Thursday, May 31, 2012

From the ground up

The Murder Is Everywhere blog is written by writers about the world they live in, and the world where their characters live.  This week, I introduce you to a writer who, like many of us, writes about a country different from where she was born.  Not only that, she has been instrumental in pulling together writers to produce two anthologies set in the area in which she now lives. 
Drienie Hattingh, originally an Afrikaans-speaking South African, emigrated to the USA in 1987 and ended up settling in Eden, Utah, with her husband and children.  Eden is a small town, nestling on the Pineview Reservoir, high up between the Wasatch Mountains, in the Ogden Valley.
I read the thoroughly enjoyable first anthology last year.  It is called Tales from Huntsville, Eden, Liberty, and beyond and is known locally as Tales from H.E.L.  The stories are not mysteries, but rather tell of mysterious happenings in the Ogden valley, of sightings of people who have been dead for many years.

Tales from Two-Bit Street and Beyond is a similar collection, this time of stories about Ogden – a town Al Capone said was too rough for him – and its notorious 25th Street and its sordid and dangerous past.  Again, the whole book is delightfully entertaining.  It will be released tomorrow, June 1, 2012.
But what caught my attention, more than the stories themselves, was the overall idea and its subsequent successful execution.  It is a great example to budding authors. 
I spoke to Drienie about this.
Drienie, what was your journey to becoming a writer?
I had never written before I came to the States.  However, after we settled in Woodbury Minnesota, I started writing 20-page letters to family back home in South Africa.  My husband’s brother, Gerhard, and his wife were teachers and took these letters to school for their fellow teachers to read.  After a year or so, and many ‘letters’ later, Gerhard told me that he thought I should write a book.  I still don’t know if he just became tired of reading my long letters and thought that if I wrote a book, I would stop writing them.  This inspired me to go to our local community newspaper, the Woodbury Bulletin, and pitch the editor with an idea of publishing essays based on my letters home.  I remember I took two essays with me.  One I called, One Fine Day, which was a story about the day we found out, while living in Cape Town, that our visa to come to America was granted—an amazing day I will remember forever.  The other was called One Can Smile Without an Accent.”
He read the essays while I sat there.  Then he looked up and said, “We are looking for a weekly columnist, and I think you will be perfect for the job.”  I was sort of speechless.  I thought he would just send me packing, and I certainly didn’t know there was a vacancy for a columnist.
Since that day, seventeen years ago, I’ve written about 1,000 columns.
After moving to Utah, I went to the local newspaper, The Ogden Valley Newspaper, and talked to the editor.  I took copies of The Woodbury Bulletin with me to show her, and she immediately employed me as the new columnist for her newspaper. 
How did you move from there to publishing an anthology?
I was part of a critique group in Minneapolis and hoped to join a similar group in Utah, but there wasn’t one.  So I started one by placing a notice in the local newspaper, inviting local writers to join. Eight authors pitched up for the first meeting, and we’ve continued to meet for many years, as The Eden Writers’ Circle.  
25th Street, Ogden, circa 1900
From the first minute, after I arrived in the pristine Ogden Valley, I felt inspired as an author and knew it would be the perfect place to hold a writer’s conference.  I shared this dream with my group, none of whom had been published.  A couple of years later, my dream came true and along with Wendy Toliver (one of the Eden Writers), funded and hosted a sell-out Eden Writer’s Fall Conference, attended by agents, editors, and over 100 authors.
The theme of the conference was ghost/mystery, and there was a contest for attendees to submit spooky stories.  Most local authors thought I had gone mad.  They had never written short stories and definitely never written anything in the horror/spooky genre.  Nevertheless, I persisted and invited the group to go with me to visit local restaurants, businesses and sites that reportedly had had ghostly encounters, and the owners of these establishments shared their haunting tales with us.
25th Street, Ogden, today
To cut a long story short, we ended up with a number of good short stories and, more importantly, a group of authors who were enjoying writing them.
Of course, now I wanted to publish the stories and have my fellow writers experience the thrill of seeing their work in print.
Fast forward to June of 2011, two fellow authors, Lynda Scott and Sandee Drake, and I funded and produced the spooky anthology, Tales from Huntsville, Eden, Liberty and Beyond
 It is hard to put into words the pleasure I had of seeing the excitement of being published on the faces of the authors.
Some of the Eden writers went on to be published.  Wendy Tolliver is now a successful Young Adult author, and I’ve had several stories published in four Christmas anthologies by St. Martin’s Press.  Other Eden Writers have grown the confidence to self-publish.

