PHILIP DE VOS does not write like Karel Schoeman or Breyten Breytenbach but he has received almost every local literary award. The latest is the 2023 Children's Literature Prize (Afrikaans) for his book Tokkelossiebossie en ander dol gedoentes. He was also recently honoured with the Federation of Afrikaans Cultural Associations' Jaap Steyn prize for the promotion of literature.
He is also a former opera singer, radio presenter and photographer. He is the octopus man with tentacles that taste everything. Even so, he doesn't take himself at all seriously.
In situ in Green Point
At first, I planned to conduct the interview on an overhanging rock on Table Mountain. Scrambling dassies and leaking clouds. Just something unusual, even in a hot air balloon or on an oil rig.
Well, one makes brilliant plans then the weather decides for you. For our Cape rendezvous, the day was a gruelling 31°C with scorching whirlwinds. The blue mountain was a fata morgana vibrating in the background.
So, we hung out in my other writing room, the cool and dark Vasco da Gama Taverna in Green Point. A journalist should preferably not drag himself into an interview, but I couldn't help it.
I met Philip 40 years ago through the late actor Limpie Basson when I was 18 and had a pretty rambunctious attitude. “Yes," agreed Philip. “At that time I held a private photo exhibition with only invited guests and then you just turned up too. I thought: man, he's got some chutzpah."
We have lived within walking distance of each other in Green Point for decades. Over the years, I have often run into him and his partner of 43 years, Peter Theron, on the beach or in the Adelphi shopping centre in Sea Point.
They are hospitable and cook magnificent vegetarian dishes. Both are refreshingly humble — no marching music or clanging cymbals.
Philip grew up in a small house in Cricket Street, Bloemfontein, as part of a family with three children. Their house was next to a cricket field but he was not interested in sport.
He did see an advertisement in Die Jongspan for a boomerang that interested him. When he received it in the post, he hurried to the cricket field where a friend threw it so far that it landed among bushes. It was gone, as was his participation in any sport.
“Weekends were long and drawn out, nothing happened," he says. A dog barking somewhere, an old person's coughing fit. Families sat in their cars with tea and padkos along the main road and watched the cars go by.
“The only excitement was the annual circus and the Gala, an amusement park where there was a big Ferris wheel. A jollification in the big nothing with laughing and squealing — and outside the dead city."
He started taking singing classes after his high school years. However, his first role had been in primary school when he played a singing statue.
His relationship with his father was turbulent because the elder man hoped Philip would one day take over his timber and coal business. He went on to study a BA instead of a BCom.
Philip was also emotionally bullied and his father called him his roving child. This, Philip believes, is the driving force that keeps him moving and making a noise.
From one of his verses: “Bitterbos, o bitterbos / skud jou bitterbessies los / Vanaand soek hierdie ronddwaalkind / nét bitterbessiekos.”
Philip's unpretentiousness is refreshing in a stuffy milieu where the tiny Afrikaans literary establishment sometimes consider each other so important that it turns into a carnival of Joker with his bloody mouth.
He studied languages at the then University of the Orange Free State and also received a teaching diploma. In the Afrikaans-Dutch class, a fellow student was Karel Schoeman, who showed no interest in Afrikaans and was openly writing an English novel.
“I don't want to think about those days," says Philip. “I preferred school." He wanted to flee Bloemfontein for Pretoria, but then got a job at Cape Town High School.
It was 1967 and he drove his red Cortina GT to Cape Town, where he went to live in Saasveld, a boarding house for young people in Kloof Street. “It was another world, the mountain, the Company's Garden, the sea, I couldn't believe it."
He hardly knew anyone but did make new friends, such as the opera master Angelo Gobbato through singing lessons. In his Bloemfontein years, he played comic singing roles on stage and he realised he liked funny character roles, especially acting.
He began performing freelance opera roles for the Cape Performing Arts Board (Capab) and moved to a boarding house at the bottom of Kloof Street — he realised only later that it was an inn for sex workers.
Goodbye, Mr Chips
In time, Philip decided he wanted to be a full-time freelance singer and resigned as a teacher. Casually, he says he also stopped smoking, probably unconsciously to take care of his voice. “I smoked up to 60 cigarettes a day. The 15th of January sounded like a good date to quit, I can't remember which year.
“One day I was sitting in the old Wine Barrel bar with a cigarette. My watch showed it was January 15th. I didn't even know what day it was. I still had 10 cigarettes left. I smoked them right then and there, the fumes were like clouds. They were the last."
After five years of freelancing, his mother urged him to return to teaching. Here, the first dark descent into an immense depression began, to such an extent that he hallucinated. The figures in paintings began to speak to him.
These unpredictable depressions have followed him throughout his life. He talks about them openly. A melancholy mixed with roguishness hangs over him. In his work one senses the soft hand of sighing, longing, but with an undertone of mischief.
He found education suffocating and wanted to experience the freedom of singing again. He got a job with Capab's full-time opera chorus. Over almost 20 years he acted in more than 60 roles.
He also started taking pictures of people such as Karel Schoeman, Christine Basson and other creatives. Fifteen exhibitions followed, and prizes.
Photography already excited him as a child when his mother bought him a Donald Duck camera. He learned everything himself.
“My technique is that I don't make people smile. Please don't show teeth, it takes away the character of your face."
It is written on his forehead
Around 1973, he started writing playful verses for fun. “There is no money to be made," he says. “I do it because it's fun.
“If the publisher Leon Rousseau hadn't asked me why I don't write children's verses, I probably would never have thought of it. The former publisher Kerneels Breytenbach suggested I write limericks, otherwise it would never have happened.”
Over the years, Philip worked closely with illustrator Piet Grobler. He published more than 30 books, translated flat out, and more than 20 local composers have set his poems to music.
Our chat comes to an end. Philip holds up a finger, it's completely crooked. “It's because of Brinji, our Staffie," he says. “She loves people, but when she sees another dog she goes wild.
“One day she pulled the collar so hard, my finger broke. We love our Staffies, there was Toffee and Winnie, all girls. I wept uncontrollably over the ones who died.”
Philip still writes verses. He goes to the gym often. “When I get there, my head is a clean slate. When I walk out of there I have a verse."
In March, he and Peter will be leaving for Kleinmond after 30 years in Green Point. “Partly for security reasons, but also because no one here calls me any more, only one person," he says. “Jan du Toit, the artist.
“In Kleinmond there is a feeling of people around you. I'm 84, it's time for good old movies and a sense of community.”
Nevertheless, during our conversation his phone rang. It was his neighbour, Vicky Taljaardt.
“She always takes pity on me when Peter is in Kleinmond," he says. “I can't talk now," he answers quickly and in a whisper.
He ends the call.
♦ VWB ♦
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