Every so often you come across a character in a book you wish you could count as a friend. Tim Ecott's Irish mum Pamela is one of these.

The journalist's absorbing memoir about moving from Ireland to South Africa in the 1970s in his late teens centres around his remarkable mum and her bright courage when everything goes wrong and stays like that for several years.

His Welsh/English dad's officer status had meant previous stints living in Wales, Germany, and Malaysia, and after a few years in gloomy Northern Ireland they were on the move again - but this time it was not under the protective umbrella of army expat life.

They had to go. Pamela was putting on weight and needed to get away from the constant rain and his dad, called Stuart but nicknamed Rambo, was now an IRA target.

After six months in Johannesburg, which Tim initially found intimidating and hostile, they were broke. Stuart's security business had gone belly-up and the bailiffs were banging at the door.

Tim and his dad went back to Ireland, so he could finish school, and Pamela stayed in Joburg with her other son. She could not face the inevitable decline into obesity and depression a return to Ireland would guarantee. Besides, she was a survivor and could make a life anywhere.

A year later and Tim had returned to South Africa. This time he was more prepared for the tough life. His door-to-door salesman gig and room-service job in the Carlton Hotel produced hilarious anecdotes of dodging vicious dogs, blackmail selling-tactics and drunken middle-aged women attempting to order more than champagne.

After a while he went back to Belfast to go to university, but for several years he lived in limbo – spending his summer holidays and often Christmas with his mum, while his dad was in places like Saudi Arabia brokering mysterious deals, training bodyguards and providing false passports.

Pamela's livelihood was also pretty shady. She had her own junk shop, The Whatnot, in an underground arcade in Central Joburg where she soon had built up a community of dodgy drinking buddies that may have been the dregs of humanity – but they always helped her out.

It was a hard existence. Scrapes with the law, electricity and water disconnections and an empty fridge were common. It's amazing they were able to keep a bright face on things.

Pamela's ingenuity in getting the family out of scrapes is admirable. Buffered by a strong faith in the alternative she seemed to have a magnetic effect on people - bringing out the decency in traffic officers, bailiffs and thieves.

It was not until Tim got a steady job in the BBC that life straightened out. After years of living a precarious existence there was some regular income and the dark adventures of Yeoville and Hillbrow settled down.

Although his parents never really grew up, and in some ways were quite selfish, they never stopped loving him and he was grateful for what they did give him – a good education and a resilience that stuck.

It was clear films were a great escape and there are constant references peppering the book. He lived a dual existence and nobody in university in Belfast and then Cambridge knew he had an other life of supporting his parents and keeping the show on the road.

This really is an intriguing insight into the underground world of Joburg in the Seventies and is the first book I have read written in that time when apartheid is not an issue – it is a book about people and not race.

Tim Ecott's style is clean and easy to read and will drag you in quickly. Never bitter, funny and always frank, it's a remarkable account of life as a poor white guy in South Africa and how to keep ploughing on in times of disaster.

Mary McCarthy