All too soon the quid pro quo had come to fruition for my dream London secondment. Upon accepting the one year job in London, I had to sign a contract to work back in South Africa for a further three years.
On the bright side, Carmela and I had been issued with "open return tickets" for the round trip. This meant that, with a bit of massaging and scrimping, we could score a few stopovers on the way back. We chose Vienna and Athens.
Luckily we had been enabled to travel light, unencumbered by a trunkful of our accumulated belongings, thanks to the kindness of Max Irving, a former colleague at the Daily News, who had by then become a shipping agent. He arranged for it to be shipped separately.
I wish, as a callow youth, I had taken the time to properly interview Eduard Johan Bruno von Thomann. After all, I was supposed to be a reporter. He was Carmela's grandfather, father to Aurora, and had led an incredible life that ended days before we departed to London, on October 20, 1974. In his latter years, "Daddy" as he was known to the Toscano family, had lived in his daughter's home in Durban.
Most of my recollections of what he told us are elusive, hanging in the ether refusing to be plucked and recorded accurately for posterity. The outline, however, is that he was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1901. I believe his family owned estates in the southern part of the empire that became part of Yugoslavia at the end of World War 1.
Eduard was schooled at an exclusive academy in Vienna and must have lived quite a privileged life until the family assets disappeared into socialism as a result of the war. At some point he married Elena from Trieste and during the interregnum they had three children, George, Merino and Aurora.
The loss of the von Thomann estates left them in pretty straitened circumstances and they decided to emigrate to South Africa (SA). To Durban, in fact, where Eduard and Elena ran a shop/tearoom. Determined that George and Merino should become doctors, something the family could ill afford at that difficult time, Daddy also worked nights as a porter at Durban's Addington hospital, managing to fulfil this ambition.
His Austrian lineage came back to bite him during World War 2 when he was interned by the Allied-supporting SA government. For some of that time he shared a bunk with BJ Vorster, who went on to become nationalist Prime Minister after Hendrik Verwoerd was assassinated in 1966.
When he heard that Carmela and I were off to Europe, Daddy suggested that, if we ever made it to Vienna, we should visit his old school, the Theresianische Akademie.
And so we did. After all these years there was some confusion as to its name but a bit of sleuthing managed to match our 1975 fuzzy photo, with Carmela in the bottom left corner, with a clearer, more up-to-date pic. The last of the three was taken from an inner courtyard illustrating the interleading quadrangles of the Theresianium.
Mission fulfilled, we did the usual things a tourist does in Vienna: indulging in afternoon tea and torte at the Sacher and following in the footsteps of Harry Lime, during which we looked at the Prater and visited a dodgy nightclub. This somewhat dingy tavern that celebrated the louche aspects of Vienna's past seemed a fitting swan song before returning to SA's Calvinism of the day. We did wonder about the theatre's safety netting, hanging above our heads and more fitting of a trapeze act, until a nude person appeared and bounced around in various gymnastic poses perilously close to Carmela's face.
On the Olympic Airways flight from Vienna to Athens we encountered one of those American tourists people loved to hate in those days. A steward approached her and asked if she'd like a drink.
"Give me a beer," she commanded. The steward produced a bottle of Mythos and a glass.
"No I want a Skol," she insisted.
"I'm afraid we only have Greek beer, madame," he replied politely.
"Listen here, we're in Europe and I had Skol in Denmark and that's what I want," she whined.
"FFS 'madame'," I was thinking, "a lager's a lager and the rest of us on this plane are parched."
The more the steward tried to appease her, the ruder she became, detaining him for ages. It hadn't seemed to occur to her that Olympic couldn't magic a Skol onto a plane flying off the Yugoslav coast.
As we were disembarking she fired a parting shot at the cabin staff: "Your management will be hearing from me about this ahfil service."
Carmela and I thanked the steward profusely. His detractor glared at us. What are some people like?
We had rather lovely accommodation in the epicentre of Athens. Simple rooms but with a shared lounge which was a meeting place for like-minded people, including an art historian, an American who lived in Athens for part of every year. I had particularly wanted to visit the gates of the Athens Polytechnic which had been crushed by a tank during the student uprising two years earlier. Our artistic friend filled us in on some of the background to that event and also suggested we climb Lycabettus for a wider perspective of the city that had sprawled there for millennia.
"Oh, and eat in the Plaka," she added, "full of authentic atmosphere."
She was spot on in 1975. I wonder what it's like now in 2021? She also recommended the Mani, immortalised by Patrick Leigh Fermor (PLF) in 1958. This was beyond the scope of our short adventure and I've always wanted to visit this Peloponnese peninsula but have not yet managed it. Perhaps I'll have to emulate PLF, albeit at the opposite end of my life.
The morning after our arrival we met George Thomopoulos's mum and cousin and they gave us the royal tour starting with pukka Greek coffee off the beaten track. Mrs T was there on a long-term visit to George's cousin, a local. Greece, especially Athens, is greatly enhanced by companions who can read the script and know where to go. As George had provided the connection, we were absorbed without hesitation. I wish George's cousin's name hadn't escaped my memory in the ensuing 45 years.
First pic ... no more ecologically-sound method to wipe your bum than with a natural sponge and then return it to nature (allegedly, as I found out on a trip to Ephesus in 2006). Next pic is the view from Lycabettus and the last two are of us with the Thomopouli on the Acropolis with the Parthenon as a backdrop. A fair bit of restoration has occurred since then but it was peaceful at that time.
How does one complete the Greek experience? Impossible, perhaps, without dedicating a huge amount of one's life to it. In more recent years Shan, Kate and I have spent quite a few Greek holidays exploring many different aspects of the dramatic land and seascapes and vestiges of the ancient civilisation. We've still only scratched the surface.
However, in 1975 Carmela and I did visit two quintessential places. One was an ancient open-air auditorium near Corinth (with astounding acoustics but of which I've lost all photographs) and the other the island of Hydra, which was almost completely untarnished by mass tourism back then.
A few fuzzy photos of 1975 Hydra follow ...
One can imagine from the first picture why Leonard Cohen was inspired to live there and write timeless songs such as So Long, Marianne. Second picture was typical in those days when locals met the ferries and offered accommodation and transport. In the third shot one can see why donkeys made perfect transport on many Greek islands. In picture 4 the less adventurous tourists are being sized up by the local kitties for their leftovers.
Celebrating the donkeys and the kitties that were such a feature of Greek islands in the 70s and 80s.
Αντίο για τώρα Ύδρα
All too soon we had to report for boarding our lovely Luxair flight to Johannesburg. Having travelled to London around the bulge on an early South African Airways (SAA) Boeing 747 flight , the Luxair 707 was a tad dated and cramped. The urban myth was that Luxair was a cheap subsidiary of SAA so they could avoid flying around the bulge. It was convenient from Athens.
The one thing we did have to look forward to was that the Republic of South Africa had finally allowed television while we were away. Previously it had been regarded by the regime as a corrupting contaminant to the Calvinistic way of life. Eventually the government saw the opportunity for disseminating propaganda. For those of us who'd become used to watching The Sweeney in the original on ITV it was kind of weird to see it run on SABC TV rebranded as Blitzpatrolie and dubbed into Afrikaans, thereby losing the London patois and incurring considerable extra expense.
Coming soon: A little time out for the next episode of our Classic Blog, i.e. Campy on the beach at Rosemarkie, and then a tribute to Durban's doyenne of wine, Solange Raffray, who introduced some joy and rigour to my Unreliable Tasting Notes.
It always happens that way. An epoch in one's existence accelerates towards its end. How do you fit everything in before life changes again? Actually you can't but major fun can be had trying.
Summer in England, especially one as benign as 1975's, brings everyone out into the open, often from far and wide. No more so than one sunny Sunday in London during which I kept bumping into South Africans I had no idea were in the UK. I can't remember who they all were now but I do remember randomly meeting 15 friends. OK, so not all that random as I was following an Anti-Apartheid march from Speakers corner to Trafalgar Square (South Africa House). But the 15 didn't include fellow journos, or at least ones who I knew were working in London. Didn't include certain safari-suited "gentlemen" either. It was a warm day but no self-respecting 70s marcher would wear mustard/khaki shorts with long socks and veldschoen.
Biggest surprise was bumping into Ron Braatvedt, a school friend, with his wife, Helen. JJ and Elaine Cornish were there but expected to be, Jean-Jacques being, I think, at that time the South African Press Association major domo on 85 Fleet Street.
All of which leads to what seemed like one long holiday with the European Grand Tour in the middle. Of course there was work but the long daylight made it seem less omnipresent. Adding to this, friends appeared for long saved-up-for oh-vahsiz holidays and wanted to do fun stuff in the evenings. After all, what could be better than finishing work for the day and then enjoying a pint with this lot on the way home.
I posted this in an earlier episode as a taster, but without names, so here goes: Left to Right: Garnet Currie, Errol Considine, Rob Melville and Gem Melville. We were in a pub just off the Strand. A notable aspect of this photo was Mr Currie, who achieved the tightrope act of being one of the very view people in London able to appear cool with a mullet. He, Errol and Rob, all Daily News staffers, were in London on holiday, Garnet soon to return to London to work at 85 Fleet Street.
More of Gem and Rob later.
There were two other factors that freed Carmela and me to enjoy the summer. We had a new subterranean pad in Wimbledon and Carmela managed to get a job in Central London. The new accommodation saved us a lot of money while, at the same time, being more in the thick of things. With Carmela working near Fleet Street, it meant we could do things on the way home like meet up with Garnet. It also meant she could make friends of her own, which she was good at.
Garnet visiting us at our "new" bijou basement in Wimbledon.
I've probably mentioned this before but an important factor in choosing evening entertainment for visiting South Africans was doing stuff that was forbidden in the Vaderland. And so it was that Carmela, Garnet and I went to an early evening performance of Emmanuelle in Leicester Square. I don't know how the seating worked out like that but Carmela ended up sitting next to a middle-aged man in a grey raincoat with a brown paper bag of grapes on his lap. We swapped places pretty quickly to form a de-militarised zone for the innocent.
Garnet's sister, Lorna, and her husband, George Thomopoulos, also fetched up in London at around the same time, also with their own Kombi, although theirs was a bit more surfer-oriented than Lester and Susi's. Being a surf-wagon, I have memories of rattling around in the back on the way to gigs in London without any idea of where we were going. Another friend, Brianne Burke, joined us for some of these excursions.
Hanging around in London with George had an unexpected bonus: when we eventually came to head off home via Athens, he arranged for us to meet his mother and cousin. More of that, including pics, in the next episode.
Adventures in the Lynskymobile
Somewhat of a constant in our adventures in the back of a van was another import from South Africa, Rory and Brenda's Ford Cortina "bakkie".
The stealth mobile. The pic was taken by Rory at dawn after a stint on the late shift. He occasionally used to drive to work and park on "the bomb site on Ludgate Circus which was a rough and ready car park". An interesting reminder that 1975 was a lot closer to the end of World War 2 than the mid-seventies is to 2021 as I write this blog.
Rory and Brenda thoughtfully included us in many of their bakkie trips. I seem to remember there was a foam mattress in the rear that could accommodate 4 people cosily but often it was just the two of us with Rory driving and Brenda navigating.
This would have been a relief because Brenda is one of the most observant people I've ever met and a trump card to have with you in a game reserve. We didn't get to too many game reserves in England but we were delivered faultlessly to destinations as far and wide as Cambridge, Oxford, Box Hill and Chartwell, which had been the family home of Winston Churchill.
The first frame below was taken at Chartwell before the days of selfie crowds. In those days one could drive right up, leap out and wander around. The second frame is the same crew surveying the view from Box Hill, perhaps wondering where Emma Woodhouse and Frank Churchill had "flirted together excessively" or maybe wondering where to set up the deckchairs for the 2012 Olympic Cycling Road Race?
