Monthly Archives: May 2013

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!”