Sunday, October 31, 2010

Ghosts Galore

The Thais take their ghosts pretty seriously.  Foreigners, who are more likely than Thais to regard ghosts with a grain of salt, sometimes make jokes or do ghost-impressions, only to feel like idiots when the Thai with whom they're joking shows every sign of actually being afraid.

Generally, village people are less likely to question the reality of the undead, and Thailand offers up a vast spectrum of phantasms for them to worry about.  In the more worldly cities, though, some sophisticates scoff at (or pretend to scoff at) ghosts.  There are even the occasional Halloween parties, especially in the tourist zones.  This year's party on Khao Sarn Road, the backpacker's ghetto, is nine days long.  I may be wrong, but I think the Thais enter into the celebration in a much more complicated frame of mind than the farang do.

Many Thai ghost stories have at their center the bond between mothers and children.  Mothers who died in childbirth, returning to protect the infants they inadvertently abandoned; dead children returning to seek the mother from whom they were separated.  Both themes occur frequently in Thai movies, an astonishing percentage of which are screamers about ghosts.  Around the corner from my apartment in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, is a theater which is given exclusively to Thai ghost movies, and there's a new double-header all the time -- complete with enormous, horrifyingly bloody, hand-painted posters.

The otherworldly nature of the mother-child link is at the center of a real-life ghost drama that's playing itself out right now.  In early October, newspapers reported the story of a mother who went to Bangkok to visit her married daughter but was told by her son-in-law that the woman had run away weeks ago.  Several weeks later the daughter appeared in a dream and told her mother that she'd been murdered and buried beneath a mango tree behind the house.  About fifty people from the neighborhood dug up the site, finding nothing.  But the daughter returned again to say they hadn't dug deeply enough.  Sure enough, they found the skeletal remains of a woman, the back of her head broken in.  The husband is a person of interest, but for now the authorities are waiting for DNA results.

One more (although this has been a very big year for ghosts):  a young man recently left a Bangkok party on his motor scooter to get some more food and drink.  He was hit by a car and killed on his way to the store.  The kids at the party all remembered seeing him afterward -- and he even showed up in a video taken there after his death.  I've seen a clip of the video, and it's pretty spooky; there's a kid sitting cross-legged in a group in a brightly-lighted living room, and behind him is a door to a darker room.  Visible directly over his shoulder is a pale, reddish face, as if someone were sitting in the other room, looking on but not joining in.

So if you go trick-and-treating in Thailand, make sure to look over your shoulder from time to time.

Friday, October 29, 2010

A Ghost to Most

It's Halloween this weekend, so it seems appropriate to talk about ghosts. Especially in the light of of Tim's post last Sunday about the forthcoming literary endeavours of Snooki. I don't know much about Snooki, as her unique talents are not widely known in the UK, and I'm sort of hoping that, like Everybody Loves Raymond and demented right wing political movements dominated by replicants in human skin, she's one of those things that fails to cross the Atlantic. Yet, while nodding my head sagely at the always-wise prose of Mr Hallinan, I couldn't help but think of one poor person: Snooki's ghostwriter.

It's not a bad gig - many applied for the job and I hear James Ellroy was turned down at the last minute, despite submitting a 427-page plot synopsis. It will be reasonably well paid and Snooki hardly seems the sort to fiercely argue plot points and character, if that isn't too ungallant, which will make the writer's life a damn sight easier. But ghostwriting fiction is a truly thankless task. I tried it once, and it really didn't work, for me or the celebrity. There is one thing turning the life of someone else into a narrative; another thing turning their imagination into one. That is, if they have one. My celebrity didn't even have a clue what he wanted the plot of his book to be about, which meant I ended up writing a novel, using an idea I originated, featuring a character I created, with a title I devised, but with someone else's name on it. To be fair to him though, he made a decent cup of coffee...

Next week I'm teaching a class on ghostwriting, though I plan to steer away from ghostwriting fiction, increasingly popular though it is is. Instead I'll focus on the task of turning other people's lives and stories into works of non-fiction, which is as old as the written word (what is the Bible, if not a series of ghostwritten tracts? Empress Josephine was also fond of using them to tell her tales of Napoleonic derring-do) It's a booming part of the business - just walk into a UK bookshop leading up to Christmas and see displays groaning under the weight of showbiz biographies, few of which are written by their subjects - and while it is galling that publishers are slashing the amount of time and money they are investing in new writers and writing, jobbing hacks can either gnash their teeth and bemoan their lack of opportunity, or roll up their jacket sleeves and do some ghosting. It doesn't always have to be about celebrity. One of the books I am most proud of is The Cloud Garden, a tale of two rather naive English lads who tried to walk through the Darien Gap, the most notorious and dangerous strip of jungle in the world, and were kidnapped by Marxist guerrillas and held for nine months. It was a joy working with the two subjects; amiable, funny and humble blokes who were truly apologetic for the upset their capture caused. It was well paid. I learned a great deal about structure, pacing, plotting and revelation of character that stood me in excellent stead when I came to write novels of my own. Most of all, I realised much of the skill in writing, in fiction and non-fiction, comes from voice: finding or capturing the right one is as essential to a ghost as it is for the most literary of novelists.

That's where the benefits of ghostwriting lie: each book, no matter how banal the subject, makes you a better writer. Of course, it doesn't suit everyone. To be successful you need to be able to suppress your ego and become the soul of discretion (I found the last bit very hard...what's the point of working with a celeb if you can't tell your pals down the pub he's a complete nutjob?) There is far more to the relationship between subject and ghost than switching on a tape recorder and asking them some questions. Sometimes you have to be friend, confidante, therapist, career adviser, or the person who delivers some hard truths. When the book is released to the world, and it bombs, you may get the blame. You might also have an irate celebrity calling you in the middle of the night to complain. If it's a huge success, it's unlikely you will be given much of the credit. It can also be enormously hard work; and often the money isn't great. Yet, despite all that, I'd recommend any young writer seeking to make it their career should consider ghostwriting. Doing nothing else but ghosting would be soul-destroying, and a writer should always aspire to writing their own stuff under their own name, but as one facet of a writing career, it has a fair bit going for it.

And Snooki, if you're reading love, give me a shout. I've got a great idea for an opening scene...


