EXTRACT: Pieter-Dirk Uys as a 70s ‘poepgat’
An extract from a forthcoming memoir 'Echo Noise', exploring Uys's childhood and family
I’m not twelve years old anymore. I’m seventy-something and she’s eighty-something, but once upon a time I was sixteen and she was twenty-seven. How did I come to know Sophia Loren? I’d just finished matric and Ma gave me the best present to celebrate my freedom: a return ticket to the Northern Hemisphere. ‘Here, Pietie, go and see where I come from.’
First, the twelve days on the Union Castle ship from Cape Town to Southampton. Then British Rail to London in the freezing English winter. I sat shivering as I looked out of the window at the houses with their funny little chimney pots and TV masts. I saw television for the first time in London. And yet so much was familiar for me, having been brought up with Enid Blyton’s books and the Carry On films. The British way of life was part of my way of life. BBC programmes on SABC. Even the Goon shows. I only laughed then when I heard the recorded audience laugh. I went to the theatre with Betty Jones, an old friend of Ma’s, to the Old Vic. I saw a production of Othello with black Othello played by Britain’s greatest actor, a white man called Laurence Olivier. To me his name sounded very Afrikaans: Lourens Olivier.
I travelled on to Germany, not to Berlin because there was a wall around it, but to Wiesbaden where I met Ma’s friend Onkel Franz Michels and his wife Tante Friedel. She made me her Wienerschnitzel.
‘Ach, Pieterchen, meine Wienerschnitzel sind die besten der ganzen Welt!’
‘Ja, vielen Dank, Tante Friedel!’ I didn’t let on that Sannie’s Wiener- schnitzel in Pinelands was better.
I continued to Paris to see the Mona Lisa, and was quite shocked she was so small. Finally, I went to Italy. To Rome. Because She lived there. I had a black-and-white picture cut out from Oggi magazine of a young, beautiful Sophia Loren leaning out of her apartment window, waving at the camera. In the background was an ornate lamppost and a Roman ruin.
Rome is full of ornate lampposts and ruins. For the next three days, armed with that picture, I went around Rome looking for the right lamppost and right ruin. I found them in the shadow of the Victor Emmanuel Monument. I stood under the window of Sophia’s apartment. I wrote a letter: ‘Dear Sophia Loren Mrs Ponti. I am in your beautiful city of Rome and love it. And I love you and your work. I have all your pictures in my scrapbooks and on the wall of my room at home. Much love from Pieter Uys, U-Y-S pronounced A-C-E’ (in case she thought it was a spelling mistake).
As there was no security barrier in those days, I simply went up to the first floor and knocked on the door. A woman opened: ‘No, Mrs Ponti is filming in France, but I will see that she gets it.’ I ciao’d and she ciao’d, and I left on a cloud. My letter for Sophia was delivered, so I had finished my adventure in Ma’s hemisphere and I could get back on the boat to Cape Town and Pinelands. And Sonskyn.
Waiting for me was a letter with an Italian stamp. On the back, written in her own hand: ‘from Sophia Loren’! This great film star had bothered to write a personal letter to a little poepgat from Pinelands, South Africa. I wrote back to her at once and she wrote back to me. I answered her and she answered me. That’s how our pen-friendship developed, until one day she sent a letter that changed my life: ‘You will cry one day, but not now ... Be brave.’
I eventually met her in 1975, in Paris. I hadn’t gone there to see the small Mona Lisa. I knew Sophia lived on Avenue George V on the fourth floor of a luxury apartment block, because it said so in my scrapbook. I took presents for her and her two little boys.
‘Dear Sophia Loren, I am here in Paris staying at the Hotel de la Paix on the Left Bank and want to drop these presents for you with love, much love and always love from Pieter from Pinelands.’
In the foyer stood the concierge in his uniform and cap, unsmiling. I stumbled in, arms full of gifts and tried my rehearsed French. ‘Bonjour, mon General. Pour Madame Ponti?’
I opened my passport. Next to the small official snap of moi was a big colour cutting of her. I showed him. ‘Sophia Loren?’
‘Non Sophia Loren,’ he snapped and wagged a finger.
I reverted back to my mother tongue. ‘Ag nonsens, man! Ek weet sy woon hier, want dis in my scrapbook. Hier is die presente. Neem hul op na die vierde vloer, asseblief en dankie. OK?’
And he said: ‘Oui!’
So I left the presents in his capable hands and went back to my cheap hotel, which I was dreading. The woman behind the reception desk was like a KGB agent in a James Bond film. She’d been so rude to me earlier that morning. I didn’t speak French and she wouldn’t speak English, except, after a projectile vomit of French consonants and vowels, the verdict: ‘You-cannot-use-the-bathroom!’
As I approached the hotel, I saw her on the sidewalk. She looked towards me, saw me and waved. She was smiling! ‘Monsieur Arse? Monsieur Arse! Sophia Loren! She phone for you in my hotel! Sophia say she love you! . . . You can use the bathroom!’
I was to go to her apartment for a drink at 6pm. And I was ready by 2pm.
I was ushered into the lounge by her secretary, a room so familiar because I had pictures of everything in my scrapbooks – the Francis Bacon painting to the right, the thing she got from the Vatican to the left, her Oscar on a plinth, all the Bambi Awards she had from Ger- many in a row. Even the black dress she wore that evening with the big red rose across the front was in a picture on the wall of my room right next to where I opened my eyes in the morning. When she walked into the lounge wearing that dress, it was as if the picture had floated off my wall with the most familiar smile in my world.
We sat on the carpet and sorted out the heap of South African stamps I had brought for her two boys. They were in their pyjamas, excitedly pointing out the buck, lions and elephants on the stamps. Sophia picked up one of the longer stamps. ‘Edoardo? Chipi? Look: An elephant’s tooth.’
‘No, Sophia,’ I said, ‘you have it upside-down. That is the Afri- kaanse Taalmonument.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘It’s a monument to the Afrikaans language.’
‘Why?’ asked Sophia Loren. ‘Is it dead?’
I should have taught her her first Afrikaans word: ja-nee.
When you grow up in a small city at the southern tip of a very large continent, and you realise that your cultural DNA is trapped up in the Northern Hemisphere, you learn to adore from afar – Sophia on the covers of Italian and German magazines; Marlene Dietrich on her LPs, which had me singing the Berlin songs I’d learnt from Oma Bassel. I saw plays by Noël Coward and Tennessee Williams at the Hofmeyr and Little Theatres. But the greatest inspirations came from the people around me in Cape Town and the Cape Flats. Their humour, their talent, their stories have made me believe to this day that dreams can come true.
I have been lucky enough to grow up swaddled safely in the duvet of peace. I was born in September just after the end of the Second World War. My parents hadn’t said, ‘We cannot bring a child into this terrible world.’ To this day I have never needed to escape from the guns of war.
I did, however, have to go to the South African navy. It was memorable mainly for the discovery of young men my age who were from utterly different backgrounds from me. There were very few fans of Amadeus or Sophia. It was in the mid-1960s when the lid was still firmly screwed down on the boiling cauldron of black power. The navy was white and Afrikaans. Our God was the same fearful Father I got to know in childhood. Our thousand-bylaw Reich was an accepted fact. I never put my foot on a ship, but I had a helluva time!