By TREVOR EMSLIE
A few weeks ago, at a rather grand garden party in Bishopscourt, I fleetingly bumped into an acquaintance who is an attorney. Seeing me, he stopped and told me, fairly abruptly, how he had recently discovered Leipoldt’s trilogy of historical novels set here in Clanwilliam and the Cederberg, how wonderful he thought it was, how he thought Leipoldt was South Africa’s Dostoevsky, who had said it all, and how fascinating it was to be living in this interesting time in South Africa’s history.
One of the few things I am proud of is having published, for the first time ever, Leipoldt’s trilogy of novels entitled The Valley. Leipoldt tried but failed to get The Valley published during his lifetime, his friends again failed to achieve this after his death, and it was only in 2000 – after it was brought to my attention by Paul Murray, a history teacher at Bishops – that The Valley saw the light of day, with Paul and me as editors. It is long, and it is not easy reading, which is no doubt why it wasn’t published before, but it is incredibly rewarding for those who make the effort, and you can imagine that to hear my attorney friend call Leipoldt South Africa’s Dostoevsky was music to my ears.
When just one person connects with The Valley, as my attorney friend obviously has, it makes the long hours of proofreading worthwhile; and I hope I can encourage those of you who have not yet done so to discover more about this man Leipoldt, who captures so quintessentially the problems and the poetry of our beloved country.
In August 2003, I flew from Cape Town to London, arriving at the flat of friends at about eight or nine o’clock on a Saturday morning. The purpose of my trip was to meet with Dr Peter Shields, one of the two youngsters who had lived with Dr C Louis Leipoldt in his house in Kenilworth in the 1930s, at exactly the time when Leipoldt wrote The Valley.
The Shields family had sailed from England to South Africa, but tragedy struck during the voyage and Peter’s father, also a medical doctor, died on board ship in 1925. His mother arrived in South Africa a widow, with five young children to care for. After first settling in the Transvaal, as it then was, she moved with her children to Stellenbosch, where she struggled to make ends meet. It was for this reason that her son Peter came to live with Leipoldt, and spent his teenage years in Leipoldt’s home.
And so it was that some seventy-five years later, I arrived in London on a mission to meet with Dr Shields in order to hear from him his stories about Leipoldt. Having exchanged post-flight Saturday morning pleasantries with my London friends, I phoned Dr Shields to inquire when it would be convenient for me to come and see him. He replied, “What about this afternoon?” And so I cast about unsuccessfully for a tape recorder, succeeded in borrowing only a video camera which also recorded sound, caught a train from London to Berkhamsted, not far north of where I was, and phoned Dr Shields from the Berkhamsted station. The sprightly eighty-something year old came to fetch me in his car, and we set off for his home not far away.
Thus at about two thirty on that Saturday afternoon I found myself, weary after a sleepless night on the aeroplane, clumsily trying to point a video-camera not too obtrusively so that I could record our discussion, and enjoying a welcome cup of tea with Dr and Mrs Shields. Dr Shields pointed out a Hugo Naude portrait of a French woman hanging on his wall, which used to hang on Leipoldt’s wall. Leipoldt always referred to the subject of the painting as “the lady of the house”, he told me, and he said that he truly cherished this painting. After showing me the two gold medals that Leipoldt had won while a medical student at Guy’s Hospital in London, the two of us settled down to discuss Leipoldt.
I am not an experienced interviewer, except perhaps in preparation for litigation, and I had no list of questions or prompts to assist me. My only strategy, if you can call it that, was to say as little as possible and let Dr Shields do the talking.
The time flashed by, and after about three hours Dr Shields kindly took me back to the station, and I entrained for London. It was such a lovely long summer’s evening, with the sun still shining, that I decided to walk from King’s Cross Station back to my friends’ flat rather than take the tube, and I dawdled at such a leisurely pace, drinking in the late English summer air and thinking about our discussion of matters Leipoldtian, that I must have sent out mixed signals – for I was propositioned by a lady of the night on an early shift, and was also offered drugs for own consumption. This had never happened to me before, and it has never happened since. Undeterred, I dawdled on, lost my way, and eventually arrived at my destination, able to relax at last.
