Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Election 2019: Who can one vote for?

Some time later this year there is to be a general election in South Africa. With our proportional representation system we have a large variety of parties to choose from — some say over 200 — which will make the ballot paper look more like a book — yet it has never been more difficult to choose. As one friend wrote on Facebook this morning:

Being a person with quite clear opinions, I never thought I could be classified as an undecided voter. But that’s where I am as elections loom.

And most of the comments on that took a similar line.

I see no point in voting for a small party that is unlikely to get at least 0.25% of the vote — that’s what is needed to get one member of parliament. Anything less than that and the party will not be represented in parliament at all. So it has to be one of the bigger parties. In some previous elections I’ve chosen by a process of elimination — which of the bigger parties is least objectionable.

Here are my thoughts this time around.

The ANC

Quite a lot of people have been saying that since Cyril Ramaphosa has replaced Jacob Zuma  as president of the ANC the Zuptas are in decline, but a poor showing in the election  will make Ramaphosa look bad and strengthen the hand of the Zuptas, therefore one should vote for the ANC to strengthen Ramaphosa’s hand. and enable him to deal with the Zuptas.

My inclination is to wait and see who is on the party list. A lot of prominent politicians have been fingered by the Zondo and other commissions as having been involved in corruption on a massive scale, and stealing public funds. If any of those people are on the ANC party list, I’m not voting for the ANC. It’s no use playing the “innocent until proved guilty” card — I’m not voting on their guilt or innocence, I’m voting for who I want to represent me in parliament, and I don’t want those people to do so. So that’s a relatively simple criterion.

The DA

I haven’t even considered voting for the DA since Tony Leon’s “Gatvol” and “Fight back” campaign of 1999. Admittedly that was the Democratic Party, which later united with the rump of the right of the National Party to form the Democratic Alliance (the left of the National Party joined the ANC).

In 2003 we had a municipal by-election, in which the choice was between the right, the far right, the super right, the hyper right and the ultra right. I considered not voting, then thought that Willie “stem reg, bly weg” Marais of the HNP would take a non-vote as a vote for him, so I went along and parked up the road from the polling station. As I got out of the car my right arm was grabbed by a burly gentleman from the Conservative Party and my left arm by an equally burly gentleman from the DA, each of whom was assuring me that his party was the only one that could “Stop the ANC”. I wanted to ask “Stop the ANC from doing what?” but I feared that if I did so I would be there all afternoon, and i just wanted to vote and go home. There was in any case no ANC candidate in our ward. None of the parties or candidates said anything about their vision for the City of Tshwane. The only thing they claimed was that they would be better than any of the others at “Stopping the ANC”. I want in and voted for the only independent on the ballot paper. I didn’t know what he stood for either, but at least he wasn’t a party hack.

As far as I can see the DA just wants to stop the ANC. If the ANC does something bad, they’ll try to stop it (but the EFF was more effective at that). And if the ANC does something good, they’ll try to stop that too. Their policy is simply to “Stop the ANC.” It’s entirely negative., at least in the public image they try to cultivate.

And then there is this: Herman Mashaba, the DA Mayor of Johannesburg, writes in An open letter of apology to all South Africans | News24:

We had witnessed how an oppressive government had been defeated by the people of our country. It was a magical moment.

With this belief, I voted for the ANC in 1994 and 1999.

For this, I offer my most profound apology.

Well I too voted for the ANC in 1994 and 1999, and I see no reason at all to apologise for doing so. I believed then, and I still believe now, that it was the best party to vote for at that time. It wasn’t perfect by any means, and I had plenty of complaints about it (the arms deal, abandonment of the RDP and more). But voting for it then did not turn it into what it became after December 2007. To Herman Mashaba I say Bah! Humbug.

The EFF

The Economic Freedom Fighters, like the DA, are largely negative. You know what they are against, but when you ask what they are for, the story is tailored to what they think the particular audience wants to hear. They gained quite a lot of support when Zuma was president, and I think their vociferous opposition was more effective than the DA’s whinging. They exposed a lot of corruption among the Zuptas, but the VBS bank affair has left them with mud on their faces. Zuma’s recall took the wind out of their sails, and since then they have been flip-flopping trying to catch the slightest breeze.

COPE

I never considered voting for the Congress of the People Party before, because of their in-fighting leadership struggles, which made them seem to be more about personalities than policies. But that seemed to settle down and I was seriously considering voting for them until they recently allied themselves with a militantly racist organisation called Afriforum, and a militantly anti-Christian organsation called Dignity, whose leader spouts hate speech against Christians at every opportunity. Thanks, but no thanks.

The UDM

I have long had two reservations about the United Democratic Movement led by Bantu Holomisa. One is that he once led a coup, and the second is that he seems to enjoy being sycophantically addressed by journalists as “General”.

