Saturday, February 27, 2010

Phnom Penh Life

"So," you may ask (and if you don't, you should) "what's it like to live in Bangkok these days?"

The short answer is that these days I live mainly in Phnom Penh, which is as much like Bangkok as Lodi is like Los Angeles. It's an interesting town, even if many of the ways it's interesting take some getting used to.

Let's start with my apartment.

This is the alley one walks down to get to my apartment.

What you don't see any of is lights. It took me some time to learn to enter it around 11 PM without my pulse rate tripling. Now, however, I know every family in the place, and it's no longer an ordeal that produces interesting adrenaline spikes. After you feel your way all the way down the alley in the dark, you reach:

My door.

Note the curb appeal. Yes, it's solid steel and yes, it triple-locks. The door has a message, directed to anyone who might decide to try to get through it to relieve me of any of my possessions, and the message can be summarized in five words: Don't even think about it. Inside the door, a flight of stairs leads to my apartment itself, which has a door just like this one except that there's steel mesh behind the bars and glass behind the steel mesh and a hideous, vaguely African, fabric behind the glass. The door leads directly into:

My kitchen.

I think "functional" is the best word, although you might modify it by preceding it with "more or less." The little refrigerator comes up to my elbows and holds less than the average body pore, and freezes most of that solid. The most important thing in the kitchen is the coffee maker on top of the refrigerator. It's almost the only thing I use. The little two-burner gas hotplate is hooked up to a bright red propane tank out of sight behind the refrigerator, which I think of as my personal bomb. The gas cooker has a wonderful brand name:

You're right, that says "Endurable Collection." I think it's perfect. They could have said "durable" or "enduring," or even "endearing," but they chose "Endurable," which is exactly accurate. It's an appliance you can learn to endure, at least on a good day. The kitchen is at the back of the apartment (or the front, since it's where the door is) and outside of the air conditioned area because Southeast Asians can't think of any good reason to have an air conditioner and a stove running in the same room, which I think is quite sane.

As dire as these pictures are, the apartment is actually quite nice -- a balcony overlooking the river, a big living room with the bookcases and work area, a bedroom with its own separate air conditioner, and two big bathrooms that work just fine, thanks. When I get tired of the apartment, I can always visit:

The house next door.

Honest. This wonderful, if derelict, colonial mansion, built around 1910, is widely believed to be haunted (no kidding) and has been empty, off and on, since the Khmer Rouge were in power. Its most famous ghost is a soldier who's always encountered on the stairs, whereupon he reaches up and pulls his hair, which hinges his head back to reveal a deeply slashed throat. Surely, a simple "Hello" would suffice. When I first moved here, I could have bought it for $240,000 and didn't. A month ago, the Fpreign Correspondents Club, which is right behind it, bought it for US $2.2 million and plan to put another $2 million into renovating it into a very exclusive small hotel. Don't know what they're going to do about the ghosts.

In case all this looks too grim, we're directly across the street from:

The National Museum.

And right down the street (actually, next door to the Museum) is the Royal Palace, where King Norodom Sihomoni lives. So it's a tony area, actually. And it's full of:

Monks with Umbrellas.

How cool is that?

Friday, February 26, 2010

The World's Most Macabre Museum?

You might have guessed by now that I have a thing for London's secrets, the darker the better. Much of it is inaccessible, whether it be ghost stations on the underground, or long-deceased railways to transport the dead. Not all of it though. My favourite London museum is little-known, teeming with macabre artefacts and brimful with stories.

The Hunterian Museum sits inside the imposing Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln's Inn Fields, which means it doesn't get much passing trade. I was told about it by a friend and first went to visit in 2005. You climb a few steps of the old building, and make your way in through an unassuming doorway. Then you're met with an amazing, creepy sight: row upon row of preserved human and animal organ specimens floating in jars, like the world's most gruesome pharmacy. It's like a cross between a Damien Hirst installation and the set of a horror movie. Ghoulish, ghostly but also weirdly beautiful.

It's mainly the private collection of one man, John Hunter, a remarkable character who many view as the father of modern day surgery. He spent a life collecting body parts. 14,000 in total. All dissected, studied, then pickled in formaldehyde, and now on view to the public, though from experience most of those walking around tend to be medical students, art students looking for a visceral sketch or too, or crime writers.

You cannot help but gawp in a sort of ghastly awe at the exhibits. A tiny human foot floats free, belonging to a child who died of smallpox, the disease that killed thousands of people in 18th century Britain. The child it belonged to is long forgotten, and you hope that its foot, preserved for the ages, helped to understand and finally eradicate that terrible virus.

