Trying to stay on top of COVID news? We have no choice but to do so, to best protect ourselves and our loved ones. It’s stressful and draining, but we have to do it.
This post is paraphrased and shortened from an article by Alanna Shaikh, a global public health expert and a TED Fellow, for tips on how to navigate this information overload while staying safe and sane. ( for full article, see here )
1. Look for news that you can act on
When you’re trying to figure out what stories to stay on top of, ask yourself: “Will having this information benefit my life or my work? Will it allow me to make better-informed decisions?”
Accumulating masses of information that you can’t use isn’t so helpful.
For most people, the most critical information for you to follow is how the virus is transmitted. Scientists are still learning every day about how people get infected.
2. Turn to trusted sources
If something reaches you on your whatsapp or instagram in Blikkiesdorp, chances are people professionally covering the pandemic heard it before you did.
So go and see what they say about it. COVID-19 has been heavily politicized, and even some major news sources are basing their content more on opinion than on science.
You can generally trust the accuracy of top news sources like Nature,Wiredand The New York Times — to name three examples.
Why? Cos their reputations are at stake. And they have the kind of budget that lets them hire full-time journalists who will stand by the facts or who rely on fact-checkers to verify their information.
3. Check where their information is coming from
No-one actually KNOWS, so be wary of articles or sources that claim to have a definite answer to a complex question.
Right now, there is no consensus about a timeline — these people and organizations are simply offering their best guesses. Use fact-checking sites – find one here.
4. Look for news that works for you
For ordinary people whose expertise lies outside global health — i.e. us, you and me — find sources of information that you can read and digest without having to devote your whole day (or brain) to it. Like the Think Global Health website; it’s aimed at passionate non-experts. It’s not dumbed down, but it doesn’t assume you have a PhD.
5. Be prepared to change your behavior based on new information
No source is perfect, but that doesn’t mean you should disbelieve all sources. Research constantly changes and informs and shapes our ideas.
Remember when wiping down surfaces was the MAIN thing? Now, reputable organizations and scientists basically agree on masks, contact tracing and the existence of transmission of COVID by people who aren’t showing symptoms. If you get sick you will probably never know who ‘gave it to you,’ as they would have felt as healthy as you did the day the virus was transmitted.
Some of this info may change again, but we need to keep going along with best practice AS FAR AS WE KNOW TODAY.
6. Refrain from arguing with people who ignore the facts
Save your breath. Yours and theirs might be contagious!
You WON’T change their minds.
You are not a law enforcer.
Like it or not, this situation isn’t going anywhere. This pandemic is awful and complicated and changing. Finding our way through it won’t be smooth, nor easy, nor emotionally comfortable. It’s a constant, dynamic process of learning new things and adapting as we learn.
Lovely pic from the cover of Wits Review Oct 2020, magazine for University of the Witwatersrand alumni.
A childhood friend is writing a lovely book on his mountaineering exploits and the journey he has made from climbing the mountain outside our town to climbing bigger and more famous mountains all over the world!!
Flatteringly, he asked me and a Pommy work and climber friend to proofread his latest draft. Being a techno-boff, he soon hooked us up on dropbox where we could read and comment and suggest.
I immediately launched in to making sensible and well-thought out recommendations. But some of them were instantly rejected, side-stepped or ignored, I dunno WHY!!
Like the title I thought could be spiced up. Three African Peaks is all very well. But it’s boring compared to Free A-frickin’ Picks!!! to lend drama and a Seffrican accent to it, right?! I know, you can’t understand some people. !
John, very much under the weight of a monarchy – meaning one has to behave – was more formal:
‘What is it with south africans and the “!”? (which is my major comment on your writing style!)
Well!!! Once we had puffed down and soothed our egos by rubbing some Mrs Balls Chutney on it, the back-n-forth started. I mean started!!
My defensive gambit was: ‘We’re drama queens!!’
My attacking gambit was an accusation: ‘Poms hugely under-use the ! In fact, they neglect it terribly! John was quickly back though, wielding his quill like a rapier:
‘Not true. We use our national quota. We just give almost all of them to teenage girls.’
I was on the back foot. When it came to the cover, the Boer War re-enactment resumed. I mean resumed!! I chose a lovely cover with an African mountain and a lot of greenery on the slopes. The Pom chose an ice wall, no doubt thinking of the London market. Stalemate.
Next thing he’ll be suggesting a stiff upper cover.
A strange thing has happened since John’s critique! I am using less exclamation marks! I have even written sentences without any!! It actually feels quite good. The new, restrained me.
