INTRODUCTION TO MY FAMILY
MY MOTHER – ‘OUMA’
My mother adopted the name ‘Ouma’ in 1942, shortly after her first grandchild, Deirdre, was born. Deirdre is the daughter of my eldest brother Guy; her Scottish grandmother was her ‘Granny’, so my mother used the Afrikaans ouma, a word which had been popularised, even among the conservative Natal English, by Ouma Smuts, wife of the then Prime Minister, Jan Christiaan Smuts.
Later, my friends all called my mother Ouma. Ouma was born Ethel Warwick, on 19 June 1878, one of the eldest in afamily of ten surviving children. Her parents, John Richardson Warwick and Sarah Anne (born Warriner) lived at 10 Old Sir Simon’s Arcade, Lancaster, England. The house is still there, and Old Sir Simon’s Arcade is now filled with fashionable shops.
Old Sir Simon's Arcade,Lancaster,in the 1990's
TOP: My mother’s parents, Sarah Warwick and John Richardson Warwick Lancaster, c. 1920
ABOVE: The Warwick girls. Left to right: Coral, Hilda, May, Ethel ( Ouma) and Olive Lancaster, c. 1896
John Warwick, described as an ironmonger on Ouma’s birth certificate, owned a bicycle shop and a ‘small factory’ below their living quarters, and maintained a comfortable Victorian middle-class life style.
Surely many families have legends about narrowly missed wealth: in Ouma’s family some of her siblings (though not Ouma, who was more realistic about such matters) claimed that their father could easily have become another Lord Nuffield, who started with a bicycle shop at about the same time and transformed it into the huge Morris car industry. There is no evidence however that my maternal grandfather possessed any of Lord Nuffield’s entrepreneurial spirit.
Ouma was particularly close to her sisters, of whom May was the eldest. Another sister, Hilda, was one of the first women in England to gain a university degree in agriculture – at Oxford University. She and her husband, Charlie West, a retired excise inspector, had a smallholding at Chipping Norton, with a herd of Jersey cows. When I stayed with them in the late 1940s during my vacations from Cambridge, Hilda was a frequent BBC broadcaster on rural life.
My godfather, Stafford Warwick, was the only one of Ouma’s brothers whom I met. He had migrated to Gananoque, Ontario in the early twentieth century and he delighted me, when I was a small boy, by regularly sending me exciting postcards. He owned a service station and one card showed his petrol pumps nearly covered with snow, which I had never seen.
The Warwick family tree
Ouma used to speak warmly of her parents, her secure and happy childhood, and of a motherly Nannie who helped with the younger children. One of Nannie’s first memories was of the church bells pealing in 1815, after the Battle of Waterloo, when Britain celebrated the defeat of ‘Boney’. I can leap back nearly two centuries through just these two links.
My mother and her sisters used to go on long skating expeditions; in the 1890s the winters in Lancashire were severe and the rivers froze solid for miles. Very properly dressed in Victorian skating attire, they would demurely and expertly skate for hours up the frozen river. Then they would race home, to be greeted with love and warmth and an enormous Lancashire high tea.
When Ouma was twenty-one years old, just before the turn of the century, she completed her formal education at the local ‘academy for young ladies’, and persuaded her father to allow her to train as a nurse in Edinburgh. It was an abrupt transition from a sheltered, loving, safe Victorian home to the rigid discipline of nurses’ training and exposure to the slums of Edinburgh, where she had volunteered to work. Ouma told us that those slum conditions were as bad as anything she later saw in the African shanty towns near Durban. She was proud of having stood up to the formidable matrons and the doctors, who deliberately organised a tough training programme to dissuade tender-minded but ineffective young gentlewomen from pursuing nursing careers for which many of them were not suited. Over sixty years later, Ouma would recall her satisfaction at not only having completed the course successfully, but also having passed some of the examinations at the top of her class. She was justifiably proud of her achievements in those formative years.
In the early years of the twentieth century, the conditions of the poor in Britain’s cities were grim: the poverty and hunger, drunkenness, misery, child neglect, incest, domestic violence, squalor and disease are all well documented. For several years Ouma worked in hospitals, and did home-visiting among the poor. This took its toll, and at one stage she became very ill herself. But the period in Edinburgh strengthened her compassion and sympathy for the sufferings of others, and for the rest of her life, right up to the very end, she was always keenly aware of what it was like to be poor, or miserable, or ill, or lonely. In South Africa, she never simply accepted the poverty of Africans, and always tried to help those with whom she came in contact.
Ouma’s sister May and her new husband, Percy Haley, from Yorkshire, had emigrated to Natal in the early 1900s and had sent back favourable reports, encouraging her sister to join them in Natal. Uncle Percy was secretary at the Huletts sugar mill, at Darnall, about sixty miles north-east of Durban. So Ouma came to Durban in the early 1900s, to be a nursing sister in a Durban hospital. During these early years she made several friendships that lasted her lifetime: people used to say of her: ‘Ethel Warwick, ever faithful’, because of her loyalty and solicitude, and her effective practical action when her friends needed help. Twice in this pre-World War 1 period she sailed home to England to see her family. In about 1913 she met Francis Carne Brokensha and his wife, Ellen (née Cowey) and their thirteen children in Durban. She and their seventh son, Joseph Rae Brokensha (widely known as
My mother,Ethel Warwick ( ouma) c 1914
|My father, Rae Brokensha ( JRB)
My parents’ wedding. Durban, 14 September 1915
Standing: Ethel, Rae, Uncle Percy Haley, Auntie May (and three flower girls)
Sitting: Francis Carne Brokensha (FCB), Ellen Brokensha (Granny)
10 Brokie) were soon attracted to each other, and they were married on 14 September 1915. It was an unlikely match, Ouma being eleven years older than Dad, who was then twenty-six years old.
My cousins, Neville from Durban, and Doris from Adelaide, Australia, made extensive enquiries regarding the family history of the ‘Brokies’. After their deaths I used their records to compile as full an account as I could, tracing the family back to Cornwall from the mid-seventeenth to the late nineteenth century. Like many others who become interested in their family history, I wish that I had started my enquiries earlier; by the time I did begin my research most of those who would have been my best informants had died.
My great-grandfather, Samuel Brokensha (1806–1887) was born in Megavissey, Cornwall – then a flourishing fishing port, now, in summer, a crowded, picturesque tourist town. In 1832 Samuel moved to St Just-in-Penwith, fifty miles to the west, where he worked as a mason, being responsible for many improvements to the unusually large Methodist Church there. This was prime Methodist country, where John Wesley had preached to hundreds at the St Just open arena in the late eighteenth century. Samuel prospered in St Just, a rather bleak mining village, five miles inland from Land’s End, where he and his wife Elizabeth had ten surviving children, eight of whom later migrated either to southern Australia or to Natal, South Africa.
My grandfather, Francis Carne Brokensha (FCB), died in 1924, the year after I was born. Born in St Just in 1850, he emigrated to Port Natal – as Durban was then called – in 1872. In 1949, as undergraduates at Cambridge, Methodist church, St Just my friend Julius Lister and I cycled from London to St Ives in Cornwall. I visited St Just, and gained a clearer idea of what had impelled my grandfather, and so many other Cornishmen in the later nineteenth century, to seek their fortunes abroad. On my first visit, I met two of my father’s elderly cousins, who gave me highly misleading and embroidered accounts of the family. (When Bernard and I settled in England in the 1990s, I was able to make more systematic enquiries.)
Methodist church, St Just.
In Durban, FCB started work at Greenacres, then the leading department store. My grandfather steadily worked his way up in the firm, becoming Managing Director by the time he retired.
