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.
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.
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?”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…