Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


Remembering The Hermitage

A strange thing is happening in my family – my mother and stepfather are moving in with my brother. My stepfather is retiring after twenty-seven years of teaching at an elite boys’ school, and while he and my mother wait to sell their house in the nearby village and downsize to something easier to maintain, they are moving in with my brother. But that’s not the odd part; what’s odd is that the house where they are going to live is where my father grew up. The Hermitage is where, as a teenager, my mother first went to meet his family, where she went to parties, where she planned to have her wedding reception (rain meant that it was hurriedly moved to a church hall) and where she took her first baby straight from hospital to a hot and humid Christmas party. Now she’s moving in there with her second husband.

My best memories of my grandparents’ house are all at child-level: the smell of jasmine as you walk in the gate, the smell of dog in the scullery where my grandmother washed and brushed her pets, the cool black and white tiles of the hallway, the gnarled trunk of the magnolia tree where we swung on a rope swing, the shady sandpit under the tree where we occasionally discovered a present left there for us by the neighbourhood cats. The garden was a treasure trove where we collected jewel-red lucky beans, ate wild strawberries and devoured citrussy naartjies from the trees near the washing-line. It was full of hills and dales where we lost ourselves on hot afternoons.

My grandparents’ home also featured animals – troupes of dogs, first bassets and later Yorkshire terriers; goldfish in a small pond; vervet monkeys that swarmed through the trees, clattered over the tin roof and sometimes taunted us through the skylight in the hallway. There is the story of my grandmother leaving the house for a party, seeing a tiny chameleon on a bush and placing it gently on her black dress where it stayed in place as a brooch for the rest of the evening. Another story tells of my wild uncle attaching a home-made parachute to one of the family cats and throwing it off the roof to see if it would fly (it didn’t fly, but neither did it die). By the time I was born, my grandfather had sold the land below the house, but I grew up hearing stories about my aunt’s pony that had lived in the field.

My grandmother was British, so every Sunday we went to her house for a roast lunch. Apparently my mother and my aunt railed against this, but they never rebelled. They dressed their four children in their Sunday best, brushed heads of hair, gave final lectures about table manners and set off hoping for a pleasant time. While I was still down at dog and cat level, all grown-up stresses went over my head. I had no idea that the fact that my father always arrived late off the golf course was the start of an unravelling of his marriage and my life as I knew it. I just knew that to preserve my corner of peace, I had to eat my peas and if that meant swallowing them down with water or visiting the toilet a couple of times during the meal to spit them out, then that was what I would do. I had to remember my pleases and thank yous, have a second helping if possible, smile and look neat. Then I would be free to rush outside again to the garden, leaving the adults behind to continue their mysterious dance of never-saying.

Later, when the predicted unravelling began, the Hermitage became a retreat for my brother and I. It was the place where we were still part of a family, where all the significant connections kept us welded to a world that had become unstable. It was the core, while all around us was the chaos. At the time, we were having identical dreams: of terrorists stealing us from our parents, of wolves in the garden, of being locked in the house with a volcano underneath. The Hermitage was place of safety, of calm, where my grandmother washed and brushed her dogs, tying red bows in their fringes, and where my grandfather sat in his armchair reading his books and nodding along to his records.

However, it was also a place to be acutely sad. Being in a place of family made it abundantly clear that we had never had a family of our own. The unravelling of our parents’ marriage had begun so long ago, long long before the events that severed that final cord, so we had always lived in a ghost family. We were often a threesome, but very seldom a foursome. When that foursome was finally spliced we had already been mourning it for some years.

The Hermitage had once stood alone on a hill overlooking town, which is possibly how it received its name, but by the time I was born and introduced to my family on that hot Christmas Eve, other houses had joined it and subsumed it into suburbia. It had a view, but not a particularly scenic one, being as it was of the wrong end of town, with its factories and low-cost housing. However, at night, the sparkling lights were magical. Later the trees in the valley grew tall and obscured much of the view, both the daily ordinary one and the nightly spectacle.

Later as a student at a far-off campus, I visited the Hermitage to remember who I was. The tinkling of ice in my grandmother’s pink gins, the spindly handwriting on letters from her sister in England, the ever-present dog reminded me that while I was wildly testing my limits in Cape Town, I was also the grand-daughter of the house. I tamed the worst of my hair and clothes and was seemly, just for an hour or two.

After my grandparents died, there was debate amongst my father’s siblings what to do with the house. My father and his older sister both wanted to sell it, my wild uncle and pony aunt wanted to keep it. Finally, the two older ones sold their share to the two younger ones. At the time, my Pony Aunt lived in Zimbabwe and my Wild Uncle was running a law practice in northern KwaZulu-Natal, so they needed a tenant. My brother moved in and started his tree nursery under the magnolia tree where we had played as children.

