No Whingeing!

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I can’t remember now the order in which I read them, but I doubt I would have begun with the first of Mary Grant Bruce’s novels, just because of its title: A Little Bush Maid. It was Billabong itself – the Australian outback station in the north of Victoria, seventeen miles from the nearest settlement – that first caught my imagination and that sent me back to the library in the South African town where I lived to find more of the same:

[The] country lay bare enough in the early winter – long stretches of stone-walled paddocks where the red soil showed through the sparse native grass; steep, stony hillsides; oases of irrigation, with the deep green of Lucerne growing rank among weed-fringed water channels; and so on and on, past little towns and tiny settlements . . . But Norah did not want the towns; she was homesick for the open country, for the scent of the gum trees coming drifting in through the open window [of the train], for the long, lonely plains . . .

Until I was 9, my mother read aloud to my brother and me every evening – and why bother to read to yourself when someone will do it for you? I could read if I had to, as my father had discovered when he came back from POW camp in Germany and thought he’d better teach me himself. My mother eventually solved the problem by reading a very exciting story to the middle of a chapter, then closing the book abruptly. ‘If you want any more, you’ll have to read it yourself,’ she said. By the time I was 10 I was such a voracious reader that I needed not single novels but series. That was one of the advantages of the Billabong books: there were fifteen of them to search out (and I remember, when I got to the last of them, the same sense of outrage as I was to feel years later when Updike killed off Rabbit with an early heart-attack).

There weren’t that many specifically South African novels a youngster could read: Jock of the Bushveld, of course, but it was by any standards a bloodthirsty story. Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm wasn’t regarded as suitable for children. Mainly, there were the English ‘standards

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About the contributor

C. J. Driver was for more than twenty years a headmaster, but is now once again a full-time writer. He has published six books of poetry. His fifth novel, Shades of Darkness, was published by Jonathan Ball (Johannesburg and Cape Town) in 2005 – and a sixth is now complete and in need of a publisher.

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