My Blog List

Monday, 8 June 2009



Since work takes up a large slice of our waking hours, it is fitting that you and I should show some measure of interest in it - besides which it helps to pass the 45-odd years that you are going to be stuck on the old treadmill, beavering away to earn your daily bread. However, I seriously doubt that a person with a fascinating career in insurance broking, undertaking, housekeeping or equally repetitive work, will feel as captivated by their vocation at the end of a useful and industrious life, as someone who, say, has run away from home at an early age to join a circus, eloped with an exotic dancer and slaved on a potato plantation in the pestilential jungle of some far-off land, before taking to the high seas to promote the trade in bootleg sardines, followed by a spell as a hanging judge in a small town in the western USA - or some equally bizarre modus operandi for earning an honest income.
I can count myself among the lucky in that my career-path has changed radically every seven years or so of my working life; partly due to serendipity, partly because I have a really short attention span, requiring new challenges to keep boredom at bay. Still, I enjoy reading descriptions of working careers in a host of categories. Civil engineering might not be to everyone's taste, but you have to admit that there is something grandiose in the idea of a fine bridge spanning a foaming torrent, a sweeping pass hugging the perilous flank of a looming crag or even the building of an unusual habitation. Ben Uys’ book, ‘My Friend Adventure’ (Timmins, 1960)describes a whole slew of such projects that the author tackled during a varied career. He built a number of bridges from Namaqualand to the Northern Transvaal, as well as irrigation works. His modest book includes a number of other interesting interludes, such as riding transport for the Germans in Namibia during the Nama War, a spell as a sawmiller, he washed gravel for diamonds and recruited labour for the mines. A good yarn, full of interesting anecdote and personalities.
The next dam builder gets to be a lot more technical. Henry Olivier’s book, ‘Damit’ (Macmillan, 1975) is not for the faint-hearted in engineering matters. The author writes well and his material is interesting, but the human factor is dwarfed by the scale of his gargantuan projects. Along with a number of pioneering schemes worldwide, he was principally involved in many of the African mega-projects, like the Owen Falls hydro-electric scheme on the White Nile, the great Kariba Dam, the entire early Orange River Scheme and Cahora Bassa Dam in Mozambique. If earth-shaking human activity rocks your boat – this book has it.
Roads and their builders have a romance and fascination of their own. Our country can boast a number of prominent pioneers in that department, starting with Andrew Geddes Bain, who was originally an saddler, but found this too monotonous and became a hunter and explorer, before becoming embroiled in the 6th Frontier War. A short spell of farming was cut short by an about-face of government policy which deprived him of his farm. This is the point when Bain turned to road construction, for which he showed extraordinary aptitude, and a number of iconic passes were constructed during the next twenty years under his supervision. Bain was an immensely talented man, and he achieved much in the fields of geology, palaeontology as well as writing and art. His ‘Journals of A. G. Bain ‘ edited by Margaret Lister (VRS, 1949), as well as numerous other books and articles testify to his lasting monuments in the subcontinent.
His son, Thomas, had some forty six years in the service of the government ( with only a month holiday in the entire working life !!) and the number of projects he executed brilliantly are legion. Probably the best known book about his work is by Pat Storrar – ‘Colossus of Roads’ (Murray & Roberts, 1984), but this short resumè, though an interesting read, hardly scratches the surface of the great man’s endeavour. A later book, which appeared in 2002, by my friend Graham Ross, entitled ‘The Romance of Cape Mountain Passes’ is a much expanded and well-researched volume on all the roads in the province – in the reconstruction or construction of which the author often had a hand.
From construction let us go to destruction. Though I am not a supporter of the art of shortening my fellow-man by means dexterous or mechanical, I do read the odd military work – and find it fascinating to boot. One that immediately comes to mind is Major P J Pretorius’ book ‘Jungle Man’ in which he describes his spying activities in the Rufiji delta, which led to the sinking of the German cruiser, the Königsberg during WWI. Another is Kenneth van der Spuy’s ‘Chasing the Wind’ (Books of Africa, 1966). The author got into aviation during the box-kite stages, so to speak, and during the early days of WWI graduated to chucking buckets full of darts and jam-tins full of explosives at enemy troops below him, and firing off revolvers and sawn-off shotguns at opposing aviators. In the author’s own words “ I was beginning to enjoy myself “ – and so he should. Happy days indeed before the advent of atom bombs and ICBM’s!
