Between the 1930s and the 1950s, Sea Point grew to look like movies set in Florida, but the construction problems entailed in building on the slope prevented much development from taking place at Clifton, and only a few blocks of flats were built at the Sea Point end of the bay. The flats where Ingrid Jonker lived, above Moses Beach, were from the earliest period of this development, and were not in good repair. Rust, driven by the sea air, had reached the reinforcing in the concrete, causing paving and ceilings to crack and streak. Iron windows dribbled corrosion. The stairs were always damp from leaking pipes.
I did not like her block, even though its front view was filled with sun, sea and mountains. Raymond and I did not like her, either. She was somehow a mirror image of Anton: much younger than Jack, an Afrikaner, sexy and emotionally unpredictable. She stood between us and Jack, and at first, at least for me, between the possibility of reuniting our parents and regaining paradise. At any rate, this is the explanation I have offered for our behaviour towards her, although it may be more complicated – after all, we got on well with other later girlfriends of Jack’s, like Jutta, or Pat, or Inge.
I think Ingrid was what psychologists refer to as a borderline personality – self-obsessed to the point of multiple suicide attempts, she was so lost in her own world that she could not see us children. She ignored us or talked over us, for she – like me – was a needy child waiting to insert herself into the conversation, hoping to become the centre of attention; or she would sulk visibly somewhere, reading a book.
Aged eleven or so, I typed a send-up of one of her poems in Afrikaans on Jack’s typewriter and left it on the desk that shared his cramped bedroom with a three-quarter bed. She expressed surprise that we could even read, much less write Afrikaans, and attributed the effort to Raymond. Earlier, Raymond had bribed me with a book called The Moon and Sixpence, whose story and colour illustrations are still with me now, to wait on the roof and empty a bucket of water on her as she came up the stairs to visit. She laughed. We apple-pied Jack’s bed and tied his pyjamas in knots while he was out with her.
When she went overseas to Europe, she wrote to say that she had bought a present for Raymond and me: scale models of Columbus’ three ships, exciting my eleven- or twelve-year-old interest. But when the ships arrived, they were a disappointment – neither scale models nor toys, they were some sort of tourist ornament, ugly, badly made and without detail, and thus uninteresting to us on any level. We thanked her politely and continued to plot against her.
How Jack put up with her I did not understand, for, like all borderline personalities, she was more than difficult. Truculent and demanding by turns, an unfaithful lover (as who wasn’t then?) who wanted fidelity, she brought with her the atmosphere of emotional turmoil, distress and physical chaos that drove her repeatedly into the sea or to the bottle of pills, and eventually killed her. At the same time, she was clever, articulate, sexy, dangerous, and unrequited but full of desire – qualities that made her, as I reconstruct it, a flame to the moth of various men, including my father.
People who ask me now what I think of her work, especially the hagiographers, are sometimes disturbed to discover that I admire but don’t adulate it, and attribute my reserve to a hostility generated when I was eight or nine. I disagree. I am now much older than she was when she wrote, and I find many of her poems to be the work of someone young and disproportionately interior. Her skill with language and undeniable ability to nuance the meanings of words, however, are a matter of record – she spent years working on the definitive Afrikaans dictionary and developed a strong feeling for the web of language. For me, the one poem in the oeuvre that manages to escape the confines of Ingrid’s self-obsession and take flight is the famous Child Shot Dead by Soldiers at Nyanga that Nelson Mandela read to all the world on the day that he was inaugurated as President of South Africa.
But what really consolidated Ingrid’s reputation, in my opinion, is the compelling combination of sex, rebellion and death presented by her life. Perhaps some of those who love her work are seeking self-validation, and when they encounter what seems a mirror image, articulated with accuracy, cleverness and emotional acuity, they find reassurance and substantiation. The comfort that they draw from Ingrid’s life as suggested by her work is the possibility of living with intelligence and emotional intensity, which for some is the same as authenticity.