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.
Albie came with lovely silks and prints from China to ask for ideas on how to frame them. How I long to possess some of the things. He came for tea and stayed until eleven at night. How quickly he seems to have matured.
Lesley’s diary, Sunday, 22 May 1955
We go to see a theatrical piece based on the Bleek-Lloyd archive, the sole record of the language, customs and thoughts of certain individuals of the /Xam people, a linguistic group of the Bushman gatherers and hunters who inhabited the whole of Southern Africa before the arrival of the various Bantu peoples and, shortly thereafter, the white settlers and colonists. The piece deals with the subjugation, beating and genocide of these unfortunate people and others of their kind, and although moving, it does not, indeed cannot, present the /Xam as themselves, but as us – as modern dancers, modern individuals with high-tech equipment performing before an early 21st-century audience, for the testimony of these early inhabitants of our landscape has become so flattened and smoothed by time and loss of context that it has become a mirror.
In the row immediately behind me is Albie Sachs, who is mentioned in Lesley’s 1955 diary, and with whom I felt I had made a warm contact at a conference at Victoria Falls a few months after Lesley’s death. I greet him and we chat briefly. I mention that I am writing about Lesley and ask whether he would be prepared to grant an interview. He is an exceptionally busy person, but he agrees to an interview.
The interview takes place on a perfect winter’s day, much like some of the days recorded in Lesley’s diary. His home is at Clifton, overlooking First Rock, Second Rock and Third Rock, three granite boulders that stand in the breakers and divide Third from Fourth Beach, forming the tiny beach called Three-and-a-half Beach. The cottage is small, decorated individualistically and with immaculate taste in the modern style. The furniture is expensive and of good quality but not showy, and the place is full of artworks, small paintings and a great variety of figurines, ranging from African carvings to an entire jazz band in miniature. Everything is in its place and care has been taken over its placement. A bright African bead-hanging curtains off a tiny nook with a desk in it. There is a mural on the wall over the kitchen sink depicting a cluttered bookshelf. One of the books on the painted shelf, I notice, is by Albie. Framed by the picture window that looks out onto the tiny courtyard, the fence too is decorated with a lush tropical mural that keys in with the landscape and ocean. The entire ambience is bright and attractive, and speaks of the happiness that comes from the integration of creativity with life. Albie is gracious and intimate without being familiar. We sit facing each other over a red and blue granite counter-top, the feldspar of which gleams with shifting peacock colours in the sunlight.
I plug the mini-disk recorder in, turn it on, and he begins to talk. His memory is better than mine, it seems, and he recollects detail after detail of the days before and around 1955, then goes on to make connections with later experience. We continue for most of the morning.
At the end of the interview, elated, I drive home to Muizenberg. I plug the headphones in and press play. The machine displays the message empty disk.
In the computer world, which I inhabited for eight years in the 1980s, it is said that there are two kinds of memory errors: those of storage and those of retrieval. In the first kind of error, the information is not stored or is badly stored, and thus lost or forgotten. In the second kind, the information is correctly stored but cannot be retrieved, as the keys to its retrieval have changed or disappeared. It turns out that I have the second kind of error, but the net effect is the same – Albie’s voice is indeed burnt into the gleaming surface of the disc, but I will never hear it, for the keys have been lost.
I slump. I am hesitant to further importune a man, a Constitutional Court judge, who is one of the most eminent figures in the country, and for whom, in the course of the morning, my feeling of affection has been confirmed. But my wife Julia insists, and I call him. As befits an eminent figure, he is gracious and decisive. ‘Can you come back at 2.30?’ he asks. I glance at my watch. It’s just before one. ‘Yes,’ I say. I make phone-calls, drive to Constantia to borrow a tape recorder, dash to a mall for tapes, then drive like Fangio over Constantia Nek, down the Hout Bay valley and around to Clifton, past Oudekraal and Camps Bay. At exactly 2.30 I knock, tape-recorder in hand, my heart beating one-and-a-half time. Having already done the interview, I am aware of a circularity in the relationship: he looked up to my parents as senior comrades. I look up to him for the same reason, but I also stand oddly in loco parentis, so accrete to myself some of the respect due to them. Nevertheless, I am embarrassed. ‘Shit happens,’ I say, shrugging sheepishly. He puts me at ease. Beyond the huge windows, the tide has come in and the waves spout foam over Third Rock in the afternoon sun. I put the tape-recorder on the counter-top, test it (it works), and press ‘record’.
A few months ago,* I received a phone-call from a woman whose voice sounded as if I should have recognised it. Was I Michael Cope, she asked, the son of Jack and Lesley? I said I was, and she told me that in clearing out some old things, she had come across photographs of my parents. Did I want them? I did. I gave my address, and a few days later, the doorbell rang. There stood a woman with an air of almost-familiarity. She gave her name and handed me an envelope with pictures. I thanked her, and went to meet the people in the car that had brought her, who seemed in a hurry to go somewhere else.
