Bookmarks: Picking up Stompie’s saga all over again
A fortnightly column on books and writers
Fred Bridgland’s new book, Truth, Lies and Alibis: A Winnie Mandela Story (Tafelberg), which revisits the fatal assault on New Year’s Eve 1988 of the 14-year-old activist Stompie Seipei Moeketsi, is bound to ruffle feathers, appearing as it does just six months after her death, and amid divisive public debate about renaming roads and an airport after her.
This is a story that Bridgland has told before. A British journalist, he’d been commissioned to cover Winnie Mandela’s 1991 trial on assault and kidnapping charges relating to Stompie’s death. At the time he’d turned down offers to pen a biography of the “Mother of the Nation”, as he felt he’d have no unique insights of insider information to offer readers – just the facts as they would emerge during the trial.
But, he says, his interest in Mandela picked up “when witnesses and co-accuseds in the trial began disappearing, with police apparently doing little to find them, and as lawyers began to advance unlikely alibis”. The turning point came in Zambia, a few months later, when he found Katiza Cebekhulu, a young man who’d disappeared and dubbed the trial’s “missing witness”. He’d been abducted, he told Bridgland, by ANC agents and imprisoned in Zambia without charge by President Kenneth Kaunda. It was only through the interventions of Kaunda’s successor, Frederick Chiluba, and a British MP, Emma Nicholson, that Cebekhulu was freed.
“His story,” Bridgland writes, “repeated many times since then, was that he had watched Mrs Mandela stab Stompie Moeketsi to death and that she was responsible for the other murders, including that of her own medical doctor [Abu-Baker Asvat].”
He then agreed to write that book. Now long out of print, Katiza’s Journey: Beneath the Story of South Africa’s Shame (Macmillan), was published in 1997 – long before Mandela was subpoenaed to appear before the TRC hearings into the activities of her bodyguards, the notorious Mandela United Football Club. Katiza’s Journey, Bridgland admits, “left innumerable questions unanswered”. But the new book throws up more uncomfortable questions about the nature of justice and accountability.
Reaction to this year’s Booker Prize winner – Milkman (Faber & Faber) by Anna Burns – has been fairly predictable: the critics are, as usual, sharply divided, with the conservative Telegraph newspaper describing it as “one of the most impenetrable novels ever” to win the award, while the left-leaning Guardian has boldly urged its readers to ignore the naysayers and that the judges got it right.
Burns is the first Northern Irish writer to claim the £50,000 prize. Her novel draws on her experience of living through the Troubles; its first person narrator is a young woman known only as “middle sister”.
Archly, the Telegraph noted that even the chairman of the judges’ panel, Kwame Anthony Appiah, suggested that it was best to wait for the audiobook version. “It is not a light read,” Appiah was quoted as saying. “It is a challenge in the way a walk up Snowdon is challenging – it’s definitely worth it because the view is terrific when you get to the top. Lots of people nowadays take in novels through audiobooks and I think this is a novel that will certainly reward that.”
Writing in the London Sunday Times, the comedian David Baddiel, a former Booker judge himself, commented that Appiah’s description of Milkman was hardly likely to send readers dashing off to their local bookshop. “Don’t get me wrong,” he said, “I love a bracing, hearty walk up an enormous mountain. OK, I don’t …”
He did, however, add that he’d started reading Milkman. “It isn’t that difficult,” he said. “It eschews character names, and the paragraphs are a bit long, but it’s a story about a normal woman and her troubles during the Troubles and when Amazon told me I’d finished my free sample I wanted more.”
Interestingly, figures of UK print sales released by the Bookseller magazine suggest that winning the Booker no longer guarantees that stampede to the bookstore. Consider:
Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2002 winner) sold 1,638,468 copies; Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009) 1,003,564; The White Tiger (2008) 571,833; Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (2017) 73,669; A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (2015) 161,799; and The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai (2006) 189,259.
TOODLE PIP & TALLY HO!
Benn Schott is the compiler and author of several intriguing collections of trivia. His published work includes Schott's Original Miscellany, described by the Telegraph as a “bizarre little book [that] manages to be both totally useless and nearly indispensable”; Schottenfreude: German Words for the Human Condition; and Schott’s Food and Drink Miscellany.
As eccentric and quirky as these books were, it was nevertheless a bold move on the part of PG Wodehouse’s estate to allow Schott, who had never published a novel before, to try his hand at penning a Jeeves and Wooster tale. Fortunately, according to the Times of London, he “rises to the occasion” with Jeeves & The King of Clubs (Hutchinson), a reboot of one English comedy’s greatest double acts that captures both Wodehouse’s comic voice and rhythm.
What’s more, this romp pays a passing nod to the rise in popularity of the spy novel. In this case, the Junior Ganymede, the club for butlers, valets and other gentlemen’s gentlemen, is a stronghold of British intelligence: spies in livery, as it were, silently observing their masters’ every move. Jeeves, naturally, is one of their senior agents, and is tasked with recruiting his employer to join in an anti-fascist plot. It is the 1930s, and the storm clouds, as they say, are rising over Europe. Treachery is everywhere, even in the private clubs of St James’s. The foe here is the Black Shorts leader, Roderick Spode, 7th Earl of Sidcup, an “amateur dictator” who first made his appearance in Wodehouse’s 1938 novel The Code of the Woosters. Other familiar characters, such as the redoubtable Aunt Dahlia, join a cast of outraged chefs, disreputable politicians, slushy debs, Cockney cabbies, sphinx-like tailors and sylph-like spies. Wooster, happily, is as haplessly dim as ever. “You’ll have heard of the Officials Secrets Act?” the head of the secret service asks him when they meet for the first time. Sadly, Wooster shakes his head. Then adds brightly, “Just goes to prove how effective it is, what?”
Speaking of literary reboots, Sophie Hannah, author of an acclaimed and officially-sanctioned string of whodunnits featuring Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot (The Monogram Murders, Closed Casket and The Mystery of Three Quarters, among others) has written what may become an intriguing addition to the self-help genre: How to Hold a Grudge: From Resentment to Contentment – the Power of Grudges to Transform Your Life (Hodder & Stoughton).
An arch people-pleaser with an apparently unhappy childhood, Hannah has a confession: “I am 47 years old and I have never expressed my anger in a spontaneous way.” There’s no place in her life for the advice of forgetting and moving on – and nor, she argues, should there be in anyone else’s.
Package them as grudges instead, is the advice here. In Hannah’s case, she has a shoe box which she calls her “Grudge Cabinet” in which she stores notes of all transgressions against her. Every now and then she whips out the grudges, refines and polishes and returns them to the Cabinet. It seems too superficial, even for pop psychology, this literal interpretation of “boxing up” one’s hurt, or indeed “holding” a grudge. Besides, some of us may just need something larger than a shoe box …
THE BOTTOM LINE
“Snow has a lot in common with religion. It comes from heaven. It changes everything. It creates an alternative reality and brings on irrational behaviour in humans.” –Snow: The Biography by Giles Whittell (Short Books).