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Woordfees Writers Festival 2018 programme

The countdown for the annual Woordfees Festival has begun…

From the second to the eleventh of March, the quaint Western Cape town of Stellenbosch will play host to an array of authors, poets, actors, playwrights, musicians and artists.

2018′s programme is certainly one for the books and the following Writers Festival sessions should not be missed:

Friday 2 March

In conversation with Marianne Thamm
Presented by Pan MacMillan
Marianne, a well-known journalist and writer, sits down with two women whose lives are characterised by sheer willpower to pursue the truth. With Thuli’s memoir in the pipeline and Glynnis’ Rule of Law on the shelf, they discuss their formative influences, defining moments and fighting the odds still facing females today.
2 March 10:30
60 min | ATKV-Boektent | R50 | R60 at the door

Monday 5 March

With Max du Preez, Ray Hartley, Koketso Sachana and Jeremy Thompson

What does Ray Hartley’s Ramaphosa – The Man Who Would Be King say about the enigma that is the new ANC president – ambitious, charming, a born negotiator, astute businessman, the boy who at a young age told his friend that he would one day be president? In this centenary year of Nelson Mandela, who anointed him as his successor, everyone wants to know: Does he have what it takes to turn SA around? Max du Preez will lead the discussion with Hartley, Cape Talk’s Koketso Sachana and former Sky News achorman Jeremy Thompson.
5 March 09:00
60 min | ATKV-Boektent | R50 | R60 at the door

Presented by Pan MacMillan
The Man Booker nominated writer, who shot to fame with Kafka’s Curse, then made it onto to prestigious awards’s shortlist with Bitter Fruit, chats to Martie about growing up in the extraordinary days of apartheid, the role of the women in his family (his sister is Jessie Duarte) and in his latest novel, Dikeledi – the story of a young girl born in Harlem, and her grandmother back home.
5 March 14:00
60 min | HB Thom-seminar room | R50 | R60 at the door

Tuesday 6 March

In coversation with Karina Szczurek

Presented by Jacana Media
As Ali Adams starts a new job as a political reporter at The New Times, a weekly newspaper in Cape Town, her stories make front page. But back home in Bo-Kaap the community has expectations, and none of them involve a woman running all over the place chasing stories. Apartheid, religion, homosexuality, Mandela The Sellout, politics of the newsroom, and post-traumatic stress all come to the fore in this gritty novel by a veteran political reporter.
6 March 09:30
60 min | HB Thom seminar room | R50 | R60 at the door

In conversation with Ingrid Winterbach

She grows up during the bush war that helped turn Rhodesia into Zimbabwe –the family’s bombproof Landrover is nicknamed Lucy. She survives a terrible, avoidable death that turns her fun-loving Scottish mother into a crazy drunk and for which she, as a child of eight, feels responsible … These last days of colonialism are at the heart of Alexandra Fuller’s internationally acclaimed 2002 memoir, Don’t Let’s go to the Dogs Tonight. She talks to Ingrid about a world of taboos and projected shame, about living in Wyoming after being separated from her all-American husband of 20 years, and “the beautiful and terrible” she wrestles with in writing.
6 March 19:15 for 19:45
60 min | ATKV-Boektent | R50 | R60 at the door (glass of wine included)

Wednesday 7 March

In conversation with Edwin Cameron

Presented by Penguin Random House
The world-renowned human-rights lawyer talks to Judge Edwin Cameron about his new book, a touching homage to his friendship with Nelson Mandela and a fascinating tale of two men whose work affected the lives of all South Africans– arguing in favour of the Constitution, which is under threat in the current political climate.
7 March 10:30
60 min | ATKV-Boektent | R50 | R60 at the door

With Fred Khumalo, Alexandra Fuller and Achmat Dangor

How important is it to keep telling accurate and unembellished stories about the past – even if it’s offensive or hurtful? Three writers discuss this with Sandra Swart. Fred used the sinking of the crew ship SS Mendi during the First World War as backdrop for Dancing the Death Drill. Alexandra wrote about growing up during the Rhodesian war in her debut and for her new novel, Quiet Until the Thaw, investigates the history of two Native American boys in a South Dakota reserve, while Achmat returns to the apartheid history in Dikeledi.
7 March 14:00
60 min | HB Thom-seminar room | R50 | R60 at the door
Thursday 8 March

