At the Hendrik Vanderbijl Primary School (1951-1954)
When I first went to this school I was put into Standard 2 although I was much younger than everyone else in that class. Some of the older girls in the class made a pet of me and I particularly remember Joy Daniels and Violet Young being very kind and protective because I was the baby of the class. Although I could cope with most subjects at that level, I had never learnt Afrikaans before. I remember remaining in the classroom during break to try to complete the Afrikaans written work while all the other children were outside eating their sandwiches and playing, having finished copying work from the board long before the bell rang for break. After that it was decided that I’d be better to go back to Standard 1 where the children were more or less the same age as me and where I would be able to learn Afrikaans from scratch along with everyone else. The school was parallel-medium, which meant that, although each pupil was either in an English or Afrikaans class, we addressed each other in English one week and the next week in Afrikaans. The assembly worked in the same way – one week in English, one week in Afrikaans. Bare-headed we stood outside in the hot sun for assembly each morning and I, along with others, were sometimes near fainting. My Afrikaans progressed quite well at the Hendrik Vanderbijl School. When we moved to Johannesburg towards the end of 1957 I never met many Afrikaans people and if I addressed anyone in that language they often replied in English as I probably spoke the language with a tinge of a Scottish accent. That was not the way to become fluent in Afrikaans. It is a shame that the Nats decided that it was just as dangerous in their eyes for English and Afrikaans children to mix, as it was for the different races to mix in case we became friends and undermined their apartheid policy.
Vanderbijlpark was laid out rather like a mining town with areas for “blue collar” workers, “non-European” workers and a more upmarket area for management and executive staff. This last group lived in the affluent area of SW5 nearer to the Vaal River. I believe the suburb was known as Nobhill or “down the river” by those who lived in the main – and plainer – part of the town as we did.
Many of the children in my class were from “down the river” and some were inclined to look down their noses at the rest of us. There were two children of the founding fathers of the town in my class: Helen Oldridge, daughter of Cecil Oldridge who had a park named after him, and Noreen Waterston. I’m afraid I can’t remember what her father’s claim to fame was, but he was a man of some importance. Helen and I shared the same date of birth – 31st August 1943 – but, despite this, we were never particularly friendly with one another.
There was an impression amongst South Africans that the recent immigrants were riff-raff in comparison with those born in South Africa, so although this was not true in most cases, the immigrants tended to stick together. Most of us lost our British accents in favour of a South African one, although those who put on a South African accent at school usually dropped it as soon as they arrived home and reverted to their old Scottish, Welsh, Irish or English accents when they were with their parents and siblings. I spoke the same way all the time, but even to this day, sixty years later, I can easily lapse into my Scottish accent. This is not mimicry – it is an accent in which I feel perfectly at home. My accent today is not particularly South African, but probably a hybrid of Scottish and South African, still different from everyone else after all these years of living in the country.
Most of my friends in Parsons Street were Scottish – Irene and Madeleine Young, Harvey Pye, June and Rene Marshall, and Marion Hillan. There was open veld behind Parsons Street and we climbed the pine trees there, formed secret societies a la Enid Blyton and the Secret Seven and Famous Five. Initially it was great fun making badges for all the members and thinking of suitable passwords, but once that was done, unlike the characters in Enid Blyton’s books, we had no mysteries to solve, so all our societies tended to be rather short-lived. I remember the day when someone in our class did something naughty. The culprit did not own up so the headmaster of the school, Mr A.S. Nel, lined the whole class up around his office and went round with a cane, smacking each child hard, both girls and boys, several times on the flat of our hands. I still remember the sound of Mr Nel’s cane whistling through the air as he caned each child. I walked home from school with a Scottish girl from another class who took great delight in telling my parents that I had been “caned” at school that morning. I had done nothing wrong, but had to listen to further recriminations from my parents after the unpleasant time I had already endured.
Mrs McFadjean, our Standard 1 teacher was kind and gentle, but the teachers we had in Standards 2 and 3, Mrs Hicks and Mrs Erasmus, were very strict in comparison. In Standard 2 we began using dipping pens instead of pencils. We dipped our pens into the inkwells on our desks. The school made up the ink and it often contained lumps which could easily cause blots. I was left-handed, so I had to be extra careful not to blot my copy book by smearing my hand over the wet ink as I wrote. I was told that Mrs Hicks lost her temper if ever she saw a blot – trust me to make one! I had nightmares about her checking my work and having a fit when she saw it. I was also told that there was no point of trying to rub the blot out. Mrs Hicks would spot this right away and be crosser than ever. I’m afraid I tried to rub out the blot and only succeeded in making a slight hole in the paper. What would she say? I could not bear to think of my punishment. I took up my work to be marked and stood trembling next to her waiting for the explosion when she discovered the blot. Amazingly she didn’t even notice it! A huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders and I could breathe easily again.
