Thursday, December 31, 2015

More barge family history in photos

With my research for my next book and also as background to The Skipper's Child, I've been looking at old photos of the Fernhout family's barge, and with Koos's permission, I thought it would be nice to share some more of these with you here. All the pictures below are from a small collection Koos has kept since he was a youngster and has now scanned in the hopes of preserving them further. The originals are becoming very faded and so this is one way of keeping these precious images for family posterity.

Many of them were taken before Koos was born and show his father's barge at various times before and after World War II, so they are especially interesting to me as they show its development over the years.

The one above was snapped at Cheratte, Belgium, before the barge, called Twee Gebroeders, was fitted with a rear engine. There's no date on the photo, but it was probably taken before the war in the thirties. Here the barge only had a small 35 horsepower engine under the foredeck which drove a side propellor close to the bows. The wheelhouse was open at the back with a canopy over the stern to protect the skipper from the elements.

You can see the side propellor in this picture of the loaded Twee Gebroeders in 1955 after the main engine was fitted. Apparently Hendrikus Fernhout kept the system as an auxiliary motor for when the current was very strong, for instance when they were on the Rhine. Notice Papa Fernhout is in a white shirt and tie. Apparently this was normal Sunday wear and Sunday was usually photo day!

 I love this one. It's almost like an aerial shot, but it was taken  from the rocks high above the Maas at NamĂȘche, in Belgium (I told you Belgium was beautiful!)

 And here, the lovely old fashioned bows where two of the Fernhout children are standing.  This one and the one below are on the Maas, again in Belgium. Koos was the youngest of four children who survived. Two others were tragically lost to drowning when they were very small as often happened in skippers' families. The awful sadness of losing those two babies could well have affected Mrs Fernhout deeply, making her more withdrawn than even her very real deafness would have done.

 A wonderful image of the deeply laden Twee Gebroeders in Stevensweert in Limburg, in the south of the Netherlands. I don't have a date for this photo, but according to Koos, it is probably pre-war.

 This one and the last photo below show the  new conformation with the wheelhouse right at the stern and the engine's chimney just in front of the roef or saloon. Such developments were normal in the course of a barge's life in the 20th century, something that makes it difficult for restorers to deal with when deciding on how far to take their restoration.

I'll be looking back to the period of these photos over the next months because I'm also really looking forward to writing my story about the father of my Skipper's Child, which will be set during the WWII. Photos like these give me the inspiration, but of course now I need information too, so it'll mean hours of reading (mostly in Dutch, so that'll take me even longer!) and heaps questions that I'll have to put to people in the know. A happy thought and a special project to take me into the next 

And if you are interested in reading The Skipper's Child, why not take a look the first few pages on Amazon:


Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Skipper's Family - a bit more background

Koos's father's barge. Mother stands in the wheelhouse door

One thing I hadn't thought about when I wrote my last post about Who is The Skipper's Child? was something Anne Mackle mentioned in her review of the book, and that is that there is no bad language in it.

Some people might find this unconvincing, but in fact it is totally authentic. In the story, it is clear that Hendrik Kornet and his family are Protestants and make this quite plain to those 'heathen Catholics' in Belgium. In the Netherlands of the time, the country was quite clearly defined by its religious leanings: the north tended to be Protestant and the south Catholic (and to quite an extent, this is still the case although there is a large 'bible belt' in Zeeland that runs right through to Zeeuws Vlaanderen, close to the Belgian border).

A closeup of the wheelhouse. Koos's grown up brother still
in white shirt and tie!

Koos's parents were very much of the Protestant persuasion and quite strictly so as many skippers' families were. 'Bad' language of any kind would not have been tolerated on board and so no, there was no swearing or cursing even under duress. It is also true that their entertainment was hymn singing round the harmonium and they did not really mix with people outside their Protestant skippers' world. So my portrayal of the family as being rather innocent and isolated from the world is an accurate reflection of what their life was like (so Koos assures me). Being Protestant set you apart from the Catholics,who were regarded as being frivolous and given to excesses of drinking, eating and partying. Funny to think of now, isn't it?

