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Wednesday, 30 June 2010


Africana Votes & Views # 18

  Who can actually lay claim to the title of being an ‘explorer’? In the last fifty years or more, the title has increasingly been misused, being applied to individuals who have chosen slightly different routes to an iconic and much-visited goal; those who have used unusual conveyances or unorthodox methods of progress and a few ‘professionals’ who have mustered armies of men and convoys of heavy machinery at great cost to prove that there is no such thing as an impassable route. However, could one really say that a person who undertook to skateboard along the N1 from Cape Town to Johannesburg – a marathon journey certainly – has contributed anything to the sum of knowledge of mankind, geography or the natural sciences? I doubt it; therefore this essay is not going to be entitled ‘Lady Explorers of the Dark Continent’, though a few undoubtedly were just that, while others were adventurous travellers of great courage, entertaining writers, well-off tourists, symbols of growing female emancipation – or even long-suffering wives who were dragged along as ‘camp comforts’ by their unfeeling husbands – presumably.

  So where do we start? Of the latter sort mentioned, there must have been a few unrecorded heroines during early Victorian times and I would not like to put my head on the block as to who was the first. One unfortunate comes to mind – Mary Livingstone, daughter of the Moffats at Kuruman. She had the singular misfortune to marry the great missionary/explorer in 1845. She often accompanied him on his early travels, despite the Moffats’ protests as she was heavily pregnant with the first of their five children in 1847. A mere five years later, the Livingstones were in the wilds on the Zouga River, a tributary of the Zambesi. Mary was extremely ill; she gave birth to her fifth child (her fourth having died shortly after birth at Kolobeng) and her doting husband finally came to realise that dragging a woman and four children through the bushes in a constant state of pregnancy might not be the ideal way of conducting a relationship. He brought her back to Cape Town and shipped her and the children off to Britain. Much relieved, he was able to devote himself to traversing the subcontinent for the next three years. He returned to Britain in 1856 and penned the Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa (John Murray, 1857) His wife’s contributions did not merit a single line in the book. It took some serious prompting by John Murray to remedy that state of affairs in the next impression, with a page which tells of their marriage. That he managed this by adding two more pages 8* and 8**, after the original page 8 – rather than resetting/repaginating the entire book – is tribute to the prudence and ingenuity in matters of economy on the part of author and publisher. Their last child was born in 1858 while Mary was with her parents back at Kuruman, after which she returned to Scotland for a short while before being summoned by her lord and master once more to join him on his almost farcical Zambezi Expedition. The reluctant exploratrix died scarcely three months later at Shupanga in Mozambique, of malaria, possibly exacerbated by the alcoholism she had become a victim of. At this stage, the great man could actually bring himself to write:
‘About the middle of the month Mrs. Livingstone was prostrated by this disease; and it was accompanied by obstinate vomiting. Nothing is yet known that can allay this distressing symptom, which of course renders medicine of no avail, as it is instantly rejected. She received whatever medical aid could be rendered from Dr. Kirk, but became unconscious, and her eyes were closed in the sleep of death as the sun set on the evening of the Christian Sabbath, the 27th April, 1862. A coffin was made during the night, a grave was dug next day under the branches of the great baobab-tree, and with sympathising hearts the little band of his countrymen assisted the bereaved husband in burying his dead. At his request, the Rev. James Stewart read the burial-service; and the seamen kindly volunteered to mount guard for some nights at the spot where her body rests in hope. Those who are not aware how this brave, good, English wife made a delightful home at Kolobeng, a thousand miles inland from the Cape, and as the daughter of Moffat and a Christian lady exercised most beneficial influence over the rude tribes of the interior, may wonder that she should have braved the dangers and toils of this down-trodden land. She knew them all, and, in the disinterested and dutiful attempt to renew her labours, was called to her rest instead. Fiat, Domine, voluntas tua!’ That’s right David, pass the buck (though it is writ that the great man never got over his loss and blamed himself – as he should)

  An explorer in her own right, without a doubt, was Florence Barbara Maria Finian von Sass Baker (those names are a bit doubtful – just depends which source you use). She was, of course, the reputed slave girl, rescued by Samuel (later Sir Samuel) White Baker from the clutches of an oriental Pasha in what is now Hungary – a story which may have gained a little romance in the retelling. She became his inseparable companion, aide, lover and wife, and insisted on accompanying him when he started his explorations into the origins of the Nile in 1861. In his own words, 
‘I shuddered at the prospect for her, should she be left alone in savage lands at my death; and gladly would I have left her in the luxuries of home instead of exposing her to the miseries of Africa. It was in vain that I implored her to remain, and that I painted the difficulties and perils still blacker than I supposed they really would be: she was resolved, with woman’s constancy and devotion, to share all dangers and to follow me through each rough footstep of the wild life before me’. That’s what she did, and then some.

