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Jonathan Ball

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

‘The world may be wide, but our lives are less so’ – Read an excerpt from The Relatively Public Life Of Jules Browde

Stories of a very great grandad: Kate Sidley talks to Daniel Browde about his book The Relatively Public Life of Jules Browde

The Relatively Public Life Of Jules BrowdeJonathan Ball Publishers have shared an excerpt from The Relatively Public Life Of Jules Browde by Daniel Browde.

About the book

When Daniel is tasked with writing the biography of his grandfather, Jules Browde – one of South Africa’s most celebrated advocates – he sharpens his pencil and gets to work. But the task that at first seems so simple comes to overwhelm him. As the book begins to recede – month after month, year after year – he must face the possibility of disappointing his grandfather, whose legacy now rests uncomfortably in his hands.

The troubled progress of Daniel’s book stands in sharp contrast to the clear-edged tales his grandfather tells him. Spanning almost a century, these gripping stories compellingly conjure other worlds: the streets of 1920s Yeoville, the battlefields of the Second World War, the courtrooms of apartheid South Africa.

The Relatively Public Life of Jules Browde turns the conventions of a biography inside out. It is more than the portrait of an unusual South African life, it is the moving tale of a complex and tender relationship between grandfather and grandson, and an exploration of how we are made and unmade in the stories we tell about our lives.

About the author

Daniel Browde was born in 1976 in Israel, but has lived most of his life in South Africa. After completing a BA at Wits University he worked variously as a researcher, actor and film editor. In 2001 he was nominated for a Vita Award for best supporting actor for his part in the play Proof. Browde lives with his partner, artist Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi, in Johannesburg.


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Read an excerpt from Chapter 10 of the book:

In the stories from this period, I found a beguiling argument: that a person can be understood as the end result of a chain of events. The idea that, if we look closely, we can see the seminal moment, the where-it-all-began. So Bruce Wayne puts on a mask and hunts criminals because two of them murdered his parents one night in Gotham, and so on, one thing leading to another according to an ultimately decipherable logic. In this way, we give coherence to the blind swarm of the past.

Even when I was a little kid, I knew what my grandpa’s superpower was – what he was the best at. It was called cross-examination. This, he would often tell me, did not mean ‘examining crossly’. It was more difficult than that, more artful. It was a way of asking questions so that the weaknesses of a story would reveal themselves. It took special skills of listening and memory. ‘Just a minute, sir, didn’t you say earlier that …’ was what I imagined him saying to a lying witness, having fed him enough rope and now watching him tie himself in a knot.

My father told me how law students would skip their lectures to go and listen to my grandfather cross-examine witnesses, that was how good he was – and I was always proud of him for it. But back then I just assumed that it was his natural superpower: as a bee knew how to make honey, so he knew how to get you to say what he wanted. But now I listened with increasing excitement as the flow of his narrative suggested that he was leading me to the font of this talent. Here it was, if I wanted it: the origin story.

‘My mother,’ he said, ‘had not a great income, and therefore I had to work. And I decided that any job I could get I would take, in order to try to make some contribution to the household.’

Ultimately (his word), he found work as a judge’s clerk, assisting two judges in the Witwatersrand Local Division. One was a man by the name of Leslie Blackwell, and the other was Harold Ramsbottom. Most of the time he worked for Blackwell, but when Blackwell went to hear cases on the circuit in Pretoria, he stayed in Johannesburg and worked for Ramsbottom. In the mornings he clerked for one of these two in the High Court on Pritchard Street, and in the afternoons he attended classes at the university in Braamfontein.

The tale was cleverly cast: Blackwell, an Australian by birth, had ‘a gnarled face with a big bulbous nose and hooded eyes. He was a very rough character indeed,’ while Ramsbottom, ‘or Rammy, as we called him, was a gentleman to his fingertips. To me he was the soul of courtesy …’

Rammy, my grandfather explained, had been an officer in the artillery in the First World War, and took a special interest in the progress of this young artillery veteran. ‘Every afternoon after work, he would drop me at the library. When Blackwell was here, I used to go by bus. But Rammy insisted on taking me in his car. On the way, he spoke to me about my studies and any difficulties I was having, and when I had problems I would talk to him about them. He really was a most gracious employer.’

So Blackwell and Rammy, the shadow and the light, provided the vibrant chiaroscuro that animated the background of the period.

Sitting in court, clerking for either one or the other, the young law student ‘was privileged not only to learn the requirements of judgeship, but also had the opportunity of listening to and watching the giants of the Bar at that time carrying out their duties in court and conducting themselves in the best tradition of the profession of advocacy.’

He mentioned two giants in particular. The first was Harry Morris, who had become famous for his work on the Lord Erroll murder trial in Kenya, a case that caught the world’s attention and would later become immortalised in the book White Mischief. ‘Morris was an absolutely brilliant cross-examiner,’ my grandfather said. ‘He had a real flair for it. And I learned a great deal from him, just sitting and listening to him question witnesses.’

The other was Harold Hanson, who was only fifteen years older than my grandfather and so still a relatively young man when my grandfather first saw him in action. Hanson would go on to become one of South Africa’s most well-known advocates, representing FH Alexander (of the Alexander Technique) and Bram Fischer, whose words he would famously read out on the last day of the Rivonia Trial. I read up a little about him and discovered that other lawyers spoke of ‘Hansonian eloquence’.

‘This led,’ my grandfather said, ‘to a determination on my part to follow in this tradition. In particular, I was attracted to the art of cross-examination, and its application in trials, whether civil or criminal, in eliciting from hostile witnesses evidence that would be of benefit to my clients.’

Students of myth call it The Road of Trials, when the hero is frustrated at the critical moment by forces beyond his control.

Blackwell, with his reptilian eyes, asks my grandfather-to-be to type out the handwritten pages of his autobiography after hours. Thinking he might make some extra money, our young hero takes on the job. So now, not only is he clerking for half the day and attending lectures for the rest, but there he sits, night after night in his bedroom, typing out with two fingers his hard-hearted employer’s life story. (‘I was virtually hamstrung …’)

And it is exactly then, suitably hindered, that he meets the Girl, a medical student from Cape Town who has come up to Johannesburg for a few days to attend a student conference.

Of course, this story I’d heard before – a few times – from both of my grandparents. I’d always enjoyed hearing it, had enjoyed identifying the slight variances in their accounts. Something I had not thought about before, though, was how near the physical coordinates of that intersection were to where they, and I, lived now – sixty years in the future. The block of flats where they met was less than ten minutes’ walk from where he sat telling me the story one more time, the dictaphone turning between us.

Going home that day, I took a route that was slightly longer than the one I usually used. I turned left on Osborne Road instead of right, and went the other way around the golf course, so I would pass the block of flats from the story.

Peering up through the windscreen as I drove slowly past the building, I thought about how the world may be wide, but our lives are less so. Most of us spend our days in one place. This was his place, here: these roads, pavements, houses and hidden gardens. And so far, at least, it had been mine too.

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