Friday, December 19, 2014

The Greatest Bookshop In the Whole World!

I did my training in London and after spending five years there as a penniless student, it’s good to go back every so often and visit old haunts with some money in my purse.

One of my trips is always to Foyles, the greatest book shop in the world. I shall arm wrestle to the ground anybody who says otherwise.  It stands at the top of Charing Cross Road and when I first went there with my huge list of medical text books I had to buy, we students were sent down the old rickety rackety wooden stairs to the dark basement where copies of Gray's Anatomy were stacked high into the ceiling, Gangon's Text Book of Medical Physiology (unreadable!) filled the far wall and every variation of clinical methods manuals and anatomical atlases were piled higgledy piddledy at my feet   I remember tip toeing my way down the narrow maze like path between the books, hoping that  I  would find my way out.
Maybe hoping I would not.
The smell was  marvellous.
It has changed a lot now.

It had been an independent bookseller since 1903, and is always just called 'Foyles (founded by brothers William and Gilbert Foyle).  They failed their entrance exam to join the  civil service but being enterprising chappies they sold off their redundant text books – and so a legend was born.
By 1906 they opened the shop at 135 Charing Cross Road and they stayed there until 2014 when they moved to the premises I visited last week. As you will have noticed, it moved along the same street.
Charing Cross Road is famous for book and  bookshops, as seen in the film 84 Charing Cross Road. Denmark Street is off it – famous for  musical instrument shops and sheet music. Charing Cross Road changes its name a few times as it goes up to Euston Station. At the Tottenham Court Road part it was always  full of specialist hi fi shops in the good old days of turntables, speakers, amps, tweeters, woofers, ....fade the list to sepia..... but now it has fallen foul to the advancement of large chain coffee shops ... spit anger teeth gnashing....

In 1930 Christina Foyle, daughter of the founder William, started her famous literary lunches that have included  Margaret Thatcher, Prince Philip, General de Gaulle, General Sikorski and the Emperor Haile Selassie.
In 1945 the control of the business passed to Christina who didn’t seem to share her dad’s golden touch. She fired staff on a whim and refused any modern intervention- such as tills.  I have memories of wandering about being confused about how to pay for my books which weighed a ton as I carried them for A to Z. The payment system was that customers had to queue to collect an invoice for the book, queue to pay the  invoice  at another counter, then  queue again  to collect the books which hopefully were the ones paid for. We Brits are very found of queueing so nobody really cared.
According to come sources, the books on the shelf were arranged via  publisher. Not topic. N author. Not popularity. it was probably a minor miracle that anybody found the book  they went in for, but imagine the delights to be found on the way.
I would happily wandering round for hours, ( free entertainment) reading a bit of this and that while on my way down the wooden staircase.  "Imagine Kafka had gone into the book trade,” was  a famous quote about the shop at the time.  It was famed for these anachronistic practices  and it's rather a shame that the new shop is bright and shiny, well organised and sensible. The staff are still rather eccentric. Nothing  surprises them. As I was being served, the old gentleman at the till was asked if they stocked 'Waiting for Godot.' In Finnish.
'Over at the window, third shelf down.' He didn't blink.Didn't miss a beat.
I think the new shop opened  on 7th June at no.107, just a few doors down from the old shop. The sticky out sign is just the same so you can't miss it. I’m not sure if it still holds the records for its 30 miles of shelf space but it should.  It still has the greatest range of  a books under one roof of any book shop in the UK. It was voted  national book seller of the year in 2013.
The new place has succumbed to the onsite coffee shop trend. But it’s a Foyles and not branded, it does soup and hot rolls. It does tea in a pot with a real leaf dangler. The café is high on the fifth floor and if the seating is full you can wander up to the sixth and eat your lunch next to the grand piano. The lift has opening doors at both ends as the floors of the shop are off set. It causes panic in those  occupants that are facing the wrong door as the lift announces 'third floor' and they are staring at a brick wall, presuming the lift had got stuck and they will stay there for eternity. slowly rotting away with a good book to read.

I meandered through crime looking for a few folk I know, I spotted this. And then this

 and this…

And then I spotted this...

 A book by the Doc Holliday of Scottish writing. You have to witness the coat.  Chris Dolan a multi talented type who I try really hard to dislike him but I can't because he's a nice bloke. He’s a screen play writer,  song writer,  tv writer and general all round smart arse who has just produced a crime book.
 He does redeem himself from all this cleverness by admitting that crime writers are a great laugh and much more fun to hang about with than these intellectual, beardy types.

