Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the tag “memories”

What is Union Spirit?

Union Spirit is (or was) biofuel made as a by-product of sugar refining in Natal, South Africa.

Someone asked the question “What is Union Spirit” in a newsgroup devoted to human rights, and I think it was a reference to some political slogan being used in Burma alias Myanmar.

But I remember it as a brand of petrol.

It was originally (in the 1940s) sold only in Natal, and mainly in and around Durban, where many garages would have a Union pump. In those days garages sold several brands of petrol. There were no “one brand” garages. The commonest brands were Caltex, Shell, Pegasus and Atlantic. Pegasus later became Mobil and is now Engen. Atlantic became BP.

In the Transvaal province in the 1950s there was Satmar, which was made from torbanite (oil shale) and later Sasol (made from coal).

In the 1960s there was one garage in Johannesburg that sold Union Spirit. It was in Jeppestown, and was in demand among sports car drivers because at that time the regular petrol sold at other garages was 87 octane, and not suitable for high-compression engines, even at Johannesburg’s altitude

Union Spirit was 100 octane.

The time of my life

Up at 5:25. I borrowed my son Jethro’s bakkie and went out to get a new battery for the Subaru, and had to pay R900.00 for it, though they said they would give me R114.00 back if I brought in the old one. When I were a lad you could buy a whole car for that. My first “real” car was an 8-year-old Peugeot 403 station wagon, which I bought in Durban in 1969 and paid R300 for it. I sold it 3 years later to a witchdoctor for R60, and in the mean time it had taken me to Namibia and back a few times.

Then I went to Brooklyn Mall, to the Exclusive Books sale, where they have reduced the prices still further. I had hoped to get a copy of and the hippos were boiled in their tanks by Jack Kerouac and William Burroughes, but they seemed to have been all sold out, which quite surprised me, as the last time we were there they had about 8-10 copies and I wondered who in Pretoria might buy them. But I found a book on the peace movement, to commemorate 50 years of the peace sign. So in the end the books I bought were:

  • Leland, John. 2007. Why Kerouac matters: the lessons of On the Road.
  • Matthiessen, Peter. 2003. End of the earth: voyages to Antarctica.
  • Miles, Barry. 2008. Peace: 50 years of protest 1958-2008.

And they cost R70.00, but if they had not been on sale they would probably have cost almost as much as the battery.

I got home and looked at the books. I blogged about the peace symbol on the anniversary, at Peace symbol – 50 years on | Khanya, and the book, though a bit coffee-tableish, was a good reminder of a history that coincided with my own life. In 1958, the year the peace symbol was first used to protest nuclear disarmament, I was still at school. The “peace symbol” was then primarily used in protests against nuclear weapons, and it was only some years later, with growing American involvement in Vietnam, that it became a general peace sign. In 1961 I joined the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, and I’m now associated with the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, so the book is in a way the story of my life and times.

One of the other books, the one on Kerouac’s On the road was also in a way a symbol of my life and times, though On the road was never my favourite book by Kerouac — I much preferred his The Dharma bums. Kerouac, however, was the same age as my father-in-law, so he was a different generation. But Leland’s book seems to be trying to turn On the road into a self-help book. I must be really out of touch with pop culture, because I have no interest in self-help books, nor books about misunderstood sexy teenage vegetarian vampires. I prefer my vampires evil and bloodthirsty and they are coming to kill you and steal your soul.

Then, while I was pondering these books, which provoked a lot of reminiscences, the TV started reporting on Jimmy Reid’s funeral. I’d never heard of Jimmy Reid, or if I had heard of him, I couldn’t remember him. He was a trade union leader in the shipbuilding industry in Scotland, and was apparently famous for leading a work-in when Edward Heath’s Conservative government wanted to close down the British shipbuilding industry. They recalled two speeches he made, one on the occasion of the work-in, and another when he was made Rector of Glasgow University and said, “A rat race is for rats. We’re not rats. We’re human beings.” It was hailed by the New York Times as the greatest speech since Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

I found it strangely moving, and also linked to my life and times in a way. I went to the UK in January 1966 to study at St Chad’s College, Durham. I left in a hurry, because a Detective Sergeant van den Heever phoned me at 4 pm and said he wanted come and see me. I was about to leave for work, and said I’d have to see him in the morning. But then I consulted friends and decided it would be wiser to leave for the UK right away, so left at 10:00 pm and drove through the night to Beit Bridge. My mother told me that her cousin Willie Hannan was a Scottish MP, and might be able to help me get advice on finding a job and getting residence permits and the like.

I drove to Bulawayo, and got a plane to Salisbury (now Harare) and from the airport phoned more cousins. It was just after UDI in Rhodesia, and the Rhodesian cousins did not have a good word for cousin Willie, and portrayed him as a wild-eyed socialist revolutionary, betraying his own kith and kin in Rhodesia and all the rest of the Rhodesian rhetoric.

When I got to London I made contact with cousin Willie, who was MP for Girvan, in Glasgow. He was terribly respectable, and anything less like a wild-eyed revolutionary I could not imagine. My mother had also told me that Willie’s father had been jailed as a conscientious objector during the First World War, not because he was a pacifist, but because he was a socialist and regarded it as an imperialist-capitalist war. I regarded any conscientious objector as something of a hero, and so I asked cousin Willie about it, but he was clearly embarrassed, and said that at the time the police came for his father he was just a child, and they didn’t understand it, and that things were different in those days. He was, in my view, what we then called a “square”, altogether respectable. But he was a very nice bloke, and kind hearted, and was all in favour of peace, though he believed peace could be achieved by international cooperation and friendship, primarily in things like the European Union. He had no opinion about Rhodesia at all, other than being mildly unhappy about all the unpleasantness over it, and wanted to know what I thought of it, though I had spent less than 24 hours there on my way to the UK.

