Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Bandit King

He was born in 1897, in the interior of the northeastern Brazilian state of Pernambuco. It is harsh country with little water and much cactus, brilliantly described by the great Brazilian writer, Euclydes da Cunha, in his classic work Os Sertoes (The Backlands).
It was a time and a place of nicknames. Almost everyone had one. His was Lampião ( lampost) probably because he was so tall and thin. It was sometimes spelled Lampeão. The members of his gang called him Captain Virgulino; his proper name was Virgulino Ferreira da Silva.
Lampião began his life as a leather worker. Somehow, at the age of twenty-five, he got in trouble with the law. The police raided his home. In the scuffle, his father was shot to death. It was an act Lampião vowed to make the lawmen regret. And many did. From then until the end of his life, Lampião murdered every policeman he came across.
But, having resolved to be a bandit, he didn’t target only policemen. He robbed old women in their beds. He participated in mass rapes. He cut out the tongue of a woman who’d informed on him. And he removed a man’s eyeballs with a knife just because it amused him to do so. He plundered, and terrorized, and tortured. He was a cold-blooded killer, and a high price was put on his head.
And yet, that’s not the way most young Brazilians see him. To them, he’s a Robin Hood figure, a guy who robbed the rich to help the poor. How did the transformation from repugnant thug to venerated folk hero come about? Partly, I think, because the region he operated in had long been ruled by a few powerful families. The popular psyche called out for an anti-establishment figure – and Lampião filled the bill. Partly, too, because his story contains a modicum of romance. He and his girlfriend robbed together, killed together, had a child together and died together. Here she is, the woman all Brazilians know as Maria Bonita (Pretty Mary).

 The couple’s reputation grew with a form of entertainment very popular at the time: “cord literature”, so-called because it was displayed hanging from cords stretched across the front of booths in street markets. The stories were illustrated with woodcuts. 

They were often written in rhyme, often set to music. 
 Later, those early stories gave rise to TV programs and feature films which took a sympathetic view of Lampião and his gang.

(And invariably infuriated my father-in-law, and dear friend, Joel de Britto, who knew, from personal experience, what kind of people Lampião and his girlfriend really were.)

The end for the couple came on a beautiful morning in July of 1938. Here’s the place where it happened, the Grota de Angico, a hideout which, until then, the bandits always considered to be their safest one of all.
Oriented by a greedy informer anxious to cash in on the reward, four dozen soldiers surrounded the camp. The two groups of adversaries were about evenly matched, but their pursuers had machine guns, and the gang did not. Some few escaped the slaughter, but those few didn’t include Lampião and his companion. They, and several other key members of the band, were decapitated on the spot.

The heads were displayed throughout the country before winding up at the Nina Rodrigues Museum in Salvador, Bahia, where they remained on display for almost thirty years.
 This last photo is of the youngest member of Lampião’s gang,  Antonio Alves de Souza, nicknamed Volta Seca (It means something like “the return of drought”). He was taken alive and sentenced to 145 years in prison, but pardoned after having served only twenty. He took a job as a railway brakeman (that’s the uniform he’s wearing in the photo) married, and had seven children.
There is a song associated with Lampião that almost every Brazilian knows. The gang used to sing it when they rode in to plunder a town. It’s called “Mulher Rendeira” (The Lacemaker) and, some years before his death, someone got Volta Seca to record it. You can listen to it here.
Today, it’s no more than a haunting melody. Back then, it struck terror into the hearts of many who heard it.

Leighton - Monday

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Paying in Gold

In William Gaddis' towering 1955 novel THE RECOGNITIONS, there's a character named Otto. The book (probably my favorite American novel of the twentieth century) is about forgery and counterfeiting on a grand scale, and Otto is a counterfeit human being. He has designed his life from the outside in. His wristwatch is so elegant he continually glances at it, admires it, and then realizes he's forgotten to check the time.

Otto spends his time in the Bohemian enclave of Greenwich Village because he's prowling for sex, and "Bohemian" women are notoriously generous with their favors. But if in fact they are, Otto discovers, they're generous primarily to artists, so Otto becomes an artist. Like a lot of artist-poseurs, he proclaims himself to be a playwright. Writing a play (or a novel) is a slow process. It's the perfect art form for a fake. A playwright doesn't have to show new work all the time. It's enough to say that "it's coming along."

And to make notes from time to time. Otto's unwritten play is about a character named Gordon, who looks like Otto on his best days and effortlessly lays waste in all directions with his wit. Every time Otto hears someone say something clever, he jots down a little shorthand note: Gordon: Nt mke thngs excplict whch shd be implict. And then he tucks the note in his pocket, confident that he looks like he's writing.

