My parents still live in George, a small city on the south western South African coast, flat and spreading, named for George III and celebrating its two-hundredth anniversary this year. Provincial and predominantly Afrikaans, George was a pleasant place to grow up, but young adults move to larger cities like Cape Town, Durban, or Johannesburg if they can.
Like many provincial cities, I suppose, it is an intellectual dry-spot. We weren’t taught to relish reading or studies at school; we didn’t have a library of our own, and the school system encouraged parroting, not critical thinking. People here live outdoor lives. The beach is so nearby; the mountain so close. You can drive your bakkie across the pass to the Karoo and to the hot springs.
When I went regularly to the George library as a girl – a flat-roofed, squat building which was trying very hard to be Cape Dutch, but obviously built in the 60s - I’d pick crime novels, science fiction, fantasy, regency romances. I now consider time wasted. Perhaps I shouldn’t. But I wish there had been someone to suggest I try something that hadn’t occurred to me: Hemingway or Tolstoy or graphic novels or non-Romantic poetry. The librarians are slow-moving, shallow-eyed, and bored. Maybe there’s something about the yellowing light indoors and the half-closed curtains which provokes something like Seasonal Affective Disorder.
I now realize that this is not the library’s fault. Its collection is surprisingly generous. One afternoon visit in search of South African fiction yielded two novels by Damon Galgut (the new J.M. Coetzee, a crass but useful tag), short-stories by Nadine Gordimer and Ivan Vladislavic, poetry by Roy Campbell (South Africa’s greatest contribution to modernism, and bête-noire of the Bloomsbury group), and a selection of Olive Schreiner’s letters edited by Richard Rive.
And the R2 library book sale brought forth a bounty: a penguin copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, and Lawrence’s Trespassers, Lucia in London, and a tattered first edition of Nancy Mitford’s Don’t tell Alfred! Whether these will make it back to Oxford in my already corpulent luggage is another matter.