Thursday, March 31, 2016

Nan Hua

Michael - Thursday 

Photos - Jonathan Everitt

Since sadly we no longer have Lisa Brackman telling us about China, I thought I’d try to fill the gap this week with a look at the Nan Hua Temple.  Nan Hua means Southern Flower in Mandarin, but don’t confuse Nan Hua temple with its namesake in China which is more than 1000 years older. 

This Nan Hua is near the Johannesburg international airport and is about twenty-five years young.  The order itself is young only dating to 1967 when Hsing Yun established “Humanistic Buddhism,” or Fo Guang Shan, in Taiwan. Unusually for Buddhist orders, this one’s mission is to spread the enlightened word of the Buddha far and wide and—as Hsing Yun put it— “bring the Buddha’s light to the Three Realms, so that the Dharma waters may flow throughout the Five Continents.”  250 orders with over 1300 monks now exist worldwide after only 50 years.

In fact, Nan Hua dates to 1991 when the rather conservative and, of course, white male chairman of the Bronkhorstspruit city council—Dr. Senekal—visited Taiwan seeking investment, and met Hsing Yun himself.  Impressed with Taiwan and their business investment, the following year he organised a donation of 30 acres of city land to the order to set up a branch in South Africa.  About US$6 million was raised here from the not insignificant Taiwanese community and also from the order itself in Taiwan to construct the temple.  Not only is it the headquarters of the order in Africa, it's also the largest Buddhist temple in Africa.

One of the attractive things about the order here is that while it naturally sees itself spreading the knowledge of its religion, it's proud of its local status. African monks and followers form a diverse community.  It's website mentions with pride that 95% of the materials used in the construction of the temple were sourced locally.  It offers food and accommodation, and had a joyous Chinese New Year celebration last month—with red for luck everywhere—attended by thousands.  Its charitable work is directed at the poor local communities in the area, providing sensible things that they need.

If you're interested in learning more, they have a useful website, and it even gives you tips on how to begin meditation if a novice, including the lighting, the timing relative to your meal, and concluding with advice not to sit where there is a draft to avoid catching a cold.

Not everyone was delighted, however. On the 30th October 2002, a group of extremist white supremacists of the Boeremag plotted to destroy the temple.  In a re-enactment of the Guy Fawkes Gunpowder Plot, they secreted explosives in the basement below the main hall of worship.  Fortunately, the detonator failed to set off the explosives - the blast would have killed 150 people from around the country and the world who were attending a ceremony at that time in the hall above.

The South Africa constitution guarantees freedom of worship.  We have various Christian churches, mosques, synagogues, Churches of Latter Day Saints, Seventh Day Adventists, Buddhist and Hindu temples, and probably places of worship of every other religion you care to mention.  They all seem to get on with their own business and not interfere with the others. Our politicians - for all their varied failings - don't make an issue of it.

It’s something to be proud of.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The mystery behind the book cover

