The parallel consciousness of self and surroundings... is the key to transforming mentalities and reshaping societies.” -

Edouard Glisant


Thursday, 9 June 2016

FROM HILLBROW TO TWEELING: A GALACTIC ODYSSEY

I meet Mano Christelis in his office in the Orange Grove house where the Galaxy Muzeum factory is based.  Every surface is overflowing with an exotic array of strangely shaped, multi-coloured beads and jewellery in the making. The lyrics of the 1960s Beatles song come to mind: “The Magical Mystery Tour is waiting to take you away…”

Mano has been commissioned to create the headdresses and earrings for George’s Bizos’s grandson’s wedding. He shows me a picture on his cell phone of models wearing red, crystal dresses and red, crystal crowns.  While we speak, he is putting together ear-to-shoulder length red crystal earrings, each pair with a different Greek Orthodox saint in the middle, for the 17 bridesmaids.  “He’s marrying a beautiful Lebanese girl,” he tells me.  Now she wants huge red tassels hanging off them as well”, he chuckles.  “It’s going to be spectacular!”

Son of the pioneering, ‘Lucky Packet King”, Lefty Christelis, Mano began making his “galactic jewellery” from lucky packet charms as a boy of eight.  “My father had mountains of lucky packets in the sweet factory in Germiston. There were corridors of all these Hong Kong toys…little charms…” He describes the scene with child-like excitement, fuelling my own reminiscences of lucky packet exuberance. 

“My dad had the machine that made all those little pink sweets and he had lollipop machines and he used to make marshmallow fish and rocket sherbet. His sherbet lines were the biggest success.  And my dad’s twin brother used to sit at the machines and every 20 to 30 lucky packets he used to put in a 50 cent coin.  So sometimes a kid would get a lucky packet with an extra 50 cent piece. It was like a big thing. He supplied the whole of Southern Africa, right up to Zambia and Zimbabwe and Mozambique. All the kids of that generation went for lucky packets.”

When his father got a consignment of beads after the Richelieu factory closed down, Mano incorporated the beads into his designs and started to cultivate an exclusive customer base.

In the eighties he set up a shop in the basement flea market in Pretorius Street in Hillbrow: “It was the time of the CafĂ© de Paris and the Three Sisters…and all the trendy shops were there…” 

The performing artist, Steven Cohen used to visit the stall with his mother:  “He used to come, dressed like a nice Jewish boy, with his mom.  And he used to like my stuff. He loved all the plastic toys.  And his mother used to say: ‘Oh come on Steven, this stuff isn’t for you!  Let’s move on!’ Meanwhile, he has become so way out and eccentric that this is like, mild, you know…“ We laugh.

Prominent designers like Peter Soldatos and Chris Levin used the Galaxy jewellery in their fashion shows and his customers included people like Linda Goodman, Winnie Mandela, Marianne Fassler and Brenda Fassie . 

Together with the ceramicist Tina van der Walt, Mano was one of the first to set up a stall at the flea market opposite the Market Theatre.  “Every week we had a different theme. One week would be Egyptian, the next week it would be ancient ruins, and we would do a hellova production…That’s how I started. Then I got contracts with boutiques and started supplying Stuttafords and others.”

Mano’s interest in extra-terrestrial life; good and bad aliens; baroque architecture emanating from Venus; lizard people; giant snails on Neptune; parallel governments on Mars; teleportation and jump rooms, like lifts, has grown alongside his career as a trend-setter in the jewellery business,  “I’ve always been interested in extra-terrestrial life, and I’ve had experiences of different galaxies on the astral plane,” he tells me, showing me pictures of new developments on Neptune, stored on his cell phone.  

His fascination was the inspiration behind the Galaxy Muzeum in the small northern Free State town of Tweeling, where he owns several properties, including the old post office.    “Tweeling is an energy point in the Free State,” he says. “People living there have seen triangular craft and all different craft moving across the area…”

I visited Tweeling with friend and photographer, Stan Sher. 
The display in the Galaxy Muzeum , consists of a series of vitrines depicting a variety of galaxies, dimensions, portals and life forms, including instructions on how to get there from Planet Earth. The first vitrine depicts a secret location in Mozambique where transport through history is conducted.  “Civilization: humans in military operations using time door to change history”, the caption reads.  The second, named ‘Planet Blueploy’ depicts “humabian aquatic people living in structures above oceans” accessed through a time hole in a magnetic field in the Free State area 86. Cement blocks and circles and brick-like structures, similar to the beads used in some of the jewellery appear in the various planetary constellations.


