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Lunch with the FT: Wilbur Smith

PostPosted: Tue Mar 24, 2009 9:49 pm
by Matbow ... fd2ac.html

2 nice articles from the FT...

Lunch with the FT: Wilbur Smith

By William Leith

Published: March 21 2009 01:23 | Last updated: March 21 2009 01:23

When you think of Wilbur Smith, you think of lions, of men shooting lions, of men who shoot lions and have sex with beautiful women. You think of Africa. You think of the great riches of Africa, and the men who squandered those riches, mostly towards the end of the 19th century. You think of men who are so masculine that women turn to jelly, overwhelmed by sheer testosterone. “Of course she had seen a man’s naked body before ... but never like this, not healthy and vital and overwhelming like this.” (A Falcon Flies, 1980)

Smith himself, at 76, is still surprisingly healthy and vital, if not overwhelming. He has chosen to meet at Mosimann’s, the scrupulously upmarket restaurant just off Belgrave Square. He has known Anton Mosimann, the owner, since the 1970s, when the latter worked at the nearby Dorchester. “The food never disappoints me,” Smith says. He is wearing a dark, very expensive suit, a patterned tie, and rimless glasses, and has something of Sven-Göran Eriksson, a former England football manager, about him.

No, he tells me, it’s not true that he lives in London, as has been written – though he does have a house in Knightsbridge, as well as places in Malta and Davos, Switzerland. But his main residence is in Cape Town, where he lives with his fourth wife, Mokhiniso, 39 – “the best thing that has happened to me”, as he puts it on the dedication page of his latest novel. He met Mokhiniso in 1999, while shopping for books in WH Smith in Sloane Square, and they married in May 2000.

Smith, who is on a book tour to promote his latest novel Assegai – his 32nd to date – is very twinkly. He says he likes to go to the gym a lot, ideally three times a week. Last year he had a knee operation, though, which slowed him down. He had his cartilage trimmed and it was agony afterwards. He couldn’t exercise much, so put on a bit of weight. You’d hardly notice.

Still, here he avoids the canapés altogether, even though they are marvels of nanotechnology – tiny hollowed-out tomatoes filled with some kind of seafood, and one that looks like a boat built by ants. Smith also passes on the bread.

Mosimann comes over and has a quick chat. Smith tells him he looks like he’s lost weight. Mosimann says it’s something to do with his tailor and shoots off, all smiles. We look at the menu. Smith doesn’t drink at lunchtimes, although he has an apéritif when the sun goes down, followed by a small glass of malt whisky, and a bottle of wine shared with his wife. Pretty much all his male characters drink, though. They slug it down to get them through tough times in the bush, where their lives are threatened pretty much every minute of the day.

We both decide on a crab salad for the starter. Smith says he eats a great deal of seafood, which is terrific in South Africa – “Cape lobster, sole, and king clipper”, whose flesh tastes rather like monkfish. “You never find a king clipper in the stores with its head on, because it’s so goddamn ugly,” Smith explains. “We get mackerel but people don’t eat it – it’s dog food.” He is often plain-spoken, something he has in common with the heroes in his books.

For the main course, Smith orders a health-conscious salade Niçoise (or “fish club”, as the menu has it); I go for fillet of lamb. For a while, we sip our fizzy water and talk about meat. This is a huge subject for Smith, because he regularly shoots the meat he eats, and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of African venison – the antelopes, the gazelles. His favourite meat comes from the springbok, preferably a half-grown animal you’ve shot yourself, preferably barbecued. “Every South African considers themselves to be the world’s greatest barbecuer,” he says. “But they don’t know that I’m the national champion.” He is, I think, joking.

We eat the crab, which is great – bits of crabmeat finely interlaced with bits of vegetable. Smith begins to talk about his father, Bert – short for Herbert – and lots of things become clear to me. Smith’s most famous character, Sean Courtney, a man who can shoot anything, fix anything, and build anything you care to name – that’s Bert Smith. All those books about Sean and his weak brother, Garrick, Sean and his hunting, Sean and his fights – they are, in a way, testimonies to Wilbur Smith’s father.

Bert Smith worked in the copper mines in what is now Zambia and, when the mines shut down during the Great Depression, he fed his family by hunting game and selling meat. Later still, he bought 12,000 hectares of Zambian farmland and built a ranch house himself. He also built roads – himself! He would chop down a tree and attach it to a tractor and drag it through the bush.

Smith was Bert’s only son. “I thought he was God come down to earth again, an almighty presence in my life,” he says. One of Bert’s hobby-horses was how Africa had been ruined – by people with four-wheel-drive vehicles, by nylon fishing line, by game hunters who went out at night with a torch. “He was very Victorian,” says Smith. “He had these slogans: ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child;’ ‘Small boys should be seen and not heard.’ ”

After the age of about 12, says Smith, “I went through that resentment period, vying with him for my mother’s attention, resenting his success, resenting the fact that people thought he was a success.”

