Saturday, December 31, 2011

From Russia With Love

Russian Prime Minister Putin
and Greek Orthodox Abbot Ephraim
What a year it’s been.  I'm sure you’ve heard all that before.  So I won’t even start.  But I can’t resist telling you of the surprise CCCP I received.  No, I don’t mean by that the Cyrillic abbreviation (CCCP) for the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), I mean a Corroborating Christmas Chanukah Present.   Then again, from the players involved in this story there’s undoubtedly a bit of the old Cold War intrigues at play.  

First, some background that's not intended as BSP even though it might seem that way.  It’s been almost a year since the release of my third Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis novel, Prey on Patmos.  The story opened with the modern day murder of a monk on the Greek island where John wrote the Book of Revelation, and moved 250 miles northwest to the Aegean peninsula of Mount Athos, the world’s oldest surviving monastic community. Mount Athos is the idyllic, yet haunting, home to twenty fairy tale-like monasteries guarding the secrets of Byzantium amid a way of life virtually unchanged for more than 1500 years.           

The heart of the story tied into the murdered monk’s efforts to link Russians to a high stakes financial scandal involving Greek government ministers and the abbot of the most prominent Mount Athos monastery in a fraudulent land swap and money laundering scheme arising out of the 2004 Athens Olympics.

An actual financial scandal along those lines was big time news in Greece and, a month or so before the release of Prey on Patmos, Michael Lewis published an article in Vanity Fair, titled, “Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds,” which focused on that scandal at Vatopedi Monastery and its abbot, Archimandrite Ephraim.  I consider Lewis’ article a prequel to Prey on Patmos :).  And this year “60 Minutes” did its own piece on Mount Athos, Vatopedi, and Abbot Ephraim.
Vatopedi Monastery, Mt. Athos

But nowhere did anyone suggest a possible Russian role in anything.  Allow me to correct myself: Nowhere except in Prey on Patmos.  To those of you in the media who actually scoffed at my suggestion, tsk, tsk.  It’s payback time!

It all started to come together a week ago on Christmas Eve with this headline story in the Greek press: 

Greek Abbot Accused of Money Laundering Arrested.

The Abbot of the Vatopedi Monastery at Greece's Mount Athos has been placed under house arrest on charges of money laundering and embezzlement in connection with a €100 million ($130 million) land swap deal with the Greek government that prosecutors say ended up benefiting the monastery.

Abbot Ephraim was taken into police custody on the grounds of the 1,000-year-old monastery, which bans all women and female animals from setting foot on its soil.

But wait, I said a Russian influence, and there’s still no mention of anything like that in the news article.  For that we have to go back about a month, just before the December 4th Russian elections.  As you may recall, Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party was facing serious challenges, and with the Russian people’s ever-deepening commitment to the Eastern Orthodox faith they shared with the monasteries of Mount Athos, a candidate favored by the Church had much to gain with the voters.

So, guess who showed up two weeks before the elections bearing one of the most revered relics in Christendom, the Belt of the Virgin Mary?  
Putin and Ephraim staring at
the Belt of the Virgin Mary

As the Russian press reported:

Normally situated at the Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos in Greece, the relic made of camel wool is believed to have the power to boost fertility.  The Russian people really have come out in force!  Braving cold and snow, Moscow residents were willing to stand in a 5km [2 mile] line just to touch the belt…

Monks who accompanied the shrine from Athos were astonished at such a huge number of believers arriving to pray before the Belt.

The belt has already visited 14 Russian cities, and Moscow is the last point before it is taken back to Greece.  In total, approximately 2 [ultimately 3] million people in Russia have queued to venerate the holy relic. 

But lest there be any doubt of who was responsible for bringing the treasured Vatopedi monastery’s relic to the people of Russia, there was a highly publicized meeting between Abbot Ephraim and Prime Minister Putin on November 25th at which time each profusely thanked the other for bringing it all to pass.

Here are some brief, significant excerpts from the transcript of their meeting:

Archimandrite EPHRAIM:     Mr. Putin, I am very glad to have been by your side all this time. We are amazed at the number of Russian people who came to worship the Cincture [Belt]. All of us, the monks at Vatopedi Monastery who brought the belt, have attended the sites of worship and personally witnessed people’s eagerness to touch the holy relic. This shows that Russians have profound faith. I am certain that this is the greatest strength of your nation, and it is a strength that brings our countries together. Greece is going through a difficult period and I ask you to provide assistance to our country wherever possible under these challenging conditions. I would also like to thank Mr. Yakunin, chairman of St Andrew the First-Called Foundation’s board of trustees [Remember that organization], for his efforts and participation, which made it possible to bring the relic to cities across Russia…

Vladimir PUTIN:     I remember my visit to Mount Athos and the warm welcome I received. I want to thank you once again and ask you to pass my best wishes to the Holy Community. I remember the people who accompanied us there, and those who accompanied us unofficially as well. One of them stuck in my memory the most, and I told you about it.

