Friday, August 31, 2012

The Last Train to Brookwood

Normal blogging service will be resumed next week - until then, here's one from the vaults. Or should that be crypt?

My post last week, and Cara's subsequent post ('ghost trains' in a 'ghost station'! Fabulous!) set me thinking about other pieces of secret London, a subject which so fascinates me.

This one is deliciously macabre.

In early Victorian London, as the city made the transformation from big Georgian city to a vast metropolis, there was a pressing problem. Namely what to do with the ever growing and ceaseless numbers of dead, other than piling grave upon grave or digging vast communal pits. Small churchyards were teeming with bodies and a major public health risk was looming, as effluent from decomposing bodies oozed into wells and rivers. In their wisdom, the authorities decided to build a series of huge cemeteries, Highgate, Kensal Green and others; towering, sprawling atmospheric monuments to the dearly departed, worthy of a blog of their own (and in Kensal Green's case, they will get one very soon...)

However, my favourite of them all is Brookwood. It may not be as ornately gothic as Highgate - and there no Karl Marxes buried there to attract the tourist - nor boast the crumbling, fading beauty of Kensal Green, though it doesn't lack for either. The reason it's my firm favourite is that it sits 25 miles south west of central London. So, to transport the dead to their final resting place, they built a railway with the sole purpose of taking them and their mourning relatives and friends. And if that isn't perfect enough, with the dramatic flourish so beloved of the Victorians, they decided to call the service the London Necropolis Railway.

It is said that death is the great leveller, it comes to us all, rich or poor. Not on the Necropolis Railway was it. For a start there were two platforms at the terminus and cemetery: one for noncomformists, the other for Anglicans. There were also two classes of travel. Understandable, given the mores of the time, Victorian gentlemen and their grieving, demure ladyfolk would not wish to accompany their loved one on his or her last trip alongside riff-raff or hoi-polloi. They had their own waiting rooms, own carriages, different times to embark and disembark, to ensure they would never meet.

However, the passengers weren't the only ones who got a choice of club or coach. So did the dead. In fact, they had the choice of an extra class of travel (one-way, obviously) than the living. First class coffins were loaded on to a richly decorated carriage in full view of their mourners; second and third class were thrown onto a less garlanded carriage without anyone bar the few pall bearers present.

With all aboard, the air thick with steam and soot, the long dark train would pull slowly from the station and proceed at a stately speed for the 57 minute journey. At the cemetery, a service would take place, the coffins lowered into the ground, second and third class hurried back on board while first-class passengers got a chance for a leisurely promenade and few extra minutes paying respects, before it hurried back to London at a slightly faster speed minus it's stiff cargo.

The terminus was near Waterloo station, on Westminster Bridge Road. It was closed in 1941 after being heavily bombed, but the facade remains (and I love a remaining facade).

The track has long been taken up but a piece has been placed at the cemetery to mark the railway's existence, and visitors can be taken on a tour through through the grounds where the imprint of the tracks can still be seen, leading to the places where the platforms used to be.

Before anyone says it would make a great backdrop to a book - understandably so, in my mind it seems to have been created so someone could write a novel about it - I have to add that it already has. The delightfully named Basil Copper came first in 1980. Then a few years ago, Andrew Martin wrote a well-written and beautifully researched mystery set on the railway. A bit cosy for my tastes, but a cracking read nonetheless.

Though I can't help thinking there's still scope for a another crime novel to be set on the Necropolis Railway...



Thursday, August 30, 2012

The One Week War II

The One Week War signaled the end of the colonial era in Southern Africa, and the end of Apartheid with it.  At the end of the first part of the story, a largely white revolution against the decision by the new Portuguese government to hand Mozambique to Frelimo is brewing.  Wilf Nussey continues his eye witness account of the events that could easily have led to a bloodbath.  The photographs are ones that he and his team took at the time.

