Book Reviews: Dark Africa, Or A Substitute Reformer

February 23, 2019

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Dark Entries by Robert Ackman

No Substitute by Cindy Alter

A Man Of Africa, edited by Kalim Rajab

The Great Reformer by Austen Ivereigh


This is a new edition of a collection of stories by Robert Ackman first published in 1964. In the intervening years, Ackman’s influence has been appreciated by any number of writers of similarly sophisticated and macabre works, including Neil Gaiman, who enthusiastically endorses this edition on the front and back sleeves. The problem with this heritage and the fanfare afforded to it is that readers being exposed to Ackman’s writing for the first time open the book expecting fireworks right from the off and, simply put, those are not delivered. To begin with, the six tales collected here are long short stories, requiring more investment that the punchier material from many authors operating in a similar topical space. And in some instances, you may complete a piece without feeling satisfied with its resolution – and then feel, based on Ackman’s reputation, that perhaps the problem is with you. Two stories, however, make an impact right away and make an unequivocal case for all the superlatives being deserved. Ringing The Changes is a sort of Victorian Walking Dead, but with subtle dread doing the job of the staggering hordes of the TV series, and arguably leaving a more lasting impression. Later, Choice Of Weapons looks at the delusions brought on by love (or vice versa), making you feel for the unfortunate protagonist on account of both his heartbreak and his mental health. As you become aware, in these examples, of the power of Ackman’s prose, you may be inspired to re-read and reconsider some of the less accessible titles in Dark Entries – his style is recognisably of his time, but class and intelligence ultimately don’t age. – BD


That No Substitute, an unapologetic memoir, is self-published is fitting: singer-songwriter Cindy Alter has often had to fight to have her craft given the recognition it deserves. Alter’s story is an epic one, spanning three continents, millions of album sales and a shattering battle against leukemia, among much else. Committed to a life-long passion for music, Alter tells of the travails involved in following her muse through destructive relationships (both personal and professional), naivety, bad luck and poor judgement, and it’s compelling stuff – particularly because the singer is still a popular and well-respected artist who many fans will have only come to know well after most of her most extreme exploits were behind her. As a writer, Alter is unstintingly honest. Her account of the darkest days of her treatment for the cancer are, as a result, exceptionally difficult to read, but also incredibly moving. On the other hand, it’s easy to get frustrated with her as she repeats mistakes she’s aware of making in the foolish hope that outcomes will change for some reason. And her attitudes to some questionable actions – perpetuated by or against her – are often worryingly laissez-faire. Hers was often the drugs, sex and rock and roll approach, and it often put her at risk. No Substitute should have received a more meticulous edit – there are many small but aggravating errors that distract from the smooth flow of the story. Ultimately, though, this is thorough, candid insight into a woman whose talent remains hugely underrated.


The subtitle of A Man Of Africa is The Political Thought Of Harry Oppenheimer. It consists of a selection of Harry Oppenheimer’s most important speeches, in which we read his views in apartheid, trade unions, education, liberalism, socialism and capitalism. Of course, these speeches were always in the context of the busy life of a politician in opposition, a business tycoon and industrialist of international standing, a man involved in tertiary education as Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, and a man seeking to enable the birth of a new political order without destroying the economy which had painstakingly been built up in the Colonial and post-colonial eras. A group of prominent South Africans comprising Heribert Adam, Ann Bernstein, Tony Bloom, Michael Spicer, Stuart Saunders, Kgalema Motlanthe, Albie Sachs, Clem Sunter, Denis Beckett, Bobby Godsell, Jonathan Jansen and Xolela Mangcu, along with the former British Ambassador Lord Renwick, and the American Ambassador Andrew Young, contributes appraisals of this exceptional man. These appraisals vary in quality and insight, but a number have merit. Inevitably, an important theme is Oppenheimer’s own appraisal of Rhodes and the distinctions he made between his own life and thought and that of the arch-imperialist. The key speech is one made at Rhodes University on the 100th anniversary of Rhodes’s arrival in South Africa. Kalim Rajab’s balanced essay, Towards The Mountain, is well worth reading. The mining industry comes in for real criticism, implied and explicit. If Anglo-American was an enlightened leader in the field, what then of the other powerful  houses? This is a careful, thoughtful book. Here and there are some memorable insights both by Oppenheimer himself and by those who knew him. There is no dynamite here, just steady drilling away at the past and present. – RH


The cover of The Great Reformer proclaims this to be the “authoritative biography” of Pope Francis, and a couple of chapters in, that already feels like exactly the right adjective to use. Author Austen Ivereigh is better placed than most to be authoritative – an experienced journalist who has worked extensively in media aligned to or concerned with the affairs of the Catholic Church. His research into the life of the erstwhile Jorge Mario Bergoglio is compelling and exhaustive. That latter facet makes for sometimes arduous reading, with long passages being so drenched in detail that you might reach for either a strong cup of coffee or a notepad in order to increase your chances of keeping up. This does affect how easy the book is to enjoy, but there’s a case for needing to have everything clearly on the record given Francis’ incredibly high public profile and the scrutiny under which Catholicism in general finds itself in contemporary media. For readers unaffiliated with the Pope or the church he heads, The Great Reformer is an instructive read about a man who is undoubtedly a strong leader, a canny operator and an intriguingly atypical frontman for such a large and influential movement. And believers – Catholic or otherwise – are likely to finish this book with their opinions of Francis as a generally inspiring spiritual leader confirmed or intensified (though Ivereigh is not shy, as a good journalist, to include the more controversial episodes in the pontiff’s earlier life). Whatever happens in the rest of Francis’ papacy, it is unlikely that there will be a better record of his growth as a man, Catholic and leader up until he became pope than this volume.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/4″][vc_widget_sidebar sidebar_id=”default_sidebar”][/vc_column][/vc_row]