But Otto is haunted by a terrifying piece of knowledge. All of a sudden someone asks you to pay in gold, and you can't. Yes, you can't, you haven't got it, and you can't. And this recognition gives Otto something in common with all writers, even one as brave as Gaddis. On every page, the novelist has to pay in gold.

Once a book toddles out into the world, the goods are either on the page or they're not. The writer won't have a chance to peer over the reader's shoulder, propping up the weak bits. He or she won't be on hand to answer questions when the text is confusing. After a year or more of nursing the baby along, delivering it from the void, doing major surgery on it at times and patting it on the head at others, the writer has to send it out on its own: the first day of school, except for a novel the first day of school lasts forever, to be repeated every time someone opens the book. There the baby is, in all its glory or all its wretchedness.

It's not going to be helped by a great actor or director. It's not going to be salvaged by a brilliant conductor. Page layout and a nice font aren't going to rescue it. It's out there and it's as naked as an amaryllis.

And there's nothing the writer can do about it. Can't dust, can't tidy, can't touch it up. What the writer was striving for is either on the page or it isn't. After all that work, the writer has either paid in gold or in tin. It's no wonder that we're such a neurotic lot. It's no wonder that the vast majority of novels are abandoned half-drafted by writers unable to make themselves believe that their work is anything other than iron pyrites.

What surprises me is that anyone ever actually finishes one.

Tim -- Sunday

Friday, January 29, 2010

IPad to the rescue?

The British satirical magazine, Private Eye, which casts an excellent if jaundiced and scurrilous eye on the UK book trade each issue, painted a very gloomy picture this month. Sales falling, publishers scaling back, job losses, literary agents hemorrhaging cash and folding, midlist authors being cut, all the money being piled on to sure things, like another $127 million for James Patterson to crank out 476 books a month, an industry in steady decline, masked only by the success of Stephanie Meyer's vampires, Dan Brown's all-action historian and Steig Larsson's bedhopping hack.

So, given the backdrop, it was no surprise to hear that whole publishing world (well, in the States and the UK, who view themselves as the whole publishing world) was glued to its computers when Steve Jobs unveiled the new IPad this week, inwardly preying and hoping that this new machine would match the success and ubiquity of the IPod, and apply the defibrillators to the ailing patient.

Who knows how successful it will be? The IPod was and is massively successful, but not every shy Apple takes hits a coconut (if you get my drift...). Apple TV, which offered people the seemingly attractive option of streaming all their music, movies and favourite programmes through their television, bombed. The same fate might befall the IPad. I can't say I was moved to go and buy one, but watching someone use a computer on the Internet is like watching them read a book; pointless unless you can do it yourself. I'm alson not the early adopter Apple are aiming to impress, the gadget lovers who get hold of every thing new and shiny, pass their judgement online and by word of mouth, until the rest of us get off our backsides and see what the fuss is about (by which time they've moved on to the next geegaw). By then it will be smaller, cheaper, all glitches ironed out and the ease of use and huge amount of applications available will beguile us all. Perhaps.

That said, I can see the benefits if the IPad does gain a foothold. Books, for all they might be the perfect piece of technology and still by far the best and most efficient medium for telling and selling stories, are selling less and less. Ebooks are selling more and more. I have nothing against ebooks. In fact, my first book is the bestselling ebook in UK history (they've only been available for a year but still...) so I'm all for them in fact. I have a Sony Reader but I use it pretty infrequently. Too cumbersome, too clunky and not as tactile as, well, a book. If I travelled more and spent more time on the road I'm sure it would get more use. I think the same goes for a lot of people. The IPad might change that - there were other MP3 players before the IPod came along, without having anywhere near the same impact, but none matched it for beauty and simplicity of use. Simply using and owning it was the motivation and people who hadn't bought a CD or listened to music other than the radio in the car for years, were downloading music, buying albums and searching out the tunes of their youth.

If the IPad does take off we crime writers might well be the ones to benefit, and the whole book trade as a whole might change for the better, Of the ten bestselling ebooks in the UK, eight are crime novels, while the celebrity biogs, recipe books, TV tie-ins that suck so much of publisher's cash away from authors have barely registered. It's no surprise; crime and mystery readers tend to be extremely voracious, so a machine on to which you can download books, and take the strain off your creaking bookshelves, has great appeal.