Sunday, September 8, saw the haphazard rebellion begin to jell. A collection of right-wingers formed the Movement of Free Mozambique (MFM) and produced their own flag, a concoction of Mozambican and Portuguese symbols.
MFM at Radio Clube
They seized the large Radio Clube de Moçambique building in the city centre and made it their headquarters, broadcasting a stream of appeals in Portuguese, English and African languages for support. Volunteers armed with a motley assortment of guns self-importantly stood sentry at doors and windows and on the roof.
It was another day of noisy parades and motorcades. Samora Machel warned that if the Portuguese did not squash the MFM Frelimo would resume the guerilla war.
The Portuguese took the threat seriously. They sent heavily armed military police into Beira to disperse 2 000 mainly white demonstrators with teargas. A black policeman was seriously hurt when a grenade exploded on his chest.
In LM happy crowds celebrated outside the Radio Clube. I went in and found a bedlam of waving arms and loud voices as dozens of politicians fought, pleaded and argued for places in power. Taking pictures was banned - nobody wanted to be identified later.
In the tin shanties and grass huts of the bairros on the city outskirts the black population were ominously quiet early on Sunday. We tried to go in but, perhaps fortunately, it was not possible because the Portuguese police and troops were not cooperative.
The airport route was passable, however. Travellers had been driving the few kilometres between airport and city through the Xipamanine/Lagoa area, known as “Grasstown”. We had trekked back and forth several times to send film to Johannesburg.
Tom and I hired one of the few taxis still doing business and asked the driver to go by a familiar back route through a small industrial area parallel to the main airport road. He was a fat, phlegmatic middle-aged Portuguese wearing the usual floppy peaked cap.
The back route was strangely still. Not a soul in sight. All the warehouses and workshops were closed. Half a dozen overturned trucks and cars lay beside the street, some burned out. It looked abandoned, quieter than it should be even on a Sunday. Our driver became nervous and heaved a sigh of relief when we reached the airport, which was busy with activity because a plane was about to leave.
In the parking area a convoy was forming up, a motley collection of cars, bakkies and trucks. Civilians armed with an assortment of firearms from pistols to rifles and shotguns rode on the truck platforms.
Nobody could tell me what was going on, only that the convoy was heading for the city.
Why now, suddenly?
Our cabbie was getting more nervous and Tom was looking anxious. He had not yet experienced much urban violence and the atmosphere was ominous.
There was nothing we could do. The choice was to stay at the airport for God knows how long or join the convoy into town. We tagged on with one or two cars behind us. Just in front of us was a large truck with high side walls. A dozen or more men stood there.
We moved off at the slow pace set by the lead vehicle, forcing our driver to travel in second or third gear. Outside the car park the tarred road narrowed and the reed-and-thatch huts and palms of Grasstown jostled close.
At first there were few signs of life but as we moved deeper into Grasstown more and more black people began to appear on both sides twenty to thirty metres away - men, women and children, all shouting and waving fists at the convoy. Men on the trucks waved flags and shouted insults back.
A few stones sailed through the air towards us.
The men on the lorry ahead reacted instantly. Long barrels suddenly appeared above the side walls. We heard the sharp crackle of rifle fire and the deep thuds of shotgun blasts. The blacks melted away into the long grass and narrow gaps between their huts.
Our cabbie went into panic mode. He began yelling and gesticulating in anger. He glared back at us accusingly, face pale with fear. He pounded the steering wheel but there was not a thing he could do. He dared not leave the convoy, which was occupying the centre of the road. Tom, too, looked as if he wanted to get the hell out of there right now. I saw his eyes widen like saucers at something ahead and looked up.
A Portuguese motorist met his end on the airport road
A couple of corpses lay at the roadside, one a man lying flat on his back, the toes of his shoes pointing skywards, arms at his sides, his head pulped to mush by chunks of concrete lying beside him, blood spreading in a large pool. The other was equally battered.
As we slowly passed about two metres away I ignored the driver screaming Portuguese imprecations and photographed the bodies.
The journey could not have lasted more than ten to 15 minutes. With the adrenalin rush it seemed to zoom by in seconds. When we reached the end, a small police post where the Grasstown ended and the city began, our cab jerked to a stop. The cabbie flung open the rear doors and shouted “Go! Go!”
He did not wait for his money. The old taxi clattered away probably faster than it had ever travelled before.
Portuguese soldier
The convoy was of over-exuberant rebels driving celebratory cavalcades between airport and city and picking off blacks like shooting pigeons. It was like poking a stick into a hornets’ nest.
Blacks erupted from the huts and shanties and fell upon one passing parade. They pelted the vehicles with a hail of stones, dragged out some drivers and beat them up, killing three, including those I saw.
Back at the Polana it was so peaceful it felt surreal writing about the day’s happenings. Next day, Monday, September 9, the airport route was made safe by soldiers.                                                                                                                      
At that point it was anybody’s guess how long this uprising would last although it was patently doomed to fail. Frelimo was hugely supported in the LM region although it did not yet have military muscle there.
In South Africa hard-core Nationalists were urging the government to support the rebels and so fulfil the old Transvaal Republic’s ambition of controlling LM. Rumours were widespread that Defence Minister P W Botha had moved army units close to the border.