But the twains did somehow meet now and then. I love this anecdote Koos tells (not in the book) about his father's meeting with a Catholic skipper one Sunday back in the day. The skipper, who I think was Belgian, was moored under a bridge and was busily cleaning his barge. Koos's father, who was quite a tease and not completely intolerant of other men's ways, ribbed the man for working on the Lord's day. The Catholic skipper was totally undaunted and quick as a flash pointed to the bridge above him and retorted that 'what the Lord couldn't see wouldn't hurt him'. Precious, isn't it? And maybe a tongue-in-cheek confirmation of the difference between the two...

So that's why my story is so more than usually 'clean'. It's not only that it's mainly targeted to young people, although that's obviously a consideration; it's just that their life was like that. It really was a different and insular world, and that's why I find it so fascinating.

The prequel is in the planning as I want to write about Arie's father's life during the war. That one will not be targeted to a YA audience but I will still focus on authenticity!

The Skipper's Child is on Amazon if you fancy giving it a try :)

Saturday, December 26, 2015

After the Earthquake by Jo Carroll

A few weeks back, I blogged about the crowd-funding project my wonderful friend, Jo Carroll, had set up to raise money to build a house in Nepal following the terrible earthquake there. In her own blog and also as part of the project, she wrote that she was preparing an e-book about her recent visit to Nepal, the profits from which would go to add to the house building fund.

The book is now out on Amazon and you can find it here, but what I wanted to say on this blog is that I've read the ebook and just loved it. My review is below and as you can see, I would have been happy if it had been much longer. Jo's writing is marvellous: her descriptions are evocative, her empathy with the people is heartwarming and her understanding of their plight shows deep insight into their needs and also their dignity. 

This is a lovely, lovely read, and even if it were not to help the people of Nepal, it would be worth buying and savouring. Thank you, Jo!

"The only thing wrong with this travel memoir of Jo Carroll's is that it was over too quickly. It is a marvellous account of her recent trip to Nepal following the earthquake which has devastated the region and destroyed the lives of so many. However, her trip was not that of a disaster tourist. There is little description of the heaviest damage and the physical suffering as Jo Carroll's aim was to see what was needed to bring tourists back to the country and to find out what was still there for visitors to see and enjoy. There was and is plenty and she shows by her accounts of the wonderful places she visited, both in the mountains and valleys, how welcome and comfortable people will still be made. After all, the mountains and stunning scenery are still there as is the fascinating culture of the people, who are warm, hospitable and very courteous. 

Nepal needs visitors to rebuild; its economy relies heavily on tourism and without it even more people will suffer. The proceeds of this book are going to rebuild a house in Nepal, but its value stretches way beyond that. It is a convincing plea for the tourists to return. I loved it and felt as if I was there with her experiencing the peace, the views, the monsoon rains and even the crocodile (yes, now that was an experience!) but of course I'd much rather go in person now! Maybe one day I will."

Who was The Skipper's Child?

Most people who read my blog and know something of what I write associate me with memoirs about my watery life or about my years in South Africa. Some of you may also know I have written two novels as well although in some sense both of these are biographical too. My novel with the ridiculously long name (sorry!) about breeding sheep, geese and English eccentrics is strongly rooted in my own pre-South Africa life on a smallholding in Dorset. The storyline is fiction, but the characters and the animals are very much based on my somewhat alternative family although I admit I prefer my book characters to one or two of the real life versions.

The same is true of The Skipper's Child, a sort of cat and mouse adventure set on Europe's waterways in December 1962 at the height of the Cold War. 1962/63 was also the longest and coldest winter on record in Europe in the 20th century, even exceeding 1947, I believe. The story is woven around the Kornet family: Hendrik, a commercial barge skipper, his wife Marijke and their three children, Anneke, Arie and Jannie. Essentially, this family is based on my partner Koos's parents and two sisters. 

Little Koos, his sister and Mother in the folded down wheelhouse
of the family barge. Note his mother knitting on the got!
When I first met Koos, he told me many stories of what life was like for a skipper's kind. It was neither glamorous nor exciting and despite travelling all over the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium, he felt very restricted as they were always on the move and he could rarely leave the barge. All the same, I was fascinated by the stories of family life on board and the tough conditions they considered quite normal for their way of life.

