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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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Watch: Pumla Dineo Gqola discusses Reflecting Rogue, normalising freedom and undoing patriarchy on Afternoon Express

Reflecting Rogue is the much anticipated and brilliant collection of experimental autobiographical essays on power, pleasure and South African culture by Professor Pumla Dineo Gqola.

In her most personal book to date, written from classic Gqola antiracist, feminist perspectives, Reflecting Rogue delivers 20 essays of deliciously incisive brain food, all extremely accessible to a general critical readership, without sacrificing intellectual rigour.

These include essays on ‘Disappearing Women’, where Gqola spends time exploring what it means to live in a country where women can simply disappear – from a secure Centurion estate in one case, to being a cop in another, and being taken by men who know them.

‘On the beauty of feminist rage’ magically weaves together the shift in gender discourse in South Africa’s public spheres, using examples from #RUReferenceList, #RapeAtAzania and #RememberingKhwezi.

Reflecting Rogue takes on both the difficulties and rewards of wilfully inhabiting our bodies in ‘Growing into my body’, while ‘Belonging to myself’ uncovers what it means to refuse the adversarial, self-harming lessons patriarchy teaches us about femininity.

In ‘Mothering while feminist’ Gqola explores raising boys as a feminist – a lesson in humour, humility and patience from the inside. In ‘Becoming my mother’ the themes of fear, envy, adoration and resentment are unpacked in mother-daughter relationships. While ‘I’ve got all my sisters with me’ explores the heady heights of feminist joy, ‘A meditation on feminist friendship with gratitude’ exposes a new, and more personal side to ever-incisive Gqola.

Reflecting Rogue comes to a breath-taking end in ‘A love letter to the Blackman who raised me’.

Gender activist, award-winning author and full professor of African Literature at Wits University, Pumla Dineo Gqola has written extensively for both local and international academic journals. She is the author of What is Slavery to Me? (Wits University Press), A Renegade Called Simphiwe (MFBooks Joburg) and Rape: A South African Nightmare (MFBooks Joburg).

Here Pumla discusses normalising freedom, undoing patriarchy, and the state of South Africa’s universities with Jeannie D and Bonnie Mbuli:


 

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Book Bites: 12 November

Published in the Sunday Times

Blackwing: The Raven’s Mark
***
ED McDonald, Gollancz, R310

Multi-volume fantasy series are generally soap operas, but every so often there is an excellent series with a rich, complex story that’s simply too long for a single volume. Blackwing may be one such, set in a world with three moons, where energy is spun from moonlight, magic has replaced science, and The Deep Kings (evil sorcerers) battle against The Nameless (non-evil magicians). Captain Ryhalt Galharrow works for Crowfoot, one of the Nameless; his workplace is the blasted wasteland of The Misery, frontier between The Republic and the Dhojara Empire of the Deep Kings. Galharrow and his cronies win this battle, but the war is still to come. Riveting. – Aubrey Paton

100: A Lovely Spirit Here
****
Cynthia Kros

Written to commemorate the centenary of Parkview junior and senior schools in Joburg, the book traces their evolution from one small school for whites to two multi-cultural, racially diverse schools open to all. Parkview Government School opened in 1917, a difficult time in both South African and world history. Kros has built a picture of what the school must have been like then, with the discovery of a fragile admissions register unearthed at Parkview Senior. Fast forward 100 years and you have a Model C school known for its academic excellence. This is not just a book about a school but one about the sorrows and triumphs of South Africa. – Bridget Hilton-Barber

Reading with Patrick
****
Michelle Kuo, Macmillan, R330

In her early 20s Michelle Kuo was determined to teach US history through black literature. Instead, the reality of rural poverty and institutionalised racism slapped her in the face. She persisted, making progress with her students before leaving for law school. A few years later, Patrick Browning, her most promising student, landed in jail for murder. Kuo returned to the Mississippi Delta to tutor him during his incarceration, feeding his love of words. The memoir goes beyond their story, providing insights into US racism. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

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Eleven international releases to look forward to this November

Hit Refresh
Satya Nadella

From the CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, comes this inspiring account of the transformation of an organisation and the coming transformation of humanity.

