Booze, sex and philosophy from the gutter: Reading Charles Bukowski’s ‘Women’

“I never pump up my vulgarity. I wait for it to arrive on its own terms,” says Henry ‘Hank’ Chinaski the fictional alter-ego of legendary boozehound writer and  “laureate of American lowlife” (as Time magazine dubbed him) Charles Bukowski in his 1978 novel “Women”.

I’ve read many of Bukowski’s brilliantly irreverent novels – written in a parsed down, forthright and highly entertaining style – and Women is by far the most graphic, indeed almost pornographic in its depiction of Chinaski’s innumerable sexual encounters.

(“I got down there and began licking…the cl*t came out but it wasn’t exactly pink, it was a purplish pink,” is how he describes one of these episodes.)

The semi-autobiographical novel (one can only assume some of his sexual exploits are exaggerated, though perhaps not the prodigious drinking) begins with Chinaski, 50, telling the reader that he has not had sex for four years.

“I had no women friends. I looked at them as I passed them on the street or wherever I saw them, but I looked without yearning, with a sense of futility.”

This drought is then broken by a period of romping that would have made Don Juan proud. It begins with half-crazed divorced mother of two Lydia Vance (the fictional version of Bukowski’s real-life girlfriend, the sculptor and playwright Linda King), whom Chinaski meets at a poetry reading:

She put both hands on the edge of the table, bent over and looked at me. She had long brown hair, quite long, a prominent nose and one eye didn’t quite match the other. But she projected vitality – you knew that she was there. I could feel vibrations running between us.

Woman, Charles Bukowski

Their relationship is full of wild sex, described in intimate detail by Chinaski – “I heard her breathing heavily, then she moaned” – and violent breakups due to his excessive drinking, visits to the racetrack, and infidelities, none of which he apologises for. Chinaski is who he is and the world can go to hell if they don’t like it.

“I walked into the bedroom with just my shorts on. I was conscious of my white belly lolling out over the shorts. But I made no effort to suck in my gut…”

At face value, Women is simply a recollection of Chinaski’s (or Bukowski’s) various relationships with women. These include Lydia, but also brief encounters with star struck fans who are seemingly served up on a platter to the horniest 50-year-old in LA.

It’s also a daily tally of his prodigious alcohol consumption of mostly cheap wine and beer. In between all the boozing and bonking – “Fucking was the best cure for hangovers. It got all the parts ticking again” – we accompany Chinaski on his often hilarious trips to college campuses around the country where he gives readings.

But as with all his writing, Bukowski manages to convey something more profound and meaningful than the sum of his adventures across bedrooms, bars and college campuses.

It is to champion the other side of Los Angeles in the words of his biographer Barry Miles: “Not the LA of ranch homes in the Hollywood Hills with the breathtaking views…” but the LA of tarnished dreams, of dead end jobs, of hookers and workers in the sex industry, of beaten down, damaged and dysfunctional people”.

Miles adds: “Bukowski loved the corner bars, the tawdry fast-food outlets, the sex shops and brothels, the graffiti on the walls…”

Sure Chinaski is the hero of the story, but he is no superman in a cape. He is very much the Bukoswki you see in those grainy black and white poetry readings on YouTube. a disheveled anti-hero with a pockmarked face who says what he thinks, never holds back and for whom nothing is ever taboo.

Chinaski in Women is very much a mirror – if perhaps a distorted and exaggerated one – of Bukowski at the height of his powers and fame: when after decades of struggle, eking out a living and working dead end jobs, he had finally established himself as a figurehead in American literature: the dirty old man of American letters.

Chinaski is not searching for some deeper meaning to life, or for the woman of his dreams. Life is simply about the experiences that happen to him – whether its winning big at the track or walking away broke, having a raging hardon or being unable to perform in the sack because he drank too much, talking to prostitutes or college professors – everything finds its way, uncensored into the book.

And while Chinaski is vulgar, and driven by his baser urges, he can also be sweet and loving. He is not a manipulator, nor does he pretend to be anyone else. And he despises pretentious, fake people.

Most importantly – and perhaps a key reason why I enjoy his books so much – is the poetic nature of his writing: short, descriptive sentences that hit their mark without ever saying too little or too much (a style that would have impressed George Orwell).

If you are a fan of Bukowski other books, or a writer like Raymond Carver who though not as vulgar, employed a similar parsed down style of storytelling, you should definitely give Women a read. (Just don’t leave the book anywhere near young children!)

Bidding adieu to the great Inspector Morse (and the greatest ending to a TV show ever)

Near the end of the final episode of Inspector Morse, we find the great British detective sitting outside an Oxford pub with his faithful sidekick Lewis drinking a beer despite strict doctors orders.

His health failing, and two months out from a forced retirement, that will involve listening to Wagner, reading the classics and pursuing his newest hobby: birdwatching, Morse is feeling melancholy and regretful.

Trying to cheer him up, Lewis tells Morse to look out at the sun setting majestically like a Turner painting across green English fields behind them. Morse looks, pauses for a moment to think, and then recites, with a feeling of impending doom, the final stanza from his favourite poet AE Housman’s How Clear, How Lovely Bright:

Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
    Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
    Falls the remorseful day
.

The final three words of Housman’s marvelous poem, which seems to convey everything I love about the show (what other TV detective could recite melancholy poetry and not sound like a nonce?) is also the title of Morse’s final caper: a series of murders linked to the bludgeoning death of a wealthy socialite and nymphomaniac.

Not wanting to spoil it for those who have not watched it or are still making their way through the series, I won’t reveal the show’s final moments.

However, I can say, that I don’t think I have ever been more emotionally affected by the ending of a fictional television series. It left me in a state of profound and palpable melancholy, like I was saying good bye to an adored uncle, whom I would never see again.

Such was my dismay at reaching the end of the show, that I briefly thought about starting the series from the very beginning. Eventually my dark mood lifted, though I obsessively kept on reading and reciting the Houseman poem. (You can read it in full here).

Part of this melancholy I am certain had to do with John Thaw, the wonderful actor who played Morse, and who in his personality and manner was in many ways a mirror of Morse – a deep thinker, a lover of classical music, a decent man.

There is also the added tragedy that Thaw sadly died in 2002, just two years after the final episode aired. and only 60 at the time.

Soon after I watched the final episode of Inspector Morse, I listened to John Thaw being interviewed way back in 1990 on Desert Island Discs, the classic BBC radio program and podcast in which guests talk about their lives, whilst revealing their eight favourite pieces of music they would take with them if stranded on a desert island.

All of Thaw’s musical selections, apart from a song sung by his wife (the acclaimed actress Sheila Hancock) in the musical Annie, are classical or operatic works, a selection Morse himself would have no doubt enjoyed (though, no Wagner!).

Introducing Thaw and summarising his highly versatile career to that point, Desert Island Discs host Sue Lawley notes his two most memorable roles were playing the “troubled, but likeable” Morse and “rough, tough” Jack Regan in London police drama The Sweeney.

Given Thaw’s preference for a quiet life laced with classical music, Lawley suggests to him “there’s rather more of Morse in you than Regan?”

“Oh most certainly, yes,” Thaw agrees in his soft, purring voice.

Thaw says he got his love of classical music from his friend and fellow acting great, Tom Courtenay, whilst both were students at RADA (The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) in London. Struggling with the part of Mephistopheles in a production of Faust, Courtney encouraged Thaw to listen to the 1st Symphony by Sibelius.

Casting aside his prejudices (“What a load of rubbish, I thought”) Thaw says he was “utterly transfixed”.

“It changed my life, [listening to Sibelius] that day.”

Thaw was 48 at the time of the interview, coincidentally the same age as I am now.

Thaw jokes that the crew who worked on Inspector Morse thought he was a lot older, and that’s certainly how I felt when I watched the white haired, often curmudgeonly great British detective work at solving the latest baffling murder.

“I was born old or looking old, ” says Thaw.

“I started to go grey during The Sweeney and then went totally white. It’s a hereditary thing.”

Asked what he considered his best professional work, Thaw says it has to be Morse.

“It’s a quality product, I acted pretty well and we get good scripts, yet it is also very popular with the public” he says

“All those things coming together would give me the most pleasure.”

I was extremely late to the joys of Thaw’s chief inspector Morse, who made his on-screen debut way back in 1987, driving around the narrow streets of Oxford in his classic red Jaguar Mark 2, and resembling my father somewhat in appearance.

I bought the first couple of seasons on DVD, but as they were pricey, ended up watching the majority of the 33 feature-length episodes (based on the books by Colin Dexter) on YouTube over the last 3-4 years.

It has been a very private pleasure: my wife finds the show slow and boring and Morse annoying in his old fashioned habits and so I have watched the entire series on my own.

The final episode, The Remorseful Day, was released on November 15, 2000, and watched by 12 million Britons. Around the world over a billion people have enjoyed Morse cerebral brilliance, penchant for classical music and cryptic crosswords and for sharing his astute insights into criminal behaviour over a pint or two of good English ale.

Because each episode is feature-movie length – about 90 minutes – they allow for the story to unfold slowly, for the parade of suspects and motives to be investigated by Morse and Lewis, whilst providing scope for a couple of obligatory trips to the pub.

 “Think? That’s why I want [another drink] – to think. I don’t drink for pleasure!” is Morse’s annoyed reaction to Lewis’s suggestion in the final episode that maybe another beer is not a good idea.

For me, part of Morse’s charm is his complex and paradoxical character: easily angered, often short-tempered and with zero tolerance for fools, he is also by equal measure kind, compassionate, patient and sensitive.

A seemingly confirmed bachelor set in his ways, Morse is nonetheless always on the lookout for romance, and tends to find it in troubled and doomed relationships.

His tempestuous relationship with Lewis, a working class Geordie copper trying to climb up the detective ladder, is another delight of the show. (Kevin Whately starred in a successful spin-off of Inspector Morse called Inspector Lewis which ran for nine seasons).

Detective Sergeant Lewis: Still, at least we can make one arrest.

Chief Inspector Morse: Who’s that?

Detective Sergeant Lewis: This Sophocles chap.

Chief Inspector Morse: Lewis, Sophocles died two and a half thousand years ago.

Often annoyed at Lewis’s ignorance of history, the classics, art and philosophy and unsympathetic to Lewis’s desire to manage his family life at home, Morse nonetheless becomes a kind of father figure to Lewis, educating him in the wiles of human nature and taking obvious pleasure when Lewis surprises him with an educated answer or brilliant idea.

“Well done Lewis,” Morse says on many an occasion.

As the show progresses, their relationship evolves significantly to an extent that it is Lewis, who becomes Morse’s educator, especially in the ways of modern technology, whilst remaining steadfastly his loyal confidant and defender.