by Jorn Lier Horst, Norway

One of the things I find most thrilling about having my books translated is seeing what the foreign-language covers look like.
My new novel, 'Ordeal', has been sold to twenty-three countries and most of the foreign publishers have chosen to use the image of an old, deserted house on their front cover. You must really read the book to understand why.
Just before Christmas, Sandstone Press, publisher of the English language edition, sent me a cover, designed by Freight Design in Glasgow. I liked it a lot. The house on the cover appeared not only empty, but also abandoned, and there was something about it that made me want to open the book to find out what secrets were hidden within those four walls.
At the same time, it seemed as if there was something familiar about it. It was almost frighteningly like a picture I had in my head. Seeing this book cover gave me some sort of feeling of deja vu.
Of course, I've described the house in the book and thought that Freight Design must have done an exceptionally good job. I took out the original manuscript and leafed through to the chapter where Wisting arrives in this place: Once, the farmhouse had been painted white. Now it was grey and neglected. The downpipes hung broken at the corners, there were no curtains at the windows, and a wooden board replaced a broken pane. Well, it did not fit exactly, this bit about the missing curtains and the broken windowpane, but the actual house was exactly as I had envisaged it in my mind's eye.
Later the cover pictures I got to see included ones from Denmark, Sweden, Poland and Germany. They all had old houses on their front covers, but none were like the English version.
Then, just a few days later, I received an email from a man in my own hometown of Larvik, in the far south of Norway. He proudly explained that it was his wife who had taken the picture on the front cover of my new book. She had photographed the house twelve years earlier and used the image hosting website Flickr. One day she had been approached by a graphic designer who was keen to buy the rights to the photo.
I wrote back and commented that it was quite a coincidence that both the photographer and author were from the same town.
However, it transpired that the coincidences were even greater than that. The man wrote back to say that the house was located just outside Larvik town centre and is still there, only even more dilapidated and ramshackle.
It began to dawn on me. I had seen this house before, in reality. That was why it had seemed so familiar and immediate. Of all the houses Freight Design had found when they searched on the internet for 'abandoned house', they had found one in my own hometown. You can try the search for yourself, of course. Google produces 26,900,000 hits. I'm no mathematician, but the likelihood of a design agency finding and choosing a house situated less than ten kilometres from where I live must be negligible.
The real Ordeal
I realised that I had to visit this house. Yesterday I drove there. The place looks as if it's been plucked from a crime novel. My car bumped over potholes and tussocks of grass. A flock of birds took off from a leafy tree, like a swarm of insects, when I drew to a halt.
It must have been years since people lived there. In addition to the dilapidation, there were also signs of vandalism. Gangs of boys had smashed windows, broken in and destroyed what was left of the fixtures and fittings.
I grew curious about the secrets the house concealed – why it was deserted and falling into disrepair and what atrocities had been committed here that had led to it being left unoccupied.
On the neighbouring property, I spotted a man repairing a fence. This turned out to be the owner of the house. The story he told me was neither dramatic nor exciting. The house had been built in the fifties. His aunt and uncle had lived there and he had taken it over on their death. For a while he had rented it out, but the market had been difficult and it was eventually left vacant. Vegetation grew up around it, and it was soon to be demolished.
Chance had willed that the house would end up on the front cover of one of my books. I can promise you that what happens in the book is far more exciting than the real house turned out to contain.
As a criminal investigator, I have never believed in coincidence. There are always explanations. Patterns, threads and logical connections. The story of the house on the front cover of 'Ordeal' is the kind of coincidence that would spoil an otherwise good crime novel. But I must admit that there is a place for coincidences in life, outwith the rules laid down by the laws of nature and described by the province of science.

Jørn Lier Horst
Also published at

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Do you know the City of Light? Here are ten facts about Paris that you might not know. From terraces to condom machines - the folks behind the Smarter Paris app have found some wacky stats. Info courtesy of Smarter Paris.
1. All the trees in Paris are referenced and measured. And there are 470,000 of them.
2. There are 181 places in the city where you can get an espresso for €1. Even better, here's the link I hope it works! Boire un café à 1€ ou moins à Paris, c'est possible ! La preuve 3. Open terraces. If you were to spend each day of your life in Paris visiting a different open terrace (of a bar, cafe, or restaurant), then it would take you 29.8 years to see them all (and who knows how many new ones will open in that time!). Yes, there are 9,057 of them.
4. There are 31 street condom-vending machines in Paris, provided by the Town Hall. And in case you're in a tight spot there's one near the Town Hall 5. In the whole of Paris, there is only one stop sign, situated at the exit of a building company in the rich 16th arrondissement. The traffic system in Paris is mainly based on giving way to those coming from the right.
6. The main bell in the Notre Dame Cathedral weighs over 13 tonnes. And it's called Emmanuel.
7. There are 6,100 streets in Paris. 8. The shortest street in the city - at just 5.75 metres - is Rue des Degrés in the 2nd arrondissement.I really like this street because it's unique and a scene in Murder in the Sentier takes place here.
In the central 2nd arrondissement, this Rue is nothing more than a staircase. 9. If you like baguettes then you're in the right city because there are 1,784 bakeries in Paris.
10: And lastly, there are plenty of bars too, although not as many as there are bakeries. In fact there are 1,124 bars in the city.
Cara - Tuesday

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Countess of Albany

Annamaria on Monday

My post last week about my Alfieri family name drew a number of admiring responses from the men of MIE about the amour of the great italian poet Vittorio Aflieri.  That lady is interesting for more reasons than her hairdo.  So here she is:

Princess Louise of Stolberg-Gerden had a hard life before she met the dashing Vittorio.  She was born in 1752 in Mons, then the Austrian Netherlands (now Belgium).  Her linage was extremely swanky, but she had two big problems when it came to being a high-tone European princess.  For one thing, her family was poor and became even worse off when her father died in battle while fighting on the Austrian side in the Seven Years' War.  Even worse than that, her family was Catholic--which severely limited the main chance for any princess then (or now for that matter): wedlock.  With the patronage of Empress Maria Teresa, Louise was able to secure the best anyone could manage for her--a place in the Convent of St. Waudru in Mons.  This was where she had to stay until she received an offer of marriage.

The convent where Louise stayed until Charlie proposed

To our ears, the proposal that came might seem quite advantageous.  She was to wed one of the most famous Catholic Royals of her age: Bonnie Prince Charlie aka Charles Edward Stuart aka The Great  (actually not so great) Pretender.  Yes, him--the Jacobite claimant to the thrones of England and Scotland.

Charlie in his palmy days

Grandson of James II of England, Charlie was born in Rome, educated there and in Bologna.  Lots of swell people around Europe, including Louis XV of France, thought Charlie's daddy was the rightful King.  Louis, of course, was also taking side bets that the Stuarts' harrying of the ruling Protestants could only be good for France.

Backed by the Frenchies, Charlie invaded Scotland in an effort to restore his papa to the throne, had some early success, and then practically single handedly--through stupid strategies--lost the Battle of Culloden.  (An aside: The Crown commander, "Stinking Billy" Duke of Cumberland, doesn't come off any better.  He was as vicious as Charlie was dumb.)

Anyway, Charlie got out of Scotland in one piece and spent the next couple of decades in exile, drinking, seducing women, and keeping his delusions alive.  At some point, someone hit on the idea that if Charlie got married to a nice Catholic girl, the pope would support his pretension to his granddad's throne.  They went looking for Miss Right, and they found Louise.

The regal couple were married by proxy on the 28th of March 1772.  A few weeks later, they met up face to face in Italy and renewed their vows.  Charlie was 52; Louise was 20!

The groom at Louise's wedding

They moved to Rome, and he set out trying to make a baby.  When his efforts didn't pay off after two years, the pope and his other powerful allies lost interest in him.  Louise found herself--not the Queen of England and Scotland as she had been led to expect, but just a sad princess married to a disappointed old man with no pretensions to glory, who had turned nasty into the bargain.

Charlie took up drinking, spouse abuse, and the comfort of various mistresses.  He moved himself and his wife to Florence and changed their titles to Count and Countess of Albany.  Shortly thereafter, Count Vittorio Alfieri entered Louise's life and within two years of meeting, they secretly became lovers.  Ten years later, after many attempts to get away from the violent Charlie, Louise--through the good offices of King Gustav of Sweden--was granted a decree of separation, which gave her a legal right to live away from her no-longer-bonnie prince.

As time went on, word leaked out about her relationship with the Italian poet.  Little by little, members of the European aristocracy began to shun Louise.  By 1787, the couple abandoned the subterfuge and began to live together openly--in Paris and in Florence.  Even after Charlie died, they continued to stay together without the blessing of the Church.

Home Sweet Home

The Salon

In their palazzo in Florence, Louise became hostess of a famous salon attended by the leading intellectual and artistic lights of the era.

Louise and Vittorio stayed together until he died.  Louise buried him the Church of Santa Croce, between Michelangelo and Machiavelli.

She lived on in Florence for another nineteen years.  Her tomb is nearby his.

Viva L'Amore!

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Most Helpful Websites For Writers

I can’t take the credit for compiling this list of the Most Helpful Websites for Authors. It forms part of a post on the Global English Editing blog, which was sent to me this last week.

But having read through even a small number of the 120 recommended websites, it should be bookmarked on every writer’s computer. The resources listed here are fascinating, and useful, although they could be a gift to the procrastinators among us!

The sites are listed in categories, to make searching easier, and I’ve picked out just one honourable mention in each.

