Friday, March 27, 2015

Crime and Publishment And the Skinny Pigs


I'd like you to meet Graham Smith.  He's the Crime writer who runs the Crime and Publishment weekend that I did some work for recently, but more about that later. Graham is a very busy man, one of those chaps that always has a pen stuck behind his ear and a thousand things going on on his mind, all in the right order. I think he began life as a builder so this could well be true but I  think all writers should be caught up in the imaginative affray and not that well behaved really.  You know, vast of mind and rampant creative processes  which leads to terrible handwriting among other traits of marvelous.
However to his credit, he does have
                       a) terrible handwriting
                       b) the ability to tell a good story, short and sharp.
                       c) a very quick sense of humour
                       d) a pen behind his ear that I borrowed on many occasions ( I can never find mine!)

                                                  Graham behind the bar

The Crime And Publishment folk are a very friendly on-line bunch who seem to meet up every now and again to eat, drink and drink some more. As a bit of an outsider I was struck by the support and generosity they have for each other's writing, and was wondering if that was because many of them live in places ( I'm refusing to type the words 'the middle of no where'!)  that are more rural, a little off the beaten track and lack the  physical local writers group that we enjoy in the mid belt. 

I bet they all live in perfectly normal places  but I'm not letting that spoil the blog..

Here's what Graham had to say....

Who and what is Crime and Publishment?
Crime & Publishment is a weekend of crime writing masterclasses. It is held at the hotel I manage on the outskirts of Gretna Green.

                                                   The marvelous reviewer Chris.
                                           A well known face from Harrogate and Bristol

What does that location lend to the crime writing.... it struck me how close the motorway was--- for quick get away if I had murdered Chris Simmonds and stuck him in your wheely bin?
Being close to the motorway is great for quick getaways and the fact Gretna Green is a tourist town means there is a constant stream of visitors to the area and therefore lots of stories to be overheard.

Do you meet online? How often do you meet in person?
We have a group on the book of faces (Facebook) It’s a secret group complete with passwords, funny handshakes and a rather bizarre initiation ceremony involving The Da Vinci Code, self-flagellation and the words “I can write better than this”. To supplement this online activity we meet up for a meal and a natter about all things relevant to crime fiction every couple of months or so.
Why was it set up and whose idea was it?
I founded Crime & Publishment along with Inga McVicar as a way to help aspiring writers achieve their aim of securing a publishing contract.
Can anybody join?
We are open to all writers who are looking to learn more about their craft and improve their writing. We’ve had attendees from all over the country with varied levels of experience and previous successes.
Many of you seemed very well informed, did C and P stem from any review website?
Thank you for the compliment. Crime and Publishment was only made possible by the contacts I’ve established as a reviewer for Not only have I been able to attract talented authors as speakers, I’ve been lucky enough have attendees who know a certain amount of writing crime fiction.

And what is WCW?
WCW is the shortened from of Word Count Wednesday. This is a regular feature (weekly believe it or not) on our Facebook group. The idea is that you post the number of new words written towards a crime fiction story. It acts as a prompt for everyone and engenders a collective support system. Depending upon everyone’s commitments away from writing and where they are in their novel, the non-existent trophy can pass back and forth between any member.

How long has the C and P weekend been going?
2015 was our third year and I am already starting to plan for 2016.
      This is Mike Craven, a man who wears Spiderman socks... do not ask me how I know this....

Biggest success, apart from Ms Ramsay and Mr Malone's Jaws oscar winning performance?
I didn’t witness that performance myself, therefore under the mygaff / myrules jurisdiction it cannot be included. In all seriousness, the fact Mike Craven, Lucy Cameron and myself have all earned publishing contracts because of C&P is undoubtedly the greatest success. I never dared to imagine that after running the event twice I would have such a batting average.
        Lucy Cameron's pie chart to the great novel.
 I think the orange bit might stand for googling oneself!

Biggest Disaster?
There hasn’t been a disaster as such, but when David Thomas contacted me a week before the event with news of unforeseen family circumstance. I did see rather a large wave approaching my little boat. I was very fortunate that Neil White was able to step in and rescue me.

How do you split writing time with what must be a very consuming job?
It’s a struggle at times but when a story is burning inside me I have to get it out. My shifts at work get me three weekdays a fortnight when my son is at school and I tend to try and get at least an hour’s writing done after 9.00pm every night.

