Archive for December, 2011


 (Written 28 Dec 2011)

Dear All,

From my notes I am reminded that the 29th December 2006, the day I went to Millwall to pay homage to Brunel, was cold and wet. As I stood on the riverbank I could see in my mind’s eye the Great Ship stuck on those timbers exactly 149 years before, with men working feverishly to launch what was then the most ambitious vessel the world had ever seen. It was a failed project in almost every respect, but for me the building of the Leviathan is the embodiment of the confidence Victorian England had in its engineers.

Hang on, I hear you cry? With the British Isles as a dominating power at the centre of the Industrial Revolution it would surely be easy to find an example of confidence that was a success? True, but this particular enterprise has resonance for me; firstly because I worked on ships as a young man, secondly because I know what it is to be a project engineer, and thirdly because I worked with someone who had elements of Brunel about him.

Building the Great Eastern on the Millwall bank by Willian Parrott

What was extraordinary about the Great Eastern was that it was built by a man overwhelmed by his belief in himself, and in that belief he was supported by a public drunk with his success. Daniel Gooch, Brunel’s right-hand man, wrote of him, “The commercial world thought him extravagant; but although he was so, great things are not done by those who sit down and count the cost of every thought and act”, which is quite true. Whenever people have a great deal of confidence they are not found on the edge, testing the water so-to-speak, they just jump in and do extraordinary and extravagant things.

Of the many innovative ideas and engineering successes that were inspired by the construction of this ship I shall mention only one, the forging of the 40 ton crankshaft for the paddle engine. At the time no foundry in the world was capable of manufacturing so large an item and as Rolt points out in his fine book, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (Longmans Green, 1957), compared to the regular work of the day, this crankshaft was ‘a crowbar compared to a bent pin’. The task was finally undertaken at the Lancefield Forge, Glasgow where a special furnace had to be built and a battery of Condie moving cylinder hammers had to be installed (Rolt, p. 322). It epitomised the boldness of the era that even though the facility to manufacture this absolutely key component did not exist when the building of the ship began, there seemed to be no doubt in the mind of the designer that it could, and would, be done.

But from a project engineer’s point of view the whole job was a disaster: The scope of the work was poorly managed; details of the design only came clear as building progressed and many of Brunel’s brilliant ideas could not be implemented. The contacts were poorly framed and the over-runs on the cost-of-works were always out of control. Rolt accuses John Scott Russell of being the villain of the piece and while it is true that Russell was not always honest, he appears on more than one occasion to have been talked into doing what couldn’t be done. Everything was late; on the planned day of the launch, 3 November 1857, the ship was expected to glide gently into the water but she got stuck and it was only after three expensive months of shoving and heaving that she was finally afloat. Worst of all was that the primary design criterion, that she should be able to sail non-stop from the UK to Australia, was obsolete. Even before the building of the ship had begun this requirement, that she should be able to carry all the coal she needed to make such a journey, had been superseded by the fact that there were secure, established coaling stations along the route.

So what kept the project moving when it was clear that Brunel’s Great Ship would cost way more than expected and that it would not live up to expectation? How did Brunel keep raising money for what, to the average investor anyway, must have seemed a sure loss? Confidence I suggest… a confidence that could only have been carried in a society supremely confident in itself. The kind of confidence reflected in the carefully staged photograph of Brunel standing in front of the anchor chains of the Great Eastern.

Brunel at a 'promotional shoot' on the Great Eastern

Regards

Jeff

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The beautiful brassiness of Venice

(Written on 27 Dec 2011)

Dear All,

In an earlier piece (originally written on 5 Sept 2010) and posted under the title Confidence breeds Civilization, I had written, “It is when people in a community have the sense ‘about themselves’ of a purpose (not necessarily religious), coupled with the notion that their purpose is achievable, then their confidence may ignite their collective imagination leading to a flourishing society.” Wherever there have been such societies we see expressions of the character of that confidence in their industry and their art. A favourite example of mine is the extraordinary engineering in England through the work of Brunel and others starting around the 1830s. Everything about England of that period is bold; an expression best captured, for me anyway, in the building of the Great Eastern. So it rang a bell when I came across a reference to what was suggested to be the one thing that more than any other embodied Venice in the 16th century.

