Life in the time of the plague – and an interview with Julian Roup

  • 0

Picture of Julian Roup: provided. Book covers: https://www.amazon.com/Julian-Roup/e/B001K7UTA8%3Fref=dbs_a_mng_rwt_scns_share

Julian Roup talks to Naomi Meyer about his writing during COVID, about writing in general and about the meaning of writing, in spite of everything.

Julian, you are a South African living in England. Please give our readers some background about yourself, that is to say, the Julian before the pandemic.

I grew up in Cape Town and lived there till I was 30. The city has left a deep mark on me, and I still think of it as home in many ways. I was a hopeless student, and I mean truly hopeless. This was aggravated by the fact that I attended SACS, which, back in the 1950s and ’60s, was largely focused on sporting and athletic pursuits, neither of which appealed to me. So, I sloped off from school as fast as I could when the final bell rang to go horse-riding on the Cape Flats and the beaches and in Tokai Forest and the mountain above Groot and Klein Constantia. When my troubled schooling ended, I did my national service in the army and was possibly an even more hopeless soldier than I had been a student.

I worked for the family business, Enterprise Bakeries, for seven years, selling biscuits, which I think I was passably good at, though I found it a trial at times, but I had no idea about what to do with my life. It was only when I was 26 that I finally got a sense of direction and took myself off to Rhodes University as a mature student (a laughable description, in my case). There, I studied journalism and anthropology, and it felt like I had come home. I worked holiday jobs at the Cape Times and the Cape Argus, and this confirmed my love of writing. After university, my wife, Janice Warman – another writer (The class of ’79 and The world beneath) – and I emigrated to the UK in 1980 and worked on local papers in Sussex. She then moved to the BBC, the FT and the Guardian, and I changed direction and moved into public relations for a variety of clients, eventually going in-house as director of press and marketing for Bonhams, the international fine art auction house, which also sold everything from wine to classic cars, antiquities, silver, jewellery, ceramics and furniture. It was another education, and I loved working there. I played a small part in growing the company to its current presence in 27 countries. At 65, I retired and opened my own media consultancy, which includes many auction houses in the UK, the USA, France, South Africa and Australia. It provides a never-ending array of fascinating stories, from getting a dinosaur skeleton into the Eiffel Tower or into Heathrow, to selling cars worth millions, and a 1736 violin made in Cremona for £4 million, and a newly discovered Caravaggio found in the attic of a French farmhouse near Toulouse which was valued at $100 million. We live in the Sussex countryside on Ashdown Forest, the home of Winnie the Pooh, where we walk our dogs and ride our horses, a form of therapy like no other, a form of moving mediation and the occasional broken bone.

You wrote books before COVID struck. And during the pandemic, you have been very productive. You have reworked some of the books – maybe first elaborate on this aspect of your writing?

..........
When COVID struck, I was 69 with a number of health issues – heart- and blood-related – so was not sure that I would see my 70th birthday. This ignited a frenzy of writing, which found expression in three books in the two years in which effectively we have lived in lockdown
............

When COVID struck, I was 69 with a number of health issues – heart- and blood-related – so was not sure that I would see my 70th birthday. This ignited a frenzy of writing, which found expression in three books in the two years in which effectively we have lived in lockdown: Life in a time of plague; Into the secret heart of Ashdown Forest – a horseman’s country diary; and First catch your calamari – travels with an appetite. I also added three new chapters to my first book, A fisherman in the saddle, first published by Jacana 20 years ago in South Africa. My British publisher, BLKDOG, brought out a new edition last year. So, it has been a very productive and creative time.

You have also kept an online journal of life in the times of COVID. Why did you do this? While listening to some of the podcasts and reading some of your journal entries, I thought: why do humans write? What is your reason? Why write, why document your existence?

I kept a diary during the first year of COVID because I was not sure that I would survive, and I was also incandescent with rage at the ineptitude, corruption and general mismanagement of Boris Johnson and his government. I found writing the book cathartic and was delighted when Alec Hogg of BizNews asked me to produce it as a series of podcasts, which I did, and then it was published as a book by BLKDOG.