What book are you on now and how is it going?
I’m working on my own edits of a novel provisionally titled “The Watcher” and I’m really enjoying the discovery of all the stupid mistakes I’ve made. I hate the whole editing process but I know how much of a difference it can make. The way this one is going I may have to invest in a larger swear box.
                                                         And that is a Skinny Pig!

Tell us about the naked guinea pigs....
My wife breeds a rare kind of hairless guinea pig known as “skinny pigs”. I have as little to do with them as possible because of a firm belief they are nothing more than tail-less rats. However, I have writing as my hobby and she has her skinny pigs. With the bald wee buggers selling at over £100 apiece I’m gonna have to shift a lot of books to compete with her financially.

Caro Ramsay 27/03/2015

Thursday, March 26, 2015


Australia and South Africa are old rivals in a variety of areas of which sport is usually the most contentious.  As I wrote this, Australia beat India to take a cricket world cup final spot against New Zealand, who squeaked past South Africa in the semifinal thus denying a dream South Africa vs Australia final. Oh well, next time.

Another area where South Africa and Australia competed – but ended up on the same side – was to host the SKA – the square kilometer array.  This is intended to be the world’s largest, fastest, highest resolution radio telescope - roughly 50 times more powerful and 10,000 faster than any radio telescope today. You might imagine that the most interesting telescope would be one that could see light from furthest away, but you’d be wrong.  Astronomers obtain the most resolution from the radio wave part of the electromagnetic spectrum and they are hoping to see very far away which means very long ago in time. So long ago that it would be back to the earliest times of the universe, just a few hundred thousand years after the big bang.

This month the central steering committee for the project gave the green light to the detailed plans. The SKA is going ahead. At least as long as the money doesn’t run out.

Artists impression of the Australian configuration
The name is based on the design concept that the total receiving area of the components will be of the order of a square kilometer. That’s a million square meters or around ten million square feet.  That’s a lot of receiving dishes. The ‘telescope’ will span thirteen countries with the largest concentration of receivers in a remote corner of South Africa’s Northern Cape province and another large batch in West Australia.  It's one of the largest pure science projects ever undertaken, and it will not be at a fully operation stage for another ten years. (Watch for a follow up blog in 2025!)

Artists impression of the different SKA components at night
Courtesy SKA
Both South Africa and Australia put in bids for the whole project, but the final decision in 2012 - to share the project between the two countries - takes the strengths of both offerings.  Different types of receivers are required in any case to span the very broad range of frequencies required.  Other countries - including Botswana - also have a part to play.

Mid frequency array - for a lonely spot in Botswana maybe?
Courtesy SKA

One of the South African KATs
Courtesy SKA 
What one needs for this type of initiative is somewhere as far away from man-made radio sources as possible. The Northern Cape desert and the western Australian one qualify well.  Next it’s good if the site is as high and dry as possible – the atmosphere absorbs radio signals and the damper it is the worse the absorption.  Good for those desert locations again. Then one needs computer power.  Finally one needs money. A lot of money.

The science projects on the SKA’s agenda include extreme tests of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, understanding the development of galaxies starting close to their earliest formation, studying dark matter, dark energy, and cosmic magnetism.  And, oh yes, we may pick up a few messages from extraterrestrials along the way there somewhere as well.

What's out there?

South Africa’s prototype was called the Karroo Array Telescope (KAT) and a seven instrument cluster was built as a demonstrator for the South African proposal.  The first phase of the South African part of the SKA project will be to extend KAT to 64 instruments.  The larger array will be renamed MeerKAT.  Meer means more in Afrikaans so that's appropriate. But Meerkat is also the name of a charming species of mongoose (scientific name Suricata suricatta), which gets up inquisitively on its hind legs to look around and see what’s going on.  Seems like MeerKAT is a pretty good name.

Michael - Thursday.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

"Ladies and Gentlemen…Comrades and Friends…"

A little over 10 years after I left China for the first time, in the Los Angeles Opera staged John Adams' opera, "Nixon in China."

You might be thinking, "An opera starring Richard Nixon? That's…an interesting choice." Many critics shook their heads as well, not at all sure what to make of an opera whose characters were not only based on real people but the majority of whom were still alive at the time of these first productions (the opera originated in Houston in 1987 and was performed in LA in 1990).

My then-boss asked me if I'd like her ticket -- modern opera wasn't really her thing. I wasn't sure that it was my thing either, but I was fascinated by the idea of an opera based on Richard Nixon's historic 1972 trip to China.

(click to embiggen -- it's a hoot!)

