WORK/LIFE: Paige Nick

Paige Nick

Paige Nick’s novels include Dutch Courage, This Way Up and A Million Miles from Normal (which is also the name of her popular Sunday Times column). A copywriter who has worked on brands such as Santam, BMW and Nashua, over more than two decades, she’s also is one third of the Helena S. Paige trio, whose first choose your own adventure erotic novel, A Girl Walks into a Bar, launched in 2013.

What does “writing” mean?

Sitting down and beating off every other distraction to get your words down for the day, every day. Whether they’re for a book, column, or an ad for coffee beans.

Which book changed your life?

When I was 11, I took The Never Ending Story, by Michael Ende, out of my library. It was the first “proper” book I ever read, because it had so many pages. I was completely absorbed by it. That was when I first discovered that I had magical powers, and I could make the whole world disappear, and a new one form in front of my eyes. All I had to do was open a book.

Your favourite fictional character?

Ooh tough one, so many to choose from. It’s somewhere between Winnie-the-Pooh and Alice in Wonderland.

What are you working on at the moment?

I just finished my ninth novel, Unpresidented. It’s a political satire, set in the future. The president of South Africa, Jeremiah Gejeyishwebisa Muza, has just been released from prison early on medical parole for an ingrown toenail. Entirely fictional of course.

Describe your workspace.

Whereever I am at any given moment.

Paige Nick's Workspace

The most important instrument you use?

Easily my laptop, closely followed by my brain.

What’s your most productive time of day?

I think the best author preparation, has been spending the last twenty-three years with a full-time job as a copywriter in ad agencies. I’ve learnt mental toughness, a resilience to feedback and criticism, and most importantly, I’ve learnt how to be productive at any given moment, and how to squeeze in an hour of writing anywhere I get a gap in the day; whether it’s morning, noon, night, or later that same night.

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

A run almost ALWAYS helps me untangle a plot knot. I also rely heavily on a handful of really amazing (and patient) writing friends. We discuss mental traffic jams, which often unloops me too.

How do you relax?

I don’t think I’ve been properly relaxed since my first novel came out in 2010. But to partially unwind, I run, travel, hang out with friends, have sex, and watch the most disgustingly brain-dead TV series, which I’d be too embarrassed to name in public.

Who and what has influenced your work?

Sarah Lotz, international author, and powerhouse of inspiration constantly influences my work, because I’m constantly picking her brain. There are others to add to the list too; my amazing editor Helen Moffet, and other writer friends, Edyth Bulbring, Rahla Xenopoulos and Yewande Omotoso. But I know that’s not what you’re asking.

I read widely, or rather, as widely as possible, given the time-drought we find ourselves in. But I don’t know who influences my work. Of course Sex & the City influenced my early colums, but my novels seem to be coming from so many different places right now that it’s hard to pinpoint any specific influence.

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

“Nobody cares that you only had the weekend.”

It’s the headline from a print ad from the 70s or 80s for an advertising awards show, and I need to dig it out of my archives again. The copy went to talk about how excuses don’t matter. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is the work and how good it is.

This was reitterated by writing coach Sarah Bullen who once told me that you can watch a TV series/go out/sleep/read OR you can have a novel. It’s your choice.

These thoughts play over and over in my mind while I’m mired in a draft of a new novel.

Your favourite ritual?

Probably making tea, sharpening pencils and checking social media and my email obsessively. I do that several times, then get down to work.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

Other than the self-hatred and angst when you’re in the middle of it? It’s got to be the market. It’s so freaking flat, I can’t stand it. You work yourself to death to sell a couple thousand books. For what? I can’t stop doing it, but I know I probably should.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

God, how long do you have? We may need a longer page.

What are you afraid of?

Again, I think I need more ink on this one. I have a lot of fear and anxiety. Mostly to do with failure and death, in that order.

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

It’s the most boring advice in the world. Write.

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

Dutch Courage (Penguin SA, 2016) was the hardest book I’ve ever written, because it was so far out of my comfort zone and realm of reference. It took me four years and two overseas trips to research and write, while all my other books have come out of me in six months to a year. But more than that, I’m proud of where I am. I’ve worked really really hard for this life, and it’s one thousand per cent the one I want to live, and I think there is much merit and some luck in that.

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!

EXTRACT: Emily Hobhouse – Beloved Traitor

An extract from the book by Elsabé Brits.
Elsabe Brits

Towards the end of 1909 Emily saw a doctor in London after she had been forced to cancel several “suffrage” appointments for speeches under the banner of the PSF. The doctor’s diagnosis was that  her heart did not function properly, and that she suffered from rheumatoid arthritis (which she knew already). Moreover, she felt “horribly fat and bloated”, while she had never been overweight in her life.

Alice Greene, an old friend from South Africa, visited her in London and was shocked to see how weak Emily was. “She is just very ill and very lonely and no wonder. She has broken down her health for the sake of others and I doubt whether there is one person both able and willing to help …”

Regarding her “poor heart”, Emily remarked to Smuts: “I think South Africa would be found stamped on it for South Africa wore it out. Nevertheless one often loves the very thing that kills.”

