Whatever happened to Phyllis?

Phyllis Peake pic
“I wonder what happened to Phyllis Peake?” I’m the only one who’s asked that question, and then I asked it to myself. I don’t think anyone today remembers her or even cares. But she played a larger part in making Johannesburg what it is today than George Harrison. In case you don’t know, he discovered the gold that caused Johannesburg.

Everyone knew about Phyllis Peake in the 1960s. The sleaze reporters of the Sunday newspapers (Lionel Attwell for the Sunday Times and Gordon Winter for the Sunday Express) could never have survived without her.

She frequently appeared in the Magistrate’s Court, usually dressed somewhat unconventionally, and once, I believe, with her haired dyed green. Every time there was the usual charge against her: procuring, soliciting, running a brothel, prostitution, racketeering, whadda, whadda.

It was titillating reading on a Sunday – there was no TV those days, avoiding going to go to church, and no fishing in the Orange Free State on a Sunday. Yawn. What’s in the papers? Phyllis Peake – again.

The truth was, in fact she rarely appeared in court. Her premises were often raided, but when the cops found themselves in the company of Judge X; Mr Y.MP; Professor Z, they just dropped the charges.

I only knew her briefly. It was a for a short time in 1982, but I often wonder whatever happened to her? Apart from the front pages of the Sunday Times now yellowing in some discarded archive, not much is known about her. And I can’t help. All I can do is to piece together clues from what I heard, read, and what she herself may very well have lied to my face. It’s not expected for a brothel Madame to tell the truth.

Everyone knew that Phyllis Peake ran brothels. But by the time I was working in the theatre in the late sixties, I knew a bit more.

I was resident stage manager at the Alexander theatre. The general manager was Roy Cooke, and he liked to take taxis. He liked drinking, brandy, and he disapproved of people who drank and drove. So he drank and didn’t drive. A man of principle.

He and I often had to go travel from the Alexander Theatre in Braamfontein to go to the Empire Theatre in the middle of town. There were often variety (1960s version of vaudeville) shows, and Roy always did the scenery and stage dressing. He did because he loved it. He had been the greatest set designer for African Theatres in its heydays, and he yearned for the big time, which the little repertory Alexander Theatre was certainly not. But that’s all another story.

Roy always used Roses Taxis, and always insisted on being driven by Bennie Blumberg. If Bennie was the driver, Roy and he would mutter together with him about business, things ain’t wot they used to be, and “how’s things”. Sort of men’s talk. If Bennie wasn’t available, Roy would ask the driver, “Where’s Bennie?”

“Down in Durban,” was the usual reply.

“Things got hot?” Roy would ask.

“Yup,” the driver replied. “He’s doing Point Road to a few months.”

“Often happens, eh?” sympathised Roy.

“Yup. Life’s like that.”

One day, Roy told me the real story. Phyllis Peake was the town’s best known brothel keeper. She once served time, like about 18 months. While inside she studied economics, or thought about it, and came up with the economic theory of decentralisation. She figured that she’d been fingered by the cops because she was in one place, like her brothel was “immovable property”. They could watch her, case the joint, follow her tracks, and then wait for the night when she wasn’t hosting judges and MPs, and then pounce.

That’s how she’s been raided, and caught, with not a professor or judge in sight.

It wasn’t going to happen again, so she implemented her new-found economic principle of decentralisation by running a delivery service to the client’s houses. Phyllis would take a booking by phone, then call up her employee, who would in turn order Bennie Blumberg from Roses Taxis to take her to the client’s house, and fetch her again.

Phyllis Peake no longer ran a brothel. Every house in Bryanston was her brothel. Impossible to trace or case.

If the girl didn’t come out of the house within a reasonable time of that expected, or came out a little “shop-soiled” then Bennie could call up a friend or two, and either see to the girl’s safety, or collect reparation any “damages incurred”.

A lot of her girls worked as usherettes in the cinemas during the day, so it was double income business for them. They could also practice some services in the dark in the cinemas and do some marketing at the same time.

That’s all the stuff that I learned from Roy. Roy liked interesting people. Roy had a profound effect on my life as he made me almost addicted to interesting people.

It was about the same time that I was teaching English literature, poetry and stage scripting for Benni Bonaccorsi, the best drama teacher in town.

Benni had her studio in number 31/32 Manners Mansions in Jeppe Street, entrance behind Smokers Corner. Benni’s husband “Bonni” Bonaccorsi was an Italian count. There are more Italian Counts than there are Italian peasants, but that’s another story.

Bonni had emphysema and did very little work, apart from always being impeccably dressed (as befitted a Count), and huffing and puffing his way through the streets of Johannesburg looking for interesting people. As a matter of course, he’d sit through trials from the visitors gallery of the courts, where he’d hear all about interesting people.

One day, a mother brought her teenage son for an audition to learn drama with Benni. I’m not aware of anyone who failed an audition with Benni, unless of course they obviously couldn’t pay. But that was the same with all drama teachers in town. They were the 1960’s equivalent of today’s “Casting Agents”.

Anyway, just as this lady and her son were leaving, Bonni was coming home from one of his journeys to Rissik Street.

He stormed into the studio, and shouted, quite emotionally, to Benni, “Whatsa thata woman doing here?” – Italian accent from Venice.

Benni peered at him across her glasses, and asked calmly, “What ‘thatta woman’? She’s Mrs Matthews, and she brought her son for an audition.”

Bonni was still apoplectic with rage. “Mrsa Matthewsa, my fuckinga arse. Thatsa Phyllis Peake!”

Well, Matthews junior was enrolled as student, and learned drama until Benni found him trying to recruit the girl students to become waitresses in his mother’s night club.

Between Benni and Bonni, we pieced together what we knew about Phyllis Peake, from Bonni’s court records, and from hearsay, and from some of the things that Matthews junior had indiscreetly let out.

Phyllis Peake came from school and onto the labour market some time in the fifties. She wanted to be a photographer – this in a time when the only work that women were allowed to do was secretarial, typing, switchboard and receptionist.

But Phyllis Peake was Phyllis Peake, and no “Man’s World” was going to stop her. She was the last of the downhill racing feminists.

On Saturdays, she get up before dawn, hot foot it down to the West Street Magistrates Courts and examine the roll of marriages to be conducted them that day. She’d phone the people up, and get herself booked as the wedding photographer.

No one seemed to mind a woman photographer, and her business expanded to the midweek marriages as well.

Phyllis Peake got rich, well, richer than the poverty into which she’s been born. Soon she found that her biggest cost component was photographic processing. She figured she’s save big bucks if she had her own laboratory, did her own processing and printing.

She took rooms in Downing Mansions, on the corner of Bree and Eloff (opposite what became the President Hotel). In one room she had backgrounds, chairs and lights, and the other room became a darkroom that she fitted out with the best laboratory equipment. She could afford to.

Life went rushing on in a routine, and business got better and better. One day a man called and asked her how much she would charge for the whole studio. She gave him a price. He checked, “That’s for the darkroom as well?”

She’d never been asked that before, so she tripled the price, and the deal was done. Except that there was another clause to the deal – she was not to be there, she had to disappear, and only come back when he was finished.

What the hell. Suited her. She earned three times more than normal, and could go to the movies.

One evening, she noticed that he hadn’t assiduously emptied the rubbish bin as he usually did, and she went through it.

So that’s what he was using the studio for, she nodded silently as she stared at the crumpled remains of a photo that any judge would classify as “serious pornography”. Phyllis wasn’t shocked. Not at all. It got her thinking. Photography was a dead end job. She was getting bored, and this nice guy had given her an idea.

From that time on, for, possibly a decade, her Pilgrim’s Progress is reasonably well documented on the front pages of the Sunday Times and the Sunday Express.

During that time, she was fingered, convicted, served time, and then became the fore-runner of Mr Delivery.

It seems that about the time I was at the Alexander Theatre, and teaching for Benni, that Phyllis moved into premises down the road from Downing Mansions to the building next door to the Savoy Cinema. She took a whole floor, which she converted into a club that fronted for a glamorous and very high class brothel. It had a lounge and bar, and the curtained-off passage, onto which opened many doors.

Phyllis Peake left my life then until the mid seventies when I used to see advertisements in the newspaper smalls for “The Prisoner’s Friend”. They read: “Do you need Bail? Phone The Helping Hand”. If you asked who this was, everyone knew it was Phyllis Peake, the butterfly once again transformed into yet another caterpillar.

It beggared belief just how a business worked. If you were arrested, say for house-breaking, then you could phone the “Prisoners Friend” and they would bail you out. Why would The Helping Hand do so? They’d only get their money back if you were found innocent, which in those days wasn’t very often. It didn’t make sense.