FCB’s family. Durban, 1899 Sitting in front: Rae, Ivy, Hawtrey. Left to right: Stanley, Florence, Norman, Howard, FCB holding Maurice, Albert, Lilian, Frederick, Granny, Daisy, Carne
He did well enough to be able to build Pendennis, a substantial mansion, between Musgrave Road and Essenwood Road, near Marriott Road – then, as now, a very good address. (The name is a grandiloquent borrowing from Pendennis Castle, which Henry VIII built in 1545 to guard the entrance to Falmouth Harbour in Cornwall. The choice of name is a typical example of an immigrant of humble origins proclaiming ‘I Have Made It’.) The house was a good example of Natal’s Victorian architecture, but there is now a block of flats where the duck-pond used to be. Granny told me that FCB rode his horse about four miles on Monday mornings, from Pendennis to his office at the Point, and did not return until Saturday afternoon. At that time, she said, there were still wild animals about. Today it is less than fifteen minutes’ drive.
In 1899, during the Anglo-Boer War, FCB’s youngest brother Thomas Henry and his family were living in Dundee, in northern Natal. When the Boer forces advanced, they evacuated their home, Penwith (the name of the county in which St Just was located), which was then used by the Boer leaders as their headquarters during the occupation. Thomas, his wife Ellen, and their nine children lived for six months with FCB and Granny at Pendennis, making a total of twenty-six persons under one roof – and that was excluding the servants.
Most of FCB’s children were in awe of him, but not his daughter-in-law (my mother), who liked and respected him. She kept a studio photograph of him, which I now have in my study. In this picture, which has a garden background, he is fashionably-dressed, reading a newspaper, and looking with the utmost confidence at the camera. With his formidable moustache, he looks every inch the Victorian paterfamilias. FCB was active in Wesleyan church affairs, and in 1911 was president of the Durban Temperance Alliance. Most of his sons had moderate to severe drinking problems when they left their teetotal home. My father told me that he and his siblings dreaded the solemn Sabbath, when reading the Bible was the only permitted activity – so it is hardly surprising that Dad gave us complete freedom to do what we liked on Sundays. Granny – FCB’s wife Ellen – was always accompanied by her fox terrier Judy. In about 1929, Judy had two pups and I begged to be allowed to have one. Dad agreed that I might, and I named him Punch – thinking this very clever. Dad made it clear that I would have to do the necessary chores, cleaning up the mess, washing the dog regularly, seeing that he got proper food and exercise, removing ticks.
FCB. Durban, c. 1920
The Brokensha family tree
I was delighted to have this responsibility, and only later did I realise that Dad was guarding against my developing the then prevalent white South African attitude of ‘leaving it to the boy’. (In those days most white South Africans referred to black people – of whatever age – as ‘boys’ and ‘girls’.)
Granny was a kind and generous old lady. She outlived FCB by thirteen years, dying in 1937. I remember her death vividly, because she and I had always been close, and her funeral, at the old West Street cemetery, was the first one that I had attended. I was distressed that my uncles, who probably met en masse at Granny’s only on such occasions as funerals, weddings and Christmas parties, were joking, discussing business and sporting affairs, and smoking cigars, on what was for me a most melancholy day.
In 1907 Dad was articled as a clerk to a local Durban solicitor, this being a customary way of entering the legal profession. However he soon established what was to be a long-lasting partnership with Eric Higgs, a bright and meticulous young lawyer, whose integrity and judgement Dad respected – even if he did not always follow Mr Higgs’ sage advice.
Pendennis,on the Brier, Durban. Home of Francis Carne
and Ellen Brokensha, c 1903
Dad’s younger brother, Hawtrey, had enlisted in the South African forces shortly after the outbreak of World War 1, and was later killed at Gideon, in South-West Africa (Namibia). Granny kept a photograph of her handsome young son, in his WW1 officer’s uniform, on a side table near her chair. Several other of my father’s brothers joined the forces: Norman and Stanley served in France, Uncle Stan being seriously wounded, and gassed, never making a proper recovery. Howard joined the Royal Flying Corps and stayed on in England. Soon after his wedding, Dad volunteered to join the cavalry, together with two solicitor friends, making elaborate arrangements that – ‘should anything happen’ – any survivors would look after the others’ families. In the event, all three were rejected, for medical reasons.
Dad was never physically strong and he was quite short: 5'4". He used to joke that I, at least, would keep him company, and he professed disappointment when even I overtook him by four inches.
After their marriage, Granny arranged for Dad and Ouma to employ two of her Zulu servants in their new ménage. Granny, who spoke good Zulu (not the fanagalo used by her children) had close relationships with her servants, and Zulu men would ask her to take in their children for domestic training, knowing that they would be kindly treated.
Ouma bore Dad four children, all sons: John (stillborn, 1916), Guy Warwick (20.3.1918–9.8.1942), Paul Warwick (6.11.1921– 21.11.1986), and me, David Warwick (23.5.1923– ). The five year gap between Guy and me was more significant than it would have been today. We never overlapped at school; he left Durban High School the year before I started there. He was always ‘a big boy … my big brother’, one whom I admired and loved, but we moved in different circles. At the age of eighteen, Guy was captain of the Durban Surf Lifesavers Association, and I enjoyed basking in his reflected glory. He and his pals in the Lifesavers seemed like Greek gods to me, tall, bronzed, muscular and handsome, always surrounded by admiring girls. Being on the beach in this prized role must have been an exhilarating change for Guy after his boring work as a bank clerk.
Paul was interested in sport and action, whereas I preferred books, theatre, music and ideas. We were close enough to quarrel occasionally, though we had no long-lasting feuds. We liked and respected each other throughout our lives.
My parents were separated for the last eighteen years of their lives, but I do not think that their marriage was a disaster. Who knows – as Paul used to remind me – what really happens in a marriage, except the couple themselves? Both Guy and Paul would have agreed that our parents provided us with a stable and happy childhood, full of satisfyingly rich memories.
What about Ouma? Dad, when he had been drinking, must have caused her embarrassment and pain, but he was a spree drinker, easily persuaded by ‘the chaps at the club’ (golf, or, later, the Durban Club) to stay for a few drinks. One evening, after staying at the ‘nineteenth hole’, Dad kissed me goodnight, and I protested: ‘Daddy, you ’mell of goff.’ According to unreliable family lore, my remark circulated and eventually became the subject of a Punch cartoon. When we were children there was never liquor in the house, because of Dad, but he was never vicious nor violent, just silly, after a few drinks. When we were respectively fifteen and fourteen, Paul and I earnestly resolved that we would never drink, because people made fools of themselves by drinking – a resolve we did not keep.
Paul, JRB, Ouma and Guy, Durban Beach c 1925
Guy, captain of Durban Surf Lifesavers, 1937
Dad did not go to university, which he regretted, especially because his father could have afforded the fees. FCB provided financial assistance to Dad’s elder brother, Albert, to start a shop in Estcourt, a small town about a hundred miles north-west of Durban. Because of his own disappointment in not going to university, Dad was very proud of my academic career, although I was not aware of this until after he had died, when Paul told me. Why do so many fathers so seldom praise their sons? When I went to Rhodes University College in 1940, I was the first in our family to attend university.
After some years at the Side Bar as a solicitor, Dad decided in 1933 to become an advocate, which meant that he would be able to appear in the superior courts. He made the risky transition to the Bar at an unpropitious time, when South Africa was still feeling the effects of the Great Depression. Professional men were seriously affected, especially lawyers – who could not sue for unpaid bills – and hardest hit were those like Dad, who were just starting to get established.
Although we were by no means poor, we did have to watch our expenditure; I saved earnestly, with help from parents and uncles and aunts, to buy my first Raleigh bicycle. This gave me a far greater degree of mobility and freedom. When Bernard and I were later comparing notes about our respective boyhoods – his in Manchester, mine in Durban – we found many contrasts, but also many similarities, among them the importance to each of us of owning a bicycle.
