Monday, February 3, 2020

Our old neighborhood, part 2

Disclaimer:  Being autobiographical, these entries depend on my memory of events around half a century ago.  I didn’t take any notes or keep a diary (either then or now).  Being a time before digital cameras (and because I was very camera-shy), I don’t even have photos to serve as reminders.  Why write a disclaimer for this particular episode?  I mention more names of living people than in most previous episodes.  I am happy to correct any facts or add extra details that those who are mentioned point out.  Opinions are my own and others may have different perspectives.  I would also be happy to include differing perspectives of those who are willing to share them.

First, a somewhat related public health message.  Make sure you get all recommended immunizations.  The polio vaccine, for instance, has now eliminated the threat of that often-serious disease from much of the world, including Europe and the Americas. 

How is this somewhat-related to the topic of our old neighborhood?  Stewart and Shirley McCurdie were friends of my parents who weren’t quite in our neighborhood.  They and their children (the oldest, Ron, being a little older than me, if I remember correctly) at one stage lived a couple of blocks away from us, on the other side of Cape Road, a major arterial which at that point has Fen Glen on one side and Cotswold on the other.  At some point in the ’60s Shirley McCurdie contracted polio.  I think she was even in an iron lung at one stage.  Although she mostly recovered, after that she always walked with a limp.  I recently managed to re-establish contact with Ron on Facebook.  He now lives in Limoges, France.

Cape Road is labelled near the top of the image, towards the right.  Even back then I think there were two lanes in each direction, with a center island (and in this stretch, a service road running parallel to the main road). 

Back to our side of Cape Road. 

The Swarts

In the previous episode there was an open lot where the house marked 2 below now stands.  I don’t know exactly when that house was built but from a date mentioned below it must have been completed before 1962.  The couple who lived there from the time the house was built and for as long as my parents were in Port Elizabeth were Oscar and Ruth Swart.  Oscar was an Afrikaner who worked for the Post Office.  Ruth was a nurse.  She was a German Jew and with her sister Inge were the only members of their family who survived the Holocaust.  Although I knew that at the time, it wasn’t until recently that I found out how they had managed to get out of Nazi Germany – on the Kindertransport to Britain (Glasgow in their case) when Ruth was 13 and Inge 8.  More on that below.  I also hadn’t known until then how Ruth and Oscar had met.  They met when they were both on vacation in Switzerland.  Oscar was touring Europe for 6 months with some friends.  Ruth eventually decided to emigrate to South Africa (from Britain).

Ruth and Oscar had a son, Anthony, born in 1958, so about a year younger than my brother Mick.  They had a second son, Jonathan, who was born in 1962.  Jonathan has Down syndrome (trisomy 21).  Children with Down syndrome often have congenital heart disease and other health problems.  Life expectancy used to be quite short (25 years in the 1980s according to Wikipedia) though is now 50-60 years in the developed world.  Apart from Down syndrome itself, Jonathan was healthy and is now in his late 50s. 

One day Ruth came over to our house, absolutely devastated, to tell my parents that Inge had died in an airplane crash.  I must have been just 7 year old, though I remember having met Inge a few times.  (I think Anthony used to refer to Inge as “Aunty Gaga”.)  I hadn’t known when or where the crash occurred until I managed to make contact with Anthony a few years ago.  From information he gave me I was able to find accounts of the accident, which happened soon after taking off from Douala Airport in Cameroon on March 4, 1962, with the loss of all 111 passengers and crew.

My father sometimes referred to Oscar as the ancient mariner, because when Oscar started talking to my father it was hard to get him to stop.  Oscar became interested in horticulture and constructed large hothouses in their back yard.  He eventually had at least two, maybe three.  They aren’t visible in the Google Maps image, so I presume they were demolished at some stage in the past 40 years.

Oscar passed away in about 1982, quite soon after my parents left Port Elizabeth, and Ruth in 2014 aged 89.  Considering that Ruth left Germany at the age of 13, it is surprising that she still had a strong German accent more than 50 years later.  Despite all she went through, I never heard her express any bitterness and she spent her whole working life caring for other people.  She was a good person.  While that is true of most people I have known, few of them have had to cope with what she went through.