Over the next few days I typed up Dr Shields’s comments, laboriously winding and re-winding the tape in the video camera, until I had down what I considered to be a reasonable version of what he had said. Dr Shields had told me that he was not a writer, and could not put pen to paper about Leipoldt, and this is why I typed up the contents of his share of our conversation. I then sent him my transcript of what he had said, he confirmed that it was accurate enough and that I could use it as an introduction to Leipoldt’s Food & Wine , and thus I am able to relate what he told me about this amazing South African, Christian Frederik Louis Leipoldt.
Before I quote Dr Peter Shields, let me say three things about Leipoldt.
First, Leipoldt was a man of the world in the sense that after he left Cape Town in the closing stages of the Anglo-Boer War, he lived overseas for about twelve years, travelled widely, and acquired a wide international experience that he was able to bring to bear in his writing and his life generally on his return to South Africa in 1914.
Secondly, Leipoldt was quintessentially South African. Given his status as one of the major early Afrikaans poets, no one is likely to quarrel with this statement. Indeed, it almost goes without saying, but not everybody appreciates how broad his South Africanism was.
Thirdly, Leipoldt was, to the depths of his soul, a man of Clanwilliam and the Cederberg, until the end of his life.
Let me turn now to what Dr Peter Shields authorised me to say, in his words, about the man he called “Doc”.
I was twelve years of age when, in 1930, I went to live with Leipoldt at his house, Arbury, in the Cape Town suburb of Kenilworth. ‘Doc’, as we called him, had an adopted son, Jeff, a few years younger than me, and the three of us lived together until Jeff and I went off to fight as volunteers in World War II.
Although I have now lived for the past –twenty-five years in England, where I was born, my impression is that most South Africans think of Leipoldt as an Afrikaans poet, but do not know enough to appreciate the many other sides of this versatile man.
Doc was very liberal for his time. He was also great fun and was very, very mischievous. You never quite knew whether he was pulling your leg – it was always a problem to know whether or not to take him seriously. For instance, I remember him telling us that in China it was considered a delicacy to take a live baby mouse by the tail, dip it in honey, put it in your mouth, and let it scamper down your throat!
Doc claimed to be a Buddhist. I think he needed to break free of the dictates of his strict Protestant upbringing, remembering that his father had been the dominee of the Dutch Reformed Church in Clanwilliam and that he never went to school – he was taught by his father and could recite long extracts from the Bible. We didn’t go to church. Doc wasn’t against organised religion – he just wasn’t interested in it.
Doc played a lot of tennis. I remember that Mr Justice van Zyl often came to tennis on Sundays (we had a court at Arbury) and that his daughter was a very good tennis player. Doc did no running on court, but was nevertheless an effective and dangerous player: he would stand there and place his lobs with great skill.
He was a brilliant billiards player; and played a great deal of bridge, often with Mrs Bolus – I think the Boluses were like family to him. He must have been a very good bridge player as he had a formidable memory.
Doc had no dress-sense whatsoever. I remember going swimming with him at St James pool, and his swimwear was so ghastly that Jeff and I didn’t want to be seen near him. He probably didn’t care. One Saturday evening he ventured forth in a dinner jacket with his bowtie so unbelievably skew that I instinctively went up to him to straighten it. He stopped me, saying: ‘Don’t. They won’t recognise me if you do that.’
For many years we didn’t have a wireless at Arbury – Doc wouldn’t allow it. But in 1937 he suddenly went out and bought a very large one. He would sit and listen to Adolf Hitler’s speeches, getting very angry. Of course, he could understand German, whereas the rest of us couldn’t.
We spoke mainly English at home, and Doc actually did a lot of his writing in English. He wrote several poems in English that were published under the pseudonym Pheidippides. I would say that about half of Doc’s friends who visited the house were English-speaking, and the other half Afrikaans.
We used to go for wonderful trips in the countryside, and one always met lots of interesting people in his company. I remember visiting General Smuts on his farm at Irene, outside Pretoria, and thinking that his wife, Ouma Smuts, was the maid, so unpretentious was she. We often visited General Smuts.
Doc loved Clanwilliam and the Cederberg, and went there fairly often. They were his spiritual home. He knew a teriffic number of people in that part of the world, and wherever he went he would call on friends.
