Book brings notoriety for midlands school

2008-10-02 08:05

JOHN van de Ruit's Spud: The Madness Continues is carrying on where its predecessor, Spud, left off, setting South African publishing records. It has sold 21 000 copies in its first month on the shelves and judging by the way the boys at Michaelhouse were snapping up copies and getting them signed by the

author when Van de Ruit had a launch at the school last week, the rush shows no signs of stopping.

Van de Ruit's books are set in an unnamed private school in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, but there can be little doubt that the setting is Michaelhouse,

where the author was a pupil.

Names of parts of the school are retained, and for anyone who knows the school, even peripherally, it is unmistakable. So, during Van de Ruit's visit last week, I asked Michaelhouse rector Guy Pearson how the school was handling its new notoriety.

“The important point to remember is that this is fiction,” he says firmly. “And a lot of the stories in the book didn't happen here. For us, that's critical. People must understand that it is not Michaelhouse.”

Ridiculously funny

That point out of the way, Pearson agrees that Spud is a “ridiculously funny” creation and admits that, despite the book's fictional status, it has been good for the school. He says that 90% of the potential pupils he interviews have read the first book and love it. The interest it has generated in the school over the past couple of years has been extraordinary; it seems that, even though it depicts a school where boys and staff alike are borderline

lunatics, Spud has been a good recruiting tool.

“All those characters are mad,” agrees Pearson. “Yet underlying the book is a thread of affection and loyalty - something that Michaelhouse is about. John is not malicious.” But he still refers to the danger that people might think the events in the Spud books are an illustration of what goes on in the school. Although, if people really did think that, they would not be likely to send their children there.

Before Spud was published, Pearson admits that plenty of people associated with the school were anxious about what was coming. There have been many coming-of-age novels and school memoirs over the years, although not usually funny ones, that could have done the schools where they are based no good at all. When I ask about incidents in the Spud books dealing with events, like expulsions, that schools are always concerned to handle as discreetly as possible, I sense that the anxiety is still there. But in the face of Van de Ruit's enormous success, Pearson knows that the school is doing the only thing it can. It is celebrating with Van de Ruit and enjoying his success.

“The association with John is one we are proud of and that we are benefiting from,” he says.

Affection for the school

Over the past few years, Van de Ruit and Ben Voss have brought their satirical Green Mamba and Black Mamba revues to the school and Van de Ruit has also been invited along as an enrichment speaker. And when talking to the boys at the book launch, it is obvious that he has considerable affection for his old school. He is the first to admit that the success of Spud has changed his life in the past two years. And with pressure from the reading public and his publishers, it seems likely that there will be two more volumes of Spud to come, again set in his fictional KZN school, next to the railway line.

Film in the pipeline

There is also a film in the pipeline. Van de Ruit would love to see his story filmed at Michaelhouse. When he is writing, he admits that he envisages his characters in the setting of the school. Pearson is more cautious. He says the school has not been approached about filming, and, if an approach came, the decision would have to be made by the school's board.

In the meantime, Spud sails on, setting his records. The relationship between the fictional boy and the real school may be a slightly queasy one on certain levels, but as long as it is good for both of them - and at the moment, it is, it looks destined to continue, at least until Spud Milton reaches his matric year, two books down the line.

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