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Growing up in ‘White’ South Africa



Neville Herrington



Copyright Page



August 2016

Copyright © 2016 by Neville Herrington



The right of Neville Herrington to be identified as the author of the work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright Act 98 of 1978.

All rights reserved, whether the whole or part of the material is concerned, specifically the rights of translation, reuse of illustrations, recitation, broadcasting, reproduction in other ways, and storage in databanks. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in electronic, print, web, or other format without the express written permission of the Author.

*Indicates the names have been changed to protect the person’s identity.



DTP

Clive Thompson – Cover/Book design.
www.getclive.com



Dedication



In loving Memory of a dear Friend,

Terrance O’Shea.

1939 – 2009










Dedicated to the many people who shared my journey through an adventurous and sometimes turbulent youth.










Foreword



This story of a middle-class white South African family unfolds between the years 1939 and 1964 - a transformative period in South Africa’s political landscape. It is told through the eyes and experiences of the younger son and his rite of passage into a country of racial segregation that gradually opens his eyes to the many injustices imposed upon the majority of the country’s population, coupled with a realization that his white privileges are sustained at the brutal expense of others.

At the outbreak of World War II, South Africa joined forces with its western allies to fight against Nazi racism and aggression, with its Prime Minister, Jan Smuts, earning widespread admiration and respect from prominent world leaders for his contribution to the war effort, and his subsequent role in promoting world peace. But after 1948 when the Nationalist Party took control and entrenched racial segregation under its policy of apartheid and designated separate white and black areas, creating a politically engineered balkanisation of the country, South Africa came under increasing scrutiny by international bodies including the United Nations. By the time this narrative reaches its climax in 1964, Nelson Mandela has been sent to jail, and the armed struggle is a threatening challenge to the country’s security forces following the banning of the ANC (African National Congress) and PAC (Pan Africanist Congress) in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre in 1960.

On a personal level the narrative is a romping journey through the adventures of post-war youth searching for self-identity in a rapidly changing world. It is also a spiritual journey and a breakaway from religious bigotry and prejudice. It is very funny, romantic and adventurous with many young people expressing greater sexual freedom than their parents and grandparents, as they enter an increasingly technological age where the stars are now the limit. The reader is introduced to a tapestry of many fascinating characters reflecting the social and political milieu of the time. To sanitize the vulgarity of its protagonist and his friends in their sometimes wild behavior and language, would be an injustice to the reality of their varied experiences, immature and lacking in discernment as they were at times.

As the narration is told in the first person, the storyteller concedes that his account of the people and events recorded may find contradiction and correction in the memory of others who were also there at the time, but that is the nature of any shared experience.



Contents



Chapter 1

Good Morning Life





THE UNDERTAKER LIFTED the lid of the coffin. Dad’s face looked waxed and at peace. I bent down to kiss his forehead. “Thank you for being a good father,” I whispered. My brother Clive also kissed him, bidding a tender farewell. In the silence of the small room at Rogers funeral parlour in Pretoria West on a cold August morning in 1971, I stood staring at my father’s lifeless body, realising that there was so much more that I had wanted to say when he was alive. Next morning after the funeral service, conducted in the undertaker’s chapel, the cortege and mourners proceeded to the Rebecca Street cemetery. At the gravesite, Clive noticed several gravediggers standing behind some tombstones a short distance away, and could partially identify another coffin. Following the reading of the 23rd Psalm, Dad’s coffin was lowered into the earth. The mourners began drifting away through a palm-lined pathway to their parked cars. No sooner were our backs turned than the gravediggers appeared from behind the tombstones carrying the other coffin, which they lowered into the open grave. Being buried in the same grave as his mother, who had died some nineteen years before, Dad was cementing in death the strong bond that had existed throughout their lives.

Before getting into the car, I noticed gravediggers shovelling soil into the open grave, and could distinctly hear in the distance clumps of earth hitting the coffin lid. More and more soil went into the hole, and for a brief moment in my imagination, the gravediggers were Mom, Pam, Clive and I, shovelling the sand and covering up our guilt of having deceived a man who had been a good husband and father. He had endured the lies and deceit of his family over an issue that should never have been cause for dissention, leaving him now to lie deep inside the earth in peace with his mother with whom he had always enjoyed a trusting and loving relationship. As we drove away, the wind sprang up and sprays of sand were blowing gently off the mound piled near his grave.

The image of the sand set my mind racing back over the decades to a time when I was a toddler playing in a sandpit, tossing sand into the air and letting it rain over me, unaware at that stage of the alleged health properties contained in eating sand. Having consumed some of this supposedly health-giving medicinal food could’ve contributed to my potential longevity. The sandpit was situated near the entrance to our property in Pietersburg where I was born in 1939 – a young town that was then only fifty-three years old – and founded by the Voortrekkers,1 after they abandoned their settlement at Zoutpansbergdorp because of malaria and the presence of ‘hostile natives’, who perceived the newcomers to be a threat to their way of life. The original name of the area on which the town was built was Polokwane, the place of rest, given by the Sotho people who were fleeing from the invading forces under the command of renegade Zulu general, Mzilikazi. It has today regained its original name.

The Herrington family moved to this ‘place of rest’ from Durban in 1936, adding to the growing number of white newcomers, and happily received a cordial reception from their manservant, Rufus, and surrounding neighbours. Their first address was in Compensatie Street, later moving to Jorrisen Street where I was born. The house with its corrugated iron roof and extensive veranda was set well back from the road – strategically positioned in the event of a surprise frontal attack.

However, the biggest surprise attack at the time occurred some 11,000 kilometres away, as recorded in the news.

On September 1, 1939, German aircraft, infantry and mechanized divisions invaded Poland. Britain’s response was not long in coming. At 12.15 p.m. local time on Sunday, September 3, Britain declared war on Nazi Germany.