Doc would always sing while he drove. He would tease me about the Irish Republican song, the one about hanging men and women for wearing the green, and he would often sing this song while driving. He wasn’t really musical, but he loved church music and would go to church to listen to musical performances.
After the war Doc didn’t drive much, and he gave me his car when I was demobilised and returned to Cape Town. Occasionally he would borrow it to go off botanising, and it was always filthy when he returned it.
Doc used to tell wonderful ghost stories, especially when we were out camping. Of course he would tell them at night, just before we went to bed. They were always made up on the spot. I particularly remember one about people being poisoned by mushrooms, and about the horrible deaths they died. (Needless to say, Doc used to collect mushrooms himself when the opportunity arose.)
Doc did not cook on an everyday basis. He employed a cook for this purpose. One cook he employed just before the war was a German woman, and I remember that we gave her quite a hard time. I didn’t then give much thought to the food we ate; and while I can say that we always ate extremely well, I cannot say that it was particularly exotic.
Doc himself cooked when he gave a dinner party, which he did fairly often. There were always interesting people at his dinner parties, and Jeff and I were always included.
Doc loved arguing. He would have made a great lawyer. He was also a great talker, continually asking questions – usually pulling your leg. He would suddenly decide to give you a hard time, and then the temporary verbal assault would begin. He loved to present you with an alternative view of whatever point you were making, even if you were merely stating a fact.
There were rules in the house, but Jeff and I were never afraid of Doc. He instituted a sort of ‘prefect’ system with older boys, usually medical students, looking after us, as he was often away lecturing at the University of Cape Town Medical School in the evenings. He instituted a ‘black book’ system, something I think he had picked up at Rugby School in England. Five black marks meant a hiding – but Doc wasn’t really a disciplinarian and the hiding never materialised. Where he was strict was on one’s attitudes to people. If Jeff or I commented disparagingly on other people, he would always say: ‘Don’t be such a snob.’
Doc had worked as a medical inspector of schools in England and he held a high opinion of English public schools. He approved of them. He would say to Jeff and me that we really ought to be at school at Rugby in England.
He did get fed up with us at times, for instance if one of us trod on one of his best flowers. Then he would storm off in anger, but generally he was very even tempered.
Doc would set Jeff and I ‘exams’ approximately once a month. He didn’t test what we knew, but set us tasks to find out and discover things before the next ‘exam’. In retrospect I think this was very worthwhile.
I think Doc was reasonably comfortably off, but not wealthy. He left cash of about £20 000 in his estate, and Jeff and I each inherited some £10 000. (I was the executor of his literary estate, and in this capacity I assigned the copyrights owned by his estate to the University of Cape Town when I left South African in 1978.)
Doc always had wine with his meals, and Jeff and I were also always given wine. Doc used to make us describe it, something I wasn’t much good at. He considered wine to be a good thing, and we all enjoyed it. My recollection is that Doc’s preference was for red wine. He was never snobbish about wine, or about anything else for that matter. I never saw him ‘tight’. He seldom had more than two glasses of wine.
Doc would have loved to see the current state of development of South African wine, which was still very ordinary in the 1940s, and he would no doubt be pleased to know that in the twenty-first century I remain very fond of wine.
Doc used to come home with his medical bags stuffed full of books, having stopped off at the library on his way. He was a very fast reader and would borrow about five books at a time, often reading all five in one night. Sometimes he would toss one at me, saying as it flew through the air: ‘Here, this might interest you.’
He had many books. One wall of his study was lined with them. These he bequeathed to the South African Library.
Many people seem to think that Doc was, or might have been, homosexual. I must say that I cannot see that it matters; but if he was, we never saw anything of it at all. Not a hint. Of course one didn’t discuss such things in those days, at any rate not in the way people do nowadays, but quite frankly the possibility never crossed our minds, and I am absolutely certain that there was nothing like that at all in our household. There is no question of it being otherwise.
It is true that he didn’t have much to do with women, except women friends of long standing. And he didn’t have women in the house, except our German cook. I remember him kicking up a fuss when her daughter came to stay, but I imagine that that had more to do with us – he was afraid one of us might get her into trouble.
Doc had a Hugo Naude portrait of a French woman handing on his wall at Arbury. He found it stuffed behind a couch at Naude’s house, said to Naude: ‘Don’t you want this?’ and Naude asked him whether he would like it. It now hands on my wall, and I love it.
