Sunday, 24 June 2007

Beowulf and Boy's Own

We groupies were all very nervous and none too enthusiastic with our June Book Group choice – one bright spark suggested we read Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf: could we do justice to an Anglo-Saxon epic that is a set university text to challenge the best of boffins.

We need not have worried: here was Raiders of the Lost Ark crossed with the best Boy's Own story. Hrothgar, King of the Danes, was in a bit of a pickle because the nasty Grenfel (it's mentioned that he's a descendent of Cain so you get the message) was terrorizing his kingdom.

Beowulf, Scandinavian prince and Germanic warrior, sails over from south Sweden with some of his men to help him out. But Unferth – one of Hrothgar's warriors – is envious of Beowulf, strongest of the Geats, and has a swipe at him: Beowulf is no wimp and retaliates.

The very next day Beowulf is off and mortally wounds Grenfel with his bare hands. We're all treated to a little reminiscence: the legend of Siegmund slaying a dragon. Beowulf cuts off Grenfel's claw and carries it off to show King Hrothgar: he gets royally rewarded (lots of alliteration in Beowulf) and feted and at this celebration we hear the Song of the Finns.

Unfortunately (or fortunately if you're into myths) Grenfel's mum comes to avenge her son's death and kills Hrothgar's most trusted friend: Beowulf, hero that he is, rides off in search with a sword no normal man could wield.

In a cave under a lake he breaks the she-trolls neck and finds the dead Grenfel. He cuts off the dead demon's head with the sword the shaft of which immediately melts with the heat of the monster's blood: all very gory but excellent material for an epic.

Beowulf returns to the grateful Hrothgar with Grenfel's head and the encrusted hilt of the sword: soon he sails home to the land of the Geats with a pile of goodies for his King. Eventually Beowulf inherits the kingdom and rules for fifty years in peace and harmony. Until, that is, some stressed Dane helps himself to some loot from a dragon's lair.

The angry dragon wreaks fire and brimstone on the Danes: again Beowulf – with eleven warriors - sails to help. He knows his destiny is to finish the dragon off but that his fate will be to die too. He does manage to wound the dragon but finds his sword will not kill the beast: ten of his warriors retreat but brave Wigluf helps him.

Between them they kill the dragon but Beowulf is fatally wounded. He asks Wigluf to show him the dragon's treasure before he dies: a pyre is built for Beowulf and the treasure is buried with him in his barrow. Good has nevertheless triumphed over evil.

Yes, it's a jolly good tale, listened to over the centuries around many a camp fire –feuds, bravery, loyalty and fate all play their part. But of course there's a lot more to it than that. The poem is a prime example of the oral Germanic tradition – all myth and legend - and we learn what life was all about then. Read aloud the narrative is powerful, beautiful and very moving but must be even more so in the original Anglo-Saxon.

The poem starts and finishes with ceremonies for the brave dead but the structure is not straightforward. Surprisingly it's not so very different from the time shift found in many novels of today: for example the legends of Siegmund and the Finns are slotted into the narrative and past and present intermingle.

Inaccuracies of events and exaggeration of feats and character's abilities make the stories believable and these devices have been used throughout the centuries in all folk stories. We only have to look at the tales of Robin Hood to be reminded of that.

Those of us who finished the book thoroughly enjoyed it and those who did not were so enthused with the discussion that they pledged to do so. We were so glad to have tackled what we had imagined was, if not a chore, then a challenge and to have found it a pleasure: our bright spark was transformed into an enlightened groupie, if not a total visionary.

So anyone can read Beowulf, nothing to worry about, the poem is simply brilliantly imaginative Boy's Own stuff: enjoy it.


Book Note: JRR Tolkien was born in Blomfontein, South Africa in 1892 but came to live in England in 1895. In 1936 he was made Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University.

His books, The Hobbit (1937) and Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954-56), are both tales about mythical creatures (elves, wizards, dwarfs, dragons and orcs) and their legendary past.

Tolkein wrote his critique Beowulf and the Invention of Myth in 1938, shortly after The Hobbit was published, and parallels are frequently drawn between his works and Beowulf.

In all three texts characters shape future legend, past and present are interconnected , there is the same form or structure with inset narratives and, in both, characters exaggerate the deeds of their protagonists.

Be this as may, it was Tolkien's contention in Beowulf and the Invention of Myth that scholars and students should cast aside all previously complicated, high-brow ideas about the poem Beowulf and simply view it as a work of imagination.