Died too soon: John Thaw, a monstrous talent

Of course there is also the writing – Colin Dexter’s classic crime novels, full of false leads, red herring, and of course Morse (based on Dexter’s own tastes) are brilliantly translated to the small screen by many talented screenwriters including by people like Anthony Minghella (The Talented Mr Ripley, The English Patient) Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) and John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) who would all go on to become award-winning Hollywood movie directors.

Also key to the pleasure of Inspector Morse is the location: the university town of Oxford with its glorious medieval buildings, hallowed halls, alcoves and passageways, where Morse must often venture inside to interview suspects, as well as his frequent trips out to grand country estates and manor houses.

(Funnily enough, one of my favourite episodes, The Promised Land, is mostly set in Australia, as Morse and Lewis journey Down Under to locate a police informant).

Each episode is intriguing beyond just the excellent whodunnit aspect (it is almost impossible to pick the murderer), focusing in on the very human flaws of those caught up in treachery and tragedy. In this regard, Morse, who has keen sense of morality, is frequently appalled by the greed, pain and misery he uncovers. Despite his intuition, Morse professes genuine bewilderment at the actions of those he apprehends.

Morse: I’m old and unmarried, and I don’t understand human nature. What does it matter?

Lewis: How old are you?

Morse: I forget, Robbie.

Watching all 33 episodes of Inspector Morse has been a personal, almost secret pleasure of mine, often enjoyed with a glass or two of wine, whilst the family slept.

There have been some terrific endings to TV series – some of the best being Six Feet Under, Mad Men and Better Call Saul and some terrible ones – Killing Eve come most strongly to mind.

But none have concluded a story better than the final adventure of Inspector Morse. No finale has been more fitting to the greatest detective of them all.

RIP Morse and John Thaw

Murdering the ratings: Why Jeffery Dahmer got two hit TV shows

“The only way I’ll ever get a television series made about me is if I become a serial killer,” I told my wife sarcastically, as we started watching a new Netflix show “Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffery Dahmer Story” a dramatised retelling of the crimes of one of the world’s most infamous (and revolting) mass murderers.

“Do I need to be worried?” she replied.

“Maybe….”

We’d watched about 40 minutes of the first of 10 episodes, when we both decided we’d had enough.

An African American man had been lured to Dahmer’s dingy Milwaukee flat, where he’d been partially drugged, threatened with an enormous knife and forced to sit on a blood-stained bed, while awaiting his hideous fate. A huge blue, industrial vat sat ominously in the corner of the room and the atmosphere was oppressive, almost unbearable.

“I don’t think I am in the mood to sit through 10 episodes of this,” I remarked, at which point my wife nodded in agreement and we stopped watching and found something distinctly lighter to enjoy with our cups of tea and biscuits. (For the record it was “Julia” about the life of the famous American television chef Julia Child, an excellent show).

And then what did I do a couple of weeks later?

Undecided about what to watch while my wife gobbled up episodes of the Walking Dead – I can’t handle the tension of that show, nor the constant gargling sounds of zombies – I started watched the other Dahmer show, the documentary series “Conversations with a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes”.

Based around previously unheard taped interviews with Dahmer and Wendy Patrickus, who was his defense attorney, the three part series travelled back and forward in time, cutting from grainy, homemade videos of Dahmer as a sweet, fair-headed child to those grisly scenes at the notorious Milwaukee apartment block as the barrels of human remains were carried down the stairs by crime scene investigators. In between we heard excerpts from the tapes in which Dahmer confesses his crimes and tries, unsuccessfully to explain his actions, and interviews with detectives, psychologists and former friends and neighbours.

There have been plenty more of these shows that have kept me mesmerised. I’ve watched dramatisation of the life of Ted Bundy (starring Zac Efron), a BBC series about London asphyxiator John Christie (played by Tim Roth) and another London killer Denis Nilsen (played to perfection by David Tennant) plus numerous documentary series about Richard Ramirez AKA The Night Stalker, David Berkowitz AKA The Son of Sam and. Peter Sutcliffe AKA The Yorkshire Ripper.

I’ve also watched another Netflix documentary series about Ted Bundy (Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes), while there’s another documentary series on my “must watch list” about the American serial killer Wayne Gacy ( who terrifyingly dressed up as a clown at children’s parties).

I don’t there is anything particular wrong or unusual about this viewing behaviour – I’m certainly, to calm my family and friends, not trying to pick up any tips. The truth of the matter is that everyone is part fascinating, revolted and intrigued by the “evil that men do” particularly of the psycopathic kind and especially when the monster looks like Dahmer: a normal, even somewhat handsome young man.

With 856 million hours of combined viewing and counting, The Jeffery Dahmer Story has been watched more than 95 million times from start to finish. Only Squid Game (1.65 billion hours) and Stranger Things Season 4 (1.35 billion) have been watched more.

Alongside the success of the dramatised series, the Jeffery Dahmer documentary series has also been a minor hit for Netflix, racking up millions of hours of viewing time.

No doubt Netflix executives must be delighted, though that might be tempered with the disappointment that there can be no second season. However, you can be certain someone at Netflix HQ is working on the next series and accompanying documentary about another sadistic mass murder.

While The Jeffery Dahmer Story has been lauded for its superb acting, disturbing and compelling storyline, and gritty realism, it seems to have emerged for no real purpose except gaudy entertainment. Dahmer was captured in 1992 and murdered in jail by a fellow inmate in 1994. Many would wish his name never be mentioned again.

But rather than forget about him and his reign of terror, Netflix has brought Dahmer’s vicious killing, dismembering and cannibalism spree back to live in vivid colour. In the process, their huge success has created fresh torment for the families of the 17 boys and young men who would have been alive today were it not for his unfathomable compulsions.

The same could be said for the documentary series though at least this provides fresh insights – these tapes have never been heard before – and gives the viewer a sense of the terrible impact his killing spree had on the Milwaukee community and the families of his victims.

(Incredibly, Dahmer could have been stopped after his very first killing – that of hitchhiker Stephen Hicks in 1978 when Dahmer was just 18 – had the police officer who stopped him to perform a drink driving test taken the time to look at what was in the garbage bags on the backseat, instead of believing Dahmer’s story that they contained animal remains).

Not surprisingly, the release of “Dahmer – Monster” has been met with rage, anger and disbelief by the family’s of his victims who were apparently not consulted about the making of the show, and which has reignited the grief they have had to live with for more than 30 years.

“It hurts. I shed tears. They’re not tears of sorrow, and it’s not disbelief in the Lord. The tears [are] tears of hurt because it hurts. It hurts real bad. But you have to trust and pray and just keep going day by day,” said Shirley Hughes, the mother of Tony Hughes, an aspiring male model, who was just 31 when Dahmer killed him.

The show’s writer Ian Brennan (who also wrote the hit musical series Glee) has defended his work as an “objective” portrayal, though professes amazement at its success:

“I think we show a human being. He’s monstrously human and he’s monstrously monstrous and that’s what we wanted to sort of unpack,” Brennan told news website Page Six at its premier

Also coming to its defense has been journalist Nancy Glass, the last person to interview Dahmer.

She perhaps gave the most telling and obvious reasons for the show’s success and many other similar shows”

“I know that that may seem bizarre, but I think it’s more about morbid curiosity than romanticism,” she told the New York Post.

One wonders what Dahmer himself would thought of a 10-episode dramatisation of his life and a three-part documentary series more than 30 years after his capture. Given his manifest inability to control his urges, it would be entirely plausible to think that he’d have “gotten off” on watching it all happen again. One can only but shudder at the thought.

“It was a compulsion. It became a compulsion,” he said in his last interview (watched 35 million times on YouTube).

In these interviews, Dahmer is softly spoken, articulate and appears highly intelligent. He also had a by all accounts happy childhood, and is described by his parents as a loving child, though one who took an interest at an early age in dead things.

Somehow this morphed into an obsession with the male human body, though why he then went on to murder, dismember, eat and preserve parts of his victims, even Dahmer cannot fathom.

Perhaps it this potential in everyone, to come apart at the seams, that drives our own fascination with true crime and violent killers.

No doubt Netflix and the other streaming platforms are well aware of this and have plenty more similar shows up their sleeves.

Making peace with the past: Reading Alan Cumming’s memoir ‘Not my Father’s Son’

I have enjoyed Alan Cumming’s acting for years, most notably the pushy campaign manager Eli Gold he played to perfection in the television drama ‘The Good Wife‘ and his small, yet memorable role in the James Bond hit Goldeneye, where he portrayed geeky Russian computer progammer Boris Grishenko.

Also a Thespian with a huge range, Cummings has appeared in major dramas and musicals including a one-man adaption of Macbeth on Broadway and as the master of ceremonies in Sam Mendes’s West End adaptation of Cabaret. His trophy cabinet includes two Tony Awards, theatre’s equivalent of the Oscars.

Against this backdrop, I decided to listen to his interview on Desert Island Discs, the legendary radio show and now podcast where guests talk about their lives and musical tastes via the selection of seven favourite recordings, a book and a luxury item that they would take with them if they were marooned on a fabled desert island.

It was only while listening to the podcast that I learnt about Cumming’s tragic childhood, where he felt the almost daily wrath of his abusive and vindictive father, Alex at their home on a 14,000 acre forestry estate near Carnoustie on the Scottish north east coast in the 1970s.

 “I could tell by the clack of his boots, I could tell by the way he opened the door… often it would be to do with my appearance or my hair,” Cumming told Desert Island Discs’ host Laura Laverne of the impending humiliation or beating to come.

Cumming talked a lot about the book he had written about his childhood ‘Not my Father’s Son’ and when I saw it in the local library, felt compelled to read it.

The title refers to his father’s long-held belief that his wife and Cumming’s mother, Mary Darling, had had a brief affair whilst the couple were on holiday and that Alan was not in fact his child, but a product of this betrayal. Choosing to believe this, Alex Cumming used it to justify his abhorrent behaviour (though he was equally cruel to his older brother Tom whose fathering he did not dispute).

So it’s not that every second of my childhood was filled with doom. But every second was filled with the possibility that in an instant my father’s mood would plunge into irrationality, rage and ultimately violence.

Alan Cumming, Not My Father’s Son

Divided into short, snappy chapters, Cummings’ carefully observed memoir moves back and forth between tales of his abusive and fearful childhood in Scotland in the 1970s and a tumultuous time 40 years later when was the subject of the BBC documentary series “Who Do You Think You are?” whilst also filming a movie in Cape Town.

The documentary series sought to solve a great family mystery: what happened to Cumming’s grandfather Tommy Darling, a decorated war hero, who survived the brutal 1944 battle of Kohima in northern India against the invading Japanese, but who later died in strange and sad circumstances in a village in Malaysia aged just 35 where he was serving after the Second World War.

