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Myrna Robins

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DISTRICT SIX HUIS KOMBUIS: Food & Memory Cookbook. Published by Quivertree Publications , Cape Town, 2016.

 

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It is surely the ultimate District Six title, in terms of lifestyle, tradition, recollection and restoration.

From the feel of the linen-like cover, through endpapers filled with fragments of crockery -   willow-pattern plates and cups with no ears – to  Cloete Breytenbach’s heart-wrenching photographs of before and after demolition, this hardback has been designed not only to inspire memories but  to celebrate an indomitable spirit of survival while recording the vital role that the table played – and still plays – in family lives.  As Shaun Viljoen comments in his introduction, “...the rituals of making and eating food... did not die or disappear when people were forced to move to far-flung areas but instead took root in these new locations on the Cape Flats.”

Some 10 years ago the District Six Museum started the Huis Kombuis project: Memories and stories – centred around  taste, texture and aromas in the District - were collected to form the heart of this unique book. The museum had started its project with craft and textile design workshops which developed into an interdiscliplinary base for reflection, remembrance and innovation. Name-cloths that are inscribed with embroidered messages, recipes and signatures stimulated links between craft and culinary heritage , which in turn led to the concept of this book.

The rituals of cooking, eating, the place of the table in the kitchen, are all central to the collective memory of District Six, part of the spirit of place and sense of belonging.  Not always inside: “The excitement of camping out on the pavement with “salmon slaai and boiled eggs in anticipation of the klopse passing by” is a new year tradition, still  maintained by those who trek into the city from their windswept dormitories on the Flats .

A gallery of quite formal portraits of former residents introduces us to the contributors of  memories and recipes. Two foldout maps of the area help readers with a sense of place: The 1940 map indicates where each family lived, along with landmark schools and churches. The second street map marks the shops, produce  markets, cafes, butchers and bakers, herb and spice suppliers, with the Grand Parade just visible on the district edge.

The meat, as it were,  of the book follows, starting with Monday which saw Sunday leftovers or fresh fish on the table. It may have been bought on tick – to be paid for on Friday – but what a wealth of seafood was on offer –  snoek, stockfish [hake],  crayfish, harders, maasbankers, hottentot, red roman, white stumpnose, geelbek and kabeljou.

We meet Marion Abrahams-Welsh, Linda Fortune, Ruth Jeftha:  a contemporary photograph accompanies their stories of childhood in the district, and memories of Monday meals reveals traditions of cottage pie from Marion,  followed by sago pudding, while Linda’s family Monday favourites were  brawn and  her father’s crayfish curry, well spiced .  The recipes are easy to follow, the food photographs appetising.  Ruth’s family relished her mother’s fish cakes and fish smoortjies, made with canned pilchards for supper.

Her mother was one of the last to leave her home in Bloemhof flats, a landmark in District Six. She lived without electricity and water towards the end and died a few days after being moved to Mitchells Plain.

Subsequent chapters follow a similar pattern, with titles like ‘Stretching the pot’, ‘Niks het geflop nie’,’ We ate soup’, ‘Nothing went wasted’, ‘Friday the pans were screaming’...  Along with savoury suppers, which often featured  bredies, sweeter fare starred, proven with recipes for date and walnut loaf and tameletjie from a male baker.  The women set jelly outside to set, to be served with custard or baked melktert as Sunday lunch finales, then went to to rustle up scones with apricot jam for afternoon tea. This well-balanced treasury of  Kaapse kos sees substantial input from Cape Malay, Afrikaner, British and Jewish cuisines. Plus a soup¢on of Portuguese, and  foraging influence from the San and Khoe who criss-crossed the slopes and shores above and below in previous centuries. The illustrated  recipes take their place as an integral segment of an infamous period of Cape history, but are not its raison d’ȇtre.

 Other images add to the culinary nostalgia:  Black and white family photographs, plus streetscapes , people and markets,  double decker buses and handcarts. Buildings lining  Hanover street with balconies and washing lines and those  distinctive splayed corners. Below, Morris minors and Volksie beetles...

