Gus Ferguson: Old poets never die, they simply decompose

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Gus Ferguson (Photograph: Pedal Power Association)
1 July 1940 – 27 December 2020

Gus Ferguson (aka “your humble savant” and “Chief Snail”), one of South Africa’s most loved poets and cartoonists and an extraordinary publisher and champion of fellow poets, died on 27 December 2020. He was 80 years old, although the word “old” could hardly be applied to someone of such enduringly elfin appearance and puckish charm.

His fertile imagination produced eleven collections of poetry and cartoons, as well as chapbooks and pamphlets, some collector’s items. Nuanced and metaphysical – exemplars of wit in the true sense of the word – Gus’s poems drive home their messages through a deft and memorable use of metre and rhyme. His readings and launches were often standing-room-only affairs and his publishing imprints, collaborations and little poetry magazines brought hundreds of unknown or underrated South African voices to the fore. Yet the self-referential male figure that recurs in his cartoons is a slope-shouldered, gormless failure, melancholic to the point of woebegone. “Depression” was not a word Gus used to describe himself in the many interviews he gave, yet undoubtedly it was there. In one cartoon an infinitely sad man looks down at his teacup. The caption reads: “On a good day.”

It was typical of Gus to make light of a heavy mood. He lived his life on a teeterboard, balancing success and popularity with self-deprecation and profound humility, laughter and fun with pessimism and sadness. His poetry, too, hovered between depression and elation:

The Japanese have a name for it
that simultaneous, brief,
conflation of joy and grief.
the rising sun, the falling leaf.

Some of the melancholy was doubtless organic in origin, but there was also perhaps regret that while his poetry was loved and enjoyed, his genius was overlooked. “I am not taken seriously as a poet, I lack the appropriate themes and gravitas,” he observed. His hallmark brevity and humour pre-empted critical acclaim: Audiences got the joke and laughed, then went away without reflecting on the rare quality of thought and range of techniques that had given them the cosmos, mortality, sex, or an entire biography condensed into 17 syllables:

Self pity

My life in action replay:
Fifty perfect goals
And me the goalie.

Historically, South African poets have favoured long forms – epics, praise poems – and themes that inscribe a self-conscious sense of national identity. By contrast, Gus worked towards ever greater feats of succinctness and transcendent universality (somehow conveyed with utmost sincerity and tongue firmly in cheek):


Were I to believe in the soul
with all the problems it poses

I’d dread not only my death
but also my metempsychosis.

Hugh Ferguson (Gus was a nickname derived from his surname) was born on 1 July 1940 in Selkirk, Scotland. Poetry had status in the Ferguson home because Gus’s mother was related to the Scottish poet James Hogg, best known for The private memoirs and confessions of a justified sinner, a title Gus must have relished.

Almost immediately after Gus’s birth, his family moved to Stornaway in the Outer Hebrides, where his father worked as a Harris Tweed mill manager. Gus learned to speak Gaelic there. After the war his father was offered positions in Chile, Sweden and South Africa. South Africa was chosen because it was an English-speaking country. Ironically, the Fergusons ended up in Harrismith, where Gus learned to speak suiwer Afrikaans, and indeed he went on in later life to publish the work of Afrikaans poets such as Phil du Plessis, as well as Afrikaans issues of Carapace (Karapaks) which were edited by Lucas Malan, Daniel Hugo, Joan Hambidge, CP Naudé and Sonja du Plessis.

The Ferguson family did not linger in the Free State, but continued to move. Gus spent one year at Durban Boys’ High before completing his education at Observatory Boys’ High in Cape Town. Of his schooldays, Gus said that he “didn’t know what was going on”. He doodled compulsively during lessons and remembered later that he was “clueless” about a possible career path even in his matric year.

Gus’s mother was more focused – she knew a pharmacist who needed an apprentice. Two days after finishing matric Gus was filling bottles with cough mixture. He went on to become a respected pharmacist. Although death is guaranteed, he remarked during in an event on the theme of poetry and mortality, “there are laughs on the way. If not, I can give you pills. I’m a pharmacist.” The Pharmaceutical Society of South Africa (PSSA), which employed him for several years, graciously permitted the use of their equipment and stationery in the production of SLUG News.