Another work I read recently was David Tyndall-Biscoe’s ‘Sailor, Soldier’, in which he chronicles his great-uncle’s military and naval experiences on a wide front, from the bloody battles of the futile Mahdist war in the Sudan and Egypt, to the Matabele Rebellion and the Anglo-Boer War. Taken from the diaries of the long departed old warrior, the book is a must for those who revel in the movements military, of men and ships, the deployment of guns and the spilling of gallons of gore. The book does not mince matters, but it does a fine job of mutilating words.
Building empires is another fascinating job, so popular during the previous two centuries. There were those of the ilk of Rhodes and Jameson, to be sure, and even Bismarck could be jollied into partaking a little of the colonial cake by the likes of Lüderitz and Peters, but with these gentlemen it was more of an obsessive-compulsive disorder than a form of employment. No, I’m thinking more along the lines of a ‘Chirupula’ Stephenson, who set out as a callow lad to do something related to stringing a telegraph line across the lastest of Mr Rhodes’ acquisitions in Central Africa ( or so I seem to recall). He ended up buying himself a ‘local princess’ for the princely sum of ten bob, married her (as well as another lady from a different tribe – or was it two of ‘em?) acquired large tracts of land, and farmed/ranched with the assistance of his descendants and almost the entire tribe he had, so to speak acquired through marriage and become the chief thereof.. Now THAT’S ENTERPRISE for you! He immodestly describes his life’s work in ‘Chirupula’s Tale’ (Geoffrey Bles, 1937) as does K S Rukavina in ‘Jungle Pathfinder’ (Hutchinson, 1951) – in a more fuzzy, romanticized way.
A most admirable man, on the other hand, was Stewart Gore-Brown, who carved a pocket empire out of the Zambian bush on the shores of Lake Shiwa. An English gentleman to the core, with an unhappy romance overshadowing his entire life, he built his African Dream, a manor house on the heights; he experimented expensively with a number of pioneer farming ventures and later entered politics, earning the respect and admiration of colonialists and Zambians alike. Christina Lamb’s work, ‘Africa House’ (Harper Collins, 2004) does credit to the man and his works, a treat to read.
Hans Merensky, on the other hand, acquired fame for his skill at geology, and in particular his uncanny ability to sniff out Mother Earth’s riches. His missionary parents seem to have had little influence on the young man, and after a fitful start at finding his niche, he settled in on his geological path – to whit, at the coalface of a mine in Silesia – literally. This was the sort of apprenticeship students faced in those days and this was followed by technical studies. After completing his degree, he returned to Africa, and was soon fossicking round the Western Transvaal Bushveld. This was to culminate in the discovery of the immense lode of platinum, later dubbed the Merensky Reef, which stretched for dozens of miles. Just a few years later he played a pivotal role in realizing the discovery of the Namaqualand diamond finds. He was the man who figured out the relationship between the fossil oyster beds and the presence of diamonds – something that other prospectors like Cornell, Carstens and Reuning had not connected.