The third picture above is a random street in Cambridge. We did walk along the Cam where Brenda informed us that the Cambridge punters punted from the wrong end of the punt. Something she would have had to whisper while we were there but that would have earned her accolades had she repeated this assertion on a later trip to Oxford. The churchy photos are a bit random. The first one to illustrate a particularly dorky look I affected at that stage, irritating the older members of the staff at 85 Fleet Street. The last two because I finally got stained glass windows after seeing these exquisite examples. They'd always left me a bit stone cold before that.
No bucolic exploration of the Home Counties would be complete without lacerating oneself in the attempt to fill a Sainsbury's bag from the bounty offered by the brambles that intermingled with the hawthorn of the hedgerows. Quite often staining some perfectly good clothing, in the process.
The weather remained sublimely balmy when we ventured forth, South of London, one Sunday. We were joined by Rob and Gem Melville on that occasion ... Note to reader: Weebly gives you very few options to compose picture layouts so you'll have to tap the right hand picture below to see Brenda's lovely face.
So, once you've filled a bag with fruit that will stain anything within 100 feet, WTF do you do with them? Not to be defeated, we decided to make a blackberry pie. So far so good. One of the many benefits of our new flat was that it had a halfway useful cooker with a proper hob. First job, stew down the berries in a saucepan while Carmela expertly constructed a shortcrust party case. We' had to dash down to Sainsbury's for a new bag and the all the bits needed. Threw a whole Brie in the bag for good measure, together with a magnum of Côtes-du-Rhône.
The stewed berries were juicy and firm after we'd strained all the superfluous juice into jug. Miraculously the flesh from a bag-full had reduced so much it filled the pastry case perfectly. All in all our first attempt at a pie, sitting there gleaming at us with its golden crust, was a hard act to follow ... something that I recalled ruefully decades later while battling with Raymond Blanc's tarte tatin recipe.
A few days later, fully Brie'd, Rhône'd, pie'd and cricketed out (there was an Ashes series in full swing in England), I remembered the blackberry juice was still standing in a jug in the kitchenette. I lifted the sheet of paper that had served as a rudimentary cover to check for spiders and/or insects and the surface of the liquid had remained clear. How to dispose of it? I wondered. It looked so lush, I couldn't bring myself to pour it down the plug hole. The magnum bottle was standing staring at me from the draining board, the cork alongside. Why not pour the juice into the bottle and keep a hold of it. It must come in useful some time soon, surely? Duly bottled and stoppered, the juice remained in the same place, only looking a bit more elegant, performing, as it was, Rhône wine impressions.
It was only a few days later we were sitting watching telly when a loud explosion reverberated from the kitchen. Carmela got there first.
"OMG," she exclaimed staring upwards.
At first I didn't see what had happened. Everything, including magnum bottle remained in tact ... then I noticed the stopper was missing and my eyes followed Carmela's upwards. Most of the blackberry juice was now spread across the ceiling. Procrastination, eh. It should have just gone down the plug.
Try cleaning a purple stain from a white ceiling. Just not possible. We must've repainted it but my memory has selectively erased that bit.
Not everyone knows this but Mr Lynsky has an impish streak. Trouble is, Rory's arrives when one least expects it and it can act as a safety valve after a stressful day.
And so it came to pass that we were on another trip to the Home Counties, on this occasion to Oxford. This time we had a long-standing friend with us, Liz Butcher. I had known Liz from schooldays and then she'd suddenly reappeared in the Daily News' Durban newsroom. Now she was on this Oxford trip at the invitation of the Lynskys.
We spent some time doing cerebral stuff, including looking at stained-glass windows in Oxford when someone suggested we went to Blenheim Palace in Woodstock a little more than 7 miles NW of where we were in St Giles. I'm not sure Rory was keen but Brenda wanted us all to see it.
In 1975 one could drive a bakkie through the unattended main gate at Blenheim and park alongside the palace. This we did. The place was popular enough, being, inter alia, Winston Churchill's childhood playground. And what a playground it turned out to be. A lake with an island and vast tracts of estate and forest to charge around in. For those of my generation, brought up on Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons it was the perfect playground for adventurous children. That spirit is never lost even as one approaches 70. It certainly wasn't lost on Rory. He flipped from curmudgeonly to divil in an instant. I clambered out of the back of the Cortina bakkie armed with my camera as Rory spied the tourist bus disgorging newly-arrived visitors in front of Blenheim's splendid edifice.
"Hey Mark," he taunted me, bedecked with camera, "take a picture of the bus."
Then my normally decorous friend and journo mentor made it his business to embarrass his four companions. It says something about the relaxed mid-70s, despite all the bombs going off around the UK, that no-one batted an eyelid.
He started seeking out photographic opportunities for me. Initially spikes and balls seemed to make for promising photographic subjects.
I responded dutifully with "Rory having a ball" (first below) and "Hoist by his own spike". Please note that the ball pic pic also incorporates tourists inside the railings taking a picture of my taking of a picture. The picture of the bus seems to have disappeared into the mists of time.
The ultimate picture below, still remains though, in which Rory became fed up with posing for static shots, spied a cow pat on the grass, scooped it up and set up in pursuit of Liz with divilish glee. The picture serves a number of purposes, one of them being that the expression on Liz's face suggests that Rory wasn't quite having the terrifying effect he had intended. The other would be to portray Winston's adventure playground with lake and island. I wonder who assumed the parts of the pirates in his boyhood japes?
Arrest that man, surely. Ed.
A couple of snippets before we go
There is one memory so hazy as to be verging on ephemeral, but this beer-swilling snippet involves a man who was a big influence in my surviving the early days of being a reporter. Without that I wouldn't have been in London at the time Roy Barnard put the word around that he would buy a pint in the Spaniards Inn for any Durban newsperson who showed up on this particular evening. The venue, on the edge of Hampstead Heath, was quite spooky at night, especially with its associations with Dick Turpin, and made a perfect rendezvous point for the ace crime reporter. As his 2012 obituary tells, he was a “larger than life character, a true newsman and global news hound who pursued every lead and stayed abreast of happenings around the world".
This will have accounted for his being in London at that time although I cannot be sure we ever found the full details. I can only remember sitting in leather armchairs with Phil Duff and Roy and bathing in his presence.
Earls Court Motor Show
As a petrol-head with ambition to be the Motoring Editor of the Daily News, I was looking forward to covering the 1975 Earls Court Motor Show in October, just before heading home. Actually, it was a bit of a disappointment. A little tawdry, even.
The show had been a hugely glamorous event for me in the 60s when I was an envious teenage purist. It seemed to me, anyway, that the focus had shifted away from the cars into the surrounding tinsel. If you needed a stark naked model to sell your TVRs, what did it say about TVRs, if you get my drift?
Nonetheless the very early '70s shows kind of got away with it because the approach was new and, to many, a bit shocking.
By 1975 the whole thing was a bit passé, not to mention exploitative. Also, many of the cars were pretty ugly, a lot of plastic.
There were a few topless models around but they had been shifted into the corners to sell accessories. To me they had begun to attract pity rather than punters. Did this kind of exploitation ever have a day? If so that day had passed.
There was some cool machinery there, though. Being quite a subjective subject, a few of the cars I preferred are pictured below; See if you recognise them. Some would cost you a lot more today than they did when they were brand new then. Others would not.
Last minute music gigs
What with being a little more flush in the last months of our secondment, together with "discovering" the Hammersmith Odeon, we had a rush of world class gigs just before we left London to return to South Africa. I'm not going to presume to describe the concerts, something that is better left to the likes of my friends Garnet (the very same Currie as above) and Graham Boynton. In fact, Garnet gave us the tickets to our last gig at the Odeon, a stonking performance by Leo Sayer.
Before that we'd gone to a Santana concert in early September where Carlos had stopped everyone from breathing by pausing, for what seemed an eternity, after the penultimate note in the opening sequence to Samba Pa Ti. Never before and never since have I heard such a spontaneous simultaneous exhalation by an entire audience when he resumed on the 7th note. Santana's supporting act was Earth, Wind and Fire.
When leaving the theatre that evening the ticket office was still open and selling tickets for Wings a week later. Did we buy some? Did we just. First half was Wings and second half was Paul, a stool and an acoustic guitar playing his signature Beatles songs. We were in the front ten rows.
Coming soon: Mini visit to Europe on the way home, Durban's wine doyenne kindles a lifelong interest
At some point in the Spring of 1975, Lester Venter and I were chatting over a pint somewhere in Fleet Street. The subject of Summer hols came up. Turned out we were both planning some adventure in Europe. Moi à deux, M Venter en famille de quatre. Lester was one step ahead of me (as usual) as he had a bright red Kombi, registered in Bern, Switzerland.
My bottom line had been a promise to Carmela that our escape from Durbs-by-the-Sea would be mitigated by visiting her bestie and visiting Papa's birthplace in Italy. Lester was keen to acquire an Andorran stamp in his passport. I'd never heard of Andorra but it seemed like a proper caper when he explained it.
We tentatively agreed to pool our resources and head South. But first we needed to establish that our party of 6 would get on together. A few UK day outings proved that we might just make it across the channel without incident. We didn't plan too many house rules but Mr Venter insisted that we entertain the driver on long stretches.
In return he would tell us the tale of Whisky Rabbit, his fluffy friend from the platteland.
One notable thing about this trip is that, in 2021, neither of us remember too much of the detail. I can recall with some accuracy a few vignettes but not always the sequence in which they occurred. I have quite a few fuzzy photos, though, and will attempt to construct the yarn in some sort of joined-up way that seems plausible.
It is likely that at least three of us, Susi, Lester and I, were looking forward to alcoholic beverages at vastly reduced prices. Duty in the UK was formidable to the extent that the cheapest bottle of wine in a London supermarket was somewhere in the vicinity of £2. Duty of £1 a bottle accounted for about half of an entry level Côtes-du-Rhône or Rioja. So we were keen to stop at a farm stall before camping for our first night somewhere in the middle of France. Imagine our joy when encountering dodgy looking bottles of red with dodgy looking stoppers, all for a mere 50 centimes, i.e. about 5 pence.
It was totally disgusting but we drank it that night anyway, vowing to budget 10p a bottle from then on. It was an illumination to us that alcohol undercut soft drinks by some margin in France. This remained the case at least until 1983 when Shelley-ann and I bought a case of litres of Coca-Cola in Luxembourg and kept them in our hire car throughout a tour of France. Coke is not particularly refreshing after sitting in a car at 30 degrees C for a few hours, let alone weeks.
I remember reaching our destination on the outskirts of Andorra as the sun was going down the next day or maybe a few days later at 11PM. We got our stamps but I've long since lost that passport, sadly.
The following are a few pics from Andorra. The only one of real significance is of Carmela grinning bravely after a night in our extreme-weather mountaineer's tent. The sun came up and blazed away very early in the morning. The same pic is the only one I have of the Ventermobile with its red bum.
There was an incident passing from Andorra into Spain. Maybe the superheated tent had something to do with it. Carmela, usually with her bright smile and eager to please, became most ornery when passing through the Spanish border post. As you can see from associated pictures, I was the least reputable-looking member of the party. But hippies we weren't and we had children with us. The Spanish officials were relatively bland as far as they were generally reputed to be. But it was a Kombi. They poked around a bit in amongst our payload. This incensed my wife.
"What are you looking for?" she demanded of the officers. They only spoke Spanish and probably didn't understand but they got the gist of the tone in her voice. Even so they didn't up the anti too much but this diminutive Seffrikkin/Italian was determined that if they wouldn't, she would.
"Are you looking for diamonds," she snapped contemptuously. Now there was one word they did understand. "Drugs," may have been another but thank goodness she stopped short of that.
