George Bernard Shaw was well-known for his acid wit and had very clear opinions on most subjects. One of his gems is that “Youth is such a wonderful thing; it’s a pity it is wasted on the young”. How right he is! Like most children I wished my youth away then continued this stupidity into adulthood and on into old age. Wishing my life away is possibly the only wish that has ever come true for me but somehow I don’t think congratulations are in order.
The Johannesburg of my youth was a fascinating place to be at Christmas time because the city centre was transformed by the City Council and Department stores into a night time wonderland of twinkling lights, window displays and giant, decorated Christmas trees. Hundreds of families would descend on the city after dark to stroll along Eloff, Rissik and President Streets and because traffic was light it was safe to walk arm in arm in the middle of the road. The summer weather would be balmy with star filled skies above, except, of course if there happened to be a sudden thunder storm. These rarely lasted very long so you simply took cover until the rain stopped and the stars came out again and then you continued your tour of the displays.
While the Christmas and Nativity scenes in the department stores were very attractive it was to Joubert (pronounced jewbear) park that everyone made their way because there the City Council pulled out all the stops and created the most magnificent fairytale wonderland imaginable.
Folks would buy big bunny balloons for the kids and ice creams and candy floss for everyone then stroll at their leisure through the park staring in wonderment at the displays.
Christmas LightsThe City’s all dressed up for Christmas The streets are ablaze with bright lights Families stroll hand in hand on the main streets Wide eyed at the Yuletide delights Shop windows with scenes of the North Pole Mock snow renders everything white And the heat of an African summer Detracts not one jot from the sight Santa’s workshop is busy as usual With industrious elves making toys For the girls doll’s houses and cradles Wood blocks and wagons for boys In their parlour sit Santa and Mrs Claus Before a cheerful log fire gently rocking Soon he’ll leave on his annual journey To fill many a child’s Christmas stocking Outside stands the sleigh quietly waiting To be drawn at great speed I suppose By the reindeer team led by Rudolph The one with the shiny red nose Street lights and store windows are pretty But the best place to see after dark Is the glittering world of the fairies That each year transforms Joubert Park No doubt the right place for enchantment Every turn holds a brand new surprise And we marvel at the storybook pageant Brought to life under Johannesburg skies Cinderella’s busy sweeping the kitchen While her step-sisters prepare for the ball And Humpty sits wobbling precariously Surveying the Kings men from his wall Snow white waves goodbye to the seven As they march off to work in the mine While the hatter runs ‘round in a frenzy Double checking his watch for the time In contrast mother goose reads a story To a group that includes Little Boy Blue And a dozen or more of the offspring Of the woman who lives in a shoe But the favourite display without question Is the tableau of First Christmas night With the infant asleep in the manger Soft lit by the East Star so bright An ox and an ass look on quietly At father Joseph and mother Mary serene While Three Kings bearing gifts for the Baby Complete this timeless nativity scene For a month ‘til twelfth night each summer Noël lights shine bright as many a jewel Then fade but leave not without promise To return again for our pleasure next Yule
Vlieërs is the Afrikaans term for Kites and I devoted a great deal of my youth to making and flying kites. No two kites that I made were ever identical in performance and I was fascinated by the diversity of personalities they displayed. Some were aggressive in flight while others were completely docile. Some took their role very seriously while others were playful. However they behaved, the basic construction materials were always the same and consisted of bamboo strips, tissue paper, strong cotton and glue.
On the day described below, my friends and I wanted to make a few kites but had no bamboo and no money to buy some from the farmer who sold it to us for a penny a length. After some discussion, the solution seemed obvious – we would simply help ourselves to a few lengths. All we had to do was not get caught. That part of the plan didn’t work too well and I had to take a hiding stoically since I couldn’t tell my parents what had happened. To confess my crime would doubtless have generated another hiding – this time from my father.
VLIEëRSOp ŉ dag wil ons toe vlieërs maak Maar bamboes het ons nie Die ou boer by Langlaagte het Maar hy vra daarvoor ŉ pennie G’n een het geld, wat sal ons maak Maar wag! Louis het ŉ plan Daar is gevaar maar ons is jonk Kom ons gaan steel daarvan So gesê so gedaan En kort kort is ons daar Stilletjies kap ons bamboes af Niemand moet ons gewaar Skielik skreeu ŉ stem hardop “Haai wat maak jul daar?” Dit is die boer, hy’t ons gesien Vandag kry ons pakslae Die oubaas en twee outas Kom vinnig aangedraf En voor hul hol vier honde Met skrikwekkende geblaf Elkeen laat sy bamboes val En kies ŉ wegkom pad Ons spat in alle rigtings uit En vrees gee bene vaart Ek hardloop deur die bloekombos Maar struikel oor ŉ tak Ek val my stom, my wind is uit Meteens is ek betrap Die outas hou my stewig vas Ek pleit en tjank en ruk Dit help my niks, pak gaan ek kry Hul maak my vooroor buk Die oubaas slaan my pienk en pers Met sy renostervel sambok Die pyn is erg my boude brand Ek soebat “Hou tog op!” Skielik word ek los gelaat Dit is my wegkom kans Hul gryp na my maar ek is weg So vinnig soos ŉ haas By die huis gaan dit maar ewe swaar Want Ma wil weet hoekom Ek nie wil sit, bly liewers staan “Wat’s fout, toe sê nou jong?” “Ek het perd gery en afgeval Op sitvlak hard beland” Of sy my glo kan ek nie sê En ek’s vroeg bed toe die aand
According to Jean Paul Sartre “The poor don’t know that their function in life is to exercise our generosity”. Perhaps that is true but the lady in the next poem knew nothing of Sartre or of his words yet she succeeded in exercising my generosity.