Merensky’s empire, though founded on mineral riches, was something quite different though. It lay on the slopes of the misty mountains of the Woodbush Range, in the kingdom of Modjadji, the Rain Queen, and it was called Westfalia. This acquisition was followed by a whole string of other estates in Germany and elsewhere in the Union and Namibia. Each farm was dedicated to one or other activity, but Westfalia became a sort of personal experiment; firstly with teaching sustainable agriculture to the African inhabitants, and later with a number of crops which he thought might be suited to the subtropical climate and high seasonal rainfall. The lack of sufficient permanent water led to an investigation of how to conserve this precious resource – and he constructed a huge dam, which even today (in its enlarged form ) is of great importance in the region. He planted tens of thousands of trees, to combat soil erosion on the steep slopes, as well as to enrich the topsoil with life-giving humus. A whole book could be written on the man’s life and work – and so it was, by Olga Lehmann in her work ‘Look Beyond the Wind’ (Timmins, 1955). As a youngster I often roamed around parts of his estate and the sawmill that was harvesting the timber he planted, though the doctor had finished his life’s work some years back. It was only many years later that I read his story and it was certainly one of the books that fuelled my desire to become a field geologist, and later possibly a farmer. The former was not to be, except perhaps as a hobby, but I was fortunate later in life, like Karen Blixen, to also be able to say: “ I had a farm in Africa…”
Scientific endeavour and discoveries are fascinating subjects, especially to the layman. While Africa has not produced, to my knowledge, any of the great physicists or chemists, we have our fair share of prominent geologists like Merensky above, and earlier Bain, Atherstone, Mauch, du Toit and Martin, to name but a few. Much of their pioneering work is ably described in Carl Anhaeusser’s book ‘A Century of Geological Endeavour in Southern Africa’ (Geol. Soc of SA, 1997) There were also numerous innovators in the development of the mining industry, an extremely technical field, which probably is not for the general reader. So far I have not come across a book to explain basic mining techniques and the development of some of the deepest mining capability on this planet, and what little I have learnt, has been from the odd older books like C B Jeppe’s ‘Gold Mining on the Witwatersrand’ (Tvl Chamber of Mines, 1946) through which I paged, scanning the numerous diagrams and so picking up a few grains of knowledge without being blasted by the hailstorm of technical terms that I didn’t understand. My days on the diamond drilling rigs of the sixties and seventies, and the long conversations with geologists and miners, have filled in a number of blanks spaces, but much remains a mystery.
The geologists and the mining engineers can be said to be the success stories of mineral riches – the prospectors were more often than not the losers in the game – but their quests are so much more romantic. The epitome of the glorious failure, to my thinking, must be Fred Cornell, whose evergreen work ‘The Glamour of Prospecting’ (T Fisher Unwin, 1920 plus many reprints) relates cheerfully all the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ that are slung at the diligent seeker of treasure. There is thirst, fatigue, heat, hunger, cold – and hope, in every chapter and it seems as if the hapless fellow was jinxed as he missed striking it rich at every turn, before being killed in a motor accident in London, when he seemed to have success in his pocket. One of those ‘must read’ books.
Jack Carstens was also dogged by ill fortune, but more cruelly so, since he actually found some of the first traces of the enormous wealth that was to be extracted from underneath Namaqualand – he just didn’t profit from it to any appreciable degree. Others employed him to do their rough work for him, as he ably describes in his book “Fortune Through My Fingers’ (Timmins, 1962), since he lacked the capital to develop his finds.
A totally different prospector was John Williamson. He was a brilliant Canadian geologist, who had a dream, as well as the faith, tenacity and capacity for hard labour under an equatorial sun, which kept him going for year after year, prospecting the incandescent Tanganyikan bush until he actually found his El Dorado. The Mwadui diamond mine was to make a major contribution to the impoverished African nation, and made its discoverer hugely wealthy. His story is told factually in H Heidgen’s book, ‘The Diamond Seeker’ (Blackie, 1959) – or if one prefers to have the story spiced up with a little fiction, one can read John Gawaine’s effort of the same (unimaginative) title, complete with femme fatale and imaginary dialogue (Macmillan, 1976).
The medical field too, holds much of interest. Whether it is a morbid curiosity in all that ails the human body; the freak accidents and disasters that can befall this frail construct, or the human face of distress and succour – there is a never-ending source of information and fascination. Even the relatively placid life of a country doctor, as described by Con Weinberg in his work ‘Fragments of a Desert Land’ (Timmins, 1975) during his stint between the World Wars in the Gibeon and Maltahöhe regions of Namibia, is much material of incident and drama. Another charming cameo work is the book ‘Salt River Doctor” by B A Mackenzie (Faircape, 1981) this time dealing with the afflicted of the Mother City.
The development of neurosurgery comes under the spotlight in David Gamsu’s book entitled ‘Adventures of a South African Brain Surgeon’(Hugh Keartland, 1967)– which seems a rather inept title for such a cerebral tome. However, that aside, the author does succeed in giving the layman a comprehensible insight into a profession, the description of which could be spiced up to be completely indigestible to the ordinary mortal. Much of the work described is forensic, and thus for the criminological fans even more interesting.
