Days Of Youth

George Bernard Shaw was well-known for his acid wit and had very clear opinions on most subjects. One of his gems is that “Youth is such a wonderful thing; it’s a pity it is wasted on the young”.   How right he is! Like most children I wished my youth away then continued this stupidity into adulthood and on into old age.  Wishing my life away is possibly the only wish that has ever come true for me but somehow I don’t think congratulations are in order.

Days of Youth

How well I remember the long summer days
The golden sun swimming in a cloudless sky
Of brilliant blue
 
How easy it was to lie in knee-deep green grass
And think thoughts of no consequence
Or think not at all
 
How long those days and peaceful too
 
How well I remember the cold winter days
The anaemic sun crossing a cloudless sky
Of palest grey
 
How pleasant it was to feel frost underfoot
Or shatter the fragile layer of ice
On a pond
 
How short those days and far away
 
How could I know? Who dared tell me?
That those precious days would quickly pass
But they did and me so busy I hardly noticed
Until now
 
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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
 

Pizza Night

According to Jean Paul Sartre “The poor don’t know that their function in life is to exercise our generosity”.  Perhaps that is true but the lady in the next poem knew nothing of Sartre or of his words yet she succeeded in exercising my generosity.

Pizza Night

Friday night is pizza night and this night it’s my turn to buy
Two quatros in hand as I reach the car a woman catches my eye
Her sandals are all but worn through and the babe on her back makes no cry
She’s tired but worse she is broken and instinct alone makes her try
To sell one more cheap little tray cloth so they might eat rather than die
I have no need of her offering but I reach for my purse with a sigh
And buy not one but two bits of lace, thinking “But for God’s grace there go I”

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

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