Silence in the tree

IT WAS ONLY WHEN I FIRST visited India (in January 1994) that I first saw animals that I had only ever seen in captivity, in zoos. It amazed me that in the heart of a big city such as Bangalore I could see monkeys running wild, cormorants drying their wings in the sun, and large birds of prey (eg kites) swooping high above the ground and occasionally making brief landings to steal food of outdoor tables.

During our honeymoon in South India we spent a night in the Bandipur National Park (in Karnataka close to its border with Tamil Nadu). While we were there, we were shown the fresh footprint of a tiger and saw elephants. The highlight of our visit to the place was taking a ride on the top of a large elephant. As it padded serenely through the jungle, it snacked on the grasses which it plucked from the ground with its trunk. Our guide on the elephant pointed out wild deer (sambar) that seemed unperturbed by our passing. It was a delightful experience. We also saw termite mounds that were almost six feet high. I had never seen such things before, except in photographs.

The elephants we met in Bandipur and have seen in other places in India are not usually ‘wild’ animals. They are usually beasts of burden in the employ of mankind. It was only when we visited South Africa in 2003 that we saw truly wild elephants. We visited the Addo Elephant National Park, which is not far from the city of Port Elizabeth. For the first hour or more, we drove around the park, not seeing any elephants. We saw plenty of other tourists’ vehicles but no pachyderms. At about one o’clock, lunch time, the other visitors’ cars and camper vans disappeared from the roads in the park. We continued driving, somewhat disappointed to have only briefly glimpsed a few elephants sheltering in a clump of trees some distance away from the road.

We were about to give up on the Addo park when we rounded a curve, and found the roadway blocked by several huge elephants with one baby. A couple of adults were gradually demolishing the foliage on a large tree, and the others were standing around motionless. We stopped our car. One of the elephants looked at us, menacingly so it seemed. We stared at the trunked creatures and some of them stared at us. The roads in the park were one way. The elephants showed no sign of moving away. We knew that we should do nothing to antagonise the beasts, especially as they were likely to have been very protective of the baby. We could not drive forward safely. “What to do?”, as people often say in India.  There was only one practical solution. That was to turn the car around and drive along the one-way road in the wrong direction. We did this without problems because there was no other traffic on the road at that time of the day.

Another of my wild animal encounters also occurred in South Africa, at Boulders Beach close to Cape Town. I was surprised to discover that in this part of Africa, admittedly one of its places nearest to Antarctica, there is a large colony of penguins living in the wild. They are so-called African penguins (Spheniscus demersus). They settled on Boulders Beach as recently as 1982. Other colonies of this species can be found on the southern African coast between Namibia and Algoa Bay (near Port Elizabeth). A raised boardwalk has been constructed at Boulders Beach to allow visitors to wander through the penguins’ habitat without coming into contact with them. It was delightful watching the creatures going about their daily life. However, the fish smell they create is very strong.

In early 1995, a few months before our daughter was born, we visited California, driving to San Francisco along the coast from San Diego. It was in the latter that we encountered another marine creature living in the wild. We stopped at an inlet of the sea favoured by wild seals. Many years later, I enjoyed watching wild seals gambolling near to Smeaton’s Pier in St Ives, Cornwall.

Our friends, who live near to San Francisco, took us out to Point Reyes one afternoon. The aim of the excursion was to watch whales. We were not alone at our destination. I looked out at the choppy ocean and saw nothing but the white crests of waves. Meanwhile, around me people were becoming extremely excited as they saw what they believed to be whales. It was a pleasant place to see, but as for spotting whales, I drew a blank.

Returning to Bangalore in India and sightings of wildlife, let me describe what happened one Sunday afternoon in the southern suburb of Koramangala, where my parents-in-law had a second floor (third if you are from the US) flat. The living room had windows that looked out towards a huge old banyan tree. It was a tree that provided endless entertainment for the observer. It was full of chirruping birds, busy squirrels, and often troupes of monkeys. There was never a dull moment in its complex network of leafy branches.

One Sunday afternoon, my in-laws had invited Dr and Mrs Srinivasan to take tea with us. We sat by the window with our chairs arranged in a semicircle so that we could enjoy the lovely view of the tree. The windows were open. After some time, I noticed that there was no sound coming from the birds in the banyan. The squirrels were not scuttling about in the branches. It was unusually and eerily silent. Then, I noticed it. At the base of the tree, there was a cobra, its head posed as it is depicted in Hindu temple sculptures. The presence of this motionless, almost statuesque, reptile had silenced the birds and stilled the squirrels. Dr Srinivasan and I were spellbound. I did not have my camera with me. I did not want to leave the cobra lest it disappeared and, also, realised that the camera I used then would not have captured the reptile adequately. Eventually, after we had finished our tea and snacks, the snake moved on and normal activity resumed in the branches of the banyan. This experience of wildlife was for me more exciting than the elephants, monkeys, kites, and the penguins.

Tragically, the owners of the land (who should best remain unnamed) on which the banyan tree grew, a protected plant, illegally felled the banyan one night to clear the land for a building project. Fortunately, this happened after my father-in-law had passed away because he would have been heartbroken if he had been alive to see it. The view of the banyan tree is what endeared him to the flat that he and my mother-in-law bought to live the closing years of their life.

Returning to London, another big city, it is not difficult to spot wildlife. After dark, foxes are commonly seen even on streets quite near the centre of the city. Our local open space, Kensington Gardens, is well-populated with green parakeets. They are wild but at the same time very tame. They, like the ubiquitous grey squirrels, are happy to feed from the hands of visitors. Although I have yet to see a truly exotic wild creature in London, plenty of marine fowl take advantage of the rich pickings available in the capital. Years ago, my PhD supervisor, a keen naturalist, explained to me that the vegetation growing on the banks of railway lines serve as corridors or extensions of countryside that reach right into the heart of London. It is along these that wildlife makes its way into the centre of the city.

