Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Billboard seen in America.


I’ve just finished reading Storyteller – the many lives of Laurens van der Post by J.D.F. Jones, and it has given me much food for thought.

When I was a child growing up in central Africa we spent several months living in Nyasaland (now Malawi) and it was there that I first heard the name Laurens van der Post. It seemed that who ever he was he had done something that made the grown ups very cross with him. When at school in Cape Town we had to read his book Venture to the Interior, I discovered what it was that had made everyone so angry, as my parents told me that he had twisted the truth about someone and exaggerated things he had done in Nyasaland when he wrote the book. I thought no more about it. In the intervening years, Laurens van der Post’s public profile grew and grew as he became internationally famous, as an expert on the Bushmen, friend of Maggie Thatcher and Prince Charles, knighted by the Queen, and then in old age, one of Prince William’s godfathers.

A conversation about LvdP that I had with a friend in South Africa earlier this year spurred me into getting hold of a copy of the only authorised biography of the man, and reading it has left me aghast. LvdP was the 12th child in an Afrikaans family and grew up in a small rural town in the Orange Free State. He started working as a reporter on a newspaper in South Africa, a job which amongst other things gave him the opportunity to visit Japan for two weeks or so. Eventually he left South Africa for England. During WW2 he was captured by the Japanese and was a prisoner of war on the island of Java for several years. He wrote extensively about the experience when the war was over, and was considered to be a real hero. Then in the early ‘50s he wrote Venture to the Interior which brought him fame and fortune, and this was followed by books about the Bushmen in the Kalahari, and other subjects. It would be tedious to recount his entire life here, suffice to say that it was a long life, and certainly an interesting one.

Most of the books he wrote were non-fiction and supposedly autobiographical and it is through his books that he came to be revered as an exceptional man, a teacher of moral and spiritual values, a great thinker who was a Jungian in his concepts of life. What is truly shocking to the reader of this biography is that, after extensive research and detailed analysis of all the letters, diaries, memories and official papers he could lay his hands on, the biographer has to tell us that at best Laurens was a fantasist and at worst a down-right liar about every aspect of his life. He twisted and embellished everything to make himself the hero, often at the expense of other people’s reputations. His supposed first hand knowledge of the Bushmen and their myths and legends was gathered in substantial part from the work of anthropologists who had published books about them towards the end of the 19th century, so a little plagiarism didn’t worry him too much either.

It seems LvdP also had a very cavalier attitude to women, and when married to his second wife he had a long term mistress to whom he was also being unfaithful with other women. What I found truly horrendous was that, when he was 46 years old he was travelling by sea from Cape Town to UK and friends of his asked if he would act in loco parentis to their 14 year old daughter who was going to ballet school in London. He agrees to do so, but on the voyage he seduced the girl and got her pregnant. Once he realised she was to have a child he sent her packing straight back to South Africa, and refused to acknowledge her child when it was born. Subsequent to his death, the whole sorry story came out, and has been admitted by his surviving family.

It is not uncommon for writers to re-invent their own histories, Patrick O’Brian did so, as did Laurie Lee, Bruce Chatwin and Richard Llewellyn, not to mention Jeffrey Archer, but they never set themselves up as moral guardians, what they wrote was fiction or fictionalised and they did not promote it as literal fact for their own aggrandisement.

What amazes me is that LvdP managed to get away with all this deception. A combination of luck and charm I guess, and the fact that he compartmentalised his friends and acquaintances. As many of the people who were interviewed for the biography said, he was the most charming man they ever met. Africa and the Bushmen were far away from most people, and most of his friends, readers and followers knew nothing of them anyway so would not be able to judge whether what he said was true or not. Every so often someone would challenge him on one point or another, but he would respond so angrily and threateningly that they would back away.

As a reader what do I expect from an author? Not necessarily truth, but I do not like deliberate deception which is quite another thing. Does it matter that LvdP's books contain so much fantasy about himself? It does to me, because in his writings he sets himself up as some sort of moral authority - and lying and moral authority are mutually exclusive.

I have also asked myself what I expect from a biographer. I expect to know a bit about the life of the subject when I have finished reading the biography, I expect the information they have gathered is true, whatever interpretation they then place on such information, and that they have not ducked thorny issues in the life of the subject.

J.D.F Jones has ducked nothing, in fact he has been almost boringly relentless in his determination to uncover every aspect of LvdPs life, and parts of the book are almost tedious in their detail, I suppose he felt that debunking such a "great" man meant he must be super careful to give chapter and verse; none the less, it is a fascinating read, especially for anyone from South Africa who has grown up on the legend of the man.

Rated 4*


I’m sure that all the psychics and fortune tellers had foretold this new piece of Consumer Protection Legislation, but the rest of us probably didn’t. Most of us think that being protected from dodgy financial advisors is a good thing, but being protected from the lady who asks you to cross her palm with silver at the local fun-fair is hardly high up the list of my major anxieties. Since last Monday, under the new legislation, all fortune tellers, psychics, mediums and spiritualist healers have now got to publish or display a disclaimer stating that their services are for “entertainment purposes only”. Well whoopee doo… we all thought that Madame Arcarti’s musings would accurately chart the rest of our lives.