There’s also another personal mystery to be solved: was Cumming’s really his father’s son?

Alan Cumming’s parents on their wedding day

This waiting for the results of a DNA test is played out with great tension and emotion, as Cumming deals with the possibility that he may have entirely different father and a family he has never met.

A major celebrity figure, Cummings’ memoir is remarkable for being refreshingly devoid of ego. It is a book about survival, love (especially for his mother and brother), forgiveness and finding a way to move on.

It’s also part travel journal as Cumming and the BBC crew filming the documentary head off to different parts of England as well as Malaysia to talk to war veterans and historians in an attempt to unravel the mystery around his grandfather’s “shooting accident”.

Cumming is heartbreakingly honest throughout the book, happy to confide in his reader when making many startling discoveries about his grandfather and his family. His successful acting career helped him escape his father’s wrath, but money and fame cannot solve childhood torment.

Like the podcast interview on Desert Island Discs, the memoir exudes warmth and it is not surprising that so many people have praised it.

I finished reading it with a great deal more affection for Cumming. Despite being obscenely multi-talented (who else can act, sing, dance and write?) he remains a down-to-earth person and most importantly values his family, friends, partner and fans above all us.

(You can watch excerpts of the Who do you think you are? episode featuring Alan Cumming on YouTube, though I advice to finish the book first, to avoid “spoilers”.)

The Goldfinch by Donna Tart: a very long, but engrossing book about a lost boy and a small painting

The Goldfinch is the third novel by American writer Donna Tartt, considered by many to be a literary genius.

Tartt’s two other books are The Secret History, an “inverted detective story” about a college murder, which was published to huge acclaim in 1992 when she was just 29.

This was followed by The Little Friend a mystery adventure novel set in Mississippi in the early 1970s that appeared in book stores in 2002.

The Goldfinch – an epic novel spanning 864 pages – was published in 2013.

By that you can tell that Tartt, who is now 58, painstakingly completed a book about once every 10 years (and we should expect no.4 soon!).

It also suggests an astonishing level of self-confidence and cerebral stamina – you really have to believe in what you are doing to keep going on with the same story and characters for a decade!

However, each monumental effort has paid off. Not only are Tartt’s books best sellers and generally admired by critics, but they have won numerous prizes: The Little Friend won the WH Smith Literary Award while The Goldfinch won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

“A beautifully written coming-of-age novel with exquisitely drawn characters that follows a grieving boy’s entanglement with a small famous painting that has eluded destruction, a book that stimulates the mind and touches the heart,” said the Pulitzer Prize judges of The Goldfinch.

It’s a pretty good summary of the novel, which begins in a hotel room in Amsterdam as 27-year-old Theodore Decker’s fever-ridden thoughts return to a fateful stormy morning in Manhattan 14 years ago and the last few hours he spent with is beloved mother.

When a storm descends on them, they seek shelter in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where a terrorist bomb kills his mother a short while later.

Tartt’s description of the violent explosion and its aftermath are exquisite as she brings the terrible chaos and destruction to life on the page as if the reader is also there. Buried in the rubble, Theo finds himself in a “ragged white cave” with “swags and tatters dangling from the ceiling” and as the ground “tumbled and bucked up with heaps of a gray substance like moon rock”. It is descriptive writing at its finest.

Just as powerful and heart-wrenching are the scenes where Theo makes his way back to their empty, darkened apartment, to wait in vain for his mother, “her coffee cup, green glass from the flea market, with lipstick print on the rim” a reminder of her terrible absence.

Also a reminder of his mother, and a vital connection to his last moments with her is the The Goldfinch, a small painting by the 17th century Dutch painter Carel Fabritius that Theo has carried out of the wreckage with him.

The painting is of a “yellow finch, against a plain, pale ground, chained to a perch by its twig of an ankle”. Just before they were separated, Theo’s mother told him this little painting was “just about the first painting” she ever loved. There is also another parallel: Fabritius also died tragically young, caught in an explosion at the gunpowder magazine in Delft in Southern Holland.

I stepped back, to get a better look. It was a direct and matter-of-fact little creature, with nothing sentimental about it; and something about the neat, compact way it tucked down inside itself – its brightness, its alert watchful expression -made me think of pictures I’d seen of my mother when she was small: a dark-capped finch with steady eyes.

The Gold Finch

The intriguing little painting, which uses an art technique called “Trompe l’oeil” (French for ‘deceive the eye’) to create the illusion that depicted objects exist in three dimensions, becomes a kind of living and breathing character in the life of Theodore Decker as he navigates his way as a lost young boy through adolescence into adulthood.

The painting connects him to the last conversation he had with his mother, and so he holds onto it tight over the next 14 years, keeping it hidden as first he lives with the Barbours, the wealthy, dysfunctional family of his bullied school friend Andy, before his absent father – a failed actor who mistreated his mother – appears on the scene with his girlfriend Xanadu and whisks Theo away to a housing estate on the outskirts of Las Vegas.

Here he experiences the vast desert skies and becomes best friends with another of Tartt’s marvelous creations. a delinquent, enigmatic Ukrainian boy called Boris who entertains Theo with tales of his time in Humpty Doo in Australia’s Northern Territory and introduces him to alcohol and drugs.

The Goldfinch by Fabritius

Written in the first person, Tartt’s ability to get inside the head of a guilt-ridden 14-year-old boy dealing with the monumental loss of his mother and his bumpy journey towards adulthood is truly remarkable.

Thankfully though at 864 pages The Goldfinch is not just the story about a boy and his obsession with a painting that reminds him of his mother.

It also focuses in on relationships, and how we need people to get us through trauma, be it the muddled advice of Boris, or Hobbie, the quiet and patient Greenwich Village antique furniture dealer and restorer who becomes a pseudo father figure and mentor to Theo, when he makes it back to New York, after yet more traumatic events.

The Goldfinch may be long, but like Hanya Yanagihara’s epic, “A Little Life” it’s never dull. Each adventure is part of Theo’s journey towards lifting himself out of despair and to the realisation that “maybe even if we are not always glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway”.

Goodbye to Berlin, the autobiographical novel that inspired ‘Cabaret’ and warned of the Nazis

Goodbye to Berlin was the first book I read written by the celebrated English-American novelist and diarist Christopher Isherwood.

Published in 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War, it was the inspiration for the Bob Fosse movie ‘Cabaret’ , released in 1972, and starring Liza Minnelli as the flamboyant night club singer Sally Bowles. (Isherwood also wrote A Single Man made into the 2009 movie by Tom Ford starring Colin Firth).

The highly autobiographical novel is set in Berlin in the early 1930s as the city’s famed reputation for art, music, design, drink and decadence had begun to fade, as economic ruin started to descend on everyday lives, and as Nazi violence starts to assert itself on the streets whilst Hitler began his march to become Fuhrer.

Beginning in Autumn 1930, we find Isherwood living in a “large, dingy flat” above a busy street of shops, where prostitutes gather beneath his window. The flat is owned by Fräulein Schroeder, who was once fairly well off but like so many other Germans has fallen on hard times.

She calls Isherwood “Herr Issyvoo” and takes a keen interest in his life, and that of her other lodgers.

Such is her poor financial situation, that Frl Schroeder has had to take in five lodgers, leaving her without a room of her own. Instead, she “sleeps in the living room, behind a screen, on a small sofa with broken springs”.

Frl Schroeder is just one of the many eccentric and colourful characters Isherwood brings to life on the page. Another is fellow lodger Frl Mayer, a musical hall yodler, actress, proud Bavarian and “ardent Nazi” whose natural enemy is Frau Glauterneck, the Galician Jewess who lives in the apartment below theirs.

Coming into the living room yesterday morning, I found Frl Schroeder and Frl Mayer lying flat on their stomachs with their ears pressed to the carpet. At intervals they exchanged grins of delight or joyfully pinched each other, with simultaneous exclamations of ssh

Goodbye to Berlin

Another is the flamboyant American singer and wannabee actress Sally Bowles whom Isherwood meets one evening, early in October, dressed in black silk, with a small cape over her shoulders “and a little cap like a page boy’s stuck jauntily on one side of her head”,

Isherwood notices her emerald green nails, her nicotine tainted hands and “very large brown eyes”.

Bowles was based on the 19-year-old cabaret singer Jean Ross. Whimsical, flamboyant, stylish, promiscuous and dreamy (and not overly talented despite her ambitions), she is symbolic of the free-spirited Jazz Age in Berlin that flourished in Weimar-era Germany before the Nazis snuffed it out.

Isherwood is immediately drawn to Bowles, and she to him; their platonic friendship a sharp contrast to Bowles’ many lovers.

It is not hard to understand why Isherwood moved to Berlin. A gay man from a wealthy and conservative family from the north west of England, he would have found the German city’s plethora of gay bars, cabaret and experimental theatre alluring alongside its acceptance of homosexuality.

But he arrived there as this tolerance and acceptance was about to crushed by the Nazi regime, and as anti-semitism and intolerance becomes part of the chatter of everyday Germans looking for scapegoats for their economic woes.

Christopher Isherwood – taken in 1938

Indeed many of the people Isherwood formed close relationships with during his time in Berlin, would have been prime targets for the Gestapo such as the gay couple Otto and Peter, who we find the author living with in a beach house on Rügen Island in the summer of 1931.

There are perpetual little rows going on between Peter and Otto, yet I cannot say I find living with them actually unpleasant

Goodbye to Berlin

Then there are the Landauers, a wealthy Jewish family, who own a Berlin department store. Isherwood befriends their precocious 18-year-old daughter Natalia, whom he accompanies on outings where they discuss art and literature He also forms a friendship with their cousin Bernard, a gay man, and a target for the Nazis.

Indeed Isherwood himself would have been in great personal danger had he chosen to remain in Berlin after the Nazis rose to power. He fled Berlin in May 1933 spent some time back in London and China, before emigrating to the US in 1939 and living in California.

I enjoyed being taken into this now long gone, but exotic world that Isherwood brings so vividly to life with his stories and anecdotes. He was a gifted storyteller with an ear finely tuned to the nuances of speech and character and well worth checking out for those looking for a fly-on-the-wall journalistic literary experience, that warned of the horrors to come.

 “’Concentration camps,’ said the fat man, lighting a cigar. They get them in there, make them sign things… . Then their hearts fail’”

Goodbye to Berlin

Damon Galgut, the power of nostalgia and ‘dark love’ for South Africa

In an interview with the Mail & Guardian newspaper in December 2021, Damon Galgut, South Africa’s latest literary star, winner of the 2021 Booker Prize for The Promise, a novel about the disintegration of a white family amid the collapse of apartheid, said he had originally intended to call the book “Dark Love”.

