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Poetry Pleases: Johannesburg

Mike Cunningham brings a sombre word portrait of life in present-day Johannesburg, once the most vibrant and well-run city in Africa, but now sliding into chaos, crime, filth and degradation.

Mike lived in the city for 15 years and was proud of what had been achieved by its builders. His words were prompted by an evocative prose-poem by regular Open Writing contributor Barbara Durlacher who described the Johannesburg of yesteryear.

Both Mike's and Barbara's words appeared in editions this week of the online newspaper OhmyNews International.

The stinking garbage thrown from the fourth-floor veranda,
the used needles glinting in the sunlight.
The sirens of police and ambulance as they hurtle towards another murder scene,
the smiling faces of the well-guarded politicians.

The sullen stares of the crowds on the corners and pavements,
the sunshine reflected on the gun ready for instant use,
laid out ready on the car front seat;
The AIDS ravaged families at the burial of their own.

The rape victim's sobs as she lies bleeding in the dust,
The highlit plans for the World Cup football stadiums, alongside the grim murder statistics for that month;
and the bodies piled up in the morgue.

The plans for a modern apartment-style high-rise are unveiled, with both flourish and pride.
The hoped-for tenants and purchasers are busy queuing for delayed passports and visas.
The foreign diplomats beg for extra protection from the savage attacks.
The A.N.C. politicians smile from behind their multi-layered bodyguards' weaponry.

The ordinary black families, who stood, queued and voted 10 years ago,
wonder where it all went wrong;
with senior political figures accused, and sometimes even charged, with corruption.
The Black Empowerment laws bite hard,
and those who comply see their companies degraded and stolen.

The promise that the shanty towns would disappear has come true.
Alas they are now called "Informal Settlements" and are twice as big;
the miniature battlegrounds of "Egoli" schools,
where junior drug-lords battle with each other;
where no-one calls the city "Joey's," because that was a time long past.

The bloody fields of Soweto's Baragwanath Hospital, once the hope of Africa,
overflow with the untended suppurating wounds of the day's casualties.
There is no money to help run this once-busy hospital, and
the doctors and nurses are all leaving, fearful for their own lives.

Remembering those really silly names like "The Rainbow Nation,"
except the primary colors of this rainbow
are the varying shades of red of slowly-drying blood!

The bomber now promoted to police chief,
lies drunken and collapsed in the gutter,
but cellphone photos are confiscated, lest the truth seep out.

Airline staff plug in seatbelts,
and there are call-bell-signs and blankets.
All to get a good night's sleep on the long haul to Europe.
But passports are routinely dismissed as unacceptable;
because of endemic forgery and corruption.

It is where the electricity system is in turmoil,
with no plans for future developments,
with advice that there may be "rolling blackouts," to disguise
breakdowns due to incompetence and crass ignorance.

The once-proud city crouches ever lower.
Raped, robbed and eviscerated by the winner of the first inclusive elections.


Barbara, who lives in Johannesburg, was amazed to discover that expat South Africans all over the world had read her poem, which first appeared in Open Writing in November, 2005. One of her friends heard extracts from the poem beijng read on a local late-night radio station, Barbara phoned and chatted to the announcer. In between taking phone-ins from listeners laughing and crying at the memories the poem evoked, the presenter suggested she read some lines from the poem. Since then she has received phone calls asking for copies of the poem, which seems to have taken on a life of its own.

As I Remember It: Johannesburg of the 30s and 40s

Houses with corrugated iron roofs,
Alternately boiling and freezing as the seasons changed.
Coal stoves and donkey boilers to heat the water.
Icy winters hunched in front of tiny Victorian fires.
Kitchen dressers with cup hooks, metal "zincs" with porcelain washbowls
Linoleum floor coverings; dusty carpet runners in passages.
Coal sacks dumped in grimy backyard sheds
Stables; there were very few cars
Fresh eggs, laid by hens in your own hok
Fruit-trees in the back garden,
And veggies fresh from the soil.
The butcher and the grocer calling for orders
NelsRust Dairies and the daily delivery
Rinsing off the cardboard caps for the milk bottles
Can you hear the tinkle of the ice-cream cart slowly riding the suburbs
And remember how the kids enjoyed the tuppeny lollies?
The Newtown Market for lovely vegetables, poultry and colorful flowers
Noisy auctions and horse-drawn delivery carts waiting for loads.
The long distances between Reef towns before the motorways.
The silences and huge emptiness of the countryside;
Miles of golden grasslands between Jo'burg and Pretoria
And Sandown's gentle country life with its stables and horses;
It was the original "mink and manure" suburb.
Quiet walks in Illovo along sandy tree-lined roads,
"George's" riding stables where an international hotel stands today.
Radiograms and wind-up gramophones; crystal sets with earphones.
Terrible radio reception before FM and shortwave, especially during a Highveld thunderstorm.
Eric Egan and jumping to 7 a.m. "physical jerks," and Lourenco Marques radio.
The wonderful "English-radio" serials. Who can recall "The Man in Black?"
The erudition and Irish charm of Paddy O'Byrne; but this was much later.
The "Three Wise Men," and Sunday afternoon radio plays.
Incredible, roaring hailstorms and stately galleons of cumulus
Drifting down to the Lowveld.

