who am I /who I am

Having been a taxpayer in five countries and a citizen of five, not all the same, including one in which I never lived, I sometimes ponder on the nature of my ethnicity and nationality.

My patronymic grandfather was born in Ireland and I believe is descended from 11th Century knights from Normandy, who assisted William the Conqueror invade England and later Ireland. They in turn were descended from Alaric the Visigoth, who trashed Rome.

Thus I am an Irish citizen by descent.

By naturalisation, I am also a New Zealand citizen and have been a citizen of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, Swaziland and the United Kingdom and Colonies.

But I can’t really call myself Irish or Kiwi because I sound like a rooinek Japie from South Africa. My paternal grand mother is descended from Scottish Brownlees (landing in South Africa in 1817) and Dutch De Jagers (1697) – making me a 10th generation South African.

On my maternal grandfather’s side I am an Englishman descended from John Vialls of Orton in the 1600’s. My Gogo (grandmother) was descended from Danish and German settlers in 1700’s (perhaps Huguenots fleeing religious persecution?)

Now here’s a thing! Geni genealogy website tells me that I am directly descended from John Lackland Plantagenet, King of England following Richard the Lionheart, through both my father and my mother. Genealogy is a fascinating subject!

(No need to stand on ceremony, the occasional Milord will do).

So that is why why I support the Bokke then the Wallabies (I live there) and then the All Blacks, but Ireland above all of them.

Strangely I would probably never support the English!

Of course being white skinned and English speaking I am rejected by Afrikaner and black and brown Southern Africans. I have too many Afrikaner ancestors to be denied (at least 18 different Afrikaner family names in my family tree), but only a Timorese ancestor in the 1600’s to darken my skin.

I feel like a colonial mongrel, but I suppose at the end of the day, we all are!

A Magistrate’s curse in colonial times

Story suggested by Louis Boshoff Tuesday 23 March

In small towns in the colonies, the magistrate is often one of two senior government officials, the other is the District Commissioner. 

They are required to reside in large houses with large grounds, which if you are a young bachelor is a curse.

When I was appointed as Resident Magistrate in Mtoko in the North East corner of Rhodesia, the only furniture I possessed was my bed; my bedside table was a beer crate. I also had a hi-fi player.

I was given three weeks ‘ notice to move. All of a sudden I was required to furnish a 3 bedroomed house with a large sitting room and dining room. Then there were two acres of garden to keep neat. I was given three weeks’ notice and a day off to shop for furniture.

What to do? I didn’t have a girlfriend to advise me and Mum was still in Swaziland. My friends were beer drinkers and rugby players.

I went to an auction and bought a lounge suite, dining room suite, a bed, some bedside cabinets, some crockery and a tray full of cutlery.  There was also a set of Impressionist prints on boards which were quite good, so I took them to add colour to the walls.It took about an hour. 

Next door was a drapery shop where I bought some calico material for curtains, orange and green for the Irish flag. 

So I arrived in Mtoko and was taken on a grand tour by the departing magistrate: Police, Prison, District Commissioner and army HQ. Ex officio, I was appointed as Chairman of the local Sports Club. This was awkward as until then in the city, I had enjoyed the anonymity and freedom of an ordinary man in the street beer drinker…

The best advice I had been given was to engage a reliable man of all trades. Thankfully, I was introduced to John, a regal grandfather who introduced himself as Tickey (I am embarrassed to say I have forgotten his surname; I called him Baba which means father).

He was a real gentleman’s gentleman and cared for me as if I was a prince and not a dissolute bachelor with paltry, shoddy possessions and no woman. I gave him money and he bought food and fed us, telling me when we needed more. He fed the dogs and cleaned the house, removing the occasional reptile and washing and ironing. He took my curtain material to the local tailor and I had curtains in two days.

He would not do the garden, but fortunately a gang of prisoners would come up occasionally to cut grass and weed. Some became quite familiar and greeted me in a friendly fashion, even though I had sent them down.

So there were blessings to accompany the curse.

Learning about religion

Story suggested by Barbara Hatfield Tuesday 9 March

Religious rituals imprint emotions and memories early in life, for those raised in religious families. I suppose that is their function.

I am not talking about Christmas Carols and Easter Egg hunts and associated, market controlled commercial events, but family occasions.

Early Sunday was a tough time in our house, as my father hated being late for anything, especially mass. And my sister could never get her act together. I sometimes wonder if it wasn’t an early streak of the rebelliousness which bloomed in her older life. Certainly the nuns at Loreto could not quell it; in fact they probably caused it!

So driving to mass with a smouldering volcano and muttering sister was a fraught affair and my brother and I skulked low.

At mass, we were separated. He sat with Mum in the fourth pew from the front on the right, I was jammed into the space between the organ and the wall in the choir, of which Dad was the bass section. This was after we once had a fight over a holy bookmark card.

