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THE ECHO OF A NOISE

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★★★★  Pieter-Dirk Uys unmasks SA in new memoir

The book gives a complete picture of one of SA’s most relevant commentators who approaches the world with love and not hate.

– Adriaan Roets, The Citizen, 8 November 2018

 

The Mother City’s booming film and television industry is seeing international journalists make set visits to speak to the biggest stars of the small and big screen to get exclusive behind-the-scenes content.

 

I was sitting with a few journalists from Europe and Russia in Cape Town who were interested in the fact that I’m South African and in what I was reading.

 

On the bus, The Echo of a Noise: A Memoir of Then and Now was on my lap.

 

As they peppered me with questions about drought, Lion’s Head, life in South Africa and what books to read to get to know the country and its people, I just pointed down.

 

I had been reading it since that morning and from the first page it struck me as one of the most stripped-down, honest biographies from a local giant.

 

Behind the make-up, the jokes, the doek and outside Luthuli House is a sensitive soul who has worked tirelessly to entertain and educate. And behind the smile it took a toll we never saw. It’s a South African story like no other.

 

Uys lets go of the masks of the likes of Tannie Evita, Bambi or Dr Verwoerd and lets us into the home where he grew up and we see the world through his gaze, a gaze that started questioning the world.

 

We talk about his German heritage, his Afrikaner indoctrination and meet Nelson Mandela with him.

 

The book gives a complete picture of one of SA’s most relevant commentators who approaches the world with love and not hate, telling stories that give international readers a deft, heartfelt and level-headed view of the beloved country.

 

Uys is witty as he recalls interactions with people like Mandela, his strict dad and the people he grew up with.

 

His relationship with his father, his relationship with the stage and his relationship with SA is vivid, beautiful and, at times, sad. It is further brought to life by pictures from Uys’ own photo albums.

 

I hope those journalists read it and learn about one of SA’s biggest stars, because it’s a journey that stays in your mind as you ponder your own place on the tip of Africa.

 

 

The Echo of a Noise: A Memoir of Then and Now

Memoir

Rating: ★★★★

Author: Pieter-Dirk Uys

ISBN: 9780624086918

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Pieter Dirk Uys on discovering his Jewish roots

– Moira Schneider, South African Jewish Report, 25 October 2018

 

When apartheid ended in 1990, Pieter-Dirk Uys thought his career was over. But with the wealth of satirical material presenting itself on an almost daily basis, is he ever going to retire?

 

“I can’t spell the word,” he answers simply.

 

Uys was speaking to the SA Jewish Report on the eve of the launch of his book, The Echo of a Noise: A Memoir of Then and Now.

 

Uys has been a performer since his early childhood, from singing at weddings and in his father’s children’s choir and, he adds, “playing the piano very badly”.

 

Originally, he wanted to be a teacher and completed the first year of his degree, but a trip to Europe, “a life-changing experience”, put paid to those ambitions. “When I went back to my second year, I saw a very glamorous lady in the canteen with a beret and sunglasses and a long cigarette-holder and I thought, ‘Gosh, that’s quite nice!’ I said, ‘What do you do?’

 

“She said, ‘I’m an actress.’ So, I went with her to drama school, and then she said, ‘Why don’t you sign up?’, and I did!”

 

The book, he says, is about the small signposts in his life, of which this incident is but one.

 

The greatest denials in his history are the truths about his mother — her life remains shrouded in mystery. Uys did not know until after her suicide in 1969 that Helga Bassel was, in fact, Jewish, though he says he sensed it.

 

“I think it’s in your soul — your soul has fingerprints,” he surmises.

 

Her paternal grandfather was a rabbi in Hungary, and the accomplished pianist had left Nazi Germany in 1937 — accompanied by her Blüthner piano. “There was no discussion. When we were children, nobody said to us that six million people were murdered by the Nazis.

 

“It was only after I left school that I realised there was far more to it,” he recalls. But, still, he is tormented by the fact that he didn’t ask more questions, both of his mother growing up and of his father after her death.

 

“I know more about Sophia Loren’s family than my own,” he says wistfully, referring to a pen friendship that has spanned over 50 years.

 

All his mother spoke of was the “laughter, music, and happiness” of the Berlin of her youth. Even when her best friend from those days turned up at the Uys home in Pinelands with numbers tattooed on her wrist, there was no explanation.

 

“Is that a telephone number?” I asked. She laughed, and ruffled my blonde hair.

 

“Why don’t you call it, and see who answers?” My first hint of that concentration camp hell — with humour, writes Uys.

 

“There was no discussion about anything that would have terrified [his sister] Tessa and me,” he reflects.

 

One of the things his mother brought with her was the telephone book from 1936, he relates. “There was a hole in the cardboard cover where she had cut out the swastika.

