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Roamin' in the Gloamin'
CHAPTER XXIII - SOUTH AFRICA


IN 1920 I went to South Africa under the direction of Ted Carroll. On the steamer going out was the late Lord Leverhulme, the British millionaire who started life as a small grocer somewhere in the Midlands and ended up by being one of the greatest industrial magnates in the world, employing tens of thousands of people and controlling many millions of capital. His lordship and I had many interesting chats as we promenaded the decks or lay in our chairs enjoying the breeze of the north and south Atlantic. Like so many men who have risen in the world by their own unaided efforts he was inclined to be masterful in his manner and outlook. He was keen to know all about my early struggles; I remember him saying that nothing was more fascinating to him than stories of the personal conflict, by which I suppose he meant the early struggles of men who had made good in their own particular careers. And he amused me very much by telling me that my name was quite familiar to him but he had never heard me on the stage—he had never had the time!

I asked Leverhulme if he thought that success was a matter of good fortune or determination. He replied that he was firmly convinced that every man was given his chance at one time or another but that success, in the ordinary sense of the word, might be regarded in different ways by different people. Far too much store, he urged, was put on financial success. The man who spent a lifetime trying to invent some new process for the betterment of industry and succeeded in the end; the author who took twenty years to produce a masterpiece of literature; or the doctor who devoted his life to the battle against yellow fever over there—nodding his head in the direction of what used to be called the White Man's Grave in Africa—all scored successes in life against which the acquired millions of a commercial potentate or a financier counted as very little indeed. The trouble is, went on his lordship, that people today place far too much store on purely material success. "You yourself do not go all over the world today singing and acting purely for the money you earn—am I not right?" I confessed, as any man faced with such a question has to confess, that there is something above and beyond the monetary rewards of individual success whether you are a soap-merchant, a bridge-builder, a warehouseman or a comedian—" Yes," I replied, "I do it because I like doing it; it's my work and if you like your work you enjoy it all the more when the pay is good!" Lord Leverhulme laughed at this sally of mine, remarking that the philosophy of it was unanswerable up to a point. I could see, however, that his thoughts and mine on the subject of success marched pretty closely together—the fight is the great thing in life if in that fight you do not trample on other people, if your personal triumphs, your acquisition of wealth or power do not spell misery and oppression to others. I told his lordship of an old man I knew in a London suburb who made barely enough to live on but who spent all his time making ships' models and whose dearest aim in life was to leave behind him the most perfect model of an Elizabethan warship in the world. "Did he do it?" asked Lord Leverhulme. "He did," I replied. "Then he was one of the world's most successful men!" said Lord Leverhulme, and we went below for lunch.

This talk of ours on success came back to my mind forcibly on the day of our arrival at Cape Town. I was accorded a most wonderful reception on stepping off the gangway and en route to my hotel. Many, many thousands of people assembled to see and cheer me. The Cape Town police, on their famous white chargers, were all on duty; the newspaper reporters were out in full force. It seemed to me that the famous city at the foot of Table Mountain had gone on holiday to greet Harry Lauder. The scenes reminded me of my first visit to Sydney in Australia—they were overwhelmingly enthusiastic and I kept asking myself what I had done to deserve a welcome so cordial and so spectacular. Later I was told that the returning South African generals who had played such a magnificent part in the great war and in the subsequent peace negotiations in Paris, London, and elsewhere had not been given so wildly colourful a reception as I had received. Instead of pleasing me this information rather saddened me but I comforted myself with the reflection that there are lots of things in life that are unequal and rather difficult to understand! Lord Leverhulme and Harry Lauder stepped off the same boat; the former drove to his hotel with one or two personal attendants and friends. I had to play the actor's part to perhaps fifty thousand smiling, hat-waving, huzzaing men, women, and children. I leave it at that.

My opening week at Cape Town saw the theatre stormed every night by far more people than could get into the house. Those who did get in gave me tremendously warm receptions. I had to sing so many songs that the acts of the other performers had to be "cut" almost to vanishing point; most evenings I was "on" for the better part of two hours. One night early in the week the Governor General, Lord Buxton, came with his, entourage and occupied the principal stage box. At the end of my performance I went over and shook hands with his lordship. He warmly returned my greeting and invited the to call on him at Government House the next day. This incident caused a great deal of talk in Cape Town. Nothing like it had ever been heard of in South Africa before. The idea of an entertainer presuming to act in this familiar manner with the representative of His Majesty the King shocked certain people but all I know is that the audience shouted themselves hoarse with delight and that I was constrained to do what I did by the very evident enjoyment my "turn" gave to his excellency the Governor.

