Last year at the Edinburgh International Book Festival I chaired Michael Ondaatje as he talked about his latest novel, The Cat’s Table, a fictionalised account of the journey he had made as an 11-year-old in a passenger liner, from Ceylon to England. The book vividly recalled my own voyage, from Southampton to Cape Town, in late February 1968 – although with none of the shipboard intrigue Ondaatje conjured up in his novel, at least none that I was aware of.
It was the start of my gap year and the first time I had been out of Europe. I travelled with two school friends and we sailed in the SA Vaal, a single-class ship of the Union Castle line. With long-haul air travel in its youth, sea passage was still, just, a bona fide way of getting to one’s destination. The choice was easy for my parents because the sea ticket was cheaper than the airfare. My mother had spent some of the happiest time of her childhood at the British naval base in Simonstown, on the eastern side of the Cape Peninsula, where her father had been posted. Now her oldest friend, my godmother, lived in Cape Town and she was to be our first port of call.
The thrill of being at sea wore off fairly quickly from what I remember. The voyage took twelve days. We were 18 years old and didn’t drink much so the duty free bar held little appeal, there were a couple of girls our age on board but they found our charms quite resistible, and there are only so many flying fish one can count. Though our arrival, sailing into Table Bay in the early morning with Table Mountain wearing its customary tablecloth of cloud, was everything we had been led to expect.
In those days I travelled in an adolescent fog of self-absorption. I was alert to landscape and personal encounters, but I was largely oblivious to the broader currents of world affairs – and in the late 60s, with events in Vietnam, Northern Ireland, Czechoslovakia and Greece to name but some, they were reaching tsunami proportions. But politics had never been a topic of conversation at the Jauncey family dinner table, so I learnt slowly.
A few months previously, as I wrote last week, I had been in Greece, the cradle of democracy, only recently fallen under the thumb of a military junta. Now I had arrived in a South Africa where apartheid was at its height. Mandela had been on Robben Island for four years – we had sailed right past it on our approach to Cape Town, while elsewhere in the world the anti-apartheid movement was gathering pace. A year later, many of my student friends at Aberdeen University would be rounded up by the police for demonstrating against the Springboks rugby tour. (Rather than formally arresting them and clogging up the courts the police simply drove them 15 miles up the coast, told them not to do it again, then turfed them out of the vans and left them to walk home.)
But I was still very naïve and a few months after my return from South Africa, during freshers’ week at Aberdeen, I remember explaining to a bearded, pipe-smoking lecturer that my godmother’s black servants seemed very happy and were well looked after. I can still see the look on his face.
I say I was largely oblivious, but not totally. I do remember being shocked by the ‘blanke’ and ‘niet blanke’ signs at railway stations, the partitioning of the platforms. I was also aware of the invidious status of the Cape Coloureds, as the people of mixed race were called. My godmother found us work at a winery near Stellenbosch where many of the farm workers were Cape Coloured. But for all that, I had no real awareness then of the international storm of disapproval that was brewing, nor any great personal sensitivity to the injustice of the regime.
But it was an introduction to independent travel, once we had left my godmother and Cape Town in a jalopy we’d picked up for the equivalent of £25. We were in a spectacularly beautiful country and we were welcomed along our way by friendly, generous people, even if they steadfastly refused to acknowledge the bulging elephant in the room. It was also, for me, the beginning of a long habit of diary-keeping, the practice of observing and recording.
I still have it – the 1968 Shooter’s Year Book (I had had a country upbringing, remember), pocket-sized and crammed with tiny, barely legible notes on each day’s events, along with such useful printed information as ‘Guns wear out by neglect, not use. Have your gun overhauled by a gunsmith at least once a year but do not leave it until August.’ Advice that the white hunter I was shortly to meet in Kenya would, I’m sure, have heartily agreed with. But that’s next week’s story …
Ah, that really is good writing.