Things get more surreal and haunting the deeper you venture and the closer you look. There is a whole shelf of tongues belonging to different animals, whales, baboons and elephants, and the minute body of a dead infant sloth which looks like an alien. There are the sexual organs of a host of animals, many of which were provided by London Zoo, though Hunter had a menagerie of his own. He practically bankrupted his family in his desire to track down specimens for research.

Of course, the human body interested him most and in 18th century Britain people of his ilk were able to obtain the bodies of convicted felons for dissection and study. There was a great competition for these corpses (and of course, to meet demand, the likes of Burke and Hare would later provide the bodies of ordinary folk for those who didn't ask too many questions about the merchandise) and Hunter wasn't above a bit of chicanery. One of the exhibits is the skeleton of 7ft 8 inch Irish 'giant' Charles Byrne. He was a freak show spectacle, one of the foremost celebrities of the day. Because of his huge frame he knew surgeons across the land were queuing up to get their hands on his corpse and see what secrets it would yield. Byrne asked to be buried at sea in a lead coffin to thwart them. His plain failed; when he died, Hunter paid off the undertaker and got his prize. It's still a debate within the museum over whether Byrne's wishes should be honoured and his remains buried. For the moment, he remains an exhibit.

Alongside jars and the skeletons are models and sculptures that tell the story of the early years of modern surgery (his death mask is also part of the collection, and is one of the creepiest things there.) The most gruesome of which is a wax model of a man, fully awake, his left cheek opened up to reveal a tumour, while two disembodied hands work at it with a saw. At first you think, 'That's just a gross bit of sculpture' until you learn that the artist created the work while watching a man undergo that very surgical experience, without the benefit of anaesthetic, his face stern but calm.

There's also enough strange surgical contraptions to give David Cronenberg the conniptions. My favourite being the Clockwork Saw, which never made it past the prototype phase, mainly because it lacked precision, was difficult to control when wound and often ended up slicing and dicing the surgeon's assistant and not the patient. All major failings in a piece of medical equipment.

Hunter had a brother William with a similarly morbid collection, on view at the University of Glasgow. There, the museum is available for hire, so you can enjoy your wedding reception surrounded by pickled embryos, dissected wombs and preserved penises, which should at least cut down on the cost of the buffet.


Dan - Friday

Thursday, February 25, 2010

I had a Farm in Africa

Cara’s question about fixer-uppers inevitably reminded me of the fixer-upping I was involved in with my partners last year.

It was like this. Three of us share a thatched house with a deck overlooking the Olifants (Elephants) River. The bungalow is one of eighty such units which are scattered throughout a private game reserve which borders the Kruger National Park. Since there are no fences, it essentially is the Kruger National Park as far as the animals and other creatures are concerned. Thatch is a beautiful and clever roofing material widely used from Cape Dutch times and still common today. The high peaked roofs allow hot air to rise which keeps the house relatively cool. Often there is a loft with windows to let the hot air escape. Thatch does have its disadvantages however. One is that it wears out and has to be replaced every twenty years or so. Another is that insurance companies don’t like it.
                                The view from the deck
The house used solar power for lighting. There is plenty of sun in that part of the world and solar is attractive since it is both free and green. Unfortunately it couldn’t run appliances like stoves and water heaters. For this we used gas. Any cook will tell you about the desirable features of gas, but it has an undesirable aspect when in close proximity to thatch.

No one is quite sure what happened, but we know one partner left the gas bottle switched on when she left the unit to come home to Johannesburg. This was a mistake, but it shouldn’t have been a disaster. But one of the appliances must have been left on also. Such things have pilot flames. And cooking gas is denser than air so it sinks to the floor and forms a gas lake. If the bungalow had been open, the gas might simply have dissipated. But in the closed up house, the lake slowly filled until it reached the flame...

People in a bungalow across the river heard the explosion which was followed by a fireball rising from the thatch. And thatch is really just dry grass. The staff at the game reserve did their best to save the house, even taking risks to save a few pieces of furniture and the like. But by the next morning nothing was left except ash and the bare, burnt walls.

I remember hearing about it while at dinner meeting. I thought it was a bad joke or some confusion with a minor accident. But on receiving a second call, I realised it was true. The bungalow that had withstood two record floods was no more. It wasn’t really a fixer-upper; we had to start again from scratch. A new design, new features, a new fight with the insurance company, and NO gas. But the new house rose. I think we’ll call it Phoenix.