The ebook offers much room for innovation. The multimedia, interactive dimension – the ability to include music, moving images and pictures amid the text – could open a whole new realm of possibilities; graphic novels in particular could flourish. The minimal cost of producing an ebook in comparison to a printed version could also allow smaller authors to grab some of the pie, while also encouraging more and more to self-publish because the Internet has not been colonized by the big chains and supermarkets. Not yet anyway.

One thing I do know - crime writers should be begging their publishers to get their works into electronic formats. There is a growing market out there for electronic books that won’t be going away and they want good crime novels. The success of Stephanie Meyer suggests the new technology is popular among teenagers and young adults. A whole new generation will emerge that wants its literature in electronic format only. Nearly every commuter on the tube has headphones wedged into their ears, listening to music. Few of them read books anymore. Will the IPad change that? (Though I do fear carrying an IPad on the London Underground might be the equivalent of wearing a T-shirt that reads 'Mug Me!')

No matter what format, good old print or digital, readers will still want stories and be willing to pay for the privilege of reading them. Print will never die, thankfully, but it looks like ebooks are here to stay.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Quality Mystery

One evening last week when the new Kubu novel had been put to bed for the day, Stan and I talked about the issue of quality in mystery novels. We started off discussing what we thought quality meant, and ended up wondering if it meant anything at all beyond personal taste. Of course, that’s not an issue restricted to genre fiction; you can ask the same questions about any form of writing, and perhaps any form of art. And the issue isn’t whether it’s commercial or not, although there is certainly a perception that anything that makes money can’t be highbrow enough for literary judges. Henning Mankell is reputed to have commented that John Le Carré is the best writer who will never win a Nobel prize. I’d be inclined to agree.

So what’s the issue? Surely the best quality mysteries are the ones that win prizes and pick up rave reviews in reputable newspapers and journals? Well, it’s relevant to look at some of the prizes. Let me say that I’d give my eye teeth to win one – anything! Even the one for the best second mystery novel set in Botswana not written by McCall Smith. (We are thinking of endowing such a prize.)

Some prizes do involve critics and judges soberly reading hundreds of books and coming up with their considered choice. Do they weigh excellence of writing, believable and interesting characters, depth of plot, and so on? Or do they just decide which book they like?

Some other prizes seem more fun. What about the prize for the mystery that the booksellers most enjoyed selling? Is that because they sold a lot? Honed their selling skills on an awful no-hoper? Really loved the book and enjoyed persuading one other person she would too?

And many prizes seem to be by popular demand. One comment I read on last year’s awards suggested that both The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Child 44 deserved to win best first mystery, so it was best to share out the prizes between them. Oh.

Publishers seem to think that quality is determined retrospectively. Find something well enough written to be publishable, and it is high quality if it sells a lorry load of books. They don’t expect to judge that sort of quality in advance. Both our French and Italian publishers published translations of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Neither expected it to do particularly well! On the other hand The Lost Symbol got a really good review in the New York Times, and all the local book sellers have piles of it. But negative comments from mystery readers on sites like 4MA certainly haven’t encouraged me to buy it. And the piles still look about the same height to me.

Stan and I came to the conclusion that it was all a mystery and went to bed. Can anyone help us with this mystery of quality?

Michael - Thursday

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The 70s closet

My daughter‘s closet has been a bone of discontent in my home ever since she became a teenager, just over a year ago. It is the closet‘s fault that her room is a mess, and the closet‘s fault that she is late for gym and it is the closet‘s fault that she stays up too late. Now strange and erratic behaviour was to be expected, she is our younger of two children so the proverbial been there done that applies in our dealing with teenage oddities. However, it came as a complete surprise when we realised that the closet was not an innocent scapegoat at all but 100% guilty of all charges, the first criminal piece of furniture ever to cross my path. This enlightenment took place when I decided to help my daughter go through her clothes and sort out the ones that she had outgrown from those that she was likely to use. After hours of excruciating effort, now standing in front of two towering heaps of each sort, it became evident that no manner of organising, folding, ironing, sorting or anything else ladylike would ever manage to fit but the topmost layer of one trove into the meagre storage space the closet provided. The ankle-deep clothing stratum covering the floor, the missing gym clothes avalanched underneath and the ghostly effect of the open closet door jammed by the flow from inside, respectively caused: the mess, the tardiness and the insomnia.

Our house was built in 1978 - the photo is not taken inside it, Praise the Lord. At the time Iceland was very different from what it is today. For one, everyone from babies to senior citizens had a lot less clothes than today. There were only a handful of stores to buy them in and someone had yet to come up with the idea for shopping trips to other countries that actually had a selection. People had evolved somewhat from basically dressing so as not to be naked or cold, but just barely. At the time of construction there was thus no reason to erect closets wider than 2 feet as the dark empty space besides the three hangers in use only served to decrease the wall space otherwise available for gaudy, far-out, patterned wallpaper.