Although I would not usually go out of my way to visit a nature reserve or safari park, I do get a thrill when I spot a creature that I normally associate with zoos in the wild. I will bring this to an end with one more tale from India.

There is a wildlife reserve close to Mysore in the State of Karnataka. We visited this with our then small daughter and three members of the Karnataka State Forestry Police, who were looking after us as guests of the then Commissioner of this police force. Looking after us was clearly more fun for the three officers than their normal routine. When we entered the reserve, they noticed that a boat was just about to set off for a trip around a lake. It was a large rowing boat already crammed full of Indian tourists. All six of us squeezed into the boat and we cast off. There were no life-jackets on board and the boat was so full that its edge was less than an inch above the surface of the lake. Being of a slightly nervous disposition, my heart was in my mouth as the boat swayed port to starboard and vice-versa. Had I been prone to panic attacks, I would have had one when I realised that what I thought were logs floating on the water were, in fact, crocodiles. Luckily, I survived the trip, but still shudder when I think that we were far closer to the crocs than we were to the fearsome cobra.

The antelope and the well

IT WAS HUNGER that drew us to Lighthorne, a tiny rural village just over six miles south-east of the city of Warwick. Our aim was to eat lunch at the highly recommended Antelope Inn before visiting the magnificent Compton Verney House with its gardens that were designed by Lancelot (‘Capability’) Brown in the 18th century.

Lighthorne is an attractive village nestling in a steep sided basin. Some newer buildings have been built on the slopes above what was the heart of the old village. The etymology of the village’s name is uncertain. Close to the Fosse way (a road built by the Romans; it linked Exeter with Lincoln in an almost straight line), it was in existence in 1086 when the Domesday Book was compiled. Throughout the centuries, the village has been ‘in the hands’ of various noblemen and religious institutions. Time constraints did not permit us to visit the village’s Church of St Lawrence, whose construction began in the late 14th century, but we hope to see it on a subsequent visit.

The Antelope Inn is housed in a building whose construction began in the early 18th century. The earliest record of the pub’s existence is a document dated 1838. This was signed by the then publican Joseph   Lattimer.  I was curious about the pub’s name because I thought that antelopes were not common in Warwickshire. The friendly staff in the inn suggested that there were two possible explanations for the name. One was that some previous owners of the pub had been a South African couple. Far more likely than this is the fact that the antelope is taken from the badge of the Warwickshire Regiment. A useful website, www.lighthornehistory.org.uk, explains the pub’s sign:

“The Antelope is standing on a strip of six pieces. This is said to be the six feet of turf representing the old name of the 6th Regiment of Foot.”

Always on the lookout for Indian connections, I found the following (www.forces-war-records.co.uk/units/316/royal-warwickshire-regiment):

“The Regiment took part in two campaigns in South Africa known as the Kaffir Wars (7th Kaffir War 1846-47 and 8th Kaffir War 1850-53), protecting Dutch and English settlers from the aggressive native tribes north of Cape Town.  The Regiment also took part in the suppressing the India Rebellion of 1857.”

So, the regiment had taken part in campaigns both in South Africa, where my parents were born, and in India, where my wife was born. Regardless of the activities of the local regiment, we ate an excellent meal at The Antelope Inn.

More recently, in 1972, Ugandan Asians who had fled from Idi Amin’s Uganda were housed temporarily at Gaydon Airfield (now ‘Lighthorne Heath’) that is near Lighthorne (see: http://www.lighthornehistory.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Shorthistory.pdf).  Some of the inhabitants of Lighthorne assisted the distressed Asians during their first couple of months in England.

Almost opposite the inn, there is a well or spring that issues from an elaborate stone structure with a badly weathered coat-of-arms. It is a ‘broadwell’, a word derived from the Old English ‘breac-well’, a well that is supplied with water from a brook (rather than a spring). The well is likely to be as old as the village. However, the stone structure probably dates from 1746, as the Lighthorne history website notes:

“… the quoins and coving, were probably built in 1746, the remainder of the fascia, pool and paving are from the 19th and 20th centuries. The old ironstone escutcheon inserted in the fascia is older and is believed to be the arms of the Pope family, Lords of the Manor in the 16th and 17th centuries.”

There was green mildewed water in the two receptacles of the broadwell. It has been suggested that this well might have been used for washing in the past.

Close to the well, we spotted red grapes ripening on a vine growing on the side of a cottage facing the Antelope. They are located in what must be a fine sun trap. Our Sunday lunch in the inn, one of the best Sunday roast meals that I have eaten for many a year, ended soon before we were due to take up our timed entry at Compton Verney. Next time we visit the latter, spending more time in Lighthorne and The Antelope will be given top priority.

Red rover

MY GRANDMOTHER LIVED a serene life in Port Elizabeth in South Africa. Born in the 1890s, she came with her parents from what is now Lithuania to what was then the Cape Colony. She married my father’s father in Cape Town. She raised four children and also helped her husband run a general store in Tulbagh, a small town, almost a village, near Cape Town. When her husband died young in 1931, she continued running the shop for a few years before marrying a widower who lived Port Elizabeth (‘PE’). Through this  second marriage, she acquired three stepsons and her fifth son. Hers was a tough life to begin with. By the 1960s, when the children had grown up and dispersed, she began living a quieter life in PE.

