Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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Dresses I Have Loved

I am a feminist and I love dresses. I also enjoy wearing trousers, but I don’t seek them out with same passion as I find myself trawling clothes-rails actual and virtal in search of the dream dress. Germany’s Top Husband, who recently shrunk a dress of mine in the wash and saw his ratings tumble, can attest that my cupboard is full of dresses, some gorgeous, some everyday, some that don’t live up to their online imagery, but all worn. I believe that the search for the dream dress will never end, even if I find the nearly perfect dress (which I did last week, but more of that later). It is an ongoing search, much like the hunt for the perfect book, or the hunt for the supermarket in Germany that keeps a permanent supply of coriander – a neverending search that provides entertainment in and of itself, a meta-search.

I plan a couple of posts on some of my favourite current dresses, but before I do, it is essential that I first mourn the dresses that have past. You know. For closure. For without attaining closure on the past, how can we move forward to more and better dresses?

So I give you, not so much a meme as a memorial, to Dresses I Have Loved:

1. The nude lace vintage dress

I did vintage long before it had a cool moniker. This little beauty I found in a secondhand stall in Greenmarket Square in Cape Town in February 1987 on a hot Saturday morning. It was a nude lace sheath, beautifully lined with nude satin. It had a v-neck and back, sleeves to the elbow and just covered my knees (my nickname was once Knee Puffs – knee coverage is a good thing). The lace was slightly torn near the waist, a fact that I ignored because I loved it so. I wore the dress to my first university ball, with a black choker, long nude satin gloves and a long thin black cigarette holder. I wore some vintage flat winkle-pickers purchased in my home town before heading to university that pinched and made my feet bleed. This fact I ignored because they were the perfect match to the dress. During the ball, the lace ripped. I kept the dress for another five years, but never had the money to have it repaired. At some point, during one of my many moves, I must have thrown or given it away. This is the dress that I mourn the most, the ur-dress. All dresses are held up to its glorious lacy beauty and are found wanting.

2. The lime green belted dress

Originally my mother’s dress, the lime green belted dress was a standard favourite for weddings and parties in my third year of university. It had a v-neck, short cap sleeves and a matching belt. It came to just below the knees (theme alert!) and skimmed the body. I loved it. I have it no more. I mourn its passing. It kicked off my lifelong passion for lime green.

3. Dani’s black designer dress

Dani’s father bought her this dress in one of the first achingly cool hipster boutiques in Cape Town. Little did he know that this garment – black viscose, square neck, elbow length sleeves, slighty high waist and flowing to the mid-calf – would become beloved not only of Dani but of all her friends. On big nights out, the first negotiation would be who would wear the dress. Once we discovered how gorgeous it looked with a denim jacket, negotiations grew more heated. It was a floaty dream of a dress that suited everyone who wore it and I miss it now, more than 20 years later.

4. Black Bo-Peep dress 

This was another of my vintage finds, but I can’t remember which of my secondhand haunts provided this little lovely. It could have been Cape Town, but it could just as easily have been Johannesburg or PMB. It was black cotton with a tiny white spring, small cap sleeves that were loosely elasticised and a tiny white Peter Pan collar. I lived in this dress for about a year. I usually wore it with white pantaloons (cotton leggings with three layers of broderie anglaise at the ends – hence the Bo-Peep) that I sewed myself, but I also wore it without them. It was loose and flowing, and very very easy to wear. Our school uniform was a sprig with a Peter Pan collar, so I should have hated the dress, but I think wearing it was a kind of up-yours to the school establishment. I still love a sprig and a Peter Pan collar to this day.

5. Purple maxi-dress

I wore this dress with purple and white sneakers, Lily Allen-style but a long time before the young lady herself even dreamed of doing so, and a big smile every weekend in 1994 – the year that Germany’s Top Husband and I got engaged. The love affair was deep and meaningful, while the dress was Empire-line with spaghetti straps and a tiny white polka dot. It was cool and flowing, the perfect summer dress. I wore it the day we collected my engagement ring and wore a diamond for the first time. There’s a photo of me somewhere looking purple and very happy.

Do you have dresses whose loss you mourn?

