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I heard the old men say

I Heard The Old Men SayI Heard The Old Men Say by Lawrence G. Green
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve just finished a long leisurely read through of this book by Lawrence G. Green. I classify it as history because he explores some historical byways of the Cape Peninsula, but more as a journalist than as a historian. As a journalist he must have kept copious notebooks, and draws on some of this material in his writing, but this particular book was sparked off by his purchase of a second-hand guide to the city of Cape Town, published in 1904.

He goes well beyond the guide book, however, telling stories about old people and houses of the city, its trees and flowers, its hotels and restaurants, its vaults and kramats, its churches and their bells. He is always on the lookout for forgotten mysteries, secrets that can be told when all the people involved have died, and so on. In these mysteries he is more inclined to titillate the reader than to be strictly historically accurate, so what he writes always needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Green claims to have solved three historical mysteries.

(1) Was Governor Simon van der Stel a coloured man.
(2) Was George Rex of Knysna an illegitimate son of King George III?
(3) Was a certain cottage the place where Dutch troops signed articles of surrender to the British in 1806?

Green concludes that Simon van der Stel was coloured, that George Rex was probably an illegitimate son of George III, and that the treaty was signed at the cottage.

I’m not sure about (1) and (3), but I have my doubts about (2). Green ignores all the historical evidence and reaches his conclusion on the Rex royal descent based on the supposed physical resemblances between George Rex’s family and that of George III.

My wife Val’s Green family has a similar legend of royal descent of her ancesttor William John Green, which Lawrence G. Green (no relation) has also dealt with in two of his other books, Thunder on the Blaauberg and Lords of the last frontier. A lot of the stories about that are also based on supposed physical resemblances, but the legend has been pretty conclusively refuted — a man could not be the father of a child born in Quebec if he only arrived there in the year following the child’s birth.

But even if Lawrence Green’s conclusion was off, not everything he wrote about those events was untrue, and his accounts contained a lot of useful family information that might have been lost if he had not preserved it. You can read more about our royal legend here Mystery cousins and royal legends | Hayes & Greene family history.

Zonnebloem College today

In this book Green also reveals more of his own political and social opinions than he does in most of his other books. In most of his books he seems to be studiously apolitical, perhaps to avoid offendi9ng the racist sentiments of at least some of his readers. But this one is more revealing. In his chapter on places of execution in Cape Town he emphasises how strongly opposed he is to capital pinishment. And he also notes that at the beginning of the 20th century Zonnebloem College was a beacon of nonracial education. That was at the height of the New Imperialism and the Scramble for Africa, when racism was at its height of approval, and so I was rather surprised to read it.

I think what Green Green (1964:185) has to say about Zonnebloem is worth quoting:

Zonnebloem, on the slopes of Devil’s Peak, a wine farm early in the eighteenth century, has survived because it was bought by Bishop Gray and used for the education of the sons of native chiefs. The wine cellar became a chapel. Girl boarders now occupy the old slave quarters.

White students attended Zonnebloem for many years, and one who left in 1906 wrote as follows, “Zonnebloem has peculiar characteristics of its own. Among these is the unrivalled opportunity it gives for becoming acquainted with a variety of people, habits and characters. How cosmopolitan Zonnebloem has always been! There have always been representatives of many peoples — Zulus, Xosas, Pondos, Basutos, Barotses, Bechuanas, Balolongs, Matabeles, Englishmen, Scotsmen, Welshmen, Irishmen, Dutchmen from Holland as well as from the Transvaal and a host of others. Yet there is never discord, but perfect unity between all, each respecting the other.”

Perhaps it is appropriate to recall this now, as Zonnebloem College has just celebrated its 160th anniversary.
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A Tolkien bestiary

A Tolkien BestiaryA Tolkien Bestiary by David Day
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth introduces us to all kinds of creatures that are unfamiliar to us. Some we may have encountered in other stories — elves, dwarves and goblins are found in many different fairy stories and fantasy novels, but hobbits, ents and balrogs are not. But even the ones whose names we know play a different role in Tolkien’s stories. They have their own history, culture and languages.

