Friday, January 31, 2014

The End is Nigh

It’s that funny time, that weird hiatus after pressing the most stressful button on the computer.

 New editor, new publisher, new type of book, it’s all kind of...well new! After months of scribbling and writing and stressing, suddenly…nothing.

I start to notice things; there are no clean dishes, one of children is 6 feet 2 (suddenly!), the dog is fat from  not being walked, the frosted glass in the windows turns out to be clear glass covered in cobwebs… oh and the kitchen ceiling has fallen in. I confess that I had noticed that last one but I had it on my ‘deal with it once the book is done’ list.
                                                           I used to have a Barbie. I dissected her.

That list is quite extensive. It’s nearly a book on its own.
So I am sailing out in new ventures and happily so.
When I am editing I tend not to sleep. My brain goes into a mish mash of regurgitation,  going over difficult scenes in my head, practicing dialogue to make sure it sounds real. It can be hard to switch off,  and I need to get up in the morning for the day job. So I make a point of reading something else – usually something marvellous – but this time I picked up a ‘first novel’ from someone who is now extremely famous – a huge best selling person, multi millionaire, clean socks, good aftershave  etc
And it was awful!
Really dreadful. So bad it made me laugh out loud.
The plot was James Bond meets the A Team with the cast of Emmanuel Five in supporting roles. I still can’t tell you what it was about but there was a Russian in there somewhere. 
It has been republished and repackaged. I found a recent  interview with him where he said that this novel was the fourth book he wrote, but the first book that was published. Then added, if you think that was bad, you should have seen the first three! .. and I would like to.  But he made the good point that all writers need to learn their craft. And now not that many get the chance.  It was interesting to see  how his talent has developed from those early days.
Ian Rankin was famously nearly dropped after book 4. It was book 5 that got to the top of the best sellers. My pal, nominated for a Gold Dagger, left ‘crime ‘at the end of book four to change genre completely, successfully I may add. But her crime publisher was not interested in a book five, no matter what kind of book it was.
So now I am in my hiatus. I’m 60 000 words into book 6 and researching  7. But I need that wee gap in my head… and the house needs hoovered,  the dog walked, and I need to phone a roofer.  Before  that I read the responses to PD James words of wisdom for writers in Red Herrings… and thought I would add my own.
no not him, that's P Diddy

                                                      This is PD!

 Because I can.
And I can’t be bothered phoning the builder.

You must be born to write.
Ms James said that you can’t teach people how to use words effectively and beautifully.  Chris Fowler said that curiosity about the world and its people shapes a writer more and I think I agree with him. Someone with a good imagination can learn the tools of the trade, learn to find their own voice and you can be the finest wordsmith in the world but you still need something interesting to say or a good story to tell. 
Write about what you know.
Well I don’t, I’ve never murdered anybody. Pretty sure PD hasn’t either.  I make it up! Fiction is fiction. Do the research about the stuff you don’t know. As I advise my students, get it written then get it right.

