A 1960s summer in New York with Lewis Nkosi—Read an excerpt from Vintage Love and Other Essays by Jolyon Nuttall

The JRB presents an excerpt from Vintage Love and Other Essays by Jolyon Nuttall.

Vintage Love
Jolyon Nuttall
Jacana Media, 2018





A Summer in New York

In 1961 at the age of twenty-seven I was seconded by my South African newspaper company to its New York bureau for a year. My first two weeks in Manhattan were the loneliest in my life and the next fifty were the best. And, of those fifty, four in mid-summer—a hot, steamy, grumpy period for most New Yorkers—stand out in my memory as the most remarkable. All because of Lewis Nkosi.

Lewis was the closest to a budding genius in the world of writing that I have ever met. Two years younger than me, he and I encountered each other at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., during a weekend visit I made to see a South African friend who was studying there (and to walk the hallowed Yard). We were at a cocktail party for visiting scholars. Amid much mingling, I came face to face with a slim, youthful figure with a bulging stare, flashing eyes and an aura of brightness about him. I knew of Lewis Nkosi only through what I had read in the press: that, as a reporter for Drum magazine, a vibrant, bold and brave publication launched in the fifties as—to use his own subsequent description—’a symbol of the new African’, he had been awarded a coveted Nieman Fellowship in journalism to study at Harvard. But, in order to take it up, he had been obliged to leave South Africa on an exit permit, which prevented his return to his own country. I remember thinking what an iniquitous imposition that was on a person’s birthright.

Here before me now was the victim, who showed not the faintest sign of being sorry for himself. On the contrary, he exuded nervous energy and humour. By the time the encounter ended, I had established that he would be coming to New York in the summer and I had invited him to look me up—and stay with me for a while if he wished while he found lodgings. I had been fortunate enough to sub-let a spacious first-floor apartment in the heart of Greenwich Village, just off Washington Square, from a United Nations staffer who had been sent—irony of ironies—to establish library services in the newly independent Republic of the Congo. The caretaker of the apartment, one James Fair, a former prize-fighter with a flattened nose, lived on the same floor with his charming wife Frances, she of the softest Virginian accent possible. They both took me under their wings. In contrast to Frances’s accent, Jimmy spoke from the side of his mouth in a gravelly Chicago tongue that sounded for all the world like an old key being turned in a rusty lock. His memories of his time in the ring were vivid and explicit and he often shuffled around their small kitchen, dodging and feinting as he recalled how he had sorted out So-and-so in the second round. He claimed to know many of the boxing legends of his time, which I took with a large pinch of salt, until I walked into their kitchen one day and there was Gene Tunney, a former world heavyweight champion, sitting there. On another occasion I met the rough and tough little actor James Cagney. They both adored Frances and tolerated Jimmy’s boundless exuberance.

I wondered how Lewis would respond to them and, for that matter, they to him. But, in the event, they barely met. In mid-July, Lewis turned up and there began a roller-coaster of a ride for the next four weeks. He had found somewhere nearby to stay, but he came often to my apartment, usually on his way to or from some other encounter.

I learned early on that Lewis was in the process of completing a novel, a play, a volume of short stories, an autobiography and a series of essays on his experiences with his fellow journalists on Drum magazine, whom he was to describe many years later as ‘urbanised, eager, fast-talking and brash’ and most of them as heavy drinkers, a description which happened to suit him aptly. He was continuing to write for Drum while in the United States, as I was for my newspaper group. The fact that I too was working on a novel paled into insignificance in the face of his outpourings of creativity.

My first, perhaps only, mistake was to introduce Lewis to an attractive young South African émigré whom I was ardently pursuing at the time. He deployed his seduction skills, which he had fine-tuned in Hillbrow, on her and that was the last I saw of them both for at least a week. He turned up alone somewhat shamefacedly and made a half-hearted attempt to apologise but I don’t think he was really sorry.

Lewis was the first close black South African friend I had had and it took an encounter in an overseas country to make it happen. He was full of surprises.

On one humid evening, he arrived barefoot on my doorstep and insisted that I join him at a Village nightclub to listen to a fantastic singer he had discovered.

‘But, Lewis,’ I said, ‘you can’t go barefoot.’

He laughed uproariously.

‘Why not? My feet are black. No one will notice.’

He was perfectly right. The singer was stunning and we became regulars, graduating to a front table near the stage where she would acknowledge our arrival with a lovely smile.