The painfully slow re-creation of District Six seems synonomous with the fact that traditional values are being replaced by a greedy capitalism, as the gap between the wealthy and destitute in the Mother City gets ever wider.

Last word goes to the late Vincent Kolbe, one of the Museum founders and a former colleague of mine at City Libraries . When he wasn’t telling stories, he was making music (which included a party trick of playing the piano with his back to the instrument and his arms stretched back  over his shoulders)  or encouraging small children to read and revere books. Of the Huis Kombuis project he said “We created an arena which enables us to reaffirm our identity, celebrate our heritage and confront the complexities of our history.”  A fitting tribute to an impressive example of teamwork.

 

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Hanover Street, heart of District Six.

 

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Emily Hobhouse: Beloved Traitor by Elsabe Brits, published by Tafelberg, Cape Town, 2016.

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That this masterful life story is set to become the definitive biography of one of South Africa’s most famous women is not in doubt. Brits has produced an in-depth, scholarly, well-researched work that is also very readable, enlivened with numerous fascinating photographs.  The 27 pages of endnotes, bibliography, index and acknowledgements are good indications of the lengths to which she went to, to do justice to the life and work of this extraordinary pacifist, feminist and deeply compassionate person – who died alone and unsung in her home country.

As the back cover tell us, Brits retraced Hobhouse’s footsteps across three continents, but, as she is the first to acknowledge, it was her exciting discovery of Emily’s great-niece that was the cherry on the top:  Jennifer  Hobhouse Balme invited the author into her home in a fishing village on the Pacific coast of Vancouver Island  and shared her treasury of documents, diaries, scrapbooks, letters and photographs, enabling this biography to far transcend any previous attempt to record her life.

Born in 1860 into a Victorian upper-class family Emily grew up in the hamlet of St Ive in Somerset, where she and her sisters were educated at home, which she found frustrating. Her first visit abroad took her to the USA where she experienced love, was jilted by her fiancé, and was back in England in 1899. This was the year the Anglo-Boer War broke out, and Emily became involved in  the SA Conciliation Committee in London, which opposed the war.

 After the OFS and the Transvaal were annexed by Britain thhe Boer forces resorted to guerrilla warfare. The scorched-earth policy instigated by Britain saw farmhouses, barns and outbuildings burnt, farm animals slaughtered, veld set alight, and in some cases whole towns destroyed.  In London and Cornwall  Emily protested in vain about the policy then decided to go to SA to help: she  and started fund-raising to feed clothe and rescue women and children rendered destitute by the war.  Arriving in Cape Town in Dec 1900  she met the governor Lord Milner the governor who granted  permission to visit the concentratios/refugee camps where Boer women were kept provided Kitchener agree, which he did, with conditions. After shopping for clothes, blankets and food she travelled north  in January 1901.

What she found was more distressing than she had imagined – “...truckloads of women and children unsheltered and... flocks and herds of frightened animals bellowing and baaing for food and drink... In the camps exposure, starvation, illness, pain – no candle or, soap, no mortuary tent, flies thick on everything, no schooling, no wood or coal to boil water and typhoid  rife.  She kept diaries, recorded women’s stories, saw children dying as she travelled from camp to camp. She sent letters to friends, family members  and government sources in England  reporting on conditions. She took photographs and sent those as well, decided to retrun to the UK  to bring the horrors of the concentration camps to the British public.

She endured much resentment from Britons who regarded here as unpatriotic at best, a traitor at worst. In turn she pointed out that in September 1901 the number of people in the white camps had risen from 85 000 to 105 000,  that 1878 had died in August,  1545 of whom were children. When she returned to Cape Town in October she was ill and weak, but was arrested by the British on arrival. Detained on board, she was returned to England in a troop ship.

