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Tuesday, 29 December 2009


Africana Votes & Views #12

  Men have this fascination with war. The noble pursuit of one’s fellow-man with lethal intent must have a similar fascination to driving a thundering behemoth of a machine down the railway or racing track, launching oneself into a melée consisting of thirty grown men and one oval ball with possible fatal consequences, scaling impossibly high pieces of frozen rock while suffering semi-permanent damage to extremities from cold and to the brain from anoxia – or sneaking up to elephants’ backsides in the bush to tweak a hair from their tails and chalk a cross on their haunches (I kid you not – I know such a band of foolhardy knaves). So what is it that so enchants the male persona with dangerous pursuits? The presence of testosterone is popularly blamed for this thraldom to the pursuits of Mars – is it then the presence of periodical quantities of progesterone or estrogen that leads the fair sex to queue up for their dose of Mills and Boone romances?
  For those putative warriors who have either laid down their armoury or have never been fortunate enough to get within smelling distance of burning cordite, there are books on the ‘Art of War’, such as written by one Chinese sage, Sun Tzu in the 6th century BC – and still acclaimed as one of the most influential works on military strategy; in addition to tens of thousands more volumes, offering the vicarious (and safe) enjoyment of the thunder of battle, the niceties of strategies, glorious feats of courage and self sacrifice – all without the attendant stench of death. As the good Horace wrote Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori... – yeah, well tell that to the fatherless children and the widows – not to mention the scarred souls and bodies that survive the turmoil. My one parent had survived the Russian campaign as a mental and physical wreck; the other had squeaked through the relentless bombing of the German cities; I remember living in a cellar in an entirely flattened suburb of Hamburg just after the end of the war. During the next half century or so, I was part of a relatively fortunate generation, most of whom did not have to go to war. Even that grizzled old warrior, Papa Hemingway, conceded that ‘he knew how boring any man’s war is to any other man’ (Across the River and into the Trees, Scribner 1998), and so it was with me. I must confess to having lost my taste for war-books of any kind by the time I was about fifteen, which is not to say that I haven’t read the odd volume touching on the genre every now and again.
  So how about the conflicts that have raged about this continent of ours? One could start at the very beginning of the European presence at the Cape, when the august Viceroy of India, Francisco D’Almeida, conqueror of Kilwa and Mombasa on the east coast, got more than a bloody nose from the local Khoi tribesmen. Despite their armour and superior weapons, his trading/raiding expedition ran into trouble in a village near the estuary of the Salt River when they tried taking stock and hostages. The unsportsmanlike Khoi retaliated using their cattle as living shields, and managed to stone, spear and club the good Viceroy and some fifty to sixty of his men (depending on which source one takes) to death. Apparently the 1510 episode left a bad taste with the Portuguese, and they tended to give the Cape a wide berth, so leaving a vacuum which the Dutch and English were prepared to fill. 
  Fast forward a couple of hundred years during which period the Dutch had established themselves at the Cape (not entirely unopposed by the Khoi tribes), and the wars and alliances between the European powers started to make themselves felt as the French, Dutch, Spanish and English took irritating turns at allying themselves with each other and against each other. Saldanha Bay became the theatre of a number of such confrontations, which are ably chronicled in Jose Burman’s Saldanha Bay Story (Human & Rossouw, 1974), but none of these skirmishes were battles in the true sense – except to those few unfortunate souls that perished in them, and the main loss was ships and cargo. The next battle worthy of the name was in 1806 when the British under Baird and Popham sailed into view to wrest the Cape from the Dutch under the command of Janssens. This was a properly planned, well executed expedition consisting of a whole fleet with some six and a half thousand men, and was focussed on a stretch of sandy coast a few miles north-west of Cape Town. Here the Brits landed at Lospersbaai (nowadays Melkbosstrand) and a short, sharp battle followed, lasting about half the day. The motley aggregation of German, French, Dutch, Javanese, Khoi and burghers, numbering less than two thousand souls, was outgunned and withdrawn by Janssens, little knowing that he actually had the upper hand in that the British were in dire straits from the heavy going in the deep sand and lack of water. According to a number of accounts I haven’t read, like D W Krynauw’s Beslissing by Blouberg (Tafelberg, 1999), which is a very thorough archivist’s take on the event, and M R D Anderson’s Blue Berg – Britain takes the Cape (Privately published, 2008) which comes complete with dialogue; this conflict had all the elements of classic battle, and it certainly was one of the deciding moments in the history of European involvement in the subcontinent.
  Although the first three ‘Frontier Wars’ in the Eastern Cape occurred during Dutch rule between 1779 and 1803, these were relatively minor affairs occasioned by European farmers expanding eastward and being resisted and raided by the various Xhosa-related tribes. The forces deployed were mainly burgher commandos, and their effectiveness was not decisive enough to put an end to tribal excursions for any length of time. The nineteenth century imposed the pax Brittanica on the Cape, as noted above – on the other hand, maybe it didn’t, since the Eastern Frontier continued to be a festering sore on the flank of the colony. The 4th war broke out in 1811, bringing British troops and military science into the fray alongside the commandos, and a number of forts were established. The conduct of these wars, the military manoeuvres, the fine soldierly activities (interspersed with hunting episodes) have been written about in great detail. A few books I have read include some material on these wars, such as J E Alexander’s Voyage Round the West Coast, and a Visit to the Colonies of Africa… in which he includes some of his war experiences on the frontier, before departing up the West Coast through Namaqualand; E E Napier’s Excursions in South Africa (William Shoberl, 1850) which work embodies the author’s experiences as a supernumerary officer in charge of irregulars during the War of the Axe; T J Lucas’s Camp Life and Sport in South Africa (Africana Reprint Library, 1975) in which he relates much ‘exciting work’ which enlivens the lot of a colonial officer in the thick of the fray. On a more serious note, A J Smithers’s work The Kaffir Wars 1779–1877 (Leo Cooper, 1973) tries to put all nine wars into perspective, including the lamentable episode of Nonquause’s prophecy and the cattle killing, which led to untold misery, starvation and the breaking of the power of the Xhosa nations, as well as the last insurgency of Kreli and Sandile, which brought to an end a century of war.
  Also during this period, the Koranna wars raged along the northern frontier of the Cape. Very little glory accrued to any one during these obscure cattle-raiding skirmishes and reprisals, and once more the forces consisted mainly of burgher commandos and policemen, opposed by a bewildering array of tribal and clan alliances. The only work I have seen which endeavours to present the whole history of the eleven years of conflict between 1868–1879 is T Strauss’s War Along the Orange (UCT, 1979) – a fiendishly difficult book to get hold of – and I wrote a chapter on the main outlines of the wars in Life & Travels in the Northwest 1850–1899 (Yoshi, 2008).
A noteworthy war followed hard on the heels of the frontier wars. The Zulu War was no sporting skirmish, nor a cattle-raiding expedition. It was a full-on challenge to the might of the British Empire by a numerous and warlike nation that still had vivid memories of its military genius-founder Chaka as precedent. Some forty thousand trained warriors proceeded to give the Brits a bloody nose at Isandhlwana by overwhelming the garrison. The famous defence of Rorke’s Drift followed – where the redcoats held at bay an overwhelming force of Zulus, winning eleven VCs for gallantry. In another clash at Hlobane Mountain, the Zulus repulsed the British as well as a Boer commando, but at Kambula the fortunes of war went the other way. Finally, the battle of Ulundi, the burning of the royal kraal and the capture of King Cetshwayo signalled the end of this conflict. There are a number of works by military historians who have analysed the war in detail; or if a blow-by-blow account is required, who better to consult than the Illustrated London News of 1879. Of the more modern works, D R Morris’s Washing of the Spears (Jonathan Cape, 1966) gives some background to the rise of the Zulu nation and its fall after the war, and in a similar vein is R B Edgerton in his book Like Lions they Fought (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1988). For detailed accounts of the two heroic battles, R Furneaux’s The Zulu War – Isandhlwana and Rorke's Drift (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1963) is probably your best bet.
  The next lot to take a swipe at the hapless Brits were the Transvalers. They had been unceremoniously annexed through Shepstone’s machinations, and despite trying to get the decision reversed through diplomatic channels, this was not to be and the burghers decided besiege various British units to prevent them from getting reinforcements from elsewhere. Engagements at Bronkhorstspruit, Laing’s Nek and Ingogo caused heavy losses to the British, and presidents Brand of the OFS and Kruger of the Transvaal, pressed their advantage by diplomatic efforts to gain some concessions with regard to their independence while offering some face-saving clauses in exchange. Unfortunately the correspondence ran into some delays which led to the Battle of Majuba – a decisive loss and blow to the colonial power, which was now forced to back-pedal, un-annex the Transvaal within six months and leave the Boers to plough their own furrows. T F Carter’s work A Narrative of the Boer War (Remington, 1883) is probably one of the best early works, though I found it considerably more indigestible than Oliver Ransford’s Battle of Majuba Hill (John Murray, 1967). 
