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Shades of grey

Jamie DornanTo my eternal shame, I was recently coerced into watching 50 Shades of Grey. O me, O my! Not my thing. But we had a couple of hours to kill and nothing else was showing in that time slot, so … the hours were dutifully killed. I woke up in a panic at the sound of thunder toward the end. Mercifully it was only in the movie and not outside (where 2000 endurance athletes were competing in Iron Man).

Why 50 shades? The action (or lack of it) was predictable to the point of being mind numbing. I spent most of the time speculating whether Jamie Dornan’s left eye is smaller than his right. Apparently he won’t be starring in any sequels (I understand his wife has put her foot down).

This brings me to the “Why” of this post: It’s my belief that it’s crucial that we hang onto the fact that life has a billion shades of grey. One of those shades here is that I’m envious of anyone who can write a bestseller, never mind get it made into a movie. Plus, I also fell asleep in Pirates of the Caribbean, so my state of consciousness might not be a good reflection of the depth of any screenplay.

Iron Man (going on outside while I was at the movies) is another shade of grey altogether. It’s a mind-blowing feat of endurance that lumps together athletes of all shapes and sizes, strengths and weaknesses in one incredible melting pot. There is one medal for all who complete the 3,8km sea swim, 180km cycle and 42km run within the cut-off times. All finishers earn the title “Iron Man”, no matter what state they’re in by the end.

Photo courtesy of Lava Magazine

Photo courtesy of Lava Magazine

What impressed me was the way Jodie Swallow (first woman to finish) came back during the final half-hour to hand out medals to athletes finishing in double her time. There’s someone who’s aware of “shades of grey”—who knows that every single finisher is a winner in their own right. Port Elizabeth, Mandela Bay, is also known as the Friendly City, and that spirit is only too evident during Iron Man. The spectators who line the route are there for everyone, not just their own friends and family. It’s their encouragement that helps many an athlete summon up the last scraps of courage to complete the course.

I did my bit of cheering. But this was also my holiday, so I think I was justified in doing a crossword or a Sudoku or two, eating junk food and watching a bad movie. How many newspapers are sold by virtue of their crossword or puzzle page? It’s certainly one way of getting people to read the news.

Photo courtesy of The Herald

Photo courtesy of The Herald

I was sad to see that PE’s old colonial monuments are under threat. Apparently people find them a too painful reminder of the past. That in this day and age Queen Victoria reminds anyone of anything besides Emily Blunt is a puzzle to me, but … shades of grey, again … let’s make allowances.

What I can’t understand is why anyone would want to tear down PE’s famous horse memorial. This is a monument of universal appeal, a life-size statue of a horse with a soldier kneeling at its feet, which actually commemorates all animals that die in our so-called service. The inscription round its base reads: “The greatness of a nation depends not so much upon the number of its people or its territory, as in the extent and justice of its compassion.” Worthy sentiments, well worth preserving. Whatever we may push to the back of our minds, let’s not ever forget those little acts of kindness that got us through the dark days. And still do: Shades of grey.

With friends like mine …

The main obstacle to self-publishing is the publicity. How do you hook people into reading your stuff? Way back in 2012 I was desperately trying all channels to publicize my book, Hillary’s Angel. An IT friend persistently told me to start a blog. Eventually, six months later, I did.

It was scary. Blogging didn’t come naturally at first, but one day I woke up with the realization that it had become a hobby — something I actually enjoyed. However, 18 months later I still have no way of knowing if it has helped sell any books. I tried unsuccessfully to get feedback from Amazon (at one stage there was a nifty chart on my Amazon author’s page, which sky-rocketed whenever I made a sale, but that was taken down for “upgrading” months ago and never replaced) and I’ve not had a whiff of a royalty from them to date.

The idea is (or, rather, MY idea is) that people who read my blog will think WOW I’d like to tuck into more stuff by this magnificent blogger and will then click on and download my Wonderful Book. Certainly I’ve really enjoyed several self-published books that I found on WordPress. Some great writing is not being published via the old-fashioned/conventional channels. In fact, it’s often better than the stuff in the bookstores (and a whole lot cheaper). But in my case I only have positive evidence that blogging has helped me sell one copy. 

In another way (ie not sales related) I do have concrete proof that blogging has helped me publish. Early on it connected me with another first-time self-publisher who was far more blog-literate than I was and incredibly supportive with no prospect of financial reward (which still amazes me). 

Indirectly, thanks to her encouragement, on 21 December I finally delivered another book. This time I published with Smashwords (following my blog-friend’s example) in ebook format only. This is SELF-PUBLISHING in the true sense of the word. Along with the (minimal) effort and the risks involved it has one major advantage: I can now tell exactly how many books I sell. This time around I’m not uploading to Amazon and I’m not asking folk to review me (if they do it will just be a bonus). So for me 2014 will be an honest experiment to see if blogging really DOES help self-publishers connect with readers.

