Sunday, 26 August 2007

Impressionists by the Sea

In England we haven't had much of a summer and not many holidaymakers could enjoy the seaside, even less the sea. As a sunny beach became more desirable with every week of August passing by, on a particularly rainy day I took myself off to London to at least get a taste of it at the exhibition, 'Impressionists by the Sea'.

The show at the Royal Academy – the blurb explains - explores "the development of the beach scene in the art of the Impressionists". Some of their predecessors – Isabey, Cazin, Dupre – painted the sort of marine scenes we've seen rather too much of lately - storms, fishermen fighting the elements, toiling peasants (do peasants toil anymore?) – while other artists concentrated on the coastline devoid of figures.

Then painters like American James McNeill Whistler and Frenchman Courbet began to focus on more restful views of the north coast of France: bays, the play of light on calm seas, a peasant asleep. These paintings were simpler, calmer, than the previous dramatic stormy scenes.

But around 1860 a few artists began painting fashionable tourists on the beaches of Normandy: Boudin pioneered the theme of holiday makers on the beach at Trouville, others followed and Deauville, Berck, Etretat and Sainte-Adresse feature in many paintings by such artists as Monet and Manet.

These holiday makers came down to the coast from Paris and the corresponding growth in hotels and villas along the sea front were incorporated in the paintings: there are scenes of figures strolling along the board walks in colourful fashionable clothes, sitting under the shade of their parasols, stepping out from their bathing tents.

Ah, this is my sort of seaside: sun, yellow sands, aquamarine seas, high bright blue skies, honest and upright locals, refined and elegant holidaymakers, not a piece of litter or a cart jam in sight.

Now, here's a theory: as adults we're drawn to the landscapes of our formative years. Born in rolling countryside but close to the coast, I like landscape paintings with hills, trees and meadows but I'm also drawn to the sunny beach scenes of the Impressionists.

Paintings of figures strolling on Trouville beach reminds me of Weymouth sands in summer, just as a South African may instantly think of Muizenberg, an Australian of the beach at St Kilda's. Happy memories: I can taste the salt, feel the warm sand trickling between my toes, see the boats sail gently to and fro on the bay.

But by the late 1870's the Impressionists, perhaps bored by the subject of holidaymakers, were concentrating more on landscape: figures were a minor feature. They created informal canvases showing the physical structure of cliffs or the effect of light on sea and sky. Brilliant.

Then by the late 1880's these scenes had become quite dramatic again: the artists portrayed dark rain clouds, massive cliffs, rock formations and the play of light on the sea. Fashionable figures – though not necessarily their resorts - were supplanted by fisher folk, their boats, the sea and cliffs.

Many of the Impressionists chose to paint Etretat where the cliff has been eroded by sea to form an opening. It might remind an American of the natural arch at Santa Cruz: it reminds me of Durdle Door in Dorset.

Suddenly I recall a less sunny seaside: scary cliff walks and stormy seas. I remember the wind stinging my legs when I come out of the water, the pain of pebbles under bare feet, sand in my sandwiches, grumbling locals and hordes of holidaymakers: different impressions by the sea.


Note: if as adults many of us are drawn to the landscapes of our formative years, some people – at particular times in their lives - are likewise attracted to alien landscapes: landscape as 'escape' perhaps.

For example, if we're hemmed in by the city we thirst for open spaces. When our life is controlled, we may seek wild spaces; if our lives or minds are out of control we may appreciate neat and tidy surroundings.

Certainly the cry – I just need to get away – is usually from the heart no matter where away is: an exhibition of painting might just do the trick.

Sunday, 19 August 2007

Historical Fiction and Real Life

For some, 'historical fiction' is that set upto the 19th century but actually anything set over a hundred years ago - or now pre-1945 – comes within the genre. But whichever period a story is set in, one of the facets that a writer of historical fiction is concerned with is historical accuracy.

When a novel has a glowing write-up (like an excellent reviewer from Historical Novels Review gave A Little Blue Jacket this month!) the author is likely to be on cloud nine: but clouds are insubstantial things. It can be down to earth with a bump if a reviewer criticizes areas of the work that the writer thinks unfair.