I didn’t ever meet the famous old sub-species bird man*, but for a while he lived next door to me in Marriott Road. I was in Whittington Court, he was in Eden Gardens; I found this out when I spotted a nightjar at my window one night and got very excited; I listened every night and finally heard it – it was the freckled; Now more excited – a Freckled Nightjar in the city! – I was about to announce my discovery when I read Dr Clancey knew all about it – it roosted on his roof next door! The Eden Gardens had a flat roof and it was covered in stones or gravel. Good spot for a Freckled to conceal itself by day.
So after I found info on the bird; and after Aitch and I had prowled around the gardens of his hotel at night and found our first Bush Squeaker frog one rainy night (Arthroleptis wahlbergi), I went looking for info on the man (usual warning here: This is me, approximate amateur historian, using my valid poetic licence**, and giving my version of things – look at the references if you need accuracy).
Clancey was director of the Durban Museum and Art Gallery for thirty years until his retirement in 1982. He then continued as a research associate until his death in 2001, aged 83. He was a confirmed bachelor and the most ruthlessly dedicated and hardworking of ornithologists. He wrote a number of books of which The Birds of Natal and Zululand (1964), The Game Birds of South Africa (1967) and The Rare Birds of Southern Africa (1985) are now valuable Africana. Yeah, I hope so! I have two of them. So far my “investment” in bird books has been a damp squib.
As a young man ca.1949 he was a field assistant to the famous British military and ornithological fraud, Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, a dodgy, lying, philandering Englishman who faked much of his life and got away with murdering his wife. They once nearly shot each other in a heated disagreement over bustards in Namibia. Guns were drawn before the hired skinner stepped between the protagonists. Sanity prevailed and tempers cooled. On another occasion Clancey fell ill in a remote spot and was abandoned to his fate by Meinertzhagen. Clancey was not given his due by Meinertzhagen in his writings – those who knew Meinertzhagen were not surprised.
In 1950 Clancey moved to South Africa, to Durban as curator of the museum.
Years later, Clancey had a famous professional rivalry with Colonel John Vincent, one time head of the Natal Parks Board and himself an ornithologist of note. One one occasion Vincent had him arrested for collecting without a permit. His shotgun was confiscated. Undeterred, Clancey bought it back at a subsequent auction.
He must have rubbed people up the wrong way! Vincent Parker prominent atlasser and bird survey guru, in his 1999 The Atlas of the Birds of Sul do Save, southern Mozambique, also didn’t give Clancey his due, ignoring many of his records and relegating others to an appendix (‘subject to confirmation’), which ‘in most cases was quite unjustified’ (see the obituary in Ibis by Dowsett, Allan, and McGowan).
Clancey never had much regard for unnecessary luxury, and retired to a small room in a residential hotel – right next door to my Marriott road flat – in Durban. He continued to write papers, named 328 African bird taxa (more than any other contemporary scientist). The majority of his holotypes are in Durban Museum or the National Museum of Zimbabwe. R J Dowsett wrote: ‘I know of over 550 publications on African birds by Phillip Clancey, for most of which he was sole author (and not counting the sub-divisions of his miscellaneous taxonomic notes series).’ Later he increasingly devoted himself to his painting. His style was unmistakable, rich colours, attention to detail, and always the correct ecological background.
Any birder who has spent time in Natal will have seen these birds in just that habitat! Eminently recognisable.
Clancey donated his collection of some 5,500 mainly Western Palaearctic bird-skins to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. He donated his collection over 32,000 bird-skins – a collection considered the finest in Africa – to the Durban Museum and Art Gallery.
And also – unbeknown to him – he was my neighbour.
Look for the honest biography on that fraud Meinertzhagen – there are bulldust hagiographies out there: “The Meinertzhagen Mystery: The Life and Legend of a Colossal Fraud” by Brian Garfield
* sub-species bird man? I think Clancey was that dreaded sub-species of ornithologists called a splitter! He keenly added sub-species to existing species if he felt they were different enough. He found many many birds in new localities, expanded the known range of many, and did find good sub-species. Plus, he did find one new full species, the Lemon-Breasted Canary Crithagra citrinipectus in the Maputaland coastal grasslands.
I canoed the Vrystaat Vlaktes thanks to Charles Ryder, who arrived in Harrismith in about 1968 or ’69 I’d guess, to start his electrical business, a rooinek from Natal. He roared into town in a light green Volvo 122S with a long white fibreglass thing on top of it like this:
I asked: What’s that? It’s a canoe What’s a canoe? You do the Dusi in it What’s the Dusi?