This book is a kind of encyclopaedia of such creatures.

I’ve returned it to the library now, but I rather wish i had it for reference. Tolkien’s books are full of allusions to tales, myths and legends of his world, but paging through other stories to find them can be quite challenging. Here they are all packed between the same covers.

Do you want to know the history of elves, and which ones saw the light of the two trees and which ones didn’t? A quick lookup in this book will tell you.

Do you want to know about the relationship between Shelob and Ungoliant? It’s all here.

And I found that just reading through it as if each entry was a chapter in a book helped me to recall some of the stories. It’s a kind of mental map to the peoples and creatures of middle earth.

I just can’t remember whether it said balrogs have wings or not. That’s why I’d like my own copy.

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Between mountains

Between MountainsBetween Mountains by Maggie Helwig
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At one level this is a love story. Daniel is a journalist who has been reporting on the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession. He meets Ljilja, who is an interpreter at the war crimes tribunal at the Hague. One of her professional obligations is confidentiality, she should not speak to journalists about anything she hears. And Daniel’s obligation as a journalist is to report what happens, while protecting his sources. They are attracted to each other, but their professional obligations are in conflict.

Once a month a small group of us meet at a cafe for informal discussions of Christianity and literature and when we met last week my wife Val mentioned this book, which she had just finished reading. I’ve already mentioned some of the things that struck her in a report on that gathering here Neoinklings: alienation and otherness | Khanya. One of the bits she read out at the gathering was about the Orthodox monks at Decani in Kosovo, who gave asylum to those fleeing from the violence, and urging people to talk instead of fighting.

And that is really what the book is about — the inability to communicate, which breaks down into violence.

One of the things that struck me, and which is alluded to in the book in passing, is that at the very time when South Africa was turning from violent confrontation to talking, and abandoning apartheid, much of Eastern Europe was going in the opposite direction. I’ve also dealt with this more fully in this article Nationalism, violence and reconciliation, which I think also gives some of the background story for this novel. And so the book rings true.

I recall a member of our church, a school teacher who originally came from Dubrovnik, whose father was an Orthodox priest, saying that people she had grown up with and gone to school with, whom she had regarded as friends and neighbours, would no longer talk to her, no longer answer her letters, because of the hatred being fostered between different ethnic groups.

And the descriptions of those rising ethnic barriers captured for me the essence of the spirit of apartheid. Yugoslavia was entering a nightmare that we were just leaving. One of the characters, accused of war crimes and awaiting trial…

He had felt the cold clear satisfaction of a job done well, the decisive pleasure of colours shifting on a map, the weight of a gun at his waist. But only because it had to happen, there was a force of history behind him, if it had not been him it would have been someone else, anyone else, history would have its way.

And I could picture the apartheid apparatchik in his office in Pretoria, looking at his map with satisfaction on receiving a report of these people moved from that area, those people moved to this place, as the territory and its population changed to conform to the Platonic ideal of a map in his office.

And again the same character in the novel, echoing the same faceless bureaucrat in Pretoria:

To be able to say, I will draw this line here, and these people will be on the other side of it. Apart from us. So that we can be alone, and pure and safe, and these people will be the darkness of the other side. No one who has not had this chance could understand the sweep of it. The exaltation.

And there it is again, the essence of the unclean spirit of apartheid, exorcised from South Africa, moving to the Balkans, but not excluding the possibility of returning. No, not at all.

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Okavango gods

Okavango GodsOkavango Gods by Anthony Fleischer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

On one level this is a teenage love story set in Shakawe in north-western Botswana. On another level it is a story of a devastating flood, which the author relates to the ancient Middle-Eastern flood stories of Gilgamesh and Noah.

