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Authors: Giles Foden

1999 - Ladysmith

BOOK: 1999 - Ladysmith
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Giles Foden




The year is 1899, and Boer forces have surounded the small South African town of Ladysmith. As shells and shrapnel rain down, British soldiers and townsfolk dig themselves in, waiting for rescue. But General Buller’s relief column can’t break through. Review

In the dying days of the 19
century, the world’s eyes turned to the small South African town of Ladysmith, whose inhabitants spent 118 days under siege from Boer forces, waiting for General Buller’s relief forces. Giles Foden tells Ladysmith’s story through a host of characters. There’s the Irish hotelier Leo Kiernan and his daughters Bella and Jane; the barber Antonio Torres, from Portuguese East Africa; the various British war correspondents, including a young Winston Churchill; the Indian stretcher bearers, among them Mohandas Ghandi; a Zulu named Muhle Maseku, his wife Nandi and son Wellington; and two young English soldiers, Tom and Perry Barnes, whose letters home were apparently inspired by those of Foden’s great-grandfather. It’s a busy book, and it’s not always clear what’s going on. But that’s Foden’s point. At heart Ladysmith is a novel about the writing of history, set on the verge of modernity, where old ways of assessing historical truth were being cruelly questioned. So correspondent George Steevens still reads his Greek historians and Gibbons, while messages are being sent (and censored) by the new-fangled heliograph. “Sieges are out of date,” Steevens realises. “To the man of 1899, with five editions of the evening papers every day, a siege is a thousandfold a hardship. We make it a grievance nowadays if we are a day behind the news—news that concerns us nothing!” With such pressures to provide news, news, news, it’s no surprise when the correspondents end up producing the Ladysmith Lyre, full of fake news. And on the margins, there’s the unnamed Biographer, eschewing words in favour of visual images with his Biograph, but soon finding that he too can’t tell the whole story.


Foden visits the pitfalls of historical fiction. Like Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes, there are moments in Ladysmith when research overpowers narrative. Like Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, Foden’s love story convinces far less than his war story. In its attempted range—Churchill and Ghandi’s encounter prefiguring events of the 1940
, Bella’s personal rebellion standing in for the advance of women, the place of Ireland in Britain’s colonial plans, Wellington’s experiences informing his work with the ANC—Ladysmith sometimes falls short. But in his evocation of the town’s drawn-out suffering, Foden is very good, producing some startling images such as the mockingbirds who ‘take to imitating the whine and buzz of shells’. This is never anything less than a fascinating, ambitious novel, and to see a young author taking on the huge question of how to write history is inspiring indeed.—Alan Stewart—This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title


f you hold the bottle up against the light as you pour it into the glass, you will see what colour Guinness really is. Just where the cheerful liquid flows over the lip of the bottle, you will see a beautiful deep colour glittering like a jewel. It is a moment in time, and it is called the ruby point. The landlord told me that.

Oh boys, how it all comes back. Before her death, I worked at the Guinness brewery in Dublin, shovelling steaming hops into the fermentation bins. The place was full of heat, like it was somehow alive. We had to strip off our shirts, and the smell of the malt went into the very pores of our skin. When I got home, she would say that she could taste it on me. And now I am tasting the bitter brew myself, sitting in the Cock and Anchor at Liverpool docks, waiting for a ship. Little Bella and Jane are fast asleep in a room upstairs. They keep asking about their mother, and I do not know how to tell them that her story is over.

How did it begin? It began with a battering ram, which the landlord’s men—another landlord, as different from this friendly Liverpudlian as could be imagined—brought and erected outside my family’s cottage in Tarbert. It was a huge trunk of timber, over twenty-five feet long, which they hung from a tripod and swung at the door, behind which I had barricaded myself with my brother Michael. The pair of us had carried in ledges of limestone. We could hear the shooting outside, and then the battering started. It didn’t last long, the door splitting in straightaway and the ledges falling over. Then the ram came right inside, sending pots and kettles flying above the hearth, and smashing my drinking cup. Its chips fell on to the floor, along with the grindings of the limestone, which was like yellow flour. Then one of the constables fired in a bullet, which took my brother full in the chest, killing him on the instant.

