South Africa through the eyes of a ram­bler

A unique, his­tor­i­cal, off-beat com­pen­dium

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - MICHAEL MOR­RIS

SOME­WHERE over the At­lantic on a flight to a pre-Olympics At­lanta in 1996, Luke Al­fred in­tro­duced me to nov­el­ist Richard Ford’s thought­ful and in­domitable char­ac­ter, Frank Bas­combe.

I had read Ford be­fore, in Granta mag­a­zine, but Bas­combe was a rev­e­la­tion – and so was the idea of a sports writer, as Al­fred was then, rang­ing with un­self­con­scious en­thu­si­asm into lit­er­ary ter­ri­tory.

It’s no sur­prise that in the two decades since, Al­fred has at­tracted ad­mir­ing at­ten­tion for a style and a crit­i­cal in­tel­li­gence un­com­mon for the back pages, or any oth­ers for that mat­ter.

He has writ­ten a num­ber of books on sport – three on cricket, Lift­ing the Cov­ers, Test­ing Times and The Art of Los­ing, and one on rugby, an ac­count of the 1974 rugby tour, When The Li­ons Came to Town.

But his lat­est book is a de­par­ture and a de­lib­er­ate eva­sion of the risk of what he de­scribed this week as “get­ting caught in the sports book ghetto”.

There’s a dis­tinctly whim­si­cal char­ac­ter to the ti­tle of his new book – Early One Sun­day Morn­ing I De­cided to Step Out and Find South Africa.

It is a re­mark­able com­pen­dium – a sound-tak­ing of the coun­try, a repos­i­tory of sto­ries no­table and ob­scure, a blend of his­tory, bi­og­ra­phy and bar­ing au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, an ap­praisal of the of­ten un­nerv­ing ac­tu­al­ity of our time, all acutely, of­ten poignantly, ob­served by an alert walker gen­er­ous enough to take us with him.

Beauty is a word to be used cau­tiously, but it is right to call this a beau­ti­ful book, a vivid telling of 12 walks over 12 months in very dif­fer­ent set­tings across our com­pli­cated coun­try, from the qui­etude of sub­urbs, or the crammed, hus­tling streets of town­ships, to the con­sum­ing vast­ness of the ru­ral land­scape.

Part of the point in the writ­ing, though, is that such rou­tine short­hand de­scrip­tions fall short of what’s ac­tu­ally there.

In a re­flec­tion on the older, barely imag­in­able, con­di­tion of an un­farmed, un­pos­sessed coun­try­side, Al­fred ob­serves sim­ply: “The time of stones is a time, I think, for which we have only no­tional re­gard any­more.”

In much the same way, the book re­minds us, there’s a risk in over­look­ing the com­mon hu­man­ness of places we are tempted to set apart by no­tions of dif­fer­ence.

At the end of the ac­count of his fifth walk – in a chap­ter ti­tled “Fear and loathing on the Fish Hoek Board­walk” – Al­fred hints at his core find­ing and the “cau­tious hope” of his in­tro­duc­tion: “You would think, read­ing the pea­cocks and pro­fes­sional chair­sit­ters of the Daily Mav­er­ick, that cor­rup­tion and pa­tron­age pol­i­tics had stran­gled the life out of South Africa. It hasn’t. And I know this be­cause ev­ery­where I walked peo­ple were go­ing about the busi­ness – some­times proud, some­times hur­ried, some­times hope­lessly con­fused – of sim­ply stay­ing alive.”

The writer, a mid­dle-aged fa­ther of three sons whose own “mav­er­ick” fa­ther Michael in­tro­duced him at an early age to bound­less sor­ties into wild places, is very much a part of the ven­er­a­ble tra­di­tion of lit­er­ary walk­ing re­flected in the ram­bling searches of oth­ers as di­verse as Dick­ens, Wordsworth, Will Self, WG Se­bald, Stephen Wat­son, Wil­liam Ha­zlitt, Baude­laire, Woolf and Ivan Vladislavic.

Some of them fea­ture in Early One Sun­day.

Right at the start, Al­fred makes it clear what kind of lit­er­ary walker he is when he writes: “I suf­fer from nei­ther sleep­less­ness nor a bro­ken heart, so I walk, like (Span­ish nov­el­ist Camilo José) Cela, out of cu­rios­ity. I wanted to look at South Africa in a dif­fer­ent way – from a dif­fer­ent an­gle – and so took to the rhythms of the gravel road, the path and the train track in the hope that such walks would tell me some­thing in­ter­est­ing about my some­times tor­tured coun­try. I was tired of the me­dia’s white noise. I was dis­trust­ful of the sooth­say­ers, the re­ceived wis­doms and the plat­i­tudes.”

“Ram­ble,” Al­fred said in the in­ter­view, “is a nice word be­cause it sug­gests not only a voy­age of the feet, but of the mind… and I did want to leave my­self at­trac­tively open to what I might find on the road.

One of the prob­lems of writ­ing in South Africa, he added, “from fic­tion to jour­nal­ism, is that it has that rather self-ful­fill­ing prophecy feel to it – you know what you crip­tions of the land­scape”. Equally, the book is a re­but­tal of the con­ven­tions by which, typ­i­cally, “the cit­i­zen of the city reads the coun­try” as a “triv­i­alised and sen­ti­men­talised” idyll of twee beauty. And, as the book re­veals, he is ev­ery bit as en­gaged by the hard stuff.

On his walk with sons Sam and Jake, both stu­dents, Al­fred con­fronts the ache of see­ing them tak­ing off on their own lives be­yond the fam­ily hearth. In a break on their shared Ceder­berg walk – with Sam’s girl­friend, Skye – he plays Fris­bee with his sons.

“Fris­bee,” he writes, “was a balm, it al­ways had been. I loved the way it curled gen­tly over the grass, shut­tling be­tween the three of us, its si­lence as pure as a bowed ar­row. Yet it was only a vague con­so­la­tion. My heart was full of noise – it al­ways would be – sore in ways I didn’t fully un­der­stand.”



Writer Luke Al­fred at an his­toric walk of Kalk Bay prior to his book launch at Kalk Bay Book­store.

Luke Al­fred

Camilo Jose Cela

Thomas Pringle

Ma­hatma Gandhi

Alan Paton

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