                                                                 Angela Gils Klocke
Find your own routine.
Very true. Having a full time job means I  don’t have time for writers block. Or housework. If in doubt get on with it. I am a Martini writer. Anytime, anyplace, anywhere.
Be aware that the business is changing.
I know fellow authors  who network relentlessly and hassle editors and publicity people. One pal  got a row for stalking their publicity person by emailing her too often! I can’t be ar…d with all that.  I write, get the words on the paper and agree to any events I’m offered. I prepare myself well if I am asked to do a panel.  People get paid to chose my covers, they know about marketing so I let them get on with it. Or am I wrong?
Read, write and don’t day dream
Chris Fowler thinks that this is the  worst advice possible. I think they are both right. It depends on the day dream. Daydreaming in that creative space, walking the dog while working out a plot point pays dividends. The day dreaming in that fantasy space where you are being invited for coffee by George Clooney or you have woken up and are a size 10…. Maybe not so much. Then it is time to apply bum to seat, pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.
Enjoy your own company , again I can write anywhere, with any noise (except attack toddlers and lawn mowers, but an attack toddler under a lawn mower is fine with me). My pal is a chic lit writer and she  goes to a  five star hotel  for a week and lives on room service and champagne ( both feature heavily in her books, so it’s tax deductible)  to get the plot right. Then comes homes and writes it,  but she has lots of very small children and no lawn mower so she probably needs to!
Choose a good setting
I think we all in MIE know the importance of that, murder IS everywhere, thank goodness. ..
Never go anywhere without a note book.
I don’t ( go anywhere without one), I buy notebooks the way other women buy shoes,  friends stick ideas on ipads and other swipey screen things that bing and bong, run out of battery and break when the dog sits on it. Not so with a pen and a bit of paper. It’s so much more creative and much less like work. And you can stick the good ideas  on your forehead so you don’t forget.
Never talk about a book before its finished.
I do, all the time. I chat to folk in my writers group,  my patients, various folk who live in my house. The dog. The latter is the best critic.
Book 7 features someone in a coma.  I’ve never been in a coma thankfully  but was chatting away to a patient who told me her son in law was in a coma for  four months. She told me a lot. Stuff you don’t get from having a medical degree. 
One weird thing was that when he ‘woke up’ he knew what they had been talking about over his bed. Not specific memory but an osmosis of the daily detritus of the conversation.  Mainly, the stress had caused his wife to go back on the ciggies. His mum had lost lots of weight through the stress.  The cat had kittens and all found good homes. And somebody was scoffing all the polo mints. (That was the wife disguising the fact she was smoking) .
Know when to stop.
Maybe writers like PD don’t get a word count to  stick to but it does concentrate the mind somewhat.  My new publisher likes shorter books, so I’ve had to edit and cut and trim. I think it has worked. I hope it has.

I had ‘blog’ on my to do list, ( I have a special note book for my To Do list) I can score that off now and phone the builder. It’s going to snow tomorrow, it will snow through the hole in the roof.
But first I’ll take the dog out, there’s a bit of dialogue I’m struggling with where the James Bond type character has driven over an attack toddler in a lawn mower and Mr T ain’t chuffed!


Caro Ramsay GB 31/01/2014

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Big Five Plus One

Last year Stan took us through the Big Five – elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo, and  rhino.  I’ve been in the bush for the past few weeks and lucky enough to have wonderful sightings of all of these.  But I do feel one animal has been very short-changed and it’s an animal very close to our hearts (i.e. Stan’s heart and my heart).  That is the hippo.  I’m sure readers of this blog know that kubu is the Setswana word for hippo, and that our detective has that as his nickname.  I think the hippo has every right to be included in the top rank with those other five.  Not only are the animals very large – the males weigh in over 4,000 lbs, coming in third to elephants and rhinos in terms of size, but they are also fierce and can be quite aggressive in some circumstances – they account for more human deaths in Africa than any other mammal.  And they are fascinating creatures and interesting to watch, edging out the rhino for second place of the three ultra-large herbivores in my opinion.  No river in Africa is complete without their cheerful grunting carrying across the water.

From a physiological point of view, the hippo is amazing.  How about an animal that spends its days in the water, but is too dense to float?  That can hold its breath for up to five minutes.  (Don’t try that one at home!)  That has nostrils designed to close under water, and a reflex that allows it to sleep under the water and rise for breathing without waking up.  That has built in goggles (transparent membranes that close over the eyes under water).  And that has built in sunscreen (the hippo secretes an oily brownish substance which protects its bare skin from the sun).  Pretty impressive design, I’d say.  And no rude comments about it being porcine.  (Kubu would be particularly offended.)  The hippo’s closest relations are the dolphins and whales; it separated off from them about fifty million years ago.

Most of the day they spend fully submerged or comfortably beached on a sandbar warming in the sun (having applied sunscreen, of course.)  In the evenings they come out of the water and spend the nights browsing and grazing along the river banks or quite far inland if the feeding conditions are poor as they tend to be in the winter.  At this time they are busy with the important issue of building up that 4,000 lbs of bulk, and you really don’t want to interfere with them.  In particular, you don’t want to give them the idea that you are trying to cut them off from the haven of the river.  That usually leads to aggressive behavior and possibly one of those human deaths.

