My mothers grandfather was one of the original 1820 settlers who docked at what became the Grahamstown district. They and their relatives became farmers in the eastern cape. My grandfather was a solicitor in the district and became mayor of Grahamstown bringing electricity to the town and surviving several major drinking scandals! I only met him briefly in retirement in Knysna.. My mother grew up with her sister and brother in Grahamstown in a thoroughly middle class colonial home and by all acounts had a wonderful time. She was dispatched to London for further education just before the second world war where she met my father - a RAF pilot at the time - married him and settled into life in bomb-blitzed London. By the time I was born in 1948 the presence of South Africa as an influence in my childhood was virtually zero. Because of my fathers job - he remained in the RAF after the war -we (my two brothers and I) were sent to boarding school because every two years our home changed place and my parents felt that at least school should remain the same.
At the end of my education at 18, I was down for University (we think it would be a good idea) but although I was rather happy at school I had this itch to get out of the country. I had rather strange ideas of becoming a folk singer as I was adept at the guitar and felt that all I really needed in life was a guitar and a place to sleep - many felt that in 1966!!
I discovered from my father that in order to travel on RAF cargo planes all I needed was a pass saying I was his son and I could travel on any RAF plane for 7s/6d (75p). The only direction that seemed to make sense to me was Africa. On reflection I can't quite imagine why this was. I had only met my grandparents once when I was about 7 and there was no-one else I knew although my mother did furnish me with addresses of distant relatives. There was an ex-girlfriend of my elder brother who I knew lived in Salisbury but she seemed so beautiful and exotic and old at the time - she must have been 21 - that I couldn't seriously have thought that I would see her , or that she would want to see me. And anyhow the planes that flew from the RAF base where we lived only went as far as Libya, collecting oil I think (the planes were full of oil drums anyhow), and for reasons best known to themselves my parents seemed quite happy to cast me adrift with my guitar and £50.00 in my pocket and my RAF pass. Perhaps like me they thought it was just for a month or two and that soon I would be home, helping with the washing up and waiting to go to some English university. I was away for 8 years.
I think the flight to Libya was the most terrifying moment of my life. It started badly when just after my parents had left me sitting alone and breathless in the RAF departure lounge, a steward called my name: Would Master Oliver come this way please. This was the way in which a child was referred to in the age gone by and since I was feeling so tentative about being an adult at all and faced with the prospect of a plane to Libya and nothing thereafter, this virtually reduced me to tears. With enormous embarrassment, me and my long hair got up and sauntered over the tarmac towards the place. My mother had made me a special soft case for my guitar which was slung across my back: a sight that would conjure up a certain amount of respect today but in 1966 on an RAF base this was exotic in extremis.
Because of the extreme sociability of my childhood life, the absolute sense of aloneness sitting on that plane was overwhelming. From my cocoon and my English Public School I found myself sitting next to an ageing French gauloise smoker. His sheer size and aroma terrified me: perhaps it was the first time I had ever sat next to such a beast: certainly the first recollection I have of being absolutely vulnerable.
My father and mother both smoked (Rothmans), and it had rather put me off the whole idea. I remember a rare walk I took with my father in the fields of Yorkshire on a glorious summers day. After half and hour or so he stopped and lit a cigarette; I complained bitterly - the sheer absurdity of it- but he just shrugged. So when this vast frenchman revolved his huge bulk towards me and amidst the folds of his ageing face uttered: Vous voulez un Gauloise? my instinct was to say NO but my terror got the better of me and I cooly replied Oui, mercy.
Faced with the prospect of smoking the most disgusting cigarette in the world, I sat puffing away and trying to fight the nausea of the fumes, my terror and the plane taking off into the vast blue sky. Little did my companion know that it was my first smoke apart from the odd attempt at school, and as he shovelled his brandy flask at me I found myself soon blissfully unaware of anything that was going on.