I'd gone to China in 1979 at the age of 20, not because I'd had any particular interest in China. The opportunity had come up, so I took it. I really hadn't had any idea how this decision would impact my life, that it would be in essence an abrupt left turn that took me away from any clearly marked path and into unknown territory. Ten years later, I was still wrestling with the experience. China had been so different from any previous point of reference, and now I was orienting my life around something I really didn't understand.

(if you look carefully, you'll find me)

So I'd tried to make up for that lack of context by reading Chinese history. In particular, I was fascinated by the enigmatic Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the People's Republic, who held the position until his death in January 1976.

Zhou, unlike Mao, was still greatly admired by most of the Chinese people I met back then -- intellectuals for the most part. They and many Chinese saw Zhou as the "People's Premier," the rational  leader who moderated the worst of Mao's excesses, who truly cared about China and the Chinese people. 

The reality, of course, is far more ambiguous, complicated by the fact that Zhou, unlike Mao and many other Chinese leaders, did not leave extensive written records of his thoughts and philosophy. You have to search for the evidence with Zhou, mine other accounts, dig out salient quotes. You have to read between the lines.

Anyway, off I went to the Los Angeles premiere of "Nixon in China." This was a slightly revamped staging of the original Houston Grand Opera production, with the original cast. 

From the moment the curtains opened on a choir standing in a stylized Beijing winter landscape, I was hooked. 

Adams as a composer has his roots in minimalism, but "Nixon in China" goes far beyond the sort of repetition you might associate with that style. It is melodically lush and rhythmically complicated (how the conductor and the musicians count some of these passages is beyond me!). It has actual songs you can sing (well, I do anyway, but I'm told I'm a little strange). But what really impressed me beyond the music, which I love, is the insightful libretto by Alice Goodman. The words and music come together to convey an amazing amount of historical and character insight. If you want to see what I mean, take a look and a listen at the scene below. 

Contrast the smooth elegance of Zhou Enlai's vocal lines with the herky-jerky repetition of Nixon and his fixation on "news."

If you want to keep watching, Nixon's aria continues and descends into a truly paranoid passage about "rats chewing the sheets." So Nixon! And then it's on to Mao's entrance, accompanied by his three secretaries, "translating" his disjointed thoughts into a demented chorus.

But I think what impressed me the most was the opera's insightful portrayal of Zhou Enlai. Nixon is the star, Mao the force of nature, Madame Mao gets the show-stopping aria that closes Act 2, and Pat Nixon is the most sympathetic character. Zhou is much harder to characterize. He has two arias that bookend the opera, one at the end of Act 1, the other that closes the opera. What they do is show a character who has the most insight and awareness of of the cast, who grasps both the potential and the reality of the situation, of that moment in history and how they had arrived at it. He has the hope and the vision that they can truly create a better world, one where the different paths of nations are mutually respected. 

(I love this piece and this performance by baritone Sanford Sylvan. My biggest disappointment with other productions has been that I haven't seen another "Zhou" come close to what he does here)

But for all that, Zhou is ultimately a tragic character, because this awareness is combined with an inability--or an unwillingness--to prevent the worst of Mao's excesses. During the Cultural Revolution scene that closes Act 2, he is but a passive spectator--disapproving, perhaps, but helpless to prevent the chaos. At the end of the opera, he is left to wonder: "How much of what we did was good?"

Speaking of Madame Mao, her aria is a total blast, the dramatic highpoint of the opera: 

The video above is from the Metropolitan Opera's production in 2011. Yep, "Nixon in China" made it to the Met -- and in fact, after that uncertain premiere back in the late 80s and early 90s, it is now probably the most widely performed contemporary opera of our time. My hometown San Diego Opera just finished four performances to stellar reviews, and yes, I went. Twice.

p.s. I would be remiss if I didn't add one of Pat Nixon's arias. They are truly beautiful. Sorry about the ad preceding it!

Lisa…every other Wednesday...

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

On the Road - Life in the Espresso Lane

Life has been full speed in the Espresso lane on the book tour.
Don't get me wrong, I'm thrilled the Soho folks have sent me out for a book tour. This last weekend in El Lay, or Los Angeles, I pulled up at the last stops.  I travelled with Rhys Bowen and we hit a bit of blingland in Beverly Hills.Rhys got to stop and smell the roses in Pasadena.

Pass Randy's donuts 

And I checked out new artillery at the gun shop next to the Mystery bookstore. After the Tucson Book Festival where Libby Hellmann and I partnered up for a suspense workshop we got a taste of macaroons. Big thanks to our sweet friend Susan who gave us goodies for the flight home.

