RIP Wilbur Smith

Some sad news about a new acquaintance.

From the press release: Global bestselling author Wilbur Smith died unexpectedly this afternoon at his Cape Town home after a morning of reading and writing with his wife Niso by his side.

 

The undisputed and inimitable master of adventure writing, Wilbur Smith’s novels have gripped readers for over half a century, selling over 140 million copies worldwide in more than thirty languages.  His bestselling Courtney Series, the longest running in publishing history, follows the Courtney family’s adventures across the world, spanning generations and three centuries, through critical periods from the dawn of colonial Africa to the American Civil War, and to the apartheid era in South Africa. In the 49 novels Smith has published to date, he has transported his readers to gold mines in South Africa, piracy on the Indian Ocean, buried treasure on tropical islands, conflict in Arabia and Khartoum, ancient Egypt, World War Two Germany and Paris, India, the Americas and the Antarctic, encountering ruthless diamond and slave traders and big game hunters in the jungles and bush of the African wilderness. However, it was with Taita, the hero of his acclaimed Egyptian Series, that Wilbur most strongly identified, and River God remains one of his best-loved novels to this day.

 

Wilbur Smith’s very first novel When the Lion Feeds, published in 1964, was an instant bestseller and each of his subsequent novels has featured in the bestseller charts, often at number one, earning the author the opportunity to travel far and wide in search of inspiration and adventure. 

 

He was a believer in deep research, meticulously corroborating every fact and adhering to the advice of his first publisher, Charles Pick at William Heinemann, to ‘write about the things you know well’.  Smith, accomplished as a bushman, survivalist and big game hunter, gained a pilot’s licence, was an expert scuba diver, a conservator, managed his own game reserve and owned a tropical island in the Seychelles. He also used his vast experiences outside of Africa in places like Switzerland and rural Russia to assist with creating his fictional worlds. His own life, detailed in his autobiography, On Leopard Rock, was as stirring and incident packed as any of his novels. 

 

Named after one of the pioneer brothers of air flight Wilbur Wright, Smith was born on January 9th, 1933, in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia in Central Africa. His father, Herbert Smith, was a sheet-metal worker and a strict disciplinarian and it was his more artistically inclined mother, Elfreda, who encouraged the young Wilbur to read the likes of CS Forester, Rider Haggard and John Buchan.  

 

At the age of eighteen months Wilbur became seriously ill with cerebral malaria, and there was a possibility he would be brain damaged if he survived. As he reflected: ‘It probably helped me because I think you have to be slightly crazy to try to earn a living from writing.’

 

His father thought his son’s obsession with books was unnatural and unhealthy and Wilbur became a secret reader, spending hours in the outhouse long-drop latrine where he kept his cache of favourite novels.

 

At eight, Wilbur enrolled at Cordwalles boarding school in Pietermaritzburg in Natal, South Africa, a preparatory school with the motto ‘courage builds character’, but the experience was brutal. He read voraciously as consolation, was considered a poor pupil, but excelled in English composition. It was at prep school that he discovered Ernest Hemingway who would have a profound influence on his writing.

 

Senior school was the prestigious Michaelhouse in what is now KwaZulu-Natal Midlands in South Africa. Wilbur was no happier: ‘Michaelhouse was a debilitating experience,’ he recalled. ‘There was no respect for the pupils. The teachers were brutal, the prefects beat us, and the senior boys bullied us. It was a cycle of violence that kept perpetuating itself.’ Reading and creative writing became his refuge.

 

At sixteen Wilbur contracted polio which left him with a weak right leg, but it caused him little problem until later in life. The experience prompted his depiction of the flawed hero in his novels, in particular Garrick Courtney in the Courtney series of adventures.

 

Inspired by his own experience running wild on his father’s ranch, Wilbur wrote When the Lion Feeds, the story of brothers Sean and Garrick Courtney, and the tough life of cattle farming in the shadow of the Zulu wars and the gold rush. It was infused with the world he knew intimately. His agent sent it to Charles Pick, then Managing Director of William Heinemann, who immediately responded to the raw authenticity of the storytelling.

