BOOK REVIEW (and Thailand travel throwback): A Sailing Story

Now that it’s ‘lockdown’ here in Vietnam (though they’re loathe to use that term, favouring ‘social-distancing curfew’), I’m remembering round-about this time last year, when I got to sail around Thailand’s dreamy islands and did an in-situ reading of a coming-of-age travel memoir about seafaring experiences few can imagine.

Phuket sunset Thailand

Sunset reading spot (Phuket).

I’d just finished four months of teaching in rural NorthEast Thailand − a rewarding but dusty, landlocked experience − when an old bookclub friend from home suggested I join her and her new hubby on one leg of their year-long honeymoon – sailing on a catamaran around Southern Thailand.

I met up with them on a beach on Koh Lanta. Getting picked up via dinghy, running as fast as I could across the hot sand with my heavy suitcase and laptop, was a surreal experience − something I’ll smile about for years to come 🙂

Koh Lanta SUP Thailand

The Koh Lanta beach where I was picked up.

As I was adjusting my footing (and core) to the sway of being on-board, I was thrilled to spot a copy of Martinique (Nicky) Stilwell’s sailing memoir, Thinking Up a Hurricane.

I first read about Martinique’s story when I worked at O, the Oprah Magazine South Africa, and we printed a book excerpt. I’d always wanted to read the whole memoir. The universe conspired to have me do so in the most appropriate of settings.

I know little about sailing, apart from the odd term I picked up from copy-editing a sailing magazine. So reading the book while experiencing a bit of life at sea first hand, and for the first time (and with a bookclub buddy, to boot), made for a truly immersive reading experience.

Koh Yao Yai island sunset Thailand

Another dreamy day, another dreamy sunset. This time while anchored at Koh Yao Yai island.

sailing the James Bond island Koh Phang Nga

Approaching Koh Phang-Nga…

Like me, the author is one of twins who grew up on the East Rand of Johannesburg, South Africa. Knowing the place she grew up in, about a six-hour drive away from the sea, helped me appreciate just how unusual and eccentric her family’s mission was. (Neighbours must’ve thought them nuts!)

ABOUT THE BOOK:

In 1977, the author’s father, Frank Stilwell launched Vingila, “17 tons of welded-together 11-mm steel plates” into the Indian Ocean, to take his family (including their pet dog) circumnavigating the world.

His experience of sailing? Very little.

The author and her twin brother, Robert, were nine. They were taken out of school in order to learn about life on the open seas.

The Stilwell family became part of an odd-ball community of sailors, learning how to live as sea gypsys day by day, swell by swell, island after island.

The book reads like a journal and adventure story, albeit the adventure wasn’t one of the author’s own will. As a reader, I admired the family’s grit and guts, while balking at the dysfunctional aspects of their story. Their poor diet and lack of access to clothing and supplies was coupled with the Dad’s lack of sailing know-how, which put them in serious danger many times. There are some truly frightening scenes in the book, of approaching storms and Frank’s stubborn refusal to exercise caution. (As one Amazon reviewer said, “I wanted to pop the old man on the nose”.)

Monkey Beach Phi Phi island Thailand

View of Monkey Beach, Phi Phi island.

The twins often lack the company of kids their own age, and they become keen and adept sailors rather quickly. I loved how the author collected cowrie shells and managed to keep her own education up, as best she could.

At first, the family are outliers among the salty sailor types who scoff at their boat and naivety. But as they become more hardy, self-sufficient and eccentric, they start to fit in among the oddball assortment of sea gypsy characters that weave in and out of the narrative. There are amusing anecdotes featuring boozy escapades, nudity, and some very salty seafaring language!

buy prawns in Phang Nga Bay Thailand James bond

The highlight of my sailing experience: Buying prawns straight from a longtail in Phang Nga Bay, near where the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun was filmed. We stayed the night and enjoyed a beautiful evening with no other boats in sight.

