Friday, May 6, 2016

Cromarty; Firth and foremost!

I am afraid all the doom and gloom of the election is far  too  terrifying to contemplate, so here is a wee tour of my weekend in Cromarty-which is up here....

On the Friday night the local am dram gave us a radio performance of a murder mystery. The cast  included two cops from the Met. As is usual with these small cottage villages- most folk are English.

                                                          The venue of our events.

                                                             Outside our hotel

And there.... are the oil rigs, parked, menacing.  

Sunny but cold! 

Sitting in the bay 

Me and Wendy from Dundee- watch out, she's coming to Bouchercon! 

I had just drafted a new novel 'Death By Shinty!'

what it was, it was that big!

Don't argue with a woman frae Govan!


                                                    Strange highland beastie

across the firth

                                                                  the venue

locals firewalking

                                                                the beach

                                                 then looking the other way..

and me with some bloke...

 Caro Ramsay 06/05/2016

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The end of an affair

I recently made a gut-wrenching decision: I ended a love affair that’s lasted nearly fifty years. 

It was my eccentric Aunt Dorothy who changed my life.  She’d spent most of her life in Kenya, choosing to stay there after the Second World War, where she’d been stationed as part of a women’s auxiliary corps.

On one of her visits to Johannesburg, she’d told me that as a young woman, she’d entered a competition sponsored by the Rand Daily Mail newspaper.  For a few pounds, entrants were given a short flight in a Gypsy Moth, during which they took over the controls and were asked to perform some very basic maneuvers.  The one who performed the best won a flying course leading to a Private Pilot License.

This may have been the Gypsy Moth my aunt learnt to fly on.

My aunt won and not long after became one of the first women pilots in South Africa.  Her brother, my father, used to tell us of her exploits, such as wing-walking and winning a prestigious air race.

These are the things that capture a young boy’s imagination.

I was twenty-one when the Rand Daily Mail revived the competition after a long hiatus.  With images of Aunt Dorothy in my head, I entered and was soon climbing aboard a Cessna 150 for my ‘test’.  I didn’t win, but I was hooked and falling in love.  And for the next year or so, I used any spare cash to buy flying lessons. 

I learned to fly on ZS-EDH.  This is a similar plane.

In 1969 I was awarded the coveted PPL – Private Pilot License.  My love was now a passion.

As has so often been the case in my life, serendipity came knocking on my door.  In 1971 I had gone to the University of Illinois to study the educational uses of computers.  One day my advisor told me that the university’s Aviation Research Laboratory was looking for someone to explore how computers could improve pilot training.  I was the perfect fit – probably the only person on the planet who was a pilot and interested in computer-based education.

For the next twelve years, I flew as part of my job, earning Commercial and Flight Instructor licenses and an instrument rating, all courtesy of Uncle Sam.  The research was fascinating, and I loved every minute of it.

But it was the recreational flying I loved the most.  I remember taking three friends in a Cessna 182 from Illinois, across the Rockies to the Grand Canyon, up to Salt Lake City, and back again.  Every day we found a small airport, usually with a grass strip, and pitched our tents beside the plane.  People were unbelievably kind – lending us cars so we could go and buy food, or leaving terminal buildings, such as they were, open, so we could use the toilets.

Part of the Rockies

Grand Canyon

I remember taking some other friends, also across the Rockies, to the San Juan islands off Seattle.  Again we camped.  Again we experienced astonishing hospitality.

San Juan islands with Mount Rainier in the background

Then there was the time a friend asked me to fly him to Winnipeg to pick up the three children he and his wife had just adopted.  What an introduction to their new father for them; what an emotional trip for me.

And aerobatics!  I learned in a 1940’s Boeing Stearman biplane – a heavy beast with a throaty radial-12 engine that spewed oil.  Helmet and goggles were necessary.  It didn’t have an inverted fuel system, so after a few seconds of flying upside down, the engine quit!  What fun.

Boeing Stearman
Sometime in the 1980s, the Civil Aviation Administration of Namibia asked me to present a three-day workshop on aviation safety in Windhoek.  “But,” they said, “we don’t have any foreign currency to pay you.  Would it be okay if we loaned you a small plane and paid for all your fuel and accommodation?”  Needless to say, it was okay, and I wandered around Namibia’s magnificent countryside for ten days.