Then one Saturday night – I was working at the SABC at the time, I was spending a quiet social time with some journalists at the Devonshire Hotel in Jorissen Street, in Braamfontein. Well that was “quiet” as defined by the “Dev”. It was in fact very noisy. Bars stools were thrown through the windows (which were closed at the time), some people were getting physical exercise planting their fists against other’s noses, and one or two were being nicely asked to leave by their belts.

I asked one of the sleazier of the journos, “What’s this business of Phyllis Peake’s, The Helping Hand?”

He knew. He would. He was that type. He explained. When you were arrested, you’d phone her, and she’d get all your details. What you did, what you intended to do, why, how, and in short, how good you were at what you did.

She got all your details. She actually didn’t even care if she got her bail back or not. The point was, she had all your details, knew everything about you, who your friends were, and your enemies. She had you by the balls. But she was, as usual, a pioneer. She had a database of people with unique skills. This was long before the word “database” was invented.

If you ever needed a skill which she may have on her database, you could contact The Helping Hand, and through Phyllis, hire the right person for the right job.

For instance, say your wife had cleaned you out in the divorce, and you’d do anything to get back the diamond necklace worth millions, why not phone Phyllis? She’d arrange a “spatial intrusion engineer” to “perform a retrieval”. You paid a handsome fee, but you got your millions worth of diamonds back.

It was brilliant.

A little later, she opened “The Maids Friend”, a personnel agency where you could get a trained maid, and place where a maltreated maid could go for mediation.

When you think hard about it, the two – The Helping Hand” and “The Maids Friend” both fitted together like hand in glove. After all, the maids could find out just where certain things were kept, and made the life of the spatial intrusion engineers a lot easier.

At last, the time came when I was to meet Phyllis Peake, face to face, and got to really like her.

After the SABC suggested that I was too good for them and that I should further my career elsewhere (that’s another story), I opened a film production, corporate communications and PR business. That description meant then, what it still means today. “I’ll do anything for money.”

I got a job (freelance) doing publicity for a really nice guy called Tony Factor. This was one rough little Jewish boy. He came from nothing, was chronically dyslectic, and couldn’t even read. Unless it was a complex contract where he could suddenly read every letter of the fine print.

He got known as the discount king when he hit the headlines discounting petrol, which had a price fixed by the government. I don’t think he ever actually sold any discounted petrol but her did later discount new cars, which had the bosses of GM, Ford, VW and company all wanting to kill him.

When I came across Tony, he was discounting coffins. He bought these SKDs (semi knocked down) which was like one of those model kits. The came from a factory owned by a kindly gentleman called “Pa” Venter, who had this carpentry factory down in Robertson in the Cape.

The coffins came flat – Just a pile of pre-cut and pre-drilled pieces of wood, with a little packets that contained all the screws and lugs.

You could assemble it yourself – you just followed the easy-to-read instructions.

Tony agreed the instructions were easy to read. “They look gud enuf,” he said. “Can’t read them myself, I’m dyspeptic.”

But, as Tony used to say, “You just keep the kit under your bed, and when you feel the time coming, you can just put it together and get into it yourself.”

Brilliant marketing. They flew off the shelves faster than snake oil.

One day his, equally rough secretary, somewhat decoratively tattooed on her breasts, told Tony that some one called Phyllis Peake was on the phone, and wanted to talk to him.

“Ah don’ wanna talk to dat hooker,” he spat, and turned to me. “You take the call.”

Phyllis Peake had a sweet voice, if somewhat other side of the tracks accent. She said she was closing her undertaking business, and had a lot of body fridges in her back garden, and she wanted to know if Tony wanted to buy them.

“I really don’t know, Phyllis,” I responded. “But as his representative, I must say it could be interesting. Can I come and see you?”

“Anytime sweetie. 65 Honey Street Berea.”

“Tomorrow, afternoon tea?” I asked, rather anxious to meet her, but not sounding too keen. Like a little ‘hard to get’.

It was 1982.

I knocked on the door of this modest but neat little house off Harrow Road in Berea. She answered the door. Short. Grey hair down to shoulders, dead straight but scraggly. Her dumpy figure put her at mid-sixties.

Inside, her lounge was the antithesis of her. Deep scarlet velvet drapes, trimmed with gold braid, lush imitation gilt Louis VI chairs, and her tea pot was pure Spode.

I got her off the body fridge subject, as I didn’t want to have to see them for myself (I draw the line somewhere, even when it comes to interesting people.)

“Why did you get out of the sex business, Phyllis?”

“Darling, it was when those massage parlours opened up. They sprang up like rats and mice, and took all the class out of the trade.” She should her head sadly, as if relating how her cat had been run over.

“You know they were amateurs, darling. Amateurs. When my places were raided, my girls always had a box of tissues to wipe up the sperm and flush it down he loo the moment there were the sounds of a raid. These massage parlours had no skills, no training, no …. CLASS. They got raided and closed, and then they’d pop up somewhere else. They were also very grubby. My place was spotless. Spotless, darling. And not one of my girls ever had a bruise.”

We talked and talked. She was lovely. Just like the granny I had always wanted to have. Interesting, resourceful, and who’s spent her life having adventures. I wanted to write her biography. She agreed.

We started work, but half of it I couldn’t write. Many of her clients were still alive: Judges, MPs, magistrates, priests, owners of companies, and worst of all, the Chief of Police.

We agreed to put it on hold, and wait for at least some of them to die.

I never got her full story. Shortly after that I headed for my first divorce, and the post-divorce period where your soul gets sand-blasted.

Phyllis went off my mind.

One day I drove past 65 Honey Street Berea, and the place obviously changed hands.

I wonder whatever happened to Phyllis Peake?

Empire Magic

Empire magic
For the end of the world was long ago / And all we dwell today

As children of some second birth / Like a strange people left on earth

After a judgement day.

G K Chesterton (Ballad of the White Horse)

It’s hard to remember. Not recollecting the past, but reliving something that isn’t there any more.

Saturday night at the bioscope. The Piccadilly in Yeoville. They used to show ‘Carry On’ films. Endlessly, but then they made ‘Carry On’ films endlessly. In between, the films were sort of bland, “Sink the Bismarck” sort of stuff. If we couldn’t find anything to see at the Piccadilly, we would trek all the way to Hillbrow, to the Clarendon or the Curzon. After the Clarendon was pulled down (when they pulled down all the old picture palaces in the early seventies), it became Nedbank. The only nice thing was that Nedbank was the first ever to open an ATM. It dispensed a great big plastic slotted card that contained the enormous amount of a R10 note.

With spaghetti bolognaise at 75 cents, 20 Players at 28 cents, and a gallon of Lieberstein at R3.00, R10 was quite enough to last many days.

That was after it had changed from the Netherlands Bank of South Africa. I think they changed the bank’s name because the Netherlands in those days were the most vociferous opponents of apartheid. The local bankers had to suck up to racist wealth by divorcing themselves from the name of the enemy.

The Clarendon was where “The “Sound of Music” showed for months. Some old lady bought a ticket for every performance (four or five times a day). After a few weeks, they gave her a free pass. It was in the papers. It wasn’t a publicity stunt. The theatre and cinema industry weren’t clever enough for publicity stunts in those days.

The first time I ever walked into the Empire theatre through the Stage Door entrance was when I got a job as a stage hand for Minstrel Scandals, a rather cheesy tits and bums show that had as its distinguishing feature the 1920’s burnt cork black faces of the negro/white chick shows that none can understand why they were popular.

Anyway, Louis Burke and Joan Brickhill mounted this “extravaganza” of mindless routines that appealed to the over-45s in the 1960s who actually remembered the 1930s. They dragged in the younger members of the family, who liked the eye candy because it was ten years before television would lighten the lives of South Africans. In those days, watching old men playing chess on the park was high entertainment.

“Burke/Brickhill” to the public meant glitz and glamour. It was their forte, neither of them were intellectual. Apart from mindlessness, they had one thing in common, they were always both chasing the same guys. He was a good deal younger than she, and they seemed to be a good team, and their cat fights backstage certainly showed off a bubbly relationship.

In fact, Minstrel Scandals was a load of complete shit, but it was my first job in the theatre, and to me it was an early reward of Valhalla.

From the bus stop in Market Street, I turned right into Kruis Street. Halfway down on the left was this tatty grey door with faded red letters “Stage Door”. Nothing could be more romantic.

Open the door, and down about six steps, and on your left was a cubicle – the domain of Joe, the Stage Door Keeper, in a maroon livery with gold braided cap. Sweet and patient with all the mincing giggly boys, and the brainless squeaking pretty girls. He had terrible gout, and dragged his feet painfully in ever-increasingly larger shoes.

