Tuesday, 20 May 2014

The literati gather in Franschhoek

Franschhoek must be one of South Africa's most picturesque towns. Just an hour's drive from Cape Town, it's in the heart of the spectacularly beautiful wine country, is home to some of SA's best restaurants and offers a hideaway for celebrities and tycoons who enjoy its uber-civilised atmosphere and Europe-in-Africa feel. No doubt reason enough for Richard Branson to choose to buy a country lodge and estate there recently. Last weekend the town hosted its annual literary festival and Diana and I were lucky enough to be there. It was a last-minute decision, Diana being commissioned to film a debate for Carte Blanche on the high-fat diet promoted by celebrity nutritionist and sports scientist Tim Noakes.

Our biggest problem was where to stay, for the town's multitude of hotels and guest houses get booked out months in advance. Comes to our rescue Merilyn Chance, married to my cousin Christopher, who have lived in the Domaines des Anges estate for nine years and know everyone who's anyone (Merilyn handles sales for the glossy magazine Franschhoek Style). Her rooms, unsurprisingly, were booked but a friend just up the road had an attic room free which we snatched up immediately - walking distance from the centre of town and a lock up and go set up.

We drove straight to Merilyn and Chris, who had drinks and snacks laid on for us and our B&B hostess Alison (including a delicious bowl of slow roasted olives in garlic, rosemary, chili and lemon rind). Next morning we had an early breakfast where for a while we were accompanied by Power FM radio host, author and former Rhodes Scholar Eusebius McKaiser who Diana had interviewed in February for her Carte Blanche programme on voter registration among the youth. Eusebius' book Could I Vote DA?caused a bit of a stir when it came out, and he freely opined his view that the DA has to shed its obsession with promoting blacks while ignoring its home-grown white talent. He also alluded to his article due to appear in the next morning's Sunday Times, in which he took the DA to task for its exceptionalism. So, the party has factions and in-fights and power struggles - so what?! It's just a sign of a party growing and struggling to define its position in South Africa's political firmament.

I told him my view that one reason the ANC is more popular than the DA is that its essence and brand image centres on love, whereas the DA's centres on performance. Love is more emotive than performance and it's harder to shift a person's allegiance if it's based on love than if it's based on performance, which can be cold and impersonal. So the DA has to formulate a language and set of idioms that connect to people's hearts, while linking their performance more closely to people's every day experiences. The Open Opportunity Society for All is fine, but we have to bring it into the realm of people's day to day lives.

Diana's day was taken up with the film shoot but I had a bit more time on my hands so I started with:

Ray Hartley asks Stephen Grootes (South African Politics Unspun), Adam Habib (SA’s Suspended Revolution), Rhoda Kadalie (In Your Face), and Prince Mashele (The Fall of the ANC) if, in their opinion, our leaders are sinking or treading water to stay afloat.

Sadly, Rhoda Kadalie could not make it. The panellists agreed there is dearth of leadership in South Africa as a whole, not just in politics - witness the debacle that is the platinum sector today, with management, unions, shareholders and government allowing a strike to go on for four months costing R7 billion in lost wages and R15 billion in lost production. Much of the discussion centred on the potential of Julius Malema to capitalise on his ascent to Parliament, a questioner from the floor likening him to Adolf Hitler.

Prince Mashele was the most succinct in his assessment of the situation, warning that if we did not get our education system sorted out soon the country was doomed. I walked with Prince back to the Green Room (where speakers and the media congregate) afterwards and we chatted over coffee for a while - he congratulated me on my election to Parliament and I am sure we will be seeing a lot more of each other as the politics of the coming months and years unfold. Lots of familiar faces passed through, including Jenny Crwys Williams from 702, tech-commentator and analyst Arthur Goldstuck, and JP and Ruda Landman who have been good friends of ours for many years.

Then it was off to the main event of the day:

Dennis Davis presides over the guru of high-fat Banting, Tim Noakes (The Real Meal Revolution) and the professor who refutes the whole idea of banning carbohydrates, Lionel Opie (Living Longer, Living Better), in a debate between hotly contested scientific positions.

The room was packed, Grant the cameraman only managing to perch on stage with one angle while the contestants jostled and parried each other's questions and those of Prof Dennis Davis who clearly enjoyed the role of moderator. Tim's basic premise is that high insulin-resistant people should avoid carbohydrates and eat a high fat diet. This will lower their risk of diabetes and dementia. His reasoning is that the body's inability to process glucose (produced by the liver's digestion of carbs) leads to its laying down fat and raising cholesterol levels.

He claims there is no direct causal link between a high fat diet, high cholesterol and heart attacks. Prof Opie's main problem with this view is that it is not supported by data. Tim does have mainly anecdotal evidence to support his theory. His book, co-authored with dietitians and chefs, has sold over 100 000 copies so clearly it's resonating with lots of people who want to eat healthier.

Afterwards, Merilyn came to the rescue again, offering her house as the location for the interviews with both professors, which lasted until well after 5 pm. The setting is spectacular, with uninterrupted views of the Hottentot Holland mountains over a lake with geese and black swans waddling around, vineyards and olive groves. Derek Watts, the interviewer, is seen here relaxing while Bruce the sound man and Grant set up to interview Prof Opie.

The kitchen was an appropriate place to interview Tim Noakes. I asked Tim how he became interested in this topic. It was when he began investigating high-energy drinks like Energade and Gator-Ade, which make all sorts of claims he was challenging. This led him to examine how runners were dying during races. Prof Opie amusingly told stories of how while under his tuition Tim had got a name for dashing off to retrieve the hearts of deceased runners so he could discover their cause of death. While respecting each other as former colleagues and friends, it's clear there is a huge gulf professionally between the two academics.