On the subject of the Anglo-Boer War, my impression is that towards the end of the war Doc had blotted his copybook, so to speak, in the eyes of the British. He was reporting on the war from the Boer side, and he had annoyed the military authorities. I think it was important for him to leave Cape Town when he did, or he would have landed in trouble.
Oom Gert Vertel and other poems dealing with the war were, I think, based on real incidents.
I imagine that living in England must have changed Doc’s attitude to the English, whom, until then, during the war, he had had every reason for regarding as the enemy.
A lot of things Doc said were taken up the wrong way, for example the controversy over his statement that it would be better for schoolchildren to be given wine than milk. At that time milk was dished out to schoolchildren in mugs, and it was often contaminated. This was the context of his remarks about wine being better for schoolchildren than milk.
I was a Medical School after my return from the war, when they called me out of a lecture with the news that Doc had had a heart attack. I went straight to see him, and visited him every day until his death about five days later. I used to take him books. I think he sensed that the end was nigh for he said to me: ‘I see the little goblins. They’ve come to get me.’ (He always used to joke about goblins or little something-or-others.)
‘Oh nonsense,’ I replied, but he died during the night.
I greatly enjoyed living in Doc’s home, and I learned an immense amount from him. Thinking back, I was exceedingly fortunate – I had lost my own father, also a doctor, who died in 1925, and whom I adored; but Doc stepped in and provided me with a good, wholesome, easy childhood.
And yes, I loved him. He was like a big bear, with a somewhat gruff voice. I always think of him as a big bear.
Doc was happiest, I think, when he was out on the veld botanising.
Christian Frederik Louis Leipoldt, who was born in 1880 and died in 1947, was an amazingly versatile man. It is no exaggeration to call him a poet, playwright, paediatrician, botanist, journalist, novelist, cook and connoisseur of food and wine. The evidence is manifest: there is a Louis Leipoldt Medi-Clinic in Belville, there is a restaurant called Leipoldt’s in Pretoria, there are botanical plants that bear his name, and there is a body of published work – in both English and Afrikaans – that establishes him as a seminal writer and poet.
In 1829 Leipoldt’s paternal grandfather founded the Rhenish mission station at Wupperthal, about 75 kilometres from here in the Cederberg mountains. Leipoldt’s father, who was sent to Germany at a tender age to be educated there, also became a Rhenish missionary and served, with his wife, in Sumatra, returning to the Cape Colony about a year before Leipoldt was born in Worcester on 28 December 1880. After a few years of service in Worcester, Leipoldt’s father joined the Dutch Reformed Church and became the dominee here in Clanwilliam, where the family moved in June 1884, when Leipoldt was three years of age.
Leipoldt’s father was a talented and accomplished violinist, and when he first came to the village he used to play the music of Mozart, Beethoven and other composers on his violin in the twilight of evening. After a while he received a deputation from his congregation requesting him to stop playing godless music on the fiddle. He listened to their complaints, gave the members of the deputation coffee and cake, and with almost unbelievable acquiescence locked his violin case and never opened it again until the day he died. Years later, as he lay on his deathbed, he called for his violin and actually died holding the instrument that was so dear to him.
Leipoldt’s father had been educated in Germany and had wanted to pursue a musical career, but bowed to the wishes of his father and became a missionary instead. One imagines that the entire Leipoldt family must have experienced the psychological consequences of the repressive silencing of the talented violinist – who first sacrificed a musical career in favour of becoming a missionary, then sacrificed his instrument altogether for the sake of harmony in his congregation.
Leipoldt never attended school – a fate he shared with Olive Schreiner, South Africa’s first writer to achieve international acclaim. Mrs Leipoldt took the somewhat haughty attitude that her children would not be educated at the local school here, and so the Leipoldt children were educated at home, principally by their father, a learned and sophisticated man who spoke German, English, Dutch, French and Batak, and was in addition something of a classical scholar. Thus from an early age the young Leipoldt learned the classics as well as French and German, and by the age of twelve he was fluent in Dutch, German, English and French, and knew Latin and some Greek. He later said that he could not have told you which of German, Dutch or English was his home language – they spoke all three interchangeably. Needless to say, the quality of his education was uneven – his maths, for example, was never what it might otherwise have been, a shortcoming that manifested itself in his matric exam results and again when he studied medicine. But he was widely read and his linguistic ability was outstanding.
