Writers and academics, publishers and poets, family and friends of the late Stephen Watson came together to celebrate the reissue of his book, A Writer’s Diary, at The Book Lounge in Cape Town recently.
Electric Book Works published the book with a special foreword by historian Bill Nasson, who was joined by Watson’s former colleagues from the University of Cape Town English Department, Peter Anderson and Hedley Twidle. Their insightful and generous conversation kept all in the audience spellbound, but the evening commenced with Mervyn Sloman welcoming everybody present.
He recalled the profound and tremendous influence Stephen exerted, through his words and his person, on so many people in the book world. “It’s wonderful to have this book available once again,” he said.
Tanya Wilson spoke with a tender simplicity about her late husband, acknowledging how many people continue to miss Watson some four years after his death. The event was the first launch since his passing, the first his children, Hannah and Julian, now 10 and five, have attended. She paid tribute to the painstaking retyping of the manuscript by Douglas Skinner and the vision of Arthur Attwell and Martha Evans that saw the book brought back into publication.
Wilson remembered carrying a box filled to the brim with his diaries down 90 stairs to the car when the mountain fires that raged in March this year threatened their home on Boyes Drive. “I want you to imagine that box, filled to the brim of the same A5 Croxley notebooks, themselves filled with Stephen’s tiny scrawl – and any of you whose writing Stephen has commented on will remember that spidery scrawl … what I carried in the weight of that box was a way of life: genuine, disciplined, solitary, and largely unwitnessed.”
She reflected on the diary offering readers a sample of his way of life, which belonged to “someone who could not live any other way, he could not help himself. In this sense the diary is no construct, it has no artifice or affectation, it was not ‘put on’ for the sake of publication. It is utterly authentic. Stephen wrote like this on an almost daily basis, throughout his life, up until just days before he died.”
Wilson has shared her speech with Books LIVE – please scroll to the end to read the full text
Hedley Twidle noted that he has previously spoken at the launch of new books, so it evoked quite strong affect to be present the re-launch of a book that had long been a vital part of his life, a book he has come back to many times.
He noted Watson’s comments in the first few lines of the book about the nature of the diary as “a minor form on the periphery of literature”. He said, “I’ve always thought that this diary was a classic, maybe a minor classic, maybe a neglected classic in South African literature …
Twidle mentioned the diaries, as well as those of Athol Fugard, and reflected on the significance of the form for him. “It was immensely important to see people writing so directly and unashamedly about literature,” he said. “Stephen would be in despair about the way that literature was being discussed, how people who had no flair for literature would end up teaching it, and discussing it, trying to trip it up, outwit it, interrogate it in violent language against the creative act.
“I found this space where you could win by talking about literature in an immensely beautiful, important and stylish way. It was a major part of my development. At one point he says: ‘It’s a rare critic today who is able to give credence to the imaginative needs of the human being. Nothing seems to arouse more critical confusion, as well as hostility, than just these. Present day critics will address anything, rather than might provide shelter, even healing for the human heart. They will go off on any intricate loop line, rather than admit that after all literature finds much of its justification in answering to such needs.’
He quoted from Bill Nasson’s foreword to A Writer’s Diary where he speaks of the diary as a manifesto: “As an approach to life as an intellectually serious business, it presents a rich and engaging range of beliefs which fan out from a primary impulse. That impulse is to grasp at the heart of the matter, with unsparing candour.”
Nasson and Anderson shared their memories of Stephen Watson and spoke with wit and nuance of their own experience of the poet, the academic, colleague and friend, a man of remarkable intellect, courage and vision.
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Liesl Jobson tweeted live from the event using the hashtag #livebooks:
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Tanya Wilson’s speech, from the relaunch of Stephen Watson’s A Writer’s Diary:
Of course I am aware that this is a literary event, but also know that you are aware that it is not only that, Many, most of you are here, too, because you miss Stephen, and in that sense the event carries another kind of weight. It is the first launch of Stephen’s since his death, and the first one that his children, Hannah and Julian, now 10 and five, have attended.
There are other people who deserve particular mention and thanks. Many thanks to The Book Lounge for this evening. Bill Nasson, Peter Anderson and Hedley Twidle for agreeing to speak about A Writer’s Diary. Then – in relation to the publication itself – while Hugh Corder and I – as caretakers of Stephen’s literary legacy – had spoken about the republication of some of Stephen’s books, this particular republication was initiated and driven largely by Arthur Attwell and Martha Evans. We really are very grateful for the time and energy put into this project. While some fundraising was done – and here I’d like to that the Cape Tercentenary Fund for their contribution – much of the process has been a labour of love. Stephen’s tendency to dispense quickly with anything computer-related meant that there was no electronic copy of the book, and Douglas Skinner painstakingly retyped it. Martha Evans, among many other things, was primary proof-reader. Thanks to all of you. Thanks also to Michiel Botha for a beautiful cover design. And huge thanks to Bill Nasson for a truly wonderful foreword. If you already own the Diary, this one’s really is worth getting for the foreword.
