The interview starts with Albie remembering our last significant meeting, which had been at a ‘Writers meet the ANC’ conference at Victoria Falls in 1989. I had written a poem at the time of the tragic letter-bombs that had resulted in his maiming and the death of his wife*, and dedicated it to him. In that poem, I half-recall a sense from my early childhood at Clifton of an urgent and ‘other’ conversation of which he is part. During that conference, at one of the most electrifying poetry readings I have ever attended, I had read the poem.
‘And not long after that,’ Albie explained, ‘it was my chance to intervene and respond and I felt a very eager audience, because it was a lovely and naturally sentimental statement that you were making, and I should have responded in a lovely natural and sentimental way, and I didn’t. I made some kind of comment, slightly kind of smart-arse comment like “Oh, you know, we just couldn’t wait for the kids to go to bed, so that we could carry on with our conversation.” And I think people were a little disappointed that I hadn’t risen to the occasion and joined in what was a genuine and appropriately schmaltzy response.
‘And now I can explain why, because it wasn’t so easy. It took me back to part of my growing up in quite a profound way, to the period of the 1950s in Cape Town at a time when Jack and Lesley Cope had been the ideal couple, living in ideal circumstances, manifesting ideal happiness. It was a very strong image in my mind.’
He talked about Clifton, the scene of the events: ‘It was part of the free life and it was marvellous for kids growing up, and the most beautiful spot, the gem of the whole area was Jack and Lesley’s cottage. It somehow snuggled in and connected to this idyllic, romantic kind of place better than any structure. And it was the only beach that didn’t have racial segregation signs on it. Maybe because only white people really would go there, but Moses Kotani had lived with Eddie Roux, I think at 23
Moses Beach, maybe. Brian and Sonia lived up on the hill. Brian Bunting would have New Year’s Eve parties that were packed out – almost like a truce from apartheid for twenty-four hours. Lorries would come in from Langa and Nyanga, Gugulethu, and later on from the Cape Flats, from Walmer Estate, cars came, they would take buses, they would walk, and we just defied apartheid. And sometimes after a party we would go down to the beach and have a midnight swim, and it was almost outside of South Africa, on the margins of South Africa. I still remember when I was taken into solitary confinement, my second detention, driving along and saying that only in South Africa do you have a beautiful view on the road to Caledon Square. So, the Clifton ambience is an integral part of this history. The sense of freedom, the barefoot feeling … and it’s changed quite a lot now.’
Albie related how, as a youth who had not yet found direction, he had been to a lecture in Electricity House in Strand Street, opposite the old Alhambra Bioscope. ‘Uys Krige strode up and down on the stage and he spoke about the Spanish poet Frederico Garcia Lorca, and he spoke in English, and a bit of Spanish and a bit of Afrikaans, and it was so passionate and so excited, and it was about Lorca and Lorca’s death and the Spanish civil war and the drama, the fight against fascism and the significance of his poetry and the poems about his death… It was five in the afternoon… that I just welled up with emotion and feeling. What Uys did, he connected the intimacy and soulfulness and inwardness of the poetry, which was a very intense internal dialogue with yourself and your emotional vocabulary and your literary vocabulary, with the grand public events of the world… So, I didn’t discover culture while I was in politics, it was culture that actually took me into politics.’
Soon after that, he told me, he had joined the Modern Youth Society, a left-wing youth organisation set up in the aftermath of the banning of the Communist Party of South Africa. One night he went to a musical evening that they held. ‘I listened to Brahms. I was just getting into music then and I think it was a Brahms symphony or something, and the next thing I went to the Modern Youth Society and the next thing, wow! And I still feel, wow! You know, it’s never stopped – the energy and the excitement and the feeling that there is another world.
‘I couldn’t believe that our existence focused on the Saturday night date, which was the other kind of drama. And I wasn’t very good at it… I must say the Modern Youth Society didn’t help with dates and dating. We did everything as a group, almost – well I would not say almost, but to a fault – and I can remember with amusement if you phoned the girl who you wanted to go to the bioscope with on Monday or Tuesday, she might be holding out for someone better. If you phoned Thursday or Friday, it was too late.’
