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The ABSA/LitNet
Chain Interview

Die Ketting

Mike Nicol is a journalist and writer.
Tim Couzens Tim Couzens was born in Durban. He has written three full biographies (including Murder at Morija) of such bulk and detail that James Clarke, humorist and Honorary Life President of Densa (that society of people too thick to qualify for Mensa), has described his writing as “very dense” and awarded him membership of the Densan Society (an honour Couzens considers the greatest ever bestowed upon him). Other achievements: he has found himself upside down in a car crash and survived the greatest snowstorm in Southern Africa in the twentieth century; he also survived being fired at in the middle of an army range (though he has never been in an army), macaroni cheese in Cairo, and being chased up a tree by a rhino. He has been voted South Africa’s Most Boring Person three years in a row but refuses to enter again because after the third victory he was awarded the cup permanently and believes further participation is unfair on the competition.

Mike Nicol in conversation with Tim Couzens


    More and more I have become convinced that I come from an alien planet. One of the symptoms of this intimation is the aversion to sections of the electronic media, including e-mail and cellphones, which promote endless meaningless chatter and from which emanate peremptory, even minatory, calls on one’s time and attention. Forward thinking is a thing of the past: job references, for instance, are asked for with a casual, “And, oh, by the way, applications close tomorrow so could you send it off tonight?” The tone is “drop everything or drop dead”.

    This applies nowadays even to literary websites: give us the essence of your thoughts in a couple of pages and a couple of days, a CV, a photograph and the means to torture some other poor sod.

    The sadists behind LitNet have coerced Mike Nicol into directing questions at me, thus turning a hitherto excellent friend into an instant enemy, but, as the Chinese saying goes: if you wait long enough beside the stream the bodies of your enemies will float past you – even if, Mike, it is in a cyberspace slipstream past the planet to which I hope to return home soon.

    Nevertheless, since Mike asks typically interesting but tricky questions I shall attempt to dodge them in equally devious and in this case supercilious style.

  1. Once, many years ago, you mentioned in an English class at Wits that you’d been to visit the parts of Wales that had influenced Dylan Thomas. I was much impressed; it was my first lesson on the importance of landscape. Since then landscape has deeply informed your biographies: do you think that in landscape is destiny, that in some way it shapes how we lead our lives?

    I’m not quite sure what “landscape” is – it seems to be such a loaded (and fashionable) word nowadays. But Mike is dead right in the gist of his suggestion. I have a very strong sense of place and an equally strong sense of time: the more detailed the better. Being a plumber’s son I think of myself as the Mr Plod (as opposed to Mrs Plug) of the literary world. (Incidentally, some circumstances of my childhood make me much less likely to abandon the notions of truth and the real world and their pursuit than some contemporary theorists and historians.)

    Since style of writing usually follows personality, biography, being the intersection of literature and history, suits my character, and an obsessive curiosity from the first day of landing on this planet has led to a kind of “total research”, a monomaniacal drive for near comprehensiveness (here I’m talking about my biographies, which I see as my “novels”, while travel writing provides me with my “short stories”).

    So I have somewhat sidestepped Mike’s question, replacing “landscape” with “place”. Why the need to go there? Actually, I can’t imagine why one wouldn’t and the answer is very simple.

    Though not without an idea or two I try to go to a place with an open mind (though not so open that the brain has fallen out), not wanting to prove a theory, but to learn. And inevitably one does. There’s a multitude of subtleties one can ingest – distances, contours, dialects, uniquities (sic: neologism) – all of which undoubtedly shape a life that emerges from it. Sometimes these things gently nudge one’s image of the biographee, sometimes there is a seismic shift.

    In other words, when one visits a place one learns new things which one simply did not know existed beforehand.

    Of course there’s an element of self-indulgence, too. Not only is there the curiosity of detective work and solving problems, but there’s also the chance to see new places and an excuse to talk to the locals with a purpose. I always advise students and others, only half-jokingly, to choose where they want to go first and only then find out who they want to write about. If your research is not FUN, then you might start questioning your detachment, or give up.

  2. Landscapes (and here I include locations within cities) where human tragedies have occurred I find irresistible. I know that you, too, go out of your way to visit battlefields, places of massacres, sites where blood was shed, rooms where people were murdered. What is it that compels you?

    Landscapes which are linked with history and specific stories, often of human tragedies, do, as for Mike, hold a fascination and compulsion for me. (in Murder at Morija particularly so). Battlefields are obvious ones because they usually have visible relics which can stimulate my kind of literal and limited mind. I suppose, too, like graves and birthplaces, they allow one to contemplate, as one gets older, the great issues of life and death. (It is interesting, for instance, how in one’s twenties one is preoccupied mainly with one’s career, relationships and future, but only in one’s thirties, perhaps, with marriage and children, come the beginnings of interest in the family history and where one comes from – personal and social.)

    One of the great pleasures for me is to be able to take a seemingly ordinary place and, through research and the imagination, make the invisible (sometimes history, sometimes folklore) visible and turn the commonplace into something interesting, the ghosts of the past made visible in the landscape. (One of the best examples of this is chapter 23 in my Battles of South Africa, where I try to give that flat-topped hill on the N1 between Villiers and Warden, which everyone drives past on the road to Durban with only a mild glance, a life of its own.)

