The Book of Charles

A Scribbling Saga

“Insanity like yours should be recorded,” I said to Charles in 2015. “You might not think so, and your children might not want to read it, and even your grandkids might yawn. But your great-grandkids WILL be fascinated . . . or their kids.”

– 2016 book –

He said ‘Let’s meet,’ and so it was that for the first and last time in my life I had tea at Rose’s Tearoom in Kloof.

Which worried me. Mr Lion Ale suggesting we meet for tea. Especially when he actually ordered tea. And this was not Rosie’s Cantina. I cleared my throat and was about to say what I had rehearsed: You have paddled down one river 49 times for 49 years in a row. This perseveration needs to be analysed in case it is contagious. We need to save future generations from such insanity, but Charles pre-empted me. In that way that he has, Chas earnestly said, ‘Well, this is very opportune, you know. Next year is the fiftieth Umko,’ and proceeded to turn the focus less on himself and his amazing paddling, organising and mentoring career, and more on the river and race that he loves. So the rest of 2015 and the first two months of 2016 I wrote and he helped edit Umko 50 Years, finishing it in time for the 50th Umkomaas Canoe Marathon where it was given to around 300 paddlers who did that historic race.

So we had to re-start the process.

Charles did that race, his 50th, but ‘only’ his 49th finish (he broke his boat in 1970, thank goodness, then got married to make up for it). Not learning anything, he went on to complete his 50th – and then two more. So after the 2019 Umko I cleared my throat again and this time he listened; and so we started writing what I called The Book of Charles, Chapter 77 (years old), verse 52 (Umkos). Later he and his long-suffering wife Barbs came up with a much better title. We started by meeting every Tuesday morning. My manager Raksha Singh at work rolled her eyes and cleared my appointment book till 11am Tuesdays. At first we met at Ninos for breakfast, later we settled down on my stoep, where the coffee is cheaper.

Roses came into the story again in July 2019 when a deadline was missed; Charles’ excuse was: ‘Got a couple of English Roses here. They leave on Sunday.’ Granddaughters. Over the two years many other excuses have come fast and thick: We’re walking in the Drakensberg; I’m going to Dermot’s funeral; Writers’ block; Have to mow the lawn; My bakkie needs a new windscreen; The Chief Whip (aka The Typing Pool) made me do ____ (whatever) she was often blamed; We’re moving house; I’m hiking the Baviaanskloof; etc etc. Weak excuses when there was work to do.

– the Bard of Everton arriving for work – bakkie parked so he can run-start it –

Rory Lynsky, old friend of Charles’, got involved from early on and was a huge help. He did stuff we would never have even thought of, like genealogy, checking stuff for accuracy, punctuation n shit. Also he coined the lofty title for our scribe: ‘The Bard of Everton.’ Chas and I asked other geriatrics for help and some did. Others: ‘Budge has burst from his South Coast obscurity. Had a phone call. ‘Twas difficult to follow the inebriated diction. He wants to contribute. We’ll see if push turns to shove.’ It didn’t. Rasmussen – another old paddling friend – pledged to try, but pre-emptively pleaded an ancient and addled brain.

– same Bard in winter gear, contemplatively hard at work in the office –
– the editorial office setting –
– we made notes –

The earliest time I saved what he’d written on my computer was August 2019. We were not what you would call a well-oiled machine. Nor would you call us efficient, driven, focused or any of those corporate-speak words. But we did have a lot of fun.

..

Especially when Barbara started taking an interest. Her rise in the then three-man organisation was swift. She moved from expressing a desire to not be mentioned at all – to be strictly the typing pool only – to becoming chief puncture-rater, liberally sprinkling commas throughout the manuscript, to co-editor with Rory, to eventually appearing in fourteen of the sixteen chapters.

We have to mention Rory Lynsky again at this point as he was the only oke who knew what he was doing. Luckily he was far away in Aussie, so we could continue with our weekly or twice-weekly high-powered meetings that would start with coffee then move on to “I thought YOU were going to do that.” Rory and Charles have known each other since before the rinderpest was a sniffle, so not only was his journalism, editing and published author background handy, he could add stories and fact-check Charles, as he was right there in a number of Charles’ adventures! Charles even took some of his advice, but Rory is polite, so when he asked why exactly the story of three other ous paddling down another river at another time was relevant to this book, Chas just blithely ignored him. My role as cheerleader, compiler and picture-inserter meant all I said was, “It’s your book, Charles, it has got to be your book. People have got to hear the voice of the Charles, Chas or Charlie they knew and know, leaning back and saying ‘Life’s Not So Bad,’ as he pops open another frosty.”

Barbara was a major asset once we’d corrupted her. At first she was all censorship, and, commas, comma. At one point she wrote a resignation letter of sorts: “Pete, I don’t do commas anymore, as you and Charles don’t feel they are very important. It kills me as I read over chapters, and I dare not put in a comma where I feel there should be one. Months ago I thought I had been retrenched from the punctuation job after Charles said of my corrections, ‘Gee Barb, it looks like a bloodbath!‘ It’s been quite peaceful since then.”

(all our corrections were red pen and ink, as Charles avoids the computer where he can, hence ‘bloodbath’).