GRANNY red-rover-ticket john harper

Once every couple of years Granny used to visit her son, my father, and his half-brother in the UK. Although I met her when I was three years old, I only remember her from the time I was about nine. She used to sit in our ‘lounge’ (colonial term for ‘sitting room’) and did little except meet people. Every day in the late afternoon, she enjoyed a glass of whisky before the evening meal. It was in our home that she first ate bacon. My mother, although Jewish, was far from observant and was almost unaware of dietary rules. We ate ham and bacon regularly. She served bacon quite innocently to Granny, who had not encountered it before, enjoyed it, and appeared unperturbed to discover that this delicious food item was derived from pigs.

I was about ten when I suggested to Granny that we went on an outing together. It was an outing quite unlike any granny had ever done before or was ever likely to do again. I suggested that we should buy Red Rover tickets and then set off into the unknown. Few readers will be familiar with Red Rovers. So, I will explain. A Red Rover ticket allowed the holder unlimited travel on London Transport’s red buses for a whole day. In the early 1960s, an adult Red Rover ticket cost six shillings (30 pence) and children paid half of that. To my surprise and joy, my not too sprightly seventy-year-old grandmother agreed to the plan.

We set off from the bus station at Golders Green one morning and travelled to Chingford, which at that time was the terminus of the long 102 bus route. Then, another long bus journey through dreary parts of north-east London ended at Ponders End. By this stage, both Granny and I had enough of being jerked around on double-decker buses, but we had to face a couple more tedious bus journeys in order to get us back to Golders Green. For the rest of her life, Granny would recall this trip and the name ‘Ponders End’. When my father’s half-brother moved to a new house to north-east London, we were both amused because it was not far from Ponders End.

Many decades later, about two years ago, I decided walk south along the River Lee Navigation canal, starting near Waltham Abbey. After walking slowly for almost a couple of hours along the canal, which is flanked by large reservoirs, many electric pylons, and occasional industrial buildings, I reached the lock system at … Ponders End. Although I could not remember what Ponders End was like back in the early 1960s except that it was dismal, I found that although there had been much new construction, it had remained dismal.

I am glad that I got the idea of using a Red Rover out of my system. Until the arrival of the Coronavirus pandemic in London, my wife and I loved using London’s superb bus system. Since mid-March, we have not boarded a bus. Now, it is mandatory to wear a face covering on public transport. We see people waiting at bus stops, their noses and mouths covered by everything from a fairly useless single-use paper mask, such as I used when treating dental patients, to colourful home-made fabric coverings. However, things go wrong once these masked passengers enter the bus. We have noticed that many people travelling on buses that pass us have removed their face coverings once they are on board. Also, many bus drivers do not wear them.  So, if you were to gift me a Red Rover, you can be sure that I will not be using it in the foreseeable future.

 

Photo from john-harper.com

A novel idea

BY 2010, I HAD DONE a great deal of research on the backgrounds of both my parents’ families. I had published a few papers in prestigious genealogical journals, such as the former “Stammbaum” published by the Leo Baeck Institute in New York. I felt that it was time to combine the results of my investigations into a great compendium. I started compiling this with a view to publishing it eventually. After writing a couple of chapters, I sent them to a wise friend to get her reactions to what I had done so far. She wrote back that she was impressed by the research I had done but found that the chapters of my great compendium made for dull reading. She suggested that I should abandon the enterprise and instead choose one of my ancestors and write a novel based on what I had discovered about his or her life. I liked the idea.

ALI BLOG

Adam Yamey at the grave of his ancestor Heinrich Bergmann. In Aliwal North, South Africa

I chose Heinrich Bergmann (1831-66), my mother’s grandmother’s cousin. He was the first person to whom I am related to have left Europe for South Africa. He sailed from London to Cape Town in 1849, hoping to meet someone who had migrated from his village in Bavaria to South Africa. That person had left Cape Town by the time Heinrich arrived. He soon became employed by the German Jewish traders, the Mosenthals, and within a year of landing in Africa, he was put in charge of opening and running a branch of the firm in the newly established town of Aliwal North. Within a short time, Heinrich became very wealthy and was regarded by a highly respected banking family in Frankfurt-am-Main as being a suitable bridegroom for their daughter. The happy couple returned to Aliwal North from Germany, after they married. However, Heinrich’s rapid increase in prosperity led to problems that could only be resolved by taking a drastic measure. 

I wrote a novel, “Aliwal”, based on what I knew about Heinrich and the times he lived in. As the cause(s) of his downfall are not clear, I invented a sequence of events to replace the gaps in my knowledge of his short life.  I embarked on my novel-writing not having read a novel for over twenty years. Some people who have read “Aliwal” say that can be seen in my writing and what I produced was more like a narrative than a modern novel. I cannot argue with that. Except for the last few chapters, the denouement, which I invented, what I have written is largely based on historical research. I tried to transport myself back to mid-19th century Germany and South Africa to explore the kind of experiences that my ancestor may have encountered. For example: how did he learn English so quickly? Did he need a passport to travel? How did he find his spouse? What was it like landing in Cape Town in 1849? What was it like travelling through the arid interior of the Cape Colony? How did a young Jewish man interact with the English, the Boers, and the Africans? What was it like doing business in rural communities? I hope that all of these and other matters have been adequately covered in my novel.

When I read through what I wrote 10 years ago, I wondered if it would be worth bringing out a revised edition with a new ending. Let me think about that. Now here is an excerpt from the original version. In it, Heinrich is travelling from Cape Town to Graaff-Reinet in the heart of the Cape Colony soon after landing from London and meeting Mr Caro, with whom he is about to work.

