28 January 2023

What a drag it is getting old

The Extra Ordinary Life of Frank Derrick, Age 81

The Extra Ordinary Life of Frank Derrick, Age 81 by J.B. Morrison
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
What a drag it is getting old.

Actually that is one of the few songs that I don't recall being mentioned in the book, but it sums up the theme pretty well. Frank Derrick is an 81-year-old pensioner who is harassed by people trying to sell him stair lifts, and ends up in hospital after being run over by a milk float. When he is released from hospital with an arm and a foot in plaster his daughter in America thinks he needs home care, and so he has a nurse visit him once a week to see that he is OK and help with the housework.

He looks forward to the visits and so enjoys the company that he doesn't want the visits to end, and spends most of his time planning how to raise money to continue the care.

When I found the book on the library shelf I nearly put it back. I'd read other similar books, like The 100-year-old Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared and I Didn't Know You Cared. But then I thought, the bloke in the story is 81, I'm 81. What better time to read it than now, before I turn 82? I'm not lonely and living on my own like the bloke in the book: I have a wife and two sons and a daughter-in-law (who happens to be a caregiver, like the other main character in the book). But yes, I have known people like that. And it seemed appropriate to finish reading it on the 70th anniversary of the day I started high school, at a brand new school -- new not just to me, but to everyone there. So the school has been going for 70 years now, a good pensionable age.

So I've read it, and quite enjoyed it, but I don't think I'd want to read it again, as I have re-read I didn't know you cared. But it's worth one read at least.

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26 January 2023

Total Onslaught: Apartheid's Dirty Tricks Exposed

Totale Aanslag: Apartheid se Vuil Truuks Onthul

Totale Aanslag: Apartheid se Vuil Truuks Onthul by De Wet Potgieter
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The history of the Total Onslaught and the dirty tricks of the apartheid regime, told by a journalist who doesn't bother to hide his sympathy for them.

That was all I wrote as a "review" on GoodReads, and it wasn't really a review, just a copy of a note I had made in a list of books I had read. 

I read it 14 years ago, and couldn't really write a review now unless I read it again. 

My reason for posting this now is that an online friend mentioned on Facebook that he was reading it, so I mentioned that I had read it and found a kind of dissonance between what was said in the book and the way in which it was said. 

On the surface, a catalogue of evil deeds of the apartheid security forces (Shock! Shock! Horror! Horror!), but a subtext of salaciousness (Nudge! Nudge! Wink! Wink!), like a British tabloid gleefully reporting the vicar's adultery. And  the author describes with relish how the perpetrators of some or other outrage would gather in some bar to celebrate it and congratulate each other.

It occurred to me, as I said that 14 years later, that this might, just possibly, have been very subtle satire that my mind was too coarse to grasp, but on finding the book on my shelf and opening it, I thought that unlikely. 

It also made me a bit curious about the English translation. In the Afrikaans the subtext is there, plain to see. But the nuance could be lost if it is translated into English, because the idioms do not translate well, or do not have the same force when translated.

But what confirmed my initial evaluation was a caption to a photograph. 

The photo showed a worried-looking President de Klerk, and the caption read:

F.W. de Klerk, 'n duidelik bekommerde man in die dae toe hy Suid-Afrika uit die era van Totale Aanslag gelei het na Totale Oorgawe

I don't know what the official English translation says, but my reading of that is, F.W. de Klerk, a clearly worried man in the days when he led South Africa from the era of Total Onslaught to Total Surrender

"Totale Oorgawe" can be translated as "Total Surrender" or "Total Capitulation", and it is the kind of phrase that only a diehard bittereinder supporter of the apartheid regime would use, and it, as well as the more nuanced idioms, clearly shows where the author's sympathies lie. Anyone else would say something like "a negotiated settlement".

25 January 2023

Do "left" and "right" in politics or economics mean anything?

