Harold Strachan's Last Word

Last Word - Harold Strachan

Everyone is asking: what has happened to Harold? After June (nose236) nothing. Harold Strachan’s Last Word has been the favourite read for thousands of our regulars ever since nose26 back in 1999. The lamentable news is that at the age of 93 he has finally opted for retirement, departed his modest flat in Durban’s Berea and taken up residence in a care home. From which a message via matron emerges: “The only thing I am good at right now is lying down”.

However, the matchless scribe promises to “write the occasional piece when I feel up to it”.

The moment brings to mind an excerpt from his column in February 2018 (nose220), recounting his first solo flight in a Tiger Moth at 18, fresh out of Maritzburg College and in pilot training at SAAF No 8 Air School in World War II.

“You drive this aeroplane like a shitcart,” says Bertie. “I’m getting out. Taxi back to the fence here.”
At the fence I stop and he dumps his parachute pack on the grass, plants his fat bum upon it and lights a fag. I sit there in the Tiger and look at him. He waves me away soundlessly, telling me to voetsak. Which I do.
It seems this Tiger hates waddling around on the ground, but we’re soon at the downwind end of the field. I turn her into the wind and open the throttle wide. In a few seconds her tail is up and she’s nipping tiptoe over the tufts of grass and my ears are filled with the loud hollow drumming of it, she’s resonant as a guitar with her wood-and-fabric construction. Then abruptly the drumming stops and it’s really happening: I’m flying solo! I nudge the stick back at forty-five knots and without Bertie’s freight of flesh aboard she springs so wildly into the air that I have to push her down again and hold her just off the grass, then pull back slowly, and elegantly she sails up to a thousand feet as if she has just risen from the hand of Noah."

Harold went on to fly bombers, which as far as Govan Mbeki was concerned qualified him to become Umkhonto we Sizwe’s first bomb-maker. As an anti-apartheid activist living in Port Elizabeth under the name of Jock Lundie with his first wife Maggie von Lier, Harold was called upon to demonstrate his bomb-making abilities to MK commanders by blowing up a beach toilet. This drew the comment from one senior cadre: “Comrade, if we’re going to conquer all South Africa one shithouse at a time we’ll all be in the grave before liberation.”

His home-made bombs were planted at electrical substations and railway lines, but “Jock” was finally caught when one of his trainees was tortured into giving up his address. Harold was found guilty of sabotage on 8 May 1962 and sentenced to six years imprisonment, with three years suspended. He served 13 months of his sentence in solitary confinement at Pretoria Central (favourite prison reading: Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy), and had all his teeth removed.

On his release he gave a frank account of prison life to the Rand Daily Mail’s Benjamin Pogrund, which on publication earned Harold a further two-and-a-half years in the slammer under the Prison Act – reduced to one year via an amnesty.

Before all that, Harold ran his first Comrades Marathon in 1949 and the following year won a scholarship to the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts in London, followed by a course in painting restoration at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart.

He was delivered to Noseweek by Oxford Journalism Fellow William Saunderson-Meyer (collector of used wine bottle corks, occasional book reviewer for Noseweek at the time and, since then, author of the iconic Jaundiced Eye column). Harold’s first column was headlined “Opening Salvoes” and began: “I’m so bloody old now I can remember Shirley Temple and Joe Louis, and Neville Chamberlain declaring war on Adolf Hitler …"

Yes, Harold was writing that in May 1999, 20 years ago! The column went on: “Hell, I can remember ducktails, man! …But the only rich ducktails were in Hollywood. Ronald Kasrils was a boy-next-door type ducktail.

What followed was an eye-opening portrait of Kasrils as Harold had known him in youth, contrasted with his (by then) image as a worthy senior politician.

The astrant (Afrikaans: cheeky/impudent) Harold – so-called by the cops who arrested him way back when – was a hit with the vast majority of Noseweek readers from the start. “One thing I haven’t got is reverence or piety,” he told one interviewer. Noseweek was a perfect fit.

Astrant for sure. But never cruel with it. His columns have provided a gentle, humane, often nostalgic end to a Noseweek read after the shock-horror of the main body’s scandals and revelations.

We thank you, Harold, and wish you well. When you are strong enough and feel so inclined, please do write us another column!