  As her adoring companion states:‘Possessing a share of sangfroid admirably adapted for African travel, Mrs. Baker was not a screamer, and never even whispered; in the moment of suspected danger, a touch of my sleeve was considered a sufficient warning’ - and ‘Mrs. Baker was dressed similarly to myself, in a pair of loose trowsers and gaiters, with a blouse and belt--the only difference being that she wore long sleeves, while my arms were bare from a few inches below the shoulder.’ 
  Although she was able to speak a number of languages, which came in handy during their exploits, it is a great pity that she left the writing to Samuel in describing their epic trek to Lake Albert, in his book The Albert N'Yanza Great Basin Of The Nile; And Exploration Of The Nile Sources. (Macmillan And Co., 1866). It may be that she only acquired fluency in English through constant communications with Samuel and later his children from his previous marriage, to whom she became greatly attached. It was only on the later expedition to end the slave trade on the upper reaches of the Nile that she kept an interesting diary and wrote numerous letters, which present her side of the story. These are included in the book Morning Star (Kimber, 1972); a compilation by Anne Baker, wife of a great grandson of Samuel. Not that the latter was sparing in acknowledgement of his wife’s sterling qualities and contribution to overcoming their travails. They were scarcely off the mark when the Bakers faced down an incipient mutiny. Baker writes,‘How the affair would have ended I cannot say; but as the scene lay within ten yards of my boat, my wife, who was ill with fever in the cabin, witnessed the whole affray, and seeing me surrounded, she rushed out, and in a few moments she was in the middle of the crowd, who at that time were endeavoring to rescue my prisoner. Her sudden appearance had a curious effect, and calling upon several of the least mutinous to assist, she very pluckily made her way up to me...’ and by sheer effrontery, the Bakers managed to get the mutineers disarmed. This type of problem kept on dogging them during the northern part of their journey, and they had several more similar experiences of the same kind. Each time Flooey stood by her man; almost at the end of their epic journey, Samuel relates: ‘Parrying with the stick, thrusting in return at the face, and hitting sharp with the left hand, I managed to keep three or four of the party on and off upon their backs, receiving a slight cut with a sword upon my left arm in countering a blow which just grazed me as I knocked down the owner, and disarmed him. My wife picked up the sword, as I had no time to stoop, and she stood well at bay with her newly-acquired weapon that a disarmed Arab wished to wrest from her, but dared not close with the naked blade…’ – certainly no shrinking violet. When Kamrasi, king of the Bunyoro, suggests that Baker might like to swap wives with him, Florence gave him a tongue-lashing in Arabic, which the king understood only too well, though he knew no word of that language. He apologised hurriedly, offering the excuse that it was a customary courtesy in his country.
  Illness and even starvation was a constant worry. At one stage she was felled by sunstroke while battling her way through an almost impenetrable swamp and Samuel, himself fever-stricken, writes: ‘Almost as soon as I perceived her, she fell, as though shot dead. In an instant I was by her side; and with the assistance of eight or ten of my men, who were fortunately close to me, I dragged her like a corpse through the yielding vegetation, and up to our waists we scrambled across to the other side, just keeping her head above the water: to have carried her would have been impossible, as we should all have sunk together through the weeds. I laid her under a tree, and bathed her head and face with water, as for the moment I thought she had fainted; but she lay perfectly insensible, as though dead, with teeth and hands firmly clenched, and her eyes open, but fixed.’
  She only recovered consciousness some days later, and of their final arrival at Lake Albert, Samuel writes: ‘My wife in extreme weakness tottered down the pass, supporting herself upon my shoulder, and stopping to rest every twenty paces. After a toilsome descent of about two hours, weak with years of fever, but for the moment strengthened by success, we gained the level plain below the cliff. A walk of about a mile through flat sandy meadows of fine turf interspersed with trees and bush, brought us to the water’s edge’  - and again later  - ‘It was with extreme emotion that I enjoyed this glorious scene. My wife, who had followed me so devotedly, stood by my side pale and exhausted – a wreck upon the shores of the great Albert lake that we had so long striven to reach’  Honour given where honour was due, to be sure.
  Their expedition had almost as much trouble with their own men as with the tribespeople among whom they passed. Baker’s perceived racist actions and high-handed manner have deprived him of much of the renown and respect due to the pair’s dogged pursuit of geographical exactitude. In his defence it must be said that they were extraordinarily unfortunate to be in the company of and to meet with some truly horrible people along the route. The Bakers returned from their travels and finally married ‘properly’ back in England, after which the disapproving queen reluctantly knighted the old sportsman, though she could never bring herself to meet with Florence.

