Maverick Life

REFLECTION

Books on the Bay — when literary royalty came to town

Books on the Bay — when literary royalty came to town
J. M. Coetzee reading to the packed church at the Simon's Town Literary Festival in 2023. Image: Erica Lombard / Books on the Bay

When you live in Simon’s Town you know when you wake in the morning if the day is going to be glorious or ghastly, just by looking out the window. Or indeed, by listening for the whipping of the wind against the windows and the gutters.

But the day of the inaugural Books on the Bay literary festival last year dawned in spectacular fashion. 

It was a perfect March morning with vivid blue skies and the sea was shimmering. There was not the faintest breeze and the locals from every angle could be seen spilling down onto Saint George’s Street in high anticipation.

The town was aflutter with blue and white bunting strewn across, marking all the different venues where the events were to be held. 

The Anglican and Methodist churches, the Dockyard Chapel, the Simon’s Town Museum, the Thomas Street Mosque and the Willets Hotel. It all felt very quaint, like we were at a village fair in an episode of Downton Abbey.

Excitement had been mounting ever since a pre-festival publicity evening in February saw literary royalty arrive in the little naval town, the southernmost village on the road down to Cape Point. 

Nobel laureate and two-times Booker Prize winner JM Coetzee himself was in attendance and so was Antjie Krog, the esteemed South African poet and author of the post-Truth and Reconciliation Commission novel, Country of my Skull

Read more in Daily Maverick: JM Coetzee’s provocative first book turns 50 this year – and his most controversial turns 25

The St Francis of Assisi Anglican Parish Church could not have been more packed that night as we fanned ourselves against the heat, exacerbated by the proximity of bodies jammed together on long wooden pews.

The elongated stained-glass windows gave reverence to the occasion as the white-haired Coetzee took up his position at the modest wooden podium in front of the altar. 

Notoriously dour, he read a previously unpublished memoir about his childhood and his family’s move from Rondebosch in Cape Town to Worcester in the Breede River Valley when he was eight. We were spellbound as he drew us into 1950s South Africa, recounting anecdotes about his daily school life and a particular teacher he looked up to when he was in Standard Six.

Next Krog stood up to read six poems from Pillage, her latest collection published in 2022. Her crisp tones resonated against the high domed ceiling in both English and Afrikaans, while we all sat rapt.

Antjie Krog reads to the audience at the Simon's Town Literary Festival in 2023. Image: Erica Lombard / Books on the Bay

Antjie Krog reads to the audience at the Simon’s Town Literary Festival in 2023. Image: Erica Lombard / Books on the Bay

Darryl David presents lifetime achievement awards to Antjie Krog and J. M. Coetzee at the Simon’s Town Literary Festival in 2023. Image: Kiara David / Books on the Bay

Books were on sale at the back of the church and the writers sat at a table facing a very long line of enthused fans waiting to have their copies signed. 

Krog was amiable and graciously found the time to draw a little dancing stick figure under her inscription to me. She made sure to get the spelling of my name right and even added an exclamation mark and the date. 

By contrast, the deadpan Coetzee did a quick pale-blue scrawl, you can just about make out a wonky J, before slowly pushing the novel back across the table, making full eye contact and zero conversation. I awkwardly told him I had enjoyed his reading. Still, no smile. To be fair, I couldn’t think of anything else sensible to say. 

His demeanour did nothing to dampen our euphoria and afterwards we happily downed the free wine to the festive chimes of the SA Navy Band ding-donging away in the little churchyard. We felt like we had been part of something historic. He is the only writer in the world to have won two bookers and a Nobel Prize for Literature.

So small is Simon’s Town that the literary royalty dined alongside us that night at The Lighthouse Café, the best place to eat in our town.

Another personal highlight was at the festival when it finally came around in March. Capetonian Damon Galgut, who in 2021 won the Booker Prize for The Promise, took the stage, this time at the Wesley Methodist Church. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Damon Galgut’s ‘The Promise’ makes magical leap from page to stage

Quietly spoken and unassuming, he spoke about his book in an interview-style session titled “Fiction and Psychology”. He was in conversation with Wahbie Long, author of Nation on the Couch, chaired by academic and psychologist Anastasia Maw. 

The discussion centred on the inherited psychological effects of our country’s past and the yearning for land ownership. It made for very gratifying listening. 

Afterwards, when Galgut signed my copy of the book, I felt like he was open to discussing it at length. 

His inscription was almost as impressive as the novel itself. He signed it “Warmly, Damon Galgut”. Entirely legible, with the date in full and “Simon’s Town” underneath. DM

This year’s Books on the Bay festival will take place in Simon’s Town from 22 to 24 March.

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