Saturday, March 31, 2012

Rodney Dangerfieldopoulos

One of the things I’ve always loved about the Greeks is their sense of humor.  We share that same warped trait.  So what the hell is going on over there?

Here I am, trying to decide what to write in my last US-based blog for quite a while when what to my wondering eyes should appear but a story in Wednesday’s (the web content provider for Greece’s most respected newspaper) about a group of Greek lawyers suing a German-based travel writer for libel in Greece (an imprisonable offence there) for having written allegedly offensive things about Greece in a magazine article the writer claims was, at most, satirical.  (That’s him, Klaus Boetig, in the photo above, not the late American comedian Rodney Dangerfield who’s famous for the line, “I get no respect.”)

They say the first thing to go is the sense of humor.  If that’s the case this Grecophile is in serious trouble.  Perhaps I should check the plane schedules to Turkey.  I’m sure the Turks would be more tolerant of humorous musings on their neighbor—though I doubt they’d take to kindly to the use of Constantinople in the dateline.

So, what was in that Greek newspaper article by Harry van Versendaal?  Click on this link for the whole thing, but here’s the opening:

Klaus Boetig set foot in Greece for the first time on Christmas Day of 1972. He came on a train from Germany and spent the night at a cheap hostel in Plaka. Since then, the 63-year-old Bremen-based author has visited Greece almost every year and written more than 70 travel guides on all parts of the country. Many of these have been translated into more than 10 different European languages and three have been published in Greek. His travel pieces have appeared in dozens of newspapers, magazines and information brochures, including a German publication prepared by the Greek National Tourism Organization (GNTO).

Ironically, Boetig tries to avoid Greece these days. Two years ago, his name was embroiled in a controversy that still lingers.

It all began when the German weekly news magazine Focus came out with the now-infamous cover depicting the iconic Venus de Milo statue draped in a Greek flag and showing her middle finger. “Cheats in the Euro family,” read the headline. The cheats, of course, were the Greeks.

The distasteful cover
The publication, which was published on February 22, 2010, prompted a group of Greek lawyers to sue a dozen staff journalists at Focus as well as Boetig, a freelancer, for defamation and libel. Boetig, the prosecutor said at the time, consciously misguided readers about the character of the Greek people.

Boetig's article was headlined: “Culture shock: Can the Greeks be understood?” A court summons summed up the author's alleged claims: “The Greeks live off borrowed money; they maintain clientelistic relations with the country's politicians in order to protect their illegal homes; they make rules only to break them; they use their religion to solve all their problems; they don't know how to read; they do not respect their working hours and, finally, they use the European Union's tourism funds to build private residences.”

Katerina Fragaki, one of the Greek lawyers who filed the lawsuit, slams the article as “an insult to our honor and integrity.”

She says the authors made and distributed false claims about the Greeks while knowing that those claims were false. Moreover, Fragaki adds, the cover and the articles carried comments and opinions that, directly or indirectly, vilify the Greek people, their history and their culture. “These articles in effect put in doubt the social and moral value of Greek society and disparage its integrity,” she says.

Lost in translation

From his home in Germany, Boetig claims it's all a big misunderstanding. He describes how he was contacted by the online edition of Focus to contribute a story for the website's tourism section. “I was told it should be witty, funny and even ironic like the other articles for these series before. I agreed.”

And so it continues.

I thought of redacting the “the author’s alleged claims” so as not to offend my Greek friends by repeating them.  But then I read them carefully, and realized by that in light of all the disparaging things that have been said about Greece in the world press, to omit them might give rise to thoughts in a reader’s mind of things much worse.  Even as stretched for purposes of litigation, virtually all of the alleged claims have been publically lodged before in one form or another, some even on the very floor of Greece’s Parliament by a sitting Prime Minister. 

Frankly, I don’t get the lawsuit against the writer.  Even if his article were intended as serious and bore not a scintilla of accuracy, I think this plainly dedicated group of Greek lawyers would have served the integrity of their countrymen far better by going after any of those who did some of the deeds accused rather than the accuser.

I just don’t see where putting a travel writer in jail for libel would do faintly as much to positively pump up Greek morale as would putting in jail just one of those every Greek knows should be put away.

And before anyone says, “You don’t understand, the wrongdoers can no longer be prosecuted for their crimes,” I say, “Put on your thinking caps, do something creative that will do more to benefit your country than suing foreign journalists.”

And to the “Yeah, like what?” response I say:

“I’m willing to bet that whatever law no longer allows the guilty to be prosecuted surely does not allow wrongdoers to keep their ill-gotten gains.  So, lawyers of Greece unite and use your creative skills to recover what rightfully belongs to the people of Greece.”

That is how to truly serve Greece and inspire the morale of its people.

Leonidas, Greek hero-king of Sparta
Perhaps I should fly under an assumed name.  Any suggestions?

Saturday—Molon Labe

Friday, March 30, 2012


I have a new novel out. You can order it here or here (if you don't have a Kindle, there should be US copies available soon via As my own website is undergoing a refurb, I hope you don't mind me mentioning it here. It's a thriller that links three real events - the Houndsditch Murders, the Siege of Sidney Street (about which I blogged on here) and the sinking of Titanic. I won't tell you any more than that, though I will provide one more link, to a rather nice review that appeared yesterday which offers a few more details and doesn't sound like me giving it the hard sell...

Anyway, during the publicity I've done so far, and on Twitter and Facebook, as well as by email, I've received a few fair questions about the book. So, in the spirit of rampant egomania, I've decided to use this space to interview myself and ask and answer a few of those questions.

The Titanic has been done to death. What made you choose that as a subject?

While it has been done to death, there have been comparatively few fictional treatments of the sinking. While in the US in 2010 I bought Killer Angels by Michael Shaar, a novel about Gettysburg. In his introduction he talks about why he wrote the book, and he said that writing fiction allows you to get into the head of those involved and lets the reader experience, in some way, what it might have been like to have fought in that momentous battle. That resonated with me. I'd long been harbouring the idea of writing thrillers set against the backdrop of real events, as a way of seeing them anew. I made a list of the sort of events I wanted to feature. The Titanic centenary was looming, so it made sense to start there. Sidney Street was also on my list, and as it took place shortly before Titanic sank it seemed a good idea to link them.