Well, Charlie now knew he was deep behind the boerewors curtain! He patiently made me wiser and got me going and I got really excited the more I learned. I decided I just HAD TO do the Dusi. What could be more exciting than paddling your own canoe 120km over three days from Pietermaritzburg to the sparkling blue Indian Ocean at the Blue Lagoon in Durban? Charlie made it sound like the best, most adventurous thing you could possibly think of. He showed me how to paddle (how was I to know at the time he was making me a ‘Left Feather’?) and was so generous with his time. Both in paddling and with Harrismith’s first Boy Scouts troop, which he helped establish.
I started running in the mornings with a gang of friends. Tuffy Joubert, Louis Wessels, Fluffy Crawley, Leon Blignaut, who else? We called ourselves the mossies as we got up at sparrow’s fart. Then I would cycle about two miles to the park in the afternoons and paddle on the flat water of the mighty Vulgar River in Charles’ Limfjorden, or Limfy, canoe, which he had kindly lent me/given to me. It was the fittest I’ve ever been, before or since.
Overnight I would leave it on the bank tethered to a weeping willow down there. One day around Christmas time with only a couple of weeks to go before Dusi I got there and it was missing. I searched high and low, to no avail. So I missed doing the Dusi. Not that I had done anything but train for it – I hadn’t entered, didn’t know where to, didn’t belong to a club, didn’t have a lift to the race, no seconds, nothing!
Still enthused, though, I persuaded my mate Jean Roux to join me in hitch-hiking to the race. We were going to do the Duzi! All except the part where you used a boat.
We got to Pietermaritzburg, and early the next morning to the start in Alexander Park. Milling around among the competitors and their helpers, we watched the start and as the last boats paddled off downstream Alxendra Park started emptying, everyone seemed in a big hurry to leave. We asked Wassup? and someone said, We’re Following Our Paddler! so we bummed a lift with some paddler’s seconds to the overnight stop at Dusi Bridge. We slept under the stars and cadged supper from all those friendly people. They let us continue with them the next day to the second overnight stop at Dip Tank and on the third and last day to the sea, the estuary at Blue Lagoon, following the race along the way.
I continued the search for my missing Limfy after we got back from watching the Dusi and eventually found a bottle floating in the Kakspruit, a little tributary that flows down from Platberg and enters the river downstream of the weir. It had a string attached to it. I pulled that up and slowly raised the boat – now painted black and blue, but clearly identifiable as I had completely rebuilt it after breaking it in half in a rapid in the valley between Swinburne and Harrismith. Come to remember, that’s why Charles gave it to me! I knew every inch of that boat: the kink in the repaired hull, the repaired cockpit, the wooden gunwales, brass screws, shaped wooden cross members, long wooden stringer, shaped wooden uprights from the cross members vertically up to the stringer, the white nylon deck, genkem glue to stick the deck onto the hull before screwing on the gunwales, the brass carrying handles, aluminium rudder and mechanism, steel cables, the lot. In great detail.
Except! I recently (2020) cleared out my garage under lockdown and discovered this: My notes preparing for the Duzi! I was less disorganised than I remember. I may not have DONE, but at least I did do a bit of planning! Check “Phone Mr Pearce” and “Buy canoe?” – uh, maybe not so very well organised!
(re-posting an edited version of an excerpt from a previous post)
1976 Duzi – In 1976 I entered the race and convinced a newly arrived student at res in Doornfontein, Joburg, Louis van Reenen, to join me.
(BTW: ‘The Duzi’ or ‘Dusi’ is the Duzi Canoe Marathon, a 120km downstream river race from Pietermaritzburg to the sea in Durban, in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. Next year should see the 70th annual running of this crazy biathlon, COVID-permitting).
Like I had asked Charlie Ryder about six years earlier, Louis had asked me, ‘What’s that?’ when he saw my Limfy on my grey and grey 1965 Opel Concorde in Doornfontein, and ‘What’s that?’ when I said ‘The Dusi,’ so he was ripe for convincing. Or brainwashing? Soon afterwards he bought a red Hai white-water boat with a ‘closed’ (smaller) cockpit from Neville Truran and paddled it once or twice on Emmerentia Dam. In those days that could sort-of qualify you for Dusi!
Then he loaded it up on his light blue VW Beetle and drove down from Jo’burg to meet me in Harrismith. Only one of us could paddle, the other had to drive as the ‘second’ or supporter, taking food and kit to the overnight stops. So we tossed a coin. I lost, and so we headed for Alexandra Park in PMB with the red Hai on the roofrack. A great pity for me, as I had done a lot of canoeing, also in flood-level rivers, and had broken two boats in half and repaired one, getting it going again in time for the 1972 Dusi. But – a coin toss is a coin toss.
