My father’s diaries are lodged at the National English Literary Museum (NELM) attached to Rhodes University and are thus a matter of public record. There they are consulted by scholars interested in Ingrid Jonker or Uys Krige, for Ingrid and Uys present more engaging figures than Jack, as Jack himself was aware. Uys, he notes in his diary on the 5th of August 1955, has the common touch which he can never achieve: ‘I stand like the sentry in the destruction of Pompeii. While Uys is gambolling with the crowd in the street,’ he writes. Jeremy Fogg, one of the extremely gracious and helpful staff at NELM, transcribed for me the entries in Jack’s diary for the period corresponding to Lesley’s, and the two make interesting reading in parallel. Although they shared the same house and bed, the worlds that the diaries record hardly seem to overlap. What they do share is a commitment to the practical details of the life they are living as artists, all within an oppressively heavy atmosphere of financial anxiety.
The bohemian life at Clifton was not a financially secure one. People following such a lifestyle can determine the financial cost of their creative freedom by subtracting their actual earnings from their potential earnings, were they to devote their creative intelligence to more conventional forms of making a living. Lesley’s painting sales, along with Jack’s intermittent income from writing, were their sole sources of income.
Lesley’s 1955 diary, if read as a financial audit trail, shows that her business was not booming. Their tenure at Trinity Hall, the bungalow, is insecure from the start. Billy Ray, the landlord, is trying to sell the bungalow and the adjacent ones to Alec Strauss, Terry’s husband, who wants to use the land for development. The rent is low, but only because the place is cramped and dilapidated – a holiday shack rather than a home. In spite of their financial difficulties, they employ chars and Lesley notes on the 2nd of May, a Monday, that ‘little Winnie started working for me today – wonder how long it will last. She is clean, pretty and used to work.’
10th May: Selected three large oils for the Hotel. Man from the Karoo, Winery Constantia and Mouille Point. 20, 17 and 25 guineas respectively.
22nd May: Sold Crayfish gouache
3rd June: Jack took the van in the afternoon to post Gigi Lupini’s painting.
10th June: Raymond has been very bad this week, stealing money and tearing his school clothes.
13th June: Wrote to two galleries in Johannesburg.
16th June: After Terry has told us that Alec is definitely interested in buying this property from Billy Ray – Jack asked Lois only to be told that it probably will be – so not to go on with our alteration plans. This news together with our pathetic financial situation (I promised to send Nessie’s daughter a wedding gift – but where from?) succeeded in depressing me exceptionally – when telling Jack of my doldrums he says I shouldn’t be so dramatic – so I walked on the beach late at night.
17th June: Terry says the small painting of flowering gum that Dora bought from me has never been collected.
Winnie was pickpocketed and returned for a second salary!
18th June: Recovered my embroidered mirror from Klein who had stuck it away instead of displaying it – it looks much more charming in the house than in that modern shop.
Jack’s diary is void of entries until the 20th of June, the day he finished writing The Golden Oriole, so we cannot know what he wanted us to think he was thinking. But I find it significant that at the very end of the novel, as the protagonist, a Zulu intellectual attempting to become a novelist, lies dying, he asks if the sun is setting. “Brother, the sun is rising,” he is told.
“Ai, Sili,” he replies, “but I have sung . . . my song.”
I have placed selections from Lesley’s diary above entire entries for the matching date from Jack’s, in bold.
20th June: Jack has finished writing his second novel today. How glad he must feel. Now he has to revise and send it off.
Finished writing the draft of The Golden Oriole and feel almost light-headed with relief. The sun shining bril-liantly in my window, Lesley came in as I scribbled the last line. I slapped my hand on the ms. sheaf with a bang and said ‘That’s done!’ She nearly started out of her skin & thought I was trying to give her a fright.
23rd June: Borrowed fifteen pounds from Terry – now owe her twenty-one pounds. Fetched my van which goes like a bomb now & frames from Smith – nine pounds six and six. Raymond [aged eight] has again claimed a shilling from Miss Louw [the teacher] and I gave him his first thorough beating – six with a stick – a recurrence of an incident of the tenth.
Jack and I discussed it and we came to the conclusion that it may be our constant allusions to poverty that make him feel insecure – I must go to Miss Louw tomorrow for a long indaba.
