‘Lost on the Map’ — A memoir of colonial illusions
Bryan Rostron’s one grandfather was editor of the Sunday Times, and later of the Rand Daily Mail, at that time a voice of the Randlords — his other grandfather worked for the Communist Party and printed revolutionary pamphlets for the 1922 Rand Revolt. His father managed the South African boxing team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where their star boxer, Robey Leibbrandt, was recruited by the Nazis. ‘Lost on the Map’ is published by Bookstorm.
The map of memory
The only time I saw my father cry was when he was nearly 80. As an ex-South African amateur middleweight champion and former war correspondent, Frank was not a demonstrative man. Even more startling, this uncharacteristic display of emotion was precipitated by an event which had occurred over half a century before.
There was no warning. One moment he was talking about something quite commonplace when, seemingly unnoticed by the old man himself, he began to weep. Waxy tears, oddly from only one eye, slithered slowly and pitilessly down Frank’s rosy, crinkled cheek.
My father seldom permitted a crack in his defences. As a young man he had fought exhibition bouts against several of the greatest boxing champions, including British world welterweight champion “Kid” Lewis, the former world heavyweight champion Primo Carnera and Young Stribling, the chivalrous American, who — starting with his mother, Ma Stribling, as trainer — fought a record 286 professional contests. Although rated by many as one of the best heavyweight boxers of all time, Stribling abhorred violence and died young in a motorcycle accident.
In old age, Frank stubbornly fought to the end never to drop his gruff self-protective guard. Yet he’d begun to be less combative, no longer so insistent on always being right. Instead, he was increasingly inclined to remember episodes from the past. On that winter evening at my parents’ home, there was little change at first in his voice as he suddenly switched subject and started to recall an incident that had occurred when he was a young reporter on The Star.
My father was a natural reporter; energetic, gregarious, wily and curious. At the time he was 23, covering the gamut of news from crime to tedious municipal meetings. But thanks to his athletic prowess, Frank also wrote about sporting events. On this particular occasion, he was reporting on his first cricket Test match: a major opportunity for a still-junior member of staff.
Frank stared straight ahead as though my mother and I weren’t there. The Test match against Percy Chapman’s English touring side took place over the Christmas period of 1930, at the Old Wanderers Ground in Johannesburg. Long since moved and rebuilt, the Old Wanderers’ cricket stadium was then situated where Johannesburg’s main railway station stands today, a convenient 10-minute brisk walk away from The Star. It was the first of five Test matches, a highly anticipated contest, as three years before at the same ground South Africa had lost against the previous English visiting team by a resounding 10 wickets. By December 1930, sports-obsessed white South Africa was keyed up to avenge that humiliating defeat.
It was a nerve-wracking trial for the ambitious young journalist.
Working for an afternoon paper, his task was to type fast and dispatch his report without delay to The Star in Sauer Street. There was, he said, a system of “runners” to relay “copy” back to the newspaper for changing afternoon editions. In South Africa, this job was done by black Africans. The pace was frenetic. The reporter had to type at top speed, then the “runner” cycled back to the office as fast as possible. There were no bylines, and as the Test match reports for successive afternoon editions covered four long broadsheet columns, it is likely they were compiled by more than one reporter.
Frank stylishly looked the part. There are black and white photos of him in wide-shouldered suits, snap-brimmed hat tilted jauntily as he stares back with the poise of a Hollywood-style newshound who perpetually wisecracks out of the side of his mouth.
In December 1930, with huge public interest, there was considerable tension to meet deadlines. The see-saw drama is caught in the headlines. On the first day the sports page initially lamented, “South African wickets fall cheaply”, followed by the “City Late” edition’s, “South Africa’s disaster”. But the next afternoon saw a complete reversal, “England’s collapse”, and a few hours later, “Thrilling Springbok third wicket stand”. On the final day, The Star heralded, “Test fluctuation and thrills”, while the evening edition was able to crow, “Springboks’ brilliant win”.
There was, recounted Frank, one particular “messenger boy”: an older man, a sports fan who had followed my father’s boxing career closely. This “old man” often discussed boxing with him, or asked Frank who he tipped to win a title fight.
It was disconcerting sitting at the dinner table, listening to my father as he wept openly. There was no self-pity. He made no attempt to wipe away the tears. He spoke calmly, evidently feeling compelled to relate this memory accurately and factually. He clearly recalled the occasion as vividly as though it had happened the previous day. It was, he said, the worst thing he ever did.
