Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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I is for Insight

Better people than me are doing it and I am not one to ignore a bandwagon.

Behold the bullet point post:

  • I wish I’d had the insight to make this blog anonymous – there are things I feel like saying but because people I know read Charlotte’s Web, I won’t. I shall blurt internally and hope not to damage any organs.
  • I had a job interview this week. The first in 10 years. It was rigorous and interesting and made me realise things about myself. See above.
  • The Times published its 100 Best Books of the Decade today, leaving out notables such What I loved by Siri Hustvedt, We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver and The March by EL Doctorow. I have read 33 of the 100 books and, finding myself ridiculously well-read, shall only read genre fiction from henceforth. Anyone want to lend me their copy of Twilight?
  • I am feeling anxious about my brief trip to South Africa without my family at the end of December. See bullet point 1.
  • I plan to write the last third of draft two before the end of the month. That is also making me anxious.
  • I submitted a test-query to the Queryshark a couple of weeks ago and it’s not up yet. Ditto anxious.
  • While eating chocolate cake is good in and of itself, it neither cures anxiety nor writes chapters for you.
  • Neither does reading agents’ and publishers’ blogs and hanging out at writers’ colonies.
  • It’s time to channel the anxiety and take it where it needs to go: into Chapter 16 and the protagonist’s crisis.

Farewell, dear blog friends. I hope to return in paragraphs, free of anxiety and with Chapter 16 done and dusted.


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H is for Harry

I don’t usually go for  alternate realities in my own reading, but my imagination has been captured over the years by the triumverate of The Lord of the Rings, Mervyn Peake’s superb Gormenghast trilogy and the Harry Potter books. I so much loved the latter that I was quite keen to call my third child Harry, but my husband pointed out that Harry Otter is a rough name to live with. So he now has another, rather lovely, name which suits him perfectly, but there is a small part of me that mourns Harry.

I think part of Harry Potter’s universal appeal is that he is an orphan going it alone. Children respond to his ability to cope in an adult world and defeat a great evil. Personally, I just want to mother Harry. I really want to get him home, cook him a nice meal and talk about his day. I’d like to remind him to stop ignoring Ginny Weasley since she clearly is the girl for him and encourage him to listen to that nice Hermione and get on with his homework. I want him to open his eyes and see the good in Snape.

But I think it is more than that with Harry and me. You see, Harry Potter was my birth partner. Long-term blog readers may remember this, but for those who are new here, I’ll retell the story. One of my presents for my 32nd birthday, which is a week before Christmas, was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I wasn’t overly interested in the book, but I wanted to see what the fuss was about. Two days later, when I woke with birth pains and was directed by my doula to get straight into the bath and wait for her to arrive, I started to read it. Several cups of tea and some acute contractions later, I was hooked on Harry. The doula and my husband would pop their heads around the door now and then to check on me or bring me tea, and I’d wave them away, saying I was fine. I dived into Rowling’s world, subsumed myself in her detail, and came up occasionally to do some shallow panting. While I was going it alone in the bath with Harry, the doula gave everyone in the house foot massages.

When the pains finally grew more demanding than Hogwarts, I climbed out of the bath. By then – though we didn’t know it yet – it was far late to leave for hospital. My doula gave me a back massage, and I went to the loo. While I was there, baby coming down the birth canal, though I didn’t know that either, she sent my husband downstairs to put the suitcases in the boot and de-ice the windscreen. She knocked on the bathroom door and told me it was time to leave, and summoning the strength of Harry, I got off the loo, staggered to the door and croaked, “I can’t make it to the bloody DOOR, let alone the hospital!”

Reading my face for the first time, she said, “Put your hand in your pants and tell me what you feel.”

I followed instructions and replied, “I. can. feel. a. HEAD.”

Her surprise was not unlike that of Harry’s when Quirrell unwrapped his turban to reveal he was sharing head-space with Lord Voldemort. “Get on the bed!” she shrieked. Within seconds, my child was born. A few minutes later, my husband reappeared, ready to transport his pregnant wife to hospital, to be met with the news that he had a daughter.

Tucked up in bed with my gorgeous little baby, I finished Harry Potter and started the next one. My newborn’s nickname was Hufflepuff for her badger-like snuffling when she fed. After reading the series myself, I read it aloud to Hufflepuff’s big sister, and now that she is bigger I am reading it to her. Last night, we finished The Order of the Phoenix. Hufflepuff’s little brother sometimes listens in and he recently insulted his grandmother by telling her she was “as old as Neville Longbottom.” It wonderful to me that my kids love Harry as much as I do, since he is their literary uncle.

Maybe if we get a dog, we’ll call it Harry. As homage to our hero.


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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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F is for Fifteen

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Married fifteen years on 1 October 2009

Tomorrow we celebrate 15 years of marriage and to celebrate, I’m breaking with the memoir theme to give you Fifteen Things I Love About My Husband.

He:

1. Makes me laugh, and finds me funny.

2. Buys cleaning products, and uses them.

3. Is co-dependent in the book habit.

4. Not scared of the gory jobs – anything to do with toilets, vomit, dead animals, he’s the one.

5. Let me win at Scrabble twice this week.

6. Cherishes our family life.

7. Loves and keeps up with his friends.

8. Found me at least eight of my best girlfriends.

9. Enjoys answering questions like “What makes an aeroplane fly?” and “How many seconds are there in a week?”

10. Makes a salad with as much flair as he cooks a steak.

11. Does all the crafting so that I don’t have to.

12. Is a wonderful mixture of dreamy and practical.

13. Recovered our dining-room chairs in three hours last weekend.

14. Has to leave the room during key scenes of The Office.

15. Is more hot and handsome than he was when we got married.

I love you my darling. Thanks for all the years. You are my one and only.


