EXTRACT: Firepool

In this extract from his collection of personal essays, HEDLEY TWIDLE explores the haunting allure of the highway.

Hedley Twidle
Photography by Nick Mulgrew

The raised carriageways of the N1/N2 bisect and cauterize all the longitudinal avenues that once led down to the water’s edge. The Foreshore is a place where the most overbearing, least self-doubting elements of twentieth-century modernism were combined with racial capitalism; today the result is acres of wind-tormented car park. It is an example too of the necrotic or infectious quality of tarmac. Building more space for traffic simply begets more traffic: the ‘induced demand’ theory of road usage. And if you have raised carriageways for cars in the middle of a city, the only option for the space below them becomes more cars; it is too noisy to do much else, hence more car parks. At the same time, there is something intriguing about these uncertain, unincorporated zones. This is an area where city planners have not managed to solve the errors of city planners before them, where the utopian visions of modernist and ‘rational’ city planning are so entirely undercut, broken off mid-argument, like the other four bridge stubs concealed hereabouts.

Looking back at proud, colour-saturated postcards of newly built British highways from the 1950s, Moran writes about how sad and strange they now seem: ‘Ford Populars and Triumph Heralds with the shiny newness of die-cast models, dotted around those impossibly empty motorways.’ These weirdly haunting images, he goes on, are a reminder that highways ‘are beginning to acquire a cultural history, but of a rather unsettling kind that evades the secure meanings of the heritage industry or the easy consolations of nostalgia’. A highway operates too fast for contemplation and affection; you normally experience it only when moving, never from a still point. But it still carries an elusive kind of pastness.

It may no longer be celebrated, but as a physical artifact the modern highway remains powerfully photogenic: its geometrically curved masses of light and shade; the powerful splay of an overpass as it hits the top of the frame. I went around clipping bits out of this urban fabric with a phone camera while Sean looked for members of Sea Power, a community of Tanzanian migrants who watch the port, trying to stow away on container ships, and who have covered the crash barriers and concrete retaining walls with (as he put it) ‘wistful sea-drunk slogans’: SEA NEVER DRY, ESCAPE FROM CAPE, TODAY AFRICA TOMORROW YUROPE. He told me the advice given to him by one of the community’s most well-travelled stowaways: that you must take a piece of metal with you, so that when your water runs out, you can begin tapping on the side of the ship, and be discovered. If you forget the piece of metal, you will likely die in the hold.

Before meeting the stowaway community, Sean writes, he viewed the docks and ocean beyond as a kind of oil painting, a changeable canvas of light and water. But now, after years of speaking to Sea Power, he saw only ‘bent palisade struts, tunnels, portals, hatches – not flaws just in a postcard perfect view but rents in a great system of human controls. And I see the human nobodies crawling through them, or lying curled up in dark spaces.’

Firepool: Experiences in an abnormal world is published by Kwela Books. Read our review here.

BOOK CLUB: Firepool

Firepool, Hedley Twidle’s outstanding new collection of essays, is an exquisitely observed snapshot of contemporary South Africa and a deeply personal journey into the mind of its author. By GARETH LANGDON.

In an age of social media, blogs and easy self-publication, the idea of the personal essay (and indeed, essays in general) has become almost repulsive to me. As Jia Tolentino opined in The New Yorker earlier this year the genre, which came to be dominated by whiny 20-something white women with a MacBook and a Lena Dunham poster on their wall, has largely faded away leaving in its wake a scorched earth of forgotten blogs and silenced millennials.

However unpopular it may be, the essay provides a unique lens through which to view the world. A good, well-written essay situates the author in the world in a particular, subjective way – providing a personal spin on a set of ideas or an argument that novels sometimes can’t do. In Hedley Twidle’s new collection of essays, Firepool, he does exactly that.

When I took Twidle’s English classes as a first-year student at the University of Cape Town, I found his teaching always engaged students in a way that was more casual, more inviting, and more human than the more formal lectures I was accustomed to elsewhere in the department. Twidle has done a good job of achieving this same comfortableness in his essays, without losing any of the intellectual rigour or political punch so necessary in a country as fraught as South Africa.

The collection moves, somewhat chronologically, from the author’s days as a young pupil at boarding school in KwaZulu-Natal, through to his years as a student at Oxford, his years as a lecturer at UCT, his personal experiences travelling through the country and some views on the contemporary politics of South Africa. The collection is named after an essay about the tragicomic “firepool” saga in which President Jacob Zuma used an exorbitant amount of taxpayer money to pay for additions to his private homestead in Nkandla. He claimed the lavish pool area, complete with auditorium style seating, was a “safety precaution” – the water there to be used in case of a fire breaking out among the many thatched rondavels of the homestead. The joke was aided by the performance of firemen pumping water from the pool to demonstrate its usefulness in an emergency. Twidle deals eloquently with this issue, and what it really says about our country and its leaders, in the final essay of the collection.