  Almost at exactly the same time (in fact they met the Bakers at Gondokoro) another real explorer, Alexandrine Tinne, the daughter of a rich merchant family from the Hague, indulged her fancy for parts unknown, and in company with her mother and aunt, she determined to explore the upper Nile. Alexine, as she was known, was the richest heiress in the Netherlands, which meant she had the resources for the job on hand. First and foremost she accumulated some ₤800 in small coin (banks being in short supply where she intended to go), loaded it alternately on ten camels, or filled one of her flotilla of three boats with cash when travelling by water. After leaving Cairo, they made leisurely progress to Korosko, where they disembarked and prepared to cross the Nubian Desert. Their caravan consisted of 102 camels, four European servants and some forty-odd menials under an Arab chief. Near Berber they rejoined the river as it was less fatiguing. Throughout this journey, Alexine sent letters describing their progress to a relative in England, John Tinne F.R.G.S, who compiled a slim volume entitled Geographical Notes of Expeditions in Central Africa by Three Dutch Ladies (T Brakell, 1864). Without too many problems they managed to reach Khartoum and this is where they encountered the Bakers, who had just returned from Abyssinia. Alexine decided that she wanted to do a little exploring up the Sobat River, the last major tributary of the Nile to enter from the east; so a steamer was chartered to facilitate progress. Besides sampling quantities of fish and game, such as giraffe and elephant meat, no great discoveries were made and they returned to Khartoum in November. 
  At this stage they met up with two German scientists, von Heuglin and Steudner, and a Baron d’Ablaing who were easily persuaded to share in the bounty on their next excursion, which took on serious as well as scientific proportions. They made the mistake of trying to explore the Bahr el Ghazal region of the Nile, to see how far west they could penetrate, hoping to discover one or more posited lakes in western north-central Africa, which were also sources of the White Nile. This was a mammoth task – a far cry from the previous leisurely excursions with all luxuries and support within easy reach. All the members of the expedition suffered greatly from fever; first Steudner died, then Mrs Tinne, as well as Alexine’s aunt and two maidservants, the latter three even after they managed to get back to Khartoum. While the distraught Alexine stayed in Cairo, von Heuglin published two works dealing with the geographical and zoological results in Die Tinnésche Expedition im westlichen Nilgebiet 1863–1864 (Gotha, 1865) and Reise in das Gebiet des Weissen Nils (Leipzig, 1869) and a number of new plant species were described by various botanists in Vienna under the title of Plantes Tinnaennes.
  In 1869 the inveterate explorer fitted out a caravan to cross the Sahara from Tripoli to Lake Chad. In Murzuk she met the German explorer Gustav Nachtigal, however the latter wanted to explore the Tibesti mountains first, while she wanted to head further south. It was to prove her undoing. For reasons still unknown, but suspected to be due to factional politics, she and several of her companions were murdered by Tuaregs. Alexine Tinne is not well-known in English circles, since only a little has been written in that language about her and her travels, but she certainly has a huge and well-deserved reputation in the Netherlands. There are a number of romanticised works in English, German and Dutch about her explorations, but only one thesis by Antje Köhlerschmidt does justice to her: Alexandrine Tinne (1835–1869) – Afrikareisende des 19. Jahrhunderts (Magdeburg, 1994).

  Another dutiful wife was Jane Moir, who was married to the co-founder of the African Lakes Company, which was engaged in fulfilling the vision of Livingstone in the then Nyasaland, ie civilising the African by means of missionary endeavour and trade – as well as eliminating the pernicious slave trade that was the scourge of Central Africa at the time. The Moirs set off on an ulendo (safari) from their almost palatial Blantyre home in 1890, and embarked on the little steamer, the Domira, for the fairly pleasant journey up Lake Nyasa, stopping halfway at the mission at Bandawe to embark some porters. Here our traveller encountered the first taste of rough weather and huge waves which threatened to swamp the boat, before they made it safely to Karonga at the northern end of the lake. The party walked the next 240 miles during the three weeks that followed, before embarking once more at Abercorn in an open steel sailing boat captained by A.J. Swann, a colonial official on treaty-business, to complete the voyage to Ujiji, midway up Lake Tanganyika. She describes her experience in a collection of A Lady’s Letters from Central Africa (James Maclehouse, 1891 & Central Africana 1991 repr.) What distinguishes her from other travel companions is the fact that she put a camera to good use, and took a number of the earliest photographs in the region, only two of which appear in her book, though her husband made more extensive use of her photos in his work After Livingstone (Hodder & Stoughton, 1923), and some were published in The Graphic in London.