  Then came the second Anglo-Boer War. No half-hearted regional scrimmage this time, but instead what was to become the first ‘modern’ war, pitting the military might of the most powerful empire of the age against the local knowledge, bushcraft, speed and marksmanship of the burghers of two small republics. The conventional phase of the war was soon over. The republics just couldn’t defend their towns and cities, nor could they consistently defeat the ‘Khakies’ in pitched battle, and their laying siege to a number of towns occupied by British forces just diluted their efforts. The latter phase of the war, the guerilla-war, was to become an epic struggle between will-o’-the-wisp bands of ragged and ill-supplied men, and the ever-growing forces that tried to shut them down. I don’t know just how many books have been written on this war – and are still being penned or revived, or excavated out of old diaries and reports; it could run into the thousands. I have no intention of reading them, so you, good reader, are on your own. There are regimental histories, there are officers’ accounts of their exploits, there are military experts who dissect every tactic and deployment, there are voluminous histories which attempt to cover every phase and every theatre of the conflict, there are technical treatises on munitions and armaments, on communications, or medical advances – and then there are some truly touching personal documents.
  One of these is Deneys Reitz’s Commando (Faber & Faber, 1929). A remarkably well-written personal experience of the entire war from the perspective of a callow youth, scarcely off the schoolbench, straight into the barrage of shells at Talana. From then on the reader follows almost every major event of the war, often under some of the most charismatic and able leaders, like Smuts’s great ride across the Cape, and the war in Namaqualand in the company of berserkers like Maritz. Certainly the work deserves its reputation as one of the best narratives of war and adventure in the English language. A number of young foreigners joined the ranks of the Boers, mainly for the adventure a war promised, one suspects. One of these was the Frenchman Robert de Kersauson de Pennendreff, who was sworn in as a burgher of the ZAR by the old president himself. Though full of enthusiasm to get to grips with the war, he was soon disillusioned as he failed to gain acceptance from his co-belligerents until he managed to learn the taal. He took part in many of the major battles and was even entrusted with a personal mission to inform president Kruger in exile in Holland of the state of the war back home. No great literary work this book, Ek en die Vierkleur (Afrikaanse Pers Boekhandel, ca. 1950) but rather a day by day diary of a young adventurer. A slim volume, Woman’s Endurance by A D L (A D Luckhoff), published by SA News Co, 1904, brought home to me the horrendous conditions in the Bethulie concentration camp for women and children, where the author was chaplain to the inmates. The worthy padre recounts the suffering of mothers and their dying offspring with such empathy that I had a hard time getting through the sixty-odd pages, even with a wad of tissues to hand. No wonder then that the poor man couldn’t last longer than six months in his position. There are several other good books on the same subject, but I haven’t felt an urge to tackle them. Bill Nasson’s work, Abraham Esau’s War (Cambridge, 1991) examines the lot of the ‘coloured’ people in the Western Cape, who tended to be used as auxiliaries by one side – and as traitors by the other. They lost out during the war, and they did not benefit by the peace. I can claim to have read all books that were written about the war in Namaqualand, Bushmanland and the West Coast, but that is because of my general interest in the history of the region.
  Sieges tend to form the subject of some interesting writing – possibly because adversity brings out the best in humanity. The Siege of Kimberley by T Phelan (M H Gill, 1913) is such a title; chronicling the lighter humorous moments and disasters that afflicted mainly the civilian population, while the technicians and engineers of the diamond mines cobbled together the Long Cecil cannon, with which they could reply to the Boers’ artillery. P Burke’s Siege of O’okiep (War Museum, 1995) is more of a military evaluation of the Boers’ siegecraft, though not devoid of its lighter moments, such as Maritz attempting to blow up the whole town with the aid of a train loaded with dynamite (which derailed and burnt instead of exploding), or the boys having a little fun with jam-tins full of dynamite being lobbed onto blockhouses’ and forts’ roofs. The siege of Ladysmith was also the subject of a whole shelf of books, of which I have only read one a while back, by H Watkins-Pitchford, Besieged in Ladysmith (Shuter & Shooter, 1964). The author was a renowned veterinary surgeon, and the book offers a different view in his letters from the besieged city to his wife; an interesting personal document.
  A few novels dealing with aspects of the war have also come to my notice. C L Leipoldt’s Stormwrack (David Philip, 1980) portrays the ramifications the war has on the different elements of the population in the Cederberg village of Clanwilliam, which was only quite peripheral to the main conflict. W C Scully was so enraged at the treatment meted out to townspeople in the Cape by their own government who saw rebellion and collaborators round every corner, that he went on a crusade which bordered on treason. He wrote a thinly disguised novel, The Harrow (Nasionale Pers, 1921), the MS of which he hung on to until almost twenty years after the end of the war – because of his bitterness against his own countrymen and government. But enough of this war – there are plenty to follow.
  1914 was the year the world went mad; and for very confused reasons, not quite evident to my unmilitaristic mind. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany went to war against his cousin George V of England, because some crazed bloke had shot one of his Austrian archducal buddies in a foreign country, i.e. Serbia. Before you knew what was happening, the entire extended family of both monarchs had joined the fray on one side or another, as well as a gross of other countries who weren’t even related by marriage. So it was on this subcontinent; a portion of the populace supported old Blighty, while the other half harboured grudges from the Boer War and reckoned we should have joined hands with the Germans in South-West. Before you know what, you have the 1914 Rebellion going at full tilt and men are shooting at brother, father or uncle along the northern border. Strangely enough, only the Afrikaans writers seem to feel strongly about this domestic squabble, and I have yet to find a book which gives all the details in English. So I am left at the tender mercies of the doughty Gen. J C G Kemp, who is not exactly an impartial observer in his book Die Pad van die Veroweraar (Nasionale Pers, 1942) to guide me through the sands of the Kalahari towards the German forces. Once the South Africans have been committed to wresting their colony from the Germans, there is much more material available – some of it quite readable if one likes to hear the whine of Mauser bullets and feel the grit of sand between the teeth. Books like E M Ritchie’s With Botha in the Field (Longmans Green, 1915), H F Trew’s Botha Treks (Blackie & Son, 1916) and W S Rayner & W W O’Shaughnessy’s How Botha and Smuts Conquered German South West (Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co, 1916) should satisfy the most ardent war historian’s appetite, especially since they cover the southern as well as the northern campaigns.
  Once South-West had fallen, our local generals turned their attention to Tanganyika, where the renowned general P E von Lettow-Vorbeck was showing more talent than was deemed prudent to be on the loose in the East African bush. Although his book My Reminiscences of East Africa (Hurst & Blackett, 1919) consists of mainly the military niceties of his campaign, it is eminently readable, and I suspect that many of his opponents appreciated reading of his exploits as I did. There are a number of semi-arid to dry histories of this part of WWI, and I can only claim to have read two small contributions entitled inaptly On Safari by one F C (F Cooper, Juta, 1917) in which he sketches the discomforts of bush warfare as a gunner under the generalship of Smuts, and C Martin’s Corporal Haussman Goes to War (Privately published, 2000) in which charming little account said corporal betook himself and his Triumph motorcycle to ride in the war against the Germans.
  World War II was an entirely different kettle of submarines. Yes, we do believe some German subs cruised off our shores, and it was rumoured that German seamen came ashore for smokes and a drink now and then, but that was about as close as the action got. Our troops were shipped off in large numbers to East and North Africa, where they fought talented generals like the Duc de Aosta and Rommel, among other redoubtable warriors; got hammered at Tobruk; flew in the Battle of Britain and escaped from various Italian concentration camps. Naturally there is a large body of literature concerning such important events; however, since I had a brother-in-law who had been party to some of the above actions ‘up north’, I was quite happy to listen to his tales of hair-raising escapades and improbable anecdotes, and I have somehow never had the urge to read a single book on the South African involvement in the war. Once again, gentle reader, you must pilot your own way through this literary minefield.
  Lastly we come to what I classify as the ‘Bush Wars’ in my catalogues. They include everything warlike from the beginning of the end of the colonial era in Africa until the present civil wars raging up and down the continent with monotonous regularity. A number of my schoolmates could hardly wait to finish their matrics before they rushed off to join some bunch of ‘dogs of war’ led by one or other psychopath; to make unreal amounts of money in return for unspeakable deeds – or so I had it verbatim from one I met after he returned a haunted and shivering wreck from the Congo. Then, too, I had colleagues at work later on, men who had been sent to the Caprivi, and on into Angola – who would confide in me after a few drinks, some of the inhumanities than men do to other men in the heat of battle or in the cold fever of revenge. None of these encounters awoke any interest or vicarious enjoyment of what they had experienced, so I have read none of the Contacts, nor Mr Stiff’s offerings, nor ‘Mad’ Mike Hoare’s or dozens of other worthy additions to the genre – with one exception – a little book entitled Pionne, by one Bertie Cloete, who happened to be a neighbour of one of my friends. He relates his experiences as a young ‘Troopie’ in training camp and at the front in the north of Namibia; the traumatic Bush War against unseen enemies, and the horrendous things that were witnessed. A gripping read – but quite sufficient for my needs.
  This was a difficult subject for me to write on and I hope any shortcomings will be excused. I have chosen to end this year, the first twelve numbers of Africana Votes and Views, with a subject I do not appreciate, but which will be with us as history and possibly future fact unless mankind undergoes a fundamental change.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009