As told by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Hit Refresh is the story of corporate change and reinvention as well as the story of Nadella’s personal journey, one that is taking place today inside a storied technology company, and one that is coming in all of our lives as intelligent machines become more ambient and more ubiquitous. It’s about how people, organisations and societies can and must hit refresh – transform – in their persistent quest for new energy, new ideas, relevance and renewal. At the core, it’s about us humans and our unique qualities, like empathy, which will become ever more valuable in a world where the torrent of technology will disrupt like never before.

As much a humanist as a technologist, Nadella defines his mission and that of the company he leads as empowering every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more.

Also available in eBook format.

What Does This Button Do?
Bruce Dickinson

‘I was spotty, wore an anorak, had biro-engraved flared blue jeans with “purple” and “Sabbath” written on the thighs, and rode an ear-splittingly uncool moped. Oh yes, and I wanted to be a drummer…’

Bruce Dickinson – Iron Maiden’s legendary front man – is one of the world’s most iconic singers and songwriters. But there are many strings to Bruce’s bow, of which larger-than-life lead vocalist is just one. He is also an airline captain, aviation entrepreneur, motivational speaker, beer brewer, novelist, radio presenter, film scriptwriter and an international fencer: truly one of the most unique and interesting men in the world.

In What Does this Button Do? Bruce contemplates the rollercoaster of life. He recounts – in his uniquely anarchic voice – the explosive exploits of his eccentric British childhood, the meteoric rise of Maiden, summoning the powers of darkness, the philosophy of fencing, brutishly beautiful Boeings and firmly dismissing cancer like an uninvited guest.

Bold, honest, intelligent and funny, this long-awaited memoir captures the life, heart and mind of a true rock icon, and is guaranteed to inspire curious souls and hard-core fans alike.

Also available in eBook format.

Fools and Mortals
Bernard Cornwell

A dramatic new departure for international bestselling author Bernard Cornwell, Fools and Mortals, takes us into the heart of the Elizabethan era, long one of his favourite periods of British history.

Fools and Mortals follows the young Richard Shakespeare, an actor struggling to make his way in a company dominated by his estranged older brother, William. As the growth of theatre blooms, their rivalry – and that of the playhouses, playwrights and actors vying for acclaim and glory – propels a high-stakes story of conflict and betrayal.

Showcasing his renowned storyteller’s skill, Bernard Cornwell has created an Elizabethan world incredibly rich in its portrayal: you walk the London streets, stand in the palaces and are on stage in the playhouses, as he weaves a remarkable story in which performances, rivalries and ambition combine to form a tangled web of intrigue.

Also available in eBook format.

Bad Dad
David Walliams

The new heart-warming and hilariously brilliant story from number one bestselling author David Walliams. Beautifully illustrated by artistic genius, Tony Ross.

Dads come in all sorts of shapes and sizes.

There are fat ones and thin ones, tall ones and short ones.

There are young ones and old ones, clever ones and stupid ones.

There are silly ones and serious ones, loud ones and quiet ones.

Of course, there are good dads, and bad dads . . .

A high-speed cops and robbers adventure with heart and soul about a father and son taking on the villainous Mr Big – and winning!

This riches-to-rags story will have you on the edge of your seat and howling with laughter!

Bad Dad is a fast and furious, heart-warming story of a father and son on an adventure – and a thrilling mission to break an innocent man into prison!

Also available in eBook format.

In the Midst of Winter
Isabel Allende

New York Times bestseller Isabel Allende returns with a beautifully crafted, multi-generational novel of struggle, endurance and friendship against the odds.

Amid the biggest Brooklyn snowstorm in living memory, an unexpected love blossoms between two people who thought they were deep in the winter of their lives. Richard Bowmaster, a lonely university professor in his sixties, hits the car of Evelyn Ortega, a young, undocumented migrant from Guatemala, and what at first seems an inconvenience takes an unforeseen and more serious turn when Evelyn comes to his house seeking help. At a loss, the professor asks his tenant Lucia Maraz, a fellow academic from Chile, for her advice.

