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In 1980, I went to work for six months in Swaziland, a small country sandwiched between Mozambique and South Africa. I worked at the university there, and I lived in a house that had magnificent views of the mountains about which Rider Haggard wrote in King Solomons Mines. I had not been in Africa for a long time and I found many memories came flooding back. I was there in the rainy season, and once again I experienced that extraordinary sensation-the smell of rain on the wind. I saw birds that I remembered seeing as a child. Outside my window was a great bougainvillea bush of the sort that grew outside my window when I was a boy.

The nearest town of any size was a place called Manzini. This was reached by a road that ran first past a hospital and then past a hotel called the Uncle Charlie Hotel. The Uncle Charlie Hotel had a dining room with a mural painted all the way round the top part of the wall, above the picture rail. This mural showed African animals-cantering giraffes, a pride of lions, scattered zebras-against a background of wide savannah. At one end of the picture there was a lake, and in front of the lake was a tiny flagpole with a painted Union Jack fluttering in the breeze.

I used a fictional hotel a bit like this in a short story I wrote many years later, He Used to Like to Go for Drives with His Father. In the story, the owner of a hotel in Swaziland has a mentally handicapped son and a bored tennis-playing wife. He is very proud of a Mercedes-Benz car that he has, in fact, stolen and had repainted. The boy loves going for drives in this car, but the wife is determined that her husband should be punished for stealing it, and takes drastic action.

Swaziland struck me as an eminently suitable setting for such a story. I believe in the existence of a literary continent called Greene-land, so called because the places within it are exactly the sort of places where Graham Greene set his stories. Greene never used Swaziland, but he would have loved it. There was just the right sense of being caught at the wrong end of history; and the lives led there by outsiders (and most of Greenes characters are washed up from somewhere else) seemed to me to have that air of desperation, of dislocation, that makes a Greene novel so haunting.

I was still single then, and time at weekends hung rather heavy on my hands. On Sundays I would sometimes drive up to Siteki, on the ridge of the Lebombo Mountains, and have lunch in the Siteki Hotel, an old colonial hotel that appeared to have changed little over the years. They served Brown Windsor soup, a heavy beef-based soup that was popular in Britain until the 1950s, and the tables were covered with carefully starched white linen. It was extraordinary that such a place should have survived.

When I had rather more time-a break of three or four days-I would travel through South Africa, across what was then the Transvaal, all the way to Botswana. I had friends who lived in Mochudi, a village to the north of the capital, Gaborone. I would stay with them for a few days and then travel back to Swaziland.

The road to Botswana ran unswervingly across dry plains of red earth, taking a breather every fifty miles or so in some depressing little agricultural town of neat, soulless bungalows and shops with wide verandas. As one approached these towns, the sun would glint off the silver spire of a Dutch Reformed church like a sharp sliver of Calvinist disapproval. And all about there was a feeling of things having stopped, of waiting for something that was expected but had yet to materialize.

Then, after a God-forsaken town called Zeerust, the road turned north and headed for a final seventy miles or so to the Botswana border. Something happened now; the landscape changed, became more wooded; hills appeared, abrupt protuberances in the land like islands rising out of the sea. And as the landscape changed, so, too, did the atmosphere. Suddenly, as one neared and then crossed the border into Botswana, it seemed as if a weight of oppression lifted off ones shoulders.


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