Sunday, July 28, 2019

RIP Harry Kalmer

Gentle, funny, fierce.

A generous friend and a wonderful writer.

In around 2011, visiting with his wife Sanpad, Harry told me and Heidi, over a glass of wine, that he was doing an MA in creative writing at Stellenbosch. Marlene van Niekerk and Willem Anker were in charge. It sounded wonderful and I wondered if they'd take an Englishman. Harry said he thought they would. He made inquiries. He opened a door for me and The Book of War was the result. He was generous like that. Generous to other writers, which not necessarily an easy thing for a writer to be.

Last year he won the Sunday Times Literary Award for the English version of his MA novel, A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg. Not long after, he learned that he had cancer. He was fierce about the Oncologist who gave him the news. About the way he did it. A deep anger hit the consonants of the word, kanker. Kanker ouboet. Kanker.

I told him that, when I was around twenty, my mother said she was dying and I said: no you not, Mom. I told him that I owed a karmic debt for that denial. Harry said he was happy to take advantage of it.

So we talked about dying, tried to. It doesn't help much. We go through that door alone. We were working writers, earned our living of it, it was one of our connections. We could complain and laugh together about the unglamorous realities. I tried it a few times but Harry was no longer interested. A least you not dying, he said.

Second last time I saw him, he was lying on a couch in the sun in he and Sanpad's house in Observatory. I read something for him, a Japanese short story. He got this idea of having a series of readings. His friends reading to him in that sunny room. I agreed that it could be a lovely film. He got excited. Got up even. And then he went back to sitting, hunched forward over a hot water bottle. He apologized for the posture, said it worried some people.

I mentioned that the only thought I’d had, in terms of bringing something to read, was the first scene with the Judge in Blood Meridian. The scene with the Reverend Green in the tent in the rain. Where the Judge accuses the Reverend of bestiality. Harry laughed. It wasn’t something he would have chosen. But he remembered the scene in detail from times I’d told him about it. Even quoted from it. “With a goat.”

We laughed.

The last time I saw him, he had moved permanently to his and Sanpad's bedroom. He was sitting on the edge of the bed and he did a strange thing. He sat up straight and opened his arms wide. He tilted his head back. His eyes rolled up and he fell slowly on onto the pillows. I was frightened. I thought: he's dying, Sanpad should be here. Harry sat up again. I told him my fear. He said, me too. And then, but that doesn't mean you have to put on the fake worried look.

He was trying to ease the moment, I think. Lighten it.

I will miss him. His sharpness, his quirk. His courage in the face of death.

He leaves Sanpad, a fine tall son, Daniel, and a beautiful daughter, Jana. They kept him company every step of the way. Right up to the door.

He leaves a large body of plays to be performed, books to be read.

May God, or whatever means the good, bless you, Harry Kalmer. May God, or whatever means the good, bless you and keep you and make her face to shine upon you and give you peace.

This night and for ever more.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Bandiet - Rest in Peace, Hugh Lewin

This piece was first published by Style Magazine in 1996.

One morning in 1983 I woke up with a Security Policeman in my room. I was sharing a house in Mons Rd in Bellevue East with my friend the painter, Carl Becker, and a beautiful young woman, since emigrated to Australia, Carol Constancin.

The Security Policeman was bearded and casually dressed. He demeanour was relaxed, even warm. He seemed pleasantly surprised at the tastefulness of my quarters. The empty whisky bottle was placed just so on the rat-arsed Persian rug. The packet of Camels somehow highlighted the Becker etching on the mantelpiece. He spoke without looking at me.

"Where's Keith?"


Keith was Carol's lover. But I was trying to figure out who the hell my visitor was. Had I met him during the course of some revelry and then forgotten all? But the previous night had been abstemious. The whisky was demolished two days previously.

"Where's Carol?"

"Isn't she in her room?"


I could only presume that he was a friend of hers.

"Where's Keith?"

"I don't know."

"What's your name?


"James who?"

"James Whyle."

"Thanks." He smiled pleasantly, left the room. I went back to sleep.

 Keith worked for the South African Students Press Union. (SASPU.) The union put out a newspaper advocating obscure, evil notions like democracy. Keith knew the Branch were after him. He laid low for a few days and then decided to give himself up. He went round to John Voster Square on a Friday afternoon and handed himself in.

Look, its really busy, they said, can you come back on Monday.

He did and they locked him up for many months.