We certainly understood their gestures as we were instructed to unpack the red bus, stacked to the gills as it was with meticulously packed luggage and bedding for a month. They made a cursory inspection of six people's belongings before signalling that we could move on. We still had to repack the Kombi but, by all accounts, we got away lightly. Carmela had to endure at least an hour of Coventry but was allowed back into favour after peering winsomely from a xarcuteria.
How we got here from there is shrouded in the mists of time although recollections of a Guardia Civil officer in his funny hat, looking incongruous on a moped on the outskirts of Barcelona are clear in my mind. I remember Lester pointing him out to Cornelia and Christoph. I have dim recollections of hugging the coast from there to St Tropez, certain that we'd spot Brigitte Bardot topless on the beach.
En route I seem to recall pausing at Lloret de Mar, because it had a castle and a beach, and then again at Port Bou near the border with France. It was there that we experienced one of those waiters who know something you don't and take some pleasure in luring their patrons into a trap.
I think Lester and Susi had gone in search of postcards leaving us to teach Cornelia and Christoph some new sign language. Aperitifs were planned for their return. I mentioned this to the Spanish waiter who reappeared as soon as the Venters did.
"Large or small?" he demanded.
"Is that even a question?" Lester looked at me with ill-disguised contempt when I pointed to an empty pint-sized glass on the waiter's tray. It now seems a bit out of character on my part but I think I thought that the pint was the "large". After all, in London, one either had a pint or one had half-a-pint.
Lester was more specific.
The result is clear to see from the last picture in the sequence above. I had already consumed my pint and it is standing next to Lester's two litres as a reference point while he is starting to show some signs of wear.
I don't think the other four were too pleased with us because we were planning to continue on to our first proper restaurant meal on tour. The paella was marvellous, mate.
Predictably, it wasn't Brigitte's week for being in St Tropez. In fact, the whole place was beginning to look a bit jaded. Although it hadn't deteriorated that much that the campsite-on-the-beach wasn't still overrun with wealthy Brits.
All that was left was to take a gratuitous picture of Carmela in a bikini on the Côte d'Azur before moving on to our next campsite, in the hills above Nice.
That night Christoph became ill. Quite seriously so and had to be taken to hospital in Nice. Thankfully it was nothing worse than measles but he had it quite badly. Lester and Susi were told by the French medics that they needed to keep him quiet for a week and to stay in the same place. The Venters suggested that Carmela and I should go off on our own detour if we wanted to see our friends in Italy. We'd all rendezvous in Genoa at a given date and travel together to Switzerland and then back to London.
The two of us caught a train to Rome sitting in the corridor for the overnight journey. We couldn't afford to reserve seats at the last minute.
From Rome we intended to cross the Apennines to Chieti, just short of Pescara, the city at the end of the line. We managed to board the train with a little time to spare when I think I made Carmela's holiday. This Italian chap of about our age came up to out window and clearly wanted to ask us a question:
"È questa seconda classe," he asked.
"No, Pescara," I responded, mustering my best Italian accent. I saw his face contract into bafflement and Carmela trying to suppress a shriek of laughter.
I'm not going to spell out what he asked me because it's kinda obvious when one can see it in print so I'm hoping readers will have a bit of fun working it out for themselves.
Carmela was still hiccoughing with suppressed giggles when we arrived, 4 or 5 hours later, at Chieti Scalo station. Thankfully delightful Diana was there to greet us at the station and apologising for the size of her car when she saw the size of Carmela's suitcase. Should have brought the "beeg" car, she said. She grew up in Durban but her English was delightfully rusty.
We were transported into the womb of the Tacconelli family and treated like royalty for days on end. Homemade pasta, picnics in the Apennines. The beach in Pescara and the lovely town of Chieti (Alta) itself. Only pictures can do it justice so I'll cut the waffle.
Diana and Carmela reunited in the Italian alleys. Carmela had never been to Italy before (above).
They took us on day trips to the beach at Pescara and up to the Chieti old town (below). We didn't know this before but many Italian towns were originally built on hilltops, often for defence, and then expanded later at the foot of the hill, hence Chieti Scalo (lower). One of the delights of Italy is that there are so many of these picturesque market towns that many of them remain relatively undiscovered to this day.
Wherever these young women went, they seemed to attract a fan club of admiring girls. The younger the girls the more curious they seemed. Seventies fashion was by no means ubiquitous.
Getting to the Apennine picnic was rather more nail-biting. Diana's fidanzato, Giancarlo, had sussed that I was a bit of a petrol-head and "treated" me to a ride up the mountains in his bleeding-edge Fiat del periodo, the rally-winning 124 Abarth Spider. It was the coglioni di cane and I certainly wished I had a pair of the same as we tore up the mountain pass, using all of the road. It turns out Giancarlo, normally a mild-mannered aristocrat and banker, also did a bit of rallying in his spare time.
Pictured below (L) Famiglia Tacconelli: Papa, Giancarlo, Diana, Carmela and Mama (R) the flying Fiat on top of the Apennines ... my heart rate beginning to return to normal.
Above (L) it was hot up there in the sunshine (R) Walther Tacconelli, Diana's younger brother, was feeling left out although Carmela's not too sure about where his hand is about to go. To be fair, Walther was a tall chap and Carmela not quite so. I think he was still at school at the time and full of fun.
Our sojourn East of the Apennines was short and time came all too soon to wish the Tacconelli family farewell and head South to the place of Papa Toscano's birth. The bus trip was full of mountainous splendour, introducing us to the classic villages hanging precariously beside the road. The journey must've taken about 4 hours. I remember Naples being a bit of a shock to begin with. It was impoverished and we'd been warned about petty crime. Thankfully we came out of it unscathed. Perhaps it was the attraction of the children to the young women in 70's fashion I mentioned earlier.
The following picture is the one I like to call my "Back Street of Naples" shot. It's quite grainy and it's washed out in places, which I think is fitting to the subject as well as the general Blog theme of Fuzzy Photos.
The first picture above was fairly representative of the narrow streets. Some of them had washing strung across the street but I was unable to locate one from my archives. Then there are more admiring children. I must make it clear that not one of the children in any of these pictures asked for money or was begging in any way. I noticed this in poorer, but not destitute, parts of Africa, too. Children seemed to like being in photos. Final pic speaks for itself after a long hot day.
And then for our only extravagance of the holiday, two nights in a picturesque Praiano pensione. It had been recommended as an Amalfi Coast village without the premium prices. And we could rent a rowing boat. But first we had to get there on the bus along the winding road clinging to the cliff between Positano and Amalfi. The only safety precaution was for vehicles to blare their horns at every blind corner, of which there were many. One of these was directly below the pretty pensione we'd booked for a bargain price. There was a stonking view from the terrace, though, which made everything worthwhile. Even when we flushed the lav and the outflow made a brief appearance in the shower.
"The autobus she stop at dieci di sera," our landlord smiled reassuringly, just as we were checking in and another bus hooted its warning signal.
"Grazie," we chorussed. He hadn't mentioned the deep throbbing of the comings of goings of motorboats between about 2am and 4am. We didn't have an opportunity to ask but found out later from the bus driver on our return journey: "Contrabbandieri di sigarette dall'Africa" he whispered, tapping the side of his nose.
Scrolling back from our departure slightly, daytime at the tiny Marina di Praia waterfront was idyllic. We rented our rowing boat and ate delicious food beside the sea while watching young teenage boys and girls flinging themselves off the cliff into the sea. We decided that, after all, you get what you pay for and this wiped all the tiny inconveniences into oblivion.
Oh and we did allow ourselves one last extravagance: two berths on the overnight train from Naples to Genoa where we would resume our journey with the Venter family. Our rendezvous went without a hitch and we were soon heading up the autostrada to Zürich. Lester was driving and I was in the front passenger seat, ever mindful of maintaining the conversation on long stretches. We'd more or less caught up on the doings of each family during our time apart and I refocused on Switzerland. Susi is, after all, Swiss, as were Cornelia and Christoph.
"The currency," I started up, "As far as I can tell, a Swiss franc is worth about 17p?"
"Ah," responded my compadre with some enthusiasm. It was always good to get him going. He told lekker stories and it took the heat off the passenger. "You mean 17 pence."
"I suppose so? What's the difference?" I mumbled.
"A big one if you believe some Brits," he countered, "I was in a shop in Windsor recently. I was standing at the counter preparing to pay. There was a distinguished looking gentleman behind me in the queue.
"'Will that be 20p?' I asked the shop assistant. Before she could answer, a plummy voice exclaimed behind me:
"'Pee, PEE? It's pence, boy!' this bloke glared at me. I quickly paid and left the shop chastened," my friend glanced across the cab at me meaningfully. It got the in-car conversation going, with everyone chipping in their opinions.
I don't remember much more about the journey to Zürich. Perhaps we went through the Gotthard Tunnel, which takes some of the fun out of the journey but also some of the stress.
We visited Susi's family in Switzerland but my stomach took those few days to turn inwards on itself. I therefore don't remember too much about that bit and I doubt I made too much of an impression on our hosts as I was feeling too weak to make much of an effort with German and Afrikaans wasn't quite hacking it.
Below A day out in Zürich and a tangent to try a selective focus arty shot that clearly didn't work but does show some snow on some mountains in Switzerland.
It was time to end our Grand Tour and return to the realities of life in London where 99.999% of people said 10p rather than 10 pence and more than 67% of voters had two months earlier confirmed their wish to remain members of the European community.
The journey was going to be a long haul and I needed to keep the driver's momentum going.
The Tale of Whisky Rabbit
"So Lester," I prodded, "you promised us the yarn about your cuddly friend."
He settled more comfortably into the driver's seat and assumed a faraway stare:
"Once upon a time when I was a litey, our family lived in a place where we had a substantial garden.
"Our pet was a rabbit. Except he thought he was a dog, or maybe a cat.
"I don't know which but he was fully house trained.
"Most people keep rabbits in hutches or some such but Whisky didn't need anything like that. He never ran away and he only went outside when he needed to relieve himself. He used to hang around with us like any dog would. I think he even slept on our beds at night.
"In the morning he'd hop over to the front door and wait to be let out. We left it open for him to get back in and he'd come bouncing back in when he'd finished his business.
"I seem to remember we fed him in the kitchen and he'd know to go there when he was hungry.
"Life carried on like that for years and we all loved the little blighter, as anyone else would love a dog.
"One Spring we noticed a slight shift in Whisky's demeanour. He began becoming more insistent about being let out. I guess we just put it down to the affliction that comes to anyone with age. That he needed to wee more often.
"But then we started to find rabbit droppings inside.
"Then Whisky started jumping at the door, making a racket to be let out. He started to become more and more antisocial.
"When he came back in he would seem a bit calmer but then even that stopped.
"Eventually someone in the family decided to tail him when he went outside. Turns out he would make his way straight to a bed of wild poppies, eat his fill and stagger back to the house.
"He'd become a junkie.
"We tried everything we could to rehabilitate him but to no avail. He eventually died ... "
Coming soon: Act 4 of the general stuff pertaining to a staffer in a London news bureau and, if that gets a bit too long, a last piece about returning to South Africa via Vienna and Athens
If Acts 1 & 2 arranged themselves around friends and colleagues and characters at 85 Fleet Street, this one picks up a few scenes from when we were allowed out of the building to pursue some live stories.
These stories were not always live for the originally intended news rationale: Hopefully the four scenes below will be self explanatory. But first, a gratuitous picture as a scene-setter for summer 1975.
The Venters were a significant influence in our summer of '75 ... including holidaying together on the continent in their Kombi. Here Carmela gets to know (from l to r) Susi, herself, Cornelia and Lester.
Lester Venter meets Joshua Nkomo
This is not really a story about Joshua Nkomo. Mr Nkomo was one of the foremost politicians in Southern Africa at that time. He founded and led the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) and later served as Vice-President of Zimbabwe from 1990 until his death in 1999.
