Saturday, September 29, 2012

Anti-hero or lost soul? André Stander

Back in the 1980s, when I was still fairly new to life in South Africa, a colourful character burst onto the movie screen of life. His name was André Stander and he was a white, Afrikaans, police officer, whose own father was a head of the prison services.

Accounts of the time record that when taking part in a riot control incident in Tembisa, an area of Johannesburg segregated for black people and known for its dismal living conditions with all the most degrading results of the apartheid policies, Stander happens to shoot and kill a black youth. This incident affects him deeply, and, already disillusioned with the apartheid government system, he changes his attitude to the service that employs him. Not only this, he develops an 'anti' against the entire system that represents the privilege of the white (Afrikaans) man - and this includes the banks.

One day, reputedly on the spur of the moment, he flies to Durban, goes into a bank ostensibly to draw money, but instead robs it. He then flies back to Jo'burg for an afternoon's work. The thrill of his spontaneous exploit is liberating, and he starts on a series of robberies that are breathtaking in their audacity. In fact, in one reported case, he was the investigating officer at his own crime.

André Stander became something of a folk hero before he was caught and imprisoned, but later (and this is where I came in), his legendary status increased when after escaping from prison with two of his fellow inmates, he embarked on a spree of robberies of quite astonishing proportions. Sometimes, the Stander gang would rob as many as four banks in a day. Their modus operandi was speed: no fuss, no noise, in and out as quickly as possible. The idea was to make the events so mundane, customers would barely notice them.  Despite using guns to threaten, they did not shoot or hurt people, and bank customers were even heard to boast about being robbed by the Stander Gang  - as if this was something to be proud of.

I remember reading the reports in the papers of the time and being fascinated by this man and his friends. They drove around in a yellow Porsche Targa (sign of their gradually increasing audacity), but no one seemed able to catch or arrest them. Stander's family must have been mortified. Here was their son, the image of bright, educated Afrikanerdom, shaming and humiliating them and their system.  For sure, his image has been polished somewhat and, in reality, he probably does not deserve the sort of Robin Hood status he has achieved, but this is what happens when people step out of the mould and do something of immense daring.

Of course, the Stander gang were all caught in the end. The first to go was Lee McCall, who was killed in a police shoot out when the gang's safe house was surrounded. The other two escaped, though. Allan Heyl, the only surviving member, spent some years in a UK prison after being caught there, and then spent another dozen or so years in a South African prison after being extradited. He was released in 2005 and you can read his account of his Stander Gang years here.  You can also read a somewhat different, but equally compelling account about Stander here.

André Stander himself escaped to the US, where he was finally caught after being stopped by police in a road check. He presented a forged driving licence and this event led to him being recognised as the notorious South African. His apartment was surrounded, but he was not in it at the time. He arrived home on a bicycle during the siege of his home, and was unluckily recognised by an officer on the perimeter of the stake-out. Stander was fatally shot in a struggle to wrest the gun from the officer and died before the ambulance arrived.

The reason why this comes back to me now, and also why I have just bought the DVD of the 2003 film made about Stander (hence photo above), is that I was reminded of the 'legend' while chatting to Koos about film funding while having coffee this morning.

I too was involved in Stander's story in the late eighties and early nineties. Apart from being fascinated, and yes, I admit it, rather touched by what set him on the path of crime, my ex-husband and I were the first to try and make a film about the Stander gang. My husband was a script writer, and he had written a really good screenplay. However, making the promo of the movie cost a huge amount of money. In fact, we had to mortgage our house to do so. Sadly, the funds to go into full production never materialised and we lost our investment.

Nevertheless, I became very involved with Mr Stander at the time and was very absorbed in the story and the making of a film about his life. I well remember the excitement of going on location early in the morning and the whole thrilling vibe of being in the film production world. It's just sad for us that it never came to be. Still,  I'm glad someone finally got to do it, and I'm sort of glad the director is a woman. It feels fitting somehow.

I shall now wait for my DVD to arrive and see whether the film matches up not only to the review, but also to my memories of the whole episode. It feels as if I am getting part of my life back, so I hope my expectations are not disappointed...

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The return of the Snails - A day to remember

A couple of weeks ago, we learned that our friends of the Wandering Snail had confirmed their arrangements for their return to Europe after a gap year in the UK that had not proved to be all too happy. Quite apart from the fact they had not wanted to go in the first place, a number of very unpleasant and stressful incidents meant that they decided to come back as soon as they could.

Yesterday, the truck that took them from Terneuzen in Zeeuws Vlaanderen to England in October last year brought them back again. We packed our bags in Rotterdam and drove down to welcome them home again, but the real welcome came this morning when we finally sailed the Hennie Ha out of the harbour in Sas van Gent and cruised up the huge canal towards Terneuzen to meet them.