Once, Charles scurried in looking excited. ‘Quick!’ he said, ‘Get the kaalgat picture in. Barbs has said it’s OK for us to use it!’ Up till then as self-designated Sales Executive I had been pushing for more swearwords, racy pictures, nipples and tales of bachelor conquests, but Charles had been dubious and nervous, fearing possible Catholic repercussions. He had tried sneaking a few things in to see if Barbara would notice. Now the floodgates were open and sales were set to soar. A New York Times Best-seller listing loomed and we discussed upping the print run from fifty to a hundred. Especially when ‘Abandon hope all ye maidens . . ‘ went into the chapter called The Restless Years.

When lockdown came we changed gears. Charles said ‘This reminds me of Arnold’s stormy weather strategy on Uzulane: Haul down the sails, batten the hatches and open a bottle of Tullamore Dew.’ I responded, ‘That’s exactly what we have to do! Chill. Think. Reminisce. Drink. Limit our worrying and Be Grateful. And in your case: Edit. Revise.’

Milestones in the writing: Charles got rid of two his boats that he’d had since Noah was into boats: A green vinylon-decked Limfy and a blue fibreglass-decked whitewater boat from Gordie Rowe. Both were just short of fifty years old. Then their 45yr-old Everton home went! Luckily for him, Barbara let him keep the fifty year marriage, the biggest milestone while we were scribbling.

A red letter day: On Tuesday 12th February 2021 I texted Charles: ‘The Full Manuscript version XXIII has been converted into eucalyptus pulp format ready for the red ink inspection.’

Sundry rejected covers and titles:

We decided to do an index of all the characters who appear in the book, a kind of Rogues Gallery. Many of them I suspected to be illiterate; many of them I knew to be dead. This way they could look up their name, check where they appeared, and more easily decide whether to sue Charles or not; I wanted to make it easy for them cos they’re so old. So Chas listed all names – six pages. It was too long, we needed to compress them into columns. Lack of skill once again came to the fore, but luckily when discussing Patricia Stannard one morning and how helpful she’d been in the Umko book, Chas mentioned that she’s a librarian. I knew we had our answer. I am a big admirer of librarians. Skilful, useful, underrated people. ‘Ask Patricia to do columns for us,” I urged. He did. She did. And she made them so they work even when we inevitably have to add in names dredged up in long-forgotten stories that come to light over coffee and Barbara’s home-made rock cakes. Perfect. The cakes and the columns.

Talking about adding names, how do you finish a book sub-titled Odyssey of an Adventurous Beancounter when he won’t stop having adventures? He wanders off to walk 120km along the Wild Coast, then climb the Drakensberg, then hike the Baviaanskloof. I have to squeeze in the new stories, bumping pictures off pages and generally causing havoc due to a slight shortage of skill in what to do in such cases. If we could include half the swearwords I muttered slaving over a hot desktop on the book we’d have a runaway bestseller.

~~~oo0oo~~~

The messaging back-and-forth while writing:

The Editorial Board had to communicate. Here’s an early example of a successful Old-Bullet Memory-Mining Operation. Most of these produced no mineral-bearing ore. (Nor any scandal-bearing ‘ores, come to that):

18 April 2019 I wrote: Hi Rory – Hope this finds you well. I haven’t badgered you for a long time now and that must end. In 2015 I set out to badger Charles to get his story on paper, but he side-stepped and turned the exercise into a book for the 50th Umko. We have now re-started the Charles Fred Project and we have a better chance of success this time as Barbara has joined the team! There’s a bit more focus and discipline now. We’re looking for any memories of times with Charles – not just Umko-specific. Any memories, paddling-related or not.

19 April 2019 Rory John replied: Morning squire. So old “Fred” is going to get the full Monty treatment. Looks promising if the family are on board. I gave it some thought in the wee hours of the night and after ceiling-staring I think I have a story which only Bren and Barbara would recall. It has nothing to do with A) canoeing, or B) shooting poor unsuspecting buck. I’ll put something on paper. It may need some embellishment, and when in draft form Barbara may need to vet a few details as it took place a long time ago. Questions: Does he know about this project? – What is your time line? – What length story? – Would you like photos with it?

19 Apr 2019 Me: Hi Rory & Brenda. ‘shooting poor unsuspecting buck!’ I’d temporarily forgotten about his murderous instincts! We’ll have a chapter on bambi slaughter in the mountains of the Eastern Cape! Barbara will conspire with us I’m sure. She’s the stabilising force in the project.

Your Questions: 1. He knows and is involved. This does not mean we cannot spring a surprise or two; 2. When you can; 3. Any length; 4. Photos would be great – a paper book may have photo limits, but in an ebook there’s no limit;

17 May 2019 Rory John: Morning Pete. I’ve started writing up a story, but some way to go. I thought I’d just let u see what I’ve completed to date and if this is the sort of thing you’re looking for. The story does get more eventful. End of June okay with you? (note: Rory was concerned about deadlines, not knowing that at the end of June 2021 we’ll probably still be plugging away).

18 May 2019 Me: Exactly right! Perfect! Keep it going! End-June is fine. PS: Allie Peter has written on bambi slaughter. It’s gruesome and relentless. Dead warthogs and mounted baboon bums feature . . .

21 June 2019 Rory wrote: Morning Pete. I attach my contribution with photo. I passed it by Bruce Webber as a courtesy since it was his place we were staying at, also to check for accuracy after 37 years. He enjoyed it! The photo was taken at the Webbers after the Tshani Marathon as Charles enthralled his young audience of Catherine, Joanna, Anthony and Maurice with tales of derring-do. The foursome are now 40yr-olds – how time flies.

21 June 2019 Me: Hi Rory – Thanks v much! I’m sure Charles Fred will be very chuffed. I’ll send it on to him and Editor-in-Chief, Censor and Chief Whip Barbara for their perusal. Once Charles gets through all the many stories we’ll have to start choosing chapter headings and how to run a thread through the whole autobiography. It has been a fascinating exercise so far and the hard bit is still to come!