Once an author has published a novel it's out there to have its bones picked over by anyone. Criticism of style or structure is a very subjective thing – one man's meat is another man's poison – but historical accuracy can be checked.

Most authors of historical fiction go to great lengths to ensure historical, geographical and social facts are researched but it is amazing how often the reader is surprised by either lifestyles or words currently in use at the time, altered locations or historical views.

Given the chance, most authors are able to explain the historical context and back up their facts (certainly in the large format of my novel A Little Blue Jacket I included extensive historical notes as even local South Africans told me they knew little of SA history after 1900 and before 1950) and so give the reader a chance to follow up research for themselves.

Many historical facts had to be cross-referenced for my novel as what appears obvious is not always the case. For example - the original Malay houses around Bo Kaap have not, contrary to popular belief, been repainted in their original pastel colours: they were originally white. After frenzied building a hundred years ago Victorian buildings in Cape Town outnumbered Cape Dutch ones and the architect 'darling' of the time, who was building in the vernacular style there, was in fact British: Herbert Baker, partner of Edwin Lutyens.

Fish Hoek is now a thriving small town but a hundred years ago was little more than a few fishing cottages: the Martello tower of Simon's Town is now little more than a ruin. On Muizenberg sands the tin hut of 1905 is long gone, replaced as it was by a grand pavilion in 1913, along with the charming stilted beach huts that are so well known today.

Similarly, the writer of historical fiction has to make sure of geographical facts that may send readers reaching for their street map or atlas. To demonstrate: in Cape Town, Roggebaai (present spelling) with its jetty is now reclaimed land – old street names bear testimony to its previous bounds - and many names of streets and squares have since been changed in tune with society.

Political and social facts too can be authenticated. Those living in Johannesburg today may find it difficult to believe that a hundred years ago Indians and Malays were allowed to buy properties in new residential districts of Cape Town: apartheid has so dominated South Africa in the recent past that many cannot believe that in the Western Cape a hundred years ago there was no apartheid and were no pass laws.

This is what was meant when those in the Western Cape were described as 'colour blind': today reference to this might be interpreted as a politically correct view but it is, indeed, a fact. Certainly among the British in the Western Cape, Malays were sought out as house servants and treated, on the whole, well: indeed many of the female servants became close confidantes of the mistress of the house.

History is written by people and of course can be re-written to suit, but there is much that cannot be disagreed with. A writer can point out historical facts to dissenters, and back up social facts with contemporaneous sources used, but little can be done to countermand ingrained prejudice or ignorance on the behalf of a reader or critic.

But, when all's said and done, most authors of historical fiction are not historians: they are writers of fiction. And, like all fiction writers, they can invent characters and places. They can also manipulate actual events and dates to serve fictional purposes: they can choose to write their story in the spirit of the time or be exact in every detail.

Or writers can marry the two: for example, I made a choice when writing my novel not to make the speech as stilted as it may have been but to observe speech patterns and the odd words of regional dialect used at the time instead. This involved considerable research as words used today – or understood today – are not necessarily those of the period in which the book was set: it's a device that can give the book a sense of period as well as place.

And, for myself, some of the personal facts on which I based the story of A Little Blue Jacket no-one can dispute: my grandmother was born in the Cape and, orphaned, was brought up by her sister and her Malay nurse of whom she was very fond. Without 'giving away' the story (and it is fiction), the least likely and most dramatic events that happen in it are actually true: that old adage that real life is often more surprising than fiction.


Sunday, 12 August 2007

The moon, meteors and myths

The moon and meteors have long been the subject of myths: for thousands of years cultures have studied the stars and been ruled by their movement. Terrestrial travellers throughout the world used the stars and the moon to guide them, seafarers navigated by the constellations.

Historically farmers have grown crops according to the phases of the moon. Wheat was sown during the waxing of the moon and small holders planted their peas: all above ground crops. When the moon was waning however, it was the time to sow root crops and trees.