  While Moir pere discussed matters of economics and diplomacy with the local slaver cum chief (who is described as a rather civil and pleasant person, though a blackguard under the veneer), Jane was languishing in the company of dozens of slaves, handmaidens, concubines and two Muscat wives of the chief – none of whom had any language in common with her. Understandably she was not hugely entertained, but the couple had perforce to wait until a dhow could be repaired sufficiently to load the ivory Moir had obtained and for them to start on the return voyage. As before, all went idyllically for a few days until a storm brewed up and once more the passengers and crew were in mortal danger of foundering. In the dark of night they were forced to run westward across the lake under bare poles until they managed to shelter in a shallow lagoon on the next afternoon. They cautiously bay-hopped south for four days until the storm abated, when they could cross the lake eastwards once more. Now they exchanged the ‘deep sea for the devil’, as it were. Near the mission station of Karema, the winds once again rose and they were blown ashore among a warlike tribe, the Attongwe. While the crew refloated the boat, the Moirs tried to stay on friendly terms by exchanging presents with the Africans, but as dusk fell, an attack was launched and Jane found herself scrambling aboard while her crew tried to push the dhow out into the rough seas. Suddenly she became aware that her husband was still in the water trying to reach them, and she made the crew return in the face of a growing fusillade from the shore. They retrieved Fred in a hail of bullets, during which her helper beside her was hit and her double terai was adorned with two splendid bullet-holes as a memento to this brave act. The rest of the lake journey was painfully slow in the face of adverse winds, but from Abercorn onwards the journey was only marred by occasional fever of which Jane makes light; reaching the northern tip of Lake Nyasa (Malawi), where they were most hospitably received by the Wankonde tribe in their beautiful villages. They had to wait another ten days for the lake steamer, and once more Jane was dreadfully ill ‘having a horrid fever, which left me looking like Gorgonzola cheese’, before reaching home some four months after their departure. Jane Moir’s book is no great literary work, but in parts it is quite interesting and one can but admire her understated account of some five hundred miles afoot as well as some weeks afloat on the two deepest African lakes which have some of the most fickle weather and sailing conditions.

  In chronological order we now come to the greatest of the Victorian lady travellers, whom I can only call la belle dame des Voyages d'Afrique – Mary Kingsley. Although largely self-taught from her father’s considerable library, her lectures and written work became immensely popular, so she is relatively well-known both as a writer and scientist/explorer – also being mislabelled a feminist. Her stance on the Christianisation and colonialisation of the Africans brought her into conflict with the church and the Empire Builders as she found justification for institutions such as polygamy in African society, as well as debunking the concept that the African was the intellectual inferior of the European by virtue of his race. The loss of her parents at the age of thirty provided her with a measure of independence and a modest income, which permitted her to set off on the first of her travels to the Canaries and later Loanda. Here she learnt the basics of survival among native tribes, and decided on a course of action for future exploits.
  The year 1894 saw her back in West Africa, better equipped and supplied to follow her passion for ‘Fish and Fetish’, as she calls her quest. Obviously Mary was an engaging person; people seemed to fall over each other to try to aid and abet her in her efforts; British, Portuguese and German administrators, soldiers, missionaries of all denominations and most especially the traders that put their lives on the line on that fever-afflicted coast and inland, as well as their black staff manning the ‘factories’, as the trading posts along the malarial rivers were called. Her hefty work Travels in West Africa (Macmillan, 1897) launches immediately into a lively description of the scene and especially peoples of Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast and Fernando Po, where her ship’s voyage ended the first stage, though she seems to have visited all the countries fringing the Bights of Benin and Bonny. One of the great shortcomings of her work is the lack of a map to show her routes, as it is extremely difficult to follow her course from her descriptions using the names then current. Her main travels and scientific researches were along the course of the Ogoue River in what she calls the Congo Français (Gabon), she spoke no French and certainly had very little knowledge of the Fan (Fong) indigenous language. Instead she established cordial communication with all and sundry in English, German and an enthusiastically acquired command of Pidgin. She certainly did not explore the geography of the river and its tributaries – that was fairly well-known and often traveled by Europeans – but some of the short-cuts she followed led her through dreadful swamps which could sink her up to her neck in a matter of a few steps, necessitating laborious extrication by her companions. Other great obstacles were the steep ravines that had been filled with storm-felled jungle trees to a depth of six to ten metres. One false step could precipitate a person through this jumble of slippery, rotting wood to the valley floor below. To escape unscathed from these mazes could be enormously complicated and dangerous. In comparison, learning to paddle her own dugout on a rapidly flowing river during her missionary hosts’ siesta-time, is one of the funniest episodes graphically described in the book. Mary also writes in her customary understated way, that she had to beat an enterprising crocodile about the head with her paddle when it tried to join her in the craft. On another instance she was taking a midnight stroll as she could not fall asleep in her village accommodation on an island and suddenly she found herself in the midst of a small herd of grazing hippos. With remarkable sang froid she poked the obstructive beast in front of her behind his ear with the ferrule of her umbrella to shift him out of the way so that she could proceed. She also proved her mettle during a fight between a village dog and a leopard. The leopard stood no chance at all once Mary had ‘fired two native carved stools into the melée’ after which she was forced to break an earthenware water-cooler on the poor beast’s head to get it to change its mind about attacking her. Inevitably there were disagreements with the locals over matters of custom or trade, but Mary not only charmed the Europeans that came her way; she genuinely liked and got on well with the West Africans, especially the Fan, who had a bad name for cannibalism among the whites. She stood firm when it was needed, she reasoned and even wheedled when it was politic to do so – and she yielded only when an impasse was evident. No opponent was shot; neither was she attacked. Her most dangerous moments came from the violence of nature and the occasional man-trap that was set at the entrances of the villages she visited – but there was nothing personal in that.
