Composer at Large: Diary/Memoir

by John Simon


excerpt from entry Stanwell Sunday 30 March 2008 Sex under Apartheid

I have to say my life at this time was wild and exciting. Johannesburg was a confident, self-assured, if highly dislocated city, with a citizenry that talked only about money; crime had yet to become a topic of conversation. In 1979 trams and buses set off en masse from Eloff Street, so it was easy to get home early and unwind on a summer’s evening after a sweltering day in the city, where I was working once more for my building society, the management having great plans for my future. By five o’clock I would be back in Westcliff ready to take a dip in the pool of the mansion that belonged to Mrs Hirschowitz, my current landlady. Mrs Hirschowitz, or Mrs Leon as she preferred me to call her, was living out her days, Sunset Boulevard-style, assisted by a highly-strung maid called Nora -who baked cakes most of the day for Mrs L’s health shop- and her chauffeur Modeste from Mozambique. Modeste used Mrs L’s phone most days to call up his numerous girlfriends, and her bed to make tempestuous love on, while she slaved away selling health cakes to a gaggle of obese white women in upper class Killarney. The third member of her staff, Jo-Jo the gardener, planted seeds constantly regardless of what the weather held in store. He knew little about anything, apart from the fact that he came from somewhere ‘up north’. Mrs Leon, or ‘Madam’ as she preferred her staff to call her, worked with him every Sunday afternoon, planting seeds in her huge garden, regardless of whether a thunderstorm happened to be in the offing. More important as far as she was concerned were her fifty-three special friends: her cats; including three ‘queens’ that were allowed to roam around her tissue-strewn bedroom (presumably when Modeste wasn’t there making love to his girlfriends), while the rest of the furry felines whiled away their time in a cattery situated in the front garden. I lived three floors below Mrs L’s turreted bed chamber (and Modeste’s room of love), amongst the mansion’s sturdy, though ant-ridden foundations, in what was a kind of subterranean flat or cavern, which I shared each night with a number of Parktown prawns that terrorised me with their prehistoric presences. As I splashed about in the pool waiting for lightning to strike, Mrs L, with the inevitable towel wrapped medieval-style around her head, would poke her head out of a window and wave regally to me from her Sunset Boulevard fluted turret. ‘The ants are driving me mad,’ I’d cry. ‘Me too!’ she’d cry, waving a ringed hand. ‘Talk to them. Talk to them like I do, my boy.’ It seemed like an ingenious way for me to start saving money on insecticide!

In comparison to Westcliff, where everything seemed like Hollywood, orange-earthed Rosettenville, -where composer Sid Ledbetter lived with his parents in a pair of detached cottages- seemed terribly humdrum and boring. In January 1980 I drove Sid and his parents to a seminal event at the Johannesburg City Hall: the world premiere of his Violin Concerto. Foolishly I parked my car in a subterranean car park off Rissik Street, which resulted in Sid and me having to drag his parents up the Everestian escalators, which naturally were out of order (so typically South African!). Our endeavours to get the old couple up to street level saw them hollering and screaming blue murder as we slowly edged upwards. When we arrived at the City Hall, Sid and I were ushered to a box situated directly above the stage where members of the National Symphony Orchestra were tuning up (the old folks had been placed downstairs in the stalls), awaiting the arrival of the Republic’s iconic conductor, Dr Anton Hartman. Once Hartman had arrived and Sid’s concerto had got underway problems of balance soon surfaced, as the soloist struggled to disentangle himself from a plethora of horns, trombones and timpani, which had ganged up against him from his first entry, raging and roaring and refusing to allow him to have anything like a fair say. As we sat in our box Sid became increasingly restive and wanted to know why his soloist didn’t play louder. I could have told him why, but thought it better to remain silent. In spite of its excruciating dissonance the new concerto elicited rapturous applause from an appreciative Johannesburg audience. During the second half of the concert, the Scandinavian concert master played the violin solo in Brahms’s Symphony No 1 with such ravishing expression that Sid felt compelled to nudge me again, asking why his Canadian soloist hadn’t played his piece with the same commitment. I could have told him why, but thought it better to remain silent. After the concert, and minus his parents, who’d returned home in a taxi, we drove to the concert reception in Emmerentia, where a rather disorientated Sid and I got stuck into a number of canes before becoming introspective. After I’d lost my way and driven round south Johannesburg for over three hours I found the Ledbetter cottages and after I’d dropped Sid headed home to my cavern in Westcliff. Some years later, after I’d moved back to the Cape, Sid featured in an article in a Johannesburg newspaper that declared him to be a musical genius. He showed me the article when I visited him in September 1984. As I looked at the photo I noted it was one of an extremely young Sid. Rather foolishly I mentioned this. Sid rose from his chair, grave and determined, and, as if in a trance, led me to the front door, indicating with a limp hand exactly where the front gate could be found. With a sigh of regret he explained how things stood between us, indeed how they stood between him and the world, adding, for the comfort of my chastened heart, that he was ‘withdrawing from the world for good’.

Although Sid later became a detractor of mine, I owe him a debt of gratitude, since he taught me how important it was to be serious when writing music in the socio-political climate of the day. Each week, after I’d returned to Cape Town in March 1980, a long airmail letter would arrive from him. It was these thought-provoking, egocentric letters that provided me with a powerful source of comfort, amusement and stimulation during the years that followed. Sadly I never received another one after September 1984.