After 50 years the old Flip, or is that young Flip, instantly makes his presence felt. Within 30 seconds the serious tone belies a flippant comment meant to amuse and sometimes confuse the real from the unreal. Then comes the warning to me as I commence the interview: All replies must be taken with a boulder of salt. To expose the real Flip, I might have to interview “the girl”, now his wife of 50 years, Renée.
Personally for me, three attributes define Flippie. If one could capture the essence and bottle it, they would be the car, the girl and witty tongue-in-cheek over-the-top statements and mannerisms.
Instead of a formal style I have adopted Flip’s flippant style. But in order to obtain a measure of balance, I have allowed Flip to write the captions to the photos.
Main picture: Na 36 jaar. “I have lost my class”
First, the Man Exposed
As I commence the delving for the real Flip, an unusual serious tone pervades the interview. Is Flip evading the questions or is he battling to recall certain events lost in the mists of history. Being 84, I grant him the benefit of the doubt but the word “complicated” exposes a measure of unwillingness to reveal all. Not wanting to intrude into unwanted memories of past events, I abandon my list of questions and let Flippie dictate the flow.
Flippie was born on Wednesday 28th July 1937 in the town of Barkley East close to the hamlet of Rhodes which is near the Lesotho border. Having twice in my life driven through this isolated hamlet en route to Rhodes and its famous 52 km mountain race up to the Lesotho border, I can confirm that this is not a place for young children to stay. The only reason why the van der Merwes made this a home was because his father was a mounted policeman. Their role was probably to counter stock theft. What this area is known for is snow and lots of it. Tiffendale, South Africa’s only ski resort with natural snow is situated here. I can personally attest that snow over a metre deep is possible here.
As far as I can understand, Flip’s father was transferred on many occasions. Consequently, his life as a youngster was probably unsettled. Places and events appear to merge in Flip’s mind without definition as if smudged and foggy. I let him talk. Retrieving these memories is hard requiring an SSD drive instead he possesses a 1937 model 5MB variety.
What he does recall is matriculating in 1953, the year that some of us were born, at Hoërskool Grens in East London.
At school he was the team captain of athletics. Given his build, he probably galloped away from the field with long lopping strides demoralising the other athletes with the ease at which he sprinted ahead. Being considerably younger than his class mates, completing matric at 15 ½, he only managed to play 2nd team rugby, much to his regret, I suspect, in an era in which manhood for an Afrikaans child was defined by one’s ability at rugby.
A long unplanned discussion on life choices ensues. Maybe unintended, but it does expose the real drivers in Flip’s life. For Flip it was never going to be working a 12 hour, being a millionaire, but rather enjoying a comfortable unstressed life with the family. What this meant, is that his Life CV would never include such items as running Comrades or climbing Mount Everest. That was never his driving force. Unsaid was whether by adopting a tongue in cheek style of banter, it eased the tensions in life and made life more pleasant. I suspect that it did and ensured that the normal family spats and tensions were bearable and pain free.
In 1954 he tried his hand at the job market by working for Old Mutual maar in 1955 het Flip rigting gekry. Varsity for Flip was Stellenbosch where he took a diploma in Physical Education from 1955 to 1957. 1958 & 1959 were spent applying the skills acquired by teaching Physical Education at Lawson Brown. During this time, Flip also applied himself academically by studying at Unisa & UPE obtaining a B.A. and his B. Ed. In 1960, Wanderlust set in and Flip moved to Livingstone in Northern Rhodesia to teach Afrikaans to a class of 6 pupils whose parents were mainly Afrikaans big game hunters. Missing the sea and not being a bush person at heart, he resigned after six months and obtained a job at Andrew Rabie. Being a temporary assignment, he applied to both Alex and Grey for a permanent job for 1961. In typical Flippie fashion he claims that he rejected the job at Grey because there were no girls there.
For all pupils at Alex during the era of the class of 1971, the subject of gossip was the girl that Flippie was “dating”, Renée Jordaan, a teacher at ARHS. Naturally the stories grew legs and wings and encompassed various nefarious deeds that only pupils could conjure up. At this point Flippie adopted a serious mien claiming “Just to be clear, I did not date her while she was a pupil at Alex and I never even taught her when she was in standard 6, 7 and 8.” Because Renée was the belle of the ball, eye-candy in today’s vernacular, his eye did spot her but then her father, who was a senior officer in the police force, was transferred to Middelburg, Eastern Cape, forcing Renée to attend the Union High School at Graaff Reinet.