 

A Hollywood deal followed, and foreign rights sales racked up.  The novel was a bestseller and Wilbur quit his job at the tax office to write full time. His instinctive grasp of narrative, the rich material of his upbringing and the boundless story opportunities of his African homeland produced a string of novels that thrilled an ever-growing readership.  His obsessive dedication to the craft of authorship enabled him to write almost a novel a year, allowing his publishers to build a bestselling brand name. 

 

As well as standalone novels, from piracy and poaching to diamond smuggling and the pursuit of buried treasure, fuelled by high-octane derring-do and featuring rugged wish-fulfilment characters, Wilbur expanded his popular Courtney Series of conflict and ambition within a sprawling family, moving back and forward through the centuries.

 

In the 1980s he began the Ballantyne Series, chronicling the family’s struggles during Rhodesia’s brief history and a decade later he would begin a series of novels set in Ancient Egypt, the latest of which, The New Kingdom, was published this autumn.

 

Smith’s personal life was as eventful as his novels. Another marriage producing a son failed, and then he met young divorcee Danielle Thomas whom he married in 1971 until she died from brain cancer in 1999, following a six-year illness.

 

It wasn’t until he met his fourth wife, Mokhiniso Rakhimova from Tajikistan, in a bookshop near Sloane Square in London, that Wilbur found true happiness and peace of mind.  They married in May 2000.  

 

Niso has been instrumental in managing Wilbur’s legacy project. A deeply loyal man, he had remained with his original publishers for forty-five years, but in December 2012 he moved to HarperCollins in a publishing deal that also included co-authored novels, the first of which, Golden Lion, was published in 2015.  A further move followed in 2017 when Wilbur Smith joined Bonnier Books UK.  

 

 A passionate advocate of adventure fiction, Wilbur endeavoured to share his love for the genre through the global charitable foundation he and his wife, Niso, established in 2015. Dedicated to growing the readership for adventure fiction and the promotion of reading and writing for younger generations across the world, the joyous and productive work of The Wilbur and Niso Smith Foundation will continue, led by Niso Smith.  As the final piece of the legacy puzzle, Wilbur and Niso recently started a vertically integrated media company, Leopard Rock Studios Ltd, to produce film/tv and other projects by reimagining Wilbur’s classic IP for a new generation of fans. 

 

As Wilbur Smith said at the conclusion of his memoir On Leopard Rock published in 2018: ‘I’ve had tough times, bad marriages, people I loved dearly dying in my arms, burnt the midnight oil getting nowhere, but it has, all in the end, added up to a phenomenally fulfilled and wonderful life. I want to be remembered as somebody who gave pleasure to millions.’  He remained as committed to his readers as they were to him and their dedication and engagement was one of his greatest joys. On his behalf, we thank them all.

 

Kevin Conroy Scott, literary agent for Wilbur Smith for the past 11 years, said:

‘Wilbur Smith was an icon, larger than life, beloved by his fans who collected his books in hardbacks and passed his work down through generations, fathers to sons and mothers to daughters. His knowledge of Africa, and his imagination knew no limitations.  His work ethic and his powerful, elegant writing style made him known to millions. I cherish the role of working side by side with his wife Niso and the Wilbur and Niso Smith Foundation to keep the flame of his fictional universe alive for many years to come.

 

Kate Parkin, Managing Director of Adult Trade Publishing for Bonnier Books UK commented: It is with deep sadness that we mourn the death of our beloved author Wilbur Smith whose seemingly inexhaustible creative energy and passion for storytelling will long live on in the hearts and minds of readers everywhere. Wilbur never lost his appetite for writing and remained working every day of his life. He leaves behind him a treasure-trove of novels, as well as completed and yet to be published co-authored books and outlines for future stories. It has been a privilege and an honour to work closely with him on this remarkable publishing legacy and we look forward to sharing them with his millions of fans worldwide in years to come.

The Summer Of New Beginnings

I’ve written a piece for Medium about the massive changes that are coming for all of us, and why you should get the best out of them.