But “Firepool” is not a political opinion piece. It is not a criticism of South Africa and its many faults, nor is it explicitly an examination of the country’s many good qualities. What made “Firepool” an enjoyable read for me was how it placed the author’s personal experiences of the country in a broader national context. Novels, as Twidle notes, are protected by the golden rule of literary criticism: “This is not a book about the author, don’t read into it”. But the essay removes that veil entirely and in fact embraces the personal as a central part of its conceit.

Twidle is at his most deft in an essay about his hike along the Otter Trail, a five-day hike along South Africa’s coast. One of Twidle’s party is unashamedly racist; the essay carefully exposes the flaws in this man’s arguments, and the many frustrations the author suffers when engaging with him. It concludes amicably, noting the humanity of each attendee on the hike, despite their flaws. For Twidle, alongside a necessary self-awareness, is the empathy required to engage effectively in post-apartheid South African discourse – to be human in the face of hurt across racial divides.

The majority of the essays in the collection run in this fashion, placing the author in a seemingly typical situation – on campus, on a hike, writing or discussing literature, or thinking about his own position as a writer and teacher in South Africa – but manage also to look inward, relating the external to the internal. This kind of subjectivity speaks volumes of Twidle’s self-awareness and his desire to speak up and speak back to the national condition, something which is sorely needed in a society that all too easily loses perspective. Sucked up in the news cycle, from disaster to disaster, we can so easily forget about human emotion and its relationship to political experience, and its important role in the creation of a better future.

Without delving into each essay in detail here, I would go so far as to say that as a snapshot of contemporary South Africa, and as a deeply personal journey into the mind of the author, Firepool stands out amongst its peers. Twidle shows that it’s time to wrench the essay medium from the hands of the millennials, and bring it back to the bestseller shelves. For the right reasons.

Firepool is published by Kwela Books. Read an extract from the book here

EXTRACT: History Matters

In this extract from his collected writings, BILL NASSON recalls acting as a historical consultant for Hollywood movie The Deal.

Photograph by Gareth Smit

The Moonlighting base in the tumbling and dog-eared Cape Town locality of lower Salt River had an aptly latter-Victorian location inside The Armoury. Now trendy, this colonial version of the Woolwich Arsenal had once serviced the port’s British garrison. There, I met Steven Schachter, American director of The Deal and a partner in the enterprise, Irene Livinsky, who appeared to combine superbly the roles of producer, accountant, nudging confidante and labour agent. Schachter, a low-to-middlebrow sort of Californian film-maker in his sixties, shuffled about in furry bedroom slippers, chewing gum and blowing bubbles during conversation.

From him I learned about the creation of The Deal, an independent production put together with the accomplished actor, William H. Macy, with whom he had previously collaborated. Meg Ryan was Macy’s co-star in the production which would also be featuring the veteran actor, Elliott Gould, the rap performer – turned actor, LL Cool J, and Jason Ritter and Aidan Lithgow, the younger sons of the Hollywood B-movie actors, John Ritter and John Lithgow. Being filmed entirely in Southern Africa, the cast also included several leading local thespians, such as Jeremy Crutchley and John Carson. Location and studio shooting was to take place in a blue and sunny Cape Town California, and in the brown desert of a Namibian Arizona.

As for content and, to simplify, the subject matter of The Deal was a deal. Based on a Peter Lefcourt novel about Hollywood, it was (or is) about a range of film industry characters involved in the hair-raising studio world of producing, financing, casting, crafting, and clinching a big business project, depicting the pleasures and pains and delights and miseries that accompany it. As a dramatic rendition, its technique was to show The Deal as turning on the production of a film within a film within a film, placing viewers in, or behind, shifting cameras so that they would be unable to take everything that they could see for the nature of a real film reality. As an artistic collage of surprise cutting and fading, rolling and popping, the idea behind this film project evoked memories of earlier exercises in making a film about a film, notably Francois Truffaut’s 1973, la nuit Americain (Day for Night). But this was set to be a somewhat more coarse version of such cinema, with a director shaped by a culture of California surf, rather than of French New Wave.