To be born seventeen days after the outbreak of World War II meant absolutely nothing to the undeveloped consciousness of a baby. However, I was often reminded of the troubled times into which I was delivered, and thereafter referred to by Mom as her ‘war effort’. This proved to be an embarrassing aphorism in the presence of girlfriends who thought with a wink and a smile that I was the offspring of an illicit wartime romance. But I was Mom’s proud contribution to the country’s mobilization of human resources that should the war last for the next 18 years I could be thrown into battle. I carried the ‘war effort’ epithet right up until my teens. She had already given birth twice before my arrival. Pamela, the eldest was born in 1933, followed by Clive in 1935 and about two years later, she had a miscarriage, believing it to be a girl. Another two years elapsed before she endured the ordeal all over again to produce a ‘war effort’.

Mother dear even recorded the time of this effort in her Baby Gift Book; consequently, every year on 20 September at 15h30 I can mark the exact explosive moment. The book also recorded other details, such as, “Baby’s weight, 8 pounds; Colour of eyes, blue. However, with increasing levels of melanin over the coming months, the colour settled on hazel. Colour of hair, very fair – got a little darker with age. Resemblance to Daddy – thank goodness, as there were no DNA paternity tests in those days to settle biological disputes.

A detail not recorded in the book, because it was part of a cover-up, was my baptism in the Pietersburg Sacred Heart Cathedral. The date chosen for this event, October 31st 1939, Dad’s birthday, could not have been more inappropriate and insensitive. This deceitful act would’ve given him no reason to celebrate, because he wanted no Catholic children.

Since the birth of Pam and Clive, he had been excluded from all religious observances involving the Catholic faith. But anti-Catholicism harboured not only in his heart, but also among our schoolteachers. Pam was sent once a week to the convent for Catechism classes, telling her friends that she was going to Speech lessons. But when one of her friends, Peggy Cowan, saw her Catechism book, she begged her not to tell anyone that she was Catholic as she was concerned about the reaction of her teacher and fellow pupils following the teacher’s negative comments about Catholicism in the lesson on the Reformation. Although Peggy kept her secret, she was concerned that the teacher should know the truth so as not to criticize Catholics again in Pam’s presence. Pam made her First Communion in the absence of any family member, feeling very awkward being the only child in a white dress and veil.

Mom described my christening, conducted by Father Lambert, as ‘a very quiet affair, with very few visitors, as we were newcomers to Pietersburg at the time.’ The real reason for keeping it quiet was to keep Dad from knowing, and to prevent him from purging the seeds of the papist faith from my innocent soul, although not sure whether he thought I actually had one.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Hitler had begun his notorious purge of people he didn’t like, as reported by The Star in late 1939:

HITLER CONDUCTS HIS BIGGEST PURGE. Scores have been arrested in many German cities, Jews, Monarchists, Catholics and so-called Reactionaries forming the bulk of Hitler’s victims.

Thankfully, the ‘war effort’ wasn’t in need of any purging medication. Although colicky and didn’t take kindly to solids, he had a tendency to attack the breast as if ordered to ‘take the hill.’ The delights of a double-thick milk shake with a cherry on top did much to satisfy the ravenous brute. Mother believed that breastfeeding was best as it produced healthy levels of antibodies and was most cost-effective during times of war, drought and famine. Naturally, over-indulgence could lead to much ‘mewling and puking.’

The ‘war effort’s’ nickname Mussolini, or Musso, invariably cast serious doubts on his patriotism, and was given up to be shot by all available cameras. To hold the renegade to face the camera was often left to mother dear, although others were called upon from time to time. High school pupil and camp follower, Cathy Fraser, who lived with us during term time is photographed holding Musso in her gymslip and long black stockings, providing a suitable fascist backdrop. Although Cathy was a real honey, she could’ve been mistaken for one of Hitler’s SS-Gefolge concentration camp guards, who carried small sticks to whack the penis of prisoners ordered to reveal their privies during a short arms inspection. Then, there was airman, Jack Evans, based at the RAF camp outside Pietersburg, who came round over weekends and was tempted to capture a miniature Mussolini in the hope of boosting Allied morale. However, he too settled for a tight grip of the little imposter for the sake of a snap shot.

To be named after the gullible British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who was hoodwinked by Hitler, and invested with the moniker of the dreadful Italian fascist Benito Mussolini, was indeed an odd and disagreeable political fusion for an infant to bear. But the truth of those early photographs reveal a fat-faced bambino wearing a Mussolini styled cap, so unfortunately that sealed his fate. Dad took most of the photographs with his Kodak autographic camera, and Mom returned the favour including one of him sitting on a chair in the garden looking decidedly ‘poeg-eye,’ clutching Pam in his arms, no doubt taken after a few celebratory drinks at the local bar to mark the birth of his firstborn.

With the presence of many Royal and South African Air Force personnel based in Pietersburg, the town was a potential target for enemy attack, and residents were informed that air raid shelters would be provided if needed, but no pets would be allowed. When Pam and Clive heard this they set about digging a pet shelter in the back yard with a spade that didn’t make much impression on the hard ground. They remained determined, however, to take our fox terrier, Gypsy and white Sealyham-cross, Chummy, into an official shelter should the need arise, even if they had to disguise them as war efforts in fur coats.

Although no fighting broke out, the town Pietersburg hadn’t escaped the tensions of the war. The town’s pro-Nazi supporters gathered secretly in 1941 to hear the firebrand Robey Leibbrandt, a South African who went to Germany in the mid-thirties to join the Wehrmacht. A U-boat had dropped him off-shore, and he slipped back into the country that year to muster support for the Nazis and stir up anti-British and anti-Semitic sentiments.

The Star, October 1941, reported:

POLICE SEARCHING FOR ROBEY LEIBBRANDT. The search for Leibbrandt, a former South African heavyweight-boxing champion and ex-member of the South African Police, was being conducted with particular intensity in the Transvaal. He is wanted by the police in connection with certain assaults on farmers in the Northern Transvaal recently.

