Matthew Lester: Bravo Tim Noakes – stuff those empty suits and their dusty tomes

My favorite book ever, even beyond JD Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye’, is Apsley Cherie-Garrard’s ‘the worst journey in the world.’

The book is not so much about Antarctic exploration and research. It is far more than that, concentrating on the kinder qualities of men behaving at their absolute best in times of adversity.

The opening paragraphs contain these magnificent lines:

The trouble is that they are inclined to lose their ideals in this complicated atmosphere of civilization. They run one another down like the deuce, and it is quite time that stopped. What is the use of A running down Scott because he served with Shackleton, or B going for Amundsen because he served with Scott? They have all done good work; within their limits, the best work to date. There are jobs for which, if I had to do them, I would like to serve under Scott, Amundsen, Shackleton and Wilson—each to his part. For a joint scientific and geographical piece of organization, give me Scott; for a Winter Journey, Wilson; for a dash to the Pole and nothing else, Amundsen: and if I am in the devil of a hole and want to get out of it, give me Shackleton every time. They will all go down in polar history as leaders, these men.

Imagine if we could assess South Africa’s leaders like this. Instead of killing them off one by one.

In recent weeks I have read, with increasing distress, the attacks on the work of Dr. Tim Noakes. These have now escalated to public attacks from his own colleagues within the University of Cape Town where in the hallowed corridors he is apparently referred to as Prof Hoax. How utterly unstylish.

I have always loved lecturing and was thrilled when appointed to Rhodes University in 1998. But shortly after the news broke I received an email from an old friend and senior academic at another university. He questioned the wisdom of the move: “Be careful Matthew, nobody can fight like academics. Perhaps it is because the stakes are so small. And, after all, you are a smart arse.”

At the time I dismissed the email. But it has haunted me ever since. On occasions I have seen ‘constructive criticism’ and ‘the pursuit of the truth’ escalate into what can only be described as a personal demolition derby.

Fortunately most academics are kind, very kind. And most have more stylish ways of voicing their opinion.

Around 2009 I was making a bad job of my personal life. I was permanently in a bad mood, arguing with everyone and generally a very unhappy person. I thought it was depression. Being 50% Pom I put on the stiff upper lip and soldiered on. But I was very worried and confused at the time.

Eventually diabetes was diagnosed and the pills helped contain the sugar levels, but failed to make me feel much better. I only really started feeling better since staying off refined carbohydrates, anything that grows beneath the ground and fermented undistilled booze. None of this advice came with the pills.

In the course of my travels in the past year I have met so many South Africans who have encountered the same experience. Some were even being treated on lithium and Prozac before they realized the actual problem was all sugar and carbohydrate related.

Tim Noakes has succeeded where so many academics fail. He has shared his knowledge in a manner that has engaged with and captured the attention of the public. He didn’t just publish another paper that gathered dust.

In South Africa, a book is doing really well if it sells 5000 copies. Noakes has done over 100 000. That’s just a fantastic achievement. Can his critics find nothing constructive in this book? Or are steamed lentils and skinless chicken our only hope?

Surely, instead of embarking on a process of character demolition, the critics should be contributing to the debate in a manner the public can understand.

Perhaps Mandela got it right when he put it thus…. ‘A good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end he and the other side must be closer, and thus emerge stronger. You don’t have that idea when you are arrogant, superficial, and uninformed.’

Don’t worry Tim Noakes.. As Apsley Cherie-Garrard concludes his great book ‘If you march your winters journey you will get your reward. So long as all you want is a penguin’s egg.’

This article also appears on www.biznews.com


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