Wendy Toliver, Kera Ericson, Lynda West Scott, Sandee Drake, Drienie Hattingh and Ryan Russell

The books would typically be classified as self-published.  How did you find the supporting talents that you would need, such as copy editor, cover artist, graphic artist, and printer?
One of my colleagues, Lynda Scott, is a wonderful editor, and has done a fantastic job of taking care of the details of the manuscript.  I do the formatting and some of the graphic parts.  I also discovered a great publishing company close to us that supplies authors with a complete package—everything from cover artist, graphic artist, to printing of the book.  
I then format the manuscript for Amazon Kindle.
Were you able to place the books in local bookstores?  How did you go about that?
I am fortunate to know a lot of people, including local business owners of coffee shops, the one and only grocery store, and other shops, who immediately agreed to sell our book in their places of businesses.  I also know most of the store owners on Historic 25th Street in Ogden, many of whom agreed to sell our book.  So we have the books at about 20 local stores, including three bookstores.
Marketing demands a lot from authors
We have not yet gone out of Ogden.  Our plan is to now aggressively market our book further into Utah.  And we are lining up radio and TV stations to do interviews. 
How did you market your books?
I email editors of newspapers before each book goes to print about the great feedback we are getting back from best-selling authors and others who read advance copies of the books.  Then I send them a copy of the book and ask them to review the book in their publication.  This has been quite successful.
Do you have a third anthology in mind?
Yes, we do.  I will start asking for submissions for the third book, Tales from Two-Bit Street and Beyond… Part II, in September.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Another day, another hotel.

Iceland did not win Eurovision. We have saved this til next year.

Tonight I am in Copenhagen, the city formally known for the statue of the little mermaid. Recently for Noma, the restaurant deemed the best in the world for the second year in a row. Pretty impressive for a world full of wonderful culinary experiences.

I cannot tell you anything about the Noma menu or the food as the waiting list is three months. No dropping in as I had hoped. My appearance took place at Bryggen, which is in the same building so I did get to hear from the locals what the hype is all about.

To give you an idea, they use volcanic ash for spice and the mineral water is vintage - I do not remember the specifics but it was something akin to it being retrieved from a virgin spring at the root of the tree of life.  The vegetables served arrive still rooted to the soil - in clay pots.

As life is about experience I have decided to make a reservation and come back here with my husband to try out the Noma experience. Promises made to write all about it.

Regarding this attendance I can only hope they change the menu between now and three months from today. Why? I was told the current menu includes a sampler involving a live shrimp. It arrives on ice with some dry ice smoke but when you pick it upo it squirms.

Personally I am not picky bit live food is a bit much. Rigor mortis is never appetizing but squirming - no thank you.

Yrsa - Wednesday

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Rue d'odessa

Sitting in cafe off rue d"Odessa and losing wifi but yesterday in paris was half holiday for some ie whit Monday or pentecote but two of my friends were working and it was in the 90's while others sat on the quai or in the park overall a sleepy quiet day and restful since many Parisians took a 3 day off'odessa+paris&um=1&ie=UTF-8&hq=&hnear=0x47e671cc42858c63:0x74a5a3a5959331fb,5+Rue+d'Odessa,+75014+Paris&gl=fr&ei=iIzET56OFqP80QXw67itCg&sa=X&oi=geocode_result&ct=title&resnum=1&ved=0CA4Q8gEwAA Took photos of this once public boathouse builtin 1895 gorgeous tiles but now it's a gay sauna only for men cara Tuesday

Monday, May 28, 2012

No Laughing Matter

The bad guy in the cartoon is saying, “See you later, Love. I’m off to make a withdrawal from the ATM.”
The joke might not register in most places. But, if you live in Brazil, you get it right away.
The country, you see, is awash in a new kind of crime: blowing up ATMs in order to get at the cash .
It all started in Joinville, in Santa Catarina.

Back then, the technique was to use acetylene torches to cut one’s way to the money. But the criminals soon progressed to a more efficient method.


Each machine, when recently supplied, commonly contains about US 150,000 in cash.

So hitting two or three machines at the same time can provide a hefty quantity of swag. And at less risk than hitting a bank during operating hours.

 The machines are equipped with devices to stain the money with dye. But it doesn’t seem to be helping.

And supermarkets, which used to contain the machines in abundance, have begun balking at being broken into and having their premises blown up. So ATMs are, lamentably, becoming scarcer throughout Brazil while the manufacturers work hard to make them bombproof.

This map, already more than two months old, shows the number of exploded cash machines, in 2012, in the State of São Paulo alone.
Brazil has 26 States.
And the phenomenon is occurring in all of them.
Here, for your edification, is a video showing a truly professional gang at work:
It’s a thing of beauty – if you’re a crook.
Leighton - Monday

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Slow War

Inanimate objects hate us.

This should be apparent to everyone, and the reasons should be obvious.  We go by too fast for them.  We use them, misuse them, and discard them without a word of regret.  Extended families of cheap silverware huddle in our landfills, frightening little teaspoons with tales of knives used as screwdrivers, forks with their tines splayed out like sea anemones, tarnish left untreated, tablespoons pressed into service and blackened by the lighters of desperate junkies.

As for the lighters, they have have their own sad tales.  Bright, shiny, proud of their fresh colors, they're admired, used, remembered for a few days, then: fini.  Sent to the dry cleaners in a suit coat or backed over in some driveway.  And don't get me started on the way the driveway feels.