Archimandrite EPHRAIM:     Certainly. The Holy Mountain shows its love for you. (Emphasis added)

Vladimir PUTIN:     Many thanks. Russia and Mount Athos have centuries-long ties, going back to the 18th century. There is a Russian monastery and many Russian pilgrims visit the mount.

There were also photo ops for Russian President Medvedev with Abbot Ephraim.
Abbot Ephraim and Russian President Medvedev

Let’s now fast-forward a month to the day after Christmas and Ephraim’s arrest.  This was the big news story in Greece, as covered by the Russian Press:

The Russian Orthodox public organization, the Foundation of St. Andrew the First-Called has spoken up in defense of the archimandrite of the world-famous Vatopedi monastery on Mount Athos in Greece, ITAR-TASS reports.
Chairman of St. Andrew First-Called Foundation
 with Putin and Abbot Ephraim

The Chairman of that Foundation, who sat next to Putin at his late November Moscow meeting with Abbot Ephraim, also happens to be the Russian Government’s appointed head of the Russian Railway system.  Although some might say the Foundation’s support of Abbot Ephraim is simply a quid pro quo return of “love” to Vatopedi from Russia, there is justification for viewing the Greek judicial system on this matter with some cynicism.  After all, although Abbot Ephraim, along with 31 other defendants, will stand trial, the politicians embroiled in the scandal will not because the Greek Parliament decided in February this year that the statute of limitations—which is far more restrictive for members of Parliament than for other citizens—had expired.

And there are many within and outside of Greece who hold Abbot Ephraim in the highest regard.  As one reporter (Emmanouela Seiradaki) covering Abbot Ephraim’s trip to Moscow wrote:

One thing monk Ephraim knows well is business so it’s only normal that he would find a way to exploit financially this relic hysteria [in Russia over the Belt of the Virgin Mary]. As any hot-shot manager would do, he spotted the market gap and produced the needed product in no-time. The product is no other than relic replicas that would satisfy the spiritual needs of Russian believers. As expected, the replicas sold out within days. But he didn’t stop there. He promised he would write a book on the relic and the miracles associated with it. No wonder why the Greek media say that Ephraim would be ideal for being Greece’s PM right now. He’s the only one that can actually enforce development and production and as it turns out his public relation skills are far greater than [former Prime Minister] Papandreou or [opposition leader] Samaras.

But my piece today is not about judging guilt or innocence, or even right or wrong.  It’s simply my chance to end 2011 on the cathartically joyous note of shouting, “I TOLD YOU SO!” to certain unnamed naysayers.

As reported yesterday in Ekathimerini (the equivalent of Greece’s New York Times), the Russian Church, which has close ties with Putin, has heavily criticized Greece’s decision to take action against Abbot Ephraim, prompting the Greek Foreign Ministry to ask outsiders to not to attempt to interfere in its justice system. But there is even graver alarm being expressed in some quarters at this Russian pressure on behalf of Abbot Ephraim.  A conservative Greek parliamentary leader stated that detaining the Abbot after his highly publicized visit to Russia with the Belt of the Virgin has damaged Putin’s standing with his electoral base, and caused irreparable damage to Greece’s relations with Russia.

All this unexpected Russian support for Abbot Ephraim has given rise to a plethora of rumors on the depth and breath of links between Russia and the goings on at Mount Athos.  My favorite at the moment is one running around Athens (for which I have no reason whatsoever to believe is true) that Abbot Ephraim is godfather to Putin’s wife!

This drama is a long way from over and God knows what might come out next…perhaps what’s at the top of page 152 in the hardcover version of Prey on Patmos.

Friday, December 30, 2011

What Lies Ahead?

The thing appreciate most about New Year, apart from the chance to kick off the cobwebs accrued over Christmas, is the ability to look ahead. I love Christmas, but as you get older it seems to be haunted by memories of festive years gone by. The New Year allows you to shrug off the past and cast an eye to the future. So, in that spirit, here are a few predictions for the year ahead...

1. Leighton Gage will have more followers on Twitter this time next year than the Dalai Lama (3.2m for those of you who don't know, though, unlike Leighton, the Dalai doesn't follow anyone. Honestly, some people are so selfish...)

2. JA Konrath and Barry Eisler will marry in a civil ceremony, their speeches to be made available via epub for only 99 cents.