In a minor medical key, the calling of the nurse during the early days on the Diamond Fields is painted in the little book ‘The Lure of the Stone’ by W M & V Buss (Timmins, 1976).Sister Henrietta Stockdale had the fortitude to care for the ill and the injured on the dusty, dirt-ridden, overcrowded slum that was the Diamond Fields, where living conditions during the first few years must have been truly horrid. Similar experiences are to be found in Rose Blennerhassett and Lucy Sleeman’s ‘Adventures in Mashonaland’ (Macmillan & Co, 1893 or Books of Rhodesia, 1969). These two intrepid ladies pioneered the first bush hospital at Penhalonga and did valuable service in providing the first medical service of any kind in the territory.
The veterinary field, of course, spawned South Africa’s first Nobel laureate, Sir Arnold Theiler. From Thelma Gutsche’s work, ‘There Was a Man’ (Timmins 1979), I managed with great difficulty to extract a faint picture this extraordinarily gifted man’s vocation and the development of veterinary science in the subcontinent and further afield. Somehow the actual ‘beef and bones’ of the science never appeared out of the flood of soup, and after spooning laboriously through almost five hundred pages of the author’s offering, I was still left in want.
Possibly more in the James Herriot vein, but vastly more entertaining, was ‘From the Horse’s Mouth’ by W J van Rensburg (van Schaik, 1983) in which the author relates in lively and interesting prose, his country veterinarian experiences, as well as a stint at Onderstepoort, like Theiler. Needless to say he did not get the Nobel Prize – but then he managed to avoid Gutsche as well!
Obviously there are still a large number of glamorous occupations that should come under consideration. The transport-riders, as epitomised in Percy Fitzpatrick’s ‘Jock of the Bushveld’, have left a legacy redolent of camp fires and creaking oxwagons, perilous paths and the crack of whips and the shouts and whistles of the drovers. The heroes have their shoulders to the wheel, and the villains zoom through the leafy glades to inject the deadly trypanosome into the straining beasts, or assume the shadowy forms of the great cats lying in ambush along the rutted ways. Ah, what pictures one can see: from Poultney and Bee’s ‘Kalahari Campfires’ (Knox, 1941), to Stanley Portal Hyatt’s books ‘Biffel the Story of a Trek-Ox’, ‘Off the Main Track’ and ‘The Old Transport Road’ dealing with treks in Rhodesia, to works like Cecil Cowley’s ‘Schwikkard of Natal and the Old Transvaal’ (Struik, 1974) and C T Stoneham’s ‘Africa All Over’ describing his working life in post-WWI Tanganyika. There are a number of excellent books available in Afrikaans on the subject of transport-riding; C F Gronum’s work ‘Transportry, Runderpes en Poskoetse’ (Pro Rege, 1975) is a good example.
What would Africa be without its animals? Although the spread of man endangers all other living species on the planet, at least humankind seems to realize there is a problem, and attempts are being made to preserve remnants of former glories for future generations. Enter the conservationist, the game ranger, the anti-poaching patrol, and those kind and loving souls who succour orphaned rhinos, lions and other beleaguered beasties, raise them with the aid of large bottles of Klim plus supplements, and then find that they have to spend the rest of their days looking after them. Surely this heartbreaking work has more glamour and romance attached to it than any other career in the subcontinent; almost any little girl would want to be a veterinarian at some stage in their lives; most boys would want to be game rangers, but of the legion of books that have been written by people in this vocation, many testify to the hard life, dangers and disappointments that come with intensely exciting action, interesting challenges and occasionally a sense of a worthwhile job well done, and with visible, lasting results. A man of legendary status in South Africa is, of course, Harry Wolhuter, who wrote of his experiences as ranger in the early days of the Kruger Park, in ‘Memories of a Game Ranger’. His claim to fame lay not in conservation, but rather in killing the lion that attacked him, with his hunting knife – but he could claim extreme provocation as the said kitty was chewing his shoulder at the time.
A book that made a lasting impression on me just after we came to South Africa, was Mervyn Cowie’s ‘Fly Vulture’ (Harrap, 1961), which chronicled the fight to establish game reserves in Kenya. I must admit to being completely won over by the film version, in which the Hollywood Bunch had the baddie get his come-uppance at the horn of an angry rhino which consigned his truck into a donga. I seem to recall that I erupted into loud cheers and clapping at the sight. Since then I have read more sobering versions of the fight against poaching, which is often paid for by organized crime, such as Richard Leakey’s ‘Wildlife Wars’ (Macmillan, 2001), or D W Potgieter’s ‘Contraband’ (Quellerie, 1995).
