Friday, February 11, 2011

New Contrast 50th Birthday Bash

Happy 50th Birthday New Contrast!

New Contrast turned 50 in 2010

Hugh Hodge, current editor of New Contrast published by The South African Literary Journal, hosted the New Contrast Birthday Bash held at The Book Lounge in Cape Town on 27th January, 2011. Here are his remarks:

Welcome to The Book Lounge.

Welcome to the 50th anniversary celebration. And celebration it is, for within the pages of Contrast and New Contrast are the poetry and prose of many wonderful men and women, people of the art and craft.

I shall not detain you long because this is a reading from the 152nd issue of New Contrast, but before we start a few thank you's and a surprise guest.

Thank you:
To all of you for your support and encouragement, and for being here this evening;
To Mervyn and the staff of The Book Lounge for hosting this event and many others;
To Liesl Jobson who has organised this event, and is the staunchest supporter of the journal;
To one of our patrons, Geoffrey Haresnape, who will also read;
To the directors of the SA Literary Journal, Stephen Watson, Paul Mills, Michael King and Michael Cope, who as Jack's younger son witnessed the "birth" and will read to us;
To Sonja Wilker, my partner in life, who does so much to keep this journal alive and organised;
To Tandym Print who print the magazine for providing tonight's snacks;
To Leopard's Leap for the delicious wine as ever;
And a private thank you to you, Gus, for inspiration and advice.
And, lastly, to the many friends here and around the world, thank you.

Contrast in Context
Before I call on Michael Cope and then our surprise guest, Nancy Gordon, nee Bain, and before I read Jack Cope's first "editorial" Notes, let's put the time in context.

South Africa 1960
3 February – Harold Macmillan make the "Wind of Change" speech to Parliament in Cape Town, to a stony silence.
21 March – about 69 people were shot to death in Sharpeville as part of a demonstration against the dompas.
22 March – Verwoerd tells Parliament that the demonstrations do not target the government.
23 March – Sobukwe and Luthuli are arrested for burning their pass books.
24 March – public meetings of more than 12 people are banned (later reduced to gatherings of three people).
30 March – State of Emergency declared.
8 April – ANC and PAC banned.
9 April – David Pratt shoots Verwoerd.
19 April – SWAPO founded in Windhoek.
4 May – Sobukwe sentenced to three years in prison for incitement.
2 June – SA Literary Journal registered.
5 October – whites vote to sever links with Britain and Commonwealth.

The summer issue of Contrast 1960 came out that December I believe. Here is what Jack wrote:

It may show some optimism or hardihood, if not a touch of impertinence, to start a new magazine in South Africa at this time. The answer, if there is any doubt, can come only from the pages of Contrast itself. To succeed, it must provide a flash-point for the vital currents moving everywhere. It must satisfy the demands of readers to be amused, or stimulated; provoke new ideas and challenge old and bring writers and artists together in their own field and on their own soil.

We will not be toastmasters to ourselves, and so Contrast makes its bow without ceremony. If it is to enjoy the good wishes of the public here and of critics abroad it must earn them. Its achievement will depend on the force, liveliness and wit of South Africa's writers and artists.

In a policy-ridden country, here in the first place is a magazine with no policy. Its aims may be difficult just because they are so simple—to keep out of the rough and tumble of parties and groups and yet to cross all borders and to hold a balance even between conflicting opinions.

Writers in South Africa have pressing problems, whether they use Afrikaans, English or an African language and in whatever race or group they may fall. They need make no special plea on that account and in the long run evaluations will be applied to them that do not change much with time or from one country to another.

But there are features in the situation here for writer and reader alike that must be clear to all. We are living in the midst of our own drama. Unlike the casual onlooker in Rome, London or New York (or Accra for that matter) we stand, perhaps puny and beset by our own pride and by unseen powers, in the centre of our stage. Sometimes the amphitheatre is so quiet that a laugh or a whisper can be heard. At others the din is thunderous and the 'pity and terror', as Aristotle put it, creep in each man's flesh.

In the stream of daily life, its happiness and pathos, its violence and lies, we ourselves are continually involved. Our performance as a whole, as well as in its minute details, cannot escape being criticised and judged.

To true artists nothing remains concealed and no heart is completely closed. In the final count, maybe, the most just and compassionate and also the strictest judges of this drama will be South Africans themselves. Given a voice and a hearing, and without restrictions except of skill and talent among a small nation, our writers and thinkers will continue to produce out of the heat of the day work deeper in value than we may realise.

If Contrast can draw reliably on them and help forward new stirrings evident on all sides its arrival in the world, though late, will have been a happy one.
-- Jack Cope

Buy your New Contrast 50th Birthday Issue

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Mike CopeMike Cope, son of Jack Cope, first editor of Contrast, before it became New Contrast. Michael describes the time of the first issue in 1960:

Remembering Contrast No. 1
Contrast No. 1 is seen, like everything else, from an adult’s shoulder height. I am nine years old. It is a part of a world I look in on but do not participate in.

