Unpacking the stories of Joy Packer

Recently I went to a formal dinner in Old Mutual House in Klaasens Road, Bishopscourt, aware for the first time that the last woman to live in this elegant mansion was the prolific author Joy Packer.

That was in the days when the building was known as Admiralty House and Joy (nee Petersen), was married to Admiral (later Sir) Herbert Packer of the British Royal Navy.

Born and educated in Cape Town and UCT, Joy first made her name through three volumes of memoirs published from 1945 to 1953 dealing with her world travels with “Bertie” before, during, and just after World War II. Later came 10 novels starting in 1955 with Valley of the Vines, which sold more than 600 000 copies and was translated into nine European languages. Her second novel, Nor the Moon by Night was made into a successful film.

The book, which really touched the hearts of my mother’s generation, was Grey Mistress, the name war-time naval wives gave to the ship which was the “other woman” in the lives of absent husbands. I imagine Mum identified with that lonely scenario as Dad spent most of the war years with ENSA (the Entertainments National Service Association) conducting concerts to entertain the troops in Italy, India and Singapore.

I’d never laid eyes on the book until a few nights ago when I came across a copy which had languished unnoticed for years in a dusty old bookcase. I’ve tried to imagine Joy in that great house which now, as Old Mutual’s main venue for entertaining local and international VIPs, can host up to 80 people with ease. Very different from Joy’s small family with “my husband” (as she constantly refers to Bertie, sounding like the Queen) and their Cape Town-born son, Piet.

Sadly Piet was never able to follow his dream of a sea career like his father’s. Undergoing a medical test for Dartmouth, he overheard the examiner say, “This boy’s hopeless – not a clue – he’s colour blind.” Eventually he decided on medicine and became a noted specialist as an ear nose and throat surgeon. Apartheid made him move to Oz, where in 2003 he was honoured with the Medal of the Order of Australia for his achievement to medicine.
He died in 2012.


Colour blindness is, of course, a misnomer. People with colour vision deficiency (or CVD) are usually able to see things as clearly as other people but are unable fully to see red, green or blue light. This makes it tough for menpeople who want to follow careers in sailing and flying where you have to recognise the colour of important lights.

The condition is genetic, usually inherited from the mother to sons rather than daughters. Those affected don’t mix up red and green. They mix up all colours which have some red or green as part of the whole colour.

I’m married to a man who has never seen a woman blush. He only became aware he was colour blind when he failed an eye test to join a pupil pilot scheme flying Harvards. Then certain things came back to him that had caused a lot of laughter – such as commenting on a beautiful sunset or the colour of curtains. He realised he was seeing the colours in a different way from everybody else. However, as a learner driver he quickly learnt that whatever the colour on a red traffic light appeared to him, it meant STOP!

Tackling clean-ups

Clean-ups are the answer. It’s a great way to get free labour to tackle a problem that individuals would never dream of doing yet thoroughly enjoy because of the camaraderie and sense of achievement.

A few years ago, I joined a clean-up of the Liesbeek River which proved an eye-opener. I never guessed it was so long. We followed its course outside Kirstenbosch, through Bishopscourt to Newlands, reached the canalised sections from Rondebosch and ended up near Obs where the Liesbeek joins the Black River. A mound of rubbish was collected.

Currently there are two clean-ups of note. At 10am on the first Saturday of the month there is one tackling Hout Bay beach for 90 minutes, starting from the Mariner’s Wharf. Closer to home, is picking up the fire-risk woody debris in Tokai Forest on Sundays during September and October. Organised by Parkscape, the plan has MTO’s blessing as they have agreed to chip up all the wood and make it available as garden mulch for the forest users.

The meeting point is the lower Dennendal West gate from 10am to 3pm, but you can arrive and leave any time. BringTake gardening gloves, a wheelbarrow if possible, and something to eat and drink. As September 24 is Heritage Day, bring along a picnic as work will stop at lunch for some fun on the common.

Use herbicides sparingly

I understand why Kirstenhof residents complained bitterly about the City contractor spraying herbicide on their verges. So far our side of the road has not been affected, but when I drive around Tokai all I see are wide swathes of brown grass which until recently were bright green. It’s an insult to those homeowners who pride themselves on stopping their grass grow-
ing over the kerb into the s

Herbicides are expensive and should be used sparingly. It strikes me that whoever did the spraying did not mind how much they used or where the poison actually landed. In places they’ve really made a mess of things. If I see a workman with a sprayer in our road I’ll…I’ll set my puppy after him.

“Yes officer, I did see the speed limit sign. I just didn’t see you.”


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