Lois Commission. [Lois is the landlady – this might pay the rent.]
After revision, took in the last batch of my ms. to be typed. It is being done by Mrs Berenice Cornell and a first-class job she has turned out too. My third typist after Fred & Joan Johnson had let me down. Joan’s opinion expressed to Terry Strauss: ‘Why does Mr Cope write about Zulus? Nobody wants to read about Zulus. Tell him he should write about love& sex and he would make a lot of money.’ When Terry told me I solemnly undertook to follow Joan’s advice and suggested a title for my next book – ‘Goodbye Mrs Johnson.’
24th June: Took Terry to Constantia and went to Mary Browne’s to paint shutters for a commission.
Letter from Lidchi Gallery saying all booked up – suggest I try Lippmans.
Mother went off to stay the weekend with Pat & Peggy.Pat has been to Johannesburg to meet his constituents over the recurring crisis in the United Party. He threatens to write a book on his adventures in the political jungle during the past couple of years & says it would be dynamite. He never will, of course. The U.P. is riddled with treachery, intrigue, jealousy and sheer funk and he feels he will be out, for one reason or another, inside a few months.
28th June: Tonight have been to see Gregoire and Marie in their new old house – full of possibilities and very much under repair – I am very envious of their house and secure position.
Spent more than an hour while 51 forms were filled in, stamped, sorted, filed etc to send off three parcels. Met Betty Allen in the airways office and persuaded her to come out to see us next Friday. Feeling now very much at a loose end – reading, sitting in the sun, playing on the beach with the children. Evening, drove out to see Gregoire & Marie in their new house at Kenilworth. Everything is still chaotic but the big roomy house and grounds are ideal for their habits & ideas.The children already have rabbits, chick-ens, birds etc & Greg wanders round like a takhaar in his yard.
4th July: Another gallery in Johannesburg can’t take me.
Took the van out to Rondebosch & asked Uys to join me in a panel of judges for the New Age short story competition. We called on Dr E.R. van der Ross who agreed to make a third. Had lunch with Mrs Krige and looked through some of Francois’s partly finished and rejected paintings. He is developing in new and exciting directions, towards a vital treatment of figure groups – workmen, women threshing, fishwives, coons etc, as well as typical treat-ment of landscape and life with glowing and trembling colour, strong but tender. Collected from Lionel 12 manuscripts entered for the New Age story competition.
11th July: Billy and Lois took us to a meal at the Chinese restaurant and then to a show – The Three Murders – we both feel it’s definitely his conscience – he hasn’t mentioned the sale of our property.
Heard from James MacGibbon acknowledging the script of The Golden Oriole. He addressed me for the first time as ‘Jack’, adding a little note suggesting the ‘time has come to drop surnames.’ Lesley was much amused, I think, because she does not understand the extraordinary diffidence of the British middle-class over friendships. Also a pleasant note from John Fischer of Harpers promising to harass my ex-agent Chambrun until he forks up the remaining 75 dollars he owes me. Spent much time completing Raymond’s Pollock Theatre. Elzina came out for tea. Evening, to the Chinese res-taurant & the ‘pietchers’ with the pathetic Billy Kay and his long-suffering wife.
15th July: A long and tiring day in Johannesburg. I bussed to town and walked miles to the Lidchi gallery – Joyce Fourie was surprised to see me as she had just wired Cape Town about a cancellation on August the fifth.
The children are wearing me down & this morning Raymond put up a continuous scene for nearly two hours because he wanted to go out barefoot in the wet & cold.
Read Lawrence’s ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’ – fine, true and tremendously strong piece of writing. Then ‘England my England’ which is phoney. Even the writing and the dialogue go lamentably to pieces. A remarkable contrast. A wire came for Lesley from Johannesburg offering her a cancelled gallery booking.
Wired her & hope she gets it. – Only a few weeks’ time – early to mid August.
Saturday 16 July
Took out the boys & bought Raymond some shoes, to his immense pride. He is in a highly sensitive and self-conscious stage and I fear he feels humiliated by the fact that we do not follow the path to bourgeois comforts that he sees among his friends. In the afternoon I allowed him, very reluctantly, to go to a film with his friends. It had scenes of fear and violence with troops of elephants & so upset him that he either lay awake or tossed in nightmares.
