Monday, 29 January 2007

Zulus' Champion Killed

David Rattray, 48, was shot at his lodge in KwaZulu-Natal on 26 January 2007: what a shock. Rattray, whose lodge lies between the battlefields of Isandhlwana and Rorke's Drift, was not only an expert on the Anglo-Zulu wars but was an outspoken champion of the Zulu people. Allegedly, it was Zulu's that killed him.

Charles White, 46, was killed at the Battle of Isandhlwana on 22 January 1879, when the Zulus defeated the British. Charles White was my great-grandfather. Immediately afterwards the Zulu fighters attacked the British at Rorke's Drift - made famous in the film Zulu with Michael Caine - and the British were victorious (by the skin of their teeth). Is it any coincidence, I wonder, that Rattray was killed so close to the anniversary of these events.

For some time time I've promised myself a visit to the Zulu battlefields: there are cairns to mark where brave British and Zulu soldiers died and a memorial with - among many - the name of my great-grandfather on. It was at David Rattray's lodge that I wanted to stay: his tour that I wished to be on.

Fortunately, I did meet Rattray in October 2005 to hear him talk about the battles and what an experience that was. He was the most marvellous raconteur and, although seated in a very English school hall, his passionate story telling made us all feel that we were there, on the battlefield of Isandlwana, in the thick of it: one could almost feel the heat, the tiredness, the boredom and then taste the frustration and awful fear. The stirring account - interspersed with words and clicks of the Zulu language - moved many of us to tears.

And Rattray went to great lengths to impress on his audience that the Zulus had not wanted a war: they had not been the perpetrators. But, at the Battle of Isandhlwana, their tactics were far superior to those of the ill-equipped and badly managed British troops.

My forbear, Charles White, left India and the British Army and retired to South Africa. Like many gentlemen he became a colonial volunteer and joined the Natal Mounted Police (NMP). But then he made his big mistake: he volunteered to join the British forces to go up country to Zululand. The courageous NMP were some of the last to fall at one of the most humiliating defeats in British military history.

White's daughter, my grandmother, was born two months after he died. It was in their honour that I took the pen name of White (in place of Alexander) when I wrote A Little Blue Jacket based on her life. Set in South Africa in the early 1900s, the character Ursula has overcome her prejudices: "She knew now that the Zulu impi were herdsmen and only part-time soldiers, and that they were simply defending their land against the British." They were brave men.

Which is a great deal more than can be said of the men who killed David Rattray.


Sunday, 21 January 2007

Winter's the New Spring

Winter's the new spring: well, it seems so here. We've had days of very wild weather - gale-force winds and driving rain - but the climate is still so mild that the plants think it's spring.

Whether designing gardens or writing about them I like to encourage the use of scented plants in the garden. Especially around doorways and especially in winter; it's often all we see of the garden when the weather is bad.

Outside my front door at the moment I'm greeted by the most wonderful fragrances: a large untidy shrub of winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) and a small neat one of Christmas Box (Sarcococca confusa)are so covered in blossom that the air is laden with scent. (And covered with bees - their clocks are up the creek)

The scent dominates the more discreet perfume of the pale mauve iris (I.ungularis) that bloom below them. Their leaves looked so tatty before Christmas (and so similar to grass) that I nearly dug them up. Luckily, I'm not only a fair-weather gardener but a lazy one too. Result: iris in flower.

By the back door clumps of golden winter aconites are open, accompanied by purple violets; the one such a cheery sight, the other so charming. The aconites I expect at this time of year but violets - don't they know it's January. And those pesky weeds are still growing, darn it.

Above them are the strongly scented sulphur-yellow racemes of mahonia - the blue tits love them - and nearby the battlement of pyracantha is covered in orange berries; no scent but such a vibrant colour. It's also a favourite refuge for the blackbirds, enough provisions for any siege an added bonus.

But beside them what will be deliciously perfumed narcissi and daffodils are showing through; six weeks early at least. I like my seasons to be distinct: I want snowdrops in January, crocus in February, daffodils in March. Then I'm ready for spring: bluebells and tulips. The same with the shrubs. I love warm weather but enough is enough: bring on the snow.


Wednesday, 17 January 2007

Ancestors on Board

Very exciting developments for those of us who want to track any of our ancestors who emigrated from Britain to start a new life in the colonies at the turn of the last century.

Last week passenger lists became available on the website giving details of those who left by ship between 1890-1899 and I hope it won't be long before the next tranche (possibly upto 1914) is available.

To date I've only managed to trace registration of my grandfather's birth online (born London 1881) but could verify little else about him. His family had emigrated from Poland a generation or so before and he (with some siblings) emigrated in turn: to South Africa in 1902.

When further details become available online I should be able to find out (armed only with his surname) from which port he embarked, on which ship, in which class and with whom.

As the old Board of Trade records can reveal (in some cases) such details as passenger's employment, adresses, etc I may find even more sources of information available to me. Fingers crossed. This is fascinating stuff for those who are interested in tracing their forebears but also for those whose interest is in migration and even social change.

If you're lucky enough to find records about your family on this database please do let me know. And the next time you curse your computer for its many frustrations stop for a second and mull over the wonders of the world wide web.


Saturday, 6 January 2007

Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night, next to Epiphany, the phrase always brings to mind Shakespeare. My mind is on plays at the moment because I've recently watched the film version of 'The Importance of Being Ernest; what a wonderfully camp one it was too. Rupert Everett was absolutely spot on as Algie - very Oscarish - but I felt that Colin Firth (who played Ernest), yummy as he is, is more suited to an Austen character than a Wilde one. Of course, as Lady Bracknell Judi Dench (who was magnificent) had all the best lines.

And Lady Bracknell's wonderful put-downs reminded me of a writer I like: Dorothy Parker. Now she may not be everyone's favourite - because her wit could be caustic and her comments cynical if not downright sarcastic - but I should so like to have the speed of her riposte and wit of her repartee. And Parker was a master of irony.

Here is a poem that she wrote entitled 'Oscar Wilde':
If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

Her humour is still thoroughly modern but, like Oscar Wilde, Parker could also be succinct (no wasted words in her writing) and generate pathos when she wanted. She was a very talented writer indeed but you wouldn't want her for an enemy and I can only imagine that she must have been Hell to live with.

My favourite short story of hers is 'A Telephone Call' (very Bridget Jones) because it says it all without saying it at all. If you too like Parker please do let me know of your favourite story or poem. Or perhaps you particularly like her quips - some of them could be stingers.

Have fun and Happy New Year.