Leibbrandt was arrested later that year at a roadblock near Pretoria. He was a member of the Ossewabrandwag,2 which had a strong following in the town. The Minister of the Interior, Mr H.G. Lawrence said in the House of Assembly in September 1940. “A portion of the Ossewabrandwag, probably unknown to many of its members, has turned from cultural to secret and sinister ends of a military and semi-military character.”

However, stepping out boldly into the open to show their support for the war was the town’s Botha Regiment that left in June 1940 to go up North. The regiment formed part of the 5th South African Brigade which was involved in the battle of Sidi Rezegh, one of the fiercest battles of the North African campaign.

Back on the streets of Pietersburg, poor Pam was fighting an uneven battle when she stepped outside the house and waved a Union Jack. This valiant act enraged an older Afrikaner boy, who chased her back into the garden shouting, “The Germans are going to win the war.” He then proceeded to draw the British flag on the ground and spat on it. Pam retreated in fear into the house, not realizing the potential of her Musso look-alike brother that could’ve been used as a negotiated trade-off to guarantee her future safety on the street.

On her side, politically, were influential Afrikaners such as Prime Minister, General Smuts, who declared in a stirring speech in May 1940, “I don’t care where I fight, so long as I fight against Germany and what she stands for.” General Smuts visited Pietersburg shortly after his 70th birthday in 1940 to rally support for South African troops, and as the founding ‘father’ of both the Royal and South African air forces, he was warmly received. Pam as a Brownie was part of a welcoming parade, as was Mom in her uniform of the St John Ambulance Brigade. Pam, as a member of the Fairy Pack, passed her second-class examinations, and was now ready to take on the Nazi street bully, even if it meant blowing fairy dust in his face.

Dad, eager to fight the Nazi threat in a more tangible way, wanted to join up at the outbreak of war but had to wait two years until the fall of Tobruk when Field Marshal Smuts called for additional volunteers. It was only then that the railways released him, and he was sent to Zonderwater Military Camp for basic training. Throughout the country, men were volunteering for service, and The Star reported an enthusiastic response:

UNION’S NEW ARMY IN THE MAKING. 2000 Recruits in 14 days in Johannesburg.

The railways released those employees who wished to join the army without losing their jobs on their return. Dad had volunteered to go ‘up north’, but his discharge papers from the First World War declared him unfit for tropical duty, even though the fighting in the north took place in the desert. Dad, who had contracted dysentery and malaria while serving under Smuts in German East Africa in the First Word War, was assigned military duties within the country, and served mainly in Johannesburg and on the East Rand. Initially, he held the rank of Lieutenant in the Union Defence Force’s Movement Control, and later promoted to Captain. He looked splendid in military uniform, with polished Sam Brown and shiny bronze pips bedecking the epaulettes, all adding to an air of authority and invincibility – so much for a young boy to admire. He was a handsome man with wavy hair, slim build, and above all, a good father.

Time and place don’t have much meaning to a toddler, but in those halcyon days, I managed to store a montage of random memories, including several of Pietersburg’s railway station on the night we left for the Golden City in September 1942. It must’ve been the excitement of boarding a sleeper coach, and one pulled by a big ‘puffer’ that left such an indelible impression. I can still recall the brown wooden-slatted stable door of the coach and the smell of the green leather upholstery of the compartment seats - all as clear as yesterday. There was a smiling, plump woman standing on the platform in front of the building’s stone façade – the rest is a blur. For that matter, she could’ve been dressed all in white with megaphone in hand singing, “There’ll Always be an England,” and waving goodbye to Lieutenant Herrington and his chums as they sailed off to do their duty for king and country.

I later learnt that the beaming face was that of Anna Last, Mom’s close friend, who, incidentally, was present on the quayside at Durban harbour when her husband Nico set sail for service up north. As the legendary, Lady in White, Perla Siedle Gibson sang to the troops as their ship slipped its moorings and set sail for Aden, Anna Laas was looking forward to her husband’s homecoming. But her happiness was shattered when a German U-boat off the Zululand coast torpedoed Nico’s troopship, the Nova Scotia, and he and 133 of his fellow servicemen, who were hoping to spend an early Christmas with their families, were drowned.

In Johannesburg, Dad immediately began his duties with the army, while Mom continued secretly fulfilling her duties and obligations to the Catholic Church. At this stage, Dad had every reason to believe that the ante-nuptial contract he had signed with Mom regarding the religious upbringing of the children was being honoured. Pam and Clive were enrolled at Observatory East Primary, where they were free of any direct Catholic influence. In fact, Pam was more in touch with Jewish culture as she was the only non-Jewish pupil in her class – apart from two Christian girls from a nearby Children’s Home. Johannesburg was also the first time that I attended Sunday school – that was after we had moved from Observatory to 37 Raglan Street, Sydenham. I have no memory of its denomination – such detail meant nothing to me then – but Pam later informed me that it was St Augustine’s Church of England in 9th Street. The content of the religious classes left little impression on my nascent memory except for Jesus healing many sick people along the way, telling them to pick up their beds and walk.

Walking home from Sunday school one morning in the company of Brian Kinghorn, we came across a road accident on the corner of 9th Street and 17th Avenue, where a large delivery van that resembled a top-heavy biscuit tin on wheels had overturned while negotiating the bend too sharply. The driver sat on the pavement clutching a bleeding head, while his pathetic lorry lay snoozing on its side. While staring at the injured man, Brian whispered, “tell him to get up and walk.”

“I can’t say that! Anyway, he hasn’t got a bed to pick up.”

“Just tell him to get up and walk.”

I looked at him blankly.

“Come on, Mrs Evans said we must do what Jesus did.”

With some reluctance, I tapped the injured man on the shoulder and blurted out, “Get up… and…” The words stuck in my throat. Brian prodded me in the ribs and whispered, “Come on, tell him… tell him”

“Excuse me, Mr Driver… pick up your lorry and walk.”