I imagined he worked at some stage of the day or night on his wide portfolio of projects but it was difficult to tell, such was his livewire energy in being out and about. However, nothing seemed to be completed. He would dodge my questioning with airy waves of his arms as if to say, ‘Don’t bother me with that now.’

I took Lewis to several parties—Saturday evening thrashes that usually ended with 4 a.m. breakfasts in Little Italy before we slept Sunday away—and my friends, mostly New York Times journalists, welcomed him as one of the tribe of scribes. But I could see he wasn’t particularly comfortable there. The repartee was fast and funny but he didn’t quite click. Was it because we were all white? As the party got hotter, Lewis would slip away into the night.

One evening towards the end of his stay, I went with Lewis and my new girlfriend—a sophisticated Japanese actress—to visit friends who lived in a first-floor apartment on the Lower East Side. In those days, the area was something of a poor relation of Greenwich Village, which was starting to become swish. Our friends were among those who had been obliged to move there because they could no longer afford rentals in the Village, and there had been the odd clash between the newcomers and resentful locals.

We had a great evening, and it was 1 a.m. before we left our hosts and made our way downstairs to walk back to the Village. As we turned a corner, we were set upon by a bunch of assailants who had emerged from a club patronised by Puerto Ricans. Our bonhomie dissolved in a flash. It became rapidly clear that our attackers were incensed by a white guy (right) with a Japanese girl (wrong) and a black American (wrong) fraternising together.

The township instincts honed in South Africa surfaced in Lewis. In a flash, he slipped between two parked cars into the safety of the street, calling to us to follow. I remember falling to the sidewalk under the weight of two of the men and crying out fatuous things like ‘Leave us alone’ and ‘Get off me’. There was no doubt that they wanted to teach us a lesson about intruding into their territory as a mixed-race trio. They heaved themselves off me but they were not finished. As I watched in horror, one of them walked up to the Japanese girl and punched her in the eye. Blood spurted out immediately from a cut below her eyebrow. Seemingly satisfied, they disappeared around the corner from which they had come.

Misa was deeply shocked. ‘My face, my face,’ she cried, instantly worried about the scar that might result. We took her to the casualty ward of a Village hospital and her wound was stitched.

Next day, the ‘news’ interest surfaced in the two scribes: Lewis and I sent reports back home to our respective publications about the mugging. Mine was given prominent displays. I never saw what Lewis wrote.

As year-end approached, with Lewis long back at Harvard, I remember wishing that I too had left on an exit permit. I did not want to leave New York, leave my girl, leave my wonderful friends, leave my exciting job covering the United Nations and life in the US. I walked down the long tunnel to board my plane home as though I was descending into Purgatory.

Back in South Africa, I heard from Lewis once more. I had been arrested by the Security Police for being in a ‘Native Reserve’ without a permit. It had come about after I had interviewed Chief Albert Lutuli, former president of the African National Congress and Nobel Prize winner, on behalf of Time magazine. In terms of a banning order imposed on him, he was permitted to meet one person at a time in a small back office made available to him by an attorney named EV Mahomed in the town of Stanger, some fifteen kilometres or so from the Groutville Reserve where he lived.

After he had given me a splendid, off-the-cuff interview which I have always treasured, the chief and I emerged to find it was pouring with rain. I offered him a lift home in my small car. He accepted gratefully. To reach his home, we had to leave the tarred main road to Durban and bounce along a rutted sandy road. When we arrived, he asked me to wait while he went to find his wife to come and greet me. The Security Police got to me first.

‘Where’s your permit to be in a Native Reserve?’

‘I don’t have one. It was raining so I gave Chief Luthuli a lift.’

I was charged and ordered to appear in the Stanger Magistrate’s Court on the following Wednesday.

The incident caused something of a stir and the local Sunday Times carried a short front-page report about it. The story was picked up by the agencies and was published in the New York Times. Lewis cabled me:

‘Congratulations. Way to go.’

It was to be forty-six years before I saw him again. Through an intervention by my daughter whose surname Lewis had recognised some years before at a conference in Europe and whom Lewis had asked whether I was her father, we met at the International Convention Centre in Cape Town in 2007. It was 10 a.m. Lewis was due to participate in a panel discussion at noon. He was into his second beer and he spoke with something of a drawl. I could see it was Lewis alright and he recognised me. The years had descended on us both. I don’t know what he made of me, but I searched in vain for any remnants there might be of that wry, bright spirit, full of nervous energy and extraordinary vitality.