The psychic shock of the last 18 months has hit hard. People are re-thinking their lives and how they want to spend them. If you want to work from home, with all the benefits that come with it, it’s never been easier. If you want to work from home as a first step on a journey to an entirely new way of living, well, you can do that too. Because the power has shifted into your hands.

Write What You Know

One of the most misunderstood pieces of writing advice is ‘write what you know’.

When I’m out talking to people, it usually crops up, often followed by, “I’ve worked all my life in a shop/factory/field/whatever – nobody’s going to be interested in what I know.”

That’s really sad.

Because the advice isn’t about ‘out there’ – the things you’ve done, how you’ve spent your days. It’s about ‘in there’, in your head.

How you see the world through the filter of your experiences. More importantly, what you’ve learned about human beings. About love, hate, jealousy, greed…

Your view is by definition unique. And everything you’ve learned by observing through the prism of your life – about the nature of people and the way the world works – has the capacity to illuminate someone else’s life.

Look inside. Write what you know. Everything else is just research.

Strange Lights In The Sky

After The New Yorker published its fascinating in-depth article about why the Pentagon has started taking UFOs seriously, I thought I’d share a personal story.

When I was 17 I was dating a farmer’s daughter. The farmhouse was out in the middle of nowhere on some high land where you could see for miles. One night her father rushed in from finishing milking the cows. He was extremely excited, and he was the most down to earth person you could imagine. He summoned us both outside where he pointed across the dark countryside to the lights of a power station.

Three globes of light were circling the cooling tower. They performed some strange manoeuvres, then, as we watched, they shot off at great speed into the night in different directions.

No idea what I’d seen. I would rule out plasma balls or any by-product of electricity generation. They moved with seeming intelligence and when they went in different directions it was in a manner that ruled out some natural force.

That night has stayed with me ever since. That unconscious sense that this is something unusual. But, as an aside…

The power station was called Drakelow. It’s now been decommissioned, but it had been built on an ancient site where archaeologists have discovered votive offerings to the gods. A sacred site. That makes me wonder if this phenomena has been witnessed across the centuries.

In old English Drakelow means Dragon Mound. In folklore all over the UK any place given the dragon name is linked with lights in the sky. If you want to find out more, read Paul Devereux’s excellent book, Earthlights. He’s a scientist and he looked into historical reports about these kinds of lights which seemed to move with a mind of their own…

The Aliens Are Coming!

Anyone who is friends with me on Facebook will know I’ve been having some fun with all the recent news releases about UFOs, the Pentagon confirmation of an incident yesterday and the forthcoming release of whatever is in US government files before June 1.

But here’s an interesting thing: does rising public interest in UFOs always happen during a US Democratic Presidency? Check this out:

1947 – first modern wave, Kenneth Arnold’s ‘flying saucer’, Roswell – Harry S Truman

1961 – second wave, Betty and Barney Hill abduction – JFK

1966 – Michigan ‘swamp gas’ incident – Lyndon B Johnson

1990s – alien autopsy, X Files explosion – Clinton

Today – accelerating sightings/interest – Biden

These are the main moments on the timeline when an interest in alien contact broke into the public consciousness. Interest declined during Republican presidencies.

I think there might be a sociological reason, something along the lines of: under a Democratic President there’s more idealism and people are looking ‘out there’ and under a Republican President there’s more focus on material things so people are looking inside.

For discussion.

The Future Is Coming Fast

Nothing really changes unless there’s a crisis. If something kinda sorta works, we muddle on because the effort, time, cash and reputations on the line to bring about change look like too high a price to pay for decision-makers.

But when terrible things happen we get Great Leaps Forward that spin us into brighter futures.

Without four years of Trump standing up for white supremacy and shifting resources into the pockets of billionaires, would we have got Biden’s transformative Presidency tackling the climate emergency, deep-rooted racial injustice, healthcare and an unbalanced economy? All issues that people said couldn’t be changed fast. All things that are now being tackled.

Crises are terrible, but crises disrupt stagnant or sclerotic systems.