Some of the guys in the chorus were straight, but if they didn’t mince, they got their face slapped.

Turn right through two swing doors, and you were in magic land. On the left was the stage. On the right, the stairs to below the stage where curtains were stored, and where they used to operate the grave and star traps – long since shored up. And of course the obligatory theatre ghost lived down there. The Phantom of the Opera is the only theatre ghost anyone has actually seen – sober.

Directly in front of you were the three Star Dressing Rooms. Nothing fancy, no private toilets. In fact the poor stars, who had their names styled on the door in careful gold lettering, had to walk yonks to get to the toilet. Upstairs were two floors of two-seater, three-seater and chorus dressing rooms. That’s why the girls always tripped down the stairs with their muscles glistening beneath their net stockings, and made Joe stick at his job, when he knew he should be warming his tootsies before the fire at home in blissful retirement.

The stage was the sordid machine, the cauldron where you boiled up magic for the audience.

I loved the illusion of the how, but I loved even more being privy to the spells that transformed the dust, dirt and smells of the backstage into what the audience saw.

The stage. As you came through the doors, you were in the wings. The stage sloped down towards the footlights. It was one of the last raked stages in South Africa – a reminder of the deluded days when stage designers thought that a slope to the stage created a better illusion for the audience, both below in the stalls, and up above in the circle.

Hah. You see. Part of the privilege of being “in the theatre” was that, like the Freemasons, you knew the lingo, the secret language, and the funny handshakes. You knew about the Circle, the Front of House lights or FOH), the boxes, the footlights (or floats), the follow-spots (or limes), the pros opening (or proscenium), the wings, paint-frame, flies, counter-weights, and the hand-lines. Nobody else knew about them, not if they weren’t part of the reclusive cult called “in the theatre”, or “Thee-art-err” as Margaret Inglis, Taubie Kushlik, Hermien Domisse, and the other pains-in-the-arse grand dames used to say. You got to be a grand dame when your acting dated to that of Sir Donald Wolfit and your body had degenerated so that you had no option but to glide gracefully across the stage.

Back to the Empire. It seated 1700. The proscenium opening was 34 feet and 6 inches. Its height was 21 feet. The stage floor was 45 feet deep and there were 16 feet of wing space either side. There were 34 counterweighted bars hanging from the grid. The dimmer board was hand-operated off rheostats, and could service around 100 circuits. It was the domain of Joe Freedman and Ronnie Watters. Apart from stage lighting, Ronnie bred rabbits.

To the audience the stage was shining light of another world. To me the stage was a box made of dirty bricks and rusting iron, with a splintery floor boards, eerie sunlight from the crash windows above the grid, and a smell of decades of sweat and dust.

The stage was the fiefdom of Louis Shinwell, who had been stage mechanist for African Theatres since the 1930s. He as about 70 when I worked there as a stage hand in 1966, so he could easily have started his career in the South African theatre during hr First World War.

In later years, when I moved in as stage manager for Fiddler on the Roof, with a 30-feet diameter revolving stage, he looked at it disdainfully and told me that the revolving stage for “White Horse Inn” in 1936 was 34 feet in diameter. “That was the show that brought Bruce Anderson to South Africa, you know.” As if I did know. Nobody ever thought of writing down everything that Louis knew. No one thought of it. His wife Jenny has been wardrobe mistress for African Theatres for as many years. His brother Mannie (and his wife Mabel) had the same jobs at the Alhambra Theatre in Durban – but both Mannie and Mabel were ten years older. Mabel looked just like the witch in Snow White. But she was sweet and kind, and rather made you fond of witches. Mannie looked like a fossil.

Then there was the orchestra pit. It could accommodate about 30 musicians (35 if you didn’t have drums and a goddam harp). It was on lifts, and the conductor had this little box with two buttons on, one for up and one for down. The steel door from below the stage (where the ghost lived) into the orchestra pit had to be closed and locked before the lift would operate. The plan was that the orchestra pit lifted to a level where the audience could see the conductor from the waist up, and the shoulders of the musicians for the overture. The overture was a sort of five-minute taste of all the nice tunes you were going to hear. Nowadays we call it foreplay.

Like foreplay, the overture was sometimes nicer than the show.

When the overture was over, the conductor lowered the pit so that you could only occasionally see the tip of the baton. Extraordinary cost and technology for a five minute sequence of a show that had a full orchestra. Not clean, efficient and clinical like things today.

When you stood on the stage, obviously not when the show was on – I was never an actor – it was strange place. The auditorium was lit by cleaning lights – two single poles on a crude stand that held a single light bulb.

You saw everything with eerie upward leaning shadows from the cleaning lights. The scarlet upholstery of the seats looked brown, the colour of a coffin. It echoed, like an underworld cave. It always looked and felt dead. Like the way the actors felt during under-study rehearsals. You couldn’t do an under-study rehearsal without a hangover – it wasn’t decent.

An empty cinema palace theatre seen from the stage is an experience that belongs to the past.

They’re all gone.

Where have all the flowers gone? Where have all the theatres gone – gone to office blocks every one. When will they ever learn – when will they e-e-e-ver leee-aaaa-arn.

The Best Little Theatre in Town

1965 - Wits University

The cool thing about being poor, and having nothing, is that you have so much in common with other people who have nothing. Julie was also a “non fee-paying” scholar – by the grace of the Pope through the Holy Family sisters at the girls’ convent in Yeoville. We hit it off. It was the mid sixties – we were both in matric. We spent more time dreaming about the determined future than studying.

It was fun. She fancied law, politics, sort of working with serious people, but more than anything – being someone –someone else – and she knew who. Considering where we had both come from, she was going to either obliterate the past, or re-invent it. She was going to make miserable people jealous.

I also fancied miserable people, but I was going to earn my bucks making them momentarily happy. I was going into show business.

I thought of it as drug dealing. You sold them something that sent them to the moon, but brought them back again too soon. They needed you to send them back to the moon, or even much further, just by coming back to see yet another show.

There was no TV in South Africa – the theatre was the “happy drug” of the times.

It was also the sixties – “Tune in, Turn on, and Drop Out,” according to God, or Timothy Leary, or whatever he was called.

It was “next year” that mattered. Neither of us had parents who could, or would, send us to university. We had to get there on our own. Fees, books, accommodation – the financial demands seemed endless. In a couple of months we would have to enrol and pay the first term fees in advance.

We needed money and FAST.

We were sitting in Doney’s in Kotze Street, Hillbrow, having a cup of coffee we couldn’t afford. At the next table, this dude was sitting there going through lists of names. He looked interesting. Smooth, slicked back hair. Not Brylcreem, Silvikrin or Vitalis, but that stuff that didn’t look greasy, La Pebra’s. He looked like a philosopher.

Julie looked at him and at me. The signal – who’s he? Looks interesting.

After ticking off some names on his list, he took out a neat loose-leaved notebook, and started comparing names on his list to specific pages in his book.

Julie just up, and went to him. “Hi, are you a school teacher?”

“No. Why do you ask?”

“You just look like a very interesting person, and my brother asked me to have the cheek to ask you if you’re a teacher. What do you do then?”

“I help people find lost ones.”

Julie’s eyes brightened, a good sign. “Missing person’s bureau?”

“No,” he said, with his voice monotone like a priest. “From the other side.”

It took at least month to get to know Olliver Buckstone really well. He wasn’t going to tell us about himself, but we knew that he knew that we knew that we’d both be amenable to a deal.

Maybe it was the way we looked.

Maybe it was because Dr Buckstone was a really clever guy who knew people, how they operated, and what they thought. He had to be clever. You don’t get dodo’s running spiritualist churches.

I said he wasn’t a doctor’s arse. Julie said he was doctor’s arse. Didn’t matter, he wasn’t a real doctor, but who was going to prove that. After all this was Hillbrow, and the one law there, was that you could be whoever you wanted to be.

As long as you did it properly.

Olliver Buckstone ran a boutique spiritualist service. Not a church, but one of those “By Appointment” businesses, where word of mouth promised you that you might just be able to have the privilege of being allowed into his presence to see what he could do to heal pain of the separation from your loved ones.

We showed him we could “work on some new techniques” to help him make his service more “interesting”. Then he challenged us. “Do a good job, impress my dear clients, and it’s a worth R10 a night.

Ten Rand a night, when university fees were R120 a term, was nothing less than the highest paid job in town – to us.

All we had to do was come up with something new, at least once a week.

We were up to it; we were up to anything that paid R10 a night. We would spy for Russia, join the ANC or even prospect for gold in a rubbish tip for R10 a night.

