Tuesday, 24 April 2012

The Jewish Cemetery.

When I originally photographed the CWGC graves in Brixton, Braamfontein and Westpark, it was inevitable that I would end up having to photograph graves in the Jewish section of these 3 cemeteries. Unfortunately, accessing the first two was problematic as they were always locked and well cared for.
In 2011 things changed. The buildings in both of these cemeteries were demolished and suddenly the gates were gone. Unfortunately that also meant that the random vandals, squatters and metal thieves had access to everything inside these formerly closed off areas, and deterioration is the result. 

Brixton Jewish Cemetery Feb 2012.
To exacerbate matters, the fence around Brixton has literally been stolen, there are huge gaps where before a well maintained fence used to be, now access is through anywhere, including the front gate. Granted, grass is being cut by those responsible for it, but it is very worrying to see the many toppled stones, where before there never were any.

Braamfontein is still "fenced", but the gate is gone. Of the two cemeteries Braamfontein is historically the more important of the two and as such should be protected. 

Braamfontein Jewish Cemetery June 2008
There are a lot of pre-1900 headstones in Braamfontein, and an extensive children's plot, sadly numbering and names  have been lost so finding a specific grave in these large children's plots could be a matter of guesswork. 
Children's plot. Braamfontein Jewish cemetery.
The balance of the cemetery is still in a reasonable condition, although it is one of those places where you have to watch where you are going or you will fall over something. The headstones are spaced very closely and getting any distance from them for photography is difficult. The one side closest to the fence is heavily treed and some graves cannot even be seen amongst the trees and bushes. There is also evidence of squatters making their home here, and litter is a problem.


Yet, in spite of their sparseness I found these two cemeteries very interesting, unlike the general areas of the cemetery which is a hodge podge of people, these are the visible history of a community with its own customs and traditions. The demolishing of the two buildings was the beginning of the end for the sanctuary of these two places, and unless something gets done quickly we could find they decline so rapidly that reversing it will be impossible.  



Already the office at the small Roodepoort Jewish plot has been vandalised to the point where it will fall down without any outside help, or get carted off piece by piece.  However, that cemetery is already in a poor condition, and nobody really seems to care anymore.

Roodepoort old cemetery Jewish Plot
It is sad that this history just doesn't seem to be relevant anymore, it is all fine and well preserving these places, but who do we preserve them for? Realistically the only people with an interest, are those who have families buried within the confines of the cemeteries, or genealogists, or people like me who find solace and history amongst the legions who rest all around them.

Postscript. October 2012.
I was contacted by somebody that I had done some photography in Brixton for, he asked that I go check the cemetery as there were reports that it had been heavily vandalised. He was correct.


Roughly 100 headstones had been toppled, either as an anti-Semitic attack, or random vandals who had too much to drink. There was no way to know. Unfortunately, the grave of his family member was amongst those that had been toppled. I reported back on my findings, and by the time I left South Africa the fence had been renewed and access to the Jewish Cemetery was no longer possible. It was a little bit too late for those toppled graves.



Tuesday, 10 April 2012

100 years of the Titanic

On this date, 10 April 1912, the RMS Titanic set sail from Southampton, and into history. It is a well known story that has been analysed, filmed, written about, speculated on and done to death. My own interest in the ship came about when I read about the spot where she had gone down, that ships avoided for fear of encountering bodies. In later years I would raid the local libraries for books about the ship and try my best to obtain a model of her.


Skipping forward to 1985 when the ship was rediscovered, and those heady days when myself and an aquaintance started what was to become the Titanic Society of South Africa. Come 1986 and at last we could see proper images of the ship, and the many secrets that she had. 


Then the vultures gathered and soon Titanic was being picked clean by those intent on bringing up as much of the ship as they could lay their mechanical grabs on. Skip forward to December 1997 when the James Cameron Titanic movie hit the screens and a whole new generation discovered the ship and got totally confused, thinking that Jack and Rose were real people, and that the movie was historically factual. 

In 2000, I was able to see the artefact exhibition up close. And, it was one of those moments of revelation. The many personal items on display brought it all home. The story of the Titanic is not the story of  a luckless ship that hits an iceberg, it is really the story of a group of people thrown together by extraordinary circumstances. It is about tragedy, arrogance and  a totally different age of travel. So many books have been written since then, some good, some mediocre, many inaccurate, some drivel. Theories abound as to why the ship sank, and why Captain Lord got a bad deal. There is even the big insurance swap theory, and aliens get mentioned in a certain cheesy magazine.


Like so many others who used to study the ship, I no longer have much of an interest. My own collection has been mostly broken up, and if somebody would come along and make me an offer I would dispose of the rest of the collection too.  The mystery is no longer there. Pictures are a dime a dozen, and the commercialism of the wreck has left a sour taste behind. Shipping groups are still invaded by hordes of "Titanic fans" who vehemently insist that Titanic was the best ship ever! Sadly, they suffer from delusions and chase other ship enthusiasts away who just want to read about ships that actually completed their maiden voyages. 


