A Series of Essays by Erik's Daughters

Dog Mad Dad And The Town Clerk ~ by Fiona Chisholm

In mid-January 1957 at the end of the Glasgow part of the Festival of South African Music and Musicians – which fortunately was not all gloom and doom thanks to the warmth of the ordinary Glaswegians we encountered – Dad and I moved to Edinburgh. He intended to use the remainder of his six months sabbatical from UCT working in the Reid Library at Edinburgh University, his old Alma Mater.

What he was doing was a direct result of that long ago family holiday at Millport, when as a boy of 10; he was given a bundle of old music and a handsome leather-bound bound volume containing the Patrick MacDonald airs of 1787. This gift came from a friendly couple called the Stewarts, who ran the boarding house where he and his family were staying.

Over decades, Dad sought suitable words for the 209 Scottish airs which Patrick and his brother Joseph MacDonald had noted with meticulous detail but without recording the words. His endeavours ended in the publication of two volumes of his Celtic Song Book containing 49 songs but he died before completing the lot.

As I was on a "gap" year – more accurately a "floating year" as I had no idea what to do with my life – I spent my time in Edinburgh at Skerry's College on the Brae where I learnt to touch type and write Pitman's shorthand. And, more importantly, I also learnt what to cook for my father in a cupboard-turned-kitchen upstairs in the home of a medical doctor from whom we rented rooms.

That was quite an achievement as he was an impossible eater.

Why his dear mama never sorted him out at an early age beats me. Maybe being born in 1904 he could enjoy 10 years of his fussy youthful habits before World War I broke out and food suddenly was something you didn’t play around with. You ate whatever was out before you.

The items he would not touch read like a shopping list. Egg whites, milk and milk products - like yoghurt and custard and, god forbid, buttermilk. Cereals and porridge, spaghetti or macaroni, cauliflower cheese were all no no's and very few soups were acceptable, although he would tolerate a couple of spoons of a clear consommé.

In the days when he was a carnivore he refused meat and poultry dishes "messed around" as in stews, curries or minced and only enjoyed the best cuts simply done. Fish cakes and fish pies didn't shape on his menus but he relished a whole trout or a lovely sole delicately fried in butter.

His decision to turn vegetarian in the mid-50s reduced even farther the choice of food I could cook. It seemed to be nothing but boiled carrots and boiled eggs, carefully boiled so that he could scrape out the white and eat only the firm, but not hard, yolk.

His years in India during World War 2 inspired him to give up meat.

"All the time I was in India," he announced one Sunday as my mother was emerging from the kitchen with the roast, "I saw signs on buses, which read: 'Love your animals by not eating them.' It seems to me to make sense. I am not going to eat animal flesh any more. Only give me vegetables, Diana."

He was like that. Not for him the lengthy weighing of pros and cons before reaching decisions. His view was that the dreary business of settling something could be resolved equally well or badly more or less instantly without any humming and hawing.

Never did he state his case for vegetarianism more succinctly than in an interview with the late Cyril Watling which appeared in the Cape Times Weekend magazine on May 16, 1964.

I refuse to accept any service whatsoever from any person, government or state which I myself would not be prepared to give in return. I would not take a live pig and cut its throat, nor twist the neck of a chicken. And I would ask no one to do these murderous deeds for me. That's why I don't eat bacon or chicken.

I am a fanatical hater of blood and violence whether it is in the butcher's shop, the battlefield or the prison cell. In spite of the fact that the vegetable world can supply man with all the necessary nourishment for his physical and mental existence and development, the terrible murderous work at the abattoirs goes on unendingly.

I happen to think that integrated, civilized man should be ashamed of such callousness, such inhumanity, such barbaric conduct towards his fellow animals. And I find it hard to understand why the Lord of all Creation fails to respond to the agonising cries of countless animal victims, nor showed the slightest interest in the massacred six million Jews and 10 million Ukranians 25 years ago. Now you know why I said earlier on in this interview that I find it difficult to believe in.