 Being a smart chappie he produced this little montage and he’s singing the song himself. He is a Glaswegian so I invite you to revel in his dulcet tones. He smokes about twenty Woodbine a day and can still do a pretty shifty ten k.
I will get him to guest blog in the future. I did ask him for a quote as to why he has joined the ranks of 'The Happy Writers' and here's what he said.

He says it took him a long time to try his hand at a genre he loves – Crime.
"Despite what people think, Crime is harder than ‘literary; fiction, or political plays. It’s a deep craft… It speaks about the world and morals and life as it’s lived, but it has to be accurately shaped, profoundly considered. The plot, the characters, the created world. I don’t know if I’ve quite got there yet, but I love writing my heroine Maddy, and with luck and hard work the next novel might be better’.

( That's a bit like Picasso saying he'll be a better painter when he learns to stay within the lines.  And yes, his Fiscal heroine Maddy does wear peerie heels.)

The montage is .... well see for yourself. It's all about his book. 
Once watched, I defy you not to start thinking what a montage about your last book would be like....

Caro Ramsay 9th December

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Darkest Africa

I'm not sure who coined the term Darkest Africa but apparently Stanley used in in a book in 1878.   As I write this, I'm sitting in the lounge of our bungalow at Olifants River Game Reserve.  It’s hot and sticky, but I have light.  Because of the vagaries of power connections in the outlying country areas, we back up our mains power with a solar system, which is able to run one low energy fridge/freezer and low energy lighting.  We use low energy appliances as much as we can in any case to try to reduce our energy footprint.  A couple of days ago a big storm knocked out the mains power and we relied on the solar, but now the electricity is flowing freely and constantly.  Well, “freely” probably isn’t the right word.  Make that “smoothly”.  It’s not Darkest Africa here.  For that you need to go to South Africa’s biggest cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg.  Before I escaped up here, Johannesburg was enduring “load shedding”, “rolling blackouts”, “temporary interruptions”, whatever the power utility’s word of the day is.  (Note to Zoe: word for “continuing intermittent power interruptions,” please.)  What it meant was a power blackout between 6 and 10 each evening.  So eat early and go to bed.  I wonder if it will lead to a new baby boom in South Africa.

There is a long story behind this, and contrary to most opinions – always vociferously expressed – it’s not all the fault of the current government.  Although a lot of it is.  In 1923 South Africa established the Electricity Supply Commission, which is now known as ESKOM. (The “K” is not a error, it’s there because, at the time,…never mind. Don’t ask.)  ESKOM has the responsibility for the generation and supply of electricity to all sectors in South Africa.  At the time of its establishment it ignored the black people and kept the white people and businesses happy with plentiful, low-cost power.  Now it's trying to do a bit better.  Please don’t think that ESKOM is a small side show in the world power fraternity.  It is ranked in the top ten suppliers in the world in terms of both revenue and power generation.  So why do we see it like this:

 In the late nineties, during a flirtation with capitalist philosophies common then, the government decided to privatize ESKOM.  The utility pointed out that it needed a huge injection of capital to renovate and upgrade existing power stations and build new ones.  The government added this to the price tag for the parastatal.  There wasn’t a rush of offers and ESKOM remained with the state.  About ten years ago the situation deteriorated to the stage where ESKOM was forced to black out power for periods of time.  Although the government and ESKOM pointed to the lack of investment from ten years earlier, a variety of other issues emerged.  Coal supplies (the fuel of most of South Africa’s power stations) had deteriorated due to the uncertainty around mineral ownership. Diesel was an issue too.  With hydroelectric, there was a water shortage. There were technical problems at Africa’s only nuclear reactor, Koeberg.  And so on and on.

(Poffadder is a boiling hot, unpleasant village in the middle of nowhere.  It actually exists, but no one knows why.  It’s named after a lazy, highly poisonous snake that is common in the area.)
Nevertheless, things limped along fueled by huge power price increases, until last month.  Then the Majuba power plant suffered the collapse of one of its coal storage silos followed by major cracking in the other. Majuba delivers about 10% of the country’s power.  “Planned and unplanned maintenance” has other turbines out of commission and an “unexplained incident” – that took place in March - has affected yet another. A new power station, Medupi, scheduled to start production in 2011, has yet to deliver a single kilowatt. All 13,000 workers on the facility headed home for their Christmas break last weekend. Christmas break?  13th December?  One of the engineers at the plant – who required anonymity for obvious reasons – said that Medupi was a disaster and blamed ESKOM’s micromanagement.  “They know F-all about building power stations,” he said.