To these an additional reason has recently been added: when the UDM conspired with other parties including the EFF to remove the DA mayor of Nelson Mandela Municipality in order to replace him with one who appears to be just as corrupt as any of the Zuptas.

The IFP

The Inkatha Freedom Party resisted the first democratic elections in 1994 for several months, and as a result more than 700 people died. Enough said.

The ACDP

The African Christian Democratic Party claims to uphold Christian principles, but I’m not so sure about that. For one thing, they favour capital punishment, though on the credit side they are opposed to abortion on demand. Being “pro-life”, I am opposed to both.

Whenever I have, in the past, considered voting for the ACDP, my mind has been decisively been made up by receiving a bundle of far-right wing propaganda pamphlets sent in the name of the ACDP by one Ed Cain. Ed Cain used to publish a right-wing “Christian” paper called Encounter, which was funded through the old Department of Information of scandal fame — one of the few instances of government corruption exposed in those pre-democracy days of media censorship. Encounter published articles from people with enormous differences in theology. The only thing they had in common was a right-wing political stance.

A friend of mine who supported the ACDP assured me that Ed Cain was a loose cannon and did not represent the party, but the fact remains that the party did not officially repudiate Ed Cain and the publications he sent out in its name. That made me suspect that a lot of the party’s support came from the right-wing followers of Ed Cain, and they could not afford to alienate them, just as Cyril Ramaphosa cannot afford to alienate the Zuptas in the ANC.

Agang

Well, I have to admit that I voted for Agang for parliament in the 2014 election, mainly because I thought Mamphela Ramphekle had things to say that the country needed to hear, and that even as a minority she could have an influence in parliamentary committees etc.

What happened? There seems to have been an internal party coup in which Mamphela Ramphele was ousted, and Agang is represented in parliament by a couple of jobsworths who are just waiting for their parliamentary pensions, because I doubt that anyone will ever vote for them again.

Oh, and also in the 2014 elections I voted for the EFF for the provincial council, because I thought they might be more effective in opposing things like toll roads in general and e-tolls in particular — another reason why I won’t vote for the ANC in Gauteng province, even if, in the event of their leaving all the Zuptas off their list, I might consider voting for them for parliament.

Oh, and there’s also the Freedom Front Plus. They are at leas more honest about their right-wingness than the ACDP.

Where next?

So here I am, the proverbial floating voter.

Are the pubs still closed on election day? Perhaps I’ll vote for the first candidate who offers to buy me a drink.

I’ve heard rumours of a “Revolutionary Workers Party”, but they are either keeping a very low profile, or the media are pretending they don’t exist, preferring to give publicity to clowns like Hlaudi Motsoeneng, who, having destroyed the SABC now wants to destroy the country as well with his local content party. The Revolutionary Workers Party sounds a bit like the MDC in Zimbabwe, but if they keep such a low profile no one will be able to find their name in the ballot book.

Are there any more promising candidates among the 200 or so others?

 

 

 

Memoirs of a Guardian Angel (review)

Memoirs of a Guardian AngelMemoirs of a Guardian Angel by Graham Downs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found it a bit difficult to review this book, for several reasons. One is that it’s hard to classify — fantasy? Yes and no. General fiction? Well, yes, but not quite.

At one level it’s a series of vignettes of people at crisis moments of their lives, as observed by a guardian angel. Then it takes us to the corporate headquarters of Guardian Angels Ltd, where the angels are assigned their charges and disciplined if they fail, or if they break any of the rules, such as one that prohibits a guardian angel from being in charge of anyone they had known in their life on earth.

There is plenty of drama in the vignettes of life on earth, which initially seem quite separate, but are eventually tied up together to make a single story, which is quite readable and held my interest.

The dialogue seemed a bit jerky in places, with a strange mixture of South African and American English (“curb”, “the hospital”, “exit” as a verb). But perhaps that’s just a generational thing, as the author recently reviewed one of my books and found the dialogue old-fashioned, so it works both ways.

Another difficulty I had in reviewing it is that I am writing a book that features guardian angels, and I have a totally different conception of them, so I found it quite hard to get my around the idea that angels had lived as people on earth, and are arbitrarily assigned to people to guard and then are taken off the job and set to look after someone else. But that’s just me, it doesn’t affect the book itself, and the story needs to be taken on its own terms and not judged on other criteria as a story.

View all my reviews

As I often do with book reviews on GoodReads, when I transfer them to my blog I make additional comments that go beyond the book itself and deal with issues that the book raises for me. In this case, one of the issues is angels, what they are, and how they are portrayed in fiction. In the review on GoodReads I tried to be a bit postmodern about it, and treat the text simply as text, and the story simply on its merits as a story — who knows what GoodReads readers are looking for in a book, or what ideas they approach it with?

But I approach it with certain ideas, and that’s what I talk about here.