I also wanted to revive the Titanic as a human tragedy rather than a shipping one. So many websites that discuss the ship are dominated by marine architects and naval engineers arguing the toss over helm orders, rudder size, actual position, even the time on board when it hit the iceberg. The fact is that 1500 people died, and that sometimes gets forgotten.

Isn't there a danger when you fictionalise real events that you play fast and hard with the truth, and end up maligning the memory of some decent men and women?

I made a conscious decision to stick to known facts and weave my story around those facts. That said, there are so many half-truths and myths surrounding Titanic, that you can have some fun exploring them, and I do. Most of my main characters are fictional. The exceptions are Bruce Ismay, the President of the White Star Line, and Captain Smith, both of whom have been condemned ever since the sinking. I like to think I've been kinder to them than some, though any book that sticks to know facts can't help but be critical of some of the decisions they took.

Why have you written it under a pseudonym?

This book is very different to my two previous novels, and was written for a different publisher. It seemed neater and easier to write it under a new name. If it is to turn into a series of books set against the backdrop of real events, disasters and tragedies - and in the current climate I'm not even looking at chickens never mond counting them -  then it made sense to create a new identity. Plus in the fractured, fragmented, febrile world of modern publishing having more than one identity is not a bad idea. I strongly believe that, in the whole ebook v trad publishing debate, writers should take whatever is the best route for that book to the market. The same goes for identity.

Does this mean Nigel Barnes is dead?

No, he lives. The third book in the series, provisionally titled One Soul Less, ('surely One Soul Fewer?' - Ed)  is written and is currently being edited. I've also written a short story involving Barnes and DCI Grant Foster.  I'm just looking at the best way to release them to the world. That will probably mean a digital release later this year, even as early as this summer, but keep an eye on my website (when it's rebuilt) for more info.


Dan - Friday

Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Tale of Three Cities

Joanne Hichens is a writer, editor and journalist.  Her new thriller, DIVINE JUSTICE, was recently released in South Africa and is available on Kindle.   Chosen as one of the Sunday Times' top thrillers of 2011, William Saunderson-Meyer said of the novel: "DIVINE JUSTICE is not for the fainthearted or squeamish.  This is a wonderfully edgy thriller that sears a path through Cape Town's criminal underbelly like caustic soda."

DIVINE JUSTICE is Joanne's third novel, following OUT TO SCORE (2006), co-authored with Mike Nicol and published in the USA as CAPE GREED, and STAINED (2009), published in the UK and France. She edited the first anthology of South African crime-fiction short stories, BAD COMPANY (2008) (Kubu makes an appearance), and THE BED BOOK OF SHORT STORIES (2010), both of which include her own work. She lives in Cape Town, but has recently been far to the north-east from home.  Here she shares her feelings about the difference and similarity of cities.

Michael - Thursday

Table Mountain in the twilight
Featuring the inimitable sleuth Rae Valentine, the setting of my new novel DIVINE JUSTICE is Cape Town at the toe of the African Continent. Voted Top Destination for Tourists by tripadvisor, Rae describes the harbour city, with Table Mountain as spectacular backdrop, as "a mix of sophistication and in-your-face Africa, a cross between London and Lagos, New York and Nairobi". Indeed it’s a mix of first and third-world, of varying creeds and cultures, where wealth and glamour sit in stark contrast to poverty and struggle. It’s the perfect environment to ferment craziness.

Vrygrond Township
Here, the dream mansion that any Hollywood star would drool over, sits a five minute drive from shantytowns where shacks are constructed of cardboard and plastic. Remember that great sci-fi flick, District Nine? Well, no movie set was created. The impoverished squalor was a pukka South African the township.

As for Hong Kong, a city I recently visited for research, I reckon it’s an equally appealing setting for sci-fi as high density living sees apartment buildings touch the heavens. Not even my photos can capture the sense of the unreal. Demands for living space on this small section of land has meant building up, up, up. Fat fingers of concrete stretch up and disappear into a misty sky.

Building Hong Kong
Arriving from Hong Kong International Airport past Discovery Bay to Kowloon, the scale of development since my last visit twenty years ago, before Hong Kong was handed back to the People’s Republic of China in 1997, is astounding. My jaw dropped at the visual impact of these monolithic slabs housing vast numbers of people. I understand now the sense behind the one-child per couple policy.

Washing from every window
At Nathan Road, the commercial shopping drag of Kowloon, all was a-buzz. Here avant-garde architecture is juxtaposed by street stalls. Swank boutiques sell pricy authentic Rolex, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Cartier and Chanel while street vendors flog cheap rip-offs manufactured in sweat shops. Above the ground-floor stores, tattered washing hangs from frames attached to tiny windows of cramped flats. Life indeed is a paradox.

No doubt about it, high-rise Hong Kong, this financial hub, is an exciting Metropolis. But as man keeps wheeling and dealing, locked in the illusion that money makes the world go round, he pays no heed to the consequences of his self-indulgence. Passing a shark fin soup restaurant, I spared a thought for our Great White shark, for all exploited natural resources.

Khoasan Road
Bangkok, the second stop, is a fascinating mix of skyscrapers, malls, temples, slums. Rivers are polluted by boat-traffic and spills from dishwater to sewerage. A constant stream of cars, scooters and tuk tuk taxis pass a succession of bars and restaurants serving Thai beer and sweet ‘n sour delights, and shops serving man’s needs. In the famed night markets, tourists bargain for similar brand-name fake watches and designer clothes on sale in the Hong Kong alleys, and again I was struck by a sense of paradox. Which includes moral duality around sex.

In Thailand kissing is banned on-screen, yet the sex industry is in-your-face.  Although prostitution is illegal, it’s tolerated and partly regulated. According to NGOs up to 300 000 prostitutes work in registered entertainment establishments. The tourist’s mad quest for self-satisfaction is fuelled as Thais cater to desire.

The ‘Farang’ flock to Patpong, Patong and Pattaya for strip shows, lap dances, ‘ping-pong’ sex extravaganzas, and an eyeful of katoey lady-men prancing in drag. No wonder Thais works at fleecing the crass foreigner of his cash. And no wonder the islands are once again developed to the hilt post-tsunami.