Cara - Tuesday (unpacking)

Monday, March 23, 2015

NOLA: Scene of the Upcoming Tennessee Williams Literary Festival

I feel sorry for Hernando de Soto.  When he set out for Louisiana from Florida in 1540, there was no crawfish etouffe waiting for him when he got there.  I will not have this problem when I arrive next weekend.  De Soto was, of course, looking for gold.  He did not find it, but he died trying.   I am going to attend a literary festival that takes its name from the playwright who made the New Orleans streetcars famous. 

The place De Soto arrived in lacked more than gold.  It didn’t even have a European name until a hundred and fifty or so years afterwards, when La Salle left the Great Lakes and made his way down the length of the mighty Mississippi.  He reached the Gulf at this time of year and claimed the whole of the Mississippi valley for France, naming it for King Louis XIV.  It was supposed to become the center of a fur-trading empire.  But what with distractions of war in Europe and with the local Natchez Indians, a major financial swindle, and yellow fever, things got off to a rather slow start.  In 1762, Spain took over west of the river, with the Brits on the east.  In the 1790s, the French changed their mind and came back.  The deal they made was this:  The King of Spain got the kingdom of Etruria for his son-in-law; the French got to reclaim their American land—on the condition that they never cede it to anyone else.  Ignoring the agreed-to rules, Napoleon turned around a few years later and sold it in a sale that our American readers all know well —if they went to school before 1975—the Louisiana Purchase.  Like a lot of big deals, the transaction went through despite the treaties and laws it broke.

Levees were built.  A great port grew up.  Refugees came—those expelled from French Canada, escapees from West Indian slave rebellions, and waves of immigrants from all over Europe.  A wonderful city—more Old World than New—grew up, with theaters, churches, opera houses.

The Civil War hurt NOLA very badly, by destroying the slave-based economy that surrounded it.  The silver lining for the area was that, in those days, no one had enough money to tear down the old buildings and build new ones.   When the state and the city finally recovered, they had a stock of gorgeous architecture that became the centerpiece of its romantic air.

The territory nearby has antebellum mansions that recall days of bygone glory, sanitized by Gone With the Wind, a historical novel (and its much better movie twin) that managed to romanticize away the brutality of it all, even of the founding of the Ku Klux Klan.

The city of New Orleans has lovely old buildings of cypress and brick, with signature wrought iron galleries.  Thanks to its ancient French roots, it has great food.  And it has music.  And I mean MUSIC.  Just about everything we call American music bubbled up for the first time in New Orleans.

On the Crescent of the Mississippi, NOLA remains a place of paradox.  Downtown is north.  Uptown is south.  The sun rises over the west bank of the river.   The annual orgiastic observation of Mardi Gras marks the beginning of a religious period of austerity.

I used to visit New Orleans every few years but have not been there since the year before Katrina.   I cannot wait to go back, have a beignet and a coffee, some crawfish and dirty rice, and revel in the warmth of its atmosphere.

I’ll report back next week.  In the meanwhile, you can tap your foot along with this:

Annamaria - Monday

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The dangerous lure of motorcycling – and why I decided to make Charlie Fox a biker

Friday heralded the first day of Spring, and with it budding flora, lengthening days, and reckless thoughts of being unpicked from the winter underwear.

It also prompted thoughts of getting my Triumph Street Triple out of hibernation and shaking the dust from its wheels. In fact, apart from days that were icy or actually snowing, it was only the disgusting amount of salt they spread all over the roads in the UK during the winter that stopped me riding it right through.

Once you get biking into your bloodstream, it’s very hard to get it out again. This is the first British bike I’ve owned, and there’s something rather satisfying about riding a machine from a company whose heritage goes back to 1902. I’m also in some very good company.

Steve McQueen

Marlon Brando in The Wild One

When we first meet Charlie Fox in KILLER INSTINCT, she’s riding a 250cc race-replica Suzuki. Not surprisingly, it’s the same model of bike I had when I first passed my test.

It was important to me that the character be a motorcyclist, and not for the girl-on-a-bike sexy kind of cliché reasons that seem to have become the norm these days.

Motorcycles are dangerous. A glance at the statistics confirms that. In the UK bikers make up only a tiny fraction of the overall road traffic, yet they account for twenty percent of the fatalities.

You are forty times more likely to die in a road accident on a bike than in a car. A recent European study concluded that seventy percent of motorcycle accidents involved another (four-wheeled) vehicle.