We had another fierce woman who took us for sewing classes. Her name was Mrs Verhoop from Germany. Once again I struggled at sewing because of my left-handedness. She was absolutely horrible to me to the point that I would pretend to have caught a cold on the day we were to have the sewing lesson and put on a deep cough to attract my parents’ attention so that they would tell me to stay in bed. Rarely did this happen. I remember Mrs Verhoop examining my sewing efforts in front of another teacher and saying scathingly that I should be sent for an eye test as my sewing was so far below the standard of the other girls in the class, and the second teacher agreeing with her while I did all I could not to burst into tears in front of them. I was about nine at the time.
We had a weekly Volkspele (folk dancing) class, where we were taught to dance to the accompaniment of Afrikaans folk tunes. We were aged about eight or nine when boys and girls were not inclined to mix with one another out of choice, so it was agony to dance around the room with an unwilling partner who would have preferred to be doing anything but dancing clumsily with a girl! We also practised for a mass gym display, which was to take place at some national event. Perhaps I wasn’t good enough at these exercises, but I didn’t take part in this display despite the months of practice. I realise now that this gym display and the Volkspele classes were reminiscent of events which might have taken place in Nazi Germany before the war.
Every year the school held an elaborate school concert, but no auditions were ever held to select performers. Teachers selected children to take part and none of the others (myself included) were ever given the chance to take part in it.
There were shops round the corner from Parsons Street and the biggest one was called the Publix. I believe it is the site of the local Spar today. The shopping centre also boasted a post office and a dairy, where I often bought penny bars of Van Houten’s chocolate on the way home from school. I was also partial to an ice lolly if the weather was hot and, as far as I remember, these could be purchased from a man who rang a little bell and cycled around on a large tricycle with an icebox attached to it, containing ice creams and iced lollies.
There was no cinema in Vanderbijl at that time so we used to go into the neighbouring town of Vereeniging every Saturday morning, do some shopping, have lunch in a café and then go to a matinee at either the Odeon or the Metro, depending which cinema was showing the most entertaining film. In those days cinemas in South Africa were known as the bioscope! In Vanderbijl we sometimes went to the Iscor Recreational Club where my parents would have a couple of drinks with their friends, while I had a Rose’s lime juice and listened to their grownup conversation. Nearly everyone smoked, so the atmosphere of the club must have been thick with stale tobacco, which didn’t seem to worry me then, but certainly would now.
Several years later they opened the Astor cinema (later called the 20th Century) in Vanderbijlpark and by that time I was old enough to go to the children’s morning matinee. I had 2/- pocket money a week so I paid about 1/3 for my ticket and still had 9d over to buy sweets or ice cream at the interval. All the naughty boys sat in the front rows and made a noise throughout the cartoons, serial and “big” picture, which was usually a musical like Naughty Marietta, with Jeanette MacDonald singing impossibly high notes, or a cowboy film, starring Gene Autrey or Roy Rogers. A stern usherette, wearing a military type uniform, patrolled the cinema shining her torch at those making the most noise and warning them that they would be ejected if they didn’t keep quiet. At interval she sold sweets and ice cream from a tray hanging round her neck on a leather strap. The movie often broke down in the middle of the show and there were howls of disgust as we waited for the projectionist to get it going once again.
There was a café next to the cinema, probably called the Astor café, and it was there that I had my very first toasted cheese sandwich. The tables were arranged like train compartments, which could seat from four to six people and each “compartment” had a little square box attached to the wall which linked to the big jukebox standing at the end of the café. For about a tickey (3d) you could select one of the hits of the moment, such as Patti Page singing The Tennessee Waltz, Johnny Ray singing Cry or Nat King Cole with Mona Lisa. Later on, the juke box even had early rock ‘n roll records like Heartbreak Hotel by Elvis.
We went to Church services of the Presbyterian Church. The services were held in a classroom at the Oliver Lodge Primary School until the church was built. A minister came in from Vereeniging about once a month and the accompaniment to the hymns was played by Mrs Tilsen on a small organ which had to be pumped up by hand. If the bellows were not fully inflated, the organ would go out of tune until the person designated to turn the handle sped it up again. The minister (whose name I have forgotten) was Scottish, but his accent indicated that he came from a different part of Scotland than us. I remember Mr Buttle playing a large role in these services; perhaps he was a lay minister who took the services when the Vereeniging minister was not with us.
