Though full of self promotion and adoration of self, I quite enjoyed this book. I don’t think it was a tough read, though the self-praise was a little tedious at times. The ex-PM’s views will not be to everyone’s liking (I for one don’t agree with him on everything), however, I do think the book is worth reading and considering – he does make you think about policy areas and that is eminently a good thing.
Though panned in some circles for his assessment of colleagues (if they can be called that), I don’t believe he has been that harsh in his assessment of them. Indeed, a good number probably deserve a more thorough expose than they get, as well as a greater evaluation of their worth – which would then be far harsher than is dished out here.
I think it is a very useful treatment of the period, though it would be unwise to accept this as the only source material in assessing the Turnbull government. As other material of the period becomes available, it will then be seen as to just how valuable this particular tome can be considered.
Can people on the wrong end of power change the world by working together? Or are the moments when the powerless take control of their own lives doomed to be snuffed out?
The question is raised by Kally Forrest’s book Bonds of Justice: The Struggle for Oukasie. It is another in the Hidden Voices series which aims to recover and preserve writings on society which would otherwise fall through publishers’ nets. The book is short and highly readable, and so is accessible to a non-academic audience. It has been some years in the making – it uses information gathered in 2011 and 2012. But the story it tells raises topical issues.
Forrest details the fight, in the last years of apartheid, of the people of Oukasie, a township near Brits in North West Province, against an attempt to force them to move to Lethlabile, 25 km from Brits, primarily because their presence offended white residents. While it was common under apartheid for black people to be removed to areas where they would be out of sight to whites, it was uncommon for those who faced this threat to resist it successfully. Oukasie did manage to defeat the attempted removal.
It organised to do this despite a sustained campaign by the apartheid authorities. This included the murder of anti-removal leaders and members of their family, but its chief strategy was to divide residents. So, resistance could only succeed if the resisters were organised and united. While thousands were induced to move, enough stayed to force the authorities to abandon the removal and agree that Oukasie be developed.
Unusual circumstances made Oukasie an ideal site for strong grassroots organisation in which people remain united because they share in decisions.
Brits was the site of strong worker organisation, largely the work of Young Christian Workers (YCW), founded by Roman Catholic priests as a vehicle for European workers to change exploitative conditions through organised efforts. YCW, which in Brits was open to non-Christians, stressed democratic grassroots organisation based on careful strategy summed up in its motto – “See, judge, act” – which encouraged members to reflect on what they saw before deciding what to do about it.
Young Christian Workers was political, since it challenged the effect of economic power on its members. But it was wary of the political movements which, it believed, wanted workers to act in ways which advanced the movements’ interests but not their own. It was able to maintain this stance because, in contrast to much of the rest of the country, the political organisations were not active in Oukasie.
Its attitude was identical to that of a section of the trade union movement which happened to be strongly represented in Brits. Its vehicle was the union which became the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa). Young Christian Workers’s members gravitated to it and it developed a strong presence in Oukasie. The resistance to removal relied on the same stress on grassroots participation and careful strategy which Young Christian Workers and Numsa adopted in the workplace.
The Oukasie resistance became, therefore, a test for an approach which relied on the efforts of grassroots people rather than high profile political leaders to change the world.
In one sense, this route to change worked. Oukasie was reprieved, and this was followed by a period of development. The Brits transitional local government which was elected in the mid-1990s was led by Levy Mamobolo, a unionist and anti-removal leader who, until his untimely death, led the area effectively and honestly. The first few years seemed to show that democratic local organisation could also produce political leadership which serves the people rather than itself.
But, as Forrest shows, the Oukasie story does not end happily. Leaders committed to public service were forced out of the local government; public services declined and corruption increased.
Forrest therefore frames her book not as a story of the triumph of a particular way of fighting for change but as evidence of what is possible if people organise themselves in the way Oukasie did. The author of an important book on Numsa, she is an advocate of the approach followed by Young Christian Workers, Numsa and the Oukasie resisters. She contrasts this with the selfish elitism which gained control of Brits.
But she leaves unanswered the key question: is the grassroots organisation which saved Oukasie a realistic route to change, or is it doomed to give way to the top-down leadership to which Brits succumbed?