That said, I can tell you what (in my experience) does NOT sell books. First and foremost, a book launch. Rubbish. I had a great party, but didn’t sell a single copy. In fact, if you asked my friends I don’t think they’d be able to tell you why we had the party in the first place. Secondly, book reviews. I had at least three four-star reviews but suspect I was the only one who read them. Next, bookshops. As a self-publisher I found it next to impossible to get bookstores to sell my books. (Another reason why I’m opting for ebook-format only this time round.) I sold three books at each of the two stores that very kindly put Hillary’s Angel on their shelves.  

Then we come to “friends and family”. All the publishing guidelines recommend that you do NOT give friends and family copies of your books. Thing is, they don’t tell you how to get these friends and family to buy their own copies. In the end I gifted copies to most of mine.

So what do I hope to achieve by the end of 2014 (apart from the obvious massive sales to all you supportive WordPress bloggers)? Well, firstly, I’m already deep into a Mills and Boone type romance (publish or perish) to be published anonymously. And secondly (and sadly) I’m thinking of awarding a special prize to my friends for the most inventive excuse for not buying my books. The list is growing daily. (And yep, that would be a book prize.)  

On a more serious note, so far I’ve sold two whole copies of my new book Upside Down. Both to family, who bought them solely in an attempt to “cheer me up”. One was bought by my daughter, who doesn’t read books anyway, and one by my husband when he heard I’d reduced the price to $1. No, these are not tears of joy …

Weekly photo challenge: Unexpected

We were looking for what we imagined was a country restaurant with a view. After a couple of U-turns and one kilometre too many eating dust behind cattle trucks, I finally spotted a sign: “The Lookout”.

Could that be it? A sturdy old gate with flaky white paint and a national monument badge on the gatepost hinted that it wasn’t. But we had come too far to be deterred by such minor details. Reluctantly my 93-year-old mother allowed herself to be unpacked from the car. The gate creaked in sympathy. As we carefully picked our way down the uneven, winding path, high bushes made it impossible to see more than a few meters ahead, so I went on alone to spy out the land.

I don’t know what I was expecting. Certainly not two graves, side by side: Sir Percy Fitzpatrick and his wife. And round the corner, Sir Percy’s bequest to the world — his favourite view of the Sundays River Valley, from this Lookout.

The Latin inscription is from Job 32:  "But it is the spirit in a person, the breath of the Almighty, that gives them understanding."

The Latin inscription is from Job 32:8 “But it is the spirit in a person, the breath of the Almighty, that gives them understanding.”


Today Fitzpatrick is remembered mainly for Jock of the Bushveld, which is based on the bedtime stories he told his four children. It was his friend, Rudyard Kipling, who persuaded him to publish them. Sadly Fitzpatrick’s eldest son died in France in 1917 and the other two died within a week of each other over Christmas 1927 – one in an accident in Johannesburg and the other of typhoid in Mexico. Only his daughter outlived him.

It was Sir Percy who prompted George V to proclaim at the end of World War I “that at the hour when the Armistice came into force, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, there may be for the brief space of two minutes a complete suspension of all our normal activities … so that in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead.”

But perhaps a man of Sir Percy’s sunny and optimistic nature would prefer to be remembered as a pioneer of South Africa’s citrus industry. I wonder if so many orchards of this sunshine fruit could be seen from his farm Amanzi in the 1920s.

Upside Down


Tell us about a time when you felt out of place.
Photographers, artists, poets: show us CONFUSION.


I wasn’t the only one to feel the confusion. Many people felt so out of place that they left the country. We all had mixed motives — those who stayed and those who left. No-one was motivated entirely by materialism or ideals, and sometimes it was simply a matter of survival. Some of us had no choice. We lived day to day, some hand to mouth. South Africa of the Apartheid years was a land of confusion alright.

My novel is an attempt to tell that story. It is set in a small South African town — a microcosm of the society as a whole as it lurched through a border war and liberation struggle. Today at least we are no longer confused. Our rainbow nation has been transformed by hope.

Cover design: Aria la Faye. Publication date: 21 December 2013. Publishers: Smashwords


Daily Prompt: Non-Regional Diction

Write about whatever you’d like, but write using regional slang, your dialect, or in your accent.

Photographers, artists, poets: show us LOCAL.


In a country with eleven official languages, I only know two and have barely a smattering of three others. I don’t even know Fanagalo, the pidgin Zulu used by South African miners.

