Review of Go Set a Watchman- Harper Lee

An individual ‘take’ on ‘Go Set a Watchman’ and writing as an aid to growing up.

Go Set a Watchman- Harper Lee

Go set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth…

In the midst of the current and tempestuous outcry I intend to dive right in. I do not want to wait until the water grows placid and the angers are expended or turn, as they might, to a consensus of disappointment.

I will try to explain why I found the book mesmerising. For you to understand I need you to know where I come from, so that you can decide whether my opinions have any relevance for you. It may temper your judgement. I grew up in that most reviled racist country, South Africa, where my grandfather seemed a kind of Atticus Finch, only he nursed the ambition to undermine the justification for racism ( the image of Africans still immersed in innocent childhood, unready for the world) with his dogged dedication to African education. He was determined to make them ready. If you are interested I wrote about him earlier HERE.  He started at six in the morning and we never saw him except for meals.

I was at a school where our priest was Trevor Huddleston, the man who was remembered by Mandela for raising his hat to a black woman, cleaning on her knees. So my childhood was spent not unlike that of Scout. My heroes were those brave and determined to defy the prevalent racist attitudes. It did not stop them employing cooks and cleaners ( and getting cross with them) or inviting black Professors to dine. If you are colour-blind then other distinctions determine decisions and the company you keep.

I have lived with Mockingbird all my life, as the perfect novel integrating the personal with the political, the pinnacle of the moral absolute, as well as the most evocative account of my own childhood. My second mother Milly was Calpurnia, and Jem the brother I longed for.  One of my daughters is called Jem for that reason. So why am I not indignant that Watchman strips away that perfect Atticus and renders him mortal, complex, and ambivalent?

It is a different time and the time for me to grow up too. Along with this book. Black and white are no longer the absolutes they were. Once dilution happens grey is the new black, and the new white. I cannot say very much without introducing spoilers for the reader in the context of the book, except in general terms. Scout’s need to confront the shining knight of her now frail, but no less loving, a father is also my need to re-evaluate my own innocence. When you are imprisoned by prejudice and fighting to honour your own ‘Watchman’ things are kept simple; they have to be.

I don’t want to summarize the book, or quote what will distort surprise. It is a journey best not described.

I do not think Watchman as perfect a construction as Mockingbird, it is not an outer story of event, but an inner one towards the messy limits imposed by Scout’s outgrown needs of her father at just the point when what HE needs is her.

It is still rare to read deeply psychological novels that deal with the damage that can be done by children to their parents, or the recognition in a parent that only time will endow the qualities they hoped to impart, while time is running out.

I cannot help feeling that Harper Lee regains her own Watchman by this publication. I refuse to find significant all the conjectures surrounding its publication. Those will be forgotten and do not matter.

It must be difficult to write the most regaled novel of the century, to be richly rewarded financially without expressing your misgivings, your qualifying caveats, and do so by restoring both Atticus and Scout to humanity. ‘ Leave me be wontcha

I truly salute her courage, not to want to die before re-stating her independence and restoring the noble Atticus to pre-eminent and frail humanity by stripping away the image imposed upon him.

If the public is not adult enough to grow up but wants to retain only black and white and the simple lines of easy virtue they have not begun to understand either of the books, or this compassionate author. Yes there are the odd grammatical infelicities, and occasional clumsy constructions that a less respectful editor would have ironed out. Few books flow immaculate from the pen, for me, in this case, I applaud them. It means Harper Lee is still one of us. I feel rejuvenated by her small and unimportant faults.

That brings me to what will provide the next post: an examination of this injunction of what a writer owes their reader. This has become the new conformity. Behave as you are expected to behave, write what we expect to read.

It is  deadly, and it kills the desire to write at all. Books are gifts, not obligations, and words and ideas are dangerous. We must fight to keep them so. We owe readers nothing but the gift of ourselves. I have just remembered that, and Watchman’s influence may see me through, as Mockingbird once did.

My Calpurnia with Windy my dog
My Calpurnia with Windy my dog

Looking for Lucas- A South African Short Story

Now for something completely different….

Looking for Lucas was a Finalist in the 2014 Rubery Short Story Prize and has been published it their Anthology, just out. I thought it would make a change for all my followers, especially the South Africans amongst you, since I remember things I suspect you are (luckily) too young to have known directly.I hope so anyway, though it will ring with the familiar. I intend to publish short stories this year to reflect the nuanced differences in Old and New World ways of being, doing and thinking. This is the first taste. Opinions welcome!