Once again, the Hermitage became a place of solace. He had recovered from his “accident”, grown his bones back as best as possible, and was ready to try out his life for size. Doing so in a place redolent of family, and where he felt safe, was the perfect gentle experiment. As he walked the natural forests of our province, he collected seeds off the forest floor, which he took home and lovingly nurtured into small trees. He watched and loved other growing things, and quietly did some growing of his own.

Now my mother is in need of a refuge and the Hermitage is there. After years as a commune for students and young professionals not quite ready to buy their own houses, it has lost its gloss. It no longer contains antiques, paintings and family photos. The white and black hallway tiles are cracked and curling, the skylight where the monkeys peered through is flecked with age, the verandah from where we breathed in the hilltop breezes is unswept, but the walls contain us in safety. My mother will make it sparkle, she will fill the kitchen with smells and the walls with colour. She will pick magnolias and put them in a vase, she will pour glasses of wine on the verandah and toast the evening breezes. She will remember the sheen of my grandparents’ glamour as they walked out to a party and plucked a chameleon from a bush. The house will contain her and she will remember.


When I Was 25

When I was a child, 25 was the epitome of grown-up. Now it’s like a millon light years away and I can barely remember who I was and what I did. However, Elizabeth and Jade‘s lovely posts have both inspired me to try to remember.

When I was 25, I decided to get married. My now husband had been proposing for two years and I had been prevaricating (“First I want to write a novel/go to China/buy these shoes”), but one day in the supermarket, somewhere near the loo rolls, I said yes instead of no. That moment changed my life.

When I was 25, I got married. I am still married to that same person. Many of my friends who got married around the same time as me are no longer married to the same person. I plan to remain married.

When I was 25, I didn’t know what kind of wedding I wanted, so I succumbed to the general trend, wore a meringue, tried to please everybody and had a big party. Now if I had a wedding, I would accept my father’s offer to take the money and run.

When I was 25, I bought my first house. Four months later, I left that house to move to Germany. I learned that owning a house does not tie you to one place forever.

When I was 25, I had a career. I was on a path to somewhere, but it did not make me happy. Now I have less of a career and a lot more happiness.

When I was 25, I had Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Now I am just irritable.

When I was 25, I was torn between my husband and my friends. Moving to Germany was the best thing I did because my husband and I made friends together. Today, the people who love me, love my husband too and that means the world to me.

When I was 25, I wore far too much navy. I was also scarily attached to suits with shoulder pads, pearls and court shoes.

When I was 25, I thought weekends were for sleep. Now I realise they are for dreaming about sleep.

When I was 25, I never thought about having children and had no plan as to how they would fit into my life. Now I know that children bring their own plan.

When I was 25, I voted in South Africa’s first non-racial election.

When I was 25, my favourite sport was bridge. I played bridge on the day of South Africa’s first non-racial election.

When I was 25, my world was small. Now it is far bigger. I can go to France for my groceries if that moves me.

When I was 25, I had a car crash that wrecked my car. One inch to the left and I would have hit a pole, but I came out unscathed. I believe the angels were on my side that night.

When I was 25, I cared what people thought of me and felt dented if they didn’t like me. Now I only care for the opinions of a select few.

When I was 25, I believed I would one day write and publish novels. Now, even though I no longer qualify as a “young writer” (thanks, Granta), I still believe that.

When I was 25, I believed I could do anything, even go and live in a country where I couldn’t speak the language, where I didn’t have a job and where I didn’t know anyone apart from my husband. I still have the same blind faith in my own ability to cope.


Towards the End of the Season, Limply

In the novels of Jane Austen there is usually some reference to The Season – where the gentry head to Town, attend balls, horse-races, the ballet, parties and dinners, and try, to the best of their ability to marry off their marriagable daughters to young men of good fortune and pleasant personality. Today the season still exists, and, according to Wikipedia lasts from April to August, and includes events such as Glyndebourne, Royal Ascot, Chelsea Flower Show, Henley Royal Regatta and Wimbledon. Afterwards, today’s gentry head back to their country piles or to France while their children go to Ibiza, where they club senselessly, get photographed for Heat magazine with no knickers on or topless on the beach, and try to return without a husband.

The only season event I ever attended was the Henley Royal Regatta, to which I was invited by my totally lovely and rather posh cousins. I was doing my gap year of waitressing and partying and having inappropriate relationships in London and they took me under their wing, allowing me to arrive at their beautiful Surrey home, where I would warm my bottom on the Aga, be cossetted, fed and then sent back for another few weeks’ wildness in the capital. Thanks to them I am a whizz at croquet. These were the same people who took me to the ballet at Covent Garden (which I would never have been able to afford), and, despite having had a theatre supper beforehand, produced a picnic hamper full of delicious salmon sandwiches and champagne for afterwards, which we sat down and enjoyed at midnight on the Covent Garden cobblestones. They liked to do things in style. Henley was just the same – we cruised there in their Bentley with its cream leather and walnut interior. I was outfitted in a borrowed dress and a small and very cheap hat that I bought at Brick Lane (dress and hat being the appropriate outfit for ladies at the Regatta) and enjoyed an excess of champagne and watching strong men row boats in the rain.