23rd July: Huge thundering seas. Jack had news today that his English publishers accept his second book, and he’s very relieved.
A letter today from James MacGibbon setting my gloomy forebodings at rest. He is wonderfully enthusiastic about The Golden Oriole – though he wants ‘economies’. James is an economical Scot.
At all events I am walking on air and my hat is over the stars. What will the Americans think of this book? Brilliant sun today, warm & soft.
I practiced sling shooting with Raymond. Drove to Hout Bay in the afternoon & raced with the children over the dunes. Read again Prishvin’s miraculous ‘Black Arab’.
27th July: Lois was upset about gossiping about selling this land.
No news, no letters, no money. I opened the grocer’s bill – £31, and not a bean to meet it. I feel desperate and depressed and there’s nothing I can do to relieve the immediate pressure. So I wait with head bowed.
Slipped quickly through ‘The Philanderer’ and found it essentially dreary, forced though slick and nervous on the narrow range so often limiting the American writers. I should not criticise them for they aim at such a totally different objective.
28th July: Billy and Lois keep on popping over with things for us as they are packing and are eliminating the rubbish. Billy says we must go ahead with [sentence not completed.]
Mainly helping Lesley with her innumerable prepara-tions for the show in Johan-nesburg. She found today she had a broken front spring & this meant a hasty repair.
It’s a great risk to take this old van, but she is determined. And that usually means she will succeed. Evening to a ‘hobo’ party at Brian’s but hobos conspicuously absent. Talked to Phillippa Murrell who writes stories ‘for the few’. Poor Check cut me dead! Everything was at odds & depressing except Pat Weber of Woodstock. Carried Lesley’s pictures up the steps & carefully packed them in blankets in the van. L expressed the horrified hope that they don’t all come back.
5th August: Only one picture sold, to I Stoller, an advocate I had met before – fifteen guineas.
The story is going along satisfactorily in spite of sadly too many interruptions. A letter came from Lesley who seems to have achieved a miracle of hustle & endurance to reach Johannesburg to schedule. Sent her a wire of good wishes for the show. More hard work picking out the excavation and carting away some tons of earth & stones. Michael sometimes invents some amusing ideas. Detailing his journey to England he listed everyone he was taking and remarked, ‘I’m not taking any witches. They can jolly get there theyselves.’ Another time I said – ‘I shall be cross with you.’ He answered ‘I’ll cross the road with you Daddy.’
6th August: I have six shillings and sixpence in my purse – two hundred pounds debt and six shillings to my name! Good God. Mustn’t let it show. Wish Peggy wouldn’t pretend she was broke – she really doesn’t have to buy – why feel guilty about it? Jean said she was interested in buying a painting. I don’t believe her. Such a flat market has never been heard of.
Mary came to look after the house and gave me an op-portunity for some more work on my story. After finishing in the afternoon I took a swim off the small stormscoured beach. The water warmer than I expected but strong & hungry. Some boys shot a small gull through the wing & Wally Speissegger picked it up. He & a group of children brought it to me. It valiantly pecked at everyone with its slender rubyred beak but its wing was shattered. All agreed it should be destroyed, but none could face it. The lot fell to me. And after I had taken off its head with an axe the children thought me terribly cruel.
8th August: Dinner this evening with Esther Chames and husband Jack Levet, two Czech export men – Bram Fischer and wife Molly, etc. – twelve guests – an expensive flashy house – too much to eat at an exotic dinner – Jack promises to buy two paintings – one for the Czechs and one for himself.
Uys came out & we sat in the warm sun on the beach and carefully, line by line, went through his story on Johannesburg – A Bouquet for Jhb. It is miles too long & discursive – nearly an hour of fast reading. But it is good in Uys’s excellent way. It has the common touch that I never achieve. I stand like the sentry in the destruction of Pompeii. While Uys is gambolling with the crowd in the street.
10th August: Saw Charles Fincham who says Jack’s novel is magnificent – I discussed my show with him and the possibility of offloading my paintings amongst his acquaintances. What a charming man he is. He took me to dinner at some exotic place called the Safari.
13th August: Had a letter from Jack today – he still has no news from his publishers – no money and seems depressed about it.