3. I will finally join Linked In. Except by then I might have been Linked To will have left.

4. On at least 51 occasions I will wake on a Friday morning in a cold sweat wondering what I will blog about.

5. On at least 51 occasions I will post my blog and wonder what I was worrying about.

6. I will use my Kindle more.

7. The British coalition government will collapse in ignominy. I hope.

8. I will go to Crimefest. I won't drink too much...actually let's just stick with the going to Crimefest bit.

9. Liverpool FC, Yorkshire CCC, the England cricket team and the Boston Red Sox will all have stellar years. Manchester United, Lancashire CCC, Australia's cricket team and the New York Yankees will all inexplicably implode.

10. Wild, mindless optimism will become the norm.

11. This book will do very well *cough*

Happy New year everyone.

Dan - Friday

Thursday, December 29, 2011


I hope 2012 is better than 2011, which for me and many of my friends has been one to forget.  Illnesses, injuries, deaths, weird financial happenings, and so on.
At the same time, as my visiting Dutch friend appropriately pointed out this evening, my friends and I are incredibly privileged.  We have the education and financial means to approach adversity with optimism for a real solution.  Most people can’t say that.
I spend some considerable time each year trying to reconcile my good fortune with the desperate lot of so many others, many of whom live close by.  I keep seeking ways to help and have long ago decided that trying to make a difference to many is an impossible task.  So I try to help a few individuals I know and to whom I can relate and talk. 
Every day I remind myself how lucky I am, lucky to have had parents who believed in a good education, lucky to have so often found myself at the right place at the right time, lucky to have a group of friends and relatives who care.  And I am so lucky to have stumbled after my retirement on a writing career that has far exceeded my wildest hopes and which has brought me into touch with a wonderful cadre of readers and writers. 
My participation in the Murder is Everywhere blog is especially enjoyable and rewarding – and humbling, as I look at the quality of my fellow bloggers’ writing.  Plus it is difficult for me to imagine a nicer and more caring group of people.
I wish you all a very happy 2012.  I hope you have a very healthy year and one that you can look back on with pleasure and satisfaction.
Thank you all for your support.
Stan - Thursday

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

In retrospect

Now that 2011 has just about finished its tour of duty I have given some thought to what it had to offer, both good and bad.

Of the most horrific news were the various natural disasters, from the earthquake and the tsunami in Japan to the flooding of Thailand and the famine in Somalia. Mother Nature was not the only entity attempting to crush the human spirit, humans themselves made various attempts at this, most notably the acts of terrorism in Norway which felt incredibly unreal and out of place. Not that terrorism has a place. I must be clear on this, there is no spot in the world deserving of such acts, although this does not stop them from take place again and again. But in Norway? Other occurrences less heart wrenching were in my mind the following:

Oil keeps getting more expensive and I suspect it will soon be hung from platinum chains in small bottles to be used as jewelry. The prices of sigarettes keep going up as well but I do not think I will see the day when they will be used as bling.

It was not the year for dictators. This is counterbalanced by the fact it was a good year for those dictated.

From the Arab spring sprung hope eternal. Although the finale has yet to be written it has developed into one hell of a cliffhanger and despite logic being on the side of the reformists it could certainly go either way.

The Euro teetered and tottered and has yet to either fall on its side or regain its balance. Iceland is the only country standing outside the Eurozone that still wants to join. Make that the only country period as many of the ones now in want out. Even Turkey is no longer interested. We are a bit loopy here.

Iceland made the first installment of the Icesave repayment to Holland and England, paying about a third of the debt back – 2 billion pounds of a total of 6 billion pounds. It is now foreseen that all of the money Holland and England paid to their citizens at the collapse of the Icelandic bank Landsbanki will be repaid as the assets belonging to the bankrupt bank now appear to cover the bill. In a strange turn of events this prodded ESA to drag Iceland to court and sue the country as a whole for more than what is owed. This was not at the instigation of Holland or England as they are satisfied now that full repayment is next to certain. For those not familiar, ESA is not the European Space Agency but the EFTA surveillance authority which is a bit of a drag as it would have been more entertaining for us to be sued by astronauts than bureaucrats.

Prince William married Kate Middleton. They threw a big party and lots of ugly memorabilia was produced and purchased. Why did I include this? Probably out of inner jealousy because secretly I envy countries with such strange establishments as royal families. Most of the other Nordic countries have kings and queens, but we don’t. I have suggested we get a pharaoh and build a big pyramid downtown but no one here has wanted to champion this great idea with me. Alone one accomplishes little.

Grímsvötn erupted and flights were delayed, mine for one back home from Crimefest. I was seconds away from purchasing passage home with a container ship headed to Iceland manned with a crew from the Ukraine. I now regret not having gone through with it. It is never the yes decisions one regrets, only the neighs. But this volcano thing we have going here is becoming a bit repetitive and annoying. They say next year we might surpass the intro with grumpy old Katla. Let’s hope not.

Osama Bin Laden was shot. He had it coming.

Dominique Strauss Kahn was arrested for sexual misconduct. Like Bin Laden, he too had it coming.

