SOUTH AFRICAN LITERARY JOURNAL

VOLUME 37 NUMBER 3

SPRING 2009

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A TRIBUTE TO GUY WILLOUGHBY 1956–2009

Guy Willoughby
23 May 1956–11 August 2009

Poems and Tribute by Finuala Dowling

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August poem It is the oldest thing this thing called spring. Shyly, as if afraid of scorn or laughter, the first shoot surfaces. A strange, green shape. On the bare grey prickly branch, the rose’s first, furled leaf. I for one cannot believe, the winter has been too cold and ah too long. Down in the deep space once chock with heart the frozen slush lies dark. The mute birds and I know the world, once welled with wishes and bright sound, lies dead. We will not come to life again.

Blue Peter Hotel Bloubergstrand Wavers soak and sulk out there, beyond the sodden spray on gimcrack houses, the dark palaces to opulence and the stolen expense accounts. Wet. And cold—wind whips their coats as they stagger in— clank of glass doors wrenched open, welter of giggly guests who stare at these two strange-haired creatures of the night, blinking now amongst pert young brushcuts and Levi jeans. Damply, they sit staring at each other across a table. He has lost his money. He rootles, discomforted, through his boots and coat— they will drink water, this time round.
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So silly. So idiotic. But theirs is a stolen moment. And so, the eyes, always the undoing of this pair. They babble, frightened, dilating dark eyes, hands that clutch and scrabble, he cannot help himself under her sweet folds of thick damp frock and tender flesh. They have been here before. His fingers find the molten core of her, his fingers fuse into the hot grasp of her sighing body. The kids giggle and play at what they do, somewhere else. History has happened to them—their bodies inhabit a shrinking space hemmed in by the claims and cries of others— the innocence of their flesh, that virgin shout in a dry private place is no more. Facts, fights, feuds—these have bruised them. Yet they dissolve in mist they surge in surf, thy are each other. Her body cries to heaven as she comes. Soon, they will wrestle with their history, and their flesh in his cocoon-car, rocking and buckling outside the houses that insist on them—how hard it is, oh how hard their bodies will thrash for more space and time, their mouths will cry soundlessly for more, more, they will feel the fury of the houses pen them in. Yet he has kissed and tongued the soft contours of her hand. Night will end, day will break, the waves will beat, beat on undying. They have their bodies, even now, even in this stolen moment. It may be their hearts will heave and the world will tumble, and allow. They stagger up. They must go now. Outside, the waves begin to bash and crash again, again. The sea says: I am forever. I have no peace. I thrash and wail and cry forever. And so shall you.
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Night visitor Beaufort West 1 Lamp burns low in the hushed dark house and the wet night falls. A corner turned, car engine cuts, like that, and footsteps press at a thickset door. Then the knock, dog’s sharp bark, footfalls, a shuffle within— a thousand pangs of harsh delight surge up, as he watches how the handle turns. Door opens—‘Hello.’ ‘Hello.’ It is the eyes that meet while the hands stay hidden. (It is cold. They wear so many clothes.) It is the smiles that say, rather than the voices, hidden in scarfs and deep winter. 2 Great gold fire brandishes in the grey old grate, Purple wine shines in glasses and in mouths. There are acres of ground to travel with their tongues this night. No matter—what are words? Less than stones, such stones she has, they cluster in her house like lovely eyes. So, he and she speak. Troubled, hunched in shadows, He words, then she, she listens, then he— Short sounds said, and gestures. Between them lies this crystal thing that they have made. So words like small round stones in the hushed dark house stones of earth and memory. Soon, they will pause. Soon she will woo chords from her guitar, and the throat will rise. The fire will be dancing inside his eyes.

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3 Fierce light on golden flesh as fire leaps up, the sweet honey of their bodies fills the hushed house, fills it up, and their sighs sound into each other like a hard to sing, but lovely song. They have travelled far, and nowhere; they have talked of all, and nothing; they have left, and journeyed, and arrived right back at the same strange place. Now, there bodies are. They kiss. Red flames sing. This is the room where their history hums and dances. It glows in the heat like hot flesh. Across their tongues, instead of words or wine, shimmers the sweet sharp taste of themselves. 4 Sleep is like two curves of flesh gently coiled, or the contours curling round a slope. It is like two bodies smoothed side by side, like that, skin sated, or like the breath of lovers that undulates like land, frowsty with heat. Together, the sleepers lie furrowed, down, down in her ancient musty bed. They are the hillside, the land, undulating out of motion and of time, undulating into one, rhyming, rhythmic, soundless sigh. So, they lie. They are children, dreaming. The shadows swallow them, and the kaross caresses two streams of flesh. Yes—deep under darkness— the arms that smooth and the necks that near. Their sigh—just one—sounds in the shard-sharp air.

