Mon oncle – My uncle

UNTIL I BEGAN LEARNING LATIN (at eight years old), I used to think that my mother’s brother’s name, Felix, was strange. Then, I learned that ‘felix’ was the Latin word for ‘happy’ or ‘fortunate’. My Uncle Felix lived up to both meanings of his name.

FELIX BLOG

Felix was born in one of the rooms of his grandparents’ house in Maitland Road, in King Williamstown in South Africa. This house was the home of his grandfather Senator Franz Ginsberg and his wife Hedwig. His three full siblings (and maybe also his half-brother) were born in the same room of this house, which still stands today.

On the 9th of May 1920, Clothilde, Felix’s maternal great-grandmother celebrated her 79th birthday at her home in Munich. That day, she wrote in her diary:

“… Ilse my granddaughter came to Munich with her husband and her indescribably sweet child. It so happened that they could celebrate my birthday with me…”

That child was Felix. That indescribable sweetness remained with him throughout his life.

Felix spent his early years in the tiny town Barkly East in the Eastern Cape, where his father, Iwan, born in Germany, was managing director of the family firm S. Seligmann and Company, which was established in 1885 by his uncle Sigmund Seligmann. In the last few years of his life Felix’s father was the highly respected mayor of this small town in the Eastern Cape. Iwan became very wealthy. The family imported luxury goods from Europe, such as the latest fashions from Paris. Felix told me that they used to buy new American cars (costing £2000) every couple of years. On his deathbed, Felix shared with me some memories of his father, who died in 1931. Iwan used to return home at midday for lunch. He would sit down with his feet up to read his post. Felix told me when he was a little boy, he used to open letters for his father. Many of them came from Germany, where, just after the end of the First World War, there was great inflation. Felix remembered the stamps which bore extremely high denominations (millions, or more) of Reichsmark. He also recalled that his father often took walks on the Common near Barkly East with his friend Mr. Nurse, the proprietor of the local newspaper, “The Barkly East Reporter”.

Even as a child, Felix was an avid reader. It was difficult for his mother to detach him from a book. His love of reading continued throughout his life. He read widely: both fiction and non-fiction. His primary education was in Barkly East. Later, he studied, as a boarder, at Dale College in King Williamstown. After Iwan died, his widow, Ilse, remarried. Her second husband Oscar died soon after the birth of their son John. Shortly afterwards, the family moved to Stellenbosch, where Ilse bought a farm called ‘Bantouzel’ (now re-named ‘Mon Repos’), opposite the Stellenbosch Farmer’s Winery. In 1936, Felix entered the University of Cape Town and enrolled on the BCom course. His future brother-in-law, my father Basil Yamey, who began this course at the same time as Felix, remembers being greeted by him. They had met in Tulbagh some years before at the home of the Kupfers, who were friends of the Yamey family and relatives of Oscar. Felix and his siblings stayed for a while with the Kupfers in about 1935 whilst their mother was undergoing an operation. He never completed this degree.

World War 2 (WW2) was declared in 1939. Felix joined the South African Army.  Because his eyesight was too poor to be a soldier, he served as a medical auxiliary and saw action in many of the major North African campaigns, including Mersah Matruh and Tobruk. My uncle’s wartime experiences were especially important for him.  He used to love to tell stories about them. I feel that he looked back on this tough time, which encouraged warm camaraderie amongst the military at the front, with affection.  As the War ended, Felix went with the army to Palestine.  There, he met Reinhold Seligmann (son of Sigmund) and his daughters. One of the daughters, Felicity (now deceased), showed me pictures of my uncle taken in Jerusalem during that visit. From Palestine he reached Europe, where he ended his tour of duty with some well-earned sightseeing. In Zurich, he visited the ageing Benno Seligmann, who had once lived in Barkly East.

On his return to South Africa, Felix re-entered the University of Cape Town, this time to study engineering. His mother became extremely unwell and died in 1948. After her death, Felix became one of the two joint guardians, with his uncle Rudolf Ginsberg, of his half-brother John. By that time, my mother had settled in London.  He and my mother’s sister Marion helped to look after their younger brother John. They did most of the caring for their far younger half-brother. When John and his wife Mickey came to settle in London in the late 1990s, the two brothers spent much time together. Having John in London gave him much pleasure. Felix became close to John’s sons in London, my cousins Arnold and David, when they came from South Africa to settle in London.

Felix did not complete his engineering degree. Instead, he helped to run the farm at Bantouzel, but its land was poor because it did not have its own well. He bought another farm, called ‘Eureka’, near Stellenbosch.  Next, Felix studied agriculture at Elsenburg College in Stellenbosch. Eureka was not a great success: Felix sold it. For a brief time, he worked in a nursery garden run in King Williams Town, one of Rudolf Ginsberg’s many businesses. Then, Felix joined his sisters Helen and Marion in the UK where they were both living.  He arrived there on the 5th October 1955.