Helpful Tips on Writing

The first is on the Writers Unboxed site, in this case to a blog written by our own Susan Spann, about the nitty gritty of making sure your contract has a reversion clause that means you can actually get your rights back if and when the book goes out of print.

General Resources For Writers

This blog on Author Media is about the seven ways author websites can irritate readers, and what to do about it. Read and inwardly digest. The Author Media site concentrates on online publishing and marketing, and has a library of WordPress plug-ins to help boost your site’s performance.

Be A Successful Freelance Writer

Cathy’s Comps And Calls blog is about opportunities for freelance writers, including competitions, calls for submissions with deadlines, and calls for submissions with no known deadlines. She publishes a list at the start of every month.

Publishing Your Work

Helping Writers Become Authors is a blog that specialises in teaching writers how to structure their stories to make them more saleable. This is a link to a piece about 15 places to find your next beta reader.


Jon Morrow’s Boost Blog Traffic blog is aimed to help bloggers get their voice heard in an over-saturated marketplace. This particular link goes to a blog about creative places for opt-in forms that will supercharge your sign-ups.

Grammar Tips

Daily Grammar has 488 lessons, as well as grammar tips and exercises.

Writing Groups

The 1st 10 pages site offers writers the chance to anonymously post the first ten pages of their work to receive ‘honest critique from established literary voices. This link goes to a bonus blog analysing the first ten pages of the movie PAN and asking why it didn’t live up to its premise.

Authors To Follow

Doesn’t seem fair to single out any one of the great writers listed, including JK Rowling, Nicholas Sparks and Stephen King, but they are all worth inspecting.

Writers As Business Owners

Joanna Penn’s The Creative Penn website is one I’m familiar with. Joanna is a wonderful resource for established or newbie authors hoping for advice on all things connected to the business of writing.

Literary Agents

There are no individual agents listed or recommended, although there are links to associations or sites where you can log your queries or find out how long you might be expected to wait for a response. I found this Pub Rants blog very interesting on The #1 Reason We Only Requested 216 Sample Materials in 2015.

Writing Associations

Of the associations listed, I’m in International Thriller Writers so can recommend them. And it’s free to join!

Protect Yourself

This sounds like the kind of heading Charlie Fox would be very interested in, but there is no advice about how to wrestle a potential publisher to the ground and put a lock on them here. Of those listed, I’d mention the Society of Authors, who provide invaluable contract advice for authors.

Jobs And Marketplaces

I can’t give any particular recommendations in this section, as I haven’t used any of the resources mentioned, but it’s a list of places to find freelance or writing work, so worth checking out if you are in the freelance game.

Fun For Writers

Of these, I have always loved The Bulwer-Lytton contest for the worst opening lines, named in honour of that wordsmith extraordinaire, Edward Bulwer-Lytton:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” — Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

Do you have any useful websites you’ve discovered on your literary travels? Ones you keep returning to? For myself, I’d add this Random Name Generator website. Always useful if you want to pick a name for a character who’s going to do something nasty.

This week’s Word of the Week is undine, or ondine, which means a category of elemental beings associated with water, which includes limnads, mermaids, naiades, nymphs, and nereides. They are usually portrayed as female and although they resemble humans they lack a soul, so to achieve immortality they must acquire one by marrying a human. Of course if the man is unfaithful to the undine, he’ll die.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Guest Blogger Brian Stoddart--A Murder in Bombay: Raj Crime

Brian Stoddart for Jeff—Saturday

I’m pleased to welcome back to MIE my friend Brian Stoddart, a New Zealander now based back in Queenstown after several years working in universities around the world and for agencies like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. Brian has lived and worked in India, Malaysia, Canada, China, the Caribbean, Jordan, Syria, Cambodia and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. He has written seventeen non-fiction works across the history of India, sport, international relations, biography and memoir. His first crime novel, A Madras Miasma, appeared in 2014 and was named among the top ten debut books for that year by CrimeFictionLover website. It features Superintendent Chris Le Fanu of the Indian Police Service in Madras in the 1920s. The third in the series (following up on The Pallampur Predicament), A Straits Settlement, will be available on May 19 in UK bookshops as well as internationally via Amazon, Kobo, iBooks and other agencies. And now, here’s Brian...

