I was much happier at the Oliver Lodge than I ever was at Hendrik Vanderbijl. The children were friendlier, the teachers calmer and more approachable. My friends, Patricia and Pamela Webb were at the school although in different classes to me. I left behind Mrs Verhoop, as well as two girl bullies called Kathleen and Merle, who had made my life miserable at Hendrik Vanderbijl, not to mention leaving behind the snooty offspring of the founding fathers from “down the river”. Apart from the children who would go on to Potchefstroom Boys’ or Girls’ High as boarders, I would meet my old class (including the bullies) again when I went to the Vaal High the following year. I had always been conscientious and done reasonably well at school, but none of the staff at the Hendrik Vanderbijl had ever taken any great interest in me. As an only child, I was inclined to be a reserved loner.
In my new class at the Oliver Lodge, I made friends with Penelope Berrington and Lyndith Irvine who were “only” children like me. I sat at the back of the class behind Pierre Leibbrandt and his friend Tony van Houten. All the girls liked Pierre because he was good-looking with deep blue eyes and an interesting gold filling in one of his front teeth. Apart from his looks, he also had very good manners and was reputed to be the only boy in the class who did not hit girls – a big plus factor as far as the girls were concerned. Pierre went on to Potchefstroom Boys’ High the following year, and, only recently, I discovered that Tony married Bridget Laurence, who had been in my class at Hendrik VanderBijl.
I particularly liked our class teacher, Mr Webster, who taught the entire class how to do 45˚ writing. After my earlier disaster with Mrs Hicks and the blot, I was surprised to discover that I was quite good at writing like this. Instead of smearing my left hand over my writing, I learnt that I could write as neatly as everyone else by turning my book at an angle. No more blots for me!
Our English teacher was Mrs Parks, a gentle and mild person, who never had to raise her voice to discipline the class. She gave us some memorable poetry and speeches from plays to copy into our anthology books and recite by heart. I still remember reciting Young Lochinvar and The Quality of Mercy speech from The Merchant of Venice.
During the July holidays of 1955 we went on holiday to the Ferndale Hotel in Margate in the trusty Prefect and had a very enjoyable time there, despite the car’s struggle on the steep hills on the old South Coast road. One morning, because of the strong undertow of the current, I drifted far out to sea on a rubber lilo and had to be rescued by my father, who thought he had seen the last of me. The residents of each hotel in Margate wore different colours of beads and could be identified by the beads they wore.
All the hotels were in healthy competition with one another and the guests easily made friends with one another. Most people we knew went on an annual holiday to the coast with their families for two or three weeks in those days. I don’t think many people could afford to take their family to stay in an hotel with full board for such a length of time today as the cost would be far too expensive for the average family.
The following month was my twelfth birthday. For the first time since I had been in Vanderbijlpark I invited a few friends to a matinee of The Student Prince at the Astor, followed by a tea party at the flat. I still remember Anne Blyth as the pretty barmaid and handsome Edmund Purdon who took the part of the prince because Mario Lanza had put on too much weight to be allowed to appear in the film himself. Only his voice remained on the soundtrack to which Edmund Purdon mimed convincingly.
Towards the end of the year we wrote exams and I played the piano for a musical entertainment our class put on for the school. The class practised songs to be sung at the year-end prize giving. I particularly remember singing the Welsh folk song, The Ashgrove. I was rather alarmed when Mr Webster and Mr Kloppers (the headmaster) called me to the office and gave me a letter for my parents. I have never been filled with confidence so I assumed that this note was to tell my parents that I had failed my exams and would have to remain in Standard 5 for another year. My parents read the note, but left me none the wiser about its contents. I went to the prize giving feeling rather nervous. To my surprise I received two certificates for courtesy and academic ability and finally a silver cup and the Dux Scholarship for that year. The letter had been a special invitation to my parents to attend the prize giving because of the Dux Scholarship award. That would never have happened at the Hendrik Vanderbijl!
I went to the Vaal High School the following year. The school was still housed in prefabs next to the Oliver Lodge while the permanent school was being built. I was back with many of my old classmates from Hendrik Vanderbijl once again. This was 1956, the year we were meant to return to the UK and our voyage on a Union Castle liner had been booked. Then came the Suez Crisis. For some reason my father thought Egypt would attack ships at sea so the tickets were cancelled, despite my father having sold the Prefect and given up the flat and presumably sold all our furniture.
