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.

EXTRACT: There Should Have Been Five

An extract from the novel by MJ HONIKMAN.

“Panzers!”

He was yanked from his exhaustion just as it felt his eyes had closed.

In the silvery dawn light Sipho saw a Panzer tank silhouetted on the hill, pointing its long gun straight at them and within moments Panzers were streaming down the hills all around them, like hundreds of ants. Great billows of smoke swirled up from the town and the harbour. And there from the east, on the hill behind the tanks, came thousands of German soldiers.

“They’re everywhere,” he murmured.

“What a mess!” Job was saying. “Rommel sneaked back in the night. He’s bombed the concrete barriers on the south east and brought the Panzers straight in. They’ve come past the Indian and Scottish regiments, down to the harbour and now up here. We have no guns, and there are landmines behind us. We can’t retreat. We’re trapped!”

***

Columns of German soldiers moved briskly down the hill with more Panzer tanks crawling behind them. Italian soldiers trailed behind the tanks. The Germans opened fire. As bullets flew past them, Sipho and Job hunched, frozen for a few seconds, and then scrambled for cover. Allied soldiers returned fire but could not stop the mass of German soldiers as the tanks rolled closer.

A lieutenant ran by, shouting to a captain, “Phones have been bombed! General Klopper can’t give instructions. What should we do?”

“Lance Corporal Maseko!” the captain called to Job. “Get a message to the General. Most of the South African 2nd Division are trapped here!” He held out a note and Job darted off.

Just minutes later two British officers drove by holding a small white flag and shouting through a loud hailer, “Every man for himself! Escape if you can! We are surrendering! General Klopper’s instructions: Every man for himself!

A wind blew off the desert. Thick dust eddied around the armoured car.

Few German soldiers saw that little white flag and the shooting did not stop.

Shell fire screeched and thumped, machine guns rattled. Sipho could not see Andrew. Job was gone. Should he try to escape through the landmines? What would Job do? Two doctors and three hospital orderlies ran from the bombed hospital towards the anti-tank ditch.

“There are landmines out there!” Sipho called to them.

As they scrambled across the ditch and started running over the mine field, Sipho heard two explosions. Five men, two explosions: those were the odds.

A shell thumped close by, and he dropped at on the sand. He needed to get somewhere safe, and started running the other way, dodging low between wrecked vehicles and through bombed buildings, towards the army headquarters.

An officer called calmly through the chaos, “Where’s Lance Corporal Maseko? I need someone who can get things done! Or Private Mahudi! Where’s Andrew Mahudi? Or Private Smith! Johnson? Is there no one reliable here?”

Sipho stepped forward. “I’m here, sir! Ndebele.”

The officer looked at Sipho: just a kid, but a lance corporal, he noticed. And the German troops were closing in. “Ndebele! The Germans haven’t seen that idiotic little flag! We need a big white flag.” He pointed to the half-bombed army headquarters. “Tie it to the roof! We’re surrendering!” He jumped into an armoured car and sped off through the gun fire.

Sipho stared after him and then looked at the headquarters’ building. He’d be visible for miles around. A target.

He didn’t move until another rattle of gun fire shocked him into action.

Where would he find a big white flag?

Nearby were the ruins of the hospital. There were sheets in the hospital. Sipho bent low and ran between the ruins. He shoved the hospital’s broken door aside and looked into a ward. There, amongst the remains of beds, he found a dirty white sheet. He tied it to a broomstick.

Bending low, he sprinted to the headquarters, climbing up the rubble and out onto the shattered roof. A strong gust blew off the desert, buffeting him as he straightened up. He staggered and sat down hard astride the roof ridge. Bullets clattered against the roof tiles next to him. He tried to drive the broomstick in between the tiles, but could not get purchase. He would have to stand again.

He planted his feet on the tiles and was half standing, rocking in the wind, when he felt hands on his ribcage, stretching him upright.

“Kahle! Steady!” Andrew’s voice.

Sipho rammed the broomstick between two cracked tiles and it held fast. As he and Andrew slithered and scrambled to the ground, the wind lifted the dirty white sheet and Sipho heard it, flap, flap, flap.

The guns went silent. Flap. Flap.

There Should Have Been Five is published by Tafelberg. Read Bill Nasson’s review here.

BOOK CLUB: There Should Have Been Five

Professor BILL NASSON is enchanted by MJ Honikman’s There Should Have Been Five which vividly brings a highly-charged 1940s wartime episode to life.

There Should Have Been Five by MJ HonikmannShould you ever judge a book by its cover? You have my blessing to do so with MJ Honikman’s There Should Have Been Five. A first glance at its quietly dignified and intriguing cover design is enough to excite curiosity and interest. The staged front photograph portrays three dark-complexioned and khaki-clad Allied servicemen from the rear. They are gazing across flat and brown desert terrain towards a distant explosion which is sending a massive red-and-white ice-cream cone topping oozing out against a streaky blue sky. Who were these men, and where were they? What was the eruption that had caught their gaze?

The back cover illustration is a rampantly romantic head-and-shoulders colour portrait of an African soldier, with chin jutting and eyes set in a flat stare. Again, it begs a question. Who is this Othello in camouflage and with shoulder-flaps?

The answer – and an explanation of this book’s enigmatic and poignant title – is provided by the author’s engaging and imaginative historical story-telling. There Should Have Been Five is a compact dialogue between the present and the past which illuminates a largely-forgotten adventure from the Union of South Africa’s participation in World War Two. While Marilyn Honikman’s exceptionally readable novel is aimed at young adult readers or mature teenage readers, it has a wide enough reach to grip adult readers who need not be stuck in a state of arrested adolescence, like your reviewer. In other words, it merits a readership beyond the breathlessness of Teenzone Mag or the earnestness of The Teacher.

