Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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2011 in First Lines

It is traditional here at Charlotte’s Web to review the past year in blogging by posting the first lines from the first post of every month. Having scrolled through my 2011 posts, one thing is clear to me: life took over from blogging this year. After moving house in January, I spent many long hours revising Balthasar’s Gift, many hours pounding the pavements training for the Mannheim team marathon, many hours planning and giving two weekend-long creative writing workshops at Heidelberg University and then, in July, starting a six-month job posting at one of my customers replacing someone out on maternity leave. It was quite a year!

January: So I’ve reviewed my goals for 2010 and found them to be good.  Ten Things for 2011

February: One of the most appealing things about Germany is its cafe society; places where you can nurse a coffee, read a book and watch the world go by.  Cafe Society

March: Today is the anniversary of the death of Herbert James Downs, who was murdered in South Africa a few weeks after his 100th birthday.  In Memory of Herbert James Downs

April: Life has taken over from blogging – nothing serious, but an accumulation of things over the past three months that have left me exhausted.   Hiatus

May: May is turning out to be quite the month chez moi, which means my presence here at Charlotte’s Web will continue to be vague, scattered and somewhat erratic.  May Madness

June: While reading to the creative writing students about voice this weekend, I found myself getting a little choked up.  More on Voice

July: I’ve just come back from a week in Mallorca, having found its quiet, laid-back corner (it still exists) and am feeling horizontal.  Feeling Horizontal

August:  So I’m back in full time work for the first time this century, and I am loving it.  Three Things I Love about Work

September: Still loving work, so that’s a good thing.  On Women and Work

October: My grandmother was not only an angel, but she was more than a little fey. Survival Skills

November:  My life has changed exponentially – and for the better – since I re-entered the working world. What Feminist Motherhood Means to Me (Now)

December: The theme of today’s World AIDS Day is ‘Getting to Zero’ (zero new infections; zero discrimination; zero AIDS-related deaths)’.    World AIDS Day 2011 – Are There Any Good News Stories?

What was your 2011 like?


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In Memory of Herbert James Downs

Today is the anniversary of the death of Herbert James Downs, who was murdered in South Africa a few weeks after his 100th birthday. His grand-daughter, K, asked me to repost a post I wrote three years ago about his death and what that meant for me.  In memory of her wonderful grandfather, I give you Cold Comfort:

A year ago, deep in the heart of Europe, while driving through the continent’s longest tunnel as my family slept around me, I made a decision that was momentous for me. It had been silting up for years, but as the weight of the Swiss Alps pressed down on my family, I decided that, although I love my homeland and although my soul will always be South African, I will never live there again. The tunnel was long, straight and well-lit, and I wept as I drove. I kept the decision locked into my heart, not wanting to verbalise it, because that would make it too real. Today, I’ve cried again, all day long with bitter tears as the nail was banged into the coffin of my decision.

In March 2006, 100-year-old Herbert James “Bob” Downs was stabbed several times in the home which he built and where he had lived for 72 years. His murderer stole a television from him, which he later sold for R150 (€12). Sibusiso Mbuje Dlamini (29) was caught later that day, wearing a pair of Bob’s favourite shoes. There have been many murders in South Africa, countless murders, some perpetrated by the apartheid government, others perpetrated by the freedom movement and others by ordinary citizens. Every murder is tragic, but the murder of Bob Downs caught my heart. He was the grandfather of a schoolfriend of mine, and had recently celebrated his 100th birthday surrounded by his loving family: children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His granddaughter, K, had sent me photos of that lovely day. One picture that stays with me is of Bob, sitting amongst rows of his family, under the generous arms of a tree, the green lawns of someone’s home stretching out into the landscape of KwaZulu-Natal, the land that is etched into my heart. The joy that radiated from them made me cry. I felt, selfishly and briefly, robbed. Shortly afterwards, he was murdered.

This week, Dlamini was sentenced. He got life, plus ten. Cold comfort for Bob Downs’ family.

If you are feeling brave, look at Bob’s face here. See the wisdom in his wrinkles and the kindness in his clear blue eyes, which are those of a much younger man. When I looked at this photograph, over a year ago, I knew that I could not live in a country where a life as well-lived and good as his is so cheap. I made my decision and I held onto it in silence.

Last night, I was contacted by a young South African woman, who found me through my blog. Her husband is of German extraction. They are considering selling everything and immigrating to Germany. We spoke on the phone for a long time, and I heard the same sadness in her voice: how she loves her country, how she lives in fear, how the stress is affecting her whole family and how they are going to take the biggest risk of their lives and move. And I counselled her to do it. Germany, I said, is stable. It is green, healthy, safe, child-friendly and kind. As I said those words, my heart tore a little more. She is born and bred South African like me, whose parents are South African like mine. Her father runs a small supermarket and, she says, in order to be safe, has his own private army. “Going to the supermarket there is like going into Belfast. Soldiers everywhere.”