“And sin no more,” shouted Brian, running away and grinning from ear to ear, hoping to complete the miracle recipe.

The ungrateful man was enraged. He thought we were playing the fool, and angrily waved his arms in the air shouting, “Humba!” His reaction was most off-putting and confusing as we were merely doing what we had been taught at Sunday school. Our teacher also said that Jesus could bring people back from the dead, but, thankfully, there was no need to add that command as the man might’ve risen up in a blinding rage.

While at Orange Grove Primary School, Pam joined the Scripture Union, but because she was the only pupil whose family didn’t own a Bible, she only received one point for reading it at the meeting. Most of the other pupils could claim to have read the Bible diligently every day, and consequently earned the maximum number of points. Later as a pupil of Barnato Park High School, Pam’s Bible studies were more rooted in the Old than the New Testament as some 60% of her classmates were Jewish. They had a special hymn book with no mention of Jesus, although on Jewish holidays they were given hymn sheets that included, “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

Pam had happy memories attending Sunday school at St Augustine’s, and was enthralled by the entertaining spiritual allegories in Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress,” which was read to her class in instalments. However, when she turned eleven in 1944, Mom arranged for her confirmation in the Catholic Church. Using the Penny Catechism that she received before making her First Communion, Pam was left without any assistance to prepare for the event. One Saturday morning, Mom took her to a strange church for confession, and the following morning she attended Mass there on her own. “I found it a dreadful ordeal, as it was all in Latin, and I didn’t know when to kneel or stand.” But worse was to follow.

That afternoon, she caught a bus, again alone, and went to a strange convent where a friend of Mom’s, Mrs Kelly, met her. Large doors were opening and closing, nuns appearing from nowhere, some smiling others scowling. Pam was hustled into the cloisters. As Clive and I could not be trusted, we weren’t informed of this clandestine operation in case we told Dad. During this undercover war between Rome and Canterbury, we would’ve happily volunteered for espionage duty, provided the rewards for our silence came in extra pennies for our money boxes. Pam, meanwhile, stood alone on this ecclesiastical battlefield and recalled the awkwardness of the moment: “I changed in a room with a lot of other girls who naturally stared at me, as they must’ve wondered where I came from.” Throughout the afternoon, she never said a word to anyone, as Mrs Kelly, who was very busy, was the only person she knew. However, at the party after the confirmation service, the Bishop very kindly said to her, “you were the little girl who was very nervous and trembled so.” She was greatly relieved to be home after this experience.

As a bunch of unconfirmed suburban scoundrels, my newfound friends and I could’ve made a solid contribution to the war effort as spies, infiltrators, and decoys if allowed to join the army. We heard that Hitler was recruiting young boys towards the end of the war, so if it went on much longer there might’ve been a chance of the Union Defence Force calling up the five-year olds. Our Raglan Street commando consisted of Brian Kinghorn, a fair-haired scamp with a zest for the daring, who was my closest friend and lived two houses down. Between us was Louie Velleman, an Afrikaans girl, who most days wore a big white ribbon on top of her head like a helicopter propeller blade, and was sufficiently tomboyish to be tolerated. Across the road, lived John Kitchin, a cheeky, freckle-faced lad who thought life was a boy’s own trip into adventure land. And me? Well, I didn’t have freckles, but a distinguishing cow’s lick that caused my hair to stand up in front. Mostly, I enjoyed being frivolous and prankish.

Brian’s driveway gained notoriety the day the Raglan Street ragamuffins had a bare bum race down the straights. Brian, John, and I removed our baffle boxes – pants and underpants – and charged down the driveway, egged on by our sole spectator, Louie, who peered through the hedge, cheering and shrieking with delight. Our driveway derby had her jumping up and down with such excitement that if hair ribbons could spin she would’ve taken off like a helicopter. John, who came from England, was about a year older than the rest of us and with the advantage of size, he won most of the races. To us, it was innocent fun – just a bare bum race with occasional backfiring and exhaust emissions adding to the hilarity.

However, our laughter and Louie’s shrieks got the attention of her Ouma,3 who came out the house and was outraged to see what was going on. Her eyes didn’t see innocent fun but three little bobbing carrots – or wiggy-wags as Mom called them – exposed in a state of public indecency, with an over-excited little voyeur enjoying the spectacle. She immediately summoned Louie inside, and gave her a sound thrashing. Mom didn’t appreciate the humour either, and I was given a hiding with a leather strap across my bare buttocks – that were left flaming red and unfit for public display. I was then locked in her bedroom, awaiting the arrival of a policeman to add further punishment. I actually believed her threat, being ever so naïve, and stood fearfully at the bay window peering through the curtains, nervously awaiting my fate. No policeman came, and after receiving a dire warning never to wave my wiggy-wag in public again, I was released on parole. All future shorthorn derbies down the Kinghorn’s driveway were put on hold. Brian and John also got their bare bums roasted for being vulgar in public. The four wretched scallywags went to ground for the next few days.

It was in Johannesburg that I had my first and only near-death experience when I climbed into Dad’s army steel trunk. It started as an innocent game of hide-and-seek and naturally the trunk offered what I thought to be the perfect hiding place. Nobody could find me, and that of course was the problem. After searching the garden and house for some 20 minutes, my friends had to go home. It was Tuesday afternoon, five o’clock. The air raid siren went off every week at that time to familiarize residents with its sound, so that in an emergency they’d be prepared to take protective measures. Unfortunately, I was already in my suffocating shelter, about to die as a little soldier under the most dishonourable circumstances. In those days, five o’clock was also time for kids to toddle off home, and so they abandoned the search.