For Louis, the coin toss won him a first-ever trip down a river. And what a river! Here’s how two-times Duzi winner Charles Mason described it. I have paraphrased an excerpt from his upcoming book:
Charles: The 1976 Duzi was arguably the fullest level ever. The record 420 starters on the first day on the uMsunduzi River were greeted with a very full river, resulting in many casualties. That night the Kingfisher marquee was abuzz with speculation regarding the river conditions for the next two days on the much larger Umgeni.
Our first day’s paddle on the much smaller and narrower Duzi River had been enjoyable and exhilarating. I remember being told many years before that the word ‘uMsunduzi’ is isiZulu for ‘the one that pushes and travels very fast when in flood.’ It had really been pushing that day.
I was relaxing in a corner of the Kingfisher marquee, listening to the excited banter and anxious anticipation of the largely novice competitors in the tent, regarding the prospects for the next day’s paddle. Few of them had experienced such conditions previously.
Blissfully unaware, utter novices Louis and I were in my little orange pup tent nearby.
Charles: Around 9pm race organiser and ‘Duzi Boss’ Ernie Pearce came to see me:- Ernie said: “I have just had a visit from the engineer at Nagle Dam. He came to warn us that they have opened all the sluices of the dam to reduce water levels in preparation for a massive plug of flood water making it’s way down the Umgeni. The river will be in full flood below the dam by tomorrow morning!”
Very early the next morning, Charles went to inspect the river downstream for Ernie and then reported back to anxiously-waiting paddlers and officials: “The Umgeni is pumping – it’s bloody big – and I am wearing a life jacket!” Life jackets were optional in those days and in any event, very few paddlers possessed them. I overheard one paddler remarking, “That’s enough for me.” He left to tie his boat onto his car. A few others followed suit.The second and third days were big and exciting and Tank and I managed a sixth place finish.
Louis van Reenen, Duzi novice, first time ever on a river, paddled – and swam – and portaged – and carried on.
A lot of portaging was done to avoid the big water. Better choice of craft would have had guys paddling way more, but very few guys paddled rudderless short and stable ‘playboats’ those days.
New watercourses and new islands opened up:
The weather cleared up enough for the welcome newspaper drop by Frank Smith in his light plane:
Us seconds and supporters were kept busy rescuing cars stuck in the mud, including our own Volksie. We’d all be stopped in a long line; We’d get out, walk to the front, push the front car, push the next car, and so on.
Never-say-Die Louis got to Durban, to the Blue Lagoon, to the salty water of a high-tide Indian Ocean. Hours before him Graeme Pope-Ellis had equalled the best, winning his fifth Duzi, paddling with Pete Peacock.
That night we slept right there at Blue Lagoon, at the finish. Here’s a composite pic of Louis with his Hai and paddle, and me at the driver’s door of the pale blue Volksie:
Seven years later I FINALLY got round to doing my first Duzi. Sitting in my boat at Alexandra Park in Pietermaritzburg waiting for the starter’s gun, I thought I saw a familiar face and paddled over. Louis! It IS you! He had come back seven years later to do his second Duzi! Never-say-Die!
That 1983 Duzi was the opposite of his first. A low river, lots of portaging because of NO water, not because of high water!
The Harrismith Chronicle started publishing in 1903. Annie was ten years old, still living in the cottage behind the Royal Hotel. Eighty years later the paper celebrated. That milestone edition included our dear old Annie’s obituary. She’d reached ninety. Lovingly cared for from when Frank in died in 1943 right to the end forty years later, by her daughter Mary, our loving Mom.
Now in 2020 comes more sad news. After 117 years, the old Chronic has folded. Maybe it won’t be the end? Maybe someone can revive it in digital form, online? Sure hope so.
So I retired from golf. Hung up my plus fours, put my spectacles back on. They’re minus four. Optometrists will understand. The reason I retired was I had reached a pinnacle. I had tired of listening to golfers’ bulldust, cos although I was a golfer, I wasn’t one of the boring tedious kind who play every week and sometimes more often. No, I would play occasionally and then very well. Usually with borrowed clubs and the shoes I was wearing. None of this changing shoes n shit. My forte was the so-called halfway house and the pub afterwards.
After listening for years and decades and it seems centuries to the blah blah from one Brauer about scratch something and then a pearler and it faded, bounced once and rolled onto the green and blah blah I decided something had to be done. He had to be silenced.
