Friday, October 31, 2014

An Edinburgh Poem


I seem to have a deadline for Thursday night for the next typescript. I seem to have to be 170 miles further north early on Friday morning. With a short story (unwritten as yet ) and in fancy dress (no idea!). So I can't wax as lyrical as I usually do.
Next week you are getting a blurb on what it means to be Glaswegian and why we have over 60 words for drunk.
But this week I thought I would treat you to a lovely poem by my good friend Betty MacKellar. She's the award winning poet who writes mostly in Scots but this poem is in English. And it's about some wee rubbishy place on the east coast where they wear fur coats but can't afford knickers.
Or so I am told.

 Seriously tho, a lovely poem about a lovely city. If you like that sort of thing. 


The city of my childhood wore a face
for afternoon tea,
she was a Jenner’s kind of lady.
A trace of her is left in me –
“Hold your back straight,’ she’d say,
“Speak nicely.
Put on your gloves”...
Eight years she tutored me.

I was beguiled by her refinements
for her face was all sunshine and smiles
in Princes Street Gardens
and the tram
to the Zoo in far Corstorphine
or Portobello Sands.

Sometimes I happened on her shadow places
saw the dark side of her face
the queue of thin men snaking round the corner of our street
waiting for soup
and tramps in the Meadows
shell-shock bleary in their eyes.
Did I hear the word “meths”
on that old man’s breath?
My mother rushed me past
too fast to be sure.
No trainspotting allowed in the thirties.

Sciennes was my school; it had a swimming pool.
I can still hear “Rule Britannia” playing
as we marched en masse
like little soldiers of the Empire
into class.
All quite up-market for the non-fee paying
but I recall my mother saying
that the colours were same as Queen Street College – navy and red.
I could almost have been swanking to the private one instead.

The War saw me away
evacuee in a pixie hood,
then after a lifetime

My hat was yellow
with flowers
smarter than the Queen’s
I had forgotten how beautiful the Crags and Arthur’s Seat had been.
The sun still shone
for cucumber sandwiches and French cakes
on the Palace lawn.
The face for afternoon tea smiles on…

And my grandchildren went to George Watson’s. 

Betty MacKellar

Caro Ramsay  31 10 2014

Thursday, October 30, 2014

To e- or not to e-? That is the question.

I buy e-books, but I prefer to buy real books. 

I buy e-books because I travel a lot and, since I read quickly, I can finish three or four books on a trip to Europe from Minneapolis.  In my youth I regarded the lugging of all these real books as part of my exercise regimen. Now I regard it as an unnecessary schlep.



Because I want to keep up with what is happening in Minneapolis during the months I live in Cape Town, I also subscribe to the Minneapolis Star Tribune electronically; similarly I subscribe to South Africa’s Mail & Guardian for the other half of my life.

I don’t mind reading books electronically, but I dislike intensely reading newspapers online.  I don’t have the same sense of perspective that I have with big pages open in front of me, where I take in articles, headlines, adverts, and so on.  Reading a newspaper electronically is like walking through a museum at night with a small flashlight.  One only sees bits and pieces, and is left with no sense of the whole.

The only thing that I really don’t like about e-books is that it is much more difficult for me to walk into a house and snoop through the owner’s library.  If the books are on shelves, I know what the owner is reading.  If they are in an e-reader, I have no sense at all of the person’s taste. 

I’ve often wondered why I have such a strong preference for real books. 

Is it because of habit – that’s the way I’ve always done it and I’m slow to change?  Is it because I like to see books scattered around my house, tempting me to sit down and read them?  Is it because I like the feel of having a book in my hand?

It is probably a bit of all of these.  But there is now evidence that there may be something more at play.

Recent research done at Stavanger University in Norway suggests that you remember more when reading a real book compared to an e-book.  Anne Mangen gave 50 readers the same 28-page short story by Elizabeth George.  Half read the story in a paperback; half on an e-reader.  She then tested them about different aspects of the story – objects, characters, and setting.

