Nancy Gordon — a literary life filled with love, laughter and the light of Still Point
This is an edited extract from an address given by Chris Chivers at a Service of Thanksgiving at St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town on 15 November 2023 for the life of Nancy Gordon, who has died at the age of 102.
It is said that you can read some people like a book. To say this of Nancy Gordon would be to completely underestimate the richness of her hinterland. But certainly, you could learn much about her from the books whose company she chose to keep.
A shelf of Shakespeare. Others, filled with reproductions of the paintings of Pippa Skotnes, Cecil Higgs, Gerald Sekoto, Cecil Skotnes and Peter Clarke — she knew them all — or her beloved Italian Renaissance masters, or again the evocative and indeed provocative photographs of the late David Goldblatt, another friend.
And then there were those treasured shelves of Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf, of the metaphysical poets, John Donne, George Herbert, and Henry Vaughan alongside the complete works of TS Eliot — she lectured on all of these at UCT.
The most precious by her bedside were the volumes of the poet Robert Graves on whose work she undertook doctoral research, meeting him in Majorca in 1975 as part of this, but much to her regret never completing the doctorate itself.
Novels and poems — cascading shelves of these — charting a history of South Africa across the last century, from her favourite Afrikaans writers, NP Van Wyk Louw, Sheila Cussons and Antjie Krog to those whose work — using her maiden name Nancy Baines — she reviewed for several decades in the Cape Times, introducing many names to readers for the first time. The Nobel laureates Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee. Her friends Guy Butler, Sydney Clouts, Patrick Cullinan, Mary Renault, Richard Rive, Tony Delius, Bessie Head, Mandla Langa, Oswald Mtshala and Todd Matshikiza. It’s a stellar cast list of South African literary history.
Of course, Gerald, her beloved husband, was not only a distinguished advocate but a novelist himself. In his best-known work, Four People, “dedicated to and despite Nancy, Stephen and Vanessa” – much of it set in Sea Point and Clifton — the final page surely depicts Nancy at Still Point, Clifton, her home for almost 65 years.
“She went to the window. The clouds had come closer in and the whole sky had the shade of lead.
“A flock of gulls veered in from above the beach and hovered over the house in the uncertainty of the dying light. She watched them scatter and join up again, and then the night rolled down the mountain and swept them out to the sea.”
For many of us, Still Point, with its books and paintings, its plants, birdsong, trees, its distinctive furniture, original bungalow feel, views of Lion’s Head and the daily rhythm of sun, sky and sea — all of these are inseparable from Nancy.
This is of course because the essence of who Nancy was is revealed not just in the extraordinary diversity of the books she read — or in the range of the music to which she gave attention, the love of music she celebrated by attending so many concerts with Gerald, by pouring over scores of the Beethoven quartets or the Bach cello suites, the sheer delight and gift of music which is now at the core of who Stephen and Vanessa are — no, the essence of who Nancy was is revealed in the amazing company that she kept.
“What is the meaning of life?” the narrator asks in Virginia Woolf’s novel, To the Lighthouse, a favourite of Nancy’s. “That was all — a simple question, one that tends to close in on one with the years,” Woolf continues.
“The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark. Here was one. This. That and the other. Mrs Ramsay bringing them together. Mrs Ramsay saying, ‘life stand still here.’ Mrs Ramsay making of the moment something permanent. This was of the nature of a revelation.”
To celebrate Nancy’s ability to gather — to gather each of us — to say, “life stand still” and make of the moment something permanent. To celebrate her attentiveness to what another of her favourite poets, William Blake, refers to as “minute particulars”, is utterly fitting.
Like all of us, Nancy must sometimes have stayed silent when she should have spoken up. But most often she walked precisely to the other side. Indeed, she took the other side. Stood with the oppressed and the downtrodden, the lost and forsaken, the unloved and those who thought they were frankly unlovable.
She recognised instinctively that here in this narrative, told only in Luke’s gospel, was a universal truth to be enacted daily, hourly, because stepping across boundaries, breaking down limited ways of looking at reality was not just the best thing to do, it was her calling.