"Er, 'scuse me, pal, but I think you're following too close ..."

There’s also the state of the roads to consider. A pothole that might cause Mr Travelling Salesman to spill a bit out of his Starbucks to-go cup is probably big enough to bring down a rider.  In the last few years I was doing high annual mileage for my photography work, we broke two front springs on the car hitting substantial holes in the road.

But it’s not just road hazards that interested me when it came to Charlie. Riding a motorcycle implies traits about the character which I felt were important. Not only when it came to risk assessment and management, but how it constantly shaped her view of the world around her.

You have to be constantly alert on a bike on the road. For weather, for road surface condition, for natural as well as man-made obstacles. You never know what might be just around the next blind bend. I usually work on the theory that I’m invisible and everyone else is out to kill me. Even the pros can get it wrong in a big way.

Toyota Prius 1, police motorcyclist 0

Charlie’s been through a few bikes over the course of the series. After her Suzuki meets a brave but untimely end, she ends up with a Honda FireBlade after the events of the third book, HARD KNOCKS. And later in the series she rides a Buell Firebolt which also, strangely enough, meets a brave but untimely end. (In FIFTH VICTIM, although if you count the bike there were six victims …)

There’s also the view of guys involved with motorcycles – it seems to have eased off now, but when I first passed my test back in the early 1990s, it was still very much in evidence. If you were a woman near a bike, this was the likely scenario:

Whereas Charlie Fox is far more likely to see herself – and other female riders – in this kind of self-sufficient, tough-without-being-a-guy-in-nylons kind of role:

It about sums up the character. Brave without being reckless. Tough without being butch. Aware without being timid. Independent, strong, prepared to take calculated risks if the rewards are good enough. And not about to be told by ANYBODY that there’s something she can’t do just because she’s a woman.

As for her reaction to the pix below, well, she’d probably laugh her arse off.

Right, I’m off to hit the open road and come back with a grin on my face.

This week’s Word of the week is thrasonical meaning bragging or vainglorious. It is taken from the character of a boastful soldier, Thraso, in the play Eunuchus by the ancient Roman playwright, Publius Terentius Afer, better known as Terence. Nice way to insult someone to their face without them realising you’re doing it.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

A Different Sort of Greek Independence Day

Wednesday is Greece’s Independence Day.  I’ve written pieces on this subject before, and of course, the origins and traditions remain much the same…but this year the spirit of the Greek people is different.  

A few years back I wrote the following:

“It is an important day, one of inspiration born out of a beleaguered people overcoming impossible odds.  The 25th of March marks the day in 1821 when Greek Orthodox Bishop Germanos of Patras raised the Greek flag at the Monastery of Agia Lavra in Greece’s Peloponnese and inspired a more than eight-year struggle (1821-1829) to throw off nearly 400 years of Ottoman rule.  Some say the Revolution actually began a week earlier in another part of the Peloponnese when the ruler of its Mani region, Petros Mavromichalis, raised his war flag in Mani’s capital city of Areopoli and marched his troops off against the Turks."

Bishop Germanos

Petros Mavromichalis

“But no matter which version you prefer, one thing is for sure: What Greece confronts today is child’s play compared to what its ancestors faced in taking on a dominant empire of its time.

I don’t think I can say that bold face language any longer with conviction.

On Wednesday, in towns and villages across Greece, school children will proudly parade the country’s blue and white flag.  Aflutter, the flag is reminiscent of Greek seas but it holds a deeper meaning.  The white cross honors the contribution of the church to the country’s enduring battle for freedom and its nine blue and white bars honor the nine syllable rallying call shouted across the land during Greece’s struggle for Independence: Eleftheria i Thanatos—Freedom or Death.

It is a celebration joined in by Greek communities around the world with parades of their own, all taking time to honor Filiki Eteria, the Society of Friends, the secret society that instigated Greece’s War of Independence through an underground struggle as well organized as any found in a best-seller’s tale. New members were recruited without knowledge of its true revolutionary purposes.  They were attracted by glamorous rumors and an avowed but vaguely stated general purpose of “doing good” for the nation. 

Importantly, from the very beginning of their quest for independence, Greeks recognized the need for assistance from outside their country’s borders, from Europe (both East and West) and Russia.  Many answered the call, and had they not the outcome may have been quite different.

It should not be taken as a coincidence that what is celebrated Wednesday in honor of the country’s heroic past offers a lesson for what Greece faces today:  This is not a time for Greece trying to go it alone, but rather for all to work together in “doing good” for the nation.

Just a thought.