The RAF base in Libya was situated at a place called El Adem which is surrounded completely by absolutely nothing. The plane landed and as I stumbled to the gangway I was assaulted by a furnace of heat and light. It was completely outside of my experience - I shut my eyes tight but still the blinding white shone through - I could see no detail at-all and the heat seemed to just microwave me into a thousand pieces. By the time I reached the lounge I was virtually in a state of collapse; smoke booze, heat and light had all worked their way through my tender system to find virtually no defences left. Somebody made me drink a lot of water and I slowly resurrected. I took a walk around the small building perched on the edge of the airstrip, having bought a very heavy pair of sunglasses. There was a flat expanse of pure white boiling sand stretching to infinity on all sides, relieved by absolutely nothing. My visual sense was reeling from incomprehension; a lifetime of shapes and corners and lines and colour. This introduction to Africa was to embed itself forever deep into my psyche. There was the knowledge too that the flight stopped here and from now on my journey was a matter of speculation - where the next planes went and whether I could get on them with my Master Oliver Stapleton pass in my hand.
I went back inside the hut and asked the sweating ex Brit where the next plane out was going as this didn't seem like too great a place to be. Lusaka, she said and perceiving my blank look she added In Zambia. OK, I replied. So I found myself once again in an RAF plane but this time with no passengers and no seats; just cargo and drums to sit on. From extreme heat I found myself huddled against the cold and dark with the comets engines whistling next to my ears. I dozed off and awoke much later to find myself covered in a blanket and a navigator telling me we had landed. I stumbled into what passed for the Lusaka airport terminal in the middle of the night and in a complete stupor. The officials seemed totally disinterested in me except my long hair caused a certain amount of amusement. I asked if there was a hotel I could stay in and they told me it was full because a dancing troop from Peking was visiting and the one hotel was full. I toyed with the idea of going into town but at 3.30am there didnt seem much point. I asked the RAF pilot where he was going next; he said Salisbury and that seemed like a better idea. Lusaka seemed like the diametric opposite of Libya; dark gloomy and foreboding. But I was half asleep anyway - the hangover of the Frenchman's brandy and gauloise was having a big effect. I hadn't spoken to anyone by now for about two days - probably the longest I had remained silent in my whole life. They bundled me back on the aircraft and as the dawn lighted in the sky we set off for Salisbury.
As I gazed down at the African landscape I began to realise the absolute vastness of the territory. We seemed to fly endlessly over every imaginable landscape, rarely seeing signs of life and habitation. This time as I descended into the shimmering heat I was more prepared, and the terminal seemed to contain Europeans people I thought I might understand. The officials looked in absolute disgust at my brand new passport; it was 1966 and UDI had just been declared. I knew nothing of this but the officials deeply distrusted me. Where had I come from? Where was my ticket? How much money had I got? I seemed to fail on all counts: limply I gave the address of my brothers girl friend and her phone number. They checked it out but she didn't live there anymore. For hours I sat on the hard benches of the terminal; I kept myself amused playing the guitar. Eventually they told me I couldn't enter the country as I didn't have sufficient funds nor a return ticket; they told me I was on the next plane out. As it happened the next plane went to Durban; as they seemed prepared to buy the ticket I didn't object. After a sticky start where I halted the plane because the officials had kept my passport, I flew uneventfully to Durban and promptly got involved in a similar problem with the South African officials. But this time I had the number of Uncle Carl; they phoned him and told me that they were keeping my passport and if I got a job within a month I could collect it- otherwise I was out. Well Uncle Carl was racing his pigeons but said he would come and get me when he'd finished. By now the humidity was making my clothes stick to my skin and my discomfort from the long journey began to really bug me. Friendly Uncle Carl seemed like a real blessing, even though he did turn up two hours later. He obviously was shocked when he saw my hair but didn't flinch; a staunch lower middle class English South African, Carl had two terrorised daughters and a small detached house in a row of small detached houses on a very steep hill with a maid and a gardener living in every garden. I arrived in his house and met his confused wife and his two daughters. His eldest Carolyn I thought was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen and I'd only seen about three; I fell asleep in the guest room a very tired and young person.
