This post isn’t a full review of this book because I’ll be reviewing it for a forthcoming edition of Wales Arts Review. For now, all I’ll say is that its subject matter is a remarkable story of two remarkable people. Actually they think they’re utterly unremarkable which is why what they did raises so many moral and ethical questions; questions you can distill into one: ‘what would I do in similar circumstances?’
Adelaine and Walter (‘Ad and Wal’) Hain may have been ordinary people but they lived in extraordinary times in a South Africa where colonialism gradually turned into apartheid and protest gradually turned into violent rebellion. And their response was far from ordinary in that country at that time. The decisions they took, the people they helped and the intense attentions of the state they experienced as a result pitched them right into the middle of a time of turmoil and danger.
They turned their anti-apartheid feeling into practical help for black and white prisoners and campaigners in trouble. And I mean practical: sending food, clothes and secret messages in increasingly inventive ways as political journalist and activistJ ill Chisholm recalled:
Ad Hain taught me many things. Unusual things. Like how to peel away layers of an onion, slip a thin sliver of paper between lower layers and then ‘reconstruct’ the onion so that it appeared as complete as ever it was. Or how to unpick the stitches of a man’s shirt collar…saving the original thread… again slide a sliver of thin paper into the collar … and then re-sew it leaving no evidence it had been undone. Strange skills for someone who could pass for a carefree, suburban mother-of-four.
I met and spoke to Adelaine and Walter this week when they joined their son Peter for the launch of his book in his Neath constituency in South Wales. Adelaine told me she hadn’t been able to read all of the book because of the painful emotions some of it brought back. Walter said he had read it all, although he too had found parts of it were almost unbearable to recall, namely the chapter recounting how his friend Lanky was killed as they sheltered from bombing in wartime Italy.
After all these years, it’s clearly still raw and real for them. I was struck how this softly-spoken couple have witnessed and been involved in living nightmares and remain optimistic and, above all, united.