The reference is in a fine BBC documentary titled Francesco’s Venice (2006), which is a 4-part series on the history of what the narrator describes as the world’s most beautiful city. Francesco leaves us in no doubt that central to the life of Venice is trade; and with it a propensity to exploit every possible money-making opportunity that may present itself. From the filching of what was believed to be the remains of St Mark from Alexandria (so that they could have their own saintly relic), to the plunder of Constantinople, the double-dealing with the crusaders, the monopolising of trade with the East, the maintenance of a pirate fleet, and even to the establishment of that extraordinary means for the exploitation of human capital, the Jewish quarter, we get the sense of the brassiness of the success of Venice.

So it seems quite appropriate that Francesco should suggest that the painting that represents Venice at that time, more than any other, is the Venus of Urbino by Titian (1538). As he points out, until then nudes had been painted either expressing some sense of shame, by covering up as best they could, or expressing demureness by shyly turning away, always with the eyes averted or closed. But the Venus of Urbino not only draws your attention to what would otherwise be private, she looks you straight in the eye as she does so. What in modern parlance we would, I think, describe as being “in your face”. Much has been written about this provocative painting, running the gamut of it being shameful pornography to it being some deep and intricate expression of femininity… all of which may be true. But for me, it reflects the beautiful brassiness of Venice as I experienced it; and I am glad to find I share that view with Francesco Da Mosto, who certainly knows a lot more about it than I do.

Titian's Venus of Urbino

Regards

Jeff

PS: In South Africa we briefly held a sense of ourselves as a ‘Rainbow Nation’ in the mid-1990s, but sadly it turned out to be an infatuation rather than a love affair.

(Written 20/6/2004)

Dear All,

In looking for information on Lorenzo Valla’s (1406 – 1457) proof of the spuriousness of the Donation of Constantine, I came across this amusing scene described by HG Wells in, The Outline of History, Cassell & Co, 1956.

It is assumed that Constantine the Great must have known that the backbone of the old empire was already broken when he decided to unify and rejuvenate his dominions by making Christianity the permitted faith of the realm. Or perhaps he really did think that the mistake by Maxentius’ engineers – of releasing the boats at the battle of the Milvian bridge too soon – was an act of God. Whatever Constantine’s motivation, Wells writes (p. 547);

It was only after Constantine had turned to Christianity that he realised the fierce dissensions of the theologians. He made a great effort to reconcile these differences in order to have one uniform and harmonious teaching in the community, and at his initiative a general council of the Church was held at Nicaea, a town near Nicomedia and over against Constantinople, in 325. Eusebius gives a curious account of this strange gathering over which the emperor presided, even though Constantine had not yet been baptised. It was not his first council of the Church, for he had already (in 314) presided over a council at Arles. He sat in the middle of the council of Nicaea upon a golden throne, and, as he had little Greek, we must suppose he was reduced to watching the countenances and gestures of the debates, and listening to their intonations. The council was a stormy one. When old Arius rose to speak, one, Nicolas of Myra, struck him in the face, and many ran out, thrusting their fingers into their ears in affected horror at the old man’s heresies. One is tempted to imagine the great emperor, deeply anxious for the soul of his empire, firmly resolved to end the divisions, bending towards his interpreters to ask them the meaning of the uproar.

Incidentally, Valla showed that the Donation of Constantine, from which the Pope in Rome drew so much authority, could not have been written in the 4th century as claimed by the Holy See, because it contained the word “fief”. The feudal system of “Fiefdom” was an 8th century invention. (Rice, F. R., The foundations of Early Modern Europe: 1460-1559, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1978, p. 71).

Regards

Jeff

Sam Levenson on happiness

(Written 23 Dec 2011)

Dear All, 

As we approach the season of good cheer it may be a fine thing to think for a moment about Sam Levenson’s view on happiness from his book, You don’t have to be in who’s who, to know what’s what (1979).

