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Monthly Archives: May 2013

Lesley loved to drive, especially long distances, and I have a distinct impression of her, on my right behind the driver’s wheel, telling me that sometimes she fantasised about being a rally driver.

234 reddies & rcMy auntie Dot, Lesley’s sister, was married to Alec Reddie, an employee of the Ford Motor Company, and so it was that all the cars we drove were Fords. The Ford Motor Company no longer exists in the sense that it did when it manufactured the Fordson van that my mother drove. Some time after the manufacture of the earliest Fords, the Models T and A, the company diversified its cars into larger and smaller ranges. The Fordson van was on the smaller side, the van or pick-up version of models like the Consul, Prefect, and Anglia.

235 consulWherever Lesley got the Fordson van, it was Vere who bought her all her other cars, the Consul, the Zephyr, and the green-and-white Taunus station-wagon, taking advantages of special deals that Alec could swing. Soon after we arrived at Luitingh’s Guest Farm, Vere bought Lesley the Ford Consul. The car we see in the picture looks and indeed is huge by current standards. Yet compared to the monsters like the Chevs, Pontiacs or the bigger Fords, it was a dinky little car in the bottom price-bracket.

The car that I drive is called a ‘Ford’ but is indistinguishable, except for the logo, from a Mazda, and the Ford conglomerate now exists in a realm beyond nations. I am accustomed to driving for many months without paying explicit attention to our car. This was not the case with early motor cars, which, in their complex unpredictability and insistent need for attention often resembled babies. In this sense, the Fordson van must have been a strong presence in my first six years, and in terms of the number of mentions and interactions recorded in Lesley’s diary, the Fordson must be considered a character in this drama along with the human cast.

Right at the start of the diary, on the 27th of April, she has an accident in the van. ‘On the way to Groote Schuur, another van crashed into my van and then into a third van. A case will come of it as a G.G. [Government Garages] van is involved,’ she writes. ‘The man who crashed into me had given the police an incorrect address – I gave the police a statement, which they seemed to think was very amusing! What clots they all are – Mr Calitz started writing the wrong numbers down for the vans and it looked as though I had crossed the street to bash myself!’ she adds the next day. On Friday ‘took my van to the garage. The damage is quite extensive. Metal and wood torn. It will take ages to repair.’

She gets the van back about two weeks later and immediately puts it to good use. The next day she is off to Hout Bay to paint, and on the Friday she ‘went out three times in the van – firstly for provisions, then to Mr Smith’s for framing – they’ll frame eight things for me. What an interesting couple they are – she with her stump, holding the telephone with her shoulder and he tall and grubby – dangling cigarette – frames are good and not too expensive – continued preparing frames in the afternoon then to the market with Terry in the evening.’ After that she uses it daily for trips to town, to market and so on. On the 18th of May, a Wednesday, she was ‘off to paint this morning only to find no contact to the battery – took ages to repair – then, with the light the wrong way, made a hash of a subject I’ve been longing to do for ages. Fetched the frames from Smith – they are first class – must still paint them.’

At the end of May, she plans the first of the painting trips that the diary records. On Monday the 30th of May, she ‘left town at eleven, and slowly came here – Hawston – stopping to give odd characters a lift on the way.’ It rained and she slept in the leaking van. She set off home on the Thursday, noting that ‘the drive through Elgin after the fresh rains was delightful.’ The next Monday, she’s off again. ‘Started out at about nine and arrived here about eleven thirty after a few stops on the way – car running excellently – wrapped the bonnet to keep her warm for her long wait.’

On Wednesday the 15th of June, she ‘wasted the whole morning in court – then Everett, the fellow who bumped our vans pleaded guilty and was fined fifteen pounds or fifteen days. Quite interesting listening to the odd cases. The case after ours was of a fellow who sat on a non-European bench. How ludicrous! Wonder what he got.’

On the 22nd, Denis, our motor-mechanic neighbour, fetched the van for repairs – in the pouring rain. The van behaved poorly in its role as a taxi during Terry’s affair, and it is Terry who attempts to seduce Lesley with an offer of a dodgy 1948 Chrysler. In mid-July, when she dashes to Johannesburg, she takes a lift rather than risk the long journey in the Fordson van.

