My friend Dave Nisbet told me once that he has very few memories or recollections from his schooldays. I, on the other hand, find memories of my early years coming vividly to mind with little prompting, some of them a source of regret or distaste, but many of them bringing back thoughts of fun, laughter and learning. And I don’t mean school learning – I was careful not to overdo that.
I’ve been thinking a great deal recently about family matters, and personalities from previous generations. My father’s parents I hardly got to know at all, the old man dying when I was still small, and Granny Morton being a dour, humourless Scot who probably felt that bringing up six of her own children was as much as she could take, and as much as she owed the world. On the other side of the family, Granny Huckell, the jolly Hilda, my mother’s mom, was a permanent bundle of fun, and we always enjoyed being with her. She always had freshly baked cakes for us, there were always cooldrinks in the fridge, and she loved all her grandkids to distraction.
The young Hilda, in her nursing days and around the time spent on the farm.
But it’s Grampa Tommy Huckell that I want to talk about. He was a formidable man, my grandfather. Or so I thought, but he’d likely not have agreed. In all the years I knew him I was never aware of any friends in his life. When we went to visit the old folks, he was just there, as always. He was a fixture, in his place and in his time. He never had much to say, and to me he seemed impossible to approach. I watched him from a distance, and was nervous of him.
He’d been many things in his life. I’ve never found out if it was true that he’d run away from home in Cape Town to join the British forces in the Boer War, but it wouldn’t surprise me. He’d seen some service in the First World War, and then worked as a miner in the gold mines around Germiston on the Witwatersrand, or East Rand. He soon contracted phthisis, the dread of all miners, and could no longer work underground. The only surface job his employers could find for him was at the copper mine at Messina (now Musina) near the then Rhodesian border on the Limpopo River. Before too long he somehow acquired a farm (I have an idea it was a grant to ex-servicemen in the British Army) and he became a farmer on the Sand River near a tiny village called Mophane.
There were endless stories of life on that farm where my mother, her sister and brother grew up, including hunting lions to protect livestock, and the neverending battle against the elements. It was a harsh place, and the livestock failed because of the lions, leopards and caracal, and a short flirt with crop farming was doomed before it began. Salvation came in the form of a limestone deposit on the farm, and the farmer became a quarryman, supplying the smelters at the copper mine at Messina. All this hardship led to a severely strained marriage, and the family left Kemp’s Hall farm in 1928, moving to Pretoria. Tommy found a position with a government department and stuck at it until he retired, and then worked in the stores as a pensioner for the SA Air Force at the Zwartkop Air Force Base. There are many gaps in his life story, but I was too idle to ask the questions when there would or could have been answers.
Home, sweet home, the old house on Kemp's Hall farm.
Back to the memories. I occasionally spent a few days with the oldies in their home in Riviera, Pretoria, getting constant attention and entertainment from Granny Hilda. Tommy left for work early and reappeared in the late afternoon to pour himself a “spot,” fetch his book from his bedroom, put on one of his many twelve-inch, seventy-eight rpm records (his favourite composer was Chopin,) and settle into his armchair for the evening. It was his routine, and I never felt free to disturb him.
But then came Saturday.
Way before sunrise the state-of-the-art conservative battleship grey Morris Cowley was brought to life amid much coughing and spluttering for the short trip to the best place I can remember. Being yet a schoolboy my daily routine didn’t yet include my current early-rising habits, and I stumbled bleary-eyed into the dark driveway where the roaring machine waited to devour me. The most fascinating things about that car were the illuminated indicator arms that flicked out of their slots in the columns between the front and rear doors. Sheer magic, that was, and off we went up Soutpansberg Road, heading for the city center.
Tommy was resplendent in his suit, tie, and very glossy shoes, every inch the archetypical English gentleman, while I represented the other end of society, a barefoot urchin in khaki shorts and shirt, and sometimes a home-knitted jersey in cold weather, my short-cropped hair not having approached a brush too closely for a while. Tommy smoked ceaselessly, preferring plain or non-filter cigarettes, smoking them down to soggy scraps that frustrated the would-be illicit smokers who subsisted on OPS, otherwise called Other Peoples’ Stompies. It wasn’t a long drive, but I was always impatient to get there.
