15 March 2010

Filed under Biographical

A Profile of Michael Holman

Author: Marianne Brown

Profile for Weekend FT

Spending a morning in Michael Holman’s living room is like diving into his temporal lobe and having a nice cup of tea. The book-lined walls are peppered with photos and clippings, and curious objects stare out from glass cabinets. Nothing, however, is left untouched long enough to gather dust. Because as soon as he warms to a theme, he is out of his chair, quick as a tiring synapse, and shooting across the room to find something to illustrate his point.

Among the photos, many of Holman shaking hands with history’s leading men: Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan, a young Gordon Brown, the eye is inevitably drawn to one picture set alone on the marble mantelpiece - a macabre souvenir of the operation he says proved to be his “renaissance”. It shows him with a shaven head wearing hospital garb and a metal frame screwed into his skull. He is grinning.

The photo was taken in 2001 when the writer had surgery to alleviate the debilitating affects of Parkinson’s disease which had dogged him for I6 years. The operation was a startling success, but marked the end of his long career as Africa Editor for their Financial Times and his rebirth as a novelist. It was the third of what he calls his three “life-changing joumeys” that saw him twice persecuted by Ian Smith’s pro-apartheid government in Rhodesia and finds him here, writing novels in a sun-bathed study in East London.

There’s no love lost between Holman and his colonial ancestors, but he is still nostalgic about his childhood. He was born and grew up in the small town of Gwelo in the country now called Zimbabwe. “l had a very privileged childhood,” he says. “The school had wonderful playing fields, excellent teachers, small classes. and I look back with great appreciation on that time. But thank God, at a very early age I discovered racism was evil.”

At the time Rhodesia was "apartheid in all but name,” Holman tells me. “In many cafes there were separate serving hatches for blacks. There was no way one could avoid it.” Without warning, he is out of his chair and across the room, his involuntary swinging movements knocking a small picture frame off the book shelf.

After a few minutes African Deadlines is open on my lap, a book he compiled in the mid nineties to celebrate his 50th birthday. "You ought to read that,” he says. His cool blue gaze settles on my face while he waits for me to finish reading.

‘A boy from my school, a year or two older, who walked with a limp, bumped into an African man. It seemed deliberate, to create the pretext for a fight; and I remember how the white boy suddenly swung his list, and the sharp slap of fist on jaw, and the look not so much of pain of the victim, but of sheer incredulity at the gratuitous nature of the assault.

ll He was in his early teens and life. even in small isolated Gwelo, was beginning to reflect the times. African nationalism simmered across the continent, catching tire in Ghana in I957 and spreading south. As a result. tensions we1'e also beginning to rise in Rhodesia.

He was I7 when a school exchange to America changed his liI'e. It was 1963, and the height of the civil rights movement, when he travelled across the Atlantic to spend a year living with a family in Klamath Falls, Oregon. “I was a sportsman, and one of the things that struck me was that everyone shared the same changing room. This was right and proper. In Rhodesia sports were segregated," he says.

We are interrupted by the sound of the telephone at the other end of the L-shaped room. Michael disappears around the corner.

“Hello mum.” he says. “Yes, quite alright, how are you?”

His mother is calling from Edinburgh. HoIn1an’s parents moved there 15 years ago from what was by then an independent Zimbabwe “to be closer” to their son. His father passed away several years ago.

When Holman was young, his family “tolerated” his political views as they did his vegetarianism. “Dad was very conservative,” he says. “I don’t want to say anything bad about him. He repaid a teaching loan I got for my university fees and he did that without any fuss at all. I appreciate that to this day. I inherited mum's non-racial values.”

HoIman’s views would not be tolerated by everyone. He was studying English at the University College of Rhodesia, an institution that tried to encourage racial integration, and editing the magazine Black and White, published anonymously.

"I enjoyed writing and editing and telling the Government to bugger off." he says. “We brought out the first as volume number two. But there was never a number one. The security police looked and looked for it, which was very satisfying.”

Breaking point came in 1967 when students and lecturers suspected of being involved with the magazine had their rooms raided. Holman was arrested under the Law and Order (Maintenance) Act on the university campus.

“At 5am there was a knock at the door and there were two white military policemen. I remember vividly that one of them slapped me across the face, not particularly hard. I was arguing with them (laughs) and I said to them 'have you got any identification'?’ and they slapped me. It didn’t hurt, it was just shock.”

He spent that night in a police cell: “I remember making a football, rather like this (he reaches into cabinet behind him and throws me a football made out of blue plastic bags covered by a net of rope). I spent the night whacking it around."

The day after he was driven to Gwelo where he was kept under “suburban arrest” for I2 months. He was never told what he had been charged with. “I wasn’t afraid then,” he says, “but I was terrified later on.”

