Saturday, May 31, 2014

There's a New Sheriff in Town.


Having written recently about the efforts of my best buddy to be elected mayor of Mykonos, it would be out of character for me not to ‘fess up publically that he lost. It was a great disappointment to many, but the People of Mykonos made their choice and that is to be respected.

The new mayor is Konstantinos Koukas, a thirty-two year old lawyer new to politics. His term won’t start until September, though with the current mayor on his elected team I assume he’ll have input on her policies in the interim. That is good, for the island needs direction ASAP.

Mykonians now have their hopes pinned on the Mayor-elect to address the many serious issues confronting their island. He has the chance at this critical point in the island’s evolution to make a difference. It is both a great honor and challenge the people have reposed in Mr. Koukas.  Governing will not be easy, and the choices he must make difficult. 

But to borrow from a quote attributed to many that offers an analogy from the grain-into-flour processing windmills which once dotted Mykonos hilltops and now symbolize the island, “Life is a grindstone; whether it grinds you down or polishes you up depends upon what you’re made of.”

Here’s hoping you shine, Mr. Mayor.  God Bless you and Mykonos.

And now here’s a link to a video prepared by my friend Dimitris Koutsoukos showing photos of a Mykonos long past…

Jeff—Saturday


Friday, May 30, 2014

Calgary

There is a crime writer dressed in
 black in the middle of this
 statue garden in Calgary.

At Crimefest three years ago I was asked to do the Forgotten Authors panel. I had no hesitation in choosing Desmond Bagley and Duncan Kyle (whose Granddaughter emailed me after the event just to say it was nice to know that her Granddad's work was still being enjoyed by a new generation).

Both were natural choices for me, they had written the books I had grown up with. I went from Enid Blyton ( Famous Five. Not the Secret Seven – they were for  wimps) to Agatha Christie to Desmond Bagley/ Duncan Kyle. Much to my English teachers’ dismay I never read a classic and was only ever really interested in Shakespeare when he got round to murdering somebody – none of that Romeo Romeo stuff.

The books of Desmond Bagley made a huge impact on me, taking me to places in my head that I thought I would never see. I can still quote facts from Bagley’s books. England can fit into Canada over 40 times. And  7 and a bit times into British Columbia. That was from the book Landslide set in BC. where the hero Boyd has lost his memory but still strides around and ‘Puts things right!’

                                    
                                                        A friendly Calgarian


                                    
                                                Downtown
  
So I was very excited to go to Calgary – which I know is in Alberta not BC but I’m not letting facts spoil this blog.
Calgary, called after Calgary on the the Isle of Mull. Everywhere is very ‘Scottish’ in Alberta. I saw this in the Glenbow Museum.

                                          

                                        
                                       So Bagpipes are an instrument of war. 
                                     (The noise has driven many to violence.)

 Most of the  suburbs are also Scottish  places; Strathmore  Springbank and this place must be fantastic…
                                  

I think Bearspaw and Okotoks might have more traditional roots though..

There are 1 million citizens with 200 ethic origins in Calgary. Scots being the most common claimed ancestry. But then they would tell me that, wouldn’t they.

                                

Calgary itself is now in the top ten of travel hotspots according to one British newspaper. It lies snugly into the confluence of the Bow River and the Elbow River on the edge of the  prairie and just before the Rockies start. 
                                
                             
                                          The ducks were getting the shade,
                                           the crime writer was getting the sun.

Calgarians are very pleasant, friendly folk. I always go by dog walkers in the park. If they talk to you and have the dog on the ground, it is a good place. If they don’t say hello and have their dog in a handbag – move on. They are also very politically correct. What I would call, in my ignorance ‘Native Canadians’ they call ‘First Nations.’. Usually Blackfoot, Blood, Peigan and the Tsuu T'ina in the region around Calgary.

In Alberta and the adjoining part of British Columbia there was a population  of around 100 000 in 1890. In the next ten years that  figure increased by over 70%. Not all of that was egalitarian and the Chinese immigrants suffered more than most. This  statue is surrounded by plaques donated by Chinese families 'In memory of...' Their story is very much that of the rail road, exhaustion and exploitation.
                             
                                       

  In Calgary itself many migrated from the UK and Italy, attracted by the offer of free "homestead" land. That  established the pre oil economy of the area and of course, the Calgary Stampede. The Stampede itself attracts over 2 million visitors and another million on top of that are now visiting Calgary then going up to Banff, Lake Louise and Canmore as we did, on the Rocky Mountaineer.