“According to polls, happiness is no longer at the top of the list of personal priorities. To most, making the most of life means getting the most fun out of it. It seems that in these times people find happiness too difficult to pursue.

Fun is quick, immediate. Fun is easily available in toys and (computer) games of all types. Fun calls for a minimum of emotional investment.

Happiness requires nurture. It has to be carefully cultivated, often with pain, often with considerable unhappiness. It does not grow wild to be plucked at will by any whistling passer-by. It flourishes only when nurtured in soil rich in human possibility by people who believe beyond human possibility.

Happiness, in fact, pursues those who pursue glorification of existence. When the first sprouts appear in the early greening of happiness, they are more likely to make you cry than laugh. This is one of the basic differences between happiness and fun.

Happiness, like other men’s goals, may never come to fruition for an individual or for a society; but the effort at happiness makes one live greatly, even joyously … if not always happily.”

Regards

Jeff

Iraq war: What was it all about?

(Written 19 Dec 2011)

Dear All,

Now that America has officially called an end to their war in Iraq, it may be a good time to revisit the question, “What was it was all about?” http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/story/2011-12-17/iraq-us-troops/52032854/1?csp=34news

Here is what I had written on 19 Aug 2003:

The overwhelming opinion developed around the world over the last few weeks is that the American war in Iraq is in order to secure Iraqi oil. On January 26th, a local (American) newspaper commented on a report published in Britain’s Mirror newspaper, quoting a Deutsche Bank document which recommended the purchase of Texas-based ExxonMobil shares. The reason was that “(ExxonMobil) has been tipped to get new reserves from a post-Saddam Iraq”.

While this seems a little simplistic I am reminded of an article entitled “The dark heart of the American dream” published in the Observer in June last year (2002). http://www.observer.co.uk/magazine/story/0,11913,738196,00.html

In the article, the writer makes the point that the Bush administration derives its political organisation almost entirely from a group of people attached to the Texas oil industry. The implication being that even if Iraqi oil is not foremost on the agenda of the Whitehouse, it is top of the agenda of an extremely powerful lobby around the US President. If this is so, then the American administration’s pretext for war against Iraq may be no different from the British pretext for the Zulu war of 1878, and the South African (Anglo-Boer) war of 1899.

In both of those cases the British used ‘moral outrage’ and a ‘threat to British citizens’ as the reason for going to war. History has shown that while the stated political reasons had some minor validity; the actual cause was the manipulation by a group of powerful industrialists and lobbyists who were advising, and in some cases running, the British government. The upshot was that the vanquished – and the British people for that matter – paid a very high price, while the instigating individuals lived well off the proceeds of South African mineral wealth.

So, almost nine years later, along with Little Peterkin* we ask, “But what good came of it at last?” And as with Old Kaspar we reply, “Why, that I cannot tell.”

Regards

Jeff

*THE BATTLE OF BLENHEIM  by Robert Southey (1774-1843)

 

T’was a summer evening,
Old Kaspar’s work was done,
And he before his cottage door
Was sitting in the sun,
And by him sported on the green
His little grandchild Wilhelmine.
 
She saw her brother Peterkin
Roll something large and round
Which he beside the rivulet
In playing there had found;
He came to ask what he had found,
That was so large, and smooth, and round.
 
Old Kaspar took it from the boy,
Who stood expectant by;
And then the old man shook his head,
And with a natural sigh,
“‘Tis some poor fellow’s skull,” said he,
“Who fell in the great victory.
 
“I find them in the garden,
For there’s many here about;
And often when I go to plough,
The ploughshare turns them out!
For many thousand men,” said he,
“Were slain in that great victory.”
 
“Now tell us what ’twas all about,”
Young Peterkin, he cries;
And little Wilhelmine looks up
With wonder-waiting eyes;
“Now tell us all about the war,
And what they fought each other for.”
 
“It was the English,” Kaspar cried,
“Who put the French to rout;
But what they fought each other for
I could not well make out;
But everybody said,” quoth he,
“That ’twas a famous victory.
 
