Die Spookhuis

Close to the public swimming pool in Ninth Avenue, Mayfair stood a derelict double storey house.  The house must have been quite old for it was built in the style of early Johannesburg with sash windows, corrugated iron cladding and cast iron balustrades and ornamentation.  The double wrought iron front gates hung askew and the grounds were covered in waist high weeds.

We didn’t know to whom it belonged nor what the story was but the popular belief was that the house was haunted.  The Afrikaans word for “ghost” is “spook” and “huis” means “house” so together “spookhuis” means “ghosthouse” or more correctly, “haunted house”

Die Spookhuis

Die Spookhuis staan eensaam en verlate
Onsamehangend met sy omgewing
 ʼn onbekende se verwaarloosde bate
 
ʼn Dubbelverdieping huis is baie opvallend
Veral  tussen die plat skakelhuisie hordes
Wat netjies saamdrom in rye sonder end
 
Eertyds  ʼn spoghuis, dit is duidelik van buite
Met sy skyfraam vensters en gietyster tralies
Plus deftige skilderglas voordeur en ruite
 
In die twintigejare volgens praatjies gebou
Deur  ʼn welgestelde huidemakelaar
Vir sy eggenoot, ʼn beeldskone jong vrou
 
In my verbeelding ontwaak ʼn volkleurtoneel
Van ʼn geluksalige gesinsgroep
Wat heel gelukkig hier woon, werk en speel
 
Realiteit skep egter veel treurige beelde
Van jarelange verwaarlosing
En die verbrokkeling van  weelde
 
Wat het tot hierdie stand van sake gelei?
Watter ramp, watter tragedie
Het hierdie bekoorlike toneel gekasty?
 
Het die Groot Depressie gely tot bankrotskap?
Of was hulle verslaaf aan dwelms of drank?
Het een of ander euwel hierde mense betrap?
 
Of het een van die paartjie ʼn minaar gekry?
En ontblood, is deur die ander vermoor?
Doodgeskiet tydens ʼn geweldadige stryery?
 
Die bouvallige huis staan baie lank leeg
En elke leidraad wat ek ondersoek
Loop vinnig dood in nog  ʼn blindesteeg
 
Die raaisel van die spookhuis bly dus onverklaar
En sy onnaspeurlike voorkoms
Verklik geen antwoorde, stel eerder meer vrae

The Corner Grocery Store

There were no such things as supermarkets when I was young.  The housewives would walk each day (or perhaps every second day) to the grocery store then on to the butcher shop, the green grocer and finally the dairy to purchase the daily household food needs.  ”Our” grocer was Mr Isadore Goldsmith, a short, rotund man with thinning hair, big ears and sad eyes who always wore a white apron and gold pince-nez spectacles.

The Corner Grocery Store

Gold letters on green painted windows
Proclaim for the world to be seen
“I. Goldsmith – Family Grocer “
But who knows what they really mean?
 
He’s a refugee from Lithuania
Least that’s what mother told me
And he’s come to this faraway country
To live and to work and be free
 
Quiet spoken and short of stature
Ruddy face, big nose and thin hair
He’s proud of his little business
And treats all his customers fair
 
He’s there each day at eight- thirty
Sweeps dust off the red polished floor
Takes the shutters down from the windows
Flings wide the brown painted door
 
Round his middle he ties a white apron
Dusts glass jars on the counter displayed
Counts change into the cash register
Issy Goldsmith is ready for trade
 
All day he weighs out white flour
Brown rice, refined sugar and beans
His shop may be small but he’s happy
Since it’s made him a man of some means
 
Sometimes he thinks of his homeland
Of the family and friends left behind
But if thoughts cause his eyes to go misty
They are quickly dismissed from his mind
 
If a customer’s fallen on hard times
And for much needed goods cannot pay
He books it till things have got better
 Mister Goldsmith turns no one away
 
He knows what it’s like to be hungry
To have will but be without means
To struggle when things are against you
Yesterday that was where he had been
 
Look again at the green painted windows
At the words the gold letters proclaim
And maybe you will know for the first time
That there’s more, much more in a name

Voëllym

One of the “characters” living in our neighbourhood (and there were a few) was Hannes Venter who lived with his wife Hester in the house vacated by the Strydoms after the “Lebs” had trashed it.  They had no children and that’s perhaps the reason they had a car when so few others did.  It was a cream coloured 1948 Pontiac four door sedan which made it about five or six years old when the events described below took place.  If you lived in Mayfair it was because you didn’t have much money and Hannes and my father were constantly hatching “get rich quick” schemes one of which was to drive out to an area Southwest of Johannesburg and there tap a particular species of succulent plant of its milky sap which would later be boiled to produce birdlime.  Once this was done we would leave in the early hours of a Saturday morning to drive to Rustenburg (a country town located a good distance from Johannesburg) where there was a farm dam that Hannes knew of.  According to him the dam attracted many thousands of exotic wild birds which we could capture using the birdlime smeared on the thin side branches of the trees surrounding the dam.  The birds would attempt to land on the sticks covered with birdlime and become stuck. We would then grab them, clean the birdlime off them and put them in holding cages.  When we had caught sufficient numbers and varieties we would transport them back to Johannes burg and sell them to breeders and pet shops and thereby make our fortune.

