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

Margie Orford

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Royal Weddings and Unholy Alliances with Rupert Murdoch and Bheki Cele

I’m free! My new book, Gallows Hill, is done and is being dusted by my editor. The final stages of a novel require solitary confinement, so I disappeared down my writing tunnel. But I’m emerging back into the world, so last week I fetched the modem that I had exiled to my brother’s house and ventured back onto the Internet. Marriage, the second most-popular theme for novels after murder, still has the world in its grip.

The last time I paid attention to global events was about the time that Kate & Wills were being transformed into the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Both of them had looked so pleased with themselves and their clothes and the weather that I thought I had better check up on the state of their wedded bliss. Kate looks radiant, happy, smiley and beloved as she should. She has singlehandedly saved the economy of the English High Street– that hell zone where teenage mothers smoke Silk Cut and buy on credit – by buying shoes, frocks and having beautiful rich-girl hair. Some Americans have already made a film made about them – quite possibly the most stomach-turning schmaltz of all time – in which a girl flicked her hair around a lot in meadows. Not quite rags to riches but close enough for a world inured to soap opera and reality television. There was enough there to fill a decade of Hello! magazines with tasteful glitz.

But the beautiful Kate has been eclipsed by Rebekah Brooks. The former editor of The News of the World, this is a woman with bad morals, bad judgement and a bag boss, but ball-crushingly great hair. Every picture I see of her she seems to be shaking her blood-red locks like some kind of demented media Gorgon in a sea of little grey hacking men.

The Complexities of Being a Mother Who Also Has Ambitions

I recently wrote an article for the Daily Mail about the year I spent away from my husband and children in pursuit of my dream of becoming a writer:

Twelve years ago, I abandoned my children – Olivia, ten, Hannah, seven, and Emma, three – and it would be one heartbreaking but exhilarating year before we were properly reunited.

‘Welcome to New York City.’ The pilot’s voice cut through my thoughts. Outside, a hot wind was blowing, but there was no Olivia, no Hannah, to hold down my skirt. The crook of my arm ached at the absent weight of Emma. I had left my children in the care of my parents and my husband Andrew back in Namibia, to start a master’s degree at City University of New York. In my head, accusing voices told me that what I was doing was selfish, unnatural. I have been asked many times, in tones ranging from approval to hissing repugnance, why I did it. It’s not easy to answer, as it is so tied to the complexities of being a mother who also has ambitions.

Bin Laden’s Death Leaves a Hazy Narrative

In Pakistan last Monday Osama bin Laden was shot dead in his bedroom by American Special Forces. This brought to an end the ten-year hunt of the man who felled the World Trade Towers with such spectacular and deadly accuracy.

Or does it?

Bin Laden has been the poster boy of the War on Terror declared by George Bush Jr from the smouldering ruins in Manhattan. Bin Laden provided a focal point for representations of Al-Qaeda as a frightening and acephalic coalition of terrorists, religious fundamentalists and jihadists.

Bin Laden evaded capture for a decade. In the end he was found – hiding in plain sight – quite by chance. According to the Washington Post a friend called to catch up with bin Laden’s main courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. His response to the friend’s query about what he was up to was “I’m back with the people I was with before.” After a pause, the friend replied: “May God facilitate.”

This innocuous exchange apparently alerted US intelligence to the fact that they were onto something, apparently. This led them to bin Laden’s compound north of Islamabad where, as anyone who wasn’t on the moon, knows that the world’s most wanted man was shot dead last Monday.

Lunching with David Klatzow and Penny Haw

David Klatzow and I were recently interviewed by Penny Haw about forensic science and crime writing while lunching on the Newmark hotel group’s luxury yacht, the Nautilus:

NOVELIST Margie Orford and forensic scientist Dr David Klatzow have at least one thing in common: they’re in the business of crime. In fact, I’ve heard them referred to as “SA ’s king and queen of crime”.