                                                        The new bungalow

                                                       Sunset in the river
There is a sequel to the story. When we were there last December a unit was struck by lightning. The owners were in the reserve but not at the house. We knew just how they felt as they heard of exploding gas bottles and a brand new land rover consumed in the flames. Two houses burning down in a year was extraordinary.

And, oh yes, our insurance premiums went up.

Michael - Thursday

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Hail, hail the flag

When Iceland became a republic (for the second time) in 1944 the first thing on the agenda was to whip up a constitution. The runner up involved issuing the Flag Law. From this one must assume that at the time our leaders must have believed this the second most important thing to have in place if intent on running a country properly. Now something akin to our Flag Law must certainly exist in other countries but I am not sure if they have retained the same importance elsewhere as they still do here. Almost everyone has heard of them and most people know what they roughly entail. Make no mistake however, this is not due to the foresight of the legislators involved or an uncanny ability to write timeless text but the fact that it has somehow not evolved, a remnant of a long ago time when a flag was something to truly respect.

A couple of years ago I was based in the highlands of Iceland, working as the technical manager for the construction supervision of a hydropower plant. One of the things I was entrusted with was the flag belonging to the owner of the project – who also owned the flagpoles outside my office. Although not technical at all, this flag came with a responsibility that was made clear to me upon the handover, both verbally and with a copy of the Flag Law that I was to familiarize myself with and keep next to the flag at all times. Obviously not when tied to the flagpole, but that was the only excusable exception. One of the very few and precious drawers on my desk had to be sacrificed as storage space for the flag and although at the beginning these two items (the flag and the Flag Law) were the only occupants of this confined space, over time they received visitors in the form of pens, erasers, papers and paper clips.

To keep it brief the Flag Law is a pretty strange read as it contains articles that do not strike a thread in the modern day. It is way too serious and restricting, you can’t do this and you can’t do that (with the flag), making it seem like no fun at all. A hugely complicated “how not to place it” in a row of flags involving something about it being at the far left and the placing other flags in alphabetical order to the right, really made me thankful that we only had three flagpoles and thus no chance of the United Nations arriving impromptu and expecting to be greeted by a procession of dozens of flags from countries with oddly spelled names. The left/right thing was immensely complicated because of how the poles were situated; there was no obvious right and no obvious left.

As an example of the strange rules embodied by the Flag Law, one article dictates that all chiefs of police in Iceland are to keep samples of accepted colours and dimensions allowed to make the flag. Such a set is also to be kept in the prime minister’s office. I am tempted to check how strictly this is adhered to, but won’t as I would be too taken aback if these parties actually had such samples in their possession. You might wonder why these samples are so important but this relates to the huge no-no placed on using hues that are a bit off. The police are actually expected to be on the lookout for unacceptable flags, for example if you happen to have a flag that is tattered, has become dull or has somehow changed colours - be prepared to have it confiscated. Once a flag is confiscated it has to be burned – not thrown away or even shredded but burned. The same applies if a flag touches the ground or if you let the sun go down on it – it’s toast.

Finally, using the flag as curtains is forbidden as it is considered dishonourable. Basically anything other than pulling the flag up a pole is considered dishonourable, you cannot make caps or clothing or basically anything with a flag emblem unless you obtain written permission from the prime minister – yeah and that’s going to happen. Now, aside from having the dishonoured flag reduced to ashes, such an offense can mean prison for up to a year, although I have never heard of anyone serving such a sentence. However, who knows what would happen if the police came across a serial flag offender, for example someone hanging up curtains made from a tattered, off hue flag and wearing a cap embellished with the flag while at it.

It probably has something to do with the restrictions placed on tis use by the Flag Law, but we seldom see the Icelandic flag in the foreign media, except possibly on TV in Hungary and India during the kick off for the Olympics and only if their cameramen stray a bit while their teams proceed into the stadium. I can however recall one instance in the past few years where it was prominently displayed on the news all over the world, albeit briefly and very, very dishonourably. Our flag – correct hue and dimensions – was put on fire besides its American counterpart, by Islamic demonstrators who were objecting to the war in Iraq. Now this occurred in 2003 and everyone here was in complete shock as we were not used to being involved in controversy (oh those were the days). We did not invade Iraq so this was also a bit unfair, not to mention in breach of the Flag Law that only allows police to burn a dishonoured Flag and this one appeared to be quite respectable. Our foreign service kicked into gear and made some inquires into the incident – turns out the demonstrators were not good at flags and had been scammed by an unscrupulous flag salesman – they had been sold the Icelandic flag as that of the UK. Too bad for them they did not drop by an Icelandic police station to check out their samples, could have saved them some embarrassment.