What does the ultimate defeat mean?
Given the importance of this question, it is a pity that Forrest does not analyse the defeat of grassroots democracy in Oukasie. We are left wondering how and why control passed from the “good guys” to the “bad guys”.
One reason may well have been that the governing African National Congress’s (ANC’s) politics turned out to be more powerful than those who supported the Oukasie resistance hoped. Forrest records that key figures in the resistance to removal joined the ANC and served in its committees once it was unbanned. This suggests that Oukasie’s ability to maintain an independent path was purely a result of happenstance (the lack of a political presence in the area).
Despite these limitations, the book makes an important contribution. Forrest’s sympathy for the Oukasie campaign does not prevent her from highlighting weaknesses. She acknowledges that the campaign failed to prevent thousands leaving Oukasie, and she documents the defeat of the politics she champions as Oukasie moved from resistance to local governance. This makes the book a highly credible account of the events it describes.
The book should, therefore, be read by anyone concerned with democracy’s future in South Africa, but in other contexts too. It should also trigger a debate on whether the political approach it describes is feasible.
A highly contagious virus, called HCV, has killed around four billion men. Society is in disrepair and, with no cure in sight, women are barred from procreation. The few males who have proven immune have become hot commodities for various agendas. And the odds are stacked against the protagonist Cole in her bid to return home to Johannesburg from America with her young son Miles – who possesses the HCV-resistant gene.
Cole has lost her husband and been forced into a quarantine facility so that the government can conduct experiments on Miles. She is relieved when her sister, Billie, shows up to help them break out. Yet, ever duplicitous, Billie has been enticed by the price of black market sperm.
Nedine Moonsamy interviewed Beukes about the book.
Nedine Moonsamy: How does it feel to have written this novel now that COVID-19 is here?
Lauren Beukes: The book isn’t about the pandemic, but the aftermath, and how Cole and Miles navigate this radically changed world in which boys are suddenly precious commodities. But it’s not a dystopia, it’s not a total apocalypse. I did want to model a society that still functions.
In the world of Afterland, most of the male population has died, leaving only 35-50 million men and boys on the whole planet. It was challenging and hella fun to explore what sectors would be hardest hit, especially in what the novel calls PMdI (Previously Male-dominated Industries), such as satellite technicians, undersea cable maintenance divers, truckers and pilots and engineers and mine workers and mechanics; and what measures the women in charge would have taken to manage that.
It mainly comes down to a whole lot of upskilling, but there are also some political shenanigans in the book: the US, for example, offers lucrative immigration deals to citizens from Egypt and Qatar and India where they have more women software engineers. The president of Colombia shuts down coffee exports until America legalises drugs because women don’t want to lose another single person to the violent narco trade.
There are religious groups that believe this is God’s punishment, and terrorist groups setting oil fields alight to bring about the true end times. But that’s all mostly background.
Cole and Miles do run into an anarchist community in Salt Lake City who are mobilising – hacking hotel cards to give people access to housing, for example. It’s been fascinating, and inspiring, to see South Africa’s own Community Action Networks reaching out across our huge divides to partner with under-resourced neighbourhoods.
Nedine Moonsamy: How did you approach the research for the book?
Lauren Beukes: I interviewed a lot of experts: I spoke to my friend Scott Hanselman about female coders, economist Hannes Grassegger about what this new imagined economy might look like, and scientist friends like Janine Scholefield explained viruses and keyholes and x-linked genetic variances to me. I asked Cape Town metro police officers on the ride-alongs I did, what would happen to the drugs and gangs if all the men disappeared: would they grind to a halt? “Are you kidding?” they said. They maintain it would continue in much the same way, maybe worse: “The most ruthless leader of the Americans was Mama American because she had more to prove.”
As Billie says in the novel, “Power is a fickle slut” – and yeah, absolutely, many of the old power structures are going to hold. Even in a world where 99% of the male population is dead, patriarchy is still a very comfortable pair of shoes and very easy to slip into.