(Image courtesy of Lainey’s Repertoire, Flickr Creative Commons)

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G is for Girlhood

Being a girl was about aching for something that was always just out of reach. I existed in a state of longing for something indefinable, of permanent languid dissatisfaction. I was always stretching out, grabbing, then discarding what I had touched. I wanted the next best thing, not the thing I had.

Girlhood was about never being happy in my skin. My body was all wrong. I longed for longer legs, better skin, a smaller bum. I longed for slow, rapturous kisses that would make me forget myself. I longed to melt.

Girlhood was about waiting for the right boy to come along. I ached for a soul-mate and found him in all the wrong places. When boys did turn up, I longed for someone cooler, older, more mature. I longed for a man.

Girlhood was about never finding the right food to eat. I longed for ice-cream, then tuna, then bread and butter, then chocolate, then roast chicken, then milk with Milo. Food came and went, but never in satisfying combinations.

Girlhood was about always dreaming about being somewhere else. If I was at school, I longed to be at home. At home, I ached for my friends. With my friends, I wanted to be with a certain boy. With that boy, I wished I were at home with a book. While reading, I thought of my father.

It was a time of extremes, of being too hot, too cold, too lazy, too over-excited, too silly, too irritable, too focused, too pent-up.

I thought a lot about clothes, but they were always wrong. Whatever I wore was never as good as what that girl wore. I flipped through magazines, ached for Farah hair, Christy legs, Jodie eyes. The clothes I finally bought were dissatisfying: too tight, too loose, too short, too long, too preppy, too Gothic, too old, too new. I longed for one perfect dress.

I felt as if I couldn’t talk very well. I never seemed to say what I meant, hard though I tried. Words blocked in my throat so I stayed silent. There was so much to say. I longed to say it well. I felt as if I couldn’t. I inhibited myself.

When I was a girl, I wanted to please. So badly. I wanted to please so badly that I did things I regretted. I put others before myself, their needs before mine. I pushed my own needs down until I exploded.

To girls, I say:

Find your voice and be proud to use it.

Put your needs first.

Please yourself, not boys.

Love your body.

Live in the moment.

Find and do the thing that makes you forget yourself, that makes your heart sing.

Never stop looking for one perfect dress.


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B is for Bridget James

Bridget James was my paternal grandmother, an elegant, opinionated, talented craftswoman who could sew a dress, needlepoint a cushion, knit doll’s clothes, bake a fine cake, throw a dinner-party for twenty or rustle up a hat for the races in an afternoon. We grandchildren knew her as “Gorgor” which was my family’s bastardization of the Zulu word Gogo, meaning old lady, her children called her “Mum” and her contemporaries and siblings called her “Bridge” or “Bridgie”.

Bridget met my South African grandfather Neville James in London a short couple of years before World War Two. She was a milliner, crafting exquisite hats for fine London ladies, including, family rumour has it, the Queen. He was a young lawyer, en route to the bar. He fell for the tall, slender, fashionable Bridgie, married her and brought her home to Pietermaritzburg, where they quickly had their first baby, my aunt and godmother Belinda. He then joined the Natal Carbineers, had six months’ training and went north to fight in the desert. It takes no feat of imagination to consider her position – stuck in a humid colonial town with a baby, far from her family and cosmopolitan London life, her brand-new husband at war with no guarantee of return. There are intimations that she suffered, but Bridget was stoical and got on with things. The war never left her though; she abhorred waste and while my grandfather gave out much-coveted twenty rand notes hidden in anonymous envelopes on our birthdays, she was well-known for being parsimonious.

In 1948, Bridget and Neville moved into The Hermitage with their four children, the second oldest of whom was my father Oliver. It was a lovely turn-of-the-century villa, built of solid red brick, with a green tin roof and deep verandahs that gave respite from the heat. She swiftly made her mark on the home, sewing curtains and decorating rooms, and it became a welcoming and gracious place to visit. Bridget and Neville were great party-goers and givers, and the house lent itself to entertaining. As a small child I remember weaving through the legs of partying adults, my grandmother the glamorous centre of it all with her cigarettes and her pink gins. She loved to dress up, to laugh and be amused, and while she became a colonial housewife and mother of four, there was a part of her that remained that London party girl.