He also spoke buoyantly in that interview about "the glories of the vegetable kingdom" but in truth there were only a few he truly enjoyed. Potatoes, as in chips or crisply roasted, but not boiled or mashed. Boiled carrots, peas, beans, mushrooms, but no cabbage, spinach, broccoli, butternut, pumpkin or brinjals. He picked at salads, especially if they were served with spring onions, peppers, cucumber and a garlic dressing. Any hint of garlic or onion was the death knell of even one of his most favoured feeds, sliced tomatoes.

We were all sceptical about his remaining a vegetarian thinking he would weaken the first time he had to refuse a couple of succulent lamb chops. But he stuck to his no-meat views until his death. No fish, meat or chicken ever passed his lips for more than 15 years.

***

Dad's concern for life highlighted his eccentricity.

Ants must not be killed but helped to forage for their daily forage.

In the days when he sucked digestive peppermints to compensate for the loss of the 50 cigarettes a day, he would deposit a half sucked Imperial mint for a colony of ants in the fork of one of the big trees in the ground of the College of Music.

He would check daily on the progress of the gradually shrinking mint which, lick by lick disappeared into the ant nest until the interior had been hollowed out leaving only the white shell which collapsed at the touch of a finger. Then each and every bit of the shell was carted away by the ants until there was nothing left and it was time for another peppermint to be left there.

There were family rows when ants found the sugar bowl and he urged us to blow them away rather than pick them out and crush. And if any ants gathered around the bath plug to drink water from a slow dripping tap, he was cross if he heard we had drowned them.

He even had a rat, Ronnie, he was called, and who prowled around the bushes near his peppermint tree. Dad was known occasionally to take a piece of breakfast toast to leave it for Ronnie.

Fleas – inevitable because of our umpteen dogs – were madly irritating but also protected.

I'll never forget when about 2am I padded sleepily into the bathroom next to my bedroom in York Road to get a drink of water and found Dad standing in the empty bath, barefoot and bare-chested but still wearing his blue pyjama bottoms. He was holding the jacket in both hands and shaking the top around in a funny way as though it was a flag.

I stood at the door amazed as he pulled one sleeve inside out to examine that seam before giving the sleeve a good shake.

"Dad what are you doing?"

"Hallo, dearie…." he said, unfazed at finding me witnessing this odd scene. "I'm trying to find the blasted flea. It's been bothering me all night."

"And if you catch it?"

"Well, then I'll see if I can edge it towards the plug hole. I don’t want to kill it."

The situation was ridiculous! I could only laugh… and help him look for the irritating flea and when that failed, take water and wander back to bed hoping that the elusive flea hadn't landed on his pyjama leg and gone back to bed beside him.

He also went into battle with the UCT authorities over their decision to cut down some of the handsome old trees in the grounds of the college, including those which were home to the ants and Ronnie the Rat.

When letters and phone calls did not help, he decided to make a stand. He would not conduct or allow the University Orchestra to play at the annual graduation ceremony in the Jameson Hall. There would be no music for the procession of the impressively gowned and hooded academics into the hall and no musical interludes during the ceremony to add to the splendour of the occasion.

My mother was shocked. Her protests and others from his staff fell on deaf ears. But he weakened under pressure and decided to make his point a different way. He put together a programme for the graduation in which every item had a reference to trees!

***

Perhaps because of his love of animals, animals loved him. What wonderful friends and companions he made of the dozens of dogs over the years which followed him like a Pied Piper on his way to the College of Music from our Rosebank home.

But he was an over indulgent dog owner. He let dogs with muddy paws leap up on visitors with white clothes. Without first asking he took his dogs into homes with precious cats and antique furniture. He thought it a bit of a joke when one of our Fox Terriers killed a neighbour's chickens.

Picture of Erik with Towser
Erik with Towser

Out best behaved dog was one we "poached" from an elderly couple. His name was Towser, a sober looking black Spaniel with a bit of other blood in him which resulted in longer legs and shorter ears.