I walked a lot in Durban for the next couple of weeks. I just couldn't believe the streets, the thousands of pitch black african faces, the glaring sun and the sticky heat. I was entering - although I didn't know it - a long period of intense alienation and silence. My English public school values were being shattered by witnessing the treatment of the maids and gardeners at my Uncles house; my Aunt always telling me how you couldn't trust them, how they cheated you, how they came and went, how they'd murder you in your bed given the chance. And Carolyn kept telling me how much she hated her father, how he used to parade her in the middle of the night to his drunken friends, forcing her to dance and perform ballet - his pride and joy. Her boyfriends were fantastically jealous of this Roineck who had turned up from the hated England to live in her house. We'd go out to drive-in movies in the evening and she would kiss her boyfriend in the front seat and her cool hand would reach down and stroke my legs as I sat in the back. She would tell me of all her exploits long into the night - me by now chain smoking Rothmans in my frantic efforts to be grown up. The rows that would go on in the home were unbelievable - the hatred in the family was terrifying; there seemed to be some semblance of love between my Aunt and the younger sister Jane who was about 13, but almost every meal ended in a slanging match and someone exiting and slamming the door. And the servants got the worst of it - whether they went into the kitchen and kicked the dog I never noticed. I sneaked a look into their rooms in a shack at the back of the garden; just empty nothingness. Working hours were 6am to 10pm seven days a week: and nothing has changed since then - this situation is still exactly the same in South Africa today. No security, no pension, no rights, no mercy. This perception of the enslavement of one Human being by another was quite foreign to me and source of great depression. At the the cause of my ennui was not so linear - I was reading a lot of Camus and listening and singing Bob Dylan - and I hadn't discovered Marijuana. I was just continually hot and confused.
Well I needed a job and my Uncle got in touch with a private boys prep school he knew about in Pietermaritzberg. I went to see the head master and to my amazement landed a job as a junior housemaster. With great glee I went to the authorities in Durban and reclaimed my passport after showing them my contract. My Uncle and Aunt had grown quite fond of me and they helped me to buy my first car: a battered open MGA which was my pride and joy for the next five years - I spent as much time underneath it as I did driving it. Uncle Carl took me on night-time cruises round the used car lots and it was in one these that I spotted it for £75. Naturally he thought I was mad but I had to have it. Carolyn would sit beside me -meet my English cousin- and favour me with the occasional kiss.
So the day came when I loaded by guitar into the passenger seat, waved goodbye to my cousins and set off for my job at Cowan House in Pietermaritzberg. The school was built entirely of wood in a very beautiful hillside. As I drove in and switched off my car engine I was greeted by the most beautiful singing in the world. The girls who worked in the kitchens were Zulus and they were preparing dinner and singing the most melodious and enchanting song. I sat in my car mesmerised. I began to realise that somehow somewhere Id known about this country all along: as though deep in my genes lay the knowledge and experience of my ancestors - I felt profoundly at home in one sense and deeply alienated in another. The life at the school served to deepen this chasm. I was teaching the children of the wealthy, some of whom were only 4 years younger than I, in a school serviced exclusively by Zulus who had the happiest and most buoyant natures of any people I have ever met. Working long hours for little money, living in shared accommodation often hundreds of miles from their families and children, they made the best of it all with little complaint. In retrospect I am more impressed that I was at the time. It was so new to me, so foreign yet so familiar that I scarcely had time, nor the political insight, to reflect.
I had to teach scripture, a subject about which I knew very little, and I remember dividing the first class I taught by announcing that those who believed in God should sit on one side of the room and those that didn't should sit on the other. As a profound disbeliever myself I was thoroughly partisan, but we had some great debates with occasional frantic searching of the bible for some forgotten regulation. I don't remember much about the boys themselves except one who turned up one day in the pouring rain with a large bowl full of snakes. I asked him why he had them with him and he told me he had been collecting them in a field when hailstones the size of cricket balls started thundering to the ground. As he was miles away from the nearest cover he sat down in the field, turned his bowl full of snakes into his lap and put the bowl on his head, protecting himself and his friends from the fiendish hailstones! The snakes were uniformly deadly and I politely suggested that he could put them somewhere else during the lesson to which he replied But they'll be afraid on their own sir!
To get away from the deadly atmosphere of the staff common room and the other members of staff all of whom I loathed intensely, I took to singing Dylan songs in a Greek bar in Pietermaritzberg under the name David Oliver. In due course I met a girl called Anne Partridge who was one of two singing sisters. We teamed up and soon were playing and singing around the area and in Durban. The luminaries of the school turned a blind eye to my exploits and anyway they knew I would be leaving to go back to university in England. Annes father ran a security firm and during the summer holiday (I was still 18), he handed me a shotgun and gave me a job guarding money pick-ups from Banks!
