Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

Curmudgeon dressed as Lamb: Sue de Groot speaks to crime novelist Mick Herron about his irascible antihero in Spook Street

Published in the Sunday Times

Spook StreetSpook Street
Mick Herron (John Murray)
*****

When Mick Herron wrote Spook Street – the fourth in his series of spy novels about a cluster of misfits in Britain’s intelligence service – the Westminster terrorist attack had not yet happened. Nor had the attacks on London Bridge, in Manchester and at Finsbury Park.

All these subsequent events make Herron’s plot even more eerily relevant. Spook Street begins with the bombing of a shopping centre in the UK. (“It lasted seconds, but never stopped, and those it left behind – parents and families, lovers and friends – would ever after mark the date as one of unanswered phone calls and uncollected cars.”)

There is a grim echo, in the deadly flash mob at Westacres “pleasure dome”, of JG Ballard’s dystopian Kingdom Come – but where Ballard’s work is queasily alienating, Herron’s is warmly human.

His characters are flawed and vivid, particularly Jackson Lamb, head of a team of MI5 oddballs nicknamed “slow horses” (their office is in Slough House) and one of the most irresistibly unpleasant men ever to let loose a loud fart.

Herron, who on the phone is thoughtful and polite and about as far from Lamb as it is possible to get, says he has a lot of fun writing Lamb’s political incorrect dialogue.

“It’s kind of a safety valve,” he muses. “Lamb says all the things that you know you can’t say in public – you wouldn’t WANT to say them, you would never want to address other people in the way that he does – but there’s a great deal of fun and mischief to be had in doing it in fiction and knowing that for all the nasty things he comes up with, he’s saying them for effect, to annoy people. If he was behaving like that without being aware of how offensive he was, and actually believed the things he was saying, then he would be a different kind of person entirely.”

Lamb, like all the best characters in fiction, has slipped the bonds of his creator’s keys and taken on a life of his own. Herron says he often wonders what lies beneath the irascible old spy’s obnoxiousness.

“I know that there are things in his past that I haven’t fully uncovered. A key line to his character, from a previous book, is ‘when the Berlin wall came down he built another one around himself’. And there’s a line in what I was writing just this morning [the fifth book in the series will be published in 2018] where one of the other characters says Jackson ‘spent half a lifetime going to battle for what he believed in, and the second half of his life revenging himself on a world that seemed to have screwed things up anyway’.

“I think there’s a great deal of disappointment and bitterness there, and being obnoxious is his way of coping with it all, but I’m not sure I want to uncover the exact reasons behind the bitterness. I think one can destroy a character by probing too deeply into the reasons why they are how they are. I think it’s more fun just to let them get on with it. I’m very much enjoying winding him up and watching him go.”

Herron has the same attitude towards the universe in which his plots play out. He can be prescient about the real world but does not set out to write social commentary. In Spook Street he writes that the mall attack became “a made-in-Britain version of all those headlines, which had shrunk over the years to a page-7 sidebar, about events in distant marketplaces. Nothing brought the meaning of ‘suicide bomber’ home quite so hard as familiar logos glimpsed through the rubble.”

Having previously written successful crime novels, Herron turned to the world of spying because he “wanted to look at a broader canvas. One of the things that drove me to that was the bombings in London, the 7/7 bombings, that brought home to me how these huge events impinge on the lives of all of us, and that you don’t have to be a particular expert to have an opinion and to write about that sort of thing.

“These things are now happening … it’s not unusual to pick up a newspaper or turn on the radio and find that something very like that has happened – it’s chilling, and it now seems to be an ever-present danger, so that’s what I wanted to write about, the fact that we have those dangers there among us all the time.”

His focus, however, is always on the story. “I’m a novelist, and I do want to entertain, and the fact that I’m drawing the source of my entertainment from the real world is obviously a very important part of it, but I don’t feel that I have anything especially to warn people about or to tell them about, I’m just writing about how I perceive things to be. I don’t think anybody’s going to learn very much from my books, I do hope they will be entertained, thrilled, maybe shocked occasionally.”