Coir or feather mattresses before innersprings,
Black iron bedsteads, which sagged in the middle.
Wardrobes with long center panel mirrors
Bentwood chairs -- fly-screens on windows.
Washstands with porcelain bowls and jugs;
"Judge" brand saucepans and enamel coffee pots.
Long-drop toilets, cut-up newspapers on a nail on the wall
Mule-drawn carts and the quiet bucket-brigade removing the night-soil.
Chanting gangs of laborers digging trenches to lay pipes and cables
"PUTCO" buses and black cyclists riding to work each day.

A distant train's lonely whistle on a freezing winter's night
Homesick migrant worker seeking comfort in soft music on a mbira [Jew's harp]
Hand-cranked phones and the farm "party-line" and, a
Three-hour wait for a trunk-call.
Plug-in switchboards and the operator's irritated, "Nommer asseblief,"

Stinkwood and Imbuia "ball-and-claw" furniture
Shepherd & Barker, who only sold the best "Sheraton" and "Chippendale" copies
Thelma Brode, who photographed everyone.
Magical Japanese origami which opened under water,
The whiff of incense and the gleam of beautiful fabric from an Indian bridal shop.
Fine suits hand-tailored by skilled Europeans, made
Refugee by Hitler's persecution
Cosmopolitan Hillbrow, cosy Cafe Kranzler and their delicious imported coffee.
Newspapers on sticks, and voices from all over Europe.
The daily crush of hatted and gloved workers
Hurrying down Twist Street when the trams were full.
The designs and colors of Basuto blankets worn by
Homebound mineworkers walking to Park Station.
Led by an Induna, they marched with heads high, singing a song of home.
Sewing machines, paraffin lamps and Prymus stoves
All found their way to the rural kraals together with other, more secret, gifts.

The Italianate beauty of the central court at Park Station and the "Blue Room"
The excitement of the long steam train journeys to the coast
The appeal for aluminium saucepans "for the War Effort"
Digging "Anderson Shelters" in the back garden
General and Isie Smuts and the "Little Man" lapel pin,
It had something to do with raising money.
Knitting socks, balaclavas and scarves for the troops,
The frightening arrival of polio, and children in "iron-lungs"
Majestic white "Institute" on Hospital Hill where they
Discovered the viruses and made serum for snakebite which was used all over Africa.
The original Wanderers Club near Park Station,
The redbrick Victorian buildings of the old Johannesburg hospital

An American model petrol pump at the side of the road,
Hand-cranked, two vertical glass one-gallon tanks in the metal casing
Filling and emptying alternately as the petrol siphons off.
War shortages, and cars converted to run on paraffin.
No white flour, and making butter from "top-of-the-milk,"
Trams and double-decker buses with overhead electric connections
Cream and red were the city's municipal colors.
Agile conductor in navy uniform and cap,
With his silver coin holder, tight bundle of tickets and hand-punch
Pull the cord once to stop. Then "Ting, ting" and we're off again!
Delays while he hooked the electric unit onto the lines with a long
Bamboo pole hidden underneath the bus.
The noise of reversing seats as he slapped them into position
When the end of the line was reached.
Springbok-head logo on SAR train windows;
Shiny green leather bolsters bumping varnished mahogany woodwork,
Smeared black and white photos of Old Cape-Dutch manor houses
"Alle kaartjies, asseblief," as we click-clack over the points, and
The music of the gong signaling lunch and dinner.
Dreary mine towns, coal dust and smuts in your eye.

Lisle stockings, crepe de chine; the first nylons
Max Factor Pancake make-up and Tangee lipstick
"Evening in Paris" scent worn to your first dance.
C-to-C [Cape-to-Cairo] cigarettes at 1/1d for 30, and 2/6d for 50.
A penny, a tickey, a shilling, a half-crown, a florin and a guinea
Parity between Sterling and the South African pound
The "Rand Daily Mail" and "Angela Day" who wrote the "household hints".