Africana Votes & Views #11

The ills that afflict the human condition must be an eternal subject of interest to most people. Just listen in when a bunch of ‘mature’ people get together – first up on the agenda are the aches and pains that are experienced, as well as the miracle - or other cures that have been found.
So we’ll have a look at medicine in the Dark Continent, as well as a few related matters. I’ve always thought of the personage who used to be known as the District Surgeon, as a romantic figure who drove a clapped-out Ford or Studebaker sedan over unspeakable tracks in the Bush, with a black orderly/assistant next to him, and a rifle handy on the back seat among the paraphernalia of his profession. This was the Bundu Doctor, and I met a number of these worthy gentlemen in the flesh during the mid 1950’s.
It was with great delight that I actually found a book with just that title only a month or two back, written by a pukka sahib, Colonel (Dr) J Whitby (R Hale, 1961) covering his experiences in Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, whence he had been posted after extensive duty in the Far East. I immersed myself in the book without further ado, expecting a bizarre array of cases, circumstances and humorous anecdotes. Despite the title, I was a little disappointed. Although the good doctor had a truly sympathetic touch with sufferers from a host of maladies, his writing is infused with racial stereotyping, generalisations ad nauseam, military and colonial attitudes and a fine disregard for the spelling of place-names. His chapter on witchcraft and the results on the affected tribespeople is of interest, and his description of setting a patient’s broken leg via radio instructions to a panicky wife, is an absolute howler, while one or two episodes described smack of being ‘bundu legends’.
The author spent time in his mobile surgery in the ‘doctor’s bogie’, a special wagon hitched onto the train that traversed the country from south to north. It would stop at every small station and the ailing populace would flock in for treatment, often necessitating the bogie’s being left behind in a siding to be hooked up by the next train. Altogether the book is a fair reflection of life in the colonies in the late 1940s, and it paints a good picture of the little settlement of Maun in the Okavango, as well as the Zambian Copperbelt.
Subsequently he was to enter the services of WNLA as the Medical Officer who checked out the avalanche of humanity absorbed by the Witwatersrand gold mines, only to be spat out when their contracts had expired. He devotes more than a whole chapter to the methods used by this organization, as well as the many benefits that the Africans enjoyed due to the system, which operated from a numbers of centres in the Caprivi, Barotseland, Southern Rhodesia and Mozambique.
A medico of an entirely different calibre is Alberto Denti di Pirajno, who wrote two books: A Cure for Serpents (Andre Deutsch, 1955) and A Grave for a Dolphin (1956), on his experiences. The good doctor starts his first book with charming reminiscences
among the Berber and Tuareg people of Tripolitania. None of the dour medical details, but intimate cameos of a kaleidoscope of patients, interspersed with snippets of local folklore and flavours from the Arabian Nights. While his treatments might not always have had the full endorsement of the British Medical Association, his cure for impotence, to which the title of the book refers is certainly a novel one which smacks of the time-honoured sleight of hand used by quacks to extract demons or extraneous objects from the patients’ bodies. An endearing quality of Pirajno’s writing is the lack of judgmental pontificating – as he cheerfully treats prostitutes, beggars, villagers or pashas, acknowledging their common humanity.
His next appointment was in Eritrea, this time as Regional Commissioner, but he still had to deputise occasionally for the MO. A hunting trip into the inhospitable desert; a bevy of beautiful women weaving their intrigues; tribal feuds and hashish smuggling all feature in this eventful period at Massawa, before he was transferred to the capital of Asmara for a spell before WWII. The book ends on a sombre note as the good doctor had been posted to Tripoli as the city’s governor and he had to surrender it to Montgomery’s forces.
The second book is a strange tale of a foundling Venus, a love story, of dolphins and of magic – very difficult to classify as to genre – but not really particularly relevant to the author’s medical career. Nonetheless, a most readable offering, which left me with more questions than answers.
A little less colonial, but still a chronicle of pioneer doctoring in the wilds, is Con Weinberg’s Fragments of a Desert Land (Timmins, 1975). He was decanted fresh from Medical School into the small village of Gibeon in 1926, where he was installed as relieving District Surgeon. There was one automobile in town; alternative transport being horseback or on foot. The nearest hospital was in Windhoek, over three hundred kilometers away, and he notes that while there was a telephone in town, one had to shout very loudly into it to make oneself heard in Windhoek!
Weinberg also had his medical caboose, still of pre-war German vintage, which would be hitched onto the passing trains and he would be transported to hold clinics, or to attend to emergencies up and down the line between Keetmanshoop and the capital. While I was reading this, I repeatedly bumped into shadows of my own family history, as my grandfather had been the travelling medic during the construction of the railway line between Luderitz and Keetmanshoop some twenty years earlier – possibly even working in the same caboose, and almost certainly sharing quarters with the author in Keetmanshoop. An entertaining book, full of incident and written with enough skill to let one feel the grit of the sand between one’s teeth.
Medicine in tropical Africa during the 20th century has been overshadowed by the monumental persona of Albert Schweitzer; theologian, musician, philosopher, missionary and doctor. By 1905 he had already achieved great stature as an authority on church organs and music, as well as being a professor of theology. He felt called to become a doctor so that he “might be able to work without having to talk….but (by) this new form of activity I could not represent myself as talking about the religion of love, but only as an actual putting of it into practice”. He qualified as a surgeon and doctor seven years later and wasted no time in departing, accompanied by his wife Helene, for Lambarene on the Ogowe River, Gabon.
Though he had been promised a mission building, this was not to materialize and his first patients were treated in a disused fowl-house. WWI came and Schweitzer and his wife were briefly interned as German citizens by the French, but his deprived patients caused such a furore that they were soon set at liberty. It was during the war years that Schweitzer had time to philosophise, and he founded the concept of ‘Reverence for Life’ as an embodiment of his faith and work. Nonetheless he returned to Europe for a spell and only resumed his work at Lambarene in 1924. He funded most of his work from his own income as a lecturer and musician and the hospital grew to some seventy buildings in the next forty years of his labours. He received numerous honours including the Nobel Peace Prize, and died in 1965 and was buried at Lambarene.
I have no idea how many books have been written about the man and his work. Two I have worked through are G Seaver’s Albert Schweitzer, the Man and his Mind ( A & C Black, 1948), and C R Joy & M Arnold’s The Africa of Albert Schweitzer ( A & C Black, 1949). The first is somewhat heavy reading, as are Schweitzer’s own books, Civilization and Ethics, My Life and Thought, The Decay and Restoration of Civilization, which cover his philosophical work, his biographical writings: Memoirs of Childhood and Youth, From My African Notebook, as well as his two most popular and readable works On the Edge of the Primeval Forest, and More from the Primeval Forest. Whether one likes philosophy or religion, or one merely stands in awe of the man, his humanitarianism and towering intellect, one should try to read one or the other of his works.
Just as Schweitzer battled the horrendous tropical scourges that afflict the inhabitants of West Africa, so did Michael Gelfand in South Central Africa. He wrote a goodly number of books dealing with subtropical medicine, as well as traditional healing and witchcraft practices among the tribespeople of Zimbabwe. The Sick African (Stewart, 1943) is too clinical for the lay reader, but Medicine and Custom in Africa (E & S Livingstone, 1964) is an account of the 'medical anthropology' of Africa, in which he examines the history of healing and materia medica, as well as occult practices. In another quite interesting title, Livingstone the Doctor – his Life and Travels (Basil Blackwell, 1957) he gives a critical evaluation of the great missionary/explorer’s medical role during his African sojourn. Another work, Mother Patrick and her Nursing Sisters (Juta, 1964) paints a faithful picture of the first attempts at providing a medical service to the new colony that was Rhodesia; as does the book A Service to the Sick (Mambo Press, 1976) in which he relates the development of medical treatment for Africans between 1890 and 1953. Medicine and Magic of the Mashona (Juta, 1956) delves into more ethnographical fields, as does Witch Doctor (Harvill Press, 1964) for good measure. As far as I’m aware, his last book in this vein to appear was The Traditional Medical Practitioner in Zimbabwe (Mambo Press, 1985), but the indefatigable doctor also collaborated with P W Laidler in writing South Africa, its Medical History (Struik, 1971). Gelfand’s books certainly belong onto the shelves of anybody interested in indigenous medicine and ethnography, while all collectors of Rhodesiana should follow suit, more especially since he also wrote a handful of other historical works.
There are a large number of little memoirs written by and about doctors in private practice in small towns and in the cities of the subcontinent. I can’t claim to have read that many, since a little medicine tends to go a long way with me. The best tales are usually those which are light on technical detail and rich in human tapestry. One of the former is D Gamsu’s Adventures of a South African Brain Surgeon (Hugh Keartland, 1967) which is ill-named, since it is more of a whodunit, recalling the most memorable manslaughters, murders attempted and successful as well as fraudulent claims for injuries never suffered. It reads more like Benjamin Bennett than Chris Barnard. Speaking of the latter, one needs to have been born in Beaufort West to enable one to wade through the pages of this flamboyant heart-throb of the female gender (if he is to be believed). Much more charming was the little volume entitled Salt River Doctor by B A Mackenzie (Faircape, 1981), or Dr Dingle’s cheerful memoir And the Doctor Recovered (Timmins, 1959). One of my firm favourites is C Louis Leipoldt’s Bushveld Doctor (Jonathan Cape, 1937) in which he describes his years after the end of the Boer War, ministering to the needs of the poor rural Afrikaner and especially their children in the Northern Transvaal. Many of these waifs were miserably ill-nourished, malaria and bilharzia-ridden, and in some cases scarcely able to assimilate any knowledge during their school hours because of their physical condition. A thoroughly engaging social document of the times.
There is no shortage of historical material on the theme. The Victorian medical men – and women – were not reticent about their activities. Some of the good doctors cured men’s bodies so that they could indulge in scientific adventures with the proceeds, as Emil Holub did. He intermittently dosed, patched and otherwise cured prospectors at the Diamond Fields for years before amassing enough funds to be able to lead three expeditions to the upper reaches of the Zambezi, where he made a name for himself as an explorer and recorder of strange peoples, animals and plants; which he ably describes (at some length) in his two-volume work Seven Years in South Africa (various German and English eds). J W Matthews’s work Incwadi Yami (Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1877 & Africana Book Society, 1976) is in a similar vein, based mainly on the Diamond Fields, but the author prefers at least a modicum of the comforts of civilization, so he did not take to the wilds. Still, a lively and entertaining book on conditions in the ‘Wild West’ of South Africa. Another book dealing with this period and region is Lure of the Stone by W M & V Buss (Timmins, 1976), which chronicles the career of our own ‘Lady of the Lamp’ Sister Henrietta Stockdale, who was instrumental in bringing some relief to the diggers who were struck down by the major killers of the time, pneumonia, typhoid, typhus fever and dysentery. Sister Henrietta nursed and taught others to nurse for some two decades, right through the siege of Kimberley, and comes across as rather a martinet from this short biography, which reads something like a medical Who’s Who of the times.
Speaking of those times – the Anglo-Boer War was a period of intense medical activity, on both sides of the conflict. While the British potentially had a well-equipped medical service, with staff, equipment and medicines, they had not reckoned with the far-flung nature of the conflict across the subcontinent. The Boers, on the other hand, were short of trained personnel, which was in part supplied by sympathizers from a number of European countries, many of whom left memoirs of their years in the field. A vast amount of this information has been assembled by Kay de Villiers in his monumental work on the history of military medicine in the Anglo-Boer War, entitled Healers, Helpers and Hospitals, 2 Vols (Protea Book House, 2008). For anybody with an interest in the conflict, these works are an absolute must; the reader interested in medical history will find a feast, and the student and researcher will find much well-researched and documented fact, and even the casual browser will find a wealth of interesting anecdote, to be dipped into time and again – a tour de force in this genre.
There are the stories of the men and women who healed their fellow man. Then there are the stories of the institutions. The South African Institute for Medical Research has a very special place in my heart, because my mother worked there and in the serum laboratories at Rietfontein; so I have spent many hours wandering round the corridors of the august edifice designed by Sir Herbert Baker and built on Hospital Hill, as well as among the animal cages during my youth. M Malan’s book In Quest of Health (Lowry, 1988) traces the history of this world-renowned institution from its earliest beginnings due to fears of infectious diseases among the mineworkers in Johannesburg. During the period between the wars, extensive research was done with plague, relapsing fever, histoplasmosis, sporotrichosis, bilharzia and numerous other diseases, but what brought the institute to world attention was the production of a controversial vaccine against poliomyelitis, that dreaded killer of children in the early fifties. My sibling and I were probably among the first batches of schoolchildren to be inoculated with this virus, so once more it is of personal interest – but more of polio vaccine later. Lately the institute is engaged in research into the immunology of the AIDS pandemic. The book is no easy afternoon’s read, but for the interested layman and medico, a serious contender for their attention.
Certainly there are a number of histories of hospitals and medical schools, but none better to mention here than the definitive work on the history of Groote Schuur At the Heart of Healing (Jacana, 2008) by Anne Digby and Howard Phillips. The authors have written a scholarly yet very human history of this iconic institution and the caring people who staff it from the most menial positions to the top consultants. They trace the rising fortunes of the hospital when money poured in after the blaze of the spotlights had focused on the revolutionary heart transplant successes, and the gradual decline in funding during the latter years, as management struggled to come to terms with the integration of patients and staff in the New South Africa.
Lastly, to return to polio vaccines, and the rumours that it might be an ‘escaped’ plague – an experiment that went wrong. For readers who really love a challenging read, I would suggest you try E Hooper’s medical whodunit entitled The River (Penguin, 2000). The author is a medical sleuth, hot on the trail of the root cause of AIDS - epidemiological detective work; a truly remarkable attempt to trace the possible origins of the world pandemic, as well as its diffusion, from postulated beginnings with a live polio vaccine derived from chimpanzees (who have become acclimatized to their own form of SIV), which was supposedly distributed among Central African villagers. Probably there are huge holes that need to be plugged in the theory, but I have to admit I was hooked from beginning to end, though the medspeak left me bewildered on more than one occasion.

And now I am going off to have a drink to your continued good health!

Monday, 30 November 2009


Africana Votes & Views #10

The time has come to share with you all, readers and writers alike, some of the characteristics, failings and foibles of authors and publishers, that absolutely stick in my craw and refuse to be ingested without a Herculean struggle. 

