Working Title: Hotel Laguna
This Book Is In Development
Welcome to Durban, South Africa in the 1970s – bikinis on the beach, surfers in the sea and show bands along the golden mile. It’s hot, it’s fun, it’s sexy and tourists from all over the country are on their way. But when a body falls from the twelfth floor of a high-rise building it seems that all is not well in paradise. And when showband ‘Warlock’ are forced to take on a new member, keyboard player Mikey finds himself dealing with an infatuation, jealousy and racism that will open his eyes to a very different South Africa.
So as we reach the end of November, here’s my final chapter for the month which will take me well over the 50,000 words needed to complete the National Novel Writer’s Month challenge. And it’s been exactly that: a challenge. Having to stick to a time-table has been a great exercise in self-discipline. (Usually the only kind of discipline a writer has to work with although I am very grateful for the massive encouragement from my wife and friends!) I think the book has another two or three chapters to run. We leave Mikey dealing with the consequences of his actions. I’m sure you’re all wondering who eventually falls from his outside window, what happens to Emily and Chester, who wrote on the bathroom mirror and what becomes of the band. There’re a few more surprises to reveal too! I’m going to plough on with this novel and try to finish it for Christmas. Whether I self-publish then is something I’m debating over. Perhaps I may try the mainstream agent/publishing house route first before once again doing it all myself. That means, of course, a delay while I wait for any interest to filter back. So sorry for the interruption of the story, but hopefully ‘normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.’ And thanks for reading so far!
Mikey makes up with Nurse Cindy, although his intentions aren’t as selfless as they initially appear. I hope that Mikey and Cindy’s visit to The Umbilo Drive In captures the declining atmosphere of this type of entertainment in 1978. Enthusiasm for Drive Ins in South Africa far out-lasted countries like the USA, who had TV a lot earlier than us. I remember visiting our local Drive In at least once a week, and saw just about every film shown through the late 60s and into the early 70s. (Luckily, the guys at the entrance weren’t too strict on age-limits back then) We had only just moved into our house near the Drive In when a guy came enquiring if the noise of the cars leaving the screenings was bothering us. My Dad – sensing a freebie on offer – agreed that it was a bit annoying. So we were given a free ticket for all mid-week shows which we could either use for a car, or to sit at the little undercover seating area at the back. I can still remember sitting in those rickety chairs, stuffing myself with popcorn, burgers and fizzy drinks. And if the movie was a bit boring or beyond me, then I’d find myself day-dreaming or watching shooting-stars lighting up the sky above the screen.
With his world torn-apart by his discovery in The Ship Inn, Mikey hits the booze and puzzles and schemes over his next move. Firstly, however, he decides to try and make a hundred percent sure that Emily and Chester are (as he sees it) betraying him. Mikey, of course, is more worried about Emily and Chester and doesn’t really comment on the political and social implications of what they are doing. But looking back now from the new South Africa, I thought it would paint an interesting picture. A non-white person (as defined by the South African Government in the late 70s) was simply not allowed on most of Durban’s beaches unless they were working there. In fact, non-whites were allocated a few beaches of their own – Battery Beach being the nearest, just north of the Golden Mile. The obvious point is that the best beaches were reserved for whites. So there is some defiance and symbolism in the scene where Chester and Emily have their picture taken leaning against the apartheid beach sign. There’s also some rebelliousness and anger in the image of Emily trying to rip the thing right out of the sand. Perhaps a sign (if you’ll excuse the pun) of things to come?
With Emily, Mikey’s finding that nothing goes as planned. Here’s a guy that likes things organised and controlled and once again she’s going to do something unexpected that will throw his emotions into turmoil. Writing in the first person for Mikey has been quite a balancing act. Up until now, other than his feelings for Emily, he’s mainly played the part of the watchful narrator, telling us about the characters surrounding him and how they influence the story. In a sense, a lot of what’s happened has been out of his control and his reactions to his mounting problems have been predictable and understandable. Sure, he has his faults: he drinks a bit too much, maybe thinks too much of himself and can be a bit sharp-tongued when provoked. As we move on, however, I hope to show him in a slightly different light. What will he do when his emotions are stretched to the limit? What will he do when he’s not merely love-sick and confused and when anger and jealousy take over? And what will he do when he finds something he can control and knows a way to strike out? How much hatred does our hero have? Let’s see – watch this space.