Felix had a varied career in the UK. At an early stage he worked in a photographic shop near Holborn. This must have suited him, as he was a keen photographer.

Just after I began studying at the Hall School (1960), Felix came to our house to take pictures of me in my new uniform. He brought with him various special studio lamps with long cables, which had to be set up. I remember my mother’s dismay when these lights succeeded in blowing the electrical fuses of the house.

At various times, Felix had small businesses. I recall two of these. One was a flock factory: flocking is the addition of a furry surface to objects such as wallpaper. Another was his foam rubber business, which was concerned mainly with cutting foam rubber into various shapes for cushions etc.  While this enterprise struggled along, my sister and I would be presented with pieces of oddly shaped foam rubber whenever Felix came to visit our home.

For a long period, he was technically unemployed, but far from inactive. He was involved in helping charities. He and his friend, Patrick, were the co-founders of a shop (in Hampstead) set up to raise money for the charity Shelter. Felix used his car to ferry around stock collected to sell in the shop. Although this must have helped others, it did not help Felix financially. This did not seem to concern him. He enjoyed a frugally bohemian lifestyle,  financed by the not insubstantial inheritances that his father and grandfather had left him (and his siblings; my mother used her share to lay down a deposit for a house and to pay for private schooling for my sister and me). However, eventually, his bank balance became worryingly low.  

In his early fifties, Felix he joined the General Post Office. He became a postman, based at the sorting office at Rathbone Place. His delivery round was part of Crawford Street. He was much loved by his ‘clients’, who showered him with lavish gifts at Christmas time. As in the army, his time with the post office pleased him greatly. His career as a postman was curtailed by ill health: he took early retirement. The income he gained as a postman allowed Felix to buy a house in Hampstead opposite the Royal Free Hospital. This was divided into three flats. He lived at the top of the house until the last two years of his life, when he moved to the ground floor flat. In the early 1980s, a Nigerian moved in as a lodger: Bayo. This tenant became a good friend of my uncle. In the last years Felix’s life, Bayo and his brother, Folo, looked after Felix as if he was their beloved father.

Felix used to visit us frequently. He always came laden with gifts for us children. This, he continued when we grew up. He never came to see us without a bundle of well-chosen gifts for our daughter, and flowers for my wife.  He loved to entertain children. An annual treat at Christmas time was the sculptures he made by tying together inflated balloons. He would create dog-like balloon creatures for our entertainment. On Christmas Day he would punctuate the meal we used to eat at my aunt’s home with recitations of the story of Chicken-Licken and Turkey-Lurkey, and renditions of a song about Figgy Pudding.

One evening, when our young daughter could barely walk, he came over for dinner. Arriving an hour earlier than expected, as he often did, he sat quietly amusing himself and our tiny daughter. He had brought along the balloons that could be tied together, as described already.  He wanted to create balloon toys for our little one while my wife was busy in the kitchen. Suddenly, my wife rushed into our bathroom. She was bleeding profusely because she was beginning to miscarry. She called to me to bring tissues. As I rushed past my uncle, who was oblivious to the recently developed crisis, he called to me:

“Here, just put your finger on this knot while I tie these balloons together.”

It was like a black comedy or an aeroplane disaster film. He was calling for me to help tie balloons whilst my wife was trying desperately to stem her bleeding. I explained the problem to him and said that my wife needed to go to hospital urgently. Sweetly, he offered to look after our infant, but we declined his kind offer. As far as we knew, he had little or, most probably, no experience of looking after all the needs of a child less than two years old. Fortunately, my wife was rescued by the local hospital.

Felix talked to everybody and anybody. This was a trait he shared with my mother and Bobby, his younger brother. Almost without exception people responded well to Felix’s friendliness. He was genuinely interested in everyone with whom he spoke.

When I bought my house in Gillingham (in Kent), Felix was my first visitor. He arrived before the house was furnished, a few days after I had moved in, and was happy to sleep on a mattress on the floor. I remember that as we sat on the wall at the front of my house awaiting a delivery, he greeted every person who walked past, proudly informing them that I was his nephew, and that I had just moved into the area. Although Felix never married, I do not believe that he was felt alone: the whole world was his family!

Felix was full of enthusiasm for a wide range of things. He pursued his interest in photography until the end, graduating, before many other people did, into using the latest digital technology. He was an active member of the Hampstead Photographic Club and made many friends there. In the early 1970s, he and I used to attend bookbinding classes together at the Hampstead Garden Suburb Institute. Later, Felix became interested in pottery. For many years, he produced ceramic objects at a prolific rate, creating a veritable ocean of objects, some useful, but most of them not.  He was full of ideas, which he tried to express in his ceramic art. Everything inspired him. These objects varied greatly in quality of execution, but never lacked in originality. What many might have expressed in poetry, Felix expressed in glazed pottery.

He had a passion for indoor plants. At one stage, half of his large living room floor was covered in flowerpots filled with a variety of plants and much mud that had spilled from the pots on to the carpet: a chaotic indoor nursery. Added to these interests were history, his lifelong love of reading, cooking, and music. Whenever he could do so, Felix travelled: in the UK, Europe and South Africa, where he spent much time with his brother Bobby and his partner Duffy.