Dad was a keen golfer, followed cricket enthusiastically, and played bowls regularly in his later years. He maintained a strong interest in rugby for many years, and was President of the Natal Rugby Union for three terms, from 1922 to 1928. A major book on South African rugby extols ‘Brokie’s rare qualities of tact, patience and shrewd insight’, devoting one whole chapter to ‘The Brokensha Plan’, which resulted in the re-organisation of the inter-provincial rugby tournaments (Sweet, 1990: 75–79).
Elizabeth Marshall Calderwood, (Lizzie) aged twenty-one, and daughter of a Scottish parson, joined our household in 1918, soon after Guy was born, and stayed with us for twelve years. It was unusual in those days to have a white ‘nannie’, most local families employing Zulu women to help look after their children. It was not racial bias that prompted our parents to employ Lizzie, as they had excellent relations with their African servants. It may have been that, after losing her firstborn child and expecting her second at the age of nearly forty, Ouma wanted to have special help.
Lizzie had firm ideas of right and wrong, but always tempered by charity, and I cannot remember her ever being unkind. She had a store of old proverbs and sayings: when she found me frowning or sulking, she would say ‘Be careful, David, the wind will change and you will be left with that disagreeable expression on your face for ever.’ When Lizzie left us in 1930, I cried (so she told me, fifty years later) and said it was unfair: she had been with Guy for twelve years, so she should give me a further six years to make up my twelve years.
Paul, Lizzie and Guy, 1922
Dad sometimes travelled to Johannesburg, and we loved to go to Durban station to see him off on the 4 p.m. ‘mail train’. Paul and I devised our own game, which needed two extra players, usually Lizzie and Ouma. Paul and I would put on our coats and caps, take a small case each, and we would go, with Ouma, by tram to the railway station, where she would see us off, on a suburban train. We would travel, all by ourselves, the two miles to the next station, Berea Road, where Lizzie – who had got there by a different tram – would be waiting for us. ‘Did you have a good time in Johannesburg?’ she would ask, ‘Was everyone well?’ Then it was home, by tram again, to tea.
The trams fascinated me, I made a rolling signboard, with all the destinations – Umbilo, Umgeni, Congella, Toll Gate, Marine Parade, Point, Berea, Botanic Gardens. Wedged between two chairs, I was both driver and conductor, calling out the destinations, with my fox terrier Punch usually my only passenger.
I loved to ride, with Lizzie, all over Durban, sitting upstairs in the front seats of the trams. Bernard also liked these seats: before he became disabled we often sat upstairs on the front seats in London buses. When we got Senior Travelcards, entitling us to free transport in London, we frequently took long bus journeys, eagerly observing new locations.
Paul and I were christened together when we were about six and five years old. Why was our christening so delayed? In our religiously relaxed household it had probably simply been forgotten until a concerned aunt insisted on it. The ceremony was at St Thomas’ Church, in Musgrave Road, (where Paul’s funeral service was held, in 1986). Afterwards we were taken to the tea-rooms that used to be at the corner of Gardiner and West Streets, where we sat on the little verandah, with its iron balustrade, and had strawberries and cream. Then Lizzie took us to the beach, where we played at the edge of the waves. A large wave swept over me, and I remember two things: first Paul’s comforting hand clasping mine, and secondly, Lizzie rushing to see that I was alright. I was upset because my new blue shirt was wet through. No matter, Lizzie dealt with everything, getting us quickly home, by tram.
Lizzie used to visit her sister, Maudie, on Thursday evenings and I would beg her to take me along. These visits were a treat for me, because Maudie and her husband invited me to join in their card games – usually ‘Nap’ (Snap). There was a green card table, with a bright overhead light, and always tea and cake before Lizzie and I went home on a late tram. Poor Lizzie must have had enough of me all week, yet she allowed me to accompany her on one of her nights off.
Lizzie spent the last years of her life in a nursing home in Morningside in Durban, where Paul, and later his daughter Judy, visited her whenever they were in town, as did Bernard and I if we were in Durban. We used to take her out to lunch at one of the good old-fashioned hotels that she had known for so many years, to the Royal, or the Edward, or the Caister, where the older Indian waiters would recognise her and treat her with affectionate respect.
On our last visit, in about 1990, Lizzie gave Bernard and me a warm welcome, then asked, ‘Why doesn’t the Lord take me? I’m ready to go.’ She soon rallied though, and suggested that we drive past our old home at 37 Eleventh Avenue, which we did, prompting her to come up with more reminiscences of those far-off days. She died on 21 December 1992, aged ninety-five.
After their marriage in 1915, Dad and Ouma moved into a grand house on the Berea in Durban, 108 Essenwood Road. The house is still there, and is still grand. It is near the site of Pendennis, my grandfather’s large, commanding home. Perhaps Dad was trying to impress his father by living in an imposing house on the Berea.
Long before the Nationalists implemented formal apartheid in 1948, there was a de facto apartheid throughout South Africa. Durban was a city divided into about equal numbers of ‘Europeans’, ‘Indians’ and ‘Natives’ (Africans), with a far smaller number of ‘coloureds’. So I grew up in a white society, with little contact, apart from through our servants, with people of colour. Nevertheless, when I was a prisoner of war in the 1940s, our Zulu servant Fanyan assured my mother that I would come back safe, ‘because Dave is going to help my people’. I do not recollect any political conversations with Fanyan, and I can only hope that he read me correctly.
Not only was I separated from people of colour, but I did not meet any Afrikaans people until I joined the army. I wish that it had been otherwise, but I largely accepted life as it was presented to me, until my last year at school and my first term at Rhodes University College. It was only gradually, over the post-war years, that I realised the enormity of the discrimination against most of the country’s population.
SOUTH AFRICA, c. 1940
During our boyhood, we moved from one rented house to another, partly a result of Dad’s not wishing to be burdened – as he saw it – by owning property. (His attitude prompted Paul and me to resolve that we would own our own homes just as soon as we could – and this resolve we did keep.) I do not remember the several moves as being in any way traumatic: we stayed at the same schools, we kept the same friends, Lizzie was with us, and so was Punch.
From Essenwood Road my parents moved to Winkelspruit, then a collection of a dozen modest seaside bungalows, twenty-five miles south of Durban. Winkelspruit (Afrikaans for ‘shop-stream’) was so named after a ship foundered on the coast in 1875, and the water-damaged goods were sold on the banks of the river. Lizzie told me
that the family moved there because the sea air was believed to be better for Ouma and her eldest son, Guy, who had a weak chest, and that we rented a seaside cottage, just a few yards from the high water line. It was there that I was born, in 1923, and although I remember nothing of the place – we stayed only a few years – I have heard so many family stories about our swimming in the rock pools and in the sea, and I have seen so many photographs of Ouma, usually in a 1920s bathing suit and frilly cap, holding one of her boys as the waves came in, that it seems that I know the place.
TOP: David Warwick Brokensha (DWB). Durban, 1924 ABOVE: Dad and Ouma at our home at Winkelspruit, c. 1923
Life at the seaside had its problems; we had no car in those days, and perhaps Dad found the train commute into Durban tiresome. We moved to another grand town house, at 712 Musgrave Road. We stayed there only a short time, soon moving – I suspect on grounds of economy – to Malvern, then a distant, leafy village but now part of greater Durban. My first memory dates from this house, in 1926 or 1927. I was at the bottom of what seemed to me our huge garden, when Lizzie said, ‘Come on, boys, there’s the rainbird calling, we had better hurry home’ – which we did, and the rain started to fall just as we reached the verandah. (Forty years later, when Bernard and I were living in the Ena house in Kenya, I identified the rainbird as Burchell’s coucal, when we had an unmistakable sighting of this often-heard but seldom-seen bird. I had remembered the distinct call from my childhood.)