Recently , with the publication of Klatzow’s biography, Steeped In Blood: The Life and Times of a Forensic Scientist, last year and news he’s working on a new book, it emerged the scientist and novelist have another thing in common: they are both accomplished storytellers.

Author of the Clare Hart series of thrillers — she has just put the finishing touches to the fourth in the series, Gallow’s Hill — Orford is among SA’s most eminent crime writers, both locally and abroad.

Her books, Like Clockwork, Blood Rose and Daddy’s Girl, have been translated into more than eight languages; and film rights for Blood Rose have been optioned to a London-based South African film-making team .

Protesting the Death of Andries Tatane

Ficksburg, in the dusty heart of South Africa, was until last week one of the small, hopeless towns that one accelerated past unless you needed petrol. Towns like it have been the backdrop in recent years to an increasing number of protests, marches, burning tyres, angry crowds with raised fists. There have been the occasional volleys of stones. These have bounced of the armoured cars of the riot squad just as the anguish of the poor has bounced off the plexi-glass shielded consciences of our politicians.

No longer.

Last week a man called Andries Tatane took part in a march against a state that is failing its people at the point where government matters most to individuals – the provision of water, power, health, education and housing. The basic ingredients of a decent life. Tatane was one of the faceless millions of South Africans who have been short-changed by the promise of prosperity that was the pot of gold at the end of our nation’s rainbow.

During the protest, for reasons that remain unclear, he was set upon and sjambokked by a large number of policemen in riot gear. He was then shot at close range and he died in the street soon afterwards.

Tatane is not the first person to die in what are called ‘service delivery protests.’ Some months ago police in another small, anonymous town shot a schoolgirl dead. There was a great deal of political pussyfooting about her death. There have been other deaths in other places. These earlier killings have slipped below the surface of our troubled political waters.

Ai Weiwei and the Danger of Sunflower Seeds

The Turbine Hall in the Tate Modern in London echoes with the feet of the countless tourists who shuffle through, numbed by choice, bad coffee and the head-scratching effect of conceptual art. The space is cavernous, the roof is at cathedral height. The light that sifts through the opaque glass ceiling is viscous with dust. It is an unsettling space that is filled, at the moment, with millions of ceramic sunflower seeds spread across the floor. This artwork by the Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, intrigued and puzzled me when I went to look at it last week. You cannot touch the seeds, even though one’s impulse is childlike, tactile. I wanted to burrow my hands into the heap, to scatter them, to build them into drip castles. But this is art, so the tempting little kernels are corralled behind a tasteful wire barrier and patrolled by muscular gallery guards.

This huge display, at first so apparently whimsical, so playful, so mad, is compelling both in its size and in its modesty. This immensity, after all, is created by little grey and black almonds of baked clay. I walked down the side of the exhibit to look at the seeds more closely. They are seemingly identical, but each one has been individually crafted. When you stop and look closely the individual lines, the barely discernible unevenness of shape, become apparent. The vastness of these heaped millions turn unexpectedly into one and another and then another recognizable individual. The desire to touch, to pick one up, to hold it in the palm of my hand is so strong that one of the guards turns and glowers at me. I put my hands back into my pockets.

And then a couple of days after I had been at the Tate, Ai Weiwei was arrested. Many other artists, not as well known, have been picked up, as have lawyers and writers. They have simply disappeared, picked off by the Chinese police who have cracked down on any form of dissent with increasing ferocity. Others like thee Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, have been charged with vague and spurious charges and sentenced.

Libya’s Oil Worth More in Blood than Ivory Coast’s Cocoa and Coffee Beans

There are two new civil wars in Africa. One is in Libya and it affects the export of oil, the other is in the Ivory Coast and it affects the export of cocoa and coffee beans.

The uprising in Libya was part of the Mexican wave of street protests that has spread across the Arab world, from Tunisia to Yemen, from Egypt to Syria. In Tunisia and Egypt courageous people who had their backs against a wall of poverty and frustration, have swept corrupt and repressive governments from power. Their demands have been simple. The release of political prisoners, freedom of expression, social and economic liberation from parasitic and paranoid dictators in order to determine their own futures.