The pandemic has been devastating with millions of lives lost. Yet out of it we’re seeing medical advances that are propelling us into a new and better world.

The mRNA technology which was used in a Covid-19 vaccine to massive success will change the face of medicine. It can be used to turn our own bodies into super-powerful drug-producing factories. Trials have already shown breakthroughs in treating advanced cancers, MS and malaria, and vaccines are now being developed for these and other illnesses.

mRNA’s promise ranges from the expensive-yet-experimental to the glorious-yet-speculative. But the past year was a reminder that scientific progress may happen suddenly, after long periods of gestation. “This has been a coming-out party for mRNA, for sure,” says John Mascola, the director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “In the world of science, RNA technology could be the biggest story of the year. We didn’t know if it worked. And now we do.”

It’s worth reading the entire well-researched article from The Atlantic linked above. Out of the bad, good things will come.

Eurasian Monsters

Art by Daniele Serra

Something you might want to check out for a little holiday reading. Eurasian Monsters is the seventh and final volume in the multiple award-nominated The Fox Spirit Books of Monsters anthology series.

Edited by Margret Helgadottir, the series has a pleasing diversity on many levels. Authors and artists from around the world have been invited to write stories based on their own folklore and culture.

Genres range through horror, fantasy, science fiction, post-apocalyptic, YA and crime.

Margret says, “The idea of the series is to feature creatures and monsters from around the world that have not received much spotlight in the western culture. Through the stories the reader also gets to know the countries and cultures covered, contemporary life and struggles that usually are unknown to us in the west.

“You’ll find stories with an underlying critique of aspects of society, be it poverty, illegal working or the life of immigrants, border conflicts, the relationship between east and west, or the tension between a traditional life and a modern society.

“All the seven books contain stories by new and established authors with a strong connection to the region or the continent we cover. The series contain stories by authors such as Cory Doctorow, Darcie Little Badger, Liliana Colanzi, Teresa P. Mira de Echeverria, Nnedi Okorafor, Tade Thompson, Ken Liu, Xia Jia, Aliette de Bodard, Usman T. Malik, K.A. Teryna, and Maria Galina.”

Eurasian Monsters, which is published in paperback on December 20, has seventeen short stories by authors from Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria, including several authors never published in English before.

Here’s the TOC:

K.A. Teryna: Morpheus
Marta Magdalena Lasik: Daemons of their time
Yevhen Lyr: Sleepless in Enerhodar
Karina Shainyan: Bagatazh
Vlad Arenev: Rapunzel
Haralambi Markov: Nine Tongues Tell Of
Maria Galina: The Visit
Alex Shvartsman: A Thousand Cuts
Daryna Stremetska: The Whitest Linen
Shawn Basey: Lysa Hora
Karolina Fedyk: Our Lady of Carrion Crows
Bogi Takács: Veruska and the Lúdvérc
Eldar Sattarov: Mountain Maid
Kat Hutchson: The Housekeeper
Natalia Osoianu: The Serpent
Alexander Bachilo: This is Moscow, Old Man!
Ekaterina Sedia: Sleeping Beauty of Elista

Best TV Drama 2020

In the Year of Staying In, we were all fortunate we were no longer trapped in the era of network TV. With the plethora of offerings from the streaming giants – a number growing year on year – no one could complain they couldn’t find something to their taste.

And there would have been lots more if Covid-19 hadn’t shut down so many productions, including all Apple TV+ returning dramas and Disney+ landmark Marvel series.

I try to keep up with at least a couple of episodes of every new drama. That’s getting increasingly hard to do. But here are my top ten lockdown loves of 2020.

10. Perry Mason

HBO offered up a gloomy take on the attorney of Erie Stanley Gardner’s crime novels, a far cry from the brightly-lit sixties TV series with Raymond Burr in the title role. It’s a strong dose of noir set as America claws its way out of the Great Depression, built on excellent period detail and with a tough realistic edge. Matthew Rhys makes a good hound dog Mason and there’s strong support from Tatiana Maslany, John Lithgow and Shea Whigham.

