Peter, who lectured in English Literature for 25 years, is affiliated as a professor extraordinaire in the English Department of the University of the Western Cape, is a local preacher in the Methodist church and was a founding member of the Heritage Council of the Western Cape. Apart from his passion for writing, he loves motorcycling, motorcycles, travelling, travelling long distance by motorcycle … and gardening.
A man of the arts his other business is ceramics, creating pedestal birdbaths and sundials.
In the introduction to his talk, Peter confessed that his main interest is the teasing out of meaning, the ‘‘joining of the dots to reinforce the sense of who the other is – finding out about why, who, where and what.” To illustrate this he read a poem dedicated to his mom who was born in 1924, and the sense of a life that spans a full century with its changes and continuities…”
‘Royal Tour’ for M.H.M.
When you were come of age Their Majesties drove by.
The word was out. – A new highway, down beyond the empty plots,
down where the pine forest sucked marshwater from sour grass,
along where the un-canalised rivers ran toward the vlei,
where little oxalis and fritangs poked through needles,
and the scrawny pelargonium made flower, and the moles
puckered through the sandy soil. Squared off, the Cape Times
advertised convenient modern homes, in unmade roads,
named on the map with names from Dorset, Devon, and such far-
off counties; where three-bedroom, plot and plan, and near the
railway if one had a bicycle, or perhaps a car; where
post-war Anglo families could nest, and build, and test
the value of the fretsaw and the trowel, the rockery, the wireless set
and syncopation, Scouting, UNO and the Band of Hope;
where Sunday school held sway, and the tennis club, and the faintest
dreams of ‘varsity, or how to be most exemplary in dress,
and keenness was a virtue, and the world was young and chaste:
-Their Majesties came by in a great black automobile,
beetle-backed, between the rows of bluegums; and haste, haste,
in sandal and socks over the sandy wastes among the pines, to catch
a glimpse perhaps of a sleek head, a pale glove, a keen aide or
a swathed maid of honour chosen from the Cape’s best debs;
Albion glided by toward the distant shanties, and the sea.
“In public speaking there are three basic things: ethos, pathos and logos. Ethos means character, from which comes ethics or just, moral, action. For any writer, ethos is the big issue. The character of the times, or a nation, a place, a mindset. I am troubled by the present ethos in South Africa. Every now and then writers are spurred on by events, as I have been by Marikana.
“In the poem for my mom, the ethos of the time seemed to be enthusiasm and duty to a broad symbolic order. People had gone through the war, were starting up families in new suburbs. They had a strong sense of identity and affiliation.”
Speaking of time and times, Peter spoke of narratives as being linear, like railway lines, and the question is “Who is shunting me down the track?” The time of a novel is ‘chronos’ – linear and horizontal time. But there is also ‘up and down, vertical, time’ – ‘kairos’ (the moment, opportunity, season, that remarkable sudden sense of things, an epiphany). Poetry is taking a snapshot of a sense of things. In all writing there is both ‘chronos’ and ‘kairos’.
“Writing is about shape-shifting, about metaphor. And metaphor is also up-and-down: the moment of transformation, a moment of kairos and sudden change.”
“Metaphor is the turning of one thing into another. It is about transformation, metamorphosis. it is a magical thing. It is natural, fundamental to language itself. If you are going to be working with metaphors and transformation then you are going to be working with what we call miracles and the imagination.”
Metaphors, miracles, myths and magic are what Peter Merrington’s books are all about. His first book, Zebra Crossings, Tales from the Shaman’s Record, was published in 2008 by Jacana. It is a collection of episodes all involving the same characters. The sequel, The Zombie and the Moon: More Tales from the Shaman’s Record was published in 2011.
“The main characters in my books are the eclectic urban sangoma Malibongwe Ngingingini, his apprenctice Anna, their dog and their mission to heal. Malibongwe is my alter ego. He grew up in Idutywa in the Transkei, was a talented pupil at a farm school and went to Rhodes University to study medicine. While there his brother was necklaced by mistake and the trauma made him leave university. He then fell into ukuthwasa, the calling sickness, had to retreat from the world, to recover and become a wounded healer. He straddles two worlds, which I can’t do.”
