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

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

Kleilat Gooi

My youth was spent (or perhaps misspent) in the vicinity of a number of goldmine dumps and two small dams. The dams were fed by a combination of water pumped from mine dewatering operations and rainwater runoff, neither of which was very healthy I suspect. We didn’t care whether the water was good for us or not and played and swam many long summers away in the one dam or the other. The upper dam was known by us as the “Blue” dam while the lower dam was the “Brown” dam. The major difference between the two was that the “Blue” dam had sticky yellow clay deposits along its shoreline and we spent many happy hours making war by hurling clay balls at one another using short sticks cut from the blue gum trees. The idea is simplicity itself. First you cut a 600 to 700 millimetre long blue gum stick of about 15 to 20 millimetre diameter. Then you gather a huge lump of the yellow clay and knead it until it’s nice and plastic. Then you mould a lump of clay the size of a golf ball on to one end of the stick and holding the other end firmly in your hand, you swing the stick in a 90 degree arc starting from a horizontal position and stopping abruptly at the vertical position. This action has the effect of releasing the lump of clay from the tip of the stick and turning it into a projectile that, with practice can be accurately aimed at a target and delivered with painful consequences if the target happens to be human.

Many a bloodless battle was thus fought between two opposing armies and the most serious injuries that I can recall were some lumps and a few multi coloured bruises.


Daar onder by die Bloudam
Was die klei so taai en geel
En elke dag was dit onspret
Om kleilat te gaan speel
Gepaste lat van bloekomboom
Brei klont stewig op sy spits
Lanseer die skoot op volle vaart
Die vyande goed te klits
Dis ek en Bob teen Boet en Jan
Elkeen het hope klei
Staan dan gereed, oorlog begin
Die klonte gons verby
Jan tref vir Bob hier langs sy kop
ʼn prima skoot voorwaar
dis twee teen een tot hy herstel
ek gooi net aanmekaar
Boet tref my skielik teen die bors
Dit pyn maar ek moet veg
Ek korrel goed en brand weer los
Jan snik en vryf dan aan sy nek
Die stryd woed voort met onopthoud
Tot laat sons ondergaan
En more kry ons weer die kans
Ons vyand te verslaan

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

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
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