I’ve had my own close encounter, mostly my own fault.  It was my first time in a canoe on the Zambesi river in Zimbabwe.  I was with a friend who was a bit more expert as a canoeist than I was, but not much.  He was at the back.  At a certain point the guide who was ahead of us in another canoe signaled us to move out into the center of the river; he’d spotted a pod of hippos near the shore.  What he didn’t know was that the hippos had spotted him, and submerged and politely moved to the center of the river to let us pass.  My friend and I paddled out into the river, proud of our calm expertise.  Moments later a huge jaw opened a short distance in front of us; we had not reciprocated the hippos polite behavior.  We immediately put the canoe into what we thought was reverse.  Unfortunately our expertise did not run to reverse against the current.  What we did do was cause the canoe to rotate as the current took us towards that enormous mouth.  At the crucial moment the hippo sank under the water and we passed over it.  I think I know why it didn’t convert our canoe into splinters and us into mincemeat.  It was laughing too much.

Hippo behavior is complex.  The males have water territories, but will tolerate other bulls as long as they behave in a submissive way.  Last week we saw an interesting example at one of the dams at the game reserve where we were staying.  The dam is large and a family of five hippos, one male and two females with youngsters, has taken up residence.  They’re a charming group, and most days we would pop in to see how they were getting on.  As I mentioned last time, on one occasion they had a stand-off with nine lions and eventually the hippos got right of way.  On our last evening, we arrived at the dam to discover that it now contained six hippos.  Apparently another male had decided the dam was a nice spot to spend the day.  The altercation between the males seemed to involve bursts of rivalry where they would rise from the water bellowing and threatening each other by matching their enormous mouths.  Then all would go quiet for a while and one would rest its head on the other’s back.  Maybe that’s submissive behavior?  Unfortunately it became too dark and rainy to see what happened in the end, but I’d guess that all six went off feeding and that the interloper would have found a more peaceful dam or river stretch for his day nap.

So from all points of view, I believe that the hippopotamus fully deserve a place up there with the other big five.  I propose that in future we have the Big Six.

Michael – Thursday.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Who knew curling could be a dangerous sport?

I am not a risk-taker. I do not bungee-jump. I don't participate in extreme sports. I wear a seat-belt. I floss (I'm really into flossing).

And yet, I'm going to the Sochi Winter Olympics.

At the time I agreed to go, there were known problems, yes. Mostly tales of massive corruption in the construction of the Olympic venues. I could shrug that off, since at least these weren't my tax dollars being squandered. Later, concerns emerged that the hasty construction of Olympic venues has greatly damaged the fragile environment surrounding Sochi. This hits me where I live. It's sickening, and tragic.

But the first big indication that these Games might not go smoothly was the passage of Russia's anti-gay bill, the one that bans "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" (meaning, talking about homosexuality pretty much at all),  emboldened fascist thugs who get their kicks from gay bashing, and has driven many of Russia's gays back into the shadows.

This has led to a range of responses, from calls to boycott, the interesting selection of the official US delegation, which includes three openly gay athletes—Billie Jean King, Caitlin Cahow, and Brian Boitano, some really fabulous uniforms from the German team:

--and a lot of unanswered questions. President Putin has assured gay athletes and spectators that they are in no danger of running afoul of Russia's laws, as long as they “leave the children in peace,” but the definition of "propaganda" under this law is pretty vague. Would a same-sex couple holding hands be disseminating propaganda? How about simply stating support for gay marriage?

I had to ask myself, do I go, or not go? I strongly support gay marriage. If anybody asks me, I'm going to tell them that, no matter where I am.

Here's hoping no one will ask.

Well, not to worry, the mayor of Sochi says there are no gay people living in the city, leading opposition leader Boris Nemtsov to wonder how Sochi's several gay bars stayed in business.

Here's a great article from The Atlantic, "How Sochi Became the Gay Olympics," which includes SNL's solution to one potential problem: an all-heterosexual Team USA figure-skating squad.

But Sochi's identity as the "Gay Olympics" seems to be short-lived. Now these Games are being labeled the "Terrorist Olympics" because of repeated credible threats by Chechen rebels and Islamic separatists. Groups have already staged attacks in Volgograd, a city some 430 miles northeast of Sochi, blowing up train stations and busses, killing more than 40 people and injuring over 100. There are security alerts in Sochi about "Black Widows," widows of militants who have vowed revenge for their husband's death and who may already be in the city.