“My father lived at Blenheim then,
Yon little stream hard by;
They burnt his dwelling to the ground,
And he was forced to fly;
So with his wife and child he fled,
Nor had he where to rest his head.
 
“With fire and sword the country round
Was wasted far and wide,
And many a childing mother then,
And new-born baby died;
But things like that, you know, must be
At every famous victory.
 
“They said it was a shocking sight
After the field was won;
For many thousand bodies here
Lay rotting in the sun;
But things like that, you know, must be
After a famous victory.
 
“Great praise the Duke of Marlbro’ won,
And our good Prince Eugene.”
“Why, ’twas a very wicked thing!”
Said little Wilhelmine.
“Nay … nay … my little girl,” quoth he,
“It was a famous victory.”
 
“And everybody praised the Duke
Who this great fight did win.”
“But what good came of it at last?”
Quoth little Peterkin.
“Why, that I cannot tell,” said he,
“But ’twas a famous victory.”

One fine day: Puccini

(Written 5 Jun 2011) 

Dear All, 

I was recently reminded of the melancholy theme of the  French Lieutenant’s Woman, the one in which a woman is waiting for someone she knows will never come, and I was immediately reminded of that beautiful piece, Un Bel Di (One fine day), in Puccini’s Madam Butterfly in which Butterfly finally comes to terms with the fact that Pinkerton is not coming back to her. What is of particular interest in this part of the opera is that the libretto is at odds with the music and the message. 

The music, the gestures, the sighs and the sad looks tell us that Butterfly has accepted her fate, but the words in the aria tell a different story… all great stuff. Here is a translation of the libretto in question: 

Suzuki [sighing]
Unless he comes, and quickly,
Our plight is a bad one.
 
Butterfly [with decision]
He’ll come, though.
 
Suzuki [shaking her head]
Will he come?
 
Butterfly [vexed, approaches Suzuki]
Why did he order the Consul
To provide this dwelling for us?
Now answer that!

[Suzuki is silent]

[still persists]
And why was he so careful
To have the house provided with safe locks,
If he did not intend to come again?
 
Suzuki
I know not. 
 
Butterfly [rather annoyed and surprised at such ignorance]
Know you not?
[calming down again and with proud confidence]
Then I will tell you. ‘Twas to keep outside
Those spiteful plagues, my relations, who might annoy me;
And inside, ’twas to give to me, his wife, protection,
His beloved little wife Butterfly.
 
Suzuki [still far from convinced]
I never heard as yet
of foreign husband
Who did return to his nest.
 
Butterfly [furious, seizing hold of Suzuki]
Ah! Silence, or I’ll kill you.
[still trying to convince Suzuki]
Why, just before he went,
I asked of him, You’ll come back again to me?
And with his heart so heavy,
To conceal his trouble,
With a smile he made answer:
“O Butterfly
My tiny little child-wife,
I’ll return with the roses,
The warm and sunny season
When the red-breasted robins
Are busy nesting.”
[calm and convinced]
He’ll return.
 
Suzuki [incredulously]
We’ll hope so.
 
Butterfly [insisting]
Say it with me:
He’ll return.
 
Suzuki [to please her, she repeats, but mournfully]
He’ll return.
[bursts into tears]
 
Butterfly [surprised]
Weeping? and why? and why?
Ah, ’tis faith you are lacking!
[full of faith and smiling]

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KVRhuQWS4tc

 
Hear me. [acts the scene as though it were actually taking place]
One fine day we’ll notice
A thread of smoke arising on the sea
In the far horizon,
And then the ship appearing;
Then the trim white vessel
Glides into the harbour, thunders forth her cannon.
See you? Now he is coming!
I do not go to meet him. Not I! I stay
upon the brow of the hillock, And wait there… and wait
for a long time, But never weary
of the long waiting.
From out the crowded city
There is coming a man,
a little speck in the distance, Climbing the hillock.
Can you guess who it is?
And when he’s reached the summit,
Can you guess what he’ll say?
He will call: “Butterfly” from the distance.
I, without answ’ring,
Hold myself quietly conceal’d,
A bit to tease him and a bit so as not to die
At our first meeting; and then, a little troubled
He will call, he will call:
“Dear baby wife of mine, Dear little orange blossom!”
The names he used to call me when he came here.
[to Suzuki]
This will all come to pass as I tell you.
Banish your idle fears, For he will return I know it.
 