For two young kids with nothing, who had come from nothing, but were going to the moon, it seemed like a good deal.

Olliver Buckstone was fraud and a conman. He was charming and successful, and he offered a good service that made people happy.

We had known lots of people who made people happy. He was no more a fraud and pretence than every actor in town.

Radio was a fraud; it used the ugliest people in the world to get little old ladies to fall in love with them. Theatre was a fraud.

No, you see, theatre is an illusion, radio is an illusion, and show business is an illusion. Catholic schools traded in illusion, and we knew all about them.

Olliver Buckstone was an illusionist. Mind you, so is God. And we were engineers in illusion. Years later I would come to work with a lady who ran an employment agency where her specialisation was in sourcing Perimeter Intrusion Engineers. The judge called them burglars.

Looking back, we were both heading for a lifetime of working in illusion; me in show business, Julie in being someone else.

Buckstone lived in an old stone mansion high on the hill of Westcliffe. It was simple, large, empty, mysterious, and beautifully spooky.

He had one room that could seat about fifteen people round a table. The table was in the middle of the square room. The curtained walls were about eight feet from the backs of the chairs. One wall had a window, a small one that faced onto a stone walkway, with an oddly Dracular-ish balustrade.

The other three walls were fitted with ceiling high velvet curtains in a dark blue. You had to look carefully to see that there was another six feet between the curtains and the actual walls of the room. Ideal.

The door on the wall opposite the window was inset, so that it looked like a passage. This disguised the space between the wall and the curtains. Beyond it was a light and airy, comfortable, warn and welcoming ante room where tea and biscuits were served, and where people could arrive, wait, talk, circulate, and all in all, make the occasion look like an intimate cocktail party.

He had a ceiling in the room, where you would expect a ceiling to be, sort of ten feet from the floor. But if you looked really hard, the ceilings up to the wooden, or pressed steel ceilings, were a lot higher. This room had no pressed steel ceiling, just a space all the way up to the slate tiled roof. The false ceiling made the room warm. Above it in winter it could be as cold as Julie’s angry stare.

The room was lit with two-branched candelabra that peeped through the curtains, as if they were attached to the wall. In fact they were on poles that came up from the floor.

The floor itself had a couple of layers of underfelt, covered with a thick black carpet that went from stone wall to stone wall. Within the curtained area were a variety of reproduction Persian carpets, the type you bought at that place in Kruis Street, you know, the one that had “Genuine” and “Sale” plastered all over the windows. Lots of people were in the illusion business.

Four times a week, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays, Olliver Buckstone had fifteen or fewer people round. They all had one thing in common – they wanted to hear from the people they loved and missed.

Some people went to the cemetery and put flowers on someone’s grave. At Buckstone’s place, they came to listen to the radio.

Buckstone wanted us to upgrade the radio into the theatre or even the movies.

He had foresight, this cool head. He lived life as a blast.


Both of us had read Paul Gallico’s “Hand of Mary Constable”, and “Too Many ghosts”. They’d been on the bookshelves for some time. They seemed a little ambitious. “He’s got to make it complicated,” Julie observed. “He’s a mystery writer. They always have a complicated last chapter to show how clever they are.”

But we borrowed Gallico’s candle trick That was cute. But the rest seemed to be passé and in fact, anyone who had access to the Encyclopaedia Britannica would recognise Daniel Dunglas Home. There would be no rapping, knocks, tambourines or trumpets with us.

Years before, we would sometimes creep into the garage at my house, and go through Popular Mechanics and Popular Science from the thirties and forties.

We remembered almost every one, and that gave us some really scientific methods on which to base our new science.

The candles were pure genius.

We had Buckstone install candlesticks in between the lights round the room. There were two branches to each, to match those holding globes, which were connected to a dimmer. (Not one of those knobs you turn in the light switch, they hadn’t been invented yet. It was a bloody great rheostat mounted in a corner with a handle that looked like the things a railway signaller used.)

We experimented for weeks with packets of candles, finding the average time it took for candles to burn. We always did our tests in the room, as we knew that candles would burn at different rates where different air was, you know, more oxygen and that sort of thing.

Candles are surpassingly consistent; no wonder they were used as clocks in the middle Ages. We knew exactly how long it took to get down to certain level, say two inches down from the top, from the time they were lit.

That would be the time Buckstone would start – he always insisted in punctuality with his “guests”. That’s why they had to be early, and had to sit around with the tea and biscuits. Of course that wasn’t the only reason.

Then we’d take an ice pick, heat it, and melt it down to the centre of the candle where the wick was. All we had to do was cut out a bit of the wick with a pair of nail scissors.

Then we laid all the candles for the candelabra in a row, and cut the wicks of each one a little lower down than the one before. About a sixteenth of an inch lower.

It was precision work, as the candles had to mysteriously go out, one by one, and one after the other, as if some… thing … was moving .. to put them out.

Worked like the opening scene of a ballet when the lights slowly come up to reveal a sight of pure fantasy, except backwards.

Julie and I, we designed our own costumes, completely black with thick black woollen socks that wouldn’t slip on the carpet.

When the lights were out, Julie would walk round the table, in the full blackness, and give each one a blast of air on the backs of their necks with a douche she’d lifted from a chemist shop.

You’d hear them suddenly inhale as the douche exhaled, in sequence round the table – just an extra effect.

Both of us would close our eyes for at least two minutes with black velvet over our eyes before the lights or candles went out. If you switch off lights with your eyes open, you go blind for quite a long time. If you open your eyes in the dark, you can see surprisingly well.

Then we’d step through the curtains, and turn our heads slightly, so that in fact we were looking ahead through the sides of our eyes. Amazing what you can see. Is that how cats do it?

Buckstone would start speaking, messages, never in fake voices, and never with moans and groans like in a trance.

He just called it channelling, he said he had thoughts put into his mind from “the other side”, and that all he was doing was describing those thoughts.

He was so accurate; he had names, relationships, date of death and all sorts of intimate details. It was so impressive.

Of course Julie had picked it all up from them over tea and biscuits in the half hour before the show, and just repeated then to Buckstone who had a memory that was a gift. I mean, if you have a gift, you use it.

I remember that four-eyed freckle face at school had fingers made of rubber, and he eventually became a concert pianist, and an alcoholic, in that order.

There was that hunk that was a springbok on the tennis court and he became a Wimbledon player and a rapist, also in that order.

Buckstone had an incredible memory for details and sequence, all without any notes, and he became an illusionist and comforter, and then a, dunno.

After two years that we knew him, he disappeared, the house was sold, and I guess he moved to greener pastures where people were richer, and could afford to pay more.

Then after the candles and the douche scenes, the electric lights slowly came on, me, gently pushing on the rheostat with such style and panache.

By that time, Julie was under the table. She had a wide space in which to manoeuvre, and the table was large enough to seat fifteen. It was round, so people were a long way from each other. She had this massive magnet which had thin felt on the end so it didn’t scrape on the underside of the wooden top, which in the centre, was actually plywood. But you couldn’t see that underneath the green baize felt tablecloth, which was stretched tight as a snooker table, right to the edges, where it fell all the way to the floor.

Buckstone would flip four cards into the centre of the table. For Chrissake, the fucking cards moved, on their own.

Actually, they had a sliver of iron inside them, and the magnet did the rest.

But because they had moved, Buckstone was able to interpret them to the delight and consolation of his guests.

The lights went out again, and Julie escaped to be with me behind the curtains.

It was like stage managing a play.

It all went according to schedule and the script, but the script changed if anyone came twice. We had lots of “special effects”.

I’d made a channel out of wood, which I fitted against the wall, sloping from about six feet at one end, to a foot off the flor at the other. I’ve mentioned the window in the middle. Well the missing part of the channel was fitted into place as soon as the curtains over the window were closed. There was the same passage effect around the window as there was round the door.

As soon as everyone was seated, the walls of the passages disappeared – they were only doors, set flush.

Once they were opened, we could freely move between the walls and the curtains around all four sides.

I’d sometimes drop a marble into the channel and let it rumble, very quietly, but audibly, all round the room. Sometimes it was two marbles, sometimes a handful of small ball bearings. They all made their own distinctive sounds. They were choreographed according to the script for each performance.

Sometimes a gust of air, besides the windows being visibly closed before the curtains over it were closed, that rustled the curtains surrounding the room. Three fans, little ones, operating on separate cables from this cute switchboard Buckstone had designed initially. Once I saw how it worked, over the next two years, we refined it without his help into quite an operation.

All without electronics. You could still buy valve radios in those days. We used little stepping motors and relays. If the relays snapped too loudly, we had sound proof boxes made of paper mache that we put over them.

