An excerpt from Chapter 1 (and a Crossword)

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John’s Parents – Rustenburg – Separation – Puppetry – Ballet Lessons

The plains to the north-west of Johannesburg, city of gold, extend far beyond the labyrinth of mines and the ugly spoil heaps. The sweeping grasslands of the highveld where giraffe, springbok and zebra herds once roamed unfurl to meet the Magaliesberg mountain range. There, nestling into a fertile valley of the foothills lay the community of Rustenburg. Occasional settlers would reach the area with their oxen and horses. Seventy miles of dirt tracks isolated them from Johannesburg, and the major seaport of Cape Town was many weeks’ trek to the south.

At first Rustenburg grew unhurriedly, but when, soon after the First World War, prospectors  discovered platinum and iron ore deposits in the region, speculators from far and wide began to arrive. They came from the coal and tin mines of Europe, and some of the more skilled men became mine managers. Others who followed during the 1920s found use for their experience as engineers, builders, solicitors, and the like; their wives made homes as best they could in the new environment. Indian families arrived from the sugar fields of Natal, the so-called Coloureds, mixed race people from the Cape, migrated north, and Chinese traders opened shops. Not unexpectedly, the adventurers, crooks and philanderers came too.

The managers brought in indigenous Africans to do the hardest physical work, some of whom had already laboured in the diamond pits of the Kimberley and the gold mines of Johannesburg. Virtually slaves, they found themselves relegated to the bottom of the social hierarchy by the Coloureds, Indians and the new immigrants and their families from Europe, not to mention the long-established Boers, who considered themselves more virtuous than everyone else.

John’s father, Herbert Cranko later wrote that the white people, who then numbered half the population of Rustenburg, were ‘of many different origins and races, and also bitterly divided’.


Herbert’s father Frederick Cranko (formerly Krankoor) married Bilhah Solomon Jacobson, a matriarch who raised their six children in the Jewish faith. Herbert was the youngest. The family scattered to the USA and Australasia as well as throughout South Africa, and Herbert visited Australia when he was about sixteen – the beginning of his love of travel. He qualified in law before going to fight in France from 1917, but, once home again he began to practise law with one of his elder brothers. Before long he went off to Vienna, ostensibly for further law studies, but, reading between the lines of his journal, this was a time of sowing wild oats. Back in Johannesburg, the debonair Herbert met a divorcee, Grace Martin. According to Grace ‘lightning struck’, and after a courtship of only three weeks, they married. She must have hoped that her new husband would provide security for herself and her six-year-old daughter, Peggy.

Grace seems to have craved bourgeois respectability, but adventurers surrounded her. Her sister, Stella van Druten, was married to Major Chaplin Court Treatt, who planned to lead the first expedition by motor vehicles from the Cape to Cairo. Stella enthusiastically supported him, and they found a kindred spirit in Herbert, who readily offered to help with planning. Detailed arrangements had to be made for the convoy’s supplies on its route through the red-coloured, British areas on the map; but first they needed to seek financial sponsorship from British businesses. Armed with a letter of support from the prime minister, Jan Smuts, the two couples and young Peg boarded a ship to England. Soon after their arrival in London in 1924, the Crankos saw performances by Diaghilev’s ultra-fashionable Ballets Russes. The romantic Les Sylphides, Le Tricorne with its amazing Picasso designs, and the fabled Petrouchka captivated them. More ballet was on offer in 1925. Anna Pavlova and her company performed at Covent Garden for the whole of October, and the great dancer enchanted everyone who saw her. The Ballets Russes returned to the London Coliseum for two long seasons, and the South African couple booked for as many performances as they could afford. There was the glamorous fairy tale Aurora’s Wedding, and the new Les Biches, presented in London for the first time, and they did not want to miss seeing the Russian warriors in Polovtsian Dances. Ballet became a shared, abiding passion for Herbert and Grace, and they sent Grace’s daughter Peg to classes with Princess Serafina Astafieva at her studio on the King’s Road.

By the middle of 1926, the Cape to Cairo expedition successfully accomplished, Herbert’s work in London was complete. Reluctantly, he returned to South Africa where he was to arrange a tour of lectures about his brother-in-law’s pioneering adventure, illustrated by slides and moving pictures.

Herbert had intended to re-join his wife and stepdaughter, probably to set up home in London, but when he received Grace’s cablegram to say she was pregnant he reconsidered, no doubt anxious about how he would provide for his growing family. He decided to set up a country law practice in Rustenburg, where his eldest brother ran a hotel; the town was expanding rapidly, and Herbert had an eye for the main chance. He cabled Grace that she and Peg should return on the next available ship.

Reunited, they settled into the modest hotel that had once belonged to Herbert’s mother, the Rustenburg Grand, to await the birth of the new baby. The intoxicating thrill of London’s theatres seemed a million miles away.


Herbert grew fond of Rustenburg and the surrounding area; his law practice, which represented people from all backgrounds, grew to extend ‘from the middle veld north of the Magaliesberg Mountains to the bank of the Crocodile River bordering Bechuanaland’. Expecting to ‘suffer the tedium of a few years living in the backfield’, Herbert found that, ‘against all expectations I had wandered into a bewilderingly interesting, exciting and varied world’.

Herbert was no longer religious, and Grace had ‘accepted Herbert’s assurances that the Crankos were not Jews’. However, she made sure that their son, born in Rustenberg’s hospital on 15 August 1927, was ‘circumcised by the doctor not by a rabbi.’ She stressed that John ‘was baptised in the Church of England. So, by all standards except for his paternal grandmother he was of Christian religion’.

Grace wrote that John was a bubbly infant, always talking to himself, and that he ‘found everything a huge joke’. In early childhood he was never far from his adored horses, dogs, cats, and other animals, in a sunny, outdoor life. He heard euphoric accounts of exotic ballets from his parents, and some of the first music he listened to was a gramophone record of The Firebird.

John grew up as part of South Africa’s dominant classes; theirs was a life of relative privilege, a life eased by the comforts bought by the cheap labour of maids and gardeners. According to Grace, it was only because she chose to take a clerical post in the town that she employed a nursemaid for John. ‘In those days of growing up I was not allowed’ [by Herbert] ‘to check or discipline John in any way, and he always had white nannies so you see John was not left to the tender mercies of Black servants at any time.’ Grace did employ a white nanny from Switzerland for a while, but later John was most certainly left in the care of an indigenous black woman, like nearly every other white South African child.

Rustenburg was particularly conservative and divided, the whites living in the town, the blacks on the periphery. The streets of the white area were subject to a curfew after nine in the evening, and Black people were required by law to carry special documents from their employers, officials or the police. If, from time to time, the Crankos’ maid Evelyn did not appear for work at the Cranko household, it meant that the police had detained her for being without her pass. Herbert would have to vouch for her release from custody.

When John, as a small child, went with his father on trips to visit clients at outlying kraals and farmsteads, he quickly saw that in the eyes of adults, the indigenous African was subordinate to even the most ineffectual of masters. John talked of his youth shortly before he died, and he remembered his family’s maid especially well; ‘Evelyn was, for me, almost a mother figure, psychologically very important’. She and other black South Africans were the first to teach him art. He learned how to paint stones with natural colours from the earth. Evelyn and the very young John made clay model figures together, and she showed him how the long thorns from acacia trees could become the horns of miniature oxen.

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