No more birds here: RIP Harry Kalmer


Gunter, Keziah Harry Kalmer

A man of many passions: Harry Kalmer. Photo:

TELLER OF THOUSANDS of the world’s hidden stories, Harry Kalmer was a man of immense skill, spirit and curiosity. He believed in the value of new experiences and no job was too humble for him to gain a grip on the magic the world has to offer. He passed away suddenly on 26 July 2019 after a short battle with cancer. He was 62.

The fourth child to railway engineer Kenneth and Johanna (née Steyn), who was a language teacher, Harold Kalmer was born on 21 November 1956 in the peaceful Cape Town suburb of Bellville. The family moved to Florida, west of Johannesburg when Kalmer was a toddler. And it was in this busy small town that Kalmer was schooled. After matriculating, he began to be aware of how the world could spin on its axis for him: He read for a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Pretoria with Drama Science and Afrikaans Dutch as his elective majors, graduating in 1979. He married the love of his life, Sanpat Hattingh, a young fashion designer, in 1983. And he completed his mandatory army training for the South African Defense Force and blending influences of both his parents, went to work in the language bureau of the South African Railways, as a translator.

Kalmer was always a man who wore many different proverbial hats. From a train assistant to a railway clerk, lexicographer and translator to copywriter, Kalmer was also a theatre director and  playwright, with a history of being a manual worker in Greece, a dishwasher in London and a flower picker in Cornwall. In 1987, he joined the then burgeoning advertising industry as a copywriter, but four years later, in 1991, he made the decision to write full time, focusing on freelancing in the print media but also writing for the stage.

Writing largely in Afrikaans, Kalmer was widely celebrated with over 40 prestigious awards, including the prestigious Barry Ronge Fiction Prize in 2018 for his work A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg (published by Penguin Random House). The trajectory of his career saw him write 11 books and 23 plays, to say nothing of over 200 hours of broadcast television, focusing on South Africa’s little stories. Writing prolifically whenever and wherever the window of opportunity presented itself, Kalmer was disciplined and dedicated in his craft.

In 1982 he published a short story in the journal Tydskrif vir Letterkunde, entitled ‘Die man wat deur ‘n opblaasmatras vermoor is’ (The man who was killed by an inflatable mattress), which was commended with an award of some R1,38. A princely sum, for the times. His first play, Bloed in die Strate was produced by Jacqui Singer for the Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal, and performed at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg in 1985. Readers of this blog will remember his beautiful The Bram Fischer Waltz, performed by David Butler at the Market Theatre in 2014.

In ‘n land sonder voëls (In a land without birds) was Kalmer’s last published novel, which saw light of day in May of 2019. Did he know at that point he was terminally ill? Without any plot spoiling, critic Jonathan Amid writes that any fan of Kalmer’s work should know never to expect the same approach twice from this astonishingly fine mind.

A refined man with a great sense of society, Kalmer enjoyed significant friendships and wide interests in art, music and theatre. He was fiercely loyal and loving, and is deeply missed. He leaves his wife Sanpat, his son Daniel and daughter Jana, to say nothing of countless fans of his beautiful grasp on the complexities of what it is to be South African.

  • Keziah Gunter is a first year Fine Arts student at the University of Pretoria. She is part of the VIT 101 class, being taught the rudiments of arts writing by Robyn Sassen during 2020.

3 replies »

    • I think it was performed at the Market the year after PACT produced it. Remember the days when there was a healthy give and take in the theatre fraternity?

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