A fisherman’s son and talented woodcarver, Pula Barotse, and his friend, the village doctor’s daughter, Julia Pinto, face the beginning of the flood together, and gradually Pula falls in love with Julia. Pula is black and Julia is white, they come from different backgrounds and cultures, and the flood both draws them together and yet places another barrier between them. There is an American pilot who has come to rescue the flood victims, and who who also falls in love with Julia, and quite a large part of the story is told from his point of view.

There is a villain, Potlako Lereng, a Mosotho, who pops up at odd moments in the story and does nasty things to the other characters, but his motives are never explained other than that he is a “maniac” and a “terrorist” and comes from Thaba Bosiu, the mountain of night, which is made to sound ominous, but with no explanation. I got the impression that the author had a deep prejudice against the Basotho people, and he made Lesotho sound like Mordor, and the Basotho had come to the Okavango delta like orcs, to ravage and destroy.

The Okavango River near Shakawe, Botswana

There are all the ingredients for a good story, star-crossed lovers, a dramatic event, an evil villain, yet somehow it does not gel. In that respect it reminded me of another novel I read several years ago, Odtaa by John Masefield. Odtaa stands for “one damn thing after another”, and in some ways real life may seem like that, but it makes for boring fiction.

I’ve been to Shakawe, or at least passed through it, and took a boat ride up the Okavango river there, so I can picture many of the scenes described in the book — the bee-eaters nesting in the river banks, the crocodiles and hippos, the reeds and the fish eagles. So the descriptions are evocative, but the events themselves and the motives of the characters remain obscure.

*** spoiler alert ***

If you have not read the book and might like to, some of what follows may give away elements of the plot.

Towards the end of the book Pula and Julia go to the Tsodilo Hills, about 40 km west of Shakawe. During the flood Pula has planned to go there by boat, but it seems that the flood waters have receded. So the implication is that they have walked, a day or two after Julia has been desperately ill, at death’s door. The rescue plane gets stuck in the mud. How that happened is not explained, just hinted at. Pula’s father, John Barotse, suddenly decides to attack a crocodile with a small axe, but his motive is not explained. Potlako Lereng pops in and out of the story, threatening or doing nasty things to people for no apparent reason. It is clear that he is a bully, and behaves like one, but most of his actions, except for the last, do not really contribute to the story.

There is a traditional healer, Bubi. She is part diviner, part healer, part witch. That is credible. Healers can turn to the dark side and become witches just as security guards can turn to the dark side and help burglars. Her name suggests evil, but that may just be me — ububi is the Zulu word for evil, but she is not Zulu-speaking, and it may mean something completely different in her language, though with the menace the author tries to put on the Mountain of Night, ind with his refferring to he as a witch, it is quite possible that he is trying to suggest by her name that she is evil. Julia fears her, though whether this is just cultural prejudice, or because she fears real evil, is not made clear.

I’ve also visited Lesotho, and only a few days ago blogged about one journey there, at the age of 17. And shortly before or after that trip I also read the novel Blanket Boy’s Moon, which describes the ritual murders that lie behind some of the menace in Okavango gods. It was from reading that that I first learned of the practice of female circumcision, which I found almost as horrifying as the ritual murders. But the menace that author Anthony Fleischer ascribes to Thaba Bosiu seems misplaced. In Lesotho history it has an honoured place as a mountain of refuge and not does not have the Mordot-like qualities that Fleischer attributes to it.

In the end Bubi tries to drug Julia, though her motive for doing so is unclear, and Julia attacks her, with motives that are also unclear. She could have simply tried to escape, but in the end she has become like Potlako Lereng, who appears as a deus ex machina to threaten her once again.

It could (in my view) have been a much better book if the events had been described — Julia becoming ill, the grounding of the rescue plane, the journey to the Tsodile Hills — rather than just being hinted at, and also if the motives of the characters had been explained.

But in its present form it really is just one damn thing after another.