[Butterfly and Suzuki embrace with emotion] 
[Butterfly dismisses Suzuki, who goes out of the door on the left. Butterfly looks after her sadly]
 

Regards

Jeff

There is a marvellous iPad ‘app’ called Star Walk which if you have not tried it, it is worth a look. The way in which the stars are presented in a spatially co-ordinated way is no less than a technological marvel. You hold the iPad at arm’s length in any direction and the iPad screen shows you the stars that would be visible if you were to point a telescope into space in that direction; it also gives you the names of the stars, paths of the planets and even the constellation descriptions. As someone with an interest in how our learning is enhanced by spatial orientation and gesticulation, this is a lesson in itself.

Strangely enough, as I found myself zooming in and out and reading the names I was reminded of Walt Whitman and a time in the 1970s when I was a keen ornithologist. Perhaps over-keen is the right description because I was soon immersed in the chasing after names rather than enjoying watching our feathered friends. Field trips turned into frenetic searches for some bird or other and when it was spotted I could be found paging through my copy of Roberts rather than just simply admiring Nature and all its diversity. Fortunately I was saved by Walt Whitman.

One afternoon I came across his poem When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer and ever since, whenever I see a bird (such as that beautiful brownish one presently hopping about on my lawn), I fight the urge to run for the shelf to find out what it is called (Cossypha caffra) and try just to enjoy it for what it is.

Walt Whitman (1819–1892) – When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer

WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Good father?

One Sunday afternoon in 1967, during one of my infrequent visits home from boarding school, the raucous strains of the drinking song, “Isaac-a-zoomba zoomba zoomba, Isaac-a-zoomba zoomba ze….” precipitated an important event in my life.

We lived in a small coal-mining community known as Van Dyk’s Drift in present-day Mphumalanga and on that day my parents had had a party. Towards the evening everyone was quite jolly and to his sixteen-year-old son my father’s full-throated rendition of that song was just too embarrassing to bear. My attacking and insulting remarks – shouted in the heat of the moment within earshot of the guests – caused damage to our relationship that was never repaired.

There is reason to believe that when we come to the end of our lives we will look back and evaluate the roles we played, admire or regret things we did and lament the things we should have done but didn’t. At that time many of us would like to ask our sons, “Was I a good father?” But I believe this to be an unfair question. Unfair because in most cases the son will probably not have reached an age, or gained enough experience of life and parenthood to give a fair answer.

My father was not a timid man; but he was a gentle soul. He beat me only once, when I was about 5 years old (and that at the insistence of my mother) for some childish offence I had committed earlier in the day. He was a generally understanding, kind and forgiving person. There was never any suggestion that he would wilfully attack or harm me in any way.

John Webster Fearon, chief mining surveyor, boating and fishing enthusiast was much admired in the community for being something of a “character”. All who knew him would tell anecdotes of their meetings, fishing trips and social times together. Invariably the stories would be of his simple life-style, his lack of pomp and circumstance (in spite of being a senior mine official), his down-to-earth dress, his friendship to all and sundry and his slightly mischievous sense of humour. My parents were married in 1948 and by all accounts had a very successful partnership for 37 years. My older sister and younger brother seemed to get along with him all right. When, in later life, my friends met him, they all thought that he was a great guy.

How then did this relatively minor family spat on that Sunday afternoon in 1967 start a cycle that resulted in the two of us not speaking to one another for the next four years? Why did we never really become friends? Was he trying to fix this when, a few weeks before his death in 1985, he made a special trip to Cape Town to ask me if he had been a good father?