Taking a beachfront walk, Mikey has a surprising meeting and makes a new enemy. With two days to go before the schools break up, Durban is beginning to go into full swing. And as the tourists begin flocking down from up country, the beachfront becomes a very different place. I remember how I used to battle for a parking space anywhere near the club, how nearly every inch of South, North and Addington beaches were covered in bodies, towels and umbrellas and how the queues waiting to get into the clubs at night suddenly tripled in length. Most Durbanites mother tongue was English but you started hearing a lot more Afrikaans and strong Afrikaans accents. The Golden Mile also became a much noisier place. The posh hotels sometimes had organists playing background music on the verandas, music spilled out of all the bars, hotels like the Beach Hotel had a guitarist/singer in the outdoor restaurant and, of course, The Little Top with comperes like Cyril Sugden – resplendent in a striped blazer and boater –held court with an excellent band backing him up. In fact, The Little Top used to run a talent competition during the long holidays and I was lucky enough to win a R50 prize towards future piano lessons one year. My teacher was very impressed.
Even though Mikey knows that he will hate what he sees, he decides to go and watch Emily’s show at the strip club. There, he finds out that things are much worse than he could ever have imagined. The strip clubs in Durban in the 70s were notorious. A lot of the locals never went near them, staying as far away from the hard liquor, violence and prostitution as possible. All were there, of course, to cater for the thousands of sailors visiting Durban’s busy harbour. One or two venues crossed-over though, and a mixture of Durban residents – particularly men – and sailors would mix together. I imagine Smugger’s Rest to be a place like this – rough but not completely out of bounds to the locals. I once had a bit of a wild outing at a few of Durban’s strip holes at the invitation of the lead singer of a rival band. He assured me we’d be safe, telling me he knew most of the girls working the clubs. After about half an hour in one club, however, we started noticing beer bottles rolling across the dance floor and crashing into our feet. We took one look at the faces of men at a table opposite and left without even finishing our drinks.
Mikey helps Chester read music and then has a strange and ultimately devastating night with Emily’s brother, Eddie. Much of the conversation between Mikey and Eddie is here to fit in with the story. However, a lot of it is based around something which happened to me in Johannesburg in the 1980s. I knew a nightclub bouncer who was mad on Van Morrison. One night we met at his high-rise downtown flat, spending hours in a similar way described in this chapter, the first part of the evening going great as we enjoyed the music. Later, however, when he was very ‘high’ he surprised and concerned me with a ‘flying’ speech almost word-for-word like the one written here. Towards the end of the evening, a beautiful girl walked in and it turned out that he shared the flat with his sister. When I commented on her looks, he turned nasty with me, accusing me of just wanting to bed her and telling me that she was ‘nothing better’ than a stripper in a club down the road. A few weeks later, a mutual friend told me that he had jumped from the window of his building – his body lying on the pavement all night and only noticed at daylight by people on their way to work.
Tensions build as Mikey meets Emily’s dad and finds out a little about his profession. And in spite of its beautiful setting and view, the huge mansion on the Bluff seems to close in on our hero, throwing his feelings for Emily into further confusion. This claustrophobic house will play a further role in the story and I’ve done my best to get the feeling right here. Mansions – especially ones with castle connotations – can be great fun for writers. Manderley, Miss Haversham’s decaying mansion or Jay Gatsby’s Long Island retreat were all stars of the show. And where would Dracula, Dr Frankenstein or even Dr Frank-N-Furter be without their fantastic places of residence? I’ve also tried to inject a feeling of confinement, perhaps even imprisonment and have given Cliff Castle a security system as good as anything on Alcatraz or Robben Island. Mikey would no doubt be wondering if the walls, burglar guards, dogs and lights were there to keep people out or in. The setting, however, is nothing without the mansion’s alpha resident. Cliff’s physical presence and interrogation skills soon throw Mikey onto the defence, and it’s no coincidence that he, Emily and Emily’s mother, Jane spend a lot of time staring over the roof’s castle-like battlements to the freedom of the beaches and Indian Ocean below.