...........
I kept a diary during the first year of COVID because I was not sure that I would survive, and I was also incandescent with rage at the ineptitude, corruption and general mismanagement of Boris Johnson and his government. I found writing the book cathartic and was delighted when Alec Hogg of BizNews asked me to produce it as a series of podcasts, which I did, and then it was published as a book by BLKDOG.
............

Why do humans write, you ask? Well, I suppose we write for a variety of reasons, but in my case, I find it one of the most deeply pleasurable activities imaginable. When it is going well, you get a feeling that you are not so much writing as much as someone else is writing through you. It is very difficult to explain, but many writers have referred to this experience. And then, there is the pleasure of holding your book in your hands, the result of so many hours and days and weeks of thought. And finally, there is the truly profound pleasure of the feedback from readers, some of whom have really been touched by the writing, and this is hugely satisfying and humbling. Just yesterday, I received a call from a man of 78 who had survived life-threatening surgery. He called, he said, to thank me for the book Into the secret heart of Ashdown Forest, an area he knows well and loves. He said that reading the book helped his recovery, and he vowed to walk the places described in the book once more when he can. I was so moved by this that we’ve agreed to meet at a local pub for a pint and a chat when he is up and about again.

..............
Just yesterday, I received a call from a man of 78 who had survived life-threatening surgery. He called, he said, to thank me for the book Into the secret heart of Ashdown Forest, an area he knows well and loves. He said that reading the book helped his recovery, and he vowed to walk the places described in the book once more when he can. I was so moved by this that we’ve agreed to meet at a local pub for a pint and a chat when he is up and about again.
..............

Now people are talking about life post the pandemic. Is this the case in England, as well? Do you still experience some of the feelings you experienced during lockdown? What changed, what stayed the same?

People are certainly speaking about life post-pandemic, as most have truly had a gutful of being locked down, and there is much planning of holidays and family and friends get-togethers. Evidence of this new activity is overhead in the contrails of jets in and out of Gatwick Airport, 15 miles west of us. During the past two years, the skies have been empty but for birds, and frankly I’ve loved this aspect of this time. Being something of a hermit by nature, I’ve not minded the limited social interaction; in fact, I have welcomed it. Nothing much has changed; we write and walk and ride, and this works for me.

Tell me about the books you have written, and about the books you would still like to write.

I suppose you could say that I write two kinds of books, personal memoir and political books. The latter is represented by Boerejood, which was an attempt to understand the coming of democracy to South Africa without an all-out revolution. I could not get my head around the Afrikaners settling for one man, one vote without a fight. It came as such a surprise to me. The book tries to unpack this conundrum. And Life in a time of plague oscillates between the microcosm of our proscribed lives during lockdown and the catastrophic mismanagement by government in the UK and the USA in particular.

My other books of personal memoir hinge on my love of landscape, of being out under the sky fishing or horse-riding – being a figure in the landscape. The Japanese have the term forest bathing, and I suppose it is the love of this kind of activity that drives these books – A fisherman in the saddle and Into the secret heart of Ashdown Forest. It’s all about the power of nature to cure so many of our ills, both physical and mental.

Tell me about the books you like to read.

These days, I read non-fiction, travel, biography and history. My touchstones and mentors are Hemingway, Steinbeck and John Fowles of The French lieutenant’s woman fame. But it was his book The magus that really got me writing. I read widely, and now and again a writer would allude to “the Other” in some way or other – the experience of various tribal peoples (which led me to study anthropology at university), a presence felt among the troops of the First World War, books about nature and the spirits of the woods, children’s books with their magic doors into other worlds. Among my books were some now discredited writers: Lobsang Rampa (unmasked as Cyril Henry Hoskin), author of The third eye; Erich von Däniken, who wrote of the markings on the Andean desert in Chariots of the gods?; Carlos Castaneda, whose book The teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui way of knowledge reveals truths that emerge in drug-induced states; and Laurens van der Post, whose books tell about his experience with the bushmen of the Kalahari. These all seemed to touch on the issues that fascinated me – access to a world beyond my understanding. The fact that these writers have turned out to be unreliable witnesses is of no account. Sometimes, the way to a truth is shown by fools, by the illiterate or by the innocence of children. These writers were, in their way, all seeking to articulate belief systems that spoke of ways and means that were not currently available or fashionable. They tapped into the great human hunger to understand why we are here, to make sense of this world, and in this they showed something true. Man cannot and does not entirely live by bread alone. We want more. We want to return to Eden, to innocence, to a life lived with meaning in harmony with the universe. And it is for this that I seek.

