Friday, May 31, 2013

No place like home

My pal, Gavin Bell, is a former foreign correspondent with Reuters and The Times. He is a man born with, as my wee granny would say 'ants in his pants.' He is now a travel writer and has been to more than 80 countries from the Antarctic to Zanzibar, from Madagascar to Fiji.  He has stood on volcanoes as they erupted, been attacked by a shark named Margaret off the Southern Cape and he was one of the first to interview Mandela on his release. They struck on a topic of conversation that continued for many years; football. Seemingly Desmond Tutu is a Motherwell supporter. Sorry, THE Motherwell supporter! I think the other one died of boredom at half time in 1942 and nobody noticed.

Gavin has lived the life of the adventurous explorer, living on the edge, being shot at in many peculiar places both geographically and anatomically. For an interview in a national paper he was asked by a fellow travel writer where his favourite place in the world was and he replied without any hesitation, Largs.
                  Gavin's book on wandering the South Sea Islands looking for RLS. He calls that work!

That story came to mind as I sit here, in Largs, scribbling.  It is the 26th of May, I am writing in short bursts of longhand as the only way I can keep my fingers from freezing is to wrap them round my cup of Americano. It is very cold here.
When I was small I had loads of aunts/uncles/grandparents that I wasn’t related to.  Looking back they were unpaid childminders as both my parents worked. My sister and I were the first children to live in the small square for over 40 years so we had doting grannies and granddads galore.  It was our great treat to be taken on the bus down to Largs and have a cake at the Green Shutters Tea Room on the seafront (from where I am writing this blog).  In those days it was the height of sophistication as a selection of cakes appeared on a stand on the table and you paid for what you ate. If my mother was there, my sister and I might get half a meringue between us- she got all the cream and I got the glace cherry. If we were with Mrs Jeffries, we scoffed the lot.

Largs is a pretty place. It sits on the Firth of the Clyde in North Ayrshire about 30 miles from Glasgow. The original Gaelic name means 'the slopes'.  It’s a popular seaside resort with a tiny harbour, and famous for Nardini's ice cream and Vikings (eating the former and fighting the latter).

In 1263 the Scots and Norwegians had a bit of an exchange of views and interestingly both sides have claimed victory in their sagas.  It was after that battle and the Treaty of Perth in 1266 that the Hebrides were sold back to Scotland, with the Isle of Man thrown in as a buy one get one free deal.  But we all made up in the end and in 1944 King Haakon the 7th of Norway, exiled due to German occupation, visited Largs and became its first honorary citizen. Every year at the end of the summer there is a range of beating up Viking activities and the traditional burning of a Viking galley during a firework display.

In the 19th Century, Largs was a busy and popular resort, large hotels appeared but it was when the railway came in 1895 things really took off for Largs.  It became a fashionable place to live. Famous Largs folk include Daniela Nardini (award winning actress and daughter of the ice cream empire.)             
 William Thomson - better known as Lord Kelvin- he of the physics formulae but I am sure you all know  that.
                                    Lord Kelvin trying to find the formula for the perfect Kardashian!

And Thomas Brisbane  who gave his name to a crater on the Moon, the Brisbane river,  the city of Brisbane, and the Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium. Sam Torrance the golfer, Lou Macari footballer and all round lovie John Sessions are all Largs born.

And of course the Waverley paddle steamer, the last ocean going paddle steamer in the world makes regular trips in the summer months. It's reported she floats like a butterfly, moves like a panther, steers like a cow.  It's not the first time she's taken a pier away with her on her departure.

The town still tries hard as a tourist destination. There is the Vikingar Centre which has  interactive advice on how to beat up a Viking. It is still best known for Nardini's which is a famous ice cream parlour, cafe and restaurant.  The shop still has glass bottles of sweeties and trays of pastries to die for. Loads of my elderly patients get the train down to Largs for a fish tea special.  My own favourite is a chip butty and an Irn Bru, sitting on the sea wall while trying to fight off seagulls with high blood cholesterol.

Largs getting a tourist seal of approval.

