story is about uncovering the reason for their fear.   The whole story is about how they became the people that they are because of one event, one major traumatic event in the lives of two, until then, ordinary people.

I am in many ways chary of that phrase “ordinary people” because I do not think that Bernard MacLaverty considers anyone to be ordinary.   He sees what is unique in all of us, and that is what he brings to the fore in his storytelling.   That is why he is an absolute master at the art of storytelling.   That is why you must read this book.

For the Joy of Reading: Crash Land

I love Doug Johnstone’s books.   They do not end happily ever after.   He recognises that life is messy, that people make mistakes and that there are consequences.   And there is no question that Finn makes a mistake.   It is not so much that he lets an older woman chat him up at Orkney Airport, when it is obvious that she is only doing it to get away from an oil worker who is sexually harassing her.   It is the fact that he gets involved in a fight with the oil worker on a plane when all he had to do was call one of the stewards for help.   This fight leads to the crash landing of the title and, this being a Doug Johnstone novel, mayhem follows.

Doug Johnstone obviously thinks that the Scottish Islands are places of dark passion and extreme violence.   If you don’t believe me, read Smokeheads.   There are enough bodies in Crash Land to make the Midsomer Murders look restrained.   This book, however, is much more interesting than that because Doug Johnstone does not shy away from the ethical issues.   To my mind, ethical issues lie at the heart of Johnstone’s writing, and his main characters do not always make the right choices.   And Finn, as I have already said, does not necessarily make the right choices.   He certainly does not make the sensible ones.

I cannot explain this conclusion because that would involve giving away the plot of the book.   So what can I tell you about?   I will start with the style.   Johnstone is a master storyteller.   He knows how to spin a yarn.   He leads the reader on from cliffhanger to cliffhanger.   Have no doubt about that.   You will really want to know what happens next, and what will happen to Finn and Maddie.   You may think that Finn is insane to get himself involved with Maddie, but you will certainly understand why he does.   She is the classic femme fatale, prepared to use a young man for her own convenience, but you will wonder if she actually falls for Finn.   If you think of D’Artagnan and Milady de Winter, you will get the idea.   Or of Ava Gardner’s character in Showboat singing “Can’t help loving that man of mine”.   Maddie is that kind of dangerous woman.

Doug Johnstone is superb at writing thrillers.   He writes with verve and urgency.   The motivations of his characters are plausible.   You will not want to put this book down and at the ending you will think “Please God, no”.

For the Joy of Reading: Hunting the Eagles

The problem for any author who writes about the Julio-Claudian Roman Emperors is that the Robert Graves novels, “I, Claudius” and “Claudius the God” are unforgettable.   And if they are not haunted by the books, then they are by the Derek Jacobi TV series of the books.   Or at least that is what I think until I remember that the TV series was some 30-40 years ago, and that hardly anyone has read the books nowadays.   So if this review leads a few people to the Robert Graves books, the this review will have done some good.

Ben Kane deals with the Robert Graves problem by concentrating on an event that is peripheral to Graves’ story, but which was pivotal in the history of the Roman Empire, and therefore of Europe.   The defeat and destruction of three Roman legions in the Teutoberger Forest determined the history of the continent.   The Roman border was fixed at the Rhine for the next four centuries, until it was overwhelmed by invading German tribes.

“Hunting the Eagles” is about the aftermath of the death of the Roman General, Varus, and his three legions.   The Roman Emperor, Augustus, wanted revenge.   But this required careful planning and there were other matters to be dealt with, such as a rebellion along the Danube frontier in Pannonia.   The Emperor’s heir apparent, Tiberius Caesar, put down this rebellion and came to Rome to celebrate his triumph.   That is the start of the book, and how we are introduced to the major characters, Tullus, Fenestela, Piso and Vitellius and later to Germanicus Caesar, who is to command the Roman war of vengeance, and his wife Agrippina and their baby son, Gaius Caligula.

The other major character is Arminius, the German leader who rallied the various tribes to oppose Varus, ambushed him and inflicted such a crushing defeat that only a few hundred legionaries survived, and Varus himself was killed.   Most of the German characters are Arminius’ family, and we know about them because they are mentioned by Tacitus in his accounts of the history of Imperial Rome.

This is the second book in the “Eagles of Rome” trilogy so we will have met some of these characters before in “Eagles at War” and we will meet some of them again in “Eagles in the Storm” to be published next year.   This second book is set mainly in the barracks of the Roman imperial army along the banks of the Rhine and also in the German settlements on the east bank of the Rhine, or in the forests and bogs that were not farmed by the Germanic tribes.

Anyone who objects to barrack room language will not like this book.   It is however set in a barracks and Ben Kane has a deft touch in making his readers realise what it must have been like to be a legionary who survived the dreadful massacre, thirsting for revenge and hating Arminius with a visceral loathing.   Kane makes you understand the men that he puts before you as a reader.   He also makes you understand the German’s fury at the invasion of their lands, and their hatred of Roman imperial arrogance.    You could change the time and the location, and it does not take any imagination to grasp how invaded peoples feel about their invaders.

Kane marches you through the mud and the gloom of the German forests.   He terrifies you during the fighting.   He makes you feel the relief when the fighting is over.   You grasp the grievances and the anger.   You understand the political machinations, the tactics and the strategy of the commanders.   You learn that a good non-commissioned officer can make all the difference.   You march to war with the men, not the generals.   This is not a comfortable read, but it makes non-combatants like me have some understanding of the realities of close combat and wat.

For the Joy of Reading: Infinite Ground

Carlos has disappeared.   He got up from a restaurant table and went to the bathroom.   He did not come back.   That, I think, is all that you need to know about the plot.   What follows is a description of the investigation.   This is not a police procedural or any of the other classic crime formulae.   It is an investigation into the nature of reality.

So what do we know.   The setting is somewhere in South America along the valley of the river Parana.   This means that the country could be Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil or Argentina.   The names are no guide, because they could be either Spanish or Portuguese.   We know that there is a forest, and the description is that of a rain forest, but that is not much help.   That could be any of the four countries mentioned.   We know that the Inspector is nearing the end of his career.   This suggests that he could have been the cause of several disappearances during the military dictatorships in those countries.   There is however little reference to his early career as a policeman, and no suggestion of guilt or even regret.   What we have is a magic reality, and we as readers surely cannot be certain of anything.

I am not even sure what is the best way to describe what this book is about.   In a detective series such as Sherlock Holmes, he always began by eliminating the impossible and concluding that whatever was left, however improbable, must be the truth or, at least, the solution to the mystery.   The problem with Infinite Ground is that all the solutions are both improbable and impossible. It is not even clear that Carlos actually existed.   The Inspector sent to investigate the case has to embark upon a surreal search that does not appear to have any purpose, any possibility of solving the case.

He is hindered by witnesses, Carlos’ relatives, colleagues both of Carlos and himself, all of whom seem to put barriers and difficulties in the way of his investigation.   His thought processes, to me, do not seem to be logical, and they lead him into very strange places.   This is a Kafka novel written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.   I cannot think of higher praise than that.

So, let us turn to the writing.   It is beautiful.   The prose lures you into the story.   Each sentence is carefully written so that you do not want to stop reading.   You may not have the slightest idea about what is actually happening, but that is part of the surreal nature of the book.   You read on hoping for clarity, you get none, and yet you read on hoping for clarity.

Martin MacInnes is a writer of extraordinary ability.   He is clearly someone to follow.   Atlantic Books are to be commended for daring to publish this book, a first novel, and for taking a considerable amount of care with the production to enhance the beauty of the reading experience.

Be sure that you read this book.