I had often wondered in the years following our times together in New York when the work of the budding genius I had identified would take the literary world by storm. Where were the novels, the plays, the short stories he was working on back then, the words that were pouring out of him, that would secure his position among the highest ranks of South African writers? I heard he had left the US soon after the completion of his Harvard stint and made his way to the UK and Europe. He married a British schoolteacher—hah, finally hooked, eh, Lewis?—and they had twins. But where were his writings? Did his enforced absence from his homeland dry up his enchanting Muse? What if he had never left?

Someone told me he had entered academia and had obtained a degree from Sussex University which led to professorships in Zambia (quite close to South Africa but not close enough) and at Warsaw University. His focus, it seemed, had turned to the writing of criticism and essays; perhaps they brought in money or were just easier to write than the creative stuff. No doubt there were bouts of drinking, too. I felt infinitely sad.

A debut novel called Mating Birds finally appeared in 1986, twenty-five years after we parted. Its theme of love, rape and seduction across the colour line ensured it was banned in South Africa, although somehow I remember securing a copy. To me, it wasn’t vintage Nkosi. The spark wasn’t there.

When he died in 2010, I was left with a sensation of an unfulfilled promise, a talent that withered. Where did the fault lie? That draconian exit permit? His own frailties, like those of many of the exciting bunch of young writers that Drum fostered? The cluster of foreign cultures into which he entered as he wandered the wider world?

Whatever, nothing can erase for me the memory of those magical weeks we spent together in a New York summer.


About the book

In Vintage Love, Jolyon Nuttall, a retired newspaperman from a family steeped in literature, writes with feeling and depth—and often with wry humour—about episodes in his life as diverse as the romanticism of early loves through to the agonies of boiling an egg and learning to live alone after a long marriage. He has spurned the autobiography in favour of the essay as the Orwellian literary form in which to record these and other significant happenings in his life.

‘Essays seem to offer almost limitless room to improvise and experiment, and yet their very freedom makes them unforgiving of literary faults: sloppiness, vagueness, pretension, structural misshapenness, an immature voice, insular material, and the nearly universal plague of bad thinking are all mercilessly exposed under the spotlight in which the essayist stands alone onstage. There are no props, no sets, no other actors; the essayist is the existentialist of literature, and a mediocre talent will wear out his audience within a couple of paragraphs’
– George Packer writing on George Orwell

Nuttall is anything but a mediocre talent. From Professor Achille Mbembe, widely recognised thinker and writer who has received worldwide acclaim for his contributions to the discourse on Africa:

‘Writing in the first-person singular is one of the few means through which ordinary people can democratically engage with history. In this manuscript, Jolyon Nuttall offers a vivid example of the way one human being organises his experience of time, thinks of the temporal structure of his own actions, encounters and experiences and ultimately curates his own life. In a style of writing whose clarity and precision are unmatched, he gives ordinary people, places and events a name and a face, turning history itself into society’s memory.’

From Denis Beckett, wordsmith, author, columnist:

‘I hardly ever read anything to the end and, if I do, I feel captive. This one took me swimmingly to page The Last. My overall impression is of a life well lived, extremely elegantly told and reassuring us that some things are as they seem to be.’

From John Conyngham, former editor of The Witness in Pietermaritzburg:

‘Infused in much of the composite narrative is the joy of being a member of a family, with the inevitable sorrow of loss.

‘His essays on Alan Paton and Lewis Nkosi throw fascinating light on important literary figures and are therefore literary history.’

About the author

An early tinkerer with words, Jolyon Nuttall became a journalist, working in London and New York during a nine-year stint attached to The Daily News in Durban. His elevation (many journalists would say demotion) to the ranks of management held the wordsmith at bay. He rose to become General Manager of The Star and a director of Argus Newspapers Ltd during the hectic nineteen-eighties. Since being freed of those preoccupations, his writing instincts have resurfaced. He has self-published works on his father’s lifelong relationship with Alan Paton, entitled A Literary Friendship, and on flyfishing, another passion of his, in a book of essays entitled Hooked on Rivers, now sold out after two editions. His latest work, Vintage Love and Other Essays, is drawn from episodes in his own life. He writes with feeling and depth about situations in which he has found himself over the years. He lives on the edge of the sea in Kommetjie, near Cape Point, where he is at peace to write.

Header image: Lewis Nkosi photographed by Victor Dlamini in around 2006

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