One security expert has stated that "it’s not a matter of whether there will be some incident, it’s just a matter of how bad it’s going to be.” UK officials are warning that terror attacks are "very likely." In response, Putin has vowed that the Olympics will be safe and that a security "Ring of Steel" surrounds the city and the Olympic venues. The US, meanwhile, has stationed warships close by to evacuate American nationals in case of emergency.

But, on the other hand…the US State Department's advisory is the same for the Olympics as it is for Americans traveling to Russia in general. There are areas to avoid, some of which are uncomfortably close to Sochi. You should maintain situational awareness at all times. It's probably not a great idea to get smashed on vodka toasts and stumble around town. Okay, the State Department didn't say that specifically, but you know, it's still good advice.

In the same article I linked to above, a different security expert offers an opposing view. Yes, radicals will try to stage an attack. But they lack organization and resources, and the best thing we can all do is, "keep calm and carry on."
“It's like taking a journey by car; there is a genuine risk of an accident, even if you do everything right,” Galeotti wrote in an email from Russia. “You do everything you can to make sure you are not doing anything to increase the risk; you take what precautions you can to minimize the impact of any potential risk (e.g., wear a seatbelt), but ultimately you have to swallow that danger and drive on. That is how you cope with this appreciable, but not high, terrorist threat.”
That's really the only way I can live my life. I don't take stupid risks, but there are risks inherent in just living. I can't let fear stop me from experiencing what life has to offer.

Of course, I will be sure to pack my lucky flying T-shirt and magical good luck travel charm…

Lisa…every other Wednesday...

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

a bachelor in the Elysèe Palace

Francois Hollande officially declared he'll 'stay' a bachelor for the rest of his term as French president.
In the ongoing saga of amour he has broken off with his First girlfriend, Valerie Trierweiller, nicknamed 'Rotweiler' by the French press for the actress, his  mistress Julie Gayet who he visited by motorscooter in a flat around the corner from the Elysèe Palace.

 - Hollande had four children with Segolène Royal - they never married - and he supported her campaign for president.
 A recent article in Paris suggested Hollande, who dropped to a new low in the polls because of high French unemployment, gained some traction with middle-aged, pudgy, glasses wearing French men who own scooters. They claimed Hollande gave hope of amour to a segment, not inconsiderable, in the male population.
During the Ancien Régime, mistresses, most famously Madame de Pompadour, lover of Louis XV, were routinely ennobled and held a high official rank—Maîtresse—and often wielded great sway over affairs of state. Madame de Pompadour not only reigned over patronage of the arts in the Rococo age but also influenced the choice of ministers and the strategy of the Seven Years' War. A woman of considerable acumen, Pompadour created the infamous Parc aux Cerfs, an exclusive royal bordello in the town of Versailles, to satiate the king's voracious appetites and secure her position once her own charms had waned.
After her death, Madame du Barry, a young lady of the Parc, ascended to la Pompadour's position but never her station
But the quintessential concubine was Madame de Montespan, l'Athenée—well-born, clever, scheming, haughty and ambitious—who had bewitched Louis XIV in his early middle age. The king sired four illegitimate children with her, all later ennobled, one of whom was later exiled as an insurrectionist. While in royal favor, "La Montespan" reigned as de facto queen, with a suite of rooms at Versailles that eclipsed those of the actual queen, the homely and devout Infanta, Maria Theresa.

Madame de Montespan found herself eclipsed by 
 Madame de Maintenon, a late and pivotal mistress of Louis XIV, who controlled state affairs by forcing all ministers and petitioners to pass through the gauntlet of her apartements at Versailles if they hoped to gain access to the king. She was known at court as "Madame de Maintenant" (Madame Now), and had doubtless married the king privately, though this was never officially acknowledged. Some history books call her the Morganic Queen.
Like just about everything else during the Ancien Régime, the changing of the guard was also handled with aplomb. It was said that Madame de Montespan, on her way out, and Madame de Maintenon, on her way in, first met on a staircase in Versailles. Madame de Maintenon was ascending and Madame de Montespan descending. The former remarked, "I see that you are going down, Madame, while I am going up."
We don't know if that's been the case with Valerie and Julie.

