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Part 7

Butch was a young brindled dog of about ridgeback size. I don’t know where Anton got him – presumably during one of my absences at Clifton. He was a fast runner, and would track the car as we drove down the two-rut road that paralleled the canal, running with ease in the ploughed field as fast as the car could go. Friendly beyond the bounds of decency, he would lick hands, ram his nose into groins and fuck the knees of guests. He was cured of the hand-licking by Anton, who, walking in a field of cayenne peppers, crushed the shiny red fruits in his hands as he saw Butch running up.

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There is a popular image of a baking mother who, filled with the need to nourish offspring, produces in a steaming and fragrant stream good things to eat from the oven, decorates them and serves them up to the family. Lesley did not bake in that sense, though she always attended to the aesthetics of whatever she prepared, as she did with everything else.

She left school at sixteen to enter the beauty trade, and her first job, in 1938, was as an apprentice hairdresser. Throughout her life she paid particular attention to her hair, and had about her, whether travelling or at home, various curlers and other devices that enabled her to take charge of the shape of her hair, without which attentions it hung long, perfectly straight and, to her way of seeing, shapeless.

265 lesley faceThe photograph of the young Lesley at Badplaas is enlightening in this regard: here we see a hairdo of considerable shape and bounce, and yet the context of the photograph is a hot spring, surely an environment – with its warm water, swimming, steam and general dampness – that must have worked contrary to her scheme of beautification. Yet even in these conditions, she has managed the trick of making her rather flat hair rise up in spectacular waves.

Lesley’s creativity consisted in beautifying herself, the rooms she inhabited and the gardens around them, and in producing a succession of art objects whose main function was to bring loveliness to their owners. She made most of her own clothes, including the dress and hat for the opening of her exhibition at the Lidchi gallery on the 5th of August 1955. She made her own dresses and hats for her weddings to Jack and Anton.

At her insistence, she had two spaces in the new house set aside for her sole use: the studio, which ran along the top of the house and had six big windows, filled with the smell of oil paint, the paintings themselves, her easel, brushes, paints, palettes and tools; and the sewing room, where she kept her old Singer and her racks and racks of materials in many colours and weaves, shawls, scarves, bolts of curtain lining, laces, bindings, rick-rack, piping, threads, twists, embroidery hoops, books of needles, pin-cushions and sequins.

Even in the final phase of her life, when she was a deep believer in the Radhasoami faith, whose founder, Seth Shiv Dayãl Singh tells us that ‘the worldly are pleased at tasty food and fine clothes but their pleasure is useless,’ she continued to paint and draw, kept her environment beautiful, cooked well, dressed stylishly, curled her hair and applied make-up. It was especially then that her sense of detail and of the decorative blos-somed; she became immaculately orderly where before she had been untidy and disorganized.

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In the mid-1960s, Anton bought four highly-bred Jersey cattle – three heifers and a bull. The cows were given names like Daisy and Buttercup, and the prize bull was called Romeo. They were to be the core of a breeding project, and, within a few years, Malthusian mathematics predicted that there would be a large and thriving herd. Malthus made various predictions about human and equine populations that have turned out to seem almost idiotically simplistic.

The White River area was not a cattle area, perhaps because of the pervasive heat, the multitude of pests and diseases that flourish in that area, or the memories of tsetse-fly and rinderpest always lurking in the background. Certainly there were no herds of black-and-white Dutch cows like those my uncle Dave had on Rudolf’s Hoek, where electric milking machines delivered gallons and gallons of milk. The smaller Jerseys were considered hardier and better suited to the area, but the memory I have of that incipient herd is not one of success in the form of fountains of milk. They brought with them a succession of veterinary encounters, and Anton’s office became a repository of veterinary medicines and texts.

Anton put a cowbell around Daisy’s neck and a ring through Romeo’s nose. For a while they looked and behaved exactly as they were supposed to: the cows gave more than enough milk for a family, but less than enough for profit. Romeo had a suitably roguish look, tore up sods with his hoofs and proved intractable. Once, when he was refusing to co-operate with whatever was required of him, perhaps to enter a pen, Anton lost his temper, grabbed Romeo’s new horns and gave such a mighty twist that the bull fell onto his side. Not long after that, browsing in a field below the canal that had been an orchard in Hopper’s time, Romeo was bitten by a mamba. It got him on the leg, and his great bull heart quickly and efficiently distributed the poison throughout his body, killing him in about ten minutes. After that, the herd was eaten or sold off.