Cape Town is a fine city with a truly magnificent situation. There are many lovely drives all round the district and almost every day I motored out to places of picturesque or historic interest including Groote Schuur, the noble mansion house and grounds presented by the late Cecil Rhodes to be a permanent residence for the reigning Prime ,Minister of South Africa. I do not think I have ever been in a finer house anywhere in the world—and certainly not in one more gloriously placed or with a better view. Having a profound admiration for Rhodes and his wonderful career I naturally went to see this famous man's tomb when I got north to Buluwayo. It is the most solemnly impressive burial-place in the world. Away up in the bleak wilderness of the Matoppo Hills, surrounded by giant boulders which must have been thrown skywards by a gigantic upheaval too terrible for the mind to contemplate, Cecil Rhodes, empire-builder, sleeps his last lonely sleep. He selected his own grave. Rhodes may have been ruthless in many ways but he had great vision and immense courage and his imprint on South Africa will last for ever.

Our tour took us to all the States in the Union and to every city and town of any size in Cape Town, the Trans vaal, the Free State, and Natal. In Johannesburg I played for a full month. The demand for seats was so excessive in this city that record prices were charged and I remember Ted Carroll handing me a series of weekly checks which —well, which read a whole lot better to me than writs for debt! It was at the end of my inaugural week at Jo'burg that my manager passed over to me the biggest check I had ever taken for a week's work in my life up till then. How much did it represent? I can hear some of you ask. I'd hate to tell you. But I ear-marked it for a new Rolls Royce on my return home! Mind you, I had no compunction about charging the Jews in Johannesburg for the privilege of hearing me because the Jews like to give money to Scotsmen. And I should think that two-thirds of the inhabitants of the city are of the ancient faith. I met many of them and they were all very kind to me. At the hotel where I was living a well-known member of the race kept me in fits of laughter telling me stories against his own people.

"I suppose, Sir Harry," he said to me one afternoon after lunch, "you think that the gold industry is the chief business in Jo'burg? Veil, you're wrong. It's bankruptcy! There are more people go bankrupt out here than in any other city in the world. The trade in bankruptcy is very flourishing. Did you ever hear the story about the two Jews in Jo'burg who were drawing up articles of partnership before their lawyer? No! Veil, the lawyer goes all over the articles before the final signing and suddenly says, 'But there are no mentions of fire or bankruptcy—I have made a mistake, these must go in!' 'Quite right,' says the partners speaking at once. 'Put them in but the profits are equal in both cases!'"

Some years ago, I believe, a League of Gentiles was formed in Johannesburg with the avowed object of curtailing the powers and the prominence of the Jews. So far as I was able to judge this league had not made any substantial progress up till the time of my visit. New York and Jo'burg seem to me to be the Jerusalems of the modern world. I don't know what we Scots are going to do about it, speaking generally, that is. But I have certainly done my duty in both places by taking pretty substantial toll from the Israelites within their borders!

One of the greatest compliments I have ever received was paid me in Johannesburg. The Kaffirs were tremendously anxious to hear me and would have paid any prices to be admitted to the theatre. But in South Africa the colour line is drawn very strictly. So the natives drew up a petition, or, at all events appointed a deputation to see my manager and ask that I should give performances at which natives only would be present. The idea was to take a hall somewhere and give one or two special matinees. This request so touched me that I expressed my willingness to entertain "Kaffirs only" if a sufficiently large hall could be secured for the purpose.

But certain difficulties presented themselves and the scheme tell through. Later I visited one or two of the principal compounds and encampments and spent a few very pleasant and amusing hours with the Kaffirs and their chiefs. They are fine upstanding fellows—splendid physical specimens every man of them. Writing about the natives of South Africa reminds me that at Burban I met a Basuto doctor whose command of English was considerably better than my own. In fact he amazed me by his polished and fluent talk. He knew all about me and my career. I asked him in considerable astonishment how this came about. "Oh," he replied, "I was educated at Edinburgh and often heard you sing in the good old Empire in Nicholson Street!" He added that he had a full collection of my records in his home and that occasionally he took his gramaphone to the hospital with which he was connected and played my tunes to the patients. There must, I think be something "international" in my voice or my manner of singing that makes a strange appeal to the peoples of all races for I have met Chinese, Japanese, Maories, Philippinos, Red Indians, and even Esquimaux who are familiar with my records and enjoy my tunes though they don't all understand the words. It is extraordinary and I have long given up trying to explain it even to myself. I have never been back to South Africa but I have had many warm invitations to return and when, perhaps twenty years from now, I really set out on my positively final fare- well tour of the world I must renew the pleasant acquaintance of the interesting folks of that fascinating land!

 


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