Writing is like a safari.
You start from where you are, and you meander and explore.
And you learn as you go.
adapted from a quote by E. L. Doctorow, American novelist
He also said:
“If you do it right, you’re coming up out of yourself in a way that’s not entirely governable by your intellect. That’s why the most important lesson I’ve learned is that planning to write is not writing. Outlining a book is not writing. Researching is not writing. Talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.”
Maybe now I’ll write. Except he was talking about writing fiction, and I can’t do that. That’s why I changed his quote for autobiographical writing: ‘You Start From Where You Are,’ I think. Not ‘From Nothing,’ as he said.
If you’re writing an olden days blog you run out of material. Only so much happened from when I was born till I met Aitch, which is the timeline of this blog. My ** Born, Bachelorhood and Beer** blog. So there’s recycling. Here’s a post I wrote in 2016, slightly updated:
I used to sing beautifully. The teacher who trained the boys choir in Harrismith Laerskool said so. Well, she might have. She was Mej Cronje, and was half the reason ous would volunteer for the choir. To look at her, gorgeous redhead she was.
I was a sopraan ou and we looked down on the alt ous who, though necessary as backup, weren’t in the same league as us squeakers. One directly behind me used to bellow in my ear: ‘Dek jou hol met bouse off hollie! FaLaLaLa La LaLaLaLa.’
One day this delectable and discerning talent spotter, the red-headed Juffrou Ethel Cronje, chose me to sing a solo in the next konsert. Me, the soloist! Move over, Wessel Zietsman!
Fame loomed. It was 1965 and even then, the image of a golden buzzer appeared to me in a vision. This thought crossed my mind: Harrismith’s Got Talent!
Then tragedy struck!
My balls dropped.
They handled it very diplomatically. By ignoring it and cancelling practice. The konsert didn’t materialise. Co-incidence? Surely they didn’t cancel a concert just because one boy suffered testicular descent? And by the time the next konsert came around I hadn’t been banished – just discreetly consigned to the back and asked to turn it down.
* * *
Just in case there are people who think Harrismith se Laerskool se Seunskoor was a Mickey Mouse outfit, lemme tellya: WE TOURED ZULULAND. The Vienna Boys Sausages were probably nervous.
We got into the light blue school bus and drove for hours and hours and reached Empangeni far away, where the school hall was stampvol of people who, starved of culture in deepest Zoolooland, listened in raptures as we warbled Whistle While You Work, High on your Heels is a Lonely Goat Turd, PaRumPaPumPum, Edelweiss, Dominique, Dek jou hol, and some volksliedjies which always raised a little ripple of applause as the gehoor thought “Dankie tog, we know vis one“.
If memory serves (and it does, it does, seldom am I the villain or the scapegoat in my recollections) there was a flood and the road to the coastal village of ReetShits Bye was cut off, sparing them the price of a ticket – though those were probably gratis?
Can’t remember driving back, but we must have.
After that epic and ground-breaking (sod-breaking?) tour, warbling faded in importance and rugby took over.
A re-post cos Mom told me some news today (see right at the end):
My first recollections are of life on the plot outside Harrismith, playing with Enoch and Casaia, childhood companions, kids of Lena Mazibuko, who looked after us as Mom and Dad worked in town. The plot was in the shadow of Platberg, and was called Birdhaven, as Dad kept big aviaries. I remember Lena as kind and loving – and strict!
I lived there from when I was carried home from the maternity home till when I was about five years old, when we moved into town.
I remember suddenly “knowing” it was lunchtime and looking up at the dirt road above the farmyard that led to town. Sure enough, right about then a cloud of dust would appear and Mom and Dad would arrive for their lunch and siesta, having locked up the Platberg bottle store at 1pm sharp. I could see them coming along the road and then sweeping down the long driveway to park near the rondavel at the back near the kitchen door. They would eat lunch, have a short lie-down and leave in time to re-open at 2pm. I now know the trip was exactly 3km door-to-door, thanks to google maps.
Every day I “just knew” they were coming. I wonder if I actually heard their approach and then “knew”? Or was it an inner clock? Back then they would buzz around in Mom’s Ford Prefect or Dad’s beige Morris Isis. Here’s an old 8mm movie of the old green and black Ford Prefect on the Birdhaven circular driveway – four seconds of action – (most likely older sister Barbara waving out the window):
1. Ruins of our house; 2. Dougie Wright, Gould & Ruth Dominy’s place; 3. Jack Levick’s house; 4. The meandering Kak Spruit. None of those houses on the left were there back then.
Our nearest neighbour was Jack Levick and he had a pet crow that mimic’d a few words. We had a white Sulphur-crested Cockatoo Jacko that didn’t, and an African Grey parrot Cocky who could mimic a bit more. A tame-ish Spotted Eagle Owl would visit at night.
