In the past few days France has lost two of its most beloved figures — Jean d’Ormesson (born 1926), writer and philosopher, and Johnny Hallyday (born 1943), rock singer and actor.  The former I know only from what I’ve heard on the media  — an author of more than forty books; one who received the highest honours in France and became a household name.

Jean d’Ormesson

The other, Johnny Hallyday, was a singer I heard about in my teenage in South Africa.  He was billed as France’s answer to Elvis Presley and certainly he modelled himself on the American singer — the body movements;  the sideburns and, of course, the style of singing.  A baby-boomer, he had, by the late-1950s, absorbed American rock culture.

Johnny the Rocker

During the 1960s he radicalized French popular music with the primal force of rock, tumbling his audiences into the dionysiac abysses of ecstatic passion and wearing the restless mien of a moody James Dean.  He tore French popular music from its sedate past, bulldozing his audiences with blocks of the blues, or with full-tilt rock ‘n roll.

He sold 110 million albums and performed in 3,257 concerts.  He acted in 38 films and certainly a better actor than Elvis.  Later in his career he returned, at times, to singing French chansons.  Apart from Elvis, the influence of Jacques Brel became apparent.

Johhny – in full cry

Today the France 2 television channel has shelved all programmes and spent the time reviewing Johnny’s at times tragic life.  The television cameras have interviewed people on the streets, even asking them to sing one of Johnny’s hits, which some have been too emotional to do.

There have been tributes from little old ladies, reliving their youth, from two of France’s past presidents and from the current president.  His death was announced in the French parliament. For everyone the loss feels personal.  A complex man who was married several times, he suffered bouts of depression which he banished by rocketing people into the joy of losing inhibitions through music.  The nation grieves.

© Will van der Walt

Les  Semboules, Antibes

6th December, 2017



France 2 television



Jean d’Ormesson –

Johnny Hallyday –






One from the First World War; one, from the Second … figures in total contrast to each other, as were the wars they fought, different as the trenches of Verdun and the Somme, to the backstreet plotting of the Resistance.

Poilu with Fort Carré (top right)

The Poilu is far from the centre of town, beyond the harbour on the slope of Fort Carré, a formidable figure, uniformed in a thick overcoat, boots, water bottle, food bag and rifle.  From the pavement, with the pedestal, he stands at twenty metres, framed by cypress trees.  The frowning visage gazes far over the Bay of Angels in the direction of Nice.

Frowning, he gazes over the Bay of Angels

On the pedestal on each side, the engraved names … the names … names … Who was Louis Roux?  Whose father was he?  Whose brother?  Whose friend?  Whose son?

The names … the names … 

The word Poilu means hairy or unshaven, typical of the soldiers in the trenches.  The word has also come to mean soldier, referring specifically to the 1914-18 war.  There is a legend, interesting if sad, of the sculptor Henri Bouchard who, after the inauguration of the statue in 1918, committed suicide.  The reason, they said, was that he had made a mistake with the figure: the weapon is in the left hand and should be in the right.

With the firearm in his left hand

The other memorial statue is in the centre of Antibes on Place de la Republique, where crowds stroll to and from the medieval quarter.  This figure has no uniform, no water bottle, no bag for food, no helmet, no firearm.  As a martyr, he is naked.  He does not stand erect as Poilu does; he is wrung between arms and hands.  In his pain, he gazes down.

Memorial to the martyrs of the French Resistance

There were three sculptors — the Meyer brothers from Grenoble and Léon Delsaut, members of the French Resistance and personally honoured by Charles de Gaulle.  Their struggle against a merciless enemy has often been called the war without uniforms, the war of shadows.  This figure recalls for me Rodin’s figure on the Portal of Hell.

Rodin’s figure from the Portal of Hell

It is also at this memorial statue in Antibes that victims of present-day terrorism in France have been honoured.

©  Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

November, 2017



Pierre Tosan : Dictionnaire d’Antibes Juan-Les-Pins. HEPTA Antibes, 1998.



