Steep hills rise behind our house in the Karkloof and I walk along them frequently with our dogs at heel. The hills are covered in bracken that is green in summer and turns gold in the autumn. I will never again pass this plant without thinking of Alan Paton.
In his latest and I think one of his greatest books he writes that when he is dying, he hopes a sprig of bracken will be put in his hand. It is symbolic of the midlands of Natal and would bring back memories of the great white mists rolling down the green hills where crowned plovers call out to each other. It would bring back memories too of kloofs, streams and waterfalls, the barking bushbuck and the tiny mpithi.
In Towards the Mountain I saw the inner Alan Paton, the man who has an overwhelming depth of feeling for our land and the people. He grew up in Pietermaritzburg and there are some hilarious accounts of his first days at school and an encounter with a drunken British Tommy. He hides nothing and speaks as freely about his early sexual experiences as he does about politics. I could not put the book down and he had me alternating between tears and laughter, deep depression and great anger.
Many of his classmates left their mark on the land but Alan Paton became the world figure. Once I was travelling by train between New York and Philadelphia. There were no seats so I shared my suitcase with an elderly lady. She was a schoolteacher in New York State and spoke about Cry, the Beloved Country and the impact it made on her class.
In Washington DC, a Senator asked me in anger why we did not listen to Alan Paton. “He is the voice of white conscience,” he said. In San Francisco a television executive told me that Alan Paton could appear on any national news program he wished, at a moment’s notice too.
On my last journey in the Philippines I was asked by a man in a remote mountain village if I could get him a signed copy of any of Alan Paton’s books. Western countries have honoured him with doctorates but I suspect that it is here that he would most like to be appreciated.
Diepkloof, that once formidable reformatory, was transformed by Alan Paton’s humanity, humour, courage and outstanding administrative ability. What he recommended and personally carried out was revolutionary, and one reads holding breath, waiting for disaster. But it doesn’t come because Alan Paton’s faith in the inmates is rewarded by their intuitive understanding of what he was trying to do.
Years later he went to the United States to visit similar institutions and his description of the one in Atlanta makes grim reading. The Americans would have benefitted by trying his enlightened Diepkloof methods.
In the Diepkloof story there are insights into his marriage and the staff that worked with him, magnificent men like the African, Moloi, and Engelbrecht, the tall Afrikaner whom Alan praises as the two main co-architects in the rebuilding of Diepkloof. Politics are there too, and the moving account of his journey by ox wagon to the great Voortrekker commemoration in 1938.
He writes: “It was a lonely and terrible experience for any English-speaking South African who had gone to rejoice in this Afrikaner festival…It is an irony that it was my sympathy for the renaissance of Afrikanerdom that enabled me to escape from the narrow British nationalism of God, King and Empire, only to find that Afrikaner nationalism was just as narrow.”
Towards the Mountain is a book of great honesty, without bitterness, written brilliantly by one of those very rare men who have a scientific mind and the soul of a poet. I cannot wait to read the next volume.
If you would like to listen to Ian Player telling this story, please play this audio clip. A sprig of bracken