We went to Cape Town for a long holiday instead, staying at the Esplanade Hotel in Sea Point, where a number of Senators’ widows were permanent residents. I met a girl called Erica Gericke, also a pianist and we both played the piano in the residents’ lounge. I hope we didn’t upset the elderly residents, but they seemed to enjoy our playing. We also visited my mother’s cousin John McKee and his family in Plumstead several times. Then we returned to Vanderbijlpark where my father was able to go back to work at Iscor once again. We rented a house at the corner of Stephenson and Parsons Street.
I remember feeling really depressed at the time, possibly because of all the big changes in my life. Perry Como had a hit called Hot Diggetyon the LM hit parade. Instead of starting a new life in the UK as I had expected to do, I returned to the Vaal High and made friends with Mary Ann Schutte, who lived opposite us. Our house in Stephenson Street had a big garden filled with fruit trees and I made a tree house in the largest tree at the bottom of the garden. I spent a lot of time reading by myself up in my tree house and sampling the fruit from the various trees.
We listened to plays on the large radio with the green cat’s eye each evening. My parents must have bought more furniture for the house after selling up everything for our aborted return to the UK. I remember visiting Lubner’s furniture shop in Vereeniging with a pungent smell of good wood to select new furniture. My father had to work shifts on his return to Iscor. Day shift was from 6 am to 2 pm, afternoon shift from 2 pm to 10 pm and night shift from 10 pm to 6 am. No wonder he suffered from insomnia as he grew older with such a disturbed sleep pattern. He gave up smoking in 1956, so he was not in a very good mood for quite a few months after that, but he was never tempted to smoke again.
Mrs Anderson was one of our teachers at the Vaal High. She had been at university with the famous South African actress, Margaret Inglis, mother of Prue and Sam Leith who have both made names for themselves in the UK . She did a production of Alice in Wonderland with our class. Jacqueline Keenan was Alice. Just as it had been at the Hendrik Vanderbijl, no auditions were held for the play. She chose likely children and I was not one she considered. I was quiet and reserved – presumably she didn’t think I could act.
The following year the Vaal High moved to its permanent site quite a distance away. I went to school by bicycle, freewheeling recklessly down Faraday Boulevard in the mornings and struggling uphill all the way home to the old township in the heat of the afternoons.
We managed to go to Durban for our annual holiday. We stayed at the Berkeley Hotel in Old Fort Road where Maisie Weldon and Carl Carlisle were staying during their tour of South Africa. We had seen them in their act at the Amphitheatre, where they mimicked singers such as Vera Lynn and re-enacted a scene from a Harold Lloyd film. Maisie Weldon was the daughter of music hall comedian, Harry Weldon who had been a member of Fred Karno’s army along with Charlie Chaplin. They had done a lot of work dubbing all the voices for Tom Arnold’s ice shows. They were very pleasant to us – through them I was quite stage struck!
Mrs Anderson was producing another play with our class that year. It was called A Little Bit of Fame and Glory. One of the characters was a middle-aged aunt of the film-actress heroine, who arrives at her smart London flat and embarrasses her in front of her upmarket friends with her hearty northern ways and strong regional accent. The play called for a Lancastrian accent. Mrs Anderson was at a loss as to who could do this part. I said that I could probably do it with a Scottish accent. She gave me a chance to try the lines. Everyone was astounded that quiet, diffident Jean took the part in the manner born. The play was a great success. We did it for the school, for the Women’s Institute, and Mrs Anderson entered it in a play competition in Vereeniging. I still have the certificate we were awarded for the performance.
After the play was finished Mrs Anderson invited the cast to a curry dinner at her elegant home “down the river”, where Penelope and I had gone each week for extra Latin lessons when German was discontinued at the Vaal High. We usually had the lessons in her beautiful garden and her manservant had come out to serve us with tea and thinly-cut tomato sandwiches. She was an excellent Latin and English teacher and I thoroughly enjoyed catching up with all the Latin the others had learnt the previous year.
My father was not happy doing shifts at Iscor and being chivvied to learn Afrikaans. John Corrigan who had worked at Iscor, was now working at Rogers-Jenkins, an engineering firm in the Jeppe Dip of Johannesburg. He offered my father a job there and my father decided to take it. It was the last term of Form 2. I had to leave the Vaal High, where I was quite happy, and move to Jeppe Girls’ High in Johannesburg.