People who find nothing to do in Largs tend to get the ferry over to Cumbrae where there is even less to do.  The ferries bing bong across the Firth like a game of tennis with both players rooted at the baseline, the air is regularly punctuated by the grinding  of the metal car ramp being driven up the slipway. Often the pilots have to  give a quick blast on the horn as a sailboat caught in a quiet wind tries to run the gauntlet.

The high street of Largs is full of For Sale signs.  So many folk retire to Largs and die, the local cooncil had to ban any more lawyers and estate agents from setting up business. This is the result. This is a crowded beach.
The air is tinged with salt, from the sea and from the numerous chip shops on the front. There are two sets of shows on the front, both for wee kids. This is the west coast equivalent of the Las Vegas strip.  The music was very Dean Martin skewed by the low quality and high volume, it slowed down and speeded up in time with the wee cars as they went round.

The famous Nardini building still dominates the north of Largs high street. It has an old fashioned tea room. Many times I have sat in their 1950's chairs listening to some jazz and people watching,  munching a toastie while he devours a lemon drizzle cake. He looks with awe at those brave enough to tackle the north face of a knickerbocker glory without oxygen. Those were the days.

The patriarch founder of the business died and the two brothers eventually started to disagree on the way the business should move forward. In an interview, the actress daughter (Daniela) spoke of the feud over what part of the family got to keep the family name. The court battle cost a fortune. Even more than one of their knickerbocker glories.
So even though it's a bit old and done, a bit smelly and a bit run down, the ghost of the old Largs is still here and the shadows are long. The place keeps pulling you back like some genetic whiplash just in case you ever forget your roots and forget where you came from.

I guess after all that globetrotting what Gavin really meant, was there is no place like home...

I'm off to Bristol now.....

Caro  GB  Friday 31st May 2013

Thursday, May 30, 2013

A tired blog from Crimefest

I am also at Crimefest - feeling very zonked after the flights from Minneapolis to Heathrow, this time via Atlanta.  So I am going to make the blog very short, with the promise of photos and commentary sometime soon.

The flights all worked well, and I arrived at Heathrow 30 minutes early, which resulted in me having to stand in line an extra 30 minutes awaiting passport control and immigration.  The standing wasn't that bad, since I hadn't slept on the plane and was impervious to discomfort - except for the elderly Aussie man (or Brit pretending to be an Aussi man) who tried to push into the queue 50 people from the end.

I am not fond of queue jumpers so I politely told him where the end of the queue was.  He thanked me politely and pushed in 45 places from the end of the queue.  I was too tired to even mind.

I was so tired I made a cardinal mistake when the immigration officer asked me where I was going and what I was doing.  "Bristol," I replied.  "To a convention."

"So you are here on business?"

The penny dropped.  A "yes" would be the wrong answer.

"No," I said.  "I'm going to a crime convention."

Whoops.  That also wasn't the right thing to say.

"I mean, I am going to a crime writers' meeting."

"A crime writers' meeting?  What's that?" 

Anyway a few minutes later I was allowed to pass into the hallowed lands of Great Britain, leaving the friendly Indian lady shaking her head.

Heathrow Express, extending of my senior railcard, and the train trip to Bristol all worked well.  Amazing.  I was in the hotel about 4 hours after landing at LHR. 

I was energized when I met Michael, who had arrived yesterday, Yrsa and her husband Ole, Jeff and his partner Barbara, and Caro.  Not to mention convention salwarts Bill and Toby Gottfried and Murder is Everywhere contributor Annamaria Alfieri.

Stan, Annamaria, Jeff, Caro, Yrsa, and Michael

It is people like this that really are the great attraction of Crimefest.

Now to sleep.  More later.


Stan - Thursday

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

I have just arrived to Bristol for Crimefest. The murder is everywhere team has a good showing and although I am way too tired at the moment to write anything worth anything I promise a round up of events this coming Monday, quick and dirty and hopefully loaded with shocking relevations. Not really, crime writers and crime readers are way too nice - I would be lucky to manage a single piece of juicy gossip. But my ears and eyes will be on amber alert. 
But before I log off I must mention that the guy at the car rental at Heathrow misunderstood my reply when he asked me where I was going and said at the end of the exchange: Good luck in finding a crimewave! Perhaps he believed me and my husband to be a new type of storm chasers, crime chasers.  
Til Monday.
Yrsa - Wednesday

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

After 148 years the Nuns get out of Paris jail

The nuns left their cells last month for the last time. Since the 19th century the Sisters of Marie-Joseph and Mercy have lived with female prisoners on Ile de la Cité in the 'Depot' so called for the cells under the the Tribunal which hold prisoners in transit between custody and possible incarceration. For 148 years this order of nuns have cared for female inmates and lived next to them in the holding cells. 
The five remaining nuns lived in the same spartan cells, caring for women who awaited charges before a magistrate.   
But with the crisis of vocations and an aging congregation, they couldn't find the necessary recruits.