ESKOM claims that the government’s decision not to fund expansion in the late nineties was to blame.  Certainly new plant was needed and ten years is about the right lead time for new generating facilities.  The government claimed that it was surprised by the very rapid growth of the economy, yet the economy grew at roughly half the government’s own targets over the period.  Wow!  Imagine if their targets had been realistic!

The CEO of ESCOM, when asked if the latest burst of power cuts was a crisis, responded: “It’s a crisis for the country, but ESKOM is not in crisis.”  It forces one to ask: “Is anyone in charge up there?”  I’d like to tell you the answer, but it’s too dark up there to see anything...

Michael - Thursday

Monday, December 15, 2014

the Paris school menu this week - bon appétit

 In case you were wondering what Parisian school children eat for lunch - and who hasn't since they seem to be born 'gourmands' - here's this weeks school menu for les enfants in the 8th arrondissement of Paris this week.
 Even the three-year-olds sit down at tables with knives and forks and spoons and real plates and are fed the same kind of food their working papas and mamans are probably eating at the brasserie on their lunch breaks. The menu is posted on the school gate (and now online)  every week so maman can ask how the endives-au-jambon were and what fruit they ate. Parents are expected to read it, and avoid serving any repeat food for dinner. Food and eating are considered part of the academic curriculum, starting in nursery school. A child’s palate is as worthy of education as a child’s brain.
There is also no rush. The lunch break lasts a full hour and a half, at least 45 minutes of which involves actual eating. Fresh ingredients– local meats, fruits and vegetables– are used as much as possible.
Other menu items include: ratatouille, grilled fish, cabbage remoulade, sauteed chicken, paté, lentils, assorted cheeses (even stinky ones), sweet potato salad, petit poids, cucumber and chevre salad, and, at least once, escargot.

- Lunch is traditionally the largest meal of the day in France, representing approximately 40% of children’s caloric intake.
-There are no 'kids' foods in French school lunches – the French actively teach kids to like and eat a wide variety of 'adult' food.
- Every child sits down to the same meal – there are no substitutions or multiple choices available to customize the lunch.
-Packed lunches are strongly discouraged for all ages, K-12.

1.  Vegetable starter: leafy green salad or sliced or grated vegetables.
2.  The warm main dish, which includes a vegetable side dish.
3.  Cheese course.
4.  Dessert is fresh fruit four times a week with a sweet treat on the fifth day.

All this is governed by REGULATIONS mandated by the French Ministry of Education
- Municipalities must adhere to strict regulations governing portion sizes, nutritional composition, and cooking methods.
- The minimum time required/allotted for children to sit at the table is at least 30 minutes.
- Children drink water with lunch: there are no other drinks of any kind available at lunch.
- Vending machines and fast food are banned in all schools.
- Twenty different meals are served per month. Schools do not repeat the same dish more than once every month in any given school.
- Over the course of 20 meals (one month), only 4 main dishes and 3 desserts can be high fat (more than 15% fat).
- Vegetables comprise approximately 50% of the overall meal.
- Fried food can only be served four times per month.
- Ketchup is limited to once per week (many don’t serve it at all).
- Schools are not allowed to leave any sauce, mayonnaise, salad dressing, or ketchup available to students to serve themselves freely.

Most schools are built with kitchens and cooking is done on the premises. In some cases, municipalities may have a central kitchen, where food is made for multiple schools and then delivered. Increasingly, however, French schools are contracting out meal preparation to private companies, which is the cause of some controversy in France. However, even where a private company prepares the meals it is the municipality’s responsibility to provide staff to monitor and serve them.
The relevant French law allows municipalities to set their own prices, but also allows for a sliding scale, and caps prices — with the goal of allowing all children to have equal access. Thus, prices vary but in Paris, for example, most families pay about $3.00, the wealthiest families pay $7.00, and the lowest-income families pay $0.20 cents per meal.
Cara- Tuesday bon appétit

Ypres 1914: The Christmas Truce

A hundred years ago, peace broke out in No Man’s Land.

It happened in Belgium, where the fighting had long been stalemated, and the trenches were so close together, the combatants could hear the enemy sneeze. 

It seems to have started with music—soldiers singing.  The German’s began with Deutschland Uber Alles.  The Brits responded by singing in English and in harmony.  Given the season, both sides were soon singing carols

The Germans put up a Christmas tree with candles.

Eventually, according to Brigadier-General Walter Congreve, one unarmed British Infantryman stood up.  The Germans decided not to shoot.  Then, one of them stood up, too.  Before they knew it, they were out of the trenches and exchanging tobacco, cakes, chocolate, rum and schnapps!  Many of the German troops had lived in England during the decade leading up to the war, so communication was easy. 

