Thursday, November 27, 2014

Too little, and far too late. But better than nothing.

I do not know why World War I means so much to me.  

Ever since I can remember, I have been fascinated by the sheer idiocy of the entire venture.  Unlike World War II, there was no reason to go to war, other than rampant nationalism and male testosterone.  But to war, the major European powers went, resulting in the deaths of millions of men and the associated family tragedies.  The war was so horrific that it still sears people’s minds, even though no combatants are still alive.

800,000 ceramic poppies at the Tower of London - one for each death

My first associations with World War I were through poetry.  Initially I loved the jingoistic verses of Rupert Brooke, who died at the young age of 27 in 1915, not from action but from sepsis en route to fight at Gallipoli.

Rupert Brooke

The Soldier

IF I should die, think only this of me;
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

But then my interest turned to the more realistic and bitter verses of Wilfred Owen, who died in Europe at age 25.  In particular, I love the poem Dulce et decorum est, which really benefits from being read out loud:

Wilfred Owen

Dulce et decorum est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, 
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, 
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs 
And towards our distant rest began to trudge. 
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots 
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; 
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling, 
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time; 
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling, 
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime. . . 
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, 
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. 
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, 
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. 
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace 
Behind the wagon that we flung him in, 
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, 
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin; 
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood 
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, 
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud  
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, 
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest  
To children ardent for some desperate glory, 
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est 
Pro patria mori.

What really gets to me in this poem is the last line, spat out in ultimate sarcasm and bitterness:  Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori, which means It is sweet and beautiful to die for one’s country.  Owen lifted this line from Roman lyrical poet Horace's Odes.

On this 100th anniversary of the start of one of mankind’s greatest tragedies, I want to say a few words about African involvement in the war.  

I suspect that very few people could tell you anything about the involvement of Africa and Africans in WWI – with the exception, of course, of blog mate Annamaria.  I will leave it to her to cover the East African campaigns, in which well over a million people died, and I’ll postpone to some other time, the campaign in German South West Africa.

I want to pay tribute to the thousands of Black South Africans who went to Europe to support the country’s fighting troops.  They worked as cooks, builders, stevedores, batmen, and so on – but not as combatants.  All in all, over 30,000 non-White South Africans went to the Western Front, and several thousand died. 

The greatest tragedy to befall Black South Africans in the war was the sinking of the troopship SS Mende off the Isle of Wight on February 21 1917 after a collision in thick fog with another vessel, the SS Darro.

SS Mende

On board were 823 personnel of the 5th Battalion the South African Native Labour Corps.  607 of them died.

Of course, they and other Black casualties could not be buried in the same cemeteries as their White compatriots, but were buried in nearby civilian cemeteries and, for all intents and purposes, forgotten.

Until this year . . .

Private Myengwa Beleza was one of the first black South African soldiers to be killed in France during the 1914-1918 war.  He died on November 27, 1916 and was buried in a civilian cemetery at the port city of Le Havre.

In June this year, his remains were exhumed and he was reburied at the South African Memorial, where 600 of his White fellow South Africans are buried.

South African Memorial at Delville Wood - now multiracial

"The re-interment process is part of government efforts to restore the dignity, particularly of those black South Africans who made an immense contribution towards world peace," spokesman Ronnie Mamoepa said.

In addition, the Mende disaster is remembered through The Mende Award, which is South Africa’s highest award for bravery.

So after 100 years, some recognition is being made of those who were not White, who lost their lives for King and country.  Far too little, and far too late, I think.  But better than nothing.

Stan - Thursday

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Mummy Peng loves Uncle Xi…not that Putin guy...

So, Bouchercon is over and I did not go to Iceland Noir. I am feeling just a tad bitter and jealous about that. Next year, I swear.

No, I came home post-Bouchercon to…copy-edits. More specifically, reviewing the copy edits for my third Ellie McEnroe novel, the series I write that's set in contemporary China. The copy edit process is, for me, a lengthy reminder that I do not understand how to use commas properly, among other things.

Aside from that, I've been working on the draft of a sequel to Getaway. Getaway was set in Mexico. This book is set in the wilds of Houston, TX, and various California locales.

So I'm not all that connected to China at the moment, and tonight I wondered how to approach a post for a blog that's about murders, everywhere, except in the US and Canada. I have a ton to say about the US, if not Canada, so expect me to break that rule in upcoming months, because as absurd as what I'm about to write about is, we have plenty of absurdities here in the US to cover.

I decided to write a bit about the current political situation in China, which is pretty interesting—there's a major anti-corruption campaign going on, which is simultaneously a party rectification campaign, a factional purge and an honest-to-god anti-corruption campaign, the biggest since the days of Mao Zedong. We're also seeing a Mao-like cult of personality emerging around new president Xi Jinping and his glamorous People's Liberation Army officer folk-singing wife, Peng Liyuan.

They even have inspired a new pop tune that's shaking up the Youku charts. It's called "Uncle Xi Loves Mummy Peng" and features lyrics like:
Men must learn to be like Uncle Xi
Women must learn to be like Mummy Peng
and take after them and love each other
with a warmth that can warm ten thousand families!
You want to hear it. You know you do. It features child rappers.

