Saturday, August 3, 2019

Parents, part 3

In the previous entry we left off with our family just having moved to Fern Glen, Port Elizabeth.

The move to Port Elizabeth was because my father took a new job, at Livingstone Hospital which, during the Apartheid era, was reserved for non-white patients (not just blacks, but anyone not classified as white).  However, many of the doctors plus some of the nursing staff and administrators were white.  There were relatively few black doctors, but larger numbers of Indians, some of whom had trained in India and others in South Africa. 

My father sometimes hosted parties at our house for his colleagues.  Because of Apartheid they couldn’t have parties in restaurants or other public places.  According to the laws at the time, a white person was not allowed to give a black person alcohol.  So any black guests were supposed to bring their own alcohol, though my father always ignored this.  (The law was specific to blacks, rather than all non-whites, so it was legal to give alcohol to Indians and other races.  This law did at least have a somewhat reasonable background, supposedly to stop black workers being paid in alcohol rather than proper wages.)  My father sometimes joked that the secret service used to spy on his parties. 

Through my father’s work, my parents made many good friends of other races.  It also meant that from a relatively early age I was exposed to educated people of other races whereas most of my contemporaries would have met almost exclusively poorly educated working-class blacks.  Of the friends they made through my father’s work, probably the closest were Nagin and Ramola Parbhoo.  The Parbhoos later moved to Cape Town (and my parents to Pretoria).  I managed to make contact with Ramola through Facebook a few years ago.  She and Nagin had divorced many years previously and he passed away about a decade ago.  Ramola wrote in a message to me: “I remember you Mom and Dad with such fondness.  Your mother was one lady who took it on her to empower me as a young medical wife and nominated me as President of the Medical Wives Association in Port Elizabeth.  We even travelled to Mexico and South America whilst I was expecting my second baby.  Never forget the fun parties we had at you home when you were still quite young.”

Ramola has written a few books on Indian cooking in South Africa, such as the one in the image.

I don’t know whether my father became an anesthetist (what Americans refer to as an anesthesiologist) when he started at Livingstone Hospital or moved into that field some time later.  I do recall that in order to become a specialist anesthetist he had to spend a year training at an academic hospital and had to pass various exams.  To this end he spent 1965 in Cape Town.  The rest of the family stayed in our house in Fern Glen for the first half of 1965 and then for the second half of the year we went to live with my maternal grandmother in Knysna.  I don’t know why we went for just half of the year rather than either the whole year or not at all.  Maybe it was for financial reasons.  I do know our house was rented out while we were in Knysna.  The renters were still in the house when we returned to Port Elizabeth for the start of the school year in January 1966, so we spent a few weeks in Humewood Mansions, a residential hotel opposite Humewood beach.  (It is now called the Humewood Hotel, with the photo below being from its web site.)  That was great because it meant I could swim in the ocean after school each day.

My father and Nagin Parbhoo were both very interested in the history of their profession.  The official South African Society of Anaesthesiology (SASA) Museum, housed in the University of Cape Town (UCT) Department of Anaesthesia, is called the Nagin Parbhoo History of Anaesthesia Museum.  My father eventually obtained a PhD on the history of anesthesia in South Africa (see a later entry).

While in Cape Town one of the people my father apparently worked with was Chris Barnard, the cardiac surgeon who performed the world’s first heart transplant a few years later.  My father had a very poor opinion of surgeons in general and Chris Barnard in particular, sometimes saying that a monkey could be taught to perform surgery but that it is the anesthetist who keeps the patient alive.  I didn’t ever try to argue the point with him.  If I had, I would have mentioned that may be all very well, but putting someone to sleep, keeping them alive during an operation and then waking them up again doesn’t actually fix anything – the surgery is the only reason for putting the patient to sleep in the first place.  I suspect there was at least a little bit of envy tainting my father’s dislike of Chris Barnard.

My father had been a heavy smoker, of cigarettes and pipes.  I remember his pipe rack and him using pipe-cleaners similar to the ones in the photo below.  At some stage while my father was in Cape Town he decided to stop smoking.  He said he smoked all the cigarettes he had on hand one after the other (or maybe multiple at once) and then stopped cold turkey.  I don’t think my mother ever smoked.  If she did, she must have stopped long before my earliest memories.

Both my parents were rather heavy drinkers.  My father could probably have been classified as a high-functioning alcoholic.  He never drank during working hours, but over the weekends drank at lunchtime and in the evening.  Maybe from when I was young, but at least later in his life, he had several drinks most weeknights too.  From an early age my brothers and I were allowed to have wine when we ate in a restaurant or, on special occasions, at home.  The earliest such occurrence that I can pinpoint to an exact date (thanks to the Internet) was September 29, 1969, soon after I had turned 15.

We were heading to Cape Town on vacation and spent the night of September 29 in a hotel in the town of Ladismith in the Karoo.  (At least I think that’s where we stayed.)  We had dinner in the hotel.  Some time after I had gone to bed, it felt as if the bed was moving up and down.  I assumed that I must have had too much wine with dinner and was a bit tipsy.  At breakfast the next morning my grandmother mentioned she must have had too much wine because she’d felt as if her bed had moved up and down.  (How my parents, my maternal grandmother and three kids all fitted in one car is a mystery.  That was way before the days of minivans or SUVs.  I presume we had a station-wagon – I know we had one at various stages, but don’t recall when.) 

Later that day we heard on the news that there had been a magnitude 6.3 earthquake near Tulbagh, another town about 125 miles / 200 km away at 10:04 PM the previous evening.  So it hadn’t been the wine – the beds had actually moved up and down.  Earthquakes are rare in South Africa and that was apparently the most destructive one in South African history.  Earthquake shakes Tulbagh  Tulbagh

Although my parents drank quite substantially, I never saw them visibly drunk – certainly not to the point of staggering around.  About the only sign that they had been drinking was that they sometimes became quite argumentative, though never abusive (either verbally or physically).