I had been corresponding with my mother and she had informed me that the results of all my best efforts at school had gained me a place at either Trinity college Dublin or Kent university, both to study Maths. Well I wasn't too interested in studying maths, I wanted to be an actor! I had a done a great deal of acting and directing at school and fancied myself on the stage - and with my ass firmly planted on the little stool in my wooden room I wrote back and said that I had no intention of going to either of those universities but that I would like to study drama at the University of Cape Town where I heard there was a very good theatre called the Little Theatre..
I had saved some money during my spell as a teacher and with my parents paying the fees, I slung my guitar in the passenger seat of the MGA and set off on the 1200 mile journey to Cape Town. The journey is an impressive one down through the Transkei and along the garden route on the southern coast of the country. I began to appreciate the vastness of the place. My journey took me through Knysna where my Grandparents were in retirement and after writing them a letter warning them of my arrival I tentatively knocked on their door late one afternoon. My long hair was tangled from the constant blowing about in the scorching dry wind: my 90 year old grandmother gave a squeal of shock when she opened the door and it was only after a great deal of shouting that I convinced her that I was her grandson. She eventually let me in with a certain amount of trepidation: she seated me in the sitting room and excused herself to have the tea made. Sir Cuthbert was nowhere to be seen and after some time grandma - Lady Whiteside - returned with a maid bearing tea. After some enquiries about the family she eventually summoned up the courage to say what was on her mind. Im not sure how Cuthbert is going to react to your er .. hair? Well Cuthbert did not react very well at-all: after the first evening he threw me out of the house informing me that I would be welcome to return if I got a haircut! On the one dinner we had together on that occasion, my Grandmother, who was rather deaf and forgetful, would keep interrupting the meal to remind Grandfather that he hadn't said Grace; he would say it again, sometimes as many as five or six times - either to humour her or else because he had forgotten himself. So my conversation with them was rather limited; as I knew nothing of the stock-market and any political discussion could only lead to violence, my short stay was probably a blessing!
I had an address of an Aunt in Cape Town; I put my things back in the car and set off. As I drove into the town in the evening light, my guitar in its customary position on the passengers seat, I looked up as I rounded a corner in Rondebosch and their on a rickety old balcony were a group of people who seemed much like myself, a guitar and banjo were spelling out an old Josh White song in the evening twilight; we waved to each other. That house was to play host to many of us during my days at university. I found my Aunts house and this very frail old woman welcomed me with open arms - she didn't seem in the least perturbed by my appearance - and showed me a tiny room in her modest house; later introducing me to her son and husband. I stayed with her for a few months while I registered at University and found a room to live in.
I felt rather alone and foolish at University. First of all I registered for the wrong course; meaning to do a performer diploma at the theatre I inadvertently registered for a BA Drama which meant less acting and more academics. Unfortunately I didn't realise this until the end of my first year when it was already too late. I made few friends at UCT: everyone seemed to come from high school and all know each other so I was very much an outsider. I never joined in any of the sports and anyway I instantly dived into the folk clubs and thereby got into GRASS!! This fact alone meant that all the clean cut University kids were way out of court for me. For me and my new found actor/singer weirdos anything to do with sport or pubs was right out; definitely not kosher. In the world of Frank Zappa, Bob Dylan, Dyango Rheinhart and Captain Beefheart there was no space for rugby matches and sailing clubs.
My introduction to this world mainly came about through being introduced one night to a certain man called Ian Halcett - a tall stringy fellow whose hunched shoulders earned him the the nickname Coathanger. I had no idea about marijuana and such vices, finding my new found habit of cigarettes quite enough to cope with. A singer down at the club told me that there was this man at the top of the stairs waiting to see me and when I went up to the top and he offered me a smoke despite the fact that I had a cigarette in my mouth, it took me some moments to realise what he meant. Fortunately my shades must have covered my panic, so I cooly replied yeah and he suggested I might might to come round to Tonys after the club closed. Sure I said and returned down to the club for my set. When Ian took me round to the little room that was to become a regular place for me, I remember very clearly the moment that door opened as it was indeed a door opening to a whole world that I knew nothing about whatsoever. My mother would have been happier if that door had never been opened, but in I went to the smoky haven lit by a single table lamp on the floor with an orange red scarf thrown over the top. In the room were a circle of people dressed in assorted psychedelic/eastern costume and on the record player Jimmy Hendrixs Red Hill was coming over loud and clear. Nobody was saying much but the occasional low volume remark seemed to lead often to initially subdued then thunderous laughter. On the other side of the circle someone was rolling a joint and I sat hypnotised watching his fingers deftly rolling the three blader. As it made its way round the circle, I watched carefully how people took a few deep drags and then passed it on. With fear and trembling I took it to my lips when it reached me, though outwardly I maintained an air of done-it-all-before! After a few drags and a monumental effort of will not to burst into a fit of coughing, I passed it on mumbling the appropriate words. It didnt take a moment before I realised the enormous power of the drug - Durban Poison as I later discovered - the colours of the room and the power of the music seemed to miss the analytic filter of my brain and just go straight to the emotional centre. People who'd never met each other before were looking straight into each others eyes and erupting in sudden fits of knowing: Okay, right, okay seemed often to be all that was appropriate as Jimmy Hendrix took us deeper into the night.
