Sample text for Turbott Wolfe : a novel / William Plomer ; introduction by Nadine Gordimer.

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I think Turbott Wolfe may have been a man of genius. I hardly saw him from the time that I was at school with him until he was about to die, at no great age, of a fever that he had caught in Africa. He knew how ill he was, and sent for me to come and see him at his lodgings at E——. I found him in a ridiculous room, looking tired rather than ill as he sat up in bed. His window gave on a slum that might have been anywhere but near the sea, yet at night you could hear a muffled noise of waves, while the day-time, always dingy there, came with street noises, and sometimes in the afternoons seemed to become more dismal with the sounds of football somewhere near at hand.

The room itself was so tawdry as to be grotesque. Patterns of flowers, sewn or painted or printed in smudgy colours, decorated the walls, the curtains, the linoleum on the floor, the linen, the furniture; and they were all different. I felt obscured by all those scentless bouquets, but Turbott Wolfe seemed so little obscured that he might have purposely designed those enormous bistre-and-green roses that were tousled and garlanded up and down the coverlet on the bed; and the wall behind his head, with its bouquets of brown marguerites, its pomegranates and bows of ribbon and forget-me-nots, became for him an ideal background.

He was dignified in a curious way perhaps peculiar to very intelligent people. All the time that he was talking he seemed profoundly excited, and now and then his gestures became, like his narrative, erratic, but there was with him an assured grace, perhaps because of the fine culture that he had and because of the intense natural sensitiveness of his nature.

—There came to me a time—he said—not very long after I left school, when I found myself as lonely as it is possible to be. I was ill, and hardly recovered from the aftermath of adolescence. I came to feel as though circumstances had driven me with cunning deliberation and relentless activity to a point of complete isolation. I found myself with no friend, no passion, no anchor whatever.

My life seemed to be then a structure that had grown steadily without the least deviation from the architect’s plan—every stone was being put in place, every malicious ornament. Lack of money; perhaps an extreme sensitiveness; a deep-rooted immovable cowardice; sudden flowers of courage—all these seemed due to an invisible constructor of my life, who must have been Gothic, so intent was he upon his work, so nice with satire.

But the cruel building was suddenly ruined. I was inflamed with the sun of a new day. Perhaps you remember——? I was suddenly ordered to Africa by some fool of a doctor.

My people sought, obtained, and paid nothing for advice that was considered good. I was to be started with a trading-station, in a region neither too civilized nor too remote. The prospect pleased me. I could think of nothing more thrilling than a small business, under my own eye, under my own hand, in which no halfpenny would be able to stray. A small business, I reflected, would be like an instrument. It would be entirely dependent on me for the music; for the volume, the pitch, the tone, the quality of the music. I thought then, as I think now, that trade is like art. Art is to the artist and trade is to the tradesman. I think the greatest illusion I know is that trade has anything to do with customers. It must have been so long ago, almost before history I should think, so very long ago quite plain that you must never, if you are to be a success in trade, in art, in politics, in life itself, you must never give people what they want. Give them what you want them to want. Then you are safe. But it is a platitude, and I digress.

You can imagine my delirious weeks of preparation. I rushed to and fro in the City buying what I was told to buy, because the people who sold me the stuff wanted to sell it to me.

“I like these,” I would say to an elderly obstinate cunning respectable shirt-sleeved shop-walking citizen, with thirty years uninterrupted experience of softs or roughs.

“O, no, sir,” he would exclaim, in a whisper husky with astonishment, “not those! You would never sell those where you are going. But these now—you will have to have a few of these, even if you do not get them here. Everybody has these——”

“But I don’t like them,” I would say, for fun.

“Why! A standard line! You must have them! Go like hot cakes! Carry a nice little profit too! These——”


I also spent the little money I had of my own. I spent it freely buying books; paint; a piano; pens, ink and paper; a little furniture; and many odds and ends.

I was sorry to leave my people; I was devoted to them. But otherwise I sailed with no regrets, and with more excitement than hope.