After a year of reading books (“one a day”) he was offered an exit permit to study an MSc at Edinburgh University. It was in Scotland that he would be taught “how to think” both in an analytical and "counter-intuitive” way, and so the trip would become the second of his life-changing journeys.

Perhaps it is his sly charm or his boyish looks. but somehow Holman seems to get away with blowing raspberries at the system, even when the risks are high. When he returned home in 1973, he reported on the civil war l'or UK newspapers, including the Financial Times and the Scotsman, while working as Rhodesian correspondent for the Financial Mail, a publication based in South Africa.

"I wrote about the Rhodesians using torture against the rebels. They didn’t like this at all,” he says, twisting very gently in his chair.

“They tried to deport me and then they called me up. l said they’d made a mistake because I supported the guerrillas."

For the first time, there is no hint of' humour in his voice.

“They then changed the law and anybody who contested the call-up had to go into the army while their case was being considered. That was a horrible process. l believed if' l fell into their hands, I’d suffer.

“One morning I was in my office and I got a phone call from a friend who said the police were on their way. They were coming to arrest me. and I walked down the stairs immediately. That really saved my bacon. because they came in while I was walking down the stairs. I was absolutely terrified.”

Holman went into hiding for three weeks. finally getting across the border in a way he refuses to discuss even today, but he does give me one detail: “The point at which I was off Rhodesian territory was a euphoric moment,” he says. After that he went to Zambia as Africa correspondent for the Financial Times and in 1984 moved to London as Africa editor.

Only two years into the job, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

Our conversation stalls as a handsome woman appears in the doorway carrying a tray. She is Gabrielle Stubbs. Holman’s companion and co-owner of the house. She offers me coffee in a delicate white cup (“from Paris”) and a biscuit. The pair were romantically involved for several years, having met at Edinburgh University. Stubbs lived with Holman in Rhodesia, working for the Justice and Peace Commission. Her work included preparing statements from Africans who had been caught up in the guerrilla war.

When Holman went into hiding, Stubbs stayed at their home. “She visited me at an early stage,” Holman says. “But it was a fraught business, as the special branch were trying to track me down."

The same year they bought their London home, 1978; they decided to break up "to see other people,” according to Stubbs.

For over three decades they have lived in separate parts of the house. Stubbs in the basement and Holman on the first floor. but in the manner of housemates, rather than former lovers. Stubbs helped look after Holman when his condition deteriorated. even when he was in a serious relationship with another woman.

Holman has paid homage to Stubb’s loving care in every one of his novels, all published after his retirement in 2002.

“Are you covering the poor girl with books?” She looks at Holman. “He always does that with guests.” she says and wanders out.

l lay the tray down on a nearby stool and Holman continues. “The best part of my working life was affected by Parkinson’s,” he says. “l worked every day of the week to make up for shortcomings. l motivated myself through work and my job became my life.”

In the mid 19905 he met and fell in love with fellow FT journalist Michela Wrong who was working as a stringer in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo.) In her article A Bid for Freedom, written in 2001, she describes Holman taking the medicine which had for years allowed him to lead something approaching a normal life.

One moment he seemed l00 years old, shaking uncontrollably_ shuffling as he walked. Minutes later, as the drug kicked in. He straightened to become the man his friends remembered of old - dynamic. humorous, frighteningly incisive.

But the longer he took Levopoda, the less effect it had.

Side-effects - a squirming knows as "dyskinesia,” which produces convulsive leg movements and head movements worthy of a BSE-stricken Friesian - became more pronounced. By last year. Michael’s “off” moments, when he would be stuck in his chair, trembling uncontrollably, were heavily outnumbering his “on” moments.

Then came the phone call. lt was from a French professor offering Holman the chance to undergo Deep Brain Stimulation in Grenoble- an 11-hour operation that would involve applying electrodes to his brain while he remained conscious. and later a pacemaker under his collarbone.

“Do you want to see the video?” Holman asks me.

Soon l am sitting in front oft he ghost of Holman past. writhing and contorting down some stairs. “It takes me 10 minutes to wipe my bum when I’ve got the shakes,” the grey~faced man says. The film is a short documentary made for the programme Living Pulse. In one scene l recognise the man from the photo on the mantelpiece, strapped into the metal frame. The operation is over and the presenter has asked how he feels. "Absolutely bloody marvellous," is the reply.

Though not a cure, the surgery left Holman virtually shake-free. Today he occasionally slurs his words and knocks things over, but he is, essentially. a man reborn

Holman embraced his recovery by taking a fork in the road. When the FT said they were offering voluntary redundancies, he decided to retire. “I had to decide if l wanted to continue devoting my life to journalism whilst coping with Parkinson's, which is very hard to do. Also, I’d been writing for 25 years and I thought, did I want a different audience."