Dan - Friday

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Not Saw-Whet Owls

Northern Saw-Whet Owl
With Stan heading back to South Africa and the book events dying down, I’ve been visiting great friends, Nelson and Pat Markley, in Pennsylvania before taking on the airlines for the thirty-hour trip back to Johannesburg this weekend. We’ve been doing lots of interesting non-mystery things. On Monday we were fortunate to visit the Saw-Whet Owl banding station in Schuylkill County. The weather was iffy all day, but by mid-afternoon we had the message that the banding would go ahead that night.

A team of volunteers led by Scott Weidensaul heads out there each night between the start of October and Thanksgiving. The project’s aim is to understand more about the ecology and migration patterns of these enigmatic small owls which pass through the area on their way south for the winter. Some get as far as Alabama, something unknown before Scott’s project got underway. The first bird was banded there shortly after he visited the area, leading to mutterings that he’d brought it with him! Now a small number are caught there regularly each winter. Since 1997 the three Pennsylvania banding stations have harmlessly caught, banded, and released over 5000 owls, and obtained a scientific data base about the size and age of the owls as well as their migratory pattern.  The procedure is to carefully unroll the pemanently set up mist nets, and switch on an MP3 player which beats out the amplified call of a male Saw-Whet.  Every hour the nets are checke for owls which are carefully removed from the net, placed in soft bags, and brought down to the center where they are measured and weighed.  Feathers are examined under flourescent light to estimate age, and a few removed for DNA data.  Then back into the bags to get their eyes back to night vision and soon they are on their way.

Scott Weidensaul with a new friend
 Scott himself is a fascinating person to talk to. Largely self-taught, he is inspiring and knowledgeable, the sort of ecologist who draws you into the enthusiasm and commitment of the project. Spending a few hours there it’s easy to understand why there are 100 carefully selected volunteers willing to spend 6pm till midnight waiting for and handling the birds. After opening up the nets and switching on the persistent tooting recording – Scott says it sounds like a garbage truck reversing and he’s keen to try that “call” out on the owls! – the team retires to the center they are allowed to use by a local golf course.  They compare bird - and other - stories and wait. A wary eye is cast on the sky and the weather radar frequently checked; the nets and sound equipment can’t be left operating in rain. But after an hour we all climb a slippery path through the dark with headlights and flashlights to see what there is to see. A few leaves are cleared out of the nets but nothing else. Back to the center to wait for the next check.

Apart from his bird research, Scott is a talented and prolific writer with more than two dozen books published. Most involve birds, but his range is broader. Mountains of the Heart is an exploration of the Appalachians. The book he’s currently writing is historical. It tells of the frontier of the 16th and 17th centuries, which ran from New Foundland to St. Augustine, through the stories of the frontier people of the time.

His best known book is Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds which was one of the three finalists for the Pulitzer prize for non-fiction in 2000. It’s a fascinating and personal account of the migratory issues of birds across the Americas.

Alas! Before the next time to check the nets, the heavens opened and the team rushed off to close the nets and rescue the equipment. Nelson and I stayed dry in the center; everyone else returned drenched but still in good spirits. So not saw owls, but I felt very privileged to have spent a couple of hours with Scott and his team.

Michael - Thursday
Photos by Nelson Markley

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Yesterday I made 3 different flights, which in itself is not interesting to anyone and I will not bore you with the details of each. What I would like to share with you is that I bought a book at the first airport to have something to read on board. The book I picked up was more than awful, it was sadly, sadly lacking in all respects. I have no one but myself to blame for this purchase since it came with a warning and I should therefore have seen it coming. You see, the title included the word Pyramid, as well as the word Doom, both dead giveaways but together, well. I don‘t know how I could have been so stupid but I am a long time sucker for such titles, despite always, always being hugely disappointed and ending up trying to hide the cover from those I meet. What did surprise me though is that I am not alone in having such a horrible taste, the book was actually on the best seller list.

The book was basically unreadable – to give you an idea the protagonist trio consisted of a very sexy female archeologist + a cheerleader who was studying archeology + an ex-special forces hunk, and the bad guy was just shy of holding a white cat and laughing evilly. The villain, although not holding a cat, was plotting world domination and get this: by opening up a bakery business selling bread baked with yeast from the Egyptian Pharos that provided eternal life. This is where I put the book down. Having nothing to do I started looking at the magazines in the seat pocket „in front of me“ and found a catalog of sorts which I have seen on numerous flights before but never opened. It is called SkyMall and is supposed to allow passengers to shop while flying. I don‘t think you get the actual merchandise onboard considering what monstrosities they had on offer but this magazine was just wonderful, it was so weird. It is also online( if you are ever bored or have the urge to see how much incredibly ridiculous stuff is available in the world. Here are a couple of my favorites:

Easter Island Head: Astound and impress guests at your next Polynesian luau with our exclusive, heavyweight, six-foot-tall King Moai, inspired by the 380 A.D. Easter Island originals. Said to represent gods, ancestors, or powerful kings, our Toscano-exclusive replica features the broad nose, strong chin and the rectangular ears of its ancient cousins. Our South Seas statement piece is cast in quality designer resin with a rough, chiseled faux stone finish.

Firstly, to hold „your next Polynesian luau“ one would have to have held one previously which I cannot believe applies to many. Secondly, sitting on a plane with your liquids limited to 500 ml and your leg space to that enough for merely the toes, a 6 ft tall head is somehow not appropriate. Unless it entices by precisely the implication of space. And how much does this cost? A mere 999 dollars. What a bargain.
But if you think 6ft is not impressive enough, SkyMAll has an even bigger garden statue available, namely, Boris the Brontosaurus, a product described as: Our most spectacular outdoor sculpture EVER wandered in from the Jurassic period! Larger-than-life and equally dramatic, our seven-foot-tall sauropod is head-and-shoulders above all other garden sculptures we've ever offered! Our artists captured every detail of this attention-demanding beast, then cast it in 238 lbs. of high-quality designer resin and hand-painted it with utmost authenticity. Though the brontosaurus originally fed in the grasslands, our sure-to-impress fellow is just as happy lounging next to your pool, feeding along your garden path or peering over your neighbor's fence. Nothing short of amazing, our imposing signature piece will have guests talking non-stop about this exclusive Jurassic giant! For easy assembly, ships in 4 pieces. Bring inside during freezing temperatures.