They beat me afterwards, and left me for dead also, on the edge of a peat bog. When I woke up, there was blood in my mouth, and my body was bruised and raw. Everywhere around me were the blocks and pyramids of the peat stacks. I dragged myself up a boreen to the house of a member of the Brotherhood, Joe Ward, and he gave me a bath, some new clothes, and a fry. Also some money, with which to go to Dublin. There was nothing left for me in North Kerry now: my parents dead, my brother killed. Even if I had been able to get another smallholding, the land had been squeezed dry of nourishment, and there would be no respite from the rents. I don’t know, anyway, that I would have been able to make it work. Since the death of our mother and father, Michael and I had done our best to keep that pocket of ground going, setting potatoes wherever we could, even along the clifftops. But every day, the lack of food scrabbled at our stomachs, and I think we both knew that things could not last.

The roads to Dublin were heavy with travellers. Everybody was on the move. Most were starving, most thought they would get to America, most would die. On the way, I fell in with a sweet girl called Cathleen. She and I would go foraging for food together. It was on one of these trips, looking for mushrooms in some dark corner of forest, that we had our first flourish, her pulling up her petticoats on a bed of leaf mould. I think, maybe, that it was there that Bella was conceived.

On arrival in Dublin, I made contact with the Republican Brotherhood again. It was through them that I secured the job at Arthur Guinness and also lodgings in Kevin Street. My first work for the Brotherhood was to go on a parade in Phoenix Park, where Cathleen and I, on seeing the son of Randolph Churchill, secretary to the Lord Lieutenant, frightened his donkey and made him fall off. He was out for a ride with his nurse, who I believe was called Mrs Everest.

That was our first action. In later years, Cathleen and I got caught up with a mightier crowd, a grouping within the Brotherhood that was responsible for many of the great patriotic feats of the time. Led by John MacBride, it included James Devine, Christopher Fallen and Finbar Sheeny in its ranks. Devine was the commander of our cell, which had arranged to meet at a pub in Middle Abbey Street at ten o’clock. The reason given for the meeting was to plan the bombing of a police station—but I knew that MacBride, or Foxy Jack as we used to call him, suspected Sheehy of being an informer and wished Devine to interrogate him.

Dublin was misty that night, and where the gold of the gas lamps hung suspended, each one had a little muffler of grey. Cathleen remained outside in an alleyway underneath one of these, keeping watch, while I went into the pub with Fallen and Devine. Waiting for Sheehy, we sat in the pews in a fug of stout, Sweet Afton and Gold Plug. A man in a cap was playing an old air on the piano. Half an hour passed. There was still no sign of Sheehy. Devine decided to abandon the meeting in case the authorities had been put on the alert. We came out of the pub, and it was then that I heard Cathleen’s warning whistle. I turned and saw that there was a party of men shadowing us. Sheehy had betrayed us.

They were detectives, carrying revolvers and sticks. One of them shouted “Arrest that man!” and they ran up towards us, attempting to lay hands on Fallen, who was hindmost and had taken his gun out. He turned and fired two shots, killing one of the detectives and hitting the hat of another. Fallen was then hit himself, and his limbs became wrapped up with those of the policeman who had tried to lay hold of him. Devine had meanwhile grabbed one of the others by the arms and was wrestling with him, at the same time trying to draw his own revolver from a hiding place in his trousers. There was great confusion and noise of discharging guns, but amongst it all I heard Cathleen’s signal whistle again. Fearing for our lives, I ran off in her direction, the opposite way the police would expect. As I did so, another detective fired after me. It was that bullet which did it, for on reaching Cathleen in the dark alley, I found her knocked down, with a hole in her throat.

