Knysna man’s novel praised by the London Times

The author, Paul Nel, who was in newspaper management in Cape Town before moving to Joburg and has now retired to Knysna, used so many familiar names in his story of love and law that I felt I knew half of them. 

It is titled The Law of Douglas van Yssen. Ross Leckie of The Times wrote: “For its range and depth, this (first) novel deserves comparison with Patrick White’s great novel of Australian becoming, The Tree of Man.”

Half-way through its 644 pages, the hero goes for a job interview at the CapeTimes. Douglas van Yssen has a Master’s degree cum laude in history from UCT and has been teaching, but his fiancée’s father, Judge Rose, thinks his future son-in-law could do better as a leader-writer and persuades the editor, Basil Wainwright, to take him on. 

It is the year 1928. I checked up in Gerald Shaw’s The Cape Times – an informal history to confirm that BK Long was then the editor. Any similarity between him and Wainwright is, of course, purely coincidental. Sir James Rose Innes, chief justice, had resigned the year before. Rose and Rose Innes are also not be confused. 

Van Yssen has one handicap. He is deaf. Which would shield him from all the usual newsroom noise and clatter of Imperial typewriters. 

Van Yssen’s deafness doesn’t worry Wainwright, who knows he is being lip-read as he enunciates: “We need a man of your intellect, a man who has a sense of history, someone with perspective on the issues of our time, someone with balanced views, who can give additional dimensions to the opinions of this newspaper.” 

Many of the CapeTimes’s leader-writers have indeed been such men, though not all have had Master’s degrees cum laude. One of Long’s successors, Victor Norton, never went to university, yet wrote some of the most incisive and informed leaders the paper has ever published. 

But Van Yssen is doubtful about accepting the job, and in the end doesn’t. “I don’t mind telling you that the idea of being a leader-writer for a major newspaper has far more appeal than I have admitted,” he confides to his fiancée. 

The next time we meet Wainwright is in 1956. He is retired. BK Long, alas, didn’t live that long. Wainwright has invited Judge Rose, now also retired, to lunch “at the Civil Service Club inQueen Victoria Street”. 

As all Cape Times editors who lunched there knew, the Civil Service Club was inChurch Square, and only amalgamated with the City Club in Queen Victoria Street many years later, but no matter. 

They are greeted by Suleiman, the lift operator. They would have been served at the bar by Johannes Sethole who, at the age of 79, is still barman at the City and Civil Service Club’s successor, the Cape Town Club. He told me once that as a 17-year-old, he had served one of the CSC’s most distinguished members, General Jan Smuts. 

Wainwright chats about various journalists – “Jack Brokensha, you must remember him, our former news editor”. Apparently no relation to Miles Brokensha, my deputy news editor on theCapeArgus. 

Wainwright also mentions “that chap Blewett, who used to cover the courts”. Bill Blewett was assistant editor of the Cape Argus in the early 1960s. 

Takes me back a bit, it does.

Share Button