Books, covers, etc

When I joined the JWT ad agency in London during the Autumn of 1971, one of the first accounts I was asked to cut my teeth on was the South African Wine Farmers Association (SAWFA). This presented me with a moral dilemma. Being Left-Wing and clueless, it didn’t occur to me to investigate the details about SAWFA: it was South African, and ergo sum it must be Bad. No way was I doing anything to support Apartheid.

My Kennedy Democrat boss Judie Lannon was a little distressed at this impasse, and tried to explain how SAWFA was a model employer. But I wasn’t having any of it. I knew it all, didn’t I? I was a Politics graduate for crying out loud.

But there was another, much older woman in the Creative Research Unit. She was in charge of consumer recruitment for research samples, and her name was Patricia Chiswell. Pat was – like most people in JWT at the time – more cut-glass than Waterford Crystal. I suppose I saw her as an haute bourgeoise who must be 97 at least. She was probably a fraction over 50: I thought she was smashing, but I also thought she hadn’t a clue about politics, right, wrong, race or indeed any of the subjects in which my own wisdom was of course universal.

One morning, Pat pitched up at my desk around noon and said c’mon, we’re going to lunch. This was clearly an order not an invite, and so I said fine, let’s go. At the time, JWT had an expenses code number, ‘H47’. To a few privileged employees, it was a licence to become morbidly obese at the company’s expense, as its official designation was ‘Staff Motivation’. Anyway, off we went to a long-since deceased eaterie called Serafinos.

As we played with bread sticks and ordered the usual pre-lunch G&T – the past is another country – I learned that far from being a product of Roedean, Pat Chiswell was South African. The story that unfolded taught me never to prejudge…and was also quite amazing.

Patricia Chiswell had founded a chain of ultra-upmarket fashion shops – particularly renowned for its hats – in 1950s Johannesburg. She was married to a nationally-known radio personality called Peter Chiswell. His catch-phrase – “Be-Beep” – was an integral part of a weekly Saturday show for kids on the main State channel. (In those days, the Nationalist Party kept TV away from the populace as a dangerous foreign influence).

Pete Chiswell was a distinguished Second World War fighter pilot. Oxbridge educated in the 1930s, he wasn’t a Communist – but he was virulently anti-Fascist. Before South Africa even bothered to get its conscription act together in 1939, Peter stowed away on a ship to England, and immediately joined the RAF.

Twenty years later, Peter and Patricia lived a life of unimaginable privilege right at the top of the social scale among the South African white minority. Together, they nurtured an image as the perfect conformist couple. They seemed about as political as Donald Duck. They lived in a massive house in Joburg’s best area, and their society parties were legendary.

But in fact, the couple were working hard for the ANC. Peter was slotting code-words and phrases into his radio broadcasts to inform black activists about this or that development or danger. Patricia meanwhile was funnelling untaxed cash from her rich clientele’s purchases into foreign ANC bank accounts.

During the summer of 1961, things turned very, very nasty in Nationalist South Africa. The ANC formed a military wing in May of that year, and the Chiswells wondered whether they could continue to support terrorist violence. Their ruminations became somewhat academic when, shortly afterwards, Peter received a phone call from a sympathiser. The voice used an immediately recognisable code: get out now. Chiswell rang his wife, telling her to grab their passports and meet him at Joburg airport. They left everything behind, and caught a flight to London that afternoon.

During that 1971 lunch a decade later, Patricia patiently explained to me how SAWFA was not only a model employer, but also a Liberal Party supporter under constant BOSS surveillance. But after she’d finished – in a most matter-of-fact way – telling me about their lives in South Africa, I really did feel something of an inadeqate prick. The bravest thing I’d ever done was throw eggs at Harold Wilson on his arrival at Lime Street station in 1968.

“In 1959,” Pat told me, “I asked my cook ‘You won’t kill me after the revolution will you?’ And she said, ‘Oh no ma’am, I’m going to kill the people next door – they’re coming round here to kill you’. She then giggled, but I was never entirely sure how much was gallows, and how much humour, in that response”.

A great deal of life is about learning to be humble about some stuff. I didn’t feel humiliated by Pat – she was the kindest of people – but I was humbled by her account. And I went to work with gusto on the SAWFA account.

28 thoughts on “Anecdotage

  1. All the many South Africans who fought for the allies in the Second World War did so as volunteers. General Jan Smuts, the prime minister, who fought as a Boer general during the Boer War, in the interests of not dividing the new nation, and despite supporting the war effort in every other way, never instituted conscription. The absence of so many idealistic young men from the country enabled th Afrikaner Nationalists, who both overtly and covertly supported the Nazis, to spread their influence and create avower base within the civil service, leading to victory in 1948.


  2. Goodness! You brought a lamp into some long forgotten memories. Does it ring true? The reverberations are so strong I wonder if I will sleep tonight.

    Perhaps those of you who know me a little will now know why my parents met in London, and I never lived in South Africa until my grandfather died in 1978 – there being nobody else to look after the family farm.


  3. Were you on target ?

    I remember all the controversy caused by Paul simon with Graceland, I couldn’t see any harm coming from it, only potential for good. It made me start to question my assumptions.


  4. Similar personal experience with an American corporation called ITT who were a conduit for CIA money flowing to Latin America’s military juntas keeping the commies under control in America’s back yard.


  5. @Stevie

    I loved that album.

    My first memories of South Africa – apart from the sparse living (no running water, no electricity) – was no decent radio.