On 23 April, they were treated to a final tribute, in the chapel of the 'Depot', where Cardinal Vingt-Trois, celebrated a mass for them saying "Where no one has voluntarily gone, we celebrate the service of those who have willingly gone out of love for others." 

Soon, the Sisters of the 'Depot' will retreat to a monastery. Yet they will continue to maintain a presence in the bowels of the courthouse, training citizen volunteers to take over and help. But the volunteers won't live in the cells.

Cara - Tuesday

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Scottish Play; Macbeth

I am a secret squirrel. On a secret mission.


(the secret castle; our mission)
I am undercover to do a dangerous and thrilling investigation for Murder is Everywhere. I am standing in for Caro Ramsay who knows absolutely nothing about my secret quest.  My current position is somewhere on the battlements of Cawdor Castle.  My mission (as I wished to accept it) is to find the truth about the Thane of Cawdor. I am the 'Wean of Cawdor'. If you are from Glasgow, that is a really funny joke. If not, laugh anyway. Who is the Thane of Cawdor I hear the illiterati ask?  You may know him as another name.
Yes that one. But it's bad luck to say it, so it's Mac****!

Mark McManus
I always thought that Taggart was the best murder drama to come out of Scotland but it turns out that the Shakespeare chappie got there first.
All that  'Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand?' stuff ( Was he on drugs? Od'd on the Irn Bru? I need to know).  Him of the double, double toil and trouble, fire burn, and caldron bubble. Wouldn't know about that, we have an Aga.                                         

The pink pest err princess from Inverness

 I will be both assisted and hindered in my assignment by The Pink Princess of Inverness (see poetry and everything!!). She is mostly a hindrance due to her pink addiction.  Also on duty is the Hound of the Baskernuts ...  Hector is a ferocious hound. A dog who will defend us to his death, against all enemies fearless and brave - unless you give him a hobnob. He doesn't bite.  The thought of him sitting on you is terrifying enough.
           Descended from a wolf, evolved into a sofa

Our quest, dear Murder Is Everywhere readers is to prove or disprove that Macbeth was a  murderer. Or if he existed?  Where does the fiction stop and the fact start? Or vice versa?  I will examine the detail of the transgressive nature of  Macbeth  within a psychosocial  framework of the history in a temporal space and the literature using the Frankfurt school of critical theory.

