What is your biggest achievement over the past year? I think getting a blockhouse onto a mainstream TV Show! Recently the comedian/historian Al Murray presented a light-hearted program, shown on British and South African TV, called “Why does everyone hate the British Empire?” and it featured me, amateur historian and blockhouse ‘expert’. Al Murray uses his alter ego the British pub landlord, a rather non-politically correct caricature of ‘old-style’ British patriotism to examine history around the World.
Some light-hearted TV time – and the blockhouses role in the Anglo-Boer War
I was found off the internet from my book writing exploits and the concept resonated with all my worldviews, rattle a few cages and have some fun along the way. Add Loyisa Gola, a local comedian, in for good measure and the day we spent filming sure was fun, and I hope the program entertaining. A good collaborative project where history becomes entertainment, and we held the film shoot at the Witkop Blockhouse, a site locals are desperately fighting to save, hopefully raising its status to – key tourism site!
Witkop Blockhouse (The Heritage Portal)
What are your top priorities for the year ahead? In terms of output, for sure edition two of my first book Anglo-Boer War Blockhouses – An Engineer’s Perspective, and cracking the bulk of a third book, the title of which I never disclose in public. Why is this? I have already had three titles in progress, that I have ended up seeing in Exclusive Books!
The other priority is to plant seeds. I am reconciled that I cannot achieve all I want to but know that others might. So, for me, planting seeds, as ideas, and joining the dots with like-minded people and organisations is what brings me joy and keeps me in the game. Projects on the go – sourcing original blockhouses to repurpose as museums and tourist attractions and linking blockhouse sites up into a major walking route!
Wellington Blockhouse (Chris Murphy)
What excites you? ‘New Stuff’ excites me! Finding something out that no one has before, either on the ground or from the archives. Often new military sites are there to see in plain sight. Google Earth is my best friend in this regard, and when you know where to look, discovering entire blockhouse lines is relatively easy to do. Secondly, I have an engineer’s mind and take little I see or read at face value, so everything I see gets a fresh analysis. Looking at academically written articles on military history with both an engineering and military eye, often reveals new information. In this regard I am my own alter ego “The Blockhouse Detective”.
Overview of blockhouse sites in my database
How did you get started in the heritage world? What got me started? I stood by my Great Uncle's World War One grave in France in 2001 and recounted his story. An Uncle I never met and one like millions who died and who had a unique family story to tell. It awakened something in me; a desire to recount soldiers’ stories, their battle exploits and the places they travelled, and where they left their mark. Once I was living in South Africa, with time on my hands after redundancy, I was further inspired by reading a Getaway article on Smuts’ Commando and the blockhouses he passed by in the Karoo. A spark was struck, that lit the tinder to start a burning fire to fully recount the impact the blockhouse system had on the outcome of the Anglo-Boer War. I recently published 12-years of research in two books and feel I have only just started to tell their story.
One of my books
Who has had the biggest impact on your professional life and why? People with passion and a joy-for-life. These two character traits largely make the world go round and achieve the most in terms of success. I want to make an impact, so I do my best to meet and collaborate with those who inspire me and are great at what they do.
Dr. Dean Allen is one, author historian and speaker now based out of Gqeberha, who was a real inspiration early on in my self-publishing journey with advice and all round encouragement. He is now shaking up the radio airways and prominent in the local community, giving it his all – oh and he lectures on cruise ships too. A better ambassador for academically well-researched history you won’t find.
The second, is Tammy Southby (Aka Sunshine Simplicities) a Facebook blogger and heritage story-teller extraordinaire. Wow, this lady covers some miles in her job, but always finds the spare time to discover the site and the story along the way to entertain others. She is a tenacious adventurer finding the interesting places and stories along our highways and dirt roads. I met Tammy Southby recently at the Witkop Blockhouse near Meyerton, Johannesburg while she was on her own heritage travels (see main image).
I encouraged the two to meet up recently - wonder what will come from that? – the fusion of two passionate heritage folk has got to be – MORE PASSION! Watch out Gqeberha!
What has been the hardest thing to say no to in recent months? Starting to write too many books. I wrote four book prefaces in one day, created the book outlines and was ready to start all four! Three interesting new, thought evoking topics, had to be put on the backburner. I still want to research these even now. Writing and then self-publishing one book takes an inordinate amount of time and energy and the key factor to success is focus! The die is set to write one book.
What advice would you give someone starting out in heritage? Find your niche passion and work it to death! Passion produces joy and once you have this no one can ever steal it from you. No one can tell you what yours is – you either find it – or more likely it will find you…!
