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
 
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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
 

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

The Cycle Race

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 ground
One quarter mile flat and the quickest time is now 65 seconds around
Who 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 slow
 
If you think you’ll do better come with us, we’ll settle the matter there
The trap is set, they know me too well and I just can’t resist the dare
Next thing we’re ready, five abreast and I’ve drawn the inside track
Get away fast and stay out in front, that’s my simple plan of attack
 
I’m much too excited to spot the deceit, winning has addled my brain
Almost too late I look up to see a trench, three feet wide cross my lane
Instinct takes over, I’ve no time to think, fling body and bike in the air
Up over the maw that’s waiting to bite, land safe with inches to spare
 
Now it’s a joke, let’s all have a laugh but clearly I see through their plan
From quasi “friends” a lesson in life, trust only yourself my young man

Meneer de Kalkoen

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 gemeen
Met  ʼn bloedrooi gesig en  ʼn kalkoen kakebeen
Groen oe soos albasters, koud hard en rond
En nimmer  ʼn glimlag op sy stywe ou mond
 
Langer as ses voet en reguit soos  ʼn paal
Hare effe bles die blinkkleur van staal
En hande soos skopgrawe soepel en sterk
Heel  geskik om oorlelle se sake te werk
 
Sy bynaam? Wat anders as “Meneer de Kalkoen”
Maar slegs buite gehoor word dit hardop genoem
Want sê jy dit elders en word jy gevang
Gaan jou sitvlak goed brand van rottang se gesang
 
Sy voorkoms en humeur het gesag afgedwing
Maar seuns bly maar seuns en die duiwel glip in
Onnoselle jeug hoekom waag jy so ʼn streek
In sy kantoor word jou astrantheid gou-gou gebreek
 
Regter, Jurie en Laksman drie in een is Kalkoen
Jy’s skuldig, buk vooroor, vingerpunte teen skoen
Trek boudspiere styf,  beheer skreeuende brein
Hoor rottang se fluit wetend hier kom die pyn
 
Drie pers strepe sal kort-kort jou boude versier
Net bravade dwing jou daartoe die seer te verduur
En die folteraar kyk snags diep in ʼn bottel brandewyn
Sy gewete te sus vir sy rol as boodskapper van pyn

The Soldier

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.

The Soldier

Come let me wash your face son
We are going to meet your Dad
He’s coming home from up North son
And he’ll leave us no more, are you glad?
 
The troop train’s due in at eleven son
Three years last week he’s been gone
But today he’ll be at Park Station son
And he’ll wonder at how big you’ve grown
 
Just look at the flags on the streets son
We are flying the proud Union Jack
Johannesburg is happy today son
For at last her men have come back
 
Hold tight to my hand on the platform son
Or you’ll surely get lost in this throng
Hear Johannesburg lifting her voice son
To welcome her men with a song
 
Don’t fret, I’m not really crying son
For tears can mean both joy and pain
And my heart’s bubbling over today son
For your Dad will be with us again
 
Some day when you have grown up son
You’ll know why I’m no longer afraid
And why there are faces missing son
And the terrible price that was paid
 
But for now be happy and smile son
There’s nothing can mar our joy
We’ll pick up the threads of our life son
Your Dad your Mom and their boy
 
Look! There’s your Dad at a window son
Now wave, wave with both hands
There look, he’s seen us, he’s waving
At last, back from far distant lands
 
 There’s hugging and kissing and crying
 No more will Mother be sad
For a man is back with his family
Our Soldier, our Hero, my Dad