The Gambler

When Cloete left for London he knew he was taking a massive risk. He had solicited the advice of authors in South Africa and, while a couple said he was talented, they warned him against assuming success. So he worked feverishly to avoid failure. He had no plan B.

He approached writing as he did everything else in his life, with practical determination. He carefully studied the structure of other writer's short stories to emulate them. He wrote for eight hours a day and even took a correspondence course in writing. He was honest about the fact that, rather than being driven by passion, he sought commercial success and wrote stories that he thought would sell.  

Cloete's mother marvelled at his later success as a writer because his spelling was so poor. It is ironic that he actually attributed part of his success to a lack of formal education:

If I had been to Oxford and knew more about the work of great writers, I should probably have been too intimidated to enter the literary field.

At the time Cloete was enjoying an active social life in London, but his friends were all on the fringes of the arts and he went to ‘pseudo-literary' parties. Established artists and intellectuals, such as the friends of his good friend, Morna Stuart, intimidated him. He was competent in farming and rough work but all this had seemed irrelevant to her circle of high-brow friends. Interestingly, she told him fourty years later that she admired him because he stood out from them as something ‘real'.

Perhaps this ‘real' quality is why Cloete is still an acclaimed author. While launching his career he examined the work of his contemporaries and noticed that while they wrote beautifully, ‘most of them had very little to say and took a long time saying it.' Cloete knew that, in contrast, he had something important to say. He had fought in the Great War; he had built up African farms; he had lived!

Finally he found two agents who were willing to take him on and, in 1935, he sold several short stories to newspapers, including The Daily Herald. But he wrote under the pseudonym Peter Lawrence, waiting until he was ‘good enough' to put his own name to his works.

Heinemann agreed to publish his novel They Said but now Cloete learnt some useful inside information at their offices that resulted in a different novel becoming his first. He learnt that Francis Brett Young was writing a novel about the Great Trek and began a race against time to try to complete his own novel - about the very same subject - first. As it happened Young's book and Turning Wheels were reviewed at the same time. It was an amazing coincidence as the Trek had never been the subject of a single novel before.

Before the completion of Turning Wheels, Eileen returned to Cloete in London but they never truly reconciled and he eventually left her for good, completing the novel at the Guards Club.  Armed with two advances from publishers, Cloete left alone for America in 1937 to promote the book. By now his gamble seemed to be paying off and, a few months later, he hit the jackpot. While staying in Massachusetts, Cloete received a telegram informing him that Turning Wheels had been chosen as the Book of the Month Club. He later recorded how he burst into tear; ‘I had a future, the past was dead, wiped out by that telegram.'

In Depth