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The Psalm Killer (review)

The Psalm KillerThe Psalm Killer by Chris Petit
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Twenty years ago I read The Monkey House, where a detective has to try to solve a murder case in the middle of a civil war, where different factions are taking pot shots at one another in war-torn Sarajevo. This one, published about the same time, is very similar, except that it is set in war-torn Belfast about ten years earlier.

In both cases the temptation is not to bother too much, and simply ascribe any unexplained deaths to “sectarian violence” and leave it at that. But of course if they did that there would be no story. But there is also the danger that if the detective solves the crime, the interests and deeds and loyalties of powerful figures might come to light.

In this case, the killer publishes verses from Psalms in newspapers with each killing, almost as if wanting to be found.

The two main detectives in the case, Cross and Westerby, have no first names, or at least the reader is not told them. This calls to mind Inspector Morse of Oxford, whose first name was not known even to his closest colleagues on the force. I’m not sure what the purpose of that is — to depersonalise them? But they are the strongest characters in the book. Perhaps to show that they are puppets, manipulated by forces beyond their control.

Despite a few puzzling plot holes this one is a very good read, and shows how the exercise of trying to find the “good guys” in conflicts like these is almost impossible. There is no “war on terror” here, there are just terrorists against terrorists, with ordinary people as the victims.

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The Big Six (review)

The Big Six (Puffin Books)The Big Six by Arthur Ransome

When I was a child, books by Arthur Ransome were the kind of children’s books that adults thought that children ought to read, but which I found rather boring. Our school library was well stocked with them, so I read a few, but if I’d been on Good Reads back then I’d have given them two stars, three at the most.

I can remember little of what I read, and perhaps I read Coot Club, of which this is a kind of sequel, and I suppose my main memory is knowing what the Norfolk Broads were — the kind of knowledge that comes in useful when watching TV quiz shoes like Pointless, until you’ve seen them so many times that you stop trying to work out the answers, and rather try to remember which question is going to come up next and which of the very familiar contestants gets the right answer. But yes, reading about that di help to me form some kind of picture of the place, which recurs in other books, such as The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers.

I also read Missee Lee, from which I learned that typhus was a serious disease, but when I grew up I found that its cousin typhoid was more common.

Arthur Ransome’s books were great for children who liked messing about in boats, but the closest thing we got to that was paying an exorbitant fee for half an hour rowing round the island in Joburg’s Zoo Lake, or the slightly less crowded Germiston Lake.

The Big Six has boats, lots of them. But it is also a whodunit, and that adds to the interest. I don’t remember reading it as a child. I do remember reading a couple of Enid Blyton‘s Secret Seven series, where a group of children outwit the criminals that have the local police foxed.

In this one it is not difficult to guess the culprit, but the child detectives are themselves accused of the crime, and so in order to exonerate themselves they have to find the real culprits. The crime is casting off moored boats, and stealing some equipment — not major crimes worthy of Interpol, but serious enough in a small village where the children’s fathers are boatbuilders, and a bad reputation could harm their livelihood.

Though it takes a long time for the children to identify the suspects, that is not the main problem. The main problem is to collect evidence that points unambiguously to the perpetrator, because so much of the evidence they do manage to collect is open to different interpretations. So as a children’s whodunit, this one is quite sophisticated. Finding a suspect is one problem, getting enough evidence to convict is another.

In addition to being a whodunit, there is an undercurrent of environmental concern, perhaps of wider concern now than when Ransome wrote it in the 1930s. One is conscious of such concerns throughout the book, that, and the price of things. The idea of a lawyer’s fee being 66c makes the mind boggle.