This morning, I drove past green hills and thought how blessed I am to have landed in this safe, green place. The Heidelberg hills are so beautiful, gentle and rolling, filled with surprises like ruined castles and winding rivers. They will never be mine. They will never attach themselves to my heart with barbs that cannot be loosened. If my soul had to choose between the green hills of Heidelberg and the yellow grass of the Drakensberg, my soul would choose the latter. I dream of the smell of the air in Cape Town, and wake up with my pillow wet.

My mother and I have been having these phone-calls. We skirt the topic, we tease around its edges. For a year, we have been approaching it. And then today I said it. I said, “Tones, I’m never coming home.” And then I cried and cried. Somehow, when you tell your mother, then it is real, almost too real to bear. Since then, I have been crying and I can’t stop. It’s cold comfort for my mother that we are safe here, cold comfort for me that my life is stable and kind, cold comfort for my children that they have freedoms unimaginable to kids of their age in South Africa, but see their grandparents once a year.

My heart is breaking. I am never going home. My beloved country, exactly that of Alan Paton’s, land of yellow grass, duikers, vervet monkeys, sardine runs, dark palaces of thunderstorms, crocheted doilies weighted down with stones, the smell of mutton, rusks dipped into sweet tea, people who shout hello to each other, will always be a holiday destination for me. I am filled with love and admiration for those who stay, for those who still believe in South Africa’s future. They are brave and their courage astounds me. I can’t be that brave.


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Journey’s End

So I’m back from my journey. We took a 12-hour drive to the Dordogne Valley for a week’s glamping at the unequivocally fabulous Camping les Ormes. This is a camping site that actually lives up to its website – it is that beautiful. While strong design values don’t make an iota of difference to my kids’ holiday, or for that matter, my husband’s, they do to mine. I loved sleeping in a tent with a chandelier and an antique piano, having crystal tea light holders and fresh roses on the white kitchen table. Pictures and a full report to follow.

However, we came home to the news that France is the world’s most expensive destination. So we may not be going back for a while.

Today is South Africa’s big day, and we are off shortly to celebrate the start of the World Cup with all the South Africans who live in Germany. Since there are only 14 of us, some Germans have also been invited and we are looking forward to teaching them how to blow the vuvuzela. Though I hold with good design values, I may break from those for today and wear my green Bafana Bafana t-shirt. Because, the boys, you know, we want them to win.

I watched some of the concert last night and cried in the dark in front of the telly. The atmosphere was amazing, the musicians outstanding and I felt proud, patriotic and very far away. Still get a lump in my throat when I think about it.

My novel is progressing well. I am close to the finish line of draft four and have promised myself and my husband to start approaching agents by July at the latest. I wrote a car chase scene last night that included references to BMW model numbers and felt like James Bond, just for the day.

This was our family theme song for the holiday. Yes, we do allow our children to sing songs about ‘blowing the bad guys away’. We also let them play ‘I kissed a girl and I liked it’ on their recorders.

Hooray for Barbara Kingsolver winning the Orange Prize! I ordered The Lacuna from my DH who flew in from London last night, and as I wiped my tears and read the first pages at midnight, I discovered that Kingsolver has stolen a phrase of mine. Goddammit, don’t these published authors have any respect for great unpublished? It’s a phrase I’m proud of, that my beta readers have all circled and given me a gold star for. Now I have to decide whether to get rid of it, or let it slip in there.

Which is all grist to the finishing mill, so I’ll bid you another farewell. See you at the end of Draft Four!


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Home Again, Home Again

Although I had a dream holiday in South Africa, I am so happy to be home. Usually I have a six-week depression on getting back to Germany – everything here makes me cross for being unAfrican, from the weather to the people to the landscape. Somehow this time, I seem to have avoided the crossness. I hate to admit it, but I think a little bit of Germany has crept into my soul.

South Africa is looking wonderful. The amount of work that has gone into getting the country ready for the Football World Cup is astonishing – the new Green Point football stadium is glistening, Cape Town is all shiny, the rail networks are working, the road infrastructures are better than ever. Any football fan who is lucky enough to have tickets for a match in the Western Cape is in for a great time.

And my God, it is beautiful. And funky, vibrant, exciting and alive. What a country. I am so proud to be South African.