Yrsa - Wednesday

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

location, location, location

I'd like to buy this fixer upper in Paris. Someday...32 meters on the 4th floor, no elevator and suggested asking price 128,000.00 Euros. Not bad in the Sentier, the wholesale rag trade area threaded by the rue Saint Denis, the hooker street.
The area fascinates me and I wrote about it in Murder in the Sentier. A run down, ungentrified area like the Marais used to be.
In my Dictionaire Historique des Rues des Paris it cites rue Beauregard in the 16th century was formerly on the hill of Gravois and gave to a view of the countryside. Built over the Charles V wall and on the ancient rubble from the tenth century. Quite a bit of the Sentier stands on ancient and medieval garbage sites, in those days they emptied the trash over the wall and gave rise to the hills in the Sentier.
But if by chance I could afford - and with a child in college that won't be in the near future - I'd need to go to City of Paris auction and bid for it with a notaire's assistance. The whole auction is conducted since Voltaire's time by the bougie - the candle. The candle is lit, the property described and shown on power point, the bids taken and yet, no deal is complete without the snuffing of the candle which concludes the deal.
And you, any ideas on your dream fixer upper?

Cara - Tuesday

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Brazilian Wish Ribbons

This is me. The picture was taken this morning.
See that yellow string on my right wrist?
It used to be a ribbon once, a very special ribbon which Brazilians call a fita do Senhor do Bomfim. At least ninety percent of Brazil’s population has worn one of these things at some point in their lives, and the ones who haven’t are mostly too young to tie knots.
Here’s a (very brief) resumé of how the custom began and why we do it:
More than three million Africans were imported into Brazil as slaves.
They brought with them the Yoruba religions of Africa, which came to become inextricably mixed with Catholicism.
For more than 250 years, Salvador, in the northeastern state of Bahia, was Brazil’s Rome.
And the church of Nosso Senhor do Bomfim (Our Lord of Good Endings) became the Afro-Brazilian Vatican.
On the high altar of that church is a statue of Christ, carved many years ago in Portugual.
The length of the statue’s right arm is 47 centimeters.
Which is the length of one of these ribbons.
The ribbon bears these words: “Lembrança do Nosso Senhor do Bomfim da Bahia”
(A reminder/memory/souvenir of Our Lord of Good Endings of Bahia.)
Wearing them became a declaration of faith and, later, something more.
You’ll find them on the fence around the church.
This shot is of the same fence, taken from the opposite direction.
They come in various colors, each one identified with both a Catholic saint and an Orixa, an African deity responsible for a particular form of activity or endeavor. Mine is that of Oxum, the spirit-protector of writers and artists.
We wear them on our ankles or on our wrists.
We tie them on with three knots, one above the other.
And, as we do, we make three wishes.
Mine has been in place for about fourteen months.
I dearly wish it would fall off.
But I can’t remove it.
If I do, I run the grave risk of never having any of my wishes fulfilled.
But, if I hold the course, they’ll all come true.
Yeah, it seems silly doesn’t it? Being afraid to take it off?
But I could tell you stories…
Interested in having a fita do Senhor do Bomfim of your very own?
(If you don’t want to tie it on, it makes a great bookmark.)
Now’s your chance.
I left some fitas with one of my daughters in the ‘States.
I’d be happy to ask her to send you one. Just go to
When you get there, hit the “contact me” button and send me a mailing address.
The offer is good until the end of February, I’ll send them anywhere in the world, and I’ll do it as long as my daughter’s stock holds out.

Leighton - Monday

Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Thai Ghost Story

This is a ghost story although, unlike many ghost stories, it actually happened. I know, because it happened to me.

But first, some background.

Almost all Thai people, whether they're relatively uneducated villagers or the most sophisticated city-dwellers, take ghosts seriously. Thais believe in a whole pantheon of ghosts, ranging from benign to horrific. I personally know four Thais who woke one night to see a member of their family -- someone who lived a considerable distance away -- standing in their room, usually at the end of the bed. Without exception, they learned the next day that the person they had seen -- a grandmother, an uncle, a mother -- had died. This is accepted. The spirit came to say farewell.

Other ghosts are not so harmless. There are many kinds of malign spirits, and they tend to take up residence where lives have ended badly. From the beginning of construction on the new Bangkok airport (set on a piece of land that used to be called "cobra swamp") workers complained that there were ghosts everywhere. Many workers resigned rather than have to mingle with the dead. And when the airport opened and the computerized baggage retrieval system broke down, the malfunction was briefly blamed on ghosts. And I mean officially.