One of the key moments in The Deal was its historical dramatisation, on which I had been drawn in. As its subject was the making of a film about a robust moment in Victorian politics, at the end of a turbulent House of Commons exchange, the cameras would roll back, revealing another set of film-makers staging the episode in Liberal-Conservative confrontation. This was the inner film about which there was the deal to be made, and which now required historical scrutiny of that portion of a screenplay that had been co-written by Steven Shachter and William H. Macy. For a DogPond/Sydnyk Works & Muse Entertainment Production, the full script was fairly bewildering to a novice reader.

What ensued opened up a question that may scarcely be novel to those working in cultural studies, or what one might call the technological media. Certainly, at first glance, film-writing seems to bear some resemblance, however superficial or slight, to writing historical narratives and, even more, novels. Both forms involve sitting down with a word-processor and recreating or inventing an imaginative universe with some degree or other of relation to real life in the present, or else to a credible human past. What emerges is a narrative intended to be shared. But there, however, the resemblance surely ends, and for a basic reason underlined nicely by the author and academic critic, Malcolm Bradbury. ‘Novels’, as he puts it, ‘are written’, while film screenplays are endlessly ‘rewritten, all the time, and generally by someone else’.

The Deal experience turned out to be more or less like that, although the pieces of rewriting requested were undertaken by someone with less than the haziest notion of how films were scripted. Inspired by the personalities of William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli, the screenwriters had hit on ‘Bill and Ben’ as a snappy title. I pointed out that for a British cinema audience of a certain generation, Bill and Ben might well prove to be unintendedly comical. ‘Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men’ had been a much–loved feature on ‘Watch with Mother’, a popular BBC children’s programme of the 1950s and 1960s.

Although Bill and Ben survived, other minor alterations were effected, mostly to improve implausible English terminology and ahistorical language construction. For instance, there was the unlikely spectacle of the Tory prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, sneering across the despatch box at his Liberal opponent that he ought to ‘get real, man’, in an 1876 debate on trade and protectionism. Even as glib a twenty-first century British parliamentarian as Tony Blair would never have been guilty of such Americanisms in a British House of Commons Debate. There were also the unmistakeable echoes of a John Wayne Western to lines in which Queen Victoria’s foreign enemies were being ‘quick on the draw’, or in which her country’s French adversaries had ‘the drop’ on Whitehall planning. A crop of other small anachronisms included a Gladstonian ‘no way’, and an autumnal Disraeli promise of action ‘right now, in this Fall’.

In the nature of these things, as I now learned, the screenplay did the rounds for a brief time, with Schachter and Macy nodding through suggested revisions aimed at greater historical verisimilitude. Although the job then seemed done, the director was not yet done with me. Inevitably, even recognising another’s pat appetite for flattery does not necessarily prevent one from succumbing. Was the topic chosen for the film’s Commons Debate sufficiently exciting, Schachter wanted to know. Would it convey in dialogue and in combative atmosphere, the drama of high imperial British politics which Bill and Ben was intended to portray?

As a sparring subject for Disraeli and Gladstone, the 1876 Tariff Laws did not, I ventured, really fit that bill. If not that, then what would? Asked to suggest something less dull, what came to mind was heady imperialism. What about the incandescent parliamentary fuss in the mid-1870s over the prime minister’s purchase of the Suez Canal as a gift to Queen Victoria? It had been a coup of sorts, staged by a buccaneering Britain which was greedy for Egypt. It had been a heated domestic issue. It had had its share of party political hostilities, boorishness and absurdities. It would show the intense mutual animosity between the Tory Disraeli, described by The Times in 1868 as ‘an Oriental charlatan devoid of any moral principle’, and the Liberal Gladstone, which the paper derided three years later, as ‘a sanctimonious humbug claiming the authority of the Almighty’.

Known for being pitted against each other like dogs, no Victorian high society hostess would have had them share the same dinner table. A snarling Commons clash over Suez would surely make for a deliciously overstrained history scene.

Moreover, I suggested, given the present day crises of Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine, the 19th century Canal saga might even have resonance for some viewers of The Deal.

Not only did the screenwriters take to this. They wanted it to be written as a substitute dramatic scene. Dismissing my qualms at knowing nothing of screen craft, Schachter made light of the exercise. Just take the screenplay, look at its structure of character movement and dialogue, delete the tariff debate material, and insert a Suez Canal scene, simulating the Commons exchange. And write it all ‘to camera’, was the director’s instruction, by which was meant providing physical action prompts to John Carson as Gladstone and Jeremy Crutchley as Disraeli.

History Matters is published by Penguin.

BOOK CLUB: History Matters

A richly varied and highly entertaining new collection of pieces by Bill Nasson showcases the breadth, consistency and versatility of one of our leading historians, writes ALEXANDER MATTHEWS.