Met Uys, Dr van der Ross & Naomi in town for a picture to be taken of the judges of the story contest. Chatted to Jack Barnett in his office. He is busy on his big £120,000 job – a town hall for Welkom. Naomi had the latest New Statesman & chaffed me about a big ad. for the September London Magazine in which my name is printed above Auden’s! Revised work on the story & weighed in to more spade-work on my excavations. The paper has a story that Lady Packer’s first novel has been chosen for a best seller in the U.S. for next February!
A genial, easy-going day in which I got in some work on the story – my longest yet – and did some mining, to the intense curiosity of the neighbours who can’t bear me doing anything without coming to nose out what it is! Wrote James MacG. a fairly clear SOS for funds.
16th August: Mrs. Kotkin tried to choose a painting, but without her husband she was unable to do so.
Finished the draft of my story and feel that with some revision it is a satisfy-ing job despite its great length – nearly 11,000 words at a guess. A glance through some of Lawrence’s stories show that he sometimes ran to twice, three & even five times this length! So it is not the length that damns me, although I shall probably never sell this story. Was tremendously impressed by Lawrence’s ‘The Blind Man’. For sheer writing it leaves me gasping with surprise & pleasure. I wish I had known Lawrence’s stories a long while ago. Side by side with it is ‘Tickets Please’ which is simply incredibly bad.
17th August: Mrs. Kotkin came in and decided to take Karoo Farm at ten pounds ten (from twenty guineas.) I hate to quibble but how I hate being cheated with no resistance. To dinner with the Sandersons – took a group of paintings for them to choose from – they chose Pneumatic Drill reduced from forty-five guineas to thirty, how I despise myself but my need is greater than my pride. This sale they considered private and wrote the cheque to me – no twenty percent commission for the gallery.
A very sad letter from Lesley who has sold only one picture – one of her smallest – on her Johannesburg exhibition.
This is shattering to her and unhappily I am not in a position to lift her up. The something, whatever it is I confidently & intuitively expect, is an unconscionable time turning up. Began a fairly careful revision & hit on a possible title for my story – A Speck in the Sun. Carried on with my quarrying operations and have nearly finished this part of the work.
18th August: Took Thunder’s owner a painting by way of thanks. The end of the exhibition has decidedly cheered up – when packing the paintings outside Jenny’s house, a woman saw the Solanum still life – later rang the gallery and offered me thirty guineas for it which I accepted. Mrs Kotkin’s daughter had wanted it but took Mary, Fisherman’s Daughter instead for fifteen guineas.
To town with Raymond & took him for the first time to the Public Library where he was rather shy but thrilled with the idea of taking out a book for himself. He chose a big illustrated Oxford book on journeys of discovery.
21st August: Paid bills today, which is a tremendous relief to Jack & me.
Three in the morning Lesley arrived home from Johannesburg. She had meant to stay the night at Laingsberg but had a dog & was refused accommodation. On the Cape Flats her battery petered out & luckily she stopped a friend who gave her a tow into Town. Very tired but fairly successful with her show & trailing Thunder, a cross terrier-spaniel, for the boys.
22nd August: Unpacked the van and took nine paintings to the Hotel: Xhosa Ganger, Measuring Tower, Bombed Church, Protea, Proteas, Boy with Duck, Fisherman’s Cottage, Marine Still Life and Bot River Hills.
To Town to clear up a few money matters & complete my income tax return. In-come for the past year – £318, debts £885. Some-thing must happen soon to crack this ominous trend.
Why did these intelligent and undoubtedly creative people choose, if indeed they chose, to live at such cost? If they were gamblers, what was the payout? Was Jack’s writing a muse-driven obsession, a shot at textual immortality, part of a modern project of selfhood creating himself as a literary figure, or a dodge to avoid emotional engagement with his wife? Was it some mixture of these or something else entirely? We shall never know by reading his diaries, for they, too, are literature.
The acceptance of The Golden Oriole recorded in the diary cannot have helped them much financially, whatever advances Jack may have been able to wheedle out of Heinemann, the publishers. In any event, the book was not to appear until 1958, the year my parents parted, which may account for the feeling of loss that accompanies, for me, the image of the book’s cover.