In the Fifties I was at school
here in South Africa. I am white, of European descent, and our teenage
culture was pure American! We had no TV in this country in those
days. (TV only came to South Africa in 1971). If we were lucky,
we saw short snippets about our various film and singing idols during
the black-and-white newsreels which were shown before the main film at
matinées or the evening show. Our greatest heroes were Stewart
Granger, Rock Hudson, John Wayne, all cowboy stars, Yul Brynner,
James Dean (already dead in a car crash) -- too many to remember.
Us girls bought movie magazines like Photoplay and Silver Screen, even
if they were 3 months old by the time they reached our shores. We
faithfully bought the local equivalent, which was sold at the
movie house: Stage & Cinema.
Our music was, of course, rock
'n roll! There was nothing else we wanted to listen to: this brand-new
trend was all ours to embrace. We were an entire new generation,
forever free of our parents' "slow and boring" light
music. Even the word "teenager" was newly minted, and
gave us a sense of self-esteem and separateness from what we
considered the fuddy-duddy generations which came before us ...
First of all we listened and
bopped to Bill Haley and The Comets, Elvis, Ricky Nelson (sooo
beautiful!), Fabian, Frankie Avalon, and many, many others, including
the groups who belted out the songs of those days which had catchy
tunes and piquant words.
Most homes had a
battery-operated -- later transistor -- radio, and a hi-fi. Local
radio stations were most conservative, and refused to play rock 'n
roll music, which was "of the devil". One lone commercial
station at least gave us a request program and a "Hit
Parade" late on Saturday afternoons, when we sat with an ear
glued to Dad's radio to listen to the hits ... But the station we
surreptitiously listened to most of the time (most parents
disapproved) was the old Lourenço Marques Radio (LM Radio) in Moçambique,
on our eastern border. (The Portuguese handed this colony back to the
Moçambicans in the 70's, and Lourenço Marques is now known as
Maputo. LM Radio is no more). LM Radio, in those heady days, played
rock 'n roll all day long, and most of their programs were request
Oh boy, what a battle it was to
listen to the marvelous "LM Hit Parade" on a Sunday night at
8.30 -- in peace!! That Godless music on a Sunday night was simply not
allowed by most parents, so we pretended to be reading a school book
or scribbling homework (actually also forbidden -- no work on a
Sunday) in front of the radio, and we learnt to be very quick in
clicking off the radio when a parent came in. For years I kept a
faithful log of all the hit songs and I still have that somewhere.
Some have been forgotten now, and I wonder why.
I grew up in a grape-growing
valley, beautiful, but boring to a young teenager living in the most
exciting time ever -- the late Fifties! The world of the
teenager had come alive! Rock 'n roll had been born! Our parties
were held in farm barns, where the grammophone or hi-fi would play
long-playing vinyl records -- "Rock Around the Clock", Elvis
records, Ricky, Pat Boone (considered a bit of a square, but some
songs were nice), and others. Sometimes the local boys would make up a
band and play those same tunes, and we would bop until curfew time ...
My best friend Julie only
"discovered" James Dean after his death. We were in Grade 9.
She saw each of his three films many times over. Unfortunately
the nearest movie house to our farming valley was in a bigger town 20
miles away. Julie shamelessly phoned all over the Valley to
beg rides over there to see "Giant" just once more. She
often found a farmer or his wife who happened to be planning
on going "into town", much to her parents' chagrin. She
bought stacks of so-called James Dean albums, and would turn up
at school some mornings, red-eyed, declaring tragically: "Last
night I did not sleep a wink, again! I cried for Jimmy Dean all night
long." She was totally, completely in love with him.
Once she wrote a bad verse on
the blackboard at the back of the class, in impressive crayon letters,
with pink crayoned roses as a border. I can't recall the whole of this
"deathless poem", but the last lines read: "Goodbye, my
Jamie boy! As they change the scene/ our voices join together: Goodbye
to you, James Dean!" The science teacher came into the
classroom after this "masterpiece" was completed, gave
Julie's "tribute" one look, fixed her with his scary green
eyes, and shouted, "You stupid, silly girl, how macabre! The
bloody man is DEAD!" Whereupon Julie burst into noisy tears and
had to leave the classroom.