In the Orthodox Church we take guardian angels seriously. At every Divine Liturgy we pray for “an angel of peace, a faithful guide, a guardian of our souls and bodies…”

In the book the guardian angel seems to be a guardian of bodies rather than a guardian of souls, and as for being a faithful guide, in the book the guardian angel looks on helplessly while people make bad decisions.

The guardian angels were at work.

Of course the function of guarding bodies is quite important. An Anglican priest friend of mine (Fr Michael Lapsley). always invokes the guardian angels when he boards an aircraft. Many years ago I was returning to Windhoek from the Matchless Mine in the Khomas Hochland in Namibia. I had driven there in daylight, but returned at night. We came over a rise with the headlights up in the air, and by the time they were pointing to the road again the road was almost gone; it curved quite sharply to the right, and we were already on the loose stones on the outside of the curve. The bakkie spun and rolled, and we were shaken around inside. When the shaking and rolling stopped I was lying halfway out of the window on the passenger side, with my right hand stretched out into the gravel on the side of the road in a bunch of duwweltjie thorns, and the roof of the bakkie hanging over me. Would it fall on top of me, or wouldn’t it? It fell the other way, onto its wheels, facing back up the road we had come down, and I fell completely out of the window. Abraham Hangula, an evangelist, who had been in the passenger sear, came round from the other side of the bakkie, and said, “The Lord must still have work for us to do.” The other passenger, who had been in the back seat (it was a double-cab bakkie) was also largely unharmed. We all escaped with a few scrapes, sprains and bruises. And I thought yes, the guardian angels had been busy, and may be tipped the bakkie onto its wheels instead of on top of me. Guardian angels do guard bodies as well as souls.

There have been many portrayals of angels in fiction:

C.S. Lewis, in his Cosmic Trilogy, calls them eldila, and his portrayal largely fits my theological understanding too. In Memoirs of a Guardian Angel they are, as in Lewis, portrayed as bodiless powers, invisible to human beings, for the most part. But unlike Lewis, Memoirs of a Guardian Angel shows them as people who have lived on earth who become guardian angels after they die.

Tolkien shows, in his fictional Ainulindalë (published as part of The Silmarillion) how angels were created, with surprising theological accuracy. One class of angels, the Maiar, can also take on visible form, and are known among men as istari, or wizards.

In the Holy Scriptures angels take visible form and appear to people when they bring messages from God.  When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her she was to be the Theotokos, the God-bearer, the ikon of the Annunciation depicts him in human form, but with wings. We are not told if that is how Mary saw him, but she was aware of his presence and heard him.

But one thing is clear from Christian tradition: angels are a separate creation of God. They may sometimes appear in human form, but they have never lived human lives.

Is there a way of reconciling, or at least comparing these views?

The ancient Romans, for example, believed the idea of the Genius. The genius was a guardian spirit of an individual that was assigned to each individual at birth, stayed with them throughout life, and after death conducted their soul out of the mortal world. The ancient Romans were expected to make a birthday sacrifice to their genius. If one had a good relationship with one’s genius it would become a lar, or household god, after death. The lares were particularly associated with the hearth. If one had a bad relationship, however, the genius could become a troublesome spook, plaguing the living.

This is not all that far removed from the Zulu idea of amadlozi, the ancestral spirits who are also associated with the isiku, the hearth.

Now some might object that these are pagan notions, and Christians should have nothing to do with them. Some, who are interested in the history of folklore and transmission of ideas might wonder if the Romans got their ideas of lares from the Zulu amadlozi, or vice versa, and if so, how were the ideas transmitted? And the folklorists might conclude that the Christian idea of guardian angels came from the Roman idea of lares, and classify it as yet another “pagan borrowing”.

The Christian theological explanation is a little simpler: if everyone is assigned a guardian angel at birth (no transfers, as in Memoirs of a Guardian Angel), then every society and culture must have some experience of them, and though there might be some differences in the way people described this experience, there should be enough in common for one to recognise the commonalities.

This leads on to the concept of egregores, which I have discussed in other blog posts here and here.Someone recently came up with the interesting notion that one’s social media persona or profile could be a kind of egregore, so would that be one’s genius too?.

And what happens if one’s genius goes bad?

In Rabbinic Judaism this is attributed to the yetzer hara (Hebrew: יֵצֶר הַרַע‎). Though in Judaism, while the evil inclination is present from birth, the good inclination, the yetzer ha-tov, only appears at maturity (for more on this, see here). C.S. Lewis, however, personified the evil influence (the yetzer hara) as a kind of guardian devil in The Screwtape Letters, And in everyday English we still say, of someone who seems wedded to “the dark side”, that “he has an evil genius.”

So how does one represent this best in fiction?

 

Toxic and Narcissist

No, I don’t really want to read this book.

The description on GoodReads just reminded me that “toxic” and “narcissist” seem to be among the most popular words on social media currently, and the book blurb struck me as ironic, since probably the most narcissistic thing you can do is to see other people as toxic and to want to protect yourself from them.