Paul, Guy and Dave. Durban, 1926
My only other clear memory of this house is of the day that the burglar came. My parents surmised that, while we were all out of the house, with the door left unlocked, an African must have come in by the back door, walked through the central passage, picking up Dad’s coat, hat and briefcase from the hall, and leaving by the front door. (After I wrote that I realised that I had, for all these years, unthinkingly accepted my parent’s assumption that the burglar had been an African. At that time there were a few ‘poor whites’, mostly refugees from depression-ridden farms, yet my assumption is probably reasonable; even in pre-apartheid days there was extensive poverty among Africans.) Paul and I then made a new game, ‘burglars’: we tiptoed down the hall, picking up a few items on the way, then scampered out of the front door, with many giggles. Burglaries were uncommon in those days, and doors often left unlocked – a huge contrast to the scene today where burglar bars, security fences, alarms and even guard dogs abound.
Dave, Guy and Paul. Durban, c. 1936
My parents’ next move, in 1927, was to 37 Eleventh Avenue on the Berea. This is an elegant double-storeyed house, located between Currie and Cowey Roads, near Clarence Road. It still stands, as I saw in 2003, when I took my niece Deirdre to show her where Paul and I, and her father, Guy, had spent our boyhoods. Now, like all its neighbours, our old home is oppressively guarded, with stern warning notices: little boys can no longer jump carelessly over the fence to meet the neighbour boys, or to retrieve a ball in the quiet street. Although we lived at this address for only a few years, these were my formative years, from age four to nine, and this house seemed ideal to me.
We had a large lawn, on which we played rounders, using the monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria) as a wicket. Punch, acting as a fielder, was allowed one bounce, being very pleased with himself when he was applauded for catching one of us out. Lizzie sat on a deckchair, often knitting, calling out when there was any commotion, ‘Guy, Paul, David, Punch – whoever it is, stop it.’ Near the monkey puzzle tree was a large Brunfelsia (‘yesterday, today and tomorrow’), big enough to provide a hiding place for me. The sloping lawn, the Araucaria, and the Brunfelsia have all gone, replaced by a swimming pool: it is now very much a home for adults; not inviting to children.
What else do I remember from 37 Eleventh Avenue? There was the iceman who delivered large blocks for our ice-box on the back verandah, the baker’s man who delivered bread in his horse-drawn van, and, best of all, the egg man, who drove round Durban on Saturday mornings, and ‘if we were good’, Paul and I were allowed to accompany him for a few hours, helping him to deliver the eggs at his customers’ homes. Driving round the town with the egg man in his open Buick touring car was a high point of our week. (Which of today’s small boys would be allowed such a treat, going off with an adult man whom their parents hardly knew?)
We had a large avocado pear tree in the garden. Dad, a methodical man, got us to tie little calico bags round the fruit when they were getting ripe; then, when exactly ready, they would fall, without bruising, into their bags. Years later, when I mentioned this custom to avocado growers in California, they thought that I really must have had a dotty father – but the avocados did taste delicious. They were certainly superior to most of today’s avocados, which are picked too early, to meet the demands of the supermarkets.
37 Eleventh Avenue, Durban. 2003
When he was about ten years old, Guy had a pet bantam rooster. As a treat, we sometimes had roast chicken for Sunday lunch. One Sunday we noticed that the chicken was smaller than usual, and our cook told us that he had killed and cooked the bantam, not knowing – or having forgotten – that it was Guy’s pet. When Guy heard this, he burst into tears and left the dining room. What struck me was that Guy, who seemed to me such a big boy, could cry; I had never seen him cry before. We spent Christmas holidays at Umkomaas, a small seaside resort, where Dad played golf, and where we were joined by his mother. Granny would send us to collect ‘martingulas’, the fruit of Carissa edulis (Natal plums, which the Zulu callamatangula), from which she made delicious jelly. I encountered Carissa edulis again in Santa Barbara, forty years later.
It was at our Umkomaas beach cottage that I remember first seeing the red reindeer paper that covered our walls each Christmas, and waking up to find a pillow case full of presents, with Punch happily rushing in and out, barking and adding to the excitement. I was convinced that the dog pictured on our wind-up His Master’s Voice gramophone was actually a picture of Punch; there was certainly a strong resemblance.
Granny ( Ellen Brokensha), c. 1930
At that stage I could not read easily, and Guy showed off a secret talent of mine to his friends, saying, ‘Dave, why don’t you put on The Kinkajou?’ – or Yes, we have no bananas or I love you so much or … Then I would unerringly pick out the correct record and play it, Guy later explaining to his friends that his clever little brother knew each record by the shape, location and colour of the tax labels. It did not occur to me, until much later, that my method of selection was in any way unusual.
Punch. Durban, 1937 I thought this was Punch
The next move, in about 1933, was to 8 Lindsay Road, where we stayed for three years in another double-storeyed house, but it was further out, and cheaper. Throughout these frequent moves, I cannot remember Ouma expressing regret, nor voicing the anxieties that I learnt much later she keenly felt. There was always an underlying worry about money though, as neither of our parents was a good financial manager.
Ouma taught us to see each move as an adventure, a chance to make new friends, to explore new territory. Although leaving Eleventh Avenue must have been inconvenient – Lindsay Road was at the edge of town, with no public transport within half a mile, and we had no car – and also a comedown socially, Ouma gave no hint to us that she noticed these matters. She told us how lucky we were to be able to walk through Jameson Park, a pretty, colourful and restful place which was our route from home to the tram stop for school. Her advice stood me in good stead, as she encouraged me both to observe the natural beauty in the park, and also, more importantly, to make the best of what life offered instead of complaining.
People who have known her sons well have said that Ouma spoilt us: of course she did. She loved her sons, was always thinking of ways of helping and supporting us. She and Dad encouraged us to develop whatever talents we had, and in return they had our deep and abiding love, and also the solid affection of our partners and friends.
What else do I remember from Lindsay Road? The Union-Castle mail ship docked in Durban on Wednesdays, so there was the excitement of Thursday mornings when the newspaper delivery boy (and he was a boy) brought – at about 5 a.m. – not only the daily Natal Mercury, but also the boys’ papers for Paul and me – Champion, Triumph, Wizard – which we eagerly read, engrossed in the exploits of World War 1 heroes, and of English schoolboys, whose lives resembled ours very little.
It was from Lindsay Road that we occasionally rode our bicycles to Hussein’s shop where we could buy a pack of ten illicit CTC (Cape to Cairo) cigarettes, telling Mr Hussein that they were for our father – our regular shopkeepers would not have sold cigarettes to small boys. Then we would ride miles away to a secluded spot in the bush, where we would light up and puff away. I enjoyed the excitement of being naughty more than the cigarettes. I can still see the signs outside our corner shop: Mazawattee Tea … Bovril prevents that sinking feeling … Van Houten’s dark chocolate.
82 Cowey Road, Durban. 2003
After Lindsay Road we moved to a bungalow at 82 Cowey Road, (named, we proudly told our friends, after Granny’s father, an early settler) at the lower end of the Berea. Paul and I could now cycle to Durban High School, less than two miles away.
It was at this time that Guy went to sea for a few days on a Norwegian whaling vessel. On his return, I went to the Bluff to meet him, using my new Brownie camera to photograph the dead whale. I was disappointed when I asked Dad if I might go out on a whaler, and was told that I was too young. No-one suggested that killing whales was wrong.
It was from this house that Guy, aged nineteen, left for England in 1937, to join the Fleet Air Arm: we never saw him again. Soon after his departure, we made, in 1938, what was to be our last move as a family: a few hundred yards away to 8 Heron Road, a semi-detached and double-storeyed house on a quiet street. It was in this house that we had our first telephone, number 46960.
