arbitrary stuff that comes to mind: whenever I feel like thinking aloud

Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Day in the Life: The passing of the Boekehuis

Champagne and Cake, Goodbye and Good Luck

"Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got til it's gone" **

The Boekehuis has closed, it's gone: Goodbye.

It's passing will be mourned for many years to come, not only by those who visited it regularly, but also by the occasional visitor, looking for something specific. I can picture them arriving, and then wondering "Now where on earth are we going to go?!"

There is a distance between author and audience that's rarely narrowed. The commercial imperative of a book signing, the hidden agendas of TV and radio interviews ~ these create and maintain the distance.

If you dropped down the hill from Melville, travelling along Lotherbury Avenue, then turned left at the first traffic light, you would have found yourself at the Boekehuis. For 12 short years, this is the place that you went to if you wanted to narrow the Gap. Most Saturday mornings between 12:30 and half past one, and often well beyond that, the Boekehuis played host to an array of South African talent and their works. And yes, they sold a lot of books afterwards; but not because of hype: no, you bought them because you understood enough to know that you really had to have them.

The formula was simple and straightforward: a 10 to 15 min reading from a particular work, followed by a panel discussion, then an open discussion with whoever was in the audience. The audience was not chosen, the agenda was not fixed, and the interaction between all the people there spontaneous, revealing, often deeply insightful; but never trite, commercial or (most important of all!) boring.

There were special occasions ~ a conversation with a person or group whose work and life had contributed in some meaningful way to the enrichment of the South African landscape: Politics, Art, the Struggle, Literature, or even just Social engagement.

How do I explain the experience? There is so much to be gained by sitting in a small room crammed with deeply interested and engaged people and listening and understanding what drives them to do what they do, how this has changed them and the communities that they live in, and then seeing how this played out in our own lives.

But the space itself is not enough.
The intention, no matter how well conceived counts for little unless you have the right people driving the process through. Rudyard Kipling has his Roman General say to his two young lieutenants "It is always one man's work—always and everywhere!" – before giving them the impossible task of defending the Wall from the Barbarians.

For these last 12 years, this has been the work of an extraordinary person~ Corina van der Spoel is an artist at getting the most out of people: persuading them to take the brave step of engaging directly with a spontaneous, critical, and sometimes aggressive audience. And then ensuring that the whole process is rewarding to all the stakeholders, prompting questions, stepping back when needed, and engaging firmly to keep the conversation at its best level.

Corina keeps a watchful eye:
standing, as always, and
ready to step in when needed
There is a peculiar talent that some people have, of being able to lift or lower their conversation to the level of the person they are talking to, so that the person feels its all about them, that they are being heard: and so they open themselves up. Corina has this knack, whether it is the author, the panelists, or the audience. No matter who you are, you feel you have a voice, and its a valuable voice.

Drive, energy, commitment: a large network of people whose lives have been touched directly by her; the demands to take forward some new project will come streaming in from many sides. I should say her difficulty will be in choosing between opportunities, not in finding them.

I'm not sure what persuaded Nationale Pers/Media24 to bring the project to a close. Maybe the economy is biting too deeply. Maybe they think it's not part of their core business: maybe, maybe, maybe. Who's to know?

What I do know is that so much of what I have absorbed about South Africa, its culture, its people, its failures and successes has been given context from the understandings gleaned from arbitrary Saturday mornings, listening to people who have researched our world, reflected on it, or merely speculated. From the funny to the serious, I will miss them all. Let me say this: for a while I became somewhat reclusive: the only place where you would find me out and about would be the occasional visit to (where else?) the Boekehuis: at 12:30 in Auckland Park for an hour or so, before slipping back to my hidey hole.

Now, like Joni Mitchell, at last I know what I've had.
And that it's gone.
But unlike the singer, we are the richer for the experience: and we can ignore the parking lot :)

All Images copyright © the author
** From Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi Cab song


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