‘Maybe Wednesday?’ I suggest.
‘Maybe she wanted to go with you, but Wednesday the line was busy, because everybody knew Wednesday was the night. And I thought, oh no – this can’t be what life’s about. And then I met this crowd, and we climbed Table Mountain and had all-night parties, used to argue, Would there be one language for the whole world one day, are moving towards that? If God exists, can God create a stone so heavy that even he can’t lift it? You know, crazy metaphysical arguments like that, but with an intensity and passion that was quite wonderful. And at the same time defying the colour bar and associating ourselves with opposition, with resistance. It was later that year that I sat on the bench in the post office marked “Non-whites only”. So, we were committed not simply to a position, but to action. And we took a stand on the Rosenbergs being executed. Your dad was very active in that. Delivering a petition, to the doors of the consulate in Berg Street, and you know, suddenly I was in another kind of a world.’
The Modern Youth Society consisted of ‘younger, intellectual, radical, left wing people strongly and resolutely opposed to apartheid. They wanted to reconstruct the world. And on the margins, on the periphery as points of reference, was an older generation of people, many of whom would have been in the Communist Party, who were now free-floating, because the party had dissolved itself. And included in this grouping were Jack and Lesley Cope, and we got a special thrill out of their being associated with us because they weren’t what appeared to be ordinary natural members of our kind of grouping. They didn’t come from the oppressed community. Many of us were Jews who had grown up in a world in which there had been anti-Semitism, and many Jews had been involved in the trade union movement, anti-racist activities, and very idealistic. In the case of some, the idealism attached to Israel. In the group that I was in, the idealism attached itself to transforming South Africa and the whole world, and we felt very proud to have these distinguished volunteers from another world in our ranks. That was Jack and Lesley.’
He recalled that occasionally he had gone to the cinema with Lesley. ‘We went to see Guys and Dolls and I don’t think I would have volunteered for a musical, but she kind of found a way of selling it to me. You know – it was about gangsters, and it had Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons and the Salvation Army and so on. I went and I loved it. And when we came out afterwards she said that Jean Simmons in her bonnet trying to persuade someone to join the Salvation Army reminded her so much of us standing on street corners giving out leaflets. And I was astonished, I was shocked, how dare she find that equivalence between people in the revolutionary struggle trying to transform the world, and the Salvation Army, an inward-looking sectarian religiously-based group, but I – I never forgot that one remark she made, and I must say, whenever I handed out a leaflet after that – and I did so many times in South Africa and in England – I felt a little bit like Jean Simmons.’
‘You didn’t actually say Hallelujah, did you?’ I ask.
‘I didn’t go that far, but the point she made, I never lost.’
Albie described Jack as an upright, almost rigid, worldly and well-informed intellectual, who spoke good Standard English but didn’t mind swearing on a public platform – ‘I suppose it was a weapon of class struggle and anti-racist struggle.’
Jack could easily have made a life in the mainstream world, Albie told me, but instead he ‘chose to be on the side of the Left, he chose, if you like, to be marginalised from the mainstream, but always keeping in touch with the mainstream, the art world, the cultural world in Cape Town.’
‘Lesley in some ways was even more extraordinary for us,’ he explained – she was quieter and gentler than the sparky, edgy women comrades. There were three things that made her so special: ‘She had a very lovely attractive appearance. We all felt ambivalent about appearance, because there was such a heavy emphasis on girls being beautiful to catch men, and that being the goal of life, and we really rejected that, and the women rejected that, and so we paid very little attention to appearance. It was not that they set out to look unattractive, that was unimportant, but she was just naturally very lovely in her style. And she had long hair and she didn’t follow the fashions and the styles in terms of lipstick and how you did your hair and plucked your eyebrows. You know, she might have done, but if she did, it was very subtle. So, there was somebody of very naturally elegant appearance.
‘And then she had progressive views, which she shared with all of us.
