Taking guns to the bank is less silly than the Grand National

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DID I give the impression yesterday that my recent trip to South Africa was a grim experience? Far from it. Of course, as a newspaper writer just back from a trouble spot, I have to give the impression that I have escaped by the skin of my teeth, but sitting in the Signalman's Arms at George, with a pint of Mitchell's beer, you wouldn't think you were within a thousand miles of trouble.

The Signalman's Arms is the pub on the platform at George station. George station is one end of the 30-mile railway line that follows a spectacular part of the South African coastline to Knysna, along which only steam-drawn trains go, great big 4-8-2 engines, spitting out smoke, steam and lots of smuts. There are only two trains a day in each direction.

How does a pub on a station survive with only four trains a day in and out? 'By not relying at all on the railway traffic,' the barman told me. 'We cater just for locals. Days the trains don't run, doesn't affect our business much.'

In the middle of the Signalman's Arms there was an open fire burning. The temperature outside was about 30C. It was the end of summer down there, still warm, not autumnal. What did they need a fire for? Maybe to spit black smoke in our eyes and acclimatise us to the smoke-rich ride back to Knysna. Or maybe to a South African this Indian summer weather really was cold.

But the day before, things had hotted up in Capetown, where an angry black mob rampaged through the city centre in the wake of Chris Hani's death. Things are usually tastefully quiet in Capetown. So people were upset. 'What are holidaymakers going to think?' said an anguished spokesman. 'They'll see uproar on their television screens, and they'll say, 'Let's give Capetown a miss.' It's all so unfair.

'Still, at least it didn't happen six months from now, at a time when most people are planning their holidays. So we've got time to mend the damage.'

Thank goodness Chris Hani was shot in the late summer, not late winter, that's the message. It's a trifle macabre, as thoughts go.

But South Africa is not short of offbeat humour. I see car stickers for sale reading: 'Be Kind to Animals - Hug a Transvaaler]', which reminds you that prejudice can also exist happily between whites. Another car sticker: 'Never mind the white rhino - save the white man]'

Not all humour in South Africa is intentional. I was struck by this advice in a South African police notice called Hints for Holidaymakers: 'A vehicle is not a safe place to store your firearm. Request your bank to keep your firearm in safe custody. A letter of authorisation may be obtained from the local firearms department.'

I do not believe the police have thought this one through. You appear at the bank counter, wave your firearm and say: 'Look, this is my gun . . .' Do you think the average cashier will assume you've come to put it in a deposit box? No, he'll hand over a lot of money. Or, of course, shoot you.

Here's another thought-provoking extract from the same notice: 'Avoid dark and deserted places. Never go swimming, jogging, walking or sunbathing alone, especially after dark.'

I mentioned this to the barman at the Signalman's Arms at George station. ('Change here for Knysna', says the sign. Change? It's a terminus, and there's only one line]) I mentioned this to the barman as well, and said that South Africa was a funny old country. He smiled icily.

'Not as funny as some,' he said, handing me a newspaper account of the British Grand National, of which I knew nothing. I read it. The man was right. It was a lot funnier and more ludicrous than anything I had come across in South Africa.