Some of my pet aversions are purely personal - such as my dislike of dustjackets or dw's as they are often referred to. I love the feel and look of a book attractively bound in cloth, paper or leather-covered boards instead of a slithery plastic-coated concoction in garish colours, frequently bearing advertising, bar codes, pictures of authors, their biographies and forthcoming attractions, over the cheapest possible machine binding job you can get. The dw costs a great deal to produce, I believe; money that could much better be spent on materials and binding of the volume it covers. Once the book has been read a few times - or even just removed from the shelf and replaced again, the dw starts getting first edgeworn, then a few tears appear, making it tatty or scuffed; a few more passages from hand to shelf and extended rips appear, and possibly even a chunk is torn off to scribble a telephone number on or to be used as an instrument of cleansing - making a description of torn & chipped inevitable. Readers have become brainwashed to the necessity of having dw's to such a degree that such deficient pieces of scrap paper are occasionally pasted down onto other sheets so as to reassemble to best ability the jigsaw puzzle they have become; they are lovingly encased in plastic protectors, (as if this confers de facto virginity to them once more), and more disturbingly, crime has raised its ugly head with forgeries starting to appear on the market, courtesy of high quality copying machines. Ag shame!

  Even the fundis of the bookworld differ on this subject. That bible all bibliophiles should possess, John Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors, (Oak Knoll, 1992 6th Rev ed) has the following to say: Professors Tanselle and Gallup…have spoken up for the recognition of the jacket as, in bibliographical terms, an integral component of the modern book, yet that this insistence sometimes becomes rather hysterical is also true. On the previous page he says: …dustjackets were – and functionally still are – ephemera in the most extreme sense: wrappings intended to be thrown away, before the objects they were designed to accompany were put to use. My pet hate is in good company – I rest my case.
  Let us linger on the exterior of the book. How about size? The first book that leaps to mind is Rourke & Lincoln's tome Mimetes (Tiyan Publishers, 1982). This book weighs in the region of 8 kg, and my colleague who has a copy, informs me that it is about 70 x 50 cm in size. His classic comment was that "All the publisher needed to do is to sell four legs along with the book to make it into a coffee-table". A A Balkema published a few so-called 'elephant folios' in his time - reprints of Angas' The Kafir's Illustrated, and Daniell's African Scenery and Animals; themselves no lightweights and only a few centimetres smaller in each direction. Problem is, you need to have a clean table, big enough to hold the thing, you must have both hands free to turn the page (for fear of tearing it) and preferably you should have someone with good eyesight standing on a chair next to you, who would be able to bend over the book far enough to be able to read the text at the top of the page which is not within range of your bifocals. Then you have the problem of storage. No bookshelf will hold it, as it would protrude far enough to snag every passer-by, leading to eventual damage. You can put it on top of a cupboard to gather dust and fishmoths, but that way you can't enjoy the book, and the same goes for putting it into a drawer for safety. When I have copies of these monstrosities in my shop, they are stood on the floor, leant against this wall and that one; being turned about weekly, so that they don't develop a permanent slouch. Meanwhile I pray that no stray tomcat will come in to mark off the outer limits of his territory in time-honoured fashion against the priceless volume.
  Seriously though, size matters. A book of a thousand pages or more is fine as a reference book, not as a bedside companion. If you would dare to fall asleep while reading one of these lying down, you could end up with facial surgery. The abovementioned dw's are another plague while reading larger books in a prone position. They tend to slither and slide out of their jackets, while the wrappers themselves are not immune to the abrasive qualities of bunched-up bedclothes. Then there are softcover books; at best a necessary evil, which to me will always reek of 1950's shilling dreadfuls like Peter Cheyney's Dark Wanton or Dangerous Curves - but not Wolpoff's six-hundred page quarto tome entitled Preliminary Publication of Paleoanthropology (McGraw Hill, 1994), which is a textbook that is intended to be consulted often and enthusiastically. To add insult to injury, there is that pervasive practice of cheap and nasty bookbinding called 'Perfect Bound'. Anything less perfect is difficult to imagine. The pages of the book are assembled, clamped, ruthlessly guillotined on all four edges if necessary, a lick of sticky, hot gunge is applied to the long side, and a softcover sleeve is applied with some pressure to make it all stick together. Hey presto - you have a book. Or do you? The unsuspecting purchaser doesn't always look at the spine, or the construction, especially if they are bewitched by the resounding title on the cover and the promise of virgin literature on the pages, so they take it home and read it. The monstrosity might survive, one two or even a few more readings, then suddenly a page drops out, the another, then twenty or thirty, as the space-age glue hardens, dries out and loses its tack - rather like space-shuttle glue holding on ceramic heat-shield tiles - you remember the scenario?
  One last peeve concerning the book's exterior: since I read books in a number of languages, I have perforce to browse shelves on which the titles are displayed in various ways. Generally I prefer a label or a horizontally broken-up and printed title and author. That is good if the shelf is in front of me, at eye-height. It is an unfortunate fact that my eyes are fixed in my face and do not run up and down my body on tracks at will - meaning that inevitably, the book I want to look at, is at the height of my knees or lower, and if I bend down, the title is upside down, which at my age, shape and station in life, does not facilitate browsing. If the title is too long or the book is thin, the other convention is to have the wording run from left to right, if one is holding the book front cover upwards in front of one. Not so the Germans; they run the title from right to left - as does Anderson with his book Blue Berg - Britain takes the Cape (Privately published, 2008) as well as a few other authors in various languages that I have run across. This makes for cricking noises of the neck, something that all browsers of boxes of books on the tables at charity and other sales have experienced, as the books' titles are displayed this way, and then face about. Most vendors just don't seem to realise the basic fact that they should try to make the browsing of their stock as painless as possible for their clients - thus achieving maximum sales. Instead it becomes a circus of cerebral contortions until the hapless buyer gives up in considerable discomfort.
  All sorts of sizes are problematical. Why produce an A4 softcover of fifty pages, when you could just as easily fold the text in half and have an A5 which will stand properly (even in softcover), and on the spine of which you can legibly inscribe a title and an author? What does one do with an oblong quarto, or even an oblong folio? You either have to have a special shelf with extra depth to prevent the problem mentioned above with those whoppers, or you have to park the offenders on edge, spine upwards, where you also can't read the title as it is obscured by the shelf above. At the other end of the scale there are tiny books, some no higher than 100 mm, about half the height of a normal octavo. These tend to get lost among their tall companions on the shelves, like toddlers in a crowd of grown-ups. Equally bad are books which pretend to be octavo in height, but their depth is half that of a normal book, making them a bastard-size which is just asking to be squeezed to the back of a shelf, thus making it impossible to find.
  From the exterior, which is after all, only skin-deep, let us delve into the innards of the beasties. A well-designed, considered publication is most desirable; preferably on paper that looks as if it could have had a tree or vegetable fibre as a parent material instead of some of this fashionable shiny junk that owes most of its components to a mine, that won't burn properly, weighs more than a brick, and refuses to take printers' ink without fading to some anaemic grey. Paper should be of sufficient bulk and opacity to prevent the print on the other side from interfering with the text. It should be slightly matt, if at all possible not the dead white which reflects any incident ray of light causing eyestrain to the reader, rather shading into ivory - but avoiding fancy bubblegum colours so beloved for the kiddies' library - or even worse, what I call negative printing, that is white font on a shiny black background as favoured by publications like the National Geographic Magazine and other glitzy productions. Trying to read a nine point font of this type with artificial light is nearly as bad a trying to read the tiny white English subtitles in a Bollywood film production filled with people dressed in white robes, striding through blinding sunshine. Fancy fonts may have their place on greeting cards, advertising signs and directions to the nearest toilet in public places, but they make reading a chore when it should be a pleasure. I don't profess to know much about typography, but an 11pt Garamond, Ariel or Times Roman or suchlike, with a decent spacing between lines, say single or one and a half, means that even those who are not fortunate enough to have 20/20 sight can enjoy the read.
  I have been told by reliable sources that there are conventions in publishing. I attach so little importance to these that I can't actually remember exactly what they are - but here goes. Your top margin is, let's say X mm, then your bottom margin should be bigger, say X+5 mm, on the left hand page your outer margin should be Y mm, while the inside margin should be Y + 3 mm, and the opposite should apply to the facing page. All this is surely based on some deep-seated logic which evolved somewhere in the 15th century, but I fail to see the relevance to anything except individual aesthetics. What I do remember is the completely irrational rage I felt the first time I looked through one of those Scripta Africana reprints. Here is a set of so-called de luxe editions (poorly bound) with a poor facsimile of text lifted from a page 22 x 15 cm (including margins) and plonked down in the same size in the middle of a page the size of a toilet lid, resulting in margins about half as wide as the text, or more, all round. What a waste of paper! Other volumes from the same publisher, like Conan Doyle's The Great Boer War, go to the other extreme, and you have the same large pages with huge blocks of text and very small margins. On the other hand, I must admit to binning books which have ten millimetre margins at the spine, and being bound so tightly that you would need stalk-eyes to be able to read the text to the end of the line, since you can't open the thing wide enough to make out the last word. Talking of which, I have just seen the most awful product that it has ever been my misfortune to view: a combination of three books in one, entitled History of the BSAP 1889-1980 by Gibbs & Phillips (Adcraft Publishing, 2000), which sports 5mm wide margins top and bottom of the page, while the side margins are about ten mm wide. That is taking economy to ridiculous lengths.
  One can understand the amount of physical effort, trial and experimentation that was needed in days of yore and lead slugs for type, to obtain text that was properly justified on both sides. However, I can refer you to numerous books on my shelves, that were published in the 18th century, which are all perfectly set out - so why was it that some indolent slobs of typographers were permitted or encouraged by their bosses the printers and publishers, to foist a bunch of untidy, unfinished-looking prose on the purchasers of their wares? In this regard, our own Guus Balkema was a prime offender, with several shoddy works among a goodly number of workmanlike volumes. I seem to recall trying to read an experimental book once, which was printed like modern poetry - lines of any length, no punctuation, no capitals. Talking of which, I abhor correspondence which I have to read, written without using capitals. Aw, come on, it doesn't take that much effort to press the shift key. Whenever I get a missive like that, I am tempted to reply in full upper case. It's damn nearly as difficult to read - don’t ask me why, but my brain must have become fossilised in 'standard mode'.

  There is a justification for breaking up text on a page into narrow columns, like in a newspaper. I have been told what it is - but I forgot. Whatever it was or is, books are not newspapers, so there is presently no need for this. A very beautifully produced book I have recently looked at (and sold) had this type of configuration. On each landscape small quarto page there were three columns divided by vertical lines - but the text columns aren't justified, making the whole thing look ragged, though in all fairness stretching and squeezing the text alternately to make it fit in between the tramlines would have looked pretty awful too - so why columns? I believe it is easier to place illustrations using this configuration, but here lies another problem for me; imagine an ordinary page, divide it vertically into two, then spread a picture across the middle, with two blobs of text in two columns on top, and again at the bottom. Now how do you read this? Do you read the first blob, top left, then skip the picture and read the blob at bottom left - or do you read the top left, then go across the page to the right hand top blob, read that, and then go back to the bottom left, then the bottom right? See what I mean? You can imagine how lost I can manage to get on pages with multiple columns and multiple pics like in an encyclopaedia.