Meanwhile, to celebrate his contribution, we take you down memory lane with some vintage Strachan:

I suddenly get this surprise phone call, tinkle tinkle, and a voice of pure honey with an Indian flavour says the owner of it is Vasantha and she is from the Durban University of Technology and she wants to know if I would mind if this university were to confer a doctorate on me. Hell no, say I with my Jaap accent, I have been called many things in this life: Opblaser, Traitor and Madman, plus a few I wouldn’t want to put to paper even in Noseweek, so being called Doctor would be a nice change, thanks. What for? I ask. I don’t know, says Vasantha, I just work here.

So I hang up and set to wondering what technological thing I have done to deserve such honour, and the only one I can remember happened half a century ago, in Port Elizabeth. I was in PE because in Durbs there was a warrant for my arrest, see, a sort of fatwa, and here I was trying to earn an honest crust somehow, with small success, when Govan Mbeki surprisingly phoned and summoned me to his wee office on the main drag: he had work for me. Callooh callay! Luck at last!

Well now, says Oom Gov, we have checked up on you in Durban and they say you’re okay so now I want you to join the Communist Party and help with the armed struggle which is about to start, called Umkhonto we Sizwe, Spear of the Nation. Okay, say I, why not? I’ve been kicked out of my job for my politics and I’m sore pissed off with the regime. Yes, says he, Durban tells me that you were a bomber pilot in the war so now I want you to form a technical committee and invent explosives and design bombs.

Hell, Gov! I exclaim, we didn’t make our own bombs in the Air Force, man, we bought them from a bomb factory. But you know what bombs look like and I hear you have matric chemistry, says he. A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. He turns to a Xhosa bloke with an English name, Joseph Jack, and says to him, Jack, you are a photographer so you know all about chemicals and I want you to be the other comrade on this committee.

Hell, Gov! says Jack, I know enough about chemistry to put sodium chloride on a fried egg. Good start, says Gov, have faith. Gov, say I, how many months which is to say years do we have for this job? Six weeks, says he. Six weeks! Jack and I cry in unison. Have faith, says Gov. So we go off and drink a certain amount of booze and have faith like anything and set-to with the chemicals. Down the coast from PE, where there’s a heavy infestation of Port Jackson Willows and no people, we demolish great swathes of this beach flora with our testing. Damn nigh demolish ourselves too, and pretty soon we report back. There y’are, Gov, we say, five weeks and six days.

Mazel tov, comrades! says Gov, I’m proud of you, and it isn’t until after years and years that I stumble out of prison and realise this fiendish explosive Jack and I had invented was in fact ordinary old farm fertiliser which we could have bought for R10 a bag from any old backveld supply store. Ammonium nitrate. I mean it’s only last week that I’m standing in the special check-out queue for old toppies at the Musgrave PnP and there, next to me, is a little display for enthusiastic city gardeners, you know: roses, pretty cacti etc, and on the floor I espy a pile of plastic bags full of lawn fertiliser... horror... you guessed it... NH4NO3, and if there were a careless welder around who accidentally brought a spark of 2,000°C to this lot all of PnP would instantly disappear – indeed the entire Musgrave Centre implode. I clutch at the counter and the nice checkout girl asks me if I want one of the Disprins she specially keeps for wobbly old toppies.

Now here I sit with my son Joe, and he says to me: So it wasn’t for that piece of technology that you’re getting the Hon Doc. Indeed indeed, say I, but I can’t think of anything else I did.

Well maybe it is for something you didn’t do, says he. Wodjer mean? say I, you don’t get this for nothing. Well you didn’t bugger off overseas when you came out of boep, says he, you were a proper pain in the arse of the regime and I remember when I was 10 years old sitting down to supper with a forkful of sos-and-mash on its way to my mouth when a bullet passed so close between sos and mouth I could feel the shock wave.

And do you realise, says he, that the old Natal Technical College which fired you for your politics when you were on your way to Head of Department has now become the Durban University of Technology?

Good heavens above! I exclaim, you mean I can look on this as a friendly act of appreciation, hey? Indeed indeed, says he. Ooo I must say I like that touch, say I. To spite the old regime, like.