They used the peaceful moment to collect and bury the dead who lay frozen in the space between the trenches.

No less than Pope Gregory had called for such a thing to happen, asking “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.”  The British officially rebuffed his entreaty.  Officers on both sides tried to stop such fraternization, including the Young Charles de Gaulle, who called it “lamentable.”  General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien forbade it.  Corporal Adolf Hitler of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry declared his opposition.

But the grunts, somewhere around 100,000 of them on both sides, prevailed and had their moment of peace, sang their carols, and played a little football.  Some exchanged souvenirs—buttons off their uniforms, helmets.  Led by the Scots, they sang Auld Lang Syne.

And they wrote home about it.  The world press kept mum at first, but then on December 31, The New York Times printed the story and then word was circulated by newspapers in Britain and France.

This past Saturday, I saw a play about the Christmas truce —All is Calm—performed by the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival at the Church of St. Mary’s in the Highlands in Cold Spring New York.  The words were all taken from letters and poems of men writing from the trenches.  The actors spoke them in the accents of the men who wrote them.  A male chorus accompanied the performance.  It made me weep.  You can learn more about the play here:  All is Calm   including hearing one of the poems.

A rehearsal shot of the performers

This year, in honor of the centennial of World War I, Sainsbury’s made a commercial reenacting the Christmas truce.  Watch it here:

If you think the little film is overly romanticized , I give you a quote from a letter written by Captain Sir Edward Hulse: “It was absolutely astonishing, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film, I should have sworn that it was faked.”  If the brief re-enactlemnt was not enough for you, watch this marvelous film:

In the play All is Calm, one of the actors recites the words of a letter written about the events of that Christmas.  The soldier writing wonders what would happen if the men on both sides just went on strike.  He says he doesn’t think it possible but allows as how, “It’s a thought.”


I wish you peace.

Annamaria - Monday

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Arguments With My Cat …

OK, I’ll admit right from the start that the cat involved in this tale isn’t actually mine. I’m currently house- and cat-sitting while the owner’s out of the country. Not, I sometimes think, that merely living in the same house as a cat should imply ownership on part of said human in relation to said feline.

In fact it’s far more likely that the cat views the humans it deigns to share space with as ‘staff’. We mistakenly view them as our ‘pets’ or -- worse than that -- as a working animal whose purpose in life is to keep the interior of the house free from small furry pests of any description.

This theory was put to the test by the slight ‘difference of opinion’ I had with the cat-with-whom-I-share-space recently.

With the Holiday Season imminent, I’ve been trying to get a little gift buying done and, as is always the way at Christmas, some of those gifts are of an edible nature. Foolishly, perhaps, considering the house I’m sitting is in a rural location, I’d stacked my To Be Wrapped pile in a corner of my bedroom.

Two-thirty a.m.

Scutter, scutter, scutter.

I turn light on. Look at TBW pile of gifts. Why is one of them knocked sideways on the floor…?

Me: (in slightly dopey state) “Hmm, probably nothing, and it’s two-thirty in the morning, for heaven’s sake. What am I going to do about it at this time? Try to ignore it, that’s what.”

I straighten up pile and turn light out.

Three a.m.

Scutter, scutter, scutter.

I turn light on again. Small dark furry projectile launches from TBW pile through minute gap in skirting board.

Me: “Right, that’s it. Where’s the cat?”

The cat, naturally, is curled up downstairs protecting the sitting room from the effects of log-burning stove by lying in front of stove and attempting to sop up all heat output before it reaches room.

Me: “Come with me. I have a job for you.”

Cat: “Eh? Do you have any idea what time it is?”

I put anything edible out of TBW pile into rodent-proof places, like the fridge, and carry slightly offended cat upstairs. She graciously accedes to stay on the end of the bed while I get back into it and turn light out.

Three-thirty a.m.

Scutter, scutter, scutter.

I turn light on. Cat, miraculously, is still on end of bed. Mouse is back on TBW pile, which clearly retains enough smell of chocolate to still be interesting. I wake up cat and point her at mouse. She catches sight of it and snaps out of her usual state of indifference to launch herself off bed and pursue mouse.

Mouse scarpers through same minute gap in skirting board as previously. Cat sits down a foot away and stares at hole with an intensity which suggests a finely honed hunter/killer instinct.

And, I have to say, this is not the first time I’ve cat-sat for this particular feline, and she’s pretty sharp when it comes to reducing the local population of fur, with the occasional sideline into feather. Pens, yoghurt pots and laser points also cower at her approach. It’s what cats do.

