Frank Parker's author site

Brexit – Neither Divorce Nor Car Deal

In the debate over Brexit many people have tried to come up with suitable analogies. Among the oldest is the idea of the divorce – the withdrawal bill and the £39 billion payment of outstanding budget commitments is even referred to as the “divorce settlement”. More recently some have sought to liken the search for a “deal” to the kind of arrangement you might come to with your local car dealership. Over the weekend I began thinking about both.

Let’s begin by looking at the stages in a marriage at which a divorce may be contemplated. You’ve been together for less than 5 years, both of you are a good deal more mature than when you married. There are no children, neither of you gets on with the in-laws, you have few mutual friends. You live in an apartment block where you hardly ever encounter your neighbours. You come to an agreement to part company. There is some pain, inevitably, but there is an overwhelming sense of relief in both parties at the resulting sense of freedom. Even your friends, who have been treading on eggshells around you as they sensed the tensions in the relationship, feel that same sense of relief.

Now, suppose you have been together for 40 years. You have grown-up children and several grand children. You are aunt and uncle to several other children. You are God-parents to a number of your friends’ children. You are a partner in your father-in-law’s business, expecting to inherit when he finally decides to retire. You are well known in your community, both of you involved in different aspects of community life. Divorce in those circumstances is almost unthinkable and will cause enormous disruption and sadness in the lives of many people, including the employees of the family business.

I leave you to decide which of these, if any, Brexit is most like.

Now let’s look at the car replacement analogy. It might be the case that the car you are trading in is subject of a finance agreement with some outstanding payments due. You will need to settle that as part of the deal, or, quite possibly, before you can contemplate a deal. You discuss your requirements with the dealership and are offered a trade-in value for your old car. You don’t like the offer, believing your old car is worth more. You can take it or leave it. You decide to leave it. What you don’t do is leave your old car in the dealership and, literally, walk away.

The “no deal” option for Brexit is like deciding to manage without a car for the foreseeable future. “No Brexit” is like carrying on with your current model with all its faults rather than accept a bad deal.

The truth is that neither analogy is anything more than an approximation to what Brexit really means. How could it be otherwise, since Brexit is a unique event for which there is no precedent in history. What hurts, and what makes the 40 year divorce example feel close to the reality of Brexit, is the huge number of cultural, sporting and business links that have been built across Europe over the past 45 years and that are now being sullied by the xenophobic rhetoric that has been unleashed.

The Channel Tunnel makes travel between Britain and Europe easy. Image found at Sky.com

The choirs, the amateur drama groups, the sports clubs, the agricultural societies, that exchange visits on a regular basis. The beekeepers, bird watchers, surfers, animal breeders, astronomers, geologists, paleontologists, anthropologists – the list is endless. True, such relationships extend beyond Europe, especially in these days of the World Wide Web. But Europe is on our doorstep. Heading across the Channel for a day or a weekend to meet individuals with shared interests is easy and many people do it, for business, pleasure, and to exchange ideas and information about their hobby or profession.

And we must not forget the real marriages between Britons and European nationals and the new rules that mean that the “foreign” spouse now has to register for “settled status”. So do the children, even grown ups who were born here, grew up here and have worked for decades, paying their taxes and NI contributions. All because a few ultra-rich, public school educated people want to avoid paying their taxes.

These are things that we don’t hear so much about. We hear plenty about the businesses that rely on parts manufactured in different regions of the Continent and how that will inevitably be made more difficult – and more expensive – by Brexit, whatever form it takes. But the pain caused at the personal level by the opprobrium about Europe and Europeans that is regularly exuded by the extremes of the leave camp is unforgivable.

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Monday Memories – Derby Days Ahead

Like many others, I had a pay rise of almost 30% in 1975. It made little difference to our standard of living since costs rose by a similar amount. By the end of the year the money we had saved during our period of living, mostly at the company’s expense, in South Africa was gone. I sold the Mini back to my brother-in-law and began cycling to work every day.

Inflation in 1975. Graph found at https://www.inflation.eu/inflation-rates/great-britain/historic-inflation/cpi-inflation-great-britain-1975.aspx

By now, I was our department’s representative for the Courtaulds’ Senior Staff Association which had, under new trade union legislation, become a trade union. To give an idea of the group of employees that this small union represented it is perhaps helpful if I outline the archaic class divisions that were still extant in British workplaces at the time.

At the bottom of a pyramid were ordinary workers who operated machines or practiced crafts, essentially work with the hands rather than the head. Such workers were usually paid by the hour with bonuses earned if agreed rates of individual or departmental production were exceeded.

Next were clerical staff and those who supervised the hourly paid workers. These were paid a weekly wage which could be augmented by shift allowances and overtime paid at an hourly rate, derived from the weekly wage divided by the number of hours in the standard working week, and then factored up depending on whether the overtime was undertaken on a weekday or at the weekend.