There is so much wrong with the text that I don‘t know where to begin. If I limit my comments I would have to mention the big drawback of having to take it in during winter and also positioning it to peer over your neighbor‘s fence. The price is nothing short of robbery, 1950 dollars. For that you would think they could provide a tail without the three joints visible in the photo.

And there is more, much more. All sorts of ramps and steps to assist your pets in getting onto the furniture or into your bed. A lamp in the shape of a woman, lifesize but with no head. In its place is a lampshade. The decapitated lamp-woman seems to be giving the homeowners the finger. Alas, no more space, no more time. I would have loved to list more but I have to stop. I need to send my architect and e-mail with the photo of the Polonesian head, pretending to want at least three installed in our yard instead of the fengshui stones presently on the drawings.

I will ask for at least one of the three to be positioned to peek into our neighbor‘s yard.

Yrsa - Wednesday

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

strike - paris - kafka

All are furious at the Senate's decision to approve new pension legislation which will see the retirement age rise from 60 to 62.

I'm landing in Paris in a few hours and hope to give accounts of what I see and hear on the street in these tumultuous times. A lot of what's in the press doesn't mention about how these reforms affect women, specifically working mothers like my friend, Anne. She's a single mother, with two young children, where I'll stay in Montmartre. The pension reforms will discount all the time she's taken for maternity leave, in other words, the time she's taken off for pregnancy due to bedrest, the generous leave from her firm, six months, all that's discounted against her retirement.
That shocked me. France is renowned for social benefits especially to mothers, maternity leave and support of local creche's, the infant centers all over Paris. But the time she's spent having two children, staying with them probably a year in total will work against her when she retires. The time she'll most need benefits when her girls are older. Zut!

One of the most surprising items in the news is that fifteen year old students have been striking at their schools to protest 'change'. In the US usually the protests are to promote change, bring new programs and reforms but again, this is France, still traditional and these kids are looking way down the rue. Can't think when I was fifteen I'd have had the presence of mind to do that. I've heard a lot of the unrest is due to Sarkozy whose popularity is at an all time low. He's also unpopular due to the widespread criticism of his part in the ongoing Liliane Bettencourt scandal, the l'Oreal heiress, and France's richest woman, who's accused of providing cash payments to politicians in return for assistance in avoiding tax on a her multi-million Euro fortune.

But the protests might die down this week as it's school holidays and if people can get gas they're on the road or taking the trains that are running. Wednesday promises to be another day of a big strike, so I'll just get on my walking shoes and hit the cobbles. And a few café's en route to my friend Elise's near the Bastille. And if we're adventurous head to the Basquiat exhibit across the Seine and have adventures along the way...

This in a city where Franz Kafka's on walls as grafitti

Cara - Tuesday who should be hitting the Charles de Gaulle runway just about now!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Magic Online

Want to “make yourself irresistible even if you’re ugly”?
Or “cause someone you don’t like to lose their teeth”?
From the comfort of your own home”
At zero cost?
Well, now you can.

Here’s what you do:

1.      Grab your Portuguese/English dictionary.
2.      Go to and register.
3.      Choose a spell.
4.      Fill-in the email address of the individual to be blessed or cursed.
5.      Hit enter.

There are 86 different mandigas (spells) you can choose from, about equally divided between achieving one’s heart’s desire and complicating the lives of people you don’t like.

In the former department you’ll find things like coming into money, getting a job, becoming pregnant and having your team win their next football (soccer) game.
In the latter, you can cause someone to acquire permanent body odor, go bankrupt, have hair grow on their backside, or have their male organ fall off.

Yeah,, that’s what the folks call it in Haiti.
(We, here in Brazil, don't stick pins in dolls like the Haitians do.)
That’s Cuba.
We call it macumba.
All three refer to spiritualist religions derived from the Yorubá people of central Africa.
All three enjoy a high degree of credence in their individual countries, even among the best-educated of people.
And all three make ample use of spells.

Here are some (loosely) translated excerpts from the home page of the site:

Ever think about casting a spell? Don’t want to go to the trouble to visit a terreiro? (Translator’s note: a terreiro is a place where the orixas, the spirits, are worshipped.) Like home deliveries? Whatever your motive for wanting to use magic, you’ve come to the right place. On this site you can cast spells for yourself, or send a curse to your neighbor, your mother-in-law, your cat, or anyone else you think deserves it. Best of all, it’s free! Do it the easy way. Everything you can get by visiting a terreiro, you can get here. Let us do the work. Macumba Online, to make your life easier.

Up to now, the site has had more than 2.5 million unique visitors. On the home page, there’s a listing of the most popular spells to date. The top three are:

  1. Securing the affection of a loved one.
  2. Losing weight.
  3. Coming into money.
The top three curses are:

  1. Giving someone diarrhea.
  2. The screwing up (it’s not stated that politely) of someone’s life.
  3. The separation of someone from their current partner.
Some of the ones that make me think there’s a story behind them are:

  1. Causing someone to choke on semen.
  2. Causing someone to stop lying.
  3. Causing someone to be expelled from the country.
On the left of the home page, you’ve got the public spells, the ones you want everyone to know about. This morning, a woman by the name of Adriana Flavia Carvalho Timotéo cursed someone with chronic laziness, separation from their mate, contracting an inflammation, to be cheated upon by the selfsame mate and to gain at least 100 kilograms. And she did it all within the space of five minutes. It is not specified who the recipient was of all this venom, but considering the 100 kilogram item, I suspect it was a female.

Leighton - Monday

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Stop the Presses. Please.

In yet another smoke signal heralding the end of civilization as we know it, Simon & Schuster -- yes, that's Simon & Schuster -- announced this week that they've committed to publish a hard-hitting contemporary American novel called A Shore Thing, described by that eminent publishing house as “the story of a woman looking for love amid big hair, dark tans and fights galore on the coast of New Jersey."

This hard-hitting, cat-fighting modern update of An American Tragedy will be written in its entirety -- one hundred percent, every word, even the really really  long ones -- by Nicole Polizzi, an extraordinarily ordinary young woman better known to people on the lower rungs of the Nielsen TV ratings as Snooki.

Using phrases reminiscent of Philip Roth, Snooki said, "I'm pumped to announce to my fans a project that I've been working on for some time. This book will have you falling in love at the shore. It's 'A Shore Thing!'"