  Now let us tackle the main course of this discourse: the contents of the book. In these days of computers and instant gratification software, not to mention the Internet, Google, Wikipedia etc, there is really no earthly reason for getting one's facts horribly wrong - repeatedly. To err is human, and I have heard that the completely fault-free book has not yet been produced, and I can believe that. In spite of two proofreaders an editor, a slew of publishing staff and my own very earnest attempts at eradicating every possible typo, erratic spelling of names, punctuation, footnotes and pagination, there are a minimum of three mistakes in something I produced last year. I won't bore you with the details, but I'll whisper them in you ear if you ask me personally. So, I start reading a book with an open mind. To illustrate my gripe, it would run something like this: on page ten I find a misspelling of a Latin botanical name, two pages later there is an omitted letter in a word, three pages later the author tells me that a certain person was born in Austria when he came from Switzerland, and on the next page he finds that the spelling of Bovril is beyond him and he doesn't know the difference between it's and its. Well, you can imagine that my confidence in the author's research is by now shaken, and my ire is stirred. By the time I reach the twentieth mistake without having had to consult a single reference book, I discard the book as 'complete rubbish and paper-waste', CRAP for short. One of my ex-clients springs to mind; after much purchase of books as references, he produced a book on the stirring annals of the building of the railway line between the southern and northern extremities of our continent. I do not remember the exact number of his transgressions, but they were legion. His piece de resistance was the spread of pages on which he portrayed a perfectly clear picture of a Lake steamer, with its name proudly displayed for all to see on its bows, he then spelt it differently in the picture's caption, and to top it all he found another two spellings for the same vessel's name in the next few pages. Elsewhere in the book he would have quaggas running around the jungles of central Africa, and he had a type of pony climbing trees under the misconception that the word meant civet cats or something like that. That sort of sloppiness would be inexcusable in a Victorian novel meant for boys under the age of thirteen, not to speak of a book purporting to be a serious history.
  Especially authors dealing with historical subjects need to check and recheck their facts, and especially spelling. One such author who brought his work for me to sell on his behalf, chronicled the valiant exploits of a distaff military ancestor. Now what I know about matters military is dangerous - but I picked up mistakes in the spelling of an international incident, a renowned engineer, an iconic machine-gun as well as a batch of typos and one glaring factual faux pas - all in the space of half the book. I lost all confidence in any information he presented. To be sure, the author was very grateful to have these problems pointed out to him, but that should have happened before the book got into print. Another beautiful production, a quasi-scientific botanical work on a region that interested me greatly, was sent to me on publication and I started devouring the contents with great enjoyment. Much to my disappointment, lack of proofreading became all too evident within the first fifty pages, with some dozen or two mistakes being spotted and this spoilt the whole, otherwise very worthwhile effort, which represented years of work. When in doubt, get someone to proofread the thing, then get someone else, then ask your worst enemy, then your best friend - then pray that the printer doesn't make a hash of it. When all else fails, put your computer to work and ask MS Word to do a spell-check - trust me, it works wonders, though I must admit to the basic human failing of having the inability to spot my own typos, even if they are underlined in red by the programme.
  As I get older and crankier, I frequently find myself in a quandary as to whether a word should be ending in -ize, or ise, such is the pervasiveness of the American word, both spoken and written, that one begins to wonder who has the etymological right of way in this and many other aberrant versions of common words. After all, what is correct, is merely a matter of opinion in the compilation of dictionaries. However, if spelling should not be an entirely arbitrary matter, open to the whims and vagaries of any who would put pen to paper, then surely a similar courtesy should be afforded to foreign languages. I am in full agreement with writers who insist that English doesn't have adequate words to express the nuances of words like weltschmerz, schadenfreude, zeitgeist, soupçon, raison d'être, cris de coeur, praia and a host of other choice, foreign mouthfuls that one can choose from; but then one should at least take the elementary precaution of checking the spelling. If an author doesn't have a dictionary of say, Amharic, Finno-Ugric, or Bulgarian - help is at hand - Google has an idiot's manual programme which will actually translate in a very rough-hewn way almost anything you enter into the search form, or give you the correct spelling thereof. Which does not mean you can go ahead with that typically British insouciance and permit your literary creation to state emphatically something idiotic like der Sonne scheint und die Mond strahlt, since some languages actually use gender-specific articles, and the sun is feminine while the moon is masculine to all good Germans, although the exact opposite applies in France and Spain, while the English have managed to neuter both heavenly bodies by some Anglo-Saxon alchemy. John Buchan, who happened to be one of my early favourite authors (though his corona has waned a little with the passing of decades), managed to imprint himself indelibly on my youthful brain with a supposedly German injunction uttered by his spy: 'Schnell, schnell, der Boot' in The Thirty-nine Steps.
  Maps are a necessary adjunct to any book which deals with history, exploration, natural sciences, even biographies and a host of other subjects. A book with maps as endpapers is not to be despised, as long as the scale is adequate, and the legend is legible. A map, or multiples thereof loose in a pocket at the rear of the volume, is a risky business, as all too often they/it go AWOL, and the incautious purchaser ends up with a deficient work, of little value. This happens regularly to bookdealers, believe me. On the other hand, a map folded three times horizontally and eight times vertically unfolds into a huge and unwieldy thing requiring a double bed or a large dining-room table to be spread out properly. In addition it needs to be made of the flimsiest material so that all twenty-four thicknesses of it don't exceed the total thickness of the book, so as you unfold his diaphanous creation, you are greeted with the sweet, low sound of tearing paper, as the right angle at the hinge parts under the strain of your amateur ministrations. I've repaired dozens of maps with Japanese tissue on both sides - so I know all about it. On the other extreme, the canny publisher has shrunk his map to a mere fourfold size of the book, but in the process the font labelling the rivers, mountains and dorps has shrunk to about 2pt, which means that even with a microscope you cannot make out the letters between the fibres of the paper. I've tried that as well - promise.
  Lastly, let us consider the crowning glory of the book, the illustrations. Finely crafted colour plates by virtuoso illustrators and artists will always enhance the look as well as the value of a book. From early woodcuts, to coppergravure and steel, on to the different lithographic techniques, many of which resulted in intricate and finely reproduced work (with the inevitable poor examples scattered among them); from simple sketches, cartoons and vignettes to elaborate hand-coloured plates - there was sure to be something that would delight and charm almost any discerning viewer in an illustrated volume - but alas, no longer. The advent of photography has obviously revolutionised printed illustrations. From the poor, grainy, black and white images, to remarkably fine sepia and collotype reproductions and on to the early colour photographs to spectacular modern photography as cameras and chemicals reached their zenith of development, right into the digital age, when computers can embellish, edit and indeed, create scenes for our edification. Why then is it seen fit to produce large, so called coffee-table books, consisting mainly of illustrative material with very little text to flesh out the pages, in which almost every page consists of a photo containing a large expanse of out-of-focus foreground and background, with about half of the actual subject matter (totalling maybe 5% of the surface of the picture) actually properly visible ? If any feature of a book is guaranteed to evoke page rage in me, this is it. This is not arty; this is not clever; this is ineptitude on the part of the photographer; this is sloth or carelessness on the part of the editor and publisher, and it is an abomination in my eyes.
 There, I feel a lot better now that I have got all of that off my chest !

