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Hugo Truter, Larry , Roline van Zyl and Lizette Rabe
were classmates in the first class of the newly founded
Department of Journalism. The boy in front is Larry's son, Neal.
c/o The Sunday Age, 250 Spencer Street
Melbourne, Victoria. Australia, 2000

Larry Schwartz

Larry Schwartz

Journalist and author of a memoir

Larry Schwartz was born on 24 May 1956 in Cape Town.
He attended SACS (SA College School) in Cape Town matriculating in 1973. He studied at University of Cape Town completing a B. Arts in 1977. Afterwards he took the inaugural honors degree course in journalism at Stellenbosch University, graduating early 1979.
(A shaggy, bearded student in Prof Piet Cillié's course, smoking a pipe. Had no real sense of vocation but gained immeasurably, a career in journalism and wonderful friendships, renewed on a recent trip to SA).
Larry Schwartz lives in outer eastern Melbourne, Australia. He travels by bus and train to the city to work as a journalist, a news and feature writer. Almost the same distance as Stellenbosch to Cape Town.
He is married to Ramola and has two sons, Neal and Rohan.

Acoustic guitar playing with an affection for country blues and Bob Dylan.
Am listening to folky John Gorka as I write this. Must hurry up and buy tickets for Abdullah Ibrahim out here soon. Otherwise, sitting watching the Yarra River near my home, reading on a train, writing an occasional poem, stripping an old weatherboard house with a heatgun, ripping ivy off the fence, being with my wife and sons.

Favourite books:
Can't think of specific favorites. Have favorite poets, including Basho, William Carlos Williams, Breytenbach.
Am getting back into reading the mythologist Joseph Campbell's Primitive Mythology (first of the Masks of God trilogy) but enjoy a range of books, from the crime writer James Lee Burke's In The Electric Mist With The Confederate Dead to music writer Greil Marcus' early book, Mystery Train.

Favourite quote: "To live outside the law you must be honest"
"I know you always say that you agree/ But where are you tonight Sweet Marie".

The Wild Almond Line
Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2000

* * *

It's just a trick of light
that plays on you and me
A sleight of hand that
deals the dark also
Daylight brings/
The flicker keeps us/
Out of sync
in our antipodes

My Father's Eyes

HE'D SIT AT the edge of his bed well into the night, conjuring a haphazard mix of pastel, oil, watercolour, crayon. Anything and everything that would crack and flake and break. Wondrous smears of light and dark on board that were not made to last. Landscapes with huts he imagined must be somewhere out there. Trees with branches bigger than trunks. Portraits of men with charred, potato-like heads. Stick-figures dwarfed by their setting. Blue moons, green suns, yellow skies.

My father was pleased to be compared to some naïve French painter, flattered to be likened to a bona-fide artist of any sort. He never held his own work in high regard, but he certainly took it seriously. He would approach each piece with care and sometimes something remarkable would emerge. Too often, he'd persevere until that something was dulled or gone.

I have a portrait of his that is radiant. The subject could be man or woman; it's hard to know. There's white, yellow, red, orange and purple in the face. The shoulders asymmetrical. One ear high, the other low. The eyes askew, each covered with a chalky film. Blind eyes, not made for seeing. When he showed it to me one night, I said, `Stop. Enough.' He must have thought I knew what I was talking about.

My father's eyes would dance with quiet humour when the expression was otherwise deadpan. Strangers might miss it. But we'd watch them flicker. Those eyes promised an intelligence. You assumed that he must know more than he was letting on.

When I last saw him in the winter of 1987, I promised I'd be back. The boys would be `this tall', I said, gesturing vaguely at some point above my head. I knew I wouldn't stand beside him again. He knew it too. The lie caught at my throat. When I bent down to embrace my father, we both wept.

I'd been fortunate to see him at all. For a while, it seemed I wasn't to be allowed back. I'd lain awake months earlier imagining the streets where I grew up. I saw myself back in suburban Cape Town late one night. Dogs barked as I passed. The click of an ankle betrayed me. Caught between a streetlight and flooD Litt house. Startled by two shadows moving. Both my own. It seemed then that this fancy might be as close as I'd ever get to going home.

I'd applied for a visa but, as the departure date approached, a South African consular official in Sydney, Australia, explained on the phone that my papers had been sent to some department in Pretoria. The form had required me to indicate if I worked or had worked for a media organisation. Damn.

The application was eventually granted on compassionate grounds. I was cautioned not to write about the trip.

My father was gaunt, white-haired, hiding a grimace as he bravely held a grandson on his knee. He seemed so much older than I'd expected. So frail and haggard. The soft features were strained. He didn't need to say he was suffering. The air of innocence that had been his way past midlife gone now that he was dying of leukaemia.

I'd come back to be with him. But this was not neutral ground. His was a world I'd left with some relief. I came back expecting a door to close and entrap me. For so long I'd wanted to leave this place, to get away. When the chance came, I'd seized it.

Six years had passed since the spring afternoon I told him I was leaving. He knew I'd applied to migrate. He'd warned me against being too outspoken; there'd be spies at the Australian consulate to report to South African authorities. I wasn't entirely convinced.

The interview came and went. Weeks passed. I waited to hear if I'd been accepted. Each afternoon, I'd take the winding, stone pathway to a letterbox up against a fence. Stone stairs led down to the road. One day, I opened the wooden lid and saw the Australian consular letterhead. I tore the envelope open. I'd been granted permanent residence, whatever that meant.