After another day at the frontline we trekked back through time to sup on grilled prawns in hot piri-piri sauce, crayfish and superb steaks washed down with fine Portuguese wines. With all tourists gone the service was overwhelming.
Demonstration at Radio Clube
Tuesday, September 10: the Radio Clube had become the main gathering place for rebel supporters. The street outside was filled by up to 10 000 cheering men, women and children.
Rumours were flying around that the air force would send Fiat jets to rocket the building.
A Colonel Tavares, commander of the uniformed civil police, drove up to the Radio Clube. The crowd welcomed him, assuming he was coming to support them.
Then came the crunch: a broadcast by the MFM announcing they were handing over the Radio Clube to the civil police.
As the stunning news poured from radios the mood outside changed to anger. When Tavares emerged they focused on him. They rocked his car and he had to put his foot down hard to escape.
Minutes later paratroops backed by armoured vehicles moved slowly up the street. They were stopped by a mob of people yelling insults and calls of “Traitor!” A sky-shouter plane circled low telling people to go home.
Tom and I were watching when suddenly several thunderous blasts shook the air, almost deafening us. They were percussion bombs – thunderflashes – dropped by paratroops from the building to scare away the crowd.
It worked. Most fled like water downhill, urged on by a flurry of shots fired into the air from automatic weapons.
They almost bowled us over and we fled too, just around the corner.
The MFM began leaving the building. Women wept. Most went unobtrusively through a back door. They abandoned an assortment of hastily acquired weapons from shotguns to heavy machine-guns and grenades.
“This is not the end, my friend, it is only the beginning,” an MFM chief told me as he departed.
He was half right. The violence was spreading.
The tension was almost tangible and the danger of a backlash very real. Luckily the army kept their cool. Had just one shot been fired then, by troops or the MFM, the scene could have turned into a bloodbath.
Because it was impossible to get into the black areas without the probability of getting killed we could not personally check conditions there. But there was action aplenty.
Portuguese Air Force men under a Colonel Cardoso led a charge by 300 men from their base on the other side of the airport runway to recapture the terminal and control tower. There was some gunfire in which an MFM man was hit and an unfortunate passenger was shot accidentally as he arrived from Beira. He died in hospital.
All commercial flights to and from South Africa were stopped. Blacks in the bairros blocked the airport road with tree trunks and stones but let African buses through.
Word trickled in about vigilantes hunting blacks in the bairros.
Crazily, in much of downtown LM life began to look almost normal. Some shops, sidewalk cafes and restaurants had reopened.
But then it was a crazy week. We rushed around gathering information, getting near to hotspots, interviewing rebels and Frelimos. After the rush we relaxed at a sidewalk cafe with coffee and with brandy. Some evenings we dined in the Polana, others at a tiny restaurant which served a delicious dish of prawns piri-piri on yellow rice.
It was a comfortable little war.
It peaked on the Tuesday night and early Wednesday amid a flurry of alarms, the beginnings of a panicky flight of civilians from the city and the first grim tally of casualties.
An official announcement said about a hundred people had been killed or wounded. The total was certainly higher: more than a hundred wounded had been treated at the city hospital alone.
Frelimo soldier
Soldiers chased us away when we tried to get into the hospital, where wounded were lying on the floor because all beds were occupied. A doctor said the hospital morgue was crammed.
Troops were struggling to contain mobs of Africans rampaging through the outer suburbs and threatening to spill into the city centre. The city shut up shop again when rumours spread that blacks were planning a mass march of about 2 500 into the centre. White anxiety ran high. Strong forces of police and army backed by armoured cars sealed off the entrances to shanty towns.
Sporadic rifle fire, machine-gun bursts and heavy explosions came from inside the townships but there was still no way we could go in.
Escaping traders said all the schools and shops had been ransacked and destroyed and houses and vehicles burned. Some had lost all they owned. Troops had fired shots in the air to scare off looters. Debris and the hulks of cars and trucks littered the roads.
An army major said the violence was not political: “They are just in a wild mood and completely out of hand.”
I wondered what made the borderline between “wild” and “political” in Africa.
A band of black people marched towards the posh Polana suburb after a vigilante shot dead a black woman. Police and troops supported by an armoured car blocked the road. They warned white onlookers to go away or risk being shot.
I sent Deon in our Peugeot to check. He took with him an Associated Press reporter and a photographer.
They found the marchers and security forces gone. The road blocks of heavy stones had been dismantled. Deon drove on. A little further a crowd of blacks materialised from nowhere. Deon stopped.
A young black offered to escort them in exchange for cigarettes. He warned: “If you see a crowd, give the one-finger Frelimo salute. A two-fingered salute will mean trouble.”
One finger meant one government for Mozambique: Frelimo. Two meant you supported two governments, Frelimo and the rebels, and invited death.
A little further a much larger crowd barred the road. One man brandished an axe. They milled around the car as it was searched. Their leader warned them not to go on, they would be dead already had they been Portuguese, he said.
They turned around in a hurry and then came the shock: all the dismantled roadblocks had been rebuilt. If they had been forced to flee they would have been trapped.
Not a soul was in sight, no troops, no blacks.
Deon, a strong man, hastily got out of the car and heaved aside enough boulders for them to drive through. Nobody appeared, nobody tried to stop them. They could feel the hair rising on the backs of their necks.
That night Joaquim Chissano, deputy to Machel, broadcast an appeal for calm, aimed especially at blacks. He added a warning to Portuguese hotheads that they were outnumbered.