  Not content with conquering the pestilential swamps, impenetrable jungles and raging rapids, she next sets her sights on conquering the 4000 m high peak of Mount Cameroon. Completely under-equipped she sets off on the six-day hike, and before long her party is suffering from thirst, hunger and freezing temperatures. Mary, though having to leave her last companions huddling together under their blankets in the streaming rain, gropes through the swirling cloud and howling storm to find the cairn at the summit – more by touch than by sight. Thoroughly satisfied, she commences the descent. The only country in the region that receives barely a mention is the Belgian Congo, and she shares my non-existent esteem for the owner as well as his administration. On the other hand the Germans and their colonial efforts in the region get the Kingsley stamp of approval.
  A large proportion of her utterly entertaining and informative work consists of describing ‘Fetish’, which would be classed as ethnographical details of indigenous culture in present-day terms. Even this I found eminently readable (though I do have more than a passing interest in the subject) and other readers of the book I have spoken to, have concurred with me. There is a small section on her zoological discoveries, but this was written by a German scientist and can safely be ignored by all but the most ardent ‘pisciphiles’. A relatively alarming number of deaths among her compatriots and other Europeans are noted, which gives the reader some idea of the health and hygiene along the coast. A whole chapter is devoted to the ills and parasites that afflict the human condition; enough to make one wonder what made any man (and Mary Kingsley) want to disembark on those shores. Nonetheless, her book is my all-time favourite Victorian travelogue and I can heartily recommend it, taken in short doses, to anyone from nine years old to ninety – regardless of sex, race, creed or literary tastes.

  The last, but certainly not least of our assemblage of notable ladies, would be Mary Hall. She wrote an entertaining and informative tome on her experiences: A Woman’s Trek from the Cape to Cairo (Methuen, 1907) and she was certainly the very first pioneer tourist to traverse the length of the African continent hard on the heels of Ewart Grogan. Despite her achievement, and possibly because of her common name, I have been unable to find any background on the lady. She seems to have been a termagant of mature years; a seasoned traveler; accustomed to making progress come what may – in addition to being a gifted writer with a fine descriptive turn of phrase, a photographer who developed her own glass plate negatives in transit, so to speak; a discerning observer; a stern disciplinarian, yet a fair judge of men and their frailties. Above all she was a dauntless soul who would tackle an unknown route with some dozens of strangers of a different culture and language than her own, without a single firearm for her protection, relying only on a small terrier-like canine for personal protection. Except for fowls, goats and the odd bovine, no wild animals were injured, nor were there any fatalities caused among the tribespeople along her route. The one exciting episode with enraged warriors she faced with extreme coolness, sitting perched on her trunk under a tree, while she explained politely to the affronted chief and his howling horde that it had not been her intention to offend, and that her guilty askari would be punished. Needless to say, she and the chief parted the best of friends!
  She obviously had the means to tackle the journey while preserving some comforts of civilisation; her folding bathtub, wardrobe, bed, tent and machila (or hammock) are ample proof of that. Every morning she would walk for an hour or two before it got too hot, but she was not a good climber, nor did she ford a stream afoot, while she had willing bearers to hoist her aloft, or a canoe to transport her. She paints a charming portrait of her progress up hills (facing backwards in her hammock, so as not to have to look at the empty skies) and down into the valleys (facing forward to enjoy the view) – seemingly determined to miss nothing of the passing scene. Like Grogan, she did her jaunt in two stages. 1904 saw her touring Southern Africa, and in the following year she set off from where the steamer had dropped her off at Chinde, in Mozambique. She made her way upstream by boat and then took to her hammock for the hike towards Lake Nyasa (Malawi). Here she assembled a volunteer force of porters, as well as two young locals, one of whom could speak English, while his companion knew some Swahili – which was going to facilitate matters linguistic through their east African leg of the journey. Admittedly, being a lone lady traveller did single her out for extraordinary treatment by all missionaries, administrators and military men along the way. Time and again the overwhelmed gentlemen would vacate their quarters for her and try to provide her with as many comforts as were available, so she was never out of touch with Europeans for any great length of time. Neither did she have to carry ten camel loads of small change like Alexine Tinne – since she used the African Lakes Company, the British colonial outposts and even the German administration as bankers along the way. 