They also weren’t strict disciplinarians.  I can count the number of times I recall my brothers and me being punished on the fingers of one hand, maybe even on my thumbs.  Quiz question for you:  Was the lack of punishment because we were reasonably well-behaved or were we reasonably well-behaved because we didn’t have a need to rebel against stern discipline?  My father sometimes used to say “pull up [or straighten] your socks; you look like a cheap prostitute” when we were still too young to know what a prostitute was, cheap or otherwise.  (In that regard, a year or two ago I came across a few surprising entries in the diary my father kept when he was serving in North Africa and Italy during the closing stages of the Second World War.  For weirdness nothing beats what I mentioned in the “Parents, part 1” episode when in the entry in which wrote that victory in Japan had just been declared and followed that statement with “Have been very depressed today.  Everything seems to have gone wrong since I’ve joined up.”  I’m still having trouble processing those comments.)

Along with not being very strict, they didn’t put pressure on us to do well academically.  They didn’t offer incentives/rewards for good grades nor were there consequences for poorer grades, even though teachers frequently commented in my school report cards that I could (or should) do better.  Maybe my parents realized that motivation needs to come from within.  I adopted a similar attitude with our kids, helping them when asked and praising but not otherwise rewarding good performances.  Another quiz:  Did they do well because of this benign attitude or did I get away with being benign because we were fortunate to have kids who were reasonably strong academically.

Below are two examples of my report cards.  The first is from grade 7 (what in South Africa was called Standard 5 back then) with comment “David does not work to the peak of his capabilities.  The second is from grade 9 with a warning that I should care about more subjects than just math and science lest I become “an absent-minded Chemistry professor.”  Did I do better or worse than that by becoming an absent-minded biostatistics professor?

Although I could pinpoint the earthquake episode above to a specific date, there are other instances I will mention in this and subsequent entries that I can’t place to within even a couple of years.  The following is one such.  From the dates I give, it must have been at some time between 1959 and 1965.

My father entered what I presume was a raffle and won first prize, the choice of a painting by the artist Stewart Titcombe.  Titcombe (1898-1965) was British.  In 1948 he was offered work at an advertising agency in Port Elizabeth, so moved there with his family.  I remember going to the artist’s studio with my father.  In later years my father sometimes mentioned that the painting he chose was hidden away behind other works, implying Titcombe didn’t want my father to find it.  The undated newspaper clipping below documents that my father won a painting.  (An Internet search didn’t provide any information about the “Dorlaine Benefit Fund”.)

The painting now hangs in our bedroom.  The date next to the artist’s signature in the bottom right corner looks like ’59, though it might be ’54.  The latter seems unlikely since we didn’t move to Port Elizabeth until 1957.  I have always liked this painting, probably because I love being near the ocean and find it very soothing.  (The South African coastline is a wonderful mix of very rocky sections and magnificent sandy beaches.) 

I think this was the first piece of original artwork that my parents acquired.  Over the years their collection expanded substantially and included not only paintings but also sculptures and other items.  When our father passed away, my brothers and I and our stepmother went through the house marking the items each of us wanted if/when our stepmother eventually sold the house.  (We managed to complete the distribution without any blows being struck.  Actually the whole process was entirely amicable.)  We have a few other items from my parents’ collection, but this one is my favorite.

Here are two more of the art works I inherited.  I don’t know where this road in this one is, but the colors are typical of parts of South Africa.

 The Campanile is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Port Elizabeth.  It was completed in 1923 and commemorates the first British settlers in South Africa, known as the 1820 Settlers.  There is now a freeway just this side of the Campanile and the interesting-looking building to the right has disappeared.  (Sorry about the reflection in the glass.  This is hanging high up on a wall and I wasn’t going to risk life and limb to get it down just to take a photo in better lighting.)

In terms of the arts, my parents also liked going to plays and musicals.  Apart from local productions, they also went to some when traveling internationally, such as seeing the London version of Hair.  I have the LP recording of Hair that they bought in London (photo of album sleeve below).  They also saw various Tim Rice / Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, including Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and probably also Evita and Cats.  The latter would have appealed particularly to my mother who, as an English teacher, appreciated T.S. Elliot (“There’s a whisper down the line at 11:39 …).  I’m not sure whether they saw the London version of Joseph, but I went with them to see the South African version.  As far as I know, they weren’t into opera or classical music though.  I don’t recall them ever going to an opera or a symphony concert. 

There were (and continue to be) performances in Port Elizabeth of several of Shakespeare’s plays.  My parents typically attended these as my mother was a Shakespeare buff.  When we studied some of his plays in high school I also went to these productions, either with my parents or with a school group.  I still have copies of some of the plays we studied in high school – see the image below (spot the odd one out).

Some of the Shakespeare productions were staged in the Port Elizabeth Opera House.  Others were in a theatre-in-the-park setting in what is now known as the Mannville Open Air Theatre, named after a couple who were responsible for many of the productions.

On Sunday afternoons my father often needed to see his patients for the next day.  He usually took the whole family with him.  We waited in the car while he saw the patients and then we went on a Sunday drive, often going past the Campanile to drive around the harbor and then along the beachfront, occasionally going further out along Marine Drive to feed peanuts (in their shells) to monkeys that lived in the bushes along that road.  I remember a couple of billboards we often passed.  One for the Salvation Army had images of people bouncing on (and falling off) springs with wording “You may think alcohol puts springs under you, but it always lets you down”.  The other was an ad for a Toyota dealership, but because we usually saw it from the rear it looked like “ATOYOT” rather than “TOYOTA”.

As I mentioned in an earlier episode, my mother had been a high school teacher (English and history).  For a while when I was young she was a stay-at-home mother.  My brother Mick was born about three years after me and Ian came along another four years or so later.  It was only decades later, maybe even after my mother had passed away, that I learned that she had suffered a few pregnancy losses (miscarriages and/or spontaneous abortions) between my birth and Ian’s arrival.  I don’t know when these occurred or even how many there were, but it seems that I could have ended up with a very different set of siblings.

Eventually my mother went back to teaching, though I don’t recall when..  As noted in an earlier episode, in that era and even well into the 1980s, in South Africa a married woman couldn’t be appointed to a permanent teaching position in a public school.  So my mother taught at a small private school, The Hill School.  The Hill was a “cram” school, catering for kids who had failed one of the last two years of high school and wanted to earn a school-leaving certificate.  The school “crammed” the material of the last two years of high school into a single year, by focusing just on academics, with no sport or other activities offered.  The original owner/principal of the school, Nigel Baughan (sp?) was apparently a very good teacher but not as good a businessman and the school eventually had financial problems.  My mother and a few other teachers then bought and took over the school, with my mother nominally being the principal.