Emily returned to Italy with great reluctance, as she yearned to participate in the British women’s fight for political rights. A year later, in November 1910, Emily was also absent when the prime minister, Herbert Asquith, received a delegation from the PSF. It was a decisive event; shortly afterwards, Asquith announced that the franchise would be extended to all men while it was also being contemplated for women, as proposed in the Conciliation Bill of 1910.

Earlier that same year, on 31 May, South Africa had officially become a Union, a self-governing dominion of the British Empire. Louis Botha became the Prime Minister and Minister of Agriculture; Jacobus Sauer of Uitkijk the Minister of Railways and Harbours; Jan Smuts the Minister of Interior Affairs, Mines and Industry, and Defence, and JBM Hertzog the Minister of Justice – all people whom Emily knew. Jaap de Villiers was appointed Judge President of the Transvaal division of the Supreme Court. As a result of the death of King Edward VII on 6 May, however, festivities had been muted.

From her sofa, Emily wrote to Smuts in pencil to congratulate him on the fact that the “first act of your Union Cabinet was one of justice towards Dinizulu”. Dinuzulu, a son of King Cetshwayo, had been captured by the English in 1890 and exiled to the island of St Helena for seven years on account of an armed rebellion against the British annexation of a part of Zululand. Nearly a decade later, Dinuzulu was charged with fomenting the Bambatha Rebellion of 1906. He was found guilty of high treason and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. After Botha became prime minister of the Union, he ordered that Dinuzulu be released and allowed to live on his farm Uitkyk in the Transvaal.

Emily also seized the opportunity to convey a pacifist message to the new Minister of Defence. “Well, dear Oom Jannie, mark my words – you will defend your country best by not defending it.” She warned him against having a standing defence force, as it was an evil.

Always attuned to health and a frugal lifestyle, and old-fashioned in some respects, she urged Smuts  not to use his new official motor car but to rather stick to his horse. Horse riding kept a man healthy. He should get the children ponies to ride on. In crowded Europe, motors had become “a pest of noise, dirt, danger and smell”.

He should also listen to Parliament, which was the voice of the people through its representatives, and guard against becoming an autocrat or “a Czar”. She reminded him that “we, the people, we democrats, want to have a say in matters concerning ourselves …”

She was beginning to wish, she wrote, that not merely kings but also ministers could be done away with, as it seemed to her that cabinets were “hotbeds of mischief manured by ambition”. She held cabinets responsible for “endless evil and little good, and I believe the secrecy appertaining to their counsels is the root of the evil”.Emily Hobhouse

A letter from Smuts in which he had referred to politics as “worldly” and a “sorry business” upset her so much that Emily reprimanded him angrily. Politics was in such a sorry state “because you men let it be and because you won’t or don’t lift it out of the rut”.

“That has been from the beginning of history the fault with men’s management of politics and public affairs – and I look above all to the entrance of women into politics to purify them and lift them to a higher level. Secrecy is one of the first things to get rid of …

“Oh! It makes me mad to think what great issues lie in the hands of a few stupid and obstinate men!”

She expressed the hope to Smuts that they in South Africa “will be wise and firm and keep yourselves to yourselves and not have any standing army or any battleships – for these things are the beginning of all Evil”.

“The next thing is you want an opportunity to use them …”

In the autumn of 1911 Emily was in Florence, Italy, where she hoped to find a cure for her health condition. But, as one could expect from an art lover, she first visited the museums, including the Palazzo Piti where, ironically, she was overwhelmed by Sandro Botticelli’s painting of Minerva – the goddess of wisdom, but who was usually depicted holding the weapons of war with which she had come into life.

In Botticelli’s painting the barefooted Minerva stands one step higher than the centaur next to her, whose long hair she has in a firm grip. He looks sad and submissive. A wreath of entwined olive branches on her head resembles a halo, while a mesh of olive shoots encircles parts of her upper body and her partially revealed breasts; in her other hand she holds a halberd, her ginger-brown hair falling in loose waves over her shoulders.

“I think it the most beautiful female figure in the world,” an enraptured Emily wrote to her nephew Oliver, now a student at Oxford. In Florence, Emily went to see a Doctor Carloni who had apparently developed a special treatment for people with heart disease; she had heard it had been wonderfully successful in some cases.After the first examination he found that she had overexerted herself mentally and physically, and that her heart was enlarged (which she knew already). She had to learn to sit still “and possess my soul in patience”.

Carloni made use of electric pumps, breathing apparatus, diets and other methods to treat his patients. Among others, they had to breathe in iodine through a device he had built.

Emily also had to lie in a bath of carbolic acid, which worked “wonders” for her.

Within two months she felt like a new person; her cheeks were “as rosy as a Dutch doll’s”, and she had regained her slim figure. She was especially pleased about this, as she set great store by her appearance.

