Wild life

Battle lines

3 July 2010

10:00 AM

3 July 2010

10:00 AM

South Africa

Rarely is Jonathan Clayton, the Times man in Africa, far from the front lines — but this month when I stayed at his Johannesburg house the battlefield came home.

My visits tend to cause distress to Christiane, Jonty’s German wife. Christiane hasn’t trusted me since I got her husband drunk at a Christmas Eve lunch in 1993, when he was my Nairobi Reuters bureau chief. I recall how, just before he downed his last bottle of champagne, he had revealed that all his German in-laws, together with his parents, were staying in Kenya for the holidays. En route home I had put him in a health club sauna, expecting the heat would sober him up. Instead he became dehydrated, passed out and remained unconscious through Holy Eve. His relatives were scandalised, and Christiane has naturally blamed me ever since.

This time I was in South Africa on business. Normally, Christiane starts asking Jonathan when I intend to leave after a couple of days. But this time I pleaded to stay. Soccer isn’t my thing, but I wanted to soak up some of the World Cup history. Born and brought up on the continent, I feel proud that South Africa did such a good job of organising the tournament. But when Clayton announced he was driving to Rustenburg for the England/USA match, I decided England needed my support more than any of the African teams in the competition.

I suggested that Christiane and I tag along. ‘No way will you get tickets,’ said Clayton, who had been invited on a freebie by SAB Miller. But Christiane did not want to be left out either.

At the Royal Bafokeng stadium, while Clayton abandoned us for ‘work’ in the brewery hospitality pavilion, I took Christiane by the arm and guided her to the celebrity entrance. I suspected we’d end up standing on the outside, blowing vuvuzelas in our bobble hats, but no. I quickly found myself standing next to Sir Bobby Charlton — and within minutes I had scored two tickets.

Christiane seemed impressed. She laughed at the England fans in their crusader outfits. In the Royal Bafokeng we were both firm England supporters during the match — even when Robert Green let in that goal. I gave Christiane a George Cross flag and she waved it enthusiastically.

Back in Joburg, I was back in favour for the first time in years. Even with my messy guest bedroom and my hangovers, Christiane offered me breakfast and plates of Frikadellen aus Kalbshackfleisch. In reciprocation, I expressed delight over Germany’s thrashing of Australia.

The atmosphere in the Claytons’ jaca-randa-lined suburb altered suddenly, like the swift onset of an ice age, when it became clear England was to play Germany.

It was at this point that one remembered Jonty’s wonderful father. The late George Clayton had flown perilous Mosquito aerial reconnaissance missions in the war. I met George during the alcoholic 1993 Nairobi Christmas that had caused so much trouble in front of the gathered English and German families. George, formerly economics professor at Sheffield University, was a lovely man who passionately opposed the bombing of Dresden all his life. Nevertheless, during the Christmas festivities Christiane’s stepfather Lothar (who spoke no English) mentioned that he had been injured after leaping from a train seconds before an RAF bomb blew it to smithereens at Peenemünde in 1943. When he heard about this in translation, George (who spoke no German) revealed that he had in fact taken part in the very same raid. Operation Hydra, as it was called, involved the RAF attacking Germany’s V1 and V2 rocket programme. Particularly after Jonathan’s sauna-induced inebriation, everybody was so embarrassed that they refused to translate George’s story back into German for Lothar.

Those memories now came flooding back, and with the old rivalries reignited, I decided to evacuate Johannesburg and hedge my bets. Christiane had an enigmatic smile as I left.

In an England/Ghana match I would have supported England. But now, I told a Zambian friend, ‘I support any African team. After all, I am a white African.’ A few days later, I drew strength from Ghana’s Black Stars 2–1 victory against the USA.

On Sunday I waved an England flag for the last time. A downcast Jonathan sent me a text saying that Christiane was triumphant. He wrote, ‘I think I’m going to change my nationality.’ Absolutely — I’m wearing a Ghana baseball cap.

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