Magazine article The Spectator

Roman Holiday

Magazine article The Spectator

Roman Holiday

Article excerpt

Cape Town

I have Roger Whittaker's classic song 'Kenya is my country!' jingling in my head as I prepare to return to the motherland, somewhat delayed after my book tour across three continents. My final leg has been South Africa. Chaperoning me from the publishers was Anika, a wonderful person, who kept dosing my hangovers with red bush tea and these to-die-for painkillers called Myprodols. To a white African villager like me, Johannesburg is Rome, with its culture, its wealth and energy. I saw so many friends: Gianfranco and Christina, Maina, Buchizya and Cecilia.

Buchizya has a circular, hotel-sized bar in his basement. On the walls are dozens of photographs of him and sundry presidents shaking hands. He's in and out of Congo these days. I found my artist friend Reshada at her place in funky Yeovil, a gleaming cottage covered in flowers. Yeovil was once the haunt of bohemian whites. In the new South Africa, most have fled to richer suburbs where the sewage systems don't work; hence their nickname 'Kaka Blanka'. Every year Reshada paints an icon of her daughter on the theme of the Madonna and Child. She says she'll stop after 33 paintings.

In Pretoria I addressed the ladies who lunch in bush greens among the jacaranda and visited the Voortrekker Monument, which is so solid that you'd have to deploy an H-bomb to get rid of it. I'm told the sculptor was a homosexual and that's why the bare-chested black warriors on the frieze are all so attractive. In Durban I loved how the atmosphere was suggestive of Mombasa, with its Asian energy and frangipani. Driving to a reading at a shopping mall, we heard on the radio that a man had been killed during a taxi-rank shoot-out. We had had 81 RSVPs but, as a result of the flying bullets, I thought nobody would turn up. In the event, 40 people appeared. People are used to this sort of thing in South Africa, as they are in Kenya. I felt at home.

In Cape Town, Rian Malan and his wife Constanza had me to stay. One morning I woke up to find Rian standing on his balcony with his collar pulled tight around his throat, watching the whales swimming across False Bay. 'Why don't you write another book, man?' I said. He's like a prophet, if one could only hear what he's saying, since he mumbles. 'Pearls before swine,' I thought I heard him reply. When I was a boy we lived for a while on the neighbouring farm to Ted Hughes in Devon and my mother said the poet looked like 'a man who has been struck by lightning'. …

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