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Macnab, Roy (Martin)

MACNAB, Roy (Martin)


Nationality: South African. Born: Durban, 17 September 1923. Education: Hilton College, Natal; Jesus College, Oxford, M.A. Military Service: Naval Officer, 1942–45. Family: Married Rachel Mary Heron-Maxwell; one son and one daughter. Career: Cultural attaché, South African High Commission, London, 1955–59; counselor for cultural and press affairs, South African Embassy, Paris, 1959–67; director, South Africa Foundation, London, 1968–84. Awards: Fellow, Royal Society of Arts (UK). D.Litt. and D.Phil.: University of South Africa, Pretoria. Address: South Africa Foundation, 7 Buckingham Gate, London S.W.1, England.

Publications

Poetry

Testament of a South African. London, Fortune Press, 1947.

The Man of Grass and Other Poems. London, St. Catherine Press, 1960.

Winged Quagga, with Reassembling World, by Douglas Reid Skinner. Cape Town, David Philip, 1981.

Novel

The Cherbourg Circles. London, Hale, 1994.

Other

South and Central Africa. New York, McGraw Hill, 1954.

Journey into Yesterday: South African Milestones in Europe. Cape Town, H. Timmins, and London, Bailey Brothers and Swinfen, 1962.

The Youngest Literary Language: The Story of Afrikaans. Johannesburg, South African Broadcasting Corporation, 1973.

The French Colonel: Villebois-Mareuil and the Boers 1899–1900. Cape Town and London, Oxford University Press, 1975.

The English-Speaking South Africans. Johannesburg, South African Broadcasting Corporation, 1975.

The Story of South Africa House. Johannesburg, Jonathan Ball, 1983.

Gold, Their Touchstone: Goldfields of South Africa 1887–1987. Johannesburg, Jonathan Ball, 1987.

For Honour Alone: The Cadets of Saumur in the Defence of the Cavalry School, France, June 1940. London, Hale, 1988.

Editor, with Martin Starkie, Oxford Poetry 1947. Oxford, Blackwell, 1947.

Editor, with Charles Gulston, South African Poetry: A New Anthology. London, Collins, 1948.

Editor, Towards the Sun: A Miscellany of South Africa. London, HerpersCollins, 1950.

Editor, Poets in South Africa: An Anthology. Cape Town, Maskew Miller, 1958.

Editor, George Seferis: South African Diaries, Poems & Letters. Cape Town, Casseform Press, 1990.

*

Manuscript Collection: Thomas Pringle Collection, Rhodes University, Grahamstown.

Critical Studies: By Anthony Delius, in Books Abroad (Norman, Oklahoma), summer 1955; Guy Butler, in Listener (London), 24 May 1956; William Plomer, in London Magazine, February 1957; A Critical Survey of South African Poetry in English, by G.M. Miller and Howard Sergeant, Cape Town, Balkema, 1957; South African Poetry, Pretoria, University of South Africa, 1966; Momentum: On Recent South African Writing edited by M.J. Daymond and others, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, University of Natal Press, 1984.

*  *  *

Roy Macnab's first book of poetry, Testament of a South African, strikes the reader as a sincere attempt to convey the poet's thoughts and feelings, but the result unfortunately is somewhat obscured by his struggle with words, which he himself refers to as "a faithless flirt, /Not a lover of your art." Behind this struggle one senses the poet's genuine feeling for the African landscape, but the main subject of the collection is the poet's participation in World WarII. This experience left him with a feeling of restless discontent, and like the soldiers of Erich Maria Remarque's books he is constantly searching for a meaning or a purpose in his present life that is noble enough to merit the sacrifice of the war. He is, however, invariably disappointed. His heroes come back from the war "battered but unbroken in the time of test," and they find "only the inevitable dullness of Friday's wages /And further occasion for being bored." Even those soldiers who died on the battlefield are not allowed to rest in peace, and Macnab is haunted by the knowledge that consequent ages may change their attitude to his heroes, a theme he explores in poems like "El-Alamein Revisited." In his disgust with urban life Macnab turns to the pioneers and the settlers, for it is in these people that he finds the spirit of exploration that so obviously appeals to him.