Mikey’s detective work has paid off and he’s found Emily’s house on Durban’s Bluff – an ideally situated property with a panoramic view, but also a place as unwelcoming as it is unusual. And now he gets to meet Emily’s parents and soon finds out that they are as puzzling as the mansion surrounding them. When I was a teenager, I actually had a good friend who lived in a large house with castle-like battlements overlooking Brighton Beach. Ernst and I spent many hours peering down at the beach below and we loved to take a walk down the narrow path through the bushes and trees to the sea. I believe the tidal pool is still there and have fond memories of sitting on the sea-facing wall at high tide seeing if the high waves could knock us off. It was a great pool – the only bad experience being the time a wave suddenly filled it with blue-bottles with long stinging tentacles. I remember diving underwater and swimming for dear-life as these painful creatures patrolled the surface – the second-fastest clearance I’ve ever seen of a public pool. (The fastest being a package holiday in Cyprus, when an inconsiderate kid blessed us with a badly-timed floater.)
Mikey’s not having it all his own way with Emily, and Dieter is starting to ask questions about Warlock’s new guitarist, Chester. During my time with bands in South Africa in the 70s/80s, I met a few managers quite like Dieter – strict but fair. The bands had quite an individual position in the hotel’s chain of command and exactly where we fitted in in terms of seniority was sometimes difficult to tell. Often we would only answer to the General Manager and the Food and Beverage Manager although sometimes a hotel may have a dedicated Entertainments Manager who was our direct boss. Now and again we would have fall-outs with managers and members of staff, sometimes so bad that only our agent or the top dog at the hotel would be able to sort it out. In terms of payment, I think we were probably earning more than the junior managers and maybe even many of the seniors – another bone of contention sometimes. One of the biggest problems we found was whether we were allowed to eat in the main restaurants or if we were to be banished to the staff canteen. This carried a lot of prestige for us, and we found quite subtle ways of convincing the top dogs that we belonged in the posher areas!
Roughly a quarter of the way through the book and we’ve met the main characters and had a chance to get an initial feeling of where they’re at. I’ve enjoyed writing in the first person as Mikey and giving him quite a lot of my own history has made life easier. Once again though, I must hasten to add that this is a fictional story – none of it really happened to me, or anyone I know. But I certainly hope you’re getting a flavour of the times, the way we talked back then, the way we thought and of course, the all-encompassing political system that we were living in. I’m sure that anyone around in Durban in the 70s will remember the beach attractions mentioned with affection. The Mermaid Lido, Scotty’s Photographs and The Little Top are ones I remember well and it was great to have Mikey and Emily taking a romantic moonlit stroll past them. And maybe a quiet night trip was an interesting way to view them: The Mermaid Lido and its shops closed, still quaint but perhaps already a little tired; The Little Top surrounded only by empty sand and Mikey’s head poking through a lone photo board. A sign of things to come?
In this excerpt, Mikey pulls a bit of a subtle move which shows us that’s he’s ready to go on the attack if necessary. I’m sure we can forgive him if he’s going after Mad Maria or the chaperone – he’s certainly had to put up with enough from them in the past. Hopefully, however, he doesn’t use these subtle skills on people less deserving of them. We’ll have to see. So our narrator’s in love and I think it’s only natural for him to be impatient and almost frantic to see his girl again. I’m sure we’ve all had times in our lives when we’ve counted down the days, the hours and the minutes between those magical early encounters and the ones that we hope will soon follow. And just as Mikey watches The Ship Inn’s swing doors, so we’ve all stared at the phone, sat at that table at the restaurant and, of course, these days waited for that little text message that tells us everything is still okay – that everything is still on track. But perhaps, when it comes to patience, or the lack of it, Mikey may yet prove to be less tolerant than most. And I have a feeling that Emily certainly isn’t going to help.