There is a family story that epitomises her glamour and zest. She and my grandfather were leaving home for a party, dressed to the nines and ready for a good evening out. As Bridget passed the jasmine bush that tumbled over their kitchen fence, she saw a tiny jewel-like chameleon. She plucked it off the bush, placed it on her dress and wore it for the night as a living brooch. Knowing her love for animals, I like to believe that she would have replaced it at the end of the evening.

Bridgie adored her dogs and for a while the Hermitage was taken over by a family of basset hounds that she raised. They were all named after English counties and our favourite was Rutland, a handome fellow who fathered many babies. As she grew older and dementia threatened, her children joked that while she forgot their names, she never forgot those of her dogs.

She and Neville were enthusiastic travellers, and visited England every year so that Bridgie could see her beloved twin brother Billy, and her younger sister Naomi. They often went to Italy, which Neville had fallen in love with during the war. His favourite places were Florence and Bellagio and, in 1997, I went to both with my aunt Belinda. We remembered Neville and Bridget as we walked the plazas and river-fronts of Florence and sat sipping coffee under the trees at Bellagio.

When I was small, Bridget used to love brushing my hair. I’d arrive at her house and be sent immediately to fetch the brush, which she kept in her dressing-table in the top right-hand drawer. All the way to her room I’d be clutching my right hand in a fist so as not to forget. Opening the drawer was like finding a trove of jewellery, make-up and scents, and I would finger a necklace or try on a bracelet, but I knew not to linger too long amongst the tempting treasures. I’d find the brush and bring it to her on the verandah where she’d be sitting surrounded by dogs, with a tray of tea to one side and some kind of craft project – a cushion, knitting – on her lap. She’d put the knitting aside and then brush my hair, while I listened to the hadedahs shrieking and stabbing the grass.

“There, that’s better,” she’d say. “Now let’s have some tea.”

Life was built around rituals – breakfast, with the invariable half-orange, around the dining-room table, morning and afternoon tea on the verandah with Marie biscuits or her delicious home-made crunchies, drinks at 5pm. Bridget always liked the pink gins I poured her when I was a little older, probably because I was heavy on the gin. Family were required to turn up for Sunday lunch every week and my father created dense atmosphere by regularly arriving late from golf, probably as his form of rebellion. Later when my parents’ marriage fell apart, it took my mother a couple of years to get up the courage to say, “No Bridget, I am not coming to Sunday lunch. Oliver can fetch the children on his way back from golf.”

While Bridget was a wonderful Gorgor, whipping up clothes for my dollies or outfits for me, she could be scary. Woe betide any grandchild who didn’t clear her plate, eat her  peas, or express grateful thanks for the roasts. She was often impatient with her domestic workers, believing that whatever task they were doing from washing the car to washing the dogs, she could do better, and she loved to remind me, in huge inverted commas, that my lifelong best friend was “Jewish”. When I became a cub reporter on the local newspaper, I was friends with an “Indian man”, which caused some disquiet.

After Neville died, Bridget declined slowly. She remained at the Hermitage, visited daily by Belinda and regularly by the rest of the family. We would find her sitting in her study, watching sport on TV, reading the paper, or writing a letter to Naomi. Once she became convinced that the family had taken her to an old-age home, where she was receiving substandard treatment. Finally, after two weeks of complaints, my father hit on a plan. He put her in his car, promising that she was now going home. They drove for fifteen minutes, and then returned to the Hermitage, where he had asked her housekeepers to give her a good welcome. They drove up to the house she had just left, she gracefully received the friendly ululations and settled into the chair she had recently vacated. “Oh, it’s so nice to be back,” she said.

The London party girl had come home.


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This is How Old I Am

My parents bought our first television when I was seven. There was one channel, alternating daily between English and Afrikaans for two hours a day.

I owned and wore leg warmers in a non-ironic way.

I peroxided my fringe.

Ultimate romance used to be The Blue Lagoon:

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I had a passionate relationship with Duran Duran.

I wrote letters to boys on writing-paper decorated with sunsets and palm trees.

The first album I bought was Madness. Up till then, I danced to my parents’ Abba and Fleetwood Mac records.

I taped the Top 40 with David “Reach for the Stars” Gresham every week on my cassette recorder.

When I was 11, I wanted to be Olivia Newton-John. Major entertainment was going to the roller-rink.