  Mary avoided the malarial swamps between Lakes Edward and Albert by cutting cross-country from the top end of Lake Tanganyika across to Lake Victoria, from where she took to the water for a ride to Port Florence. Here she entrained and enjoyed the novelty of a moderately comfortable ride to Nairobi and back, missing a sighting of Kilimanjaro due to the weather. Back at Entebbe, she decided to try a rickshaw to Butiaba, since evidently there was a fledgeling road already in use. From there onward she embarked on one of the sources of the Nile and despite swarms of mosquitoes (which she seems to have kept at bay by sheer willpower, for she suffered not a day’s illness during her entire trip), she concluded her jaunt to Cairo in fine fashion – taking a mere nine months, compared to Grogan’s triple that time. On her arrival at Khartoum she notes that ‘coming from the south after months of privation and spare living, it seemed to me that the hotel was replete with every comfort available’ and that she wished only to have recorded in detail her experiences in the more unknown parts of Africa, therefore she will skip the thousand miles between Gondokoro and Khartoum, as well as the railway journey between the latter town and Cairo – which is within reach of the ‘ordinary tourists’ – among whom she does obviously not include herself. A formidable achievement - and a fitting conclusion to this tribute to six decades of lady travellers, from pioneering explorer to first tourist.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Publish and/or be Damned

Africana Votes & Views #18

So you have written a work of deathless prose, a work of great historical importance, a gripping novel – maybe something a little more whimsical, erudite or arcane. Let’s face it, the chances of finding a publisher who is willing to risk even a moderate portion of his working capital on an unknown author, who is going to need a huge amount of publicity to get his work, however good, to fly, is pretty slim. So the next possibility is to self-publish, a practice often snidely referred to as ‘vanity publishing’. There are any number of concerns out there on the web who will be ecstatically happy to handle your manuscript (hereinafter referred to as MS), thump it into some sort of shape, print the finished product on the first paper that comes to hand, put a lick of glue at the back of the textblock and slip it into a softcover not of your own choosing. For payment, naturally, that is you pay, and they will deliver a product which you can proudly exhibit on your bookshelf and try to persuade friends and others to buy – or not, as the case may be. Alternatively you can do it the hard way, and come away with a book that will, at least for a short period during this time of immense changes that happen in every field you can imagine, make you immortal.
Let’s start with subject matter of your MS. If you have a chunk of change burning a hole in your pocket; you are certain you won’t need it to buy a child a new motorcar, or a Zimmerframe for yourself – why, then you can pretty well do as you please, since the object is not to make money. Ordinary mortals have to keep an eye on the budget – therefore the cardinal rule number one is: find a need for a book, and fill it with your effort. Figure out a marketing strategy. Don’t just ‘think’ Exclusive Books, PNA or any of the other large chains are going to do you that favour. They won’t, ordinarily. Don’t aim too high; a modest print run is wiser in our small local market, and printing a second impression should you be successful, is a better option. We will have to return to this later when considering costs.
So let’s imagine you have you MS about as ready as you think it’s going to be. You have proofread it three times and ironed out all the typos, spelling mistakes and errors of fact. WRONG. Get someone else, preferably a person with professional proofreading skills to repeat the exercise. I’ve never yet heard of anybody being able to pick up all of the mistakes of their own making in print. Be prepared to pay for this invaluable service, it’s worth it. Once that has been done you are ready to actually do a virtual desktop publishing job (DTP) providing you have any of a computer and one of a whole raft of MS-Office lookalike programmes at hand. What you need to do is to pick the size of paper you want (Hint: don’t get too fancy, it costs money to print a book on non-standard sized paper) By this time you will probably have approached some printing firm, you have intimated to them that you want to print en edition of roughly so many books, and generally they are only too happy to help you along on this question. Follow their guidelines, and set up a blank file, having unlimited pages, printed two-up next to each other, as would happen in a book and that is the first step.
Next come margins. There are supposedly certain conventions which expound the dogma that the top margin must be a certain size (relative to the height of the page) while the bottom margin should be that size plus/less a percentage; the inner margin of the left hand page should be another size, and the outer margin on the same page yet another size – which is a mirror image of the right hand page. During the past sixty years I have seen them all, and I can tell you when a layout pleases me, and when it doesn’t. That’s about it. I hate to waste paper with huge margins and tiny blocks of text; the obverse applies. Make sure the text is comfortable to read without needing x-ray eyes to see the end of the line as it disappears into the gutter, as the middle part of the book is named.
Spacing is another point to be considered. Single spacing is hard on the eyes; it makes it difficult to keep your place. Double spacing always makes me think the author ran out of material for his book and wanted to make it look more important than it is. So round about space and a half would be fine; but one can play with the finer points of that on a computer. Closely allied to spacing is the font. Yes, I know there are all sorts of really charming Elizabethan, Gothic, Papyrus etc fonts, but all of these get tiresome to read in a full-length book. Stick to a nice simple font like Times New Roman or Garamond, in a size between 10 and 12 points, preferably something with a serif, so the letters don’t look too naked. While we’re on the subject of fonts, you can adjust the character spacing as well, but since you are hopefully going to justify your text both sides ( as this article is) leave character spacing out of the equation if at all possible. Crowding too much into a space again makes it difficult to read – not the sort of thing you want to do to your customer and best friend. It can be used in things like appendixes or indexes, when you are pushed for space, and if you squeeze your text a little, cut down on font size and line spacing, you can easily save yourself a page or three, which means your book will finish off with roughly the required number of pages divisible by 32 (known as a signature, or gathering). Alternatively you might have to wield the figurative red crayon and cut down on your verbosity to get a snug fit. You are now ready to get your computer to grab your entire MS, copy and paste it into the prepared format. Voila, we have a putative book.