Anthony is now a realtor (what South Africans refer to as a “real estate agent”).  When I first re-established contact with him about 4 years ago he mentioned that he is married to Karel and that they’d been together for 30 years.  Although our families lived next door to one another for 20 years, I hadn’t realized back then that he was gay.  Maybe that’s partly because the old South Africa was a rather homophobic society, so he didn’t come out.  In late 2006 South Africa became the fifth country in the world to legalize marriages between same-sex couples!  Anthony also wrote “You know I’ve got a German passport and have at times thought about leaving here, but our lifestyle is still too good to even really consider a major move?!!”

Photo of Anthony Swart from his realtor web page.

The Parrys

In the previous episode I mentioned that the people in the house marked 8 had two sons, one of whom had Down syndrome and died young.  (South Africa doesn’t have a particularly high incidence of Down syndrome.  It is just a coincidence that neighbors on either side of us had a son with Down syndrome.) 

I don’t recall if there was another family that lived there after that but before Errol and Margaret Parry moved in with their three children – Neville, who is my age, Gail, who is a couple of years younger, and Kim, who is several more years younger.  Their address was 366 Cape Road and to help people remember the number Margaret Parry used to refer to it as Leap Year Cape Road.  I think they occasionally even had mail addressed to them like that.  Margaret also sometimes used to use the expression “what doesn’t kill, fattens”.  Although I was a chubby youngster, I didn’t associate “fattens” with being bad and thought she was contrasting a bad versus a good outcome!

Margaret and Errol Parry are on the right in this photo taken after my father’s funeral.

Neville and I quickly became good friends.  We played a lot of backyard cricket together, usually just the two of us.  Backyard cricket is part of the folklore of Australia in particular, but also most of the other main cricket-playing countries.  We usually played at the Parrys’ house, in which case it was sideyard cricket rather than backyard, with the wicket running north to south parallel with the words “Malvern Ave” in the image from Google Maps.  We pretended to be the great players of that and earlier eras, including those who played for the then-mighty West Indies – fearsome fast bowlers Wesley (later Sir Wes) Hall and Charlie Griffith, wonderful batsmen such as Rohan Kanhai and Clive (now Sir Clive) Lloyd, and Garfield (now Sir Garry) Sobers, still regarded as the greatest al-rounder ever to have played the game.  Apart from a few of the South African stars, we didn’t ever get to see any of these players in action, either live or on TV.  At that stage of the Apartheid era the government would not allow black players, such as the West Indians, to play against.  Also, the country didn’t get TV until the mid 1970s, when the government woke up to the fact that state-controlled television is a powerful propaganda weapon.


White South African cricket administrators later began throwing money around, paying players from other countries to participate in “rebel” tours.  They even managed to pay a group of West Indian players to tour.  The latter were probably poorly advised.  Although they were mostly near the end of their careers and may have thought it was an opportunity to cash in before retiring, they may not have been fully aware that not only would they subsequently be banned from playing cricket in their own countries again, but also that many would actually become outcasts back home. 

This article is about a “rebel” team from the West Indies:  

This one describes the lead-up to a tour by a team from England:

In this one it is clear from the Australian players themselves that they were generally past their primes.

My opinion at the time was that the “rebel” tours were misguided.  Even putting aside political issues, they weren’t going to provide a true reflection of the strength of (white) South African cricket.  If a touring team beat the South African team, then we would realize that we were no longer world beaters.  But if the South African team won (which it did in most instances), that wouldn’t tell us much – that we had beaten a team of mercenaries from another country, rather than the best team that that country had to offer.


Neville and I were very evenly matched in backyard cricket.  In the real thing?  It wasn’t even close.  He was much better and played at a high level through high school and beyond and he also excelled at rugby.  I had minimal athletic talent.  I played several sports with much enthusiasm but little ability.  In cricket I didn’t progress beyond intermural level at high school, and even in those inter-class games I was more of a liability than an asset.  (As I probably mentioned in an earlier episode, participation in sport was compulsory at our high school.  Intramural cricket was the default option in the warmer months for those of us who weren’t good enough to make one of the school’s many teams for cricket or any other sport.)