And lastly, today an announcement was made about which book was the no. 1 bestseller in 2011 in Iceland and turns out it was my latest, the one about the missing passengers and crew from the yacht. Funnily enough all this made me do was worry about what I should write next. And made me hope that like Bin Laden and Strauss Kahn, I had it coming.

Finally I wish you and your loved ones a happy and prosperous new year 2012.

Yrsa - Wednesday

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

the big Gruyere - under Paris

Happy Holidays Everyone - Here's a post from April that I'm sharing again - Best wishes in the New Year! With metro tunnels, sewers, old quarries and catacombs crisscrossing under its streets, Paris is a city of layers. And Charles Axel Guillaumot is often credited with saving the city from collapsing into them. Traces of him – and key moments in history such as the French revolution – can still be found underground today.
If you want to know anything about what’s underneath Paris, you could try to find some cataphiles, people who spend time exploring the catacombs with flashlights and waders. But for the history, the man to talk to is Gilles Thomas, my friend.
A wiry, moustached man, Thomas works for the city of Paris, but he is passionate about what’s underneath it, both physically and historically.
The authorities, he says, are only interested in the structural soundness of what’s above ground - he's interested in preserving the history underneath.
The buildings of Paris were built out of the limestone and gypsum – or plaster of Paris – dug out of its belly. The Romans, who founded the city on the Ile de la Cité, found limestone along the riverbanks. “Then the city grew,” explains Thomas. “Around the 12th and 13th century, there was a big demand for stone, because there was a spike in the population of Paris and of religiosity.”

The Notre Dame cathedral was built around this time, along with several other churches, all of them needing stone, which meant digging further underground. Initially, the quarries were far outside the city, beneath fields. But then the city expanded and those fields became city streets.

“Paris, as it grew, was built over the old quarries,” says Thomas. And over the years, people forgot about the quarries and continued to build on top of them - until they started collapsing.That’s where Guillaumot comes in. An architect for King Louis XVI, he was appointed 334 years ago on 4 April 1777 as the city’s first Inspecteur des Carrières, Quarries Inspector.

He was given three tasks, explains Thomas, “to look for all the empty spaces under Paris; to make a map of them; and to reinforce anything under public streets and buildings belonging to the king.”
“Before the year 1777, the temples, palaces, houses and the public streets of several parts of Paris and its surrounding areas, were about to sink into giant pits,” Guillaumot wrote in a 1797 memoir.

He quickly realised that reinforcing the quarries was a long-term project, so he needed to put a system in place. “Neither I nor my collaborators will see the end of it,” he wrote. “Others will have this opportunity, but I have reason to believe that we have paved the road for them, and they will not have any fundamental changes to make on the system that I implemented.”

The system involved building walls - underground – along the perimeters of buildings, which still exist today.
A limestone quarry under the Cochin hospital in the 14th arrondisement still exists today, maintained by an association that has an agreement with the city to renovate and maintain it.

Gilles Thomas works with the association, and insisted on giving a tour, saying that the only way to truly appreciate the history of the quarries is to see it for yourself. The Cochin quarry is not far from the official catacombs, which are open to the public, but it is certainly not as easy to find. Navigating through the hospital’s emergency room entrance, winding through the hospital grounds, Thomas heads into an underground parking area where there is a non-descript door.
Behind the door is a room with old photos and maps of what’s underneath the streets: blue for the empty spaces, brown for the masses left to hold up the quarry ceilings, all laid out in a rough grid.Another door leads to a long concrete stairway that was built in the 1930s when the city turned underground spaces under administrative buildings into bunkers.

And about 20 metres down is the entrance to the quarry.Unlike the public catacombs, which are mainly hallways packed with human bones, this quarry has open spaces with columns. The walls are limestone, the ground is packed dust. Street signs are engraved on columns and walls.
"When you are above ground, you can ask people for directions,” Thomas points out but in the 18th century Guillaumot and his workers had to wander in the dark, holding candles to light their way.

Traces of the first quarry inspector are everywhere, as each reinforcement wall and pillar has a code engraved on it, like 1G1786, which indicates the first column built by Guillaumot in 1786.

Every engraving had a date, but Thomas says you will be hard-pressed to find 1789, the year of the French revolution.
“You’ll see 1777, and years during the revolution, but there are very few from 1789, because it was year when there were other things to think about,” he says.

Guillaumot was imprisoned during the revolution, and removed from his position because he had been appointed by the king.
Later, in 1795, he was given his job back. He reappears on inscriptions with dates referencing the republican calendar, which was introduced between 1792 and 1806. The inscription 22.G.12R indicates the 22nd column built by Guillaumot during the 12th year of the French republic.