This is partly a story about the relationship between politicians and journalists and the expectations around victuals and, even more so, libations consumed during a meeting and who would pay for them. It is also a story about kindness, discretion and hospitality.
Before anyone jumps to conclusions about any suggestion that Mr Nkomo, as an important Black politician, was unique in his expectations, I have personally experienced exactly the same air of entitlement from a lily-white Conservative Government Minister, pretty recently.
Back to the beginning of this encounter between Messrs Nkomo and Venter. It was arranged that they would breakfast together at the Dorchester in Park Lane, London. Lester knew the drill. Credit Cards were by no means ubiquitous in those days so my erstwhile colleague ensured that he withdrew oodles of boodle from the bank the day before, confident in the knowledge that company expenses would ultimately cough up.
I cannot be sure if libations were part of what was a sumptuous Dorchester feast but I am aware that a fair number of folding notes were required. Both diners were still seated when their server discreetly handed the bill to Lester.
Confident in the assumption that he had even more notes than needed in his wallet, which was nestling comfortably in a pocket, he reached into his jacket. He extracted the wallet turning tactfully towards her, careful to maintain an angle subtly out of view of his guest.
As soon as Lester opened the wallet, it became clear to both parties that the notes had disappeared. Without hesitation and deploying the sleight of hand of a host used to discretion, she managed to convey to my friend that she understood his situation and that he should speak to her after the two men had said their farewells.
Leaving the Dorchester later with the assurance that there had obviously been a genuine mistake that Lester could rectify as soon as he could (which he did) our man tried to unravel the mystery of the missing loot.
Turns out that his wife Susi had been hanging up his jacket, spotted the cash and thought it was the month’s housekeeping. What with one thing and another she’d forgotten to tell her husband before he beetled off early for an important breakfast with the Zimbabwean dignitary.
Miss World 1974
Another story that suddenly thrust itself into the South African limelight would seem like an anachronism to today’s readers for a number of reasons. The first of these being the existence of an international contest judged almost exclusively on the basis of a parade of young women wandering around the Royal Albert Hall in a London winter in their bathing suits. Then there was the fact that the initial winner, crowned in front of 30 million TV viewers, “resigned” after 4 days to protect the Miss World Organisation (MWO) from embarrassment. It had come to light that she was an unwed mother.
It all started when Miss United Kingdom, Helen Morgan, was crowned Miss World on the 22nd of November 1974. Anneline Kriel, Miss South Africa, was second and there were three other runners-up: Miss Israel, Miss Australia and Miss USA.
Following Miss Morgan’s resignation, Miss Kriel was summoned to step into the breach by the MWO, which was a flagship for the Mecca Bingo company, and was run by Eric and Julia Morley.
There was a press conference on the 28th of November. Being that Miss South Africa was soon to assume the crown of Miss World, two of us attended from the Argus bureau. I believe Bob Kirwin was there with a photography hat on and I was the reporter. A far cry from the Albert Hall, the “re-crowning” was held in a nondescript room in Mecca’s London HQ.
It seemed to me as an observer that the new Miss World had been caught in the headlights and was ill-prepared for an impromptu launch such as this one. The Apartheid question was bound to arise and did. Hard as nails Julia Morley fielded these. Miss World was always supposed to be a money-spinner and Mrs Morley was determined on damage limitation.
As a side-observation, it appears there was one delicious irony in that objections were alleged to have been raised by Miss USA and Miss Australia on the grounds of Apartheid. Fair enough but the story goes that the objections were overcome by Team USA scoring a busy schedule for Miss Kriel in the States.
I’d love to be cynical and say that Anneline knew what she was getting into taking part in beauty pageants but she just looked like the vulnerable 19-year-old she was, standing there in the the shadow of the hatchet-faced Mrs Morley.
Generalisimo Franco was just about clinging to life and power in his gigantic palace (top) in mid 1975. There were Guardia Civil about in their extraordinary hats but rumour had it that it would be illegal to photograph them. I took the coward's way out by snapping a gentler young man in uniform in a quiet moment with his girlfriend in the rose garden near the palace (middle). Madrid had a lot of monuments: Alfonso XII (bottom)
The World is a small place that includes Madrid
Every now and then there was a job with exotic travel and Eldrid Retief, our News Editor, used to share these out in rotation. Mine was to be sent to Madrid to cover the 1975 international conference of the Chambers of Commerce. There was a fairly strong South African contingent and Edward Heath was to make the keynote speech.
The story begins with a salutary lesson at Heathrow. Fortunately I had nothing to hide but, even so, it could have ended badly.
I was waiting for the flight to Spain and we were all packed into a pre-boarding waiting room. While standing there minding my own business, an attractive blonde American engaged me in conversation. She was on her first trip out of the USA and was a little nervous. It may seem irrelevant at this point in the narrative but I had also recently grown my first beard
My blonde acquaintance had flown into Heathrow from the States and started quizzing me on the protocols of travel in Europe. I didn’t know much more than she did, to be honest, but I tried to help.
After a while I happened to glance around the room and noticed a seated woman looking at me rather intently. Her scrutiny was a little baffling until a spark of recognition told me that this was Mrs Rowney. Mrs Jean Rowney, in fact. A great family friend of my parents and of my Aunt and Uncle in Durban. Our families had spent a lot of time together when I’d been much younger. Long before I had a beard. She thought she had recognised me but couldn’t quite be sure. Our eyes locked and we smiled. This was her cue to approach.
“It is Mark, isn’t it?” Mrs Rowney exclaimed, gesturing towards my new acquaintance, “And this must be your lovely wife?”
Try to get out of that one. Carmela was as dark-haired and pale- skinned as this young American was blonde and tanned. And the more innocent the story, the more dodgy it sounded.
I invited Mrs Rowney to share a taxi with me into the city centre. She declined. I seem to remember her reason being that she had her own arrangements, probably with a tour group.
“I’m a bit nervous going in a European cab for the first time,” the American woman interjected, “would you mind if share the taxi with you?”
We all got separated when we boarded the plane but I was easy to identify at the other end and was joined by my blonde acquaintance. As she and I were clambering into a taxi at the arrivals rank, I spotted Mrs Rowney looking in my direction again. She was with some other people I seem to recall. She waved back.
The taxi dropped my friend near the Prado and continued on to the Melia Castilla, a rather vulgar but luxurious modern 4-star hotel a little out of the centre. I couldn’t believe I’d been booked into such extravagance for a business trip.
As it turned out, the conference was a bore and none of the copy was used, despite the King of Spain and Ted Heath’s appearances. Obviously history has agreed with the Argus editors and me because I could find no trace of the event having occurred when doing my due diligence.
My Mum used to write to me in the UK occasionally. About a month later an epistle arrived with the statement: “We believe you have a beard now.” I wrote back querying how they knew. Perhaps another month later another letter arrived with the helpful “a little bird told us”. I racked my brains as to who the “little bird” might have been. We hadn’t seen Mum’s old friend Molly Parker since Christmas and the beard had happened long after that. I did wonder what other tidbits had travelled via the bush telegraph but never followed it up. There had been no hole to start with and any more digging would surely provoke one parent to nod knowingly, one of them quoting: “The lad with protest too much, methinks.”
On the 5th of September 1975, two people were killed and 63 injured when a bomb exploded in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel on London’s Park Lane.
It was a major worldwide news event and I was sent to report in situ. Actually, the closest any reporter could get was behind the police cordon on the opposite side of Park Lane, in other words on the South Eastern corner of Hyde Park. The police on the cordon were there for crowd control and knew little more than the throng of reporters and photographers firing questions at these officers of the law.
As was often the case in major events like this, reporters would undoubtedly have been more effectively deployed back in the office on a telephone. It was a sad event and probably the worst in London in 1975, which saw more than a dozen major terrorist incidents that killed 8 and injured more than 175.
That year had enjoyed a long warm summer and it was a beautiful day in Hyde Park but hardly the atmosphere for a carnival.
While pondering this, I turned away from watching the Hilton for a moment and spotted a man in a city suit and bowler hat approaching the rear of the crowd of journalists. He was carrying an old fashioned deck chair. He seemed to favour a patch of sunlight about 10 feet from where I was standing.
The first thing he did was open the chair and set it in a reclining position. I then noticed he had an umbrella that he hung neatly on the back of the chair. This was followed by the bowler hat, which sat perfectly on one corner of the backrest. Next came his suit jacket and tie, which were folded neatly and placed alongside umbrella and hat.
He then sat down and removed his shoes and arranged them tidily on the grass next to the chair. Into those went his socks, rolled perfectly, one in each shoe.
Job done, I thought. He could now relax and enjoy the sun.
But, no. Standing up again he removed and folded his shirt and added it to the growing pile on the backrest. His last act was to remove the pinstripe trousers, They followed the same treatments as the shirt and jacket before them whereupon he finally settled down in his pearly white Y-fronts for a bit of sunbathing.
I didn’t stay to watch him reverse the process as I had to get back to Fleet Street.
Coming soon: Europe Grand Tour and London Wrap up a.k.a. Act 4
The more you dig the more you find. What had been intended as one episode of Fuzzy Photos & Unreliable Tasting Notes (FP&UTN) has expanded into three (and probably even four, the way things are going). Some of the snippets are more interesting than the original stories so I will tackle them one by one.
Fleet Street Characters
In Act 2 I will shine a light on some of the participants across a broad spectrum of news production in Fleet Street. This leads to a question as to the appropriate generic noun for people involved in the production of newspapers? In the absence of anything more imaginative or original, I'll have to resort to the term Character. The newspaper world was made up of a multi-faceted population of editors, photographers, reporters, copy typists, copy couriers, sustenance providers, cleaners, the partners of all of the above and many more.
First, some feedback from and about some of these characters resulting from comments on "Act 1":
I touched briefly on Bob Kirwin, our pictures editor and somewhat of a guru in the ways of Fleet Street, London and British culture. At least he was to a bunch of Seffrikkin rookies, to whom Monty Python was the height of culture. Apart from his deportation order from Zambia that Lester corrected me on, Mr Venter also recalled: "I was struggling to remember the name of a minor classical painter who always included a tiny mouse in his paintings of busy scenes.
"Bob ventured, unhelpfully: 'Was it maybe Mickey Angelo?'"
And, when Bob commented thus on the English climate: "I missed last summer. I was in the kitchen at the time,” he couldn’t have anticipated the irony that 1975’s summer was only overshadowed for abundant sunshine by 1976’s. We would have taken Bob’s quip as gospel as we had not yet had our own experience in the ensuing months to refer to.
I have also heard from Alan Duggan and Neville Woudberg, both of whom, somewhat unhelpfully, made me realise how the Argus had lured secondees to the bright lights and paid them a pittance. Neville had been in the same office 10 years earlier and earning £5 a week more than me then. And Alan, bless his cotton socks was there at the same time, but under his own steam, and earning £25 a week more than me with 5 guineas a published photo as a bonus. No wonder he could fly to New York from time to time when I could just about manage a bus to Paris.
I wouldn't have missed it for the world, though, especially the Grand Tour with Lester and his family. I’ll devote the following episode to that particular escapade.
Neville and George Muller also confirmed my suspicions that Dirk de Villiers had been a formidable rugby player, having played centre for Western Province in the 1950s.
And now back to the narrative:
A titanic character in the history of 85 Fleet Street was Lil, combined sustenance provider and cleaner. Every weekday mid-morning our newsroom door would clatter open dramatically accompanied by an earsplitting shout of “TRAHLLLEEEEE". A few seconds later a laden tea trolley would enter the room, seemingly self-propelled. It was only after the tea wagon was fully through the door that it was possible to see the diminutive, ageless lady providing its impetus. I doubt the wares were exactly the pinnacle of culinary delight but a queue instantly formed and Lil smiled and joshed with everybody until the line had been satisfied and trolley and she disappeared as suddenly as they'd arrived.