Next day, September 11, the violence continued. A senior police officer emerged from the townships, still shaking from shock and fatigue, to announce that the toll of killed, stabbed and beaten had risen to two hundred.
Three other events marked that day. One was the arrival of the first Portuguese High Commissioner, Rear Admiral Victor Crespo. Few diplomats have begun their assignments in more difficult circumstances.
The second was the arrival in two frigates and by plane of Portuguese troops. By now the army was pretty much in control of most of the city. Casualty figures fluctuated wildly. No-one will ever know how many bodies were left in unmarked graves in the urban jungle.
The third event was a trick borrowed by the authorities from the old guard dictators: censorship. They cut all telecommunication links from LM to the world. Phones were dead. Telexes could not link with any others. The city became an information island.
It sent the large force of foreign correspondents into a major flap. How could they justify their existence, and their expenses, if they could not feed the hungry readers? They debated all sorts of plans and in the end several decided that one of them would carry all their copy to South Africa and there file it to the various destinations. It was a long and dangerous trip followed by the tedious business of dictating copy by phone or laboriously punching it on to telex.
We too went into shock when we found ourselves with deaf and dumb telex machines. Hoping the blackout was temporary we punched up our copy on telex tapes to run them through the moment the lines opened. We waited and waited, becoming more agitated with each minute.
And then the inimitable staffer running the Salisbury bureau, John, came to the rescue. Our telex suddenly clattered into life with a message from him. We could file our copy via a link he had set up with the post office in Beira.
The link, I learned later, was a girl in the post office there, one of his amorous conquests. When he heard of the blackout he contacted her by phone because Beira had not been cut off entirely. Never have so many owed so much to one screw.
We fed our tapes into our machine and the copy was relayed straight through Beira to Salisbury to our South African papers in time for deadlines.
It was something of a scoop and they emblazoned our reports on the front pages. We were way ahead of everybody; our opposition carried hardly a word.
It was a tough day. We slaved to meet edition after edition. After sunset we prowled the murky Indian market to exchange our rands for six to eight times more than the official rate to keep our operation going.
It was dark when Tom, Deon and I drove back to the Polana thirsting for a beer or three and supper. As we walked through the foyer past the porter’s desk and into the huge main lounge, several score frustrated newsmen rose to their feet and descended on us. They had heard our reports being quoted by South African radio, how did we get the news out?
Deon and Tom on either side of me looked at each other and grinned. They broke into a soft-shoe shuffle, side to side, arms akimbo, and burst into song.
“We are the boys of the ANS,
“The ANS boys are we,
“We are the boys of the ANS,
“We all work for Wilf Nussey!”
The news mob dissolved in laughter. It as a great moment for me.
The next day tension began to ease as both sides ran out of steam. Hunger and the Portuguese forces tightened their grip. The authorities lifted the censorship and our phone and direct telex lines came back to life.
By Friday, September 13, the One Week War was all over bar the shouting. Remonstration replaced demonstration. To put the final nail in the coffin of rebel hopes an East African Airways plane arrived from Nairobi with 70 Frelimo troops - the first tangible, visible mark of the Frelimo takeover. Soon after them came another Portuguese frigate loaded this time with Frelimos, making 200 in all. They carried well-worn AK-47s.
Here was the nightmare of most Mozambican whites come to life: the hated, despised and feared Frelimo guerillas, the perpetrators of atrocities, the vanguard of black nationalism, taking over their country and property.
The guerillas obviously were under strict orders to behave and not to provoke. They appeared in the streets, diplomatically outside the city centre used mostly by whites, followed by small bands of hero-worshipping black children.
Admiral Crespo held his first news conference. There would be no reprisals, he promised. Combined Frelimo and Portuguese patrols were keeping the peace.
Portuguese exodus to South Africa
But the mass exodus of whites had begun. It was led by seven leading former secret police officers and their families who were flown back to Portugal from Beira in an air force transport. At least one never made it: Francisco “Frank the Ugly” Langa, “The Butcher of Machava” and one of the most feared interrogators, was caught and killed by rioters.
Welcome rally for Samora Machel
There were some quirky final touches. Daniel Roxo, the militant spokesman for the MFM, blew himself up with a hand grenade. Carlos “Ginger Joe” Rocha, the criminal who escaped, gave himself up. Life on the run in the new Mozambique was not quite as nice as in prison, he said.
Machel delightedly greets the Chinese delegation
Thereafter it was just bits and pieces for us. A last feature summed it up: “One young soldier angrily swinging the buckle on the end of his army belt has triggered an explosion of violence, hate and fear that has changed Mozambique forever and drawn open the curtains on a blindingly uncertain future.
“The old, easy-going Mozambique of wine and sun and prawns piri-piri in an antiquated Portuguese colonial atmosphere has been eradicated by a dramatic week.”
Nothing had changed at the Polana hotel yet, except its guests. Seated at the next table at our last lunch were a large, fat, dark-complexioned man in a badly cut, three-piece black suit that looked bullet-proof, a large, fat, dark-complexioned woman in a similar suit and a six o-clock shadow matching her husband’s, and two children who could have been cloned from them. They said little and we could not understand a word.
They were Bulgarians. The Soviet bloc had sent him to teach the Mozambicans how to grow, of all things, mealies.