‘And the third was, she was creative. She was a painter, and full-time artist and that was her vocation. And that was something we admired. It was quite strong in the intellectual left to have a respect for culture, for people who could paint and do other things well, like writing, poetry or whatever.
‘So, these three were embodied in somebody who had a very distinctive place, not at the heart of our youth movement, but on the fringes as part of the left-wing crowd. More than a sympathiser, a participant. And then what made the whole thing come together as an ideal couple was that they lived in Clifton in a tiny bungalow that must have been one of the smallest. They had done it up almost like a piece of decorated marzipan. It was just beautiful, with shells and things hanging, and it had partitions for privacy, but it didn’t have walls. And it was small and compact and all the space was used in economical ways. And so here was Jack, and there was Lesley and the two kids, and then visitors would come in there, and I found it a place of total en-chantment. So, here was the ideal couple, living in an ideal place and fighting for ideal ideals.’
‘I can see how they must have had a powerful presence,’ I interject.
‘Yes, yes,’ he replies, ‘I am not sure that everybody would have responded in the same way, but if you were a romantic like I was, and if you appreciated the idea of somebody not becoming a recluse in relation to society (in fact we were very active), but opting out of the show-off and the opulence and the kind of buildings that so many people were living in with motor cars and the accoutrements of success, and instead living for values, living for ideals, and not only living for them, but living in them, surrounding yourself with them. That was very powerful, certainly for me.
‘And it became a source of enormous confusion and distress, in my mind, to discover in fact that they weren’t happy. That they weren’t, from that point of view, the ideal couple. And the distress was not just for friends of mine or people I admired not being happy, but for having to acknowledge that justice and fairness and right don’t automatically produce happiness. And that is another kind of a dimension. Look, that was a hard realisation for me. A sad realisation about the world, but an inevitable, a very necessary one. I wouldn’t say it prepared me for my own periods of intense unhappiness later in life… But that intense unhappiness that came later didn’t shock me as much as it might have, because it wasn’t something beyond contemplation.
‘So I can recall being quite friendly with Lesley and feeling her loneliness and enjoying just the way we chatted. We connected up with great verbal intimacy and understanding. Maybe both of us being soft and quiet in style and manner, it made us natural companions in that way, and also because, I suppose, I didn’t just see the world in simple political terms. There were quirks of personality and behaviour and so on, and I would notice what interested me and we would just chat about things.’
‘You said at the Waterfall that you remembered my visiting?’ he asks.
‘Yes,’ I say, ‘but the words the poem uses are: “I don’t really remember.” It’s a sense of remembering, rather than a memory. In 1955, on that particular occasion, I was three and a half. But I was quite articulate, according to Lesley’s diary. My memories are very murky from early on, because when my mother moved, it somehow took my memory away. And so Clifton is just a few tiny vignettes for me, pre-Transvaal move, and then coming back in the holidays to a different home.’
‘I remember you and Raymond, both very sparky, confident, bright kids, and fairly independent, you know, not clingers,’ he says.
I ask him whether he had been staying at Clifton at the time of the particular chat that he recalled. He tells me that he would have been living in Gardens, and would have driven his green Morris Minor to Clifton to see Lesley. ‘I assume I must have had a car, because I don’t recall being under pressure to catch the last bus or anything of that kind,’ he says, ‘and I remember being close to your mom. You had to be close, because the place was so small. There was no shouting across the room and fairly quickly we were just chatting away. I don’t know if we had a meal. It was after supper. I suspect we had some kind of a meal and were talking and talking, and a kind of a glow of intimacy enveloped us, and a great sense of closeness. And I don’t know what was going through her head, but maybe, you know, the idea passed through my mind, maybe one of us will make a move. But I didn’t have the courage, she was a bit older than me, it wasn’t even just the reticence in terms of the relationship and so on. It was just at that moment you don’t know how other people are, what their relationships are like, if they have a strong monogamous set-up in a particular relationship, if they live in another kind of a way. And I was pretty inexperienced then, generally about life and people and manners and behaviour. But thoughts like that would’ve passed through my mind, just kind of wondering. And I don’t know if she was wondering if I would make a move or that she would accept or reject. And in the midst of that that rather intense intimacy, the kids come running in, demanding attention.