This continued like clockwork for months and many of the seconded staff assumed that was all that Lil was about, a jolly purveyor.
Then, one day No. 85 had a bomb scare. There were a lot of them about in the mid-70s. We were all herded out of the building and on to the opposite side of the media artery that was Fleet Street.
The bomb squad swarmed into the building. A number of them had explosive detectors with which to sweep the building. Those things that look like long sticks with a handle at one end and and angled plate at the other. We all stood there wondering what would happen next. An explosion in this location would certainly be ideal for maximum publicity. The tension was palpable.
Suddenly the sturdy front doors flew open in a way that could have been the burst of air ahead of an explosion just in front of the fireball. Instead, a livid Lil was thrust from the building clutching a vacuum cleaner. An equally irate officer propelled her across the road to the safety offered by our midst.
"What's she done?" one of the journos asked the officer.
"We had completed sweeping the upper floors of the building with only the basement to complete. It was then we heard this humming, whining sound. We advanced with extreme caution only to find Madam here hoovering the floor.
“'Stop right there, what on earth are you doing,’ our senior officer demanded.”
"Listen you lot," Lil had responded, "If you get on with playing with your toy sticks, I'll get on with my real one."
"They didn't find nothing, did they?" was her parting shot before disappearing into the crowd.
The bomb squad has gone and our vantage point outside the Express deserted. Only the yellow car in front of 85 Fleet St remains.
Other unsung heroes were the guys who manned the heavy duty (for the 70's) communications equipment a few flights up in the Reuters engine room. Every now and then we had to visit them, either to ask for a last minute change to a story already submitted or to expedite an urgent story of specific South African interest. We had our own telex room that chuntered away all day sending news to Argus HQ in South Africa. I think we may also have had a slow old landline machine of our own for use during the day. Can't be sure of this but I do know that the fast stuff was upstairs.
When on night duty and a big story broke the reporter would have to type into a "blind" telex machine that output a paper tape of the kind used in early computer input. We'd then rush this up to the Reuters operators who'd feed the tape into their high-speed machine and start transmitting. In the mean time the reporter would be proof-reading the copy just provided (the telex machine out put a print version as well as the tape) and maintain a dialogue with the operator feeding the tape into the transmitter. If there was a mistake in the original typing of the story, and there often was, the typist would have to ask the Reuters operator to correct it. These guys could actually read punched tape and splice corrections in on the fly. That WAS a skill.
One morning in Summer I was up there at sunrise with St Pauls in stark relief. Rushed downstairs for my camera ...
St Pauls in all its glory at sunrise, taken from the Reuters telex room in 85 Fleet Street.
We talk about night shifts but there were two. I seem to remember they overlapped a bit. One started immediately after the day shift and the other ended some time around 5 AM. Getting home was a challenge. Fleet St to Ealing was well-served by public transport but not at that time of the morning. The quickest way for me to get home would start with a brisk walk up Shoe Lane to Holborn, jump on a night bus to Paddington and then grab a train to Ealing Broadway. This required skilful timing because there was a long wait between trains if you missed the ideal one.
The biggest feature of the night bus, a double decker with a conductor in those days, was the throng of cleaning ladies. Lots of them and all out of a similar mould to Lil, i.e. they were on a mission, didn't take any shit and weren't above a bit of ribald humour.
Usually, when I was on this bus, its inhabitants were: 24-year-old wet behind the ears me, a conductor, around 20 women of a certain age and the driver. The cacophony was tangible. There was a brief hush when I boarded the bus at Fetter Lane on the first morning.
“Ooh, ‘e’s a bit luvly, innit?" one of the bevy piped up. This was immediately followed by raucous laughter.
"Look at 'im blush," another remarked, "wot a bootiful colour!”
I was determined to keep my head down. “Good morning,” I greeted them with a smile, trying to make myself inconspicuous.
“Ooh, ‘e’s polite, too, and with all that long ‘air and ‘igh fashion clothes,” they went on. I grinned inwardly but kept my mouth shut.
Things continued in this vein until I had an inspiration: I would interview them on the rigours of working such an unsociable shift. The response was instantaneous: “But we choose it that way darlin’,” one of the group countered. “We makes the tea for the little ‘uns and then the ‘usband and then we sneaks off while ‘usband is watching telly.”
“That way ‘usband ‘as no time to demand them conjugal rights,” her friend chipped in.
“An’ then we gets ‘ome to make breakfast and get buggers off to work and school,” piped up another.
“Only way we gets peace and quiet for decent kip,” they all nodded in assent.
After that we got along smoothly. The only time they ever pissed me off was one morning when the night bus that intersected ours from Regent Street at Oxford Circus was late. Most mornings, a bunch of of the cleaners’ friends used to switch to our bus for the journey up Oxford Street. This morning the friends weren’t waiting for us.
The conductor was just about to ping the driver to continue when one of our ladies rushed up to him demanding: “‘old on, Sanjay … “
“But … ,” the conductor started, only to be cut short:
“Our Myrtle’s on the bus coming up Regent and we need to speak to her.”
You can guess how that went: we resumed our journey 10 minutes later. Sanjay was pissed off, you could tell but he wasn’t saying anything. I was fuming, too, but I kept my counsel. Of course I did.
There is one more character I want to mention in Act 2. At this rate there WILL be a 3 and 4, the former to relate some of the news assignments we covered as a team and the latter to round off after our grand European tour in Lester and Susi’s VW Kombi.
That person is Garner Thompson. Garner was openly gay, which already made him exotic to a bunch of Neanderthal Seffrikkins. But he also had a fine eye for witty moments and often regaled us with a kind of verbal reveille to jump start us in the morning. Mostly they were at the expense of his mother, with whom he lived.
One morning the subject of unwanted mice came up. The discussion was around humane ways to remove them from one’s abode.
“My Mum told me the other day that it was cruel to poison mice,” Garner related, adding that he’d quizzed her for an alternative, to which she had replied: “Well, what you do is prepare a meal for them and then shred a Brillo pad and mash it into the meal, thereby choking the little bleeders to death.”
Another morning he came bounding into the office and, before even taking off his coat, blurted: “My Mum thought cunnilingus was an Irish airline until I corrected her last night.”
Some of the more proper members of the newsroom coughed involuntarily.
And then one morning a new second arrived. She was a bit early and appeared to be looking for a relationship that would provide her and her small son with ready-made accommodation. At that moment Garner, a tall handsome fellow who generally wore only a turtleneck jumper on his torso.
“Who is that man?” Our newcomer gasped. Cowards to a man, the rest of us introduced Garner before retreating to observe from a distance.
There was a TV in the newsroom, a large one with those 1970’s protruding buttons that switched channels with a clunk.
In minutes our hero was backed up against the telly with our newcomer exercising her wiles. She was being very persuasive. Garner was nodding politely. She eventually let up and left the room, at which point Garner turned his back to his assembled colleagues and lifted his jumper to reveal an inverse relief map of the television controls. He didn’t need to say anything more.
The last Garner related anecdote involved the concentration of gay clubs in Earl’s Court. Some of us were intrigued by these and had been pestering Garner to take us to one.
“Well, there are a whole lot of specialities in Earl’s Court,” he related archly, “Which theme would you be looking for?”
This was a bit further than our imagination had extended but, after he had reeled off a list, the choice of a specialist bar for leather queens was pretty much unanimous. Some of us could even stretch to a leather overcoat.
On the appointed evening, the troupe went off to the club and, sure enough, our leather was fairly pitiful.
But, with drinks in hand and a comfortable place to sit we got into the vibe of the place. We’d been there a short while when the external door open and this fellow wafted in. He was as ripped as Arnie Schwarzenegger and clad in excruciatingly close fitting leather trousers and skimpy waistcoat.
“See that guy over there,” Garner whispered, “He’s got a black belt in flower arranging.”
Coming soon: Act 3 in which stories that got us out of the office are explored, including Lester's breakfast with Joshua Nkomo; Grand tour in which we explore Europe in the Ventermobile; Act 4 in which we enjoy the remnants of summer with friends before my secondment is completed.
Heaven forbid ... but, "hello? is that a mirror I see before me?" There was a certain antipodean gravitational pull. For all the excitement of being in London, there was some relief in retreating to the familiar when outside of one's comfort zone.
Does this bunch of Durban reprobates, drawn from all over the world, and seated in a London boozer in 1975, tell us anything?. More on this picture in Act 2.
To test any theory, a token effort at due diligence has proven to be expedient. Even if only to avoid the embarrassment of a legitimate challenge to one's veracity, whether the transgression was deliberate or otherwise.
"Never let the facts get in the way of a good story," is a refrain often attributed to writers in the media.
I would submit this is only acceptable if it is a bloody good story and written in such a way as to combine enjoyment for the reader with a smidgeon of telltale tongue-in-cheek. The latter a sort of caveat emptor.
I learned both lessons the hard way. In a very early attempt at blogging, a mundane assertion was pounced upon by two of my oldest and dearest friends. If you wish to enjoy a little schadenfreude at my humiliation, you can find it in the link above. A little chastened, I resolved to follow the advice frequently delivered by my parents and teachers during my first two decades on this planet: "Try a little harder." I hadn't realised that the research involved in "trying a little harder" was not only pleasurable in its own right but also led to a mine of additional material. This, in turn, brought a renewed raison d'être.
I was delighted to reconnect with Lester Venter recently and receive this endorsement: "It may be a cliche, and it may even be a bit sad, but we have reached the age when tripping down the avenue of memories is a good idea."
Thus, not all Wenwe activities conform to previously narrowly-defined criteria. They can be split roughly into three categories:
An interpretation, therefore, of the title to this episode of Fuzzy Photos & Unreliable Tasting Notes (FP&UTN) might be "yes we were" and "yes we are".
Yes we were Wenwes in 1975?
The secondees who arrived in overlapping rotation for one or three-year stints in the Argus bureau in Fleet Street were outsiders in an office of permanent denizens. So they formed their own social group, generally bidding farewell to a departing Fleet-Street-hardened-hack and welcoming that person's successor. This is not to say the denizens were unkind to the transient journos, just that they had established roots in London and had their own routines and lives to lead.
Ray Whitaker welcomed me into this unfamiliar environment and he and his wife, Jacqui helped Carmela and me to acclimatise.
If you ignore the phone "booth", the Argus office at 85 Fleet Street could almost have been Dickensian. I'm not sure if Bill, on the left, had any South African background but Dirk de Villiers, on the right, certainly did. He was also a published author. They were both permanent staff of the London Bureau.
I hope that Ray and I helped to soften Lester's landing. He was the next to join for a 12-month stint and came with a complete family, Susi, Cornelia and Christoph. This meant they couldn't shoehorn themselves into a studio flat as Carmela and I had done and opted for a dez rez trailer park with Thames frontage near Staines. This meant that the Venters could entertain us royally for braais in the shadow of Windsor Castle.
Pictures above of some of us at the Venters for a braai.
The first picture is of Raymond and Jacqui with Brenda Kirwin. Brenda and Bob (our pictures editor in the light tan parka) seemed to like us and had us around to their house, where they had a souvenir from Africa in their lavatory: a order declaring him persona non grata in Zambia - It read: "Notice to Prohibit Immigrant to Leave Zambia" and was framed by a lav seat. I do believe that, at this particular gathering, one of us (perhaps only I could've been that crass) had brought a Watneys Party 7 5-litre beer can. These were widely known to be impossible to open gracefully. At some stage, after much manhandling, I think Lester produced a hammer and a screwdriver. We had a magnificent fountain, redolent of a Roman candle at a different kind of braai, traditionally held on the 5th of November. You will note that discretion was the better part of valour for Raymond, his beverage being supped delicately from a smaller can.