These three are brought together in a mesmerizing story that sweeps from present-day Brooklyn to Guatemala to turbulent 1970s Chile and Brazil, and sparks a long-overdue love between Richard and Lucia, who discover within themselves, in the midst of winter, an invincible summer.

Woven with Isabel Allende’s trademark humanity,passion and storytelling verve, In the Midst of Winter is a vivid and unforgettable tale.

Also available in eBook format.

The Betrayal
Kate Furnivall

Could you kill someone? Someone you love?

Paris, 1938. This is the story of twin sisters divided by fierce loyalties and by a terrible secret. The drums of war are beating and France is poised, ready to fall. One sister is an aviatrix, the other is a socialite and they both have something to prove and something to hide.

Discover a brilliant story of love, danger, courage … and betrayal.

Also available in eBook format.

The Rules of Magic
Alice Hoffman

Practical Magic, to date Alice Hoffman’s biggest ever selling novel, became a major Hollywood film starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman who played sisters Sally and Gillian Owens. In this sparkling prequel we meet sisters Frances and Jet and Vincent, their brother. From the beginning their mother Susanna knew they were unique: Franny with her skin as pale as milk and blood red hair, who could commune with birds; Jet as shy as she is beautiful, who knows what others are thinking, and Vincent so charismatic that he was built for trouble.

Susanna needed to set some rules of magic: no walking in the moonlight, no red shoes, no wearing black, no cats, no crows, no candles and certainly, absolutely, no books
about magic…

But the Owens siblings are desperate to uncover who they really are. Each heads down a life-altering course, filled with secrets and truths, devastation and joy, and magic and love. Despite the warning handed down through the family for centuries – Know that for our family, love is a curse – they will all strive to break the rules and find true love.

Also available in eBook format.

Dork Diaries 12: Crush Catastrophe
Rachel Renée Russell

Nikki Maxwell’s adventures continue in the twelfth installment in the blockbuster #1 New York Times bestselling Dork Diaries series!

In Nikki Maxwell’s newest diary, it’s the countdown to the end of the school year, and Nikki’s juggling some big questions about how she’ll spend her summer. She’s also facing an unexpected crush catastrophe–there’s a new kid interested in Nikki, but the last thing she wants to do is accidentally hurt Brandon!

It all comes down to a big decision Nikki has to make, and drama like she’s never faced before!

Also available in eBook format.

Sugar Money
Jane Harris

Based on a remarkable and little-known true story, Jane Harris’s third novel is both a heartbreaking trip into our troubled colonial past, and a stunning act of literary ventriloquism.

Martinique, 1765, and brothers Emile and Lucien are charged by their French master, Father Cleophas, with a mission.

They must return to Grenada, the island they once called home, and smuggle back the 42 slaves claimed by English invaders at the hospital plantation in Fort Royal. While Lucien, barely in his teens, sees the trip as a great adventure, the older and worldlier Emile has no illusions about the dangers they will face.

But with no choice other than to obey Cleophas – and sensing the possibility, however remote, of finding his first love Celeste – he sets out with his brother on this ‘reckless venture’.With great characters, a superb narrative set up, and language that is witty, bawdy and thrillingly alive, Sugar Money is a novel to treasure.

Also available in eBook format.

Sleep No More
P.D. James

The acknowledged ‘Queen of Crime’, P. D. James, was a past master of the short story, weaving together motifs of the Golden Age of crime-writing with deep psychological insight to create gripping, suspenseful tales. The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories contained four of these perfectly formed stories, and this companion volume contains a further six, published here together for the first time.

As the six murderous tales unfold, the dark motive of revenge is revealed at the heart of each. Bullying schoolmasters receive their comeuppance, unhappy marriages and childhoods are avenged, a murder in the small hours of Christmas Day puts an end to the vicious new lord of the manor, and, from the safety of his nursing home, an octogenarian exerts exquisite retribution.

The punishments inflicted on the guilty are fittingly severe, but here they are meted out by the unseen forces of natural justice rather than the institutions of the law. Once again, P. D. James shows her expert control of the short-story form, conjuring motives and scenarios with complete conviction, and each with a satisfying twist in the tail.