When your shoestring breaks, when your keys and glasses hide from you, when the door to your house locks itself while you're outside, when your computer continually turns on the CAPS LOCK key all by itself just as the words begin to come, when the door of your car closes on your finger--these are not isolated incidents.  They're acts of war.

All wars have foot soldiers, those more numerous and more poorly informed advance troops, the grunts whose job is to kill and maim and get killed and maimed while the colonels and generals remain well offscreen, oozing malice by remote control in the hope that they won't be tried as war criminals if their side loses.  While high-ranking inanimate objects act out only occasionally and when they think they can get away with it, the Slow World has designated its foot soldiers and commanded them to attack at every opportunity.

The foot soldiers are (no surprise) those little shards of hell called coat hangers.

All I have to do to give my blood pressure a workout is get within six feet of my closet.  If I want to hang something up or take something out, nine hundred and ninety-seven times out of a thousand, it turns into war.

If I'm putting something in, the hanger snags on another one and drags it toward the back of the closet with it, and then refuses to go any further. In the meantime, whatever is on the hanger I'm snagged on – and it's always something I don't want to wrinkle – slides down and wrinkles. When I try to remove the hanger I was putting into the closet in the first place, it tows the other one along with it, and whatever was on that hanger slides the rest of the way off and hits the floor.

If I'm taking something out of the closet, the hanger I'm trying to remove will slip its hook beneath five or six others, and either simply refuse to come out at all, or – more likely – it will come out easily and cooperatively, bringing all the others with it. All of those hit the floor. And then, as I stand there, looking down at the the destruction of my dry-cleaner's most expensive efforts, the hanger in my hand – the one I was originally trying to get – gracefully shrugs its shoulders, allowing my shirt to float to the floor.

At this point, I do what any mature, reasonable adult would do. I grab the coat-hanger by its elbows, tie it into a knot, drop it on the floor, and jump on it. Then I tote it to the trash. There. I'm done with it. We're even.

But this morning I had a cataclysmic insight. This is what the coat-hanger wants me to do.

No piece of metal wants to be a coat-hanger. Coat-hangerdom is the bottom step on the karmic stairway for metal. In order to come back as a coat-hanger-- as cannon fodder in the war of the inanimates--a piece of metal has to have been really bad in its previous incarnation. It was a bullet used in a drive-by shooting. A dental filling that didn't fit. A low-rider's flick-knife. A tongue-stud that caused an infection. A rusty nail that gave someone tetanus. One of Danielle Steele's fountain pens.

In its incarnation as a hanger, it's sent into battle on behalf of the toaster ovens and hair dryers of the world.  It entangles itself, gets snarled with its colleagues, and drops my clothes on the floor specifically because it wants to be tied into a knot, jumped on, and dumped into the trash. Then it wants to be recycled and sent to Detroit, where it will become part of a Corvette and take revenge on a much broader and more photogenic scale.
Well, I'm not having any of that. From this point forward, any coat-hanger that crosses me will be carefully removed from my closet and put into a box. (You can get a lot of coat-hangers into a good-size box.) Then it will have a wet towel thrown on top of it to encourage rust. I will buy the biggest dog in the world, give it quarts of water, and train it to pee in the box, adding a nice amount of ammonia to the mix. For the next twenty or thirty years, if the dog and I live that long, those hangers will stay in that box, being peed on several times daily and joined from time to time by new coat-hangers and new wet towels. By the time I finally depart this vale of woe, the people who prowl my personal effects will find several boxes of crumpled towels and rust. In my will, I'm going to specify that the rust should be pulverized and scattered over the nearest reeking, malarial body of stagnant water.

Climb that karmic stairway, mo-fo.

Tim -- Sundays

Saturday, May 26, 2012

From Munich to Mykonos

I’m on a plane out of Munich bringing me back to Greece.  

Flag of Bavaria
I’ve just spent a week touring Bavaria with one of the nicest, most gracious, and hospitable couples I know.  Let’s call them Chris and Nolan.  We’re all about the same age and share a deep love for Greece.  In fact, we met on Mykonos.  Chris was born in Germany but is well acquainted with living in the United States and Nolan was born in the U.S. but lived most of his life in Europe.  They are an insightful pair of internationalists with countless mesmerizing stories to match, and a willingness to share their knowledge on so many things Bavarian.
Bavaria in dark green

I’ve never been to Bavaria before.  It’s in southeast Germany bordering the Czech Republic, Austria, and Switzerland (across Lake Constance).  It is a unique place, idiosyncratic some might say vis a vis the rest of Germany, for it still regards itself as independent, the “Free State of Bavaria” to be precise.   It is Germany’s wealthiest and second most populous state and at the risk of incurring the ire of the other fifteen states, from what I’ve seen it just might be the most beautiful. 

There’s no escaping the magic of its landscape: verdant farmland neatly peppered with houses of the sort you expect to see under a Christmas tree, fawn-color dairy cows with doe-like eyes grazing amid waves of green, locals in lederhosen and dirndl, all set against the sharp, white-topped, gray-green Bavarian Alps. 

