Peter de Lisle

Instruction by Design


Peter's Reflections

It is miraculous that my father ever managed to reach the age of 90. There were so many times when it could have been the end. And while this reflection is mainly about him, I would like at this stage to pay tribute to two beautiful, strong women without whose unshakeable faith and committed dedication all this would have been impossible: my grandmother Dorothy, and my mother. Thank you for everything. So, back to my father.


I think of him as a young boy, clutching onto his father as they sped along on his motorbike on the treacherous dirt road out beyond Simonstown in the 1920s, off for a camping trip at Miller's Point or Buffel's Bay. Skidding around one of those corners, where the cliffs drop sheer to the waves crashing on the rocks below, he might have thought his time had come. But certainly God had other plans, and he protected him then and through many hardships and dangers that were to come.

I think of him as a boy, at Bishops. Having lost his father at the very early age of 12, he might have wondered what would become of him. But he was generously supported through bishops on scholarships, something for which he has always been extremely grateful. He made good on the faith people had in him. His final year saw him winning most of the prizes.

Then, with his university studies barely begun, he signed up to do his duty in the war. I think he used to enjoy saying, "When I was in prison...", just to see people's reaction. He survived the horrors of the war: first being a prisoner in North Africa, then Italy, where he immediately put his schoolboy Italian to effective use. Escaping from captivity was the duty of a soldier, and, as ever, he sought to do his duty, by escaping... Twice. I think of him completely alone, making his way through the snow of the Abruzzi Mountains in the dark with only threadbare socks on his feet. He felt so tempted just to give up. But he knew that it was not yet his time, and so he persevered, and was protected through that and many other harrowing experiences. Later he would say that it was his mother's devoted and fervent prayers that kept him safe during the war, and he was forever grateful to the Italian villagers who sacrificed and risked so much to keep him alive.

I think of him as a young man at Oxford after the war, on a Rhodes scholarship. As a climber, following in his father's footholds, he was no doubt often in peril. But I think the time he probably most thought he was done for was when he set off on a climbing mission to neighbouring Balliol College to retrieve an unexploded smoke bomb. Half way up a treacherous wall, he spotted an open window, and very properly asked if he could go through. He received a somewhat muffled and mumbled assent. It later turned out to be the bedroom of the master of Balliol. But because he had asked permission, he was spared serious consequences. The metal spikes that were subsequently put up to prevents any repeat performances, he climbed up and removed. And for many years they were mounted on the wall at home.

You might think that, after falling in love with my mother, and becoming a father, that he might have decided to stop stretching the resources of the guardian angels. But alas this was not to be.

I think back to a time when I was about 10, and he and I did a major hike across really big and scary terrain on the escarpment. He must have wondered what on earth he had got us into, and maybe wondered if we would ever make it back again. But even though I was cold wet and scared, I never doubted we would be ok. I trusted his skills and resourcefulness, the kind which enabled him to make a fire for cooking and warmth under any circumstances. So of course we did make it back, albeit a day later than expected.

From quite a young age, we were taught to drive by my father. This extension of our education on its own was guaranteed to keep the guardian angels busy. Like the time during a lesson for Daphne in Hluhluwe game reserve when we were charged by a huge rhino. Daph hadn't quite mastered the clutch under pressure, so the car stalled. Luckily the rhino thought better of its charge, and stopped just short of the car, at which point my father remarked: "What a fine beast." A few years later it was my turn, and whizzing along a muddy farm road outside Ladybrand, I got into a skid, and had to choose between braking and heading into a mielie field. The net result was the car rolled. As we hung upside down in our seatbelts, I expected my Dad to be cross. But he wasn't. He merely said that the car had rolled over very gently and we could be grateful for that. He went on to have a major conflict of conscience about what to tell the insurance people. Of course in the end he told them that I was driving. And that was the end of driving lessons until I got my learners a few years later.

As a teacher and headmaster, my father made a huge impression on so many people, literally on some of them in the old days of corporal punishment! I think what he had to offer was often not easy or fun, but rather a challenge of some kind that would make one think deeply and strive to rise to meet the problem. For example, he was probably one of the very first to see the educational value of the extended hikes that many schools now undertake. He also was very clear about discipline. As David Klatzow, a pupil of his at St Martin's, remarks in his book: "we clashed from the word go, as he believed in creating and upholding rules, no matter what the consequences... we were not destined to be happy with each other at all". But a time in his headmastering that could easily have been his last was when he was involved with the boys at WHPS in preparing the school for open day. He was up a tall Jacaranda cutting off a branch. The plan was for him to cut half way through, and then the boys would pull on a rope which was over the branch so as to break it off. There are various versions of what happened next, including that he sawed off the branch he was sitting on, but his version was that the boys pulled on the rope a bit too soon, bringing him down with it. As he lay on the ground, drifting in and out of consciousness, the one boy was heard asking the other: "Who will be our next headmaster?" But he survived, and because both wrists were broken, he started growing a beard, which continued to flourish almost unchecked for many years thereafter.

The climbing group which my father has belonged to since moving to Cape Town has been so important in his life. You would have thought that as he approached his nineties, he would have ruled out the adventures, or that the guardian angels might have given up on him. But I suppose the adventurous boy was impossible to quell in him. As he was approaching his 89th birthday, he and his fellow climbers inadvertently spent a night on the Karbonkelberg behind Hout Bay when a planned half day stroll didn't quite work out right. His poem describes the experience:


I hadn't slept with boots on since the War:

At least my feet were warm on granite slope

'Twixt sea and forest. Free of fear, fresh hope

Dawn kindled. Balance, confidence once more

Regained, I found of strength extended store

For climb and drop round gullies, anxious grope

For holds on rock or bush, not briefed to cope

With more than sunny stroll on level shore.

The Cross' slow circuit told long hours before

First light. Glad we accepted rescuers' rope,

Enclosed by prayers' and friendship's envelope,

Grateful 'gainst hardship small success to score.

Enough to live to tell the tale to friends

In warning: look beyond what plan intends.

From all these varied stories, and the many others I haven't told, and surely we all have many we could tell, I think we all know that my father was a man of courage and integrity, a person who fulfilled so many roles in life: scholar, soldier, teacher, artist, priest, husband, father. And clearly the purpose for which he was preserved through all the many scrapes and hardships of life, was to touch us in some or other of these roles.

It is common to talk about the body as a prison. I feel confident in saying that, even right to the end, he would not have held such a dualistic view. Although physical affection was never his strong suit, and even if he was not prone to what he would probably call gushingly sentimental emotionality, for him body mind and spirit were unified in the great adventure of life, an adventure that even now I am sure he is heartily enjoying. But we do have to accept that he is not physically here anymore. What makes it easier, though, is to think of him soaring with the eagles in the azure sky above the deep blue Cape Mountains he so loved. I think of him present in the rich and spicy fragrance of fynbos on a warm summer's day. And I think of him in the hearts and minds of all of us, we who have been challenged, moulded, refined and blessed by him in so many ways.

© 2018 Peter de Lisle