It was around that time someone slipped me a battered, banned, coverless copy of Hugh Lewin's Bandiet. I devoured it. The book told tales that we weren't allowed to hear. Stories that were the opposite of what was coming out of Cliff Saunders' mouth on the television during the eight o'clock news.

 Hugh Lewin was in Pretoria Central, right next to gallows, when he first read Herman Charles Bosman's Cold Stone Jug. Bosman had been in Central for killing his step-brother, Lewin was in for blowing up electricity pylons. Sentences and 40 years separated the prisoners. Other than that nothing had changed. The men in married quarters still grasped each other in the darkness. Dagga and tobacco were still the currency. The place still had a spooky evil feel whenever there was a hanging.

 Lewin was there when they hanged the man he knew as Deysel, a rare white among the many blacks who occupied the cells of the condemned. Lewin sat in his cell and listened to the special programme that the secretary of the entertainment committee played over the loud speakers the night before Deysel stepped into the void. The secretary played Home on the Range, and Don't Fence Me In, and finally, at the end of the programme, I'll see You in my Dreams.

Lewin heard horrible stories about hangings in Central. Stories about the noose sticking and taking someone's face off, dropping him maimed and alive onto the sawdust covered concrete. Stories of women strapped between their legs because of the way the blood would gush from them. One dark, shivery morning he heard a woman sobbing as she was taken, straight-jacketed, to the gallows. She didn't go well, they told him afterwards.

Lewin was picked up after the Rivonia trial. His organization, the African Resistance Movement (A.R.M.) had ceased sabotage for the duration. The plan was that when government had locked up the Rivonia men, A.R.M. would ride again, showing the state that the forces of resistance were still alive. Blowing up electricity pylons. Not harming any people. Just a signal really: You haven't stamped us out. They never got a chance to do it.

Adrian Leftwitch, who had been Lewin's best man, and who had recruited Lewin into A.R.M., was picked up. He talked. Leftwitch, who always insisted that members keep no records, had not followed his own orders. The Branch knew a lot about A.R.M. After twelve hours of interrogation, Lewin also talked. But he talked selectively, only confirming information the police already had. They threw him in a cell and forgot about him.

 Then a bomb went off on Johannesburg Station.

Tonight, the interrogators told Lewin, we'll kill you.

They pulled off his glasses and started beating him. Close, personal stuff, using bare fists. When he fell over they kicked him upright again. To stop the beating, Lewin gave them what he though was the name of a further A.R.M. member: John Harris. But John Harris was the station bomber. He was already in the building.

 It was a busy night. Next door, Lewin's flat mate, John Loyd was been interrogated. Later he would turn state witness. A man with bloody hands came into the room.

That Harris, he said, another one who wouldn't talk without a lawyer.

And then, says Lewin, he wiped the blood off his fists and laughed. A couple of hours later John Harris jaw was broken. Four months later, John Loyd's evidence put a noose round his neck. The word in Central was that he went well.

It was the beginning of a seven year education for Lewin. Its lessons were simple. Hanging doesn't work and prison makes criminals. Survival in prison demands that you lie and cheat and steal. The Government was taking one out of four black South Africans, jailing them for pass offences, and training them in criminality.

But the people Lewin was in with did not end up criminals. For most of the seven years he was part of an elite company. Bram Fischer was Afrikaans aristocracy. Dennis Godlberg was a civil engineer. Jock Strachan was the prisoners' hero. On his release he published an expose of prison conditions, which improved dramatically as a result. Irritated, the security police framed him and put him back inside.

 No, the people Lewin was in with were not criminals. They were middle class whites, intellectuals. They studied through UNISA and staged classic plays. They had acted because they had faith that a better future was possible, and they suffered for their faith. In the early stages their isolation was almost complete. Outside the world continued, their children died, their wives made lives in England. They were adrift in the wash of history.

At the end of the seventies John Lloyd, flat mate turned state witness, re-emerged as chairman of the Anti-Apartheid group in Exeter, England. At the time of writing (1996) the Labour Party executive is deciding whether he should be allowed to stand under their banner. He claims that the ANC have effectively given him amnesty. Lewin feels he should face the Truth Commission before he makes such claims.

If A.R.M. had been as efficient as the ANC, says Lewin,  he would have been dead a long time ago. Despite his protestations, an old Bandiet anger burns against the men who shopped him.