I don’t think I read this one as a child, but if I had, I wonder if I would have been able to grasp that point at the age of 9 or 10. But as an adult, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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The house on Falling Star Hill

The House On Falling Star HillThe House On Falling Star Hill by Michael Molloy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read an earlier book by Michael Molloy, The witch trade, and was not at all impressed. The blurb made this one sound a bit more interesting, and as I had nothing to lose I took it out of the library anyway. I could alwasys dump it after a couple of chapters if it didn’t look interesting.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised tom find that it was a considerable improvement on The witch trade. The characters are more interesting, if somewhat stereotyped.

A boy, Tim Swift, meets a girl, Sarre, from another world, called Tallis. According to the Chronology of the story they are both about 11 years old, Tim and his dog Josh get unexpectedly dragged into Tallis where Tim discovers that Sarra is a Chanter, with special powers. Tallis has some similarities with Earth, and some differences. Jewels are plentiful but flowers are scarce, which makes a lucrative trade for some. There are also power struggles between the king and a would-be usurper., which makes for interesting adventures and excitement, in which Tim and Sarre, as somewhat precocious brats, play a significant part.

There are also hints of a romantic interest, especially on the part of Sarre, which at some points looked as though it might turn it into a rerun of His Dark Materials , but fortunately it didn’t. But while His Dark Materials appeals to adults as much as to children, I think The house on Falling Star Hill will appeal mainly to children, and rather younger ones at that.

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Harry Potter meets Terry Pratchett

The Last DragonslayerThe Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the second dragon book I’ve read this month. The first was The dragons of Ordinary Farm).

Both books are about the last dragons on earth, and both of them feature an older girl and a younger boy, so they invite comparison. Both satirise commerce and corporate greed. Of the two, I think this one was better. The plot was less repetitious, it had more humour, and the dialogue was a lot less stilted.

But the biggest difference for me was that while in both books the children (a girl in her early teens and a pre-teen boy) had to outwit adult authority, in The Last Dragonslayer the reason and need for doing so was clear, whereas in The Dragons of Ordinary Farm it wasn’t.

Having said that, however, I also don’t think that this is one of Jasper Fforde’s best books. Jennifer Strange and her sidekick Tiger Prawns are running a dying business of managing magic. The owner of the business is missing, and they find themselves looking after a bunch of retired and semi-retired wizards in the Kingdom of Hereford which is about to go to war with the Duchy of Brecon over who gets to control the Dragonlands when the last Dragon dies. In addition to the political aspect, there are commercial interests at stake, with commercial firms vying with individual speculators to grab the biggest and best bits of real estate. The satire on this it a bit heavy-handed in a Mad magazine kind of way.

I found Jasper fforde’s earlier books much better, and this one seems a bit slapstick: Harry Potter meets Terry Pratchett, if you like that kind of thing, but not really as good as either.

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Myths of the world

Myths of the World: A Thematic EncyclopediaMyths of the World: A Thematic Encyclopedia by Michael Jordan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I took this rather pretentiously titled volume out of the library in the hope of finding some interesting or useful information, but was rather disappointed.

I suppose I should have been warned by the slimness of the book; a book that size cannot really be called an “encyclopedia”, and indeed it wasn’t. A more appropriate title might have been “anthology” — a selection of myths that appealed to the author, categorised by particular themes.

Of course it is not possible to do justice to myths of the world in one short volume, but it could easily have been doubled in size without making it too unwieldy.

The accounts of the myths were also less than satisfactory. They were somewhat woodenly told. There were several ancient Greek and Roman “classical” myths, but I felt I learnt more about them from the 3-5 line descriptions in Pears Cyclopaedia. Chinese gods seemed to be a better bet for Chinese mythology.

Michael Jordan also appeared to suffer from a strong anti-Christian bias. He included about 3-4 Christian myths, but lumped them in with gnostic ones, which are utterly different, and the selection seemed pretty unrepresentative too. There was a section on dragon myths, but it did not include the Christian story of St George and the dragon, which is probably one of the most widespread, being popular from England to India, and from Murmansk to Ethiopia. Perhaps he regarded it as a legend rather than a myth, but there are many instances of overlap between them, and I think the story has enough overlap to allow it to be included in a book that claims to be an “encyclopedia” of myths.

