A Series of Essays by Erik's Daughters

Life in South Africa ~ by Morag Chisholm

The End of World War 2 was signaled to us by fireworks on VJ day, while we were on holiday in Arran, in the late summer of 1945. Little did we know then how life with father would change. Not long after this we learnt that he had been appointed to the Chair of Music at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and were soon to join him there.

Picture of the College of Music
The College of Music

My father flew directly from Singapore to South Africa and Diana and we three girls sailed on the Carnarvon Castle to Cape Town, arriving in June 1946. It was a tough journey. The Carnarvon Castle was still fitted out as a troop ship, with twenty-eight passengers (same sex!) to a cabin; she had no stabilisers so the Bay of Biscay rollers were frightful. We arrived safely though and were met by father at the docks. On seeing him for the first time in over a year my spontaneous comment was 'How old you look, Daddy'. He was only 42 years old and had had a tough time in Singapore. What a crass remark! - but I got a huge hug all the same!

Picture of my father shirtless in Singapore
My father shirtless in Singapore

The Early Years in Cape Town

My initial impression was that I had arrived in Paradise. Officially it was wintertime, but to us it seemed like summer. For six months I often pinched my thighs to make sure I was living this for real. Cambria, our first home there, was wonderful. Just below the University of Cape Town

Picture of the University of Cape Town
University of Cape Town

It had extensive views of the suburbs below and Table Mountain behind. The huge garden had many trees including lemons; also chameleons which I adopted as pets, poor things. A grand piano with an enormous basket of fresh fruit with sweets on top was an amazing sight/temptation to us war-starved kids used to a ration of 3/4lb sweets per month and rare fresh fruit. I remember giving the dentist in Glasgow, a gift of a banana for crowning my two front teeth.

Musical Progress

I couldn’t wait to play father my rendering of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata - I put my heart and soul into it. I will never forget his comment… "Mo dear, that was terrible, let me show you how", a well-deserved criticism, I soon realized!

He was renowned for being a severe critic; for example, he might say to a student studying singing that he/she should take up the piano, for which remark they would later thank him. Desiree Talbot writes in her book "For the Love of Singing" (OUP 1978) Laura (Searle) and I would laugh at the change in our fortunes. She who sang a small part, became a pianist and I, who was a silent priestess, became a singer.

I had a good alto voice & studied clarinet for a couple of years but definitely was not equipped to follow in father’s footsteps. For the four years until I started university, my mother, my sister and I were all active in College of Music events. Early on father organised a comedy presentation "Carnaval Fantastique" in the Jameson Hall (UCT graduation hall). Amongst other acts was one featuring the very Scottish Chisholm family - EC, wearing a kilt (a rare event) my mother, Diana, and me.

Picture of my father in a kilt
My father wearing a kilt

I don't remember much of the dialogue written by my father but I do remember us singing "A wee Scots sparrer sat on a tree, a wee Scots sparrer sang on a tree, a wee Scots sparrer sat on a tree, and warbled awa’ as blithe as could be"

It didn't take long for father to get Opera on the Cape Town scene, opening with "Iphigenia in Tauris" in December 1946. The following year came "The Magic Flute"; we, his three daughters, attended so many rehearsals we could sing almost the whole opera. In his years at the College (1946-1965) he conducted the University of Cape Town Opera Company in over fifty operas many at the Little Theatre but also provincial tours and the occasional tour outside the RSA. Never a man to promote his own music, of the 542 performances given in that period only seven were his.

School/University Days

Having just turned 13, I should have gone to Junior school where I would have had to learn Afrikaans, which would have been useful, but difficult. However, I was advanced in Mathematics, Latin & French and accepted into the Senior School. A spin-off of this was that in 1950, then only 16, I started at UCT Medical School, a benefit of my transfer from the UK to the RSA school system. From an early age I had wanted to be a vet: several factors made this impossible in RSA. Unbelievably there was only one vet school in the whole country, that at Onderstepoort, an Afrkaans-speaking college which then had an input of only 15 students, all male. Medicine was the next best thing, entrance for which was having a First Class Matriculation result. For all my life I have been grateful for the fates that directed this change of course.

Marriage and Further Developments

Picture of Ralph/Morag & Bagpipers coming out of Church
Ralph/Morag & Bagpipers coming out of Church

In my third year of this 6-year course, I fell in love with a 4th year student, Ralph Wright, and we got engaged in August 1952. Unusual in those times, we decided to take a six-week elective at the Charles Johnston Memorial Hospital (known locally as the "Charlie J") in Zululand over UCT's summer vacation. On telling father of this he looked up at me and quietly asked 'Would you two like to get married before you go?' We were delighted, of course, and set the date for 12 December.

No quiet registry ceremony for Erik Chisholm's eldest daughter! We were married in the local Presbyterian Church and a reception for 500 guests was organised at the College of Music. Bagpipers piped us out of the church, then up the long winding drive to the Grand House and later for the dancing. My mother excelled herself doing the Highland Fling on one of the tables.

That simple question by my thoughtful, prurient father was a major action that has shaped my life. Impatient kids that we were, we had our first daughter in 1954, a planned pregnancy, I always hasten to add. Two years later on my graduating MB ChB from UCT we received a letter from the two missionary doctors, Maggie and Anthony Barker asking if we would return to run the Charlie J while they went to the UK on sabbatical leave. This suited us very well and we worked there for the whole of 1956. Following on from this we had four remarkable years at King Edward the VIII, the 1000 bed African teaching hospital attached to the Durban Medical School. Ralph wrote his MD thesis on "The Treatment of Tetanus". I worked full time in a Paediatric unit which didn't put me off having two more children.

One day in early November, 1958, I had a phone call which was to lead to a unique experience in my life with father.

Janacek Festival, Brno Czechoslovakia

One Monday morning in early November 1958, father called me from Cape Town to ask if I would like to fly with him on Friday for a 3-week trip to Czechoslovakia. He had been invited, with accompanying person, to attend a Janacek Festival at Brno. I replied saying "What a fantastic idea but there are several problems..I have no passport, I need to get leave from my job, I'm not sure if Ralph would want me to go and I am 5 months pregnant.

Picture of book cover
The Operas of Leos Janacek

All these difficulties melted away and four days later I joined father at Johannesburg Airport and we flew to Brno. We had a wonderful time, stayed in the Grand Hotel, saw nine major operas and then went on to East Berlin to see another production of "The Cunning Little Vixen." Seven years later, father's book 'The Operas of Leos Janacek' was published posthumously by Pergamon Press and is now available on the ECT website.

How These Years Of Life With Father Shaped My Life

I have described briefly the impact on my life of leaving Glasgow for Cape Town, South Africa in 1946 and the subsequent fourteen years spent there until I returned to the UK in 1960. This move to Cape Town brought about a completely new life for me and the whole Chisholm family. Here in South Africa - with his appointment as Chair of Music, Dean of the Faculty - was a new world for fathers musical energies, also a reliable salary though still no extra money for clothes! Wonderfully however, there was enough food, quality schooling and university education for us three girls, for me at a first rate medical school.

I was blessed too with close involvement with father’s music at concerts, opera performances & our visit to Brno for the Janacek festival. All this gave me, at first hand, a love and understanding of opera in particular (father wrote 12) and his many other compositions written at his grand piano, in our home in Rosebank.

In later years when I retired from a long successful career in medicine, I was well equipped by these experiences to take on chairmanship of the Erik Chisholm Trust, which I set up in 2001. Love of music was always there but love of my father's music and of the man were engrained in me, growing up beside him in those South African years.

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