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At the stationery and toy shop in White River, I bought a card for my mother’s birthday. This expensive indulgence took a considerable slice of my pocket-money, but it was worth it, for card bore a satin pillow with puce flowers printed on it surrounded by every frill and flounce, lace and ribbon imaginable, along with golden letters stating ‘Mother’ and ‘Love.’ Inside was a poem that rhymed, embossed in gold.

cardfrill

By the next year I had worked out that the card was in ‘bad taste’ and was embarrassed by it, especially as Lesley’s domain was taste. I found it again about twenty-five years later when, during the course of disposing of her estate, I was sorting through the few old letters and cards she had kept.

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Albert Hoffman, the Swiss bourgeois gentleman who had discovered LSD in 1943 while investigating derivatives of ergot, a fungus that occurs on wheat, could not have imagined the cultural consequences of his discovery. Sandoz, the firm that employed Hoffman, were interested in the possible medical or scientific uses of the new pharmakon, hoping that it might produce short-term psychoses that could be studied in the laboratory. In the early 1960s, Mervyn Saxe, a friend of Lesley’s from the Clifton days, was the Sandoz representative in Cape Town; he went around with a vast quantity of the as-yet uncontrolled substance, trying to interest psychiatrists and clinical researchers in its properties, suggesting that these might be useful to the scientific and medical project. But it turned out that LSD, far from promoting a scientific attitude, often gave its users a simulacrum of mystical experience, setting them, however briefly, outside the fence of consensus consciousness, and thus perhaps of regular society. By the time that Mervyn was occupied in this way, Lesley had already left for the Eastern Transvaal, where the most popular non-medical drugs were alcohol, nicotine and caffeine.

morning gloryShe told me years later that around 1967, she and Anton had collected a large quantity of morning glory seeds, which were thought to contain LSD, intending to eat some and find out what the fuss was all about. But, at the last minute, unlike some of Mervyn’s friends, clients and acquaintances, they decided not to. At around this time, LSD was declared a Schedule Three drug in South Africa and its use so tightly controlled as to drive it underground, where its irresponsible consumption flourished.

Indian mysticism, like alchemy, absorbed into its lexicon terms and concepts from goldsmithing, and thus the purification of gold by the removal of dross and slag has become one of many metaphors for the purification of the soul. Goldsmiths use borax (hydrated sodium tetraborate) as a flux and solvent in the melting process. This mineral, when molten, forms a glaze that dissolves unwanted metal oxides and other impurities. Without it, oxides build up in the melt and the metal becomes impure and unworkable. Beyond metal, flame and crucible, borax is necessary. Thus it becomes a metaphor for a spiritual switch or trigger, some necessary condition without which the soul cannot find the desired transformation.

The Sanskrit word for borax, rasayoni, derives partly from the complex word rasa, the sense of which runs somewhat parallel to that of pharmakon. Rasa means, among other things: the sap or juice of plants; fruit juice; any liquid or fluid; the best or finest or prime part of anything; essence; marrow; water; liquor; drink; sugar-cane juice; syrup; any mixture, draught, elixir or potion; melted butter; milk; poison; nectar; soup or broth; body fluids; serum; mercury or quicksilver (sometimes regarded as a kind of quintessence of the human body); the seminal fluid of Siva; semen; myrrh; any mineral or metallic salt; a metal or mineral in a state of fusion; gold; green onion; resin; taste; flavour; any object of taste, condiment, sauce, spice or seasoning, the tongue; taste or inclination or fondness for; love; affection; desire; charm, pleasure and delight; the taste or character of a work, its prevailing sentiment; paternal fondness; the prevailing sentiment in human character; the disposition of the heart or mind; and religious sentiment. Thus rasayoni is the elixir for the crucible (yoni) and it is what enables the transformation and purification of the metal, and metaphorically of the inner being. The guru’s word or logos is likened to rasayoni.

The episode with the morning glory seeds suggests that Lesley and Anton were seeking a transforming agent, something to ‘turn them on’, to add juice, sauce, love and charm to their lives. But neither were to find their borax in the rasa of psychedelics, as others were doing elsewhere.

