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Part 3

The town of White River had a high street, a suburban area and not much else. On the lower side of town was a street where Indian traders lived and had their shops. Beyond that were a chemist, a garage, a clothing store, two cafés, by which I mean food shops run by persons of continental extraction, a toy and stationery store, and a bakery. Over the road were a bottle-store, a hardware store and other shops of the kind found in small towns in South Africa at that time. The shops did business according to the formulae of apartheid, and their clientele and the types of transactions permitted were specified in detail and enforced to the letter by the police, who were situated a block beyond the bakery.

The police were fearsome people in uniforms not much different from those worn at during the Second World War, and I was already predisposed to dislike them because it was they, or rather their plain-clothes spies and detectives, who harassed, investigated, questioned, listed, banned, jailed and, in the final analysis, could even execute by hanging my parents and their Communist friends. The White River police chief went by the nickname of Hitler – a title affectionately conferred by the townsfolk and cheerfully embraced by him. He kept a picture of Hitler, my mother told me, on the wall in his office, grew a toothbrush moustache and combed his hair in the manner of his role model.

Behind the police station, which was built of ochre face-brick, and the magistrate’s court where the law legitimated the activities of ‘Hitler’ and his minions, stood the Witrivierse Laerskool or White River Primary School, as it was less often called. I was a pupil there from 1958 until 1964, after which I was sent as a boarder to the South African College School (SACS) in Cape Town. Raymond stayed in White River, moving in 1961 to Rob Ferreira Höer Skool, which was a little further from the centre of town. The high point of that high street consisted, for me, of two adjacent shops: the toy and stationery shop, which provided Dinky Toys, Mechano sets, Corgi cars, model aeroplane kits (both plastic balsa wood); and the bakery that stood next door to it, which baked white bread, raisin bread, brown bread, buns, Copenhagens and the like, all of them, as I remember it, steaming hot and full of the scent of baking, given off by the dying yeasts. Behind the bakery was the barber shop, where my hair was cut for two shillings, later two and six. The haircut was invariant: short back and sides, long on top. When the barber had finished, he combed our hair with La Pebra’s Fixing Cream, a glue that dried and set the hair to the hardness of a beetle’s shell, so that it could be knocked with a knuckle to make a satisfying tok-tok sound.

The bread that our sandwiches were made from was not hot and fresh like the bread from the Witriver Bakkery, but it gave us carbohydrate. Along with protein, vitamins and exercise, it was thought that this what children principally needed. I did not get vitamin pills, as my twins now do, but had to get by on such as were already in the food.

The food on Luitingh’s Guest Farm was, to my taste, somewhere between hideous and unbearably hideous. As the farm fell apart about them, the Luitinghs were forced to cut costs. Anton’s mother Alida, whom we called Aunty Lila, and who supervised the cuisine, favoured cheaper cuts of meat: oxtail, with its glutinous lumps, was served as a main meal together with a starch and an over-boiled and sugar-coated vegetable, and I find within me a strong sensation of sitting in the hot but shady dining-room with its high thatched roof, the only diner left, my unfinished plate in front of me, my mouth full of some dull carbohydrate I cannot swallow for fear of arousing fully the gag reflex which hovers, primed and ready at the back of my mouth.

141 lila lena

The photograph shows Aunty Lila long after she had outlived two husbands and her son’s marriage to Lesley. There she stands supported by Lina, her devoted servant, and another, at the old-age home where she spent her last years. She is much thinner than she was when she ran the Guest Farm. Aunty Lila’s cooking was of a kind that is much loved by certain traditional Afrikaans families, and consisted of dishes like beans and potatoes boiled together, sugared pumpkin, and yellow rice with raisins in it, along with meat or curried brawn.

142 mc & max

Those who have grown up with this kind of food often look back on it with nostalgia, associating it with the presence of their mothers. It seems quite likely that my revulsion for it has little to do with taste receptors, although these receptors are not similar in all humans. It has, I think, a symbolic meaning for me; it is entangled with the absence of the father.