Cara - Tuesday

Monday, January 27, 2014

Fragments of a People: Background to The Ways of Evil Men

I will NEVER be able to do justice to the research Leighton Gage must have done to write his brilliant last novel.  Neither will I be able to present the true inspiration for it, nor in any way present it with the brilliance of Leighton’s writing style.  So, you may well ask, where do I get the nerve to try?  My answer is that I have no idea.  But I was curious, when I began reading The Ways of Evil Men, as to whether the threatened people in the story were based on a real tribe and where exactly in Brazil they live.  The front matter of the book gave me a clue by mentioning the Ava-Canoeiro Indians.  I looked them up.

For anyone who wants a peep at the realities behind Leighton’s riveting story, here is a brief history of a tribe that was part of his inspiration.

The Ava-Canoeiro Indians are the descendants of the Carijo, who were once a feared force in their area of Brazil, along the Tocantins river and the Island of Serra Negra, about six hours’ drive from Brazilia.  In 1962, a massacre in their village killed all but four young children.   Three girls and a boy somehow escaped the murderers and managed to survive by hiding in remote caves for over twenty years.    They lived in mortal fear of discovery.  They learned to silently kill rats and agouti for food.  They were so terrified that they aborted their babies so that their cries would not betray their existence.  One little girl, who never left the cave for her first six years, lived to grow up.

In 1983, when a nearby farmer finally found and befriended them, there was one woman still of child-bearing age.  After they began living in contact with the larger society, she gave birth to twins—a boy and a girl.  At that point, the only way to save the tribe from extinction was to try to find other Ava-Canoeiro hidden in the deep jungle for those children to marry.  An Indian tracker began the search.

Then in 1993, the situation became more urgent.  A hydro-electro dam built in the area meant that a large part of the territory where their tribes-people might be hiding was about to be wiped out by rising water.

As of the year 2000, search parties were still combing possible areas.  They had found evidence of human habitation, but the people themselves had remained invisible.

After that report, there is only scant information available in any of the English-language sources I found.  My understanding of written Portuguese is rudimentary, at best, and based only on the fact that I can read French and Italian and studied a lot of Latin in my antediluvian past.

Perhaps one of Leighton’s friends or fans who has access to better information will fill us in here.  I hope.  It would be wonderful to learn that some of the last human beings to escape captivity are still out there and surviving.

There is a 1999 film—hard to find, but probably available in university libraries—that documents the search for Ava-Canoeiro.  I took the title of this blog from the title of the film.

Annamaria - Monday 

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The End of a Book

The saddest two words in the business of stories are, ‘The End.’ After those words there is no more story, no more adventures and the characters live on forever in our imaginations and in our hearts. A reader goes into morning until they pick up the next book, turn that first page and discovers a whole new world. But for the novelist of that story, letting go and moving on is much harder to do. 

When you type in those words ‘The End’ and send the pages off to your editor/publisher/agent or whoever there is an overwhelming sense of exhaustion and relief, which is usually followed by an overwhelming bar tab and followed by that is an overwhelming and well earned hangover. But once the booze and pain fades that's when the darkness really sets in. You have spent months or years chipping away at your story in the early mornings and late nights, and after being lost in the wilderness of words for so long, you don't know how to do anything else.

A novel isn't slowly finished, one day you're writing a novel and the next day you're not. In a couple of key strokes it's over. Like breaking up with a long term partner, someone tells you it's for the best but at the time you're not so sure. At first comes the restlessness, the not knowing what to do with your self and the vague attempts to rejuvenate some half attempted hobby but nothing else compares to being at the typer and pounding out the words. 

You sit at your computer, stare at your inbox and wonder why nobody has read the manuscript you sent twelve hours ago and emailed to tell you how brilliant it is. You send yourself an email from another account just to make sure the internet still works, and when your self addressed email arrives you slump in your chair, stare at the inbox, just waiting for it to change. Then ten minutes later you repeat the process. You have a cup of coffee, smoke some cigarettes and that's when the fear and panic sets in. 

What if you novel is four hundred pages of rubbish? 

What if they find out you don't know what the hell you are doing?

What if there are typos!

