Face to Face
Battiss enchanted with his zany brilliance, his colourful speech (there’s no rule that says you have to speak speak in beige) and his incisive mind.
WALTER BATTISS: ‘King Ferd the Third’
PROFESSOR WALTER BATTISS’ brow is furrowed like corduroy.
A film company wants to borrow his car for a scene in a movie – and he’s not having any of it.
‘That car is lark a sculpture!’ he grumbles, talking about his cornelian blue Rolls.
‘If Leonardo da Vinci had been alarve he would have ahther made one or driven on. It looks lark a Greek temple from the front, it’s got a Winged Victory perched on the bonnet and Ah certainly don’t want some bitch riding off with some man in my Rolls! Ah have to protect the image of ma car!’
His voice, like a malted milkshake marinated for more than seventy years, has a slightly monotonous lilt – rather like a Hindu chanting the Bagavad Gita.
The vowels come out flatly – ‘like’ is translated into ‘lark’ with unselfconscious charm.
The ineffable Professor, whose genius has oft been compared to that of his friend Pablo Picasso, is presently showing at RAU in Johannesburg.
Walter’s oeuvre (he’s often described as ‘a showman with a wicked sense of humour’), is unanimously acclaimed and lesser artists have been known to scuttle back to their embroidery hoops in despair, after having seen his latest offerings.
Being invited to tea at ‘Giotto’s Hill,’ the Battiss abode, is like being shown around Olympus by Zeus himself.
The quaint white-washed double-storied mini-manse, designed by Norman Eaton, is a direct copy of a house in one of Giotto’s paintings.
Walter, vast as a telephone booth, with shoulder-length hair and goatee, white as an overflow of shaving cream, looks perfectly marvellous, dressed by Shabby Tat.
His umber cardigan, crimson elbow patches flapping like small unguyed wigwams, has important silver buttons, each embossed with a Roman numeral. Then there’s the marquee-sized red and white striped shirt and brown trousers mottled with an interesting design of paint, porridge and your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine.
Paleolithic running shoes tied up with virulent violet laces complete his ensemble.
(Perhaps there was a neon belt buckle or two, come to think of it . . . I couldn’t say for sure because I was so fascinated by his talkfest).
We are sitting on a bench in a viridian green garden where waist-high grass bears testimony to the fact that it has plainly been untouched by human hand or hedge-clipper. It’s also, I am sure, inhabited by fairies, elves, goblins and suchlike.
Walter talks Art and Life.
‘Ah don’t want to go into that stuff about how Ah was the first person to really study Bushman art and how it influenced me and how Ah was a highly-strung child and always did all the the wrong things’, he yawns cavernously.
‘It’s a nuisance to repeat it. People must read it up in books if they want to know . . .’
He absent-mindedly swats at a gnat that has settled on a milk-bottle-like calf.
‘But Ah’ve got a lot of energy inside mar head and Ah know 1982 is going to be the year of painting. Ah’ve got spies all over the world and this is what they tell me.’
Walter speaks excitedly about the the new trends that are currently developing in Europe and the United States.
‘There’s something called ‘neo-Expressionism’ that’s happening’, he explains.
‘People are turning away from clinical photorealism and actually starting to show their feelings again. It’s fantastic because art has a soul and it must be seen!’
‘In my case.’ he digressed tetchily, ‘photorealism is a cheat, as far as Ah’m concerned. Oh, they all get out of it by saying that they ‘change the composition’ . . . but what do they do? Move a telegraph pole out of the way, that’s all.’
‘Tell me about the Fook project!’ I suggest.
King Ferd the Third, King of Fook Island, (for that is Walter’s other name) fixes me with a rheumy eye.
‘The Fook think happened as a result of the conceptual art that was happening in the seventies – when a work of art was a fw words typed on a piece of paper, when people like Christo used to wrap buildings and Karl Andre used to sell piles of bricks . . . the IDEA was the work of art, not the object.’
‘Ah decided to created an imaginary island, which would have its own passport (which, incidentally, is internationally valid), philosophy, (based on Zen, Tantra and Taoism), currency, books, animals – everything! Norman (artist Norman Catherine) who worked with me on the projects is King Norman. There are citizens of Fook Island all over the world. Ambassadors, jet-setters and simple Tahitian islanders are all Fookians.’
Wherever he goes in South Africa people who wouldn’t know a graphic from a gigolo greet Walter as an old friend. He has probably done more to ‘bring art to the masses’ (although he dislikes that phrase) than any other individual in this country.
‘Ah believe that youth must take and old age must give,’ declares Walter.
‘That’s why when people bring me things Ah don’t want them anymore. Ah send them to the Battiss museum that Ah established in the Karoo.’
Tell him that it is fashionable to own a Battiss and his eyebrows hold an indignation meeting.
‘Ah don’t like that word ‘fashionable’, he says, suddenly crotchety. ‘It’s too much like ‘popular’ – which means ‘done to please the public’ and that implies that the artist has lost all his integrity!’
Whereas some artists stumble on a commercially successful formula and proceed to milk it until it moos, Battiss’ artistic development has been as diverse as it has been prolific. Each new exhibition reveals dazzling originality and daring.
The Battiss mind is mercurial. Sachets of wisdom, do-it-yourself philosophies, red herrings and real wit are cast about in the sea of conversation like confetti.
Since his youth, Walter has been an opinion-maker, mover, giver and shaker. His controversial views on every subject under the sun have often made the air pungent with the smell of frying fuddy-duddy’s.
Author of more than half a dozen book on art, he has been known to opinionate in overdrive on on stripper Glenda Kemp (‘she can cure neuroses’), Satie, his liking for ‘ducktail clothes’, the merits of Sandy Bay, erotic art (‘I have never painted porn’ – nudes per se are really boring’), Kitsch, teaching (‘I don’t teach, I inspire’), drugs (‘they’re no good because they don’t make you paint better they just make you THINK you’re painting better’), and sex (‘it’s nice at my age’), to name but a few.
A rara avis is Walter, whose brilliance often seems to outshine the Kohinoor. Trying to write an adequate profile on him is as difficult as folding a banana.
This column was originally published by the Sunday Times in 1982.
PIETER-DIRK UYS: ‘I’m just the dumb blonde with the jewellery’
IS THERE intelligent life on earth?
Certainly. And to all you Doubting Thomases – I should know. Why, I spoke to Pieter-Dirk Uys only the other morning.
Pietie. of the sparse wheaten hair, (”I look in the mirror and bemoan ‘Waar is die hare?’ ”), the shy, almost difficult manner and the magpie-marvellous mind, is so talented he’s enough to drive any aspiring writer to OD on Smarties – or at least encourage them to stick to writing out place-settings for dinner parties.
Pietie and sussie Tessie are on the warpath again! Sacred cows – beware!
The power pair (-in the words of a critic: one Uys is wicked, two Uyses are trumps-) are dishing up another devilishly delicious helping of ‘Uyscream’.
Their revue which opened at the Market Theatre on Wednesday, October 1, high on humour and low on calories, is a sequel to ‘Uyscreams from the Wimpey Archipelago’ – ‘Uyscreams with Hot Chocolate Sauce.’
The hot chocolate sauce is provided by Thoko Tshinga , who says Pieter with a naughty glint in her eye, ‘gives it a nice taste!’
Pietie is really rather retiring , he tells me, his face totem-pole serious, ‘until I start dancing on the table with feathers and things.
‘I’m a good listener – but sometimes I don’t listen accurately!’ he giggles, ‘and I’m a terrible gossip. I spread rumours!’
I find myself tongue-tied. (One always tends to get tongue-tied when meeting someone who is talented AND human.)
A rather precocious little boy, (‘I stopped playing the piano early. Ja, man, thought I’d give Tessie a chance!’), he has been shocking grannies and innocent bystanders since he and Tessie used to put on huge ‘konserts’, for the folks at home.
‘Tessie was always the monster and I was always the ‘engeltjie’ ‘ he snickers, making a deprecating moue. ‘I was always a ‘bang gat’ …’
”My mother was a wonderful woman. When we used to play at eisteddfods, she would always say to us ‘If you win you’ll get an ice-cream. If you lose, you’ll get two …’ ”
‘Hey, listen’ he interrupts himself, ‘I heard two people discussing ‘The Gods Must be Crazy’, and one said to the other one ‘is that about the GOVERNMENT?’