British India is remembered mostly for its pomp and circumstance, the Indian struggle for political independence and the rise of Mahatma Gandhi. But as elsewhere in the world its popular culture frequently made fiction look tame, and few events did that better than the so-called Bawla murder case.

One evening in 1925 a woman and some men were enjoying a drive through Malabar Hill, then as now one of Bombay’s ritziest suburbs. They were overtaken by a red Maxwell car, a splendid and expensive American import. The Maxwell swung in and blocked them off. The travellers were then surrounded by a gang of men who attempted to abduct the woman whose face they slashed. Yet another car arrived. Three British army officers returning from a round at the Willingdon Club leaped out to intervene using their golf clubs. Another officer arrived shortly after. The gang produced knives and guns, one of the officers was shot and stabbed but still grabbed one assailant. His comrades rescued the woman. Meanwhile, the owner of the car was dying from gunshot wounds.

The wounded officer was twenty four year old John Maclean Saegert, a Canadian-born member of the Royal Engineers educated at the prestigious Cheltenham School in England. He went on to a distinguished career, among other things becoming the first Officer Commanding  9 Commando Group in 1940. He was later captured, and in 1946 died in Toronto as a result of his imprisonment. He was  awarded the DSO.


The last officer to arrive was Colonel Charles Vickery, a career soldier who served in the Boer War then World War One as a member of the Royal Artillery but attached to the Coldstream Guards. He served in the Middle East and was close to and critical of Lawrence of Arabia. In 1920 Vickery was posted as the British Agent in Jeddah, and became involved in the rise of the house of Saud. He remained in the army until 1935 when he stood unsuccessfully as a Tory candidate in the General Election, became a County Council member in Durham, and wrote frequently on military affairs.


The dead man was a wealthy Bombay Muslim merchant and member of the Bombay Municipal Council, Abdul Kader Bawla. He had inherited most of his wealth and was considered to be more interested in social rather than business life, for which read he was interested in the ladies. His lady companion this day was another story altogether.

Mumtaz Begum

Mumtaz Begum was the runaway second wife of Tukoji Rao Holkar III, the Maharajah of Indore which was a wealthy princely state in Central India. Mumtaz Begum grew up in a Hyderabad, Deccan singing family that leased out her sexual favours from a very early age. She was just eleven or so when she attracted the Maharajah’s attention and was soon ensconced in the palace as his mistress and he later married her. She accompanied him to England when he attended the coronation of King George V, and she produced a daughter after their return. She later claimed that a nurse murdered the child. Life in the harem turned sour so she fled, going to several places throughout India before arriving in Bombay where she took up with Bawla.

Maharajah of Indore

The Maharajah of Indore was one of those “only in India” stories. His father had been forced to abdicate by the British over political differences. The new ruler was at first guided as a ward but took over in his own right at a young age – he was perhaps eighteen or so when he first met Mumtaz Begum. By then he had developed expensive tastes, learning from his predecessors. Just before the outbreak of World War One he was in Paris and visited the famous jewellers, Chaumet, where he spied a pair of diamonds that, oddly enough, had come from the Golconda mines near Hyderabad. Each diamond was 46 carats. He bought them, adding to an already burgeoning collection. Mumtaz Begum wore these and other Indore jewels regularly.

It transpired that her assailants on Malabar Hill were employees of the Maharajah, drawn from the state police and army, and their mission was to return her to Indore. The one attacker who was caught led to several others, and nine men were charged with several offences, including murder.

The case was a sensation and the local press carried little else for days. It had everything: royalty, sex, money, intrigue, drama, and murder. As soon as the trial began the courthouse was thronged, the proceedings reported in detail and relayed around the world.

The judge overseeing the case was (later Sir) Louis Charles Crump who had trained at Balliol, Oxford then joined the Indian Civil Service in 1890. He rose steadily through the ranks, went to the bench of the Bombay High Court in 1919 and had already presided over several important trials.

