Friday, December 28, 2012

Meet the Spy Lady! Carol Hedges, author, campaigner and lay barrister!

Welcome to another of my weberviews. This time, it's with Carol Hedges, author of a series of Young Adult books about Jazmin, the Spy Girl. Her books have received great reviews and been described as 'really thrilling page-turners'. She also has a great award winning blog.

Val: Carol, we’ve been bloggees and twitter pals for a couple of months now. I have really enjoyed your blog and am intrigued by your adventures in law and disorder, but I still don’t really know what motivated you to write your YA books on the theme of a young teenage detective girl. Can you tell me something more about it? 

First of all, when did you start writing? Have you been doing it all your life? Or is this something that started when you wrote your first Spy Girl novel?

Carol: I've always written stuff - I was an early reader, and I think becoming a writer is a natural progression. I first got published when I was 40, I'd never 'dared' send anything off before, but I got that'40' thing, and decided to go for it.

Val. Funny, that, so did I! But I didn’t get published! Anyhow, what prompted you to write a series of YA novels and where did you get the material for the stories?

Carol: I teach teenagers, and I brought up one, so I think writing YA is a natural area - it's what I know about best, as I work with them every day.

Val: And love them too, I’m guessing! I know that you used to teach in schools, and you now teach on a private basis. Do you still do this because you love teaching?

Carol: I trained to be a childrens' librarian - the teaching came later. I was 46 when I decided to retrain, as going back to being a librarian after taking time off to bring up my daughter was a no-no – late evenings and Saturdays didn't interface with bringing up a child. I was the oldest Postgrad on the block - the only advantage I had over the youngsters was that none of my hapless pupils suspected I was a trainee - they all thought I was a 'proper' teacher!

Val: You seem to have an amazing amount of energy. You’ve conducted your own lawsuit in defense of your community, you write, you teach and maintain your social media efforts very consistently, plus you have an award winning blog! How do you manage to do so much and still work? Do you follow a strict schedule?

Carol: I am the most unstructured person out - I waste time on Twitter and FB, I can potter for England! However, if I have a deadline, or a commitment (the blog goes out every Sat) then I will pull myself together and work. I view those writers who regularly get up at 5 am to put in a couple of hours writing with AWE!!

Val: Even so, Carol you’ve still produced four books – that’s pretty awesome! But about your heroine, is Jasmine Dawson a reflection of you in any way? Do you speak with your own voice when you write about her?

Carol: Jazmin, like all my heroines, is a reflection of my own daughter - and her relationship with her mother reflects ours.

Val: No wonder they are so vivid! I see that your Spygirl novels are published by Usborne Publishing. Were you lucky enough to find a publisher straight away?

Carol: I was lucky to find a publisher quite quickly - OUP took my first serious novel and then the next two. BUT I didn't get an agent straightaway. I had to wait until OUP and I were experiencing problems. I'd advise anyone to get an agent first, before tackling publishers. In my experience, they don't treat you as seriously if you are freelance.

Val:That’s really interesting and something I’ve not thought of at all. Good advice, Carol, thanks!  But, are you writing any more Spygirl books, or do you have other projects in mind?

Carol: At the moment, I'm redrafting a Victorian Crime novel, probably for adults. I may well go down the Indie route with it and publish as an ebook. I'd prefer to find a mainstream publisher, as it takes a level of responsibility off my shoulders, but in these tough recessionary times, I think most writers have to be prepared to 'do it for ourselves'.

Val: Yes, and in some respects I think it’s more rewarding too. Carol, what do you do in your free time – if you have any? Do you have any other hobbies?

Carol: I love to read - if I get any free time. Or I listen to plays on Radio4 and Radio 3 (I grew up in the 50's and 60's in a home without TV, so I am a radio girl). And then there are friends to visit and catch up with.

Val: Maybe radio is something that goes with writers too! Lastly, Carol, what’s in store for 2013? Do you have any plans you can share with us?

Carol: My dreams for 2013? I'd love to get 'Village Green' status on our playing field and stop the local council from developing it. I'd love my Victorian novel to find a publisher. And -the BIG DREAM@ I'd love Usborne to commission a 5th Spy Girl book!

What many of my readers don't know is that Carol has been campaigning vigorously for a playing field near her home to be classified as a village green. She has challenged the council in her home town and acted as a lay barrister, taking on the expertise of a fully trained barrister in the courts - and coming out with enormous amounts of credit. I’m wishing and holding fingers, thumbs and toes crossed that all her  dreams come true this year.

 It’s been great having you over to my barge blog, Carol and I’d really love it if we could meet in real life too. Stay well, and keep on fighting and writing!

Contact points;
Twitter @carolJhedges

Monday, December 24, 2012


 Just thought I'd share these images of my little tree with the decorations that Mo and I made a few years ago, including our toilet roll christmas angel :-) The other balls and baubles break, but our little gift-wrapped boxes just keep on going - a bit like us! Have a wonderful holiday everyone and a great entrance into 2013 xxx

Friday, December 21, 2012

Winter out of the Water

The Oude Haven from The Helling

I was looking at the barge on the slipway at the Oude Haven today - a big, bulky tjalk that belongs to one of our friends, Daan. He's working on the bottom this week, and the weather is not being kind to him. Luckily, he doesn't live on board this one. It's an ongoing restoration project that's a kind of hobby. He and his wife live on another, very beautiful tjalk a few kilometres east of Rotterdam along the river.