The eyes are rounded in mock horror, the mouth pure Clara Bow.
‘Actually I work really hard. I enjoy staying home reading and writing … but I also like going to Hillbrow to jol!’ he adds quickly.
Er … what does jolling actually involve?
‘Ag, I play the pinball machines, and I check the people out, ek se, and I sommer talk to them!’
He puts on an accent like a refugee from behind the grape curtain. The irrepressible giggling, the ‘woordeskat’, the witty wisdom … Pieter makes Dick Cavett’s guests seem to have the personalities of paper cups.
He shares his Melville home with a cat called Eschel and a mouse called Katie and his NG Klerk upbringing with his concert pianist sister.
‘When I send up the verkramptes, I am always sending up the verkrampte ghosts in me. But I never poke fun at people – it’s their ATTITUDES that I find funny. Some of them seem to have their scripts all mixed up.
‘People were always telling me to get some qualifications I could fall back on. Funny, people never tell you to get something you can fall FORWARD on … but the thing is that you must always keep doing things. I always think I should be climbing the Andes, or swimming in the Amazon – or pinching Julie Christie or Warren Beatty’s bottom (I’m not fussy) – just doing things so that I’ll be able to talk about them when I’m old.’
Underneath the bitchy bon mots is a satirist of serious commitment.
‘You’ve GOT to believe in what you’re doing 100%. On the other hand you can’t get too intense.’
‘If you go to an audition, desperate for a part you give off a smell of need, you exude a kind of odour of greed – and that’s offensive!’
Pieter is a perpetual optimist. (‘What you sow you will reap’). High highs are achieved without drugs – they are born of a serious lust for life.
‘Drugs and I just never met anywhere along the line’ he says, wrinkling his brow.
We talk of censorship.
‘Soon censorship will become a luxury of the past. When I recently spoke to an okie connected with the censor board about why ‘Mad Max’ wasn’t banned, his reply was that the youth of today must get used to violence as that will soon be their way of life! It’s a sobering thought.’
‘Everything in South Africa is political. In England it’s all class, in America it’s money, but in South Africa it’s all the colour of the skin.’
‘People are always saying they wished that they lived in Berlin in the thirties – this IS Berlin in the thirties!’
‘I can’t play chess or bridge or do crosswords or spell! I’m illiterate!’ he muses, irrelevantly, and I suspect, untruly.
‘I’m just the dumb blonde with the jewellery!’
We agree that this can, after all, be a handy disguise to keep people out of your hair.
‘And I have a dreadful effect on plants. Even plastic plants wither and die in front of me. I’ve got the largest array of empty pots in Melville.’
Tessa is probably his best buddyroo, but he laughs ruefully as he tells me that Tessa never reads his scripts.
‘She always says ‘No darling, I’ll wait for the movie!’ ‘
A final question. Could he describe himself in three words?
‘Er. Pieter-Dirk Uys?’
The Uys is an ace!
This interview was originally published by the Sunday Times in 1980.
ROBERT KIRBY: ‘Shooting from the lip’
The description of the intellectual outlaw who shoots (with deadly accuracy) straight from the lip could be applied to Robert Kirby.
In the art of sending up, putting down, and bringing the Establishment out in social urticaria, he is, arguably, the master of them all.
Mrs Kirby’s little boy does not have a reputation for being kind. I have heard the one about ‘If-you-were-drowning-20-feet-offshore-he’d-throw-you-an-11′-rope-and-point-out-he-was-meeting-you-more-than-half way’ applied to him more than once.
A well-known newspaper columnist once declared that the was the most irritating of phenomena, the menopausal male, complete with boulders on shoulders.
Therefore it was with some trepidation that I set off to engage in a little linguistic duelling with the awesome, ascerbic, ach-satirist.
‘Tall, lean and attractive’ does not adequately describe him.
He’s tall enough to tickle the cloud, lean enough that if he had buttons down his front he would be mistaken for a flute – and, even in a hopelessly tatty cream cardigan that flaps about him disconsolately, attractive enough to cause a stampede at a scoutmistress symposium.
‘Where do you want to sit?’ he asks with a hint of amused tolerance.
‘Ooh – shall I put some lipstick on, then?’ he pouts.
(Press ‘O’ button for ‘Outrageous’ and he’ll immediately oblige)
Then while I start arranging my notes, he enquires evenly ‘Do you know I am at my most articulate when I really lose my temper?’
I thought the words spilled from his lips like casino chips.
‘Why is it you say journalists are horrible creatures?’ I venture timidly.
‘I didn’t say that!’ he snaps. ‘Some horrible journalist must have said that.’
Since his last full-frontal attack on the sensibilities of society, he’s been doing cabaret (with satirist side-kick, Terry Lester), writing a ‘slim volume’ of (satirical, what else?) love poetry and most important, indulging in his latest passion – gliding.
The collapsed deck-chair frame moves forward earnestly.
‘It’s absolutely fantastic, you know … there’s nothing more exhilarating than catching a thermal … being suspended up there in the tiny cockpit. I’ve stayed up for 55 minutes. Of course, that;s nothing. Some guys stay up the whole day. The only thing is, there’s no-one to share the sensation with, although you can get two-seater gliders. My girlfriend is also learning to fly.
Would he care to reveal who, as they say on radio quiz shows, the lucky lady is?
A steel trap-door in the middle distance of his magpie mind snaps shut.
‘No!’ he stabs, and a lethal metaphorical flick-knife flashes.
Then he composes himself.
‘What I’d really like to do is to go gliding with Leonardo Da Vinci – or Chopin. That’s it! Chopin! He’d love it!’
‘You know, the other day someone asked me to name my favourite people and after I had, I realised they were all dead! There must be something significant in that,’ he laughs ruefully.
It sounds like a nail being drawn in the coffin.
Then we start talking about music (he’s a superb pianist) and the basset-hound-in-mourning face lights up as though powered by batteries.
‘I’m almost exclusively listening to Baroque Polyphonic nowadays. God – it’s so pure, so mathematically perfect, so precise, so unemotional and utterly perfect …’
I somewhat reluctantly bring up the subject of the SABC.
‘I don’t think much about the SABC – after all – they don’t think much about me!’ he says, looking bored.
Then he giggles.
‘But I do think their graphics on the news are marvellous. We’re doing a thing on them in the show. You know what I mean. The hunger strikes are symbolised by a loaf of bread crossed out … that sort of thing.’
Strangely enough the Kirby ego is bandaged more tightly than a geisha girl’s feet.
‘I detest self-involved ego-maniacs … Tom Wolfe described the syndrome perfectly in ‘The Me Generation.’ ‘
‘Heewackkk!’ I put it.
He smiles approvingly at me for the first time.
Then I blow my short-lived reputation.
‘Could-you-describe-yourself-in-three-words-and-do-journalists-sometimes-ask-you-silly-questions+BB’ I mumble.
‘No I couldn’t! Could you?’ The icy aquamarine eyes challenge me.
‘And’ he adds, bitch-to-bitch, ‘that’s probably one of the silliest questions I’ve been asked!’
Point taken, Mr Kirby.
This interview was originally published by the Sunday Times.
TAUBIE KUSHLICK: ‘It’s Queen Kong.’ (Gasp-gasp faint-faint)
WELCOME back my friends, to the show that never ends – the Taubie Kushlick Extravaganza!!!
Taubie Kushlick has been around since Niagara Falls was brand new. The Grande Dame/Doyenne of South African theatre, she has been producing plays for practically every company, both amateur and professional, since producing a show meant one night at the City Hall with the going price of tickets two-shillings and sixpence. (Thank-yew-very-much ‘joy-thu-show.)
By self-admission, she is the hardest of taskmasters.
The late Oliver Walker, the distinguished critic whose diet, it was rumoured, consisted of old razor-blades and vitriol, admitted that he was afraid of her …
And there used to be a joke doing the rounds, that Leon Gluckman was planning a new musical starring Taubie Kushlick. Its title – Queen Kong.
The stories about her are legion:
‘She’s an actress-batterer’
‘Her eyes are like gun-barrels!’
‘She’s a human bulldozer!’
‘You have to stand in line to hate her!’
