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By indirections, [we] find directions out.” – Polonius in ‘Hamlet’

  • Posted on January 9, 2015

Jane Austen and Elizabeth Archer are fictional characters existing in readers’ minds. Ginny Baker, the heroine of my novel, In Forests, is based on Ros Ballingall who had a birth certificate thus an ascertainable existence till she vanished in the Knysna Forest in 1968. This difference explains why my novel is partly based on formal and informal research.

In the early 1960s, in our teens, Ros Ballingall and I became friends. That this tall, flamboyant girl would choose to spend time dancing at parties with an oke who was small and semi-disabled was wondrous. When I returned to boarding school – a well known jail in the Midlands – we corresponded. Her letters involved a few large scrawls on many mauve pages, mine precise italic yearnings. After a couple of years we lost touch. I don’t recall registering her vanishing nor the baroque conspiracy theorising then.

Thirty years later, In Forests was impelled by my seeing a video about her at a Grahamstown festival. Nicole Schafer’s documentary, The Ballad of Rosalind Ballingall, left me with wet cheeks, memories of Ros’s emotional generosity, an engulfing sense of loss and curiosity.

I also sensed my private memories being eroded by public images, rather the way a beloved song is when appropriated as an advertising jingle.

A week later, I wrote a 50-page personal narrative to retrieve, secure and defang memories. It wasn’t enough: I decided to write a full novel, aware that my ulterior purpose was commemorative: to imagine Ros back into life. Because she had had private and public existences, I would need to know her in the round. Thus formal and informal research would inform the character – ballast for the fictional vessel. (The process was rather less orderly than all this.)

However, researching was also delaying. Though delay, like dwaaling, is where creation germinates, it can become a pretext for not writing. (The craft goes into the dinner party anecdotes instead; the midwife of research becomes the abortionist.) But ideally dwaaling is preparation: pre-writing.

In Forests drew from two confluent repositories of experience: public and personal (or collective and individual or formal and informal).

I sought those who had known Ros and been part of our teenage circle. However, traditionally women of that generation lose their surnames on marrying and many were of a class who had emigrated from South Africa. Still, I contacted one who promised to “give” me the “real story” of Ros’s disappearance and details of other informants. We met for lunch; she drank too much too fast and had to leave, her secrets safe.

The episode pointed to a recurrent difficulty in securing information from private individuals associated with dramatic public events. By telling, they risk exchanging the privileged status of witness for the inferior status of informant. Among some of Ros’s associates, I experienced the self-dramatization and power games of those possessing secrets. Several, including the owners of premises in Knysna from which Ros had departed, refused to discuss the event. Translated, their response was that Ros’s fate had hurt them more than it had hurt Ros. Archivists at Ros’s former high school also played the withholding game, repeatedly promising but consistently not delivering information.

However, from Nicole’s film and her sharing sources, I contacted the singer and actor, John Oakley-Smith, who had lived in the same counter-culture, racially mixed street in Cape Town as Ros. He provided me with his lengthy, vivid and unpublished memoir which portrayed a Ros I had not known as well as her milieu. Invaluable ballast.

Other potential sources of data were based on my own speculation. I had attended the University of Cape Town sit in 1968 and later in 1970, the year after Ros’s disappearance, worked at The Cape Times. There I had met and known a Security Branch policeman, Michael Morris, who also wrote poetry and whose job was to spy on students. I assumed he might have known or known about Ros and her Cosmic Butterfly hippie group. However after 1994, he had disappeared so my hunch could not be confirmed, but the quest helped shift my emphasis from the private to the public realm and create a narrative thread. 

In trying to secure information about him from police, pension and other state archives, I hit significant cultural, educational and logistical blocks to accessing public records. The experience mirrored the quest to discover the vanished Ros.

In the mid- and late-1990s, few State archives were digitized. Thus gaining access depended on knowing who to phone and being able to get to the right sites. In South Africa, like so much, this tended to translate into terms of racial, educational and logistical privilege.

Another complication was a public mood of “Rainbow Nationism” that celebrated the recent past and present and extolled the future but seemed indifferent or hostile to a marred past. Labyrinthine phone calls to officials did not quite, but nearly, left me sensing that investigating the disappearance of a white girl in 1969 was discreditable. More concretely, it was impossible to establish whether police records of the late 1960s actually existed.

Comparable blocks occurred with some private sector sources, chiefly newspaper archives. It is a given that the focus of newspapers is the present, but post-1994 triumphalism and ownership changes in the industry had led to a neglect of archives. For example, I found The Star’s library to be unstaffed and the floor strewn with folders of cuttings. (I gapseed the folders of my own writing; they are cared for in London: I commend guerilla curatorship to others.)

Indeterminacy itself – what had happened to Ros and in the quest for archival information – suggested my structure for the novel. Different forms of narrative point to the absence of ascertainable truth; what is ascertainable if words. I used the forms of police files, depositions, newspaper reports, diaries and notebook entries and reported academic research to buttress conventional literary forms and place the private voices of some characters in a public context. 

I believe the quest for information was, however imperfect, was thus inspiring. But I was fortunate in not writing non-fiction.

In Forests is available as a Kindle book on Amazon

Robert Greig (.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)) is a poet and former arts and culture editor of The Sunday Independent, Johannesburg.  Robert has also published three collections of verse - Talking Bull (Bateleur Press, 1975) for which he was awarded the Olive Schreiner prize, In the Provinces (Justified Press, 1991) and most recently Rule of Cadence (University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2005). He lives in London.

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