Now, when tending their vines, winemakers of the New World are considering the lunar activity that ancient viniculture abided by: full circle. They are harvesting their grapes as close to the full moon as possible in order that the fruit is full of moisture and flavour.

And it's not such a daft idea: after all, it's the gravitational interaction between the Earth and the moon that causes the tides to change and similarly the moon affects moisture in the soil. Depending on whether the moon is waxing or waning, so light is increasing or decreasing, affecting plant growth.

In the 20th century interest was renewed when Rudolph Steiner encouraged such biodynamic agricultural techniques as planting according to the moon's phases: it seems that seeds germinate more quickly if planted at full moon. But you ask any countryman about when to grow fruit and veg and he'll spout planting and gathering times based on the lunar calendar that were part of folklore long before Steiner gave it any scientific credentials.

The Romans were heavily into the lunar calendar as we all know and belief in the mythical powers of the planets and stars is still with us in the 21st century: so strong is it that we even organize our lives by consulting the twelve constellations of the Zodiac on a daily basis. What star sign are you? is one of the most popular openers for women (in particular) on speed dates and many have been know to reject a partner on the strength of his perceived personality: in some cultures a potential bride or groom can be rejected after consulting the stars for fear of an inauspicious match.

For more down-to-earth types however, tonight, Sunday, after midnight, there will be a spectacular shower of shooting stars through the British skies: the Perseid meteor shower occurs every year around the time of the St Lawrence's feast day on 10th August (Romans again). The show has already begun but will peak tonight. A new moon – a darker sky – should help us see the spectacle more clearly: that and the absence of light pollution.

Killjoy, I hear you groan, why mention pollution. Why can't you just celebrate this wonderful astronomical phenomenon without recourse to green issues: quite simply, because light pollution of our night skies may stop us seeing this colourful cabaret.

Light pollution is the adverse affect of artificial light on the night sky: in many cities throughout the world only the brightest of the planets and the moon are now visible. In our village we boast of having a clear night sky: there are no street lights or large illuminated signs so astronomers travel miles to study the stars on the elevated Common. But in the distance there can be seen sky glow from the nearby town and it's creeping ever nearer.

So what? Well, light pollution affects us all, star gazer or not. Lighting burns money and it uses up our natural energy resources: it harms nocturnal wildlife and it destroys our night skies which is a crying shame. There is nothing like walking home from the pub on a chilly evening under a starry, starry night: nothing more wonderful that going out into the garden after a warm day, when there's not a cloud in the sky, and seeing above you a canopy of stars. It's apt to stir mystical or philosophical (or romantic!) thoughts depending on character (or company).

Down in Devon this spring, my sister-in-law brought out her telescope. She said that it was an excellent evening to see the rings round Saturn and the mountains on the moon: sensational and spooky both. They too live in a village with an unpolluted night sky and the clarity of the images was extraordinary.

If only every night sky was as clear: it actually takes very little – and costs next to nothing - to cut light pollution in residential areas and so increase visibility. When some town dwellers move to the countryside they feel insecure without street lights, but country dwellers know that a torch is all that's necessary to find your way. And lights on gateways or porches have simply to be changed to lower wattage, put on a time switch and, most importantly, designed with a narrow beam angled downwards to minimise the affect of pollution.

The stars and the moon and the sky: we can make or mar magic.


Book Note: books on mythology abound and it’s a fascinating subject. Two of the books I used when researching myths for my novel were The Myths of Greece and Rome by H A Guerber - because it was published in 1907 and therefore reflected the presentation of them at that time - and African Mythology by Geoffrey Parrinder because it included myths that linked the coming of death with the waxing and waning of the moon (go to for more South African myths)

In the same Paul Hamlyn series are books about Greek, Egyptian, Indian, Oceanic and American Indian mythology and I can bet there are myths about the moon and the stars in all of them.

Sunday, 5 August 2007

Butterflies and Coppicing

Britain's biggest butterfly conservation project started a couple of weeks ago: it seems that many traditional species are in decline due to the lack of ancient woodland management.