Thomas says the work of the Quarries Inspector continued through all of the upheavals of French history.
“Whatever the troubled history in Paris and in France, there was always being work done the quarries - during the revolution, during the terreur,” he says. And traces of this remain: street signs with scratched-out fleur de lys, the royal symbol, because in 1793, anything having to do with royalty was systematically destroyed.

Or not quite everything. Ten signs with fleur de lys remain underground.

“There are so few, that there is an explanation for each one,” he says. The one above the number 270, for example, survived because it was in a pool of water. Another one was on the back of a sign that had been recarved.

In 1794, all references to religion were destroyed. Signs for streets named after saints, like Rue Saint Jacques or Rue Saint Paul were changed, above and below ground.

“The plaques made during the revolution just say Rue Jacques,” says Thomas. “And during the restoration, as there is no room between Rue and Jacques, some just carved a little “St” over it.”Vestiges of this still exist above ground. Look closely at the stone carved street signs on the corner of Rue du Faubourg Saint Jacques and Rue Fossés Saint Jacques, you can see that the Saint was scratched out and put back. The same exists on Rue Saint Paul in the Marais.

Nearing the end of the tour, we come across members of the association setting up an underground lunch, taking a break from their renovation work.And then it was time to walk back through the ages: through the 19th-century tunnels, up the 20th-century stairwell and into the air of the 21st century.
Cara - Tuesday

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Last Great Gold Rush

It's called Serra Pelada.

As a generator of wealth, it can’t compare with South Africa's Witwatersrand.

Ferreira's Camp, (shown above, in a photo from 1886) became the site of modern Johannesburg, and the source of 40% of all the gold ever mined from the earth.

And it isn’t as famous as the discoveries that brought the “forty-niners” to California…

…or the frenzy, in 1897, that provoked a stampede along the Chilcoot Trail into the Yukon River valley.

But it was a great gold rush. And, to date, it is still the last.

Serra Pelada (the name, in Portuguese, means “bald mountain”) is in the Brazilian State of Pará.

And it was there, in January of 1979, that a child found a 6 gram nugget of gold on the property of a farmer named Genésio da Silva.

Within five weeks, 22,000 people had descended on the region.

Pretty impressive, considering the fact that da Silva’s farm was in a rainforest, some 430 KM south of the mouth of the Amazon River, and that the only way to get there was by plane or on foot.

Earth-moving equipment couldn’t be brought-in, because there was no road. The same applied to construction materials.

Everything had to be done by hand.
The extraction of the gold; the building of a makeshift town; everything.

The finds multiplied.

One was a nugget of 6.8 kilograms (15 pounds). And, when word about that leaked out, the influx of miners doubled. And then doubled again.

In the end, they numbered more than 110,000.

Fights broke out.

The government stepped in and tried to impose some order.

Each miner was entitled to file a claim for a two by three meter plot (6.6 feet by 9.8 feet).

Syndicates were formed, with several men working each plot.

By May, there were 4,000 such claims.

The government banned women and alcohol at the actual site. Causing the nearest settlement, until then an isolated village, to morph into a center of “stores and whores”, where thousands of underage girls worked for flakes of gold, and 60 to 80 murders occurred each month.

Half a billion dollars worth of gold was extracted within the course of the next five years.

But then it ran out.

Today, the 300 feet-deep pit, once the largest open-air gold mine in the world, is a polluted lake.

And Serra Pelada has become a community of no more than 8,000 people.

Most have no other place to go, or cannot afford to leave.
But there are some who linger-on, still hoping to make their fortune.

In a out-of-the-way place one of its residents now describes as “a hospital for people who suffer from gold fever”.

Leighton - Monday

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Festival of Light

Three nights ago -- December 22 -- was the longest night of the year.

In the northern hemisphere, where that long dark night (and the lengthening days that follow it) mark the beginning of the slow trudge toward springtime's miraculous return, the winter solstice is observed almost everywhere a celebration of light, celebrated with light.

In ancient Japan, the solstice marked the emergence from her cave of Amaterasu, the Goddess of the Sun, and one of the creators of Japan.  The gods gathered at the mouth of the cave and made a racket to lure her out, and then persuaded her to stay with them, thus returning sunlight to the world.

For those shivering in Europe, the solstice was an occasion to light candles, burn a Yule log, and deck the halls with greenery to herald the coming of spring.  In Germanic countries, the ancient rite of Wassailing entailed going from house to house, singing seasonal songs.  (This was probably derived from an even older practice of singing to apple trees to ensure a plentiful crop of fruit, since apples could be stored and eaten throughout much of the winter.)

In the first century BC, Julius Caesar set the "official" date for the solstice as December 25.  By that time, people in what is now Iran and other places throughout the Middle East had long identified the solstice as the birthdate of various sun gods, including Ahura Mazda, the central deity of Zoroastrianism; and Mithras, a Persian deity also associated with the sun.