What set Bert Smith on his way, says his son, was a fight he had in a marquee tent with a heavyweight boxer called Bombardier Billy Wells, who also found fame for being one of the people to strike the gong in the introduction to J Arthur Rank films.

I can imagine the scene – a sultry night in the Copperbelt, somewhere near the Congolese border. A bunch of expats, most of them mining engineers. Lots of booze. A big fellow standing in a boxing ring, offering to take on all-comers.

“My dad had had a couple of drinks,” says Smith. “It was, ‘Come on, Smithy!’ So the old man got into the ring and Bombardier Wells hit him right on the nose. Knocked him flat. But he sprang to his feet and punched Bombardier Wells right over the ropes, into the front row. And that’s where the mine’s executives were all sitting. These were top men, and Bombardier Wells was in their laps, out cold. That made them look at Bert Smith for the first time.” Soon, Bert had a contract to provide ventilation pipes for the mines.

This was before Bert Smith became what his son calls a “professional meat hunter”. He gave Wilbur a Browning .22 rifle, at the age of nine. “My job was to shoot hares to feed my father’s dogs,” says Smith. “That’s why I’ve never been able to eat rabbit or hare since – again, it’s dog food.”

In the world of Wilbur Smith’s novels, being good with a gun is crucial. It’s the mark of a man. In Assegai, you can tell everything about Leon, the hero, by the way he handles his exquisite rifle, made by Holland & Holland of New Bond Street. (“He stroked the oil-finished wood of the butt, the polished walnut silky smooth under his fingertips.”) Conversely, you can see that Leon’s American companion Kermit, with his trigger-happy ways – and a .405 Winchester he calls Big Medicine – is going to be trouble.

How good a shot is Smith himself? “I wouldn’t class myself as an Olympic shot but a careful shot, which is the most important. So if I’m shooting game, I want the animal to depart this life without even knowing I was there.” When I ask him what types of game he’s shot, he pauses, almost reverentially. “OK,” he says. “I’ve shot four of the big five. Elephants, lions, leopards and buffalo. I don’t want to shoot rhino. I shot my first lion when I was 14 or so. It was very exciting. You’ve got to be aware of the danger, so your pulse is up. But you have to be totally in control.”

Smith pauses, and says, “The whole trick is to get as close as you can – and then a little closer. Because the first shot is absolutely crucial. You don’t want a wounded animal on your hands. My first lion was shot at a distance of from here to the front door. And at that range it’s pinpoint – you can put the bullet exactly where you want it – unless your hands are shaking.”

In all, Smith has shot perhaps a dozen lions, and between 50 and 100 buffalo, which “cannot possibly be looked upon as an endangered species”. As well as these animals, he’s shot “a number of elephants, and have some beautiful tusks, but enough is enough – a dozen, total”. And then maybe the same number of lions, and the same again of leopards. He may not hunt this year. “But my wife likes to hunt,” he says. “She will hunt the species that I hunted long ago. Wildebeest, eland, large or medium-to-large gazelle.”

I eat my lamb, which is very tender and comes with spinach and pine nuts, and tiny potatoes. Smith eats his salad slowly and precisely. Around the time he shot his first lion, Smith was sent to Michaelhouse, the Eton of South Africa, where the food was, he says, pretty poor – “lots of carbs”. There was also a lot of kneeling in chapel and saying, “Please God, I’ve been wicked.”

Later, he went to Rhodes University, where he studied commerce; later still, he found himself living in Rhodesia, smoking 50 cigarettes a day, and working as a tax collector. That was when he started writing short stories.

Smith’s first story was about two climbers on a sheer rock face. “One knows the other is having an affair with his wife,” he says. His fourth or fifth was about two brothers – one strong, one weak. “If I tried to analyse it now,” he says, “the strong brother is what I would like to be, and the weak brother is what I’m afraid of being. Both characters were me. So when the father rejected the weak brother, those were the times that my father was disappointed in me.”

You don’t have to be Freud, do you? Smith’s father had a ranch, a plane, a herd of cattle. He, on the other hand, had a bunch of tax forms to assess. So he created Sean and Garrick Courtney, the two sides of himself, and this story blossomed into his first novel, When the Lion Feeds (1964). The book was a bestseller. Writing it turned Smith from Garrick into Sean. Then he bought his parents, who had fallen on hard times, a house.

A youngish, attractive woman appears, and chats to us. Our time is almost up, she says. When she is gone, Smith says: “That’s the young lady we were talking about earlier on.” He means his wife. “Full of energy,” he says. “Irrepressible. She never stops.” Smith does not order pudding. He must be on his way, to talk to people about his books. To talk about lions, and about men shooting lions, and about men who shoot lions and have sex with beautiful women.


The Rider Haggard of our time

Wilbur Smith saw action before he wrote it, which places him in a tradition of male-action novelists from Captain Marryat, bemedalled veteran of the Napoleonic wars, to former SAS soldier Chris Ryan, writes John Sutherland.

