GUY BUTLER (1918-2001) – South African poet, academic and playwright
David Butler, Headmaster of Greenwood Bay College in Plettenberg Bay
speaks about his father Professor Guy Butler.
The following is a transcript of David's talk and is largely unedited.
“I am fully aware that a lot of you may have known my father either as students or colleagues and you might well have something to add. Please feel free to ask questions as we go so that you can expand or clarify as we go, I am aware that I am not the right person to be giving this talk. Because as his son to me he was a father. To me he was a father and not a public figure – not a colleague – I was not far away enough to see him in the big landscape in which he moved. Today I will be trying to give you an idea of who he was and will try and sketch some of his more important achievements as I go along.
Born in Cradock, in the Eastern Cape in 1918 – the family were sent out - to try and improve their health. People were sent out to drier climates to try and improve respiratory diseases. He went to the local school in Cradock, – his father Ernest and mother Alice were Quakers – with a very strong pacifist agenda. He attended Cradock Boys High – a tough school – not long after the Boer War and there was still some antagonism between language groups.
1918 would have put him in his early teens during the Great Depressionand that had a massive impact on him and the family in Cradock as well. It made his choice of course in life less of an option. He actually wanted to be a painter and was quite a good painter when he had the time to do it.
His father Ernest insisted he do a degree that would make him employable – he was advised to forget the fine art thing and do something more useful.
He had to borrow money from his sister and did a lot of carpentry to get himself through university. My grandfather was a highly skilled cabinet maker and he taught my father how to work with wood – particularly Rhodesian teak. One of the sources of funds to go to university came from making Rhodesian teak dining room suites. His father taught him to work in wood - If Ernest had anything to do with it you can believe they would still be very serviceable today. He retained his love for wood until he died.
He went on to Rhodes and read English and History. He won a Queen Victoria scholarship to do a masters degree. When war came he joined up and went to North Africa as a Sapper–which was difficult for him with a pacifist Quaker background. He had a younger brother and three sisters.
His younger brother Geoffrey was blown up in that war – he wasn't killed but lost his left arm and badly injured his right hand and face. Geoffrey was very clever and he wanted to be a scientist – needed his hands to be a scientist - so he became a historian instead. He was an accomplished historian and became a Professor of History at Wesley University in the States. That injury to his brother traumatised Guy and affected him deeply.
After the war he went to Oxford and did an MA at Brasenose and came back and lectured at Wits. It wasn't long before he took a post at Rhodes – going kind of full circle. He was appointed at 32 as the youngest professor ever appointed at Rhodes.
Just to make a connection between you guys and my Guy, he started the Grahamstown Historical Society – with a number of other people and I have to say it became the bane of my life - as a little boy I was dragged along on numerous outings - we would go and visit a pile of stones in the bush somewhere or someone's farmhouse from the frontier war or whatever.
There were no other kids on these outings so I always had a dislike for Historical Societies.
Now back to Guy at Rhodes – where he married my mother, Jean Satchwell, with some difficulty as she also loved a journalist called Tony Delius – a very erudite man and a great poet in my opinion. She dumped Guy and got engaged to Tony and Guy had to hurtle back and convince her this was a mistake and eventually they did get married and bought a house called High Corner – now a guest house in Grahamstown. The story of their relationship and the story of his life was very tightly bound up in this house.
It was owned by Dr William Atherstone who was a district surgeon, and then by Thomas Stubbs and subsequently became the Grahamstown Gentlemans Club.
Guy's passion was the English language in South Africa in the forties, fifties and sixties – the nationalist government was in power with an antagonism to liberal politics. Guy was a crusader for the status of the English language and its status as the language the 1820 settlers who contributed so much to the culture and history of this country. The message he was bringing in those days was not a particularly attractive message. He was up for the fight. He wasn't afraid to come forward. As kids we were largely unaware of this. He was active in the Progressive Party and he was socially and politically engaged. His view of literature came in for a lot of stick. He was a new critic and in the sixties dialectical materialism and Marxism was the coming thing. People felt he was not politically and socially engaged enough and was peripheral to the real issues. Guy Butler’s influence on that generation was enormous. He was keen to get South African English literature onto the syllabuses. Rhodes was the first university to have a South African English literature component option to their honours degree.
To go back to his achievements at Rhodes and his time in Grahamstown.
There are so many: Connected with his interest in the 1820 Settlers, he teamed up with a chap called Tom Barker, the United Party MP for Albany, who wanted a monument to the 1820 Settlers. Guy was instrumental in saying “look we don't want another statue we want a living monument, something that is going to contribute culturally to the country.” He was responsible for the 1820 Settlers Monument in Grahamstown. It may not be called the 1820 Settlers Monument any more. The Grahamstown Foundation is in charge of running it. It was a huge achievement and was instrumental in the establishment of the Arts Festival in Grahamstown.
The festival was built around the monument. He was a committee man, he was really good at sitting on committees. Every afternoon he would be attending committee meetings. The government of the university senate and council, the 1820 Settlers Foundation, he also started the National English Literary Museum which is in a really prestigious building. They have built a fabulous building to house that. He started the Institute for the Study of English in Africa. He was a founding editor of “New Coin” with Ruth Harnett.