With these stories ringing in my ears I set out to interview her, mouthing four-letter words (H-E-L-P), my emotional band-aid at the ready.
Taubie is Running Late, Taubie’s hair is still in heated rollers. I am shown to a flowered pool patio and subjected to machine-gun bursts of conversation, fired from an undisclosed source.
‘Won’t be long darling … NOT the best photographic girl … this is not put on for YOU, darling!’
Eventually she implodes through the French doors … looking stunning.
‘Huh, the metallic age suits her – silver hair, gold teeth and lead heart,’ I think to myself cattily.
‘I HATE people who are late!’ she booms, waving me to a seat.
‘THERE goes the telephone again! EXCUSE me, darlings! THIS is the ENERGY that creates ENERGY!’ she bawls over her shoulder as she sails, a galleon in Givenchy, back into the house.
Then she’s back, brandishing a couple of photographs of the poet and songwriter Jacques Brel.
‘LOOK at this face, darling! Just LOOK at this face – so SENSITIVE, so WISE … ah, BREL!
‘WONDERFUL man – died at 47 – lung cancer – didn’t stop smoking!’
‘When you’re born you make contact with death!’ she says dreamily quoting Brellian philosophy.
‘NO – I don’t want you to smoke EITHER!’ she adds bossily.
‘As I was saying, darling, I MUST be active, I’m ALWAYS active on TV looking tired – or in the NEWSPAPERS looking tired – or at the THEATRE, looking tired … but do you know, when I’m rested I don’t feel so well!’
‘Are you …’ I begin.
‘Afraid to DIE? Oh YES, darling! I want to see my GRAND-CHILDREN grow up. I want to produce more beautiful BREL, I want to go to beautiful FUNCTIONS! Now BREL – BREL was not afraid to die …’
The hands, fantastically beringed, orchestrate majestically, expressively.
‘But I’m not afraid of growing OLD!’ She adds defiantly.
‘Ageing is purely a MENTAL thing …
‘Now Brel … at 27 he had cancer … his work is a marriage of REALISM and POETRY … POETRY on the wings of music …’
Brel is never submerged far beneath the lake of her mind and often surfaces at odd times. Her obsession with him is strangely little-girl like.
‘How long have you …?’ I begin.
‘Been with Brel?’ (She speaks of it as a marriage). ‘Since 1961. No one had even HEARD of him. I discovered him on a visit to Paris and I FOUGHT for six years for the rights to bring him to South Africa …
‘He’s so WONDERFUL. He chose words with such CARE. If he uses a four-letter word it was because he wanted to make a STRONG statement – he wanted no watering down.’
‘Do you …?’
‘Use four-letter words? NEVER, darling! NEVER! Even when I’ve been under EXTREME pressure. You see, darling, I’ve always regarded the theatre as a JOB. Of course, I ADORE the theatre, but I never thought it necessary to pop into BED with someone to achieve what you want!’
‘Theatre is simply in my BLOOD. I always say to my husband – he’s a doctor – if they had to de-sanguinize me, the BAD theatrical blood – or maybe that’s MAGICAL blood – would simply flow back!’
To what extent does she impose the awesome Kushlick stamp on her actors?
‘Why, TOTALLY, darling, TOTALLY! Now take Ferdie Uphof – he used to work for Waygood Otis – you know, the lift people – I looked at him and I said ‘A bit NASAL Ferdie, but I’ll get you right!’ And it’s taken me six years to get him to do Brel as I want him to do Brel … Of course I’d ADORE to have a multiracial Brel!
‘Some actors can’t take it, darling. They get BITTER and ANGRY … but as a directrice I’ve HAD to become strong. Oh I’ve been cruel … I’ve been CRUEL – but I believe in DISCIPLINE!
‘My voice was not ALWAYS husky, you know,’ she tells me, a trifle – wistfully?
‘Oh I know I’ve been called a termagent, but people BELIEVE in me. I’m a BIG personality,’ she explains unnecessarily.
‘My type is dying out of the theatre. I’m a conductor who has to ORCHESTRATE the whole thing. Someone once wanted to paint a portrait of me flying in the air like a strange Botticelli figure, with a man hanging on one of my feet … but people BELIEVE in me, darling!’
And she’s right.
Bill Brewer, the Johannesburg theatre critic and actor once said ‘I’m not an atheist – I believe in Taubie Kushlick!’
On January 7 she celebrated her 50th wedding anniversary (‘I’m not TEN you know!’)
How does hubbie ‘Kushie’ handle her?
‘Ah, he RULES me – EVERYONE knows that!’ she retorts, faster than a speeding bullet.
‘All my life, when Kushie said ‘NO!’ it was ‘NO!’ He calls me ‘Moeti’. We honeymooned in Vienna, you know. For two years … Ah Vienna! The THEATRE, the BALLET, the OPERA, the SCHNITZEL! What EYES you’ve got, dear child!’ she adds irrelevantly.
Has she had any failures?
‘Ah YES, darling! A little Night Music was a failure. Lost R250 000 on it. It was too SOPHISTICATED, too EARLY, for this country. And I can’t help it if some people thought ‘From Broadway to Berlin’ was an air-ticket I was selling!
‘But then I’m a gambler. LOVE gambling! Bet ALL my money on the Durban July!’
There is a split-second of incredulous silence.
‘Are you MAD? Do I have to SHOW-OFF?’ she roars and I lower my eyes, suitably chastised.
She talks at me a lot more. About her grand-children, whom she adores, about her love of French cooking, about her loathing of the theatrical crowd.
‘I can’t think of ANYTHING more boring than hear people talking about themselves!’
Then I am treated to a rare gesture (‘Not many people have seen my house, darling’), a grand tour of her house, with its delicious pink lounge.
It’s filled with precious memorabilia: a ‘Cabaret’ scarf has been made into a lampshade, antique silver is displayed on a Welsh dresser, and there are fresh flowers everywhere (‘People smell them and always say ‘Can you smell the Kushlick?’), before I am led ceremoniously into the sacred temenos, the holy of holies, her boudoir, with its cupboard filled with a thousand magnificent gowns (Bill Blass, Givenchy, Oscar De La Renta, Mary McFadden) …
‘LOOK at this darling!’ she howls, swishing out of a blood-red silk dream and holding it in front of her.
‘Isn’t is OUTRAGEOUSLY GORgeous?’
It is. And so is she.
Intense. Vibrant. Undeniably talented, with a unique intelligence and razor-sharp wit. A woman, self-created for all seasons.
‘My dear, I’m a ROLLS ROYCE! A MAN-EATING ROLLS-ROYCE!’ she thunders.
And you have to agree with her, darling!
This interview was originally published by the Sunday Times.
Do we have any rock star journalists like @JaniAllan today? She defined 80s white South Africa, along with Sol and Anneline.
— Sarah Britten (@Anatinus) May 7, 2013
SOL KERZNER: The Miniature Minotaur
RATHER as is the case of a banana-peel victim, a scuffle at a bus-stop or an altercation at a lighted window, the doings of Southern Sun Hotels’ chief, Sol Kerzner, make for compulsive viewing.
Whether he’s looking for a ”Mary Poppins” to mind his children, collecting the Pope’s autograph, marrying an ex-Miss World or planning a modest R25 million addition to Sun City, Sol pounds the headlines with the repetition – and delicacy of a sledgehammer.
Who is this miniature minotaur with the college-boy grin, who opens up hotels the way other people open up boxes or winegums?
If you be seeking a 40-minute interview with Sol, better you be unhampered by anything akin to sensitivity … and best you be blithely indifferent to the numerous interrogations and several brush-offs that will follow the request.
The man, often running, frequently jumping, and seldom standing still, evidently finds personal interviews slightly less appealing than the bubonic plague.
I am asked, albeit very politely, not to be late.
I’d rather be late for the Last Judgement!
But when I DO get to see him, he is polite and helpful. If a little remote and … bored?
He pumps an unsmiling ‘Hi, nice to see you!’ into my hands and then lights up the first six centimetres of the two-and-a-half metres of cigarettes that he will have smoked by the end of the day.
A glance at our pocket-sized conquering hero reveals what the women’s blads are wont to call ‘a craggily good-looking face with piercing grey eyes’.
Dress? If he has a relationship with a tailor it must be merely a nodding acquaintance. He once admitted to being mistaken for a maintenance man in his own Beverly Hills Hotel, where he used to wander around in a pair of short and old takkies.