One of the primary characteristics of narcicissim as a personality disorder is to project one’s own failings on other peopl;e and denouncing them for it, which seems to be just what seeing other people as “toxic” entails.

Perhaps it goes back to Ayn Rand, who attempted to subvert the Christian moral order by proclaiming selfishness a virtue and altruism a sin.

Fundamentalist Christians are sometimes criticised for their judgementalism, proclaiming certain people as sinners, and therefore to be despised. But the same judgementalism can be found in quite secular circles too, when one classifies certain people as “toxic”. The same judgmentalism lies behind both.

For Orthodox Christians the season of Great Lent, which is approaching, is preceded by several Sundays whose themes urge us to recognise these tendencies in ourselves and to engage in an ascetic struggle against them, for example the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee (which falls on 17 February in 2019).

For some (depending on which Lectionary you use) that is preceded by the Sunday of Zacchaeus, and Zacchaeus was the paradigm case of a toxic person. And did Jesus delete him? No, he invited himself to dinner.

So as a Lenten (and even pre-Lenten) discipline I suggest the elimination of the words “narcissist” and “narcissism” from one’s spoken vocabulary, and to avoid liking, sharing or otherwise endorsing or propagating posts that use the term on social media.

I likewise suggest that the same be done with the word “toxic” when applied to human beings or human characteristics. It should continue to be OK to use it of non-human beings, like snakes, spiders and socks.

 

Vanishing dishwasher tablets

Does anyone know of any supermarket in the Great City of Tshwane that sells these Bingo dishwashing tablets? Preferably one within 8 km of Kilner Park by road.

We used to get them at our local Shoprite/Checkers in Queenswood (it keeps changing the name back and forth), but then it closed for about 18 months while they were renovating the buildings. During that time we still could get them at the East Lynne branch.

Now the renovations are complete, and the Queenswood branch has reopened, but it no longer stocks these. They only have a rival brand that costs twice as much.

We tried shopping at the Silverton branch (where most of the Queenswood staff were transferred during the renovations) — see In a Relationship. But they don’t have them there either.

So if anyone knows of a place within a reasonable range of where we live that stocks these, we’d like to know, and will probably do a lot of our grocery shopping there too.

 

Interrogating silence

I’ve been reading an interesting article by André Brink, on Interrogating Silence, which was in a book I found in the library.

No this isn’t a review of the book, which got poor reviews on GoodReads, and I haven’t finished reading it yet. This is rather some thoughts sparked off by reading a couple of the articles, and memories of old friends, and the kinds of silences that are imposed on us by changing circumstances.

Writing South Africa: Literature, Apartheid, and Democracy, 1970-1995Writing South Africa: Literature, Apartheid, and Democracy, 1970-1995 by Derek Attridge

I took this book out of the library mainly because it had an article by an old friend, Graham Pechey, who died in Cambridge, UK, in February 2016. I had known Graham Pechey when I was a student in the 1960s, and it was he who introduced me to Bob Dylan. He lived in a flat next door to another friend, John Aitchison, and had borrowed the Dylan records from yet another student, Jeff Guy, who later became a historian.

On one memorable evening, on 11 November 1965, after Ian Smith had unilaterally declared the independence  of Rhodesia, and Bram Fischer had just been rearrested after several months on the run, and I had received an official warning from the magistrate in terms of the Suppression of Communism Act, John Aitchison (who was banned) and I sat with Graham Pechey in his flat, and drank toasts to Bram Fischer, Harold Wilson, and Queen Elizabeth II. I’ve described the occasion more fully in another blog post here.

At that time Graham Pechey was an atheist and a bit of a Marxist, but he later explained his sympathy for monarchy, which I am inclined to agree with, on Facebook on the 60th anniversary of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II:

‘The rise of Hitler, Franco and Stalin showed that there are worse institutions than a Monarchy–that a people deprived of a Royal Family can turn to far more dangerous gods. As one Socialist said before the war: “If you throw the Crown into the gutter, you may be sure that somebody will pick it up”‘. Wise words from the Observer, June 1953, reprinted in today’s issue.

Graham Pechey, 1965

Graham Pechey later married my philosophy lecturer, Nola Clendinning, who took to paining ikons, and in Cambridge, I am told, he was a pillar of the local Anglican Church. I would love to have been able to meet with him and chat about these things over a beer, but the last time I saw him was in 1971, and though we  were later reconnected on Facebook, it’s not the best medium for that kind of conversation. So now all I can do is interrogate the silence.

Though I do have the article in the book: The post-apartheid sublime:rediscovering the extraordinary.

The first article in the book, however, is by André Brink, on Interrogating silence.