But he probably knew Jimmy Reid, and probably thought of him as a wild-eyed socialist revolutionary.

Where were you?

People sometimes ask “Where were you when such and such and event happened?” Or, more likely, they remember where they themselves were. And now people are remembering where they were during the first moon landing, 40 years ago this week. Jim Forest’s memories of where he was are particularly interesting because they recall another aspect of the 1960s — he was in jail.

On Pilgrimage: The whole Earth in a prison cell:

Most people at the time saw the moon landing on television. In my case, I listened to it happening via a pair of low-tech earphones made available to me by the State of Wisconsin. I was in a narrow cell at Waupun State Prison.

Prison had become my temporary home due to an act of protest against the Vietnam War – I was one of 14 people who burned files of Milwaukee’s nine draft boards. Now I was in the early weeks of serving a two-year sentence – in fact one year, given the “good behavior” factor.

As for me, I was travelling through the Kalahari. I was doing that during the Apollo XI space mission, and during the Apollo XII mission as well. At the time of the Apollo XIII mission I didn’t make it to the Kalahari, and Apollo XIII didn’t make it to the moon either.

Memories, or not, as the case may be

Thanks to Quaker Pagan Reflections: Memories and Not for this meme…

If you read this, if your eyes are passing over this right now (even if we don’t speak often or have never met), please post a comment with a completely made up, fictional memory of you and me.

It can be anything you want – good or bad – but it has to be fake.

When you’re finished, post this little paragraph in your blog and see what your friends come up with…

Growing up in Durban

I’ve just finished reading Barbara Trapido’s Frankie and Stankie — a semi-autobiographical account of growing up in Durban. A few days ago I wrote about it in Notes from underground: Evocation of a Durban childhood. That was after I’d just read the first few chapters.

I found it quite fascinating, and it made me put my project of reading Ulysses on hold, because it gripped me so much. There was so much that I could identify with, especially my own childhood up to the age of seven, and then the university parts in the early 1960s, because though I wasn’t on the Durban campus, but in Pietermaritzburg, it was the same university, and I knew some people from there.

Plus, as Trapido would say, some of the people were real people with real names, like Ken and Jean Hill, whom I did not know well, but I had met them a few times. And Francis Cull, whom she referred to as a 35-year-old Anglican priest, and who in my time, three years later, was doing English Honours in Pietermaritzburg, and seemed nearer to 70 than 60, as old as I am now, perhaps, except that I don’t feel as old as he seemed to me then.

There were some anachronisms, or at least so they seemed to me — she referred to the university as “uni”, an Australianism that came in long after the time. Perhaps people speak of it as the “uni” today, but in my — our– time it was always “varsity”. Another term I don’t remember using at that period is “airhead”, though the description is accurate enough. John Vorster did not become Minister of Justice until 1961, though the book suggests that he held that position in 1960, at the time of the Sharpeville massacre.

Her description of the freshers reception committee also rang true, though since I was somewhat older by the time I got to the University of Natal, I was in a position not to take it very seriously, unlike the 17-year-olds straight out of school. But I think she had them well sussed out, and the thing about freshers having to wear hair ribbons and bow ties was spot on, though in my day they were yellow and purple, which for various reasons entirely unrelated to fresher integration, I happened to like. On the Durban campus the Philistines were the engineers, while in Pietermaritzburg they were the agrics. I remember an agric friend once railing against “liberals” and how he hated them, and when I asked him why he replied, “Because they’re against integration”. It was just the opposite of the usual complaint — that liberals were against segregation — so I was quite gobsmacked (yes, that’s an anachronism too), but it turned out that he was talking about fresher integration, not racial integration.

I couldn’t identify quite so much with the high-school period of the late 1950s, perhaps because by then my family had moved to the Witwatersrand and we lived on a smallholding in Sunningdale, just outside Johannesburg, whose expansion into the surrounding countryside I viewed as an assault on my freedom. Plus (is that term catching or what?) I was at a boys’ boarding school, so fashion in clothing played a much smaller role in my life as a teenager than it did at a Durban girls’ day school. Nevertheless, there were enough parallels to make it interesting.

I suppose the book is what the Germans call a Bildungsroman, a novel about growing up, or a “coming of age” novel. And in that it succeeds. It may be fiction (or at least semi-fiction), but it is also a piece of social history, a memoir. Such was the segregated nature of South African society in those days that it is the memoir only of a Woozer [1] upbringing in the post-war era, the period 1945-1965. Trapido (whose husband was the well-known South African historian Stan Trapido) sets her story of growing up against a background of real historical events. She tells it as it really was; much of it is just as I remember it.

In my earlier post I noted that I had met Babara Trapido, and now I’m rather puzzled, having come to the end of the book, since that was nine years after she had left South Africa for good. So now I wonder just who it was that I met.


[1] Woozer – a White Urban English-speaking South African (WUESA). The experience of other South African cultural groups might be quite different. For White Rural English-speaking South Africans of roughly that period, for example, the classic Bildungsroman is The power of one by Bruce Courtenay.

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