‘I pretty much don’t care what the papers say about me’ he drawls in his Bez Valley-Bronx accent.
Er … well, the interview must go on as they say in the business.
Was he an ambitious child? I ask him, by now my voice a panic-stricken soprano.
A faint grin creases the sandblasted-sensual features.
‘Naah. When I was at school I wanted to be a motor mechanic. That was about the extent of my ambition. It was when I matriculated at Damelin College and my academic results started looking pretty good that I decided to do a CA at Wits.’
In 1953 his father bought the Minora Private Hotel in Durban so Sol moved down to Durbs to help out in the hotel.
At that stage the hotel industry was in the doldrums.
There were few a la carte restaurants and no night-clubs to speak of.
The only diversion, it seemed, to most hotel residents, being to watch the nocturnal antics of the dread Durban cockroaches.
Even the mice, it was rumoured, wore overalls.
The gap was as wide as the proverbial barn door – and the Kerzners took it.
In 1958 Morris Kerzner (Sol Senior) bought the Palace Hotel (which was licensed) and thus it came to be that Sollie the K found himself playing the role of barman.
He nightly served up black eyes with Bloody Mary’s to Runyonesque characters like Harry the Horse and Nick the Greek.
‘I got good bouncing experience there!’ he smiles wryly.
Soon afterwards, with what was to become his accustomed speed (something between that of a Lamborghini and a Lear Jet), he bought-the-Astra-Hotel-threw-in-accountancy-opened-the-Talk-of-the-Town-bought-the-site-of-the-old-Torquay-Hotel-and-built-the-Umgeni-Hotel.
Meanwhile out lady’s talents were not going unobserved.
South African Breweries made him an offer that he couldn’t refuse: ‘Come into partnership with us and put together a chain of hotels.’
The year was 1969.
Southern Sun now has an impressive 28 hotels forming its Herculean five-star links.
Sol’s currency is dedication, enthusiasm and commitment. This, coupled with an incisive mind ever at the ready with a fast judgement and decision, makes him the prime force behind the Southern African tourism industry.
‘Good tourism will follow good hotels – and what could be better for our country?’ he explains, briefly flashing (white) porcelains and (orange, white and blue) patriotism.
Perhaps the ultimate monument to Sol’s vision and drive is Sun City.
Sobriquet’s include ‘Solcatraz’, ‘Sin City’, ‘Sol City’. ‘Sol’s Pilansberg Palace”, etc.
The R30-million Phase One of the mammoth project was completed in 17 months.
CF, his accustomed speed.
The Sun Palace is people-impacted: by last December, far more than a million visitors had tugged the recalcitrant one-armed bandits, squeezed into the casino and gaped at the wall-to-wall flesh montage that is the lavishly-mounted Extravaganza stage-show.
To promote this Sybarite City, Sol staged a R3-million world heavyweight title fight (for 86 000 local fans in the stadium, 3-million on SATV and 500-million on international TV links), between Gerrie Coetzee and John Tate in October 1979.
And if you may be forgiven for thinking that THAT might be a hard act to follow, for Sun City’s first anniversary , he staged a second world-title fight at the resort (aimed at 500 million world TV viewers), between Gerrie Coetzee and Mike Weaver.
Nothing on this scale, with this level of success, has been done before anywhere in the world.
‘You take a chance’, Sol grins. ‘Calculate the odds, research the international market properly, establish the Southern Africans’ taste, style, appetite and enjoyment, aim at giving them a good time at the best quality that they can afford – then go for it!’
‘So far it works.
It is clear to even the most casual observer that to have achieved what he has, on a personal, commercial, political and international level requires something more than the mentality of a merry innkeeper with a view to making a quick buck.
If Sol has one major point of ego, it’s in the measure of his own concepts.
If you say nothing else to him about Sun City, tell him it is unique.
The Americans, in the equivalent resort-chains of Las Vegas and Atlantic City say it.
Frank Sinatra, Shirley Bassey, George Benson, Jack Jones, Leo Sayer, Gloria Gaynor, Mike Weaver, John Tate, Telly Savalas, Lee Trevino and Gary Player, to name just a few, have said so.
Sol, who is most at ease in the US-styled computertalk developed from NASA, Kissinger and latterly Alexander Haig, would say:
‘In a highly competitive international marketing situation, estimating the viability of a tourism game-plan operation against Vegas and Noo Jersey, you shape your back-up from the leaders of the world’s entertainment, sport, convention and holiday-making bases.
Which, roughly translated. means that whatever the giants of the hotel industry are doing in Vegas and New Jersey, Sol will do better.
‘Maybe I’m too much of a perfectionist!’ he concedes, finally, drawing deeply on a cigarette.
A man who works 18-odd hours a day, he doesn’t consider his work any less fun than a game of mega-Monopoly.
‘I make a good point of enjoying each day,’ he says, ‘and I certainly believe that you get out of life just as much as you put into it!’
Another simple, but severely applied principle, is ruthless honesty – at all times and at all costs.
‘Life’s too short to worry about anything being exposed’, he frowns.
‘I’m not afraid of growing old. I’m not sure that I’ll ever be an old man. Maybe in the chronological sense – but that;s all.’
His is a household name, along with those of his showbiz buddies: Joanna Lumley, William Smith, Peter Falk, Sean Connery – you name them, he knows them, wines and dines them, brunches and lunches them.
But he will sharply point out that he is not a member of the ‘jet set’ or even the ‘Peacock set’.
‘I love people, I love my friends, but most people would be surprised to know that I stay home five nights a week with Anneline and the kids.’
Where to now, Sol, after zooming to the throne-room (bed-and-breakfast included) at the top of the international highrise?
No doubt the explosive dynamism that keeps the Southern Sol constantly in orbit around the globe will continue to generate the audacious and innovative ideas that spring from the mind of this – yes, he deserves to be called it – unique man.
A man with his stubby million-rand finger perennially prodding the public’s pulse, his eyes constantly roving the horizons of the future, Kerzner has the power of a Prometheus unbound.
This interview originally appeared in the Sunday Times
ANNELINE KRIEL: JANI ALLAN’S WEEK
DR DANIEL HARTMAN CRAVEN : The Doctor Knows Best
With a face blacker than the black of a chimney, he tolerated my inane questioning, as one would the ramblings of a mentally challenged eight-year old.
The interview I wrote also did not please the Cravenites overmuch.
Abusive telephone calls jammed my line and editorials appeared in the Afrikaans press to the effect that this distasteful and disrespectful (sies) article was the work of a writer who obviously drank milk out of a saucer.
It was also reported that upon being asked to comment on the story Dr Craven uttered a word that made his dog step forward.
Dr Craven’s dog celebrates in having the name ”Bliksem”
Could it be that what we witnessed was a severe case of SOHF – Sense of Humour Failure?
THE DOC was distinctly disgruntled.
”Ag, can’t you ask me whatever you want to on the FOAN?”
”What’s my address? Ag, everybody in Stellenbosch knows where I am. You can just ask anybody and they’ll tell you.”
DANIEL HARTMAN CRAVEN, the Monarch of Matieland, is leaning back in a chair the size of a chariot.
A bulldog look clamped to his face, cavernous nostrils flaring slightly, evokes the response to salute.
The incredible hulk, haloed by the later afternoon sun and further framed by a bay window, makes a bottle of Cremora balancing on the wooden window-ledge seem as small as a naartjie pip.
Dr Craven greets me with an unsmiling grunt (he seldom smiles), sighing heavily and causing papers on his Cyclopaean desk to flutter feebly.
I didn’t need a mind like Marlowe to suss that the thought of yet another interview bores him.
What could an onnosel FEEmayull, ask him that he has not been asked thousands and thousands and thouszzzz…?
Golly! He’s struggling to stay awake, I realise with consternation.
”Why, RUGBY, doc?” I ask brightly, my voice splintering the sleepy Stellenbosch afternoon like a tinny music box.
The Doc wines and rolls his eyes.
”I would HATE to think if I weren’t involved with rugby!” he intones, gloomy as a foghorn.
”But surely rugby is only a sport, a form of recreation?” I blunder on.
”Rugby”, he says finally, ”is a WAY OF LIFE.”