Mom and Pam went onto the road, walking up and down Raglan Street calling my name. Meanwhile, in that very confined bunker I began to panic as I struggled to breathe. There was no escape as the trunk’s latch had slipped over the protruding catch, trapping me inside. No amount of banging or screaming seemed to draw anyone’s attention to my desperate plight. Eventually, I had no more energy to bang or the breath to call for help. I recall feeling incredibly relaxed… of letting go. Inside that black interior, a sensation of entering a void enveloped me. I sensed that I was travelling, travelling at what seemed like warp speed. In that fading consciousness nothing could stop me… nothing to hang onto or stop the sensation of travelling at this incredible speed within a black void. It was a fearful experience. When Clive eventually found me Iimp and unconsciousness, he called for help to lift me out. Another few minutes inside that trunk would have ended in the graveyard.

Similar sensations of losing complete touch with reality were to re-occur at intervals thereafter – whether related to the trunk incident, I’m not sure – right up until my early twenties, and then no more. Lying in bed in a darkened room with my eyes closed sometimes triggered this unsettling out of body experience in what many would associate with astral travel. The sensation was a distinct separation from the body, and then an amazing journey through a void at unbelievable velocity. On becoming aware of losing contact with the physical world, I’d panic, turn on the light and slowly regain physical and mental composure. Although I don’t admit to being claustrophobic, an occasional panic attack has occurred in the past, especially when isolated within a confined dark space, such as the night I spent in a small outside room on a farm in the Karoo, and the surroundings were pitch black.

Although Pam and Clive would’ve disobeyed military instructions to smuggle little Chummy into a bomb shelter in the event of an air strike, they could do nothing to save his life from the wheels of a township bus. Our much loved pet that Pam adored, accompanied Mom and me to Mrs Corbett’s Kindergarten every day, until one eventful morning he lagged behind. Mom couldn’t wait, as I would’ve been late for school. It was after she had dropped me off that she discovered his dead boy lying in the gutter in Louis Botha Avenue. He was attempting to cross the road when he was struck down by a passing Alexandra township bus. The driver stopped to pick up the body that was lying in a pool of blood in the middle of the road.

That afternoon, Mom had to break the news to Pam on her return from Barnato Park. I was standing on the back veranda peering through her bedroom window watching a very sad silent movie. Mom put her arm around Pam, saying words that I couldn’t hear, but sad enough to cause Pam to burst into tears. I was spared the sound of her pitiful crying. Then Mom left the room, closed the door, leaving poor Pam curled up on her bed in tears. Chummy was gone, and it was then that I wished I were Jesus to bring him back to life. From that day on, whenever I saw an Alexandra township bus on Louis Botha Avenue, I was reminded of our poor little Chummy lying dead in the gutter, and my sister lying curled up in tears.

While the lives of millions of children in Europe and elsewhere in the world were exposed to the horrors and deprivations of the war, we were living in a bubble of peace, and Christmas brought its own unique harmony and joy. The first signs of the season occurred in the kitchen, when in early December Mom began baking mince pies, a grand fruitcake, and a plum pudding. A singular treat was to lick the delicious scrapings from her mixing bowl and spoon – the rich ingredients tasted much better raw than cooked. Christmas Eve, 1944, despite wartime shortages in consumer goods, our home was warm and secure. The lounge festooned with decorations, Dad, our protector, sitting in his regular armchair having a ‘spot’, was the indelible image of that time. Dad would draw attention to the shortages affecting our lives, and express the hope that the war would end soon. But even in the horrors of war, he would often find something in the newspaper to chuckle about. The Star drew his attention to the setbacks affecting the Nazis:

GERMAN TANKS DRAWN BY OXEN. A German prisoner says he saw a Tiger tank being drawn along the road by a span of oxen – the result of a serious petrol shortage in the Wehrmacht.

Our Mullard radio always seemed to be playing in the background, and when the news came on, we all had to be quiet to hear the latest on the war. At that stage the allied forces were slowly advancing through Europe, but just before Christmas the Germans staged a huge offensive in Belgium and Luxembourg. However, the allied juggernaut, together with the Russian advance from the east, would finally crush Germany in the early months of the following year. With the war in its final phase, Dad was spending his last Christmas in uniform – sitting under a canopy of colourful concertina decorations as if victory celebrations had already begun. Although there was a stand-up piano in the lounge, no carols were sung and no nativity set to remind us of what Christmas was really all about. These things came much later when I was a teenager.

Notwithstanding war-time rations, Mom still managed to make the occasion special. As the sole remaining member of the family who still believed in Father Christmas, I enquired whether anyone had thought of cleaning the chimney. I was anxious that he should arrive safely in South Africa, having to cross war-torn Europe without being shot down by anti-aircraft fire. “Hush! Go to bed. Forget about dirty chimneys,” said Mom. “The only reason Father Christmas won’t arrive is where the children aren’t asleep.”

I began to learn and love the smells of Christmas… homemade mince pies, rich fruit cake covered in marzipan and snow icing, bowls of almonds and hazel nuts that needed a nut cracker and a strong hand to crack open. For a commercially minded little brat, the domed-shaped Christmas pudding stuffed with tickeys and sixpences, was an eagerly awaited source of small treasure. It was christened with neat brandy, set alight and served with lashings of delicious hot brandy sauce. An irresistible treat! But before savouring such decadence, we had to plough through generous servings of roast turkey and York ham that Granny had sent from the farm. All these scrumptious, cholesterol-loading ingredients went into the making of our family Christmas fare, a European tradition that many on the continent weren’t able to celebrate that year.

December 1944 also marked the end of my pre-school year at Mrs Corbett’s kindergarten, where an imperfect education in arithmetic had firmly entrenched the belief that one hundred was the highest number in the world, far greater than a thousand or a million. I can’t blame Mrs Corbett for passing on such gross ignorance; it was simply stubbornness to change my mind. It became a question of honour, following an intense argument with Brian, who tried in vain to convince me that a thousand was greater than a hundred. Apart from this poor start to numeracy, I have warm memories of amiable Mrs Corbett’s kindergarten and the lingering smell of dried apricots in my lunch box along with listening to stories about a fox and a hedgehog in Aesop’s fables – and how an Emperor walked stark naked through the streets and didn’t care a fig or get a hiding for exposing his wiggy-wag. The vainglorious idiot thought he was wearing new clothes. All these stories and others embedded themselves in my imagination. The drawing of crudely-shaped stick people and animals with coloured wax crayons that couldn’t draw straight lines, and running around like a wild thing in a large garden playground, was such a carefree, fun time, so far removed from the devastated lives of many others my age in war-torn Europe.

Stories were food for the imagination and vehicles to escape into fantasy, and it took several years to outgrow the indulgence of Pam reading to me. I loved the books of Beatrix Potter and Helen Bannerman’s “Little Black Sambo” – who I thought was a very clever little chap to offer his new clothes, shoes and umbrella to four hungry tigers to discourage them from eating him. Although the story carried zero racist overtones, several reversions of the book’s illustrations and title have been published over the years, the most recent being “The Boy and the Tigers.” Sometimes, the stories I read would literally jump off the page in the pop-up illustrations that delighted a young mind with their 3-D effect.

After my first day in Grade 1 at Orange Grove Primary School in Pembroke Street, I arrived home a very disgruntled pupil. “I never want to go back to that school again! Never!”

“Why?” enquired Mom.

“No, I don’t want to go back!”

“But why?” Mom implored.

“Because the girls in my class chased me around the playground…”

“So, what’s wrong with that? It was probably just a game.”

“No, it wasn’t a game. They held me down… while one of them kissed me. It was horrible!” I groaned, and furiously rubbed my face. Mom suppressed a laugh.

“Come now, you’re just being silly!”

“I’m not silly... I’m cross… very cross!”

“Maybe they thought you were Georgie Porgie, who was going to kiss all the girls and make them cry?”

“Never! I don’t like kissing girls.”

“That’ll change one day, I hope,” and with a smile, she continued preparing my lunch. However, from that day onward, Johannesburg girls, even the very young, assumed piranha status, and when they hunted in packs were to be greatly feared.

Orange Grove was a big step up from kindergarten and it meant going to the same school as Clive. Not only did this school give me a better grounding in numeracy, but it also showed movies. Educational films on nature, hygiene and geography were among those screened in the red brick school hall. Yet irrespective of their subject matter, they meant a break from the tedium of class work. The hall was packed, and those who couldn’t find seats had to stand along the sides or at the back. Movies were the magic that captivated my imagination, particularly in later years during my teens, but the seeds of that enchantment were sown in Johannesburg.

From the Orange Grove school hall to the Astra bioscope near Dundorp’s Corner in Louis Botha Avenue where Captain Marvel entered my psyche as an inspirational hero, the moving image was to become a life-long passion, feeding my insatiable and impressionable imagination. Captain Marvel, the alter ego of young Billy Batson, the Radio News Reporter who merely had to say the magic word, “Shazam,” to change into the superhero Captain Marvel, was the very stuff of every boy’s fantasy. With towels draped over our backs, John, Brian and I “Shazamed” ourselves into a make-believe world. We flew around the back garden performing super-human feats, rescuing our very own damsel in distress, screeching Louie, who would pretend to be tied-up and on the point of death, when we would fly in at the last moment to rescue her. We would knock out the vicious villain or gruesome monster, do all these amazing things, but couldn’t save our damsel from her Ouma’s thrashing.

In bringing home what looked like a little nerd’s first report – in the form of a booklet with a picture of Noah’s ark on the cover – I appeared to be in teacher’s ‘fairly good’ books judging from the comments of Ms Thomas, the class teacher. She had listed the following: – “Progress – satisfactory; Attitude – keen and alert; Number – Good; Writing – Very Good; Reading – Fairly good and Handwork – Fairly Good.” Reading, however, must have deteriorated over the next three months because in the December report the principal, Mr Barnes, wrote, “Neville is careless, but shows improvement. Reading is very weak.”

Although Pam should’ve ceased reading stories to me, as it did nothing to improve my vocabulary and reading skills, it nevertheless enriched a fertile imagination. Clive and I loved Dandy and Beano comics, and accompanied Pam, who enjoyed reading The Girls’ Crystal, to the local CNA every week, and if they didn’t appear on the shelves, we assumed that a ship had gone down. At school assembly, we often sang the hymn, “Oh, Lord we cry to Thee for those in peril on the Sea,” and while thinking of the brave sailors, we included a thought for Beano and Dandy lying at the bottom of the ocean.

Thanks to Dad, I was also beginning to read the game of football. A treasured moment in 1945 was when he took me to a match at the old Wanderers that is now the site of Park Station. I wore an overcoat on that chilly, overcast Saturday afternoon, and held Dad’s hand as we set off down the road to catch the trolley bus, feeling so secure and proud of him. He was my real-life hero and I looked up to him with unstinting admiration. Such pure, innocent and unquestioning love I felt for him. Through the eyes of a small boy, the football stadium looked vast; the atmosphere exhilarating with the crowd cheering and jeering the opposing teams. I took my cue from Dad which side to cheer. The crowd sometimes booed the referee, who ran around the field blowing a very loud whistle as if he too wanted a turn to kick the ball.

Dad was a keen soccer fan, and for a man who was generally quiet around the house, his enthusiasm was uncharacteristically loud in the stands. He jumped to his feet with great excitement and cheered his lungs out when his team scored a goal. Sometimes he flung his arms up in the air and shouted nasty words at the opposing team – especially when he didn’t like what they did. Occasionally, he shouted, “Foul!” which I found most confusing, and thought I may have missed a stray fowl run onto the field. At half-time, he bought me a packet of hot monkey nuts – the ones in the shell that had to be cracked open. I just loved being in his company as it offered such a strong sense of belonging and security. We were bonding as father and son, and he promised to take me to one of the largest rail junctions in the country where trains and chocolates were to leave a lasting impression on my life.

