I was born at an early age, as Spike Milligan famously reported. I don’t remember much about it. Apparently my mother nearly died after having me. In fact, she’d had a close call a couple of weeks earlier, when my father flipped the car upside down under a bridge by a stream in the middle of winter, in what was then the Orange Free State, outside Philippolis where Laurens van der Post was born. It was touch and go, apparently, as to whether I would arrive prematurely. As it was, I was an early starter, a little bit of a runt, even then. My parents thought I was royalty.
Philippolis was good enough for Van der Post, but not for me. I chose Cape Town as my port of entry, a decision I have never regretted.
‘In my beginning is my end,’ wrote T.S. Eliot, and though he must have had something more profound in mind, there are bits and pieces of my beginnings that, I am sure, have profoundly influenced me, and will follow me down to the last curtain call. Certain scenes, certain images, certain smells and sounds. The mournful bass of the Mouille Point lighthouse, booming into the fog that crept with ghostly fingers over the sea wall, across the street and up to the doors of our apartment. The dank, iodine smell of kelp and sea-salt. The big silver screen of the drive-in, the bonnet of our car pointed skywards, the metal tray hooked over the window and the girls on roller-skates bringing Coke and popcorn. My grandfather Pooch, screening Mickey Mouse movies on the living room wall, on my birthday. The little blue pedal-car, with a silver star on its bonnet, that I pedalled down the hallway. And the dazzling, magical lights of Adderley Street at Christmas, a thrill beyond description for a small boy in his pajamas and slippers and soft blue dressing gown.
What remains? what follows me? A sense of place, without question; a sense of a time, of an era, that you come across now and then in the movies. A sense – like salmon have, I imagine, that a certain stream, a certain pool, a certain colour and reflection of water, is home, where it all begins and where it all, some day, ends, only to begin again, in a new cycle, for the next generation. An emotion, a sentiment, a melancholy romanticism, a nostalgia perhaps, that could be overwhelming but for the fact that what you remember, also, is the intensity of it all: that blazing blue, that solid fog, that rasping boom crossing the sea to the invisible ships, out there somewhere.
The poetry of it, and the urge to utterance.