Felix was inventive, as already described above. He loved gadgets and creating them. Once when I went to see Felix in hospital a couple of years before he died, I coincided with the visit of a physiotherapist. She asked Felix whether he could walk, and he answered that he could do so with the help of a stick. She asked Felix to show her his walking stick. This consisted of a piece of metal tubing, which Felix had picked up in the street, and to which he had added a wooden umbrella handle. She looked surprised, said that she had never seen this design before, and Felix answered, “I made it myself”.  More than inventive, he was very intelligent and thoughtful.

To the dismay of some of his close family Felix was untidy. Extremely untidy! His flat had to visited to believed. I am sure that the disorder did not bother him at all. Whenever we visited him, he would sweep things aside, so that there would be somewhere to sit down. He would brew up a hot drink, which he would serve in mugs, which did not bear too close an examination. I believe that he had a confidence in himself that stopped him worrying about what others thought of him.

Felix was born on the 31st of December. Whenever I was near to, or in, London, I used to visit him on that day. One year, he greeted me telling me that he had just treated himself to a video cassette player. He asked me whether I would like to watch a film with him. He told me what he had in his small collection of tapes, and I chose to see Ingmar Bergman’s “Magic Flute”. Felix found the box for it, but the cassette was not the one we needed. He rummaged through the other boxes, all of which contained films that differed from the boxes’ labels. In the end, he found a video of the “Three Tenors” and inserted it into the player. The TV monitor screen was not too clean, so Felix picked up a cloth off the floor and began wiping it across the screen, covering it with grey mud.  In his still strong South African accent, he said:

“Ag, sorry, I forgot that this bleddy cloth is the one I use after I have watered my plants.”

Felix loved exploring, or, what most people would describe as ‘fiddling’. He picked up everything around him wherever he was. We often ate with him at his sister’s home. He would pick up the crockery, turn it over to see its makers label, and flick it with his fingernail to discover whether it was made of fine china. Once, when he was at our flat, he noticed one of our wedding presents displayed on a shelf. It was a valuable, delicate Rosenthal vase. We held our breath as he picked it up, turned it upside down, rotated it, and pinged it with his fingernail … before returning it safely.

If Felix spotted something that needed mending, he was quick to offer to repair it. He knew how to mend things, but his repairs lacked finesse. One day, he spotted one of my saucepans with a loose handle. He just happened to have some glue in his pocket and began mending it. Although the handle stuck well to the pot, so did the glue, which he had spilled accidentally inside the pot. My cousin told me that once he had tried to fix his broken Pentax camera, but unfortunately managed to drop strong adhesive onto its shutter, rendering it quite useless. She also related that when she and her brother were clearing Felix’s flat after he had died, they found a drawer filled with broken radios awaiting repair. His intentions were good, but the results were not always optimal.

In about 2002, Felix began to suffer several ailments, which gradually eroded his quality of life. He was constantly in and out of the wards of Royal Free Hospital, a place where for many years he had worked as a highly valued voluntary helper. Despite these ailments, he remained as cheerful and as caring of his family as ever. In Spring 2004, Felix was admitted to hospital yet again. For over three months he remained there, ill and very slowly losing strength. Until his death, despite becoming increasingly more debilitated Felix retained an interest in the lives of his family and his many friends. His love of life and of Africa continued until the very end. On the day before he died, Felix was chatting with a Zimbabwean nurse who looked after him. She offered him a piece of biltong (dried meat), which he was pleased to eat despite his loss of appetite.  Soon after this last taste of his beloved Africa, he passed away on the afternoon of Saturday 19th June 2004.

Felix was passionately fond of his nieces and nephews, and this was reciprocated. He had no children of his own: we were like his children. He had a great rapport with children. In a way, and I mean this in the best way, he was a child at heart. He was also first and foremost a South African. Although he spent much of his life in the UK, he was at heart was an African.

One of my favourite comedy films is ‘Mon Oncle’ (1958), directed, produced, and starring Jacque Tati (1907-1982). It portrays the unemployed Monsieur Hulot, who lives happily and modestly in a ramshackle Parisian neighbourhood and is loved by everyone. His nephew, Gerard, lives in a sterile, modern house fitted out with the latest gadgets. Gerard’s parents lead almost mechanical, dull lives, with a great emphasis on tidiness and minimalism. There is little scope for Hulot’s nephew to enjoy the normal life of a child. Fortunately for him, his uncle, M. Hulot, visits often. Hulot is both bemused and intrigued by the hi-tech aspects of his relatives’ uncomfortable home. Prone to curiosity, he fiddles with the modern gadgetry sometimes causing unexpected chaos.  After watching this film on YouTube recently, it suddenly struck me that the M. Hulot, portrayed by Tati, and my uncle Felix, although not too similar, did share some very loveable characteristics.