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.


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