03 July 2008
Love Precedes Work
Book a Brokie's Way - An Anthropologist's Story: Love and Work in Three Continents
Author • David Brokensha
Reviewer • Professor Robin Palmer
When I was invited to review for Wordfest,
I selected Brokie's Way from the list because it appeared to be the autobiography of an anthropologist whose name was vaguely familiar. (I too am an anthropologist.)
The review copy duly arrived, and I realized that I had opted for the 566-page privately published memoir of a long-retired 85-year-old. My heart sank; I resolved to skim it. But the cover had already piqued my curiosity. Why did "love" precede "work" in the subtitle? And which of the two men on the cover was Brokie?
At first I thought it must be the larger, greybearded figure on the left, his well-lit face looking'. upwards and outwards. He certainly looked the part - a Hollywood anthropologist. But who, then, was the slighter man, his face mostly in shadow, sitting next to him? I read from the beginning for answers, and was soon hooked. "Love" precedes everything else in the subtitle because the two men were lovers for just short of 50 years, and they prioritized their relationship over everything else. The one I took for Brokie on the cover was in fact his life partner, Bernard Riley.
Despite his more "heroic" physicality, Bernard was the one who made career sacrifices and kept house. Brokie had the more successful of the two academic careers. They meet on page 204 when Brokie at 31 encounters Bernard in Tanganyika (Tanzania): "There was an immediate and powerful attraction on both sides." Within days of meeting, "Bernard and I committed ourselves to each other:"
Up till this point, save for the occasional
gay alliance mentioned in passing, Brokie's is a conventional story, a white English-speaking, middle-class South African life of his generation. He describes his parents and their origins; his outdoor Durban boyhood as the youngest of three brothers; a year at Rhodes University before volunteering for the Second World War; surrendering at Tobruk; his experiences as a prisoner-of-war in Italy and Germany; his return to Rhodes to complete his degree, and thence to
to study Social Anthropology.
Brokie was a "Natal liberal" whose rejection
of apartheid encouraged him to remain in the UK after graduating and join the British colonial service. Contrary to current representations of the British Empire, Brokie found Tanganyika and later Rhodesia, where he joined Bernard, quite congenial from a race relations perspective. However, it was not to last, and they decamped in 1959 - Bernard on a Fulbright to the US, Brokie to a lectureship in Ghana.
Four years later-after completing an Oxford PhD, Brokie left the University of Ghana for a post at the University of California, Berkeley, at last on the same continent as Bernard at the U of Indiana. Ironically, Bernard gained an appointment at UCB the year after Brokie moved to UC Santa Barbara, but at least they were now in the same state. Eventually a post for Bernard became vacant at UCSB and there they remained until their retirement.
Brokie provides long sections on his and Bernard's work in their complementary administrative, teaching and research roles in Tanganyika, Rhodesia, Ghana, Kenya and the US. He provides vivid accounts of Oxbridge and Anthropology in the 40s and 50s; the late colonies and early post-colonies of East and West Africa; Rhodesian reactions; and the revolutionary 1960s in California. But throughout the book, and especially following Brokie and Bernard's retirement in 1989, it is Brokie's reflections on their relationship that takes the book out of the ordinary.
If one is hoping for intimate details of the gay love affair that dominates the narrative, one will be disappointed. Men of Brokie's generation are not noted for their candour. Yet the narrative provides insights into the life of an ordinary homosexual couple of their generation that, in its dignified way, would do more for the recognition of gay rights among the likely readers of this book than a hundred gay pride marches. I was glad that I accompanied Brokie on his way, learning from him about another kind of love and an earlier experience of anthropological teaching and research in various settings. I would recommend the book to anyone who enjoys biography, but is also looking for something out of the ordinary.
Brokensha launches his book at 15.00 on Friday, July 4 , Launch Pad.