My family and other writers

Ruth HartleyBooks, Creativity, Family, Publication, South Africa, Storytelling, The Love and Wisdom Crimes, Writing, Writing Process2 Comments

The unbearable lightness of writing

Two copies of Tanvir Bush's novel CULLThe cover of Witchgirl shows a flying shape disolving into the backgroundI don’t like all Milan Kundera‘s novels but I did like his The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  I  joke about the lightness of writing, of course. Writing makes my spirit light even when it is an unbearably heavy task. Being part of a family is both heavy and light work. My daughter, Tanvir Bush, is a published writer. Her first novel Witchgirl published by Modjaji has been very well reviewed. Her second novel, CULL, published by Unbound will be out this month and has already got very good reviews. Its a cracking read. “A treasure!” one reviewer says. Tanvir knows all about the heaviness and lightness of writing – the liberating burden of it and the weight of its freedom. Tanvir writes with a light touch even on heavy subjects.

Writers in the family

All Ruth hartley's books can be seen in this imageThere are plenty of writing families. The Durrells have both Gerald and Lawrence. There’s Kingsley and Martin Amis. Writer wives and husbands may be more common than parents and children. Margaret Drabble and Michael Holroyd, Sartre and De Beauvoir, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Does it make for happy relationships? I don’t know. For example do Tanvir and I get on? Sometimes. Mostly. Are we in competition? Read More and Comment …

Let there be light

Ruth Hartleymonotheism, Poetry, Religion2 Comments

The God-trodden Mount Sinai

A group of pilgrims stare out over the montains of the Sinai desert

On the top of Mount Sinai

John and I made a pilgrimage to the summit of Mount Sinai in 2005. We were in Egypt to scuba dive and  snorkel in the exquisite Red Sea when the opportunity came up. The year before we had visited New York and again, by chance, seen an exhibition about the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was extraordinary and fascinating and made us wish that we might see it and Mount Sinai one day.

Let my people go

The outer fortifications of the ST Catherine's Monastery are on a rise behind a group of Bedouin and their camelsn

St Catherine’s Monastery with Bedouin and their camels in the foreground

The prophet, Moses, adopted as a baby by Pharaoh’s daughter, escaped into the Sinai Desert for 40 years. After God appeared to him in a Burning Bush, he returned to Egypt to lead the Jews across the Red Sea and home to the Promised Land through the desert. It was on Mount Sinai that God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. Saint Catherine’s Greek Orthodox Monastery is an ancient and remote fortress, Read More and Comment …

About good writing – but also about good films

Ruth HartleyBooks, film, The Tin Heart Gold Mine, Writing, Writing ProcessLeave a Comment

Films need plots

Good films depend on good stories according to Steven Spielberg. I watched the BBC’s The Little Drummer Girl with dread and delight. Would it be a pleasure? Could it live up to expectations? It was and it did! I sat down happily afterwards to reread John Le Carré‘s brilliant novel. Film and book had to be different but the veracity of the characters, the reality of their relationships and the tautness of the plot, all come from Le Carré, the master storyteller. I have to agree with Spielberg. A good story is the foundation and good writing is the driver of the plot.


Good writing advice.

A friend, Tia, gave me this link to a blog on Grammarly by Joanna Cutrara. It is a really neat summary in 5 points of what you must have to be a good story teller, whatever your creative field.

Emotional truth, says George R.R. Martin – I say that otherwise you are writing for psychopaths and robots.

Good editors,says Kendrick Lamar – yes, essential I agree, but they do also need to earn a living and editing is hard work. They must be paid somehow! Thank you Emma Darwin (see below) and Cornerstones Literary Agency.

Share your perspective, says Hannah Gadsby – I say that you can only write a good book if it has some of your own blood and bones in it. It’s only by “fleshing” out a story from inside you that you give the reader something new. Books written just to make money will often disappoint readers.

The value of a theme, says Lisa Joy – and I note a theme is evident in The Little Drummer Girl but subtly done. As a poet I love thematic writing – the symmetry in asymmetry! Look for themes in your favourite novels.

Managing your creative life, says Issa Rae – Oh yeah, I say, this is difficult especially once you get into marketing your writing. I have to set aside writing time in monthly blocks, but exclude December!