Colonel Gaddafi met the uprising in Libya by turning the guns on his own people, effectively a declaration of civil war. A no-fly zone was declared and this rapidly led to an aerial bombardment led by the French, the British and the Americans. There is much diplomatic bluster in London, Paris and Washington about protecting civilians. Reports swirl about the CIA trying to find leaders to back amongst the rag-tag rebels rushing up and down desert roads in rusting pick-up trucks. There is talk about arming this rabble of dishevelled and untrained men.

I was struck by the fact, however, that the Libyan stories are in the domestic section of the paper, which reports the presence of ‘experts, consultants and advisers’ in Benghazi. Libya is just on the other side of the Mediterranean. It is part of the ring around fortress Europe that needs to be kept stable at all costs. Libya is a domestic issue as is the precipitous rise in the oil price. Sides have been taken in this war and, despite the bloody lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq, a particular outcome is desired. It looks to me like it will end in another bloody stalemate.

Things have gone differently for the Ivory Coast. The conflict there escalated into a murderous civil war in the four months since Laurent Gbagbo was defeated in national elections. He simply refused to cede power to the internationally recognised victor, Alassane Outtara, despite international hand-wringing and wrist-slapping.

Liu Xiaobo, Freedom of Speech and the Crime of Writing

It is easy to take the act of writing, the pleasure of reading for granted. As easy as it to presume the liberty to speak, the liberty to listen, the liberty to weave disparate views into a workable and strong social fabric. But freedom of speech and the associated freedoms that come with it – the freedom to hear disparate views, to challenge to power, to name abuse – can never be taken as given. They are rights that have been hard won in every country where citizens have the right to speak out. In countries where freedom of expression is denied, it is always the first step towards democracy. When Aung Sang Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in Burma in November, 2010, her first statement paid tribute to the fundamental importance of freedom of expression.

This past Sunday, March the 20th, the Berlin-based Peter Weiss Foundation of Art and Politics commemorated of the Anniversary of the Political Lie. (The first political lie was the weapons-of-mass-destruction whopper that led to the invasion of Iraq.) There is a surfeit of political lies to choose from each year, but this year coordinated worldwide readings were held to pressurize the Chinese government to release Liu Xiaobo, the writer and activist.

The South African PEN Writers in Prison Committee and Poetry International South Africa joined with more than 90 organisations around the world to protest Liu Xioaboa’s ongoing detention. A number of South African writers with firsthand experience of prison shared their own writing.

Liu Xiaobo is currently the world’s only winner of the Nobel Peace Prize still held in detention. In 2009, after co-authoring ‘Charter 08’, a manifesto calling for greater freedoms and democracy in China, He was sentenced to eleven years in prison on a spurious charge of ‘inciting subversion of state power’. 1936 was the last time neither the winner, German journalist and pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, nor any of his family members, could go to Oslo to collect the Nobel Peace Prize. They were all barred from leaving Nazi Germany. This is an uncomfortable historical twinning.

Liu Xiaobo’s family and supporters have been continuously harassed since the prize. His wife, Liu Xia, has been under house arrest and has, by all accounts, suffered great psychological stress. The poem that was read around the world on Sunday was a moving and intimate tribute by Liu Xiaobo to his wife’s suffering and his own deep loneliness.

You sit there all day long
Not daring to move
For fear that your footsteps will trample the dust
You try to control your breathing
Using silence to write a story.

Human Disasters Hide Behind Japan Spectacle

The earth shrugged this week, unleashing human suffering in Japan that is too immense to quantify. The events in Japan make for mesmerizing television. In the midst of this tragedy are the seeds of novels. Of lovers lost, of loved ones found, of small survivals that will gradually put the magnitude of the earth’s power back in its Pandora’s box.