In it he writes:

The experience of apartheid has demonstrated that different kinds or levels of silence exist. There is the general silence of which I have spoken above and which exists in a dynamic relation with language/literature; but there are also more specific silences imposed by certain historical conjunctions. If any word involves a grappling with silence, the word uttered in the kind of repressive context exemplified by apartheid evokes an awareness of particular territories forbidden to language. Just as surely as certain sexual relationships were proscribed by apartheid, certain experiences or areas of knowledge were out of bounds to probing in words. These were often immediate and definable: certain actions of the police or the military; certain statements or writing by ‘banned’ persons; the activities of the ANC or other organizations of liberation.

That recalled John Aitchison, who was banned from 1965-1970, and after a year of freedom, again from 1971-76. During those periods he was not allowed to publish anything, nor was any publication allowed to quote him. As described in the article mentioned earlier, in 1966 I went overseas to study in Durham, UK and was away for two and a half years. During that time John Aitchison and I were in frequent correspondence, writing, on average, about once a fortnight. In our correspondence we were constrained by the suspicion (which later proved completely correct) that our letters to each other were being read by the Special Branch (SB) in South Africa, so there was a kind of imposed silence there. The SB reports to the Department of Justice frequently referred to “a sensitive source” (‘n delikate bron) for information that could only have come from letters we wrote to each other when I was overseas.

John Aitchison, 1965

At one point John wrote to me expressing the fear that it would become even more repressive. There was a proposal to extend the restrictions in banning orders so that In addition to not being allowed to publish anything, a banned person would not be allowed to write, compose, compile or distribute any document, photograph etc which was not a publication within the meaning of the act, if it contained any political reference at all. That would have been yet another level of silence. Even private letters not intended for publication would have to be bland and non-political.

I returned to South Africa. We shared many ideas and talked about them and bounced ideas off each other. We published a small magazine called Ikon which shared some of these ideas, about human and inhuman settlements, about theological trends and various other things. John was still banned, so his name did not appear as an editor. Articles we wrote jointly bore only my name. By that time John had married my cousin Jenny Growdon, who was an art teacher and did much of the artwork. But silence was still imposed.

Ikon was originally published under the auspices of the Christian Institute, an ecumenical group that was itself founded to counter some of the silence imposed by apartheid, particularly on members of the Dutch Reformed Churches. But Ikon proved too radical even for the Christian Institute, which was seen by the apartheid government as dangerously radical, and was eventually itself silenced by being banned; both the organisation itself and its leaders were banned in 1977. But it was the Christian Institute itself that attempted to silence Ikon, so we had to publish it independently. Nine months later I was in Windhoek, sitting in the boss’s office in the Department of Water Affairs. After working there for a month as a waterworks attendant, I was told that I was sacked; no notice, leave immediately. I could see a press cutting on top of the file folder open on his desk,. As it was upside down I could only read the headline: CI keer wilde jeugblad (Christian Institute rejects radical youth magazine). O! the ideological perils of being a waterworks attendant!

John’s ban expired in 1970 and communication was freer, but he was banned again  within a year. I was deported from Namibia in March 1972 and stayed with John and Jenny Aitchison in Pietermaritzburg. We had embarked on a new project, the promotion of Theological Education by Extension (TEE) in the Anglican Church. John wrote a 20-page executive summary of a 600-page book called Theological Education by Extension edited by Ralph D. Winter. I duplicated it on a stencil duplicator on green paper and we sent it to all the Anglican bishops in Southern Africa, and all those responsible for theological education in the Anglican Church.

Then I travelled the country (at my own expense) trying to sell the idea to the those we had sent the document to. Many of them were suspicious because the “Green Thing”, as we called the document, was anonymous. It was anonymous because if the SB discovered that John was responsible for it, he could go to jail for five years. In 1972 a lot of Anglican bishops were still rather politically naive, and were not really aware that South Africa was a police state. The following year the government expropriated the Federal Seminary, run jointly by the Anglican, Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches, showing that they did indeed regard theological education as an ideological threat.

My career as unpaid promoter of TEE ended abruptly in July 1972 when I was banned. I was living in the same house as John Aitchison, but was henceforth not allowed to communicate with him in any way at all. More silence. The Minister of Justice dealt with that by banning me to Durban, even though I had nowhere to live there, and was dependent on the generosity of clergy (Anglican and Congregationalist) who took me in.

Steve Hayes and John Aitchison, 13 July 1972, about to part for 4 years, both banned and prohibited from communicating with each other in any way. If the SB had seen this photo and known when it was taken it could have meant 5 years jail for both.

But in a sense, that enforced silence was never lifted. It seemed to have a permanent effect. Even after our bans were both lifted in 1976, our friendship was never again as close. Instead of communicating once every couple of months, or once every couple of weeks, it’s now once every couple of years. Did the double ban make the effect permanent. Apartheid is dead, but perhaps in ways like this its ghost still haunts us. How does one interrogate that silence?