Our next neighbours, nearer to the mountain, were Ruth and Gould Dominy and Ruth’s son Dougie Wright on Glen Khyber. They were about 500m further down the road towards the mountain, across the Kak Spruit over a little bridge. Doug’s cottage was on the left next to the spruit that came down from Khyber Pass and flowed into the bigger spruit; The big house with its sunny glassed-in stoep was a bit further on the right. Ruth and a flock of small dogs would serve Gould his tea in a teacup the size of a big deep soup bowl.
Judas Thabete lived on the property and looked after the garden. I remember him as old, small and bearded. He lived in a hovel of a hut across a donga and a small ploughed field to the west of our house. He had some sort of cart – animal-drawn? self-drawn? Self-drawn, I think.
Other things I remember are driving out and seeing white storks in the dead bluegum trees outside the gate – those and the eagle owl being the first wild birds I ‘spotted’ in my still-ongoing birding life; I remember the snake outside the kitchen door;
I don’t remember but have been told, that my mate Donald Coleman, two years older, would walk the kilometre from his home on the edge of town to Birdhaven to visit me. Apparently his Mom Jean would phone my Mom Mary on the party line and ask, “Do you have a little person out there?” if she couldn’t find him. He was a discoverer and a wanderer and a thinker, my mate Donald.
Bruno the doberman came from Little Switzerland on Oliviershoek pass down the Drakensberg into Natal. Leo and Heather Hilcovitz owned and ran it – “very well” according to Dad. Leo came into town once with a few pups in the back of his bakkie. Dobermans. Dad said I Want One! and gave Leo a pocket of potatoes in exchange for our Bruno. He lived to good age and died at 95 Stuart Street after we’d moved to town.
rondavel – circular building with a conical roof, often thatched;
spruit – stream; kak spruit: shit stream; maybe it was used as a sewer downstream in town in earlier days?
stoep – veranda
donga – dry, eroded watercourse; gulch, arroyo; scene of much play in our youth;
Our Ford Prefect was somewhere between a 1938 and a 1948 – the ‘sit up and beg’ look, before sedans went flat. They were powered by a 4 cylinder engine displacing 1172cc, producing 30 hp. The engine had no water pump or oil filter. Drive was through a 3-speed gearbox, synchromesh in 2nd and 3rd. Top speed nearly 60mph. Maybe with a bit of Downhill Assist?
Today – 25 Sept 2021 – Mom (who turned 93 a week ago today) tells me Kathy Schoeman bought the old Ford Prefect from her and one day they drove to work to see it lying on its roof in the main street outside the town hall! Kathy had rolled it in the most prominent place possible!
This post was over at bewilderbeast.org, but it belongs here, in the Olden Daze blog.
I read Jock of the Bushveld again for the how-manieth time. I enjoy it every time. Percy Fitzpatrick wrote his classic tales of his days with trek oxen and wagons on the lowveld on the highveld: On his farm Buckland Downs in the Harrismith district.
Always gets me thinking of my wonderful dog Jock in high school:
We got Jock from Reg and Jo Jelliman. They farmed very near Buckland Downs out on the Meul river side of town, out Verkykerskop way. He was apparently a registered Staffordshire Bull Terrier, with the formal name Copperdog-Something on his papers.
. . and then in Westville many years later our first dog in our first home was TC – to me she was a mini-Jock:
She lived to a ripe old thirteen years. I buried her at the bottom of that beautiful garden in River Drive, alongside Matt (above) and Bogart who both came after her but died before her.
Somewhere around 1969 I won the world-famous Harrismith Methodist All-Stars inaugural (and last) Table Tennis Tournament held in the Wesleyan Hall on Warden Street. This was a huge event for us dedicated Harrismith Methylated Spirits. There must have been . . what? half a dozen or more people watching, spellbound. Many of them would also have been among the entrants to this high-level event. Which I won, did I mention that?
My prize: The gold medal and a vinyl LP by The Tremeloes! except for the medal. The LP was real and was my first ever. And maybe my only? I don’t remember owning any other LPs.
How hip was the Harrismith Methodist Church?! I’d love to know who donated this lovely prize.
The feature pic shows our table tennis table on the side veranda at home. Training ground.
This was the problem: Most of the guys and gals I would do river trips with had a serious deficiency: a lack of some specific paddling strokes one should use on a river trip. Most of them especially couldn’t execute my favourite stroke: Paddle on your lap, arms folded, gaze around in awesome wonder, and allow the boat to gently rotate in the current. The Swanie 360° River Revolution, or Swannee River for short.