There is a long list of authors and locations to choose from: like Nick Steele’s Natal books ‘Gameranger on Horseback’ and ‘Bushlife of a Game Warden’, to George Adamson’s ‘Bwana Game’ in Kenya, Cronje Wilmot’s ‘Okavango Adventure’, Daphne Sheldrick’s ‘Orphans of Tsavo’ and ‘The Tsavo Story’, Hannes Kloppers’ two volumes, ‘Veldwagter’ and ‘Gee My ‘n Man’, dealing with the Kruger and the Kalahari Parks respectively. I have read dozens of these offerings, and found something to keep me at it in each one. The writing may not be exceptional, the subject matter is rarely unique, but each account of the work done by these dedicated people involves the reader to a degree seldom felt with books dealing with other occupations – and so, read on.



The word autobiography is almost an oxymoron. I mean, how can a person trust anyone to tell his or her own life story as it really was. It's almost certain to be a bunch of gilded fabrications, self-laudatory rubbish, glamour spots in a dull life which was occasionally brightened by the odd ray of brilliance. Trust those vainglorious enough to write such a book only in that they will seek to portray themselves in a favourable light; that they will leave out all their failings except those they are proud of; that they will omit their mistakes, bury their blunders and conceal their crimes. Was it no' wee Robbie that said:

O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
And foolish notion.

So take heed biographer - auto- or not, for the road is strewn with thorns and rocks.
Let's take the swashbuckling hero, Sir Harry Smith, who had the temerity to write a fairly laudatory story of his own eventful life, which was published posthumously in 1901 ( with a little help from one G C Moore-Smith as editor, who might have been a descendant for all one knows). This book became an instant success as the public took to the man who epitomised all that was brave and British in the Victorian era, for the next decade, as reprint after reprint rolled off the presses. It is still accorded the accolade of being 'a classic of love and war', and I see that you can buy an expensive and nasty paperback edition, complete with all " occasional imperfections such as missing and blurred pages, missing text, poor pictures, markings, dark backgrounds and other reproduction issues " for a tad over $50 delivered in SA. In 1977 another book appeared, under the title " Remember you are an Englishman " by Joseph H Lehmann. This citizen of the good old US of A had a fair amount of admiration for the soldier/lover, as far as I can remember from cursorily reading a chapter or two, but the book seemed much of the same as the autoversion. Not so the volume by one A L Harrington, more aptly entitled "Sir Harry Smith, Bungling Hero" which appeared only a scant three years later. You'd swear it was an entirely different man the book was written about. Gone was the adulation for his reckless bravery, his leadership in suicidal charges where his men (and enemies ) fell in swathes around him; instead we have sharp criticism and insightful analysis of his rash political decisions, which caused his Whitehall masters no ends of headaches, and indeed resulted in his recall from the Cape at one stage. When in doubt - read about a man's life written by his enemy.
But not all is gloom on the autobiographical front. Every now and then a jewel emerges, which is taken to the bosom of the population at large - and it remains there. One such is the slim volume called simply "The Diary of Iris Vaughan" by herself. It takes a child to describe in uncritical, simple terms, the grown-ups around her, her interaction with them and her sibling, the realities of the country towns in which they lived and how the Boer War swept by in a tumultuous wave. Her stern, magisterial Pop, was apt to 'be savige', Mom stern and controlling, while her brother Charles aided and abetted her in all things naughty as children do. She decided early on that 'everyone should have a diery', because if you always told the truth, you were told you were rude and you get into trouble, or you could lie and that was wrong too - so you must either write whatever it was you couldn't say in the diary, or you had to keep quiet. She chose the former, and the result is a hilarious romp through Edwardian South Africa, complete with idiosyncratic spelling and frank pen-pictures of some of the staunch pillars of society. A must for biography addicts.