Koos, doing Koos impressions while assisting Philip

Watching him work put me in mind of one winter when I had the Vereeniging  on the slipway, or 'on the slips' as they call it in England. Here in the Netherlands, we call it the helling. The way it works is if you are prepared to do your bottom cleaning stint in the winter months, you get quite a nice discount, so given the expense of this enterprise, it's quite an attractive proposition financially. The discount is on account of the days being shorter, colder and generally a lot more uncomfortable than they are in the summer, which of course makes it much less attractive physically. They aren't kidding!

The year in question was, I think, 2006. I seem to remember it was in February. It snowed a lot, that I do know, and Philip, the main personality in my Watery Ways book, was helping me with some welding below the water line. As a matter of fact, about the only place where we could work unimpeded was the bottom since being under the barge, we were protected from the elements, but yes - as you've already gathered - it was very cold. Philip and I communicated in a series of grunts and sign language - he from behind his welding mask and ear plugs, and me from the cocoon of scarves and hoods I wrapped myself in. We must have looked very strange, waddling around like dressed-up telly tubbies, and poking at the bottom of the barge with various implements of a fiery and tarry nature.

On the Helling, on the Vereeniging

Philip working on the rudder
One of the odd things about having your barge out of the water is the sheer difference in feeling and sensation that you have when it is suddenly stable, stuck as it is on its perch high above the ground. Even though you aren't conscious of it most of the time, a floating vessel is always moving, always giving with every step, always rocking slightly and moving with you. The movements are imperceptible, but it's rather like living on a giant water bed. So to have your barge on terra firma is the weirdest feeling, and not really very pleasant. The floor feels too hard. The barge is at a strange angle - straight, instead of sloping gently down as it normally does. In fact, you think you are walking uphill all the time. Added to that, every step you take feels as if your shins are being knocked into your knees. Moving about inside the barge suddenly takes on an uncomfortable resemblance to high impact sport.

What's still worse is that the hull is suddenly exposed to the elements on every side. Normally, it wallows happily in a bath of water which insulates it from extremes. In the winter, the water temperature is rarely as cold as the air temperature while in the summer, the reverse is true. Out of the water, then, with its nice protective bath gone, it is much, much colder in bad winter weather. The iron hull freezes and everything creaks and warps as the metal contracts. Or does it also expand? I know I contract in the cold, but then maybe that's me just shrivelling up! In any event, the cold gets into the fabric of the boat and changes it quite dramatically. Cupboard doors won't shut, floorboards warp, everything is out of kilter.

I guess you could say the barge itself feels like a fish out of water...

Oh and then there's the wind! This too, wraps itself around the entire hull and draughts seem to issue from gaps and cracks you never knew it had. The nights I was on the helling that winter, I slept in double layers of everything, socks and nickers included.

View of the Vereeniging in a snow shower

These memories often come back to me when I watch the other barges on the helling. The oddest thing of all about it is that the recollections I have are fond ones. Never did I wish I wasn't there. Never did I feel I should have chosen another life. Sometimes, yes, sometimes I wondered what on earth I was doing, but even then, I wouldn't have changed it. Sometimes, like now, I wonder why I have.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Bridging the years

These past few days have really got my early Vereeniging memories going. The cold spell here has had me gasping on my bike as I've pedalled across the Van Brienenoord bridge to work every day.  Yesterday, I'll swear my toes dropped off on route. I was truly amazed to find they were still attached to my feet when I arrived at the uni. Most days, I take a breather as I reach the flat part at the top of the bridge where it crosses the open water. I like to stretch my eyes over to the east and watch the light come up over the horizon and spread a pearly wash over the water. Sometimes, it's so captivating, I just want to stand there and wait till it reaches me, but work always calls so I hoist myself up on my old bone shaker and pedal on.

The something around eight kilometres to work gives me plenty of time to think. I'm not one that likes ear plugs and music as I go. I prefer to listen to the natural sounds. Okay, I live in Rotterdam, so natural has a slightly different slant on it - cars honking, brakes squealing, trucks revving to get up the rise onto the bridge. Perhaps I should rather say real sound as opposed to digital. It isn't natural at all! Now and then, though, I can hear the birds. Just occasionally.

This time to think has recently been much taken up with my first year on the Vereeniging and I believe the cold has had something to do with this resurgence of memories. Maybe it is also because it was ten years ago this year that I spent my first winter on board. I don't have many photos of those days, which is a shame, but it was before digital photography really took off, and I didn't have a camera. I can picture it in my mind, though. I have a thousand mental images of what it was like that first year.