After the end of apartheid I wrote a couple of novels set in the apartheid years. One was a children’s story, Of wheels and witches, set in 1964. You can read more about it here. The other was for adults, set 25 years later, but having some of the same characters. It is The Year of the Dragon.

In these books there is a release from some of the immediate and definable constraints of apartheid that André Brink speaks of, the things that were out of bounds to probing in words, namely certain actions of the police and military.

For such things, the silence has been lifted — or has it?

In the last week of 2018 review copies of the book were available free, and I wondered if anyone would like to talk about these things. Eighty review copies were taken, but so far there have been only two reviews. One you can see on GoodReads here.

John Davies, sometime Anglican chaplain at Wits university, now retired in the UK.

The other review, by Bishop John Davies, has not hitherto appeared on the web, but I did send it, along with the invitation to take review copies of the book, to members of three book discussion groups I’m a member of. One group meets face to face once a month, the other two meet on line.

In all three forums The Year of the Dragon has been met by a resounding silence. Apartheid has ended, and so cannot be blamed for this silence. No one has said they have liked the book or disliked it. No one has said anything at all. It seems as though everyone is avoiding the subject.

How does one interrogate this silence?

In an attempt to get a wider readership than just people I talk to anyway, I promoted the book on Twitter, among other things by using the hashtag #iartg. That is the Independent Authors Re-Tweet Group. It provided an interesting assortment of books on my Twitter feed, quite a large proportion of which had covers featuring male human torsos. Perhaps they’re more attractive than dragons’ torsos.

I’ve invited people to ask questions about the book on GoodReads. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Lutho. Silence.

Can you interrogate this silence?

There is something else about the Writing South Africa book.

As I said, I haven’t read all the essays in it, only the introduction and a couple of the other articles. And it did get bad reviews. But it was about the period before 1995, and so was looking forward to a kind of postcolonial literary future, that would not be dominated by struggle literature. It is interesting to read it 20 years on, and compare hopes and expectations of 1995 with the reality.

After the Zuma years that sanguine outlook seems a little naive and unreal. Most of us are a lot more cynical and pessimistic than we were back in 1995. Is there any hope? Is there any reason for hope?

One lesson some of us may have learned is from a Psalm that is sung at almost every Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox Church:

Put not your trust in princes, in sons of men in whom there is no salvation.
When his breath departs he returns to his earth, on that very day his plans perish.

And as for hope after the Zuma years, perhaps this:

And I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten, the cankerworm, and the caterpillar, and the palmerworm, my great army which I sent among you.
And ye shall eat in plenty, and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, that hath dealt wondrously with you: and my people shall never be ashamed (Joel 2:25-26).

 

Speaking in bones

Speaking in BonesSpeaking in Bones by Kathy Reichs
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was a rather disappointing book. It features Dr Temperance Brennan, who, like the author, is a forensic anthropologist, trying to assist in the solving of crimes through the examination of human remains, especially bones.

It started off quite well, and introduced me to several things that I didn’t know — that there were such things as websleuths, amateur detectives who use information from the Internet to try to match unidentified dead bodies with reports of missing persons. It sounds like quite a good idea, until you discover that there is also a great deal of rivalry and sometimes hostility among them. But that kind of thing appeals to the family historian in me, because a lot of family history is in effect looking for missing persons.

Colin Darlington Rogers once wrote a book on Tracing missing persons and found that most of the readers were actually genealogists and family historians, so he wrote another book called The Family Tree Detective which was a pretty good how-to book for its time (pre-Internet), in England and Wales, and has followed it up with several more.

So I was thinking that this might be an interesting missing person’s mystery, but then it seemed to fall apart as I read further. The first thing that struck me as strange was that the author seemed to be enjoying commercial sponsorship. I kept wondering about that, when the protagonist didn’t just make calls on her cell/mobile phone, but we were told specifically that it was an iPhone. And when she was searching the Internet for websleuths, she opened her Macbook to do so. And her mother didn’t just go on a computer course, it was an Apple computer course. So I was wondering if she was getting paid for each mention of the brand name.

That was slightly irritating. But it was also annoying when the author tried to end every chapter with a cliff-hanger, and when you read the next chapter the “cliff” turned out to be nother more than a nine-inch wall. One was led to expect dire and perilous happenings that turned out to be quite banal.

And then quite a lot of the plot turned on the beliefs of a weird religious sect that majored on exorcism. Now there are lots of weird religious sects out there that do very strange stuff, like spraying people with insecticide and getting them to drink rat poison. But the one in the book seemed inauthentically weird. It struck me that that is one of the problems of using the web for research. It is great for verifying information when you have a framework of knowledge to put it into, but if you try to research from scratch without knowing what you are looking for, but can get seriously led up the garden path. And while there is a considerable difference between social anthropology and physical anthropology, reading a book by a social anthropologist, like Demons and the devil by Charles Stewart might have been a better preparation.

So yes, it was disappointing in the end.