Now we have numerous stores aimed at keeping consumers of all ages, shapes and sizes from going around naked or unfashionable and the distinction as to which alternative is more embarrassing has blurred. Other things have evolved as well; one of the most marked evolutions regards TV. When I was growing up there was one government-run station, established in 1966. At first it only broadcasted on Wednesday and Friday evenings but soon expanded its programming and added almost all of the other missing evenings of the week. This was with the exception of Thursdays as the station could only afford one crew, which needed a weekly break. In addition, to meet the crew’s vacationing needs, there was also no TV in July. It was probably no coincidence that we were good at chess during this period. It was only in 1983 that the station had accrued enough money to bring in interim personnel to carry them through the full summer, and in 1987 to man the full week.

The other most noticeable change has to do with beer. This dangerous mead was illegal from 1915 until 1989 for reasons related to public health. I guess those in charge at the time believed it less hazardous to drink vodka, or the dreaded brennivín. There was supposedly a great worry that if everyone could get their hands on beer, everyone would be drunk, always, with the exception of those who meted out the regulations of course. They probably shuddered at the idea of being the only sober citizens, destined to assume the positions of designated drivers for the riff raff for all eternity. Although we now have beer, this and anything alcoholic is still only allowed for sale in government liquor stores (aside from bars and restraunts) and this is unlikely to change any time soon. At least we now have a selection and can walk around and look at the merchandise, before the late 80’s you would walk up to a counter (see photo) and for example ask for red wine and be handed what they had in stock, quite often a bottle of vintage Chinese production. I recall throwing up a lot more frequently when drinking than I do today. Another thing that is now a thing of the past were "surprise closing events" when these stores would be shut without notice in an effort to decrease drinking. This always happened the day before a big holiday so it did not take much genius to figure out a counteraction - i.e. buy the day before the day before.

There are limitless other things that have taken a leap forward but it seems as if most are accompanied with a decline elsewhere – similar to the: more TV, less chess relationship. Social evolution is an isostatic process. The exception to the rule: Better wine, less vomiting.

In other news – the first polar bear sighting this year took place today. So did the first polar bear shooting unfortunately.

Yrsa - Wednesday

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

the temple of grief

Dan’s post made me think about the old French funeral arrangements. Nowadays there are private funeral homes in Paris.
There’s even a dog cemetary in the suburbs. But before the famous dead and not so famous dead were buried the municality of Paris controlled all funeral arrangements until 1993. This was done at the pompe funebres in a former abbatoir - slaughter house - which many called oddly fitting.

But at one time they travelled by cortege with horses and black ebony carriages through the street from the canal across from the abbatoirs at la Villette.
The main pompes funebres - central funeral monopoly run by the municipality - or temple of grief had been part of the abbatoirs across the canal until 1906 when the station-like building became the holding site of the dead.

After the construction of the building in 1873 by the diocese in 1905, with the separation of church and state, what created the municipal funeral (SMPF), lived as a Progressive Republican ideas : indeed, everyone was now entitled to a ceremony, regardless of religion, status (divorced women previously had to be buried at night) or the circumstances of his death (suicides were also banned). The monopoly law affected coffins, hearses, "carry" and cemeteries. An important part of the work fell within the "pump". Thus, it was mandatory (even in the 1980s) to place the hangings at the entrance to buildings where there were dead.

Even the president of the Republic Felix Faure well known for his handling of the Dreyfus affair passed through here. But Faure is better known in France for his manner of expiration, at the time said to be apoplexy, but later known to have expired in the arms of his mistress Madame Steinheil...The French love puns and Faure is commonly referred to have been sent to the pump - pompe - for pumping too much. I'm just repeatng what I've heard. There's a lot more puns about Madame Steinheil but we'll leave those.

During the years of full operation, 27 000 hearses passed through the doors, 1 400 people worked there, including some forty women. The Funeral employed both carpenters and cabinet makers, mechanics, seamstresses, painters and bricklayers. The duties were very codified: implementing office convoys, trimmer, porter ... On the site were then offices, stables, a civil service, workshops, canteen, barber shop, a shoeshine boy, housing for employees on call, warehouses for poles and curtains. I don't know if I would have like to live on site if I were an employee.

After the Second World War and the wars in Indochina and Algeria, the remains of unknown soldiers and victims were brought here to be claimed by the families.