The Fernhout family on a day out
I knew then I wanted to write about this old and very special way of life. Skippers these days have quite a luxurious lifestyle with all possible mod-cons and even their cars travel with them. In Koos's time, they had no electricity, no central heating and no interior insulation either, so it was not unusual in the winter for them to wake to ice on the inside of the cabin; and on occasions, they even got frozen in and had to walk across the ice to get to land.

Thinking about all of this sowed the seeds of a fictional story in which I could incorporate both Koos's memories and also a few of the anecdotes his father told him about earlier times, especially during and after the war. And so Arie, The Skipper's Child, was born. The outcome is an adventure involving Russian spies, secret service agents and a young stowaway who has failed in a mission that he was not aware he was undertaking until he overhears a conversation where he learns what his fate was to be.

The main target audience for the story was my younger self. It was the sort of book I'd have been reading in my early teens, so I set that as the 'age' for the reader. But in truth, most of its readers have been adults: firstly on a blog where I played out the story for a number of followers, and later when people started buying the book. The only real YA (young adult) feedback I've had has been from The Wishing Shelf Awards whose panel of judges for all the YA entries were teenage school children. Luckily for me, they liked it and The Skipper's Child won a Silver Award.

So why am I telling this story now? Well, following a recent promo when it received a great boost in sales and some lovely new reviews, I'm really hoping still more people will give it a try. I am very, very pleased that readers enjoy my memoirs, but of course my creative side is much more attached to my fictional stories, and The Skipper's Child in particular. Funny how the harder you have to work for something, the more it means to you, but that's how it goes. So if you feel like something completely different from the usual action packed adventure, you might like Arie's story. The link to the book and all the reviews is here (update: and also at Amazon UK). The link to a very nice review can be found below too.

In the meantime, have a  great 2016 everyone! I wish you the shared pleasures of peace, togetherness and time for your loved ones as well as all the other things you would wish for yourselves.


Saturday, December 19, 2015

There's more to noise than meets the ear

The current evening scene

Looking back in my archives again, I found this post from June 2009. It made me laugh as I realise that not much changes in our harbour. I've only had to add a few updates...

I know my barge is in the middle of a serious city. I know that. I really do. What I can't get to grips with, though, is the total and mind blowing cacophony we have to live with. I was going to say unbelievable, but it isn't - unbelievable that is - it's only too real. 24/7, 7/7,  52/12 - all of them.

Nearly every morning I'm there I wake up thinking that WW3 has begun, or at least that we are under attack from giants with monster walking sticks thumping their way through the city streets. This starts at 7 a.m. Not so early you might say for a world war or crippled giants on the loose, but then this is after a night spent listening to riotous revellers who think that the people they are with and all the rest of the world as well are deaf.

Maybe I should backtrack a bit and explain that the dawn raids or in other parlance, early wake up calls, are from the pile drivers on the building site next to the harbour. Oh, I forgot. Not just one site. There are now..let me see...about four sites in very audible proximity to the harbour (I should say most of these have been completed now, but there are others...). They are all building ever higher tower blocks in competition with each other, and they all seem to need to start the race for pile driver of the day, every day and even on Saturdays, at the same time. (I wonder if there's a yellow jersey for the winner of each stage?). Anyway, the explosion of sound and vibration is worse than any rock concert ever, and what baffles me is that there are no government health warnings advising the local populace to wear ear protection when within five kilometres of such locations. Strangely, all the builders wear them, but we mere mortals are clearly unworthy.

As for the night time revellers, I'm sure they think everyone is deaf because I've stood outside in my PJ's at four in the morning watching them. Picture this. Two extremely inebriated students are standing less than a metre from each other. No closer of course. This is Holland, and not Italy, remember. In any other circumstances, they'd be close enough to whisper and still hear each other clearly. But no. They have to shout at the tops of their lungs, and just to make sure they've got their point across, they feel obliged to pick up a few tables and chairs and hurl them into the water for added emphasis. Vocal punctuation is obviously not enough. They need a few physical exclamation marks.

Sometimes, tempers flare and fights ensue. Given the state of inebriation, time is relative to the participants and what might normally be a few terse words is strung out into a long drawn out battle of howls of distress emphasised at intervals by the regulation chair and table throwing, and if things get really bad, then the bicycles fly.

This also goes on pretty much seven days a week (it did then and it still does, but I'm more used to it now; 7 years of conditioning have helped).