But she undertakes the journey for her exhibition on the 1st of August. ‘The alarm went off at four forty five. I dressed at once and carried my food and hot bottle to the car. Drove about two hours with the lights on – through dense wet fog over Du Toit’s Pass – car running beautifully – carburettor trouble at Prince Albert then oil on clutch at Beaufort West where the car no longer went. At first mechanics weren’t interested – then they decided to take the whole engine out for me and get stuck into the job. I bought a bottle of whiskey for after hours and they worked magnificently – Johan the mechanic, a blonde handsome fellow, and Jack the foreman – a little bald Cockney. They cut the bill considerably – ten pounds eleven and six. I helped as handlanger – engine finished at eight thirty – I’m comfortably in bed at nine thirty feeling much more cheerful. I’m impressed by the speed and efficiency of Johan.’

The next morning, she ‘left Beaufort at about six – heavy frost and bitter cold car running excellently – later this morning I had a bit of carburettor trouble – then I looked under the car to see oil gushing out – and gently drove to the next town where the Ford dealers hoisted her up and wiped off all the excess oil –and diagnosed main rear bearing gone – engine ought to come out – cost about fifty to sixty pounds for repairs. So I came on as she stands, constantly filling her up. Arrived here at Brandfort where a farmers’ show is being held. Two men tried to pick me up who exactly represented the tatty fox and cat from Pinocchio.’

In the morning, she ‘left early and drove for an hour in the dark and bitter cold – the frost was white even on the tar – what exquisite scenes with the first light. Pink willows against a frosted ivory veld – black branches like lace. After stopping to help a phoney tramp, the car wouldn’t start – no petrol in the carburettor – it happened again near Johannesburg but I arrived just after lunch well on schedule.’

On Friday the 19th of August, she set out ‘after a completely restless and sleepless night, at five, and started the long way home with my little dog. At first I was dangerously sleepy but later woke and became more cheerful. Slept at a third-rate hotel at Colesberg after a row with the landlady about dogs at hotels! What a heavenly hot bath – washed my hair and directly to bed after driving for thirteen and a half hours. Left Colesberg at seven thirty – little Thunder [the dog] is so good! Had tea with the mechanic at Beaufort West and said I didn’t have enough money for a new engine. Pushed on to Laingsburg where the one and only hotel keeper wouldn’t have a dog. That was eight thirty pm so I decided to push right on home – another six hours driving – the lights against me were powerfully bright – my battery was discharging and my weak lights slowly became dimmer until the Cape Flats where I could no longer see and ran onto the pavement. I was towed into Cape Town by the Clifton plumber and both Thunder and I arrived home exhausted at about three fifteen in the morning. Jack got up and made tea.’

In her last entry, on the 25th of August, the van gets the first mention: ‘Took my van in to have the generator fixed and the lights rewired – will the troubles never cease!’

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240 cardsAn emblem is a picture that brings to mind something other than itself, a badge or symbolic device. In other words, it is a picture that is also a word, or a text. Apart from the 1955 diary, the only other book I have from my mother’s hand is a collection of postcards that she assembled, illuminated and bound in leather, and gave to Jack for his birthday in June 1951, nine months before I was born.

In this book she assembled postcards available in British galleries in the 1940s and representing the canon of European art as understood at that time. The paintings that she has chosen are, in the large part, emblematic – an angel in adoration by Fra Angelico and one by Fillipo Lippi, Lippi’s Annunciation, Piero Della Francesca’s Nativity, Botticelli’s Nativity, and a Madonna of his in which an over-large Infant gropes at the Virgin’s breast, the Angel Raphael and Tobias from the school of Veroccio, Raphael’s Crucifixion, Michaelangelo’s Entombment, and a luscious Venus, Mercury and Cupid Corregio. Apart from the emblematic works, she has chosen por-traits: a girl by Maynardi, a lady in profile by Baldovinetti, a man named Condotierre (with an arrogant stare and a scar on his lip) by Antonello de Messine, Bellini’s Doge Leonardo Loredano, The Grand Duchess of Tuscany, Eleonora di Toledo by Bronzino, Jan Arnolfini and his pregnant wife Jeanne de Chenany by Jan van Eyck, and many more.

