I NEVER met Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, but I was at one of the special moments of his remarkable life, and he gave me a treasured moment in mine.
I was lucky enough to have an almost front-row seat at his inauguration in 1994 – next to South African singing star Miriam Makeba, whose career I was managing at the time.
Oh, happy, spine-tingling day.
What happened at that historic event is burnt into my memory.
Upstretched hands waved.
Tears flowed – mine included.
Air force jets flew overhead, their vapour trails streaming red, green, gold, black and blue.
“Never, never again will this beautiful land experience the oppression of one by another,” said the tall, stately man we’d come to see.
It was something everyone gathered there believed.
An “impossible” dream had finally come true.
But even the excitement of that day was topped for me by what happened some time later when our globally revered leader – while he was President of South Africa – diverted his attention from important matters of State to do something just for me.
A decade or so earlier I had struck up an unusual friendship with an elderly Sowetan man, Ntate Tsehla Phahlane. It was unusual not least because of the differences in our age, gender, and geography, but also because, according to the cruel apart-heid laws of the time, we weren’t supposed to be friends.
But friends we were.
One day a bulkier-than-usual envelope from Ntate arrived at my Hendrik Verwoerd Drive, Johannesburg, home (the irony of that address wasn’t lost on either of us).
He’d sent me a gift – a battered, slightly torn and well-thumbed booklet, The Historic Speech of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela at the Rivonia Trial.
It was something I’d never had access to before – Mandela’s exact words during one of the most evil miscarriages of justice the world had ever known.
I read it with a mixture of horror, fascination and awe.
It was a precious gift indeed, both for its content and for the generosity of my friend Ntate, who had obviously treasured it himself.
Fast forward to 1998 and, unbeknown to me, a plot was afoot in my household.
A little while before my birthday my daughter Danielle, wanting to make it memorable, had hunted through my “treasures”, extracted the precious booklet and smuggled it out of the house.
With the help of her then-father-in law, Eastern Cape-born constitutional law expert Professor John Dugard, who had known and worked with Madiba in the bad old days, my battered booklet was soon winging its way to the President in Cape Town.
“My heart was in my mouth,” she later told me. “I dreaded how you’d react if it went missing.”
And goodness only knows what Madiba thought when he saw the grubby, dog-eared booklet.
Would he sign it, John Dugard had asked. And, of course, he did.
But what really moved me to tears when I opened it on the morning of my birthday was that Nelson Mandela had not just hastily scribbled his name – he had taken the time and the trouble to make the inscription completely personal.
“To Stevie,” he wrote, “Happy Birthday, Nelson Mandela, 4.6.98”.
That seemingly little thing was, for me, a mark of uTata’s own greatness.
A demonstration that no one was too “small” to warrant his personal attention.
And that, truly, was the measure of the man. – Stevie Godson
(A version of this tribute has also appeared in the Daily Dispatch newspaper.)2 Comments »
July 18, 1918 – December 5, 2013
“A great tree has fallen ….”
(Xhosa praise singer and teacher Xolile Madolo)Comments »
by Geoff Berner
Reviewed for New York Journal of Books by Stevie Godson
If you do, Geoff Berner’s Festival Man won’t change your mind.
Think it’s glamorous?
There are, of course, degrees of sleaze within the business and the “festival man” of the title, maverick Canadian music manager Campbell Ouiniette, fits firmly in the lower echelons.
Full of hubris and hustle, he’s on his way out and he knows it. Determined to rescue something from his always-on-the-edge, falling-apart life, even if it’s only his girlfriend Marina’s respect, he’s devised an intricate scam that just can’t fail ….
The egos, the excesses and the failures are vividly, realistically and comically wrought, probably because Mr. Berner (and that may even be the first time he’s been so elegantly titled) is himself immersed in the Canadian music scene. Signed to Mint Records, according to the book’s blurb, he’s an international touring singer/songwriter/accordionist who’s played in 18 countries.
No wonder the wreath of reefer smoke hovering over a trail of broken cars, dreams and bottles has such an acridly funny whiff of truth about it.
Right from the book’s unorthodox beginning, when the author “finds” a stack of the music manager’s “copiously stained, long-hand legal notepads”, this wild, perhaps not totally tongue-in-cheek tale trundles from one dire experience to another, ending up knee-deep in disaster at the Calgary Folk Festival with a chaotic, somewhat dangerous detour to war-torn Sarajevo along the way.