During the first century AD a Mithraic cult sprang up in Rome, especially among the troops of the Roman army.  The Roman legions took Mithraism, conflated with Caesar's official solstice date of December 25, across Europe, exercising the conqueror's right to impose the holiday of Mithras' birth atop more ancient festivals of light and greenery.  The Roman Mithraists built temples everywhere, most of which were later buried beneath Christian cathedrals that were built directly on the stones of the older religion, just as Christmas Day was superimposed on the Mithraic feast day/solstice date of December 25.

But whatever the holiday, Christmas, like Hanukkah, is a festival of light.  Candles shed a glow that is both optical and spiritual, and probably nowhere is this illustrated more beautifully than in Sweden's Festival of Santa Lucia ("Lucia" is derived from "light."), illustrated in the photo above.

Beyond the lights that sparkle on houses and gleam in Menorahs and decorate trees, the solstice -- however it's celebrated -- is an opportunity for all of us to honor the light of the world, to acknowledge the light that shines upon us and within us, and to resolve to share that light with others.  As the ice of winter shivers and cracks, and the miraculous multiple rebirths of spring draw near, the world's festivals of light offer us a moment when we can join with others all over the globe in promising to burn a little more fiercely on others' behalf and to be true to, and respect, the light in each of us.

And whether we believe in a deity or not, surely something holy saturates any brief period of time when so many are focused on what's best in us all.

Happy holidays.  May your days be merry and bright.

Tim -- Sundays

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Twas a Mystery Writer's Night Before Christmas ...

photo by Giorgio Constantine

On this Christmas Eve, I take great pleasure in brutally fracturing the classic poem, “Twas the Night Before Christmas” by Clement Clarke Moore or Henry Livingston—history is still not sure who wrote it, so apologies to both.  
Clement C. Moore
Henry Livingston

And now, without further commercial interruption …

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a laptop was stirring, nor even a mouse.
The reviews were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that new readers would soon find them there.

The critics were nestled all snug in their beds,

While visions of best-seller danced in my head.
And DorothyL in her wimsey, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for the hiatus nap.

When out on the Net there arose such a chatter,

I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the keyboard I flew like a flash,
Tore open the browser and dove in with a splash.

The glow on the screen cast like new-fallen snow,

A lustre of brilliance onto writing so-so.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But the sight of a blog with eight writers so dear.

With a little bold driver so quick with a thrill,

I knew in a moment he hailed from Brazil.
More rapid than eBooks their creations they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!

“Now, Kubu! now, Aimee! now, Nigel and Thora!

On, Kaldis! On, Poke! on, Sherlock and Silva!
To the top of the Times! to the top of them all!
Now slash away! slash away! slash away pall!”

As wry thoughts, that before the final deadline fly,
When they meet with an obstacle soar to the sky.
So off to their blog-posts these non-courtiers flew,
With a sleigh full of ploys, and opinions not few.

And then, in a twinkling, I saw not from aloof,

The prancing and gnawing of hard comments and spoof
Taking aim at some points so to bring them to ground,
Brought on by hard thinkers from near and far ‘round.

The writers were dressed from each head to each foot
In bold clothes that were tarnished with gashes well put.
A bundle of ARCs each had flung on its back,
They looked like kind peddlers bringing books to a rack.

Their eyes—how they twinkled! Their dimples how merry!

Their cheeks like Jeff Bezos’s, their noses like sherry!
One’s droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
‘Til his bottle of bourbon fell out on the snow.

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,

Threw up smoke of the kind to fire scotch from the heath.
He had a broad face that would fill up the telly,
And as he reached for his bottle mumbled, “Just jelly.”

Neither chubby nor plump, more like jolly and svelte,
I laughed when I saw him, ‘til his stare I felt.
But a wink of his eye and no twist to my head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

They all spoke not a word, but went straight to their work,

And filled all the bookshelves, then turned with a jerk.
And crossing their fingers aside of their noses,
And giving great nods, passed around the Four Roses.

They kept all at play ‘til the ladies gave whistle,
Then each turned as one to read an epistle. 
And I heard them exclaim, ‘ere my charger lost might,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-fright!”

And, of course—in my version—“Happy Chanukah and Kala Kristouyenna!”


Friday, December 23, 2011

Merry Christmas

Just a brief post to wish you all a very merry Christmas. In about an hour's time I have to climb into a car laden with kids, booze (I may be cracking that open en route) and the psychotic, fighting hamsters to head North and the bosom of my family for Christmas. A stinking cold this last week has laid me low, so I haven't had much chance to put together a longer post, nor the inclination. Illness sucks. I'll be back next week with a look back at the 2011's heroes and villains, the winners and losers, the good, the bad and the bubbly, and a look forward to 2012.