History Matters

I must confess to approaching this review with more than a little trepidation. It’s not just that (for reasons that should soon become apparent) I think Bill Nasson is one of finest historians working in South Africa today. It’s also because writing about his writing is rather close to home. Literally. Nasson lives a few blocks away from my parents; in my teenage years I’d often see him pass by on his bike or walking his dogs.

More recently, he’s become a dear friend – and, ever since its founding, one of AERODROME’s staunchest supporters. Over the past four years it’s been a great pleasure to publish on this site a number of book reviews he’s written – several of which appear in History Matters, a wondrous compilation of his writings stretching back to 1970. In this tasty smorgasbord, we see the depth, length and breadth of his writing – and both his versatility and consistency. The book is helpfully grouped into different sections such as book reviews, social histories, and the world wars, which means you can snack on whatever takes your fancy, in whichever order you choose.

Nasson’s love of writing, of ideas, of stories shine through all of these pieces. In A Historical Education, the book’s first section, we get a sense of how this love might have been conceived – or at the very least nurtured. Here we encounter the “highly cultured” teachers of Livingstone High in Cape Town’s southern suburbs – most notably, the “super-legendary” deputy principal R.O. Dudley (to whom the book is dedicated). Dudley was an avowed and widely respected opponent of apartheid who was also “wholly contemptuous of any idea of ethnic identity and who never tired of being mockingly disdainful of political populism”. In his 2010 obit after the great man’s passing, Nasson recalls how his “pupils were taught to think critically and widely, and not to see learning as a matter of absorbing this or that school subject”. Dudley went way beyond his remit as a chemistry teacher. He would host secular assemblies as alternative to the school’s scripture-based ones – where students “could gather for Bertrand Russell rather St Paul”. And, in the classroom, Nasson writes that, “what he provided was a historical education that was at the same time an inculcation of political thinking” – always able “to ease the misery of being unable to fathom the periodic table of elements” by offering titbits of metaphysical English poetry or disquisitions on “the deformities of Stalinist Russia”.

At a time when the vital contributions of many non-ANC activists are being airbrushed out of history by the ruling party’s aggressive mythologising, these pages offer a trenchant reminder of the richly diverse and sometimes fiercely intellectual strains that formed part of the struggle against apartheid. The recollections also go a long way in describing the hothouse in which Nasson’s independent, critical thinking and wide-ranging curiosity began to blossom.

The golden thread weaving together all of History Matters’ pieces are Nasson’s beautiful writing, his eye for detail and for the absurd, and a wry, incisive humour – which is directed at himself as often as it is towards others. He shows a deep respect for his readers and for the subjects he tackles; he is witty without being blasé or flippant, critical without being needlessly cruel.

Whether discussing a Ford factory town deep in the jungle, or a history of mail or maps, his book reviews always manage to make the topics in question entertaining. Whether or not you ever end up reading the books he reviews, his pieces about them are still very much worth your time because of their flair, humour and deft engagement with the text he’s reviewing.

Nasson is no reductionist; he knows there are many shades between the starkness of black and white. He is capable of showing contempt for the “detestable” imperialist Rudyard Kipling – while being an Anglophile who grew up on English comics and studied at the universities of Hull, York and Cambridge. Time and time again you see his appreciation for nuance, complexity and paradox – a sensibility that in the age of “no-platforming” seems very much in short supply.

One such paradox we encounter is how an imperial Britain, which had yoked vast swathes of the world under the Union Jack, was, in the opening phase of the Second World War, almost singlehandedly fighting fascism and Nazism – and thereby alone in defending ideas such as equality before the law, parliamentary democracy and free speech. Even more of a paradox, perhaps, was the idea that an Afrikaans man – with the infamous surname of Malan no less – might be one of that country’s saviours. In Nasson’s utterly engrossing history of A.G. ‘Sailor’ Malan, we witness his dizzying trajectory as an accomplished fighter ace, one of ‘the few’ that fought in the skies over England in 1940. We see how this Afrikaner, upon return to South Africa after the war, would take up the fight for non-racialism in South Africa – a battle in which he was much less successful.

Although he’s spent his entire career in academia, Nasson is that rare thing: an academic who looks beyond theories to appreciate the humanity, the emotional and social core of history. His writing crackles with intelligence but never descends into the dry, jargon-laded prose so often associated with his peers – he’s never highfalutin, never speaking over his audience; he’s conversational, eloquently weaving anecdote and argument into a rich tapestry. With clarity and crispness both hallmarks of his own writing, it’s no wonder that he includes among his favourite quotes at the end of the book, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “What can be said at all, can be said clearly”. His lampooning of the epidemic of academic jargon in a satirical column, in the now-defunct Southern African Review of Books, is particularly delicious – and as relevant today as it was when it was first published in 1993. “Leading cultural spokespersons,” he wrote, “are to be applauded for keeping minds alive and fixed on ‘interstices’,‘textualities’, ‘signifiers’ and ‘mediations’ during a period when so many institutions are burdened by the practical challenges of development and change on the African continent.”

