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Michele Magwood remembers her friend and mentor Stephen Johnson

Stephen Johnson: the bon vivant bibliophile with a beautiful voice.

I was devastated to learn of the death of Stephen Johnson early in the new year.

When I was appointed Books Editor of the Sunday Times in 2000 he took me under his capacious wing. At that time he was the MD of Random House and we would meet in his office high on the Parktown Ridge, surrounded by bookshelves crammed with the greats: Brink, Van Onselen, Coetzee.

He talked me through how the book industry works – he had been MD of Exclusive books before that – and larded the information with much literary lore. And gossip, of course.

He was a bon vivant and had a beautiful voice; he loved classical music. He loved books as objects of art, not only their jacket design but their font, the weight of the paper. Most of all, he loved his authors.

He pushed and encouraged me as a book journalist, sending me to London to interview Sebastian Faulks and a hip young couple in their hip new restaurant called Moro; he knew they would make their mark and they have. Long before Ottolenghi, Sam and Sam Clarke put Mediterranean food on the British map. Years later he sent me back to London to the launch of Salman Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton, held in a smart nightclub and thronging with guests like Ian McEwan and Stephen Fry. When I returned he wanted to know every detail.

Over the years we shared many a meal and glasses of wine, but I saw less of him when he moved to Cape Town. I missed our discussions about who was writing what, and how well, or not.
He was a friend and a mentor and a great book man. He was a deeply cultivated man in an increasingly uncultured world. I will always be grateful to him.

When Stephen retired Antjie Krog made an outstanding speech at his farewell party in 2012. It was featured on BooksLive, and it is worth sharing it again:

It feels terrible to speak at something called a farewell function to Stephen Johnson. It immediately makes me feel like an orphan, like a minion without a Mafia Pappa, like a shareholder without her Magnate of the Published Word.

So I prefer to think about tonight not as a farewell, but as a celebration; and therefore want to present my contribution as a praisesong rather than a lament.

But first. A good praise singer goes out of her way to impress on the audience her bona fides – in other words what qualifies her to speak and how much weight her opinion should carry. I think I can say without fear of contradiction that I have published at more publishing houses than a prostitute has had clients on the R310 to Stellenbosch. So I am experienced and I can compare. I have also learnt some lessons of which I will share only one: Beware of the very thin publisher!

You know what I am talking about. Those who arrive from finance departments with the demeanour of replaceable bank managers, displaying meagre spiritual egos born of housekeeping desire and bookkeeping abstraction. Those who move swiftly, leaving bleeding gaps and who prefer doling out to giving. They are clones; one cannot befriend them.

No, let us celebrate the not-so-thin ones, because the publishers with which I have taken the biggest risks and produced the greatest success are above all lovers of life. They carry in a perfectly congruous way mentally and physically the idea of joyous largesse, a certain superfluity and the pure pleasure of riot.

These publishers, of which Stephen is one, first of all LOVE books. They touch paper in a way which convey that their somewhat plumb fingertips are beehives bursting with lustful senses, they caress book covers with their knuckles as if they touch a beloved’s face, they talk about books always with heartbreaking maternal intimacy. For them, the heart of the book and the beauty of the book are inseperable.

Yes, the true lover of books is alive to the world. These rare publishers, of which Stephen is one, have distinguished tongues and discerning palates. Therefore, every writer blessed to have been published by someone like Stephen will remember som exquisite trance-like events steamed in the pleasures of merlot, marrow and metaphor. Writers who often have to mould themselves on rigid self-denying self-discipline, find it miraculous to be with someone who, like yourself, experiences the world sensually. At last you get spoilt and you rot willingly with noble bliss.

Whether at lunch or dinner, in a hotel room or a taxi, an office or a meeting – with Stephen it is always underpinned with exquisite textures slanting from windows, gleaming from porcelain, glowing from dark wines, cusping off glass. Yes, one finds oneself with somebody who, like the philosopher Martin Versveld, believes that we make the world human through food; that the world as food is the world and the word humanised; that an eaten world is an intelligible word, a word in which body and spirit are united.

Completing the full passion spectrum of these earth epicureans, of which Stephen is one, is the love for classical music. Not the run-of-the-mill Fine Music Radio favourites, but experts on German lieder, choral works, great pianists, operatic voices. A drive with them in a car is like unexpectedly encountering a diva: the fingers playing the notes molto espressivo on the steering wheel or bellowing the highest coloratura notes in ecstatic dewlapping whispers.