Above left: Guy leaving Durban for the UK, 1937 Above Right: Paul and Dave on their way to Durban High School, 1936
Many memoirs, especially if written by boys who attended boarding schools, contain an almost obligatory account of hated and miserable schooldays, often featuring sadistic teachers and bullying boys. I was fortunate in that I loved school right from the start. I had no experience of being a boarder, and I remember few unhappy times.
I recall the excitement of my first day at school: Miss MacColl’s kindergarten on Montpelier Road. The school was located in Miss MacColl’s house, where each weekday about a dozen little boys and girls walked up the whitewashed steps to begin their first lessons. One of my few surviving school reports – from 1930, when I was six or seven – notes, in Miss MacColl’s careful handwriting: Singing: Not much ear but he tries. Unfortunately, despite my appreciation of others’ singing, I have never developed a remotely acceptable voice. Miss MacColl softened the blow by adding I am sorry to lose an interesting and conscientious pupil.
Ouma and Dad showed pleasure and pride when we got good school reports. Another report, written when I was in Standard IIA, at the ‘Prep’ ( Durban Preparatory High School) in 1931, states: David is a very intelligent pupil and can do excellent work when he is not too ‘dreamy’. I confess, not with pride but with embarrassment, that I remain ‘dreamy’ right up to the present, a trait which frequently puzzled and occasionally irritated Bernard. This same report rates me ‘fair’ for woodwork, which is far too kind: I was hopeless at woodwork, and while some little master carpenter next to me was making a perfect mortise and tenon, I would be struggling with a shapeless chunk of wood.
I do not recall any help with homework: we expected to do that on our own, seeking advice, if needed, from our school pals, not from our parents. There were no Parent–Teacher Associations, and schoolteachers discouraged too close an interest by parents in the day-to-day operations of the school. Parents were encouraged to come only on formal occasions, such as to rugby or cricket matches against rival schools, or to plays. During my five years at Durban High School, I doubt whether my parents came to the school more than once or twice a year.
Guy, Paul and I all attended, at various times, Durban Preparatory High School and Durban High School (DHS), as day-boys. Relatively few memories surface of my time at the Prep: games of marbles, spinning tops, or tinto (placing five or six peach stones on the back of one’s hand, tossing them in the air and catching as many of them as possible), though I seldom excelled in these games. When we lived in Eleventh Avenue, Fanyan sometimes brought Paul and me our lunch at the Prep, which was less than a mile from home. Accompanied by Punch – who was as pleased to see me as I was to see him – Fanyan came with a Red Riding Hood type of basket, covered by a neat white cloth, with our lunches carefully prepared by Ouma. Then it was time for school again, and ‘Goodbye Fanyan; goodbye Punch.’
I remember Miss Bull, a formidable new teacher, storming into our classroom, announcing, ‘I’m bull by name and bull by nature, so don’t give me any trouble.’ Some time later, one of the bolder – or more imaginative – boys told us that he had gone to the staffroom and, finding no teacher present, had looked inside Miss Bull’s handbag, ‘and do you know what I saw? … there was a revolver and a French letter.’ This dramatic announcement stuck in my memory, representing the acme of wickedness – even though I had to ask Paul what a ‘French letter’ was, and his explanation left me puzzled.
I admired my father for never indicating that he was disappointed at my lack of interest, or skill, in rugby and cricket. Despite being optimistically described in my Standard IV school report as ‘a dependable forward’, I was incompetent at team sports. More than sixty years later, I still clearly remember the disgust in Mr Loock’s voice after I had dropped the ball for the umpteenth time: ‘Brokie,’ – pause – ‘you can’t be a Brokie; not the way you play rugby.’
On the cricket field, I fared no better. Young twelve-year-old Don Bradmans took it in turn to select their teams from among their schoolmates. At the end, when I was the only boy left unselected, one of the captains would say, disconsolately, ‘Oh well, I suppose I’ll have to take Brokie.’ I can understand their reluctance. I was put at long-stop, on the edge of the field, where I would day-dream happily until there was a shout of ‘Brokie! Come on, Brokie! Wake up!’ Too late: the ball had rolled way past me. Then there was the ignominy of having to throw the ball back, and all I could manage was a feeble few yards. More groans. When I told Bernard this story, many years later, he thought that I must have been scarred by this treatment: I do not think so; I was self-sufficient in my own world, with my few good chums – I did not need the approval of those whom WH Auden famously referred to as ‘muddied oafs and flannelled fools’. Fortunately I was a good swimmer, which somewhat saved my reputation.
An early school report
As for the school Cadet Corps, I loathed the whole exercise and managed to get myself excused – I do not remember on what grounds. Instead of the pointless marching up and down, I helped two disabled boys hand out rifles and uniforms.
Guy attended DHS under the legendary headmastership of Mr Langley, who was obsessed with working out what had ‘really happened’ at the Battle of Waterloo. From the lawn outside his study, Mr Langley overlooked the playing fields twelve feet below. Guy told me that at least once a year, whistles would blow, and all three hundred and fifty boys would assemble on the playing fields, in their respective classes, each representing one of the warring battalions, with the headmaster directing the battle from above. Mr Langley would call out: ‘No, Blücher must have been further to the west … move over, Form IVAs …’
The form masters were angry at having their lessons interrupted, but everyone accepted Mr Langley’s obsession. What a wonderful way of playing soldiers! Surely this was better than being obsessed, as other headmasters were, with ‘immorality’. Guy told me that as a result of these unscheduled exercises he had a good understanding of why the Duke of Wellington had said that he nearly lost the Battle of Waterloo. Although they brought history vividly alive, such unorthodox methods – involving the whole school – would probably be frowned on today.
I was caned twice during my time at DHS, the first occasion being on my very first day at school. Proudly wearing my new boater (the school straw hat, commonly referred to as a ‘basher’), I walked under an arch, and was promptly told by one of the school prefects to follow him. I knew this senior boy – everyone knew Skonk Nicholson (head boy, captain of both cricket and rugby) – and I wondered why he should deign to notice me. Taking me into the ‘boot room’, where several other prefects lounged about, he told me to bend over, and, with no explanation, he caned me. It was not very painful: I remember feeling above all puzzled as to what my offence was. As I left the room, one of the prefects said, ‘Next time, you will pay respect and remove your basher.’ Later I learned that the arch was a memorial to DHS boys who had been killed in World War 1. Lesson learnt.
One morning a few years later, Alastair Dark and I were cycling along Currie Road on our way to school, and blithely rode across Sydenham Road, as we did each morning. But we had ignored a newly-installed STOP sign, and were called over by a police officer who must have been lying in wait. He said that it was no good charging us, so instead he would report us to our headmaster, who would mete out our punishment. Mr Black felt obliged to give us a lecture on road safety, followed by a perfunctory caning. Neither caning did me any harm, in fact, for a usually obedient boy, the canings increased my school ‘cred’.
Mr Langley’s successor, Mr Black, also had an obsession, but of a much more mundane sort: he could not abide boys smoking cigarettes. On one memorable occasion the entire cricket First XI was discovered smoking. At assembly the following morning the whole school was present (including the Jewish boys, normally excused from prayers) while the disgraced cricket team stood nervously on the platform with the headmaster and staff. After giving a short lecture on the evils of smoking, ‘which will not be tolerated in my school’, Mr Black proceeded to cane each of the cricketers, who had to bend over in turn to receive ‘six of the best’. Mr Black was so angry that he lost count, giving one boy only five strokes. This was followed by a shout from the floor: ‘You missed one, sir.’ We all burst out laughing.