Finally there were managers and professional staff who were paid a monthly salary regardless of the number of hours worked. In brief these were referred to, in Courtaulds, as “hourly paid”, “weekly staff” and “monthly staff”. For practical reasons, there came a time – before I joined the company – when weekly staff received their pay monthly, so the two staff categories were redesignated “group 1 staff” and “group 2 staff”. Each of these was represented by a staff association. Very few “group 2 staff” belonged to a traditional trade union, but, under the new legislation, the members decided that the “Group 2 Staff Association” would become a union.

I suppose I should add that hourly paid workers worked longer hours than office based staff. When I started work, in 1958, the standard working week for manual workers was 44 hours which soon reduced to 42. Meanwhile “office” hours reduced from 39 to 37.5. I think that is where they remained in the mid 1970s.

As a representative I found myself attending meetings and discussing employment terms and conditions. I got to know some of the other representatives quite well, among them the representative for the Structural Engineers who occupied an office next to ours and with whom I also had occasional contact on technical matters. One day in early 1976 he came to my desk to ask how busy I was; would I have time to look at a job he had been asked to evaluate at our Derby factory? I told him I was close to finishing the Derry project and suggested he talk to my boss. The upshot of that conversation was that I spent about 20 months – from Easter 1976 until the end of 1977, commuting daily to Derby.

The Derby complex consisted of several different manufacturing units. One of the most important products was celulose acetate, both in the form of a textile fibre and in granular form as a filler for all manner of products from wallpaper paste to ice cream. It is manufactured by dissolving wood pulp in acetic acid. Acetic acid is made from ethylene. The company operated in-house ethylene and acetic acid production processes. The ethylene plant was old and inefficient and the company had decided to purchase and install a replacement. This necessitated the strengthening of the supports for pipes that carried feedstock to – and product from – the proposed site as well as services like air, steam, water and electrical cables. My colleague had been asked to evaluate the condition of the existing supports then design and price any necessary strengthening.

[I would like to include an image here but the best ones are copyrighted. You can see a whole collection by following this link where you will see images of the kind of pipework into which I had to thread the new lines.]

“I need to know what new pipes are going where. You’re a pipe man. Can you talk to the people over there and see what’s involved?”

I began daily commuting to Derby after Easter 1976, as Hereford United were looking increasingly like becoming third division champions. Designing a long pipe line is not a simple matter of drawing a line from A to B and around corners. You need to incorporate provision for expansion and calculate the loads that will be imposed on the supporting structure. Only then can the line be broken down into manageable sections and manufacturing drawings produced. In the summer, as I completed various sections of pipework detailing, a contractor was appointed to manufacture and install them. Now I became responsible for over-seeing the delivery of materials to site and then the actual work being undertaken by the contractor.

Meanwhile, back in Coventry, work proceeded on the design of the new plant in conjunction with a Dutch company. In due course materials for that began arriving on site and, again, I was responsible for checking it all in. In the autumn a Site Engineer was appointed to supervise the installation of the plant, with me as his assistant. His name was Frank and so was that of the Dutch company’s English Engineer – potentially a very confusing state of affairs.

Update #1 – Dominique Kyle

Throughout 2019 I intend to post updates on each of the authors I featured in my “A Date With . .. .” series in 2018. Dominique Kyle was my first date, back on January 11th last year. You can read the original interview here. She very kindly broke into a climbing holiday in Sicily to provide this update.

In the original interview, we talked about her series about a young woman stock car racer which had the protagonist, in the fifth book, investigating a paedophile gang in her Northern English home town. Dominique bemoaned the fact that, unlike her protagonist, no woman reached further than a semi-final of the World Championship since 1980. A good place, it seemed to me, to begin our recap by asking if that was still the case.

Courtney Finnikin – Image taken from her Twitter feed

Apparently it is, because: “Courtney Finnikin qualified this year for the 2018 F2 Stocks world championships semi-final but withdrew.”

The other subject that we discussed last year was what Dominique saw as the refusal to face up to and discuss the activities of grooming gangs. Throughout 2018 there were a number of successful prosecutions, government debates and reports, documentaries and drama documentaries. At the same time: “Sarah Champion (MP for Rotherham) has been working tirelessly for change on many issues to do with abuse, new identikit grooming gangs have come to light recently in other British towns, court cases continue, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has continued and they launched the ‘Truth Project’ last year for abuse victims to put their accounts on record*, the UK Parliament signified its determination to end the sexual exploitation of children around the world by ratifying the Lanzarote Convention, national days to raise awareness of grooming gangs have been organised by County Councils – the list is endless.

This is a double-edged sword for an author. Two years ago, my book was cutting-edge, taking on a subject that no one wanted to tackle (and which publishers were wary of touching due to the perceived inherent ‘racism’ of the subject), and now it may come across as a tawdry ‘jump on the bandwagon’, and the whole subject may soon become tired and passé. This was why I didn’t make it a one-subject book. By including the topic of organised abuse gangs in a series that is mostly about a girl trying to make it to the top in the Stock Car racing world means that it will always be part of a wider dialogue.”