But her efforts  had some effect as conditions gradually improved, at least  in the white camps. Peace was declared  in May 1902 –the  news reached her as she sat alone in France writing her book, whereupon  she “started crying uncontrollably.”

Back in SA Emily visited the former camp sites where locals told her that they had not received any of the ‘reconstruction money of three million pounds’ that was supposed to be apportioned to the Boers. In communication with General Jan Smuts she travelled widely, reporting to the UK regularly on conditions. She then set in motion her ploughing project: newspaper appeals for funds to buy oxen and donkeys were well received, and not only Cape colonists but British donors sent funds to the bank in Pretoria.

Her plans for establishing home industries  revolved around teaching young girls spinning and weaving and  the first school opened in Philippolis in March 1905 using wool donated by farmers.  Soon there were two schools and proceeds helped many survive.

Back in the UK Emily  (predictably) got involved with the suffrage movement, yet stayed in constant touch with South Africa, where a committee was formed to erect a monument to Boer women and children in Bloemfontein. Her health did not allow her to attend the unveiling on December  16 1913, but her speech was read both in English and Afrikaans.

World War 1 saw Emily trying to alleviate the living conditions of civilians in Germany  and Belgium and of Britons interned in German camps. She was  regarded by many as a propagandist, spy and a traitor. Undeterred, 1918 saw Emily co-founding the Swiss Relief Fund for Starving Children, as children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia nad Hungary were sent to Switzerland to regain their health.   South Africa helped fund Emily ‘s purchase of a cottage in St Ives, Cornwall, in 1921. She died in London in June 1926, still hoping for justice to prevail with regard to her work . Her ashes were sent to Bloemfontein and here she was revered  with a funeral service attended by hundred,s with thousands lining the streets at the first and, to date only, state funeral in this country for a foreigner.

My only criticism is that the book design, while attractive and contemporary, is impractical as the use of bold colour backgrounds on many pages render the print virtually illegible.  

 

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FIRE TO FLOWER :  a Chronology after a Wildfire in Fynbos  by Ruth Garland and Greg Nicolson, published by the Paardeberg Sustainability Initiative, 2016.

 

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This large, heavy, stunningly beautiful hardback is both an exquisite  visual record of how fynbos regenerates after wildfire and an important contribution to South African botany, and that of the Cape Floral Kingdom in particular.

In Jan 2011 a fire broke out on the Paardebeg, that lone mountain that looms up on the plains between Malmesbury, Wellington, Paarl and Durbanville. Some 75% of the mountain above the farms was burnt, and, being the first fire in 25 years,    the event offered a fine opportunity to record and observe the plant species as they germinated and flowered after the destruction.

On  the historic Vondeling estate, one of the Voor Paardeberg farms, Dr Bridget Johnsen set about transforming opportunity into reality: She succeeded, but as we can see, it finally took more than five years to achieve in the form of this unique volume.  She engaged botanist and photographer Greg Nicolson to observe, record and photograph the plants over 18 months, in consultation with the Compton Herbarium at Kirstenbosch. Not only did Nicolson identify 1 000 species, but discovered one new to science. Walking the mountain for the best part of  2 years gave him a amazing overview of the animal, bird and insect inhabitants as well, and appealing photographs of these are  included . As Dr Eugene Moll notes in his foreword, the book’s contents capture the very essence of life on and around the Paardeberg, then interprets and portrays a complex ecosystem in simple every day language.

For this, praise must go to Ruth Garland, a writer whose passion for natural history started early in life, thanks to her parents who raised her in Zululand. Setting the scene through geology and climate, she moves on to discuss flora and fire, the latter so critical in the cycle of life in this  region.

After the fire, which raged for five days, Bridget Johnsen, along with neighbouring farmers, established the PSA or Paardeberg Sustainability Initiative which prioritises both flora and fire:  The Paardeberg Fire Protection Association now provides support services to farmers in terms of tools, staff, safety and training, alien control and  fire breaks, and was recently amalgamated with the Greater Cedarberg Fire Protection Association.