The good life, the righteous life then, as a publisher like Stephen knows so well – and through him, we – is the convivial life, because our very universe is actually a convivium – a meal together.

In my books – and remember I have been plying my trade for four decades 0 Stephen Johnson is a fantastic and successful publisher. Here are the facts of my before-Stephen and after-Stephen life: since he took me out for tea at Zerbans in the Gardens Centre seventeen years ago he changed me from a middle-aged penniless radio-reporting Afrikaans poet with the name of Samuel to a freelancing non-fiction battle axe with a terrible English accent, with access to Voyager miles and a separate income tax number, and the name of Krog. I still regularly get a cheque from Shuter and Shooter for R52.13, dating from my time before Stephen, but I now no longer get money BACK from SARS.

Apart from the fact that Stephen should be professor in How to Make Beautiful Books and Sell Them Successfully, he is a writer’s dream: he is as creative as yourself, he thinks about possibilities that have never crossed your mind, he is a discerning manuscript reader and can tell very quickly whether a manuscript is working. If it “works”, he throws himself behind the coming book with the neat and thrilling energy of a DA march. Nothing will be overlooked: not the font, not the launch, not the future of the book nor a potential clash with COSATU.

Once a woman stopped me at the Cape Town International Airport and said: would you please tell the people who made Country of My Skull that it is the most beautiful book I have ever held in my hands? I give it to people not too read, but to hold.

This happened because, for my first and second book (A Change of Tongue) Stephen put together nothing less than an astonishing A-team: the meticulous dedicated Douglas van der Horst who noticed everything, knew everything and talked about shades, fonts and paper like other men talk about rugby or babes. Then there was the inimitable Abdul Amien who would take from the shelf of the National Library a book with the title Atlas Ichtyologique des Indes Orientales Neerlandaises, volume 6, by P Bleeker, published between 1866 and 1872, for Tongue‘s cover. And with unfailing vision Stephen, already in those years, identified Ivan Vladislavic as the best editor in the country.

Stephen not only became my favourite publisher with his excellent literary intuition, but with his empathy and generosity he became my friend and directed the weal and woe of my English literary career with compassion, humour and objectivity. We went through tough times him and me, but whether we were in or out of the closet, in or out of fashion, swinging swords against accusations of plagiarism, we could do it with the knowledge that the other one holds his or her integrity in high regard. Stephen Johnson is the kind of person that I like to have at my side: for his joy at life, his incomparable English – whether speaking or writing – his sensitive creativity, his eye for beauty and last but not least, his character, more often than not burdened with integrity.

Let us drink a toast to a wonderful publisher!

Creative writing workshop with Bronwyn Law-Viljoen (25-30 January 2019)

The Talking Table is hosting a creative writing workshop presented by Bronwyn Law-Viljoen! The workshop will take place from 25-30 January in the eastern Free State village of Rosendal.

Facilitator: Bronwyn Law-Viljoen (novelist and head of creative writing at Wits)

Dates: 25-30 January 2019

Venue: DeTuinen country lodge in Rosendal, Eastern Free State

Progamme: A practical, playful, hands-on approach. Full programme at

Fees: R13 600 per single person and R12 200 pp sharing. Included accommodation, breakfast and a long-table meal daily and programme fee.

To book: Write to before 31 December 2018.

Bronwyn Law-Viljoen is Associate Professor and Head of Creative Writing at the University of the Witwatersrand, editor and co-founder of Fourthwall Books, and former editor of Art South Africa magazine.

She has a PhD in Literature from New York University and a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of the Witwatersrand.

Her first novel, The Printmaker, was published in 2016 (Umuzi) and shortlisted for the Sunday Times Barry Ronge Fiction Award.

The Talking Table is a creative hub operated by two South Africans on the Greek island of Lesbos.

It hosts workshop in writing, painting, photography, philosophy, business ethics and more. Frederik de Jager, former Publishing Director at Penguin Books and Douw Steyn, former CEO of media companies in Naspers, accommodate, cook and create a sympathetic space for participating guests.

Rosendal will be their second workshop in South Africa.

Rosendal is a beautiful eastern Free State hamlet in the foothills of the Maluti Mountains, three and a half hours’ drive from Johannesburg.