On most items there was little or no difference, but when the readers had to place 14 events that happened in the story in the correct order, the paperback readers performed significantly better. 

When I read this, I thought of how I feel about electronic newspapers – that I lose the big picture – and wondered whether something similar was going on.

Mangen suggested a reason for this: “When you read on paper you can sense with your fingers a pile of pages on the left growing, and shrinking on the right.  You have the tactile sense of progress, in addition to the visual.”

What she is say, in fact, that you have a sensory experience as you read a real book as well as an intellectual one. The researchers postulate that this gives readers a better sense of the story.

This study was similar to another Norwegian one, where 72 tenth graders were given texts to read in print or in a PDF on a computer, followed by a comprehension test.  Students who read the texts on paper scored significantly better.

As an ex-researcher myself, I can see a hundred more studies that need to be done.  But these findings are both interesting and important.  Particularly as more and more students read only on their e-readers.

So, what are your opinions about e-readers and e-books versus real books?  Which do you prefer?  And Why?

Stan - Thursday

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Things seen in China...

Sometimes I think I should have learned photography. I like taking pictures, having that frame to put around the world. It's a lot easier, at times, to share experiences of other places through photos than it is to write about them.

I have a semi-respectable camera but I really enjoy taking pictures with my smartphone. I like being able to edit and post on the fly, also that the phone is less obtrusive than a DSLR. The main reason I want to upgrade my phone at this point is for a better camera (I mean, does anyone actually use their smartphone to talk?)

Anyway, here are a few images taken on my trip to China last month. The purpose of the trip was visiting craft breweries there, but I did manage to do a few other things, apart from trying Chinese IPAs. In all instances, click to embiggen...

This is a blurry night shot done with that outdated smartphone, but I was so taken by the scene. Rather than having tables or blankets, a lot of vendors in this hip Kunming district were selling their wares out of the backs of cars and vans. All the better to outrun the chengguan if need be, the much hated "urban management" police force in charge of cracking down on illegal street vendors and other petty crimes. They have a reputation for brutality and excess, and even if you aren't crazy about illegal street vendors (who can be a real nuisance), hardly anyone roots for the chengguan.

Yeah, I know, I know. I have a thing about weird signs.

I was primarily seeking out "craft" beer from microbreweries. While this hardly fit the "craft" category, it was a pretty decent German lager. And, yellow.

The "vampire" trend in Beijing started a few years ago, and to my surprise is still hanging on. This is a bar on a very trendy hutong (alley) that's been around for a while.

A couple of Kunming fashion statements (and yes, the sign below really does translate to "smelly socks" -- someone has a sense of humor!)

Sure, they look innocent enough during the day...

Run away! RUN AWAY!!!!!

 You can find peaceful places in China if you look…

So. Much. Good. Food. The snaps below are all from Dali, in Yunnan.

I would so ride this.

Shanghai may be one of the most modern cities in the world, but in the older sections, this is how they do the scaffolding. In a lot of the newer ones, too…

Things seen in Beijing...

I always find these tranquil snapshots in the middle of Beijing.

But these old neighborhoods are almost gone now…

Lisa…every other Wednesday…

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

James R. Benn: "The Rest is Silence."

We're so happy to have James Benn with us again. His latest Billy Boyle book, The Rest Is Silence,  has been garnering great reviews since it was released on September 2nd. Agatha Christie even makes a cameo appearance! Thanks for joining us, Jim and welcome back.

The Rest Is Silence presents the military training disaster at Slapton Sands as a backdrop the ninth Billy Boyle World War II investigation. The events behind this historical tragedy began in November 1943, when the British government took over a large area of the Devonshire coast in southwest England for invasion trainings. An area called the South Hams, over 30,000 acres of seafront along the protected Lyme Bay, was evacuated. The residents of this rural district – 750 families, 180 farms, 3,000 people in all – were given only a few weeks to clear out and take everything of value with them; livestock, furnishings, farm equipment, harvested crops, anything that might be damaged by bombs and thousands of troops on maneuver. The deadline was five days before Christmas 1943; for some, it was too much. One couple in their eighties (he had never left the South Hams and she had never ridden in a motor vehicle) hung themselves in their barn rather than move. But the rest did, finding shelter where they could. Most accepted the sacrifice for the sake the war effort. Everyone knew realistic training for Allied soldiers could help save lives.