                                 
                                                       some Calgarian artwork
                                  

                                 
                                  the damming and re direction of some flood waters is ongoing

Calgary is still showing the scars of the terrible flooding on June 21st 2013 when both rivers burst their banks and over 75 000 people were evacuated. At the Zoo, they have signs up showing how close the water came to endangering the animals,just a few linear feet.


                                
                               Much as I respect them, I don't think this timberwolf
                             would be too pleased if he had to be relocated
                              on a dark stormy night because of rising flood water.

The zoo houses the infamously cuddly looking bear 16. He was attracted to the bins and food waste of a Calgary suburb- probably because some doity thinking citizen thought it was good to put food out for the 'nice grizzly'. Not matter what they did, bear 16 came back to his own wee picnic area, scaring the wits out of everyone. He was darted, relocated, relocated again, then taken miles away and set free. Peace reigned for a few months until his natural sat nav kicked in and he wondered back into his home town again.  He was going to have to be shot. But public outcry got him a place in the zoo where he will live his life in captivity just because somebody thought he was cute. As the guide book said, they look cuddly but have no wish to be cuddled.
                                    
                                            Calgary at rush hour. 8AM.

                                 
                                      The eating plaza of the skywalk

The city has a extensive skyway network, called the plus 15 as they are 15 feet above the ground. Great for avoiding the traffic but very confusing for homosapiens scoticus without a grizzly bear sat nav.

                             


                             
Scotiabank Saddledome in the distance with the
 stampede ground beyond. 
Taken from the Calgary Tower. 
Without looking down

Calgary has a low crime rate. Unfortunately the worst of its murder history is very recent.  On April 15th this year a young man stabbed five people to death at an end of school house party in the Brentwood area. The suspect, Matthew de Grood has been found mentally fit to stand trial and he remains in the secure psychiatric  facility. By all accounts de Grood was a nice lad, he attended the University of Calgary planning on doing law.  He was the son of a respected city police officer. It seems both his parents and friends had noticed a change in his behaviour in the weeks leading up to the murders and he had began posting more and more bizarre updates on his Facebook page.
As we flew home reports were coming in of a similar type of killing near Santa Barbara, another 22 year old man, seven victims in all.


But to end this blog on a cheery note, here is a wild female sheep with her week old sheeplets. Will Everett or Jeff be first with the 'When I'm calling ewe' pun?



 Caro Ramsay Temporary Canadian 30 05 2014





































Thursday, May 29, 2014

Fairy circles

There is a ribbon of land that stretches from southern Angola through Namibia to the northwest of South Africa, a distance of about 1500 kms.  It lies between 60 kms and 100 kms from the Atlantic coast line.  It contains a mystery that has puzzled scientists for a very long time – and it continues to draw considerable scientific attention.



This is the land of the fairy circles – circles of lifeless land with sizes ranging from 1 metre to 12 metres in diameter. 

No plants grow in these circles, but they are often surrounded by a band of thick grass that stands higher than any surrounding vegetation, somewhat like the hair that surrounds a bald head.












Scientists have not established what causes these fascinating circles, although there appears to be agreement on two things:  first, underneath the circles there is more water in the soil than in the surrounding area, and second, traces of sand termites (Psammotermes allocerus) are found in most of the circles. 

Sand termites (Psammotermes allocerus)

One theory, proposed by biologist Norbert Juergens from the University of Hamburg, is that the sand termites eat the roots of all plants in an area, causing the barren patch on the surface.  Then when it rains, a pool of water forms under the surface because there are no roots to take up the water.

Other scientists argue that the termites are not the cause of the circles, but rather are there because the lifeless circles result in pools of subterranean water, which attracts the termites.

Another theory, proposed by Willem Jankowitz at the University of Namibia, is that methane gas rising to the surface from underground emissions kills the plants in these symmetrical areas.  This causes greater concentrations of water below the surface, which then attracts the termites.

And so the quest continues – biologists offering biological theories, chemists offering chemical theories, and so on.  It seems that scientists can never agree, and we still don’t have a convincing explanation of what causes these circles.

Or do we?

Are we looking in the wrong place for the answer  Are we taking the wrong approach?

I’m in favour of looking for a much simpler explanation.

Who better to provide the answer than the people who have lived in the area for centuries – the beautiful Himba people, who live in the north of Namibia.

Himba woman


People like this usually have explanations for phenomena like the fairy circles.  And the Himba are no exception.

They believe that the circles are the footprints of Mukuru – a benevolent god who brings rain and who heals the sick. 

But the Himba too seem not to be able to agree.  They also have a legend that living in a crack, deep underground, is a dragon that breathes out poisonous gas.  This gas rises to the surface killing the plants. 