When I was a kid I came one night upon a reedbuck in his nest, cosily sleeping, I suppose, until my crafty footfall alarmed him and he leapt off in utter panic, crashing half awake through the long grass with furious thumping and falling about, and that shrill whistle that reedbuck give. I went to where he’d been lying and for the first time knew the smell of a wild animal. I felt like a lion. I moved in and sniffed at the flattened grass and lay down on it myself for a bit, it was still warm against the chill winter air. I lay on my back and looked straight along eighty thousand light years of the Milky Way, all two hundred billion stars of it. This was old, old Africa and I was Homo erectus, newly intelligent, newly rational, wondering why in the name of Whomever I was stuck on the outside of this ball of rock and grass in the great grim menace of the cosmos.

And next day the event left my mind entirely; life was so full of the amazing experience of youth I just didn’t have time for such small, delicate memories. But last week I did remember it, and vividly, when I came upon another reedbuck nest.

A few years ago, you see, the Durban City Council decided on an uncommonly imaginative thing, and eco-friendly: to establish along the Berea a sort of migration trail for small beasts and birds, from the Umgeni river north to the Umbilo south, starting obviously in Manning Road which is wide and double-laned with a good wide green corridor down the middle. Only indigenous coastal flora would be planted here, though a couple of flowering Brazilians were allowed to stay because they fitted in rather well, and the posh citizens of Manning Road would bemoan their removal for sure.

HORROR! Never mind the Brazilians, homeless people would move into this jungle strip, said the posh citizens, and sleep there and crap all about and litter the place with unburied stolen toilet paper and steal from their motor cars and washlines and rape folks and they didn’t look nice anyway, they never took a bath.

And what about the mambas, hey? So, the jungle strip got no longer than a couple of hundred metres, and lucky to keep that, there was such a bloody fuss. The undergrowth grew thick, thick and impenetrable, but the municipal mower-man cut a neat winding footpath through it all so folks could take dogs for healthy walks and placate their owners’ ire, though we only once saw an old woman take her Rottie there, for a crap, but she didn’t leave unburied toilet paper all about so I suppose it was okay.

After a while we also saw an extended family of mongooses, about a dozen, and sundry vervets, and a red-lipped herald snake. And birds, as they used to say, for Africa. But my lad Joe and I seem to be the only human beings who ever really use it; it is the safari middle bit of our daily hike. We’ve found loerie feathers, and stuck them in our caps, a panache. There was a dense growth of isikhotha at one spot, rank dry grass almost shoulder-high, and it was there we saw the reedbuck nest.

Hey look, said Joe, something’s been sleeping here! This something had made a sort of channel in the grass, using the crop-circle technique, so from passing cars this nest was invisible and nobody in her or indeed his right mind would go walking there at night because of the rape and mambas and stuff, so it was very private and safe, and comfy too, the pushed-over stalks making a nice springy mattress.

After supper we made a couple of doorstep sandwiches with fried eggs and cheese-and-tomato, also a screw-top jar of tea with three spoons of sugar, and took an extra hike to the safari trail. Mice and small things rustled about, and we heard an owl; it was really dark and spooky, not too many cars at night, and there in the lights of one of them we spied the curled-up form on a piece of plastic.

Joe reaches in and gently grasps an ankle. A muttered Zulu curse from within and a face appears.

Hoosit, umfo, says Joe, would you like a sandwich? Oh man! says the face, and starts chomping right away. Don’t you get cold sometimes? says Joe. When it rains or gets cold I put the plastic on top, says Face. There seems little further to say. Sorry to disturb you, says Joe, and we shove off. Two days later we’re back, hiking again, and the grass is gone. Mowed flat. Maybe the rottie sniffed the wild animal in there, felt like a lion.

Bulwer Park is mowed flat too, where the outies used to sleep; workmen are putting up great floodlights on gumpoles with blade wire three metres up so nobody can get to steal the bulbs. I speak to a Metro policeman watching the workmen work. Where do all these people sleep then? I ask. On the beach, says he. Maybe a nice big tsunami will come one night, hey? says he, wink-wink, nudge-nudge.

Harold taking a rest on one of his walks

One of the dafter mystiques of malehood is that when a male child has grown about three-quarters the size of his father, such father should take him to a special shop where they sell suitable grotesqueries and buy him a frontiersman’s huge hat and bloody big beetle-crusher boots for stomping on snakes and thorns and things, also a deadly sheath knife for skinning the creatures that he and father are going to roast on a thick stick, green so it won’t catch alight over a big stink fire on the ground. Plus a length of thin foam plastic to chuck down on igneous rocks and ants’ nests et cetera for manly sleeping, and a bag to kip in but no pillow. You put the boots under your head at night so later on when you’ve been employed twenty years in a sanitised office you can hold your own against all true men in the gym and quite truthfully say what a rugged male upbringing you had.

