I’m delighted to be able to launch my new website which I hope you will enjoy and engage with. Not only is it designed to highlight the work I am doing as well as events and features, it will also allow for a valuable channel of communication via this blog. For the very first entry I have decided to start from the beginning as they say…

As an Englishman living in South Africa people often ask me how I ended up here. I am also often asked why I have dedicated much of my career to writing about the history of this fascinating place. Well, South Africa is in my blood. My love affair with the country began almost 20 years ago when I first visited Cape Town. The people and the place struck a chord within my soul and I have been returning ever since. It has been the focus of my life and career since those early days.

It all began with a chance encounter. As with many paths we take in our lives, it is often the people we meet along the way who shape our decisions and the directions we take. I grew up in a small village in Somerset, England. A country boy with untapped ambition, happy to be with friends and to play my sport at weekends. I did OK at school, passed everything but with average grades. After finishing school, I took a job in a local bank and then another office job within the health authority. It was undemanding and uninspiring work. In my mid-twenties I started to yearn for more. It was my love of sport that lead me to a chance meeting that would change the direction of my life forever.

In 1995 I met H at my local gym. A young South African dentist recently qualified, H had travelled to England with friends to begin work for the National Health Service in Somerset. The same age as me, I admired H and her friends for what they had achieved and became intrigued with South Africa and the pictures of the Cape they showed me. Sensing my frustration and hidden ambition, H suggested I apply to university to begin teacher training in Physical Education. I liked children and I had a passion for sport so it made sense. The first person in my entire family to even contemplate going to university, I realised that I would need my family’s support if I was to make this step into the unknown.

Crucially it was my father, Les, who gave me the emotional backing I needed. While my mother, Gill, had concerns about me giving up the security of a full time job, it was Dad, thirty years working in the harsh conditions of a power station and never one to say much, who told me to go for it – “life is too short to not enjoy your work, I should know, we will support you all the way” he said. That was all the encouragement I needed.

I had already visited H’s home in Cape Town by the time I began my full-time undergraduate degree in Cardiff in September 1997. I had fallen in love with South Africa and its people and found it the most fascinating place I had ever been. It was the 90s and this was the ‘new South Africa’, the so-called ‘Rainbow Nation’ still at odds with itself and finding its feet. For the first time in my life people asked my opinion and seemed genuinely interested in what I thought. I never felt an outsider but I was something of a novelty and I found people forthcoming and welcoming. I joined sports clubs and played club football for a local club. We played in townships as well as Cape Town’s most affluent suburbs. Through sport I was introduced to the culture and met friends of all colours and backgrounds.

H had to return to South Africa but I continued to visit her. During my second year I arranged to spend a semester at Stellenbosch University as part of my studies and it was here that I made friendships that last to this day. Dr Liz Bressan, an American academic who has worked at Stellenbosch for the past 20 years, saw the potential in me and to this day she is both my friend and mentor. It was also at Stellenbosch where my interest in South African history began. I was intrigued with the passion for sport and rugby in particular and quickly decided that this would be the focus of my research.

As a traditional Afrikaans university, there weren’t many Englishmen at Stellenbosch but this was never an issue. In one class the entire group switched to speaking English just to accommodate me. I think they admired my enthusiasm for the place! I became one of the staff as I taught sport classes – football in particular. It was also around this time too that I visited Matjiesfontein for the first time. Like most visitors to this unique place, I wasn’t sure what to expect but was left mesmerized by its history but more importantly by the people of the town. Always smiling, there was a strength and pride about the place that I admired. The Karoo had cast its spell on me.

I funded my studies and visits to South Africa by using the money I had saved from my days in the bank and health authority. I also had a lucrative sideline in commercial modeling – a fact I kept from my friends in my football team but which paid well! My parent’s support and many hours in the books were rewarded when, in June 2000, I received a First from Cardiff University as well as the award for top all-round student. The dedication, perseverance and hard work had paid off.

My fascination with South African history was now evolving after my undergraduate dissertation had explored Afrikaner Nationalism and Rugby. The research for this thesis was conducted during my time in South Africa and it had revealed that there were many gaps in the country’s sporting and social history. I was keen to explore more. Given my results at Cardiff, I was advised to undertake postgraduate study and with ambitions now to become a university lecturer there was only one place to consider doing a Masters degree – Stellenbosch University! My relationship with H was now at an end – the distance had taken its toll – but I arrived back to live permanently in South Africa at the end of 2000 ever grateful for her support and inspiration and for introducing me to her wonderful country.

The years spent as a full-time, mature (at the age of 30!) student in Stellenbosch was perhaps the most enriching time of my life. I met wonderful people from all over Africa and around the world. I had friends from Argentina, Germany, Holland as well as South Africa and I threw myself into life in the town as well as my work. I became interested in the Anglo-Boer War and was fascinated by the relationship between Briton and Afrikaner in South Africa’s history and how this had shaped the sport that is still played with such passion in the country today. For my Masters thesis I decided to explore the impact of sport during the Anglo-Boer War era and how it was used by both sides as a tool of reconciliation. In much the same way that Nelson Mandela had embraced the Afrikaner’s Springboks during the Rugby World Cup triumph of 1995, I could see comparisons of how sport was also used over one hundred years ago in rebuilding a South Africa decimated by conflict and misunderstanding.