J.B. Kanga, the Advocate-general for Bombay led the prosecution. A Parsi and a tax specialist, he was one of the giants of the Bombay legal world and would attend court regularly until his death at age ninety two almost fifty years after this trial.  He was assisted by the Bombay-born (later Sir) Kenneth Kemp who would himself become Advocate-General. Kemp’s son, David, also became a lawyer in England and became the acclaimed expert on law relating to damages for injury or death.

The defence team was even more interesting. J.M. Sen Gupta of Calcutta was by now a major aide to Mahatma Gandhi and practising less law than previously. English-trained, he had a strong reputation and his English wife would become the President of the Indian National Congress in the 1930s. Sengupta himself would die as a political prisoner in 1932.

His assistant was more prominent still. Mohammad Ali Jinnah was simultaneously advancing his legal career as well as the political one that would lead to the partition of India in 1947 and the creation of Pakistan of which Jinnah became the first Governor-General. He was now part of the Indian National Congress but also leader of the All-India Muslim League and developing his thinking about the creation of a Muslim state.


With so many prisoners and the added political dimension of a princely state ruler being implicated, the case was complex. Crump’s summing up is still regarded as a work of extraordinary legal skill, and it cleared the way for all the accused to be found guilty. Three were sentenced to death, the rest to transportation for life in the Andaman Islands, British India’s notorious prison off the Southeast Asian coast.

Andaman Islands Prison

One verdict went to the Privy Council, however, because legal technicalities left Crump no other choice but a sentence of transportation or death even though he doubted the nature of the evidence. The case was rehearsed in the Privy Council by Sir John Simon who would later lead the Simon Commission to India to investigate possible further political reforms. Crump’s handling withstood the inquiry so Sardar Anandrao Gangaram Phanse went to the Andamans.

Two men were hanged: Shafi Ahmed Nabi Ahmed, and Shamrao Revaji Dighe. It was a huge cost for loyalty to their employer. The other man sentenced to death was declared mentally insane shortly after sentence was passed. The rest went to the Andamans as well.

Inevitably, the fledgling Indian movie industry was attracted, and what is still described as India’s first crime mystery film appeared quickly. Kulin Kanta was just the first of many such movies that shifted the facts around in order to make a story, and its main actor became the first of India’s movie heroes.

The movie connection was prophetic. Mumtaz Begum appeared in a silent film a few years later and was then said to have gone to Hollywood. There must be some uncertainty about that claim, though. In 1926 she married the son of a wealthy industrialist in Karachi, and they had two children. In 1929, however, her father-in-law demanded that the pair divorce, so she returned to Bombay with another settlement in the bank.

In 1946, she appeared in a story in the Milwaukee Sentinel illustrated by the marvellous Willy Pogany. Her daughter had married an Abdul Kadir in Amritsar, but a year after the marriage Mumtaz Begum turned up at the house and effectively kidnapped her own daughter. She herself then ended up in court.

Tukoji Rao Holkar III lost heavily. The guilty verdict meant that he was deemed the architect of the murder, an assumption that he challenged vigorously. The British threatened a commission of inquiry and, rather than face that, he abdicated in favour of his son. He spent most of his time in Europe, and in 1928 married an American, Nancy Anne Miller who converted to Hinduism, a move that alienated all sides of public life. That marriage failed fast and after she divorced, Miller sold the Indore Pears to Harry “King of Diamonds” Winston whose empire still continues. Among other things, Winston owned the Hope Diamond before gifting it to the Smithsonian. He bought and sold the Indore Pears several times, and they are now owned by Robert Mouawad, the third generation boss of the jewellery and watch company that began in Beirut in 1891 but whose headquarters he shifted to Geneva from where he internationalised the business.

Tukoji Rao Holkar III died in Paris in 1978.
—Thanks, Brian

Friday, March 25, 2016

Writing first past the post!

My agent, the wondrous Jane Gregory says that crime writers can’t be trusted.  Not that they are dishonest in any way but if left unattended they will wander towards the bar where they will probably misbehave but they are generally direct and quite organised people who like plotting death.

I am not a poet,  or a writer by any other means and I have always noticed a certain, (how shall I put it??)  airy fairiness in other writers, the faffing around rather than 'why don’t you just sit down and get it typed out' school of thought.