‘And so, when you recalled that moment at the Waterfall, die Waterval, I couldn’t just respond in a simple kind of a way, because it evoked ambiguity and a certain discomfort on my part. And what I also sensed is that you and Raymond, you hung in there in the way that kids can do sometimes, maybe sensing that something untoward might be on the cards, or simply demanding emotional attention themselves. And so I’d say it was a three-way thing, in the sense that you and your brother became one party. And then your mom wanting to be warm and friendly to me and enjoying the conversation, but also having a very strong connection – I mean she was very close to the two of you, very proud of you. She had a lot of fun with you. It was a source – I would say – of great, almost uncomplicated pleasure for her in a very complicated life, her relationship with her two children.
‘And then subsequently [she and Jack] split and they went their different ways. And I heard very little about Lesley after that. Occasionally somebody would get a report two or three years old, or somebody got a letter, but she kind of vanished from the scene. And I don’t remember saying goodbye to her, I don’t remember any farewell. I’m not sure.
‘So, that’s the side of Lesley and my memories of, if you like, disillusionment in the sense of the sadness that happiness wasn’t so easy. It didn’t just come to good people and there was something going on that one couldn’t measure in the same way that we were measuring destiny and life and transformation and everything.’
It was the loss, Albie told me, of the one-to-one connection he’d imagined between happiness and the progressive, creative life that disturbed him most. Happiness had seemed ‘the automatic reward, not something that you even sought, it just followed. To discover that this ideal couple were not so ideal in their own relationship … that things were just not only more complicated, but often more perverse than you could have imagined. And in fact years later, I did discover that there is no pain like the pain you get from hurting and being hurt by someone you love. You know – that’s got an extraordinary dimension of its own.
‘In any event, I could end the story of Lesley then, and it isn’t just sheer stubbornness that makes me say no no no no, I’ve left out something very very big. That’s an affectionate side I recall, but there is another side, and that was Lesley as a painter.’
Albie went on to remember how, some time in 1953, the Modern Youth Society hired premises in an old warehouse in Bree Street. It was, he told me, ‘in an older, run-down part of Cape Town, quite cheap, a lot of space and not the kind of obviously white area. So that people of different backgrounds, colours and so on would come in there, and that it wouldn’t be too obvious.’ The room was bare, with chairs and a table at the front, for the Chairman. ‘And we decided to paint a mural,’ he said. ‘I don’t know whose suggestion it was, but the idea came from the Mexican muralists’ public art dealing with the people. And I remember a period of great excitement in the Modern Youth Society, because now we had our own wall, our own premises, and we were going to do a scene of Cape Town. We had a lot of discussion about what should go into it, and it had to be almost the opposite of the tourist’s “Come to the fairest the Cape.” At the same time, it had to be distinctively Cape Town, so Table Mountain came into it, but we emphasised the docks, maybe the railways… the dockworkers played a very important role. Maybe they had blue overalls or brown overalls, it gives a kind of muscular feeling. The flower-sellers were there, maybe the flats of District Six Bloemhof, but it was not your “Come to the tourist beaches, Clifton Hotel.” It was very much the bay, the central business district, and I would say at a guess it was about two metres high and about four or five wide. My memory for space is very bad. Emotions or people not so bad, but space very bad.
‘And I recall that Lesley would have done a design, shown it to us, worked on it again, received comments, and eventually we agreed and we liked it. And it had nice shape and a lot of vitality and it was something new. There was nothing like that in Cape Town. It wasn’t a romantic picture of never-never land. It wasn’t a heroic picture, like that grand Soviet sculpture of the man and the woman in a gesture, a huge kind of a thing. And it might have had touches of abstraction, but it was accessible and lively and rhythmical and engaging. And she divided the drawing up into squares, and they were blocked out onto the wall and then one copied the outline onto each square. I think she even did most of the outline. And then colours were attributed to the areas to be blocked in, and we all mucked in there.’