Less glamorous, but equally demanding, is the Charlotte’s Web Family Season. It is six months long, and lasts from October to the end of March. I am relieved to announce that it is now drawing to a close. Since October we have celebrated the following:

  • One wedding anniversary
    • Cleverly planned for 1 October, so that’s it hard to forget. Thus far, we haven’t done so. We don’t go large but the occasion is marked and thusly the season opened.
  • Five birthdays
    • Two of these require full parties, with guests, cake, games, crafts and dressing-up. Since it is winter they are always, regrettably, indoors. The grown-up birthdays usually also require a party but we bailed this season and gave dinner parties instead.
  • Sundry German festivals, requiring the crafting of objects, the sourcing of costumes, the turning-up at and participating in parades, the eating of festival related baked goods, the singing of festival songs and the smiling and conversing with other festival participants. These include the Laternefest and Fasching (Carnival).
  • Sankt Nicolaustag
  • Christmas: the usual insane cookfest and eatfest and giftfest, plus assorted houseguests
  • New Year: ditto except minus the gifts
  • A week of skiing. One of the reasons we are in Europe is to offer our children chances to do things we which didn’t do growing up in Africa. Hence skiing. Last year, I found this such an exhausting experience, that I have avoided it this time, but my saint of a husband has taken his daughters off with a bunch of friends and they are turning into ski bunnies. Less of the snow eating this year, which is a good thing, both for their digestive systems and for the ski resorts. They need all the snow they can get.
  • Easter – two years ago, Ollie was born on 27 March, which was an Easter Sunday, so we include it in our Season. We celebrated his first birthday while skiing (ie he had a cake) but this year we will have to mark it with a party, a home-made cake and by inviting some of his little friends around. If we are very, very lucky they could play outside.

After Ollie’s birthday, we have six months off. No birthdays, no parties, no festivals for which we are required to craft anything. There will be no need to fashion pirate or Thomas the Tank Engine birthday cakes and no requirements for eyepatches or spangly crowns at the eleventh hour. I am looking forward to it – and summer – enormously. If you are looking for me in the six months starting April, this is where I hope you will find me, physically, spiritually, emotionally. Gin and tonic, anyone?



In Which I Gate-Crash History

For a while, in between being a real journalist and a corporate one, I worked as an assistant to a fundraiser. One of our customers was Outward Bound, the experiential outdoor learning programme started by Kurt Hahn, the founder of Gordonstoun School. Of all our customers, Outward Bound was my favourite, not least because of all the fit instructors with intriguing Antipodean accents who liked to go around shirtless, but also because of the goals the newly-started Outward Bound organisation had in South Africa. It planned to offer courses to disaffected township youth, kids who had been the final beneficiaries of the iniquitously substandard apartheid education, who were starting to become known as the “lost generation”. Outward Bound hoped to teach them skills, self-confidence and the ability to recognise their own potential, so that they wouldn’t become lost but would find a way to rejoin society.

1994 was a stunning year for South Africa: we had the first nonracial election where black and white people queued up together to vote, Nelson Mandela was voted in as president and the transitional government began working together and writing the new Constitution. World leaders and dignitaries from 140 countries attended Mandela’s inauguration, including Prince Phillip, international patron of Outward Bound and the third pupil to have attended Hahn’s Gordonstoun school. We decided to hold a fundraiser, get the Prince to attend and speak, invite businesspeople and hopefully raise a ton of money for our customer.

The fundraiser was set – it was to be a lunch held in Cape Town at the posher than posh Mount Nelson Hotel. The other star guest was Steve Tshwete, South Africa’s newly appointed minister for sport, an ANC stalwart who had been a leader in the armed resistance (MK), had spent 15 years on Robben Island and was a sport fanatic. The Prince was also engaged to turn up, press hands and say a few choice words about Outward Bound. I managed to squeeze myself onto the list too. I think my boss would have preferred me to stay in Johannesburg and woman the phones in her absence, but I fluttered my eyelashes at a couple of Antipodeans and scored an invite. Garbed in a lovely new purple suit bedecked with a gazillion shiny gold buttons (you have to forgive me, it was the 90s, and my shoes were gold too), I flew with my boss to Cape Town. Off to meet a Prince.

A small administrative error meant we had set the fundraiser on the same day that the transitional government were meeting for the very first time at Parliament in Cape Town. However, Steve Tshwete or one of his army of assistants assured us that after the morning session, he would cover the short distance from Parliament to the Mount Nelson and be there in time to welcome the Prince. We believed him.