That was the premise. The reality was a little different. We captured only seven birds in total, five of one species and two of another and neither species was particularly rare.  I doubt they recovered the cost of the petrol to get there and back but we youngsters didn’t care. We had a fine time in the car and at the dam so our world was okay.

 

Voëllym

 
Oom Hannes Venter sê ons kan wilde voëls gaan vang
By  ʼn dam naby Rustenburg genaamd Sukkelaarspan
Blousuisies is volop en Vinke is miljoene verby
En ons gaan hope geld maak, altans so sê hy
Maar eers moet ons self die voëllym produseer
Wat ons dan sal gebruik om op stokkies te smeer
Dit op hul beurt word aan boomtakke gebind
Sodat voëls wat beland  hulle vas sal bevind
 
Suidwes van die stad lê n groot stuk braakland
Deel van oopvlaktes duskant die Suikerbosrand
Juis daar kry ons genoegsame beeskloutjie sap
Deur die plante te sny en die vloeistof te tap
In ʼn pot op die stoof word dit dan afgekook
Tot die inhoud wel lyk soos taai gouestroop
 
Voorbereidings is voltooi en die motor is gelaai
Vroeg bedtoe,môre wiel ons nog voor hanekraai
Kort  voor twee uur die oggend ry die ou Pontiac
Met ons jonges onder komberse op agtersitplek
Voor sonsopkoms is ons daar en als is gereed
Die toneel is spookagtig in ʼn misbaadjie gekleed
En die swerms waarmee ons ons rykdom bereken?
Daglank is daar weinig van hulle ʼn enkele teken
ʼn Skrale vyf ou Blousuisies en ʼn Sebravink paar
Is ʼn power opbrengs om by die huis te verklaar
Die kool was nou wel nie die sous werd gewees
Nietemin wag daar op ons ʼn koninklike fees

 

 

 

Mayhem in Mayfair

Being a poor area, the suburb of Mayfair attracted people of many different nationalities and many different social classes. Among my fellow school pupils there were children of German, Greek, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, Irish, English, Welsh, Croatian, Afrikaans and Lebanese origin. Some folk were financially comfortable (by Mayfair standards) while others were dirt poor (by any standards).

The Afrikaners were among the poorest and worked for the Railways or the Post Office, most often in menial, lowly paid jobs while the Lebanese (or “Lebs” as they were more commonly referred to) worked for themselves running shebeens, selling liquor after hours and weed at all hours. They also did a little illegal gambling on the side and were available as “muscle” to settle disputes. The following poem describes an incident to which I was witness aged about ten or eleven at the time.

Mayhem in Mayfair

That fateful Saturday in Mayfair was, to all purpose and intent
No different from any other that routinely came and then went
There was simply not an inkling of the violence that would come
To scar so many folks before this sad day was finally done
 
Two young girls played with their dolls beneath a poplar tree
Play that should have come to naught but that was not to be
For they began to wrangle as children frequently do
And in this act the makings of a feud began to brew
 
An older brother intervened and smacked the little friend
Who’s brother then came running, his sibling to defend
And thus it escalated with members from both clans
Trying to kill their neighbours with flailing boots and hands
 
One side sent for reinforcements that lived not far away
And were willing to defend their kin in just such an affray
 Soon five cars screeched up and spewed out twenty men
Who stormed the Strydom semi and when they left again
 
The furniture was kindling, the people bruised and bleeding
Who knew that this was where a kiddies spat was leading?
The vanquished left soon after with no forwarding address
Perhaps it was simpler to move than to clean up the mess?

Klein Duimpie

The words “Klein Duimpie” are the Afrikaans equivalent of “Tom Thumb” which was, of course the story of a very small person.  When I was growing up we had our own small person in the figure of a little black man who stood no higher than the average eight year old child but was clearly an adult because he rode an adult bicycle (albeit with some difficulty).  He did not appear to have any deformity and he certainly wasn’t a dwarf in the normally accepted meaning of that descriptor.  He was simply a very short person that was extremely agile and could perform all manner of acrobatic movements to entertain us.  This he did on the tar surface of the street and in return for his performance he expected not only our applause but a few pennies as well.

We knew not his name, where he came from, where he went to nor when he would return because, you see, he spoke a language that we didn’t understand and he didn’t understand the language we spoke.  He would simply arrive and park his bicycle (which was highly decorated with chrome doodads and multi coloured lights) and send the first available child to call the rest. When he had what he considered an audience of sufficient size, the show would begin.  He did forward and backward somersaults, flick-flacks and cartwheels, all the time making these amazing feats look so easy.  Notwithstanding the fact that he wasn’t a dwarf, we always referred to him as “Dwergie” the Afrikaans word for dwarf.

Klein Duimpie

Die Dwergie kom!  Die Dwergie kom!
Die boodskap word versprei
Van straat tot straat en huis tot huis
“Kom kyk die jolery!”
 