Our destination? The historic old fresh produce market in the Pretoria city centre. Here was a meeting place for rural and urban citizens in the mid-nineteen-fifties. The city centre was already substantially developed with ever higher rising buildings disrupting the clouds more each year, but near the centre of the city lay an entire city block with endless open-sided sheds served by the most beautiful cobbled paving you could wish to see, all worn and polished black and shiny by a century of wagon traffic and, more recently, by trucks and cars. The block was shared by just two shops, one being a landmark general dealer called John Jacks, the other being the premier pet shop in the city, de Beers Bird Mart, always worth a visit with any interest in exotic birds.
Even as recently as those days some of the farmers’ deliveries to the market were done by wagon. It was a place to see the touleiers in action, and the sights, sounds and smells that came with them were like the pages of a history textbook falling open and coming to life. All about was the cacophony of lowing cattle, the cracking whips and exhorting cries of the drivers, with the crunching of the steel-tyred wheels on the cobblestones. Among all these activities were the pickups and trucks of a vintage that feature even now in American depression-era movies, driven by serious, deeply tanned and bearded men in khaki clothes and wide-brimmed slouch hats, even at that early hour. This all made Tommy’s Morris seem obscenely modern.
Julius Caesar supposedly said that the crowd in the Appian Way never grew older. So it was too with the people of the market. Gangs of labourers, dressed (or undressed) almost uniformly, off-loaded pockets and bags of vegetables and fruit, boxes of tomatoes and loose pumpkins and stacked them in orderly rows and piles in the spaces allotted to their employers. The farmers themselves, also clad in what nearly amounted to a uniform, supervised the activities, shouting instructions to their men, pipes clamped tightly between their teeth as they readied their wares for the day ahead. Around the fringes were newspaper vendors shouting their banner headlines in the hope of persuading at least some of the audience to buy.
And then a calm settled over the assembly. The farmers, vendors, agents and buyers, most of whom knew one another from many previous Saturday mornings, gathered in groups around fires in braziers, toasting their gnarled hands to offset the early morning chill. Almost without exception they were smokers, and the tendrils of tobacco smoke lazily mingled with the wood smoke from the fires, tracing intricate, ever-changing patterns of light in the slanting morning sunlight. There were quiet conversations, topics ranging from, inevitably, the weather to market prices, from sport to politics. Standing cheek by jowl with the rawhide farmers, the genteel Tommy, himself a one-time farmer, was as animated as any, seemingly holding firm views on just about all the topics. How different from the reticent man at home, I thought as I watched.
Gradually the groups dispersed to conduct business, some to sell, others to buy. Soon the buyers had “boys” in tow, lugging bags and boxes from the sheds to their vehicles, and before long the intimacy and camaraderie had given way to commerce. The daylight had become sharper and morning traffic had begun to fill the surrounding streets as shops prepared to open their doors for the morning’s trading. It was time to go home. Tommy had managed to find all the items on Hilda’s detailed list, and now it was time for the bartering session at the kitchen window at home, but more of that another time.
Yours truly looking slightly smarter than at the market.
This young boy had been a part of one of the great social occasions of the time. I’d run without restraint, inspecting everything in sight, climbing everywhere, every dog a close friend, free to sample any merchandise without asking, kindly regarded by all as the grandson of one of the gentlemen of the assembly. It was a three-hour interlude of pure happiness for me, and still ranks as my most enjoyable experience, made even better by the feel of Tommy’s hand on my shoulder as he made a rare show of his affection for me. And so, as the shops across the streets threw open their doors for business, we went home.
Tommy Huckell with his younger daughter, Ruth Morton, my mother.
The market no longer exists. It was demolished in the years when building conservation seemed not to be important, and was replaced by the Strijdom Monument and the State Opera House, as well as a very tall building that boasted at its very top a restaurant that hung out over Pretorius Street. I had dinner there one night some thirty-five years after our last visit to the market, but found I’d much preferred the fruit at the old market. All the resonance and atmosphere has gone, and hasn’t found its way to the ‘new’ market to the west of the city centre. I suppose it was inevitable that the market had to be relocated for practical reasons, but Pretoria is much poorer for it.