Campbell’s un-memoirs—he’d never write conventional ones, he vows—reveal an ego the size of a superbowl stage.
“Everyone knows I’m bad. I’m a bad man,” his rambled writings declare, “a bad drunk, a tornado of chaos, harbinger of strange music. Only some of them appreciate how important that makes me in this world.”
Huckster Campbell–like small-time music men the world over—is, of course, always on the verge of signing the next big thing. This time, it’s Athena Amarok who’s going to make his fortune.
Not only is she an Inuit throat-singer–sure to appeal to the “Leftiness” of the Canadian folk circuit—she’s also young and sexy: “… here was a Genuine Eskimo who made everybody who heard her simultaneously terrified and sexually aroused. I knew I was on to a winner.”
This time Campbell’s right. Unfortunately, he’s not the only one to notice her skills, and his discovery’s whisked away from him and off to New York straight after the very first performance he arranges for her. Never mind her scheduled appearance at the Calgary and five other folk festivals, for which he’s negotiated–and already spent–large guaranteed fees. Never mind the consequences if he doesn’t deliver the goods.
Still, if he can just bluff his way in, nobody actually knows Athena isn’t around. And, anyway, even if she was, Campbell’s been planning all along to unleash some of what he calls his most interesting (read “weirdest”) acts on the folk festival public. Now he’ll just have to expand the weirdness as he dodges festival management and bluffs his way around the stages, workshops, open mics and campfires.
If he succeeds, he reckons, people will finally recognise him for the visionary he is.
“And Marina,” he writes to his absent girlfriend, “you would go back to seeing me as the man of passion and courage who whisked you so brilliantly out of Yugoslavia … not as the guy who rolls endless hash-and-drum smokes and talks endlessly at the kitchen table while the sad, desperate musicians troop in and out of our little Vancouver east-side apartment, hoping I can find them a break.”
It’s a picaresque little tale, indeed, full of pitfalls, pratfalls, sex and drugs, but then so’s the business in which Festival Man is set. So be warned: if it’s the Sound of Music you’re after, this one’s definitely not for you.
Stevie Godson is a columnist for South African newspaper the Daily Dispatch and a former music industry executive. She was head of strategic marketing for BMG Music South Africa, signing some of the country’s biggest music stars, and also managed several artists, including internationally famed South African singer, the late Miriam Makeba.
Geoff Berner’s Festival Man is published by DundurnComments »
A TANTALISING invitation plopped into my e-mail inbox this week which, sadly, I’ve had to turn down. It was for a signing in Johannesburg by author Ivan Vladislavic who would, said the e-mail, be reading from his latest book, A Labour of Moles.
Vladislavic, one of my all-time favourite authors, is a former old-school newspaper sub-editor – a nit-picking word nerd like me, who just happens to have an enormous writing talent, too (those skills don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand), so it’s hardly surprising his award-winning first novel, The Restless Supermarket, leapt straight into my soul and stayed there.
Set in 1993 Johannesburg, its main character is bad-tempered, retired telephone directory proof-reader Aubrey Tearle, who’s having a tough time with what he’s convinced are declining standards in transition-phase South Africa.
The Restless Supermarket of the title is a 24-hour takeaway café, the name of which infuriates the old proof-reader, who frequently berates the Greek owner about it (at least, I seem to remember he’s Greek, although he could be Portuguese – it’s been a decade since I read the book).
The supermarket cannot possibly be restless, Aubrey insists. It’s the wrong use of the word.
The owner won’t budge. After all, his business runs right round the clock. He and his staff never rest, and nor does the supermarket. They are all, therefore, without rest. Restless, in fact.
That’s far from the whole story, though, if you’re thinking of reading the book – and I do wish you would. It’s just one of the many aggravations perfectionist Aubrey constantly battles on his uphill struggle towards tolerance.
Not too surprisingly, Vladislavic’s latest novel –I can hardly wait to get my hands on it – is also about words, or, at least, the alphabet, the building-blocks of their creation. It’s all wrapped up in what sounds like a strange literary fantasy. The title – “a labour” is the collective term for moles, by the way – is as intriguing as the content’s sure to be. A collective conundrum, I’ll be bound, and yet another reason for me to want to read the book, being a bit of a collector of collective nouns myself.
Talking of which, according to the Oxford Dictionaries’ blog, many of these oft-amusing collective nouns belong to 15th-century lists of “proper terms”, the first of which – The Book of St Albans – was published in 1486 and was subsequently reprinted over and over until well into the 16th century.