It wasn’t long before the Allied command noticed a fortunate accident of geography within Lyme Bay. A beach known as Slapton Sands with low cliffs at either end of a flat coastal road and a marshy lake behind the shore was almost an exact duplicate of the beach code named Utah in Normandy. It was the perfect place for assault troops to train, and by April 1944, a large scale operation called Exercise Tiger was about to kick off. The 4th Infantry Division and the 1st Engineer Special Brigade – the troops set to hit Utah beach – were to land at Slapton Sands for a live-fire training exercise.

Things went wrong immediately. On April 27, the first phase of the exercise began as 4th division GIs were landed on the stony beach at Slapton Sands at 7:30 am. The landing was to be preceded by a live fire exercise to acclimatize the troops to the sights & sounds of a naval bombardment. The British cruiser Hawkins was to shell the shoreline before the landing craft hit the beach. But several of the landing craft were delayed, and the navy decided to postpone the shelling for 60 minutes, until 8:30. This message was received by Hawkins, but not by the landing craft – so troops were on the beach as the bombardment began. Over three hundred were killed.

Exercise Tiger continued even after that tragedy. In the pre-dawn hours of April 28, another convoy made for Slapton Sands. Eight LSTs carrying combat engineer and support troops slated for Utah Beach, over a thousand men in each ship, sailed in single file on a moonless night on calm seas. The convoy was supposed to have been escorted by a destroyer a smaller corvette, but the destroyer had been damaged in a collision and the navy failed to find a replacement. An error was also made in assigning radio frequencies – the escort vessel and shore installations were assigned one frequency, and the transports another. There was no way for them to communicate.

Disaster might have been avoided, if not for a patrol of 9 German E-boats – small, heavily armed and swift craft operating out of Cherbourg. They found the convoy. One LST was sunk immediately, one left in flames to sink later, and a third heavily damaged.

Confusion reigned. Hundreds of men were trapped below decks as the two LSTs sank. Many who jumped overboard into the forty-two degree water went in wearing heavy overcoats and packs. GIs had been issued life belts, but navy crews failed to explain their proper use. They were to be worn under the armpits so they’d function as a life preserver when inflated, but the troops buckled them around their waist. When inflated in the water, the belt pitched the torso forward, shifting the center of gravity - keeping the head underwater and feet above.

Hypothermia took those who didn’t drown immediately. 198 sailors and 551 soldiers died in the Channel. Many of those soldiers were highly trained specialists, men who had important roles to play in the real invasion. The 1st Special Engineer Brigade was essentially wiped out. The sunk and damaged LSTs left none in reserve for D-Day. But that wasn’t even the worst of it.  Ten BIGOTs were missing.

BIGOT was a security classification beyond Top Secret. Those who knew the date and/or place of D-Day were described as "Bigoted." When General Eisenhower learned about the catastrophe, he wanted to know whether any of the dead or missing were BIGOTs. If any of them were picked up in the Channel by the Germans, or even if the enemy learned of the convoy’s destination – that beach doubling for one in Normandy – the secrets of D-Day might be compromised.
This is where Billy Boyle enters the historical record. It’s his job to find those ten BIGOTs among hundreds of bodies washing ashore along the coast of Lyme Bay. The dead were buried in temporary graves, and their families were informed they were killed on D-Day, June 6th.

The story follows the facts behind this disaster, except for the addition of an 11th BIGOT – a victim who was not supposed to be part of Exercise Tiger. A final irony is that during the actual landing at Utah Beach on June 6th, there were only 197 men killed or wounded. The death toll was one-tenth of that of Exercise Tiger.
Billy Boyle does have some help with his investigation from two historical personages who were both in the area at the time: Yogi Berra and Agatha Christie. There is no evidence they ever did meet, but they were a stone’s throw across the Dartmouth River from each other. I tremble to consider the conversation had they met.

