Howling to be a Beat

Who indeed was Sinclair Beiles? That is the question asked by Gary Cummiskey and Eva Kowalska in this genial, absorbing and well-produced booklet put out by Dye Hard Press. Was he really the great South African poet of his generation (unrecognised), or was he, well, some sort of impostor? A scam?

The outline of his biography cannot be disputed. Born of South African parents in Uganda in 1930, he technically did not become a South African citizen until he had completed his education at King Edward’s and then studied at the University of the Witwatersrand. His most memorable poem is about those lost days: his father taking him downtown to the ice rink and the waltzes they played to keep the skaters circulating, clockwise.

Then he headed overseas to make it there, especially in Paris, where spoiled children of other troubled nations in the 1950s were intent on breaking into new modes. So we have his mates William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg of the United States, catching up on being post-surrealist — in English, which was a novelty then. Apparently our representative joined these slovens of intellectual history in the Beat Hotel, even to become one of them.

This feat Beiles tirelessly reminds us of in the interviews included here, name-dropping being his ticket to fame. Never a mention of details such as Burroughs shooting his own wife and forever wondering why she was deceased. As for Ginsberg, smelling of rusty rags — once when I tried to interview him and he reckoned I was unseducible, all I could get out of him was giggles.

Always billed over there as the exotic “South African poet”, Beiles achieved distinction in turn by chasing his German girlfriend over the rooftops, intending to impale her on a sword. This apparently was in revenge for what Germans had done to Jews.

But possibly his walk-on part in the Paris scene was not the starring role he made it out to be.

In the classic accounts of the period, James Campbell’s The Beat Generation and Barry Miles’s The Beat Hotel, “our boy” merits only a footnote or two, and no listing of his works, if there were any, in the bibliographies.

The conquest of Greece had to follow, where, of course, he spoke no Greek either and so could further build up the myth of his talent without contradiction. Walter Battiss schlepped back from Athens a substantial volume of Beiles’s verse, which he and his editor, Phil du Plessis at Wurm magazine in Pretoria, named Ashes of Experience.

As there was no other text messing up the old forms with such zest, he was next in line after Ruth Miller and Sydney Clouts to win the Ingrid Jonker Prize. That finally put an end to the generation of soldier-poets, opening the way for the 1970s.

Next I went to Athens myself on a mission to collect Beiles’s latest, to be issued as an offshoot of IZWI magazine, of which by then Du Plessis and I were two of the editors.

Hence Tales of 1972, published by so-called Gryphon Poets (spot the encrypting of the names Gray and Phil there).

The sculptress Aileen Lipkin, who was for a time to become Beiles’s partner once he returned, provided the logo. Graphics were by Cecil Skotnes in a limited edition, which as a result was due to be a sell-out.

When I went to Caxton Printers in Doornfontein to collect a copy of what I had so slaved over, I found I had been deleted on the press. Instead the volume bore the notice: “Produced by Bernard Sachs.”

Sachs, an acquaintance of Beiles’s generous mother, who was our sponsor, was the man who had purloined much of Herman Charles Bosman. End of my career as a publisher.

For Lionel Abrahams of Purple Renoster, Beiles did produce a cute satire or two of the local scene.

For IZWI he turned in a payback in memory of Ingrid Jonker. But he was more concerned with his own penis than her suicidal wade into the waves.

“I am an invention. My poems a publicity trick,” he had to admit. The omens were not good.

The trawl of the collection of Cummiskey and Kowalska really begins here with the records of many local witnesses.

They record his drunken Yeoville years, his spouting about past achievements, with the publications becoming ever more private or even nonexistent. Kowalska lists more than 100 play scripts — anyone remember a production?

So it was downhill all the way to his demise in 2000.

Was he, as he claimed, famous only for being overlooked? Or was he merely the demented con man who had all of the South African poetry scene welcoming him where he belonged, only to blow it big time? Over to these dedicated record-keepers for an answer.

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

These days, we are on the trail of the merry band of corporates and politicians robbing South Africa of its own potential.

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