The past is relentless. It seeps into the present like water finding its way to the sea. Marius Schoon, a fellow prisoner, is suing Craig Williamson, the fat spy who admitted responsibility for the murder of Schoon's wife and child.

Lewin is back in South Africa now, teaching journalism. He has never again been a member of a political organization. He came back as soon as he could. He was always coming back. He only blew up the pylons because he loved the place. He seems a quiet, methodical man. But every now and then he uses a word like ouens, a bit of Bandiet-speak, a hint that a middle-class boy was changed by years in prison, a sign that history lives.

Saturday, March 3, 2018


LYING ON ARMY beds in an army tent in the showgrounds in Bloemfontein, they hear the cow: mnooooo. And fall from their beds, laughing
            Nooit, he didn't. He didn't.
            He did. He did, ek se. Fijn did it.
            Fuck. He must have stood on a bucket.
            Sappeur Fijn is short and stocky with sly slant eyes and a sailors' swagger. Sappeur Fijn likes to leave the big generator loose in the back of the Bedford. When Fijn breaks hard at a robot, the generator rumbles forward under the force of its inertia, and the inertia of the taxpayers who paid for it, and commits suicide against the cab. When we unpack for the shows, Sappeur Fijn throws things as far and hard as possible of the back of the Bedford in the hope that they'll break and the Minori will have to say, ag nee fokkit man Fijn, wattie fok doen jy.
            Sappeur Fijn gets letters which he claims are from a girl and smirks and sniggers over them before fucking the tangled gritty pile of pipes which leans up against the water-purification system. In so far as I fear Sappeur Fijn I believe I should bend over whenever I see him in a baboon's gesture of sexual submission. Sappeur Fijn is a member of the Engineers, the Genieschool of the Suid-Afrikaanse Weermag. Sappeur Fijn is a soldier who works night and day to protect us from the dark ruthless AK-47 bearing terrorists who are fighting night and day to become voting South Africans like Sappeur Fijn. At the Bloemfontein showgrounds Sappeur Fijn greases his hair back and drinks and drinks and offers girls ice-creams in a smarmy deviant unsettling manner which makes the girls suspicious and scared so that they giggle and refuse the ice-creams. Then Sappeur Fijn disappears.
            The lieutenant is tall and ginger and worried. He wears a neat ginger moustache and gold-rimmed spectacles. It worries the lieutenant when Pike and Donaldson give black power salutes when they drive past black people in the Bedford. The lieutenant is tremendously fit and worried and proud of his two stars which are a commission from the State President who had to resign because he lied to the taxpayers who paid for the lieutenant's training. The lieutenant once smoked a joint at a party at the university where he became an architect and he enjoys talking to Pike and Donaldson who are graduate engineers with strange ideas and no rank. It worries the lieutenant when Pike and Donaldson say they would shoot better if they painted the State President's face over the faces of the dark cut out monsters they use as targets on the shooting range.
            In Bloemfontein the lieutenant is worried because the corporal drank a third of a gallon bottle of Tassenburg which Pike and Donaldson claim they found at a hotdog stand and took the section into town in the Bedford and drove over a Porche and damaged the Bedford's bumper. The lieutenant is worried and ginger and scared about what the major will say when he arrives to inspect the exhibition and finds that the Bedford is damaged and that the lieutenant has lost Sappeur Fijn. The lieutenant wants to phone his mother, but he doesn't. He goes round to see the MPs.
            More Sersant, says the lieutenant. Hey jy iets van Sappeur Fijn gehoor.
            O, says the MP sergeant. Daai ou wattie koei genaai het.
            It's already six years ago that these things happened. In those days they weren't sending soldiers into the townships. In those days the border was pretty much on the border of the country. Now the border goes all over the place, sometimes straight through the middle of families. Which is, I suppose, what civil war is all about.
            Sappeur Fijn was charged and found innocent in a civilian court. I don't know what the charge was. I saw him in camp afterwards and he told me that his defence when like this:
            I was too drunk to get it up, so I couldn't have fucked the cow.
            I heard later that Fijn was killed in a motor accident in Welkom. I've no idea what happened to the lieutenant, but the cow gave birth to a roaring monster, half man, half beast, who shrieks and jabbers over my shoulder when I watch the news on TV.


Sappeur Fijn and the Cow was first published in Forces Favourites, TAURUS, 1987.
It was republished in  The Penguin Book of Contemporary South African Short Stories, Penguin Books, 1993