Who should play Jackson Lamb?
Given the growing popularity of Herron’s novels, there will undoubtedly be several screen versions of the world’s rudest spy. When it comes to the actor who would best portray Lamb, Herron says: “If we went right through anyone who ever lived, it would be Orson Welles in Touch of Evil (1958). Physically, I think he looks like Lamb in that film; and his voice tone would also be about right.”

Not so silent: Lamb quotes
“The next sound you hear will be me, expressing confidence.” He farted, and reached for the cigarette behind his ear.

“So you’re the boss of the famous Slough House,” Flyte said. “Isn’t that where they keep the rejects?”

“They don’t like to be called that.”

“So what do you call them?”

“Rejects.”

“That is quite possibly the worst cup of tea I’ve had anywhere. And I’m including France in that.” – All said by Jackson Lamb in Spook Street

Follow Sue de Groot @deGrootS1

Book details

Watch Malebo Sephodi's TED Talk on the importance of self-care as tool of liberation

Upon encountering historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s quote, ‘well-behaved women seldom make history’, Malebo Sephodi knew that she was tired of everyone else having a say on who and what she should be.

Appropriating this quote, Malebo boldly renounces societal expectations placed on her as a black woman and shares her journey towards misbehaviour.

According to Malebo, it is the norm for a black woman to live in a society that prescribes what it means to be a well-behaved woman. Acting like this prescribed woman equals good behaviour. But what happens when a black woman decides to live her own life and becomes her own form of who she wants to be? She is often seen as misbehaving.

Miss-Behave challenges society’s deep-seated beliefs about what it means to be an obedient woman. In this book, Malebo tracks her journey on a path towards achieving total autonomy and self-determinism.

Miss-Behave will challenge, rattle and occasionally cause you to scream ‘yassss, yassss, yassss’ at various intervals.

Here, Malebo discusses the complex relationship women have with themselves, societal pressure, the marginilisation of women’s bodies, balancing your domestic life with your professional life, and the importance of self-care as tool of liberation:

Miss Behave

Book details

"Now is the time for SA to take up the pen and not the sword": AVBOB launches poetry campaign

Today, Mandela Day – AVBOB are launching their much anticipated Poetry Campaign.

Now is the time for us, as a nation, to take up the pen and not the sword. This is when we should focus on what unites, rather than divides us. And the AVBOB poetry project strives to do exactly that.

Facts about the campaign:
• To bring this poetry project to life, AVBOB are launching a website – www.avbobpoetry.co.za – on 18 July 2017, on Mandela Day
• Open to all South Africans in 11 official languages
• As a token of our appreciation, an incentive of R300 will be paid to each person who’s poem is selected for our library on the website
• The winners in each language category will be awarded at a prestigious event in March 2018 and will receive a cash prize

When grief has rendered us mute, poetry enables us to capture the legacy of our loved ones for all eternity, and to express our loss in a meaningful way.

From left – Johann de Lange, editor-in-chief for the AVBOB poetry project, Mr Frik Rademan, CEO of AVBOB, Dr Mantoa Motinyane-Masoko, senior lecturer and head of African Languages and Literatures at UCT and Dr Stanley Madonsela, Directorate: African Languages, University of South Africa and Daniel Hugo, Afrikaans editor for the AVBOB poetry project.

 

A letter from CEO at AVBOB, Frik Rademan:

AVBOB has decided to sponsor a poetry platform, but that would be a gross over-simplification. The truth is, neither AVBOB nor any other business can actually ‘sponsor’ poetry. All we can claim is that we wish to be associated with the power of poetry – and with the beauty of the human spirit.

To suggest that AVBOB can do anything meaningful for poetry would therefore be completely erroneous. Rather, it is the other way around: poetry can mean so much to AVBOB and its people.

Ever since its inception in 1918, AVBOB has belonged to ordinary people. Indeed, it was originally established for humanitarian reasons to help families in times of need during the difficult years after World War I, when people suffered bitterly.

Today, 99 years later, people still suffer, and despondency is becoming an ever-increasing threat to our self-preservation. People are generally divided and riven with uncertainty. Work is scarce, and meaningful work even scarcer.