Mikey’s found his fantasy girl and is on a mission. Already, however, he’s running into problems, none of them of his own making. It will be interesting to see how he reacts when, and if, things go more his way. It will also be interesting to see how he deals with his own feelings when he’s no longer in control of his emotions. I feel that the way Mikey falls in love is very much the soul and driving force of the story. Perhaps the big question is: what happens when his little world appears to collapse around him – and who pays the price. Some of you may be interested in my mentions of Mikey’s keyboard setup. Based on what I used back in the day, here’s the setup I envisage for him: A Hammond L100 organ with a Lesley speaker / ARP Odyssey / Fender Rhodes Electric Piano / Hohner Clavinett and an Elka String Machine (or something to emulate the sounds of orchestral strings). All of that, of course, would be incredibly heavy to carry, and he’s just one member of a 5-piece band with lights and very large PA speakers. That didn’t matter so much to 70s showbands, however, who could set up and play in one place for at least three months.
So far, we’ve met some of the girls in Mikey’s life in 1978, from the (apparently) fun and giggly Nurse Cindy to the unstable and worrying Mad Maria. In the case of Cindy, Mikey shows us very little affection for her. He treats her little better than a one night stand. Perhaps she’s more of a one night a week stand! But, does she feel the same way? Well, I hope I’ve got the tone of the writing correct here and that further down the line readers may start to question their narrator a little bit. Is Mikey such a good guy? I’ve read many books told in the first person where the narrator is pretty much the hero (perhaps with a few bad points) thrown into tricky, dangerous or whatever situations and the fun is seeing him come right at the end. I’ve read the opposite too: Irving Welsh’s detective-sergeant in ‘Filth’ is basically a complete bastard from start to finish. Mikey is neither of these. There is, however, a tone I’m aiming for and I’m hoping to show that my narrator’s congeniality will show signs of wear and tear when his emotions get stretched a little. And on that subject: cue the introduction of the last major character of the book: Emily.
I trust that you’re enjoying the book so far and agree with me that Durban in the late 70s provides an interesting backdrop to the story. Hopefully in the future, readers may see the book as the perfect holiday read. After all, you can’t go wrong with sun, sand, beaches, nightlife and a bit of drama, comedy and intrigue. A few words on some of the girls Mikey describes while walking past the queue outside The Ship Inn. Yes, Addington Hospital did seem to supply a good percentage of the female crowd in the clubs nearest South Beach and they certainly liked to party! I dreamed up my three nurses – Cindy, Lydia and Katy – although I would say that they’re pretty representative of the time and place. Which brings me to Mad Maria. Well, strangely enough, there was a Mad Maria. The name’s wrong – I can’t even remember her real name – but the facts are true as I recall them. A girl did come up to give me the dressing down described, going on to hang around our club for a good month sending increasingly amorous and disturbing messages to me via a younger kid (who seemed to fancy her). I did nickname him: the young chaperone. A little ‘Fatal Attraction’ 70s style?
I’m sure readers will have already picked up on the underlying racism of this story, from Moose’s description of his gardener to the relationship between the waiters of The Laguna and the boys in the band. I know that you have to be very careful when writing about this sensitive subject. But, I thought it was vital to show it, it’s true to the era as I remember it and it plays an increasingly important role in the story. With the average white guy it wasn’t a vicious directed thing. They weren’t the ones throwing bodies out of John Voster Square Police station. Rather, I remember it as a kind of ‘casual racism’. We were us and they were different to us. We went our separate ways. Apartheid, after all, was the idea of living apart and we followed that. The last thing on Mikey and the boys in the band’s minds will be that they are being judgemental, discriminatory or elitist. Hell, they’re too busy with the music, the booze and the girls. But it’s important to realise that they were in a kind of bubble, and surrounding them in the form of waiters, hotel staff and a whole world just down the road, was a new South Africa, waiting to happen.
