Too often, I go to South African theatre with a sense of foreboding: I anticipate something overwrought, tendentious, poorly acted and emotionally exploitative. So I arrived at the Hampstead Theatre last week without high expectations. The play, A Human Being Died That Night, was based on the book written by the psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, who conducted interviews with Eugene de Kock, the most notorious of the appalling state-sponsored killers of the apartheid era. De Kock and his comrades murdered and tortured hundreds of anti-apartheid activists. But in the course of her discussions with him, Madikizela came to believe that De Kock should be pardoned and released from Pretoria Central jail, where he has been held for years. Many other killers who made confessions were pardoned. Indeed the idea of forgiveness and reconciliation were enshrined in the concept of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
We were a smallish audience in the downstairs theatre at Hampstead. We found ourselves facing a shackled man wearing an orange jumpsuit, sitting in a sort of barred cage, open to the audience. It was the notorious Eugene de Kock, ‘Prime Evil’ of the dying days of apartheid, serving two life sentences plus 212 years. As I watched, the awfulness of the crimes committed by the police and particularly by the secret assassination units was on my mind: in April 1996, I spent a few days reporting on the Truth Commission from Port Elizabeth. It was a harrowing experience and my memories of the raw horror of that testimony welled up again. For all its emotional content, this is a good, nuanced play, well-directed and acted; it deserves, and will surely get, a much wider audience.
At John Murray’s venerable offices in Albemarle Street, in the very room where Murray burned some of Byron’s papers, I went to a breakfast event, a joyous celebration of James Boswell. John Sessions and a Boswell expert from Yale, Dr Gordon Turnbull, read and recited flamboyantly. John Sessions, like Boswell, is an Ayrshire man. Famous for his astonishing ear, he switched effortlessly between Ayrshire and Brummie accents: the Brummie was a tribute to Johnson’s origins in Lichfield, in the Midlands.
Sessions spoke Boswell’s description of Johnson after their first meeting: ‘Mr Johnson is a man of a most dreadful appearance. He is a very big man, is troubled with sore eyes, the palsy, and the king’s evil [scrofula scars]. He is very slovenly in his dress and speaks with a most uncouth voice. Yet his great knowledge and strength of expression command vast respect…’ Johnson’s and Bozzy’s improbable friendship had an inauspicious start: the 22-year-old Boswell’s first words to 53-year-old Johnson were: ‘Indeed, I come from Scotland, but I cannot help it.’ Johnson said: ‘Sir, that, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.’
Also last week, my In Every Face I Meet was one of 50 annotated novels to be auctioned at Sotheby’s in aid of English PEN. I became very nervous: J.K. Rowling was bound to fetch a vast sum, as were McEwan, Boyd, Mantel and others. There were rumours of highly professional illustrations by authors, rather different from my own scrawled comments, and I had a vision of standing there humiliated as nobody bid for my book: I slipped out to meet friends for dinner before Lot 10 came up. In fact, while I was away my book sold for a surprisingly large amount and the event was a great success, raising over £400,000.
The following evening I went to the V&A for the Man Booker International prize-giving dinner. The winner was an American, Lydia Davis, who to my shame I had never heard of. Christopher Ricks, chairman of judges, described her as wonderful and utterly unique both as a short story writer and novelist. Some of her stories are apparently only one line long, which I see is the way forward.
On Thursday I went to the funeral in a small church near Boars Hill of my great friend, Geza Vermes, first professor of Jewish studies at Oxford, and a man of incomparable sweetness. He made the definitive translations of the Dead Sea Scrolls and wrote about the Jewish context of early Christianity. The service included readings and hymns in Aramaic and Hebrew as well as readings by the vicar, and a homily by a Jesuit priest who had been one of Geza’s pupils. It’s an unpardonable cliché, but Geza led an astonishingly full and productive life, and his journey from Hungary, where he escaped the Gestapo and Auschwitz by a few hours, to burial in a lovely Oxfordshire churchyard, had a certain comforting symmetry. Still, I feel that the lights have dimmed.