The words trudge heavily through the silence, bulldozing their way through the sun-dancing motes.
”AS ONE PLAYS SO ONE LIVES”, he recites, largissimo.
Born in ”Oktobermaand -die mooiste maand”, in 1910, on a a farm in the Orange Free State (where else could the Kubla Khan of rugby have sprung from?), the boy Daniel realized his vocation at an early age.
With thumbs like sweet-potatoes hooked into blue braces that are straining like hawsers (Doc loves his ”rys, vleis en aart-appels, not to mention jellie en vla), a faraway look in his rheumy eyes, the glum genius becomes more affable when discussing his geliefkoosde subject.
This tone softens as he begins to tell the tale of how he first ”came to rugby”.
”I must convey to you the importance of the tragic way in which I was introduced to rugby…”
”There was snow and I was helping my father and my brothers to collect sheep”, he begins the sermon.
”I remember my father saying. ‘Man, it’s a pity the Boks lawst in New Zealand…”
The granite head slumps forward in remembered sorrow. Then he continues with the saga in the snow.
”Well, until then I thought boks were gazelles. But when I was told what they REALLY are, I thought the fact that we’ve lost was extremely sad. It kindled in me the feeling that SOUTH AFRICA MUST NOT LOSE AGAIN!”
He fixes me with a baleful eye.
”I HAD TO UNDO WHAT THEY’D DONE.” The ominous words crash into the silence like boulders.
The telephone shrills and thankfully, the tense moment is broken.
”Hullo JAN!” the Doc barks into the mouthpiece in a businesslike way, reminiscences now roughly shoved aside.
I gaze at the glass-fronted cases filled with moth-eaten rugby memorabilia, pondering the fact that these scraps of fabric, pieces of metal, yellowing photographs, represent the power and the glory of the green and the gold, those twin colours that men have maimed and been maimed for.
The Doc is talking emphatically into the phone, pinkie finger diligently investigating his ear.
”Ja, well … haai, of course! …Daai mense is so keen … ons moet hulle elke jaar opDONder!”
‘Mr Rugby’ to all South Africans old enough to munch a mielie, Dr Craven insists that he didn’t set out to become ”Mr Rugby.”
”I am useless. I’ve never looked on myself as being worth anything”, he says, smugly.
”One doesn’t STRIVE to obtain success!” he explains. ”I simply wanted to play and I wanted to play WELL. Oneself should be in the background. You don’t do things for the sake of oneself.”
With a string of degrees including an honorary D Phil awarded him from Stellenbosch University, Dr Craven has written countless didactic books about rugby.
”It is man’s vocation to discover the laws underlying everything that exists. The laws God ingrained in everything are the laws for its development and it is man’s duty to discover these laws or creation and development and observe them – yes of KORS that includes rugby!” he snaps.
Who are we to argue? The Doc knows best.
His third Doctorate was for his thesis on ”Evolution of Modern Games.”
”Medicine. Man has discovered the laws of medicine. Now, Polio. That’s the latest thing. Now he’s discovering the laws of Polio.”
Who are we to argue? The Doc knows best.
Apart from captaining the Boks against the British Lions in 1938, and playing in countless other international tests, Craven has played for both Western Province and Northern Transvaal.
Was he pleased that WP won the ’82 Currie Cup?
”As President of the South African Rugby Board all the teams belong to me. These hostels are all mine!” he says pompously.
Craven’s fanatical devotion to physical education and rugby, has seen him travelling all over the world (including a brief scrum under the Iron Curtain), meeting the Queen, and naturally, opining on every subject under his rugby-ball-shaped sun.
But never let it be said that his views haven’t changed with the times.
In 1957 he warned that ”sexual depravity is directing us towards a precipice. Women are to blame for broken marriages because they dress to attract the attention of men even after they are married”.
But in 1982, when asked to comment on Erica Roe, the topless Twickenham streaker, he said, ”It must have been a beautiful sight!”
Craven maintains that he was elected to president of the SARB (and is kept in that position) by the Afrikaanse Broederbond because he is ”the only man who could keep South Africa in world rugby”.
And in spite of the fact that his broad back has been a target for many venomous barbs, and that for decades he has been urged to retire and ”give someone else a chance”, his brilliance as a coach is internationally recognised.
The All Blacks, the Wallabies and the British Lions all declared that if they had Danie the Disciplinarian as their coach they could ”lick the world.”
Of course there have been times too, when the chill steel of his has felled many rugby giants in the Pick-a-Bok game he plays according to his rules …
Twice married with four children, Dr Craven admits he has no time for anything other than rugby.
His evenings are spent working out training programmes or working out training programmes or perhaps working out training programmes.
VERY occasionally he may read his beloved Louis L’Amour western or listen to hymns.
And ARE rugby players all brawn and no brain?
The Doc laughs a silent mirthless laugh. Reaching into his vest pocket, he extracts a pair of clippers and starts paring his nails.
”Of course I (PING) dispute that!” he sneers. ”A (PING) game of rugby is a (PING) work of art!”
And what of his reputation as being a ”little Hitler?”
”You know”, he sighs, ”it’s a terrible (PING) thing for a parent to have to answer all those silly questions a (PING) child asks.”
”A good rugby player is a child, by the way. That’s the beauty of it. And that’s why I dictate – but only when I know I’m right!” (PING!)
This interview was originally published by the Sunday Times.
TRETCHIKOFF: ‘Don’t speak to me about kitsch’
When I flew to Cape Town to interview him, Tretchikoff, volatile and garrulous, gave me the welcome usually accorded to Columbia’s returning astronauts.
A charming host, nothing was too much trouble. He even made me promise to sit for him for a portrait.
The river of sweetness turned sour, however, after he had read my story.
I had taken the ”Meeekeeee” out of him, he pouted.
I had called him ”suburban” … (Why, only a week before our interview, an estate agent had told him that his house was worth ”tree-hunnerd-and-feefty tousand rands” …
He was not, not, NOT ”tubbeeeee”.
Nothing I said could placate him. And alas, I realised, I had blown my chance of being immortalised in gangrene by the man whose work everyone loves to hate.
He’s been called the King of Kitsch, the Pariah of the Paint-box and Tretch the Wretch.
Mention his name in the conventional cognoscenti circles of the art world and it’s like putting a match to gunpowder – there’s guaranteed to be a flare-up.
But Vladimir Grigorovich Tretchikoff, the little roly-poly Russian-born rebel of the canvas, has been giggling all he way to the bank since his first South African exhibition in Cape Town in 1948.
He is, according to some, the world’s richest living artist.
The chairman, manager, PRO and main shareholder of ”Tretchi’s Enterprises,” his prints are sold from Alaska to Australia, from the Fiji islands to the Falklands.
”Eenseedentally,” Tretchi will tell you, raising his million-rand index finger in the air, ”only thee taxman believes how reech I am. People read eet een the papers and they cannot beeleeve eet!”
Tubby Tretchi (he always refers to himself in the third person) gurgles happily – the sound of a bottle of Count Pushkin being emptied into a glass.
”Leesing sweetheart, money eesn’t everytheeng – when you’ve got eet! But leeving een a garrett ees for thee birds. I prefer thee Dorchester! Eef I decide to be miserable I’ll do eet in style!”
Oh, boy Tolstoy
Tretchikoff’s glamorous, green-faced ”Chinese Girl” is probably the best-known painting in the history of the world, – better known than perennial top-of-the-poppers like Leonardo’s ”Mona Lisa,” Constable’s ”Haywain” and Gainsborough’s ”Blue Boy.”
The painting, parodied countless times, has appeared in four films with stars like Michael Caine and directors like the late Alfred Hitchcock. And for every million reproductions of the work, millions of words have been written about her.
But when it’s Tretchi vs The Critics the game can get rough. Not all of the words have been complimentary.
”The Chinese Girl” is the closest you can get to morning sickness without being pregnant,” groaned one critic.
”The colour hypnotises – or should I say paralyses you!” moaned another.
A few years ago the multi-fisted up-market British magazine, Punch, described his work as ”the biggest thing in tasteful domestic furnishing since ducks flying up the chimney breast.”
Recently he came under verbal mortar attack from Punch again.
”Let Tretchi show you something – you will laugh like blazes!” the irrepressible Botticelli-faced artist tells me, hurrying out the room.
