” ‘Timber!’ Big Hettie screamed as the crowd went
berserk. I had just witnessed the final move in a
perfectly wrought plan where small defeats big. First
with the head and then with the heart. To
the very end Hoppie had been thinking. I had learned
the most important rule in winning… keep thinking.”
‘A cow has eight stomachs but I, alas, have one. A cow must keep on chewing but I, my dear, am done.’
‘Life is all beginnings and ends. Nothing stays the same, lad,’ my granpa said at last. Then he puffed at his pipe and seemed to be examining his fingernails which were broken and dirty from gardening. ‘Parting, losing the thing we love the most, that’s the whole business of life, that’s what it’s mostly about.’
He would often use an analogy from nature. ‘Ja, Peekay, always in life an idea starts small, it is only a sapling idea, but the vines will come and they will try to choke your idea so it cannot grow and it will die and you will never know you had a big idea, an idea so big it could have grown thirty metres through the dark canopy of leaves and touched the face of the sky.’ He looked at me and continued, ‘The vines are people who are afraid of originality, of new thinking; most people you encounter will be vines, when you are a young plant they are very dangerous.’ His piercing blue eyes looked into mine. ‘Always listen to yourself, Peekay. It is better to be wrong than simply to follow convention. If you are wrong, no matter, you have learned something and you will grow stronger. If you are right you have taken another step towards a fulfilling life.’ He would sigh and squint at me. ‘Experts, what did I tell you about experts, Peekay?’ ‘You can’t always go by expert opinion. A chicken, if you ask a chicken, should be stuffed with grasshoppers, mealies and worms.’ Always you should go to the source, to the face of the rock, to the beginning. The more you know, the more you can control your destiny. Man is the only animal who can store knowledge outside his body. This has made him greater than the creatures around him. Everything has happened before, if you know what comes before then you know what happens now. Your brain, Peekay, has two functions; it is a place for original thought, but also it is a reference library, use it to tell you where to look and then you will have for yourself all the brains that have ever been.’
I had been enrolled at the local school when the new term began at the end of January. Six was the starting age for Grade One, but after a few days it was clear that my year spent in a mixed-age class at boarding school had put me well ahead of the rest of the kids. I was pushed up to Grade Three where I easily held my own against kids two years older than me. Doing the Judge’s arithmetic, my early grounding in reading, a comprehensive understanding of Afrikaans in a classroom of English-speaking kids coming without enthusiasm to the language for the first time, and Doc’s demand from our first day that I write up my field notes all gave me a hugely unfair advantage. I might possibly have been elevated even further but for the embarrassment it would have caused.
I quickly earned a reputation, rather unjustly, for being clever. Doc had persuaded me to drop my camouflage and not to play dumb. ‘To be smart is not a sin. But to be smart and not use it, that, Peekay, is a sin. Absoloodle!’ I had needed little encouragement. Under his direction my mind was constantly hungry, and I soon found the school work tedious and simplistic. Doc became my real teacher and school was simply time spent between eight and one o’clock when I would rush from the classroom to his cottage hidden in the cactus garden.
‘School had one disadvantage. I was two classes higher than my age group and so friends were hard to make. The kids of my own age thought of me as a sort of freak and in fact, with my early school background and now my prison experience, I was a lot tougher than any of them. Doc and the jaw incident had made me somewhat of a celebrity but I kept mostly to myself, being a shy kid and the smallest in my class. I acquired a reputation for superiority without having to earn it and so was left pretty much alone. I wasn’t aggressive, and when a challenge came from a boy called John Hopkins and his partner Geoffrey Scruby, supposedly the two toughest kids in my class, I tried to avoid the fight they demanded, mostly because I was arrogant enough to believe that my status as future world welterweight champion made it inappropriate for me to be a street fighter. The Judge and even the jury had been so much tougher than these two that it never occurred to me actually to be frightened of them. The English-speaking kids at school had no idea of my boxing or prison background, as the small contingent of Afrikaans kids in the school seldom mixed with the English and almost never spoke with them, other than to challenge them to fight. The two ten-year-olds badgered me for some days and so I took the problem to Geel Piet, who immediately understood my dilemma. Small boss, it is always like this. This is what you must do. You must make them feel you are scared. Tell them, no way man. Tell them you don’t want to fight. Let them get more and more cheeky, more and more brave. Even let them push you around. But always make sure this happens when everyone is watching. Then after a few days they will demand to fight you and they will name a time and a place. Try to look scared when you agree. You understand?’ Geel Piet held me by the shoulders and looked me straight in the eyes. ‘More fights are lost by underestimating your opponent than by any other way. Always remember, small baas, surprise is everything.’
‘She (librarian) badgered friends and people coming into the library for clothes and these she sent off to needy families, even sometimes sending off a postal order of her own to a prisoner’s family. She referred to prisoners as ‘Innocents, the meat in the ghastly sandwich between an uncaring society and a vengeful State’.
‘Inside all people there is love, also the need to take care of the other man who is his brother. Inside everyone is a savage, but there is also happening tenderness and compassion.’ Doc sighed and took out his bandanna and wiped his face as though trying to wipe the prison atmosphere from his skin. ‘When man is brutalised in such a place like this always he is looking for small signs. The smallest sign that someone is worried for him is like a fire on the dark mountain. When a man knows somebody cares he keeps some small place, a corner maybe of his soul clean and lit.’
