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Tim Couzens

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘South Africa’ Category


Help. My publishers forced me into this blog, this confined space, dank and dark. I am shackled here. I know nothing about blogs. I don’t want to know anything about blogs.

All I want to do is get a message of thanks out to ‘Kelwyn’ And ‘Helen’ for their generous remarks about me.

Although when I think about it maybe they, too, are being held by my publishers and are being forced to say nice things about me. Perhaps they need help from their friends to rescue them.

I cannot because I have no friends. I am not on Facebook.


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Children Lost and Found

I was born without a sense of humour. This is a rare but known congenital condition (for which, like everything else, my parents and forebears are responsible). It is a terrible affliction. I am, for instance, the only person in the world who takes politicians seriously.

I did laugh once. I did not myself recognise it as such at the time but my wife said sometime afterwards that the snort I made was indeed a laugh (she was rushed to hospital and treated for astonishment).

That snort was provoked by reading a letter in The Spectator from an irate biographer who was responding to a crushingly critical review. She complained that the reviewer did not have the right to ‘destroy three years’ work with quite such contempt.’ Her indignation was majestic. All of three years! I have written three biographies, each of which took me ten years to write and even then they were pretty useless. Is it possible to write a biography in three years?

In the absence of humour, then, I have had to resort to irony. One of my books, about an old tramp, was an epic of comic irony; another, about an arsenic murder, was an epic of tragic irony. Now, my new book, South African Battles, about relatively unknown battles or known battles with some kind of twist added, is full of historical ironies. Irony, then, but no humour, definitely no humour.

One tends to know, as an author, when the accumulation of evidence has reached the tipping point into the law of diminishing returns and when the endless repolishing of style has begun to cause tennis elbow (even if it takes up to three years, wow!).So it was with this new battles book of mine. It is the result of fifteen years of practising and I finally knew when to stop.

The moment of publication is usually a time of mixed feelings, of joy and of some sadness.

For a writer books are like children. Although conception is passionate, fumbling and ineluctable, pregnancy is long (more elephantine than human) and the labour is painful. The only difference is that at the end you can throw away the book (though, in the modern world this distinction is breaking down on both sides of the equation).

Or sell it. A friend of mine with a sense of humour used to say that her children did not leave the nest, they had it whipped from out from under them.

Authors are like that. They either give multiple copies of their books away in the hopes that one or two recipients might read them, or they try and persuade people to part with hard-earned money for them. One agent (not mine – none has ever adopted me) once said to me, ‘Sign everything so they can’t return it.’

But there is also a kind of postpartum depression. You are sad to see the last of them, you wonder if they’ll find a good home and you feel sorry for the last runts left unwanted on the shelves.

Then you begin to wonder what’s happened to each of them (they are individuals, not ciphers). With the first batch of one of my books the publisher’s vehicle was hijacked. The van was found, abandoned, but not the books. I console myself that whoever kidnapped them targeted them and wanted them for themselves so they will have found a good home on the bedside table of a literate thief. (How many authors can claim that their works were hijacked? Literally, I mean, not in the plagiarized sense – I’ve had a bit of that, too).

Another batch of a volume of plays by the first black South African playwright which I helped edit was destroyed when the publishers were firebombed by the Special Branch a long time back. I was given one surviving copy, hideously burned and disfigured. Despite solicitous nursing it died a few years ago, never having been read again, because its pages were charred together.

But some copies, just a few, you hear news of, as though from a far country. You stumble across them, mainly in second-hand book stores. Like roving labradors they return in varying states. Some are virginal, pristine, unread. Others are dog-eared, muddy, cheerful or chastened. Some have their previous owners’ names written in, others pencilled notes (not always complimentary).

There is a pathos in finding them there. You look at the new price and think is that their worth after all you put into them. You want to ask them: Where have you been? Did they treat you well? Do you regret your life? Was I wrong in fathering you?

Recently, as I grow older, a change has come about. Some of my books (out of print and with no chance of being cloned) are increasingly difficult to find. I have only a couple of copies of each left.

So I go actively in search of them. And when I find them I sweep them up in my arms and pay anything for them. Like lost children I clutch their hand and bring them home.

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