This was our first real trip out in the Hennie Ha for three years and it felt fantastic to be out on the water again sharing space with the huge barges and sea-going ships that regularly pass us on their way to Ghent.

 There isn't any more I can say that the photos can't, so as every picture tells a story, I'll let them do just that

Sunday, September 16, 2012

And now for something different....

I've written a new story in my 'proverb' series. This one is based on the saying "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush".  I'm pretty happy with it, in fact, but am getting my two best critics to read it first before I present it to my real public, the bevy of small nieces and nephews I seem to be accumulating. And who knows, after them, the rest of the world?

I'm also hoping Jodie will be able to illustrate it for me, or maybe even Mo as she is very talented at drawing animals, and she's absolutely  brilliant at cartoons.

Then tomorrow, I'm hoping to write some more of my Breeding Eccentrics tale, as I really need to get that out.

I read a good article the other day about the important things to remember when writing and publishing, and one of the key points is to have plenty of material out there. I don't really have enough, it seems, so I need to get writing and get more on Kindle.  What I don't know is whether it's best to stick to the same genre. I have children's stories, teen fiction, memoirs and am in the middle of adult fiction. Am I being a bit too eclectic I wonder? Or would the readers of the Horse that Smiled be likely to read the Skipper's Child as they got older and then Watery Ways as adults...maybe I'm building a readership for's a thought anyway.

Changing the subject abruptly, the other thing I'm busy with is teaching myself to play the violin. I'm still at the stage where the sounds I make probably constitute a serious breach of the peace, and the cats in the area are fearing for their lives, so I only dare to practise at the little house, but I do love it!

Anyone would think I suddenly have time on my hands, wouldn't they? Regrettably, that's not the case. I am just squeezing these extras into the cracks between curriculum design, lesson planning, and teaching itself. It's very, even hectically, busy at the moment.

I must say I would give a lot to cut down the teaching - not because I don't like it, but because I have so many other things I like doing as much, if not more. Ah well, Watery Ways is due out pretty soon...maybe that will be my foot out of the door!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Booking the talk and talking the book

Finding ways to promote my writing is not all that easy in a country where my audience is proportionally small because a) the language, while commonly spoken is not the language of social interaction and leisure and b) my subject matter makes my market even smaller. Consequently, I am always inordinately excited to be invited to give a book talk.

The International Women's Club of Rotterdam, otherwise known as Pickwick, invited me to talk about my first book African Ways a few years ago, and I found the reception warm, friendly and very very interested. So, when they asked me if I would come and talk to them about The Skipper's Child, I jumped at the opportunity. The invitation came months ago, so I had quite some time to prepare myself. Nevertheless, as they say, the best laid plans of mice and men find a way of going astray, and believe me, if they can, they will.

To cut straight to the point, the morning of my long anticipated talk turned, within seconds, into one big disaster.

The first thing that happened was that because I had to teach a class first and I had a lot to carry, I decided to drive to work. This is quite unusual for me, as I normally cycle, so my routine was already upset before I even started. I got my things together and then realised I had too much to carry to the car in one go, so I picked up my teaching bag, grabbed Sindy (who had to come too, of course) and the car keys and stepped out allowing the door to click shut behind me. As I heard it, my blood ran cold. I had the car keys and my teaching things, but my other bag with my other keys and my book talk presentation were all still behind the door - which was now firmly closed and effectively locked.

Now, I have a way of dealing with panic situations that's a bit odd. When I don't know what to do, I just keep going until I do know, a method that has become my modus operandi over the years. It's not always the best thing to do (definitely not when you are ploughing your boat into a bank or a harbour wall), but it does give you time to think - most of the time.

So, totally stymied by what I had just done, I took Sindy to the car, got in and started driving, and as I drove, I figured out a way through the mess. The upshot of my in-transit scheming was that I went and got poor Jodie out of bed, arranged with her that she would fetch my spare keys from her sister, go and collect my bag and presentation, and then after my lesson I would come and fetch everything from her and make a mad dash to the venue where I had to give the talk.

Luckily for me, and thanks to my wonderful daughter, this time it all worked out. I had a few other incidents in the meantime to make me think I should never have got up that morning, but I won't go into those here. Jodie's prompt, willing and timely help are all that really matter for this story.

Having rushed out of class and collected my goodies from Jo, I arrived at the rather grand conference venue, Lommerijk, exactly at the time I was due to arrive. Distinctly dishevelled, somewhat stressed and exhausted before I'd even started, Jean van der Heiden (charming, Scottish, married to a Dutch man) heard my story and sat me down with a cup of coffee to catch my breath. The only thing I wish is that she'd given me something to catch my hair too, as in the photo that she took after the talk, I saw just how dishevelled I really was!

The one good thing about my early morning misadventure was that it made a good ice-breaker to introduce myself with...nothing like a bit of drama, disaster and self-mockery to start things off with!