Anna is a rescued domestic slave and her dog is called Nostril. Their mission is to put things right. The stories are about sorting out the plight of people and involve synchronicity and co-incidences. They fix things in Poffadder, the Eastern Cape, the Northern Cape, and beyond our borders, into Egypt, England, and the USA. As a member of Shamans sans Frontieres, Malibongwe knows no boundaries.
“The Zombie is the bastard son of a slave-owning sugar cane planter in the Caribbean, Lord Tantamount. This wild boy ends up in jail where he is transformed into a zombie. He is shipped out by the authorities and ends up in Cape Town, in the mid-eighteenth century. He lives for two centuries, gets involved with Beauty and the Beast in Kimberley and finally is redeemed in New Orleans on the Eve of All Souls. Malibongwe and Anna are in the USA for the biennial convention, in Taos, New Mexico, of ICSATH – the International Council of Shamans and Traditional Healers – and they play a part in the resolution of this plot. I don’t like writing sad stories – there is a joyful ending after Tantamount’s transformation into an eligible young bachelor and heir to Castle Tantamount in England.
In the first book, Zebra Crossings, Malibongwe and Anna travel to Cairo and London, and then to Oxford to a gathering of ICSATH at Mandeville College. While there they engage with a Green Man in the Cotswolds and repatriate an ancient African artefact. I am working on two sequels to these books, one in which the stories combine crime and magical forensics, the other in which this Green Man embarks on an inspection of the state of the Axis Mundi, the World Tree, running down from the Cotswolds all the way to Kirstenbosch.”
Asked when he first started to write poetry, Peter responded: “I began writing publishable poems recently, since I resigned from university teaching. Verbal imagination is what defines us as humans. We all have it and use it daily, but literary play is a dedicated version of it. I would not try to write for publication if I hadn’t satisfied myself of long experience of reading and teaching, taking on board good advice, and a layered sense of what generations of others have done.
But everything, event, experience, person, image, word, in the human world is a potential start for a poem or story. It isn’t only about literary experience. It’s also about noticing, letting small things grow in the mind, and developing their connections.”
Apart from writing poetry and fiction, Peter is also a literary historian, specialising in South Africa circa 1890-1920, “focusing on the many personalities, debates, and initiatives that went into the imagining of the ‘New South Africa’ of 1910, the Union. I am working on a monograph in which I will put together published essays on this topic.”
Peter’s favourite authors are AS Byatt, JM Coetzee and the Australian Patrick White and the early twentieth-century modernists Woolf, Forster, Lawrence, Yeats, Joyce. “But I enjoy reading any author who has the consistent strength, sense of ethos, to build up a credible parallel world in fiction or imagination – I spent weeks last year reading the twelve volumes of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, and I have a particular affection for the social mannerisms and literary conventions of the 1920s and 30s.”
And his advice to aspiring poets or writers of fiction? “Read and reflect on reading, taking note of what works well, and why. And building up a stock of images, phrases and ideas as well.
“Each of us is like an entire book of informal poems – our characters and identities are multi-layered, rich and complex,” observes Peter. Peter Merrington appears to me to be more like a library of poetry and I look forward to delving into its depths.
For more info about Peter Merrington’s ceramic works ph 083 324 1470 or email him on firstname.lastname@example.org
There’s a massive thing near Fraserburg in the
Karroo, dinosaur, fossil craw that gapes at little birds,
snatching, groping, from its fossil bed.
This is also to be seen in koppies near Laingsburg,
the spines of dragons, lined up in the old sun,
snorting quietly in their stale tobacco haze.
And those hex three stony sisters on the roadside
outside of Colesberg, thrusting out their nippled sex for
truckers, or a plague on earnest married couples.
Evangelism isn’t going to help: these beasts
belong to Darwin, are immune to other arguments,
can’t tell Calvin from Couperin or Kant.
The slow Damascus that they know is sunstroke,
ironstone baked a little tougher each epoch,
great solar bursts raising a little tremor of life
(give or take two thousand years) within their stony sleep.
© Vivienne von der Heyden with Peter Merrington
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