Nevertheless, Dominique has not “noticed a sudden rise in interest in my book at times of national interest in the subject. I changed keywords and search terms for the book while the ‘Three Girls’ drama was being advertised and when Sammy Woodhouse brought out her book. I’ve done promotions at key times. I’ve tweeted out on the subject using the hashtag that the County Councils use on their national awareness days. But I don’t know if any of these have had any long-term effect on raising the profile of the novel.

I would like the book to reach either girls in danger of being groomed, or parents and carers who don’t know anything about the issue, to raise awareness. To this end, my most successful ploy has been to make it known that I always make the book free on the first of every month. I put this in my author profile on Amazon, and now, even though some months I don’t advertise or even tweet about it being free, I usually get around forty downloads of the book – so someone out there is finding it! It doesn’t appear to lead to sales of the rest of the series, and I don’t even know if the people downloading it are actually reading it, or even what demographic they are, as no reviews ever arrive on Amazon, but I am hoping that this means that the book is getting out to at least a few people who need to read it.”

Meanwhile Dominique “has been getting the six-book series through an editor. A year on and the editor has only managed to complete five of them, as she likes to leave a couple of months between each to make sure she has substantially forgotten details of the story-line so she can come to each book fresh… However, I had a real piece of luck getting this editor, so I genuinely value her input.

Another author who I met through Goodreads recommended her own editor who is a medieval expert. I was dubious. Why would a woman who knows everything there is to know about some very ancient history, want to edit a series about modern car racing? But I approached her anyway and she fell on my series with every appearance of joy saying that she’d spotted it out there in the ether and had been wanting to take a look at it! Apparently, she’s a secret petrol-head who for years was a marshal in the Formula Ford format (which used to feed into Grand Prix F1) and grew up driving cars around fields! And the author who recommended her to me had no idea about this… So, a marriage made in heaven, I’d say. She’s so picky that I get emails saying, ‘now that you’ve set the date of your first book at 2007 – you cannot use that model of VW as it did not get launched onto the market until Autumn 2009’. Doh! You get the picture…”

With no new writing having taken place “for nearly eighteen months”, she “tried to get going again. But I struggled to work out what to write. My ‘Not Quite Eden’ series is quite unusual, both in its subject matter and by having an awkward anti-heroine as its main protagonist, so I didn’t want to disappoint fans by my next book seeming too tame.”

She “started three, but one (despite the promising subject matter following a girl who joins the FEMEN protest movement) turned out surprisingly bland; one I couldn’t follow through on because it is about an anarchic young male wheelchair-user and I need my two wheelchair-using nephews co-operation on it and they’ve both been too busy; and third I originally wrote in the mid 1990’s and it now seemed too old-fashioned! So by the end of this year, I still hadn’t written anything that was close to being suitable to be released into the world.

Finally, I picked up my nineties ‘first’ novel and decided on a seriously radical re-write/edit, treating it as though I was adapting it for a TV serial and as though it wasn’t anything to do with me. And suddenly, I had a breakthrough and I was flying. No one can get a word out of me now. Work doesn’t get done. Friends don’t get emails. My husband mutters ‘tappity-tap’ as he passes me on my laptop.

I have no idea if fans of my current series will like it. They may hate it simply because it is so different, and they hoped for more of the same and I may get blasted by ‘disappointed’ reviews. But I don’t care.

One of the revelations I had when I picked up this old manuscript, was that over twenty years ago, when I was not much older than the featured protagonists, I was taking on the subject matter of domestic violence and ‘coercive control’ – a term that has only recently been coined and put into law. And I was amazed to find that the way I wrote about it then, when still in my early twenties, was as though the coercive control aspect in it was simply what was to be expected in male/female relationships. However, I am relieved to find that I had a campaign going on in the story line against the outright domestic violence side of it – which was still a substantially unrecognised/under-recorded phenomenon then. How times have changed! So I’ve left it set back in 1995, but I’m bringing out the message in a way that wouldn’t have been understood by readers twenty-four years ago. And at last I’m thoroughly enjoying the whole process of writing again.”

So it seems that Dominique is still as controversial as ever and determined to write about topical aspects of the relationships between men and women. I wish her every success.

Her Amazon book page is here

*There is another ‘Truth Project’, as I discovered when I googled the term. I have provided a link to the correct site. (FP)

Monday Memories – Back to Coventry

Continuing my series of memoir snippets as we return from our year and a half living in South Africa.

Our visas lasted only 3 months and were, accordingly, renewed every 3 months. When my 6th was due to expire, at the end of January 1975, the portion of the project for which I was responsible was almost completed so we began planning our return to the UK. I contacted the co-ownership housing association to enquire if there was a current vacancy. When I was informed that there was, I asked them to reserve it for us. The MD invited me to his office for a farewell discussion, making it clear that there was a permanent position for me if I wanted it. He referred me to the availability of building plots for staff members. “Go home, think about it, discuss it with family, but let me know within 3 months if you decide to take up the offer.”

