THE READER: Peter Attard Montalto

Peter Attard Montalto

Peter Attard Montalto is the London-based Head of Emerging Europe, Middle East and Africa Economics at Nomura International. His cogent analyses of South Africa’s political economy have made him one of the most widely quoted South Africa-watchers in the media.

What are you reading at the moment?

As I travel a lot I always have at least one book on me though these are invariably non-fiction or work-related. I’m currently reading The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty by Nina Munk which I think provides a useful journalist’s view of the development vortex of institutions and ever-shifting policy landscape. I find development economics one of the most bewildering and fraught areas of economics and the book is a reminder of how hard it is to alleviate poverty through direct scalable interventions without getting some simple foundations in place first like institutions and natural markets.

How do you decide what to read next?

Much of what I read I have little choice over – dry budget or policy documents from governments, tomes from central banks of international institutions which can take up a considerable amount of time looking at many different economies. Autobiographies of politicians are always the hardest to deal with and demand to be glanced at but can be dull beyond the titbits picked up in the press. Helen Zille’s book is a prime example which thankfully had an index to remove the need to deal with it cover-to-cover. But I always try and intersperse my reading with fiction from countries I’m dealing with (Francophone Africa is on my list next and especially Diogo) and “hobby” reading (currently about the technicalities of winemaking!).

What book has had the greatest impact on you?

I think reading enlightenment thinkers has had the most profound and lasting impact on me. Smith, Locke, Rousseau and then later Hayek etc. as well as their critics. Whilst I’m somewhat towards the libertarian end of spectrum politically now (a place sparsely populated in South African discourse) it’s interesting to see how one’s views shift over time as you read more and see more real-world problems to deal with. The long-term development path for individual countries in Africa is going to be a battle between enabling governments with appropriate redistribution and governments that strangle development and growth. South Africa may find itself on the wrong side of that dividing line versus other places like Ghana or,most exciting, probably Kenya. South Africa needs to find a base of black libertarian voices to steer it in the right direction. For fiction, I think Alan Hollinghurst has had the most profound impact on me. The Line of Beauty has pulled me to read straight a number of his other books.

Do you read on tablet, Kindle, paper or all three?

Paper still has its uses when travelling and for whatever reason I think I absorb information better and enjoy it more with books versus computer screens which seem too much like work. Having a massive stack of books also makes for a more interesting home and brings back memories of poking around my grandparents’ library of books – floor to ceiling – that they had. I wonder sometimes what people will surround themselves with when they grow old if it isn’t books! Blogs though are increasingly a more important source of information especially around my two favourite hobbies which is collecting SA modern art and SA wine.

What were your favourite books as a child?

It depends how far back you want to go! I always remember a fascination with systems, engineering etc (of the “Little Jonny visits a building site” type!) from an early age. It turns out I ended up studying economic and political systems every day but the roots are the same! I think a fiction serious I read most assiduously was Swallows and Amazons and the issue of self-reliance appealed to me.  

What’s the last book you gave as a gift?

Daunt Books in London is a treasure trove of appropriate books for presents even for the most discerning reader and the natty totes the bags come in are still an enduring icon for a present to come in. I think the last set of books I got as a present was for my dad who, as a former captain in the merchant navy, is into anything relating to boats or exploration.

The most useless thing you read at university?

Endless books on the underlying theory behind econometrics. Economics should ultimately be a practical social science and learning to derive by hand statistical theories was just too much! Using econometrics to practically analyse the SA economy is a much more hands-on experience.  

Best book on economics you’ve read?

The literature on behavioural economics starting with Richard Thaler (and non-academic books like Nudge) has probably been the most fascinating and relevant I’ve read especially given its use in everything from policy to explaining financial markets after the 2008 crash. It’s an important bridge from the dry theory of micro- and macro-economics to the real world we live in.  This segues into pop economics books like Levitt’s Freakonomics of which most of their explanations of economic phenomena in everyday life come down to behavioural economics.

What’s the last thing you read that made you laugh?