The photographs, small black-and-white images that look like the productions of a Brownie Box camera, date from before I was born, and include the only images I have, whether in photographs or in memory, of my parents together. I looked at them, put them back in the envelope, and forgot them.
Interested once again, I seek the photos and study them. To my shame, I cannot remember the name of the woman who brought them. Did I thank her? Was I rude and short, or hospitable and gracious to these people who had made an effort to bring me this time capsule? I cannot remember, for the images lie behind the project of forgetting which obscures my early years. Even the meeting with these kind people has been absorbed into it and obliterated beyond the sketchiest details. Brian Bunting was in the car. I spoke to him briefly, but cannot remember what we said. I cannot remember what kind of car it was, or what colour, or whether there were other people in it, and if so, who they were. Did I greet them? The word ‘Joffe’ surfaces numbly in my mind. Perhaps her name is Joffe? Her face, even so recently encountered, is gone.
I am left with the pictures themselves, the familiar ambience, postures and gestures that they depict poking through the cotton-wool of the past.
It is late morning. A group of people on First Beach, Clifton, have removed their sunglasses to present themselves to the camera. The women wear lipstick in the fashion of the 50s. The men have made trumpets from the dried kelp, and Jack has the longest one, an alpenhorn whose end extends beyond the picture.
Lesley’s eyes are squinting against the glare. Her body turns away from Jack’s. In spite of the laughter in her face, I can read tension in her hands as they hold her sunglasses. The position of her hands is similar to a gesture of hers that I would come to know well, the hands on the stomach indicating abdominal pain.
Jack’s arm around her shoulder is lightly draped, its attention culminating in his sunglasses. His head and neck pull away from her, lengthening his right shoulder and putting as much distance between his head and his elbow, the crux of the gesture, as anatomy will allow.
Who is the handsome man whose face peers from behind Jack? Is the smiling woman the same one who brought me the photo, more than fifty years later? The man on the right blowing the trumpet at the photographer strikes me as someone I should know well, but do not. Was he in the car with Brian Bunting?
The rock on which they sit is Table-Mountain sandstone, which my knowledge of such rocks colours with golden beige and rust. They date back to a time when the top of the mountain was an ocean bed. The rock on which the shadow of Jack’s encircling arm falls is granite, from a more recent** intrusion.
** Actually an earlier intrusion
One glimpse of Lesley from the void of her pre-motherhood life comes from Under My Skin, an autobiographical work by Doris Lessing:
Then he might drive me to visit friends, for instance Jack Cope, the writer, and his wife Lesley. He was tall, dark and handsome. She was slim and blonde and beautiful. Both were then Party members. They took soapboxes to Market Square and made revolutionary speeches. They were a wild success, this beautiful couple, particularly Lesley, who was like a princess. The Comrades got sardonic pleasure out of the improbability of this very English middle-class couple on their soapbox. So did the Copes. So did everyone. They lived in a little flat at Sea Point, where from their windows they looked down at the sea sweeping in and out, not far from where I had been in that seedy hotel with the strings of coloured lights six years before.
The second hint comes from the even earlier time of Lesley’s pre-marital state. In Pauline Podbrey’s autobiography, White Girl in Search of the Party, I find the following:
It was Gunther who introduced me to Lesley de Villiers. ‘She’s a lovely girl,’ he enthused. ‘And she lives on her own in a flat in Broad Street. You two should get on well; she seems to share a lot of your ideas.’ This was intriguing and made me impatient to meet her. When I did, she measured up to all my expectations. Here was a girl my age, living alone and independent, earning a living as a hairdresser but finding time to upholster her chairs, sew her curtains, create lampshades and paint pictures. No one in our home made things with their hands – one didn’t count Mother’s cooking and baking and sewing – that was just woman’s work. Manual skill was despised and only intellect counted. Father couldn’t change a fuse but he wrote poetry; Joe didn’t know one end of a screwdriver from the other but he played an excellent game of chess. This was a legacy of the less attractive Jewish tradition, the Ghetto mentality which I despised, the Chasidic culture where women worked to support the men who spent their days and nights studying the holy scriptures.
I, who couldn’t even cook, admired Lesley for all the qualities I lacked – her skills, her artistic ability, her inde-pendence, her good taste in decoration, make-up, clothes. It was in Lesley’s flat that I first heard La ci darem la mano, on her wind-up gramophone and it struck me as right and proper that this heavenly duet should always be associated in my mind with her. Lesley was not only skilful and beautiful and independent but it soon emerged that she did indeed have left-wing views.