On the topic of republications, Hugh and I are planning for this to be the first of several. Many of the books are out of print and deserve reprinting. I believe even A City Imagined cannot be acquired now. At some point a Selected Poems will be planned, which will include some poems that Stephen was working on in his last weeks. Support for these projects – in all forms – will be gladly received.
I’m going to say a few words firstly about Stephen’s diaries and about Stephen himself.
For several months after Stephen died, amid the pervasive dread and dreadfulness, a very specific fear arose in me, and that was of our house in St James burning down. The house itself held everything of our life together and everything of Stephen’s. All the books he loved, his papers, his letters, his entire archive. The fear may have been there because not long before Stephen died, Bill Nasson’s own office at Stellenbosch University had burnt to the ground, and he had lost a whole life’s worth of books, writing and much else. Or the fear may have been because often psychologically one fears a catastrophe that has, effectively, already happened: and the home I knew was already gone. At any rate, the specific fear of the house burning down subsided, but earlier this year the real threat of such a thing occurred, when the fire that raged across the mountain descended down to Boyes Drive, with only one house and several flammable stone pines between us and the fire. The very first box I found myself spontaneously hauling down our 90 odd steps to the car – in case we had to evacuate – was of decades worth of Stephen’s journals, dating back to the 70s. I want you to imagine that box, filled to the brim of the same A5 Croxley notebooks, themselves filled with Stephen’s tiny scrawl – and any of you whose writing Stephen has commented on will remember that spidery scrawl.
What I carried in the weight of that box was a way of life: genuine, disciplined, solitary, and largely unwitnessed. (Except for those who have either lived or holidayed or travelled with Stephen who will remember the kind of restless malaise that would descend upon him at a certain point in the morning – usually just as you were beginning to relax into breakfast – and the suddenness with which he would make his departure and find his way to a quiet surface with his Croxley notebook and a black fineliner.)
This publication, republication, is an sample of that way of life, belonging to someone who could not live any other way, he could not help himself. In this sense the Diary is no construct, it has no artifice or affectation, it was not “put on” for the sake of publication. It is utterly authentic. Stephen wrote like this on an almost daily basis, throughout his life, up until just days before he died.
This is the one everyone is fortunate enough to get to read. When this Diary, written in 1996, was published in 1997, nearly 20 years ago now, Stephen and I had been together a matter of months. I’m quite sure I had layers and layers of responses when I read it, but what I remember of my spontaneous reaction was that I really felt quite cross with him, and wanted to take issue. I was 26, certainly not without my own depressions, but riding the wave of hopefulness and freedom that was washing over South Africa at the time. I will confess that some of Stephen’s full-throttle attacks on South African culture were a shock to me. I felt defensive of the newborn nation. And it was my first real encounter with the sharpness of his scalpel, and the vehemence of his dissent.
I had yet to learn many things, over the years, and I did.
I grew to learn that if one focused too much on Stephen’s vehemence one could miss the point – and certainly miss the breadth and depth of his perspective – entirely.
I learned that if Stephen had a political home at all, it was among Eastern European writers: Zbigniew Herbert, Czesław Miłosz.
I learned, too, that it was only by means of that steady scalpel and the unflinching use of it that Stephen found his way to write the things that held such breathtaking poignancy. And I don’t just mean that the scalpel was sharp in both directions, more that something had to be cut through in order to attain the more far-reaching truths that he did. There could not be one without the other.
One of my favourite psychoanalytic thinkers is a man called Wilfred Bion and he has a rather radical notion of the development of the mind, which is that the mind grows only through exposure to the uncomfortable nature of truth. It only really grows if we are prepared to face that discomfort. Much of the time we choose to avoid it, or choose only to develop in ways which do not really, fundamentally, disturb us. Stephen was utterly incapable of not being disturbed by things.; he reached for things with his scalpel with a kind of truth instinct more powerful than most. Merciless, but also merciful.
Merciless in its “out with the rot” component, and merciful because the effect of it was ultimately deeply consoling. On the other side lay clarity, truth, solace and a very rare kind of nourishment. People were strengthened by it. They felt nourished not only by his writing but also by his presence .. he had an uncanny quality, which enabled people who came in contact with him to feel more fully themselves.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how he did this.
He did it because his own “struggle towards beauty from the abominable depths of misery” – and that’s in the diary – gave a kind of consent to others to harness misery in the same way, and to value beauty in the same way.
I suspect – in fact I know – that the intensity of his presence and consciousness was honed by those decades of daily journal writing.
He was also very, very funny – and would send up the whole enterprise at any given moment.
And one thing that may not come across sufficiently in the Diary is Stephen’s wittiness. To remind you of his wit, I will end with a tiny anecdote. In his last weeks, a friend came to see him, not someone who is here tonight, but someone, I confess, of my own profession who has been an important figure to Stephen, and vice versa. After the visit I was asking Stephen how it had been and I must have asked whether things had “gone deep” as they usually did with this person. “Yes,” he said. And then added, as he walked away, “so deep it had me longing for the shallows”.
Which brings to mind the image of Stephen’s distinctive stroke making its way across the aquamarine edge of the ocean.
That “longing for the shallows” may be what happens when psychotherapists go on for too long – so I will hand over to those more used to being on the stage.