Reading a lot of dry non-fiction doesn’t necessarily provoke laughs! Private Eye in the UK is normally the most reliable comic antidote to these very serious times we are living through. I suppose the most random book I came across that made me laugh straightaway having found it in a hotel room on a business trip was Carrie Fisher’s autobiography which simply cut through with its candour and honesty to make parts laugh-out-loud funny.  

Which book have you never been able to finish reading?

I try to read fiction from the countries I cover to get into the local psyche. Sometimes this works like reading Achebe, Gordimer, Adichie or Coetzee and is useful and insightful. However, this failed spectacularly when I used to deal with Iceland and tried reading Halldór Laxness and came back from one trip there laden down with books. There are now several unopened books on my shelves after failing to get more than a few chapters through the bleakness that is Independent People 

What book do you turn to for advice?

I am a big sceptic of self-help and advice books. They are so often repetitive fluff and it depresses me the number of people reading them on the train every morning. The closet I’ve probably come is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. There are a range of books now coming about the crisis in economics as a profession which are on my reading list which might count as self-help….  

If you could take an author out (dead or alive) who would it be, and where would you take them?

In the South African context it would have to be Nadine Gordimer who always struck – with her quite strength and moral determination – me as someone who I would most want to take out for a nice dinner somewhere with a hushed atmosphere which can sometimes be hard to find in SA! DW11-13 in Joburg is one of my favourite go-to places and would have just the right atmosphere for such a meeting! There is a quiet confidence of purpose to the books she wrote which is captivating.

A book that most aptly sums up the state of the South African nation?

I always find the economic and political books from SA rather depressing. Walking into Exclusive Books I just get confronted with a wall of books that continually seem to say the same things in the same way. They either fall into SA-exceptionalism or are overly simplistic in their characterisation of the issues in SA. This is partly why I’ve resisted calls from people to write a book on SA – it is very hard to cut through prevailing narratives around the situation in SA which are often grossly over simplistic. One book that has stood out has been Frans Cronje’s A Time Traveller’s Guide to Our Next Ten Years which cuts through to the underlying currents in the country very well.

The magazines and newspapers you most frequently?

I have to read the entire South African press every day! The most interesting thing I read is probably The Daily Sun which gives an alternative perspective of grittier reality with Tokoloshe stories etc! Whilst I don’t work with The New Age, I think it’s also always worth a read in these times of capture and to know what certain factions are thinking. The most random thing I probably read locally is the SA version of House and Garden which gets physically delivered to London. I really love the SA design scene and it’s also a nice bit of escapism to get the summer edition when it’s the middle of winter in London and is always a spur to book another holiday to SA!

THE BOOKSELLER: Griffin Shea – Bridge Books

Griffin Shea

Griffin Shea is the founder of Bridge Books, which recently opened in Joburg’s CBD. A retail store with a thoughtfully edited selection of predominantly African titles (both new and secondhand), Bridge Books also sells to the inner-city’s street booksellers.

The book you’re currently most excited about selling?

I’m loving Nomavenda Mathiane’s Eyes in the Night. It’s her retelling of her grandmother’s experiences as a child during the Anglo-Zulu war, and the story is part of the of amazing work that South Africa as a whole is undertaking in understanding history from more points of view.

Which title gets shoplifted the most frequently?

Actually, not a single book has been stolen yet. I think this is partly because we run a “pay it forward” scheme, where customers buy books to give away to others. Also, if anyone asks, I’ll loan them a book for a R20 deposit if they promise to write a review.

Once someone did lift a copy of Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like from a pop-up we ran in Soweto on Youth Day. But when we asked if anyone had seen it, he returned it the next day. He’d thought we were giving away the books as part of the Youth Day events.

The biggest seller of the past year?

I Write What I Like, by Steve Biko, which sells consistently week after week, on both the retail and the wholesale side. We run a wholesale trade to connect small booksellers (even smaller than us!) with publishers so they can get new books, and Biko is always in demand.

The most underwhelming book you’ve read in the last year?

