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Barbara Erasmus

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Bloomsbury in Cape Town?

Only a journalist in search of a headline would link the legendary Bloomsbury Group to the Kimberley Club in Cape Town. Different cities. Different centuries. Light years apart in terms of status. So far anyway….

None of the Bloomsbury group was famous in the early twentieth century when a random number of writers and intellectuals started to attend informal meetings in central London to discuss the issues of the day, over a glass or two of wine. They were united by a commitment to the value of writing, a commitment shared by a disparate group of writers and intellectuals who hold a monthly meeting at the somewhat-seedy Kimberley Hotel, one of the oldest pubs in down-town Cape Town. Perhaps desperate would be more apt than disparate. It’s hard to market any form of the printed word in an increasingly digital world. Especially in a recession. And especially if you live in South Africa where only a tiny proportion of the population ever buys a book.

The Bloomsberries were reputed to discuss the issues of the day; in early twentieth century London, that meant a world war. In Cape Town, crime is the headline-grabber and so it’s fitting that two of the founder members of the Kimberley Club are among the leading writers of crime-fiction in the country. Peter Church‘s Dark Video was one of the best-selling local krimis in the year it was released and the follow-up, Bitter Pill, should feature in many stockings this Christmas. Church is the Kimberley version of the economist in the Bloomsbury group; marginally less famous than JM Keynes, he also doesn’t fit the standard profile of a struggling writer. He’s a successful IT businessman who has drawn on his understanding of the corrupting power of the internet as material for both novels. He also clearly grasps the importance of marketing – he launched his first novel at a strip joint rather than a conventional book-shop!

Church may be a marketing maestro but he’s definitely not as sexy as Joanne Hichens. Intermittently blonde, she looks good in tight denims with a décolletage to knock your socks off. Her krimis have the same effect, featuring hard-core baddies, hot sex and unexpected twists. Out to Score, co-written with Mike Nicol, was launched in the American market to much acclaim and Divine Justice, her solo follow-up, is proving a page-turner. Hichens is no dizzy bimbo – her MA in Creative Writing is evident in her ability to capture the Cape Town locale with sharp, credible dialogue and social comment – the taboos of racism and hate speech triggered the roller-coaster plot of her new novel.

Heather Parker-Lewis is from The Other Side of the Moon – the title of her newly published biography of Olive Schreiner which has garnered rave reviews both locally and internationally. Parker-Lewis is alternative – meticulously researched, her book gives a new take on a local legend. Nothing’s taboo or sacred for Parker-Lewis. You’ll never see Schreiner in the same light again. Parker-Lewis doesn’t have to pussy-foot around publishers; she uses her own publishing company, ihilihili press, so doesn’t feel concerned that her new book on classical Indian Dance will be too esoteric to print. She’s exposed the lives of street children and prison violence and demand for several of these books necessitated more than one edition. She has opened many eyes.

Peter Merrington is another moon gazer. Zombie and the Moon, his tale of myth and shamanic imagination sold out on launch night at Kalk Bay Books; he’s busy with the third volume from the Shaman’s record. He’s an archetypal academic, knee-deep in esoteric awards such as the Pringle Prize and other fellowships. He’s softly spoken, intense and articulate and committed to the Kimberley Club ethos of encouraging local writers; he’s a facilitator for the Caine Prize for African Writing. He would have slotted in well with the Bloomsbury Group – he’s also a potter, an environmentalist with an entrepreneurial interest in solar power – and a passion for motorbikes is part of the package!

Like Bloomsbury, the Kimberley Club boasts a miscellany of academics, whose enthusiasm for local writing is rivalled by their contribution to various aspects of South Africa’s fractured past and challenging present.

• Tim Keegan is a historian, prematurely retired from the academic rat race. He’s revelling in a new found realisation that he is able to say more about the human condition through fiction than is possible in the stricter confines of non- fiction. The rate at which he is making his way onto major prize lists seems to suggest that he has mastered the technique. My Life with the Duvals was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize and he made the short-list for the Caine Prize, with a short story published in Bad Company, fellow Kimberlite Joanne Hichens’ anthology of local crime fiction. Incest is not confined to the Bloomsbury Group!

Jacqueline Goldin and Jan Glazewski are best known for their environmental work. Goldin has been published extensively in international journals with ground-breaking work in the water sector, with variety of socio-impact studies ranging from dams to casinos, while Glazewski’s book on environmental law is considered the bible in this field. Goldin is playing with the theme of emotional geography. Lost in translation, her presentation scheduled for a conference in New York early next year, includes pioneering ideas covering the role of emotions such as shame and trust in water management. If Glazewski ever completes his commitments to COP17, he’d like to dabble with fiction; he has been researching family history around an enigmatic map uncovered in the family archives. Is there a hidden Glazewski treasure chest waiting to be unearthed?

Like Bloomsbury, social conscience is integral to the Kimberley. We have high profile political activists in our ranks. Liz McGregor’s an investigative journalist of international repute and has co-edited two collectors’ anthologies on contemporary South Africa; At Risk and Load Shedding should be essential reading for anyone with an interest in an archive of our times. McGregor’s beautiful; composed, softly spoken, with finely-etched, patrician features, she’s probably the last person on the planet one would have expected to find travelling around New Zealand withthe Springbok World Cup squad. She switched direction completely in her latest book, Touch, Pause, Engage!, a meticulously researched examination into the heart of South African rugby. No-one can accuse Kimberlites of having a narrow range of interests.

Linda McCourt Scott is the enterprising mother featured in the best-selling memoir, Twenty Chickens for a Saddle, written by her daughter about home-schooling in Botswana. The communal eyes of the Kimberley club glazed over when we heard how overseas publishers squabbled to obtain the publishing rights. Writing is intrinsic to the family DNA; McCourt Scott will also draw on their Botswana experience in her own book about alternative schooling which she is currently researching and writing. She’s already published several non-fiction titles on nutrition, researched aspects of the impact of HIV/AIDS and is currently rolling out an HIV peer education programme with male prisoners, while overseeing a project with women prisoners who make colourful, ethnic jewellery from waste material. It’s a challenge to fit in Kimberley Club meetings….

Rosemund Handler and I complete the group; we both qualify for pensioner’s discounts at the movies and we also have a publisher in common. Penguin has published three of Handler’s novels, the most recent of which, Tsamma Season, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Described by one critic as a poem to the Kalahari, the novel showed that Handler, also an MA in Creative Writing, meets the Kimberley requirements for versatility. She has a passionate commitment to the preservation of the wilderness which she continues to explore with an energy which should definitely disqualify her from any pensioners’ discounts. A vociferous political activist, the plot of her second novel Katy’s Kid was triggered by a night in a cell shared with two prostitute’s after a student protest against apartheid. Madlands gives a harrowing insight into the bi-polar condition. She is currently putting the finishing touches to her fourth novel but not even the Kimberley Club knows what to expect…

I have avoided political content, as far as is possible in a South African setting, in my own novels, also published by Penguin. I knew from the outset of my comparatively recent career as an author that royalties from local sales would not provide a significant supplement to my pension fund, so I have chosen subjects such as autism in the hope of appealing to an international audience. No foreign publishers have yet started to squabble over the rights in my case but Penguin has an official digital strategy; my fourth novel, Below Luck Level, which deals with Alzheimer’s, an illness as endemic as autism, will also have an e-book edition when published by next year, as well as my novels on their back list. Let’s hope the technology of the new millennium will propel me and my fellow Kimberlites into the same strata as the Bloomsbury group!

An edited version of this piece was published in the Cape Times.