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Jo'Burg Days: Do You Read The Obits?

...Then, as the sun sank slowly behind Table Mountain and the bugler played the haunting strains of the Last Post, two sailors carefully hauled down the Union Jack, folded it, and put it away for the night. It was enough to bring tears to the eyes, but as we stood there in our tight cocktail finery and high heels, with the crew stiffly at attention, the heat of the sun-baked flight deck beat through the soles of our shoes and our appreciation of the patriotic nostalgia of the occasion was muted by the desire to go below to ease our throbbing feet and grab something cool to drink....#

Barbara Durlacher, while reading the obituaries of Royal Navy men in The Daily Telegraph, is reminded of golden days and happy occasions.

To read more of Barbara's first class columns please visit http://www.openwriting.com/archives/joburg_days/

I can’t remember whose practice it was to read the obituary columns of his daily newspaper before anything else, but every morning his eye searched for his name. If it was not included, he felt he could get on with his day, as it meant that he was not dead yet! Apocryphal as this story no doubt is, it is worth repeating and could easily be attributed to the legendary Louis B Mayer who was the source of acute observations often disguised as off-beat humour.

The obituaries of the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph are particularly good, and it is fascinating to read the wide range of talents and achievements of those who are commemorated in this way. Also outstanding is the skill of the obituary writers and the amount of research involved in presenting such an intimate and detailed knowledge of the life under review.

Several of these obituaries are records of men who would have been outstanding in any walk of life, but had clearly found their niche in the Navy. Some were brave and courageous; some fearsome in their desire to have complete control of their men in every aspect, and others who dedicated their lives to the Navy or their profession to the exclusion of almost everything else. But one thing that shines out from each obituary is the influence a respected and honoured colleague or mentor had on the formation of each man’s career. Also how skilfully they had been encouraged and placed in positions where they were able to make use of the opportunities that came their way; a sign of a good management structure and a mature society.

Before the British Government closed down the South Atlantic Station in the late 1960s, the big naval ships called at Cape Town for ‘rest and replenishment’ and an eagerly anticipated break from the routines and pressures of shipboard life. Smaller ships called at Simonstown, a small and picturesque port on the southernmost tip of the African continent, and these visits were much enjoyed by locals and sailors alike. Frequently when a ship was in harbour, it was the Navy’s custom to offer gracious hospitality to their hosts, usually in the form of a cocktail party. Municipal dignitaries and those with connections with the navy were invited, along with as many pretty girls as possible.

During those Cape Town years of the early 1960s-70s, I was entertained on various naval ships in Simonstown when it was still the headquarters of the South Atlantic Squadron, and also on ships in Cape Town. With the passing of years I've read the obits of several high-ranking Naval officers whom I met briefly during these short visits, either at a cocktail party on board a frigate or a destroyer, or once or twice, and this was a real social highlight, when a huge aircraft carrier such as HMS Ark Royal visited Cape Town.

The vessels I remember were, amongst others, the Guided Missile Destroyer HMS London to Simonstown, and the aircraft carriers HMS Eagle, Hermes and Ark Royal to Cape Town. Then the ship's Captain (usually an Admiral on a visit of inspection to the South Atlantic Station) held an official cocktail party to which all the dignitaries of Cape Town, including the Mayor with his Chain, and various other officials were invited, along with about 200-300 civilians.

The cocktail party would be held in the aircraft hangers and as the sun began to slide down the western sky guests were asked to move to the middle of the platform to be lifted to deck level to watch the Royal Marines ceremonially ‘Beat the Retreat’. Once we were assembled, the Sergeant Major led the ranked players by twirling his impressively decorated baton, and the marching men played Souza marches, Land of Hope and Glory and other well-known tunes of the British Empah. It was all very spectacular as the Marines in their white tropical uniforms, pipe-clayed belts and white helmets marched up and down in intricate formations.

Then, as the sun sank slowly behind Table Mountain and the bugler played the haunting strains of the Last Post, two sailors carefully hauled down the Union Jack, folded it, and put it away for the night. It was enough to bring tears to the eyes, but as we stood there in our tight cocktail finery and high heels, with the crew stiffly at attention, the heat of the sun-baked flight deck beat through the soles of our shoes and our appreciation of the patriotic nostalgia of the occasion was muted by the desire to go below to ease our throbbing feet and grab something cool to drink.

Obituaries encapsulate a person’s deeds and achievements in a particular way and I am constantly amazed by what quite ordinary people achieve in their lives and how modest many of them are. With the population ageing, some of the most interesting and exciting obituaries are those of people who lived during the Second World War, and one wonders if today’s music-crazed and communications-obsessed young would have the same endurance, courage and inventiveness of the heroes of two generations ago.

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