These people became my friends as I shied further and further away from life on campus. But I did meet my first Cape Town girl who also gave me my first taste of Jewish society. A rather beautiful green eyed little girl from Seapoint - home of Jewish society: she was terribly upset for the simple reason that she was terrified of introducing me to her Jewish parents - a non Jew! It was a very innocent relationship, never developing beyond the cuddling in the drive-in eats places. Her parents house was a revelation, the first house I have ever seen designed entirely for show. I wasn't allowed to sit in the sitting room as all the chairs and sofas were covered in plastic to keep them clean; they didn't really want me in the house at-all. I hadn't come across this kind of prejudice before and it only added to my sense of despair in seeing the way that blacks were treated: even the white population is hopelessly divided into their separate groups.
There is a kind of haze over the three years I spent at university. I cant really separate what happened in the different years. I moved into a terrible room a few months after staying with my Aunt. When I moved in I was greeted by a large and mostly naked sweating Afrikaner with a wood axe in his hand. He was standing in the passage and after threatening me with instant dispatch he sullenly showed me my room. I asked him what he was doing and he said he had been cutting wood but for what purpose I do not know. Meals were prepared elsewhere and brought round to the boarding house by a little old lady in a Morris Minor. A coloured servant would take the meal out of the boot and serve it in a little kitchen at the back of the house. There were three other men staying there who would appear for meals in their jock straps, sweating and cursing the boy and his horrible food. They mostly threw the food at the walls or on the floor then with loud belches and grunts would swill beer and go off and throw furniture around. My neighbour with the axe was a keen diver and he would periodically haul his spear-gun out and practice firing at the back of the room doors down the passage: this meant entering the building with extreme caution.
But their favourite Saturday afternoon activity was sitting on the front wall swigging beer and throwing paint at passing Kaffir cars. They thought this was very funny indeed and it was even better if the car stopped as they could go over and beat up whoever the unfortunate person was sitting inside.
Im not sure quite how they viewed me; obviously the fact that I was at university was a big mystery and a man who sang guitar songs was definitely not to be trusted, and a Roineck to boot. But they left me alone as long as I didn't bother them. My friends refused to visit me there; the occasional one who did would climb through my window rather than risk going down the passage and meeting one of my fellow house-mates. I learned the true meaning of racism from those people; the coloured house-boy lived in mortal terror of them; putting down black people seemed to be their only source of amusement outside of drinking. I seemed to remember one of them had a girlfriend but that was only occasional. During the day they all worked in a bank - bank tellers. I think that was what really shocked me, I thought bank tellers were respectable people: to find these people coming back to their rooms in suits and then stripping off and turning into beer swilling animals, that I found hard to take. I began to wonder about all those smart people who had responsibility for my education.