Galgut said it was an “abstract allusion” to the family’s youngest daughter Amor Swart, whose affection for their long-suffering black domestic servant Salome is a central theme of the book.

“But,” says Galgut, “I wanted to tie it in with a parallel sense that if one loves South Africa it has to be a dark kind of love”.

This “dark love” is apparent in the two Galgut novels I read back-to-back, The Good Doctor and The Promise, and is something I can relate too deeply, even though I left South Africa 22 years ago.

Dr Waters: trying to “make a difference”

A beautiful, but troubled land, South Africa gets under your skin and in your bones: if you’ve grown up there, you never really leave – even if you do physically.

Galgut’s gift is to draw from that dark well of South African history, culture and experience, and build an engrossing story with deeply South African characters, and to unsettle and enthrall the reader.

“Galgut has mined his novel with small but powerful explosive charges, wrote the writer Christopher Hope in his review of The Good Doctor in 2003 (written for the Guardian).

“Damon Galgut has written a lovely, lethal, disturbing novel,”

The story of The Good Doctor takes place in a crumbling, ill-equipped rural hospital next to a backwater town in what was once a Black “homeland” – one of a series of puppet states created by the white nationalist apartheid regime to separate blacks from whites – but is now forgotten, left to decay in the new South Africa.

The title of the book refers to Dr. Laurence Waters, an idealistic medical school graduate who comes to the dysfunctional hospital hoping to “make a difference” as part of his year of compulsory, post-graduate community work.

His arrival and subsequent stay at the hospital is narrated by Dr. Frank Eloff a disillusioned and bitter veteran physician, one of just a handful of staff that keep the medical facility barely functioning under the management of its administrator and head surgeon Dr Ngema.

So ill-equipped is the hospital, that patients with more serious injuries have to be transported to the big city hospital, a long drive through the veld.

The hospital’s small band of staff include the Satanders – a doctor couple from Cuba who quarrel a lot about staying in South Africa – and a troubled black orderly called Tehogo, who is symbolic of that “lost generation” of unskilled Black South Africans, left on the margins of society after the fall of apartheid.

In some kind of precarious and delicate balancing act, the hospital has maintained it place in the natural order of things, keeping its distance from the chaos beyond its boundaries, until idealistic Dr Waters arrives and shatters its island status.

“It’s like something terrible happened here,” Laurence said. “That’s how it feels.

“Ja, but the opposite is true. Nothing has ever happened here. Nothing ever will, that’s the problem.”

The Good Doctor

Written in 2003 (and shortlisted for the Booker Prize) The Good Doctor reads like a parable of the collapse of the idea of the Rainbow Nation that briefly flourished after the 1994 democratic elections that installed Nelson Mandela as president, followed by the historic 1995 Rugby World Cup triumph.

Race relations, the juxtaposition of wealth and extreme poverty, the battle for power in the new South Africa and the naivety of those who think they can change things are all meshed together in Galgut’s novel with devastating and mesmerising effect.

Galgut also has a way of conjuring up a strange kind of nostalgia (though that may be the wrong word) among those readers who lived through those historical times.

Reading of a decaying hospital in a half-forgotten Homeland town, took me back to family holidays at the Mmbatho Sun (now called the Mmbatho Palms), an oasis of palm trees, sparkling blue swimming pools and gambling, set amid the dry and dusty veldt of the impoverished homeland of Bophuthatswana.

Hanging on the wall in the hotel foyer (I remember this so well) was a portrait of stern-faced Lucas Mangope in all his official puppet-state pomp and regalia, staring down on us wealthy whites, as we arrived for our luxury holidays and a roll of the dice at the roulette table.

It was of course absurd that we (well-off white South Africans) should enjoy our luxurious buffet breakfasts, sip cola-tonics and lemonades poolside and pull the handles of slot machines, all whilst being waited on hand and foot by an army of underpaid black servants.

Equally, it is absurd that young white graduate doctor – Galgut’s Dr Laurence Waters – working in a backwater hospital should think that he can “make a difference”; that he should be so naïve, reflects perhaps that unrealistic feeling we all had, standing to vote in the first elections in 1994, that the past could simply be swept under the rug.

While The Good Doctor confines itself to a relatively short period of narrative time, as well as a specific era in South Africa – the birth of the new democratic country – Galgut’s The Promise starts in 1986, during the State of Emergency, and spans 30 years. Over that time, and set against the backdrop of famous historical events in the evolution of the country towards democratic rule, it tells the tragic story of the Swart family and their haunting farm set amongst the stony koppies and veldt outside Pretoria.

The story is told through eyes and deaths of four members of the Swart family: Rachel Swart or “Ma”, her husband Herman “Manie” Swart (whose post-funeral gathering occurs during the momentous 1995 Rugby World Cup Final), Anton, their first child and only son, and Astrid, the middle daughter.

Connecting them all together is Amor, the youngest child, who carries the family’s guilt – a white person’s guilt for the things done to black South Africans under the apartheid system – and who is determined to fulfil her mother’s dying wishes that their faithful and long-suffering black servant Salome, be granted the deed to the crumbling house, that has been her home all the years she has served the family.

Galgut has a real gift for capturing the feeling of a place and time: for example that deep-seated resentment old Afrikaaners felt about the ending of apartheid and having to share the country with black people, but also their supreme and undying love of rugby.

At the farmhouse, following Manie’s funeral (he died from a poisonous snakebite at the reptile park he ran) the television is switched on in the build up to the World Cup Final.

While some family members are unhappy that the television is playing during what is meant to be a solemn gathering, Ockie, the unloved husband of Manie’s sister Marina has a “warm glow only partly due to Klipdrift” (a famous South African brandy enjoyed with Coke).

“…and God knows he took the new South Africa hard. But he has to admit, it’s nice to be able to play international sport again. Gives us a chance to donner people from faraway lands, and man we really fucked up those Samoan floppies a couple of weeks ago”.

The Promise

In another episode, Galgut writes how Anton, a white child, suckled on the nipple of Salome, such was the motherly bond despite the rules of apartheid forbidding such behaviour. While this may sound extreme to some readers, it was common, even when I was growing up, for black domestic workers (who we called “maids” or “nannies”) to care for white children as if they were their own, to bathe, clothe, feed and nurture them.

In an interview with the podcast 5X15, Galgut says Salome was was “mentally modelled on a Nanny I had”.

“My first nanny was a kind of substitute mother for me when I was really little…I’m talking the age of 2,3,4. Her name was Salome and I named the character after her, partly in tribute to her.”

“As you can imagine,” Galgut says later, “quite meaningful and intimate bonds can spring up in an artificial relationship like that”.

Drawing on the greats that have come before him – Athol Fugard, JM Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer and others – Galgut is the latest gifted writer to explore the complexities of South Africa’s dark history, its often paradoxical race relations, and its troubled democratic rebirth.

He does so, in my opinion, with less literary pretention than those who have come before him. His writing style is more direct and accessible (you could say “modern”) but still poetic. That’s even the case when he’s writing about Joel Stransky kicking that magical drop goal, while an Afrikaaner family cheers him on, but refuses to embrace the New South Africa that allowed that moment to happen.

Farewell South Africa, love the Schlesingers

On April 10, 2021, my parents Ian and Cecile boarded a special repatriation flight from Johannesburg non-stop to Darwin to join two of their children and five grandchildren in the modern diaspora for South African Jews – Australia.

When they stepped on that plane at O.R. Tambo International Airport in preparation for a 17-hour flight to the top of Australia it was a quietly momentous moment in the history of my family, ending 155 years and five generations of physical connection with the beautiful, but troubled country at the bottom of Africa.

My parents’ departure from the Johannesburg Highveld, the place of spectacular summer thunderstorms and crisp, smoky winter days, of giant shopping malls and high-fenced suburbia – that great African metropolis and melting pot – was the final chapter in the Schlesinger’s South African adventure which  started all the way back in 1866.

Isidor and Emma Schlesinger

In that year, adventurous 24-year-old Isidor Schlesinger journeyed from Silesia, a region in Central Europe that no longer exists (It’s now mostly part of Poland with bits in German and Czech Republic.) to seek and make his fortune on the goldfields of the Witwatersrand.

Silesia or Schlesien as it appears in German is the origin of our family name (and a fairly common Jewish surname). It’s the one affixed at the end of the names of my children – first generation Australians living in the tranquil Macedon Ranges north of Melbourne.

My great-great grandfather Isidor Schlesinger with his dog, taken in Klerksdorp (circa early 1900s)

According to a book about my great grandfather Bruno Schlesinger written by his daughter Helga and grandson Keith, Isidor was born on the 10th March, 1842 either in Kempeny, a tiny hamlet 86.3 miles west of Vilnius, the present day capital of Lithuania, or somewhere in the province of Posen, in western Poland.

Travelling by ox-wagon, Isidor made his way across the “veld” to Pilgrim’s Rest in the Eastern Transvaal (now called Mpumalanga) to join a rush of prospectors at what was the region’s second major gold exploration site.

Isidor travelled to Pilgrim’s Rest to seek and make his fortune.

Whether it was in Pilgrim’s Rest (now a preserved museum town I visited as a child)  or later at the Kimberley Diamond Mines in the Northern Cape (home to the famous Kimberley mine “Big Hole”) where Isidor made his fortune, it appears undisputed that he returned to Europe seven or eight years later, a rich man. He then married “tall, elegant” Emma Fasal in Bielsko (now called Bielsko-Biala) about 90 kilometres west of Krakow, Poland in 1874. Bielsko at the time had a thriving Jewish community that traced its roots back to the Middle Ages.

Isidor and Emma stayed in Eastern Europe, first in Katowice, Poland and later Troppau – now called Opava – in what is now the Czech Republic, where they set up a saw mill.

My great-great grandmother Emma Schlesinger

They also had three children: my great aunt and uncles Valeria and Feodor and my great grandfather Bruno Schlesinger, who born on the 22nd of March in 1879.

Later in 1889, in Budapest or Vienna, they had a fourth child, a daughter they named Leontine who became quite famous (she has a Wikipedia page) as the actress, writer and filmmaker Leontine Sagan.

Leontine is most famous for directing the ground-breaking 1931 movie Madchen in Uniform (Girls in Uniform) about a girl at an all-girls boarding school who falls in love with her female teacher. It doesn’t sound that risqué now, but imagine making such a film 90 years ago!

Returning to the adventures of Isidore, my great-great grandfather’s Czech sawmill venture was not successful and after moving to Budapest following the birth of Leontine, he dreamed again of the “wide open spaces” of South Africa.

My great grandfather Bruno Schlesinger remained in Europe, at the School of Mines in Leoben, Austria to complete his studies.