Sunday, 17 June 2007

Cape Town Here I Come

This week-end is the Cape Town Book Fair and, not surprisingly, my thoughts are there along with my novel, A Little Blue Jacket, even if I'm not: mind you, the environs of Cape Town are so beautiful that it's not a difficult place to dream oneself into.

Writing the book - which is based on my grandmother's young adult life – I was very keen to get not only my historical and geographical facts right but also to imbue the novel with a real sense of place.

So to address the last two in particular I did a lot of walking in Cape Town and, whilst Best Beloved heroically drove where indicated, I photographed all the places my grandmother and therefore my protagonists lived, worked or visited.

Although set a hundred years ago, a reader will still be able to recognise the streets that my characters tread: many of the civic buildings still stand in Adderley Street and Long Street – a little tattier now but improving - is as eclectic as ever.

In the 1900s the balconies of the buildings with their decorative ironwork, the wide avenues and squares, the public gardens of Cape Town were redolent of other coastal towns across the globe - whether Melbourne, Boston, Amsterdam or Bournemouth.

Cape Town was an amalgam of architectural styles – Cape Dutch, colonial, Victorian – and along with it was a very cosmopolitan population. Greek, Polish, Portuguese, British, Dutch, Huguenot, Malay, African, Indian – you name it – they were there.

Many were there as manual workers, others as administrators or in military service; some were fleeing pogroms or came looking for a new and exciting life. The list goes on but all appreciated the extraordinary beauty of the Cape landscape and the mildness of the climate.

Fewer, like my grandmother, were born in the Cape: one such elderly lady who still lives in Cape Town read the book when it first came out and told me that it described exactly what it was like when she was a girl. She was thrilled with the memories it evoked and I was thrilled to think that my parents had recalled things correctly and my research had paid off.

However, she then told me how she remembered the old man who kept his cow on Green Point Common. Every morning she had walked there with a pail, he had milked the cow, and back home she had tottered with the milk.

I did wonder how many bugs and dust ended up in the milk and whether much of it got home at all but I was also a bit disappointed: if I'd known such a charming local detail it could have been incorporated somewhere in my book.

But that's what happens with research: you finish an article (admittedly editing out much and using only a tiny percent of material) and send it off just to find a really fascinating, useful or essential piece of information. Fortunately, the effect of most articles is fleeting and not there too long to frustrate with omissions or embarrass with any errors.

With a book it's much worse: words or phrases you'd like to correct or improve on will sit there on the page, a taunt forever. A good editor can really help but nowadays this service is not always extensive: which is why many authors spend as much time re-working and checking facts themselves as actually writing.

When I started writing A Little Blue Jacket – over five years ago – I almost exclusively used books, libraries and contemporaneous sources when researching: since then the amount of information available online has increased a thousand fold.

Now I can use the internet to check all sorts or unrelated or obscure facts: I can ask a question of someone on the other side of the world before I make a coffee and have an answer before I've had time to drink it.

But it's only a quick and handy tool: my reference books sit there on the shelf behind me, always to hand, not reliant on electricity or time zones. And, of course, as I start my next book it's essential that I visit the setting for a little on site research: what a stroke of luck that it will start in Cape Town.


Sunday, 10 June 2007

Open Day

I'm rather keen on 'open days': not the sort that show you what a school is like but rather the sort that allow you to see what's entailed in an unusual occupation or life-style.

The services have always had open days: on such days the army allow their tanks to be clambered over, the fire brigade lets kids - big and small - into the cab and the Royal Navy invites the public to explore frigates - or go down into a submarine – that are in harbour.

Visiting ships as a child was always very exciting – running up and down the ladders, peering through portholes, fiddling with periscopes - and I think my siblings and I did get an inkling of what is must be like to live on a ship.

And 'open days' are as popular as ever: today is Open Farm Sunday. Leaf (Linking Environment And Farming) and the RSPB (The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) have encouraged farmers to open their gates to give the public a chance to find out what modern farming is all about.

Over 350 farms are in the scheme, ranging from arable farms and growers to livestock breeders and farmed reserves. Its aim is to give visitors a really good time and in doing so show how farming and conservation can go hand in hand.

Farmland birds have declined enormously in the quarter of a century and many small mammals are endangered: cutting hedges after nesting is an obvious way to increase the bird population, leaving a grass margin around cultivated fields allows wildlife to flourish and using the minimum of pesticides and fertilizers ensures that wildlife is affected as little as possible.

Hedges, verges and tree lined fields – as opposed to fenced enclosures – provide wildlife corridors that allow mammals, birds and reptiles to survive. Many of the farms will be giving guided walks to show the wildlife conservation and habitat recreation they are undertaking.