I read, in later years, the book The songlines by Bruce Chatwin, which reveals how the Australian Aborigines sang their known world into existence. Using song, they created word and melody maps of their world, which allowed them to walk securely down the songlines, which offered safe passage in a harsh landscape. They combined the sacred and the profane, and honoured their world with their culture. It was all of a piece. The land was their culture, and their culture was the land.

The Romans believed that to walk was to effect a cure. There is something in the act of going on a journey, however small, that offers us the opportunity to experience our world and the worlds it disguises. There is a gypsy in all of us. We walked as a species out of Africa and colonised the world. By walking, we took ownership of the earth. In walking lies a sort of redemption, and thus the pilgrimage was born.

To travel is to open up the potential for being opened up. The Muslim is required to make the journey to Mecca at least once in his or her life. It is a spiritual journey of enlightenment, and one wonders whether it is the journey or the experience in Mecca itself which offers the greatest lessons.

Today, we are tethered to our homes as never before; fear of the world keeps us there, as does the warmth, security, TV and computers. For many children and adults, the landscape is terra incognita. For many, the world beyond their street or town is an unknown world, and this at a time of the greatest social and geographic mobility man has ever experienced. They live within the blaring noise of our culture and its total lack of contemplation.

Silence is sacred. Quakers acknowledge this in their silent meetinghouses. Out of silence and contemplation comes wisdom. There is a woman in Britain who has had media attention for her writing and her commitment to silence and her removal to the most remote places in the country, to seek out the most intense experience of silence available to her. She has moved into the silence the better to pray and to contemplate the richness of life. I believe she is on to something profoundly important. The Bible is full of men and women who sought out silence and prayer and contemplation as a means of revelation.

Where is all this taking me? I don’t know. Maybe nowhere. But as I grow older, I am in search of something to help me understand my life’s journey. I sense that I have missed much, that I am impoverished with the richness of the 20th and 21st centuries. I would like to get a glimpse of God’s face before I pass into the silence of death. I would like to be more than an unthinking ant.

So, I listen to the call of the wild, to the song of birds, the rush of water, the wind in the trees. I stop and look into the gloom of woods and note the new growth, the slow, silent turning of the world. I pick up stones and caress them. For in doing these things, I am honouring the world and healing myself, and giving a chance for “the Other” to manifest itself. It may take a lifetime, it may never happen, but at least I would not have travelled unaware, blind to what lies about me, to beauty. A door has to be opened if one is to receive a visitor. All one can do is to wait and listen and be ready by the open door to offer a welcome.

..........
For in doing these things, I am honouring the world and healing myself, and giving a chance for “the Other” to manifest itself. It may take a lifetime, it may never happen, but at least I would not have travelled unaware, blind to what lies about me, to beauty. A door has to be opened if one is to receive a visitor. All one can do is to wait and listen and be ready by the open door to offer a welcome.
.............

From a commercial perspective: do you sell your books? Where can people buy them?

My books are all available on Amazon Books and Kindle and in some bookshops. Once a year, we spend my royalties on a complete blowout celebration. We go to MacDonald’s and I order the Big Mac and Jan has the chicken burger, and if we are lucky we have a few coins left over! There is very little money to be made in writing books; the few who do make some are a rarity. The pay-off comes in the writing itself.

What is the meaning of life?