The Titanic Society of SA is long gone, I dropped out of it in 1999, and I have no idea what happened to its assets and liabilities. Some relics of those early newsletters still exist amongst my files, I have some books, files of newspaper articles, a poster or 2, and diecast models of Olympic, and Brittanic.  I even have a shirt, purchased at the exhibition, with Titanic emblazoned on the spot where a pocket should have been, but I don't wear it.

There is one Titanic curiosity in Johannesburg in Braamfontein cemetery, and for a time we used to lay a wreath there at the anniversary. I also have a list of possible Titanic connections to South Africa which makes for interesting reading.

The one piece of irony is that I don't think the White Star Line ever considered that their most unsuccessful ship, would also become their most famous. And,  I doubt whether they ever considered that long after they were gone, her name would still be synonymous with disaster at sea.  

Stuck in the mud!

It was one of those days. My gut instinct was telling me "don't go to Reefsteamers today", while my gut was telling me "you need exercise!" . The reason for heading out to Germiston was the Easter Train operated by Reefsteamers that was due to depart at 10.30 on a round trip. Not much else was going on because it was a public holiday so off I went.

Everything went well until I came to the abysmal track that is used by RS as a road to access the depot.  In rainy season this track is a quagmire. We hadn't had rain in yonks so the assumption was that that the road was passable. The first giant puddle should have served as a warning, but I didn't really have any problems with it. The next puddle was a different puddle altogether, it was more like a bog and I ended up bogged down to running board level halfway through.


Now people may scoff at my strange car, but the yellow peril and I have been to many odd places where cars like mine should not go. The situation was bad, this road is literally in the middle of nowhere, with a squatter camp close by and nothing between it and the depot. I tried a few movements to try gauge how badly I was stuck, but the mud was very deep and I was soon up to my ankles in it. Fortunately I was wearing boots or my shoes would still be in Germiston. 

I decided to lock up and try for help from RS, but they were busy trying to get the train underway and there was no help forthcoming from them. I never really had a good relationship with RS, the days when I was working at the depot I kind of did my own thing and nobody really took  much notice of me. Back to the car I trudged, noting an even bigger puddle a few bends further on. There was no way I would have gotten through that one either! What worried me was the type of puddle I was in, that yellow mud was mine sand, so it was probable that the water was upwelling acid mine drainage, after all, we hadn't had rain here in ages. 

I tried packing stones and bricks and rubble behind the wheels but to no avail, and eventually I decided to call my insurance company for help. Fortunately they had a roadside assistance that would send out a tow truck to yank me out. While I was waiting, a train of 6E's came howling along and I was able to capture them with my video camera, and, while I was filming, my cellphone rang. What amazed me was that over the noise of 4 electric units at 25 metres, the camera was able to record my ringtone, even with my phone in my pocket! The mike on that camera is a very selective one. Shortly thereafter, the tow truck arrived and dragged me out. Thank you MiWay Insurance and Easyway Towing for your help.


Looking back at it all now, I shouldn't even have tried traversing that puddle/swamp/quagmire, but there is no real way of knowing the depth of these things until you are in them. Once I was back on the road I went around to the diesel depot gate and went to RS depot, passing by the one building that may have housed the DB for the telecom cables in that area. I was a regular visitor to these parts when I worked for the railways in Germiston.

At the depot there was no sign of the train. And nobody could tell me how long it would be before she arrived. I walked up and down, taking pics while I idled the time away.


I enjoy walking through the depot with its silent steam engines and empty coaches, its a place of reflection and wonder. When I used to come here in 1985 to do faults the depot was in full swing, with a busy coal stage,  bustling workshops and steam engines galore. Today it is like a ghost town. I stopped to visit "Susan", the former station pilot from Germiston, she was in the workshop with her smoke box agape. This class 12AR is the only one left in the country, and amongst the 3 oldest working steam locomotives in South Africa. She is being prepped for her boiler inspection and we are all holding thumbs for her.


The one bright part of my wait was the arrival of two 6E1's who made all the right noises. Part of the fascination with these units is the resistance blowers that makes their noise very distinctive. These units are destined for extinction as they slowly get withdrawn or rebuilt into 18E's. These units, as well as my ringtone enhanced ones are available to see on my youtube channel



Some passing diesels helped entertain me until eventually I heard the distinctive steam whistle in the distance. Janine the 15F was in charge, but she was running tender so first photography wasn't great. There isnt really much to see when the front of the loco is buried into the coupling of the first coach of the train. But I grabbed some video anyway.  Finally, after navigating the maze of points in the yard, Janine and train were safely inside the depot,


and I was able to film her as she was moved to another line inside the depot.  The train was 2 hours late due to a late departure and a delay at New Canada. That I am afraid is something outside of the control of anybody. 

Then it was time to head off home. My car was in dire need of a bath both inside and out. So was it's owner. My jeans were destined for the dustbin and I was headed for the bath. I had aches and pains in place I forgot I had, and the photography had not been as good as I would have liked. Phew, what a day!