When I went shopping with my friends, we would share a plate of chips. Drinks were individual. Mine was a double-thick Horlicks milkshake.

The first dancing-party I went to I wore Deely-Boppers.

I remember the advent of drinking yogurt.

My first boyfriend wore brown jerseys and drove a 50cc motorbike.

I thought it was sexist that girls watched boys playing rugby, but no-one came to watch the girls play hockey.

I remember a time when black and white people could be jailed for sleeping together, and when black people were not allowed to buy property in the suburb where I lived.

I watched PW Botha’s Rubicon speech on TV in 1985 and Mandela’s release in 1990, and remember the brutal years in between.

I wrote all my undergraduate essays longhand. For reference, I used books and articles, which I found in a place called the library.

I wrote my first essay on computer at the age of 22.

I wore a meringue for my wedding-dress and we were the first to leave the party.

I went on honeymoon to Zimbabwe, when it was so peaceful and harmonious that I wanted to move there.

In 1995, I wrote an article for a magazine on the strange phenomenon known as the “World Wide Web” or the “Information Superhighway”.

I first used email at the age of 27.

With thanks to the lovely Ms Waffle for the inspiration. How old are you?


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Catching a Feeling

Eve has asked her readers to write about their childhood. I thought I would give it a try, because I can’t resist a challenge that is as well-written as this:

If you read here regularly, I wonder if you’d indulge me by thinking about your own childhoods, going back to the flow of days during which nothing much happened, but when the passing of time nurtured and fed you. You’ll know which days I mean by finding strings of days, days on end, whose memory causes a wave of nostalgia to overcome you. Days that now fill you with longing, or a pang of loss, deep joy, or deep gratitude. Sometimes you may think of them and feel great sorrow over something you’ve lost. Maybe it was days you spent with your grandparents, or days you spent at home doing nothing; a day with your brother or sister, a family vacation. Think back to the hours or days when life felt like an afternoon in a hammock, or time on a quilt under a tree with your very best friend.

Think about it, or feel your way back to it, and write it out for yourself. I don’t mean you have to write about it here, as a comment, or even on your own blog; but I do want you to write about it. Get it down somehow when your level of feeling or emotion (affect) rises up and squeezes you in the middle of your chest, right around your heart, and you begin to feel a little weepy or giddy. Right . . . there. That’s the part we want. Catch it like a firefly in a jar, and get very close to that feeling, and then write about it. Write it all out, the memories surrounding it: where you were, who you were with, what you were doing, what it smelled, tasted, and sounded like there; how long did it last?

The Angel in the Garden

When my father left in a storm of self-justification and golf clubs, my grandmother moved into the cottage at the bottom of our garden. It was like having an angel of our own living there. My brother and I would wake in the morning and race our beaten path to her front door, where she would open up, catch us in her arms and breathe, “Hello my darlings!” as if she hadn’t seen us for a month. While my mother was dealing with her own pain and sorrow, and gradually finding her way back to herself, my grandmother gathered us into a gentle place of wonder that offered us refuge from our pain. She had a naivete that spoke to my child’s heart, and taught us how to be silent and listen to the self within, how to shape clouds, how to appreciate an egg sandwich, to believe in fairies. Under her guidance, I developed an interest in other realms and soon our garden became, for me, a magical fairyland that was bustling with activity and solace from the pain of my parent’s separation.

This fairyland was closely tied with the plant life in the garden, starting with the enormous camphor tree that towered over us like a gentle giant. I climbed into his arms, and found comfort there, staring at the leaf patterns and imagining myself on a ship sailing across oceans, or in a palace, or in village of busy elves. I lost time there as I watched ants trace paths across the tree’s rippled bark, or listened to the doves high above, or felt the wind sough mournfully in the branches. The tree reflected my mood: he was sad if I was sad, content if I was so, but his depth of feeling was so great that after a while I could bear his compassion no longer and had to seek more light-hearted magic elsewhere.

Ivy covered the camphor tree’s earthbound roots – the perfect place for fairies to cavort. I imagined them climbing the roots and chasing each other under the green pointed umbrellas of ivy leaves. The Japanese anenomes planted nearby were special since they flowered around my mother’s birthday, and their ivory petals and fluffy yellow centres brought to mind elegant fairy princesses, wafting through my fairyland in white gowns with golden crowns. They were beautiful, and slightly removed, rather like my mother, and I couldn’t spend too much time with them without the sadness edging in.