It’s inspiring to see people talking about how we’re all going to reinvent the world post-COVID, go full socialism, bring in universal basic income, healthcare for all, proper minimum wage, income protection, continued bonds of support and care between wealthy neighbourhoods and disadvantaged ones. But capitalism is an old god, and it’s going to be very difficult to overthrow completely.
And of course there will be backlashes; epidemics are often terrible for women’s rights. Look at where women are the primary caregivers at cost to their careers, and vulnerable to violent partners. Plus they don’t go back to work and girls don’t go back to school in nearly the same numbers as men and boys.
I hope this has already been such a system shock that we will have no choice but to make significant changes to the way the world works now. But I’m afraid of what the cost to us is going to be.
Nedine Moonsamy: I can see that you steered away from a radical feminist novel in order to tell a story about the best version of familial love. From this angle, the novel seems to converse with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road where father and son travel through post-apocalyptic America to get to the coast. In Afterland the journey has a more optimistic spin. Were you attempting to rework this “great American novel” in some way?
Lauren Beukes: It depends on what you mean by radical. I didn’t want to tell a story that was all about the world, or the characters changing it, à la Harry Potter or Children of Men, but rather about the ordinary people caught up in that world. The Road was definitely a reference point, and again, something I was writing in conversation with (like The Handmaid’s Tale). I hated the ending of The Road. (Spoilers!) As a parent, I would never, ever let my kid go out into a world full of cannibals and rapists on their own. What kind of hope is that? It was blind luck that the next people he stumbled across were good.
From the feminist perspective, there were two ideas I wanted to play with: flipping the narrative, where suddenly Miles’s bodily autonomy and agency are under threat because people are treating him as a commodity, a reproductive resource, a sex object, a matter of “future security”. And exploring the idea of how a world of women is not necessarily going to be a kinder, gentler, friendship-bracelet-and-communal-gardens kinda place, where we can all go walking at night on our own and the country’s national women’s football team Banyana Banyana gets to play the huge stadiums.
I’m not big on the binary idea of masculine versus feminine, and I wanted to interrogate that. A world of women is a world of people, still, with full human capacity for good or evil. Because women are just as capable of being power-hungry, violent, self-interested, abusive and evil as men can be, especially when we’re still living through the same society, but maybe in different ways.
Likewise, men are just as capable of being compassionate, nurturing, primary caregivers – and making friendship bracelets.
To buy a copy of Afterland visit Penguin Random House over here.
Ah, Hydra! This is an island possessed of “wild and naked perfection”, wrote American author Henry Miller after sailing into Hydra on the eve of the second world war.
With a population of around 2,500, Hydra is a small island in the Saronic Gulf only two hours from Athens. The Hydra Town harbour, a natural amphitheatre with grey and white stone houses set into the hills overlooking the waterfront, has featured in many books and films – think Sophia Loren in Boy on a Dolphin (1957).
Polly Samson’s A Theatre for Dreamers, a fictionalised account of the summer of 1960, is the latest addition to the corpus of Hydra-inspired novels. In it we meet Australian writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston and poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen and his lover Marianne Ihlen as they all work and play in a seeming paradise.
While the married couple Clift and Johnston are in financial and emotional disarray, Cohen and Ihlen are young, beautiful and at the start of their now famous relationship.
The expat dream
The expatriate clique of Samson’s novel exemplifies groups attracted in the 1960s to the picturesque island where artists could live and work cheaply. The novel includes fulsome accounts of the raging arguments and creative and sexual jealousies that beset the Clift-Johnston inner circle, Cohen and Ihlen and visiting friends.
A Theatre for Dreamers conjures up an appealing picture of a Hydra which, at least in physical terms, has changed little since then. There are still no cars on the island and donkeys continue to do all the haulage up and down the steep streets from the port.
Samson has faithfully rendered the landscape of winding stone-flagged streets and white-washed houses. It is a pity therefore that the novel plays into the narrative of sexual transgression and self-indulgence that continues to dominate works about this community. The novel is narrated by a young English traveller, Erica, whose relationship with her boyfriend Jimmy predictably goes awry in this heady climate.