I challenged him to a showdown. Winner takes all. Sudden death. Strict rules (listed below for evidence). Being generous and not wanting any arguments or excuses I decided we’d play on his home ground, a course he’d played hundreds, if not thousands of times and knew like the back of his head. San Lameer, aka Dutchman’s Paradise. Often spoken of as a ‘challenging course.’ I used to yawn when they said that, but I’d cover my mouth politely with the back of my hand, which I knew well.
So the day dawns, the first tee looms and the first hole ends. Brauer shot 3 or 4 and I got about fifteen. The second hole Brauer shot 3 or 4 and I carded an improved fourteen. On the third hole Brauer shot 3 or 4 (see what I mean about blah blah boring, right?) and I loomed ominously with a massively sharper eleven. I will confess that we’re not counting the moooligans I got from the hoooligan, and there might have been a few ladies tees, but read the rules.
Come the fourth hole. A short hole. Not really my kind of hole as my vast improvement so far had come about cos of my technique, which was to hit the ball harder, followed by much harder. So I chose one of the skewer implements and wound up, warming up while Brauer very boringly hit a somnolent gentle shot which landed on the smooth area near the flag. He grinned. Fatal mistake. I decided to tee the ball up much higher than usual and take a running attack approach. Unfortunately my foot slipped and I smashed the heavy end of the implement into the ground, knocking out some lawn which hit the ball and sent it off at 45 degrees, but fast. I picked myself off the ground in time to see it hit a tree and head for the same smooth area where Brauer’s ball was smugly and boringly lurking. It crept onto the smooth and stopped. He was very lucky. He almost lost there and then – read the rules.
So we’re both there for one. Legitimately. No free tee shot, no moooligans. Dead square, as though I was a scratch golfer, which I always felt like. Brauer asked me to smash my ball first, making out like he was being a gentleman, but it was my right. It was my turn. Read the other rules. I chose a smaller klap this time with a flatter heavy end and strode determinedly to where my ball was cowering, grinning at me from ear to ear, rubber bands showing. I was on a roll! It is true that I rolled, losing my footing and mishitting my planned shot which ended up in the ball going down the hole at the bottom of the flag pole.
Brauer’s grin faded. His cocky demeanour melted. His windgat attitude shone up. His shoulders drooped. His tension rose. His moustache bristled. Picking myself up and dusting myself off, I grinned. Ha!
Talk about pressure! He started acting like a typical golfer, lining up the ball, walking to the flag, walking to the far opposite side, squatting, standing, all that kak, you know how they are. Finally he stepped up to the ball only to step away again and repeat the 5km walk and pantomime. Then he took a deep breath, stepped up to his ball, bent over looking like an old toppie and paused. Then stepped away again and walked round and round, brushing away imaginary specks of grass, eyeing with one eye, eyeing the another eye. I wondered if he was going to use a third eye when he finally, FINALLY, committed and poked at that ball like a wimp.
So whatta you think? Of course he missed the bladdy hole. He took so long the bladdy ball had probably forgotten how to roll.
Ever the gentleman, I keep my whooping and hollering and Nyah! Nyahs!! to an acceptable level and repaired the divots I made with my pole and shoes and hands when I did flik-flaks and put the flag back with which I had done a loud victory lap shouting Ha HA!! Ha HA!!
I walked straight back to the clubhouse. I had won! He wanted to play on! What for!? End of tournament. Read the rules.
So I retired from golf.
Rules for the Great Face-Off:
Handicaps count. Mine is 36, yours is scratch, I’m being ellen the generous.
If my drive fails to reach the ladies tee, I can have a free repeat, this time from the ladies tee.
Obviously ‘fresh airs’ don’t count! How do you know what I was thinking?
If I win anything, anything at all, I have won the day. If I win longest drive (no matter in which direction), I have won. Closest to the pin (regardless of how I got there), I have won. Ens. Never mind winning an actual hole! Then obviously I have won, I said beforehand. Presciently.
No correspondence will be entered into. No whinging unless I lose.
These rules may be amended on the course if needs be.
Postscript: I could never understand how they could write books on something as simple as golf, which can be described in one sentence; but I am thinking of writing a book on this little joust. I feel it will serve a good purpose in helping people retire from golf.
I saw Mr Thandinkosi Ntshingila for an eye test recently. He was born in 1940. I told him I knew a Mr Max Ntshingila in Harrismith many moons ago, who owned a fleet of buses.
He said “Hayibo! That’s my Dad!!”