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C is for Cowries

Cowries were the shells. We collected fans, mussels, spirals, sea-smoothed pebbles, chips of oyster, cuttlefish, lambs, interestingly formed driftwood, but we would exchange a whole day’s booty for just one cowrie. It had to be perfect – a chipped cowrie, or worse, a half, was like the unfulfilled promise of ice-cream; disappointing. We loved their heft, the heavy way they lay on our palms, their curved humpbacks, their chiselled parallel channel a river through which we could whistle a pirate air or summon a dolphin. Cowries, like their ancient use, were our beach currency, to be bartered, admired, competed for, battled over. If we spotted a cowrie churning in the shore-break, we would draw blood to be the first to snatch it. The winner would crow over the loser, taunt him or her, but the fight was soon forgotten in taut admiration of the new find. We noted colour, shape, smoothness, perfection of shell, like two ancient farmers discussing the qualities of a dairy cow.

The outright goal of a beach holiday was who collected the most cowries. There were three methods. The first, and most commonly employed, was taking a low-tide walk and examining what the high tide had delivered to the top of the beach. Like everything, this was competitive. We ran to be the first to get to the new dump of shells, and would scour it expertly for the telltale cowrie shape. Distracted by other finds in the mass, one might stay shifting through the layers and be rewarded while the other ran on, impatiently, to the next shell mound. Mocking laughter would drift to the one ahead if he or she left an unspotted cowrie in his or her wake. We would make our way across the beach, overtaking and leaving each other behind, like the crabs that occasionally goosed us, but subjecting the beach to a thorough inspection.

A less scientific but more rewarding method was the thrilling shell-wash, usually at mid-tide. This involved getting into the water and sifting with our toes and swiftly diving fingers in a wash of shells within the waves. A cowrie found tumbling in the water was a huge prize, involving screaming, inhaling sea water and then running up the beach to showcase it to the nearly indifferent adult who was with us. A better class of grown-up would join our excitement, but theirs never lasted as long as ours. Shell-wash cowries could produce thrills days and weeks later, as, back in our bedrooms at home, we’d turn them over and remember the salty triumph of intuition, of knowing that shape in the water.

A third method was taking a walk to a distant beach, where perhaps there were no cowrie-mad children like us and we could have them to ourselves. If we could make it beyond the far rocks, which we achieved perhaps once a holiday since we usually ran home for the loo or something to eat, then we were in foreign territory, a new, uncharted land where we believed mounds of cowries lay waiting for us. Once, accompanied by the uncle who roars at lions, we chanced on a shell-wash beyond the far rocks and found cowries beyond our wildest dreams. Accompanied by the smell of the sugar-cane mill that was drifting burnt sugar downwind, it was a throat-burning thrill, and my brother still has a giant tiger cowrie hauled from the sea that day.

He always won. Younger than me, he was less distracted by things like books, penning letters to friends and watching our parents’ marriage pick apart. He would go out for lonely walks. Our cottage perched on a hill above the beach, and I would watch him, wandering in a pattern that I knew was not random, occasionally lifting one arm in triumph to let me know he’d scored. Sometimes he would disappear round the corner, and I would hold my breath, not fearing for his safety, but worrying how many cowries he was finding unseen. On his return, I’d swallow my envy and admire his haul. Kindly, he allowed me to hold them, to weigh and measure and decide on the afternoon’s best shell. We offered each other our cowrie currency as comfort. It was our new language, an activity apart, one that kept us from the cottage and its atmosphere of loss. As the beach winds whipped our hair and made our skin salty, we were united against now and future pain. We watched for cowries, saw their humpbacks against our retinas at night, felt the heft of them in our dreams, counted our real and dream collections, and left our parents to the sticky business of unravelling our lives.


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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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A is for Africa

Africa defines me. It is my foundation and my firmament. When I write, I recall the smell of sugar-cane being milled, of rain on hot tar, of the spices on East Street, of the cold morning veld just before the sun rises. I remember the sound of the hadeda raucous in her brown housewife’s coat, the incessant chanting of the Christmas beetles, the crashing of lorry gears on Town Hill, the mynah birds greeting dusk in the trees of the Old Supreme Court, Zulu hymns at night. I think of lucky beans, bright drops of blood in their pods, yellow winter grass under the Drakensberg, and grey vervet monkeys picking off the chickens one by one like a suburban Mafia.

Africa is my past and my future. It winds through me like a dust road, spooling out memories that stop me in the civil tracks of my northern European life, memories that punch the gut.

For how can you ever leave a land where acacia trees spread out like table-tops for the giraffe? A land where beyond the rose garden zebra dot the hillside? A land of canyons and mountains, forests and plains, deserts and beaches that stretch beyond memory. A land of poverty, disease and war, where people laugh with their bodies, shout across streets to greet their friends and cook strangers the very best food in the house.

As a journalist, I visited women whose husbands had died in mine shaft collapses, I went to funerals, I visited crime scenes where there were still slicks of blood on the wall, I sat in hushed court-rooms and listened to people detail murder sentence by sentence. I hovered on the outskirts of demonstrations, visited townships made of tin and learned the rank smell of burnt flesh. But I found the hardness of Africa offset by its beauty, by the willingness of people to laugh and to party. That is the trade-off.

My personal trade-off is that I will educate my children in Europe. One day I hope to occupy a small corner of Africa again. A tiny bit will do, just a place where I can smell spices, see buck on the hillside, invite my friends in for laughter and food, see a bird whose name I know and trees whose leaves form the pattern of my childhood. I don’t live for that future, and neither do I live in my past, but both form a backdrop to the life I have now – a richly textured backdrop that makes me who I am. I am an African.

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I’m joining the challenge set by Courtney and City Wendy to work through the alphabet in short, memoir-like pieces. It’s called Alphabet: A History.