I was at the Scottish Association of Writers conference at the weekend.  I was invited to be the keynote speaker while my  and my heart went out to them because they have full time jobs, they all have commitments and it can’t be easy organising any three day conference but I had my concerns. The 'counterpointing of the surrealism' brigade were in full flow. 

But the huge thing that I noticed, and that I don’t understand, is their total belief that winning a competition means that you are a good writer.  So if we distil that down to MIE we would have the Jeff Siger award for Best Novel with Five Puns per Page,  Caro Ramsay would then be introduced as adjudicator and would probably start off a thirty minute speech by saying 'the standard this year was very low, some of the entrants only had four puns per page where five was the minimum allowed.  I deducted marks for the incorrect use of the apostrophe, bad grammar and typing whilst sitting on the wrong buttock.' After twenty seven minutes, we had to go through the commended, highly commended, first, second and third place. Multiply by thirty and that’s a very long time to sit and also kind of missed the point.... and I find it hard to define what point they are missing.

The SAW aids support to writers’ groups around Scotland and of that I have no doubt.  Our writers’ group (the Johnstone Writers’ Group), is probably the most successful in commercial publishing and is that because we are not affiliated to anybody – we have no AGM, we have no bank account, we have no treasurer, anybody can turn up and read. They will get good quality criticism from three published writers.  But the criticism is aimed at getting published.  I know that a lot of people write for their own experience and because they love the process and I do not have an issue with that. But I think the two types of writer are paddling a very different canoe and they should be aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  The president of SAW said to me at the gala dinner that he would happily come out and speak to our writers’ group and show us how SAW can support us and my brain sort of folded up because we really don’t need any support, we paddle our own canoe very well, thank you very much.

The trophies were an award for a good piece of writing, there was no agent representation to be won or publishing deal to be won, or appearance in a magazine to be won. It was just the trophy. So a writer pays five pounds to enter a competition and then pays to go to the conference and probably pays to go to the writers’ group in between (am I being very Scottish here that this is costing the writer money?). And then they win a small trophy that they then hand back next year.  Speaking later to somebody who knows a lot more about the publishing industry than I do said that they are very far away from reality; the writing on average lags far behind published standard.  But having said that everybody who attended my workshops had their ears open to what I had to say. Like the small fact it’s just not a case of being good. You  have to be better than the other two thousand submissions that are going to land on that desk that year.

My own pet moan was that the president was quite pleased that the main ballroom for the dinner was dark with the tables being candlelit.  I did say that as the notes for my forty minute speech were typed on paper it might be useful to turn the lectern light on for my speech.  He didn’t.  Even as I stood there to start off, he didn’t move.  Even when I started my speech with ‘it shows how old I am that I use pen and paper not like these technofiles with their backlit I-pads that they can see in the dark’ but he still didn’t move and I had to do most of the speech winging it.  A writer friend had warned me what the conference might be like, ” Caro you will be SOP all the time – Seat Of Pants.” 

My last event was to be a dragon on the Dragon’s Pen and this girl pitched a young adult model that was just so searingly beautiful and you could tell from her language that she had an insight into good writing.  I really hope she writes that novel and gets it out there to some agents and I hope preparing things for competitions doesn’t get in her way.

However, I had carefully structured my talk around three specific jokes; How many crime writers does it take to change a light bulb? Answer three.  Two to do the writing and one to put in the final twist.  

Second one, how many publishers does it take to change a light bulb?  Answer – three.  One to do the deal and two to hold the author down.  

And thirdly how many osteopaths does it take to change a light bulb?  Answer two.  One to turn the bulb and one to hear the final click.  

Two slightly rude ones that I read out on the night and I wouldn’t have if I had had the light on but if you annoy a lassie from Govan, the lassie from Govan hits right back.  Doctor, doctor I seem to have a lettuce stuck up my bottom.  Doctor replies you think you’ve got problems, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. 

What wears glasses and has a wet nose? A short sighted gynaecologist.

Caro Ramsay 25/03/2016

Thursday, March 24, 2016


It doesn’t matter what you believe the reasons are for why the climate is changing, the reality is that things are changing.  And changing quickly.  In all sorts of unexpected ways.

In a sense, it is the unpredictability of the changes that has caught us off guard. Throughout the world, weather patterns are weird - places having higher highs or lower lows; areas, normally dry, having floods; areas, normally wet, having droughts.  