We only wore lipstick
which had the brand name of Tangee, and we favoured the apricot-coral
colours. We learnt to tease our hair and wore it in bouffant
styles, but Julie, ever the rebel, went the other way and had a
cut and perm called the "Italian Boy Style" which made
her look like a very silly, misplaced Cupid. We were not allowed
to wear any make-up at all to school, but we dreamt of owning that
thick Max Factor Pan-Stick foundation. We secretly applied mascara --
at the time it came in a small black block like compressed soot,
with a tiny brush, in a little plastic container. You licked the
brush, swept it over the soot block, and applied it to your lashes. Unfortunately
it quickly smudged, giving you eyes like a Panda, which was very
The bane of our lives were the
brassieres. No such bra's as really small or training bras! The
smallest available were 32A. Of course they never fit. We were
all slender with small busts, and ALL bras came with stitched,
pointed, cone-shaped cups into which only Jane Russell ever fit.
Or maybe even she didn't. We would stuff the points of
those impossible cups with cottonwool, otherwise, as we found
to our deepest embarrassment, we could not dance close to a boy -- our
perky "busts" would become flattened when the points of the
bra was squashed against his chest, OR you ended up with one flat
titty and one cone-shaped one. The cottonwool stuffing was just
as embarrassing, because if a boy got amorous and pulled you really
close, there were these two hard bits between you. We could not win.
Girls aspired to look like
Sandra Dee or Anette Funicello. We had nipped-in waists and the skirts
of our dresses flared out over starched petticoats. Looking at
old photographs, I think the Fifties and early Sixties were when
girls were still real girls -- we looked deliciously feminine. Boys
all tried to wear their hair combed like Elvis and other teen idols,
but of course not everyone had hair which behaved, so a lot of
Brylcreem was used, and also a strange substance called La Pebra's,
which was grey-white in colour, came in a bottle, and had the
consistency of snot.
Having sex was, by and large,
impossible. We were too young for the Pill (and later too old for the
computer!). The Pill was in its early years, with lots of
side-effects, and only available on prescription. Pregnancies out
of wedlock was an unthinkable scandal. Condoms had to be bought at a
pharmacy. It was sold either in little tins, or singly. All a
schoolboy could ever hope for was to buy ONE at a time .... The task
was nearly impossible. Where we lived, you knew everyone and
everyone knew you. Even if a boy could manage to sidle up to the
counter, evading the female staff, the pharmacist was still bound to
ask out loud: "What? WHAT? And what would you want to do with it,
So we didn't have sex, we just
fumbled around. Maybe that was the charm which has now been lost. We
were (in general -- there were many exceptions!!) forced to enjoy only
the hors d'oeuvres, and to keep the dessert for marriage! These days
youth have it all, and there's no sweet mystery of life any more.
But above all we secretly
wanted to be American, not South African. Our society was fairly
puritanical. We had to be in church every Sunday. We girls
dreamed of being a leather-clad ducktail's sheila, and of rides upon
the back of a Harley. Alas. There were ducktails in all our cities,
but we were country teenagers. We would probably have run a mile if
approached by an actual duckie.
The farmers bought new
American cars every year after the export grape season was over and
the money rolled in: Buicks, Mercury's, Chevrolets, Fords, Lincolns,
Studebakers, Hudsons. In the middle and late Fifties they came with
lots of gorgeous shiny chrome and high-rise fins, and they were beautiful.
Our parents believed,
in a desultory sort of way, that American music, especially, were
corrupting their children. Elvis was the worst! Rock 'n roll
was of the devil! But I think they were rather
overwhelmed by the new trends, and there was nothing they could do to
stop it. We were wildly enthusiastic and laughed at our
parents'concern. And we grew up just fine, anyway.
One afternoon when I was in
Grade 11 I was doing my homework in front of the only radio
in our house, which was in my dad's study. I did not hear Dad come in.
It was tuned to LM Radio, and Elvis was singing "Summer
Kisses, Winter Tears". My dad stopped in his tracks,
listened, then asked me, in quite an awed voice, "Who was
that, singing?" Cautiously I asked, "Why, Dad?" He
answered, "Hey ... that man has a most beautiful voice!"
"that was Elvis Presley." My dad went quiet, then said,
"You're kidding." And my battle was won. Elvis was
no longer on a par with the devil. My father is now 90 and still
thinks Elvis has a beautiful voice.
The Fifties were actually the
last days of innocence: there were no drugs, no disco scene, no raves.
Drugs were medicine which the doctor prescribed when you were ill. The
farm workers sometimes smoked marijuana (called dagga
here) and later the hippies would too, but we thought it a
low-life habit, like rolling your own cigarettes, and would not
have dreamt of touching it. The boys' worst vice was smoking,
sometimes "stealing" their dad's car for a furtive
drive down the vineyard paths, and getting drunk once in a while.
Those were the days, my friend
... We thought they'd never end!
Greetings from South Africa!