Image found at https://libcom.org/history/1974-1975-the-portuguese-revolution. Not clear when or where this demonstration took place. Presumably Lisbon some time in 1974 or 1975.

Our return journey was somewhat different from our original journey south. That had incorporated brief stops at Frankfurt and at Nairobi. There in the grey light of predawn my colleagues and I were allowed to leave the aircraft but not to leave the tarmac. The contrast between the air conditioned cabin and the heat, even at that early hour, of an equatorial summer was stunning. The route was jointly operated by British Airways and South African Airways, the latter company responsible for the return leg. Many African countries were engaged in a boycott of South Africa because of its apartheid policies, therefore her aircraft were not permitted to overfly any of the newly independent African nations. We were, therefore, routed via a refueling stop in Angola, a Portugese colony. Portugal at this time had just undergone a coup, replacing its dictator with a military junta, and as a result the future status of Angola was in question. We were not allowed to remain on the aircraft during refueling and were escorted by armed military personnel to a small bar where we waited under their supervision/protection.

The number of passengers was considerably below the capacity of the aircraft which had two consequences, one good, one not so good. The air conditioning, presumably designed to cope with a full cabin of warm bodies, lowered the temperature to something much lower than we were used to. On the other hand, we had 3 or 4 seats each so were able to stretch out beneath airline provided blankets and attempt to sleep; this after watching Goldie Horn in the movie “The Sugarland Express”. If the air conditioning had made us shiver on board the aircraft, the drizzle and sleet that greeted us early in the morning at Heathrow froze us.

We quickly settled back into our boring lives in Coventry. Freda obtained a job as a saleswoman on a stall selling women’s wear in Coventry market; her brother sold me a second hand Mini. I worked throughout most of the year on the layout of machines and service pipework for a huge textile processing factory being constructed in Derry. Basically it was an enormous shed which received bales of fibre at one end and delivered fully finished work wear and household textiles at the other. In between were carding, weaving, bleaching, dying, making up, packaging and storage areas, each of which needed one or several of steam, water, air, gas, chemicals and, of course, electrical wiring to the different machines.

I discussed the possibility of leaving to take up SAICCOR’s offer with the Technical Director whose attempt to dissuade me included the remark that a project in our Cornwall, Ontario, plant could be about to break. Nothing came of that possibility. Going to live permanently in South Africa, so far from relatives and everything we knew, became less attractive as time went on and I never did take up SAICCOR’s offer.

Smoking

Over the years since I turned 18 I had smoked cigarettes and even, for a while, a pipe. Like most people I occasionally thought about giving up. Whilst in South Africa there was very little incentive to do so because cigarettes were so cheap. We were able to buy premium brands in packs of 200 and did so as part of our weekly shop.They were manufactured using Rhodesian tobacco which tasted quite different from the Virginia tobacco we were used to but we quickly became accustomed to it. Back in the UK price was a significant deterrent to the habit.

On the morning of the Monday before Easter I purchased a pack containing 18 cigarettes as this was the pack size available from vending machines at that time. I had a cold which meant that I couldn’t taste anything and smoking aggravated the accompanying cough. By the evening of Good Friday, when we traveled to Hereford to spend the long weekend with Freda’s family, I still had two remaining in the pack. 16 smokes in 5 days surely meant I could manage without. I have not smoked since, one factor that means I am a good deal wealthier and healthier at 77 than would otherwise have been the case.

With Ian approaching 10 we decided that, as we clearly were not going to add to our small family, I may as well have a vasectomy, so, one evening in the summer of 1975, I drove the Mini to a private clinic in Leamington Spa, returning a couple of hours later a little sore down below. I’ve heard some men express dread at the idea of such an operation. Take it from me it’s no more painful than a visit to the dentist – indeed, I’ve had far worse experiences in the dentist’s chair.

A Date With . . . Chris Robertson

Chris Robertson lives in the community of Niagara Falls in Ontario. I wondered how long he has lived there.

“I’ve lived pretty much my entire life here in ‘The Falls’ as locals call it. I was born here, married here, and all three of my children were born here. In my mid twenties my family and I moved to Peterborough, Ontario, but moved back here after only eighteen months. There really isn’t all that much to say about likes and dislikes though. Other than a whole bunch of falling water and ‘tourist traffic hell’ in the summertime it really isn’t any different than other places. No matter what happens it will always be my hometown.”

He doesn’t see his writing as a career:

“Not the way I look at it anyway. It’s really something that started off as a joke. Tom Rotella (co-author of Sparks in the Dark) and I were talking about entering a short story contest one day. He showed me the story he wrote, I thought it was good so I wrote one for fun. That turned out good as well so we both just continued writing and reading each other’s stories until one day I realised there were enough of them to put together a book. I approached him with the idea, he said yes and the rest is history I guess.