Impeccably researched, with a valuable short bibliography listing books, articles, oral interviews, private correspondence and even a recent documentary film, this book recreates a highly-charged episode from the wartime experiences of the 1940s in a fascinating and novel manner.

The peg upon which this drama hangs is the real figure of Lance-Corporal Job Maseko, a non-combatant African support soldier of the country’s Native Military Corps. Involved in Allied campaigning in East Africa and in North Africa, Job Maseko ended up in Western Desert fighting at Tobruk in the Italian colony of Libya. Hemmed in by circling Italian forces and punched by the German General Erwin Rommel’s crack Afrika Korps, the South African command threw in the towel in June 1942. With Tobruk having fallen, tens of thousands of South African troops, white and black, were rounded up and taken prisoner. Among them was a no-nonsense Lance-Corporal Maseko.

While the Union’s front-line white soldiers were shipped off to prisoner-of-war (POW) camps in Europe, most black servicemen did not cross the Mediterranean. Instead, they were consigned to local desert camps and pressed into labour service by their captors. Having laboured for Pretoria, they now found themselves labouring for Berlin and Rome.

As depicted here, Maseko was prominent among those who toiled for the enemy most grudgingly. During his work time unloading Axis supply ships at the port of Tobruk, a scheming Maseko was on the lookout for an opportunity to make things hot for the enemy. Single-handedly, he secretively pieced together oddments that had been collected – matches, fuse-wire, an empty tin, a pile of cordite extracted from old discarded bullets. This was sufficient to rig up an explosive contraption. When an opportune moment arrived in July 1942, Maseko got three of his most trusted fellow-POWs to distract their easily-diverted Italian guards, wormed his way deep into the hold of a supply-ship, and laid a slow burning device in an incendiary spot. By the time the delayed explosion set the ship on fire, a stealthy Job Maseko and his associates were back in their POW camp, their captors left none the wiser.

After the end of World War Two, four white South Africans were awarded the Victoria Cross for acts of valour. Maseko was also nominated, but this was vetoed by the Union Defence Force high command on the grounds that it would not do to award so high an honour to a lowly and subordinate Native Military Corps serviceman. But some recognition there had to be, and it came with the giving of the Military Medal.

We learn from Marilyn Honikman that this heroic character survived the war in which he had been “Lance Corporal Job Maseko MM”, only to return to a postwar South Africa to find that it was business as usual in a place where his place was to be called “boy”. True to this personal drama, Maseko’s end is tinged with tragedy, sadness and mystery. No one knew for certain what had happened, but “they found his body on the railway line… Not a good way for such a splendid man to die,” one of the story’s aged characters concludes.

This book uses the device of a lost or forgotten past being discovered by a curious present in a consistently lively and informative story which weaves back and forth between 1942 and the early 21st Century. We discover – or rediscover – Job Maseko through the widening eyes of two teenagers, John and Zanele Matshoba, who come across his noble painting while visiting the Ditsong Museum of Military History in Johannesburg. Consumed by curiosity over “a Black South African who won a medal in the Second World War”, they launch a barrage of questions. The most animated answers come not from tattered 1950s copies of Drum Magazine, but through spending a night with their grandmother or gogo, in Diepkloof, Soweto.

As a writer who wants to get across a point or two about this relatively neglected aspect of South African history, Honikman’s approach is to grab the reader by the lapels and not to let go. In a deft contrivance which works entertainingly in this kind of historical fiction, the grandmother’s old next-door neighbour, “Old Mr Ndebele”, turns out to be a WW2 veteran who had actually served alongside Job Maseko.

Drawing on a sprightly set of wartime memories, he captivates his teenage visitors with an array of jaw-dropping tales, from driving army lorries in Kenya and Abyssinia, eluding Italians, and dodging ravenous hyenas, to encountering Rommel himself in a POW camp. These snapshots are an effective mechanism to bring a vivid historical story alive for contemporary readers, especially for those who are younger. Of course, this also entails doing something which historians should never do – making up words to stick into the mouths of dead people. But Honikman gets away with it. As with Elizabeth Bowen, the classic Anglo-Irish novelist of childhood, here the sharpest observers and most probing questioners are not adults, but buzzing children. A scrupulous and self-aware author, in her interesting author’s notes at the end she reflects upon what had to be done –adaptation, minor invention and borrowing – as devices to deal with matters that could not be known. Maybe more history should be left to accomplished writers who can write well and with verisimilitude rather than to historians who have forgotten that history is a literary craft.

Lance Corporal Job Maseko is the spine of a plot in which time flits back and forth, between the army recruiting pamphlet waved at African mineworkers in the early 1940s and a teenager’s iPad in 2014. Around it, the author fills a rib cage with an account of some of the experiences and fortunes of the almost 80,000 black South Africans who volunteered for the Union’s war effort, touching on their motivations, their feelings about serving a racially discriminatory country, and their return home to a deflating life. For Jan Smuts’s opportunistic claim that “the world cause of freedom is also our cause”, was, predictably, specious. Dedicated to “the great-grandchildren of the 354,000 South Africans of all races who volunteered to serve… in the fight against Hitler, the Nazis and the Italian fascists in World War II”, this little book is a moving and worthy tribute to all those who had hoped that victory might have been brought them a better society at home.

There Should Have Been Five is published by Tafelberg. Nasson is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Stellenbosch. His most recent book is History Matters: Selected Writings, 1970-2016, and was published in 2016 by Penguin.