The book was published a year or two before Google made web searches so much easier, so most of what the book can tell you can be found more easily and more comprehensively by searching the Web, but a good encyclopedia of myth would still be useful, because the problem with web searches is that you don’t always know what to look for.

The title implies that a reference book, but it is certainly not that. There’s far too much missing.

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The dragons of Ordinary Farm

The Dragons of Ordinary Farm (Ordinary Farm Adventures, #1)The Dragons of Ordinary Farm by Tad Williams
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Lucinda and Tyler Jenkins go to spend the summer holidays on their great uncle Gideon’s California farm, but they find it has weird animals and even weirder workers.

The book has some quite interesting ideas, but many of them are hardly developed, and there are too many inconsistencies in the plot, characters and dialogue.

In children’s books, the age of child characters is often quite significant. The story opens with a boy called Colin eavesdropping on his elders. From his behaviour it seems he is about 7-8 years old. The great niece and nephew, we are told, are about his age. But when they arrive, it seems he is much taller than them, and to them he seems almost grown up. So physically his age moves to about 14, but mentally he still seems much younger. Lucinda therefore must be about 12 and her “little” brother about 9 or 10. Except that Tyler, we later discover, was given a watch for his 12th birthday, so that bumps Lucinda up to 14 or so, and Colin to about 16 or 17, especially when he starts pretending to be a businessman.

Lucinda and Tyler later meet three children from a neighbouring farm, the older two are about the same age as them, but the third is younger. But when they appear in the dark, they can’t be adults, because they are small children. In my experience, 14-year-old girls are often as tall as or taller than their mothers. If, as in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland growing and shrinking children is part of the plot, fine. But if it isn’t, it’s just a distraction.

The characters are inconsistent in other ways, too, almost manic-depressive (or whatever that is called nowadays). The farm has secrets, like the origin of the weird animals, which the visiting children are supposed to be told some time, but have to discover for themselves, and at times are kept almost as prisoners. Sometimes interesting information is revealed about the characters, in a way that looks as though it is going to be significant for the plot, but it is then never mentioned again.

One of the characters is revealed to be a tutelary spirit, the genius loci of the farm. Lucinda and Tyler do not question this, or ask what it means. Presumably they know already. Perhaps that information was put in for didactic purposes — get the readers to look up “tutelary” in a dictionary, or Google for genius loci. But there’s little point in doing so, because no more information is imparted, and no use of it is made elsewhere in the story.

Another rather annoying thing is that though the book is obviously set in America, the British publishers have rather insensitively and inconsistently changed the language and spelling for British readers — rather as the Harry Potter stories were changed for American readers. So there is lots of schoolkid slang that sounds horribly inauthentic because it has been changed in this way and so belongs to neither one place nor the other. There also references to computer games and the like which will probably make the book appear dated in a very short time. Too much use of contemporary slang can make a book quite unreadable after a few years.

So I can liken the book to a partly complete jigsaw puzzle, which has quite a lot of pieces that belong to a different puzzle altogether — the things, like the genius loci that are introduced in the story, but not subsequently used.

So was it worth reading?

For my purposes, yes.

I’ve been writing a sequel to my children’s novel Of wheels and witches, and am looking for inspiration by reading other children’s books in similar genres to see what works and what doesn’t. So it’s as much an exercise in writing as an exercise in reading.

This one taught me quite a lot about how not to write a book. For one thing, if you are going to write a book like a jigsaw puzzle, then give the reader the pieces, all the pieces and nothing but the pieces. Too many pieces in this book seem to be from a different puzzle, and contribute nothing to the picture in this one, and some seem to have missing surroundings, so they are introduced and then isolated and not mentioned again.

It also taught me to be careful not to let characters become caricatures, collections of characteristics rather than persons, behaving inconsistently from one moment to the next.

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