For a little extra spice, call up the trams squealing across their tracks from six in the morning onwards and the testosterone-boosted boy racers screeching their tyres as they u-turn at the end of the harbour where the road meets its end. Not to mention, of course, the gangs of youths who arrive at any time during the night with their car windows down and their heavy rap music which resounds across the harbour and double flips back to meet itself half way - right over our barges.

"What a gezellig place to live!" my Dutch students say when I tell them I live on a barge in the Oude Haven. I merely smile vacantly, and ask them if they'd like to sample a Friday night experience. I see them thinking of the implications. Many of them are quick to realise that they might well be party to some of my night hour distress. Then I tell them about WW3 every morning. Aaah, they nod sagely. It's a bit noisy yes? Just a bit, I say.

Friday, December 18, 2015

An apostrophic nightmare

'Do you ever find yourself doubting your certainties in life? I know, I know. That sounds like a contradiction doesn't it? But it's true. These days, I'm more in doubt about punctuation than I have ever been and that's saying something.

I think part of the problem is that so many others are so sure they are right about what's correct that when those very people contradict each other, I go into a spin.

Here's an example: in academic writing (which I teach), the rules (okay don't sigh now) say that you should only use a semi-colon to separate items in a list or between two independent clauses of equal weight when you don't want to use a conjunction such as 'and, but etc'. Now things seem to be different in narrative and creative writing. And there's the rub. I've read articles that say you can use a semi-colon instead of a comma when a comma is not enough of a break - like a half way pause between a full stop and a comma (for instance, maybe I could even have put one before 'like' in the line above).  That's wonderful - liberating even. I got quite excited when I thought I could sprinkle my sentences with semi-colons when I wanted something of a more pregnant pause than a dear little comma would give me. doesn't always work. No, it doesn't, and I've seen semi-colon use go terribly wrong. I'm not even sure if I do it right myself anymore as I've had editors question my dramatic pauses a few times. So I'm going back to the rules as they apply to academic writing. I may be a wimp but at least they are clear.

Now the next problem comes with our feisty little apostrophe. Goodness, do people get upset about this beastie? I've had my wrist smacked no end of times for using apostrophes with abbreviated words  or 'anglicisms' that have now been accepted as words in their own right (pro's and con's are just an example, being originally Latin). Added to that, when I was at school, I was taught that decades such as the 1960s had an apostrophe before the 's'. I've left it out here as it seems this isn't done now unless it's a possessive form. In fact there were many 'old-fashioned' forms I had to unlearn when I left South Africa and started teaching in Europe. SA is always about fifty years behind - it's quite refreshing really, but it's given me a few headaches along with having to swallow a lot of humble pie.

But talking about possessives, there is one thing I'm quite certain of and that's the difference between its and it's - at least I thought I was. The first is (contrary to expectations) the possessive form of the pronoun it and the second is an abbreviation for 'it is / it has'. Yes? I am right, aren't I? Please tell me that's true! The problem is that I see an apostrophe used so often for the possessive form of it these days I'm doubting myself all over again - hence the title of this piece. I wouldn't mind except that people get so belligerent about these things and when two opposing sides believe they are right, where does that leave a doubting Dora like me?

So that's my problem. Punctuation is becoming an apostrophic nightmare. I know language evolves and all that. And I'm all for it, believe me! But could it just hold on until I've caught up?

Update: I've been reading this forum that shows I was not mad or even wrong by using apostrophes with plural dates at one time. Grammarian, Michael Swann (well known to me in the EFL world) and Lynn Truss both confirm its former popularity. In fact this forum Q and A raises some other interesting points regarding the apostrophe too:

Happy reading for nerds!

Monday, December 14, 2015

'Waterkoud' - that's Dutch winter for you in our harbour

The last week has been truly typical Dutch winter weather. Extreme cold is rare here and when we have it, it comes in short bursts of fridge-like air that roll over the land with the same intensity as the icy blast issuing from a butcher's very large cold storage room when the door is open. It has the same shock factor too because we are just not used to that kind of cold.

