Tony Sparks: NORTHERN RHODESIA & ZAMBIA 1963 – 1967

I’d just turned 17 when my father who worked for the Rhodesia Railways was transferred from Salisbury to Broken Hill in the January of 1963. I had a brother and sister a couple of years younger. On the whole those were happy years and much of my later life was influenced by events during those five years, two spent at school and three commuting to Cape Town. Already I had a life that had been shaped by music, theatre and dancing. It was to continue. So there was this 17-year-old of “artistic” bent i.e. “different” which as you will see caused me problems during my last two years at King George VI High School.

The day I arrived at my new school auditions were being held for a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to be directed by the English teacher. If we’d stayed in Salisbury my school there was also mounting a production of Shakespeare’s play and the teacher who would be directing it had told me she wanted me to play Puck (a fairy!). Guess what? I landed the role of Puck. And just to add to coincidences it turned out that the two teachers had played opposite each other at Rhodes University. The review in the local paper, the Broken Hill Observer, said something along the lines of “…perfectly cast as Puck”.

I had come from a school that mounted regular productions including end-of-term variety concerts. Except for the Shakespeare there seemed little else happening – not even a teacher who could play the piano! I think it was the end of the first term that the headmaster was retiring and as nothing had been arranged in the form of a farewell I asked if I could arrange a variety show on his last day. It proved to be such a success (particularly with the boarders who enthusiastically offered to take part as it gave them extra curricula besides the odd sport) that the word spread to parents who also wanted to see what their off-spring had been up to.

First day of the new term, and a new headmaster from another school, wanted to meet the head boy and girl and prefects (I was one). His first question was “Who was responsible for the concert at the end of last term?” One of the local ministers of religion had heard about it and complained that there had been a strip-tease – true; it was done behind a sheet with back lighting and Gill was wearing a swimming costume! But because there had been some positive comments along with the requests to see it, he gave his permission to stage it for one evening performance. As the show had been fairly short I said it would need to be expanded. During rehearsals he got wind that there was going to be a can-can and asked “Won’t there be lots of legs showing?” Yup – six of the senior boys wearing can-can skirts and showing off their hairy legs! Not satisfied, we eventually had to do the whole show for him before it was given the nod.

Dancing, accompanying the singers, directing the show – getting my photo on to the front page of the Observer by doing a Charleston lip-synching impersonation of Pinky Pinkham from the TV series “The Roaring Twenties”. Wrong! That was a signal that Tony was a bit of a sissy and along with some verbal abuse could be picked on – including being dragged off to the loos one day by a group who proceeded to make me put on a dress to wear to my next lesson (Afrikaans, and a not very affective teacher at maintaining discipline). But I had a stubborn resilience and kept it to myself, never complaining to either my parents or anyone else in the school.

Today, it’s much easier today to know about and recognise what it is to be gay, particularly those who grow up in an urban environment. There were no (Sir) Elton Johns, (Sir) Ian McKellens or Martina Navratilova’s to look up to and say “So THAT’s what I am!” Very few books (I discovered Gore Vidal’s’ “The City and the Pillar” with its predictable-for-then tragic ending), magazines – forget it! Except that I DID discover in our local newsagent, the Broken Hill – later – Kabwe – Observer – ONE magazine there, a thinly-disguised magazine with a title like “Male Physique” – photos of men with minute g-strings in “athletic” poses. So I’d occasionally visit and hopefully no-one was around to see me paging through it. I certainly didn’t dare buy it and take it home. So growing up differently in a small town had its problems. To fit in I had a girl-friend in my matric year and we continued our relationship until the end of my 2nd year at university (UCT) when I’d met similarly “different” guys and realised that I was living a lie, and not the only one who was “that way”.

And I think it was because of this difference that I had no problem with people of colour. I decided that the variety show needed some “colour” so we had a group of Indian girls doing traditional dances and a black guy who sang and played the guitar (there weren’t too many in the school at that stage).

Music became a major force during this period simply because there was so much scope for me in a small town. Together with my brother on drums and my sister on Latin American percussion instruments we played at a number of functions, from the local MOTH and youth clubs to Sunday lunches at the motel just outside Broken Hill. I also played vibes and accordion with a local band, the Henderson’s. I have fond memories playing at the Christmas and New Year’s Eve functions at the Railway Club. This foundation stood me in good stead when I got to UCT as I not only played for functions around the university but had a regular Saturday night job which helped to support me. And it continued to support me when I returned to UCT after a five-year hiatus; in fact it was my only support for two whole years.