For many people arguing about the role humans have played in climate change is the extent to which they get involved.  Their involvement is academic.  Certainly they read about what may happen if the oceans rise a metre or so.  What will happen to Miami or New York City, not to mention many Pacific Ocean islands and island nations that may disappear all together?

They may also notice a rise in some food prices.  But few actually experience what climate change can really mean to a community.

South Africa is experiencing a terrible drought this summer – not all of the country, of course, but much of the food-basket areas in the centre of the country, as well as the area around Cape Town, where severe water restrictions are in place.

I read about the fact that the farmers of the Free State province won’t have any crops this year.  

Non-existent crops in the Free State
Dams are empty or nearly so.
Dead sheep
I see hundreds of plastic bottles of water outside filling stations, all donated, that will be transported to the affected areas.  

There are hundreds of water collection points around the country.

People queuing for water.

Waiting for water.
I see photographs of cracked, arid soil with nothing growing.  I speak to people who normally use local beef to make biltong - the South Africa equivalent of jerky, but who now are importing beef so they can keep their businesses alive.  Many of the local cattle have died.

However, other than paying increased costs if I don’t cut my average water consumption in Cape Town by 20%, I don’t actually experience the effects of the drought firsthand.  I can still get water whenever I want it.

This week, for the first time, I saw for myself the effects of the drought firsthand.

I travelled to Ingwelala, a private game reserve bordering the famed Kruger National Park.  Normally it is rich in game because of its abundant grazing and browsing, as well as its dams, full of water pumped from boreholes.

This year, the dams are still full, but there are few animals because there is no grass to eat.  Having water to drink is nice, but if there is nothing to eat, it’s time to leave and find something better elsewhere.

What is strange is that the bushes and trees seem to have found water deep underground and are in decent shape, but there is no grass whatsoever – just barren sand.

No grass

Nothing for grazers to eat
The most noticeable difference from normal times is the devastation of trees and bushes by elephants desperate for something to eat.  Hungry elephants have toppled hundreds of trees just to get to the few delicious leaves at the top.  The same elephants have uprooted hundreds, if not thousands, of bushes to get to the moisture of the root systems.  

Apparently elephants find some moisture around the roots

Could be a scene after a WWI bombardment

More devastation

Elephants are breaking through electric fences into camp to get to the fresh-water pipes.

Baobabs store water in the trunk.  Elephants often dig into the trunks to get to the moisture.  Rocks placed around the base of the tree are designed to keep the ellies away.

Concrete pyramids to keep ellies away
To make things worse, the elephants are so stressed that they are behaving unpredictably.  An Ingwelala member, casually watching some elephants, was chased for no reason for over 600 metres by an irritable elephant, which needed to blow off some steam.  Fortunately nobody was hurt.  My co-author, earlier in the year was also charged, and friends Aron and Jenny had their car damaged by an irritated ellie - while they were in it!

Elephant charging Aron and Jennie's car - photo by very scared passenger (Roger Taylor)
We normally have a few hippos on the property, but they’ve also left because here is nothing to eat.  A friend who just returned from Kruger told me that the hippos there are in such bad shape that they are foraging during the day (instead of at night).  Many are severely undernourished.  In fact, Kruger is considering culling hippos because of the drought.  Read more about it here.  

Kubu would definitely be short-tempered if he found himself in such a situation.  

Even though it is a very depressing sight to drive around Ingwelala, there are a few bright spots:  the impala and kudu are doing well, probably because they can browse as well as graze; the giraffes are fine because they can reach those succulent leaves high up, and the lions and leopards are in hog heaven (that doesn’t sound right!) because all they have to do is hang around a waterhole and dinner comes to them.
Giraffes are browsers - fortunately for them.
The kudu are in good condition - they browse as well.
The warthogs hogging a small pond.
The point I’m trying to make is that if you want to understand the real effects of climate change, go and stay somewhere where changes are having a dire impact, where lives are at stake, where the future is uncertain.

PS.  After I had finished writing this blog, I came across this video of a game park, Madikwe, in another part of South Africa.  As I said, the weather is weird everywhere.  Click here to watch.