Even if the south-eastern seaboard of Africa has never been a Bloomsbury, it has had its moments. Angus Wilson’s mother was a Durban girl, and Fernando Pessoa spent his schooldays there. But given the few exceptions, that littoral has hardly been bookish. Among the 250-strong community in which I grew up, all but about thirty were Zulu-speaking workers and their families, many of whom were illiterate. Of the remainder, most were Indian tractor drivers and mechanics and their wives and children, who spoke Tamil and Telugu by choice. That left only a handful of us who had English as our mother tongue. And that linguistic ratio was repeated across much of the surrounding countryside.
I presume to know this because my parents owned a sugar plantation among the rolling hills of the Natal coast. Unlike the farms that sweltered on the flatlands beside the sea, ours was on a slight escarpment ten miles inland, at the lowest altitude where mist can survive before it is combusted by the humidity and the heat. Looking eastwards from our rambling bungalow, one could see the Indian Ocean in the distance, across an uneven trough of sugarcane whose multitude of swaying stalks had a compelling, even hypnotic, motion.
Several miles to the north was the Doornkop sugar mill, to which we carted our cane. In the early evenings, as the tractors gunned homewards down the green corridors, I remember its hooter echoing up through the valley in a clear, clean sound that seemed to punctuate my parents’ sundowner ritual on the veranda. The clink of ice against crystal and the hush of the soda siphon, and the periodic toots of the hooter, seemed to me, as a child, to be just night sounds, like the chatter of monkeys or the cry of a bushbaby.
After supper, in that pre-television era, my parents and I would read, each bathed in the glow of a standard lamp. My mother’s fare was the family sagas of John Galsworthy and R. F. Delderfield and Winston Graham, while my father navig
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