That done, I proceeded to give my talk. To set the scene for the reading, I gave each of those attending a map of the 1962 route that Arie's family took in their barge, as well as a photo of the real skipper's family (Koos's) and a brief bio of the family history. As I started explaining about what had inspired me to write my story, I realised how interesting it must all seem to 'outsiders'. I am now so used to this watery world, it's all quite normal to me, but as I watched my audience and saw their response to my account of the background to The Skipper's Child, I understood that in fact, I'm very privileged to have been part of something rather special.

I then read them an excerpt from the book. It's one I am especially fond of as it starts with the Kornet family eating their evening meal on board the Rival in Ghent while they listen to the news on their new transistor radio. It follows with Arie leaving the warm barge for a freezing walk into the city centre where he is struck by the beauty of the gracious waterside buildings. The passage finishes with his return to the barge when, from a nearby bridge,  he sees a shadowy figure creeping along the gunwales and disappearing into his own sleeping quarters in the bows of the barge.

I'd hoped to read another extract - one in fact that Hans Astrom had suggested - but time was now running short, so I decided to leave it at that moment of suspense. It was a shame I didn't get to read the other passage, also one of suspense and drama, but it was probably the right choice, as there was a collective sigh (I hope of disappointment) when I said I was stopping.

After that, I answered a stream of questions about the story, the family and barge life in general. The genuine interest was fantastic. Even better, I parted with sixteen signed copies, and one lady took a second one to give to the head of English at the school her son attends. She told me very enthusiastically that this was just the kind of book they would like to have in the library because it combines Dutch culture with Dutch history as well as English language in a digestible form for youngsters. I wasn't about to disagree!

In the end, the book talk was the highlight of my day, my week and probably even my month. The reception I had from the members of Pickwick was so genuine, I really enjoyed myself. I think it's true to say that nearly all Dutch people have some connection to the world of commercial skippers, and while most of the women at Pickwick are imports, like me, their spouses are generally Dutch, so the connection is there. And, it doesn't matter who you are or where you are from, a life on the waterways is so different from the norm that it can only be fascinating for those who live on the land. It's a kind of parallel world that we can all see, but only very few actually experience. I am so lucky to have had even just a glimpse of it.

Thank you very much to Jean van der Heiden and the members of Pickwick for giving me this opportunity and welcoming me back so warmly.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Handing over

Just a few months over ten years ago, I endured my first insurance inspection as owner of the Vereeniging. It was a traumatic event. The inspector came with his merciless hammer and belted holes the size of pigeon eggs along the length of the hold of my precious barge.

The story of that inspection was documented in my book Watery Ways. It resulted in a week of heroic hard work, help and goodwill that I will never forget (once again - thank you so much especially to Philip, but also to Frits, Joram, Peter and Koos, not to mention all the other wonderful souls who mucked in to help). Five years later, I had another inspection, and barring a few minor patches, nothing of any significance was needed. Between 2002 and now,  I have had the Vereeniging out of the water every two years to clean and re-black the hull, always careful to have anything that looked suspect repaired, so this year, when a further inspection was due, I wasn't too worried. I have looked after my little barge with what amounts to tenderness and a lot of love.

Last Monday, we moved the Vereeniging from our mooring to the 'helling' (the slipway). The inspector came on Tuesday, and after his usual bashing, only two small plates on the 'kimmen' were needed - these being the curved parts along each side of the barge that come between the straight sides and the flat bottom and are particularly vulnerable to 'thinning'. Despite my anxiety over certain other parts of the bottom, the inspector proclaimed that the Vereeniging was extremely fit for her 114 years of age. The rest of the week since then has been the usual exhausting, but satisfying blur of painting as many coats of tar substitute on the bottom as it will take, while working around Daan, our brilliant welding craftsman as he bent and shaped the patches that he then attached with supreme neatness and precision to the hull.

However, this 'helling beurt' marks the fact that other things have changed too. In a sense, the inspection was something of a handing over. I am no longer living on the Vereeniging. My daughter Jodie has moved on board and is set to take it over for the longer term. This 'keuring', as the inspection is called, was also to ensure that everything was in a fit and healthy condition for her to assume responsibility. This is hard for me, as you might imagine, but many things have occurred over the past twelve months that make it the practical and sensible solution for all of us - and Koos and I still have the Henny Ha...(see previous post). The long (or the short) of it is that Jodie has the best part of a year to decide if she really wants to pursue this life, and part of that is winter - a testing time.

I won't dwell on my somewhat mixed feelings at this stage, but will leave you with the photos above of the Vereeniging that I took today. The yellow clad individual under the boat is Jodie using the high pressure hose to clean parts of the bottom that had not yet been treated.

You could call this a sort of baptism for her - just as it was for me ten years ago. I wonder if she will write a book about it too...