~~~oo0oo~~~

An example of feedback to the Editor-in-Chief, Censor and Chief Whip after one of our high-pressure morning editorial meetings: 8 August 2019: Me: Great. Thanks Barbara. Good decision. I look forward to reading it. We went over the hunting scandals and I have the obituaries to add to it. We were very focused this morning, and our wandering far and wide was kept to a minimum.

~~oo0oo~~~

Gallivanting: 12 November 2019: Rory wondered if we were still awake, having to ask again if we had received some of his work. I replied: Yes, that was wonderful. We went over it only this morning. Very irresponsibly, The Bard was off gallivanting and doing totally unnecessary and uncalled-for things like family business and trudging from shebeen-to-shebeen on the Wild Coast near Mtentu with some fellow vagrants. He has lost focus on the main objective: The Book of Charles! Barbara has been very busy too – side-issues like family, friends, churches and ashrams – and when she’s not around, productivity suffers. Charles will tell you he needs to issue orders, meantime she’s the Chief Whip.

~~~oo0oo~~~

– Chas and Barb on a family camping trip next to those waters –

An Alarming Scandal: 21 Nov 2019 Research into Charles’ Pommy ancestry revealed an acute shortage of baptisms! Rory’s genealogy sleuth John Powell in England searched for piousness in vain: ‘Looking for Mason baptisms was a completely unsuccessful exercise, I must say. Were the Masons perhaps Baptists (no baptisms) or, more likely, Methodists?’ . . . I felt I had to hasten to alert his good Catholic wife in an effort to forestall an annulment: Hey Barbara, have you had Charles baptised? Maybe a ceremony in the waters of the Umkomaas is needed?

~~~oo0oo~~~

Money Troubles: As so often on these big money projects, a financial dispute rose its ugly head. 11 Dec 2019: Me: Hi Barbara. Charles is writing about the first Umko race and needs some excerpts from the Umko book. I managed to find some of the stuff he wanted, but unfortunately it will need to be re-typed! Charge him per word. 
Barbara: Hi Pete. He doesn't pay his accounts! 
Me: A delinquent !? We'll just attach his boats at KCC . . 
Charles: They wouldn't be worth attaching.

~~~oo0oo~~~

On 27 Dec 2019 we had a Major Breakthrough!

Barbara wrote: Dear Rory, Thanks for your practical suggestions some of which we miss because we go backwards and forwards and have read it many times. When I was typing a section for Charles I also said to him, “You mention Barbara – no one knows who Barbara is. Those things are important or they frustrate the reader. Rory replied: The same thought crossed my mind. I wondered when we would hear more about ‘Barbara’ while the lads were engaged in all these Boys Own adventures. I look forward to a Chapter entirely devoted to Barbara from The First Meeting to the Altar. (Editor-in-Chief Swanie please Note).

Ha! I wrote to Rory: The cat is among the pigeons. Charles is grappling with this. Initially he was under orders not to write about Barbara, but we have discussed it before – and had a long discussion over coffee this morning. He will now write all he wants while – initially anyway – not revealing it to The Chief Whip. “In public” he will continue with all other aspects of the book – there’s plenty to keep him busy. After that . . ons sal sien. I personally think she’ll be fine with what is actually a fun tale of their eyes meeting across a crowded licencing office, match-ups plotted, Comrades races, restaurant dates, a modern, less conventional wedding, a honeymoon featuring underwear, etc. There’s no doubt it will have to be faced! Like The Approaches, followed by No.1 rapid, he will simply have to paddle through it and write about Number One.

~~~oo0oo~~~

Delinquency and Dancing Winds: 10 August 2020 Barbara: Charles is off tomorrow to walk in the Champagne area of the Berg. I was wondering why he wasn’t making much of a contribution towards the group’s food, but then saw him packing a box with six beers and a bottle of white wine. With the ban on the sale of alcohol, this is pure gold. I enjoy these times when he goes away. We get on well but it is good, as Kahlil Gibran says, “To let the winds of heaven dance between you.” I know just what I will do with the next few days.

~~~oo0oo~~~

Puncture-ation: Deep discussions were held on punctuation. Commas and apostrophes were debated the most. Barbara: I’ve been reading a book on punctuation written with a lot of humour by someone who calls herself a stickler for correct pronunciation and punctuation. She dithers outside a charity shop that has a sign in the window which reads, “Can you spare any old records”.  There is no question mark! Should she go in and mention it? “But what will I do if the elderly charity shop lady gives me the usual disbelieving stare and then tells me to “Bugger off, get a life and mind your own business?” Well, Barbs knows my sympathies lie not with the author, but firmly with the old charity shop lady!