“Father never liked Europe, and the wish to get back to his beloved South Africa grew so strong that he decided to return alone,” wrote Leontine in her autobiography, Lights and Shadows

“When he had retrieved his financial losses, he would come back to us, or we could follow him.

Isidor returned to the South African goldfields in 1891 to reclaim his fortune. His family joined him eight years later.

Leontine writes that the family travelled to a “little corrugated iron house in the veld” that was the Kroonstadt railway station (now a large town between Bloemfontein and Welkom in the Free State Province) where they met their father again. The family then travelled to Klerksdorp, a small Afrikaans town in what is now the North West Province where gold was discovered in 1885 (and with a surprisingly rich Jewish history). Here Isidor owned the bar at the Freemason Lodge.

Isidor Schlesinger’s gravestone in Braamfontein cemetery, Johannesburg

It was at the time of the First Boer War between the British Empire and the Boer or Dutch colonies, but it spared the German and Austrian immigrants, who were considered neutral outsiders.

Writes Leontine of her father: “One could not have imagined a man less suited to his job. He was a dreamer by nature, cared little about wealth, and felt happiest when he could sit with his pipe by the open veld-fire or with a book on the stoep. His friends included Afrikaners, Englishmen, and a few Germans, who had lived in the country for many years and who shared both his love for South Africa and his indifference to Europe. Their conversations circled around their business, the share-market in Johannesburg, politics, and that soft, gentle gossip which is a feature of every small town.”

Bruno and Else Schlesinger

My great grandfather Bruno, who had by then joined his family in Klerksdorp, married Else Gimkewitz (born in Berlin in 1882) after a whirlwind courtship in November 1907. He’d also by then secured a position at one of the Witwatersrand gold mines.

Their daughter Helga, my great aunt, was born nine months later in 1908. I had the great pleasure of meeting Helga a few times in the 1980s and 1990s. I remember her as a charming and fiercely intelligent woman with a shock of white hair. (Helga died in 1998).

According to a story narrated by Helga in the book she co-authored about her father titled “Man of Tempered Steel”, Bruno, my great grandfather, stopped a Chinese mine labourer from stabbing him with a knife. “Bruno knocked it out his hand. None of the underground workers ever rebelled again.”

What provoked this attack is unclear, but this vignette of a swashbuckling, fearless figure is matched by photos of my great grandfather, who looks handsome and tough.

A swashbuckling adventurer: my great grandfather Bruno

A few years later, the Schlesinger clan moved to the wilds of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to prospect for gold. Here they lived in primitive thatched round huts or “rondavels” as they were called by the locals.

In another perhaps apocryphal tale told by Helga, Bruno lost his way in the bush on his way home one day and had to sleep tied to a branch in a tree after being stalked by a lion. He awoke in the morning to find the lion resting at the base of the tree. He managed to scare the lion off (or it got bored) and he made it home alive.

In a primary school project I created about my family called “My family roots” I wrote that Bruno “loved the natural life and was not very fond of towns and cities. He used to go for long walks through the countryside and often took his family for picnics in forests and woodlands”.

In September 1909, my grandfather Rolf was born at the Queen Victoria Nursing Home in Johannesburg. Less than a year later, in August 1910, Isidor died of an unknown cause and was buried in the old Braamfontein Jewish Cemetery, not far from where I and my sister Deena attended university at the mighty Wits (University of the Witwatersrand). Had I known my great grandfather was buried nearby, I would have sought his gravestone out.

Three generations of Schlesingers (L – R): My great grandmother Else, great-great grandmother Emma, great grandfather Bruno. Seated: My grandfather Rolf

My great, great grandmother Emma died thirty years after Isidor in August 1940 at the Florence Nightingale Nursing Home in inner city Hillbrow. This is very near to the Florence Nightingale maternity hospital where I was born on the December 6, 1973, my sister Deena on March 19, 1976 and my brother Dan on September 3, 1978.

When World War 1 broke out, my great grandfather Bruno, being Austrian, was sent to an internment camp at Fort Napier in Pietermaritzburg in the Natal province (now KwaZulu-Natal). He was later released on parole after a bout of serious illness.

He then fled to  Lourenço Marques (now Maputo, Mozambique) while Helga and my grandfather Rolf, who were still small children, moved in with their grandparents, the Gimkewitzes, who lived in a small house in Hillbrow. A once thriving cosmopolitan suburb on the fringe of the Johannesburg city centre – a kind of Greenwich Village in the 1960s and 1970s I am told – Hillbrow had sadly, by the time I was 12 or 13, deteriorated into melting pot of drugs, violent crime and immigrants living in slum-like conditions after decades of neglect.

There are more Indiana Jones-like tales about my great grandfather Bruno, who during the First World War made his way on foot from Mozambique back to Hillbrow to his family, crossing rivers and swamps, and hiding in bushes to make the scarcely believable journey of 550 kilometres.

My great aunt, the film-maker Leontine Sagan

Despite his skills as a geologist and his toughness and resilience, Bruno was also prone to bouts of depression. While playful with his children, he was also a strict, authoritarian father, easily angered when they did not sit up straight at the dinner table, or did not use their knife and fork correctly.

In contrast, his wife, Else was more gentle with her children, according to Helga and Keith’s memoir.

In that same primary school project I wrote that Else studied literature and various languages at the University of Prague, and that later, when the family were struggling, she gave private French lessons at Kingsmead School, a girls-only school in Melrose in Johannesburg’s affluent inner northern suburbs.

“My great aunt [Helga] said that Elsa was resourceful, courageous and a dynamic lady who stood by her husband during times of need and was a very strong spirited lady.” I wrote.

My uncle Colin (Rolf’s oldest song) remembers that Else spoke with a thick German accent and loved singing German songs to him as a small boy.

“But I would always say: Granny, granny, you must speak English,” recalls Colin.

Despite his intelligence, academic qualifications and strong physique, Bruno was a poor businessman, naively lending money to the likes of Hans Merensky, a famed geologist and prospector who never repaid my great grandfather’s generosity. Bruno also invested in business ventures that failed.

“He was one of the guys with Hans Merensky who discovered platinum,” says Colin.

After lending money to Merensky, he received nothing in return when Merensky eventually made his fortune after discovering diamond deposits in Namaqualand, and vast platinum and chrome reefs at LydenburgRustenburg and Potgietersrus,

Bruno also became heavily involved in the late 1920s diamond rush centred around Lichtenburg north west of Johannesburg and Grasfontein (near Pretoria) which became one of the biggest in the world. It drew in people like Sir Ernest Oppenheimer who founded mining giant Anglo American and whose family later took control of the world’s biggest diamond company De Beers.

“He made and lost money several times, that was a big part of [Bruno’s] life,” says Colin.

Despite his personal struggles, Bruno was highly respected and rose to the top of his profession. He headed up mining projects, and travelling to Portugal in 1927 to advise its president on silver mine projects in Lisbon. In that same year he appeared in the eminent, annual business publication of the day “Who’s Who South Africa”.

(Of course all this success should be set within the context of white privilege, where poorly paid black labourers dug out the gold and diamonds from the mines to make fortunes for the likes of the Oppenheimers and many others.)

Instead of investing sensibly in blue-chip stocks, Bruno played the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and duly lost all his money in the 1930 crash. He was forced to sell his grand home in at 49 St Patrick’s Road in Houghton Estate (now one of the city’s most exclusive addresses, where Nelson Mandela had a home) and rented for the rest of his life, a curse he seems to have passed down to me.

After experiencing heart problems in 1943, my great grandfather died in Muizenberg, Cape Town in January 1945, aged just 65. His wife, my great grandmother Else died 17 years later in Johannesburg.

Rolf and Nella Schlesinger

I have written a lengthy story (which you can read here) about my softly spoken grandfather Rolf and my glamourous grandmother Nella, detailing the breakdown of their marriage, after Rolf had an affair so I won’t repeat it here.

Nella and Rolf got married in Johannesburg in 1938. Nella was 30 at the time, and a year older than my grandfather.

She was one of five children born to Lithuanian’s Joseph and Chana Grevler (originally the family name was Grevleris). The Grevlers like other Eastern European Jewish families came to Johannesburg in search of wealth and prosperity on the mines.

Nella and Rolf: as a young married couple in 1935

Rolf and Nella had two children, my Uncle Colin who was born on the 18th December in 1939 and my father Ian, who was born on the 4th June in 1943 – both in Johannesburg.

Colin recalls that the family first lived in a house in Sandown, now an affluent northern suburb (home to Johannesburg’s shopping extravaganza, Sandton City) but that back in the 1940s was “out in the sticks, way beyond the northern suburbs”.

“Then we moved to a house at 18 Winslow Road, Parkwood. We lived in that house for a while, including when Ian was born.” Colin tells me.

After that, the Schlesingers moved just a few streets down to a house at 14 Rutland Road, just a street away from the sporting fields above Johannesburg’s Zoo Lake (an iconic outdoor leisure spot for most Joburgers).

“It was an old house, with a corrugated iron roof that made tremendous noise when it hailed. I loved lying in bed listening to hail banging on the roof,” says Colin.

Out front was a garden and a tall oak tree, the kind that line many streets of “leafy” Parkwood and neighbouring Saxonwold, two of Johannesburg’s oldest and most desirable suburbs.

When their parents split up in about 1950, my dad and my uncle remained at the Rutland Road house with my grandmother for many years. My grandfather moved into a flat where he had something akin to a nervous breakdown, and later rebirth as kinder, more loving version of himself (again you can read more about this in my earlier blog post).

Rolf with Colin (left) and Ian) – taken in East London, 1947

My dad, who excelled at sports, especially swimming, cricket, soccer and rugby left the Rutland Road house when he went to study veterinary science at the University of Pretoria’s Onderstepoort campus, an hour’s drive to the north. Being an Afrikaans speaking university, my dad became fluent in the language.

After he graduated in 1969, he spent two years in England completing his apprenticeship. My uncle stayed at home with my grandmother while he completed his undergraduate in chemical engineering at Wits University.

Colin left home after completing his masters and marrying Sheila Cobrin in 1962. The young couple lived in a flat in Joubert Park, in the middle of the Johannesburg CBD. After that they headed overseas first to London, where Colin spent two years at Imperial College and then a year at Rice University in Houston obtaining his doctorate in chemical engineering.  They then returned to Johannesburg, where Colin worked for African Explosives (AECI).

Having originally intended to stay in South Africa for just three years, Colin and Sheila ended up staying for 17 years in Johannesburg, during which time my cousins Ruth and David were born in 1968 and 1970.

They lived in a house in Parkmore, in the northern suburbs, across from a big, sloping field with enormous grey electricity poles. I remember many family gatherings, including Shabbat dinners at their home and playing in the backyard and swimming in the pool, where a little black poodle named Jet, would bark at us playfully. They are very happy memories.

