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Denis Beckett

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

A Booktown Fights for the Karoo

This is a tale of the Karoo, of a dry dry dusty dusty bit of it.

Ah, as I write I feel koppie beneath my feet; clear crisp view to forever.

This is a tale of the Karoo and of beautiful lunatics, and of South Africa here and now. But it begins in another place and another generation.

Hay on Wye is an un-dry and un-dusty picture-postcard dorp on the England/Wales border. In 1960 Hay was coming up for its 900th birthday but seemed unlikely to make it. The cattle trading industry, which had sustained the economy since frontier wars went out of fashion, was all pooped out. Town was teetering.

So they got smart, and said “let’s make a Booktown”.

A what? There was no such thing. Half a millennium since Gutenberg, the notion “Booktown” had never been thought of.

Hay thought of it. It made itself into a town built on books; talking books, reading books, ogling books, selling books. Now, Hay has 20 fulltime bookshops. Its annual festival fills a hundred thousand beds. And the idea caught on, as good ideas do. By 2007 Hay was the grandaddy of 28 booktowns stretching from Jinbocho, Japan, to Archer, Texas, via Bosu-dong, South Korea, and Redu, Belgium.

There were booktowns in every continent except Africa.

And then, along came a beautiful lunatic.


When I was a student a friend of mine approached a prominent person with an idea.

The prominent person listened, and said: “where is the money in this?”

My friend was startled: “It’s not about money, it’s about… beauty.”

The prominent person said: “What use is that? To spend time on things that make no money is lunatic.”

Ever since, I’ve hoped the world will never run out of beautiful lunatics.


Darryl David was already a rare figure, as an Indian professor of Afrikaans. When he decided that what the Karoo needed was a booktown, he became rarer.

He took it seriously. No light whimsies here. Darryl examined prospective booktowns, writing up his results on the internet and explaining why this one, that one, the next one, wouldn’t do.

Then he came to Richmond, and he explained why it would do.

This was a bold thing to explain. Insofar as Richmond’s potential was pegged on Hay’s success, there were discrepancies.

In a two-hour drive of Hay you have a population centre called London. In a two-hour drive of Richmond you have a population centre called Graaff-Reinet.

In a 300K radius of Hay you find some 10 000 bookshops. In a 300K radius of Richmond you find 0 bookshops.

It was an ambitious basis upon which to create a booktown.

But Darryl David phoned around, undeterred, and, it turned out, all roads in Richmond led to a particular person. They led to a Canadian veterinarian in Parktown North, Johannesburg.

Baker is an Africa convert, and puts a convert’s zeal into his hobbies. One of these is driving 4x4s to corners of central Africa where cooldrink cans burst in the sun as if they’ve been microwaved, and crossing a bridge can take a week. Another hobby is watching the sun go down from Vegkop, his manor house on the hill over Richmond, with beers and friends and deep satisfaction at the world and its works.

Baker has a forename, Peter, which features on his degrees and his ID. In person, he is so solidly known as “Baker” that one can think he was christened Baker Baker. He is a man in a hurry, who answers his phone (when he can find it and has remembered to turn it on) by bellowing “What!” in tones designed for declaring war.

Darryl gulped before phoning Baker to propose a booktown in Richmond. “I knew that people would think ‘is this for real’, and I know that people can be rude.” Darryl didn’t know that Baker has a third hobby: thwarting the Karoo’s new industry.

Money is being made in the Karoo, at last. That should be exciting news, but shoulds are risky. This money is made by sabotage. You buy up a derelict cottage, demolish it, and sell the wood – mature yellowwood, often 100 years mature; ceilings and beams and floorboards, gold dust. Then you leave the crumpled dagha walls like a kicked-down anthill, and the Karoo has lost twice. It has sacrificed a treasure and it has acquired an eyesore.

Local government has the legal means of combat but local government is the epicentre of “incapacity”, the code word for implosion by reverse racism. Add a new Rates Act whereby the rates on a pensioner’s cottage exceed the pensioner’s pension and, but for one thing, you’d see a Karooful of kicked-down anthills.

That thing is the thin mortgaged line of people who are buying up the Karoo.

Some say “speculators”, and there is something in that. But it is so far-fetched a speculation that in my view it comes closer to beautiful lunacy.