~~~oo0oo~~~

Nativity Nonsense: 12 Nov 2020 Barbara wrote: Hi to you two from a very tired typist. Recently I was retrenched from the job of proof reader when I tried to put about a hundred commas into one chapter and things have been quiet for a few weeks, but tonight I have been back on the job of typist with a very exacting task master next to me trying to get me to type a timeline for him. The meticulous ‘Virgo’ at his best.

Rory, I include you in this ‘just to keep you in the loop’. I say this facetiously, as Charles and I are very critical of these buzz words and we have laughed at this. The end is in sight for this ‘bestseller.’ All we do now is sit back and wait to be acknowledged as a finalist in the Pulitzer prize. Except he can’t get that because he is not American. Anyway, Charles wants to know if he has missed anyone in his acknowledgements. Enough nonsense for now. Good night.

Rory John: All looking good. I like the timeline for 1966. Were the two events linked? “Met Barbara” – “World’s first heart transplant” – ?? As for acknowledgements – BARBARA should be Highlighted in Rhinestone.

Me: Hear hear – Long service medal, VC with Halo and a Pugilist Prize.

Barbara: Hi to you both, once again. I must reply to the last email. Rory, I take it that having my name in Rhinestone, is some acknowledgement of my efforts as typist. Thanks for that, although I don’t quite understand the use of that word. Pete, I do try to polish my Halo, but it is still very tarnished and sits cock-eyed on my head. Your mention of me getting the Pugilist Prize reminds me of a conversation between Charles and I which made me laugh, although I don’t think it was supposed to:

– Irene, Barbara, Sharron & Sylvia –

I was telling him a story from my childhood. My mother and her two sisters were Catholics, so the children of those three sisters had a religious upbringing. Every Christmas, the four little girls (the two boys were probably already showing signs of agnosticism or atheism) would put on a Nativity Play. We organised it ourselves and had rehearsals and I think the adults enjoyed it. It was usually performed on Christmas night. My cousin, Sylvia, was the leader and so she chose the prettiest role – she was the angel, Sharron was Mary, my sister Irene was St. Joseph. I was saying to Charles that I don’t remember what part I played, when he said, “You were probably Herod.” So you see Pete, you weren’t far off the mark. Until the next time.

– JC and FC –

Me: That really cracked me up. I had a long hearty chuckle at that. Luvvit! In our Nativity Plays stretched over my (it seems) one hundred years in the Harrismith Methylated Spirits, it was of some concern to me that I never rose above the station of being a sheep. I wanted to be a shepherd because of their cool long wooden crooks painted gold – not even aspiring to be Joseph or anything, just a shepherd. But a sheep I was destined to be. I suffered but I dared not complain. The threat of arousing FC’s ire was ever-present. In our church, FC was more often considered in actual practice than JC. JC was fine, but FC actually delivered the goods!

~~~oo0oo~~~

Then: An Actual Book!

I was eager to have one amateur copy of the book printed and be damned. Without any professional designer or printer involved. ‘Take a chance on saving the money.’ I said to Charlie, ‘We’ll learn something from the exercise before we commit to making lots of them. Maybe we’ll collapse with laughter and embarrassment and realise we do need an expert. But maybe, just maybe, it’ll turn out fine.’ Charles was bok for it: ‘Order TWO!” he commanded boldly.

The April day that the ‘test’ books arrived, Charles was in the wilderness trudging the Trappist Trail, doing penance for being half a catholic. You have to trudge for miles and miles from one monastery to another monastery and live like a monk till you come right. Or something. I’m not clear on the details of why one trudges when transport is available. Maybe he has to do it to compensate for those trudges when he goes from one shebeen to another shebeen on the Wild Coast?

I was going to await his return but he clambered to the top of the cross on top of the steeple of the monastery at Centocow to get signal and phoned me: ‘Go ahead and open it,’ he commanded boldly. I did. It looked great until I noticed it was only half a book. It ended at chapter nine, and we had sixteen chapters. I hastily opened the other copy. Darn! Same half. If it had been two different halves we could have breezily said, ‘Yes, Charles’ Memoirs Appeared in Two Volumes,’ but no such luck.

Finally, the book arrived. We thought. This time it was three chapter headings and twenty six pages of text short! Whoa! Now we were rattled. A double and triple check was done and we pressed PRINT again. Third time lucky, right?

Indeed! The final saga was learning how to insert page numbers, we held our breath and ordered thirty copies, which arrived in two boxes, safe and sound:

~~~oo0oo~~~

Bakgat by Charles Mason ISBN number 978-0-620-93270-7 (print). Read online here.

17 August 2021: Now also in hardcover!

High-Powered Publishing

Now that Charlie and I actually have his book at the printers (we were going to order one book, but in a bold move we doubled the order!), I can tell the story of The New York Times Best-Seller List. Hold on to your seats, it’s a roller-coaster ride.

In the two years we’ve spent writing this best-seller-to-be (well yes, Charles wrote, but someone had to supervise, and OK, yes that was mainly Barbara, but someone had to edit. OK, so Rory was chief editor, but only cos he had experience and has actually published a book himself. Jeesh, I can prove I was there!). As I was saying before I was pedantically interrupted, while the author and I were in our office at the publishing house week after week except during lockdown, which knocked out a few months, and not while Charles was away on multiple adventures on mountains, beaches and kloofs, we casually discussed the New York Times Best-Seller List from time to time.