For a long time now I have found it difficult to understand what people are talking about when they use terms like "left" or "right" to describe people's political positions. It seems that they can be used to mean opposite things, and none more so than in the following article, which I came across on the web yesterday -- The concerted, cowardly #MeToo attack on Harvard professor John Comaroff - World Socialist Web Site:
John Comaroff, professor of African and African American studies and of anthropology at Harvard University, has become the target of what has all the earmarks of another filthy #MeToo witch-hunt. In August 2020 Comaroff was placed on paid administrative leave in the midst of an investigation into several allegations of "unwanted touching", "verbal sexual harassment" and "professional retaliation."
Please read the whole article, and tell me which of the parties in the dispute described there are, in your opinion, the "left" and which are the "right".

From my reading of it, the source of the article is "left", Prof John Comaroff is "centre left", and his attackers are "far right" and exponents of the "cancel culture". But what do you think?

I've blogged about the left/right confusion before (see this article on the "theological left", for example), but the Comaroff one takes the cake.

The way I discovered this article, and the many other issues it raised, is quite complicated, and shows that the world is a lot weirder than I thought it was.

It began when a friend sent me an article claiming that the QAnon conspiracy theory in the US was started by a South African cartoonist and was based on African witchcraft. That sounded like a metaconspiracy theory on its own. It was a topic my friend knew I was interested in, and I've written a couple of children's novels and an academic journal article in which witchcraft is one of the themes. One of the things that interested me was the fact that there was almost no overlap between the bibliography in my article -- Christian Responses to Witchcraft and Sorcery -- and the QAnon one.

I therefore did a web search for articles by the anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff, using the search terms "Comaroff witch devil", and the list produced on my desktop computer, which uses the DuckDuckGo search engine, contained not a single academic journal article, but only news items about some allegations against Prof John Comaroff. 

Later, working on my laptop, which uses Google as the default search engine, I wanted to read more about the controversy, and, using exactly the same search terms, not a single news article turned up, but only a list of academic journal articles. 

Intrigued by this, I tried other search terms to find some articles on the controversy, but with no result. As far as Google was concerned, the controversy did not exist. 

That is enough to make one suspect a conspiracy. 

It's a conspiracy-theory generator par excellence.

Why was Google apparently suppressing the story of that controversy? Did they think it was fake news? But reading the article, it doesn't look like fake news. And there are apparently several other articles on the same topic which I haven't read yet. And if it were fake news, surely a web search would turn up something from Harvard University denying that such a controversy had ever taken place?

And then to add to it all, someone I've known online for several years, a fellow blogger who, like me, often blogs about the Inklings literary group and their writings, announced that she has a written a paper on Christian Nationalism and the occult -- another overlapping topic -- which appears in my children's books, and is of interest to me, since Christian Nationalism was the ideology behind the apartheid policy of the South African government between 1948 and 1994, which we thought was thoroughly discredited 30 years ago, but now seems to be making a comeback in some circles in the USA and Russia (try a web search on "Dugin"). 

It looks as though I have a lot more reading to do to catch up, but sifting out the fake news and the conspiracy theories and the metaconspiracy theories is not going to make it easier, especially in a world that, like Nineveh in Jonah's time, contains millions of people who don't know their left from their right.

12 January 2023

The Young Unicorns

The Young UnicornsThe Young Unicorns by Madeleine L'Engle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've just finished reading this book for the third time, and was surprised to find that I could remember very little of the plot, the characters, or what happened in the story, so it was almost like reading it for the first time. That's one reason that I haven't written a review on GoodReads before now -- though I remembered reading it, I could not remember enough of the story to write a review. I find that with all the books by Madeleine l'Engle that I have read, though I have not read many, because they do not seem very popular in South Africa, and so they are very hard to find.

The story is set in Manhattan in New York City, where three children pass a junk shop on their way home from school. They pick up an old lamp, and one of them rubs it when challenged to do so, and a genie appears. The girl who rubs it, Emily Gregory, is blind, and makes a wish, that she would be able to see again, at which point a stranger interrupts and says that he wouldn't trust a twentieth-century genie.

It turns out that Emily Gregory, now aged 12, was blinded in a robbery attempt a couple of years earlier. The family of the other children with her, Suzy and Rob Austin, rent part of Emily's father's house, so they live together. The Austin children have an older sister Vicky, and there is an older boy Josiah "Dave" Davidson, who helps Emily with her homework by reading to her from her school books.