You pace the office. You plant out alternative careers, because you obviously just screwed this one up and you pour yourself a drink and sit down. You take a deep breath and have another drink and then an idea comes to you. A small kernel of an idea for a story. Not much. Could be a character, a scene or even just a line of dialogue. But it's an idea. The fear and panic fades, you sit down at the computer and start it all again. 


Saturday, January 25, 2014

A Review of "The Ways of Evil Men," by Leighton Gage.

Our buddy Leighton was a gentleman-leader, relentless in the pursuit of aiding his friends, a gifted author, articulate spokesman for his cherished Brazil, and loved by all lucky enough to know him. Last July, when he passed on, I wrote that my fondest memory of Leighton was the time we shared together at a joint book signing he’d arranged at a Barnes & Noble in Reston, Virginia. We had such fun we vowed to take it on the road and call it “Silver Hairs on Tour.” As I said in July, “I’m afraid that will have to wait.”

Well, that day has arrived!  Leighton and I are back on the boards together again—if only in my heart.  The New York Journal of Books did me the distinct honor of allowing me to review Leighton’s final work, “The Ways of Evil Men,” and with the NYJB’s kind permission here is that review, published January 18, 2014:

“It isn’t very pretty what a town without pity can do.” That half-century-old song lyric by Gene Pitney can’t help but run though your mind as you read Leighton Gage’s seventh, Brazil-based Chief Inspector Mario Silva mystery The Ways of Evil Men.

If you’ve read other books in his series you already know how Gage’s fluid, precise, immediate prose captures within a fast-paced mystery the issues of class and social distinction, good and evil, and destructive obsession haunting his vast Brazil, a giant larger than the continental United States filled with diverse riches and complex contradictions.

The sense of place is set in the novel’s opening paragraph: “Sunrise is a brief affair in the rainforests of Pará. No more than a hundred heartbeats divide night from day and it is within those hundred heartbeats that a hunter must seize his chance. Before the count begins, he is unable to detect his prey. By the time it ends, his prey will surely have detected him.”

And the sense of what is to come follows in the fifth paragraph: “The hunt had taken them far. The sun was already approaching its zenith when they waded through the cold water of the stream, stepped onto the well-worn path that led from the fishing-place to the heart of their village, and heard the sound that chilled their hearts: the squabbling of King Vultures, those great and ugly birds, half the size of a man, that feed exclusively on carrion.”

As in all Gage books, the raw emotions and beauty of Brazil play as much a part as his characters, but in The Ways of Evil Men he’s created a high-energy masterpiece exploring what threatens his country at its core, and through the ensemble efforts of Silva’s team and other dedicated Brazilians, suggests salvation may come only through dedicated, individual action. It is a book that keeps you thinking beyond the time you’ve closed it.

On an Indian reservation amid Brazil’s remote, northern Amazon rainforest, 39 of 41 remaining members of a protected Indian tribe are found dead, leaving the future of the tribe and its reservation in the hands of government tribal relations agent Jade Calmon. 

When Jade’s efforts to discover the cause of the Indians’ death elicits no cooperation from local townspeople and officials, she turns to her “old-girl” network, getting her journalist-best friend from one of Brazil’s major newspapers to come write a story, and the niece of Silva’s boss to send him and his team to the scene to get to the truth. 

But intense racism and self-interest run deep and broad in this community, and there’s much to profit from the genocidal elimination of the Indians. Even the death of one of the community’s own is seen as a benefit. Silva and his team face unexpected twists, multiple suspects, a stonewalling community, and journalist Maura Mandel with a mind of her own.

There are few storytellers as gifted as Leighton Gage, and virtually none with his ability to convey messages of such societal importance in fast-paced, can’t-put-down mysteries that are not in any way preaching.

Leighton Gage passed away on July 26, 2013. I was blessed to have Leighton as my friend and as a colleague on the blog he founded, Murder Is Everywhere. He was a much loved, revered, and respected mentor and friend to many. In agreeing to do this review of Leighton’s final book I gave my word to be thoroughly objective, and in keeping with my promise I’ll share the one thing about it I could not stand: That there shall never be another.

Here's a link to Leighton's page on Amazon.