In part it is the sense of space which appeals on my return to Cape Town. I can breathe here. And I am struck by the beauty of Cape Town’s spectacular natural assets: parks, forests, gardens and trees, vynbos, beaches. Tourists pay top dollar to visit South Africa not only for cheap plastic surgery rates and to see the big five at game farms, but to visit a city - a mere innocent in comparison to the monsters Hong Kong and Bangkok  - of rare natural splendour. But no one denies there’s a shadow on the city, a flaw in Cape Town’s sparkle. This is the city which Rae Valentine negotiates as she tracks missing diamonds and gets mixed up with a group of ruthless white supremacists.

Wherever we look, whichever cities we visit, there are double-standards. The rich are pampered. They fly business class, are ushered into air conditioned limos and taxis and stores and fancy hotels and residences. They are carefree, while the poor struggle to put food on the table.

So watch out. It is exactly these conditions that ferment uneasiness.
Murder, indeed, is everywhere.

Joanne Hichens 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

in the footsteps of Maigret...kind of

Sorry if I've been missing in action - here's a previous post since I'm on book tour for Murder at the Lanterne Rouge. Some of this visit wound up in the book, too.

In the footsteps of Inspector Maigret...kind of

It’s all about connections in France. A friend’s high school classmate knows a man who knows the person you want to meet. Connections get you his phone number. But introductions, I’ve discovered after many painful botched attempts, will get you in the door. In this case the wide portal of 36 Quai des Orfevrés home of the Paris Police Prefecture. Also the haunt of George Simenon’s Inspector Maigret fictionally in charge of the Suréte homicide. Now it’s called Brigade Criminelle, the elite homicide division on the fifth floor.

But I’d been there, visited ‘Maigret’s office’ and seen the photos of Simenon visiting the real Inspector he based Maigret on. I saw the intake desk, the holding cells, climbed the winding back stairways and saw messy paper piled desks. But this time I had an introduction to the Crime Scene Investigation Unit. The team who arrived at the scene of the crime, assembled the evidence, handed it to the Brigade Criminelle detectives and particular to the Prefecture, exclusively handled the fingerprints of each case.

My friend Anne, who founded an association with rape victims and their families to promote legislation for penal re-education and pyschological programs for offenders, met François at the sentry gate. François, seventeen years in the Brigade Criminelle and now running the Crime Scene Unit, puffed on his pipe with a nod to Maigret and flashed his ID at the sentry. The we were in the famed courtyard and seconds later mounting the staircase into the heart of ’36’. Magistrates and avocats, wearing black robes and white ermine around their necks bustled past since the Tribunal, court, adjoins the Prefecture.

One stop shopping, I thought, since a suspect is booked on the third floor, held in gard à vue in a cell in the basement then within twenty four to forty eight hours taken back up to the third floor crosses the corridor and into the courtroom to be arraigned. After that the suspect either bids adieu or if the Brigade Criminelle’s assembled enough evidence and the la Procurer - like the DA - has enough to try her/him he’s back downstairs to the basement cells.
After the quick tour through the clogged Tribunal corridor - I mean how many black robed Magistrates does it take to block a wide high ceilinged 18th century corridor? Enough I discovered as they huddled discussing cases, we again crossed the courtyard, past ‘flic’s, cops, smoking in the corners, down more steps and into another courtyard and then into another. Now we were in a courtyard surrounded by a soot-stained wing of the Tribunal and facing ugly tan portables. The ‘heartbeat’ of the Crime Scene Unit.

I’d hoped for a more picturesque building but here François - off to a case - handed us to Remy who was in charge of the division. Remy, orange pants, matching tie and little English smiled. “I’ll show you the father of modern forensics, Bertillion, this was his lab and office.” Here I wondered? But Remy led us to the next building, through a warren of hallways and we were back in the old part. Somehow this complex at ’36’ on the Ile de la Cité all connected. We saw Bertillon’s early instruments and how he developed in the late 1890’s what everyone still uses today - the techniques of fingerprinting and identification. In 2000 the fingerprint division connected to APHIS the fingerprint database but they still use the old fingerprint cards to identify a hit on APHIS and keep to the standards of a 12 point match up on the fingerprint pad.

But forget the technical for a moment, I was struck by the camaraderie among the technicians at their computers, the joking and quips and comments as they stood comparing old brown files, or in the lab room pulling out graphite powder and testing for indentations on paper, or in another the fingerprints on counterfeit Euros. Like a family. Everyone time we met someone it was handshakes or kisses hello...ok, it’s France even in the workplace people double cheek kiss when they meet. But it added a human touch not found at the FBI. Even a Christmas tree near Bertillion’s old lab. One of the highlights was the reconstruction room. A room in the base of the 15th century tower where the team re-enacts the crime scene. The new in the old, and with their cramped headquarters every bit is used. So after an illuminating four hours and with a nod to Maigret, double cheeked kisses to his descendent Remy we left ’36’ and headed across the street to Cafe Soleil d’Or, where the ‘flic’s’ eat lunch. Supposedly Maigret 'ate' there, too.

Cara - Tuesday

Monday, March 26, 2012

Guest Author Jean Henry Mead

Jean Henry Mead , like us, writes mysteries for adults. But she also writes mysteries for kids, western historical novels and nonfiction. And one of the latter, a history of Wyoming, became a college textbook. She's been a reporter, a magazine and press editor, a correspondent for the Denver Post, and has won national awards for her photojournalism. 

This book, hot off the press, is her latest project - and here's Jean to tell you all about it:

When I began collecting interviews for the book I titled The Mystery Writers, I had no idea that such informative and disturbing articles would be coming my way. By disturbing, I’m referring primarily to my interview with Roger Smith, a writer of noir mysteries. The South African former filmmaker-screenwriter writes about the brutality of life in his native country following Nelson Mandella’s departure from government.

Smith has been called the Elmore Leonard of South Africa and the shooting star of the crime scene by reviewers. He says that American readers are fascinated by his depiction of life in his country as well as shocked and appalled by its brutality.

“South Africa went from being pariah of the world to everybody’s darling under Nelson Mandela, but the bubble burst when Mandela moved on. Crime and corruption replaced apartheid as our number one social ill.”