I hope all your stockings are filled to the brim, your nuts easily cracked, your champagne is chilled and your brussel sprouts not too flatulent. It's a pleasure to share this wonderful little corner of the Internet with you all.

cheers (hic)


Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Trouble with Rhinos

Michael asked me to re-post this blog which first appeared in Sept 2010.  He wanted to update it, but since he is currently in the bush having trouble with the internet (and rhinos), he is unable to do so.  He promises to bring us up to date on the rhino issue when he extricates himself from the acacia's long thorns.  He reports, via drum, that he has been charged twice by elephants in the past few days - entirely without provocation.

Stan (for Michael) - Thursday


As I write this, I’m being distracted by an elephant having a bath in the river in front of me. He seems to have it all worked out. First a good long drink, then some splashing to cool off, then a generous wash behind the ears, some mud, and finally a good dusting. There’s still plenty of food about, and he looks pretty happy.
 The rhinos look pretty happy too, but they shouldn’t be. The trouble with rhinos is that they have horns which protrude in a way that’s very suggestive to humans (if not to other rhinos). The horn is, of course, actually solidly matted hair and a perfectly natural defense and offense tool. Unfortunately it has obtained a completely undeserved reputation – mainly in the East – not as an aphrodisiac as the shape might suggest, but as a constituent of various traditional medications. A cabinet minister in Vietnam recently claimed it was an ingredient of a medicine which supposedly cured him of cancer. No amount of horrified denials from the medical fraternity will sink advertising like that!

Apart from its design, the sheer rarity of rhino horn is likely to lend it mystique. Trading in it has been banned for many years – even recently in the very countries which are the major users. (An attaché at the Vietnamese embassy here was recalled after being photographed buying a small quantity of the substance.) With the inevitability of market economics, the price has shot up. A male rhino horn will now fetch a price of around $100,000. And the result of that sort of price rise is that rhino poaching is now big business, in the league of drug smuggling, gun running and human trading. One is no longer talking about a couple of poachers tracking and shooting a rhino in a remote area. One is talking about organized gangs using helicopters, spies and GPS to go almost anywhere there are rhinos and get the horns. One small game park, the Krugersdorp Game Reserve, that used to pride itself on a small herd of rhinos, is only about half and hour’s drive from where I live in suburban Johannesburg. All the adults have now been poached. One youngster – probably spared until its horn has grown – remains and has been relocated to another more secure environment. In the latest attack, a helicopter flew in, the rhino was darted with a sedative drug used when transporting large wild animals, the horns were cut off with a chain saw, and the animal left to bleed to death. The whole thing probably took no more than fifteen minutes.

Horn with Medicine Box
 In total, more than 200 rhinos have been poached this year, more than double the figures for last year. Conservationists were at their wits end as to how to address this threat, which could easily drive the rhinos back to the verge of extinction from which they were rescued fifty years ago.

The Accused Arrive at Musina Magistrate's Court
 But the clues were there. For one thing, the economics don’t add up. Rhinos are sold at game auctions quite regularly because the White Rhino has been doing remarkably well, repopulating much of the Kruger National Park and the surrounding game reserves. You will pay between $20,000 and $40,000 for the animal. But the horn alone is worth $100,000 on the black market. Then there are the tranquilizing drugs. These are specialized and dangerous substances, certainly not available to members of the public. So where were they coming from? And the helicopters? People in the wildlife areas are now very alert to helicopters and report them whenever they’re seen. The police noticed that a helicopter with a similar description was seen in three of the areas where poaching took place. They managed to trace it to a small company. One of the directors was Sariette Groenewald. Her husband, Dawie Groenewald, owns a game farm on which 30 rhinos were found, all legitimately bought. Perhaps most shocking was the arrest of two vets in the swoop that followed. Such a hard and demanding profession. Why would you do it unless you care about animals? Obviously in this case the money was just too attractive. In all eleven people were arrested and charged on the 22nd of this month.

Is that the happy ending? Hardly. All the arrested are out on bail to the value of about two rhino horns. And if one ring is broken, another joins together. The stakes are too high.

What other options are there? One game reserve recruits paying visitors to help them dart their rhinos and cut off the horn – high enough so that there is no pain; it’s only hair after all. They accept that the rhinos are disadvantaged by the loss of their only weapon, they accept that their Big Five tourists will be disappointed by the look of their lopped rhinos. But they point out that some will still be safe and around when all the others may have gone.