Or so I thought…

Foolishly believing the situation is in the hands (claws) of an expert, I turn light out.

Four a.m.

Scutter, scutter, scutter.

I turn light on, recalling as I do so that although I’ve moved any edible gifts, I may have left a packet of mints in a bag on the other side of the room. I get out of bed. The cat has disappeared. I open the top of the bag and, sure enough, the mint packet is now slightly chewed and surrounded by scraps of ripped paper packaging. I close the bag.

Me: “Hang on, where’s the mouse?”

I open the bag again. This time, small furry projectile catapults out of bag and disappears across floor at warp speed to disappear through gap in skirting again.

Me: "More to the point, where's the cat?"

I go back downstairs to find cat has returned to the vital job of absorbing heat from wood-burning stove. I resort to good old-fashioned mousetrap, baited with peanut butter, which I leave six inches from gap in skirting and turn light out.

Four-twenty a.m.


I turn light on. Mousetrap has done its stuff.

Unfortunately, mouse is not dead.

I go back downstairs to fetch cat, who is bordering on grumpy by this time. That makes two of us. I carry her upstairs and plonk her down in front of mouse in trap.

Me: “Cat, mouse. Mouse, cat.”

Cat: (prods at still-wriggling mouse with desultory paw) “Yeah, it’s a mouse. And your point is?”

Me:  “You’re a cat. You kill mice. OK, killer, do your duty.”

Cat: “Ah, no mate. I don’t do yer Dispatch Only, see? I do yer Catch and Dispatch, but Dispatch Only? At this time of night? Nah, it’s against regulations. Not without a risk assessment and forms in triplicate. No can do.”

Me: “Oh, for heaven’s sake…”

I carry mouse, still in trap, plus cat, downstairs and open back door, release mouse and drop cat next to it.

Me: “OK, now it needs both Catching AND Dispatching. Get on with it.”

Cat: “Hell’s teeth, are you nuts? It’s freezing out here.”

At which point she shoots back inside and I am left to deal with mouse, which I do, and come back in to find cat is back in front of wood-burner.

Cat: “We will never speak of this again.”

Me: “Traitor…”

So, the moral of this one is, never try to win an argument with a cat -- your own or that to which you are only temporarily indentured. You’ll end up doing the job yourself anyway.

This week’s Word of the Week is felicide, meaning the killing of a cat. I wonder why there should be a special word for that? But to balance the scales there’s also felicificative, meaning a tendency to make happy, possibly even as the result of being owned by a cat.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

In Search of Comedy

I looked long and hard to find something funny to write about in the Greek papers. But there’s nothing out there folks. Tipota. 

Unless of course you’re into gallows humor…Greece’s former Prime Minister George Papandreou—the fellow who walked off the stage when Greece was in crisis (something it’s not out of yet by a long-shot)—would like to come back to save the country. I never realized before his resemblance to Rodney “ I don’t get no respect” Dangerfield. 

Though I think he’s more likely drawing his political inspiration from watching Richard Nixon’s 1962 “you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore” speech, a promise he reneged on to become US President in 1968.

And that folks ends the comedy portion of this post.

My question of the day is, prior to this week, had anyone out there ever heard of—let alone know what is—“rectal feeding?”

It’s emerged (I know, ugh) from one of those seminal political events that will revolutionize crime writing.

For thriller and spy writers, a whole new vocabulary to jiggle around, new CIA transgressions to build upon, cover-ups galore, and enough complicity across the political spectrum to make the most hard-boiled noir fan lose hope at any happy ending.  Ever.

And paranormal writers, you’ll have to pick up your game, too, because those of you thinking you could put Armageddon out there in the year 2525, please recalibrate your calendars.

Traditional, cozy lovers, I suggest you stay cuddled up in the den with your favorite books, and not dare watch TV, listen to the radio, scan the Internet, or read a paper, for these are not your times.

Police procedural fans, those of you who like it when your favorite cop’s investigation is shut down at some crucial point by Department of Justice meddlers, will find a spike in those opportunities, but it will take fantasy writers to finish off the work if justice (with a small “j”) is to prevail in the end.

So, whom have I missed?  Let’s see…Vampires (see “rectal feeding”), True Crime (read the New York Times), Private Eyes (they’re newspaper reporters today), Romance (everybody’s getting screwed), and Historicals (I pray you’re around to write about these times).

Farcical mystery writers, start hammering away. You’re our only hope.

Next week is Christmas.  I’ll be happier then. Unless I learn Santa Claus was water-boarded, too.

Yes, there's actually such a cartoon out there.