Remembering Elliot Wolf

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.

“His wisdom, quiet strength, and intellectual prowess, were renowned, but it was genuine care and heartfelt love for his students that earned him his reputation,” read the official statement from the South African Board of Jewish Education.

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.

Approaching 40: Thoughts, reflections and some tips


In less than two months I’ll be 40.

Gosh! (as  Napolean Dynamite would exclaim) where has the time gone?

One minute I’m finishing high school in Johannesburg, South Africa is stepping gingerly into a brave new era of democracy, Freddie Mercury had just died from AIDS and I’d decided to become an architect.

Flash forward nearly 22 years: I’m a newspaper journalist in Melbourne, (apparently the world’s most livable city, if you believe those sorts of surveys) with a bald patch, a blog and a family with three different passports (South African, Kiwi and Aussie) plus a few other bits and pieces.

It feels like a time to reflect, but not morbidly so, as I feel 40 is still an age of possibility (I’ll wait till at least 50 for melancholic reflections) plus I’ve been lucky, life has treated me more or less “pretty, pretty, pretty good” as my self-appointed mentor Larry David would say.

Of course I’ve just about given up hope of making it on the BRW Young Rich list (a list of the richest Aussies 40 and under), unless I do something drastic in the next couple of months – like rob a bank or win the lottery, but I think I can live with that.

Anyway, for nostalgia sake (and to poke fun at me relentlessly) here I am 22 odd years ago in the bottom right hand corner of this photo taken some time in the mid-1990s.

larry schol

That’s me. The geeky, chubby face with glasses looking a tad sheepish on the periphery of things. Something of an outsider.

Hardly any of the people in this people are still living in South Africa; certainly I thought I’d be one of those who stayed behind (or at least left and came back). Instead I’ve joined the expat South African community that used to be called when I was in school, the PFP (not the Progressive Federal Party, but an acronym at the time for those ‘Packing for Perth’).

But have I succeeded? I have no idea.

Success of course is a personal thing and can be fleeting. You can accumulate vast sums of money and lose it very quickly, or build up your reputation on your achievements and status only for it to be smashed to smithereens by a rash decision or revelation about some horrible character flaw: think of the careers of Lance Armstrong or Rolf Harris and what they will be ultimately remembered for.

In many ways I feel I have succeeded – I’ve gotten married, have a beautiful wife and daughter and a son on the way, I overcame a seriously debilitating period of panic attacks that threatened my sanity about ten years ago while living in London (there is no greater fear in life than losing your mind I can tell you), I’ve  been lucky enough to see many interesting parts of the world (I think I am up to about 30 countries or so), had a to date fulfilling career in five different cities (Jo’burg, London, Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne) and for the most part have been healthy, happy and well-fed.

But in other facets of my life I feel I’ve not: for one thing I have not built up any great wealth, nor do I own property or shares.

I don’t feel or act my age (both a good and a bad thing). I don’t pay enough attention in conversations. I’m often in my own world.

Of less concern I’ve also not yet published a book (or really written one either), I’ve haven’t yet been invited onto Q&A, had tea with Stephen Fry or discussed my anxieties with Woody Allen and I’ve still not bought a BMW (Everyone’s allowed one flashy, material craving right?)

But enough of that. Perhaps the Gods of fame and fortune will smile favourably on me yet.

I’m healthy and relatively sane and life is for the most part very good. I have time to read books, watch movies, listen to music, drink and occasionally be merry. Many people would be content with that.

So what have I learnt? Is there any wisdom I can impart as the big ‘Four Zero’ approaches?

Perhaps this?

  • Try to worry less? Things rarely happen as you think they will so its a pointless exercise. Good and bad awaits you in ways you could never imagine.
  • Avoid trashy books and reality television. Spend your time doing something else.
  • Think less about what you eat. Obsessing over food is a waste of time.
  • Get a bike or start jogging. Avoid gyms (too many mirrors).
  • Hug your kids, your wife, your pets, your friends, your family when the mood strikes, without any particular reason.
  • Worry less about what others think of you.
  • You can’t cook a Jamie Oliver meal in 15 minutes

And if every in doubt about life, watch Annie Hall for the opening monologue at least (the rest of the movie is pretty terrific too):

		There's an old joke.  Uh, two elderly 
		women are at a Catskills mountain 
		resort, and one of 'em says: "Boy, the 
		food at this place is really terrible." 
		The other one says, "Yeah, I know, and 
		such ... small portions." Well, that's 
		essentially how I feel about life.  Full 
		of loneliness and misery and suffering 
		and unhappiness, and it's all over much 
		too quickly