There are many sim­i­lar­i­ties in the lives of the au­thor and his main char­ac­ter, writes Michele Mag­wood

Sunday Times - - Contents - @michelemag­wood

Ad­man John Hunt un­locks boxes

Ad­ver­tis­ing mae­stro John Hunt could prob­a­bly walk to Hillbrow from his gra­cious West­cliff home, but the dis­tance he has come from his child­hood in that sub­urb is im­mea­sur­able.

The Boy Who Could Keep a Swan in His Head is set in Hillbrow and Berea in 1967, a throng­ing, mul­ti­cul­tural com­mu­nity where streets of tin-roofed houses are be­ing bro­ken down into skips and con­fi­dent new build­ings thrust sky­wards.

Eleven-year-old Stephen Bax­ter — known as Phen — lives in a worn Deco block of flats on O’Reilly Road. He’s a watch­ful, hy­per­vig­i­lant child who is learn­ing “to lis­ten with his eyes”. Phen’s fa­ther is dy­ing in his gloomy, book-stuffed bed­room, an eru­dite and hu­mor­ous man, look­ing for all the world like a Spit­fire pi­lot be­hind his oxy­gen mask. His thick glasses are held to­gether with sticky tape. “His mag­ni­fied eye­lashes stuck to the lenses like the bent legs of spi­ders wait­ing to scurry away.”

As his fa­ther slowly de­te­ri­o­rates, Phen must nav­i­gate a con­fus­ing world where adults speak in rid­dles and the at­mos­phere is thick with un­spo­ken mean­ing. Pre­pubescence is a del­i­cate time. “You can be lost in your Mec­cano set,” says Hunt, “but you also know that there’s some­thing in the adult world you have to start un­der­stand­ing.”

He has bor­rowed gen­er­ously from his child­hood for this fine novel, but he prefers to keep the lines be­tween fic­tion and lived ex­pe­ri­ence blurred. Like Phen, Hunt’s fa­ther was ter­mi­nally ill. Like Phen he would read for hours to his fa­ther, classics and adult books like Tru­man Capote’s In Cold Blood or Hem­ing­way’s The Old Man and the Sea.

“Even though you could read the words, adult books had sec­ondary mean­ings,” says Hunt. Phen has a se­vere stut­ter, Hunt was dyslexic, both are — or were — highly sen­si­tive and sen­si­tised boys. “I think the sit­u­a­tion made a sen­si­tive boy more sen­si­tive, an aware child more aware,” says Hunt. It was a time of such height­ened emo­tion and anx­i­ety that 50 years on he is able to ren­der the boy with crys­talline em­pa­thy.

“When these things hap­pen as a boy, in or­der to cope you keep them in a box. I wanted to go back and un­lock the box and it just ex­ploded from there. It was as if it was deep-frozen. It hadn’t gone away.”

Go­ing over an old map of Hillbrow in the ’60s, mem­o­ries came flow­ing back. Claren­don Cir­cle, Es­to­ril Books, the cafés and movie house. Wil­son’s tof­fees. Mills Spe­cial cig­a­rettes. Ford Corti­nas. An im­mi­grant from Florence named Ro­molo: “He was im­me­di­ately re­named Romeo in ac­knowl­edge­ment of his tight pants and sleek hair, jet black and shaped in the front like the bon­net of Mar­garet Wal­lace’s par­ents’ Pon­tiac.”

We are re­minded that Hillbrow was al­ways a land­ing ground for im­mi­grants coming to South Africa. Hunt paints this world with as­sured im­pres­sion­is­tic strokes, and his char­ac­ters leap off the page: Phen’s grand­mother, a doughty Scotswoman, given to ob­ser­va­tions like “When life turns as black as the Earl of Hell’s waist­coat, you don’t want a man who’s all bum and pars­ley”; the school grounds­man with shrap­nel in his head from the Korean war; the shov­ing, mock­ing, al­most-hor­monal school­mates and his just­cop­ing mother.

And then there is Heb Thir­teen Two, the char­ac­ter around whom the story re­volves, an ec­cen­tric home­less man who Phen meets in the park. He might, or might not, ex­ist in Phen’s imag­i­na­tion. He might be an un­savoury old hobo or he may be an an­gel sent to guide a boy through an un­bear­able time.

While Hunt re­ceived warmth and sup­port in his child­hood from the neigh­bour­hood adults, “I’d love to have met some­one like Heb in the park.”

In­stead he is able to look back over the decades and pour the wis­dom he needed then into this fig­ure.

His writ­ing is poignant with­out be­ing sen­ti­men­tal, mov­ing with­out be­ing mawk­ish. This is a per­cep­tive, af­fec­tion­ate view of a splin­ter­ing world through a child’s wide-open eyes. It’s also a homage to the power of books and words to con­tain and com­fort us.

It would seem that Hunt has made a life out of the words he im­bibed at his fa­ther’s bed­side — first as a copy­writer and vi­sion­ary ad­man (he was a co-founder of TBWA\Hunt Las­caris) — and now as an award-win­ning play­wright and au­thor of two nov­els. He is a stead­fast be­liever in the value of read­ing over watch­ing, of pages over screens.

“When you read you en­gage your brain dif­fer­ently,” he says. “You re­lease a sort of imag­i­nary sero­tonin. It’s dif­fer­ent from when you’re watch­ing some­thing on an Ipad. Be­tween the writ­ten word and the reader there’s some­thing in be­tween. You think not just about the char­ac­ters but about your­self, where you are in the world.”

Pic­ture: Joanne Olivier

John Hunt’s sec­ond novel is set in Hillbrow and Berea in 1967.

The Boy Who Could Keep a Swan in His HeadJohn Hunt, Umuzi, R260

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