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Bleak House

Bleak HouseBleak House by Charles Dickens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thought I had read this book a long time ago, and had even marked it as “read” in GoodReads, but I think that was because it was shown to me in one of those book compatibility tests, now hidden behind a “More” button. I soon realised that I hadn’t read it before, and I was probably thinking of Dombey and Son.

I was moved to read Bleak House because I had just read Black House, in which the characters read it, and I’m glad I did, because I think it is one of Charles Dickens‘s best novels. As it was published over 160 years ago there have been countless reviews of it, and so I won’t try to review it, but rather comment on a few themes.

I found it rather difficult to get into, because Dickens has a large cast of characters, introduced piecemeal, so that the connections between them only become apparent much later. It also seems to cover several different genres. Quite a number of Dickens’s novels have a storyline that is entwined with a moral crusade. In this case there are at least two moral crusades, one against rapacious lawyers, and another against people whose obsession with abstract causes leads them to neglect ordinary human relationships and become increasingly selfish and self-centred. So the heroes of the story are those who embody unselfish love. In a sub-plot it is also a crime novel, and from another point of view it can be seen as a love story.

One thing that strikes me about this is how it contrasts with the philosophy of Ayn Rand, who detests altruism and propounds the virtue of selfishness. She claims, in a rather contradictory way, that altruists are all self-centred, and that altruism is at its core selfish, therefore altruism is bad and selfishness is good. And she gets pretty preachy about it in her novels.

While Dickens appears to be making a similar point about the self-centredness of altruists like Mrs Jellyby in the novel, he ascribes it to a somewhat different cause. Those who are addicted to the Cause, whether it’s development in Africa, winning a law suit or fashion (Deportment with a capital D) manage to persuade themselves that they are being unselfish when at their most selfish.

But Dickens comes to a different conclusion. The characters who are so wrapped up in the Cause that they have no time for people lack love. People like Mrs Jellyby might gladly give their bodies to be burned, as St Paul says in I Cor 13:3, but if they have not love, it is worthless.

In this sense, Bleak House pleads for Christian values as strongly as Atlas Shrugged pleads for capitalist ones.

Another thing that struck me about it was the language, which seemed surprisingly up to date. I had no difficulty in understanding it, which shows, perhaps that in many ways English has changed remarkably little since Dickens’s day. But I suspect that while we may have little difficulty in understanding Dickens’s language, he might have considerably more difficulty in understanding ours. It is not that words have changed, but things have changed.

And perhaps for that reason I would not recommend that most of Dickens be read by anyone under 40. I think if I had read this in my teens, as a school set work, say, a lot of it would have gone right over my head. Or even in my early twenties, at university. For a start, I wasn’t aware of the difference between Common Law and Equity until I was in my 30s and researching genealogy. There are some books that people can enjoy at different levels at different ages, Gulliver’s Travels for example. Quite young people can enjoy the stories as adventure stories in strange place. As they grow older, they can appreciate other aspects, like satire. But in Dickens, with a few exceptions like A Christmas Carol and A Tale of Two Cities, the ground floor and first floor are not there. Bleak House starts on the third floor, and though it may sometimes go higher, it rarely goes lower.

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The pagan origins of the Xmas egg

While the pagan origin of Easter eggs is relatively well known, the parallel story of the pagan origins of Christmas eggs has languished in obscurity, and it is time to make the story better known.

Many Christians eat eggs on the 25th December, and many are also in the habit of consuming the fowls that laid the eggs on that day too. It is a well-known axiom that whenever there is a Christian celebration or festival, there must be an older pagan one that was the true origin of the Christian one, and so it is in this case.

The ostensible reason for the celebration is the alleged birth of a male child to a virgin, but this story was reworked by the Patriarchy for its own ends. If we deconstruct the Patriarchal Christian story, it is easy enough to arrive at the pagan original.

Xmas Egg

What really happened was that Uranus and Gaia copulated, and Gaia laid an egg on 15 November. This egg hatched six weeks later on 25th December, and the goddess Aphrodite emerged from the shell. It was the Patriarchy that changed this female fledgling into a male child. Devotees of Aphrodite therefore abstained from eating eggs from 15 November until 25 December, on order to identify with the goddess in her ovoid phase, and it was believed to be bad luck if anyone ate an egg in that time, as it would hinder the hatching of the goddess.

One can see how the Judeo-Christian Patriarchy has twisted the story in the book of Genesis, where it is claimed that the male Patriarchal Yahweh created Uranus and Gaia, thus distorting the story. The original read “In the beginning Uranus and Gaia…” but the Patriarchal scribes inserted “God made” into the text.

Thus the pagan origin of Christmas eggs has been revealed.

 

 

The Talisman (book review)

The Talisman (The Talisman, #1)The Talisman by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’d just read the sequel, Black House, so thought I would reread this, because I read it so long ago that I’d forgotten parts of the story. I see I gave it four stars after my first reading, and after reading it this time seriously considered dropping it to three, but then decided to leave it.