Mr Black sailed, not very skilfully, on Durban Bay. We encountered him one Saturday, when Paul and I were in Jimmy Whittle’s twenty-two foot scow. Paul persuaded Jimmy to let him take over the helm and executed a deft manoeuvre, going sharply about, right in front of Mr Black’s craft, and showering him with a sheet of water. ‘Oh, sorry, sir,’ shouted a joyful Paul, while Mr Black glowered at one of his most unruly and impudent pupils.
I am grateful to most of my schoolmasters, particularly to Neville Nuttall, who taught us English, which he loved. He enlarged my horizons, leading me to an appreciation of English literature. I was assistant editor of the school magazine, and also secretary of the Debating Society, both of these positions supervised by Mr Nuttall. The main purpose of the Debating Society was to introduce outside speakers, and I was given a free hand in inviting these guests. Once, when I was stuck for a speaker, I enlisted my father’s cousin, Leslie Brokensha, who used to write as The Wayfarer in the Natal Daily News. On another occasion I invited my Auntie Lil’s husband, Sidney Brisker, then a senator for the governing United Party. Both Leslie and Sidney were flamboyant characters, and both did me proud, as did Jock Leyden, cartoonist on the Natal Mercury, who delighted us with his rapid sketches and insightful comments. My involvement in these activities marked the beginning of my awareness of the grave political, social and environmental problems facing South Africa, and of the huge inequalities in its society. In these extramural activities Neville Nuttall was always there, unobtrusively encouraging and guiding me.
On one occasion I arranged for the Sixth Form to visit the Durban abattoir, where we witnessed the ‘Judas goat’ leading the hapless sheep up to the slaughter house. I was most proud of having also organised a tour, by train, of about twenty of my school mates, to Johannesburg, Pretoria and Kimberley. The South African Railways staff were most accommodating – once they had recovered from their shock at dealing with a young boy. On this tour, members of the Old Boys Association kindly took us into their homes, and arranged for us to visit places of interest. It was my first visit to the Transvaal and to the Northern Cape.
In 1938 my Uncle Sidney was invited to open the new Cameo cinema, built on the site of a garage. Our grandest cinema, the Playhouse, had recently been opened, marked by the dramatic ascent – presumably by hydraulic lift – of the entire pit, with the orchestra conducted by Charles Manning, known locally as ‘the Svengali of music’. The management of the Cameo foolishly tried to emulate the Playhouse, and placed a small band, plus Uncle Sidney, on what had been the garage’s hydraulic lift. Instead of moving upwards majestically, the lift jerked, causing Uncle Sidney and the band to lurch about precariously. Uncle Sidney giggled, and I realised that he was tipsy. I had invited a few school friends to the ceremony, boasting about my uncle, and I was afraid that he was about to embarrass me. But, despite his imbibing, he gave a good, clear speech, and I was saved. Uncle Sidney sometimes invited me, aged fifteen, to lunch at his club, where he treated me like an adult, offering me a sherry, and asking me about my school activities: I was thrilled, and encouraged.
In the junior forms, history lessons concentrated on South Africa, with emphasis on dramatic episodes such as the Great Trek of the 1830s, when many Afrikaner families left the Cape Colony to settle in the interior, partly in protest against the emancipation of slaves. The history syllabus inevitably focused on the whites, with the few Africans who were mentioned being shadowy figures – obedient servants, or violent enemies.
Mr Evans, our history master, had firm ideas about teaching: for example, when we were studying the French Revolution we learnt the Seven Causes, the Seven Courses and the Seven Effects – hardly any of which can I recall today. Mr Evans was demanding, requiring the upper forms to write an essay every week. When I arrived home on Friday afternoons, Ouma would urge me to write the essay and get it out of the way, but often I was distracted by friends, and then on Saturday and Sunday I would spend all day on the bay, or at the beach, and would be too tired in the evening to tackle the essay. The result was that I would get up on Monday morning at 4 a.m. and write desperately. Later in my life I have had occasion to resort to this tactic, finding that the early hours are my most productive.
Durban Library had an excellent children’s section headed by Mrs Barnes (whose niece, Jil, later married my brother Paul). I was a keen reader, and was encouraged by Mrs Barnes, who would set aside the latest of my current favourites – the Tarzan, Just William or Doctor Dolittle books – then gently suggest that I also take out ‘this’, and hand me a more challenging but not too daunting volume.
Looking back on my school years, I realise that we had many opportunities for acquiring a cultural education, and I took advantage of them. First there was the bio – the bioscope, as the cinema was then called. From an early age I loved to go to the old Empire Bio, where the first movies that I saw were silent. I couldn’t read fast enough to read the sub-titles: ‘ Guy, Guy,’ I would plead, ‘what are they saying?’ It was no good asking Paul, he would be too wrapped up in the drama, and his own reading skills were still limited. One of the first talking movies that we saw was Peter Pan, and when Peter Pan asked, ‘Do you believe in fairies?’ my childish treble rang out (so Paul later told me), ‘Oh, yeth, I do!’
In 1937 a local amateur ‘dram soc’ put on a production of Our Town, in which I played the newsboy. My part required me to speak only a few one-liners, but the director congratulated me on my ‘excellent performance’, continuing, ‘I hope that your interest in the theatre will be maintained.’ While loving the theatre, I soon realised that I was no actor, but I continued to help backstage, mainly as the call boy – ‘Two minutes please, Miss X’ – for plays produced by the Durban Jewish Guild or the Bachelor Girls or other lively local amateur dramatic societies.
I appeared on stage for one other role, that of Nerissa, Portia’s maid, in the 1939 DHS production of The Merchant of Venice. Michael Turner played Portia brilliantly, telling me, after the last performance, that he was going to be a professional actor. After serving five years in the South African Air Force in World War 2, he enrolled in a drama school in London. When I visited Oxford in 1966, I saw Michael’s name at the Oxford Playhouse, as a leading player in the National Theatre’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We had a happy reunion, not having seen each other for twenty years.
Ouma encouraged my musical interests, taking me to the Carl Rosa Opera Company when they visited Durban. Edward Dunn, conductor of the Durban Symphony Orchestra, gave special Saturday morning performances for school children, in the Town Hall. Going through such pieces as Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, he gave us a lively introduction to the orchestra, and to orchestral music.
Paul dropped out of DHS during a time of troubled adolescence. He was bored by school, and unhappy at being in the same class as I was – he had slacked off so much that he had not been not promoted at the end of the year. Ouma and Dad were patient when, at the age of fifteen, Paul said he wished to leave school. Dad arranged for him to get employment as an office-boy at Shepstone and Wylie, an established firm of local solicitors, one of whom was Pat Lister. Every South African schoolboy (well, every white schoolboy) knew about Pat Lister, one of the 1936 Springbok team which had just had a successful rugby tour of Australia. I later realised that this must have been a deliberate ploy by Dad, who would have recognised that Paul was likely to pay more attention to his hero, Pat Lister, than to anyone else.
After some months of being an office boy, Paul was persuaded by Pat that he was in a dead-end job, and that he should complete his schooling. Despite the rewards of being out of school – being able to smoke cigarettes, not wearing a school uniform, and with time to pursue his intense interest in girls – Paul decided that he would return to school. But he sensibly refused to go back to DHS, where he would have been in a lower form than his younger brother. The solution was for him to go as a boarder to Maritzburg College, Dad’s old school. Paul had some initial difficulty in settling down, until Mr Snow, the headmaster, made him a prefect. It was an excellent decision, and after that Paul readily and cheerfully assumed responsibilities, doing very well in rugby and swimming, and well enough in his lessons.
Pietermaritzburg, where Maritzburg College is situated, can be extremely cold in winter. The school’s lavatories, simple wooden structures, were located outside, so that they were bitterly cold in the early mornings. One of Paul’s privileges as a prefect was that he could send a small boy to warm the toilet seat. When Paul told me this, I was glad that I had not attended a boarding school.