What resources would you recommend to the heritage community? The best resource, you already possess – your enquiring mind. Is everything known about our heritage? Certainly not, so it is for you to find. Also, the archives are vast, and increasingly digitised and year on year institutions are adding more and more material. The desktop digital hunt can be relentless, but boots on the ground and in the lesser know archives are where the heritage gems are still buried.
What in the sector makes your blood boil? I see many using heritage as a weapon to score points or to fight others with. It is our shared heritage that brought us to today. If you love the Boks’ win in the World Cup and equally hate loadshedding, then you have to accept everything that brought us to this point, good or bad, is valid and part of our collective history. The Voortrekkers, Shaka Zulu, the Anglo-Boer War, Apartheid, et al, all played some part in shaping the nation. If you view everything through an opportunist eyes then for each slice of heritage you see tourism opportunities, jobs, income, and prosperity. Everything can have a worth in preserving, everything equally.
What is your favourite heritage site and why? I love the Old Provost Gaol in Grahamstown. It is faithfully restored but is a lovely coffee shop; it has found its wonderful purpose, and right in the heart of the town and university. I sat and had coffee in a jail cell, with tiny windows and discussed some thing or other with a lady writing her thesis, on something I can’t remember. The coffee was lovely, the meeting and shared interest and story was captivating at the time, the history told on the information boards just enough. The site was a winner in the heritage survival battle!
The Old Provost Makhanda (Grahamstown)
What books are you reading at the moment? Well, that’s always a difficult question because now I usually have a few on the go, but the latest buy is Be Useful – Seven Tools for Life by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Wow what an inspiring guy! Having recently watched his Netflix story, I thought it worth a read. I think his father’s mantra of “be useful” resonated with what my father told me “If you’re going to be a road sweeper – be the best road sweeper in the World”. Arnie is also going through a period of reinvention similar to my own, post bodybuilding, post movies and post politics. Mine is post military, post consultant and post corporate. The need to reinvent and career-pivot is key to survival these days and any advice from one as driven as Arnie – I’ll take it, I am on Chapter 1 – have a clear vision! And you can't mention Arnie without his greatest line “I’ll be back” perhaps another key to longevity and reinvention.
What books would you gift to a friend? I usually gift book tokens and let my friends chose – otherwise I gift them my own blockhouse books – what else?
What would you recommend right now to make a positive change in the sector? Collaboration, networking, partnering and teamwork – “Stronger Together” as the Boks recently showed us really can work. Finding a way to win, when really you shouldn’t be, is really resonating with me. Often the situations we face in this great nation seem unsurmountable, but they are not if we all work together. Living in iGoli (Johannesburg, the city of gold) I am reminded that today’s gold and riches are really the opportunities that present to us laying in plain sight. A recent statistic showed the tourism sector produces 7.1% of GDP and is the fastest growing sector in the country. Maybe not so surprising post-COVID, as we restore South Africa to its correct place as a World-Class tourist destination.
This for me, is where heritage needs to focus – preservation with purpose! Only if we firstly preserve our sites will we have something to work with. Waiting for the government and the law to act sadly is not going to cut it, and time is running out. It is partnering with commercial ventures, or NPOs to preserve and find a purpose for sites that will work, and when I say purpose I mean income for locals. Create an income and you have a local vested interest that will act to self-preserve into the future. We need our institutions to act and advise on historical integrity to retore with historical accuracy but, and here’s the rub, we must be prepared to compromise or sacrifice some of this for purpose. For me a remote blockhouse with a window cut in and a new doorway at ground level to make a mountain bike rest hut is fair if it saves it from wanton destruction. Preservation with purpose.
I have seen so many opportunities squandered in South Africa though government departments not collaborating. If heritage and tourism collaborate we can create tourist routes, destinations, accommodation and eating venues into tailored tourism packages. I think the KZN Battlefield Route in the military sector I work in can be replicated in other parts of South Africa, such as the Magaliesberg Range.
What is heritage to you? Heritage to me is a story worth telling, and everyone has at least one unique story that stands out in their life. It may be told from a single bone, picked out the ground by an archaeologist in the Cradle of Humankind that changes the World understanding of our species; or a cartridge shell found on the veldt where De Wet crossed his Commando between two blockhouses or maybe you have a Great-Uncle Arthur who lost his life in a German Prisoner-of-War camp in 1918, when a bomb killed him while peeling potatoes!
Homo Naledi Exhibition (The Heritage Portal)
What is your claim to fame outside the heritage world? I was in the Army for 29 years as a communications officer and had a rich and varied career – I was once detained by the Russians in 1984 while serving in Berlin’s Eastern Sector for “spying” (I was late home for dinner that night!).