Did I say office? We actually used the boardroom, so we could spread out our plans and drafts and photos and things:

– the boardroom – someone should clean the pool –

Over coffee and stone scones freshly-made by Barbara – who would phone to check they’d been delivered and not secretly scoffed, they were that delicious – we would casually throw around NYT BS List numbers. That’s New York Times Best-Seller List for those who aren’t as aux fait with these things as we are. Various numbers were thrown around and eventually we settled on these: Fifty or One Hundred. It’s a big decision. We haven’t decided yet. But then came trouble: I started reading about the NYT BS List.

I know why people warn against reading. Reading is dangerous. You find out things. I too sometimes warn against reading certain stuff. Not our book! No, you must read our book when it comes out to great fanfare, but other stuff you must be careful, cos if you read, you find out stuff.

Like how to get on to the NYT BS List. Here’s how:

There are “marketing consultancies” which specialise in getting books onto bestseller lists. For clients willing to pay enough, they will even guarantee a No. 1 spot. They do this by taking bulk sales and breaking them up into smaller, more normal-looking individual purchases, thus defeating safeguards that are supposed to make it impossible to “buy” bestseller status. In other words, they’ll cheat for you.

It’s not cheap. Here’s an example from 2013: If your book is listed at R400 retail, it might cost you about R336 a copy. To ensure a spot on the (lesser) Wall Street Journal bestseller list, you’d need to commit to a minimum of 3000 books – about R1 000 000. A million Ront. Multiply these numbers by a factor of about three to hit the more desirable New York Times list. We’re at THREE MILLION RONT Sterling. Plus there’s the crooks’ “consultancy fees” for cheating and lying and manipulating on your behalf. That was around R300 000 in 2013.

Authors who do this often reach the required pre-sale figures by securing commitments from corporate clients, who agree to buy copies as part of speaking fees, and by the authors buying copies for themselves to hand out to friends and family and to resell at public appearances.

It’s a laundering operation aimed at deceiving the book-buying public into believing a title is more in-demand than it is. People in the industry don’t like talking about bestseller campaigns, as they know any detailed discussion exposes the fact that they simply allow people with enough money, contacts, and know-how to buy their way onto “bestseller” lists. Appearing on the New York Times Best-Seller List increases sales by 13 or 14 percent on average, but first-time authors’ sales increase by 57 percent! We could sell 157 books here!

Right, so that’s what we’ll do.

Sure, we might need to sell our houses and Charles his 1979 shark-gilled Mercedes, but he says he’d get a good price for the Merc cos of the gills in the bodywork which he says are actually functionally necessary, not just babe-catchers. Myself I wonder, but I spose when one is catching older, more sophisticated babes the mating call of a loud exhaust note alone won’t cut it?

~~~oo0oo~~~

2013 story in Forbes magazine

more from 2017. And info on wikipedia

In an interesting example of how, once you start lying you have to keep lying, and then when you’re caught lying you just say, “Well, I didn’t mean it to be taken seriously, and no-one believes I’m serious anyway,” when The New York Times was sued for $6 million by an author who claimed that his book had been deliberately excluded from the list, The Times countered that the list was not mathematically objective but rather was “editorial content;” that it’s just “free speech,” and thus protected under the US Constitution. Holy guacamole! They’re saying “Yeah we lied, but we’re allowed to lie.”

So, seeing that the famous list that everyone wants to get onto is not objective factual content, the Times assumes the right to exclude books it doesn’t like from the list! So, the august ‘paper of record’ is saying something like: “Well, this IS a ‘best-seller’ list (more or less) IF we think the book should be a best-seller. It has little to do with whether or not it actually has ‘sold best.'”

And talking of cheats, Mitt Romney crassly boosted his book’s sales figures by insisting that his book tour hosts buy at least $25,000 worth of copies of his book before he would speak at their gatherings!

~~~oo0oo~~~

Pikkie’s Book is HE-ERE!

We have a new book out! ( – get it on takealot.com – )

OK, the author has a new book out, his first. School friend Harry ‘Pikkie’ Loots is Harrismith’s latest published author, following in the footsteps of FA Steytler, EB Hawkins, Petronella van Heerden and Leon Strachan. There must be more? Indeed – Pikkie reminded me of Johann Lodewyk Marais and Anita van Wyk Henning.

He has published it as an eBook – and I have now received my hard copy too.

I had the privilege and fun of reading it as he wrote and re-wrote it, as one of his proof-readers. It was a blast! I climbed his mountains without getting breathless – except occasionally from laughing, as we relived the olden daze..

Now you gotta realise, Pikkie is a mountaineer and trekker. These are phlegmatic buggers; unflappable; understated. So when he says ‘we walked and then crossed some ice and then we got here: ‘

. . with lovely pictures and fascinating stories along the way . . you must know what he doesn’t show you:

– 5109m above sea level – the Drakensberg’s highest peak is 3482m –

And this is the third highest peak he climbs in Africa! There’s more to come!

.

.

Those of us who climb Mt aux Sources should also remember how we drive to within an hour or two’s leisurely walk from the chain ladder. To get to these higher mountains there’s days of trekking before you reach the point in the picture. And there’s way less oxygen available up there! After reading some chapters I had to go’n lie down for a while.

