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).
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?
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”.)
“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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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 Lydenburg, Rustenburg 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.)
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.
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.
“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).
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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?
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
“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”.
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.
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 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.
“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:
“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.
“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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
While one should not speak ill of the dead (so “they” say) my reaction to hearing the news that my old King David Linksfield high school headmaster Elliot Wolf had passed away did not generate a great outpouring of grief.
I remember his reproachful face peering over us high school kids at assembly, and sneeringly telling those who did not like some or other dictum of his that they could “Go to that other institution down the road”. By that he meant our Johannesburg sister school, King David High School Victory Park, whose headmaster was by some bizarre coincidence his identical twin brother.
This joke was repeated ad nauseam in a sarcastic fashion as he surveyed his domain, perched behind the lectern on stage.
Well anyway that’s how I remember Mr Wolf, who passed away last month aged 83.
Of course other people have different memories of him. Indeed the tributes have come flowing thick and fast for his contribution to my alma mater, where he was headmaster for an eternity, a feat of longevity if nothing else.
That genuine care it seemed to me was reserved for a very small percentage of high achievers: prefects, the academically gifted and those who did well on the sporting field.
It was certainly not shared with average students such as myself, who never did brilliantly or badly (Four ‘Bs’ marked my matriculation scorecard, the highlight of my high school sporting career, was making the Under-15 B rugby team). I was a non-entity in the eyes of Mr Wolf.
Not once in five years of high school did he offer a friendly comment or greeting. Never did he say anything vaguely encouraging. I found him an intimidating presence, one which did little to shape my personal development in any positive or meaningful fashion.
Instead, he reinforced the notion that academic and sporting success mattered above all else, regardless of how hard you worked or tried or the strength of your character.
When I left school in 1991 I quickly forgot about Elliot Wolf. Only his passing last month reminded me of how much I disliked him.
Perhaps Mr Wolf inspired many people, but he did not inspire me.
Cats supposedly have nine lives, as the phrase goes, and so too did Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, who died in November last year from COVID aged 74, whilst serving 20 life terms at Frankland prison in County Durham.
I’ve just finishing watching the excellent four-part Netflix documentary ‘The Ripper’ which examines the series of horrifying murders committed by Sutcliffe, and the bungled attempts by the West Yorkshire police to capture him.
Incredibly, Sutcliffe, a married lorry driver from Bradford, was interviewed nine times by detectives, after his name came up in various lines of inquiry as a possible suspect. However, he was let go each time, despite some lower-ranking detectives and police officers reporting their suspicions.
So often did police show up at his place of work to question him, that Sutcliffe earned the nickname ‘The Ripper’ among his truck-driving colleagues at Clark Transport – an irony, that would have seemed unbelievable were it included in the plotline of a crime novel.
As explained by Joan Smith, one of the few female journalists to report on the case, the all male senior detectives leading the investigation, blinded by their own sexist attitudes and sucked in by a hoax audio tape, dismissed Sutcliffe because he was recently married, had the wrong accent to the Geordie accent on the hoax tape and did not fit the supposed picture of a modern day Jack The Ripper maniac hunting down and slaying prostitutes.
As a result police also neglected to investigate other attacks on young woman at the time because they were not prostitutes or women of “loose morals”, and who because they survived these assaults, could have provided valuable information about their attacker and led to Sutcliffe’s capture many years earlier, saving the lives of many who later crossed his path.
“Is he a Georgie,” Laptew was asked by his superior officer. “I said no. He’s from Bradford. But it’s an uncanny resemblance.
“Does he have a Geordie accent [to match the one on the audio tape]? I said no. He started effing and geffing. He said anyone who mentions effing photofits to me again will be doing traffic for the rest of their service.”
In the end it was only by sheer luck – Sutcliffe was arrested in January 1981 because he was driving a car that did not match its number plate – that led to his capture, confession and life imprisonment.
As with so many great true crime documentaries created by the streaming giants – ‘The Ripper’ was commissioned by Netflix – it takes viewers back in time through grainy, archival footage to Leeds, Manchester and Bradford of the mid-1970s where unemployment was rising as the great big factories were shut down, and as Margaret Thatcher became the first female British prime minister.
