Thursday, November 18, 2010

48. My family move to Africa

As often happened when we were about to move, I had another dose of invasive surgery and needed to rest. Someone came up with the bright idea that I go to Bulawayo to visit my family. Tom, Tommy and Jeni could stay in  a military hostel in Germany until a married quarter was available. I flew out to Africa.

Now you will be forgiven if you skip the next two pages because they are just about how my family came to live in Bulawayo, and had lived there for some years by the time I arrived there on my first visit.

To go back a few years, my sister Jane, her husband Tony and their children Caroline and Stephen, had settled in Durban and encouraged Father, Mother and Maureen to join them. Jane thought the warmer climate would better for Father’s legs and she missed Mother. Father went first to see what Africa had to offer and to look for employment. He stayed with Jane, Tony and their children.

Father was used to quiet, well behaved little girls and disliked boys, especially when they “zoomed, zoomed” round with their toy cars. I am told that on one occasion he nearly throttled Stephen, which did not make for happy families. Tony was a very quiet man, an incredibly talented actor who loved books and poetry and a peaceful family life. Serenity flew out the window when Father walked through the door.

At first Father made a great deal of money selling property, at one time sending mother an arrangement of flowers so huge that it would hardly fit through the front door at Maviswood, when what she was really in need of was a five pound note!

Mother was having difficulty selling Maviswood because the property was under-pinned and the iron pins could be seen from the car park. Eventually she sold it for five and half thousand pounds and, as I told you in a previous episode, it is now advertised on the Internet as a nursing home for the elderly, so it is probably worth a couple of million at least.

Father’s two brothers, Tom and Bill were also living in South Africa, and the three of them decided that their mother should move from her old home in Fulham, and join them where they could all look after her. She was to live with Uncle Tom who could accommodate her. In your dreams, Grandma! You should have stayed in Fulham!

Of the three sons I think my father cared for her the most and my mother was always very kind to her. When Grandma came to lunch with us on a Sunday, Father would carve the leg of lamb and ask “Would you like the knuckle, Mother?” Grandmother would always say yes, and my eyes would fix on that knuckle as it was put on her plate. There were several things I promised myself I would do when I was grown up, one of them was to have the knuckle off the leg of lamb, and another was to pick over the turkey carcase after Christmas, picking out all the little bits of stuffing that had been left inside. I have done both - more than once!

Eventually Maviswood was sold and Mother left without regrets, she had worked herself to death for years and, at the final count, had just enough money to buy the tickets for Maureen and herself to Durban. Saying goodbye to her was heartbreaking for me, I loved her dearly and thought I would never see her again.

By the time Mother and Maureen arrived in Durban, father had lost his job, was broke and living in a small, grubby little flat which had only one bedroom. Maureen had to sleep on a bed in the sun porch. But he started another business selling clothing to Africans in the townships and outlying areas. His agents were smartly dressed and travelled around showing samples and taking orders. The samples were carried in small suitcases embossed with the logo “Wenlock Agencies”.

In South Africa the “The NATS” (Nationalist Party) took over the government, and overnight everything in the country changed. The red letter boxes and post offices were painted yellow, the official language became Afrikaans, and many members of the civil service were moved so that areas previously administered in English were now under the control of the Afrikaner

Tony decided to move to Rhodesia where he found a job in Meikles Department Store. I think he had had his fill of the Lawley Clan because, after Father moved out Jane took Grandma to live with them. Maureen was not happy in Durban, sleeping on the porch, and so Jane, being Jane, said “Come and live with us in Bulawayo!” And so Mother was left with Father, in Durban, daughterless and very miserable.

Then Father tried to defend himself in court on a driving offence, in front of an Afrikaans judge, and lost his case. His clothing business collapsed (though not because of the change of Government) and so Mother was delighted when he agreed to follow the family to Bulawayo where he would be able to make a lot more money. Poor Tony, he had to resign himself to the fact that he was never going to be rid of Jane’s relations. (By now poor old Grandma had died in an old aged home, at the age of 89 deaf, and blind).

Father had arrived in Rhodesia broke, but, it was not long before he had another enterprise going which was almost a licence to print money. He started a mail order business selling very high quality vitamins pill. One label was “Nu Cell” packaged in gold boxes and aimed at the European market, and the other label was Dr.Schnaple's aimed at the African market, packaged in a plain brown bottle. He advertised in African newspapers and magazines in Rhodesia and the surrounding African countries and the orders came rolling in. The advertisements implied that the pills would enhance sexual performance, which it may well have done. Every morning father would go to the Post Office to despatch the orders that had arrived the previous day, then he would empty his post box and take home more orders and a stack of cheques, postal orders and cash. To begin with he had an office in town and an assistant, my sister Maureen.

Thinking they were writing to a genuine Doctor, although nothing was ever printed to suggest this, the customers would pour out their troubles in their letters. “Dear Doctor Schnaples, what can I do? My little Johnny won’t stand up!” No, he did not have a sick little son. Another customer had actually placed his penis on a piece of paper and drawn round it to illustrate the size, not stating whether it was active or inactive at the time. Many of the writers had venereal diseases and father would send them a course of his vitamin pills which, I suppose, was better than nothing because most of the men did not have access to medical care.

The pills, which were delivered in large metal barrels, were made by a very reputable pharmaceutical manufacturer in Bulawayo. They were bottled and labelled on the kitchen table using a pill counting tray made to Father’s design. Father also advertised a cream for stimulating the penis which he made up himself and had, I think, an element of Vic's vapour rub in it, which would have made anything stand up! Once upon a time one could buy Dr. Perkins “Pink Pills for Pale People”. Father’s were “Pink Pills for Poorly Penises”, well actually the pills were more red than pink. Personally I have never been a great admirer of that appendage. I quite liked what it could do when in the mood and in good health, but I could not regard it as a plaything or a thing of beauty. Blame the man in the raincoat for that!

Dr. Schnaples appealed to the Africans’ obsession with his sexual prowess; it was a genuine, very good vitamin pill, did not do anyone any harm and certainly brought in the money. The business began to go down a bit, or rather the money was being spent faster than it came in, and so father closed the office in town and worked from home. I can still picture him sitting at the typewriter, typing the address labels for the orders, while, Georgie, Mother’s magnificent ginger cat, sat on the desk trying to catch the keys as they clicked up and down.

So, by the time of my visit in 1964, the family were all living in Bulawayo. Maureen was now married to Brian and had a little girl called Elizabeth, and Jane had produced Jeremy, a brother for Caroline and Stephen.


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