Today’s extract is the longest so far and centres on the exploits of Warlock’s guitarist, ‘The Moose’. I’m sure you’re wondering if there was a Moose? Well, I worked with a bass player once who was well capable of some of these exploits and also with a singer who made a habit of falling off stage. (He put this down to ‘erotic twirls’ which the females in the audience demanded to see. We put it down to alcohol.) However, the chaotic hypnotist bating incident never happened. What is true, however, is that Durban was hypnotism mad in the 70s. I remember a guy called Romark who achieved a world record at the Lyric theatre for the longest-running one man show. When the audiences started to fade a bit, he added a new trick to the show: he hung himself every night. No mean achievement, especially on a Saturday with two shows! There was a Crazy Horse and it was the cabaret spot of the beachfront. I spent many a long night propping up the bar and watching acts, mainly from the UK. And one of the longest-running acts there was a British hypnotist who took Durban by storm, his show seeming to run for months. Oh, and there sort-of was a Nurse Lydia. But more of her later!
Hi, welcome. This second part of Hotel Laguna is set in the present and reminds us of the suicide that Mikey (the story teller) witnessed outside his apartment window and shows us that he’s tied into what happened that terrible night and how it has affected his life since. How so? We’ll find out later. Who died… well that’s just got to be the no. 1 overhanging cliff-hanger, hasn’t it? This is the first time I’ve ever written a story in the first person, and I must say I’ve found it just about the easiest way to write. ‘That’s because you’re writing about yourself,’ I hear you cry. Well… not really. Yes, I was a keyboard player in a band who played on the Durban beachfront for quite a few months of my life in the 70s. Yes, I worked in the era of apartheid when the only non-white people in the hotels were the staff. Yes, many of the place names used are real, although I’ve changed a few (to protect the innocent!) And yes, the band members, the girls and the staff are all inspired by various people I worked with and met. But, and it’s a big but…please remember that this is a story. It didn’t really happen and no character is, or was real. Including Mikey!
Hi Everyone, November is National Novel Writing Month - Nanowrimo. This year I believe about half a million people are taking part. So I thought I'd have a go too. First of all a confession. I know the basic idea is to write at least 50,000 'new' words in the month, but I have to admit that I have already been doing some rough work for this novel for a while now. Before you all yell 'foul' however, please remember that there are no prizes as such and the idea is just to get writing. It's not really how you do it, but more about just getting it done! So in that spirit, I'm going to try to reach the 50,000 target in the month and at the same time I'm going to let you all read along as I go. Every bubble from now on will follow the novel in chronological order. Here is Chapter 1. I hope you like it! Oh, and just for a bit of fun, I've added some pictures to the excerpts to give you a flavour of the story. :)
You’ll laugh at them and you’ll cry with them; you’ll wonder at them and you’ll sigh with them. But you’ll never forget the residents of Stillwater. South Africa may now be a rainbow nation, but try telling that to the mainly white and wacky inhabitants of Stillwater. When a black minister is appointed to the local Methodist Church, the congregation are up in arms and the much feared Women’s Auxiliary is on the warpath. And when the new minister’s son gets caught up in a nasty assault, the locals certainly have reason to protest as well as a crime to solve. Can pensioner Teresa Thomas and her sidekick Digby save the reverend from his own doubts, his son’s reckless behaviour and the crazy residents of Stillwater itself? A funny, off-the-wall and yet passionate look at a community still letting go of apartheid.
I'm over in South Africa at the moment and staying on a friend's farm. While in the loo (bathroom for my US friends) the other day, I got quite a shock when I heard a sudden hissing and clicking sound coming from somewhere near the toilet. With my mind full of stories like the excerpt here, I found myself breaking out into a sweat with my head darting in all directions in an effort to locate where the noise was coming from. Was it a snake? Had it crawled up the pipes? Or was it lying behind the toilet waiting to spring? Actually, a little while later I found out that it was, in fact, one of those automatic wall-mounted air fresheners that the lady who runs the farm had recently installed without my knowledge. Of course, it reminded me of the attached excerpt - which, by the way, is also based on a true story.