The Printmaker

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The Printmaker by Bronwyn Law-Viljoen
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EAN: 9781415209127
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Win a Nal'ibali mini-library fully stocked with storybooks in different South African languages!

Reading is the apex of educational escapism; reading is fun and informative; reading creates thinkers and dreamers. Slotsom: reading rocks! (Bibliophile shot by Daniel Born.)

Nal’ibali, the nationwide reading-for-enjoyment campaign which aims to spark children’s potential through reading and storytelling, is supporting caregivers in kick-starting their children’s 2019 school year by giving away 20 mini-libraries fully stocked with storybooks in different South African languages.

Research shows that children who read for pleasure, do better across all school subjects, including maths.

However, to keep children reading, it’s helpful to understand what motivates them to read.

According to American researchers, Kathryn Edmunds and Kathryn Bauserman, the following factors influence children’s reading behaviours.

• Children are more likely to read a book they chose themselves

• Children enjoy books that match their personal interests

• Children are more likely to choose books that have exciting covers, great illustrations and action-packed plots, as well as books that are funny or scary

• What they could learn from reading a book was important to them

• Their interest in reading was sparked and encouraged by their family members (especially mothers), teachers and friends

• Children were often excited to read books they had heard about from friends

• Children enjoyed being read to by family members and teachers, even if they could already read

• Once they’d caught the reading bug, children continued to motivate themselves to read!

Nal’ibali mini libraries contain a carefully curated selection of books designed to expose children to a range of literacy and illustration styles.

Every library is bilingual in a bid to support a culture a multilingualism, and to help children build a strong foundation in their other tongue as well as English.

“Providing families and classrooms with their own mini libraries is just one of the ways we are nurturing a culture of reading in South Africa. Nal’ibali stories can also be accessed directly from its website, in its regular reading-for-enjoyment supplement or heard on the radio,” explains Jade Jacobsohn, Nal’ibali Managing Director.

To stand a chance to win one of 20 mini-libraries, send a short motivation on how you plan to enjoy your mini-library with the children in your life to by 21 December 2018.

Entrants must also include their name, physical address and contact number. Winners will be notified during the week of 7th January 2019.

For more information about the Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment campaign, free children’s stories in a range of SA languages, tips on reading and writing with children, details on how to set up a reading club or to request training, visit,, or find them on Facebook and Twitter.

"A collection of moving stories of a diversity of people living in the gritty city of gold" - BusinessLive reviews I Want to Go Home Forever

Via Business Live: 6/12/2018

By Yvonne Fontyn

With Tanya Pampalone working as a journalist and Loren B Landau heading the African Centre for Migration and Society at Wits University, and the “go-to academic on everything migration and xenophobia in SA”, Pampalone says he was the obvious choice to partner with on a book of “stories of becoming and belonging” in Johannesburg.

They collaborated in 2013 on a book called Writing Invisibility: Conversations on the Hidden City, a collection of long-form stories exploring “different definitions of migrancy and lives lived outside the mainstream discourse”, she says.

Their subjects came not just from SA but reached as far as Kenya and Belgium.

“With the ongoing attacks on foreigners in SA and the various migration issues, Loren and I spoke often over the years,” says Pampalone.

But it was at the end of 2015, after the xenophobic attacks of that year, that she and Landau decided to commit to what became I Want to Go Home Forever.

They wanted to compile a collection of stories that would go beyond the headlines, to the root of the experiences of people involved in the violence.

The result is a collection of moving stories of a diversity of people living in the gritty city of gold, all in some way touched by migrancy, xenophobia, crime and violence.

Continue reading Fontyn’s review here.
Book details

  • I Want to go Home Forever: Stories of Becoming and Belonging in South Africa’s Great Metropolis edited by Loren Landau, Tanya Pampalone
    EAN: 9781776142217
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Louis Botha is depicted warts-and-all in this biography, writes William Saunderson-Meyer

Published in the Sunday Times

Louis Botha: A Man Apart *****
Richard Steyn
Jonathan Ball Publishers, R260

It’s a cliché that we must take lessons from the past. There are at least two problems with this.

The first is hubris. Each generation feels that is unnecessary, since it is clearly wiser and more competent than the previous one. Until, of course, the passage of time proves it wrong.

The second is a growing, priggish moralism that demands right-thinking and right-speaking. Swathes of history are ignored, especially in SA, simply because the protagonists don’t fit into contemporary mores.

