by Eugenie Sohnge
We were warmly welcomed at their home in Fishhoek, by Neville and Anne, his wife and soulmate of over 40 years. Before sitting down and getting comfortable I pleaded to see Neville's bonsai. Out back, extra lights switched on, we saw an unexpected collection of about 500 trees! A glorious sight for an envious beginner. Neville happily guided us around; and there they stood, the olives, maple forests and that tamarisk of show fame.
Neville is a practical man, good with his hands as is evidenced by his workshop and the alterations he made to their house. Anne, a trained nurse (that's how they met way back in Pretoria in 1949, when Neville's sister was in hospital), is a friendly, outgoing person and as president of the Women's Evening Guild is very involved in charity work for the church. As a school girl in Vrede in the Orange Free State, Anne joined the Girl Guides and many years later this interest was rekindled when their four sons became Sea Scouts.
It was this love of people that one evening, made Anne propose Neville for the committee at a meeting for parents of the Sea Scouts; and this without his knowledge. However he got stuck in and today his commitment to the Sea Scouts is still ongoing. He built the Sea Scout Base at Sandvlei of which he is also a founder member. Part of this commitment was to build 36 16 foot dinghys for the Sea Scouts and he is now busy on his second 36 foot Tosca 36 class ocean going yacht. The first, Rotary Scout, is moored at the Royal Cape Yacht Club. He was also Assistant Area Commissioner of the Sea Scouts, Western Cape Region. This sideline of his fascinated me and when I asked him how does one know about the sea and sailing stuff, he looked at me slightly puzzled and said calmly: "I can read."
Now we were getting into the swing, tea and cheese cake served to further add to the atmosphere of bonhomie and reminiscences, I asked: "When and how did you get into bonsai?" Neville smiled and said: "Do you really want to know? It is a long story!"
Back in 1918 after the Great War, a Staffordshire man was driving a motorbike with sidecar as a taxi around London. There was not a lot of work available for a radio engineer, demobbed from the Royal Engineers Regiment. One day his fare, a South African, started a conversation and soon he was on his way to a farm near Alice in the Eastem Cape. The prize, a daughter of the farmer, was a bit much! The young man left somewhat speedily to join the newly founded South African Air Force instead, and he married a young Jewish girl from Potchefstroom. The couple settled in quarters at the SAAF Base at Voortrekker Hoogte near Pretoria; and so started a lifelong association with the forces for their son and his three sisters.
Neville's career in the forces as a radio/radar mechanic spanned some 38 years. About a year after he met Anne, he was shipped off to Korea as a corporal in the SAAF. This "Slow boat to China" took 45 days to get to Japan! It was here that Neville had his first glimpse of miniature trees. It was also here that he met a man who, many years later, would have a great influence in his life.
Back in South Africa, he and Anne got married and lived in Pretoria until 1958, when he was transferred to Cape Town. His involvement with the Shackletons had started in 1957 when the SAAF had ordered new planes and he had to spend a year training in England while the planes were being built. In 1982 when the SAAF retired the Shackletons, Neville decided it was also time for him to call it a day. Stress and heavy responsibilities had taken their toll; he started suffering from angina.
Around this time he met up again with the pilot from Korea. Bob Richards, a founder member of the Cape Bonsai Kai, was busy at the annual Bonsai Show at Kirstenbosch. He invited Neville to his nursery in Tokai and the peace and tranquility of these little trees had a profound effect on him. He started his apprenticeship with Bob, by attending weekly two hour sessions helping to water, weed, prune, trim and pot material for sale in the nursery. After every two or three sessions, he was told to choose a tree to take home! His collection started to grow.
Contrary to expectation, the relaxation of retirement confused his system and in 1983 Neville had to undergo triple bypass surgery. Not one to let bumps in life stop him, he started cardiac rehabilitation as soon as possible and today he still goes to the gym at the Military Hospital in Wynberg three times a week. It was also his idea, that instead of having cake for birthdays of the patients at the gym, to rather have quarterly breakfast braais!
Meanwhile Anne's vegetable patch in the back garden was slowly being taken over by more and more bonsai. When Bob gave up his nursery, he came to help Neville with his trees. Neville now has many years of experience and like all bonsai growers, is keen to share his knowledge and he is patient with beginners who ask very basic and sometimes idiotic questions. None of his sons have shown much interest in bonsai, but one grand-daughter has made a credible attempt at a saikei.
"Do you have any other hobbies you haven't mentioned?" I asked eyeing the fancy computer against the wall. A naughty glint in the blue eyes, a smile and a comment not suitable to be printed made Anne laugh and color slightly. It was time to go. As we gathered bags and coats and said our thank yous for a very entertaining evening, Neville added simply "I also repair watches and fix cars."
If anyone has any images of Neville and/or his trees please contact me as I would really like to post them onto the website.