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Wednesday, April 29, 2020


(Clive Lawrance)

The following is an obituary by Estelle Sinkins for Clive Lawrance — journalist, mentor, poet, sculptor. (Courtesy of The Witness)

Clive Lawrance was a journalist and writer who would prefer to be remembered as a ‘retreaded poet’, according to the blurb from his most recent collection of poems.

Born November 23, 1935, in Irene, outside Pretoria, he died at the Clarendon House retirement home in Pietermaritzburg on April 22, 2020.

Lawrance’s journalism career included stints at the Natal Witness (now The Witness), where he served in a number of positions, including features editor and agricultural editor, testifying to his interest in a wide range of subjects.

His son, Anthony, said many reporters will remember him best as a chief sub-editor, who would instil fear in them while picking through their stories.

“Little did they know that two of his children faced the same unflinching demands for literary perfection, from around the age of five,” he added. “The only editor he ever came to (begrudgingly) respect was Richard Steyn, and that was only after Richard came to realise how much he could learn from Clive about the art of page one headline-writing.”

Former Witness editor John Conyngham described Lawrance as “a larger than life figure who will be remembered fondly by many of his former colleagues. He had an abiding love of words which extended from journalism to poetry. In a time of conformity, he was something of a free spirit.”

Another former colleague, Nalini Naidoo, recalled meeting Lawrance in 1975 when, as a student at Rhodes University, she did some work experience at the Natal Witness.

“He treated me like a colleague. He was never patronising and he believed in my ability even more than I did at the time. Clive really pushed you to fulfil your potential, and, you have to remember that this was at the height of apartheid, but he always treated me as an equal. He made me believe what non-racialism could be.”

Anthea Garman also recalls his ability to mentor people, helping her to become a respected features editor and showing her the power of good page design.

Lawrance was married three times and had three children, Anthony, Vanessa, and Sarah, which his son said showed a lot about “his passion for life and his need to roam”. During his life he lived in Cape Town, Pretoria, Pietermaritzburg, London, Boston, New York and Nieu Bethesda in the Great Karoo.

Lawrance’s early life was spent working toward becoming a professional football player in England, which took him on a boat to London at the age of 20.

“But somewhere along Africa’s Atlantic Coast he met a writer on board who convinced him he had talent. And so began an agonising struggle for the rest of his life to prove that man correct,” said Anthony. “He was also, at the time, a committed Christian Scientist, and this resulted in him marrying his church sweetheart, an ambitious young woman, Deanne Lawrance, who went on to become a well-known figure in Pietermaritzburg’s education community. Together they moved to Boston, where he worked on the Christian Science Monitor. He briefly ran the paper’s New York bureau before a personal crisis resulted in their return to South Africa.”

His daughter, Vanessa Bruni, said her father could be ruthlessly honest and had an ability to assess character, which helped her to be a better judge of the integrity of those who crossed her path.

“My father loved to create beauty: in writing, art and his environment; he worked hard at creating and was patient with mastering whichever avenue he was inspired by. He was melancholic by nature, but hardly ever morbid and believed that dark times of the soul were essential for an artist. He didn’t tolerate boring conversation and so I will miss my talks with him which mostly lifted me above the hum-drum of life to a world of ideas and creativity,” she added.

Lawrance wrote five small books after he retired from The Witness, the best of which was probably Small Surprises from the Great Karoo.

He was also a sculptor, exhibiting his work at the Midlands Arts and Crafts Society (Macs). His quirky pieces were made from found objects he had picked up walking in the bush, representing weird creatures from his imagination, said former Witness arts editor Margaret von Klemperer.

“As a poet, he drew a great deal of his material from the natural world, whether it was his garden in Maritzburg, or in the Karoo, or on his wider travels,” she added. “He was a sharp observer, alive to the humour that he found in nature, but also to its darker side. As a colleague, he could be difficult, and dogmatic, but never held a grudge, and he had considerable insight into the craft of writing. He had a delicious, slightly off the wall sense of humour, and, despite a manner that could be abrasive, especially to those who didn’t know him well, he had an innate kindness.”

The Reigning Leaves (from Gumption published in 2015)
My eightieth year is trundling towards me,
clutching five small volumes of verse,
which may be my bundle.
Whereas once I played football with the hours
of my days, and words were swift, time now
is squatting like a benign old toad.
The Mystic says, ‘Live in the now.’
The Novelist says, ‘All writing is memory.’
Under a spreading tree.
In a mini-forest, in Maritzburg. I wait.
For one great poem. Or
the reigning leaves recruit me for mulch.
Saved by a Chameleon (from Whimsical Notions published in 2012)
In the middle of a lawn
a chameleon was rocking back
and forth like a sprinter
testing his blocks. Fearing the dog,
I fork-lifted him, in my palm,
to the mini-forest,
where his steel tail and rear clamps
clung to my fingers until he found
a foothold and stumbled off
with a ludicrous version of haste
that raised me chuckling
from a dark night of dreams.
A Toppy (from Butterflies & Blackjacks
published in 2010)
A toppy on the garden tap
stares between his toes
this way and that
as if to ask
how does this thing work?

(Obituary by Estelle Sinkins, The Witness, April 27, 2020)