Pizza NightFriday night is pizza night and this night it’s my turn to buy Two quatros in hand as I reach the car a woman catches my eye Her sandals are all but worn through and the babe on her back makes no cry She’s tired but worse she is broken and instinct alone makes her try To sell one more cheap little tray cloth so they might eat rather than die I have no need of her offering but I reach for my purse with a sigh And buy not one but two bits of lace, thinking “But for God’s grace there go I”
In my youth, neither money nor goods were in plentiful supply and the culture of the day was one of “repair” rather than “replace” as is the modern approach. This repair philosophy applied to almost everything, not least of all to shoes. At that time, both the uppers and the soles of shoes were generally made from genuine leather and with reasonable care they would last for many years and be handed down to younger siblings or cousins as you outgrew them. Along the way they might have several sets of heels and be “half soled and heeled” at least once and possibly more. There existed specialist shoe repair businesses to whom you took your worn shoes and other leather goods for expert attention and our local “shoemaker” business was operated by a Mister Johannes Wolmarans together with his partner a Mister Gerhardus Nel from premises in Central Avenue, Mayfair.
I loved going to their shop to watch the sewing machines and the grinding and buffing wheels that were driven by flat canvass drive belts powered by a shaft which ran the length of one wall. I also enjoyed inspecting the variety and diversity of items brought in for repair. From shoes of every size and description through leather briefcases and school bags to saddles and bridles, they all received the expert attention of the repairers.
Sadly this business and many like it is no more. It was overtaken by progress in the form of artificial materials, the ‘throwaway’ society and fashion trends that dictate change often well before the product has reached the end of its useful life.
Here is my tribute to the shoemakers.
Die SkoenlappersDie Ooms Johannes Wolmarans en Gerhardus Nel Was in Sentraal Laan bedrywig met skoene herstel Skoenreparasie was vanmelewe ŉ waardige professie Want wegsmyt van stukkendes was buite die kwessie Egte leerskoene is deurgaans duursaam en sterk Maar lewensverwagting word wel deur misbruik beperk Om klippe en blikke te skop en in poele te baljaar Beteken kort voor lank is duur trappers so te sê klaar Maar als is nie verlore daar’s tog hulp byderhand Die plaaslike skoenlappers bied wel kundige bystand Slegs tiensjielings en ŉ sikspens koop half sole en hakke En gepoets lyk die ou skoeisel weer vanuit boonste rakke En hul dienste beloop meer as net skoenedrag voorwaar Omtrent enige leer artikel word wel vir reparasie aanvaar Van ŉ voetbal of ŉ skoolsak tot ŉ leer baadjie of ŉ saal As dit van gelooide vel gemaak is geld daar geen bepaal Die aroma van die plek lê nog altyd sterk in my neus En in my kop maal die ritme van hamerslagte op lees Asook die gons van poetswiele getol deur seilbande Begelei deur naaimasjiene onder vaardige hande Nou is die winkel gesloop, die saak verban tot die verlede ŉ Kantoorgebou op sy plek, veel meer geskik vir die hede Mens en masjien is tot die laaste lank daarmee heen Nes die verlies van my jeug wat my somtyds laat ween
I was born in a nursing home in the Southern suburbs of Johannesburg. Why I got this special treatment at a time when home birthing was the norm, I never did find out. When my mother and I got to go home it was to a two storey block of flats on Central Avenue which is the main road through Mayfair. The flats were tiny two bedroom, one bathroom affairs and number 3 was to be my first home.
Edlaw MansionsMy first permanent abode (after the womb, I must stress) Was number three Edlaw Mansions, Central Avenue no less Sadly not Illovo nor Athol nor even Eastleigh my dear But Mayfair, near Fordsburg, the wrong trackside I fear And “Mansions” was poetic licence misused to excess So grand a title far removed from reality, I guess Yet its two bedroom flats served for many a year As refuge and haven for all who lived there A veritable potpourri of people used this address All forced there by hard times, by financial distress And things were seldom as they might outward appear With any signs of prosperity just a fragile veneer In the absence of affluence one could sense nonetheless The unmistakable presence of class consciousness And while the language division was painfully clear Politeness and civility is what you’d publicly hear Those on their way up might try hard to impress With a new woollen suit or a smart winter dress And those of less fortune would pretend to good cheer Then blow their last shilling on two bottles of beer Gone now the mansions, in the name of progress But neither absence nor time can serve to repress The memory of those who arrived in joy or in tear To find warmth in her shelter, to be held by her near
The contraption that we called a “Foefieslide” was created by slinging a length of steel, multi strand cable between two trees. The trees had to be at different elevations so that the cable ran from a high point to a low point and the steeper the angle of decline the better. A pulley wheel with a handle was slid onto the cable prior to securing the cable ends to their respective trees. A length of rope was tied to the pulley so that it could be reeled up to the high point where the brave (or stupid?) could grab hold of the handle with both hands and then launch themselves to slide down the length of the cable. Generally the height of the cable above the ground was sufficient to dissuade the one sliding down from letting go. The choice was simple. You could let go and break some bones in the fall or you could hold on until the end of the ride. No one let go!
On the day in question we had a newly made slide that was not only high but ran over water and it needed a test run. Quite stupidly I had volunteered.