While I have nothing against falling at love at the shore, I have no doubt that comment is just as authentically from Snooki's lips as the book will be.  Although "pumped" sounds about right.

If anyone needs another reason to stop bewailing the fate of so-called traditional publishing, surely this announcement will provide one.  Forget business plans, forget ineptitude, forget the fact that they don't know how to sell a book.  Arrest them for pandering.  This is pandering so blatant that it should be illegal.  Once upon a time, books were one of the things that divided those who can think in sentences from those who can't.  Reading books was widely accepted as the way to move from Group B to Group A.  Now, books are what you read when television gets too challenging.

Where's the international Communist conspiracy when you need it?  There must be SOME kind of Grand Unified Theory to explain the hydra-headed beast called the dumbing-down of the West.  Failed educational systems, the complete defeat of common sense in favor of political correctness, TV news so truncated it takes several stories to make up a single sound bite, politicians who will say literally anything and promise literally anything to get elected, and voters witless enough to vote for them.  And now Snooki.

I have a proposal.  Let's close all printing presses and all television networks Monday morning at 8 o'clock.  Let's put all the media execs on the street with some apples to sell, and let the screens go dark.  Let's allow Americans to entertain themselves for, say, six months.  Use some of the money not being spent for broadcast and publishing to keep libraries open 24 hours a day.  Subsidize the sale of books, getting prices down to what they should be, until all the current trash is sold out and people have to read, you know, books.  As opposed to subliterate, television-spawned drivel with a shelf life of 18 months -- 18 months, by the way, that it's crowding out something that might actually be worth reading.  

Impractical?  Okay.  I give up.  Oh, and if Snooki winds up being compared to, say, Edith Wharton, I'll apologize.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Mind the laconic tube driver

I did a fair bit of travelling on the tube this week, including one journey at the height of rush hour. While waiting for the District Line at Waterloo there was a delay, and the platform became very crowded with commuters. I was at the front of the crush, so when the train arrived I was able to get on, and even get a seat. The rest tried to push on. The carriage became sardine-tin full. The doors tried to close to no avail. Too many people in their way. The tube driver's voice came over the intercom:

'Ladies and Gentlemen,' he said wearily. 'There is another Ealing Broadway train a minute behind us, so if a few of you get off and get that we can get underway.'

The doors try to close again, but fail once more. There was a sigh.

'Ladies and Gentlemen, I repeat, there is a train right behind us. Rather than cramming yourself on to this one and blocking the doors, please get off and get on that one instead.'

Doors try to close. Fail again.

'Alright,' the tube driver deadpanned. 'Ignore me. Everybody else does.'

This time the door closed and we were able to get away, many of us chuckling at the despair of our driver.

It's one of the joys of travelling by tube. The laconic, dry announcements made by drivers to passengers, often at the end of a long, joyless shift. Here's a few more of my favourites:

"To the gentleman wearing the long grey coat trying to get on the second carriage, what part of 'Stand clear of the doors!' don't you understand?"

"Ladies & Gentleman, upon departing the train may I remind you to take your rubbish with you. Despite the fact that you are in something that is metal, fairly round, filthy and smells, this is a tube train for public transport and not a bin on wheels."

"Your delay this evening is caused by the line controller suffering from elbow and backside syndrome, not knowing his elbow from his backside. I'll let you know any further information as soon as I'm given any."

"Please mind the closing doors..." The doors close... The doors reopen. "Passengers are reminded that the big red slidey things on the side of the train are called the doors. Let's try it again. Please stand clear of the doors." The doors close... "Thank you."

"I am sorry about the delay, apparently some nutter has just wandered into the tunnel at Euston. We don't know when we'll be moving again, but these people tend to come out pretty quickly... usually in bits."

"Ladies and Gentlemen, I do apologise for the delay to your service. I know you're all dying to get home, unless, of course, you happen to be married to my ex-wife, in which case you'll want to cross over to the Westbound and go in the opposite direction".

"Ladies and gentlemen, we apologise for the delay, but there is a security alert at Victoria station and we are therefore stuck here for the foreseeable future, so let's take our minds off it and pass some time together. All together now.... 'Ten green bottles, hanging on a wall.....'."

"We are now travelling through Baker Street, as you can see Baker Street is closed. It would have been nice if they had actually told me, so I could tell you earlier, but no, they don't think about things like that".

"Beggars are operating on this train, please do NOT encourage these professional beggars, if you have any spare change, please give it to a registered charity, failing that, give it to me."

"Please note that the beeping noise coming from the doors means that the doors are about to close. It does not mean throw yourself or your bags into the doors."

"May I remind all passengers that there is strictly no smoking allowed on any part of the Underground. However, if you are smoking a joint, it's only fair that you pass it round the rest of the carriage."


Dan - Friday

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The great white queen’s blanket