Yogi, at the left in the picture above, just before going overseas, volunteered for duty in the rocket boats; small craft that preceded the invasion fleet at D-Day. Here’s a few snippets of conversation with Yogi as Billy commandeers his boat to search for the missing BIGOTs. See if you can spot the real Yogi-isms from the ones I made up.

 “Yogi?” I said, taking the lifebelt from him. He was stocky and dark, with a ready smile and sharp eyes.
“What kind of name is that? You look Italian, maybe.”
            “I am,” he said. “Gunner’s Mate Lawrence Berra, but they call me Yogi.”
            “Why?” Big Mike asked, taking his lifebelt and trying to cinch it around his waist.
            “No, no, that ain’t right,” Yogi said. “Not around the waist. You put it around your chest, right up under your armpits. Then if you gotta go in the water, you inflate it with these CO2 cartridges, here. See? If you wear this around your waist, you end up head over heels in the water, which don’t work so good as far as breathing goes.”
“Yeah, I volunteered back in basic. They asked if any guys wanted to get into the rocket boats, and I was readin’ a Buck Rogers comic book at the time. I guess I thought it was going to be something like that, you know? But here we are, on dry ground, except it’s water. I was kinda disappointed, but I don’t mind. The future just ain’t what it used to be, you know?”
“Gettin’ killed would make our job a lot harder.”

The Buck Rogers comment is true, and ‘the future ain’t what it used to be’ is classic Yogi.
Mrs. Mallowan’s conversation with Billy is less vivid, but perhaps more important to the case. The British Admiralty had taken over her country place—Greenway House—for the duration, and it was a headquarters for the US Navy command in charge of the Exercise Tiger convoy. Murals painted on the walls by a navy officer, depicting previous ports of call, have been preserved. Mrs. Mallowan enjoyed them as well when she moved back in after the war.

Jim for Cara—Tuesday

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Now Is The Time For The Burning Of The Leaves …

A couple of weeks ago I was out in my car with the roof down, naturally and all I could smell as I drove past a wooded area was fallen leaves. That and bonfires are the smells of autumn past for me. And the title of this blog, taken from the poem by Laurence Binyon, was one that appealed to me because Binyon was born in a house in Lancaster my old stamping ground. The house still bears a blue plaque bearing his name as its claim to celebrity.

Now is the time for the burning of the leaves.
They go to the fire; the nostril pricks with smoke
Wandering slowly into a weeping mist.
Brittle and blotched, ragged and rotten sheaves!
A flame seizes the smouldering ruin and bites
On stubborn stalks that crackle as they resist.

But despite this affection for the smell of the aforementioned fallen leaves, Autumn is not my favourite time of year for several reasons. The days start to shrink, so that by four thirty in the afternoon the light is definitely starting to recede. After this weekend, here in the UK, the clocks go back an hour as British Summer Time ends. Left to my own devices I’d shift the clocks half an hour and leave them be for the whole year. None of this Springing forwards or Falling back to remember.

Autumn is usually when you realise that all the things you were hoping to achieve during the summer are now not going to get done. When the first colds and sniffles hit you, when it rains more often than it doesn’t. When you never seem to go out wearing enough clothing, or find you’re wearing too much.

I have always liked definite seasons. Summers when you can actually bare some skin without it being covered in goosebumps. Winters when it snows rather than just raining harder and colder. I love the quality of light you get in winter, that clarity without the haze, the burr of frost. But at the moment the seasons are simply being indecisive.


I think that’s why I love travelling so much. You go to the Mediterranean or the Middle East in summer and you know what to expect. The same of Austria or Bulgaria in the winter. Perhaps I should be structuring my year around the weather systems and travelling accordingly.

What about you? What time of year is your favourite, and why?

This week’s Word of the Week is nerterology, meaning the lore that pertains to the dead, from nertero, from the Greek nerteros, lower, and in plural nerteroi, those of the Classic underworld, the dead.