Vondeling estate has become renowned for its fine wines, among which are two named after endemic fynbos: Babiana, a fine chenin-led white blend and Erica, a spicy shiraz-based blend, both worthy tributes to their floral sources. A new limited edition red blend, named Philosophie will be launched in March, featuring a painting of a rare Paardeberg flower. 

From the sepia tones and acrid smoke of the post-fire landscape, readers are led on a seasonal photographic journey as plant life emerges . Starting in autumn, with the”ploegtyd blommetjie” the little plough –time flower appearing first,  followed by oxalis and  waterblommetjies, and later the early-flowering bulbs, we see a gradual transformation of the mountainside that continues in a diverse procession of colour, texture and beauty to late summer.  For those amateur (and professional) botanists who want more information, another section offers detail on  the species illustrated.

 For those who just love beauty, the close-ups of petals, leaves, stamens and stems provide a visual  feast that is heart-stopping and seldom seen. As a valuable record, the title is unique. As an inspiration to generations of present and future guardians of our flora, this substantial tome will prove to be priceless.

Among the many people to be thanked for their contribution, is one of Vondelings’ partners, Briton Anthony Ward who sponsored the cost of the publication.

 

Note: This review will also feature in Book Choice on FMR on Monday January 16.

 

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YEOMEN OF THE KAROO:  The Story of the Imperial Yeomanry Hospital at Deelfontein by Rose Willis, Arnold van Dyk and JC ‘Kay’ de Villiers. Published by Firefly Publications, Brandfort, Free State, 2016.

 

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I wonder how many of Rose Willis’s fans have waited  for this story to come to light, to be properly unearthed and recorded?  Reading through the  names in the Acknowledgements, one soon  realises that  the list of friends,  geologists, ecologists, heritage experts,  farmers, researchers, archivists  and family members   who contributed in some way is extensive .  Rose Willis, known to many readers as the founder and compiler of the monthly Rose’s Round-up, found time between teaching and writing  to dig  deep into intercontinental events that are woven into the tapestry of this extraordinary tale.

She discovered Deelfontein when she was living outside Beaufort West and promoting tourism in the Central Karoo, and she was helped in her research by Dr van Dyk , an authority on the Boer War with a library of pictures on the subject, while Prof Kay de Villiers,  a Cape Town neuro-surgeon and expert on both the war and its medical aspects also supplied valuable input.

As the 19th century drew to a close a war raged across South Africa and, on the desolate plains of the Great Karoo, a unique hospital sprang up…

In 1899 the British realised that this war against “a bunch of farmers” was not going well for them, and the government appealed for volunteers. This succeeded as many men, including newly qualified doctors, enlisted and ships sailed for South Africa almost daily. In England two high society women scrapped their social calendars and set out to raise funds for a private hospital to care for the men who would be wounded.

The results were nothing short of  extraordinary –  from conception  in England to erection in the Karoo,  a little less than three months passed before  the Imperial Yeomanry hospital opened at Deelfontein, a narrow valley between a row of koppies and a railway siding, 46km south of De Aar and 77km north of Richmond. The date was March 17 1900.

Stating that it was a place ahead of its time is something of an understatement . I  quote liberally from the press release:  The huge tent hospital that mushroomed in this desolate region was unique… along with operating theatres, treatment and convalescent wards, it boasted specialist units for dentistry, ophthalmology and radiology – all firsts  in a military hospital.  There was a fire station, a dispensary, electricity and a telephone system. It had its own stables and dairy, which supplied sterilised milk. Steam-driven disinfection and waste disposal units helped in the war against typhoid, and ensured hygienic conditions. The laundry washed and sterilised more than 2 000 sheets a week. Drinking water was filtered and running water was piped through the grounds.  There were luxurious touches as well –such as a comfortable officers’ mess with its own mineral water plant and ice-making machine. A chapel, a theatre, sports fields, tennis courts, a shooting range, and, (can you believe) a horse-racing track provided recreational facilities.