The exhibition includes the planet Jupiter, which is “three years by earth ship from planet earth’ ; Planet Oberroi, in the Zacacia Penticula Galaxy, which is 14 light years away from earth on the electronic transport field on Easter Island, inhabited by a hunter-gatherer community that is “peaceful in nature.”  Another planet is reached by means of eighty light years through wormhole and the civilization here is "of human origin through intelligent manipulation.”

“Just like there are all different kinds of birds, there all different kinds of people,” Mano explains.  “There are bird people, with feathers like birds, and there are half animal, half human people like the Egyptian hieroglyphs. “

Back in the Orange Grove factory, I ask Mano about the pictures of Greek Orthodox saints on the walls. “I’m Greek Orthodox. I was born in the realm of Jesus and that’s what I’m sticking to. I pray to God and Jesus and all the saints because that is my realm…The Greek Orthodox Church is quite open. I don’t think they would mind about reincarnation and different galaxies and things.”

I had a lot of laughs with Mano Christelis, and with Stan Sher on the trip to Tweeling. The vast array of images, resonant of the magic realism of a Marquez story, have been spinning around in my head and turning up in weird and wonderful ways in my dreams ever since.   

Saturday, 3 May 2014

The end of the world on a sunny winter day in Johannesburg


 
It’s the first sunny day after a week of unremitting, unseasonal downpour.   The change in mood in the block is palpable. Balcony doors are open and those with pot plant gardens are out inspecting the remains of their plants in their pyjamas, strangely liberated from the pressure of public opinion about their personal habits or the shape and stripe of their nightwear.  There is an air of gratitude and relief, as though spring has sprung, although it is still winter. The air is free of the insidious haze of carbon monoxide that typically shrouds the Louis Botha Avenue side of the building and the first hint of a rainbow emerges like a halo over the notorious ‘death bend’, on the cusp of Orange Grove and Houghton.

 Despite the climatic transition, I am engrossed in a book about a ship’s doctor in the Antarctic. Extraordinary weather conditions have caused the ship’s pipes to burst as frozen water thaws. The hospital floor is flooded and water is raining through the dining room ceiling. I am about to turn the page to the part about the doctor and a nurse sloshing around the hospital trying to salvage essential equipment, when I become aware of a mild and then persistent current of water dripping onto my balcony from somewhere upstairs. It is not rain; it has quite a different tone as the water hits the terracotta tiles.

Standing on the balcony, I strain my head upwards and notice water flooding onto the balcony of the upstairs flat where the rabbi’s son, Elijah Nudelman lives.  It won’t be the first time that Elijah has left a tap running. It is common knowledge that he is not quite right in the head.  “He doesn’t have a full box of chocolates”, my next door neighbour Rachel Levine would say.  I tend to agree since I am frequently awoken in the night by Elijah’s turbulent dreams. His bedroom is one floor above mine and I hear him crying out in his sleep, either in Yiddish (generally towards the early hours of the morning) or in a stream of expletives shortly after midnight, almost certainly an extension of the ‘grunge’ music he plays relentlessly until he turns in. Leaning over the rail of the balcony, I shout up at the flat above: “Elijah! Elijah!” Silence. I run up the fire escape and ring the doorbell of Elijah’s flat, then pound on the door. Silence.

Back in my own flat, I phone Alfred, the gardener/caretaker. He arrives within minutes. A huge Zulu man, well over six feet tall, Alfred is permanently dressed in blue working overalls with a ZCC star pinned to his chest, and a bus conductor’s hat with the peak turned to one side of his head. He crouches and awkwardly contracts his large body to get through the door.

We try phoning the rabbi and then the chairperson of the Body Corporate, privately referred to as “the Body Cobra”, without success. The water continues to flow and then to gush down from the upstairs balcony as a newsreader on Classic FM announces a national emergency. I change the station and turn up the volume. Rede Thlabi is interviewing Acid Mine Drainage activist Mariette Liefferink on Talk Radio 702.  “I have been saying for years that the crunch is just around the corner,” Liefferink pronounces. “The central basin has decanted and the city’s water pipes have exploded from the pressure. As we speak, enough acid water to fill 50,000 Olympic swimming pools is flooding the city of Johannesburg”.