Ludwig II und Neuschwanstein
Even Bavaria’s most heavily trafficked tourist attractions maintain the integrity of what makes them so popular.  For example the castles of King Ludwig II (1845-1886) still take your breath away (and not just because of long walks up a hill from the parking lot).  My favorite was not the one Disney ripped off (Schloss Neuschwanstein), but the smallest of his palaces, Linderhof, inspired by the French Sun-King Louis XIV’s Versailles.  It comes complete with his own private underground grotto—think Phantom of the Opera, but grander. 
Linderhof Palace

Grotto at Linderhof
And Munich, Bavaria’s capital, is as cosmopolitan and vibrant a city as any in the world, filled with world-class shopping and a thriving economy driven by such industries as BMW (yes, I slipped that one in), film production, and publishing. 

Bavarians have rebuilt their capital in a first class way; one that integrates what remains of its past with what it has become.  Heavily bombed by the Allies in World War II, Munich does not attempt to hide from its part in those horrific times.  Nor does it forget the eleven Israeli athletes who perished at the Olympic Games it hosted in 1972.  It has accepted responsibility and grown wiser from it.  More so than many places in the world. 

Munich Memorial to Israeli Olympic Athletes
I also visited Dachau just outside of Munich.  It was the first Nazi concentration camp created after Adolph Hitler’s appointment as German chancellor in I933.  I’m not showing any pictures of that.  Nor am I showing any I took from the top of The Eagles Nest, a retreat built for Hitler on the border with Austria.  Both are places not to be missed on any trip to Bavaria for they represent something never to be forgotten by Germans, Jews, Greeks or anyone on this planet. 

But I prefer not to use photographs to make that point.  Instead, let me quote from something I read at the Dachau museum. It describes how Adolph Hitler managed to take a radical, marginal political party he helped form when he was thirty-one—the National Socialist German Workers’ Party  (“NSDAP”)—and within a dozen years emerge as Germany’s all-powerful Fuhrer.

[T]he NSDAP remained a peripheral political force during the stable years of the Weimar Republic.  This changed dramatically with the onset of the world economic crisis.  In the [Parliamentary] elections of September 1930, the NSDAP succeeded in increasing its share of the vote from 2.6 per cent to 18.3 per cent; in the [Parliamentary] elections of July 1932, the NSDAP emerged as the strongest party with 37.3 per cent of the vote. 

The party made use of both brutal violence against its opponents as well as modern propaganda methods and tactics.  The party succeeded in evoking the impression that it alone was capable of meeting the divergent interests of a number of social groups.  By mobilizing resentment and exploiting images of threatening enemies, the National Socialists were able to conceal the internal contradictions riddling their political demands.—The Dachau Concentration Camp, 1933-1945

[Ed. Note: The Nazis were the prime instigators of the very violence they decried and used it to gain support among a demoralized middle-class by making them believe they alone could restore law and order.  Among Hitler’s promises were vows to revive the economy by unstated methods, restore German greatness, and overturn the Treaty of Versailles.  The two 1932 elections had confirmed that NSDAP was Germany’s strongest political party, and as the country had been unable to form a majority in Parliament since 1930, political pressure ultimately led to Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of Germany] 

The Germans understand “Never Again.”  Let us hope the rest of the world doesn’t forget.

Mayor Christian Ude
To end on as happy a note as every moment I spent with my friends in wonderful Bavaria, I must add that Munich’s mayor, Christian Ude, is a lover of Mykonos.  It is my honor to return the compliment to his glorious city.


Friday, May 25, 2012

Boiling in Bristol

These are straitened times. Everywhere you look, the economic outlook is bleak, not least in publishing. So it's a fillip to attend Crimefest in Bristol and see it growing in popularity each year.

I first came here in 2008. I think it would be fair to say that the authors at that festival outnumbered readers. And that goes for the panels. There were few big names and speaking with publishers - no names mentioned - a few were sceptical whether Crimefest would ever take off.

Well, into its fifth year now, and not only has it taken off, it's crusing at a nice altitude. It is a sell-out, and some panels are standing room only. My sole appearance was at 9am this morning, discussing stretching boundaries in crime fiction, at a time when most crime writers are stretching in bed. Thankfully, readers are made of sterner stuff and  the room was full and the panel was a success. I managed to make a few lucid contributions, thanks to going bed at a reasonably civil hour the previous night. I took my lead from those wise, temperate men, Michael and Stan, who also turned in early(ish), though in Stan's case that might have been down to the fact he left Guinness stores in Ireland severely depleted on his recent trip there.

I was going to return to London today, my wife having injured her back. But thankfully she has help with our kids so I can drink and make merry  gauge the parlous state of the publishing industry with like-minded folk. But not before taking in a few panels - particularly looking forward to Yrsa debating morals and ethics this afternoon - and some of the blistering Bristol weather.

Already the talk is of next year, and which special guests might be lured over (Jeffrey Deaver and Lee Child have sprinkled this year's event with their stardust). If you can make it, I can heartily recommend making the trip. Mine's a bottled beer.