When the Parrys lived there in the ’60s, there was a structure, rather like an open carport, in front of a one-car garage, where I have drawn a red circle below.  There were brick/concrete pillars, with beams along the tops of the pillars and going across the driveway.  The beams across the driveway were probably spaced about 3 feet apart.  At one stage Neville and I built a “tree” house on top of these beams.  (What does one call a tree house if it isn’t in a tree??)  We even stayed in it overnight on at least one occasion, partly because my mother promised to bake us a chocolate cake if we spent the night up there.

The red circle indicates where Neville and I built a “tree” house.

My father used to keep some money in various drawers in their bedroom.  I found some of these places and, presuming he wouldn’t notice, took some of the money from time to time.  Well, he did notice and confronted me.  I confessed.  He was very angry – the only time I can recall him being really angry with me.  One of the things he said was “What would Neville think if he heard about this?”  Well, honor among thieves and all that, plus I didn’t want to rile my father up even further, so I didn’t mention where I had got the idea.  (Even later in my life I never said to my father “You remember when you caught me stealing money from your drawer and asked what Neville would think ….?”)

Soccer trading cards were big at one stage back then.  The cards came in “lucky packets” which had a couple of cards plus some candy.  A few players’ cards were rare and there were rumors about how many lucky packets one had to buy to have a good chance of getting these rare cards.  One of the things we did with the money I purloined was to buy a box containing a gross of lucky packets.  I/we reasoned that each box would include at least one card for every player.  (I obviously didn’t know much about probability theory back then.)  We bought the box and opened all of the lucky packets.  Although we found a few cards that we didn’t yet have in our collection, we didn’t get all the ones we had hoped for (and did end up with many, many, of the more common cards).  When we started to lose interest in collecting those cards Neville’s mother donated our collection to some organization.

Neville and I were in different primary schools.  Then we were at the same high school for what I think was just one year.  After that he went to boarding school at Graeme College, which his father had attended, for a couple of years.  In 1970 the Parrys moved to the Johannesburg area and he completed high school there.  After that I occasionally heard news of him through my parents, but didn’t have any direct contact with him until connecting with him on Facebook a while back.  He is now also part of the South African diaspora, living in Prague.  According to Linkedin he is Chairman of the “Woodcote Group a.s”, a company in Czech Republic, with head office in Prague and which operates in the Administrative Management and General Management Consulting Services industry.  Neville’s sister Gail lives in Germany and his other sister, Kim, is still in South Africa, though I haven’t tried to make contact with either of them.  Their father, Errol, was (and presumably still is) a great character.  He turned 90 in 2019.

Neville Parry – profile photo “borrowed” from Facebook

The Ashbys

In the previous episode I mentioned that the people in the house marked 9 had a boogie man who lived in a shed at the bottom of the garden.  Later the Ashbys lived there – Ken, Tania and their children Kevin and Clifford.  I think Kevin is two years younger than me and Clifford another year or two younger, so they are closer in age to my brother Mick than to me.

A while back I found Kevin on Facebook.  He is in Brisbane (Australia).  He trained as a chemical engineer and is now a patent attorney.  Clifford doesn’t appear to be on Facebook but is on Linkedin, though he hasn’t uploaded a profile photo.  He is CEO of “Coleambally Irrigation Co-operative” in New South Wales, Australia, having previously been CEO of various other companies.

Kevin Ashby – profile photo “borrowed” from Facebook

The Toppers

At some point after the woman who enticed Marmalade the cat to move from our house to the one marked 5, the Toppers moved in.  I don’t recall the names of the parents, but there was a son, Desmond, who is my age.  Initially we were good friends.  We often used to play the strategy board game Risk.  It was his copy and he taught me/us the rules.  When we were later given our own copy, I read the rules carefully and found that they differed quite substantially from what Desmond had said.  (His version didn’t give anyone an unfair advantage, so it wasn’t that he was trying to cheat.)  Desmond and I both had Scalextric slot-car racing sets and we often combined our sets to make longer tracks.  (A new slot car is one of the things I bought with money purloined from my father.)

