Poet PJ Philander was born on 25 November 1921. Nearing what would have been PJ Philander’s 100th birthday, his son Peter Harker Philander shares an essay about his father with LitNet readers.
Writing is influenced by the material that the writer reads and studies, but even more strongly by the environment in which the writer lives. This was true in my father’s case. All of his writing was heavily influenced by his experiences.
Writing is influenced by the material that the writer reads and studies, but even more strongly by the environment in which the writer lives. This was true in my father’s case. All of his writing was heavily influenced by his experiences. During the summers of my childhood, our family travelled extensively in southern Africa, ranging from the Cape, around South Africa and Namibia, to as far as Salisbury/Harare in what would become Zimbabwe, and Beira in Mozambique. In 1961, my parents travelled in the United States for three months on an intensive, highly organised tour of educational facilities, visiting nearly all the states and many institutions of higher learning.
The people one meets are as important as the places one visits. My father had a special talent for bringing out interesting aspects in others, and having connected in that way, he maintained the contact over the years.
The people one meets are as important as the places one visits. My father had a special talent for bringing out interesting aspects in others, and having connected in that way, he maintained the contact over the years. Letter writing was a craft that he and my mother practised assiduously, and our family had close contacts all over southern Africa, the United States and Europe.
After completing elementary school in Caledon, my father attended Zonnebloem Teachers Training College, an Anglican Church institution at the top end of Hanover Street in Cape Town. The lively, cosmopolitan District Six was the backdrop to his teenage years.
My father spent his early teaching years in Calvinia, where he learned from Oupa Daantjie Adonis about the cruelty of the Afrikaners to the coloured people of the region during the Boer War. Abraham Esau, their leader, was tortured and killed by the Boere during that war. Rebunie is a semi-autobiographical novel that describes his time in Calvinia, with reference to the Dutch Reformed Church minister’s role.
In 1946, the family moved to Genadendal and subsequently to Greyton. This gave him his first experience with a large group of colleagues who were well educated, analytical and contemplative. He remained friends with some of these people for the rest of his life. One of these associates, Percy Hartzenberg, emigrated to Canada, where they would visit in later years. Others were friends in Cape Town. Joseph Human taught with him in Malmesbury and again in Belgravia. (The Cape Times archives should contain an article he wrote at the time of Joseph Human’s death).
My sister, Elsa, died of diphtheria before her second birthday. We lived in Greyton at that time, and the end came in my father’s arms, in the car on the way to the hospital. He wrote poetry about her death, and that was some of the first deeply felt personal poetry written in Afrikaans. After their daughter’s death, my parents felt that a new beginning was in order. He was appointed headmaster of a new school in Malmesbury in 1951.
His first book of poetry, Uurglas, was published while we lived there. Poems about my sister’s death and his mourning for her were some of the strongest poems in the collection. Being the headmaster of the school was stressful. He was closely monitored by the white minister of the missionary branch of the Dutch Reformed Church. To build some goodwill in this man, he attended that church while the rest of the family attended the Anglican Church. The town of Malmesbury could not supply enough students for the school, and he had to travel widely to recruit students, ranging up to Upington, Langebaan and Saldanha Bay. In addition, he had to arrange and monitor home stays with local families.
He had rheumatic fever in childhood, and developed mitral valve stenosis as a result. He was repeatedly made aware of this condition. At each physical examination, a loud murmur was heard and commented on. He could not obtain life insurance, which was a concern as his family grew. The house in Cape Town was financed with a mortgage, but he did not qualify for the insurance policy that would pay off the mortgage. His response was to pay it off as soon as possible, and if any extra money was available, he would say, “Gooi dit op die dak” (“Put it on the roof”). While in Malmesbury, he developed appendicitis, necessitating abdominal surgery. During the operation, he went into cardiac arrest and was resuscitated with some difficulty. Stress reduction was recommended, and he and my mother decided that being a headmaster in Cape Town would be less stressful. It would also ease money concerns, since the children could live at home during their college years.
The move to Cape Town occurred in 1958. My parents built a house in Rondebosch, a part of the city where coloureds and white families lived together as neighbours, and a block from SV Peterson and his family. While the house was under construction, he started his duties as headmaster at Belgravia High School, and my mother, my brother Dennis and I remained in Malmesbury. For a few months, he lived with the Petersons, sharing a bedroom with their son, Sidney. The two husbands developed a friendship that would last the rest of their lives. The two wives commuted together to the city to teach at Zonnebloem. Cape Town, while hardly an integrated city, was nevertheless a haven from the restrictions of apartheid, which was ever-present in the countryside. Moving 60 kilometres made for a radical change in lifestyle. On a good day, one could pretend that the city was not part of South Africa.