But now the pompes funebres is called the centquatre, and has become an artist space offering residencies, a stipend and performance space. Quite a change from the dead to the living.
Cara - Tuesday

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Amazon

Father Gaspar de Carvajal was a Catholic priest who visited the coast of South America in the middle years of the sixteenth century and wrote a book about it. It begins in a perfectly believable fashion. They were, he said, following the coast, keeping it on their starboard (right-hand) side. One day it turned from south to west. The water around their ship went from blue to brown and a current began to push against the bow, both signs that seemed to indicate they’d entered an estuary. Five days of steady sailing ensued, still with no sign of an opposing shore. The sailors began to have doubts. If they were on a river, it was huge, larger than any in Europe.
Then, on the morning of the sixth day, their ships were suddenly and viciously attacked. The assailants were a host of natives in canoes, natives who (according to Gaspar ) were all women, set on capturing our men for the purpose of procreation.

Mind you, the crew had been at sea, without women, for many months by then. They might have welcomed some feminine company, had not Gaspar, wise man that he was, claimed to have been in possession of superior knowledge, i.e. that the ladies weren’t after a lifetime of connubial bliss. They were after a date and dinner – with the seamen as the dinner.
Fear of cannibalism strengthened the crew’s resolve. The attack was beaten off. The women disappeared into the jungle, never to be seen again. And not one member of the crew accused Father Gaspar of being a mean-spirited Baron Munchausen of sexual angst for inventing the story. (Okay, I made that last part up.)

Gasper, too, made something up: a name for the place where it all happened, He called it the Great River of the Amazons, later (shortened and Anglicized) to become the Amazon River.
He was, of course, inspired by the legend of a similar tribe of warlike women in the mythology of the Greeks. But who needs tall tales, and myths, when it comes to the Amazon? I sure as hell don’t. For me, the truth is impressive enough.

The Amazon is the oldest river in the world. Ten of its branches are larger than the Mississippi. Its length, from source to mouth, is almost equal to the distance between New York and Berlin. The total volume of the main river, and its tributaries, far exceeds that of the next five largest rivers on earth. The amount of water that it dumps into the sea could fill Lake Ontario in three hours. That amount of water exceeds, daily, the total volume of what flows out of the mouth of the Thames in an entire year. Almost one-fifth of all the river water in the world flows past the Amazon’s banks. As it pours into the ocean, fresh water pushes salt water back a hundred miles into the open sea. A thousand kilometers upriver, the depths in mid-channel continue to exceed 115 meters (350 feet), more than enough to completely submerge the Statue of Liberty. If every person alive in the world today were to dump a four-hundred pound bag of dirt into the ocean, the total would not add-up to the amount of silt the Amazon carries into the South Atlantic each year. When the river rises, the resulting flood inundates an area twice the size of Austria.

There are more species of fish in the Amazon River than there are in the Atlantic Ocean,

bigger fish than can be found in any other river, fifteen times as many species as can be found in all the rivers of Europe. Twice a year, between the months of February and March, the Atlantic Ocean waters roll up the Amazon in a great tidal bore ( that the Brazilians call the Pororoca. It generates the longest waves on earth, sweeping along everything from piranhas to tree trunks. One Brazilian surfer, Picuruta Salazar, managed to ride one of those waves for 37 minutes. It carried him for 12 kilometers.

Most of the river is lined by jungle, a primeval rainforest hardly changed from Father Gaspar’s day. Within it are to be found more varieties of butterflies than anywhere else,

half the world’s bird species, one-third of all the types of living creatures on earth. And almost three hundred varieties of mosquitoes.

One word of advice: Should you add The Amazon to your bucket list, center your visit around Santarem, not Manaus.

Santarem is a rather pleasant place as far as isolated jungle cities go. Manaus…isn’t.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Minister of AIDS

In the early 1990s, it was widely predicted that Thailand would be a giant petri dish for the virus that causes HIV/AIDS. A number of factors, including the general acceptance of sexual activity as a natural part of life, and the availability of commercial sex, sent the statisticians' computers into overload.

Some authorities predicted that as many as 60 percent of the population could ultimately become infected.

Well, here it is 2010 and the actual numbers are light-years lower than the predictions. In fact,
they're lower than they were in the early 1990s. The incidence of HIV infection in Thailand has actually dropped in the last 20 years, and shared needles are the most common current cause of infection.

One man is largely responsible for saving several million lives. In a world where heroes are hard to come by, Mechai Viravaidya (pictured above) qualifies.

Born to a Thai father and a Scottish mother, Mechai founded a nonprofit family planning organization for the rural poor in the 1970s. The group stressed (among other things) condom use, and they did it with creative vigor. They held condom blowing-up contests among school kids, passed out condoms at every community gathering, and provided taxi drivers with
condoms for their passengers.