‘Where did you get them?’ I demanded arrogantly, knowing how rare it was find someone with my views among Natal whites. In this sphere at least I felt myself to be ahead of her. She didn’t bridle at my assumptions of superiority but explained with great good humour how she had been influenced since childhood by her adored elder cousin, Jack Cope, whose handsome likeness decorated her dressing table. ‘I’m going to marry him,’ she assured me matter-of-factly, and a few years later she did.
Lesley soon became a popular member of our group, courted by quite a number of the fellows. We would gather in her flat, listen to music, drink wine and talk, talk, talk. Henry Woolfson was one of her many admirers. He would stand in the middle of the room, cigarette in outstretched hand, swaying on his heels and dropping ash on the carpet, his eyes half closed and an inane grin on face. ‘For goodness’ sake, Henry,’ Lesley would scold him irritably, ‘can’t you use an ashtray?’ ‘Oh, sorry,’ Henry would mutter and reach for an ashtray. The next moment he was back on his heels, flicking ash on the floor.
A photograph of Pauline Podbrey and her family in Lesley’s old album finds its match in a small picture in White Girl, obviously taken in the same photo-session, and allows me to identify the people. They are H.A. Naidoo, Pauline and their daughters Karen and Sandra, ghosts from that invisible past.
By the time that Lesley arrived at Luitingh’s Guest Farm with her children, Pauline had long left the country for Budapest, where she and H.A. spent a confused and increasingly paranoid time as radio broadcasters for the Communist bloc, struggling with the contradictions involved in propagandising for freedom while enduring an increasingly authoritarian milieu.
Jack had been removed from the UK for his left-wing views in the early years of the war, before Stalin joined the Allies. He was branded a ‘security risk’ and this label stuck, preventing him, to his enormous relief, from enlisting. Lesley did indeed marry him ‘a few years later’. The marriage certificate shows she was nineteen on the day of the wedding. Jack had turned twenty-nine the day before. The year was 1942. The war had been going on for three years.
The person in Pauline’s work is a teenager then, perhaps as young as Pliny on that fateful day of the eruption, and I am left wondering how this young woman invented herself in so short a time, changing from a white boarding-school girl in 1930s Natal into a skilled, cultured aesthete with left-wing views. She didn’t get any of this stuff from her mother, Vere, whom I remember as conservative and not at all creative. Her father had died when she was seven. Her school, Escort High, under a Colonel Martin, was no nurturing-ground for bohemians.
Just how influential was the hand of her adored second cousin Jack, the urban sophisticate and Fleet Street reporter, in her growth? Was she escaping Jim Cunningham, the stepfather whose name appears as a witness to the marriage of his wife’s teenage daughter, but whose image does not appear in Lesley’s albums? How did she grow up so fast? Where is the current stereotype, the sulking and slouching teenager lurking in a darkened room? I do not know.
A dictum that held sway among some who tried to explain human activity in the 1980s was that we are more-or-less blank slates who are inscribed with our character by experience, especially social experience. Current psychological wisdom has taken a swing against nurture in favour of genetic predispositions, environmental factors, and peer mores and pressures as factors in the formation of character.
Being a parent of twins has meant that I have had a wide variety of twin literature given to me. Especially when our twins were newborn, people clipped articles, photocopied papers or gave us books on the subject. Studies of identical twins brought up in separation show that these extremely rare individuals tend overwhelmingly towards convergence in the details of their tastes, behaviours, opinions, and so on, although I know of no case in which twins brought up speaking different languages, or in different countries with different cultures, have been compared. The notion that the character, or aspects of it, may be genetically determined offers an interesting take on memory; for if something as complex as one’s preference for, say, the fragrance of Joy by Patou can be inscribed in the genetic code, then surely one can be immortal through one’s offspring in a more particular sense than notions of living through the family usually encompass.
Was my brother Raymond more predisposed to war than I was? Certainly he played war games, bought and read war comics, and rehearsed battles with toy soldiers, tanks and model aeroplanes, whereas I was not particularly interested in these pastimes, preferring for play a combination of the scientific and the fantastical that would later turn into a teenage passion for science fiction. Was my brother manifesting a genetic tendency, inherited perhaps from our grandfather Carol who had fought in several wars, that I had missed in the gene-shuffle, getting a fantasy gene instead of a military one? Perhaps it was simply that I had been born four years further from the Second World War than he, and that crucial events of my upbringing took place beyond its atmosphere, suggesting that early years are formative in this regard. Tendencies expressed in childhood may not in any case bear fruit in adult behaviour. Now that we are in our fifties, Raymond flies hang-gliders for pleasure in a practical expression of the fantastical and escapist, whereas I practice the martial arts.
Lesley’s early years are forever lost to me, so I must forego all speculation about what formative experiences and styles of nurture may have resulted in the character that I knew. To me, she has almost no history, appearing ex nihilo with my arrival on the scene, or perhaps four years earlier with Raymond’s, or perhaps, vaguely, ten years earlier when she got married, before which was, well, nothing.
