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!”

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Highest of the high-class hookers

Hihgpoint Hillbrow

Hillbrow. 1968. Gloriana’s flat was down the bottom of the hill in Raymond Street. It was magnificent, and she gave us lovely breakfasts on Sunday mornings.  Gloriana was in social welfare.  She didn’t go looking for battered women; she was in the other kind of social welfare.  She looked after the social welfare of any man rich enough to afford her.

And she charged!  And she was classy.  No rubbish with her.  She offered her sessions for never less than 24 hours.  And at a time I was earning R50 a week, she was taking in R500 a night.  She timed the sessions so that Sunday morning was always free for her friends, who she entertained for breakfast.  Year in and year out.

Gloriana was really a coloured, but pale enough to pass for white.  She even had a Book of Life that classified her as white.  But if she just tweaked the make up, she could be coloured again.

Earlier that year she had noticed that there was an increase in German tourists, and she knew that they came to South Africa because they had a taste for toast.

“I wanna get my hands on some of that Deutschmark,” she said. “I need a nest egg in another country.  I’ll charge them plenty and make them pay me in Germany.  Open a bank account in Frankfurt. But I need to an itty bitty more darko.”

When she was with us, Gloriana spoke like she came from Coronationville, which she did.

When she was with clients, she spoke as if she was a secretary from Buckingham Palace.  I gave her help at times.  I worked in the theatre and had studied speech and drama.  The problem was always her tendency to end all her sentences on an upward inflection, like they spoke in Riverlea.  I got her ending her sentences on a downward inflection, and slowing down.  It made her voice so much more resonant.  She could have got another R100 a night just for that.

That Sunday morning we helped her.  Helped her choose her clothes, and get the complexion going.  Gloriana went from brunette to black with long flowing locks – not straight like an Indian, but with gentle waves.

She said, “Gloriana won’t do for a coloured, besides Gloriana of Hillbrow is known the world over as a white.  I need a new name.”  We thought, and thought, and then remembered the film of “Irma la Douce”. I wonder what about Gloriana made us think of “Irma la Douce?”

Anyway, she left the kitchen as Gloriana, and by the time we had all finished with her, and added the final touches, the beautiful mixed race that came back into the kitchen was Mimi the Mau Mau.

If anyone else had tried it, they’d have ended up like an SPCA mongrel.  But not Mimi the Mau Mau, nee Gloriana. Shape shifter.  Like Merlin.

We all helped with breakfast. I made the toast; the Professor set the table, and made little curly shells of butter with the spoon thing with the scalloped edges.  Pushy made the coffee and poured the orange juice.  I did the kippers.

Gloriana did the scrambled eggs.  She wouldn’t let any one else touch the eggs, not because she had some special flick of the wrist, but that she beat them with a vibrator.  “No other way to make scrambled eggs really fluffy,” she would say, as she stood upright, vibrator in one hand in the egg bowl, and her Perilly’s Private Blend between the second and third finger of the other.

We all loved living in Hillbrow. It defied everything: legislation, the cops, normality and South Africa.

Looking back over 40 years, we’re still shape shifting.  The blacks want to be white, and the whites want to be black. The poor want to be rich, and the rich want to be richer.

The Birds

Plaza

We were poor.  The only reason why we were at a private Catholic School, was that even though the holy brothers constantly reminded us that we were poor, they didn’t throw us out because fees weren’t paid.

They let us know in public. At the end of each school year, all 800 boys were lined up in assembly in the quadrangle, and only those whose feed were paid were given the school magazine.  After the first five years, I got immune to it.  We used to talk about it a lot, and fantasised how we could get the money to pay our school fees, just at that part of the year.  The rest of the time didn’t matter.   It was just that time of the year, the looks from the other 799 boys all at once.

But, the best studies were outside the classroom.

Classroom studies also included staring our of the window at half past two in the afternoon and seeing the clouds darken for the quarter to three cloudburst that always seemed to last until three o’clock.  After all, this was Johannesburg.  Things were different then. Predictable. Little change.  Unless we made it happen.

We experimented a lot.  Controlled studies, which were conducted with planning, forethought and discipline.

Like when Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” was showing at the Plaza Cinema. It was the year Dionne Warwick was singing, “Anyone who had a heart”.  And the year even the brothers at school encouraged us to listen to the Hit Parade because top of the charts was The Singing Nun with “Dominique”.

“The Birds” was a spectacular horror movie. The pièce de résistance was when these rogue birds dropped down from the sky and pecked our Tippi Hedren’s eyes. These shrilling feathered monsters dive-bombing to leave this gorgeous chick in bloody blindness.

We knew that most of the school girls were sitting in the stalls.  They didn’t like the front row, as it was too near the screen.  They also didn’t like the back row, as the boys sat there, smoking Lexington and coughing.

In those days, there were ashtrays on the backs of seats so that you could smoke.  They were circular, and there was a little window at the top you could close to stop the smoke getting out after you had dumped you stompie in there.  To empty the ashtrays, the cleaners would come around, the swivel them right over so that all the stompies and ash fell out.  We would do that as were leaving the rows after a movie. – let the ashes and stompies fall to the floor. Well it gave the cleaners something to do.

We figured it was easier for the cleaners to sweep it all off the floor instead of going to all the trouble of turning over each and every ashtray.

We were only thinking of them.

The girls sat in the middle, just under the edge of the circle, which was a good 20 feet above their heads.  The seats were just right.  Not too close to the screen, nor to far.  Exactly right for the best horror effect.