After hearing that Prince Phillip was on his way, and there was still no Mr Tshwete in sight, my boss fixed me with a gimlet eye and said, with shades of Miranda Priestly, “Charlotte, go and fetch him.” I mentally looked around to see if there was anyone of smaller consequence than myself to whom I could pass on the job, but no, I was the kippie, and I had to go and fetch the Minister of Sport. So I hoisted my purple skirt, and slipping around nicely in my gold brogues, ran down Government Avenue. All around me, people were enjoying the warm autumn sunshine in the Company Gardens and squirrels were chittering happily in the oak trees. But I was on Mission Uncomfortable.

When I got to the Parliament Buildings all was quiet. I told a guard, “I’m here to fetch Mr Tshwete” and he seemed to think that was a good enough reason to let me in, despite my sweaty and dishevelled purple  demeanour. I stood around in the empty courtyard for a while, wondering what my next step would be. I couldn’t just burst into Parliament and remove Steve Tshwete from the session, even though a Prince was waiting for him. Just then the huge doors were flung open. Parliament was over. There was me and there were all the luminaries of South Africa’s new government, ululating, singing, hugging, crying with joy. They were celebrating their triumph right in front of my eyes. These people had fought their whole lives for this moment, lost family and friends to the struggle against apartheid, and I was witness to their joy.

I pushed through the crowd and found Steve Tshwete just inside the building, where he was hugging some comrades with tears streaming down his face. I tapped him on the shoulder. “Mr Tshwete, I’m Charlotte,” I said. “I’m from Outward Bound and I’m here to fetch you to come and meet Prince Phillip.”

He enveloped me in a huge hug and then looked sincerely into my eyes. “Charlotte, dear Charlotte. Tell the Prince I’m not coming.”

So I ran back up Government Avenue to the Mount Nelson, sweatily relayed the news to my boss that Steve Tshwete was going to have a major party with his comrades and would not be available to glad-hand Prince Phillip. Shortly afterwards, his eminence arrived. I stood in line and received a limp little handshake, and then sat and listened to him say some not very memorable words on behalf of Outward Bound. My mother-in-law, who is British and a proud monarchist, now has a photograph of me and Prince Phillip on her mantelpiece. I don’t. But what I do have is a big hug from one of South Africa’s heroes (sadly now fallen) on the first day of the first meeting of my country’s new government. To me, that’s a million times better than meeting a Prince.


Wet Wet Wet

Once, as a student, I went on holiday with a group of friends to the Transkei, a wild and wonderful part of the South African coastline. As a child I’d had a couple of Transkei holidays, so I knew what to expect: cloudless blue skies, flat white beaches, friendly warm seas, a daily supply of fresh fish and peace on earth. As a student I was expecting all that, plus alcohol. What we got was rain.

The Hluleka Nature Reserve, just south of Port St Johns on what is also called the Wild Coast, is a small camp of wooden cabins on stilts. It is beloved by nature enthusiasts, anglers, bird-watchers and hikers. Being very hard to get to on hundreds of kilometres of dirt roads, you need a four-wheel drive, and since students don’t usually own four-wheel drives or have parents insane enough to lend them their own, we may have been the first students to holiday at the Hluleka Nature Reserve. And if we weren’t the first, then we were possibly the last.

Perhaps we had a day or two of heaven on earth, I can’t remember now, but very soon the rain came and all our dreams of lying in the sun, swimming, braaing, sitting out under the stars philosophising came to nothing. However, being resilient and crafty students, we knew how to make our own fun. At first we had a few wet walks, but soon we realised that the only way to cope with the ongoing African rain was to drink. Shortly after breakfast, two people would be dispatched to take the landrover across the river to the only shop in a twenty kilometre radius, which conveniently happened to have a bottlestore attached, to buy our beer supply for the day. As there were nine of us, this meant a substantial number of crates. On their return they would be greeted warmly by six bored housemates anxious to alleviate holiday ennui by cracking open their first drink of the day. One of our party, a fastidious and rather churchy Afrikaans girl (let’s call her Hannah) was a nondrinker so she stuck to soft drinks.

And so the daily drinking would begin. I also remember a large amount of sleeping – we were students after all, much reading, hearty eating, the smell of damp jersey, marathon card games, and since there were nine of us crammed into a small wooden cabin with doors that barely closed and very little privacy, extremely public bowel movements. Since some of our party had not yet shaken off their schoolboy obsession with poo, one bright spark who was rather proud of his metabolism challenged the group to who could produce the most bowel movements over the course of the holiday. To a man, we charged our Red Labels (beer not whiskey), and accepted his challenge.

Hannah was horribly thrown by the discussion of poo and spent a not-surprising amount of time in her room. However, whenever she emerged from the bathroom, she would be subjected to interrogation until she admitted to what she had produced. As I recall, her output was not great. I suspect the horror of that holiday may have caused her to suffer from lifelong constipation*.