I do not understand/or believe in the following quote completely, though in parts I agree:
‘When I first told Doc about the concerted prayer campaign for the removal of Marie’s pimples, he suggested that I advise her to eat lots of salad, no fat, and lean meat only, twice a week. Marie tried it, found she liked it better than the stodgy hospital food, and kept to this diet fairly diligently. When I told him of the cure through prayer he declared that some things were too mysterious for words. I thought about it a little more and finally made the connection between the diet and the cure, and I asked him why he hadn’t pointed out the possibility of the change in diet making the difference. ‘Peekay,’ he said, ‘in this world are very few things made from logic alone. It is illogical for a man to be too logical. Some things we must just let stand. The mystery is more important than any possible explanation.’ He paused for a moment and tapped his fingers on the edge of the keyboard. ‘The searcher after truth must search with humanity- Ruthless logic is the sign of a limited mind. The truth can only add to the sum of what you know, while a harmless mystery left unexplored often adds to the meaning of life. When a truth is not so important, it is better left as a mystery.’ It was an answer which left me confused for some years, for Doc worshipped the truth and had always demanded it between us at any cost.’
‘Cleverness is a false presumption,’ Doc had explained, ‘it is like being a natural skater, you are so busy doing tricks to impress that you do not see where the thin ice is and before you know, poof! You are in deep, ice-cold water frozen like a dead herring. Intelligence is a harder gift, for this you must work, you must practise it, challenge it and maybe towards the end of your life you will master it. Cleverness is the shadow whereas intelligence is the substance.’
He passed me a stick of Spearmint and commenced talking again. ‘Now my theory is that to beat any system you have to know it intimately. Rebellion is senseless and being pointedly different only leads to persecution, the only way to control any system is from inside it the way the Jews have always done.”It didn’t seem to help them with Hitler,’ I said. I didn’t know much about the Jews in Nazi Germany but Miss Bornstein had told me a little and had added that Old Mr Bornstein actually felt guilty for escaping the Holocaust. ‘A-ha, that was different. Hitler’s Nazi party presented an impossible problem for the Jews of Germany. After all, you can’t undermine a system from within when you’re excluded from it in the first place, can you?’
As is so often the case with a legend, every incident has two possible interpretations, the plausible and the one which is moulded to suit the making of the myth. Man is a romantic at heart and will always put aside dull, plodding reason for the excitement of an enigma. As Doc had pointed out, mystery, not logic, is what gives us hope and keeps us believing in a force greater than our own insignificance.
The boarders put my privileged position down to my near fraternal attitude to the school servants, which nicely explained their anxiety to help me. I was, I was beginning to understand, a natural leader, and leaders, I have found, need never explain. In fact the less they explain the more desirable they become as leaders. Except to Doc, I had never been given to explaining myself and this was taken as strength by those who followed me. In truth, my reluctance to share my feelings was born out of my fear as a small child when I had been the only Rooinek in the foreign land of Afrikanerdom. I had survived by passing as unnoticed as possible, by anticipating the next move against me, by being prepared when the shit hit the fan to take it in my stride, pretending not to be hurt or humiliated. I had learned early that silence is better than sycophancy, that silence breeds guilt in other people. That it is fun to persecute a pig because it squeals, no fun at all to beat an animal which does not cry out. I had long since built the walls around my ego which only the most persistent person would ever manage to climb.
I must say, while Mango Cobett was a bit of a buffoon and a terrible snob, Singe ‘n Burn, the head, had taken care to staff the school with liberal thinkers. He was less interested in turning out what he referred to as ‘the private school product’ than he was in encouraging individuals to emerge. He would refer to his idealised person as a Renaissance man. A boy who delighted in learning for its own sake, the inspired amateur in the gifts of the body and the spirit. The complete man, superior by virtue of his curiosity and the careful nurturing and harvesting of his gifts. A man who was modest and unassuming because he had no need to hide his thoughts or his deeds from others, nor had he the need to seek their approval.
As a fighter he had the edge over a boxer, the aggressor moving relentlessly forward is a crowd pleaser and a partisan crowd is apt to forget the winner is the guy who lands the most clean punches. I hoped the ref was good enough to call it correctly but with a home crowd like this a close decision in my favour would get us lynched.
On the way back in the bus I turned to Hymie. ‘You haven’t answered my question.”What question?”Was today a set-up?’ Hymie looked down at his hands, ‘Technically no. But when you bring the right elements together you’re entitled to expect a predictable outcome.’
I had steeled myself to win so often that, in my mind, a single loss in the ring would have meant that I would not become the welterweight champion of the world. A childish concept perhaps, but nonetheless one which was bound with steel wire through my resolve. I had even taught myself never to consider the consequences of losing a fight. Too much cross-referencing of consequence robs the will of its single-minded concentration to win. While this fanatical resolve never to be beaten may have been a sign of immaturity, the sophistication I brought to the task of winning I was to see adopted by sports psychiatrists throughout the world in later years.
The power of one is above all things the power to believe in yourself, often well beyond any latent ability you may have previously demonstrated. The mind is the athlete; the body is simply the means it uses to run faster or longer, jump higher, shoot straighter, kick better, swim harder, hit further or box better. Hoppie’s dictum to me: ‘First with the head and then with heart’ was more than simply mixing brains with guts. It meant thinking well beyond the powers of normal concentration and then daring your courage to follow your thoughts.