Moments later Mr T returns with a recent copy of the magazine in which none other than the Tory queen, Maggie Thatcher, has been given the Tretchi treatment, her porcelain handsomeness grotesquely transmogrified into ”The BLUE Lady.”
How does Tretchi feel about all this?
In a word, flattered.
”Tretchi is happy! The Chinese Girl was born in 1952 and she’s still going strong!”
He laughs delightedly at his own joke, giggling like a jelly.
Being out in the artistic polar regions evidently worries him not in the least. Far from becoming short-fused on the subject, he remains philosophical.
”Tretchi,” says Tretchi, pounding his chest with a pudgy pink fist roughly in the area of his heart, ”Tretchi laughs about his critics – they couldn’t afford to buy one of Tretchi’s painings if they wanted to!”
Other detractors have lacerated his work in a more literal way.
In 1952 one Vladimir vilified went so far as to slash several of his works with a knife.
In the last 30-odd years, Tretchi has proved that nobody loves him except the public, and the ”fine art critics” still take him less seriously than an after dinner mint.
In Esme Berman’s definitive book on ”Art and Artists of Southern Africa” he is dismissed in little more than two lines, under the rather patronising heading ”popular artists.”
Almost without exception, the art world gives him the brush-off, failing to pay him even the passing tribute of a sneer.
But one lone voice in the wilderness of those who are bitchy about Tretchi is none other than author Stuart Cloete.
Cloete, a total Tretchi devotee all his life insisted: ”A lot of people who have never owned a picture before have bought a Tretchikoff print… they have entered a new world by a door he opened.”
But there’s nothing the A-bomb artists likes better tan mud-in-the-eye. He simply scrapes it off and hurls it back: ”If my critics knew how to paint better pictures than me they would be driving Cadillacs – like me!”
H should care.
Tretchikoff’s work has been exhibited in 51 different countries.
Entire floors in exclusive departmental stores have been constructed to make way for Tretchikoff and Tchaikovsky – the background music he had made his ‘signature’ tune.
In 1962 a record 205 000 people crammed into high falutin Harrods in London to swoon over his dying swans, discarded orchids and dusky beauties.
”And leesin sweetheart – they don’t come to see my blue eyes – they come because they like my paintings.”
Tretchi’s fans may not know anything about art – but they know what they like… and what they like is Tretchi.
For every ”synthetic” written in the visitor’s books at any of his exhibitions, there are a hundred breathless ”brilliants” and ”superb!”
The Peter Pan painter (”I’ll be 39 forever”) has a wit that is as sharp as an etching needle.
When he was asked on BBC TV which British artists he most admired, Tretchi snapped ”Don’t ask me about other painters. I have trouble enough anyway from my own crimes on canvas!”
Asked what pictures he hung in his own home he giggled wickedly and replied, ”Tretchikoff’s of course! What else? But I can only afford a couple…”
A visit to the artist’s surprisingly comfortable-but-unsumptuous Bishopscourt, Cape Town home (called in classic night-club style ”Tretchi’s”) will confirm this.
For your further enjoyment, walking into his home is not unlike plunging through the picture-plane and stepping-into one of his paintings.
One wall is a rock-face covered with Bushman painting. Oriental vases tall as telephone booths, selected pieces from the master’s oeuvre (including the famous amethyst and gold fish sculpture) are dotted about the decor.
A shiny hi-fi with pointed legs and a bathroom sporting slightly tired green towelling mats are further reassuringly unpretentious symbols of the the ordinariness of a home that one suspected would be quite extraordinary.
But be his court reasonably humble, it would be hard to imagine a more benevolent – and extravagant – baptism from the King of the visual cliché and verbal charm.
Tretchi, wearing a polyester tie, lived-in cardigan, he tells me his story as if he were relating it for the first time.
”All that has happened to me was predicted at a seance I attended in Java in 1948,” he says, sipping his honeyed tea. (He neither drinks nor smokes).
What was predicted and what did indeed eventuate is a long, long story, the telling of which stretched over tea, lunch at the Kelvin Grove Country Club and a drive to inspect the handful of houses that he is renovating (a project he is involved in with a business associate) – and then some.
The Tretchi story (read all about it in his autobiography ”Pigeon’s Luck”) is strictly truth-is-stranger-than-fiction Wilbur Smith stuff.
A telex could be sent thus:
Born Manchuria. At four to Shanghai to flee Russian revolution. Orphaned at 11. Began portrait painting. First exhibition in teens. Met future wife Natalie. Went to Hong Kong. Worked as a journalist/cartoonist. Married, had daughter Mimi. When Hong Kong evacuated, forced to leave. Wife and daughter installed on ship, destination unknown. For four years heard nothing of each other, each presuming the other dead. Left Japan on a leaky vessel which was attacked. Forty-eight hours spent in lifeboat that the occupants were trying to row to Java. Captured by the Japanese. Spent four years in Java in POW camps. Finally released because of his Russian nationality.
Anthony Hocking, who co-wrote ”Pigeon’s Luck” with Tretchi admits that he found the tale slightly harder to swallow than a two-humped camel. But extensive research (he contacted people in over 21 countries) proved it to all be true.
Hocking even succeeded in tracing Miss Eileen Higgs, a New Zealand YWCA official, who had been on the lifeboat with Tretchi and who had faithfully kept a diary on scraps of biscuit paper…
Now one can understand why Tretchi can say with feeling, ”I have suffered as a POW – and at the hands of the South African critics.’
But let’s loop-the-loop back to the present.
”South African art is in a state of decline!” Tretchi is declaring, impatiently brushing the famous forelock from his forehead.
”There’s absolutely no one who can stand een the shoes of Pierneef, Wenning or Stern. And you know why? Hmmm? Eet’s because the tuition of our students is een the hands of meediocrity…tell me what worthwhile thing is being done at Michaelis, for example?” he demands.
”None of the students are taught that draughtsmanship is the basis of all good art. Even Picasso – no matter what hee did hee was first and foremost a superb draughtsman.”
Tretchi heemself – oops, himself – never had an art lesson in his life.
”I learned in the hardest school, the professional school, because I had to learn to survive!”
”And please write thees down. If the critics are surprised at my phenomenal success, so am I!” he hoots with laughter.
”I never had the audacity to aim for the top. Mind you, I am only successful in my art,” he says ruefully. ”With any venture that is not related to my art I lose my pants!”
Tretchi (”Petta”) and Natalie (”Sabotcha – which means ”little dog”) lead a remarkably low-wattage life.
In fact, their suburban slip is continually showing.
Tretchi, when he’s not farming (his newest venture), enjoys a little pottering about, a little poker (he has a reputation for playing a mean game), a little painting (he hardly needs to exert himself these days, does he?) – and a little dancing.
”I like to step out,” explains the high-energied Hop-o-my-thumb who once swam across Hartbeespoort Dam and back for a fifty pound bet.
Natalie’s placid nature is the perfect foil to her husband’s volatility.
”If I burst out and she does complain I tell her she should have married a bookkeeper!” Tretchi says, laughing uproariously.
All cuddly conviviality, there are probably only two subjects that irritate the czar of the canvas.
”I tell you I could scream when they ask me how I charge my work. Do you charge according to how long eet take you or how many eenches!” he whines, mimicking a kvetching woman.
The other subject is kitsch.
”Don’t speak to me about kitsch,” says the man who has oft been called Kitschikoff, grimacing as though I have picked a scab.
”I don’t like that word and I don’t know what it means…”
Tretchi you’re terrific – ”It Ain’t What You Do – It’s The Way That You Do It!”
This interview was originally published by Sunday Times Lifestyle
Pik Botha appeared on BBC’s Question Time last month. He looked as irrelevant as the solitary man sitting at the end of the bar. But it was not always so.
Many years ago I interviewed the then South African Foreign Minister, Pik Botha. This is what I wrote:
Often running, frequently jumping and rarely standing still, Foreign Minister Pik Botha’s name snags newspaper headlines internationally and daily. After a quarter of a century – make that half a century – in the killing fields of détente, his gungho tyle of dueling has his detractors groaning. But there are those that smile on the showman as Elgar would on the young Menuhin.