"Dave" Davidson's father, whom he doesn't get on with, works as a handyman/maintenance officer at the nearby Episcopalian Cathedral of St John the Divine, and the cathedral itself is almost a character in the story, and some of its clergy are also characters in the story. And that was my main reason for reading it this time.

I've been writing a children's novel which features St Mary's Anglican Cathedral in Johannesburg and its clergy, and so I re-read The Young Unicorns to see how Madeleine l'Engle handled such things. I did that partly because in the secular West, where most readers of English children's books live, religion, and especially Christian religion, seems to be a touchy topic, at least in reviews that I've read. 

Plenty of popular adult (as opposed to "Adult") novelists, like Susan Howatch and Ernest Raymond, heirs of Anthony Trollope, have written books full of vicars, canons, prebendaries, deans, bishops, cathedrals and such things, but mentioning them in children's books seems, to judge from some reviews I have read, to be a semi-taboo topic. Synagogues, mosques, gompas and covens are fine. But cathedrals? A bit iffy.

And, having said that, I recalled that the previous time I had read the book, in 1998, I was also writing a children's novel that mentioned St Mary's Cathedral, though more in passing than in the current case. 

On my third reading I was struck by the richness of the description of the settings, which Madeleine l'Engle seemed to do particularly well. The McGuffin is a new device for laser surgery, called a microray, which the father of the Austin children had moved to New York to work on in collaboration with a surgeon, Dr Hyde, with whom, however, he does not get on. This gives a slightly science fictional atmosphere to the story, though it cannot really be classified as science fiction. I had added it to my fantasy shelf on GoodReads, but it isn't really fantasy, in the literary sense, either. It is fantasy in the sense that some of the characters have fantasies about what they will do and achieve with the microray device, but that's about all.

There are hints that the backstory of Dave and Emily, and possibly of the Austin family, are told in other books, though I have never seen or read them, but I enjoyed this one enough to want to read them if I can ever find a copy, and I keep looking in second-hand bookshops for other books by Madeleine l'Engle.

One thing that twenty-first-century readers may find not quite to their taste is that Madeleine l'Engle doesn't adhere very closely to the "show don't tell" rule of fiction. There is quite a lot of telling in the story, especially of the main plot and the denouement.

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11 January 2023

A Real-Life Spy Story

The ANC Spy Bible: Surviving across enemy lines

The ANC Spy Bible: Surviving across enemy lines by Moe Shaik
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A real-life spy story that is as gripping and exciting as any novel.

But I very nearly didn't read this book. I picked it off the library shelf and when I saw the name of the author, and immediately a phrase sprang to mind: "a generally corrupt relationship". 

Those were the words of a High Court judge speaking about Schabir Shaik, brother of the author, and his relationship with a prominent politician, Jacob Zuma. I very nearly put the book back on the shelf. I didn't want to read about sleaze, and nothing more could be more sleazy than the dealings of corrupt politicians and businessmen. 

And then I thought, aren't you being prejudiced? Take it out and read it, and if it's too sleazy, you can change it for another book in a fortnight's time -- you're not buying the book. So I took it out, and I'm glad I did. It is well worth reading and raises a lot of interesting and important questions.

Moe Shaik was a member of the African National Congress (ANC) underground in South Africa in the 1980s when the movement was banned and being a member was illegal. He was arrested and detained for questioning about the whereabouts of an ANC courier, and after being tortured by the Special Branch was eventually released, but not before making contact with someone in the Special Branch (SB) who was sympathetic, and after his release began feeding him with information from within the SB.

This resulted in Moe Shaik starting a special intelligence unit within the ANC. Just as the Special Branch tried to collect information on the ANC, so the ANC began collecting information on the SB -- what they knew and what they didn't know, and some of their sources of informatio0n within the ANC. It was dangerous work, and there was always the risk of being caught.

When the ANC was unbanned in 1990, and political prisoners were released, people like Moe Shaik had to continue underground for a while. The National Party politicians might be willing to negotiate with the ANC, but there were many in the security services who continued to fight the war, perhaps in the hope that they could change the minds of their political bosses.