Michael - Thursday

Monday, December 19, 2011

Shakespeare + Co and George and Paris

In May 2009 Leighton and I did an event at Shakespeare and Co, the legendary bookshop in Paris, owned by George Whitman who sadly passed away at 98 last week. That's us with Leighton's wonderful Dutch son-in-law celebrating afterwards at a bistro across from Gare du Nord.
But at our event we knew George stood outside, according to his daughter Sylvia, listening as was his wont on the rickety staircase landing directing patrons to books and seats. Even in 2009 George kept his finger on the bookstore's pulse though Sylvia by then had taken over as manager. Then as now Shakespeare & Company on the Left Bank remains a magnet for writers, poets and tourists for close to 60 years.
George saw himself as patron of a literary haven and the heir to Sylvia Beach, the founder of the original Shakespeare & Company, the celebrated haunt of Hemingway and James Joyce. The store overlooks the Seine and faces the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, and spreads over three floors. The night Leighton and I spoke the upstairs was crowded, standing room only, and we think the microphone worked, a concession George agreed to, so people on the lower floors could hear. That night my friend Jean-Claude Mules, a retired Brigade Criminelle inspector showed up and held the crowd in thrall talking about his ten years working on the Princess Diana investigation. But the smell of this bookstore, paper, old wood and people stayed with me. With everyone who visits or crashes there since for decades George provided food and makeshift beds to young aspiring novelists or writing nomads among the crowded shelves and alcoves.
George, as many people have recounted, took in the beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. Henry Miller ate from the stewpot, but was too grand to sleep in the tiny writers' room. Anaïs Nin left her will under George's bed. There are signed photos from Rudolf Nureyev and Jackie Kennedy, signed copies of Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs.
George opened his doors midday to midnight, and the deal then is the deal now: sleep in the shop, on tiny beds hidden among the bookstacks; work for two hours a day helping out with the running of the place; and, crucially, read a book a day, whatever you like, but all the way through, unless maybe it's War and Peace, in which case you can take two days. ...
At any time there are six or more young people from the compass points of the world, reading, talking, thinking, boiling spaghetti in the kettle, running across the road to the public showers, stacking, carrying, selling, stock-taking, and all in a spirit of energy and enterprise that is not to be found in any chain bookstores. They stay for two weeks or two months, and some just sleep outside on a bench until there's room inside.
A heaven of heavens. The store also hosts a tiny writers' room that anyone is free to use, warmed by a plug-in radiator. Now operated by George's daughter Sylvia the store runs a biennial literary festival and is this year launching a publishing company. The Left Bank building that is its home will expand into the space next door for a café. Monday nights, the shop has a free reading by a published writer while writers-in-progress "young hopefuls" meet in the library to read work to each other. Creative writing weekends are offered. By his own estimate, he lodged some 40,000 people. He named his daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman and expected the bibliophiles residing in his store to work a few hours every day sorting and selling books. Yet he also invited uncounted numbers of people for weekly tea parties to his own apartment, or for late-night readings enriched with dumplings or pots of Irish stew. Some guests later described him as a kind and magnetic father figure to needy souls but also as a man who could throw tantrums and preside over the store’s residents, sometimes up to 20 people, like a moody and unpredictable dictator. That night I remember Sylvia moaning how her father disliked the 'new' stair railing replacing the one that had crumbled and called it too modern.
But there's a bit of the past that George kept alive and he's taken it with him. This from an obituary “I may disappear leaving behind me no worldly possessions — just a few old socks and love letters, “ he wrote in his last years. Paraphrasing a line from Yeats, he added, “and my little Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart.”

Cara - Tuesday

Kuarup – The Brazilian Indians’ Day of the Dead

The Parque Indigena do Xingu, the largest area ever set aside for the exclusive use of native peoples anywhere in the world, is situated in the heart of Brazil’s Mato Grosso State and is about the size of Belgium. Fifteen different tribes live there. At last count, they added up to about 5,500 people.

Each tribe has its own unique language, or dialect, and each has its own ethnology. But there are some belief systems, rituals and ceremonies which are shared. The greatest of these is the Kuarup (sometimes spelled Quarup).

It’s an event that brings the tribes together, once each year, to honor their dead. And it’s one, big party.

The Indians, you see, believe that the spirits of the departed wouldn’t want to see the loved ones they’ve left behind unhappy. So the surviving family members smile and laugh...

...sing and dance... music...

...and practice sports.

They don’t mourn. They celebrate renewal and regeneration.

One of the central events is the presentation of the young girls who have experienced their first menstruation since the previous Kuarup.

It’s the Indian equivalent of a debutante ball.

Everyone, not just the girls, puts on their best clothes.

Everyone wears bright colors.

Each of the dead from the previous year is personified by a trunk cut from the sacred Kam´ywá tree.

The trunks are decorated for the occasion...

...and placed in front of the burial sites.

The white paint is juice from the jenipampo fruit.

The decorated trunks are referred to as Kuarups. (Hence the name given to the ceremony.)

Few outsiders have ever witnessed a Kuarup, because the Brazilian government has always made it extremely difficult to get permission to visit the Xingu Reservation.

That appears to be changing.
And I don't like it.

To me, it’s tantamount to gate-crashing a funeral.

Leighton - Monday