Paper mache – just egg boxes.

The space above the ceiling had little speakers taken out of a radio set We had ultra violet light that drifted down from the ceiling (actually the violet fluorescent strip was over the ceiling and shone through a piece of gauze painted to look just like the rest of the surface of the ceiling.)

Amazing what we learned from “The Book of Film Effects”, and “Stage Craft for Designers”. Who needs the fucking Internet, when you have your own brains.

Forty Rand a week; that was twenty each. We didn’t need a calculator to wok out that was eighty rand a month. Enough to pay for a little car, clothes, university fees, books and Lieberstein. And a place to live above Pops Café opposite the entrance to the university.

They hadn’t invented the word “entrepreneur”. We were ingenious, self-made craftsmen.

And the world was at our feet.

Diana the slave

Diana van den Kaap

Diana van Madagascar was a slave in Cape Town, owned by Cornelis Pieterz Linnes. She was originally purchased from the Dutch East India Company, which was the chartered company that owned the Cape of Good Hope, on 5th May 1686 for 48 Rixdaalers. She was about 22 years old at the time. She would have been sold to the company by traders in Madagascar who were either Arabs, or possibly her own family. In some parts of the world, selling off your neighbours for money was akin to going to the pawnshop.

In Cape Town she was owned by William Deeron, who sold her on 5 May 1686 for 48 Rixdaalers to Johann Heinrich Vlok. It seems Linnes bought her shortly after, as she gave birth to a daughter, Susanna on 23 February 1687. The father was, undisputedly, Dietleff Biebouw, and near neighbour of Linnes.

It’s certain that Biebouw took Susannah as his own, as we cannot find evidence that Diana was baptised, which was the only way a marriage could be legalised at the Cape.

So how did the 18 year old orphan from Rotterdam Willemyntje Ariens de Witt feel about Susannah and Diana, when she married Biebouw in December 1688? We will never know, but Willemyntje did take on Susannah, and brought her up well. For on 13 September 1711, Susannah proudly Willem Odendaal, thereby becoming the ‘stam moeder’ (family first mother) of the Odendaal family.

Willemynjie was the half sister of my 9th generation grandmother. This makes me related to Diana van Madagascar.

I am however also a direct descendent of other slaves: Pandoor van Guinea and her husband Abraham van Guinea; Catharina van Bengale (born in 1631 in Palicutta, India); their daughter Lijsbeth Fion van de Kaap; Louis van Bengale who married Lijsbeth.

Catharina also had children by Pieter Everaertz and Hans Snyman. Catharina and Hans’ daughter, Anna married well with Lourens van Ahrendsdorf, and indirect ancestor.

There was Christina van de Kaap (origin unknown but born at the Cape in 1664), who married the Dutchman Andries Pieterz. Then not to mention Maria van der Horst, the daughter of a Hottentot, and therefore officially a ‘Baster’.

Jan van Riebeeck’s servant and translator Krotoa of the Gorinhailkona (blue-blooded Hottentot, whom Van Riebeeck called Eva) is an ancestor, as is Maria van Riebeeck’s washerwoman, the Catharina (Katryn) van Bengale, whom we have already met.

They all worked at the original castle in Cape Town, a mud fort where the Cape Town Post Office now stands.

I use the name Hottentot, despite current fashion that regards it as pejorative, as the people that the Dutch came to name Hottentots had no collective name. They used the name of their family, and the common PC name “Khoi” was only their word for “people”. So what the hell? Doesn’t make them any less of a very exciting people – especially Eva’s evil uncle Doman – but that’s another story.

“Hottentot” came into use, and the Hottentot clicky pronunciation was a total mystery to the Dutch, who thought they were stammerer. They thus called them the stammerers, or in Dutch “Hut-en-Tut”.

This is all very important to me. It makes me feel really South African. As I get closer to them, and the fading documents of the past, come to life – and the more I get to know of them, the more I become them. It makes me feel very African, where the roots of my tree are more alive than the leaves.

I feel that coursing through my veins is blood that comes from people who over the 400 odd years have reached across the length and breadth of South African history. Cattle rustlers who became Voortrekkers; English who hated Dutchmen and vice versa. Old women who died in concentration camps in the Boer War. Huguenots; and slaves from all over the east, and Portuguese has-been navigators. Xhosa who stole cattle from each other and the Dutch settlers, almost always in partnership with other Dutch settlers.

America does not a world-wide monopoly on the “Wild West”.

Somehow I even met the 200th anniversary of being the first white Van Rooyen to marry a Xhosa woman. In the 150 years before then, marrying blacks was not only recommended, but at times, it seems compulsory. I know that at least one ancestor was a prostitute, which gives me the freedom and pride to say that my occupation is “anything for money”.

But as I finish this, I must go and wash the dishes while my family watch E! Entertainment on satellite.

I will be up to my elbows in soap suds, dutifully carrying on another proud family tradition – slavery.

The Pope


The air had warmed. In fact it was that terrible time of the year when the Highveld waited for rain. The rain was always expected at the end of the second week, or the beginning of the third. It was either true, an urban legend, or just tradition.

But today was 9th October, and it would be any day now. Oct 9, 1958.
What’s the panic for rain? The weather was consistent in those days. Well, no – as consistent as it is these days, but one thing I have learned is that people are creatures of habit and want everything to be consistent. Sort of makes them secure.

So when anything like the weather does happen to be “unseasonable”, then the immediate reaction is always, “Didn’t used to be like this. Always predictable. Regular as clockwork, things just ain’t wot they used to be.”

July was winter, well that was unavoidable, although we could have warm winters or cold winters (“Didn’t used to be like this, regular as clockwork it used to be.”) Winter was dry. Round about the end of July was veld fire season when clouds of white smoke billowed into the sky, and you could smell it. You didn’t feel the ash, but your lungs did. Mixed with twenty Cavalla Kings a day, the combination was often fatal.
But it was another time and another place.

The dust came from the mine dumps. No one had thought of grassing them, and the winter wind skimmed the tops off the mountains of cyanide sand, lifted the fine grains heaven-wards, and dropped it down onto Johannesburg. We would rush into the kitchen for a frying pan and bucket of water. Outside we’d gather the sand from the stoep, and pan it looking for gold. Silly arses, gold is heavier than sand and would never fly through the air. We didn’t know that, or if we did, we wouldn’t have cared. We were going to be rich, that’s all that mattered.
So winter in the Highveld was a near to hell as you would get outside of Australia. By the time August and September came, if you hadn’t the guts to last it through until the first rains in mid-October, you killed yourself.

September – suicide month.

So it was the 9th October, we were staring out of the classroom windows wondering when the first rains would come, when Brother Christopher burst through the doors. “His Holiness is dead.”

He just stood at the door looking desolate. We just stared at him, looking equally desolate.

“Who the hell is His Holiness?” was all our thoughts could muster.
We were to find out soon enough, the Pope, Pius XII, whose photos with his hands together in sanctimonious prayer were hanging all over the place. In fourth place, if you took the number of pictures.

The most went to His Holiness Jesus Christ, solemnly hanging from nails through his hands from a wooden cross (one in every classroom, and other rooms.)

Second place went to Her Holiness the Virgin Mary, Mother of what’s his name. She had portraits and statues; the statue was always midway as the stairs turned on the way up.

Third place went to His Holiness, the Blessed Marcellin Champagnat, founder of their Holinesses the Marist Brothers.

Fourth place went to His Holiness Pope Pius XII. He only got to fourth place because he was a hated Italian.

The Marist Brothers were a French order (it does take many brains to see “Marcellin Champagnat is French), and couldn’t for Chrissake see what the Pope couldn’t be French.

I mean for Chrissake, there’d been 17 of them so far. However, since the last one was Gregory XI who died in 1378 – we were told this at least once a month – it was obviously a conspiracy that kept the ‘Eyeties’ in the Vatican. In fact, dare we even think it, it’s possibly some satanic victory, after all, don’t most Italians look devilish?

But Armageddon will come, and with that the Day of Reckoning, which may come before or after the Last Judgment (which came after the Last Supper), and justice will be restored. The ‘Eyeties’ will be banished from the Vatican, and great and glorious French will be victorious and once again put their tootsies in the Shoes of the Fisherman, hold the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. The dead shall rise, sins will be forgiven (thank God), and hark the herald angels sing.

That gives you the background. Brother Christopher’s shock was not that of the bereaved, but that of the hopeful.

In a blink of an eye, as His Holiness Saint Paul would say, we beheld that religion was a simile for politics. That the value of a Catholic education. We learned deep and spiritual values, and I was only 12 years old.