In conversation with Adriaan Basson

Presented by Jonathan Ball Publishers
The book touched a nerve: More than 400 people attended the launch; 10 000 copies were sold in a week. Adriaan Basson asks the well known talk show radio host and author why, and what price Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo – better known as Khwezi – ultimately paid as the woman who dared to accuse Zuma of rape.
8 March 14:00
60 min | HB Thom-seminar room | R50 | R60 at the door

Saturday 10 March

With Thuli Madonsela, in conversation with Tim du Plessis
Adv Thuli Madonsela shows without question that dynamite comes in small packages. In seven years the former Public Protector has achieved what few accomplish in a lifetime, often praised and vilified in equal measures. Looking back at her time in office, she said the role is akin to that of the Venda traditional spiritual female leader, the Makhadzi, who whispers truth to the king or the ruler. And a ruler who ignores the Makhadzi does so at his peril. Sample a three-course meal prepared by the legendary Rust en Vrede chef, listening to former Rapport editor and columnist Tim du Plessis enjoying some rare personal time with this woman of steel.
10 March 12:30
180 min | Guardian Peak Winery and Restaurant | R950

No Longer Whispering to Power

Book details


Rule of Law

Ramaphosa: The man who would be king


Kafka's Curse

Bitter Fruit


New Times

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight

65 Years of Frienship

Dancing the Death Drill


Book Bites: 28 January

Published in the Sunday Times

Manhattan Beach
Jennifer Egan, Corsair, R315

The US has finally joined World War 2 and women are working in jobs that were once the exclusive domain of men. In a Brooklyn naval yard, Anna Kerrigan, supporting her mother and disabled sister, fights to become the first woman diver. After work one evening, she visits a nightclub and runs into Dexter Styles, known gangster, and her absent father’s former boss. The encounter reopens old wounds and raises new questions. Egan crochets the three stories – daughter, father, gangster – into an interesting tale inspired by actual historic groundbreakers. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

Logical Family: A Memoir
Armistead Maupin, Doubleday, R340

A delight for fans! Who would have known that Armistead Maupin, author of the wildly popular Tales of the City series detailing life in San Francisco from the late ’70s to today, replete with spliffs and gay sex, was a southern Republican conservative? Maupin’s autobiography surprises: growing up white in North Carolina in the ’40s and ’50s is strikingly similar to growing up white in South Africa in the ’70s and ’80s. There’s also his fraught relationship with his parents, his discovery of his gayness, serving in the US Navy during the Korean war – and revelations about some of the people who inspired the characters in Tales of the City, including the identity of the closeted Hollywood A-lister with whom he had an affair. One does get the feeling that Maupin holds back though, perhaps for another installment of his life story. One can only hope. – Russell Clarke @russrussy

Promise me, Dad

Joe Biden, Macmillan, R300

Former US vice president Joe Biden cemented a name for himself as Barack Obama’s second-in-charge and for his role in negotiations with global leaders. This book, however, gives readers a touching portrayal of the man behind the scenes. Biden’s son Beau was diagnosed with a brain tumour during Biden’s term in office and this beautifully crafted story tells of how the family rallied together during those months and how, even after Beau’s death, they remained firm in the face of sorrow. His friendship with Obama is well-known, but here we get an inside glimpse of their dynamics. – Jessica Levitt @jesslevitt

Book details

Mike Procter's autobiography a witty, concise read on the events that shaped his life after his storied career as a player, writes Khanyiso Tshwaku

Published in the Sunday Times

By Khanyiso Tshwaku

Caught in the MiddleCaught in the Middle
Mike Procter, Pitch Publishing, R370

The title of Mike Procter’s autobiography Caught in the Middle is an apt one considering he found himself at the centre of two of cricket’s hairiest moments in the mid-2000s. Those events were the “ball tampering” Oval 2006 test match between Pakistan and England and the infamous “Monkeygate” New Year’s test between Australia and India in Sydney in 2008.

On both occasions, he was the match referee. After those acrimonious tests, the International Cricket Council changed the rules to ensure certain infractions were dealt with at a level higher than that of a match referee.

In the 2006 encounter, the Pakistan team led by Inzamam-ul-Haq refused to come out after tea on the fourth day after being accused by the abrasive and controversial Australian umpire Darrell Hair of altering the condition of the match ball.

