Maverick Life


CJ ‘Jonty’ Driver – farewell to a great man of letters

CJ ‘Jonty’ Driver – farewell to a great man of letters
Charles Jonathan Driver. (Image: Supplied by the author)

Charles Jonathan Driver, born in 1939, was a poet, novelist, teacher and political activist.

“The world’s a complicated place, where grief walks hand in hand with grace…” (from Rhymes for an Old Friend in Trouble by CJ Driver)

Arguably a major South African English poet of the last quarter of a century, Charles Jonathan Driver – more often known by the literary names of “CJ Driver” and “Jonty Driver” – was a skilled formalist with an unerring ear and eye for the resonant, penetrating line. 

By turns lyrical, contemplative, dramatic, narrative, philosophical and political in his poems, he was master of a great range of thought. Through the years, his poems appeared in many prestigious magazines around the English-speaking world. 

He was born in Cape Town but spent his early years in Kroonstad and Cradock while his father served in World War 2. When his father returned, the family moved to Grahamstown (now Makhanda), where he was educated at St Andrews College. He studied further at the University of Cape Town and was head of NUSAS in 1963-4. In 1964, suspected of being a member of the ARM (African Resistance Movement), he was held in solitary confinement for five weeks under the 90-day Detention Law. 

Two days after being released without charge, he left for the UK, courtesy of an airline ticket bought by Margaret Hoffenberg. Through the good offices of the great educationalist Robert Birley a post had been held at Sevenoaks School for him, which he took up before going to Trinity College, Oxford, where he subsequently graduated with a Master in Philosophy. 

While there, his passport was cancelled by the South African government and he remained stateless until being accepted as a British citizen a few years later. Even so, throughout his life, Jonty remained fiercely South African at heart. It took more than 20 years before he was permitted to visit South Africa once more.

In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s he taught at various schools, including as principal of Island School, Hong Kong, and headmaster at Berkhamsted School. His final post was as master of the prestigious Wellington College, following which he retired in 2000. 

obituary Charles Jonathan Driver

Charles Jonathan Driver. (Image: Douglas Reid Skinner)

In 2007, Jonty became an honorary senior lecturer at the School of Literature and Creative Writing, University of East Anglia, and a Bogliasco Fellow. In 2007 and 2008, he was a judge for the Caine Prize for African Writing. 

He became a fellow at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, US, in the fall of 2009, and a fellow at the Hawthornden Castle Writers’ Retreat in March and April 2011. He also served as one of the trustees of the Beit Trust for many years. 

Despite his demanding career as a teacher, Jonty remained a prolific writer, publishing 10 books of poems (most recently Still Further: New Poems), five poetry booklets (the most recent one, A Winter’s Day at Westonbirt), five novels (four still in print from Faber), five books of biography and memoir, and a book of verse for children. 

I visited him in hospital a few days before his death, and despite being fully aware of his mortal situation, he gestured with a hand and said: 

“One of the advantages of forced idleness is that I’ve had time to sketch out the framework for a long poem in my head.”

A writer to the end.

Jonty is survived by Ann, his wife of nearly 50 years, and their three children and eight grandchildren. DM


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