He was, however, "terrified of being bored,” so he sustained himself through this third journey by switching his medium of expression to writing novels, a series of three. His debut: Last Orders At Harrods was published in 2005, followed two years later by Fatboy and the Dancing Ladies. The third in the trilogy, Dizzy Worms, comes out in June.

His first novel is dedicated to Wrong with the words: “my turn.” The same year they broke up. I try to probe, but he clams up and shakes his head. We return to the green zone - his novels.

The transformation between dedicated hack and full-time novelist meant serious readjustments, “rather like running IO() metres and running a marathon”.

"Writing a novel, I have hours to contemplate the sentence that I’m working on,” he says. “In journalism you’ve got maybe a few minutes or even less and the wording is so important. So the time it takes to write the piece is the time that occupies centre stage in your mind. It really is very, very distracting indeed.

As if by compulsion, Holman still writes the occasional article for the FT, most recently a piece on the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. a photocopy of which is pinned next to his desk.

“Of course Sandy (old friend and fellow Zimbabwean, Alexander McCall Smith) has written a dozen books. At first I couldn’t understand how he did it. And now I can, but to combine the two jolly difficult.”

He pauses for a second, staring out of the window into the sunshine.

“It’s tempting to say if it wasn’t for Parkinson’s, I wouldn’t have written these books, but that’s a dangerous path to go down. I would never have given up journalism if it hadn't been for Parkinson’s."

Holman’s rebirth as a novelist has given him a fresh platform to present how he sees Africa, one where he can be much freer with his sense of humour. “When people would say ‘oh gosh, I really liked what you wrote’, it wouldn’t be about the IMF or the World Bank. It would be a piss-take or something that made them laugh,” he says.

He pauses and looks at my plate. "Eat your biscuit” There is no room for excuses.

Comedy is the driving force in the novels. which are set in the fictional land of the corrupt East African country Kuwisha. and adjacent slum Kireba (which he assumes everyone knows is a thin disguise for modern Kenya and Kibera). “If it’s Kuwisha, anything goes,” he says. “but if it’s Kenya I have to be much more careful."

In one of Harrods prime comedic moments, manager of Kireba’s only savings bank, Edward Fumiver, is caught by his servant contorting in front of a mirror with his trousers down, trying to squeeze a spot caused by the burrowing jipu worm. Was it based on personal experience? I ask.

"Oh yes.” He says. "1 had a jipu fly on my foreskin when l was 12. Acute embarrassment to have to go to one’s parents, acute embarrassment, profoundly itchy." 'l'here’s a cheeky glint in his eye. “Change the subject.”

McCall Smith has combined the novels into a film script and one of Holman’s next projects is to guide it through the production stage. Richard E Grant has agreed “in principle” to take the role of Furniver, and Harry Hook, who was brought up in Kenya, will direct. Aside from that, Holman is also working on a play. He throws me a mischievous laugh. “It’s called Missing Apartheid.”

There is only a whisper of white Rhodesia in his well-to-do English accent. But although London is his base. the food of his imagination will always be Africa.

“If you ask him to identify an oak or a beech, he won't be able to do it,” Stubbs says. “But ask him about any tree or shrub in Africa and he will tell you straight away."

It is not through ownership that Holman animates the people and places in his work, real or fictional, it is through understanding. In his article Complicit in a Tragedy, published in 1995, Holman describes cheering himself hoarse during a boxing match between Gerard Mclellan and Nigel Benn which left the former in a coma for eleven days.

My atavistic responses, I hope, give me an insight into an innate p/'propensity for violence that I suspect we all share. This reinforces, rather than dimities, my repugnance for war, fought by the young for the old sanitised by the stale, and sanctified by the church.

l am reminded of this when reading an account of an interview Holman did with Malawi’s formidable leader Hastings Banda in 1993. It was Banda’s first press interview for I5 years and nearly all the contemporary questions had been censored.

In an effort to break the ice, I .uggested we had something in common. (In 1959 Banda had been arrested for his support for independence in Gwelo.) I started my opening question of the interview. Halfway through he interrupted me. 'Why did they send you to Gwelo? 'I recalled the 5am knock on the door, and he chuckled: ‘I know about 5 0 'clock ’

This level of intimacy is also noted by FT colleague Patti Waldmeir in her introduction to African Deadlines. Leaders, she says, see in Holman: the rarest form of lover of Africa: one who feels its misfortunes but is not blinded by sympathy; one who condemns its barbarism without branding it barbaric; one who believes in a continent which has lost faith in itself.

Holman has had a front row seat at one of the world’s theatres, the rise and fall of Africans nations. But instead of hogging the view, he invites you in and tells you to eat your biscuit.