It was a very lonely period in that room. I remember one Easter holidays when my new girlfriend Lorna had gone back to Rhodesia to visit her parents and I was alone with my MGA. I knew nobody else except at club times and I stayed in this forlorn rooming house in the middle of this broken down industrial area, contemplating the antics of these people and smoking a lot of joints. I read a tremendous amount of science fiction (no television in SA then), and listened to a lot of music on my home made record player. I didn't miss England as I had no idea of any life in England outside of school, I had no desire to spend time with any of the relatives I had met so I just plunged myself into music and books. I felt brave but slightly foolish in the streets, my long hair being the source of taunts and amusement. I also dressed rather flamboyantly in capes and strange clothing, despite my realisation that acting was not going to be a career for me, I still fancied myself as a performer. I had had my camera stolen from my room at my Aunts house so I didn't take any pictures during those years. But I was very much in love with Lorna and when me moved into a little cottage together during my second year. I think the desolation that I felt in my soul was effectively disguised for a while. Whether I was very unhappy or whether I just remember myself as being unhappy I'm not quite sure; the photographs that I was eventually to start taking are very alienated: photographs full of concrete and buildings - as though I couldn't really face looking at the people.
The political scene on Campus at that time was quite hot. The university had prevented at African lecturer from being appointed to a post and this led to an escalation in protests. During the Mafeje Affair as it was called, the students took over the university administration block in a sit-in. This was unprecedented in the history of the university and left the authorities bewildered and unsure what to do. We all slept on mattresses on the floor and nervously encouraged each other. It wasn't an action taken by all the students - probably a small minority - but those of us that were there felt we were participating in something that was really going to change things. I shot an 8mm film of the event which ends with the police and some vigilantes destroying our protest outside the cathedral in Cape Town. During the sit-in, Afrikaners would circle the admin block in hotted up Capris and Beetles, shouting abuse and calling us commie bastards. A memorable occasion was one night when a man staggered drunkenly out of his car and roared out: You guys think you're right, you think you're clever but when you're older with a family and kids to think about, you'll change your mind, you'll think different.. I wonder where he is now.
My first experience in the townships was nearly my last. I had been invited out with some friends to go to a party in Gugulettu, a large township about a half hour drive from Cape Town. It was illegal but everyone knew that to go into the townships at night was no particular problem, as far as the police were concerned anyhow. So we went in an old VW van and parked near to the party. There was about 4 or five of us whites as I recall, and naturally we attracted a certain amount of curiosity as we entered the party. The situation was friendly in rather a strained sort of way; dancing with African girls who felt determined to make us feel at home but suffering the strain of tense young guys looking towards us with hatred. At some point someone asked me to write down my address. I didn't have a paper on me or a pen and since none were to be found, I went out to the van to get some. As I reached into the glove box, I turned back to find three guys blocking me in, shoving the door closed and wedging me firmly in the middle. They asked me what I was doing: as one of them was cleaning his fingernails with a rather long knife I thought Id better play it straight. I desperately tried to recall the name of the host of the party, fortunately I did and replied that I was at Nelsons place over the road. The violence suddenly turned to friendliness and they escorted me into the party - checking my credibility with Nelson as I entered. Phew!
The problem with visits to Gugulettu is that they always felt false to me; in the context of South Africa it is impossible for a relationship across the colour line to be free of implication: so long as apartheid existed, the whole basis of social life was poisoned. The white liberal was in the position of being in sympathy with blacks and by the very whiteness of his skin he was part of the oppressive group whether he liked it or not; rather like the problem of being German but not Nazi in the second world war.
When I graduated - a ceremony I did not attend - I decided to go back to England as I had not seen my family for four years and it seemed like a good thing to do - especially as my parents offered to pay the fare. I flew back with some friends who sensibly decided to stop off at Istanbul when the plane was diverted; I returned home like a good boy for Christmas. My brother Bruce picked me up from Victoria station as I landed at Gatwick; he had a Rolls Royce (my two brothers were in the car business) and I felt foolish and poor - also somehow I had a degree and it seemed to open some inseparable chasm, made worse by their enormous material success and my complete poverty. He dumped me off at my mothers flat in Putney and that was really the last I saw of him. It was December 1970 and very cold and I had no friends or contacts or people I knew in London at-all. I made a couple of attempts to see old school-friends but after the first disaster - a dinner party - I made no more effort. I vainly tried to get some sort of job in Photography but that's what everyone seemed to be doing in 1970: life in Mums flat was very miserable indeed. Meanwhile a university friend was begging me to return to Cape Town to start a photographic studio and sent me long letters explaining how wonderful our studio was going to be and that we had another partner (Jano from Mauritius - a lover of water beds and beaches) and how could I refuse such an offer? Putz as we called him persuaded me back so I returned to start Associated Photographers (pty) Ltd - a name we thought would give us international appeal. We spent months building this studio - and sleeping in it - and then months trying to get enough work to pay for it. We were very snobbish about our work - forever taking photographs in the style of Edward Weston, or Alfred Steiglitz, or Robert Frank. Books piled in from Europe; Creative Camera was religiously read and exhibitions of our work and that of David Goldblatt and Dimitri Nicolas Fanourakis was held on campuses and the Space Theatre.