In his early twenties Gus wrote poems which he later described to Malcolm Hacksley as “madly pretentious”:

whimsical things I’d seen, you know things that were all melancholic … Themes like entropy, but as applied to the Sea Point beachfront. Illusion, as applied to seeing fruit reflected in the window of a parked motor car in District Six and imagining somebody who was confused about reality breaking into the car to get the fruit.

In 1963 this dreamy young man walked into a party hosted by radical UCT students and met the beautiful, funny and clever Nicky Bayman. They married on 5 June 1965. Gus later described in a poem the dismay of the snails who, having received a message that he was the “Patron Saint of Escargots”, converged on his marital home only to discover that:

The fake who promised lasting life
was married to a gardening wife.
When we arrived at racing crawl,
she flung us back across the wall!

The couple went on to have three children: Matthew, who studied mechanical engineering and who now works for the City of Cape Town; Jessica, a television producer in Milan; and Dave, a popular Cape Town musician. (Gus himself was passionate about music, and once gave a lecture on rock at UCT’s Summer School, taking great pleasure in flooding the Beattie Lecture Theatre with the sound of “Foxy lady” by Jimi Hendrix.) He was a devoted husband and father who relished family life.

Gus Ferguson’s literary breakthrough happened in 1977. “Without warning or intention”, he told Malcolm Hacksley, he produced a spate of rhymed snail poems. What Gus had in fact set out to do was to write a poem in strict metre, an activity he hoped would distract him from the craving he felt on giving up smoking. The result, he told Hacksley, “wasn’t great, sort of sub-Keats really, but it was a poem about a snail, and I was so knocked out with it that I wrote about thirty in a row after that”.

As he explored the metaphors they made possible, Gus’s love of snails grew. He told Hacksley:

Snails’ good points are that they are vegetarian, sensitive, slow-moving and lovely to look at, especially when the moonlight catches their glistening skin. No matter how beautiful the shell is on the outside, it is always more beautiful on the inside with its mother-of-pearl lining. This I consider the height of modesty.

Shyly, he showed his snail poems to a few friends – Raphael Gamaroff, Walter Saunders, Stephen Gray, Lionel Abrahams. Gamaroff’s enthusiasm sparked the 1978 theatrical revue Mollusc mania. Produced at the Space and directed by Jenny Pichanick, it was billed as “a languid lunch hour of sluggerel starring Gus Ferguson and two friends straight from obscurity”.

In 1979 Ad Donker published Gus’s first collection of poetry, Snail morning. The volume sold well; it also generated a great deal of correspondence, including clippings about snails, uncomplimentary comments, and poems of the “I-can-do-better-than-you” type. Gus continued to receive unsolicited “molluscana” in the post, so much so that one day, as a joke, he cut, pasted and copied on to A4 pages snippets from his archive, creating the first edition of SLUG (Snail Liberation Underground) News. In the mock-heroic parlance that Gus loved, SLUG stood “in support of the crushed and downtrodden”. Thirty issues of SLUG News were produced between 1989 and 1994. In his own words, the newsletter was “wild, insouciant and oddly profound”. Loathing literary pretentiousness and snobbery, he stated proudly that SLUG News had “absolutely no standards at all: it is flung together”.

On 21 July 1990 Gus invited Sue Clark, Joanne Friedlander, Patricia Davison and Nicolaas Maritz to join him at Café Mozart. They didn’t know it, but they were about to make a massive contribution to South African literature. Gus had just won the 1990 AA Vita Award / Arthur Nortje Prize along with Fiona Zerbst and Tatamkhulu Afrika and he wanted to use his R350 share – the same amount Guy Butler had used to start New Coin – to publish Sue’s poetry collection, Winter bounty. Snailpress was the obvious name for this publishing venture, Gus said later, “apart from the fact that it sounds cruel, I think: pressing snails”.

Snailpress was established to publish just the one book. But 13 years later, when Gus closed Snailpress, it had published over 100 collections of poetry and launched many careers.

Feeling flush because Winter bounty had broken even, and because he’d also earned some money from an SABC programme called The poet speaks, Gus kept the Snailpress imprint alive as a conduit for new and deserving voices as well as for poets he felt were being neglected. Print runs were small (250–750 copies) and the aim was only to cover costs. Since Gus used the services of close friends for layout and printing, costs could be kept low. As a veteran of more than 20 Argus Cycle Tours, Gus enjoyed delivering poetry books on his bicycle. He would drop off letters in poets’ post boxes too, complete with beautiful hand-drawn stamps.