Within its three-volume covers were such delights as a blush of boys, a hastiness of cooks, a stalk of foresters, an observance of hermits, a faith of merchants, a superfluity of nuns, a malapertness (impertinence) of pedlars, and a pity of prisoners.
If you’re anything like me, you perhaps have favourites of your own. Of the dozens I’ve gathered over the years, I’m particularly fond of an argument of architects, a charm of hummingbirds, a murder of crows, an exaltation of larks, a fluther of jellyfish, and a knot of reporters (my most recent discovery).
I’m also, as someone unknown to me once said, forever disappointed that a group of squid isn’t called a squad. – Stevie Godson
(A version of this column first appeared in the Daily Dispatch newspaper)
2 Comments »
… by John Lloyd, John Mitchinson and James Harkin
Reviewed for New York Journal of Books by Stevie Godson
1,227 Quite Interesting Facts to Blow Your Socks Off is a book reviewer’s nightmare. With no real structure, apart from an index “to help you find your favourite bits”, it’s just a string of odd information – not so much a book as an extended list, but what an entertaining one.
Put together by John Lloyd, the creator of comedy television quiz show QI; John Mitchinson, QI’s director of research; and James Harkin, the programme’s senior researcher, it’s no wonder the book’s disparate, seemingly random contents elicit plenty of laughs: these men are paid for finding largely nonsensical but wholly true facts with which to entertain and delight.
As they say in the introduction to their 1,227 fascinating facts: “Here, in bite-sized pieces, nestling among the known and the numbered, are the mysteries of the enormous and the miniscule; of human comedy and tragedy; of heat, light, speed, life, art, and thought.”
There’s nothing to analyse in the way the book is put together, and not much to say either, except to reproduce a few of the hundreds of peculiar nuggets of information.
Did you know, for example, that 10% of all the photographs in the world were taken in the last 12 months; in Switzerland it’s illegal to keep just one guinea pig; Depp means “twit” in German; a single bolt of lightning contains enough energy to cook 100,000 pieces of toast; in the 19th century sausages were marketed as “bags of mystery” and in 2010, Ghana banned the sale of second-hand underpants.
Which all goes to prove what co-author John Lloyd (along with classical Greek philosopher Plato) believes: that unmitigated seriousness has no place in human affairs.
(1,227 Quite Interesting Facts to Blow Your Socks Off by John Lloyd, John Mitchinson, James Harkin is published by WW Norton & Company)
… by James Salter
Reviewed for NewYork Journal of Books by Stevie Godson
“Literary type, recovering from the trauma of war, pursues true love, revenge, and an accidental career in publishing.”
Of course, James Salter’s facility with words and stories ensures nothing is ever that pedestrian.
In his care, the dust of the mundane is wiped away. Events resonate. Descriptions sparkle: A character’s lingering dread of the impending autumn is underlined by the trees themselves which, once rich with leaves “became, suddenly one day, strangely still, as if in expectation and at that moment aware.
“They knew. Everything knew, the beetles, the frogs, the crows solemnly walking across the lawn.”
From the affecting and effective early scenes of protagonist Philip Bowman’s experiences off Okinawa during World War II, through all the twists and turns of a life played out in a rapidly changing America, nothing about this book ultimately disappoints.
According to the promotional material, the story is set immediately after the Second World War, but the heat of battle permeates its pages at the outset.
Mr. Salter’s mastery is such that he draws the reader in to the thick of the relentless and devastating battle of Okinawa, and the desperation of the situation—especially among the doomed young men on the Japanese ship Yamato, which was under orders to attack the invasion fleet. Three thousand men were on board. All had written letters of farewell to their loved ones.
“Find happiness with another, they wrote. Be proud of your son. Life was precious to them ….
“It was known that the ship was to perish as an emblem of the undying will of the nation not to surrender.”
As absorbing as the brief chapters on war are, the 87-year-old author’s scenes of seduction are equally realistic and memorable, as are his astute observations of a still-bruised England 15 years after its victory:
“. . . it was England, like a battered fighter somehow left standing, that had paid too much. A decade later there was still food rationing and it was difficult to travel … the bells that had tolled the hour of victory were long silent.”
“I’m a frotteur,” the multiple award-winning Mr. Salter once told The Paris Review, “someone who likes to rub words in his hand, to turn them around and feel them, to wonder if that really is the best word possible.”