When my mother was young her father had the Ford dealership in Knysna.  Through his position, my grandfather apparently was on good terms with the local traffic police.  So when my mother was old enough to get her driver’s license her father took her to the local licensing office.  She told us later that she was asked to drive around the block and was then given her license.  But she really didn’t know how to drive and didn’t try to do so for a number of years.  But with young children she felt a need to be able to drive at least occasionally.  So she took lessons.  After that my parents bought a second car, a used Mini Cooper.  I hoped my mother would keep that long enough that I could eventually take it over but after a few years she sold it and bought a (new) first generation Ford Escort (that I did eventually take over).

The Mini Cooper looked similar to this one, but the color was cream.

The first generation Ford Escort was this shape.  My mother’s (later mine) was a 4-door version though and was white.  (Photo from

Because of my grandfather’s Ford dealership, which was taken over by my Uncle David when his father died, all the cars that my parents bought new were Fords.  (The Mini Cooper was the last used car they bought.)  I almost felt like a traitor to the family when I bought a new Volkswagen Golf in 1980.  Cars that my father had that I can recall are Ford 17M and 20M (one of which was a station wagon), Ford Cortina (wagon), second generation Ford Escort (my mother had one of those too) and Ford Grenada.  I seem to recall my father having some model of Humber when I was very young but I have no memory of what it looked like.

In 1969 or 1970 my parents went on a package tour of Europe.  This was their first international trip, but they caught the travel bug and travelled very extensively through the rest of their lives.  Some of these trips were when my father was the official South African representative to a World Congress of the World Federation of Societies of Anaesthesiologists.  Being an official representative of one of the member societies enabled him (and my mother) to get to a few places South Africans were generally not able to visit during the Apartheid era, such as the (then) Soviet Union.  Other places I recall them visiting included several South American countries, Mexico, India and Japan.

When my parents went on that first trip to Europe I was about 15 and my brothers about 12 and 8.  We were too young to be left to fend for ourselves for 6 weeks.  So my parents’ friends Ron and Ann Whitehead moved in with us for 6 weeks to take care of us.  Ann was one of my mother’s teacher colleagues, which is how I presume the two couples met.  Ron was a prominent architect and also president of the Summerstrand Surf Lifesaving Club.  From Wikipedia: “Surf lifesaving is a multifaceted movement that comprises key aspects of voluntary lifeguard services and competitive surf sport. Originating in early 20th century Australia, the movement has expanded globally to other countries including New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa, the United Kingdom.”  It was probably also a fairly open secret that Ron was gay, though I didn’t know it at the time.  Ron’s mother apparently didn’t like Ann and was nasty to her.  When Ron eventually “came out” to his mother, her attitude to Ann changed substantially for the better.  At the time the Whiteheads stayed with us Ron drove an MGB GT much like the one in the photo below (it was also white).  Someone had assembled the logo on the back of Ron’s car incorrectly and instead of MGB it read MBG.

The only “international” trip we took as a family was in 1971 or 1972, to what was then Rhodesia.  I don’t remember very much about the trip.  We went to Victoria Falls and at various places had some of the most succulent meat I have ever tasted.  We also visited one of my father’s sisters and her family in what was then Salisbury.  One evening when we were there I went to a rock concert with my cousin Rory, who was about my age.  Another evening I was in a bad car accident with Lesley, who was a year or two older than Rory.  I accompanied Lesley when she drove her brother back to his boarding school an hour or two away.  On the return journey it was dark and we were going at about 70 miles per hour, which I think was the speed limit on that two-lane road, when Lesley leaned forward to adjust the radio.  She must have gone off the road and then over-corrected because the next thing I remember was being churned around much like when caught by a big wave while body-surfing.  Considering the era, I am sure we weren’t wearing seatbelts – if the car even had them.  I crawled out of the car unscathed, other than probably being in a state of shock.  The driver of a car that had been ahead of us said he saw the headlights doing cartwheels and turned back to investigate.  Lesley was hurt – it turned out later that she had broken some vertebrae.  The other driver helped get Lesley out of the car and then drove us back to my uncle and aunt’s house.  Lesley was in pain and lying down on the back seat, unable to help navigate.  Somehow I managed to guide the driver back to the house, despite it being dark and with me having been just a back-seat passenger on the couple of occasions we had been there.

Above I wrote “was” rather than “is” in “was about my age” because I haven’t heard anything about these cousins since the 1970s and have no idea whether they are even still alive.  We have just one other cousin on my father’s side of the family.  I don’t recall ever meeting Blair.  I did meet his father on a couple of occasions.  He may have divorced Blair’s mother and re-married by then, which may be why Blair was not with him.  (I believe he was married three times.)  I did manage to make contact with Blair through Facebook a while back, so at least I know he is still alive.  We have two cousins on my mother’s side of the family.  We have had relatively frequent contact (including on Facebook) with Paul, but none with his brother, Patrick.  In fact, when my brother Ian sent a message last December saying Patrick’s wife had died of breast cancer I hadn’t even known he was married and had two sons.

My parents took my brothers on a later trip, in 1975 to England where they rented a barge and traversed various canals and waterways.  I could have gone too but at the age of 20 the idea of being cooped up on a barge with my parents and younger brothers was not very appealing, so I declined.  I presume the barge they were on is similar to one of those in this photo.  (Photo found in a web search, but with no information about who owns the copyright.)

My parents liked to entertain guests, whether just one couple for a game of contract bridge or fairly large parties.  Regardless of the size of the gathering, alcohol usually flowed freely.  On several occasions, when my mother told us ahead of time about some guests she described them as being “very relaxed”.  When she said this the “very relaxed” couple usually turned out to be quite the opposite.  I don’t think my mother was intentionally misleading, though maybe she used this description only when she felt a subconscious need to justify hosting the particular couple.  Whether intentional or not, it didn’t take long for me to decipher this “code”.  I like most of my parents’ friends, except those who were “very relaxed”.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Parents, part 2

In the previous entry we left off with the wedding invitations (to my parents’ wedding) having been sent out

Here the wedding party is standing on the steps of the Anglican church in Knysna.  I have no idea who half the people in the photo are.