I mentioned earlier that there was no music teacher at the school so when independence for Northern Rhodesia loomed the headmaster said that I had to teach the whole school to sing the national anthem (to replace God Save the Queen), particularly as shortly after independence day the new (African) Minister for Education would be the guest at Prize-Giving. We had a number of practice sessions but on the night as I finished the introduction the whole school got stage-fright – and not one person sang! Incidentally, I was one of the first people in my circle of friends to know the music to South Africa’s Nkosi Sikelele Africa as the music is the same as Zambia’s. And well do I remember the number of times that the manager of the Vista cinema would say through the speaker system at matinees “We’re not starting the movie until you ALL stand up for the national anthem”.  And how the multiracial audience changed the atmosphere in the cinema! – cheering on the “goodies” in cowboy movies, laughing uproariously at the funny parts, and on one memorable occasion cheering and clapping as the black man fell on to the bed with a white woman – Brock Peters & Leslie Caron in The L-shaped Room.

The Vista became one of my favourite places and educated me in my appreciation of movies. The movies changed three times a week and I sometimes went to all three, often alone. But what movies from the 60’s – those black-and-white kitchen-sink dramas from Britain with actors like Tom Courtney as Billy Liar, Albert Finney as Tom Jones, Edith Evans in The Whisperers, and ground-breaking musicals such as West Side Story (I was one of about a dozen people who went to a special Sunday morning showing, me for a second time I was so knocked out by it).

My other favourite space was the Venus Theatre which gave me the occasional outlet for performing, taking part on a couple of occasions in the annual panto once as the Genie in “Aladdin”. What fun those were. More importantly I saw some amazing and varied productions from knock-about farces and Gilbert & Sullivan, to a chilling production I vividly recall of “The Crucible”. Another that has stuck in my mind was a drama written by the local Standard Bank manager, “Behind Any Door”. The reason I remember this was that one of the characters steps off a chair, hanging himself – because he was gay (just reinforcing to me that was what happened to such people). Nevertheless, I felt “at home” in that environment.

My family moved to Bulawayo at the end of 1967 and although I’ve never been back to Zambia I have many fond memories of our time spent there, many more that I could include, but these I guess are the impressionable ones that have remained with me to this day.

I had a ball at varsity – I attempted a BA (Drama) as I eventually wanted to do get into broadcasting.  So between doing drama (afternoon practical’s and one or 2 productions a year – rehearsals at night) – playing around campus and in restaurants – and I took up my dancing again, Latin American, classes and practices as I entered competitions – I didn’t get my degree after 4 years!  I spent a number of months in Bulawayo then went back to CT where I landed up working in a music shop for 4 years.  Then went back to UCT full-time, supported by my band-work, and finished my degree (with much better results!).  Following this I moved to Joburg for personal reasons (that didn’t work out) and completed a post-grad diploma in Librarianship.  I then worked for the Johannesburg Public Library for 11 years, the last few years spent as their Music Librarian.  From JPL I moved to Wits as I’d always wanted to work in a University Library (didn’t do this after my diploma as the public library paid better than Wits).  I was appointed Performing Arts Librarian for the drama & music departments, a job I absolutely loved.  However I was promoted after a couple of years to run their Biological & Physical Sciences Library (much larger).  After a couple more years I went on a training programme and moved into admin and landed up as the Registrar for the Faculty of Science, an exciting but quite stressful job.

Whilst at Wits my partner and I visited my sister in Brisbane and spent a week in a gay-owned B&B in Sydney.  I decided that was what I eventually wanted to do.  It took another 5 years before we had enough money to take the plunge, found the right place (at the right price).   I resigned from Wits at the end of ’96 and we opened in March ’97.  My partner left his job after a few years and is now a qualified tour guide – so between the two us we have a pretty good life-style and enjoy what we do. (We’ve been together for 25 years, incidentally.)

Please, please, don’t by-pass Joburg – we’re like any big city with no-go areas.  We’re in a lovely suburb and have had numerous overseas visitors.  Only this year we had 2 Canadians who were a bit apprehensive but on leaving said that they didn’t realise how much Joburg had to offer tourists and were sorry that they hadn’t planned to stay longer than one day (2 nights).   Many of our guests walk up the road at night to the restaurants in our area, and Graham will show you the “sights”!

Tony Sparks
22 April 2009

Tony Sparks died in 2014, this is published with the permission of his partner, Graham

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s