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Happy Sad Land
No Worries
Jack and Zena
The Craic
1900 House
Castaway

Robbie Williams
- Somebody Someday

Tribe
The Meaning of Tingo and Toujours Tingo
Going Dutch in Beijing


HAPPY SAD LAND (1994) - buy this title from Amazon.co.uk

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Read the reviews
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Extract
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See Pictures |


 
  buy this title from Amazon.co.uk
   
This was my first book, commissioned by a publisher who had turned down a novel I had written. He liked my writing style, he said, if not my story. In any case, he published more travel than literary fiction. Did I have any ideas for a travel book?

As it happened, I had. In 1977, in a 'gap year' between school and university, I had worked as a 'teacher-aid' in a secondary school in the newly independent Botswana. Like many other young Europeans before me, I had fallen in love with Africa: the heat, the wide emptiness of the bush, the kaleidoscopic sunsets, above all the people. Their ebullience and good humour was such a contrast to the grumble-culture of home.

Botswana is adjacent to South Africa, and at that time, the cruel and absurd experiment of apartheid was in full swing. In Gaberone, a few miles from the border, we felt the effects. Refugees of the system, black and white, gathered in the little capital. Some of the black teenagers I was teaching were from South Africa. Bantu education meant that there were no schools in their home country where they could get a proper secondary education. The fortunate few, often the children of prosperous or significant black South Africans, were sent abroad: to Waterford in Swaziland (which was attended by Nelson Mandela's children); now to Maru-a-Pula, our school.

 
   
 
Women at Coffee Bay, Transkei
   
I was intrigued enough by the idea of what lay over the border to take off in the school holidays and hitchhike round South Africa. I saw segregated buses and bars - even benches - and got lifts from blacks in lorries and whites in cars. The whites were generally elaborately defensive of their pariah system. Every lift involved a lecture (often accompanied by the sound of Neil Diamond, white South Africa's favourite singer at that time).

The experience remained with me. And when Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson asked where I'd like to write about, it had to be Southern Africa. As I landed in Cape Town and travelled up the coast, moving back and forth between prosperous white neighbourhoods and desperately poor black townships, I was under the impression that I was describing a situation that would still be much the same when my book came out. The people I talked to, both black and white, predicted that apartheid would continue in some form for several years longer. But history was on the gallop. By the time I handed in the manuscript, nine months after I'd returned, the date had been set for democratic elections. When the book was published, my description of the country and its people was history.

 
   
 
Township children, Soweto-on-Sea
   
When I open Happy Sad Land now I have mixed feelings. I was trying to combine the first-person episodic narrative of a conventional travel book with detailed interviews about the political situation and I'm not sure the experiment entirely works. On the other hand, I hope the book succeeds in its attempt to describe how ordinary people live through an extraordinary situation. I very much doubt that any news-chasing foreign correspondent covering that turbulent transition would have come across the local human stories I stumbled on: the wealthy white boutique owner who rescued the murdered township leader's wife and children at the height of a riot (see extract); the old gold-diggers still living by pre-apartheid rules in the valleys of the Transvaal; the Jo'burg radical who worked for the ANC but nonetheless argued that black and white were as different as two species of animal; the AWB man who had a home-video of his onetime friend Eugene Terre'Blanche with his mistress Jani Allen, but had let his children video a Mickey Mouse film over it ... to name but four.
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