South Africa through the eyes of a rambler
A unique, historical, off-beat compendium
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.
Camilo Jose Cela