Wilf Nussey

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

To find oneself

Tourism has been on the rise here for several years in a row and the other day the South Coast of Iceland was announced sold out. There were no hotels, bed and breakfasts, or camping spaces left. Thankfully we not only have a south coast but an east, west and north coast as well. So no one had to be turned around at the airport upon arrival to the country.

This past weekend I visited the west coast with a group from Norway – five people from my Norwegian publisher Kagge and three from Norway’s largest bookstore chain, Ark. The intention was to make a boat trip to Hesteyri, the abandoned town featured in my standalone novel „I remember you“ – „Jeg ved hvem du er“ in Norwegian. Unfortunately the plane that was to bring our captain from Reykajvík was unable to land so that part of the trip had to be cancelled. Thankfully the Westfjords have so much to offer we were not at lack of things to see. And eat.
The Icelandic tourist board has the following to say about the area: The Westfjords region has sometimes been dubbed “the most famous unknown place in Iceland”. Well, throw in the prestigious “European Destination of Excellence” awards and add to that the fact that the Lonely Planet travel guide put the area on its top 10 list of regions in the world to visit in 2011, and you will see that the Westfjords are becoming increasingly famous – or perhaps less unknown. I am not sure I understand the last bit but it is probably supposed to be postive. And justly so.
A particular tourist in Iceland has made the international news this week. This tourist was a woman on a bus trip that went missing and was looked for high and low. A search and rescue group was deployed and along with the passengers from the bus, the vicinity of Eldgjá where the bus passengers had disembarked, was combed for half a day. All they had to work on was a description that sounded like this: an Asian woman in her twenties, approximately 160 cm tall wearing dark clothing and carrying a small beige handbag. Just as the coast guard was about to send in a helicopter to assist by air, it dawned on one of the bus passengers participating in the search that there was a slight possibility that a mistake had been made.
This passenger was an Asian woman in her twenties, about 160 cm tall, carrying a beige purse but wearing light coloured clothing. She had found out about the missing woman shortly after the bus stopped, a bit later than the other passengers as she had used the stop to go behind the bus and change. From dark clothing to lighter tones. When she approached the group in her new ensemble everyone was discussing amongst themselves that an Asian woman had gone missing and she got caught up in the drama without realising that she was the missing woman.

Apparently the missing woman came to Iceland in search of herself and managed to do so quite successfully.         