When he was eleven years old Christie – as he was known to his family – entered a competition for a ‘Story Needing Words’ in The Boy’s Own Paper, sending his entry to England from here, and about three months later he received a postal order for ten shillings and six pence, and a certificate stating that he had won first prize in the age group twelve to sixteen years. When his mother discovered that he had won a money prize, for his parents had not known that he had entered the competition, she insisted that he donate his prize to the missionary fund. This experience, the brutal silencing of the violinist in his father, and his strict Protestant upbringing help explain Leipoldt’s lack of interest in conventional religion.
What Leipoldt, who experienced a lonely childhood, was interested in was the whole world of nature that surrounded him in the Cederberg. His botanical expertise was evident when as a youth he accompanied the German botanist Rudolph Schlechter on an expedition into the veld, and he conversed with Dr Daniel Hahn, Professor Peter MacOwan and Dr Harry Bolus, bringing samples with him when he accompanied his father to synod meetings of the Dutch Reformed Church in Cape Town. His love of natural beauty captivated him as a child and brought him refuge as an adolescent. It embodied both practical knowledge and poetic love of the world around him, and throughout his life it was an important example of what one might call the Leipoldtian duality – ars practica et ars poetica.
Leipoldt submitted articles which were published in Cape Town newspapers while he was still a young boy in Clanwilliam, and years later when he was in Cape Town the journalists concerned expressed astonishment when they discovered how young he had been when his articles were first published in the press.
Having matriculated, Leipoldt left Clanwilliam at the age of 17 years, worked in Cape Town as a full-time journalist for first De Kolonist and then for The South African News, in addition freelancing for several overseas publications on the subject of the Anglo-Boer War, writing in particular about conditions under martial law in the Cape Colony. He was, for example, present at the court martial of Gideon Scheepers, who was sentenced to death, in Graaff-Reinet. He later acted as editor of his pro-Boer English newspaper, The South African News, when his predecessor, Albert Cartwright, was arrested and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment, serving as such until the newspaper was closed down by the Cape Colonial authorities.
Thereafter he wisely departed for London in January 1902, four months before the end of the Anglo-Boer War, or his fate might have resembled that of Albert Cartwright. He enrolled as a medical student at Guy’s Hospital, and continued with part-time journalism for many varied publications while he was a student at Guy’s.
Leipoldt did not have a good relationship with his mother, and I think it is correct that he did not see her again after he left Clanwilliam for Cape Town. She died not long after he moved to London. His father also died while he was still in London, but he certainly did see his father again.
Leipoldt’s medical studies were financed by Dr Bolus, the Cape Town botanist, which says a great deal about the friendship that blossomed between this young boy growing into manhood, and his intellect, which was obviously advanced for his age. Dr Bolus saw the potential in Leipoldt, knew that he wanted to study medicine, and so he offered to finance Leipoldt’s sojourn at Guy’s Hospital. Leipoldt repaid what had been advanced to him, and also worked part-time as a free-lance journalist and washed dishes in London’s top hotels – where he met the famous chef August Escoffier, not by coincidence but because his lifelong interest in food had already been kindled way back in Clanwilliam – to keep himself afloat in London.
Leipoldt’s letters to Dr Bolus are published in the book entitled Dear Dr Bolus.
During the Anglo-Boer War, opposition to the war had been expressed in The New Age, a weekly journal published in London. Six South Africans, Leipoldt, Betty Molteno, Alice Greene, Albert Cartwright, Friedrich Kolbe and Anna Purcell, all of whom knew each other and operated almost as a small secret society, together with Maria Koopmans De Wet and Olive Schreiner (who was however under house arrest in Hanover in the Karoo), published pro-Boer, protest poems anonymously in The New Age. The poems written by the South Africans were anonymous because of martial law. They could have been charged with treason if it had become known that they had done so. After Leipoldt’s arrival in London, it was decided to publish in book form some of pro-Boer poems that had appeared in The New Age, and in this way Songs of the Veld and other poems appeared just after the end of the war in June or July 1902. We think Leipoldt was the driving force behind this publication, and it contained his first published poem, entitled The Executions in Cape Colony, a fragment. It reads as follows:
“The gibbet and the grave gave life, and will
Give life again to those that strive and strain
For freedom and its cause; nor strive in vain
Those whose desires need force and cords to kill.
