Braai – a barbecue (Pronounced brigh – to rhyme with sigh or why, the word is a dead giveaway that someone hails from Southern Africa.)
Somerset West Primary School and Somerset West the village was, as you may have noticed from all my anecdotes, a big influence on my life.
Until I started writing these recollections of the time spent in Somerset West I don’t think I had realised what a profound influence this little cameo, these three or four years of my life, had on me. I cannot say that it was life changing or that I learned things that made for startling changes in my life but perhaps, in its way, it was the happiest period of my childhood. Our life was more settled than ever before, or after, and I was young enough not to be bothered by adult matters that took place on a higher plane and did not really affect me.
Something that stands out in my memory of school was trips to learn about businesses and manufacturing. We learned something about where the things we used and ate came from, how things are, and were, made.
Three trips (well four actually…you’ll see…) in particular were…
The Cape Times Newspaper.
This was the mid-fifties, a long time before computers. The offices, behind the reception façade, struck me as being slightly dingy and dirty – probably all the ink and dust from various printing techniques. Rows and rows of typewriters and rows of READERS – checking copy for spelling and other errors – little did I know that one day I would be working at this, proof reading and editing.
The TELEX room was so noisy with the old Creed teleprinters, (generally referred to as TELEX machines, I was to learn). There were people typing on them and creating punched tapes at the same time so that the same copy could be sent to several distant places and of course there were machines RECEIVING stories from all over the world. Even with silencer boxes over them these old electro-mechanical machines were incredibly noisy. (I was to become a soldier when I left school. I served in the Corps of Signals and, apart from rifle fire, I think that working in communications centres, with a dozen or more of these old machines hammering away, contributed to the hearing problems I have been aware of for many years).
They showed us the thundering presses as these gobbled up huge rolls of newsprint and the compositors’ room where the print was prepared and set in blocks to be printed. Some of this last process was mechanised (automated…? I am not sure that would be an accurate term to use). The Cape Times was, and is, a broadsheet, a BIG, full sized, newspaper. Blocks of print, each the size of a double page spread, had to be fitted to the printing presses in the correct sequence.
What I found most interesting about this trip was my first experience of a fax machine.
This, however, was NOT the little desktop unit we know (and that is already becoming obsolete). It was not even called a fax (or facsimile) machine but rather it was termed photographs by wire or some similar term – I remember seeing the tag in brackets picture by landline. The machine used, however, rather like early computers, required a huge room all to itself and it was as noisy as the noisiest factory.
We were shown the receiving of a press photo of something that had happened in London or somewhere equally distant a few hours earlier that was being received as we watched. The machine thundered and banged like a war zone. At the end of the performance a grainy, black and white picture, that was probably about the size of an A4 sheet, appeared. It was a marvel of its time.
Another memorable trip was to a factory making sweets (Buchanan comes to mind…? but I am not sure).
What I remember about this visit was my first impression, that the place was dirty – well at least grubby. They showed us sheets of toffee, wrapped sweets, nigger balls (I know you shouldn’t, for rather suspect PC reasons, use the word but that IS what they were called), and all manner of other sweet things being made and packaged. They had all these different things in progress and some damaged stock so we all went away with pockets full of sweets. In many cases – and I was one – we stuffed so many products into our pockets that we were eating pocket-furry sweets for days!
Andy Becket and I went up to one chap who was working with chewing gum – great flat sheets of what I think was Juicy Fruit – and scrounged SOME chewing gum. He laughed as he cut a great strip of gum for each of us. My child memory tries to say that it was about a metre of chewing gum but… anyway it was more than we could hope to get in a year. We quickly rolled it up, stuffed it in our pockets and hurried to catch up with the rest of the group. We had been expressly forbidden chewing gum so naturally Andy and myself…
We also visited the Prices Candles factory in Observatory where my stepfather, Cyril, worked. I had asked him and, to my great joy, he agreed. I told the teacher, arrangements were made and one day, off we went. I don’t remember much of that one because I had been to the factory many times. The entrance yard and the offices were immaculately clean.
I knew the manufacturing process pretty well. We always had balls of scrap wax with bits of wick in them at home to start our winter fires and our braais. We also always had bobbins of partly used candle wick that we used as string – it was incredibly strong.
The wax storage warehouses were huge, and very dirty, full to the rafters with sacks of wax. On the factory floor at one end were the melting vats. From there the workers carried the liquid wax in big scoops to the ranks of candle moulds. Naturally, a lot of wax slopped onto the floors and you had to be very careful not to slip.
The candle making machines, for straight and non-fancy candles, were amazingly simple. The wick was threaded through each mould in the machine that had perhaps fifty moulds in it. The wick was tensioned above and below to ensure it stayed in the middle of the mould. At the top of the mould, where the base of the candle would be, was a tray arrangement about three centimetres deep into which liquid wax was poured and this ran down into each mould. After moulding a very sharp butcher knife was used to cut the wicks above and below the moulds – leaving a short piece for lighting the candle at the tip of it (the bottom of the mould).
A short time later the tray at the top of the moulding machine was cleaned out with a sharp scraper/cutter that removed all the excess wax and bits of leftover wick – the smooth bases of the candles could now be seen. These scrapings were discarded in big boxes from which the scrap balls, that everyone who worked there took home for lighting fires, were roughly fashioned.
The finished candles went into a packing room where a number of women worked at wrapping the candles in packs of six, in wax paper printed with the Lighthouse logo that Prices Candles used for this product.
Finished packets of candles were packed in wooden boxes. The wood panels were delivered in flat packs printed with the Prices’ logo and address in blue and red. These boxes were assembled on an automatic nailing machine. The operator positioned the box sections in a jig and pressed a lever with his foot. This brought down a piece of equipment that clamped the pieces for a moment simultaneously driving in the nails. It took the operator no more than a minute or two to put together each box. The lids, after the boxes had been packed, were nailed on by hand. The boys in the class were impressed by this nailing machine thinking it really clever.
A group of thirty-plus children, we inevitably came out of there rather dirty. We had, however, been told to wear old play clothes, which was a good thing.
I have a vague memory of a visit to a bakery…some place that made biscuits, Baumann’s or Pyott’s (?) and we all had biscuit crumbs in our pockets for days after. Or… was that also the sweet factory…?
…and now for the afterthought…
This was the visit to the Cape Town Castle! Also known as the Castle of Good Hope this formed part of our history lessons. It was a really great visit – seeing the cannons and all the old quarters and trying to imagine what it must have been like way back when it was built in the 17th century. When we were taken to the prison cells and shown the torture equipment there were some serious oohs and aaahs, especially from the girls.
Down in the dungeon the guide told us how it would have been partly below water at high tide and remarked that prisoners had gone mad in there, scratching and tearing at the walls in the dark.
Andy and I had crept up to the entrance while he was talking. Pulling the door almost shut we turned off the electric light. We took some stick for that but it was gratifying for two small boys to have heard the hysterical screams in the pitch dark dungeon just for those few seconds!