In The Man of Grass Macnab continues to explore the themes of ugly, boring city life versus the courage of soldiers and pioneers exemplified by Cecil Rhodes, who had "bold schemes" and "thoughts of fire." With the epic title poem he adds a religious dimension. The man of grass is the first Christian martyr in South Africa, a Jesuit priest killed in 1560, and Macnab tells his story in regular, often rhymed stanzas, alternating between first-person narrative, conveying the priest's dedication, and third-person narrative, setting the scene. The collection has some unfortunate phrases. "The bark of my faith /Bent to the tide of infidel bays" seems somewhat out of tune with the state of thinking in 1960, as does the following thought about "savages" from the poem "Stages": "sometimes the tom-tom beat a single thought to his numbness."

With the next collection, Winged Quagga, Macnab takes a logical step back to the time before the world was polluted by civilization. The quagga is an extinct animal, associated with the landscape of the African past. The poet glimpsed this in his childhood, and now he longs for it. The wings are the wings of the imagination, in an analogy with Pegasus, and the collection is about re-creating in the imagination the lost magnificence of the primeval African landscape, untouched by human beings. The three-part division reflects a classical approach to the subject. The first part re-creates the land from the beginning (the cosmic theme), the second part describes the poet's development from birth and innocence to awareness and loss of innocence (the ontogenetic theme), and the third part returns to the poet's present situation, with a final poem wondering about approaching death.

In the first part the poet creates his world of rock, ice, mountains, reptiles, flora, and fauna, and he reaches a point of perfection in the poem "Anni Mirabili," in which nature exists in perfect balance and harmony with itself, beautifully evoked in the image of "Birds from a bowl of sky /To fall in patterns on the running backs of herds." The form is a classic eight-line stanza, sometimes rhymed, and it is combined with carefully constructed imagery that occasionally moves into fully developed conceits, as in the poem "Amphitheatre," where the whole of Africa is seen in terms of an amphitheater, with the animals as dramatis personae. There is, however, a deliberate attempt to break the classical severity by mixing in modern (anachronistic) terms with the purpose of undercutting the seriousness and creating a lighter, more humorous mood. An example of this is found in the poem "The Animals," where the migration of herds of animals is described as "from motels of the water-holes." The section ends with a reminder that this world is unfolded in the poet's mind, like "paper gardens of Japan uncurled /To life in a glass of water," a companion image to the winged quagga.

The second part, set in the landscape created in the first section, charts the growing awareness of the poet's young self. It discusses his loss of innocence, when he first sees a springbok caught in a trap, and the enlargement of his horizon in terms of meeting the train that carries the newspapers and has access to the wider world. Nature is still an important presence, but in poems like "The Storm" and "Aftermath" it is discussed in domesticated, rather than cosmic, terms, emphasizing the fall into civilization: the dying storm is "haunting the chimney like a snatch of gossip." In this section the presence or nonpresence of people becomes problematic. "Brown people" are seen, much as the animals, to belong to the landscape and to be voiceless. One exception to this is the poem "Dark Stranger," in which the poet describes a sinister black figure who wants to "create New Yorks" in the "Pepperpots of towns" and whom the poet sees as plotting a dark future "where once white empires wore their crowns." Macnab seems to be in the tradition of the last of the great white hunters who care passionately about wildlife but who are less compassionate when it comes to human beings.

The third part does not live up to the expectations of the genre, failing to create a synthesis of the first two parts. It starts well with a childhood tale about a migrating hippopotamus, which combines humor and mourning for the loss of the wonderful world of such tales. But it then falls apart into individual poems about separate and unrelated topics concerned with the poet's present-day London world, and it ends with a melancholic but brave view of old age and death.

—Kirsten Holst Petersen

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