  6. I was working in Zambia in ’75 when the ANC were doing their stuff in Lusaka, so much so that we, employees of a large multi-national, were forbidden to visit the falls. I never saw ‘the smoke that thunders’ – but I did hear the identical story of my steward killing the family next door while their steward slaughtered me and mine. Funny that!


  7. Quite right. The Saffers took forever to declare war in 1939 because of the splits between English and Afrikaner speakers. The Canadians similarly never instituted conscription because of the French Canadian problem.


  8. @trainwreck

    I am pretty certain that servants (after all, that was what many were in those days) were very loyal to those they knew well. There were times when this was genuine, and times when it would just be said for the benefit of the baas. You will know from Zambia how scared many of the whites were of the black population; I have to say that this was something I found puzzling for black people have an amazing ability to smile.

    There is also the tale told to me in the late 70s by friends in Natal that when they were travelling up the highway to J’burg they were cut up by four black men in another motorcar. He drew a gun on them, for them to draw four in return – and I have heard that from other quarters too. I have no doubt to mistrust the people telling me these things, armed men in South Africa was not unusual. In the Cape Town the murder rate was the equivalent of NYC – and whilst we were there had our house burgled nine times in as many months. Not one time did they come through a window or a door! When the dresser went over the cellar door, they came in through the roof-tiles.


  9. Excellent article John. I’ve come to look forward to them, usually with a glass of red wine. ‘The past is a different country’ – never was a truer word said


  10. None of the ANZAC countries had Conscription. The only colony which had conscription was Rhodesia, and that was because the entire male population, and many of the female, volunteered. The only way they could keep a skeleton population in the country to keep it ticking over was to introduce conscription.

    The British in South Africa educated Nelson Mandela, a farm boy, to become a lawyer. He is now 90 odd. We created businesses and wealth that fed millions. But the brains in Whitehall, fe at their desks who have never created a thing said we had not done well enough and that Mr Mugabe et al would do much better!

    On their hands the blood of Africa!


  11. A great story John.

    My work in the NHS as the characters I have been privileged to look after there taught me similar lessons.

    The engineer who was also a poet…. The Shetlander who flew with Bader ….. the list is endless.

    The rest of us must simply try to do our best.


  12. Hmmm. So the Chiswells connived to bring an end to white rule, and then when – as would have been obvious to anyone except a white liberal – the blacks turned against the whites, the Chiswells fled. Bully for them. Shame about the many whites too poor to flee SA, several thousand of whom have been tortured and murdered.

    Interesting, too, that the Chiswells promptly fled to a white country. Where will their grandchildren flee when the UK and the West is no longer majority white and is subject to similar dysfunctional and deadly non-white rule, thanks to the same suicidal liberal dogma? This time, there won’t be anywhere to run.

    White anti-racist liberalism. The gift that keeps on giving.


  13. @ADB

    Wat weet jy van? Jy Engels en jou nabygeleë huise.Ons het geen geld nie. Maar ons het daarin geslaag om na Europa en ‘n lewe te maak, ten spyte van mense soos jy!


  14. ANC have proven to be worse than useless, but the dumb masses will still vote them in reductio ad Zimbabwum…meanwhile the cream of SA – minds sorely needed in that country – continue to seek greener and safer pastures for their families in Canada, NZ, USA, Aus, Europe.


  15. “During the summer of 1961, things turned very, very nasty in Nationalist South Africa. The ANC formed a military wing in May of that year, and the Chiswells wondered whether they could continue to support terrorist violence. Their ruminations became somewhat academic when, shortly afterwards, Peter received a phone call from a sympathiser. The voice used an immediately recognisable code: get out now. Chiswell rang his wife, telling her to grab their passports and meet him at Joburg airport. They left everything behind, and caught a flight to London that afternoon.”

    I think it will be discovered that it was the imminent arrest of the Chiswells by the state in 1961 not an imminent race war or settling of scores that encouraged their swift departure.

    As usual, I agree with J.W.’s analysis that events bear greater scrutiny than afforded by the MSM, but also note that his evidence here is on the sketchy side. His reading of South Africa is as superficial as his “go to” east German one.

    As a sidenote : google translate is useless for Afrikaans as it is also for Thai. The use of the double negative in Afrikaans is one of the factors.

    I speak quite a bit of it but am often flummoxed by the colloquial, written form that mixes a lot of slang into the usually misspelled mix. It is the only language where I use a buddy to translate for me into English. Thai, on the other hand, is a lost cause.


  16. Hi,

    I’m Peter Chiswell’s granddaughter.
    I am documenting his life story.

    I did not know this part of it well, I had some pieces but you have filled in some critical parts.

    Is there an email I can contact you on?

    Best regards,


  17. They fled to England because my grandfather was british and thus had a passport and was able to work there. Kind of a normal thing to do. My family also housed many black ANC political exiles. Get your facts straight before you pass your righteous know it all judgement on people you know and have never met.


  18. Hello John,
    I am intrigued by your story above – please could you e-mail me as I would like to know more about this story but not on a public blog site.


  19. Having read your “MAINTAINING A SENSE OF BALANCE: Don’t clip newspaper articles, gather real evidence.”
    DECEMBER 8, 2013, I am delighted to see that you do value the gathering of evidence before publishing. You think “It’s important to get all these facts straight before we start”. You are scathing about “un-informed crowds” who are so “easily manipulated” and depressed by “the ease with which others continue to soak up all this groundless rubbish”…”despite mountain ranges of evidence” These opinions of yours rather contradict your outright dismissal of my first hand knowledge, as their daughter in law, and the evidence I suggested you could check, on the internet, for your story above, “Books, covers etc.”


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