Nasson recognises that history is not merely about great men — the generals, the kings, the prime ministers — but about the ordinary folk enduring extraordinary times. As he takes us from District Six to the battlefields of the Boer War, it’s clear that he sees it his duty as an historian to shine a light on some of these. Among the most fascinating is his account of Abraham Esau – a Calvinia-based blacksmith. Like many other coloureds in the area, Esau was an English-speaking Anglican with “a passionate attachment to the lukewarm liberalism of the Cape Colony’s 1853 non-racial franchise”. During the Anglo Boer War at the turn of the Twentieth Century, he assembled “a motley band” to challenge incursions by Boer forces in Namaqualand, though his pleas to the local magistrate for arms was rejected (due to the belief that giving “guns to coloured civilians would lead to ‘mischief’”). After the Boers took control of the area, Esau was brutally interrogated and shot, becoming “a martyr of Cape liberal political culture” that would be remembered as a hero through the stories and folklore of local coloured communities for decades to come.

My absolute favourite piece is Nasson’s minutely and hilariously observed account of being a historical consultant for a movie, The Deal – when Hollywood came to “Cape Town, its beloved cheaper version of California, where the extras are not led astray by pesky unions or minimum wage rules”. It is these poor extras who get as much (in fact, probably more) page time as the movie’s stars, William H. Macy and Meg Ryan. Hired to appear in a Victorian-era House of Commons scene, “these shuffling MPs were shepherded about in bullying fashion by a young, abrasive crew member dubbed ‘Sony’ who took relish in informing anyone within earshot, ‘Fuck man, I’m so sweet’.”  In addition to being tasked with writing the script of this particular scene, Nasson is also roped in to star as a speaker of the house. Before the cameras start rolling, he advises on the removal of historically inaccurate items from the makeshift set, including ball point pens, digital watches and too-modern spectacles – so that “extras faced a fuzzy House of Commons”.

Given how difficult I find the craft of writing, I’ve always rather envied Nasson’s seemingly effortless style – he makes putting words on a page seem so easy and assured. But even he is, at times, at a loss for words. The book’s most poignant piece, After the book-burning, begins with a few paragraphs describing a call in December 2010 from his department head who told him that the history building at Stellenbosch University (where Nasson is a distinguished professor) was on fire.

These paragraphs form an essay Nasson has never completed. As much as he has wanted “to express the meaning of loss”, he has never been able to. If only it were possible to get sentences to run as freely as fire does,” he reflects in the explanatory text below. The blaze consumed 3000 of his books (including a Shelley biography he received in 1969 as an English school prize), films, journals, papers, research material and more – all which “remains unforgettable as much as irreplaceable”. On the facing page are two images showing “what happens to paper (and much else besides) when the temperature reaches Fahrenheit 451”. He leaves it at that, inviting us to draw our own, devastating conclusions.

In one piece, Nasson worries that “the country’s professional history writers have largely withdrawn from any common conversation with an everyday audience. In an exchange of numbingly dry products or fields, historians write for each other, no longer trading a literary craft or good writing.” For history books to regain relevance and readership amongst ordinary people, he argues that “historical scholarship needs to dip into the ancestral richness of literary narrative so that it, too, cultivates the classic idioms of human experience like irony, malice and calamity. South Africa’s divided past surely has more than its fair share of those. And, in illuminating its complexities, the power of history can challenge the more unreasoning forces which stalk the posturing present”.

And so, history, he compellingly argues, should be something that enthrals and entertains as much as it should inform.  Collectively these writings show why history really does matter and why it matters that it is written well. They remind us that there are many histories; not a single narrative – as Chimamanda Adichie has warned us in another context, we should be deeply distrustful of the single story. History Matters shows us that often the footnotes are just as fascinating and important as the biggest stories and characters of the age. It reminds us that the better we know our history, the better we know ourselves – and that a thorough understanding of our past gives us a solid foundation on which to build our future.

It’s no exaggeration to think of Nasson as a something of a George Orwell for our time and place: clear-sighted, iconoclastic (and occasionally caustic), not easily seduced by dogma; and both a lover and purveyor of good, clear and important writing that stays with you long after you’ve turned the final page. I’m not saying I’m not biased – but if you read History Matters I’m confident you’ll agree.

History Matters is published by Penguin.