My Fearon forebears had been yeomen farmers near Cockermouth in Cumbria, England and when, in the late 1890’s, the profits from coal mining outstripped the agricultural value of the land under family management, the owners sold up and the Fearons of Gilcrux moved to the cities or the Colonies. Joseph Fearon, my paternal grandfather, emigrated to South Africa and joined the Natal Police. There he met and married Agnes Allen Hogg in Durban in 1910. Agnes’ family had been the owners of a small public house in Berwick, Scotland. After a tour of duty with the 3rd South African Infantry during WWI my grandfather returned to the Natal midlands to try his hand at cane farming but in 1919, at the age of 38, Joseph Couper Fearon developed peritonitis and died.

He and Agnes had had two sons. The younger boy, John Webster – my father – was four years old when his father died.

Mother Agnes, older brother Allen and baby John

Agnes was an austere woman with social mobility firmly in her mind. As with many middle-class families who came out from England at the time her views of right and wrong were those of military colonialism, Edwardian rectitude and class pretence. With two small boys to care for Agnes sold the farming assets and in partnership with her parents bought a small hotel at the old bridge over the Tugela River in Natal. The hotel sustained the family for the next 15 years, providing enough money to have both boys educated at Hilton College. In the 1930’s a new bridge was built over the Tugela – some distance down river – so Agnes sold up and went to live on her own in Greytown, Natal.

My father did not get on with his mother. I do not remember ever seeing them in conversation and he showed her no affection at all. Whenever the subject of his schooling was discussed, which was not often, my father would say, “I never went to Hilton… I was sent to Hilton”. For some reason he hated the place. It is possible that he had been abused at this prestigious school in some way or other, but it is more likely that his dislike for regimentation had a lot to do with his attitude. So when time came for him to decide on my schooling he considered the Witbank Technical High School, despite its low academic standards and many shortcomings, good enough for his son.

He often said that the 6 years he spent with the South African Sappers during WWII were the best years of his life. There is no doubt that his wartime experiences played a major role in shaping his views of life. Of particular influence was the 1944/45 sojourn with the 6th armoured division through Italy. He often spoke fondly of the Italian people and would joke somewhat mischievously of the events of a winter he had spent in Castiglioni dei Pepoli.

Young man in Italy during the war

His military experience, along with the drinking culture prevalent in the mining communities in which he worked may have been the primary reason for his becoming a habitual drinker. Perhaps the bar in the hotel of his childhood that would have been the focus of the family income was a contributing factor. I once heard him say that he never saw his grandparents sober and while this remark was an obvious exaggeration, there may have been an element of truth in it. Sadly, as with all social pathologies of this type, there was a price to pay. It is certain that the cane spirit he consumed over a number of years contributed to the cancer that eventually killed him; just as certain as it was central to the breakdown in communication between us.

The last time I saw him was at the Cape Town International airport. We knew he would be dead within a matter of weeks… so this was the final farewell. He was sitting in a wheelchair, gaunt and extremely frail. Still there was a distance between us. He did not show any emotion; the ghost of ‘Isaac-a-zoomba’ still present. As we shook hands – there were no hugs or outward show of affection – he simply said, “Well, goodbye old man.” I said a simple goodbye in reply, and walked into the car park to cry quietly on my own.

I never answered his question as to whether he had been a good father. Mainly because I did not, when he asked it, actually grasp the significance of what he wanted to know. It was something he had tried to slip casually into conversation a few days before but because it was so unexpected – so foreign to our usual interaction – that although I heard the words, I did not understand their meaning.

Once, when I was about 6 or 7 years old, he made a kite for me. I remember it vividly. It had a carefully crafted frame of square timber with brown paper covering. It had about seven brown paper bows evenly spaced along the tail. Unfortunately it got caught up in some overhead wires the following day. I still mourn the loss.

While he never played games with me, or read me stories, or took me for walks. He did give me lectures on how to live a respectable life. “Be honest” he’d say. “Stay out of jail and don’t sponge off other people,” and so on. In this regard he set a steady example. In my early years my parents took me on wonderful fishing trips to Mozambique. Unfortunately, after I had been sent to boarding school at the age of 12 they took their holidays during school term, so we seldom went away together after that.