My parents later told me that whenever we drove past that church when I was young I used to embarrass them by telling people “That’s where my parents were married.  I was playing outside while they were inside getting married.”  Back in those days it was a “scandal” if one had a child before being married.  I don’t know where I got the idea I was playing outside because I wasn’t even conceived until several months later.

What would also have been at least a little embarrassing is if anyone had known the real story.  My father was still a medical student, and so assumed he knew how babies were made.  And, even more importantly, supposedly also how not to make a baby when one didn’t want one (yet).  Well, I obviously didn’t get the memo because I arrived on the scene a few months before his final medical school exams, though more than a year after their wedding.  My father said that he had to hold me in one arm while holding a textbook in the other arm.  (I must have been a good baby if I didn’t require his full attention.)

Two of the professors in the medical school were Prof. Cock and Prof. Bull (and that’s supposedly not a cock and bull story).  There was another student in the class with the last name Cooper.  After the students had had their final exams, but before the results were released, my father happened to see one of the Cock and Bull duo.  He said “Congratulations Couper, you have passed.”  My father wanted to be sure, so questioned further and the prof said, yes, there is one Couper/Cooper in the list of those who passed.  According to my father, Cooper was a much better student, so if there was just one of them on the list it would have been Cooper rather than Couper.  The rather embarrassed prof decided that after speaking out of turn (he shouldn’t have been saying anything before the results were official) he needed to go and check.  Fortunately for my father, he was indeed the one who had passed.

After graduating from medical school at the University of Cape Town my parents moved to Uitenhage, a small town near Port Elizabeth, where my father did his internship and then went into private practice.  The card below is presumably from when he was still busy with his internship.

One day my mother was out for a walk, pushing me in a stroller, when she encountered another woman also pushing an infant in a stroller.  They recognized one another as having been at the same high school.  They hadn’t known one another well, having been in different years.  But the two young families soon became close friends.  My father had just started in a private medical practice and Malia’s husband Abe Levy had just opened a law practice.  Their son Jonathan was my first friend.  The Levys immigrated to Israel a few years later.  As far as I know we saw them just once after that, when they visited South Africa.  I must still have been quite young because I remember playing with Lego blocks with Jonathan.  Our parents stayed in contact until some time after my mother passed away.  In 2018 I managed to make email contact with Jonathan.  Malia and I also exchanged a couple of messages, which is how I found out that she and my mother had happened upon one another while each pushing a stroller.  Abe had passed away in 2001 (and my parents had passed way before that).

The only other friends of my parents from their time in Uitenhage whose names I recall were Reeve and Reeva Schauder.  According to a genealogy entry I came across, they had several children, though I don’t remember any, probably because they were born after we had left Uitenhage (though we still lived close enough for the adults to get together from time to time).

Later my parents moved to Port Elizabeth.  It must have been around the time I turned three because my brother Mick was born a little more than month after my third birthday and I know both my brothers were born in Port Elizabeth. 

Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage are a little over 10 miles apart.  At the time they were the center of the automobile manufacturing industry in South Africa, with Ford and General Motors having plants in Port Elizabeth and Volkswagen in Uitenhage.  In addition, Bus Bodies (later BUSAF), a major manufacturer of busses, had its headquarters in Port Elizabeth.  The harbor in Port Elizabeth was used for exports of bauxite, manganese, wool and other products.

For the first year or so that we lived in Port Elizabeth my parents rented a house in the central city area.  I think the photo below is at that house and that the dog in the foreground was called Chips. 

After that they bought a house in the Fern Glen area of Port Elizabeth.  They stayed in the same house until they moved to Pretoria at the end of 1979.  Considering how long we lived there, I am somewhat surprised that I don’t have a photo of how the house looked in those days.  The photo below is from when we visited South Africa in March 2019.  The house now looks nothing like it did when I last saw it in 1979.  It used to have a low stone and concrete wall, mostly to indicate the boundary of the property rather than to keep anyone out.  Back then, apart from an old gate for the driveway, there was a smaller gate towards the left for people to use.  There weren’t any rooms above the garages then either.

The second image, from Google Maps, in which I have drawn a small red circle on the roof of our old house, shows more changes.  I have no idea what the structure is behind the garage or above the pool.  Neither was there when we left.  The pool was there and looks much the same as the one my parents had put in.  Apart from the pool, my parents remodeled and extended the house a couple of times.  Initially it had just one bathroom.  Their first addition was a new master bedroom plus bathroom.  Later they built a new living room, moved the dining room to part of where the old living room had been and turned the rest of that area into a study/library.  They also added a laundry and bathing facilities for the house staff, who had previously had just a toilet and had to wash in a portable metal bath.

Aside on house staff:  It was common for middle-class white families to employ black women as housemaids and black men as gardeners.  Many of the housemaids (and some of the gardeners) lived on the property in “servants’ quarters”.  Typical duties of the housemaids included not just cleaning the house but also childcare and cooking meals.  Most live-in housemaids worked long hours, often with just Thursday evenings and every other weekend off.  Restaurants did particularly good business on “maids’ night off” (Thursday evenings).

Edith Hempe worked for my parents for about 30 years.  When my brothers were young my parents also employed a second woman at least part-time to help with childcare.  Also, for much of the time that they lived in the house in the photo above they had a gardener who worked for them 1-2 days a week and for neighbors on other days.  The photo shows Edith many years later, in Pretoria, holding our son.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Parents, part 1.

This is the first of what will be at least a couple of entries about my parents, John and Patricia ("Tish").  This one is about before they were married.

(For some of the terminology it may be worth referring to the separate entry Background on schools and universities in South Africa (during the Apartheid era) posted on 1/20/18.)


My mother, Patricia (though I never heard her called anything other than "Tish" or Mrs. Couper) was born in the small coastal town of Knysna.  I don't know where she attended primary school but for high school she was a boarder at the Collegiate School for Girls in Port Elizabeth (the sister school of the school I later attended).  Both of my parents must have showed signs of leadership quite early (a trait that passed me by completely).  For instance, my mother was appointed Head Prefect in her final year of high school.  The only information I have about her from that time is this school report from her last quarter:  The date on it shows that World War II ended while she was still in high school.