So you’d like to illustrate your book. If your artistic talents are that way inclined, do your drawings, etchings or watercolours, scan them at the finest resolution you can get, shrink them to the size required and cut and paste them into your textblock at required intervals. If you want a talented person to do the artwork for your book, choose someone who will have empathy with you and your work – and choose a person you can afford. If you want a lot of photos with little blocks of text here and there, you are entering dangerous waters. To get a good balance is not that easy, numerous books look like a dog’s breakfast after such efforts. Most publishers pay book designers hefty fees to apply their particular talents to that task. On the other hand, you can always take the easier route and put a batch of ‘plates’ here and there in a book, consisting either of single images or several per page – but it is the old-fashioned way of doing things. Just be 100% certain that the colour photo you are about to adorn your book with is of the highest quality – like with proofreading, get a second opinion. Nothing spoils a good book as easily as a rubbish photo. Full-page illustrations should all face in the same direction if in landscape format, ie on either left or right hand page, the top of the picture is on the left, so you don’t have to turn the book this way and that when reading. There is an alternative format if one wishes to include a lot of illustrations in that aspect, by turning out an ‘oblong’ book, in which the hinge is on the short side. Remember that this format is usually most difficult to store on shelves, though.
Now let us consider the ‘prelims, those free endpapers, half-title, frontispiece, title page, contents, preface, dedication etc. Most modern softcovers, don’t have endpapers; many don’t have half-titles; that is a matter of individual taste. However, many self-published books start off with the title page, which often does not contain much information. You need at least a title; then possible a more explanatory sub-title in slightly smaller font underneath that, and below this the author’s name and possibly the illustrator’s as well, if that person has played a significant part in the book. Somewhere near the bottom of that page, one or both of the following should appear: a date of publication, and the name of the publisher, if there is one. The verso of that page should carry the following information, especially if you have published it yourself: Published by John Citizen, Pofadder, South Africa, (possibly a contact number or e-mail address, and the date should be reiterated and the edition should be stated, eg 2008 1st Edition. Then a few lines further down centred for easy identification you need an ISBN number, which you can obtain by phoning………………… at the State Library in Pretoria. The same person will then send you a sheaf of forms to complete in which you describe your book, and which also tells you that you have to send off copies of your work, free gratis and for nothing to all the holding libraries in the land – that’s about 8-12 copies. On the bottom third of that page you affirm that you are the owner of the intellectual rights of the work, unless you have included quotes or passages from a previously published work, in which case you had better have that author’s permission in writing that you may use the passage, and you acknowledge that they have graciously given you their permission. Most self-publishers have had some help from altruistic friends, authors or publishers – so it is only proper to thank them in print under the heading of ‘Acknowledgements’. Then underneath that you might like to add a dedication to some person for some reason. A page of contents is usual, but avoid anything that lists Chapter 1, Chapter 2 etc etc (which I have found in a surprising number of professionally published works), rather, the contents page should be descriptive to give the prospective reader a foretaste of what is to come. You might like to do the same with your illustrations; but while they will assist the bookseller and cataloguer in a hundred years time to decide whether the book is complete, it is mostly not done in modern publications. Your prelims may or may not be included in the pagination of the book, but beware – printers have been known to make a hash of it by starting the numeration of pages from the free endpaper onwards! I know from experience.
Now let’s look at the rear of the text. Your story has come to an end; all the t’s have been crossed and the i’s dotted. Not so fast. If your book is a factual one, which seeks to enlighten the reader in any field whatsoever, then it needs an index. Indexing is a dreadful, repetitive job for people who have special skills; so it is best left to them. You might have used a lot of foreign words – in South Africa, Afrikaans words creep in and if you are going to have foreign tourists reading your work – well, then you’d better explain yourself with a glossary at the end of the book. If you have leaned heavily on the writings of other writers, it is useful to give a full list of the publications you have used. There is a format for this, easily learned by perusing a reputable book which has such a bibliography at the end. These last few items are one place where you can scrimp on the size and spacing of font and lines, as people tend to search for one or two words, they don’t get tired from reading large quantities of tiny font. Just one thing left to do – list the fact that you have appended an index, a glossary and a bibliography at the front of the book on the contents page.
Almost all factual books on historical and other matters have footnotes at the base of the text here and there – mainly to explain something or to give a reference as to where a fact was found. Your computer programme should be able to handle it, but it can get a little tricky. Pre-set the size of the font one or two sizes smaller than your main text, and you can even use another font to make it quite obvious that the reader has strayed out of the main narrative. Footnotes can also be added in a bunch at the end. This means you have to read the book with a finger stuck in the textblock further on to be able to access a footnote when you need it. I find that irksome, but tastes may differ; you can never please all the readers, so you might as well please yourself. Often a book will need a map to enable the reader to follow the action or to place a locality. You can’t just photocopy a map from the nearest atlas, as that image belongs to someone. No, either you have to get stuck in and draw the thing yourself, scan it, put in the required placenames by hand or per computer programme, or once more you have to hunt down some talent and pay them a commensurate amount for doing that small thing for you. It’s your choice.