In that void, a tentative few stories grew. Like the time when, as a twelve- or thirteen-year-old, she had had a fervent conversion to Christianity, and had tested the fervency of her faith one afternoon after Sunday school by going to the school swimming pool dressed in her school uniform, or the special version of that uniform for Sundays, and had strode out onto the water in the full and utter confidence that her faith would bear her up. After that, she abandoned Christianity.
The next faith that she was to find, within the next three or four years, was Communism. Around this was a silence as palpable as cotton-wool, so that I never knew what, if anything, she had ever done for or with or on behalf of the Communists, nor, except for a very few instances, do I know now.
From these stories and absences that flit like ghosts in the empty room of her past, I must construct, should I care to, theories of how she came to be the person I knew. They are not sufficient to make a convincing account, and I find I am reluctant to do so.
Pliny the younger, nephew of the Roman encyclopaedist of the same name, witnessed from a distance the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which destroyed Pompeii in 79 AD. He wrote about it to Tacitus, his mentor, who had prompted him for an account of his uncle’s death during the turmoil of that event. That this letter has survived is an astonishing feat of memory, and the text is itself much concerned with memory and mortality. Here is the opening passage, in the charming translation of Professor Cynthia Damon of Amherst College:
You ask me to write you something about the death of my uncle so that the account you transmit to posterity is as reliable as possible. I am grateful to you, for I see that his death will be remembered forever if you treat it. He perished in a devastation of the loveliest of lands, in a memorable disaster shared by peoples and cities, but this will be a kind of eternal life for him. Although he wrote a great number of enduring works himself, the imperishable nature of your writings will add a great deal to his survival. Happy are they, in my opinion, to whom it is given either to do something worth writing about, or to write something worth reading; most happy, of course, those who do both. With his own books and yours, my uncle will be counted among the latter. It is therefore with great pleasure that I take up, or rather take upon myself the task you have set me.
For the younger Pliny, then, his uncle has become a text. When read, he speaks again, for it was not until many hundreds of years later that people began to read silently. And his uncle will be counted among the happy because he is both read and written about. The younger Pliny was right in this regard – both he and his uncle have been remembered. But we must consider that they began with significant advantages. Their family were citizens of considerable substance and influence. Both had received the best that Roman education, or rather tutoring, could offer. Both were highly literate, disciplined and well-versed in rhetoric. Both were skilled in the politics of self-promotion and had at their disposal slaves and other servants who could see to the details of copying and disseminating the texts that they generated.
In his letters to Tacitus, the younger Pliny shows himself to have been an intelligent, observant young man (he was seventeen at the time), and it is precisely this wit and vivacity which he pits against the dark tide of oblivion that he experienced so graphically on the day of the eruption:
Now came the dust, though still thinly. I look back: a dense cloud looms behind us, following us like a flood poured across the land. ‘Let us turn aside while we can still see, lest we be knocked over in the street and crushed by the crowd of our companions.’ We had scarcely sat down when a darkness came that was not like a moonless or cloudy night, but more like the black of closed and unlighted rooms. You could hear women lamenting, children crying, men shouting. Some were calling for parents, others for children or spouses; they could only recognize them by their voices. Some bemoaned their own lot, others that of their near and dear. There were some so afraid of death that they prayed for death. Many raised their hands to the gods, and even more believed that there were no gods any longer and that this was one last unending night for the world… It grew lighter, though that seemed not a return of day, but a sign that the fire was approaching. The fire itself actually stopped some distance away, but darkness and ashes came again, a great weight of them. We stood up and shook the ash off again and again, otherwise we would have been covered with it and crushed by the weight. I might boast that no groan escaped me in such perils, no cowardly word, but that I believed that I was perishing with the world, and the world with me, which was a great consolation for death.
It was the inhaling of this ash, the younger Pliny reports, that killed his uncle after he had set forth to observe the eruption more closely, and to attempt to rescue whoever he could. Though they could not have known it, the ash was also performing its own act of memory, covering the town of Pompeii and its surrounds, freezing time for almost two thousand years.
The figure shown here was created, as I understand it, by casting with plaster or some such material into the negative space left behind in the packed ash after the ash had solidified and the unfortunate Roman’s body had leached away. In this respect, it reminds me in reverse of Michelangelo’s reported experience of ‘seeing’ the shapes he wished to create ‘inside’ the stone, and then treating his sculptural efforts as a sort of excavation which would reveal the forms. It is not a type of memory to which we would willingly submit ourselves, but it has conferred on many of the citizens of Pompeii and their slaves, servants, animals and possessions, a kind of anonymous immortality which has lasted as long as that of Pliny and his nephew.