Until now such practitioners have been regulated by the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951, and in the last 20 years there have only been one or two cases where someone has been prosecuted.

Do the Government not have better things to do than to criminalise ladies with multi-coloured scarves round their heads, who sit in draughty tents on fair grounds burbling on about tall dark strangers and crossing water to find our destinies?

One of my grandmothers, a respectable teacher of Latin and Greek, was much in demand at local fêtes where she read tea leaves for all and sundry and helped raise fund for various worthy causes. Most of the people who visited her to have their fortunes told were local and knew damned well she was making it up as she went along. Those that didn’t know her and believed what she had to say were naïve to say the least, and no harm was done by whatever she predicted.

I know that mediums cannot prove that what they say will come to pass, but neither can any of the established religions prove that heaven or hell actually exist, let alone whether we will go there.

We are not fools, the government doesn’t need to protect us from imagined futures.


Way back in March I joined a blog challenge called 'Soups On'. The idea is that you choose five cookbooks and write a review of each one, having made one of the recipes from the book, and then publish it on your own blog. So here goes with my first choice.
OTTOLENGHI THE COOKBOOK is very recently published here in the UK by Ebury Press, and is written by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. I'm mad about this book, the recipes are wonderful, and here is one which I have already made three times, to great acclaim. It is great for a cold buffet, but last week I served it with roast duck breast and new potatoes and it complemented them perfectly.


Serves 6

400g French beans
400g mangetout
70g unskinned hazelnuts

1 orange
20g chives, roughly chopped
3 Tablespns olive oil
2 Tablespns hazelnut oil
Coarse sea salt & freshly ground black pepper

Pre-heat oven to 180°C

Trim the stalk ends of the french beans and the mangetouts, but keep the two vegetables separate.

Bring a large pot of unsalted water to boil. When boiling blanch the French beans in the water for 4 minutes, then drain into a colander and run them under plenty of tap water until cold. Leave to drain and dry.

Repeat with the mangetouts, but only blanch them for 1 minute.

Whilst the beans are cooking, scatter the hazelnuts over a baking tray and roast in the oven for about 10 minutes. Leave until cool enough to handle, then place them in a clean tea-towel and gently rub them to get rid of most of the skin. Chop the nuts with a sharp knife. They should be quite rough, some can even stay whole.

Using a vegetable peeler, remove the zest from the orange in strips, being careful to avoid the bitter white pith. Slice each piece of zest into very thin strips (if you have a citrus zester you could do the whole job with that).

To assemble the dish, mix all the ingredients together in a bowl, toss gently, then taste and adjust the seasoning/

Serve at room temperature.


I'm off to a wedding in Morocco tomorrow and won't be back for a week or two, so there may be a blogging hiatus. Toodle pip folks!



Charlotte said...

I was also brought up on the legend of Sir Lourens. Disappointing to discover he was a charlatan.

As for that recipe book, I think I'm off to order it on the strength of the mange tout recipe alone!

paddy said...

Exactly! And to be absolutely fair we should also put a "for entertainment purposes only" sign in front of every church. Who's with me?

Nick said...

Paddy got there first! Indeed, since religious advice is equally unreliable, shouldn't the legislation cover religions also? "For entertainment purposes only" - absolutely. Not even such good entertainment as reading a palm. But as you say, what a waste of time when there are much more important things for the government to sort out.

Anyway, I'm just looking in my new state-of-the-art crystal ball (cut-price on ebay) and it predicts that all mediums and clairvoyants will spontaneously combust on April 1. Now cross my palm with silver, dear.

Obnoxio The Clown said...

I'm surprised you didn't realise that the stupid law against fortune tellers was not enacted by our parliament. It is, in fact, an EU directive, as most "UK law" now is.

The real problem is not the UK government passing stupid laws, it's that the UK government no longer has the power to stop stupid laws being passed.

Teuchter said...

As a child, I must have read that Bushmen of the Kalahari book several times a year.
How disappointing that Laurens was no better than he should be.

Have just eaten the bean/mangetout salad - along with wee, new potatoes and roasted monkfish, wrapped in parma ham.

John Self said...

I have a slightly different view on mediums/psychics, probably these days known as the Derren Brown Position. I think they're harmful and exploitative, too often relying on people in a vulnerable position, such as the lonely or recently bereaved, who really do take serious notice of what they say. Anything that moves toward their general eradication can only be good!

Jeanne said...

Very interesting about Laurens vdP. I also grew up with the legend of the man and coincidentally some distant relatives of his were at school with my brother. A bigger bunch of bullsh1tters you could scarcely hope to meet - so maybe it was a genetic defect?? :o) WIll look for the book.

And as for Ottolenghi... MMMMMM! I made one of his salads recently (http://www.cooksister.com/2008/06/char-grilled-asparagus-courgette-and-haloumi-salad---im-in-love.html) and his cranberry & pear upside down cake previously - both were magnificent! I am definitely buying the book...

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