In the early 1930s, after several serious illnesses, Dad was advised to spend more time outdoors. He tried his hand at gardening, and grew some spectacular busbies at Lindsay Road, but he was not excited by it. (Despite extensive enquiries, I have been unable to find the botanical identification of busbies; part of me says that it does not matter, then I hear Bernard – a precise and methodical man – insisting that it does.) It may have been that Dad’s sister, Auntie Florrie, with her sixty-acre grounds at Gillitts, intimidated him – Florrie and her sisters were all outstanding gardeners.
Then, through an article in Popular Mechanics, Dad found the joys of canoe-building, at which he soon became adept. We boys enjoyed helping him with the delicate business of steaming stringers, stretching canvas, and making sure that we met the precise specifications. Dad’s interest in boat-building and sailing had lasting and beneficial effects on his family. Helped by all three sons, he built four canoes, one for each of us boys, and a bigger one for him and Ouma. Guy, then a fifteen-year-old schoolboy, wrote a short article about the canoe building, which was published in the Natal Daily News.
The canoes led to our acquiring the lease on a house on ‘the Island’. Officially known as Salisbury Island, and situated at the southern end of Durban Bay, this is no longer an island, having been linked to the Bluff during World War 2 to create a huge naval base. Nearly two miles long, and a few hundred yards at its widest point, the island was a boy’s paradise in the 1930s. Ours was one of a dozen small houses, most of which were used as weekend cottages by Durban people. The house was fairly basic, with an outdoor privy. After hearing stories of ghosts and snakes from our African cook, I was fearful of going alone through the dark bushes at night, and would try to persuade an unsympathetic Paul to accompany me.
The island was criss-crossed with paths through the mangrove trees which became our playground on land. We went barefoot, and the soles of our feet got really tough – proof against the thorns which abounded on the island.
As well as the four canoes, we also had an eighteen-foot dinghy, Re-Echo, a safe family boat. Ouma was never as enthusiastic a sailor
JRB in the canoe he built
as the rest of her family – though she took her turn in the boats – and she was quite happy to stay in the island house, seeing that meals were ready for her ravenous sons and all their friends. When it rained, many boys, unable to manage their crude camp-fires, would come to us for shelter and food.
When I was about eleven years old, the family tried to live on the island permanently, but the mainland was three miles away, and connections were precarious. The ferry, due to leave the island early each morning, was often delayed or even cancelled because of inclement weather, or through engine trouble. This did not matter too much for Paul and me, as we could afford to miss the odd day of prep school, but it was more serious for Dad, and for Guy, who was preparing for his important matriculation examination. So, to the dismay of us three boys, this idea was abandoned. However, we did spend our long school holidays, as well as many weekends, at the island house.
TOP: Our house on Salisbury Island, c. 1937 ABOVE: Front canoes: Ouma and JRB, Guy, the two Burne brothers, Dave At the back: Paul and Gordon Henderson (‘Hendy’). Salisbury Island, September 1932
What did we do on the island? There was always sailing, first in our little canoes and in Re-Echo, and, later, in other people’s racing yachts. Both Paul and I used to crew regularly, first as ‘bailer boys’, and later as proper crew members. I spent some time on the big yachts: we had twenty-two foot scows, with lee-boards, with a crew of six and a half – the half being the bailer boy. Then I raced for a couple of seasons in Arrow, a sixteen-foot sharpie captained by Harold Sefton, with his cousin Graham and me as crew. I loved the Seftons, and I loved that boat. I was proud to wear the special green shirt, embossed with Arrow, that Harold had had made for us. Harold and Graham were both important to me; they helped me to grow up.
On Saturday mornings I would walk from Cowey Road, where we then lived, to Graham’s house on Marriott Road, a few blocks away. Graham, who would have been about twenty-two years old, slept on the veranda of his parents’ home, perhaps so that his mother would not know how late he had returned home the previous evening. I would wake him up. Graham represented something special in my life: after nearly sixty years, I can still see his tousled black hair, and his lovely grin as he greeted me. After a quick breakfast he would drive us, in his old Lagonda (what a thrill for me to be in that elegant open car) the few miles to the Point Yacht Club, where Harold would already be down at the water’s edge, getting Arrow ready.
Races started at 1 p.m., but we were always out sailing an hour or two ahead of the time. Graham and I used to leave Harold fussing over the rigging, and would strip and swim around the then clear waters of Durban Bay until it was time to get ready for the race. Harold let me sail Arrow before the race, and we boys had full charge during the annual ‘bailer boy’s race’, which once, to my delight, I won. According to the rules, on this day my crew had to obey my commands, even if they disagreed with me.
While we boys were sailing in yachts, Dad kept experimenting with his canoe, which he liked to sail rather than paddle. He tended to have too large an area of sail, which would cause the canoe to capsize. This was so frequent an occurrence that other island boys, tired of helping Dad to set the canoe upright, would shout ‘Brokie, Brokie, the old man’s plopped again.’ The island was small enough, and our usual haunts were not far away, so a loud shout would summon one of us to go to Dad’s rescue.
Each year a few round-the-world sailors would call in at Durban, and would almost invariably give an illustrated talk to an enthralled audience at the Point Yacht Club. Perhaps these intrepid sailors encouraged Dad to contemplate such a voyage. After his death I found, among his papers, a 1936 news cutting: ‘Captain Henry Pigeon, the sixty-six-year-old American who is at present in Durban with his yawl Islander gave a most interesting talk on his travels around the world.’ Aged thirteen, I heard Captain Pigeon’s talk at the Point Yacht Club and I later spoke to him, and went aboard his boat. Dad kept another 1936 cutting about the ketch Land’s End, built by a local yachtsman, which later did sail around the world. He made meticulous notes from The African Handbook and Traveller’s Guide, 1932, with two neatly-written pages giving details of a projected voyage, headed A Sail Round Africa. There was no mention in it of Ouma, nor of his three sons.
Two of the best-known skippers, Jimmy Whittle and Roy Hesketh, each owned a twenty-two foot scow, and seemed to take it in turn winning the Saturday race. They were also rivals in the ‘DJ’, the gruelling, annual Durban–Johannesburg motorcycle race. As Prep schoolboys, Paul and I would miss school and cycle out to Cowies Hill to watch the racers, and cheer on our favourites.
Paul crewed for Jimmy Whittle, and through this connection we met our first American, the wrestler ‘Whiskers’ Blake. Wrestling was then a popular sport, and we had all (except Ouma) watched Whisker and other giants such as ‘The Masked Marvel’ battle it out in the ring. Whiskers, despite his stature and big red beard, was a gentle and kindly man, and I boasted to my schoolmates of our friendship.
We spent much of our free time in the water, sometimes swimming over to the large sandbank, which appeared at low tide, half a mile from the island. The weekly Imperial Airways flying boat would land on the bay, mooring near the island, to be greeted by a little flotilla of canoes and swimmers. Punch, our constant companion, joined in the shorter swims, but he could not manage the long swim to the sandbank. He never tired of standing eagerly in the bows of Re-Echo, one front leg raised, barking at the seabirds and often diving in to chase one, though he never came near to making a catch.
We also swam out to a floating pile-driver, unattended at weekends. This was a large wooden structure on a floating platform, with ropes dangling tantalisingly from beams about twenty-five feet above the water. We could dive from the beams, or swing on the ropes, both exhilarating experiences, particularly for me, as one of the smallest boys in our ‘gang’. If Ouma watched us, she must have been anxious, but she did not try to curtail our adventures.
On the odd rainy day we would congregate at Mrs Anderson’s tearoom, and play cards, tell stories, and – if we had enough coins – buy a ‘mineral’ (soft drink). Mrs Anderson tolerated our long and, for her, unrewarding stays – as long as it was not a weekend, when her usually somnolent tea-room would be busy with day trippers.