It was a Saturday morning towards the end of the war when Dad, who was still serving at key points along the Reef, took me to Germiston station. We boarded a double-decker trolley bus in 9th Street, sat upstairs where I had a commanding view of the trip to town. Travelling along Louis Botha Avenue, I took note of passing landmarks, and was fascinated by the large double storey houses tucked away behind high stonewalls, visualizing them as the homes of rich Jewish merchants who owned the departmental stores in town. The bus climbed the last section of Louis Botha Avenue where the road arched against a retaining stonewall holding back the hillside, then curled around Claredon Circle before snaking its way through Hillbrow, passing the General Hospital and Joubert Park, until it finally reached our destination.

The railway station was a magnificent building seen through the eyes of a little boy. The massive entrance, flanked on both sides by two imposing stone giants with their huge heads and muscular necks stooped in order to bear the weight of the building upon their powerful shoulders. Descending a broad sweep of stairs into the bowels of this cavernous structure were two impressive fountains open to the sky, with huge red brick columns holding the building together. A small restaurant - facing one of the fountains - with its interior blue Dutch tiles, emitted an aroma of freshly ground coffee and toasted sandwiches. It smelt good. The station building radiated an affable ambience. Dad and I took the first available train to Germiston.

Germiston was a dreary looking station with its long platforms and dirty grey and red brick facade. It looked like the outside of a jail. Initially, I was quite content to sit on a platform bench and enjoy a spell of ‘train-spotting’ – watching the arrival and departure of suburban trains to destinations along the Reef and Pretoria. As a major railway junction, there were many powerful ‘puffers’ to admire. Directed by shunters, they huffed, chuffed and puffed their way along the lines, pulling coaches this way and that, or just standing idle and puffing up a hefty steam. These Garratt locomotives had dragon lungs exhaling vast volumes of steam and smoke, and when the tempo of their deep-throated puffing and chuffing accelerated, they sounded like furious, bad tempered brutes refusing to do anymore work. Some were old and smaller, resembling working models of ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’. Walking slowly alongside a stationary Garratt was a fireman, holding a large oilcan with a long drooping spout, oiling its many moving components. Judging by the state of his overalls, he had given himself a thorough greasing as well.

Electrified suburban trains swept in and out of the station like elongated Chinese dragons – vomiting passengers onto the platform, then gormandizing fresh ones into its serpentine coaches before gliding off again. What riveted my attention, however, were the green electric units, powered by huge humming generators, moving effortlessly along the tracks exuding enormous energy and confidence. What a remarkable sight! It was an enviable job being a train driver, and I would’ve loved the opportunity of sitting upfront with the driver of one of those green giants.

After watching the trains for some time, the chocolate machine on the platform became an increasingly irresistible temptation. It seemed to beckon, “come, little boy, I have lovely goodies for you to eat…” Dad gave me a handful of pennies, and I set about engaging the machine in a fair trade exchange. Popping a round brown penny into the coin slot allowed me to pull a metal drawer to receive a tiny slab of Nestle chocolate. Such ingenuity and retail honesty! I looked up to thank this wonderful machine, and sat down on a platform bench, tore off the red outer wrapping and sunk my teeth into a delicious penny chocolate.

Having exhausted all Dad’s pennies, I looked to the machine for freebies, but it stood firm. It wanted more money. It was as hungry for money as I was for its chocolates. I returned to the office and gave his colleagues – some of whom were also in military uniform – a hangdog look until they felt obliged to give me more pennies to feed this voracious machine. This was to become a contest between a machine – big, hard and mean – and my craving for its contents. The machine at this stage began to assume a rather nasty streak of character. It was not content to merely empty my pockets of every penny, but it had the power to cause an outbreak of the dreaded children’s sickness, ‘chocolate fever’ – a fever feared by all small children because it triggers severe vomiting and headaches, among other unpleasant symptoms.

The greedy machine clearly had ulterior motives in wanting to see me suffer for the sin of gluttony. ‘Chocolate fever’ was a most deceptive and disagreeable condition, because an outbreak occurred without warning; beginning with mild euphoria – a choco high – then a gradual sickening, queasy feeling… finally, a world spinning out of control situation. I was beginning to look at the station through a blurry fish-eye lens. In that state, I thought I saw a mysterious train pull-up at the platform. It was so silent that I almost missed it. It had no destination sign. Several people, mostly elderly and a few soldiers got off, and were led away by the stationmaster never to be seen again, disappearing into a haze of mist. When my daydream ended, the Chocolate Fever had yet to run its full course.

By the time Dad knocked off at one o’clock, I felt and looked dreadful. After turning to give the machine a filthy look, we entered the stomach of a serpentine dragon that wound its way to Johannesburg station, where it spewed us out onto a busy platform. We then took a dizzy trolley ride to Sydenham with head spinning and tummy gurgling on the verge of volcanic eruption. I arrived home and headed straight for the bathroom to hurl a line of liquid chocolate into the sewers. Life was so unfair! If I ever returned to Germiston station, I’d kick that heartless machine until it vomited up all my pennies.

Fortunately, I had fully recovered in time to celebrate the allied victory in Europe. Everyone that I knew – and that wasn’t a particularly wide circle – celebrated that day. To mark the auspicious occasion, I joined my close friends, Brian, John and Louie – all fellow war efforts – in an impromptu VE-Day Parade down Raglan Street on that historic Tuesday 8 May 1945. The volume of our Mullard radio was turned up full, and with military music blaring out, we proudly marched up and down the road singing ‘God Save the King’. Heaven knows what we really understood about the war, except that we had defeated a very bad man called Hitler – his country had surrendered and that Dad and other dads living in the road had all played a small part in that. The entire free world was celebrating in grand style, but we relished our very own Raglan Street victory day parade. The Star reported on the wider celebrations in the city:

The boom of guns from the Berea, the scream of sirens and the whistle of mine hooters proclaimed the announcement. At 15h00, there were more than 10,000 people in the square in front of the City Hall. As the Post Office clock boomed the hour there was a sudden hush, and the crowd listened to the broadcast speech of Mr Churchill telling of the unconditional surrender of German forces in Europe. As the speech ended bells chimed again, sirens sounded, motorists used their hooters and tram drivers rang their gongs. People cheered and shouted and sang.
And three little boys and a girl in Raglan Street shouted forjoy!