I said above that “initially” we were good friends.  Later Desmond formed a “gang” consisting of the younger boys in the neighborhood – my brothers, Anthony Swart and the Ashbys.  Neville and I were supposedly their rival gang.  We didn’t consider ourselves a gang and mostly just avoided the younger kids.  I think they used to “spy” on us, though we didn’t ever do anything worth spying on.  Recently I asked my brother Mick what he remembered of this “gang”.  He claimed not to recall who Desmond Topper was.  Maybe he didn’t want to be reminded of someone who in hindsight might have been a little like a cult leader.

It looks like Desmond is on Facebook.  I have sent him a message but haven’t had a response yet.  If it is the same Desmond Topper, he retired a couple of years ago, most recently having run IGCS (Industrial Gas Consultancy Services).  The web site for that doesn’t appear to exist now and even the Wayback Machine didn’t turn up anything, so maybe he was a solo consultant and shut down the web site when he retired.  Previously he was Regional Manager at the local branch of Air Liquide.

The Stirks

After the Parrys moved to Johannesburg, our new neighbors in the house marked 8 were Bill and Joan Stirk and their lovely your daughters, Sandra and Marilyn.  Sandy is about a year younger than me and Marilyn a further two years younger, making her the same age as my brother Mick.  They moved in some time in 1970.

Sandy and I hit it off for a short while.  Then the Stirks went away for two weeks on summer vacation.  I counted down the days (maybe even the minutes J) until their return.  But on their vacation Sandy found someone else.  My fragile sixteen-year-old heart was broken.  For a long while after that I hoped we could get back together, but it was not to be.  She occasionally agreed to go to a movie with me and even to the South African equivalent of my high school prom, but just as a friend.  I still often visited her after school and pestered her.  I don’t know why my parents (or hers) didn’t have a little word in my ear. 

I recall watching Wimbledon tennis matches on TV at the Stirks’ house.  That must have been several years later though, during winter break from college, because Port Elizabeth didn’t get TV until early 1976.  (Test transmissions in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban had started several months before that.)  My parents didn’t get a TV while we lived in Port Elizabeth, not because they couldn’t afford it but because they thought it was a waste of time.  Later my father became quite fond of some programs, particularly The Golden Girls.  While on the subject of early South African TV … for the 1976 Olympics all that was broadcast was a 30-minute highlights package each evening.  I remember nothing of what was shown, partly because it was hard to see anything through the throng of students crowded around the one set in our college dorm.  (After 1960 South Africa was barred from taking part in the Olympics until 1992.)

Somewhat surprisingly in hindsight, although I was unhappy about being dumped, I didn’t feel any resentment or jealousy towards Sandy’s new or subsequent boyfriends.  They were nice guys and better than me – certainly more dynamic.

Mick and Marilyn later started dating and I think that continued for at least two years.  I don’t know what caused them to break up, though going to colleges in different cities may have played a role.

After my parents sold their house in Port Elizabeth and moved to Pretoria I lost contact with Sandy and Marilyn for three decades!  Then in 2010, using the no-longer so new-fangled Internet that you may have read about, and remembering Marilyn’s married name, I found her email address on the web site for the Nelson Mandela University (previously called the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, and prior to that the University of Port Elizabeth), where she was lecturing in Physical Science education.  (I think she has since become the victim of a peculiar South African disease called “compulsory retirement”.  I understand the thinking behind that, creating more opportunities for younger people to advance, but it seems counter-productive for a country that has a shortage of highly qualified people in STEM – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – fields.)  Marilyn replied to my email and also gave me Sandy’s email address.  Sandy is an elementary school teacher in Cape Town.  In my first message to her I apologized for having been such a pest when we were young.  It was great to catch up on news.  I later became Facebook friends with both of them and with Sandy’s husband, Julian.  When we were in South Africa in March 2019 we had a chance to meet up with Sandy and Julian.  Unfortunately we didn’t get to see Marilyn and her husband, Keith, when we were in Port Elizabeth.  Maybe if I go to my high school class’s 50-year reunion in a couple of years … 

Cape Town, March 2019, my “little” brother Ian, some old guy, Riëtta, Sandy and Julian.

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