- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 7, 2002

Laurens van der Post died in 1996, two days after his 90th birthday. He had led an eventful life, and though his reputation had declined somewhat since his heyday he was still well known as an explorer, a pioneering environmentalist, a war hero, a spiritual adviser to the great and an irresistible charmer. It turns out that like many great charmers, he was also something of a fraud.
Born in 1906 in a part of South Africa then known as Natal, he was the 11th son in a family of 13. His father was of Dutch extraction and his mother was an Afrikaner who had inherited a farm from her father. His antecedents, like those of most Boers, were Dutch and German, though he himself preferred to emphasize the more romantic French and Huguenot strains he claimed to be able to find in his ancestry. At the age of 18 he went to Durban to make his way in the world, and found what work he could as a journalist. Roy Campbell and William Plomer, two older and much more sophisticated South African writers were starting a literary magazine, Voorslag: He joined them, in a somewhat lowlier capacity than he later claimed, and Plomer in particular became and remained a close friend.
Around this time he went on a trip to Japan, and learned to like the people and speak a little of the language. Aged 21 and without much in the way of prospects he married and took his wife to England, where her mother was already living. Introduced to the literary world by Campbell and Plomer, his charm and good looks helped him to overcome his financial problems particularly he was supported by Lilian Bowes Lyon, an poet, who bought him a farm in Gloucestershire.
When Lilian's friend, the writer Rosamond Lehmann, met him later on she found him utterly charming and wrote to a friend "Didn't you think Laurens van der Post a tremendous cup of tea?" Women did tend to think something of the sort, and it led him into a lot of trouble and some fairly reprehensible behavior. In one particularly unfortunate case a very young girl supposedly in his care became pregnant; he panicked and left it to his wife to sort out.
Van der Post's first novel, "In a Province," was published by Leonard and Virgina Woolf at the Hogarth Press, but he had trouble in making progress with a successor and made several rather indeterminate journeys to and from South Africa perhaps to escape the pressures of married life. On one of these sea voyages he met and began an affair with Ingaret Giffard, a married woman who eventually became his second wife. His life was thus in some confusion when World War II began. He had already sent his wife and son back to South Africa, and in 1940 he joined the Military Police (rather than a prestigious Guards regiment, as he afterwards averred), and was then transferred to the Intelligence Corps, probably because of his skill at languages.
In 1940 he was attached to an expedition to Ethiopia, then more generally known as Abyssinia, which the Italians had appropriated in 1938. The expedition's mission was to restore to the throne the Emperor Hailie Selassie, then living in exile in England. The operation was speedy and successful and, for van der Post, enormously exciting. At some point he had to go to hospital with malaria and dysentery and did not finish the campaign, a fact which later got lost in his accounts of his adventures.
He was next sent East, to work with Allied forces on the run in the jungle in the chaos which followed the disastrous loss of Singapore. He was captured by the Japanese in Java, and in two successive camps became a leading light in the maintenance of morale, regarded by many of the other prisoners as a slightly mysterious senior figure of great spiritual strength. He helped run educational projects, grew vegetables, told stories which enchanted his listeners (a talent he never lost). He somehow passed as a lieutenant colonel, which he was not, but the fact remained that one wrote of him, "Some people say that Laurens was a hypocrite and a liar. To me he was a saint." Another said, he was "the nearest man I ever met in my lifetime to Christ."
Back in England and again somewhat adrift, he found a job in the Colonial Development Corporation and was sent to Nyasaland to report on the possibilities of cattle raising. He had no wish to return to South Africa. In 1948, the election of Daniel Malan introduced "white South Africa" and the policy of apartheid, which van der Post always opposed, although later on he thought that the African National Congress was moving too fast in the opposite direction. The Nyasaland trip was full of incident and when he had submitted his official report he wrote a more personal and romantic version of his adventure. "Venture to the Interior" became an immediate best seller.
His next report for the Colonial Development Corporation took him to Botswana, then known as Bechuanaland, where he was to investigate the possibilities of cattle raising in the Kalahari Desert. It was followed by the book and television series "The Lost World of the Kalahari." This was the first television series to show the African wild and its aboriginal inhabitants, and it aroused tremendous interest. The few voices which were raised in protest at the inaccuracy and over romanticism of van der Post's picture of the Bushmen were swamped in a chorus of praise.
Van der Post interpreted the myths of the Bushmen, which he recounted with such dramatic effect, according to the theories of Carl Jung. He had met Jung through Ingaret, now his wife. Husband and wife together conducted a long interview with Jung for the British Broadcasting Corporation, and van der Post remained a deeply admiring disciple, finding in Jung's occasionally cloudy theories about the collective unconscious and man's spiritual needs ideas which harmonized with his own half-thought-out aspirations. In "Teller of Many Tales," J. D. F. Jones goes to considerable lengths to show that the two men were probably not such close friends as van der Post claimed, but Jung remained an important influence in the younger man's life.
Mr. Jones, a writer and journalist with links to South Africa, began to write the authorized biography as an admirer, and ended it disenchanted. In a book which in places seems more of an expose than a straightforward biography, it is difficult not to become bogged down in the mass of evidence the author produces to show how often his subject misrepresented fact, and exaggerated his own role in events.
It is clear that once he became famous van der Post, always vain, became increasingly self-important. He met more and more world leaders and was convinced that his advice influenced them, probably more than it did. He advised Margaret Thatcher, who admired what she called his wisdom and idealism. He advised most of the politicians on both sides in the Lancaster House Conference which led to the granting of independence to majority rule Zimbabwe in April 1980. He advised Prince Charles, whom he met in the early '70s and loved with a romantic protective love "my Prince" he called him.
This last friendship attracted the mockery of the satirical magazine Private Eye, which began a whole series of sketches about "Van de Pump, the South African Seer" who counsels the Prince with portentous cliches to which the Prince solemnly replies, "How true, how very true." By 1986 Private Eye was describing "A Walk with a White Bushman" as "the product of a mind which has sunk from literary pretension to outright dottiness." It must be said, however, that van der Post was a discreet friend who introduced Prince Charles to new ideas and took him on trips into the wilder parts of Africa which were as adventurous as the anxious security personnel would allow.
Towards the end of his life, van der Post came to rely more and more on the generosity of a small group of rich Americans who funded "The Laurens van der Post Foundation for the Advancement of the Humanities." There were similar foundations in Switzerland and South Africa, their aim being to raise funds for the preservation of the Wilderness and the propagation of Jungian ideas, and to enable van der Post to pass on his ideas and experience "in the same way as Plato, Socrates and Christ" as he helpfully explained to the Charities Commission.
This is a sad book, exposing as it does in somewhat dreary fashion a romantic's feet of clay. Laurens van der Post became an Important Person, and this pleased him, but he also wanted to be an important force for good; it has to be admitted he hadn't quite the substance.

Isabel Colegate is the author, most recently, of "A Pelican in the Wilderness."

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide