Wednesday, April 26, 2017

In Minneapolis, Purple Still Reigns

dem atlas covers Prince this past weekend

Last weekend, when I was visiting the "Twin Cities" of Minneapolis and St. Paul, I was hit with an unexpected surge of purple.

Purple was the favorite color of Prince, a Minnesota funk-rock star--and April 21 was the one-year anniversary of his untimely death in 2016 by overdose. I grew up in St. Paul and was just a few years younger than the man born Prince Rogers Nelson. Prince released his first album, "Soft and Wet," at the age of 17, and avidly followed his every move over the next several decades, as did my sisters.  Like Prince, we were young people of color living in a state that was predominantly white. There were no black musicians played on the radio except for on our sole "black" station,  KMOJ-FM.

Scene outside First Avenue at Prince Memorial

 It was hard to make friends, or find someone willing to date you, when you were a few shades darker than the majority or had an unpronounceable name. It was exhilarating to see Prince—a small, light-skinned black man who wore lace and satin and high heels—fearlessly be himself.

Artists who perform at First Ave are celebrated in stars. Only Prince's is golden

Prince’s biggest local shows were at a large nightclub called First Avenue at the downtown Minneapolis. First Avenue remains one of the top national nightclubs that still showcases local performers. Prince’s first film, Purple Rain, is a fictitious story in which he plays "The Kid," someone very much like himself, trying to make it in show business, get the girl, and deal with some hard family issues. The 1984 movie was a hit, with Prince's artistry stealing the show. Watching it later, I notice how mixed-race his audience appeared. People seemed to forget about traditional boundaries and fell in love with his hypnotic beats and daring lyrics. I mark this as the start of a new Minnesota. 

Purple Rain, best film score ever

Prince shot to stardom shortly after I’d become 18, the legal age to go to First Avenue's night shows. When he came to Baltimore's Civic Center, I was a college student and bought a ticket to his show. I pushed my way to the edge of backstage and gave one of the roadies a note addressed to  my high school friend, Susan Moonsie, who'd become a singer one of his custom-made opening bands: Vanity Six. I was gloriously lucky to find myself escorted backstage, where I hung out with Susan all night and met the other Vanity 6 singers and the men of The Time.  However, I didn't get to exchange words with Prince. Susan didn't want to introduce me because the two of them were in an argument.

Brenda, Vanity and Susan of Vanity 6

Despite his superstar status, Prince  never abandoned Minnesota. He built a massive home and recording studio in the suburb of Chanhassen named Paisley Park, after one of his songs, and often opened it to friends and fans who came for private parties with performances. Prince sometimes showed up to play at Minneapolis’s Dakota jazz club or First Avenue. 

Paisley Park is now open to tourists

During Prince’s adult years, Minnesota diversified. The state became the chief home of refugees from Somalia. It became a leader in families with international adoptions and was said to be "the gayest city after San Francisco."

Last weekend St. Paul, Minneapolis and Edina lit their buildings and bridges purple honoring Prince

Was Prince a symbol of civic change--or was he an agent of change?

 I wondered about this as I walked through the Twin Cities last weekend listening to the top favorite 89 Prince Songs on The Current, a Minnesota Public Radio station that, like KMOJ, had a special relationship with the artist. Spring comes late in the upper Midwest—while the grass was green, the tulips were just popping and the trees were taking on a light haze of leaves. In many neighborhoods, the gardens sprouted yard signs: “Black Lives Matter,” and “Falcon Heights: The World is Watching,” a reference to the fatal police shooting of Philando Castile in my own neighborhood that came a few months after Prince's death.

The most popular sign was in rainbow hues, with the state of Minnesota on one sign and on the other, the phrase, “All Are Welcome Here." The overt activism reminded me of the growing political and spiritual content of Prince’s work in the years just before his death. He had his eyes on the world, and he wanted to keep building bridges.

In April 2015, I was living in Baltimore during a period that it seemed one black male after another was killed by police. In Baltimore, a young man named Freddie Gray was arrested on suspicion of carrying drugs; he died after a short ride to jail in a police van. During a two-day period after Freddie’s funeral, areas of Baltimore were filled with destructive protestors and hundreds of fires were set. We endured almost a week of curfew and a city takeover by soldiers with the National Guard.

We never dreamed that Prince's career would end a year later

As the city was stilling itself, the city had stilled—but hardly returned to normal—Prince announced he was coming to Baltimore to perform a free "Rally 4 Peace."  He booked the Royal Farms Arena at his own expense. He wrote a song called “Baltimore” that was compassionate yet had a happy,  bopping beat. The song will never be his greatest hit, but it seems a perfectly distilled essence of his style and dogged determination to share joy as the way forward.  

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

It's all in the taste

The first round of the French Presidential election on Sunday shook things up.  In France it's been described as an 'earthquake', a 'revolution' and a 'leap into the unknown'. Political novice Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine le Pen topped the lists and will go into the second round on May 7. This marks the first time in over half a century that the traditional ruling parties of left and right have both stumbled on the first hurdle. But enough of elections.
Let's get to the sweet things.

My friend just arrived from Paris post-election and brought these for a house gift. She's welcome anytime!
What a treat after coming back from the LATimes BookFestival to find this on the kitchen table.
That's Todd Goldberg, Gary Phillips and one of Todd's writing students.
Have you ever heard of a cheese latte? Found this in LA and did not try. Will stick with the Macaroons from Paris.
But I'd like to talk about a film. A French favorite, made in 1966, that in a recent article in a Paris paper seems to be a film that is shown every April during the school break (two weeks long!) Almost everyone appears to have made this a tradition during Easter time. It got the highest ratings, as always, again this year. La Grand Voudrille or Don't Look Now we're being shot At. This is with Louis de Funes, Bouvril and Terry-Thomas.

You can watch the whole movie on youtube here and a lot of it is in English.
 A film about two ordinary Frenchmen helping the crew of a Royal Air Force bomber shot down over Paris make their way through German-occupied France to escape arrest.

For over forty years, until the release of Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis, a comedy in 2008, La Grande Vadrouille was the most successful French film in France, topping the box office. It remains the third most successful film ever in France, of any nationality, behind the 1997 version of Titanic and Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis.
The plot is simple it's summer 1941. Over German-occupied France, a Royal Air Force bomber becomes lost after a mission and is shot down over Paris by German flak. Three of the crew, Sir Reginald (Terry-Thomas) Peter Cunningham and Alan MacIntosh, parachute out over the city, where they run into and are hidden by a house painter, Augustin Bouvet, (Bouvril) a puppet show operator, Juliette, and the grumbling conductor of the Opéra National de Paris, Stanislas Lefort (Louis de Funes). Involuntarily, Lefort, Juliette and Bouvet get themselves tangled up in the manhunt against the aviators led by Wehrmacht Major Achbach as they help the airmen to escape to the free zone with the help of Resistance fighters and sympathisers.
What better lens to view history then comedy?
Cara - Tuesday 

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Amber of Zanji

Annamaria on Monday

In the tenth century, an Arab traveler named al Masu’di wrote of his wonderings in Persia, India, and China.  And along the east African coast, which he called the Land of Zanj.  Chinese, Indian, and Persian traders adopted the moniker for the area from present-day Mogadishu south to Pemba Island in Tanzania.  Roughly translated “Zanj” means “the land of blacks.”

The Bantu peoples who lived there, through intermarriage and trading relationships, eventually developed what is now the Swahili culture and its language, which for a few centuries has been the lingua franca of the that part of Africa.

In the heyday of Zanj, there were thirty-seven port villages doing substantial business in imports and exports.  A few became quite prosperous, but they were under a ruling class of Arabs and Persians.   Two of the most important medieval coastal settlements are modern cities in Kenya: Malindi and Mombasa.

When he went there, at the end of the first millennium of the Christian era, Masu’di found a mixed population of Muslims and Bantu pagans.  And riches worth trading, not the least of which was amber.  Here is what he said of that highly prized substance:

“Amber is found in great quantities on the Zanj coast…The best is …sometimes as big as an ostrich egg, sometimes slightly less…”

The jewel-like substance is really fossilized tree resin, and was sought after for its beauty from the time of the cavemen.  In Zanj, it could be found lying on the beaches.

Masu’di also found other luxury goods in the area:

“The land of Zanj produces wild leopard skin.  The people wear them as clothes, or export them to Muslim countries.  They are the largest leopard skins and the most beautiful for making saddles…  They also export tortoise-shell for making combs, for which ivory is likewise used.

“There are many wild elephants but no tame ones.  The Zanj do not use them for war or anything else, but only hunt and kill them…for their ivory.  …the tusks.. go to Oman, and from there are sent to China and India.  This is the chief trade route, and if it were not so, ivory would be common in Muslim countries.”

Keep in mind that these are quotes from someone who died around 945 AD!     
Though the people in that part of Africa were often stereotyped as backward by the lighter skinned folks from farther north, many visitors thought them much more accomplished.  One Fourteenth Century Berber visitor described the city of Kilwa as “one of the most beautiful and well-constructed towns in the world.  The whole of it elegantly built.  The roofs are built with mangrove pole.”  He reported the chief qualities of the population as “devotion and piety.”

Sad to say, a major export from the area was people.  For centuries, all the countries with ports on the Indian Ocean brought in slaves taken from among the Bantu of east Africa, who did just about all the household work and soldiering in Persia and were known as far away as China, where they were called Seng Chi (Zanji).

Some of the slaves in the Middle East were put to work in miserable conditions on sugar cane plantations in what is now Iraq.  Between 869 and 883 AD, they rebelled against their Arab masters in the first known uprising by black slaves in history.

After the Middle Ages, the name Zanj fell out of use.  It was British explorers who brought it back at the end of the Nineteenth Century to describe the forbidding and mysterious land that piqued their adventurous longings.

The very sound of the word piques mine now.

Buddhist prayer beads brought home from China in 1946
by my father, with three beads of amber and one of ivory.  

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Berlin Part 1: Lawton Reflects On A City That Won’t Let Go (at least in his novels)

As I write this, I am deep in the French Alps with limited wi-fi connection, so my friend and fellow author John Lawton, has very kindly stepped into the breach with the first of his impressions of Berlin, a city brilliantly explored in the first of his Joe Wilderness series, AND THEN WE TAKE BERLIN. I'll be back in a fortnight with my take on the south of France, boxing marmots, and icicles...

John Lawton

Berlin does not pall. No idea why. So much else does. After umpteen visits it still fascinates.

I first went there almost by accident, and at that by an odd route, in 1989.

I was in Prague, for Channel 4 (UK TV) covering a visit by Harold Pinter who was there to see one of his plays, Mountain Language, performed at The Magic Lantern and to meet fellow playwright Vaclav Havel, who was unlucky enough to be stuck with the job of president of Czechoslovakia – Havel told me he wanted out as soon as possible … that didn’t happen for another thirteen years.

I thought I’d wrapped the shoot when visas and carnets arrived with instructions to film at the premiere of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in West Berlin – a film Harold had scripted. Visas, carnets but no airline tickets … but the visas seemed to cover us for the rapidly collapsing DDR (East Germany) as well as Berlin so I got the cameraman and myself on a train from Prague to East Berlin and crawled across Prussia (quite the most boring stretch of countryside imaginable, and unlikely ever to be in anyone’s ‘Great Railway Journeys’) via Dresden and into the Lichtenberger Station in East Berlin.

It was way past midnight.

Cabs aplenty, but no driver willing to take us to our hotel on the Kurfurstendamm

“We’re the wrong side of the fuckin’ wall,” the cameraman said, unhappy about the journey from the start.

“It’s OK. I speak the universal language.”

I did what I had done in many a city, I fanned out a hundred dollars in twenties and waved them. I have known directors more blunt than that, who simply yelled out “Bribes! Dollars! Bribes! Who do I have to fuck to get out of here?”

After a few minutes a driver approached and said he’d take us but there would be no guarantees we’d get to the other side.

“A lot has happened,” he said. “The rules don’t work any more.”

He was right.

He brought the cab to a halt in Friedrichstraße, in an eerily empty car-marshalling yard, just to the north of Checkpoint Charlie.

“There’s no one here,” he said, incredulous.

We drove on. Reached the second barrier manned by the Americans – or in this case, unmanned by the Americans. They too had gone home.

“Must be summat good on the telly,” the cameraman opined. “Juventus versus Nottingham Forest.”

At the Kempinski Hotel, we unloaded our sizeable kit and I gave the driver his hundred dollars. He just stared at it and I realised it was probably an utterly over-the-top sum. I hadn’t a clue what the exchange rate was.

“Keep it,” I said.

“I think you just paid off his mortgage,” said my miserable companion.

The next day the cameraman pulled a few strings. He had a mate in the British Army of Occupation – and he got us a car with a Ministry of Defence registration … and a willing driver.

We drove back to Checkpoint Charlie, now fully manned. Both sides noted the number plate but no one asked for so much as a glimpse of a passport. We were ‘Military’. So we roamed around East Berlin, breathed in the rarified air of ten thousand farting Trabants, shot a few rolls of ‘general views’ and went back to the West, equally unmolested by authority.

In the evening … we were supposed to film the premiere. It just didn’t work out that way. The quiet of day erupted into the riot of night.

We found our way to Potsdamerplatz, where kids with sledgehammers were knocking holes in the Wall (Der Mauer), and East German guards were futilely trying to stop them.

The top of the wall wasn’t flat, it was more like a sausage. All the same dozens, if not hundreds were standing on it, taunting the guards. We filmed for a few minutes, then the cameraman said, “I’m not missing this,” strapped the camera to his back and shinned up the hand-chipped footholds in the side of the wall. I had the tripod. You think directing is the tops? No such luck. Directors mostly just carry the tripod. I couldn’t climb the wall with a fekkin’ tripod on my back, but by now one of the holes in the wall was big enough to step through. I followed half a dozen students through the gap, only to meet armed guards shoving us back. The cameraman waved at me. I just glowered.

The party went on all night.

I got fed up after a couple of hours, left the cameraman up there and went back to the hotel.

The next day I pointed out that the wall just didn’t run through the middle of the city, it wrapped West Berlin completely – and I wanted shot of the wall in the middle of the countryside. Something real but against the grain of most newsreel shots of the Berlin Wall.

It wasn’t hard to find a spot on the north side of the city, at the top end of the French Sector.

Already, Berliners had been out with their sledgehammers, and there was gap between the concrete plates just big enough to squeeze through.

I stood in an open meadow in the DDR. No stink of Trabants. Not a human being in sight. The cameraman stuck the lens of the camera through the hole. I walked to the brow of the hill, and as I topped it three Stasi with sub-machine guns ran up the far slope towards me. I have never been the sporty type – all sport bores me – but my one accomplishment in shorts and plimsolls at school had been sprinting. I shot back towards the camera, Stasi in pursuit, knowing full well that this would probably end up in the company’s Christmas Party video, an annual festival of embarrassment most commonly featuring news readers caught picking their noses or reporters using the lens as a mirror while renewing lipstick unaware the bastard cameraman was recording it.

I got away. Not a shot fired. Well, I never thought they would.

The day after we came to leave Berlin. Tegel airport. No film of Harold Pinter and Margaret Atwood, plenty of GV’s to keep us in TV ‘wallpaper’ for weeks if not months, and a few minutes of me evading arrest that the cameraman refused to let me destroy.

Our gear was ... hefty. It was probably worth around £120,000, so we travelled with a sheaf of carnet papers for customs simply to avoid paying the earth in import duty every time we boarded a plane. It was de rigeur to get them stamped every time you entered or left a country.

But … no one had seen us enter West Berlin.

The West German Customs were baffled.

“How did you get here?”

“Through Checkpoint Charlie.”

“But there are no stamps.”

“They’d all gone home for the night.”


“Both sides. No Germans, no Russians, no Americans.”

I was not believed. These were young men. The Wall was a fixture. It had been there before they were born and for the whole of their short lives. That it had days, if not hours to live, had not occurred to them. It was as if I had told them mountains moved.

The cameraman said, “We’ll end up like that mythical BBC crew. The one that keeps a kit permanently at Heathrow ‘cos they ain’t got the carnets to bring it into London. No kit, no ‘Arold bloody Pinter. Boss’ll kill you.”

Reason or, more likely, my gift of the gab prevailed.

“You may be waiting for re-unification,” I told them. “Most Berliners reckon it’s already happened. Go down to Potsdamerplatz and see for yourself. You could practically push the wall over.”

It was years before I saw Berlin again. Berlin united has changed so much and I am constantly grateful for two days spent in the Cold War, lukewarm as it was by 1989 … without them I would be a writer bereft of a subject.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Ten Years Ago Tomorrow


I’m not sure there is much I can say about the state of our world today that hasn’t been said before. Which prompts me to wonder, who will be around to say it next time?

With all the crises surrounding us—real, unreal, and delusional—not the least of which jingoism justifying genocidal prerogatives of every stripe everywhere, it’s ever more difficult to find a comforting symbol of what the future may hold.

This was prepared a year ago. There is much to add.

For some, it may be that photo of Kid Rock, Sarah Palin, and Ted Nugent taken in the White House this week in front of the portrait of Hillary Clinton during the group’s four-hour visit, tour, and lunch with President Trump.  According to Mr. Nugent (as reported in The New York Times), “the president and his guests engaged in a wide-ranging conversation that Mr. Nugent said included the following topics: ‘health, fitness, food, rock ’n’ roll, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, secure borders, the history of the United States, guns, bullets, bows and arrows, North Korea, Russia’ and a half-dozen other issues.”

