Thomas Steinbeck
Comments 14

A Most Unexceptional Gentleman.

I love old things.

The more beat-up, falling apart, battered and worn the better.

In fact, one of my favourite past times is walking around our city, finding old vintage houses tucked away in forgotten corners and taking photographs of them. I particularly like to take photographs of houses that are about to be knocked down; their graceful weather-boards and overgrown gardens cleared to make room for high rise buildings. I sometimes wonder if they know that they’re doomed, if they feel that there will never be love and fights and adventures and tears and laughter and closeness within their walls again.

Take this old girl for example. This is one of my favourite houses in the world, perched sedately in the middle of an enormous block of prime real estate.

IMG_6594This house was owned by a very elderly gentleman, who has recently been put into a nursing home. The house is, sadly, scheduled for demolition.

Or this house…

IMG_6600This old boy lives on millionaire row, tucked in between two multi level mansions replete with swimming pools. The house has been empty for as long as I remember, so I imagine it is owned by an investor or developer. I don’t like its chances for the future.

So I like to photograph them. I don’t have the money to save them, unfortunately, but I imagine that their soul will live on through my photographs. I know, I can be slightly fanciful at times.

I think this is why I loved Thomas Steinbeck’s novella, Dr. Greenlaw and the Zulu Princess. The title initially had me envisioning some sort of explorer, perhaps in the depths of Africa, who befriends, perhaps marries, a princess from a local tribe. Nothing could be further from the story that unfolded.


The first thing that struck me was Steinbeck’s initial character development. Dr. Greenlaw is as far removed from the character of Titus Gatelock, who featured in Cabbages and Kings, as it is possible to be. Dr. Greenlaw is, by all accounts, a most unexceptional gentleman. To most people he was all but invisible, primarily because he never left behind the slightest impression of a personality people cared to explore. Despite this humble introduction, Steinbeck cleverly develops Dr. Greenlaw in such a way that the reader becomes drawn into his life, following his strange adventure with an expectant air. Greenlaw’s relationship with his parents is described by Steinbeck in full detail; a relationship based on passive resentment, disappointment and antagonism.

They did have a generous turn for whatever venom, sarcasm, or resentment might remain from their own confrontations, and they generously parcelled it out to their only son.

Greenlaw’s life appears to unfold as if by accident; caused primarily by doing the exact opposite of what his parents wish him to do. He dreams of becoming a master craftsman, specialising in fine furniture and the like. Steinbeck has captured perfectly the mentality of our age in describing Greenlaw’s parents horror at their son’s dream. According to Greenlaw’s father, employing such people was one thing, but having a wood butcher in the family was quite out of the question. I fear that this mentality is leading to the demise of such jobs as wood crafting and fine furniture design, simply because of the intensive labour required for a lesser reward. I think this may be a sentiment that Steinbeck and I share.

Following the death of both his parents, Dr. Greenlaw stumbles upon in his travels a beautiful yet derelict schooner. It enchants him in a way that little else in his life has, and he finds himself irrevocably drawn to it.

As he stood there looking up at the small ship and admiring the sleek sheer of her hull and the elegance of her lines, [Greenlaw] could not help but wonder about the history behind this sad ending of her voyages. Even for him, a complete novice to most things nautical aside from toy sailboats, it was hard to imagine that such a fine piece of craftsmanship would never experience the caress of waves once more.

I felt as though Steinbeck was speaking to me through these lines. I understood immediately the melancholic sadness that comes with seeing something that was once beautiful decaying to dust.

[Greenlaw] knew from personal experience that to be eternally denied the pure pleasure and joy of doing what ones loves and does best was a dreadful fate for any creature. Perhaps, he thought, the same might be true for the more beautiful works of man such as cities, monuments, and perchance, beautiful ships as well.