9. The Marvellous Mrs Maisel

The third season maintains both its class and remarkable period detail while touching on issues with contemporary resonance. Mrs Maisel remains the unlikely outsider in a highly constrained society – a woman! in stand-up comedy! – but this time encounters people even more outside the norm. Winning characters and gentle humour are given full force by excellent performances from Rachel Brosnahan, Alex Borstein and Tony Shalhoub among others. Worth all the Golden Globes and Emmys.

8. The Plot Against America

A chilling and timely adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel which looks at how easily fascism could arise in America, and out of the democratic system. Told through the eyes of a working class Jewish family in New Jersey as the nation deals with the rapid rise of populist politician Charles Lindbergh, its easy to see why, after the events of the last four years in the US, David Simon and Ed Burns decided to tell this now. Terrifying not only in how the story unfolds, but also in what it says about human nature and the nature of America.

7. The Good Fight

One of the few shows that is overtly about Trump and his influence on America. The Good Fight doesn’t shy away from the divisiveness and the underlying sense of threat in the country for people who don’t agree with the former President, and calls out Trump defiantly – he’s the background villain of the piece. But it delivers its commentary with wry wit and character-based drama. There’s also a winning quirkiness to its storytelling with flashes of animation, asides and hallucinations.

6. Ozark

One of the unfolding strengths of this series is the ability to increase the stakes for the central characters not only from season to season, but from episode to episode. Every single choice the Byrde family makes as they attempt to stay alive and free leads to a worse situation. In lesser hands that could come across as breathless, but here it’s measured and the twists are always surprising. Julia Garner is the standout star, but Laura Linney is doing career-best work as the resourceful matriarch.

5. Billions

A truncated season because of the pandemic, this subsequently lacks the killer punch of previous finales (the final episodes will be shown in 2021, running straight into season 6). The manoeuvring and manipulation of Paul Giamatti’s Chuck Rhoades and Damien Lewis’ Bobby Axelrod grows more intense in the Shakespearean telling. Sociopaths rule the world. We all feared it. Now we see it’s true.

4. The Crown

As well made and enjoyable as this series has been, it’s never made my list before. But season 4 has been a tour-de-force. That’s partly because it’s reached the eighties, the era of high drama for the Royals with the spiralling tragedy of the Charles and Diana romance. And partly because of Gillian Anderson’s coruscating performance as Margaret Thatcher, perfectly capturing her divisive nature – driven and ambitious for Britain, but a megalomaniac, paranoiac and uncaring about a large swathe of the population which Thatcher deemed, in her own words, not “one of us”.

3. DEVS

Novelist and filmmaker Alex Garland’s science fiction murder mystery is packed with ideas and deep themes that will leave you pondering long after its over. As with his movie Ex Machina, it’s ostensibly about technological advancement, here quantum computing and the wonders that offers, but it tackles free will and determinism. At it’s heart, though, it’s a human story about loss and the search for meaning in everyone’s life.

2. Better Call Saul

One of the best-written and acted returning series on TV. There’s nothing flashy about it. No shocking twists or bursts of ultraviolence. Instead it’s crept up quietly in the background with great storytelling and dialogue and pitch-perfect performances from Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn. It’s very different to Breaking Bad, the series that spawned it, yet it has now, in its own way, transcended Walter White’s odyssey. A measured character study of a flawed man and the way he changes the world around him.

  1. The Queen’s Gambit

Not just the best series of the year, but the best for very many years. It came out of nowhere during the pandemic months and travelled the world through word of mouth – a drama, about chess? Are you sure? Of course, it’s not really about chess. In a way, it’s very old school storytelling. The script and direction by Scott Frank is unflashy yet brilliant, hitting all the notes of character, emotion and theme without drawing attention to itself. The world it creates is new and refreshing, a rarity these days, and you don’t need to know anything about chess to appreciate it. And it’s anchored by a luminous performance by Anna Taylor-Joy with an equally great supporting cast. Awards will shower down on it, and rightly so.