In 1960, the US had a presidential election, and the Kennedy administration took over in Washington. The embassy was encouraged to entertain mixed race groups. The Philanders and the Petersons were among the invitees, and the head of the US consulate in Cape Town, Ted Clarke, became a family friend. Relationships such as this one led to offers from the Leader Exchange Program to tour the US.
The three-month tour of the US academic centres in 1961 had a large influence on my parents. My father met academicians and poets such as Langston Hughes, had dinners and meetings with prominent Americans and developed close relationships and friendships with some of them. He also became familiar with the Quaker religion. My father embraced the programme’s goals, non-violent opposition to segregation and integration among the races. These were already part of his approach to life, supplementing what he had read about Gandhi in India. At the end of the US portion of the trip, he stayed on in Europe and spent a month at a writer’s retreat in Holland, where he started work on Zimbabwe.
Our home became a place where we entertained writers and artists, irrespective of race. My father’s overall philosophy was to take what apartheid allowed a “coloured” man and to turn it into the best that it could be.
My parents returned to Cape Town determined to put into practice what they had observed in the US. Our home became a place where we entertained writers and artists, irrespective of race. My father’s overall philosophy was to take what apartheid allowed a “coloured” man and to turn it into the best that it could be. The radio programme Protea was one such example. He wrote short stories and sketches that he read on the radio. Outside the metropolitan Cape Town area, that programme was very popular. It was welcomed in the same way that television programmes such as Nat King Cole’s were received in the US. On road trips, he was greeted as a celebrity by listeners who faithfully tuned in every week.
My eldest brother, George, completed a BSc honours degree at UCT in 1962 and left for the US and Harvard as a Fulbright scholar. Apartheid became ever more stringent and constricting. The relaxed, liberal aspects of Cape Town were under attack. Townships were built on the Cape Flats, and people were forced to move out of District Six. South African friends such as HW van der Merwe, a sociologist at UCT, Nick Olivier from Stellenbosch University, as well as American friends who came to visit, commented on the worsening racial laws in South Africa as compared with the opposite pattern in the US.
The apartheid laws directly affected his work environment.
The apartheid laws directly affected his work environment. One of the teachers at Belgravia High School, Mr Osman, was picked up by the security police and was placed in detention. This mild-mannered, unfailingly polite man was not in any way involved in the armed opposition struggle; his sin was apparently that he had spoken too freely. The schoolteachers contributed to a fund to sustain his family, and the question arose about how to deliver the money to his wife. Nobody wanted to be observed going to his house, and his phone was assumed to be tapped. My parents delivered the money during a visit to her at her house, under the watchful eyes of the secret service men sitting outside the house in an unmarked car.
At that time, school inspectors were white men, and they monitored and oversaw the management of the schools. When Mr Osman was released, he returned to his teaching position at Belgravia. The inspector at that time was a retired Springbok rugby centre, and he came and talked to my father about Mr Osman. The word from above was that he should be treated like any other teacher and should be reintegrated into the school. When an opening arose for a new teacher, my father refused to indulge in any speculation about the applicants’ political leanings or reputation. He insisted that the best applicant be offered the position.
The epic poem Zimbabwe, published in 1968, represented a subtle statement of opposition to apartheid. He saw the story of the people who built the ruins as a metaphor for those who established apartheid. Life did not turn out well for the rulers. The references to the women and their subjugation referred to part of the apartheid system, the Immorality Act. The prose introduction to Die bruin kokon, published in 1965, similarly expressed his ideas about apartheid.
Emigration from South Africa was a topic that received constant attention for a number of years. A close friend who taught with him at Belgravia High School, Denis Saayman, moved to Ontario, Canada, with his family in 1965. The teenaged children adapted to the Canadian educational system without any trouble, and both Mr and Mrs Saayman were hired as teachers. The families maintained close ties over the years, and my cousin Beryl is married to the Saaymans’ son, Malcolm. The exodus to Canada became such a stream that the South African government forced Canada to conduct interviews for potential emigrants not in Pretoria but in other embassies in Africa or Europe.
The year 1968 was a pivotal year for my parents. First, Zimbabwe was published. This long, epic poem was the result of many years of research and writing. He felt that it was his best work thus far. Second, a letter arrived informing us that under the Group Areas Act, the house my parents had built in Cape Town had to be sold to a white family. By the time my family received that letter, my two brothers had already left South Africa to do postgraduate work in the US. Third, a job offer arrived from Friends Academy in New York. Friends Academy, a well-known Quaker school for children from kindergarten to 12th grade, was started in 1878, “for the children of Friends and those similarly sentimented”. The school offered housing, and it would provide a thoughtful and considerate group of colleagues.