Sunday, 4 October 2009



Let us consider the Victorian novel as placed in a South African environment. After all, so many of the soldiers, administrators and business-people were educated men; men who could write a fair description of an outlandish scene, people and their habits. So where and when did writers start using the subcontinent’s veld as a backdrop to their works of imagination? No, I’m not going to put my foot in it and declare this or that author and title to be able claim primogeniture, as such; that is too dangerous, and just asking for a rebuttal by someone with a better knowledge of the genre than myself. What we shall do is to browse around the shelves; revisit old favourites, and discover a few which are gems, and many that are not.
To date I have not come across any early books for the very young with a local backdrop or from the pen of a local writer. It would seem that the classic nursery tales, rhymes and fables of European origin were thought to be quite sufficient, or alternatively it may have been judged that the rough, colonial scene was not fit for the tender hearts and ears of Victorian sprouts. So it is only in the first decade of the twentieth century that we find a collection of adaptations from native tales by E J Bourhill and J B Drake, called simply Fairy Tales from South Africa (Macmillan, 1908). I can find no further information on the two authors, except that the introduction ends with the legend ‘Barberton, Transvaal, 1908.’ Speaking of introduction, this one goes to great lengths to explain the way of life of the black people, how each little tribe had its chief (hence all the kings, queens and princesses in the tales); how a man’s ambition was to have an impi of warriors to fight for him in his many battles; how they hardly ever worked except for a little cattle-herding, as work is what wives were put on earth for; that they had two or more wives, for whom they had paid lobola, and how they only lived in the idyllic surroundings of the Eastern Transvaal, Natal and the Eastern Cape. All a little patronising and full of generalisations and most certainly not PC – however, I must applaud the writers for a labour of love that might have been a very worthwhile introduction for a European child into another culture and belief system at the time. The tokoloshes might have become fairies, the chiefs great kings and the ntombis are all princesses; while the unspeakable cruelties and bloodshed are glossed over skilfully so as not to shock and offend, but something of the flavour of tribal legends has survived, and the book is a milestone of sorts in Africana Literature.
Catering for slightly older tastes, the institution of boarding-school life, so dear to the heart of the Englishman, doesn’t escape the colonial writers’ guild either. I cannot profess enough interest to have scoured the shelves in search of the subject, so I can’t speak of its full extent in the subcontinent, but I did run across one quite readable little effort by one ‘Natalian’, actually a gentleman by the name of Albert Weir Baker, who seemed to have been more famous for writing on serious subjects, such as the ‘effects of liquor on the natives’, ‘the evils of Freemasonry and its incompatibility with Christianity’ as well as a personal statement of faith, when he was director of the South African Compounds Commission. The book in question was A South African Boy; Schoolboy Life in Natal, (Marshall Russell, 1897). While the plot made no lasting impression on me (at a distance of some 12–15 years of having last read it) it was entertaining enough to keep me at it throughout, and I found it reflected the flavour of schooling in what must have been a vastly different environment from even what I experienced some sixty years later.
Some of the earliest works written to appeal to young minds, which I read, must have been those classics by G A Henty – With Buller in Natal, The Young Colonists, and With Roberts to Pretoria are three with a South African flavour that come to mind. All jolly good fun, British imperialism, courage, honour, adventure and the like; the baddies, ie Boers/Zulus etc got their come-uppance and the young hero either settled down to a long, productive and esteemed existence, or else he returned Home and became a sitting MP or JP or something. During my pre-teenage years I could find no fault with these adventure yarns, but even then the basic similarity of the above stories, each in a slightly different Victorian historical scene, came to my attention, and their attraction waned.
R M Ballantyne was another notable Victorian who wrote books with African, and in three instances South African background. He was a scion of a reputable firm of printers and publishers, and had the great good fortune to do an early stint of work in Canada, which stood him in good stead when he decided to devote himself to writing juvenile literature. While a large number of English-speaking people will have read at least his most famous work, Coral Island (1857), he wrote more than a hundred books, mostly characterised by meticulous attention to detail (said to stem from his making one colossal error about the thickness of a coconut shell in Coral Island) and he tried whenever possible to write from personal experience. Of his South African books, Hunting the Lion and The Settler and the Savage are pretty standard fare, while his third book is, in fact, the story of his Six Months at the Cape (1879), a light-hearted reminiscence of an extended vacation in the Eastern Cape and Karoo; an interesting and entertaining read for readers of all ages. The rest of Africa is not ignored, and we can find another half dozen or so novels, set in the Dark Continent. One of these, dealing with slavery, Black Ivory (1873), was in all likelihood inspired by David Livingstone and his crusade against this evil, as the author wholeheartedly endorsed the latter’s views. Ballantyne inspired not only generations of youngsters, with the dictum ‘that he believed that boys must be trained up from boys to be true men and not just left on their own to be boys’ , he also inspired other writers, among whom was Robert Louis Stevenson, who reputedly incorporated several of Ballantyne’s ideas in Treasure Island.
Almost certainly the next in line were those wonderful books by H Rider Haggard. She, King Solomon’s Mines, Alan’s Wife, Allan Quatermain, Ayesha – and dozens more titles that flowed from this talented man’s pen. His phrase of ‘She who must be obeyed’ has passed into the English language as all that stands for female authority over the hapless male of the species. Haggard spent a while in the Transvaal, where he had a position under Sir Theophilus Shepstone in the years leading up to the First Anglo-Boer War. During this period he met a number of the hunter-adventurers, like Selous and Burnham, on whom his most endearing character, Allan was based. There was romance, tragedy, battle, adventure and lost treasure and lost civilizations galore – but I have a sneaking suspicion that old Haggard actually had talent. While I find the MGM versions of King Solomon’s Mines and Mogambo a bit insipid after two viewings of Deborah Kerr and Grace Kelly each doing her vapid siren-thing, even separated by some thirty years; but I can still read his description of that noble Zulu warrior, Umslopogaas, swinging his deadly war axe and picking off enemies at will while chanting that wild war-song; and get a thrill from the heroic prose. Two of his books, Swallow (Longmans Green, 1899), dealt with the Great Trek, and Jess (1887), were probably aimed more at the fair sex, I seem to recall, being the adventures of young heroines. His books did not all end well, or tamely, nor did they always promote British suzerainty over the remote regions touched upon. I seriously doubt that they were intended to portray life as it was lived in the second half of the 19th century, but they were imaginative, well-written adventure yarns, which deserve to stand next to classics like Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
Still on the subject of juvenile literature, let us consider that phenomenon which is Jock of the Bushveld. Not a Victorian novel, you will say – well, almost, would be my reply. Though it was published in 1907, the experiences which led to the writing of the book were during Fitzpatrick’s years on the Eastern Transvaal Gold Fields from 1884 onwards, and when he accompanied Lord Randolph Churchill to Mashonaland in the late 1890s. Although presently not considered PC, as it reflects terminology, social attitudes and racial stereotyping which were common during the period, it is unlikely that even attempts at sanitising a book of such stature will succeed in killing off its popularity. This book has a genuinely wide appeal. Although written for the ‘lickle people’, ie Fitz’s children, there is enough meat on the bones to arouse every hunter’s and bush lover’s enthusiasm – anybody who wants to experience the flavour of the Gold Rush, the smell of the campfire, the heat of the fever-stricken Lowveld and the rough camaraderie of the men of the trails and tracks. The book certainly has enough literary merit to survive for many more generations. A less widely known work of fiction, which predated Jock, was published in 1897. It consisted of a number of short campfire-stories, quite readable and entertaining, entitled The Outspan – probably the best of a number of such volumes from different authors of the period.
Just from the above three authors and their dozen-odd books one can already see a theme developing. The subcontinent was portrayed as a blank canvas for adventurers; scope for explorers, prospectors and hunters. There were wild beasts aplenty, and wild people too, that would need subduing. So primarily the backdrop was portrayed as being attractive to the young would-be adventurer; there were riches to be found and fame to be won. South Africa was a man’s country, and a steady stream of hunting, travelling and soldiering books emanated from the gentry that forsook the shores of old Blighty, so perforce the tellers of tales had to follow the same paths, with their inventions ever surpassing reality. While a few hardy ladies followed in their footsteps, the raw environment did not endear itself to the female novelist as a backdrop.
A Victorian lady who entered the early literary fray was Harriet Ward, wife of an officer stationed on the Eastern Frontier. Her first effort was Five Years in Kaffirland (Colburn, 1848) in which she faithfully describes the ‘War of the Axe’, and displays great sympathy for soldier and colonist alike. This was followed by her editorship of a minor work on The Past and Future of Emigration, before she launched into a work of fiction, which was very much in the male domain of the ‘wild frontier, peopled by savage warriors and an intrepid bunch of colonists’ entitled Jasper Lyle; a Tale of Kaffirland (G Routledge, 1851–2). I have to admit that the lady’s style, plot and execution was not to my taste and some forty to fifty pages of her work were sufficient for the day for my needs. Nonetheless, I recall that her book did present life as it was then with a touch more realism than was generally incorporated in the fiction of the period by her male counterparts.
Olive Schreiner can be considered a rare exception with her books Story of an African Farm (1883) and Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland, but while the former faithfully describes the dreary lot of womankind and tackles the issues of the period, the latter was not just another tale of derring-do in the wilds with a political agenda thrown in for good measure, but a rather wearisome allegorical satire against the greed of one C J Rhodes in nabbing an entire country from the inhabitants. So one could say that Schreiner was the first to break out of the adolescent view of the Dark Continent and who painted the human canvas within the strictures of culture rather than physical environment.
Another fine craftsman of the adventure yarn was John Buchan. Although his book Prester John did not appear until 1910, the writer’s experiences during the last phases of the Boer War, and his later travels around the Transvaal, gave him the rich background into which he placed the young Scottish lad, David Crawfurd, who became embroiled in an uprising of the black tribes under the leadership of the messianic John Laputa. The setting is absolutely authentic; the two main characters are utterly believable and the plot is not that far-fetched that it could not have happened somewhere in Africa under British colonial rule, although some of Buchan’s work is nauseatingly jingoistic and racist, with archetypal villains – Jew, Levantine, Bolshevik, Portuguese halfbreed, Boer drunkard, Fuzzy Wuzzy and Boche or Hun – leaping off every other page. I have to concede that he writes a mean adventure yarn, which involves the reader sufficiently to make the book enjoyable almost a hundred years after it first appeared. His other books, though featuring a touch of South African flavour in the personages of Richard Hannay and the aviator Pieter Pienaar, have very little to do with Africa, and are thus outside the focus of this essay.
It would seem that a number of sportsmen, after having had their fill of the chase, decided to settle in their upholstered chairs and to allow their memories and imaginations free rein. One of these was the renowned naturalist and hunter, Henry Anderson Bryden, a great friend of Selous’, with whose cousin, Percy, he collaborated on a volume entitled Travel and Big Game, in addition to a number of hunting, natural history and historical books. In his latter days he also decided to branch out into fiction, and the result was the rather disappointing volume, From Veldt Camp Fires (1900), a rather nondescript collection of anecdotes. I read it recently, and apparently he wrote a few others, Don Duarte’s Treasure (1904) and The Gold Kloof (1907), which I have not seen to date, but I doubt that they contributed much to twentieth century literature.
A little earlier, similar tales were penned by one Captain Alfred W Drayson, who found enough time in his busy military schedule to embark on several hunting trips in the Eastern Cape and Natal. His real-life adventures are ably described in the hunting book Sporting Scenes among the Kaffirs of South Africa (G Routledge, 1858), even though the finish of his book left a lot to be desired due to the ghastly colour plates that adorned its pages in greasy splendour. Obviously his imagination became inflamed with all he had seen and heard, so he followed up his success with a series of books filled with ‘sporting narrative and daring adventures among savage beasts and hardly less savage men’, such as Tales at the Outspan (1865), White Chief of the Caffres (1887), Diamond Hunters of South Africa (1889), and From Keeper to Captain (1889) – the latter being the only volume I have actually looked through. Generally fairly standard adolescent fare for the period, but one does glimpse a few passages where the soldiers’ and hunters’ lots are sketched without the addition of excess purple prose.
The able historian, Joseph Forsyth Ingram, started off his literary career with an eminently collectible work with the snappy title of The Land of Gold, Diamonds and Ivory – being a comprehensive handbook and guide to the colonies, states and republics of South and East Africa (W B Whittingham & Co, 1889). It would seem as if Ingram assembled a wealth of material which he was unable to place in his tour de force, so he was motivated to offer his readership a collection of tales under the title of Story of a Gold Concession and other African Tales and Legends (W H Griffin & Co, 1893). The book is a strange mixture of fact, legend and pure fiction, which is very difficult to classify. The first tale, after the title of the book, is obviously fiction as it deals with the fate of a crazed prospector and his fabulously rich gold find in the Lebombo mountains of Swaziland. Another such prospector’s tale, this time set in Natal, also smacks of a fertile imagination. Then follow a number of tales with a tribal setting. Some of the personages mentioned are historical, and the stories run very much along the lines of a Victorian reinterpretation of African fireside tales. Lastly, there are a few oddments, about Paul Kruger, an Arab slaver, and hunting trips along the Pongola and Zambezi rivers. An odd assortment indeed. After this brief flirtation with fiction, he returned to write another three books on the early history of Natal, Pietermaritzburg and Durban, respectively; each a serious and sought-after work of Nataliana.
The institution (one hesitates to call it a firm) of the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge also played a role in publishing a number of, presumably inspirational works, on a number of subjects, which one would not necessarily associate with devotional teachings. There were biographies of numerous missionaries, and heroic descriptions of their good works; one described the Herculean task of shipping a motor boat cross-country from the Cape to the Vaal River and then on to Mozambique; travels in the Transkei after the great famine caused by Nonquause’s prophecy; Mrs Charlotte Barter’s lone travels in Zululand; African language primers and dictionaries; works with some ethnographical pretensions, as well as a little piece of fiction, by a Charles Henry Eden, entitled An Inherited Task (1874), sketching the miseries of life as a missionary in Natal under the rule of Shaka. This author too, had a serious geographical work on the continent to his credit, while he also wrote another romance entitled Ula in Veldt and Laager (1879).
Lastly, let us consider one of my all-time favourites – William Charles Scully. In some of my other writings I have already waxed lyrical about his engrossing autobiographies, as well as his sole hunting title, Lodges in the Wilderness (H Jenkins, 1915). But Scully had a lively intellect and imagination, as well as having his work bring him into contact with many different people under varying circumstances. His work as a magistrate probably gave him a certain number of leisure hours, not least in Namaqualand, where, if his autobiography is to be believed, he was almost marooned in his house due to his feud with the mine manager. Whatever the reasons, he wrote three works of fiction before the turn of the century: The White Hecatomb (1897), A Vendetta of the Desert and Between Sun and Sand (both 1898). The first book consists of a number of short stories with an Eastern Cape background, as he had been stationed in various locations as magistrate for a number of years. From these years among the tribespeople, another book, Kafir Stories (1895) also emanated, and it is considered to be one of the early records of black folklore. The latter two novels are based on his Namaqualand and Bushmanland stints. The former is an adventure yarn of revenge and pursuit into the inhospitable wastes across the Gariep, while the latter is a romantic tale of the love between an itinerant trekboer’s daughter and a young Jewish smous, set in the now ghost town of Namies, near Pofadder. Both are well worth reading as they give the reader a fine snapshot of the meagre society and landscape that they have been set in. Another volume of short stories was to follow in 1907, entitled By Veldt and Kopje, and after many years of self-imposed silence due to his disgust with the way the British treated the Cape Boers during the war, he finally sent The Harrow to the publishers in 1921 – a book which castigated British authority and military to the utmost. In 1923 his last work of fiction, Daniel Vananda, was published. This can be called a precursor to Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country, with a similar theme, that of a rural African running afoul of European culture, with dire results.