Following the path of the anenomes, I would arrive at a bed of flowers planted by my mother that curved out into the garden like a headland or peninsula. This buttress was seldom shadowed by the tree, so it was a sunny place for both children and fairies. Roses encouraged the arrival of pink and white fairies, bold and laughing. They were enticed by the dripping tap that stood in the flower-bed, and would recline underneath the tiny waterfall and catch drips directly into their mouths. The tap also attracted an old fat frog, who croaked grumpily as dusk fell. Here in this sunny bed, I created fairy gardens, small flat patches of earth, surrounded by stone walls and decorated with flower furniture. I knew that when the moon rose and I was in bed, the fairies would be sleeping on an azalea or camellia petal and thanking me for their comfort.

Following the bed, I came up against a wooden fence, behind which lived our mad and muttering neighbour and her barking dog. If I came too close to the fence, the dog would unleash its volley of angry remarks and I would have to retreat to underneath the lemon tree for safety. It was fragrant and citrussy there, but the ground beneath was littered with rotting lemons which were revolting if I stood on them with bare feet.

Behind the lemon tree was a green wire fence covered with jasmine, and behind that a lowered area where our maid washed and hung the washing to dry. I would climb the fence, sit on the hot and crumbling stairs and watch in a dream as the washing swirled on the windy drier. The maid lived there too, in a room that smelled of soap, sweat and putu – the porridge that she liked to eat and sometimes shared with me, if I was lucky. There weren’t fairies here – it was somehow too jagged a place – but her bed was on bricks in case of the tokoloshe. There was mystery in the bamboo fence below her khaya that separated our house from those neighbours. I could walk between the tall bamboo and the fence, and be transported to a world where plants were huge and people tiny.

Following this fence, I would come upon a green patch of lawn where our jungle gym had once stood, before it grew rickety and dangerous and had to be taken away. There was my grandmother’s cottage, with the door always open. She would be reading, or painting, or gently napping, but was always welcoming to her small visitors and would find us a piece of hazelnut chocolate from her secret stash. In front of the cottage stood a bank of strelitzias, flowers which my mother dismissed as ugly and African, but which were fascinatingly bird-like. I could crawl under the bushes and hide there, enjoying the feeling of separate nearness to my family. Usually the corgi, Muffin, would snuffle me out or my little brother would crash in, demanding that I play a game with him.

Sometimes my grandmother would get a blanket and we would lie on the sunny grass, looking up at the clouds. She would show us how to shape clouds, and we would get lost in the mystery of the sky. I think both my brother and I learnt early, and from her, to take responsibility for the shape of our lives. We were taught not to feel buffetted by fate, but that our thoughts could shape our lives and that every event, no matter how sad or sick inside it made us feel, happened for a reason. Then our mother would bring out a tray of a tea and biscuits, I would put the tea cosy on my head to make everyone laugh and my brother would run off to hit a tennis ball against the wall, all life’s lessons forgotten.


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The Marriage Meme

My dear husband has also become a web worker, and now works from home. I am seeing a lot more of him than I am used to and thus far it is working well – he joins the family for lunch, is available to take kids to school in the morning when I have an early morning gym class (moi at spinning, who’d a thunk it?) and there’s always someone here to open the door when the postman brings a parcel.

As a late nod to Valentine’s Day and a token of appreciation to the lovely man in my life, here’s YogaMum’s Marriage Meme:

1. Where/how did you meet?

We met at a rugby party. I told my friends I was off to get a beer and I met him at the bar. We spent a lot of time talking poetry (he knew how to win me, even then) and then some more time … not talking.

2. How long have you known each other?

That was in August 1986, which means we have known each other, like YogaMum and her husband, for almost 22 years.

3. How long after you met did you start dating?

We dated immediately for two weeks. Then there was a five-year hiatus and we started dating again in March 1992.

4. How long did you date before getting engaged?

We agreed within 10 days that we would get married and have a spring wedding, but it took another 18 months before I accepted one of his many proposals – unfortunately, it was the one in the supermarket, somewhere between the dog food and the toilet paper. Unromantic, but memorable.