Bizarrely, both critics and supporters of the President may find comfort in knowing that the leader of the free world took four-hours away from pressing matters of state to host the trio. 

Actually, I just smiled and went back to reading Anna Karenina.  “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  And, yes, quoting a Russian novelist is purely coincidental.

Leo Tolstoy

All of which leads me back to wondering about the future. Not worrying, mind you, wondering.  We are plainly living in interesting times, and as a writer I get to escape to wherever I wish, whenever I want, metaphysically speaking of course.

And for this moment in time I’m returning to Monday, April 23, 2007. 

What a glorious day to be in Orlando.   No, not just for Mickey and Minnie, but Jon and Jennifer, my son and his wife, for on that day they welcomed into our world their son, and my first grandchild.

Now, ten years later, Azi exemplifies the sort of loving, gentle, thoughtful soul our world needs to get back on track.  May you flourish, my love, and all the rest of us along with you.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY--and welcome to double digits!

Love you.


Thursday, April 20, 2017

Miss me but let me go

Sometimes something that is very sad is also very uplifting.

Last week, an 18-year-old South African woman, Ontlametse Phalatse, died in a Pretoria hospital.  Shortly before, she complained to the driver of the taxi she was in that she was having difficulty breathing, and collapsed on the floor.  She was rushed to a local clinic, then to a Pretoria hospital, where doctors could not save her.

Obviously, it is tragic that a young woman should die so young.

What is uplifting is that Ontlametse was the first black person to be diagnosed with a rare disease called progeria, which causes a person to age rapidly.  On initial diagnosis, Ontlametse was told that she may see her fourteenth birthday, but wouldn’t live much beyond that.  So, she outlived that prediction by four years.

 It is how she lived her life that had such a huge impact on people.  Not only did she accept that her life was going to be short, but she vowed to live it to the fullest.  She used her celebrity status to get politicians to pay attention to the facilities of the school she attended; she provided sanitary pads to all the girls in the school, many of whom could  not afford them; she became a motivational speaker, trying to encourage others who were suffering to take a positive view of the world; and she created a bucket list of things to do and people to meet.

 It almost seems that her mind and wisdom also outran her age.  She was wise beyond her years.

One item on her bucket list was to meet the President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma.  She used the occasion to make him promise the he would ensure that his foundation would build her mother a house.  She also received an invitation to be a Very Important Person at his 75th birthday party.  She died just before that happened.

With President Zuma

Ontlametse in the dress she was going to wear to Zuma's birthday.  With her mother.
 One can only be moved at the courage of this young woman who was physically so different from all her school mates.  One can only imagine how difficult that was for her.  She once said “Beauty is not the appearance of someone but it is their personality and how they are on the inside as well as their heart. 

As one would expect, her funeral was a celebration of a remarkable life, with people from all walks of life paying her tribute.

For me, a Whatsapp message she sent to the principal of her high school sums up who she was:  Miss me a little and not too long‚ miss me but let me go.”

What a woman!  What an inspiration.


Murder Is Everywhere
Author Recognitions and Events


April 28-26
Malice Domestic
Hyatt Regency
Bethesda, Maryland
Panel: The British Empire
(FYI- Sujata and I will be on the same panel!!!)

May 31
Janet Rudolph Literary Salon:
"The History of Hot Places: Clashes between Colonialism and Local Cultures”
Joint appearance with Michael Cooper


Murder in Saint Germain, Aimée Leduc’s next investigation, comes out June 6, 2017.


Paper back of Rat Run published 28th March.


"The Olive Growers,” appears in BOUND BY MYSTERY, an anthology edited by Diane DiBiasi celebrating the 20th Anniversary of Poisoned Pen Press, out in March.


Dying to Live (Kubu #6) to be released in May in UK & South Africa and in October in USA

May 19-21    
Franschhoek Literary Festival (Michael).

May 20          
Panel :One Voice, Two Authors with Alex Latimer and Diane Awerbuck 11:30 - 12:30

May 21          
Panel: The Author as Chemist with Joanne Harris and Ekow Duker 11:30 - 12:30

May 19-21    
Crimefest in Bristol UK (Stanley)

14:40 - 15:30:   What Are You Hiding?: The Dark Side Of Human Nature 

12:30 - 13:20:  Panel: Power Corrupts: Who Can You Turn To?