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Part 8

298 Sabie PoolsIf Lesley’s life with Anton was marked with misery, it was also marked with strong enjoyment, and the moments that I remember as the best times from that era are all occasions when Lesley and Anton set out with the specific purpose of seeking pleasure and relaxing – holidays and weekend picnics. Above White River and about fifty miles beyond it loomed the escarpment, a continuation of the Drakensberg, where the land rises sharply from the Lowveld to the higher and cooler regions beyond – the Middleveld and Highveld.

The escarpment scooped extra rain from the sky, and along this edge were waterfalls, rapids and streams hidden among pine plantations and the almost-vanished indigenous kloof forests. It was here that we often went to picnic and to swim in the pools, explore the landscape and clamber over the fantastical sandstone boulders that characterize the region. On these excursions, a magical-seeming atmosphere arose. Whatever differences and tensions we normally lived with were set aside in favour of the enjoyment of the moment. Picnics in the pine plantations, with pine-cone wars the night.and the soft prickly underbed of needles, brought out a relaxed playfulness in Anton. Away from the problems of the farm, he was an amiable presence, full of the grace and competence of a superb wild animal at ease in its environment, and it is in these moments that I was most able to like, perhaps even love him. It was after such a day that Anton once kissed me good-night as I lay in my bed in the rondavel, the only time that he ever did so, and I can still feel the bristly prickles of his moustache on my lips, and the confusion of love, fear, envy, anger and other less explicit emotions that filled me as I lay in my bed listening to the clicking of the termites and the crickets and frogs that filled

300 lopes picnicThe Lopes* family, who were coffee importers from what was then known as Lorenço Marques, had connected with the Luitinghs before our arrival – many Portuguese families sent their children to South Africa to learn English, after they had completed their education in Moçambique.

The three Lopes children shown below are Luis, Maria and Carlos, along with, I think, their mother, whose name I don’t recall. Behind my mother on the right is her Taunus station-wagon.

Through our connection with them, we often vacationed in L.M. and further north. These holidays enjoyed, by and large, the expansive and relaxed feeling of an extended picnic as Anton’s outdoor skills found appreciative use, were put to use and appreciated, and we abandoned ourselves to the pleasures of camping at San Martino, Ponte d’Oro, and Inhambane, of puttering about in boats and of filling our senses with what seemed an exotic culture and landscape.

Once we arrived at San Martino in the late afternoon, after a day of driving in the Bedford truck, with the three-room tent that Lesley had sewn on her 1920s Singer sewing machine and all our camping equipment piled and tied in the back. We had brought Mhlolo, the kitchen servant, with us – a custom among many holiday-making white South Africans – and our arrival at the lagoon marked his first sight of the sea, the water of which was reputed to have magical or beneficial properties. We found our campsite and before unpacking dashed for the lagoon in the dusk half-light. That evening the phosphorescent algae were blooming, and wherever the water was agitated, it was lit with green flame. Our progress into the warm, knee-deep lapping waves was accompanied by a glowing wake, and each splashed drop cut its living trail through the air, picked out in green against the darkening water. Mhlolo stood splashing entranced, a beatific smile on his face, his arms flailing like a neon windmill as he sent streams and balls of radiant green into the sky. Eventually we returned to unpack, leaving him there until well after dark.

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* It turns out that the photo is not of the Lopes family but the Buntings.
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How much of Lesley’s life during the 1960s need I tell? During that time she created and maintained a home of great beauty, admired by all who came there, filled her studio and our house with oil paintings, and had several exhibitions. She drew fish with crayons onto specially devised waxy paper while snorkelling in the Seychelles. She painted shells and flowers, insects and chameleons, animals and plants, still lifes of abundant farm produce and the pods of Lowveld chestnut trees. She did a few portraits, but not many compositions of figures. Where before there had been men with drills, there was no ‘women hoeing’ or ‘children weeding’. Leaving the city, she had, it seems, abandoned the proletariat in favour of the decorative, the interior, the lush.

How much of her emotional life, how many of her friends, acquaintances and enemies, if there were any, need I dig out in order to report a rounded life? There were friendships with this and that neighbouring farmer’s wife, all subject to sudden change as the marriage or Anton’s mood swung to and fro, but there was no best friend like Terry at Clifton.

There were impotently expressed political opinions but no politics, for the Suppression of Communism Act had suppressed her Communism, and she found nothing agreeable in the political options available to her and other white women in Plaston. Instead there was a life, a home, and a partial resolution for the problems posed by us children. There were love and passion, but not, except intermittently, comfort and ease. There were, as always, art and beauty. There was certainly happiness, but it was intermingled with pain, both physical and mental.