 Within hours the picture has changed. By now a vast lake of water has surged up from ground level and Alfred and I are boarding a small wooden rowing boat steered by the Body Cobra. Spluttering with a dog hater’s contempt and outrage as Alfred hands me my two small dogs, Green Tara and Kuan Yin, the Body Cobra takes a small notebook and pen from the inside pocket of his jacket, and makes a note, no doubt with the intention of imposing a special levy on owners with pets.  The antagonism between the dogs and the Body Cobra is mutual.  They growl at him. I smile inwardly.

Rabbi Yudelman, wearing full Lubavitch religious trappings, and Elijah are already in the boat. The Body Cobra steers the boat past 112, where Rachel Levine climbs in, clutching a bag of Israeli jewellery in case she meets any customers on the way. Then we pass 108 to collect Noah Abramowitz.  Noah, referred to by Alfred and other staff as ‘Omdala Oyinqaba’, the old eccentric, is best known for singing an eclectic repertoire at the top of his lungs in the underground parking garage at odd hours of day and night.  As we arrive at his balcony he is singing, ‘The times they are a changing…”  “Oh get in, Noah!” Rachel Levine snaps with irritation.

 After one more stop at 113 to pick up Hymie and Beulah Lazarus and their parrot, Lennie, the boat is quite full.  “Get back inside? Get back inside!” Lennie shrieks as the boat lurches hazardously towards Louis Botha Avenue. 

 
With despair, I notice that “Orchards Wheel and Tire”, “Jay-Jay's Car Wash”, “Mashi Rose Tombstones,” “E&W Steel Design”, “Burgess Plumbing”; “Vintage Clothing”; and “Tonino's Pizza and Pub” are almost entirely submerged.

 
Noah sings, "He aint heavy, he's my brother," as I beg and bargain with the Body Cobra to make a stop at my brother’s shop to see if he needs help.  Finally he agrees and we sail up the ramp to the old warehouse, where my brother’s eccentric second-hand bookshop is located. A plastic sign reading: “Men working overhead” that I anxiously recognize as one of my brother’s collection, floats by.

 All the shelves on the lower half of the wall are under water. Richard and his assistant, Liberty, are huddled together with dazed expressions on the narrow walkway assembled from steel, wood and hemp rope, that runs alongside the upper part of the shop. They are surrounded by boxes and crates of books labelled in thick black ink: Peter Cheney; Howard Spring; Denis Wheatley; Frank G. Slaughter; Stephen King; Taylor Caldwell; Dornford Yates; Medical Romances; Shakespearian Studies; Crime Fiction; and Judaica.
 
The boat rocks and dips precariously as Richard and Liberty squash themselves in between Hymie and Noah on the central plank.

The Body Cobra steers the boat towards Maryvale Convent. The historic mural of our Lady of the Wayside is almost entirely under water. The water is lapping at our lady’s chin and above her head, two nuns clinging to the church steeple wave frantically, but there is no room for them in the boat. The Body Cobra shrugs his shoulders and shakes his head sadly.  On we go towards Killarney, passing the mosque on Central Avenue, Houghton, with its imposing minarets. I imagine that Na’eem and Fatima would have fled here and wonder whether they are still in - or on - the building or whether they have been rescued by a helicopter or a boat. Since Na’eem always has strings to pull, I am confident that he would have made a plan.
 
“How long will we be here?” Rachel Levine laments, her arms folded across her chest. “Until the ijuba calls,” Alfred volunteers.  “Until we reach dry land,” Liberty adds. “Get back inside!  Get back inside!” Lennie protests.

The acid water swirls and sways against the sides of the boat. The rabbi is praying, rocking back and forth over his huge stomach. Richard closes his eyes and mumbles a few empathetic words from the Anglican liturgy.  I remove my mala from my bag and count the beads, quietly chanting the Om Mane Peme Hung.  Noah sings: “The holy dove was moving too, and every breath we drew was Hallelujah, Hallelujah, and Hallelujah…”

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

43 years of gardening on the Kensington Koppie


“This is Robben Island and if you come this way from the Cape, you see Africa in front of you…and that’s West Africa there…”  Phillip O Pirie walks me through his extraordinary garden that extends beyond his Ferret Street property onto the famous Kensington koppie.  He has been cultivating this garden for 43 years. 
 It all began when Rita O Pirie wrote to the Town Planning Department of the Johannesburg Municipality in 1971:
“Dear Sirs,
…I am interested in purchasing or leasing the piece of ground surrounding the stand for the following reasons:

1.   To beautify the area which is in a sad state of neglect – broken glass, refuse from dumping, rusty tins, etc.

2.   As I have three young children, our grounds, which are mostly terraced, are inadequate for them to play on. They are inclined to play on the piece of ground described above.