How did this happen?  The credit must go to two aristocratic English women – Lady Georgina Spencer-Churchill and Lady Beatrice Chesham, second daughter of the first Duke of Westminster, whose husband Lord Chesham was commander of the Imperial Yeomanry in South Africa. The former focussed on liaison with the War Office and other institutions in the UK while the latter spent much time at Deelfontein supervising affairs. The two women, with help from friends,  raised a substantial sum – 174 000 pounds – more than enough to equip and staff a hospital. The goal was conceived in December  1899, and over the next couple of months tons of equipment was dispatched from England by ship, to be transported to Deelfontein by oxwagon, horse and slow train.

During its year of operation  the hospital treated more than 6 000 patients, and lost just 134, of whom 112 succumbed to typhoid.

In order to cover all aspects of the story, events and people are grouped  into chapters chronologically. Not only  professional men enlisted but  women from all walks of life also volunteered as nurses.  The staff of 200 personnel was not only highly skilled, but their services produced many tales of bravery, dedication and lasting friendship . Boer commandos operated in the vicinity on several occasions, and skirmishes  outside  the  gates caused casualties:  Both British and enemy soldiers were treated in the hospital.

We learn about the many individuals who contributed in some way to the success of Deelfontein’s hospital through s series of cameos – brief biographies of soldiers, doctors, surgeons, donors, nurses, and more.  The final chapter covers those who are buried at the Deelfontein cemetery, today almost the only remaining sign that a hospital ever existed.  Most of these perished from disease rather than bullets.

Other stories  - and mysteries – are interwoven with medical history: the Adamstein family emigrated to South Africa and ended up at Deelfontein where they established a trading store and went on to build a luxurious hotel complete with walled gardens in which peacocks and cranes strutted. The story of the post office that never was provides light relief, its ruins  alongside modern cemeteries which are reasonably well maintained.  Visitors to this forlorn spot report they have the feeling of being watched  in spite of it being  deserted , while the local railway siding attendant takes it for granted that his surroundings are haunted.

The stories are further brought to life with a fascinating collection of old and a few contemporary  photographs scattered liberally through the book:  Portraits of many of the role players are there along with pictures of huts and rows of tents below a koppie which sports its identifying IYH in giant letters.  Interior scenes of the chapel, wards, operating theatre (and an operation in progress) offer proof of just how well organised and equipped the Imperial Yeomanry Hospital was. Sad pictures of a pathetic  informal settlement near the hospital and another of  carcasses of horses – the “true losers” as Willis labels them – remind readers of the many miseries that  war brings.  

This fine volume of Africana combines military with medical history alongside lesser-known aspects of the Anglo-Boer war.  It’s a treasury to dip into frequently, and to accompany all who choose to visit the site where cemeteries and the ruins of the Adamstein’s hotel rub eerie shoulders  in the heart of the Great Karoo.

 

This is my choice as Book of the Year for 2016 as I congratulate  Rose for fulfilling her dream of publishing a story she shared with me back in the mid- 1980s. .

 

The standard edition costs R390 and the limited collectors’ edition R1 400. Postage and packaging come to an additional R100. Order the book from Firefly Publications, make an EFT payment to their bank account at FNB, Preller Plein branch, Acct no 62138779642.. For more information  fax 0865809189 or email palberts@telkomsa.net or Rose Willis at karootour@telkomsa.net.

 

 

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JOHN LE CARRé THE BIOGRAPHY by Adam Sisman. Published by Bloomsbury, London, 2015.

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While waiting for this book to arrive, I went online to see what British reviewers thought of it, and was relieved to find that most express admiration for Sisman’s absorbing study. I was looking forward to reading this definitive biography and hoping that my favourite spy writer hero was not going to be reduced to a mere mortal in a hatchet job.

Indeed, I was glued to most of the 650 pages as Adam Sisman chronicled the life of one of Britain’s finest living authors, someone who has proved that spy thrillers can be elevated to a finer literary genre than generally regarded.