Humorous tales of this genre are often a fair bet as a good read. Somehow a person that doesn't take themselves too seriously is hardly likely to dwell on the high points and achievements of their own life in favour of the droll events that happened around them instead. So it is with Olga Levinson's "Call me Master", which purports to be full of fictitious characters in a mythical town called Windhoek - presumably in an erehwonian state of German South West. She describes herself as the last and non-rhyming sister in a slew of six girls, all -ita's. Within the first couple of pages she chronicles the arrival of a young man who announces to her parents that he has come to marry their daughter, whom he had met a week before - to whit Olga, and to whisk her off to South West Africa. Before long she entrains for the long and dusty ride to the capital, which does little to endear itself to the city girl, before she is once more relocated - to a farm in the wilds for good measure. Levinson writes mainly about other people, so the book can be likened to Betty Macdonald's famous "The Egg and I", in which the main character becomes a mirror from which to bounce all the other images. A cheerful and amusing book, which can be reread a few times.
Here's the third lady-writer in a row: Elspeth Huxley's twin volumes "The Flame Trees of Thika" and "The Mottled Lizard" are among my favourite personal memoirs of East Africa. Huxley's reminiscences of her early days on the trackless veld, where her family had been deposited in a manner very reminiscent of the unpreparedness of the 1820 Settlers further south. We are taken through the painful learning curves of the aspirant farmers, as they hack a clearing in the savannah, build some kind of shelter and decide on all the wrong choices before finding crops and methods that will work in the alien soil. Her writing is interesting, full of feeling for her adopted country, and her extensive use of dialogue to flesh out the characters and the interaction between them, though fictional, of necessity, never intrudes or gives an impression of a fictionalised account. I can smell her Africa, I hear its sounds and I see the colours shimmering in the equatorial sun. These two books have a virtuosity of their own, which her other non-fiction work never reaches, though a number of her travel and socio-political books are very readable, while I found her novels to be completely indigestible.
Must be my day for the ladies. A few paragraphs back I mentioned one Karen Blixen as another failed coffee planter. She is of course, the renowned author of "Out of Africa" and coined the immortal phrase "Once I had a farm in Africa…" for both which efforts she has been enshrined among the American pantheon of literary deities on African matters, along with Stanley and Hemingway. In the matter of her book, I would hesitate to call it an autobiography - it is too ethereal, too much like a saga, with shifting scenes and actors walking on and off. They make stilted speeches, of deep matters and thoughts, and their sculpted faces are cunningly lit by hidden lights in the wings. That there is some great writing, one cannot dispute; that it be accepted as 'the truth and nothing but,' would be unrealistic. The view presented is from one side of the auditorium only. None of the nasty unpleasantness of reality seems to intrude, least of all the personality of the author, who comes across as a manipulative harridan from hell in the documentary film I have seen on the subject of the last few years of her life.
From iconic books, to an icon: George Adamson, Bwana Game, the lion man. He was born in India and his parents passed Kenya on their way down south, got hooked and bought a farm, a la Huxley's parents. Coffee farming was an ill-researched pastime in those days, and neither Adamson senior nor the Huxleys (nor Karen Blixen, for that matter) got it right. George had an interesting time of it, trying out all manner of agricultural pursuits as he gravitated to his promised land - the Northern Frontier District, NFD for short. In no time he had added the trades of goat-herding, gold prospecting, hunting, and a slew of other exotic occupations to his CV, before finding his vocation as a game warden at the tender age of 32. Disaster was to strike some six years later, when he was confronted by his nemesis, Joy, the Austrian lady of "Elsa - the Lioness" fame, who decided that he was husband material, and who subsequently ditched her then husband to hang George's scalp on her belt - figuratively speaking.
From certain accounts I've read, it was a marriage made in hell - for George, and certainly what I saw of the lady during a documentary film which interviewed both, separately, she was the sort of person I could really take an un-shine to, while the old boy warmed the cockles of my heart in a taciturn, sincere, nature-boy sort of way. Reassuringly enough, other writers on matters Kenyan also tended to take extreme views on this relationship. Elspeth Huxley was very much in the lady's camp, while another author ( whose name was Ricciardi, I seem to recall ) in turn gave me all the dirt on Joy's tricks and made George out to be the good 'un. No doubt the truth is somewhere in between, as it usually is. His book is a thoroughly interesting read; though there is little literary merit, just a life full of incidents, cobbled together into a more or less contiguous narrative. Throughout the work his love of nature and animals are the predominant themes, while his efforts frequently place him as arbiter in the struggle between the tribesmen and the game he protects.
