Notes from underground

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Sammy going south: book review

Sammy Going SouthSammy Going South by W.H. Canaway

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sammy Hartland is a 10-year-old English boy whose parents are killed in the bombing of Port Said in 1956. He knows he has an aunt in Durban, which he knows is somewhere south of Port Said, so he sets out to cross the continent to reach her. He crosses deserts and mountains and savannah, and meets many people, some of whom help him, while others simply try to exploit him for their own purposes.

At one level this is an adventure-travel story, of a boy with no money, trying to make a long journey alone, dependent on the help he receives from strangers on the way. At another level it is a story of growing up, as the boy learns to become a judge of character, who he can trust and who he cannot trust.

The book made quite an impression on me when I first read it, back in 1963 when it was first published, perhaps because of the time at which it was published.

I recently wrote in my other blog Twenty years ago: death of David Bosch and the coming of the Copts | Khanya about the time when the iron curtain between South Africa and the rest of the African continent was beginning to lift. Sammy going south was published thirty years before that, when the iron cutain was beginning to come down.

Nineteen sixty-three was the year Kenya became independent, and there was an influx of whenwes into South Africa, whose views on “black majority rule” were endlessly broadcast on radio programmes to make sure that South African audiences knew that it was a Very Bad Thing. It was the constantly-repeated “When we were in Keen-yah…” that gave whenwes their name.

At the time I wondered why the whenwes came to South Africa. If they didn’t like black people, why didn’t they emigrate to a country that had fewer black people to disturb their tranquility?

Jeremy Taylor, with his Ballad of the Northern Suburbs, which dated from the same period, gave the answer:

Now there’s always a train of servants
Following in my aftermath
They clean the carpets, scrub the floors
And polish up the hearth
There’s three to dust the surface
of my Penguin swimming bath
Yes, I’m from the northern side of town.

The whenwes hated black people being equal to white people, but they couldn’t live without them — who would polish their shoes?

And Sammy going south gave a last glimpse of the land the curtain was coming down to cover. We wouldn’t see it again for a generation.

I saw the film before I read the book. I’d seen the hardcover edition in shop windows, but hadn’t been tempted to buy it. I think the paperback came out to cash in on the popularity of the film. The film had Fergus McLelland in the title role (I wonder what happened to him, he doesn’t seem to have made a career in films?)

The film showed some of the scenery only described in the book (to which it kept fairly faithfully, with a few divergences). The South African Sunday Express, however, accused the film of pandering to currently fashionable views (what is now called political correctness), of showing white people as duplicitous villains and black people as kind to wandering orphans like Sammy. Actually the film didn’t; it showed good and bad black people and white people. But many white South Africans, including white South African journalists, were beginning to see things that weren’t there.

Anyway, I enjoyed the film, so when I found a copy of the paperback edition of the book in the bookrack in a corner cafe, I borrowed five bob from a friend and bought it. Quite an investment, it seems, as secondhand copies seem to be going for fifteen quid, which is about R170. An omelet and chips, which cost 50c (the price of the book) back in the early 1960s now costs about R40.00. So the book has appreciated in value more.

And re-reading it again 40 years later, I still enjoyed it.

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2 thoughts on “Sammy going south: book review

  1. Pingback: Bourgeois theology | Khanya

  2. Pingback: The Talisman (book review) | Notes from underground

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