One of Tim's most controversial claims is that he cannot get research funding from the big pharmaceutical companies because they have a commercial interest in defending the conventional medical wisdom that a high fat diet is bad for you. They sell billions of rands of drugs to high cholesterol sufferers, such as statins, and can't afford for Tim's findings to be proved correct. So he is on a crucade not just to change people's diet but to stop Big Pharma from peddling what he calls lies.

In between all this I managed to sneak off to another talk:

Richard Calland asks Max du Preez, Stephen Grootes and Marianne Thamm what it takes for a politician to warrant a biography, with the familiar and distinctive voice of Tony Leon adding to the discussion both from his experience as a politician and as the writer of an autobiography.

I found myself sitting next to Sue Grant Marshall, herself an accomplished writer and journalist. There was a bit of needle between Tony Leon and Richard Calland, who have swapped a few barbs in various media in the past, but generally the exchanges were good humoured. Yet again Julius Malema's shadow was cast over the discussion, with Max claiming and the others agreeing that he is South Africa's most talented politician and should be watched closely. Tony had a few things to say about the current spat over the DA's leadership, while Marianne was rather coy as to when and if her biography of Helen Zille would ever see the light of day.

The filming ended on a high-spirited note with Derek, wine glass in hand, doing his final link to camera as the sun set behind the mountains. We bumped into Amy and Leighton Curd (Amy being a former Miss South Africa, as Amy Kleynhans, the first Coloured winner of this title), who we got to know through Guy and Nicky Leitch in Joburg. They moved to Franschhoek a year or so ago and haven't looked back.

 After all this whizzing around, Diana and I met Ruda and JP for supper at the Salmon Cafe where over a decent bottle or two of Haute Cabriere Chardonnay Pinot Noire we dissected the day's events (I sent back a bowl of green thai chicken curry which was raw, only to find the second bowl nearly as bad). JP had been in a panel discussion entitled Whither the Economy? and gave his upbeat trademark view of the future, based on SA's economic growth outpacing population growth so leading to a gradual improvement in living standards.

Our very eventful day ended with a classic hour and a half from a South African great - comedian, transvestite and politician-slayer Pieter Dirk Uys. His And then there was Madiba took us on a journey from his youth in the 1940s, through the leadership of successive National Party presidential goons and on through de Klerk, Mandela, Mbeki and now Zuma. Uys once famously said he voted for the ANC because they continually gave him such compelling material - one can see his point! It was a life story woven into our national political fabric, full of humour and pathos, ending with him cupping the puppet figure of Julius Malema on one arm as if to say, here is another future presidential goon. What a scary thought.

Sunday was a more relaxed day, Diana and I both attending two sessions - her first on poetry, mine this:

Jenny Crwys-Williams asks Lauren BeukesLouis Greenberg and Sihle Khumalo leading questions about where their research paths have taken them, wondering (among other questions we’d like to ask) at what stage they stop gathering facts and start writing?

What fascinating lives these authors live! Louis's CV is bizarrely surreal - this comes from the About section of his blog:

He was born in Johannesburg, the last of five Catholic-raised children of Greek Orthodox, Jewish and Protestant ancestry. After a childhood focussed on staying out of trouble, he studied English and History and qualified with a Master’s degree on sex and family in vampire fiction. Later he returned to university for a doctorate on the post-religious apocalyptic fiction of Douglas Coupland.

Lauren is  South Africa's leading sci-fi writer, her Zoo City (which I bought and had her sign for me) winning the 2011 Arthur C Clarke prize for Sci-Fi writing.

Sihle is a travel writer and recently explored Francophone west Africa by bus and wrote it up as Almost Sleeping my way to Timbuktu.

Such originality! I loved Lauren's descriptions of being driven around Detroit in a mortuary van in search of stories and stiffs for more gripping material.

Our final session was:

Justin Cartwright in conversation with Shifra Horn about the ancient city that dominates and enriches novels.

Sadly for us, as Diana has just finished Justin's latest novel Lion Heart, the conversation was more Shifra than him, but it did raise some perennial questions about the city's allure and mystery. Justin is also a filmmaker and atheist, which makes his programmes on the Dead Sea Scrolls of Qumran that much more interesting. As an aside, he once asked my sister out for a date but it didn't come to anything - they live in Oxford and he makes passing sarcastic reference to her in his book on the city.

We ended a most enjoyable weekend with lunch at The French Connection, where we were unexpectedly joined by Carina Behr - long term friends of Diana's family, from Plettenberg Bay, and Monique Lion Cachet who lives in Cape Town. Another sign, if  we needed one, that the Franschhoek Literary Festival has become one of THE places to bump into old friends and acquaintances.

But to end off on a slightly different note: how come there are virtually NO black visitors to the festival? This was remarked upon by some of the black panellists - black people simply do not come here, or at least a tiny number by comparison with the country's demographics. Yet 30 000 regularly stream to the Cape Town Jazz Festival! What is it about jazz and literature that are so fundamentally different? Cape Town is dismissed by many black South Africans for being too White and European but that does not put them off the Jazz Festival. Why is Franschhoek, literally French Corner, so different?

Something for the organisers to ponder on, just as the leaders of our education system should. A parting thought - the only Exclusive Books in Soweto, in  Maponya Mall, closed after two years through lack of business.

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