Sunday, 30 August 2009



This is a short, basic manual to keeping your library in a good condition. It does not pretend to be a comprehensive course in librarianship, conservation or archival methods – it is purely some commonsense and knowledge that I have garnered from many people, but most of the information came from my late wife, my friends Cyril Adriaanse and Peter Coates, both of whom worked at the SA Library, my sister Dr Cora Ovens (a lifelong librarian) and Frank Johnston a bookseller from Central Africa, where the bugs bite bigger and better.

Know thine enemy: The three main culprits under our South African conditions are a) Moisture b) Light c) Biological attack. There are many more, but most of these are found in association with the first three, so let us investigate these threats.

Of the tens of thousands of books that have been presented to me by prospective sellers, the greatest number of no-no’s have been books which have been exposed to moisture. In its grossest form, the volume has been dunked, or had water poured over it; there are water-marks across the pages; colours have run, the textblock is rippled; at worst, the pages are stuck together. A more subtle exposure to damp can result in the textblock absorbing so much water from the edges inwards, that the margins of the pages display a ‘high tide’ mark right around, in extreme cases. A hot steamy climate has the further effect of ‘foxing’ the pages of books, that is, the growth of those unsightly brown blotches that seem to get worse year after year. The quality of the paper that the book is made of, has something to do with the degree of foxing, since badly bleached and insufficiently sized paper is most prone; but the micro-organisms that cause the discolouration will grow on even the best cotton-rag paper, or a modern high-gloss paper, given enough time, heat and atmospheric moisture.

Mould is, of course, biological and the companion to severely drenched books. The remnants of this will also stain paper, mostly with green, blue or black shades – all equally unpleasant to look at. I have heard of desperation measures applied by an archivist to his precious documents when they were under a leak in the roof – he bundled the whole lot into a clean deep-freeze. The sub-zero temperatures prevented mould from forming, and slowly the moisture was evaporated from the paper and deposited on the walls of the freezer as ice, leaving the documents in reasonably good shape. It works the same way as putting a slice of bread in the freezer, forgetting about it for three months and then pulling out a dessicated piece of toast. I haven’t tried it myself, but it might just save a precious book. I wish I’d known the trick when we moved into a rented house in White River, Eastern Transvaal, some decades back. All of my books were standing in the lounge in tea crates. Our neighbours invited us over for supper, during which time a small tornado blew the roof off our house and dumped about 150mm of rain onto our goodies. I seem to recall I chucked away several hundred good books. All one can do with an area of mould on a page, is to brush it away gently, without inhaling the stuff. It really is not good for the lungs.

So, water and heat are bad, especially in tandem. What about cold? Well there seems to be some consensus among librarians that a chilly environment is really good for books, but most users would complain loudly if they had to wrap up in anoraks and shawls to do their research. In practice, seventeen degrees is a reasonable compromise – but a very far cry from a Bloemfontein or Johannesburg winter when it can get to way under the zero mark, or an Empangeni or Kalahari summer, when you’re pushing the mercury at forty plus, with about 95% humidity thrown into the bargain in Natal. What do they say?: climate is what you expect; weather is what you get. So you deal with whatever our fair country dishes out by way of ambient temperature. Most of us don’t go as far as airconditioning for our library, but it’s a thought. On the other hand, it’s not essential to be uncomfortable in your reading room, even if you are surrounded by books; to have frozen toes, nose and fingers while you are trying to concentrate on some work, or recreational reading, is no fun. I have a little fan-heater tucked away under my desk – just so that I can kick the switch to on when the cold bites a tad savagely. Talking about heaters though, there is a caveat – fireplaces, though comforting to the body, a treat to the senses of smell, sight and hearing – are a strict no-go area. Unfortunately one only has to look at the ceilings of rooms with open fireplaces to see what happens. A little smoke always escapes from the open hearth, and if there are books in the room, they not only absorb smoke and tars like blotting paper, which then react with cloth, paper and leather in a number of complicated and unwanted ways, but the books smell of smoke. Speaking of which, I have to act the reformed smoker part and thorough spoil-sport: smoke from cigars, cigarettes and pipes descends gently onto any exposed part of a book which is in the same room, it glues itself onto all the abovementioned materials with tenacity, and stinks, forever, quite apart from darkening and damaging bookcloth as well as the edges of the textblock.

Dry heat is probably the least problematic condition to deal with. Although certain older, and certainly most inferior types of paper, get brittle in a dry, hot climate, as long as the books are handled with care, they will rehydrate when the ambient humidity rises again. Leatherbound books do need some special care under those conditions though, since even opening such a volume under those conditions could cause the hinge to break, resulting in very expensive damage. This does not mean one should apply liberal dollops of dubbin or saddle soap to those ancient treasured tomes. There are a number of good products available, unfortunately mostly from overseas sources, which further complicates matters, since a number of these substances are in liquid, flammable form, which precludes the bibliophile importing even the tiny amount needed per mail. In effect you have to find a runner, who will smuggle the stuff out in their personal toiletries, disguised as after-shave or something, when they return from their holiday in Britain, Germany, or USA. The British Library does sell a solid wax, though, and this is best applied very sparingly with a soft cloth to the leather, especially at the hinges. Books so treated should be left to stand separate from their shelfmates for a few days, to prevent any possibility of them sticking together. The liquid lotions ( I use a brand from Germany, which my late wife smuggled into South Africa) one applies by wetting a sponge slightly, squeezing it repeatedly until it foams and then applying it in even strokes to the leather. It is left to dry, and then the book is buffed lightly with a soft cloth.

Now let us deal with threat no 2 – that wonderfully abundant sunlight, which makes our country such a bright, cheery place to live in – in general – sunburn, melanoma and severe ‘sunning of the spine and covers’ apart. Any sunlight is taboo on the bookshelf, except possibly if sanitized by passing it through some total sun-block film on the window panes – if that should exist. Even if filtered through a semi-transparent curtaining material, the ultraviolet is still present in quantities that will at first bleach, and in time, totally destroy the cloth covering the boards of your books. Even sunlight reflected off water or a light-coloured painted surface, still has some destructive force left in it. The old builders and architects had good ideas during Victorian times – they surrounded most houses with wide verandahs or stoeps, which gave shade to the walls and interior of the house, as well as keeping stray sunbeams from intruding through the apertures. Nowadays we like to live behind walls made of glass, or sliding glass doors, under skylights or in houses with interior courtyards and patios. This new lifestyle results in much more exposure to the potentially harmful effects of the sunlight on your furnishings and other property viz your library. Without getting paranoid about it, choose a south-facing room where possible, or at least a wall that gets no sun, not even a passing sweep in the late afternoon. If you must face any other direction, you must have some form of blind, slatted, or rolling, if you don’t want to be in deep gloom behind dark curtains.

A last word on sunshine: if perchance you should leave a book out in the sun (as I’m sure we have all done on occasion) and you come back to find that the top cover has curled beautifully like a calamari steak ten seconds after it has hit a hot pan; all is not lost. Generally it just means that there has occurred a sudden imbalance of moisture content between the outer and inner layers of the cover, causing the outer (dry) to shrink, while the inner (ambiently moist) has remained roughly the same as it was previously. Do not try to rehydrate the poor cover by some precipitous means such as spraying it with water. The best cure is to put the book back into your library and to leave it alone for a couple of days. The covers’ moisture content will balance out again in a few days, and once the book has been returned to its place on the shelves, it should resume its correct shape. A similar effect is found occasionally when endpapers are replaced. If too much glue is slapped onto the inside face of the cover before the paper is applied, the paper is wetted, and expands. Once the glue dries, the paper shrinks and you have a book with permanently bow-legged covers. Not much you can do to that except to start over again.

Biological attack is next. I am sure there is no book collector alive that has not been rewarded by the quicksilver flash of a fishmoth (aka silverfish, Ctenolepisma longicaudata and several other species worldwide) slithering out of the just opened book and almost miraculously disappearing from sight again. The signs are there, usually on the edges of the endpapers, where the textblock doesn’t lie quite snugly against the boards due to the bookcloth having been folded over; or where a map is folded into the textblock; an exposed edge may be riddled with holes. Even some covers don’t escape the attentions of these voracious beasties, as they manage to chew away the starchy size between the threads of the bookcloth, leaving faint whitish trails which almost look like scratches. A very helpful Iziko website suggests you make a mixture of the following:
5 parts gum Arabic
5 parts sodium fluosilicate
4 parts flour
6 parts sugar
40 parts water (enough to make a thick paste)
Stir for hours (since the sodium fluosilicate hadly seems to dissolve at all) dip strips of card into the mixture and leave to dry. Hang them up all over your bookshelves. If you have difficulty finding the latter ingredient, you’re in good company; if you do find it, the chemist will be strangely reluctant to give it to you.