While I have no idea what, if anything, may have happened at the prime minister's official residence (sort of the Thai White House), I do know that almost no one ever spends the night there because of the house's ghostly guests. We are talking the highest realms of government here, folks. Prime ministers, cabinet ministers, generals. Nobody sleeps there. The general official, high-level reaction to the place seems to be brrrrrrrrr.

So with all that as a setting, here's what happened to me.

About 25, 26 years ago I was in Pattaya. This was when Pattaya was still a relatively quiet little town, although the nightlife that ultimately transformed it into a sewer was beginning to blossom. I was staying in a small hotel set into a cliff overlooking the sea. I went to bed about midnight and drew the curtains so I could sleep in. That made the room extremely dark.

At about 3 AM I snapped awake, knowing I was no longer alone. Remember, the room was almost pitch-black. In one corner, diagonally across the room from me, was a figure.

I looked away. I looked back. I blinked heavily. It was still there.

I could only see it by looking slightly past it, but it was a female wearing a shapeless white dress that fell almost to her ankles, and black hair down to her waist. Her head was bent downward so she was facing the carpet, and her face was hidden by the fall of hair. Then, moving slowly, she grasped handfulls of hair and lifted them straight up and let them fall again. Then she reached down and did it again. The second time she pulled her hair into the air, she started to bring her face up.

I knew that if I saw her face, I was dead. I rolled over as fast as I could, snapping on the lights on the bedtables, and when they came on, she was gone. I lay there, fighting for breath, literally more frightened than I've ever been in my life. And I stayed there, wide awake, until the sun came up.

When the room was bright enough, I went into the bathroom, pulled the shower curtain, turned on the shower, and let the water hit me full in the face. When I'd had enough, I pulled back from the stream of water and opened my eyes, and something moved very fast on the other side of the shower curtain. I left the water running, grabbed a towel, wrapped it around me, and ran all the way to the lobby, where I demanded, and got, a new room, as far as possible from the old one.

Later that day, I went back with a maid to pack my things -- there was no way I was going in there alone -- and the maid said, yes, that woman had been seen before in the room, and she volunteered to take me to the temple later that day when her shift was over to burn some incense and do a brief ceremony to release that poor woman's spirit from whatever powerful force as holding it on this side of the curtain. And we did, and I felt a little better. But that night -- even in my new room --I slept with my lights on.

And no, I had never previously believed in ghosts.

Tim -- Sunday

Friday, February 19, 2010

Es War Einmail in Wien...

Saturday is the day we reserve for guest authors. Today it's the turn of J. Sydney Jones.
Some people accuse Syd of borrowing the adorable little kid shown below for publicity purposes. The management of Murder is Everywhere assures you that this is a vicious untruth. The young man really is Syd's son, Evan.

J. Sydney Jones is the author of a dozen books of fiction and nonfiction, including the first two novels of the Viennese Mystery series, The Empty Mirror and Requiem in Vienna. He lived for many years in Vienna and has written several other books about the city, including the narrative history Hitler in Vienna: 1907-1913, the popular walking guide, Viennawalks, and the thriller, Time of the Wolf. Jones has also lived and worked as a correspondent and freelance writer in Paris, Florence, Molyvos, and Donegal. He and his wife and son now live on the coast of Central California.  Syd has entitled his post 

The Contrarian of Vienna

For those of you who love to play butterflies or six degrees of separation, the world of Vienna 1900 is no stranger. Going forward or backward in time, you’re pretty likely to hit on a link in fin de siècle Vienna if you’re dealing with someone in the arts, literature, science, or world affairs. From Freud to Mahler, Klimt, and Hitler, the city was an amazing cauldron of cultural innovation (and, yes, in Hitler’s case, destruction) around the turn of the previous century.
 At the epicenter of all was the young polymath, Karl Kraus, cultural critic, grammar policeman, and word maven of Vienna 1900. Kraus, a frail-looking man, beavered away for over three decades, single-handedly publishing his magazine, Die Fackel (The Torch). In this journal he took on the hypocrisies of the day, stood up to the rich and the powerful when need be, fought crime and societal stupidity, and generally pissed off everybody. The ultimate aphorist, Kraus termed Vienna 1900 a “laboratory for world destruction.”

In my novel, Requiem in Vienna, I describe Kraus thusly:
A slight man with a curly head of hair and tiny oval wire-rim glasses that reflected the overhead lights, Kraus dressed like a banker. One of nine children of a Bohemian Jew who had made his money in paper bags, Kraus lived on a family allowance that allowed him to poke fun at everyone in the pages of his journal.

Kraus frankly did not care who he angered. And sometimes he paid the price for his outspoken views. Once part of the Jung Wien group of writers, including, among others, Arthur Schnitzler--whom Freud termed his double--and the young Felix Salten--later author of Bambi-- Kraus soon turned against them. In a famous article, he ridiculed the group’s coffee-house culture and earned a bitch slap from Salten at the Café Central for his words. On another occasion, he took a punch on the nose from an irate cabaret performer who did not care for Kraus’s reviews.

Kraus was most definitely a man of contradictions. On the one hand, he could defend the right of prostitutes to carry on their trade unmolested by the authorities: 

Corruption is worse than prostitution. The latter might endanger the morals of an individual, the former invariably endangers the morals of the entire country.

At the same time, however, he could write this about women in general:

Intercourse with a woman is sometimes a satisfactory substitute for masturbation. But it takes a lot of imagination to make it work.

No one ever said Kraus was likable.
Something of the H.L. Mencken of Vienna, Kraus enjoyed a turn of phrase, enjoyed shocking people. But most of all he enjoyed being at the center of the rippling pool of Vienna 1900’s artists and intellectuals. He was the ultimate filter of gossip in fin-de-siècle Vienna; he knew where all the bodies were buried.
Kraus was also a major celebrity in his day. “I am already so popular that anyone who vilifies me becomes more popular than I am,” he liked to say. Besides the regular publication of his journal, Kraus was also a performer. Again from Requiem in Vienna:

Despite his slightness of bearing, Kraus had a fine speaking voice. He had tried for a career as an actor as a younger man, but stage fright had intervened. He was said to be experimenting with a new form of entertainment, however, much like the American, Mark Twain and his famous one-person shows. At fashionable salons, Kraus was already entertaining the cognoscenti with his interpretations of Shakespeare and with readings from his own writings. Another of his aphorisms Werthen [my investigator protagonist] had heard: “When I read, it is not acted literature; but what I write is written acting.”

And oh my but he makes one hell of a fictional character. So acerbic, so full of self-contradictions, so full of himself. I am not sure I would have liked to sit down over a cup of coffee or glass of wine with the man--nor he with me, I am sure--but anybody who could quip that “psychoanalysis is that disease of which it purports to be the cure” would have been worth knowing.
(For those who read German, the entire edition of Kraus’s Die Fackel is available free online at

Hawksmoor - Satan's Architect

I was back at my parent's house in northern England with the family this week. I always enjoy going back to the small town I grew up in, wandering around, drinking in a few memories. My parents house is a wonderful old place. I often find myself browsing through the bookshelves, digging out the odd book I read as a kid, some of which directly influenced what I do now, sometimes putting one in my bag when I leave to re-read. I did that this time, with Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd, part crime novel, part magical realism meta-narrative, but overall a cracking read by the probably the most pre-eminent chronicler of London and its dark past, its secret nooks and crannies. His biography of the city is, like the place itself, a sprawling joy and, coupled with his novels, one of the sources of my fascination with London and a big influence on my first novel in particular.

Hawksmoor was the least celebrated of London's great architects and church builders, overshadowed by Christopher Wren and John Vanbrugh. But he is more fascinating than either. There is something of the night about him. When I first moved to London I used to play five-a-side football in Spitalfields Market (built on a plague pit no less, which might explain why our team stank). After we finished we would wander down to Brick Lane for a post-match pint, passing Christ Church, designed by Hawksmoor, spire pointing majestically to the sky, it's sooted veneer giving it a very gothic splendour. In the streets around it, under the cover of night and fog, Jack the Ripper plied his gruesome trade, a fact which seemed kind of fitting (though funnily enough I once went inside the church and it was roomy and light and not at all macabre, which left me inexplicably disappointed.) His final victim, Mary Kelly, was killed and mutilated just around the corner. The pub she drank in, The Ten Bells, is still next door. Late at night, when the traffic is at its quietest, the years fall away and you can sense what it might have been like back then. The creepiness is tangible. Even in the day there is the nagging sense that all is not quite right, that the stain of something bad remains and can't be wiped away.

Christ Church is one of the six great churches Hawksmoor designed in the early 18th century. In his feverish poem, Lud Heat, another great London writer and psycho-geographer, Iain Sinclair,  posited the theory that the sites of these churches form an invisible geometry of power lines in the city, corresponding to an Egyptian hieroglyph, the Eye of Horus, which in turn provided a direct inspiration for Ackroyd's novel and the fascinating idea that the churches and the dark energy they channelled caused a huge amount of bad things to happen in their vicinity.