We had found a live chicken.  Not difficult in the area where we lived.  As I say, we were poor.

We put it inside a paper bag to keep it quiet.

Then we took our seats in the front row of the circle.

These were pricy seats, but we knew where the fire escape was, and there was always only one usherette upstairs.

They wore uniforms like the Salvation Army, and carried a tray in front of them, with choccies and sweet we could never afford.  And some melting Eskimo Pies. The nice one, Gertie, always let us in.  We gave her cigarettes so that she too could sit in the back row and smoke with the other guys.

However that day, we were in the front row of the circle.  We had seen “The Birds” a week before, and we knew exactly when the part came for the birds to dive out of the sky and de-eye little Tippi.

Just at that moment we emptied the chicken out of the paper bag and let it drop to the stalls below.

Squawking, onto the girl’s heads.  We leant over the circle and studied the behaviour patterns.  They seemed to be random. Fright, panic, hysteria, distress, laxativic. They scattered in all directions, regardless of the chairs, they seemed to be walking, not on water, but on the backs of the seats. The screams weren’t like Tippi Hedren’s, which sort of rose up the scale.  Morgan, on of us,  thought that Tippi’s screams were in a major key. He should know, he was learning piano.  The girls’ screams were erratic, sort of all over the place.  No musical sense at all, Morgan concluded.

Gigs and bullets

Johannesburg tram, 1960's

Johannesburg tram, 1960’s

I think I was 14 when I gave up smoking for the first time. That would be 1960 or so. We used to smoke behind the swimming bath. It was safe there as it backed onto the rifle range, and no one in the right minds would be smoking cigarettes with bullets flying over their heads. Well, we weren’t in our right minds. But we had to smoke.

We were at a Catholic school, where the bothers were very strict, when they weren’t in the Brothers’ Common Room doing whatever teaching monks did in the Common Room.

We smoked Lexington, why? Don’t know. I suppose if we had smoked Texan, none of us would manage it, and Lexington, well even the name sounded cool. And we were cool. We were all the boys from poor families, allowed in because it made the school look good, like the Catholics were doing their bit. They did their bit.  We got a good education, and our parents got out of paying fees. Good deal. Everyone was a winner.  Those were the days of high apartheid, and the school had special permission to allow in “Second Class Citizens” – the Chinese.  The school made the application to the government because almost all Chinese in Johannesburg were Catholic.

The school also welcomed the Jewish boys, because they all paid their fees. So some people paid, some didn’t. Those that paid hefty fees, were the Jews, the Chinese and the Lebs.  There had been trouble in Lebanon, and South Africa housed a large Lebanese refugee community – all Catholic of course.  And the Chinese.  They might have been “Second Class Citizens”, but they certainly weren’t poor, not like some of us whites.

It was nice to be “in” with the Jews, and Lebs and the Chinese, because their fathers all did interesting things. As a rule the fathers of the Jews were bookmakers, the fathers of the Chinese ran Fah Fee rackets, and the Lebs’ fathers were all in boxing – well the gambling side of boxing.

For a country where gambling was banned, there was sure a lot of gambling going on. The horse races on Wednesdays and Saturdays were a sell out.  I didn’t have first hand experience of it, but I knew my grandfather was there regularly.  He never won. He studied form, and that’s the worst thing you can do, you know, bet on the horses scientifically.  If he ever went to the races with my grandmother (she didn’t go with him very often because she hated him – had done so since the day after their wedding in 1914.)

But then she did go, she always won.  She betted on the colours worn by the jockeys. She also never bet on a jockey with a bad acne – she said there was too much wind drag. The old man (my grandfather) would always abuse her verbally, “ That’s not  a horse, that’s a cow.” But the cow came romping home, and the old man would tear up his tickets in a rage as my grandmother went to the tote to collect her 7:1 on the two shillings and sixpence she had bet.

I used to hear of all this from my mother. She loved telling me about her in-laws, especially stories like that because she hated both of them.

Very close family.

Anyway, I suppose it was a combination of the gambling families of our smoking companions, and my grandfather’s hopeless failure as a punter that was the sort of thing that pulled the gang together.  That’s about all we did.  Smoked behind the swimming pool.

Oh, yes, and after the bullets from the rifle range had stopped flying, we’d go onto the range and collect the spent cartridges, which we called “doppies”.

We’d take the precious matches we had left over from lighting copious cigarettes, and insert the heads into the doppies, jamming them in hard to the doppie was crammed full of match heads.  Then on our bicycles up to Rockey Street in Bellevue to the tram lines.

We’d sit on the pavement, our feet firmly played in the gutter waiting for the next tram.

You could hear them coming all the way from Raleigh Street in Yeoville with the beating rumble that echoed through the tramlines. We heard it long before we saw the single headlamp that eyed it’s way ahead.  That gave us enough time to dash into the road and line up doppies (charged with match heads) onto the tramline.  Carefully positioned maybe two or three feet from each other.  Then we’d back off to our original seats in the gutter.

As the tram passed over the loaded doppies, they went off, a little like rifle shots.

The sweet old ladies in their hats and gloves would “whoop” at the sound, which I’m sure they soon decided was a car backfiring.  Very common in those days, all cars backfired, even the big Dodges, Buicks, and Hudson’s. I mean those  old engines were crap, the petrol was crap, and the cars were so heavy they had the same pistons that you had on the Windsor Castle passenger liner.

Then we’d go home.  Satisfied. An afternoon well spent.