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.

WORK/LIFE: Alison Lowry

Alison Lowry is an editor, publishing consultant and writer. Her book-publishing career spans more than three decades and has seen her serve stints at Oxford University Press, Macmillan Publishers and Jonathan Ball (where she was editorial director). After three years of running her own publishing company, Lowry Publishers, she joined Penguin Books South Africa in 1989, serving as its CEO from 2002 until she left the company in 2012.

What does the role of editor entail?

Many things, depending on what sort of editorial attention an individual writer, the publisher, or a specific book requires. These are multiple and always varied. No two projects are ever the same and each comes with its own challenges and delights. I will come to fiction and non-fiction with different eyes and ears, but I’d bring to bear on both many of the same skills in my editing skill set. The most important thing the editor always needs to hold in mind is whose book it is and that’s key for me. It’s always the author’s book. Many editors don’t recognise or respect this or else they believe their role is to ‘fix’ and impose their own version of how a book should be, and that’s a pity. If an editor’s footprints are discernible at the end of the job, that’s a job badly done, in my view. The first thing a good editor should do is sit on his hands and read the material, whether this is an early draft, some sections, an outline and sample chapters — whatever. The second is talk to the author, often at length and over weeks or months (occasionally years!) to understand how the writer feels about the work, where he has doubts or anxieties, believes things are working or despairs because they’re either coming apart or not coming together. The editor’s primary role is to get into a writer’s head, heart and mind, before you get to the words on the page. Then, and only then, does the editor step back outside and begin discussions around things like structure, style, tone, plot and characters etc. Editing is really a conversation, or many conversations. Over a long career I have worn many hats from the editorial milliner: therapist, legal adviser, fellow coffee/wine/tea/whiskey drinker/wordsmith/sounding board/parent/publisher/philosopher… you name it.

Not everyone realises that there are different types or levels of editing: ‘developmental’ is an inadequate description, but this is mostly the kind of editing I do, where I work with an author to help shape and craft the book in as much of a ‘hands off’ way as is possible and desirable. Then there is more hands on or copy editing, which is a level of reworking/rewriting and direct intervention on the editor’s part (and mostly for non-fiction); and then there’s lighter dusting, which is about fixing grammar, punctuation, eliminating ‘habit’ words, stuff like that.

What book changed your life?

I really can’t say that there’s one book that changed my life, but there are many books and authors who have made impacts on me in different ways and for different reasons. Some novelists that stand out or spring to mind as I write this would be Nelson Algren’s The Man With the Golden Arm, William Styron’s Set This House on Fire, Patrick White’s Voss, Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, Margaret Atwood, Beryl Bainbridge, Dodie Smith, Graham Greene, Damon Galgut, Ann Tyler, Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, anything written by Alice Thomas Ellis. No. Stop. There are too many. I’m not even going to get started on non-fiction!

What things are you working on at the moment?

A debut novel, which is beautiful, poetic and disturbing. A book on management strategy. A political memoir. Actually, two political memoirs from very different political positions, which is fascinating. A book about African women in film.

Describe your workspace.

I have two tables and a desk, end to end, along one wall in my apartment, looking out onto a garden with lots of trees and birdsong. My workspace is cluttered, but sort of ordered too – too many pens (not all of them red fine-liners), various hard-copy versions of different stages of mss for when I need to work on paper, notebooks, music playing, half-empty teacups. I am also very mobile and I work a lot in coffee shops (different ones for different atmosphere – not only for their good coffee); and most of my meetings are away from my home office.

Alison Lowry's Desk

The most important instrument you use?

My outer and inner ear. For listening to writers and hearing what they’re saying.

What’s your most productive time of day?

Probably the morning, which is when my concentration is strongest and my energy high. And, depending on what I’m working on, late afternoon/early evening when the light changes and the world gets quieter is a good time too. Deadlines and pressure often dictate that I work very long hours and so I do, when necessary, but it makes me grumpy.

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

Go with it, rather than push against it. Trust that it hasn’t left me – whatever ‘it’ is – but has just gone out for tea. It will return when it’s meant to.

How do you relax?

With difficulty, because I am always working or have work that I ought to be doing instead of relaxing. But when I do take a break, I like to walk, or work on a jigsaw puzzle (I always have one in progress), spend time with my friends and, when possible (because we live in different cities), with my daughter and sister. My best way of relaxing, though, is long, solo road trips through the Karoo, which I try to do at least once if not several times a year.

Who and what has influenced your work?

My father, whose unceasing pleasure in a beautifully crafted sentence lit a similar spark in me. And then, in a career in publishing, most of my working life has been around very creative people, and many of them, from the well- known to the completely unknown, from the successful to the plain unlucky, have contributed to shaping my life and work, whether they know it or not.

Your favourite ritual?

This would be tied up with my best way of relaxing. Preparing for and starting off on a road trip south: leaving home when it’s still dark in the early morning, the stops on the way, turning off the highway in mid afternoon, watching the long shadows of the Karoo spread across the scrub, letting the car windows down and having nothing but wind and music in my head.

What’s the hardest thing about your job?

Juggling my time so that I am able to devote as much time and attention to every book I work on as it needs and deserves. I haven’t got this right yet. And saying No. I’m pretty hopeless at that.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

My tendency to doubt myself and to ignore my instincts.

What are you afraid of?

Not seeing the curve ball in time to duck or catch it (whichever would be the best appropriate action in the situation). And water. I am afraid of deep water. Actually, shallow water too.

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

Well, he didn’t give it to me directly, of course – he gave it to Laertes. It would be Polonius’s words: ‘And this above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.’ One must assume Shakespeare wrote it, but he may have had a good editor keeping an eye on the commas.

What advice would you give to people starting out in publishing?

It’s not the first edition that’s the rarity – it’s the second.

Look after your authors.

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

Assuming you mean this in my work-related professional sense, it would probably have to be starting, 25 or so years ago, and then witnessing the development of the South African publishing list for Penguin Books. I did this with lots of help from brilliant colleagues and some truly wonderful authors – too many to single out individually.