For the most part, there is little good to say about the colonial powers’ behaviour in Africa.  It was avaricious, brutal, and racist.  However, there are a few stories that have a reasonably happy ending – probably more by chance than design – but nevertheless worth reporting.  One of these stories is about Botswana, home of the intrepid detectives “Kubu” Bengu and Precious Ramotswe.
Jan van Riebeeck
From 1652, when Jan van Riebeeck landed at the Cape to establish a vegetable garden to replenish the Dutch East India Company ships en route to the Far East, until the early 1800s, when the English took over the Cape to protect their sea routes to the Far East from the French, the White population in the southern tip of Africa was largely Dutch, French, and German.  They enjoyed the use of slaves, both local (usually Hottentot) as well from Indonesia and other Far Eastern countries.  For the most part, the black tribes had not yet reached the Cape, but were settled 500 miles to the east.
Trek Boers
When the English took over the Cape, they began to Anglicize the area and outlawed slavery.  In reaction to this and because the Cape was becoming less appealing due to an increase in immigrants and wars with Black tribes on the eastern frontier, many Dutch farmers left the Cape in search of their own land, free from English interference.  This resulted in the Great Trek – a watershed in southern African history.  From 1836 groups of Boers (farmer in Dutch) spread throughout what is now South Africa, establishing many independent states, the most important of which were the Orange River Republic (Orange Free State), roughly between the Orange and Vaal rivers, and the South African Republic, more or less between the Vaal and Limpopo rivers.
Much of this was accomplished by force – the muskets of the Boers being far more effective than the stabbing spears of the various Black tribes.  It was also accomplished by making expedient treaties with local chiefs, who rarely understood what they were signing.  Duplicity was rife, with the Boers often ignoring treaties when it suited them, and chiefs giving the Boers access to lands that didn’t belong to their communities.  In addition, there was a major cultural difference, in that the Europeans were used to having freehold title to land, whereas the Black tribes occupied land communally, with the chief having the power to grant use.
Queen Victoria
Even though most of the land west of the two Boer Republics was desert, there were incursions by Boers looking for more land, as well as attacks on the Tswana tribe by the Ndebele from the north east.  Three Batswana chiefs, Khama III, Bathoen, and Sebele went to London and asked Queen Victoria to protect them with ‘the great white queen’s blanket’.  This resulted in England granting a protectorate over the area in March 1885, which became known as the Bechuanaland Protectorate.  Part of the Protectorate became British Bechuanaland and was eventually annexed to the Cape Colony, and the Protectorate was enlarged in 1890 to the current size of Botswana.  An unusual and perhaps unique aspect of British control over the Bechuanaland Protectorate was that all administration was done in Mafeking, which is not in the country at all, but in South Africa.  Are there any other countries where the de facto government was situated in a neighbouring country?
England and the Boers went to war at the end of the Nineteenth Century, and eventually in 1910 the two former Boer Republics, the Cape and Natal colonies united to form the Union of South Africa.  The Bechuanaland Protectorate and two other areas under British control, Basutoland (now Lesotho, and Swaziland, were specifically excluded, although provision was made for their inclusion into South Africa.  England dragged its feet with respect to the inclusion, particularly when the Nationalist Party took power in South Africa in 1948, beginning the era of official apartheid.
As the winds of change blew through the continent, Britain felt the pressure to grant independence to its colonies and to countries it administered.  On September 30, 1986, the Bechuanaland Protectorate became the independent country of Botswana, headed by Seretse Khama and his White English wife, Ruth Williams.
Sir Seretse Khama
At independence, Botswana was very poor – one of the poorest countries in Africa with a per capita GDP of about US$70.  Today, it is one of the successes in Africa with a per capita GDP of US$6400, largely due to the discovery of diamonds.  The first great mine, Letlhakane near Orapa, was founded in 1972 and started operations in 1977.  Jwaneng is the biggest of the mines, coming into operation in 1982.  All the major mines are owned by Debswana, a 50-50 joint operation of the Botswana government and De Beers.
Facts and figures:
Population (2009):  1,900,000 (146th in the world)
Population density:  3.4/sq. km. (8.9/sq. Mile) (229th in the world – 10th last)
Size:  580,000 sq. km (225,000 sq. miles) of which 2.3% is covered with water (the Okavango Delta)
Capital:  Gaborone
Government:  Parliamentary republic
Currency:  1 pula = 100 thebes (pula means ‘rain’ in Setswana) (US$1 = 7 pula approximately)
Wildlife:  Spectacular
Queen Victoria and a desolate landscape probably saved Bechuanaland from the grasp of Westerners.  Had they known about the diamonds, the story would have been different.  It is a land worth visiting with spectacular game reserves and friendly people.
Stan -Thursday

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

In the wake of Bouchercon

For some reason I am unable to add any photos - something about image uploads being disabled due to site maintenance. I can possibly fix this later but in the meantime I apologize for the resulting spartan look.
Now that Bouchercon is behind us I would like to present a few of the observations my trip to the conference and the States brought about. They are not ground shaking or particularly observant, just stuff that stuck to the brain on my travels.
To begin with it was wonderful to be reminded what a great group readers are. There was not a single unlikeable character attending the convention or at least if there was our paths never crossed. The other authors were also superb, it seems the more heinous the crimes in their books the sweeter the person. I was once told by a German photographer that specializes in photos of authors that crime writers are so likeable and funny while those writing humor were a broody and depressed bunch. There is probably some psychological explanation for this but that is for others to ponder upon.
The time difference between this year’s host city, San Fransisco and Iceland was a bit much or seven hours. As a result I was pretty knackered and spent too much time in my hotel room. The TV was usually on and I was amazed at the political commercials on the air as they were so mean and awful that one would believe the voter’s would be taken aback and not want to vote for anybody. Not a single candidate spent his valuable advertising money describing his or her merits as the whole budget was in all cases spent on piling the dirt on their opponents. Boy oh boy, it is not only in Iceland where politics seem to bring out the worst in people.
Smoking was a hassle as I knew it would be. There was an area outside the hotel where it was allowed and the warning text posted next to it made me wonder. It was just shy of saying: Run, run for your life – second hand smoke! As it noted something to the effect:  Beware of the presence of toxic, cancerous fumes in the form of cigarette smoke often present in the area. If you are pregnant, please calmly make your way back into the building and exit through another door. I am not kidding. The funny thing was that on the TV I also saw California is about to legalize smoking pot which made me smile. Why not? It can easily be made legal if you just make sure you are not allowed to smoke it anywhere. They could even add crack to the list and nothing much would change.
The last thing that really made me gawk was how many young people walked around while fiddling with their cell phones. We sat next to a table with a group of three, all dressed up for a good time and during the whole dinner they never looked at each other, instead gazing as if mesmerized at the little screens and doing something which me and my husband could not figure out what was. The same happened on the plane from Boston over to the west coast; a young man in the seat next to us operated his phone constantly during the flight and seemed to be having spasms of withdrawal during takeoff and landing when he had to turn it off. I had reached the conclusion that these phone people must be on the internet and was sort of impressed at how they could surf and walk simultaneously without ever walking into lampposts or other people. When in a Radio Shack I asked the guy helping out what the hell was going on and he said everyone was texting and that it had really taken off after the phone companies offered unlimited texting for a fixed fee. This was amazing to me, whom are they constantly texting? How many people do they know? Does it now work like a conversation? I hope I am overreacting but the eerie blue hue reflected from the screen onto what almost seemed to be every young person’s face felt creepy and not a good sign of human relationships of the future.  But I’m sure this was said about phones during Bell’s time, and possibly even following the introduction of the telegraph.
We actually drove down a street in Oakland named Telegraph and I wonder if at some point in the future some city, somewhere will name a street: Text Message Boulevard. Maybe not, but E-mail Avenue for sure.
Yrsa - Wednesday

Monday, October 18, 2010

Where's the famous Gallic shrug when you need it?