He grew up in Harrismith! Strictly speaking Max was his uncle, but his Dad died when he was very young and his uncle Max took him in and raised him as his own in Phomolong.
He told me that besides the buses – remember “Max Express” buses? yellow and green, I seem to remember – Max owned two shops, plus a petrol station in Swaziland.
Max died in 1978 aged 60 (so the news cuttings below are ca.1971). His empire collapsed when he died, as his kids “were spoilt” and “none of them could manage anything”, according to Thandinkosi.
Max sent Thandinkosi to college and he ended up in Durban working for Engen or Sapref or one of those fuel refinery places. Retired now, he plays the horses for fun and I see him at the tote on the roof of our centre occasionally.
I had wondered vaguely all these years about something, and I never expected to get the answer. But Thandinkosi had the answer for me: That cream coloured yank tank Max drove was a 1963 Chev Biscayne.
Thandinkosi still goes to Harrismith regularly to look after the house in Phomolong where he was raised. One of his nieces lives in it.
Leon Strachan sent me some pictures and newspaper cuttings. Note how Dr Frank Mdlalose, who we only got to know of post-1994, when he became KwaZulu Natal’s first Premier, was a house guest of the Ntshingila’s in Harrismith.
Update: Today – 12 December 2019 – I saw Mr Thandinkosi Ntshingila again. I phoned him to come in so I could give him copies of these pictures. He’ll be 80 next year. I hoped he was one of the kids in the photo, but he wasn’t. Not one of the people in the photo are still alive, he tells me. They all died quite young. He’s the only survivor of that household. He was chuffed to receive these mementoes and says he’s going to frame the family photo!
Reading Tramp Royal again! So here’s a re-post from 2016:
I lapped up the famous Trader Horn books ‘The Ivory Coast in the Earlies’ and ‘Harold the Webbed.’ I’m still looking for their third book ‘The Waters of Africa.’ ‘Their’ being his and the special and talented lady whose sudden insight made it happen when she befriended a tramp at her door in Parktown Johannesburg back in the mid-1920’s – Ethelreda Lewis.
If ever the philosophy of ‘Be Kind Always’ paid off, it was in this tale of a friendship that developed after the reflexive dismissal of a tramp at the door of a middle-class Parktown home was changed to a sudden, instinctive ‘Wait. Maybe I will buy something from you . . ‘ and – even better – ‘Would you like some tea . . ‘
After reading Trader Horn I was then even more enamoured of Tim Couzens’ book ‘Tramp Royal – The true story of Trader Horn’, as it validated the Trader Horn legend – Alfred Aloysius ‘Wish’ Smith was real and he had got around!!
Couzens died in October this year, tragically – he fell in his own home. I thought OH NO!! when I read it. He was a gem, almost a Trader Horn himself – what a waste! Too soon! He did the MOST amazing sleuth job of tracking down all Trader Horn’s jaunts n joints across the world and revealing that – despite the skepticism that had followed the incredible fame and Hollywood movie that had followed the success of Aloysius ‘Wish’ Smith – now famous as Trader Horn – ‘s first book in 1930. MOST of what the old tramp, scamp, rogue and adventurer had claimed to do he had, in fact, done! Tramp Royal is a wonderful vindication, and a moving, fascinating and captivating read.
One (small) reason I LOVED the trader Horn books, besides the original title:
Trader Horn; Being the Life and Works of Aloysius Horn, an “Old Visiter” … the works written by himself at the age of seventy-three and the life, with such of his philosophy as is the gift of age and experience, taken down and here edited by Ethelreda Lewis; With a foreword by John Galsworthy
(phew!) . . . . . was the number of places A. Aloysius Smith – ‘Trader Horn’ (or Zambesi Jack or Limpopo Jack or Uncle Pat – he had aliases!) had been to that I have also been to:
Joburg, his least favourite city in the world. He was in a doss house in Main Street in 1925, I was in Eloff Street in 1974. Parktown, where Ethelreda Lewis ‘discovered’ him. He would have died there, unknown and in penury, had it not been for her sudden decision to listen to him tell a story. ‘Wish’ came to love Joburg, as did I. In Parktown he was in Loch Street in 1926, I was in Hillside Road in 1977;
Hwange in Zimbabwe, or Wankie in Rhodesia as it was then; – BTW, pronounce Hwange ‘Wankie’;
Harrismith, where he went with Kitchener’s Cattle Thieves to steal Boer cattle and horses in the scorched earth tactics of the wicked looting Brits; He showed his humanity by describing the Boer women’s sadness, and states – I hope its true – that they always left ‘one milk cow behind for the kids; and we called it Pansy.’ And Harrismith is where I was born and raised;
The west coast of Madagascar where our yachting trip to the island of Nose Iranja took us quite close to his ‘Chesterfield Islands’;
The east coast of Africa, although he spoke of Zanzibar and we visited Mombasa – which he probably visited too, as he sailed up and down the coast;
Oklahoma, where like me he befriended and was befriended by, the local Native Americans – his mostly Pawnees and Osages, mine mostly Apaches, Kiowas and Cherokees;
Georgia, where he behaved abominably and which I used as a base to go kayaking in Tennessee. He drank in a doctor’s house and I drank in a dentist’s house;
The Devonshire Hotel in Braamfontein, where both of us got raucously pickled;
The Seaman’s Institute in Durban where he holiday’d happily for two pounds a month while waiting for his book to be published; His editor needed a break from him and sent him off by train on the 2nd April 1926 to avoid the Jo’burg winter. My only connection here is drinking in the nearby Smuggler’s Inn. If it was around back then, Wish Smith would have gone there!