Great events have often triggered worthy books by some of their participants. Wars must rank highly among favoured subject matter, and while not my personal choice, I do occasionally read books of the genre that have caught my attention. Not for me the undoubted military skill displayed by von Lettow Vorbeck and related in his immensely popular book "My Reminiscences of East Africa" - that's more for students of tactics and military science, or serious historians. No, I would prefer a slim volume of personal reminiscences of the same campaign by a South African gunner, ineptly entitled "On Safari" by F. C. if I wanted to get a feel of warfare during WWI in East Africa; the bouts of malaria and dysentery, the poor food, if any, the murderous heat and inimical landscape - added to which was the spice of dodging sniper fire or a full attack.
One of the great autobiographical works on the Boer War must be Deneys Reitz's "On Commando". How well he describes the gung-ho approach to war by a callow youth, which is so quickly bled dry by the heat of the first battle; by the stench of corpses and the howling of Howitzer shells overhead. One can share in his despair of the lost battle, the exhilaration of a charge and the sorrow felt at the death of a comrade. The book exposes the human side of the dogged struggle as experienced by one participant, not an analysis of military tactics, not individual or collective bravery - not right or wrong. Reitz went into exile after the war, refusing to swear allegiance to the British Crown. He, together with his brothers and a few likeminded companions fled to Madagascar, where they eked out a living of sorts on the edge of starvation, before they were persuaded to return by Isie Smuts' letter, which implored them to rather work for the unification of the country. Reitz's two subsequent books, "Trekking On" and "No Outspan" make equally good reading in a lesser vein, as Reitz becomes a fully fledged military man, an MP and minister of state.
As a complete opposite to the above works, my choice would fall on General Manie Maritz's "My Lewe en Strewe". I know I take my life in my hands to criticise this Afrikaner folk hero, as there are still people in Namaqualand and elsewhere, who frankly worship his memory (just as they would take a Lee Metford to Jannie Smuts if he came riding down those dusty track today), but I read his book not once, but twice in the course of trying to get a picture of the war on the region which has become my main interest. The first reading aroused a deep antipathy in me; Maritz's bombast, braggadocio, self-importance, and not to put too fine a point on it - bunch of lies about his personal exploits and their effect on the course of the war - all these put my teeth on edge. Where this ex ZARP policeman got his rabid anti-Semitism from was a mystery to me until I read Lennox van Onselen's book referred to in V & V # 2, which records at length Maritz's interaction and eventual defeat at the hands of the low-life that ruled the Reef underworld before the war. Still, the man must have had something - even the famous prospector Fred Cornell was impressed most favourably when he met the Rebel general at Prieska in 1914, describing him as an " alert, bluff, soldierly man " with "the manner of an educated man". He also refers to his astonishing feats of strength, courage and leadership during the Boer War, as well as during his service with the Germans in SWA during their two colonial wars. Maritz had a solid reputation, so much so that he managed to quell the simmering rebellion that the government faced when they effectively gave the treasure trove of Namaqualand's diamonds to 'foreigners' so beggaring the locals in the 1920's. So then why did he have to exaggerate his undoubted courage (or it could be called lack of imagination) in hand-to-hand fighting, during which he was often wounded grievously, why were there always many more dead enemies after battle, and why was every skirmish a victory ? My second reading was accompanied by all the books of his companions: Reitz, Bouwer, de Kersauson, Meyer and Smith, as well as works by historians from the British side - and the most charitable conclusion I could come to was that Maritz was suffering from some seriously senior moments by 1938, when he was about 62 years old, at which time the book was published shortly before he died in a motor accident.
Enough of all these dogs of war, let's see how the men of science and letters fare. Certainly one of my early favourites was Dr Robert Broom, who dashed off a small volume entitled "Finding the Missing Link" in 1950. A somewhat presumptuous title, as well as erroneous, as was proven later, but in the heat of battle in those pioneering days of palaeoanthropology - it was quite excusable. In this case again, the event overshadowed the person to some degree, and Broom's cantankerous, headstrong nature, his inattention to his personal finances and his eccentricity don't really emerge from the book. Broom, one reads elsewhere, would do his dustiest fossil-hunting wearing a dark suit - but would strip buck-naked when it got too hot. The indefatigable Scot promised that he would "wear out, not rust out", and kept his word. At the age of 85 he had just completed his monograph on the ape-men, when he is reported to have whispered "Now that's finished ... and so am I". He died moments later. Perfect ending.
