My parents took me to Paris, London, Brussels and Rome in January 1971. I’m not sure if this was a reward for completing high school or an attempt to curtail the amount of time I would otherwise have spent working on my tan and trawling for dates on the beach below.
The London leg opened up an opportunity to connect with an English line of the family: Dinah Silverstone (nee Saltman), her husband Mark, their children and grandchildren. Dinah was my grandfather’s first cousin and the closest in generation that I would ever get to Harris. She was in her seventies by the time I met her and all I can remember is how small she seemed. If this was an indicator that Harris may also have been short of stature, then it didn’t occur to me at the time.
I should have paid more attention to Dinah. But my interest lay with someone much closer in age to me: her granddaughter, Esme.
Esme – or Tabetha, as she preferred to call herself – was everything that I wanted to be. Slim, pretty and clad in the latest fashion: a flower print dress pinned at the waist, its hem rising just above knee-high leather lace up boots. Boots that I could only dream of wearing as the thickness of my calves prohibited their progress beyond the realm of my ankles. Tabetha – with a cigarette perched between her elegant fingers, smoke coiling upwards – was so cool that whatever shred of self-esteem I might have had evaporated altogether upon meeting her. And to make matters worse, she was such a nice person!
Compared with this picture of perfection, I felt like a lump of lard from the colonies, my thighs jammed into too tight trousers, a baggy sweater hanging off my broad swimmer’s shoulders, mismatched colours screaming at each other. An example of how not to appear in any company let alone that of newly acquainted relatives. What must they have thought, I wondered? And why had my mother – who had worked for many years in the rag trade – not made any attempt to make me look like a mensch in front of these people?
In the wake of this encounter, my parents took me to the Kings Road and bought me a trendy black leather coat with fur trim at the hem and cuffs. If this was designed to lift my spirits, then they had succeeded.
I still have the coat even if I have little opportunity to wear it in a city where night-time winter temperatures rarely dip below 6C.
Several years later, I approached Dinah’s other daughter, Hermoine Berton, the keeper of that family’s archives. She was unable to shed any light on my grandfather. I regretted that my brief encounter with her mother – by then deceased – had been an opportunity lost, but the time hadn’t been right for me to ask questions.
At this point, I shall return to the proposition that Winston Churchill stayed at Saltman’s Hotel in Fordsburg, Johannesburg, in 1899.
I have since consulted the most reliable source of information available: Churchill himself (see Young Winston’s Wars, The original despatches of Winston S Churchill, war correspondent 1897-1900, ed Frederick Woods, 1972).
Churchill’s despatches make no mention of his having spent any time in Johannesburg in 1899.
For most of his time covering the Anglo-Boer War, Churchill was in the company of the British army led by General Sir Redvers Buller. On their march to Pretoria in early June 1900, the British troops halted in Johannesburg for a couple of days to rest and reprovision. At this time, it is possible that Churchill may have sought out quarters separate to those of the troops. But his despatches do not specifically disclose his living arrangements and the possibility that he may have stayed at Saltman’s Hotel remains just that: a possibility.