Baker is a baron of Richmond now, the puzzled possessor of a clutch of run-down dwellings that would pay him millions if he pulled them down and are money down the drain while he keeps them up.

At least Baker has a stream of Joburg pet-owners on the supply side. Co-baron John Donaldson, a stoere Boer despite his name, returned to the Karoo from which he sprang and found kicked-down anthills spreading like hawkers’ stands. He bought one demolition candidate and set it up as home. Soon he was running a family of mini-businesses and, with Baker, buying demolishables before the demolishers got them.

When Darryl David phoned Baker and Baker bellowed “What!” Darryl nearly put the phone down. “I mean, it was a bit tricky, you know. If he’d said ‘good morning, how can I help you’, it would be easier to explain.” Darryl spat it out notwithstanding, and Baker, within some 90 seconds of hearing “booktown” for the first time in his life, bellowed “Yes!” so heartily that Darryl’s ear hurt.

John Donaldson was promptly enlisted and Booktown Richmond was born.

Fast-forward now through a year or so of local politics, allowing your mind to boggle at the galvanising, objecting, stonewalling, steering, re-steering, re-re-steering, backbiting, bitching, accusing, blaming, disputing, denouncing and disbelieving that the injection of a new dimension into a village’s life must mean.

Come to the third weekend of October 2008, and place yourself in Richmond.

The real lesson Caster Semenya taught us

When the call for anti-Mugabe sanctions was riding high, I think you noticed an irony. You’d heard the same noises before – “force the oppressors to their knees”, “show them that the world is serious” and so on – but now they came from different mouths.

This had been the ANC’s song, before De Klerk. Now Tories and Republicans and the DA were singing it.

And Thabo Mbeki was reading from the script that Helen Suzman had shared with Maggie Thatcher: “sanctions hurt the poor” and “quiet diplomacy gets results”.

It was wry; a proof that reason comes second. The world likes to think it works on logic but actually our minds have ratchets, factory fitted. We see things from the slant that we happen to know is the only straight-up slant there is, the one that God wants the world to have. Anybody coming at matters from a different slant is biased, automatically; usually ignorant and venal too.

It’s exactly like accents. I don’t have one of those. It’s you who do, if you speak differently to me.

It’s also exactly like Caster-views. Now that the chief shibboleth of Seffricanism is that Caster is Our Golden Girl Repeat Girl That Word Is Girl, anyone countenancing a certain particular question is instantly written off as a racist and a saboteur and even [block the children's ears] a European.

There’s a way that I understand the race thing coming into this. I’ll come back to it. But first I tell you how I keep cool when Caster-worship is flung at me. I think of parents at school athletics.

Say there’s a bump in a relay, and a stumble. It’s uncanny how every Green House parent can give sworn evidence, cross their heart, that Blue’s foot strayed into Green’s lane, while every Blue House parent saw first hand, direct, Green’s flailing elbow put Blue off balance.

When decibels rise in declaring Caster’s femininity, I imagine a women’s race – running, swimming, whatever – where our champion is beaten by someone else, an Australian, say, with a history of being seen as a boy. I know that the person now shouting at me “Be fair, leave her alone!” would shout “Be fair, she shouldn’t qualify!” (And the clever guys who say “it just takes a glance in the trousers” would be experts on X and Y chromosomes.)

You can’t get upset at people insisting on what way you should think, I find, when you know that they would insist on the opposite if the tables were turned.

This morning I caused upset of my own after hearing a bunch of good people, somewhat involved, talk of the heights that Caster is going to reach when the fuss settles. On evidence available to them, the world record is a doddle and the Usain of the next Olympics is identified and a great Seffrican celebrating is en route.

I said I can’t see that. I can only see tears.

They said how can I say that, who’s side was I on?

Time to Dump “Black” and “White”

On the pavement, surrounded by a tangle of pruned rose branches that would defy a tank, our cousin, Di, has nearly finished a day of rose-surgery. They’ve been mega-bushes, climbing our wall. I’ve just got home. I’m awed. I’m saying “Di, can I get you tea, can I get you coffee, can I get you a whiskey, can I get you band-aid…”

While I talk, branches fly out of the mobile hump that is Di under bushes. She keeps on working: “No. No. No. No.”

