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Archive for the tag “Alan Paton”

White writing, dark materials

On Thursday 4th January 2018 we got together at Cafe 41 with David Levey and Tony McGregor for our monthly literary coffee klatsch.

David said he had been reading a book by Philip Pullman. La Belle Sauvage, that was supposed to be a prequel to His Dark Materials, and thought it lacked a sense of purpose. Pullman is apparently also planning to write a kind of postquel, or requel, as he calls it.

That got us chatting about other books where a book was followed by others to form a trilogy, which wasn’t as good as the first book, or the first trilogy. I thought of Dune, where the sequels were mediocre at best, and didn’t nearly live up to the original. Val mentioned Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books, where the first trilogy was quite good, but the second seemed to be running out of ideas. Another was William Horwood’s Duncton Wood, which was followed by five others, each one worse than the one preceding it. And probably the worst of all was the sequel to A Canticle for Leibowitz, one of the best science-fiction books I have read, whereas the sequel was one of the worst. Some people have only one book in them. David said he thought that Madeleine l’Engle’s books worked with sequels, though I haven been able to read more than the first two, because they are hard to find in book shops.

I have been reading J.M. Coetzee’s White writing and I find it more interesting than his novels, and David agreed that he thought Coetzee a better critic than author, in spite of his having won the Nobel Prize for literature and all. I have learned quite a lot about European art history from the book — Coetzee points out that the first writers about the southern African landscape were schooled in the European picturesque style, and nothing in southern Africa fitted it.

We talked a bit about the plaasroman, which Coetzee deals with in some detail, and Val mentioned three in the genre by Elizabeth Vermeulen (none of them mentioned by Coetzee), She had had one of them as a school set book, and it was the most interesting of their school set books, far more interesting than Thomas Hardy, which they also had. . She had mentioned this to a work colleague, who had found her copies of Vermeulen’s trilogy: Towergoud, Fata Morgana and Reënboog in die skemering.

Tony McGregor mentioned Alan Paton’s account of a journey to Malawi in search of the Mountains of the Moon, and David promised to send us a copy of his thesis on Alan Paton’s early writing, which was very different from his later works. I had thought that the Mountains of the Moon were further north than Malawi, and once read an adventure story about an expedition to find them that involved airships, probably written in the 1930s, about the same period as Alan Paton’s expedition.

In the abstract of his thesis David notes:

Paton’s earliest, fragmentary novel, ‘Ship of Truth’ (1922-1923) is read in some detail; his second, and only complete early novel, ‘Brother Death’ (1930), is commented on in as much detail as its frequently rambling nature warrants. A chapter on shorter fiction discusses his short story ‘Little Barbee’ (1928?), his short story ‘Calvin Doone’ (1930), his third novel, ‘John Henry Dane’ (1934), and a novel or novella, ‘Secret for Seven’ (1934). From all these readings it emerges that the Paton of his early fiction is markedly different from the Paton generally known: his concepts of human identity, of God and of religion, though earnest, are unformed and frequently ambivalent; his characterisation often stereotyped and wooden; his political views usually prejudiced and his stylistic and other techniques, though adequate in a young writer, highly repetitive

Perhaps that can form the basis of future discussions. I tend to find the concept of “identity” rather vague and problematic
as I have noted here.

Tony told some stories about his ancestors in the Eastern Cape, and David also seemed interested, so we recommended that he get the RootsMagic genealogy program and link it to the FamilySearch site.



Cakes and ale (book review)

Cakes and Ale: Or, The Skeleton in the CupboardCakes and Ale: Or, The Skeleton in the Cupboard by W. Somerset Maugham

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Alroy Kear has been asked by the widow of Edward Driffield to write her late husband’s biography, and he asks the narrator, fellow writer Willie Ashenden, for some information about obscure parts of Driffield’s life that Ashenden knew something about. But Kear also makes it clear that he plans to censor any stories, since it was well known that Driffield’s first wife was unfaithful to him.

The request sparks of Ashenden’s own reminiscences of Driffield and his first wife Rosie, and the story jumps back and forth between the 1890s and the 1930s.