Parktown Street
Parktown Street

                                                    Looking for Lucas

The problem of Sou’Thefrica has always been black and white. I’m not talking about skin colour here. I’m talking about reputation. When it was governed by Whites it was labelled as black as sin; after Mandela, when the Blacks got to punch air it was pure as the driven… Nobody realises that it wasn’t ever all black and it sure as hell isn’t all white now.
I should know because I am a Black living in a White skin, an albino with a dusky complexion and krilletjie hair dusted with ash. So I fit nowhere which gives me a unique view on the matter. There was once hope, and in the darkening days hope was oil that lit fires, and kept laughter and penny-whistles alive. That was before I could write, or I couldn’t be telling you this.
Writing was the problem and I should have kept my ambitions under wraps, because ambition got me hooked. That day I swung out, that careless Sunday, Special Branch was there when I came through the gate. It wasn’t until I was walking in full light that I realized a car was cruising…by then it was too late.
‘Hey Kaapse, Kom hierdie. Waar gaan jy?’
No point running. The ‘Kaapse’ tells you why they noticed me. Wrong colour, wrong hair, wrong place. Not that I’m a coloured, but I was neither decently black, nor white enough for that sleeping white suburb. The driver was an ugly brute; the other a jackal grinning like he’d spotted the day’s sport.
‘Waar werk jy?’
‘Spitut out. Waar gaan jy?’
‘Mm……’ The driver raised his fist, but the other said  ‘Hy’se stammerer. Hy kannie spraak’ and then he said ‘Can you write?’ and I stupidly nodded, so he gave me his note book and said ‘OK, write the answers’
‘Where are you going?’ So I wrote ‘To see mother. Day off’
‘Day off where?’ So I pointed down the road, and jabbed a left turn; lucky they didn’t make me go and show them. I haven’t got a mother.
‘So where do you sleep?’
‘Sss…sss…..Sophiatown’ I couldn’t write Sophiatown.
‘Where’s your pass?’ I patted my shirt to show I did not have a pass. The big nearly got out but the other one asked ‘How old are you?’ So I wrote a ‘14’ like I was really seven. That time they let me go. If I was fourteen I did not need a pass. They drove off, slowly. I was really seventeen but small and stick thin.
In fact the writing was why I was coming out of that gate. I was there for lessons. If you can’t speak then writing is another country. The people who lived there let me sleep in the back room and just being around them taught me other things, like chess and food I never knew existed, olives and those salty fish in a tin, anchovies. They were supposed to be a luxury, but salt you can get anytime.
I’ll tell you about that odd collection because they were  like a tuning fork before any music. They showed what life might have been under improvisation; not black, not white, maybe not even special. Just everybody different. Max was just back from USA, an architect. With shaven black hair, his face carved in soap, straight nose, short lip, eyes like raisins, always moving; restless as a constipated cat.  Something about him made me suppose he was clever, and boy, he certainly agreed with that. Minette, the only girl in the house used to tease him by beating him at chess. Another thing, he always wore white socks; I’d never seen American socks before.
Minette didn’t always sleep there because she was a student and not supposed to ‘fraternise’ with the lecturers. I never said. They were all from the University. She was nearer my age, maybe eighteen; best of all she liked to kwela on the grass after supper. Somebody once said ‘Honey. What’s in your blood? You dance like you got six toes!’ She laughed, and took my hand to dance again. But I was shy, so she dropped it. Her boyfriend Petrus taught Psychology and I couldn’t take to him. I don’t know why. I remember how he sat, one foot on top of the other, in case it got an idea to walk.

The one who had taken me there and who taught me was Oscar. Now Oscar was the really clever one, with a nose like a bird’s beak, whip thin and fast as a lizard. I had noticed him walking with Lucas down Market Street, the two of them talking in Zulu, and laughing; man I mean really laughing. In those days you never saw a black and a white sharing a joke till laughing smacked a leg. Lucas was as black as a hole in the sky, and he and Oscar were real friends. They opened new doors for each another. Oscar would take Lucas into white clubs and parties dressed as a waiter, or standing in the theatre lobby as his chauffeur in uniform and cap. Lucas had to put on fancy dress; Oscar had to take his trendy clothes off.
In return Lucas took Oscar to Alexandra or ‘Back of the Moon’ the shebeen where  Masakela played trumpet. Lucas was doring sharp; he worked as a reporter on Drum Magazine with ears sharper than a nagapie. Overhearing conversations gave him leads on what Chinaman shipped money, where were the latest safe-houses, and who was next. Drum was everyman’s latrine bible, always raided, always moving on, bio-degradable in every lean-to stench-house.

