Our man in Franschhoek

David Bullard reports back on one of the best LitFest's he has ever attended


I don’t think I’ve ever seen Franschhoek look quite so beautiful. As I drove through Pniel and past Boschendal last thursday on my way to the three day Franschhoek Literary Festival I was stunned by the gorgeous autumn colours of the leaves on the trees lining the road. Eat your heart out New England in fall.

And as I drove along the R45 past La Motte and towards Franschhoek itself the colours became even more dramatic. Franschhoek was badly affected by the floods last September and there are great gouges on the mountainsides as you approach the town but, apart from a couple of bridges that still need repair, Franschhoek has bounced back magnificently and it put on one of the best Lit Fests I have ever attended. Of course, it helped that the weather was perfect all weekend. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

I decided this year to become a patron of the FransLitFest which was a simple matter of sending them R5 000. That gave me priority booking for any session I wanted and the word’ Complimentary’ printed on all my tickets which either suggested to the ticket inspectors on the door that I was a cheapskate journo on a freebie or that I was patron of the literary arts.

The problem with the FransLitFest is that it’s a bit like a smorgasbord with an enormous choice of sessions and, like a smorgasbord, you can’t pile your plate with everything. So I read carefully through the programme for the three days of events and picked the ones that I thought I would find most interesting. Bearing in mind that you may have half an hour between the end of one session and the start of the next you will understand that you can probably cram in a maximum of five sessions a day with an hour for a quick lunch around midday.

But an hour for a quick lunch in Franschhoek is exactly what you don’t want because you will be sitting with other bibliophiles and you will invariably get involved with complete strangers in an interesting conversation about the morning’s sessions.

Gobbling up your fettuccini Alfredo and downing your Porcupine Ridge shiraz while mumbling that you have a one o’clock to attend doesn’t really cut it so I kept myself to four sessions a day with a decent gap for a draught Guinness at the Elephant and Barrel before my one o’clock.

Nonetheless, I still ran into fellow festival goers who had just been to hear Pieter-Dirk Uys and were raving about it and I wondered how on earth I had missed it. But since there were nine different sessions in the same time slot as P-D U it was an understandable oversight.

My first session on Friday morning was a two hour event at Reuben’s restaurant for the News24 pre-election breakfast hosted by Adriaan Basson (who is much taller than I imagined) and Qaanitah Hunter (who isn’t). I may have occasionally (like last week) made disparaging comments about Qaanitah and I probably will again but she is razor sharp when it comes to political commentary so maybe we should forgive her dislike of the DA leadership. Guest panellists were former DA leader Tony Leon and political analyst Oscar Van Heerden. The session was expertly handled by the hosts but what became very clear is that nothing is certain post 29th May. I made the point to fellow guests that Frogboiler’s latest ‘buzz phrase’ is “whether you like it or not” and suggested that this might be more appropriate for a dictator in waiting rather than a democratically elected president.

He’s used this buzz phrase several times recently, most notably about BEE and, most recently, about NHI. Judging by the nods of agreement my fellow guests agreed with me although I didn’t suggest this to Oscar van Heerden who would probably not have agreed.

I went on to suggest that Frogboiler had ‘scapegoated’ white people in his comments about who was objecting to the introduction of NHI. Apparently it’s because they are ‘privileged’ and:

“ The haves don’t want the have-nots to benefit from what they have been having.”

I was encouraged to read my former editor Mondli Makhanya expressing similar disgust at this in his City Press column last Sunday. But surely, I suggested to my fellow breakfast guests, this is in direct contravention of Frogboiler’s very own, recently introduced hate speech law.

By pointing the finger at “well to do, rich people” isn’t Frogboiler inciting hatred and suggesting that the queue for free, universally available, health care would be considerably shorter if there was a white cull?

And then there’s the word “privileged” which has a new meaning under the ANC. Apparently it means that if you pay for private health care out of after tax income because you don’t have much confidence in the public offering you have already paid for with your taxes then you are ‘privileged’.

Naturally this rule doesn’t apply to private medical care available to politicians or civil servants because they are still carrying the scars of something that happened more than thirty years ago. If you wrote this as the plot for a movie you would be told by the producers to stop hitting the whisky at eleven in the morning and sent home to write something more believable.

