Friday, October 30, 2009

Manna in the Desert

- Colin Bower –

I would like to recommend to my fellow Prince Albertians a book that has recently gone on sale through the Tourism Office, Manna in the Desert, by Alfred De Jager Jackson (Brevitas).

This is a re-issue of the original, published in 1920. The author grew up on the farm Baakensrug in the Nelspoort area of the Karoo, some 75 kilometres from Beaufort-West, and he takes up his story from the year 1863. A much overdone genre, you might say.wait, for here is an account of rare authenticity, valuable not only for the historical insights and the incidental details it offers in respect of the Karoo so many of us love, but valuable also for what it tells us of the refinement of sensibility that the rugged Karoo is also capable of producing in its inhabitants.

What an amazing testimony the book provides to the education and the civilisation of the English speaking world of the 19th Century, that it was able to produce such deeply philosophical, articulate and genuine people as Alfred Jackson, who grew up and worked so far from the metropolitan centres. University graduates today do not command the language and express themselves with such elegance and simple candour as this man of the veld. And on that frontier farm, subject as it was to the indifferent rule of nature,must also have been a concern for culture, for he obviously had access to good books, and he knew his Shakespeare and the classics from the inside.

He was also an amateur scientist, and writes about the flora and fauna with considerable knowledge, although what impresses most are hisdescriptions of animal behaviour, which are of a kind that can only come from ardent first-hand observation.

Some other aspects of the book I also particularly liked: even though writing within the racial paradigm of the time, he has a ready sense of empathy with the black and the coloured people (as well, by the way, with all the hard done by), and recognises, sometimes almost against his "better" judgment (reminiscent of Huck Finn), the humanity of-called "inferior" people; he writes from a position of faith that I do not share, yet it is a faith that excludes no-one, and recognises what Darwin called the "grandeur" of creation; it is a faith that is manifest as a ready sense of wonder at the infinitude of the universe, and it is impossible not to be moved by it.

Also, in a post-modernist age, when moral concern is held to be no more than a showy disguise for ulterior motives, he writes with an unembarrassed concern for what is good and abiding. The Karoo can be treated with such sentimentality, especially by the well-to-do and by sojourners from the city, and it is thereforevaluable to have this authentic memoir to counteract it.

Alfred Jackson strikes me as having been a great and indeed a noble human being, and my life has been enriched by his book.

Manna in the Desert is on sale at the Tourism Office for R230.

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