THE EXCERPT FROM “ALIWAL”

They travelled for well over a week, lumbering from one pothole to the next, leaving behind them clouds of dust that hung above the road along which they had come. Heinrich clung onto the bench on which he was perched in order not to be thrown to the ground. This journey was more uncomfortable that any he had made in Europe. He thought that even the worst tracks around Dittenheim were not as bad the one along which they were travelling, and this was the main road to Graaff Reinet! They crossed numerous dried up streams and riverbeds. Most of these were without a bridge. This made the crossings slow and dangerous. The wiry, muscular native helpers sweated profusely as they eased the wagons down one bank of a riverbed, and then steadied them as they were hauled up the other. They had to take care to avoid damaging the wheels and axles of the wagons. Whenever they reached a pool or any other water, Caro ordered the convoy to stop to allow the oxen to rest and drink. Heinrich used these breaks as an opportunity to stretch his legs and give his aching backside a rest.

The days slipped by. They met few other travellers apart from the infrequent wagon trains heading back to the coast, and post carriers who hurried past them on horseback. The few Europeans they encountered were mostly Dutch speakers, eking out a living on their isolated farms. After having drunk coffee with some of these farmers, Heinrich remarked:

“These Afrikaners are friendly, open, and welcoming.”

“Yes, Heinrich, they are, especially to us Jews, because they regard us highly.”

“That makes a change!”

“They welcome us because they read in the Old Testament, whose words they follow closely, that we are God’s ‘Chosen People’, and understand our flight from Egypt.”

“Why?”

“Not so long ago, many of the Dutch fled from the British, whom they regard as oppressors. They piled their possessions in to wagons like ours, and left the Cape, crossing the Orange River – their ‘Red Sea’ – in search of their ‘promised land’. They are trying to live the way they choose, without interference from outsiders. The main thing is, as far as we Jews are concerned, that the Afrikaners respect us as fair and honest people, and like doing business with us.”

“And how do the English regard us?”

Caro did not answer immediately. He looked ahead towards the flat horizon, and then said:

“The English are not easy people. They say one thing, but often mean something else. Mastering their language is one achievement but deciphering what they really mean is quite another. Their attitude towards us is more of tolerance than acceptance. It is odd that the British, who have spread themselves all over the globe, are wary of foreigners and what they consider to be foreign ways. They put up with us Jews because we are useful to them and we don’t make trouble, but they’re not at ease with us.”

He turned away from Heinrich, and, standing precariously on the wagon’s seat that tilted as the vehicle crossed a pothole, ordered the men to stop and set up camp for the night. Then, turning to Heinrich, he said:

“To succeed with the English, we need to try to be, or at least to seem to be, more British than they are. We must emulate their ways when dealing with them, so that they feel that they should treat us as equals rather than ‘inferior foreigners’.”

After the sun had set, Heinrich and Caro sat by the embers of the fire having just eaten tasty steaks from a small hartebeest that Caro had shot earlier that day. They were enjoying a post-prandial brandy when Caro announced:

            “We must do something about your name.”

 “My name, what’s wrong with it?”

 “Even when your accent fades away and your English improves, your name, ‘Heinrich’, will always label you as foreign.”

Heinrich remembered the shipping agent in London: Gladstone, formerly ‘Goldstein’.

Caro plucked a meerschaum pipe from his jacket pocket and lit the tobacco in its ivory bowl carved in the shape of a sheep’s head. His face, barely visible in the dim evening light, brightened for a moment. He sucked on his pipe, and then, after blowing a cloud of smoke towards Heinrich, he coughed, cleared his throat, and said: 

“From now on, you must call yourself ‘Henry’. It is a name which you will share with eight kings of England! Keep ‘Bergmann’, but change the way you pronounce it.”

Heinrich looked puzzled. Caro sucked noisily on his pipe, and then said:

“From now on you are ‘Berg-man’, not ‘Berch mun’ – try to express your name in your mouth, not in your throat!”

Caro looked at Heinrich sternly for a moment, and then asked him his name.

“My name is Henry Berg … mann.”

END OF EXCERPT

ALI cover

In case you feel intrigued and want to read more, my book is available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/144618322X/ and also on Kindle.

 

Sun lover

MY MOTHER KEPT A SUN LOUNGER in the garden. It was propped up against a wall of our family home in northwest London. It was made of aluminium tubing and ‘upholstered’ with tautly stretched dark blue canvas. I will tell you why it was there and not in Canada.

Hel

My late mother, Helen (pictured above), was born in South Africa in 1920. Until 1947, I believe that it was quite possible that she might have spent her whole life there.

While living in Cape Town in 1947, she and her sister were invited to a party held by their stepfather’s relatives in the suburb of Parrow. Their hosts, Mr and Mrs Kupfer, had also invited two bachelors, Basil and his brother Ralph, whom they knew from the time when the Kupfers and the two unattached men and their parents lived in the small town of Tulbagh east of Cape Town.

By the end if the evening, Basil and Helen agreed to meet again. Not long after the party, Basil invited Helen to the cinema (bioscope in South African English). They met and talked so much that they never made it to the picture house. Almost immediately after this, they became engaged.

Soon after this, so my mother once told me, Basil informed her that they would not be able to meet again for a few weeks because he was too busy marking university students’ examination scripts. Also, he told her that was about to set sail for England, where he was taking up a teaching post at the London School of Economics (LSE). They agreed that given the imminence of his departure, Helen should follow Basil to London, and they would get married there. Basil departed for London.

Helen, who could not contain her excitement, sailed to Southampton in early 1948. She sat in the boat train to London dismayed by what she saw of England.  It was soon after WW2 had ended. She told me that the sight of rows of small houses all with chimneys emitting filthy smoke and the grey skies made her wonder why she had come to such a dismal place to marry a man she hardly knew. They married in mid-March 1948.