I could hear the running steps of the detectives in the cobbled street behind me, and did not know what to do. I picked her up. There was blood all down her front, and in the gaslight her face looked as pale as an angel’s. I could see at once that she was dead. The running steps were getting closer. I let her body go. It slid down the wall, and her head fell to one side, making the awful, blood-filled hole gape wider. I cannot get the picture out of my head. When I ran from the scene, it was as if I was running into that hole. There were lots of people around by now also, and their open mouths were like that hole, too.

I have been running ever since. Taking the children sleepy-eyed from their beds, I took the first packet from Dun Laoghaire the next morning, and arrived here. It is not safe, as I see from the newspaper that I am being sought, and we must flee again. Once more, the Brotherhood has helped me, paying for passage to South Africa, where many of our brethren have gone—in part because there is work to be done there, fighting the empire in whose name liberty is being suppressed, as it has been in Ireland this last hundred years or more; in other part because there are opportunities for enrichment in the gold and diamond fields. MacBride is also thinking of coming out, if things get too hot for him.

Myself and the children leave in the morning…My God, is this to be her memory? The account in this newspaper styles my wife a common prostitute. Up in the room with the girls is something that tells a different story—a photograph taken by an Englishman who came to Dublin to make pictures of ‘the Irish poor’, as he put it. He gave me it as a gift, and when he did I never knew it would become so precious. As for the other gifts the English have given me and my country, I swear it, if I do anything else in my life, I will make them pay.




hese items for sale also, the notice in the window said. To wit: three mother-of-pearl looking-glasses, four scissors, three large and two small combs, ten vials of perfume and an equal number of bottles of hair oil, all laid out in a neat, symmetrical pattern. The young woman in the straw hat regarded the scissors charily, as if they might put her hair in danger; then, seeming to make up her mind, opened the door and went in.

High above Bella Kiernan, as she stepped into the barber’s shop, four horsemen were coming down the road from Helpmakaar, cantering between the heavy shadow of Bulwan and the smaller shade of Umbrella Hill. As Bella greeted the barber, they reined in their horses, and came to a halt.

“Here will do well enough,” said Steevens to the others.

For all concerned, it was a matter of perspective: in front of Bella was a row of well-cushioned leather chairs, each set before a mirror; below the horsemen lay the town of Ladysmith, as seen from a particular point of view and distance. She sat down; they surveyed the town, sitting in its dusty amphitheatre of ridges and kopjes—surveyed it, and said to each other, yes, we can easily make a stand here. One produced his brass spyglass and took a closer look.

“Solid as the Bank of England,” MacDonald muttered. The others agreed, and the spyglass was closed up with a snap.

The horsemen were wrong: sure as the crowned eagle stooping above them would catch its prey that day, they were wrong to a man. A proper soldier would have deemed it a tight place to defend, the rocky spurs and flat-topped hillocks being so disconnected and irregular, so mutually overlooking, that each vantage point was disadvantaged by another.

They kicked their mounts on, splashed through a spruit, and cantered on down towards the town. A little nearer, aching after their long tour, they paused on Pound Plateau. A spyglass again, Nevinson’s this time; out of the quiver-like brown leather case it came, to be extended and trained upon Ladysmith, in the late afternoon.

It always amazed Nevinson what a panorama the glass’s sovereign-sized portion of light could reveal—the serried roofs of the tin town, the garrison the English called the Aldershot of Africa, the tented camp on the barren plain two miles out of town, the racecourse in an oxbow of the Klip River, the V where the
narrow-gauge line from Natal divided (one line to the Transvaal, one to the Free State), the convent, the desultory scattering of thorn trees beyond the cricket pitch and golf links, the rows of wooden-fronted houses with little squares of orchard or vegetables, and the wide main street with its stores, hotel and all-round saloon-bar feel.

BOOK: 1999 - Ladysmith
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