To mark the publication of the late Graham Pechey’s collected essays on South African culture and writing In a Province: Studies in the Writing of South Africa, his daughter Dr Laura Pechey and Professor Tony Voss share their reflections on this important new collection. The volume has been co-edited by Dr Pechey and Professor Derek Attridge.
The country that my father lays before us in his collected essays on South African literature and culture, In a Province: Studies in the Writing of South Africa, is far from provincial. My parents, who both left South Africa in the mid to late 1960s, had complex, ambivalent relationships with the country of their birth. I soon realised that what they said about South Africa partly depended on who they were talking to. Janus-faced émigré, I heard them now decrying its injustice to apartheid apologists, then challenging a too-simplistic view of South Africa as a benighted backwater. The title of Alan Paton’s novel Ah, but your land is beautiful (1981) comes to mind, in which the speaker cannot uncomplicatedly praise the aesthetics of a land so ethically reprehensible. While my parents both had ambivalent feelings about their natal land, their approaches to living with this ambivalence differed. A self-taught artist, my mother, Nola Clendinning, teased my father for enthusiastically surrounding himself with South Africans. She notably chose a South African subject for just one of her hundreds of paintings. (The detail from one of my mother’s paintings featured on the book’s cover takes inspiration from Christian Ethiopian art.) In contrast, Dad and his émigré friends continued to immerse themselves in South African writing and music.
As Professor Tony Voss, a long-time friend of my Dad’s, reflected on reading the new collected volume, the ‘vision of South Africa’ therein is ‘sensible of its continent, its connection to Europe, its global position and its evolutionary moment.’ Dad was especially fascinated by those words, people and vignettes that spoke of South Africa’s global importance. Take those words of South African origin or imbued with new meanings in a South African context which play cameo or starring roles in world English: trek, apartheid, kaffir. Or the fact that Jan Christian Smuts, who twice served as prime minister of the Union of South Africa, would have served as British prime minister had Winston Churchill died during the Second World War.
The South Africa that Dad lays before us is populated by a pantheon of such exceptional people born, or long-term resident, in South Africa (not all of whom were on the right side of history). This roll call includes Smuts, Sol Plaatje, Olive Schreiner, Cecil John Rhodes, Mohandas K. Gandhi, and of course Nelson Mandela, a ‘figure of such spiritual power that everyone in the centre wishes to be seen standing in its aura’. Dad especially relished stories of encounters between these figures and readers will come across many such vignettes in his essays. We’re told, for example, of Schreiner shaking hands with Gandhi on the Cape Town dockside in 1909 and later of her kneeling before Smuts in London in 1917 pleading him to help end what she saw as an imperialist war. Dad relished how South Africa’s significance was embodied in the statues of Smuts, Gandhi and Mandela in London’s Parliament Square. He was proud that 3 of the 12 statesmen and notable individuals memorialised in the heart of that former imperial ‘centre’ were South African or, as in the case of Gandhi, had strong connections to the country.
‘For a writer who had absorbed the highest energies of anglophone culture – Blake, Coleridge, Eliot – and moved easily in global intellectual circles’, Professor Voss observes that my father ‘maintained a strong and individuating sense of his own South African origins.’ In Voss’s own poem ‘The Poets’ – which is dedicated to South African poet Sydney Clouts and features in Voss’s debut poetry collection – the narrator too finds the poets ‘return to memory,/like stories of cheetah/in suburban gardens’. Readers of my father’s essays will similarly observe the South African poets stalking back into his writing in later life.
It is my hope that this new collection of my father’s work will help the next generation of South African thinkers to roam around in that country’s past and present and both decry and cry out with love for it as they see fit.
You can purchase a copy of In a Province: Studies in the Writing of South Africa, co-edited by Dr Pechey and Professor Derek Attridge via the Liverpool University Press website.