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.
The City’s all dressed up for ChristmasThe streets are ablaze with bright lightsFamilies stroll hand in hand on the main streetsWide eyed at the Yuletide delightsShop windows with scenes of the North PoleMock snow renders everything whiteAnd the heat of an African summerDetracts not one jot from the sightSanta’s workshop is busy as usualWith industrious elves making toysFor the girls doll’s houses and cradlesWood blocks and wagons for boysIn their parlour sit Santa and Mrs ClausBefore a cheerful log fire gently rockingSoon he’ll leave on his annual journey To fill many a child’s Christmas stockingOutside stands the sleigh quietly waitingTo be drawn at great speed I suppose By the reindeer team led by RudolphThe one with the shiny red noseStreet lights and store windows are prettyBut the best place to see after darkIs the glittering world of the fairiesThat each year transforms Joubert ParkNo doubt the right place for enchantmentEvery turn holds a brand new surpriseAnd we marvel at the storybook pageantBrought to life under Johannesburg skiesCinderella’s busy sweeping the kitchenWhile her step-sisters prepare for the ballAnd Humpty sits wobbling precariouslySurveying the Kings men from his wallSnow white waves goodbye to the sevenAs they march off to work in the mineWhile the hatter runs ‘round in a frenzyDouble checking his watch for the timeIn contrast mother goose reads a story To a group that includes Little Boy BlueAnd a dozen or more of the offspring Of the woman who lives in a shoeBut the favourite display without questionIs the tableau of First Christmas nightWith the infant asleep in the mangerSoft lit by the East Star so brightAn ox and an ass look on quietlyAt father Joseph and mother Mary sereneWhile Three Kings bearing gifts for the BabyComplete this timeless nativity sceneFor a month ‘til twelfth night each summerNoël lights shine bright as many a jewelThen fade but leave not without promiseTo return again for our pleasure next Yule
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 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.
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
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.
Ears straining to detect amidst the familiar comforting soundsThose that warn of dangerHe walks with cautious confidence born of years of practiceWhite stick, tap tappingBoarding the tram for the trip into town is a long acquired skillPerformed with exaggerated actionAnd the sightless journey is punctuated only by the greetings Of those identified by voice aloneAlight at journey’s end and tap with measured step the distanceTo his own appointed placeThere to stand protected by unwritten law that forbids intrusionBy another of his kindA penny in a tin cup rattles to attract those who would make Some small donationAnd for those passing guilty by looking at some distant pointJust a hint of a smileWhat visions inhabit his mind? What shape and size and colourDoes he apply to city sounds?For never having seen these things do they appear to himAs they do to us?Does he simply accept them for what he has been told they areGiving them no further formContent that they exist as described by some sighted soulNeeding nothing moreIs he certain only that today will pass as did yesterday?And as will tomorrow?Content to challenge with unseeing eyes that which he knows notYet 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 countenanceAffords no cluesNor do his unseeing eyes yield solutions but prompt insteadFurther questionsKeep then your secrets Blind Patrick and continue in weather Fair and foul To challenge the sighted world with indomitable courage White stick tap tapping
The Police Athletic Stadium in Mayfair was located directly behind the public swimming pool in Ninth Avenue and consisted of an oval, eight lane athletics track surrounding a grassed rugby field. On the Eastern side was a grand stand overlooking the start/finish straight and a six foot high diamond mesh perimeter fence enclosed the whole complex. While the stadium was under construction the entrance gates were not locked and this gave the local children access to the athletics track which was informally used as a bicycle race track.
On the day in question, workmen had dug a trench on the far side straight in order to gain access to some underground piping. The trench cut through lane one and then into the rugby field leaving the other seven lanes intact. I was not present when my “friends” spotted this and decided it would be an excellent opportunity to play a prank on me by challenging me to a cycle race in which they would give me the inside lane. We would start, as usual, from the start/finish straight so I would have no opportunity to see the trench on the far side in advance. During the race the group would box me in so that I was forced to stay in the inside lane and when we got to the trench I would fall in to the hole going at some speed. They imagined that the accident should be quite spectacular and all except me would have a big laugh about it.
The Cycle Race
Bring your bike and we’ll race the track at the police athletic groundOne quarter mile flat and the quickest time is now 65 seconds aroundWho did the best? Who got that time? Was what I demanded to know?Well, Leonard did by a country mile, the others were much too slowIf you think you’ll do better come with us, we’ll settle the matter thereThe trap is set, they know me too well and I just can’t resist the dareNext thing we’re ready, five abreast and I’ve drawn the inside trackGet away fast and stay out in front, that’s my simple plan of attackI’m much too excited to spot the deceit, winning has addled my brainAlmost too late I look up to see a trench, three feet wide cross my laneInstinct takes over, I’ve no time to think, fling body and bike in the airUp over the maw that’s waiting to bite, land safe with inches to spareNow it’s a joke, let’s all have a laugh but clearly I see through their planFrom quasi “friends” a lesson in life, trust only yourself my young man
I entered high school aged thirteen years and ten months and quickly realised that this was a very different world to that which I had enjoyed in primary school. For starters, there were “boys” in short pants that had heavy facial stubble and looked old enough to be my father. Some of them were already hard cases and when, at lunch break they enquired “What are we eating today?” you handed over your lunch without argument.
