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19 Sep 2014
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Esme's House

Esme and Dennis Goldberg lived in Cape Town in South Africa. In 1963, Dennis was arrested in 1963 along with Nelson Mandela for his support of the African National Congress, and given 3 life sentences. After 22 years, Dennis was finally released...

After the arrest of her husband, and in response to police raids and constant harrassment, Esme Goldberg left Africa with her two young children David and Hilary. They settled in Britain, in London, where Esme began taking in house guests. Over the years, the reputation of her hospitality grew and young travellers, particularly those from South Africa sought her out when looking for somewhere to stay in London. By the time her husband was released from prison, hundreds of people had stayed at the house in East Finchley….

Esme's lounge is covered in sleeping bags. She's used to people coming to her saying, "We're looking for somewhere to live, can we stay until we find somewhere else?" Esme accepts that after a few days they're likely to stay a lot longer, "One young woman came to visit a friend for 3 days and stayed 5 years…" Word gets around about Esme's house through all those points at which young travellers are likely to meet; airports, walks along beaches - this is where her telephone number is handed from one to another with the message, "Tell Esme I sent you, she'll put you up." It's inevitable that romance blossoms amongst the sleeping bags. "We've had 29 marriages from this house," comments Esme, with a touch of self-satisfaction in her voice.

Keeping the house in order is a shared task. One of the guests describes it as a privilege, "Everyday, someone gets the chance to clean the bathroom or the kitchen…if you don't do it, we'll all live like hooligans and we don't want to do that." Esme is more than a host, she is a mother-figure - a young man, "She cares for every single person, she makes every person feel special in the house - this is a home. I would call it a family - she knows everything that goes on in this house…" Members of her extended family talk about how much they've learned living with Esme, "Once you live in this house, you start seeing through boundaries, and once you do, it's a new world..."

Coping without her husband was difficult for Esme, but her choice of surrounding herself with people helped her keep positive, "I had all these young people living with me. It kept me alive, and enthusiastic, instead of being miserable and bitter and burdened, life just whooshed by."

When Dennis was released, he joined his wife in London. At the time, there were 11 ballerina students living in the house which was quite a revelation for a man who hadn't seen a woman for many years. Esme laughs as she says, "He never recognised their faces, because he didn't look at their faces!" But unsurprisingly for a man who has been in prison for so many years,Dennis also needed his privacy, "I needed to get away, I simply couldn't handle the large numbers of people." Dennis also had to adjust to a woman who had changed from the wife he had lived with, "A woman who had been a youngish wife with 2 kids, who had been fairly dependent upon me - and here she was making decisions for herself and a house with 20 people in it, all of them so close - sometimes I have to confess I'm still the outsider…"

Hilary, Esme's daughter recognised how the people with whom Esme surrounded herself fulfilled the need to have more children of her own, "They became her children and their children became her grand children." Recently, Esme has celebrated her 70th birthday - to the astonishment of her husband, 350 people from all over the world, came to the party in their back garden. Dennis is surprised and touched by his wife's talent as a 'natural earth mother.' Esme herself, calls her ability to live with and love a lot of people, a 'quirk', which has enriched her life, "and a great victory that the apartheid regime did not destroy me." Without denying the pain of what happened in South Africa, the family is not bitter about events. Hilary says, "In some ways it's made us better people," and says of her mother, "her strength of character has helped to form so many lives, and people who probably wouldn't be in the positions they are today if they hadn't come into contact with Esme Goldberg."

Have you had to deal with a crisis concerning your family or friends?
How did the situation affect your relationship with them?
What would you consider to be the positive effects of what happened?
 

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