There are two authors I follow who post excellent and useful blogs about how to write:-

Emma Darwin covers every aspect of novel writing and you will find comprehensive help on her blog, This Itch of Writing. I am grateful to Emma for her help with my book The Tin Heart Gold Mine. I look forward to reading This is not a book about Charles Darwin.

Claire Fuller has recently done a very good blogpost about what makes a good short story. I feel inspired to write one again myself. I was stunned by her book, Our Endless Numbered Days and really enjoyed Swimming Lessons too. Claire’s new book, Bitter Orange comes recommended by Stephen Bush who, recently, was a judge on the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction.

Disability and Difference

How are characters who are different or disabled treated in literature? This is something to think about before the launch of Tanvir Bush’s CULL in January. It applies not only to books but very much to film and TV. Have you noticed how often people who are different or disabled are portrayed as either victims or villains? Is it the old Nazi scapegoating technique? Your comments and thoughts are more than welcome!

By the way I have been able to add another link to a previous post about Gabriel Ellison – it is an article about her beautiful stamp designs.

The German surrender & the East Africa Campaign 1918

Ruth HartleyAfrica, Politics, Power, South Africa, War, Zambia5 Comments

Mbala, Zambia 25.11.2018 WW1 Remembrance Service

The photo shows the memeorial in a lsightly scruffy park after a tropical rainstorm. In the background are single story African shops with verandahs typical of a small African town

War memorial Mbala Zambia

The slightly battered metal plaque annouces that "Near this place on 25th November 1918 The German Forces in East Africa commanded by General Von Lettoew Vorbeck laid down their arms before General W F S Edwards CMG DSO

Plaque on the War Memorial






On Sunday in this remote part of Zambia a remembrance service will be held for those who died in the 1914-1918 war during the East Africa campaign. Here is a link to an excellent and brief history of it by Indy Neidal. Its really worth watching. Many people will be surprised to learn of this devastating and terrible campaign  in which so many people died from famine and disease as a result. There are no war graves for most of them. What many people do not know is that the Germans were not defeated in East Africa  and General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck only surrendered 2 weeks after the final ceasefire was declared in Europe.

The 1914-1918 War Cemetery, Marondera, Zimbabwe

The photograph shows 4 generations of the Burton family seated in 3 rows round Great-Grandmother Burton who holds the youngest baby on her lap. The man on the top left is in a soldier's uniform

The Burton Family, my grandparents, with Uncle Boet Burton in uniform during the 1914-1918 War

The black and white photo shows 8 men in uniform uaround a rough table under a canvas shelter - They have long shorts and felt bush hats

Gold Coast Regiment in Abyssinia WW2 My father Stephen Hartley second from the right

I discovered a tiny cemetery on a visit to my mother. It was hidden away in the bush, a sad neglected place of iron crosses and concrete slabs protected by a barbed wire fence. Some of the graves held the bodies of soldiers who died a slow death from blackwater fever and were only buried in 1919. As a girl I had put on my Red Cross Uniform and attended the Remembrance Day Service in the Harare city park. I thought then, that both World Wars were fought so far away  that they hadn’t touched Africa. How wrong I was! My father joined the Gold Coast (Ghana) Regiment and served in Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and Kenya. Of course he never spoke of it. Doris Lessing wrote The Children Of Violence, her theme was that every generation suffers its war. What I gradually came to realise was that centuries of European wars have impacted on Africa with European powers fighting each other for ownership of their colonies. This fact explains the East Africa Campaign. It is why I wrote The Tin Heart Gold Mine. It is why there is a Remembrance Service in Mbala tomorrow.

Abercorn, Northern Rhodesia, 25.11.1918

This rather poor quality photo shows Von Vorbeck at the centre walking towards the camera with a coat over his arm. He is escorted by a Soldier while 2 more stand at the right looking at him

The surrender of Colonel Paul Von Lettow-Vorbeck

This memorial looks in good condition. It has a coat of arma on it and a cannon in good condition is on its right

Memorial to Von Lettow-Vorbeck’s surrender and a German cannon

I am fortunate to know two interesting people. One is Roger Chongwe, a Human Rights lawyer, whose forebears suffered death and famine during the East African Campaign. I also know Colin Carlin whose family lived and worked in Abercorn. He has an excellent and informative website on this area and its history here at Abercornucopia. It saddens me that there is not much more acknowledgement of this campaign that resulted in the deaths of over one million people.