So my boy hits fourteen and he comes home from school one day where another laaitie is just back from canoeing in a North American First Nation- type birch-bark canoe ’mongst the hippos of St Lucia, that beast well known to every frontiersman as the #1 killer of human beings in all of Africa. And Joe now reckons it’s time for him to get out into primæval Gondwanaland somewhere for such a bushwhacker’s bar mitzvah, as it were. So we buy the boots and slosh them all over with hot beeswax and turpentine to make them waterproof for wading ’mongst the Vuzimanzi river rinkhalses and bloodsucking leeches and he stomps off to school in them for a couple of weeks so they’re nice and soft; meanwhile we pore over certain contour maps of the Drakensberg for a good tough haul to the top, how about up Gray’s Pass to Champagne Castle, hey? Ten-and-a-half thousand feet should tighten up his musculature and character.

Gray’s is a daunting experience, I describe my shock and awe at first seeing it; he lifts his chin and breathes deeply. I am ready, says he. But why do you have no records of it? No photographs, no sketches?

True, true, say I, a lapse indeed, but let us not make such a mistake this time; so we’re off to the CNA for small sketch-pads to fit the pouches of our safari clothing, plus good 6B soft pencils and a nice soft eraser. Then at an outdoorsman’s emporium where we buy the small, strong tent. We find also a pocket-size birdwatching book and one called Flora of the Drakensberg, all v. scientific, also a dinky little camera for recording the whole trip in every detail.

We load our expedition gear in the Beetle the evening before, with photo-flash pics. The ladies of the family smile and wave farewell in a posed shot. The next day we depart when neither the sun nor the ladies are yet up and about. We plan to breakfast halfway to the contour path that runs below the krantzes, at a big flat rock called Arthur’s Seat; we’re off at about four and we’re at the Berg at dawn.

There’s that old thrill again, the pulse quickens, the nostrils dilate! I note young Joe falling easily into the rhythm of yomping a heavy rucksack uphill. We have everything light, including the food: powdered potato, sun-dried tomatoes, milk powder, Marmite in a plastic bag, that sort of thing. But our first breakfast is heavy, boerewors, it’s the departing treat before the combat rations.

We make a nice braai at Arthur’s Seat and put on the boeries and wander about with the flora book and the camera and follow certain baboons for a couple of first-class shots, but we get so engrossed we forget the breakfast and when we get back to it, dammit, man, the boeries is burnt! I mean black, twisted up, ashes. We settle for matzos with Marmite and laugh it off. Life is about more important things, we leave the boeries to the baboons.

We push on. Excelsior, ever onwards, ever upwards! At the contour path Joe says Hang on! and grips my sleeve. He points. Up there is a bird we have never seen. It circles about, ridge-soaring. It is a hadeda, say I. But hadedas don’t soar, says he, they flap. We grab the bird-book. It is not there. I think we have here a sub-species, say I, a Mountain-Hadeda, it can only be a hadeda with a long curved beak like that! True true! he cries, perhaps we can get it named after us: Ibis strachanensis. Make a quick sketch while I get out the camera! say I, and why didn’t we remember to bring binoculars too, the first instrument of every birdwatcher? The local game ranger comes by. He has his binocs, of course; we rush up to him and point. He puts the binocs to his eyes. It is a pied crow with a piece of boerewors in its beak, says he.

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Submitted by : Niki Moore of Durban on 2019-09-01 16:27:39
I would like to suggest that you simply dig in your archives every month and print a re-run of one of Harold's previous columns. Just as television sitcoms live for ever on DSTV, so can Harold live forever in the pages of Noseweek.
Submitted by : CASEY on 2019-08-28 18:44:36
It would be a wonderful tribute to this legend in his own time if we had a collection of all his "Last Words" in one folder.Re-reading the excerpts reminded me of how much I enjoyed all his contributions. I derived as much pleasure on the second reading as I did the first time.
Submitted by : Phil on 2019-08-27 06:23:26
Since Harold starting writing for Nose, while reading it I have known that, no matter how good the articles, the best was always yet to come. It added anticipation to the enjoyment, and never once did he let me down. I can only add my good wishes to the thousands that you will receive, and my very best wishes to Harold, whom I regard as the friend that I never met - but wish I had.


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