Die mannetjie kom so af en toe
Ons kinders te vermaak
Met bolmakiesies en tuimeltoere
Op die teerblad in die straat
 
Forsgebou die Kleine Duimpie
Op sy versierde ysterperd
Wat glinster met blink chroomdele
En menig liggies kop en stert
 
Kommunikasie is wel minimaal
Sy taal kan ons nie praat
Slegs handeklappe en ʼn paar ou lappe
Beloon hierdie bobaas akrobaat
 
Kort voor lank vertrek hy
Waarheen sal ons nie weet
Tot  ʼn ander dag “Die Dwergie Kom!”
Weerklink as bykomskreet

Fourteenth Street

Vrededorp (which literally translated means “Peace Town”) was a small residential area situated on the Western side of Johannesburg.  The residents were a mixed bunch of Blacks, Coloureds, Whites and Indians but predominantly Indians that operated retail “shops” along the length of Fourteenth Street.  While some of the stores were large, well lit affairs others were little more than holes in the wall but all had in common the floor to ceiling towers of trading stock which frequently spilled out on to the pavement during business hours.  The combination of products not usually found in “White” shops and their willingness to haggle down to a “bargain” price attracted customers not only from Johannesburg but also the surrounding towns.  The owners invariably lived in dwellings above their shops and entire families were involved in the daily operation of the business.

Fourteenth Street was so narrow that vehicular traffic was restricted to only one direction but even so movement was painfully slow and finding a parking spot was all but impossible. Pedestrian traffic was equally congested more particularly because of the piles of boxes and clothes racks that spilled out of the shops on to the pavements. Happily these impediments did nothing to reduce the number of visitors particularly on Saturday mornings.

Fourteenth Street is sadly no more because the then government decided to “move” the Indians to their own area and in the process one of the most colourful aspects of Johannesburg life simply disappeared.

 

 Fourteenth Street

Just step inside the shop Sir
I’ve bargains you can’t beat
You’ll hear this cry in Vrededorp
On bustling Fourteenth Street
 
The shops are small
The stocks are large
Goods spill out everywhere
You dodge a box
You mind a rack
Smell incense in the air
 
With names like “Family Shoe Store”
And “Ismael’s Bargain Centre”
They stand out on the pavement
Entreating you to enter
 
“Look at this suit
Just feel that cloth
Let’s slip it on for size
It’s perfect Sir
I’ll wrap it up
Now what about a tie?”
 
The young, the old and in-between
To purchase, would induce us
The kids sell combs and razor blades
The mothers sell samoosas
 
His price is high
You beat him down
 He cries “That’s less than cost!”
You turn to go
He grabs your arm
The sale must not be lost
 
From Kensington and Florida
From Houghton or Crown Gardens
The people come from near and far
To find those special bargains
 
The same they say
Will cost you more
At any other shop
Their profit’s low
And so is the rent
Besides, it’s bankrupt stock
 
Saris direct from India
Fine weaves from Hong Kong
Brass ornaments from Thailand
All write the merchants song
 
A bell rings out
The auction starts
“Who’ll give me five and six?”
The bids increase
The vase is cracked
“But Sir, it can be fixed!”
 
Amid the clamour suddenly
A voice rings out somewhere
In mystic tongue and unknown chant
Calls the faithful to their prayer
 
Some go some stay
They work in shifts
Lose business? Not a one!
The money flows
And goods change hands
Until the day is done
 
Then shutters up and close the doors
On Fourteenth, straight and narrow
And naught but night sounds will be heard
‘til they trade again tomorrow
 

Die Politiek

When I was a child, South African politics was the almost exclusive preserve of the white population and loyalties were split very much along language lines. Up until the elections of 1948, the ruling (and English speaking) party was the United Party under the leadership of General Jan Smuts while the opposition (and Afrikaans speaking) party was the National party under the leadership of Dr D.F. Malan.

Electioneering at grass roots level was done by way of street corner meetings in the suburbs. These were always rowdy affairs with speakers being heckled and members of the audience verbally abusing those of the opposing party.  Arguments frequently became heated and there would always be a number of tough guys ready, willing and very able to settle matters by physical violence.  To see one or even several brawls in an evening was the attraction for us youngsters and we wouldn’t miss such a gathering held in our neighbourhood or close by.

Die Politiek

Politikebyeenkomste het ons jonges verwonder
Want deurgaans het volwasses mekaar dik gedonder
Die skeiding was duidelik tussen Bloedsap en Nat
Geen plek vir  ʼn draadsitter nie jy’s dit of jy’s dat
 
Verrigtinge verloop kalm en die spreker kry kans
Tot hy iets omstrede sê wat die poppe laat dans
In elke gedrang skuil daar  ʼn slu  onrustoker
Wat kamerade kan opsweep om ander te moker
 
“Moer hom Koos” is genoeg vir  ʼn vuurige ou
Om  ʼn stommerik te laat lê met een uitklophou
Dan is dit chaos, ʼn toneel  veel  beter as ʼn fliek
Want almal slaan vuis terwille van die politiek