Kent, where he died in 1931; I visited Paddock Wood on honeymoon in 1988.
Wish himself would be saying, ‘What, you haven’t been to Lancashire!?’
I would love to see his river – the Ogowe or Ogooue River in Gabon. Everything I’ve seen on youtube verifies Aloysius’ lyrical descriptions. Here’s an example (but turn the sound off);
I also loved the unexpected success of the first book. Written by an unknown tramp living in a doss house in Main Street Joburg, the publishers Jonathan Cape advanced fifty pounds which Mrs Lewis gratefully accepted. Other publishers had turned it down, after all. Then the Literary Guild in America – a kind of book club – offered five thousand dollars! They expected to print a few thousand, and also offered the rights to a new publisher called Simon & Schuster, who hesitated then went ahead, receiving advance orders for 637 copies.
Then it started selling! 1523 copies one week, then 759, then 1330 and then 4070 in the first week of July 1927. Then 1600 copies one morning! Then 6000 in a week. They now expected to sell 20 000 copies!
Up to November that year sales averaged 10 000 a month, thus doubling their best guess. They had already run ten reprints, the last reprint alone being 25 000 copies. 30 000 were sold in December alone up to Christmas day. The story grows from there – more sales, trips by the author to the UK and the USA, bookstore appearances, talk of a movie. The trip continued until he had gone right around the world, drinking, smoking and entertaining the crowds with his tales and his exaggerations and his willingness to go along with any hype and fanfare. At his first big public appearance at 3.30 pm on Wednesday 28th March he spoke to a packed house in the 1,500 seater New York City Town Hall off Times Square:
‘William McFee was to have made an introductory address but the old man walked on the stage (probably well fortified with strong liquor), acknowledged tremendous applause with a wave of his wide hat and a bow and commenced talking in a rambling informal style before McFee could say a word. He started by quoting advice given to new traders: “The Lord take care of you, an’ the Divil takes care of the last man.” He spoke of the skills of medicine men, rolled up his trouser leg above his knee to show the audience his scar, and threatened to take of his shirt in front of the whole Town Hall to show where a lion had carried him off and was shot only just in time. When the aged adventurer paused to take a rest in the middle of his lecture, McFee delivered his introduction.’
His fame grew and he reveled in it.
Then suddenly, people started thinking old ‘Wish’ Smith’s whole story was a yarn, nothing but the inventions of a feeble mind, and wrote him off as yet another con artist – there were so many of those! It was the age of ballyhoo and fooling the public with bearded ladies, confidence tricksters and hype. Some critics grew nasty, depicting Ethelreda – without whom none of this would even have happened, and without whose kindness and perseverance Aloysius would have died in obscurity, never seeing his family in England again – as abusing ‘Wish’ for her own gain. The truth really was that she – in effect – saved his life; she certainly returned him to his family; and she enabled the kind of rollicking final few years his dreams were made of! He had people to listen to him; he had money to throw around! What a better way to go than dying anonymously in a doss house in Main Street Joburg!
The hype died, cynicism (the bad kind, not healthy cynicism) set in and old ‘Wish’ Smith – Trader Horn – died in relative obscurity with his family in Kent. It may all have been a hoax . . .
So was he real, or was it all a hoax? To know more, read Tim Couzens’ book – it’s a gem!
Here’s a silent movie of the old rascal on a Joburg street corner soon after he’d been kitted out in new clothes when the first cheque for his book came in.