Contrast is a Jack and Uys enterprise. It contains their writings, and those of their friends. It pushes certain views and values (theirs). Its head office is my father’s bedroom, which is a three metre square wooden box which contains a bed, a cupboard and a desk. The box has a bay window which looks out over Clifton bay, the most beautiful view in the world.

My father is the editor which doesn’t surprise me as his job is to be an editor. At first he worked for the Guardian. Not the British Guardian but the local commie one. Then he worked for himself and farmed a bit in Natal. Now he works as a night sub-editor on the Cape Times. Uys doesn’t work. He seems to mostly lie in his big double bed in the other (bigger) room among random heaps of paper – manuscripts, books, magazines, newspapers.

There are three kinds of friends – bohemians, commies and neighbours. Contrast is about the first lot. I like the bohemians best but my own friends are the children of the neighbours. The communists seem cross and worried. Some of the friends seem to be both bohemians and commies, but I am never quite sure. None of the neighbours are either.

I am not yet fully aware of how edgy my normal is. 1960 is a peak year for Nationalist power. White people (it turns out we are white) are in general neither bohemian nor communist, and in fact it is illegal to be the latter. Jack and Uys have black friends, and the neighbours don’t.

I am aware in a big-eyed sort of way of the conspiratorial nature of much of the social action that moves through Sea Girt, the bungalow that contains Contrast’s head office. I know that both the bohemians and the commies are being transgressive in some way, but I am not sure exactly how.

My father and brother are out of the house, perhaps down on the beach. I have taken a book from each of them. From my father I have taken a magazine called Contrast, but unnumbered. It is in fact Contrast No. 1. The cover is bright red, with a brush drawing in black and white of two robed and turbaned women, by Eleanor Esmonde-White. There is a black-and-white logo of a baboon, which I know to be a reference to Thoth, god of literature. Stories, Poetry, Drawings, it offers, and lists names under each category. The names are mostly recognisable to me because they are the names of my father’s and Uys’s bohemian friends. Some of them are probably down on Second Beach.

At Christmas my brother and I each get an annual. He gets Eagle, and I get Robin – targeted at younger readers. I have discarded Robin as being shamefully too young for attention. From my brother I have taken the Eagle Annual Number 9, 1960, the cover of which has a simple gold-and-black eagle on a bright red background. Sport, Stories, Adventure Strips, Humour, Science, Real-Life Stories, Hobbies, Nature, it proclaims. What this really means is Dan Dare comics, and some frills.

I sit with the books on the coir mattress of the lower bunk in the bedroom I share with my brother. The stories in Contrast are hard to follow and there’s not much action in the drawings. I can make no sense of the poems. Instead I read the Dan Dare. But I am proud of my father.

Fifty years later the Eagle Annual for 1960 is dust. My father is long dead and I have inherited his books, most of which have gone to NELM. But I have kept his Contrasts. Now I hold the same copy of Contrast in my hand. Who are the people in it, I ask the nine-year-old.

Number one opens with the magnificent The Dove Apologises, a poem by a seventeen-year-old wunderkind called Anthony Eton, whom I later met but didn’t know at the time. The fact that he’s so young is a part of the lore attached to the issue.

The names that still have any resonance include Nadine Gordimer, a formidable lady with an eagle nose, and Gregoire Boonzaaier who is very tall. He is both a painter and a commie, but more the former than the latter. Although he is Afrikaans, he speaks in sonorous upper-class English. My mother once shared a studio with him, briefly, when I was about four.
Another artist is Francois Krige – Uys’s brother, who looks a little like Uys, but is taller and bearded. Though he sometimes appears for Sunday lunch, he never interacts with us children. Peter Clarke has an earring in his ear and looks like the genie in my copy of the Arabian Nights.

And of course Jan Rabie, and his wife Marjorie Wallace – frequent presences at Jack and Uys’ home. Both are tanned from time outdoors. Jan is brooding or barking and argumentative. Marjorie’s accent is heavily Scots, including her laughable Afrikaans. They are bright people and are both prepared to talk to children. Jan is interested in stuff – driftwood, seaweed, crawfish, and you can talk to him about anything though he is a bit scary. Marjorie is funny.

Richard Rive is 21, dark and athletic, with a fruity BBC accent. He is too old a child and too young a man to take any interest in my brother or me, though we later became friends.

Jonty (CJ) Driver, the same age as Rive, was a student aged 21 at the time. I didn’t meet him, but his inclusion was noted because his father was a distinguished headmaster in the White River area where my brother and I lived with my mother. Later he and Jack published in a shared book with Mantis poets.

