Among the books in my study is a small, unattractive book that’s been largely forgotten, but which played a not insignificant part in South African publishing history. I’m fond of this book and mention it briefly in The History of Oxford University Press, but I didn’t have the space there to really elaborate any of the detail. So here, dear reader, is the story of E.R. Seary’s South African Short Stories (1947).
First let’s deal with the dust jacket illustration…
Not very attractive is it? I know there’d been a war on and everything, but really one does slightly get the impression that they weren’t really trying. Or maybe I’m being unfair and one afternoon some designer sat back and thought ‘That’s it. The very essence of South African storytelling.’ Well, whatever, it’s not an image I can get excited about; it speaks to me of a rather antiquated idea of naive Africa that is part of the reason I feel a bit sorry for this little book. Anyhow, it’s when you turn to the title page that things get really exciting.
You’re still not excited, I can tell. Okay, let me talk you through this. It’s 1947 and Geoffrey Cumberledge, the publisher at Oxford University Press has just published the Press’s first book IN CAPE TOWN.
Here’s the thing. Oxford University Press (OUP) had been selling books in Southern Africa since the nineteenth century, through the rather long-winded process of having local South African booksellers order books from OUP in England. In 1915, OUP hired a chap to set up an office in Cape Town to handle its book selling. Every now and again, OUP and this chap, Charles Mellor, mulled over the idea of publishing a book specifically for South African readers, but nothing much happened until after WWII when OUP appointed a new editorial manager, Leo Marquard (yes, Leo Marquard Hall opposite Tugwell with those terrible lifts, that Leo Marquard). In 1946, E.R. Seary, a lecturer at Rhodes University, came to Marquard with a proposal to compile a book of ‘South African tales’. Marquard immediately recognised that it had potential as a set work for the school senior certificate, and he thought he could also get the railway bookshops to stock it. In the mean time, Marquard asked Seary whether he hadn’t in fact already promised this book to Juta’s. He had, which Marquard described as a somewhat ‘ticklish’ position. He suggested Seary write to Juta’s explaining that as the book had ‘wide’ appeal (really?) he wanted an international publisher such as OUP to handle it. It doesn’t seem hugely convincing to me, but Juta’s apparently didn’t put up a fight about it and Marquard was asked by his bosses at OUP in England to start getting quotes from Cape Town printers to get the book produced. Except he seems not to have bothered or misunderstood or something because on 9 October 1946 his boss wrote to him saying
‘I ended my last letter on this subject by asking if you would get estimates for production in Cape Town. Since then you have pulled a fast one over me by depositing the typescript on my table. This should not be taken as a precedent! Driven to do something desperate I have persuaded Headley Brothers to displact one of my less urgent books’… (EC Parnwell to Marquard, 9 October 1946).
So the book was printed in England and shipped to Cape Town. Despite this, it was agreed that this would be ‘the first Cape Town [OUP] Branch publication’. Five thousand copies were printed, of which 4369 had sold by 1949. It went on to be a mainstay of the OUP South Africa list, with the 24th edition appearing in 1989. In the early 1990s, OUP decided its useful life was over (or maybe that every single South African school and home already had a copy) and sent 10 copies to Seary’s estate and donated the remaining copies to local schools. Nice book, nice story, still a dreadful cover.