Who are these people?

Why's Gerard Depardieu sniffing the snail?

More important where's the famous Gallic shrug when you need it?
The barricades are up, acrid tear gas is filling the streets, angry hordes of striking workers and students are battling against a common enemy. Eh oui, the French are at it again. In the past, I have found the Gallic shrug the best response to the country’s trigger-happy strike culture – it’s just something you have to learn to live with. This time, though, I’m finding it difficult to shrug off – and I am not alone.

The government is in the final stages of pushing through a plan that will, if you believe the union hype, change the face of France as we know it and end the good life this country has come to symbolise – not just for its own citizens, but for the world at large. Or so they say. Which is why the country has taken to the streets.

You might be forgiven for not being entirely sure what year we are in. It could be 1789 - apart from the tear gas.
Or 1968? Or perhaps 1995, when France shut down completely for three weeks over a plan to reform disgracefully advantageous special pensions for a small group of workers. It could even be 2006, when students ran amok against a bill to make youth work contracts more flexible.

But, no, this is October 2010 and it is all about saying NON to retiring at 62 instead of 60 and receiving a full pension at 67 instead of 65. In rejection of this seemingly paltry change, protesters have brought the country to its knees. Yesterday, strikes halted all 12 of France’s oil refineries – the first time since May 1968. The pipeline bringing fuel to Paris’s two main airports and a large area of southern Paris was closed. Lorry drivers are in slow mode clogging France’s roads and rail workers are disrupting TGV trains whose promise of Très Grande Vitesse may come back to haunt them. Students have taken up the call to arms, blocking schools with garbage cans in lieu of the traditional paving slabs.

Up to now, things have been relatively peaceful - a policeman in Cannes was injured by a flying rock and doctors struggled to save an eye of a 16-year-old boy after he was struck by a rubber bullet. But today hundreds in Lyon took to the street and several cars were torched and burned. A school inspector in Seine Saint Denis, the Paris suburb where the nationwide riots of 2005 began, has sounded a note of caution. “Certain school blockages,” he warned earlier this week, risked “degenerating into the beginnings of urban riots”.

Sarkozy and his government feel the pressure as 3.5 million take to the streets, many of them simply because they can no longer stand their president. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, an aggressive hard-Left figure, said that Mr Sarkozy was trying to “place himself in the shoes of a 21st century Thatcher”. In one sense, he is wrong. Compared to Margaret Thatcher and her battle with the miners, Mr Sarkozy’s reform is hardly radical. However, if the fuel blockages, student protests and demonstrations continue, he may need some of the Iron Lady tactics to stand firm.

But he'll be facing an incoming tide. As Le Monde pointed out yesterday, France is a very conservative country “hell-bent on keeping the status quo and acquired (social) rights, with history used as a windshield against reality”. Even the Iron Lady might have resorted to a Gallic shrug at the thought of trying to break the Frenchman’s bond with his placard.

Cara - Tuesday
who's hoping her flight will land in Paris not Budapest next week
PS that's Stan and me at Bouchercon having too much fun.
PPS loved seeing Susie who frequents our blog, Peter Rozovsky and Christopher Moore. A big thank you to Yrsa for a UK copy of her Ashes to Dust that I will inhale on my flight given my plane takes off :)

Brazilian Artists #1 - Vik Muniz

We, who blog, are regularly counseled to keep our posts short.
And also counseled not to put up posts that demand high-speed internet connections, because lots of folks don’t have them.
Today, in the interest of showing you something truly impressive, I’m going to violate both of those dictums.
If you can’t watch streaming video, go no further, because you’re only going to get frustrated.
And, be warned. If you stick with this post to the very end, it’s going to take up about eighteen minutes of your time.
You can, of course, jump ship earlier if you don't find the subject matter as fascinating as I do.

First, a bit of background:
Rede Globo is Brazil’s largest television network, and the largest commercial network in the world outside of the United States. Programming, in prime time, consists mainly of novelas, daily chapters of continuing stories, independently created and produced by the network itself.
These novelas are of such a high production standard that they are regularly overdubbed, or subtitled, and sold to dozens of countries around the world.
The current placeholder in the premier slot (eight PM São Paulo time) is a series entitled Passione. It features some of Brazil’s finest actors and, as is usual with Globo, some opening credits which are particularly striking.
Those credits were created by Vik Muniz, a Brazilian artist currently living and working in the United States.
Look closely at what follows. As the camera zooms in, you’ll note that he has executed the images on a huge scale, working with things like scrap metal, bicycle parts, discarded appliances, and old automobile tires.

In other creations, Vik has employed elements as diverse as sugar, wire, spaghetti, chocolate, dust off a museum floor, thread, earth and smoke.
Vik has been living in the United States for some time now. Here’s a video where he speaks in English and shows some of his work.

Leighton - Monday

Sunday, October 17, 2010


Been avoiding reading fiction for the past few months, and I don't know why.

I have a stack of wonderful unread fiction that's so high it totters resentfully when I walk into the room.  It's stacked because the four four-foot shelves where my unread fiction usually goes are completely full.  Every time I see all those spines, they reproach me.

But . . .

I want to read nonfiction.  I've been losing myself in the Hollywood of the 30s and 40s, and loving every word.  It began with Michael Sragow's painstaking biography of Victor Fleming, who directed much of "The Wizard of Oz" and virtually all of "Gone With The Wind" -- in the same year, 1939.  Fleming made his first movie, "When the Clouds Roll By," in 1919 and his last, Ingrid Bergman's disastrous "Joan of Arc," in 1948.  In between, he made films like "Red Dust," with Gable and Harlow, "Mantrap," "The Virginian," most of "The Good Earth," "Tortilla Flat," the brilliant Spencer Tracy "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," and on and on and on.  And he's never named on the short lists of the great American directors.

My kind of guy.  Always in the service of the story.

Neal Gabler's An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood is a remarkable look at the first generation of movie moguls -- all with roots in a relatively small area of Eastern Europe -- who created not only the Hollywood dream factory, but also much of how Americans see (or saw) themselves, as well as how the world, for decades, saw Americans.  The films these refugees made celebrated the nation that gave them success and power, and upheld values that "real" Americans may have talked about more than they embodied them.