3.   The ground situated behind the house is used by Bantu males and females for drinking parties and urinating. My husband is away for considerable periods and when requesting the abovementioned Bantus to leave they use foul language and become aggressive.

4.   We have no privacy at the rear of the house and such passing persons can see over the low wall into the house.

 The Council agreed to the encroachment provided the costs were covered: R 10.50 for the plans; revenue stamps to the value of R 2.10; and a nominal fee of R 1.00 per annum for an initial five years. 

After more than 40 years of encroachment (the law says 30 years), the property belonged to Phillip and Rita O Pirie when I  met them last year. The property was on sale at the time and they had received a good offer from a Muslim family.

O Pirie’s interest in gardening began when he was a child at Holy Cross Convent in the Transkei. He grew up there: “Let’s just say I was one of the war orphans of the time," he says.  Two nuns taught him the basics of gardening: “There was Sister Florence in the flower garden and Sister Veronica in the vegetable garden and they both had green fingers.”
Over the years gardening has helped O Pirie balance his working life. He joined the SA Police Force when the Rand Daily Mail called for English speaking cops to join up in 1956 and was based at "the old Marshall Square" from 1956 - 1966. In 1967 he met Nelson Mandela at the Drill Hall, near the Noord Street taxi rank in Joubert Park. The initial stages of the Treason Trial happened there.  


After ten years as a policeman, O Pirie started his own company in the security/investigatory field. His work has taken him to many countries and brought him into contact with dignitaries around the world. 

His clients who were initially all white became “from across the racial spectrum” and include several notorious South African millionaires. O Pirie says he has considered writing a book entitled: “The ten multi-millionaires and one billionaire.”  The billionaire is a more recent client.

O Pirie relied on cheap labour (workers were paid a standard rate of between R2.00 and R5.00 per day in the early years) and inexpensive materials (cement cost R9.50 per packet) to construct the stone walls surrounding and separating the different levels of the garden.   “Most of the labour was carried by me and blacks,” O Pirie says.” It was a question of almost having four blacks Saturdays and four blacks Sundays clearing the stand and building this colossal stone wall. I had a boy from the Northern Transvaal, Limpopo area… Hell, what a good worker that was…”

I would not get into a discussion on apartheid history with Phillip O Pirie since it is unlikely that we would find much common ground. Nevertheless, he is a modest, courteous man, sensitive to people and the natural world. It is interesting to me that although he clearly has a sense of connection to plant life, his approach to gardening is quite severe and regimented: “My style has more of a military base. I like straight lines and uniformity.  I like different colours but they must blend.” Looking up towards the koppie I can’t help thinking how untamed and unordered the terrain is and what a struggle it must have been to impose structure on it.   



The next challenge for O Pirie is his daughter’s 1.8 hectare property in Lonehill: “My daughter’s garden is not straight lines. It is more circles.  I am going to try and make it conform”, he says.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

The House of Dreams and the Red Diaper Brigade



“When I first came to England, after my parents went into exile, I was 13 and extremely unhappy at being uprooted and transplanted…I would have long travels in my mind around the garden at 154 Regent Street, re-living childhood games, the corners of the garden where they were played, which  flowers, trees and bushes were where. It was one of the most comforting things I had…”
(Frances Bernstein in an email to Johanna Kistner).


In the aftershock of the xenophobic violence in Joburg’s inner city suburbs in 2009, Johanna Kistner and her team launched an urgent search for premises that would allow them to expand their “Suitcase Project" for refugee children. 
 
It took several years and a change of principals before Observatory Girls Primary School gave Sophiatown Community Psychological Services the go-ahead to occupy the house at 154 Regent Street in Observatory rent-free, provided the project carried the costs of rehabilitating and renovating the property.

In the intervening years, the project had established a vibrant venture combining gender activism, art and psychological healing at 20 Derby Road in Bertrams.  Interestingly this is where the Chinese hero, Chow Kwai For lived in the early 1900s.  I wrote about him in 2011 in a blog post entitled ‘Suicide for conscience sake – the story of Chow Kwai For". (http://melodyemmettsbezvalley.blogspot.com/2011/10/suicide-for-conscience-sake-story-of.html).
 