Take Dr Sidney Harold Skaife; the extremely popular natural history boffin, who lived on the slopes of the mountain above Hout Bay in a house he built himself. I was forced to reacquaint myself with the book yesterday, as I had read it just too many decades previously to remember much of it. While no one can deny that Skaife led an interesting and varied life, full of incident, worthwhile pursuits and groundbreaking discoveries in the entomological field, very little emerges of the man, except that he was certainly gifted, able to communicate his wide knowledge by means of the then 'new' media of radio and film, as well as writing natural history books on a wide variety of subjects. My respect for him increased when I was reminded that he, an Englishman born and bred, also achieved a measure of literary fame with a series of Afrikaans thrillers of the "Skiet, skop en donder" variety. I have a sneaking suspicion I actually read "Adriaan Hugo - baasspeurder" at some stage of my youthful indiscriminate appetites. His autobiography shows none of those skills - instead it consists of short passages of (to me) intensely interesting biological anecdotes and facts, a litany of where he went from where to where and what he did in each place, and a whole autograph album full of names of prominent people even I have mostly never heard of - and I've been around some time. What does that prove? Merely that he should have stuck to his favourite subject - biology. It was the thing he was really good at, and he knows this, as he writes "it has been said that the writing of autobiographies is as common as adultery, and just as reprehensible" at later he confesses that his only excuse was that "it was a pleasant form of self-expression, of recalling happy memories of the past, and perhaps boasting a little - to show off a special talent that we may have". Bravo, Dr Skaife. I find your autobiography eminently credible - even if only because of these expressed sentiments.
The legal fraternity, too, is not shy of recording their illustrious careers. A number of semi-biographical books by magistrates, lawyers and judges grace my shelves. Some are ponderous tomes such as J G Kotze's "Memoirs and Reminiscences" in two volumes, as he obviously acquired a taste for the game and had to bring his audience up to date some five years after the publication of the first volume. Others like Herman's "The Law my Master", Juta's "Reminiscences of the Western Circuit", and Corder's "Judges at Work" and "The Truth and Nothing But", focus mainly on the frailties of others instead of the careers of the arbiters of their fates, and it is that which makes them entertaining. One or two of these 'Frontier Lawmen' stand out in my memory as having written books filled with both dramatic and humorous content, well worth a revisitation now and then. They are F H Guthrie's "Frontier Magistrate' dealing with his experiences in the Eastern Cape and Walvis Bay; and lastly, my personal favourite legal man, William Charles Scully. He went in for ponderous titles: 'Reminiscences of a South African Pioneer' as well as 'Further Reminiscences…', but the contents are generally written in a light, modest vein, with a ribald sense for the ridiculous in the behaviour of the people around him - not excluding himself. Scully led an adventurous early life as a gold and diamond prospector, and missed becoming a rich man by a combination of ill-health and circumstances, as he relates his misfortunes at Du Toit's Pan and Barberton - where he lay within inches of untold wealth. Only after these escapades did he settle down to the humdrum existence of a government clerk, and later magistrate, but one always gets the sense that here was a romantic, waiting to burst out into the world. A number of his novels and stories are also good reads - but once does have to forgive the odd passage of Victorian Purple Prose.
Although it was intended to include an offering in this genre by a poet, writer and/or artist, when it came to making the choice, my eye fell on Guy Butler's trilogy " Karoo Morning", "Bursting World" and "A Local Habitation". As I had previously read no more than an odd chapter here and there, I sat down to them with a will, fully intending to give a blow by blow account of the engagement. Then reality struck, and I must confess that I have chickened out. After reading a hundred or so pages, I was suddenly struck by my presumption and crass stupidity. Who the heck did I think I was anyway ? To take on a long-deceased general with an army at his beck and call, to roast a little old lady in print, or to deflate a pompous politician, all these seem like fair game. To even consider writing a 'literary criticism', however humble, on the work of an esteemed professor of the English language, a noted poet, playwright and writer, smacked not only of foolhardiness but looked like literary suicide. So let me say only that Butler's work deals largely with his experiences in academia and with his work in literary circles, some religion and a liberal dusting of politics with a smidgeon of family life - and with the exception of the latter, I have no knowledge on these matters. Nuff said.