More recently, graphic novelist Alan Moore got his pentangles in a twist with his book From Hell, in which Hawksmoor, the Ripper, freemasonry and the monarchy were conflated into a grand Victorian conspiracy. I have still to read the book - I have a mental block when it comes to graphic novels - but saw the film with Johnny Depp and found it disappointing despite the fabulous subject matter. (I'd love to delve more into the Ripper mystery, but apparently another crime writer has got there before me...)

Hawksmoor was a Freemason and was in love with pagan symbols (don't anyone breathe a word to Dan Brown about all this...) Because of all this, he is more famous for being a secret Devil worshipper than an architect, which is harsh given the beauty of the buildings he was responsible for.

It makes for fascinating reading though.


Dan - Friday

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Biltong, blatjang, and marmite

The other day I drove to the mighty Drakensberg (mountains of the dragon) that snake down South Africa from the Limpopo province, through Mpumalanga, into the Free State and KwaZulu-Natal, and end up in the landlocked mountain country of Lesotho. This gave me ample time to think about one of my favourite topics – food.

All of the writers of this blog have lived in multiple countries, so I started wondering what they missed when they moved from one country to another. I can remember when I first went to live in the States being amazed that some of my staple foods were not available there. In retrospect, it was a strange collection of edibles.

Almost all South Africans – certainly white ones – miss biltong. It is to South Africa what jerky is to the USA, except that it is consumed in large quantities. It is made by drying strips of meat – from cattle, from the various antelopes such as springbok, kudu, or eland, or from ostriches – by rubbing large amounts of salt on it. When the meat has dried substantially, the salt is scraped off, and a mixture of spices rubbed in, such as pepper and coriander seeds. Finally the meat is hung to dry even further. We always joke that the best biltong should always have a few blue-bottle flies in it too.

Not being able to find biltong in the States in 1971, I immediately brought some back from South Africa on my next trip. To my chagrin, it was confiscated at customs for being a threat to American security. I wasn’t convinced of that reason though, because the customs officer had started to drool the moment I mentioned I had biltong in my luggage. To this day, 40 years after my first visit, I am often asked as I step off the direct Delta flight from Johannesburg “Do you have any biltong?”

Biltong is best savoured with a glass of cold beer, but is also served as a snack in its own right, or as a topping to a salad. There are now so many South Africans living in North America that several South African shops have opened offering biltong – made in the USA, of course. It’s not quite the same – probably due to the Federal Food and Drug Administration’s ban on blue-bottle flies in food.

When I arrived in Illinois in 1971, I was also shocked at how little curry was eaten in the Midwest. In fact, most people I met had never had any at all. South Africa has a large Indian population, originally brought in to harvest sugar cane on the east cost. So curry is a staple dish, usually mutton or chicken. It is inevitably accompanied, in addition to the normal sambals, by blatjang (chutney). And not any old blatjang! It has to be Mrs. Ball’s Oorspronklike Resep blatjang (Original Recipe chutney). It is a staple in every kitchen. It would be interesting to find out how many millions of bottles of this delicious mango chutney have been taken overseas to homesick ex-pats.

A common accompaniment to afternoon tea in South Africa is toast and Marmite. It is a yeast extract and is black gooey paste in a distinctive bottle. Today Marmite is readily available in the States, but when I arrived in the States so many years ago, it was nowhere to be found. So I had to add Marmite to the food hampers I brought back from South Africa.

Another surprise on setting foot in the States was how unpleasant I found the chocolate. After each Hersheys I consumed, I felt a residue coating my mouth. It felt like a wax of some sort. So, of course, chocolate was added to my hamper, usually Cadbury’s – at least until I discovered some of the wonderful Swiss (Lindor – sigh) and Belgian chocolates. In addition there were two chocolate bars that I found nowhere other than South Africa, so they too accompanied me on my flights. The first was Peppermint Aero – soft peppermint with pockets of air, covered with milk chocolate. The second was Rowntree’s Peppermint Crisp – my favourite (now produced by Nestlé). This is a bar of crystalline peppermint (hence the ‘crisp’) coated with milk chocolate. Fortunately neither of these was a threat to American security.
The final addition to my hamper was Peck's fish paste – a reddish anchovy paste, usually enjoyed on toast. I enjoy it as a savoury topping to breakfast toast or as an alternative to afternoon tea’s Marmite. I’ve also been known to stick my finger into the jar and suck the paste off, bypassing the toast altogether! I’ve thought of approaching Marmite this way too, but I have this recurring vision of the paste being absorbed into the skin and my finger or hand turning permanently black. (This would have posed an intriguing racial classification problem in the old South Africa!)