After a morning’s drinking and poo tallies, it would be time for The Swim. Remember, it was still raining. We’d make our way wobbling down the path to the beach, soaked to the swimming costume, plunge into the sea, and then shiver back up the hill to dry off with our damp towels and put on our damp clothes. One day, someone thought it would be a fabulous idea to skinny-dip, so on the beach all of us – except for Hannah – whipped off our wet costumes and plunged roaring into the sea. It was the best swim of my life, naked in the Wild Coast surf. We girls roared out again, giggling hysterically (noting along the way that Hannah’s also rather conservative and now naked boyfriend was spectacularly well-endowed), only to see wading towards us, fully bathing costumed, and wearing an unreadable expression on her face, the head of our alma mater’s Old Girls’ Guild. It was rather like one our mothers appearing. Us naked, she costumed. Us drunk, she very clearly sober. Daylight. On a beach. In the Transkei. We chorused, “Hello Mrs Copperplate” and ran snorting explosively up the beach, just like the bunch of schoolgirls we had only recently stopped being.

As the time to leave drew nearer, we assiduously worked on finishing up our supplies. The rain grew heavier. The night before we were due to leave, one of the group went to the camp’s offices to pay. He came back, sober-faced. “We can’t leave,” he told us. “The river’s flooded its banks and we can’t get across.”

We were stuck, with dwindling food supplies, no access to alcohol, in an extremely remote part of South Africa. We sobered up fast and start conjuring clever meals out of tuna. Then there was a knock at the door. It was Mrs Copperplate. She said, “We couldn’t help noticing you have cigarettes. Could we exchange a couple of bottles of red wine for some cigarettes?”

Could we ever! And thus began the bartering that got us through the next few days. Someone gave us eggs, we gave them tuna, someone took cigarettes off us and gave us potatoes. There was a lovely spirit of we’re-all-in-this-together floating round the wet camp. One morning, we woke up and the rain had stopped. The sun had come out and the river had subsided sufficiently for us to ford the river. We hurriedly packed up our bags, stomachs grumbling at the thought of toasted cheese and tomato sandwiches at the first petrol station en-route home.

A sharp-eyed member of the party wandered into Hannah’s room just as she and her boyfriend were zipping up their bags. She noticed an ill-concealed and full box of cereal that he hastily tried to hide under a couple of dirty T-shirts. The well-endowed one had been hiding supplies! After we’d all had old apples, or somesuch disappointing breakfast. He was henceforth known as Biggus Dickus.

* Hannah, if I ever meet you again, I will apologise to your sweet person for the tortures we may have visited on you that holiday


I Am From

I am from Africa. I am from blue skies, tropical breezes, and sunshine on my back. I am from tall trees that throw great shadows. I am from monkeys in the garden and a chameleon on a bush. I am from mountains that rarely see snow, beaches with huge waves, sharks behind the shoreline. I am from banana plants, sugar-cane and mealies. I am from huge moths and flying ants. I am from humidity, from thunderstorms that build up as black towers in the sky, and rain so hard it hurts my skin.

I am from eating outside. I am from the intense smell of a slightly under-ripe naartjie that I pick from its tree, dig open with dirty fingernails, and devour despite the sourness. I am from plucking granadillas off the vine and greedily sucking the juice. I am from braai meat, salad and crunchy white rolls. I am from mussels gathered from the sea.

I am from lucky beans. I am from a hoary old magnolia tree that bursts forth luscious, vanilla-scented blooms that decorate the Christmas table. I am from a red-brick house that looks out over trees and a hot town. I am from black and white tiles that cool hot summer feet. I am from the smell of dogs being washed. I am from the sound of Zulu hymns as I fall asleep.

I am from Marmite sandwiches. I am from a schoolbag digging into my shoulder as I walk home. I am from the smell of an over-chlorinated swimming-pool in my wet hair. I am from giggling. I am from eating all the cookie mixture. I am from marathon card games. I am from the thwack of tennis balls. I am from kissing boys.

I am from little brothers playing cricket on the lawn. I am from long car journeys. I am from beach holidays. I am from sand in my hair, from fairy gardens and dreaming I can fly. I am from blonde people. I am from children go to bed early. I am from fragrant grandmothers and laughing aunts. I am from a funny dad. I am from a little brother who shared my nightmares. I am from a mother who said, “You can do anything.”

Where are you from?

(With thanks to Susie J.)

Now available as a podcast! Listen here or here:


Around the Table

It has always been my dream to have a kitchen that is the heart of a house, one big enough for a table and even a sofa. I’d love a kitchen where you read, eat and dream, where children do homework, friends plonk down for a cup of tea and delicious smells emanate. Our kitchen is small, slightly larger than a galley kitchen, and if more than one person stands in it while I’m cooking, I start hyperventilating and shooing them out like chickens. So our present kitchen, while being my delightful refuge, is not the heart of our home.