The Other Place
The Other Place

I never knew what Oscar was after. He fooled around, making things. His Zulu was home-farm Zulu, not learnt out of books. Put him behind a wall and you couldn’t tell he was white. Often he pretended deafness so as to catch black insults and black jokes like spiny cat-fish. Oscar and Lucas were one handy duo in those times, when whites and blacks were camped on opposite koppies waiting for a signal to start Blood River again. Chances to meet were street chances. That’s when I made my best move, and stopped those friends and asked if they could teach me to write.
‘Better come with us now’ they said. So I did. Me in the back, they drove to this house in Parktown, about as swank an area as Jo’burg sported. Only their house was an old tin-roofed box behind a high hedge. Probably built by a mining speculator who kept his half-cast kids out of sight; but now squashed  between mansions with lawn sprinklers. It was my first home; maybe why those days still seem mostly sunshine. There were other reasons for sunshine, though.
Until I was forced to spoil it.

We knew the house was bugged, because Max had come from MIT which made him suspect. It wasn’t because of Lucas. Nobody knew about him. He crawled through the hedge over the neighbour’s compost-heap, a deaf-mute in the house, speaking only in the garden. I ran errands, even going to the swank Zoo Restaurant for wine when they ran out. They gave me money; the cook pocketed it, and wine was dumped in paper bags behind the rubbish bins. I can remember the cries of the monkeys and the hyenas trotting behind the wire while I waited for the lights to go out, so I could make it through the trees back onto the road. In its way that laughing house was an oasis in the desert of waiting. For what?

             Zoo Lake
Zoo Lake

Oscar gave me lessons, and Lucas made me copy his reports, in case he was nabbed. After he reached the Editor’s office he would pay-phone three rings and then hang up. If he didn’t ring I was to take the copy myself. I only had to do it once, when he was held in Marshall Street for three days. Then he published photographs of his bunged up eyes which just made Special Branch more determined. A Pass infringement wasn’t enough. So they gave him enough rope and waited. For that reason Lucas never stayed over-night, just came for a bath, friendship and food.
Then I was caught again by the same two heavies.
‘Ok Kleurling. Game’s up. You still writing?’ They had me forced against the car,  one with his knee in my balls. ‘Here’s what you do. If we let you stay, you write the names of everybody you see coming and going; times, dates…you put it everyday, under this stone. Leave any name off, and you are first for a big-time charge. No trial, no Judge, yus forever in Chook, OK?’. He pushed a notebook down my shirt front.
‘No excuses now. Who’s in the servant’s rooms?’
‘Yus! these whites do their own cleaning? In Parktown?’
‘Sometimes they can get help, not always’ I nodded.
As I left one kicked the back of my knee. ‘Jus our signature’ he said.
So I looked on books for new names. Mr Corbusier, Mr S. Freud, Frank Lloyd Wright, even Charles Darwin honoured us with visits and disappeared back into a library where they’d never be found. Instead they were now transferred to a priority list in Special Branch waiting to charge them. I knew it couldn’t last.