Right, so now we have a textblock in the rough, so to speak. At this stage you need to make a final decision as to what paper you want to use. Get samples of everything that the printers offer. Decide whether you want a glossy, dead-white, or something a little more organic. Print on a sheet; both sides so that you can check whether the paper is opaque enough to prevent the print on the other side from showing through, check the quality of the printing on the weave with a magnifying glass to see if it has broken up unduly. On the other hand does the printed sheet look grey? Then you almost certainly have a really poor print job on paper that owes more of its existence to a mine than a tree. You need to decide whether the illustrations need a special paper, for instance dead white high-gloss for photos, unless you are going for sepia shades of black and white on a yellow or light beige, or whether your drawings look at home on the same grade of paper as your print. Whatever you do with your colour illustrations, get a proof which also states what paper is going to be used, so that you can check that the innate colour of the paper doesn’t alter your tones in the final appearance of the pictures. Decide on the weight of paper to use – find out if it is available in the correct quantity right now. The paper has been chosen, now the nice person from the printers must tell you exactly how thick your book of xxx pages with yy plates and two maps is going to be, because otherwise you won’t be able to proceed with the next step.
What about a cover? You have a firm idea of what you want your cover to look like. Wonderful! You have taken a stunning photo ten years back, which you would like to use for a dustjacket/cover. Or you are one of those gifted people who can actually do their own artwork. Converting an image into a book-cover is not a job for an amateur. To get the titling correctly spaced, the spine labeled, the blurb aligned properly on the back or on the flaps of the dustjacket – all of these are once more in the preserve of the specialist graphic designer. You’ll pay dearly for the service, but at least you will have a real idea of what your effort is going to look like before you go and throw some real money at it. If there is any chance that the work will be sold at any jacked-up emporium, then you’d better go on-line and buy yourself a bar-code that can be incorporated on the back cover of the book – it makes it look more professional and easier to sell to the big boys, if you should get lucky. Again you have to decide on the weight of paper or board, as it is called, to use on the covers.
Now you speak to your friendly person at the printers. You enquire about the options. Get an idea what it would cost to produce the textblock in different quantities, say 300, 500 or 1000, find out what the difference in cost would be for a ‘perfect-bound’ versus a sewn book. You will be surprised how much cheaper it gets the more you print. Then get a quote for what a softcover binding would add to the cost; alternately explore the cost of having your publication machine-bound in hardcover, with a dustjacket added on, or with a laminated cover. Now the expense starts to climb. Most people bail out at about this stage and decide they can only afford to publish a softcover. Why not? The world is full of softcover books; it won’t hang over you like a criminal record if you go that route. There is one way out of this financial dilemma. Tell the printers that you will not pay for any overruns (you’d be surprised how inaccurate these people can be, 10% more or less is nothing to them), but offer to take a set number of textblocks without covers off them, say 20-50. These you can then hand over to a friendly bookbinder, who can hand-bind them at great expense, and which you may present as priceless heirlooms to family and friends or sell them as de-luxe editions at a hugely inflated price.
Are we ready to go? Not by a long stretch ! You now get a ‘proof’ of the cover, printed exactly on the same sort of board, as they call the thick paper that is used. Tell them you want it laminated, or embossed, or not as your heart desires and your finances will allow – get a couple, just so that you can play with them. Let’s say you are happy with the cover. Now you request a proof of the book. This should arrive in loose sheets, and you apply yourself once more to ‘proof-reading’. It is almost guaranteed that you will find errors. Without any reason that you can fathom, your faithful computer has taken a dislike to the printer’s machine and between them they have decided to alternate fonts on even and odd pages, to kick footnotes into the middle of a page, your pagination numbers appear anywhere and your index doesn’t bear even the faintest resemblance to what you had given them. It happens. Deal with it. Use very bold red markers and point out exactly what is wrong, glue or staple on little scraps of paper bearing instructions and throw it back at your ever-friendly printer with a snarl. He won’t mind, because this happens all the time. He will then make the necessary adjustments and you will get another proof. You will (of course) have kept a photocopy of the previous proof so that you can now track down one and every amendment you have requested. You find that all is well and the printer has done his job – or has he? No, you start from the beginning and proofread once more, because it is equally likely that in fixing the previous batch of errors, he has now committed a few others. You send the results of your researches back to him and request (hopefully) a set of ‘galleys’, which nowadays actually just means a sort of final proof. Yes, you read through that one once more and eradicate that last misplaced comma, full stop or whatever – just look hard enough and you’ll find it.
Most printers will want at least a deposit from you at this stage, and it’s not an unreasonable request; but do hold back 50% of the full payment until after delivery of the finished product to your satisfaction. Read your contract, know what you are letting yourself in for. Ideally it would now be best for you to find out exactly at which small hour of the morning your book will come hot off the press, and you insist that you wish to stand there while they run off your thousand copies at a breathtaking rate. That way you can pick up any major snarl-up as the first few books come off the press and are assembled. It’s not an easy decision to make, since it is heart-attack territory, and it is no guarantee that you will pick up an incipient problem in the dim light of the factory environment between all this lethal-sounding machinery. Hopefully you will be the proud parent of your own literary baby a few days later.