    This is probably a legacy of the Romantic imagination – linking knowledge about the past with the stimulus of the landscape/place in the present. In Murder at Morija (and Tramp Royal) the landscape is alive with the past.

    But as a friend of mine, who has recently suffered a mild stroke, says, “The brain is a strange place”, and it probably needs familiar places or new places to remind it where the ground is.

    I would not like to be perceived, however, as some kind of ghoul. I have other lighter things I travel for – loos around the world, for instance, and ships and lighthouses and castles and stone circles (since my great-grandfather was born in the middle of Avebury, older and in many ways more impressive than Stonehenge). The comic is as magnetic as the tragic.

    Finally, a health warning. Biographical research and travel writing are hugely expensive. My most immediate and vivid landscape is filled with the shuffling figures in torn garments of scholars and freelance writers (amongst whom Mike will no doubt recognise himself) bankrupted by spending all their own money on research, rifling through garbage bins searching for scraps of financial grants to fund research which is increasingly (and determinedly) not relevant. As with Renaissance painters, I quietly insert myself into this picture. Perhaps, Mike, this is the landscape of our destiny.

  3. I suppose we all have our favourite landscape passages, both in fiction and non-fiction. What are yours in both categories?

    Favourite landscape fictional passages (seascapes would be from Moby Dick) might come from Richard Jefferies in his novel Bevis (1882) where he turns Coate Water, a local pond in Swindon, Wiltshire (close to where my mother was born), into a marvellous lake in a young boy’s imagination; though I would have to say one of the most important influences on my own writing (as in Murder at Morija) stems from the wonderful integration of the sweep of the Free State countryside with historical epic in Plaatje’s novel Mhudi.

    As for non-fiction, recently I have been most taken with a book by “Tihoti” (George Calderon) called Tahiti (published in 1921). But I’m probably irrational about this because I’ve been doing some research on him. And Tahiti is where I, coming from the west, meet Herman Melville, coming from the east.

  4. Nelson Mandela, it seems to me, was a man infatuated by his landscape. In the 1950s when he went about his often clandestine business throughout the country, he was driving not across the landscape but through the history that had played out there. Later, on Robben Island, the emotional and physical place with its almost five centuries of human tribulations (the Portuguese left some convicts there in 1525), seemed to settle in his soul. Recently, you have been interviewing people who knew him well. What do they say and what do you think about the role the island as an island played in the forming of the third “reincarnation” of Nelson Mandela?

    On Mandela, the “island” and landscape: although I have been doing some interviewing recently, I do not know enough to comment on their connections and so it would be foolish of me to comment.

  5. Just to change the topic: the process of interviewing is a tricky one. You have to gain people’s confidence, you have to get them to come up with stories they may not yet have told. You’ve been involved in oral history techniques for many years. Has this made the process any easier, or is each new interview like stumbling into a dark room?

    In a way interviewing as a part of biographical research is an extension of my methodology regarding time and place. There are so many subtle things one can learn from an interview.

    Interviewers will have different styles according to their own personalities as well as in terms of context, circumstance and the kind of information desired. There don’t seem to be any hard and fast rules, and flexibility is the watchword. I think experience does make things marginally easier (as it does in public speaking) but complacency needs to be avoided. Butterflies in the stomach are always a good sign.

    There are a few things I might suggest to people. I sometimes prefer to arrive unannounced (rather than, say, use the telephone). This is because first reactions are often the most interesting (instant body language – smiles, glowers are vital clues). Just as place means being there, interviewing means looking people straight in the eye. It is a human activity rather than an electronic or virtual one. Depending on age and health etc of the interviewee, an interview might take two hours. Usually I spend the first third of it getting the interviewees to talk about themselves (the trajectory of their own lives) before moving on to the subjects which are my main concern. In this way, one relaxes people on familiar ground and you get to know their “style”, their way of thinking, their strengths and weaknesses (in terms of memory etc.)

    I have found interviewing, especially of old people, immensely rewarding. Firstly, because often they are grateful that someone is interested in them and takes them seriously. Secondly, and most importantly, because just for a little while they are back in the past, the years visibly drop away and they are young again. The light in the eyes is one of the finest sights to see.

    A return interview is desirable. This indicates that you are interested in the person as such and not as just a mugging victim; but also because people have often had time to ponder and new information might be forthcoming. Of course, the ideal is multiple interviews, such as is evident in that great epic of the South African countryside, Charles van Onselen’s The Seed is Mine, where he interviewed (amongst others) the same person perhaps 50 times.

    The ethics of interviewing is also an interesting topic and merits discussion.

    I would indeed like to hear Mike Nicol on the subject of interviewing. I know he would be able to dispense much wisdom.

    In the end, reluctant as I am to admit it, I have enjoyed this exercise because of the challenge of the interesting questions, but do not think for one moment, Mike, that Nately’s whore does not lie in wait for you.

    Most African tribes have their totem animals (eg the Bakwena are the people of the crocodile). Mine is the lemming. No doubt the above will provoke irate responses but do not expect any reply from me. I spend none of my time trawling websites. Nor do I have a cellphone (though Nokia are prepared to pay me a small fortune because until I do they cannot claim to have saturated the market).

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LitNet: 23 August 2005

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