Waterkoud - a damp, misty, snowy winter day in the Oude Haven

Anyway, I don't quite know why I've even mentioned it really as it hasn't been cold like that at all this year. It's just been damp and bone chilling, which is something I dislike even more as it's accompanied by grey, misty skies that make our world seem very dark. I need to keep the lights on inside the barge all day when I'm home and the constant patter of rain on the hatch boards is as maddening after a time as the mistral wind is to the French. It makes me feel closed in and shut down. In practically all respects, I prefer icy and sunny to wet and mild, although that's when we often have an east wind which makes the loopplank  do this:-

An old photo showing how steep our
gangplank is when the east wind blows
But at least we have the Christmas lights. They are just too lovely! On Wednesday, I will hook mine out from under the bed in the little guest room below the foredeck and wind them round the full length of mast. We leave them on until mid January and they make even the dreariest day look brighter in the harbour. There doesn't seem to be much activity this year by way of parties and celebrations, but I'm going to be inviting the family over for a Christmas occasion. It will be a bit cramped - quarts into pint pots as it were, and this is especially true of Koos's eldest son who is exactly two metres tall; at its highest point, the Vereeniging is only 1,85, so Sanne has to stand in the skylight and even then he can't straighten up. I think it will be fun, though. We haven't had everyone on board for since about 2007.

My Christmas lights wound round the mast
Christmas and New Year are often noisy affairs in our harbour, and in the past we have stayed away on NYE because Sindy, our old dog, was terrified of the fireworks. Actually,  I would never ask any dog to endure what verges on a WWIII eruption, let alone a frightened one, but we are dogless now, so I might cajole Koos into staying on board this year. We can watch the firework displays from the Willemsbrug and join the throngs of revellers as they wish each other a happy new year all around the harbour - something we haven't done since Sindy was a puppy. Maybe some of our neighbours will be drinking gluhwein (mulled wine in English) and we can share some cheer with them. At midnight, a roar will start somewhere and spread round the harbour like an audio Mexican wave. 2016 will have arrived in our part of the world. I'm looking forward to it! I hope you all are too.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Family fantastic

I've been thinking about families, a thought (or several of them) sparked by Peter Davey's hilarious blog about the past year, much of which involved events with delightful, if ageing, relatives. It called to mind an evening I spent explaining my own rather multi-tentacled family to a dear (now departed) friend, who told me with some awe that he never knew I had such a complicated, and odd, background.

The thing is I'm the youngest of four siblings, each of whom has their own oddities - not surprisingly given our shared eccentric background of growing up in a crumbling country house in Dorset surrounded by totally off-the-wall parents and a range of surprisingly canny animals (see my novel on the subject for further fictionalised details). Added to this, although I've not had many relationships in my life, those that I've had have brought me a whole set of new and rather interestingly connected relatives.

This is roughly how it goes: my eldest daughter was the issue of a partnership that didn't last simply because the partner in question had issues with partnerships in general. The problem was he didn't realise this himself and went on to have another (short-lived) partnership after breaking ours which resulted in another daughter I didn't know about until a few years ago when my daughter made contact with him and learnt she had a half-sister. Got it?

Right. Now I then got married to a man who had two sons, so my daughter had two legal step-brothers before I had my second daughter who was then half-sister to daughter one and half-sister to daughter one's step-brothers who were also my official stepsons. Bear in mind now that the other half-sister (remember her?) was as yet unknown to us.

Twenty years down the line, my marriage broke up (we won't go there) and I then got together with Koos who has two sons. But because we aren't officially married, these two boys are my unofficial stepsons while my former husband's two sons are now my official ex-stepsons.

There, I'm sure you've all followed that easily, haven't you? So in sum, I have two daughters who are half-sisters; they are both half-sisters to others, but separately, and one is step-sister to my official stepsons while they are both step-sisters to my unofficial stepsons.

Now try explaining that to someone else without reading this again.

And that's not all.

I have a brother (a complete one, not half or stepped or anything else) who is very religious and a fervent Christian. Don't get me wrong, I am not anti religion and I'm not an atheist. I'm far too worried about dying and ending up in front of a crinkly mouthed creator who will banish me to an eternity without books for my lack of faith, so I definitely have my beliefs; they just don't involve sharing them with other like-minded people, and doing the church or evangelist thing is not for me. Nevertheless, I respect my brother for his commitment as he cruises around the UK on his narrowboat attending Christian boaters' fellowship events. That's what he does and all power to him.