Most readers will find it hard to believe what he has to say about life in the nightmare society that he bases his novels on.

On the opposite end of the crime spectrum, Geraldine Evans of London writes two light-hearted crime series featuring Detective Inspector Dafyd Llewellyn and Sergeant Joseph Rafferty, a working-class “copper” who provides a bit of levity and has an Irish mother who tries to “imping on every aspect of his life.”

And then there’s Martin Edwards, another Brit who writes police procedurals. A member of the “Murder Squad,” he’s also chairman of the subcommittee for the most prestigious crime novel award, the CWA Diamond Dagger, and is an archivist for the Crime Writers Association. Edward’s protagonists are not working class stiffs. His day job is that of a Liverpool solicitor and his protagonist, Harry Devlin, is a fellow lawyer who works his cases in the Lake District series. 

Lou Allin worked and wrote for many years in Ontario, Canada’s bush country 250 miles north of Toronto. After 30 years of experiencing -35C temperatures in winter and 30C with hordes of insects during summer in Canada’s nickel capitol, she decided to write her amateur sleuth novels in Canada’s “Caribbean,” Vancouver Island. What she has to say about her experiences is worthy of a book itself.

Bestselling Canadian author Cheryl Kaye Tardif was fed-up with her New York publisher and decided to self-publish on her own. The result was Imajin Press, which publishes a number of other writes in both Canada and the U.S. Her first book, Whale Song, placed her on the bestseller list and her unique way of promoting herself and her authors has made her a winner not only in her native Alberta, but an international bestseller.

Another Canadian, Joan Hall Hovey, lives and writes suspense novels from New Brunswick. She also teaches writing at the University and tutors with Winghill, a distance education (correspondence) school in Ottawa. She appears a proper lady you’d find at your neighborhood church, and some of her suspense novels will scare the devil out of you.

And last, but never least, among the "international" group are two of my favorite authors, Tim Hallinan and Leighton Gage, who, as regular visitors here know, live (at least part-time) and write from Thailand and Brazil. Tim’s Poke Rafferty thrillers are among my favorites as are Leighton’s Chief Inspector Mario Silva novels, which keep me enthralled.

Add fifty writers from the U.S., including Sue Grafton, Lawrence Block, J.A. Jance, Bruce DeSilva, Vicki Hinze and Vincent Zandri to the mix; and you have a book worth reading.

Fifty-eight of the sixty novelists have written articles on writing that every novice and veteran writer should enjoy. But, as the editor, I confess to a little prejudice.

Footnote: The Mystery Writers can be found, among other places, on both Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and is available both in print and as an eBook.

Leighton - Monday

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Chasin' Mason-Dixon

When I was growing up in Washington, DC, the Deep South was our personal Oz.  We traveled it yearly, with my father at the wheel, and we traveled it in style.

My father loved Cadillacs.  He'd been brought up dirt poor -- first-generation Irish-American -- and now that he could afford a living room on wheels, he bought one.  One after another, actually.  So my brothers and I -- let's say aged ten, eight and eight (twins), would be plunked down in the back seat, and we headed South.

My father would spend hours sitting on the living room floor with a huge map of the South, plotting the journey.  We always hit at least two Civil War battlefields, a prospect that made our eyes glaze over, but we weren't driving.  Here are my brothers and my mom and me, and we're all being good at Gettysburg, although my brother Mike has his six-gun trained on the camera.  (Remember toy guns?)

This was before The Great Pasteurization, back when the South was different from, for example, Van Nuys.  Instead of Denny's and McDonald's, there were Bubba's Catfish Fry and The Chat 'n Chew and Bide-A-While and Dewdrop Inn.  Antique stores were everywhere, selling actual antiques.  (If I could go back in time and take about $1,000 with me, I could return from almost any little southern town with enough good stuff to make me rich.)

I remember some things very vividly.  A little restaurant in Alabama.  We were eating mountains of food at a booth when an old truck pulled in and a truly ragged family got out.  They sat at the counter, and the father ordered one plate of bacon and eggs, and a Coke each for the two kids, who used it to take aspirin before eating their share of the breakfast.  One of the kids poured ketchup into his glass of water and drank it.

Afterward, neither of my parents said a word for miles.

At a steak house in Houston, a guy who was either an oil millionaire or did a superb imitation of one -- Stetson, snakeskin boots, big belt buckle - ambled over to out table and offered to buy me.  (I was a ridiculously cute kid, but that's all far behind me.)  My father, ever the businessman, said, "How much?" and the man in the Stetson said, "A million five."  My mother said, quite firmly, "Give us a few days to think about it."

The average trip, with the five of us rattling around in some behemoth of a Cadillac, would take us down the middle of the South to, say, New Orleans, where we'd turn left and go to St. Augustine, Florida, and stay for 3-4 days in a little cottage motel on a wide, flat beach.

Down in St. Augustine, there was a stubby little pier where we went fishing.  One day, a short wide man with a cigar, wearing, for some reason, hip-high wading boots, stomped out onto the pier carrying a short thick pole and a bucket of fish cut in half.  He absolutely exuded importance.  He claimed some territory, stuck half a fish on a big hook, and shouted, "Stand back, everybody, stand back.  I'm casting for shark."

And then he brought the pole way back over his shoulder and did a mighty cast, except that his sinker got wedged between two boards on the pier and stopped dead, while his pole flipped end over end into the water, and the line broke, and it sank.

The pier was dead silent until my father started to laugh. Then everybody began to laugh, and the man in the hip boots went home.  For years afterwards in my family, "I'm casting for shark," was one of those punch lines that didn't need a joke to set it up.

(I used that story, with a little embroidery, in the upcoming Poke Rafferty book, and my editor cut it.)

One of the things that kept him young, my father always said, was irritating my mother.  His favorite method was what the encyclopedia approach.  As the trip grew closer, he would learn absolutely everything there was to know about something my mother especially enjoyed -- Spanish moss, for instance -- and just sit on it until she said something like, "What beautiful Spanish moss."   And then he'd start an endless data dump: Really an epiphyte, not moss, related to bromeliads, lives on air and humidity, rat snakes like to live in it. He could keep it up for a remarkable amount of time. Then he trotted it out every time Spanish moss made an appearance.  He'd also work it into conversations.

