Leopold Blue: Back to South Africa

LEOPOLD BLUEToday’s blog post is by Rosie Rowell, author of LEOPOLD BLUE, which was published this month. In this post Rosie talks about returning to the place where she grew up, South Africa.

I spent three years, from age five to seven, living in a very small town, the town which has become Leopold in my book. My dad was posted there as the Anglican minister for the district. We were one of three English-speaking families in the town. It was a wild and free life for us as children, we roamed the streets, had a jungle of a garden. We learnt to speak Afrikaans in a matter of weeks and from then on knew everybody – each time I dropped in to visit the lady at the electronics shop, she’d give me a chocolate from her stash in one of the display fridges.

Rosie Rowell 2

My parents’ experience was somewhat different – we were frowned upon for being English, for being Anglican (white people in the district were almost exclusively members of the pro-Apartheid Dutch Reformed church.) My mother caused a scandal by wearing trousers to the post office one day. But these things didn’t filter down into my six year old’s consciousness.Rosie Rowell 1A few years ago I took my husband to see the town. The long stretch of Park Road we used to ride our bikes up and down (pretending to be riding horses) had shrunk dusty pot-holed side street. Discount shopping malls have replaced the old shops on the Main Road. The hotel on the Main Road was not somewhere you’d want to be stuck for the night. The local supermarket is run by a Chinese family.

People still wandered aimlessly or just sat and watched. We chatted to some guys sitting on the wall outside the library. They hang around there everyday in the hope of getting a day’s work on the farms. But migrant workers from up north will work for less than the minimum wage, so it’s pretty unlikely.Rowie Rowell 3The heat and the smells and the ringing silence are the same. The deep blue of the summer sky. Our old house, Meg’s house in the story, has been turned into a B&B. I was hoping to see inside it but there was nobody home. In retrospect I’m glad because its as though my memories are safely stored in that house.

On a level I wrote Leopold Blue as an ode to these vanishing towns. As a young child I was mostly unaware of the many undercurrents and tensions and injustices that existed. But the personalities that rubbed along uncomfortably together and the odd expressions of humanity will stay with me forever.