But for me, books are about the characters and their growth. Martinique’s transformation comes when she finally stands up to her father. The difference between them is captured in the title. Frank, the risk-taking adventurer father, regards his daughter as the rat that would abandon ship, dreaming up catastrophes (“thinking up a hurricane”) and erring too much on the side of caution.

childhood sailing memoir

The author, Nicky, as a child with her father on Vingila.

As a teenager craving normalcy, Nicky finally stands up to her father in order to leave life at sea and return home to finish her education. In what’s seen by her parents and brother as a betrayal, she goes to live with family and attend high school. That she managed to get an education, after years of being at sea and feeling like a fish out of water when back on land, is incredible.

After reading this book, you think: What became of the protagonist, Nicky?

While she doesn’t have too active an online presence, her social-media bios read: “Writer, doctor, surfer, sailor”. So she reached her goal in the end. And it seems she still has an adventurous, seafaring spirit. For instance, in her role as doctor, she’s worked on contract in the Arctic.

“It takes courage to pursue a dream, such as to sail around the world, become a doctor or write a book. Martinique Stilwell’s book Thinking up a Hurricane is, in essence, about the realisation of these dreams.” – Reviewer Adele McCann, for writerscollegeblog.com

If you’re craving an absorbing (and true) travel adventure that will take you far away from the confines of your own home, I highly recommend this book.

Author-doctor Martinique Stilwell today

All grown up: Author-doctor Martinique Stilwell today.

TITLE: Thinking Up a Hurricane
PUBLISHER:
Penguin Random House South Africa
BUY IT HERE.

Must-read: This biography of South Africa’s legendary ‘Afro-saxon’ muso, Syd Kitchen

You may not know of him, but everyone from Durban, like me, does. Thankfully, a just-published biography by Donvé Lee introduces readers to the poetic misfit who mentored many musicians.

mural-syd

A mural of Syd, which was at Durban’s old Corner Cafe

When I heard that a biography of Syd Kitchen was being published,  I immediately marked it as a must-read. I’d seen him perform at Splashy Fen, where he played every year from its start before he died, and had seen him around. With his long hair, floppy hat and bare feet, he looked the quintessential hippie muso − no doubt with plenty stories to tell.

Here’s the book’s blurb:

“Skollie, saint, scholar, hippest of hippies, imperfect musician with a perfect imagination, Syd Kitchen was, like all great artists, born to enrich his art and not himself. Plagued by drugs, alcohol and depression, too much of an outlaw to be embraced by record companies, he frequently sold his furniture to cover production costs of his albums, seduced fans at concerts and music festivals worldwide with his dazzling ‘Afro-Saxon’ mix of folk, jazz, blues and rock interspersed with marvellously irreverent banter, and finally became the subject of several compelling documentaries, one of which −‘Fool in a Bubble’ − premiered in New York in 2010.”

scars-that-shine-cover

The book’s title is a reference to Syd’s poetry collection of the same name, published in 1974. I have a signed copy – I pounced on it when I spotted it at the Milnerton Flea Market several years ago. See below … I wonder who the mysterious Michelle was?

 

Syd Kitchen poetry book

“Michelle, Thanks for the past help regardless how small. You’re a pretty lady. Luv on ya. Syd”

In the foreword, the late veteran journo Owen Coetzer, who helped run the Durban Folk Club back then, wrote:

“Syd Kitchen is the poet. The seeker. His touch is masterful. His omni-luminescent eyes see it all. His words tell the rest. But more important, he is a musician in the tradition of the ancients – the storyteller who journeyed from land to land singing of the past, the present and the future. The minstrel who laboured for love, and who found peace and satisfaction in the giving of himself and his art.”

When Syd passed away early in 2011, many obituaries followed. In one of them, Owen’s daughter Diane, a music journalist, shares her childhood memories of Syd, and laments the fact that he never received proper recognition, both when alive and at his death.