Especially “That guy who used to have his castle next to the river in Athens. He would receive his guests with tremendous hospitality. And charm. But his particular fun was that when night came he would put them into a bed. If their bodies were too lengthy for the bed he would chop them off until they fitted the bed. If they were too short, he would stretch them until they fitted easily.”
“And that is South Africa!” he says triumphantly.
I have no idea what he is talking about.
Tell me about stamina, since you have the franchise, I suggest.
“Very interesting question. Sociologists, psychologists, criminologists have not yet succeeded in determining how much the individual inherits and how much is induced by the environment. We’ve travelled to the moon and into space….Genetics…..very interesting.”
There is a short silence followed by a long silence.
“In the life of every human being there will be a number of determining factors which shape your motives, objectives, your style, that which you think is the meaning of life and the brevity of it.”
“Everything else is less important than the individual’s concept not only of his life, but in terms of the lives of those around him. The desire of the individual to explain things scientifically, capture in terms of visual perception what others cannot see….”
“People perceive events in such a way that colours and affects their minds and their decisions. And it can be totally false throughout human history. This is exactly our dilemma politically inside this country. It is a perception among the Conservative Party members, for instance, that we are selling the country down the drain. It’s perception! There’s no other way I can explain it. On what is perception based?”
The good ship Bothatanic is thusly launched. Waves of gleaming, meaningless polit-speak wash over me.
Death by drowning or being an old maid is quite a pleasant sensation when you give up the struggle.
“What is the effect, would you say, on one’s mind, of the fact that our earth and sun, our solar system is now half way through its life? Over the next three billion years our sun as a star will slowly die. Our sun. As a star. At first burning everything to a crisp within its vicinity. Certainly Mercurius (sic), Venus, Earth, Mars and further afield. Becoming a light ball in stellar space for ever….gone…finished.”
It’s at least as good as Carl Sagan. Whirling and whirling through endless space….
“Whatever one’s political persuasions this is going to happen. This is a fact. What intrigues is what effect does that have on an individual’s mind? This simple, elementary exposition on my part of the dilemma of human life illustrates how relative everything is.”
“Ten hairs on your head may be quite a few, but in your soup, ten years are quite a lot.”
There’s an explanation that involves phrases like mutual gravitational pull, cycles of turbulence, internal thermonuclear fired, inevitability, fathomless pits – accompanied by the visual aids of a heavy crystal ashtray and a sugar basin.
“Against that background – I’m telling a story here – against that background how should we handle negotiations between countries within a brief space of time? There’s such a thing as the locomotive of history which exists in the willpower, the determination, the inventiveness, imagination, creative capability, capacity to understand, accumulate knowledge, use is, apply it, seeking the interconnection of all things thinkable that is here…solely here.”
He jabs his temple. His voice drops.
“THAT is a very powerful force.”
As a child of four he contracted meningitis in Lorenco Marques. His parents took him to a small hospital in Barberton. His mother made a promise to God that if her son survived he would one day become a church minister.
This pledge later caused him inner turmoil. In his first year at varsity he had a discussion with a theologian who told him “No, it doesn’t work that way. God would not expect him to keep that kind of promise. He would rather see the young man devote his life to any career that endeavoured to uphold Christian principles.”
So he became a politician.
His school career reads like a testimonial for an American Field Scholarship student. Or foreign diplomat. Top of the class, chairman of the debating society, captain of the first rugby team, officer in the school cadets.
Acquiring knowledge was an insatiable appetite. The wider the knowledge the greater the swimming pool in which you can swim.
His father was principal at the Paul Kruger Primary School which he attended. It is between Rustenburg and Swartruggens; Herman Charles Bosman heartland.
“Those hills…when I was a child people absolutely believed that the greatest concentration of ghosts in the whole of the Transvaal was found there.”
“I think its attributable to the fact that a large number of skeletons were found as a result of Mzilikazi’s murders of the Tswana. He devastated the whole environment. Historians reckon that he killed up to two million. Putting them in kraals. Burning them to death. It was faster than spearing them. As the farmers ploughed up came the skeletons.”
He is curiously unaffected by the gruesome image he has conjured.
“Tell me about hunting,” I say.
The well-kept grave face illuminates.
“Lady! Now you’re talking sense. Nothing better than to get out of this place. Go out by myself. Take a few oranges. Toilet paper to mark the trees. Then you walk. Walk. Walk. You sit under a tree which, when you start inspecting it, is a metropolis. You are sitting there on your backside against that trunk amongst a whole universe of its own.”
“Its not the killing of animals. It’s to be next to a charcoal fire.”
“And light your cigarette from the embers?” I suggest.
“Yes! Exactly! Thank you! And smell the smoke. The acoustics! You can blindfold me and I’ll tell you exactly where I am. The first shot you fire. You can hear it over a distance of ten to twenty kilometres.”
Foreign correspondents who have accompanied him abroad tell tales of revels that include drinking grappa from a human skull.
He shows me a framed poem by Eugène Marais.
‘’n Druppel gal in die soetste wyn…’
It’s relentlessly sentimental.
Finally, everything can be brought down to a Latin phrase engraved on the lawn in the State Guest House.
“Pereunt et imputatur. The hours that I have measured have not been in vain” he translates.
Hosannah today. Tomorrow you may be crucified.
This column originally appeared in the Sunday Times.
I have just heard of the passing of Joan Brickhill. As a tribute to her I remember an interview I did with Joan Brickhill and Louis Burke.
The giddy glitter and G-string gun ‘n doll of South African stage and cinema fulminate into the room – Joan Brickhill and Louis Burke.
Before I can say Follies Fantastique, I am whirled out, slow-slow-quick-quick-slow into Joan’s garden to ‘ooh-aah’ the marvel of Joan’s Green Thumb.
“She talks to them you know,” Louis explains proudly, whizzing me past outsized rhododendrons….
“….and of course they respond!”
We zoom past seed-packet Technicolor ranunculus, delphiniums and snapdragons, before stopping at a giant rose-garden that would have done Capability Brown proud.
“She’s had a rose named after her you know – yes! ‘Joan Brickhill’ It’s a beautiful yellow rose…”
The original of the beautiful yellow rose is clad in lemon-meringue yellow. She’s an immaculate Barbie Doll.
“Oh Louis, let her come in out of the rain!” she calls in a modulated voice.
I had forgotten it is raining. Why should I remember when the sunshine and spangle of the Brickhill-Burke’s twosome is beamed at me?
Louis obediently polkas me back into the house and on to an antique chaise-longue. His mother Poppy Solomon (I later learn) danced with Anna Pavlova.
“That’s Dick King’s couch you’re sitting on!” he barks, accusingly, immediately assuming center-stage …
Downstage left the leading lady enters. A flawless cast as the Charming Hostess.
“Joan’s great-great-grandfather, James Brickhill, was one of the first eleven men in Durban and he was friendly with the King family” Louis continues.
He has the kind of Machiavellian good-looks that first nights and velvet blazers are made for.
As pioneers of South African showbiz, the Burkes have ploughed through the seas of snide criticism, financial deep water and adversity – pick your cliché – but still they remain a befeathered and bejeweled institution. They are known and respected by anyone worth their showbiz salt and sequins.
Joan, a feisty grande dame of the footlights, has the trim figure of a girl of sixteen.
She pours coffee. It is a carefully choreographed ritual.
Theirs is a love-match, but it’s fun to hear the verbal dueling.
“I’m dedicated. He’s stage-struck,” explains the lemon meringue, tart and sweet.
“No, my darling! I’m not stage-struck. You’re obsessed.” Louis’s teeth are bared in an Ivor Novello grin.
They’ve been together for twenty years.
“And in forty we’ll still be having fun!” Louis gazes at her adoringly.
Swords are swopped for simpers faster that the final drop of a curtain.
Both are ex-drama teachers (Stanislavski disciples) from Durban. They have guided and coached a vast number of actors and actresses, from their first tentative steps to tantrum-impacted top-billing.
In fact, Joan, at one stage, coached Louis.
“We both saw ‘Fame’ and we were in tears,” recalls Louis. “That’s what it’s all about. Imagine the responsibility I have as a director when I can change someone’s life with my decision?”
We discuss their supremely noble and utterly futile attempt to save His Majesty’s Theatre from closing.
“We were madly idealistic and completely stupid.” Louis shrugs elegant shoulders.