Personally, I like the dragon explanation the best.

However, whatever the cause, the fairy circles are a great curiosity and an amazing sight.

Stan – Thursday



Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Dog Years...


After missing my last slot here due to a pressing deadline, I nearly missed my slot this week because, well, I forgot. And truth be told, I don't have much to say. I'm wiped out. I feel kind of like that guy up there, except not as perky. But I am similarly exultant.

This morning I sent off the draft of my latest book to my editor. The draft was…a bit…tardy. Okay, I was late. This has never happened to me before. But every once in a while, you run up against the reality that, although writing books for publication is a job, embedded in a for-profit (we hope) business, creating a novel is still an artistic process, and sometimes you just can't create on demand.

This was a funny realization for me to come to, because I've prided myself on delivering on time, turning in a clean draft, being a pro. But one of the interesting things about being a novelist is that every book is different. You learn how to write the book you're writing by writing it. Some of that knowledge transfers from book to book. Other knowledge is unique to the book you're writing. Nothing you've learned before applies to some particular aspect of the problem set you're trying to solve, so you just fight your way through it until you figure it out. You hope.

That's the scary part about being a writer. It's a constant dance on the cliff's edge of failure. While this is not as consequential as failure in jobs where peoples' lives are at stake, or where a wrong policy decision screws up lives a few generations into the future, it feels really important when you're the person whose creative ass is on the line. When you fail at writing, it feels personal. You're mining so many aspects of your personality and experiences to provide material for your work. And there are times when that process is is the last thing you want to be doing.

But then, there is craft. Craft is the great salvation of writers. Craft allows you to take all the messy, painful, complicated stuff, the material you're working with, and shape it into something separate from yourself. Something apart, and with enough distance that you can look at it more clearly, as an artwork, or as a product, however you prefer to frame it. By either label, it's a creative projection of your will, and the only thing getting in the way of shaping it like you want, having the kind of control to create meaning and order that you don't necessarily have in your own life, is you, the author.

You're the creator of your own success or the cause of your own failure. External circumstances can make the process easier or harder—or sometimes, impossible. But there's no one who can get that book out of you but you.

Lisa…every other Wednesday...

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

la peste blonde and The Orient Express

Election Shake up in France

I don't know Marine le Pen, have never seen her in person but this is what's written about her - she's 45, with three children and twice divorced. She took over the Front National a party her father founded in 2011 which made a BIG showing in European elections Sunday. Fears are this will turn the party into the most powerful anti-EU and immigration force on the continent.
Her father, often described as an old Fascist, once predicted a bright future for Marine, the youngest of his three daughters, by describing her as “a big, healthy, blonde girl, an ideal physical specimen”.
Her detractors later nicknamed her “the clone” or “la peste blonde” – the blonde plague – a play on words with the Black Death and “la peste brune” – a reference to the occupying Nazi troops and their brown shirts.
But today, she claims to have detoxified the Front National, taken the “extreme” out of extreme-Right and succeeded in forcing her anti-European, anti-euro and anti-immigration agenda onto the French and EU political mainstream.
When asked what was the most formative moment of her childhood, she once said, “20 kilos of dynamite”. In 1976, when she was eight years old, a bomb tore off the front of the family’s apartment bloc in Paris while they were asleep. “I realized politics could cost you your life,” she said.

My friends had mixed feelings or none at all about voting in the EU election held yesterday. Only two people I know voted or at least said they did. Turns out there was only a 43% turnout in France. But most Parisians think whatever happens in the EU doesn't affect them. Well Marine wants to make sure it does.

Meanwhile on the Orient Express
 After fortifying with caffeine it was time to head along the quai under the Paulonia (sp?) trees to L'Institut de Monde Arabe
And board the Simplon Orient Express. There's a wonderful exhibit with the actual train cars of the fabled Orient Express. Inside the original cars it's like a stage set. Below is Graham Greene's typewriter.
The pages starts with the story 'Stamboul Express' he wrote onboard.
Cigarettes of the time, wine glasses, down to the original Bacarrat glass windows and fixtures.
Pearls and Champagne on ice from Josephine Baker's rail car.
The bloody body from Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express.
Even Agatha Christie's coat and cloche hat.
Not to mention a 'chien bizarre'

Cara - Tuesday

Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day in the USA.

I am thinking of World War Two, the war that shaped my young life, so my post today will be highly personal one.  Here are some images that tell of the people who fought, the people who worked and prayed on the home front, of one who did not come back and one who did.

Here is the data; the numbers are in MILLIONS:


Here is the moral of the story:




 Here are my personal remembrances:


My brother Andy and me, wearing hats that belonged to our uncles.