Yrsa - Wednesday

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

the sweet life at the Gala

 This weekend I spoke at a Gala - no other word for it - at a chateau-like home in the fruit basket of California called Modesto. This Gala themed à la Française had an amazing dessert auction. All the proceeds were for the Stanislaus County library system with 12 libraries.
 The dinner supplied by the hosts came from their farm where they raise all organic. But these desserts prepared by local 'gourmet' chefs were up for the auctioneers gala.
 More than 18 amazing desserts
 This raspberry souffle came with a bottle of Champagne
 This 'Chocolate Decadence' was bid on by a librarian at our table.
Call me honored to have contributed and help raise funds for next summer's teen read library program in all 12 libraries. 
Cara - Tuesday

Monday, August 27, 2012

Casablanca - A Brazilian Footnote

The conference took place between the 14th and the 24th of January, 1943.

Winston Churchill proposed it.

 The location selected was the Anfa Hotel in the Moroccan city of Casablanca.

Stalin was invited to come, but refused, claiming he had his hands full with Stalingrad.

Both Charles de Gaulle and Henri Giraud were there, each of them claiming to speak for the Free French. The two Frenchmen hated each other, and although President Franklin D. Roosevelt convinced them to shake hands for the cameras, their mutual dislike still comes through in the photographs.

As for Roosevelt himself, he got there with the help of the Brazilians.

 And a spectacular piece of aeronautical machinery, the Boeing 314, the longest-range aircraft of its time.

Roosevelt was no stranger to Brazil. He’d been the first serving American President to visit the country when he came to address the Brazilian congress in Rio de Janeiro in November of 1936. That led to an alliance in which the United States was permitted to establish a base for the 314s in the closest place on this side of the Atlantic to the African landmass. It was christened Parnamirim Field, became vital in the effort to supply allied troops during the invasion of North Africa and grew, for a short time, to be the busiest airport in the world, with flights taking off and landing every three minutes.

It also became the largest US airbase outside of American territory.

During the war as many as 5,000 troops were stationed there – and another 42,000 passed through – making a considerable impact on a little town that had numbered only 55,000 inhabitants before the war began.

Here are a few American military guys drinking at the Grand Hotel.

The hotel is gone, but the church you saw in the background of the shot is still there.

During the war, as in all wars, there were many love stories.

Inspiring the poet Mauro Mota to write this:

“Meninas, tristes meninas,
vossos dramas recordai,
quando eles no armistício,
Vos disseram “Goodbye”.
Ouvireis a vida toda
A ressonancia do choro
Dos vossos filhos sem pai”.

Despite the impression you might have gotten from Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose Sonnets From The Portuguese aren’t from the Portuguese at all, most of this country’s poems aren’t easy to translate into English. The art of it goes beyond my meager powers, particularly in rhyme.
But here’s the meaning (with a few liberties):

Women, sad young women,
Think back on your desolation
When, at the war’s end,
They told you “Goodbye”.
The cries of your children
Without fathers
Will echo within you
Your whole life long.

Roosevelt’s outward-bound journey was the first time an American president ever traveled by air while in office. On the twelfth of January, 1943, he departed from Miami and made an overnight stop in Belem.

Upon his return, his Clipper landed in the sea, near Parnamirim, and Brazil’s President, Gitulio Vargas, journeyed north to meet him.

They toured the town in a jeep.

On his journey home, on the 30th of January, 1943, the aircraft’s crew surprised him with a cake.

It was the President’s sixty-first birthday.

Okay, okay, in case you feel the title of the post has lured you here under false pretenses, here are a few things you might not have known about the film.

It went into general release on the 24th of January, just as the conference was coming to an end. That was on purpose, an attempt to capitalize on the headlines. It wasn't exactly a failure, but it wasn't a smash success either. It became only the seventh best-grossing feature of the year. The Office of War Information prohibited showing it to the troops in North Africa, fearing it might generate resentment on the part of Vichy supporters in the region.

But, partly as a result of publicity generated by Roosevelt’s visit, it did very well in Brazil.

Leighton - Monday

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Whoops, There's Another One

One interesting wrinkle of contemporary astronomy is that we're finding planets everywhere we look.  It's now inescapable that there are more planets in the universe than there are stars.

And how many stars are there?  Well, current estimates range from ten sextillion to 1 septillion.  To get an idea of how big a septillion is, if you had been spending 1000 dollars a minute since the age of Charlemagne, and if your septillion dollars were in a bank making two percent interest, you wouldn't have touched the principal yet.  Nor would you.  Ever.

(I made that up, so don't break out the old calculator, but I think it's true, with a lot of change to spare.)