He started the Drama department at Rhodes and was instrumental in getting the theater built and he started the School of Journalism. He was a teacher, poet and dramatist. He was actively involved in all sorts of other things. One of the things that I remember well is his passion for houses. He bought an old house with Jean, a ruin, a huge old place, he was expected to demolish it and rebuild. But thank heavens he didn't. Part of it was the oldest house in Grahamstown - Messengers Cottage built in 1814. He gradually built this place up – chopping bits of it off to let out as flats and so on. But it didn't end there. In the course of his life he bought and renovated
17 houses in Grahamstown –these were all old run down settler cottages, built in the 1840s to 1860's - they were not chic in the way they are today, they were on the verge of being pulled down. It was not a case of him having deep pockets and buying in contractors to go in and fix them up, he rolled up his sleeves and did the physical work on these places himself. I remember one night in George street he was pushing a plate through a circular saw and cut his left index finger off. This was particularly gruesome for my mother who was the radiographer at the hospital. He was delivered to the hospital with this severed finger and she had to do the xrays and so on. His hair turned white pretty much overnight at the shock of it. They tried to graft the finger back on again but that didn't take and it was amputated and they transferred tendons across and he operated quite well with one less finger.
The church was central to his life, he was a committed Anglican. His ideas about Christianity was were very closely linked to his ideas about literatureand tragedy in particular. Without going into a lot of detail about this feature of his life, his big mission was to try and synthesise the kind of dualnature he experienced. Being a South African he felt himself very much rooted in South Africa but having a European cultural heritage. Was he a
European who was no longer in Europe or a South African with European heritage an internationalist or just a European? He tried to find a way to create a authentic South African identity for a white English speaker. He came in for a lot of stick for the way in which he went about that. He tackled a difficult subject and to my mind did a great job.
He was a very absentminded person. He drove a car in a terrifying way. He never used the rear view mirror and seldom went beyond 2nd gear – we would have traffic backed up behind us. In fact he didn't have a car until he was about 40. He bought a rusty second hand Opel. Because he was a university academic, his children got scholarships to private schools. My brother and I went to St Andrews which was a very elite school with children being dropped off in Rolls Royces, and Jaguars and so on. He would drive us to school in the rusty Opel. We volunteered to walk most of the time. On occasion he would insist on coming to fetch us. One particular half term the street was lined with these glistening cars and we could hear him coming up the road from a very long way away – there was something wrong with the silencer. He performed a u-turn in front of the school in the process of which a piece of the exhaust pipe fell off the car. He was not at all embarrassed by this kind of thing. He stopped the car and picked up the pieces, so it could be fixed properly and cheaply. We were there, cowering below the window line. He was wonderfully oblivious to that kind of snobbishness or pretentiousness about material things.
When we were kids the house was full of people all the time. My mother was a great entertainer, she had her demons and suffered from depression, but when she entertained she was just brilliant. She had a way of knowing who needed “jollying along” and they had great parties night after night. We children were the waiters and we would come and clear the table and so on.
At the table would be a kind of Who's who of South African literature. I will just mention some of these people. Uys Krige would come for a weekend and then stay for two weeks– he was a terrifying bloke for little children – a small, bald man who was an insomniac. So if you happened to get up in the night to go to the loo or something, he would tackle you on the landing and then harangue you about very abstruse topics. Alan Paton would similarly come for a short while and stay forever. Until such time as my mother couldn't bear it any longer. Alan drank a bottle of whiskey a day, he would ensconce himself in some part of the house and work his way steadily through the bottle – he was a very cantankerous chap. There were others. Laurens van der Post was there in several occasions. He would wear a grubby maroon velvet dinner jacket. As kids we thought he was incredibly odd and boring. Richard Brive, David Wright – all sorts of illuminati of the South Africa literary world. Douglas Livingston, Jack Cope, Nadine Gordimer and many others. Sidney Clouts was a great friend. He came to Rhodes to do a Masters. He and Guy really formed a kind of writers relationship and became great friends. They used to visit Sidney and Marge in Golders Green. Lots of people would come through the house and they would have great parties.
Guy loved arguing and fighting with people. He made a long dining room table out of some Yellowood planks taken from The Deanery which they rebuilt in Grahamstown. This table could seat 14 and he would sit at one end with the main antagonists sitting close to him and gentler more civilized people would sit down towards my mother's end of the table. They would go at it hammer and tongs. It was all in good spirits, but they loved arguing.
Guy loved music, classical music, especially Beethoven. He could put up with a bit of Vivaldi and Mozart. Bach he liked. But Beethoven was his thing. He didn't have a very good hi fi, he made one out of a big speaker and one small one, so it had good bass. He had a valve amplifier which I gather today is just the thing. He had a bunch of 78 records which he played on a central spindle, he wasn't very good at looking after these things so they were very scratched. Some almost had canyons in them. This did not deter him. He cranked up the volume full ball. It would start very early in the morning. He kept unusual hours, he would start at 4 in the morning and he said his best work was done early in the morning. He went to bed early.
While he was working – he would play Beethoven. I hated it at the time but have come to see some merit in his taste. He was a great friend to a lot of people that people don't know him for. He corresponded with a number of people in jail. They weren't just there on political charges but criminal charges as well. He had a real sympathy for the underdog and for those who had stumbled. He sent them books and financial aid and paid for them to study through Unisa and various correspondence courses as well. A lot of important Cradock people were his friends. You might have read some of his work. I thought I would mention one play in particular. “Richard Gush of Salem” was core to his field of interest. Richard Gush famously walked out when Salem was under attack without his shirt on to show he was unarmed and brokered a piece with the attacking army. He was struck with admiration for the bravery of the man and his Christian beliefs and so on. Guy came under stick for this kind of liberal view of such things. That somehow or another these gestures mitigate dispossession and the bigger political issues. His Liberalism hasn't aged well but there is still a place for it.
A few photos may make this more interesting.
Photo of High Corner – became a famous house. People loved visiting.
The Staircase in High Corner was built by Guy himself and went up to a landing with high ceilings.