Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Evocation of a Durban childhood

Yesterday I went to the Unisa library and found a novel by Barbara Trapido, called Frankie and Stankie. I saw it on the end of a shelf and was intrigued by a review quote on the cover that said, “There aren’t many novelists whose stories one doesn’t want to read, but Barbara Trapido is one of them.” It seemed a strange enough recommendation, so I took it out.

In the evening I read the Barbara Trapido book, and read bits aloud to Val, because it was a very good evocation of a Durban childhood, and actually some of the people were real too — it mentioned people I knew or knew of, like Ken and Jean Hill, who were members of the Liberal Party, and Eileen Krige, the anthropologist, whom I had heard of. I checked the cover blurb again, and found that it was not what I thought it was — it said “There are very few novelists whose books one doesn’t want to end”, not “doesn’t want to read”, so I’d taken it out under false pretences. But I was glad I had; it brought back a lot of childhood memories, like this

Dinah continues to be a non-eater throughout her childhood. When one of her dad’s colleagues visits with a packet of biscuits, he says they’re ‘for Lisa to eat and Dinah to play with. The biscuits are called Iced Zoological but the girls call them Animal Biscuits. Each biscuit is a scalloped rectangle with pastel icing on the top and an animal piped on to it in a contrasting colour. There are yellow giraffes on rose-pink icing and white tigers on sky-blue icing.

And this:

By eight Lisa is judged too big for the sleigh-ride through Santa’s grotto in Greenacre’s department store, and has to walk around to the exit to collect her present from Santa, just as Dinah comes helter-skeltering to conclusion in a cloud of fake snow and piped jingle bells.

Both Val and I remember the sleigh ride in Greenacres, though it belonged to Father Christmas rather than Santa; but that could be explained in the book by Lisa and Dinah’s father being Dutch. And then

The school wash basins are all furnished with shiny pink chunks of slimy carbolic soap that look like sections of human lung.

I haven’t seen Lifebuoy soap for years, but its appearance after being left in a wet soap dish can never be forgotten.

I think I spotted a few anachronisms, but they were minor ones: Cadbury’s Crunchies appeared later on the scene than the time described in the book, as was the girl Julia Painting being bitten by a shark.

The name of the author, Barbara Trapido, sounded vaguely familiar, so I Googled, and found she was born in the same year as me, 1941, so it’s no wonder her evocation of post-war Durban as seen through the eyes of a child was so familiar. I also checked my diary, and found I had actually met her once, on 19 August 1973:

In the afternoon there was an incredible party where there were 12 kids and 19 people altogether in the house, having separate little tea parties. Andy Argyle arrived with her children and Barbara Trapido, and Roger Aylard came round with two of his boys, and Gill Browne was there with her children. In spite of the numbers, it was amazingly peaceful, and it could hardly be noticed that so many people were

And at the time I was banned, and not supposed to attend any social gatherings. Of course it was my landlady’s gathering, not mine, but still. And at that time my landlady’s children also attended the Berea Road Girls School, described in detail in the book.

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2 thoughts on “Evocation of a Durban childhood

  1. Pingback: Growing up in Durban | Notes from underground

  2. Pingback: Some memories of Westville in the 1940s | Hayes & Greene family history

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