Five Men Who Shaped My Life, Whether They Knew It or Not
First of all there was William Hills, at 80, South Africa’s “Grand Old Man of Journalism,” who succumbed to my pleas to give me a job and train me because I so desperately wanted to “write: and not work in a bank” as my mother wanted me to because it was “respectable” – and to whom I would later dedicate two of my books). There were also my father; Winston Churchill; and the stunning young man in an Air Force uniform who, as he was off to war, walked into the office on my second day with the Amalgamated Press, to say “goodbye” to an old school mate who manned our front desk. Love at first sight!
It was after that very first meeting that I declared that I would marry him. And, not long after his return from North Africa, Oran, and Malta, Frederick Abinger (Tom) Warder came back to see me at the office; a year later we were married, and the rest is history.
My boss was an ardent admirer of a fellow-Englishman, a famous journalist by the name of Churchill, who at that time had come to South Africa to report on the Boer War. My the editor’s favorite anecdote was that many years before, he had swum out to sea to where the ship which had brought Churchill to Durban was anchored, in the hope of seeing him. (I guess that was why he so generously said to me one day, “I’ll give you two hours to go home and put on your best dress, and then we’re going to City Hall. I’ll let you have the honor of interviewing General [later Field Marshal] Jan Smuts!”)
The Dreaded Johannesburg Fort, Churchill, and a Postmaster
Many, many years before I was born, my mother’s family, like many others, had had to endure the nightmare of the “first holocaust of the 20th century.” My grandmother and her young children had been unfortunate enough to be among those who were imprisoned in the Johannesburg Fort. In those days, long before post offices had the electrical devices we have today, telegraphers had to know Morse Code in order to send messages, and no-one knew what would yet become of my mother – then just a little girl – and the rest of her family, who would certainly never have survived (I would never have been born) if, way up in Pretora, Churchill had not been so desperate to get his reports transmitted to Britain that he approached the Postmaster General – who happened to be my mother’s uncle – and struck a bargain with him: He would use his influence to get the famished little family out of the Fort, and somehow have them brought to him in Pretoria.
My Greatest Ambition: To Write a Book
Who knows if that ambition would ever have been realized if it were not for a strange instruction issued by my father when I was only six years old.
He was very much involved in public affairs, and, as he and my mother were often obliged to be out at night, our Basutho housemaid would bring her blanket and sleep on the floor beside my bed, and in time I came to love her more than I did my mother. I preferred to speak Sesuto, which, I think, is referred to as Sotho these days, and when my father tumbled to this, he took a bold step. Suddenly he was “not able” to understand Afrikaans or Dutch, and my mother “could not speak” English, which meant that in order to communicate with them I had to repeat whatever I said, in the other language. That was how I became so proficient in both English and Afrikaans, and that was how I got my first book published.
My first little book, Penny of the Morning Star – the story of a girl reporter, republished recently – was commissioned by the Education Department on the strength of my being perfectly bilingual, as it had to include a glossary and comprehension questions at the back. Many years later, after reporting on a court case, I was to learn from my very proud editor, that the only reason he had employed me in the first place was that I was bilingual!
The Love of My Life
God certainly works in strange ways! The adored young man of my youth was, in time to come, found to be afflicted with – and later died of – hemochromatosis, the most common of genetic disorders, after which most of what I have written, and continue to write, is about that, and I was driven to establish the Canadian and other Hemochromatosis Societies.