Certainly, Louis G, Mayer, the extremely complex despot at the heart of MGM (and the subject of Scott Eyman's exemplary Lion of Hollywood), was largely responsible for the idyllic fiction of small-town America with its white picket fences and its all-white citizens.  The "Andy Hardy" movies that Mayer secretly liked better than any of the studio's more prestigious releases (meaning Irving G. Thalberg's) defined a way of life that probably never existed, just as the gangster movies of Jack Warner's studio defined the sensationalized model of American crime.

Both images were enduring, but false.  And perhaps most enduring of all, and equally false, was the image of impossible glamor.  Case in point: the exquisite Anna May Wong, daughter of a Chinese laundress and the only Asian female Hollywood star until the 1950s, shunted mainly into roles as the evil Oriental femme fatale although the sheer force of her personality (and her remarkable beauty) shone through.  Photographs like this one (or similarly idealized pictures of other stars) redefined female glamor as an unattainable ideal.  I think that impossible perfection has haunted impressionable girls ever since.

In all, I've probably read twenty books about early Hollywood in the last six weeks, and I have no idea why.  Maybe I'm incubating an idea for a book, although if that's true, the idea hasn't revealed anything of itself to me yet.  But now that I look at it, I suppose it's ironic that I'm taking refuge from fiction by revisiting the dream factory of Hollywood, where no one kept their real name, where lives were invented from scratch -- where what was true was simply what you could get away with,

Stranger than fiction.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Public Lending Wrong

The average wage for an author in the UK, or rather the amount an author receives as income from his or her books, is approximately £9000 a year. When you consider that there are several authors out there who make a fantastic amount of money from their books, and therefore skew the figures upwards, the actual amount authors receive is often likely to be less. And will be less going forward, given how the credit crunch crunched advances. Still, despite these rather depressing figures, more and more books are published each year and more and more people want to become writers. Creative writing courses are booming, small publishers sprouting up more often, and ebooks have given self-publishing a lease of life. Being published is the thrill most of us seek, rather than the cash that comes with it. Which is just as well.

However, once you are published, it's always nice when you receive some income in return for your hard work. (Writing books is, first and foremost, hard work. Even when not writing it you can bet nearly every author is thinking about the book they are working on. That doesn't stop until the thing is eventually published.) In the UK, one of the regular sources of authorial income, and often the largest payment some authors might receive for their work, is the Public Lending Right (PLR). This pays authors according to how many times their books are lent from a public library. It is run in egalitarian fashion. There is a pot of money set aside by the Government, approximately £7.5m, each author gets 6p per book lent, and no author can be paid more than £6000 to prevent the most popular swallowing the lot. I've received it a couple of times and it's always welcome, and I know of a few other authors who value the cheque too. Some see it as a compensation for the fact books are lent free in libraries, potentially costing them over the counter sales, though I and some others see it as commitment from those in power to promote reading by supporting authors. Either way, I have never read anywhere someone complaining that it's a waste of cash. And for those authors whose books are out-of-print but still available for lending, it is a modest sum often viewed as a pension of sorts. However you view it, it is a frontline payment which goes along way in keeping mind, body and soul together for authors.

But then we get a Conservative Government (albeit with their Lib Dem fig leaf). Despite the touchy-feely nature of the modern Tory party, and their claims to have altered their outlook and shake the 'nasty party' image, it is rapidly becoming clear, as many of us suspected, that very little has changed about this lot. Under the auspices of cutting the deficit, the Tories are sneaking in any number of cuts. On their hitlist are 'quangos' - publicly-funded non-governmental bodies. Money needs to be saved, they bleat and simper, shaking their heads and wishing it wasn't necessary. It hurts but we're all in it together, they say (er, apart from you - you've got four homes and own half of Lancashire.) It is all a farce. What we are seeing is ideology pure and simple, cleverly cloaked in talk of deficit reduction and necessity, in order to quell as much debate as possible. A chance to slash and burn state public funded services. Yes, chaps, because it was the public sector and not the private that got us in all this trouble, wasn't it?

Now it emerges that among the public bodies facing the axe from our preening, narcissistic Chancellor George Osborne is the PLR. The Tories, while announcing that the body overseeing the PLR will be abolished, have tried to assuage fears by promising that payments to authors will continue, but will be handled by an existing body. No one believes a word of it. The Society of Authors is understandably appalled. While hardly the most militant of organisations, most authors like a ruckus and this is one they're unlikely to back down from. I pity Phil O'Stine, sorry, I mean Jeremy Hunt, the hapless, oleaginous culture secretary who has already had to deal with the Society's President, the formidable P.D James. Over 4000 authors have signed a statement urging the Government to rethink its approach, pointing out the system is wonderfully run and vital source of income to some authors. It doesn't go on to point out that this is a Government which bemoans the modern scourge of illiteracy on one hand, then does all it can to hamper those who write books on the other. But I just did. It's a simple equation: no PLR = fewer authors able to keep their head above water = less books. I can work that one out even with a liberal comprehensive education.

But this isn't just the nasty party. It's the stupid one, too.


Dan - Friday

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Books for Africa

Today sees the start of Bouchercon and Stanley and I are settling in San Francisco which certainly beats sleepless in Seattle! Yrsa and Carla are also here. But more about BCon in later blogs. This one is about last weekend.

A recent article in Research in Social Stratification and Mobility discussed the effect on children of growing up in homes with many books versus growing up in homes without them. The conclusion was that the impact was of the order of three years extra schooling. My immediate reaction was skepticism. Statistics is a dangerous subject, and cause and effect are risky bedfellows. Would the possession of books not follow from social status and professional job status? Was there not simply a correlation here which had more to do with parental approach, and perhaps genetics, than books? The authors of the article think not. In fact they estimate that the impact of books in the home is twice as significant an effect as the professional status of the parents. Other research has suggested that even starting a small collection of books can make a significant impact on the recipient’s approach to, and interest in, learning. If this is so, then what of the children of the large numbers of families in Africa where money goes no further than the necessities and books are regarded very much as luxuries? Indeed, schools and libraries in many parts of Africa have inadequate supplies of books, never mind what happens at home.

