Christmas Lights

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 Lights

 The 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 (Kites)

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.

VLIEëRS

Op 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
 
 

Die Skoenlappers (The Cobblers)

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 Skoenlappers

 Die 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
 

Edlaw Mansions

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 Mansions

My 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
 

Die Foefieslide

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.

 Die Foefieslide

 Staal tou tussen twee bloekombome
Lekker styf gespan
Oor die water lê sy weg
Met slegs ʼn katrol om aan vas te hang
 
Stewig vas aan beide kant
Een hoog daarbo die ander laag
Finaal getoets, ja als is reg
“Toe nou manne wie gaan dit waag?”
 
“Ek’s nie bang” sê ons jong held
En begin die boom te klim
Sjoe! Maar dis hoog as ek moet val
Bly daar van my bra min
 
Dis nou te laat ek kannie terug
Al breek ek hier my nek
My bek’s te groot dit weet ek goed
Daar’s nou geen kop uittrek
 
Vat dan goed vas en skop my weg
Op pad met volle vaart
Dis maklik vir dié daar op die wal
Hulle gee my goeie raad
 
My oë is toe, my hande klam
Meteens tref voete grond
Ek’s veilig nou en sê “Dis niks”
Maar my hart sit in my mond
 
Nou gaan die ander een vir een
Ek lag vir hulle vrees
Dit kan ek doen, ek is mos baas
Ek het die foefieslide oorheers

The Movie Matinee

As a pre-teen I could not wait for Saturdays to come round. Not only was there no school but Saturday afternoon was when my friends and I went to the afternoon movie showing at the local cinema, which was known by all as “The Bughouse”. The performance always consisted of an animated comedy involving either Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny or Porky pig followed by an episode of a serial normally involving good and bad cowboys. Then there was an interval and after that the feature film started.

Unlike going to the cinema today, where silence is demanded during the showing of the movie, we would loudly try to warn the hero of approaching danger or boo the villain when he committed some dastardly deed. We were in the movie with the actors!The copy of the movies was often of poor quality and occasionally the film would snap and the showing would be interrupted while the projectionist sorted the break out. When this happened the entire audience would whistle and catcall and stomp their feet until the show got going again.  At the time I describe we in South Africa did not have television so the cinema was an extremely important form of entertainment for us.

The Movie Matinee

A single shiny sixpence was all you had to pay
For entrance to the magic world of the Movie Matinee
So small a price to be a part of each exciting scene
That weekly mesmerised us as they flickered on the screen
 
Saturday at one-thirty (you daren’t get there late!)
For then you’d surely miss the opening of the gate
And the ensuing mad stampede of many youthful feet
Racing to be the first to grab a centre front row seat
 
As lights go dim and heavy curtains quietly glide apart
There is a sudden silence for the show’s about to start
With ads for some exotic things for which we cannot pay
Save here in the half-light where fantasy holds sway
 
Bored by the allure of an expensive French perfume
Impatiently we fidget waiting for our favourite cartoon
Which One? Who Cares? To us they’re all so funny
Suddenly we’re cheering the appearance of Bugs Bunny
 
Then on to important business, the new serial episode
Last week the Peon miners had struck the mother lode
But now the greedy Baron will blow the dam upstream
Unless our handsome hero can foil his dirty scheme
 
Intermission is the time for a coloured water drink
And many sage opinions prefaced with “I think”
That the hero didn’t drown and he’ll yet save the day
When he rides again next week in the Movie Matinee
 
Time now for the feature, today it’s Superman
Bending bars of solid steel and saving Lois Lane
Emerging from a phone booth, innocuous Clark Kent
The safeguarding of Metropolis his singular intent
 
Too soon the show is over, the afternoon is gone
We jostle out the exits and amble slowly home
Reliving all the action in a blow by blow replay
Counting days and hours ‘til again it’s Saturday
 
 

Blind Patrick

We lived in a two bedroom semi detached house in Mayfair and our Landlord (who was also our neighbour) was a blind man whose Christian name was Patrick.  I don’t know that I ever knew his surname and I certainly can’t remember it now so I refer to him simply as “Blind Patrick”.

Every day except Sundays, Patrick would walk the three blocks from his home to the tram terminus where he would board a tram to take him into the City.  In the City he would walk a block and a half to his spot beside the Northern aspect of the City Hall and there he would stand all day, tin cup in hand, begging for a coin or two from passersby. At about five-o-clock he would leave his spot and retrace his steps home.  I knew his routine because I had once travelled into the City with him.

Blind Patrick

Ears straining to detect amidst the familiar comforting sounds
Those that warn of danger
He walks with cautious confidence born of years of practice
White stick, tap tapping
 
Boarding the tram for the trip into town is a long acquired skill
Performed with exaggerated action
And the sightless journey is punctuated only by the greetings
Of those identified by voice alone
 
Alight at journey’s end and tap with measured step the distance
To his own appointed place
There to stand protected by unwritten law that forbids intrusion
By another of his kind
 
A penny in a tin cup rattles to attract those who would make
Some small donation
And for those passing guilty by looking at some distant point
Just a hint of a smile
 
What visions inhabit his mind? What shape and size and colour
Does he apply to city sounds?
For never having seen these things do they appear to him
As they do to us?
 
Does he simply accept them for what he has been told they are
Giving them no further form
Content that they exist as described by some sighted soul
Needing nothing more
 
Is he certain only that today will pass as did yesterday?
And as will tomorrow?
Content to challenge with unseeing eyes that which he knows not
Yet knows so well?
 
Is each step taken, each day successfully negotiated 
A singular achievement?
Or is he so accustomed to his lot that like us his only fear
Is of the unknown?
 
Seek no answers in his face for his serene countenance
Affords no clues
Nor do his unseeing eyes yield solutions but prompt instead
Further questions
 
Keep then your secrets Blind Patrick and continue in weather
Fair and foul
To challenge the sighted world with indomitable courage
 White stick tap tapping