In the end the rope that nearly hanged Lucas was a US Scholarship, and some boaster published the news. Then he was really on the run. Special Branch raided Drum, and every reporter on it. Lucas tried to get to Durban to jump ship but every road was ringed, so he came back. We had to hide him until friends in Botswana could figure a way out. Oscar spoke only in Zulu on the telephone and trusted any interpreter to scramble it. Zulu was a forked tongue, the snake would bite.
They came during supper. We saw the torches coming through the gate. Oscar grabbed my hand and dragged me out the back, after saying to Minette ‘Delay as long as possible’ We ran across the dark yard to the servant rooms where Lucas was asleep. Oscar slapped him awake. ‘Get up, put on this apron’ He had unhooked a white apron from the kitchen door. ‘Get under that blanket and be unconscious’ he said to me, ‘lock behind us.’
So I wasn’t there to see the finale. I was under a sweaty blanket, shivering, until Special Branch splintered the door, and dragged me out.
‘Fock you Kleurling. You supposed to be on duty…’
They slammed me back against the wall and left swearing.
When I returned to the kitchen Lucas was quietly washing up, in the apron that  covered his wide-boy cleverness and floured him to stupid servant. They never even noticed him. That night the summons from Botswana came.
Before going, Lucas woke Minette before the sun.
‘Come for a walk’ he said. ‘Let’s celebrate.’
They were crawling through the hedge when he saw me watching.
‘You’d better come too, you neither fish nor fowl…’
So the three of us walked through the sleeping streets; even dogs stayed quiet. We walked round Zoo Lake and sat on the ‘Whites Only’ bench. I remember Lucas writing with a stick in the water, a farewell to the fish. Just before we returned to the house he says to Minette
‘Do me a favour? Just sit with me on the pavement awhile…’
It seemed mad; a white with that very black in full view; and me, a useless lookout.
‘What for?’ asks Minette.
‘Because if I ever come back I won’t be able to do this. Never. When you are  under sacking in Sophiatown you’ll do this everyday. Me, I will have pressed trousers, a clean handkerchief, a prisoner of a grand house…So, Madame, I grant you the freedom of the gutter, share with me my last chance to enjoy it…’

He’s not returned yet, even though he could now. Somehow I can’t see it. The country of compromise is now like every other, only shades of grey.



Focus on the Philosopher

This Story Continues since we were interrupted on the 30th June…rather a lot of ‘media men about recently…’ (If you are late to this narrative this is the third episode, the others lie earlier, and may be ordered from the menu, right)

Now Let’s Focus on the Philosopher…

(Remember? We are on a pavement outside a café near Regent Street with the Bride (radiant? No wilting), the Groom (decidedly up-tight) two dachshunds (asleep) and the venerable Philosopher…

Opening Out. Where a German learned English to teach Philosophy
Opening Out. Where a German Jew learned         English to teach Philosophy.

He stirs his coffee thoughtfully.

He has all the time in the world. It is the world that interests him. The Groom makes extravagant play with the handle of a briefcase. The Bride strokes a sleeping sealskin Hund, and waits for the revelation she is sure will come… The hovering waitress gestures to another…they know this old codger and he ‘wants watching’.

‘You are an academic I see? The Philosopher watches the Groom, fiddling while his wife is licked with small tongues of mortifying flame.

‘Anything wrong with that?’ says the Groom, certain this conversation will end up his to skin. He is already sharpening a paring knife.

‘Not wrong. But everything in books? You enjoy books?’ The Philosopher seems to consider that perverse. He sips his coffee and spoons out sugar from its depths and licks reflectively.

‘They pass the time…’ The Groom will stay as long as coffee must be drunk but not a moment more. He has prepared the confident escape. The bride looks at her diminished husband thoughtfully. Three days ago he reigned and cut into a tiered cake.

‘Ah time! Time hangs heavy then?’ The Philosopher looks at the Bride with his head to one side, as though she were an uncertain enterprise with… promise?

‘This wife of yours, does she have any place in this oh-so-heavy passing of time? Hmmm? Seems to me she is worth looking at. Ever look at her?’

‘I think I’ve seen her before…’ said the Groom

‘Mein Gott. You said that before too. For you the past is always over, nicht? Caput. Finished. Her ears you also saw before, so also not relevant. I expect once you have heard Brahms he is finished too. How will I find anything you care about? So what are you going to do? I suppose you intend to return to South Africa? You are blind enough to do that too?’

‘Of course. It’s our home.’ It was said with bravura but now the Groom was squirming with the note of a plea in the voice. Nobody had mentioned South Africa. The Bride was tempted to save him but held back. There was a surgical precision in what was happening. This surgeon was not yet spilling blood or tears, just separating connective tissue to expose the palpitating vessels beneath.

‘Ja, your home!  What sort of home is one with bars on the windows? My niece lives there. She goes in for books too. Hides behind books like you do. I know about books, sometimes I even write them. Young man, let me show you etwas…’ The Philosopher reached inside his jacket pocket and pulled out a wad of folded paper. He extracted a small booklet and opened it. ‘Do you know what this is? See. Read it…’ He held it out for perusal.

‘It looks like a post office savings book…’ The groom had grasped at something other than the reproach in those eyes. ‘Just sums of money…’

The Bride was leaning forward to look at the name, written across the top.