What makes this more than just a by-the-way piece of not very interesting information is that Koos's brother, who was actually born into the boating world as the son of a commercial barge skipper, is also an evangelical Christian. Coincidence? I wonder.  That said, you wouldn't necessarily know this from meeting him except that he comes out with his message at rather surprising and slightly inconvenient moments.

I've never forgotten a visit he made to us in the Oude Haven several years ago. We'd been chatting amiably on board about this and that and we were all heading out for a walk when half way across the gangplank, he turned to me and told me I needed to be saved and I should embrace the Lord. Well, I had a moment of panic I can tell you. There I was suspended on a strip of wood over the water and he decides to tell me this. The Lord wasn't there to embrace or to save me - I didn't even have a handrail to hold on to. Luckily, Koos was behind me so substituted for Himself by guiding me carefully to the quay, but it was a nerve-wracking moment to say the least.

As for the rest of our immediate families, they have nothing in common at all, which is probably a good thing or I'd be really confused about where the lines are drawn.

Sadly, I am unlikely to see any of my extended family on Christmas day as we haven't quite got round to solving the problem of who goes where and when or even who is really related at all, but no doubt I'll see them all at some time over the festive season.

Wishing you all a very pleasant run-up to the holidays!

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Digging into the memory archives

I mentioned in my blog before last that it was fourteen years ago in November that I bought the Vereeniging, but it was at the beginning of December - around now to be precise - that I brought her to Rotterdam. The story of our journey is told in Watery Ways and is the lead up to the end of the book when she took her place in the Oude Haven.

Early days in the Oude Haven

But it was in fact great good fortune that we arrived at all given the fragile state of the axle. What we didn't know and never checked was that it was completely rotten and water was seeping steadily through the flange into the engine room. During that journey, we were unwittingly in constant danger (no exaggeration) of having the whole propellor drop off and the barge flooded, but luckily we had no clue. We'd have been in despair if we had.

We only found out how bad it was and how much water was coming in when the Vereeniging was on the slipway. That was also when the inspector turned my lovely boat into a colander (again, no exaggeration) by bashing holes in the bottom, which he did with uncomfortable ease because the old iron was perilously thin. I went cold thinking what could have happened if we'd hit anything hard or sharp on the way. I still do. I mean you would, wouldn't you?

So it's made me think how often we've been spared by not knowing that something was seriously wrong. Well, maybe not spared as such  - it's always resulted in some kind of heavy cost - but at least blissfully ignorant.

For instance, even before this frightener, we'd done a long trip to Lille on Koos's barge before finding out his gearbox was on its last legs. You wouldn't credit it, but we managed to cross all the major stretches of water between Rotterdam and Antwerp, and travel down the Belgium river and canal system into France. I'd left him at Lille but his son was with him when it finally packed up. As chance would have it, his guardian angel had prompted him to have another gearbox on board so he and his son changed it while moored up along the canal side. But weren't we lucky it didn't decide to expire while crossing the wide waters with no handy spots to tie up? And how glad I am we didn't know at the time!

Koos's Luxor, which he sold three years ago
A few years later, another drama occurred that still gives me 'daymares' when I think about it. The steering on our little Hennie H went as Koos pulled into the big sea canal to Gent just after crossing the mighty Westerschelde estuary which is notorious for its currents and sandbanks, and also because it is used by all the sea-going traffic on its way to Antwerp. I am certain that this time Koos's angel was working overtime to make sure it didn't break down on the open waters. It doesn't even bear thinking about what might have happened if it had. Admittedly, he'd had some misgivings about the technical condition of the barge before, but had never anticipated that sickening feeling of turning the wheel and finding nothing was happening at all.

However, being in the mouth of the canal and close to the locks, he was able to get help and a tow to Sas van Gent, but it thoroughly unnerved him. Come to think of it, maybe this time it would have been better if we'd known about the problem. We'd never have set off from Rotterdam in the first place - not until it had been repaired in any event. I only have to see the Westerschelde to shudder at the risk he took.

The Hennie H. Ready to go? We hope so!

As things turned out, the Henni H has taken a few years to get right, and it's only now we are even thinking of taking another real trip in her. Next year is when we hope it will be.

And the destination?

I think I'll keep you all guessing for now. Have a good Sunday everyone!