A BUILT-UP PLACE is so much more than a dot on a map. It’s a repository of history and emotions, of architecture and lives. But how do you catch its essence: the stuff of which it is made, today and yesterday? How to you portray the energy that will give it life and relevance tomorrow? Writer Barbara Adair plays with the threads of narrative in constructing a portrait of the Ekurhuleni city of Springs that is at once majestic and nostalgic, dirty and poor, yet quirky and idiosyncratic. Her book In the shadow of the Springs I saw, published by Modjadji Press is a major achievement that raises the bar for documentary writing considerably.
Like Alex Halligey in her exploratory portrait of the Johannesburg suburb of Bertrams and Lauren Groff, who in 2018 wrote an anthology called Florida, about the eponymous American state, Adair takes on Springs. This curious city started life in the 1880s as a coal mining town and remains today recognised for having the second largest per capita collection of small-scale Art Deco buildings in the world (second to Miami, Florida). It’s been the place immigrants first chose to live in after escaping from Europe. It’s been the place people have moved away from as they moved up in life.
Adair’s investigation of the city is mounted through the eyes of its contemporary residents. Not academics. Not political analysts. Just the ordinary folk, who have insights that are intimate and rich, and a wonder for the architecture which is probably no deeper than that of the people who inhabited those buildings a generation ago. Dispensing with the niceties of punctuation and the formalities of a referencing style, as few very skilled writers can do, Adair’s voice is underplayed and the verbatim retold violences and joys of the lives of the ordinary people she has interviewed carries the work.
It’s not an easy read, made hard on the eye by an odd choice of font, which is unusually small for a book of this nature. It also has a design which splits the block of text into two columns, making engagement cumbersome at the outset. It is, however, the stream-of-consciousness, often breathless, flow of ideas that gives this piece of writing its relentless rhythm, that is at once odd and sweet, dangerous and matter-of-fact, but never maudlin or foolish. It’s about a broken concrete dustbin spewing rubbish in front of the beautiful frontage of the city’s hotel. Both elements are unapologetically there. They have equal status in this portrait. In the shadow of the Springs I saw is never precious in its extrapolation of the beauty of the curvature of the buildings, the period-specific windows, the use of light and tone, shadow and staircases, stained glass windows and majestic chevrons.
The work has many photographs and text-interleaved with images, as well as drawings and poems. There are people represented doing their daily lives. This is Springs, with all its drug dealers and miscreants, grocers and prostitutes. It’s non-judgemental in its confrontation with poverty and crime in the area, but in being so, it serves as a prism for a portrait of this whole country, without crusading about shoulds and should-nots in how human beings choose to make their lives less uncomfortable.
This approach to writing evokes the anarchic dynamism of the author of the Futurist manifesto, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, just before the First World War in Italy. He proposed, among other things, an up-ending of traditional language rules. The world was at the point of no return. Cultural practitioners were excited about changing all its values. Along these lines, Adair, takes a bow to Marinetti and uses her language with delicacy and care, but also with directness and rule-breaking wisdom and courage.
It’s a work that you might find off-putting before you’ve really invested energy in engaging with it. And then, you won’t be able to put it down, and you will turn each page with the knowing dread that you will soon reach the last one. Adair’s love for this place is revealed not in platitudes of her own, but in her editing process of the raw material she’s chosen to present to you. This is the kind of work that you can dip into and re-read, and find delicious gems that you might have glossed over in your previous read. This is one for keeps.
- In the shadow of the Springs I saw by Barbara Adair is published by Modjadji Press, Cape Town (2022).