Heightened levels of drug-taking, drinking and sexual adventure were indeed a part of many expat lives at the time but the continuing focus on this discourse, which of course makes for good copy, has the unfortunate effect of undermining the impact of major work produced by foreign and Greek artists and writers in this era.
Samson has researched the topic for some time and knows the life of this island well. Sometimes the research is a distraction as when the author’s prose mingles strangely with the original writing of one of the expatriates.
Readers who know Clift’s writing will recognise her voice in the dialogue. Samson acknowledges that she was given permission by Clift’s estate to quote from Peel Me A Lotus (1959), Clift’s travel memoir about her life on Hydra from one February to October. The effect is rather an odd seesaw between two genres as Clift’s lines pop up in a scene in Samson’s novel.
But readers who have never been to Hydra and know little about life there in the 1960s will enjoy the breezy romance and imagining the tumultuous relationship of Marianne with her then husband, writer Axel Jensen, and the adventures of the Johnston family.
Samson is an enthusiastic supporter of Clift’s writing. Channeling her in this novel, Samson makes a great contribution to Clift’s legacy as most of her work is now out of print. One hopes readers will be inspired to search out copies of Clift’s work.
There is of course no need to further promote Leonard Cohen’s work, which has assumed an afterlife of its own, including a renewed interest in Cohen’s life on Hydra.
Today many people on Hydra would not know the Clift-Johnston history but Cohen is even more firmly part of the island’s fabric. In 2015 a tribute concert to Cohen on the Hydra waterfront appeared to attract most of the town’s residents, young and old, and visiting his house in Hydra Town is part of an annual pilgrimage. By 2017 there were guided walking tours to Cohen’s island haunts.
Clift and Johnston are known to a smaller audience although they were once big fish in the Australian literary and journalistic cliques. Those who want to explore their story further can find an account of many of the characters in Samson’s novel in Nadia Wheatley’s meticulous biography, The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift (2001). In addition, The Broken Book (2004) by Australian novelist Susan Johnson is a rewarding and imaginative recreation of Clift’s life that goes beyond the wild Hydra cliché.
The link below is to an article reporting on the discovery of ‘The Christmas in the Fog,’ by Frances Hodgson Burnett and a short review of it.
The link below is to another article taking a look at Moby-Dick by Herman Melville.
Mary Shelley is famous for one novel – her first, Frankenstein (1819). Its extraordinary career in adaptation began almost from the point of publication, and it has had a long afterlife as a keyword in our culture. Frankenstein speaks to us now in our fears of scientific overreach, our difficulties in recognising our shared humanity.
But her neglected later book The Last Man (1826) has the most to say to us in our present moment of crisis and global pandemic.
The Last Man is a novel of isolation: an isolation that reflected Shelley’s painful circumstances. The novel’s characters closely resemble the famous members of the Shelley-Byron circle, including Shelley’s husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, his friend Lord Byron, and Mary’s stepsister (Byron’s sometime lover), Claire Clairmont.
By the time Shelley came to write the novel, all of them – along with all but one of her children – were dead. Once part of the most significant social circle of second-generation Romantic poet-intellectuals, Shelley now found herself almost alone in the world.
As it kills off character after character, The Last Man recreates this history of loss along with its author’s crushing sense of loneliness.
The novel was not a critical success. It came, unluckily, after two decades of “last man” narratives.
Beginning in about 1805, these stories and poems came as a response to great cultural changes and new, unsettling discoveries that challenged how people thought about the place of the human race in the world. A new understanding of species extinction (the first recognised dinosaur was discovered around 1811) made people fear humans could also be extinguished from the Earth.
Two catastrophically depopulating events – the horrifying bloodshed of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815), and the rapid global cooling caused by the massive eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 – made human extinction seem a horrifyingly imminent possibility. Meditations on ruined empires abounded. Many writers began to imagine (or prophesy) the ruination of their own nations.
Unfortunately for Shelley, by 1826 what had once seemed a shocking imaginative response to unprecedented disaster had become a cliché.