The first Schlesingers to leave

Eventually, after rising up the ranks at both AECI and in the chemical engineering sector (my uncle was President of the Institute of Chemical Engineers) Colin decided in the early 1980s that it was time to leave South Africa. He was offered a job at petroleum giant Chevron and emigrated in 1983 (when he was 43) to Walnut Creek, a small city in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Nine years old at the time, I remember waving goodbye to my uncle, aunt and my dear cousins at what was then Jan Smuts Airport and saying “last touch” as our fingers touched through the glass partition in the departures corridor.

My dad, Umhlanga bird park, some time in the 1980s

“It was really hard, we basically left our family behind,” says Colin.

“My mom came several times, but my dad never came to visit. I saw him in South Africa. That was the price you paid when you separate yourself from your family.

“Our families have been separated by time, by distance. It’s a big price to pay.”

In December 1987, when my parents were on the cusp of emigrating to Toronto, my mom and I visited Colin at his home in Walnut Creek as part of trip to Canada and London (my first ever overseas jaunt at the ripe old age of 14). There’s a great photo I have somewhere of my cousin David and I sitting opposite each other on the train with big greens on our faces after we’d had a meal in Chinatown in San Francisco. It was quite an adventure for a young lad like me.

Thinking of emigrating: My mom, me and my Uncle Colin on a trip to San Francisco in 1988

Later, in 1994 when I travelled to the US as part of a 21st birthday present I hung out a lot with Ruth at her place in Downtown San Francisco, where she was worked part-time as a bike messenger.

Ruth now has two girls – Lily and Tula – and lives in Sebastopol, a semi-rural town about an hour north of San Francisco, with her husband Ross and a menagerie of farm animals. Ruth has built up a thriving Chinese medicine practice in Sebastopol, a profession well suited to her empathetic and warm nature. In November 2019, before the pandemic, Ruth and Tula came to Australia, and got to know my children, as we explored the local sites of the Macedon Ranges.

We have remained close despite the tyranny of distance and the long gaps between seeing each other.

My cousin David, who I have not seen since I stayed with him in Los Angeles in 1997 (among other things, he took me to Hawthorne Grill, which he featured in the opening and closing scenes of Pulp Fiction and we went to see the movie Con Air) lives in Corona, a suburb of LA near Ontario Airport.

Armed with a business degree from the University of Southern California and an auto-technician’s diploma from Wyoming Tech, David has risen up the ranks at engineering contractor and infrastructure giant Parson and is a project manager in its rail division.

A big grinner: David and I (circa 1994)

He is married to Flor and has four children, a stepson James, David Jr (who I met as a small baby at my Uncle’s wedding to Cecile in 1997), Shaina and Ethan. His eldest son James, has two children of his own, making David a grandfather! While we have lost touch, I have very warm memories of David, especially his big smile and ability to make me laugh and I hope to re-establish our relationship.

Larry joins the emigration train

It would be another 17 years before the next Schlesinger left South Africa, that being me.

But before I get to that I should talk a little about my parents, my family and my childhood, which was a happy and secure one.

My dad, after completing two years in England working as a country vet (enjoying a life akin to the covers of those James Herriot books I like to imagine) returned to South Africa in the early 1970s and shortly thereafter met my beautiful mom in 1972.

Their meeting came about when my dad visited his friend David Berstein, a fellow vet.

Here he was asked if he’d like to meet a gorgeous, young pharmacist from Benoni by the name of Cecile Ann Hyton. My mom was the daughter of Harry (my Zaida) a devoutly religious, and somewhat reserved man who instilled in me (alongside his son, my Uncle Yoel who taught me my Bar Mitzah torah reading), a deep appreciation of my Jewish heritage and its customs. My Zaida was one of 10 children, born in 1903 in Lithuania to cheesemakers, Zuzza and Zippa.

The chubby funster: My mom and I in 1974

I sadly never got to meet his wife, my Bobba Lily who passed away suddenly in 1971, two years before I was born. Lily (her maiden name was Brown) was born in Willowmore in the Eastern Cape, but moved to Benoni when she was young.

Returning to my parent’s matchmaking. Their happy fates were sealed by my mom’s Benoni High School chum Lena Berman and her husband Ron (who now live in Toronto with half the former Benoni Jewry of that era).

“After our first meeting, Ian came to our house to check on our dog, who was sick – I think the dog might have died. I’m not sure,” Cecile recalls.

Despite this early mishap, the dashing couple were soon engaged and married in a joyous celebration at the Benoni Town Hall, where my dad’s good friend and another fellow vet Brian Romberg was his best man.

I arrived on the scene soon on the 6 December 1973. My birth card says it was 7.40am in the morning when I made my first appearance in the nursing ward of the Florence Nightingale Maternity Hospital in Hillbrow.

My favourite story of my birth is the one my mom tells about her cousin Temmy Lipschitz.

“Temmy couldn’t remember if I was now Cecile Schlesinger, Cecile Rothschild or Cecile Oppenheimer, so she guessed and sent a congratulation card to ‘Cecile Oppenheimer”. If only!

My parents who had been living in a flat across from Germiston Lake, in the small mining metropolis of Germiston, bought a small brick house on Doak Street in the suburb of Hazel Park, where I spent my first few years.

Brothers: my Dad and Colin in the 1990s taken at Germiston Veterinary Hospital

The strongest memory I have of those early years, apart from lots of cuddles and kisses, was getting my head stuck in the bars of the small gate put in front of the steps leading up to the living room. Oh, and there was also the minor incident of a fire in my bedroom – caused by the heater setting the curtains alight – that almost brought about my premature demise.

With my cute-as-a-button freckly sister Deena coming on the scene a few years later (March 19, 1976) and my equally adorable baby brother Dan arriving on September 4, 1979, the Schlesingers need a larger pad and so we moved into a much bigger house with a large backyard and swimming pool at 25 Grace Avenue in Parkhill Gardens.

The street was lined with Jewish families. My best friend Jonathan Bennett andhis family lived just a few doors down (my first sleep over at their house was notable for me forgetting, one important item…my pajamas) while at one end of the street were close family friends the Stupels and the Freinkels. In between there were the Friedmans and at the other of the street were the Saffers.

Germiston at the time had a thriving Jewish community and grand old Moorish-style synagogue on the edge of the city centre. I was a regular Saturday morning Shabbat attendee for much of my childhood, where the brunch spread after the prayer service of kichel (a sugar-encrusted large yellow cracker) topped with even sweeter chopped herring was worth the effort of sitting through the synagogue service.

Often Jonathan and I would walk into town after brunch, where we stop to visit his father Dicky who worked on Saturdays in the local hardware store. The store had for some reason an enormous bag of monkey nuts (peanuts in shells) that we would plunder. On a number of occasions we went to see a movie at the 21st Century cinema, a classic old place in town. The first movie we saw on our own was Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Last Ark.

Back at home on Grace Avenue, we were a close knit family, celebrating our birthdays together (all three of us got presents no matter whose actual birthday it was). My mom would also bake a cake creatively decorated in the theme of our choosing.

All three of us attended Colin Mann primary, a whites-only government school where the Jewish kids were exempt from the Christian Morning Prayer service and instead hung out in the library. All of us were prefects.

I ended my primary school years doing a comedy skit in the school hall with Jonathan Bennett about journalists who were struggling to get a scoop for the local paper (who would have guessed, I’d end up with a newspaper career!).

In the skit, one of the journalists jumped off the building to his death and either I or Jonathan remarked: “Great, now I finally have a story for paper!” What were we thinking?

With Ruth in Umhlanga, mid 1980s.

Our childhood was full of family holidays, mostly to Umhlanga Beach near Durban on the Natal north coast, where most of the Germiston Jews went for their seaside holidays.  The Umhlanga Sand hotel was the place to be in the 1980s, whether it was ordering Cola Tonics and Lemonade at the pool, playing ten pin bowling or piling our plates at night at the legendary hotel buffet. I remember that hotel so well as I do the beach, where I would swim for hours in the rough surf, and head to the rock pools to search for fish and crabs. In the afternoon, we’d return to our holiday apartment, me with a bright red sunburnt face. I remember the African ladies selling their traditional beaded jewelry on blankets spread out along the walkway above the beach (black people were of course banned from actually sitting on the beach back then) and the ice cream vendors that walked up and down selling frozen granadilla ice lollies and other delights.

All of us attended King David Linksfield, the main Jewish day school in Johannesburg, where I studied Hebrew and Afrikaans.

In 1991, after I’d finished High School and started out at Wits University, we moved from Germiston to a five-bedroom house on Club Street, below Linksfield Ridge, where we were again surrounded by Jewish families and friends.

I started off studying architecture, but, after a number of false starts, ended up with a Bachelor of Arts degree majoring in English and Psychology and completed in 1996.

In 1997, the year both my grandmother Nella and my close friend Darren Serebro passed away, I abandoned plans to work part time (I lasted a day at CD Warehouse, a legendary music shop opposite the Rosebank Mall), and romantically write a novel, and instead scampered off to the US to work as a camp counsellor. I was employed for two months at Bnai Brith Beber Camp in Mukwonago, Wisconsin as an assistant art teacher, and was frequently hungover from visits to the local tavern. After completing my one and only dalliance with the world of teaching, I bought an Amtrak pass and railed it around the US  visiting places like New Orleans and Boca Raton, where I stayed with friends I had made at summer camp.

The Schlesinger family, taken some time in the late 1990s

I returned to Johannesburg in 1998 to study a one-year diploma in business management at Wits Business School, worked for a year for an online media company called I-Net Bridge and then became the second of the Schlesingers to leave the leafy Joburg suburbs for London on a two year UK working holiday visa, that turned into an unexpected permanent migration overseas.

It started with four years in London where I scribbled away for a weekly Accountancy industry magazine on Broadwick Street, Soho in the heart of the West End, drank lots of lager in smoky pubs and made frequent excursions to Europe with my best mate Jason Lurie. I lived for most of that time in Hendon, near the end of the Northern Line, in a flat above a kebab shop.

How I ended up in Australia is a story full of details I won’t bore you with. It suffices to say it was in pursuit of a disastrous relationship forged at an evening creative writing class in Holborn.

That had a fairytale ending though when one evening I met my beautiful and talented wife Larna, in Sydney at the Lord Nelson Hotel at The Rocks, a historic maritime quarter next to the CBD one evening in 2006. We moved in together soon after and were married in 2010 in Clyde, a small town on the South Island of New Zealand about an hour or so from Queenstown.  Our red-headed sweetheart Edith (Edie) was born at the Royal Women’s Hospital in Melbourne on April 19, 2012. Our darling son Rafferty was still born at full-term on February 1 2014 (the saddest moment in our lives). Aubin, our handsome little tyke was born in Melbourne on the 19th June 2015 and gorgeous little Gwen made her appearance on July 30, 2018 – at the Sunshine Hospital in suburban Melbourne.

