Monday, 16 April 2018

Sixty one years ago this month...

On the 2nd April 1957, under a cloudless sky and with flags fluttering and bands playing, 144 years of British control of the naval base of Simon's Town, at the foot of Africa, came to an end. The home of the Royal Navy's South Atlantic fleet since the 1800s, Simon's Town controlled the hinge point of the important Cape sea route and was of vital importance during the 2nd World War. So why did Britain let it go?

Well, there were several reasons. At the end of the war, Britain's position is the world had changed. Nations which had been part of the eastern Empire were starting to assert themselves to begin the journey to independence. Britain no longer needed - or could afford - a dedicated fleet based at the foot of Africa, especially after a punishing war. From the point of view of the Union of South Africa, Simon's Town's naval base was the foundation from which the country hoped to expand its own fledgling navy. It seemed sensible to end the long association in the interests of both parties.

But there were regrets on all sides. Locals enjoyed their status as an outpost of British taste and culture - and even-handedness. South Africa had already embarked on a policy of Apartheid, and mixed race residents worried for their status and their jobs once the town reverted to South Africa. From the British side, some felt that Simon's Town's strategic position on the Cape sea route was crucial to world peace and trade, and should therefore be protected by an Allied power.

But agreement was reached and Simon's Town duly turned from British to South African under that cloudless sky. Yet the town was to enter a dark phase ten years later when the government declared it a White Group Area. All non-White residents were to be evicted. Despite petitions and protests, the evictions were enforced and a good proportion of the town's population was removed.

This tragic event takes its toll on the fictional heroine in my novel, The Girl from Simon's Bay, set on the town's historic streets. Would her fate and the outcome of the book - and, of course, the fates of those residents forced out - have been different if the town had remained in British hands?
My darling, writes her wartime lover, I have written to you twice but both my letters have been returned, address unknown.
I sent a telegram when I heard of the evictions, but I fear I was too late.
There is a tightness in my heart, as if my body is bracing itself for irrevocable loss.
I am coming to South Africa to look for you...

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

How do you choose between a lover and a child?

This is the question at the heart of my novel, The Girl from Simon's Bay.
Louise, a nurse in wartime Simon's Town, has fallen in love with a Royal Navy officer who is trapped in a marriage arranged by his family. David does not hide his marital status from her but neither can he deny that Louise is the true love of his life. But what should they do? Can he leave his wife even as she remains behind in England, managing the family estate, while he serves abroad? Surely he and Louise should wait until the end of the war - and his survival - before declaring their love openly.

There are deeper issues, too. Louise is mixed race and poor, David is white and from a privileged family. If they marry, Louise will have to leave the place she loves and make her way in a world that is very different from what she has always known. But David and Louise are convinced that their love will overcome all hurdles, and David asks his wife for his freedom.

And this is where things become complicated.
David's wife, Elizabeth, announces that she is expecting their child. After the baby is born, she gives him an ultimatum: to choose between his lover and his child.
Elizabeth is exerting a cruel revenge, he writes to Louise. I love my daughter and I love you, with all my heart. But can I abandon my child to the care of someone who can impose such a brutal choice?
And Louise? Should she hold on, hoping that he'll come back for her?
Or, she wonders, should I choose the harder option, the more honourable one: release David from his commitment to me. Give him my blessing to remain with his wife for the sake of their child.
But I didn't do it. I didn't choose the honourable course. I left it up to him.
And, unlike me, he didn't have the option to wait. He was forced to choose...

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Spotted at an Airport near you...

Where were you when you last bought a physical book? A high street bookstore? A small, specialist independent?
Chances are it may have been at the airport!
While many of us have moved to reading on digital platforms, we all love to browse while waiting for a plane. And we can't resist picking up a new book that we might have heard of but not yet got around to buying online.

In reaction to this, it turns out that sales of print books at transport hubs have bounded ahead of sales at high street stores. Indeed, airports are now prime commercial property, selling everything from jewellery to umbrellas to shoes to... books. It's a captive market: all those passengers waiting for their flights, ripe for a little light shopping. In 2014, global travel retail was apparently worth about $60 billion. By 2020, it's estimated to reach $85 billion.

UK bookseller WHSmith has seen its book sales increase substantially at its airport, train and motorway service station outlets. I was a beneficiary of this shift when the group decided to offer my latest novel, The Girl from Simon's Bay, on a special promotion over the Christmas holidays.

I always go back to the heroine of my first novel, The Housemaid's Daughter, when I think about how reading lets us travel to another place in our minds...
Then, after many times of struggling, I began to separate the words in Madam's diary.
Tomorrow I sail for Africa...

Monday, 26 February 2018

Did he or didn't he? Lord Nelson in Simon's Town...

There's a hotel named after him, and a plaque on St George's street... but did Horatio Nelson actually set foot in Simon's Town?

The year was 1776, and young Nelson was a midshipman serving in the East Indies aboard HMS Seahorse. He contracted malaria and was deemed so ill he had to return to England to recover fully.
During the 6 month journey home, his ship, HMS Dolphin, called in to Simon's Bay where it stayed for a month. There is no record that he left his sickbed and came ashore, but perhaps he couldn't resist the chance to feel Africa beneath his feet - and experience some local hospitality. Or perhaps he needed nursing ashore?