The abandoned Regent Street House, originally built in 1918, was a sad place when the school handed over the keys. Destitute people had built shacks attached to the front and back of the house and young sex workers were using the place to hide from the police. “It was horrible: walls not only bulging with water from a burst geyser, but also conveying a profound sense of... misery…Broken furniture lay strewn around, electrical wires hung unconnected, every tap had been removed for illegal recycling, and downstairs in a basement…the ceiling had collapsed and a wide crack surrounded the natural rock…”

 After a long process of reconstruction, community worker Thabo Sepuru stood in the street in front of the transformed building and commented: “It’s the house of our dreams”. Today The House of Dreams is a place of restoration and healing for children from crowded inner city slums and women displaced by war, disease and abuse.   

 
Thotho (Senga Wabulakombe), a project worker who lives on the property, tells the story of a middle-aged man who arrived unexpectedly and asked if he could look around, explaining that he had lived in the house as a child.
 

A few months later, the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation announced that the house had been declared a national heritage site.

The unexpected visitor turned out to be one of four children of the courageous Communist Party stalwarts Hilda (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hilda_Bernstein) and Rusty Bernstein (http://www.sahistory.org.za/people/lionel-rusty-bernstein) who lived in the house between 1946 and 1963.  In these years of fragmentation, harassment, arrest, detention and solitary confinement, Rusty Bernstein is said to have drafted the Freedom Charter.

Finally the family fled to England.

In the weeks following the revelation about the house’s history, Johanna made contact with some of the adult Bernstein children and with Barbara Harmel, a family friend who spent much of her childhood in the Regent Street house. Barbara coined the phrase “The Red Diaper Brigade” to describe the children of communists who grew up in inner city suburbs in the 1950s.

 

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

"This is Lovely," Tony says...

A vague smell of cooking oil wafts through the air. I am on my way to the Denver squatter camp with Tony Lopes, who runs his bakkie on rancid cooking oil instead of petrol.  We are going to visit Nomsa Ximba. Tony wants to take measurements and check out the possibilities for building one of the small geysers he constructs from two liter coke bottles and tetrapak cartons. The tetrapak cartons absorb the heat and the coke bottles retain the heat, “like a car when you leave it in the sun,” he explains.  Cold water sinks and hot water rises and goes into a water container at the top of the system.

Nomsa meets us on the Malvern side of the railway track and we drive together into the industrial area where the Denver squatter camp is located. It is not clear how many people live there. Nomsa estimates 5,000.

Water is gushing down the slope leading to the shacks, apparently from a burst pipe.  “The good thing about this,” Tony says to Nomsa, “is that vegetables love this water. You can plant vegetables, Nomsa.”

Two municipal workers are cleaning refuse from the river of water. We make our way down the slope, past the metal pit toilets, towards Nomsa’s shack. I have the impression of going down into a pit. Children gather around, touching my legs, clutching my hands.  We pass women washing in plastic buckets and unemployed men sitting around in groups.

Nomsa’s shack consists of two rooms constructed from planks of wood and chipboard, with a metal door and a thick, black plastic roof.  A painted sign on the door proclaims that the occupants are Shembe followers.

Inside the shack is meticulously neat and clean but dark and airless. There is one stool to sit on. The walls are pasted with  advertising inserts from newspapers and  magazine pictures.  “This is lovely,” Tony says. Outside he walks around the shack inspecting the movement of the sun and the possibilities for supporting a water container on the side of the shack. 

For over two years Nomsa has worked as a volunteer two mornings a week in the Rhodes Park Library organic vegetable garden, which Tony started a couple of years ago in collaboration with the librarian.  Large bags of vegetables from the garden are donated to Noah’s Ark, an NGO based in Malvern, that offers after school support to orphaned and vulnerable children from the Malvern, Denver and Kensington areas.  Nomsa works at Noah’s Ark as a Child Activity Coordinator for R 1,100 per month.  Her work  involves cooking for the 128 children aged between 8-18 who come to the centre every week day, and then helping them to develop skills through play.

She worked as a volunteer for Noah’s Ark for a year and a half before getting a salary.  A large part of her work at that time was to comb the area to identify needy, orphaned and vulnerable children.  All the children suffer from hunger and malnutrition. A spread of other problems emerge during play, including rape, sexual abuse, violence in the home.

