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Composer at Large (Memoir excerpt from Sex under Apartheid)

by John Simon

My life at this time was a wild and exciting one. Johannesburg was a 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 warm summer’s evening after a sweltering day spent in the city, where I was once more working 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 domestic help called Nora – who baked cakes most of the day for portly 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 ladies in upper-class Killarney. The third member of her staff, Jo-Jo the gardener, knew little about anything, other than 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 a multitude of seeds in her huge garden, regardless of whether a thunderstorm happened to be in the offing. More important for her than Jo-Jo, though, 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 around making tempestuous love to his girlfriends on her bed), while the rest of the furry felines whiled away their days in a cattery situated in the front garden. I lived three floors below Mrs L’s turreted bed chamber (and Modeste’s room of tempestuous love), amongst the mansion’s sturdy, ant-ridden foundations, in what was a kind of subterranean cavern, which I shared at night with a number of Parktown prawns that terrorized 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 would shout. ‘Me too!’ she would shout back, waving a much-ringed hand. ‘Talk to them, talk to them like I do, my boy.’ It seemed like an ingenious way of saving money on insecticide.

In comparison to Westcliff in north Johannesburg, where things sparkled like things tend to do in Beverly Hills, everything in orange-earthed Rosettenville in south Johannesburg looked terribly humdrum and ordinary. It was here in a pair of detached cottages that chain-smoking composer Sid Ledbetter lived with his parents. In January 1980 I drove Sid and the elderly couple 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 just off Rissik Street, which resulted in Sid and me having to drag the old couple up everestian escalators, which quite naturally were out of order (so typically South African!). Our endeavours to get his parents back 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 having been placed in the stalls downstairs), awaiting the arrival of the Republic’s iconic conductor, Dr Anton Hartman. Once Hartman arrived and Sid’s concerto got underway problems of balance quickly surfaced, as the soloist struggled to disentangle himself from a plethora of horns, trombones and timpani that had ganged up against him from his first entry; raging, roaring, bellowing, refusing to allow him to have anything like his fair say.

As we sat in our box, Sid grew 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 concerto elicited rapturous applause from an appreciative Johannesburg public. During the second half of the concert, the Scandinavian concert master played the violin solo in Brahms’s First Symphony with so much expression that Sid felt compelled to nudge me, asking why his Canadian soloist hadn’t played his piece with the same conviction. I could have told him why, but thought it better to remain silent.

After the concert, and minus his parents, who had returned home in a taxi, we drove to the concert reception in Emmarentia, where a rather disorientated Sid got stuck into a number of canes before quietening down and becoming introspective. On our way home I got lost and drove around south Johannesburg for over three hours before locating the Ledbetter cottages, then headed back to my subterranean cavern in Westcliff.

Some years later, after I had moved back to the Cape, Sid featured in an article in a Johannesburg Sunday newspaper, which declared him to be a musical genius. He showed me the article when I visited him in September 1984. As I looked intently at his photo, I noticed it was one of a very young Sid. Rather unwisely I mentioned this anomaly to him. He rose from his chair, grave and determined, and, as if in a trance, led me by the arm to the front door, indicating with a limp hand where the front gate could be found. With a profound sigh of regret he explained how things stood between us, indeed how they stood between him and the rest of mankind, adding, for the comfort of my chastened spirit, that he was ‘withdrawing from the world for good’.

He has certainly kept his word.

Although Sid later became a detractor of mine (two-faced people sometimes passed on his insinuations), I owe him a debt of gratitude, because it was he who made me aware of how important it was to be serious when writing music in the stultifying socio-political climate of the day.

Each week, after I had returned to Cape Town in March 1980, a long airmail letter would arrive from Johannesburg. It was these thought-provoking, egocentric letters that provided me with a powerful source of comfort, amusement and stimulation in the years that followed. Sadly, I never received another one after September 1984.