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Meet Wilbur Smith

Wilbur Smith Image captionI was born of British stock on January 9, 1933 in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, in Central Africa.

As an infant of eighteen months, I was struck down by cerebral malaria, delirious for ten days. The doctors told my parents that it was probably better if I died, because if I survived I would be brain damaged. Despite the primitive medical facilities available in Africa in those days, their prognosis proved correct: I survived and am mildly crazy. Which is good, because you have to be at least slightly crazy to write fiction for a living.

I spent the first years of my life on my father’s ranch, so I had as my playground 12 000 hectares (or, if you prefer, 25 000 acres) of forest, hills and savannah. My companions were the sons of the ranch workers, small black boys with the same interests and preoccupations as myself. Chief among these was avoiding the discipline and unreasonable interference of our elders.

Armed with our slingshots and accompanied by a pack of mongrels, we ranged at large through the bush, hunting and trapping birds and small mammals. These we scorched over a cooking fire and devoured with immense gusto. I returned home as late in the evening as I dared with my bare legs scratched and bloody from the viciously hooked “wait-a bit” thorns, smelling strongly of wood smoke and dried sweat and infested with bush ticks.

I was occasionally allowed to ride on the back of my father’s pick-up truck while he went about the business of a cattleman. Later, when he had trained me not to talk too much and not to be “a bloody nuisance”, I was allowed to run with the herders and bring the cattle in for branding and dipping. As I made myself more useful, I was gradually allowed to spend more time with him.

My old man was a Victorian father and ran a tight ship. He would not hesitate to pull his belt out of the loops of his trousers and give me taste of the buckle end. That was perfectly all right with me. I usually deserved it, and a few shots across my skinny little buttocks was a small price to pay for being close to him. To me he was God on earth, and I worshipped him.

When I turned eight years of age he gave me a .22 Remington repeater rifle. It had belonged to my grandfather before him, and it had 122 notches on its butt. He taught me to shoot it safely and to honour the sportsman’s code. Soon there was no more space on the butt for my own notches. It was the start of my lifelong love affair with firearms.

The previous owner of my rifle, my grandfather, possessed a magnificent pair of moustaches and could hit a spittoon at five paces without spilling a drop of tobacco juice. He could spin a tale to make the eyes of an eight-year-old boy start out of their sockets. In his youth he had commanded a Maxim gun team during the Zulu Wars. His name was Courtney James Smith. Later I took his name Courtney for the hero of my first novel, When the Lion Feeds.

If my old man was God then my mother was an angel. She shielded me from my father’s rage, until it had cooled. She taught me to love all of nature and opened my eyes to the beauty of the wild world all around me. She was an artist, and painted beautiful watercolours of trees and animals.

Best of all she loved books. Before I could read myself she taught me to revere books and the written word. Every night she read bedtime stories to me, and these sessions became the highlights of my long exciting days on the ranch.

Through her influence I became a reader myself at a precociously young age. I started with Biggles and Just William. Pretty soon I moved on to the novels of C S Forester, H Ryder Haggard and John Buchan. From then onwards I always had a well-thumbed book in my pocket.

My father felt that my obsession with books was unnatural and unhealthy. I was forced to become a secret reader. I spent so much time in the long-drop (outhouse latrine), where I kept a cache of my favourite books, that my father ordered my mother to administer regular and copious doses of castor oil.