‘Quite a lot of money, every month? Gut Ja? You know what for? That is my compensation from the German Government… for the death of all my family, in Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, wiped out…all the best… and they were just like you. Not one would listen in nineteen thirty three…none of them believed me…I left, they stayed. So this money is my payment for being right. And for them being deaf and blind. I get even an addition for looted paintings nobody can find…Now I can see it’s a waste of time talking to you so if you don’t mind I will buy your wife a present….Come my dear, give an old man the pleasure of your arm.’ He left a scatter of coins in a saucer.

Still haunted by a ghost
Still haunted by a ghost

The Philosopher led the Bride into the aisle of a busy and newly ploughed field. His dogs were followed by the Groom red with shame and lost. Something clean and sharp had penetrated, and although there was no wound, he felt he might be breathing his last. The cheerful others, that wife he no longer knew, entered a small accessory shop in Bond Street.

The Groom, no longer dishy, waited outside for this alchemy to take its course, the erudite tramp who had picked up his wife without ado and borne her away, leaving him like a gutted stag on the hard stones of a city.

‘Silk stockings I think ja? Christian Dior. What colour would you prefer?’

‘Grey? replied the Bride. She realised that protest would be ungracious, since her other half had so churlishly offended.

‘Now, I would like stockings with seams, a stairway to Paradise, but you are a modern girl so I expect you like seamless…such a pity…’

The package was handed to her with an inclination of the Philosopher’s head and a slight courtly bow. He took her arm and led her out where he handed her to her husband.

‘One last thing…’ he addressed the Groom ‘One day you will have cause to remember me. You will lose your wife…perhaps not for awhile, but it is certain…’ He turned to the Bride.

‘Goodbye, my dear. I wish I might have done more’

The Bride kissed him and watched as he strode away. She knew a precious chance had been lost. She waited until he turned the corner before gathering up the boy she had married.

‘Are you interested in his books?’ she asked.

‘What are you talking about?

God's New Covenant

‘That was Professor Heinz Cassirer. I expect he has written a few…

Ernst Cassirer. Father
Ernst Cassirer. Father

(Foyles Bookshop had only two volumes. Since he had left Germany as a Jew it was surprising to find one was a translation of the New Testament.)

So there you are. That was when I, the Book, spoke up and planted my irretrievable seed. The Bride never forgot the Professor of Philosophy whose father, Ernst, was an authority on Kant, but who, himself,  found other things worthy of attention, like the slow death of love planted where none could grow, and St Paul on the Road to Damascus because clarity was what he valued.

I wonder what that Jew turned Gentile would make of me…his ‘other’ book? He infected my Bride and they spilled much the same story, and she now as old as he was…

Here is his Obituary (found among the virtual papers of a dynasty wiped out by Hitler and scattered to the few who had listened.

Heinz Cassirer
9 August 1903-20 February 1979

I will not weep for Heinz at Hampton Court
Where strangers spun their strands of discontent
While he wove dramas from each dull event,
Perceived the truths their breeding would distort,
And took delight in wit or sharp retort.
No tears where train or town or tenement
Produced disasters he could not prevent –
Or where he flouted petty rules for sport.
But when no splintered statements fly my way
And no infuriating jokes contrive
To block the boring mill-race in my head,
He will be missed, for, on that empty day,
The world will seem a little less alive
Because that shrewd, volcanic man is dead.

– Grace Luckin ( with respect and hopefully consent- Found in the Cassirer Family Online Archive.)

Cassirer Scattered generation
The scattered generation of Cassirers

Demolition and Reclamation- A Book Writing A Life.


A Feature that Appeared in The Western Daily Press (Sat 30th June) about the relationship: The evolution of ‘Involution’ the personal Odyssey…Building a home for Arts and Family and building a book in tandem…both demolition and reclamation, old materials all re-used.

(This book Involution is all about life, the life it wrote…and here is some of it….the purple passages…..)

Two kinds of Reclamation explored in the WDP
Two kinds of Reclamation explored in the WDP

To Read the full article on this FINALLY(!) day of book publication click

Some Pictures making the history clear!

Stone Cop and Promise Summer 1981
Stone Crop and Promise Summer 1981
Before the scythe
Before the scythe
Oh..arr 'T'was the way then
Oh..arr ‘T’was the way then
original barns from courtyard photo (12)
The Daunting Prospect .
Good News. No need for cleaning. Bad news. No tap anyway.
Good News. No need for cleaning. Bad news. No tap anyway.
Enlightenment Meditation

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