Dan - Friday

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Sacred Lake

Wilf Nussey was a newspaperman for forty years, all but four of them in Africa. He was the foremost foreign correspondent for a large newspaper group for many years spanning most of Africa’s transition to independence and its continuing upheavals. Wilf has distilled that experience and knowledge into a thriller – DARTS OF DECEIT - set in an era where danger in Southern Africa was the norm.  In a time when factions in the Soviet Union battled for control, any scenario was feasible. DARTS OF DECEIT has a plot that is mind-blowing but also believable. Anyone who enjoys a good thriller and with an interest in the turbulent era of the late eighties in Africa, will find this book impossible to put down.

Wilf's writing shows his familiarity with countries like Mozambique and Madagascar where much of the action is set.  In this guest blog, he tells us about an almost surreal experience in Madagascar.

In the good old days of newspaper reporting when facts were sacred and comment was a sin, one of the rules drummed into my juvenile head by hard-bitten professionals was that news rarely falls into one’s lap, you have to get out and look for it.
Being a wet-behind-the-ears lad barely out of his teens and consumed by an overwhelming curiosity, that was no problem. Whenever I had done my diary assignments and routine checks the news editor kicked me out of the newsroom and said “Go and talk to people, ask questions, find out what’s happening.”

It was the most basic instruction after the standard “Why, why, what, where, when and how?” every reporter is supposed to apply to every story he or she is covering, and may be the most useful.

Thus when I was given the job of covering all Africa for the former Argus Group of newspapers, I made sure all my staffers in several bureaux stuck to it and I drummed it, in my turn, into every new journalist I took on board.

Based in Johannesburg, this meant regular trips by me into countries like Botswana, Swaziland, Lesotho, Mozambique, Angola, Mauritius (there had to be some bonuses) and further afield, sometimes as far as West, East and Central Africa. That no word of anything interesting was emerging from them did not mean nothing was happening there; most were well off the news radar.

Insatiable curiosity led me into some startling, occasionally dangerous and often amusing situations. A baboon that herded sheep. Catching gemsbok by the horns. Counting fish in the Okavango Swamp. Meeting an African queen in Uganda. Riding camels in the northern Kenya desert. Dive-bombing a bamboo forest with the Royal Air Force. The list is long.

One of the most fascinating stories I did was a feature on a ritual in the remote jungle of northern Madagascar.

This huge island had long intrigued me, a kind of Lost World where seventy five per cent of the fauna and flora were unique, the people were very different to those of nearby Africa, their language had many similarities to those of the Indo-Pacific region - Polynesia, Indonesia, Malaya – and they had a colourful history. Also, their island was once used as a base by Captain Morgan and other renowned pirates.

So I made a point of going there to “… talk to people, ask questions …” It was so interesting I went back many times and found a treasure trove of news and features.

Lunching at the Hotel Colbert with Jacques Caradec, a delightful Breton with black caterpillar eyebrows, I mentioned I was flying north to have a look at the French naval base of Diego Suarez, today’s Antsiranana.

“Ah,” he said through a mouthful of delicious terrine, “I must go there again soon, I might get a chance to see Le Lac Sacré, The Sacred Lake.”

“Sacred Lake? What’s that.”

“It’s a place where the locals worship crocodiles,” he said, “I don’t know exactly where, in the Diego Suarez district.”

Ankarafantsika - The sacred lake
This I had to see.

I had with me our staff photographer, David Paynter, a lensman with a great skill for anticipating an action, with a fine record and many awards.

Diego Suarez was occupied by the Vichy French and captured by the Allies to prevent it falling into the hands of the Germans or Japanese – one of the lesser known episodes of World War Two. The wrecks of several sunken ships and a bombed French submarine were still visible in the bay.

The town was a few dingy shops and a clapboard hotel that stank of overflowing toilets and was inhabited by flashily clad prostitutes catering to the French navy.

The Sacred Lake lay somewhere south. To travel there and see it I needed the permission of the regional equivalent of a district commissioner. I visited him and after much exchanging of compliments, explanation and deliberation which greatly strained my French, he agreed to arrange everything for the next day and gave me a printed, stamped and signed permit.

We set off next morning in a clattery old taxi with many more air vents than Renault intended and travelled through increasingly dense, lawn green tropical forest and jungle.

An hour or so later we reached an outpost of a few buildings and a couple of trading stores where we introduced ourselves to the district officer in another bout of brisk compliments and explanations. He had made all the arrangements but, he regretted, there were certain expenses to cover. He handed me a piece of paper with the hand-written details:

One heifer, several metres of rope, the hire of a machete, musicians, dancers, a master of ceremonies, a vehicle, various unidentifiable pieces of equipment, and ten litres of palm wine.

Why the heifer? For the sacrifice, of course. And the palm wine? To put the musicians and dancers into the proper mood. Stupid question.

It all came to a few score thousand Malagasy francs, about two hundred rand, including tax. I added something more for the official, of course.

Outside his office he introduced us to about twenty young men and women. They climbed on a light truck, heifer and all, which set off into the bush. We followed, our cab creaking and rolling on the uneven tracks.