So it’s wonderful to discover that there is a dedicated and efficient organization based in Minnesota which is concerned about the issue and does something really worthwhile about it. The organization is called Books for Africa (BFA), and it has a simple mission: “We collect, sort, ship, and distribute books to children in Africa. Our goal: to end the book famine in Africa.”

Billy Karanja Kahora

BFA is based in St Paul, and Stanley and I recently met several of the people involved. The occasion was the Conference on African Literature that BFA held last weekend at the University of Minnesota. The speakers were Uwen Akpan (Nigeria), Nuruddin Farah (Somalia/South Africa), Alexandra Fuller (Zambia/US), and Billy Kahora (Kenya). Once the organizers discovered that there was another couple of African writers hanging around, they invited us to join in for the functions and book signing on Saturday. It was a truly interesting day, and the panel discussion was the highlight. The authors all come from different perspectives, have different interests and styles. But their work is deeply rooted in Africa.

Nuruddin Farah
Nuruddin's first novel - Sweet and Sour Milk - concerns the story of a young Somali woman forced into an arranged marriage; the theme is tyranny at the national scale and the patriarchal scale.  It led to what is now called the dictatorship trilogy. Alexandra explored a different sort of tyranny in Rhodesia in her non-fiction books Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight & Scribbling the Cat.  Billy Kahora told the story of the whistle-blower of a huge state fraud in Kenya in his creative nonfiction work The True Story of David Munyakei.

Alexandra Fuller
Uwen Akpan is an ordained Jesuit priest from Nigeria, and has a wonderful sense of humor and an infectious giggle. His first book – “Say You’re One of Them” – is a collection of short stories and novellas, perspectives on Africa narrated by its children. It won the Africa-region section of the Commonwealth Writers Prize for best first book. We met him in New Zealand in 2009 where the overall Commonwealth Writers Prizes were awarded. (We were there on a book tour and had a publisher in common.) Uwen didn’t win the Commonwealth Prize, but Oprah subsequently chose the book for her book club. With losses like that, who needs wins?

Uwen Akpan
At the lunch before the panel discussion, Uwen talked about growing up in Nigeria, how his love of story-telling and telling of stories had developed, and of his schooling. He told of writing through the night at the seminary when there was electricity, and, if it had failed, leaving all the light switches on so that he would wake when it returned. He told of the oral tradition in his village and the pleasures of sitting together and listening to the village elders tell their tales.

And he told of reading. His parents’ home was full of good books.

Michael – Thursday.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

On the Road Again

At present I am in Boston, on route to San Francisco via Charlotte, an airport I have never visited before. I can thus still hope they will have some of those glass cages where you can smoke while waiting in transit, thus decreasing the likelihood of air rage. Air rage is not something I have experienced, but on longer flights (5 hours plus) I do tend go a bit loopy from nicotine deprivation. I look at the text on the mirror in the bathroom saying “Smoking in toilets can carry a $5000 fine and up to 5 years in prison” and find myself thinking: “Huh, that’s not such a bad deal”. Upon landing tonight I will have made 7 flights in all in a week, having also been to the Book Fair in Frankfurt and having had to go to Ísafjörður to pick up some last minute details for the book I am currently writing which partly occurs there. On none did I take my chances with the fines or prison sentence.
While visiting other countries is always wonderful, flying is usually trying. There used to be an ad on the headrests in the Icelandic domestic airline, from Hertz that said „It is the trip, not the destination“ – or something to that effect. What a lie. If I am to get really old I hope for two technological advances, cordless electricity and a travel pod like in The Fly, alas marketed after more testing than in the movie so you don’t turn up in Cairo as half person/half bumblebee.  Then one could enjoy the destination without the trip which would suit me really well.
Many years ago I loved everything about traveling, even the trip. This was when going abroad was something one did every 2-5 years and when the airline still had hot meals and everything on board was free. I remember getting suspicious that there was something in the air when the food started getting more and more meager, the last free meal I had on an Icelandair flight consisted of a one-storey lasagna. I am not really sure the Italians would accept that this even qualifies as lasagna. Next flight – no meals on the house. However, despite this I still do like Icelandair a lot, they are used to the excessive luggage that follows a nation where clothes and most merchandise is two to three times more expensive than elsewhere and you don’t have to pay to travel with luggage which always annoys me. What do they expect? That you travel with you stuff packed in your purse?
I have never been lucky enough to take a flight on board an airline like described in Stan’s post where the crew jokes around – I am always in planes where every word spoken on the intercom has been written, edited and reviewed, by bores. One of my favorite is at the end when the captain announces: “Cabin crew, disarm doors and report”. To me this has got to be the most ridiculous of all the announcements, because A) the cabin crew must know that once the plane is at the gate the door needs to be opened, B) the word “disarmed” makes it sound like a ticking time bomb and C) what does the report requested sound like? Captain, incredibly enough we have successfully disarmed the doors, we will go back and wait for you to announce what we are to do next.
The Frankfurt Book Fair is huge. This was my first visit so I did not really know what to expect, aside for the obvious – lots of books. I was not disenchanted in this respect. Being an author the first impression upon seeing stadium after stadium of published works was one of dizziness and awe. The affair is one for the publishing industry, not so much readers or authors so it is vastly different from Bouchercon or Crimefest. Publishing houses from all over the world set up displays where they promote their books and authors and a lot of deals are signed and careers made.
I was there as a panelist because next year Iceland is the country of honor which is expected to mean a lot for those of our authors not yet in translation as well as those that have already jumped that hurdle. The panel was conducted in German and for the first time ever I had to use headphones with an ongoing, live translation of the discussion into English, so as to be able to understand what was being said and what I was being asked.  I am sure there are people out there that have mastered this but I am not one of them based on my performance. The most annoying thing is that the moderator asks and you have to wait for the translation to be able to answer. I found the silence that followed his question so out of place that I started guessing what he had asked and replying as I thought appropriate. Considering the frequently raised eyebrows when I was done replying my guessing average was not good at all. I remember a particularly odd look upon his face when I described the necessity to keep the backdrop of a murder mystery true and realistic so that the reader will forget how odd the crime is. He had probably asked me if I read poetry as a child.
This last paragraph is written in San Francisco and in case you were wondering there was no glass cage for smokers in Charlotte. What is the world coming to?

Finally if you dear reader are at Bouchercon - seek me out, I might be outside the lobby smoking if you don't see me in the halls.
Yrsa - Wednesday