Loss makes people vulnerable, whether it is the loss of income or the loss of a dream at the death of a loved one – a mother, a father, a child – and, consequently, we are at a loss for words to say goodbye. And if we do not have the words to send off our loved ones, the ritual of parting is muted.

AVBOB’s invitation to poets to write poems with an elegiac feel in all our official languages is thus, of itself, a strategic decision, aimed at building a bridge between those who have the words (established and aspiring poets) and those who so desperately need to hear those words (the bereaved). The sponsorship is thus aimed at providing a platform for poets, both unknown and lauded, to offer words of comfort through their craft.

To bring this poetry project to life, AVBOB are launching a website – www.avbobpoetry.co.za – on Mandela Day, 18 July 2017 at 1pm, that will be completely devoted to South African poetry. The main features of the website are twofold. First, we want to publish as many quality new poems as possible, in all 11 of the official South African languages. These poems will be freely available to all lovers of this enchanting and everlasting literary form, and to all those searching for a verse to give expression to the complex and unique emotions they are experiencing.

Secondly, the website will form the platform from which we will launch a nationwide poetry competition. Again, just as AVBOB belongs to the people, so too does poetry – it knows no boundaries, and transcends all differences. For this reason, we have made a massive effort to make the competition as inclusive as possible. The competition will thus be open to all South Africans, in all 11 official languages, to celebrate the richness and diversity of all the voices of our land.

Should a poem be accepted by one of our editors, it will open up a world of exciting new opportunities for the entrant of the poem. First, every poem which is approved by the relevant editor will feature alongside other poems on the AVBOB poetry website, where it will become part of a library of content to provide words of beauty and comfort to the people of South Africa. As a token of our appreciation, an incentive of R300 will be paid for each poem selected.

In addition, all entrants of approved poems will be in line for the AVBOB Poetry Prize, in the specific language categories (there will be a winner in each language). The respective prizes will bring cash rewards.

This initiative is by no means accidental. I am extremely grateful to say that, over the years, AVBOB has been a proud supporter of the arts in our country. We have always believed that the arts provide emotional and intellectual upliftment for our people, and that it is a way to liberate them from the difficulties of daily life.

Every person who enters the Poetry project will stand an equal chance for their work to feature alongside that of some of our most accoladed poets in a 100-poem print anthology, entitled “I wish I’d said”. The anthology will be published in August 2018. The title of the anthology will also be the theme for the poetry competition. This theme resonated deeply with us because all of us, at some point in our lives, have felt regret for the things we’ve left unsaid. Perhaps we wish we’d said, “I love you”, “forgive me” or “I will never forget you”.

Regardless of what this phrase means to each individual, it is our wish that the AVBOB poetry project will become a vehicle for people to finally express those unspoken whispers of the heart.

When grief has rendered us mute, poetry enables us to capture the legacy of our loved ones for all eternity, and to express our loss in a meaningful way.

Now is the time for us, as a nation, to take up the pen and not the sword. This is when we should focus on what unites, rather than divides us. And the AVBOB poetry project strives to do exactly that.

Book Bites: 16 July 2017

Published in the Sunday Times

The CowsThe Cows
Dawn O’Porter (HarperCollins)
****
Book fling
It’s OK not to follow the herd. That’s the premise of The Cows, a powerful novel about three women judging each other, but also judging themselves and their ideas of children – wanting one, having one, and not wanting them. Tara, Cam and Stella are living their lives as best they can, but being constantly pressured to conform, they find it hard to like what they see in the mirror. When an extraordinary event brings them together, one woman’s catastrophe becomes another’s inspiration, and a life lesson to all. This is a surprisingly funny novel. – Nondumiso Tshabangu @MsNondumiso

Here Comes TroubleHere Comes Trouble
Simon Wroe (Orion)
***
Book buff
Kurt Vonnegut’s dystopian flair is reborn in Simon Wroe’s Here Comes Trouble. Kyrzbekistan, a fictitious Eastern Bloc country, is caught in the thrall of political turmoil that may sound all too familiar to many South Africans and Americans. As load-shedding seems to become permanent, troubled teen Ellis Dau attempts to rise to the occasion by restarting The Chronicle, his father’s independent press. Ellis’s humour (both intentionally and otherwise) is snort worthy. An excellent read for YA and new adult readers. Those over 30, however, may feel that they’ve heard this tale before, despite the fact we are living it today. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

