Have lunch with anyone of your choice.
A famous thought experiment. Who would you choose? Besides the world-famous people – of whom I’d definitely choose Charles Darwin, maybe Rachel Carson, maybe Noam Chomsky, maybe some of the early Southern African explorers like Francois Levaillant or Adulphe Delegorgue, certainly Aloysius Smith and maybe his wonderful biographer Tim Couzens – I’ve not given this any time yet – I’d really like to have lunch with these three luminaries from my little home town Harrismith, Free State, South Africa:
Stewart Bain; my wonderful gran Annie’s Dad, Scottish immigrant, fisherman, railroad bridge-builder, hotelier, who became mayor of Harrismith and the prime mover behind the building of a town hall fit for a city in a Free State dorp; ‘Oupa’ Bain he was called by family, and The Grand Old Man of Harrismith by some towards the end of his life, maybe only at his (lavish) funeral?
Dr Anna Petronella ‘Nell’ van Heerden; pioneer general medical practitioner in Harrismith, Pioneer gynaecologist in Cape Town; then pioneer cattle farmer in Harrismith; lesbian cattle farmer in Harrismith, Vrystaat in the fifties and sixties – courage and self-confidence.
Dr Francis William ‘Frank’ Reitz; son of a state president; brother of the famous Deneys Reitz of Anglo-Boer War and WW1 fame; specialist surgeon who practiced as a general medical practitioner in Harrismith Vrystaat.
Be amazing if they all told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Be fascinating to know how much corruption there may have been in the building of the town hall – were there any rigged tenders? Who benefited? How long did the building take? How involved was he, onsite? What was the ribbon-cutting day like? Who opposed this lavish project? Did he acknowledge them and their concerns?
Be fascinating to know exactly what all Nell’s relationships were and how she treated her live-in companion Freddie Heseltine; about farming amongst toxic, confident, powerful masculinity; attending cattle auctions; her relationship with her staff; what protected her? Was it her National Party connections that made her immune from slander and attack? Was she immune?
Be fascinating to hear about 1920’s to 1960’s surgery and chloroform anaesthesia; about pioneering surgical techniques; about the successes and some failures on the operating table; and about sport in the early days – rugby, polo. Personally, I would wonder if Dr Reitz remembered – among his many patients – putting a wooden – bamboo? – hoop over my face, covered with a cloth, sprinkling chloroform on it and saying, “OK, Kosie, now count backwards from ten.” I loved mathematical challenges like that! I could do it! But I don’t think I got to six.
Of Charles Darwin I would ask way more about his wonderful voyage, and also lots about his amazing, stunning insight into how the fact of evolution happens; but all his other lunch guests would ask him that, so I’d be interested in his five years circumnavigating the globe aboard the Beagle; imagine living on board a small wooden ship for over 1700 days – two months short of five years – living cheek-by-jowl with a fervently religious captain with a hot temper whose quarrels ‘bordered on insanity.’ I’d also want to know about his inner struggle with ‘coming out’ with this powerful scientific insight in the face of self-righteous religious ‘knowledge.’ But only if he was comfortable to talk about it – he was a sensitive man.