A reunion of gentlemen

2008-10-13 00:00

BRACE yourselves ’Maritzburgers: current and past members of The 21 Squires of Bacchus from as far afield as Texas, Malaysia, London, Dubai and Australia will soon descend on the city to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the oldest drinking club ... er, I mean gentlemen’s social club ... in Pietermaritzburg.

“It’s a thing of beauty,” is how former Squires member from the eighties, Pete Christodoulou, describes the upcoming reunion. His unbridled enthusiasm is echoed by all those to whom I speak about the event which will see over 150 men, ranging in age from their early 70s to their early 20s, converging on Pietermaritzburg this weekend. They’ll play a round of golf, reminisce about old times, enjoy the all-male camaraderie which has kept the club ticking over all these years, and, of course ... have a few pints.

So auspicious is the occasion that parallel parties for those who can’t make the trip to South Africa will take place in London and Dubai to mirror the formal black-tie dinner which will be held at the Victoria Country Club in Pietermaritzburg.

Formally known as The 21 Squires of Bacchus but more commonly called “Squires”, the club was established by Pietermaritzburg students of the University of Natal, and is still going strong. In some cases, like that of Hamish and Mark Gerrard, the baton has been passed from father to son.

Alumni include the late adventurer Bruce Dalling and well-known sporting personalities such as Doc Louw, Vince van der Bijl, Craig Jamieson, Tich Smith and Witness sports editor John Bishop. Others have gone on to make their marks as academics, businessmen, farmers, lawyers, doctors and politicians.

The club held its first meeting at the Imperial Hotel before going on to conduct its annual initiation ceremonies to welcome newly elected Squires at Market Inn, then a popular haunt of students which is today the site of the city’s Magistrate’s Courts.

At those first meetings were two current-day Pietermaritzburg residents, retired attorney Chris Hathorn (70) and BSc Agric graduate and former Nux sports editor Jimmy Mallett (72), both of whom have confirmed that they will attend the reunion and are eagerly anticipating the chance to catch up with old friends.

An articled clerk at the time, Hathorn took a leading role in writing the club’s original constitution. Although it was subsequently lost, the constitution still guides the ethos of the club. It made provision for a Praetor (leader), Scriptor (secretary) and Publicanus (treasurer), and was based, says Hathorn, on “the principles of Roman society and military organisation ... designed to reflect a love of the honourable life”. Hathorn, who attributes the longevity of the club to “rugby, snooker and beer”, said: “You tried to behave properly, even when a little drunk.”

Minutes of meetings were kept and a strict dress code imposed: jackets and ties were a requirement. Failure to attend a Squires function had to be explained in writing and repeated failures resulted in absentees being asked to resign. I’m assured that there’s never been a secret handshake, but there is a pledge to be made, accompanied by quaffing a “generous” amount of beer — originally a yard of ale, later a conical flask holding three pints, and today replaced by the nkomish or big cup. But some things never change: “Dominus” is the title still given to the Squire who can quaff the fastest.

Dave Randles, a former Durban attorney-turned-businessman, was a legendary Dominus who lowered the time for three pints to 10,8 seconds, beating the long-standing record held by Frans Venter.

Scotch Macaskill, Scriptor between 1976 and 1978, remembers the achievement: “It was ... poetry really, an easy blend of technique and unique skill.”

Randles went on to become president of the Natal Law Society and president of the Maritzburg College Old Boys’ Association. Older Squires say they will always remember him as Dominus.

Mallett recalls that one Ivor Dreosti suggested formalising the club’s structures. To this end, the club held its first meeting at the Imperial Hotel at which its name was settled.

“I suggested ‘The 21 Knights’ because of my interest in chess,” said Mallett. But it was decided that The 21 Squires of Bacchus more readily captured the members’ commitment to fun and their willingness to partake in the “fruit of the vine” and other beverages.

Club membership at any time is limited to 21, with nominations for replacements being made by departing Squires, followed by voting by secret ballot. Says Mallett: “The people we looked for were decent chaps who could be relied upon to enjoy a good party. It was a way of getting these guys together. All were committed to the club and to having a good time.”

For Mallett, the survival of the club over the years — some of the club’s current members are sons of his varsity mates — has been a source of enormous satisfaction. “We hoped it would last, but it became far bigger than anything we could have dreamt of. It has generated long-lasting friendships and comradeship. It’s been great.”

Today, being a Squire or former Squire means instant access to a world of sociability and goodwill. Current member and a driving force behind the reunion, 26-year-old events management expert Stu Berry, said he’s able to sit around a table with Squires members of any age and feel comfortable.

Berry’s efforts to compile a database of current and past members received a boost when a few other dedicated past Squires, including Christodoulou, threw their weight behind the project, helping to track down as many former members as possible and getting up at 4.30 am for days on end to attend to thousands of e-mails generated by the reunion.

“E-mail has changed the face of our reunion efforts,” said Christodoulou. “Previously, we tried to crank up the database using fax and phone. But it was expensive and time-consuming and we only managed to find about 20 or 30 guys.”

Now, the hard-working team has close to 340 names and estimate they are missing only about 30. “The contact we’ve had with guys over the last few months has made all the hard work worth it,” said Christodoulou.

The club has undergone changes over the years, starting with a high proportion of rugby devotees and today boasting a predominance of agricultural students. But it’s retained its core: “a bunch of like-minded friends having a laugh”.

Says Christodoulou: “We had a huge amount of fun and made lasting friendships in the process. What we received in addition to the privilege of being invited to become Squires were friendships which cut across generations, and we live out the most amazing and unbelievable camaraderie.”

A slice of student life circa 1958

James Mallett’s copies of student newspaper Nux from the late fifties and early sixties, and cuttings from local newspapers paint a picture of student life around the time of Squires’ formation.

On September 5, 1959, the Natal Mercury reported: “Fighting broke out, stink bombs were thrown, lights were fused and jets of water were squirted on the audience when large groups of Natal University students and anti-Nationalists ‘invaded’ the Pietermaritzburg City Hall last night and gave a torrid reception to the Prime Minister, Dr H. F. Verwoerd. The night’s incidents followed a day of road blockages and fights between students and Nationalist supporters which marked the Prime Minister’s arrival in the city. Police took a prominent but good-natured hand in the proceedings.”

An undated report from The Natal Witness during Rag (Remember and Give, the students’ annual fundraising drive) headlined: “Women scream as ‘body’ hurtles from city hall”, captures the drama around a Rag stunt by a student known as Ivor Sebastian who appeared on the roof of the city hall poised to jump into a shallow tank of water. A dummy was thrown down instead.

The May 1960 edition of Nux carries a report on a lecture delivered by English professor Geoffrey Durrant, who said: “University training should foster in the individual a distaste for power, riches and other artificial means of gaining prestige; he will always consider the desire for their acquisition ignoble and will never see any real value in their acquisition.”

The April 1957 edition of Nux reacts to proposals to enforce “university apartheid” by segregating “open” universities and removing the Durban Medical School from the university's jurisdiction: “No one who honours the tradition of university autonomy can but be shocked and horrified by the provisions of this bill, which confirms all our worst fears ... the government is taking away every university’s hitherto unquestionable right to decide whom it will admit.”

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