On the first day of that trip, I flew from Windhoek to Sossusvlei in the Namib-Naukluft National Park, home to some of the world’s biggest and most beautiful sand dunes.  Some of them are 380 metres high (1200 feet).  Anyway, my destination was the Sossusvlei Lodge, which had a sand landing strip.  The bad news was that I couldn’t find it – a sand strip in a desert!  I flew around looking, then decided to ask for directions.  I saw another dirt strip on a farm and landed.  A very elderly Herero gentleman told me to follow the road next to the farm for ten kilometers, and I would be there.

Directions in hand I returned to the plane to find it wouldn’t start.  Battery flat!  Curses.  Fortunately I had noticed some telephone wire lying around, so I asked the old man to bring a tractor to the plane.  We then jump-started it, disconnected the wires, and off I went.

Dunes at Sossusvlei

Gemsbok (oryx) on the dunes

It was flying that got me into writing.  On my annual trips back to South Africa, I would rent a plane and take friends on flying safaris into Botswana and Zimbabwe.  It was on one of those trips, in the Chobe National Park in Botswana, that we watched a pack of hyenas hunt and kill a wildebeest.  In four hours they had eaten everything, flesh and bones.  That evening, my friend Michael and I decided that if we ever needed to get rid of a body, we would leave it for hyenas.  No body, no case.  

Fifteen years later we started writing A Carrion Death, which opens with a game ranger and an ecologist stumbling upon a hyena which hadn't quite finished devouring a human body that had obviously left there on purpose.

Trying to impress a young Danish lass in 1971

The plane I fly in South Africa - a Mooney 201

Michael and me at the birthplace of humankind - Tsodilo Hills in Botswana

Ballooning is also a wonderful way to see the countryside.

Minnesota cornfields from a balloon

These are all great memories, but it is the exhilaration that I will miss, the beauty of being above the earth, the bliss of darting through the canyons in the clouds, diving, climbing, hugging the white canyon walls.  I’ll miss the awe of flying over herds of hundreds of elephants in Botswana and the pleasure of popping above the clouds during a North American winter and seeing the sun after weeks of grey clouds on the ground.

A few years ago, I closed the circle with Aunt Dorothy.  For her ninetieth birthday, I gave her a flight in the same type of plane she had learned on seventy years earlier – open cockpit, helmet and goggles mandatory.  The smile on her face was priceless as she climbed out of the cockpit after half an hour of having the wind blow through her hair.  I will remember it until I die.

Aunt Dorothy at 90 years old
I’m not a religious person, but the following poem written by John Gillespie Magee Jnr. captures my love of flying.  He was killed, aged 19, in a training accident over England in 1941.

                                 High Flight
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, –  and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence.  Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air . . .
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew –
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

I'm writing this to share my passion but also my sadness, because I have decided to hang up my goggles. 

There are many reasons for ending this affair, but the most important one is I am not flying enough to feel confident in my ability to handle an emergency. I want to walk the talk, to do what is prudent, and not end the affair in a pile of burning, twisted metal.

But how I will miss it!

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Malia's Gap Year

Malia and her father/photo Yuri Gripas Reuters

Congratulations to Malia Obama.

She’s made it through the constant observation that began with her entrance to the White House in 5th grade. Both Malia and her 8th grade sister, Sasha, have gracefully stayed the course without acting out and remaining close to their parents. Malia, an excellent student and tennis player, applied to a number of top schools during her senior year at Sidwell Friends School. The end result is that the 17-year-old has accepted Harvard’s offer, but will delay entrance for a year.

Could this start a gap year trend in the U.S.?

While traveling, I’ve always been intrigued by the New Zealand and Australian teens with heavy backpacks on their “walkabouts.” The idea is to have some fun, work jobs around the world and widen horizons before settling down to studies and continued life in the home country. A lot of Europeans do this as well, some using the time to work as au pairs in different countries.
Malia and Sasha have seen more of the world than most of us during their years as daughters of the President. Exposure to other people and places was a value their parents insisted on sharing. The first family’s travels have included India and Argentina, Russia, China, Britain, Italy, South Africa and Botswana. Malia already had her walkabout.
Obamas arrive in Cuba/Pablo Martinez Monsivais AP

We don’t really know the reason for Malia’s gap decision, but I think it’s great. And since she’s already gone so far, my fervent wish for Malia is that she takes time in her gap year to dig in close with her family.

After all, Dad’s leaving his job, and Mom will not be pressed with leading campaigns for health and veteran families. President Obama has always valued family first and committed most of his evenings to his children, rather than adult socializing in D.C. But hanging out with your kids in a fishbowl won’t be nearly as relaxed as this forthcoming year.

Firstly, the Obamas must either rent or buy a new house in the DC area. Malia can be part of this search—and since she’ll be around, she can decorate her room the way she wants!