                                                                                 Me, secret squirrel at your service
 First I will have an ice cream.
Once I have passed my first challenge, getting the ice cream in my mouth and not all over my face, I am going to begin by exploring the Scottish play that the Brummie bloke with the funny beard wrote while considering his beard and his hairstyle and thinking that he might have his head on upside down.
The play-that-must-not-be-named kicks off by being scary ... very scary indeed. The three old biddies like my granny and her bingo pals are having a wee chin wag  while boiling their underwear in a cauldron and  they  promise MacB*** great things. Probably a bit like being in front of Sharon Osbourne  on the X factor.
They tell him that he will become Thane of Cawdor, like a sheriff, then king of Scotland. The only problem is Scotland already had a king.
 Kings in these days were a bit like reality TV shows and cuts in public spending. Don't worry if you miss one, there will be another one along in minute.
 Mac**** has a wee think about all this but his missus is a bit of a pushy bird and forces him to do bad things.
I have no idea where Shakespeare went but he never came to Burnham wood - and the wood  never got as far as Dunsinane. "Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him."  I tried this journey, moving the forest twig by twig as you can see.
 Cawdor has a great wood of its own, thank  you! 
Dunsinane Hill is near the village of Callace in Perthshire. It is not very high. As hills go, in Scotland, it's rubbish.  
In a nutshell, Mrs. Mac**** is a bit pushy, she aids and abets the death of King Duncan so her husband can be king. But the old dears said it was the descendants of Banquo who will reign so Mac**** kills Banquo to stop that happening. But Mac**** is troubled by a ghost, his conscience, indigestion or just the fact that his missus never stops moaning.  From then on it's a bit like a Caro Ramsay novel, everybody dies, or goes mad, often both at the
 same time.  
Like most fiction writers, Shakespeare never allowed truth or geography to get in the way of a good story. The real Mac**** was a big red headed guy who told jokes a lot. When he was in charge the country ran well and at a profit. Which  is more than be said for the current situation.  Mac**** went on tour, a bit like Kate and William but without the frocks.  He also nipped over the border and bopped the English a few times for which we applaud him. This was all around the 11th century which makes him slightly older than my dad but Mac**** had more hair.  In Scots he was called Mac Bethad mac Findláich so you see why it's wise to resort to asterisks.  It means   Mac**** son of Finlay. Who his mother actually was is not agreed on, but presumably his dad had some vague idea.
Then the English butted in as usual, upsetting the peace and quiet. In 1054, Macbeth was  challenged by Siward,  Earl of Northumbria.  Siward was attempting to return Duncan's son Malcolm Canmore, (his nephew) to the throne.  Are you following all this?  In 1057, Macbeth was killed at the Battle of Lumphanan in Aberdeenshire by Malcolm, who then went on later to become Malcolm III.
Not Malcolm X, that was a different dude all together.
And that was the end of that. No witches, no ghosts, no wandering about seeing daggers before my eyes, no soliloquies on battlements. But then  how would we know about a soliloquy if the point is that nobody else hears it.  Or do you eavesdrop while hiding behind the arras while  discussing what  pencil to use.. 2B or not 2B. Or am I on the wrong play now?

Old Will knew how to coin a phrase. Fair is foul, and foul is fair... which is how my dad plays football.

“Nought’s had, all’s spent,
Where our desire is got without content:
Tis safer to be that which we destroy
Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy”
Lady Macbeth finds that getting what you want doesn't bring peace. She knew that thing about you don’t get what you want - you get what you need.
This is my trip to Cawdor castle, this is indeed Cawdor castle but it might not really have much to do with anything, the family still live there, the young laird still goes around the village, starting the annual tug of war competition. The castle is open to visitors in the summer, but as this was too early, we went sneak about. With The Pink Princess of Inverness and the Hound of the Baskernuts.

The pink pest with her invisible Sig Hauer (left hand). See dead ted in the back ground, he was used as target practice.

 As I said, Cawdor Castle is famous for the Great Wood, it’s not great it’s fantastic!

It has loads of trees; Birch, Aspen, Rowan, Wych Elm, Holly and Juniper. Scots Pine, Oak and Beech. The wood is lovely with stitchwort, bluebell, ferns, mosses and honeysuckle all mixing with young saplings.
 There's also dippers, capercaillies, herons, wrens and numerous species of birds of prey mixed with migrants from crossbills to waxwings.  Wild pheasants are everywhere! The wild peasants stay in the village.
Red and roe deer have a wee wander in as well, relaxed in the knowledge that the hound of the baskernut is way too fat to chase anything except pizza.
I need to end my report now, as it is bath time.

Name - Secret Squirrel,
Location - Cawdor Castle 
Rank - very small person
signing off for Murder is everywhere, Monday 27th May 2013, bedtime.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Hello. Goodbye. Okay.

One of the reasons that I like to stay in Gulou, around the Drum Tower, is the satisfaction I get every time I take the short cut I know of from the place I often stay to Gulou Dong Dajie, the street you take to get to my favorite bar, which lies on a tiny lane just off of it. I get a weird little thrill, coming back from the bar late at night, by myself, buzzed on a couple of beers, when the traffic has died down and most of the people are off the street, just a few couples and workers here and there, and a random drift of paper blown on the cold breeze. I walk through the plaza, past these, you know, ancient buildings, tourist attractions by day that I have practically to myself by night, and it just gets me every time—how cool is this?