However, I realised today as we sat around our dining-room table for a family Sunday brunch, that the table has taken on that role. It’s an African blackwood table, rectangular of shape, that seats eight comfortably and ten at a push. We inherited it from my parents-in-law when they moved their business from a large office to a smaller one. It had been their office conference table and, before that, their family dining-room table. It moved with us from England to Germany. In England it had a more formal role since we had a kitchen table where most of the family action took place, but in Germany, through necessity, it has become the place where everything happens.

At the dining-room table we have our weekday family lunch. I have taken on the German habit of cooking a hot lunch, and so after school and kindergarten we regroup, sit around the table, eat and chat. We catch up on the details of the morning, the little hurts and joys that make up a small child’s life, and we plan our afternoons. After lunch, the children sit there to do homework and draw. Even Ollie will sit with his sisters and make scribbles on paper. Later friends might join us and we sit around the table, having afternoon tea and watching the children draw.

We also have our weekend lunches and brunches there, sometimes just the five of us and other times with friends. Then, the dynamic changes and the conversations become more general and less family-specific. When the children have gone to bed, and peace reigns, it is where we eat and have dinner with friends. It becomes a grown-up island of peace and calm, where voices are more modulated, wine is sipped, conversation enjoyed. As the evenings progress and candles burn down and bottles of wine empty, it becomes a place of laughter.

Now that we live in the northern hemisphere all our birthdays are winter birthdays, so the children celebrate their parties indoors. The table plays a starring role at their parties, decorated and groaning with cake. Later it is cleared, and we do some party crafting – making crowns, or, if it’s our Christmas baby Daisy’s party, sprinkling Christmas angels with glitter. Daisy’s about to turn five, and this will be the fourth time she sits in regal splendour at the head of the table as birthday girl. For Lily, next February will also be her fourth turn as queen of the table. In March, Olllie will head it up for the first time in his life.

When we moved to Germany with our children, we decided the German Christmas was too magical to miss, so we now celebrate here instead of having a hot African Christmas. By situating Christmas in our own home, instead of with our parents, we have begun our own family traditions and it is at the table we sit for Heiligeabend on December 24, for Christmas lunch, and for Boxing Day when we hoover up the leftovers. It’s where I wrap the presents, fill stockings and dream of my children’s joy the following morning.

I work at the table, write there. My children draw, paint and craft there. We eat there. We talk there. Right now it’s covered with papers as we do our tax returns. Around the table is where our family happens.


Writing About Nature

I love nature. And I would love to write about it really, really well. However, having grown up an urban girl I haven’t had that much exposure. I think to write about it superbly, one needs to have been enveloped in it, to have grown up on a farm or in the mountains, and to have had constant, daily contact with the planet, to know how it flowers, and to love the animals that walk upon it. One blogger who writes beautifully about nature is Healing Magic Hands. It was this post that turned me into a fan of hers.

I’ve been trying to think of writers who write well about nature. Gerald Durrell springs to mind for his evocation of the flora and fauna of Corfu in My Family and Other Animals. I also think of James Herriot for his hilarious animal world, Barbara Kingsolver for the bounteous plant life of The Prodigal Summer and Wordsworth for his visions of the holy in nature. I welcome other suggestions.

As a child, my main contact with the wild was the odd safari, which is a very elegant and colonial name for what were just holidays in the game reserve. I adored them. The sensible time for a game reserve holiday is in winter, when the trees don’t have much foliage (so you can see further into the bush) and the animals are forced to go to certain waterholes to drink (where you can see them). For me, the best thing about a game reserve holiday is that you follow the rhythm of the bush: wake early, nap in the midday heat, be busy in the late afternoon and evening, and go to sleep as darkness falls. A jaded city body takes on the rhythm mesmerisingly fast, it is as if it’s how we were meant to live.

So you wake with the dawn, have a quick cup of tea or coffee to warm up, and head into the icy morning to see what you can find. As the sun rises, so do the animals: snuffling warthogs running in rows with their ridiculous tails straight up in the air, unsurprised giraffe watching you stoically from above an acacia tree and skittish zebra flicking their manes and dancing off the road as your car approaches. We once had the incredible luck of watching a family of wild dog waken as the sun warmed their den: first mother, then four or five young. They gambolled for the joy of morning.

After a few hours of game-watching, your stomach directs you home for breakfast. This is always a huge and hearty affair: porridge, eggs and bacon, toast, cereal, fruit. Then, since the animals go quiet in the late morning, so do you. You read, nap, play board games or cards, bird-watch. If you’re extremely lucky, you might get to do some game-watching from your chair: a few vervet monkeys cavorting in the trees, some impala wandering casually into camp, zebra chewing the cud. Some people may need a lunchtime snack, others not. Some grown-ups might have a beer or two, others not. Later, you head out for an afternoon drive.