It’s hard to narrow it down to just one, only because I did a lot of reading for my PhD work at Wits, which focuses on South African young adult novels. Unfortunately, that means I read a shocking number of heavy-handed, preachy books that we inflict on our young people. Also, of course, several real gems. But it’s no wonder young readers gravitate toward “adult” books if they have any passion for reading at all. The books aimed at their age bracket often talk down at them from a very high pulpit.

Which book do you wish all your customers would read?

Devilskein & Dearlove by Alex Smith. Like the best young adult books, it explores themes too big for most adult fiction: the nature of evil, the legacy of trauma, the difficulty of change, the hidden layers of meaning in everyday places. Think The Secret Garden or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe set on Long Street in Cape Town.

The last thing you read that made you cry?

Wishful Drinking, by Carrie Fisher. The Star Wars films leave me cold, but when the latest one came out and the world was awash in commercials and merchandise, I decided to read Carrie Fisher. I laughed so hard, tears squirted out of my nose too.

Is there a book you’d never sell? If so, what is it, and why?

A couple people have asked for Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal. But I can’t carry it. He’s the antithesis of everything Bridge Books is trying to do. And honestly, even the ghost writer Tony Schwartz has renounced it.

What’s the most surprising thing about your bookshop?

This building was originally Barclays headquarters for South Africa. The vault is still downstairs. Also, we have a great roof space for readings under the stars.

The three writers you admire the most?

Toni Morrisson, whose books often explore love and its boundaries. She’s shaped the way I think about human relationships, and the reasons we treat each other the ways that we do.

Assia Djebar, who writes about the ways we can seek freedom, including through storytelling. She also introduced me to the idea of the Bechdel Test, before that phrase was widely applied to the idea.

Mark Twain. Did you know he’s really funny? I’ve been reading Huckleberry Finn out loud to my 11-year-old son, and it’s funnier, sharper and actually quite a lot darker than I remember it being.

The biggest challenge you face in bookselling?

Geometry.

Running a bookstore is a lot like Scrabble: it’s a math game masquerading as a word game.

Our indoor shop space is only 60 square metres. We have 12 bookcases. The limits of that geometry and its implications for which books we can carry continue to confound me.

Describe your archetypal customer.

Twenty-something, smart, creative, professional. Oh, and black.

The best part of being a bookseller?

The readers who come shopping, or simply visiting. I meet so many new people every day, and I love hearing their stories and the stories they’re looking for.

And the worst part?

You open a bookstore thinking it’s going to create this glorious life of the mind. And that’s true, but frankly it’s just as much about quads and glutes. There’s a lot of carrying heavy boxes up and down stairs.

Read more about Bridge Books over on 2Summers and in the Mail & Guardian.

WORK/LIFE: Chris Riddell

Chris Riddell, the 2015-2017 UK Children’s Laureate, is an accomplished artist and author, as well as the political cartoonist for the Observer. His books have won a number of major prizes, including the 2001, 2004 and 2016 CILIP Kate Greenaway Medals. Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse won the Costa Children’s Book Award 2013. He lives in Brighton with his family.

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Ottoline and the Purple Fox is published by Macmillan Children’s Books.

WORK/LIFE: Craig Higginson

Craig Higginson

Craig Higginson is an internationally acclaimed writer and theatre director. His novels include Last Summer (2010) and The Landscape Painter (2014) which, like 2015’s The Dream House, won the UJ Prize for South African Literature in English. His published plays include Dream of the Dog, The Girl in the Yellow Dress, The Jungle Book and Little Foot.

What does “writing” mean?

There are many kinds of writing – and you are a different kind of writer for each of these activities – like playing a range of musical instruments. But when I call myself a writer I am talking about the real activity – the one that ignites me in a place that no other activity does. When I’m writing for TV, I am writing my way into something outside of me – helping it along the way with a word or two of support or encouragement. But when I sit down to try and follow my own internal wood grain – which is as specific and un-chosen and unique as an internal thumbprint – then I am writing in the true sense. This kind of writing is about trying to fit untested language into an untested situation. You are going in the opposite direction of the already-written (which is the direction so much TV writing in South Africa tends to go in). Of course, most writing as a writer is an act of rewriting – of working through another draft, of going down a pathway you have already travelled before. But each draft is a new journey and the landscape around you has always shifted, so there are always new and surprising things to be found along the way.

