My teens were a pretty miserable time. Reading became a sneaky pleasure for me. In those days all the heating and cooking in the house was done with wood, and one of my chores was to go off with the tractor and trailer and a gang of guys who would cut the wood and load it on and I’d bring it back. I always used to sneak a book down the front of my shirt, so I could perch up on the tractor with a big hat on and read my books even in the middle of the day. My father never caught me at it, because I could always hear his car coming.
As a child I preferred being on my own, reading whenever I could. As soon as I was able, I started to read books myself, starting with Biggles and Just William. Soon I was lost in the worlds of CS Forester, with his exquisite Horatio Hornblower tales of adventure on the high seas. My mother struck up a friendship with a public librarian in Bulawayo, almost 800 miles to the south, and every month a package of new adventures would arrive on the freight train. From that moment onwards I always had a well-thumbed novel in my pocket. I could dive into books where I found gripping tales of death and danger, the heroism and savagery of this continent we called home. I loved the romance of Africa.
My father thought that reading too much was unhealthy
When I was 16 I was stuck in a horrible boarding school. However when I got to university, that was special. By the time I was 18, the gates of heaven had opened for me at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. Suddenly there were girls who did not wear gymslips and walk primly to church in crocodile formation. Up until that moment I had never dreamt of how soft and warm these gorgeous creatures were, or how sweet they smelled.
I remember a used convertible I bought that was very popular with the ladies. I lived in Matthews, part of Founders Hall, but I soon found my way to the leading women’s residence, Oriel, named after Oxford’s Oriel College. I fell for a girl who was in her second year. Her boyfriend was a lawyer in Port Elizabeth but she took a shine to me, a bumbling first year, naive and eager to please, but longing for adventure and new experiences. Within a week I discovered, to my joy, that the mouth wasn’t the only way to give pleasure during sex.
The only saving grace of my boarding school was an influential English teacher who took time to talk to me about the books I read. He focused my mind on what was I trying to achieve in writing a story.He liked to have a structure in the classical style: beginning, middle, and end. The idea of picking the story up and letting it go, and then picking it up again in the middle, and then at the end to engender excitement and tension, of not giving too much away at the beginning, of letting characters develop themselves and keeping some mystery about how it’s all going to turn out were all formulas that he proposed to me. Of course it’s the way you take those formulas and employ your own instincts that makes all the difference. If there is a genius in writing, that’s where it lies.
I was very fortunate in having two wonderful parents. My father was a man of action and my mother was an artist, a very gentle person who loved books and lovedpainting; I have many of her paintings to this day. My father taught me about the outdoor life and my mother gave me the other side of the mirror with music and books, and before I could read myself, she’d read to me every night. My father thought that reading too much was unhealthy. He only read non-fiction, mostly manuals about how to fix things on the ranch.