The decision was made to leave South Africa and to move to the United States.
The decision was made to leave South Africa and to move to the United States. They liked Locust Valley, a quiet, peaceful town on Long Island. The school provided an intellectual and emotional home and encouraged him to continue writing. Once he had settled in the new environment and had bought a house, he started visiting South Africa regularly. He missed the language and the physical environment, even as he relished being away from the political milieu. He organised and led trips to South Africa to introduce students to his mother country. These trips lasted two or three weeks, and he had the students stay with families in the cities they visited. During the rest of the North American summers, he and my mother visited family and friends by car, driving to Ontario to visit the Saaymans and their daughter-in-law Beryl (my father’s niece), New Jersey to visit George, Michigan where I lived and Minnesota, where Dennis had settled. They frequently entertained visitors from South Africa and included them in their car trips.
He missed Afrikaans and Afrikaans speakers and sought them out when he could. Visitors were like balm, and he would stay up till the early hours talking and telling stories. He never felt that his language was growing old and staid.
He missed Afrikaans and Afrikaans speakers and sought them out when he could. Visitors were like balm, and he would stay up till the early hours talking and telling stories. He never felt that his language was growing old and staid. His speech was formal, and in his mind the language he spoke was the “korrekte” Afrikaans. His poetry was often criticised as excessively rigid, and the rhymes were characterised as forced. He rejected these comments as meaningless and prided himself on using obscure and unfamiliar words. If the reader had to struggle with his choice of verbiage, so be it. Presumably the result was worth the effort, in his eyes.
In 1985 and 1986, he had surgery to replace the mitral valve, which had affected his health for many years. His wife, my mother, died in June 1988. As she grew ever weaker with heart failure, he retired from Friends Academy and stayed home to care for her. A couple they had befriended at the school, the Randalls, came to stay with them to assist at the end. He called me to tell me about her passing, and his voice broke. There was a long silence, and he said, “I cannot say this yet. The words are too new for my tongue.” “Ek kan dit nie sê nie. Die woorde is te vreemd vir my tong.”
In the summer, my wife and I drove to New York from Michigan, stopping along the way in Vermont, at the Randalls, and picked him up at his house. We took a meandering path back, via Washington, where we visited our son. My father was quiet and spent most of the trip dozing and looking at the scenery. There were glimpses of his personality, such as when we came back from dinner to find him engaged in conversation with the doorman at the hotel. We visited Alan and Lyn Jacobs at Lake Michigan. Alan was an anthropologist and bonsai grower, and he found common ground in the miniature trees that Alan moulded into adulthood without ever allowing them to grow freely. He sat in the gentle waves on the sandbar of the lake, letting the water splash over him, trickle through his fingers. As the days grew shorter and the leaves started changing colour, he seemed to find his feet and he returned to Locust Valley.
That winter, he travelled to South Africa in the company of the Randalls. He visited his sisters in Paarl, his remaining friends and his publisher, and he was interviewed at the SABC. When he returned, his friend Hans Verkenscher, a colleague and an immigrant from Germany, came to visit from Friends Academy. The school would like him to return for as many hours as he could give them, on as many days as he wished. He would have lunch at the school every day. His principal was Debbie Schoman.
He had lonely times in his house, and he would seclude himself in the upstairs study, limiting his world to that one small room. Every day, he took a long, rapid walk over to the herbarium at the end of the block. The exercise had been recommended to help control his high blood pressure, and he embraced it with enthusiasm.
At the end of his life, his writing became more overtly political. After every visit to South Africa, he and I discussed the possibility of his permanent return to the country of his birth. But his contemporaries were also growing old, some more rapidly than he was. He visited the survivors or the widows of departed friends, finding them lonely and solitary.
When he described his life as that of a caretaker of his children’s inheritance, it was clear that he should move. His first choice was to visit each of his three sons and his niece, Beryl, for three or four months at a time. That prospect was squashed by his sister, Felicia, who was visiting with her husband, Chris. “No,” she told him. “You need your own fridge, your own house, your own things around you.” She invited him to move to her house in Paarl, but he selected a move to Las Vegas, where my wife and I could assist him as his health deteriorated. One last trip to South Africa was with a new friend from Las Vegas, Sid Graber, for the last meal of mutton curry that his sister made for him, with a slice of melktert.
The valve that had been implanted in his heart in the 1980s failed, and, mindful of the difficult recovery after the first two operations, he elected not to undergo any further cardiac surgery.