They were racing snakes. They’d say ‘Let’s Go,’ and then they would actually do that! Weird. Then they’d look back, wait till I eventually caught up and ask, ‘What’s Wrong Swanie?’ I was of course much too polite to reply, ‘Nothing. What’s The Hurry?’ I’m polite that way. What I meant was, ‘I don’t want this day to end.’
And so we would gently bumble downriver. Every few hundred metres they’d wait, or one of them would paddle upstream (more weirdness) back to me and ask ‘What’s Wrong Swanie?’
Weird. Although I must admit, you wouldn’t want me in charge of timing or logistics on a trip!
When the current was swift enough my speed could match theirs. It was the flat water that was tricky. In their defence, they were actually going slowly and enjoying the scenery in awesome wonder. It’s just that their slowly and mine was out of sync!
Watch Luca Sestak (then 14yrs-old) show us how to do the Swannee River:
Yay! Science! I just found out what the very first flower I ever drew was/is: A Canary Bird Bush Crotalaria agatiflora.
I suppose for a school project? I collected a few in our garden and drew the flower and the leaf. I was fascinated by the shape of the flower: like a yellow bird, butterfly or ship.
I saw this on iNaturalist.org thanks to prolific iNatter @troos (Troos vdMerwe) and there’s a lovely twist: He photographed it in the favourite gardens of a favourite schoolfriend of my Mother Mary’s!
Joey de Beer became Jo Onderstall and became a founder member of the Lowveld Botanic Society and the Lowveld Botanic Gardens in Nelspruit, now Mbombela. She wrote the book on Lowveld flowering plants.
A lovely full-circle kind of story.
Joey matriculated with Mary in Harrismith in 1945. When she heard Mary was going nursing she expostulated: What A Waste Of A Good Brain! She was right, but Mom decided she needed to do something that earned her a salary and cost her widowed Mom Annie nothing. Typical Mom. Joey went on to study phys ed teaching in Bloem, then married ‘doctor/farmer’ Bill Onderstall. They moved to Nelspruit in 1950. Bill gave Jo a camera for a wedding present and so she herself took a lot of the pictures in the articles and books she wrote. I didn’t know her mother Bessie de Beer had been chair of the Drakensberg and Eastern Free State branch of the Botanical Society, so Jo followed in Bessie’s footsteps. Must tell Mom that. Jo herself seems as self-effacing as Mom. She writes in the introduction that her name on the book ‘is but the visible tip of an iceberg’ and the fact that she took most of the photos is mentioned nowhere. All other photographers are acknowledged, but even the fact that she took the front and back cover pictures is added in the ‘errata’ – like an afterthought! I’m guessing some of her friends insisted.
Yellow bird! Who remembers Johan Pheiffer who came from the city to Harrismith to visit his cousins the du Plessis in the dorp, whipped out his guitar and sang Yellow Bird?
Later: Mom said ‘Thanks for this.’ Sheila read it to her. She didn’t know Bessie had also been involved in things botanical. She did know that Bessie used to take people for the drivers test. ‘You would drive her round the block and she’d say OK, you have your licence. None of this parking into a garage stuff.’ So says Ma.
Her good friends Joey de Beer and Dossie Farquhar said Mom must take science. She found it hard, but enjoyed it. She didn’t like the science teacher, Swart Piet du Toit, though. There was also a teacher called Wit Piet du Toit, who later was called Whitey. Wit Piet married one of the girls he had taught in Std 6. Beautiful girl. Later he married Doris. Old memories flooding back, Ma?
I can’t talk long cos they’re coming to take me from my warm armchair – its falling to pieces, mind you – in front of the heater and wrapped under a blanket, to the piano, where I’ll play a bit before lunch. Lunch is a roast and vegetables and then ice cream cos its Sunday. And Sundays we get egg and bacon for breakfast.
You know Kosie, it’s amazing how an old tune suddenly comes back into my head and I start playing it. Then I keep playing it each day and it gets better every time!
You go, Ma! Remember to eat your vegetables, or you won’t get any ice cream. **Laughs** I eat all my vegetables except pumpkin, and that’s why I haven’t got curly hair. That’s what we were told when I was small.
Oh, Dad says the temperature is going to drop steeply tomorrow, you must wear warm clothes, she tells her 66yr-old son.
Big sister Barbara Swanepoel Tarr met Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, the travelling rabbi, who I wrote about some time back. He very kindly gave her a book.
Barbara tells of her voyage of discovery looking up old Jewish friends. This post is snippets from a letter she wrote:
Many of the names and surnames have been mentioned to me in conversations over the years with my parents and some I knew personally and grew up with. We’re still lucky enough to be able to contact our folks, Pieter Swanepoel (98) and Mary Bland Swanepoel (92), who now live in Pietermaritzburg and still have amazingly good memories. They fill in the gaps with names and places and help make our history come alive.