Ingrid Jonker is my father’s girlfriend, though I wish she weren’t. She has moved out of the house for our summer holiday, so that my brother and I don’t have to be exposed to their affair, but we have found out anyway. Ingrid has a toddler, Simone, but Simone seldom comes to Sea Girt. We don’t like Ingrid, but all the men seem to. I wonder how they can fit into his three-quarter bed, since my father is a big man.

I don’t think I have ever met Ruth Miller but my father loves her poetry. Pursuing my father’s love I have tried to read some of her poems, sitting on the bed in the Head Office of Contrast. I cannot understand them at all, no matter how I try, screwing up my face and squinting at the mystery.

Neville Dubow is a suave man who visits. He is some kind of artist or photographer or something, definitely a bohemian but he’s Jewish so he’s probably a commie too. Most of our Jewish friends are commies and vice versa, which gives me a skewed picture of both.

Etienne Leroux wrote something scandalous about sex. Jack and Uys call him Stephen when they talk about him, and though I don’t really know him he is a beacon in their conversation.

Jack Cope is in his late forties. He is my father, and the editor. He is big (six three) and very hairy. In the morning he shaves with a cut-throat razor all the way to his collar. Every day he does manual work, extending and fixing the run-down bungalow, and runs a mile on the beach. But he has given his life to art, writing and writers, and the steady tac tac tac of his portable Underhill typewriter, which fills most days, is the signal of his dedication.

Uys Krige is an enigma – he is a giant of literature but a broken man, complaining in his bed. He is a former rugby player with a tan and a medicine-ball, a big heavy leather thing which you toss about for exercise. He is simultaneously a wrinkled old man, stooped and mumbling, and an erudite, witty, wise charmer surrounded by women. Talking is his chief activity, which he does almost to the exclusion of all else. Uys is friendly and we like him, except during housework, when he just stands and talks, the dishcloth forgotten in his hand.

There’s Sydney Clouts, a friend of Jack’s and fellow poet. I find that I hardly remember him, perhaps as a presence poring over papers with Jack. They translated Ingrid’s poems into English together, though Jack did most of it.

Anthony Delius gave Jack a necktie of singular brightness and hideosity for Christmas that year. It was a wide tie, with purple, green, orange, blue and red abstract daubings which somehow anticipated psychedelia several years before its advent. The following Christmas Jack wrapped the tie and gave it to Anthony. It went back and forth until 1966. In the holidays of alternate years I would always check in on the tie, running its satin through my fingers.

They come in groups, by bus, by car. It is summer. Clifton beach is enticing. They carry bags, baskets and hampers, and descend the hundred and thirty steps to the beach. They change in our house, tracking sand everywhere. They eat, talk, drink and smoke in our lounge/dining-room. Their bodies smell of coconut oil, Sea-and-Ski suntan lotion, salt and sweat. The women wear bikinis. Uys has a bathing costume with a built-in belt with a small gold buckle. They braai on the beach at night. They are bohemians and commies and their girlfriends and boyfriends, though a few of them are married and some are queer.

What is surprising is that almost all of these names have survived, along with their work. The year was 1960, and Contrast No. 1 included what was basically the core of the Sestiger literary movement. These people all knew each other, partied together, slept with each other, and so on, but Jack was not, in my opinion, just promoting his friends. The logistics of the situation meant that in putting together a magazine, one would use what came to hand, and these friends would have been among the first to have been asked for submissions. Jack had some exceptional qualities as an editor – long experience, a very good eye, and a willingness to engage personally with writers and their texts. He was always seeking out new material. “Come down to Sea Girt and we’ll talk about it,” he would say, and the house was always full of literary conversation. He could draw a text out of a writer whose work he enjoyed like a dentist pulling a tooth, if necessary.

The tunnel of memory between me and Contrast No. 1 is fifty years long and is lined with the names of the dead. It can be scary to walk down. But it has a hundred and fifty casements lining its walls: the glowing covers of all those Contrasts and New Contrasts. Each is a precise window that, once opened, leads into its own time and place, full of surprises and pleasures.

I look back down this tunnel towards the past, but Jack’s view from Contrast No. 1 was progressive, forward into the future, even in a time of great adversity. He sought out and nurtured many young writers, and the first issue is notable for the inclusion of people like Rive, Driver and Eton. What was he saying by publishing them, and by opening Contrast with a brilliant poem by an unknown seventeen-year-old? As I see it, he was expressing his faith in the future – in us.

Contrast No. 1 had a strong heart. That it has continued to beat for fifty years, if at times falteringly, is a vindication of Jack’s faith. May it live for many more years.
Geoffrey HaresnapeGeoffrey Haresnape, editor of New Contrast in the 80's.
Nancy GordonNancy Gordon, Grand Dame, one of the founder members, and our surprise guest.

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See the web albums for more pictures and comments. Click on the links below.
New Contrast 50th Birthday Bash Speakers web album

New Contrast Birthday Bash Guests web album

Buy your New Contrast 50th Birthday Issue

Click on this underlined link to Buy 50th Birthday Issue