The little church was packed every Sunday. The best was when the Bishop came and there was incense and a throne for him. Except we had to kneel and kiss his ring which we didn’t care for.

Our Saturdays too were interfered with by religious stuff. We received religious instruction at Catechism classes, which were held at our house. As the priests and nuns were mostly Italian or Swazi, whose English was poor, my Mum used to take the classes.

A good illustration of Mum’s disciplinary powers was at meals if we forgot about “elbows off the table please darling” our elbows got jabbed by a carving fork. So we two Purcell boys mostly behaved. 

The others were four or five Smiths, mostly girls, a couple of Allardices and the occasional O’Kelly or two. They were wild boys and sitting still was not their forte. Adept at slipping under the tables, they tickled and pinched and generally disrupted proceedings.

They were eventually persuaded by the promise of cake and biscuits afterwards, or the threat of having to recite a decade of the rosary, out loud.

Nevertheless, a number of us duly made out first Confessions, which were always difficult as the concept of sin was so seriously guilty or not guilty. We resorted to a litany of transgreessions like:  bless me Father for I have sinned, I told a lie to my friend and thought bad things and I forgot to say my prayers… It was not easy to sound original every time.

Then Communion and the terror of not chewing Jesus’ body which  sat dry on the tongue or stuck to the roof of your mouth, while you looked pious and holy, which required a great deal of concentration. But I think there was a feeling of grace for a while afterwards.

Confirmation was weird – you had to choose a saint’s name and remember it was you they were talking to (don’t ask me why). We all lined up at a special Sunday parade and the Bishop came along and asked you a  question (you’d been told the answer). Then he marked your forehead with oil and slapped your face – apparently to chase the devil away.

Strange this practice of marking the head with oil and ashes on Ash Wednesday. We have no right to look sideways at the Hindus and their tikas.

For a while I was a devout Catholic, bound by duty and ritual and desire to please my parents. I was often the only boarder from school that walked the two or three miles through the winter frost across the icy river to mass. Then back again, too late for breakfast, if no-one gave you a lift.

I even entertained a fantasy of becoming a priest and saving lepers on a remote island like Father Damien. Maybe it was the island name Molokai that resonated some significance.

As life exposed the temptations of the flesh, duty and the basis of faith were examined and rationalisation gave excuses to avoid. Conveniently, I think, I embraced the mantra of Domine, non sum dignus * to avoid Communion, as I knew  I would continue to commit sins of the flesh like over-indulgence, idleness and neglect of holy obligations. It was sort of a sidestep about which I felt a little guilty.  

Over the years I have come to understand the place and need for religion in society. The vast number of different faiths and rituals seem to me as expressions of need, not the presence of gods in different forms.

Nevertheless the rituals still carry some reverence for me and I am conscious that we must acknowledge sin and need to try to improve. So a little stuck.

Sadly few of my Catholic contemporaries seem to have retained much devoutness. Some of my Protestant friends are more devout, but they have a wider menu and less demanding regime to follow. Generously, they include me in their prayers.

* Lord, I am not worthy

The Green Hand of Overdale

Story suggested by Keith Struwig 8 March Monday

The little boys at our boarding school, juniors ranging in age from seven to twelve, lived in Overdale House. They were under the care of a young Scotsman who was diligent but strict in his exercise of care.

Each morning the prefect awoke the boys with a little bell. No lolling in bed was permitted. All faces were to be washed in cold water (there was no hot); shoes polished, hair brushed, beds made before breakfast. Their appearance and clothes trunks were inspected. Then they were marched off to breakfast.

The housemaster ensured that the senior boys allowed them to get some food at meal times, but like all boys, they were always ravenous.

Every second night they were marched to Duncan House for a bath. On the intervening day grubbiness and dirt were to be removed under the cold water tap at the back, in the shade of the oak trees.

Lights out was at nine o’clock, with only the prefect’s light left on until later. The toilet was an outhouse, under the oak trees and it was very dark out there. But little boys were well aware of the horrible embarrassment and miserable disgrace awaiting those who wet their beds… so braved the dark.

Unfortunately, an idle, wicked prefect, who shall remain nameless, was struck by a brainwave.  He knew how to stop the littlest boys waking him in the middle of the night to take them to the loo, which he was under instruction to do. 

One winter night, just before lights out, he idly inquired if anyone had heard anything the previous night, like tapping on the window. No-one had. He admonished them all not to investigate if they ever did hear it. 

It could be “the hand” that was tapping…. 

He said he had been told by Sikwini, the Head Waiter, that many years ago, a man had slipped and fallen into the saw pit and his left hand had been sliced off. He was rushed to hospital but bled to death on the way. His hand had been forgotten in the panic and it is thought that Fly the school dog had stolen it. 