To my utter delight, Greenlaw saves the beautiful schooner, The Zulu Princess, from its fate at the wreckers yards. He proceeds to pour his time and savings into fixing it up. Steinbeck’s description of this process is truly magical to read; either he has been closely involved in the laborious process of rebuilding a boat or he is remarkable in his research. Having watched my uncle rebuild a yacht over several years I understand the slow, painstaking and ruinously expensive process that is involved, but Steinbeck’s descriptions are such that if you have no prior knowledge of boats or boat building, you will envision it clearly just the same. It is an undertaking that is more than likely going to deprive you of your entire life savings. Yet the point that Steinbeck makes, which I felt quite clearly throughout the novella, is that spending every day doing something that you love wholeheartedly and truly enjoy is worth more than any amount of money in the bank. The pursuit of beauty for beauty’s sake is never something that will leave a person feeling unfulfilled.

It must also be mentioned that this novella in and of itself is beautiful. Again, Steinbeck’s turn of phrase leaves you marvelling over his capacity for melodic description, one he no doubt inherited from his father. However, his writing style is truly his own, and it is one that I believe anyone would enjoy. His ability to construct a novella is quite incredible, it being a notoriously difficult style to manage. As I mentioned in this post, the novella is a dying art form, one which Steinbeck is rebuilding just like his character Greenlaw does in The Zulu Princess. It makes me wonder how much else the two men have in common…

Dr. Greenlaw and The Zulu Princess finishes with an entirely unpredictable yet enchanting mystery. True to form I am not going to reveal this mystery for you, you will have to get your hands on The Zulu Princess and discover it for yourself. This is the perfect book to read at this time of year; you can rip through it in one long or a few short sittings.

In fact, I might read it again now.

He felt that all such wonders should be kept in use for the sake of “art,” if only because it served to remind mankind what remarkable insights might be accomplished if people nurtured creative human aspirations and potential enlightenment instead of denigrating everything that dares to loft itself above the lowest level of comprehension.


Thomas Steinbeck, you are a man after my own heart.


Review copy of Dr. Greenlaw and the Zulu Princess provided by Post Hill Press. 


  1. Oh! This whole post is wonderful! I adore those house photos and your narrative draws me further into your web. Is there a name for the smudged? quality of these photos? Just curious. I love it. I often look down alleys and behind buildings for interesting photo subjects. I do more nature photos, but love when the two meet; architecture and nature.
    The book review is also wonderful and I look forward to finding a copy, probably at my library.
    Thank you for such an engaging post. My favorite in a long while (of WP, not just yours).

  2. I love the first blue house, too. All through my childhood and into my early adulthood I stalked a house in my town where the oldest living resident lived. It was a fantastic cottage in an otherwise suburban American town with a sun room of tiny panes of glass and a huge stone fireplace (I peeped in the windows on numerous occasions after the old man died). The dining room had an old-fashioned dumbwaiter and the front porch had a couple of horse posts nearby. The yard had a flowering orchard of mature fruit trees and every out building was painted a charming white with cheerful green trim. When I visited home a few years later my father said he hadn’t told me about the subdivision they’d put in its place because he didn’t want me to be devastated. I was. 🙂

    • It is devastating isn’t it! What did they do with the fruit trees? Please don’t tell me they knocked them down…
      All over my city I see apartment blocks and subdivisions creeping in to stately old homesteads. It is so sad. When will we realise that those beautiful old houses can never be replaced?

      • The crazy thing is–and this will sound elitist maybe–the towns with lots of money here in the US understand the value of old trees and houses. They like the sense on stability and history it lends to a community. I came from a corrupt (zoning board) working class town and for some reason the idea was to chop down trees along the avenues and allow for tons of strip malls (to bring in jobs?). Yes, the trees were chopped down. Of course the property I speak of went to the family of the old man and they just wanted the money for the subdivision.

        I can’t say too much because I didn’t get myself involved in local politics–where sometimes you still can make a difference.

  3. Pingback: A Paperbook Update. | The Paperbook Blog.

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