Aunty Lila did not do the cooking on the Guest Farm herself. It was done by cooks, men who wore white shorts and white drill tops with red piping on them, and thong-and-motor-car-tyre sandals. They were assisted by their wives and siblings – women who washed dishes, scrubbed and swept. Men served the remaining guests at the table, and were called ‘boys’ by everyone except Lesley, Raymond and me. I do not remember the names of most of these servants, and, with the partial exceptions of two boys of my own age called Max and Million, I was never able to cross the barriers that were set up between black and white, guests and servants, or speakers of siSwati and English.

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136 mothThe white farmers in the White River area at the time I lived there resembled fairly closely conservative white Americans in the South, and there remain ties between various conservative and fundamentalist organisations in South Africa and in the US. Attitudes to guns found among white South African farmers are often similar to those held by right-wing Americans. These men, the Gallup organisation tells us, tend to believe that the Second Amendment is the most important part of their Constitution. This Amendment reads: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” When we lived at Luitingh’s Guest Farm, only white people were allowed to own guns.

Guns are useful instruments of dominion over humans, but they are in fact mostly aimed at other species, and it is through the barrel of a gun that humans have conquered and now rule the natural world. Although they had guns, neither Archie Hopper nor the successive Anton Luitinghs had the resources to eliminate from their territory all the animals that they deemed undesirable. These included mambas, boomslangs, puff-adders, pythons, scorpions both large and small, and a vast repertoire of spiders, moths and stinging insects. All were considered fair game and killed on sight. Anton used a sjambok, a pistol or a hunting rifle with two barrels (one of which delivered a point two two bullet, the other birdshot), to kill snakes. This weapon was the most effective, especially the birdshot barrel at close range.

137 cobra b&wThe killing of a snake was a charged affair, carrying as it did the real possibility of sudden and painful death. When Anton went out with his weapons to dispatch a snake, I was expected to stay out of the way, and gladly did so, but would traipse along behind at what I considered to be a safe distance. The rustling grass, the thrashing coils, the raised head spitting venom, the flailing sjambok or the loud crack of the rifle echoing in the valley, the smell of cordite (if that is what it was), the floods of fear transformed into excitement: Anton was St George.

The dragons that he could not slay were small and many. They included schistosomes, small flatworms that lived in the water and sought human hosts for the completion of their complex life-cycle, mosquitoes, and all of the very many insects and still smaller life-forms – the aphids, cut-worms, weevils, ticks and spiders – that dined on the crops or sickened the stock. He sprayed, dusted and fumigated, but the undesirables kept coming. We burnt sulphur tablets to fumigate our rondavel for a pest I can no longer remember.

138 butterfly

At night, we burned a creosote lamp to help with the respiratory difficulties I had developed after leaving Cape Town. I lay propped up on pillows to ease my wheezing breath.

While Anton waged war on the natural world, Lesley was turning it into art. The reptiles and exotic insects on the farm afforded a fount of endless variety, and she drew, painted and photographed them with what seemed to me loving fascination.

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134 jack bushman paintingsIf Jack was a ‘cold, unemotional man’ then I did not find him so. I can trace no memory of regarding him with anything other than love. He was a holiday parent, which gave him the advantage of never really having to discipline us to do things like homework, but this can’t have been his only source of attraction. If he did not hug and cuddle us as such, he was generous with his body and intellect. Jack loved children, and his presence on the beach served as a magnet for them. Big and fit, he was able to provide rides: piggy-back or on his shoulders, an ‘aeroplane’ in which he held us by an arm and leg and swung us around, or a whirligig, where we were swung by both hands, and a ‘tick-tock’, where we were swung like a pendulum between his knees and right up over his head.