This gathering was also a tale of two Brendas with Mrs Lynsky in photo two, in which Rory is eating so delicately I at first thought he was texting on his phone, but, no, we didn't have such devices in 1975. Our hosts, Lester and Suzie, appear to be conferring on the excellent chops, which, judging by the one in Bob's hand, were rendered perfectly on the braai. Bob and Lester demonstrate that Poms can eat like Saffas and Saffas can adopt Pom refinement.
The picture below has Suzie and Cornelia looking doubtful while Carmela appears to be wielding a paddle for the camera while clad in Raymond's jacket.
The more substantial launch in the background will almost certainly have a Hooray Henry at the helm. He will be wearing a Commodore's cap above a cravat and navy blazer and be holding a pink gin and tonic between his left thumb and forefinger. The launch's name will be something like Sylvia, Clementine or Mirabelle. and, having passed from Starboard to Port, will inevitably return from Port to Starboard within 15 minutes. A process that will be repeated maybe 10 times over the afternoon. Remember, this pic was taken in 1975 and boats a fraction of that size were some of the little ships that crossed the Channel to Dunquerque only three-and-a-half decades previously.
This used to piss Lester off greatly. In 1975 a boat with upper and lower windscreens was made for greater things than poncing a mile or so up and down the Thames every Sunday, flaunting the owner's wealth.
"WTF is it called Cynthia," Lester would fume. "If it were mine, I'd just paint £50,000 on the side and be done with it."
And so forth ...
At some point that Spring/Summer, the Whitakers and Harrisons took in the Rocky Horror Show in Chelsea. I seem to recall that Jacqui had procured the tickets because she'd heard that it would not be long before the original cast would be disbanded and carted off to make the Rocky Horror Picture Show. By 1975 the live show had moved from its original 60-seat venue in an upstairs room of the Royal Court to further down Kings Road to the 500-seat Kings Road Theatre.
This meant that the production team had been able to build a stage extension along the central aisle. Certainly for Carmela and me it was the first time we'd experienced anything resembling theatre in the round. We were dead impressed.
Jacqui's coolth was on a steep ascent.
We had to access our seats in the dark from the side aisles, directed by ushers in vampire garb with dim torches spookily highlighting their faces before motioning to the requisite seats.
Soon after we were seated, a shriek cried out from close quarters. Swivelling instantly to the source of the sound we spotted that an usher had pounced on Jacqui and she was quite distressed about the unexpectedness of it all. The ushers had been running along the backs of seats and picking people at random and Jacqui was one of the first.
I hope, dear Jacqui, your enjoyment of our night out was soon restored when the lights were turned up (a bit) so that Tim Curry could mince down the stage extension in ripped fishnet tights. It was an excellent production, to be followed shortly by The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which achieved a certain fame for being most popular in South Africa. Forbidden fruits sailing close to the wind perhaps? In fact, too close, it seems, as it was banned not long after its release there.
Make your own minds up as to whether we were Wenwes in 1975. Look for further examples of the SA journos herd gatherings after the interval.
Yes we are still Wenwes?
And now back to item 3 on the Wenwe list: i.e. weren't we intrepid back in the "good ol' days"?
Our days at work in Fleet Street started out in the Reuters building (first below), which faced the iconic Art Deco Express building (second below) across this fabled road in the international newspaper industry. The heart of it, one could say. Shoe Lane is just to the left of the Express providing a convenient cut-through to Holborn.
We like to remember how it was when real journos wrestled with complicated sets of copy paper and carbon, three paragraphs at a time, before shouting "Copy", leading to a lot of scurrying about between reporter and sub-editor. And then, duly assembled and corrected, on to compositors and typesetters, who turned the stories into molten lead and drove around in Triumph Stags .
Today's journos would probably not believe the lengths we reporters had to go to deliver our stories. A small team covered most of the Northern Hemisphere that was complicated by having to get text and pics from London to South Africa and into the hands of the compositors.
I started to try to describe the daily routine at 85 Fleet Street in an earlier episode but a few recent conversations with Rory Lynsky encouraged me to add a little meat to the bones. I'll get to these a little later but, first, to recap.
Most of our work was in no way glamorous. Probably about 95% involved plagiarism of some sort. The Argus Group, at the time South Africa's biggest news empire, had a tiered portfolio of agreements  with UK national newspapers, wire services and a network of "stringers" covering mostly Europe (including further flung parts of the UK). Our job was to absorb as much as we could from the Fleet Street newspapers and monitor the wire services for anything that might be of interest to our South African readership.
Actually, a lot of the time was even more mundane: we were glorified copy typists, putting on a headset and taking down European football results from said stringers. The only skill required was in the spelling of the names of the teams on the continent. I shall take Borussia Mönchengladbach with me to my grave.
Only if the interest required a particularly South Africa slant, we might occasionally be sent to report on a real story. I'll follow up with a few of these in Act 2 but I'd like to conclude Act 1 with an interview with the scribe I'd known the longest, the esteemed Rory Lynsky, now resident in NSW, Australia.
So without further ado, a view from Rory ...
Mark: We were chatting about the denizens of the Argus bureau. You may have seen more of them, having been there for 4 years to my one? I don’t think Alex Noble ever spoke to me F2F. You could sort of see him through the frosted glass and, as you say, if you were vigilant, when he snuck out for lunch ...
Rory: Yey oh yey. Mr Noble “Managing Editor “. In the first three years in London he spoke to me once. For the rest all we saw of him was when he went out for lunch. What work he did in his carpeted office remains a mystery! When he finally donned his bowler hat and took off for Chestnut Cottage ( I kid you not) and was replaced by Cliff Scott ... Sunday Trib editor, it was all change. It was at the height of the Rhoodie affair and he put a bomb under the newsroom, including Eldrid Retief and Dirk de Villiers, which was not a bad thing.
Mark: Eldrid and Dirk were OK, which is why we remember them. Also Bob Kirwin. Please remind me when you first arrived in 1975.
Rory: April 75. The denizens of 85 Fleet St were a nice bunch. Although I felt some of the permanent people were too comfortable in their 8 to 5 roles and used the 12 month secondees as night shift fodder.
Mark: Very true although the early morning shift was a source of interesting experiences ... 
Rory: You’ve got me going now. Soon after being installed in Lambs Apartments in Egerton Gardens we met up on the 29th April for Brenda’s 24th birthday at the Hour Glass pub around the corner. Several ex-Daily News folk squeezed into the narrowest end - Chris Harding, Wayne Brown, the Harrisons, Liz Butcher, Phil and there may have been more? After Lambs luxury we couch surfed with friends in Putney until we secured a long term lease on our flat in Ham at the end of June. In between I was sent off to Lausanne to cover the IOC meeting which was set on expelling Rhodesia from the Olympic movement. This dragged on and Brenda trained it to Switzerland to meet me, her first time on the continent
Then it was a month of night duty.
Mark: Your sofa surfing with friends in Putney? I remember that Carmela and I visited you and Brenda while you were staying with the Bucknalls in their terrace house in Hotham Rd. We were mightily impressed by their hospitality and that they were in the process of pasting Mary Quant granny print wallpaper on the walls and ceilings ... they must’ve been at the sharp end of the gentrification of that part of London, south of the river!
Rory: They had just moved in and were doing a major renovation. Stripped the walls, lots of coats of paint. Brenda Bucknall was from Cape Town and we were in a group travelling around Europe in 68. Big sports family, her brother is Alan Lamb the England cricketer and Tony played Rugby Union (RU) for England and was captain at one stage.
Mark: I think Graham Boynton still sees Alan Lamb as does Greg Sherwood, a master of wine in London, formerly of Pretoria.
Returning to Fleet Street, there were some interesting characters in the office that you seem to remember better than I do?
Rory: I’ve been roaminating on that photo you sent me of a mystery man in the London Office.
On my first day in the office I was shepherded to an empty desk between [Jock] Havers and [Justin] Dowling. After the usual polite introductions I noticed they both looked pretty down in the mouth and it emerged I was occupying the desk of a colleague who had recently shuffled off his mortal coil. So when I went to open a desk drawer to put away my meagre possessions they asked me not to as their friend's personal stuff was still occupying the drawers - and so it remained for a month until they got around to doing it. Their colleague's raincoat was hanging on a stand near the newspaper files and it was still hanging there 4 years later.
Mark: You mentioned some others?
Rory: Here are two for starters in no particular order and not Argus staff.
I always wondered how Robin Short managed to do night shift indefinitely. He came across as somewhat reserved but once I got to know him over time found him a very warm and principled person. Perhaps night duty, where lots of the slog work was done, was an effective way of staying clear of office politics? Come summer the Shorts would invite all the secondees and families to a braai at their home backing onto the canal at Weybridge. Did you ever go?
Mark: I did. Also to the Venters'. And to the Kirwans'. See pics above.
Rory: Talking of parties, JJ Cornish and his lovely wife Elaine always held a Very Boozy May Day party at their home in St John’s Wood. Remember JJ’s bow tie?
Mark: I remember a party. And also the bow tie. I have vague recollections of "Flaming A's" in the pub opposite: entering at one end of and exiting at the the other. Least said about that, the better (apart from the fact that the newspaper HAD to be The Times). Do you remember luring JJ, a vegetarian, to a pub in the Smithfield area, inhabited by butchers with bloody cleavers?
More about both lovely Cornishes in later episodes. Anyone else that springs to mind?
Rory: You’ll remember Malcolm Lawson, very jovial fellow with a gammy leg? I can’t recall what he did in administration. I got on well with him and he kindly invited us to go off and spend a few days at his cottage on the Isle of Wight. Said cottage was near Gatcombe in the centre of the island. It was on a farm road and sat on a handkerchief sized plot of land in the middle of fields. Malcolm was a bit of a dark horse as it transpired he had come across this derelict cottage and had squatted in it until he was able to “own” it. Possession is 9/10 of the law!
Readers can decide whether we remain Wenwes to this day, albeit cut from a more wizened cloth, after reading Act 2, coming up in approximately a week.
Coming up: Act 2 - After the Interval. More snippets from Wenwedom. Lil the trolley lady and the bomb scare. Hitching rides in a Cortina bakkie. A European Grand Tour with the Venters.
Two months absorbing London before Christmas, and then New Year in Paris. How much excitement could two Saffa neophytes embrace before feeling a little glum in the face of the dark days of January and February.
I still had the best job in the world to go to but Carmela had a pretty isolated existence. The weather was confidence-sapping and she had to look for a job while I had landed with my bum in the butter. Newsroom colleague Ray Whitaker, and his wife Jacqui, lived a few miles away and were solicitous and kind but they had their lives cut out working during the week, just as I did. A couple of times I procured some cider from Smithfield Market and Carmela cooked Italian and we had as many colleagues around as could fit into the flat.
Phil Duff, the colleague from Durban I have mentioned in earlier blogs, had a car, which he very kindly loaned us for a few weekend getaways. Before I briefly go into where Carmela and I went in his car, I have to relate one of his idiosyncrasies that got our suburban neighbours tutting. He insisted that feeling the cold was purely in the mind and insisted on spending the entire winter wearing a short-sleeved shirt. Not even a gilet or pullover. He went on to upgrade to an open-top Spridget (I can't remember whether it was an Austin Healey or an MG), which I occasionally helped him restore. More of that later.
I believe our first trip was to Coventry and Stratford-upon-Avon.
My strongest recollection of Stratford was visiting the kitchen where Shakespeare had spent his early days. There was an iron pole stretching from the floor to the ceiling. Attached to it was a horizontal iron spar with a leather belt secured at the opposite end. Directly below the belt was a circle worn in the floor, the bottom part of the vertical pole swivelling at its centre. Diameter of no more than 3 feet, as I recall?
"What is that?" I asked the curator of the house/museum.
"Child minder," was the concise reply: it was, after all, fairly obvious given the visual evidence and those two words.