In this book, he has rubbed them to a high sheen indeed.
All That Is by James Salter is published by Knopf.
(Stevie Godson is a columnist for South African newspaper the Daily Dispatch, a copy editor and a former books page editor.)
Confusing or downright clever? Let’s hope this sign in a northern California town doesn’t have too many motorists scratching their heads or it may well cause more accidents than it prevents!2 Comments »
ACCORDING to one of my more forceful teachers, we should never put off until tomorrow what can be done today. Being a bit of a goody-two-shoes, and in awe of my teachers, I assumed he knew what he was talking about.
Turns out this particular cliché was wrong.
In fact, because of that particular teacher’s insistence, I’ve only just realised the reason for the eureka! moment I had a couple of decades ago. I’d battled for days to write a (commissioned) rap song, finally giving up on it in despair until one day in the bath the verses, unbidden and without warning, leapt into my head in almost perfect order. I remember jumping out to quickly scribble them down.
It’s been the same with most of my undertakings, now I come to think of it, although I’m not usually in the bath when the solution strikes. Just as well, or I’d be permanently soggy. Entertaining would be a bit of a problem, too!
I’m talking about procrastination, of course. I’ve always been a bit ashamed of mine, half-fearing it’s mere laziness in disguise. The odd thing is that this perverse state of mind isn’t reserved only for rotten chores like cleaning the bathroom or catching up on the filing – I even put off doing things I really enjoy. Painting a picture becomes a marathon – never mind coming up with the subject matter, I need a week at least just to gather together the paints and brushes. As for the mosaic table I started longer ago than I care to remember, it’s been stalled at the very last touch – Che Guevara’s chin – for six months or more.
But these dizzy-making delays, it turns out, aren’t a bad thing at all and I happened on this ground-breaking discovery quite by chance. I was reading the review of a motivational book – Breakthrough! 90 Proven Strategies to Overcome Creative Block and Spark Your Imagination, apparent wisdom from a bunch of creative types, collected and strung together by San Francisco-based designer and musician Alex Cornell.
It’s a wonder I read it – the title alone is enough to give me the heebie-jeebies. In bookshops I scurry, head down, past shelves of the genre, which I consider mostly to be the refuge of the down-and-desperate.
What drew my attention this time, and made me read on, was the reproduction of a handwritten list by unknown-to-me “creative polymath” Debbie Millman. As my eyes scrolled through the painfully predictable – 1. Sleep, blah, blah; 2. Read as much as you can, blah, blah, 3. Colour code your library (!); 4. More SLEEP (her capitals – see, she’s already scraping her barren barrel) – they landed on number 5, my eureka moment: “Force yourself to procrastinate. Works every time!”
The guilty feelings of all those years fell away.
I suddenly realised that what I’ve been doing isn’t ducking and diving at all.
It shouldn’t even be called procrastination, I reckon. It’s gestation. An instinctive, valid and necessary step towards creative success.
No longer will I guiltily blush when the beloved looks at me askance as I wander into the kitchen to make my fifth cup of coffee despite a deadline breathing down my neck. I’ll just enjoy the rush of knowing (groundwork thoroughly done, of course, and fingers admittedly crossed) that everything will finally fall into place. – Stevie Godson
(A version of this column was first published in the Daily Dispatch. Picture: Newspaper Boat by Zarko Drincic)Comments »
I WAS feeling pretty down the other day. In fact, on a scale of 1 to Adele, I was truly miserable. Unlike the angst-ridden singer, for me it wasn’t a case of love gone wrong, though. It was far worse – I’d been beaten by a word.
That doesn’t happen to me very often. Actually, I can’t remember it ever happening so to say it was traumatic is an understatement.
In spite of the arsenal of reference books at my elbow – not to mention that word-wide resource, the internet – I just couldn’t find out what it meant. Not even in my brand-spanking-new 1,904 page, 620,000-word definition Chambers Dictionary!
It was all the fault of fellow word nerd, and regular reader of my newspaper column, Doug Williams. Challenged by his American friend Brice – they do this kind of thing to one another apparently – Doug passed the puzzle over to me.
“This is a test,” wrote Brice to Doug. “I want to know how skilled you really are. And don’t you dare Goggle [sic], although it probably wouldn’t produce a result.”
Doug’s mind-goggling test was to come up with the meaning of the word “quillen”.
Instead, he came up blank – and turned to me.
