Harold Strachan's Last Word

The King's Speech. Peanut gallery

I can’t recall exactly when, but somewhere about 1936 when I was eleven-or-so years old, here in English Middle-Class Colonial Natal, we were all told at school to be sure to listen to the wireless at eight o’clock one certain night because the King was going to speak to his Empire.  It was a great day, but listening had to be at night because that’s when the newly discovered Heaviside Layer became activated a hundred-or-so miles above the Earth, you see. Nobody knew what this layer was made of, some said it was factory smoke, some that it was marie biscuit crumbs, but it allowed shortwave radio signals to bounce off back to the ground far away over the horizon.  Other waves just vanished into space. 

Be that as it may, the SABC did a heroic job and captured all the shortwaves and rebroadcast them as medium waves and now we could all huddle round our wireless sets with great big glowing hot valves set at the 42-metre wavelength and hold our breaths in expectation until suddenly there he was! The King himself! In London! It seemed he was speaking in bed with blankets pulled over his head  and a finger up his nose, but it was him, I mean he, all right, talking to us straight in real time!

Thereafter it became fashionable for small boys whose parents had a wireless to try and speak like that. At school we were taught to write with pen and ink and had blotting paper supplied by the Natal Education Department, and certain boys would roll up bits of this with spit and stick it up their noses, but you could always see the end sticking out a little and this was seen as cheating. But I got lucky. Whilst chomping peanuts and hurtling downhill on my pushbike one fine morn a brittle sort of insect struck my nose and caused me to sneeze violently, blowing one of the nuts which hadn’t yet got chomped clean into my schnoz from behind. I could neither blow it out nor schnork it back. Back at school all gathered round to peer up my nostrils.  I had been an unnoticed figure until now. Now even the big boys looked upon me with awe, I had got it dead right, I spoke with great majesty.

Soon came the Christmas holidays, we were off to the Pretoria half of the family. Here all spoke their English with an Afrikaans accent. Why do you talk so funny? said my Auntie Aggie. Because I have got a peanut up my nose and that’s the way the King speaks, said I. Are you telling me the King sticks peanuts up his nose for fancy speaking, said Auntie Aggie, or are you talking about your Zulu king in Natal? The way she and my Auntie Miems carried on you’d swear it was they who had bloody dynamite up their noses. Aggie said they should sort of hook it out with an unspecified instrument, Miems said they should blow it out with sort of mouth-to-nose, but my ma said that might damage the brain.  I got on with eating my porridge.

 A loud rattle at the front door and here stood Oom Piet Liebenberg who had worked his way up in the railway ranks and was now stationmaster at Park Station in Joburg, and he’d put on a smart dark suit with a silver tie and some nice brilliantine on his hair to visit family in Pretoria with his free train ticket. Hullo all! called Oom Piet.  Harold’s got a peanut up his nose, said Auntie Aggie, and wrung her hands.  Now Oom Piet had been on kommando as a young man and knew all about self-help first-aid, he comes up behind me and lands a helse klap on the back of my head.  There is a monkey-nut in your pap, says he. Oh sis! I cry, it’s all covered in snot! En toe? says he and nips the peanut out of my porridge with forefinger and thumb, hauls out his hanky, wipes it dry and hands it to me.  Plant that in Durban, says he, and by Christmas next year you will have a lovely monkey-nut tree.

Well I did that, but of course no tree grew. I asked my class teacher Miss Fleming who was not only beautiful but wondrous wise why there was no tree. Now that is actually a bean called a groundnut, said she, because that’s where all the beans grow, on the roots, and you have to dig them up. Only the leaves grow above ground. So next Christmas I went straight to Oom Piet and confronted him about his lies. 

Lucky it didn’t grow inside your head, hey, said he, so your brain would’ve been full of leaves and you would’ve gone mad like your blerrie King.


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