In South Africa we don’t have dialects like the ones you find in, say, France and Germany, which are are almost separate languages in themselves. We just have colourful variations, like the Afrikaans typical of Cape coloureds and the fishermen of the Western Cape, which sounds like a fruit chutney you’d eat with pickled fish and babotie, or the Boland farmers’ distinctive pronunciation that goes better with bredies and potjiekos.
To a foreigner, the different varieties of English heard in South Africa aren’t nearly as distinctive as those spoken in Liverpool, Devon or Newcastle. But a South African ear immediately knows if someone grew up in Durban (my home town), Cape Town or Johannesburg. I admire the stand-up comics who use different South African accents. Last weekend I was delighted by two of Pieter-Dirk Uys’s favourites personas – Evita Bezuidenhout and the lesser known but equally memorable Noel Fine (now retired and living in Cape Town, but not beyond attending a school reunion in Toronto, thank you). It was one of his best shows ever (“Adapt or Fly”). His speciality is the English spoken in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs.
I can’t imagine TV English having the influence here that it does in America. I understand that it’s spreading a kind of generalised American accent, removing distinctions between north and south, urban and rural, or at least flattening out some of the more idiosyncratic differences as found in, say, the Brooklyn drawl. I find that sad, although it would make life easier for South African actors. (Charlize Theron aside, when most South Africans try to put on an American accent, we sound like Southern belles.)
You will have gathered by now that I’m not going to reproduce any SA dialects or accents here. Whether they are strong as coffee on a cold Karroo night, or bittersweet as the buchu herbs that scent our Garden Route, without a story to tell, I’m speechless.

Double trouble?

Daily Prompt: Food for the Soul (and the Stomach)
Tell us about your favorite meal, either to eat or to prepare. Does it just taste great, or does it have other associations?

Photographers, artists, poets: show us FOOD.

DO have some more, dearie!
No thank you!
Come on I KNOW you want some more!
No thank you …
But you end up with it on your plate anyway. Drives me mad, but it looks like I’m turning into one of them – those women with a compulsion to feed folk. Today, since I couldn’t fly over to the Philippines and feed the homeless, I settled for taking a veggie lasagne (my speciality) to a friend instead. Then I got home and started all over again with another batch for my family. (“Shame, hey” as we say in South Africa.) No, I’m not going to give you the recipe. (Actually, I don’t have a recipe.) BUT, today one of the ingredients was this cute little Siamese twin eggplant:
Which reminded me of this cute not-so-little Siamese twin carrot:
Which reminded me of a recent breakfast when every single one of six eggs in one box had a double yolk: DSC_7070
And, since I can’t give you a second helping (not that you’ve had a first helping) here’s a picture of my veggie lasagne instead (can’t help myself):

Fair Game


Daily Prompt: The Perfect Game
You’re set to play poker (or Scrabble or something else . . .) with a group of four. Write a story set during this game. Or, describe the ideal match: the players, the relationships — and the hidden rivalries.

Photographers, artists, poets: show us COMPETITION.

“She’s done it again,” Anne hissed to Mandy. They exchanged eyebrows as Steffy blissfully arranged her letters in the lower left hand corner of the scrabble board, nowhere near the game in play, so she could use a red triple word square.
“That’s not allowed!” Zoe shut her scrabble dictionary with a snap. “Not allowed. You have to connect your word to the others.” Although Zoe wagged her head and pursed her lips to prove her point, Steffy continued taking fresh letters out of the bag, a tremulous smile tugging gently at the corners of her mouth.
“She’ll still lose,” Mandy whispered to Zoe. “Don’t make a fuss.”
“Hmmf.” But Zoe went ahead with her multiple letter, high-scoring coup. “All the same. There are rules.”
“I’m thinking,” said Steffy.
“The sky will fall,” hissed Zoe.
“I’m thinking of having Botox.”
Mandy stopped mid-turn, her hand poised gannet-beaked above the board. “BoTOX,” she repeated, “The ‘tox’ stands for ‘toxic’. That’s poison to you and me.”
“There’s a woman across the road, three doors down, who does it,” Steffy continued, humming contentedly as she added more letters to her private game in the corner.
“It’s Mandy’s turn,” said Zoe loudly. But Mandy was spellbound, listening to Steffy.
“She does fillers and ‘peels’ too. What’s a peel?”
“They take off your old skin. I think it’s painful.” Mandy’s gannet plummeted. A neat a three-letter splat just where Anne was planning to go.
“Aw,” said Anne. “Bummer.”
“Stephanie, I’m not giving you a score until it’s your turn. And then only if you join your word to the others.”
“Why, Steffy?” Steffy patted Mandy’s beaked hand with her own freckled claw.
“Jeff says I’m not the woman he married. I want to change that.”
“Of course you’re not. That was ten years ago. AND he’s sixteen years younger than us.”
“You lucky devil” added Anne.
“I warned you at the time” said Zoe.
“It costs,” said Mandy. “And it doesn’t last. You need to keep doing it every three months.”
“Steffy’s got the money. Come to that, we’ve all got the money.” Mandy topped up their iced tea.
“Wealthy Widow Women.” Anne took every opportunity to remind them of her own special name for their gang, even though it had only been vaguely funny in the first place, and Steffy wasn’t and hadn’t been a widow for the last ten years.
“It’s your turn, Anne.” Zoe sipped her tea like it was poison. “This is warm, Mandy. Cold things must be cold. Put mine back in the fridge.” It was Mandy’s apartment, so she didn’t mind, but Zoe would have acted the same at her own place round the corner. They just did her bidding. It was easier. Except for Steffy, of course.
Anne added an ‘s’ to Zoe’s word, which led to an argument about the score.
“B…O…T…O…X…” Steffy placed her letters over another triple word square.
“That’s a proper noun! And a trade name! You can’t do that.” Zoe swept the letters off the board.
“This is meant to be a friendly game” protested Anne, “So we don’t need rules.”
“Don’t need rules? Don’t need rules?”
“Tell you what,” said Mandy, tipping the board so that all the letters slid into a heap, “What d’you say we take a little walk across the road to the Botox lady and find out a bit more?”
Steffy opened her purse and took out her lipstick, and Anne grabbed her walker.
“I’m game!” she said.
Only Zoe frowned her disapproval. “Perfect,” she said, “Just perfect.” But she was gathering up her things all the same.