Holidays with him did not involve consumerism, and we were not bought treats or taken on special excursions, but the use of public amenities – the museums, galleries, planetarium and aquarium, the dunes, the harbour and the dirty oil-burning power-station on the foreshore – all provided happy times and material for our watercolour books, which alternated sheets of cartridge paper with tissue. Every holiday we would climb the mountain, covering all the easy ascents within walking distance of Clifton: Platteklip Gorge, Africa Face, Blinkwater, Woody Ravine, Woody Buttress, Kasteel’s Poort. We would take a small knapsack containing chocolate, sandwiches and Moni’s Grape Juice (which we only got on these excursions), and sometimes binoculars and Mrs Stevens’ two small books illustrating inedible and edible fungi. He taught us the etiquette of the outdoors: the names of plants and mushrooms, never to litter or make fires, always to greet other hikers, never to throw stones down the mountain, never to trust one’s weight to an untested rock in the scree, always to add a modest stone to a cairn, always to respect and assist the natural world.

133 Jack Mike beachBack at home, he read to Raymond and me daily from myths, stories and fables, as well as Dickens, Stevenson, Carroll and all the other classics of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. But on the beach, especially around a braai fire at night, he invented fantastical stories of ghosts and ogres, daring escapes and wild quests, many of them rooted in the Zulu tales that he had heard around other fires in his own childhood on the farm at Mooi River. In the early evening, with the sound of the surf in the background, children from all around the beach would gather and listen with big fire-lit eyes, full of fear, joy and awe.

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129 vd graaffIn the image on the right, taken from the Internet, a young woman tries not to laugh as the mysteries of modern science make the hair on her head stand up. The round object on which she rests her left hand is the bulb or terminal of a Van der Graaff electrostatic generator. The effect is achieved by altering the electrostatic charge on the surface of the sphere. The charge ‘flows’ through her body, charging her hair along with everything else. The like-charged hairs repel each other, and in their escape from proximity, they rise from her head and away from one another.

The toy Van der Graaff that I got at about the age of eleven was not as powerful, but it worked in precisely the same way. Friction was used to ‘scrape’ electrons from a wide rubber band, creating a charged electrostatic difference, and charging the metal-plated plastic bulb.

My attitude to the toy was ambiguous. I appreciated the effects that it was able to produce. The tissue-paper octopus, when placed on the bulb, writhed its paper tentacles convincingly. The Styrofoam ball on a string orbited the bulb with a jerky bouncing motion as long as I turned the plastic handle that propelled the rubber band. The bulb produced sparks which looked, and indeed were, exactly like lightning on a small and safe scale. The toy could deliver a painless little electric shock with a satisfying crack. But it did not satisfy me. It wasn’t a big Van der Graaff, and could produce no more than a tingle in my short-back-and-sides haircut. And besides, the toy was plastic – a sure sign, to my way of thinking (which owed its aesthetics at least in part to those taught at the Camberwell after the war) that it was somehow inauthentic. Not all of the advertised effects worked, and those that did, like water monkeys ordered from a comic-book, did not really match the descriptions on the box. Adults, especially Anton, used equipment, but it was not plastic and did not look like this.

The Van der Graaff electrostatic generator works on principles that are identical to those that accumulate static electricity in clouds. Only the scale is different. Friction, though from what source I cannot say, charges the clouds until they are forced to release their immoderate energy in bolts of lightning. When a thundercloud looses its force, it finds, as it were, a weakest point, an ionizing path along which ten thousand volts flow at five hundred miles an hour. The earth sends a counter-surge of thirty thousand amperes back up this path at ten times that speed, followed by a series of back-and-forth surges. For the purposes of our perception, all of this activity is instantaneous, and is seen as a single flash of lightning.

There was a gum tree about a hundred metres from our house. Though by no means the oldest, it was by far the tallest and perhaps thickest tree on the farm. It stood moulting strips of bark like a tree in a South African landscape painting of the kind that our family had learned to despise. We called it ‘the big gum’ although there were other gum trees on the farm.