I know her Noes will all be Noes, but there is the hostly instinct. Seffricans are good at that. We over-offer instinctively, same as we instinctively say “how are you” to everyone from the speedcop to the talk-show host who has just said “fine” 14 consecutive times to the same question.

I run out of hostly offers, and at last recognise her Noes as “will you let me get on with it now”. I step back and I bash into a passer-by.

It isn’t a big bash; no bruises or pain, but I’ve definitely invaded someone else’s space. I offer the sheepish “sorry” of a person who belatedly discovers that it is not clever to walk backwards into the public walkway of a busy pavement.

The passer-by is a woman, twenties, nice-looking, bluejeans.

We disentangle, mildly humorously. I catch her eye. She gives a fleeting no-problem grin. Fresh attractive face, expressive. She gestures to Cousin Di, attacking bushes, and says: “a worker, that one, look after her”. She flexes her arm in a ripply airpunch like when your team scores a point, gives me a nod, and walks on.
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Introducing Themba’s Head

Themba's HeadHumankind has progressed marvellously, in nearly every field. Transport, communications, Medicine, entertainment… everything is light-years ahead of what your grandma was born into.

So why do we have locks on our doors, alarms on our fences and high blood pressure about each other’s tribe or race or sect?

Aha, argues this book, this is because we have jammed at Democracy Version 1.0. Our era has brough us to take-off point, and now the route to upgrade is quite accessible.

Democracy 2.0 offers fulfilment. Introducing Themba’s Head.

(You finish it before your bathwater goes cold, did you realise?)

Published by Saga Press, Westcliff, Johannesburg
ISBN-13: 9780620441094

Drop the “chairwoman”, Gill

In bad, bad ancient days when people thought homosexuality was sinful and Africans didn’t do voting and prisons were good places to send criminals to, they also got some things right. For instance, the person conducting a meeting was the chairman. Easy.

My friend Libby Husemeyer was an excellent chairman, a real master.

Another friend, Astrid van Warmelo, was a fireman. She was a fireman, see, and if you didn’t get that right you might get a klap. She was not up for being singled out, separated, lessened. She did the work that other firemen did; she should be called what other firemen were called.

But the world moved on, in that way it has. And as always, the moving on was mainly a moving up, but with lots of little duwweltjies of downness scattered around to puncture your tubes.

Thus have we inflicted the innocent English language with barbarous new constructions such as “chairwoman” and “spokeswoman”.

Now I concede most readily that “chairwoman” and its little friend are not the weightiest of the new idiocies, but they are well up among the crispest and they are also eminently salvageable. I hereby put to the distinguished jury a simple proposition: that “chairwoman”, pending its expulsion from the dictionaries to which it has recently acceded, should meantime be expunged from our usage.

Here’s the indictment:

Count 1. Chairwoman is retrogressive.

Once, your gender mattered mightily. So did your race, your tribe, your class. Those things wrote the script of your life.

No longer, whew.

Race, class, tribe and gender retreat. That’s not exactly new; they’ve been in retreat as long as humans have been evolving, but there was a lot to be retreated from. For centuries it was grudging retreat with active rear gunners. Now, with humankind testing new thresholds, the retreat is a free-fall. Each day we judge you less by whether you are man or woman, dark or pale, born of a duke or born of a peasant. Each day we judge you more by who you are; honest or shady, real or phoney, open or veiled.

Status distinctions tumble and fall, to be carted off in the tumbrel of bygone tyrannies. Our own generation has taken terrific steps, like Ms, overdue relief to a womankind that spent millennia with its marital status on display like a neon forehead. There is more to be done. It’s work in progress. It’s going the right way.

Except for “chairwoman”, and its partners in crime. Other backward terms are mainly hangover terms, not yet cleared out from the past. “Chairwoman” is a new invention, re-dividing the human race that in so many other ways is travelling out of division and into unity. That’s perverse.

Karl van Wyk Reviews Magenta

The only negative review I’ve seen so far…


Magenta is Denis Beckett’s first novel. Most will recall Beckett as the host of Beckett’s Trek, a television programme that explored contemporary South African life. This is also Beckett’s preoccupation in Magenta, as the novel’s protagonist, Bart Dunn, treks across Johannesburg, experiencing and discussing post- apartheid South Africa. What is unique about Bart is that he is politically optimistic despite living in a politically troubled country.