In Harrismith, the Royal Hotel was built by my great grandfather Stewart Bain and was sold to Mr. Sookie Hellman; the Central Hotel was built by his brother James Bain and was sold to Mr. Randolph Stiller.
We lived in the Central Hotel for about three months in 1960. Mom and Dad had bought our first house in town – 95 Stuart Street, and were waiting for the tenant’s lease to expire. There we got to know the Stiller family (Isa was a young girl at school, I think) and Becky Kaplan, the receptionist. The Deborah Retief Gardens were our playing fields, under the watchful eye of Ted and Fanny Glick, sitting on their balcony in Van Sandwyk Flats No 1.
Fanny Glick and my grandmother Annie Bain Bland were the best of friends. Sunday afternoons these two characterful old dears would pick up the three Swanepoel kids in Annie’s big cream Chev and tootle down to the Park on the Wilge River. There we were each given a sixpence and left to our own devices at the round kiosk. ‘Glick’ and ‘Anna’ (that’s what they called one another) enjoyed tea and scones in the Chevy, and us three would swing, slide and no doubt fight on all the wonderful ‘things’ in the playground.
Around 2015 a bee flew into my bonnet, and I started looking for old Harrismith High School scholars. Finding Ivan and Brenda Katz in Joburg was a gem of a find; I also found another strong Harrismith sister, Adele Cohen.
In 1961 in Std 1, I received my first bicycle for Christmas – a blue Raleigh that kept me going to matric in 1970. I remember going into your Dad Eddie Cohen’s shop for a patch, a new tube, a bell or just to look around. All too soon, the three Swanepoel kids were finished with school and our bikes were no longer needed. Happily they became the property of new owners…the three Cohen kids.
Joy Kadey, your parents’ shop, Jack Kadey’s Jewellers, still stands and is very much alive. Now called Louis’ Jewellers. While the name has changed, very little else has changed in the shop and in the whole building, thanks to Louis Nel and his daughter Erika Nel du Plessis (the owner). She has managed to make time stand still in a little place of long ago. Absolutely worth a visit to this ‘lil ‘ol shoppe’ of our childhood. Erika and husband Pierre du Plessis live in Louis Green’s old home in Warden Street, which they have also restored beautifully. One of Harrismith’s magnificent old homes.
Other Jewish people from old Harrismith are Essie Rosenberg Lunz, John French (great nephew of Fanny Glick, who sent a Facebook link on the Harrismith Jewish Cemetery), David Babbin, son of Isaac and Joey Babbin from the Tickey Bazaar, where you could buy ‘everything.’ How I loved that shop! Walking in through the door took one into an amazing fairyland. Baskets of all sorts on the floor, glass compartments of sweets at mouth-watering eye level, and counters of ‘what you will,’ and everything that could hang was hanging …just ‘as you like it’…..it was all there!
‘We think it’s him, but we haven’t been able to catch him. He must distribute the leaflets in the absolute dead of night, probly just pre-dawn. They’re scurrilous. Well, we’ll see if they end when you move in.’
Owners in the shareblock building were gossiping about the mystery vendetta that had been waged for a long time in the block. Someone pecked away on an old typewriter, telling tales (and truths?) about other residents and criticising what the managing committee did and didn’t do for the building. They suspected their mystery person was the owner I had just bought from, and they were looking forward to his leaving to stay far away in the little dorp of Richmond out in the sticks.
My first own home! A spacious, high-ceilinged one (‘and a half’) bedroom flat in a good-looking ‘Art Deco’ building in Marriot Road one block up from Cowey Road.
On the day I moved in I was ambushed by a gang of Kingfisher Canoe Club mates who had spread the word ‘Party at Swanie’s New Place Tonight!’ The electricity wasn’t yet connected, but no problem to these hooligans: They dangled an extension cord out the window and politely asked the elderly couple below me to please plug it in. Bless ’em they did, and hats off to them they withstood the temptation to switch off as the noise lasted long into the night! There was some excess (did I mention they were canoeists!?) and tales – exaggerated surely? – were told of vomit streaming down the steps.
Once I settled in and my fellow occupants realised I was obviously the innocent party in the opening night cacophony (ahem!), I was told more about the strange old geezer I’d bought from. And I was told of a mysterious campaign of leaflets surreptitiously distributed, pointing out people’s faults and complaining of things not done, etc. in harsh language. They suspected it was him, but were never able to prove it. Soon I was able to solve the mystery: A secret compartment in the lounge cupboard revealed copies of his printed leaflets – the vendetta stash!
I bought ca.1984 for R45 000. Sold ca.1992 for R90 000. I saw it offered for sale recently (2021) for R967 000. That’s where I found these pics – someone has opened up the small kitchen so now the lounge and kitchen are all one big room. It looks great.