My sister Deena, having obtained her Law degree at Wits University married Larren in Johannesburg in a lavish wedding in 2001 and became a “Sher”. The newlyweds moved to London that same year – a year after me – but stayed in the British capital for decade forging successful careers and had two children there, a cherubic daughter Keira (born on November 29, 2008) and a very sweet son Jamie (March 28, 2011).

The three of us in the 1980s – Deena, Dan and me

The Shers moved to Sydney, Australia in 2011, soon after Larna and I had returned from a round-the-world backpacking trip in 2010 (read all about it here if you’re keen) to settle in Melbourne, and later the “village in the valley” – Gisborne – about an hour to the north.

My brother Dan, who studied Business Science at the University of Cape Town and always beat me soundly at chess, won an unexpected US Green Card in the Green Card lottery. He moved to New York City in October 2006, where he lived on the Upper East Side with his girlfriend Courtney, a Floridian from Boca Raton. They married at a fancy five-star resort in Miami in December 2010 and then two children – a daughter Lexi born in 2014 and a son Ari, born in 2016. They New York Schlesinger clan quit the Big Smoke a few years ago, and bought a house in Rye Brook, a village in Westchester County, about an hour north of Manhattan.

The departure of my brother left my parents Ian and Cecile as the last of the Schlesingers in South Africa. Now empty nesters, they happily carried on with their careers and busy social lives with their huge circle of friends, trading in their big home on Club Street for a compact townhouse with a small garden in nearby Senderwood.

Over the next two decades, my parents were frequent overseas travellers, making annual pilgrimages to London, New York, Sydney and Melbourne to see their children and grandchildren. When not physically there, they kept in regular contact via phone calls, Skype video chats and text messages. Never has a birthday, anniversary or important event in our lives been missed. None of us could have asked for more devoted or unconditionally loving parents, a commitment demonstrated when they temporarily moved to New York for about six months in 2011 when my brother was battling Leukemia, a disease he overcame with great courage and bravery.

As they grew older, and our families larger, Ian and Cecile made the decision about five years ago to apply to become permanent residents of Australia, a costly, exhausting and lengthy process involving lawyers and migration agents, and mountains of paperwork.

When they did eventually become permanent residents, and were beginning the process of selling their home, and making the move to Sydney, the pandemic struck, confining them to their townhouse. To our great relief and theirs, they avoided getting COVID and passed the time happily, it seems, in each other’s exclusive company.

Amid the stress of worrying about their safety, and knowing we would not able to go to them if they fell ill, it was my sister who managed to get them on that special flight from Johannesburg to Darwin. In what seemed like a snap decision, they were on the plane, and heading for a new life in their early and mid-70s, the last of the Schlesingers to leave South Africa.

They touched down in Darwin on the morning of April 11 and after a two week compulsory stay at the Howard Springs quarantine facility, flew down to Sydney to be with my sister and her family.

Never ones to look back, though they miss South Africa and their life-long friends dearly, my parents have made new lives in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney.

“We moved here to be with our family,” is my mom’s simple, but poignant view on things.

That they have adapted so well to a new country is still remarkable to me. Though they have been here just over a year, it feels in a way as if they have always been here. They have a huge circle of friends and lead busy social lives (a contributing factor no doubt to them both getting COVID a few months ago)

About a month ago, they got in their white Kia hatchback and headed south over two days through the NSW hinterland, passing scenery not entirely dissimilar to the rugged South African countryside, to visit us in Gisborne. My sister and her family also made the journey by car a week a bit later, and all of us – my parents, two of their children and five grandchildren – spent five wonderful days together.

My mom will say that was the whole point of them saying goodbye to South Africa, the country we all still love deep in our hearts, where Isidore Schlesinger sought his fortune all those years ago.

It’s about family: My parents with grandkids Jamie, Aubin, Edie, Gwen and Keira

The story of my grandparents’ secret

My happy Bar Mitzvah photographs, taken in 1987 in the foyer of the once grand Germiston synagogue on the East Rand near Johannesburg, captured a rare moment in time when my grandfather Rolf was in the same room as his ex-wife, my petite, and glamourous grandmother Nella.

I am in the middle, smiling like a cherub, my beaming parents (Ian and Cecile) on either side. On my left, wearing a white suit and a gentle smile is my grandfather, while in between my mother and my Zaida Harry, staring back rather demurely at the camera in a stylish outfit and black beret, is Nella.

I remember the day as a joyous and successful one, me singing my parashah from the Torah on the Bimah, while my family watched on proudly, then later, the sweets, as was tradition then, raining down from the women’s section of the synagogue above to celebrate my symbolic entrance into adulthood. A catered luncheon followed after in the hall at the back of the synagogue with all the South African Jewish delicacies on offer (mock crayfish, chopped herring, gefilte fish, bagels and lox). I made a half decent speech which got a few laughs, then came singing and dancing with my family and friends.

My Bar Mitzvah: From L-R: Rolf Schlesinger, my dad Ian, Me, my mom Cecile, Granny Nella and my Zaida, Harry Hyton

I was at the time, and for many years after, unaware that my grandmother had not spoken to my grandfather in over 30 years, after he divorced her to marry an Afrikaans lady called Elizabeth, with whom he’d had an affair.

There was an obvious clue to this secret – whenever my grandfather, whom we called “Grampie” came to visit us (armed always with a large bag of sweets and chocolates) my grandmother would hastily retreat to her bedroom and not come out until he had left.

This practice continued until my grandfather passed away suddenly in 1988, when I was 15.

He’d fallen in the rain, whilst doing a delivery for the charity Meals on Wheels in Johannesburg, been taken to hospital by my mother and passed away completely unexpectedly from suspected congenital heart failure, though the exact cause of his death remains something of a mystery.

He was cremated and his ashes placed in a wall of remembrance at West Park cemetery in Emmerentia in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs. My grandmother Nella, who passed in 1997, is also buried at West Park.

My grandfather had met Elizabeth at the boiler suit-making factory in downtown Johannesburg that was owned by my grandmother’s wealthy family, the Grevlers. He was a director (courtesy of the largesse shown to him by “Big Uncle” Isaac Grevler) while Elizabeth, whose first name was actually Johanna, worked in the factory.

After he admitted his affair, divorced my grandmother and married Elizabeth, my grandmother never spoke to him again or forgave him for his betrayal. For the rest of her life she held onto that “terrible thing done to her”. A beautiful woman who in her younger days looked like a 1930s movie star, she dated other men after her divorce, but sadly never established a serious romantic relationship again.

My grandmother in her late 20s (circa 1935)

“I don’t blame my mom…she was a woman with very high self-esteem, and [the affair] completely dashed her. Nobody got divorced at that time. I was the only kid in my class whose parents got divorced,” my Uncle Colin (their older son) tells me on a Zoom call from his home in Alamo in California.

Growing up I never knew anything about this family saga; I had no idea my grandfather was married to someone else, and lived a life entirely outside the sphere of our fairly observant Jewish life with its festivals and Shabbat dinners.

I have strong and vivid memories of my grandmother, who lived with us for many years after giving up her flat on the edge of Hillbrow. She was a well-travelled woman of refined taste who loved her grandkids dearly. My memories of my grandfather are more fleeting as we saw him less frequently. Looking through old photos reminds me of his soft and sweet demeanour.

“He was pretty tough as a father. I think he tried to be like his dad (my adventuring great grandfather Bruno) who was a tough bloke,” recalls Colin.

Two of Colin’s strong memories of his father – before his parents got divorced – are of the very pleasant Sunday drives the family took to visit the many tea gardens in Johannesburg and, riding on his father’s back as a small boy when Rolf would get down on all fours.

Less pleasant, were memories of the whippings he received from his father’s cane.

Made out of “flexible material” Rolf had obtained it through his volunteer work for St John’s Brigade, known today as St John’s Ambulance.

One particular memory of that cane has long remained vivid in Colin’s memory.

“We had a huge oak tree outside our house at14 Rutland Road, Parkwood (a leafy, old inner Joburg suburb) and I used to love climbing trees.

“I don’t know what had happened, but something had happened and I knew that my father was going to punish me. So I climbed up the oak tree, right to the top where the branches were pretty thin. It was a big tree,” says Colin.

Happier days: Nella and Rolf as a married couple.

“My father was down below, and getting really quite agitated, telling me to come down, saying ‘you are going to fall. Don’t be silly’

“And I said to him” ‘I’m not coming down, because if I do, you are going to whip me with that cane.

“He said: ‘No, no, I won’t do that. Please come down.”

“So after saying that for a while, I did come down…and guess what happened?

What? I asked him, but guessing the answer: “He whipped me.” said Colin.

However, Colin says my grandfather’s toughness mellowed later in life, after having some kind of a quasi nervous breakdown, most likely to do with the guilt he felt about his affair and its impact on his family.

After about 16 years of no contact at all, my uncle re-established his relationship with my grandfather after returning from the UK and USA, where he’d completed his PhD in Chemical Engineering.

“When I cam back, I decided that if my mother did not want to talk to her ex-husband that was her business, but he was still my father and I wanted to have a relationship with him.

“I discovered that he had changed completely. I think he had either had a nervous breakdown or got very close to having one. It was caused by guilt. He felt enormously guilty that he had abandoned [my brother] Ian and me because of his behaviour.

“It was very strange, it was like our roles had been reversed, I was actually trying to reassure him.

“He liked to eat hot mielie meal for breakfast (cornmeal) and I would tell him. When you wake up at 4am, do something: make hot mielie meal, listen to the radio, read a book, don’t just lie in bed with all these negative thoughts.”

After a while – with the help of his eldest son – my grandfather pulled out of his depression, turning, according to Colin into “the kindest, sweetest guy you could imagine”.

“He was 180 degrees different from the way he had been growing up, and we became great friends.”

One of the things my grandfather and uncle did together, along with my cousin David (Colin’s son) was build a mirror dinghy, a small sailing boat, that I distinctly remember checking out when we visited our cousins at their home in Parkmore in the 1980s.

Colin and my grandfather Rolf (1987)
The inscription on the back of the photo.

“David, my dad and I would work on building this dinghy. And when it was finished, on the weekends, we would take it to various dams like Emmerentia Dam and sail it. It was a very nice bonding experience working on that boat together,” says Colin.

He also showed me a sign, that his dad made for him after he took a job as a salesman for a sign-making company.

“We’ were talking about procrastinating and doing things, and he made this sign for me, which I have on my desk,” says Colin.