My father'd been tuning his silver coupe deluxe: fiddling under the bonnet, revving it then letting it idle. The car had been grey-black when he imported it from France. There were three or four like it in the country. It was his prize. Now he was off, down the bumpy, tarred driveway. I ran past the rose garden. He leaned across the left-hand drive and unlocked the door. We turned right and right again, up a steep incline.

Past massive homes on ample, sloping blocks, hedges and fences that sported security firm signs. It was a clear, sunny day. This was as seductive a patch of opulence as I'd ever see.

I told him I was going. He kept his eyes on the road.

Two of his brothers had settled elsewhere; a third would soon go. And now his second son was on his way. But my father was a patriot. He lived in `God's country'. (`God's butter', to him, was avocado.) He gave no thought to leaving. He couldn't understand why I would want to emigrate. This was a fine country. It had its problems, sure. Every place had. But it had been good to us. It'd be OK. He was so sure of that.

I WAS 25 years old when I flew out of South Africa in mid-February 1982. The prospect of migration was nowhere near as daunting as the military service of the previous two years. My years in the army had reinforced my conviction the country was doomed to destructive impulses. It had made me all the more determined to leave. There had to be a better world elsewhere.

I'd sent a hefty suitcase ahead unaccompanied and took another with me. I had a portable typewriter that jumped spaces, a tape recorder, leather-cased, a Zeiss Icon camera that was brand new when my father bought it in the late 1950s, and a Yamaha classical guitar a friend had received in lieu of payment for helping someone shift house and had `given' me for a few rands. I left boxes of LPs and books with my partner, Ramola, who would soon follow.

I sank back on a flight via Johannesburg and Perth to Sydney, to spend the first few weeks with relatives. No regret in leaving. It was his world then. Now I look back and know that I flattered myself. It was my place too.

The man next to me was a mine engineer. I told him I was travelling. It seemed a fair statement. I have relatives in Canada, America, England, Israel, Australia, South Africa. Grandparents on both sides had come from eastern Europe. One grandfather a hawker on foot, then bicycle, then horse and cart. My father had once been a travelling salesman. We were always moving along.

The engineer had his own thoughts. He let me leave it at that. I studied up on Australia: read a magazine article on kangaroo shooters in the outback. Pictures of beer guts and guns. This was the place I was coming to, apparently. A hard place of long rifles and round men.

The plane flew over dense brick and fibro Sydney suburbs. My father's brother and his family had a house on a steep incline, overlooking the harbour. Another of his brothers was visiting from New York. We sat on the verandah. Ferries idled past. As pretty a sight as I'd ever seen.

Within days I had a job trial with a glossy magazine. One of the editors wondered how long I'd been in the country. `Saturday,' I said.

I received rejection after rejection before securing work as a reporter with a daily suburban newspaper. An $85-a-week one-bedroom unit close to a beach and, later, a cramped granny flat beneath a house were near to water and therefore heaven. I couldn't believe my good fortune. I'd fallen for the place. Sydney Harbour was a wonder. So much blue.

In little more than a year, I found myself on a ferry with an infant in my arms. For the first time, as the ferry rocked in the confluence of ocean and harbour, I thought that now that I was a father there was someone whose survival was more important than my own. (He's sixteen as I write, watching a Metallica concert on video in the loungeroom where I have a computer terminal. The music is loud enough to tempt me to revise the priorities that occurred to me on the ferry that day.)

I picked out a postcard at a sea-front newsagency. It was emblazoned with an Australian flag. `Best bloody country on earth!' it said. Though I resisted the temptation to send it back, I extolled the virtues of Australia to friends and family so much that it must have been annoying. Hardly a glance backwards and rarely a sad thought of Cape Town until I learned how ill my father was.

Just over a year after the 1987 visit, my mother rang. Dad was dying. This time the visa was granted swiftly. Again, I was cautioned not to write about the trip. Soon I was flying somewhere in the black night, waiting in transit in Harare, Zimbabwe. I was somewhere out there when, I'm told, he asked after me and was told I was on my way home.

His had been a slow death. I would not want to have prolonged his suffering just to say goodbye. He'd died in his own bed. The window commanded a view of the slopes of Table Mountain, the contours of his God's country.

When we buried him the next day, a man from the burial society reluctantly opened the coffin in a small room at the cemetery. Some relatives sneaked in behind me. They'd come to our house to watch him die; now they wanted to see him dead. I wanted them out of there. A glimpse of his pale features was enough. I left them with him.

I thought that visit might be my last. I've thought so on each of the three occasions I've been back. Though I hurried to leave, I do feel a nostalgia for my hometown. I've always regarded it as a special place. In an ideal world, I'd get in my car and drive across some line in the darkness, into the light again. Drop in on old friends. Sip coffee. Talk about music, poetry, politics.

I went back with Ramola and our sons, Neal and Rohan, in the summer of 1993-94, a time some blithely tagged `the last white Christmas'. The old white Parliament had been scrapped. South Africans would soon go to the polls for the first democratic elections.

Times had changed, if not in a way my father might have predicted. This time, I needed no visa, carried small notebooks and a tape recorder. I could write about it. I went back looking for odds and ends.

Text by Larry Schwartz, July 2001

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