One afternoon, we were driving through a densely forested riverine valley. As we rounded a corner, we found ourselves in amongst a herd of elephant. Because of the trees, it was hard to tell how many there were, but it could have been up to forty. We immediately stopped the car, held our collective breaths and watched. We were slightly nervous, because elephant can be temperamental; they have been known to charge cars and even crush them. However, this afternoon, they were in a peaceable mood and having a wonderful snack of trees. It’s breath-taking watching an elephant eat: they seem to wrap themselves around entire branches, folding these into their bodies as easily as if they were wafers. We saw elephant babies, clustering around their mothers for safety but occasionally venturing forth alone to feast upon a smaller tree. I don’t know how long we sat there. We were transfixed. Then, with some imperceptible signal, they all turned and melted into the forest. One second we were amongst a herd, the next, they were gone.

An afternoon game drive can bring you upon a herd of buffalo, deceptively cow-like but extremely vicious. If you’re lucky, and in the right park, you could see rhino. Here you also hold your breath and count the exits – they are bad-tempered and can run surprisingly fast. Exceptional luck will bring you a cat: lion, leopard or cheetah. I have an uncle with an odd sense of humour, and once when we were out on a drive with him, he spotted a male lion. I couldn’t see the lion, so to get him closer to the car, Chris rolled down the window, leaned one elbow out and gave a loud and insulting imitation of a lion’s mating call. To the lion, this meant his territory was being invaded, so he roared and charged our car. I screamed and ducked under the seat. It was a mock charge, intended only to scare, and it had succeeded. I didn’t see that lion, but his roar reverberated in my head for days. We drove off with Chris being roundly scolded by the other adults in the car.

You return to camp, where the braai gets fired up and starving from the afternoon’s endeavours, you eat boerewors sausages, steaks, baked potatoes, salad. The adults drink beer and red wine, the children Coke. Everyone falls into bed early, exhausted.

At certain reserves, you can go on night drives. Sometimes these will be in a large open Landrover, accompanied by a guard (with a gun), or if you’re in a private reserve, you might drive yourselves out. Night in the bush is very cold, so on top of the anoraks and woolly hats, you have blankets to keep you cosy. At night, you will see hyena, which are menacing and scary, perhaps lion, leopard, bushbabies, various night birds. Or you can drive for three hours, see nothing and return cold and disappointed. You take a chance.

I look forward to the time when my children are older and I can offer them this experience. The bush is my dream holiday; timelessly relaxing, dreamy and peaceful. It can also be pretty exciting, but those charging lion or rhino stories will fuel many a future dinner-party. To smell, feel, hear and see the wildness of our planet is an experience worth a thousand Disneylands.


Some Things I Love About My Husband

(Mr Pomo warns: Includes sentimental schmaltz, reference to underage drinking and worms.)

My husband is about to turn 38. We met almost exactly 20 years ago, when he was a very young first-year university student and I was a rather knowing schoolgirl. It was at a rugby after-party, and, having no interest in rugby at all, I was there for the boys. And I found one! I told my friends I was going to get a beer and somewhere in the beer crush, met him. My friends didn’t see me again. We spent some time propped up against a wall talking. He recited Blake’s The Tiger to me. We danced. We spend some more time propped up against a wall … not talking.

We started a passionate, wonderful, letter-writing, book-sharing relationship. I was thrilled to have a boyfriend who didn’t want to talk about rugby. It lasted, er, two weeks. All I can say in my defence is that I was very young and very superficial. If you ever come for dinner and we drink enough wine, he will tell you his version of events. I will blush and possibly run screeching from the room. I really was a dreadful teenager.

Anyway, five years later, when he knew a bit more about girls and had a job and a car and an attitude, he found me again. During that time, I had come to appreciate that qualities such as kindness, trustworthiness and gentleness were actually desirable in a partner. I was in my last year at university and he was working, so he wined and dined me in every posh eatery the length and breadth of the Cape Peninsula. He kept proposing, and I kept saying, let me write a novel first, let me pay off my student loan first, let me go to China first. One day, in the Spar near my mother’s house, buying a few last-minute Christmas groceries, he made his umpteenth proposal. By then they were becoming somewhat offhand. To his surprise and mine, I said yes.

So to celebrate his birthday, and twenty years of knowing each other, here are some (but by no means all of the) things I love about my husband:

  1. His crooked, sideways grin. This has been inherited by my son, so now I have two of them grinning at me like this on a daily basis, melting my heart.
  2. He has no fear of the yucky jobs. Cleaning the toilet, emptying the nappy bin, swabbing out the food bin in summer (there be w*rms), cleaning the tops of the kitchen cupboards when we have a moth infestation (there be more w*rms), nothing is too gross for him.
  3. He is a great present-giver. He never fails to return from a business trip with a little something for me. Even if it’s just an English-language newspaper he picked up on the plane, there’s always a present. Birthdays are good too.
  4. When Ollie shrieks at 5.30am, he will collect him, take him downstairs, give him his breakfast and play with him so that I can get a little more sleep.
  5. He is devoted to his family – we come first above all else. Occasionally, he gets mournful and mutters “What happened to my Ferrari” but I know that he would rather have us than a garage-full of sports cars.
  6. He LOVES a party.
  7. He is a great friend.
  8. He cooks, favouring the Jamie Oliver style of flinging it all together, nakedly. Which is not to say he cooks naked, though it might be something to think about …
  9. He buys cleaning products, which he actually USES.
  10. No-one treasures, admires, uncomplicatedly adores our three children as much as he does. Apart from me, of course.
  11. He makes me laugh. Actually, shriek.
  12. He speaks fluent, but shamelessly bad German. He has tons of German friends, who shriek at his jokes – in German.
  13. He loves books and travel as much as I do.
  14. He tolerates, no, encourages, my blogging habit.
  15. He leaves all the chocolate for me.