And they stayed married more than fifty years.

If any issue threatened their stability on trips it was my father's total refusal to ask directions or even consult maps.  He had a mystical ability to get places, except when he didn't.  One time in the wilds of West Virginia, with the sun going down, we failed to find Wheeling, where we'd determined to spend the night.  We were clearly hopelessly, perhaps permanently lost, when a bus came by, going in the other direction with a sign on the front that said WHEELING.  My father endured my mother's triumph and turned the car around so we could follow the bus.

We followed it down one road, then down another, smaller, road, then down another road that was barely a rut in the dirt, and which ended at a copse of trees.  The bus stopped.  We stopped behind it.  The bus driver climbed down and came back to us as my father put the window down so they could chat.  The bus driver said, "Do you know how to get to Wheeling?"

To this day, few things appeal to me more than getting into a good car with a full tank and pointing it nowhere in particular.

Tim -- Sundays

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Another Greek Independence Day

Tomorrow is Greece Independence Day.  I wrote something similar to this last year at this time; similar I say because it’s the same holiday and its origins and traditions haven’t changed.  The photographs are different from last year though…and the Greek people are definitely different in spirit.  

Bishop Germanos of Patras
It is an important day, one of inspiration born out of a beleaguered people overcoming impossible odds.  The 25th of March marks the day in 1821 when Greek Orthodox Bishop Germanos of Patras raised the Greek flag at the Monastery of Agia Lavra in Greece’s Peloponnese and inspired a more than eight-year struggle (1821-1829) to throw off nearly 400 years of Ottoman rule.  Some say the Revolution actually began a week earlier in another part of the Peloponnese when the ruler of its Mani region, Petros Mavromichalis, raised his war flag in Mani’s capital city of Areopoli and marched his troops off against the Turks. 

Petros Mavromichalis
But no matter which version you prefer, one thing is for sure: What Greece confronts today is child’s play compared to what its ancestors faced in taking on a dominant empire of its time.

Sunday, in towns and villages across Greece, school children proudly parade the country’s blue and white flag.  Aflutter, the flag is reminiscent of Greek seas but it holds a deeper meaning.  The white cross honors the contribution of the church to the country’s enduring battle for freedom and its nine blue and white bars honor the nine syllable rallying call shouted across the land during Greece’s struggle for Independence: Eleftheria i Thanatos—Freedom or Death.  (Though some say they represent the nine letters of ελευθερια in the Greek word for freedom, the idea is the same.).

Greece’s larger cities also hold military parades, and Greek communities around the world join in celebration with parades of their own and take time to honor Filiki Eteria, the Society of Friends, the secret society that instigated Greece’s War of Independence.

It was as clandestine and well organized an underground movement as found in any best-seller’s tale.  No one was allowed to ask who founded the Society, question a command, or make an independent decision.  New members were recruited without knowledge of its true revolutionary purposes.  They were attracted by glamorous rumors of a celebrity membership and an avowed but vaguely stated general purpose of “doing good” for the nation. 

Symbol of Filiki Eteria
Three native Greeks founded the Society, Athanasios Tsakolov, Nikolaos Skoufas, and Emmanuil Xanthos.  But what many Greeks do not know is that the Society recruited large numbers of Greeks and non-Greeks from what today we call Eastern Europe and Russia.  Even the Russian Tsar was believed to be a member and by the time the War began the Society’s secret membership numbered in the thousands.

From the very beginning of their quest for independence Greeks recognized the need for assistance from outside their country’s borders.  Many answered the call, and had they not the outcome may have been quite different…the same as one could say about the United States in its own birthing battle.
Russian Tsar Alexander I

The bottom line lesson to be learned from the events celebrated Sunday is that this is not a time for Greece to be trying to go it alone.  The country must aggressively seek support beyond its borders for what it faces and work hard at inspiring Greeks of the diaspora and non-Greek supporters everywhere with the same sort of desire for “doing good for the nation” as drove the followers of Filiki Eteria nearly two hundred years ago.

It will be difficult and take time.  But since when has preserving their way of life been easy for the Greeks?

Freedom or Death.


Friday, March 23, 2012

Down with the Old Canoe

I'll be posting at greater length about the sinking of Titanic next week, mainly because of the release of this.  But this weekend also sees the first screening on UK TV of Julian Fellowes' Floating Downton Abbey dramatic take on the sinking. The next few weeks will see a plethora of documentaries and books to coincide with the centenary of its sinking - God there are some opprtunistic hacks out there - so I don't propose to dwell on it for too long, but yesterday I came across some remarkable and rather spooky pictures of the ship on the ocean floor.

The photos are high resolution and are taken with sonar imaging, which explains their quality. But they also have a haunting, ethereal nature. The one above is of the bow.

This one of the starboard side shows how the the ship buckled as the bow hit the ocean floor. Though not as spectacularly as the stern.

This one reminds me of an airport scan or an x-ray. Which in many ways it is. That tangled mass of mangled metal was once the stern. Though making out what might have been what is impossible. 'If you're going to interpret this stuff, you gotta love Picasso,' one expert is quoted as saying.

Yet in among that wreck are these two engines, coated in 'rusticles' - the stalactite-like bacteria which is slowly eating the ship.

More, as I said, next week. More photos like these will be featured in next month's National Geographic.

Photo credit: RMS TITANIC, INC

Produced by AIVL, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.


Dan - Friday

Thursday, March 22, 2012

What’s that name again?