Madala, the worker whose face my mother chose to preserve in her family album, liked to predict hail. He would point at particularly dark thunderclouds and say, ‘stones,’ and would often be right. He may have predicted hail the day that the big gum was destroyed, for there were certainly very dark clouds. I was outside in the space between house and the gum tree, a downward-sloping piece of land with a ragged lawn, when the first drops of that storm fell. The lightning must have come soon afterwards, because I had not yet found shelter when it struck. I do not really know how many electron volts a tropical storm-cloud can deliver into a tree or even what an electron volt really is, but the charge that poured instantaneously into the big gum filled it with so many mutually-repulsive electrons that the seven-storey-high trunk, no longer able to stay near itself, split from top to bottom and exploded outward. The noise of this explosion, travelling at the speed of sound, reached me at about the same time as the surplus charge from the tree, which flowed through the ground on which I was standing. As I reconstruct it, this caused the muscles in my body to contract, throwing me onto the wet grass. The same bolt of agitated electrons ‘jumped’ from the tree or from the sky and entered the telephone wires, melting the copper for hundreds of yards and blowing bits of the black bakelite fuse-box right across the crazy-paving of the front yard and out beyond to where the cars parked.

132 jack & tomIn the picture, part of a family group, my father sits on the left, his knee resting on that of his twin. Although there is a terrier on his lap, Jack’s posture is a mirror image of Tom’s, cross-legged, hands grasping shins. Jack is barefoot. Tom is shod but does not wear socks. His head leans slightly towards Jack. Both stare intently outward, at the camera.

It was my mother who told me about the death by lightning of my father’s twin brother Tom, when they were twenty. Jack never spoke about it to me.

132 tom132 Lesley as child

The grassy green flank of the Front Hill fills the view from the stoep of the stone house on Rudolf’s Hoek. It was there that Tom had been walking with his dog when the lightning struck. The dog was not killed. About Jack’s reaction on hearing the news (he was working as a reporter in London at the time), I can only speculate.

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How do we want texts to remember or represent us? When I received the transcripts of my interview with Albie Sachs, I realised, a bit late, that in my drive through a cloudburst and soaking dash to her flat in Kenilworth, I had forgotten to ask the person who transcribed the tape, a pleasant young woman with a toddler in a high-chair, to make what Albie had called a ‘robust’ transcription. Accustomed to working for linguists, she had instead transcribed whatever she could hear, including every um and ah, and every repetition thereof, and every phrase repeated in variations as we felt for the right meaning. Albie’s speech, recorded thus, is not surprisingly crammed with such flourishes, but mine is even worse. The sentences are often incoherent. We are talking about the past, so sentences shift tense half-way through, or are left dangling, incomplete. Ums and repetitions increase with the emotional charge of what is being said. And yet, in Albie’s presence, I had understood every word he had said, and he, presumably, had understood me.

I had been sitting further from the microphone, so my words had been hard to make out and were pretty garbled in the transcription. The typist’s procedure appeared to have been to type out whatever she understood and to phonetically transcribe whatever she didn’t understand, then let the spell-checker take a stab at the result. There were a few bizarre errors, like we justified apartheid instead of we just defied apartheid, which called everything else into doubt. I re-checked the transcript against the tape, then spent hours removing the ums and ahs and tidying up the language, putting in words which only someone intimate with the context could have heard. But after this I was still unsatisfied, especially with my own contributions. These utterances still seemed incoherent, or did not fully convey the meaning I had thought I was making, or was perhaps making with my body and gestures. And yet now these utterances were to go out into the world in the form of the text, as orphans without their father to defend them.