After my parents ‘tied the knot’, Basil chose to leave LSE to take up an academic post at McGill University in Montreal. Helen and Basil ‘upped sticks’ and emigrated to Canada in about 1950. The move was not a great success. The climate in Montreal was harsh. My mother told me that for most of the nine months they remained there, it was bitterly cold. She related that they had a flat that overlooked a cemetery. For a few months, the frozen ground was so hard that graves could not be dug. Coffins had to be stacked up above ground until the ground was soft enough to be dug. Helen bought a fur coat. It was made of soft brown fur that I can still remember. In 1950, stores in Montreal were well heated. Customers left their fur coats near the shops’ entrances whilst they were inside shopping.

It was not only the climate that was difficult in Montreal. My father found the atmosphere in the university was awkward to say the least. There was great antagonism between the francophone and anglophone academics. This created an environment that reminded him of the racially divided one he had happily left behind in his native South Africa.

The adverse conditions in Montreal, both social and meteorological, and the offer of another job at LSE, caused my parents to return to London (UK, not Ontario!). They put down a deposit on a detached house in Hampstead Garden Suburb. It was a part of London where many other LSE academics lived. These included: Sir Lionel Robbins and Sir Arnold Plant, and later Professors J Durbin, I Lakatos, P Cohen, and J Watkins and many others.

My parents’ bedroom in the Suburb contained some very well-made wardrobes, which they had had made for their flat in Montreal and brought to London. That they had gone to the trouble of having bespoke cupboards built in Montreal suggests that they had planned to stay much longer than a few months in Montreal.

My mother could never get used to how little light there was in England compared to what she had been used to in South Africa. Every interior wall in our house was painted white, to reflect as much of the little daylight that there was. In contravention of the strict conservation area planning rules that were, and still are, in place in the Suburb, she made alterations to some of the south facing windows in our house during the 1960s. The original windows consisted of a latticework of small panes. She replaced these with large single panes, which allowed far more daylight to enter the house. Even though our neighbours were always asked to remove unauthorised modifications to their houses, the frowned-upon modified windows were still in place more than three decades later. Now, finally, I see that they have been restored to their original, officially approved design.

My mother died in 1980. Between her arrival in London and her death, there was less sunshine in the city than there is nowadays. Had she lived longer than her six decades, I believe that she would have approved of the warmer, sunnier climate that London enjoys now.  When she was at home and the sun happened to shine through a gap in the clouds, she would stop whatever she was doing and rush outside into our garden. She would lie on the sun lounger and enjoy feeling the sun’s rays on her face even if only for a few minutes. As soon as the sun disappeared behind the clouds, she would leave the lounger and prop it up against the wall of the house ready for the next opportunity to enjoy what she so missed after leaving South Africa. Had my parents remained in Canada, I wonder whether she would have kept a sun lounger at the ready outside her home there. Also, if they had not returned to London, I would have been born a Canadian instead of a ‘Brit’.

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.

Time flies

I DO NOT KNOW ABOUT YOU, but I am finding that time hurtles past during the so-called ‘lockdown’, which severely limits our movements and activities to our local environments. Although I needed little stimulus to do so because I find it enjoyable, it has made me look back into my past more than ever before. This morning (19th of May 2020) on BBC Radio 4, the author Ian McEwan spoke eloquently and with great insight about the perception of time and how it changes during a period of forced inactivity such as long-term prison sentences and our present virus-induced predicament. I was heartened to learn that he and I agree about the effects of ‘lockdown’ on the perception of time’s passage. Having got that ‘off my chest’, I will return to yet more nostalgia. I am going to write about my recollections some of the first ever holidays I enjoyed. These happened when I was well under ten years old. So, my memories may be a little hazy and, also, influenced by what I remember being told about these trips when I was a bit older.

 

Hermanus_1024 BLOG

 

In 1955, when I was three years old, my parents took me to South Africa. We travelled by sea. During the voyage, we crossed the Equator. I have seen photographs taken on board of me dressed in a sheet. When we crossed the Equator, so I was told by my mother, the children on board took part in a fancy-dress party. Unprepared for this, but always resourceful, my mother used a sheet from our cabin to dress me up as a Roman in a toga. Sadly, these photographs have been lost.

On arrival in Cape Town, I faintly recall something that I did on the dockside. There were tracks like tram lines embedded in the ground, along which huge cranes moved. I inserted my tiny foot into the groove of one of these, and then could not remove it. I imagine that my mother, who was excessively anxious about my well-being when I was very young because my birth had been fraught with difficulties, must have been very concerned that her precious child (that is me, folks) would be crushed by a crane on the move. My foot was extracted and with no long-term effects.  

Two other recollections of the trip to South Africa relate to our stay in Port Elizabeth, where my father’s mother and sister lived. One faint memory is my concern about the sinister look of the cacti on display in a greenhouse in a park. Another relates to being offered and rejecting smoked salmon – I was an unadventurous eater until my late teens.  

I cannot remember visiting King Williams Town (‘King’) in the Eastern Cape in 1955, but about 60 years later I discovered that we did. Several years ago, I was researching at the British Library, leafing through old issues of the “Cape Mercury”, a newspaper published in King. In one of the issues published in 1955, I discovered an article describing our visit to King. The reason we went there was to visit my great grandmother Hedwig Ginsberg, my mother’s grandmother. As she was the widow of a Senator and herself a prominent citizen of King, her social life and that of her son Rudolph, a Mayor of King, was recorded in the paper’s gossip columns. Our visit to King was described. I quote from what I discovered:

Mrs Yamey … whom many of you will have met in her single days. They now have an adorable little son, Adam, aged three.”