 

“Tessie took it to London, and to this day, there are people who come and look up their families who were killed. But again, that wasn't something we talked about when my mother was alive — it was just there,” he says.

 

Uys relates in the book how he loved going to his Jewish schoolfriends’ homes, how he loved the food, and fell in love with their mothers. His first female character, Nowell Fine, is in fact a composite of some of the 70s kugels.

 

“[Family friends] Charles and Lucy Kreitzer [like Uys’s parents] were musicians, and their children were our best friends — we loved them.

 

“They lived in Sea Point, and we used to love going there because the food was fantastic and there was just such fun! There was much more fun in Jewish families than in Afrikaans families — a lovely camaraderie which we found extremely exciting.”

 

In his book, Uys relates a particularly poignant incident when his sister, today an internationally renowned concert pianist, was being driven to a music eisteddfod. She had said to her mother that her best friend would win the medal.

 

“She’s so musical because she’s Jewish. Oh, I wish I was Jewish!” Tessa had said. “Ma just gave her little skew smile, and said nothing,” writes Uys.

 

“It was protection,” he now says, “of herself, but also of us. I was called names all my life. I was called a Nazi at school because I had a German mother, a Boer because I had an Afrikaans father, a moffie because I sang in a choir, so I think one tried to be very careful not to open oneself up to more.”

 

Did his mother’s denial of her roots and submerging them in a new life contribute to her bipolar disorder, I ask Uys. “Oh I’m sure,” he replies.

 

“Leaving your culture, your life… in the two years before her death, I think there were four of her friends that also committed suicide, friends who had left Germany. But I’m very careful not to speculate, I don’t want to put reasons to any action,” he adds cautiously.

 

Uys loves going back to Berlin, his mother's birthplace, and he and Tessa both perform at the Jewish Museum there using his mom’s piano that found its way back several years ago.

 

“It’s been a wonderful journey of discovery and rediscovery and reinvention,” he reflects.

 

Uys performed in Tel Aviv in 1990 doing Nowell Fine. When I ask how the character was received in a different milieu, he shoots back, “They were all there in the audience!

 

“Now, when I travel, most of my kugel audiences are there, they’re not here anymore. The only kugels here are the black ones, who also sound like that,” says Uys, launching into a raucous nasal rendition of “Howzit doll?!”

 

•     Uys is staging a rerun of “When In Doubt Say Darling” at The Fugard Theatre in Cape Town from 27 November to 15 December.

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Unpowdered, intimate, poignant, and funny, of course!

THE ECHO OF A NOISE: a Memoir of Then and Now by Pieter-Dirk Uys. Published by Tafelberg, Cape Town, 2018

–  Myrna Robins, 22 October 2018  

 

Is it perhaps because he has reached 70, that his writing — while still witty and pithy — has softened, sharing more of his persona? It took only a couple of chapters before I felt I really knew the little boy living in Pinelands, going to school, desperate to join the others wearing long pants, constantly in a state of skirmish with his unbending father.

 

The role of Sannie Abader, the Cape Malay housekeeper who ruled the Uys kitchen and doubled as a mother and friend to Pieter-Dirk, a situation replicated in so many South African domestic households during the middle of the 20th century.

 

For someone a few years older, who also grew up in southern suburban Cape Town with live-in maids, politically aware parents who were anti-Nat but fairly conservative followers of De Villiers Graaff, the world was white indeed.

 

This very human slice of his childhood and early career, his first trip to Europe and to Sophia Loren’s house makes enchanting reading. His student years at UCT Drama school and antics outside of it , another trip to Europe then back in Cape Town to work at the Space theatre and spend time annoying the inspectors of the Publications Control Board follows . In 1981 he performed the first of his one-man shows. As he remarks, 35 years later he is still writing, presenting and performing them...

 

Decades after the death of his parents, he regrets having not asked them more questions, particularly about his mother’s background. Scenarios  like this that resonate with so many of us. Today P-D still churns out so many words using, of course, Windows 10. But always, next to his laptop sits his mother’s portable Underwood typewriter in its battered box, which she brought to South Africa in 1937.

 

As the back cover of this softback tells us “This is Pieter-Dirk Uys unpowdered. No props, no false eyelashes, no high heels...” Indeed. His first two memoirs, Elections and Erections published in 2002 and Between the Devil and the Deep in 2005 were great reads, but in this title I felt I really got to know something of the complex, talented person that he is, perhaps underlined with vivid memories of a matinee at Evita se Perron one spring weekend last year, where he was as brilliant as ever but looking, I thought, tired.

 

Does he ever get tired? The text finishes with a short biography followed by a list of his plays, revues, novels, memoirs, cookbooks and documentaries, feature films and television specials. Looking at that impressive list, one concludes that he cannot ever find time to be tired.

 

Illustrated with a fascinating collection of black and white photographs, ranging from babyhood to the present, a diverse family album that greatly enhances his prose.

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