By the time AIDS hit Thailand late in the 1980s, Mechai had gone into government, and in 1991 he was named Minister of Tourism, Information and (at his insistence) AIDS. Unhampered by religious strictures or ultra-conservatives, he attacked the disease with every resource at his command.

Practically overnight, every bar in Thailand had a big brandy snifter on it, full of free condoms.

Since some sex workers are illiterate, groups of young actors took to the streets, especially in the entertainment district, doing comedy routines that included several young women unrolling a giant condom over a standing man. Classes in proper condom use were held in virtually every red-light venue. Hotels and brothels were given free condoms by the millions.

Suddenly condoms were everywhere. They were in television cartoons, in childrens' magazines, in public-service spots. The safe-sex message targeted the young men and women of the Thai armed services, high school and university kids, Thailand's large gay and katoey (transvestite) population, and every other at-risk and potentially at-risk group in the Kingdom.

Condom manufacture was encouraged with government grants. They were made in every possible color and flavor, including tropical fruits. They became ubiquitous. They became that most potent of all Asian adjectives: they became cute.

They also became (well, sort of) fashionable. Mechai's group encouraged fashion designers to create, for want of a better term, condom couture, and the designers threw themselves into the task with results like those above. These dresses and hats are made almost entirely of condoms.

Mechai diversified but kept the message intact when he founded his restaurant chain, which is called Cabbages & Condoms. In the photo at the top of this piece, Mechai poses beside one of the restaurants' well-protected lighting fixtures. The centerpiece of each table is a colorful bouquet of inflated condoms. As old Thai hands say frequently, "Only in Thailand."

This sign guides tourists to a Cabbages & Condoms resort. I love the two disgruntled little sperm at the bottom.

So the plague was largely averted. Mechai returned to the nonprofit sector and his organization, now the Kingdom's largest NGO, recently received a one-million dollar grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But the thing Mechai is proudest of is the fact that, throughout Thailand, condoms are known as "mechais."

And here he is, one more time, with, yes, a condom teddy bear.

Tim - Sunday

Friday, January 22, 2010

The last train to Brookwood

My post last week, and Cara's subsequent post ('ghost trains' in a 'ghost station'! Fabulous!) set me thinking about other pieces of secret London, a subject which so fascinates me.

This one is deliciously macabre.

In early Victorian London, as the city made the transformation from big Georgian city to a vast metropolis, there was a pressing problem. Namely what to do with the ever growing and ceaseless numbers of dead, other than piling grave upon grave or digging vast communal pits. Small churchyards were teeming with bodies and a major public health risk was looming, as effluent from decomposing bodies oozed into wells and rivers. In their wisdom, the authorities decided to build a series of huge cemeteries, Highgate, Kensal Green and others; towering, sprawling atmospheric monuments to the dearly departed, worthy of a blog of their own (and in Kensal Green's case, they will get one very soon...)

However, my favourite of them all is Brookwood. It may not be as ornately gothic as Highgate - and there no Karl Marxes buried there to attract the tourist - nor boast the crumbling, fading beauty of Kensal Green, though it doesn't lack for either. The reason it's my firm favourite is that it sits 25 miles south west of central London. So, to transport the dead to their final resting place, they built a railway with the sole purpose of taking them and their mourning relatives and friends. And if that isn't perfect enough, with the dramatic flourish so beloved of the Victorians, they decided to call the service the London Necropolis Railway.

It is said that death is the great leveller, it comes to us all, rich or poor. Not on the Necropolis Railway was it. For a start there were two platforms at the terminus and cemetery: one for noncomformists, the other for Anglicans. There were also two classes of travel. Understandable, given the mores of the time, Victorian gentlemen and their grieving, demure ladyfolk would not wish to accompany their loved one on his or her last trip alongside riff-raff or hoi-polloi. They had their own waiting rooms, own carriages, different times to embark and disembark, to ensure they would never meet.

However, the passengers weren't the only ones who got a choice of club or coach. So did the dead. In fact, they had the choice of an extra class of travel (one-way, obviously) than the living. First class coffins were loaded on to a richly decorated carriage in full view of their mourners; second and third class were thrown onto a less garlanded carriage without anyone bar the few pall bearers present.

With all aboard, the air thick with steam and soot, the long dark train would pull slowly from the station and proceed at a stately speed for the 57 minute journey. At the cemetery, a service would take place, the coffins lowered into the ground, second and third class hurried back on board while first-class passengers got a chance for a leisurely promenade and few extra minutes paying respects, before it hurried back to London at a slightly faster speed minus it's stiff cargo.
The terminus was near Waterloo station, on Westminster Bridge Road. It was closed in 1941 after being heavily bombed, but the facade remains (and I love a remaining facade).