After five months in Florence she decided to return to Rome. She had been in the Valley of the Shadow of Death but life had suddenly broken through again within her, she wrote to Tibbie Steyn. For the rest of her life she would keep to the advice she had been given in Florence by the Italian doctor – small portions of food, a diet of eggs, cheese, lots of vegetables and fruit, as well as bread and other starchy food. She almost never ate meat or fish again, except for occasional pieces of biltong from South Africa.

But the doctor had to be paid, and Emily was struggling to make ends meet; she lived mainly on the proceeds from her small investment and the rental of her house in Bellevue. The only person she felt she knew well enough to approach in this regard was Smuts. It could not have been easy for the proud Emily, but nonetheless she requested a loan of £50, which she would repay at six per cent interest.

Smuts sent her £100 – along with the remark that he considered Carloni a quack.

“Dear, dear Oom Jannie, What am I to say? What am I to do? Your generosity is so overwhelming …”

But she stood by her doctor, saying she had personally seen him cure asthma sufferers “like magic”.

In November 1912 Emily was back in Rome, where she saw Tibbie and her husband ex-President MT Steyn from time to time. Six years earlier Steyn had already conceived the idea of erecting a memorial of some kind for the women and children who had died in the Anglo-Boer War. A monument committee was established and various cultural organisations, churches and political parties were mobilised to raise funds and create enthusiasm for the cause. Hundreds of collection lists were distributed throughout South Africa for this purpose. Emily sent the small amount Tibbie had donated to her for her medical costs to the committee that raised funds for the envisaged monument.

Emily Hobhouse: Beloved Traitor is published by Tafelberg. Read the review here.

EXTRACT: The Compassionate Englishwoman

An excerpt from the book by Robert Eales.
Robert Eales

The camp was about three kilometres from Bloemfontein town on the slope of a bare hill. When Emily arrived, it contained about 2,000 residents of whom about 900 were children. She does not offer a concise description of the camp. Instead she told Lady Hobhouse about her first visit in a letter dated 26 January 1901:

It was about four o’clock of a scorching afternoon when I set
foot in the camp and I can’t tell you what I felt like so I won’t
try.

I began by finding a woman whose sister I had met in
Cape Town. … Imagine the heat inside the tents and the
suffocation! We sat on their khaki blankets rolled up inside
Mrs Botha’s tent and the sun blazed through the single canvas
and the flies lay thick and black on everything – no chair, no
table, nor any room for such, only a deal box standing on its
end served as a wee pantry. In this tent lived Mrs Botha, five
children (three quite grown up) and a little Kaffir servant girl.
Many tents have more occupants.

Mrs Pienaar came in and Mrs Raal, Mrs Roux and others
and they told me their stories and we cried together and even
laughed together and chatted bad Dutch and bad English all
the afternoon. Wet nights, the water streams down through
the canvas and comes flowing in (as it knows how to in this
country) under the flap of the tent and wets their blankets as
they lie on the ground.

The women are wonderful: they cry very little and never
complain. The very magnitude of their sufferings, indignities,
loss and anxiety seems to lift them beyond tears, and these
people who have had comfortable, even luxurious homes, just
set themselves to quiet endurance and to make the best of their
bare and terrible lot. Only when it cuts fresh at them through
their children do their feelings flash out. Mrs Meintjes, for
instance, she has six children in camp all ill. Two in the
hospital with typhoid and four sick in the tent. She … expects
her confinement soon. Her husband is in Ceylon [captured
Boers were sent to prisoner-of-war camps in Ceylon, India,
St Helena Island, Bermuda and elsewhere]. She has means
and would gladly provide for herself either in town or in the
Colony where she has relatives or by going back to her farm. It
was not burnt, only the furniture was destroyed. Yet there she
has to stay, watching her children droop and sicken. For their
sakes she did plead with tears that she might go and fend for
herself.

One of the women she had met that first afternoon, Mrs Pienaar, was in an advanced state of pregnancy and after hearing how difficult she found it to sleep on the hard ground, Emily bought a mattress for her the next day.Compassionate Englishwoman

However, Emily decided not to rush into the distribution of the goods she had brought until she understood the circumstances better. She had made a crucial, instinctive decision: she wanted to see the situation through the eyes and experiences of the inmates. They were her concern. The official view, the opinions of the administrators, could wait. She visited the camp repeatedly and did meet with members of the camp administration. General Pretyman gave her a permanent pass and introduced her to Captain Nelson who had been in charge of the camp until shortly before her arrival. She met several times with Major Cray, the man responsible for the management of all the camps in the Orange River Colony and who, at the same time, was also the superintendent of the Bloemfontein camp. Gradually her understanding of the situation deepened.

One of the central issues was food. The women in the camp did not complain. ‘We know it is wartime and we cannot expect much’ was their attitude. As a result, Emily did not at first realise how meagre and monotonous the rations were.

Excerpted from The Compassionate Englishwoman: Emily Hobhouse in the Boer War, published by UCT Press. Read the review here.