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Apr/May 2005 Book Reviews

The Other Brother

Geoff Elliott
Allen and Unwin (2005) 194 pages
ISBN: 1 74114 324 1

reviewed by David Skea


The Other Brother is the story of Simon Holmes à Court, the younger brother of Robert, the West Australian billionaire well known in Australia during the 1970s as a highly successful entrepreneur. Simon's story was at first the fairly ordinary tale of a shy young man making a career as a wildlife protection officer in the then Bechuanaland Protectorate (now independent Botswana). The unexpected conclusion came in June, 1977, when at the age of 37, he suddenly disappeared.

The roots of Geoff Elliott's involvement with this story can be traced to when he was a journalist in Western Australia, reporting on the rise of Robert Holmes à Court. Later he moved to Europe and then to South Africa, working in Cape Town. A colleague there mentioned having gone to school with the Holmes à Court brothers and added that Simon had disappeared. This was the first time Elliott had heard anything about a younger brother, and he soon became intrigued, even obsessed with the story. This book is the culmination of the research that followed.

Simon's quiet life as a wildlife protection officer was thrown into flux when independence came to the people living in the then Bechuanaland Protectorate. After independence, Simon left the British Crown service to start up a yacht charter business, first having to find a boat and learn to sail. It would appear that Simon was a somewhat foolhardy young man, and early on in his sailing career was “lost at sea” between Maputo (Lourenço Marques) and Durban. He was rescued by a passing oil tanker, but he had to run up a huge debt for the rescue and towing. To settle this debt and pay the cost of repairing his yacht, he agreed to undertake a sailing voyage up the east coast of Africa, ostensibly a charter trip for two rich tourists. In reality, this was a spying expedition involving electronic surveillance. An around the world sailing expedition followed, the expressed purpose being to film wildlife. Unfortunatel, the resulting film was not the commercial success Simon had hoped for, and he ended up back in Botswana with a new career as a sculptor. His friends say that he had a natural ability and could have become well known. During this time, Simon became involved with a married woman who was living apart from her husband. The night before he disappeared, there was a tiff. She said she needed breathing space, some time alone to work things out. Simon left early next morning for Johannesburg to purchase casting supplies for his business, but he never reached his destination, nor did he ever return. His vehicle, defaced as though someone did not want the identity of the owner to become known, was found abandoned in a remote forest some two days drive from his home.

Three years later, some girls out cutting twigs to make brooms stumbled across a skeleton, which was presumed to be that of Simon. Alongside was a double-barrelled shotgun, one shell still unfired. An inquest was held and the case closed. It was found that no one else was responsible, the official cause of death recorded as accident or suicide. Simon's mother, however, has never accepted this finding and believes her son was murdered.

All of this was reported in the South African press but did not get exposure in Australia, which was why it was all new to Elliott when he stumbled upon the story in Cape Town.

Elliott's style is easy to read, and my only complaint is where he comes into the story himself as a fictional reporter. He has admitted having trouble writing this part of the story, and it shows.

All-in-all, a light read useful for passing the time on a long air trip.

 

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