A Tale of Christmas Past


Nearly fifty years ago, I was working as an unauthorised clerk—the lowest of the white low—at Max Pollock and Fremantle, then the largest firm on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. It was an easy job, which I owed to pure nepotism in that my then girl-friend’s cousin was a partner. I enjoyed both the easy work and the fact that the staff were amusing, civilised people.

What I enjoyed even more was the fact that the firm was in the habit of giving double cheques to all employees in the months when it made a profit. That was in addition to December when there was almost always a second cheque so that everyone could enjoy Christmas with their families in proper style. Jo’burg in those days was an enterprise culture, big time.

One day soon after the announcement of the December bonus had been made, I was sitting in the tea-room talking to the African who made the tea for the clerks and partners—all white, of course—four or five times a day. He was a tall, lean man, with the sort of natural dignity that Nelson Mandela was so well known for. He must have been about fifty years of age.

Outside the working week, he lived in a village in what was then known as the Northern Transvaal. He had a smallholding where he was going to spend the Christmas and New Year holidays. The room was largely empty and he lingered while we chatted.

We discussed what he hoped to do, then I asked, “What are you going to spend your double cheque on?”

I expected him to say that he would be buying another suit, or perhaps a transistor radio. Maybe even some more chickens.

He drew himself up and, speaking slowly as if pronouncing ex cathedra, he said, “I am going to buy another wife.”

“Another wife?” I asked, trying to avoid sounding too startled.

“Yes. If you have one wife, she is always talking, talking, talking to you,” he said, making with one hand the sort of gesture that the puppeteers who did the Muppets must have used when their characters were talking – “and you have no peace.”

After a proper pause, he went on, “When you have two wives, they talk, talk, talk to each other.” As he said this he made the same gesture, but with two hands opposite each other. “And you – you have peace.”

I have never forgotten that statement of one uncovenanted benefit of polygamy. It came into my mind the other night when sitting round the fireside here at home in the windy darkness of seaward Argyll. I was reading quietly while my wife was, as usual, studying with rapt attention the tablet in her lap.

“If your wife does not have the internet,” I thought, “she is always talking, talking, talking to you and you have no peace to read. But with it, you can read uninterruptedly and have perfect peace.”

Which is better, I wondered: the internet or a second wife? That, of course, is one question never to ask the first wife. I merely pose it as food for husbandly rumination while the Yule logs crackle in the grate.

A peaceful Christmas to everyone, however many wives you might have!

Ian Mitchell’s book is called “The Justice Factory: Can the Rule of Law Survive in 21st Century Scotland?” (2020) Foreword by Lord Hope of Craighead, ex-Deputy President of the UK Supreme Court. Introduction to Part II by Alan Page, Professor of Public Law at Dundee, author of Constitutional Law of Scotland.