If not, then there is some conjecture that he visited again about 3 years later. At the time he was posted in the Americas as Commander of HMS Badger, seeing action off the east coast of central America. Apparently his ship called in to Simon's Town...

Poor Nelson suffered many wounds during his long and famous career, the most serious being the loss of his right arm and the sight in his right eye. He overcame those, but the malaria that he contracted as a young man never left him. It recurred several times, and it is a testament to his stamina that neither illness nor injuries prevented his later triumphs.

In The Girl from Simon's Bay, Ella Horrocks travels out to South Africa some 200 years later to find the woman her father loved during the 2nd World War.
And where did she stay? I couldn't resist it.
At The Lord Nelson Inn, of course!

Monday, 12 February 2018

Walking The Girl from Simon's Bay

How do you get to know the setting for your book?
You walk it!

That's right, and here's a map we produced to show the myriad alleys and steps that wind through the naval port of Simon's Town, routes that Louise and David followed many times throughout my novel, The Girl from Simon's Bay.

Rectory Steps, Alfred Lane, Drostdy Steps... the town is laced with hidden and fascinating walkways. Many of them date from the era when Simon's Town was a British naval base, and home to the Royal Navy's South Atlantic fleet. You can still see the Victorian stonework, and the carefully constructed drainage channels at the side of the alleys.

We photographed most of them and then superimposed them on a map of the town centre so that while I was writing, I had a visual reminder of what my characters would see about them, the nature of the path beneath their feet (stones? gravel? paved?) and the steepness of the gradient. I contrived routes that would allow one person to escape the view of another, I arranged unexpected meetings, I made sure that Louise's father, Solly, who had bad knees, only met his daughter half way along the route between the Royal Naval Hospital and their home. I didn't want to aggravate his knees by making him climb too many steps! And I traced a path across the mountainside that Louise followed when she ran home during a massive wildfire.

As I strode, the heat and crackle of the fire faded behind me. The path was clear, although lone rabbits and whole families of mice were using it to flee the flames, scuttling past me.
I looked back.
The smoke was spreading a mantle over the surrounding mountains.
A wavering line of orange edged closer to the upper wards of the hospital.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Queen Victoria's daughter, a Great Dane, a Naval Band...

What connects the daughter of Queen Victoria, a Great Dane and a naval band?

On 11th October 1904, the Royal Naval Hospital overlooking Simon's Bay, South Africa, was opened by HRH Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein, 3rd daughter of Queen Victoria. It was built to serve the naval community of Simon's Town, setting for my latest book The Girl from Simon's Bay. At the time, the town was home to the Royal Navy's South Atlantic fleet. The princess could not have guessed how important a role the new hospital would play some 40 years later during World War 2. The initial 3 wards were expanded to accommodate over 200 patients served by 5 medical officers, 2 dental officers, 29 sick berth ratings, 6 nursing sisters, 22 VADs and many locally-recruited staff. The hospital was under constant pressure. For example, during the final quarter of 1942, 550 patients were admitted with ailments from battle injuries (burns and contusions from shell splinters) to VD and ulcers. Over 8000 patients were treated between 1939 and 1945.

The Great Dane was Just Nuisance, a local celebrity(!) during the war. He was a particular favourite of the seamen and regularly rode the train with them into Cape Town. He was commissioned into the navy as an Able Seaman, and his statue stands proudly in Jubilee Square to this day. It is said that he enjoyed a pint as much as his sailor friends and ended up in the Royal Naval Hospital somewhat worse for wear...

What has become of the Hospital? This is where the 3rd connection comes in. The hospital closed in the late 1950s but the buildings have remained, and were converted into accommodation and facilities for the South African Navy band. I rather like that. Yet if you look around the site closely, you can still make out the structure of the old wards. And you can peer into one building that has been abandoned and see the former laundry with its overhead pulleys still in place.

Louise Ahrendts, the heroine of my book, serves at the Royal Naval Hospital during the war. It's where she meets the man who will change her life.
Lieutenant David Horrocks DSO, gunnery officer.
Emergency appendectomy, transferred from HMS Dorsetshire.
Reached us just in time.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Around the coast of Simon's Bay

If you take a drive from Simon's Town, the setting of my book The Girl from Simon's Bay, towards the iconic landmark of Cape Point, you will come across many less famous - but no less spectacular - spots. Don't whizz by but rather stop, like I have done, and take in the pristine coves, the bobbing kelp and the tumbled rocks that make this section of the coast so distinctive. Past Miller's Point, you will find several lookouts where you can pull off the road. If you have a pair of binoculars with you, scan the flat rocks rising out of the sea. There are several that are home to heaving colonies of seals. You can see them, lumbering about, and occasionally slipping into the sea to snap up a tasty penguin or two.

And, on a darker note, I always check the seas foaming around those rocks in case a bigger predator is about. You've probably seen extraordinary footage on television of great white sharks doing a little light snapping of their own... a seal makes a tasty lunch. But so far I've never been there at the right time. What would I do? Shout from the shoreline as the shark heaves itself up towards its hapless prey? I suspect it would all be over before I could focus my binoculars... It's nature, and let's keep it that way.

Louise, the heroine of The Girl from Simon's Bay, loves to swim with her childhood friend, Piet. But when he starts to avoid her, she must swim alone. Something we always vowed not to do because you never knew what could happen, a freak wave rising out of a flat sea, a shark gliding close to shore...

New Year's greetings to you all from near the southwestern-most tip of Africa!