Although he said that he saw Snailpress acting as “a sort of a peripheral irritant” to Carrefour, Douglas Reid Skinner’s poetry imprint, Gus’s main aim was not to irritate but to publish books that satisfied an idea in his head of what was valuable. This included the voices of Peter Clarke, Sandra Meyer, Mike Nicol and Mzi Mahola. When he liked a manuscript – or a poet – Gus had a habit of patting the manuscript lightly.

Gus confessed to being a compulsive person. “I can’t bear not to do things when I’ve done them once,” he said. This was certainly true of his publishing ventures. In addition to Snailpress, he founded Firfield Press and published books in collaboration with Kwela and with UCT Press. His dedication earned him the 2009 English Academy’s Gold Medal for services to English.

In 1994 Gus closed SLUG News and started the already mentioned poetry magazine, Carapace. He felt the need, he said, “for a poetry magazine that was a bit blither than New Coin or New Contrast”. The hundredth issue featured 100 poems selected by that rare thing, an actual poetry reader, David Goldkorn. The bumper edition was launched at the Franschhoek Literary Festival in 2014, an event that in many ways marked Gus Ferguson’s signing off from a remarkable career in the service of poetry. He entered a care home at the end of 2017.

A carapace was what Gus himself needed but did not have. His humble demeanour, his willingness to do readings in halls and libraries, and the perceived “lightness” of his poetry meant that people approached him more readily than they would a more august literary presence. Although he often felt slighted; his poems gently and consistently mocked all feelings of self-pity:

Rugby injuries

He hurt each and every time
he wasn’t chosen for the team.

By being approachable, Gus also got to hear some gems from chatty audience members. “You know, poetry is quite interesting if you read it,” one astonished person told him.

In the ideal world that Gus only occasionally glimpsed, there are more poetry readers than poets seeking publication; poets get a grip on their narcissism and occasionally say kind things about one another’s work; poetry collections have greater prominence than novels (which contain far too many inessential details); and more people adopt the snail’s motto: “To finish tomorrow: In slowness truth.”

Gus’s totem, the snail, holds the key to a less well-known aspect of his make-up. He was a closet scientist; for him, science had a beauty and patterning that made it mystical. This was particularly true in the case of spirals: “I believe thought and growth goes in a spiral,” he said. “People talk about things going in cycles, but that implies a completeness and an end to each cycle. I see it as a continuous spiral, like a snail’s shell.”

He’s there now, riding the continuous spiral, like the joyous cartoon he once drew in which a snail rides a leaf rodeo style, crying “yee! hah!”.

As he wrote himself:

Old poets never die,
they simply decompose.

This obituary draws extensively on the transcript of an interview with Gus conducted by Malcolm Hacksley of NELM on 18 April 1994. The interview was never published in its entirety. It is in the archive of the Amazwi South African Museum of Literature in Makhanda.

A preliminary Gus Ferguson bibliography

1979. Snail morning: Poems. Johannesburg: AD Donker.

1982. Doggerel day: Poems and drawings. Cape Town: Carrefour; Johannesburg: AD Donker.

1992. Carpe diem: poems & drawings. Cape Town: Carrefour.

1993. Seeded start: Six poems. Midrand: Barefoot Press.

1994. Icarus rising: Selected poems. Johannesburg: Dye Hard.

1995. The herding of the snail: An adaptation in verse with pictures by Niki Daly. Cape Town: The Firfield Pamphlet Press.

1995 (?). An alphabet of small poems. Bedfordview: Sun Belly Press.

1996. Light verse at the end of the tunnel: Poems, prose & drawings. Cape Town: David Philip.

1997. Love amongst the middle-aged. Cape Town: Queillerie.

1999. Past Applegarth in radiance: A cycling miscellany. Toronto: Unpublished Manuscript Press.

2000. Stressed-unstressed: Selected poems and drawings. Cape Town : David Philip.

2003. Arse poetica: Musings on muse abuse. Prose, poems, drawings, intertextualities. Cape Town: Kwela Books.

2004. Waiting for Gateau. Cape Town: Double Storey Books.

2006. Dubious delights: Of aging and other follies. Unpublished Manuscripts Press.

2009. Holding pattern: Poems & drawings. Johannesburg: Quartz Press.

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  • Frederik de Jager

    Thank you, Finuala. A lovely tribute and deeply moving to anyone who knew – and therefore loved – Gus Ferguson.

  • Reageer

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