Books about the East Africa Campaign and a request from me

The cover shows a tin heart nailed to a tree with the book title "The Tin Heart Gold Mine" in gold across it

“The Tin Heart Gold Mine”

There are interesting books about it. Marching on Tanga by Francis Brett Young, Mimi and Toutou go Forth by Giles Foden, and the brilliant An Icecream War by William Boyd. You all know the film The African Queen with Hepburn and Bogart from the book by C S Forester. My book, The Tin Heart Gold Mine, is not about that period but touches on all the wars that have affected Africa.

**I have 10 free copies to give away in exchange for an honest review. Please just email me your address and I will post my book to you.

A footnote

This simple formulaic drawing shows Von Voebeck on the left surrendering to the British on the right. The German askaris have boots, The British askaris are barefootThere is a palm tree and a horse on the German side and a flowring tree and official car on the British side.

Drawing of the surrender of Von Lettow-Vorbeck in 1918 drawn by an unnamed African artist.

Armies march on their stomachs and in their boots! I note that von Lettow-Vorbeck provided his Askaris with boots and The British under General Smuts used barefoot porters. Another curious fact is that some of the British explorers and adventurers, men like Frank Selous, who died in this campaign, and Francis Brett Young were more inclined to socialism and republicanism even though they chose to fight in the 1914-1918 East African War.

They will not grow old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, or the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.

May they all rest in peace, but please, do also remember the deaths in Africa caused by European wars.

A hundred years of remembering the Great War

Ruth HartleyThe Tin Heart Gold Mine, War, Women's suffrage, Zambia9 Comments

The war to end all wars

Hand-crafted and crocheted poppies made by the Hilmarton community – every poppy represented 1000 deaths.

The notice says that the display of poppies is icreased every 2 weeks until there are 888 in total. Each poppy represents 1000 military deathsTomorrow people in Britain will wear red poppies and visit cenotaphs, war memorials, churches and gravesides to remember those they will call the fallen heroes. In Germany they will carry Forget-me-nots, in France they will wear cornflowers. I will think of that song asking where have the flowers, the girls, the young men, the soldiers gone – gone to graveyards every one – when will they ever learn? This song composed by Pete Seeger must have been sung for over half a century yet wars still continue. What no one will remember tomorrow is that the war was not over in East Africa on the 11th November 1918 and that  the Germans were not defeated in that arena. I’ll write more about that on the 24th November 2018.

Never, ever, but again and again

A painting in black and white of a poppy. Around the stem is a banner saying 100 years, 100 days

The first of Kate Slater’s black and white paintings.

While I was in England I visited Hilmarton Church and was moved by the way the community there are remembering the First World War in charming and sympathetic displays and crafts. There is a very gifted artist, Kate Slater, who has made 100 paintings to commemorate those from Wiltshire who served in WW1 and she will be working with local school children on the same theme. The paintings are lovely and evocative so please do take the time to look at her website. I always like to refer to a book when I write a post. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque is about the trench warfare endured by the Germans and the British and the tragic damage suffered by the soldiers. The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West is also thought-provoking as is The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate. All are excellent films.

But where is peace and an end to war?

The display of poppies starts from the cross on the altar and spills down onto the church floor increasing in numbers and width as it falls

The display of poppies

I thought hard about war and peace and I found that I had conflicting ideas about what was appropriate to say. I might have quoted one of the well-known war poets but so will many other people. There are pacifist quotes but it would be hypocritical of me to use them. I might generalise and say that women oppose war but British suffragists joined the war effort while British suffragettes used violence to fight for the vote. Experience in Southern Africa has taught me that sometimes freedom can only be won by going to war and that withholding freedom is a form of war against those in bondage. War is always terrible but it can’t always be avoided. Who knows, but if Britain and the USA had fought against Assad in 2013 perhaps there might have been fewer deaths and a shorter war?

Making peace last

Perhaps the real problem is that we only know how to make war and not how to make a peace that works. Here is one of Bertolt Brecht‘s War Poems.

On the white altar are vases of forget-me-nots and white poppies, a pair of knitted mittens and a scarf in army green

Forget-me-nots and white poppies symbolise the dead of other nations.. The knitted mittens, scarf and embroidered card symbolise the work of women left behind.

Are of different substance.
But their peace and their war
Are like wind and storm.

War grows from their peace
Like son from his mother
He bears
Her frightful features.

Their war kills
Whatever their peace
Has left over.