The 2008 issue centred around Indian offspinner Harbhajan Singh racially abusing Australian all-rounder Andrew Symonds, who is of West Indian descent, by calling him a monkey.

These two moments are the centre of the well-crafted 239-page book, which focuses on Procter’s career as referee rather than player.

Procter said the incidents in London and Sydney changed his outlook on the game.

“The Darrell Hair thing was part and parcel of cricket. It was very unusual but that’s something you’d expect to see in cricket once in a while, but the Harbhajan Singh one, I would’ve preferred not to deal with that one,” Procter said.

It’s a book that can be devoured easily, thanks to Lungani Zama’s brevity and Procter’s witty but concise tone. With this book being Procter’s third, it was a smart move to speak less about his storied career as a player – cut short by anti-apartheid sanctions – and focus more on the events that shaped his life afterwards.

It’s worth remembering he was South African cricket’s first post-isolation coach, from 1991 to 1994, a tenure that included the five-run win over Australia in Sydney in 1994. – Khanyiso Tshwaku @kaymorizm

Book details

  • Caught in the Middle: Monkeygate, Politics and Other Hairy Issues; the Autobiography of Mike Procter by Mike Procter, Lungani Zama
    EAN: 9781785312168
    Find this book with BOOK Finder!

Gossip, glitz and true grit: Michele Magwood reviews Tina Brown's riveting memoir, The Vanity Fair Diaries

Published in the Sunday Times

By Michele Magwood

The Vanity Fair Diaries
Tina Brown
Weidenfeld & Nicolson

If you are of a certain age and a certain inclination – a lover of gloss and gossip and scandal, of witty writing and ace reportage – then you will know the name Tina Brown. For eight heady years in the ’80s she edited Vanity Fair and in the process she didn’t so much as raise the bar for magazines as lob it, blazing, into the stratosphere.

Even if you don’t know her name, you’ll remember her epochal covers: a ripely pregnant and naked Demi Moore, a platinum-wigged Joan Collins with the headline “She Rhymes With Rich”, Ronald Reagan giving Nancy a twirl and a sulky-looking Princess Diana under the banner “The Mouse That Roared.” That story in 1985 was an absolute scoop, the result of Brown’s own contacts in the UK. When she heard gossip of the parlous state of the Wales marriage she hopped on a plane from New York to London, wined, dined and whispered with impeccable sources and blew the lid on Charles and Diana’s rank unhappiness.

It was the first the world had ever heard of it.

She reported that Diana would ignore the family at Sandringham or Balmoral, cut off by her Sony Walkman, dancing to Dire Straits and Wham!; her murderous rages that were beginning to concern the Queen and Prince Philip, and the hours she spent studying her press clippings, “almost as if she’s trying to figure out the secret of her own mystique”. Charles, she said, had abandoned the image of Action Prince and was surrounding himself with “a motley band of mystics and self-sufficiency freaks”. We’ve long known the details of the unravelling of the Wales marriage, but it was Brown who originally blew the story.

From Demi to Diana, Leo to Joan and Whoopi submerged in water – these are but a few iconic images associated with Vanity Fair during Brown’s reign as editor

Brown was herself, if not a dinkum blue blood, steeped in those circles. Her father was a film producer and she grew up in a country house where her parents entertained “rising starlets, operatic art directors, tragic comediennes, moody directors, on-the-make leading men and the odd literary lion … you could spot the latest James Bond or the star of a Carry On comedy lying contentedly inebriated under the Christmas tree.”

Brown’s father was always on the look out for a “cracking good yarn” to bring to the screen and the whole family would be required to mine the newspapers, books and scripts that piled up around the house. What better training for a future magazine editor? Brown was no blue stocking. She was expelled from three schools for subversive behaviour, such as organising a protest against the school’s policy of allowing a change of underwear only three times a week. She made it to Oxford, though, where she dated novelist Martin Amis and wrote for the newspaper Isis.

By the age of 25 she was editor-in chief of the once flagging Tatler, where she developed a witty, sassy editorial style, a clever alchemy of in-jokes and satire. Sales boomed and the magazine was bought by Condé Nast.