Here’s the back cover blurb: ( – get the book on takealot.com – )

~~~oo0oo~~~

Riposte and Touché:

Pikkie appointed a fellow-mountaineering Pom John as another of his proofreaders. This John asked ‘What’s it with you Saffers and exclamation marks?’ I puffed myself up and replied the problem was not that we use too many; the problem was that Poms use too few!

John’s rejoinder was, “Not true. We use our national quota. It’s just that we allocate almost all of them to teenage girls.”

Oooof!!

Bad enough we lost the Boer War, but now THIS!!!!

~~~oo0oo~~~

The EM Diet

A childhood friend is writing a lovely book on his mountaineering exploits and the journey he has made from climbing the mountain outside our town to climbing bigger and more famous mountains all over the world!!

– Platberg panorama –

Flatteringly, he asked me and a Pommy work and climber friend to proofread his latest draft. Being a techno-boff, he soon hooked us up on dropbox where we could read and comment and suggest.

I immediately launched in to making sensible and well-thought out recommendations which were instantly rejected, side-stepped or ignored, I dunno WHY!!

Like the title I thought could be spiced up. Three African Peaks is boring compared to Free A-frickin’ Picks!!! to lend drama and a Seffrican accent to it, right?! I know, you can’t understand some people. !

John, very much under the weight of a monarchy – meaning one has to behave – was more formal:

‘What is it with south africans and the “!”? (which is my major comment on your writing style!)

Well!!! Once we had puffed down and soothed our egos by rubbing some Mrs Balls Chutney on it, the back-n-forth started. I mean started!!

My defensive gambit was: ‘We’re drama queens!!’

My attack was an accusation: ‘Poms hugely under-use the ! In fact, they neglect it terribly! John was quickly back though, wielding his quill like a rapier:

‘Not true. We use our national quota. We just give almost all of them to teenage girls.’

Ooof!!!

I was on the back foot. When it came to the cover, the Boer War re-enactment resumed. I mean resumed!! I chose a lovely cover with an African mountain and a lot of greenery on the slopes. The Pom chose an ice wall, no doubt thinking of the London market. Stalemate.