Jack Sawyer is a 12-year-old boy whose mother is dying, and he sets out in search of a mysterious talisman that might be able to heal her. He has to travel across the United States, partly in the real world, and partly in a mysterious other world called The Territories, where travel is sometimes faster, but more dangerous.

Jack is quite an engaging protagonist, and some of the people he meets in his travels help him, while others hinder him or overtly hostile. Many of the people in this world have opposite numbers in the other world, called “twinners”, In ther help and hindrance he gets, Jack is a bit like the hero of Sammy going south, which is also about an epic journey by a young boy, though it takes place entirely in this world. It was a goo0d deal shorter than The Talisman, and I thought it was also better, partly for that reason.

I had forgotten quite a lot of the story the second time around, but what I had not forgotten was my reactions to it, the parts I enjoyed and the parts I didn’t. On the whole I enjoyed the parts in this world better than the parts that took place in The Territories. In part that was because The Territories was a rather unconvincing alternative world. There are quite a lot of books in that genre (or is it a subgenre?), but in most of them the other worlds are more internally consistent and coherent than this one.

The Territories seem to have a kind of medieval technology, with animal-drawn vehicles, no real towns and shops, just fairs and markets. Until the end of the story, where there is a very unconvincing train that crosses radioactive blasted lands. C.S. Lewis does a much better job of explaining how a lamp post got into Narnia than King and Straub do of explaining how a train got into The Territories. Lewis doesn’t even try to explain the sewing machine in Narnia, but it seems less out of place there than the train in The Territories.

Jack travels about 2/3 of his journey on the train, from Illinois to California, and allowing for shorter distances in The Territories, that must have been a distance of at least 700 miles, most of it over very loose sand, which would complicate track laying. So how would anyone build such a track, in an extremely unhealthy and hostile environment, while transporting all the materials from this world? The train, we are told is small and light and battery driven, so one pictures a narrow-gauge set up, like the old sugar cane trains in KZN, but then we are told that it was actually a broader gauge than the trolleys that used to run in this world. And even more puzzling than the how is the why? Why build such a track for one light three-car train? It is far too much of a deus ex machina, and towards the end there is a new deus ex machina on virtually every page, so each new danger Jack faces is more yawn-inducing than the last because you stop thinking he is in any real danger from an 11-foot high knight in armour. The most convincing attack on him is a kick in the balls from his best friend’s father, who happens to be the villain of the piece.

The last 150 pages or so were the worst, where the descriptions seemed to be confusing and interminable, or perhaps that was just because they were so dreary that my mind kept wandering and I was not taking in what I was reading.

When reading Black House I wondered which parts had been written by which author, and on rereading this one I began to think I had a clue. I suspect that the parts I enjoyed least were those written by Peter Straub. They were lengthy and over-described. And I’ve had that feeling when reading other books by Peter Straub, and since reading this the first time I had read Stephen King’s book on writing, where he says, of description, that:

Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted. Overdescription buries him or her in details and images. The trick is to find a happy medium. It’s also important to know what to describe and what can be left alone while you get on with your main job, which is telling a story.

I wish they had followed that advice in The Talisman!

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Boneland by Alan Garner

Boneland (Tales of Alderley, #3)Boneland by Alan Garner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is almost impossible to say anything about this book without spoilers, so I hope that anyone who reads this has already read the book.

It is a sequel to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. In those books twelve-year-old Colin and Susan go to stay on a farm near Alderley Edge in Cheshire, England, and discover that the Edge is haunted by all kinds of strange creatures, malicious goblins, suspicious fairies and elves and the like, and there is a strange woman, a witch, who seems to have evil designs on them, and especially a stone that Susan had inherited.

Some of the creatures, good and evil, that they encounter are from local folklore, and others from stories from further afield. Eventually the children overcome the forces of evil, and are left in peace for a while.

Boneland is set much further in the future, where Colin has grown up and become a professor of astrophysics.

One problem that Professor Colin Whisterfield has is that though he has an exceptionally good memory, he can remember very little of his childhood before he was 13.

He works at the Jodrell Bank radio telescope, and spends much of his time at work trying to find a twin sister that he thought he had, whom he believes has vanished into the Pleiades, riding on a horse. He has a bad conscience about wasting his employers’ time on this personal project, and so at one point he resigns, but his resignation is not accepted.

He is also worried about his missing sister, whom he can hardly remember, and thinks he might be going mad, so he visits a psychotherapist, Meg, She tries to probe his memories, but there are some places in his past where he both wants to go and fears to go.

It is impossible to go beyond this point without spoilers, so if you’ve read the book and want to go further, see my original review on GoodReads. See also my review of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.

If you have read any of these books and written a review of any of them in a blog or elsewhere, please leave a link to your review in the comments below.

 

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