After high school my mother went to the University of Cape Town (UCT) where I think she majored in English and History.  She didn't do an honours year but instead jumped straight to doing an MA in history.  She later expressed regret about not doing an honours year (that is, more coursework) before starting on a thesis.  I believe my mother served on the House Committee of her residence hall and may even have been chair of the House Committee.  After finishing her MA she obtained a teaching post at a high school in Cape Town.  I think it was at St. Cyprian's School  I don't know whether she started there before they were married.  Married women couldn't have a permanent teaching post at a public school (that was still true even in the mid 1980s) but that wouldn't have been an issue at a private school such as St. Cyprian's.

In this photo my mother is on the steps outside Jameson Hall at UCT.  (I don't have a date for this photo so don't know whether it was before or after meeting my father.)


My father, John, attended high school at Kearsney College, a private boarding school for boys near Durban  I must have inherited my pack-rat tendencies from my father - I have much more material that he saved than I have for my mother.  Like my mother, he was appointed to a leadership role quite early, though just as a House Prefect:

My father was in the marching band.  He is the one wearing the leopard-skin, fourth from the right in the front row.  That's the only evidence I have of any musical ability on either side of the family.  I seem to remember there being a piano in my maternal grandmother's old house, but don't recall anyone ever playing it.

This letter gives what I believe are my father's final high school grades.  I wish I'd known about these less-than-stellar grades when I was in high school!

After high school my father started medical school at the University of Cape Town.  World War II was still in progress at that stage.  In 1944 my father decided he wanted to serve in the war.  In those days one was not legally an adult until 21.  Prior to that age one had to get a parent's signature on any legal documents, including to sign up for the military.  My father sent his father a telegram saying "Want permission join up leave studies immediately stop.  Will make arrangement come home pending reply. Love John".  I don't have a copy of that telegram, just a scrap of paper on which my father had composed what he wanted to send.  I do have a couple of replies from his father though.  From the telegrams sent in reply, his father obviously didn't think much of the idea, though he seemed to be more concerned about finances than the dangers of going to war (despite having himself been wounded in World War I).

Permission must eventually have been given.  Even before I came across these documents after his death, I knew that my father served in North Africa and Italy.  I don't think he was in any actual combat and he never talked about his military service. 

After initial training, he was called up for active duty in 1945. 

My father kept a diary for at least some of the time he was in the military.  I haven't read all of it yet, partly because his handwriting is difficult to decipher.  The strangest entry is this one:

15th August (1945)  Victory over Japan was announced today - while we are in the Red Sea on our way to the East.  Have been very depressed today.  Everything seems to have gone wrong since I've joined up  [after that unreadable]

Everything seems to have gone wrong?  Victory in Europe?  Victory in Japan?  Gone wrong??

My father received a couple of service medals:

In September (1945) the troop ship arrived back in Durban.  There are a few more rather interesting entries among those before the last diary entry on October 3.

12th September:  Slept in late, about 10:30.  I awoke to find Aunty Mabel and Uncle Percy here.  God, if only they knew how I hate some of my relations.  I simply cannot stand Aunty Mabel.

The "hate some of my relations" may partly explain why we seldom saw anyone from my father's side of the family.  Another reason is that they were much further away than my mother's side.

18th September:  Seriously thinking of taking up Pelmanism.  Think it will do me a world of good.  Also today gave serious thought to going overseas to finish my studies.  Weak points are whether an overseas trained man will be as popular as a S.A. trained man in five or six years' time & finances.  Strong points - education, better tuition, away from home.

2nd October:  Bioscope with the family.  Quite an enjoyable picture - "Weekend at the Waldorf".  Had a fight with the family on our return.  I seem a proper misfit at home which I hate.  May I never get married & have children if the family's idea of "home life" is anything like it is at 38.  [The 38 was presumably the number of their house.]

Despite what he wrote on September 18, he did resume his medical school studies at the University of Cape Town.  I think that like my mother he was later elected chair of his residence hall's House Committee, which may have been how they met.  I don't know when exactly they met, but do have evidence that it was no later than 1950.  Below are the cover and the inside pages of the program from his residence hall's farewell dance at the end of the 1950 academic year, with my mother listed as his partner.  (Being in the southern hemisphere the academic year falls within a single calendar year.)  I also have his dance program from the previous year, with "Miss Thelma Loots" listed as his partner.  I wonder what became of Miss Loots.

What occasioned the photo below I don't know.  The only information with the photo is that it was taken in 1947, which would have been after my father resumed his studies.  It looks like it is at the University of Cape Town, in which case the large rectangular object behind my father is a memorial to those who died in the two world wars.

In this photo the war memorial is the large white object directly behind the statue of Cecil Rhodes (that has since been removed, as a result of the Rhodes Must Fall protests in 2015).  The first building on the left is what used to be called "Women's Residence" and the first one on the right used to be "Men's Residence" back when there was just one residence hall for women and one for me.  By the time I was a student there were several more and these had been renamed Fuller Hall and Smuts Hall, respectively.  The building in the middle with the columns is Jameson Hall (see a photo further up of my mother sitting on the steps outside it).  The mountain directly behind the university is Devil's Peak, with part of Table Mountain visible to the left.

At some time after this my father's medical studies were interrupted again when he had a serious motorcycle accident.  Apparently a motorist who hadn't seen him made a U-turn directly in front of him and he couldn't avoid crashing.  He lost a substantial amount of flesh and muscle tissue in the lower part of both legs.  He continued to receive medical treatment for many years after that - I remember that when I was about 5 I went with him by train to Johannesburg so he could consult a specialist about the wound.  His legs never fully recovered - he always walked with a limp and usually had to wear bandages on his legs.  When he died more than 40 years later the underlying cause of death on his death certificate was listed as infection from the leg wound.

This photo was from a year or so before their wedding.  It looks like it was taken in Knysna.

Below is the invitation to my parents' wedding.  Note that this was a winter wedding (June in the southern hemisphere).

To be scandalously continued … with me playing outside the church while my parents were inside getting married.  (Don't believe everything a toddler Couper tells you.)