Made out of bright yellow plastic with red letters, it says simply: “TODAY”.

The sign my grandfather made for Colin when he was working as a salesman for a sign-making company in Johannesburg (pictured here with Colin’s dog Lola)

My last memory of my grandfather Rolf is him sitting atop a hill watching me play in a school cricket match in Linksfield, Johannesburg, perhaps not long before he passed away. I remember distinctly his small figure in long pants and a dark blazer in the distance, and my sense of surprise and pleasure at seeing him there.

The last time I saw my grandmother was in July 1997, before I headed off to the USA for six months to work at a summer camp in Wisconsin.

By then she was in her late 80s and quite frail.

At the time she lived with us in our Linksfield home. Her bedroom was right next to mine at the back of the house and she would often call out in her quiet, wavering voice: “Larry” to ask a favour. I often drove her to and from visits to her friends in their apartments around Johannesburg. Though I sometimes complained about having to do these errands, I miss those trips and ferrying her around the suburbs. She was always very grateful; we had a close bond.

In her younger and more independent days, my grandmother had a flat in Killarney – an old Johannesburg suburb packed with apartment buildings (hers was a white Art Deco block called Daventry Court) and old Jewish people. I remember her flat filled with dainty trinkets and old, dark wooden furniture and there was a dark green Peugeot 404 (a gift from Colin) parked in her garage.

I distinctly remember riding up the old musty elevator, and walking along the outdoor passageway to her flat door, and her warmth and delight at seeing me and my brother and sister when we came to visit.

She died while I was in the USA in 1997 and like my grandfather’s passing I never attended her funeral.

Always elegant: My grandmother taken in the garden of house in Germiston circa 1985

Me (a very chubby baby) and my grandmother

Revisiting Serial: The 5 big reasons why Adnan Syed most likely did not kill Hae Min Lee

Like many of those who enjoy true crime podcasts, I got hooked after listening to the groundbreaking first season of Serial, which investigated the 1999 murder of Baltimore student Hae Min Lee, who was strangled and buried in Leakin Park on January 13, and the problematic conviction of he ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed.

Hae Min Lee was murdered in 1999

Released in 2014, the show hooked tens of millions of people as it delved deep into the baffling case, examining the evidence used to convict Syed and coming up with fresh leads, a possible alibi, new theories, controversies and inconsistencies.

Serial set the scene for an explosion of investigative true crime podcasts and became the template against which they would all be judged.

Serial also threw a huge spotlight on Syed’s conviction and the many doubts about the dubious testimony of his so-called friend and local drug dealer Jay Wilds which ultimately sent Syed to jail for life despite no hard evidence linking Syed to Lee’s murder. The podcast inspired a four-part HBO documentary that also argued for his innocence (along with numerous follow-up podcasts and blogs), paving the way for efforts by Syed’s legal team to secure a re-trial.

While that effort ultimately failed – in March 2019 the Maryland Court of Appeal quashed a decision by the state’s lower courts to grant him a new trial and in November 2019 the US Supreme Court declined to hear the case – doubts about his conviction have remained and the debate has raged for years online and on social media. Did Adnan Syed do it?

While it came out a few years ago,popular true crime podcast called Crime Junkie (which I have just discovered via a good friend) aired a special episode in April 2018, which in my opinion tips the scales firmly in favour of Adnan Syed’s innocence and highlights an appalling miscarriage of justice.

Called “What Serial Didn’t Tell You”, Crime Junkie host Ashley Flowers, with the help of her co-host Brit Prawat, pulls together all the extensive information published since Serial season one aired, drawn mainly from two other podcasts, Undisclosed and Truth and Justice as well as three blogs written by Rabia Chaudry (the lady who brought Adnan’s case to Serial host Sarah Koenig), lawyer Sarah Simpson and law professor Colin Miller, all three of whom are hosts of Undisclosed. She also read Chaudry’s best selling book Adnan’s Story.

“I tried to make that 30 minute thing with the top need to know facts [so that people can] have an informed discussion about Adnan’s case,” says Flowers at the start of the podcast.

Flowers then goes on to launch a concise and highly convincing argument for Syed’s innocence, or at the very least, the right to a new trial.

Without listening to all the podcasts, or reading the blogs and books Flowers researched to prepare the episode (I assume its accurate, Crime Junkie is a very popular and scrutinised podcast) I’ve summarized the main points she makes, plus added one of my own:

  1. The cellphone tower pings

Adnan Syed was convicted of murder largely because Jay Wild’s testimony of what happened and where on January 13, 1999. This timeline of events matched the locations of cell phone tower that pinged off Syed’s mobile phone every time it rang on that fateful day.

“Police created a map to show how the cell phone moved during the day based on its signal pinging of towers,” Flowers reminds listeners.

While there was a lot of controversy about this testimony – Wilds changed his story when the police and prosecutors realised they got the map wrong being just one example – it still dealt a body blow to Syed because two calls pinged off towers near Leakin Park at 7.09 and 7.16pm that prosecutors said proved Syed was there burying Lee’s body.

(You can read Jay Wild’s account of that day as told to The Intercept in December 2014.)

“They even got an expert to testify to this in court who said Adnan was where Jay said he was at the time they were burying Hae’s body,” says Flowers.

However, this expert did not see (most likely it was deliberately withheld) a fax cover sheet from telephone company AT&T which made the point that outgoing calls only are reliable for location status. Incoming calls – the ones Syed received on January 13, 1999 – are not considered reliable information for determining a location.

“The expert witness did not see this, and would have changed his testimony” says Flowers. This was one of the man arguments Syed’s lawyer Justin Brown used to get a new trial.

2. The State of Hae Min Lee’s body

While this cell tower information is startling, it does not prove conclusively that Syed was not in Leakin Park at the time Wild’s said they were there burying Lee’s body, only that the data cannot be relied upon.

More important – and damning of the conviction of Syed – is the state of Hae Min Lee’s body when it was discovered four weeks after her murder on February 9.

According to Flowers (and confirmed by medical examiner who undertook the autopsy), Lee had “full-fixed lividity” on the front of her body including her face, chest, stomach and legs.

Lividity or Livor Mortis is the settling of blood after death in gravity-dependent portions of the body, including in the organs. Blood settles after death in parts of the body closest to the ground, causing purplish-red blue discolouration.

Lividity happens pretty slowly, and can take 8-10 hours to occur, explained Flowers.

This meant Lee’s body had remained face down in the same position for that period and therefore she could not have been placed in the trunk of a car, as Jay Wilds, the state’s key witness had claimed when he picked Syed up around 4pm from Best Buy on the day of the murder.

In addition, because Lee was found on her right side, but she had full, fixed lividity on the front of her body, she could not have been buried flat in a shallow grave at Leakin park at around 7.30pm. Lee was last seen alive at around 2.15- 3pm, so at a minimum her body would have had to lie face down until 10.30 or 11pm, most likely even later.

“Nothing adds up,” says Flowers.

3. Hae Min Lee’s car

Hae Min Lee’s car – a Nissan Sentra – is a crucial piece of evidence as Jay Wild’s says that her body was in the boot before Syed drove it to Leakin Park with Wild’s following behind in Syed’s Honda Accord.

Later, according to Wild’s testimony Syed parked it in a lot behind some houses. The car was recovered on February 28, the same day Syed was arrested and charged with her murder.

Flowers notes that there was green grass growing under the car, and even inside the wheel well, which suggests the car was moved from somewhere else and that someone told Jay where the car was.

This is confirmed in pictures of Lee’s car, which you can easily find online showing clearly the grass growing underneath and the patch of dead grass next to it, indicating what should have happened over time.

“It highlights the fact again that Jay new nothing about what happened to Hae – his account is all made up. Jay’s story unfolds as police find new evidence not the other way round,” say Flowers.

And the question remains: who moved Lee’s car?

Hae Min Lee’s Car: the green grass can be seen clearly under the car

4. There is no evidence linking Adnan Syed to the crime scene (my own ‘research’)

The entire case made against Adnan Syed was based on Jay Wild’s testimony. There is in fact no physical evidence linking Syed to the crime scene, not a shred.

Furthermore, DNA testing carried out in 2019 of 12 pieces of evidence found on or around Hae Min Lee’s body found none of the them produced a DNA profile that was a match for Syed.

“This included a rope/wire found five inches from the body that yielded a DNA profile that is a match for some unknown person; and two hairs recovered from Hae’s body that are not the hairs of either Hae or Adnan,” writes law professor Colin Miller on his blog Evidence Prof.

5. Adnan Syed was the only person police investigated – there are other suspects

Says Flowers” “The cops looked into no one else a tenth as hard as they looked into Adnan” whose criminal record was pulled on February 3, 1999, before the anonymous tip came in to look at Syed as the most likely suspect.

Nobody else’s criminal record was pulled.

This included her current boyfriend at the time, “Don”, other people close to her. and a guy (Roy  Sharonnie Davis) who had murdered another 18-year-old girl who attended Woodlawn High a year ago (Jada Denita Lambert, an 18-year-old Woodlawn woman whose body was found in May 1998) and was not in jail at the time (Davis was convicted in 2002).

However while Davis was surely worth investigating, the Crime Junkie hosts say its most likely Lee was killed by someone she knew.

“Someone paged Hae that day to meet her, and kill her, but that pager was never found.” Flowers says.

Flowers also question the alibi given by Don, who could not be reached until 1.30am on January 14, and who said he was working at a LensCrafters store.

I’d rather not going into all the anomalies in his alibi, but you could read about them on the Crime Junkie podcast. However, I will just mention one, both Don’s mom and his stepmom worked in manager roles at the company and provided his alibi on the day Lee was murdered.

‘If the police had done their job; if they would have looked into anyone else as hard as Adnan they would have found this out,” says Flowers.

According to evidence collected as part of the trial, Lee was due to meet up with Don on the day she died. She also worked at Lenscrafters, though not at the same store Don was working at that night.

Of course none of this is absolute conclusive proof Syed had no involvement in Lee’s murder – bear in mind Wilds gave about five days of detailed testimony at both trials so it beggars belief he made it all up.

However, it does highlight that if Syed had a decent lawyer he almost certainly would not and should not have been convicted based on the evidence and testimony presented at the trial. Furthermore, being a non-white American clearly did not help his cause.

If you’re interested in find out more, I’d encourage listening to the whole Crime Junkie podcast in full and then, if you’re keen, taking a deep dive into the case. There’s a ton of information out there.

(This link has all the court transcripts to the 1999 mistrial and 2000 trial)

If not – and no judgement here, life is too short – remember this point made by Flowers: “Adnan has facts on his side, the State of Maryland only had Jay.”

Adnan Syed, Arrest photo