Other sites’ suggestions range from sprinkling whole garlic cloves (!!), to salt, boric acid powder or diatomaceous earth around your library, or leaving rolled up damp newspapers (which the silverfish are supposed to frequent for a drink, supposedly) and then burning it the next day without unrolling. Of course, you would never know how successful you have been, would you? Jokes aside, my conservator friend says crushed mothballs, sprinkled in a thin line on the shelf behind the books, keeps silverfish away – if you don’t mind the characteristic smell of naphthalene, or the fact that this lingers on the pages of the books, might make you sneeze when you read – and increases the combustability of your home, as it is volatile and forms a flammable vapour. I rather like the smell; it takes me back to my childhood, when granny took out her double fox-furs and slung them over her shoulders to keep out the cold on a winter’s day. Choose your weapons. Or you can ignore the pests.

One doesn’t hear too often of bookworms any more. Actually they are beetle larvae; from the death-watch beetle, Xestobium rufovillosum, or the furniture beetle, Anobium punctatum and I am certain, a whole horde of other species native to Africa. The tell-tale tracks of these are small holes, sometimes less than 1mm in diameter, running often at right angles through hundreds of pages, mostly near the spine. I only once, in the spirit of investyigation bought a book which had been infested with this plague. However, when I took it to pieces trying to find the culprit, I had no luck. Most likely the larva had pupated and flown the nest. Obviously if one sees little heaps of sawdust on one’s bookshelves, prepare to go to war with a vengeance. Infested books can only be successfully treated with fumigation using some really dangerous stuff, so best to leave it to professionals.

Termites are a scourge in the southern United States nowadays, primarily since their houses are constructed mainly from wood; less so in South Africa since we have stopped living in wattle and daub huts with cattle-dung floors. However these stealthy invaders tunnel away so craftily, from floor up into the vertical supports of bookshelves, from where they will branch out laterally into stopes to reach pay-dirt – to whit, the books. The only way of detecting them is to turn up your hearing aid, so that you can hear them as they chew away on dark nights (honestly) or to read your books frequently, so to discover their mining activities before an entire seam of books has been reduced to hollow shadows of their former selves. I recall a passage written by, I think, one Annie Martin in her charming book Home Life on an Ostrich Farm (G Philip, 1891) where she describes these repeated termite incursions and subsequent loss of her bookshelf. Her solution was to suspend a shelf by means of four wires from the ceiling beams, thus robbing the insects of their tunneling route. Only problem was, her brak roof then leaked copiously, right above her bookshelf. Makes one wonder how any books survived the African onslaught for longer than a hundred years or more.

A real home-wrecker is the cockroach. I’m talking of these large black, flying jobbies, the size of a small bat – which issue from the city sewers and drainpipes when darkness falls. There is no warning; suddenly you have a book that almost looks as if a rat or a small Chihuahua had been chewing at it. The cloth is in tatters, or patches of it are eroded to a latticework of threads, and it’s a matter of re-binding if you want to save your treasured collectors’ item. It is almost impossible to guard against them. Keep your library doors and windows closed at night; if there is a bathroom, plug the drains; above all, be watchful and whack the damn things whenever you see one. For all the above living pests, I do the following: every three months or so, I buy a couple of packets of Fumitabs from the chemist. These ominous looking (and smelling) globs come in foil-packs of three. They contain some pretty potent poisons, so don’t lick your fingers after handling them. Place one or two of the family-sized pills on a brick in each room, depending on size, seal all airbricks and other apertures in the room, light them, and scarper quickly. They emit a choking smoke for a few minutes, after which they self-extinguish. You may then leave the house for the rest of the day, making certain that your dog/cat/canary/child have all left the building. Do not leave your wors in the kitchen to defrost, or your bread, or any other loose comestible which you intend to partake of. Everything is bathed in deadly fug, and hopefully some six or eight hours later you can come back and reoccupy your home after opening all the doors and windows. Problem solved – for a while. One of my clients from Zambia has just sent me this hot tip – he recommends Bayer’s "Max Force", a cream injector syringe which enables one to run a bead around the bottom edge of a book case which keeps them at bay. I shall certainly try this as soon as I can lay my hands on some.

Rodents are not normally a real threat to books in modern homes. Those occasional lovely little grey house mice that some years ago wandered into our house and set up home in the fibreglass insulation of the kitchen stove, confined themselves to the crumbs of the table, so to speak, until the cats made short work of the whole family, which had increased to seven at one stage. They would take turns in popping up out of the spiral plates (cooled) of the stove during meals – as if to see what was on the menu. Anyway, rodents don’t eat books unless a famine strikes; at worst they may convert one into nesting material, or they might test their incisors on an edge, leaving characteristic chisel-marks. Free range pet birds, such as parrots, can be a menace too, according to a colleague who was asked to value a severely nibbled collection of books. Dogs have the delightful habit of lifting the odd leg here and there to demarcate their territory, while cats spray with wild abandon when the moon is right. Both are to be distinctly discouraged in a library unless they are adequately trained in human etiquette.

Now for some more general, and probably very obvious hints on book handling and storage. Metal shelves are best. That’s official; but I don’t care, I like wood, proper wood. Luckily I used to be a sawmiller, so I gathered a whole batch of strange timbers, Kiaat, Chestnut, Camphor, Cedar, Cypress, Cherry etc, all of which have been used to manufacture the shelves all over my house and business. Most of the shelves have no backs, but they are fastened to the walls by means of sturdy bolts ten millimeters away from the walls, as I suffer from a fear of falling bookshelves. This means that even if one of those occasional Northwest gales should occur, which has on one occasion been so strong that it drove the accompanying rain right through a double brick wall in my lounge (on the wall where my books are); the water could run harmlessly down the walls and onto the floor, without getting the books wet. It doesn’t need a disaster to wet your books. Walls are damp structures all too frequently, and books act like blotting paper. If your shelves are against the wall, nail a strip of timber along the back of each to keep your books from touching the masonry. If your bookshelf is backed, see that there is a space between the wood and the wall to allow for ventilation.

Don’t jam your books in too tightly. It’s not good for them, and it’s even worse when some ham-handed person insists on using a probing digit to extract a volume that is tightly jammed into place. Hence ‘slight damage to top of spine’. Better that the book should come to you willingly, that it should slide out of and back into its place. On the other hand, having gaps in your collection, resulting in the classic picture of a few upright volumes with one or two leaning at any angle against them, is not ideal either. The leaning books tend to get a permanent cocking of the spine which is difficult to remove once set in place. Best then to use a bookend, but if you haven’t got any, a pile of horizontal books will do just as well to hold the others upright – and the titles are still readable on the spine. Books should not be inanimate ‘collections’ for display purposes only. They should certainly be taken out, handled, opened, browsed through, and replaced. Within bounds, this is good for a book and I am not about to bring on the white cotton gloves – but clean hands are essential, and if you smoke a pipe, this most definitely applies, since the finger or thumb you use to tamp your ‘baccy down, leaves a horrible mark on a page as you turn it. The handling means that the volume is inspected periodically for damage, which may be caught in the early stage and remedied, the pages are aired, which helps to protect them against foxing, and the work could even be left standing on edge overnight (between some supports if it is a large book) with the pages slightly ajar as it were, if there is even a suggestion of a musty odour.

Heavy, old books should be opened and read in a book-cradle. Opening them on a flat surface puts a strain on elderly bindings, and could crack the glue used on the back of the textblock. Large folio size volumes are the most difficult to handle under the best of circumstances. A big table is a prerequisite; but in some cases the books are so large, and the paper so heavy and fragile, that one should think about using both hands to turn a page – one at the bottom corner and the other at the top. Even moderately large books can be damaged by the reader who persists in wanting to turn a page by inserting his thumb somewhere round about the middle of the bottom margin, and flipping the page from right to left. This frequently results in tears on the bottom edge of the page near the spine. The correct manner is to feel your way into the textblock at the top right hand corner of the open book, insert the hand fully and help the page over to the left. Left-handed people had better get used to this – there’s no alternative – except taking up Hebrew.

Dust is another, albeit minor, enemy. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath, and also into every nook, cranny and book, if you leave it in any place for long enough. Let us say your library has matured for another year, loved and admired, and occasionally perused in part. A little housekeeping is indicated, say once a year, or maybe every two or three. A feather mop will do at a pinch, but it’s going to be a sneezy, wheezy sort of job, really only fit for outside the house; which in turn, is not ideal for the books. So technology should be called in – a vacuum cleaner, of the small, hand-held sort, one with a little doodah at the business end, which has got a nice soft Führer moustache, with which to kiss your books. If the item to be cleaned has a dustjacket, lay the book down, open the front cover, flap back the dustjacket, use said vacuum cleaner to remove dust, dead insects etc from covers, replace dustjacket, close book, turn it over and repeat the performance for the back cover. That way you have examined the entire book. But wait, the edges of the textblock, and especially the top edge, gather large quantities of dust, which eventually seep in between the pages and so dirty the entire volume. So once again the vacuum brush is employed, either while the book was lying flat with its dustjacket flapped out of harm’s way, or after the first action is completed, one takes the book and vacuums the entire textblock edge, taking care not to damage the precious dustjacket in any way. This is a lengthy process, best handled by a minimum of two people, who enjoy each other’s company and have something to chat about as they go about this exquisitely boring task.

Lastly, let us consider a little library hygiene of a different sort. Ordering your collection in some fashion so that you can actually find that reference book that you need right now, or that beloved novel that you incautiously (as even friends can’t be trusted to return books) want to lend to your best friend who has come to visit. The librarians devised the so-called Dewey system (or rather Dewey did), which is all very good, and those accession numbers on the spine, which so grate the buyers of antiquarian books who buy library discards, are all good, useful stuff. Problem is, nobody except librarians can be bothered to swot up a book of some hundreds of pages, and to memorise all the guff within. So one reverts to an alphabetical order. Ah, but there are so many different subjects – best one keeps each of them separate, in alphabetical order, so one allocates a few metres of shelf space here for this subject, followed by another few metres there for the next. Uh, small problem, Subject A has a few large folio volumes, which only fit into the shelf earmarked for Subject D; the same applies to Subject C. So already Subject D looks like a dog’s breakfast, three subjects in it, either with dividers between, or in general disarray – but at least alphabetical. Problem is, how do you remember five years on which subject has a few books tucked away on an odd shelf among a bunch of other stuff? Then there is the problem of allocating a volume to a certain category. Take the category art - possibly antique furniture, being a craft should be in another, or maybe it should be in architecture, as the objects are found in houses, or maybe even in history. There is no hard and fast rule as to what is right or wrong. One has to please oneself, but some order is essential, as is some record of what you own. Almost every month clients clamour to buy books, that I can positively prove to them, they have already bought from me a few years back. So frail is the human mind; mine included. Which is why I have invested a certain amount of money and time and effort in maintaining a database record of every book that I have in my possession, as well as its whereabouts. That’s still not infallible – but it helps. If your collection contains a treasure or two – or many, then keep some sort of record of what the value is, in case some form of public transport should prematurely curtail you natural span. It will help your executors in disposing fairly of your assets after your demise, and it will prevent your lovingly amassed collection from landing on the dump.