Good Lord! Are you kidding? I’m working on finding answers to that, but thus far I haven’t a clue; I just bumble along, making it up as I go along. I would say kindness is part of it, just being kind, something I fail at regularly, but do try harder now I’m older. And I would say trying to realise your talents and make the most of them. And love – of life, of people. And having a passion. A life lived without a passion for something is a lukewarm kind of life. And try not to worry so much. We are here and gone so quickly. Try to be happy. Just surviving is a victory.

.............
I would say kindness is part of it, just being kind, something I fail at regularly, but do try harder now I’m older. And I would say trying to realise your talents and make the most of them. And love – of life, of people. And having a passion. A life lived without a passion for something is a lukewarm kind of life. And try not to worry so much. We are here and gone so quickly. Try to be happy. Just surviving is a victory.
...............

We are like ants crawling over the face of God, blindly unaware of the sacred nature of our journey. What we have lost in exchange for scientific knowledge and mainstream religious belief systems is a gift beyond price, and the cost to us is to live in a two-dimensional, impoverished world, a life largely without savour or magic or wonder. Is it any surprise, then, that our young people and our best people are always in search of fulfilment? They know instinctively that they have lost something of value, but what it is, is beyond them.

I do not wish to belittle the great gifts and blessings brought to us by rational scientific research or, for that matter, by the world faiths. Our lives are made immensely more comfortable by both science and religion. But it has not come free; the cost is incalculable.

I am talking of what our ancestors took for granted, a sense of wonder, of magic, of spiritual power that was invested in us and in our physical reality. The landscape was alive for them, inhabited by explicable and inexplicable powers. The rivers sang, the trees whispered and the very stones had stories to tell, if only one would sit in quiet contemplation and listen!

This is not a plea for a return to a world filled with superstition, though that is part of the lost magic; some of its loss is for the good. It is also not a plea for turning our backs on science or technology, or education. These need to be embraced, for in them lies part of our possible salvation. But they are also responsible for the culture of greed, of dominance over the natural world, of taking for granted everything given to us on this earth. Our intellect has poisoned us and our world.

Environmentalism has at its core an understanding that everything is linked and that we need once more to worship the world, to treat it as sacred, because it is our only real heritage, our inheritance and the basis of life on earth, not only for us but for every living thing now and in the future, if there is to be a future.

There are words for what I am speaking of; it is called deism, naturism, and it is usually spoken of with disdain, as the most crude and basic belief system known to man, the belief that gods live in the rocks and rivers and mountains and seas. And it is just this that I am arguing the case for. We need to stop long enough to come to understand how such a belief enriches everything in our lives. For if the most mundane thing, the most abject material, is filled with spirit, then we have a better understanding of ourselves as sacred animals moving through a sacred landscape. That belief makes it much more difficult to damage or destroy anything.

..........
When I was a boy, growing up at the foot of Table Mountain in Cape Town, it was no great feat of the imagination to see the mountain as holy, sacred, a spiritual place, the home of those who had gone before. In my dreams, I circled it, flying as freely as a bird, experiencing that most powerful feeling of unassisted flight. No wonder, then, that as I played in the woods and streams near my home, I was filled with a sense of wonder by the presence of an unseen “Other” that has never entirely left me.
............

When I was a boy, growing up at the foot of Table Mountain in Cape Town, it was no great feat of the imagination to see the mountain as holy, sacred, a spiritual place, the home of those who had gone before. In my dreams, I circled it, flying as freely as a bird, experiencing that most powerful feeling of unassisted flight. No wonder, then, that as I played in the woods and streams near my home, I was filled with a sense of wonder by the presence of an unseen “Other” that has never entirely left me. It is, I believe, the oldest known truth, that in ways we cannot comprehend, we are indeed not alone; that we are observed, and the good and evil we do is noted. And that help is at hand if only we would ask for it.

Also read:

"Do you remember still?"– some unknown juvenilia of Vincent Swart

British-born South African author Mary Renault

  • 0

Reageer

Jou e-posadres sal nie gepubliseer word nie. Kommentaar is onderhewig aan moderering.


 

Top