Book Review: Spud

Last summer, in a bookshop in Darling, a small town near Cape Town, South Africa, I came across one of the most astonishing books I have ever seen. A random choice from a hugely overstuffed bookshelf brought me to a small tome with a striking orange-and-black spine. I bought Spud with an uncharacteristic impulsivity, and consumed it within two hours.

John van de Ruit’s coming-of-age series of books are the fastest selling African books in history, and yet very few people outside of the continent have heard of them. Set in 1990 at Michaelhouse, a real school which the author attended, Spud (along with its sequels The Madness Continues, Learning to Fly and Exit, Pursued By A Bear) follows John Milton, an under-developed boy who is released into the mad-cap world of cricket and dormitories that exists behind the scenes at South Africa’s most famous boarding school. Set against the backdrop of the release of Nelson Mandela and the political upheaval that follows, the book covers love, grief and everything in between. In Spud, van de Ruit has created a truly phenomenal concept and character that is completely captivating. With dialogue that is enriched by unintelligible South African slang and random Shakespeare quotes, with events that play out in hilariously unexpected manner, this is an outstanding read which is laugh-out-loud. And the sequels are remarkably similar in their success, gradually exploring Milton’s development from boy to man alongside the ‘Crazy Eight’ his less-than-stable companions in the rough sea of adolescence.

And in 2010, a film was made. Described as a ‘truly international’ film, Spud stars Troye Sivan (better known for his YouTube despatches) as Milton, and John Cleese as Mr ‘Guv’ Edly, a highly rebellious English teacher. The film brings the full magic of the book to the screen with minimal excisions, along with generous helpings of madcap comedy. Actually filmed at Michaelhouse, complete with ivied cloisters and generous playing fields, Spud gives a real flavour of the period in which it is set. The casting is truly genius, especially that of Jeremy Crutchley as Mr Glockenshpeel, the headmaster, and Jason Cope as Mr Wilson, Milton’s housemaster. Sven Ruygrok also gives a compelling performance as Robert ‘Rambo’ Black, the highly confident self-appointed ‘King of the dormitory’. In all, this is a terrific film, not only extremely funny but also with an intriguing storyline and a cultural aspect that few films possess.

Spud 2 was released last year, completed by the same informal stock company that the first film brought together, but it has not yet been released in Britain. The third film has now finished filming, and will also star Caspar Lee, another YouTube star, as Spud’s garrulous new dorm-mate Garth Garlic.