Like many of his books’ manly heroes, Smith was brought up a rancher and educated very British. He served in the Rhodesian armed forces in their most embattled years and saw terrible things.

His first published novel, When the Lion Feeds (1964), established the pattern of the 30-odd yarns that follow. Typically, the narrative opens with a big game hunt. His canvas is continent-sized, nothing less would do for Smith’s vision of Africa, and his stories clump, massively, into multi-volume sequences, or “sagas”, in which characters and dynastic families separate and intertwine over hundreds of years. Call them mega-novels.

The geopolitics are complex. But it is easy to see where Smith is coming from in literary-historical terms. He is the Rider Haggard of our time. More particularly, he writes in the tradition of the 15-volume strong Allan Quatermain saga, which began with King Solomon’s Mines (1885) and ran, as bestsellers, for 40 years under the series motto: Ex Africa semper aliquid novi (roughly, “Always something new out of Africa”).

All three of Smith’s great fictional constellations are Afrocentric. The largest is the “Courtney” series, of which Smith’s latest novel Assegai is the 13th instalment. The series follows the foundation, rise and, as Smith portrays it, the fall of modern South Africa, from the 17th- to the late 20th-century. The national narrative is set alongside the career of a family fabulously enriched from gold, diamonds, and whatever other wealth is to be ripped from the country’s soil during the colonists’ brief tenure.

The less voluminous “Ballantyne” sequence (five volumes) follows a Rhodesian colonial dynasty, from slave-trading, through ranching, to post-Mugabe exile.

Smith’s third fictional sequence, the “Egyptian” novels, began with River God in 1993. It is his version of Conrad’s Congo, taking Smith to the heart of the continent and its mystical Egyptian pre-history.

Smith’s overarching motto is: “TIA – This is Africa”. In point of fact, it should be “This was Africa”. His long career as a bestselling author began, historically, with Macmillan’s wind of change, the decolonising gusts of which began to blow in the late 1950s. In Smith’s view, that “wind” has done to Africa what Katrina did to New Orleans.

His novels are permeated by a gloom that gathers as the sagas unroll. Craig Mellow’s failure to recover the family farm in the later Ballantyne novels is symbolic. Now goats graze there, reducing what was once African Eden to desert. Twenty years ago, Smith believed Zimbabwe, Kenya and Malawi had “a fighting chance”. No longer. “Africa”, he has said, “is going back to where it was before the white man intruded.”

“Intruded”, though, is an interestingly loaded word. In its long history, does Africa, ultimately, belong to white, black, brown or all of them? In Smith’s novels there is none of the arrant negrophobia of African male-action novels such as Robert Ruark’s Uhuru (1962), Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Tribe that Lost its Head (1956) or Daniel Carney’s The Wild Geese (1978).

As he reaches the end of his career, Smith has carved out a huge monolithic structure. He deserves more respect for it than his brand of fiction typically attracts. Take him whole, if you take him at all.

John Sutherland is emeritus professor of literature at University College London and the author of the ‘Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction: Second Edition’ (Pearson Education)

Re: Lunch with the FT: Wilbur Smith

PostPosted: Wed Mar 25, 2009 9:54 pm
by tedd
This is the first time that I have ever heard that WS was involved in the armed forces of Rhodesia - I'd like some details

Re: Lunch with the FT: Wilbur Smith

PostPosted: Wed Mar 25, 2009 10:24 pm
by Matbow
tedd wrote:This is the first time that I have ever heard that WS was involved in the armed forces of Rhodesia - I'd like some details

Me too. I was hoping someone could shed some light on it...

Re: Lunch with the FT: Wilbur Smith

PostPosted: Tue Apr 14, 2009 8:45 pm
by Ada
Matbow wrote:
tedd wrote:This is the first time that I have ever heard that WS was involved in the armed forces of Rhodesia - I'd like some details

Me too. I was hoping someone could shed some light on it...

I don't believe Wilbur did serve in the Rhodesian armed forces. His biography on his own web site is quite detailed. If he had served, he would have mentioned it. As with other Forum members, I have read many of the records of interviews with Wilbur and not one of them mentions him ever being in an army. I don't believe he is the sort of person who would be embarrassed about having been a member of any sort of armed forces group and for that matter after all these years, there is no way it could have been kept a secret. At what point in his life was he supposed to have been in the army? His detailed biography doesn't leave any time for it to have happened.

I therefore don't believe anyone is going to "shed some light on it" simply because it didn't happen.

Re: Lunch with the FT: Wilbur Smith

PostPosted: Sun Aug 16, 2009 10:44 pm
by Pamberenohondo
This is the first time that I have ever heard that WS was involved in the armed forces of Rhodesia - I'd like some details

He has never served in the Rhodesian armed forces this hack has got it wrong .........His son Shaun served in the Rhodesian SAS .....I think this clown did some research and mixed the two up

Re: Lunch with the FT: Wilbur Smith

PostPosted: Sun Aug 16, 2009 10:46 pm
by Pamberenohondo
I can shed light as I at least know them.