The thing is done; or right or wrong ’tis done
And only the remembrance shall endure.
But not the memory of a wrong shall stand
More firm or rooted faster or more sure.
And it shall serve to keep this dismal land
More dismal till the final aim is won.”
Interestingly, and ironically given what happened decades later, the consignment of Songs of the Veld was destroyed when it arrived in Cape Town on board ship, and the book was banned by the British. Only a few copies were smuggled in to South Africa – enough, however, for the book to be unearthed years later and published as a facsimile edition in 2008. After 106 years, then, it became freely available in South Africa.
After finishing his medical studies, Leipoldt stayed in London, working as a medical inspector of schools. But he also travelled widely on the continent, and spent six months as the personal physician to the American publisher Pullitzer, after whom the Pullitzer prize is named, on his private vessel. In truth his services were required more as a conversationalist and man of letters than as a doctor, but this was his designation while he was employed by Pullitzer.
Leipoldt visited the East, where his father had been a missionary, and it seems that both father and son had a fascination for the East throughout their lives.
Eventually Leipoldt returned to South Africa in 1914, taking up a post as the first medical inspector of schools in the Transvaal. It is from this experience that his book in English, Bushveld Doctor, emerged.
For a while during this period Leipoldt shared a house in Pretoria with Eugene Marais. He also stood unsuccessfully for Parliament for Smuts’s South African Party.
Later, in the 1920s, Leipoldt returned to Cape Town, where he obtained a lecturing post in paediatrics at UCT, became editor of the South African Medical Journal and secretary of the SA Medical Union. He had charge of a paediatric ward at the Somerset Hospital near what is now the Waterfront.
He set up home in the Cape Town suburb of Kenilworth, at a house called Arbury, just below the railway line, and it was during this time that he adopted a son, Jeff Leipoldt, and opened his home to Peter Shields, who was not formally adopted, presumably because his mother was nearby in Stellenbosch.
It was also while at Arbury that Leipoldt became well-known – in Cape Town circles – for his dinner parties and his culinary expertise. (He had of course written Kos vir die Kenner in Afrikaans in 1926.)
After Arbury was sold, Leipoldt boarded at the home of a fellow-doctor, Dr Bobby Forsyth, in Newlands (just off Palmyra Road), and then later in Sea Point, which was where he died.
It was said of Leipoldt after his death that: “He preferred to contradict. He was the apostle of the opposite view.” The concept of “political correctness” would have been anathema to Leipoldt, who might also have been termed the apostle of political incorrectness. He would have enjoyed the jest – when in Rome, do as the Carthaginians do.
Teetotalism was not only foreign to Leipoldt, but one of his pet hates. He held strong views about abolitionism and the damage done by its advocates.
Although he was indifferent to conventional religion, Leipoldt accepted the need to live life according to a code; and he claimed to be a Buddhist. It is tempting to dismiss this claim as simply another instance of his contrarian instincts, but it seems that his missionary background – his parents and both sets of grandparents were missionaries – exerted a strong influence on him, and all the evidence supports the view that Leipoldt’s own closely held belief in the power and endurance of the highest form of love – that which expects nothing in return – was the code that he chose to live by. He certainly believed in the endurance and supremacy of this kind of love, and this, together with the value of service to others he must have imbibed from his own family, explain much about the way he lived his life, often taking groups of boys on camping outings or travelling with them.
His remains lie in a beautiful place of stillness on the Pakhuis Pass, not far from here. This was organised by his friends after his death.
If you read The Valley, which is made up of the three novels Gallows Gecko, Stormwrack and The Mask, you will find strongly biographical elements in all three novels, which cover the period 1820 to 1930 in the Clanwilliam area, which is however never mentioned by name. When he discusses, as he does, matters such as botanical, medical or culinary matters, it helps to know that the author was an expert in all these fields.
