Some Flim-Flam with Socks

Adam Kuper

  • Storyteller: The Many Lives of Laurens van der Post by J.D.F. Jones
    Murray, 505 pp, £25.00, September 2001, ISBN 0 7195 5580 9

In 1972, when his reputation was close to its peak, Laurens van der Post published a novel called A Story like the Wind. Reviewing it in the TLS, I wrote that it was an old-fashioned colonial romance, but since the book carried a portentous preface in which Van der Post described himself as a great authority on Africa, I added that his statements about the Bushmen, the Zulu and other peoples were unreliable and tinged with racism, and that much of his material was drawn uncritically (without acknowledgment) from outdated sources. In those days TLS reviews were unsigned, but Van der Post wrote a furious letter complaining that his book had been given to an anonymous anthropologist to review. He was a novelist, he pointed out: his book should be treated as a novel. Did the editor propose to invite astronomers to review science fiction? Nevertheless, even in making this protest he had to insist on his expertise (‘I, Sir, grew up with Bushman survivors …’), because that was a large part of his appeal to his readers.

Van der Post was by then becoming something of an all-purpose guru, with a particular following among right-wingers. Later, most spectacularly, he achieved a personal ascendancy over both Prince Charles and Margaret Thatcher. He used to tell Thatcher stories of the Zulus, to which, J.D.F. Jones was told by a frustrated civil servant, ‘she would listen with delight, her jaw agape.’ (‘No evil thought ever entered his mind,’ she herself assured the biographer.) He accompanied Charles on a brief excursion to the fringes of the Kalahari and became the godfather of Prince William. These elevated contacts won him favourable, even awestruck publicity, though Private Eye regularly featured him uttering some New Age balderdash at which Prince Charles would murmur: ‘How true.’ Fortunately for him, no journalist discovered that as the royal marriage began to disintegrate, Van der Post had referred both Charles and Diana to a London friend who practised (unqualified) as a Jungian analyst.

The real puzzle about Van der Post is that his patently unreliable guff about Bushmen, Africa, Jung and the environment should have taken in so many people. His travel books are ludicrous. ‘Van der Post’s Africa is no specific part of Africa,’ Alan Barnard, a leading specialist on the Bushmen, wrote. ‘The Bushmen he describes are not any specific one of the many diverse Bushman groups. They are the Bushmen of his imagination.’ In the mid-1960s, I lived for nearly two years in villages in the area described in Lost World of the Kalahari. Although I was impractical and inexperienced, I managed to travel about alone without difficulty, following routes that according to Van der Post’s account could be attempted only by old Africa hands organised into heavily armed convoys. As for the novels, they are pastiche Rider Haggard. Typically, a grand coalition of good guys, made up of white hunters, faithful Zulu warriors and simple but lovable Bushmen, does battle with an evil network made up of urban blacks, Russians, and, oddly enough, on one occasion, representatives of the World Council of Churches.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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