We stopped fifteen minutes later beside a grassy bank. Paynter and I followed our rented crowd up it. On the other side it sloped down to the placid blue water of a lake. It did not look very large, less than a kilometre to the far side which curved away so we could not see the full extent.

Our team got busy. The leader used the rope to tie the heifer to a shoulder-high wooden stake on which were fastened several pairs of horned skulls from previous occasions.

The musicians and dancers dipped freely into the palm wine and in no time the air was thrumming with drumbeats and chanting as they leaped and bounced around, skirts, arms and legs flying.

When the dancing approached frenzy level the leader slaughtered the heifer with one stroke of a panga on its neck. It fell in a heap at his feet. He chopped it crudely into chunks.

Grasping one bloodied lump of bone and hoof he walked to the water’s edge and called out in a long, singsong voice. We watched expectantly.

Several dark dots appeared on the smooth surface of the water some distance away, moving slowly towards us. Crocodiles with just their nostrils and eyes above the water.

The leader placed a few chunks close to the water and stepped back to continue his work. The dancing, singing and thumping of drums around us became manic.

A crocodile broke the surface a few metres from the edge and lumbered slowly up the bank. It came fully out of the water, tilted massive jaws to grasp a big piece of meat and bone and threw its head back to swallow.

It was huge, larger than any I had seen. It must have been at least six metres long. Its belly was as big as two or three oil drums lashed together. Its dragon-like dorsal scales almost a high as a shark’s fin.

It downed the hunk of heifer in a few gulps and lay there looking expectantly at the butcher working nearby, its huge white teeth glinting. He walked towards it and from less than two metres tossed another hunk which it caught neatly in jaws wide enough to swallow me whole.

Other crocs were coming out of the water on either side to seize meat. They were not much smaller than the first. Sudden, lightning-fast skirmishes between them splashed up sprays of water.

The feast went on to the the mesmeric, frantic rhythm of the music while Paynter shot picture after picture, sometimes from so close a croc could have taken him with a lunge. I stayed a little further back.

It lasted about fifteen minutes. I lost track of time. One heifer doesn’t go far with half a dozen crocodiles that size. By then the drummers were thoroughly drunk on their mix of wine and adrenalin.

When no more meat came the crocodiles slid back into the still water and the dark blobs of their snouts glided away. Our performers collapsed on the grass. The leader mopped up bits and pieces, gathered the rope and rammed the heifer’s head on the stake.

It was over. We were left still brimming with tension and excitement. Never had I seen crocodiles so close before, and never such giants. The let-down was palpable. Looking at the lake it was hard to believe what we had seen.

We said goodbye to the tired ceremonial team and rattled back to Diego Suarez with a fantastic photo-feature in the bag.

The strange ritual of The Sacred Lake goes far back in Malagasy legend. Many centuries ago, they told us, a prosperous village stood where the lake now fills what appears to be a small, shallow volcanic or meteor crater.

One day a wrinkled old woman appeared and asked for water because she was thirsty. The villagers refused her, laughing at the old hag leaning on her crooked stick. It was a fatal mistake.

She was a witch. She waved her stick and the village vanished to be replaced by the lake. She turned all the villagers into crocodiles. The local people revere them and make regular sacrifices because they believe the crocs are their ancestors. If you could look down into the lake, they say, you would see the original village still there.

All of which proves one should never deny a thirsty woman, whatever she looks like.

The episode gave me another moment of pleasure weeks later when I presented my list of expenses to the office accountant. He looked at it – heifer, rope, drummers, dancers, ten litres of palm wine – glared at me, shook his head in disbelief and signed it. He clearly did not want to ask why.

There is an interview with Wilf on writing DARTS OF DECEIT in the News from South Africa column in June's Big Thrill from ITW.

Michael - Thursday

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Azerbajan 2012

I am sitting in a hotel room in Heathrow, heading to Bristol tomorrow to attend Crimefest. As I forgot to bring the plug adapter for Britain I am in a great stress to write this before my computer dies out - so if I take liberties with my English spelling I am sort of excused.

I am really looking forward to Crimefest, having annually gone since it began 5 or 6 years ago. My blog today is not about the festival as Dan is also attending and will be telling you all about it on Friday. Which is just as well as I am only sort of peeking in as I must get back home to Iceland on Saturday. Super important.

You see, on Saturday the Eurovision Song Contest will be held and in Iceland this is a very big deal. There is hardly a soul in the streets while it is being shown, but given the rise in tourism there might be a few people of non-Icelandic origin wandering around with cameras and maps, wondering why there is no one around to show them how the map should turn and give directions.

We are always sure that we will win. Always. Even when we sent our first ever song in the early 80's, a band which weight consisted of about 80% of shoulderpads, singing a song about "the Happy Bank" - in Icelandic.

But Iceland never wins. No matter how confident we are and worried about the venue for next years competition. This year, when I first heard the Icelandic song competing on Saturday I had a surprising feeling that we wouldn't win. This made me think - we never win when I think we will win so now that I think we will not win we will surely win. So yet again, like most Icelanders, I am certain that we will win, meaning we won't. This is Eurovision logic.