The Vereeniging evolved. it wasn't really planned. It was an empty shell when I bought the barge, so it just grew with me. All I knew when first had it was that I wanted a proper bathroom, but it wasn't until mid 2003 that I finally got one, and in the end, I had to build it and do all the plumbing myself. That's another story though. Over the first winter, I did what I'd been doing on the Hoop (the barge I lived on for the first 18 months of my stay in NL). I used the showers in the ship yard, and I had a Porta Potti camping toilet for the necessaries. It was okay. I managed, but going up to the showers when it was freezing outside and the water was low was always an exercise in resolve. I had to climb a very icy and slippery wooden ganglank, then walk around 100 metres to the shipyard office where the showers are still. The temptation to give it a miss, just do it tomorrow, was frequently irresistible. I did, however, manage to rig myself up a sink on board even though there was no plumbing, so if it came to it, a strip wash was always possible.

I was a bit proud of my sink. Koos had donated it to me, and in fact, it is still in use on the Vereeniging although it is all fully plumbed-in these days with a cupboard beneath it and shelves for pots. When I first got it, it stood forlornly in the hold with nowhere to go. It was mounted in a homemade table unit, which consisted of a top and two sides. But it had no tap. I found a very handy electric tap-cum pump at the camping shop, which I mounted on the top next to the sink. Underneath, the pump was immersed in a large 20 litre cannister of water and it had an electric plug for the mains. The whole unit found a home against one side of the barge and I made a brightly coloured curtain to cover the front and disguise the cannister. I have to say it worked like a charm. When I turned the handle on the tap it switched the pump on and hey presto! Out came the water. I just loved it. Eventually, when I got my plumbing system in place and dispensed with my little electric tap, I missed it. I tried to find other uses for it and couldn't, which saddened me. It was just so neat.

That first winter, it was cold. Very cold. I had quite a number of strip washes. The Vereeniging was pretty basic, primitive even if you consider what normal living consists of, but I was happier than I had been for years. The Vereeniging represented my independence, my freedom. I remember this when I stop on the bridge and gaze at the ships passing beneath me.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Winter on the water

The Vereeniging in the snow
It has turned very cold in the last few days. Last night, we had our first snow showers, and more is forecast for tomorrow. These days, my barge is fitted with an oil stove which delivers heat of tropical proportions, but every winter I am reminded of the first December I spent on board on the Vereeniging - ten years ago this year.

It was exceptionally cold exceptionally early. As I recall, it was already freezing in November, and come the first few days of December, we had not only snow, but ice too - inside the barge as well as out. The reason for this was that I had not finished insulating and there were large sections of the hull which were still bare iron. What was worse was that I had no bathing facilities, no hot water and all I had for heat was a rather feeble electric radiator. It was in the early days of my conversion to the higher state of normal living.

The cold hit me hard, that I do remember. I had still not acclimatised to European weather and winters and my South African blood longed for sun with some warmth to it, not the frigid glare of the European variety. The days were beautiful that winter - the sky a vivid blue and the sun fluorescent in its white, bright light, but the rays felt tinged with ice and I wanted to die.

I remember one particular day. The east wind was blowing the water out of the estuary and keeping it out. It was low tide and the water in the harbour was so shallow, we were sitting on mud flats. My loopplank was like the north face of the Eiger. Getting off the barge was akin to rock climbing while getting on it meant performing a sitting shuffle as I slithered down the perilously icy planks of my wooden gangway. And I was cold through to my bones. I remember the feel of it now, oh my goodness, it's still so vivid a memory! It just became too much that day and I remember hugging the radiator for just some kind of warmth. And I cried. Yes, I did. Me, a forty something, supposedly mature, strong woman who'd held positions of responsibility in Johannesburg's corporate and, lets' face it, rather more dangerous world. There I sat in tears because I was just so cold. I hadn't turned a hair at having to strip myself of all valuables before going into the South Africa's most lawless city, or at signs saying "Gun free zone. Please leave your firearms at the security desk" when I went visiting clients. But faced with below zero temperatures, I found myself as pathetic as a snivelling ten year old, and with no spunk whatsoever.

Luckily for me, help arrived to save my shredded dignity. Koos came. He took one look at me, hauled me up the loopplank and carted me off to find a more effective form of heating. At that time, the best thing we could find at short notice was one of those Zebro Kamin paraffin stoves - great because the heat is instant, very economical and extremely safe with their automatic cut off switches. They are not ideal for old iron boats though as the condensation they create is potentially very damaging, but for now - I mean for that time (see how close it is to me still!), it was the best answer to a very immediate need.

The Vereeniging in warmer weather
I still have that heater today. It's hardly ever used, but is always there as backup in case we run out of diesel or it gets so cold that even the normal stove is not enough. Last winter, the harbour froze over and I woke every morning to the sound of ice scraping against the sides of the barge. This winter, it may be even colder. Who knows? I am not there so much these days, but Jodie is learning to cope with it now. Luckily, she will never have to endure a winter like my first. The barge is well insulated, there is a bathroom, the water supply is good and the heater works like a charm. Even so, I am waiting to see what she makes of it. Time will tell.