THE LAST HURRAH by Graham Viney published by Jonathan Ball Publishers, Cape Town, 2018.
A whopping 386-page softback that embraces not just three extraordinary months in 1947, but an overview of South African politics at that time. It is a very readable work of history, in which the reader can follow the progress of the White Train as the British Royal family travelled 11 172km across the country and also absorb enjoy the social life and febrile politics of the day, which Viney weaves skilfully into the royal stops.
Just how far, long and deep Viney travelled to dig into sources on three continents can be gleaned from the list on pages 364-372. Also worth reading are the pages of acknowledgements: it cheered me to see the list of libraries and archives in this country that have not fallen foul of any ‘must fall’ protests, and continue their precious roles of keeping safe our written and photographic records of the past centuries. And then there are all the senior citizens, from Cape Town to Pretoria who shared their memories of the royal visit with the author.
The black and white photographs add much to the reader’s enjoyment – many gleaned from libraries such as Transnet Heritage, others from newsreels and there’s an inset of colour shots in the book’s centre. Some have not been published before, others bring back memories of those seen in South African newspapers and cinemas.
Viney opens with an introduction on his tale “of long ago”, featuring a crowd of players that have mostly left the stage with the exception of Queen Elizabeth II. The South Africa in which the scene is set has also gone, but this book attempts, the author tells us, to place the royal tour in its post-war context of the history of South Africa and the Commonwealth.
The southeast gale blew itself out on the evening of February 16, 1947, much to the relief of Cape Town organisers, whether at the docks, the Westbrooke garden party, the mountain floodlighting and fireworks – so that the HMS Vanguard sailed into a calm Table Bay to the newly completed Duncan Dock, its bugles sounding out across the water. Thus does the author set the scene for an account of an exhaustive and exhausting journey, during which the crowds, white, brown and black, flowed like a great tide to the events, to the roadside, to the railway line, in cities, villages, and deep rural regions, to catch a glimpse of the royal family.
(This was despite National party politicians playing down the importance of the tour, and Indian and black activists also advising against their followers joining the throngs to welcome the visitors)
The chapter headings lead readers north from Cape Town, across the Karoo to Bloemfotnein, on to Durban, then to the old Transvaal, with time in Pretoria and a shorter, but packed programme in Johannesburg. Special chapters are given to two teatime gatherings – one with Ouma Smuts in Irene and the other at Vergelegen at Somerset West which is worth chuckling over... Princess Elizabeth’s coming of age and speech to the Commonwealth reminds readers of the promise of dedication to service that she has so diligently lived up to.
As Rian Malan expresses succinctly “Viney’s South Africa is a country most of us will barely recognise, teetering on the brink of convulsive change and yet almost united, at least for a moment, by love for a king and queen who wen’t really ours.” It certainly managed to unearth memories of a small child, in butcher blue Rustenburg school uniform, standing on the edge of De Waal drive in scorching February sun, waiting for the royal Daimler to pass. Some of my kindergarten fellow pupils fainted in the heat, I just got redder and hotter but remember that at last the open car drove past, allowing a glimpse of the Queen’s hat and her wave...