Next thing he’ll be suggesting a stiff upper cover.

~~~oo0oo~~~

A strange thing has happened since John’s critique! I am using less exclamation marks! I have even written sentences without any!! It actually feels quite good. The new, restrained me.

New Book Coming!

Johnny Vassilaros is a courageous mensch. And an author. And I can’t wait! If you love Durban, get your copy. Write to – littleboatsandbigfish@gmail.com –

Foreward by Advocate Peter Rowan
I have known Johnny since 2003. I have spent many long hours with him, in meetings, in consultations, in Court proceedings, in open debate and in argument (even between us). He is a man of the utmost integrity. He is a man of high intelligence, a man of conviction and undeniably strong character. He has values and standards to be admired, a man of good, fair and even judgement, a family man, a music lover, a historian and environmentalist. A spade is a spade, and he calls it that way. Nothing in the civic domain is done for his own ego, or his own pocket. What he does is motivated by distinguishing between principles of right and wrong, and then, resolutely pursuing what is good for the situation that lies before him. He is disciplined, tough and unrelenting in pursuing his goals.

The nucleus of this book is the story of the Durban Paddle Ski Club, of which Johnny found himself as chairman, during the most taxing period in its history, and which was to have a profound effect on the plight of a most valuable public asset – Vetch’s Beach. This book has many interesting stories to tell. It brings colourful characters back to life by their amazing and often insane deeds in their pursuit of big fish on their little boats. And then, the anecdotes, historical facts about Durban, the pioneers of this city, shipping, the once dreaded “Bar” and shipping disasters off our coast, only a few life spans ago. For the fishing fanatics – just read it!

– Johnny Vassilaros and Pete Rowan – men of principle –


But this book is more than that. It also covers a most serious topic, that being the biggest and most expensive and controversial coastal development in the history of this city – the Point waterfront development. Having read the book, all I can say is “Wow!” The meticulous attention to detail and irrefutable accuracy on the facts is immaculate. Yes, some 250 pages are devoted to the tragedy of Vetch’s, where those who would like to know what truly happened, should read and read again. Johnny does not mince his words. He slaughters politicians, prominent municipal officials and powerful businessmen, decimates major role players from certain water sports clubs, all so justifiably, through their unethical deeds committed throughout the long Point waterfront years. If you don’t know who these individuals are, read about them in this book.

But the author doesn’t go at people simply for the sake of doing it. He acknowledges good and good people and good deeds. He despises bad or useless incompetent people, and most of all, reveals the wrongdoings, the corruption and skulduggery, all of which, we see aplenty in his book. He also provides more irrefutable facts, explaining how all this has led to the loss of the watersports clubs’ premises and the cost to the ecosystem at Vetch’s. 

Johnny writes both from the head and from the heart. He adds comment which is well founded, and where he castigates the unfortunates and criticises others, he does so because it is relevant to the story he unfolds. His words amount to fair and justifiable comment and criticism, made for the public good, all within his constitutional rights and freedom of speech. The events that he describes involved matters that could so easily have been laid to rest around a table with sportsmen and women, as we were all meant to be, acting reasonably,  in the interests of all our wants and needs of our respective sports. That’s what reasonable and civilised people with any sense of decency and good sportsmanship would have done.

But that was not to be. Not this bunch with whom we had to deal. Six individuals, who, as a committee, snuck off and formed a “Point Watersports Club”, with a “constitution” not remotely relevant to the aims and objectives of the water sports clubs, and, most importantly, in total contradiction to a legally-binding agreement they had all previously signed. And, staggeringly, with no mandate from their members and without any of them having any inkling that this was going on. And yet, this continued for years and the members still say nothing to this day.

How much in litigation costs did all of this amount to for the clubs, and ultimately the members? Johnny raises this in his book. I would conservatively estimate that between this “PWC”, whoever they may be, the DUC and the Durban Ski Boat Club, must have paid in the region of R5 million if not more. Look at what it cost the Paddle Ski Club and Save Vetch’s Association to save the beach, whilst others stood by – millions. What a waste! And how much irredeemable human and tangible destruction took place whilst all of this was going on?

And for me, one of the most dramatic standout points. How and why and on whose mandate did Hall, Kidger and Donald come to give away, in 2015, all the clubs’ rights to invaluable freehold property, to arguably own the highly valued land on which they were to build their clubhouse? Were these self-appointed directors simply dancing to the tune of the developer, giving away land that was worth millions, without a murmur? One can only be left wondering whether anyone was ever rewarded, for this act of “high treason”. No matter how one looks at this, it stinks. Rotten to the core. Should we not all be digging deeper into this? If we do, some people might just land up in jail. Johnny’s book lays this bare. Read it with care.

There is one last thing that needs to be published. The man I chose, during difficult times to put my money on, ahead of a multitude of erstwhile friends, the Geriatskis, and all of those who paddle with them. When I teamed up with the Geriatskis, paddling and socialising with them at DUC, it became one of the most motivating factors in my life. It was pure fun and pleasure. What camaraderie, banter amongst, what I imagined true friends to be! But when crunch time came, when it was clear that Hall was leading them down the garden path, and I started to ask questions and take a strong stance, where were these people? It seemed easier for them to step back and drift with the tide or blow with the wind.

Taking a strong value judgment call or a moral stance, or simply for the stark ecological sake of saving the beach, was not for these folk. But they paddle across that stretch of water, saved by others making huge sacrifices, day in and day out – conscience free, having done nothing to save the reef they so guilelessly now use. They went along with Hall because it was convenient and expedient. As tough and as sad as it has been breaking away and being excised from a strong group of wonderful erstwhile friends, and sad as the lonely situation is that I have now found myself in, I would suppose a gregarious fellow by nature, I wouldn’t swap Johnny Vassilaros and his solid principled fishing ski guys as friends for any one of these fickle souls – in my view, may they forever hang their heads in shame every time they paddle across the Vetch’s basin. Read about it.

I associate myself with all the facts set out in this book and with the words of the author, having been part of the action and privy to the multitude of documents and the voluminous court papers, which I still have in my possession. I am in the privileged position of being able to support or refute either the content of the book or any further comments that may arise. I challenge those who disagree with the content to revert, by way of constructive written exchanges, and back their views with adequate proof. I also challenge any one of you to take us to Court on whatever cause of action you may wish to rely upon.  

I salute this man, Johnny Vassilaros, for his tenacity and his courage in disclosing the truth. He is a man who I would want alongside me if ever we were to go to war. 

Advocate Peter Rowan SC       (Durban February 2020)

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Explorers 10. Smith

Here’s another real explorer!

Andrew Smith (1797-1872) – British army surgeon, traveler, collector, author, committee man and naturalist. As a boy he was apprenticed part-time to a medical doctor while studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh.