This natural disaster diverted the world’s attention from the human disaster that is Colonel Gaddafi’s apocalyptic bombing of the Libyan people. There is the David-and-Goliath heroism of jeans-clad boys pitting themselves against the regime’s tanks and warplanes. Wars that cannot be either won or lost (like Vietnam, like Iraq, like Somalia) make for fabulous films. All the scriptwriters need to do is keep the cinematic eye focused on an individual, or a unit under siege, and not ask any questions about the wider political frame.

But in Cape Town this week events of a different scale slipped briefly into view. In a grimy magistrate’s court in Khayelitsha, the sprawling, violence-wracked township that skirts suburban Cape Town, a murder trial was postponed for the thirty third time. It was a postponement and a murder that distils a social malaise that is as hard to cure as it is to write about.

Zoliswa Nkonyana and her friend went for a drink at a shebeen in Khayelitsha on the 6th of May 2006. The few photographs I have seen of Zoliswa show a young woman with a set to her jaw that tells you that she will stand up for herself. Nineteen-year-old Zoliswa lived openly as a lesbian. South Africa has been tainted by virulent irruptions of homophobia. One particularly horrific variant have been what are termed ‘corrective rapes’ of lesbians. Many people assert that Zoliswa was murdered because she was openly gay and because she refused to take shit from a group of thugs. It is an assertion supported by the chillingly targeted attack on this young woman and others like her.

That night Zoliswa, despite taunts she was subjected to, refused to use the men’s toilet at the place she had gone for a drink. A group of men pursued her and knifed her to death in the street. Nine men were charged with Zoliswa’s murder and the attempted murder of her friend and a passerby who tried to intervene.

My Fictional Detective Wants to Quit after the Public Protector Raid. What Now?

You have trouble on your hands when one of the lead characters in the book you are writing tries to resign. This week, in the middle of a deadline from hell, my lovely fictional detective, Captain Riedwaan Faizal, told me he had had enough of the South African Police.

I need him!

He has seen me through four books and has helped my heroine, Clare Hart, out of some pretty tight fictional corners. He has shot his way out of gang-riddled corners. He has punched a rapist hard enough to make him feel a little bit of the pain he inflicted on his victims. He has bust enough gangsters selling drugs to children to make a wing or two of South Africa’s over-crowded prisons overflow. He has turned in a corrupt police officer or two.

But the most recent antics of the South African Police’s top brass got to him, like they got to many of us and by Thursday last week, I had an insurrection on my hands. He would not drive his car, he would not shoot, he would not arrest anybody. He use an untranslatable Afrikaans phrase, gatvol. All he wanted to do was throw in the towel, hand in his resignation and go and start a security company like so many other ex-cops have done over the last few years.

Writing about the police, like working for the police, in South Africa is not straightforward. I had managed to persuade him (and me) to stick it out when our last police chief, Jackie Selebi was given a fifteen-year sentence for corruption. In that long-running case a great deal of court time was devoted to proving that the plump and sharp-suited head of a large criminal empire with tentacles throughout South Africa, had given Selebi with cash and gifts in exchange for lost dockets and information.

One gift in particular caught my attention, a very expensive pair of shoes. Sharp and shiny, a pimp’s shoes, a gangster’s shoes, a bought and paid for policeman’s shoes. It was a revealing and diminishing bribe. Shoes are so intimate, so personal. Buying a man shoes is the equivalent of buying a woman saucy underwear. It is not a purchase that bears scrutiny if the relationship is a clandestine one. But I persuaded my Captain Faizal to stay on in the police force by persuading that his boss had been a weak and venal man and that now he was gone. The rot had been stopped.

A new police chief was duly appointed. Bheki Cele is a tough looking man with a taste for flashy suits and white hats, and a demeanour that suggests that he shoots from the hip. The developments around him have been far more sinister. Cele tweaked government tender and procurement procedures and signed a 500 million rand rental agreement for new police headquarters with an old friend.