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Assuming Lesley’s life could be broken up into sections or modules, then the years of involvement with the von E’s could be seen either as a phase on its own or as a shift from one module to the next. But lives cannot be chopped up into manageable bits. They are analogue rather than digital structures, changing smoothly from one state to the succeeding one. This smooth change which we call ‘time’ and represent as a fourth dimension, the Radhasoami teachers call Kal, also meaning time, but often personified as a ravening monster, taking away what we have and giving what we do not desire. Seen this way, Anton’s involvement with S was brought by Kal, each of its phases, attitudes, feelings, postures and gestures were the work of Kal, and when the embroilment ended, it was Kal who packed it up into the non-existent basket of the past, in a smooth transition.

At a party they attended right at the end of their marriage, Lesley told me, Anton had danced with the most glamorous woman present, a tall blonde in a late-1960s cocktail dress with a hem above mid-thigh and high heels. They made a great couple, and when they whirled smoothly past the table where Lesley sat alone, Anton had flashed his handsome winning smile at her, over the woman’s shoulder. Stuck to his cheek with mascara was a single false eyelash.

297 mahakalaMany Western followers of the Radhasoami teachings, and I cannot vouch for others, have taken the metaphoric Kal quite literally, seeing him (for he is male) as a malevolent figure with a terrifying face, bent upon exacting from us literal and minutely specified arrears of pain. He is the master debt-collector of the universe, knocking on our doors at the time of death with all the unwelcome presence of a retired heavyweight boxer, ready to cast us into whatever anguish we have earned through our ignorant and miscreant lives. Time, for them, has put on the clothes of the Devil and taken up the wig and gavel of the Final Judge. Charan Singh’s take on it was a little different: ‘It is just a concept we hold to explain change,’ he said, but, when faced with contradic-tions within a seamless system, people tend to prefer those interpretations to which they are already predisposed.

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Every few years, people come to me on the trail of the Afrikaans poet Ingrid Jonker. They are film-makers, journalists, academics, hagiographers and biographers, and they want to know what I remember about Ingrid. Their questions indicate an obsession with Jonker and with the details of her life and death, although the sense of fixation they convey may be merely the necessary fuel for their researches, driving them to uncover the truth. They are uniformly interested in Ingrid’s famous death, and ask a disproportionate number of questions on that topic. Almost all of them have approached me with the assumption that Jack left Lesley for Ingrid, or that their marriage ended as a result of Ingrid’s arrival on the beach at Clifton. They see the world as though Ingrid were at the middle of it (which, for them, she is) and after they leave, they construct stories that view Ingrid’s life through the lens of her death.

Towards the end of 1957, a few months before we left for White River, Ingrid Jonker gave birth to her daughter Simone. The facts suggest that Jack only became involved with Ingrid considerably after our journey to White River, which took place in April of 1958. I had never met her before our departure for Luitingh’s Guest Farm.

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305 ifniAt some time in my first two years at high school we were required to do a geography project on an African country of our choice. I chose Ifni, then the smallest country in Africa, with two motives in mind – I reasoned, incorrectly, that choosing the smallest country would mean the least work, but also chose that tiny slice of formerly Spanish territory as a statement of my own marginal status – I was not only an outsider, but the smallest boy in the class. The choice did not win favour with the geography teacher, Mr Ince, but I had not gone outside the terms he had laid down for the project, so there was nothing he could do to punish me.

Why do I remember this incident in my high school career and not others? Why is it that I can still remember that Ifni’s capital was called Sidi Ifni, and that Ifni was a slice of land scarcely bigger than a large farm, tucked into the Moroccan coast on the African continent’s north-western bulge? Of other geography lessons, which I endured for three years, I remember nothing. High-school history, Latin, mathematics and science have all gone the same way, so that it is as if I had never enjoyed the privileged education that my parents thought they were giving me.

In the small bits of teaching I have done in my adult life, I have come to understand something about the role of passionate commitment in learning. I did not have any kind of commitment to my education, and never studied or did homework unless there was a fearsome punishment for non-compliance. While I remember the punishments because of the strong feelings they aroused in me, they were unable to stimulate in me any interest in or passion for the curriculum. Without this necessary precondition of lasting memories, I have forgotten everything.