There were, he said, about ten or fifteen people involved, with a core of four or five, of which he was one. ‘And I seem to recall the wall – it was on the dock side of the room. And we felt so proud, we felt absolutely delighted that we had done it. It was something new, something creative. It was a way of representing our city, our community, our ebullience, our anti-racism, respect for the working people of Cape Town. And not as I say, stylised powerful figures in the Mexican style or way, that wasn’t Lesley’s style anyhow. She was gentle, impressionist, but flowing lines, gentle lines and not expressionist in manner. Not attacking, but there would have been quite bold shapes, but not stylised in a Latin-American way. And about a week or two after we finished it, the landlords contacted us and said you have got to get out, the police had been onto them. And so we got out and as far as I know, it was just painted over and that was the end of that.’
We speculate about whether it is still there, hidden under the paint. ‘Of course it might have been torn down and replaced, but there’s just a chance. And so there was a sense of defeat – I mean, our imaginations had been lit and we remembered it, but it was wiped out. They were more powerful than us. They could use, apart from prison and locking up, just the ordinary law of property, to expel us. And that was the end of this lovely creation.’
The group persisted in finding other places to meet until about 1960. They used to have discussions: ‘“The role of the intellectual in the greater movement”, or Jack Barnett would speak to us about architecture. Jack Cope would speak to us about some big intellectual theme – culture, literature, usually political but quite often cultural. And Lesley would turn up sometimes.” Albie was seventeen going on eighteen at the time.
‘So we leap from 1953 to 1977,’ he says, ‘and I am in Mozambique.’ He goes on to tell me how, through a complex set of circumstances, he met a Chilean woman who invited him to work on a mural. ‘And I felt such a surge, it was so exciting, that the mural that had been wiped out under conditions of oppression in South Africa was now reappearing in conditions of victory in Mozambique, where not only could we do it in safety, but it would be on a public building.
‘And then I got drawn into the mural movement. That was the only one I actually worked on myself. All I did was dip the brush into paint and follow a pencil line of a flower, very very timidly and nervously… And then I wrote a book on the murals and became very interested in this whole theme of the public expression in artistic forms of intense emotion.
‘So, when I came back to South Africa in 1990, already some of the proposals I made very early on were that we should use big public spaces – the motorways with huge concrete banks would make marvellous places for murals. And the disused cooling towers at power stations and places like that. A little bit of that has been done since then, but it also meant that when I was appointed with a colleague to be responsible for décor for our new Constitutional Court, the immediate response was to envisage powerful, meaningful public art in a public place, and so what started off as an obliterated, wiped-out mural that maybe had a life of two weeks on a wall in Bree Street, that was literally not air-brushed but painted out as a result of security police pressure, ended up in a magnificent new Constitutional Court that just glows with integrated art… And I can see a continuity, a trajectory that starts with Lesley and ends up there.’
I ask him whether what Lesley and Jack had represented, as both creative and progressive at the same time, had influenced his paper ‘Preparing ourselves for Freedom.’
‘I think very much so,’ he says. ‘The lives of Jack and Lesley had a bigger impact on me than their committed, engaged artistic work… I was also heavily influenced by experiences in Mozambique. These dilemmas were literally life and death.
‘I am sure that was something that gave me the courage – if you like – and the conviction, having been close to artists who were in the struggle – I am not just speaking in abstract kind of a way.
‘Jack had many values in his life and at one stage, I would say the artistic, the cultural, the creative were integrated, but in a certain sense subordinated to his political life. And then later on, it became very much the other way around, and that was necessary. A lot had to do with the loss of conviction that the revelations about Stalin and Stalinism produced. But also a sense of isolation: he wasn’t in the underground as far as I know. And he needed to make a life.’
‘In any event,’ he says, ‘Clifton played an important role in this in this whole story, growing up at Clifton. We went around barefoot and as I often comment, the big enemy was sand. “You mustn’t bring in sand!” When I grew older, the enemy became imperialism. Now the people don’t denounce imperialism any more, so it’s back to sand. So people come up here and I say, “Hose down your feet.”’
* Yet another of my lapses of memory. In fact she did not die.