When I sit down for lunch with well-known technology researcher and author Arthur Goldstuck at Metzuyan on the Square in Rosebank, Johannesburg, the first thing he does is hand me a copy of his most recent book about urban legends, The Ghost that Closed Down the Town.
It’s an expertly researched volume about supposed ghostly hauntings, especially in small-town SA.
Goldstuck, it quickly becomes clear to me as we order lunch, is passionate about writing. He has 17 books under his belt, with more to come — including his first work of fiction.
But more about that later. First, I want to delve into Goldstuck’s fascinating upbringing, which, perhaps not coincidentally, also involves small-town SA.
Born in 1959 in the tiny Free State dorp of Trompsburg — it’s about an hour’s drive south of Bloemfontein — Goldstuck’s formative years were anything but lavish.
The Goldstucks struggled like most small-town folk. Perhaps the only thing unusual about them was that they were the only Jewish family in a town populated mainly with Afrikaner verkramptes.
His dad, the late Zalman Goldstuck, had grown up in Britstown, near De Aar. He had served in World War 2, and was taken prisoner at the Battle of Sidi Rezegh near Tobruk (a famous battle in SA military history). He was taken by the Nazis to Italy, and then to a prisoner of war camp in Germany.
“He kept a very low profile in the camp because of being Jewish and being aware of what was happening in the death camps,” Goldstuck says. “It was an incredibly hard time for him, and he had almost no communication from his family.”
Returning to SA, he joined a rehabilitation scheme for repatriated prisoners of war. He was given a job at an agricultural consortium, the Smartt Syndicate, in the Karoo, not far from Britstown where he grew up. He proved himself there and was offered the job of town clerk of Trompsburg.
He worked as an accountant for, and then eventually bought, a general dealer in the town. He would run the shop for the best part of the next three decades.
Growing up in Trompsburg, everything was a mystery to the young Goldstuck. “The world of popular entertainment was so distant and mysterious, it was beyond glamorous. It was one of the mysteries of the universe.”
Despite their meagre financial situation, Goldstuck’s parents sent him and his three siblings — two brothers and a sister — to boarding school in Bloemfontein, and later signed surety for bank loans that sent them to university. They all studied at Wits.
“My parents had a tremendous love of reading and a love of learning but they had never had the opportunity to further themselves,” he says. “They were adamant that their children wouldn’t miss out on an education. Though they were struggling, small-town entrepreneurs, they had big dreams for their kids.”
The children all went on to success. His older brother, Oscar, who is now gravely ill in hospital, became financial director at steel giant Macsteel. And his twin brother, Charles, has made a big name for himself in the music industry in the US.
Goldstuck says he doesn’t miss Trompsburg at all. “I do not ever imagine returning there to live,” he says. “It’s an incredibly narrow-minded place to grow up in, which partly explains my desire to understand the universe.”
He acknowledges, though, that the town played a role in what he is today. “I’ve never been embarrassed about admitting that I come from there.”
Goldstuck never left Johannesburg when he finished his degree. That was 30 years ago, when he was dead set on a career in journalism. It’s a career path his parents were never keen on him taking. “Their perception was that journalists starve.”
But he pushed on regardless, doing work for a community publication and for a variety of magazines. He had two ambitions, he tells me as our food arrives: to be a soccer writer and a music writer.
While at Wits, Goldstuck was sports editor of the student newspaper. He also wrote music reviews.
He learnt the “nuts and bolts of journalism” during a four-year stint as a subeditor at the Sunday Times, then edited by Tertius Myburgh, and also freelanced for various publications, including Denis Beckett’s now-defunct Frontline. “Denis was an incredible mentor.”
He also began writing for the Weekly Mail (now the Mail & Guardian), producing features on sub-cultures, technology and music.
“Between the Weekly Mail and Frontline, my writing came of age and I really felt like a writer for the first time, even though I was still making my living as a sub.”
It was his writing about technology that led directly to his first book about urban legends, The Rabbit in the Thorn Tree. “I was able to see patterns emerging out of trends,” Goldstuck says.
That first book went on to become a bestseller (in SA terms), selling more than 10 000 copies and they soon became a series of books.
For the third urban legends book, Ink in the Porridge, which he was researching on SA’s 1994 elections, Goldstuck made extensive use of the Internet, which back then was not in widespread use. He gathered enormous amounts of information from online bulletin boards, news groups and e-mail and wrote about this in the book’s introduction.
This prompted Greg Gordon, a Sunday Times journalist, to write an article about how Goldstuck used the Internet to research his book. This, in turn, prompted publisher Struik to ask him to write a guide to the Internet in SA. He accepted and the result, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Internet, was an instant success.
When the book was published, in September 1995, there were fewer than 100 000 Internet users in the country. “I caught that wave as it broke. It was phenomenally lucky timing and Greg’s article was a significant catalyst.”
Goldstuck says the publication of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Internet literally changed his life. People began approaching him for consulting services. “I had no idea about consulting or what to charge. But what I quickly learnt was that I couldn’t consult without first doing research.”
So he formed a research company, Media Africa, with his media colleague Cathy Stadler and the “young online publishing prodigy” Herman Manson. The first project they did, back in 1997, was on the size of the Internet user base in SA. Goldstuck’s company still produces this research annually.
After establishing a publishing arm and launching Gadget, an online magazine in 1998, Media Africa was approached to become part of a JSE listing under the Acuity Group. The world was in the midst of the dot-com boom, with new companies coming to market on an almost weekly basis, and Goldstuck jumped at the opportunity to be part of a listed group.
But within six months, it was obvious that the relationship wasn’t working. “The CEO [of Acuity Group]told me this Internet stuff was passé. That’s when I knew I had to get out of there.”
Goldstuck formed research firm World Wide Worx at the start of 2001, and hasn’t looked back. Today the company produces 10 independent reports a year in addition to research it does for corporate clients.
He says the company is fiercely independent and is not afraid to say things that could upset paying clients. Perhaps a good example of this is World Wide Worx’s ongoing criticism of SA’s high mobile interconnection fees. Goldstuck has long said they need to come down.
Married for 18 years to Sheryl, Goldstuck has two daughters, aged 11 and 7.
When he’s not researching or writing, he takes time out to watch soccer. He supports Wits and Golden Arrows and, internationally, Chelsea. “I’ve been in the second division a few times with Chelsea and Wits so I’m definitely not a fair-weather fan.”
He’s also still passionate about music, though he doesn’t write much about it anymore. During the 1990s, Goldstuck was SA correspondent for Billboard magazine. During that time, he says he developed a deep appreciation for traditional SA music. But his passion is for classic and alternative rock and blues.
I find myself nodding my head when he describes mainstream pop and rock bands as “incredibly pedestrian”. His favourite modern bands include Radiohead, the Arctic Monkeys and the White Stripes.
His next big personal project, though, is writing his first novel.
“I’ve been collecting material for it for a few years now,” he says. “In fact, from the very day I finished reading Neal Stephenson’s trilogy, the Baroque Cycle, I started collecting material. The first of the three novels, Quicksilver, changed my head around.”
Goldstuck, who is a big fan of cyberpunk writers like Stephenson and William Gibson, and their spiritual ancestor Philip K Dick, says his novel will be “historical science-fiction”, set in SA.
With Goldstuck’s widely varied background, it’s guaranteed to be an interesting read. — Duncan McLeod, TechCentral