School closed, well, it didn’t close, but there were certainly no Brothers in the classrooms, just the lay teachers (the ones allowed to have sex, and accordingly didn’t drink as much as the brothers did.)
There weren’t enough lay teachers to run each classroom, so they ran from class to class giving us yet another 20 pages of the history of the Unification of Germany to read.

The brothers stayed in their private common room, ears glued to Radio Vatican, and lips glued to crystal glasses of Mellowood.

Black smoke billowed from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, the place with Michelangelo’s painted all over the ceiling. It was supposed to last about three days.

It happened bloody 19 days later, longest holiday we had ever had. Sitting in class, lifting the tops of our desks to sneak in another bite of a peanut butter sandwich, and learning all about Otto von Bismarck. And when we had done with that, it was Giuseppe Mazzini, not to be confused with Giuseppe Verdi, who invented operations.

Twenty days in which I laid the foundations to the exhaustive general knowledge that I have today.

But, worse was to come. On the 20th October, the smoke came out white. Mellowood was swallowed from the bottle in anticipation.
Mellowood was emptied from the bottle with grief when the news came out. Another Italian, some fat drub called Angelo Roncalli. Within days, testimony to the efficiency of the Vatican bureaucracy, photos of His Holiness John XXIII had replaced those of Pius XII. Although in the interests of cost-efficiency, the same frames were used.

The next day, everything was back to normal. The brothers caned us for anything they could think of, just as they had done for all the past 700 years of the Great Tribulation since the last French Pope.

Life went rushing on as if nothing had happened, except that we all knew how to spell Giuseppe Mazzini. Not to be confused with the guy who invented Cinzano.

I saw a girl friend after school, who went to the girls’ convent school in Yeoville. I told her about the new Pope. She said, “I know. Sister Ignatia came and told us all about it. She said it was a great and glorious moment. They talk rubbish. She was just glad it was another Italian.”

“The Brothers were devastated,” I said.

“It’s just politics,” she said dismissively. “I’m hungry. What should we do?”

Moments that are sheer Diamond

LPNeil Diamond Moods

I’m sitting in the Mugg and Bean, in a shopping mall. Doesn’t matter which one, they’re all the same. Mind you, all the Mugg and Beans are all the same. But the people change.

Maybe that’s why I come here; it’s good to have a little bit of “all the same” now and then. A change from the same to the same. I suppose we get like that when we often start feeling that you’ve “Been there, done it … etc.”

The majority of those in the place fall into unique categories. There are the senior citizen Afrikaners – you can spot them; the ladies wear cardigans – that nice word for shapeless wool button ups. The men wear those funny baggy mid-calf shorts that make small men look smaller, and fat men look fatter. They’re all in couples, and never say a word to each other. Probably the last time they ever said a civil word to each other was when they said “I do”.

Then there are the racing drivers. That’s what I call them. Recent mothers, they come in with their formula-1 prams, 4-wheel drive, air-conditioned monsters with a boot space for an entire maternity ward. They show off their plump, smelly wads of dough to each other, and destroy the aisle space.

Then there are also the solicitors, not legal ones, but females, aged 20 to 35, come here to announce their state of availability. No race distinction here, the blacks and the whites are all the same, with one exception. Whites giggle a lot. They do this to hide their teeth, because unlike the young Black 20-somethings, they haven’t had orthodontic braces. The Black somethings talk English loudly so that you can hear that Daddy is some BBBEEE millionaire. They give away their education: Model C or semi-private school. They got empowered, which is the 21st century replacement for education.

They seem to come in pairs, a 35 year old him with a twenty year old her. The 35 year old is actually over the hill, but impresses the 20 year old about how worldly she is. They say things like, “I just love the beach in Paris”, and “Put a man on 5th Avenue and he’s hot.” Direct plagiarism of “True Love” magazine, cheap imported TV shows, and “O – Oprah”, which to them is high culture. Their Theodore Adorno is Snoop Doggie.

Then there are the white Afrikaner youth, ambitionless, usually looking as if they are the results of centuries of inbreeding. Shouting at each other about last week’s customer service training course. They speak Afrikaans that sounds like they are choking on Broccoli. Afrikaans sounds as beautiful as Nederlands when it is spoken in the Western Cape. But not in Johannesburg. The one next to me has just laughed about a rabbit going down a hole. She can’t have read “Alice in Wonderland”, must have been the TV cartoon. South Africans don’t read. If you want to hide money from a South African, put it inside a book.

I get better company from the waiters. Mugg and Bean calls them “Waitrons”, as if they are other-worldly robots with superior intelligence. Actually they’re all quiet little Zimbabweans who are grateful for a job of any kind, and just hope that they won’t get killed in a xenophobia riot on the way home. They also get the work easily because “waitoring” is below the dignity of South Africa’s unemployed.
I tease them. I tell them I’m a Russian spy who’s gathering intelligence on women’s retail stores so that my oligarch father can open up a Van Cleef and Arpels franchise in the Red Square. I don’t care if they believe me or not, or if they even know what I’m talking about.

It’s not whether they believe me or not – sometimes their English is so limited that a “Tomato omelette” is sometimes beyond their capacity.

I tell them I was Professor of Gynaecology at the Sorbonne, and I left there because I got too deep in the subject and people were jealous of my brilliance.

I tell them I was Professor Law at Oxford, but I gave legal advice to Al Qaeda, and the Pope lobbied for me to be removed from my chair.
I tell them …

When you get to my age, people believe anything you say. Funny, as your body and brains rot, you gain respectability.

Against the wall is a row of benches with a plug point next to every second seat. They encourage people who want to work on their laptops to come in, buy just one cheap bottomless and let Mugg and Bean pay for the electricity. Some of them are genuinely working, you can see them – they are the reps, checking orders and call sheets. In between them are the wankers, the ones I call the “BBB Brigade”. They pretend that they are serious management science MBA types. In fact they googling “Big Black Boobs”.

They also try and pick up girls. I told one of them once that I would never pick up anyone in a Mugg and Bean. I prefer Exclusive Books – at least I have some assurance that they may be literate. Load of crap, actually, I’ve never picked up anyone before, not even in a book shop.
I sit there trying to think up a new idea for something, another column due yesterday, a training course that has to be finished by tomorrow. Or just have some fun, like when I told a cute little waitron that I have opened a business in Soweto doing penis enlargements: a dab of Super Glue and a Vuvuzela.

I open the latest Paris Match. Hard to find, but they get passed down to me from a French woman who swaps them with hand-me-down copies of my The New Yorker. Francoise Hardy is 67. She looks better than the 30 year old secretary I have to flatter at M-Net.

But then Francoise Hardy is immortal. Like Neil Diamond who came to South Africa a few years back for the first time next year. I had to get a ticket.

I’m was 63, and I was sitting in the gutter outside Computicket at 6 am on a Saturday morning to try and be at the front of the queue when it opened at 9 am.

I wasn’t at the front of the queue. I’m at least 20th. There are lots of people still alive who started buying his records in 1967. I could only get the second priced seats, someone got onto the Internet on the stroke of 9 am, or else those crooks, the promoters, have presold block bookings to the cellphone companies and the breweries. Shit happens. Usually when big business is involved.

But I got 10 tickets. I thought I may go alone. Sell the rest nearer the time. South Africans have a last minute culture. They cannot plan, have no idea what it means, especially if they are fully armed with a ’45 calibre Blackberry.

I didn’t go alone. I took very close friends that I wanted to embarrass with behaviour that was a reasonable impersonation of Woodstock 1969. I had retro bellbottoms and a psychedelic shirt made by the tailors at the Oriental Plaza. And a cheese-cutter straw hat.

My behaviour was appalling.

It was two hours that compressed in them all the things that have happened since 1954. Like that mythical moment before you breathe your last, and the whole of your life goes flashing by in front of your eyes.
I don’t care if I breathe my last, as I have a nano-second to remember the show.

Back to Paris Match. I turn to the society pages. There is absolutely no one I recognise or know of at all.

I don’t stifle the yawn. I’m tired.

Left; Right …

1964 Army 1964 1

I was drafted into the army after school. Conscription. I didn’t take it seriously. Well I did, but not defending the country.

It was funny; I sort of found it romantic and heroic that my father fought for King and country in the war, civilisations response to the threat of the Nazis. What I took seriously in my army days was not getting beaten up by some illiterate Dutchman lance corporal with a pacing stick.

When I did get beaten, it wasn’t the fault of the Lance-Corporal with a Standard Three. It was me, for refusing to speak Afrikaans. I could speak it (I come from Dutch stock); I just refused. If I was in his putrid socks, I would also have beaten me up, especially as he had a deep and abiding hatred of “Die Engelse”.  In the Army, they all had.