What book changed your life?

It sounds pretentious, but Ulysses made me think I could be a novelist instead of a poet. Or, more specifically, that a novel can be a great poem. That some of our greatest poems are not, in fact, going as poems, but are novels – and are symphonic, narrative-driven prose poems.

What are you working on at the moment?

An adaptation of John le Carre’s novel The Mission Song for two UK-based production companies.

Describe your workspace.

It’s a little room that extends off our bedroom. It’s elevated above the ground and has light coming in from three sides and wooden shutters separating me from the bedroom. I have started painting again so there are two desks – one for writing and one for painting.

Craig Higginson

The most important instrument you use?

My computer, I suppose. I also have a lamp next to my computer and the first thing I do when I sit down to write is switch it on. I switch it off when I’m done. It’s only ever on when I’m writing. These small rituals help to give one a sense of structure – without which the act of writing might appear too frightening – like a boat in a dark sea with no paddle.

What’s your most productive time of day?

The morning – when I’m still fresh. I have about 45 minutes of gold dust in me each new day – and if I write straight after dropping my daughter off at school I can use it – and transmute it. But if something gets in the way first, if I sit down a bit later, I find the gold dust is often gone. If I try to carry on with my novel or poem in these circumstances, I am in danger of sounding or feeling like just anyone else.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

We usually get stuck when we don’t know what story we are telling. I don’t force things. If I’m tired or disconnected I do something else. I aim to write for an hour or so each morning but I often fail at it. But I try again and – to quote Beckett – I try to fail better.

How do you relax?

I watch TV series, I drink wine or whisky, I walk, I go to the gym, I try to sleep for at least seven hours – but I never quite relax.

Who and what has influenced your work?

The worst things that happen to me – and the least happy things I have experienced in my life – often get made into a novel or a play – even if indirectly. I write in order to survive, to make sense of things that have felt senseless – that have, at their worst, made me want to be dead. I use these places to start something afresh – like the first leaves after a veld fire. They are brighter and softer and have more space to grow thanks to the devastation that has passed through there not long before. But as Bernice Rubens once said to me: You must write with yesterday’s blood. So I am influenced by my own life and the lives around me – and I have wanted to push light back into those places that have grown – or are growing – dark.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Peter Shaffer said he wrote first and researched later. In other words: give yourself the opportunity to imagine before concerning yourself too much with what other people have imagined.

Your favourite ritual?

Switching on that lamp.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

How long do you have? I suppose the hardest thing about it is protecting it – making sure that nothing else comes in the way of it. There are a thousand forces inside you and all around you constantly encouraging you not to do it, to do something else – something easier, something more urgent.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

I am all about middle spaces so it’s always hard for me to isolate one thing above anything else. I also think there are many versions of me – and some I dislike more than others. I find it impossible to watch myself on video or hear myself talk in public. I think: Who is that awkward man with the large staring eyes and indeterminate accent? Who does he think he’s speaking to and why does he imagine they’re listening? I prefer my private selves to my public ones – as I have the illusion that I have more say over who those selves might be.

What are you afraid of?

Dying before I have written a good book. Dying before my daughter is grown up and able to look after herself. Dying before I’m dead. The third is especially difficult to achieve: to keep yourself open to the world, experiencing things as if for the first time. It’s perhaps difficult because you have to keep doing it, refreshing it, re-inventing yourself each time in order to encounter yourself. We run out of selves, we use them up too quickly when we’re young – and then we have to do what we can with the selves that are left to us, which grow heavy, and weigh us down with their aches and pains and their difficult questions.

What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?

Not to listen to the advice of those who have come before. Each person must bash through their own bundu and discover their own landscapes.

What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?

Not giving up.

The Dream House is published by Picador Africa. Read our review here