Another trip that I recall vaguely was less exotic. It was to Winterton-on-Sea in Norfolk (UK). I was taken there by my uncle and aunt and their then young daughter. I recall staying in a round hut. Although I did not know it then, the round hut was based on the design of the South African rondavel, a circular hut with a conical roof. Many years later, I re-visited Winterton-on-Sea. The resort colony of rondavel-like dwellings was still being used by holidaymakers. The place, set amongst sloping sandy dunes, had originally been set up by people from South Africa, but had long since changed hands.

My parents were not keen on seaside holidays. However, I can remember two that we made when I was very young. In each case we travelled with friends, who lived in Kent. Arthur Seldon was one of my father’s first friends and collaborators when he came to London from South Africa in the late 1930s. His wife Marjory, who was born on the very same day as my mother, was one of my mother’s closest friends. The Seldons had three sons, one of whom has become quite prominent in public life.

One year, we accompanied the Seldons to the North Sea beach resort, Noordwijk in the Netherlands. This must have been in the second half of the 1950s, just over a decade since the end of WW2. I remember that we kept moving our beach blanket from one patch of sand to another. This was done whenever my mother heard neighbouring holidaymakers speaking in German. During WW2, my mother had worked for the Red Cross in Cape Town. As the war drew to a close, she read Red Cross reports of the atrocities being uncovered in recently defeated Germany. I suppose she thought that there was a good possibility that any adult speaking German in the late 1950s might well have once been at the very least a Nazi sympathiser.

One day when walking back from the beach, I stepped on a nail protruding from some driftwood. I remember an unusual sensation as the nail penetrated the sole of my foot, but it was not pain. My mother, always anxious about me, rushed me to a local doctor, who gave me an injection for tetanus, something I had never heard of at that tender age.

The other holiday with the Seldons was in Bognor Regis on the south coast of England. We had hired a two-storey house for the stay. I remember my mother checking it out before we decided who was going to sleep where. She decided that the Yamey family, mine, was to take the ground floor. The Seldons, she decided, were to occupy the first floor. She had discovered that the windows on the upper floor had low sills, making it easy for people to fall from them. This was not a risk that she was prepared to take. It seemed that it did not bother her to worry about the Seldons risking falling out of these windows. And, as far as I know, it did not worry the Seldons, who survived.

Sometime in the 1950s, we visited Hilversum in Holland. It was the home of one of our live-in helps, Truus Vollmer. She stayed with us for two years and became good friends. Her father worked for Radio Hilversum. Every now and then, he made gramophone records for me. They played at 78 rpm and were unusual because they played from close to the central label outwards towards the edge of the disc. The recordings included sounds of trams, trains, buses, and other forms of transport. One of the records, which I played often, included a recording of the Dutch St Nicholas Day song, with the words:

“Sinterklaas Kapoentje,

Leg wat in mijn schoentje,

Leg wat in mijn laarsje,

Dank je Sinterklaasje!”

During our visit to Hilversum, which I remember dimly, Mr Vollmer tried to record my voice. This was later presented to me on one of his records. I was extremely shy as a small boy. The recording starts with the voices of various adults (some with Dutch accents) and my mother, saying:

Come on, Adam … Say something … Why not sing something? … Come, say something … Come along … It’s not difficult … Don’t be shy … etc.”

Eventually, my voice can be heard saying sulkily:

I don’t want to”, and nothing else.

We made several trips to Holland at that time. We always stopped for lunch in Rotterdam, where we ate in the restaurant of a large department store, the Bijenkorf. If I remember correctly, my parents enjoyed eating club sandwiches there. To my knowledge, they never ate them anywhere else.

After 1960, when we stayed close to the sea in Cyprus, our family visited the seaside rarely, and never by design. My mother could not swim, and the sight of water made her uneasy – she was extremely prone to seasickness. My father did enter the sea occasionally, but never for long. The seaside was not my parents’ ‘thing’, nor is it mine.

Well, as I mentioned at the beginning, time feels as if shoots past during the ‘lockdown’. It seems but a few minutes since I woke up in the morning to listen to the latest news of doom and gloom on the radio, but now it is mid-afternoon. Years ago, when I was at school, a 45-minute Latin lesson seemed to last a whole day and I dreaded the occasional double-length Latin lessons we had to endure. Now, it seems that 45 minutes passes in a flash and even a three hour wait in an airport departure lounge seems to shoot past. Yes, our perception of time is a curious thing.

 

Picture showing rondavels at Winterton -on-Sea

A small town in South Africa

B 11 Barkly East evening BLOG

 

MY MOTHER AND THREE OF HER four siblings were born in King Williams Town (South Africa) in the home of their grandfather Franz Ginsberg, who became a Senator in the South African parliament in 1927. They spend the first few years of their lives in the tiny town of Barkly East in the Eastern Cape. Their father, who ran a general store, was also the town’s Mayor until he died in the early 1930s.

My mother migrated to England in 1947. Her sister, my aunt, and one of her brothers arrived in England in the 1950s. Both of them had vivid memories of their childhood in Barkly East, which they happily shared with me.

In 2003, we made a trip to South Africa in order to see places associated with my ancestors, who migrated there from Europe during the 19th century. We hired a car to travel between these scattered places. One of them was Barkly East.

Before leaving England, I discussed Barkly East with my aunt and noted what she told me. During one of these discussions, she drew a sketch map of Barkly East,  marking on it various places she recalled. I took her map to South Africa with me.

Barkly East was established in 1874. In 1885, my maternal grandfather’s uncle Sigmund Seligmann, who came to South Africa from Ichenhausen in Bavaria in about 1865. His nephew, my mother’s father, took over Seligmann’s store in the first decade of the 20th century and ran it along with Mr Blume.

Barkly East was an important commercial centre for the many sheep farmers and wool producers in the district. It began to decline greatly when the usage of motor vehicles increased and farmers were able to reach the far larger centre the town of East London.

