Deneys Schreiner (1923-2008) was a liberal and an academic, a scientist and a Vice Principal at Natal University (Pietermaritzburg Campus). He was known as the man with the flowing beard, which he kept in place and sprouting from his face as a personal protest against the apartheid regime.
The title, Civilising Grass - The Art of the Lawn on the South African Highveld, intrigued and immediately raised questions. What is the difference between grass, veld and lawn? Why is there an art in its cultivation? What does a lawn mean? Why do some people spend precious leisure time mowing a lawn? Why do lawns matter and what do they represent? If you read this book you will find some of the answers. This is certainly a book to set you thinking. We all benefit from the author’s scholarship (the bibliography is vast).
Sometimes it takes a foreigner to recognize a powerful South African story. The title is arresting Barnato’s Diamonds. Such a title must surely refer to the diamonds owned or mined by Barney Barnato the flamboyant mining pioneer who made his first fortune in Kimberley in the 1870s and his second fortune on the Witwatersrand and Johannesburg after 1886. He was the man who founded Johannesburg Consolidated Investment Company, affectionately called “Johnnies” or JCI. Barnato was involved in everything that made Johannesburg, the mining camp that became the
Dr Pam Heller-Stern has written a novel based on the life and times of Jose Dale Lace, grand dame of Edwardian Johannesburg. Married to John Dale Lace, the couple commissioned the architect Herbert Baker to build them a grand mansion on the Parktown Ridge. Completed in 1904, Northwards was one of the most imposing and enduring of the mansions of Parktown.
In 1960 Hendrik Verwoerd, the Prime Minister of South Africa came to Johannesburg to open the Rand Easter Show at Milner Park. It was a traditional annual event of the Witwatersrand Agricultural Society and a highlight of the Johannesburg calendar. In fact the Rand Easter Show was in everyone’s calendar - sportsmen, the horsey set, farmers who bred prize Ayrshire cattle, the radio world who ran their stations from the Tower of Light, housewives shopping for the newest home appliances, children who delighted in the funfair. Everyone looked forward to a day of fun
This is a very early survey of Johannesburg circa 1893 by Henry Longland whose 1890s directories are an excellent source of early information about Johannesburg Streets. This slender book, just 60 pages, has been reproduced from the British Museum rare document collection and is available online from Amazon and Abe books.
Johannesburg was always a much photographed place from its earliest days. It was a city that grew up with photographers and their cameras. As a town of migrants and immigrants, people wanted to send postcards and photographic souvenirs back home.
Eric Rosenthal (1905-1983) was a prolific writer. The bibliography of his books in his Wikipedia entry runs to 50 books. I have collected most of them. He wrote non-fiction history about South Africa. His style was light and entertaining. He was a raconteur. He captured yarns and stories about the past and he loved drawing out the characters of early Johannesburg. Rosenthal was trained as a lawyer but chose journalism and writing for a living. His books were popular in their day with large print runs and are therefore readily available today.
Secret Johannesburg is a small book with a big punch. The intriguing title lures the city enthusiast to acquire it, pop it in a pocket or a handbag and take it on a journey to discover Joburg's little known treasures. Complete with nifty maps, this guidebook with a difference unearths Johannesburg’s amazing hidden objects, spaces, places, artworks, geology, water features, trees and museums.
1889 must have been a good year for visiting South Africa. I recently found and wrote about Frederick Young’s Winter Tour of South Africa in that year (click here to read). Stanley Leighton was another English visitor to South Africa in 1889 and here is another invaluable source of impressions and vignettes of places visited by a traveller of a certain class. He did not have a political agenda nor was he pushing a particular viewpoint.
Some people are determined and fortunate enough to live two lives in one lifetime. Laurence Chait is one of this special breed. He has lived a life in medicine and a life in art. He is a well-known Johannesburg medical specialist with a distinguished and long medical career as practitioner and professor of Wits University. His specialization is plastic and reconstructive surgery. His particular expertise has been the treatment of children born with cleft lip and palate deformities; he has changed the lives of thousands of children.
Harold Napier Devitt (he wrote under the name of Napier Devitt) was born in England in 1871 and came to South Africa in 1889 on board the Royal Mail Ship, the Spartan. He tells us he was only 17 years old at the time of his arrival. He explains in the opening chapter of the first volume of his memoirs that he was one of 10 men in a party sponsored by Sir Frederic Young of the Colonial Institute and Sir Henry Pasteur, a City of London man. F C Selous the great African hunter was also on the voyage and thrilled the young Devitt with tales of the African veld.
The date of this book is unknown but the internal evidence pinpoints the volume to the years 1896 to 1899. The size is 25x30cm. The cover is an eye catching gold printing on pebbled dark maroon cloth, gilt edges, scuffing to edges, each page specially attached. The book contains laid down newspaper cuttings of Johannesburg life in the late 19th century. The author of these Weekly Star contributions was Johnstone Sheldon who wrote under the pseudonym The Vagrant.
This is another of those books that is now a classic of early 20th century South Africa. Its age and rarity pushes up the price of the original book on the antiquarian auctions and hence expect to pay well over $200 for a first edition. Alternatively you may wish to settle for a reproduction from Amazon priced from $13.57 to $45. Or if you are a fan of online reading, take advantage of the free download available via UCLA or the Guttenberg project.
This book is part of the well established series “Wake Up, This is Joburg”. It is slender, slight and instantly collectable with the look and feel of a quality art book. The book is a combination of photographic essay and a journalist’s essay on Johannesburg as shopping mecca. It is all about the people. The author, Tanya Zack and the photographer, Mark Lewis walk the city’s streets to interview and pin down fleeting images of the shoppers of the city.
This is a fascinating first person autobiographical account of one woman’s experiences and life in Southern Africa between the early 1880s and her final years in Johannesburg in the 1960s. Bertha Goudvis enjoyed a long and arduous life (1876 – 1966) during years of turbulent change and several wars. She was a first hand observer of the colonial world and lives on to comment on city life in modern Johannesburg.
It was Herman Kallenbach’s good fortune and misfortune to have met and formed a rare, deep and enduring friendship with Mohandas Gandhi in South Africa in the years 1903 to 1914. The good fortune came because to have been a close friend and associate of the man who became Mahatma Gandhi earns Kallenbach a place in Indian and South African struggle history. The misfortune followed because Kallenbach became a tortured soul as an ascetic acolyte and struggled during his entire life to find an identity and meaning in life.
I have always been interested in polar exploration and history. I think the best book on early 20th century polar exploration is by Apsley Cherry Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World, which is where Angie Butler starts her book. Butler’s book also fits into a library on polar exploration. Published in 2011, it is a book about her seven year dogged quest to find Frank Wild, the polar explorer and Shackleton’s right hand man. Butler made it her mission to discover what happened to Wild in the last third of his life.
The Johannesburg Heritage Foundation in conjunction with the Urania Village Community recently organized a walking tour of the Johannesburg Observatory and the surrounding streets of old Observatory. Observatory is a Johannesburg suburb dating back to the early 1900s, when part of the Bezuidenhoudt Farm was in part sold and in part given for the establishment of this scientific institution under the director R T A Innes. The Observatory is located at the highest point on the hill overlooking the suburb.
This is a novel and not a work of history but it draws on the styles and writings of other distinguished writers of and about Johannesburg who provided the inspiration and perhaps some foundation stones. One realizes that there is a community of people out there who love Johannesburg and write about the place. Many of us who live here are passionate about Johannesburg and feel that unique pulse of the city.