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Background on schools and universities in South Africa (during the Apartheid era)

A whole entry on background

Some background and terminology on the school and university system in South Africa for my American (and in some cases other) friends:


First some related comments about Apartheid, because all of this was before and during the Apartheid era.  Prior to the National Party coming to power in 1948, South African society was probably about as segregated as the US was at that time.  The National Party formalized segregation as Apartheid, which can be translated as "separateness".  Apartheid involved "aparte ontwikkeling" - separate development, with separate and supposedly equal facilities for all race groups.  The "separate" was attained in many areas, the "equal" not so much.  After 1948 the National Party enshrined more and more segregation into law.  While the US was struggling with breaking down various racial barriers in the 1960s and 1970s, South Africa was moving in the opposite direction.

Race in South Africa was not just divided into black and white.  There were so-called Coloureds (mixed race), Cape Malays (originating from Southeast Asia and usually legally regarded as being Coloureds, Indians (from India, not the African equivalent of American Indian), plus very small numbers of Chinese.  Although many of the Indians were brought to South Africa as laborers, to work in the sugar cane fields, there have also long been many doctors and other professionals.  The Coloureds faced discrimination from whites during Apartheid, but at least some of them were also concerned about discrimination from blacks and were worried about being just as much of a minority under a black government.  During the later years of Apartheid the Coloureds and Indians were given their own political systems and some control over their own affairs.  Blacks, on the other hand, were all supposed to belong to "independent" self-governing countries (usually referred to in English as "homelands").  The only countries that recognized the independence of these homelands were South Africa and each other.  How much of a sham this was is illustrated by the fact that as soon as Apartheid ended they all became part of South Africa again.

Schools were segregated on racial lines, though the segregation was probably more strict in terms of white versus other than between the others.  Different race groups were also confined to living in different areas.  A wealthy Indian doctor, for instance, could not buy a house in a white area.  What caused a great amount of bitterness was that in cities such as Cape Town and Port Elizabeth there had been Coloured/Cape Malay/Indian communities quite close to the city centers but during Apartheid they were relocated to much more remote and less convenient areas.  District Six in Cape Town is probably the best known example of such forced removal.  As noted in Wikipedia "Over 60,000 of its inhabitants were forcibly removed during the 1970s by the apartheid regime.  …   By 1982, more than 60,000 people had been relocated to the sandy, bleak Cape Flats township complex some 25 kilometres away. The old houses were bulldozed. The only buildings left standing were places of worship.  International and local pressure made redevelopment difficult for the government, however."  What had been a vibrant and cohesive community was destroyed.  The area remained essentially undeveloped until the end of Apartheid.

At university level there was a little more mixing (at least by the '70s when I was a student).  There were some Coloured and Indian students at "white" universities, though they were not allowed to live in "white" residence halls.  Black students could study at a white university only if they could prove that there wasn't a reasonably equivalent option at any black university.

The small Chinese community lived in a rather strange twilight zone.  For some purposes they were accepted as whites.  They had their own residential areas and schools.  On the other hand, they could not only study at white universities but even live in white residence halls at these universities.  I met a bunch of Chinese undergraduates on the long train journey when I went off to college for the first time.  The Chinese students were allowed to reserve a sleeping compartment in a white carriage on the train, but were not allowed to eat meals in the white dining car!

South Africa was not only divided alone race lines, it was divided along language lines too.  There was probably less animosity between whites and blacks than there was between some English- and Afrikaans-speaking whites.  The two language groups went to (mostly) separate schools, with each group being taught in its own language (apart from also having to study the other language).  Rugby, which is stylized war even at the best of times, provided a wonderful opportunity for the two groups to get stuck into one another.  One of my college friends, who used to play rugby at an advanced level, used to come back from matches against the police (predominantly Afrikaners at that stage) with bite marks on his back and elsewhere.


In South Africa there are two levels of school - primary (or junior) school encompasses grades 1 through 7 (back in my day called sub A and sub B followed by standards 1 through 5) and high (or senior) school, encompassing grades 8 through 12 (back then called standards 6 through 10).  One could earn a school-leaving certificate at the end of grade 10 ("junior certificate") or at the end of grade 12 ("senior certificate" or "matric certificate"; with grade 12 also being referred to as "matric") by passing national or provincial exams (depending on one's school).

What are called private schools in the US and in South Africa are, strangely, called public schools (or independent schools) in Britain.  What in the US are called public schools are sometimes called government schools in South Africa (because they are funded by either the central or the relevant provincial government).  Unlike in the US, government schools can charge fees.  The level of the fees varies, so high-quality government schools may charge fairly hefty fees whereas schools in deprived areas may be free.  The better government schools can also be more selective about who they admit, rather than having strict zoning such as in the US.

Many of the better private and public schools in South Africa are partly boarding schools, attracting students from rural areas and smaller towns, as well as legacy students (that is, who parents went to those schools but now live in other cities).  Most of the better schools have a "house" system, like in the Harry Potter books, with not just boarders but also each day student assigned to a specific house, with intra-mural competitions between the houses.

My old school even has an entry in Wikipedia  You may be shocked to see that I am NOT listed under the "Notable alumni".  Also, how can something be a "tradition" if it dates to AFTER when I was there ("Quad Races")?  😃

This (very recent) article about a cricket player from a disadvantaged background ("His mother and father toiled in other people's grand homes, a legacy of the apartheid system that was officially dismantled in 1994 but affects people's lives to this very day.") touches on some of the background above.

Passing grades at high school level are A, B, C, etc., based on percentage scores, with A = 80-100, B = 70-79, C = 60-69, D = 50-59, E = 40-49.  I think F = 33-39 and is still a pass, with below 33 being a fail.  If I recall correctly, below 40 was a fail for English and Afrikaans.  Back then when these were the (only) official languages, students had to take both through high school.  I have no idea what the language requirements are now that there are 11 official languages.  What Americans call a grade point average (GPA) was called an aggregate and was a (weighted) average of the scores of the individual subjects and was also a symbol using the same conversion from percentages as above.  The weighting gave extra weight to one's first language.