When we arrived in Barkly East in 2003, we found a town with almost empty streets that gave little or no feeling of its once prosperous past. It looked like a place on its ‘last legs’, a bit like London is now during the Coronavirus ‘lockdown’.

On our first day we visited the office of local newspaper,  the Barkly East Reporter,  which was then run by the two Mollentze brothers. They welcomed us and told us a lot about Seligmann’s shop, a place where you could buy everything from a needle to a tractor.

I showed my aunt’s map to the brothers. Despite the fact that she had left the town on the early 1930s, they said her map was very accurate.

Using her map, we found the location of her father’s store, which burnt down in the 1960s. The firm’s wool storage warehouse still stood. It was near to the small street where my mother and her siblings spent the first few years of their lives. It stands next door to the house once owned by Mr Blume.

We were keen to see inside my mother’s childhood home. A young man, probably a teenager,  was sweeping the front porch. His name was Frikkie. We explained our interest in the house. Without hesitation, he showed us around the house despite his parents being at work in their café located near a bridge named after my mother’s father.

It made my spine tingle wandering around the building where my mother was a child. Not having seen it before I was unaware that many internal changes had been made to the building since my mother’s family sold it after my grandfather,  the Mayor of Barkly East, died at an early age.

After my mother’s family left Barkly East, their large house was used for a time as a nursing home before being reconverted to a family residence. My aunt’s two children visited Barkly East in late 2019. They found the old family home, but were unable to enter it. Currently, it houses the offices of the local branch of the African National Congress (ANC). How the tide has changed! In my mother’s childhood, the only non-Europeans who would have entered the house were domestic servants.

We also visited the tiny museum in Barkly East,  where we were welcomed by its curator. Like other curators of local museums in other small South African towns we visited, the curator in Barkly East was concerned about their future in the light of lack of both funding and footfall. She told us about the six or so Jewish families in Barkly East. The last of these, the Bortz family, to leave the town had moved elsewhere a few years before our visit.

The curator said that the Bortz family home had stood empty since they left. Then, after rummaging in a drawer,  she showed us a small metal object in the palm of her hand, and said:

“I know I shouldn’t have done it, but I prised this off the frame of the front door of their empty house long after they left. I took it for the museum. Had I left it there, it would have been taken by someone else eventually. Are you able to tell me what it is?”

It was an empty mezuza, a casing for a prayer scroll that Jewish people attach to the doorframes of their homes and sometimes also within them.

On the last day of our visit to Barkly East,  we visited its extensive cemetery, overlooked by a sad looking shanty town. The small Jewish cemetery containing 11 graves, mostly damaged but identifiable was surrounded by a fence, separated from the resting places of white skinned gentiles. Even after death, apartheid exerted its unsavoury influences. The graves of non-Europeans were in a part of the cemetery well separated from the final resting places of the Europeans.

We left Barkly East, the place where my grandparents enjoyed dinner parties, fly fishing, tennis, and golf, as the snow began to fall on the town. We met many lovely people there during our brief but moving visit to the place where my mother lived for the first decade of her life. I am only sad that she died 23 years before our visit. I would have loved to talk with her about what we saw so long after her childhood.

 

A slice of lemon

TU 5 Genuine old Dutch architecture BLOG

 

MY FATHER WAS BORN in Cape Town in South Africa.  His childhood was spent in the small town of Tulbagh not far from Cape Town.  His father had a general store in Tulbagh. The family lived across the yard behind the shop in a house on Church Street.

In 1969, Tulbagh suffered a devastating earthquake.  The town’s authorities decided to rebuild the houses in Church Street to make them resemble the original appearance of the sort of houses that Dutch settlers built when they first arrived in the Cape.

Some years after the earthquake,  my father paid a visit to Tulbagh. He said that his former home in Church Street in neither resembled the place where his family had lived nor had ever looked like it did after its ‘restoration’ following the earthquake. In addition,  he felt that the town looked far smaller than it did when he was a child.

In 2003, I visited Tulbagh with my wife and daughter. We stayed in a bed and  breakfast in one of the picturesque houses on the restored Church Street,  a few doors away from my father’s childhood home.

We visited the house where my father once lived. It was another bed an  breakfast. Had I known it was, I would have booked a room there. The landlady showed us around. She had no idea that her back garden had been part of the yard behind my grandfather’s shop on the next street.

There was a lemon tree laden with lemons growing in the back garden of my father’s former home. We asked our host if we could pick a couple of lemons, one for my father and the other for his only surviving sibling, my aunt Elsa. She agreed.

Before leaving South Africa, wr managed to buy an official school tie as used in Tulbagh High School,  where my father studied (in Afrikaans, rather than his mother tongue English) until he entered Cape Town University.

In 2003, it was  12 years since the official ending of apartheid laws. These laws included prohibition of inter-racial intimate relationships. We expected that by 2003 we would have seen, if not many at least a noticeable noticeable number of mixed-race couples. I think that in the one and a half months we spent in South Africa we saw only three. The members of two of the couples were not born in South Africa. It was only in Tulbagh that we met a young ‘white’ Afrikaner with his arm around a ‘black’ African girl. They were both studying at Tulbagh High School.

When we returned to Cape Town, we gave Elsa the lemon that had been growing in the back garden of her childhood home in Tulbagh. She showed little interest in it and put aside.

A day or so later, Elsa was preparing gin and tonic for us at sunset. She need a lemon. Her eyes fell on the lemon that we had brought from Tulbagh. She seized it, and cut slices of it to drop into our drinks. So much for sentimentality!

As for the High School tie, we presented that to my father when we got back to London. He thanked us, then said:

“ I don’t need that. I left the school long ago.”

