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SPUD (article first published : 2005-11-4)

The cover says it all. Hair falling over one eye, ears that stick out and a score that seems too large for small hands. A choirboy lost in his music, temporarily forgetting the jostling for power among his contemporaries, dormitory shenanigans and the pressure of exams, not to mention the stirrings – and complications! - of first love.

While he is well-known for his Green Mamba and Black Mamba smash-hit comedy shows with Ben Voss and his straight dramas War Cry and Crooked, this is John van de Ruit’s first novel. Set in 1990, Spud charts the course of young John Spud Milton, so nicknamed by his dormitory mates because his male sexuality was taking its time in lowering itself! Spud exchanges the mildly chaotic lifestyle of his bohemian parents and his dotty grandmother for an elite boys-only boarding school and embarks on his high school career, charting his daily experiences and disasters in diary form.

He becomes part of the Crazy Eight with dormitory mates such as Rambo, Mad Dog, Blackadder, Gecko, Fatty and Al Boggo. He fags for a prefect called Earthworm and his teachers go by the names of Glockenshpeel, Sparerib and The Guv. There are hilarious accounts of forbidden night swims, research into school ghosts, dinners with his English master and forays into classic literature.

Our youngster, though, has a talent. He may be a “spud” but his perfect boy soprano lands him the lead role in the school production of Oliver!.The director of the musical is aptly nicknamed Viking. During the months of rehearsals – one forgets how long school productions take to get together! – he becomes smitten with the girl playing opposite him. Meanwhile, he already has a girlfriend but she’s suffering from depression. Life is tough on a 14 year-old!

Spud was written over an 18-month period between November 2002 and April 2004. The first diary entry was scribbled on an old notebook in an eighth floor hotel room in Harare, Zimbabwe. The second entry began on the flight back to South Africa, although this was apparently severely curtailed after the author was afflicted by a chronic case of airsickness and forced to surrender his pen to the air stewardess.

While many similarities can be drawn from Spud’s school and Michaelhouse, John van de Ruit insists that the story and the people in it are fiction, although he obviously drew a lot on his experiences. With kind permission of The Witness, artSMart carried Margaret von Klemperer’s interview with John (see Literature Archives) in which she states that the first time she saw him he was “a schoolboy with bleached blond locks singing the role of Oliver in Lionel Bart's musical in a Michaelhouse production - so the Oliver! part is true, at least.

John’s abilities as an actor and director give him the capacity to draw believable characters, however weird and wonderful they may be. He carefully strokes sympathy from the reader for Spud’s homesickness as well as his confusion and helplessness in dealing with his young sweetheart’s depression. Much hilarity can be found in his descriptions of his father’s wild exploits but at the same time he captures the serenity of the KZN Midlands when he writes about Spud and Gecko’s treks up the mountains, surrounded by birdsong and wide expanses.

This is an utterly delightful book that I’m enjoying reading just as much, the second time around.

Spud by John van de Ruit is published in paperback by Penguin and retails at R95. – Caroline Smart




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