Prefects (edited version of a Wikipedia entry):  In some British and Commonwealth schools, prefects, usually students in their final year of that level of school (primary or high school), have considerable power; in some cases they effectively run the school outside the classroom.  They were once allowed to administer school corporal punishment in some schools.  They usually answer to a senior prefect known as the Head of School, Head Prefect, or Head Boy or Head Girl.  In schools with boarding houses, there may be house prefects within each boarding house.  House prefects typically have authority only over the students in their house rather than over students more generally.


At university level a standard bachelor of arts (BA) or bachelor of science (BSc) degree takes 3 years.  One can spend an extra year after the BA or BSc to obtain an honours degree (a second degree) in a particular discipline, usually one in which one has majored.  Unlike at American universities, there is no "general education" requirement forcing one to take classes in a wide variety of disciplines - I could have done my undergraduate degree taking only classes in mathematical fields.  Most coursework is restricted to undergraduate level, with masters and doctoral degrees typically (though not always) requiring just a thesis rather than additional coursework.  Medicine is (or was back then) a 6-year undergraduate degree, with the first-year classes being physics, chemistry and biology, second-year being anatomy and physiology and then 4 years of more clinical training.

Grades at university level are first class (75-100%), upper second class (70-74%), lower second class (60-69%), third class (50-59%) and fail (below 50%).  There is no equivalent of a GPA at university level.  The degree is awarded with distinction in one's major (or majors) if one gets a first class pass at the end of the major and the degree as a whole is awarded with distinction if one gets a distinction for each major (including if one has just one major).

Residence halls (res., or what in America are often called dorms) typically elect a House Committee for self-government, organization of social events, etc.  A faculty member serves as the Warden of the res., often living in a house adjacent to the res.  A few senior students may be appointed as sub-wardens, to act as advisors to other students.  (Sub-wardens are generally appointed by the Warden whereas House Committee members are elected by the students in the res.)

Monday, January 1, 2018


Our son Steven put in a request for me to write something about my family.  First up, an entry on my grandparents.

As far as I have been able to ascertain, all four of my grandparents were born in South Africa but all eight of my great-grandparents emigrated from various parts of the British Isles.  The Couper branch came from Scotland.  The image shows the postcodes where the last name Couper is currently most common in the UK - around Glasgow and in some islands off to the north-east.  The map was produced using  

Three of my four grandparents lived to an older age than either of my parents (or either of Riëtta's parents).  The only one who didn't was my maternal grandfather Patrick Cuthbert, who died of cancer (of the stomach, I think) when he was 62 and I was just 5.  He was older than my mother, but not than my father or Riëtta's parents.

Maternal grandparents

Patrick and Iona Cuthbert lived in Knysna, a coastal resort where Patrick had the local Ford dealership and the Shell petrol / gas franchise.  (In South Africa, particularly in small towns, new car dealerships and gas stations were usually co-located, much like gas stations and convenience stores in the US.)  Their house, called "Patriona" was at the edge of the Knysna lagoon, about where the upward-pointing arrow is in the aerial photo.  The image was clearly taken at low tide - at high tide water would cover most of where that arrow is placed as well as most of the downward-facing arrow.  Patrick and Iona had two children, my mother and a younger brother, David.

The photo below shows Patrick and Iona with my parents (and me).

After Patrick passed away Iona continued to live at Patriona for several more years.  She was still there when we lived with her when I was in the second half of 5th grade, which I spent at Knysna Primary School.  I think David was in college when his father passed away and abandoned his studies to take over the family business.  David later married Isabel and they in turn had two children, my cousins Paul and Patrick.  (After having lost contact with them for a number of years, I was pleased to be able to re-connect with Paul through Facebook.  When Steven and Stephany visited South Africa in 2016 they met Paul and his family, plus various other relatives.)  Some time later Iona sold out to a developer and moved to a new house in the Hunters Home area, just above the golf course.  The rightward-pointing arrow shows the approximate location.  We had several other relatives in the Knsyna area, including some who lived in a rather gloomy old house at The Heads (the downward-pointing arrow).  David and Isabel initially had a house at Hunters Home but then bought the house at The Heads from the elderly relatives.  They remodeled and turned what had been such a gloomy house into a wonderful bright, sunny home.  (I was not just sad but also a little annoyed when David, my favorite uncle, died of colon cancer.  The reason for the annoyance is that after my mother - his sister - died of colon cancer he should have been screened frequently.)

This photo is from the (previously gloomy) house at The Heads.

Iona was a feisty old lady.  We (or at least I presume my brothers felt likewise) enjoyed staying with her because she always fed us so well, including buying wonderful cakes from the local bakery.  Because Knysna is relatively close to Port Elizabeth, we often spent summer vacations there and I have good memories of the area.  Iona not only fed us well, she ate (and drank) well too and later in life became quite rotund.  It is ironic that my mother was much more careful about what she ate and watched her weight yet passed away just a year or so after her mother.  (I presume Iona was in her late '70s or early '80s when she died but don't know either her actual age or exactly when she passed away.)

Paternal grandparents

I have fewer memories though more printed material about my paternal grandparents, particularly my grandfather.  John and Grace Couper lived in Gillitts, a small town near Durban.  Partly because Durban is much further from Port Elizabeth, we seldom saw those grandparents.  I think we visited Gillitts just twice when I was young.  Grace was ill for several years before she passed away in 1971, aged 78.  According to her death certificate, she had a stroke (which is also what later killed my father) and bronchopneumonia, as well as coronary sclerosis.  (I should add that from my line of work I know that death certificates are notoriously inaccurate about the exact cause of death.)

This photo of John and Grace was probably taken at their house in Gillitts.

My grandfather and my father used to write to one another quite frequently, with my grandfather always typing his.  I think this was the last letter from my grandfather, when he was 99.