He had been living a quiet contented life in Rosebank, not far from our house, when one day a plumpish, partly bald man with baggy trousers and rope-soled shoes walked past his front gate, followed by several other dogs. Towser decided to follow this interesting procession and spent the day with Dad and his dogs at the College. After the evening walk home, Towser returned to his owners for the night, but rejoined Dad’s procession to work the next day.

Eventually Towser's owners agreed to let him come to us permanently. He was Dad's favoured dog for years and wherever Dad went Prof Towser, as the students called him went too. Concerts, rehearsals, lectures, critic classes, senate meetings too. He was so quiet and well behaved that nobody minded…except on one famous occasion which resulted in Dad having a major row with an usher at the City Hall who would not allow Towser in to the Grand Hall for a concert.

It led to an amusing letter of complaint to the town clerk Jan Luyt on December 19, 1960 and a surprisingly bright tongue-in-cheek response from City Hall on December 29, 1960.

Under the heading "Life's little difficulties" Dad wrote.

Dear Mr Luyt,

Sorry that the first letter I send you as Town Clerk should be a moan. As usher, there is employed for the City Hall orchestral concerts, a granite-jawed, beady-eyed, lofty gentleman who pushes around, holds back and grimly ushers us audiences more than somewhat, with masterly authority and offensive efficiency.

At last night's concert, our aged, quiet, well-trained spaniel Towser, followed our car so we had perforce to let him in and – on lead – take him with us to the City Hall concert. I suppose there is little argument to support our action in allowing Towser in to hear Adolph Hallis play the Rachmaninov Paganini Rhapsody (one of his favourites!) particularly as he promptly went to sleep below my chair – where, after a few minutes, he was spotted by the lofty, dead-pan super usher, who informed us in no whisper that NO DOGS WERE ALLOWED in the City Hall and ordered same to be removed (five minutes earlier Mr Roland Pead had made no objections; on the contrary – have seen Towser at numerous concerts (he goes everywhere with me) gave him a friendly pat on the head).

Your super usher then hung around heavily in an offensive manner, and as the audience around were beginning to show a lively interest in the scene, my wife – mad as hell – rose from her seat, took Towser by the lead, led him off to the car and back home.

This is by no means my first barge with this particular usher (one reason why I cancelled all professional ushers after the opening concert of our recent musical festival was the presence of this objectionable person in the hall.) It would be a kindness to me and many other members of your audience if this Serg. Arlow of the City Hall was replaced by someone else.

Yours sincerely.

Luyt's response was surprisingly light.

Dear Professor Chisholm,

I must apologise for not having answered your letter of December 19 ere this but it has only just reached me after the Christmas recess.

I am also sorry that your attendance at the Sunday night concert on December 18 was marred by an unfortunate series of incidents but the point does remain that dogs are not admitted to orchestral concerts, nor, I am sure you will appreciate, is it easy in any administration such as this to permit of any exceptions, however well trained and musical Towser may be.

I may mention that the usher to whom you have referred in rather uncomplimentary terms was not only doing his duty as an usher but carrying out the instructions issued to him by Mr Davidson, the Business Manager. To replace an usher because he has in fact carried out his duty is something obviously I cannot do.

I hope by now that your temper, as well as Towser's dignity, has been restored and that last but not least your good lady is no longer as mad as hell. If this is so, and I repeat I hope it is so, perhaps we may regard the matter as closed as I would not like anything to mar the good relationships which exist between us.

With kind regards,

Jan Luyt Town Clerk.

One of the saddest things about the divorce of my parents and the end of our family home in Rosebank, was how it also affected the dogs.

Mum was able to keep Towser for a while in her flat round the corner from York Road but when she decided to leave South Africa to settle in England, my sister Sheila took Towser to Durbanville.

In many of the letters that my father wrote to me during the painful time I was berating him over the divorce, he kept asking after the dogs. pleading with me to tell him what had happened to Towser.

I don't think I ever did respond to that plea. And I'm deeply ashamed I did not.

By the time he did return with Lilias to South Africa in 1963 Towser was dead. And as far as I know he never had the chance to own another dog.

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