Of course there are other foods that wandering South Africans hanker for, but the ones above are those I most frequently carried from one continent to another. But I did leave out zoo biscuits (cookies) – not the boring ones found in the States, but rather heavy icing-covered ones with an animal vaguely outlined in icing of a different colour. These are best eaten by gnawing off the biscuit from under the icing, leaving only the icing, which is then nibbled so as to leave only the animal. The final stage of this gastronomic event is chomping off the head of the animal, followed by the swallowing of the body. I think I last did this when I was 53.

And I did leave out South African wines – even today selling for less than US$10 per excellent bottle. I have been known to carry over two dozen bottles on flights from Johannesburg to the States – a case of hand luggage weighing more than checked! Of course, this is no longer possible, for which my back thanks George Bush.

Anyway, I better go and have some breakfast. My tummy is rumbling noisily.

I’d be interested in hearing about the foods you ex-pats miss as you travel in either direction from your various abodes.

Stan – Thursday

PS. I am delighted to see that Tim’s political non-party IXNAY has been joined by a well-known US Senator.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Today is my husband’s birthday and having worked  a full day followed by an evening out with the family, my post will be brief this time around. Being used to tight deadlines it is not the timeframe that poses a problem, but the annoying limit this puts on the subjects available for debating. There are few things under the sun that merit a rushed and limited discussion as everything is multifaceted, few if any occurrences or developments be justly described by a hurried narration.

But....there are exceptions to this lofty view of life. When trying to think of something so boring that I will never want to write about it ever, and by writing hurriedly about it now I will not be ruining a topic for a future blog, one subject immediately jumped to mind. It is certain not to to conjure up Thalia at a later date, as no matter how hard I try, as I am unable to rustle up a milligram of enthusiasm regarding: Kitchens.

Now this is pretty unfortunate as an interest in these rooms would truly help me face the choices my husband and I now stand before concerning kitchen appliances and cabinets needing to be decided on in relation to the renovation of our house. When the subject is raised a fog sets in, within my skull, and the lists and brochures showing the various contraptions that are shoved in front of me by overly cheery salesmen appear as if in soft focus, seeming equally interesting a read as a blank page. I really, truly don’t care if my oven is pyrolitic or not, or if the eggs we boil become hot from gas, induction or electric burners – the colour of which is the topic for a second, just as annoying, decision layer. Much less does the dilemma regarding a built in espresso machine or one standing on the counter, keep me up at night. At present we get good coffee at work and use instant coffee at home, accomplished by boiling water in an electric kettle that would make the salesmen cringe. Out of respect for them we have never mentioned its existence.

Our architect is another key player in this renovation project which involves the whole house plus the yard, all requiring emergency treatment. She is great and appears to have limitless patience and manages to keep her cool while we constantly change our minds about the few things we have managed to have an opinion on. Although not many in number, the decisions already made are the easy fun ones, the ones involving for example a camera on a metallic snake making videos of the insides of our plumbing, the ones involving a yes or no answer. Do you want us to get the plumber/director to bring to life the secret hidden passageways leading from your toilets? Hell yes. Will you spend an evening watching the footage in case we missed something? Hell no. Easy as pie and if all decisions were like these then bring them on - my solmen oath to provide a reply a second. 

Despite a sunny nature the architect did become a bit frustrated at the kitchen disinterest and tried to focus our minds by giving us homework following a debriefing of the drawing status. “Go home and have a think about what kitchen appliances you really use as it is best to focus on choosing them with care and spending money on them instead of dividing the budget between all sorts of things you will not use.” Not looking forward to mulling over this we were nicely surprised when it only took us a few minutes to allocate our priorities. It turned out that the most used gadget in our kitchen is the phone, used to order take away. This lead us to a breakthrough in the kitchen dilemma, as having realised this we formulated a yes/no question that could possibly make the decision making process involved so much easier, namely: Do we really need a kitchen at all? The answer was quick in coming: Not really, a phone and a socket for the kettle will do nicely.

At the following meeting with our architect, our new idea, i.e. not to have a kitchen at all, was met with a very big frown. A “meet you halfway” solution to put in a coffee room instead did little to increase the glee. We were faced with the architect throwing in the towel or agreeing to follow contemporary living arrangements. So, having given in and settled on keeping the damned room, we have until Monday to decide on its contents. The weekend is thus looking grim. Who knows, maybe we will become so carried away we’ll even end up watching the plumbing DVD.

Yrsa - Wednesday