The thing that struck me most about it was the class-consciousness and snobbery that pervaded English literary circles and society generally, especially in the earlier period, set in the 1890s. The narrator is roughly the same age as Somerset Maugham himself, and there is no reason to suppose that in writing of these things he is not writing from his own experience. I was aware of the class-consciousness, though what Maugham writes seems totally over the top. That a schoolboy spending his holidays with his uncle and aunt at a Kentish vicarage should be faced with such deeply-felt dilemmas about who he could and could not talk to beggars belief. Yes, as I say, Maugham lived through that period, and so must be writing from experience. I had always had the impression that the clergy, and especially vicars and below, were always rather looked down on by the gentry, but perhaps that only made them, or some of them at least, more determined to look down on all the rest.

Driffield’s second wife, who was originally his nurse after an illness, was very much a managing type, and also appeared to want to manage her husband’s memory and biography. On reading the book I was reminded of Alan Paton’s second wife, who had been his secretary, and seemed to be similarly managing, though not to quite the same extent. She kept him isolated from other people, ostensibly so that his writing time would not be interrupted by numberous callers, but whatever the motive, he certainly became far less accessible after his second marriage.

Some have seen Driffield as modelled on Thomas Hardy, and Alroy Kear as modelled on George Meredith, though Maugham himself insisted that they were composites. That I can believe, because of the echoes in the life of Alan Paton, whom Maugham can hardly have known, and was not a published author when Cakes and ale was written.

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My to-do list

  • 1. Destroy marriage
  • 2. Destabilise family life
  • 3. Flush civilization down the drain

That is what my to-do list must look like, if this blog is to be believed:

Contact Online Weblog: How the decline of marriage is destroying our pupils:

Do we realise that the liberal agenda is destroying our children and probably our civilisation is going down the drain too….faster than we think – in South Africa as well.

And it goes on to quote an article that says

The decline of marriage is leading to widespread underachievement and indiscipline in schools, teachers warned yesterday.

Children with “chaotic” home lives turn up at school too troubled to learn, wrecking their prospects of success in exams, they said.

Growing numbers are being brought up in splintered families by mothers with children by different fathers, leading to behaviour and mental health problems including eating disorders and suicidal thoughts, a teachers’ conference heard.

Since I am a liberal, and those are the items on “the liberal agenda”, they must be high on my to-do list too.

Now with all due respect to my blogging friend who wrote that (and he is a friend), terms like “the liberal agenda” used like that do not facilitate communication, but impede it.

The use of the definite article — “the” liberal agenda — imply that those items are high on the list of priorities of every single liberal in the world. All liberals everywhere are out to destroy marriage, families and civilization.

Well, I know Mr Vorster believed that, but as Jonty Driver, a South African student leader, said when Mr Vorster called him a “leftist”, “It is no shame to be called a leftist by such a prominent rightist”.

It was Mr Vorster’s National Party government, with its conservative right-wing agenda, that deliberately set out to destroy family life through influx control and the migratory labour system. And it was a prominent South African Liberal, Alan Paton, (who was national president of the Liberal Party, so if anyone’s agenda was liberal, it was his) who ran a school for juvenile delinquents and was fully aware of the effects of the destruction of family life in hindering children’s learning.

I am heartily sick of the calumniation of liberals and liberalism in this fashion, by such vicious lies and innuendoes.

The Liberal Party of South Africa

The following article used to be on the web page
but was arbitrarily removed by Yahoo! for reasons best known to themselves. It was later moved to, and they have removed it too.

Since there is very little accurate information on the Liberal Party of South Africa on the Web, I’m putting it here as a temporary measure, until it can find a more reliable home.

The Liberal Party of South Africa

The Liberal Party of South Africa was formed in 1953, and fifteen years later was forced to close when the National Party governnment passed the Prohibition of Improper Interference Act, which made non-racial political parties illegal. Another 26 years were to pass before South Africa became, at least on paper, the kind of society the Liberal Party had struggled for, with non-racial free elections, a democratic constitution that entrenched the rule of law, and a bill of rights.