I love writing short stories, probably because I have always been partial to reading them as well. I feel like a lot of authors ‘pad’ their works with over-descriptive nonsense. In a spot where I would write His grey hair was moving in the gentle breeze. Other authors take three full pages to describe that very statement. I feel like any full length novel on the market today can be condensed down to eight to fifteen thousand words and still be just as good (or bad) of a story as it is full length. The pacing would just be more exciting.”

On the surface his latest book is about the topical subject of sexual abuse but

“It is actually the biography of someone very close to me and I felt like it was a story that needed to be heard. Other than some minor changes throughout, it is a true story and that is probably the most disturbing thing about it.”

Chris’s short fiction is inspired by song titles:

“How I choose my subjects is totally unorthodox and most people will probably laugh but here it is. On a day when I know I am going to be writing, I set my music player to random. The first song that pops up is now the basis for whatever I want to write. I just take whatever the song title is, mull it over and over in my head and usually within minutes I have a full story in my head based on the song title alone. If you look into the anthologies you will see titles such as Joey, Welcome to the jungle, Crazy Mary, According to You, The promise, These Days, I Don’t Love You Anymore, and Airplanes, which are all stories that were created simply by thinking about the song title for just five to ten minutes.”

Chris is mainly a “plotter” but admits to occasionally being a “pantser”

“Sometimes when the ideas come I will start with just bullet form. After that frame is down I start at the top, look at the first two and figure how they get from one point to two and add a few more points in between. I continue this all the way through then start over again. Eventually there are enough bullets to start to form sentences and paragraphs with them, and then the story is born. Other times I just start writing and see where my mind wanders off to and just make it all up as I go. Those ones tend to be darker and more twisted.”

Chris plays bass in a heavy metal band and enjoys cooking so

“I really don’t have a [set] time [for writing]. I just do it whenever I can. Between work, playing bass in a band, and my family I don’t get near as much time as I would like. As for a place, I have an office adjoining my bedroom at home. That’s where ninety percent of my writing is done. The other ten percent is when I am lying in bed with my laptop.”

Asked about his favourite writers, Chris admits to having lost his early admiration for Stephen King and Dean Koontz:

“I grew up on Stephen King, Edgar Allen Poe, and Dean Koontz. Those guys were the be all end all for me. I couldn’t get enough. As I got older though and I read some of their newer stuff, (King and Koontz) I find that their style has changed and I am finding them harder to read now. It goes back to the ‘padding’ that I spoke of earlier. Their newer books have so much of it that some I have tried to read have been absolute snorefests. Some I’ve had to put down after only a couple chapters because they totally lost my interest just droning on and on.

I have recently started reading Edward Lee and Jack Ketchum and I am impressed with them in the sense that they hold nothing back. They don’t care if something is offensive or disgusting if they feel it belongs in the story then they put it in there. That’s something that I have now integrated into my own writing as well. I held back on the first book so as to not scare people away but in the end I felt I wasn’t being true to myself so no more holding back.

My favorite book of all time though is Faerie Tale by Raymond Feist. I have read that book fourteen times and counting. I tweeted about it once and he replied that he didn’t even read it that many times while proofing it.”

And that taste in literature is reflected in his movie choices, except for one:

“My wife and I are movie nuts and watch a lot of them. I love the Jurassic World, Transformers, Avengers and almost any horror movie that comes out. As for older movies I think my favorites are Jaws, Cujo, Carrie, Rocky, Class of 1984, and there are a ton of others as well but my all time favorite, don’t laugh now, is Seven brides for Seven Brothers.”

It is hard to find anything about Chris on-line, even reviews of his books so I asked him to sell himself and his books to you, my readers.

“It’s funny that there are no reviews online but all the reviews that have been told to me in person have been fantastic. I’ve had people come up to me in the store and say ‘Hey, are you the guy who wrote that book?’ When I tell them ‘yes’ they usually say nice things and tell me which story was their favorite.

I guess one of the things that I can honestly say is that you will never be bored reading the books. They are an absolute roller coaster ride from one story to the next. As for According To You, I think that everyone should read it to get an insight into what happens to kids sometimes right under our noses. Even as neighbors and relatives we don’t always see what is happening but there are signs, and we as a general public need to be more aware of them.

One thing I will say is that no matter what genre you normally read, there is something in the collections for you. I am so proud when I talk to people and they all have a different favorite story. To me that speaks volumes on the strength of them.”

Despite being short of time for writing, Chris is presently working on

“Four different writing projects at the moment. I have a new collection coming out this year. I am also working on taking an old book from the public domain and modernizing it. I am having a lot of fun with that one. I am working on putting together a cookbook which hopefully will be available this year as well. There is one more going on but I am going to keep that one under wraps for now.”

That means that his wife will be kept quite busy, too, because

“My covers are all designed by my wife and myself.”