The track has long been taken up but a piece has been placed at the cemetery to mark the railway's existence, and visitors can be taken on a tour through through the grounds where the imprint of the tracks can still be seen, leading to the places where the platforms used to be.

Before anyone says it would make a great backdrop to a book - understandably so, in my mind it seems to have been created so someone could write a novel about it - I have to add that it already has. The delightfully named Basil Copper came first in 1980. Then a few years ago, Andrew Martin wrote a well-written and beautifully researched mystery set on the railway. A bit cosy for my tastes, but a cracking read nonetheless.

Though I can't help thinking there's still scope for a another crime novel to be set on the Necropolis Railway...



Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Merry Wives of Zuma

Tim’s heart-wrenching post about the fate of so many Thai girls stirred something in my mind pertinent to South Africa.

It is not about young girls who are forced into the sex trade either physically or by force of circumstance. Rather it is about different perceptions. And which of the perceptions is right.

For some time I have been intrigued by the fact that the president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, has been married five times, three of which marriages are running concurrently. In Western parlance, he’s a polygamist! Frankly I am not sure what to think about this.

On the one hand, Zuma has a constitutional right to have as many wives as he wants. The Constitutional Court has ruled that the traditional practice of having multiple wives fits in with the national constitution. And there is no doubt that the majority view in South Africa is that there is nothing wrong with that. A Black woman I spoke to recently expressed distaste for the practice at a personal level, but acceptance at a general level.

“If he has three wives,” she said, “that’s his problem. But my husband is not going to do the same thing.”

There is also no doubt that the women he marries do so out of free choice. And why wouldn’t they? He is a charismatic, powerful man – and very energetic for a man in his mid-60s. No matter what their previous status, being the wife of a country’s president is going to be a better situation. Just think of the perks.

On the other hand, I think that Zuma’s polygamy sets a bad example for the young of the country. But immediately I say that, I wonder whether my Western-centric view of the world has any applicability to countries outside the European-influenced zone. Why should different cultures not have different morals? And if they can have different morals, one may disagree with them, but why be critical of them?
I don’t find thinking about this issue very easy at all.

Of course, these are traditional marriages – that is why the law allows them. And they are definitely male-oriented. I’ve never heard of a woman having multiple husbands and wonder whether that would even be legal in South Africa. And I wonder too whether I, a White male, would be allowed to have multiple wives.

In addition to being perplexed about polygamy, I also am intrigued. How does it work, in reality? Do the wives have a pecking order, so to speak? How does Wife #1 feel as her husband marries Wife #3? How does Husband divide his time between the Wives? Do all the Wives live in the same house? Do they get on? And what if they don’t? (I feel a mystery coming on here – Murder in the House of Zuma).
There is also an issue around Zuma’s polygamous marriages that I find very distasteful – namely the tone of so many reports in the West of his latest marriage. The tone is that Africa is inferior, primitive, and its inhabitants immoral savages. As an African I resent that.

I’m interested in finding out what you think about these issues.

Stan - Thursday

(Photos: Ndaba Dlamini)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Medical Tourism and Þorrablót

Yesterday I heard a local interview with a woman who had seemingly purchased a spot on the radio to advertise her new enterprise, a small travel agency with one single trip on offer. Seeing that this lack of variety provided the woman the opportunity to focus all her efforts on the one trip I turned up the volume, expecting great things. This was not to be. Amazingly enough the trip arrangements were as abysmal as the woman‘s marketing prowess. For one, the length of the trip was stunning when put in conjunction with the selling point that everything was so cheap at the destination that it would be a good way to make one‘s salary last longer. She left out the bit that no one on a regular salary can leave for three months without that same salary magically disappearing. The second oddity regarded the travel arrangements – fly to London, wait eight hours, fly eleven hours to Bangkok and take a bus to the final destination, a mere 800 km to the north. This last bit was introduced as a bonus, a free tourist excursion through beautiful Thailand. I can imagine only one worse scenario, flying for hours on end in a plane installed with dentist chairs, equipped with dentists. The worst was however yet to come, the trump card that the woman excitedly blurted out, cheap Botex treatments to remove wrinkles on the forehead. Now, I do not know if „Botex“ is an actual product, some kind of generic Botox rip-off, or if this woman was simply ill informed, but I do know that I would never, ever, ever, travel on a bus for 800 km into a far away forest for cosmetic surgery, much less „Botex“ treatment.