A parodic poem like Thomas Hood’s The Last Man – also from 1826 – gives us an indication of the atmosphere in which Shelley published her own book. In Hood’s ballad, the last man is a hangman. Having executed his only companion, he now regrets he cannot hang himself:
For there is not another man alive,
In the world, to pull my legs!
In this hostile atmosphere, critics missed that Shelley’s novel was very different to the rash of last man narratives before it.
Consider Byron’s apocalyptic poem Darkness (1816), with its vision of a world devoid of movement or life of any kind:
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless –
A lump of death – a chaos of hard clay.
In contrast to this total death, Shelley asks her readers to imagine a world in which only humans are becoming extinct. Attacked by a new, unstoppable plague, the human population collapses within a few years.
In their absence other species flourish. A rapidly decreasing band of survivors watches as the world begins to return to a state of conspicuous natural beauty, a global garden of Eden.
This is a new theme for fiction, one resembling films like A Quiet Place and Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, or images of the depopulated Korean demilitarised zone and Chernobyl forest, those strange and beautiful landscapes where humans no longer dominate.
A world in crisis
Shelley was writing in a time of crisis – global famine following the Tambora eruption, and the first known cholera pandemic from 1817–1824. Cholera spread throughout the Indian subcontinent and across Asia until its terrifying progress stopped in the Middle East.
It’s disturbing today to read Shelley ventriloquising the complacent response from England to early signs of disease in its colonies. At first, Englishmen see “no immediate necessity for an earnest caution”. Their greatest fears are for the economy.
As mass deaths occur throughout (in Shelley’s time) Britain’s colonies and trading partners, bankers and merchants are bankrupted. The “prosperity of the nation”, Shelley writes, “was now shaken by frequent and extensive losses”.
In one brilliant set-piece, Shelley shows us how racist assumptions blind a smugly superior population to the danger headed its way:
Can it be true, each asked the other with wonder and dismay, that whole countries are laid waste, whole nations annihilated, by these disorders in nature? The vast cities of America, the fertile plains of Hindostan, the crowded abodes of the Chinese, are menaced with utter ruin. […] The air is empoisoned, and each human being inhales death even while in youth and health […] As yet western Europe was uninfected; would it always be so?
O, yes, it would – Countrymen, fear not! […] If perchance some stricken Asiatic come among us, plague dies with him, uncommunicated and innoxious. Let us weep for our brethren, though we can never experience his reverse.
Shelley quickly shows us this sense of racial superiority and immunity is unfounded: all people are united in their susceptibility to the fatal disease.
Eventually, the entire human population is engulfed:
I spread the whole earth out as a map before me. On no one spot on its surface could I put my finger and say, here is safety.
Throughout the novel Shelley’s characters remain, ironically, optimistic. They don’t know they’re in a book called The Last Man, and – with the exception of narrator Lionel Verney – their chances of survival are non-existent. They cling to a naïve hope this disaster will create new, idyllic forms of life, a more equitable and compassionate relationship between classes and within families.
But this is a mirage. Rather than making an effort to rebuild civilisation, those spared in the plague’s first wave adopt a selfish, hedonistic approach to life.
The “occupations of life were gone,” writes Shelley, “but the amusements remained; enjoyment might be protracted to the verge of the grave”.
No god in hopelessness
Shelley’s depopulated world quickly becomes a godless one. In Thomas Campbell’s poem The Last Man (1823) the sole surviving human defies a “darkening Universe” to:
quench his Immortality
Or shake his trust in God.
As they realise “the species of man must perish”, the victims of Shelley’s plague become bestial. Going against the grain of Enlightenment individualism, Shelley insists humanity is contingent on community. When the “vessel of society is wrecked” individual survivors give up all hope.
Explainer: the ideas of Kant
Shelley’s novel asks us to imagine a world in which humans become extinct and the world seems better for it, causing the last survivor to question his right to existence.
Ultimately, Shelley’s novel insists on two things: firstly, our humanity is defined not by art, or faith, or politics, but by the basis of our communities, our fellow-feeling and compassion.
Secondly, we belong to just one of many species on Earth, and we must learn to think of the natural world as existing not merely for the uses of humanity, but for its own sake.
We humans, Shelley’s novel makes clear, are expendable.