Chris describes himself as “just a simple family man who loves to weave words into short tales. I also play bass in the metal band ‘Oath of Secrecy.’ We have just finished recording our first album and that is yet another thing to look forward to releasing this year.

Another thing about me is that I really enjoy cooking. I don’t do it nearly as often as I would like to. My wife does most of it. Between the two of us we have come up with some great dishes. We tend to not stick with a certain cuisine though. We just enjoy food.”

I enjoyed my chat with Christopher Robertson (There is at least one other author called Chris Robertson on Amazon, not to be confused with this one!) I hope you did too. Next week I shall start updating last year’s “dates” with what they have been doing over the past year.

Here are links to his books at Amazon.com:

According To You – Lisa’s Story

Dawn To Light

Sparks in the Dark (with Thomas Rotella)


Monday Memories – South Africa Pt.3

My series of memories from my long career as an Engineer will now appear every Monday, instead of fortnightly as hitherto. Here is a fairly long final installment about life in South Africa during 1974.

Weekends we would often get in the company car and drive out to one or other of the many beauty spots nearby: Oribi Gorge, Nagel Dam, the Drakensberg Mountains and, of course, Zululand again, this time without the distraction of a would be rally driver in front. We visited Durban zoo, the reptile park and quiet coastal resorts down the coast. One of these had a tidal pool. This was good because sea bathing was ill-advised unless shark nets were in place. The tidal pool facilitated a close encounter with the ocean’s waves without the risk of attack by sea-borne predators.

Somewhere I have a photograph of me standing on this overhanging rock at Oribi Gorge. I found this one at http://southernexplorer.co.za/listing/302-oribi-gorge-view-sites-wild-5-adventures/
The Lido Hotel at Umkomaas where we spent many Sundays around the outdoor swimming pool. Photograph from SAPPI

Often on Sundays we would spend the greater part of the day at the poolside of the hotel where we had stayed before we were properly housed. Sitting in the shade with a book, occasionally looking up to see the children enjoying the water, savouring a curry washed down with Lion ale, it was easy to believe that life could hardly get better.

In July – the winter in the southern hemisphere, remember – we took a two week holiday and motored up to the town of Sabie, about 500 miles to the north. Internationally there was a fuel shortage and a speed limit of 50 miles per hour was in force. The same restriction applied in the UK, accompanied, from 1st January to the end of March, by restrictions on commercial use of power which had the effect of reducing the working week to 3 days.

For much of our journey we were on empty dirt roads, straight so far as the eye could see, bounded by fields of maize. We had been used to driving in the rolling green hills of Natal with clusters of African dwellings clinging to the hillsides and in deep valleys. Once we arrived in the vicinity of our destination we discovered a land of forested hills that reminded me of paintings of Scotland. From our base in Sabie we took day trips to various tourist destinations including the Blyde River Canyon, where centuries of erosion have created multi-hued hemispherical hollows in the rock face, and God’s Window, a part of the escarpment created by the Great Fault from where it is possible to look across the lowland plain a thousand feet below.

Eroded rocks at Blyde River Canyon. Photograph found at http://www.worldfortravel.com/2015/09/06/blyde-river-canyon-mpumalanga-south-africa/

One day we drove down the escarpment to that lowland plain with its orange groves, and on to the wild life reserve, Kruger Park. Before we set out at 8am I had to scrape ice from the windscreen. By 10am, down on the plain, the temperature was in the 80s Fahrenheit. In the reserve it was dangerous to wind down the windows. We saw zebra, giraffes, elephants and various species of deer, all in their natural environment, often just glimpsed through the scrub, but no lions.

Another day we visited a nineteenth century mining village, preserved as it would have been during the South African Gold Rush. One of the timber buildings, all of which resembled the kind frequently seen in Hollywood Westerns, housed a shop selling souvenirs and local crafts and produce. The place seemed to be run by two rather camp young men. A woman in front of me commented on the local honey displayed for sale: “Do you make it yourself?” she wanted know.

“Yes, aren’t I a busy bee?” came the reply in a pastiche of camp.

This surprised us in a country where the NGK (Nederlands Gereformed Kirk or Dutch Reformed Church) had such influence on behaviour. But then, the State and Church were full of contradictions. Like the heritage site we visited once where, after a tour of the rondavels, we were treated to a demonstration of African traditional dance by bare breasted women. I couldn’t help describing this particular “attraction” as “the human zoo”. African topless dancers were acceptable whilst a young white woman who performed a cabaret act in which she danced wearing a live python and very little else was prosecuted for indecency.

I cannot recall how it began, but somehow Ian struck up a relationship with an elderly lady who was a permanent resident at another of the hotels in town. During the long school holidays he would spend hours in her company, playing cards and, I have no doubt, listening to her life story. I must ask him how much of this he remembers now.

Freda was quite content to do the small amount of housework required herself. During our first weeks in the new house it was not unusual for her to answer a knock at the door and find a young African woman looking for employment as a maid. Several times she refused these offers. She discussed it with Walter’s wife, Vi, who had taken on a ‘Girl’ as these women were called. “You should,” Vi advised. “For one thing, once you have one, the others will leave you alone. But where’s the harm? They have no other source of income.”