This footage is contrasted with crisp, present day interviews of families of victims, the now grey haired detectives who were on The Ripper taskforce and journalists like Joan Smith, as they look back on those terrible times, when an unknown killer terrorised the streets.
I found it compulsive viewing, so fascinating, seeing how a serial killer investigation back then relied on thousands of hand written index cards – so many in fact that the floor of the taskforce headquarters had to be reinforced to prevent it from collapsing – to create a database of suspects and evidence.
And yet for all the information gathering, and the many clues that should have pointed the way to a much earlier solving of the mystery, it was the bungling alpha male chief inspectors and their bureaucratic overlords, who made the key wrong assumptions about the case, that had the Ripper laughing in their faces for many years.
“I remember listening to it and being incredibly puzzled because there was nothing on the tape that actually suggested it was genuine,” said Smith in November 2020, when Peter Sutcliffe died.
Julie Bindel, a feminist campaigner who was 18 and living in Leeds when Sutcliffe killed his 13th and final victim- Jacqueline Hill, a 20-year-old student – recalled how police denigrated the victims, some of whom were prostitutes, as being “fair game” despite many of them only doing what they did to support their families.
Bindel told The Guardian last year she remembered George Oldfield, who led the investigation, addressed the murderer on TV in 1979 saying: “There may be more pawns in this war before I catch you, but I will catch you.”
“That’s what women were to these detectives, said Bindel: disposable pawns.
But, says Smith, the Ripper investigation did force woman, who felt unsafe, to realise it was up to them to look after themselves, “because the police weren’t actually going to do it for us”.
“That was the beginning of women pushing back and say, No. Why shouldn’t we walk around at night at 2am without worrying that someone will attack us? So I think it changed women’s perception of how we live in this culture and it had a incredible radicalising effect on a whole generation of women.” Smith says.
The 13 women Sutcliffe was convicted of murdering were:
Wilma McCann, 28, from Chapeltown, Leeds, who was killed in October 1975.
Emily Jackson, 42, from Morley, Leeds. Killed on 20 January 1976.
Irene Richardson, 28, from Chapeltown, Leeds. Killed on 6 February 1977.
Patricia Atkinson, 32, from Manningham, Bradford. Killed on 24 April 1977.
Jayne MacDonald, 16, from Leeds. Killed on 26 June 1977.
Jean Jordan, 21, from Manchester, who died between 30 September and 11 October 1977.
Yvonne Pearson, 22, from Bradford. Killed between 20 January and 26 March 1978.
Helen Rytka, 18, from Huddersfield. Killed on 31 January 1978.
Vera Millward, 40, from Manchester. Killed on 16 May 1978.
Josephine Whitaker, 19, from Halifax. Killed on 4 April 1979.
Barbara Leach, 20. Killed while walking in Bradford on 1 September 1979.
Marguerite Walls, 47, from Leeds. Killed on 20 August 1980.
Jacqueline Hill, 20. Killed at Headingley on 16 November 1980.
The last two books I read were both in the true crime genre, and brilliant examples of writers at the top of their craft.
First I read Ann Rule’s Don’t Look Behind You and Other True Cases, a collection of mostly cold case investigations that take place around the Seattle area on America’s west coast,
After finishing it, I then stepped back 160-odd years and into an entirely different landscape, of Victorian England and the ghastly murder of a three-year old boy in a large manor house in the countryside and the London detective recruited to solve it in Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher.
Ann Rule, who died in 2015 aged 83, started her career as a law enforcement officer for the Seattle Police Department, wrote for True Detective magazine under a pen name and then established herself as the Queen of American true crime writing with a long career of best sellers. She is most famous for The Stranger Beside Me published in 1980, her sensational account of her charming, handsome friend Ted, whom she met while working at a Seattle suicide crisis hotline, who turned out to be serial killer Ted Bundy.
Ann Rule’s books are motivated by a strong desire for justice for the victims and their families, especially those heart-wrenching cases that are never solved.
