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Books Column: Remembering Gus Ferguson and Tony Morphet

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Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books. He's formerly the Books Editor of the Sunday Times and the General Manager for Marketing at Exclusive Books.

Gus Ferguson and Tony Morphet, quiet titans who took me under their wing, will be sorely missed.

Two men murmured over the windswept, sea-stunned days of my late youth in Cape Town – benign augurers who, without much reason beyond their selflessness, moved decisively to my aid when I set out to make a career in letters.

Gus Ferguson and Tony Morphet, friends who vibrated with a higher internal music, are gone, having lived long, fruitful lives. They have been memorialised in many publications, including this one. Permit me to cut my own glancing facet from recollections that, frankly, have not yet recovered from the grief.

You learn too late to appreciate such a rare gift as the one Gus and Tony gave me: a licence to write in a land that I was not from; to explore newfound territories of creative space; with warm smiles and an arm over the shoulder to reward the effort. Fellowship and community – you didn’t have to work for these with Gus and Tony. They lent you a state of grace as casually as others might pass you a leaflet. How I glowed, around them.

In Gus’s company, the talk was of life’s oddities – snails, irony, the peculiar architecture of electricity substations. In Tony’s, the talk was of life’s bounties – birds, wine, the unmatched beauty of the beaches of the Eastern Cape. Gus could put you at ease more quickly than any other literary prodigy in history: a quick joke, a sly aside, a soft chuckle, and you forgot about the sheer magnitude, the dimension of the person sitting opposite you. Has the world ever seen the poet-publisher-cartoonist’s like? I doubt it. 

Tony, meanwhile, unfailingly had the inside track: I always craned my neck to catch a glimpse of the papers that lay on his desk, whenever we met. Mixed within them, I knew, were literary beauties sent by writers and publishers from all corners of the world, and careful but profound pronouncements on how things were, letters- and society-wise, and how they ought to be. I once saw a manuscript on Tony’s desk for a novel that, more than a decade later, garnered a Booker Prize shortlisting. Has anyone ever laid down a sturdier bedrock of discretion, empathy and trust in the literary world? I can’t imagine how, or who. 

At the turn of the century, when I was shopping my one and so far only novel around, Gus sealed the deal with another publisher by agreeing to co-publish it, at considerable expense on his part. (I could be mistaken, but I believe mine was one of only two or three novels that he published, compared with the hundreds of volumes of poetry he brought out.) 

Tony blurbed it, meanwhile, saying my book “taught us how to listen to the spirit”. I wish, now, that I myself had been more attentive to the spirit of that moment, when these two greats conspired to lift me up a rung. In retrospect it counted as one of the most significant milestones of my life. Gus and Tony: they were there for me. 

Such a privilege, and I was only half aware of it. What on Earth did I do to deserve their generosity?

When quiet titans like Gus and Tony pass on, you feel helpless as a cast ram. Every conversation with them, to borrow from Maugham, was a philosophy. As one of Gus’s immortal cartoons had it – they were worth their weight in saffron! And with their deaths, the literary era that it has been my great fortune to witness at first hand closes a notch more. My thoughts constantly bend to their wonderful, incredible partners, Nicky and Ingrid.

Gus and Tony were men who, if you were not central to their lives, yet they were still central to yours. That internal music, turning up wryly in the corner of their mouths – how I wish I could go back to those windswept days and tune in to their special vibrato again. We have wilderness without them. DM/ML

Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

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  • What lovely words. I didn’t know Gus well – but my partner Andrea loved and respected him. I did drink a couple of cups of coffee with him after various Cape Town Cycle Tour races. And I had (and have) the pleasure of reading his poetry from time to time. Your article captures perfectly the feeling I gain of him!

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