Freda wondered if they could be trusted, but decided to engage the next young woman who came seeking employment. There were rules attached to such casual arrangements. The ‘girl’ must not use the same washing and toilet facilities as the family. The block of five houses had been provided with a small brick building at the back which is where ‘girls’ were supposed to take care of their personal hygiene. Freda let our ‘girl’ know that she had no objection to her using our downstairs toilet.

Another rule dictated that whites were not permitted to enter the African village where these ‘girls’ resided with the male family members who worked at the plant. So we were not supposed to give her a lift home at the end of her working day. Not even after using her as a child minder on nights when we drove into Durban to catch a show or to go dancing in one of the dance halls. Strictly speaking, blacks were not permitted in ‘white’ areas after dark so we were breaking two rules when we did this.

One thing that became obvious was that the Europeans in Natal, perhaps because it had been a British colony, were far less bigoted in their view of the Africans than were those in the other provinces, at least so far as one could tell from comparing observed behaviour with what we read of events and attitudes elsewhere in the Republic. Our transport manager, with whom I had frequent contact due to our continuing use of the company’s vehicles, was an Afrikaaner. As such he was one of the few people I met who was open in his contempt for Africans – he usually referred to them as ‘Kaffirs’ – and would pontificate about them and their perceived short comings at length given half a chance.

George Brown, Labour Deputy Prime Minister in the 1970s, having difficulty staying upright. Photograph found at https://www.dailymail.co.uk/columnists/article-1262145/By-George-Its-easy-Brown.html

One of his stories, told more than once, was of a visit by the British Labour foreign secretary George Brown several years before. It was an open secret that Brown had a drink problem and Van – the man’s surname was Van Roen, always shortened to Van – Van was full of scorn in his description of Secretary Brown stumbling and staggering in and out of the diplomatic car. Van also told us that the BBC crew accompanying the British minister had filmed black children scavenging in dust bins which, Van assured me, had been staged by throwing coins into the bins. It was never clear whether Van had actually witnessed any of this in person or if it was an apocryphal tale the details of which had been embellished through frequent tellings and re-tellings.

Van also had a theory – and it was undoubtedly plausible – that the bloom of red silt that we saw each summer flowing from the river into the ocean was the result of inefficient agricultural methods employed by the ‘Kaffirs’. Van’s contempt for their ignorance never seemed to extend to the idea that ‘The Kaffir’ would benefit from education.

Fortunately that attitude did not have an echo in company policies. Design drawings are traditionally produced on tracing paper from which prints are prepared for use by those implementing the designs. Every drawing office has its print room where the machines for reproducing the drawings are housed along with the stored originals and catalogues of all drawings. The operation of these machines and the maintenance of the drawing register is usually the responsibility of a clerk. At SAICCOR that clerk was an African.

At the staff Christmas party in December 1974 I talked with one of the directors, an English man who assured me that white rule would be ended in the near future: it was in everyone’s interests, not least the business community who would gain a vastly increased market as Africans acquired greater purchasing power. The recent granting of a license to Philips to roll out a television service would help to facilitate this change. Eighteen months later I would witness on British TV the Soweto uprising and subsequent reinforcement of discriminatory laws. It would be another 15 years before the release of Nelson Mandela and the eventual enfranchisement of Black South Africans. Almost 30 years after that there is still appalling poverty in the Republic whose government is well known to have been plagued by corruption.

I wish I could illustrate this post with my own photographs. Although I took many, a lot have been lost in the course of several house moves since. The ones that survived are of very poor quality. I have found better quality photographs on the web and acknowledged their provenance in the captions. Please follow the links to find lout more bout the places featured. Next Monday I’ll tell you what happened on our return to the UK 45 years ago this month.

Monday Memories – Work in South Africa

Between “Living in South Africa” parts 1 and 2, a rather boringly technical article about my reason for being there. This will be the last Monday Memory for 2018 but I intend to increase the frequency from fortnightly to weekly when I return with “Living in South Africa” part 2 on January 7th 2019.

The principal agricultural product of the region where the SAICCOR (South African Industrial Cellulose Corporation) mill is located is sugar cane. This is harvested throughout nine months of the year, during which time a large fleet of road and rail trucks transports it to sugar mills. For three months of the year this fleet is idle – or would be, but for the eucalyptus plantations, SAICCOR and other timber conversion operations such as Masonite whose mill was and still is (though now operating as Evowood) in Estcourt.

The problem for these operators was that the bulk of the year’s supply of timber was delivered during this 3 month ‘closed season’ for cane. The wood yard at SAICCOR covered a vast area in which logs were stacked up to 15 feet high. A 9 foot wide trench filled with water (the canal) ran the length of the yard in its centre. Down this logs were floated to the point where they were transferred to the chipping machine. A team of African labourers used wooden poles with metal hooks to guide the logs along.