“To a child, he was a fascinating creature: His hair was long, he sometimes struggled to talk through a stutter, he wore outlandish clothes and, even for children used to being around musicians, Syd seemed to us to carry with him something magical …”

“[His] remarkable 40-year music career, filled with live gigs, songwriting, and albums […] simply never benefited from the mainstream business – not just the labels that never signed him, but retail outlets that never stocked his records and radio that never played his songs […] And, looking at the artists who’ve emerged from under his wing in KwaZulu-Natal especially, it’s easy to see where Syd’s musical legacy will reside, outside of his recordings and songs.”

This is where the book comes in. At the launch at the Book Lounge, we were treated to a performance of Syd’s song Walking, by two muso friends of his. Then Donvé was interviewed by Stephen Segerman, one of the men who ensured ‘Sugar Man’, the musician Rodriguez, finally got his story told.

Donvé spoke of the research she did to compile the book – interviewing over 120 people, pouring over Syd’s lyrics and letters to an old girlfriend etc. – and how she tried to make Syd’s voice prominent. In the “magical process of giving over to his voice,” she admitted the boundaries at times blurred: Syd was under her skin, in her head.

donve-lee

The biographer

This seems appropriate, given that Syd once asked her to write a book on him. In response to an audience member’s question about the ethics of creating Syd’s ‘voice’, Donvé said the book is “artistically true, not literally so. I put words into his mouth, but they’re what he could’ve or would’ve said … I think he would approve.” At this point, Syd’s daughter, Sev (I think), nodded from her front-row seat.

The biographer had the full support of Syd’s family, and she didn’t shy away from depicting the good, the bad, the ugly. “I had to make it honest,” she explained. And “in the darkness, beauty has its depth”.

syd-kitchen-b-w

Syd’s lack of acclaim and recognition was mentioned, as was a high point in his musical career: Travelling to Scotland to be one of the featured artists (along with the likes of The Cure’s Robert Smith, Beck, Morcheeba, Snow Patrol and Paolo Nutini) on a tribute album to the late John Martyn, who was a Syd Kitchen fan.

It’s hoped that the book will revive interest in Syd’s music, and apparently the Kitchen family will soon be in talks with Robin Auld to see what can be done about, perhaps, getting his music reissued.

For now, you can get the book at all major SA bookstores and online. Or follow the links below to learn a little more about the man and his music.

Here’s a clip of Syd with Die Antwoord.

Here’s the trailer for the documentary on him, called Fool in a Bubble.

You can listen to the MixCloud tribute to him by Mabu Vinyl (called ‘The last of the bohemians’) here, and there’s also plenty more to read on him here.

fiab-flyer-front

I’ll leave you with a short but sweet poem, from page 15 of Scars That Shine (1974).

SPOKE THE WIND
By Syd Kitchen

You have your eyes
as green as the sea,
you have Life
you have Love
you have Word
speared by me.
What more could your soul
set its sights on to be,
but a creature so fair,
so lost,
yet so free?

 

Best Bits from Darryl Bristow-Bovey’s Book

The columnist was South Africa’s most stellar and searingly funny social commentator, until a plagiarism scandal caused his spectacular fall from grace (and newspaper pages). But with his endearing, thigh-slappingly funny coming-of-age memoir, the bad boy has done good.

I first became aware of Darryl Bristow-Bovey in the late 1990s, when I was a university student, he was in his twenties and the South African media was struggling to keep up with the nation’s democratic transition. In-between the rebranded SABC 1, 2 and 3 shows and daily Oprah show episodes, you still had to suffer through talk shows with older white male presenters who spoke in those ‘radio broadcast’ voices and were beginning to feel somewhat stale.

One night, one such presenter (whose smugness just irked me, I forget his name) introduced his show’s guest by first pointing at a bowl of Brussel sprouts set out on the set’s shiny coffee-table. Apparently, the young guest − one Darryl Bristow-Bovey − had dared to compare the host to a Brussel sprout. Having him on air was the host’s attempt to show the lad just who was boss.