As I write, I’m in South Africa, visiting my mum. I don’t think I’m giving away any secrets when I say that she is very much the inspiration behind Teresa, the main character of ‘A Little Town in Africa’. In fact, we were out having lunch today with friends when the conversation turned to the subject of neighbours and their noisy dogs – something that plays quite a big part in the book. Now don’t get me wrong – I’m an animal lover and love nothing more than a well-behaved mutt or a friendly cat. However, I’m sure you’ve come across a neighbour like the one who used to share a wall with my mum: the owner of two dogs who barked constantly through the night – no peaceful settlement possible with it eventually leading to full-blown arguments, the involvement of the whole street and lawyers and the police being the final result. Ironically, when mum could stand no more and finally moved out, the house was bought by a policeman, who soon put a stop to the problem. Therefore, it’s no wonder that in the book, Teresa expresses her opinion that in the dogs vs. cats debate, she falls strongly on the moggy’s side. Although there are exceptions…
Having a party? Going for a bevy? Having a good craic? Or maybe you fancy a shindig or a hootenanny? There must be hundreds of ways of expressing ‘a good night out’. Here’s a quick look at how we talk and go about it in South Africa. I must add that Vito (the Godfather) is not typical of the average pub owner in that fair country and that I don’t in any way endorse his behaviour. (And this short excerpt only touches on his eye-watering rudeness and hostility.) He is, however, like many of the characters in ‘A Little Town in Africa', inspired by a real person: a bizarre and wonderfully eccentric man I once worked for in various rock and pop bands in Johannesburg. Enjoy reading and thanks to everyone who has already downloaded and read the book. Your kind comments are what keep us scribblers scribbling on.
So far, I’ve shared some lighter moments of ‘A Little Town in Africa’ with you. But it’s difficult to write about South Africa’s racial tensions, poverty and crime without being serious at times. As a lot of the book is based on personal experiences, I thought I would share one with you: A few years ago I borrowed a friend’s bakkie (a South African word for a pick-up truck) and took a load of garden waste to our little town’s local dump. My half an hour spent amongst the mountains of rubbish would turn out to be an unexpectedly disturbing and unforgettable experience. I saw people who seemed to be living there; children scavenging amongst the waste and was even approached by a drunken man in quite a threatening way. Talking to a friend later, I was also told the strange but rather wonderful tale of a man who used to braai (barbecue) food in the trash site for the people living there. Apparently, he would visit at least once a week and cook-up burgers and hot-dogs for the poor who would wait for their portion in a long and disciplined queue. (Another story used in the book.) Here, Pensioner Teresa and her friend and neighbour Digby travel into the local dump to be greeted by some disturbing sights.
Sometimes clichés really do exist. A few years ago my wife and I went house hunting in a little town in South Africa very much like the one in my book. As the estate agent walked us up the driveway of a neglected house, a little man in a tartan berry scurried out of the front door to yell aggressively at us in a broad Scottish accent: “These people will-nay buy this hoose. I tell ye noo… these people will-nay buy this hoose!” While the obviously embarrassed estate agent showed us around the ramshackle place, the man dumped himself into a battered armchair and proceeded to play a scratched vinyl of bagpipe music on an ancient record player. With a face like thunder he stayed in that chair for the duration of our visit, studiously ignoring us. We could still hear the music as we walked back down the driveway. Extremely funny or very sad… what do you think? Nevertheless, he was pure gold as a source of inspiration. So, at the risk of offending my Scottish friends and being pursued by angry men in kilts on our up-coming holiday, here’s a little passage from the book that finds the new minister of Stillwater Methodist Church and his son meeting Tam McDonald – my very own walkin’, talkin’ cliché.
Sometimes, things that seem so obviously good can end up being a problem. Take Teresa Thomas: a mild-mannered elderly white lady living in a little town in South Africa. Now Teresa has struck up a wonderful relationship with her maid Grace. They get on so well that both of them regard it as more of a friendship than a working relationship. So when a neighbour down the road is looking for some help, Teresa doesn’t hesitate to recommend her friend and helper. Teresa, of course, is presuming that this neighbour has a similar nature to herself. And when she finds out otherwise, her mild-manners take on a slightly darker side. Here’s a bit of fun from my first book which looks at a little community in South Africa still finding its way in the post-apartheid era.
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