Sunday, March 23, 2014

Exhibit A

Have you ever been a museum exhibit? No? I guessed not. Well, I have. In fact I am much of the time, the reason being that I have for some years lived in a place that is part of a very large outdoor museum.

Perhaps I should also mention that the Oude Haven where I have my barge is the centre of social life in Rotterdam as well as a museum harbour, so it has a couple of tourist hotels very close by. What happens as a result is that coaches head straight for the harbour to offload their human and other baggage before parking up in the street along the quayside for the night.

This means that we often have the pleasure of putting on a performance for the very large groups of visitors  who gather right in front of the boats, many of whom are fascinated by these old vessels and even more intrigued by the motley collection of humanity (their idea, not ours) that seems to congregate on board.

Doing what we normally do: deck washing

These performances are not official - or even arranged. They just happen as we go about our normal business of deck washing, painting and regular maintenance. Okay, sometimes Koos has put on a show of being 'the man at work'. He has been known to trek to and from the yard with miscellaneous planks of wood, some of which have needed attention, but more often because he likes the attention himself.  For the most part, though, we just do what we normally do, which seems to generate intense interest from those above us (or below, depending on the tide).

Well, to get back to the story, I was sort of aware of all this when I moved to the Oude Haven in 2001, but I didn't realise the real implications at the time. The problem only became one when I bought my barge, the Vereeniging, and moved on board. Actually, it wasn't even then. It was when after moving on to the barge, there were a few changes to the boats' arrangements, and I ended up at the end of the row of 'museum exhibits' that lined the quay.

This was when I suddenly became Exhibit A, not only for reasons of historic charm (the barge's, not mine), but because I was also in an ideal spot from which to take photos of another of Rotterdam's most famous art exhibits - the Cubist Houses.

The Cubist Houses in the background

So this is how it came to happen that one morning I opened my trap - sorry hatch - to find a whole group of Japanese photographers making their way down my gangplank and taking up photography poses on my foredeck with their latest and greatest Canons and Nikons.

Granted, I have a very large foredeck. It can hold at least twenty tightly squeezed photographers of small stature including their tripods and photographic gear. But what I wasn't prepared for was their complete lack of awareness that there was anyone living on board, or indeed, anyone inside the boat at all.

The gangplank: Maximum three persons!
And my capacious foredeck

Now as you probably all know, our friends from the east are extremely courteous and become easily embarrassed by any suggestion that they have inconvenienced you. So the image of twenty of these lovely people with both shutters and mouths open in suspended animation as I emerged from my depths with Sindy in tow was a sight I wish I'd been able to capture myself.

Sindy of course barked, and the moment was broken; the shutters and mouths clacked closed and my twenty visitors, not knowing whether to bow in apology or collect up their gear and scram, scurried back up the gangplank with much vocal, if incomprehensible, dismay. Given that said gangplank is only supposed to carry a maximum of three people at a time, the consequent bending and straining of the steel as at least ten of them crowded onto it had me in suspended animation, or rather inhalation, instead.

Luckily nothing gave way and they all made it safely to shore, but I realised then I would have to make some kind of 'keep out' system.

In fairness to the tourists, our barges are supposed to maintain the exterior image and profile of working cargo boats, so I cannot really blame them for thinking there is no one home, but it is a trifle disconcerting to be the object of such interest, and even more to be regarded as a handy platform for other pursuits. We've had them all: drunken students, courting couples and avid historians are the most frequent. But since old boats are supposed to represent good luck, we often have bridal parties taking up poses along the gangplank for the regulation wedding photos. This can be somewhat tricky if you are on your way to work and can't get off the boat because the bride in all her finery is draped across your exit.

So there it is: another aspect of harbour life that hasn't made it into my books. Still, having now published both Watery Ways and Harbour Ways about the Oude Haven, maybe I should save these blog posts for a collection of Watery Blogways!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

What I really meant to talk about at ABC in Amsterdam

This afternoon, I was at the Meet My Book event in Amsterdam's American Book Center. It was a very pleasant and easy going occasion and I shared the floor with Simon Woolcott, a well-known Amsterdam blogger, who has written an intriguing book about Dating the Dutch. His blog is here. The two of us were presented by professional presentation coach and author, David Beckett, a charming, relaxed host who put us all at ease immediately. I had of course prepared a speech (as you do), but as chance (or luck) would have it, I didn't say a word of it - except the first few lines, which are really true. I did have an awful dream last night about just what I've described (see below). But instead of following my speech, I just launched in with my usual aimless babble, so to give you an idea of what I actually meant to say, I've posted my 'speech' below, accompanied by some photos (and after thoughts) of the real thing:

"Last night I dreamt there were just three people here and one of them spent the whole time talking on his mobile phone. There were also no books in the shop and no one knew where mine were either, so I'm very relieved to be here with you all in this very real shop crammed full of books!" I think you might say that was a nightmare…

David Beckett - a lovely, 'put you at ease' gentleman

"Since I've lived here in the Netherlands, I've published five books, but this afternoon, I just want to introduce you to two of them. Cheeky, I know, since I was asked to talk about just one, but I need to mention the first to make sense of the second. These two books, Watery Ways and Harbour Ways are memoirs about my initiation into living on a boat in Rotterdam, a perfectly normal thing to do if you are Dutch, but a very different way of life for someone who came here from the dry expanses of South Africa." That it was, and probably the only thing that made life bearable in a land of grey skies while I was longing for blue ones!