Adventures in South Africa

HOG 5 Barkly Pass BLOG

 

In August 2003, we went on a driving holiday in South Africa, concentrating on visiting places connected with my ancestors who began settling in the country during the nineteenth century. We also saw some places unconnected with my family history. Although the main roads in South Africa were excellent. However, some of the minor roads were adventurous to say the least.

My mother spent the first ten years of her life in a tiny town, Barkly East, in the Eastern Cape. We decided to drive there from Lady Grey, where we had been staying for a couple of nights. My grandfather, my mother’s father, was instrumental in getting the South African government to extend the railway across the mountains from Lady grey to Barkly East. Nelly, a barmaid at the Mountain View Hotel in Lady Grey, told us that the railway no longer ran. About 11 years before we met her, she went on this train along with many other children from Lady Grey on an excursion. Disaster struck. Someone who had had too much to drink took over the running of the train, and it went out of control.  She remembers the train coming to a very sudden halt and being thrown forward. She was lucky only to have received ‘skid-marks’ on her skin: three of her young friends were killed instantly. It would have interesting to have travelled on that line, because like the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway in India’s West Bengal my grandfather’s railway negotiated the steep slopes of the mountains by a series of zig-zags with switchback reverses.

People at the hotel at Lady Grey said that instead of taking a new main road to Barkly East, we should go via the longer but far more picturesque via Joubert’s Pass. This was very scenic but quite hazardous. The road was no wider than our car and covered with loose gravel to which the car’s wheels could hardly grip. I would have enjoyed the spectacular views from the winding road on the way up had I not needed to concentrate so much on keeping the car attached to the road (‘track’ or ‘footpath’ would be a better description of the road). My heart sank when we saw a car approaching us from the opposite direction. The road was so narrow that one of us would have to reverse a long way. Fortunately, the occupants of the approaching car recognised us; they had met us at a barbecue party in Lady Grey on the night before. Kindly, and hazardously, they drove backwards at hair-raising speed along the winding road until they reached a passing place. After the summit of the pass, the road surface improved and we descended into farmland, deserted except for a few sheep and cows. The road wound around following a river, which lay at the bottom of a steep sided canyon. Eventually the road re-joined the main Lady Grey to Barkly East highway.  In a way, this was our ‘baptism of fire’ as far as South African roads are concerned.

Later during our trip, we headed for Hogsback, a quaint place high in the Amathole Mountains about 40 miles northwest of King Williams Town, where my mother and her siblings were born. Some say that Hogsback was the inspiration for his “Lord of the Rings”. However, this is unlikely as Tolkien, who was born far away in Bloemfontein, left South Africa when he was three years old. Whatever the truth of this, we set out for Hogsback from Queenstown in the Eastern Cape. We drove via Whittlesea to the tiny village of Seymour.

My wife, our navigator discovered on the map that there was road – a shortcut, led from Seymour up the side of a mountain to Hogsback. On our detailed map, the thoroughfare was marked as “narrow but with tarmac, not for four-wheel drive vehicles alone”, which we interpreted as meaning that it was suitable for saloon cars such as our hired vehicle. We began driving along it through almost level farmland. We stopped to ask a local whether we were on the road to Hogsback. Somewhat drunkenly, the fellow pointed skywards, and said what sounded like:

Herp, herp, herp.”

This we understood to mean that we had had to go ‘up, up, up’ the hill. Gradually the road began ascending, at first gently. A post-office van passed coming from the opposite direction passed us. This reassured us that the road was motorable. Soon, the road became amazingly steep.

This road, the so-called shortcut, proved to be the worst surface that I have ever driven on. Compared to it, Joubert’s Pass was a motorway. It got progressively worse as we painfully slowly approached Hogsback. The road had everything against it and us. There were potholes, and deep furrows where streams of water had eroded the gravel. Bare rock showed through the road and made steep steps that had to be carefully negotiated. Worst of all were large rounded boulders, which were difficult to drive around as the narrow road was bounded either by ditches or, more often, walls of rock. We were lucky that we neither capsized the car nor grounded it, nor damaged the sump or some other vulnerable part of its under-surface. Negotiating the car safely over some of these boulders reminded me of performing some of my trickiest difficult tooth extractions. In the dental situation, the operator has to avoid cutting the patient’s nerves or large blood vessels. On the way to Hogsback from Seymour, the driver has to avoit severing the fuel line that runs beneath the vehicle. One false move, and we would have been in big trouble, especially as on this lonely road there was neither a mobile telephone signal nor anyone else around.   Hair-raising to say the least: I still shudder when I remember this journey. Things improved at the end of the road. We were amused to see a road sign at the Hogsback end of this road that advised: “Road not recommended for caravans”.

Later, when we returned to Cape Town, I was talking to a cousin about this road. He told me that he had driven along it but managed to ground the car on a rock and sever his car’s fuel line. I have no idea whether this awful road has been improved, but, even if it has, I will not tackle it again.

Hogsback was delightful. However, when we arrived snow began falling in a serious way. The temperature dropped. The cottage we had hired was freezing cold. One tiny heater was provided to try to warm the whole place. It was useless. Hogsback like large parts of India suffers from cold during winter months. Yet, in both places, proper heating seems to be considered unnecessary. Apart from being cold, we enjoyed our brief stay at Hogsback, where we were fed with well-prepared food in a restaurant near our accommodation, run by Dion and Shane.

The two journeys I have described were somewhat risky and adventurous. Writing this reminds me of the parting words of a librarian in, Philippolis (in the Free State), the birth town of Sir Laurence Van Der Post:

Whatever we die of in South Africa, it won’t be boredom.”

 

Photo taken in 2003 on the Joubert Pass