For months and months I would learn about South African history from my base in the Special Collections Room at Stellenbosch University Library. Here worked two ladies – Mrs. Hanna Botha, the Head of Special Collections and Ms Mimi Seyfert, her assistant – who would become dear friends. I spent so much time studying my subject in that wonderful room that they dedicated a table to me – ‘Dean’s table’ as it became known! But it was not all about reading books. My passion to learn more about the country took me on many road trips. On one occasion, after placing a plea for information in the local and national press, I was invited to Bloemfontein to the home of a medical doctor who had the largest private collection of Boer War artifacts in existence! I also visited Pretoria, Natal and drove to Kimberley where I visited archives and battlefields. I can remember feeling the very real atmosphere at Magersfontein and being in awe as I walked among the Boer trenches still visible over one hundred years after the battle! I could ‘sense’ the history still unwritten and it thrilled me.

Within 2 years, with the help of Hanna, Mimi and my supervisor Prof. Floris Van der Merwe, I finished the thesis and was awarded my masters degree from Stellenbosch. I had applied for academic positions but was advised that I needed a PhD if I wanted to teach at a reputable university. Now short of funds, it seemed I had no choice but to return to the UK and give up my dream of completing a doctorate in South Africa. However an unexpected email arrived on the desk of Dr Bressan announcing that Professor Jennifer Hargreaves – a leading sociologist then based at Brunel University in London – was offering PhD bursaries to study about South Africa. It was from then that I used the meager bursary plus money I got from teaching in universities around England, to travel from London to Cape Town every few months to begin a PhD about Matjiesfontein and the history of South African cricket. A decade later a book, Empire, War and Cricket, would be born…

To be continued…

Part 2

Empire, War and Cricket is based on research I conducted for my PhD. Awarded by Brighton University in 2008 the PhD, like the book describes the remarkable story of Matjiesfontein and its creator James Logan. The book was given extra significance when, after the death of Major John Buist – James Logan’s grandson – all of Logan’s pictures and artifacts were unexpectedly sold at auction by the family. By good-fortune I was given access to the entire collection just prior to them being sold and these archives and images, never seen before, are featured throughout the book. Other original material for the book has been obtained throughout South Africa at places such as the Anglo-Boer War Museum in Bloemfontein, the University of Witwatersrand, Pretoria and numerous cricket grounds and archives around the country. I spent many months in the wonderful surroundings of Newlands Cricket Ground in Cape Town where I met Mrs Carol Van Vuuren – the then Secretary of the Western Province Cricket Association. Carol has been a tremendous friend and supporter of my work and is one of the many people that has made my South African journey so enriching.

Following my very first visit I knew that I had to go back to Matjiesfontein – a place that encapsulated my passion for South Africa. I had read about the town’s Scottish creator, one James Douglas Logan, and had discovered his link to the development of cricket in South Africa. By now I had met Mr David Rawdon, the owner of Matjiesfontein, and we made a pact together that one day I would write a book about this unique town. For his part, David would provide me with all the information he could as well as a free breakfast at the Lord Milner Hotel! David’s faith and confidence in me was exceptional and he became a dear friend before he passed away in 2010 at the age of 86. He was a remarkable man.

Empire, War and Cricket is dedicated to David and to the people of Matjiesfontien – all of whom I have got to know so well over the years. Many of the staff who work at Matjiesfontein and their families live in the township across the railway line from the hotel. It is a scene not many of the tourists get to see. I wanted to give something back, so as a teacher, David suggested I visit the primary school and from that day my relationship with Matjiesfontein went far beyond research.

Spending days at a time in the township I would often borrow sports equipment from Stellenbosch University in order to introduce the children of Matjiesfontein to sporting activity and games. For many, it was the first time they had had any form of physical education. It was a humbling experience. We would have training sessions, sports days and competitions and I would pass on lesson plans for the teachers so that they could also take PE sessions when I wasn’t there. It felt good to be able to make a contribution and to give something back to these special people who have always shown me such kindness.

I got to know the children and their families and it was during this time that I was approached by the young men in the village to help them find sponsorship for football equipment so that they could enter a team into the local league competition. I could see what sport meant to the community in Matjiesfontein – for many it provided a distraction from alcohol, substance abuse and crime. I didn’t know where to turn and even considered buying this equipment myself – although as a student I could not afford it! On returning to the UK, in desperation I approached my local professional football club – Bristol City – and by good fortune they were changing their kit supplier at that time. With the help of a friend who played for them they agreed to donate numerous sets of football kit as well as balls and other equipment! Following this, I was contacted by the BBC and the story of Matjiesfontein receiving this wonderful donation was shown on television back in England. The villagers were thrilled and the team were able to compete in the local league for the first ever time!

With my PhD underway, I had articles published in journals and books and presented my findings at conferences and events throughout the world. I developed a reputation as an expert in South African sports history and the name of Matjiesfontein even became known within European academic circles! I needed to fund my research in South Africa and took a full-time post as lecturer in Sports Studies at the University of Ulster in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 2005. I needed a base from which to write and I enjoyed my relationship with the students there and being part of a teaching team. I was inspired by Belfast and its people. Also a place with a troubled past, the comparisons between Northern Ireland and South Africa were apparent – not least the positivity of the communities in each place. I left Belfast in June 2008 to take up post as lecturer at Deakin University in Melbourne. While this was a tremendous experience, it soon became apparent that Australia was too far removed from South Africa and I returned to the country permanently in 2010 (via a year in 2009 as a lecturer in sport at Northumbria University in the UK); More about the 5 wonderful years I spent living in South Africa to follow..