Needless to say, I rewrote my own few interjections in Albie’s monologue and cut the rest. Everybody wants their utterances, should they appear in a text, to be edited to formal correctness, because once orphaned, they no longer enjoy the mutual assent of being a part of a conversation, a meeting of minds enacted through the meeting of bodies. The living logos of the spoken word depends on the living presence of the other, and the promise of understanding that the meeting of embodied minds implies; so in a strong sense, the logos is the meeting of minds through the encounter of bodies. The speaker’s capacity for defending his statements (for, as Plato has told us, he is their father) makes all spoken utterances somewhat contingent, but it also places speech in the realm of power relations. Presence – the attitudes, gestures and expressions of the body – seals these relations and supervises the meaning of words to a large extent, but presence cannot be coded into a text. The textual utterance must defend itself.

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memory: The capacity to recall past experience or information in the present. The reliability of memory as a source of knowledge and the extent of its contribution to personal identity are matters of philosophical dispute.

The dictionary entry is ingenuous, for memory can be a matter of more than philosophic dispute, and its dodginess as a source of knowledge rivals only that of its main competitor in human affairs, the text.

121 rondavelLuitingh’s Guest Farm closed around the time of Lesley’s marriage to Anton. The old ladies either died or moved on, and Anton demolished some of the rondavels, while others fell into ruin. The farm, now run as yet another small subtropical fruit and produce farm in the area, took on the appearance of desolation.

The gardens and lawns, without the attentions of the gardeners, merged with and became indistinguishable from the surrounding ecology, but many of the magnificent flowering trees that Hopper had planted remained, now mature and stately above the vestiges of the rondavels, signified perhaps by a circular cement floor or just a level area on the slope below the koppie.

The ancestors are concealed behind a deep entanglement of memory and forgetting. On Luitingh’s Guest Farm there were thickets of lantana as impenetrable as the bramble forest that grew up around the Sleeping Beauty and which, even in those days, were regarded as noxious weeds. Today they have been joined in this status by the glorious mauve jacaranda trees and many other plants that were then regarded as boons rather than inconveniences. The leaves of the lantana were fuzzy with stubble and the stems were covered in a rasp of fine hooked thorns. The flowers were pink, yellow, orange and creamy white, and ripened to small black berries, which were loved by birds and sweet and tart to taste. All of these images are permeated, for me, with the smell of lantana, which does not have a name.

I have found that there are at least two kinds of memories: those which can be accessed by willed acts of introspection; and those which are not so available, but which are evoked by encountering some stimulus – a photograph, a scent, the call of a particular bird, or which come to us unbidden at the edge of sleep. There are other kinds of memory as well in the vast realms of the human mind, such as those achieved when the brain is directly stimulated with electrodes, but these methods of recall are not available to most.

In demolishing the configuration of Luitingh’s Guest Farm, Anton was not only removing the inconvenient and ramshackle structures. He was also dismantling the Ars Memoria of the location, permanently destroying keys which could unlock its past, and the lives which had inhabited it, so that those memories which might be invoked by the places have become like ghosts, present but unseen, or known only by their initials, or totally forgotten.

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When the time came to dip the livestock, Anton would load them onto the back of the truck and drive them to another farm, for we did not have the cement-lined trench of poison into which sheep and cattle were driven periodically to rid them of ticks and other insect pests. At Rudolf’s Hoek, the Cope family farm, there was a dip, however, and the dipping of the animals was for me an occasion of excitement mixed with terror. The fear of poisons that had been sensibly ingrained in me was wildly stirred by such profligate, splashing, spuming quantities of the very substances which we were never to touch or inhale, and this multiplied the thrill of the dusty, noisy, smelly event.

I remember in particular the thrashing panic of the animals as they skidded bellowing down the slipway, emitting streams of wet green shit, crowded by their peers and urged on by whips, the danger of their hard hooves or horns as they tried to escape, the foam at their mouths, the foam of the liquid in the trench as they swam frantically to the far side, their rolling eyes, their slippery and dripping emergence from the poison, and their chastened gait as they moved to stand again among the herd or flock. At the end of the procedure the dogs would be tossed into the trench, now shallower, smirched and muddy, to emerge cringing and shaking the poison all over everyone.

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