Tony helped Noah’s Ark to start a vegetable garden first, then when the Rhodes Park garden was started, Nomsa came to help him there.  They make a very vibrant, dynamic team. Tony arranged for Nomsa to do a permaculture course at the Siyakana Food Gardens, and through Noah’s Ark she completed a six month course in Victim Empowerment.

Sadly, Noah’s Ark will be closing down at the end of September due to lack of funds.  Nomsa is not sure what she is going to do.  Tony is looking for another partner to donate the produce from the Rhodes Park vegetable garden to. 

When we speak about this, there is a sense of sadness and regret and some worry about the future.

Nomsa gives Tony R 200 for the materials to build the geyser.  “It costs more than this,” he tells me. It is difficult because there is such poverty but I have to take some money to cover the costs”.

On the way back to Rhodes Park, where my car is parked, Tony shouts a greeting to a woman handing out pamphlets at the traffic lights.  She is an emaciated looking woman and it is evident that life has struck her a cruel blow.  “She is an amazing woman from Zimbabwe,” Tony tells me.  “She has a bit of a drinking problem, but I learned so much from her.  When she helped me in the garden, I noticed that she ate everything that everyone else threw away. I asked her about it and she taught me that nettles and even the leaves of black jacks and other weeds are very, very nutritious.”

Thursday, 6 September 2012

...and Arthur makes 10...


“The streets of Yeoville came alive with Jewish song and dance as a procession including Sifrei Torah marched from the old Torah Centre to their new premises a few blocks away.  The Torahs were carried by distinguished rabbis and held under a  chupah. Participating in the march were the S.A.D.F. 21st Batallian Brass Band, Scottish bagpipes as well as pupils from the Shaarei Torah, Torah Academy, Yeshivah College and Yeshiva Toras Emes Schools.” (Jewish Herald, February 1986)

After Deputy Mayor Councillor, Professor Harold Rudolph cut the ribbon, Mr Sam Sher, who sponsored the establishment of the Torah Centre fastened a mezuzah to the front door of the new Shul. The spiritual leader of the Torah Centre, Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch said “ as religious Jews we can rejoice for it is our policy to always look to the future.”

Throughout the history of Johannesburg, the migration of Jewish people away from the centre of town where the first synagogue was built in the late 1880s,  has contributed significantly to the  changing face of the city.  In the almost thirty years since the Torah Centre was opened in Yeoville, most Jewish people have moved away from the area.  Today the Torah Centre is the only functioning synagogue in suburb where there were once at least ten vibrant synagogues in a large Jewish community.

The optimistic Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch now lives in Jerusalem, where he is the Vice-President of the Rabbinical Court, and it is a daily challenge to draw the Minyan (the quorum of 10 Jewish men required to perform the daily prayers).

 
I spoke to Arthur Kohn, one of the ten men who faithfully returns to the Centre three times a day, seven days a week, to participate in communal prayer.  Arthur walks to the Torah Centre, which is a few blocks away from his flat in Honey Street, Berea. Walking, buses and taxis are Arthur’s standard means of  transport all over Johannesburg. It is years since he drove a car, he tells me. On Jewish holidays he visits other synagogues: The Torah Academy, Hamar and Beis Menacham. He is not too sure what suburbs they are in but he knows where the taxi stops.  

Born in Pietersburg from German and South African parentage, Arthur knows very little about his ancestry. His father was a German Jew, “a perfect German gentleman” who used to polish his shoes and place them in the same position beneath his bed to the centimeter, every day of his life.  He died when Arthur was four and there are no other memories apart from an impression that he was a “good man.”

After his father’s death, Arthur’s mother, a travelling saleswoman who “knew the shoe trade inside out” supported Arthur and his brother as a single mother until she remarried. The family moved from Pietersburg, to Germiston, to Vryburg, and finally to Johannesburg.

In the late 1980s, Arthur was retrenched from his job as a foreman for a mining company based in Booysens and he decided to get into the second hand book trade.  He set up a table at the Johannesburg station, for which he paid R 35 per day, and stored his books in a storeroom at the station at night.  He started off with “a couple of paperbacks” and gradually expanded the business.  “I was always reading so I knew what was popular and as I sold, I learned what people wanted and didn’t want.”

Five years later he branched out to other flea markets – the Bruma Market, which was “a total washout”, and a flea market in Randburg which was more fruitful but impossible to sustain because of the difficulties of transport to and from the market. He worked also for some time with a well-known First Edition Dealer, assisting him with the restoration and storage of stock.