Sent to the Cape Colony in 1821, he was stationed in Grahamstown until the middle of 1825. During these years he made a study of the natural history of the frontier region and the customs of the Xhosa people. After visiting Smith, Cape governor Lord Charles Somerset created the South African Museum in the building of the South African Library, and appointed Smith as its superintendent. He solicited specimens for the museum and published lists of donations in the Cape Town Gazette and African Advertiser. Soon he also published the first and only installment of A descriptive catalogue of the South African Museum in which he described the mammals on exhibition. A separate pamphlet provided Instructions for preparing and preserving the different objects of the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms. In December 1826 the Cape of Good Hope Horticultural Society was formed, with Smith as joint secretary. So, in charge of growing the dagga plants. Kidding!

In 1828 Smith went to the north-west border of the colony to investigate conflicts among the various groups of people living in the region. The political nature of the mission was disguised by presenting it as a scientific expedition, consisting of Smith and some locals to guide him. He reached the Olifants River, the copper deposits of Namaqualand, the Orange River, which he explored to its mouth, and returned to Cape Town.

The first general scientific society in southern Africa, the South African Institution, was then founded in Cape Town. Smith was elected as joint secretary and served as joint vice-president (ha! maybe there is something to my dagga theory!?). They appointed P. Jules Verreaux and launched the subcontinent’s first scientific journal, The South African Quarterly Journal. Smith wrote on birds, on ‘Observations relative to the origin and history of the Bushmen’, and on ‘Contributions to the natural history of South Africa, etc.’ He later wrote a series of ten articles under the title ‘An epitome of African zoology’, in an effort to promote the study of natural history in the colony.

In December 1831 Smith was sent on another diplomatic mission combined with a scientific expedition, this time to visit the Zulu chief Dingane and report on the nature of his country. The party went via Port Elizabeth, then to the vicinity of Umtata, then down to the coast near present Port St Johns. They reached Port Natal (now Durban) in March 1832. There Smith met H.F. Fynn, who accompanied him to Dingane’s kraal. He was the first well-known collector to investigate the birdlife of coastal Natal, where he found many new species. In an interview with the Grahamstown Journal upon his return he described the fertility of Natal and its potential for settlement. This praise was noted by men who became the ‘Voortrekkers’ who sarie’d voort and settled in Natal during 1837-1838.

The Cape of Good Hope Association for Exploring Central Africa was established to organise a scientific expedition into central southern Africa, to be financed by public subscription. Smith was elected joint chairman (kidding! – he was chosen as the leader of the expedition). They went to Lesotho and visited chief Moshoeshoe; then to Kuruman, from where the missionary Robert Moffat accompanied them to the kraal of the Matabele king, Mzilikazi, near Zeerust. On they trekked, eastwards along the southern slopes of the Magaliesberg to Hartebeestpoort, then northwards to the tropic of Capricorn. The expedition returned to Cape Town in February 1836 with a huge collection of natural history specimens and drawings. Smith published his Report of the Expedition for Exploring Central Africa.

Around this time Smith met the young geologist Charles Darwin when the second voyage of the Beagle touched at the Cape. Darwin corresponded with Smith about how the large animals in South Africa lived on sparse vegetation, showing that a lack of luxuriant vegetation did not explain the extinction of the giant creatures whose fossils Darwin had found in South America. Darwin frequently mentioned Dr. Smith in his writings, and sponsored the Doctor to gain membership of the Royal Society in 1857 despite the Doctor fighting with a nurse at the time (see below).

Smith was ordered to return to England. He took his private collections and the expedition’s collections with him. After exhibiting the latter in London for a year they were sold and the proceeds paid to the Association that had financed the expedition. In his spare time, he wrote a monumental and authoritative work, Illustrations of the zoology of South Africa, published in five volumes in 1849. It contained descriptions and coloured plates of the mammals, birds, reptiles and fishes by Smith, and the invertebrates, mainly beetles and marine crabs, by S.W. Macleay. Many of their new species have stood the test of time. This established Smith’s reputation as ‘the father of South African zoology’. Among others he described 64 taxa including 24 snakes and 37 lizards, the most by any author of this group, and 79 species of South African birds, again the most by any author.

– Illustrations by Charles Davison Bell & GH Ford –
– map, plate , portrait and title page –

In 1843 Smith married his housekeeper Ellen Henderson and that same year was elected a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London. In his career, he became director-general of the Army Medical Department.

Following huge losses of soldiers during the Crimean War (1853-1856) he became involved in a bitter controversy with Florence Nightingale, who had quite rightly criticised the poor treatment soldiers got from military medical men, the horrid lack of cleanliness, never mind sterility, and the generally inadequate medical arrangements for the campaign. Although he was (predictably, it’s the military and the ‘gentlemen officers’ thing!) exonerated from blame, Smith probably realised Florence was actually right, as he then persuaded the government to build the first fully adequate military hospital and training school for military medical officers near Southampton; about that time, Nightingale also started the Nightingale Training School for nurses and midwives, in London.

Smith, now Sir Andrew Smith KCB, resigned his post in May 1858 and began writing an ambitious work on the ethnography of the whole continent of Africa. He presented thousands of specimens from his personal natural history collection to his alma mater the University of Edinburgh. Then, following the death of his wife towards the end of 1864 he lost interest in his writing project and spent the last years of his life as a recluse.

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The Cape shoveler and Karoo thrush still carry his name.

– Spatula smithii and Turdus smithii –

wikipedia and http://www.oiseaux-birds.com; Jane Carruthers’article; Biographical Database of SA Scientists; Undiscovered Scotland article; S2A3 biographies of SA Scientists; vanriebeecksociety; biodiversitylibrary;

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sarie’d voort – I imagine them sallying forth singing sarie marais

KCB – Knight Commander, Order of the Bath; I wonder if Florence Nightingale organised that he got this – after her accusations of unsanitary conditions under his watch!? Kidding! But hey, not inappropriate . .

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All the ‘joint’ jokes? Well, when horticulturalists and botanists are growing stuff, and they’re appointed vice chairmen and joint chairmen – AND I’m writing on the 20th April – ?? – Things happen.

No Respect . .

. . for their own natural history!

Book Borer.jpg

They found it by boring but they wouldn’t have found it boring – we all love reading about ourselves. If they’d navigated to the right page they’d have found their ancestors – or cousins – in here.

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2020: Clearing out old books during the April 2020 lockdown, I found the author’s autobiography. A fascinating man. An English schoolteacher, he took a teaching job in Rondebosch on the spur of the moment and stayed in SA all his life.

Sydney Harold Skaife (‘Stacey’) D.Sc FRSSAf. (12 December 1889 – 6 November 1976) was an eminent South African naturalist. His career and educational publications covered a wide field. He was also a teacher, school inspector, broadcaster, and conservationist. Of his many achievements his greatest was probably his leading role in the creation of the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve. He lived for most of his life on his smallholding ‘Tierbos” in Hout Bay. He was a prolific author of scientific and popular books (mainly detective novels written for Huisgenoot under the pseudonym Hendrik Brand). More here and here.

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