Our uniforms were all Second World War issue. My father said they were great because they came in two sizes: too big and too small.

Nine months of completely wasted time. I was declared unfit for combat. Suited me, I didn’t want to die for Afrikaners, or “The Skaaps” as my father called them. These days he would have been hauled before the Human Rights Commission.  In the 1960s, the word xenophobia hadn’t been invented, and what it meant, was compulsory.

My father said that “we only won the war against Hitler because the Skaaps stayed at home. The only thing a Dutchman can grow without a subsidy is a beard.” He’d puff his pipe, and snort.

So I was drafted into the Pay Corps, Hoofbetaalmeester. The bunch of non-humans who paid servicemen like me 50 cents a day. Wow. Really worth while dying for your country.

We marched to the office in the morning, filled out forms, had a hot dog for 5 cents; and marched back to the tent camp behind Defence Head Quarters in Pretoria (next to the jail).

Then we’d not march, just saunter into town and spend the evenings in the café bios.

They were great, and Pretoria was full of them. They were small, maybe 200 seats, with a shelf in front of you where our stored you free glass of Coke or milk.  We always chose the Coke as there was less chance of it being watered down.  For something like 10 cents, you could sit there all night. Walk in the middle of the film, watch it through to the end, and then be treated to at least an hour of series, and serials, and then the film would start again. “Continuous showings” read the sign.  They all had the same names all over the country: Imperial, Royal, Roxy.

Those serials: Hopalong Cassidy; Bar 20 Rides again; Doomed Caravan, Forty Thieves; Captain Marvel; The Adventures of Fu man Chu; Flash Gordon; Lost City of the Jungle. Forerunners to TV today – mindless. I think it was Groucho Marx who said, “I find television very educational. Every time someone turns it on, I go and read a book.”

When things started a looking a bit déjà vu, then you just get up and leave. A really nice night’s entertainment. Every night. Hebrews 13:8 – my father used to say that about dinner at home. It wasn’t grace. It was an old wartime habit. Went back to fighting in the desert. I one day looked it up. “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today and forever.”

That was army. Sitting in a tent, spitting on your boots so that the polish came up with a shellac type of shine. Pure Dada.

The time of my life

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom; it was the age of foolishness.

When I first read these lines; the book was prescribed reading in Standard Seven, I sort of blanked out until I got to the last lines: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.”

They are all I remember from The Tale of Two Cities. I didn’t get good marks in English that term – or any other term.

But they were the fifties and sixties.

Thinking over the past sixty years, I can see six distinct ages, each lasting ten years. They never start in a “0” year, but seem rather to start in a “3” or “4” year. Like the forties. They didn’t start until the war was over in 1946. There was nothing during the war years. I wasn’t born yet, but my parents spoke about it a lot, mostly to each other. They told us kids how awful it was.

I heard about Lili Marlene, Vera Lyn, Flanagan and Allen, and Victor Sylvester. My parents and their friends didn’t seem to do much. The women sat at home and moaned about shortages and rations. The men fought in battles so that they could make them seem a hundred times worse when they were having hard drinking sessions with their mates years later.

The nearest I came to the war was at Sappersrust, my fathers ex-serviceman’s club near Rustenburg. I was about ten. “Monty” was coming to visit. They were referring to of course Field Marshall Lord Montgomery of Alamein. During the war he was God. After the war, he was someone you could slap on the back, call Monty and bitch behind his back about how incompetent he was.

On that Sunday, at the ceremonial parade, the Field Marshall stopped by me, sat back on his haunches, and asked me if I was proud of my father. I wasn’t sure what it was all about, just that I was supposed to like this “Monty”.

Back in the bar, usually partially drunk ex-servicemen were teasing my father, “Well, your son cannot fail, eh Charlie? He’s been blessed by old fucking Monty.”

Those were the forties. I think the fifties started about 1955. No actually, it was April 12, 1954, the day Bill Haley and his Comets’ Rock around the Clock was recorded. So the Rock n Roll age started in South Africa in 1955. Always behind the times – still is.

That song was something. It knocked the hell out of “Ballad of Davy Crockett” by Tennessee Ernie Ford; “Earth Angel” by The Penguins; “It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie” by Somethin’ Smith And The Redheads; and of course Check Berry’s “Maybellene”.

Elvis only broke onto the scene in 1956. By then the fifties had already begun.

The fifties were the decade of suburbia, black velvet (a toxic cocktail of champagne and milk stout), G&T (gin and tonic, otherwise known as Mother’s Milk) and Sunday school. They were the years of the Korean War, Suez and the Cold War. The years of the A-bomb scares and stories about nuclear shelters in the USA.

The fifties were the hey day of Frankie Laine, Patti Page, Johnnie Ray, Kay Starr, Perry Como, Georgia Gibbs, Eddie Fisher, Darin Kerns, Teresa Brewer, Guy Mitchell and vocal groups like The Four Lads, The Four Aces The Chordettes and The Ames Brothers.

At the café bios (or the Plaza, Savoy or Bijou) we could see The Day the Earth Stood Still; Invaders from Mars, Them!, The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, It Came from Outer Space, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Thing from Another World, This Island Earth, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. That was high culture.

Religion was portrayed in Jimmy Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause in 1955. Sex came onto the screen with Gidget in 1959, and of course A Summer Place. We saw all these films. You could if you know the usherettes like Gertie at the Plaza.

But for high romance and fantasy there was Davy Crocket battling it out at the Alamo, High Noon, and of “Bridge over the river Kwai that someone blew up in Commissioner Street.

We don’t mention Marlon Brando in The Wild One, not even to this day. To discuss this is like calling Bernadette at Lourdes a Coke salesgirl.

The fifties meant Springbok Radio. Sundays starting with the Kolynos Show. After that there was a spiritual Afrikaans programme, ’n Rusplek langs die Pad. Simon Swindell followed with From the Bell-Tower.

Then my father would start twiddling the dials, and scrape through all the “eee-yooor” of shortwave interference until he heard the Big Ben chimes (the same incidentally as you hear from the Union Buildings).

Through the haze of hissing disappearing into the background and rising again into the foreground, we would only just hear, “This is London”.

The sixties started in America on November 22nd 1963, when Oswald fired a gun. South Africa was just for once ahead of the rest of the world where the sixties started on March 21, 1960 when we were all ordered home from school because there was “some trouble in Sharpeville”

In 1963 we were 17, and teenagers had done a whole lot of growing up.

By the time January 14, 1967 came, we were 21, and Timothy Leary had told us all to “tune in, turn on and drop out”.

But you can’t glorify the sixties. Someone, lots of people, said, “If you remember the sixties, you weren’t there”. They were an hallucination, a dream that you suspect may just ne a nightmare. They were culture wars more bitter and bloody than Bosnia.

Somehow I don’t think they were all that enjoyable, but this I do know: to have been young person in the sixties was a God-given privilege.

In 1969 in South Africa, cigarettes cost 25c a packet of 20, and petrol was 25c a gallon. A Coke and sticky bun cost 5 cents

So when the Sixties start? When you wanted them to start. They ended when you wanted them to end so that you could enter the 1970s glorious times of “Good Times and Bad Taste”.

For us the seventies started with Easy Rider when we sort of got the idea that acid tripping wasn’t really worth aspiring to.

Besides, we had started working, and having to face something called Income Tax, and rent, and that sort of thing. Also there was Erich Segal’s Love Story in 1970, where we all blubbed with Ali McGraw died.

We also started to be green after the oil crisis of October 1973. We really did start siphoning petrol out of other people’s tanks. That was the year they invented lockable petrol caps.

We all hated the 1978 Grease, because we knew what the fifties were really like.

The 1980’s were shit, especially Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. So the Berlin Wall fell, but that only showed you that the USSR was never really Marxist in the first place, we all agreed. Really – ten years of world civilisation squandered on Dirty Dancing, Chariots of Fire, and ET. Satan took over the world under the nom de plume of Milton Friedman.

The music was shit too. The Hammond organ, which always managed to sound like blowing over the top of a Coke bottle, gave way to the Moog synthesiser, which sounded like blowing over the top of 100 Coke bottles. They also invented a travesty in recorded music called compression where music forgot what “nuance” meant.

I didn’t hear much of it; I going through a rebel stage and listening to classical opera. I imagines myself at Bayreuth or La Scala. Bayreuth, in the wicker seat, watching Wagner’s Ring Cycle, certainly the most boring musical events ever written or staged. Der Ring des Niebelungen. Das Rhinegold; Die Walküre, Siegfried; Götterdämmerung. But Wagner was no fool. Maybe he was like Nostradamus, and could encode his foresight. Maybe he knew what was to happen 100 years later.