In those formative Johannesburg years, I developed a strong sense of being part of a family – a family that stuck together when confronted by objectionable neighbours. Guy Fawkes Night, 1945 – the war was over and we were determined to have a night of big bangs and bright flashes. Dad called it Bonfire Night, deriving vicarious pleasure in putting the torch to Catholic conspirators. Although I didn’t realize the significance of the event until much later, we burnt a Guy, which happened to be my old golliwog that Mom had pitched out. Before it was torched, crackers were inserted up its arms, ears and legs. I made doubly sure it wasn’t my new golliwog, which shared my pillow at night.

Gathered in the back garden and enjoying the explosions and spectacle, one of our skyrockets landed in the next door property of the most obnoxious man in Raglan Street. We had, unwittingly, just started another war. A disembodied voice from behind the high hedge shouted, “what are you hooligans doing?” Dad gulped. As a disciplined army man, he wasn’t used to being called a hooligan.

“Excuse me…”

But before Dad could offer an apology, the voice shouted more threatening abuse, “I’ll call the police if there’s any more of your fireworks coming over into my property.” “The Herrington brats” – as Pam had once heard Mr Kitchin refer to us – continued letting off their fireworks to the very last big bang, as they weren’t going to be intimidated by this miserable misanthrope. Fortunately, the sight of his angry old mug remained unseen because the boundary hedge was so thick and high. Although we couldn’t see clearly into his property, Clive and I had found a gap under the hedge and, like Peter Rabbit, managed to squeeze through into his fruit orchard. But unlike Beatrix Potter’s hero, who sought out the lettuce and French beans, we chose the choicest peaches and plums.

With big brother as my accomplice, I was happy to take whatever abuse that some of the neighbours hurled at us. However, I wasn’t so brave when Clive warned me that an uncle we were about to visit was an ex-pirate.

“Be careful not to flash your tickeys and sixpences in front of him, because he could mistake them for pieces of eight.”

“What’s pieces of eight?”

“Don’t you know?” he said scornfully, as if I were the only boy in the world who didn’t know that. “It’s pirate’s treasure… the silver dollar.”

“But I only get sixpence a week pocket money.”

“Whatever you do, keep it in your pocket… don’t let uncle Len see it, okay.”

“Okay,” I gulped.

“And don’t say anything to Mom or Dad about this…it’s a big family secret… and there’ll be big trouble if they find out that I told you...” Clive lowered his voice and whispered in my ear. “The truth is… uncle Len was stranded on an island, and he and his pirate mates were so hungry… listen carefully to this… that they ate a little boy…” My eyes grew to double their size. “Yeah, about your age the boy was.” I just stared at him with amazement. When the time came to visit uncle Len Matthews and his family, I made an excuse that I didn’t want to go, but Dad insisted, as there was no one to keep an eye on me at home. From the main station, we took the suburban train to Mayfair, and entered a small house near the station. It had a row of steep steps from the pavement to the veranda, and inside everything looked orderly but cramped.

Aunty Louie met us at the front door. As there was no sign of uncle Len, I heaved a sigh of relief. Cousin Reggie, who was 15, invited Clive and me to his bedroom where he demonstrated his boxing skills. “This is how you throw a left jab,” he said.

“Let me try.” I asked.

He also showed Clive and me some fancy footwork, and struck the air with fast flurries and quick jabs. He offered me his boxing gloves, and although they were far too big, I nevertheless tried them on and challenged Clive. “How do you knock someone out?”

However, before Reggie could explain, Clive was happy to oblige and demonstrated his superior strength and agility by knocking me down. While lying on the floor, I heard stomp, stomp, stomp on the wooden floorboards in the passageway. It was approaching the bedroom. The next moment I looked up and saw a man standing in front of me with a wooden leg. My heart was thumping. “Hello!” said the man. I couldn’t utter a reply, but stared at his peg leg with fear. “So this is Clive and… what’s your little brother’s name?”

“Neville.”

“Ah, Neville… that’s a nice name.” I didn’t dare look up in case he was busy licking his lips. I got up off the floor slowly and stood close to Clive. I had never seen anyone with only one leg before… and although I knew that pirates had only one leg, they also wore a patch over one eye. But uncle Len wore glasses and stared at me with two eyes. “I’m hungry,” he said. I suddenly felt sick. “Let’s see what’s cooking… in the kitchen,” and stomped out the room.

When the time came to leave, I gave uncle Len a cursory glance, mumbled goodbye, and fled down the flight of stairs to the pavement and waited for the rest of the family. On the train going home, I said to Dad, “When was uncle Len a pirate?” Dad looked at me as if I were batty. Clive burst out laughing.

“A pirate!” Dad looked at Mom and Pam and smiled. “Uncle Len was never a pirate. He was a soldier in the First World War and lost his leg at Delville Wood.”

I was so cross with Clive that I didn’t want to give him any further satisfaction so I replied, “Oh, I thought he might have lost it crossing the railway line, because you’re always telling us to be careful about that.”

Uncle Len died in 1947, two years after we left Johannesburg. Dad informed me that aunty Louie’s name was really Louisa, named after her Jewish grandmother, who was also my great grandmother. “Why aren’t we Jews?” I asked. “Most people in Johannesburg are Jews,” or, so I thought at the time. Dad told me to stop talking tripe, but I wanted an answer to our place in society. “Our Sunday school teacher says we are ‘gentils’…or, was it…genitals… yes, we’re genitals, not Jews.” At that point, Mom glared at me fiercely while Dad shook his head and laughed. “But that’s what she said… and in the whole world there were more genitals than Jews.” Mom told me to shut my mouth, and threatened to wash it out with carbolic soap.


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