Monday, 21 May 2018
It turned out to be an amazingly appropriate - and moving - choice. She discovered that my novel described an era in Simon's Town, the naval port at the foot of Africa, that a close member of her family had experienced and often talked about. Suddenly, wartime family recollections came to life on the pages of my book: the restricted access to the town because of its strategic importance, a Great Dane called Just Nuisance who befriended the throngs of seamen and... incredibly... a young friend who went on to become one of the experts at the Simon's Town Museum and helped me in my research some sixty years later.
In a final poignant touch, my reader revealed that when her family member died, her ashes were brought from Australia to Simon's Town, and found a resting place in the memorial garden at St Francis church, in the heart of the town.
I pulled my nurse's cloak tightly about me.
Matron had called us together to say that Simon's Town was to be declared a closed port. Already, blackout shutters were being hammered into place at Admiralty House. And Ma had spoken of a well-attended prayer vigil at St Francis church last evening where the minister prayed for a short war...
Wednesday, 2 May 2018
In my research for The Girl from Simon's Bay, I read reports from successive Admirals detailing the staffing of the dockyard, the training requirements for local recruits, the maintenance budget, and the plans for expansion. The Commanders of the Royal Naval Hospital, likewise, sent back reports about the nature of their patients' ailments e.g. from ulcers and broken limbs to contusions from shell splinters and the effects of ingesting oil when ships went down during the war. They had to justify their staffing numbers and, in one case, make an urgent plea for funds to secure the hospital's boundary from unauthorised (!) access. Vagrants? Thieves? Inquisitive baboons? He didn't say.
British involvement in Simon's Town and its dockyard ended in the mid 1950s, under the terms of the Simon's Town Agreement whereby the town and dockyard were handed over from Britain to South Africa. Since then, the town - and the dockyard - have expanded to meet the needs of a modern fleet and community. But the rich naval history, going back for a century-and-a half, is still visible if you look carefully... and was invaluable to me as I recreated a wartime setting for my novel.
When I was older, Pa explained that the navy boats were warships and their job was to defend the choppy sea route around Africa from what he ominously called 'foreign powers'. Whatever the weather, the warships managed to stay upright. They didn't flounder or sink, like fishing boats did. Instead they cut through the waves with dash, immune as arrows. And, as an afterthought, left behind a wake of filmy bubbles far more ordered than those tossed over me from the waves at Seaforth Beach...
Monday, 16 April 2018
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
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
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.
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
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
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.