5. How long was your engagement?

Nine months. We had to wait for spring.

6. How long have you been married?

In October, it will be 14 years.

7. What is your anniversary?

October 1 – easy to remember.

8. How many people came to your wedding reception?

About 100.

9. What kind of cake did you serve?

A trad fruit cake. I don’t know why I didn’t go for something more interesting. Clearly, I was not yet a baker.

10. Where was your wedding?

We were married in the Michaelhouse Chapel (the school which my husband, brother, brother-in-law, father, uncles and grandfather attended) and had our reception on the cricket field at Hilton College (the school where my stepfather taught and which my three stepbrothers attended). It was a perfect spring day.

11. What did you serve for the meal?

Can’t remember. I do remember drinking some champagne, though.

12. How many people were in your bridal party?

My husband had his brother, my brother and his best friend as attendants, and I had my three cousins.

13. Are you still friends with them?

We’ve lost the best friend. He lives in Zimbabwe, and we can’t find him.

14. Did your spouse cry during the wedding ceremony?

No, but like YogaMum, I cried as I starting walking up the aisle and pretty much cried throughout – happy tears.

15. Most special moment of your wedding day?

Driving away into the sunset with my new husband in his fabulous little sportscar en route to Zimbabwe, leaving all the people we loved behind us. Alone at last.

16. Any funny moments?

My Altzheimer-sufferer grandmother and her likewise brother missing the ceremony because they couldn’t remember the way to the chapel. Luckily they soon forgot that they had missed it, and got swept up in the fun of the next bit. My father made a very witty speech. The band got the wrong food. The waiters served the wrong wine. Our first dance was hilarious: it was a foxtrot and everyone thought it was a rumba. A cousin from Scotland fell “asleep” in the corridor with his kilt all hoiked up over his bottom to reveal he was wearing it in the traditional fashion – knickerless.

17. Any big disasters?

I plead the Fifth.

18. Where did you honeymoon?

Zimbabwe. I got the runs. It was very romantic.

19. For how long?

Two weeks.

20. If you were to do your wedding over, what would you change?

We had the wedding of two first-born 25-year-olds trying to please everyone. It was wonderful, but there’s a lot to be said for eloping.

21. What side of the bed do you sleep on?

Left-hand, near the window.

22. What size is your bed?

King, to accommodate all those co-sleeping children who now all sleep in their own beds but who still like to visit and cuddle in the mornings.

23. Greatest strength as a couple?

We make each other laugh. We love each other’s company. We are both dreamers, readers, writers, travellers.

24. Greatest challenge as a couple?

Neither of us is particularly practical.

25. Who literally pays the bills?

He waves them and I pay them. (He probably thinks it’s the other way around.)

26. What is your song?

Oh. Er – Tom?

27. What did you dance your first dance to?

Ditto

28. Describe your wedding dress?

The last of the great meringues.

29. What kind of flowers did you have at your wedding?

Pink, purple, blue, white, yellow – spring colours. Roses, and other things.

30. Are your wedding bands engraved?

No.

Anyone else want to play? Kerry – how about getting your blogging mojo back? Kerryn – would this grab you? Francesca – how about you? Alida – is this for you? Or you, Kit?


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Memoirs

While sick, I’ve caught up on my reading, including two memoirs that are very different from each other. Both try to tease out the past, but one takes a journalistic approach and aims for veracity, while the other floats in and out of what I guess is creative non-fiction territory. In her foreword to The View From Castle Rock, a collection of stories about her family and herself, Alice Munro says:

I was doing something closer to what a memoir does – exploring a life, my own life, but not in an austere or rigorously factual way. I put myself in the center and wrote about that self, as searchingly as I could. But the figures around this self took on their own life and color and did things they had not done in reality.

Her book is divided in two parts: one dealing with her Scottish ancestors and why they might have come to Canada, and the other with her own childhood and girlhood in Fifties Ontario. In the final section of the book, Messenger, she visits countryside near Chicago as an adult to seek out the cemeteries where family members who did not settle in Canada are buried. So she looks at her family’s past, her past and her present.