This is not to say that I would not love to visit Thailand and hope to do so some day, using a reputable travel agent. When there I will not waste my time undergoing body/face improvement based on questionable supplies, as my time would be better spent attempting to take in the people, culture and countryside as best I could. I would also eat everything that is on a plate and not moving, not much anyway. The reason is that I find Thai cuisine so incredibly good that I am hard pressed to come up with anything that tastes better. It is however not difficult to think of things that taste worse, in particular now when the dreaded Þorrablót season is upon us here in Iceland, as of this coming Friday. This occasion derives its name from Þorri, the fourth month of winter in the old Norse calendar honouring king Þorri, and blót meaning feast. Best translated to English, Þorrablót would be: „Feast of disgusting food“, as this is what it involves, i.e. fermented and sour animal parts that are usually not eaten, and for good reason. The most popular dishes are pickled and fermented rams-balls and singed sheep’s heads from which the eyes and tongue are considered a delicacy. These yummy morsels are washed down with Brennivín, sometimes called black-death, not coincidentally.

In retrospect, the end of January and most of February would have been the most meagre period of the year food wise during Iceland’s settlement and the centuries that followed. Everything from the more bountiful summer would have been eaten or have perished, unless fermented and the people thus forced by no festive reason, to eat what we now celebrate. It is a strange event but it has one thing going for it – the bizarre dishes remind us from what grain we grew and how tough our ancestors were forced to be. This should actually be taken up elsewhere as people everywhere in the world had great difficulty sustaining their existence in the past and it helps to be grounded by remembering this, if not just for the fact that in places this is still the case. It certainly of takes the punch out of any temper tantrum brought on by being served tepid soup in a fancy resteraunt.

I realise that for those who follow this blog Iceland will not sound terribly appealing for gourmets but this is not the case at all. We have the occasional eccentricities in this respect but aside from these the food here is really good, particularly the fish. A friend of mine from France who lived here for several years mentioned that he had never realised how exquisite fish is when served as a filet and explained that in his country the fish was usually served whole, head, tail, scales, fins, gills and all. This he believed was to prove that it was fresh, not old or frozen. In Iceland this is not required as why serve old fish when there is plenty of fresh fish available? On this note I leave you with a promise not to mention food for a while and never the time when we ate the soles of our shoes in a long ago famish; which, in case you are wondering, are not served at a typical “Feast of disgusting food”.

Yrsa - Wednesday

Monday, January 18, 2010

Paris what lies beneath...

Dan's post about what lies beneath London got me thinking about underground Paris and the abandoned Metro station I visited.

Underneath these gates to Parc Monceau in the 17th arrondissement where Marcel Proust walked with his governess lies an abandoned Metro station and the graveyard of the Sprague Metro

Worse for wear now the Sprague Metro cars languish defaced and grafitti'd in long rows but you can see a bit of their former elegance. The wood, the brass fittings, the painted glass panels.

The old poster for the Metro workers to contact inter agency.

A restored tiled advertisement for Maizena. Part of a route map.

The French would say 'Seelance' for this sign. It's part of the underground area under Parc Monceau that was a bomb shelter for Metro executives during the war. Inside are huge seal off gates against poison gas which the French still feared the Germans would use in WWII. Interestingly enough, civilians weren't allowed here and though never used, this shelter would have accomodated only several hundred of the top Metro brass.

Above ground here's the restored Art Nouveau Metro station entrance.

Here's the trailer for Charade, the film with Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. Bear with the trailer and towards the end you see Audrey being chased through the Paris Metro circa 1963.

In December during our visit to the Crime Scene Department we met François who, as one of his jobs, needed to recreate a possible crime scene in the Metro station at Bastille. The juge d'instruction, like our DA, wanted to ascertain if foul play or an accident had occured. Evidently a dealer used part of the Metro tunnel, a crevice in the wall, to hide his stash and either the deal went wrong and he was shot or he made a mistake and got hit by the running train. François recreated the scene in the Bastille tunnel after the trains stopped running late at night to assist the juge d'instruction in assembling evidence and possible scenarios. Was the Metro tunnel a crime scene or not?

My eyes lit up...not at the gory details he proceeded to tell us, but at the idea of an underground cache, possible confrontations and the speeding train in the Metro tunnel. Who knows how this could work in a story? After I'd visited the underground quarries in the Latin Quarter, saw the cavern complete with a bar built by underground cinema guerillas who held film festivals and parties there, I ended up using the quarry bar in Murder in the Latin Quarter.

Cara - Tuesday