MY PARENTS, ESPECIALLY my mother, were keen that I learned to swim. It took me a long time to learn this activity. For many years, I was taken to various indoor pools to take lessons with a variety of swimming teachers, some professional and others not. One of the latter was a young Asian lady, who gave me a few lessons in the pool at the White House. This was not the famous establishment in Washington DC but a 1930’s apartment block, now a hotel, near Great Portland Street Underground station in London.
The teacher, who had no success with getting me to swim, lived in the White House and was recommended to my parents by another resident, a family friend, whom we knew as ‘Sakki’. Like my parents, Sakki was born in South Africa and my father told me that his family and Sakki’s were either remotely related and/or in business together. Both Sakki and my father were on the academic staff of the London School of Economics (‘LSE’). Sakki was the anthropologist Professor Isaac Schapera (1905-2003). He had become an expert on the anthropology of indigenous people of Botswana and South Africa. Amongst his many published works was “The Khoisan Peoples of South Africa”, published back in 1930.
Apart from providing me with one of my many swimming instructors, Sakki took a great interest in my sister and me. He gifted me several books, amongst which was several books about the adventures of Hergé’s cartoon character Tintin. These were in French and were volumes that were at the time neither available for sale in the UK nor translated into English. When I graduated with my PhD in 1976, he presented me with a two-volume book about magic, myths, and science.
In the very early 1960s, Sakki joined us on a family driving holiday in France in our smallish Fiat 1100. My mother, who had been involved in a serious car accident in the 1930s, had installed seatbelts in our car, a rare thing for the time. Sakki had to travel in the rear seat with my sister and me. Sakki had his own seatbelt (lap design), and my sister and I were strapped together in the other belt, separated from each other by a pillow. It soon became obvious to my parents that Sakki was not enjoying being confined in the rear of the car with two young children. My parents solved the problem by stopping at regular intervals at roadside cafés so that Sakki could enjoy a glass of cognac. This seemed to help him tolerate the journey, about which I remember little else.
During my childhood, Sakki was a regular visitor to our family home. He used to amuse us kids with comical verses, only one of which I can remember. It sounded to my ears something like this: “Olke, bolke, reeby, solte. Olke, bolke, knor.” While writing this piece, I looked for this on the Internet, and now know that what he was telling us was the words of an Afrikaans song that goes:
“Olke bolke Riebeeck stolke, olke bolke knor…”
Well, now, many years since I last saw Sakki, I know that what he was telling us was not his invention, as I had always believed as a youngster.
Sakki underwent surgery on his vocal cords. This affected his speech badly and drove him to avoid socialising in his later years. However, he did visit our home on at least one occasion after his voice had been affected. I was a young teenager then and I can still remember that when he spoke, all that one could hear was a hoarse, rasping, whisper. After conversing with me for a few minutes, he said to me:
“You don’t have to whisper just because I am talking so softly.”
And then he added:
“I have noticed that everyone with whom I talk gradually lowers their voice to a whisper whilst they converse with me. It is strange how the loudness of my voice affects that of people who are talking with me.”
That people unconsciously adjust their voices to match that of their interlocutors made a great impression on my young mind, and I have never forgotten it.
I do not believe that I ever met Sakki again between 1976 and 2003, when he died. By then, the White House had almost completely changed from being an apartment block to becoming a hotel. Sakki lived there until he died and was one of the place’s last full-time residents from the time before it became a hotel with a few flats.
And, just in case you are wondering, I did learn to swim eventually, not at the White House but in the pool of the old YWCA near to Tottenham Court Road station.