gawky conservatory

In a letter to Pompeius Saturninus, Pliny the Younger compares education to a drug. Having made a gift of a library to his town (rather than offering them the usual honour of the opportunity to see people and animals trying to kill each other), he includes the oration which he made at the dedication of the library, offering some justifications for the way he had praised himself and his ancestors, and leaving it to Pompeius to decide whether he ought to publish the speech or not.

‘Indeed the pleasures we receive by the eyes and ears,’ he writes, ‘far from wanting an oration to recommend them, have more need of one to restrain us from them. But on the contrary, not only rewards, but many arguments are necessary to persuade anyone to undergo the fatigue and labour of a first-rate education. If physicians are forced to use all the good words they can to get their patients to take an unpleasant though whole-some prescription, how much more fitting is it, for a lover of the public, to introduce a most beneficial though not equally popular donation, by discoursing in its favour?’

Their divorce notwithstanding, Lesley and Jack were contracted to educating their children, which gave them a common obligation that persisted at least a dozen years beyond the disintegration of their marriage and into the 1970s, when I left my apprenticeship as a jeweller and Raymond qualified as an architect.

Trying to make sense of this, I construct the following, a two-sibling educational CV, lasting up to the time we left school:

1954: Raymond Queens Road School, Sea Point
1957: Raymond Camps Bay Primary School
1958: Michael Camps Bay Primary School
1958: (April) Raymond & Michael White River Primary School
1961: Raymond Rob Ferreira High School (White River)
1965: Michael SACS (Cape Town)
1966: Raymond leaves school
1969: Michael leaves school

This meant that Raymond was White River-based throughout his schooling after 1958, spending the long holidays in July and December with Jack in Cape Town, as did I. Until 1965, I was committed to Raymond’s care for the two days that the railway trip took each way. Once I started high school in Cape Town as a boarder, I spent Sundays and occasional weekends, as well as short holidays, alone with Jack, now trekking north-east twice a year for the long holidays. After 1965, I was no longer accompanied on these long journeys by the gawky teenage presence of my brother, and was soon enough to be a gawky teenager myself. Jack bore the expense of these trips, as well as that of our education and whatever maintenance he paid Lesley.

michaelisMichaelis House, built as the Cape seat of Sir Max Michaelis, is an imposing late-Victorian structure set in what was once the Michaelis estate, now the extensive grounds of SACS. Converted into a boarding house, with its glass conservatory, complicated staircases and corridors, it was a suitably Dickensian environment for educational and custodial customs that had hardly changed since Sir Max’s time. We were offered neither arguments nor rewards in favour of our education, for the educational system had come to rely on punishments to fulfil that function. Boys were expected to be neat, obedient, sporty, hard-working and polite just short of grovelling. The emotional solaces of home were absent, and no substitute was offered. Out of sight of the masters, the boys behaved exactly as one might expect – they formed themselves into gangs around dominant individuals in a social order based on violence and exclusion. These were the same means the masters used to keep us in line – beating or expulsion.

Moving from Michaelis House to Clifton, where I spent Sundays and ten-day holidays with Jack and Uys, presented a weekly set of contradictions. After breakfast, wearing the Sunday uniform of grey suit, school tie and boater, and carrying a tog-bag, I would walk to the Main Road and catch the bus that ran from Wynberg to Sea Point, a journey of forty-five minutes. I always sat upstairs, and tried, if possible, to sit in the one seat that was out of sight of the driver’s bulging periscope mirror. Nobody else on the bus was dressed remotely like me. Even the few churchgoers, holding their identical books, were more casually and colourfully dressed, and I always made myself as in-conspicuous as possible. At the terminus at Sea Point I would alight to wait for the Bakoven/ Houghton Rd bus. I would stand outside the Terminus Café, and if I had more money than the fare,I would go in and buy sweets or chips from the surly woman who served the customers.

Then I would catch the Bakoven bus. At Clifton, I would ring the bell and get off at First Beach, cross the road and run down the stairs, three or four at a time. The whole journey took well over an hour. Inside, I would greet my father and Uys and whoever else was around, tear off my school clothes and change into civvies, then head for the beach.