My photos

Rodin –








J.C.E. Seeliger – architect

The first in a series of two

It is interesting how few people know who the first South African architect of note was.  We reach for names like Herbert Baker (Union Buildings, Groote Schuur Hospital, etc), but he was born in Kent … J. Parker, H. Rowe-Rowe, F. Cherry, E. Simpkin, S. Stent … none of them was born in South Africa.  And so, few of us know … probably because architects are strangely invisible and unsung.

            The young Seeliger

His name was Johann Carl Ernst Seeliger, born to Prussian-German immigrants who had actually been on the way to Australia and found themselves, after being defrauded of their possessions, more pleasantly situated in Paarl where their baby, born soon after their arrival, was christened in the Rietdak Church in 1863.  In his late teenage years he undertook a hazardous journey on a barque to Europe and made his way to Berlin where, for the next few years, he trained as an architect before returning to South Africa.   In the late-19th-century the cities of South Africa were undergoing change which would make them largely what they are now.  For an architect these were exciting times.

                      10 Keerom St, Cape Town

His magnum opus, built in 1904, is the building at 10 Keerom St, central Cape Town, opposite the Supreme Court.  This building, in classical jugendstil, was the home of the Burger newspaper for decades, along with various other media agencies.  It was also where Seeliger’s office and studio were throughout his life.

           St Stephens Church, Riebeeck Square

Much of what he did is unknown.  In 1902, he was  commissioned to convert the entry porch of St Stephen’s Church, built in 1800, on Riebeeck Square.  He gave the front door and the flanking windows a Gothic character.  The building was declared a national monument in 1965.

© Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

November, 2017



W.J.v.d.Walt:  Johann Carl Ernst Seeliger – noted architect –  article in Lantern, 1994.

Acknowledgement and thanks to the late Miss Anna Seeliger for information and photographs.

Thanks to Joan Brokensha.  



Seeliger family archive.

St Stephens – Mervyn Hector





J.C.E. Seeliger – architect

The second in a series of two

Seeliger, having been trained by modernists in Berlin, was creative and daring in his designs.  One of his buildings was the Baumanns Biscuit Factory in New Market St in Woodstock, which features a concrete span, revolutionary at the time.  His own home in Camp St, Gardens, featured a sliding door, probably the first of its kind in the country and which has become standard fixture.

       Corporation Chambers, Grand Parade

Other buildings include the Corporation Chambers on the Grand Parade, the Heritage Building on Green Market Square and the Hohenort in Constantia, where Seeliger is honoured by having the conference room named after him. There is benefit in discovering that your Victorian home in Tamboerskloof, Cape Town, was designed by Seeliger.

     Heritage House, Green Market Square

There are buildings dotted around the Cape Colony and Namibia each which bears testimony to his prolific energy.

Paul Weiss-Haus, Luderitz

A dour man, he shunned public life, quietly leaving his monumental mark on the Cape Town cityscape.  He died in 1938.

     Seeliger in his later years


© Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

November, 2017



W.J.v.d.Walt:  Johann Carl Ernst Seeliger – noted architect –  article in Lantern, 1994.

Acknowledgement and thanks to the late Miss Anna Seeliger for information and photographs.

Special thanks to Joan Brokensha.  



Seeliger family archive.






I remain haunted by the memory, from a few years ago, of a woman, heavily pregnant, in the cemetery.  I noticed her at a nearby grave, placing chrysanthemums, as is the custom throughout France, on a marble slab.  It was Toussaint, the first of November.

I went again today, mainly to pay respects to Claudie’s late husband, something she and I have done together in the past.  I suspect too, that it was for those that I have lost in my life as well.


At the gate there were florists selling bunches of chrysanthemums and tulips.  A woman with a collection box was making appeals for Le Souvenir Français, an organization to remember war veterans and to support them.

                      Cemetery, November 1st

Walking through the cemetery, I was struck by how bed-like the graves are.  In Istanbul, probably because urban space is limited, the graves were all upright.

I stood at the plaque for Bernard and I assured him that I take care of Claudie.  Then I made my way back meditatively on the winding path, thinking that Greeks and Romans from two and a half thousand years back might well have had a necropolis here.

A French family passed me walking briskly — two men in conversation, followed by a well-dressed, handsome elderly lady arm-in-arm with a young woman, in animated conversation.  As they disappeared along the tree-lined curve of the pathway, I thought I heard laughter.

© Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

1st November, 2017



Il y a 4 heures





Little Erna jokes

My years in a German community brought me into contact with a joke genre called the Klein Erna Witze.  Most cultures have jokes of this type — either someone arrogantly stupid like Van der Merwe in South Africa, or the Polak jokes in the USA, the Little Lulu jokes in England, the Dupont- Durand  jokes in France or the Schutz jokes in Germany.

Innocent versions for children

The Klein Erna jokes are characteristically risqué, sometimes outrageously so.  They are associated with Hamburg where they originated, based, as sources have it, on the life of a real person, and then morphing by the 1920s  into a distinctive form of risqué naïvity.  The jokes have been refined by the acidic or even dark humour of Berlin.  In the film Downfall, the first German-produced film of Hitler’s last days in the bunker, a man tells a joke, referring to the bombed city, a joke which skillfully renders in English the spirit of Berlin humour:   “Berlin is a warehouse!  Where is your house?  Where is my house?”

Cultural patrimony


The internet offers examples and I share three:

Granny is preparing to go somewhere in the car.  Little Erna says, “Where are you going to, Granny?”

“Just to the cemetery, my child.”

Little Erna ponders this. “But who will bring back the car?”

A media portrayal of Klein Erna

A second:

Little Erna asks her mother, “Is it true that storks bring babies?”

“Yes,” says her mother, “it is true.”

Little Erna ponders this.  “But who bonks the storks?”

A third, in true Berlin vein, and in my opinion, darkly cathartic:

After the war, friends come urgently to Little Erna.  “Is it true that the Russians raped you, little Erna?”

“Yes,” little Erna says. “Nineteen times.”

“But that is shocking.  It’s terrible.  And your sister?”

“Nah,” little Erna says, “she didn’t want to.”


© Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

October, 2017



The Flockemann family

Wikipedia: Klein Erna Witze

Klein Erna Witze



A media image of Klein Erna








“The Day before you came”

If life is a journey, one of the regions I revisit is music.  My musical taste has a range that bewilders me.

The Day before you came was a song produced by ABBA in 1982.  It did not achieve great sales as had their other music.  It was different from anything they had done and it fed my suspicion that ABBA were probably better than they appeared to be.  In Frida’s opinion this song was the best lyric that Benny ever produced.  And I was amazed at the range of critical speculation about the meaning of that lyric.

For me, the song is a ballad of Miss Everyone, living a life of routine, probably meaningless, doing what a person would do in the last 25 years of the 20th-century,  almost a time-capsule — she catches the train, reads the leader article in the newspaper, buys “Chinese food to go”, watches Dallas on TV.  But it is all set against the backdrop of her reverie — “I must have … I must have …  I’m sure I …” and so on.  It is as if, in her vulnerability, she is not sure of anything she did on the day “before you came”.  For me the “you” is a lover, if I have to judge from their oeuvre, though there are some surprising, even disturbing, speculations.  One of these speculations is that the “you” is end of their time as a group.


The poignancy of the song, with its hypnotic verse motifs, is intensified by Agnetha’s solo performance, not obviously supported by the operatic Frida.    The “rain” image, mentioned at the beginning, is in the last words:

And turning out the light 
I must have yawned and cuddled up for yet another night
And rattling on the roof I must have heard the sound of rain
The day before you came

 The recurring three-note embellishment on the electric piano plaintively seems to suggest this rain.

Unusually, the song ends by rising into a light wordless chorus that takes the sadness into the night sky.

A few other songs come to mind that have a similar effect on me — a healing catharsis.  They are Autumn Leaves (Kosma/Prevert);  Eleanor Rigby (Beatles);  Melancholy Man (Moody Blues) ;  Once I loved (Jobim); L’Ete indien (Dassin).  I’m sure that everyone has their collection of songs or instrumentals that touch them.   The Day before you came does that for me and it does not date.  There is one critic who feels that this song may be the saddest in pop repertoire.


© Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

October, 2017



Wikipedia: “The Day before you came”

 You Tube:  “The Day before you came”  








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