(My husband blogs at Vendorprisey. If you’re of a technical bent, like bikes and well-written software blogs, then check it out.)


More on School

I’m still musing on whether it’s worth spending the money on going to my school reunion in South Africa – should I save the money for a real holiday with my whole family, do I really want to return to a place that I was so eager to leave and am I really interested in seeing people with whom I’ve had no contact for 20 years?

My school was a private girls’ school in a town full of private schools. Posh but not the poshest, it was in fact stunningly mediocre: mediocre academic results, mediocre at sport and mediocre at turning out well-behaved young ladies. South Africa in the mid-Eighties was still a pretty repressive place, with legislation preventing blacks from attending white schools, but church schools like the one I attended had a loophole and could admit a small quota of black girls. The school was therefore completely representative of apartheid society: heavy on whites, with a sprinking of blacks. There were black servants of course: gardeners, maids, cooks; which served to reinforce our idea that we were pretty special.

The school leaned heavily towards the arts and humanities, had almost no technology and was not strong on maths and science. Only girls who were extremely gifted in science did well: the rest of us floundered. There were some good arts teachers, and I am eternally grateful to a rigorous, scary but inspirational English teacher.

Looking back, I see there was something so small-town about my school’s attitude then: we were not equipped to deal with the world as it was emerging at the end of the twentieth century. Paint a lovely watercolour, yes, recite a speech, or play a not totally shameful game of tennis – good skills if we were to become grand dames of the KwaZulu Natal social scene. We weren’t actually taught flower arranging, thank God, but there was a subject called Housecraft. I won’t go there. We learned almost nothing of the real world: no entrepreneurial skills, no economics and no computers. I remember one hour of sex education where we passed around a medieval torture instrument that was apparently a contraceptive device.

We became politically aware thanks to our friends and our parents. Hot property one term was a banned book by Steve Biko, which was given to us by someone’s boyfriend. I barely understood it, but loved the thrill of reading something illegal and being subversive. There were girls at school who believed that the apartheid government was helping “the blacks” because they couldn’t help themselves. These were the same girls who believed in Adam and Eve.

My ambitions to go to university were my own, and never once encouraged by any teachers. When one teacher casually asked me where I was applying for university, I mentioned two: one in a town much like my own (Rhodes University) and the other in a city (Cape Town). As a UCT alma mater, she strongly recommended that I would fit in well at Rhodes. So I made sure I went to UCT, studied her subject and got a First doing it.

So why would I want to return to a place that tried its hardest to turn me into a tennis-playing, flower-arranging, needleworking lady of leisure with a houseful of servants and expectations of entitlement? I guess I would like to see if it’s changed. I would certainly hope that it had. I have a slightly sick interest in counting the nose jobs and the boob jobs, seeing whether the ugly ducklings have become swans and vice versa, and who’s succumbed to middle age or who, like me, is fighting a rearguard action against frump. Out of a graduating class of eighteen, I have two dear friends who I always love to see. They would be there. We could hold hands and giggle.


Both my husband and I went to private, single-sex church schools of this nature. If we had stayed in the UK after our daughters were born, we would probably be sending them to schools like this. As the middle classes flee state schools and chase the academic results of private schools, state schools become less appealing. However, diversity is good for children, not just diversity of race, but diversity of means too, as penguinunearthed mentions in her great post on school choice in her home town of Sydney.

Here, in Germany there is almost no choice at all. Until very recently, private schools barely existed. There were the Steiner schools for people wanting an alternative to the mainstream and international schools for people coming through on short-term contracts and wanting to keep their kids in a specific system. There are now small dual-medium schools for people who want their children to be educated in English and German. There is the odd “internationat” – a private, boarding school generally regarded to be for children with behavioural problems. But the majority of kids go to their local state school, no matter what colour they are or how much their parents earn.

The decision has been made for us. Lily is about to enter the state system. She will have around 30 kids in her class. There will be no horse-riding, no golf courses, no servants and certainly no flower-arranging. Some of her friends’ parents will drive Porsches; others won’t have cars. She will have Muslim children in her class. There will be children whose home language is neither English nor German. We are not giving her privilege, but we are giving her diversity, and the chance to understand the real world in all its colourfulness. I’m looking forward to the journey.