The point is there's an unimaginable number of stars, and that number is smaller than the number of planets.  You could visit a different planet each second for a billion years and still have room in your passport for more stamps.  Not to mention frequent-flyer miles like you couldn't believe.  You could take a plane to work every morning and still not use them all up.

Of course, you wouldn't want to visit most of these worlds, and in fact you wouldn't survive your one-second drop-in on the vast majority of the ones we've discovered so far.  Many of them are all gas, others are barren rocks, some are frozen at almost absolute zero, others are literally boiling.  Some are boiling on one side and frozen on the other.  Some of them are covered entirely in thick liquefied gases, a never-breaking tidal wave circling them, staying on the side facing their star as they rotate.  Some are so big their gravity would instantly turn you into a glistening film a couple of molecules thick.  Hundreds of millions of them don't even have a star to call their own; they got yanked out of orbit and floated away and now wheel silently through the freezing dark, waiting for some foolish space traveler to rear-end them.  Some of them are exactly like Trenton, New Jersey.  (With numbers--probabilities--as vast as these, it's hard to imagine any possibility that isn't going to be actualized somewhere.)

Making up for those planets that have deserted their stars, it's widely believed that about half the universe's stars are in binary or even trinary arrangements, orbiting each other, so zillions of planets have two or three suns.  Some planets are so close to their sun that they gradually spiral into its surface.  Some have suns that expand and contract, brighten and dim, regularly.  Some planets cling hopelessly to radio stars, massive lightless objects that sizzle with radioactive energy, a kind of dark sunshine.  Some of these planets, if the image below is to be believed, look like a marble orbiting a pizza.

When the discussion turns to exoplanets, lots of people want to cut to the biological chase: is life a local phenomenon, like the weather, or distributed through the universe?  If it's the latter, how many of these newly-discovered  worlds could sustain life?  I think there are three or four possible motivations for this question: to find out whether we're alone in the universe; to raise a sticky issue for religious fundamentalism; to expand our dating possibilities; to hear how the other person might answer the question.  Me, I don't much care.  

As astonishing and full of grace as individual human beings can be, as a whole we're polluters and wastrels of the worst kind. It's hard for me to believe that the inhabitants of exoplanets are high-foreheaded, shimmering translucent beings who emit music as they move and think in benign algorithms. I'm more inclined to believe that they're a little like us, since we're all likely to be made out of the same materials.  About the most I can work up is a mild interest in hearing the poetry and music from those worlds, learning whether their inhabitants have solved the problems of pain and death, and whether they've found a way to create political structures that, over time, don't ineluctably shed the principles that once inspired them and evolve into ever more efficient ways of exploiting the weak.  

Nature, as Tennyson observed, is red in tooth and claw.  But not on Mars, it's not.  There's something pristine and crystalline about that still, silent stone-littered worldscape.  I'll bet the vast methane ice-caves of Titan are breathtaking, if there were any breath in the vicinity to take.  As we cut down the last of the old-growth forests, as we burn off the chaotic genetic tangle of the Amazon basin, as we kill each other over insane belief systems that were antiquated centuries ago, I sort of hope all those gazillions of planets, or at least most of them, are as untouched as the crystals in the center of an uncut geode.  Just there.  Emptiness is okay.  

The planet we inhabit came into being about four and a half billion years ago, and life erupted on it about a billion years later.  This means that the universe did just fine without us or our terrestrial forebears for ten and a half billion years.  Things beyond our imagining expanded, condensed, formed, ignited, exploded, froze, boiled, and did the gravity dance with no supervision, or at least none I'm willing to accept.  From the tiniest quark to the Great Attractor, everything seems to have worked as it should.  And in addition to all that, it was beautiful.

So glisten away, exoplanets.  Sweep through the heavens empty and immaculate.  Let's hope no one is coming to plunder your treasures and darken your skies.

Tim -- Sundays

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Bye-Bye Mykonos

It’s a sad time for me.  Shouldn’t be.  September and October on Mykonos are by far the most beautiful time, crowds are gone, anxieties of the season are past, and life has returned to a pace dictated by the locals, not a tsunami of tourists. 

But for me things will be different.  For the first time in thirty years I will not be on Mykonos in September. 

I will be back in the US on book tour for Target: Tinos.  Not that I mind book tours.  I love them.  Just not in September and October, unless it’s a signing at an Aegean bookstore, taverna, or bar. 
Mykonos Bookshop signing
Perhaps it’s fated by the gods.  Besides I know it will be a blast.  How could it not be? After all, it kicks off September 7th with a double bill, one night only performance by the peripatetic Tim Hallinan and yours truly at Janet Rudolph’s Mystery Readers Salon in Berkeley, California.  Tickets on sale now.  And during the first week of October I’ll get to visit with most of my MIE buddies at the Bouchercon mystery convention in Cleveland, Ohio.  Yes, Cuyahoga County is not quite an Aegean island, but it does have Lake Erie.
Not Cleveland
Anyway, I’ll spare you further details of my book tour as they’re posted on my website. 