There's a coffee place I like on one end of the square, close to the Drum Tower, and I was heading there my last night in Beijing, just after sunset. The weather had turned bitter-cold again, after a few days of temps in the 40s; the wind had kicked up, and even though I've gotten better at handling cold, that knife-edged wind is something I doubt I'll ever get used to.

I'd just entered the square by the Bell Tower when a middle-aged Chinese woman came up to my side and said, "Hello!"

"Hello," I replied.

"Hello," she said again. She clutched two unwrapped rolls of toilet paper against her body.

I don't remember what I said, something in Chinese, and then she told me that she could also say, "Good-bye!" And "Okay!" And that was all the English she knew.

Meanwhile, an older man had come out of a doorway. I can't remember how we started talking, but he spoke a lot of English. He told me that he was a professor, a teacher, and that he worked restoring historical Chinese buildings, that he'd worked in San Francisco, in Chinatown, doing that work, and that he did that work here now.

"Oh, do you know about the plans for this area?" I asked. Because the various redevelopment proposals are something that very much concerns me.

"I am involved with restoring ancient Chinese buildings," he repeated, not answering me. I'm not actually sure he understood my question.

"This is my favorite place in Beijing," I told him, which is true.

"I want to show you something," he said. He gestured toward the entrance to a building on the square. A "Porcelain Museum," something I'd vaguely noted on occasion but never really paid attention to.

I followed him, wondering what this would turn into.

He nodded at a couple of workers there and we walked past them, into an entry hallway, and then into a large room, almost a hall, filled with examples of porcelain.

"So beautiful," I said, and it really was. I'd had no idea all this was here.

The woman carrying the toilet paper followed us. Was it okay, she asked the older man? He nodded, and gestured that we should continue on. There was another large room, full of porcelain pieces, smaller ones for the most part that later I noticed were for sale. Still beautiful. A workroom, with photos and a sculpted clay head.

Then, an "art gallery."

Cue, "Sense of Mild Dread."

For those unfamiliar, the "art gallery" is one of those, not exactly scams, but opportunistic expressions of Chinese micro-capitalism, as it were. As a foreigner, you'll get approached by a couple of "students" who want to "practice their English," and then show you their classes'/teacher's/uncle's "art gallery." These are exhibits of Chinese paintings that are mostly copies of traditional works, with some peasant folk and countryside realism thrown in. If you're looking for inexpensive paintings of bamboo and birds and goldfish for your walls, these actually can be a pretty good deal, and hey, I've bought a couple of paintings from various "galleries" over the years.

But there is only so much wall space for copies of famous Chinese paintings.

"This is my painting," the professor said, pointing. "This is my daughter's."

"Very beautiful."

"I want my daughter to study more English," he added.

Meanwhile, the woman perches on the stool, clutching her rolls of toilet paper, every once in a while interjecting a "hello!" and then explaining to me that this is all the English she knows.

"My son studies piano at XXXX**." He pointed at a stack of thin papers, each with a stylized character painted in black ink. "Do you recognize that? That one is 'le.' Also, 'yue.'"

"Happiness, and music."

"Yes. I make those." He smiled. "My design. Today I have over 60 visitors from XXXX**. I made this for them. 'Le.'"

The stylized "le" has little loops, like musical notes. He sings: "Do, re, mi, fa..."

He thinks for a moment. "Because it is Christmas. And because I have been drinking no small amount of wine." He laughs and gestures at a tea glass full of dark liquid. "I want to make you a gift."

He takes one of the extra scrolls, asks me for my name, dips his brush into ink, adds my name and "American friend" and "Merry Christmas" to the scroll. Sips his jiu.

"He is very clever," says the woman. "I can only say, 'Hello. Goodbye. Okay.'"

"That's very good," I tell her.

Then, out of nowhere, in English, she says, "Long live Chairman Mao!"

The professor's face freezes. Almost purples. "Do not say that! I don't like that! I don't want to hear it." He shakes his head. "He was a terrible man. Terrible. Like the First Emperor Qin."

I nod. "I heard that a lot when I was in China the first time."

Then he beams, sips his wine. "I like Deng Xiaoping. He was a great man. Did great things for China."

He ssks me for my parents' names, and makes a special scroll for them too. Then, "do you have brothers and sisters?" and he rolls up two more scrolls for them.

