In memoriam: Justin Cartwright

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Photo: ©Jamie Turner - British Council Literature

The very interesting thing about Justin Cartwright, the writer, is that there was every chance he might never have been a writer at all. All sorts of other avenues once lay open. But then not being quite what you seem might be said to have been a feature of his family. After all, there were some in London, where he lived for much of his life, who did not know that Justin Cartwright was South African, so deep was his cover and so diverse and cosmopolitan the themes of his novels. But South African, born and bred, is what he was and I’ve always felt that if you did not know that, you did not know Cartwright. His was a Jo’burg family and his father edited that great, much missed, liberal newspaper, the Rand Daily Mail and perhaps passed onto his son his gently subversive wit. Cartwright senior liked to warn friends not to let on to his parents that he plied the dodgy trade of journalist. “They think I play piano in a brothel ...”

So too with Justin Cartwright. His London years shaded, but never effaced, his South African identity. They simply made the contrast between the urbane Londoner and the Jo’burger all the more evident.  Born in 1945, he grew up on the Rand in the 'Fifties, went through school and university as the apartheid government tightened its stranglehold but never lost the spirit of healthy irreverence that often marks citizens from the great mining camp. He was a young man when he left South Africa for what we used to call “the outside world”, but by then he was marked for life. Being South African is a condition few expatriates ever completely shake off. Cartwright studied in the US and at Trinity College, Oxford, settled in London and drifted into advertising, television and film. He directed what might be called a saucy sea-side postcard comedy, Rosie Dixon – Night Nurse. Of his time in the advertising industry he relished recalling his killer headline for dog-food: “Believe it or not, Prime Pal is for dogs ...”

“And a very good line it was, too,” he'd say with the droll smile I remember so well.  He was illuminating about what advertising could do, affectionate but undazzled, as only real pros can be. When once I suggested that the amount of real creative talent needed to fuel an entire ad agency for a month might keep a mediocre poet in business for a morning, Cartwright demurred: “No longer than an hour.”

It was his very South Africaness – in the mould of Alan Paton and Helen Suzman – and of the old Rand Daily Mail, that ensured, almost insisted on the direction his politics took when he moved to England. He was from the start politically engaged and his politics were liberal, as those of his father had been and he had a good deal to do with the party political broadcasts of the British liberal party, in the late 1970's and early1980's. It was not surprising he chose this direction. He had grown up in  South Africa in the 1950’s and 1960’s, an increasingly illiberal age of brazen hypocrisies and muscular stupidities which marked the granite years of White nationalist power, with its deathly fixations on tribe, territory and skin-colour. 

In his early years in London, I think he wished to turn himself into an Englishman and to rid himself of his South African shadow. Of course, it didn’t work. He wrote a few thrillers, indistinguishable from most of the kind, he flirted with  movies, only to find that Africa was not be fled – but embraced. His early, really interesting novel, Interior, published in 1988, was a wry take on how and why Africa so tantalised writers like Joseph Conrad. I remember reviewing it for a London paper and laughing often. That was Cartwright's gift. A vein of laconic comedy runs through almost all his work which draws on his preoccupations with movies, advertising, American oddities as well as British pretensions and to which he gave exuberant rein in novels like Look at it This Way, which BBC TV later dramatized, and In Every Face I Meet, in which South Africa is memorably revisited and for which he was nominated for the 1995 Booker Prize.

Cartwright’s other pervading interest, and it is another reminder of how South Africa marked him, was his fascination with the human capacity for violent cruelty, dressed up as moral or political virtue. His own cosmopolitanism allows him to see it from different vantage points – African, American, European; sometimes all at once – in novels seemingly as different as Masai Dreaming and Leading the Cheers, which won the Whitbread Prize in 1998. 

Again and always there was this contrast, this contradiction. He was in many ways a feature of British literary life. He wrote for The Spectator and for Conde Nast, served on the panel for the Costa Awards and the international Booker Prize, when he was a useful calming influence on his colleagues who disagreed ferociously over the eventual winner – Philip Roth.  He is remembered by Duncan Minshull, his producer at the BBC, not only as a London writer of elegant essays, he recorded for broadcast, but also as an expert angler “hooking fat trout in the Wiltshire countryside”. 

He played peacekeeper again, at the Franschhoek Festival, most memorably when a splendid late-night fight of the sort Franschhoek is famous for broke out between South African writers and some visiting Americans. Each side was furious at what was perceived as the outrageous views of the other, when the talk turned to questions of race and colour. “I had, quite literally,” Cartwright told me, “to put myself between the warring parties … why not make me the festival’s official referee?”

He puzzled some critics who wondered if his adroit portraits of  middle-class marriages, foundering on jealousy, infidelity and alarming kids were not overdone, or ended too neatly, or kept too much of  an eye on the movie their author hoped they might become. He wrote very well about the marital angst of the bourgeoisie and had he left it there his British critics might have been kinder. I suspect the truth was that they found Cartwright unfamiliar in his cosmopolitan scope, and “unBritish” in his willingness to strike out into foreign terrain and write about American college students, African eccentrics and European tyrants. His ambitious roman a clef, The Song Before it is Sung, has at its lightly-disguised base the plan, in July 1944, to assassinate Hitler. The plan failed, van Trott was tortured and savagely executed. Some reviewers found the novel bewildering. Was it not too kind to martyrs? one critic wanted to know. Was Cartwright a considerable novelist or a con-artist? wondered another.

I think we get an answer to such footling questions in a novel which takes Justin Cartwright back once more to where he begun – the tantalising, treacherous subcontinent of Africa, where self-delusion is not just everywhere, it  may be indispensable. Up Against the Night, the last but one of his 13 novels, is set in the South Africa of today but invokes the names one knows all too well, from Piet Retief to Dingaan – perhaps too many. The book is flawed but very hard to forget. 

When I reviewed it, what overwhelmed me, and it does much the same to the novel, was his portrait of Jaco, a true Boer Caliban. On the one hand, Jaco is a monster but he steals the show. He is, heaven help us – one of us – a South African creation instantly recognisable in several familiar others,  whom we meet in nightmares and newspapers – and in South Africa – it is not easy to tell the difference. Jaco is the spirit of South Africa’s past in the person of Eugène Terre’Blanche, adorned with home-sewn swastikas. But he is also South Africa’s future, visible in those heirs of Terre’Blanche, racist bullies in red berets. 

Perhaps it’s not so surprising that, at home in England as he was, habitué of the London Library where he did much of his writing, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and an  MBE to boot, Justin Cartwright still felt – as he once said of himself – “a colonial”. But he was also a lot of other things along the way. I remember an urbane, tolerant writer who made me laugh and brought to South African writing a quizzical eye and a welcome, unprovincial, metropolitan polish. He extended the range of South African literature by making himself at home in faraway places, but also by showing there was no place as far out as home.

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