Cut to 1983 when she was transplanted to New York by Si Newhouse, the owner of Condé Nast, to advise on an ailing Vanity Fair. Within months she had been appointed editor, at the age of just 31. With a fat budget and that nose for a cracking good yarn, she launched like a highlighted missile into New York society, accompanied by her husband, the feted British newspaper editor Harold Evans. The Vanity Fair Diaries chronicles the next eight dizzying years as she both reflected and shaped the zeitgeist. She perfected her editorial mix of high and low culture, blending glitz with politics and serious reportage. A typical issue would include an exposé of Saddam Hussein, a scandal in the art world and a high-profile murder case, all stirred together with Hollywood lovelies and society soirées.

She paid her writers a fortune – $10000 is a lot of money for a feature even today – and put their bylines on the covers. When she was introduced to the recovering alcoholic Dominick Dunne at a dinner party, and he told her that he was going to sit through the trial of his daughter’s murderer, she begged him to write about it, thereby launching the career of one of her finest writers. When she heard the author William Styron speaking at a function about his depression, she had him signed up before the dessert plates were cleared; his article led him to write the definitive account of depression: Darkness Visible.

While Annie Leibowitz had long been taking photographs for Rolling Stone, Brown stole her away and pushed her to ever-increasing heights of creativity, demanding, and getting, superbly original pictures, like Whoopi Goldberg naked in a bath of milk, or Leonardo DiCaprio adorned by a swan.

Brown was not afraid to take risks. It was she who ran a shattering gallery of men in the creative industries who had died of Aids. This was the ’80s, after all, when Aids was the Illness That Dared Not Speak Its Name and her overt support was critical for the gay community.

The Diaries are full of the stories-behind-the-stories but also delicious gossip, such as her description of Jackie Onassis as a crazed and dim puppet: “It’s as if somebody jerks the strings, the body lurches to life, then she gradually sinks back into starry-eyed repose.”

She sits in a meeting with Michael Jackson in full makeup with his nose held together by Elastoplast, notes that wealthy Upper East Side matrons take off their earrings over dessert “as if to demonstrate the sheer weight of the rocks” and recounts a slightly cracked Warren Beatty making a pass at her.

Best of all, we meet the early Donald Trump who from the get-go she regarded as crass. A full year after Vanity Fair ran an unflattering piece about him, he emptied a glass of wine down the back of the writer Marie Brenner at a black-tie function. Brenner looked up to see “his familiar Elvis coif making off across the Crystal Room.”

All immensely entertaining, but what saves the book from merely being a fluffy, smug gabfest is Brown’s honest wrestling with work and motherhood, especially as it becomes clear to her, and the reader, that her son George has special needs. He was born two months premature and she has never stopped asking herself whether it was her drivenness, her refusal to rest, that caused it. He was eventually diagnosed with Asperger’s. One diary entry notes: “The weekend was hard, with G being very difficult and Harry chained to his computer as bloody always. Two workaholics don’t make a rightaholic, particularly when it comes to raising kids.”

She confesses to wrong decisions, to failed experiments, to doubts and confidence crises and to routinely reducing nannies to tears. She’s constantly purging whingers and underperformers from her staff. She couldn’t have been an easy boss, but once again circulation soared: from 200000 to 1.2 million.

As the ’80s morphed into the more serious ’90s, Brown became restless and set her sights on the venerable New Yorker. Needless to say, she lobbed a few grenades into that mix, before being lured away by none other than Harvey Weinstein to launch the disastrous Talk magazine. From there she founded The Daily Beast website and now runs the annual Women in the World Summit, where she pulls in such participants as Hillary Clinton, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and actress Scarlett Johannson. The Queen of Buzz is now a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Recently Brown was interviewed about the #MeToo movement. She fixed the interviewer with her famous steel-blue stare and said: “The way to keep sexual harassment at bay is to be the one in charge.”

And if that’s not a clarion call to women in the media, I don’t know what is.

The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983-1992

Book details

The best books of 2017

Published in the Sunday Times

Looking for book recommendations? Who better to ask than the people who create them. Spoiler alert: The Nix gets most votes…

Eusebius McKaiser (Run, Racist, Run)

It is unsurprising that the best local non-fiction titles of 2017 are also the most predictable. They have had public success and rightly so. These include, for me, The Republic of Gupta by Pieter-Louis Myburgh, The President’s Keepers by Jacques Pauw, Always Another Country by Sisonke Msimang, Khwezi by Redi Tlhabi, Reflecting Rogue by Pumla Dineo Gqola and Democracy & Delusion by Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh. They deserve to be read, and engaged, as an anthology that brilliantly captures the capture of the state, the danger our democracy is in, the elusive promise of exile that one day home will be safe again, rape culture’s persistence, our various identity journeys and crises that endure, and the disillusionment of the youth with the neocolonial leadership of the ANC government. Painful but urgent truths.