A couple of crawler cranes with grabs unloaded the trucks during the delivery period, dropping a proportion into the canal and stacking the remainder. The rest of the year the same cranes lifted logs from the stacks and dropped them into the canal.

The process operated 24/7 except for a single weekly 8 hour shift when everything was cleaned and necessary maintenance undertaken.

Similar undertakings in North America had converted from storing logs to storing chips. This took up less space but meant that chipping capacity, and the handling of timber, had to be doubled. That was the main task for our small team. It took all of 1974, running well into1975.

Taking our cue from similar installations in North America and at Estcourt, the canal was replaced by a flume – a fast flowing stream that carried logs down to the transfer point. This was served by a concrete storage tank the top of which was at ground level, a filtration system to remove sand, grit and bark shards from the water, a pump and a pipeline to return water to the top of the flume. All of this had to be designed and constructed whilst the normal operation of the plant continued.

The hydraulic design of the flume to achieve the desired combination of volume and velocity required the application of a complex formula involving a constant called the Reynolds Number, meant to represent the frictional resistance of the steel liner which was layed to a gradient.

Back then there was no computer programme available to do the calculation for me. The team were allocated one of the first electronic calculators. This was a fairly basic model. I’m not sure if the kind called ‘scientific’ even existed yet. Certainly ours would only do basic addition, multiplication/division and simple functions like square roots.

An early calculator similar to the one our team used in South Africa in 1974. Image from https://stevenjohnson.com/electronic-calcs.htm

It was important that I got the calculation right because there was a lot of steel and skilled labour involved in the construction. If it did not work as intended the cost of rectifying it would have been considerable. Because of that my calculations were thoroughly checked by one of the in-house designers. I’m pleased to be able to report that we did get it right.

Another innovation concerned the unloading crane. This was intended to run on rails either side of the flume, with an articulated jib and grab that lifted logs from road or rail transports and dropped them between its ‘legs’ into the flume. The proposed machine had been designed in conjunction with a hydraulics engineer who had come from Italy as part of the original installation team in the mid 1950s, subsequently setting up his own business in Durban. The contract had been awarded before we arrived. Many months had elapsed since then and several trials in the works had failed to demonstrate that the machine was capable of performing its intended task.

SAICCOR’s managing director, an Irishman who was extremely supportive towards our team, was becoming increasingly frustrated by this failure of the supposed specialist to deliver. The route from Umkomaas to Durban passed through an industrial area on the south side of the city. One of the many businesses that lined the dual carriageway was Blackwood Hodge, the South African distributor for JCB. There was always an array of excavators of various sizes on display in their yard. One day the MD waltzed into my office and explained that he had just come back from Durban and had a brainwave as he passed Blackwood Hodge. Would I get in touch with them and see if it would be possible to come up with an adaptation of one of their machines? To cut a long story short, it was and we did.

A JCB excavator similar t the one I adapted to handle logs Image copyright JCB Ltd

A further design task which I undertook was the method for lifting logs from the flume and depositing them onto the final conveyor into the chipper. The canal terminated in a so called jack ladder – a chain conveyor that carried the logs up an incline and dropped them onto a conveyor belt running at right angles. With the flume, the logs would be the wrong way round for this so my new elevating chain conveyor had to end with a steel chute designed to turn the logs through 90 degrees before dropping them on to the conveyor belt.

Whilst I was designing the log handling part of the project, Walter was designing a system of pipes and blowers to distribute chips to the new storage area. This now had to be integrated with the existing chip handling which consisted of a very long inclined conveyor belt which transported chips from the base of the chipping machine to the top of the digester – a vertical cylinder in which the wood chips were dissolved in acid to create pulp. This conveyor had to be split about half way up the incline so that chips could be diverted to the blower system when required.

One aspect of the design for water cleaning was the final filtration to remove very fine particles. I had seen an article in a South African business journal which described how a centrifuge had been used to reclaim tobacco shreds from the water used in a tobacco processing facility in what was then Southern Rhodesia. It seemed to me this would be ideal for our application.

The team leader disagreed. He had already been in touch with a company that had supplied filtration equipment to Courtauld’s Derby factory and insisted we should have a cloth filter that would be cleaned by vibration. He contended that “you can’t separate organic materials (in our case small particles of bark and wood splinters) using a centrifuge” I argued that tobacco is organic and it reportedly works in the tobacco factory. Perhaps I could go up there and have a look. Anyway, I thought the splinters would get trapped in the fabric of the vibrating filter.

Of course I was over-ruled. I spent many hours over the Christmas and New Year period, when we were commissioning the plant, trying to get the vibrating filter to work without success. The manufacturer’s representative flew out to assist but had no success. At the end of January Freda, Ian and I returned to England. When Walter returned, a few weeks later, he told me that the vibrating filter had been abandoned and a centrifuge installed in its place.

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