Doing my thing - now I can't remember what that thing was!

"I arrived here in December 2000 from a hot South African summer to a very cold Dutch winter, and my first move was to rent a barge with no plumbing, no heating and no electricity in the Oude Haven in Rotterdam, a harbour dedicated to the restoration of historic barges. This is where my rather different and entertaining life began and this is what I wrote about in the first of these two books, Watery Ways. The book opens with the statement "The first thing you learn when you live on a boat is that an awful lot of stuff is going to end up in the water." And it did: brass door handles, mobile phones, buckets, jerry cans, you name it!

"Watery Ways follows the first year of my liveaboard life and ends with the point at which I bought my own historic barge in December 2001, an event that brought a whole new phase of life with it.

Why did I write it? Well, as I've said, I came here after living in South Africa where there is very little surface water and no one would ever consider living on a boat. I was so impressed by this way of life, I think I probably saw it as few others did and I wanted to give my perspective on what makes it so special." I still find it impressive!

"Since I published Watery Ways, many people have asked what happened next once I got my own barge. The fact is that I spent the next two years converting it for living on. At first, I didn't think this would make much of an interesting book; everything took so long, there were so many delays and frustrations with building my bathroom (just as an example). When I bought it, I'd already spent a year with no bathroom at all, and it took me another year and a half to get one. Then I realised this was the story - because it happened with everything I did. So, the first statement in this second book is "There are two things you learn when you live on a boat: the first is that is that an awful lot of things are going to end up as sacrificial offerings to the water gods; the second is that everything you plan for your boat's maintenance takes three times longer than you think it will." Actually, I underestimated that - it takes ten times longer.

"Harbour Ways follows the first two years of my barge conversion and tells the story of how I make my own home from an old and very rusty empty hull. The process itself was full of entertainment for my family and friends (I didn't find it all so amusing at the time, but I can see the funny side now), so readers will learn about how I imagined things would go compared to how they really did go - quite often a different story altogether. This process is of course interspersed with other events, as well as a few trips and travels by barge, so it's not all about building and construction. A year in the Oude Haven has its own entertainment as well." It definitely does, when you have a Koos, a Philip, a Frits and a dog called Sindy!

Answering a few questions

"The main story ends with the day I learn to 'drive' my own barge during a wonderful trip through the tiny canals of the Rotterdam Ringvaart. That felt like the right place to stop the book as by that time, I'd done most of the conversion and achieved my goal of having a home I could take with me if I wanted to move somewhere else. There is an epilogue which brings the reader more or less up to the present day in a series of short mini-chapters, but the real story ends in 2004." That was a special year and a precious one.

"These two books make up the background of how and why I came to stay in the Netherlands, something I didn't really plan to do. My dream was actually to go and live in France. These days that dream is still there, but now it's about taking my liveaboard home and cruising in France for a couple of years. After that, I'll probably come back to the Netherlands and write another book about those experiences before slipping with suitable eccentricity into old age." Which I intend to do with no grace whatsoever…now, where's that bottle of red wine?

A kind customer with one of my books

Monday, March 10, 2014

My writing process

One of my favourite social media friends is the lovely Lisa Tenzin-Dolma, a writer, musician, singer and dog psychologist. Last week, she was asked to write a blog on her writing process as part of a blog tour. You can find her post here. Many of her books are about dog behaviour and training, but she also writes fiction as well as lyricis. Given her experience and credentials as a published author, I was very pleased and excited to be asked to take the baton of the blog tour and answer the same questions here. There are only four questions, but I had to think about them for quite a time, so read on for my mental musings on My Writing Process:

What am I working on?

Actually (says she with slight shame), I'm not writing anything right at the moment, but I plan to start a new book in the next week as the urge to take up the proverbial pen is becoming pretty irresistible. As I've just published a book, I've been in a bit of a lull, but any of you who have read my last post will be able to see the ideas that have been swirling around in my head. I'm pretty sure now that I'm going to write the Belgium memoir first because it will go easily with the thesis I am writing.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Good question! Since I write both fact and fiction, my books differ from each other anyway, but that said, I think my memoirs might differ from others because I focus on the characteristics of the people I live among and my attempts to become a part of their world. This is especially the case with Watery Ways and Harbour Ways, which tell the story of how I came to be part of a very special community of boat dwellers here in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and my efforts to integrate. I think the setting itself is what makes these books different from others of the same genre. Most other 'boat' memoirs are set in France and are about travelling the French canals. Mine are about life in a unique Dutch 'village'. As to my fiction, one is a period novel also set on the Belgian waterways and the other is a humorous look at a girl trying to be self-sufficient and is set in the wilds of Dorset.  It's hard to say what makes them different as I couldn't really classify either of them neatly as being part of a specific genre. Suffice to say, I write the sort of books I personally like to read!