Boat building took up a lot of his spare time and one school holiday he gave me some timber and a plan so that I could build an 8ft skiff. I recall his disappointment at my not getting the joints quite right but my friend Carl Greaves and I had a lot of fun rowing down the local river in it.

The boarding school to which I had been sent had a reputation for dealing with difficult children and in many ways the establishment took on the appearance of a reformatory. My father did not react when he learnt from my mother that a group of older boys had hung me out of a third story window by my feet. He made no objection upon hearing that a senior boy had caned me mercilessly. The fact that we did not have a proper mathematics teacher at the school for six months of my matric year did not seem to bother him in the least. Throughout my schooling he attended three events in which I had taken part; one of them being the function at the end of my matric year at which I was awarded the school’s top academic prize.

Money in our family was always tight so there was a bit of a mumble when I asked for a pair of long trousers. After all, I was the only boy in standard 7 (grade 9) who didn’t have a pair of longs to wear to church on Sundays. When, at the age of 13, my front teeth did not develop properly and they were removed by mistake by a local dentist, it did not occur to him that being a shy young boy without front teeth may be inhibiting. I finally got a set of false teeth when I went into the army at the age of 18.

After a year’s military service and a further six months of adventuring on the high seas as an engineering cadet I returned briefly to my parent’s home. I was 19 years old and at a watershed. It was time to make the crucial decisions that would determine the course of my life and career. If ever I needed a father’s guidance and assistance, this was it. He told me I would be given two days’ grace to find a job and to leave home. No advice, no help. Penniless and desperate, I became what my schooling had primed me to be; an apprentice millwright in the ISCOR steelworks in Pretoria. For me, there could hardly have been a worse choice.

I constantly return to wondering how a new father learns to be a good father. My father never had a father of his own and my brother, 8 years my junior, certainly grew up with a more experienced father than I did. In fairness, it must be said that my parents were in a better financial position later on in life and were able to send him to a university to take a degree. Perhaps my father had decided to do things differently with his second son.

Was John Webster Fearon a good father? It has been more than 25 years since his death (in 1985) and I still think of him. On balance I am unable to give an answer and perhaps I will only be able to do so when it is my turn to ask… “Was I a good father?”

Portrait by Jill months before he died

Footnote:
Raucous drinking song, sung to Impi style foot stomping.
 
Isaac-a-zoomba zoomba zoomba,
Isaac-a-zoomba zoomba zhe….
 
Isaac-a-zoomba zoomba zoomba,
Isaac-a-zoomba zoomba zhe….
 
Hold him down .. you zulu warrior
Hold him down .. you zulu chief, chief, chief…

Happy Birthday

This is a post from my son (John Fearon).

I would like to wish my father Jeff Fearon a happy 60th birthday.

This blog is my present to you. I always said I would share your wisdom with the world and now I have finally done it. Please continue to contribute your thoughts, ideas and passion on this blog so that more people can be exposed to your insights.

Lots of love!

John

 

 

Here is an extract from an Australian Broadcasting Company radio interview between a female broadcaster and General Cosgrove of the Australian army, who was about to sponsor a Boy Scout Troop visiting his military Headquarters.

FEMALE INTERVIEWER: So, General Cosgrove, what things are you going to teach these young boys when they visit your base?
GENERAL COSGROVE: We’re going to teach them climbing, canoeing, archery and shooting.
FEMALE INTERVIEWER: Shooting! That’s a bit irresponsible, isn’t it?
GENERAL COSGROVE: I don’t see why, they’ll be properly supervised on the rifle range.
FEMALE INTERVIEWER: Don’t you admit that this is a terribly dangerous activity to be teaching children?
GENERAL COSGROVE: I don’t see how. We will be teaching them proper rifle discipline before they even touch a firearm.
FEMALE INTERVIEWER: But you’re equipping them to become violent killers…..
GENERAL COSGROVE: Well, Ma’am, you’re equipped to be a prostitute, but you’re not one, are you?
The radio cast went silent for 46 seconds and when it returned, the interview was over.