All the sessions I went to were superbly handled, highly informative and played to capacity audiences. I did two on AI and came away probably more confused than ever. For example, according to AI fundi Arthur Goldstuck, there exists an automatic coffee machine that scans your face and then its AI component decides on your level of stress based on masses of biometric info in the computer.

It then alters the strength of your coffee to compensate for your stress reading. So if you’re not stressed but just want a really strong cup of coffee you presumably have to take a stressed friend along to have their face read instead of yours.

Arthur also talked about driving over the Helshoogte Pass in a self-driving car. He apparently was very calm and sat with his arms folded but his co-passenger was less trusting, as indeed I would have been. But the real question is why on earth would you want to drive over the Helshoogte Pass in a self driving car? Isn’t that rather a pointless and joyless experience?

A heretical thought occurred to me during the question time following the presentation but I didn’t have the courage to grab the microphone and put it to the panel. The thought was quite simply this: the opposite of artificial intelligence is genuine stupidity and it seems that the two are interdependent. I have yet to be convinced that AI isn’t about to greatly diminish and devalue the many pleasures and pitfalls of being human.

One of the highlights for me of the FransLitFest was Darrel Bristow-Bovey’s one hour talk about building a house in Greece. It was brilliantly woven into a story about getting stopped for taking prescription drugs into Georgia, Greek mythology, Ernest Shackleton, the slow pace of labour in Greece and the credibility of his architect with whom he has become close friends. This he feels has led him to be taken for a ride on occasions. The speech was witty, fabulously delivered and was a huge hit with the audience in the capacity packed Church Hall.

I had booked for another Bristow-Bovey gig two days later when he was to discuss his book ‘Finding Endurance’ and the whole Shackleton trip to the Antarctic with storyteller Rob Caskie.

Darrel and I go back twenty two years when we both had books out. Darrel’s publisher had a large cardboard cut-out of himself made which greeted shoppers whenever they entered a bookshop. So my publisher, the legendary Jonathan Ball, had one made of me and that was placed opposite Darrel’s at all good bookshops.

Unfortunately it was discovered that Darrels’ book ‘The Naked Bachelor’had large chunks lifted from a Bill Bryson book and so the knives were out and Darrel was labelled a ‘plagiarist’. For some reason he got it into his head that I had circulated an email to all sorts of influential people about his plagiarism and was the cause of his downfall.

The truth is that no such e-mail ever existed; at least not circulated by me. However a bright young lad called Rob Boffard who was a journo student at Rhodes did write a piece for The Star which helped seal Darrel’s fate at the time and after a reader pointed out further examples he had the distinction of being fired from three separate publications in one day. (See: Darrel puts the 'copy' in copyright)

I was rather miffed that Darrel blamed me for all the bad publicity but I will admit that the late Robert Kirby and I were very critical but only after the sentence was passed. As I pointed out at the time, there aren’t many rules with writing but pinching someone else’s work and presenting it as your own is generally regarded as bad form. I did write that I had no hand in Bristow-Bovey’s downfall at the time but that I had “held the exit door open for him and slammed it firmly shut when he had gone”.

This has haunted poor Darrel for years and in 2014 in an online magazine interview when asked if he had any regrets he answered “I regret not punching David Bullard in the face when I had the chance”.

So I went up to congratulate him on both his sessions on Sunday and jokingly offered my face for punching (having first pointed out that I had this column to write). I was fully expecting him to accept my congratulations graciously and shrug off the punching threat as the folly of youth but he looked thunderous. Then I remembered that it was back in 2014 that I asked him to sign a book he had just written called “One Midlife Crisis and a Speedo” which he refused to do point blank.

While I’m hugely impressed that something I never did can have such an incredible influence on a fellow scribe’s life I can’t help thinking that a 50 something man with so much talent really shouldn’t be burdening his daily existence with imagined slights. Drop it Darrel and let me buy you a beer at next year’s FransLitFest.


It was such a delight to meet the many readers of this column and readers of the former Sunday Times Out to Lunch at the LitFest and thanks for your friendliness and many kind comments. However, best of all was the lady who came up to me when I was having breakfast at Bootleggers and said she had been a waitress at Harridan’s restaurant in Newtown where I was regular 32 or so years ago. “You haven’t aged at all” she said sweetly. That’s probably because I can’t see any point in bearing grudges. Well, that and the R400 000 John Cleese stem cell therapy.