Why do I write what I do?

I write the memoirs because I need an outlet for my observations and also the for funny situations I've found myself in over the years. I love to laugh and to be able to share that with my readers too. My first book, African Ways, was inspired by reading Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence. His descriptions of the lovely Freanch folk who helped him with his house renovations reminded me of the equally lovely African folk I lived with on a farm in South Africa. I've been lucky enough to move around quite a bit in my life and I've met the most amazing people, so my memoirs are really about them as much as they're about me. In fact, my fiction serves much the same purpose. The Skipper's Child is based on my partner's youth as the son of a commercial barge skipper. It is not his story, but the plot is interwoven with anecdotes he has told me about his childhood on the waterways. My other novel, How to Breed Sheep, Geese and English Eccentrics (see sidebar), was written as a way of using anecdotes and observations from my own youth when I tried my hand at smallholding in England's west country. All the incidents concerning the animals Maisie (the book's heroine) collects and keeps are true, and quite a number of the human characters are based on observations about people I knew when I was young.

How does your writing process work?

Well, firstly, I never write anything by hand. I never have, except when I was at school and university. As soon as I could work out how to use an electric typewriter, I started typing stories. Then when I got my first computer (an old DOS) at home, I started writing short stories and radio plays. I wouldn't know where to start writing long hand, I really wouldn't. I think I'd never get further than a few pages as there would be so much crossed out and moved around, I'd never figure out what I was trying to say!

Largely speaking, I chew things over in my head for a long time before I start writing, but quite often, I only have the skeleton of the idea when my fingers touch the keys. Most of the time, that's enough for me to get going. I find it quite easy to get into the situation my characters land themselves in, so the stories generally flow quite easily - for the first draft, anyway. The editing takes much, much longer, especially for my novels. I nearly always have to re-write the beginning of my books completely. I think this is because my fictional characters always change a bit as I write, so by the end, they are not really the same people as they were when I started. As for my memoirs, the beginnings are always a bit of a fumble to get the right 'voice' the first time, so they need re-working to make them consistent with the voice that has developed later.

The memoirs usually take about a year to write, edit and produce, but the novels have taken much longer. My Eccentrics took two and a half years - not a speedy process. But that doesn't bother me. I love the process of writing what I hope is a strong story, so time is not an issue. I'm always a bit sad to finish writing a book as I have so much fun with them. The novels often go off in directions I am not expecting, so both mine have been adventures for me too.  The editing and proofreading is the hard part, but even more important in a way - just not as enjoyable as the creative part!

Thanks again to Lisa for inviting me to do this, and I hope you've enjoyed this glimpse into my writing process. Next week, I'm handing the baton on to Jo Carroll, whose lovely blog Over the Hill is the window on to her beautiful lyrical travel books.

If what I've said has interested you and you'd like to get a taste of what I've written, click on the links in the side bar and have a read of the preview sections available

Saturday, March 01, 2014

A writing lull

I'm not writing anything for myself at the moment. It feels pretty strange as I can't remember the last time I wasn't working on a book. But now Harbour Ways is out and feeling its way into the world, I have a Masters thesis to write and finish, so I'm trying to resist the temptation to get started on another book. That said, I don't know if I'll be able to resist the temptation for very long! 'Tis a terrible urge, it is!

So on that subject, Chris Hill's asked me on his blog this week if I would write another book about the harbour, and my answer was a probable no. However... that doesn't mean I'm going to stop writing about the waterways world! I still have a couple of ideas in mind that I want to develop.

The first is a second Skipper's Child book, only this time about Arie's sister, Jannie. It won't be a sequel, but it will be about the same family. I'm very, very interested in knowing what it was like to be a girl growing up on a barge. It must have been pretty difficult a lot of the time, so I'm looking for stories from skipper's daughters as background. That might take me some researching and interviewing, though.

The other idea is to write about our experiences of life in Belgium where we've spent a good few years of weekending on and off. I had a barge there once too (some of you might remember my mentioning that). As and when I write this, it will be a sort of Wallonia Ways, but more like my first book African Ways in that it will be a collection of individual accounts rather than the ongoing story of the Rotterdam pair.

Then I have another idea for a novel set in South Africa (I know..the old brain box never stops grinding away). This one is quite well developed in my head already, so it might just get written first. I don't know. I'm going to South Africa for a week at the end of this month, and I'm hoping to immerse myself in the atmosphere of the country again. I might even get to the area where I want to set my novel; better still, I hope I can take a train ride just to re-live that kind of journey again. I'm looking forward to it so much, I can hardly wait.

For the time being, though, I have a big paper to finish on second language teaching, so I need to knuckle down and get that done.

For now, here are some photos of South Africa I took during my last visit when I went to Postmasburg in the Northern Cape province. Just a (tantalising, I hope) glimpse of the background setting to my novel.

Buck in the veld - always a beautiful sight

Typical dirt roads

Yep, that was me, cycling to the Burning Sands of the Kalahari

Can you believe that's a nest?

On the road home. Mo and I got a bit lost and ended up dirt tracking