The Last StopThe Last Stop
Thabiso Mofokeng (BlackBird Books)
*****
Book buff
Macko just managed to escape with his life after a bullet that was meant for him killed a child instead. His body may have survived but his mind is lost. He keeps seeing “things” and his stress is made worse by his dodgy taxi-owner boss and his money-grabbing girlfriend. Thabiso Mofokeng has done a sterling job of bringing to life the very real struggles of a taxi driver. It’s a poignant read and if you, like many, choose to forget the serious issues engulfing our country, this book will force them upon you. Thabiso, sir, never stop telling these very important truths. – Jessica Levitt @jesslevitt

Book details

Goethe Institute to launch Library Gamebox Hub on July 29th

Join the Goethe Institute for the launch of their Library Gamebox Hub and discover Joburg’s brand new space for gamers, creative professionals and book lovers.

WHEN?
29 July 2017
Open Day 3.30 – 7.00pm

WHERE?
Goethe-Institut Johannesburg
119 Jan Smuts Avenue
2193 Parkwood

WHAT?
Come to their Open Day and:

· Enter the brand new Gamebox and discover the latest from the world of video games, including Virtual Reality
· Explore the space in a playful way through an Actionbound Rallye
· Try out a range of analogue games or jump into one of the Cosplay costumes
· Apply for a space in their new hub, which offers working spaces for individuals and collectives from the creative world
· Sign up for their library membership and select from an extended offer of books, magazines, films, music and children’s literature – from Germany, South Africa and other countries
· Enjoy the fully refurbished interior and use the space to study or research
· Come through with your kids and show them the children’s corner

Check out the Facebook event page for more!

Jacket Note: Rafique Gangat on his book Bending the Rules

Published in the Sunday Times

Bending the RulesBending The Rules: From De Klerk to Mandela – Stories of a Pioneering Diplomat
Rafique Gangat (Kwela)
 
 
Bending the rules, challenging the system, finding common ground, making a difference – and sometimes paying the price for it – has been the story of my life. I have many stories to tell, and always wanted to share them, but I had no idea where to begin.

A few years back, it started as a selection of short stories that could have only happened in South Africa. I was South Africa’s first diplomat of colour – I worked for Foreign Affairs under the National Party and then for the ANC government, straddling the transition.

This book documents my battles against bigotry and prejudice, but also includes stories from my travels – which then gave it an entirely different complexion. Finally, they assumed a life of their own as they threaded themselves into a memoir of short stories.

The manuscript went into hibernation until a meeting with Professor Brian Polkinghorn of Salisbury University. He was teaching a course on conflict resolution and mitigation at Tel Aviv University and was accompanied by a group of his Israeli and Palestinian students. I met them to discuss the role I had played as a talkshow host on a radio station, facilitating dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. A project that was untimely curtailed.

I mentioned to Brian that I had written a collection of short stories. He expressed an interest and I e-mailed them. He responded: “What an interesting set of stories! I can’t help but think you are a ‘character’ that has made it through some incredibly tough and historic times due to the sheer intellectual prowess and guts one needs to pull off some of the things you have accomplished. I think these short stories act as bursts of insight on all matters social. Love, drugs, music, morals, immorality, oppression, racism, sports, pulling fast ones, working with historical figures, and, in all of that, seeing the irony, innocence and contradiction.” That encouraged me to seek a publisher.

Later, he even honoured me by inviting me to Salisbury to be their keynote speaker on their annual theme – ‘One person can make made a difference’. To the theme, I added, ‘By Bending the Rules’. That’s where the title of the book came from.

And then I met JM Coetzee at PALFEST, a festival of literature in Palestine, and I was bowled over by a note he sent: “This is just a note to thank you for Bending the Rules, which I read during the flight back to Australia and enjoyed very much.” – Rafique Gangat

Book details