My most vivid memories are of saying our good-byes and of how tense my mother and my grandmother were for all those years.


A flag like this hung in the front window of the two-family house that my family shared with my grandparents.  Ours had five stars, for my dad and for four of my mother's brothers.  They were all blue until the last year of the war.


Our gold star was for my godfather John Pisacane, who served in Patton's army and then in a tank battalion under General Eisenhower.  He was killed during the push to Berlin.




I was lucky enough to get my daddy back.  Sam always felt to me like the guardian angel that he appears as in this post-war trip to the beach.  I'm the little girl on the right next to my brother Andy.

The other children are my cousins Jimmy, Joann, and Tony.

I longed for my daddy so much for the years while he was gone that images of returning soldiers still move me to tears.



Every year, on Memorial Day I watch this clip from the incredible TV documentary Victory at Sea.  If you don't see the link, PLEASE find it here YouTube: Victory at Sea Episode 26 Part 3--



Don't miss it.





I have to go now.  I am sobbing.

Annamaria Maria - Memorial Day 2014 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Memory Game


As you may have realised, I TOTALLY forgot it was my MiE blog today. (Bad writer, no biscuit!)

And forgetting something so important reminded me of something I read a few years ago, in a book by Derren Brown called TRICKS OF THE MIND, about dramatically improving your memory. Derren Brown, for those of you who are not aware of him, is part illusionist, part psychologist, and all showman. The Guardian newspaper described him as, “Clearly the best dinner-party guest in history—he’s either a balls-out con artist or the scariest man in Britain.” His various TV series over here have dumbfounded and entertained in equal measure, and while the knowing style of his book has taken a bit of getting used to, the information contained in it is just fascinating.

And why is this relevant here? Because, if I understand him correctly and extrapolate accordingly, fiction writers should have the best memories ever. Elephants should be as fickle goldfish compared to us lot.

Why? Because we exercise our imaginations on a regular basis.

Ye-es, it foxed me to begin with, but stick with me on this one, OK? And do give this a whirl. I tried the example in the book and was amazed that it worked flawlessly.

You see, Brown claims that most people, given a list of twenty disparate, unconnected words, can recall about seven with any degree of accuracy. He gave such a list and suggested that you read it through, and then try and jot down as many as you can recall, in the same order. I took the liberty of substituting my own words. Or, rather, so I wasn’t subconsciously picking words that I might find easy to remember, I asked someone else to do provide the list for me. And here they are:

bicycle
cabriolet
fridge
rollercoaster
muckspreader
pincushion
blotter
hemlock
Shakespeare
thingamabob
nonagenarian
Rolex
Skyline
filter
cauliflower
grandfather
cuckoo
tortoise
carpet
blitzkrieg

So, having read through them, try and write them down, in the same order they’re listed here. Please give this a try. How did you do? If you got past seven, you’re Marvo the Memory Man and you don’t need to read any further. Put it aside for a bit, and then try again, without re-reading the list, but in reverse order this time. It’s a stumper, isn’t it?

What you do, according to Brown’s book, is create a link from one word to the next by producing an image that connects the words. A vivid image, with smells and emotions attached to it. If the image is of something that stinks, sniff it. If it’s funny, find it so.

The elements need to interact in some way, and each little scene needs to be odd enough to be memorable. Some people, apparently, don’t like visualisation and claim not to be very good at it, but we’re writers, for heaven’s sake. We spend our days making stuff up—that’s what we do.

So, here’s my own list of connections between the above words:

bicycle/cabriolet
A group of Edwardians in striped blazers and straw boater hats, riding along on their bicycles, very slow and stately, but in case of rain they all have cabriolet tops they can raise over their heads, with big curved hinges on the sides like an old-fashioned pram, and tassels along the front.

cabriolet/fridge
A nice little VW Cabriolet, gleaming in white, all colour-coded, and when you climb inside it’s still white like you’re sitting in your fridge, with wire racks and dairy products on the shelves and a light that comes on when you open the door. There’s a big bottle of milk strapped to the passenger seat. The air con keeps it frosty cold.

fridge/rollercoaster
You open the door of your fridge and a rollercoaster track unfurls out of the salad drawer, complete with screaming passengers, and goes careering round the kitchen, making it impossible to sneak down for a midnight snack without waking the entire street.

rollercoaster/muckspreader
The farmer next to the amusement park hates the people who ride the rollercoaster making all that racket, so he always drives his muckspreader along the hedge next to the bottom of the first drop, and sprays them all with cow manure as they hurtle past. Particularly nasty if you’ve got your mouth open as you go.

