THE FADING MARGIN: serial 24

Chapter TWELVE

Going Up Late

Part Six

The picture (if we may so generously call it) that I found in the overcrowded attic some months ago has been executed on a large unframed canvas board which has obviously been knocking about for some considerable time: the colours of the acrylic paint are dulled and the board itself is warped. Though it is a lamentable piece of work, its crudity cannot conceal an attempt to copy one of the most famous French Impressionist paintings in the world. Without knowing the provenance of the amateur work, the presumption would naturally be that the copying must have been done from a photographic reproduction. The presumption would be wrong; the perpetrator was working direct from the 1882 original. This I know for certain: the hand that wielded the brush was my own.

In December, 1954, J.C. Masterman asked me to come and see him to talk about a job in South Africa which he thought might suit me if I were not already otherwise committed. He had been asked by his friend, Harry Oppenheimer, who had been an undergraduate at Christ Church when “J.C.” himself was a don there, if he could recommend somebody as tutor to a son and heir who needed bringing up to speed in French and Latin before sitting the Common Entrance exam in England. Would I be interested? Wondering whether to spend half a year six thousand miles away from the general run of things in Europe would be advisable for a man who was already a late starter and had a lot of catching up to do, I hesitated over my answer. “The Oppenheimer connection”, interjected the Provost meaningfully, peering intently at me over his spectacles, “is a very large one, Buxton”.

It is not easy, now, to comprehend the extent of the ignorance and lack of worldy wisdom which denied me any but the most superficial and fleeting appreciation of  what the Provost had said. I knew (I don’t know how or why: it was just one of the things one did know) that the Oppenheimers were very big in diamonds and gold. I did not know that through Anglo-American Corporation, the company which his father had founded and of which he had become chairman, and De Beers, of which he was also chairman, Harry Oppenheimer controlled most of the country’s diamonds, more than 40% of its gold, half of its coal and nearly a sixth of the world’s copper, owned a stake in a multiplicity of South Africa’s most profitable businesses and was one of the richest men in the world. What difference it would have made if I had known is impossible even to guess.

A few weeks later, I met Harry and his wife, Bridget, at their house in Belgravia, flew to Johannesburg early in the spring to be greeted by Harry at Johannesburg airport with a dark green Mark VI Bentley, which he hoped I would find “all right” for my personal use, was driven back to what might have been an English country house in extensive grounds where the night air was scented with gardenias and was installed in a suite of rooms where his wife hoped I would be “all right”, but if I needed anything I was to be sure to say. The house was Little Brenthurst, the smaller of the two mansions on the Brenthurst estate. Harry’s parents, Sir Ernest and Lady Oppenheimer, lived in the larger one. The painting that had been the subject of my attempt at copying hung above the chimney-piece in the drawing room, where Sir Ernest was inclined to spend more time sitting in a high-backed chair than in his library and where I had first been introduced to him. On that occasion the two of us had been left together while Harry went off on other business. After talk about his adored grandchildren (Nicholas, aged 11, and Mary, aged 13), the conversation had drifted to Sir Ernest’s reminiscences of his early days in Kimberly, which I had found enthralling. When eventually I left to go back to Little Brenthurst Sir Ernest had convincingly said that I would be welcome to come and chat with him at any time. I had done so, had been bold enough to ask if I might try to copy the famous Impressionist masterpiece and had been enthusiastically encouraged in the attempt. Sometimes, I would indeed spend my time at the big house, daubing on my canvas board. Sometimes, the holdall containing my painting things would stay unopened while Sir Earnest talked about the old days on the Rand, fascinating me with his reminiscences of Kimberly when the 790-feet deep Big Hole of the diamond diggings was still no more than a deep depression in the land owned by farmers called De Beers.

In the months that followed I was treated as something between a member of the family and a house guest, with tutorial sessions almost incidental.  When Harry and Bridget went south to Cape Province to visit friends they took me with them, thus introducing me to Cape Province and Cape-Dutch architecture. In some of the most elegant dining rooms imaginable belonging to some of the loveliest houses on some of the loveliest estates in the world (ghosts of their 17th-century past still haunted them, I swear) I tasted wines from vineyards of scarcely rivalled beauty. Travelling now and then with my host on his business trips, I saw something not only of the Rhodesian Copper Belt but of the alluvial diamond territory of German South-West Africa. At the sorting belts near Walvis Bay, on the desert Atlantic coast of the future Namibia, they gave me a little chamois leather bag full of agates and garnets segregated from the more valuable spoil of the mechanical scoops. At some expense in London I had half a dozen of the larger and prettier stones polished and set as handles for coffee spoons. The beneficiaries of my injudicious largesse have long been forgotten, but occasionally I come across an errant garnet or two in a seldom-visited drawer of odds and ends. The trip subsequently provided the subject of a conversation at the Oppenheimer table with the majority shareholder of one of the world’s largest shipping lines. Enthusing about his love for deserts as well as the claret that we were drinking, he told me about metabolic water; the means, he said, by which many desert creatures and migratory birds survived. Such dinner table small talk, my own contributions rarely more than that of supplying an eager audience to the knowledgeable expositions of others, memorably included a measured rubbishing of Ernest Hemingway by an American Democratic Presidential candidate, a diatribe against publishers and literary agents by a man who was shortly to become the author of a world best-seller, a rhapsody in praise of orchids by a Knight Commander of the British Empire (DSO), who had been a major-general in the British Second Army and was now a helicopter salesman, and a dissertation by a high-ranking policeman about illegal diamond buying in Sierra Leone. The head of one of Britain’s secret services gave me his card and encouraged me to give him a call some time.

We flew by private aircraft for family picnics to an isolated ranch on the high veldt, where I was entrusted with the care of my adept pupil when he pleaded to be allowed to go hunting with an air rifle. Only when I had children of my own was I fully to appreciate what such trust must have entailed on his parents’ part. They had a racing stable and from time to time his mother would tell me that I had done enough tutoring for the day and would take me with her to see one of their horses running. Once, looking with her at the contestants for the next race parading in the paddock, I thought that the animal we had come to see was simply more handsome by far than any of the others and said that I proposed to back him to the tune of a fiver. “I forbid you”, she said charmingly but seriously. “Tim (the trainer) says he’s only running him to give him a feel of the course and that he can’t possibly go the distance”. The horse was first past the post. That evening an envelope was delivered to my room with cash amounting to what a fiver would have earned me at a starting price of twenty to one.

They were six never-to-be-forgotten months and for the most part memory has not failed me. I worked a little in the most enviable of circumstances and spent much of my off-duty time in the mostly attractive, high-flying, high-achieving sort of society that went with the territory, wondering sometimes a touch wistfully what the eventual and inescapable coming down to earth would be like. It was autumn when I got back to Sussex, and although the mists and mellow fruitfulness were all very well I knew that I was going to miss the Mark VI Bentley, the Bollinger and the crisp dry air of the Rand.

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