Thursday, January 23, 2014

Table Mountain's tablecloth

Table Mountain in Cape Town is one of the world’s most recognised and iconic mountains.  Rising 1000 metres (3500 feet) out of the Atlantic Ocean, with a 3-kilometre (1,8 mile) flat top, it overlooks Table Bay (in which Robben Island is situated).  One of the surprising aspects of the mountain is that it faces north.  Most people unfamiliar with the area believe, since it is nearly at the southern tip of Africa, that it faces south.

Looking at Table Mountain from the bay, on the right there is Signal Hill (where at noon every day a cannon fires to signal the time) and Lions Head, so named because from some angles it looks like a male lion crouching.  On the left is Devil’s Peak, higher than Lion’s Head, but not as high as Table Mountain.

Painting of Table Mountain by William Hodges (1772) from about Captain Cook's Ship HMS Resolution

Table Mountain from Bloubergstrand (Blue Mountain Beach)

Running back from Table Mountain to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope is a range of mountains known as the Twelve Apostles rising steeply out of the sea.

Despite its very rocky disposition, the Table Mountain area is home to over 2200 plant species, more than that of the United Kingdom.  The National Botanical Garden, Kirstenbosch, lies on the side of Table Mountain, and is one of my favourite parts of the city.

One of the amazing things about Table Mountain is that one minute it can be standing proudly with clear blue sky above it, and the next minute a layer of cloud can pour over the top, giving the impression of a dynamic tablecloth. 

New York Times photo of its 2014 #1 travel destination with the tablecloth spilling over the mountain

The tablecloth from the Victoria and Albert waterfront

The whole process is pretty spectacular to watch.

The tablecloth is beautiful, but can be very dangerous to unwary hikers on the mountain, because it can become so dense that it is very difficult to find one’s way back to the cable-car station.

A weatherman will tell you that the tablecloth is formed when a south-easterly wind blows up against the mountain, lifting moist air abruptly, cooling it rapidly, causing condensation.  When these orographic clouds (as they are called) reach the edge of the mountain on the other side, they descend and warm up, and the cloud disappears.

The San peoples who inhabited the area long before any Europeans or Blacks arrived called Table Mountain Camissa – the place of sweet water – and attributed the tablecloth to their mantis god smothering a fire with a kaross, which is any animal hide, usually a sheep’s, with its hair left on.

This is certainly an appealing explanation, and I can see a San family clustered around a fire, listening to grandpa telling the story of why the cloud appears and disappears.

But neither the weatherman’s nor the San’s stories are correct.  The real story is as follows.

In the 18th Century, during the time of the Dutch East India Company’s tenure in what is now Cape Town, there was a fierce pirate in the area – at least he thought he was fierce.  His name was Van Hunks.  Everyday, when he wasn’t pirating, he would walk up the hill to the east of Table Mountain, called Windberg (Wind Mountain).  He had a favourite tree, very ancient and gnarled, under which he would pull out his pipe and smoke, gazing over beautiful Table Bay and, presumably, planning his next dastardly attack on Cape Town’s upper class.

Van Hunks

He was a proud man and boasted that he could out-smoke anyone.  No one took up the challenge.

Until one day, when he arrived at his usual spot, there was a man, dressed all in black, hat pulled down over his face, sitting where he always sat.  I can only assume that Van Hunks was a little miffed.  And even more so when the stranger challenged him to a smoking contest, goading Van Hunks with taunts.

Of course, Van Hunks took the challenge.  

They divided the tobacco into two large piles and sat down to smoke.  They smoked, and they smoked.  And they smoked some more.  For hours and hours, covering Table Mountain with white fumes.

Eventually the man in black, frustrated that Van Hunks was still going strong, wiped his brow in frustration and accidentally knocked off his hat, revealing a pair of horns.  Poof!  He vanished in a puff of sulphuric smoke.  Van Hunks was the winner.

And that is why the mountain that was once called Windberg is now called Devil’s Peak.

And every time the southeaster blows, the devil returns for a rematch, once again causing the mountain to be covered in a white cloud.  The devil never wins, but keeps coming back for more.

[As an aside, for those of you who haven’t read any of Deon Meyer’s books, I heartily recommend Devil’s Peak and its wonderful, love-him, hate-him protagonist, Bennie Griessel.]

Stan - Thursday