Sunday evenings played the same scene out in reverse, and as the falling light and temperature that signalled the end of the day drew around me, I would shiver as I progressed through the inert city with all the shops closed and the lights coming on, my skin still uncomfortable from sun and salt under the grey suit.

Journeying from Michaelis House to the farm at Plaston and back was a longer passage and involved different contradictions. Every July and December I boarded the Trans-Karoo Express, which took a day and a half to get to Johannesburg. I travelled second class and spent the time with a variety of white, lower middle-class South Africans – soldiers in transit getting drunk and trying to chaff the girls, women with padkos consisting of biscuit-tins full of ham sandwiches, chickens, boiled eggs, dried fruit and thermos flasks full of tea, card-playing travelling salesmen, Afrikaans youths reading poesboekies, ancient pipe-smoking fallen patriarchs with gnarled hands who stared out the window at the flat landscape, railway workers with thin moustaches who drank brandy and coke and cursed.

I ate in the dining room and spent my pocket-money, such as it was, on ginger-ale and bitters with a slice of lemon, the most sophisticated drink permitted to underage passengers in the lounge section. I would always try to get a top bunk, where I could hide and read. During my high-school years, I too became interested in girls and sometimes made half-hearted attempts to approach them, standing in the corridor leaning on the polished metal rail and looking out of the window and hoping that somehow a social interaction would arise. It never did.

At the back of the train was the third-class section, where black people travelled. While I could move along the corridor to the first-class section and even use their shower, the third-class coaches were sealed off from us, and we from them, by locked doors.

Arriving in Johannesburg at mid-morning, I would have to wait for the rest of the day in and around the station until I could catch the overnight train to Nelspruit. I would explore the part of the city immediately around the station, or walk downtown. A couple of times I went to the café-bioscope near the station, a sleazy and old-fashioned place where one could eat slap chips and drink cooldrinks, which one placed on fold-down trays on the back of the seats, while watching a movie. Once, while I was watching a film with cowboys in it, a man in the next seat placed his hand on my right thigh. I rolled up a comic-book into a tight cylinder and hit his hand with it. The hand withdrew. I was always back well in time to catch the Nelspruit train, which left at dusk.

The descent into the Lowveld was overnight, and I would be awoken by the vomitorious stench of the SAPPI plant as the train passed through the Elandsfontein valley. As with the descent down Du Toit’s Kloof Pass from the higher land to the Western Cape, I would watch for the ecological signs that told me I was coming home: the change from grassland to bushveld, the first orange orchards, the dark stands of mango and avocado trees still without detail in the early light.

Lesley would usually be there at the station, but if she was late, I would wait the half-hour or so under the tall palm trees that stood outside the building, or sit on my bags in the single hall with its closed refreshment kiosk and its closed ticket-office, listening to the sound of trains and the noise of motors and machines in the distance as the town woke up.

Once I was in the car and driving along the familiar roads, I had arrived back in life and could forget for however many weeks the conservatory, the uniforms, the punishments and humiliations, the books, the green lawns and playing fields, the unadorned dormitories and rows of neatly made-up beds that attended my education.

The journey back at the end of the holidays was the same but played out in reverse: the mad dash to catch the train in Nelspruit, the slow ascent to the highveld through the night accompanied by coal-smoke and sparks that faded in the darkness, the Trans-Karoo Express with its soldiers, girls, padkos, card-games, brandy-and-coke, pipe-smoke, dining car and lounge, the descent from the Hex River Pass into the winelands, the sight of Table Mountain, the arrival at first Bellville, then Cape Town Stations, Jack on the platform, the brief re-acquaintance with Clifton, the metal trunk with school clothes in it, the lists and timetables and ultimately the first role-call in the conservatory that signified that my freedom had again come to an end, returning me to a limbo which had simply to be endured, an unpleasant prescription swallowed without sugar.


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Part 1       Part 2     Part 3     Part 4     Part 5     Part 6     Part 7      Part 8     Part 9     Part 10


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