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Lesley’s marriage to Anton, while certainly not cold and unemotional, was not a success. Women found Anton more than attractive. Macho and sensitive at the same time, handsome as the devil, intelligent, charming and well spoken, he knocked them off their feet. Their husbands were less sure. I do not know any of the details of their unhappiness, which was not shared with us children except in the form of an atmosphere. Some of it must have been financial, for they ran the farm at a loss throughout most their marriage. Some of it was certainly interpersonal, for they fought often, and sometimes, in blind rage I thought, Anton hit or hurt her. Was Anton unfaithful? I do not know details. Probably. Later, yes. At some time in the 1980s, Lesley told me, and I have no reason to doubt her, that she had remained faithful to both her husbands throughout the marriages.

274 lesley antonLesley and Anton were not concordant. On one particular occasion, when I was ten or eleven, Lesley was on the point of walking out. I was sent to stay with Royden Hogan, a school friend whose father ran one of the White River chemist shops. The tensions were terrible, and Lesley wore dark glasses all the time to hide her smudged make-up and red eyes. In my memory, the car is in the driveway of the house, under a pergola hung with trumpet-shaped red and orange flowers. I am in the passenger seat, Lesley is behind the wheel in her dark glasses, but she hasn’t started the car yet. The understanding is that this time we are leaving forever. I am glad – perhaps now, I think, a way can be contrived to bring her and Jack back together, as the twin Hayley Millses did in The Parent Trap. A black-and-white photograph lies on the dashboard of our Taunus station wagon. It shows Lesley and Anton arm-in-arm on the day they married. I pick up the photograph and say, with some scorn, ‘I may as well tear this up.’ She snatches it from me and bursts into tears. ‘I loved him,’ she sobs, puts the car into gear and backs out of the driveway.

This drama, or versions of it, was acted out several times as I recall, but somehow they always cobbled it all together again, and I came back home to the room I shared with Raymond. Although I never realised it, and neither, I imagine, did they, it was a scenario indicating an abusive relationship.

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My friend Duncan Miller is an archaeologist specialising in early Southern African metal-work, and it is through him that I became interested in archaeology. He also introduced me to the atmosphere of suspicion and mutual distrust which exists in that field, and which runs like a dark thread through much of science. The reason for this is the possibility that scientists will break the rules of the discipline, disguising false science as true and in so doing destroy the compact of trust which is the necessary condition of their cumulative endeavour.

If we are to accept David Morris’ dictum that archaeology proceeds from the present, which it uses to explain the past, and that religion, or at least historically-based religions from the Middle East, hope to explain the present in terms of a narrative situated in the past, then we can see that as soon as the scientist steps out of the present, away from the accurate observation of actual data, he or she enters a realm of hypothesis, which shades off into speculation, which in turn blends into religious, flaky or dodgy territory, according to the predispositions of whoever makes the judgement. This puts the scientifically inclined archaeologist in a difficult place, for there is a constant call to go beyond the immediate facts and construct a narrative that contains them. The people who draw the most vituperation in the archaeological field are those who believe in a story before encountering the facts, and who then attempt to shoehorn them into their pre-existing account, or even change any data that might be inconvenient. Outright fraud also seems to stem largely from people trying to prove a point, cleaving to a story of the past that will explain the present.

Archaeologists must face a choice when publishing: some archaeological publications as dry are as the dust that their authors have analysed. Others, more readable, have succumbed to the attractions of narrative. Each scientist, however, is a human with a mind that seeks pattern, and each is inevitably engaged in the construction of a narrative of their own – one which, they feel, satisfies both their sense of history or pre-history, and which, in some sense, fits the data. But at the same time they must distrust everybody else’s narrative. The data, the artefacts that they study, are after all ancient orphans. In claiming paternity over and speaking for them, the archaeologists might really be speaking about themselves. This necessary mutual distrust has had the effect of stripping down the accounts that they give of how humans once were – richer and more exotic notions are necessarily lopped off. Nothing weird.

But this does not accord with my experience, which tells me that humans are weird, that the things they get up to are strange, inscrutable, rife with coincidence and the raw experience of the numinous, and that they are strung together in not just one, but an inconceivable number of narratives, most of them religious or uncanny.

Archaeologists face, too, the fact that almost everything is broken, destroyed without trace, re-absorbed into the great cycles of life and forgotten, along with the weird narratives that impelled them. Like the rondavels at Luitingh’s Guest Farm or the paintings shown at the Lidchi gallery in August 1955, things, dispersed by entropy, have scattered beyond trace. The few that are somehow preserved present only the thinnest threads in what must have been a rich and very complicated tapestry of tales.

121 rondavel

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