He is a heavy smoker, to the dismay of his wife and friends, and has an antipathy to any green foodstuff. For years he and his adored little black  mongrel, Rocky, were a feature of Eastern Jo'burg life as he trudged the streets with his bag of book-finds in search of stock.

Some years ago he married for the second time, very happily, and is now semi-retired. He is still involved in the Used Book Trade, though, by putting his experience to bear in helping another local dealer.

He is an inveterate optimist who has always lived without fear on the edge of things, sustained by a practical Jewishness and faith.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Finding peace in the vortex

Richard Welch lives in a boomed off enclave called Randview, on the edge of overpopulated Yeoville flatland. His house overlooks Lorentzville and adjacent suburbs. "I can see the old synagogue directly from up here, and the mosque. I hear the call to prayer every day."

A background of social and political engagement as an anti-apartheid activist and an educator, has contributed to Richard’s perspective that to live authentically in the South African context requires finding “the vortex” and making a place of peace within it. This philosophical orientation is the thread that connects the different strands of his life and serves as a barometer of the efficacy of his day to day decisions.

His eccentric home, constructed on ancient rock in the 1930s, is surrounded by a multi-layered garden which slopes downwards towards the valley. The unexpected interrelationship between trees, shrubs, flowers, herbs and vegetables, says something about Richard’s faith in creating a space for variety to thrive on its own terms.  A visitor remarked that the garden made him feel as though he was in the country, in the city.  “That made me so happy,” Richard beams, “because that is exactly what I have tried to do.”

The Welch garden is a haven of peace, attentively cultivated to balance the circumstances of his life in the second hand book trade and his proactive day-to-day engagement with the local community.
He offers a wealth of information about formal and informal traders from Yeoville to Bertrams and beyond, and knows where to buy anything from halaal Egyptian sausages to Congolese dried fish.  His culinary experiments and willingness to try out whatever new cuisine presents itself from diverse corners of the continent in his own kitchen, are notable. “There is a Congolese man who sells fish and meat and the kinds of vegetables and he is very keen to teach you how to cook the kind of food they eat in Central Africa. Then at the market you get all kinds of things that we as South Africans don't know how to cook, like Zimbabwean spinach, which is very different from our spinach. It is very, very thick and you have to boil it for a long time and then wash it and cut it finely, and then fry it..."

Richard owns an inimitable bookshop, Kalahari Books (named long before Kalahari Net came into being), a block away from Louis Botha Avenue, which is one of the major suburban arterial roads in Johannesburg, and the main road into the huge, historic township of Alexandra.  Here too, he aspires to foster a still place in the “centre of the storm” for customers to “follow their own strand of thought” and “find themselves through books.”

Unlike the pristine bookshops, set apart from the mainstream of life in suburban shopping malls, Richard's bookshop, known affectionately as the “Garret” is an old warehouse, accessed from the road by means of a ramp, and surrounded by small traders, light industry and suburban housing. I made a note of “Orchards Wheel and Tire”, “Jay-Jay's Car Wash”, “Mashi Rose Tombstones,” “E&W Steel Design”, “Burgess Plumbing”; “Vintage Clothing”; “Tonino's Pizzeria”.

Inside, books on shelves and in containers line the walls of the 180 square meters building, from concrete floor to corrugated iron ceiling.  A small wooden stairway leading to a narrow walkway assembled from steel, wood and hemp rope, runs alongside the upper part of two of walls. On the opposite side of the room, against the only wall with windows, there is a desk with a computer on it and a red noticeboard exhibiting a picture of the lady Parker; the cover of Laurie Lee's  ”I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning”, and a collection of family photographs.

Two well-worn old armchairs are positioned against a maroon wall beneath a picture of Gandhi as a young man, and an assortment of paintings and drawings by prominent South African artists:  Frans Claerhout; Pippa Skotness; Mary Hume; Godfrey Ndaba; and Norman Catherine.  On another stretch of wall, painted royal blue, there are posters advertising Samuel Becket's 'End Games' and “ Africa Mama Yo”, plays that Welch's actor son had performed in.   
Old metal street and construction signs hang from the frames of shelves: 'Bryanston Drive'; 'Pimm Street'; “Men working overhead (Werkmense besig bo)” bearing boxes and crates of books labeled in thick black ink: Peter Cheney; Howard Spring;Denis Wheatley; Frank G. Slaughter; Stephen King; Taylor Caldwell;  Dornford Yates; Medical Romances;  Shakespearian Studies; Crime Fiction…”

I sit opposite Richard on one of the armchairs. Traditional Indian flute music, and later, Czechoslovakian Gipsy Hip Hop play in the background. I ask him why he chooses to live in the inner city of Johannesburg when so many middle class people have moved away. He leans back in his chair, adjusts his glasses and hat, and waves both hands dramatically as he speaks: "I wanted my son to grow up as a new South African without the weight and burden of the past. I wanted him to be a citizen in his own country. I always thought of Mtutuzela Matshoba's book, “Call Me Not a Man”.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Yukon again

The daugher of one of Yukon's previous owners sent me this description of her childhood. 