Here’s the back page from the movie program. The movie, of course, was Hollywood – WAY different to the true story! An interesting facet was for once they didn’t film it all in a Hollywood studio; they actually packed tons of equipment and vehicles and sailed to Kenya and then on to Uganda to film it ‘in loco’ – although on the wrong side of Africa to where it had happened!
It was a landmark film of sorts that chalked up several firsts. It was the first fictional feature-length adventure shot on location in Africa (but the wrong location! East Africa while Aloysius’ adventures were in West Africa!). It was the first sound-era ‘White Jungle Girl’ adventure – many more would follow. It’s an old movie, sure, it is of its time; to me as a Trader Horn fan, the worst thing about it is: it isn’t the true story! Nevertheless, some rate it as ‘surprisingly engaging and worth checking out’ now that it’s been reissued on DVD. (NB: See the badly-made 1931 movie, not the worse-ly-made 1973 remake).
Trader Horn wrote glowingly of a real lady he met on his river: an American missionary, Mrs Hasking. She died on the river, and Trader Horn took her body down river to be buried. I found out more about her here.
Here‘s a much better, two-post review of the Trader Horn phenomenon – and Tim Couzens’ book – by fellow ‘tramp philosopher’ Ian Cutler. Do read it!
On 27 October 2016 I wrote to Ian Cutler:
Sad sad news today: Tim Couzens the master tramp sleuth has
moved off to join his Tramp Royal in the afterlife.
At 72 he was about the same age as the old rogue at his death.
Regards, Peter Swanepoel
Sad news indeed Peter. Thanks for letting me know.Ian
So we were drinking beer on Tabbo’s farm when a younger chap arrived and was introduced to us as the young Frenchman whose parents wanted him to experience agriculture before he started to study it at university. Tabbo had gladly agreed to host a frog for a weekend so he could learn agriculture on a farm in Africa before going back to learn it in France in French at a university. Ours not to reason why . .
I’m Tabbo; I’m Koos we said. Hervé, he said. Ah, hello Hervé! Non non! Hervé.
Ah! Hervé, we said, copying his pronunciation carefully. Non! Hervé. OK, Hervé. Non! Non! Hervé!Hervé!
Um, yes, hello Hervé, welcome to the Vrystaat. Hervé! he muttered.
And that set the tone for the visit of eighteen year old Hervé, le frog, to the Vrystaat vlaktes.
We piled into Tabs’ pickup and drove around the farm, Tabbo pointing out a cow, a sheep and a mielie growing. He showed little interest. The only animation was whenever we mentioned his name. He would immediately say Non. Hervé! So we stopped using his name.
Back to the lovely sandstone homestead at Gailian and lunch, where he refused a beer, muttering something that sounded like muffy arse. We were to hear muffy arse A LOT.
Lunch arrived, a delicious roast something produced by Julia and __ in the large and splendid Gailian kitchen, origin of many a magnificent meal. Non. Muffy arse, came the response after he’d peered at the meat on his plate intently, nose 20mm from it. He ate the potatoes.
I’ve never met such such an impossible eighteen year old! Obnoxious, opinionated, impossible to please.
In the afternoon Tabbo drove him around some more. We – yes, even I was lecturing agriculture! – helpfully pointed out the grass, and the clouds, which would hopefully bring rain and grow that same grass; which animals would eat and convert into delicious roasts so he could mutter muffy arse. We generally gave him a thorough education in agriculture which we were sure would put him ahead of his fellow amphibious classmates when he went back across the pond to study utilisées pour l’agriculture at l’école agricole. And I’m sure le frog would have had a lot to correct there.
That evening we were back into the beer and offered him one. Non. Muffy arse, the response we’d grown used to. We went through all the grog in the Fyvie’s very well stocked pub and at last we got a oui – I forget if it was Ricard or Benedictine or Cointreau, but it was definitely Made In France and I think that was all le frog was interested in. By the look on his face as he took his first sip, he hadn’t actually tasted it before, but we were beyond caring any more. He was impossible to please and we were now just keeping him quiet, happy that a sixpack of beer divided as easily into two as three.
After a while the silly little frog whipped out a tiny little French-English dictionary out of his pocket and pointed to the word méfiance and muttered urgently muffy arse. So THAT was muffy arse! méfiance!
The translation: MISTRUST!
We hosed ourselves, which miffed le frog. He got all miffy arsed.
We were not sad to see him go. Still being polite, we asked him if he thought he’d learnt enough to help him when he went back to study his agriculture? Non, Non. he said indignantly. He was going to l’université to study mathematique!