• The seventies: Das Rhinegold – dreaming of wealth while we pretended we were there.

• The eighties were the “Birth of the Capitalists”. Die Walküre

• The nineties were the “Rule of the Capitalists”. Siegfried.

Then came Götterdämmerung. The death of the capitalists. Starting with the dotcom bubble, then Enron, then God knows what until the depression that started in 2008.

The Twilight of the Gods. The death of the respectable banker, “Oh, you mean THAT two billion dollars”.

Twilight always seems nice, full of contentment and omnipotence. The end of 2009 was the Death of the Gods. Now this is freaky. One of the few times my father spoke to me (nicely) he had just finished reading The Death of the Gods by Dmitry Mérejkowski. This shows just how weird my father was. This book was written in 1897. Mérejkowski was little read; in fact three people had read his books: his proof-reader, his publisher and my father.

This weirdo book, subtitled Christ and Antichrist sort of said that Nietzsche was great, but Mérejkowski was better. But in the form of a novel all about Julian the Apostate.

There’s a line in it that applies to the last months of 2008. “Unhappy people! If life weighs on you, is it so difficult for you to shorten it for yourselves?”

If you like Superman, you’re going to find Mérejkowski unreadable.

I misquote Dickens now and say, “I do far, far better things that I have ever done; it is a far, far better place that I go to, than I have ever known.”

By that, I mean the future.

Life was worth a tickey

When the time came for me to buy insurance, I didn’t hesitate. I knew the value of paying for protection. I had learned young.

I didn’t have much to do with the Lebanese boys at school until about 1958 when I was 12.

I was riding on my bicycle down Raleigh Street in Yeoville. My favourite sport was, just as I was passing the Post Office, to wedge my back tyre into the tramlines. When it was in the groove, I would speed up, and then wedge my front tyre into the same line. This meant I had to go faster if I needed to keep balance.

The Duckies used to loll about outside the Apollo Café, which was opposite the municipal swimming pool.

We called them Duckies, short for Ducktails. So called because of the sideburns, and long forelock they would pull forward with a comb. It stayed there. It had to with all the Brylcreem smeared on it. ”A little dab’ll do ya” went the Springbok Radio ad. The hair swept straight out over their forehead, back and into a little curl up the back – just like a duck’s tail.

Duckie haute couture also included white socks and black winkle-picker shoes. Buffed up with Nugget Shoe Polish. “When here’s a shine on your shoes, there’s a melody in your heart. What a wonderful way to start the day.”

They also worshipped Jimmy Dean. “Rebel without a Cause” was the cause celebre of 1956, and we only watched the scenes with James Dean in when we sat through the long boring hours of “Giant” with Elizabeth Taylor, who, in the film, grew old with lots of silver dust in her hair, and nothing else. The pseudo-Western musical theme by Dimitri Tiomkin dominated the radio, for a short while, until it was ousted by Paul Anka singing “Diana”.

Duckies also had fun swirling bicycle chains in the hands, like drum majorettes and their long drum sticks.

This day, one of them let his chain fly through my spokes.

My back wheel jammed and I fell onto the road, tearing my blazer arm and scraping my elbow. As they said at the time, “Arse over tea-kettle”. The fork of the bike was buckled. As I limped away, I heard them cackling, like old witches in the play the older guys had told us about.

I bent the fork of the bike straight and “wobbling” rode back to school. The Lebs were leaning against the stone gateposts.

“Been fighting?”

“Nah. Duckies got me.”

“How so?”

I told them.

Morrie got down on his haunches in front of me. “Listen Kiddo, you don’t have to do this you know.”

I didn’t realise it then, but they all sounded like Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney or Edward G Robinson. There sort of films were run and rerun in Fietas and Sophiatown. This was the fifties when if you hung out with some of the coloured guys, you would go to the movies at the Star Cinema in Fietas. We didn’t call the suburbs Vrededorp or Pageview. You didn’t smoke tobacco in the back row there.

Years later I tried to found out where the name “Fietas” came from. Never could.

Morrie unfurled untold stories of the outside world. I would pay them a tickey a week, and they would see I wouldn’t be hurt, or nothing.

Seemed sensible, although where I would find a tickey a week was beyond me. When we went decimal in 1960, a tickey would become 2½ cents. Nothing today, but a rich boy’s weekly pocket money then.

“Where do I get a tickey a week? I don’t even get pocket money.”

“Lexies are 1 shilling and a penny for 10. That means three ciggies will be worth a tickey.”

Where do I get ciggies?”

“From the shop.”

If I haven’t got pocket money, how do I buy your ciggies?”

They then told me how I could get ciggies in bulk from the back of the Tobacconist shop “after hours”. And the currency was flexible – you could trade anything. That’s where I learned economic re-distribution.

I would get the ciggies, bury them in a tin the garden, and dig it up once a week to retrieve three to pay my protection money.

The next day I was little nervous of cycling up past the Apollo café. The Lebs had told me not to worry, but then the Chinese had always warned me never to trust a Leb.

That day I learned that when you pay protection money, you trust your protector. When someone rubbishes your protector, you don’t believe them.

The Duckies were still there. But this time there were no bicycle chains. Cigarettes dripping out of their lips, they looked sullen, with their arms in slings, and heads bandaged.

No chain this time. They didn’t even see me. Maybe they didn’t know why they had been beaten up.

You don’t ask questions. Especially when you are being protected. You pay. You have no trouble. You don’t ask questions, because you didn’t see anything. You learned quickly to watch, but never to see.

There was honour on the streets. A guy’s hand was his bond. Not like our parents. They had to have contracts and things. That tickey was the lowest insurance premium I ever paid.

The day they blew up the bridge on the river Kwai

River Kwai
Saturday night at the bioscope. The Piccadilly in Yeoville the always first choice. They used to show “Carry On” films. Endlessly, but then they made Carry on films endlessly. In between, the films were sort of bland, “Sink the Bismarck” sort of stuff. If we couldn’t find anything to see at the Piccadilly, we would trek all the way to Hillbrow, to the Clarendon or the Curzon.

With spaghetti bolognaise as 75 cents, 20 Players at 28 cents, and a gallon of Lieberstein at R3.00, R10 was quite enough to last many days.

The Clarendon was where the “Sound of Music” showed for months. Some old lady bought a ticket for every performance (four or five times a day) for months. After that they gave her a free pass. It was in the papers. It wasn’t a publicity stunt. The theatre and cinema industry weren’t clever enough for publicity stunts in those days.

Publicity was left to student pranks. It was in the early sixties that they were showing the “Bridge on the River Kwai” at His Majesties. The film was about how they blew up the bridge over the river Kwai in Burma during the Second World War. Everyone went to see it because it had William Holden in it, and the girls creamed their jeans at the sight of him.

The Wits engineering students devised a way that they too wanted to blow up the bridge over the river Kwai. They commandeered a fire engine with a big ladder, somehow, or so the story goes. They drove it up to the cinema one evening when the pavement was full of people queuing for the early evening show.

This grand fire engine, sirens blaring, came roaring down Commissioner Street. It slammed on its anchors right in front on the cinema to the alarm of the patrons – who remained shell-shocked still on the pavement.

Dressed in old army World War II excess (easily available then from ME Stores), the students swivelled the ladder until it faced the canopy of the cinema. On top there was cardboard cut-out of the Bridge, with those ubiquitous cut-outs of the actors – all looking upwards to heaven. William Holden, Jack Hawkins, Alec Guinness – the Johnny Depp, Russell Crowe and Kurt Russell of the time.

The students rushed up the ladder with suitable military expressions (they didn’t say “Go – Go – Go” in those days). One had a rucksack and in it some firework explosive dingbat.

They placed the charge under the cardboard cut-out, connected some wires, ran to the other end of the canopy leaving the wire to run off the reel. They connected the charge, put fingers in their ears, and grandly pushed down a plunger.

There was a bang, a flash of powder, and the acrid smell of cheap gunpowder.

The cardboard shattered into flakes of paper and fluttered down to the street.
Down the ladder, they went in triumphant retreat, ready to beat the light fantastic out of town.

But all did not go right. Somehow the ladder got tied up in the overhead lines, and there was a moment of movie type suspense, delaying the fire engine.

But they got away. The cops took hours to arrive. I suppose someone finally recovered from the shock, and got to a telephone and, panic stricken, had reported that someone had blown up the bridge on the river Kwai.

The cops were wise to those sort of telephonic practical jokes. They just went about their business muttering something like “Souties!”