“It was the most traumatic period in our lives. Sleep? Well at one stage sleep was a thing of the past! Joan – Joan knew it would never work, but Joan NEVER said ‘I told you so.!’ ”
“I’m a fool to stay married to you!” laughs Joan.
Louis has just cast her as Dolly Levy in “Hello Dolly”, their “Goodbye His Majesty’s.”
“People have said a lot of bitchy things about Joan taking the lead, but I ask you, WHERE, WHERE could I get someone who can SING better, ACT better and DANCE better than her. AND walk down a staircase the way she can?”
Joan, it is said, is endowed with the constitution of a horse.
“Joan will come home, having been at the theatre the whole day and cook us a full roast and three-veg meal at two am.” Louis tells me.
Joan waves a manicured hand deprecatingly.
“I’m actually a scatterbrain.”
“No you’re not. You’ve just got too much to do! You’re grown a lot!” he adds a tad patronizingly.
“I’ve been good for you’, counters Joan archly.
Joan was a victim of her parents’ vanity, a child prodigy. She made her stage debut at two.
“She should be a world star!” Louis exclaims.
Joan hushes him gently.
“I was needed to do other things, darling…”
Doing other things she certainly does, whether it is acting as cast psychologist, nurse, organizer of the impossible – or planting bulbs by flashlight at one in the morning.
The tandem are currently preparing for possibly the most exciting roles in their careers – those of Executive Entertainment Producers at Sun City.
“Louis thinks there are 35 hours in a day. Of course we all know there are only 29!” teases Joan.
A few days later I attend a Gatsby-themed garden party at their home.
TV cameras rove hungrily and the air is heady with the smell of jasmine and joie de vivre.
He is wearing a double-breasted suit; she is in a crocheted confection contoured to the formidable chassis.
They float among the lesser mortals dispensing charm and champagne in magnum quantities….
I slip away and give thanks for their adornment to the showbiz scene.
This column originally appeared in the Sunday Times Lifestyle and was later republished in Jani Allan’s 1983 anthology, Face Value.
Jani on Jani: Diagonal Street Déjà vu
Twenty five years ago on January 8th I was told by my editor to write a front page interview which was to be entitled Jani by Jani. In those days the Sunday Times cost R1.61 +19c tax. Many of the key players in this storm in a thimble are dead. Hopefully the other haters are dying off. I write this for a different generation and for those with a sense of the ridiculousness that has always been a hallmark of many things South African. Cf Nkandla, Malema, Zuma etc.
Jani by Jani
Hot on the trail of South Africa’s most wanted journalist.
Roll up! Roll up! It’s the Jani and ET show. BOM. Bring own mud.“Broedertwis! Blondine!”
Credited with the honour of single-handedly destroying the weerstand of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging is the liberally loathed, much adored but alas not ignored Sunday Times columnist, JANI ALLAN. The mask of theatre never drops – even in journalism. Behind one mask there will always be another. Unless Jani Allan – sound of ripping canvas, interviews Jani Allan Face to Face.
I track down the Bitch to her lair.
Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war! Better still unleash the baying newshounds. They’re far more vicious. Skewered on a spotlight, the private muse – at last! – is public domain. It’s open hunting season. Track the bitch to her lair in the Diamond Building in downtown Diagonal Street, Johannesburg.
Her kennel is of such modest dimensions that if a dog were to occupy it, it would have to wag its tail up and down.
Glamorous building. An architectural hybrid, part Gothic cathedral, part Concorde. The painted pariah herself looks glamorous too (I grudgingly concede).
A human hybrid, part Gucci, part Guinevere, she is wearing – sharp intake of breath – haute khaki and colour co-ordinated Polyfilla. Is the haute khaki courtesy Out of Africa. Or…raise one eyebrow – Allan with ‘Blanche?
She’s a dangerous woman. A gevaarlike vrou, they say.
Ask Magnus. (Malan. Minister of Defence.) Or ask Pik Botha. The Foreign Wotsisname. Thing. She’s interviewed them. Or you can ask the big Huge. Euge…well perhaps not now, not so soon, not at this time.
Anyway. I’ve never liked her. Not that I’ve met her. People who know her slightly say that she has a surprising sweetness, gentleness, that she always makes everyone laugh.
The few who know her better say she’s actually shy and vulnerable. Poignantly solitary. Children and animals adore her instantly.
But you can’t trust children and animals. Can you?
Jani is sitting cross-legged on a swivel chair in front of a computer. The asana she’s held for ten days in the eye of the storm that has raged about her since the alleged affair with the AWB chief hit the headlines.
The pressure has been daunting. Even to a virtuoso in survival. Reporters and photographers have kept vigil outside her Sandhurst apartment. Local and international television and pressmen have jammed the switchboards of the Sunday Times. Paparazzi lie in wait when she leaves the building. Floods of abusive letter have poured in. Demands that her editors ‘take action’ against her.
There have been requests, too, to appear on TV, as well as offers to publish The Complete and Unexpurgated story of Me and ET. There have also been dozens of calls from those incensed by her crucifixion by the Fourth Estate.
And yet somewhere out there is an army of Jani fans. Strangers who send her a hundred yellow roses. Old ladies who write in for autographed photographs. Students who want to “be like you.’’
Disarmingly charming, forthright and frank, even in the abyss, she isn’t experiencing SOHF -Sense of Humour Failure. How annoying.
Why, she’s as unruffled as a mirror-lake on an iced Christmas cake.
It’s only if you dare gaze long enough into the reflection that you run the risk of drowning in some unfathomed haunted depths.
In such charted waters did Excalibur lie till Arthur claimed his birthright. Is this ethereal being an eietyd Lady of the Lake.
Is she an agent for the AWB. Or is she, in fact the State’s most powerful weapon against the Volkstaat.
Um. What a wonderful notice board I gush, meaninglessly.
Mementos of a life of frivolity and flash. The celebrity journalist at work and play.
Jani arriving at Rome Airport. Jani in Mauritius. A fan letter addressed to Princess Cool. A plumpish pretty girl with Roger Moore in Corfu. (Jeez has she aged or what!) A photograph of Jani riding a Lippizaner stallion. A newspaper cutting listing the fifty most admired people in the country.
I ponder the imponderables while she fetches coffee. I gaze at the Piero della Francesca print of The Baptism of Christ and the iconic images of Milano Cathedral which are jigsaw puzzled into the jet-setting memorabilia.
And what is this tiny scrap of yellowing paper?
I have always belonged to the public and the world not because I was talented or beautiful but because I never belonged to anything or anyone else.
From the unfinished autobiography of Marilyn Monroe.
She’s been writing her column for nine years. That’s more than four hundred Sundays. More than four million readers each week. That’s stamina. That’s success. That’s the deadliest sin for those who have a touch of the Green Eyed Monster.
What price fame?
The column is the needle that pulls the threads of my life together, the focus of all my energy. Striving for the summit is the only escape from the chasms of emptiness.
“How GALLING!” wag the tongues. “She’s got everything. Blonde hair. Sports car. Diamonds. Picture in the newspaper every week…! Who does she bloody think she is?”*
Jani knows. Always did. Current circs prove that Jani Allan has forfeited the right to be a real person. She’s a marketable commodity. She sells newspapers. Not only her own.
She’s learned too, that tricky part of success is finding someone who’s happy for you. Didn’t DH Lawrence dub success “The Bitch-Goddess?”
In Real Life, the mundane is taken to the highest art form. Nights spent at the computer in a deserted newsroom. Happiness is anywhere far from the madding crowd. Preferably on a horse.
Still, the scandal-mongers are having a field day. The columnist you love to hate, is now the Lady in Hating.
From frothy social columnist to pulse-taker of the politico, psyche-analyst of the powerful it’s difficult to pin-point the exact time that Just Jani was transmogrified into the ticking time bombshell called Jani-Allan-Of-The-Sunday-Times – a means to an end.
Pieter-Dirk Uys once said:
“Jani Allan is like a Statue of Liberty made of pure kryptonite standing in the vast bay of South African journalism and melting all assaulting Supermen into submission…”
Will the kryptonite crumble.
I can’t wait to see. Can you?
*I no longer have diamonds, a sports car or blonde hair. I am living quietly and happily in a blaze of obscurity in New Jersey.
This column was originally appeared in the Sunday Times on 8 January, 1989.