Although "Uncle Xi Loves Mummy Peng" has been a viral hit in China, not all reactions from Chinese netizens have been positive. I think my favorite response (as quoted by The Nanfang) was:
Crazy; taken too many drugs. 
I wonder if said commenter had seen this example of Peng Liyuan's earlier work…

One thing's for sure: No one is getting in-between this power couple, not even Vladimir Putin. From the Atlantic:
If anyone is going to make headlines at a staid affair like the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, it's going to be Vladimir Putin. The swaggering Russian president did passive observers of global leadership conferences a solid on Monday with an act of gallantry (or benign sexism) for the ages. 
Amid the high pageantry of the summit's opening dinner, Putin stood up to gracefully place a blanket around the shoulders of Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan. 

 Here's the footage:

This act of gallantry? Flirtation? Bro-behavior? caused such a stir on Chinese social media and elsewhere that hours after the footage was broadcast, Chinese censors busily scrubbed it from China's internet.

Hey, at least Putin kept his shirt on.

Lisa…every other Wednesday...

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Never Forgotten

Though the last surviving Great World War veteran passed away several years ago, the Armistice commemoration honoring those lost in the war to end all wars gets celebrated every year in many of the Mairie's (arrondissement town halls) in Paris. It's a national holiday and the shops are closed.
On November 11 at Place Voltaire, in the packed foyer of the Mairie of the 11th arrondissement, local school children from the lycée Voltaire gathered to sing, a few Résistants to place wreaths, and veterans of the Algerian conflict (it's never referred to as a 'war') held flags.
The ceremony, conducted by a white haired Resistant and former city hall member, began with him lighting a flame sparked from the eternal flame at the Arc de Triomphe. He spoke movingly of how this war resonated and affected the generations of today: these men lost or wounded in the trenches had wives, mothers, sisters, uncles, fathers, children, nieces and nephews. No one who returned, he said, was unaffected. And their families too. The man in the beret was a dentist and former Resistant, someone told me, who'd been captured and put in a camp. He survived but his family didn't.
He brought up, for the first time, how Women had been forgotten in these commemorations - which brought a cheer that he quickly silenced - and their role and work had been just as important. They ran the home, the business and kept the home front running. He introduced the Mayor, the council member who each laid wreaths at the World War I + II memorial sculpted in marble and the students - prompted by a piano note from their teacher - sang what must have been a traditional patriotic song which many of the crowd joined in with. Then the Marseilliese which we all joined in singing. The crowd was a mix of locals, parents, grandparents and the older generation who had lived through at least one war.

Afterwards it was all kissing then up to the next floor and the Salle de Fetes.  The long table was spread with Champagne, it's France, fruit juices and nibbles.
Many of the older men wore medals on their lapels and after un coupe de Champagne spoke about their experiences in Algeria.
A woman, Françoise, who lived near the Mairie spoke with me about her life. She's originally from Brittany, is a widow without children and congratulated several of the students on their singing. Françoise lost her father in the second war, then her mother shortly after. She was raised by grandparents, became a nurse and then met her husband. They moved to Paris and ran a restaurant on Place des Vosges. She told me this was the first time she'd ever come to this ceremony. And so it goes.
Cara - Tuesday

Monday, November 24, 2014

A taste of IcelandNoir

A wonderful conference in a gorgeous land that included:

Late morning dawns...

A serendipitous dinner with my family...

Many fascinating panels...

A rare opportunity to spend time with my delightful blogmate Zoe Sharp...

A display at the local library that included, mirabili dicta, one of my books, very unexpected...

A fun party at Yrsa's house...

A great bus tour with Yrsa...

With views from the bus, some of which read like luminous minimalist paintings...

Fabulous scenery...

With stops to explore...

And spelunking with fellow writers and mystery fans...

And many sleepless, jet lagged hours to contemplate what that electrical outlet is doing up there on the ceiling.

Annamaria - Monday

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Welcome John Lawton: an Englishman in New York (among other places …)

John Lawton is a very difficult writer to categorise. His Inspector Troy series (seven novels so far and counting) was selected by Time magazine as one of the six ‘Detective Series to Savor’, as well as being bought by Columbia Pictures.

The man himself has been compared favourably to Le Carré and was named as one of only half a dozen living English writers in The Daily Telegraph’s ‘50 Crime Writers to Read Before You Die’. Last year saw the start of a new series featuring reluctant post-war spy Joe Wilderness, and this month came the US publication of his Vietnam-era standalone, SWEET SUNDAY, called by the Literary Review ‘a sprawling heartbreaker of a novel.’

In short, he’s such a fine writer he makes you spit, if he wasn’t also one of those charming eccentrics who always keeps you guessing.  ZS

Most of my early novels were written in the USA. I saw two ways to get England off my back … to write about it and not to live there. For ten or twelve years I shuttled back and forth between England and New York, with occasional forays out West … Oregon (lying in a salt pool in the Cascade Mountains in the middle of a thunderstorm, bollock-naked), Arizona (climbing mountains in the Chiricahuas trying to remember whether you squared up to bears or ran for it … maybe that was mountain lions?) and Lubbock … butt of so many of Molly Ivins’ jokes and the only one-storey town I have ever visited. Lubbock, after all, has no need of skyscrapers, although there is sky aplenty to be scraped, it just spreads out across the Texas panhandle.