No wonder the poor little bugger had a lot of time to stretch his imagination and his command of English (including 16th century expletives). "A pox upon thee, remove me from this swiving pig trap," might have occasionally passed his infant lips.
Coventry Cathedral was altogether more cerebral. I had interviewed the provost when he had been visiting Pietermaritzburg and had been beguiled by his humanity. The cathedral had famously been all but destroyed by World War 2 bombs. He had participated in its restoration, started by Richard Howard who had advocated forgiveness and reconciliation. Instead of razing it and building something completely new, the vision was for it to work for everyone in Coventry. The ruins remained and were incorporated into a versatile modern venue. While we were there, the roofless piazza caught a few weak rays from the sun for Carmela to enjoy on her face.
At some point on our journey I got to throw a frisbee for the first time. I'd never come across one in Durban.
We muddled along until we received some uplifting news. Carmela's older sister, Elena, was coming to visit us in London. The fact that Elena was a great friend of mine, too, galvanised us both into action. It also brought the snow. I believe our first, ever. Carmela can be seen (above bottom right), airing the pillows to spruce up the "lodgings" for her sista's arrival. A kinda early spring clean.
I can't remember how long she was in London. All I can remember was the excitement. And it had been snowing. The picture below is the evidence as the siblings plan their day over a hot beverage.
As is often the case après la chute de neige réelle, it becomes swiving cold. If these had been colour photos above, you'd be able to see this from the blue lips. We had to get the photos but I reckon it was the quickest photoshoot ever.
We dragged Elena around the sights as much as was practically enjoyable, including a trip to Windsor, where I seem to be the only one who can remember her, bold as brass, walking up to a castle guard and kissing him on the cheek. In those days they weren't supposed to show any emotion but I could swear he allowed a delighted twitch to transform his lips for a nanosecond. I should also utter a few Elizabethan expletives in support of my conviction that I had a technicolour pic of the event. But no-one can find it. A bottle of something appropriate to anyone who can unearth it.
As with so many extra-special moments, the visit was over too soon. I would have been a fool to expect that Carmela would have been anything other than inconsolable. I'm not sure she'd counted on being torn from the hearth of her family TWICE.
She was brave but this misty day in Henley seems to encapsulate the ephemeral nature of visits from special people when one is so far from home.
Of course, I didn't help by ducking off to France early in March. Obviously, I didn't do it deliberately but that is small consolation for a person in need of support. If the roles had been reversed, I would have been pretty miffed.
I'd been assigned to a breaking story of an expensive yacht (one with sails) from Camper and Nicholson that had gone missing. It had been purchased by an unnamed South African who had entrusted it to one of the top skippers to sail from Southampton back to South Africa.
Apparently, I had acquitted myself reasonably well during the initial investigation. I had established that the crew had been picked up from a life raft by a freighter and were headed for Bordeaux. I'd established a discourse with a French shipping agent in the French port. He'd agreed to fetch me in his Renault 4 at Bordeaux airport and we'd take it from there.
As I was leaving the office, our news editor, Eldrid Retief, briefed me. His conclusion was slightly unorthodox: "Bordeaux is one of the best places in the world for food. You're on a per diem allowance so, if you take my advice, you'll save all of it for one splendid meal. Go forth and enjoy yourself."
But first I had to get to my destination. There was no direct flight: only Heathrow to Paris (Air France), Paris to Bordeaux (Air Inter). Air Inter was absorbed into Air France more than two decades ago. In 1975 its planes resembled cheaper inner-city buses. I kid you not, they had unpadded plastic seats like those excruciating stackable plastic chairs in low budget town halls. The pilots flew at only two angles: vertical and horizontal. Or that's how it seemed. We took off in Paris, flew vertically to cruising altitude, switched to horizontal mode until we were directly above Bordeaux Airport, and then dropped like a stone on to the tarmac. The fact that I remain extant to this day suggests that I might be exaggerating a tad. But not a lot.
Off to Bordeaux full of misplaced confidence
So what if I only knew three words of French? I could wing it ... well actually, to be fair to myself, I did, I did. The shipping agent was used to les étrangers and we managed a version of Franglais that worked. We headed for the port (first pic above), hung around a bit until the freighter arrived.
When it did, the South African crew stepped ashore looking pretty unperturbed. They'd met some weather in the Bay of Biscay and the top of the range yacht sank like a stone, giving them just enough time to climb into the life raft and notify the local shipping, who came to the rescue.
I told them I'd been authorised to help with accommodation but they smiled and told me politely that they were sorted. I couldn't help getting the impression they'd be staying somewhere a bit more salubrious than I could offer (and would enjoy, myself).
I was left with a little time to explore the delights of the city. Had I known then what I know now about the proximity of Pauillac, Margaux et al (and had the appropriate funds), I might've popped out for something a bit special, wine-wise.
But I didn't, so eventually with my belly-button almost touching my spine, I repaired to the restaurant recommended by Eldrid.
Je reçois un coup écrasant à ma folle fierté
The maître d'hôtel handed me a menu and a wine list. I chose a glass of local red and went straight to the most expensive thing on the menu. The maître gave an approving nod and disappeared. A sommelier brought me my wine and I sat back in anticipation. I was starving but confident that roast duck would fit the bill.
"Votre foie gras monsieur," a waiter approached, plate held high. I could only see the bottom.
"Mercy," I nodded my assent, proud to use one of my three words of French.
"Voila!" He plonked the plate down with a flourish.
Fortunately he was standing to my left, marginally behind me, so he wouldn't have seen the despair, taking my head slumping forward as a nod of appreciation.
Two small rounds of liver, two similar sized pieces of melba toast, and a lettuce leaf sat staring back at me. I could see I was being observed quizzically from across the room as I drank my wine millilitre by millilitre and cut my liver (I'll never know whether it was duck or goose), toast and lettuce into individual centimetre squares and carefully assembling them into tiny open sandwiches before transferring them to my mouth.
Looking back, I can recall an explanatory nod, "rosbif" being whispered between the two diners opposite.
I eventually finished my fairy feast and determined to fill up with pud. I summoned the maître. He produced the menu, maybe thinking he was in for a long night. If I deducted the necessary 9% from my per diem budget I could just squeak in an item from the penultimate section of the menu and be left with a 10% tip, comme ci comme ça. And there it was, staring me in the face. The price fitted exactly.
I placed my finger very deliberately on "Fromage".
Having already established that I was obviously deranged, he retreated without comment.
While I was happily contemplating a large bowl of trifle and added custard, the kitchen staff were cutting two small slices from a round of fromage de chèvre and, you guessed it, two pieces of melba toast and, of course, a lettuce leaf.
I detested goat's cheese in those days but I ate every last crumb before making the universally understood squiggly pen and paper gesture to the maître with my two hands. The bill arrived and I placed the exact amount including a 10% tip on the saucer, made a thank you gesture and slunk off to my hotel. I don't think I cried but I was a lot tougher then.
I said before I embarked on my culinary débâcle that I would wing it. The proof is on the left (above if you’re reading on your phone). Despite the formal style, I was heartily encouraged by the fact that the managing editor recorded "our belief that you did very well". It looks as if Mr Noble had personally typed it on a piece of newsroom copy paper. I particularly appreciated the four accent dots on on the underlining of his signature.
Eldrid's hand-written note on the bottom left-hand corner was consolation for completely betraying the magnanimity he had shown me before my departure.
Cocksure, I'd been, certainly, but hubris hadn't quite set in yet.
A week or two later and the sun came out. Somehow, in the colder climes, it made everything alright again.
During the grey months, I had helped Phil with his sports car and he insisted that I use it to transport Carmela off into the countryside to experience the joys of Spring.
The pictures above were taken in Cheshire during an excursion courtesy of Mr. Duff.
At the time (and probably still today) Chester was renowned for its unspoiled Tudor architecture and for the completeness of the encircling city wall. The River Dee provides the backdrop for Summer and, as you will bear witness, even ice creams were consumed in preparation for sunny delights to come.
I hope Carmela doesn't mind me drawing your attention to her shoes in the picture on the left with Tower Bridge in the background. Such was mid-70s fashion. We were both slaves to it to the extent that I even grew a manicured beard in homage to the coolest guy on t' telly, Noel Edmonds.
We had fun in the sun.
Coming soon: Preparing for the big VW Kombi expedition to Europe.
After the initial excitement of starting a new chapter in the northern hemisphere, domestic life became more organised. TV was such a novelty we watched EVERYTHING. But Christmas was looming.
From a TV perspective, there were 3 channels: BBC1, BBC2 and ITV. Hard to believe these days but much more conducive to domestic bliss. All I can really remember now was the Old Grey Whistle Test (TOGWT) with Whispering Bob Harris on Friday nights and wrestling on Saturday afternoons that was more comedy than contest. Corpulent men in leotards falling over backwards, sideways and forwards without even having been within a foot of an opponent. Names like Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks added to the sense of farce. For Big Daddy, imagine Matt Lucas in a Borat cozzie. Enlightened by this spectacle, Carmela and I would switch off the telly on Saturday evening and slope down to the launderette and two rounds (pint of Fullers and a coke) in the pub next door. One while the washer made everything wet and one while the drier made it dry again. Washing and drinks for two, less than £1. That may even have included a bag or two of Walkers crisps.
Of course we watched soaps. Crossroads (never to be confused/associated with Robert Johnson or Eric Clapton) was about the daily doings in a motel. It was screened most days of the week and was pretty forgettable although it seemed to have captured the imagination of our news editor, Eldred, when contemplating a canal holiday. He had worked out that, for a substantial portion of the trip, he'd be able to watch the identical episode of Crossroads twice on the same evening, the timing being different for the local ITV franchises.
Back in the bleak midwinter Friday evenings of early 1975 there was naff-all to do but watch the rental telly and, when you got bored, take B&W pics of the screen. The screen was colour but my camera film wasn't. The shutter speed had to be synchronised with the screen refresh, so 'twas a minor challenge. Old Asahi Pentax SLR, no autofocus, no built in light meter. A cursor hover will reveal who the artists were.
Occasionally, for "free" entertainment, we went to observe/heckle at Speakers' Corner. Phil Duff told me he became addicted to the Corner and that he recalled four "quadraphonic" hecklers who deliberately stood at the four points of the compass around a speaker and carried out a choreographed banter to stir up confusion for the incumbent of the soapbox. Contrarily, the bloke in the picture (below) looks as if he's enjoying himself. After all, hecklers were part of the show.
In those days phones weren't in any way ubiquitous. We didn't have our own landline so personal communication had to happen via airmail letters. Christmas was looking a bit bleak. Carmela and I contemplated our original version of the Baby Belling cooker (middle above). A hot plate and a tiny oven. It was going to be a far cry from the Toscano feasts my new bride had been accustomed to all her life.
"D'you think it would fit a small turkey?" I asked.
"It would have to be a very small one," Carmela replied, "besides, I wouldn't even begin to know where to start." She looked a bit disconsolate.
By happenstance, a letter arrived from my Mum (3rd above) a few days later. In it was the telephone number of one of her greatest chums from their days at Rhodes University in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape. I had met Molly as a young child before she and her family had left South Africa. Their children, Imogen and Peter were approximately my age.
"I'll ask if I can use the phone at work to phone Molly and ask her advice," I tried to reassure Carmela.
In retrospect it seems like the most transparent hint. Ever.
Thankfully Molly answered the phone the first time I tried from the newsroom. After the usual pleasantries she asked what we'd be doing at Christmas. I explained that we were trying to work out how to fit a turkey in our Baby Belling.
"Yup, yup," she interjected. "Why don't you come here on Christmas day, we'd love to see you?"
I tried to sound surprised. I was extremely grateful.
"Yup yup," Molly interrupted, proceeding to give me directions to their Holland Park address.
I couldn't wait to get back to Ealing to tell my wife.