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5 Lamp burns low in the hushed dark house as damp day rises. A man and woman stand, eyes shining, and their hands cling and gesture, their mouths meet—a moment—and part. Cars start. One drives here, one drives there— There are roads made and waiting. Ah, but now hearts begin to heat again, and beat. Day rises, and across the wide plain gleams through wet tears the grand glad sun.

Breakfast poem His body fresh from his lover’s bed like a fish from cut lemon, he looked across the plastic tables to the rainy town, and loved them all—the fattish neck-tie suited travelling rep, the sullen tannie in the tight-lipped coat, the sweating waitress, and the two dour same-faced men father and son, the harassed mom with screaming babe— he loved them all, ketchup flowing over his watery egg, and saw through smeary glass her smile, like light gleaming on the shivering mountain top. The Golden Egg, Laingsburg

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Warmwaterberg Spa: Night Pelt of stars down the hardy face. Sluice of water and the rich bright rasp, The frogs and crickets sound. Words fall like pellets in the bucket of the night, stars nip and sing. Slight breeze fingers out the cooling arms of he who writes, his (prickly) chin intent in hand. This is the soft-nuzzled, close-lit night, a smooth velvet sound, a sharp or serried sight. Solid the 1900 walls or stoep, the sky a clatter of these stars. All one eye sees, and pupils hold, tonight tonight by the bright black night, an eye contains, causes, pulls down from sky— it is I, it is I, it is I.

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Finuala Dowling
Petrov Gyu, King of Slobavia A tribute to Guy Willoughby (23 May 1956–11 August 2009) In the blurbs, Guy Willoughby’s name is seldom printed without its accompanying inventory of talent – actor, satirist, playwright, lecturer, academic, theatre critic, essayist, journalist, novelist, speechwriter, media commentator, cartoonist, poet, librettist, historian – almost always ending with the flourish, ‘and witty after-dinner raconteur’. The list is accurate but too glib, and does not explain why such an abundantly gifted, popular person should have died this August at only 53, emaciated and tubercular, disappointed, poor, depressed and, until his friends entered in a last-minute flurry, alone. When his parents wished to punish young Guy Willoughby, they banished him to his room. Far from chastised, Guy used the solitude to create a Gondal-like realm, a game which began with his toy soldiers but ultimately became a multimedia project spanning years. Slobavia – as he dubbed it – was beautifully imagined: it came complete with handdrawn illustrations of its leaders, genealogy, insignia, vexillology and geography (between Hungary and Rumania). His friend Paul and Paul’s distinguished music teacher father, Doc Wise, were enlisted to compose Slobavia’s anthem. Guy practised his oratory by delivering Slobavian speeches. Slobavia’s traditional enemy, Vetslobavia, was also lovingly documented. Guy projected himself onto Slobavia’s leaders, who were all called Petrov Gyu, and whose reigns were typically short. (Petrov Gyu XXIII ‘died when tiles fell on him from roof while inspecting new government
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employees’ flats in Grovsky’.) A monument to a departed Petrov Gyu bears the legend: ‘His life was an example, his death an inspiration.’ For all its flourishes, Slobavia was plausible: the schoolboy Guy
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was a voracious reader of history. His mother had acquired special dispensation allowing her prodigy to borrow reference-only books from the library. His later party tricks included caricatures of all the prime ministers and presidents a 70-year-old birthday girl might have lived under, or falling to his knees to demonstrate the astonishment of the Japanese at first hearing their emperor’s voice. Students at the Universities of Stellenbosch and Cape Town invited their friends and even their parents to witness South African history brought to life with voice, gesture and sometimes even props. Guy loved teaching, even when it involved explaining the difference between Julius Malema and Carl Niehaus to Media undergraduates. When his genius for entertainment met his historical nous – as in his one-man satire Major Schisstirrer, his essays and lectures on Bob Dylan, Charlie Chaplin and Ronald Reagan, or his zany play African Star, with its detachable 15-minute history of the world – Guy was untouchable; utterly sublime. The Major, too, began as a game in captivity, a subversive means of whiling away hours at the Infantry School in 1979 and 1980. Ensconced in the media centre, with a brief that vaguely encompassed drawing