Pink penny stamps with the picture of Brittania;
Ha-penny if the envelope was open; telegrams at a penny a word!
Tea-room bios with their continuous performances
American Milk Bars, all chromium and fizz;
The Dolls House at midnight, and double-thick chocolate malteds.
Banana-splits, Coke-specials and hotdogs with yellow mustard
Deanna Durban, Judy Garland, Nelson Eddy, Jeannette Macdonald
Vivienne Leigh and Clark Gable in "Gone with the Wind,"
"The Wizard of Oz," "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs"
"The Chocolate Soldier," "Mrs Miniver," "Blossoms in the Dust" and "Casablanca,"
Swashbuckling Erroll Flynn, darkly handsome Tyrone Power,
The delicate blond beauty of Leslie Howard; Mario Lanza's fine tenor voice
And the legendary Marlene Dietrich.
Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford,
Anne Ziegler, Webster Booth and Ivan Novello,
Wednesday and Saturday matinees, 6d for kids, adults 1/1d.
The Lone Ranger, his trusty horse Tonto and exotic Zorro,
That was when cinema was new -- a real dream factory
"Annie Get Your Gun," "Oklahoma!" and the high-kicking "Tiller Girls,"

Eloff Street trams; and the elegant shops full of
Imported clothes, handbags and shoes.
Saturday shopping at John Orrs and their white-gloved lift-girls: "Going Up!"
Wonderful hats at Stuttafords, and their tearoom,
Where the northern suburbs ladies took tea, and nodded acquaintance to friends.
OK Bazaars' Christmas windows, and "Switching on the lights"
Important enough to be announced in the newspaper.
The yellow haze of mine dust which hung over everything
A winter evening's coal smoke turning the sunsets purple.
The old Olympia Ice-rink and neighboring greyhound track.
The Drive-In cinema on top of a mine dump, and MacPhails filthy coal yard
Where carts pulled by emaciated horses waited for their loads.
Ansteys Art-Deco building, Markhams corner with the clock,
Escom House on Marshall and New Street,
Once the tallest building in the southern hemisphere [it's Gandhi Square today]

Charles Manning and his theatrical sweep of white hair.
"Ag, Pleeze Deddy," and Jeremy Taylor's musical "Wait a Minim"
Leon Gluckman's "King Kong" and "Ipi Tombi" by Bertha Egnos
"Back o' the Moon, Boys," and "Mama Temba's Wedding" ... do you recall?
"Second-show" at the Metro and being shown to your seat
By a uniformed usherette with a torch.
John Massey playing the cinema organ, and singing along to the "bouncing-ball".
Rustling chocolate papers, lacquered hair, tight shoes,
Corsets and fur coats in the Grand Circle
And a thick curtain of cigarette smoke by interval
When the usherette wore a tray to sell ice-creams and lollies
The East African Pavilion and their wondrous curries
Street-corner night-watchman huddled over a brazier.
Sounds of a "Penny-Whistle Boogie" on a frosty night
Remember how the city was always "under construction"?

Bothner's and Gallo's music shops,
Mirror-finished grand pianos and gleaming brass.
The wonderland of the twinkling stars and
Moorish castles at the Coliseum cinema
"His Majesty's Cellars" and their Crayfish Newburg
The Phoenix Beer-hall, a stein of draft beer,
Free bread, "thumb soup" and an enormous veal schnitzel
Unbelievably, the food cost 1/6d.

The "old" Carlton Hotel, focus of every big occasion;
The "Debutante Spring Ball" with double rows of
Elegant white-gowned young ladies and their escorts
Presentations and deep curtsies to the Governor-General
He was the Queen's representative in tailcoat, white tie and all his decorations.
Elegance and luxury at the Langham Hotel,
Where an eight-course formal dinner cost two guineas a couple.
The Criterion, for years the hangout of newshounds, and the
Midday crush for drinks;
Flower sellers near the City Hall and Saturday mornings
Spent exploring the riches of the Johannesburg Central Library.

The original Thrupps in Eloff Street, and their range of fine imported foods
Half-day closing on Wednesdays and three o'clock on Saturday.
The Lutyens-designed Joubert Park Art Gallery with its
Superb collection of paintings and sculpture;
The Edwardian fountain and splendid hothouse, and the spring flower beds.
Picnics at the Zoo; excited children crowding the mounting blocks
For rides on elephants and camels,
Charity fairs at the Zoo Lake "for the War Effort"
Soggots Corner, Publix and Stuttafords in Rosebank.
Gallagher's in Orange Grove full of delicious baked goods.
Narrow roads choked with peak hour traffic
As the city emptied when the shops and offices closed.
Louis Botha Avenue, the only road connecting Pretoria and Joeys
Before the construction of the Ben Schoeman motorway.
The 11-hour drive to Durban before the toll-road was built.

Aaaah ... those really were the days.
If you remember all of these
You are probably as old as I am, and
Cherish our city's heritage as much as I do.


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