Don’t Look Behind You and Other True Cases is dedicated to “everyone who has lost someone they love, never to find them – or learn the reasons they vanished”.
Rule goes onto explain, in a brief introduction to the first story in the book “North to Alaska” that when she chooses which cases to write about, they are almost always selected from the Cold Case departments of homicide divisions.
“There is something infinitely satisfying about finding killers long after they have become confident that they have walked away free,” Rule writes.
Rule is a master of plot, narrative and pace: she is a natural and gifted storyteller. While her stories are rich with procedural detail – the collection of evidence, investigating leads – and the small steps taken by investigators to unravel decades old crimes, they never becoming boring or plodding.
It’s not hard to see why she became a best selling popular writer of true crime: stories are told in an uncomplicated, linear way with plenty of direct dialogue. She brings characters to life on the page, both the perpetrators and the victims, the latter for whom she displays the greatest of empathy.
She once said of her motivation to write about true crime: “I wanted to know why some kids grew up to be criminals and why other people didn’t. That is still the main thrust behind my books: I want to know why these things happen, and so do my readers,”
I highly recommend all of them if you enjoy reading, listening to or watching true crime stories. They’re an easy read, but also engrossing and thought-provoking.
Kate Summerscale is cut from a far more literary cloth than Rule, but none the less entertaining a writer.
In the case of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher – the only book of hers I have read – Summerscale writes from a much broader historical and social perspective, producing in the words of the great spy novelist John le Carre called “a classic of the finest documentary writing”.
Born in London in 1965, but brought up also in Japan and Chile, Summerscale attended Oxford University and then California’s Stanford University, where she obtained a masters in journalism. She worked at a number of English newspapers including the Daily Telegraph and Independent, whilst establishing herself as a writer with an award-winning biography about eccentric speedboat racer Marion Barbara ‘Joe’ Carstairs.
I’ve actually read the book twice, but enjoyed it just as much the second time round.
It’s not as easy a book to read as the pacier novels of Ann Rule, but if your penchant is for slowly unravelling, procedural crime shows like Inspector Morse, Prime Suspect or Unforgotten I think you’ll immensely enjoy reading The Suspicions of Mr Whicher.
The “Mr Whicher” refers to Jonathan or “Jack” Whicher, one of the first eight police detectives who joined a newly created branch of the London Metropolitan Police, at Scotland Yard in 1842. Whicher was sent from London to the village of Rode, near Trowbridge in the county of Wiltshire to solve the most famous crime of the era, the murder of three-year-old Francis Saville Kent in a stately country home called Road Hill House.
Summerscale does not just tell the story of the Kent family and the terrible events of the night of Friday 29th of June 1860 at Road Hill House, when the young boy’s body was discovered shoved down a privy (outside toilet), his throat cut, and the efforts of Whicher, the most brilliant detective of his day, to solve the baffling crime.
She captures the whole zeitgeist of that time – the public’s fascination with the crime (especially since it occurred in the country home of a wealthy, upper class family) fueled by a legion of city and country daily newspapers that reported on its every detail, theory and rumour.
“While the press and the public condemned Whicher’s prurient, impertinent speculations, they freely made their own,” Summerscale writes, capturing the fascination with the case that gripped the country from the big cities to farming villages, and its distrust of the new class of detectives.
As Summerscale explains in her wonderfully researched book, the crime was the first “whoddunit” set in a quintessential country home, in which all the suspects were inside the house: circumstances which created the template for hundreds of fictional detective stories, movies and TV shows including Agatha Christie and Midsomer Murders.
Not surprisingly, the case influenced many subsequent Victorian novels, captured the attention of the greatest writer of the times Charles Dickens, a friend and admirer of Jack Whicher. Dickens, like everyone else had his own (wrong) theories about who the murderer was.
There are so many fascinating aspects to this book, not least of which is the crime itself, there’s the story of the brilliant career of Jack Whicher, and how the immense pressure to solve the Road Hill House murder almost finished him off, the growing power of daily newspapers to shape public consciousness and the emerging art of crime detection.
Part true crime, part historical and social commentary, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is non-fiction writing at its finest and a must-read in my opinion.