Since Iceland is not among the few countries that get to enter the final competition without going through the tryouts, yesterday evening was also exciting for us and thankfully Gréta Salóme and Jónsi with their song "Never Forget" squeezed throught the eye of the needle. Here is their perfomance from that occasion. Please note that it starts off with a little ad for Azerbajan where the competition is held now, Azerbajan being last years winner. Oh, and you are not getting mixed up in your geography if you are thinking, I did not know Azerbajan was in Europe. It is not. But they get to take part in the song contest, Why I do not know, nor do I mind. Every country should get to participate in the Eurovision Song Contest, it would be very fitting somehow.

Another song has been more on my mind recently, one called Næturljóð úr Firði by one of Iceland's most beloved authors, Böðvar Guðmundsson. He wrote the lyrics/poem and the song itself which is really an accomplishment. It is sung here beautifully by Kristjana Arngrímsdóttir and I have decided to have this played at my funeral. I am a bit upset with myself that I cannot seem to remember the lines. Not that anyone will expect me to sing on this occasion.

Yrsa - Wednesday

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

le Medaille de la Ville de Paris

Big apologies for the terrible quality of this scanned invitation. Unfortunately, that's the best copy that's come from Paris. It means that upon receiving the medal a formal acceptance speech is required. My big worry is how to give this speech in formal French. Worry? Call me terrified. How does one thank the Hotel de Ville - City Hall officials using their proper titles? How many ways can one say 'it's such a great honor' in French without using the same words over and over again? How many ways can I say thank you to the friends who'll attend - to whom I owe so much? The last thing I want to do is make them wince in pain at my prononciation. But that might happen. Probably some of the audience will want to correct me. It's easy to visualize them mouthing the correct word, narrowing their cheeks to elicit the proper prononciation. Already, this feels awkward and painful. Excruciating as this sounds I need to make it short, concise, and include everyone with proper honorifics and get on with on it so we can go eat a lovely meal... So obsessing, practicing, obsessing and feeling worse and worse that I'm attempting this in French I debated on just speaking in English. But to honor the people and City who are bestowing this medal it only makes sense to bite the bullet, smile and slaughter the language with the best intentions... Cara - Tuesday

Monday, May 21, 2012

Kracjberg – One of Brazil’s Greatest Living Artists

Frans Kracjberg, now in his ninety-first year, was born in Poland. But he’s been in Brazil for more than sixty of them, and became a citizen well over half-a-century ago, so I think there’s some justification for the country to claim him as its own.
Kracjberg’s passion for the preservation of the environment has heavily impacted his lifestyle and invades every part of his work. In the 1950’s, he spent much of the time in a cave in a remote part of Minas Gerais. There, living alone, without creature comforts, and bathing only in the local river, he produced etchings and stone carvings.
But it was only in 1964, that he first began to produce the kind of work for which he subsequently became famous.

Sculptures in wood.

Since 1974, he’s been living in a tree house, some twenty-three feet above the ground, in the small town of Nova Viçosa, in the southern part of the state of Bahia.

In his extensive garden of almost 1.2 square kilometers of Atlantic rainforest and mangrove swamp, Kracjberg has planted more than 10,000 seedlings of native varieties of plants. And, on those same grounds, there are two pavilions, like the one below, containing more than three hundred works by the artist. Four more buildings are planned. And the whole composes a museum that bears his name.

Recently, the artist has been taking up photography.

But his theme has never varied. He continues to be concerned with the willful destruction of the rainforest - as illustrated by this, one of his recent prints:

Never heard of Kracjberg?
If that is so, then I’m most pleased to have been able to introduce you to him.

Leighton - Monday

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Tempus, Fuggit

No, that's not a misprint in the title.  It's a polite way of expressing an opinion.

I've decided that old age is for the old, and I define "the old" as those who have decided to enter old age.  (Just to avoid stepping in a really big one, let me make clear at the outset that I exempt from everything that follows those who for medical or psychological reasons have to cope with tragically diminished capacity.)  I'm talking about those of us for whom most systems continue to function and whose heart, as Mel Brooks once put it, has not attacked them.

We obviously inhabit a blessed period in which medicine and a heightened awareness of how to live in a healthy fashion have increased our expected life span.  Many of us can look forward, if a bit apprehensively, to eight or even nine decades in this vale of tears--which, I have to admit, I've found extremely rich in enjoyment.  Maybe I've been doing it wrong.

They say that time flies when you enjoy yourself, and it certainly has for me.  Here I am all of a sudden, by my own standards an old guy.  I'm older now than my father was when he died, older, it seems chronologically, than the Old Testament.  And you know what?  I say, fuggit.

Shakespeare's Seven Ages of Man notwithstanding, I've decided to lengthen my stay in the Fifth Stage, the Justice, while attempting to avoid the rounded belly, and stave off as long as possible the attitudes and mental habits that hasten our progress into the Sixth and Seventh, which, according to Shakespeare, is second infancy.  While I assumed I enjoyed being an infant, returning to that stage has few charms.