Richard Steyn seems to have a particular contrarian interest in the political giants who have fallen foul of such dismissive revisionism. This is his third biography, following upon his well-received works on Jan Smuts, then the friendship between Smuts and Churchill.

But Steyn is no hagiographer.

In enviably clear and unadorned prose his is a warts-and-all depiction, especially as regards the casual racism and assumed superiority of the white man.

While always sensitive to historical context, he examines in detail the failures and blind spots of Botha, including his “mixture of respectful paternalism towards any individual with whom he came into contact … and a disbelief that blacks as a group should enjoy the same political rights as whites”. It was an attitude that culminated, under his premiership, in the pernicious Native Land Act of 1913.

Following the Anglo-Boer War, it was Botha’s first priority to heal the deep divisions between Afrikaans- and English-speaking whites, as well as between the vanquished Boers and the victorious British.

His determination to achieve this took him along a remarkable, painful path: taking the former Boer republics into a union with the British colonies of the Cape and Natal; taking the Union into World War 1 on the side of the British, against the Germans who had nominally supported Boer independence; suppressing with force of arms the resulting Afrikaner rebellion; and conquering German South-West Africa.

Steyn makes the point a number of times that during the Anglo-Boer War those who called most stridently for war were those who most rapidly melted away when they got their wish. Whereas men like Botha, who had opposed the war, were the ones who were left to prosecute it.

Botha, the most brilliant of the Boer generals, paid a high personal cost for a war he never wanted. His health was shattered by the privations of those gruelling years. The family lost their farm and his brother was killed.

But what perhaps wounded him most grievously was the long, slow process of estrangement from fellow Afrikaners, who felt he betrayed them by allying SA to the Empire.

Reconciliation is never universally popular and there are always those who flourish in exacerbating divisions, rather than minimising them. As we are beginning to see with the increasingly strident repudiation of Nelson Mandela as “sell-out”. @TheJaundicedEye

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Win a copy of Hagen Engler's latest lank kiff book!

A hilarious compendium of iconic South Africanness.

As they tend to say on Idols shortly before eviscerating some poor aspiring singer’s performance, this comes from a place of love. This book is a celebration of South Africa’s iconic people, places, situations, songs, character traits and consumer products … every part of our culture that makes us happy and proud to be South Africans.

Add a twist of humour to South African nostalgia with Hagen Engler’s latest offering.

Black Twitter, Blitz and a Boerie as Long as Your Leg is a light-hearted, humorous read of multiple entries that can be dipped into at will.

Optimistic, topical and definitely tongue-in-cheek, this book could easily be that last-minute gift that you pick up at the airport before you head back to the parental home for the holidays.

Not too politically edgy – so as not to offend any sensitive elephants in the room – it draws on the great many things that South Africans do have in common, and that will give us all a moment to agree on something, for a change. The book aims to list and celebrate the tiny, subtle aspects of South African life that we all experience but don’t always notice.

Engler looks at icons of our shared South Africanness but drills a little deeper to make them more specific, a bit more ridiculous, a bit funnier, and hopefully to induce an excited exclamation from the reader of, “Yoh! That’s so true!”

Look out for the following:

• A fake pair of Ray-Bans from the robots
• Your skaftien of last night’s stew
• Getting a proper vuvuzela blast going
• The passion and the glory of the Soweto Derby
• The hair salon that has it all
• Proof of address. Not more than three months old!
• Counting the black faces in any group photo
• The edgy hairstyles of Afrikaans ladies of a certain age
• Some construction workers on the back of a bakkie, judging you
• Building a 10-year relationship with the guy at your robots
• The way you like your Oros
• A room divider on the far side of a room
• Sunlight Soap. The green bar
• Chicken Licken Hotwings
• Black Twitter on a Sunday night
• Zodwa Wabantu’s vosho
• Khabonina Qubeka’s hamstrings

Hagen Engler has co-written, ghost-written and edited more than 12 books. He can peel a naartjie in one go, survive an extra-hot bunny chow, and drink all day while the Proteas occupy the crease at the Wanderers. So you see now.

Jacana Media are giving away FIVE copies of Hagen’s latest lank kiff contribution to the local literary scene. To stand a chance to win a copy, let our editor (Mila de Villiers) know on what day of the week Black Twitter is on fire. Mail your answer to before Thursday, 6 December.

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