The book is beautiful; lively with attractive prose and depictions of settler life. I particularly enjoyed the part that dealt with the family’s sojourn on board ship – how fears of the youngest child’s being tossed overboard meant that they had to “tether” him at night (I think I would have done the same), the imagined relationship between an elderly and self-indulgent father-in-law and his matter-of-fact and acerbic daughter-in-law, hints of a love affair, dances and sightings of whales. While not wealthy or able to secure upper deck berths, the family are luckier than most and survive the journey intact and and well. It is only once they hit the shores of their new land, that their tragedies and dramas – possibly imagined by Munro, possibly not – unfold.

I also loved the section dealing with Munro’s childhood and girlhood in backwoods Ontario. The imagined and the real were threaded together imperceptibly, but I still desperately wanted to know which bits were fiction and which were true. While I enjoyed what she was doing, there was a part of me wanting clarification. She provides that in the foreword, saying that some characters “did things they did not do in reality”:

They joined the Salvation Army, they revealed they had once lived in Chicago. One of them got himself electrocuted and another fired off a gun in a barn full of horses. In fact, some of these characters have moved so far from their beginnings that I cannot remember who they were to start with.

Perhaps it is the journalist in me that wants to separate out fiction and non-fiction, or I must read more creative non-fiction and learn to go with the flow. As Munro asserts, they are just stories. Let me say, they are lovely stories, full of candid humour and insights into the oddness of the human condition. I’ve never read any Alice Munro short stories, but I guess they are full of the same.

I have also just finished reading another memoir, the craply titled Ja No, Man, by a young Canadian ex-South African called Richard Poplak. I sighed a little when I picked this book up. You know how movies set in the Eighties always have the same signifiers: someone playing with a Rubix Cube, people wearing day-glo clothing while Flock of Seagulls plays in the background? This book is covered with the same signifiers that shout Eighties South Africa to me, and its tag is A memoir of pop culture, girls, suburbia … and Apartheid. I thought it was going to be superficial, mindless and vaguely celebratory of what was really a horrible time to live in South Africa.

I’m glad to report that it isn’t. Poplak’s book is darkly funny, disturbing, and very well researched. He backs up his memories of growing up in Johannesburg in the Seventies and Eighties with acid offensives against the Apartheid state. He presents the eerie strangeness of being a child who only knows black people as servants, the indignities of Veldskool where he learnt about the immiment Communist threat and how to fold a flag, and the barbaric discipline of South African schools, where he was regularly sent for “six of the best”.

Poplak’s family left South Africa only a few weeks before Nelson Mandela was freed, so his book does not contain any reference to the miracle of the Rainbow Nation. While this might have eased his vituperative edge, it also means that the memoir is very specifically of its time and of its place. There is no sentiment, no schmaltz; Poplak addresses those two decades starkly. He makes no apology for not including black experience in the book – this is his experience and he presents it frankly, sometimes so frankly that I squirmed in uncomfortable recognition.

Towards the end of the book, he says:

It is a strange thing to be severed from the community of man – to be an island – as we were in South Africa. Isolation, both cultural and geographic, causes a certain kind of backwardness. The pastiche you create of the world, assembled from snippets of popular culture, hearsay, half-true news, and folkloric assumptions, is a patchwork quilt. Adrift, you create a world that only nominally hints at civilization. We were a quasi-democratic quasi-dictatorship, with a culture as anemic and as weirdly translucent as those deep-sea species of fish seen on the Discovery Channel. The flag Oom Piet raised with such reverence, the national anthems we sung with such forced gusto at assemblies – these were dead symbols for a dead country.

Richard Poplak and I and many millions of others are the products of Apartheid, and this dead culture. Thank goodness it is dead, and a new South Africa is rising from the ashes, but many are still paying the price of that cold grey time.

Poplak’s approach is very different from that of Munro. He says in his author’s note that it is both an act of memory and a work of journalism – if he remembered a certain tree as a jacaranda, he went back and checked that it was a jacaranda. He changes the names of teachers, certain schools and schoolfriends, and also clearly states that there are no composite characters, fictional places or made-up situations. His book is rigorous and factual, while Munro’s is swirling and exploratory.

It was an interesting experience reading these two different approaches to the memoir, neither better than the other, back-to-back. I would really appreciate any tips on good creative non-fiction, as it’s clearly a genre I want to explore more.