The Space was Cape Towns Alternative theatre where the works of Athol Fugard and suchlike were paraded before an aghast and astonished public. Cape Town had its own small but lively arts community and life was stimulating though poverty stricken. I developed a market for alternative wedding photographs (!) and family collages for the wealthy - whilst struggling to document the more painful side of South African life. But we didn't see ourselves as journalists but artists so our photographs would more likely be of a chair leaning against a telegraph pole in the desert, accompanied by the music of Stockhausen or Berio. We would hold concerts of electronic music in the desert at night, or parcel Cape Town up in string at the weekend. Of course long periods of time would pass in between these strange events - periods of intense depression and boredom. I would make a camera carrier for my bicycle only to find the roads too rough anyway; or a device for photographing people coming in and out of lifts but then find I didn't like the idea anyway. In short I was a craftsman without an idea: something that I have now found is ideal for the job of work I am doing. Not that I don't have ideas quite to the contrary - but that the central idea, the source and origination is better coming from another because I am best at putting that original inspiration into practice - translating it into terms that people will understand and appreciate.
Our studio didn't last very long; Putz went back to teaching philosophy at university - his favourite photograph remained on my wall for while - two brackhunds (bush dogs) fucking in a garbage dump. Jano went to Mauritius to lie on the beach and I moved into the basement of a film studio on my own. I was mainly taking photographs for the theatre at the time - trying to redefine the art naturally - and at the studio I started doing stills for feature films; films such as Die Spook von Donkerhat - Afrikaans and strictly for the drive-in circuit. The films were so appalling that none of us who worked on them would ever go and see them. But it enabled to me to see the process of making features and to travel extensively in South Africa. This was really the beginning of the end for me as the more successful I became and the more films I was offered to do the stills, the more I realised that I was 26 years old and heading straight into the jaws of death. I had a beautiful cottage on a beach, a lovely actress girl-friend, a old Mercedes Benz and all I could see stretching ahead was a repetition of the same. I was employed to work on a documentary Land Apart being made by a commercials director Sven Persson; during the making of this film the walls began to close in, the security police got closer and closer and I realised that time for me was fast running out. I had no residents permit in SA and the number of official looking envelopes landing on my doorstep was getting out of control. In 1974 I packed up my things and caught a ship to England - I thought if I returned slowly it would help ease the pain, and anyhow I intended to go to Canada. I left my closest friends in SA: it would be another 4 years before I began to feel at home in England.
It may not be obvious from reading this rather undramatic account of a rather ordinary life, that I really loved South Africa although I was very unhappy when I was there - but I suspect that may have been the case wherever I might have been. I never set out to save the black man from the Afrikaner: I never saw myself as a man who would show up the injustices of the world, I was too busy trying to figure out which was which. All I knew was that the country held a peculiar spell over me, and still does. I still feel kind of guilty that I'm not there, that Im doing something that has nothing to do with the place, that I have made a life that in no way contributes towards the country in any way. If I hear music from Soweto, it makes me cry. When I read of the murders and the chaos it makes my soul ache for the people whose fate seems so certain to end in catastophe.
I went to London to visit my family - now its 1974 - and stumbled across the National Film School. This was the answer to my prayers and started a whole new chapter of my life.
Towards the end of my stay at the National Film School, I wrote and
directed a film called SHADOWPLAY, which concerned the fate of a group
of South Africans living in London, one of whom was an escaped political
detainee, another was a rather eccentric photographer; the film centered
around an exploration of the nature of the photographic process as well
as a thriller about the SA Bureau of State Security (BOSS). This
might seem a rather strange combination of themes which indeed it was -
but it did really reflect in some sort of honest way the nature of my concerns
at the time. It summarised a period of my life and in a way the rather
muddled quality of the film is a true reflection of the imprecise view
I had both of myself and the politics of South Africa. The faults
of the film were my faults, but at least it supplied no glib answer, no