Long Street: an inspiration and home to Pieter-Dirk Uys …

From the CapeTowner, by Monique Duval, 31st June 2012

Sitting on the balcony of the Carnival Court Backpackers on the upper end of Long Street, the sun shines through an array of modern high-rise buildings and warms the cold air. With its Victorian architecture and railings, the building tells a long story of its residents and bustling Long Street. Built in 1902, the building situated at 255 Long Street, was designed by English architect George Ransome and was used as a boarding house for many years.

“It was actually built as luxury apartments for the ‘well-to-do’,” said owner Christoph von Walter. Mr Von Walter, who acquired the building in 1993, said he could still remember the funny yet colourful characters and “professional ladies” who occupied the building, adding to the ambience of the street. The four-storey building which consists of many dorm-like rooms with communal shower facilities, now operates as a backpackers lodge.

“I used to run a shirt-making factory in Buiten Street and in 1993 I saw that this building had potential. I bought the building which was owned by the district surgeon of Paarl, and remember when I took over as landlord, the building was filled with many colourful characters and professional ladies. But as we started cleaning the building up, many of the tenants left,” he said. In the 1970s, the building and its residents became the subject of many people’s conversations.

According to author, actor and activist Pieter-Dirk Uys, “the show was never over in Long Street”. This is how he described the bustling street in his book Between the Devil and the Deep: A Memoir of Acting and Reacting. Mr Uys, well known for his persona Evita Bezuidenhout, lived in the area from 1972 to 1975 while working at the Space Theatre. “I lived in a selection of places – in Bloem Street with a front door that could never close. Carnival Court up in the roof. Then across on the corner of Long and Buiten, first on the top floor, and then on the first floor above the fish and chips shop that sent us huge cockroaches.

“From that balcony we looked across to Carnival Court and the intersection of Long and Buiten where so much action took place,” he said. In his play, Karnaval, Mr Uys takes a look at the goings-on in the boarding house today known as the Carnival Court Backpackers. The play is set on New Year’s Eve in 1975 on the first floor of the boarding house as the residents get ready for a night out while discussing, among other things, the party happening across the road.

In his book, he wrote: “Sitting in our kaftans on the verandah of our rented flat above the fish and chips shop, Maralin, Grethe Fox and I would look over at the balconies of Carnival Court and the activity among the residents. “Those ‘girlies’ and their friends inspired my play Karnaval. I didn’t have to use much imagination. I just had to look out of the window.” The play opened on July 12, 1976 but after only 10 performances, it was banned by the censors.

Asked what inspired him to write the play, Mr Uys said the story of Carnival Court needed to be told. “Young people from the platteland, boarding in the city and falling foul of the laws of land and church. “Their sense of humour. And their comments about us watching them from the other side of the road. Now I look at the play and it’s surreal – a story about white people in Long Street – with the exception of the coloured youth referred to as honourary white. “I shared drinks with them at the Mountview Bar, shouted across the road for them to shut up and they shouted back.

“I invited them all to a preview of the play, quite nervous that they would be upset that I had so shamelessly presented their lives. “They were moved to tears,” he said. Mr Von Walter explained that the building has undergone many renovations over the years aimed at restoring its heritage. “The bottom part of the building, which today houses Long Street Café, used to be home to the legendary Cranford’s Book Shop.

“Over the years it was also a Russian restaurant called Cossack’s; we had a chef from Moscow and the restaurant experience was topped by swinging chandeliers,” he said. Mr Von Walter said after many of the building’s tenants vacated it during the 1990s, it became a hostel for student accommodation . “But later backpacking started to take off in Cape Town so it was converted into a party hostel for travelling students,” he said. Today Carnival Court which consists of rooms, a bar and recreational areas is known for attracting students from all over world who wish to experience the vibey Long Street.

Copyright Cape Community Newspapers, part of Independent News and Media.

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