Interview with Neville Herrington
What motivated you to start writing?
I fell in love with storytelling and drama at a fairly young age. In my teenage years, my brother and I often spoke about writing books on bushveld adventures, no doubt influenced by Percy Fitzpatrick’s ‘Jock of the Bushveld.’ I was drawn to the power of dialogue during my drama studies at Natal University, and soon began writing plays, initially a radio drama which was aired on the English service of the SABC, and then a series of stage plays performed mainly on the university campus, though several enjoyed a wider audience in Durban and Johannesburg. Following a 20-year period of scripting numerous television documentaries for the national and international broadcast markets, I turned my focus to writing historical novels.
What are the topics that most interest you and why?
I am strongly drawn to aspects of South Africa’s history, particularly where members of my own family were caught up in major conflicts and significant events. Hence the Anglo Boer War has always held a powerful fascination, as both my grandfathers fought on opposite sides in that conflict, and my maternal great grandfather was taken prisoner-of-war and sent to Diyatilawa in Ceylon (Sri Lanka).
During the guerilla phase of that war, my maternal grandmother, together with her mother and siblings, was incarcerated in a British concentration camp, leaving bitter memories of the thousands of women and children who died in those camps, largely as a result of disease and poor management.
During the my formative upbringing, the Boer/Brit conflict remained a simmering and unresolved issue in our household, as was the Catholic/Protestant divide that was personified in the arguments between a devout Catholic mother and a Protestant/Agnostic father.
In what way have your interests found their way into your plays and books?
After my father died, I wrote a play entitled, ‘Ulster of the Southern Cross’ that focused on the religious divide within a middle-class South African family. As an underlying minor theme in the Brigid O’Meara trilogy, a similar conflict is seen. South Africa’s racial politics have also been an absorbing issue in my writing, beginning with the double-bill one act plays, ‘Strike’ and ‘On Strike,’ which deal with labour issues, and the early attempt at forming trade unions for black workers in this country.
This was followed by the colour-line play, ‘The Sullivans of Skeerpoort,’ set in the Transvaal ‘platteland,’ where a young local Coloured man falls in love with a white farmer’s daughter. It was hailed as a major play in 1979, winning several awards. Socio-political divisions within a lower middle-class white family in Pretoria during the late 1950’s, were explored in the three act play. ‘Still Life.’
What inspired you to create the character of Brigid O’Meara as the heroine of your trilogy: England Wants Your Gold, The Irish Boer Woman, Dark Night of the Soul?
In some ways it was a bringing together of people and places with which I was familiar. Kimberley of the 19th century is where my paternal grandmother comes from, being the first white baby girl born in that diamond mining town. It is a place that I have visited several times, and was attracted to its early history and inhabitants. Pretoria is the location for much of my writing, as it is where my family and most of my relatives settled; my paternal grandparents owned valuable property on Church Square in the late 19th century, and a farm just north of the city. Premier Mine, some 40 km outside the city, is another site of significant family interest, where my father grew up and was educated at the local government school. It was from there that he went off to war at the end of 1915 to fight in the East African campaign.
The character of Brigid is largely a product of the creative imagination, but infused with significant influences from people that I had known or read about.
What are you writing about in your next book, and how does it link in with the trilogy?
In my fourth historical novel, ‘Ritchie’s War,’ Brigid has been dead ten years and I now trace the tortured development of her only son, Ritchie, who, on leaving school, immediately joins the South African imperial forces to fight in the First World War. He and his stepbrother, Kosie, who is also a member of General Smuts’ 1st Division, find themselves in German East Africa.
After one particularly violent engagement against General von Lettow’s Schutztruppe and Askaris, they go missing and end up stranded in a native village where they are forced to remain while Kosie slowly recovers from a gunshot wound. It is here that they learn a fundamental lesson about true compassion, and the generosity of the human spirit. After the war, Ritchie returns to Pretoria and meets someone who reveals information about his mother that is earth shattering and leads him on a course of self-destruction.
Your autobiography Growing Up in White South Africa is a very vivid account of your journey through life in a rapidly changing post World War II era; What have been the greatest influences in your life’s journey in shaping you as the person you are?
My worldview is in many respects an amalgam of many influences that are revealed in my writing.