CHILDHOOD 1897 – 1914
A World of Colour and Difference
Cloete remembered his childhood with great fondness. He was free to roam Victorian Paris and indulge his love for dogs and horses, colours and smells. The ‘whole world was in fancy-dress,' he recalled, as different classes and nationalities were distinctive in their dress. Later he came to detest standardisation and mass production.
Cloete recognised the glaring hypocrisy of Victorian society early on, but still grew up to believe in the value of structure and hierarchy:
This was a world of absolutes, of good and bad. The values may have been all wrong but they were probably easier for the human spirit to cope with than the world of today where the whole spectrum has been blended into a democratic grey.
He belonged to the middle class, his parents being ‘more or less landed gentry.' But rather than mixing with his equals, he preferred the very rich or the interesting ‘low-lives'. His sexual awakening came at a very early age when his French instructor, Katerine, took him into her bed and allowed him to explore her body; something he regarded as ‘useful' later on.
His happiness departed when he was sent to boarding school. He attended several schools in England and France before his parents finally settled in Condette in France when he was 12. He always felt like an outsider, and this feeling that would follow him through life:
In France I was an English boy. In England I was called Froggy because of my French accent. In South Africa, though of South African ancestry, I was an outlander as I did not speak Afrikaans. In America I was a resident alien.
By his own accounts he was a bad student, and he was asked to leave a school in Paris for his habit of fighting. But generally he was not openly rebellious, and found ways to break the rules without being caught. In his first autobiography he recorded that he still became ‘that peculiarly English product, a public school boy who could be relied upon to play his part in the Empire.'
France mobilised for war in 1914 when Cloete turned 17 and he focused his ambitions on gaining entry into the army, even considering lying about his age. Ultimately he was commissioned as an officer through recommendations.
Before he left for England to serve, his father marred his joy with a shocking admission: Several years before he had been jailed for fraud, relocated to France and changed the family name to Graham. Cloete saw the decision to run as cowardly, and it became one example in a long line of disappointments that ultimately eroded his love for his father. He later changed his surname back to Cloete.