As the new democratic South Africa was born, Moe Shaik and his colleagues were faced with a different question: what was the role of an intelligence and security service in a democratic society?

This is one man's view of events, one man's memoir, but it is just such personal views that make history come alive and be more than a boring chronicle that reads like minutes of a meeting. It gives valuable insights into the history of the period, and if you like spy fiction, you'll probably also enjoy it.

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09 January 2023

Early Days of the Internet in South |Africa

There's an interesting article here on How the Internet got started in South Africa

 I found it particularly interesting as I played a small part in that history.

On 24 October 1988 I attended a Uninet conference. Uninet was the nascent Universities Network of South Africa, much of the work on the founding of which is described in the article linked above. 

The Uninet Conference was held at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Pretoria. The plan was apparently to set up a high-speed link between the universities, but it seemed to me that it was a bit like trying to build a freeway without access roads, because the networks within the universities were not sufficiently developed to enable us to gain access to the existing networks, such as SAPONET and the rudimentary Uninet.

I was there representing the Editorial Department of the University of South Africa, and we were concerned to gain access to library and terminology resources as well as being able to consult with colleagues in the field on questions of language and usage. 

But I also participated in amateur BBS (Bulletin Board System) networks of which the main one in South Africa at the time was Fidonet. It was run by a system of private enterprise socialism in which sysops (system operators) of individual BBSs shared their resources with anyone who cared to phone them, and shared the expense of passing messages around the country and around the world over dial-up landlines. All you needed to start a BBS was a computer with the right software (mostly freeware), a modem, and a phone line. People could call in, leave and read messages, and participate in discussion forums, called "conferences", some of which were local to a particular BBS, some national, and some international. Through the ASIAN_LINK conference some of us had first-hand accounts of the Tianamnen Square demos and massacre in China. 

One of the things discussed at the Uninet conference was the difficulty of international communication, including such things as JANet (the Joint Academic Network in the UK) using a different form of domain name addressing to everyone else. Instead of university.ac.uk they used uk.ac.university. But that was a purely theoretical problem if we could not actually connect. 

On the second day of the conference I managed to talk to some interesting people, like Mike van der Linde, of Pretoria University, and Neville Spicer of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and Francois Jacot-Guillarmod of Rhodes University. I suggested that they set up a Fidonet-Uninet gateway, and route international traffic through it. Francois Jacot-Guillarmod took the bait, and within a couple of months had set up a gateway at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, which connected to Randy Bush's BBS in Oregon, USA. He ran the Fidonet Echogate for Africa there.

Fidonet and its members benefited in that Rhodes University paid the phone bills for all the international traffic, both Uninet and Fidonet, that went through their line over a 9600 bps modem. That carried the whole of South Africa's international internet traffic for the next few years.

04 January 2023

The Secret Seven revisited

Good Old Secret Seven

Good Old Secret Seven by Enid Blyton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jack is given a telescope, which he shares with the Secret Seven, who notice strange doings at an old castle up on a hill.

Load shedding at 6:00 am, so I read Good Old Secret Seven, and finished it in an hour and a half before load shedding ended. I'd read a few of the Secret Seven books, but even as a child had not been very impressed with them. My main memory of them was the children's encounter with the village policeman who kept telling them to "Clear orf", but he didn't appear in this one. And the only one who seemed to have any character was Susie, the villain of the sub-plot, and she was far more interesting than the rest of them put together.

Perhaps that is because readers are expected to be familiar with the Secret Seven from reading the earlier books in the series, but, on the other hand, Susie is the sister of Jack, who seems to be one of the more prominent members of the group, so she probably makes an appearance in the other books as well.

Perhaps this is may also be because Enid Blyton's kid whodunits, in which a group of children encounter and outwit a group of criminals or other bad guys, are strictly age age graded. The Secret Seven books seem to be aimed at readers aged about 7-9, the Famous Five at readers aged about 8-9, the "Secret of" series at readers aged about 9-10, and the "of Adventure" series at readers aged about 10-12. The ones for older readers seem to have more definite characters. 


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