Large numbers of people from Britain poured into southern Africa, particularly after the discoveries of diamonds and gold, as well as after the Anglo-Boer War.  And why not?  The weather was wonderful; the prospects good; land was plentiful and inexpensive; and there was an abundant supply of cheap Black labour.
This labour force made many Whites very rich.  And many could now afford servants, which made life very comfortable.  Many immigrants suddenly became very important, at least in their own eyes, and enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle that they could never have afforded in the old country. 
These Brits also brought with them their well known lack of linguistic expertise. 
So they had great difficulty pronouncing the names of their servants.  Can you imagine their efforts to summon Sifiso, or Bhekizizwe, Khanyisile, Nkosingiphile, Nkosiphendule, or Samukelisiwe.  Or Cikizwa or Khwezi or Tsholofelo or Xolani.  Even harder would have been trying to master the various clicks that are part of the various indigenous languages.
The result, of course, was that many servants were called by English names, such as Zelda, Elizabeth, Jane, Mary, Jacob, Edison, Samson, Peter, Robert, Kenneth, etc.  This made it easy for the masters and mistresses to summon their vassals.
However, the practice did not stop at this.  English names became quite fashionable, not only for the sake of the Brits, but within the Black communities.  But these communities and families began to give meaning to the names.  So if a family had a child when they thought they couldn’t, it may be called Lucky.  Or if a baby appeared after a long time, it may be called Trymore.  The names of babies began to have very odd names (at least to Western ears).
There was a Zimbabwean soccer player called Have-a-look Dube.
If a child is ill, and it is unclear whether he or she might die, the parents may give it the name Godknows.
If it is raining when the child is born, it may be called Rain, or Smile if it is blessed with a captivating smile.
We have women in the Detective Kubu series called Joy, Pleasant, Happy, Lucky, and so on.  McCall Smith’s protagonist is Precious.
But there are also names that are not so pleasant, such as Hatred or Funeral, and ones that are different, such as Chastity, or Enough – the name of the thirteenth and last child in a very large family.
There are people called Wedding, Everloving, Passion, and Anywhere.

You can run across names such as Justice, Honour, Trust, Gift, Energy, Knowledge, and even a Zambian athlete named Jupiter.
These names add a delight and richness to everyday conversation, but the practice of using English names is diminishing, and there is a growing movement to return to the traditional names.  They may still have meaning, but at least they will be in the local language.  As a Xhosa friend of mine says, “I have an English name for convenience, but I’m not going to do that for my kids.”  She has named her two children with beautiful Xhosa names – Asakona, a girl, and Ahlangene, a boy.
I suspect it won’t be too long before such interesting names will exist only in blogs and history books.
Enough - Thursday

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

China in brief

Sometimes me missing my spot is my own fault but last week it was not. I was in China and in China blogspot is not accessible. The same applies to facebook which incidentally did not bother me much as I never have the time to go on it anyway.

My trip took one week and I spent the whole time in Beijing. As you probably know the city used to be called Peking but got changed somehow, much the same as Mumbai, previously known as Bombay. Who knows, maybe the city name changers of the world will one day decide to call Reykjavík Beikjavik or Meykjavik. But I digress. The reason for my trip was a literary festival named the Bookworm, organised by the owners of the only English bookshop in Beijing. In attendance were 80 authors from 20 different countries which I think is remarkable for an event arranged by a private entity. The festival was very well set up, the panels interesting and very well attended.

I do not qualify as an expert on China in any way. I know that there are various problems with the administration of the country but one could not tell from the people‘s faces that anything was amiss. To the contrary everyone seemed pretty content and the city is thriving to a degree that I find hard to put into words. Everywhere you look you either see a mammoth high-rise or construction of a high-rise and when you cross the road you are more likely to be hit by a Ferrari as you are a rickshaw. Never in my life have I seen a city as un-communistic as Beijing.

But pollution is a problem and due to the low lying clouds that tend to engulf the city you cannot help but get the feeling that the air is pretty foul at times. But city officials have taken steps to change this, the number of new cars to get registration plates has been limited to 20 000 a month. Only. While we were there 8000 number plates were auctioned off by the city, the lowest bid that got you a plate amounted to 18000 USD. If anyone has been wondering where all the money went to following the depression in Europe and the US you need wonder no more. It is in China.

Also meant to cut pollution is a limit to driving. Cars are only allowed to drive four out of five weekdays. The last digit of your number plate decides which day the car must stay at home, the ten available digits have been divided among the five weekdays so each plate has one black out day per week. If you are caught on camera driving on the car’s day off you pay a hefty fine. For this reason many people elect to have two cars.

As part of the book festival I participated in a visit to a migrant school where authors were given a chance to visit a class and discuss their home country with the pupils and get them interested in writing. To explain, such schools are set up for the children of migrant workers who flock to the city for work in the multiple factories in its outskirts. Such jobs pay better than those available in the countryside. But these people do not have the official papers that allow them to set up habitat outside of their own province and as they are not registered their children cannot attend regular schools. Hence these migrant schools that are run on a shoestring budget and manned mostly by volunteers. The school building I attended was as an example not heated and the temperature outside was colder than the inside of a refrigerator as was the inside. All of the student wore winter parkas inside the schoolroom.  

The class that I took over through a translator had 26 children aged 5 to 6. All were exceptionally cute and very interested, especially in the Icelandic candy I had brought specifically for this purpose. I told them about Iceland, about Grýla and threw in a ghost story for good measure that the translator was not all that keen on translating for this young crowd. But she did and they listened wide eyed. One thing that I found interesting was to peek into their notebooks to see the level of math they were working on. Turns out they were already adding and subtracting two digits, i.e. 19 -3 and 24 + 11 etc. Icelandic kids are certainly not doing anything as complicated at six, much less at five. The children's neat and tidy handwriting bore witness to them not being novices to lettering, both English and the Chinese signs.

At the Forbidden City we got a guide to walk us through the area. This was a young man of about 25 who knew less about the city than the explanatory billboards posted next to the buildings within it. But he was entertaining nonetheless and had insights into life in China that one would not expect on any government approved signs. The one that I found most insightful was when he told us that as a child his family was unable to afford meat except very occasionally. His childhood dream had thus been to grow up and be able to afford a meal containing meat at least once a week. As he believed this to be pushing it a bit he said that he had been willing to downgrade the dream to having meat once a month. Now he is on a diet.

I know China is not perfect and that many things are harsh and totalitarian. But without a doubt such negatives will move in towards the light. Considering how fast they have moved from the Mao suits and bicycles this will probably occur at the speed of a Ferrari once underway. 
Although they have changed the name of the city, Peking duck is still called Peking duck - not Beijing duck. Although whole nations bow to them, the name changers of the world don't stand a chance against the restaurant industry. 
Yrsa - Wednesday

Monday, March 19, 2012

Finnish Racism - A Post From Guest Author James Thompson

This guy, Jim Thompson, and I, have a lot in common.