Karin Brynard (Our Fathers)

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead was a late discovery for me. I devoured all three of her novels, but Gilead took my breath away. The prose alone felt like a religious experience, never mind the themes of belonging, redemption, salvation and grace. The Third Reel by SJ Naudé – a two-fisted exploration of art, politics, loss and love – left me reeling. Naudé is destined for a great career. I first read A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg by Harry Kalmer in Afrikaans some years back. I’m glad this gem of a book will now reach a wider audience. Johannesburg is like a bedeviled wife. You eventually become besotted with her. Kalmer shows you how. Having read Paul McNally’s The Street, an excellent real- life account of life on a particular street in Joburg, I no longer marvel at the depths of depravity in our politics.

Paige Nick (Unpresidented)

The Nix by Nathan Hill. It’s a fantastic, immersive, topical read that spans lives and decades. The basic plot revolves around an underachieving writer forced to face his mother, who abandoned him as a child. But it’s about so much more than that, including American politics. Good Cop, Bad Cop by Andrew Brown is riveting non-fiction that changed the way I think about South African divides: humanity, townships, crime and policing. It should be prescribed reading for every South African – law enforcement and politicians in particular. I ugly cried and ugly laughed on consecutive pages. Dark Traces by Martin Steyn is one of the most gripping, graphic, dark and twisty crime thrillers I’ve read. Set in the world of a cop investigating teenage girls who go missing, this is a book of much evil for poor Detective Magson, and the brave reader.

Achmat Dangor (Dikeledi)

All The Rivers by Dorit Rabinyan is a riveting story about a passionate love affair between an Israeli Jewish woman and a Palestinian Muslim man that embroils them in all kinds of turmoil. It bravely crosses ethnic and religious “rivers” that divide people. Exit West by Mohsin Mohammed is told through the eyes of a young couple – Saeed and Nadia – who flee from an unnamed city during a civil war. It explores the traumas that migrants and refugees face, without ever descending into rhetoric. To leave their country, they use a magical system of fictitious doors to places around the world, and the story, as it unfolds, introduces us to a new version of “magical realism”.

Hamilton Wende (Arabella, the Moon and the Magic Mongongo Nut)

I’m researching a novel on Ancient Rome and Africa at the moment, so my two best books of the year hands-down are: The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus. Its blood and sex-filled chronicle of betrayal and survival across the Roman Empire is as good as anything in Game of Thrones. My second book of the year is Satires by Juvenal. His descriptions of the excesses of Rome are breathtaking: perfumed wine drunk from conch shells at midnight oyster suppers, dizzy ceilings spinning round and dancing tables. The Roman world without too much politics!

Ray Hartley (Ramaphosa: The Man Who Would Be King)

New Times by Rehana Rossouw brings to life a journalist covering the first years of the Nelson Mandela presidency – and dealing with deep personal issues – with such raw brilliance that it is startling. I was gripped and could not put it down.

Karina Szczurek (The Fifth Mrs Brink)

The following books provided me with intellectual, emotional and aesthetic joy: Ingrid Winterbach’s deeply satisfying novel The Shallows; Hedley Twidle’s great essay collection Firepool: Experiences in an Abnormal World; Sara-Jayne King’s remarkable and moving memoir Killing Karoline; the highly entertaining Rapid Fire: Remarkable Miscellany by John Maytham; Anne Fadiman’s touching tribute to her father, The Wine Lover’s Daughter: A Memoir; and the visionary, beautiful Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World by Lyndall Gordon.

Mike Nicol (Agents of the State)

Being Kari by Qarnita Loxton is a funny, insightful novel about contemporary life. The Cape Town setting is a bonus. Queen of the Free State by Jennifer Friedman captures the quizzical voice of a young girl growing up in the 1950s. It’s charming. And then the massive Apartheid Guns and Money by Hennie van Vuuren revealed everything we had expected but were too afraid to acknowledge.

Malebo Sephodi (Miss Behave)

Grace by Barbara Boswell will have you gasping at every turn. Her word use is absolutely delicious and the weaving of the story is close to perfection. I would love a sequel because the protagonist has never left me since I read the book months ago. I find myself wondering how she’s coping. If I Stay Right Here by Chwayita Ngamlana. This experimental fiction had me crossing legs. Shifting. Crying. Triggered.