The former First Daughter will also has the chance to apply for a part-time job or an internship, perhaps in the world of film and television that she’s already explored through internships on “Girls” and “Extant.” But I treasure the idea of a teenager occasionally sleeping late, reading for pleasure rather than for tests, helping with groceries and gardening, and playing games.

The Secret Service taught Malia to drive—but now she can learn to trust her own instincts driving everywhere she needs to go. Malia and her family will likely have a lot of time to talk or listen to music when stuck in Beltway traffic on the way to Sasha’s school events. Best of all—Malia will be able to drive Sasha to school!

Malia and Sasha/CNN

The President said in interviews that Sasha Obama, would be the one to decide where the family stayed following his departure from the White House. He—a child who was uprooted and moved many times in life--understood how important feeling comfortable in school was. He didn’t want her to have start over again, as the girls had when they left their lifelong home on Chicago in 2009.
No upbringing is perfect, whether in the White House, or an ordinary suburban cottge. We can’t predict whether our kids will become happily paired or live solo, be financially successful, community-minded, or emotionally stable.But we can do a lot to make our own family systems work—and that’s exactly what the Obamas have managed.
Family including grandmother Marian Robinson in 2009/Getty Images

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

May Day in Paris - fete de muguet and workers marches and sun strolling in Jardin des Plantes

On May 1st Workers Day we avoided the marches. Since it was also Fete de la Muguet, we focused on the celebration of spring with lilies of the valley sold on almost every street corner. It's the only day people may pick muguet in the countryside and sell it in Paris without any tax! Word came that in the demonstrations it would be 'not so nice' as my French friend said. Later, I heard that the peaceful organized marches (pick raison d'etre from many...students demonstrating at nuitdebout, all night activism with partying, actors - who shut down the Comedie Francaise and Odeon one night, the train workers - always) were sabotaged by youths in hoodies who got violent and pushed old people -go figure - then the flics used tear gas...of the discontent here over the labor law and the actors who work part time 'les intermittents' it's a diverse mix with the strong unions and the focus on security here since the emergency is in effect. Just a quick check in since my wifi is iffy! Cara in Paris on Tuesday

Monday, May 2, 2016

Teddy in British East Africa

Annamaria on Monday

Digging around, looking for the history of East Africa in the early Twentieth Century, Teddy Roosevelt popped up.  I have always been a fan of TR.  Who wouldn't love the guy who doubled the number of America's national parks and earned himself the title "The Conservation President."

Teddy traveled in Africa for nearly a year from April 1909 until March 1910. At the time he was fifty-one years old and had already served as President of the United States for seven and a half years, and he had a reputation as an author, naturalist, explorer, hunter, and soldier.
His African expedition began in Mombasa, in what was then called British East Africa.  Here is a map of the places he explored:

He shot big game and mapped the terrain, documented the lives of the indigenous people, and took examples of the flora and fauna.  He wrote an article for the National Geographic, made a report to the Museum of Natural History, and wrote a book about his experiences called African Game Trails.  
He even took a film crew with him.  The Library of Congress has put up a montage of the some of the film they shot.  I cannot tell you how carefully I look at what's in the background, at what the people are wearing; every single detail informs my vision of the place at that time. 

And you can find his book—both a PDF of the printed volume and, astonishingly, a facsimile of his handwritten manuscript if you follow this link:

From our twenty-first century perspective, going to Africa to kill animals was a brutal idea.  But it was the norm in Teddy’s time for well-to-do adventurers to engage in that “sport.”  Here’s a quote that shows his appreciation for the beauty of what he experienced. 
The hunter who wanders through these lands sees sights which ever afterward remain fixed in his mind.... Apart from this, yet mingled with it, is the strong attraction of the silent places, of the large tropic moons, and the splendor of the new stars; where the wanderer sees the awful glory of sunrise and sunset in the wide waste spaces of the earth, unworn of man, and changed only by the slow change of the ages through time everlasting. - Col. Theodore Roosevelt in Khartoum, March 15, 1910

If you remain unconvinced and prefer to dislike Teddy Roosevelt because he slaughtered innocent animals, you might want to also consider that he won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese War and shortly after taking over the Presidency following the assassination of McKinley—at the age of just 42—he delivered a 20,000 word address to Congress urging that they curb the power of corporations.  This the work of a Republican President!

Given what's going on in that party these days, he looks like a saint to me.  Flawed as all saints have always been.  But a saint nonetheless.

I know where Teddy was in 1909-1910, but now I wish we knew where he is when we really need him?