But I won’t spare you what I’ll be missing most:
Inland Mykonos landscape
Neighboring Naxos

The land, the sea, and most of all, my Mykoniate friends…for tomorrow I must fly away.


Thursday, August 23, 2012

Einstein was wrong! (Or How to sell more books)

In my last blog, ( I wrote about the fascinating Alfred W. Lawson, professional baseball player, founder and editor of the first aviation magazines, designer of the first passenger aircraft and holder of the first US airmail contract.  I also discussed his answer to what he regarded as iniquity of bankers, who fleeced the public through charging interest on loans.  His answer was the Direct Credit Society, which advocated giving everyone some money to get started in life.
A modest man, Lawson claimed that his birth was “…the most momentous occurrence since the birth of mankind”.  He pooh-poohed most of previous science, including Einstein, and developed his own science called Lawsonomy.  His famous trilogy, Lawsonomy (1922), Mentality (1938), and The Almighty (1939) laid out the basis for his physical laws.  

Chapter 1 of Lawsonomy provides the background to Lawson’s thinking.  Here are some extracts:
Lawsonomy is based upon Life as it is and not upon a theory of what it ought to be.

Truth is simple and easily understood but falsity is complicated and misleading. A few words, sentences, paragraphs or pages are sufficient to tell the truth but it requires ponderous books and whole libraries to prop up falsity.

So if it isn't real; if it isn't truth; if it isn't knowledge; if it isn't intelligence; then it isn't Lawsonomy.

One must study and practice Lawsonomy and learn it as one learns to walk and run or talk and sing. It is a formula that proves all things. But, only as one cleanses the mind of all falsities and develops the reasoning faculties with Truth and practical thoughts can one utilize this far-reaching formula to advantage.

Although it is difficult to summarize his texts in this short space, it is correct to say that everything can be described in terms of the laws Penetrability, Suction and Pressure, and Zig-Zag-and-Swirl.
In Lawson’s words:
So I say PENETRABILITY is the basic law of movement.

A piece of steel can penetrate water or air because it is of a different density but cannot penetrate another piece of steel of equal density.

When density is equal there can be no penetration.

Steel can penetrate heat and heat can penetrate steel because they are of different density.

I’m left speechless at the clarity of this concept.

Suction and Pressure:
Again in Lawson’s words:
Space made vacant by falling mass must be filled with substances of greater density, and this process is Suction.

When substances of greater density fall toward space of lesser density, the process is Pressure.

Suction and Pressure is the only force in Space. Each is dependent upon the other and nothing can move without their combined pull and push.

Suction is the female of movement and Pressure is the male of movement.

Needless to say, Lawson’s description of sex involved both the laws of Penetrability and Suction and Pressure.
Basically, Lawson proposed that everything in motion was acted upon by both suction and pressure that varied constantly.  This led to the object moving in an erratic zig-zag-and-swirl motion.
(I think this law could well be adopted by social scientists studying the behaviour of politicians.)

University of Lawsonomy
Lawson was so convinced of the correctness and power of his science that he started the University of Lawsonomy outside Des Moines in 1943, offering the degree of Knowledgian.  He also had the terrific notion (from which all of us who are writers could learn) that the only books students could read were books he wrote, which happened to be published by his publishing company, called the Humanity Publishing Company, owned by the Humanity Benefactor Foundation.  (There was a serious kerfuffle when the baseball team consulted an outside book about the rules of the game.  It is not clear from my reading whether the players and coach were expelled for this infraction.)
After a run-in with the IRS, the Institute of Lawsonomy reconstituted itself just outside Racine, Wisconsin, where, until recently, its huge billboard could easily be seen from I94.  A storm in 2009 left only the supporting posts standing, but in the distance a building was visible with “Study Natural Law” painted on its exterior.
Needless to say he also started the Religion of Lawsonomy, and there are still a few adherents.
When I look into the vastness of space and see the marvelous workings of its contents... I sometimes think I was born ten or twenty thousand years ahead of time.
Alfred Lawson
We need more people like Alfred William Lawson in our lives to enlighten us.
Stan - Thursday