Carmela's emotions were a mixture of relief, gratitude and trepidation: "Isn't her husband a judge?" she asked. We were both experiencing a little awe. This mini-biog explains why better than I can.
"His Honour Michael Parker.
"Successful QC who failed to persuade South Kensington to vote Labour
"The career of the circuit judge Michael Parker was a standing affirmation of the qualities of intellectual honesty, courtesy and kindness. In silk, just as when he was a junior, he impressed all who heard him by the skill of his analysis and the penetration of his questions. And he carried these talents forwards to the Circuit Bench, which he graced for some 15 years.
"Michael Clynes Parker was well rooted in the Labour Party. He derived his second name from J. R. Clynes, Home Secretary in Ramsay MacDonald’s Government, and his mother, Elsie Parker, was President of the National Union of Teachers. He stood for Parliament in the 1951 general election for South Kensington. It was a forlorn hope, but he acquitted himself well."
)n the tube from Ealing Broadway to Holland Park we were more than a bit nervous but we needn't have worried. As a family, the Parkers showed a a genuine interest in how we were getting on in London and were apparently rapt at both of our opinions.
"Yup," Molly interceded in agreement with many of our points as we held forth. It was over all too soon. We were replete with goodwill and Christmas dinner:
"Nope, you can't go home on the tube.," she proclaimed as we were stirring ourselves to leave. "Imogen will drive you home, yup?" Molly looked at her daughter and son-in-law.
"Of course Mum," Imogen replied. On the way over to Ealing they asked what we were doing for the New Year.
"We'll be in Paris," we chorused. I explained that part of the deal in being posted to Fleet Street was that we broadened our minds with additional travel.
New Year's Eve 1974
"It’s much less bovver on a Hover!" Hoverlloyd had enjoined us with an repeated earworm while we were planning our first trip abroad. Hooked on the idea of bonne année we booked an inclusive deal via Ramsgate and Calais.
Arriving at the English coast it became obvious that our passage to Calais was going to be a bit more bovver than we'd been led to believe. The sea was pretty bloody choppy and there appeared to be some doubt as to whether our craft would "sail" at all. I suppose we were relieved that it did but we were even more relieved to arrive in Calais. It had taken almost twice as long to bounce from peak to trough as we crossed the Channel. There had been screams from others passengers but we had been able to remain stoical.
We arrived in Pigalle without any further ado ... except for the short journey to our pension doing the poodle-poo-pavement-polka. We discovered in the few days we were there that the sidewalks were cleaned every morning but by evening, sacre bleu!
We weren't disappointed with the toutes les bonnes années we received on our festive first night taking in the Pigalle/Montmartre environs on New Year's Eve.
The views from below were from the pension window. The grey Beetle a touch of nostalgia.
Then it was 1975 and we weren't disappointed with the Folies Bergère either. A bit more consistently saucy than the few early London shows we saw but conducted with an extra portion of stylish panache. Twenty plus years in SA Calvinistic isolation and we were already getting used to it. There were no plagues and pestilence, just a bit of glitzy fun.
Lost in France
On our last afternoon we took a stroll along the Seine in the sunshine. Sunshine is as sunshine does and we entered a state of karmic relaxation. The crowds were pretty dense as we were finding our way back to our Pigalle boudoir. I had the only map and somehow we became separated. It only took seconds. I was beside myself. I'd heard stories of the dodgier area of Paris. I could not imagine what Carmela was going through. I spent what felt like hours running around like a poulet sans tête. It was hopeless and it was getting rapidly dark..
The only option seemed for me to make my way back to Place Blanche Metro with my heart in my mouth to see if she had managed to return to our pension. Emerging from the metro and walking briskly towards base, I heard my name coming from the doorway of a cafe close by. And there she was, waving frantically, seemingly with a young Frenchman in tow.
"Marko, this is Arsène, he very kindly helped me get back here." Carmela gestured.
Neither of us spoke French and Asène's English was not much more proficient.
I fell upon him with gratitude, asking him to join us for an evening meal. Carmela was nodding approval.
It was happenstance all over again. What a wonderful evening we had We established he was Algerian and swapped experiences of faraway places. It's extraordinary how people can communicate sans langue commune when they really wish to.
Carmela waiting in Pigalle in the second photo above.
The next day we got back to Calais to find that the Channel/La Manche was like a mill pond. The hover glided across in no time at all.
Things to look forward to ...
For the next month or two it would be nose to the grindstone. Stride a mile in the morning to Ealing Broadway. Read several daily newspapers on the Central Line journey to Chancery Lane. Stride to 85 Fleet Street. Commune with the permies (first pic below) and then repeat the process in reverse in the evening and with evening papers. By the time I got home (second pic below) I'd have digested 5-6 newspapers. Evenings were less stressful on the tube because the papers were all tabloids and easier to read in a confined space. That is, until I learned to magic broadsheet fold and unfold. Once so equipped, the occasional tapping of the side of the nose became appropriate to others who knew the secret. Respect.
I included the picture of our modest block of flats abode mainly because because it was shortly to become the scene of much happiness. Sistas reunited. Elena arriving.
Coming soon: Summer holidays. Business travel. 70s comms.
 Crossroads was cheap and cheerless but watched by many (up t0 15 million) UK viewers.
 Lifted from the 21st of May, 2003 edition of The Times
Fuzzy photos & Unreliable Tasting Notes (FP&UTN) continued ...
OK, this was a bit weird ... neither of us had ever set foot outside South Africa before and now we're starting a whole new life and career 9,000 km away in the Northern Hemisphere. We'd only been married a month.
As a privileged white boy, with a private school education, it was the fulfilment of a dream. Many of my pals had been beyond the borders before, quite a few all the way to Europe on the post-matriculation jolly that was seen as a (rite) right-of-passage. As a spoiled brat I watched various family members head North as I languished in Durban feeling sorry for myself and licking my wounds.
When the opportunity came and I'd "earned it myself", I came over feeling vindicated. I didn't spend a moment to consider how my new wife would feel about it nor that "earning it" was a relative term with a huge leg up from the aforementioned privilege.
Consider this episode of FP&UTN as a tribute to my new bride, Carmela. It was my dream and I didn't consider her feelings for a moment. Upon reflection, I now understand what a self-congratulatory dork I was at the time and recognise the sacrifices she made to help me realise that dream. Carmela had lived a sheltered life in a close family. She must have been terrified (in fact I know she was) at being torn from the bosom of her family and dragged away on somebody else's dream. Someone who had a ready made job at the other end. Someone who expected her to pull her weight for his own selfish, privileged dream. If you're thinking "Tosser Harrison" at this point, you'd be correct.
I was so self-absorbed, I wouldn't notice the loneliness she had to endure. I was off to Fleet Street every day to do my dream job.
But before I go there, I need to fill in a few gaps. I never thought Dad had been too empathetic with Carmela's and my needs. I now realise that he was more in tune with his new daughter-in-law's needs than his entitled son was. To be honest, we were both bricking it. I'd not been on an airliner since I was a toddler and I don't think Carmela ever had. Dad rearranged a business trip to Johannesburg so he could take us to Durban airport, fly with us on the first leg and show us the ropes at what is now OR Tambo International. I'd forgotten that. Carmela hadn't. I asked her to verify a few memories and this was one of the first that she inserted into the narrative.
Thank you Dad. Also thanks to Sybil, a Durban friend who had made her way to London before us and was lodging in Earl's Court, I seem to recall at one of those Antipodean backpacker places.
Auntie Argus had provided me with the opportunity of a lifetime but that was where it stopped. We had been booked into a fleapit hotel for a fortnight. In those days there were plenty to be had. When we got to our room, the bed was unmade. There were bloodstains on the mattress. I would have put up with anything but even I thought it was an imposition for Carmela.
After all, I would be reporting to work the next day and this was to be my new bride's home for a couple of weeks. Thank heavens for Sybil is all I can say. I can't thank her enough, even 46 years later.
A priority list evolved:
Well, I got to work successfully the next day. Never underestimate the British penchant for giving directions. To this day it helps to ask someone who appears to know where they're headed. In fact, they'll often offer if you contrive to look baffled enough.
My colleagues were a pleasant bunch but helping us find accommodation wasn't high on their agenda. Why should it have been? Permanent lodging became a priority on the first weekend. I recall we cut our losses in the fleapit after a week and were ensconced in Ross Court atop Castlebar Hill in Ealing. I learned very quickly not to disabuse future landlords of the myth that my accent was Australian rather than Seffrikkin.
With a flat in the bag, a coat for Carmela and a twin-set and Lunasix 3 for me we set out ticking off attractions. This was in Hyde Park, near Speakers' Corner. By this time we'd hooked up with Phil Duff hence the groovy pic. 46 years later I was told by Shelley-ann when she noticed my twin-set in this photo (she's seen the pic many times) she couldn't believe she's been married for 40 years to a man who once wore twin-sets. Personally, I think it looks the epitome of cool.
We watched telly for the first time in our tiny modern studio flat. Coronation Street, Crossroads, footie and wrestling on Saturday afternoons. After we'd paid the rent and the TV rental we didn't have much left over for other stuff. Anyway it was a massive novelty. Our friends and family in Durban hadn't started watching the SABC test pattern for hours on end just yet. If my memory serves me well, the furnishing was pretty basic: a tabletop Baby Belling in the kitchen, a divan, a chair, and the sideboard in the picture. It had sliding aluminium framed windows that rattled frantically when Concorde flew over and was a mile from Ealing Broadway station.
When we'd stayed briefly in Earls Court we'd had to eat at affordable restaurants and there was a chain of Balkan eating houses that offered particularly good value meals and a carafe of red. Apart from vinho verde obtained via Lourenço Marques I'd never had anything besides South African wine, some of it like, Backsberg, very good in its day (Carmela didn't drink in those days). But it seemed the height of sophistication to be drinking European wine ... actually I don't remember it being that bad. I do realise, from experience, though, that Côtes du Rhône and Rioja have come a very long way since the £2/bottle from the 1970s supermarket shelves. Once we moved into the flat we ate a lot of scrumptious pasta concocted on the hot plate. Shit, it must have been lonely for the one stuck at home.
Sybil had told us about Green Line buses so we could get out into the country, which was a thrifty way to have a day out. As winter advanced, a coat was required.. I decided a leather coat might be cool. Warm and waterproof. It was neither. The only one I could afford lost most of its dye in the first bit of serious rain. On the inside. Walking up Castlebar Hill for 20 minutes in the rain on my way home from work. Yuk. I thought I was quite dashing in the park by the river, though. Carmela much more sensibly attired.
OK, so you were warned that the photos were fuzzy.
I can't claim that what our eyes saw at Oh! Calcutta! were in any way out of focus. Fuzzy, maybe. Phil had persuaded us to join him at the live show in the West End. He proudly produced tickets for the seats. They were VERY NEAR THE FRONT. At some point in the show, the cast lined up at the front of the stage completely kaalgat! Skande! Carmela now claims she persuaded us to move further back. Her story probably has some credibility, given how protected we were in good ol' Durbs. Phil must've been most disappointed. Hair wasn't a whole lot better in that regard.
Coming soon: , Elena arriving. New year in Paris. Phil lends us his sports car for the weekend. Coventry Cathedral - visiting the provost. Emmanuelle. In the back of a kombi in London
 So much so that, when I was a few months wiser, I took it upon myself to find a suitable landing stage for a few couples who arrived after me. I found a decent furnished flat in Bayswater that was cheaper than the skanky hotel for them. If I recall correctly, a few pounds were saved for a three-week sojourn compared the two-week stay that had been booked for us. It was a relatively easy sell to management.
 There was a lot of anti-Apartheid feeling in Britain in the '70s.
 A top end light meter ... in those days the entry-level Pentax SLR didn't have one built in. Camera equipment was much cheaper in the UK in those days.
 A photographer colleague from the Daily News in Durban.
 Stark naked in Seffrekkin.
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