Personal memory and forgetting have something of the quality of a natural force, for although they exercise a profound effect on our lives, they are, by and large, beyond the control of our personal will. Memory is not voluntarily effaceable. We cannot choose to forget; nor can we choose to remember unless we make some extraordinary effort involving emotional commitment, which cannot easily be commanded by the will.

On winter mornings at Clifton, it was sometimes possible to see the vast grey face of a cold front as it approached from the north-west over the wine-dark Atlantic ocean, smothering the world in its foggy embrace and bringing, paradoxically, when it finally arrived, a world of misty whiteness that obliterated all differences beyond a few paces away.

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Jack shaved with a cut-throat razor. Being a frugal man, he regarded disposables as wasteful, their blades dangerous, though sometimes useful. He had a set of old cut-throats which had belonged to his father Carol. They were kept in their ancient velvet-lined box, where they lay dormant but threatening in specially-shaped grooves. He favoured one particular razor, and had a leather strop on which he would hone the blade each morning before shaving. The sight of my father scraping the lethal edge over his stretched-out and exposed neck was always compelling, and I wanted to shave too. He carved Raymond and me each a wooden cut-throat. The blade, painted with silver roof paint, folded back into the black-enameled wooden handle. Standing beneath Jack on the cracked, subsiding bathroom floor of his bungalow, we lathered a stick of shaving-soap with his badger-hair brush, foamed our faces and scraped the suds from our chins.

Uys shaved with a Gillette safety razor. This we regarded as inferior, but changing technologies were to impact on Jack’s preference. Stropping compound, the special abrasive applied to the strop, became unavailable in the early 1970s. I was able to fill the gap with Tripoli compound, an abrasive that jewellers use in polishing, and whose cutting properties impressed him, but the strop could only go so far before the entire blade needed to be re-ground, so that its two concave faces would again allow the strop to touch only the cutting edge of the blade. Eventually the last razor-grinder in Cape Town died or went out of business, and Jack was forced to switch to a safety-razor. By the end of his life he was using aerosol shaving cream.

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If the technology that Jack preferred for grooming was ground to dust by modernity, the basically Renaissance technology that Lesley chose for representation, drawing with pencils and inks, painting with watercolours, gouache and oils, had been under attack for a hundred years or more. During this period, photography and optics gained an increasing grasp the mechanics and chemistry of representation, so that by the time that she was plying her art, Lesley had to compete for public attention with moving, even three-dimensional images that talked and played tunes. The creature from the Black Lagoon loomed from the cinema screen.

By this time, artists had cannily shifted their endeavours to areas beyond the reach of the new technologies, infusing their work with the mind rather than the world, as the business of representation was appropriated first by scientists, then by keen enthusiasts, then by everybody who could afford a camera.

Jules Duboscq studied optics in Paris in the 1830s under Jean-Baptiste Soleil, whose hundred-year lifetime oversaw the creation, ab initio, of photography. Duboscq was to be a major contributor to this process. He was known as a skilled mechanic, and improved the design of various optical instruments of the time, inventing among many other ingenious devices the ‘bioscope’, a stereoscopic camera where exposures were made by sparks from an electric arc, and the ‘colorimeter’, a light-sensitive device for measuring colours by filtering their red, green and blue components as in the human eye, still used in laboratories in an almost unchanged form. He was made an officer of the Legion d’ Honneur and won medals at various World Fairs, but it was in photography that he excelled, and his Practical Rules for Photography remained a handbook of the craft for many years. Perhaps some of the honour this bourgeois technician managed to attract was due in part to the growing popularity of photography, its promise as an aide memoire that could deliver actual verisimilitude. Certainly during his lifetime, the camera took over the main function of portraiture as the rising middle classes recorded their images; and it is due to his efforts and those of his peers that my family photo albums are populated with the true likenesses of my ancestors. After all, art was always art, which is to say somehow contrived and therefore untrustworthy, but the camera never lies.

In spite of these historical conditions, Lesley’s art was always rooted in the world rather than the mind. Although in decorative art she leant towards the formal, her drawings and paintings were, almost without exception, based on actual observations. She was not an intellectual artist, and it was things and people that she strove to record, always seeking in the objects arrayed before her the already existing patterns and meanings that she wanted to convey.

Why is it that we remember the names of hundreds of artists who advanced the development of painting during the time of Duboscq, but only specialists are familiar with Duboscq’s name and achievements? The answer is relatively simple: Duboscq has come to be seen as a technician, a discoverer and not an inventor or originator; not himself a painter or artist.

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