South African expat Norman Coates, a well-known theatrical designer in London, has published his first novel – a shameless and funny story of a theatrical production set for the Grahamstown Festival.
Article from 'The South African' by Marianne Gray
So many South Africans leave home to live abroad and niggling in the back of their minds is the dream of writing The Great South African Novel.
Some have done it, like best-selling author Justin Cartwright, but mainly we just put it off as something we’ll do when we’re older. And never do.
But Capetonian Norman Coates did, as he built a life in London as a well-known theatrical designer, and at 64 his first novel, Beard, a shameless and funny story of a theatrical production set for the Grahamstown Festival, is published this month.
"I must say I feel like an eight-year-old at the prospect of having a novel published,” said Coates.
"Books were big in our home. As a kid I started a library in my bedroom and my brother, sisters and I ran a small in-house magazine full of stories and drawings. I’ve always written. It’s just taken awhile to get between covers. Mind you, bestseller Mary Wesley had her first book published at 71 so I’m well ahead!”
He was born in Wynberg and went to Wynberg Boys Junior and Senior. After graduating from Michaelis School of Fine Art at UCT he worked his passage to England on the Union Castle Line’s SA Vaal as part of Cape Town pop/folk group Canticle. A recording contract awaited and they set off on a life of touring, from men’s working clubs in the grey north to cruising in the Caribbean on the QE2.
Canticle was brought back to South Africa as the "group that made it overseas” and after touring the country, Norman, with Anthony Osler and Suzanne Goldberg, started a fringe theatre in Rondebosch called the Theatre Downstairs.
"The world was ours,” reflected Coates. "We’d had had a hit record, we’d toured everywhere, we’d had fun.”
But London called again and he took the post of resident designer at the famous Almost Free Theatre in the West End, designing new plays by (Sir) Tom Stoppard, John Arden, Wolf Mankowitz among other rising playwrights.
Since then he has designed plays far and wide, here and abroad. His last was Hound of the Baskervilles, the next is As You Like It.
"The the writing has to fit in between the plays. I have so many ideas for future books I could open a shop selling ideas!”
Beard is set in Cape Town, Grahamstown and the Karoo, near Colesberg. It’s what Coates described as a book about people, as they battle with a theatre production that goes madly wrong. "It’s truthful, poignant and, hopefully, laugh out loud!”
The book will be available online in the UK early next year, and is published by Penstock Publishers in South Africa – available in all good bookshops – from 6 December.