From each masterpiece Lesley has selected some detail for il-luminating the facing page. In spite of the emblematic nature of many of the works, Lesley’s ink and gouache illuminations are decorative rather than textual. From Fra Angelico’s adoring angel she has taken the detail, reminiscent of Greek and Roman necklaces, which surrounds the angel’s halo and added flowers in the colour of the wings and robe. She turns St Hubert’s hunting horn into a pattern of horns, also with flowers. Where suitable details cannot be found, she invents them in the colours and spirit of the painting. It is as though she has abandoned the emblematic and narrative in favour of the world of the decorative arts and embroidery, making her point opposite each card. Each of her decorations is constructed like a traditional illumination, with symmetry, pattern and composition dominating the pages.

241 cards peacocksIn the above illumination to Tintoretto’s Origin of the Milky Way, Lesley has homed in on a pair of peacocks. The birds are very complex emblems in the symbolic language of Renaissance painting, but she has chosen to eschew the textual nature of the painting, producing instead a decorative panel whose style and line are more in harmony with the Indian peasant paintings which she was to see in great numbers in the bazaars of New Delhi twenty years later. Lesley was a versatile artist and could draw subtly if she wished, so I must conclude that the style she chose for Jack’s birthday present was intentional. If Jack was closeted in his office wedded to the text, then she was, whether consciously or not, placing herself in another world. Lesley’s representational oils and other works up to the early 1970s, while by no means peasant or naïve art, share this eschewal of the emblematic, textual or intellectual. For her, the line, style, colour and composition were themselves the meaning of her art.

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 The question of selection is a key to any text – what is included, what is left out. If the examination of texts for elisions, or missing things, is a pre-occupation with certain critics, then they can take heart from the fact that all texts without exception are marked with elision, and the writers who produce the texts will never find a dodge around their critical activities, and thus rise beyond their reach. In my case, the abbreviation of the material I am examining has already been accomplished to a large extent by entropy and forgetting, and by the ultimate amnesia that takes place when people die. With the exception of my brother Raymond* and possibly Anton, all the main characters in this history are dead. From what remains I must cut, sort, order and phrase in my own words, mix my own pharmakon.

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* Raymond died in 2007, in a hang-glider accident.

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245 mc mandarinThe audience that filled the large school-hall clapped and cheered me as I took my bow on the stage. I was the cruel mandarin in a school pantomime loosely based on the Willow-Pattern story. It could be tedious to recount a school concert were it not for the light it sheds on Lesley’s creativity, and the way that she used it to create a niche for herself in that hostile and narrow-minded town. 

The stage was decorated as a vast Willow-Pattern plate, with various parts of the plate’s design constructed in three dimensions. In the photograph, the sloping form which can be seen protruding past my fake belly is the railing of the Willow-Pattern bridge, and it was on this bridge that Heidi Salisbury, a boy whose name I have forgotten, and I stood frozen as the curtain rose, resembling in our stillness the fleeing and chasing figures who can be seen on any such dinner-plate.

The occasion was a school concert to celebrate the recent opening of the new modern primary-school buildings, a few blocks from the old school and over the road from the Rob Ferreira Hoër Skool. I was eleven. The concert was to be a collection of national dances, with the children dressed in various national costumes, singing and dancing in groups by class.

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Parents were invited to help, and it was Lesley who took charge. She rewrote the script, framing it within the Willow-Pattern narrative. She designed the sets, modeled them, supervised their construction and painted them. She redesigned the costumes, made the costumes for the leads (Heidi Salisbury and me), took charge of make-up, and so on. What she couldn’t change was the forgettable music (I have forgotten it all) and the national dances. The bored and melancholy mandarin, in Lesley’s re-telling, commands entertainments from all around the world, which turns out to be mostly Europe. There were French, Dutch, and Swiss dances, and perhaps there were Red Indians.

But I was the star of the show. I was the continuity man: I kept the show together, was on stage all the time, and had to learn what seemed like hundreds and hundreds of lines. I loved it.

How did it come about that the teachers and parents at White River Primary School entrusted the show to a woman who was an outsider in almost every way, and her outsider son? I do not know, nor do I care to speculate, but this rather obvious thought surfaces: there wasn’t anyone else in the White River Primary School community who could do it better than or even as well as Lesley, and they indulged me because of her.

