Then this idyllic existence came to an abrupt ending.

One of my chums was sent to boarding school. I had only a hazy idea of what this involved and it all sounded very exciting. I suggested to my parents that I should also go to boarding school. Mother burst into tears at the prospect of losing her baby, but my father decided it would make a man of me.

I was sent to Cordwalles boarding school in Natal, South Africa. This involved a three-day train journey across most of southern Africa. I quite enjoyed the novelty of the first week or so, but very soon the cold showers and the discipline and the interminable church services began to pall. Then I received my first caning; three strokes across the backside with a light cane for the heinous crime of talking after “lights out” in the dormitory. My father would never have been so unjust.

I asked to see the headmaster and told him that if he didn’t mind I thought it would be rather a good idea if I went home to the ranch. Apparently he did mind, and he didn’t think it was a good idea at all. So I served out my full sentence: eight years of misery. If you had no interest in hitting or kicking balls, or in Latin and Mathematics, you were considered a “slacker”. This was not a good thing to be. It turned you into a social pariah. But, the hell with them. I had my opiate. I had my books.

The school library had a special section in the upstairs gallery devoted to fiction. There were over a thousand titles. I started at one end and worked my way rapidly through them. My English master was a man called Mr Forbes (not his real name). Looking back I realise he was probably gay, but at the time I had no idea. 

Mr Forbes had a register in which we were required each week to list the books we had read. The average for our class was zero to one per head. In a good week I would notch up six or seven. This caught the attention of Mr Forbes. He made me his protégé, and would discuss the books I had read that week with me. He made it seem that being a bookworm was praiseworthy, rather than something to be deeply ashamed of. He told me that my essays showed great promise, and we discussed how to achieve dramatic effects, to develop characters and to keep a story moving forward. He pointed out authors who I would enjoy and books I should read. He even called me “Wilbur” rather than “Smith”, as though I was actually a member of the human race.

At the end of the year he nominated me for the form prize for best English essay. This was my first literary accolade. The book I received was chosen by Mr Forbes himself. I have it still: W Somerset Maugham’s “Introduction to Modern English Literature”. This was the first time that it entered my head that one day I might join the pantheon of writers, and live on Olympus among them. 

Then, at the beginning of one new term, I was distraught to learn that Mr Forbes had left the school, hurriedly and unexpectedly. I never learned why; only now can I hazard a guess.

I moved on to senior school: Michaelhouse (AKA St Michael’s academy for young gentlemen). This was a manifest misnomer as there was not a single gentleman among us. Here it was very much the same thing all over again, except much worse. The food was awful and the beatings heavier and more frequent. There was the same obsession with team sports and science subjects. Situated on the foothills of the Drakensberg mountains, the winters were arctic.

My English master was also my science master, and his heart was totally given over to the latter role. He did not have the wit to recognise literary genius when it was thrust under his nose. There were no more form prizes for me. My sole achievement of any note was to start a school newspaper for which I wrote the entire content, except for the sports pages.

At the end of the year they awarded the prize for achievement to the kid that ran the Roneo machine to print the paper. The headmaster called me in and explained that they had chosen him as a symbolic gesture on behalf of all the newspaper staff, by which he meant me, besides which the laureate was captain of the Second Eleven.

This biography, with a bibliography, is available for download as a PDF

Wilbur Smith

Boarding school days

Wilbur Smith

Back home for the holidays in the-then Northern Rhodesia