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Deep in the past: Michele Magwood talks to Kenneth de Kok about his book Going Back to Say Goodbye: A Boyhood on the Mine

Kenneth de Kok recalls an era from 60 years ago, writes Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times

Going Back to Say GoodbyeGoing Back to Say Goodbye: A Boyhood on the Mine
Kenneth de Kok (Kwela)
*****

In this slim gem of a book Kenneth de Kok casts back to his childhood in the mining community of Stilfontein, in what was then the Western Transvaal. It covers the years 1954 to 1961, but De Kok bookends the memoir with more recent scenes. In the first, he returns to South Africa to visit his dying father, Steffen. Their farewell is awkward, what he could and should have said he didn’t. Instead, “I looked at him for one long instant and then kissed him on the top of his head as though he were a small, sleepy boy.” At the end of the book his own son Steffen, a doctor with the Red Cross, takes him to a site in Israel. De Kok is confused at first until he realises that Steffen has found the old airstrip where his grandfather and namesake was based during the war.

It’s an affecting, poignant scene but De Kok holds tightly to the emotion he feels. Where many memoirists would stray into sentiment he pulls back ruthlessly throughout the book. “I hoped that any intensity or emotional impact would be subtle,” he says in a phone call from his home in Canada, “that it wouldn’t be a sad or overly happy story, that it would just be. I presumed the reader could supply context.”

He plays out just over two dozen scenes from his childhood. They are distilled, the writing deceptively simple. In less than a paragraph he elicits entire scenes, such as this of a friend who has cancer: “All his hair had fallen out and he had a red handkerchief wrapped around his head, like a pirate. He scared me. He smiled a lot but had terrible headaches. I felt sorry for his brothers, who just sat quietly and looked at him and at their parents.”

There are games of kleilat and marbles, matinee shows of cowboy movies, church on Sundays and holidays on the South Coast. There are insults of rooinekke or hairybacks, and the rigid hierarchy of the mine that extends to the children. “My dad can fire yours,” they jeer.

Unlike other homes in the bare and dusty mining town, theirs is full of books. “When kids come over to play they ask, ‘What are all these books for?’ There are shelves all the way down the passage, stacks of books on bedside tables, piles on the desk, boxfuls in the built-in cupboards.” His younger sister is ballet-mad; only late in the book do we realise that she is, of course, the esteemed poet Ingrid de Kok. It is largely because of Ingrid that De Kok wrote this book.

“A few years ago we started exchanging various memories of our childhood, I’d write a piece and send it to her and she would reply with a piece of her own.” Eventually he had a collection and Kwela agreed to publish it.

Running like a seam through the stories is his relationship with his father, a respected metallurgist and a strict and decent man. He loves his father, his stories of the air force, their constant games of cricket, but Steffen was, he says, “less emotional, more withdrawn, typical of the men of that generation who’d grown up during the Depression and fought in the war.” The reader senses that he leaves much unsaid about their later relationship, when De Kok gets involved in student politics and then emigrates.

At the end, when his son takes him to the sites of Steffen’s war, he muses, “Seventy years have been swept over the falls and into the void since he flew over this city. What does my son, standing beside me, know about my father? And then the lonely thought: what will his children, in turn, know about me?”

In Going Back to Say Goodbye he provides a quietly eloquent answer to that.

Follow Michele Magwood on Twitter @michelemagwood

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