In my village there is an ancient wood: now in your imagination this wood might be full of enormous gnarled old oak trees, but not so. It's full of spindly chestnut and hazel trees that have been coppiced for hundreds of years.

Many of our high forests are the result of woodland management - such as coppicing – no longer being carried out. The canopy of these trees eventually cast deep shade but ancient semi-natural woodland that's coppiced is made up of multi-stemmed trees that only cast a dappled shade in which many species thrive.

Ancient or semi-ancient woodland is defined by the number of 'indicator' species: generally this is the number native flowering plants - ferns, lichens and native conifers -that are present on a particular site. The greater the number of these species present the more likely it is that the wood is ancient but, obviously, these species differ depending on the area.

In Kent there are, amongst many, primroses, wood violets and sorrels growing in the woodlands; lichens, fungi and insects live on the dead wood and nightingales and dormice are resident. If the wood is too dark these species won't survive and eventually the woodland floor will become dense scrub: coppicing prevents this.

Coppicing – the word comes from the French word couper, to cut - is an ancient art that can be traced back to 4000 BC: it involves the cutting of trees and shrubs back to ground level on a regular basis to give a sustainable supply of timber.

When the trees are cut back they are known as stools: stooling results in vigorous re-growth that produces multi-stems known as poles. These poles are then harvested on a regular basis – anything between 6 and 25 years - depending on the species and the product required.

However, some wood is removed on an annual basis: if the trees have been planted close together they'll grow tall and straight and the wood used for bean poles (hazel) and the brush for 'dead' hedges. Coppiced ash was traditionally used for tool handles, oak and chestnut for fencing. And the wood not suitable for products would be used in winter as firewood or in summertime burnt in kilns in the wood for charcoal.

Charcoal burners are as old as the hills, without them there would have been no Iron Age: charcoal burns at a higher temperature than wood and so was used for smelting. But when we started using coal – and now gas, oil and electricity - for fuel as opposed to wood, coppicing declined as a form of woodland management.

Although the art is not totally forgotten: when we cut back our garden dogwoods (Cornus alba) and willows (Salix alba) to produce fresh new stems, or our Eucalyptus gunnii to produce vigorous juvenile growth, we are, in effect, coppicing. And we're coppicing when we cut back overgrown hornbeam or yew to produce fresh new growth.

As is so often the case in nature, one thing goes hand in hand with another. If woodland is coppiced it affords a wide range of habitats but if this lapses then the species it supports falls off. Coppiced woodland has sunny clearings in which flora and therefore butterflies thrive: without management the wood becomes the dark place of fairy tales and many species of butterfly decline.

Orange and woodland fritillaries are nearly extinct in the south east of England and if woodland isn't coppiced for over 5 years then the pearl-bordered fritillary will not survive. The South East Woodland Project is hoping that rare and endangered species of butterflies like these - along with moths and insects - will make a comeback if the woods are properly managed once more.

They are therefore encouraging landowners to coppice their woodland again: the charity is holding demonstrations throughout the SE of England for landowners but also for any Tom, Dick or Harriet who would like to learn the art of coppicing.

To get you started on saving butterflies, vote for your favourite one (either painted lady, peacock, red admiral, brimstone, comma or holly blue) by going onto the website

And you can do your bit in your own back yard: go gentle on the weeding, leave the corners to take care of themselves. A tree, some native wild flowers and a clump of nettles and you've created a little butterfly heaven.


Book Note: when I'm out and about and want to identify wildlife, I prefer a pocket-sized book. Butterflies in Collins gem series is a perfect example: it is a very small paperback with one butterfly or moth to the page. A clear photograph and a short description means that you can look up a butterfly when on the hoof before it darts away (with luck). It covers the butterflies of Europe but for some strange reason it's for sale in Canada: is this because the same butterflies live there?
Most enthusiasts would probably like a more detailed tome for their bookshelves: mine is an illustrated book of insects. Looking for it just now a yellowed sheet of paper fell out - Butterfly Conservation campaign 1994 - bemoaning the loss of butterfly habitats. So, if this is a trend, I should be able to recycle this blog circa 2020.