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patriotic cartoons, Guy incubated Major Schisstirrer’s mangled Englikaans double-entendres, his bumbling bravura, bureaucratic obscurantism, dronkverdriet whining, and unwitting slapstick, often with the cooperation of amused commissioned and non-commissioned officers, and always using official SADF stationery. Major Schisstirrer made his debut at the Theatre Downstairs in 1981. Collectors of Willoughby memorabilia will hanker after a hand-drawn ticket (R1 for students and nurses) for the 10.30pm show, featuring a cartoon of Schisstirrer’s desk (brandy in the in-tray, Vladimir Lenin in the out-tray). To our relief, Schisstirrer sent up the Orwellian fate of both English and Afrikaans under apartheid. Some of the Major’s aphorisms might have come straight from official mouths: Dink nie – moer net. As jy iets wil bak, moenie sit en kak. Artistic is communistic. Guy was an admirer of PieterDirk Uys, and certainly agreed with his assertion, as a satirist, that the government wrote one’s scripts. Nobody scripted the Major’s inspired impromptu responses to audience questions. The engine that drove these deservedly famous Q&A sessions was Guy’s unrivalled charisma and sheer presence. When he exercised his charm, it was hard not to fall in love with him or, later, forgive him. He could conjure brilliance out of nothing at all, out of a dull afternoon with dull people in a dull place. His conversation, often startlingly interrupted with ad-lib skits or send-ups, was nothing short of alchemical. This genius for dialogue made him a natural playwright and adaptor of novels for radio (Daniel Deronda, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Leaven and Uncertain Consolations). After my mother saw Guy’s Chaplinesque performance at the Baxter Concert Hall in 1984 (which began with an irresistibly hilarious comic
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entrance) and heard that the actor was writing his MA in the horsebox opposite mine at UCT, she said simply: ‘Bring him home.’ The MA Guy was writing, and which his impressed examiners later recommended being upgraded to a PhD, was on the figure of Christ in the work of Oscar Wilde. Guy knew much of Wilde’s work off by heart. (The subjunctive is a terrible cliché of obituaries, but if Guy were reading this, he would almost certainly say: ‘Every great man nowadays has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biography.’) Guy’s deep understanding of Wilde’s oeuvre came through whenever he lectured on the subject. I am forever grateful that in 2006 we recorded his marvellously nuanced reading, with our daughter Beatrice, of Wilde’s fairy tales. His fascination with Wilde and Wilde’s Christ – charming, Hellenistic, a lover, and one who could transform, via suffering, sin into beauty – helps us to understand the sometimes unbearable spiritual and moral tensions that beset Guy. Like Wilde, Guy’s paradoxical nature swung between hedonistic aphorism and philosophical profundity. Like Wilde, Guy was fatally attracted to young, beautiful, less intellectually brilliant men who were not always worthy of him. Guy’s utter revulsion towards ageing can only be understood in relation to Lord Henry’s insight that ‘The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young.’ Oscar Wilde’s flamboyance and his Hellenistic Christ could not have been further from Guy’s stoutly Protestant upbringing. His parents feared the public exposure that came so naturally to Guy. ‘These walls have ears,’ his mother would say beside the pool at Kelvin Grove. No one was allowed to mention Guy’s gay but unhappy uncle, Cecil Ivan, who shot himself in a Durban hotel room in 1946. When Guy wrote a letter to the paper concerning the etymology of ‘gay’, his mother warned him: ‘People will think you are one.’ (In her last years, however, she accepted the truth with graceful equanimity.) Guy’s great-grandfather, the Reverend John Duthie Buchan (cousin
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of John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, author of The Thirty-Nine Steps), was sent out from Scotland in 1907 to serve the troops in Potchefstroom. Guy himself was dropped off at Presbyterian Sunday school while his parents read the paper at home. But he was always attracted to the dark mystique of Rome, fancying that he might become a deathbed Catholic. Guy could swing vertiginously from party animal to moralist, asking for more brandy while crying out enigmatically: ‘I have done wrong – if only you knew!’ Of his deathbed pain he said stoically, ‘This is purgatory.’ In 2004, the year Guy learnt (but decided to keep secret) that he was HIV-positive, he spent a week alone on retreat at the Schoenstatt convent in Constantia. While there, and under the guidance of a nun called Ursula, Guy experienced what he described as a true epiphany. For once, he could not find the words to elaborate. He spent much of the time on retreat writing a 25-page letter to himself, then another. He said that in writing these letters he had gone back to 1996, the year of our divorce, then right back to the age of 16 in an effort to understand himself at his current time of crisis. He had discovered, he said, a Wildean pattern to his life. Like Wilde, he said, he had turned to an immoral life which he tried to justify, subsequently, in aesthetic terms, by writing ‘beautifully’. He spoke about what he considered his greatest achievements: the chapter on De Profundis in his PhD, his novel, Archangels, and his then most recent play, Church Full of Light. Guy was not a dilettante, but he suffered from the impatience of the highly talented. Often while he was supposed to be completing one project, he became distracted by another. This was a problem for his employers. Guy liked the idea of a regular salary, but did not like to work on Mondays, or before ten in the morning. In an interview, a university dean kept hammering him about WHY he’d had so many jobs in his life. ‘After all the interesting jobs you’ve done, I’m afraid you’ll find our students very boring,’ said the dean, insinuatingly. Quipped Guy: ‘They won’t be boring when I’ve finished with them.’ Touché. Guy’s best work came about after a long incubation. For example, he first spoke about the idea of Church Full of Light in the early 1990s, yet it was only produced in 2002. He benefited, too, from artistic collaborations with serious, hardworking men – Fred Abrahamse, Nigel Vermaas, Chris Weare, Athol Fugard and Thomas Rajna (in the operatic
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adaptation of Fugard’s Valley Song), among others – who concentrated his multitude of talents and ludic streak, and compelled him to focus on the work in hand with the same intensity he had once beamed upon the kingdom of Slobavia. Guy’s novel Archangels lacked this incubation period and artistic collaboration. Despite his ego – a most necessary component of the artistic personality – Guy did not fully comprehend or even appreciate his own genius. He felt, he said, that his life’s project had failed in the sense that neither Archangels nor Church Full of Light – ‘these works I bled for’ – had reached the audience he had expected, or brought any money. Money had indeed become increasingly problematic. Acts of fraud had been perpetrated against him and he himself had made bad decisions. Guy could see no solution. He was drawn to Somerset Maugham’s short story ‘The Lotus Eater’ and fancied that he too might end his days indulging in sybaritic pleasures until his money ran out, after which he would ‘top’ himself. He feared, though, that like Maugham’s character, he wouldn’t manage the topping part. We laughed, of course. But the truth is that in his last years he had entered the slough of a depression from which he never escaped. Money troubles, personal betrayal, failed romance, ill health, a dread of old age, and a skewed perception of the fruitlessness of his artistic
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endeavour, all combined to wear him down. As death approached, he was frightened but resolute. Like the late Victorian he was deep down, he died in his own bed, visited by anxious friends to whom he said formal farewells, all the while wearing a little hat to warm his ears. He became increasingly beatific as the experience enveloped him. Through it all, he never stopped speaking. On and on into the night, words did not fail him. In death, his face had the look of one who has just had a most inspiring idea. In April 2009, four months before he died, I dreamt that I was in a field with Guy and he showed me that he had learnt how to let off a bunch of brightly coloured balloons so that they flew in all directions. And they did – most beautifully. One sailed off straight into the sun – I actually stared up into its light.

(Photographs provided, with thanks, by Finuala Dowling – ed.)
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Finuala Dowling is a poet (I Flying, Doo-Wop Girls of the Universe and Notes from the dementia ward) and novelist (What Poets Need and Flyleaf ) . She has an MA from UCT, and a D.Litt. from Unisa. She lives in Kalk Bay, and teaches poetry and writes textbooks for a living. Guy Willoughby was the author of a novel, Archangels (2003) and the stage plays African Star! (2000) and Church Full of Light (2004) as well serials, series and stand-alone plays for radio. As an actor-satirist, he shook up stages with Major Schisstirrer, Armed Responz and Spectacles. He died on 11 August 2009.

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