247 mandarin sleeveI still have the mandarin’s costume hanging in my wardrobe, and it is still stained with the ochre-coloured makeup that was used to make me look ‘Chinese’. I also have Heidi Salisbury’s costume, although I can’t say why. The embroidery on the costumes is hand-painted rather than stitched on. The colour of the paints, cobalt-blue and white, fills me with a combination of scents: the new school buildings, the smell of the paints, and of grease-paint. My mother’s perfume as she leans close to touch up the make-up on my cheek.

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Dentistry in the 1950s, like many other activities of that time, was pervaded with a devil-may-care attitude. There were possibly two dentists in White River, and the one my mother took me to was on the lower side of town. Fillings were done with amalgam, a heavy-metal concoction: silver and other metals dissolved in mercury, which would harden when compacted into the drilled-out cavities. Extractions were carried out with pliers. For some potentially more traumatic procedure, although I cannot imagine what it could have been, the dentist gave me a general anesthetic, to which purpose he sloshed some chloroform onto a wad and held it over my face. The last thing I remember was the smell of that chemical and the buzzing sensation as my brain shut down. My mother, who was in the room, told me that the dentist, after looking at me, rushed from the room. She went over to where I lay in the chair and found that my heartbeat and breathing had stopped. She bashed on my chest, pumped at my ribcage, and somehow got me restarted. The dentist did not return and when I came around, Lesley took me home. We did not make a fuss, or sue, but we never went back.

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The White River Primary School was not an ideal place to learn about the complicated patterns of human sexuality and my parents, like most of their peers, were reluctant to speak to their children about the matter. Although sex was everywhere around me, I apprehended it only dimly. Our education was chiefly drawn from those jokes that were explicitly sexual and the abusive language that the boys used out of hearing of the adults, and which somehow had the meaning of abuse and of sex at the same time.

The girls and the boys never associated with each other in the playground. They played different seasonal games and had different interests. The girls were somehow older in spite of being the same age, and regarded the boys with scorn. I cannot recall their showing interest in older boys, as many of that age seem to do now. Heidi Salisbury, my partner on stage, was not a friend off-stage. We had appeared together in another school play, as Mr and Mrs Hare in The Hare and the Tortoise, and she had laid it on thick in the final scene where she berated the loser hare. She had tugged, cuffed, walloped and shouted at me to a degree that was, I thought, a little in excess of the stage requirements, but which made the audience laugh, so that I could not complain.

Position of the cervixWhen I was twelve, Lesley took me to the Summer House, a wooden gazebo in the furthest part of the garden, to explain the facts of life. She told me everything I already knew but nothing that I wanted to know. I feigned ignorance, because I thought this would ease the ritual. She gave me a book that showed genitals cut in half, but provided no insight as to how this information could relate to people. The catalogue of misinformation which I picked up was not substantially revised when I arrived at SACS, a boys-only institution, in 1965, except that wanking was somehow legitimated. We knew nothing about girls or women. The adults had cheated us, we discovered as we grew up, but as it was done without malice; it was a weak kind of cheating, for which a milder word is needed. They had diddled us out of the natural ease that would allow us to inhabit our bodies. But they had not done this deliberately. They had done it because of their circumstances – in the final analysis, because of their own past.

Another way of putting it, which Lesley would have used after the 1960s, was that it was our karma.

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The events of the period between our arrival at Luitingh’s Guest Farm and the building of the new farmhouse are a dubitable muddle, but at least one clear event marks the transition for me. Shortly after we had moved into the new house, at a time when everything still smelt excitingly of paint, Lesley took me to a paved area under a pergola of bougainvillea outside her bedroom window one afternoon. There she told me that she and Jack were divorced and that she was going to marry Anton. My guess is that I was eight or nine years old.

If her later attempt to communicate the facts of life to me was a flop, this particular communication of facts thoroughly surprised and disturbed me. I can only guess why an intelligent nine-year-old had not already worked it out – Raymond, at thirteen, certainly had. Throughout that period, I now fancy, I had entertained a hope that my parents would somehow re-unite, and that together, we could return to the unimaginably perfect past. Her communication swiftly cut the throat of this particular nostalgia.

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