“Are you sure the word isn’t ‘quillon’,” I asked Doug. “That’s the name for either arm of the cross-guard on a sword handle and also on some knives.”
It wasn’t. Reluctantly – after much searching – I threw in the towel, too.
“Okay. I give up. Please enlighten me,” wrote Doug to a doubtless very happy Brice, who wasted no time with his response.
“It relates to train whistles or, more appropriately, horns,” he wrote. (Well, of course it does!)
“Considerable effort and pride are invested in these devices. Many rail companies have their own distinctive sounds. And engineers have their own distinctive methods of ‘playing’ these instruments. An engineer’s horn signature is his quillen.”
Someone who really loves the sound, explained Brice, is Dan, another old friend of his – so old they go back as far as pre-school. Dan’s a marine engineer specialising in the repair of old diesel engines, and a musician with a master’s in music ethnology.
“He also is involved in a small local rail link here in Seattle,” writes Brice. “A couple of years ago he acquired a five-horn train whistle, which he promptly mounted on the roof of his shop [Brice is referring to a workshop here, I reckon] together with an automatic device to blow it every day at noon.
“The neighbours complained. It was very, very loud. Cops arrived, end of train whistle.
“Dan likes loud. He once got his hands on a steam calliope [that’s a kind of keyboard fitted with steam whistles, in case you’re wondering] and damned near everyone in Seattle heard it.”
Now all of this is all very well, but reading it through I’ve decided I won’t concede defeat after all. Not until I see formal proof.
What kind of a word is it that has no documentation, no written definition – and can’t even be “Goggled”?
No word at all.
Suddenly, I feel so much better. — Stevie Godson
(A version of this column first appeared in the Daily Dispatch)
… by Edward Kelsey Moore
Reviewed for NewYork Journal of Books by Stevie Godson
A CLUTCH of husbands, wayward and otherwise, a vicious small-town bigot, and even a couple of benign ghosts – including a most unladylike Eleanor Roosevelt – are among the characters who inhabit the pages of professional cellist Edward Kelsey Moore’s enchanting debut novel.
But it’s Odette, Clarice, and Barbara Jean – nicknamed The Supremes by their friends and watched over by avuncular diner owner Big Earl – who bear testament not only to the author’s literary skill, but also to his own supreme listening skills.
A childhood spent, by his own admission, eavesdropping on the women in his family as they talked at family gatherings, has paid off, enabling Mr Moore to breathe real life and warmth into his three very different, though equally memorable, main characters.
As he explains: “Even when I was too young to fully understand the often very adult subject matter of their conversations, I was struck by how quickly the topics veered from heartbreakingly tragic to wildly hilarious. I was also amazed that the aunts and cousins who had the hardest and saddest lives were always the funniest people at the table.”
The Supremes of the title comprise the seemingly fearless Odette, who chats regularly with the ghosts of her mama and her spectre sidekick, the hard-drinking Eleanor Roosevelt (“… the perfect little lady when she was in the White House – all lace doilies and finger bowls – but since she died … drunk as a skunk”) with as much equanimity as she does with her friends.
Then there’s Clarice Jordan Baker, whose original claim to fame is that she was the first black child born at University Hospital, in Plainview, Indiana, a fact her mother made sure everyone knew. Her birth, rhapsodised one newspaper article, heralded the arrival of ‘the new Negro family of the desegregated 1950s’. A talented classical pianist, Clarice has for years suppressed her own needs for those of her Ken-doll handsome, feckless husband, Richmond. When her dam of frustration finally bursts, Richmond’s almost swept away in the flood.
Barbara Jean’s start in life is far less salubrious. Born to a drunk on a stranger’s couch, it’s only when Odette and Clarice take her – somewhat grudgingly at first – under their collective teenage protection that she’s free to reach for her true potential. Loved to distraction by her wealthy, older husband, Lester, she’s nonetheless a fragile beauty, damaged by the socio-political times of her youth as well as a personal tragedy that’s almost too huge to bear.
The tumultuous story of the women’s enduring friendship, much of it played out at their regular table at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat diner – the first black-owned business in Plainview, Indiana – spans some 40 years, from the time the civil rights movement starts to take hold.
I strongly suggest you read this book in its enchanting entirety before the inevitable movie deal comes to pass.
The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can Eat by Edward Kelsey Moore is published by Knopf.
(Stevie Godson is a columnist for South African newspaper the Daily Dispatch, a copy editor and a former books page editor.)1 Comment »