Steven Sidley (Free Association)

The Nix by Nathan Hill is a sprawling tour de force of style and story and character, the great American novel of the year. Days Without End by Sebastian Barry is about forbidden love, deprivation and redemption, the poverty and danger of the American 1850s, told through the eyes and vernacular of a teenage refugee from the famine of Ireland. A masterpiece. Midwinter by Fiona Melrose – a story of two tragedies on two continents and its effects on a father and son, who through mutual awkwardness, incoherent grief and rage play out against their attempts at love and family in the deep and muddy earth of county Suffolk in England.

Diane Awerbuck (South)

Nick Mulgrew’s The First Law of Sadness is tied for first place with Koleka Putuma’s Collective Amnesia. They are both what I love and look for in fiction and poetry: truth in all its awkward beauty. I also love that you can see these two perform their work, because they’re local, and because they care.

Tony Park (The Cull)

The Girl From Venice by Martin Cruz Smith, who writes sparingly yet beautifully and still manages to produce a gripping page turner. A disillusioned veteran of Mussolini’s dirty war in Africa returns to civilian life as a fisherman in his native Venice, which is still under Nazi Occupation. Into his lap lands a beautiful, rich woman on the run. Perfect. The Cuban Affair by Nelson Demille is a good example of how an author can try something different without alienating fans. Ex Afghanistan veteran “Mac” MacCormick is lured out of retirement to take a Cuban-American woman back to her ancestral home to rescue a store of treasure. Mac reflects Demille’s own experiences and many others who return home glad to be out of a war zone but missing the military and a life less predictable. He paints a picture of a Cuba crumbling under Communism, but also squeezes in enough rum and rhumba to make me want to visit.

Book details

The Nix


Run Racist Run


The Republic of Gupta


The President's Keeper


Always Another Country




Reflecting Rogue


Democracy and Delusion


Our Fathers




The Third Reel


A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg


The Street




Good Cop, Bad Cop


Dark Traces


All the Rivers


Arabella, the Moon and the Magic Mongongo Nut


The Annals of Imperial Rome




Ramaphosa: The man who would be king


New Times



The Shallows




Rapid Fire


The Wine Lover's Daughter




Agents of the State


Being Kari


Queen of the Free State


Apartheid Guns and Money


Miss Behave




If I Stay Right Here


Free Association


Days Without End






The First Law of Sadness


Collective Amnesia


The Cull


The Girl from Venice



Michele Magwood meets Princess Olga Andreevna Romanoff, grand-niece of Russia's last tsar, at the opening of a Midlands game reserve. As one does.

Published in the Sunday Times

Princess Olga – A Wild and Barefoot Romanov
HH Princess Olga Romanoff with Coryne Hall (Shepheard-Walwyn Books, R670)

There was a fizzing anticipation at the lodge as a gaggle of celebrities, television crew, musicians, journalists and “influencers” alighted from luxury 4x4s. Suit bags and makeup cases were hoisted, sunglasses adjusted, Instagrams snapped and tapped out and the whispers went around – where was she?

“She” is HH Princess Olga Andreevna Romanoff of royal Russian descent, daughter of the late Prince Andrew Alexandrovich Romanoff. He was the eldest nephew of the murdered Tsar Nicholas II, born to a life of splendour in the Winter Palace in St Petersburg before he escaped the Bolshevik carnage in 1918, living out his days in the Kent countryside.

She was in South Africa as the guest of the Karkloof Safari Villas, now under new ownership by Colleen Glaeser – an ardent royalist – who wanted to relaunch the lodge with a grand party. And what a grand party it was: the dining room glinted with crystal and gold amid drifts of white orchids; the keyboardist from Prime Circle was flying the grand piano; cameras whirred, presenters presented and, finally, the princess appeared.

If the guests were expecting a ball gown with a tiara and gems, a modest Fabergé cabochon ring, perhaps, they were disappointed. Princess Olga was dressed in a short red dress and a good pashmina. At 67, she is slim and athletic, her white-blonde hair cut in a bob and cerulean eyes that could etch glass. She seemed bemused at the angling and posing and susurration of feathery false eyelashes.