The definitive history of the role of the Liberal Party in the struggle against apartheid is probably Randolph Vigne’s Liberals against apartheid (London, MacMillan, 1997, ISBN 0-333-71355-9), but there doesn’t seem to be any web page dealing with this topic, so I hope this helps to fill the gap. What follows is something of a personal memoir. I was a member of the Liberal Party towards the end of its life, in Natal, and I write from that point of view. I hope that eventually others will contribute to this story.


On 9 May 1953 the Liberal Party of South Africa was formed at a meeting in Cape Town. The meeting was of the South African Liberal Association, which had been formed earlier from diverse groups that had gathered in different centres in South Africa (Vigne 1997:20-21). The National Party had just won its second term of office with an increased majority, which it took as a mandate to press ahead with its policy of apartheid. It set about removing coloured voters from the comon roll, and abolishing the separate representation that the few African voters had had since they had been removed from the common voters’ roll in 1936. The Communist Party of South Africa had been banned, and civil liberties had been eroded as the National Party sought to suppress opposition to its policies.

The main centres of the Liberal Party – Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pietermaritzburg and Durban – in many ways represented different philosophies, outlooks, views of what was wrong in South Africa, and what needed to be done about it. Vigne (1997) concentrates mainly on the Liberal Party at the national level, and in the old Cape Province. Natal liberalism, however, was somewhat different. The bulk of the party membership was among Zulu-speaking people in the rural areas.
The history of the Liberal Party is divided into two almost equal periods — 1953-1960, and 1960-1968. Nineteen-sixty was a watershed year for South Africa. The Sharpeville massacre in March 1960 was followed by the banning of the African National Congress (ANC), the Pan-African Congress (PAC), and several other political organisations, a State of Emergency (during which several members of the Liberal Party, as well as those of other organisations, were detained), and a referendum among white voters on whether South Africa should become a republic. The formation of the Progressive Party of South Africa in 1959, with its policy of a qualified franchise, siphoned off the more right-wing white supporters of the Liberal Party, and thereafter the Liberal Party was unequivocal in its electoral policy of “one man, one vote.”

What is liberalism? What are liberals?

“Liberal” was, and to some extent still is, something of a dirty word in South Africa. It most frequently appears with the epithet “white”, and the stereotype of the “white liberal” is often propagated in the news media. See, for example:

Such articles are misleading, however. Though most of those at the founding meeting were white, within a few years of its founding most of the members of the Liberal Party were black. For the first few years white members were the dominant influence in the party, mainly because the proceedings at national congresses were in English. But when simultaneous translation equipment began to be used, and conference delegates could speak their minds in whatever language they were most fluent in, this changed.

The main aim of the Liberal Party was to establish a free and democratic non-racial society in South Africa. A free society is one in which people are free from excessive government control. The Liberal Party was explicitly opposed to “all forms of totalitarianism, such as fascism and communism”. It was therefore strongly opposed to the oppressive aspects of Nationalist rule, such as detention and banning without trial, and people being deprived of their property of ideological reasons, as when people were deprived of land and houses in the name of apartheid. Pass laws, influx control and similar laws were oppressive and unjust, and represented undesirable government interference in the lives of ordinary citizens.
In a peculiar twist of the meanings of words, many people nowadays, especially in the USA, seem to associate liberalism with “big government”. This, however, is the reverse of the truth, and was certainly the opposite of the truth in South Africa. In South Africa the National Party arrogated more and more power to the government and its officials, and systematically removed the legal rights that protected ordinary citizens from the arbitrary abuse of power by officials. It has been rightly said that one of the principles of liberalism is that “the government governs best that governs least”. But the Nationalist government in South Africa wanted to govern more and more. New laws kept appearing to remove from the courts the power to question the validity of laws, or to pronounce on the validity of actions that government officials took when using the growing powers that the laws granted them.

Peter Brown, one of the founders of the Liberal Party, and for many years its national chairman, died in June 2004 at the age of 79. The following obituaries have more information:

The archives of the Liberal Party are kept at the Alan Paton Centre at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg

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