Random musings of a composer in London
Gran and Grandad's property - Shamba Yetu (or just "The Farm", as it was fondly referred to) - was the physical embodiment of my Grandad's soul. It was a place so entwined with his image in my mind that it's the backdrop to almost every recollection of him, much as the sky is the backdrop to a landscape. Physically, it was a modest 50-acre smallholding straddling a ridge-line in the green and rolling Kwa-Zulu Natal Midlands, but to my child's eye it was a magical place of wonder and intrigue, with pine forests to explore and build forts in, hills to climb, tracks to ride a bicycle on, secret hiding places to squeeze into, and always something fascinating to watch - the insides of a tractor being emptied onto a table, a mouse being rescued from an inspection pit, a Ferguson with a slasher attachment mowing the driveway, or a generator engine being started up in a cacophony of chaotic sensual stimulus. It was the keen and creative mind of my Grandad made real - an off-grid dream, already being lived out 30 years ago, that many of us still yearn for today.
Most of my earliest and fondest memories are from family holidays we spent there. The evenings were lit gently by the amber glow of paraffin lamps, and a quietly hissing Tilley lantern with a brilliant white mantle, placed in whichever communal space was currently in use. After being tucked into bed I would fall asleep to murmured voices drifting through from the sitting room, and the boxy muttering of a small battery-powered TV. In the early mornings I would awaken as the first grey light began to seep into my room, illuminating abstract landscape patterns on the curtains which I could never quite make sense of. I would lie quietly in my bed, occasionally shifting with the muffled crunch of old bed springs, listening to the sleeping house slowly beginning to expand in the morning air, the sound of turtle doves and spotted pigeons clearing their throats in the pine trees outside. In those quiet moments time stood still, every small sound exquisitely profiled, observed and recorded in my mind. But presently my Gran would get up, and the kitchen would then be filled with the comforting clank and rattle of morning activity, to the accompaniment of Radio Port Natal on a portable wireless, the aromas of coffee, oatmeal porridge and toast wafting through into my warm bed cocoon.
My Gran was the warmth and homeliness of Shamba Yetu, while my Grandad breathed the raw magic into it. He built the house and its numerous satellite sheds, garages and outbuildings almost entirely with his own hands, to a vision which existed purely in his own mind. The house grew organically, as a seed might evolve into a tree, beginning with a single square room, to which were gradually added various, ever expanding appendages which evolved and transformed through different functions over the years, giving the final house a pleasingly rambling, fractal-like quality, rooms leading off one another like words on a scrabble board.
Much of my memory of my Grandad and Shamba Yetu is rooted in aroma. The smell of grease, engine or gear oil instantly transports me back there, as does sun-warmed creosote, damp pine sawdust and wet cement. They are the representations of the ever-present activity and industry which took place there, curated and orchestrated by my Grandad - cutting firewood, repairing a gearbox, pumping water from the well, extending a building, each with its own unique and heady cocktail of scent. These smells were his smell, the essence of them emanating pleasantly from him like a cologne when I hugged him goodnight.
My Grandad did everything himself, but "DIY" is far too contrived a term to describe the depth of his work. "DIY" suggests attempting a clumsy repair on a toilet cistern with a pair of cheap pliers. What my Grandad did turned building, fixing and maintaining into a creative art form, an artisan craft, akin to that of a blacksmith or a violin maker. He was just as adept at overhauling a huge tractor as mending a broken toy, his practical, problem-solving mind finding connections which would elude most people. He had mastered second-life and recycling decades before they became the buzzwords they are today - gearbox parts became birdcage stands, truck bodies became storage sheds and tractor drivetrains became power generators. His workshop was a place of wonder, with vast walls of tools hung impeccably on specially-crafted panels, which swung open to reveal even more ranks of tools behind, like a silent army of repair. Even as a young adult I was only vaguely aware of what many of them were for, but my Grandad knew the location and purpose of every one, and maintained them all meticulously. He carried on his belt a vast, jingling set of keys - the soundtrack to his walk - for a hundred doors, padlocks and ignition switches which turned only at his command - the ultimate symbol of the mastery he held over his domain. Any problem could be solved with a little ingenuity, an object retrieved from a storage space, the right tool, and some quiet patience.
My Grandad's talents in this regard instilled in me, from my earliest years, the fundamental notions that things are made rather than bought; fixed rather than replaced. His ideology was that of "'n boer maak 'n plan (a farmer makes a plan)", inherited directly from the earliest colonial settlers from whom he was descended. Today we may look back on colonialism with the political criticism it may rightfully deserve, but there is no denying that those individual men and women who struck out into new lands, far removed from any European familiarity, home comforts or even basic supply chains, were some of the most resilient and resourceful human beings in history. Today, living off-grid is a lifestyle choice, to my Grandad and his ancestors it was a necessity.
My younger childhood impression of my Grandad was one of quiet awe, his command over all things making him somewhat intimidating. His aura to me was that of a wizard - magical, wise and ultimately benevolent, but also powerful and dangerous to cross. He could be stern, particularly when I or my cousins became too boisterous or mischievous, although the threat was generally only ever implied. As I grew older however, I began to understand that his true nature was one of kindness, patience and gentleness, which shone through in his love for family, animals (particularly cats) and flowers. I spent many quietly contented hours with him, helping tend to and deliver the fuchsias and hellebores from his thriving nursery, picking and packing hundreds of plums to sell from the orchard, or taking days out together to visit car shows in his beloved Austin 16, where we bonded over our shared enjoyment of vehicles, engines and other mechanical contraptions. He was not really one for outward declarations of affection, but the simple companionship and conversations we shared in those moments spoke more than any words could.
I have spoken before about the odd disconnect between my early life in South Africa, and my adult life in the UK. Whilst I know in my soul that it was the right decision to make my life here in England, it doesn't mean that there weren't inevitably missed opportunities as a result. What it would have been, for instance, to embark on some wonderful shared project with my Grandad - perhaps restoring an old car together, or designing and building a complex system of pumps and water tanks on my own plot of land somewhere. Who knows what opportunities I could have had to combine my own love of making, building and fixing things with his. When Rach and I visited him a few years back, we chatted enthusiastically with him about our long-term dream to build our own off-grid home in Wales, and it was wonderful to see him light up at the thought of it. It would have been even more wonderful to have him physically be part of that journey too.
But, as sad as it is to think about this, the fact for which I'm the most grateful is that I do share that connection with him, largely down to his own infectious enthusiasm, which rubbed off on me as a child. And, as much as we have no idea what comes next after our human chapter comes to a close, I like to believe that his spirit will live on in some way within me, and that he will look on proudly one day at the things that I too will build and create myself, in order to live my own dreams.