Nancy Richards

THE READER: Nancy Richards

The host of SAfm Literature shares her reading favourites

Born in London and based in Cape Town, Nancy Richards is the much-loved presenter of SAfm Literature — the country’s premier radio show about books and all things literary. She also hosts the SAfm’s Enviro-Show, is the author of two books, and has served as Fairlady magazine’s living editor.

What are you reading at the moment?

Jonny Steinberg’s A Man of Good Hope, the odyssey of Somalian Asad Abdullahi and Monica Nicolson Osterbroek Hilton-Barber Zwolsman’s Love, Loss, Life about her triple heartbreak and crazy life. The size of the stories some people have to tell is truly humbling.

What book has had the greatest impact on you?

May I choose two? I’m a Libran, can’t do decisions. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith – my mother gave it to me when I was emerging into adulthood. It lifted veils from my protected safe-English-childhood worldview with a glimpse into the squalor of the wrong side of New York in 1912. Here in South Africa, the book that lifted even more veils was Mother to Mother by Sindiwe Magona. The opening line “My son killed your daughter” explains it all – a fictionalised account of what was behind the Amy Biehl murder. Rare and sensitive insight from another side.

What is your favourite novel of all-time?

Impossible ask. Past life: The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake, creaked with fantastical and eccentric imagery and Ada or Ardour: A Family Chronicle by Vladimir Nabokov — loved the wordplay. Present Life: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, a sort of Ethiopian layering – and The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salmon Rushdie – I got to interview him about this and nearly fainted with anxiety. I just remember he had a cold and a fatwa hanging over his head.

What’s the most disappointing book you’ve read?

I don’t know that I’ve ever had any expectations about a book – expect nothing and you won’t be disappointed as the Buddhists say. I’m so lost in admiration for anyone who writes a novel I wouldn’t presume to be disappointed.

What were your favourite books as a child?

I wish I could be more original but Winnie the Pooh has got to be The One, The Wanderings of Mumfie by Katharine Tozer, all the Barbar books by Jean de Brunhoff (what is it with elephants!) and Eloise in Paris by Kay Thompson. Plus a whole slew of comics and cartoon books, Buster and Andy Capp the favourites. Corny but true, having an excuse to buy and read children’s books all over again is one of the biggest bonuses of motherhood ever. Where was Roald Dhal when I was growing up!

What’s the last book you gave as a gift?

May I Have This Dance by 84-year-old Connie Manse Ngcaba. After I interviewed Connie, I bought four copies to give to all my friends. Such a touching memoir of her life with her husband and former ballroom dance teacher and their six children. At the end she explains how to draw up a Family Constitution. Love it.

Your favourite local author?

I really can’t cope with this singling out – so again I’d have to choose two – Sindiwe Magona because of what she’s done for storytelling and throwing light into lives so conspicuously unwritten. And Marguerite Poland. I read her Shades when my son had it as a set work for Matric and loved it (so much more soulful than Pride and Prejudice which is what we had at school). More recently I read her latest, The Keeper – which is luminous, lasting and lovely.

What’s the last thing you read that made you laugh?

How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran. She’s totally out there, described by someone as “the feminist rock star we need right now”. Had me in the rolling in the aisles.

Which book have you never been able to finish reading?

More than I care to admit – but sometimes it’s worth persisting. I tried three times to read God of Small Things by Arundhati Roi – the third time I finally made it past the half way mark and absolutely loved it. Never made even the quarter way mark of Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal – go on, shoot me.

What book do you turn to for advice?

The Busy Cookbook by Justine Drake. It’s her first cookbook, has lots of easy dishes — I need them, I’m a rotten cook. The other is The Concise Mrs Beaton’s Cookbook – the updated version by another friend Jenni Fleetwood. Good to have foodie friends.

Your favourite magazine?

Simply out of loyalty as I worked there for a large chunk of my life in South Africa, it would have to be Fairlady. I never went to university (art school in South London was the pinnacle of my education) but I can safely say that FL was my degree in love, life and everything else — from stain removal to international travel with equal measures of haute decor, cuisine and couture, I learnt it all there – and made some of my best friends ever. I also wrote a book called Beautiful Homes: A Selection of South African interiors as featured in Fairlady so we have history. 

What book would you give to the president to read?

Hmmm. The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone – he might battle, but it sure would take his mind off his own issues.

If you could have dinner with a dead writer, who would you dine with and where? 

Virginia Woolf – we’d have a picnic on a large patchwork blanket next to a lighthouse with seagulls to clear the left-overs, and if it’s all rright with you I would invite her sister and mine – I feel sure we’d all have much to share.


You’re working on a book…

It’s called Being a Woman in Cape Town: Telling your Story with the team from Woman Zone.



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