Daily Prompt: Intense!

Describe the last time you were surprised by the intensity of a feeling you had about something, or were surprised at how strongly you reacted to something you thought wouldn’t be a big deal.


I am home.
Look! Familiar flowers
suddenly far too vibrant
to cram into
my astonished lens.


Is my cover blown?

washing line
On the verge of publishing an ebook, I am deciding on an image for my cover. I had this vision of exactly what I wanted. Until today.

Someone forwarded me an email about washing/clothes lines and it’s made me rethink. (See picture, if you are puzzled by this apparent anachronism of modern life.) Apparently washing lines have become redundant, just like typewriters, fountain pens that don’t use cartridges, diningrooms, handkerchiefs and Christmas cards. According to this email, people now prefer to use dryers, even in sunny South Africa. I must be the only person in the world who still spends evenings ironing in front of the TV. Perhaps next time I need a new iron they will be as difficult to find as bottled ink. Perhaps those clothes pegs they sell in supermarkets are only meant for closing bags of cereal and catfood, and not for hanging out clothes at all.

My book is set in the past, covering the period 1954 to 1994, during South Africa’s Apartheid years. It is called “Upside Down”, alluding to reports that interrogation officers at John Vorster Square dangled suspects upside down from a high window until they confessed, as well as the topsy-turvy state of society at that time.

What better image, I thought, than a washing line strung with paper dolls, black and white, to give the impression of the chaos and loss of control experienced by my characters. But now I’m having second thoughts. Even if washing lines were in use during the period covered by my book, what does it help to use one in my cover design if readers can’t relate to or, worse still, are puzzled by the image I hope to project?

The good news is that I think I’ve found the perfect designer to do the cover: She’s young and talented so I can trust her instincts. The bad news is that I still need to find the artwork and I’ve lost faith in my vision. Here’s the poem that did it:

A clothesline was a news forecast
To neighbours passing by,
There were no secrets you could keep
When clothes were hung to dry.
It also was a friendly link
For neighbours always knew
If company had stopped on by
To spend a night or two.

For then you’d see the “fancy sheets”
And towels upon the line;
You’d see the “company table cloths”
With intricate designs.
The line announced a baby’s birth
From folks who lived inside,
As brand new infant clothes were hung
So carefully with pride!

The ages of the children could
So readily be known,
By watching how the sizes changed
You’d know how much they’d grown!
It also told when illness struck
As extra sheets were hung;
Then nightclothes, and a bathrobe too,
Haphazardly were strung.

It also said, “On vacation now”
When lines hung limp and bare.
It told, “We’re back!” when full lines sagged
With not an inch to spare!
New folks in town were scorned upon
If wash was dingy and gray,
As neighbours carefully raised their brows
And looked the other way.

But clotheslines now are of the past
For dryers make work much less.
Now what goes on inside a home
Is anybody’s guess!
I really miss that way of life,
It was a friendly sign
When neighbours knew each other best…
By what hung on the line.

Gently Spring

Biedouw Valley

Biedouw Valley

May all your Springs be gentle,
softly tracing shades of green.
Never forcing, only coaxing
tiny blossoms in-between
last year’s foliage, mellow memories,
always feeding from your dream,
delving deep beneath soil’s darkness
to a cool, reviving stream.