So here I am, back in Germany, my South African soul just vibrating with images, memories and ideas from my beautiful homeland and I am not sad. It helps that my mother is living in England at the moment so that I feel close to her and not further away. It helps that the sun is shining and Germany is a sprightly green. It helps that I saw and had time to connect with all my special people in South Africa. It helps that everyone made incredible efforts to travel and be with me in the places I chose to be. It helps that I am going to a family wedding in Greece in four weeks’ time to see some special people. It helps that I have wonderful friends here to come home to. It helps that my children were thrilled to be back and are already rushing off on playdates so that they can be with their friends.

So instead of my usual deep sadness, I am calm, I am happy, and I am just so grateful that I am fortunate enough to be a South African.

And just a little bit German.


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Cold Comfort

A year ago, deep in the heart of Europe, while driving through the continent’s longest tunnel as my family slept around me, I made a decision that was momentous for me. It had been silting up for years, but as the weight of the Swiss Alps pressed down on my family, I decided that, although I love my homeland and although my soul will always be South African, I will never live there again. The tunnel was long, straight and well-lit, and I wept as I drove. I kept the decision locked into my heart, not wanting to verbalise it, because that would make it too real. Today, I’ve cried again, all day long with bitter tears as the nail was banged into the coffin of my decision.

In September 2006, 100-year-old Herbert James “Bob” Downs was stabbed several times in the home which he built and where he had lived for 72 years. His murderer stole a television from him, which he later sold for R150 (€12). Sibusiso Mbuje Dlamini (29) was caught later that day, wearing a pair of Bob’s favourite shoes. There have been many murders in South Africa, countless murders, some perpetrated by the apartheid government, others perpetrated by the freedom movement and others by ordinary citizens. Every murder is tragic, but the murder of Bob Downs caught my heart. He was the grandfather of a schoolfriend of mine, and had recently celebrated his 100th birthday surrounded by his loving family: children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His granddaughter, K, had sent me photos of that lovely day. One picture that stays with me is of Bob, sitting amongst rows of his family, under the generous arms of a tree, the green lawns of someone’s home stretching out into the landscape of KwaZulu-Natal, the land that is etched into my heart. The joy that radiated from them made me cry. I felt, selfishly and briefly, robbed. Shortly afterwards, he was murdered.

This week, Dlamini was sentenced. He got life, plus ten. Cold comfort for Bob Downs’ family.

If you are feeling brave, look at Bob’s face here. See the wisdom in his wrinkles and the kindness in his clear blue eyes, which are those of a much younger man. When I looked at this photograph, over a year ago, I knew that I could not live in a country where a life as well-lived and good as his is so cheap. I made my decision and I held onto it in silence.

Last night, I was contacted by a young South African woman, who found me through my blog. Her husband is of German extraction. They are considering selling everything and immigrating to Germany. We spoke on the phone for a long time, and I heard the same sadness in her voice: how she loves her country, how she lives in fear, how the stress is affecting her whole family and how they are going to take the biggest risk of their lives and move. And I counselled her to do it. Germany, I said, is stable. It is green, healthy, safe, child-friendly and kind. As I said those words, my heart tore a little more. She is born and bred South African like me, whose parents are South African like mine. Her father runs a small supermarket and, she says, in order to be safe, his own private army. “Going to the supermarket there is like going into Belfast. Soldiers everywhere.”

This morning, I drove past green hills and thought how blessed I am to have landed in this safe, green place. The Heidelberg hills are so beautiful, gentle and rolling, filled with surprises like ruined castles and winding rivers. They will never be mine. They will never attach themselves to my heart with barbs that cannot be loosened. If my soul had to choose between the green hills of Heidelberg and the yellow grass of the Drakensberg, my soul would choose the latter. I dream of the smell of the air in Cape Town, and wake up with my pillow wet.

My mother and I have been having these phone-calls. We skirt the topic, we tease around its edges. For a year, we have been approaching it. And then today I said it. I said, “Tones, I’m never coming home.” And then I cried and cried. Somehow, when you tell your mother, then it is real, almost too real to bear. Since then, I have been crying and I can’t stop. It’s cold comfort for my mother that we are safe here, cold comfort for me that my life is stable and kind, cold comfort for my children that they have freedoms unimaginable to kids of their age in South Africa, but see their grandparents once a year.

My heart is breaking. I am never going home. My beloved country, exactly that of Alan Paton’s, land of yellow grass, duikers, vervet monkeys, sardine runs, dark palaces of thunderstorms, crocheted doilies weighted down with stones, the smell of mutton, rusks dipped into sweet tea, people who shout hello to each other, will always be a holiday destination for me. I am filled with love and admiration for those who stay, for those who still believe in South Africa’s future. They are brave and their courage astounds me. I can’t be that brave.