Durban Bay, generally fairly placid, could be the scene of violent storms, especially when a westerly ‘buster’ sprang up. Dad and I were sailing to the mainland from the island late one Sunday afternoon when we were caught in one such storm, and forced to take refuge on a large circular buoy, about eight feet in diameter, not far from the entrance to the harbour. We moored the boat, clung to the buoy in the beating rain and I asked Dad if we would be saved. ‘Yes, son, don’t worry.’ He put his arm around me, and I felt quite safe, though wet and cold. We were rescued by a harbour launch, which took our yacht in tow and soon had us back at the mainland jetty. Dad was there when we needed him, even if he was not overly responsive nor very good at articulating his love for his sons.
Paul and I thought nothing of regularly cycling the few miles from our various homes in the Berea to North Beach to surf, or to the swimming pool for practice, both in swimming and in life-saving.
Applesami, an Indian attendant at the pool, used to threaten to flick our behinds with a wet towel when we lingered when he wanted to close. (Paul and I were delighted to meet Applesami again in 1971; he was still working at the beach.) Before returning home we would buy a ‘tickey’ (threepenny) bag of chips from Isaac, the friendly Indian waiter.
Although much of our free time was spent on the island, we also enjoyed other activities, especially competitive swimming: all three of us were good swimmers, and were coached by ‘Mrs Finn’: Rachel Finlayson, who had represented South Africa in the 1928 Olympic Games, and who was serious about swimming. So serious that she forbade surfing, claiming that it spoiled our swimming. Of course we ignored this prohibition, and often sneaked off when the surf was up. We all body-surfed in those days: it was the late 1930s and the big boards were just starting to come in.
We liked to run along the old West Street jetty, which ran into the sea at South Beach, wait for what looked like a promising wave, dive in, and surf to shore. One day, when about ten of us were surfing, the others all caught the wave, but I was left behind, with the shore suddenly seeming a long way away and the backwash taking me further out. I was about twelve years old, and frightened when I saw what I thought was a shark. It proved to be a dolphin, and Hendy, one of Guy’s close friends, appeared from nowhere and gently helped me swim across the current and reach the shore. To my relief, he did not tell the others: even at the age of twelve one was expected not to show fear.
Paul, Applesami, DWB. Durban North Beach, May 1974
Two years later, one of my classmates, Sonny Thompson, was attacked by a shark at this beach, losing an arm but surviving. After this attack, we were all more careful, but we did not stop surfing.
During the ‘season’, which was in the cool month of July, Durban had an influx of up-country visitors, many of whom were Afrikaners from the Orange Free State who could not swim very well, nor did they understand the ocean. Guy, Paul and I often put our life-saving skills to good use, rescuing some terrified tannie who was being swept out to sea by the backwash. (Tannie is the Afrikaans word for ‘aunt’, but it is also used to refer to any middle-aged woman.) We knew that the trick was to swim across, not against, the tide, to be brought eventually back to shore.
At an earlier stage, before the island became so important for our family, Paul and I had a number of holidays at Darnall on the North Coast with Uncle Percy Haley and Auntie May. Percy was a fiery Methodist lay preacher and it was a novelty, after our agnostic home, to be involved in the constant prayers. After breakfast, at 9 a.m., Percy, in true Victorian manner, summoned the household, including three or four African servants, into the living room, where he addressed the Almighty in a very familiar tone, in his broad Yorkshire accent. I felt proud to be a nephew of a man on such obviously good terms with God. On Sundays we drove to new places with Percy, which we enjoyed, but we also had to sit through two or three long and boring services at different
Being pushed across the Umlaas River, c 1933
makeshift churches. Paul used to try to make me laugh, usually succeeding, then I would be reprimanded by Percy. We had some wild games in the cane fields with the naughty Geelong boys, chasing cane-rats, trying out the rough cane spirit that the Indian labourers made, and lassoing calves. This was a new world to us.
My uncle’s house was on a small hill, and below it ran the railway line, in a cutting. The train-drivers would blow their whistles to announce their approach, then we would run to the bank and wave as the trains passed. Even better was the occasional exciting passage of a small yellow Austin 7, driven on the railway lines by a track inspector.
When I was a small boy I knew the makes of all the cars. Paul and I played a game in which the winner was the one who most rapidly identified the passing cars. Auntie Lil’s verandah, overlooking busy Essenwood Road, was a good vantage point. While the grown-ups were inside taking tea, we called out the makes of the approaching cars: ‘1932 Hupmobile, 1929 Packard, 1930 Studebaker, 1934 Willys, 1933 Morris Minor …’ Today I can scarcely distinguish one vehicle from another.
A special treat was to be driven to Zinkwazi beach, five miles from Darnall, accessible by a rutted and sandy road. Paul and I competed to be the first to glimpse the sea, then we had happy hours swimming, with Auntie May occasionally calling out, ‘Do be careful, boys,’ but we were good swimmers and we thought we were immortal and that nothing could happen to us.
I was fourteen years old when I left the province of Natal for the first time, travelling by train to Swaziland, to stay with Dad’s sister, Auntie Ivy, and her husband, Gordon. Uncle Gordon gave me a .22 rifle and sent me into the garden to shoot birds. I had never shot, and I hated both the shooting and the thought of killing even one bird, but I was too scared of my uncle to admit this. I wandered miserably around the grounds and had to put up with my uncle’s derogatory remarks when I returned, a failure, having shot nothing. Today, I know that I was right in following my instincts.
We also had some ‘up-country’ holidays, mainly at the Hunt-Holley’s farm in the Natal Midlands. Dad’s first car was a small DKW, registration ND 1138, which much increased our mobility. On the way to and from the farm, we often encountered drifts, near which little ragged bands of ‘umfaans’ – small Zulu boys – used to wait to push, for a few pennies, any cars that needed assistance. I went two or three times, with my friends Alastair Dark, Michael Turner and Lawrence Chiddell, enjoying leisurely day-long rides through extensive wattle plantations on little Basutu ponies. I began to recognise different trees, and when I was fourteen I decided that I wanted to be a forester – that still seems to me today to be a useful and pleasant occupation.
To think back on those days is to recall the sunburn which we all suffered at the beginning of the holidays, when we too enthusiastically spent our days in the bright sunshine, clad only in shorts or ‘cozzies’. Ouma would apply camomile lotion generously
Paul and Dave. 8 Heron Road, Durban, 1939
to our reddened bodies, and if we were at home, where there was a bath, we would ease ourselves gingerly into the hot water, which lessened the pain. As a result of that over-exposure to the sun, both Paul and I later suffered from skin cancers. But even Ouma with her nursing experience did not recognise the hazards.
THE END OF SCHOOLDAYS
At the age of sixteen, having a few months’ holiday after I had written matric at the end of 1939, I took a temporary job at Griggs, the West Street book and stationery shop – my first paid work. Extra hands were needed to cope, first with the Christmas rush and then with the beginning of the school year. I took the tram to and from work, and was very proud of my first wages, two pounds a week, plus a discount on purchases. The permanent staff, mostly middle-aged ladies, showed me the ropes, and looked after me. I enjoyed this experience, working with books, and with pleasant customers.
Leonard Okell, husband of my Auntie Florrie, insisted that I go to university on leaving school. Dad could not afford the fees, so Uncle Len came to the rescue, and I went to Rhodes University College in February 1940. I registered for a BA in humanities, and was proud to have my own room in Botha House. I hugely enjoyed the freedom of being at a university, but was too young and immature – my nickname, embarrassingly, was ‘Cherub’ – to take full advantage of the academic environment. Perhaps it was to my advantage, then, that the war brought my university career to a temporary halt.