Also available in eBook format.

The Secret Life of Cows
Rosamund Young

Cows can love, play games, bond and form strong, life-long friendships. They can sulk, hold grudges, and they have preferences and can be vain.

All these characteristics and more have been observed, documented, interpreted and retold by Rosamund Young based on her experiences looking after the family farm’s herd on Kite’s Nest Farm in Worcestershire, England. Here the cows, sheep, hens and pigs all roam free. There is no forced weaning, no separation of young from siblings or mother. They seek and are given help when they request it and supplement their own diets by browsing and nibbling leaves, shoots, flowers and herbs.

Rosamund Young provides a fascinating insight into a secret world – secret because many modern farming practices leave no room for displays of natural behavior yet, ironically, a happy herd produces better quality beef and milk.

Also available in eBook format.

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Launch: Song for Sarah by Jonathan Jansen (26 October)

In this, Jansen’s most personal and intimate book to date, South Africa’s beloved Professor contemplates the stereotypes and stigma so readily applied to Cape Flats mothers as bawdy, lusty and gap-toothed – and offers this endearing antidote as a praise song to mothers everywhere who raise families and build communities in difficult places.

As a young man, Jansen questioned how mothers managed to raise children in trying circumstances – and then realised that the answer was right in front of him in the form of Sarah Jansen, his own mother.

Tracing her early life in Montagu and the consequences of apartheid’s forced removals, Jansen unpacks how strong women managed to not only keep families together, but raise them with integrity.

With his trademark delicacy, humour and frankness, Jansen follows his mother’s life story as a young nurse and mother to five children, and shows how mothers dealt with their pasts, organised their homes, made sense of politics, managed affection, communicated core values – how they led their lives. As a balance to his own recollections, Jansen has called on his sister, Naomi, to offer her own insights and memories, adding special value to this touching personal memoir.

Song for Sarah

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Listen: Sara-Jayne King and Sibusiso Mjikeliso discuss Being a Black Springbok

Thando Manana was the third black African player to don a Springbok jersey after unification in 1992, when he made his debut in 2000 in a tour game against Argentina A.

His route to the top of the game was unpredictable and unusual. From his humble beginnings in the township of New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, Thando grew to become one of the grittiest loose-forwards of South African rugby, despite only starting the game at the age of 16. His rise through rugby ranks, while earning a reputation as a tough-tackling lock and later open side flanker, was astonishingly rapid, especially for a player of colour at the time. Within two years of picking up a rugby ball, he represented Eastern Province at Craven Week, and by 2000 he was a Springbok.

But it isn’t solely Thando’s rugby journey that makes Being a Black Springbok a remarkable sports biography. It’s learning how he has negotiated life’s perils and pitfalls, which threatened to derail both his sporting ambitions and the course of his life.

He had to negotiate an unlikely, but fateful, kinship with a known Port Elizabeth drug-lord, who took Thando under his wing when he was a young, gullible up-and-comer at Spring Rose. Rejected by his father early in his life, Thando had to deal with a sense of abandonment and a missing protective figure and find, along the way, people to lean on.

Thando tells his story with the refreshing candour he has become synonymous with as a rugby commentator, pundit and member of the infamous Room Dividers team on Metro FM. He has arguably become rugby’s strongest advocate for the advancement of black people’s interests in the sport, and his personal journey reveals why.

As the editor of Kick Off magazine, Sibusiso Mjikeliso is one of the youngest editors of a national, monthly publication in South Africa. He has written on rugby, cricket, football and tennis for the Sunday Times, The Times, Daily Dispatch and Sowetan. He has also worked as the senior sports writer for Business Day. Mjikeliso spent time as an exchange reporter at the Sunday Mirror in London, where he wrote on Wimbledon tennis, English Premiership rugby as well as English Premier League football. His versatility as a writer and knowledge of different sporting codes has made him one of the most influential sports writers in South Africa. This is his first book.

Sibusiso recently discussed his book with Sarah-Jayne King on Cape Talk. Listen to their conversation here:


 

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