I do not propose to bore you with a long account of the various difficulties I had at the start. A time came fairly soon when the shop began to run steadily with enough profit to give me a living. I had been fortunate enough to get the services of a remarkably steady “civilized” native, by name Caleb Msomi, and it was due as much to him as to me that I was able to get the trading-station of Ovuzane established. It is the custom of the natives in those parts to do all their business in the morning, so my afternoons were nearly always free. I turned with immense enthusiasm to an immense number of different activities. I went from one to another, how restlessly you cannot imagine. You know that I once had ideas about a co- ordination of all the arts. I have always been pointed at as versatile. Is it a compliment? I have never been satisfied to plough only one furrow.

At Ovuzane I passed my time between trade and folk-lore and painting and writing and music, between sculpture and religion and handicrafts. I even got down to landscape-gardening. They have been pleased to tell me, one or two who have had the chance and I hope the wit to judge, that the work I did during that period had value. They have been kind; I have been flattered. After a time I was surprised to get a communication (I couldn’t call it a letter) from a very distinguished acquaintance whose wish it was to visit me at Ovuzane for the purpose of undertaking to compile a carefully illustrated record of what I had done. The man was Tyler-Harries. He had quite a name in those days, but you wouldn’t hear much about him now, I suppose. I was half afraid and half contemptuous of him; he was a silly poseur, but he had a wonderful grasp of things, and a sort of way with him.

Eventually I found myself at Dunnsport to meet the man. Tyler-Harries, man of means, emerged on long and pointed feet from the Rochester Castle, polished and distant and distrustful, a maker of editions-de-luxe, founder of the Pomegranate Press and of the Pomegranate Press Society, publishers who, as the London Review declared, “have given us so many rare and beautiful and surprising works”; given us, that paper omitted to state, given us, as a matter of fact, at ten or twelve guineas a time. Perhaps I have a mercenary mind: that is not my idea of being given a book.

The only thing, I said to myself, as Tyler-Harries strutted down the gangway of the Rochester Castle, that could have brought him to Africa was the chance of making an edition even more rare and beautiful and surprising than the things that were said about him in London.

We stayed at the Mountjoy Hotel, where you may see all sorts of people at any time.

“My dear man,” exclaimed Tyler-Harries in his loudest and wickedest manner, “how many fish there are here out of water!”

At Ovuzane we argued a great deal, but Tyler-Harries worked fourteen hours a day at his notes, and his drawings, and his photographs, and his very large correspondence. I think his book would have been better than my work that it described. I say “would have been” because the great man chose to return in a rotten cargo-boat round the East Coast instead of in a first-class liner by the West. The thing got wrecked. But mark this, the fool was not content to part with his manuscripts; he must needs go and get himself drowned too. I was told that Tyler-Harries had last been seen with a coloured stewardess. They were both very far gone in raw cane-spirit, kindly supplied by the lady.

I spent a couple of days in Dunnsport after seeing off Tyler-Harries, and in the evenings I amused myself by attending at a kind of fairground in the slums, to have a look at “Schönstein’s Better Shows.” I knew Schönstein, you see. He was on the boat when I first went out. A prodigious Jew, he was, with egg-yellow eyebrows. Rich. He directed his precious shows (they travel all over Africa) from Johannesburg. His wife, I remember, was a little plump partridge with nerves of brass. She was barefaced by day and barebacked by night.

I went that time to “Schönstein’s Better Shows” at Dunnsport to enjoy, as I thought, the hurdy-gurdy music and the coloured lights and noises. I was a little startled to find an extraordinary mixture of races at the fair, which was managed by one Judy Frenkel, a young man with jewellery and fat. He had a chestnut-coloured suit and patent-leather boots with cloth tops, and he lost no time in informing me that he wore no underclothing but his socks and a silk shirt. I had introduced myself to him as a friend of Mr. Schönstein.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Merchants Fiction, South Africa Fiction, Miscegenation Fiction, Race relations Fiction