"The ‘bearer of light’ …happens to be my father. In fact I grew up in Yukon, it was my childhood home and a place filled with very happy memories.  I remember sliding down its grand banister, knocking on the panels of the ballroom for ‘hidden treasure,’ I remember staring in wonder at the carved cherubim above the bedroom doors and imagining they could speak to me; I remember sitting on my Dad’s lap on the rock that looks like a hippo right at the top of the mountain terrace behind the house, while he told me stories of his time in the bush; and I remember dancing and sliding across the Victorian tiles downstairs in my socks, and staring through the colourful  panes of glass in the front door, imagining magical multi-coloured worlds.

My father was not a mercenary, nor an arms manufacturer… He was a gentleman, a professional photographer and a gifted one at that -with some of his works still exhibited in the Boston Museum of Art. He had his springbok colours in trap (clay pigeon shooting) and made his own clay pigeon cartridges. He also collected antique firearms (probably where the false information about gun manufacturing originated), which he repaired to their former glory involving careful woodwork, engraving and filigree. He was and is still an incredibly gifted antique specialist and can fix and restore just about anything. He had a dedicated workshop for his antique repairs in those days, adjacent to his office upstairs. I would often go in there as a child and watch him work in wonder. It always smelt wonderful...of linseed oil, leather and the pine-forest smell of distilled turpentine.

I have no idea whether the information about the window or fireplace is true or hearsay.

None of the rooms in the living quarters were ever dark or sombre, every room in that house was filled with light and love and beauty. The only dark room was his photographic studio, for obvious reasons.

Whilst under the ownership of my dad, the house appeared in the covers of Habitat magazine, something surely unheard of considering it was so garishly decorated, according to your gathered descriptions of it? He created something truly magnificent and paid the utmost respect to the heritage of the house. The upstairs floors were most certainly not ‘carpeted’ in lion skins, nor were the walls adorned with the gaudy gold icons you describe. The only room I can imagine this information to be built on was his formal office upstairs, where we had one very special and very beautiful hand painted antique icon that was the last thing left of our Russian/Greek family who died in the Russian revolution. There were in fact only two lion skins (not my favourite) but the office was carefully decorated in the African colonial style that he had so much respect for (pictures in the Habitat magazine I speak of).  In fact, every piece of furniture, every detail was carefully and lovingly chosen in order to match the period and style of the house’s late Edwardian architecture. 

He was there for 28 years and spent 25 of those years restoring and reworking the sometimes irreparable damage that had been done to the house under its previous ownership. Along with the ‘gallons of paint stripper’ you mention; much love, sweat, blood and tears were spent restoring Yukon. In fact if it wasn’t for him, you most certainly wouldn’t find it in the preserved condition it is today. It would be a wreck; it’s beautiful woodwork under layers and layers of chipping paint, its floors rotting, and its beauty a mere memory.  

Not only did he restore Yukon to her former glory, he created an incredible terraced garden at the back of the house that, owing to the rich soil washed down from the koppie and his incredible green fingers, allowed Mediterranean fruits and vegetables to thrive. We had peaches, plums, artichokes, cherries, apricots, mulberries, walnuts, avocados, greengages and the most delicious grapes... all lovingly hand planted, pruned and looked after by him. We ate from that terrace all year round.

Under my father’s ownership, Yukon was certainly a place of light and it was a very sad day to see it sold before he moved away from South Africa. It was tasteful, stately and gracious, not the dark seedy, Russian ‘mafiosa’/criminal place you conjure up...It was a much loved HOME.  

I remember running around the house as an eleven year old giving little goodbye kisses to inanimate structures around the house; to wooden panels, to banister rungs, to window frames- a strange childhood fear that the house might think that I wouldn’t miss it... it was a long and sad goodbye and I’d love to return to see it someday."