But Darryl won the duel, hands down. Me and my sister were rolling around the couches, tickled pink by the analogy (if you’d seen the presenter, and had a taste of my dislike for both him and the offending vegetables in question, you’d’ve been too). Of course, it helped that the audacious fella was a bit dashing…

Darryl Bristow-Bovey

Credit: Via BooksLIVE

Of air and in print, more columns followed, as did the accolades: As Kevin Ritchie said in his Saturday Star review, “Just over 10 years ago, there was only one writer in South African journalism: Darrel Bristow-Bovey. The only nationally syndicated columnist in the country under 35, he was prolific, writing best-selling books and appearing almost simultaneously in competing newspapers, the Cape Times, Business Day, Sunday Independent, and he was good. Supernaturally good. He won the Mondi awards for excellence in magazine writing so often over six years that judging convener Dennis Beckett asked him to stop entering to give other writers a chance.”

But along with legions of devoted fans came detractors. So when news spread that Darryl Bristow-Bovey, the enfant terrible of the media, had been accused of lifting words from Bill Bryson’s Notes From a Big Country in his novel, The Naked Bachelor, the fall-out was epic. Darryl’s career and reputation were delivered such a blow, the writer was essentially off the scene for 10 years. (You can read his column about the experience of the scandal and public shaming here.)

Gradually, after years of self-flagellation, his name (and super-smart words) began appearing in print again. He had also been working on a memoir, which was released a few months ago. One Midlife Crisis and A Speedo (Penguin RandomHouse) is about approaching the big Four-Oh, and how Bristow-Bovey decided to follow a bucket-list dream of swimming across the Dardanelles in Turkey.

DarrylBookCover

As Ritchie said in his review, the book also charts how the author subsequently matured into being less of an ass, and faced the imposter syndrome head-on: Bristow-Bovey is quoted on the “long process of realising and getting over the shock of not just what’s happened to you, but of the disappointment you have caused others – and yourself.”

I loved the book, for its hilarity (as Michele Magwood, contributing books editor of the SA Sunday Times said, it’s one you want to read next to someone else, “so you can read out the funny bits”), its honesty, its charming (and cringe-worthy) self-deprecation, and for the ‘heart stuff’ (it is, also, somewhat of a love story).

Below is a section (p54-55) where Bristow-Bovey talks on the Tim Noakes ‘Banting’ diet that has become the subject of dinner-table talk ad nauseam in South Africa over the last couple years. Enjoy!

“The first thing you notice about the Tim Noakes diet is how interesting it is to talk about it. Actually, that’s not true. The very first thing you notice is it’s not at all interesting to talk about, but that’s only when you’re not on the diet yourself.

“When you’re the one living your life as a normal human being, peaceably eating as your forefathers did and their forefathers before them, you might have a reasonable tolerance for chit-chat about what other people are eating. You might even ask a polite question or two of your own.

“‘Oh really?’ you might say. ‘You’re putting butter in your coffee and making toast out of halloumi cheese now? That’s interesting.’ Or you might say, ‘Oh, so then you’re not going to eat those chips? Do you mind if I…’

“But after a while it becomes irritating to have people constantly volunteering to tell you how much energy they have and how bloated they aren’t. I never realised how bloated everyone was before they all started telling me they aren’t anymore. First you roll your eyes, then you start avoiding everyone who has recently lost a suspicious amount of weight.
[…]
“But then you start it yourself and you realise you were wrong. No, it’s not boring to talk about what you’re eating. In fact it’s fascinating, because there’s so much science in it, you see. The science is the best part. Hoo boy, who knew I loved science so much?

“The other thing you realise is that this is the time of the cauliflower. The cauliflower is taking over the world. Where once there were fields of wheat and corn waving golden in the sun and rustling creepily by night, soon there’ll be just the stubbly scalps of cauli heads. There are cauliflower appreciation groups on FB and cauli-loving websites. There’s cauliflower porn. I haven’t seen it myself, you understand – those freaks aren’t getting my credit card number – but sure, I’ll admit, I’m cauli-curious.”

One Midlife Crisis and A Speedo is available via Amazon and Exclusive Books.