Sometime in the early Nineties, lunch with Quentin Crisp in the Cooper Square Diner on 2nd Ave … he is explaining to me why we are there and not in London … or Manchester … or Scunthorpe: “In my heart I have always been an American.”

I could have narrowed that down for him, in his heart he had always been a New Yorker, and I think he was telling me I had too. (Sorry Sting, a great song but I never heard that Englishman in New York ask for tea, he drank Coors and Bud.) Our New Yorks were very different. He lived in the East Village, on 2nd Street opposite the Hells Angels HQ – claimed they kept a paternal eye on him. I lived up on Central Park West … Lauren Bacall on the floor above, Shelley Winters in the block next door, Yoko Ono on the other side of the square … no Hells Angels that I knew of. But it was the same city in the mind’s eye … a construction erected in the spring-bust, flea-pit cinemas of the Olde Englande we’d readily abandoned at the first beat of Please Please Me thirty years earlier. We were not Citizens of the USA (although Mr Crisp eventually won that one too), we were its ‘American’ acculturants.

Maybe it was in that conversation that I decided to write a novel set in New York. If so I didn’t set one word of the damn thing down for at least five years and then spent another six writing it: SWEET SUNDAY. And it grew beyond the city, stayed rooted in it but spread across the continent, through the 1960s, across my lifetime and beyond … but … but I could not pretend to be a New Yorker, sheerfukkinfolly … nor could my first person narrator be English. Then it hit me. Lubbock. A child of the plains, from the one-storey town whose take on NYC might be as oblique as my own inevitably was … that heady mixture of awe, delight and bafflement that New York always induces in me. Hence John Turner Raines was born, an educated innocent in a pair of expensive Tony Lama boots, adrift in the New York of the 1960s.

It is not a happy tale … I find it hard to recall the 1960s without a sense of tragedy … but I hope the reader will ‘endeavour to persevere’, (as Dan George once said in a Clint Eastwood Western) … because the ideas of the Sixties matter still (yes, I know fekkinwell that I’m writing this the day after the Republikan landslide, so don’t tell me!), and in this America led.  It was Abbie Hoffman who said, “We (the Yippies) staged our revolution as such it was: ideas from the Civil Rights Movement ... music by the British Bands.” Hoffmann (never met the guy) and Rubin (knew him somewhat in the late 80s) were not my generation, and while I would not argue with Tom Brokaw over 'The Finest Generation” … theirs has a lot to be said for and about it.

Soundtrack for SWEET SUNDAY:

‘America’ – Simon & Garfunkel
‘Somewhere Down The Crazy River’ – Robbie Robertson
‘Hot Fun in the Summertime’ – Sly & the Family Stone
‘For What it’s Worth’ – Buffalo Springfield
‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ – Billy Joel

This week’s Word of the Week was also chosen by John Lawton who happens to be something of a whiz when it comes to making his own bread. The word, therefore, is poolish, meaning a fairly wet sponge usually made with equal parts flour to water, whereas a biga is typically a drier mix. Both are types of preferment, which is any technique that combines a modest amount of flour in the total recipe—usually twenty to thirty percent—with a very small amount of leavening agent (yeast or sourdough starter) and some of the total water and lets it develop for a period of time—usually overnight, but it can be anything from an hour to several days or more than a week.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

I Love Iceland Noir.

I just love it here. So much so that I’m foregoing my hiatus day to post a new blog featuring photos of Reykjavik and MIE in action on the first day of Iceland Noir, a festival of crime fiction organized by our own Yrsa, Quentin Bates, and Ragnar Jonasson.

I’ve never been to Iceland before, but I will be back. And back to Iceland Noir if they’ll have me.  The town, the people, the ambiance, the nightlife, all create a sense of what legendary Berlin or Paris must have been like in their heydays.  Or maybe it’s just as simple as what I overheard a young American telling his girlfriend in a coffee shop, “It’s a cross between Bar Harbor, Maine and old Amsterdam.”  Whatever it is, this place has all the right vibes.

So, here are some photos I took, though I never did get around to taking any of its vibrant, sophisticated (as compared to Mykonos) nightlife for I was too busy partaking to photograph.  

The festival itself is a delight, filled with interesting speakers putting on their “A game” just for the joy of being here, and a knowledgeable, appreciative audience.   What more could a writer ask for?  Don’t answer, just look at the photos.

The first thing I saw after passing through immigration.

The first thing I saw upon leaving the terminal at 7AM. 

The strong, windswept, colorful, enchanting town of Reykjavik.

Off in the distance in that last photo is a church steeple, one that offers spectacular views of Reykjavik from the town's highest ground.  I found a balance in the place...and decided to leave my mark alongside the awe-inspiring site. Most though thought I should have left the beret instead.

But what of all the MIE'rs over there?  Here they come, Annamaria, Yrsa, Zoe, Michael, Stan, and moi.

And now it's off to Day Two!