Shortly after Stephen and Vanessa were born, she came here to the cathedral to see Dean Ted King. She was anxious. How could she bring them up within Gerald’s Jewish framework — which she very much wanted to do — and also, honour her own Anglican beliefs?
There was talk of baptism, bar and bat mitzvah. Who knows what really happened in the long conversation that took place over there under the gallery that day and which is doubtless now being continued with Ted, Gerald and many others in heaven?
But what resulted was the most extraordinary feeling of liberation for Nancy. She once tried to describe it to me. A joyful acceptance of a calling for which God had already wired her very being and nature, a call to embrace diversity of religion, ethnicity, culture, sexuality and age through the most extraordinary capacity and gift for transforming friendship.
I’m not sure I have ever encountered a person who had the ability to make the acquaintance of so many people and to turn them all, young and not so young, rich and not so rich, into friends. Who else in their 80s would befriend an author thousands of miles away, as Nancy befriended Daniel Mendelssohn, and end up attending his classes online, at his encouragement, to share with students 60 years her junior a different perspective on the literature they were studying?
Pray you, love, remember.
For Nancy, praying was active. It was a form of love. It was also remembering, tikkun olam, to mend the world, as Jews since the Shoah have said, using Emil Fackenheim’s famous aphorism; do this to remember me, as Jesus said when inviting his followers to take broken bread and use this, likewise to remember, to mend the world; the one who saves a single person saves the whole world, as the Qur’an says in the fifth Surah, echoing words in the Talmud.
Pray you, love, remember.
Nancy named the home in which and from which she nurtured so much love and goodness, Still Point. Yet another poetic reference, this time to a section of one of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, ‘Burnt Norton’, in which he writes this: “Except for the point, the still point, There would be no dance”.
God surely called Nancy to be that still point in different ways for each of us. Because without such still points of reflective goodness in our world, we simply would not be able to enter and embrace the dance of life.
“You’ve got about 800 words,” Nancy opined when, years ago, she asked me to speak on this occasion. “That’ll be a good discipline for you,” she added winking cheekily as often she did. “Make them your best,” was her last word on the subject.
I’ve already exceeded the limit and in this I knew I would always fail. There is so much more that could be said. What of her work with those living with alcoholism or with the neurodiverse, in township communities, or her editing, indeed her helping to bring to life the literary magazines, Contrast and New Contrast?
A picture speaks more than a thousand words. So, what of that searingly beautiful photograph on the cover of today’s order of service where Robert Greshoff, nephew of Nancy’s first husband, Jan, so wonderfully captures her characteristic radiance for us.
When I think of Nancy beyond all the words I’ve offered, one quality stands out for me: laughter. Enormous quantities of laughter. I see her now, sat where she liked to sit in this cathedral church, not on what was called “death row” — here at the front. Not with the bag-rustling Company of the Holy Spirit half-way-down. But in the first row at the back. For, as her life so consistently demonstrated, it is the humblest, the last, who will always, in God’s upending way of seeing the world, be first.
So, I see her sat one Sunday there helplessly doubled up with laughter. Alvon Collison, that late great Cape crooner, had been sitting beside her moments before. He had tied his two little pipe-cleaner dogs to his chair. And begun his solemn, perhaps slightly camp walk to receive the sacrament. But the dogs were not of a mind to stay still. And he had tethered them to a single chair which, as they raced to follow in the steps of the great master, they propelled up the nave of the cathedral.
Pray you, love, remember. Not least remember to laugh as Nancy laughed.
St Augustine, that greatest of all African saints, once said if you say only one prayer in your life make that prayer “thank you”.
In her last few days, Nancy could say very little. But she constantly said thank you to everyone who did anything for her.
Nancy’s whole life was a refrain of thanks for family, for friends, for faith, for a nation transformed, and finally for a God whom she loved and served sometimes falteringly, often questioningly but always faithfully and gratefully.
Pray you, love, remember. But above all, give thanks. DM
Chris Chivers teaches religion and philosophy at UCL Academy, London. He was formerly canon precentor of St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town.