Barbara Trapido: 'When you are young you don't look back'

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She may be listening to a Monteverdi madrigal, playing gently in the background. Or perhaps on a sunny day, she will be sitting by the canal which runs past the end of her garden in this leafy suburb of Oxford, watching a heron, less than a mile from the busy centre of England's city of dreaming spires.

But very often, Barbara Trapido is plotting, pondering the path of her latest novel; in her mind, weaving the lives of her characters as deftly as if she were stitching a tapestry and bringing them to life.



A writer's life is by necessity often lonely. Many inhabit a world others of more conventional disposition would be scared to enter. Those who seek regulation, the formulaic and predictable would be ill at ease in such an environment. Trapido, born in Cape Town and educated in Durban, remembers at one time of her working life waiting for friends and family to go to bed before seeking out that renowned old friend or accomplice of all writers: the blank page.



"I would drink lots of black coffee and then get my second wind at 1 or 2 in the morning" she tells me, in her Oxford home. "I would write until 5 am. I feel very threatened by people who work eight hours a day".



At other times, her schedule would be different. She would rise at 4am, her mind as fresh as a daisy in the morning fields, and consign words to paper until breakfast by which time the world had stirred. "No-one else is awake and you are closer to your dreams. It is a brilliant time to write.



"You need to find a space where you can go and put on your different hat. It's as if you are stepping into another place, a different more magical sort of place where you can do all sorts of irresponsible things."



And she smiles, a shy, reserved yet somehow girlish smile of wonderful simplicity.



Trapido is one of this country's finest writers. Beginning in 1982, three of her novels have been shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel Award, another for the London Sunday Express Book of the Year. And just as she builds the characters in her books, offering the reader a mental picture of those around whom she bases her stories, so she offers me a series of little vignettes regarding herself.



Born in Cape Town, her family decamped from their Rondebosch home to Durban when she was just four years old and to this day, she remembers the train ride from the Cape. "It was wonderful, we slept on the train" she recalls. Perhaps even at that tender age, it fired the imagination of a little girl who would one day become the author of tales of rich imagination.



She attended Durban Girls High School and initially envisaged pursuing an interest in architecture. Alas, the idea foundered upon the rock of one especially formidable teacher at the school who told her sternly "girls don't do architecture". By way of recompense, she developed a long held interest in English literature by going on to study English at the University of Natal. But she admits she always liked the look from afar of England, admiring in particular English landscape paintings. Perhaps her confession that she was never the sporty, athletic outdoors type, the identikit person for South African life, made her more suited to the English lifestyle. Walking through great piles of autumn leaves, perhaps over London's Hampstead Heath on a crisp, cold winter's day where the trees and grand houses can seem as if from a Gainsborough painting or strolling beside the Oxford Canal in springtime…..she has revelled in such surroundings.



She came to England in the 1960s, appalled at the vile politics of South Africa at that time. She and her husband Stan sailed away from her homeland, "a horrible place", she called it, believing they would never set foot in the country again. Yet somehow, mysteriously as if her own story mirrored the pages from one of her books, Barbara Trapido now feels a growing attachment to the land of her birth.



"In 1963, the year I graduated, South Africa was horrid. It was around the time of Rivonia. I met Stan and he was very determined to leave, partly because he was politically involved. It was dangerous to stay. The police would ring your doorbell in the middle of the night and more and more of Stan's friends were being thrown in prison.



"We just thought about getting the hell out of there. So we got on the boat and left. When you are young you don't look back. Besides, all my friends were leaving as well. We came to London and although we had no money at all, I was so excited by it."



Trapido never fretted about the weather; the beauty of the English seasons seduced her into the land. But she concedes it was harder for her husband. He suffered a marked change of mood with the onset of the English winter; thus, in her words, it was much more of a sacrifice for him to cut himself off from South Africa.



They lived in London for five years, her husband, who had grown up in Krugersdorp and studied at Wits University, completing the Phd he had started at the University of Cape Town. He was offered a teaching post at Durham University where they spent five years, before accepting a post teaching African studies at Oxford.



"We didn't go home for 15 years. But my daughter, who grew up in England, has returned to South Africa and adores it. She went to Cape Town for a gap year and has been there ever since."



Trapido smiles. Beware the vicissitudes of different children, even from the same family tree. "My son, as a small boy, was always bored by South Africa but as an adult he has become intrigued by it. If you grow up in Oxford, you have a lot. You can go everywhere by bike, or take a canoe on the canal or rivers like the Wye. He saw the lives of people in white suburban South Africa and thought it was a lot less free there."



And at 67, what of her own considered thoughts on her homeland ? She remembers clearly how beautiful it is, talking of tumbling bougainvillea and umbrella shaped trees in KwaZulu Natal, as if penning descriptive prose for her latest book. Alas, no-one has ever disputed South Africa's natural beauty. There is another aspect to consider.



"Right now it looks like it might be Armaggedon for all of us, regardless of which country we live in" she says, a touch of sadness in her gentle eyes. "In South Africa, if you look at the big picture it can be quite depressing yet the small things are very encouraging. There are so many fantastic people there with so much drive and enthusiasm. And certainly in the cities, the feel of the place is so different to the picture painted of such troubles elsewhere. I like so much the fact that people are walking tall, people talk to you. Nobody has this awful cringing body language any more.



"I love the cultural mix and just think from that point of view, it is a very rich and exciting place with a lot of lovely stuff going on."



Writing has been a lifelong companion for Barbara Trapido. The author of such familiar titles as 'Brother of the More Famous Jack' (1982) - winner of a Whitbread special prize for fiction, Noah's Ark (1984), Temples of Delight (1990), Juggling (1994), The Travelling Hornplayer (1998) and Frankie & Stankie (2003), she began in the humblest of circumstances, writing about her school class at the age of 7. Not unusually, she suffered rejection with her first project.



"The first novel I wrote, I thought 'Is it a novel'? I didn't have a literary agent and knew no-one. I put the whole manuscript in a letter to a London publisher, Jonathan Cape, and received a short reply saying 'thank you but no'."



Undeterred, she tried again elsewhere six months later. The publishing house Gollancz read it and agreed at once to publish. Some time later at a literary event after the book's publication, a man approached her and introduced himself as a Director of Jonathan Cape. "Which fool editor of mine turned down your book?" he enquired.



The triumph of her writing is perhaps explained by the freedom she offers her mind in formulating the lives of her characters, and the ultimate destiny of the tale. She rarely has a firm plot in mind when she begins and concedes she often takes time out from a project to ponder where it is going. Yet somehow, curiously, she finds often alien characters always eventually connect together.



Her latest work, her seventh book, has been seriously interrupted by the sad death of her husband. "I put it away in a box, I could not deal with both things at that time, it was too hard for me" she confesses, a faraway and melancholic expression on her face. "But when I returned to it after a while, I felt that the text still got up and danced for me."



Losing her beloved husband has robbed her of her lifelong companion. It may also have compromised any plans to spend a greater amount of time back in South Africa. "Since 1994 I have thought about going back all the time. I think if Stan hadn't died, we would have returned for he was much more affected by terrain. He loved being there and he was in love with Kalk Bay. But since he died, I stopped thinking about it so much. I suppose it is still possible I might one day spend half the year in Cape Town, where I have lovely friends. But I am a bit frightened about the idea of moving."



Her home and life in Oxford is a haven of tranquillity. It is a corner of England that somehow, amidst so much of the maelstrom of violent changes affecting her adopted country today, remains calm. Barbara Trapido appreciates such qualities.

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