Now, it was said, usually at full moon the hand came to find its owner….

Boys were dumbstruck and everyone of them slept with their head under the blankets. No-one woke the prefect. 

Over the following days, any visits to the outhouse after dark were done before lights out, in company of at least two others, who took turns to wait outside while business was completed. Nobody moved after lights out.

Inevitably there was a sudden increase in incidents of bed-wetting, surprisingly including one or two older boys.

The canny young Scotsman conferred with the Matron (soon to become his wife) and she spoke to some of the younger boys. She soon extracted the legend of “the hand”, which had now become green and “scrabbled at the tops of windows and would strangle anyone who saw it and they would become ghosts of Overdale too….

Once such terrifying seeds have been planted, they grow unchecked and become rooted, despite pronouncements from the housemaster and the matron and a recant by the demoted prefect.

That is why, until Overdale was no longer a dormitory, chamber pots were used at night.

Everyone who was a boarder at St Marks knows the story and the duty monitors who fetched the cocoa at night always gave Overdale a wide berth, especially around full moon.

My fondest memory of my son

Story proposed by Janita Purcell Thursday 4 March

I have two sons and three daughters and all or nearly all of my memories of them are fond. I can’t remember any that are not fond, but there must be as nobody’s perfect, except perhaps John Eales. (it’s a rugby joke).

Bringing up five children, we practiced a sort of communist regime – everyone got the same share, first last time is last this time and always check that the dogs have water.

Our children were  and remain unfailingly good, mischievous, serious, loving, clever and beautiful and many other things that it hurts to remember.

They are all bright, talented and independent and love a family braai on a Sunday. They ask advice, listen and even sometimes seem to heed it. I think they ask me just because they know it makes me feel good. They ask their Mum when it’s something serious.

All of them are university educated, paid for by themselves, and have travelled abroad. They all like dogs and are polite and kind to people too.

I suppose the fondest memories I have of my eldest son is his pride in catching a slimy barbel on the farm, when he was about seven and his colours awards for hockey and Academics. 

The fondest memories of my youngest son is him consoling me in my rage when someone else was awarded Best Player when he  should have got it, and him reading to his baby daughter.

This is very difficult as I am somewhat sentimental. I think they all know that I am quite fond of them.

Patting a cow for the first time

for Max 3 months old 3 Mar Weds

Cows are friendly critters. 

They will remember you 

Mind you, there are cow pats and there are cow pats. You can pat a cow, but don’t pat a cow pat. Ask your Daddy to tell you why.

The first time I remember patting a cow was at the Hennessey’s dairy farm. They had a herd of Jersey cows and a few Shetland ponies.

First I will tell you a bit about these ponies. They are very small which is just right for little people to ride. Some can be bad tempered and some can be sweet.

When I was about seven years old my parents gave me a Shetland pony for my birthday. Her name was Sweetie. I will tell you why that was not a good name for her. 

Mum had invited all my friends to a birthday party for me. Even June Rose who had lived next door to us in Bremersdorp was there, looking very smart in  a bonnet and a frilly dress. She was only five.

The best thing about the party was that we all got to have a ride on Sweetie. Everybody was thrilled, except for one person. That person was Sweetie, who was not happy to have to carry lots of little children around the garden on her back all afternoon.

So, she had a huff. 

When ponies have a huff, they toss their heads, then jump forward onto their front legs and throw their hindlegs up into the air. If there is someone on their back, they get tossed off, over the horse’s head to crash down to the ground.

Poor June Rose, she landed in a rose bush and got quite badly scratched. That really spoilt the party. 

Sweetie was sent back to Hennessey’s farm, which is I suppose what she really wanted.

I always thought it was weird that June Rose was bucked off in the rose garden. Perhaps if her name was Daisy she would have been tossed into the daisies?

Anyway back to the cows. Jersey cows are a soft beige brown colour and have big brown eyes and long eyelashes.  They have big udders which give lots of milk every day. 

The farmer showed us how to milk a cow, after we had patted it of course. Cows like being patted and if they know you well enough will give you a big kiss. A cow kiss is a lick across your face!

Its not that difficult to milk a cow. You squeeze one of the teats on the udder and warm milk squirts out into the bucket under the cow. Sometimes the cow stamps her foot  and swishes her tail because she doesn’t like flies bothering her.

We gave some of the milk in a bottle to a calf, which was very sweet with big brown eyes too. It wanted more and sucked and sucked and moo’d  very loudly.

We patted its head and scratched its ears and it seemed to like that.

We didn’t want to go home, but the farmer said the calf had to go to the barn to sleep as it was getting dark.

It was lovely day – we got to pat a pony, a cow and a calf. We also patted the farmer’s dog and his cats. And he gave us a bag of big forest mushrooms called makhowe  to take home for our supper. 

Early thoughts in 2021

Library Blues

Let me get it off my chest so it doesn’t fester.