Let me read you an extract from chapter 8 of Stormwrack, where Leipoldt describes how the villagers of Clanwilliam used to gather twice a week for wait for the post-cart to arrive with their mail and their newspapers. Clanwilliam was an isolated village then, and the nearest railway station was about a hundred miles away. What Leipoldt describes is a mail day early in January 1896, just after the Jameson Raid, with the villagers anxiously waiting for more detailed news of what had happened, and it is almost certain that Leipoldt himself would have been present on this occasion. Note the reference to the Reverend Christian Uhlmann, one of the main characters in Stormwrack, who is based on Leipoldt’s father, the Reverend Christian Leipoldt. Leipoldt writes as follows:
“Here, in front of the courthouse, the village, or at least the adult, adolescent and older juvenile male portion of it, congregated on mail days. Some of them came to get their letters and parcels, but the majority had no expectation of any postal harvest and loitered for the simple reason that attracts any crowd – the chance of gossip, of novelty in some form or other, of interest, of mild excitement, a chance ever present when the only link between isolation and the larger civilisation three hundred miles away lies in the arrival of the weekly mail. Such occasions were made the opportunity for the interchange of opinion, for discussion between the older and more sedate members of the community, and for mild bickering and horseplay between the juveniles, who on these weekly gathering-days were allowed more liberty of action than was usually considered advisable in so conservative a community.
The post-cart was scheduled to arrive promptly at four o’clock in the afternoon, but the experienced knew well enough that the schedule was never strictly adhered to and that considerable latitude was granted to the driver. In winter, when the air was cold and rainy, few grouped themselves around the thorn tree much before sunset, and the gatherings were always smaller. In summer, when the heat of the day had died down and the air was pleasantly cool, it was another matter. Then there was no discomfort in loitering underneath the thorn tree, chatting with one’s acquaintances, observing with mild interest what went on, and smoking – in leisurely satisfaction – the fragrant home-grown tobacco whose smoke curled lazily into the air. There was no loss of dignity attached to that democratic intercourse, and in consequence the village had no scruples in attending. On such occasions one could see not only the magistrate, the chief constable and the local attorney among the little throng that clustered in the vicinity of the thorn tree, but practically everyone who counted for anything at all in the village, including the Reverend Mr Mance-Bisley, who took advantage of these opportunities to discuss the various questions with the parents of his scholars, and the Reverend Christian Uhlmann who, with a gravity befitting his position and with a childlike shyness that was temperamental, stood modestly aside and engaged in conversation only when he was directly approached. It took some time to sort the mail, and when the doors of the post office were opened there was a rush towards the counter and a quick dispersal of the waiting crowd homewards.”
Isn’t it wonderful? And it was just a short distance up the road outside from where we are now, 112 years ago.
I am still asked by people whether I translated The Valley into English, which only goes to show how Leipoldt has become typecast and pigeonholed as an Afrikaans writer and poet. No one other than Leipoldt could have written the English contained in the The Valley, and South Africans have yet to truly discover Leipoldt in English. What many people also don’t know is that several of his Afrikaans poems were first drafted in English.
Leipoldt’s real triumph is that he truly understood the South African predicament, our tendency in all sorts of contexts to divide ourselves into “us and them”, and the subtle but strong message of The Valley, for those who read between the lines, is that redemption lies in overcoming the divides between, say, English and Afrikaans, or black and white. In this Leipoldt was prophetic; and, writing about the past in 1930, he has a remarkably modern message for us in 2010. But never simplistic, never didactic, always balanced, human, endearing, subtle, sympathetic, and always debatable.
Leipoldt reminds us of the obligations we owe to the past – the obligation “of living for this country”, as one of his characters, old Charles Quakerley, puts it in Gallows Gecko – even as we face the future. This includes the obligation to transcend the divisions of the past, including but not limited to the divisions between English- and Afrikaans-speaking South Africans, exacerbated by the Anglo-Boer War; to set aside the “us and them” attitude; and to work for the common good of this country.
This is why Leipoldt continues, not only to charm, impress, entertain and fascinate us, getting under the skin, as it were, of his characters, and of South Africa and her problems, but challenges our views and the way we live our lives in South Africa today, one and all.
* This article is based on a speech delivered at the Yellow Aloe, Clanwilliam, 1 May 2010