The teachers were also a motley assortment with some so old they looked as though they might drop dead in the middle of a lesson and others younger and more intimidating. It was the latter group that was more dangerous because they gave “cuts” for real or imagined transgressions. The “caning” of boys was standard disciplinary procedure in those days and generally consisted of three strokes to the behind with a light, bamboo cane for minor infractions and six stokes for more serious offences.
The headmaster of the school was a stern, red faced individual with thinning hair combed straight back. He was devoid of a sense of humour and I didn’t once see him smile in the five years I was at the school. Understandably, his nickname was “Turkey” because of his ruddy complexion but also because of his drooping jowls which resembled the wattles on a turkey. The Afrikaans word for turkey is kalkoen and this poem is accordingly titled “Meneer de Kalkoen” or Mister Turkey.
Meneer de Kalkoen
Die Hoof van ons skool was besonders gemeenMet ŉ bloedrooi gesig en ŉ kalkoen kakebeenGroen oe soos albasters, koud hard en rond En nimmer ŉ glimlag op sy stywe ou mondLanger as ses voet en reguit soos ŉ paalHare effe bles die blinkkleur van staalEn hande soos skopgrawe soepel en sterkHeel geskik om oorlelle se sake te werkSy bynaam? Wat anders as “Meneer de Kalkoen”Maar slegs buite gehoor word dit hardop genoemWant sê jy dit elders en word jy gevangGaan jou sitvlak goed brand van rottang se gesangSy voorkoms en humeur het gesag afgedwingMaar seuns bly maar seuns en die duiwel glip inOnnoselle jeug hoekom waag jy so ŉ streekIn sy kantoor word jou astrantheid gou-gou gebreekRegter, Jurie en Laksman drie in een is KalkoenJy’s skuldig, buk vooroor, vingerpunte teen skoenTrek boudspiere styf, beheer skreeuende breinHoor rottang se fluit wetend hier kom die pynDrie pers strepe sal kort-kort jou boude versierNet bravade dwing jou daartoe die seer te verduurEn die folteraar kyk snags diep in ŉ bottel brandewynSy gewete te sus vir sy rol as boodskapper van pyn
My father, Gerhardus Hermanus du Toit, was one of life’s great enigmas. He came from an Afrikaans upbringing yet married an English speaking woman, spoke only English himself and considered the “English” orientated United Party his lifelong political home. During World War Two, he was working on the Langlaagte Deep Mine as a shaft timber man and because mining and miners were considered “essential “to the war effort,he was not allowed to “signup” for active duty. So strongly did he believe that he had an obligation to do his bit that his simple solution was to quit the mine job and signup anyway leaving my mother to do the best she could on the meagre army pay. Joining the army simultaneously gave the finger to his Afrikaans relatives since the majority of Afrikaners openly or secretly supported Germany. Manie, as he was known, spent three years in the Signal Corps seeing action first in Egypt and later in Italy. He returned home physically unscathed but like so many returning soldiers the scars were on his psyche.
Come let me wash your face son We are going to meet your DadHe’s coming home from up North sonAnd he’ll leave us no more, are you glad?The troop train’s due in at eleven sonThree years last week he’s been goneBut today he’ll be at Park Station sonAnd he’ll wonder at how big you’ve grownJust look at the flags on the streets sonWe are flying the proud Union JackJohannesburg is happy today sonFor at last her men have come backHold tight to my hand on the platform sonOr you’ll surely get lost in this throngHear Johannesburg lifting her voice sonTo welcome her men with a songDon’t fret, I’m not really crying sonFor tears can mean both joy and painAnd my heart’s bubbling over today sonFor your Dad will be with us againSome day when you have grown up sonYou’ll know why I’m no longer afraidAnd why there are faces missing sonAnd the terrible price that was paidBut for now be happy and smile sonThere’s nothing can mar our joyWe’ll pick up the threads of our life sonYour Dad your Mom and their boyLook! There’s your Dad at a window sonNow wave, wave with both handsThere look, he’s seen us, he’s wavingAt last, back from far distant lands There’s hugging and kissing and crying No more will Mother be sadFor a man is back with his familyOur Soldier, our Hero, my Dad