Nostalgic school days

Marguerite Poland’s new novel Iron Love is set at St Andrew’s College, Grahamstown.

TWO years ago, Marguerite Poland and I were sitting at school desks in a classroom at St Andrew’s College, Grahamstown. “My great-grandfather (an alumnus of the school) would have a fit if he could see me here!” she murmured, conscious of the fact that she was treading in footprints of a once all-male enclave.

Poland was at St Andrew’s to do a stint as “author-in-residence”, whilst researching her third adult novel, Iron Love (Penguin, 1999), which is set at the school. This recently-published work is an account of some of the boys of the 1913 First XV; but Poland stresses that, though the novel is rooted in fact, it must stand as a work of fiction. For much has been altered or invented and all the names have been changed—except for that of full-back Charlie Fraser.

Though brilliant at rugby, Fraser was not one of the select clan who could claim paternal associations with the school. Here, though, is a young man of noble character, who earns the respect of all who know him.

Iron Love explores many different kinds of love in the lives of boys at the school. But when romantic love takes centre stage, complications arise. Resolution comes a few years later at the battle-fronts of World War I.

Poland’s second novel, Shades, was based on her own forebears, but it was in the field of children’s books that she started her writing career. She was the first author deemed worthy of receiving the Percy Fitzpatrick Award for Children’s Literature, although the prize had been in existence for many years.

The impulse to write manifested itself early. “At the age of eight, I used to lock myself in the loo to write a dramatic saga about a woman who married, went on honeymoon, and came back with three strapping sons,” Poland smiles. “That’s when my mother decided it was time to tell me the facts of life!”

But the authorial urge came to fruition much later, when she was the new and nervous mother of a premature baby. Her husband, Martin Oosthuizen, suggested she should try writing children’s stories. Now, “My greatest happiness, and the thing I really like doing best, is writing,” Poland says.

Now based in Durban, Poland was brought up on a smallholding near Port Elizabeth, and she continues to yearn for the sights and sounds and fragrances of the Eastern Cape bush. (“At heart I’m a frustrated bush ranger,” she jokes.) Her affinity with nature, and her sense of the almost sacred significance of certain landscapes, are features that enrich her novels.

In Iron Love, this comes across, for instance, in the passage where young Charlie Fraser thinks of his father’s grave—“a little grave, in the high barren cemetery with a view of the hills. It was unadorned, but for the wild helichrysums, brave and wind-burned, just inside the iron palisade. He [Charlie] had brought one of the small plants back with him but it had died… He had kept the small shrivelled root, tucked away among his things. Each has his own forms of remembrance and homage.”

Iron Love offers fascinating insights into the preoccupations of other boys. Some of these insights have been derived from letters in the St Andrew’s College archives, and make delightful reading.

The novel is especially noteworthy for its thought-provoking scrutiny of practices operative in some schools then—and, I daresay, now. These include the metaphorical side-lining of boys who do not excel at sport, and the tormenting of boys who do not conform to the norms of the pack. As Poland’s narrator notes, all boys are not born equal, and at school “the meek do not inherit the earth”. The subject of bullying—and the seeming inability (or reluctance) of staff to act against this practice—is an aspect of the novel which teachers will find of particular interest.

—The Teacher/Mail & Guardian, February 8, 2000.

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