The farms are varied and offer differing activities: some will have tractor rides, a chance to see cheese made, lambs fed, pheasants reared or flour milled: then tea and homemade cakes to round it off of course. Visit to find out more about farms in your area or visit the RSPB site to learn about their work.

But if the great outdoors is not your thing and you're otherwise inclined then there's always an alternative 'open day' for you. For those who like the creative arts the Open Studios scheme runs every year throughout the country: it’s a chance to explore the studios of potters, sculptors, jewellers, furniture makers or artists and chat to them about their work.

South-East Open Studios – with nearly 250 studios open this year - runs from 9 to 23 June and I've already earmarked the ones I shall visit first. I'm going to concentrate on abstract art works for a change and so it's off to Rib Bloomfield's studio to see his skyscapes and Ruth Dent's to see her works inspired by nature and architecture.

And to follow through the abstract theme in a different medium I'll visit Ted Summerhayes' studio again to see his amazingly tactile, wooden sculptures. What else? I'll have another squiz at the brochure to see what I can fit in. For details of the artists and other studios open in the south east visit and for studios open in your area go to links and click on Other Open Studios.

It’s a great way to spend an hour or two and quite awesome the wealth of creativity and talent that's out there. The work of these artists may not make it into the Saatchi collection but fortunately it's usually affordable enough to make it into the homes of people like me who like original art: I do enjoy Open Days.


Sunday, 3 June 2007

Sculpture - Hare Today

My visit to Chelsea Flower Show highlighted more than just wonderful blooms, it reminded me of all the excellent forms of garden art there are from around the world: South Africa included.

Sculpture and landscape have a symbiosis: you only have to look at how the works of Henry Moore complement - and compliment – sites and their various axes or wider views to believe this. On a smaller scale Barbara Hepworth's tiny garden in St Ives comes alive with her sculptures.

The Nicholson Wall at Sutton Place – mirrored in the still pool – is a sublime example of abstract sculpture in a formal landscape: a classic sculpture of a something like a Greek God in a totally timeless landscape can be just as effective.

In more modest settings smaller works are needed and there's a wide variety of sculptures - modern, contemporary, classic or retro – on offer in small galleries, garden centres and shows. Terracotta, stone, lead or bronze are the upmarket materials with pottery, tin, glass or resin the more affordable: there's a medium to suit every situation.

But of all the many subjects I think that those from the natural world are the ones that most easily fit into the great outdoors. I'm not so keen on hippos installed in Hanover but give me a seed pod in Sydney and I'm there: or a hare, nearly anywhere.

When we look at the full moon in Britain we think we can see 'the man in the moon', but in the southern hemisphere they are looking at it from another angle and, in Africa at least, they see the hare.

The mythology that's attached to hares is widespread; in Southern Africa the Khoisan people have several legends. I incorporated a reference to one in my novel but had a real struggle tracking down the end of the fable because there were many versions: finally I found it and here it is.

The moon asked the hare to run as fast as he could to tell men that as the moon died and lived again so would they. The hare ran fast and when he arrived he told men that as the moon dies and comes to an end so men would die and come to an end. When the hare told the moon what he'd said, the moon was so angry at the distortion of her message to men that she cursed him to run forever.

The hare is also a favourite subject to sculpt: I think it might be a combination of their elongated shape, extraordinary large ears and feet and the mystery that surrounds them that intrigues. Sculptures in bronze are particularly pleasing and, although I saw a few at Chelsea, I particularly liked those of Jan Sweeney's.

Jan, the daughter of an Irish vet, grew up in England: she visited Africa and the scene and wildlife had such a powerful influence on her work that she bought a house in Zimbabwe. She now has her own workshops and foundry there and divides her time between Zim and Somerset: hares are native to both places.

If I could work out how to get photos from where I store them on Picasa2 onto my blog I might now impress you with my snapshot of one of her sculptures. But I can't. You are now aware just how technically challenged I am: I therefore suggest you visit her website ( to see the handsome creatures there.

Not being a quitter, I've just had another go at getting the said photo onto my blog (if any of my photos suddenly appear on your screen out of nowhere please send them back to me) but just as I thought I'd cracked it, all was lost again: its a case of hare today, gone tomorrow. Groan.


Book Note: one of my favourite books for children is Masquerade by Kit Williams (Jonathan Cape 1979). It’s a wonderful looking item - the illustrations are so finely and beautifully painted – and a book and puzzle in one. Jack Hare and Lady Moon are featured in the story and whoever solved the riddle embodied in the paintings was promised buried treasure: someone did of course and was rewarded with an amulet.