John and Grace had four children, first two girls, Elizabeth ("Beth") and Ruth, then my father John and his brother Derrick.  Beth and her husband lived in what was then Rhodesia.  They had two children, Lesley and Rory, who I last saw in 1971 or 1972 when I was still in high school.  Our family visited them in Rhodesia.  While we were there I accompanied Lesley when she drove Rory back to his boarding school, quite some distance away.  On the return journey (in the dark), we were travelling at around 70 miles/hr when Lesley tried to change the channel on the car radio, went off the road, over-corrected and flipped the car multiple times.  I am reasonably sure we weren't wearing seatbelts (most cars probably didn't even have them then).  The rolling of the car felt like being caught in a big wave at the beach.  I managed to crawl out of the car unscathed.  People in a car ahead of us had noticed our headlights making strange movements and came back to see what had happened.  Lesley was in a lot of pain (it turned out she had broken some vertebrae, though fortunately without damaging the spinal cord).  The people who had stopped to help drove us home.  Lesley was in too much pain to provide directions yet somehow even though I'd been on that road just once before, in daylight and going the other way, I managed to guide them.  That was obviously long before smartphones with maps and GPS.  (The trip was the first time I'd been outside South Africa and also the first time I saw TV - South Africa didn't get TV until a few years later.) 

Ruth and her husband didn't have children.  Several years after her husband died, Ruth married Bill Cochrane, who had won the Comrades (ultra) Marathon in 1935 and 1946 (the race was not held in 1941-45 because of World War II).  Bill's running days were many years behind him when he became part of the family rather late in his life (at age 63).  

Derrick and his first wife had a son Blair, who I am not sure I have ever met.  Derrick married at least three times - as far as I know he is the only one on either side of my family to have been through a divorce.  I think Blair is his only child though.

John lived to be 99.  One of his brothers reached 100 and John had hoped to do so too but apparently lost interest in life rather suddenly somewhere in his 100th year.  He'd been doing well until shortly before that - see the article at the end of this piece about him still playing bridge at 99.  The article has some interesting historical notes such as this one about headlamps on cars:"… he bought a second hand Ford Tin Lizzie for 25 pounds in 1919.  It had no self starter, only a crank.  There were no headlamps, one had to stop when darkness fell, to light the gas carbide lamps."

As the article about John playing bridge at 99 notes, in the First World War he was wounded at Delville Wood, a historic battle in which South African troops performed heroically despite a very high casualty rate  

[I have just a very poor copy of the clipping of the newspaper article from which the transcription below was taken.  One of our relatives transcribed the article.]

Highway Mail April 26, 1986

John is still playing bridge at age 99

by Liz Gower-Jackson

Wounded at the battle of Delville Wood in 1916, living in Durban at the turn of the century and filled with intriguing memories of those early days, John Couper of Hillcrest turned 99 on April 17.

He rises at 5.00am each day, polishes his own shoes and dresses neatly to face the day.  He is charming and dapper, and has a memory better than many half his age.  He told me of taking up playing bridge seriously when he was 92  because he broke his leg and could no longer play bowls.  His twice weekly bridge afternoons add interest and a social fullness to his life.

Always bright and cheerful, John is grateful for his long and happy life.  He has given much time to his fellow man through those years.  Well over 50 years as an elder of the Presbyterian Church and 25 years as Sunday School Superintendent  at the Berea Presbyterian Church, are indicative of his quiet service.  When that church celebrated its centenary recently John Couper seemed surprised at the fuss everyone made of him.  When asked for an interview he said "But a 99th birthday is not special.  I am not 100."

John lives at Hillcrest with his daughter Ruth and her husband Bill Cochrane.  He has shared a home with Ruth since his wife died in 1972.  They had married in 1917 and Ruth is one of four children.  John is a professor of Anaestheology at the Medical University of South Africa in Pretoria.  Elizabeth is a nurse who is married to a man who was in the Indian Army, and Derrick has recently opened a typesetting business in Westville.  Ruth is well known in the bowling world, having been president of the Southern Natal Bowling Association.  She and Bill are keen bowlers at Hillcrest bowling club.

John started playing bowls in 1918 at the Maritzburg Bowling Club when he returned to civilian life after being wounded at Delville Wood and found he could not return to tennis, which was his first love.

In 1923, returning to live in Durban, John joined the Silverton Bowling Club, just over the road from where he had lived as a child.  He can remember riding to church each Sunday with his mother in a carriage and pair, and having to pay toll at Tollgate.  The toll keeper was a Mr. Hulyone (?) who kept a small store to supplement his meagre income.  

All the discussion of the new toll road on the N3 reminded John of that other toll gate all those years ago.  The Coupers had to pay toll when they went to Durban because they lived on the upper side of Ridge Road but many folk slipped through the property  of David Don who lived on the corner, to avoid the tollgate and save precious pennies.  

John Couper drove a car until he was 95 but he can still remember his first car.  He had ridden a motor cycle from 1912, but after World War I, as a married man, he bought a second hand Ford Tin Lizzie for 25 pounds in 1919.  It had no self starter, only a crank.  There were no headlamps, one had to stop when darkness fell, to light the gas carbide lamps.

That car lasted for 10 years before John replaced it with a second hand Buick, and then he had a Chevrolet, and a Zephyr the English Ford was his next car.

In all his years of driving he had only one minor accident, when a motor cycle ran into him.

Looking back over the span of his 99 years, John Couper can remember when there was no electricity, no radios, no motor cars, no movies, no aeroplanes and, of course, no television.  He watches the news on television, but otherwise he loathes its interrupting influence on our lives. 

He says the first electric lights came to Durban about 1900 when progressive and proud householders had just a single electric light, usually in the parlour of their homes.

In another tie with contemporary news John tells of how he came to do duty on the border of what is now Libya.  He left with the South African Brigade for France in World War I.  Arriving in England many of the colonial troops suffered from pulmonary complaints so the South Africans were sent to Egypt where they served on that border, and John's friend, Bob Jones from Durban, was killed.

After being wounded at Delville Wood in July 1916 John ended up convalescing in Ireland for three months.  He says his military service afforded him a veritable Cook's tour.

Career-wise John had to fend for himself from an early age.  He joined a general merchant's business as an office boy at R5 a month, and was earning R10 a month by 1902.  When his employer Arthur George May went into milling in 1905 John went over to the new project which was to become the Union Flour Mills and eventually it was taken over by Premier Milling.  Mr. May was killed in his late 30s when he was thrown from a horse while riding in New Forest, England, where he was holidaying.  Mr. Couper stayed with the firm until he retired at 70. 

Always one to keep up with the times, John has applied for a military pension, feeling that he should qualify under the new rulings announced recently by the Government.