I went to the library last Monday, to find it was closed from 24 December until 4 January. I couldn’t even return books.

NO READING!!

It seems counter –intuitive for libraries to be closed when most of the populace are on holiday. Surely reading is a primary leisure activity on holidays? Why are libraries not open at night, on weekends and during holidays, times when most people are at leisure?

Methinks I shall direct my inquiry to the local council and the Editor of the local paper.

Family Christmas

I reflect on the joy and warmth that is possible in a family gathering, especially where a very young person is present. Our youngest granddaughter gave rise to frequent grins and warmth by responding with smiles and laughs, twinkling her eyes. Our oldest entertained us with her frequent questions and antics.

Ten of us and 3 dogs survived a week together in a house in the bush, without major disruption and with buckets of laughs and only mild excesses. It was happy time.

Fatalism

Soberingly, I also reflect on the fact that a large number of people continue to mingle apparently uncaring about the transmission of death that they are enabling. It’s all very well choosing to risk one’s own health, but the fact is that most people are not only risking their own health, they expose others in their families and communities as carriers.

Getting people to stop and think about their own societal ripples is not easy – we are too prone to self-indulgence and the looking away from horrors.

Gratitude

I am haunted by the feeling that life is too good, it can’t last, there has to be adjustment for without bad there can’t be good, nor hot without cold, happy without sad….

“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”

― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Practising gratitude also strengthens one’s humility, protecting us from arrogance.

I am grateful and often try to be humble….

The paradox of Remembrance

My cousin recently admired a wreath of white poppies placed by veterans for peace – a thought provoking demonstration.

Every year on Poppy Day I remember friends who died futilely in a colonial bush war and those scarred and embittered for life by the perfidy of Albion and the ever changing values of human kind in that little war.

I remember the father of a friend who some twenty years after ceasefire, succumbed to his anguish over his survival but his tank crew’s incineration at El Alamein.

I am moved to tears by the tributes and honour and respect shown by people of the world at the tombs of countless unknown warriors and ponder on the glory of war.

What jarred me this year as I read Facebook tributes for ancestors with the echoes of Last Post ringing in my ears, was this one: In memory of my grandfather, Arthur Imaginary, machine gunner 2nd Batt Intrepids, died 15 Mar 1915.

I wondered how many widows and orphans were the harvest of granddad’s machine gun.

…and this is only one side!

Talk about yin and yang: we glorify and honour someone while others mourn his military proficiency.

In every war, all soldiers are told God is on their side – I don’t think God takes side, S/He just keeps score. Surely priests know that?

My scepticism is also aroused by the coincident utility of military honour for all the -isms and -ists and -iots.

The iron duty imposed by the popular poem is hard to deny:

If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

I am the product of generations of soldiers; my father, uncles, grandfathers and my son all served in wars in distant lands.

I cannot deny that I believe in and admire soldiers. I guess that means I can’t believe that people can live in peace.

In Flanders fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

Oh so many…

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

John McCrae (1872–1918)

Am I grateful?

Some people will resist the powerful temptation to read another of my almost irresistible musings. I am eternally grateful to those who feed my ego by reading and indicating their appreciation or outrage (comme ci, comme ça, c’est la guerre!)

For some of us, gratitude just doesn’t come easy. It is an emotion, so is frequently at odds with intellect. Beware the emotional vampire!

One of the reasons for resisting gratefulness is genetic make-up, another is brain size or it may be our personality. I suppose we shouldn’t forget nurture either! Some people are taught pride and learn to perceive kindnesses as charity, which is not acceptable to the proud! … and often irritates the charitable, no doubt!

Nevertheless, intellect, being more modern, considered and cautious can coax gratitude out of its shell, to bloom and brighten one’s life and the lives of their nearest and dearest.

Research has shown that making conscious efforts to count one’s blessings is therapeutic: grateful people are indeed less likely to have mental health problems like depression.

Gratefulness is the key to a happy life that we hold in our hands, because if we are not grateful, then no matter how much we have we will not be happy — we will always want to have something else or something more (Br. David Steindl-Rast). He also believes that the human response of gratitude is a part of the religious worldview and is essential to all human life.

According to Cicero “Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others.”

I get all this and I dig it. We don’t know how lucky we are!

I wrote this on my birthday a couple of years ago: https://sillysocksonfriday.com/2018/11/09/introibo-ad-altare-dei/

Sing out loud

My earlier blog today was unoriginal and bleak.

I cast about for a happier note and was rewarded with a memory of The Happy Wanderer https://youtu.be/UPfGL0tDP30

We were taught it at Primary School and it filled us with glee, especially as we exaggerated the faldera ah-ha-ha-ha-ha bit, every time.

Our little gang sang it when we played pirates in our wonderful pirate ship HMS Avocado Tree