On that day the black messenger made some mistake, what I don’t recall. Perhaps in his haste he had dropped and lost the typed article. The result was that the older man had to confess that Frank’s deadline had been missed. My father, who had a quick temper, lost control.
In a fury, he lashed out. That young white man, the ex-South African junior middleweight boxing champion, punched a black messenger whom he himself described as old. He hit him in the face.
The old black man, said Frank, simply stood there. For a while he was silent. Then he began to cry. Not from pain, continued Frank. From shock and disappointment. Tears streamed down the old man’s face, and he shook his head disbelievingly.
“Oh baas,” he whispered. “Oh baas, ooh my baas…”.
There was nothing that any black man could have done. Even if he had been young and fit, it would have been unthinkable to strike back at a white man. So he stood there, weeping gently. It was at this point that Frank turned to me for the first time, and I remember it precisely as this is the most personal thing my father ever said to me. He had stopped crying, but one side of his face was still wet. Looking me directly in the eye, he repeated, quite firmly, “The worst thing I ever did.”
Stalked by a phantom
Memory, of course, can be fickle. Was the “old messenger” really old? As meeting deadlines depended entirely on speed and stamina, it seems unlikely. Perhaps he just seemed so to an athletic young man.
But “old” was definitely the description, and in my father’s account he takes on an almost allegorical role. What is striking about Frank’s story now is that this African man has no name, no other identification. He is like a figure out of a Greek chorus, faceless and mythic. Simply “the old messenger”.
Nevertheless, that seemingly arbitrary recollection, safely interred for nearly 60 years, distressed my father profoundly, overwhelming him with the injustice of that one fleeting act, committed against someone whose name he could not even recall.
Previously Frank had seldom spoken of his past. Yet as Alzheimer’s exerted its pitiless hold, stripping away some of his tough, even bullying, veneer, this seemed to release a gentler side. It was as though my father’s erratic memory was peeling back calcified accretions of habit to reveal something which had long lain dormant: the potential, always present, that our choices could have been different.
My father died in January 1989, having been rushed to hospital after a heavy fall. He lay in his National Health Service bed, confused and defenceless, most of the time unable to talk. But when he was lucid, he was childishly sweet. Although there were other patients in the ward and a wall-mounted TV blared all day, as Frank steadily faded before our eyes, he thought he was billeted at the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne to report on a tennis tournament.
Afterwards, my mother asked me to go through his old suitcases in their grimy cellar to see what was stored there. Battered, ripped in several places and secured with rope, they were plastered with tags recording over half a century of travel around the world. Inside were folders of forgotten articles, editor’s memos, ancient expense claims, and at least three outraged letters of resignation that were never sent. As well as randomly scattered sheaves from the manuscript of Frank’s uncompleted memoir, there were expired passports and dozens of photographs.
One photo, in particular, startled me.
It appeared to be a snap of myself as a scrawny, fair-haired teenager in the classic boxer’s pose: fists up at the ready, en garde. I studied this snapshot repeatedly, utterly mystified, as I had given up boxing well before the apparent age of that gangly youth posing so self-consciously for the camera. Finally, I understood.
I had known Frank only as burly and broad-shouldered, with chestnut hair and a craggy face. As a boxer, his nose had been broken twice. He had also sustained innumerable scars on his mouth and around the eyes. My father was frequently absent as he reported on sports events across the globe, and when at home he was an intimidating, even overbearing presence; almost, I felt, a stranger. In his memoir, though, I read to my astonishment that as a child he had been sickly, nearly dying from diphtheria. All sport had been forbidden until, after being bullied at school by an older boy called Denby, his father Bill overruled Annie and took Frank to a boxing gym to learn to defend himself.
I also discovered something else from his memoir that he never told me in person, “After half a lifetime spent on the inside of boxing,” he had confessed, “I hope my small son will keep well out of it.”
So despite the likeness, that skinny lad in the photo wasn’t me. It was my father. DM
Bryan Rostron has worked as a journalist in Italy, New York, London and South Africa, writing for Business Day, Daily Maverick, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Spectator, and Private Eye. He was the South African correspondent for the New Statesman and is the author of six books including Robert McBride: The struggle continues, The Ranter’s Guide to South Africa and a novel Black Petals.