muckspreader/pincushion
Someone’s come up with a new way of recycling cow manure, which instead of being scattered is reformed inside the muckspreader into neat round pincushions, the size of pillows, which it deposits in a neat orderly row as the farmer drives his tractor through the local ladies’ sewing circle.

pincushion/blotter
The only trouble with the cowpat pincushions is when you stick a pin in them they let out a great cloud of stinking vapour and leak a nasty greeny fluid all over the place, which you have to soak up by putting a blotter under the pincushion wherever you go.

blotter/hemlock
An ingenious murderess decides to soak the blotter on her husband’s desk in hemlock, so he will be gradually poisoned as the hemlock leaches out and into his hands whenever he works late into the night.

hemlock/Shakespeare
The entire cast of a Shakespeare play toast each other with hemlock-laced glasses of wine, thus dying tragically at the end of the first act, not realising that the leading man is a method actor who has genuinely dosed them all with real poison.

Shakespeare/thingamabob
Will Shakespeare finds himself momentarily lost for words and invents a new one—thingamabob—which instantly becomes all the rage in Elizabethan England. Queen Elizabeth instantly demands he produce one, by royal command, and he has to cobble something together or lose his head.

thingamabob/nonagenarian
Nonagenarian little old ladies can be easily identified by the fact that they’re each followed about by a thingamabob, which is a little bouncy, squeaky thing, like a cross between a Space Hopper and a Tribble, which won’t leave them alone. There they all are in the park, swatting at these troublesome thingamabobs with their umbrellas.

nonagenarian/Rolex
When anybody reaches the ripe old age of 90, their nonagenarian status is celebrated by awarding them a Rolex watch. The only trouble is, it’s a big garish one, plastered with diamonds, and the streets are filled with old folk dressed up in flashy watches and gold chains like gangster rappers.

Rolex/Skyline
All Nissan Skyline sports cars comes with a Rolex attached to the front of the bonnet so the driver can time themselves as they lap the Nürburgring in Germany. It’s also used as a means of handicapping the faster ones. The quicker you drive, the bigger watch you have to have, thus not only increasing drag, but also preventing the driver from seeing where they’re going, and slowing them down. At least they know exactly what time they crashed.

Skyline/filter
As a party trick, someone drives their Skyline around the inside of their filter coffee machine, like a wall of death. Round and round they go, until they’re almost vertical up the sides, kicking up great rooster tails of coffee grounds and leaving tyre tracks in the paper filter.

filter/cauliflower
After heavy rain sluices cauliflowers into the drains, you have to insert big filters to stop them clogging everything up, otherwise they create the most awful stench of rotting vegetation.

cauliflower/grandfather
When your grandfather gets on a bit and loses his teeth, the only thing he can eat is mulched up very well-pureed cauliflower, which you have to cook for him in giant vats until it goes grey, and then put through a blender, at which point he packs it into his cheeks like a hamster. Grandfathers only have to be fed once a week using this method.

grandfather/cuckoo
Grandfathers are not acquired in the usual way, but introduced into the family nest like cuckoos, in the hopes that they’ll be cared for like the other family members. Of course, grandfathers can be bigger and more aggressive than other relatives, and often push them out of the nest using their Zimmer frames.

cuckoo/tortoise
Swiss cuckoo clocks are using tortoises instead of the more traditional birds to call the time. At the top of the hour the doors open and a tortoise emerges, very, very slowly, on the end of a spring. It can take these clocks several days to strike noon and midnight.

tortoise/carpet
To keep your tortoise warm in winter, you cover his shell in carpet, preferably shag pile, so there’s all these tortoises ambling about with multicoloured carpet stuck to their backs.

carpet/blitzkrieg
Brings a whole new meaning to carpet bombing. There’s the archetypal RAF squadron leader with handlebar moustache and flying helmet, piloting his bomber through flak-ridden skies over war-torn Europe, waiting for his bombardier to give the word that he can release his load of Axminster and Wilton. Once away, these rolls of carpet plummet through the clouds in a lightning attack on the terrified populace.

I have to say that Derren Brown’s own list—and the explanation of the links between the words—was probably much better and far more amusing than my own. But you get the idea. If anyone can come up with sillier or more vivid connections, please feel free. But let me know how you get on. Isn’t it nice to know that this fertile imagination we have can be put to other uses, isn’t it?


Oh, and before I forget, this week’s Word of the Week is zeroable, which is a word that is able to be omitted from a sentence without any loss of meaning. I try to eliminate all zeroable words at the copy-editing stage. Doesn’t always work, though …