My father bought a black 1948 Ford Prefect, which he later had re-ducoed to the more cheerful colour of Drakensberg Blue,and did a driving licence test for the first time in his life. He had bought his first car in Canada in the late 1920’s when it was not necessary to take a driving test. Someone showed him the basics of working the clutch, brake and gears and he had driven off with his purchase, hoping that he could handle the car on the open road. Luckily he passed the South African driving test without any problem. He was one of the few immigrant families in Vanderbijl to own a car at that time and was often called upon to give lifts to his friends.
We went on holiday to the Natal coast in the car. Mrs McFadjean, my Standard One teacher, recommended the Warner Beach Hotel near Amanzantoti, some miles outside of Durban, so we travelled there for our first South African holiday. My father had never driven such a long distance before so we broke our journey at Andrew’s Motel on the way to the coast. Several years later we went to Margate on the South Coast. There were quite a few steep hills on this journey and the Prefect struggled to get to the top of these hills in first gear. Sometimes it was even necessary to reverse down the hill so that the car could get up enough impetus to climb to the top of it. Luckily there wasn’t as much traffic on the roads in the early fifties as there is today!
My parents were friends with a Welsh family by the name of Anthony, and they asked my father to collect their friends, the Webbs from the station, as they had recently arrived in the country from Ebbw Vale in South Wales. This was the first time I met the Webb children, Patricia and Pamela. Patricia was my age and Pamela a few years younger. When they came to visit us Patricia would find one of my new Enid Blyton books and instead of spending the afternoon playing with me, she would settle down to read my latest Famous Five or Secret Seven book from cover to cover instead. She became so absorbed in the story that she did not even hear my plaintive pleas that she should leave the book and play with her sister and me.
It was difficult to find a good piano teacher in Vanderbijl at the time, so my father asked another of his Welsh friends, Ron Hill to give me some lessons. He played the piano quite well but had no musical qualifications and I was the first person he had tried to teach. He arrived at our house after work at Iscor, was given a beer and settled down to put me through some Czerny studies and various other pieces, which were perhaps too advanced for me at the time. My father insisted that I spent three-quarters of an hour practising the piano and doing my homework each day before I was allowed out to play with my friends in the street. I resented this at the time, but I was glad that my father made me do this when I became interested in making music my career.
He had learnt to play the violin when he was a child in New York, but after his mother’s death he returned to Scotland to stay with his mother’s sister and family so there was no more money for lessons. He taught himself to play the piano by ear and, for some unknown reason, played everything in the key of D flat/C sharp, which meant that he played more on the black notes than the white notes. Most people who were taught to play found this key the most difficult of all. My mother could also play by ear, but she stuck to the white notes!
My father always asked me to play the piano when ever we had visitors. I don’t think they were particularly interested in listening to me playing the piano and I was always relieved when this ordeal was over and I could go back to playing with the children who were visiting. Patricia and Pamela did not play the piano but they had pretty voices and always sang the little Welsh folk song, Sosban Fach as their party piece.
As we grew older we decided to hold a musical and dramatic entertainment in aid of the Vereeniging SPCA and charge all our parents’ friends for tickets to our concert. We were all animal lovers – I had a yellow budgie who sat on my shoulder, and the Webbs had an exuberant Rhodesian ridgeback called Patty. We performed in my parents’ sitting room for friends who were too soft-hearted to refuse to attend our entertainment, and we managed to raise the amount of 10/- from our captive audience. The money was duly sent as a donation to the SPCA in Vereeniging and we received a thank you letter, suggesting that we should all go and have tea at the SPCA the next time we were in Vereeniging. As far as I remember we didn’t take the gentleman up on his offer, but we felt quite proud of ourselves for making the donation. An SPCA was established in Vanderbijlpark some time later, and German friends of my parents, the Alexanders, did a great deal to help the society raise funds of very much larger amounts than ours.
My father had signed a second three-year contract at Iscor which would come to an end in 1955. The Nationalist government was insisting that everyone working at Iscor should be fully bilingual. My father’s Afrikaans was pretty limited and what he could say in the language was said in a Scottish accent. There were rumours that the Hendrik Vanderbijl Primary School would soon change from parallel medium to Afrikaans medium. My parents decided to sell their house in Parsons Street and we moved into a rented flat at Becquerel Court, with the idea that we would return to the UK once my father’s contract came to an end. The Oliver Lodge Primary School, which was English medium was closer to Hendrik Vanderbijl, so I went to the Oliver Lodge for my final year at primary school, glad to escape the attentions of unpleasant Mrs Verhoop forever.
Updated 24 November 2015.