She was also launching her new memoir Princess Olga – A Wild and Barefoot Romanov, a gossipy, galloping account.

Sitting on the sunny deck the next morning, looking over the lush reserve, the princess was clearly more comfortable in her jeans and fleece. She is quick and funny, throwing away delicious anecdotes: “Queen Mary was a kleptomaniac, of course.” The old bat would spy something beautiful at a friend’s house – the Sheraton chairs, pretty china – and the host would be obliged to give it to her. “And then people got wise and they used to hide the good stuff before she came. There’s a room apparently in Buckingham Palace known as Mary’s Store where all the stuff she collected is kept. I think they’re trying to return pieces to the right families.”

She is too discreet to be drawn on her views of the current Royals, saying only how much she likes Camilla Parker-Bowles. “She’s a sensible woman, a hunting, shooting, fishing now ex-smoker. She’s a good egg.” And that Princess Margaret was “a little difficult”. If she was staying at a house party and wanted to stay up until 4am, no one was allowed to go to bed whether they were exhausted or ill. “My mother was a bit like that. When she went to bed the whole house party had to go too.”

Princess Olga’s mother, Nadine, was a Scottish heiress “and a crashing snob”. She was the widowed prince’s second wife; they married after he arrived in exile in Britain. They lived in a rackety pile in Kent called Provender House, which dates from the 13th century. Nadine’s family had lived there for more than 100 years.

Baby Olga was neurotically cosseted – her mother would spray guests with DDT before they could come near the infant, and she was not allowed to drink tap water, only Malvern mineral water. There were nannies and governesses – some dodgy, some greatly loved – and Olga loathed schoolwork, pretending she was going to the loo and disappearing to ride her beloved pony. She had no real education.

Her father seems a sad and lonely figure. As an impoverished prince he’d lost everything, he had no money, she writes, but he felt safe at Provender. He changed the spelling of the name from Romanov to the more common Romanoff, and it was believed that he was still on Stalin’s hit list.

As Olga tells it, he “shut the door” on court life, eschewed company and dressed in grotty old clothes. He cooked their meals in the manner of the French chefs from the Russian palaces. He was stone deaf, probably as a result of frequent close gun salutes in his early life. As a boy he had roller-skated down the corridors of the Winter Palace, now he was often mistaken for the gardener.

How was the massacre of his family regarded in her home? “It was spoken about from birth that my father had a murdered uncle and cousins but I didn’t realise it was world history until I was about 10. Papa didn’t really talk about it as much as he could have.”

And so Princess Olga grew up – wild and barefoot – on the rambling estate, training fighting cocks to sit on her Wendy house furniture for tea, organising donkey derbies and burning up tractors with the local boys. She started smoking at 11. Her mother was determined she should marry well, “a duke, at least” and she was paraded as a possible bride for Prince Charles. “Well that wasn’t going to happen,” she laughs. “Orthodox Russian for a start! I just raised a finger at all that.”

She eventually married a well-born man but writes little about their marriage and their subsequent divorce. Instead she unfurls fabulous stories, such as that of Prince Felix Yusupov, a well-known transvestite. He once dressed in women’s clothes to go to the Paris Opéra and was so convincing that he caught the eye of King Edward VII. When the king asked to meet that “lovely young woman” Felix scarpered.

There are stories about Princess Olga’s great friend Clarissa Dickson Wright of Two Fat Ladies fame, a notorious alcoholic. “She did like to drink,” Princess Olga writes in typically understated fashion,” and kept gin in a tooth mug next to her sofa bed. “Once she was so desperate that she drank a bottle of my Chanel perfume. And it was perfume, not eau de toilette. I was very angry.”

There’s the Grand Duchess Xenia dropping her fag ends into a bowl of water at her feet so they didn’t smell, tales of ghosts and a spotting of the Loch Ness monster, a pony brought in to the dining room and munching a grand lady’s hat. It is an enthralling book.

Princess Olga now devotes her life to raising funds and restoring her beloved Provender. Much has had to be sold, as her parents died virtually penniless, but some objects remain, like a collection of white crockery with the double-headed black eagle of imperial Russia, used by Nicholas.

She has opened the house for weddings and conducts tours of it herself. She is close to her three grown children and adores being a grandmother. Energetic and forthright, and still devoted to her animals, Princess Olga is, it seems, a very good egg. @michelemagwood

Princess Olga

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