Unfortunately, several unwise artistic choices make the novel difficult to read. Beckett has chosen a style that is far too conversational and turns a potentially interesting novel into a disagreeable one.

At the beginning of the novel, Bart, a politically liberal white South African, discovers that an old political friend of his, Robert, has been murdered. This is the novel’s haunting force as it drives the plot forward and influences the characters’ actions. The character who seems most affected by Robert’s death is his son, Lud, a young right-wing extremist, who believes that his father’s death was the result of a BEE conspiracy. Kei, Roger’s mourning wife, is a woman whose friendship with Bart grows as the novel progresses.
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Sarah Hudleston Reviews Magenta

MagentaDenis Beckett uses his first novel as a way to convey his thoughts on the rights and wrongs of our country


AFTER writing 11 books, Denis Beckett, who has had a lifelong career as a journalist, television personality and raconteur extraordinaire , decided that a work of nonfiction to express his disillusionment with post-millennium, post-democracy SA would not do.

So he embarked on a three-and-a-half year project to say everything he had to say on the matter through the medium of the novel.

It would not have taken so long if he had not also had to keep earning a living while becoming a novelist. But he kept at it with a fervour that was only matched by his editor, Elana Bregin, who picked it apart and challenged just about every sentence.

Beckett always wanted to make a difference . He studied law and qualified as an advocate. But no sooner had he passed his bar exams than he decided to give it all up for journalism, working for The Star and The Rand Daily Mail, before founding Frontline, an avant garde magazine that poked holes in life in apartheid SA.

Magenta, his latest book and first novel, is a natural progression for him. “I always wanted to state a case and write it in a particular way so that people would read it,” he says.

“I am sure if I had written it as a work of nonfiction, nobody would have read it. So I spent a long time linking my case inside the story.”
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Jane Rosenthal Reviews Magenta

MagentaBeckett’s rollicking trek through Jozi

JANE ROSENTHAL – Oct 27 2008

When Bart, the protagonist of Magenta (University of KwaZulu-Natal Press), says he has better things to do than write a novel, he is told: “No you don’t. Novels broaden us, they nudge the world.”

And this certainly seems to be Denis Beckett’s intention with this startling and amusing addition to South African fiction. As readers who remember him from his television days will know, Beckett has opinions and ideas and loves to share them with people.

This he does in 500 rather uproarious pages; this is not a quiet novel, though it is full of some serious distilled meditations on life in Gauteng. The style takes some getting used to, mainly because it is unusual, but once into the swing of it it’s a lot of fun. Beckett sustains the narrative simultaneously with Bart’s inner commentary and asides. There is much inventive playing with words; the text is ironic, speedy and succinct, which was always Beckett’s distinguishing style, mixed with his idiosyncratic take on situations and his ability to present two sides of an argument.
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Sandra Gordon reviews Magenta (2 Articles): “I dare you to read it”

MagentaOn my rounds: Ebullient and self-deprecating

Published: 07 November 2008

Some of the media matters that caught the eye of Sandra Gordon: Denis Beckett’s book launch.

Attended Beckett’s latest book launch on 5 November. He was his usual ebullient, self-deprecating self. Even the stilted question and answer session hosted by Sunday Times book editor Timon Smith raised laughs.
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Garth Johnstone reviews Magenta

MagentaSA writer, print columnist, radio commentator and TV presenter Denis Beckett turns to fiction for the first time with Magenta (published by UKZN Press).

A colourful and clever thriller, the book is written in Beckett’s unique style, demanding readers keep their wits about them and stick steadfastly to the storyline as the plot develops.

From the outset, the writing in this 500-plus-page work is witty and sharp, and Beckett cleverly taps the circumstances, mood and psyche of many in South Africa today in developing his leading characters.

Described as ‘rambunctious, hilarious, thoughtful and enthralling’ by columnist William Saunderson-Meyer, Magenta is exactly what you’d expect from this provocative commentator on SA society.

- Garth Johnstone, Saturday Independent, Durban, 1 Nov