Like all the older people among my mother’s family connections, M. was an immigrant to South Africa from Eastern Europe. He had arrived in the country as a boy and had grown up in Johannesburg. Unlike virtually every other Jewish immigrant, however, he had chosen to identify himself not with the urban, prosperous, relatively sophisticated English-speaking section of the population, but with the Boers, the Afrikaners. As a group they may have had the reputation, at least among outsiders, of being provincial, unwelcoming, defiantly illiberal and racialistic, isolated from the rest of the world as much by their attitudes and language as by their geographical situation. Indeed, when my two older brothers and I lived briefly under M.’s roof, more than forty years ago, a substantial number of the Afrikaners sided more or less openly with the Nazis in Germany. Yet it was with them that he sought to associate himself; it was with their fortunes that he had tied his own. Tied it to the extent of marrying an Afrikaner woman and bringing up his children to speak Afrikaans. For years his mother had refused to see him, as a result.
That was one remarkable fact about him. Another, closely connected with it, I shall come to presently. At that time, no doubt as part of his programme of ‘going Boer’, M. had bought and was running a substantial farm in the middle of the Orange Free State: the flat, treeless, landlocked, middlemost province of South Africa. One summer it was decided that my brothers and I should spend our school holidays there. This would solve the summer holiday problem quite cheaply; besides, my father, who had himself been a shopkeeper and a small-scale farmer in that part of the world, had a sentimental attachment to it, which he wanted us to share. As for M., I suspect that he was lonely and bored and that he welcomed the idea of company of the kind (our kind) on which he had supposedly turned his back. Even if, as in this case, it was under age.
In the event, the holiday was not a success. We lived on the farm for about two weeks, no more; but it seemed longer to us, as it must have done, I am sure, to our hosts too. We got on badly with M.’s two children, who were younger than ourselves, and neither badly nor well with M.’s wife, who was too reclusive to have any relationship with us, apart from that involved in silently ladling out soup at the dinner table. When I say that M. had married an Afrikaner woman, I don’t want the reader to picture to himself some sturdy, bonneted Boerevrou, dressed in calico prints on weekdays and in church-going black on Sundays, given to sausage-making and child-bearing. Nothing of the kind. M.’s wife was an elongated, indoors person, who invariably powdered her face so thickly as to produce a mask-like or plaster-of-paris effect, which was relieved only by a strongly lipsticked mouth and a pair of tinted glasses. Her hair, gold-foil blond in colour, always looked as if it had been freshly dyed and permed; her shoes, stockings and dresses were always formal and fashionable. Having carefully rigged herself out in this manner each morning, like no other farmer’s wife in the province (I should guess), she would proceed to spend most of the day behind drawn curtains in the bedroom. What she did for all those hours in her room I have no way of knowing, or even of imagining. She would emerge for meals, which were prepared by the African women in the kitchen, or to spend some time with her children in the afternoons; then retire early to bed. Whenever she went out, the occasion seemed to be fraught with an intense but obscure sense of risk.
M., by contrast, was always on the go. Even when he sat down he managed to remain on the go. His voice was loud and hoarse, his gestures were emphatic, his laugh came readily and lasted for a long time, he was always eager to engage the whole of himself – shoulders and hands as much as mind – in passionate argument. Having thrown in his lot with the Afrikaners, having decided that their fortunes were to be his, he had adopted the attitudes which he felt to be appropriate to his choice: he had schooled himself to despise all liberals, left-wingers, reformers, bleeding-hearts, ‘kaffir-lovers’ and suchlike. During that holiday he tried to get us to do likewise. Thinking of him then, of the vitality that was in him, I do not find it hard to bring together the dishevelled gregariousness and responsiveness of his manner with the views he put forward. What is more difficult is to reconcile his manner with the knowledge that his entire life was spent in flight from one kind of isolation and in pursuit of another, until, as we shall see, he could bear neither any longer. Even on the farm there was distance enough between him and his wife; not to speak of the distance between him and his two sons: a solemn pair of children with cropped, sun-bleached hair and sun-browned legs, who did not like our being there and who showed a wincing unease at the copious (and to them largely incomprehensible) draughts of English with which M. regaled us – and himself. ‘Chaps’ was the hearty term he invariably used in addressing us: a word which his children had evidently never heard before. His repeated use of it eventually moved the younger of them to say to us one day, in a tone of disgusted bewilderment, ‘Julle kêrels is net ’n hele klomp chaps!’ – ‘You blokes are nothing but a whole bunch of chaps!’