Hard times

<strong>Stealing Water</strong>

Tim Ecott <em>Sceptre, 320pp, £16.99</em>

Subtitled A Secret Life in an African City, Tim Ecott's memoir describes his childhood in Johannesburg. Shortly after the Ecotts’ move from Northern Ireland to South Africa, they fall on hard times. Debt and the threat of the bailiffs hang over them constantly.

His formidable mother is able to keep the family – just about – afloat with proceeds from the junk shop she owns in an underground shopping arcade, but she also has to resort to fencing stolen goods to make ends meet. His father is a rather insignificant figure by comparison: prone to hot-tempered outbursts, he is incapable of lifting his family out of the mire of debt, and Tim grows up surrounded by a cast of characters who hover on the fringes of criminality: Carl the cat burglar, Babette the middle-aged prostitute, Frank the alcoholic.

Ecott manages to avoid most of the clichés of the childhood misery memoir; this is not about documenting an existence made grim through poverty. And nor, despite the book being set predominantly in South Africa, is it explicitly about apartheid. The political contexts of Belfast and Johannesburg remain in the background.

Instead, Ecott writes with affection about his experiences. He neither rose-tints his family’s situation nor revels in it. And he does so in a style that is spare, unsentimental and engaging.

This article first appeared in the 31 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Is Boris a fake?