"Okay!" says the woman, giving us a thumbs-up.

"She is a little crazy," the professor says, conversationally, in English. "Her family died in the Cultural Revolution."

Finally, he rolls up all of the paintings, wraps them in a newspaper. Mentions again that he wants his daughter to learn more English, and I promise to coach her next time I come to Beijing.

The woman with the toilet paper walks me across the square, past the parked rickshaws. The wind has come up cold. "The professor is really smart," she tells me, "but he drinks too much. My husband drank himself to death. He was only forty-seven."

"I'm sorry," I say.

She brightens,"I will be sixty!" she tells me (sixty being an auspicious age in China).

"Oh, that's very good. You'll be sixty soon?"

"Now I am fifty-three," she says. "I want to show you my house! It's behind the coffee bar."

"Oh, I was going to that coffee bar," I say, as she clutches my arm and hurries me towards it.

"Laoban!" she calls out as we approach the coffee bar. "I'm going to show her my house!" We step over the threshold. "Siheyuanr," she says, the name for the traditional hutong housing. And it's a small wing of a courtyard house. "These are my clothes that I washed." She points to a clothesline, stretched across a window, pants and shirts fluttering in the shelter of the courtyard. "You can look inside. See? See?” I look through the window. A tiny room, painted white, with cartoon characters on the walls.

“I have more rooms than just this one," she tells me.

Then she walks me back to the coffee house, clutching my arm tight, and says "goodbye."

(**Famous foreign music conservatory. Name changed for privacy's sake)


Saturday, May 25, 2013

Mykonos, Listen to the Music. Please.

I’m wound up. Translation: Pissed off by an argument I had with an arrogant rent-a-cop type who told an elderly tourist couple walking beside a wall on Mykonos’ main street that they couldn’t stop to look across the wall at the sea, because the wall was “private property.” 

Old photos courtesy Dimitris Koutsoukos

So, today I’m writing about a different side of Mykonos, not its iconic windmills and pelicans, dozens of breathtaking beaches, or fevered nightlife. 

No, today its all about the iconic hospitality of the Mykonian people inexorably linked to the island’s glorious past—and the fevered sorts who’ve come to change it all with promises to the locals that make the Harold Hill fast-talking con man character in “The Music Man” a paragon of virtue and truthfulness by comparison.

Obviously, the situation exploited by the fictional salesman in “The Music Man”—to save River City, Iowa’s children from the sins of ruination symbolized by a pool hall—is quite different from what confronts Mykonos.  Mykonos’ hustlers are real, and they’ve come with a goal of turning the entire island into a “pool hall,” offering the “sins of ruination” as enticements, not warnings.

I’m not talking about crooked politicians who line their pockets with funds stolen from hospitals, schools, roads, public services, and so on, that’s a subject for the courts to decide.

I’m talking about those masters of the craft of selling the sizzle not the steak.  Or, if you prefer fish, they know the perfect bait for landing the big one every time.  It’s hard to resist promises of fame, celebrity, and wealth, especially when the salesmen are smooth. And Mykonos attracts the best, because these guys come to where the money, sex, and action are to be found.  In the United States they make a beeline for HOLLYWOOD (known to some not so fondly as ‘fraud central USA” for all the scams run there under the guise of “the Biz”) or Las Vegas where “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” (translation: your money and/or soul). 

Hey, I’m no prude.  I love Vegas and LA.  I got engaged in one and married in the other. [Pause to reconsider the penultimate sentence. :)]

But, I accept those places for what they are: Polities born out of unfettered development, selective enforcement of codes and ordinances, and acceptance of the ruthless and unscrupulous into their midst.  If that’s the path Mykonos chooses to pursue, fine.   But no one should be misled into believing such changes have made or will make their island a “better” place.  What they most certainly do is make it a different place.  Whether better or worse depends on whom you ask and only their great-grandchildren will know the truth.

But of all Mykonos’ many natural blessings—sea, sun, beaches, and breezes—the one I most fear the island losing is what at its heart distinguishes Mykonos from all other places on this earth just as beautiful, if not more so:  The unwavering hospitality of its people.

Lose that and, “Bye-bye now.”