It is more than half a century since The Spy who came in from the Cold was released, among the first of le Carré’s many titles to became a world best-seller . Using his real name, David Cornwell, we are introduced to a man who is as enigmatic as his characters that he is still creating at the ripe age of 84.

David was born to Ronnie and Olive Cornwell in Bournemouth a few years after his brother Tony. Ronnie was the original conman, unscrupulous, amoral, persuasive, exuding optimism as he relieved widows of their savings and wriggled out of debts incurred. Olive, who had had enough of insecurity and his philandering, eloped with a friend, abandoning her sons when David was five. This was the start of an unhappy childhood as he endured primary school years, retreating further into fantasy during high school. The two boys were rootless, spending school holidays with proxy mothers, or were dumped on their grandparents.

On the bright side David proved to be a skilful actor and mimic and talented cartoonist. He wrote poems that impressed his teachers and had a flair for languages. To escape constant embarrassment from his father’s crimes, David fled to Switzerland in 1948, enrolling at Bern’s university to study German literature and philosophy. While there he met two women from the British embassy who took him in for Christmas lunch and probed him on his beliefs. Keen to prove himself a patriot, unlike his father, he was happy to sign a legal document pledging him to secrecy – probably a version of the Offical Secrets Act. He was then asked to attend meetings of left-wing student groups in Switzerland and report names of those he saw there, which he did without murmur.

By the time he started as an undergraduate at Oxford David had acquired a steady girlfriend, Ann Sharp and was asked to infiltrate left-wing groups and identify Communists, as part of MI5’s response to the discovery that Burgess and Maclean had been spying for the Russians. Years later David was asked if his conscience troubled him while he was a ‘sneak’, someone who had chosen loyalty to his country over loyalty to his friends. This dilemma was a theme that would recur repeatedly in his novels.

After marrying Ann and graduating, David accepted a teaching post at Eton. In 1957 Ann gave birth to Simon, first of their three boys. David became depressed while teaching and returned to MI5. He was involved in vetting former communists who wanted to work for British firms that manufactured military equipment. He became an agent-runner or controller of agents and became friends with a senior colleague described as “short, tubby bespectacled man… fiercely patriotic, whose right wing opinions were tempered by his humanity, sweetness of character and sense of humour.”

It was somewhat startling to discover that this colleague, John Bingham, was that cousin that the rest of my British family seldom mentioned, and about whom were vague when I inquired. I knew he wrote thrillers, that I found rather plodding, but never got to meet him. Perhaps spying was regarded as a subject not to be discussed, but Cornwell borrowed some of John’s traits for his most important character George Smiley – his unassuming, inconspicuous qualities and ability to “lose himself in a crowd.”

Soon after their second son Stephen was born David moved from MI5 to MI6. Gollancz wanted to publish his spy novel , as David studied tradecraft as part of his training. He was posted to Bonn early in the 1960s “a nest of spies” in the Cold War era, Ann joined him with their two boys and Call for the Dead was published in the UK to good reviews

A Murder of Quality followed , with similar favourable reaction, starring George Smiley and then came The Spy who Came in from the Cold with its seedy settings and ambiguous characters , contrasting well with the clear-cut ones of the James Bond books . American publishers bought rights, Paramount Pictures secured film rights, and the public loved the novel, even as real life was proving dramatic with spies like Philby surfacing in Moscow.

David was able to resign from the foreign service to write fulltime. He was a prolific author although less successful husband. His second wife Jane, to whom he is still married, proved to be an ideal companion for the long months when they are hermits while a new book is on the go. “I’m a liar,” Cornwell has written. “Born to lying, bred to it, trained to it by an industry that lies for a living, practised in it as a novelist.”

More than 50 pages of footnotes, bibliography and index reflects the extent to which Sisman has delved to present a complete and honest portrait.  If memory, fact and fiction have become hopelessly entwined in the mind of Cornwell, Sisman has done a superb job in separating the strands.

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