Between 1965 and 1968 Renée studied at Rhodes. Fortuitously for Flippie, Renée obtained a teaching post at Alex in 1970 where she taught English and Afrikaans. Renée then left Alex at the end of 1970 and joined Collegiate where she taught during 1971. This was to be a hectic year with Flip frantically romancing Renée, finally wooing her to marry him shortly thereafter. Flip had got his girl. As married women in his bygone era were not entitled to permanent teaching posts, Renée was unemployed. However, she managed to obtain temporary employment at Framesby.
Who can forget about Flip’s MG? For the students at Alex it epitomised the swashbuckling style of the man. It was his personal babe magnet. It was in 1958 at the age of 21 that his folks gave him a very special present, a 1500 MG with drum brakes. Feeling that he needed an upgrade, in 1960 he went to Malcomess Motors to purchase the latest model MG with the extra power Babe-Magnet optional extra. A clearly disappointed Flip left the dealership without a car in hand as all they had to offer was the old model MG with a 1500 engine and drum brakes when what he wanted was the latest model with a 1600 engine with disk brakes! This MG, Flip’s second MG, he still owns. However due to the fact that it was successfully used to woo his girl, he has kept it ever since but the last time that he drove it was in 1976. This turquoise MG is now in the process of being restored.
By now the story became complicated. At one stage Flip owned 7 or 8 MGs all in various states of disrepair and certainly not in concourse condition. At best he believes that he could have assembled 4 MGs in his very own MG scrap yard. Apart from the MGs in various states of disrepair, his 20 garages were the recipients of his other vehicles: A Lotus B15i, a Transam Firebird and a 1989 Daimler. Apologies for any that I have missed as I suffered from brain freeze attempting to visualise Flip in his unfashionable filthy overalls with grease up to his elbows and head under the bonnet tinkering with his vehicles. Maybe Flip even took his ugly pills every morning to ensure that the babes never overwhelmed him as he attempted to fix his cars.
Flip retired in 1996 having worked his whole life as a teacher at Alex.
With farming blood in his veins, Flip lived on a smallholding on the Seaview Road in Lovemore Park farming Herefords.
In 1998, van der Merwe’s entrepreneurial streak came to the fore, when they opened a B&B, a tea garden and a function venue on their property. With Renée venturing off alone to Oman from 2006 to 2008, Flip closed the tea garden and the function venue but retained the B&B as it did not require culinary skills. In 2010, they sold their plot and moved into town, acquiring a complex at Walmer Heights. The wander bug caught the pair again and they relocated to Somerset West in the Western Cape in 2014. As they both felt that the Western Cape was no longer the same place of olden days, they moved back to Port Elizabeth in 2015 where they still reside.
Like peeling an onion, the carefully cultivated façade displaying a playboy persona owning a turquoise MG is revealed. The charade is vanquished, and the real Flip emerges. Flip is a loving, caring family man whose unvarnished passion is his family, the centre of his universe. While Flip was working in the garden, I phoned Renée to confirm my judgement. What a warm and welcoming person and intelligent to boot. And probably highly independent too. Not much like the vacuous “poppie” that I envisaged. All that remains of the Flippie of old is the tongue in cheek persona and an MG which he lovingly panders to.
I am not sure how Flip’s boss viewed his “nuwe metode” as Flip coined his teaching method, but to us students, he certainly made school interesting and exciting. Unasked and unanswered is whether he had to prepare for his skit of the day every afternoon or was he privileged that it came naturally without preparation. Or perhaps he had a clandestine copy of “Nuwe metode for Dummies”.
I have to thank Flip for such an interesting interview. I admit that he side tracked me on many occasions on my mission to understand the real Flip but the thread was broken admittedly by both of us. However, that kronkellende pad with discussions about life and the universe was exhilarating. It was only lack of airtime that brought it to a close. Somebody must teach Flip to use a cellphone, WhatsApp and a computer.
Tributes and comments of ex pupils
Sharon Rhode [Edelson]: I also remember Flippie on his back demonstrating how to change a nappy and also how he demonstratively grabbed his crotch one day whilst explaining the meaning of the word kruis, which can be translated as a cross and also a crotch.
Dean McCleland: One of Flip’s famous expressions when something went wrong was to attribute it to a “nuwe metode”. One other episode that I recall was Flip wanting to be an Elvis impersonator.
Renée – still young at heart
Flip van der Merwe at 84