We're both Americans. We've both spent years living in a foreign culture. We both have a considerable insider's knowledge of those cultures, and we both write noir police procedurals about them.

Helsinki White, Jim's latest, deals, in part, with racism in Finland.
Not something you'd expect to find in a society that most of the world views as nearly perfect, is it?
No. Me neither. But it's there.

Read on. (And, after you've finished, drop in to Jim's page, on Amazon, and read the reviews of Helsinki White. One of them is mine:  )

Leighton - Monday

Finnish Racism: the Victims Speak

A week ago tomorrow, my latest novel in the Inspector Vaara series, Helsinki White, was released in the U.S. It focuses on the themes of racism and corruption. Early reviews, both from trade publications and advance readers programs have been good, but at the same time thought provoking for me. The review in Kirkus rightly noted that most of my research was simply reading newspapers. Much of the rest was reading hate material from right-wing organizations. Much of it is true crime. I’ve found telling the truth a most effective way of making a point.

Over the past couple years, I’ve come to be viewed as a social commentator, as my novels point out social ills. That role was never on my agenda, and I didn’t realize it had happened for quite some time. Then I noticed just how many reviews used phrases like “the dark portrait Thompson paints of Finland.” I write what most label noir novels, and one aspect of the nature of the genre is to point out social ills. I was taken aback to find that writing bleak novels would lead people to believe that the worlds I created would be taken as a blanket statement of my personal feelings about the culture and country I live in. After all, I’ve never heard it said that Ian Rankin thinks Edinburgh a terrible place and Scotland the pits of hell, or that James Ellroy believes Los Angeles a city beyond redemption and the United States a death trap. Both, as best I understand, love those cities and their countries. We’re writing fiction. Key word fiction. I’m still grappling with why readers and reviewers cast me in a role not assigned to most other crime writers setting their novels in other locations.

I like Finland. It’s home. It’s been good to me. Sure, it has a lot of social problems, but what place doesn’t? Looking back, I felt compelled to write Helsinki White only partly because of the social problems I address, but more so because of hypocrisy, because of the national denial that they exist, because of the spin doctors who have convinced the world that Finland is a Utopia, when in fact, it faces a nearly identical set of problems to those much of Europe and the United States, and economically, these problems have been brought on by financiers and power brokers in the European Union and Finland. Yes, much of the book is scripture pure truth, but like everywhere I’ve ever been, this country is multi-faceted, and there is far more to it than suicide, alcoholism, and the many other ills I’ve ascribed to this society. Those facets are simply stories for other writers, not me. They aren’t the themes that compel me to write. It’s just not in my nature.

I’ve lived in various places, but never felt truly attached to any of them, but that lack of feeling has nothing to do with the cities or countries I’ve lived in, but because I’ve adopted the attitude that I take myself wherever I go, so to a certain degree, where I live doesn’t matter that much. I seldom consider my place in society. Although I’ve assimilated, I don’t think of myself as a Finn. I don’t think of myself as anything. To define a thing is to limit it. Why should I limit myself? I’ve very seldom in my life felt that I belonged to anything, have always felt that I’m an observer more than a participant. An outsider by nature. And I’m comfortable with that. A major Finnish magazine, Suomen Kuvalehti—sort of a Finnish Newsweek—publishes most interesting quotes of the week. I was once quoted as saying. “If foreigners don’t like it here, they know where the airport is.”

And I did say it, but my meaning wasn’t critical or malicious. I was sincere. If you don’t like where you are, go somewhere else. I’ve tired of places and moved on. What’s the big deal? Also, most of the people I associate with are Finnish. The reason: put a group of immigrants together, and more often than not, the main topic of conversation is how Finland sucks. I don’t think it sucks and tirades against it weary and bore me. I have two good American friends. Both are attorneys. Both are thriving. They’ve built lives here and love this place.

But hypocrisy, and particularly the hypocrisy of hate, repulses me. It exists everywhere, but as I write novels set in Finland, I discuss it in Finnish terms. And yes, I think that in some ways I must be a hypocrite, too. We lie to ourselves about ourselves as a way of getting through life. The worst lies are the ones we tell ourselves, and I don’t think I’ve met anyone who isn’t guilty of it. We’re all fucking guilty.

I’ve let myself believe that if I can make it here, other foreigners can too. Of course, I have the distinct advantage of being white. I’ve always been aware that it makes a big difference, but it never hit home to me until this week how this culture can destroy people, flatten them, steamroll them. Especially people of color. It began with an e-mail from a young black man, a 25-year old Nigerian, and ended with a small mountain of correspondence falling into my hands. The man wishes to remain anonymous, because he’s afraid of retribution from racists, but wishes these texts to be published, and so I will, in a series. When you see editing, assume I did it to protect identity. When you see poorly written English, realize that English is usually a third, fourth, or fifth language for the writers, so personally, I think they’ve written very well indeed. I begin with the correspondence that sparked this post. My part in the conversation is irrelevant and so deleted.

Also, these opinions are not my own. At times, you may feel they’re shrill and unsupported. To me, that’s of little importance. What moves me is how these people feel.

Hello James,

Oh James, Many thanks indeed for this. It was all I needed -- and I 'really' needed it.

Will now look forward to the future, plus speed up my plans to move away from Finland. I am here now for seven years and the immigrant situation in the country really isn't getting any better. You and Alexis Kouros (owner of Helsinki Times) are the only foreign-born persons I know who are successfully doing what they enjoy doing in the country. Others, mostly, are either saddened and trapped, or saddened and running away. :)
Have a blessed day!

Please feel free to share my experiences anonymously.

I am currently 30, and came to Finland at age 22. A trained nurse -- studied  here in Finland. I am from Botswana.

95% of the guys with whom I started life in Finland have all emigrated to the US, Canada or their home country following graduation in Finland. They all left out of frustration stemming from their inability to get decent jobs that match their studies.

This is a country that just keeps talking about how much it needs immigrants, especially bright ones, but does nothing to retain and respect them when they get here. I have met countless smart and well-educated expatriates across the country whose lives have been turned upside down by the country and its women.

But worst is that Finns don't want to be confronted with the truth, which makes me think they may never get this immigration matter, much less solve it. I have tried through numerous ways to affect the situation with no success. I have written to the right governmental ministries….