There are few things I could do 30 years ago that I can't do now, and there are some things I do better now than at any earlier point in my life.  I have the great good fortune of having spent most of my life in a state of mental hyperactivity and to have married a woman who reminded me, and continues to remind me, that my body needs activity, too.  I wake up every morning thankful for the years I've had and the fun I've had in them and fully expecting to continue in this state for some time to come.

I will continue to write, I will continue to read, I will continue to listen to music both consciousness-expanding and trivial, I will continue to invest time rather than spending or wasting it, although I'll waste some in moderation.  I will continue to pursue a few selected bad habits in moderation. I'll do whatever the hell I want, in moderation.  I will chase everything I desire, whether or not I think I can catch it.  I will not worry about my dignity or what's appropriate.

I will stop using the word "appropriate," which is a blight on the English language.  When a Conressman is caught attempting to molest a page boy or girl, the word for that behavior is a lot stronger than "inappropriate."

I will not stop thinking I have the right to criticize the way people abuse the language, or for that matter, the institutions of government.  Seniority has its privileges, and grumpiness is among them.

So is a certain amount of selfishness.  As the amount of time left shrinks, I think we can all be excused for focusing more intently on the things that matter most.  So the lion's share of my energy in the upcoming years will be devoted to three things that have always been important to me, but which become more important as I get older.  First, to deserve the woman who married me.  Second, to write the best books I can, and as many of them as possible.  Third, to wring the largest possible amusement out of life, whether that's reading Shakespeare or watching "Storage Wars."

Whose life is it, anyway?  If it isn't mine by this time, I really have been doing it wrong.

Tim -- Sundays

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Thirty Years Ago...

The news here in Greece is heavily focused on how much the country has changed over the last thirty years.  All you hear is “thirty years” of this, “thirty years” of that.  So, I decided that as a personal change of pace I’d ask my friend Jody Duncan, who with his partner, Nikos Hristodulakis, own the Montparnasse Piano Bar, a Mykonos institution into its thirtieth year, to give me his thoughts on what those years have meant to him.  And yes, Jody’s time was spent behind bars, something many Greeks argue a lot more should experience if the country is to change its thirty-year course.  But that’s for another time, for now here’s Jody.

I've been thinking about how to approach this significant thirtieth season on Mykonos. That’s not to say the prior twenty-nine were insignificant, but when I try to put down all the memories rushing through my head, I don’t know where to begin.

Queen Latifah and friends with us behind the bar
Should I give you another funny tale of a frenzied evening in The Piano Bar?  Maybe the one from long ago about an extremely famous and overly demanding clothing designer from France who thought that waiting for a table during a busy evening was beneath him?  No, he still comes in.  I better forget that story.  Or the enthusiastic Irish lady whose husband ran off for the evening with another man?  Hmmm, I think I’ll tell you that one next time.

The long and the short of fun.
Margaret Thatcher?
Perhaps you’d like to hear about the first time Petula Clark sang in the bar, much to the delight of everyone here?  Oh that was a great night.  The crowd convinced her to sing and right after she finished she came over to Nikos and said that sadly now she had to leave because her “cover was blown.”  Nikos smiled and calmly told her, “My dear, your cover was blown long before you ever arrived at our bar.”

He carefully explained that passengers had recognized her on the flight to Mykonos, and from the moment her plane landed the central topic of conversation was “When would Petula Clark show up at Montparnasse to hopefully sing a chorus or two of Downtown.”  She burst out laughing, walked back to the microphone and did just that to a wildly appreciative audience.  She’s returned to the island many times, always obliging us and her audience with that same sort of gracious performance.  We still keep our eyes on the door for when the lovely Pet will come through it again. 

Then there are all those lovely sunsets, almost four thousand, each one slightly different from the others.  I can’t begin to count all the times over the years that someone has asked me, "Do you know you live in paradise"?   My response is always the same:  “Yes, I know.”  Though I must admit there have been times where I’ve taken sunsets for granted, only to be stopped in my tracks by a nearly perfect one.

Of course, I’m overwhelmed with memories of all the talent that’s appeared behind our piano and microphones, but there are way too many names and faces to even begin mentioning them all.  I’ll just stick to naming who’s coming this year:  Bobby Peaco, Kathy "Babe" Robinson, Phyllis Pastore, Mark Hartman, and Kelly Howe.  And one who’s not: our dear friend David Dyer.  Alas (for us), he’s serving this summer as associate conductor for the national tour of Peter Pan, starring Cathy Rigby. But he’ll be back in 2013.  So, how did he get that job?  Through the magic of Montparnasse: one of our long time customers hired him.  A tale in and of itself, but one I shall not tell. 

At least not now. 

I’ll save it for when I have to find something to say in another thirty years, but for now I think I’ll just end it here.

I’ll leave any punning observations on your choice of endings to others, Jody, as I’m mercifully off in Munich at the moment and relatively incommunicado.