Engrossing account of a life lived to the full

By Paul Moorcraft

Director of the Centre for Foreign Policy Analysis, and visiting professor of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff_University

BILTONG is the family-centred autobiography of an adventurous South African who eventually settled in my home country of Wales. I must confess an interest right at the start: David and his charming wife, Joy, are old friends. And we shared many cross-cutting experiences as I went the other way, travelling from a Welsh environment to southern Africa and then struggling to learn Afrikaans.

David helped me with a book I wrote about the South African Defence Force – coincidentally, his father had been a senior officer in the South African Air Force, with bravery awards emanating Korean war. When, in 1981, I spoke at the book launch in Pretoria, I said: ‘Die Walliesers en die Afrikaners het baie gemeen – albei leef te na aan die Engelse, en te ver van God.’

Ever since, David has quoted Harald Pakendorf, then the editor of Die Vaderland, whose response to my carefully prepared speech in Afrikaans was to ask, ‘Why has he just murdered my language?’ In turn, I now nag David about his failure to learn Welsh, as he is living in the most Welsh-speaking areas of Wales, on the island of Anglesey.

Although the author said he wrote the book for his family, he clearly has an eye on his historical legacy. David Willers has been, inter alia, a paratrooper, diplomat, journalist, newspaper editor and a representative of South African business in London. He has also had many intellectual interests, some of which I share – from the life of Bram Fischer, the South African communist leader, to Jan Morris, the writer who changed sex from a man to a woman (while continuing to live with ‘his’ wife) and who switched nationality from English to Welsh (while never mastering the language). The author wrote a screenplay about Fischer, and embarked on a PhD on the Anglo-Welsh writer.

This is David’s second book. His first is a fascinating account of how the Waratah – the so-called ‘Titanic of the South’ – disappeared in 1909, while en route from Durban to Cape Town.

For anyone interested in South African modern history, this book provides a tour de force about the end of apartheid. Among others, it discloses that David helped to initiate contact between the white business community and the African National Congress. The story behind the transition of white-ruled South Africa to democracy under Nelson Mandela is captivating.

But the book has many other strengths – the adventure of escaping on a small boat during the collapse of colonial rule in Angola; and life in fin de siècle white Rhodesia are well sketched. Descriptions of the Willers home in rural France are lyrically expressed as well.

Above all, this book is a paean to the strength of family. I had the pleasure of meeting David’s Welsh mother a few times – elegant, but not one to take any prisoners. And she rightly criticised my poor Welsh. David has also been lucky to have a wife of German and Afrikaner stock, a woman who would not just supply the ammunition but also fire the rifles if the wagons were encircled.

After a swashbuckling life, the book ends with the contentment of grandchildren, despite the grandparents’ relative isolation in Anglesey. Now in his early seventies, David is not intellectually isolated. He has the gift of friendship, and has kept up his worldwide network and intellectual hobbies.

This is an account of a life lived to the full, as well written as one would expect from a former journalist. It is also a love story about the author’s wife in particular and his family in general.