I have really tried to affect the situation positively. For instance, despite knowing "integration" is a myth and that Finns mostly use it to cover up their inability to accept and employ the immigrant, I have mostly tried to share the blame equally between the two camps (immigrants and Finns). To be candid, I used to be optimistic about Finland eventually getting the immigration puzzle, but not anymore. I have all but given up as I talk to you. Finns often blame the immigrant's woes on the immigrant's poor knowledge of the Finnish language, but the truth is, the more Finnish you know, the harder life becomes for you in Finland. EDITOR’S NOTE: IT SOUNDS STRANGE BUT IS TRUE, I HAVE REALIZED THIS MYSELF. I am a testimony. As a matter of fact, I was warned by older, frustrated immigrants upon arrival in Finland back in 2005, but I defied them, believing that positivity and hard work will always result in success, unaware that as I was warned, Finland is an exception.

I have lived across 5 Finnish cities. It's indeed a dark country. After sharing a Helsinki apartment with a seriously alienated and mentally sick Finnish guy, I moved to a new house about a hundred meters away from the former one, hoping for a safer living, but only to discover that my new neighbour (or flat-mate) was about as sick as the former. A few weeks after moving in, I discovered that this my new mate had just bought himself a very long and terrifying sword. And I was relieved as I shortly afterward had to move from there to Vaasa where I was offered a job. Lo!, James, my new flat-mate there in Vaasa was, if truth be told, sicker than the two preceding young men in Helsinki. This young man in Vaasa was dangerously troubled and yelled from his room every night, a very chilling cry. Moving to Forssa from Vaasa after half a year wasn't any better. There in Forssa I knew an American man who was disturbingly bullied and used by his Finnish wife with whom he had moved from the States. To wrap up, not long after moving from Forssa To xxxx -- a Finnish guy who shared my Forssa block was found dead in his apartment. So much dark stuff taking place in such a small place.

I have so much to say but would neither like to steal your time nor spoil your day. In less than a year here in xxxxx I suffered two (physical) racial attacks. One was on the bus on my way home from work; the other happened at a bus stop on my way to work.

At my most recent work place (a large hospital), mental and emotional troubles are so prevalent among the staff my employer has stopped offering sick leave pay to those suffering it. A cost cutting measure which forgot to take into account that both mental and physical health are clearly inseparable. Ironically, such injustice is happening in a health care environment.

Indeed, James, you may not imagine this one possible in Finland but not long ago here, being a nurse, I was asked by a patient of mine to call his son and tell him his father was down and dying. I did, and instead of a promise of an immediate last visit from his son on the phone, the younger man was furiously demanding to know why I called him when his father wasn't yet dead, adding that I should call him only after he was dead.

Finland is a dark and heavily imperfect place but where citizens are superlatively pretentious. Back in the Catholic seminary which I attended as a young boy, such an attitude was referred to by seminarians as "washing the cup's outer side, when its inner side is indeed the side in need of sanitary attention".



I am a black foreigner, I have a job, I pay my TAXES. I consider myself as a hard working person and I get along with some Finns, mostly educated ones who don't suffer from low self esteem.

I have realized that most Finns that are racist have very low self esteem and feel big when they put a black person down.They complain that foreigners are here to take their jobs and take money from the state. Well from my experience foreigners especially black want to work and are usually not employed because of the colour of their skin. Give them jobs and you will never see them at KELA or sosu FINNISH UNEMPLOYMENT AND WELFARE OFFICES. They will do any job, and most often they get the jobs that Finns themselves don't want then they complain that they are taking away jobs. One thing that the average Finn doesn't know is that Finns are scattered all over the world, I was shocked to discover that some Finns actually live in the country I come from. And the funny thing is that although they look different they are welcome and free.

Finns need to be welcoming and friendly to outsiders.Above all they need to learn other ways of building self esteem, like teaching their children respect,caring for their old parents,caring for their neighbour, not feeling jealous about what the other person has achieved,being friendlier, spending more time with their children and family not just at joulu or any other holiday, learning more about other cultures.
Don't get me wrong not all Finns are bad and they are some positive things about Finnish people but sometimes they get overshadowed by the bad things.One of these positive things is that they are hard working.


You describe us Finns quite accurately, I think. Many of us, yes, perhaps the more educated ones, and those who have lived elsewhere, have no problem with foreigners, but there is a visible minority who are racist. Like racists everywhere, Finnish racists try to cover their insecurity by bravado and bullying and blaming those who look different.

I feel that there is a section of 'humanity' missing in our society. This is difficult to explain, and I'm not even sure if this is true about the majority or just some people I've met. I've lived in two other countries, and will never return to Finland to live (I hope), and can say I have not met such simpletons anywhere else as so many of us Finns are. It's as if many of us were living some bad farce with few lines and only in a minor role. We are not a fully functioning human being, we are actors not quite familiar with the script, and certainly not able to write the script. Some kind of automatic robots going about our routine actions, saying routine phrases, reacting, not thinking. This is not being human. Being a human is to exprerience life fully, find a connection with others, creating one's life instead of reacting to events like a rag doll.

I respect many things about the Finnish culture, and admit that we have many good qualities, such as the ability to work hard, and persistence, sisu. I'm glad you are living in Finland. People like you wil eventually bring some light into darkness, even against the will of some of the population. Stay positive, keep smiling.

One memory from my past. I was living in a small town before I emigrated. I found most people difficult to get along with, and rather narrow minded. The only one I was able to talk with as a human being talks to another, was a black man. He was working as a doctor. He was wonderful, but I got the impression that many didn't appreciate him.


When I moved to Finland 12 years ago, people always asked: "Are you accustomed to the Finnish culture?”

Culture - where is it? Is it a man running down a woman at the door of a shop? Is it when the kids trample on the meal table? Is it a young man sitting in a bus and an old woman standing? Is it, as well, when adults seem to have forgotten the words "Hello" and "Thank you"?

Feast day is Saturday. Then have to drink to the memory loss. The main streets look like after urinary competitions.

It’s a pity that Finnish nation do not have friends and they do not respect their parents.
Elderly make suicide every other day in Finland. The reason is loneliness and depression.